The door swung open at the top of the stoop, and a brief chill stroked my back as I sat on the bottom step in the suffocating heat. It was past midnight, and Athens was stubbornly refusing to cool down, even though people were dropping dead for the heat. He shuffled past my perch and stood on the pavement just off to my right. He lit a cigarette and I didn’t look at him as I drew back on mine.
Several silent clouds of smoke later, he turned his body slightly to face me and leaned against the wall of the hostel.
“Everything OK with the room?” he asked in a thick Australian accent.
“Yeah, wish the air conditioning wasn’t struggling so much though.”
He exhaled deeply, expelling a long, thin line of grey fog, “you’re lucky the air-conditioning is holding up at all,” he laughed, “this is Athens you know.”
I inspected the pavement under my toes—he looked like Russell Crowe and Colin Farrell combined, but he was deeply tanned with creases around his eyes and shoulder length hair bleached by the Hellenic sun—I couldn’t look directly at him without feeling slightly embarrassed.
We’d met only an hour earlier when I’d arrived in Athens, green from the Cretan ferry that had transported me from the islands to the mainland. He was from Perth, of Greek descent, and he owned the hostel with his father and brother. He kept calling me by my Greek name, and every time it felt like he was biting my earlobe in that expert way that forces my thighs into involuntary paroxysms—the type where all I can do is squeeze them together and pray for it to pass. He threw his cigarette on the ground and squashed the butt underfoot.
“I’m about to knock off,” he caught my eye and I could no longer avoid looking at him, “what are your plans?”
“Well,” I fiddled with the fluro lighter in the palm of my hand, “I was just going to go to bed, I’m pretty hung over.”
“Re pethi mou,” he looked at me teasingly, “you’re 21 years old and it’s your first night in Athens, you’re not going to bed. Wait here for me OK?” He framed it as a question, but it wasn’t. When a substantially older, terrifyingly good-looking man asks you to do something, chances are you’re going to do it. Imagine if George Clooney requested something of you—imaginary you did it, didn’t you? And I know imaginary George asked you to do something imaginarily dirty, too.
Four cigarettes later and seriously considering sneaking past the lobby and going to bed, he finally reemerged. He offered his hand and pulled me up from my seat.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“Ever ridden a motorcycle?” he answered my question with his question.
We walked through the abandoned butterfly house, talking and laughing, the magic of the evening resonating with my little girl’s heart. Our skin glowed as we walked past the Temple of Zeus, and I felt at once both wet and dusty. Soon we stopped by the most ancient motorcycle I had ever seen, and I hestitated momentarily as he straddled the leather seat.
“I built her myself,” he said, revving the engine. “Come on then.”
I stood by him dumbly. The only motorcycles I’ve ever ridden were on friends’ farms as a child in rural Victoria and the outer suburbs of Melbourne.
“Do you have helmets?” I asked.
He laughed and reached out for my hand, pulling me towards the purring bike, “just get the fuck on already.”
I let my bottom fill the space in the seat behind him and wrapped my arms around his waist, gripping him desperately as he pushed the bike backwards out of its resting place. And then—we were speeding through the thick Athens early morning humidity. Syntagma, Plaka and Monastiraki all became blurs and lines as the round circles of traffic lights morphed into long hyper-coloured streaks fading into one another like rainbows, and my hair whipped across my face, stinging my eyes and choking my open mouth.
I thought about us crashing as we whizzed by cars, weaving in and out of traffic and ignoring red lights. I thought about what my mother would say if she could see me now. I thought about my legs breaking, the skin scraping off my cheek as it slid along the bitumen, my teeth cutting holes through my bloody lips. I thought about dying.
I buried my face in his back and screamed for him to slow down. I could feel the convulsions of his laughter as he slowed our speed to a lazy pace.
“What kind of Greek girl are you?” he yelled over the wind and his shoulder.
I allowed myself to peer out at the street, at the stray dogs, the old people in their plastic fold out chairs, smoking and yelling at each other across balconies, the old men stroking their komboloi as their fat wives tossed dice out of cups onto tavli boards.
“Fuck it,” I yelled back. “Go fast!”
I lurched backward as he accelerated, found my balance, and rested my chin on his shoulder. I squinted my eyes against the rush of air and bugs that molested my face, and eased into the moment. I could feel my heart beating against his back, my breath in competition with the violent slipstream of air we were creating as we zoomed through Athens. I let myself drink in adrenaline until I was completely intoxicated with it, so I could put my trust in this handsome stranger.
Again, I sensed the magic of the moment. The same magic I would find a year later, on a bike of my own, navigating the cliffs of Santorini lost in the melodies playing through my iPod and the sparkling blue beneath me that stretched into the glaring horizon. Then it was France and Italy, adventures along the craggy coastlines of the Riviera and the Amalfi. And later still in Croatia, riding out to picturesque peninsulas with bags of fruit to sit and watch sunsets evolve.
But it would always be Greece—Corfu, Paros, Naxos, Crete, Ios, Athens—where I would feel the freedom of speed, the inexorable joy of becoming one of the inconsequential things buzzing in the immediate environment, like the sound of the ocean in a seashell. And still: I hanker to be back there at sunset, blazing the arid roads of islands where there’s nothing but the sun and smell of figs and animal shit accompanying me as I fly.