When my new wife and I arrive on an island, we see a row of sales counters for car rental agencies, but we have made no arrangements with them. We find our agency at the end of the line; it is called Tour Rent.
When we receive our car, we see a large decal in the back window that says TOUR RENT. Anyone who doesn’t know why we are here will know why now, when they read the sign.
We soon learn that our car has a bad tire—one with a slow leak. Every time we fill up with gas, we need to fill up with air.
The car has a standard transmission. I am the only one who can drive it, though “drive” is an overstatement. While stopped on hills, facing upward, the car stalls. When the engine cuts out, I have to put the transmission in Neutral, step on the brake, turn the key, step on the clutch, shift into First and move my foot quickly from the brake to the gas. I gun the engine while releasing the clutch—slowly.
The roads are frequently blocked by sheep. We have to wait until they cross before we can proceed. Stretches of pavement are one lane, so progress is slow. Anytime I have to wait for an approaching car to pass, our car might stall.
A joke about shepherds and sheep comes to mind. A shepherd desires a sheep, but the problem is keeping the sheep close enough to couple with it. Sheep are skittish, and they can run fast. So the shepherd has to put the hind legs of the sheep into the front of his rubber boots. That way, the sheep can’t escape.
I don’t repeat this joke aloud.
We are on a road that narrows, but we keep following it. The road doesn’t look right. It is straight, not winding as we’d expected. It leads through a double row of decorative trees. We are funneled into a town that we wanted to bypass. All of the streets in the town are one lane. We turn around and go back along the road between the perfect trees.
We make it up a mountain road and come to a town called Spili. We stop beside a fountain. The motion of the water makes me think of the name Spili, as if this is the town of “spilling water.” Someone could bottle this water and sell it, even though it was free in the first place. The brand name could be Spili Spring, or Spiliani.
Isn’t that what beverage companies do, draw water from a spring? Or do they just take tap water and give it a fancy name, like that of a South Pacific island, and put it in nicely designed bottles on supermarket shelves?
We fill our plain bottles with Spili water before we travel down the mountain.
We look for a hotel on the coast of the island, but we don’t see a place that’s open. We go into a café—we have nowhere else to go—and ask where we might stay. A woman picks up a phone and makes a couple of calls, explaining that a visiting couple is looking for a room.
In time, a man comes and tells us we can stay in his hotel. He will open it for us.
There are no other guests in the hotel, and there is no heat. The night is chilly here. But we are grateful for the room—it costs next to nothing, and we have each other’s company.
The next day, we walk on a pebble beach and decide to take photos. For each shot, we have to make sure the film is advanced—we don’t want a double exposure. We need to focus manually by twisting the ring around the lens. We have to adjust the f-stops so that the image will be bright enough. Then we release the shutter and hope for the best—we can’t see the photo until the film is developed.
We take turns standing on the beach in our jackets—it is February—while we take each other’s picture. We see no one else for a half-mile in each direction.
Northern Africa lies across the water. “It might be warmer there,” my new wife says.
“Yes,” I say, but I don’t know if the climate is better across the water.
We go to a restaurant that doesn’t seem to be open for business. But the front door isn’t locked, and people are inside, so we walk in and sit at a table. It’s a dreamy kind of place, with a painting of a ship on the sea and the moon in the sky.
There’s a bucket filled with water on the floor, and in the bucket is a live fish. We understand we could have this fish for dinner, but we decide against it. We don’t want the sacrifice of that fish on our hands.
After dinner, we order shots of a clear liqueur called grappa, and we are given more shots for free.
I have a laughing attack. “This drink is Italian,” I say. “It’s not even Greek.”
“Don’t drink too much,” my wife says.
“We’re near the cave where Zeus was born,” I say. “Were his parents drinking grappa when he was conceived?”
I amuse myself to such a degree that I fall off my chair and roll on the floor. “I’ve drunk myself under the table,” I announce.
My wife stays in her seat. “Please get up,” she says.
The restaurant’s proprietor isn’t upset. She seems to expect this kind of behavior from foreigners. She gives us another round of drinks.
Wife is a word that’s not easy to get used to. I prefer spouse; it’s easier for me to say. Is there any difference between the two? Spouse is more abstract, more archaic, than wife. Teammate is even better. I have someone on my team, someone who will watch my back, run interference against the opposition, charge with me toward the goal. That’s the kind of person I want with me, as I try to advance against bigger, meaner players, people who would enjoy nothing more than to bulldoze their way over me.
But teammate doesn’t say enough when checking into a hotel.
Does the teammate want her own room? The staff can’t tell from that description. If I mean wife, I should say it. “I’m here with my wife,” I should say.
And she will say, “I’m here with my husband.”
That sounds right.
Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. He received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.