I didn’t really expect Santorini Sal to be waiting for me. Maybe it’s because I’ve known too many people who’ve said they’d wait for me but didn’t, or maybe I just suspected that he was a hustler, and was off somewhere parting a poor sucker from his money. But Sal was waiting for me, right where he said he would be, and when I came around the corner his big, round face lit up like a jack o’ lantern.
“I knew you’d be here, my brother,” he almost yelled, pulling me in for a hug that was at once comforting and gross, on account of his body odour.
“What can I say, man? I’m intrigued about what you’ve got to say.”
“It’s not about what I’ve got to say about you,” he said, pausing for dramatic effect – and to light another of his massive cigars, pocket the lighter, suck back the smoke, and the let it out in a huge cloud. “It’s about what you’ve got to say about yourself. Let’s walk, the view up here on this hill is killer.”
It went against my better judgement to follow a strange man through an unknown town, but I didn’t for one second question doing just that. Sal had a presence and an energy about him that made me certain that he knew things that other people didn’t, important things, stuff I’d been seeking answers to for years. We walked side by side, but there was no doubting that he was leading the way, and the sea of sunburnt tourists parted as he came near, closing in behind him as we went. We exchanged small talk as we went, with Sal keeping the talking to a minimum as the hill started to take its toll on his breathing. But no matter how much he wheezed, he kept on sucking on that massive cigar.
Our journey through the labyrinthine alleyways of Santorini brought us to a wide marble balcony with a view of the rolling blue ocean that was no more or less incredible than looking into the face of God himself. Sal stood there, sucking his cigar while I watched in awe as yachts bobbed around like corks. When I’d had enough time to pick my jaw off the smooth stone floor, Sal dropped one of his massive hands on my shoulder again and led me to a corner of the courtyard, where a small blue table and two small blue chairs sat in the dappled shade of a tree. He sat, and the chair exhibited a remarkable feat of strength as he did so.
A pretty lady with long, black hair pulled back in a ponytail and a body that could make a grown man weep appeared from nowhere with two cold bottles of beer and a small bowl of olives, and then disappeared just as quickly. Sal put down his cigar, took a swig of beer, then sat back and looked me up and down.
“So what happened with the girl?” he asked.
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s written all over your face.”
“Yeah, there was a girl, but that’s done with now. She decided her life would probably be better without me. On reflection, she’s probably right. But it still sucks.”
“And that’s why you’re lost.”
“Guess so. Had a ticket home, cancelled it to be with her, only she didn’t want to be with me anymore. So I guess here I am, trying to work things out.”
“So where are you going now?”
“I figured I’d hang around here for a few days, then catch a flight home. The adventure has to end sometime.”
“You’re not doing that.” Sal stated it as fact, then picked up his cigar again.
“I’m not? What do you mean?”
“You’ve got unfinished business. Now tell me, what happened last time you went overseas? I gotta feeling it didn’t go too well.”
“I was in India, I guess I got homesick or something, and I came back early.”
“And it eats away at ya, right?”
“In a way.”
“And this trip, in some way it’s a response to the feelin’s of failure you have, a way of makin’ up for what you missed out on last time?”
“Now that you mention it, yeah, probably.”
Sal breathed out a cloud of smoke, then took another pull of his beer. “You’ve got unfinished business in Sri Lanka,” he said.
“Sri Lanka? Why Sri Lanka?”
“You were meant to go there last year, right, but you pulled out? Somethin’ was meant to happen in Sri Lanka, maybe you was meant to meet someone important. Important thing is, you gotta go there, it’s where this trip is leadin’ you. Meetin’ this broad, cancellin’ your trip home, it’s all leading to you finally goin’ to Sri Lanka.”
“Trust me on this. You gotta go to Sri Lanka. It’s your destiny, my brother.”
The pretty woman appeared out of nowhere again and placed another cold beer on the table in front of me, then walked over and whispered something in Sal’s ear. He nodded, then downed the rest of his beer quickly and stood up.
“It’s been real good talking to you, my man, but I have to go. That hot piece is my wife, and she wants to spend some time with me, if you know what I mean. You wanna know how I met her?” With their differences in looks, I assumed it was at a convention for blind people, but I didn’t say as much.
“I was in Miami, wasting my life away, dealing some drugs. I met a man one day, skinny little dude with a white hat, who pulled me aside and talked to me as if he knew me. Anyway, he tells me that where I’m supposed to be is Santorini, that there’s something – or someone – waitin’ there for me. I hadn’t never been out of the country, but that night I took what little money I had and booked a flight here, met Rosa the very same day I arrived, and we been together nine years now. That man had a gift, and it’s something he passed on to me. He changed the course of my life in just one afternoon and, hopefully, I might do the same to you. Remember, there’s something for you in Sri Lanka.”
Sal dragged me up for a hug that made me feel like a child in a parent’s arms, and then disappeared from the courtyard, leaving a cloud of cigar smoke as the only sign he’d ever been there. I went back to my room overlooking the ocean, and I booked that flight to Sri Lanka.