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The Greeks called him Eros. The Romans called him Cupid. Today he'd probably make the rounds of all the television talk shows, hailed by the pop culture as a modern love guru. But the Eros of ancient times was no benign, beaming angel of cherubic proportions, wings and eyelashes all aflutter. Nor was he blind. On the contrary, a spoiled and headstrong lesser god, he knew exactly what he was doing. His quiver was chocked with arrows—half of them wrought in gold and half in lead—waiting for targets who were less the objects of tender goodwill than of spiteful pranks. It was a happy coincidence indeed when both the suitor and the object of his affections were struck by golden arrows. Too often, the suitor's sweetheart took the lead bolt—sure poison to any budding love affair.
According to legend, Eros sharpened his arrows on a grindstone wet with blood. And so it was for Kate and Alex, descendants of these noble Greeks. Their wedding invitation arrived two days after Thanksgiving.
The first two hours of the trip to Tarpon Springs were as peaceful as could be expected with Jack, our Scottish terrier, bouncing between the front and back seats, barking at a disembodied voice that took our orders at a drive through window, and smudging the back window of the car with his wet little nose. Somewhere around Macon, I slipped him a doggie downer in the crust of an Egg McMuffin. By the time we reached Valdosta, he was snoozing peacefully on the back window ledge and Nick and I had our first opportunity for rational conversation.
We'd been listening todemotiki music, that is, authentic folk-dance tunes, for a hundred and fifty miles. Nick had been trying to teach me some of the more difficult Greek dances for the last three weeks. He seemed to think that if I listened to the music long enough, I'd somehow absorb its rhythms into my genes, but Irish-American is not so easily transmuted to Greek. The only thing our music had in common was the occasional soulful wail of a bagpipe—Nick's of the goatskin rather than the tartan species. I popped the tape out and snapped in Vangelis's "Chariots of Fire," holding up a hand to stave off comment.
"Still Greek," I said.
When the invitation arrived, I never dreamed that we would be going to the wedding. But the students at Parnassus University had gone home on break, and no one else had the money to eat out after the holidays. Even the Buffaloes, our local businessmen's group, were usually too busy to continue their regular morning "meetings" at the Oracle, our café in Delphi. In their case, it wasn't a matter of money. They never spent any anyway. But they did go out of town for the holidays, or on hunting trips, or took cruises, or whatever people with an excess of time and money and a dearth of meaningful work did during the post-holiday season. So we hung a "Closed For Vacation" sign on the front door, pulled out a map and brought our suitcases down from the attic.
Our cook, Spiros, was Kate's godfather and had been asked to serve as the koumbaros—the equivalent of best man, but a position accorded considerably more stature among Greeks. When he invited his elderly neighbor, Miss Alma Rayburn, to be his date, she jumped at the opportunity, feeling that Tarpon Springs might be the closest she'd ever get to Greece. We saw them off, contentedly settled into the yawning interior of Spiros's vintage '69 Pontiac for nine hours of bobbing down the highway without the benefit of shock absorbers. It was now the next day and we were following the same route.
I was looking forward to the wedding, and to a vacation together. We hadn't been able to take one in several years. It was good to be getting away from Delphi, if only for a week or so. Still, as we got closer to Tarpon Springs, my mind filled with a nagging disquiet. I knew what was causing it, I just didn't know how to broach the subject to Nick. Somewhere near the outskirts of Tampa, I took a deep breath.
"Nick, I need you to promise me something."
"Anything, koritsi mou. Your wish is my ... whatever."
"I want you to stay with me."
"I wasn't planning to leave you."
"No," I said. "I mean while we're in Tarpon. I want you to stay with me. Don't go off with Manolis and leave me with people I don't know."
He shot me a puzzled expression. "I don't understand."
Oh, how to explain this to a man who had lived away from his own country for ten years? We were going to be with Greeks—Americans, but people still very much entrenched in their ancestral culture—and I was already conscious of feeling out of place. I turned this over in my mind, trying to put my fears into words.
"I know you're excited about being with Manolis again."
"Well, you know Manolis and Georgia."
"Yes, I know them. But we're not close. And when everyone is speaking Greek, and telling jokes and laughing ... I feel kind of left out. And it's awkward, you know? When they realize I'm not following, they get embarrassed and apologetic. Then I feel like I've put a damper on everything and ... I just want you to stick with me. Somehow when you're around, it's not so bad. Do you understand?"
"Maybe better than you think," he answered quietly.
He didn't mean it as a rebuke, and yet it felt like one. Nick hadn't spoken English very well when we met. His English was much improved but far from perfect even now. Sometimes, I knew, he had a hard time following conversations. He hadn't even been sure he was going to stay in America until I came into his life. He'd made the adjustment seem easy, but I knew it wasn't. He was separated from his family and the country and traditions he loved. He'd made sacrifices for me. A week of feeling excluded was little enough to endure for him.
"Never mind," I said, patting his hand. "I want you to have a good time. That's all that really matters."
He reached up to stroke my cheek with the back of his hand. "Don't worry. I'll be right there with you. I promise."
I gazed down at the map as we crossed onto 275, bypassed Tampa and veered onto the bridge across Tampa Bay. I pulled out Georgia Papavasilakis's carefully written directions and pointed Nick onto Highway 19, which was not unlike entering the stock-car races. Flocks of snowbirds with out-of-state and Canadian license plates clogged the highway, turning the more intense commuters into Mr. Hydes of the road. I gripped the dashboard and held on as semis and sports cars tore around us on all sides.
"Okay, left on Klosterman Road. There!" I said, pointing to the sign. We followed it across to Alternate 19 and hung a right, leading us straight into downtown Tarpon Springs. My heart began hammering at the wall of my chest. This wasn't exactly in anticipation of the happy event. There was one thing I hadn't told Nick. I wasn't sure that the hotel accepted dogs.
I had planned to break this to him somewhere around Gainesville, but the opportunity hadn't presented itself. He hit the brakes in front of the cathedral, turned a hard right and slammed into the church parking lot.
"You what? You said you called them."
"No, actually what I said was that I would call them. Only, I ... didn't. Look, I'm sure it will be fine. It's always easier to get forgiveness than permission. If they won't let him stay, there are bound to be kennels in Tarpon Springs. He'll be better off here than in Delphi—the weather's much warmer."
In fact, at that moment, it was positively scorching inside our little Honda. Nick's temperature had gone up—way up—and he radiated steam. The muscles in his jaw rippled. "I can't believe you did this." In retrospect, it didn't seem too prudent.
"Nick, I just couldn't leave him—" I stopped, realizing it was an empty justification. Jack had filled a need in my life when I'd miscarried late in my pregnancy. But, I reminded myself, he was still a dog. "I'm sorry."
Nick laid his forehead against the steering wheel and took several long, slow breaths. "We'll have to find a kennel. Manolis's family and mine have been friends for twenty-five years. I can't do anything that would embarrass him, Julia." We sat in silence, listening to Jack snore and snuffle in the back seat.
"I'm sorry," I said again, and truly I was. This was no way to begin our vacation. "I'll start calling kennels as soon as we get checked in."
"No," he said, putting the car back into gear. "Let's go find a phone and call one now."
The first two kennels I tried were booked through Epiphany. One took our number at the hotel in case an opening turned up after the New Year, when residents in the area started returning from holiday trips. The third kennel, The Coddled Canine—"Boarding Tampa Bay's Particular Pets"—wanted to know if Jack was AKC registered. I assured them he was. Their rates were high, but we really didn't have much choice. We left him still sleeping off his doggie downer.
"Please," I said, handing over the plaid pillow out of his basket bed. "Make sure he has his pillow." It wasn't as if he ever slept on it, but I thought the familiar smell might be a comfort to him when he woke up and found us gone. The Coddled Canine "hostess" greeted the idea with withering scorn.
"We'll have to spray it for fleas and ticks," she said. And of course there would be a separate charge.
"I thought you said you pampered the dogs you kept here," I pointed out, loading her arms with other necessities for Jack. She favored me with an atrophied smile. She took his toys, rawhide bones, and assorted sundries with a distaste registered by her two-fingered grasp, but declined his bag of kibble.
"We only serve our guests our own mix of dietetically balanced protein, vitamins, and minerals."
I nodded in hearty agreement. "Yum!" I returned to the car feeling like an intruder in the aristocratic world of the canine elite. I hoped the other dogs wouldn't snub him.
It had taken us longer to find Jack appropriate accommodations than we anticipated. I glanced at my watch as I climbed into the car. "You know, we're going to be late if we go to the hotel first," I said. "Why don't we just go on to the restaurant and call the hotel from there? They can hold the reservation for late arrival."
Nick agreed and headed the car toward the Sponge Docks area of town. There were no parking spaces directly on Dodecanese Boulevard. After making several passes up and down the street, we gave up on the idea of getting close to the restaurant and found a space at the end of the street, where it ends at the Anclote River and hooks a right angle into Island Drive. The street, at that end, was quiet, the silence broken only by the occasional plaintive cry of a gull. The evening was cool and damp, the air tangy with the odor of fish, which might have had something to do with the wholesale fish market across the street from our parking space. Still, I didn't find the smell unpleasant. In fact, it reminded me of our honeymoon, spent in the Greek islands. I said as much to Nick.
"Remember the first night on Hydra?"
Nick laughed and took my elbow, moving to the outside of the street as he guided me around the curve in the road. "What I remember about Hydra is you on that donkey."
"I don't want to talk about that. Anyway, it wasn't my fault."
"Yeah, but Julia, I tried to tell you—"
He never finished his sentence. A squeal of tires brought our heads up. Farther along Dodecanese Boulevard, passersby screamed and dove inside the doorways of the little shops that lined the street. Nick shoved me sharply to the right as a car careened toward us, shot up over the sidewalk and thumped back onto the pavement, headed directly for us. He tackled me, propelling me onto a grassy verge next to a parking lot and covering me with his body. Before I hit the ground, I had a brief glimpse of a passenger wrestling with the steering wheel and a driver slumped over the wheel. Both of them were women and one wore an expression of utter horror. Even above the engine noise and the friction of rubber and pavement, a shrill scream flowed through a half-open window and left behind it a wake of terror.
Another screech of rubber as the car veered away from us, fishtailed, and slammed the driver's door against a streetlight. Glass shattered and metal shrieked and buckled, but the impact scarcely seemed to slow the car's momentum. By the time we were back on our feet, the car had catapulted off the seawall and the front end disappeared into the river.