I am leaving my husband. He perches on the bed, watching me pack my suitcase.
"You lucky stiff," he says, shaking his head.
What I mean is: I am leaving my husband to spend six weeks in Greece, land of my ancestors, childhood summers, and OK, first kiss.
What my husband means is: you lucky stiff. He's Greek American, too, but he can only join me and our daughter for a week at Labor Day.
My annual pilgrimage to Greece feels like more than luck -- it feels illegal. But after years of stress in the ad business and a mid-life career switch to teaching, I've grown brazen about stealing time, because no one gives it to you. I'll say anything to friends and acquaintances with raised eyebrows, as long as I can buy my plane ticket out:
"We're helping the ravaged economy."
"Our 16-year old is mastering Greek."
"It's cheaper than camp."
The truth is, we are ethnic and we do this, the same way that three generations often reside under one roof -- loudly. My Indian friend takes the kids to Mumbai every July and August while her husband, also Indian, remains in the States to work. Neighbors, she told me, used to peer out their windows and gossip, "Are they still together?"
We are still together. We've been married two decades and have the tabletop spruce of our first Christmas, now a 20-foot tree in the backyard, to prove it. But I have a rendezvous in the Aegean with my mother who lives there half the year, figs that are purple and bursting, balcony railings that need painting -- and I'll be honest, my other love: my rock. I fantasize about this boulder by the sea to get me through the Northeast winter, can sense even now its searing heat as I drape myself onto its jagged surface, sunbathing like a lizard.
My husband and I trust each other. We are committed to marriage but also to staying in touch with the miracle of sunset at Sounion and passing on an appreciation to our kid.
I'm boring in Greece. I don't have a car, Internet connection, or TV. I slice tomatoes and cucumbers and sweep the apartment, learning to live with a perpetual dusting from dirt roads. The most scandalous act I commit while husbandless in the playground of Aphrodite and Eros is to sneak out of my mother's condo, where my daughter is lying around in a teenage slump, and spread eagle on my outcropping by the sea. In a string bikini I wouldn't dare wear in the States. Without sunscreen.
Granted, my rock happens to be situated 50 yards from my ex-fiance, who takes his month-long vacation on the sandy beach of Poseidonia Bay no matter how much austerity the EU imposes. Without fail, I bump into him on my inaugural rock excursion, when my skin is fluorescent white, and I am not yet conversant with the bikini and feel jiggly and naked.
He springs up from his beach chair, fatter and grayer than the previous year, and gives me a double kiss. We stand inches from the old wooden dock, disintegrated by salt water, where we slow-danced as kids under the cover of darkness. I am jarred by the familiarity of his cheekbone, the smell of cigarettes on his skin.
How was winter? Merkel is killing us but you know, we won't be kept down.
I do know.
I scan casually for his wife, with whom I am friendly though not friends. I spot his kid in the water. Cute. Mine is cuter. Frankly, I wish my ex would relocate to some other seaside village, but it's his country -- I am the interloper. Our summer homes in Sounion have faced one another, with a field of ancient ruins in between, for 40 years. It's uneasy, but how it will always be.
Great well, bye. Say hello to what's her name.
I escape past the beach to the craggy coastline. The experience of seeing the ex makes me wish my husband were by my side, so I could show off, See I'm happier than you. It's an adjustment to be solo, and I can't help feeling panicky sometimes. But then I remember: if my husband were to materialize, he would scoff at my rock. Vacation is always a negotiation. He wakes up late, I wake up early. He likes hotel beaches, I like virgin coves. He eats one meal, I need three.
Finally, I get there. I drape myself over my boulder, without a towel, flesh pressed directly against its juts and crevices. The temperature is 100 degrees, and I feel a sizzling of nerve endings followed by the deep massage of arid heat. I wriggle in search of a depression that will cup my backside, an arc that will embrace my shoulder blades. I don't find them, but nature works it out, bones and muscles yielding.
My rock is a superhighway to Om. The unrelenting sun steams me senseless. I let go of my year, all the inconsequential things I found to occupy my mind. None of it matters. Most things pass.
A few grannies climb past me in plastic water shoes. I watch them through one squinting eye. They are practiced in the art of launching off these imposing boulders into their delicious birthright. I hear them counting the number of swims they've had this season, as locals do. For six weeks, I vow, I am one of you.
The old women are a reminder that I plug into a matriarchy when I visit. My father is gone, his initials carved into an olive tree in our garden, my mother and her friends all widows in this bay. No one thinks of remarrying. I keep company with Olga, Areti, Athena, impressed by how they carry on living with gusto. They play cards by night and cook for grandchildren by day, mixing it up with the occasional trip to Tinos to pray to the miracle-working icon of Mary. As a woman with roots in this macho culture (as a woman, period), I've been programmed to believe that I require a man at all times. I have spent a good part of my life afraid of my own company. It's odd but true: in this simple seaside village, on my rock, I have found a way to be fabulously alone.
Dozing, close to passing out, I rouse myself and jump into the sea. The Aegean is not a baby's bath: it's cold in June and July, just getting refreshing in August. I slice through an aqua pool and collide with a school of minnows. I swirl to follow the glinting specks, grow a silvery tail myself, dizzy, losing touch with the surface above me.
Finally I erupt up for air. No lifeguards in this bay. The sea can be wild, but I can be wild, too. I kick and pull for a frothy lap, giving it my all like an Olympic freestyler.
When I swim back, there is a natural ladder of stacked stones leading up to my rock and I ascend, careful not to trounce on spiky sea urchins. The rock cools instantly under my drenched skin. I want molten lava, so I shift my limbs to dry territory. Waves of healing penetrate my elbow, sore from carpal tunnel, my neck, tight from worrying about everything and nothing.
Thoughts drift by and I let them: my mother is making lunch. I should help. My daughter is glued to the couch. I should rally her.
As the body surrenders, the mind raises its white flag, too. I am neither Greek nor American, wife nor mother. I become the promontory. Turquoise waves lap at my edges. Beyond my toes are Kea, Siros, Mykonos, whitewashed islands with cobalt shutters.
I close my eyes to the dramatic light, stage lighting, really, and grow calm in my own company. More than calm. Joyful. I made it, one more year.
You, Greece, are my only hero.