Nicole sat on her bed and carefully considered the polish on her toenails. On her big toe she had painted a rosy mauve, on the next a peach, the middle a rusty red, the next a standard red, and on the little piggy that cried "whee," all the way home a fashionable but startling shade of puce. She angled her foot nearer the bedside lamp, stretching her toned leg at an odd angle to do so, to get a better idea of which color looked best at the moment. After what should have seemed undue consideration, she settled on the startling puce. She removed all the polish so she could start with a fresh canvas.
Before applying the base coat, she touched her face. The pore-minimizing mask had dried to a crackly shell. She decided to remove it before wet toenails made movement more difficult.
As part of the exchange program, Hotel Adria had put Nicole up in a tiny studio at the back of the facility. The apartment consisted of one big room that contained the bare necessities: single bed, kitchen table, three wooden chairs, two bedside tables, one with a tiny television, and a basic kitchen set-up. A door on the far side of the kitchen led to a miniscule -- and unheated -- bathroom. The studio reminded her of the dorm she had lived in her freshman year, though here she at least had it to herself. It was scarcely bigger than her bedroom in the house she had shared with Maura and Leese the last two years of college.
Nicole entered the bathroom. The round pedal sink provided no space for anything but soap, so she kept her toothbrush and paste in the toiletry bag hanging from the towel rack. The toiletry bag had been a going-away gift from Leese. Nicole had laughed when she saw it, telling her friend, "I'm not backpacking across Europe like you did two summers ago. I'm just making the one move." Leese had given her a sage look. "Trust me. When you see the European bathrooms, you'll be glad to be as self-contained as possible." Nicole had long since emailed Leese to let her know she'd been right.
Nicole peeled the mask from her face in several strips then rinsed her face in cold water, as the package had suggested. She checked the results in the mirror hanging flat against the wall. She had good skin, smooth and pliable and with a faint olive tinge from her father. Her features came mostly from her mother: high cheekbones, turned-up blue eyes, and bee-stung lips. Nicole was pretty.
She was also lonely. It was Saturday night, and rather than preparing to go out, she was simply preparing. She remembered with a twinge of nostalgia all the times Maura had put on a "going out" cd, and the three girls had danced around the house while performing their beauty rituals. She thought about the bars and dance clubs they'd frequented in LoDo, Denver's historic and now trendy district. She even remembered with a fond twinge those sports bars and that dollar-a-drink dive Shaun always insisted they patronize. She pictured her friends, Maura and Leese, their more casual going-out acquaintances, Shaun and his posse before he'd broken up with her.
She sighed and looked away from the mirror, Shaun had broken up with her shortly before their senior year of college began. He had been honest as to the reason -- or she imagined he was honest since he'd told her, "Pro scouts are looking at me. I'm getting invited to some exclusive parties, and there are some really beautiful women there. I don't want to cheat on you, but I want to ... you know." It had hardly provided the highlight of her own senior year in college; she also had not wanted it to provide a defining moment in her senior year. Or in her life.
Nicole's father had accused her of such when she had told him about the work abroad program into which she had been accepted.
"Nikki, I know that punk Shaun broke your heart, but that's no reason to move across the world."
Nicole didn't want to think about that year now beyond the fun she'd had with her friends. No matter how much snow was on the ground, no matter on which side of zero the thermometer hovered, the bars had been packed any weekend they decided to indulge. Not so apparently Rovinj. Here it was, only near the end of October, and the town had nearly sunk into hibernation. A little chill in the air, a little drizzle, and the townsfolk felt their best course of action lay in staying at home with the family watching TV. That had been Matija's plan anyway, in response to a general text for entertainment she'd sent out: "slight fever. will stay home for tv." His had been the only response.
To show willing to whatever omniscient entity might care about such things, Nicole flipped through the three channels on her laptop-sized television. Hrvatska Televizija 1 was broadcasting a political talk show. Hrvatska Televizija 2 had on a basketball game. Nova Televizija was showing a Swedish film with Croatian subtitles. Nicole had actually watched this last for some minutes before she realized that she not only had no idea what the plot was, she also could not recognize which character was which; they were all tall, sandy-haired, and androgynous. So, she'd given up on observing this apparent Croatian fall custom.
On her way back to the bed, Nicole looked out her one window. If she looked past a fig tree, now in its golden autumn coat, she could make out a small portion of the path that led to the center of town. The path was completely deserted. She supposed people could blame the cold drizzle... She pictured Maura laughing at her freezing toes because she'd worn open-toed clogs in a snowstorm rather than the obligatory boots. "These go better with my outfit," she'd reasoned, which Maura agreed with despite her amusement. In Croatia, Nicole sighed and sat on the bed. Welcome to a resort town in the off-season. Gone were the crowds of summer, made up mostly of tourists and what few locals there were. Gone even were the wandering revelers of a month ago, this time mostly locals with a few hardy tourists.
"Nikki, you're hungover. Just because you're my daughter doesn't mean you don't have to follow the same responsibilities as your co-workers. Here at the hotel you're just another employee..."
"My daughter" -- Gerald Bouchard's daughter, the "Mr. Bouchard, General Manager," of the whole East Coast branch of the hotel chain.
"Daddy, see, it's perfect. I get a whole bunch of experience when it's not too busy. Then, when all the tourists come, I'll be ready to fulfill all my responsibilities."
That had been another unpleasant conversation, the one with, "Nikki, I know that punk Shaun broke your heart, but that's no reason to move across the world."
She had tried every reason and rationalization to explain to her father why she wanted to join this program; however, since her graduation would afford her a promotion at his hotel chain, the reasonings hadn't flown. He had blamed Shaun's break-up with her. Nicole hadn't wanted to admit how adrift she'd felt those months without him, so she'd thrown out the other reason for feeling adrift: "Mom was Croatian."
"Third generation, and less than half."
"Still. It's like my birthright."
"With that rationale, you'd have more call to go to France."
Nicole didn't stoop to pointing out the obvious: her daddy was still alive. "The program's in Croatia."
Gerald Bouchard snorted. "That's because it's a poor little country with war just a few years past -- they probably need the cheap labor."
"It's only a year."
"It's only a year."
He shrugged. "You're a grown woman, Nikki."
Then why do I feel like a child talking to you about this?
As if reading her thoughts, he admonished, "You will have to live on whatever pittance they choose to pay you."
"I already live within my means." It was mostly true; except for the occasional extravagance her daddy indulged her with, he had insisted she live on her wages ever since she moved out for college.
"I mean it, Nikki. I won't send you any care packages, not in the form of funds or beauty products or anything else."
"I understand, Daddy."
"And you'll have to pay your own way back if you want to come home for Christmas."
"Welcome to the cold, cruel world, Nicole Bouchard. I'll make sure you can make it home again at the end, but any frivolities need to come out of your own pocket."
Frivolities. Autumn in Rovinj didn't look like it would promise many of those.
The next morning Nicole exited her studio, passed the golden fig tree, and walked down the path leading to the town center. Light rain dropped on her head, but she refused to acknowledge it. She was heading for Sax, one of the ubiquitous cafe-bars that lined the waterfront, the riva. She carried an indulgence she had granted herself, her monthly subscription to Glamour: Britain. She had read it cover to cover already, but she wanted to be prepared in case none of her acquaintances were at Sax. However, when she entered the cafe-bar, she spotted Martina and Tena, a pinch-faced, top-heavy blonde, sitting at a back table; they were sitting with a couple Nicole didn't recognize. Martina saw her and waved her over. Nicole's mood lightened for about ten minutes; by then she started feeling awkward "listening" to conversation that was all in Croatian, fast-paced so she could barely catch a word here and there. Finally she heard -- or thought she heard -- Tena say something about Saturday night. Nicole jumped in with English, "Oh, I know. Wasn't it boring?"
Tena rolled her eyes. "Hardly. We were at party in Pula. We just return in Rovinj at 5:00 because that is the first bus from Pula."
"Oh," Nicole answered. Her stomach felt empty, with the unfamiliar sensation of having been excluded. She flicked a convulsive look in Martina's direction.
Martina shifted in her seat. "Tena and I went for a movie in Pula. Then we went to this party we heard about. We would invite you, but the movie was in Croatian, then it was late and there was no more buses from Rovinj."
Nicole's face felt hot. She thought it would have been less awkward if Martina hadn't explained about her exclusion. Nonetheless, she answered the apology as gracefully as she could, "Oh, no problem." She pulled her lips into a smile. "I did a little beauty routine."
The woman of the couple spoke to Martina in Croatian. Tena explained, "Ivan and Ivana haven't any English. Only Croatian, Deutsch, and Italian." Then she looked past Nicole to speak to Ivan. Nicole sat there, listening to what she didn't understand.