At Paleokastritsa beach on the saddest day of my life, the water is freezing and no one knows why. Old men shake their heads. The tour guide, a freckled Aussie with very white teeth, nudges his mirrored shades up his nose, and frowns.
The swimming cove is the same shade as the sky and the beach crawls with Dutch and Norwegian tourists, their bands of yellow hair in thick braids. Children splash out into the waveless expanse of water and scream, wave their hands, splash back to shore as fast as their tiny legs will carry them.
The Aussie offers something that masquerades as an explanation. Something about a storm, or a kind of current that comes sometimes. A drift of freezing water that pushes into the cove, even at the height of summer when the sky is jewel-toned and cloudless. When the sand—not really sand but a pale, white-gray infinity of pebbles the size of insects and pencil erasers—burns straight through the skin, through the soles of shoes.
I have braved the early summer ocean in New England, where the water is the color of steel and sludge and is choked with slimy black seaweed. In June—sometimes even in July—it’s cold enough to sting. This water is comfort, a pillow, compared with the water at Paleokastritsa beach on a burning summer day on an island, closer to the equator than I’m accustomed.
I wade out but stop when the water hits my knees. The cold cuts to the bone, crueler because of the color. The color of a bathwater dream, of a postcard, of something you dive into headfirst, or like little kids do—a grand charge from the shore.
The married couple in our group—just married, days before—stands apart from the rest of us, almost silent. They make polite conversation, smile only at each other. The other girls, shrieking things in terrycloth sarongs, newly graduated, ask eager questions of the Aussie. They sit next to him at lunch. They love the mix tape he’s made for the ride. (Even I can’t resist, though, when a Crowded House song comes on. An album I haven’t heard in ages because it’s packed away in a storage locker in New York and because my iPod has finally decided bid the cruel world its final farewell. I sink lower in my seat, try not to hum along, not even in my head. Or do I sing like a bird released.)
I buy a strong ginger-flavored drink in an Alice-in-Wonderland bottle with a green label. I knot a shawl around myself twice when I enter the monastery, walk soft, take no photos. I enjoy vast panoramas. I buy a wooden bracelet , painted red, off a table filled with cheap plastic earrings and hair accessories encrusted with fake jewels. I try to remember the Venetian architecture, close my eyes. Pretend, just for a moment, that I’m in Venice. On the water.
In the park in town, the cicadas buzz and hum so loudly in the trees that we need to shout above them to have a conversation over our awful, price-included ham sandwiches. Sitting on the low wall, empty sandwich wrapper crumpled in a heap on my lap, I listen to the Aussie and the girls talk about nothing and out of the corner of my eye, I see one of them. A cicada. The things in the trees that I’ve heard and haven’t seen. Just a cloud of noise. It’s dead on its back, winged, and so huge. The size of my thumb. Bigger. My index finger. Bigger than the biggest roach that ever crawled out from under any cabinet in New York City. Big enough to introduce itself and ask about your day. And that’s when it occurs to me that the trees above our heads are alive with them, that they could fall, topple off their leaves, and land. On a lap. Tangle in hair. That they could die like that one did, of old age. Of buggy disease. And plummet into sight. And there are thousands. And thousands. Loud enough to roar, to fill the summer air with a sound like birds, a throbbing.
And here’s the thing. I can deal as long as I can’t see it.
That’s when I walk away. The Aussie does not inquire after me. I go back to the van, a human-sized oven, and sit. I close the door.
At Paleokastritsa beach, near the monastery where I covered my shoulders and bowed my head and offered my backwards Catholic sign of the cross and learned about a revolution, I pull off my clothes. One beach after the next, the sight of my own body in a bathing suit—tanned dark, lean and scary-strong from journeys up cliffs and across coves, a body I hardly recognize—is a kind of jolt: This is me, it turns out.
Except that day. One day out of the whole summer. On Paleokastritsa beach where the water could have frozen into blocks of ice, a new polar cap, if not for the air, I felt enormous. Lumpy as a sack of flour. I thought, please don’t look. Or maybe I thought, wouldn’t it be horrible if you don’t look.
The honeymoon couple sat by the shore, close to each other. And I took a picture. In the picture, they’re staring out toward the cove, toward a bowl of empty water where no one could swim because no one could stand it. I don’t know their names, or where they live. That happens all the time when you travel. You say you’re going to exchange these things, to pass along pictures, and you never do. But I always think. If they knew about this photo, they would want it. Or maybe I just think. If the photo was of me, of me and someone, I would want it.