The restaurant on a rocky Santorini pier was lit up like a surgical theater, two hundred-watt bulbs bleaching any possibility of romance right out of existence. Octopuses were strung up to dry at the seafood counter like torture victims. Sunburned Americans dumbly took flash photos of the sunset. My husband and I drank two bottles of wine, a lot of wine, even for us, because it eased the pain shooting out from the hole in one of my teeth where a filling should have been.
The day before I went to a Greek dentist for an emergency filling. It cracked and fell out just five hours later, while I was eating a piece of bread at the pool.
“This is not very common for me,” said the dentist, as I sat back in his chair for the second time. I believed him. He had a wall full of nicely framed certifications and a reassuring photograph of himself in suit, standing with other people also wearing suits.
“Let’s get it over with!” I said, pleasantly skirting around the grinding realities of life in that American way that always disappoints Europeans. He furrowed his brow at me. I was able to achieve this merry state of mind because I have such dental anxiety that my good-hearted California dentist, bless him, has prescribed me Valium. I travel with it.
I opened my eyes a few times during the procedure and looked at the dentist. A long, gelled curl hung down over his eyes and bobbed up and down as he drilled. I pictured him in the morning in his bathroom, wrapped in a Grecian white towel, running his fingers through his hair. He was swarthy and not bad looking. I wondered if he was married. I looked at his eyes. He was looking into my mouth. His fingers were underneath my chin, holding it in place. His left arm brushed up against my ribs. He told me to bite and I bit. I closed my eyes. I felt nothing. I felt my own saliva on my neck. He warned me that my jaw would be sore. He apologized and said goodbye.
I wobbled into the back of a taxi, opened the window and let the wind blow over my face like a dog. A few minutes later the taxi stopped and picked up a couple with fancy English accents and the ho-hum geniality of cruising retirees.
“There were not very many taxis in Fira,” said the husband, explaining himself.
“I can’t say too much. I can’t feel my ear,” I slurred, like a schizophrenic.
I wandered from the taxi to the pool at my hotel where I laid down in the shade and felt soft and jointless, like a stuffed animal. Next to me, a well-bronzed couple lounged in the sun. The old husband wore a black Speedo and a big crucifix nested into the tufts of his grey chest hair. He had a full erection.
He sauntered, cowboy-like, to the edge of the pool. He leaned forward and placed his hands on one of those legendary whitewashed ledges that form the skeleton of the beautiful cliffs of Oia. He then performed a kind lunging calf stretch and wagged the contents of his Speedo around for an entire hillside of sunbathers to see.
I looked away and watched another couple slowly walking up and down the blue lengths of the pool. The massive husband wore a yellow Gold’s Gym singlet and had the look about him like he’d won a Mr. Universe title in the eighties. His wife wore a shimmery, Wonder Woman-red bikini and had overinflated fake breasts. The implants jammed a network of frightening blue veins far too close to the surface of her thin, sunbed-orange skin. She bobbed up and down in the pool, appendages unmoving.
They were all old, too old to be so oversexed. It was funny and unseemly, I thought, until I realized that my tooth had fallen out twice in two days. I had spent a good deal of my dreamy vacation spitting out my own decay into a dental sink and thinking about my dentist’s fingers.
I was high. I could not feel my tongue. Maybe nothing was as far off as it seemed.
That evening, on hillside terrace restaurant, Tom ordered me champagne and the softest pasta on the menu. We looked down over the black sea and a nighttime haze of candles and floodlights. I tried not to bite myself.
A young couple sat at the table next to us. The husband had a puff of brown prep school hair. His oversized Brooks Brothers shirt bloomed unbecomingly over his khaki trousers. He looked like the kind of child who would lie about his age to get into debate club. His wife wore a pink cardigan. They talked about the minutiae of their workplace sleights and victories. He made suggestions for more attention-grabbing subject lines for her emails.
Romance is a liquid that administers itself in drops and dribbles. The night twinkled and glittered. All there was to talk about was optimizing Outlook Express.
Suddenly, there was a commotion at a restaurant on the next terrace. A man stood up in a rage and flipped his table up and over, as though initiating a fight in a Wild West barroom. The weaponry of the tabletop, the knives, the bottles, sliced through the air, aimed at his wife.
He took a few furious steps away from his catastrophe. A baby wailed. There were lots of children in that restaurant, having those inexplicably late European dinners, like no one ever has anywhere to be in the morning. The mothers and fathers gathered the children up in their arms.
He spun around, walking backwards towards the exit. “I said I was sorry,” he screamed, and stretched out his arms like Jesus, without the crown and the nails. “What else do you want from me?” His accent was Scottish, but who cares? Violent men from Scotland are no different than violent men from Delaware.
The wife crouched and tried to pick up pieces of broken glass as the waiters kneeled beside her with dustbins and waved her off. The husband left her with the indignity of paying the bill.
I made a little eye contact with the other husbands and wives on my terrace. We shrugged and shook our heads at each other. We opened and closed our mouths. We finally had something to talk about. We all had nothing to say.
The next day, as I was walking to the pharmacy to buy sunscreen, I saw the Scottish couple happily strolling down a path with their arms around each other.
Romance seeps into the dirtiest places.