Before they had begun their climb, the pair had agreed to reach the monastery together.
She had not expected such a steep ascent up the mountain. She was used to the stairs that were built into the city, but these rocky steps were twice as tall, and every time she mounted one, she had to press on her front knee to harness a momentum that allowed her to swing the rest of her body and her other leg up to the next level.
He had slowed down. Way down. And she still needed to catch up. Under the shade of his straw, Van Gogh-esque hat, sweat dripped into his eyes, stinging and drying up his contact lenses. He took the full liter of bottled water from his messenger bag and took a swig. The sun was getting lower. It would set soon. At least their walk back from the monastery would be cooler, easier.
There was little shade on the path. Nothing here looked as beautiful as it did when she viewed it from their rooftop. The red dirt that from afar, contrasted so vibrantly against the shining olive trees now made her sad and bored. Its rich, painterly quality was dust in her mouth. She could tell that he liked hearing the sounds of his shoes in the terrain — how they made that satisfying crunch — but each time he kicked his foot back, a light cloud of the red dirt spun into her face, making breathing on a very steep incline even more of a chore. She flicked away the pool of sweat that collected every five minutes between her chin and lower lip.
In her mind, she queued up a reel of desert movie montages. This was a real-life drought. She had spent months anticipating a week of hot and sun — two things she had missed in the nonsummer they were having back home. And on the plane, she resolved to say Yes! to his ideas. They would have adventures. They would be a team. In this Hades of an early evening, she resented that promise to herself. She knew she was being irrational, but she resented him. And agreeing to this climb. And this dirt path. And the stairs built into it. She had a sweat rash developing under her shirt. He had the better attitude and the water, which he offered to her when she reached the step he was on. She took a few sips and handed it back. They continued on in silence.
He knew she was not enjoying herself. He also knew that if this point was acknowledged, she'd deny it and press on. He regretted suggesting this climb. There were plenty of beaches they hadn't yet seen. Plenty of pretty wanders that could end with a dip. But he had wanted to make the trek up to this monastery for the view — 360 degrees of the island and sea. Instead of thinking about the small rage he knew was building within his girlfriend, he visualized the view to come. That would sustain the rest of the hike.
They were both so focused — she hating every moment and he imagining what lie at the end — that they missed seeing how the pointy leaves of the olive trees glimmer at dusk, and the ancient-looking Greek farmer who carefully picked the fruits. Buried deep in their own dark minds, they missed the wheezing hees and haws of the gangly donkey that excitedly trotted down the hill to greet them, and they missed the five minutes she ambled along with them, on her side of the fence. They missed a cluster of the world's tiniest kittens that peeked out from their hiding place in the brush and mewed sad, tired songs between suckles of the mother's milk. They didn't notice when they entered the shaded forest of tall evergreens — how cool it was and the novelty of smelling pine in summer. Too set on finishing, they forgot to look back — they missed the sun's generous glow over the very old city of white cottages with red-tiled roofs, the honks of big boats, the water's jewel-like quality. And as the sunset played out at their backs, they missed the fading signpost that pointed in the monastery's direction.
The day's light trickled and faded by the time they realized too many wrong turns had been made. She felt so far from the cottage and the afternoon and the sun. She felt far from her promise in the sky and far from him. It was all a fever dream lost in the red dust of their path. In the early dark, without a torch, their map was no use. There was little water left. She would never know why she came. He would not get his view.
Without a word, they turned back. But before their dark descent, they saw where they were. Lights of the city below them danced to a summer chorus of cicadas. Boats cast long, neon paintings across the rippling bay. New glowing splotches emerged from the island across the sea. And now, a breeze worked its way up the mountain, shaking the olive branches and wafting the faint fragrance of dandelions and pine towards their sweaty bodies like a kiss.
"I've been too focused on putting one foot in front of the other," he said to her.
On the ascent, she'd madly concocted many words to say about this journey, but they were gone now. She reached for his hand, and together they sat down in the red dirt.