Lesvos, Ayvalik, Istanbul, Astoria

(Graphic: Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight.com)

In 2005, I was waitressing in New York City and thought, no, was convinced that I was destined for so much more. I called myself an opera singer/actor, but I wasn’t making a living at it. Many of my friends had far fancier, better educations than I did, better jobs, and, in most cases, more money. That is a reality of living in NYC, but I had only been here a couple of years and hadn’t fully accepted my place “in the middle” yet.

I decided that the best way for me to become more equal with a friend whom I idolized for her intellect, creativity, and worldliness was to travel more, like she did. She was just starting to freelance for Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, and I shared her curiosity for other cultures and places, so it didn’t seem so crazy that I would make it a goal to just get on a plane and… GO.

My friend (who I’ll call Z) and her then boyfriend, now husband (let’s call him P) invited my then-boyfriend-now-husband, Karl, on P’s family’s annual vacation to Skala Eressos in Lesvos, Greece. A remote, rocky beach in Greece?

Sign my shit UP.

I mean, any monkey can go to Mykonos, but I was going to fly 14 hours and then get into a car with a driver who chain smoked and drove recklessly fast on one-lane, winding mountain roads for TWO AND A HALF HOURS. It was going to ROCK.

After we stayed with P’s family, we planned to take a ferry to Turkey and then a bus to Istanbul. Then I would be deposited back into my life of waitressing, so much the worldlier and generally hurtling toward my goal of being more awesome and more like my friend.

But before we cross the Atlantic, let’s rewind.

In order to afford the tickets and all of this lounging and eating, I had to pick up extra shifts at my job, but there were only so many to pick up. So I started looking around, wondering how I could make more money. And, like many other pivotal moments in my life, Craigslist was the answer. (I met my husband on CL, after all.) I created a post looking for someone to sublet my apartment, and a really nice young kid answered.

But while I was expanding my mind and becoming more interesting, Christopher was enjoying his life as a grifter, in my apartment and then in P and Z’s. 

His name was Christopher, and he was from one of the Carolinas. Or Alabama. Or…I have blocked it out. He was blonde and sweet and very gay and seemed like he needed help — he had just moved to the city and didn’t know anyone. We bonded over church music and feeling like a have not amongst the haves. He was an organist, and I had been a soloist, and we looooved us some old school Episcopal hymns, people! It didn’t have anything to do with religion—we just loved the music. Jesus bonds some souls!

He would pay me about $600 for the first eight days I was gone, at which point a Japanese family was coming to rent the apartment. Christopher needed a place to go after that, and I recommended P and Z since their apartment was going to be empty.

I vouched for him, and the deal was done. Keys were exchanged, plans for bank deposits were made because the kid was short on cash, and Karl and I were off on our 14-hour flight to Lesvos. Thank Christ Karl spoke French because the Air France flight attendants were sort of assholes.

We arrived in Skala Erresos at the magic hour, the brilliant sun casting a gold, then blue haze on the water. We drank cocktails on the patio of our modest, 50-euro-a night-guest house before heading to the board walk and eating grilled sardines wrapped in grape leaves, grilled octopus, sautéed bitter dandelion greens, the ripest tomatoes I’d ever seen, and wine. Lots of wine. If I have ever been happier or felt more sated, I couldn’t tell you when.

It was, in a word, magical.

During the next blissful day, I went online and saw there had been no deposit to my bank account. I shot Christopher an email to remind him, and he assured me he would do it the next day.

Ten days later, we were off for Ayvalik, Turkey on the ferry, where we drank tea and beer and ate Turkish snacks. We walked the cobblestone streets down narrow alleys and everything was gorgeous. Perfect. The eggplant, the tomatoes so ripe you can smell them five feet away, the lamb kibbe, the olive oil, the dips…why would I ever leave? I wanted to cry every time I ate. I would NEVER eat honey this good again!!! (And I haven’t.)

Then it was time to get on the bus for Istanbul. I’m so cool and worldly at this point, I can take public transportation in Turkey! We arrived and were immediately taken with the sights, the sounds, the calls to prayer, the beautiful mosque minarets in the sky, the smells of charred lamb and eggplant everywhere —everything about Istanbul is intoxicating. We befriended a rug salesman (though we couldn’t afford his rugs), and he invited us to his apartment on top of the shop for dinner. He grilled us an amazing dinner on a hibachi grill, taught us the secret to making amazing rice (newspaper), and we dined under the shadow of the Blue Mosque. We sang, we danced, we drank, we ate; we were in our own romantic film. I wanted it to last forever.

But it was not to last. When I ran out of money, I emailed Christopher again. He was now at Z and P’s place, but he still hadn’t paid me for renting my apartment. Karl told me to relax. He had money. It would be fine.

After seven days in Istanbul, our magical vacation ended and we flew home, renewed, refreshed, and relaxed. But while I was expanding my mind and becoming more interesting, Christopher was enjoying his life as a grifter—in MY apartment and THEN in P and Z’s. He had apparently made friends at a nearby Episcopal Church, told a variation of his story there to “borrow” money, and then disappeared. He left the house a mess. He stole Z’s laptop with all of her work and personal information and her work on it, including all of her freelance travel writing work.

We couldn’t find him anywhere. We followed leads to Starbucks, midtown bistros and gay bars in Hell’s Kitchen. We tracked down his family, whose only response when we called was, “Christopher has a lot of problems. I am sorry you trusted him,” before hanging up. Z’s laptop was gone forever.

I paid her the insurance deductible for the laptop—I knew the theft was my fault. I vouched for Christopher when I shouldn’t have. I didn’t really know him; I just felt like I did. I believed in the sweet boy who needed help, the charming, Southern fish out of water who knew every stanza of “Deck Thyself, My Soul With Gladness.” I was convinced that I was helping a stranger in need and helping myself to buy my way into a newer, shinier, more sophisticated life. P and Z lost all trust in me, and though it took four more years for our friendship to fully unravel, that was undeniably the beginning.

It turns out that I didn’t need to leave the country on a romantic vacation that I couldn’t afford to become more worldly and interesting or make up for my shitty Arizona public school education. Though Z’s life was quite a bit cooler than mine, it was hers. No amount of carefree, magical dinners with strangers under the shadow of the Blue Mosque would hide the fact that I knew I didn’t want to pursue opera singing as a career anymore, but I also didn’t want to waitress and had no plan B at the age of 37. Walking down cobblestone streets with donkey driven carriages in search of a little honey shop would never make up for the fact that I had lied to the woman I idolized about a stranger so I could make $600 to afford a vacation.

I could have paid more attention to the warning signs and seen things for what they really were instead of what I wished they were—and I wouldn’t have even had to leave home to do it.

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