Zlatni Rt,the "Golden Park," stretched away from the town on the far side of the hotel. Even in summer this forested beach park could provide beach-goers with privacy by virtue of its many paths and long expanse of beach. Late November, and Nicole thought she had the whole park to herself.
She didn't delve too deeply into the paths. She wanted to get back into jogging -- she used to run with Shaun -- but she didn't have her stamina up yet. She acknowledged she might never get it to its former level: she didn't really like running, and she no longer had Shaun as incentive. Nonetheless, in the name of fitness, she jogged along the pebble path that most closely followed the coast.
Inhaling the fresh pine scent on this cold day certainly did not remind her of Denver. Rather the chill reminded her of a couple weeks ago, when she'd been standing outside the post office almost in frustrated tears. Her study program was offering an optional conference in Zagreb, for which Nicole would have to pay extra. At first she wasn't going to go, so she didn't join her classmates when they went to send the money off. However, after talking to one of the women she was particularly friendly with, Vivijana, she'd decided she really ought to check out the capitol. Besides, the conference isn't until January, and I bet the shopping is way better there than in Rovinj. And surely Daddy will send me some Christmas money since I can't afford to go home. Nicole, knowing how one wired money in the U.S., had asked around until she found out the place to go was the post office. However, in Croatia and with limited language abilities, the process had proved foreign to the point of incomprehensibility. First, you had to buy a form to fill out; in Croatia, you have to pay for forms. Once you'd stood in line and bought the correct form, you had to stand off to the side and fill it out. Even providing Nicole's having gotten the correct form, the completion was impossible as it was all in Croatian. In addition, if this form should be, miraculously, filled out correctly, you were meant to use it and some more money to acquire another form... Hence, Nicole stood outside the post office on a cold day wondering if she was going to miss the deadline if she waited the two weeks until she traveled to Pula again and could ask Vivijana for help.
Martina happened to see her, and when she discovered the reason the "amerikanka" was hanging out by the post office, she generously offered to help. Even with knowledge of the process, the transaction took some time. Nicole, grateful, offered to buy Martina a coffee; she declined, however, because she already had plans to meet another friend. She didn't invite Nicole along.
That seemed to be Rovinjian culture, though: friendly one moment and distant the next.
Nicole passed a short stretch of white-framed azure water. She continued to let her mind wander. She thought of Oliver as another prime example. She recalled how he'd jumped at the chance to help her buy a cell phone, way back in the beginning. He'd even offered chauffeur services so they could check all the shops in town. Such services were not strictly necessary with Rovinj so small, and the majority of shops located in the center. Nonetheless, Nicole appreciated the gesture. They'd tooled around in his silver car, listening to an over-vamped sound system and with Oliver cracking jokes about what a "sex machine" his car was. Nicole tittered to be polite.
New phone purchased, Oliver had made a point of assuring his was the first number stored in the phone book.
The next night, a Saturday night, Nicole had indulged in half a bottle of wine with dinner. The blending of flavors had simply been too scrumptious for her to abstain: fish so fresh it had been alive the night before, cooked with fresh parsley and onions, overlaid by a crust of caramelized lemon. Crunchy salad with nuts and strong olive oil dressing. Soft bread with just a hint of corn. And the crisp Istrian wine, just acidic enough to cut through the oil in the fish and the salad. The wine left her a little light-headed.
Since she still had only the one number stored in her phone, she sent a message to Oliver stating she was heading to a new Cafe-Bar just off the Carrera, or main street; he was welcome to join her. She didn't think it in the least suggestive -- considering Matija and Martina along with Oliver, these friendships all seemed pretty platonic. He texted back immediately that he would be there and at what time. However Oliver took her invitation, though, he showed up an hour late.
So, Nicole walked into the Cafe-Bar Bolero and didn't see anyone she knew. She sat on a barstool with a view of the door in the dim interior and ordered a glass of wine. Much of her dinner-buzz had dissipated, but she thought she could recapture it. When the bartender, a young cutie with artistically-gelled hair, served her drink, she tried to strike up a conversation with him; he, however, only spoke enough English to take and deliver orders. A friendly young man, he joked and tried to make her feel welcome, but the music was loud, and he had a job to do. Besides, she hadn't started her lessons with Matija yet -- hadn't even been offered them yet, though she would as soon as he heard this story ("Ugh -- what am I supposed to do with all those stupid declended nouns in a bar, anyway?" "Well, I'm not sure 'declended' is a word, so I can teach you some proper English grammar as well as Croatian small talk...") -- so she doubted her extremely limited vocabulary would have gotten them far. She decided to think of the situation as an adventure and tried to appreciate the ambience solitarily.
Cafe-Bar Bolero didn't offer anything different from the majority of the bars in Rovinj. The furniture was of metal and smoked glass, and the neon around the bar echoed the pastels in the seat cushions. Primitive, colorful artwork covered the lavender and black walls. The bar offered the usual variety of domestic liquors, beer, wine, and a scant few imports. One Istrian specialty, though, came in the form of a thick, honey-based liqueur called either "medenica" or "medovača." The variety served at Bolero was made by the young owner's uncle. Saša, the bartender, offered Nicole a free shot. Stronger than mead, the liqueur displayed just the right balance of tangy and sweet; it warmed going down and went straight to her head.
People around her laughed and chatted in loose groups. The bar may have been new, but the cliques were well-established. In the far corner a very young group of girls surveyed the scene from behind long bangs. From time to time they leaned in to remark on some sight, but their expressions never changed. At the end of the bar a coldly handsome man with transparent blue eyes and black curls held court over a circle of young toughs. A smiling couple chatted and chuckled with another smiling couple at a nearby table. Others mingled around; one older man eyed her speculatively, so she dropped her eyes. She refused to allow a feeling of isolation creep in. She ordered another shot of the tempting medovača.
While Saša delivered the second shot, he caught sight of a new arrival, a rugged-looking man of about forty. Saša greeted him energetically and waved him over. "This is Ivica," he told Nicole. "Ivica have English." He explained something to the new arrival in quick Croatian then turned away to pour a beer.
Ivica smiled at Nicole, his light mustache highlighting his grin. "Where are you from?"
"The U.S., Denver, Colorado."
Ivica nodded. "Yes, I know it. I have an aunt there."
"Yes. I spent some time there during the war..." They slipped into an easy conversation.
Oliver finally arrived awhile later with a friend. Nicole didn't notice because she was laughing at a joke Saša had made and Ivica had translated. When she did catch sight of him, though, his face looked even longer than usual -- perhaps because she was having fun without him and with another man. She saw the ugly flash of irritation for only a moment before he consciously replaced it with his professional grin. He strode up to the bar and placed a familiar hand on Nicole's shoulder. "You having good time, yes?"
Nerved, Nicole's smile grew brittle. "I wasn't until Ivica showed up." She shifted so that Oliver's hand fell away. "I thought we were supposed to meet, like, an hour ago."
"Ah, cafe-bar have many, many people. I no can leave Tata alone, no." He shrugged, as if to show how helpless he'd been in the face of the Saturday night rush. "Then I must go to get Dejan."
Nicole took note of Oliver's companion. Maybe just because he was juxtaposed next to the gangly Oliver, but the compact young man appealed to her. Her body subtly shifted, relaxing in Dejan's direction, and her smile went soft again. "Hello, Dejan. Nice to meet you. I'm Nicole."
His hazel eyes lazily looked her up and down. " 'Allo. Nice to meet you." His accent was very thick, his words deliberate. He looked past her just long enough to introduce himself to Ivica then met her eyes again.
Oliver spoke up. "Dejan speak Deutsch, no English. And Croatian, of course. Yes."
"Da," he agreed.
Ivica checked his phone and stood. He made a joke about "mladi," the young, and bid his farewells. Before leaving, he paid for all of Nicole's drinks. Oliver noticed.
Nicole and Dejan flirted lightly for awhile; Nicole refused to notice Oliver was seething. They made do with Nicole's newly-learned Croatian and what English Dejan knew from songs. Occasionally they appealed to Oliver for translation, which he did with bad grace. Mostly they just laughed their way through the exchanges. Every once in awhile he seemed to have to join the court around Coldly Handsome, though. When his attendance started lingering in that area, Nicole followed Ivica's lead in checking her phone before bidding farewell. She didn't even look back at Oliver.