"Vassara is burning." He solemnly looked at me with sad eyes.
Those words will haunt me for a lifetime. More than twenty years later, I still get chills remembering how Ari greeted me upon arrival with such horrible news. This was our third summer together, and I was so excited to see him. Mom and I had just landed in Athens, and there he stood, holding a bouquet of pink roses. Ari's otherwise cheerful expression held concern.
What?" I asked, breaking apart from our embrace. A sense of fear and disappointment enveloped me like a thick blanket. My intention for our romantic reunion shattered instantly.
"It's on fire," he repeated. "It has been for days."
"What are you talking about?" I asked anxiously.
Ari explained how wildfires developed in the region surrounding our village due to record-breaking heat. His parents' nearby village of Tsintzina was vulnerable, as well. The fires came about suddenly, he said, without warning. Ari described how damaging flames raged through olive groves in the Taygetos Mountains, burning the orchards of the local villagers. He said the devastation was unreal, and that at any moment, the fires could gain momentum and burn homes. Mom and I stood in disbelief. We knew Greece's hot, dry climate made the country vulnerable to such disasters. However, in all the years we traveled to Mom's birthplace, we never experienced a wildfire firsthand.
"What do we do now?" I turned to Mom.
"We'll just have to wait and see after we get to Sparta," Mom replied.
Ari put his arm around me. "Don't worry. Stay in Magoula for now. You're safe there. I'm sorry to burden you with unhappy news." He paused and then said, "It's good to see you, sweetheart." He kissed my forehead, showing discretion in front of my mother. I held his hand as we walked through the airport.
"When are you coming to Peloponnese from Athens? You said in your last letter that you weren't sure."
Ari shook his head. "I still don't know. I was there briefly to see the damage, but I had to return to Eurobank right away. I'll be back to see you as soon as I can."
"Will you take long? You know I'm only here five weeks this year."
"Don't worry, koukla, we'll have time together. You look great, by the wayŚmore beautiful each year."
I laid my hand on his cheek. "Thanks, old man." I had to tease him, reminding him that he was ten years my senior.
He held my wrist and rubbed his finger across the gold bracelet he had given me a year earlier. "You wear it all the time?" he asked me.
"I never take it off," I answered, smiling at him. He returned my grin with a concentrated look that made me uneasy.
The threat of fires only added to my apprehension for the trip. Although I was ecstatic to be in Greece again, Ari's recent letters had me uneasy about seeing him, as he was intently more serious about our relationship. I could tell by his expression that keeping our relationship at a comfortable pace for me was going to be a challenge. I knew the discussion regarding his green card was coming, but it would have to be put off for a while. The last thing I was ready for was to plan our future together. "There will be time for that a few years from now," I thought innocently.
We stepped away briefly at baggage claim and kissed before he went back to work. I smiled into his eyes, which seemed a little older, his hair showing the first signs of gray. Even the lines around his smile were deeper than last year. I didn't mind. He was still as handsome and sweet as ever. Ari escorted me to customs, where Mom and I met up with Spiro, our ever-faithful cab driver. The look on his face was ominous, as well.
"Peloponnese is on fire," Spiro warned, waving his arms in the air.
"Here we go again," I thought, irritated with his dramatics. The news was bad enough coming from someone I adored, let alone Spiro, who was over the top about everything. I told this to Mom in English so that he wouldn't understand. Spiro's English was terrible. Mom agreed, and we both laughed.
But as Spiro's cab made its way down to Sparta, we saw smoke in the distance and discerned for ourselves that the fires were no dramatic exaggeration. They were real. The exact proximity to the village was hard to tell, but the faint smell of burning brushwood put me on edge.