The dishwasher sounds off.
I open it, clouding my face in steam. I blink my way through it and check if the hardness of Belgrade’s water left any residue on the glasses. There seems to be none and I express silent gratitude to my mother for the tip to use different tablets. I take out two highball glasses and rest them upside down on the dish-drying mat. I then fumble around the fridge and fetch a lime from one of the drawers. I cut the lime in half and put the other half back in the fridge, before I cut the first one into thin slices. I arrange the slices on the wooden board in a semicircular shape. Then I break the shape and toss the slices around the board randomly. I look at the time. I check the freezer and find the ice cube tray solid and the ice cubes cloudy and ready. I close the freezer and look around the kitchen again. The floor could be cleaner. I swipe some of the scattered crumbs under the oven with my foot. I turn around and go to the bedroom. The bed is made up and the shower is clean. I slide the shower doors back and forth. They slide fine. I crumple the bed sheets a little, around the pillows and to the side, so they’re not too neat. I go back to the kitchen and check the drying mat. One glass is drier than the other, with a single drop of water running down its in-side. I look at the time. I take the glass and throw in three ice cubes, a slice of lime, a generous dose of gin, and some tonic. I squeeze the remaining half of the lime into it. I take a seat next to the window, sipping on the drink.
The view from here is limited to the backyard and the surrounding buildings, their façades bleached from the sun and cracked from the rain. There are terraces on most of the buildings. Some terraces have people on them, smoking. Other ones have pieces of clothing hanging across plastic wires, swaying like flags in the hot wind. A motorcycle drives up to the repair shop in the yard, loudly announcing its arrival with bursts of grey smoke coming out of its chrome exhaust pipes. The chilled ice feels good against my lips. I look at the time. The doorbell rings. I pull the blinds down and go for the door.
Nataliya enters the apartment. She’s wearing a white blouse that gives off a hint of a lace bra, navy blue shorts ending well above her knees, and a pair of light red ballet flats. Her tan is brown and her hair is blonder. Her lips full, voluptuous. They look naturally, perpetually moist. I kiss her, slowly, feeling the tip of her tongue, softly. She then lets go, turning to close the door behind her.
“Are you crazy? Someone could see us.” – she says.
“I think we should alert the authorities.”
“This is funny to you, isn’t it?”
“I don’t really feel like crying about it.”
“I might.” – she says, making her way toward the living room. “If something goes wrong.”
I follow her into the room and see her resting her bag on the table, the phone still in her hands.
“I’m not sure I’ll be able to stay long.” – she says, typing away at the screen.
“Will you stay long enough for a drink?” – I ask. “Or should I pour it into a thermos?”
“I can spare enough time for that.” – she says, smiling, putting the phone down.
I make the same drink I made a moment ago, and then another, refilling my own glass that is now empty of everything except for the melted ice on its bottom.
“Something going on?” – I ask, placing the glass in her hand.
“I don’t know what the little one is up to.” – she says, sitting down on a chair next to the couch. “I left her with my mother and she wasn’t too enthusiastic about it.”
“She’s a good kid, I wouldn’t worry.” – I say, taking a seat on the couch. “And besides, your mother should be used to it by now.”
“Not funny.” – she says. “I don’t like leaving her like that, especially after the trip we took.”
“Did you miss her while you were over there?”
“More than I thought possible.” – she says. “I always looked down on those mothers who would say such things, but it’s the truth.”
“Of course it is.” – I say. “How else can you explain wanting to spend time with a two-year old whose feces production overwhelms the number of words spoken.”
“You horrible man.” – she says. “I actually quite enjoy her not speaking.”
“Because she can get to meet me?”
“I don’t see why anyone would want to do that.” – she says, raising her eyebrows, taking a sip of the gin & tonic.
“True.” – I say. “Too bad for the poor souls forced to spend their nine-to-fives sitting next to me.”
“Only for another month.”
“Oh well, someone else will come along.”
“And of all people, you’ll be the one to stay?”
“I fucking love it there.” – I say, raising my glass. “Don’t you know?”
“I don’t know what I know.” – she says, taking her phone. “Except that I shouldn’t be here.”
“Stop that.” – I say, getting up from the couch. “How about some music?”
“No, don’t do that.”
“I’ll play something in the background.” – I say, connecting my laptop to the speakers. I let it shuffle through my music library.
I go back to the couch and see her put down an empty glass.
“Another one?” – I ask.
“No.” she says, putting her phone away again. “I feel like I should lie down a bit.”
“You want to take the couch?” – I say. “I’ll take the chair.”
“Do you have something more comfortable?”
“Are you sure? This is a very comfortable couch.”
“Where is your bedroom, asshole?”
I stand up and take her by the hand. I see her shoes wrinkle near the top as she rises, our lips touching for less than a second before she moves past me. I let go of her hand, go back to the speakers, raise the volume, and return to kissing her neck and shoulders as we spin our way to the bedroom.
“Five minutes and I’m going.” – she says, dropping down to the bed.
“Oh yeah?” – I say, crawling on top of her, whispering in her ear. “Did you set an alarm?”
“I forgot.” – she breathes out.
I gently place my hand under her blouse, at the hip, and bring it up in slow, round movements, until my fingers reach the satin lace sheltering her breast. I follow the rougher outline of what feels like flower shaped embroidery up to its edge, where I sense the softness of her skin again. She then grabs my arm and pushes it away, her breathing coming through in series of short gasps.
“We shouldn’t do this.” – she says, bringing herself up.
“We shouldn’t do what?”
“You’re not really asking me that, are you?”
“Ok, so what do you propose?” – I say. “Pretend to not want this?”
“Why not?” – she says. “We’ve been very good at that for a while.”
“Maybe because it’s hard to go back to a place you never really wanted to be in?”
“Do you actually like me for that long?”
“You’re saying that like you’re hard to like. Let alone the other thing.”
“What other thing?”
“The thing that makes one think of another person, constantly, ever since he laid his eyes on her and heard her speak.”
“And how’s that called?” – she asks, coming closer to my lips, her eyelashes playing a supporting role to a look that knows the answer.
“Last time I checked?” – I say, moving a strand of hair behind her ear. “Being in love with someone.”
“Don’t say that.” – she says, then turns away.
“You’re the one that asked.”
“I dreamed about you too.” – she says, still turned away. “But that doesn’t mean I’m in love with you.”
“And what did you dream about?”
“Well…” – she says. “All kinds of stuff.”
“I should go.” – she says, throwing her legs over the side of the bed.
“Don’t.” – I say, lifting up her blouse and kissing the small of her back.
She stays in the same position, slowly moving her head around, making barely audible sighs.
“This is one of my favorite songs.” – she then says, turning to face me, as the first notes of Love Street find their way from the living room. “Did you ever watch that film about them? The one with the guy who looked exactly like Jim Morrison?”
“Val Kilmer, yeah.”
“I remember how much I always liked their relationship.” – she says. “Of Jim and his wife, and how faithfully I felt it was depicted. Like that scene…”
“…with the burnt chicken when their friends come over?”
“I was just about to say that!”
“It’s so cute how we’re already finishing each other’s sentences.”
“Ha-ha.” – she smiles. “Fuck you.”
“Are you good at making burnt chicken?” – I ask.
“The best. Are you good at drinking and doing drugs?” – she says. “Scratch that, no need to answer.”
“Silly me.” – I say. “Thinking it was all about the poetry.”
“What do you know about poetry?” – she says, rubbing her cheek against mine.
“Well that’s not entirely true.” – she says, stepping back and poking me in the chest. “I saw some of your stuff, remember?”
“You only saw the stuff that I sent you.” – I say. “The stuff about you.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Your opinion may not be the most objective one in the world.”
“Perhaps.” – she says. “But that only means others should read it too.”
“If you continue doing what you’ve been doing this summer, there’ll be plenty more to read.”
“You see?” – she says, pecking me on the lips. “There’s nothing that a little yearning and misery can’t fix.”
“You’re very irritating.” – I say. “And very beautiful and crazy.”
“I was much crazier before.” – she says, lying back down, looking me in the eyes. “I was really fucking crazy.”
“Should I put the kitchen knives away?” – I ask, gently biting the line of her ear.
“Don’t do that.” – she says, turning her head away. “My ears are too big. You’re making me self-conscious.”
“Because you’re never that, otherwise.” – I say, pinching her hip. “I want to hear more about this crazy past you just mentioned.”
“It’s less crazy than your poker-playing coke-snorting high school years.”
“Hey, I never did coke in high school.”
“Well, I did.” – she says. “Once.”
“That sounds… anti-climactic.” – I say, propping my head on one elbow.
“I lived in the suburbs back then, at my stepfather’s place.” – she says, playing with her hair. “And he had this big car collection that he loved. Old-timers and sports cars and all that.”
“Let me guess, you felt he loved the cars more than he loved his children?”
“Aren’t you a cliché hunter?” – she says, shifting her gaze from the ceiling to my eyes. “No, he loved his children just fine, he only seemed to love the cars more than he loved me. But that’s a whole different story.”
“Why do I feel like it’s the same story?” – I ask, watching her face fill with annoyance, then kissing her.
“Excusez-moi.” – I say. “Continue please.”
“So, one night I wanted to go to this party in the city, and since living in the suburbs makes it difficult for one to do that come late night, I decided to borrow a Mercedes of his to help the cause, but I had no driving license, so I invited my older step-brother to the party so that he could drive.”
“My friends never liked him though. And I think he could feel it, because a couple of minutes after we arrived he moved to another room and started drinking like a teenager.”
“While the rest of you drank like the royal family.”
“Of course.” – she says. “Anyway, an hour passed before I went to check up on him, finding him passed out in a pool of vomit on the floor. I felt scared at first, because my yelling could not wake him up, but then I checked his breathing and realized he’s simply wasted and sleeping.”
“You were med school material, in other words.”
“Because of the elaborate diagnosis?” – she asks. “It was proportional to the number of fucks given.”
“I can see that. I suppose you went back to the party then?”
“I did. And I got wasted myself pretty soon afterward. So wasted that I completely forgot he was there when a friend of mine asked me about him. That was when I checked my cellphone and noticed a bunch of missed calls from my stepfather.”
“So, we went to check on him, and it turned out he got better in the meantime, although he was still pretty fucked. He was sitting on the bed and saying something about cleaning up the mess or whatever, when I told him that his father called and that we should get back home.”
“Was he home at the time?”
“No, he was away on business or something, but he often had security guys doing rounds at night, and I really wanted to return the car before anyone noticed it was gone. Especially since I already thought it was too late for that with the missed calls and everything. And that’s when the friend encouraged me to try blow, telling me how I’ll sober up in a matter of seconds and be ready to go. I remember how it burned my nose and how a moment later I was kissing my friend, thanking him, then saying goodbyes with literally everyone at the party, before running down the stairs to fetch the car.”
“Don’t tell me you forgot your brother at the party.”
“Step-brother.” – she says. “And my friends brought him down.”
“You had some very good friends at the time.”
“Shush, you.” – she says. “Actually, everything would’ve gone down fine if not for the small detail of me crashing through the gate of our house in the end.”
I laugh. “I suppose that made everything a little harder to hide.”
“A bit.” – she says, gesturing with her thumb and index finger.
“What did the parents say?”
“Mom acted all appalled at first, but then took my side when he decided to ground me for the remaining month of the summer break. She managed to reduce that to three weeks, but I can’t say it made any difference.”
“Was that when your relationship with him turned sour?”
“No, it was never good. This whole event only served as another argument on his side whenever he got into a fight my mom. Their whole thing was a mess, really.”
I roll closer to her, kissing her neck and her cheek, back and forth, in quick succession.
“How about another drink?” – I then ask.
“I guess one is in order now.” – she says. “What’s the time by the way?”
“I’ll go and see.”
In the kitchen, I make another round of drinks using up the rest of the limes and filling the glasses with ice. I look at the digits on the DVR, now more visible in the dimmed light of day, and head back to the bedroom.
“Actually, it’s better if you bring me my phone.” – I hear her say when I’m halfway there.
I go back for her phone, resisting the impulse to look at the lit-up screen, and bring it over to her. She is under the covers now and I can see her shorts and blouse thrown over the laundry basket in the corner of the room.
“It’s more comfortable this way.” – she says, looking at me as she takes the phone.
“Is it politically correct if I share in that comfort?”
She says nothing, typing away at her phone. I set the glasses on the nightstand above the bed, take my jeans and t-shirt off, and get into bed with her.
“She’s asleep.” – she says, resting the phone between the glasses.
“No.” – she says, rolling her eyes. “My mother.”
“Is that good or bad?”
“Good, I guess. But it doesn’t mean I’ll be staying much longer.”
“And why is that?”
“Because I shouldn’t be here.” – she says, turning to me, resting her hand on my chest, her fingers playing with the silver necklace around my neck. “And I shouldn’t be doing this.”
“What would you rather do?” – I ask.
She slowly rolls on top of me.
“Tell me.” – I say.
“I’m not going to tell you anything.” – she says, taking a deep breath, as I move my hands down her back, and further down.
“Now this is a very good gluteus maximus.” – I say, giving it a light squeeze.
“Where are you going with those hands?” – she says, slapping my wrist. “Behave.”
I smile. “Forgive my bad manners miss.”
“Fuck!” – she says, rolling back to her side of the bed.
“What is it?”
“I want you so bad. I want your hands, your lips, your… everything.”
“I’m still waiting to hear the problem.” – I say to her ear.
She turns away again, pulling the covers to her side.
“Don’t act stupid.” – she says.
“Again,” – I say. “What do you want me to do?”
“I feel like a goddamn high school girl ever since I met you.”
“That’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“It is.” – she says. “If you’re close to thirty, married, and a mother to a child, it’s a very bad thing.”
“Do you really think you can plan things like this?” – I ask. “How your feelings will match some predesigned points in time?”
“I thought it was going to be much simpler.” – she says.
I bring the glasses down from the nightstand and place one in her hand. I take a couple of strong swallows, disliking the watered-down taste.
“The worst thing is, I never expected my marriage to last forever and I suppose I always thought someone else might come along.” – she says, handing the glass back after taking a sip. “I just didn’t expect it so soon.”
“I can only repeat what I already said, Nataliya. You can’t control everything.”
“Those are just words. And they’re not making it any easier.”
“Perhaps because they’re true?”
She pulls the cover up to her chin, bringing herself to a fetal position, lying silent.
“You’re the first person I ever told that story to.” – she then says.
“This crap about crashing the gate?” – I ask. “Why?”
“What do you mean why?”
“Well it’s not like you killed anyone.” – I say. “Or did anything remarkably out of the ordinary for a person of that age, with access to such things.”
“That’s not the point.” – she says. “The point is that I was ashamed to tell it to anyone.”
“You mean it didn’t really fit any of the roles you were playing?”
“I don’t know, probably.” – she says, rubbing her face nervously. “I always tried to be the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect employee, the perfect -”
“And you did it all.” – I say. “It’s easy to grow tired of it.”
“You enjoy doing this whole personality reading thing.”
“It’s not something I’m setting out to do.”
“Looks like I’m not the only one doing the reading here.” – I say, reaching for her hand.
She takes my hand and holds it, firmly, gently.
“I always wanted to be an actress, actually.” – she then says.
“You could be a great one.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing bad at all.” – I say. “Why didn’t you go for it?”
“Do you know of a perfect daughter that went and became an actress?”
“I can see how other aspirations could prove more soothing for the parents, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“See what I mean?” – she says, turning towards me. “By the way, you shouldn’t act like we’re that different. You don’t seem to have ever strayed away from fulfilling all the conventional expectations yourself.”
“Me? I was only busy surpassing them so far.” – I say, peppering her jawline with kisses.
“You’re an arrogant little prick, you know that?”
“If anything, I know we’re breaking the mold for the opposites attract notion.”
“There are still some differences…”
“I hope there are.” – I say, moving my hand down her stomach.
“Hey!” – she calls out, slapping my wrist.
I lift my head in fake panic. “What is it? Is someone in the house?”
“We were talking about something.” – she says and kisses me lightly. “Something serious.”
“Oh yes, that’s right. What was it?”
“There’s still the age difference.”
“You still have all of your own teeth.” – I say. “So it’s all fine.”
“You idiot.” – she says, smiling. “You know that’s not what I mean.”
“I know exactly what you mean.” – I say, kissing the bottom of her neck, speaking against her skin. “But just because the time behind us was different doesn’t mean the time in front of us has to be.”
“That sounds nice. Though I’ll have to double check if it makes any sense.”
“You’re beautiful, did I ever tell you that?”
“Yes. But tell me something else now.”
“What?” – I mutter, as my lips circle her nipple, lightly touching its hardening surface.
“Tell me how it would look like.” – she says, breathing in sharply. “Us having something.”
“No different from the moment we’re in right now.”
“There is a world outside of this apartment, dummy.”
“There is a whole world inside of it too.” – I say, giving her belly button a slippery kiss, before gliding my lips further down.
“Oh, stop it will you…” – she says, grabbing my hair.
“Only if you stop me.”
I watch her eyes close as I find the spot.
“I wouldn’t dare.” – she sighs.