When in Rome, do as Romans do
Sleepy and tired, we arrived in Podgorica at midnight on the second day and made temporary beds out of the station benches to uphold our vagabond reputation. When I woke up, the boys were still asleep, so I chose not to disturb them and headed to the ladies’ room to freshen up. I successfully ignored ubiquitous filth in the facilities, which turned out to be as good as a five-star hotel compared to what was about to come. I felt slightly smudged from the train ride but still played my lady card and wore mascara. Well, If you were a reasonable and mature person at eighteen, feel free to throw a stone at me. After a less than thorough cleanup, I went back to find out that the gentlemen were awake.
Alexander’s first words were always the same. “I desperately need coffee.”
He and I belonged to species homo sapiens caferensis, as we could (and would) spend hours in lovely cafés chatting and sipping espressos.
“I’m afraid we’re gonna have to go find some decent place. I’m not drinking that disgusting poison from the automaton anymore,” I said firmly, still feeling that odd chemical sense on my palate.
“What are we waiting for, then?” Alex got up from the bench. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” Philip rubbed his eyes and frowned. “What’s the plan, John?”
“I don’t know,” the addressed sleepyhead responded with a shrug, “guess we’ll go there.” He pointed with a vague gesture to the exit from the station.
“Very funny. What have we gotten into? Even our leader is utterly incompetent,” said Philip and pulled a crumpled map from his backpack. “Use this,” he handed it to John.
“Are you done?” Alex looked at his brother, annoyed, “can we go now, please?”
And so we went. Podgorica was a lovely metropolitan city, although we didn’t spend much time sightseeing, but rather found the first open café in Bećir Bega Osmanagića’s square and stayed right there.
Nestled in the outside seating, we were savoring fresh coffee and the last bits of comfort before we head to the wilderness. John spread the map on the table, and all three of them were staring at it with importance written all over their faces. What is it with men and orientation plans - I wondered. They were hilarious. I mean, it couldn’t have possibly been up to date with Yugoslavia in capital letters all over it.
“So, let me see, we’ll go this way,” John pointed northward.
“Why?” asked Philip.
“I don’t know, do you have any other idea?” my brother frowned at his authority being questioned.
“No, just teasing you, I don’t care,” Philip earned a friendly cuff on the head, and with it, the discussion ended.
After breakfast, we headed up the river, enjoying the beginning of summer in Montenegro. It was hot, but manageable, and the vegetation was still beautifully green. I could kiss our headmaster for cutting the school year half a month shorter due to extensive reconstruction. It was liberating, euphoric even, to just walk, no matter where, and leave the reality behind.
Now and then, John reminded us to smile while we’re marching, Alex would complain that he was hungry or thirsty, couldn’t make up his mind, and Philip brightened our day with his obscenely nasty stories.
The dusk came before we knew it, so we lit up a fire sheltered by a thick forest. Alex and I spread the camping mats on the ground and unpacked our sleeping bags, while John and Philip were already drinking plum brandy, sprawled on the moss.
“Easy on the prepping. We don’t want to get spoiled the very first night,” Philip remarked ironically.
“You and your shallow delights,” Alex fell on the ground next to John and took the bottle from his hand.
I finished making the bed and joined them. “Hope you don’t expect me to be your chambermaid.”
“Why, what do you think we’ve got you for?” Philip asked matter-of-factly.
“I thought we have established that I will not be looking after you anymore,” I said, referring to our previous conversation.
“We all know you are not capable of it.” The provocateur indulged in a large gulp of the liquor that returned to him.
“Watch me,” I retorted.
Phil took me by my word and a bit out of context because it made my brother exclaim, “Stop staring at her boobs, you deviant! She is off-limits for you!” Only then did I notice that that’s what he was doing.
To be honest, Philip was kind of a mystery to me, as I hadn’t been able to get to him in any way. He would always surround himself with women whom he had sex with or was going to have sex with. They were so smitten by him. It was a wonder, considering that his sharp and stingy insults made everyone instantly mad. But well, I guess his broad shoulders, perfect jawline, and eyes sparkling with mischief did the trick.
“I’m sorry,” Philip interrupted my thoughts, “the sexual withdrawal is starting to kick in. What on earth am I gonna do for two long months without women?”
“Wank,” Alex offered the obvious answer rather dryly.
“Would you stop crying over everything for a moment? I, for one, am glad that we got rid of them,” said John, whose long-term girlfriend, Lucy, recently broke up with him.
“Right, don’t we all know about your shattered heart.” Philip showed no understanding for John’s willingness to suffer on account of a monogamous relationship.
“How about Nicole?” Alex asked as if they needed a reminder of my gender.
“Sis has your school. She’s half a guy,” John explained his point of view, which didn’t really help to better all that previous misogynistic crap. “No ordinary woman could stand the two of you.”
“You mean the three of you,” I intervened.
“Whatever,” he nodded.
“Well, Lucy didn’t. I’m pretty sure she dumped you because you refused to dump us,” Alex said.
“Lucky me. I wonder which one of you will lie with me at night.”
“You’re better off without that bitch anyway,” Philip stated confidently, efficiently ending that conversation.
The second day on the road, I earned knowledge that falling asleep dirty and waking in the very same condition is utmost unpleasant. I was starting to stink like a pig, but unlike the boys, it actually bothered me. Wandering through the wilderness in their company turned out to be wade through manure rather than a stroll in the rose garden. When I leaked a few drops of potable water onto my toothbrush in the morning, they nearly strangled me. I grew up in the village with all its tractors, straw bales, and mud, but in the end, all it took for me to feel impossibly uncomfortable was the absence of a flushing toilet.
As soon as we strayed from the river, we were afflicted by the constant lack of water, and soon, food as well. Simple, ordinary tasks such as lighting a fire or finding a place to sleep were getting more and more difficult. Like the afternoon when I almost couldn’t stand on my feet but was assigned to fetch some firewood.
“It was originally women’s job to maintain the fire, after all.” Philip picked the wrong day to tease me.
“Don’t you even start on me! I’m a fragile lady. You should carry me on your hands.”
“There is a lady somewhere? All I see is one whiny girl.”
“Why don’t you stop being a dick and go help her?” John shot him a look so sharp that Philip stood up and followed me.
“Oh, off you go,” I shooed him away, repelled by his company’s mere idea. “Go back drinking. I’ll be your maid, cook, firekeeper, don’t you worry!”
“What’s gotten into you?”
“Nothing, I’m tired.”
“Well, get some rest, then. I thought we agreed on no judgmental policy.”
“I’m not judging you. I’m complaining about how you treat me since I haven’t done anything to deserve it. And you shouldn’t discriminate against me just because I have a vagina.”
“Don’t you start this oppressed little girl act on me. I don’t care what body parts you do or don’t have. I’m mean to everybody; get used to it.”
“No, you’re not,” I reminded him.
“Right, I’m sweet as sugarcane to women when I want them to sleep with me, but I guess that’s not what you aspire to.”
“It’s impossible to talk to you, you know?! Or to be your friend, or try to get close to you at all,” I repined.
“I’m not asking for closeness.”
“I know you are not. But I still can’t imagine how lonely it must be in that fucked up solitary world of yours.”
“You truly need to stop caring so much,” he said, then added in a different, detached tone, “Anyway, you joined a man’s ride. So don’t be a girl about it.”