The door opens. I step inside, hearing my father’s voice coming from the shower.
“Sunday bloody Sunday…”
His usual set list prior to visiting his parents. These inarticulate sounds pierce through the walls of the apartment, reaching the hallway of the building before my mother closes the door.
“Pipe down!” – she yells at him, holding the door with one hand, smearing toothpaste in her hair with the other. “People will think we’re crazy.”
“Good thing you’re not contributing to that.” – I say, giving her a hug and a kiss.
“What? This?” – she asks, touching her hair. “Better than any kind of wax, I’ll tell you that. Especially when you have straw in place of hair.”
“If you say so.” – I say, getting out of my coat.
“Sit down while I finish rubbing in this crap.” – she says. “And don’t bother looking for your sister, she’s at the library studying for her anatomy exam.”
I go to the kitchen and find coffee rocking across the bottom of the pot. I pour it, half-filling the cup, and take a seat in the living room. Another wall is painted in red now, unlike during my last visit here two weeks ago, equalizing the score between red and yellow walls with two apiece. I see a pile of brochures scattered on the table. Leaning to fetch one of them, I hear my boots squeak. Two small puddles of melted snow are around them. I take them off and carry them to the entrance where I prop them against the hallway closet. I then return to the living room and see that the brochures are about Rhodesian Ridgebacks.
“How do you like the wall?” – my mother asks, entering the room, nodding at its newly acquired redness.
“Very subtle.” – I reply, waving the brochure at her. “Are you thinking of getting a new dog?”
“The same kind?”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“Don’t ask me.” – she says. “I thought having children was a good idea.”
“And that didn’t teach you anything?”
“It did.” – she says. “I switched to dogs.”
My father comes out of the toilet wearing only a towel around his waist.
“We have to be there in an hour.” – he says to my mother, then turns to me. “And to what do we owe this pleasure?”
“Go get dressed and he’ll tell us.” – my mother says.
“I thought you preferred me like this.” – he replies, swinging his hips at her.
She pats him on the ass and gives him a kiss.
“Now go get dressed.” – she says.
The coffee’s lukewarm temperature adds an earthy taste to it. I spill it into the sink and start preparing a fresh brew. By the time I grind the beans and turn the machine back on, both of them are waiting for me in the living room.
“So,” – I say, taking a seat and crossing my arms. “That Master’s application I made?”
“Yeah?” – they reply in unison.
“Well, I got accepted.” – I say. “For the winter intake.”
“That sounds like it’s happening soon.” – my father says.
“It is.” – I say. “If I’m going.”
“Are you?” – my mother asks.
“I think I am.” – I say. “Now that it’s a legitimate option, I like it even better. I wasn’t sure that was going to be the case.”
The percolating noise from the coffee machine grows louder. I head to the kitchen and pour the steaming liquid into three cups; all of them branded with a different European city. I set them on the glass table.
“I’m glad to hear that.” – my mother says, taking the Barcelona cup. “You know we support your every decision.”
“What about your job?” – my father asks.
“I gave my two weeks notice on Friday. Might have to stay for an additional week but we’ll see. The classes only start in February, so it’s fine.”
“And that other one?” – he asks. “Coca Cola, or what was it?”
“Planning to draft them an e-mail later today.” – I say.
“That stuff makes you miserable.” – my mother says. “It’s been making you miserable for a while.”
“I don’t see what’s so miserable about it.” – my father says, glancing at my mother. “But then again, I don’t know anything, so I suppose I shouldn’t interfere too much. How much is the school?”
“It’s a two-year programme.” – I say. “I’m pretty sure I can cover the first year. Might look for a scholarship or something in the second.”
“We’ll help you with whatever you need.” – he says, and takes a sip of the coffee. “Damn good coffee too. Fair skill to have in case these film studies don’t work out.”
“Hey!” – my mother shouts, elbowing him.
“Just kidding.” – he says and places his hand on my knee. “As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”
“I know.” – I say, looking at them both. “And thank you for that.”
“It’s time to go now, woman.” – he says, standing up. “We have a round of tedious conversations and pharmacy prescriptions to go through today.” – he then turns to me. “When I get old, just shoot me. Makes things easier for both.”
“Not for me.” – my mother says, jumping on his back, throwing her arms around him.
They laugh as he carries her to the hallway where they put on their coats. His is brown with a leather collar half-folded to the inside, hers is camel hair and freshly pressed. They go into a heated exchange of opinions on whether to take with them a pair of paper bags that are waiting by the door. Then they tell me they would like to see more of me over the next couple of weeks, and leave.
I continue drinking coffee with the television on. I flick through the dozen or so sports channels, most of them offering re-runs of Djokovic matches, and turn the television off. I look at my phone, at the date on it, and put it back in my pocket. I stand up and walk over to the window. Outside, snowflakes the size of plums are attacking the ground with increasing velocity. The cars along the nearby highway are slowing down, reacting to the growing blizzard. From behind my back I hear the soft hum of the radio. I approach it and turn the volume up. A Vaya Con Dios song is playing, the one about Puerto Rico. The music sounds capable of melting the ice off the window frames. I turn the volume further up and take a seat in one of the armchairs. I take my phone out and google the band’s name and I am slightly disappointed to learn it comes from Brussels and fully consists of Belgian members. The phone still in my hand, I look at the date again. Aie aie aie, Puerto Rico. I click on the WhatsApp icon and scroll down the contact list until I reach the letter N. Nataliya. There’s a photo next to it, the same one that’s been there every day for the last two months. I click on her name and confront a blank screen with a blinking vertical line at the bottom. I type and delete, type and delete. I type and delete. Then I type “Dear former colleague, happy birthday”, and click send.
I get up and walk around the apartment, in and out of every room. A different song is playing now; something soapy and cheerful. Something about Christmas. I hear it in my boyhood room that’s now been turned into a study zone for my sister. Medical textbooks are stacked on a wooden shelf above the work desk. The textbooks are thick and set in alphabetical order. I recall plenty more of my books fitting in the same space, none of them textbooks, and not in any particular order. A life-sized poster of the human body is hanging on the opposite wall. I follow the colorful network of blood vessels with my finger, from red to blue, from arteries to veins. Both spring from a junction in the middle of the torso. A shapeless, meaty, messy junction. I feel vibration in my pocket.
Nothing happy about turning 30, dear, former colleague. But thank you.
I read it again. And then again, appreciating the placement of commas.
I reply. Did the dreaded moment happen in Belgrade?
She responds immediately. Why do you ask?
I write back. Maybe I could make it better over a drink? (If I fail, perhaps the drink succeeds.)
A minute passes. I walk back to the living room and look out the window. The snow is steady and white. The cars are lining up on the highway, their windshield wipers staccato like.
A vibration again. It’s a call this time. I pick up.
“Are you sure you want to meet?” – she asks.
“Very much so.” – I say.
“How about now?” – she asks.
“You know that café made out of train cars?”
“In New Belgrade? Yeah.”
“That’s where I am.” – she says. “Come over.”
I hang up and go to the bathroom to take a look in the mirror. I regret cancelling the haircut appointment last week. While raiding the drawers for a hair product of any kind, I remember the toothpaste project my mother’s embarking on, and give up the search. In the hallway, the boots are far from dry when I put them on. They squeal across the tiled floor as I head to the living room for my car keys and wallet. I turn down the music telling me the fire is so delightful and exit the apartment.
There’s only a thin blanket of snow on the car. I start the engine and drive out, using the wipers for the windshield and powering the passenger windows up and down. The drive is short, but slow. I fail to see a single snow removal vehicle on the streets. The heater quickly warms the air on the inside enough for my breath to turn invisible. Then it gets too hot and I turn it off while searching for a parking spot. I find one in front of the café. I get out of the car and walk up the snow-covered stairs, hearing the ice underneath crack with every step.
The café consists of two train cars on the sides and a platform in the middle which serves as the bar. Thick cigarette smoke hangs everywhere around the room. I inform the waiter at the door that I’m meeting someone. A woman. He points me to the far end of the right train car. A second later she is in my view. She’s facing the window, wearing a black turtle neck sweater and a black bowler hat. Her blonde hair looks platinum in contrast, her lips blood red. There is a smile on her face when she turns her head and sees me. She then gets up and hugs me with caution, leaving enough space between us for another person. I catch a whiff of her perfume when she steps back.
“Mademoiselle.” – I say, sitting down. “You’re looking pretty.”
She smiles. “You’re just saying that because you didn’t see me in months.”
“Really?” – I ask. “Has it been months?”
The waiter comes over. She orders a cappuccino. I go for a bottle of sparkling water.
“Wow.” – she says. “Sparkling water?”
“Well as you said, it’s been months.”
“Liver acting up again?”
“I was the one who acted.” – I say. “The liver reacted. But I’ve been taking good care for some time now. It should be getting better soon.”
“I hope it does.” – she says. “You’re too young for all that. Don’t be stupid.”
The cappuccino and sparkling water are served.
“Too young, huh?” – I say, unscrewing the glass bottle and pouring the water. “I see someone’s already projecting their birthday blues.”
She looks down at the foamy milk, stirring it. “So, is there any more of the bad news, or?”
“Not really.” – I say. “I have only good ones lined up from here.”
“Yeah, well…” – I say. “You must remember how happy I was with my job?”
“I seem to vaguely recall.” – she says, half-smiling.
“So, I quit.” – I say. “I quit, and now I will probably be heading out of this lovely country of ours once again.”
“You got a job abroad?”
“No, nothing so exotic.” – I say. “I’m going to be a student again. I’ll be doing a film studies MA in Budapest.”
“Really?” – she asks.
“I think this is a good point in my life for something like that.” – I say. “I’ve done four years of work, tried out three different industries. It’s time to try something altogether different.” – I look her in the eyes. “Plus, it’s not like there’s anything keeping me here, is there?”
She breaks eye contact and brings the cup to her lips. She takes a sip and puts it down, leaving a red lipstick trace along the edge. She looks out the window, then back at me. She then stands up, folding what I now see is a black leather skirt as she rises.
“Will you excuse me?” – she says.
“I’ll be back in a minute.” – she says.
I watch her find her way to the toilet, her bubble skirt dancing like a deep-sea medusa fish, revealing long legs wrapped in tights.
There is only a handful of other guests in the café, unsurprising for lunch time on Sunday. Outside, the snowfall seems to be slowing down. The flakes landing on the window are smaller. They melt faster, almost on impact.
It startles me when she sits back down.
“Uhm,” – she says, narrowing her eyes. “I don’t know if it was such a smart idea for us to meet.”
“Why?” – I ask, wanting to take her hand in mine.
“I didn’t know about your plans.” – she says. “When you texted me today.”
“Well there was hardly a way for you to know.”
“There was something else I wanted to talk about.” – she says. “And now I’m no longer sure if I should.”
“Did something happen?” – I ask.
She looks away.
“Wait,” – I say. “Don’t tell me that…”
“Don’t tell me you left him?” – I ask, glancing at the ring on her finger.
“I did not leave him.” – she says, looking down at her cup.
I see a tear glisten in the corner of her eye. I see it grow until it bursts and rolls down her cheek.
“That’s not it.” – she adds, wiping the wetness, sniffling briskly. “No, that’s not it.”
“So what is it?” – I say. “Tell me, sissy.”
She lifts her head up. “You didn’t notice anything strange?”
“Strange?” – I ask. “About you?”
“No.” – I say, confused, taking a longer look at her hands and face. “I told you, hey, you look great.”
“I don’t seem pregnant to you?” – she then asks.
I look her in the eyes, then down at the table, following an imaginary line across its surface, from her end to my end. Then I look in her eyes again.
“Well...” – I say. “You don’t.”
“Well, I am.” – she says. “I’m pretty fucking pregnant.”
“Is that so?” - I ask, now leaning back in the chair. “And when will the merry young couple be graced with the latest addition?”
“In five months.” – she says, looking me in the eyes. “Give or take.”
I lean forward.
“Wait,” – I say, struggling to keep my counting correct. “That means you got pregnant in… August?”
“That’s what the doctor says.”
“But that means... I mean, it cannot be that it’s…”
I feel my chest caving. “Yes?”
“Well here’s the thing.” – she says, leaning forward, resting her elbows on the table, setting her hands into a flexing Merkel diamond. “It could be.”
“But we only had…” – I start to speak, then notice my level of loudness. I fake cough and silence my tone. “We only did it once?”
“So you think once is not enough?”
“No.” – I say. “Of course it’s enough, it’s just that…”
“Look, we, we weren’t careful.” – she says, looking down at her fingers, tearing away at a hangnail. “And you know I didn’t have a particularly active sex life with him during that period.”
“It sure felt like that.” – I say, starting to smile.
“Wrong timing.” – she says, staring me down.
“I know.” – I say. “Sorry. But does he know?”
“That I’m pregnant?”
“He does.” – she says. “He was with me when I found out. He was ecstatic about it.”
We look at each other. I hear the clinking of glasses from the bar, the indistinct chatter from one of the other tables. The sound of doors opening and closing.
“And what about you?” – I ask. “How did you feel?”
She takes a deep breath. “Strange.”
“Strange?” – I say. “Good strange, or bad strange?”
“Just strange.” – she says. “I did not want another child. And definitely not now.”
“Did you think about… you know?”
“I would never do that.” – she says. “I’d rather tie my tubes into a knot then go for an abortion. And I think that’s exactly what I’ll do as soon as this is over.”
“Wait.” – I say, working through the information. “I don’t understand.”
“What? Contraceptive medical procedures?”
“No.” – I say. “I don’t understand why… why are you telling me all this then? I mean, if he knows you’re pregnant and doesn’t doubt anything, and if you already decided to give birth…”
She listens to me, finishing her cappuccino, then takes time in setting her cup down.
“Well first of all, it’s your right to know.” – she says. “Second, you called me today. If you didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have told you. Third, you have a part in this too, now.”
My mouth goes dry. I pour out the rest of the water and drink it down.
“Is that why you called me?” – I ask. “Back in October?”
“No.” – she says. “I didn’t even know at the time. I called you because I wanted to see you.”
I smile. She smiles.
“Ok.” – I say, lighting a cigarette. “So where do we go from here?”
“That’s up to you.” – she says.
“If you want to know more, you can.” – she says, shrugging her shoulders. “I asked around.”
“A paternity test?”
“Yes.” – she says. “The most reliable one is at the Faculty of Biology apparently. They swab your cheek for DNA, they do the same with me, and then come out with results two or three days later.”
“Ok.” – I say, inhaling the smoke. “Fuck, okay.”
“There’s a slight timeline problem though.” – she says. “That’s why I was glad we could meet right away.”
“You’re going somewhere?”
“Tonight.” – she says. “He’s taking me for a birthday trip.”
“For how long?”
“A little over two weeks.” – she says. “Two weeks in Dominican Republic and then a couple of nights in Paris on the stopovers. We’re back January 2nd.”
“So,” – I say. “We can’t do it before then?”
“Are you even sure that you want to do it?”
Shaking my head, I put out the cigarette.
“I can’t imagine not doing it.” – I say. “I can’t imagine not knowing.”
“You don’t have to decide right now.” – she says. “You have two more weeks. God knows I’m not even sure I want you to do it.”
“I am sure that I want to leave it up to you.” – she says. “I am sure that it’s your decision at this point. I’m just not sure what I want your decision to be.”
I reach for another cigarette, then decide not to take it.
“And what if it is mine?” – I ask, playing around with the cigarette pack.
“Well then we’re going to have to make some decisions together.” – she says. “Unless by now you’re deeply regretting getting in touch with me today.”
“It’s funny.” – I say as her eyes meet mine. “But I’m not.”
“Maybe not yet.” – she says, turning towards the window. “Give it time.”
The snowfall is now hardly visible. There are still no service vehicles on the streets. The traffic is heavier. I sense tobacco smell emanating from the texture of my sweater. I take it off and place it over the back of the chair. I pull on my t-shirt, feeling the air rush against my skin. I feel my underarms drenched in sweat, glad that the t-shirt is black so it’s not obvious. We sit across each other in silence. I look at her, remembering the last time I saw her face. Then I remember every other time. She was never this beautiful.
“I missed you sissy.” – I then say.
She smiles. “I missed you too.” – she says. “At times I couldn’t believe how much.”
“That’s just your bewildered hormones speaking now.”
She smiles again. “What else?”
The waiter comes over and informs us his shift is coming to an end. He asks if there’s anything else we’d like to order. Nataliya says she will be leaving soon. I ask him for the check.
“Are you parked close by?” – I ask.
“Mhm.” – she says. “Right behind the café.”
“What were you doing around here anyway?”
“Doctor’s appointment.” – she says, smiling. “Everything is fine, by the way.”
“Really?” – I say. “That’s good. That’s… good.”
“You know, chances are it’s his.” – she says. “I went back and checked when it happened between me and you. We missed the ovulation period and all that.”
“But I just did that 4D ultrasound and he has such a big head that I’m not sure anymore.”
She smirks. “I missed that look on your face.”
The waiter brings the check. I then help her with her coat, while remarking that there’s no bump I can see. She reacts with a curtsy and I proceed to follow her outside. We stop at the bottom of the stairs.
“Have a good time in the Caribbean.” – I say. “It’s nice this time of year.”
“I know.” – she says. “You told me about it.”
“It’s no Cuba though.”
“But Paris is not too bad.” – she says. “Don’t you think?”
I smile and give her a hug. I hold her, feeling her hands tight on my back. I inhale deeply, through the nose, and kiss her behind the ear. She steps back.
“So,” – I say, as she turns to leave. “January 4th?”
“Plenty of time to think.” – she says, and walks away.
I watch her. Her steps are short and careful, and her hair now yellow blonde, contrasted against the brightness of snow. She is soon gone behind the train car, without turning back. Her perfume lingers in the air.
I turn and look at the stairs of the café, at my footprints on them. The ones I made on entering are snowed in. The ones I made now are deep and distinct. I take the remaining couple of steps to my car. It’s freezing inside. I rub my hands together and turn the ignition, blasting the heater on max. I then take my phone out and scroll down Inbox until I find the e-mail I’m searching for. I click on reply and write phrases such as “kindly asking” and “due to unforeseen personal issues” and “a two-week extension for responding to your offer”. I indicate my “gratitude and excitement”, as well as “compliments on behalf of the whole process”, before adding the seasonal greetings and clicking ‘send’. It is warm again now. I dial down the heater.
I drive out of the parking spot and advance down the street, towards the traffic light. The green light starts to blink as I approach it. I speed up on the first blink, but then feel the tires spinning on ice, and slow down on the second. I bring the car to a stop as the light turns yellow and red. I watch the windshield defrost fully. I look at the cars in other lanes. I think of arteries and veins, and big, messy junctions.