Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Most Polite Chicken Eats Last: A Discovery

            Early on, before her big blow-up with Oliver, Nicole had regularly visited his cafe-bar with the intention of becoming a regular. Most of the cafes in the Old Town were geared towards tourists, and so were either trendy or quaint. Oliver and his father, however, operated a tiny establishment in the oldest part of the Old Town that catered to fishermen and other local blue collar types. Literally a hole in the wall, Cafe-Bar Oliver (also the father's name) was located on the ground level of a building in which the extended family lived. Oliver was inordinately proud of his little dive, with its three dingy tables and scratched chrome bar.
            A couple days after her lesson with Matija, Nicole lugged her Croatian-language book and notebook into Cafe-Bar Oliver before work. She forced her mind not to flash to her favorite study cafe in Denver, a large, well-lit joint run by tattooed softies near her house. When Oliver (junior) saw Nicole walk into his place of business, he greeted her enthusiastically. "Hi-hi, Nicole, welcome. Here, sit." He shooed away a rubber-faced fisherman with a red nose and settled Nicole at the small table. "Can I get you something for drink?"
            "Ah, yes." She cleared her throat. "Veliki cappuccino." 
            Oliver looked surprised. "You know how to order for Croatian?"
            In her new language she said, "Yes. Matija teaches me Croatian."
            Oliver nodded. Still in English. "Ah, Matija, yes, yes. He is teacher now. Ok, one big cappuccino. Ha-ha, veliki cappuccino."
            Nicole thought he might have been patronizing her; however she decided to ignore it since it could just be a cultural difference. She opened her textbook but watched Oliver for a moment longer. She noticed that he towered over most of the fishermen and builders like a gangly crane. Yet his behavior more resembled a crow, but instead of shiny things he flapped from conversation to jukebox to joke with little in the way of real substance. To be fair, though, he was the barman and had a duty to see to all his customers. When he glanced up and caught her looking at him, he winked. Feeling slightly awkward, Nicole dropped her eyes and worked on matching Matija's instruction with the lesson in front of her. She smiled thinking about the mild curse he'd taught her, reasoning she'd never find it in any textbook and she ought to know how to vent her frustration like a Croat. Still smiling, she got to work.
            Oliver showed up some time later. He slid her coffee in front of her, saying, "One veliki cappuccino, ha-ha." She looked up and saw he was balancing a plated pastry on top of a glass of cola. "My breakfast," he explained. Without waiting for an invitation, he sat down next to her. He broke the flaky pastry in half, and a fine coating of powdered sugar floated down to his lap. "You want half?" he offered.
            Nicole thought of the yogurt and muesli she's eaten after a quick run around the hotel grounds. "Oh, no thanks."
            Oliver's lower lip jutted briefly, conveying apparent irritation that his offer had been refused; however, he seemed to quickly rally. "Ha-ha, more for me." He munched on the pastry, acquiring a ring of powdered sugar around his mouth. His eyes darted over his text book. "Ah, yes, yes, you study now. Matija is good teacher, no?"
            "Oh, yes, definitely," she answered with honest enthusiasm. "He teaches me way more than that lady up in Pula that my program provided." Nicole rolled her eyes. "All she ever wants to teach us is word endings and tenses -- I mean, in the Croatian language it seems like all the words have declensions! Matija says I probably need to learn how to order wine and food -- and ask where the bathroom is -- before I master the 'vokativ' tense." She looked at Oliver and got the feeling he hadn't quite caught the whole meaning of her lament.
            Perhaps Oliver meant to mask his ignorance by changing the focus of the conversation. "Matija, poor Matija." He shook his head in a good imitation of regret. "What a pity."
            "Pity?" Nicole echoed. "What do you mean 'pity'? There's nothing wrong with Matija."
            "Yes, there is. Yes." Oliver nodded sagely. "Yes, when he is a children, a kinder, he have beautiful future. Yes, he is very talented children. Very good at football -- soccer in America, eh? Ha-ha."
            "Um, yes, soccer. He was very good at soccer, er, football? That's great! But I've noticed a lot of Croats are good at football. It's like, the most popular sport."
            "Yes, yes. But Matija is not good -- he is, ah, better. Best. Everyone think he is professional one day, maybe play for national team, maybe move to Italy and make many money. He is so talented."
            Nicole frowned at Oliver, trying to reconcile the image of the Matija he was describing to the young man she was getting to know. Matija was generally fit she thought, though he tended to favor neat but casual clothes that sat on him comfortably, showing he was fit but not indicating how fit. He also moved with more grace than Oliver, certainly; however, having dated an athlete who had gone pro, she didn't sense athletic genius in Matija's demeanor: no barely-restrained cockiness, no urge to show off his athleticism with a "casual" jump over a barrier, no vibration under the skin that indicated he just wanted to run and jump and kick to release all the extra energy inside him. To Oliver she said, "What happened, then? Why did he become a school teacher? Did he have an injury?" She knew that had side-lined one of Shaun's teammates.
            "Uh, injury? No, no. When Matija is 14, 15 he is already playing in league with boys 17, 18. And he is one of the best players. But then he gets these headaches. His parents think is just stress and make him play less football. But his headaches are worse and worse. Then, in a match he, uh... collapse."
            Nicole gasped involuntarily, her heart going out to the young Matija. "What happened?!"
            "Ha, how to say in English? He have problem with brain."
            "A tumor?"
            "Um, cancer? Um, rak?" She knew the word because she'd learned the horoscope.
            "No, no. No rak. It is like he has balloon in his head."
            "An aneurysm?!"
            "Da, yes. 'anirism.' For long time after surgery he no can move whole right side of body." Oliver waved his own right appendage to illustrate, barely avoiding knocking over his coke glass with his elbow.
            "My stars!"
            "Yes, stars. Stars. He no can move whole right side."
            "But... I mean... obviously he got better. He's not paralyzed now. He doesn't even seem to have any trouble moving any parts of his body." She tried to remember if she'd seen even a tremor in his hand; however, when she'd been looking at his hands on her homework, they'd seemed as steady as anyone else's.
            "Yes. No paralyzed. No trouble moving. He have much therapy. Is good for him he is athlete. He is only 15. He is young, he get better and better." Oliver paused here to adjust a mask of sympathy over his face. "But he is no the same. Already after one year he can run and kick. He think maybe he can play football again." Oliver shrugged. "But I think he is not talented now. He is, uh, normal. Typical." Oliver whistled and clapped his hands together. "No more future. He never play football again, not even for fun."
            No, it wouldn't be fun -- not after you'd played like a star. "Oh, that is really so sad." Over-riding pity filled her breast. She struggled to match the kind young man she knew with the devastated boy he must have been.
            "Yes, sad, ha-ha." Oliver drank his cola in one long gulp and stood up. "I have to run cafe-bar. Make money." He took the coke glass but left the mangled pastry next to Nicole's book, his crow's offering.
            The next day Nicole sat with Matija in the deserted hotel cafe. They sat kitty-corner from each other, the faux-wooden table covered with an unused ashtray, their coffee cups, sugar packets, and a big book of pictures Matija had brought along to facilitate their lesson. The book was open to a kitchen scene. "Don't be insulted by the English words by the pictures," he said. "I think you already know most of this vocabulary in English."
            Nicole sniffed. "I'm very handy in the kitchen, thank you very much."
            "Well, let's see. Describe the scene."
            She teased, "In English or Croatian?"
            Matija rolled his eyes exaggeratedly. "What do you think?"
            "Well, next to the stove -- hey, why are those called hobs-"
            " 'Ajde, Nika, in Croatian."
            Nicole paused. "'Nika'? Is that, like, a nickname?" She smiled with pleasure -- nicknames came with pals, and Nicole liked having pals.
            Matija cleared his throat. "Ah, it's a diminutive of your name. Here in Croatia we have such long names that sometimes we get lazy and use the short version." He straightened. "Stop procrastinating. Tell me what you see."
            The directive reminded her of Oliver's story from the previous day. She looked at the picture and started trying to string together simple sentences with her new vocabulary. However, her eyes strayed over to Matija. They traveled over the open plains of his face -- no tremor, no outward indication of what had happened behind his eyes -- to the thick cap of blonde hair. She had known him three months now, and as she thought about it, she realized the hair never got much shorter or longer. It was no particular style -- just a little shaggy. She wondered... Subconsciously she tried to see past the hair to the physical -- and emotional -- scars underneath.
            Matija looked up suddenly, drawing her eyes back to his; they locked startlingly. "What are you looking for?"
            Flustered, she stammered, "Oh, um, nothing. I was, ah, just looking at your hair. It's getting a little long." Oh, stars, I meant to say dark, now that summer is over.
            Matija's gaze grew sharp; discomfiting Nicole further. He looked straight into her eyes, as if probing for the truth of her statement. Nicole prayed that he wouldn't realize she'd been looking for scars, or prayed that he'd play it off if he suspected. However, as he continued to look into his eyes, his look changed subtly, as if a mask were making his features -- and thus his emotions -- blank. With his long-fingered, knuckly right hand he smoothed the hair halfway between ear and crown. "Evo," he said. Here.
            Nicole winced. "Sorry."
            The mask stayed in place. "We will talk about it when you can do it in Croatian." Then his features softened, and his natural kind look returned. "Now, seriously, Nika, you are being a naughty pupil. You may not know that 'hobs' are these cookery rings on top of the stove, but surely you can say something about the kitchen table!"
            Nicole dwelled on his statement for just a moment, recognizing it as a plea to allow them to get to know each other before they discussed painful topics; not a surprising request. Respecting it, she followed his lead and teased, "Hey, in the U.S. 'Hobbs' is a famous stuffed tiger. But, ok, I'll say something about the kitchen table -- and I'll even do it in Croatian just for you!"

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