Across the Water
I tried to keep the call home short. I wanted to let my parents know I’d made it safely, but I was desperate for a nap, and I knew another screaming match could break out if I didn’t stay in control of the conversation. Despite my best effort, it went off the rails as soon as Mom put her phone on speaker and Dad joined in.
“I don’t know why you’d put yourself at risk like this. You’re in a foreign country, you don’t speak the language, don’t know the laws, don’t have a job.”
It was the same argument he’d been making since I mustered the courage to tell them my plan of moving to Greece. It seemed so long ago, but I really left it until the last possible moment, after I’d already bought my nonrefundable plane ticket and put in notice at the restaurant. No chance to change my mind after that.
“I know you and Lev are in love, sweetie,” Mom said, “but you’ve taken a really big step and I don’t think you’re thinking long-term here.”
Lev entered the picture three months ago. He was born in Estonia, a country I knew nothing about until I heard his accent and started asking questions. He was working as a chef in Topeka, of all places. His story led him there for a million different reasons, most of which involved his innate wanderlust and desire to see the world. Unlike my mother, I was under no delusion that I was in love with him. I didn’t imagine us ending up happily ever after. It’d just be decent for a little while.
“I don’t care if you think you’re in love or not,” Dad cut in, “This guy is not worth throwing your future away, Niki.”
“It has nothing to do with Lev. I’m here because I want to be.”
My father isn’t entirely wrong about Lev. He is a loser by most definitions. He has no career ambition, no financial goal, nothing substantial to show for himself, no dream in life, other than to just get by. But he’s traveled the world for years now. He has experience in making a life in a place where you know nothing and no one. And that’s what I wanted to do. To live my life free of the expectations I’d failed to live up to for years. No one else seemed to understand, so when Lev came up with the idea of moving to a Greek island, I’d said yes. When I looked at it logically and rationally, I knew it was probably a bad idea. My dad knew it, too. Lev probably didn’t, but he’d figure it out eventually.
“Fine. Have your little vacation or whatever, but you’re coming home before the summer semester starts,” Dad said.
“I told you I’m not going back to school, at least for the foreseeable future.”
I heard him scoff from the other side of the world. No matter what I said, he believed I had been talked into this, Lev the clear instigator. He never gave me credit for having a mind of my own.
When I was put on academic suspension, Dad assumed that I was partying too much, and my bad grades were the result. But really, I stopped going to class before I ever started partying. Classes felt like a waste of my time. They were boring, the professors were dicks, and I didn’t care. Not about making grades, not about getting into grad school.
Once I stopped going to class, I had blocks of empty time to fill. So I drank, smoked weed, and hung out with what my parents referred to as the “dregs of society” until it all came crashing down with my suspension. That had all been a result of my own decision though, not the cause of it. A symptom, not the disease. Just like Lev, a symptom of my own desire to escape.
The sound of keys rattling in the door gave me an excuse to end the call. “Look, Lev is back so I’ve gotta go. Mom, I’ll call you in a few days once we’re settled.”
“I love you sweetie, be safe, okay?”
“I will. Bye, Mom.”
“Look who I found,” Lev said. He walked through the door smiling, his dark eyes just peeking out from under his bronze hair. He was followed by an older lady dressed in a flowing skirt and fitted sweater with a bright blue scarf draped around her shoulders.
“Kalispera! Welcome to Poros,” the woman said. She shook my hand with both of hers and looked me up and down with a squint. I was sure that I looked every bit the midwestern girl in my jeans and a Kansas State hoodie, curly hair still in the makeshift ponytail I’d tried to contain it in during our overnight flight.
“Um, hi,” I said.
“This is Eleni, she found me walking up the hill,” Lev said.
“Oh of course. It’s so nice to finally meet you,” I said.
When we had decided on Poros as our destination, Lev had reached out to some former traveling buddies and been put in touch with Eleni, who had several vacation properties on the island. He thought renting a place from her would be our best option until we could find something more permanent.
Eleni was older, maybe in her late forties, but I couldn’t be sure. If it hadn’t been for a bit of gray in her otherwise jet-black hair and a few lines that appeared on her cheeks as she smiled, she could have been the same age as us.
“How do you like the place?” she asked, sweeping her arm to take in the one room flat.
The studio was sparse but clean, with sunlight from the window filling it with brightness.
“It’s great,” I said, “We’re so happy to finally be here.”
“I know you must be tired, but I brought you a little welcome present,” she said, “Ouzo from right here on the island.” She held up a small, clear bottle wrapped in a ribbon the same bright blue as her scarf.
“It’s tradition to have a drink after your journey,” she said. She walked to the kitchenette, which consisted of a mini fridge, sink, and two-burner cooktop attached to the smallest oven I’d ever seen, and pulled three tiny glasses from the cabinet.
We all took a glass once she had filled them and raised them together. “Yamas,” Eleni said. The clear liquor tasted like licorice, reminding me of Jägermeister and many regret-filled nights.
“Now,” she said, “Lev mentioned you two are looking for work here so I’ll see what I can find out for you around town. But for now, rest up and then enjoy the island. If you need anything just give me a call.”
As soon as she left, Lev and I collapsed onto the bed.
“I want to go explore, but I’m so exhausted,” I said.
“Yeah, that trip back down to the café for water bottles did me in,” Lev said, “I can’t walk another step.”
I retraced our journey in my head. Our fifth flight had landed in Athens at 6:40 that morning. We could have made it in three legs, but the extra two flights and nine-hour layover in Amsterdam ended up saving us over three hundred dollars.
Lev said we should save as much as possible on travel and put the extra cash toward our first month’s rent. He’d insisted it would be easy to live in Poros this time of year, “It’s the off-season on an off-island, Niki, everything will be cheap.”
We had taken a train from the airport to the port, then an hour-long westbound ferry ride to Poros. I had pictured a relaxing ship excursion, sitting on the deck and drinking cocktails. The Flying Dolphin had been more like a floating bus. We had hauled our duffel bags on board, deposited them onto the haphazard pile inside the door, and taken the last open seats. Lev had given me the one closest to the window so I could watch the waves. The ride was bone-jarringly rough, loud, and after seasickness got the best of a little boy two rows back, reeked of vomit. I tried to be the first one off the boat once we docked, but after sifting through the pile of baggage to find our duffels, we ended up at the back of the line of people pushing down the gangway. I still felt the rocking of the ocean even as I lay on the bed beside Lev.
“Lucky I ran into Eleni though,” he said, “I think she can find us some work.”
“Yeah, she seems kind of amazing.”
“You’re amazing,” Lev said. He leaned over and planted a kiss on my cheek. I smiled, closed my eyes, and kept retracing our steps in my mind.
We had followed Eleni’s emailed directions down the promenade of Poros Town, the main street that ran along the waterfront seawall. Ramps were stacked every few yards, waiting for ferries and water taxis to dock and unload passengers. Further down, a few massive yachts were moored near each other where the street curved around the island.
We found the café mentioned in the directions. Old men were drinking coffee there, sitting at metal tables in chairs that looked too small to support their weight. They had nodded at us but didn’t smile and didn’t wave back when Lev held up his hand. They spoke to each other in Greek, and I tried not to assume they were talking about us.
Just past the cafe, we turned on a side street that led up the steep hill rising from the sea to a bell tower at its peak. Every muscle in my travel-weary body had protested that climb, until we finally reached an ancient three-story brick building built on a slant. An open window overhead had a clothesline that stretched across the street and attached to the opposite building. Threadbare towels, socks, and faded shirts hung on it like a colorful welcome banner.
Sleep finally overtook me then, and I dreamed of dolphins jumping through waves.
The next few days, Lev and I were up bright and early to explore the island together, enjoying the novelty and freedom of it all. We borrowed bikes from a friend of Eleni’s and rode to a beach nicknamed Love Bay, even though it was too cold to swim. Lev pulled a bottle of wine from his backpack. It had already been opened and he pulled out the cork and passed it to me.
“Where did you find this?”
“I thought it’d be nice to have a little beachside toast,” he said. We sat down on the rough sand and took turns sipping straight from the bottle.
“I’ve never seen a beach with trees growing right down to the water like this,” I said.
“We’re lucky it’s off season. In the summer we’ll have to pay for a lounge rental just to be here,” he said.
I had noticed a sign listing daily rates near the shuttered kiosk where we left the bikes.
“It didn’t look too expensive though,” I said, “and besides, just imagine how great that water will feel on a hot day. It’s so clear you can see straight to the bottom.”
“There are plenty of free beaches, babe. The water is the same.”
The sun went behind a cloud then and it felt instantly cooler without the rays shining on us. I sunk down into my sweater and leaned against Lev for a bit more warmth.
That night, Eleni took us out for dinner at a taverna along the promenade. She spoke to the waiter in Greek as we took our seats. He left for a moment and returned with a carafe full of white wine.
“I’ve found a solution,” Eleni said, “jobs, for both of you.”
“Really? That’s incredible, Eleni,” I glanced at Lev, but he didn’t share my smile.
“What’s the job?” he asked.
“First pour us some wine, Lev,” she said.
He did as asked and passed the first glass to Eleni, then me, before serving himself.
“There, you’ve just passed your job interview,” Eleni said and held her glass in the air. “I run a little bar down at the end of the promenade. My bartender and I, well, we parted ways last night and now I need someone who can pour drinks.”
“Now that I can do,” Lev said. He clinked his glass against hers.
“I didn’t know you had a bar,” I said.
“Ah yes, I run many things. And I have just the thing for you, my friend. I need help with all these rentals. Getting them ready for guests, cleaning, making sure nothing is broken when they leave. I have twelve places, not counting yours, and even now during the slow season I have people coming in and out. Are you up for it?”
“Absolutely,” I said, “thank you so much.” She smiled and clinked her glass to mine.
The waiter returned and filled the polished wooden table with plates of fresh grilled octopus and a giant bowl of horiatiki salad. I raised my eyebrows as I caught Eleni’s wink to the much younger man.
“You see,” she said with a laugh, “you can’t grow old in Greece. This place keeps you young forever.”
Within a few weeks, Lev and I had settled into a comfortable rhythm with our new jobs. I spent my mornings running errands, checking properties, and answering calls from potential guests. Most nights I sat in the bar waiting for Lev to get off work. I connected my laptop to the bar’s speaker system and played music when there wasn’t a soccer game on. To my surprise, the small crowd of regulars started making requests. They loved classic American rock, so I started playing Journey and Lynyrd Skynyrd before they could ask. When Eleni was in, we would dance and sing together, and it felt like I was back home.
Early one morning, after a late night at the bar, I was woken up by a phone call from Eleni.
“Niki? Can you and Lev get down to the bar right now?” There was panic in her voice.
“Of course. What’s wrong?” I was still half asleep but shook Lev awake next to me.
“There’s a fire. A fire in the bar,” she said.
“We’re on our way,” I told her.
We arrived to find a crowd of onlookers watching fire fighters douse the building with water. The morning air, made colder by the mist from the hose, reeked with the rancid smell of smoke. No flames were visible, and only small tendrils of smoke drifted from the windows. There didn’t look to be any major structural damage to the building.
I found Eleni in the crowd. She was still in her pajamas, shivering and shaking her head. I took off the shawl I had grabbed on my way out and wrapped it around her.
“What happened?” I asked.
“They think it was maybe an electrical fire in the supply room.”
“It looks like they got it out quickly, though. Maybe we can salvage most of it.”
“I just spoke to the insurance company. I’ll have to wait on an investigation before I can start any repairs.” She sighed. “But it will happen. We must go on. The insurance will pay, it will be rebuilt. I’ll have you and Lev to help me.”
“Of course,” I said. I turned to look for Lev but didn’t see him in the crowd. I put my arm around Eleni’s shoulders. “Of course.”
With the bar in shambles and Eleni waiting on the insurance payment, the plans Lev and I had made were put in a tailspin. We’d been saving most of what little we’d made to rent a bigger place, but now Lev was out of a job. Without a work visa, finding another would be next to impossible. Despite this, we kept spending what we had on bottles of white wine and mugs of beer at tavernas, and dark, bitter Greek coffees at the cafe every morning. I felt myself coasting again, waiting for the unavoidable downfall just like my suspension. I didn’t want to call my parents, tell them they were right, and beg for them to bail me out. So I just kept denying the reality of the situation.
Late one afternoon, Lev and I were sitting side by side on the seawall. “Listen, I have some news,” he said, “I talked to a guy over on Mykonos, says he can get us work.”
“Mykonos? I thought you hated Mykonos.”
“I do. I mean, it’s a tourist trap for sure, but think about it. There are always tourists there, no matter the season. American tourists, who tip.”
I watched the fishing boats bounce through the waves on their way back to the dock. I tried to envision Mykonos, but all I could picture were narrow, blindingly white streets, packed shoulder to shoulder with so many vacationers that you couldn’t walk without bumping into another person. It was so far from what I wanted. This place, Poros, felt softer and freer. It felt right.
“I think I’d rather stay here. Help Eleni rebuild. I don’t think Mykonos would be good for me.”
Lev nodded in silence. “Well, just think about it. It’s a good plan.”
Two days later we blew even more money on a day trip to Hydra. It wasn’t far, so the ferry ticket wasn’t too expensive, and Lev declared we simply had to visit the island before we left for Mykonos. No cars were allowed there, and the only mode of transport was on the back of a donkey.
We caught the early ferry and were at Hydra in time for morning coffee at the harborside café. It was unseasonably warm, and for hours we wandered lazily around the town, petting the donkeys, and feeding bits of our uneaten breakfast pastry to stray cats.
We climbed up the seacliff path to where an ancient canon perched, still guarding the town below from long-gone enemy ships. We sat at the clifftop taverna, and stayed so long, drinking warm beers and eating chips from a wooden bowl in relative silence, that we almost missed the last ferry back to Poros.
As the boat moved through the water, I saw the island come into view. All the buildings that made up the tiny town looked like they were struggling down the hillside trying to get closer to the sea. The setting sun warmed the bright colors to muted golden yellows and pastel pinks, burnt orange roofs soft in the light. I felt like the town itself was welcoming me back. I realized then that I was in love with Poros. Much more than I’d ever been with Lev.
“I think you should go to Mykonos,” I said quietly. “I’m going to stay.”
“I can’t believe you’re really not coming,” Lev said. We were standing on the dock waiting for his ferry to board. “But I’ll be back just as soon as the bar is back up and running.”
“I’m sorry. Eleni’s just been so great to us. I can’t leave her now when she needs me the most.”
I hugged him and gave him a long kiss goodbye. I waved from the shore as the ferry motored out to sea. I felt the loss of him, but I wasn’t heartbroken. Still, a few tears rolled down my cheek as the boat got further and further away.
I made my way to the café for a lonely drink at a table for one. The old men sitting around their tables ignored me and carried on with their own conversations. By the time I went to pay, searching my purse again and again only to discover that he had taken most of my money with him, Lev was already somewhere in the middle of the Aegean. Our sentimental goodbye on the dock had just been a performance of expected behavior.
Back in the empty studio, I dialed home knowing the time difference meant Mom would be fast asleep. She answered after four rings, “Niki? I’m sorry, I was asleep.”
“It’s okay, I’m sorry for calling so late. Don’t wake Dad up.”
“What’s going on, sweetie?”
“Um…” I paused. This was the moment when it all ended. The dream of escape, the unavoidable failure. I thought of how the conversation would go, what Dad would say.
And then I thought of Eleni. A single woman on her own, who had lost so much but was still carrying on, determined to rebuild with no thought of giving up. Someone who had taken me under her wing, taken a chance on someone she didn’t even know.
“Oh, nothing’s going on. I’m fine, Mom. I just wanted to check in. I’m going to be really busy later so probably won’t get a chance to talk during daylight there.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, Mom. I’m sure. Sorry I woke you up. Go back to sleep. I’ll talk to you soon.”
The next day I went through the motions, cleaning an apartment and running a few errands before I met Eleni to help her clear out some of the ruined trappings of the bar.
“Niki how are you holding up?” she asked as soon as I arrived. I knew she was interpreting my somber expression as heartbreak instead of what it really was, the dread of having to tell her that I was broke and wouldn’t be able to pay the rent I owed on the studio.
“Eleni, I’m so sorry,” I said, holding back tears. “Lev, he…” I paused and took a deep breath. If I could just get it all out at once, maybe I wouldn’t break down and cry in front of her. “Well, he took almost all of the money I had saved up when he left. I tried to call him, but of course he’s not answering. I know I owe you rent and I just…I just don’t know how I’m going to come up with the money.” The tears came then, though I tried to wipe them away as quickly as I could.
Eleni cocked her head and frowned at me. “Oh, Niki, no. How could he do this to you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe I should go after him, try to get it back,” I said. I felt shame burning up my neck. “I’ll try to get it back.”
“No, you will not go chasing after a man who would do such a thing. A man who would steal from a woman who loves him is not worth your tears, Niki.”
“I don’t even know if we were in love. I don’t know what we were,” I admitted.
She wrapped me in a hug and patted my back. “It will all be okay. We’re not going to worry about rent right now. It’s fine, and besides, that insurance check will be here any day now. Any day.”
She pulled back and shook me gently by the shoulders. “Then we’ll have the biggest party this town’s ever seen. You’ll make the playlist of course.” I smiled, thinking of the bar’s patrons who had been forced to find another pub that probably didn’t take requests. “And then the tourists will come by June of course,” she continued, “and we won’t even be able to keep up with it all.”
The feeling that everything had been ripped out from under me started to subside and I began to feel relief. This was true kindness, not the revocable, manipulative kind that I had experienced my whole life. I felt hopeful, almost happy, and I couldn’t stop my smile from taking over my whole face.
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