Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: Party at Monvi


            Zlatko caught up with her near the end of  her shift. He did not touch her again, but he did lean in again to whisper of an exclusive party at Monvi's huge disco. In the Mediterranean fashion, it didn't get rolling until after midnight, so Nicole had time to go home and shimmy into an LBD. She felt giddy.
            The opening of Monvi heralded the true ending of Rovinj's hibernation. It sat deep in the woods on the way to Zlatni Rt, with trees on one side and a tennis club on the other. The sprawling entertainment complex featured two rows of themed bars facing off across a wide promenade. Crowning the apex of the promenade, a towering, three-story disco presided over the revelries like a trendy monarch. Crowds flocked to its throne like so many courtesans.
            That night Zlatko escorted Nicole down the promenade. Though she was the one who lived in Rovinj, it was Zlatko who greeted someone at every turn: "Ciao. Bok. Šta mi radiš, ljubavi?" They didn't stop, though, at any of the lesser bars; they strolled right up to the disco. A line of people waiting to get in snaked around the building, but, as expected from one so well-connected, Zlatko led her right to the front. The bouncer greeted him with deference, and, after an exchange of pleasantries, they went in.
            Though Monvi's disco stood as Rovinj's crowning glory, it wasn't so very different from other large dance clubs – dark, smoky, flashing lights. And the necessary ingredient to any trendy night spot: people wanting to see and be seen. Dress to impress.
            Nicole, a big-city girl, knew an LBD was appropriate for any night out. But Zlatko had it in the details: a turned up cuff, a polished shoe, a flashing earring. And, of course, he wore the best accessory of all: confidence.
            People greeted Zlatko as soon as they entered. A "who's-who" of Istria invited them to their table. They shared a round of drinks and conversation – most of which went over Nicole's head due to the loud music and hyper-fast Croatian – before Zlatko escorted her along. His lips hovered near her ear again as he explained, "You Americans have a word for this thing we are doing – networking. It is necessary for my business." Then he kissed her temple. Thrills ran up her spine, exploding all through her body. She gazed up at him.
            Similar scenes to the "who's-who" of Istria continued to play out, with Zlatko's attending to Nicole in between networking sessions. The hours passed in a blur of techno music, snippets of conversation, and glass after glass of alcohol. Zlatko continued to keep his physical contact casual: a light touch in the small of her back, more brief kisses at her temple. Yet Nicole's nerve endings sizzled with each caress.
            They finally left the party in the wee hours of the morning, with the sun just making a weak attempt at lightening the night sky. Once they'd exited the complex and were in the relative privacy of the woods, Zlatko slipped his arm around Nicole's shoulders. His fingers tapped a beat on her bare arm.
            This is seduction, she thought. A whole different game of seduction, not like the awkward fumblings at loud keggers...
            No sooner had the thought entered her mind than Zlatko pulled her off the path. With her body close to his but not quite touching, he kissed the tip of her nose then rested his forehead against hers. He asked, "How old are you?"
            Guilessly she answered, "I just turned 23."
            He smirked, his eyelid dropping in a lazy wink. "Hmm, so young." He kissed the tip of her nose again. His fingers took up their sultry beat on her back.
            "I'm not so young," she whispered. Her heart pounded.
            "No?" Another kiss on her nose. "I am almost twice your age."
            Before Nicole could react, he kissed her. The real thing, with his firm lips pressed to hers, urging them open. A lingering, penetrating, thought-scattering kiss. Nicole's whole body reacted, and without her volition, she was pressing against him. She stood on tip-toes, straining to maintain the kiss. By the time he drew back, she'd forgotten his revelation.
            Forehead to forehead again, he grinned down at her. "And?"
            "Mmm." Her fingers were entwined in his white shirt. A thought penetrated the haze in her mind. "Hmm, what did you say?"
            He whispered, "I am almost twice your age – 45."
            "Oh?" Her thoughts refused to coalesce.
            "Yes." And again he kissed her. Just like that, he had her surrender.

            Ljubav, the word that Luka had first taught her in Croatian. Love. He'd promised her fireworks that night, tricky Romeo, knowing the town would set them off at midnight for Rovinj Night. Their kiss had not been without merit, but nothing in Nicole's relatively brief romantic history could prepare her for Zlatko. Ljubav.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: Beach Party

Nicole and her pals – for it was nearly summer, so she had pals again -- climbed a set of three stairs – remnants of a long-gone stone building and now simply part of the path – and arrived in the center of Punta Corrente a few minutes later. On another remnant of a long-gone stone building, this time a floor, a temporary stage was set up, partially shielded by a copse of pine. However, they could hear that the band had already started. As they drew nearer, Nicole started looking around as casually as she could, trying to spot Zlatko.
            Nicole had met Zlatko Adamić the day before.
            "Oprosti, gospodice." 
            Nicole 's head snapped up, so that she was looking up into eyes bluer than hers, blue like a turquoise ring, poet-blue. She pulled a professional smile onto her face. "Dobar dan," she greeted. "Izvolite?" Belatedly she thought to stand up, so she wasn't looking up at the guest through a veil of hair.
            With a small smile playing around his lips, the man asked in Croatian about a booking under the name Zlatko Adamić, four rooms. Nicole looked into his poet eyes again for a moment before checking the register and confirming the rooms were ready. She was about to ring for the receptionist to process the guests when the man stopped her by asking, still in Croatian, "You're not a Croat?"
            In English she answered, "No, I'm not. I'm American." She ducked her head, in case he was one of those who would lambaste her because of politics.
            He wasn't. His eyes appraised her, never leaving her face.  "Interesting."
            He stopped back by later and told her she should check out his band the next day. She made sure to note the time.
             The band was halfway through their first song, a pounding Euro-rock tune with a Croatian touch – think drinking song. People stood or sat around, enjoying sun, music, and company. Children chased each other around with water bottles, dousing each other whenever possible. A triad of young toughs – with Coldly Handsome at the center and Dejan in attendance – sat on lawn chairs in the shade. Nicole smiled at Dejan, since they were mildly acquainted. He did not smile back. Typical unreliable Rovinjian. Coldy Handsome, on the other hand, nodded a greeting. Several families sat on blankets, picnicking. Groups of teenagers stood around trying to look cool, and occasionally managing. An enormous grill stood off to one side with sizzling čevapčiči sending their fragrance on the air. Nicole wasn't even tempted; she'd caught sight of Zlatko.
            He stood near the stage in the company of people who looked involved in the show; in fact, Nicole recognized the entertainment coordinator as he had thrown a party at the hotel the previous night. Yet Zlatko was the only one who looked comfortable in his own skin: casual jeans with a black band tee tucked in, Ray-bans shielding his poet-blue eyes, crisp curls in an artless disarray. He seemed to effortlessly radiate the cool the teenagers were attempting to effect. A thrill ran through Nicole's chest.
            "I'll be back in a few," she said, not noticing if any in her group was even listening. As she walked towards the stage, she noted the way company seemed grouped around him. The overdressed entertainment coordinator was facing him and telling him an anecdote it seemed. A woman in zebra-striped pants leaned in, as if to listen to the anecdote, but with face turned towards Zlatko; three other women in similarly rocker outfits also listened in. Zlatko chuckled at the anecdote, a shadow-beard framing his full mouth. Nicole heard Zebra Pants titter.
            As she neared the group, she considered several different opening gambits. Once she was close enough that he had almost certainly caught sight of her, though, she settled on a simple, "Ciao."  
            Zlatko grinned lazily. "Bok," he returned, the Croatian equivalent of ciao. He didn't say anything else right away; rather, he pushed his Ray-bans up onto his forehead and looked her over, this time taking in all of her. He dropped the sunglasses back in place. "Ok."
            It felt like a compliment to Nicole. Her sub-conscious led her to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear as she searched for something else to say. "So... the band sounds great."
            Zlatko glanced in their direction and nodded approvingly. "Their sound is still young, but they are coming along." A smile played around his lips, and he could tell by the tilt of his head that he was addressing the next comment to Zebra Pants. "Maybe they could be the next Prljavo Kazlište."
            Zebra Pants took the bait. While Nicole tried to remember where she had heard the name before, Zebra Pants declared, "Prljavo Kazlište are like heroes in Croatia. You can never replace their position in Croatian pop culture. They were with us from the time of Yugoslavia, and they sang of the war while it was really happening-"
            Zlatko smirked and cut her off. "No one is talking of replacing our national icons. I would not dream of trying." The smile disappeared. "But even national heroes need heirs."
            Zebra Pants opened her mouth, clearly ready to enter the fray again; however Zlatko interrupted with, "Pardon me," aimed at Nicole. "This is Nina, our M.C. today. Nina, this is Nicole. She runs the Hotel Adria."
            Clearly still miffed, and now skeptical as well, Nina looked Nicole up and down in a far less flattering way than Zlatko. "Nice to meet you," she equivocated. Then, more truthfully, "You run the Hotel Adria?"
            Nicole squirmed. "Not exactly..."
            Zlatko said, "The hotel certainly seems to run more smoothly thanks to your attention."
            Nicole, predictably, was charmed.
            An assistant came and dragged the coordinator away to attend to some details. Zlatko initiated a conversation between Nina and one of the other rocker girls, apparently a local d.j. He then unobtrusively pulled Nicole to the side, away from the crowd.  He pushed his sunglasses up again, this time on top of his head. He looked into her eyes. "Tell me. How is my English?"
            "Perfect," she breathed. She wondered if she should blink, but didn't want to lose sight of his eyes even for that nanosecond.
            "But I speak with an accent, no?"
            "Oh, yes."
            The skin around his eyes crinkled as he smiled. He suggested, "Možemo na hrvatski." We can (speak) in Croatian.
            Nicole said nothing; she'd understood him, but the Croatian language had otherwise fled her mind.
            Zlatko made an amused sound in the back of his throat. "Dobro. In English then." He made another perusal of her body and nodded to himself. "Interesting."
            Nicole frowned. "Interesting?" It sounded less a compliment even than "ok."
            "In English – yes, interesting." He motioned with his head. "Hajde. We should watch the band from closer to the front."
            Nicole spent the afternoon in his company. So many people vied for his attention, clearly drawn to him, yet he always made a point of including Nicole. After eight months of feeling like an outsider, Nicole felt part of the in-crowd. The heady rush of his subtle attention made her feel wanted – and made her want. Zlatko didn't touch her, didn't flatter her, but he seduced her just the same.
            When Nicole noticed the day's light had reached a late-afternoon hue, she looked at the time and regretfully announced, "I have to get back to work."
            Zlatko moved his lips to just millimeters away from her ear. "I will see you there, then." His fingers alighted gently on her arm for the briefest of moments. It was the first time he had touched her, and it set her blood aflame.
            As she started back across the Punta Corrente in the direction of the hotel, she caught sight of her friends – finally caught sight of her friends; she had been keeping an eye out for them all afternoon so she could introduce Zlatko to them. She waved; Martina waved back, but Matija was facing the other way, apparently focused on his plate of čevapčiči. She didn't have time to go over to them.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: Rakija-Smoothed Feathers

"Fuck your café-bar." Finally extricated form the booth, she stood before him quivering in fury. "And fuck you!" She grabbed the vodka-juice and threw the drink in his face. She slammed the glass down, turned on heel, and stormed out of the café.
            The cold November night did nothing to calm her fury. She stomped across the square, glaring balefully at the cupid fountain, daring it to comment. She felt insulted and disgusted with both Oliver and herself. Oliver was a reprehensible crow, and she'd allowed him to get under her skin. He had an inflated sense of self – for no reason that she could discern – and was a flake into the bargain. She hated egomaniacs, and she abhorred flakes! She'd known people like him back in Denver, basketball players mostly that she met a jock parties with Shaun, and she'd always made a point to steer clear. But, once again... She wasn't in Denver anymore. Again she questioned the advisability of deciding to spend the year abroad, discover a new culture – part of her mother's culture – meet new people that had nothing to do with Shaun and his jock crowd…But at least back in Denver she'd be on familiar ground. She wouldn't be so bored and lonely she'd resort to socializing with a flaky crow!
            Normally when Nicole 's emotional circuits were overloading she'd call on Maura or Leese to settle her down. Here in the middle of a Saturday evening, with no phone card and not near enough credits on her cell, she didn't have that option. There was Martina, sure, but the punk girl didn't seem the nurturing type. She scrolled through the few names in her cell and came to Matija's. Of course, Matija. If there was one person who could brighten her mood, it was Matija. She hit the call button.
            "Allo, Nika. Šta ima?" What's happening?
            "Hi, Matija. I'm sorry if it's late or if you're out with someone." She realized belatedly that he might have Saturday plans that were working out better than hers. "But I just… argh! I'm just so angry and I need to, you know, talk to someone!"
            "Oh, allo, it's ok. It's not late, and I'm not out. Where are you?"
            "I just passed the stupid fountain. I'm sorry. I feel bad for calling…"
            "No, nothing. You're downtown, then?"
            "Yes. Now I'm going past the ice cream shop – one of the millions of ice cream shops this stupid little town has."
            "Ok, it's ok. Do you remember where I live?"
            Nicole had only been there once before. "I think so."
            "It's on Mihoeljec street. Go through the passage…" Matija explained to her how to get there, his deep, gentle voice soothing her. The attention she had to pay to his directions further calmed her temper. By the time she'd reached the twisty, cobbled street that led up the hill to Matija's ground-floor flat, the blood no longer thundered in her head.
            Matija lived in a good-sized studio with windows looking out onto the street on two sides. A quick glance told that he spent the majority of his home-time either at the computer or before the TV: papers, books, and even a plate with the remains of a sandwich were scattered on the computer-topped desk, adjacent to a decked-out TV stand with stacks of DVDs as well as a set of hand weights propped against the television. A big bed – this evening with notebooks, papers, and Matija’s gradebook spread out – took up most of the rest of the room. A wardrobe huddled in the corner, looking ashamed of itself. His sparse kitchen and equally Spartan bathroom sat side by side in the rear, like sad sisters not invited to the dance.
            Matija had his head stuck out the side window so he could watch for her. When he’d spotted her, he greeted, “I don’t see any blood on your hands so you can’t have murdered anyone. I was afraid of that when you called.”
            “No, I haven’t, but I was tempted.” She followed him into his apartment but stopped short when she saw the shambles of his bed. ”Oh, no, I’m interrupting something.”
            Matija surveyed the mess and laughed. “Yes, I was having an orgy with all this paperwork, but I had finished anyway.” He stacked his gradebook onto a pile of notebooks, which went onto a stack of other notebooks; he removed these to his desk. “Have a seat,” he invited. “Do you want something to drink? Ah, I don’t have wine, but I have beer or rakija…”
            “Rakija, please.”
“Wow, that bad? Ok.” He went into the kitchen to pour the brandy. As he did so, he called through the archway, “So, who do you want to kill? Not me, I hope. After hearing how angry you sounded on the phone… well, I’ll apologize if it’s me.”
Nicole perched on the corner of the bed he had cleared for her, already feeling her mood lifting. “No, of course it’s not you. It’s stupid Oliver again.” Matija returned with a rakija for each of them. Once he’d handed her one of the glasses, he sat at the head of the bed, back braced against the wall and naked man-feet planted on the bedspread. Nicole took a tentative sip of the brandy, which burned the whole way down, before continuing, “He’s just such a flake. And an asshole.”
“What happened?”
“Oh, it’s stupid anyway. We were supposed to go to the movies, but then when I showed up to his café-bar as agreed, he acted like we hadn’t made plans at all. He just wanted me to hang out at his stupid café-bar.”
“Was it a date?” Matija asked, a curious neutral tone to his voice.
“Stars, no. Just a friend thing, like you and me.” Nicole flashed on the maybe-kiss; she put it out of her mind. “Only Oliver’s not cool like you.”
“Well, thank you.”
Nicole wasn’t sure if she detected irony in his voice. She looked over to him, but he was taking a swallow of rakija. “No, seriously, you’d never… I mean, Oliver called me his girlfriend and a whore.”
“Which was worse?”
Nicole’s eye shot up to his face; as she watched, amusement twinkled in his eyes. “Excuse me?”
Matija held up a hand in placation. “I’m joking. Did he say it in English or Croatian?”
“What difference does it make? He called me ‘kurva’.”
“That can also mean bitch.”
“Now’s not the time for a language lesson,” she snapped.
“Any time-“
“Matija…” However, when she peered into his face she saw a smile tugging at his mouth. “This isn’t funny,” she insisted. However, she felt the knot she’d been experiencing release its hold of her chest.
Matija agreed, “No, not really. ‘Kurva’ is a pretty strong word. But this is Croatia, and we use strong words a lot. You said yourself you couldn’t believe how many times you hear ‘Jebi ga’ as you’re walking around.”
“Yea, but ‘fuck it’ is different from ‘She’s a whore’.”
“I assume you told him to fuck off – did you at least remember how to do it Croatian?”
Nicole ducked her head sheepishly. “Well, I did it in English, but I’m pretty sure he got the message.”
Matija didn’t appear to even be trying to hide the amusement now. “What did you say?” He took another sip of rakija and shifted against the wall, as if settling in for a good story.
“Well, it’s not so much what I said as… I yelled at him in the middle of the bar.”
Matija flinched expressively. “That’s not very discreet.”
“And then I threw a drink in his face.”
Matija’s eyes went wide, glittering as he stared at her. Then he gave himself over to amusement. Laughing almost helplessly, he choked out an admonishment. “Nika, this isn’t Denver. Rovinj is a village. You’ll see Oliver again and again.” He indulged in another fit of laughter.
“Matija… he provoked me.”
“I got that from the thrown drink.” He calmed his mirth. “ ‘Ajde, Nika you do have a temper, and I get it that he made you angry.”
“I’m not apologizing,” she warned.
“I wouldn’t ask you to – not while you’re holding that rakija. I don’t care if it’s in my face, but I have to sleep in this bed.”
Nicole shot him an apologetic look. “Matija, you know I would never…”
“My point is, this is Rovinj, Croatia, not Denver, USA. There is a big difference.”
Nicole’s earlier frustration came out. “I know. It’s a tiny, boring little town and I hate it!” Mortifyingly, she felt near tears. She looked down, into her rakija.
“Ah, Nika, just because Oliver-“
“Not just Oliver. Oliver and sometimes Martina and Tena and that Dejan guy and… everyone. I’m not- I’m an outsider here, and I really feel like one. I just stay home and-“  She stopped herself. She couldn’t admit to I how lonely she felt.
Matija scooted along the bed. When he was close enough, he put his hand on her shoulder. In his gentlest voice he said, “I’ve never done it, but I think it must be very hard to live in a foreign country. More so when you come to a village like Rovinj, where we’ve all known each other since we were children.” He lightly squeezed her shoulder. “We have a history that you can barely know and never share.” He exhaled loudly. “But that is also an advantage, if you want it to be. You can be…someone different.” Nicole, who had been looking into his brown eyes, sweet like milk chocolate, saw them go flat for a moment before the amused twinkle returned. She thought briefly of his scars before he continued. “Of course, for now you are the Crazy Woman of Café- Bar Oliver.”
She winced. “I really messed up then?”
Ma, fuck Café-Bar Oliver.”
“That’s what I said.”
Matija grinned. “Pa, that is not the place to hang out anyway. We will stick with Sax and Bolero.”
He started to move back across the bed, but Nicole reached out and grabbed the hand he’d put on her shoulder. He looked at her small hand on his for a moment before looking up at her face. She stated, “Matija, I feel like you’re the only real friend I have here. Thank you.”
He returned her look for a long moment. Then he smiled his characteristic impish smile. “Well, I could say you’re a real friend, too, and we could cry on each other’s shoulders. Or I could just poor some more rakija.”
Nicole thought she would have taken the hug-out if he had offered it; not wanting to seem weepy, though, she smiled wryly and said, “I guess we should go for the rakija.”