Nicole jogged to the point of Zlatni Rt that jutted farthest into the Adriatic. She circled around a stone ruin -- likely hundreds of years old -- and headed back towards the hotel. In the short time she'd been out, the clouds had completely overtaken the sun, and the temperature dropped at least ten degrees. She wasn't exactly looking forward to taking a shower in her unheated bathroom -- especially since the tiny water heater offered a very finite amount of warm water -- but coupled with hot tea, she might just warm up again.
As she passed by the white-rimmed beach again, she noticed a familiar figure just arriving at the water. Delighted, she called, "Matija!" and started walking down to meet him.
Matija feigned jumping into the frigid water. "Come any closer and I'll do it, I swear!"
Nicole laughed. "Do it!" She made exaggerated movement towards him.
"I'm not joking! I really will jump into this very cold water!'
"Go for it! I dare you!"
He relaxed. "Ok, I really am joking. You can come closer." As she did, though, he pretended to make a grab for her, "That way I can throw you in the water!"
She shrieked, "Matija! Behave!"
He stopped. "Why?"
"Well... because I don't want one of us to end up in the water."
He made an elaborate sniffle. "So, you really do care."
"Well, yea. If you get all cold and wet, you'll want to come to my apartment and use up all my dry towels. You'll probably even use up my little bit of hot water. Then what will I do?" She indicated her head. "I can't go to work looking like this."
He nodded sagely. "Yes, that would be a tragedy indeed -- much worse than my catching my death of pneumonia." He tossed his head and smiled, though, to show he was, of course, kidding.
Nicole hugged her elbows. "So, what are you doing down here anyway?"
"You don't believe I'm really going for a swim?"
She made a show of looking him over. "You're not wearing a swim suit."
"Clothing is optional at most beaches in Croatia -- and especially here at Zlatni Rt."
Nicole gave him an appalled look. "Really?"
"Oh, yes. You haven't lived until you've seen a leather-skinned German showing you his all."
"I most certainly have lived without seeing that. And you're still joking, right?"
"Unfortunately, Nika, right now I'm telling you true things."
"Oh." Feeling her fingers were getting cold, she started tugging the sleeves of her warm-up jacket down. "But you're not really going for a swim, are you?"
"Hey, I know all us Slavs look alike, but I'm not Russian. Only Russians go swimming in the sea outside of summer -- and I think most of them wouldn't try it now either." He noticed what she was doing with her sleeves. He frowned. "Are you cold?"
"It's a cold day."
Matija indicated his worn leather jacket and equally worn leather gloves. "Which is why I'm dressed for the weather, not in some terribly fashionable but impractical running suit." He sighed heavily. "But I'll make the sacrifice."
"What sacri-" She broke off when she saw he was stripping off his gloves.
Matija offered them to her as if on a silver platter. "Evo. So you can keep your fingers."
"But..." She took them, but still protested, "What will you do?"
"Ah, see this is the brilliance of my clothing. Not fashionable but..." He slipped his big hands into his pockets. "Very practical."
Nicole was touched by the gesture. She slid her hands into the oversized gloves, still warm from Matija's hands.
Finally, she asked, "Are you ever going to tell me what you're doing down here on such a cold day?"
"No. Under pain of torture I will never tell you that this is my favorite winter beach-" He gasped and gaped at her, as if he'd really told a secret.
She laughed duly. "Is it really?"
Matija relaxed, and they chatted amiably for some time. He related that, as a native Rovinjian, he had a beach for all seasons and all moods. "Monte is good for a quick swim, Punta Corrente if I want ice cream while I'm sunbathing. Red Island if I plan to spend a lot of time... And this one for winter."
Nicole looked around. A gray boulder framed the small beach on one side, tall pines on the other. The white pebbles sloped down from the path to the clear Adriatic. The little alcove felt isolated -- but not in the way she did off-and-on as an outsider. Isolated like a favored hiding spot, a place to get out of your head and meditate. She looked sharply at Matija. "Seriously, Matija, was I interrupting you when I came down here?"
He snorted. "You found out that I am procrastinating. I have a stack of grammar papers this high." He held his hands about a foot apart. "I imagine my students will want them graded before they take their exam next week."
"Hey, come to think of it, it seems about time I gave you and exam."
Nicole cringed. "I was hoping you'd forget that."
"Of course I haven't. I'm a very consci- conscien-.." He snapped his fingers. "I forgot to avoid that word."
"Sure, show off."
Nicole groaned. "Oh, stars now there's going to be a pronunciation portion to the exam."
"Hey, that's a great idea."
"Matija," she pleaded, "I'd like to point out that every day is a test. I live in Croatia."
"Yes, but as a seasoned teacher of three months, it has come to my attention that my pupils do not study unless I dangle the threat of a test in front of them."
"Oh, all right. I suppose that's true."
Matija cleared his throat. "And maybe if you get a good mark on this test, I will reward you with the chance to really practice your Croatian."
Nicole frowned. "You mean, more of a chance than actually living in the country?"
"Yes. Ivan and Ivana -- whom you know don't speak any English -- are having a small party Saturday, mostly people who want to watch Gira on their satellite."
Matija rolled his eyes. "What are they teaching you about Croatian culture at your classes?"
"Mostly the Glagolitic script."
"Well, Gira is a basketball player in the NBA. Since he's from Croatia, we Croats jump at the chance to watch him on satellite TV."
Matija peered at her. "But maybe watching sports is not your idea of a fun Saturday night."
She thought of all the sports bars and "parties" she'd gone to with Shaun. "Can I go even if I get a bad grade on my test?"
"Nika, that would make me a terrible teacher!"
She jumped on the opportunity he gave her. "That's a 'yes' then," she teased.
Matija paused. Then he nodded. "Good one."
"Just kidding -- you're a great teacher."
Matija seemed to ponder her words. "Sorry, I don't get the joke in that one."
"Oh, Matija," she laughed. "What time is the party?"