A brush with death. A moment that might be your last. Have you ever had one of those times when you thought, this could be it? My last breath? Maybe it was a bad decision, a wrong turn, a wrong place wrong time situation. I can think of so many times when I’ve looked back in hindsight and realized how close I came to not surviving the day (or at least not surviving with all my limbs intact).
My flirtation with disaster goes back a long time. To my earliest days, even. Photographic evidence below, that I came across just weeks ago proves that even my parents set me up for what could have been a catastrophic failure, but somehow I managed to come through by the skin of my teeth (whatever that means).
I didn’t even have teeth yet when my I had my first near disaster.
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My First Words
The way the story is told, I was a toddler, sitting on my dad’s lap. He smoked a pipe. While holding his baby, apparently. I reached for it. “Hot,” he said. I pointed at it. “Hot,” he said. I poked my finger into the bowl, withdrew it very quickly and looked at my finger before I started to cry. “HOT!” I said. I don’t know if the photo above was taken before or after, but clearly I was practicing some unsafe habits right from the get go. And all this time I thought I took my first puff in junior high.
A Little Too Close For Comfort
In the next shot of my series of “Flirting With Disaster From An Early Age’ photos, my mother set me down to play in a drawer under the oven. Again, take a close look. There’s actually something baking away in that oven. What were they thinking?
All Those Other Times
There are plenty of days that I thought might be my last, mostly while I was traveling. There’s the time I hydroplaned on the wet freeway while passing a semi on a turn going 75. There were numerous moments when I was a passenger in a plane that I feared might not make it to its intended destination in one piece. And there’s the time I thought I really might not live to see tomorrow while aboard a ferry in Alaska during what we called a heavy wind. You’d call it a hurricane or a typhoon. I was holding my infant daughter in one arm, holding on to the bunk railing with the other, and one leg was pressed up against the cabin wall for stability so I didn’t go flying across the room every time the ship rolled. But when I put my memory to the test to find the one moment that I actually think I barely escaped death’s clutch, we have to go back to 1989. To Greece. To that night on the cliff.
The day after I graduated from college, my friend Lisa and I boarded a plane and headed to Greece. We landed in Athens, caught the ferry to Crete, and met our friend Hilary, who was already there, with her boyfriend Manos. They drove us to the south side of the island, to Paleochora. Lisa and I rented a studio apartment for $9/night, and before long we both had jobs and boyfriends, and spent our days on the beaches, our nights at the disco. I wrote in-depth about my fabulous Big Fat Greek Summer years ago. But what I glossed over, in fact didn’t mention at all, was the moment I thought my life was about to end.
It all started with the car accident six weeks later. Manos, my boyfriend Haris and I decided to drive to the city early one morning. The two of them claimed the front seats in Manos’ little car, and I curled up in the back seat, trying to sleep during the winding, 90 minute drive through the mountains. I was jolted awake an hour later to the sound of screeching brakes as Manos came around a blind corner a little too fast and couldn’t avoid colliding with a small excavator that was in the middle of the road, working away on a Sunday morning. The front of the car was a little crunched, and the windshield popped out but remained intact. I was thrown onto the floor, wedged in between the back seat and the driver’s front seat, which had come off its track. My elbow had gone through the upholstery and a greasy spring was embedded in my elbow. I still have a scar. When you look at it in just the right light, it looks like a grumpy face. Two black eyes and a grim slash of a mouth.
We all got lucky that day, but I had to wear a sling for two weeks and had to bow out of the first half of a trip that Lisa and I had planned. We were going to travel around the whole island and then on to the island of Santorini. Lisa didn’t want to travel solo, but finally agreed to travel the Crete portion on her own, and contact me when she was ready to continue on to Santorini so that I could meet up with her.
Sfakia vs. Plakias
When Lisa called on the crackly landline 10 days later she said, “Hey, come meet me in Plakias!” I heard Sfakia. That’s what her boyfriend Costas thought she’d said too. The connection was that bad. She’d traveled the whole island, and ended up not that far away from me, just a few hours further east. She said she was staying at a hostel with a disco downstairs. I told her I planned to get on the next ferry out, whenever that was. After that our plan was to head to Iraklion by bus, then catch another ferry to Santorini, and finally loop back to Crete again. The only hitch was that I wasn’t quite sure when the next ferry left, and how much of a fit my boyfriend was going to throw. He was not thrilled with my idea to travel around the islands and had even discouraged me. Lisa was a bit skeptical that I’d show up, and told me that if I decided not to go, she was still going without me.
A few days later, I stepped off the ferry in the little town of Sfakia. Lisa was nowhere to be seen. Of course you know where she was…waiting for me another 30 km down the coast in the town of Plakias.
I waited and waited, then started walking along the promenade of the small town, looking for Lisa amongst all the tourists sitting in tavernas. I started asking around if there was a hostel nearby with a disco, but I got a lot of eyebrow lifts and tsks, which is Greek for “Nope.” I started to get worried. I thought something awful had happened to her, and my brain sort of short-fused. I was in a foreign place, all by myself, and I didn’t know what had happened to my friend. I didn’t know what to do, so I started to cry, wandering around with my backpack, and eventually I decided that I needed to find a place to stay and then keep looking for her.
I wandered into a hotel, got a room, put my stuff down and then ventured back outside again, puffy eyed and aimless. It never occurred to me to ask someone to help me make a phone call back to Paleochora. Also, I was afraid that if I called my boyfriend to tell him Lisa didn’t show up, that he’d try to convince me to come back home on the next ferry.
That was when I met them. Such a nice, helpful family of Brits. There was a British woman about ten years older than me who lived in the village with her local Greek boyfriend. We’ll call them Debra and Stavros. Because while I can remember certain events about that day very clearly, I don’t remember their names. They were accompanied by her visiting parents and her two teenage nieces, enjoying the lingering afternoon sun on the deck of a cafe. They had seen me wandering around the village, crying, and asked me to sit with them. I poured out my story, and said I didn’t understand why my friend hadn’t met me at the boat. I was worried about her, but thought perhaps she’d given up on me and had already left for Santorini. They invited me to join them for dinner that evening, in one of the restaurants that lined the promenade along the waterfront; a good vantage point for watching out for any sign of Lisa. She never showed.
Stavros said there was a disco in town, that we should go there to see if Lisa showed up. The two teenage girls were very excited about that prospect, but the grandparents and Debra both begged off. Lisa wasn’t there. Stavros took me aside and said there was another disco, up the coast a bit, in the ruins of an old castle, Frangokastello, and there was a hostel up there too. If Lisa was nearby, she’d probably be there, and he was offering to take me because he was oh, so helpful. And I was so naive. He said, “But those girls are very annoying. I don’t want to take them with me. So you tell them you’re going back to your hotel, and then wait for me, and we will go.”
“Ok, I said.” But no kamaki.” Kamaki is a Greek colloquialism. Literally it means to spearfish. In slang, it means to hit on someone. As in trying to poke something with your spear.
He looked at me like I was crazy for bringing it up. “Of course not.” He knew I had a boyfriend. I knew he had a girlfriend.
Half an hour later, we were in the almost completely deserted disco at Frangokastello. No Lisa. I resigned myself to the fact that she thought I wasn’t going to show up, and had continued on the trip without me.
So there I was, confused and a little bit freaked out, sipping on a beer in a bar out in the middle of nowhere with a man I didn’t know, not knowing what to do next, when Stavros put his hand on my knee. I looked down at his hand, and wasn’t sure what exactly to say. I think at the time I just reiterated what I’d said before in a playful, lighthearted manner, “Remember, no kamaki,” with a smile. I believe he made some lame excuse about how he was just trying to keep all the other guys from trying to come over and hit on me. Nobody came near us.
Shortly after that, I asked him if he could take me home, because Lisa had continued on, and wasn’t going to show up. In reality, she was just down the road, wringing her own hands, wondering why I hadn’t shown up. And when I didn’t, she did exactly what I should’ve done. She called her boyfriend, who called my boyfriend, and then Lisa got on the next bus home. Everyone thought I had been kidnapped, rolled up in a Turkish carpet, and sold into slavery.
We started back down the road towards Sfakia. Suddenly Stavros pulled a hard left, and swung the pickup truck off the side of the road, and parked next to a cliff. “Get out,” he said. He walked around to the passenger door, and opened it. I pretty much had no choice but to exit the vehicle. I could hear the waves hundreds of feet below, but couldn’t see them. It was too far down, and it was too dark. For a moment, we just stood there, and then he put his arm around my shoulder.
And that was the moment. The moment that I started playing out my last moments on Earth scenario in my head. I thought he was going to throw me down, rape me, strangle me, and then toss me off the cliff.
It was a legitimate concern.
I had found myself in that situation once before in my life. I made a bad decision and went for a motorcycle ride with a man I had just met without telling anybody where I was going, and ended up underneath a man who was ignoring all the cues and all the words, and seemed quite determined to get what he wanted, which was to harpoon something. In the previous case when it became clear that the words weren’t going to have any impact, and he had my arms pinned at my side, I just gave up.
Believe me, I felt guilty for a long time for not putting up more of a physical fight, or for not doing anything more than just resigning myself to what was being forced upon me. But at the time I decided checking out emotionally was better than than being buried forever in someone’s back yard, with my friends and family wondering for an eternity what had happened to me on Labor Day 1982.
Standing there on that cliff in 1989, it took me right back to that day. I realized that nobody, not a soul knew I was with Stavros. Was I going to survive this night? Or the next ten minutes? If he took what he wanted and then threw me over the side onto the rocks below, would anyone ever find my body? Would anyone put two and two together and realize it was him? Would the police even investigate my disappearance? What could I possibly say to him to stop him from going any further? I felt completely helpless, like I was headed for total disaster. I decided that if he started to hurt me, that the first thing I would do was to scrape my fingernails down his face so that I would make a mark on him that couldn’t be ignored, and his DNA might be preserved under them.
Stavros pulled me closer to him, and I looked him in the eye and whispered, “Please, no kamaki. I have a boyfriend.”
He reacted by glaring at me angrily. He was pissed (and that’s when I thought I was really in trouble). But instead of harming me or ditching me out in the middle of nowhere, he stomped back to the car, and told me to get in. He drove me back to Sfakia, and dropped me off at my hotel without another word. Kind of like that guy back in 1982.
I’ve always said there’s nothing funny about sexual assault, and putting together a playlist of music to go along with tales of sexual assault just doesn’t seem right. But back when I started to write this column, it was a lighter moment, back before sexual assault became a partisan issue. Back when I had discovered some funny photos from my childhood and started thinking about all the other fine messes I’d found myself in during my life. Then some shit got dredged up about 1982, and this column kind of took on a life of its own. It wasn’t what I intended. But I already had a Flirting With Disaster Playlist put together, so there you have it.