Joined by another two co-workers in the car, Nataliya and I arrive to the Slovenian seaside. At the reception desk of the hotel (or bioenergy resort, as the corporate brochure reads), our highly engaged HR department is telling me to go through the check-in process as fast as possible. The first teambuilding project is due to start in a matter of minutes and everyone has to be on their team’s respective bus for that to happen. I ask what does one’s own team mean and I am given a white cap with the company’s logo on it, before being told that there are four teams – blue, grey, pink and white – and that depending on the color of the cap I am in one of those teams. Satisfied with the color of my cap, I fake a hurried step toward the stairs. I climb to floor number three where behind door number 323 I find my room.
Someone has already unpacked here, reminding me that I had the liberty to choose a roommate of the same sex for the night. He is Karlo, a paralegal from my floor at the office, a guy I had only recently learned is the same age as I am, but with twenty-five years of quite a less fortunate life than my own. Still a final year literature major who’s breaking his back overtime in order to feed his family, including his parents. He’s smart though, and articulate enough to help pass this time we were bound to spend building the team and greedily feeding on bio-energy. I throw my suitcase on the floor, change into the designated corporate attire (white cap, black branded polyester t-shirt), and think of searching for a Wi-Fi connection in order to let Sonya know I have arrived. Then I shun this involuntarily generated reflex and I’m out the door, aware that I had made the mistake of staying in my boots that are in great opposition with the misforecast heat outside.
Approaching the bus with a piece of paper stuck to its front windshield saying “TEAM WHITE”, I steal a glance across the parking lot and see Nataliya, wearing a grey cap, her restless blonde hair finding its way wherever it can out of it, entering the cap-corresponding vehicle. The crowd in my bus is jovial and soon the scent of vodka soaked orange juice leaving their oral cavities reveals the secret behind the mood. Someone is being made fun of in the seat behind me and I assume it’s the latest intern. As we reach our destination and the doors of the bus whoosh open, I pat him on the shoulder and tell him to ignore the noise because all of these people, including myself, are assholes. He reacts with smiling teeth and a show of relief in his eyes. I tell him there is no reason to smile since he obviously wants to become one himself. The ones closest to us hear this and laugh and the relief is gone. He asks me what’s my field of practice, and I tell him that I’m not a lawyer.
Soon after, we make our way toward the town’s main square, Tartini Square. Right next to the statue of the blessed Tartini, we are welcomed by a tour guide who is letting us know that a treasure hunt awaits. Yes, we hear correctly, there is a treasure hidden within the city walls of Piran and the team that finds it first will be awarded a grand prize. There are no questions pertaining to the nature of the prize and the guide is standing alone on his level of enthusiasm. The time has come for us to choose the team captain, and the jovial associates from just a moment ago are now sober and fully engaged in encouraging one of the Partners wearing the white cap to be the captain of our team. I am somewhat surprised they forgot to wear nametags for this activity, but I am even more surprised by the beauty of the little town’s seafront that I encounter by turning my back to the said happenings. A short look around lets me know that, unlike the tour guide, I am not alone in my activity. Clad in classic white Adidas sneakers and tight jeans showcasing passionately cultivated legs, Nataliya is also looking at the varying shades of blue on the horizon. There are seagulls in sight and – shielding her eyes with her hand – she watches them screeching and clawing their way through the air, themselves seemingly blinded by the shimmering surface of the afternoon sea. She turns in my direction and no sunglasses in the world can displace the spine tingling feeling of looks locking like sniper targets. She then looks away at the rest of her grey-cap team and a vigilant colleague from the Montenegrin branch of the firm notifies me that our team has found its captain. We can now move onward to our first assignment. As this happens, and all of us move across the square and into four different alleyways deeper into town, I cannot begin to imagine the kind of ridiculing soliloquy I’d be launching into if I was a third party to this situation.
The treasure hunt includes a significant amount of walking around the little town, and in-between superficial snippets of dialogue with the rest of my teammates, I manage to take part in its charm. Its colorful buildings leaning into one another, its alleys narrow enough for neighbors from opposite sides to reach each other’s flower filled terraces, its almost mythical absence of any kind of mechanical noise, the entire labyrinthine concoction of this community humming along as one big ode to intimacy. If the Mediterranean were a spirit, Piran could very well be the bottle that pours it. I become aware this place has conquered a piece of territory in my mind and that it has every intention to permanently inhabit itself there. I do not object in the slightest and I glide back down to earth to fake an interest in the progress of our treasure hunt.
At seven o’clock, as the sun starts to take its dip into the sea and sizzling sounds are coming out of my boots, the guide announces that one of the other teams has found the treasure, and the hunt is now officially over. Everyone is relieved but our Team Captain. It seems like it was very important for him to win. The next and final task is for all of the teams to climb the little hill where the tower of Piran is located for the official winner’s ceremony.
The teams are now mingling and some of the caps, including my own, have brazenly been removed. Nataliya is another case of such boldness and I see her walking up to me while trying to insert some life back into the top of her head by massaging it.
“How’d you take this?” – she asks.
“The hike or the loss?”
“I don’t think the loss affected you that much.” – she says.
“I guess losses only hurt in battles you pick yourself.”
“Happened to you much?” – she asks.
“I didn’t say I know how to pick the battles.”
The guide makes another short announcement on the speakers.
“I couldn’t stand the people I spent the last couple of hours with.” – she says, zipping with her eyes at the culprits in the vicinity. She takes a swig from a plastic water bottle and offers it to me. Our silent agreement of indirectly sharing fluids, pretending as if it was a thing we would normally do with anyone, stretches into another day. I take a gulp of tepid water and look at her tossing her hair forward, trying to cool the back of her neck with a series of quick little waves of the treasure hunt pamphlet.
“Need help with that?” – I ask.
“No, I’m good.” – she says. “I just badly need a shower.”
I approach her and loudly imitate a whiff.
“Not that badly.” - I say.
“How’d you like the town?”
“It’s a hidden gem.”
“Hidden no longer.” – I reply, looking around the plateau. “And out of all the places we’ve crawled to today, this one has the best view.”
“I’m not sure the rest of the crowd thinks the same.” – she says, then nods in the direction of the winning team’s Captain. “I think they’d say the view’s best from over there.”
A loyal HR soldier whose name I can’t remember interrupts us and lets us know the ceremony’s over. We’re robbed of pomp and circumstance. It’s time to go back to our buses so that we are on time for dinner. He’s speaking only to me and I gauge a fair amount of intimidation Nataliya’s attractiveness causes for him. I tell him that his glasses are getting cloudy. Twitching, he takes them off.
“I’m kidding dude.”
“Oh, haha. You got me there!” – he says and gives me a little disciplinary finger-wag. Nataliya rolls her eyes, turns around and leaves. I go back to my group. Marching in step, like the well-trained cap-wearing lemmings we are, we go back to the parking lot, and drive back to our hallowed bio-energy hub.
At the hotel, I go up to the room right away, sharing Nataliya’s intention to shower off the daylong sweating, but find the bathroom locked and hear the water running. Karlo has beaten me to it. I turn on the air-conditioning and take a seat on the bed. I suppose it’s time to go online and get in touch with Sonya. As soon as I connect, a red dot appears in the corner of the WhatsApp icon, indicating there is a total of 9 messages to be read. I have been in roaming since around ten in the morning and this is not too big of a surprise. I am also aware that I have kept the sense of duty at bay for long enough and now I succumb to it, finding out in chronological fashion that a) I was wished good luck on my trip once again; b) I was asked whether I am there yet at 13:32; c) The same, at 14:07; d) She was worried if anything bad had happened at 15:05; and e) behind a carefully placed dose of understanding (“unless something bad has indeed happened”), I was given a short lecture between 17:02 and 17:09 on the unfairness of not coming into contact with her in any way I could. I decide to avoid the potential implications of further texting and give her a call. She picks up on the first ring with a barely audible “Hello”. After a cheerful intro directed at lowering her guard, I opt to go for almost the whole truth, leaving out the part of getting to the room before going to Piran. As her voice reaches the tone I have learned to recognize as normal, I go into complaining about everything being incredibly tiresome here, especially the people, and continue by saying that Piran is a lovely little place we surely have to visit together soon. This succeeds in melting the rest of the ice in her voice, and she is now getting worked up about retelling me the minutiae of her own day. That’s when Karlo opens the bathroom door and loudly proclaims his enthusiasm in seeing me (“There you are motherfucker!”), before proceeding to tell me the dinner is soon underway, and only then realizing I am on the phone. He apologizes and shuts up, but I use his protruding decibels to excuse myself from further conversation, telling Sonya I am hungry as a dog and that I will give her a call later in the evening. She says that she understands, that she really wants to talk to me some more, and that she’s expecting the call. I lie that the want is mutual and hang up. The water in the shower feels heaven sent.
When I exit the bathroom, Karlo informs me there’s a thematic dress code for the dinner and the party that follows it. No, he’s not trying to be funny. He points to a piece of paper on the table with my name written on it and advises me to read what it says at the bottom of the page. I do, and it says “Code Blue”. I decode it, go to my suitcase, and find a blue shirt in it. This causes a healthy dose of rebellion to pump through my veins and I start thinking of ways not to do conform to this condition, but nothing comes to mind that is not stupid and futile. The time for rebellion has passed the moment I signed the dotted line six months ago. Karlo’s been ready to go for some time now, but solidarity is strong in him, and he waits as I finish off the short process of putting my jeans and boots on. On my way out, I pick up a suede jacket too.
I wait in line for something that vaguely resembles beef stroganoff when I feel my phone vibrate. It’s a message from Nataliya. She’s not hungry and she’s skipping dinner. She will come down for the party, but wants to catch a little shut-eye in the meantime. I reply nothing and put the phone back in my pocket. Indeed it says beef stroganoff on the little card in front of the tray, and so I take a large piece along with spoonfuls of baked potatoes and grilled vegetables, and take my seat at a table occupied mostly by the rest of the crowd from the bus.
A heated discussion is ongoing about the fact that drinks during mealtimes have to be paid “from our own damn pockets”. Instead of partaking in this conversation, I dedicate all of my energy to chewing the bite-immune meat. I eat and wonder if Nataliya’s shut-eye actually means she’s doing the same kind of reporting I did, but a longer version, the married version. I also wonder what color it says at the bottom of her welcome package and the kind of dress she might wear. Something with no sleeves covering half the distance to the knees perhaps. Chomp, chomp, chomp. I spit the beef into a napkin and turn to the potatoes. I regret not trying to blow it into a bubble. The table conversation is turning louder now, with two guys at the other end leading the way. “Fucking pricks, dragging me down to fucking Slovenia and making me pay for my drinks.” “Relax man, there’s gonna be an open bar at the party later.” “No shit?” “I never joke about drinking man.” A bout of laughter. “Well then I’ll drink myself to death tonight.” I wish for that to happen.
On my way out of the dining hall, I see a large screen spread out on the restaurant’s balcony and remember what I will soon be witnessing – about two weeks ago, every department was tasked to shoot a short film introducing its members and area of practice, and it looks like the opening night is upon us. I walk across the balcony and take a seat next to one of the more likable people in the third row. Yes, entire rows of chairs are already set up, no doubt accounting for every employee so that the empty ones can raise questions on attendance. I share this thought with the guy next to me and he chuckles but fails to hide how visibly glad he is to be filling his own chair. More and more people arrive, and in what is now almost complete darkness, I scan the surroundings for Nataliya’s face. She’s not here.
The first clip begins and a Windows Movie Maker opening credit is letting us know that we are watching the Real Estate Team, and not a fundraising video for mentally handicapped persons, despite the acting range of its protagonists. The next two clips manage to raise the quality of the first one, and then comes a dark screen accompanied by the first beats of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. on the soundtrack. In a matter of seconds, shots of fake cash being thrown around office tables appear, and the audience is split between roaring in amusement and worryingly turning their heads toward me, identifying the transgressor within the Business Development Team. The awards and medals won by the firm are presented with post-production inserted gold chains around them, and before long, official corporate portraits of team members are displayed, the beautiful Pitch & Proposal Coordinator, the other Pitch & Proposal Coordinator, the bored Digital Administrator, the proud Business Development Director, and the surface smiling, teeth-grinding Content & Editorial Manager, moi. I look in the direction of Alicia, one of the Founding Partners and the person in charge of overseeing our team, but lose her face in the darkness behind the projector. The guy next to me elbows my ribs and asks me if I really did this video. I confirm. He asks why, and I say because I had no better ideas. The rest of the teams and their moving images drone on for another twenty minutes, then a resounding applause is heard, and we are guided to the hotel’s garden for the color-coded party.
The garden resembles a hedge maze, which presents an impractical setting for the kind of party most of the people have prepared for. The high heels of our female co-workers are battling the quicksand effect of the grass-covered ground and there is a sense of impending mosquito-triggered cataclysm whenever someone starts to scratch. I approach the bar and ask for a gin & tonic. The bartender pours a respectable 1:2 ratio, and thanking him, I ask how many gin bottles are stocked. He says two. I realize such a quantity is a long way off from surviving the night against tonight’s crowd and prepare myself for a fair amount of mixing to come. As minutes progress, the mood becomes more relaxed, and hands are rapidly becoming occupied with dangling sandals and wine and highball glasses. I am standing at one of the candle-lit bar tables with four other people including Karlo, and I’m asking him how loud of a snorer he is. Before I hear the much-anticipated response, Alicia, joined by an unknown man in a suit, approaches the table and howls praise about our team’s film.
“This is our very own Spielberg here.” – she says, putting on a forced smile. “But funnier!”
“Thanks,” – I reply, raising my glass. “That’s because I’m not Jewish.”
Wearing the same smile on her face, she then presents the man by her side as Darko Kessler, the Head of the company’s Middle-Eastern branch. I think of adding “No worries, I’m also not really Spielberg” as means of diffusing the situation, but the vision of the tangible, realistic version of the dress I imagined an hour ago makes me fall silent. Nataliya is standing at the garden’s entrance in a sleeveless, tight, mid-thigh blue dress and she is turning her head in search of a friendly face. I return the introductory pleasantries, then excuse myself and make my way toward her. She sees me walking and directs me to the bar where we meet.
“Do they have any gin & tonic?” – she asks.
I rattle the ice in my glass and nod.
“But not for long.” – I add.
“Why, are you planning on drinking it all yourself?”
“I was counting on sharing some with you.”
“Well get me some.”
I wave the waiter and order two glasses.
“What took you so long?” – I ask.
“Why?” – she asks. “Did you miss me?
“There’s that song by Pink Floyd…” – I say. “high hopes I think is the name.”
“Oh,” – she says. “I thought it’s wish you were here.”
“Smart doesn’t suit you, you know?”
“Only if you tell me what does.”
“That dress is a good start.”
“Why thank you, mister.”
The drinks arrive and we clink our glasses, both taking large sips of the cold fizzing liquid.
“You missed the picture show.” – I say.
“What a shame. You think there’s any chance I can get them on flash drive to watch at home?” – she says and lights a cigarette.
The same HR guy from this afternoon interrupts us again, informing us that one of our co-workers is having her birthday today and that we should gather around the center of the garden to present her with a cake in a couple of minutes.
“We should have another drink before that happens.” – I say as he leaves.
“Are you trying to get me drunk?”
“I wouldn’t dare.”
She looks at me over the rim of her glass.
“Ask them for a twist of lemon in mine.”
I order two more gin & tonics and regretfully observe the bartender fetching and opening the second bottle of gin. The crowd is already concentrating around the center of the garden. I take both glasses the bartender offers and carry them over to the bar table on the outside of the populated circle, to which Nataliya follows me. Once there, Karlo and one of the lawyers from the Real Estate Team join us.
“Whose birthday is it?” – Karlo asks.
It turns out the birthday girl is one of the junior associates who, when presented with the cake and its firework candles and all the accompanying glory, starts to cry and hug anyone within reach. She’s thanking everyone, wiping tears with the back of her hand, for some time trying to finish off a verbal construct of “You guys…you guys…” Sniffle, sniffle. “You guys…” Sniffle. “You guys…are the best!” – ultimately giving birth to a whole sentence. The circle is gradually dispersing and she is left with two people around her who are helping her bring the cake over to the bar for dissection. In the meantime, the other Senior Partner, Alicia’s husband, also joins our table and takes a brave and authentic swing at sparking a conversation by proclaiming what lovely weather we have tonight. There is a murmur of agreement on this issue and after ten seconds of silence that’s supplanted only by the horrifying sounds coming from the speakers, the Real Estate lawyer feels the urge to tell us about her recent trip to New York.
“…and ever since I came back from New York, I only want to make enough money to go back there.”
“Who’s up for a drink?” – I declare in response, polishing off the remaining contents of my glass. The thick-boned Carrie Bradshaw says she’s fine but Karlo asks for a beer and Alicia’s husband asks for a glass of white wine.
“I’ll help you carry.” – Nataliya says and cuts in front of me, aiming for the bar.
As we’re waiting for our order, which I deem to be the last one involving gin for the evening, I am suppressing all thoughts related to the state of my liver, telling myself it must be recuperated enough already, I’m very young after all.
“Did you hear that idiot talk about New York?” – Nataliya asks.
“It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to introduce individual travel bans.”
“Then there’d be a lot more people like that around you.”
“Well then I just want to go somewhere they’re not.”
“How about New Zealand?” – I say.
She smiles and takes the other two glasses as we make our way back to the table. There is silence at it now – a welcome change. But after another twenty seconds of progressive awkwardness and heads bobbing with something hardly resembling a rhythm, I confront the verbal cobwebs by recalling the recent business trip to Bosnia I took with Alicia’s husband. This gives us a chance to agree on a number of matters including our position that “Sarajevo is no longer what it once was”, the sort of thing a very experienced 25-year-old who’s never lived in ex-Yugoslavia can emphatically assert.
“Hey you guys, come over and join us!” – it’s the rest of the Business Development Team and they’re telling Nataliya and me that we can no longer ignore them, masking this statement in default party humor. Opting for the lesser evil, I excuse myself from present company and suggest to Nataliya we might as well join them for a while. She seems confused for a moment, then no longer, and follows suit. This is only a minor improvement now, as the main talking points concern the retelling of department videos.
“Oh my god, you should’ve seen Alicia’s face during the shot where cash was thrown on the table. You know what she said to me after the film?” – asks the BD Director.
“No.” – I say, crunching the ice in my mouth.
“She asked whose salary did we throw around! Hahaha, can you imagine that!”
The conversation then shifts to how cold the sea turned out to be and what a shame it is we won’t be able to bathe in it a little before heading home tomorrow. My glass is empty once again and I can feel the early stages of the buzz creeping in as I look at Nataliya for a second longer than appropriate. I approach her and whisper a proposition into her ear, catching a waft of her fragrance in the process, which I then compliment. She likes my idea, but expresses worry over how it will be executed. She also acknowledges the compliment and remarks that it’s Coco Mademoiselle. I tell her not to worry how everything will play out as long as she announces a brief washroom visit soon. In about five minutes, she does just that, and I express willingness to talk to the DJ about a change of direction in music, a decision that is greeted by everyone at the table. I make a move toward the booth before taking a turn outside the garden maze, and meet Nataliya there, on the path leading down to the beach.
“Are you sure no one will see us?” – she asks.
“No, but I’m sure we’re not helping ourselves by standing here.”
“I don’t have a drink.” – she says.
“Shit. I knew I forgot something.”
“Who would’ve guessed that would be the thing.”
“Move a bit further down, away from the entrance.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’ll think of something.”
“Ooh.” – she says, swaying a little.
I turn around and go back to the maze, aiming straight for the bar. I look at the table laid in front of the servers and search for an overlooked bottle of wine. I find one, three quarters full, and wait for the bartender to turn his head before snatching it and putting it behind my back, under the jacket, where I hold it with one hand. I then look around for a pair of glasses and see a half-unpacked box of them next to a little transportable fridge where the ice is kept. I lunge for it, but the bartender turns his back at that moment, and I have no other choice but to exit the rogue mode and openly ask for two empty glasses. Two of my co-workers would prefer new ones; their current ones are smeared in lipstick. The bartender nods, full of understanding, and offers them. I imitate a scratching motion with the hand holding the bottle, and grasp both glasses with the other one. Walking backward, I merge with the crowd, faintly hearing pink-cheeked Kessler yell “Hey Spielberg, let’s have a drink!” and disappear in the darkness outside the maze.
The first fifty meters of my walk down the path reveal no trace of Nataliya, triggering within me a small but palpable sense of unease about her changing her mind. The unease turns to dread, as my shoes are now almost in contact with the sand, with the steps getting slower, and the eyes wilder, in the wave-crashing darkness.
I hear her husky voice, punctuated by the cloud of cigarette smoke surrounding her contours beneath a palm tree.
“I was thinking of checking for my passport already.” – I say, closing in on her, noticing the bench she’s sitting on.
“Thought I was going to end up in Italy.” – I say, sitting down.
“And we wouldn’t want for that to happen, would we?”
“With you?” – I say. “Absolutely not.”
“So, are we going to sit around here and talk shit the whole night, or are you going to pour me some of that…wine?”
“White.” – I say. “Thought it might hurt the least.”
“I guess we’ll have to test that theory.”
“I got us some glasses too.” – I say, placing a pair between us.
“You’re so pedantic.”
“Just sick of sharing fluids with you.” – I say, pouring the wine.
She turns her head toward the water. I light a cigarette.
“Do you think Italy’s on the other side of this bay?” – she asks.
“I know it’s not.”
“It would be nice if it was.”
“For us, maybe.” – I say. “But I don’t think the Italians would be too thrilled to hear the kinds of sounds from this side.”
“The music is awful.” – she replies, putting out her cigarette on the ground. “Most of the things about this trip are.”
“Some are not.” – I say, looking across the bay.
“Yeah…” – she says. “Some are not.”
We drink the wine in silence. A cool breeze starts to blow. Nataliya gives off a slight shiver and curls her body, resting the wine glass between her legs. I take my jacket off and put it over her shoulders.
“There.” – I say. “People no longer have to look at that hideous dress.”
We continue to sit still, our eyes getting used to the darkness, revealing more elements of the surrounding night. I look at her legs wrapped around the cold wine glass and think about the warmth they’re giving off. Then I think of bare shoulders, red lips and burnt fingertips. I put my cigarette out and light another one, before clearing out the rest of my glass. I notice hers is empty as well, and the ensuing refills leave us with an empty bottle. I hear some sounds behind our backs, and turn around to see a couple of indistinct shapes leaving a trail of swinging branches in their wake.
“What would they say if they saw us here?” – Nataliya asks.
“Fuck I wish we were that good looking?”
She laughs, facing me, eyes sparkling with wine.
“Apart from that, you idiot.”
“They’re drunken fools Nataliya, and they’re getting ready to jump in the water.”
I point the far end of the beach to her, where a group of people is undressing down to their underwear.
“It doesn’t seem to take them much.” – I add.
“Yeah, with anything, I presume.” – she replies.
We both laugh at this.
“More people seem to be coming this way. I think it’s all the DJ’s fault.” – I say.
“Whosever fault it is, I think we should be moving soon.” – she says.
I put out the cigarette against the sole of my shoe. I rest the extinguished butt on the bench.
“I wonder where Tamara is.” – she says.
“Is she your roommate for tonight?”
“I think she’s over there.” – I say, nodding at the semi-nudist crowd.
“That wouldn’t come off as a surprise.”
“Maybe you can text her and see.”
“Maybe I could.” – she says and starts fumbling around her purse. “What should I tell her, why am I asking?”
“I don’t know. Why are you asking?”
“I should call home again, obviously...”
“…and you don’t want to be disrupting her sleep while doing that.” – I say.
“You’re very mindful of your co-workers.”
“Thank you.” – she says, then notes her battery is dead.
“You got a charger?”
“Shit.” – she says. “I think I may have forgotten it.”
“I can lend you mine, if you’d like.”
“It seems like I have no other choice.”
“It seems so.”
“So should we head out of here?”
“I think we most certainly should.” – I say. “I mean, what if anyone called you?”
“I am a married woman after all.”
“Yes, you are.” – I say, looking at my glass, checking for a miracle that might have left me with a drop or two in the meantime. I find no such thing.
“What would they say if they saw us here?” – she asks, again.
“There’s nothing here to see.”
“We’re just sitting and talking.” – she says.
“We’re just sitting and talking.” – I say.
We get up from the bench and turn back toward the hotel. We wordlessly agree to walk around the party maze.
“So what floor are you on?” – she asks.
“Third.” – I say. “What about you?”
“Does your room have a mini-bar?” – I ask.
“All rooms have mini-bars.”
“Some even have terraces.” – she says, settling the debate.
We reach the stairs to the hotel balcony. All kinds of sounds are behind us now, those from the beach, those from the garden maze, those from the speakers. Again I think of what the would-be Italians across the bay would have to say, waking up from their midnight slumber, first hearing the universal language of corporate unwinding, then feeling the garlic induced acid reflux. Nataliya whispers “346” in my ear.
Karlo is not in the room, and as the stale warm air increases the already built up buzz in my body, I scramble around the night table to find the charger. This reminds me of checking my own phone, and I do, finding a message from Sonya saying, “I miss you and I’m waiting for your call”, followed by a little heart sign. I decide to pretend that I’m sleeping and leave the rest of the thinking process for the morning, reminding myself of the age-old saying in doing so, wondering if it were similar kinds of immoral travails that bore life to it. Outside in the hallway, I tiptoe my way to room number 346. Knock-knock. No answer. I lift my hand up to knock again, a little louder this time, but then notice a luminous trace peering through the doorframe and a light push reveals the inside of the room. I enter and see Nataliya typing something on her phone, the device connected to a charger. She changed into a white sweater and a pair of gray tights. She succeeds in looking better than she did five minutes ago.
“I just hope you weren’t lying about the mini-bar.” – I say.
“What’s the thing you said earlier, ‘I wouldn’t dare’?”
“That must have been someone else.” – I say.
“We only have champagne.” – she says, opening the door of the little refrigerator. “Four of these small bottles.”
“Does that mean we need four reasons to celebrate?” – I ask.
“I don’t know. Do we have even one?”
“Not really.” – I say, and grab one of the bottles.
“I’ll get the glasses, you go open it on the terrace.” – she says.
I comply, launching the cork into the palm of my hand. She joins me on the terrace, empty-handed.
“Tamara must’ve taken them.” – she says, “I’m afraid we’ll have to share this time.”
She takes a seat in one of the two plastic chairs on the terrace, crossing her legs. I take the other and rest the bottle on the table in front of us. The terrace is overlooking the hotel’s parking lot, leaving the merriments of the garden on the other side.
“You can save the ‘what would they say if they saw us’ question now.” – I say.
“I think we should put this silence to use and play some actual music.”
“That’s the best idea you’ve had tonight.” – I reply, taking my phone, starting to shuffle through my music collection.
“Better than making you go for the charger so that I could see the expression on your face when you came back?” – she asks.
“I’m not sure you have any good ideas left.” – I say.
After a couple of seconds spent on determining whether to search according to artist or track, I go for Freddy Cole and his only piece of music on my phone, Rio De Janeiro Blue. The phone’s speaker emits an adequate level of noise for the surrounding quiet, and we sit, listening to it, taking turns from the bottle.
And I get a feeling, that I’ve seen the last of you, Rio de Janeiro blue…
“Last year in Cuba, I used to listen to this song constantly.” – I say.
“Why?” – she asks. “I like it though.”
“It was a natural fit with the tropics I guess. Plus, there was this Cuban girl that I’d met there one night.” – I pause and take a swig from the bottle. “I met her at one of these rare places where Cubans are allowed to mix with the tourists. It was kind of weird because I didn’t really imagine meeting a local person speaking English over there.” – I hand the bottle back to Nataliya. “Turned out she was a hairdresser from Miami, visiting her family for holidays.”
“I got into some trouble because of her.”
“Trouble is interesting.” – she says. “What kind of trouble?”
“I got jumped at the club where I met her. Some local guy had already set his eyes on her and wasn’t too happy seeing a haughty tourist making a pass.”
“So you got beaten up?”
“No.” – I say. “When this guy and his friends jumped me, a whole entourage of Canadians from my hotel intervened and outnumbered the locals. It was a pretty disturbing scene actually, a group of Canadians beating up three Cubans, and the bouncers just ignoring the whole scene. I suppose things would’ve ended differently if everything happened the other way around.” – I light a cigarette. “You’re bogarting that bottle, you know that, right?”
“There’s nothing left to bogart, my dear colleague.” – she says, swinging the empty bottle like a pendulum.
“I’m getting another one.” – I say and go into the room to get it, noting the two single beds inside before making my way back to the terrace.
“So when’s the trouble part coming?” – she asks.
“It’s here.” – I say, uncorking the champagne.
“I mean what happened with the girl?”
“I took her by the hand and left the club while the carnage inside was still in progress. I wanted to hail a cab or something, but then she pointed to this car and told me it’s her uncle inside, and that he can drive us wherever we like.”
“You got into that car?”
“And both your kidneys are still intact?”
“Kidneys were not really the part of body on my mind.”
“Ahem.” – she says. “Continue.”
“I just told him the name of my hotel, since I had the most revolutionary of ideas to take her to the beach. He started driving, saying nothing, while the two of us fooled around on the backseat, and the next thing I remember we were in front of the hotel.”
“Our very own Porfirio Rubirosa from the Balkans.”
“You know who Porfirio Rubirosa is?”
“You love to underestimate me.”
“It’s a force of habit.” – I say, putting out the cigarette.
“Yeah, yeah, keep going.” – she says.
“So we take to the main entrance, passing through the lobby, her hand in mine, and I hear someone yelling after me. It’s one of the security guards and he’s asking if she’s a guest of the hotel, pointing at her wrist and saying how there’s no all-inclusive bracelet on it. I tell him that she’s my guest, and he starts speaking in Spanish to her. I interject and tell him to speak to me if he has anything to say, and he tells me that she’s Cuban and that she’s not allowed to enter the hotel’s premises.”
“Yeah, I mean, I tried arguing some more- “
“Why am I not surprised?”
“…but they wouldn’t hear any of it. They seemed well rehearsed in denying me. I probably wasn’t the first such case they had.”
“And you walked her home then?”
“I wish I did.”
“What did you do?”
“Well we got back outside and she tried to tell me how maybe we can meet some other time, but I was too drunk and impatient for that, so I convinced her for us to walk a bit further away from the main entrance where I could help her climb over the wall of the resort.”
“Why would anyone do that?” – she says and offers me the bottle, shaking it a little in the process, making it foam over my hand.
I wipe it against the side of my jeans.
“Oh, I don’t know.” – I say. “I just know that climb over we did, and for the first 20 meters or so I was as smug as any person on earth can be.”
“The security team of the hotel, flashlights and all, surrounded us on one of these little open spaces between the bungalows.” – I take a swig of the champagne. “Two of the guards identified me and told me that I will be kicked out of the hotel, while a few of the other ones started to get all rough with her, dragging her across the ground toward the lobby.”
“I probably wouldn’t have acted that way if I was sober, but then I asked them what are they going to do with her, and they told me that she will be going to jail for apparently breaking the law. I then took aside one of the two guys handling me, the one who seemed to be in a better mood, and gave him this whole story of how I had gotten madly in love with her over the previous couple of days and how she taught me that Cubans are the most wonderful people in the world. How I was here only for another two days, without being sure of ever having a chance to come back, and how they have to understand the risk I took. How they would’ve done the same exact thing, and so on and so forth, and that if they plan on putting her in jail, they will have to do the same with me.”
“They probably should have.” – she says.
“Well this guy actually believed all of this and he let me go.” – I say. “So I caught up with the other ones who were still busy dragging her outside, and gave them a shorter version of the same story, after which they agreed to let her go as well, if she promised to never under any circumstances try the same thing again.”
“I imagine she was quick to make that promise.”
“Can you blame her?”
“Did she finally run away from you at that point?” – she asks, looking at me, taking a long pull from the bottle, its tip disappearing in her lips.
“Sort of.” – I say. “We talked in front of the hotel for a little while first. She was crying and telling me how she appreciates very much what I did, but that she has to be heading home. Then she gave me her number so that I could call her, but I was leaving Cuba for real in a couple of days, and it was clear the next morning I should not be tangling with it any further. She wasn’t even that interesting from what I remember. Just good looking… A drunken fixation, all of it, I suppose.”
The gin and wine variations start to really kick in as Nataliya passes me the bottle and I finish it off. The bottle clanks loudly against the see-through surface of the table.
The song ends.
It’s very quiet.
“What’s this?” – she then says, pointing at my necklace.
“This?” – I say, taking it off, handing it to her. “It’s a graduation present from my parents.”
She takes it in her hand. “A book and… what’s this other thing?”
“A book and a graduation cap. And the clasp, this thing here, is like an elephant trunk.”
“And together they make?”
“I guess something like a reminder for lifelong learning.” – I say. “You know like, done with school but never done with learning. And the trunk as I reminder I guess. Elephants and their memories and all that.”
“I like it.” – she says, tying it back around my neck. “I don’t usually like silver, but I like this one.”
“Well you see,” – I say. “The necklace goes with the man.”
“Oh, I like the man as well.” – she says. “I like the way he thinks, and the way I can talk to him.”
“Yeah, but who cares about that sort of thing anyway?”
“Sometimes I think he’s the only reason I still go to work at all.” – she says.
Her eyes slowly meet mine. I hear the chirping of neighboring crickets. I see the bottles, empty. I feel my blood start to pulsate and curdle throughout the body. She then lifts her legs up and puts them in my lap, eye contact unbroken. I encounter slight breathing difficulties. Then I look down at her feet; the perfect shape of the arches, the toenails embellished in red nail polish. The blood is concentrating now, finding refuge in the lower portions of my torso, and I go back to her eyes. They have been on me the whole time.
“This is happening, you know.” – I say.
“I know.” – she whispers.
We slowly close in on each other, her legs still in my lap, and touch with our foreheads. We stay like this. Our noses touch, then our cheeks, left and right, right and left. I take her hand in mine and stroke it, moving gently from her wrist to her fingers, flinching on the inside as I go over a diamond obstacle. Then my phone rings and Nataliya jerks her legs back, catching the table, almost turning it over. We both look at the screen and see Sonya’s name on it.
I feel the air returning to my lungs.
“You should answer that.” – she says.
“I can’t think about that now.” – I say and turn the phone, screen down.
Crickets, obsessively chirping, power the sudden silence.
“I have a good thing with my husband, you know.” – she says, breaking it.
I shuffle my feet. “No one said you didn’t.”
“How come this hasn’t happened earlier?” – she asks.
“We weren’t alone so far…” – I say, looking back at her. “We weren’t drunk.”
“How do you know it’s not another drunken fixation then?
“Well…” – I say. “I’ve also been sober a lot in the past six months.”
Nataliya’s phone lights up.
“It’s a text from Tamara. She’s asking where I am.”
“Maybe she needs the room.”
“I have to tell her I am here.”
Silence. Crickets chirping. Like they’ve grown bigger now, louder.
“Well, tell her.”
She types the message and puts the phone on the table. We move closer to each other and press our foreheads together again.
“This…” I say, pointing around our heads, “looks really stupid.”
She laughs and I smell the wine on her breath, pure, no traces on it of the usual repulsive hints a four-hour long drinking session can cause. Her phone lights up again. Tamara responds that she will be over in five minutes; she says she’s tired.
“I guess it’s time for me to leave.” – I say.
“I don’t want you to leave.”
“You don’t have that many options, sissy.”
“That’s a weird thing to call someone.” – she says and smiles.
We take time moving away from each other, rising up from our chairs.
“I should throw these bottles away before she sees them, they don’t really suit a young mother.” – she says and picks them up, then stops in her tracks. “Do you realize this is the first time I mentioned I’m a mother tonight?”
“I do.” – I reply. “And I see nothing wrong with that.”
“And what makes you such a valid observer?”
“Nothing.” – I say. “I just think being a mother and saying you’re a mother are two different things.”
“Don’t say things like that.” – she says, leaning into me. “They make me like you.”
The bottles in her hands rattle. I step forward and put my arms around her, whispering into her ear.
“I like everything about you.”
“That’s because you don’t know me enough.” – she whispers back.
I run my thumb down her cheek. Our eyes lock again. Then I turn around, lightly letting go of her arm, inch by inch, down to the tips of her fingers, and head for the door. I hear her toss the bottles into the trash and drop to her bed. I reach the door and look back. She’s lying on her side, gazing at me, her soft feet rubbing against the white sheets.
“You know, we should’ve spent the night in Piran.” – I say.
“I know.” – she says.
In three quick steps I’m back at her side. We kiss.