There I was, standing at the edge of a cliff, looking down at the deep blue of the Agean Sea and the jagged tips of the white rocks that would surely kill me along the way down.
The bronzed stranger I’d come with was treading water below. He encouraged me, making hugging motions with his arms. He called to me to come down, told me I could do it (but that if I really thought I couldn’t, not to try). He swam to shore and trudged through the smooth black gravel, baked hot by the sun, that made up Kamari beach. He’d climbed to the top of that rock ledge three times to throw himself into the sea, to show me it was safe. He looked like a dolphin, like he’d been born in that ocean. I stood there ready to jump, stepped to the edge, and froze in terror. Over and over again.
At least twenty minutes passed. Teenagers jumped off a lower section of the rock, and two locals breezed by to some unseen upper level from whence they’d launch themselves, cutting through the air like rockets to pierce the surface of the water. Beachgoers watched, shading their eyes. The blonde up there too afraid to do it.
I thought of my on-again-off-again lover back at home (who had conveniently decided to want me again now that I was a thousand miles away). The man I couldn’t impress. As much as I’d traveled, as hard as I’d loved, as free as my spirit flew, he thought I wasn’t adventurous enough. An avid skydiver, he had a narrow view of what adventure was. And I, my feet firmly on the ground—or the airplane carpet, didn’t fit that narrow view. Still we tried, and failed, often.
I imagined him being there at the beach, waiting for me in the water. He would have been so disappointed. Would he have just swam away, been embarrassed for me? Would he have held my hand? Coaxed me off the ledge and into the water like this person cheering me on—the one I’d met just two nights ago?
My life looked like a movie. The bluest sea on the sunniest day, the last day on a trip that had been breathtakingly perfect. I’d been gallivanting through the Greek Isles with no plan or worry, a great friend by my side, sunglasses and an appetite to try everything. And just like in the movies, a pretty girl in a new place meets a handsome local. This bearded man beckoning me into the water and into his arms. This new friend, apologizing for his less than perfect English when my Greek was nonexistent. How had he even ended up here?
Earlier that morning, while packing up for our last day in Santorini and for the long journey home that would follow, I couldn’t help thinking of the handsome bartender we’d met at dinner our first night on the island, and then again by chance on our second. We hadn’t exchanged numbers, and the encounters had been innocent enough. Still there was something there I couldn’t quite put my finger on. A feeling; a little itch I told myself I had to scratch.
I’d done what any self-respecting millennial would do and I added him on Facebook. And when he accepted, I did what not everyone would do—what some would call adventurous.
“Come to the beach. We’ll pick you up in twenty minutes.”
And so it was.
We added a new friend to our band of explorers. I drove our little beat up rental like a local, to the terror of my backseat passengers, all the way to the other side of the island to check out Red Beach and Kamari Beach. My new friend and I did our best to communicate along the way. I asked questions about his work, where he lived. We talked about the weather in Greece, contrasted the islands we’d visited. He seemed nervous, shy. A stranger sitting in the front seat with two brazen American girls and the Aussie they’d picked up along the way. We rolled into a gas station just in the knick of time before the last of the fumes had vaporized and we had to push the car in. And when we’d stepped onto the beach he’d asked, his accent thick and words enticing, like a Greek James Bond.
“Do you like things that are exciting and a bit dangerous?”
I answered yes without hesitating, despite the fact that I’d been questioning it on the inside for quite a while. And when I first stepped up there, to that high place he’d led me to, I honestly thought I might fail. That I might admire the scenery from the top and scramble myself right back down.
I wish I could say I faced my fear of heights and of death by rock-smash and just did it. But that’s not how it happened. Truth be told, my competitive nature is the only thing that got me into the water.
Another blonde climbed to the top. A young girl in a red bikini. She was bold. Daring, as we are in youth. Fearless, it seemed to me. For she climbed up, stepped to the edge, and jumped off as easily as if she were turning on a shower and stepping inside. She looked up at me and stuck her thumb in the air.
Whether the gesture was encouragement or mocking I’ll never know, and I couldn’t decipher her native tongue to guess. Nevertheless, it was on. It had to be now.
I took two steps and without thinking or counting or deciding, I leapt into the air. It was no swan dive, but I covered my nose and I tucked my limbs and I didn’t die and I didn’t belly flop.
And when I bobbed up to the surface what I felt in the cool water was sweet relief.
I was so, so happy that I found a way to do it. That, though I let it slow me down considerably, my fear didn’t stop me. That I didn’t embarrass myself in front of a beach full of people. That the guy back home wasn’t right.
The Greek swam right over, asked if I was okay, said he knew I could do it. The two of us stayed there a while, treading in the ocean, looking up at the Kamari and watching another girl try with as much difficulty as I had to conquer her fear. He told me that two years ago a tourist died from doing the very same thing I’d just done. I told him I was glad he’d waited to tell me.
We spent much of the rest of the afternoon in the beach bar. He taught me how to order beers in Greek and beamed pure delight watching me speak his language to the bartenders. He asked me about where I lived and what I did for fun. He told me about his home island of Thasos and showed me pictures of it. He had a cousin in Chicago, a grandmother in Frankfurt. He’d worked for an airline before, actually, but only for a brief period. He said he wanted to come to the States. He answered his father’s video call and introduced us. He’d been stopped in his tracks when he saw me that first night in the restaurant, he said.
When I dropped him off at home we made plans to meet later that evening, my last night in Greece. It had all the makings of a love story; or perhaps it was just a thing of time and place and travel adventures. Or perhaps it was adrenaline from my plunge.
Later, I texted the man at home who missed me to tell him what I’d done. How I’d faced a fear and jumped into the sea. And he said it made him happy.
After all the things I’d done to try to make him happy.
All it took was jumping off a cliff.