One Easter in Athens

There are some memories that are too perfect to be real. So beautiful, rare, and fleeting they are that your mind begins to doubt itself. No, something so wonderful couldn't have happened to me. No, the stars could never have aligned like that just to illuminate my little life.

Still, I know this happened. I know it did, even though I have not thought about it for years. Perhaps I assumed I would need no assistance to remember it, so I didn't breathe a word of it even to myself. Looking back at diaries and emails, Facebook and blogs give me nothing. Without preservation, the memory has faded, an old Polaroid bleached by the sun and creased from where I left it, wedged in some still-incredulous corner of my head. Crumpled carelessly in folds of gray matter.

April 20th, 2014. Athens on Easter Sunday.

It was my fifth day in the city and I had exhausted the top ten tourist spots. Museums, ruins, restaurants, even the local karaoke bars were all neatly done away with. Freed from expectations and checklists—the routine a tourist cannot leave unfulfilled and yet feel as though she's gotten her money's worth—I wandered about the roots of the Acropolis. Sloping ever downwards, beyond flea markets and jewelry stands, I only realized it was Easter when I turned the corner and came face-to-face with a dozen skinned and dangling lambs.

It was a meat and cheese market; delicious, creamy cheese offered on toothpicks by bored teenagers and smiling grandmothers alike. I could have bought a whole half-wheel and eaten it alone; one gooey, nutty mouthful at a time. Washed it down with ouzo and finished with a kilo of ruby-sweet strawberries.

But I didn't. I was trying to be civilized.

It was a day for civilization. My hair had dried well that day, in long spiral curls almost free of frizz. With only a gentle stroll in mind, I had pulled out my nice black dress with flutter sleeves and white flowers. There was a Maupassant novel in my bag. I couldn't have betrayed these things, not even at the siren call of fresh cheese.

But I had to do something; my stomach was snarling. A lazy morning meant I had overslept and missed breakfast at the hostel. And though they had been silent during my walk, those few mouthfuls at the market brought my guts to ravenous life.

So I began wading through the bistros, crowded cheek-by-jowl up lanes and down alleys. The smell of roasting lamb and potatoes was heavy, smoky, acrid with salt. When I could no longer ignore the prompting of my shriveled stomach, I chose a place just beside a green courtyard studded with the capstones of fallen pillars. The waiter presented me a laminated sheet with the Easter Special—lamb and french fries—but I persisted with my order of veal and eggplant, with coffee on the side.

The kitchen was clearly not prepared to accommodate an order that did not involve lamb. I sipped my Nescafe and read a good thirty pages before my meal came.

The delay didn't matter. Nothing mattered but the picture I knew I was making: that of a girl, young, pretty, intelligent, sitting demure with legs crossed at the ankle. Reading a novel whose chic black cover and time-browned pages were dappled by shadows from the trees lining the alley.

Lunch arrived in a ceramic pot, lidded and steaming from the oven. The veal shredded beneath my fork, juices mingling with a salty brown sauce. Cubes of eggplant, skins still crispy despite their savory bath, melted on my tongue.

Eat slowly, slowly, I told myself. Read a page, take a bite. Put the book down every few minutes, soak up the scenery. The sky is a picture, painted over with feathered clouds. The sunlight is just to one side of hot, but the breeze pushes it gently back. Smell the grit of charred lamb. Chew. Swallow. Make it last. You will never be here again.

Minutes gathered into a half-hour, an hour. However small the meal was, I made it last.

When exactly it happened, I don't remember.

Up the lane, winding slowly between the cluttered tables hastily set out to accommodate all the Easter tourists, came an old man. Dapper, like many are, dressed in a beige suit and pageboy cap. I remember the cap, its edges well-worn from time and use.

Just like his hand.

He stopped at my table; I looked up from my book. Without a word, he offered me his hand. Heart empty with shock, I took it. The palm was ridged with callouses, the knuckles nobbled with age and arthritis. But it was perfectly steady as it lifted mine.

He kissed me, just between the knuckles of my middle and ring fingers. Then he let go. Smiled, bowed, walked away.

These words have not yet made it real. I had an image in my mind of who I was on that day; that man had not only seen that image, but honored it.

It was a sublime moment; one that still warms me despite the chill of two years' worth of dreary days on the other side.