Eleven years ago tomorrow, I packed my father's car and drove myself to the Indianapolis airport and flew off to JFK (flying TWA, no less, so I actually got to experience the Saarinen terminal before it went empty) for my first international travel: to Athens, Greece, where I'd live on and off for six weeks while doing a summer study-travel program. The year before had been scarifying; the trip to Greece, I would realize even by the time it was over, marked my decisive farewell to the terrified version of myself who had careened through the academic year, fearing that the work could never be good enough, wanting to drop out of school, falling for someone who made no effort (at 20) to hide his alcoholism and his arrogance. And so it mattered that I drove myself to the airport (though things just happened to work out that way), and it mattered that no one was there to tell me how and when to flash my passport, and it mattered that I knew no one on my flight, and it mattered that within a few days of arriving, I had locked in with the people who would be my fast friends for the rest of the program, and that they seemed happy I was there, and that we all laughed at each other's jokes. I floated through my days in sandals and wide-legged linen pants and sleeveless tops; I felt, as I put it in my journal, very continental. I have never been so tanned. I may never have been so happy.
During the second week of our trip, we traveled on the overnight ferry to Crete. By this time I was fully smitten with an exceptional fellow traveler, who was eminently taken, all but engaged to the woman he married a few years later. (I do unrequited and/or ill-timed exceptionally well, I'd say.) Our first two nights, we stayed in a small, central Cretan town called Zaros. It was on the way to Zaros that I first had more than one drink at a time; at the taverna where we ate lunch, the spaghetti was incredible and the retsina homemade, and my friends and I drank a carafe together ("bread and grapevines and sun splotches on our hair and tables," I wrote later), and I realized one could drink without making drunkenness a goal, and everything changed for me. That night, our group made too much noise at our hotel's bar, and so four of us peeled off into the night. Peeling off into the night, or watching the night peel down, was our favorite pastime. That night: "Because we were sick of plastic chairs by a neon-lit bar, we walked into the darkness of the hotel walkways, only to discover that the sky was literally filled, covered, saturated with stars and planets--hundreds of millions, covering every visible bit." The week before, at a fish taverna (psarotaverna) near the little cove on the east coast of Attica where we swam in the clearest water I've ever seen: "The lights on the other side of the bay twinkled on one by one as the sun set behind our taverna, and I watched the sky darken and the boats on the glassy sea grow less and less distinct on the other side of the low whitewashed wall." As I type, I can picture it: there was a conical island out in the bay; we sat under olive trees; everything grew night-grey and the tiny fried smelts were unparalleled.
But the night that I've been remembering for the past couple of days is the one we spent in Heraklion, the main city on Crete's north coast, after our travels through the breathtakingly stark landscapes (landscapes that I still think would make a richly beautiful quilt) of the central and southern regions of the island. The Olympic Hotel, where we stayed, had a roof deck that, in my memory, was no great shakes aesthetically (though were I to check it, I might discover that it had a fancy roof bar and we simply slummed away from it, young and moneyless as we were). By the time we were there, we had all been together for nearly two weeks, and our loyalties were setting themselves up for good. And at the end of the night, my favorite friend and I met up on the roof, where we sat in the dark, talking for hours. From him, I learned about shaggy dog stories. Or maybe I taught him about shaggy dog stories. It is appropriate that that bit of the story could go either way. There were no stars; the city street below us sent up the hazy sounds of engines and night-calls; it was still warm, in the way that cities are still warm, exuding their day-heat, long after the sun goes down. There was no moon; the moon had been full when we arrived in Athens and was nearing new by the time we were preparing to leave Crete. Our view was of more postwar buildings across the street in downtown Heraklion, and of a tiny bit of the bay if we leaned forward and looked right.
I have no memory of what we talked about. What permeates me still is that night's unspoken feeling of reckless hope, of a happiness hovering just below giddiness occasioned by the very fact that I was still around, and that I was so improbably there on a Mediterranean roof. I think about our sitting on that roof, our feet propped up on the low wall before us, away from all the people who had grated on us for days (for we were kindred spirits in our need for quiet retreat and managed, as the summer wore on, to carve solitudes out for one another through impressive and sometimes desperate subterfuge). And I feel again how loose and easy the night became, how time fell over into itself while we talked about absolutely nothing--literally nothing, in my memory--and how somehow that seemed enough, and how relieved I was to be there, so daringly adrift in the moment, so vividly and viscerally and blissfully aimless, so safely unmoored.
A trebled postscript, veering: On the road, on the way to the grocery store for pie rhubarb: two misshapes in the road, grey from a distance, geese up close. In the store, having picked out the rhubarb ("select stalks no bigger than your thumb," says the Joy of Cooking): a gleeful child perched on his crouching father's lap, learning about the tanked lobsters, doomed beyond even thunking the glass with banded claws. On the road, on the way home from the store with rhubarb and everything else, Aimee Mann singing "I feel like a ghost who's trying to move your hands / over some Ouija board / in the hopes I can spell out my name": three turkey vultures, one swooping down with improbable majesty, reconnoitering in a field.