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The path up to town was quite narrow. Mara and I had little choice but to wait for them to pass.
I took a quick peek at my wristwatch - half past six. We’ll make it.
The young woman ran her fingers through her hair and flashed a series of practiced expressions at no one in particular. The cameraman fired away.
Mara might have spoken up, but we were winded. We weren’t used to the hike up from our hotel room just yet. Behind us, dozens of hefty slabs zigzagged down the cliffside like toppled dominos. We welcomed the break instead, resting by an open terrace space carved between the limewashed walls of two other suites along the cliff.
“Should we do a flying dress photoshoot?” I joked when I finally had the breath to speak. Mara wasn’t one to sport extravagant ball gowns or crown-braided hair. She loved her polkadot jumpsuit and unrestrained curls.
“Okay, you want to wear the dress?”
The young woman eventually ran out of faces and the trio meandered on. With the path clear, we sprung forward, taking deep, monotonous lunges up the hillside. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was on the elliptical at the gym, which wasn’t what I expected on vacation.
We had our eyes at our feet, laser-focused on the climb. It was only when we’d stop to catch our breath that we’d see the impressive sight of the Caldera beside us. A necessary respite. The sun hung low, peeking between a smokey ribbon of clouds and bleeding out into the lavender sky. The sea was still as glass. But we kept moving.
Before long, I could see the final step just up ahead. Slowly, with each stride, the soft amber lights of Fira town descended into view. The streets were teeming with activity and chatter and the rhythmic clacking of heels across the cobbled pedestrian street. I offered my hand as Mara arrived shortly after. The lamplights twinkled in her eyes and she broke into a smile.
Every shop was framed with olive trees, succulents and cacti in little clay pots and the occasional vibrant pop of bougainvillea. Charming signs sat at every other door; the gentle croon of music from a distant cafe; the clinking of cutlery and glassware; cats harmonizing in the street like little buskers. It all flew by in my periphery as I traced my way through town.
Mara lingered, looking curiously into a rustic fusion restaurant, where a man walked out with a waxpaper cone full of calamari fritters. I had to backtrack a bit to find her again.
“I’m so hungry,” she said.
“Then let’s go,” I pleaded. “We have to get there in twenty minutes.”
“Do we have to? What about here?”
“I booked the patio,” I explained. “The food looks good. The view will be amazing. We have to go.” I took her by the hand and led her along.
Just a short drive south of town, there was a stylish little taverna with a terrace overlooking the sea. Arched over their entrance was a cascade of pink bougainvillea, like the tail of a neon comet. I’d seen it on Instagram and read reviews. Maybe we’d indulge in some local mezedes, embraced by the dying embers of the sun. Dinner and drinks by candlelight to end the night. My heart grew warm with excitement. The journey would be worth it in the end. She’ll see.
Around the corner and across the street and down a flight of dusty steps, our ride awaited quietly in an open parking lot. The car was small but plump, and blue as the morning sky, trying to blend into a sea of white and silver. You’d think we picked it out of a postcard. But the dainty little thing had the torque of a shopping cart.
We popped open the doors and squeezed in. The engine grinded tiredly as I urged it up the hill of the parking lot exit. We soon connected to the main road, stopping shy of the intersection, where the slope at the edge was quite steep. As soon as there was a break in the traffic, I made a move. And in the brief moment while shifting my foot to the gas, the car rolled backwards, almost bumping into the van behind.
“Oh my God!” Mara gasped. But we jolted forward as soon as my foot hit the pedal. “What was that?”
“It's fine,” I promised, a hint of panic in my voice. “It’s the road. I’ll be careful.”
The buildings grew paler as we drove south. Weaving through jaywalkers and street-parked vehicles, we followed the bend where the footpath bordered a lively square filled with more cafes and greenery.
“Somewhere here,” I said, slowing down while scanning through the people.
It didn’t look like there was anywhere to park. A swarm of vehicles loomed in the rearview mirror. A car horn blared, people already growing impatient.
“Just go, go!” Mara shouted, and we rolled on.
The shops ahead seemed to close in around the street as the road dipped and forked around a rickety looking restaurant shack. I veered right, trying not to lose the square.
“We can go back,” Mara offered. I could hear her growing exhausted from the anxiety already.
“Just breathe for a second,” I urged, quickly glancing at the time on the dashboard. We can still make it.
We followed the queue of vehicles, heaving over speed bumps and seesawing along the road, desperate to find a way in. But the square was impregnable - we were rejected by one-way streets or roadblock signs or a barrage of vehicles at every turn.
“Okay,” I relented, letting up on the gas. “I know what I’m doing.”
We circled around again and again. Not until the third time did I spot an unmarked path branching off of the street. I swerved in, winding down the narrow dirt road until we arrived at the crest of a rugged slope tucked away somewhere behind the buildings in the square. The tires skidded to a stop, kicking up a plume of dust.
We sat there wordlessly for a few seconds. My fingers were clamped sharply over the steering wheel. Before us, a thin path cut through the erratically parked vehicles that paraded down the hill. The car was poised like a rollercoaster at the peak before a thunderous dive, its brakes creaking under the pressure.
“No, no,” Mara pleaded, “Let’s just go back.”
“We’re already here! I can’t even turn around.”
“I don’t care about the place.”
“I know what I’m doing. It’s fine.”
“I don't know.”
“This is not a big deal.”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t be mad. I’m going.”
“Oh my God!”
I eased my foot off the brake and the car inched forward and then quickly gained momentum, roaring down the hill. Mara pressed her arms against the dashboard and the passenger door as I fought to keep steady, praying that we wouldn’t come face to face with another car. We did swerve wildly around a man and woman who popped out around a corner. We narrowly evaded the other vehicles on the way down, finally clambering onto even ground and screeching to a halt.
My heart was pounding so loud in my chest, I could barely hear Mara shouting at me. I looked around frantically, but the lot was full and we still had nowhere to park. The clock read several minutes past seven - we’d missed our booking and the sun refused to wait. All that for nothing.
To Mara’s dismay, there was only one way out. I turned the car around and gunned up the incline, grinding up the gravel, back through the off-beat path and finally onto the main road again.
The ride back to town was a quiet one. I was still processing the premature end to our evening. I caught a glimpse of Mara’s face but was too embarrassed to say anything. The air around her was dense with grief and she was still numb from the anxiety. I’d made her that way. It was unthinkable.
“I’m sorry,” I managed as we arrived back at the hotel parking lot. She didn’t ask for a Michelin-star dinner or a lavish sunset experience. It’s what I wanted. Hell, I even had my Instagram photo caption ready in mind.
We made our way back to Fira, our fingers brushing occasionally as the space between us grew smaller. We turned the corner around a blue-domed church and found ourselves in a small courtyard at the edge of town, where the glistening sea glided into view. Trees cast long shadows as locals and tourists gathered to watch, enamored by the setting sun. Time itself seemed to lull and our disappointment began to fade away. By another twist of fate, a couple of people left a bench just as we arrived. We exchanged excited glances and hurried over.
“Wait here,” I said to Mara. We had a few minutes to spare, enough time to grab some food. I darted down the street and soon returned with a coneful of seafood, just as the sun began to tuck itself away under the blanket of the sea.
We huddled together, popping fritters into our mouths while admiring the view. There was a smudge of what might have been ice cream at the other end of the bench, and our sight was slightly obscured by the spindly branches around us. Crumbs dribbled down my lap as I bit into a meaty chunk of calamari. It was a far beat from the classy dinner I’d planned tonight. We’d traded elegant dishes, fruity wines and a secluded terrace for greasy takeout on a bench in a busy courtyard.
“I like this,” Mara sighed, laying her head onto my shoulder. Her hair tickled my cheek in the gentle breeze, kindled by the sun. Her saffron swirls danced around us as I savored the warmth of her body. I looked around again to find the cliffside ablaze and peppered with onlookers. And I finally realized that if we stopped, just for a moment, that the simplicity could be quite extraordinary.
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