A bracketed number 1 appears next to the inbox icon. I click on it and see a confirmation of the booking I’ve made for a hotel in Varese, Italy. The reservation is for a double room with two single beds in late August. Robert, my college friend from the Netherlands, will be occupying it with me for the first couple of days and then he’ll go back home because of work. Afterwards I will be going to the Springsteen concert alone. I draft Robert an email letting him know everything is set up for the trip. I then return to the word document in which I’m editing the content of a pending website upload.
It’s a news article regarding the latest acquisition in the finance sector – another Russian bank has bought out another Serbian bank and our law firm is proud to announce its involvement in the case. I’m trying to push the word count past 300 – the magical search engine optimization number – and so I add a couple of blanket statements along the lines of the firm’s vigilance in keeping an open eye for further developments in these ever-interesting times of the region-wide search for foreign investments. I save these changes and hear another e-mail alert. It’s my personal account again and it‘s Robert; he’s thanking me for the information, saying that he’s looking forward to us meeting. I close the browser, get up off my chair, stretch my hands, and again note the vacant chair to my left. Nataliya has been on vacation in Turkey with her husband for the last three days. He wanted them to have more alone time than usual and so they made a last-minute decision to leave their daughter in Belgrade for her mother to watch her. I check my phone to see if she wrote me anything today. She hasn’t. I sit back down and roll my way across the office floor to Karlo’s desk. I see that he is buried in paperwork. I push a couple of folders to their sides in order to get a look at the top half of his head and ask him if he’s up for a short break.
“Do I look like I’m up for a break?” – he asks.
“Do I look like I have time for a break?”
I roll back to my desk and see that I have received a new e-mail, this time on my business account. It’s one of the HR managers, and she’s asking whether my schedule allows for us to have a cup of coffee some time during the day. This is not a common occurrence in any way and I’m trying to think of reasons for being summoned. I respond that she’s in luck because my schedule today is the loosest one this week, and I let her pick the time. She replies immediately, asking if we can meet at the coffee place across the street in half an hour. I confirm the meeting and roll back to Karlo to ask him what’s the minimum time for someone to be offered a promotion at this company. He says he doesn’t know.
Thirty-five minutes later I open the door to the air-conditioned premises of Coffee Dream. I feel the cool air putting up a roadblock for the charging beads of sweat on my neck and I’m thankful to be out of the oven-like heat outside. My eyes seek out the HR Manager and notice her sitting at one of the more isolated tables on the upper floor, her hand in the air. I climb the stairs.
“Thanks a lot for seeing me on such short notice.” – she says, rising from her chair, shaking my hand, smiling as though the edges of her lips might crack at any second.
“It’s always a pleasure to sit and talk to my friends from HR.” – I say, sitting down.
“Ha-ha, you’re just being sweet now.” – she says. “I know we’re not the most popular bunch.”
“Well I suppose that’s a professional hazard for you guys.”
“I suppose that’s right.” – she says. “It just takes a bit of getting used to when you’re the new one around.”
“You’ve been here for how long now, a couple of months?” – I ask.
“Two months this Monday. But the whole organization around the teambuilding trip makes it seem much longer.”
“Must’ve been a lot of work, huh?” – I say, as the waiter approaches and asks for our orders. I go for the filter coffee and she orders a cappuccino. The waiter walks away.
“Don’t even get me started.” – she says.
“If it’s any comfort, I thought it went pretty well.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” – she says. “But the teambuilding trip is also the reason why I wanted to talk to you.”
“Let me see.” – I say. “You liked my team video so much that now you want to buy off copyrights?”
“Oh I loved the clip!” – she exclaims. “Very brave I must say. But that’s not the thing.”
“Ok.” – I say, stretching the o. “So what is it?”
The waiter comes over and serves us coffee. He asks whether we’d like some sugar too, and she says she does. He fetches a box of small sugar packs from the adjacent table and gives it to us, then leaves down the stairs.
“I’m a little uncomfortable with telling you this.” – she says. “In any case, I thought it’d be better to talk to you first.”
“Talk to me about what?”
“Please understand these are orders that I’d been given.”
“Well…” – she says. “There has been some talk around the office about you and Nataliya.”
“I don’t understand.” – I say, feeling sweat forming on the back of my neck again. “What kind of talk?”
“Well, you know, that there’s something going on there.” – she says, leaning closer, half-whispering. “Something intimate.”
I take a sip of the coffee and the hot liquid burns the tip of my tongue. I push the cup away and take a swallow of water from one of the two glasses in the middle of the table.
“We’re colleagues and we’re friends.” – I say. “As far as I know, there’s nothing else going on anywhere. And I’m pretty sure Nataliya thinks the same.”
“I believe you…”
“And I think it’s very distasteful, to say the least, for anyone to imply there’s anything more to it.” – I add, assuredly.
“I believe you.” – she says. “And I hope you can believe me when I say how uncomfortable this is for me.”
“I do.” – I say, after a couple of seconds. “I also appreciate that you came to talk to me first, and not to her. She’s married and she has a year-old child and I think many more lines would’ve been crossed that way.”
“I know.” – she says. “I am also married and I have a kid. I know.”
“Does that mean you’re expecting me not to tell her about this conversation?”
“Please.” – she says. “And try to take care of appearances going forward. That way the talk will die down and there will be nothing to worry about.”
“All right.” – I say. “Thank you for coming forward.”
“Don’t thank me.” – she says. “I had to.”
My eyes search for the waiter. I see him and make a motion to ask for the check.
“Was it anyone specific who brought it up?” – I say. “If you don’t mind me asking.”
“It was more than one person.” – she replies. “That’s kind of the whole problem.”
The waiter brings the check and she puts it on the company bill. Outside, I tell her that I’ll go and grab something to eat. She goes across and I go down the street.
After a couple of steps, I crash into someone’s shoulder and apologize without stopping to turn my head. Judging by some of the words I hear from behind, the apology is not accepted. I go down the street, walking past a store that’s being renovated, where I inhale a gust of a powdered substance. I cough. I cough some more, harder this time, and I step aside to let people walk past me without fearing for their lives. I regain control after a few seconds and I’m left with a tickling feeling in the back of the throat. The construction workers from the store inform me that I’m not the first one to have done this today, and that some water should help. I thank the team of doctors for the advice and proceed with my walk, finally reaching the building with the passageway I was aiming for. There is an unused stairwell here, isolated from street noise, and that’s where I take a seat, pulling my phone out. I received a message from Nataliya eleven minutes ago. The message says “Hey, what’s up?” It’s the same text she’s been sending for the last three days whenever she was alone. I check again for the time. Eleven minutes. I text back “Alicia’s been raging about some of last month’s reports. Good that you’re not here.” I light a cigarette and look around the passageway, led on by a strong smell of urine. There is a puddle in the corner. The size of the puddle tells me it’s not the work of an animal, in the traditional sense of the word. The smoke does not make the surroundings smell any better. I flick the cigarette in the logical direction. The phone rings in my other hand with a WhatsApp call.
“Very creative.” – Nataliya says.
“I can do better.”
“Let’s hope you won’t need to.”
“How’ve you been?”
“Tanning by the pool since lunch.” – she says. “I have the waiter coming over in half hour intervals.”
“How many intervals is that so far?”
“Almost enough.” – she says. “How’ve you been? Busy much?”
“Not as much as your mother, I believe.”
“You’d still prefer it if he went along, huh?”
“It would make for nicer bedroom images in my mind.” – I say.
“None of the images you’re thinking of have happened yet.” – she says. “This Turkish climate has been causing a lot of migraines for some reason.”
“I like that Turkish climate.” – I say. “I like it better than the yet I just heard.”
“A wife’s got her duties, you know.”
“And sometimes knowledge is the furthest thing from power.”
“Well someone’s pensive today.” – she says, giggling.
I hear her move the phone from one ear to the other.
“I think I can get you in the same mood soon.” – I say.
“What do you mean?”
“It might be good to start another one of those intervals now.”
“Gladly.” – she says. “Although I can’t say your tone sounds promising.”
I give her a verbatim account of the conversation with the HR Manager.
“They cannot be serious!” – she yells into the microphone, and I picture her covering her mouth before further obscenities find their way out.
“She seemed pretty serious.” – I say. “And very uncomfortable.”
“She damn well should be uncomfortable. Miserable bitch.”
“I wouldn’t go as far as blaming it all on her.”
She says nothing.
“You there?” – I ask.
“I’m here.” – she says. “But I’d rather be over there now, offering my resignation.”
I get up from the stairwell, walking back and forth across the passageway, stepping over the widening puddle.
“We can always say I’ve been bothering you or something for some time now, and you know, put the whole thing on me.”
“I don’t want to do that.” – she says. “Plus, I think it’s stupid. No one would really believe that.”
“See for yourself.” – I say. “But it can help if the talk is blowing in that kind of a direction in case it ever reaches your husband.”
“Speaking of my husband, I think I can see him coming down from the balcony.”
“Okay.” – I say. “We’ll talk some other time.”
“I’d prefer it if you were here with me, you know.” – she says. “With no one around if possible.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Tonight I might even send you a version of those bedroom images you’ve been troubled by.”
“Trouble me, please...” – I hear the line disconnect before I get to finish.
I put the phone in my pocket and go back out into the street. I am sweating more profusely now and I begin to worry about the pending appearance of underarm sweat stains. I should not have gone for a light blue shirt today. Nataliya’s husband must have approached the pool by this point, and he’s asking to whom she was talking. She says she was checking in with her mother. He says that he hopes everything is fine at home. She confirms that’s the case. He apologizes for having to take the conference call, she says she doesn’t mind and that she appreciates him for being hardworking. He lies down next to her, sharing the sunbed, calling for the waiter. The waiter comes over, takes the orders, and tells them the honeymooning couple will be getting the next round on the house. They smile. The doors of the office building slide open and the cool air inside strikes an orgasmic chord.
I take a seat at my computer and hear the BD Director hobbling toward me in her five-inch heels. She rests her body frame on my desk, testing its sturdiness, tapping its surface with overdone nail extensions. The ones on her ring fingers look like they’ve been conducting random glittery rectal exams. She informs me the weekly department meeting is rescheduled for four o’clock, and then puts her hand on my shoulder and asks if everything is fine. I say that if it were any better it wouldn’t be good and bend down to fetch an imaginary piece of paper from one of the drawers. This makes her hand slip away and my flesh is no longer gooselike. She laughs very hard and loud and tells me I can always talk to her if anything’s the matter. She hobbles back to her seat just as I hear my phone ring. It’s my sister. I don’t feel like talking to her and so I mute the phone, while trying to get my password right. I fail the first two times and get the third one right. The caps lock was on. There are a couple of unread emails in the inbox, all of them from the new group of interns. They are inquiring about when to expect the feedback on the copywriting exercises I gave them during a recent workshop. I recall this event and tell them I’m in the middle of reviewing and that they’ll be getting it by the end of the week. The phone rings again and this time it’s a text message from my sister. She’s telling me the family dog has died.
I go out into the hallway and dial. She’s not picking up. I call my mother and end up with the same outcome. I call my father and he answers after the first ring, telling me he is currently at the vet’s, getting ready to put the dog’s dead body in the trunk of his car and drive out to the country house where it’s to be buried.
“I’d like to join you.” – I say. “I want to help out.”
“There’s no need.” – he says.
“I really want to help out.”
“In that case, I can pick you up in fifteen minutes.” – he says. “But be on time.”
“What happened to the dog?”
“She was hit by a car last night.”
“I’ll be downstairs in fifteen.” – I say.
Back inside the office, I tell the BD Director I will be absent for the rest of the day and the reason behind it. She voices her sadness upon hearing the news and asks if there is anything she can do. I thank her for the consideration but point out the regrettable finality of the situation. As I walk away, she adds that people should watch how they drive.
Down at the street, a couple of trams have formed an immobile wheel-based centipede, preventing all other vehicles from moving. After taking a couple of steps up the street, I see my father’s car parked at the curb and the car’s hazard lights blinking. I take the passenger seat and see my sister sitting in the back. Her face is wet and swollen and she greets me inaudibly as she tries to put some make-up on. My father tells me we’ll be taking her home first. He turns the car around, looking for a route that doesn’t involve broken down trams.
“Where’s mother?” – I ask.
There’s no immediate answer as he’s busy searching for potential witnesses to the traffic violation he plans to commit. He looks left and right, frowns, curses, then does it anyway.
“She’s at home.” – he says, as the steering wheel returns to its default position with a click.
“Is she okay?”
“She took a couple of tranquilizers.” – he says. “I hope she’ll be able to get some sleep.”
“So what exactly happened?”
“We took her for a walk.” – he says, keeping his eyes on the road. “The usual one, around midnight. She didn’t want to pee in front of the building, so we went around the block once, and on our way back we walked down that path that’s right next to the highway…”
I wait for him to continue, but he doesn’t.
“Didn’t you have a leash or something?” – I ask.
“You know your mother.” – he says. “She doesn’t like keeping anyone on a leash.”
“Well yes.” – I say. “But it’s different with animals.”
“I’m not too sure about that.” – he says.
We cross the bridge over Danube in silence.
“We took her immediately to the vet.” – he then continues. “She was still breathing after she was hit and they kept her alive throughout the night. We were there until four a.m. Then I took your mother home for us to get some rest.”
“Did you manage to?” – I ask as the car slows down to a halt in front of their building.
I turn around and see my sister petting the rigid figure underneath the purple blanket in the trunk. She then looks at me, gives me a peck on the cheek, and says “Thank you.”
She exits the car and we go on, toward the highway.
“I managed to steal a couple of hours…” – my father says, minutes later. “We went back there first thing in the morning. She was scheduled to have an operation later in the day, as soon as they stabilized her heart rate.”
I say nothing, looking at him.
“You’d think as doctors we could’ve done something on the spot.” – he says. “But the vet assured us there was nothing that could’ve been done. The car hit her too hard. She fought for another couple of hours today, hooked on the kinds of machines I didn’t even know existed for animals.”
“So they never got a chance to operate in the end?”
“No, they didn’t. She was hurt too much.” – he says, his voice slightly breaking. “And despite how hurt she was, and incapable of moving at all, as soon as we came in this morning and she saw us standing at the door… she started wagging her tail.”
I look away from him, through the window on my side, and see no signs of the city anymore. Scorched fields of corn and wheat spread as far as my viewpoint can take me. There is an airplane taking off in the distance, attacking the white sun-blazed skies. We then enter a tunnel and the only visible items are the dashboard lights, engulfed in sudden darkness, trembling in harmony with the surface of the road. A different kind of terrain surrounds us out the other side, bringing along bends and scattered hilltop houses. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. That’s what it says at the bottom of the right side-view one. I think I see a trace of my sister’s kiss on my cheek. I wipe it with the sleeve of my shirt but find no lip-gloss on it, only a wet spot.
“I shouldn’t have gone with a light-blue shirt today.” – I say.
“I hope we have some shovels at the house.” – my father says.