I look at the shoe shining products lined against the sink. There are three kinds; cream, brown and black. I pick them up and shake them, one by one. They’re all full, with signs of dust on their caps. I turn for the drier and rub my hands under it for a couple of seconds. I withdraw my hands and go to one of the stalls where I pull on the paper roll, tearing off a sizable portion. I wipe my hands and leave the rest-room as the drier continues to blow.
I throw the lump of paper in the wastebasket under my work desk and wake up the laptop. A new e-mail pops up. Its subject line indicates it’s a reminder for after-work drinks – courtesy of the latest promotion announcement. I do not open it as to avoid the inevitable read receipt and go back to the word document I was working on. The International Finance Corporation has announced a public-private partnership with the Government of Serbia for a green energy project of a kind and I am editing a news item displaying the firm’s awareness and full-fledged support of it. The text was written by someone with apparently even less interest in the topic than me, and so I decide to engage in a round of fact-checking. This is then followed by a round of spell-checking and the final version is nothing like the initial draft, thus ready to be uploaded to the website. That will be done by the Digital Administrator once she’s back from her lunch break.
I open the browser and log into my Facebook profile, proceeding to scroll down newsfeed the only way possible, aimlessly. The common thread on most of the recent photos seems to be graduation. I click on those containing the faces that were once in my elementary and high school classes. The individual photos have an established pattern of the person smiling and proudly extending his/her bachelor diploma in the direction of the camera. All of the captions are variations of “and now officially an academic citizen”. The comment section is full of congratulatory messages and little icons of stars, hearts and flexed biceps. I think these things are called stickers but I’m not sure. Then I hear the BD Director sneak up behind me, her footsteps giving away her intent.
“Did you have a chance to look at that PPP text?” – she asks, placing her hand on my shoulder, looking at my screen.
“It’s done.” – I say, rotating my chair, facing her.
“Wow, that was fast.” – she says. “Great job.”
“Well that depends.”
“What do you mean?”
“Compared to a snail, even a tortoise is a sprinter.”
“Nothing, just nonsense.”
“Ha-ha, you’re crazy.”
She walks around to her table. I continue reading the comments until I start staring through the words, and then I continue staring as the pixels merge and overlap, and become a passively pleasant, digitally displayed haze.
“Have you seen Nataliya anywhere?” – the BD Director asks, her head rising above her screen, redirecting my attention.
“She should be in one of the conference rooms.” – I say.
“Is she briefing Karlo?”
“I suppose so. They went in together.”
“I’m so sad she is leaving.”
“Yeah, it’s too bad.” – I say.
“I really felt like we were gelling as a team in recent months.”
I say nothing, treating the screen in front of me with a look of blazing importance.
“I don’t know if Karlo will be able to fill her shoes.” – she adds.
“He’ll be fine.”
“If he doesn’t mind high heels.”
She grunt-laughs. I close the browser and look at the clock. Two more hours to go. I make my way to the kitchen where I prepare an instant coffee. One of the Associates there is eating instant noodles at the counter. He asks me if I’d like some, and I tell him I’m not sure that counts as food.
“It’s soup, it can’t be too bad.” – he says, worried.
“Not much worse than this coffee anyway.” – I say, pouring hot water from the dispenser.
“I haven’t had anything to eat since yesterday man.”
“Why?” – I ask, leaning against the door, stirring the cup.
“Some crazy deadline.”
“Pulled an all-nighter?”
“Had to be something important.”
“Didn’t ask any questions,” – he says. “Just did the work.”
“Maybe it’s better that way.”
“Sometimes I feel like it’s all the same kind of shit.” – he says, dropping the spoon into the bowl.
“I don’t think I’m the person you should be talking to right now.”
“Yeah, I guess I should go back to work.”
“Try sleeping or eating sometimes.” – I say, walking away. “I heard it helps.”
Back at the desk, I find Nataliya and Karlo surrounding the BD Director, their laptops folded under their arms. Nataliya looks at me as I sit down. I make a V sign in front of my lips and wiggle my tongue. She laughs. The BD Director first looks at her, then at me.
“We’ve been drinking.” – I say.
“Oh you…” she says. “Let me have a couple of serious minutes with these two.”
“Avec plaisir.” – I say and make a hand gesture to Nataliya and Karlo, indicating I’m going for a smoke on the terrace. I take the cup of coffee and leave.
The only other person on the terrace is Monika, another one of the younger associates. She’s wearing dark rimmed glasses, a dark red dress, and a pair of black ballet flats. Her hand is shaking and she steadies it by pulling on the cigarette. She’s less pale than I last remember her.
“Hey.” – she says.
“Monique.” – I say, twisting the pronunciation, nodding at her. “You got some color there.”
“First day back from holiday.”
“That explains it.” – I say, putting my sunglasses on. “Suffering from the eponymous syndrome?”
“Like never before.” – she says. “What about you? Travelling anywhere soon?”
“Been to Italy for a week during the summer. Thinking of somewhere else to go soon.”
She nods her head, pulling on the cigarette, steadying her hand again. I light my own.
“Hey, when are you going to do more of those interviews?” – she then asks.
“You used to sit some of us down and ask us random questions about ourselves, if I recall correctly.”
“Oh.” – I say, remembering. “You mean that thing one does when filled with beginner’s enthusiasm at a new job?”
“Not going to happen I’m afraid. There was not much support for a project that gave you guys personalities.”
“Oh well.” – she says and puts out her cigarette in a water-filled ashtray.
I notice Nataliya and Karlo coming down the hallway towards the terrace.
“Are you coming to this after-work event today?” – Monika asks.
“I have some better plans, unfortunately.”
“I wish I could say the same, but free booze easily tops the list for me.” – she says, turning to leave. “See you there if those plans don’t work out.”
Karlo opens the door and lets Monika through. Nataliya steps onto the terrace, shielding her eyes from the sun. Karlo follows her. I see sweat stains under his arms.
“How’s the briefing coming along?” – I ask.
“Still need to go through some things.” – he says. “It’s too much to take in at once.”
“Is the coach any good?” – I ask, nodding at Nataliya.
She smirks and holds out her hand, asking for a lighter. I place it there, our palms touching for a second too long.
“She’s been a treasure.” – Karlo says to me, then turns to her. “Seriously, I’m so grateful that you’re spending your last days on the job holed up with me, teaching me fucking baby steps.”
“Including the last day.” – she says, pointing at him with the cigarette between her fingers.
“Fuck, that’s true.” – he says. “I forgot.”
“No worries, it’s all history in two hours anyway. And it’s far from being rocket science material.”
“Really?” – I ask. “I thought you were changing the world.”
“One pitch at a time.” – she says, fixing her hair, using my sunglasses as a mirror.
“Jokes aside, I really want to start this promotion on the right foot.” – Karlo says, exhaling the smoke.
“Did they give you a raise?” – I ask.
“A small one.” – he says. “Hoped for a bigger one.”
“This way you’ll keep hoping.”
“Tell me about it.” – he says, looking over the rooftops. “Are you guys going to these after-work drinks by the way?”
“I don’t really -”
“I’m going.” – Nataliya says, cutting me off.
“You are?” – I ask, looking at her.
“It’s my last day here. Might as well say goodbye to some of the people over a drink.”
“I thought you had some plans right after work?”
“There’s time enough for both.” – she says, glancing at me.
“Well, I’m coming. Not missing an open bar on Friday night.” – Karlo says.
Nataliya and I put out our cigarettes, causing a hissing sound from the flooded ashtray.
“I’ll have another one.” – Karlo says. “Need to clear my mind some more.”
“Not me.” – Nataliya says. “I should head back and sort out the mess in my drawers. Let me know when you’re back so that we can wrap up the briefing.”
“I’m heading back too.” – I say, opening the doors.
Nataliya steps out and we leave Karlo alone on the terrace. I walk behind her down the narrow corridor, trying to notice added emphasis in the movement of her hips. We reach the elevator and I call for it. Nataliya turns towards the staircase, then looks back at me.
“Really?” – she says. “It’s three floors down.”
“The elevator’s right here though.”
“No, it’s not.”
The elevator sounds off. Its doors open in front of me. There’s no one in it.
“Nothing’s going to happen.” – she says, entering it.
The doors slide to a close and we face each other. I press the ground floor button.
“Shit.” – I say, acting surprised. “Where’s my mind?”
“I think I know where it is.”
“Care to share?” – I say, stepping towards her.
“Someone’s going to see us.” – she says, pushing me away, weakly.
“I’m pretty sure we’re all alone here.”
Floor no. 8, then floor no. 7.
“We can’t do this.” – she says. “I’m still not sure there aren’t any cameras around.”
“Oy ye builders knock it off with hide and seek.”
Floor no.5, floor no.4.
“This is not the place.” – she says.
“It’s been the only place for almost a month now.”
“I know, but we’re going to your apartment today.” – she says. “Hold your horses.”
Floor no.3, floor no.2.
“We’ll have one drink at the party and leave.” – she says, looking at her watch. “I promise.”
The elevator doors open. There’s a crowd waiting to get in. Nataliya and I move towards the back, making room for everyone.
“Damn elevators.” – I say. “It’s like a lottery every time you hit a button.”
No one responds. We ride up in silence, everyone’s eyes fixed at the vertical crack in the doors.
Back on our floor, Nataliya sees Karlo waiting in one of the glassed-in conference rooms and joins him. I walk past it and reach my desk. The Digital Administrator is there, asking if the news item I sent her should definitely be uploaded. I confirm. She then shyly expresses concern over a spelling mistake in the subtitle of the article. I roll my chair to her desk. She points out the word partnesrship.
“Idiot.” – I say, swiping my hand across my face. “Change it please.”
“Looks like there really is a first time for everything.” – she says, smiling.
“Sure looks like it.”
“Do you want to check the whole thing again?”
“No, it’s fine. Let it fly.”
“Done.” – she says. “That it for today?”
“That’s it for today.”
I go back to my desk and begin erratically surfing the web, glad to have run into an article announcing Leonard Cohen’s new album, due to be published in a month’s time. I listen to some of his earlier works on a pair of headphones I find on the desk that keep falling out of my ears. The space around me is slowly becoming deserted as my colleagues, one by one, use the approaching festivity to excuse themselves from further work. I get this from what I hear while readjusting the headphones. I read about the Greek island of Hydra where no traffic is allowed and where Cohen supposedly wrote parts of his first album. I then find a website that catalogues volunteering opportunities around the world, including some that are on this island. The current ones are for paragliding instructors and gardeners. In both cases, no more than four to six hours of work are expected daily, and it’s up to the volunteer to decide what to do with the rest of his/her time. Food and accommodation are provided. I look at my hands and then out the window, at the yellow tinged afternoon sky. The right headphone pops out again. I reach for it and find a hand on my shoulder, soft and familiar.
“Always the hardest working one.” – Nataliya says.
I look around the office space and realize we are the only two people in it.
“What’s the time?” – I ask.
She points to the lower right corner of my screen.
“Time to go.” – she says.
“Where’s all your stuff?”
“There’s only my bag.” – she says, hanging it over her shoulder.
The promotion event is held at ground floor level, in the courtyard of the office building, where a restaurant garden is booked for this occasion. Members of the HR Team are lined up at the entrance, smiling and showing us in. The HR Manager steps out of the line and gives Nataliya a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“You can always say this is a farewell party for you.” – she says, then laughs, forced and loud.
“What did you think I was saying?” – Nataliya replies, laughs, equally forced but less loud.
We walk past them and reach the concrete-laden courtyard posing as the garden. I estimate more than fifty people to be here. Most of them are standing around in small groups, talking, drinking and smoking. Some, like Karlo and Tamara, are sitting at tables. Nataliya and I join them, taking the two remaining seats.
“This looks like a roommate affair all over again!” – Tamara shouts, clapping her hands excitedly.
“Have a beer man.” – Karlo says, sliding one of the two mugs in front of him in my direction.
“You’re sure the other you won’t miss it?” – I ask.
“There’s plenty more where that came from.” – he says, signaling the waiter.
Nataliya orders a glass of white wine, and Tamara orders another one for herself, returning the empty glass.
Karlo and Tamara ask him for the food on offer.
“One drink.” – I whisper to Nataliya.
“As far as I’m concerned.” – she replies.
“So,” – I say to the table as the waiter leaves. “Who’s the man of the hour?”
“Not sure.” – Karlo says, looking around. “But I think someone made Senior Partner, considering the effort put into this whole thing.”
“And how are you feeling?” – Tamara asks, turning to Nataliya, clutching her hand on the table. “I’m going to miss you so much.”
“Aww, I’ll miss you too.” – she replies and smiles. “But it’s not like I’m moving away or anything. I’ll still be around.”
There is some commotion close to the garden’s entrance and soon we hear the clinking sound preceding a toast. Alicia comes forward, rests her glass on the table closest to her, and launches into a speech. There are mentions of hard work, humility, persistence, and above all, loyalty, all directed at the firm’s New Senior Partner. I wink at Karlo, but only see his head half-buried in the beer mug, heavily engaged with the next swallow. I put effort into my own, as Alicia continues praising the size of the cases the man has won recently, as well as the number of hours billed, of course. Laughter all around follows. She rounds off the speech by saying how the firm has bought him a special present too, just a symbolic something that the man wanted ever since he was a kid. Everyone can already tell who the man is, since there’s a person in front that’s closing in on Alicia, fidgeting nervously. She then gives in and invites him to the improvised stage consisting of the step between the inside of the restaurant and the garden. He climbs the step, still standing shorter than Alicia by a good measure, and thanks her. The present is a hover board. Holding it in his hands, he smiles, broadly and proudly, the red in his cheeks spreading further around the face. He looks not unlike Muttley, the cartoon character, if Muttley had a pale tan, greasy hair, and dark circles around his eyes. I turn towards Nataliya to share these thoughts and find her worryingly looking at me.
“Is everything okay?” – I ask, my words muffled by the applause around us.
“I have to go.” – she says.
“You have to go? Now?”
“Home.” – she says. “The little one is running a fever, the nanny just texted me.”
“Fuck.” – I say, facing away from her. “Fuck.”
The applause dies down and the second “fuck” picks up more audience than intended.
“What is it?” – Tamara asks.
“I had my money on Kessler.” – I say.
“Ha-ha.” – she smiles, taking a sip of the wine. “Well it’s my dear boss who got it, so I can’t say I feel the same.”
“Can we talk for a minute?” – I whisper to Nataliya.
“You can walk me to the car if you’d like.”
She gets up and says goodbyes to Karlo and Tamara. Karlo thanks her once again for all the help. I tell them I’ll walk her out.
“Do you think I should say goodbye to Alicia as well?” – she asks as I open the doors of the restaurant for her.
“I really don’t know.”
“I’ll give her a call tomorrow.” – she says and steps out.
I see her car parked in front of the building.
“Let’s not talk on the street.” – she says and unlocks the car.
I take the passenger side. She starts the engine and drives out of the parking spot, placing her hand on my headrest as she looks back for the coming traffic. The car behind her blinks its headlights and lets her go in front.
“I’ll drive around the block.” – she says, accelerating.
“Remind me why we wasted time on these drinks?”
“How could I know this was going to happen?”
“You promised, Nataliya.” – I say, looking out the window.
“But what can I do? Tell me what can I do?”
“How about spare half an hour now? We can go straight to my place; you know how close it is.”
“Is that really what you expect me to do?” – she asks. “Go and fuck someone while my child is sick at home?”
“Okay, you’re right, I’m sorry.”
“Seriously, who do you think I am? What do you think I am?”
“I said I’m sorry Nataliya. That was a stupid fucking thing to say, and I’m sorry.”
She takes a left turn, downshifting gears. I place my hand on hers and we shift up together, as she straightens the wheel. I do not take my hand off.
“It’s just that something always seems to come up.” – I continue. “We haven’t had any time to ourselves since that day.”
“I know.” – she says, giving me a side glance.
“Seeing you each day without being able to be with you only makes it worse.”
“Believe me, I know.” – she says. “But you have to understand that I had no time to myself. This is the way my life is. I hate how fast everything happened, and I hate how none of it feels like it’s under my control.”
“But it’s hard for me to believe…”
“That there was not a single hour in a month’s time that you could’ve set aside for us.” – I say. “Don’t get me wrong, I understand everything you’re saying, and yes, I cannot begin to imagine how it is for you, but you can’t tell me nothing else is the matter.”
We shift down again, and she takes another left turn.
“My husband is a good man.” – she says. “He’s a good man, he’s a good husband, and what’s most important, he’s a good father. I cannot do this to him, not this soon.”
“But you know that I don’t expect you to leave him or anything of the kind. At least not until we’ve had a chance to try ourselves at something remotely real. That’s all I want Nataliya, to be smart about it and try it out.”
She looks at me, then back at the road.
“I had a feeling we were on the same page about this?” – I add.
“And that’s just the problem.”
“Thinking that anything smart can be done here. It’s foolish and it’s naïve. It’s impossible. I cannot go for some kind of a trial or testing or call it whatever you like period, when I have a two-year-old child, waiting for me at home every day.”
The engine comes to a halt at a red light.
“Look.” – she continues, facing me. “We both know that this would be a different story if it wasn’t for the little one. But she is here, and I love the little puff. I love her more by the day and there’s nothing I can conceive of as more important than her. And yes, even though that was not something I wanted at the time, now my whole life is revolving around her, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
She takes another left turn when the light turns green.
I take my hand off the shifter.
“I just need more time to accept the fact that I’m doing this.” – she adds. “I cannot make risks of this size this soon.”
I look out the window again, at the people waiting to cross the street. The orange hue of the sun on their faces, the first hints of dusk.
“I would prefer if everything you said made less sense to me.” – I then say.
“I know.” – she says. “And I know how hard this is on you, especially since you’ve been so wonderful and considerate all along. You surprised me, to be honest.”
“I surprised myself.” – I say. “I’m still surprising myself. But I’m afraid I’m losing my love of surprises.”
She takes another left turn and we are in front of the office building again.
“I wish there was something I could say that would make you feel better.” – she says, pulling on the handbrake.
“Saying that kind of makes it worse.”
“I know. Shit. I’m sorry.” – she says, taking my hand.
The A/C is humming, intensely. The car’s hazard light is clicking, loudly.
“You know, I really do think all of this is temporary in a way.” – she says. “Not us, not you and me, but my whole situation. I don’t want to lose you, and I don’t feel cheated by my feelings. Just… somehow overtaken.”
The car behind us honks. I open the door. The car honks again.
“Please tell me you understand.” – she adds, as I step out.
“I understand.” – I say, looking at the smallest details of her face. “I do.”
“I’ll call you as soon as I get the chance.” – she says.
I close the door.
From the sidewalk, I see her brake lights turn off as she sets the car in motion. The guy behind her drives up to me, rolls down the window, and curses the way I was brought up. I ignore him and head towards the restaurant.
Inside, I see the New Senior Partner still holding his speech and decide not to join the audience in the garden, instead finding a spot at the bar. I order a beer first, then add two more tequilas to the order. The bartender informs me that liquor is not covered by the event arrangement. I pay for the tequilas and down them one after the other. I sip the beer and think of the unpacked record player in my apartment with the “Love Street” single thrown on top of it. I think of the guy who sold the single to me, three nights prior, from the back of a van at the flea market where I went to for the first time.
“Heeeey.” – I hear the BD Director’s voice behind me. “Where have you been hiding? Don’t tell me you’ve been working until now.”
“Up until this very second.”
She chuckles. “I never know if you’re serious.”
“I’d say I’m pretty serious now.”
“Then we should talk.” – she says. “With all of these promotions going on, I have to tell you about the ideas we have for you.”
“How about we do that some other time?”
“Oh, okay.” – she says. “Some other time then.”
“Monday is fine.”
“Monday it is.” – she says, walking away.
I take a couple of big swallows of the beer and order another two tequilas. The bartender asks me if I sampled some of the hors d’oeuvres on offer. I pay for the tequilas without succumbing to a reply and head towards the garden, leaving the pair of empty shot glasses on the bar. The buzz is already there and it’s stronger than I expect as the sounds around me blend into a warm, well known cacophony. Alicia comes up to me and tells me we have to do a story on the New Senior Partner and distribute it to all our European media contacts. She’s naming different publications and I’m nodding my head, until she smiles and pats me on the shoulder. I make my way to the table where Karlo and Tamara are sitting, now populated by other people as well. Karlo asks something about what took me so long and I tell him I was getting us some drugs. He laughs, then proposes for us to go somewhere else and continue drinking since it seems like the event is coming to an end. He gets support from everyone at the table and in a matter of minutes I walk out as part of the group. Monika is here too and she approaches me as we walk down the street.
“So what happened to that plan of yours?” – she asks.
“The same thing that happens while you’re busy making any plan.” – I say. “Life.”
“That sounds familiar.”
“Someone famous made it famous.”
“Oh.” – she says. “So you’re joining us for drinks?”
“I guess I am.”
We enter a really cool place, as advertised by someone in the group, in one of the side streets and somehow find a table big enough for everyone. The music is kind of shitty, we are informed by that same person, but the drinks are cheap and there’s no closing time. This is celebrated with a round of double shots for everyone, and then another one follows. I take a seat at what resembles the head of the table and engage in conversation with one of the latest newcomers who’s praising the sense of camaraderie at the firm.
“Dude!” – another guy, the one who had noodles today says, slapping me on the back. “Finally you’ve decided to go out with us. Tell me what you’re drinking.”
“I might go for beer now.”
“I’ll bring one for you.” – he says and starts towards the bar to get it.
Monika walks over and takes his spot.
“Why is everyone so happy to hang out with you?” – she asks, moving her finger along the edge of her wine glass, looking me in the eyes.
“Are you implying that you’re one of them?”
“Well.” – she says. “Maybe it’s the wine talking, but I think I am.”
“That’s better to hear than the alternative.”
“Is it really?”
“Sad about Nataliya leaving?” – she then asks.
“What makes you ask that?”
“Some of us thought there was a thing going on between you two.”
“I heard there was talk about that.” – I say. “But we were just colleagues. Nothing more.”
“The same as we are?” – she says, her hand disappearing under the table, settling on my knee.
“Me and her were never so tactile.”
“Fancy words.” – she says. “Is that why people like you?”
“You’ll have to ask them.” – I say, looking around. “Where’s that beer anyway?”
“I thought we could have this drink and get out of here.”
“I like the sound of that.” – she says.
I drink the pint in three oversized swallows, bringing hoarseness to my voice and tears to my eyes. Monika and I excuse ourselves from the rest of the crowd by saying how we’ll share a taxi ride. Outside in the street, she says she wants to get something to eat. We drop by a fast food vendor who cuts us a slice of pizza each. She eats hers and I tear mine piece by piece, throwing the pieces around the street. I tell her my place is close-by and we walk for another minute before she says she’s too cold. I hail a taxi and we start eating away at each other’s lips in the back seat. The driver soon lets us know we’ve reached the desired address. We get out of the car and I throw fare money through the window, onto the passenger seat. We scramble up the steps and I take my time unlocking the door as she puts her tongue in my ear and rubs my crotch. I succeed in finding the keyhole and we stagger towards the living room where we drop to the floor and start taking our clothes off. She kisses me, biting my lips again, and burrows her long nails in the back of my head. I then rip apart her bra and she moves her hands down my neck where she pulls on something that strongly presses against my skin until it presses no longer. I bring her down and climb on top of her, taking her underwear off, throwing it to the side. I look in that direction and see a silver necklace next to it, glinting in a trace of streetlight.