“This place is not really a club of any kind.” – I hear the disappointed guy at the other table say to his friend. “It’s just a café.”
I get the confusion. World Travelers Club is what the sign says, first at street level, in the intercom position reserved for a last name, and then again down in the basement, discreetly nailed to a wooden door. I suspect these cues form certain expectations in the mind of a first-time visitor. But once you take a seat at one of the coffee tables spread around the low-lit, crimson colored interior, you realize you will quickly be offered a drink or a snack and left to the usual routine of being a customer. No other questions asked, no authorization required, no cloaks or daggers to speak of.
At a corner table, beneath a floor lamp, I stir my second double espresso, feeling the sweat on my fingers as the little plastic spoon threatens to slide out of my grasp. There’s also a presence of caffeine induced shakiness in my hand when I bring the cup to my lips. I set it down and take a look at the screen of my phone. Nothing there. I light a cigarette. I look around the walls.
It actually was something like a club, this café, although I never personally witnessed that. I know this because one of its co-founders told me so, a couple of years ago when he was trying to wiggle out a sponsorship deal from the brewing company I worked for. He told me about the idea he and his partners had during the nineties when, due to sanctions, it was hard for a Serbian national to travel anywhere. Their plan was to encourage the few of their friends who had this precious ability to bring a souvenir or two from their trips abroad. These eclectic items would then be put on display in the café, regardless of where they came from and what they were, as long as they helped generate an atmosphere of Belgrade’s unwavering place in the world, while giving the visitors at least a taste of what they’re otherwise prevented to dine on. Those bringing the items were then recognized as members, and together they constituted the forever informal club. The context in which I was told this history implied that as people started to travel again, the idea lost its allure, and now it continued to function solely as a café. An often-deserted café, perfect for meetings that require no audience.
Thoughts keep trucking along.
I put out the cigarette and check my phone again. I only see four digits telling me that it’s 19:47h, and the wallpaper – a freeze frame of Monica Vitti’s silhouette from La Notte. I place the phone back on the table. An African mask, its eye sockets hollow and dark, its surface painted in red and white lines, observes me from the wall across the room. I have no idea which specific culture or country or region it comes from, but I do remember seeing a similar one in a furniture store close to my apartment. On the same wall, hanging next to it, there’s another something, also with some colors and wood and feathers and whatnot.
Where is she?
Where the fuck is she?
We went to give samples individually, an hour apart from each other, so that no one sees us together at such a place. A good idea, considering the unexpected size of the crowd I found there. Waiting in line, I wondered if the children that were to come would ever find out about the net cord position they were in. Like tennis balls, suspended mid-air, between solutions and dissolutions, tools for settling the score before they even entered the game. The procedure – a swab stroke on the inside of my cheek – was quick and painless, unlike what its results were to bring, whatever it was. In two days, “no later”.
It’s been three days now. The text came last night, about us meeting today. I was to pick the place. She picked the time. 19:00h.
I call for the waitress and order a rakija.
“Which one?” – she asks.
I get the plum, apparently recommended by the bartender. I taste it. It’s strong. It’s been a while. I drink it in two sips and order a refill with compliments to the bartender. The waitress smiles and goes to fetch another one from the bar.
“Are you waiting for someone?” – she asks when she brings it.
“Still?” – she asks, twisting the tray in her hands.
“I like waiting.”
“If you say so.” – she says, smiles, then leaves.
An older Yugoslav rock song comes on the speakers. “Life is sometimes grey, sometimes grey, sometimes yellow...”
I take time with the second rakija. The disappointed guy and his friend leave. I am the only guest in the café now. Membership turns exclusive.
Then the phone sounds off with a text. I look away from it, at the African mask on the wall. I stare at its wide black sockets. Peripheral vision helps me see the screen of the phone darken. I let the moment go on for a little while longer, then take a deep breath, click, and read.
Where are you? You left early. – it says.
It’s from Karlo.
You gotta let us give you a send-off motherfucker.
From Karlo again, in succession.
I make the move to put the phone down and then see the screen light up again. At arm’s length, I see one message displayed. One sentence. Three words. I read it again. Then again and again. The words stick out three-dimensionally, organically, like they exist around me, enveloping me. Like they are not just liquid crystals engineered along a flat surface, made to ease the flow of information. Like they are not just that.
It was yours.
Then another message arrives.
I thought I could see you, but I can’t. I’m sorry. It’s done.
My hand, my arm, my body. They feel weightless. Alien. My eyes remain fixed on the screen. At the two messages, one atop the other. Their reversed order does not change their meaning. Nothing changes their meaning.
It was mine.
I think of calling her.
Then I do. Her phone is ringing.
It was mine.
No, it wasn’t. How could it have been? She said we missed the ovulation and all that. And my little soldiers could not have been in too good of a shape. They were tired, exhausted from all those habits and things I should stop doing. They were pushing through the mud, capable of anything but being fertile. Drinking, smoking, drugs, all that shit’s not good for that battle, not good at all. Everyone says that.
The phone keeps ringing.
There was some kind of a mix up at the Faculty. There must have been. Fucking state-funded institutions, you could never trust them. The politicians, the police, the health workers, they’re all rotten in this country. They had a ton of work to do that day so they decided to play around a bit, kick the boredom, like those guys in Once Upon a Time in America, when they switched those babies around. Yes, it’s a little different when it comes to laboratory samples, and yes, there was nothing to switch around, but…
The phone stops ringing.
I call again. The call is rejected. I then get a text.
Please don’t call. I have nothing to say to you now. I’m sorry.
She’s sorry. Well I guess that settles it. No need for me to get into my car now and drive up to her house, ring the doorbell, and ask for a talk. Or crash through the door and demand it. But there’s no need for that, if she’s sorry. There was no need for me to know anything. No need to know how or why she did it without telling me a damn thing, or who did it and where, or when it happened. Was it today? This morning while I was snoozing the alarm clock? Was it yesterday? Was it done at a reclusive, dodgy, paperwork-free establishment? Was it a veterinarian who did it, between office hours? Or was it done at one of the clinics, all neat and professional, by someone my mother and father know? And did anyone ask about the father, anyone’s father? Who was in the room? Was there a heartbeat? Did anyone listen to it turn to silence?
Did anyone care?
“Are you okay?”
“You look pale.” – the waitress, who asked the question, says. “I just came to tell you the next drink’s on the house, if you want it.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’ll have one at the bar.” – I say and reach behind my back, trying to remember where I left my coat.
She retreats to the adjacent room, where the bar is. Still blindly reaching, my fingers then feel the fabric of the coat on the back rest. I put it on and remain seated, with my phone in my hand. I try to make myself think of how Nataliya feels. I can’t.
I stand up and go to the bar.
There, the waitress is sitting on a stool with an open book in her lap. She continues to read without noticing me. She then dog-ears a page and closes the book. It’s a copy of Dostoevsky, The Idiot.
“Do you need the check?” – she asks.
“Just the total is fine.”
She gives me the number.
“And you get one on the house.” – she says, gesturing for the bartender to pour me a glass.
I count the money, pay, and down the served rakija. The liquid leaves a burning trail down my throat, and then reaches the stomach where a pleasant warmth begins to radiate.
“So,” – she says. “No sign of her in the end?”
In the street, a strong wind sets the direction in which I walk. Its support eases the slight climb alongside the National Theatre, next to the promotional posters of its old shows hidden behind unlit glass panels, and on to its adorned anterior facing the Republic Square. At the Vasina street crossing, in front of the theatre, the scurrying crowd of people carries me forward; the eagerness to kick off the weekend visibly dictating the pace of their steps. Their goal, I know, the square itself. The city’s main meeting point, “the horse”, resting under the watchful eye of Prince Mihajlo and his equine escort who inspired the nickname. I walk over to the monument and light a cigarette using its base as shelter from the wind. I then lean my back against it and take time smoking.
Public transport buses come and go, delivering more and more of the individuals who each take their place at a spot on the square and busy themselves on their smartphones, pretending something else is on their mind except the implications of the time at which they came and the person they came to meet but isn’t there yet; is it too early, or is it too late, were they here and left, or are they not coming at all, how did they look like, what was it that they said. He had a beard I remember, and a car he’s not allowed to use on weekends, a company car. She had a mole under her right eye, or was it left, I don’t know but she smiled a lot at whatever I said, she must’ve liked me, why is she not here then. Does he know that I have a boyfriend already, did I tell him, should I tell him now. I hope she won’t have more than two or three drinks, I’m already short for this month’s rent, I’ll have to text the old man again, he said the summer was good for crops, plus I’ve been sending him all the money from the gigs, he paid for the guitar after all. Who does he think he is, making me wait like this, only because we fucked the night we met, that must be the reason, well we’ll see who will be waiting for what from now on, if he shows up, and if he doesn’t grab my thigh the way he did at that party when I was coming out of the bathroom, that really felt good, thank god the bathroom was warm, the house was not. Why did she ask me to meet here, maybe she expected me to propose something more original, like that new place where they drink everything out of jars and everything’s organic and jihad is declared on gluten, and I didn’t, and now this is her way of telling me that. Why did he ask me to meet here, doesn’t he know this place is only for poor people and students. When is he coming, when is she coming, is he coming, is she coming.
The cigarette is burned to the filter. I throw it away and call Karlo.
He tells me they’ve been drinking since they finished with work and that I should join them. They’re at Publin, the watering hole down the street from the office. We’re going clubbing later, most likely at Gajba. I tell him I’m coming. He relays this to his surroundings and they reply with speaker-bursting enthusiasm.
On my way there I call Marko and ask him to join. He says he’s staying in, he wants to get in shape again, the last time he went running he got tired fast, and besides, he doesn’t feel comfortable hanging out with my work clique. I tell him I didn’t know I had such a clique. He tells me I know what he meant. Then I call Alex, my friend from high school who’s now a DJ. He tells me he’ll join, but later on, probably at the club.
The wind does not relent, enhancing the sickly feeling that’s been building inside me since the rakija started wearing off. I hail a cab.
The drive is short and quick, just as the first drink I consume upon entering the pub. It’s a bourbon, Four Roses I gather, from the near-empty bottle on the table. The crowd is a mix of genders, ages, and seniority levels. They scorn me for almost not taking part in this revelry, on my last day. One of them is Monika, eyeing me the same way she’s been doing for the last three months, whenever we ran into each other outside the confines of the office. Like she would prefer these moments weren’t coincidental.
“Where the hell were you?” – Karlo asks, patting me on the shoulder.
“Just here and there.” – I say. “Tying up some loose ends.”
“And the hitman of the year award goes to…” – he says, toasting to me with a shot glass of whiskey.
Three of the people at the table start taking selfies with each other, two men and one woman – the one whose birthday was so spectacularly celebrated in Slovenia, in the garden maze. Twelve years of law school then smile at the camera, holding out two fingers in front of their chests, under a peculiar angle, and the light flashes. The moment is safe. Karlo pours us another shot glass each. The bottle is gone.
“So what are you going to do now?” – he asks. “Decided yet?”
“Apart from getting shitfaced?”
This brings out cheers at the table.
“I mean in life.” – he adds.
“I’ll think about that tomorrow.” – I say.
“Karlo told me you thought of going to film school?” – Monika intrudes, from two chairs away.
“Not really.” – I say. “It’s more on the academic track, what I had in mind.”
“I think it’s brave either way.” – she says.
“I’d love to be doing something like that.” – Karlo adds.
“You have to graduate for that first.” – one of the guys, the intern from the bus in Slovenia, who’s no longer an intern, tells him, causing the laughter of others to spread.
We make a group decision to switch to beer, since another bottle of whiskey would cut the night short.
A couple of buckets of cold Stella later, my phone rings while I’m urinating. It’s Alex and he’s telling me we should hurry up because the line at the entrance is getting longer. He’s already there and he says he’s got a present for me. I come back to the table, irritated that the last few drops soaked my underwear, and deliver the news. There’s five of us left: Monika, the birthday girl, the ex-intern, Karlo, and me, requiring two cabs to be called. In front of the pub, Monika says she’s riding with me.
A dirty white Fiat drives up to the curb. The air inside the car is hot and smells of rotten tobacco and sweat. A big wooden cross is hanging from the rear-view mirror with a dozen orthodox rosaries hugging it, like leftover points from a game of ring toss. The driver is talking on the phone, dissatisfied with this night’s Premier League results, swearing lavishly. Monika leans into me on the back seat, telling me how cold she is.
“Remember the last time we were in this situation?”
She starts to kiss my neck. “Is this helping your memory?”
“It doesn’t need any help.” – I say.
“I’d like to believe that.” – she says.
She then takes my hand and brings it up her skirt, where the temperature is very warm. “How about this?” – she asks.
I pull my hand back and face the window.
“Look,” – I say. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Not yet?” – she asks. “Or not at all?”
“I don’t know.” – I say.
She moves away from me, sliding to the other side of the backseat.
“Stop the car please.” – she then says to the driver.
“What?” – he asks, removing the phone from his ear.
“Please stop the car.” – she says. “I’d like to get out here.”
“Where are you going?” – I ask.
“Don’t pretend to care.” – she says, as the car stops and she opens the door.
“Hey-” – I say, and the door shuts in my face.
We drive on. I smell my hand and think of the first time I was introduced to this scent. In a bus, I think it was, on the way back from a class ski-trip in seventh grade. Or was it eighth. She was thirteen, I remember that, because I kept telling her that she’s a bad girl for letting me do that, and she said what age is better to be bad than thirteen.
Thirteen. Fucking kids.
It was yours.
“That’ll be 700 dinars.”
I pay and leave the car, welcoming the fresh air of Karadjordjeva street. Alex was right about the line – a cue of people is already forming at the entrance. I take my phone to give him a call, but when I see Nataliya’s name on the call log, I click on it instead. In place of a ringing tone, I get the recorded service message. A male voice, informing me that the user is not reachable.
“There you are.”
I turn and see Alex, a short, wavy-haired man with a big grin on his face.
“Where would I be?” – I say, smiling.
“So good to see you.” – he says, throwing his arm around me. “It’s been months.”
The second cab pulls up and the rest of the group comes out. They ask about Monika and I tell them she had somewhere else to be tonight. Then Alex exchanges some words with the bouncers and leads us through the entrance of the building.
The building contains four different clubs: Gajba, Mladost, Ludost, Gadost. They are spread across three floors, and each has a name and concept of its own, with the movement between them freely available. Gajba is on the top floor, and so we go through a dark narrow passage at the end of which are the stairs. We walk past Mladost and Ludost, the two-ground floor located clubs, and peek over Gadost, the one in the basement. They’re all full, they’re all loud. We climb.
Gajba is also chock-full, but under a more casual atmosphere, helped by its grungy approach to art-deco, with a low ceiling, carpeted flooring, leather furniture, and wooden floor lamps dimmed to the minimum. Our table is right next to the bar, with a sofa of our own and a pair of armchairs on the sides. The three of them take the sofa and Alex and I take the chairs. Not drunk enough yet, I propose we order a bottle of whiskey. Others agree and soon a bottle of Jameson is coming our way. The loud music, Sly & the Family Stone I think, interferes with the birthday girl’s efforts at conversation, and this makes it easier to for me to enjoy my first glass, as I nod my head the whole time, and gather only that a friend of hers is coming soon. As she falls back into the sofa, deciding that Karlo might have something verbal to offer for a change, Alex draws his chair closer to me and suggests a visit to the toilet. His unflagging grin, coupled with a sparkle in his eye as he says it, reveals everything I need to know. I tell him to lead the way.
We push through the crowd, towards the back of the club where we see three other men cueing to get in.
“There’s enough for everyone.” – Alex whispers to me, as we wait. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m not worried.”
“It’s really good shit.” – he says, winking emphatically.
The three men in front of us go in together, and come out minutes later, avoiding eye contact. Then Alex and I get in and he asks for my phone – it has a bigger screen than his. I give him the phone and he takes a small plastic bag out of his underwear, putting it against the light, flicking it with his finger.
“Look at this beautiful fucking rock.” – he says, then adds. “You got a credit card or something?”
“When are you going to get one?” – I ask, giving him mine.
“What else would I use it for?” – he replies.
He then crushes a piece of the rock into powder across the surface of my phone and forms two hefty lines vertically along the middle.
“Go for it.” – he says, holding the phone in his hand. “Tell me how it is.”
I roll a 1000 dinar note, thinking of everywhere it’s been and everyone who touched it, and lean over the screen, ingesting the entire line through my right nostril. I then lean my head back and snort a couple of times, until I feel it in the back of my throat.
“This is some good fucking blow.” – I say.
“I told you.” – he says.
“Not sure I ever said anything else right after.” – I say.
He nudges the phone in my hand, then does the same, and we get out, as one of the men in waiting in front grabs my shoulder and says “at least flush next time”.
Back at the table, Karlo asks me where I’ve been the whole time.
“I was blowing him.” – I say, making a wiping gesture across my mouth.
Birthday girl’s friend is here and she laughs at this. I introduce myself to her. She’s fairly good looking, a little over-reliant on make-up, with brown hair and a pair of what seem to be prescriptionless glasses, which make her look smarter or dumber depending on the beholder. She’s fairly drunk.
I turn to Alex and tell him to spread the joy with Karlo and the others.
“Are you sure?” – Karlo mouths across the table, then comes over to speak in my ear. “I can’t pay you now.”
I wave him off and pour a glass of whiskey. The birthday girl’s friend, whose name I can’t remember, says she wants a whiskey too.
“Shots?” – I ask.
“Okay.” – she says.
We drink them and I pour another two. She says she’ll skip this one. I don’t, insatiably throwing back both. She asks me what I do. I tell her today was my last day at work, that’s what we’re celebrating, and that I’m going to take a break now because I want to, you know, stand back a bit and look at my options, considering how young I got into the whole thing and how successful I was. “Really?” – she asks. Then I tell her about my start in advertising, where I did that campaign that she must’ve heard of, it picked up a bunch of awards and raised a fair amount of controversy in the press too, the one about young people and the TV commercial that had those scenes of a guy masturbating under a blanket, a girl eating a worm, hippies stealing corn, and a threesome featuring a guy and two girls naked in the bathtub. “Only for those under 30 was the name of the campaign.” – I say in one breath, as the bitter residue comes down my throat.
“I can’t really remember.” – she says.
She then tells me how she just graduated from law school and how she’s thinking of interning somewhere, but she’s not sure where, although our company seems great to her because it’s so international and she’d love to travel as part of her work, and then she talks about her university and about some people she thinks we both know and how this club is such a nice place, “it’s so different, you know?”
Then I tell her how the campaign I told her about made me famous in the relevant circles and how my next job was in the marketing department of one of the biggest brewing companies in the world, but how I found that boring after a while, too much finance and budgeting and all that, and so I quit, and then started working for a law firm because if everything is boring and useless I might as well make some more money, right, and now I quit again because, you know, I mean, everything considered, you know, it doesn’t make much sense.
“Yeah.” – she says. “I know what you mean.”
Alex taps me on the shoulder, mimicking a go for another round, and I tell her I’ll be back in a minute. In the toilet, we draw another fat one each, then another couple of smaller lines. Then we rub some on our gums and pick at the leftovers off the screen, before licking them from our fingers.
“So, what are you going to do now?” – Alex asks, still rubbing his teeth.
“I don’t know man.” – I say. “But it’s all good. It’s all going to be good.”
“Yeah?” – he says.
“It’s so good to see you man.” – he says and grins. “It’s been months.”
I flush the toilet and we get out.
At the table I have to remove Karlo’s hand from the birthday girl’s leg in order to give him the little bag. The two of them then go together, vacating the sofa. I take their place, inviting her friend to come over. Lana, that’s the name, I now remember. I pour another whiskey and light a cigarette. I smoke and drink as she starts talking about her search for an internship again, telling me how it’s really hard to find a good job today, despite how good her grades were, and that maybe she’ll start working in her father’s law firm, if nothing else works out, although she’d prefer to make something of herself rather than do that, but this way she can at least help him out.
“Do you want some blow?” – I ask, noticing that Karlo came back.
“Do you have some?”
I take the little bag, grab her hand, and head for the toilet. When I see the cue in front, I tell her we should maybe go to the one downstairs, between Mladost and Ludost, maybe there’s less of a crowd there. She agrees.
It’s the same downstairs.
I start climbing back up, but Lana tells me it may be better if we wait here.
“I’m going to get us a drink while we wait.” – I say.
“Okay.” – she says. “I’m good though.”
She confirms and I go to Ludost, where I join the people dancing at the bar, shaking my ass at the waitress that’s trying to walk past me with a tray full of glasses. She smiles and pretends to spank me. All of us around start throwing high fives. I order a shot of whiskey and a beer and unbutton my shirt further. I dance some more, unselfconsciously, then turn around and go back to the toilet stalls. Lana points me to the one where the doors are opening. A person walks out and she takes the stall, leaving the door open for me to enter, and I do that a moment later, immediately pulling out the little bag from my pocket. I chip away at the rock, half-worriedly registering its diminished size, and serve up the dish on my phone. She goes first, then I take mine.
“Mmm…” – she murmurs, rubbing her nose. “That’s good coke.”
“You know,” – she says. “Coke makes me horny sometimes.”
“Is that so?”
“Could this be one of those inopportune times?”
She leans forward, pecks me on the lips, and opens the stall.
“Maybe.” – she says, stepping out.
I get a number of inquisitive looks on the other side of the door, which cause a momentary sense of great pride. Lana says she thinks it’s more of a party down here and that maybe we should stick around for a while before going back up. I tell her there’s a cool group of people in Ludost and that’s where we go, straight to the bar where all the high-fivers greet me like we’ve known each other for decades. The faces are a blur, apart from the smiles on them which are prominent and everywhere around. Lana takes the beer from my hand and drinks it, then looks at me and slowly licks the tip of the bottle. I put my arm around her waist and bring her closer. She shoves her tongue in my mouth, and I do the same, removed from any physical sensation, feeling only the growing presence of saliva as time lapses. I put my hand on her ass, over the tight jeans that she’s wearing, and squeeze hard, every squeeze followed by a squeeze of her own on the back of my head. She steps back and looks me in the eyes.
“Ask me that question again.” – she says.
I have no idea what she’s referring to, so I start kissing her again.
“Mmm…” – I feel her approving mumble under my lips, the mumble fusing with the deep bass lines.
“How about another bump?” – she then whispers in my ear, biting it lightly.
“That’s what I want to hear Saint Peter say.”
“But let’s go down to Gadost.” – she says.
“I’m in the mood for something harder.” – she says, the tip of her tongue playing with my ear, helping me register the double entendre.
I let her lead the way to the basement, to Gadost.
A dark cauldron of heat and humidity and tobacco, playing the kind of music liable to give results in Guantanamo. It’s loud and wet and crowded everywhere, and Lana’s leading me towards the stalls where, to my surprise, there’s not a living soul around. We take the middle one of the three and start wrestling tongues again. She grabs my crotch, massaging it.
“Looks like someone needs a bit of help.” – she then says.
“Don’t you first want to…?” – I ask, shaking the little bag.
“Oh, you do your thing.” – she says, kneeling down. “I’ll do mine.”
She then unbuckles my jeans, pulls down the underwear, and takes me in her mouth. I feel nothing but slight warmth enveloping my complete flaccidity. She keeps working at it, every movement of her mouth and tongue only increasing the sense of numbness. I take the phone and hold it above her head, tapping on the little bag, hoping for the powder to come out without me crushing it. I snort what’s fallen out and start tapping the bag again.
“I think you already overdid it.” – I hear her voice from below, her hand now committed to the fruitless stroking.
“How about a time-out?” – I say, trying to pull out the card from my wallet.
She rises up and wipes her mouth. I begin crushing the rock again, slightly tottering back and forward, unable to stop moving, with my jeans down at my knees and my dick hanging out. I keep snorting and clenching my jaw. Both of my hands are shaking as she watches me make the first line.
Then the screen lights up.
It’s a text message. It’s from the mobile operator. I turn the phone to read, spilling most of the powder in the process.
“Hey, watch it!” – I hear Lana yell.
It says the user I was trying to dial is now reachable again.
I read the message again, with my jeans at my knees and my dick hanging out in a toilet stall.
I look at the time. Almost 4.
What if she calls?
I pull up my jeans and underwear and give Lana the little bag.
“I have to go.” – I say and exit the stall.
I push through the crowd, quickly and carelessly, only keeping my eyes at the stairs in the distance. This motivates a couple of guys lacking in female company to ask me what the fuck do I think I’m doing, before one of them pushes me and I fall down, feeling my clothes soak the dirt and wetness from the floor. I stand up, trying to take control of my feet, then walk around the provoked bunch, and slower this time, find my way to the ground floor.
Upstairs, I start pacing the hallway, clutching the phone in my hand, crashing into people, grinding my teeth, sweating. Sweating like a fucking rapist, as Jason Statham says in that retarded film. Reachable again. That means she just turned her phone on. That she couldn’t sleep. That maybe she does have something to say. Right know she’s sitting in her living room, trying not to make a sound and wake her daughter, looking at her phone, thinking of calling me. Thinking of calling me and telling me it was all a prank that went too far. A test or something. She wanted to see how I would react in case something like that was true, and now she’s satisfied I didn’t do anything stupid, and she wants to tell me that. Everything will be fine. Everything is good.
But that doesn’t make much sense.
Other things make more sense.
For example, she turned the phone off so I would stop calling her. That’s what she did, and that’s what I did. Why would she be needing the phone at all, when she’s at home with her daughter and her husband, the only two people she could be getting important calls from. She spent the evening with them and went to sleep. She only got up now because the girl started crying, having pissed or shat himself during the night, and then bored while she’s lulling her back to sleep, she turned the phone on to look at furniture on Pinterest and Instagram posts of people leading a different kind of life than her. This kind of life, I think, and still pace, pace up and down the hallway.
“Hey man.” – someone says to me, grabbing my shoulder. “There you are.”
It’s the ex-intern. He’s looking at me, smiling at me.
“Are you okay?” – he asks.
“I’m good.” – I say, trying to smile. “I’m good.”
“Did something happen?”
I imagine answering this question truthfully.
That manages to make me smile.
“No, man.” – I say. “Everything is fine.”
“Good to hear, good to hear.” – he says, then adds. “Well I’m on my way, it’s getting pretty late.”
“Yes it is.” – I say, looking at a non-existent watch on my hand. “Pretty fucking late.”
“What is it that you’ll be doing now?” – he then asks. “I didn’t catch that.”
“I don’t know.” – I say, then breathe out. “I guess I’ll see how it goes.”
“Yeah?” – he says, smiling again. “Well whatever it is, I wish you all the best man, I really do.”
“Thanks.” – I say. “Thanks for that.”
“De nada.” – he says, and leaves.
I light a cigarette and lean onto the wall, trying to calm myself enough to stop with the jittering. I look at the people walking around, talking, moving in and out of clubs, in and out of each other’s embrace. I remember Lana, somewhere downstairs, chipping at the rock probably. Karlo, god knows where he is, he lives too far from here to take anyone home without them thinking they’re being held for ransom. Maybe the birthday girl has a place around here. That would be the best option, I suppose. It’s going to get a little awkward on Monday, but that’s hardly new for anyone, and I won’t be there to witness it. Monday. What a hateful fucking day.
I smoke, savagely pulling on the cigarette.
Then I throw it on the ground, step on it, and call Marko.
“Hello?” – he grunts.
“Hey man, you up?”
“What?” – he asks.
“I woke you, huh? Did I wake you?”
“No.” – he says, his voice gaining clarity. “I was getting ready to bake some bread for the people of the neighborhood.”
“Yeah well, sorry.”
“Well now I’m up, so what is it?”
“Are you working next week?”
“No man.” – he says. “I told you, we have collective time off for the holidays.”
“That’s right.” – I say. “It’s Christmas tomorrow.”
“Well technically, it’s today.” – he says. “Merry fucking Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas man.”
“Is this why you called me? To talk about the holidays?”
“No.” – I say. “Something else.”
“I was thinking we should go to Budapest.”
“Yeah, well I was…”
“Now.” – I say.
“I want to go right now, I want to get the fuck out of here.”
“Go home man.”
“I’m serious Marko.”
“Go home and lay off the bottle.”
“Look,” – I say, feeling my voice break from something. “I need your help, okay?”
He pauses. “What are you talking about?”
I bite into the back of my hand, hard. A drop of dark blood surfaces on the skin, like a freshly drilled oil well.
“Are you there?” – he asks.
“It was mine, Marko.”
A longer pause.
“What do you mean was?” – he then asks.
“Just what I said.” – I say. “She said she took care of it. She took care of it, and now... now there’s nothing else to take care of I guess.”
“What?” – he says. “How did… when… what else she did she say?”
“Look, we’ll talk, we’ll talk and I’ll tell you about it, but now I need you to listen to me.”
“I’m going to Budapest, I’m going to move there, and I’m going to move now.”
“Are you sure?” – he says. “You don’t really sound like a man who should be making decisions right now.”
“I’m pretty damn sure about this.”
“Okay, fuck. Shoot.”
“Get dressed, throw some shit into a backpack, and take a cab here to pick me up.”
“Where is here?”
“Mladost, Ludost, where all this crap is.”
“Okay.” – he says.
“We’ll go to my place, take my car, my stuff, and we’re going. I need to find a place there anyway, and it’s not like it’s the end of the world, you know, it’s like 400 kilometers or something, right, and I’ll just settle and all, and then you can go back with my car whenever you want to. I just need to go, I…”
“I understand.” – he says.
“Thank you.” – I say. “I owe you a big one.”
“You don’t owe me anything man.” – he says. “Just keep it together until I get there. Go for a walk or something.”
“I might do that.”
“Only don’t forget to tell me where you’re walking.” – he says.
“I might go down to the river. I just hope the sun won’t rise before we’re off.”
“Can’t promise that.” – he says.
“I hate seeing the sun rise.” – I say.