[Bill and I met in April 2001. I was by then already committed to a fifteen-day summer tour of the Greek mainland, plus Corfu, with a woman friend. So Bill and I didn’t begin to travel together until the following summer. We thought we might go back to Greece. I had enjoyed my 2001 mainland tour, and he had a twenty-year history of summer vacations on Lesbos with his second wife and his two children from that marriage. Obviously, Lesbos was out. (At least as far as I was concerned.) But we found a tiny island in the Dodecanese — the smallest of the twelve — and booked an exploratory room for a week, to be followed by a two-week tour of Turkey. The outcome of the Greek week was that we returned to that little out-of-the-way island for chunks of four more summers. The year I was on sabbatical, we even stayed for a two-and-a-half month chunk.
During that time, I began writing a novella about our visits there. It was going to be called “An Island of Their Own.” I never got past the first chapter. Bill and I learned a lot about each other during those summers, since we were together all the time, without the distractions of work and connections to other people and family. As a result, I was then really too close to what was going on with us to write about it with any understanding. Now I’m too far away: the Jake and Sarah in the novella have gone on to another stage of their life together and I’m no longer interested in the early stages of their relationship. However, I still have some nearly illegible notes. Some not very good photographs. Some ouzo-fueled observations. And that first chapter. Which may just be too fun to throw away.
So I’m starting there. “Island of Their Own” will run in three parts: today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow. But I’m not changing it back to the first person. It reads better the way it is. Just know that there won’t be any more of Jake and Sarah after their opening chapter. Jake and Sarah are geriatric chick lit. And although I can mimic the tone for a while, I’m not really into chick lit. If I go on with my recollections of the island from time to time, and I may, you’ll get it straight after this first bit, the way Bill and I experienced it, without fuzzing the line between what really happened and what didn’t by telling you about two other people who exist only in the words I used to conjure them up.]
AN ISLAND OF THEIR OWN
When Sarah met Jake for the first time in the Rialto bar at the Charles Hotel, she was sixty-nine and three-quarters and he was seventy-three. He said later that he had sized her up as not over sixty and was surprised when she told him the truth. (“Why should I lie?” she had asked. “You’d find out sooner or later.”) The truth made no difference. As soon he saw her walk in, looking slender and French in her well-cut black pants and little black velvet beret, he said to himself, “That’s for me!”
For her part, she thought he was probably younger than she was. He was slim, had nice shoulders and a full head of dark hair, and his skin was smooth and relatively unlined, except on the neck (which usually went first). When he confessed to seventy-three, she was disappointed. Any number that started with “seventy-” sounded old to her. She did not feel, and knew she did not look, her age, and had been hoping to meet someone no older than sixty-five. (She was still thinking about sex.). But everything else seemed promising. He was well educated, had spent many years in Europe, was still working — as a psychiatrist — and lived only five minutes away from her condo. And she liked his voice. Although he’d been born in Bridgeport, when he answered her ad on the phone she heard New York. She’d been away from New York for a long time. He sounded like home.
Besides, it wasn’t as if she were committing to anything if she agreed to see him again.
He wiggled in on the second date.
In her ad, she had said she wanted someone for “a long hurrah.” She meant a very close man friend with whom to spend weekends and holidays, and to share things with. Not someone to live with. He said he wasn’t really interested in living alone. But he didn’t make a big point of it. He just kept spending the night, and spending the night, and within a few weeks, it began to look as if he were paying rent on his apartment principally to electrically heat his books and extra clothing. After a while, he introduced her to his adult children. So she had to introduce him to her adult children. With some hesitation (it was not a good idea to show up with someone who might not be in her life next year), she brought him to the office Christmas party. At tax time, she agreed to help him with his returns. (She was better at dealing with paper than he was; she was a lawyer.) Finally, when his lease was up at the end of the year, she had to concede that it made economic sense for both of them if he moved into her condo, sharing all the expenses, of course.
It seems they had become a couple.
They decided to spend part of their first summer holiday together in Greece. Sarah had been to Greece only twice. The first time she had gone alone on an expensive last-minute trip she discovered in the back pages of The New Yorker after a sometime boyfriend who had moved to the West Coast suddenly backed out of a tour of Scandinavia they had been planning together, claiming he was too old for such an energetic junket. He was only two years older than Sarah, but was overweight and suffered from sleep apnea; as a result, he had had to retire from practice after he repeatedly fell asleep while representing his clients in court. Now he was sleeping with a machine that forced air into his lungs when he stopped breathing during the night. If they went traipsing from place to place in Scandinavia, he explained, the machine — which was heavy — would have to come, too. And he couldn’t deal with that. Maybe she could come spend her vacation at his new place in Rancho Mirage? There were some terrific restaurants in Palm Desert.
“Why didn’t you bring this up before?” Sarah asked. “We only have two days to cancel or we lose our deposits.”
“I just thought of it,” he said, sounding not at all apologetic. “So do you want to come out here instead, or not?”
“A gated community in Rancho Mirage? No, thank you,” she said. “I’m not ready for that.”
The long distance line crackled. “We have a bad connection,” he announced happily. “Talk to you later.”
That first trip to Greece had been worth every penny. A vigorous tour guide named Vicky had shown Sarah and two married couples from the midwest the antiquities of Athens, Leros, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini — all in twelve days. They traveled from island to island by boat and plane, slept in accommodations that to Sarah were extremely luxurious, and ate delicious copious meals at restaurants where the owner seemed to turn out onto the table the entire contents of his kitchen for the six of them. It was a little lonely; Sarah had almost nothing in common with either of the married couples, and Vicky spent much of the “free” time on the schedule preparing her lecture for the following day. But the experience was enjoyable enough for Sarah to commit to a second, less expensive Greek tour the following June — of the mainland plus Corfu this time, and with a recently widowed woman friend from Washington, D.C.
Sarah liked standing in the warm sun among the tumbled ruins of small cities that had flourished thousands of years ago and imagining what it might have been like to be a woman then. She liked pressing her nose against glass protecting artifacts of another time and place and culture. (How would she have looked in that heavy gold necklace? What kind of perfume was kept in that delicate glass flacon?) The second tour ended in Athens, where Sarah and her friend stayed on alone for three more days, perspiring their way along hot paved streets according to cultural itineraries prepared by Sarah.
“We can do it!” she insisted.
“It’s the Bataan death march,” cried her friend. She wanted to go back to their cool hotel room and read a mystery.
“We may never be here again,” said Sarah. “And there’s so much to see! Don’t you want to live, really live, before you die?”
Jake was already familiar with Greece. For six weeks every summer he and his now detested second wife had gone to Lesbos — first with one and then two children — until their long wretched union finally crumbled. “Lesbos was the best part of the marriage,” he would reminisce. “I was almost happy there. The kids stopped fighting. She was less mean. Once she even let herself be kissed. Although she wasn’t much of a kisser, so I don’t know why I remember that.”
By then Sarah had heard enough about what was wrong with the second wife. “If you loved going to Greece so much why did you stop going once you were on your own?”
Jake shrugged. “I was depressed after the divorce. And the kids said she was still going. What I didn’t need was to see her ass spread out on the beach in a bikini one more time.” He smiled engagingly.
“But there are a gazillion Greek islands!” Sarah exclaimed. “You didn’t have to go back to Lesbos!”
That’s right!” he agreed. “How did you get so smart? Let’s find an island of our own.”
Jake had many travel books on Greece. Sarah was content for him to do the preliminary searching. “Just not Corfu,” she cautioned. “Too many green flies and mosquitoes.” Sarah was appetizing to summer insects of all kinds; since childhood, they had singled her out frequently and savagely (multiple bites per body part) — leaving parents, and then friends and husbands, unbitten. She was also allergic to the bites, each of which itched viciously until the bitten parts of her were all well covered in scabs.
“There are no bugs in Greece,” said Jake authoritatively. “It’s mountainous and stony and dry.”
“Have you ever been to Corfu?” asked Sarah. “It’s green, and humid and buggy. Too close to Italy is why. Let’s skip the Ionian islands. What about the Aegean? Almost all the islands on my first trip were in the Aegean. I didn’t get a single bite!”
Jake didn’t mind turning the page on Corfu. If he could have afforded it, and Sarah had been willing, he would gladly have spent the rest of his life exploring any and all beautiful corners of the world — as long as they weren’t American. (He was much given to delivering himself of speeches that began, “The trouble with this country is….”) His investment portfolio being too small for him even to contemplate retirement and extensive travel (he had had a really awful divorce lawyer, said Sarah), he had developed the habit of satisfying his wanderlusts in his study. He loved looking at large color photographs of small white villages nestled at the foot of rocky promontories and fronting brilliantly blue curved bays and harbors where he had not been. “Oh, this is so gorgeous!” he would exclaim.
Sarah, sitting at the computer (Jake didn’t know from computers), cared less about “gorgeous” and more about nailing down something promising and available before summer was upon them. “Honey, we can’t take months salivating over pictures of islands,” she would reply. “We have to pick one.” (More than half a year of togetherness had already taught her it was better to preface remarks of this kind with “Sweetheart” or “Lovey” or “Honey.”)
The second wife had never called Jake “Honey.”
He picked one.
Very small, and without an airport. You reached it by ferry, or catamaran, or Flying Dolphin, or private boat. It was in the Dodecanese, near Turkey not Italy, and therefore probably bugless. The woman Jake spoke with at the Greek National Tourist Office in New York had never heard of it. (She said she would have to call him back.) “Just what we’re looking for!” he told Sarah.
It was spring 2002 and the exchange rate was averaging $1.10 to the euro. They booked sleeping accommodations for a week at 28 euros a night through the only English-language website for the island that Sarah could find. Only a week because, as Sarah said, “What if it’s a bust?” To justify the airfare, they also arranged a two-week bus tour of Turkey for the rest of the vacation. Jake was against bus tours in principle, but agreed with Sarah that if they wanted to cover all the high points — Istanbul, Gallipoli, Izmir, Ephesus, Pammulkali, Aphrodisias, Antalya, Cappacodia, Ankara, and Bursa — they probably wouldn’t be able to manage by themselves, even in a rented car, without speaking the language.
The e-mail confirmation for their Greek accommodations arrived in perfect English. It even had semicolons, in the right places. Sarah went online to look again at the amateurish color photographs of the place; they still did not really inspire confidence. “Don’t you think such a tiny island will be boring?” she asked Jake.
“Boring? How can you even think such a thing?” He sighed with anticipatory happiness. “It’s going to be our honeymoon!”
[…to be continued tomorrow….]