Nicole sat with Martina and a friend of Martina's from Pula, Goran, at a restaurant tucked into a corner of Marshal Tito Square. They were sharing a large order of fresh, fried calamari with a side of french fries. For health's sake, Nicole also had a salad in front of her. It was finally spring, with the end of April's hosting a frosting of pink blossoms, purple flowers, and buds of greenery everywhere. Three weeks straight of gray and rain had just passed, and Nicole exulted to see color and feel warmth again. Not to mention it was the best time to enjoy the freshest of calamari.
Martina and Goran chatted in the Istrian dialect. Though it wasn't so different from the standard Croatian Matija taught her, Nicole had some difficulty following their fast-paced conversation. About the time she'd get a good enough handle on the topic, they'd move on. A couple times she made comments anyway, usually eliciting a small smile from Martina. At the moment, though, they were apparently discussing a shared experience they'd had with people Nicole didn't know. So, she picked at her salad and let her eyes wander over the square. They looked over the wide expanse of gray concrete with the smooth cobblestones leading away in a Ninja star of directions. The fountain with its proud cupid up top stood stark-white against a red-painted building behind it. The most beautiful sight to Nicole's eyes -- to Rovinjian eyes, she knew -- were the small groups of tourist snapping photos, sitting at cafes, walking with their eyes up on the imposing walled Old Town they were about to enter. Rovinj was waking up.
Nicole checked the time on her cell phone. "I'd better get back to work."
Martina looked at her own cell. "It hasn't been even forty-five minutes -- don't you get your full hour?"
"Well, sure, but it's May Day weekend, and we have a lot of guests checking in."
Martina and Goran both nodded; they understood the increased demands of tourist season. With "ciao" all around Nicole took off for the pleasant walk back to the hotel.
She had one of two ways to go, either along the Riva or down the Carrera. Since she wanted to experience the reawakening of social Rovinj, she chose the main street. She passed through an arched passage onto the wide, cobblestone pedestrian street. Shops selling jewelry, souvenirs, clothes, music, even groceries flanked the Carrera. Only one street off-shoot, the one that lead past Cafe-Bar Bolero, forking at the Italian Community Building to lead up the hill away from the sea. Nicole walked past that, past the little corner grocery with its lackluster produce in a stall outside. Tourists affected their vacation gait: stroll and pause, stroll and pause -- very irritating in the height of the season when the Carrera was packed side to side and you couldn't get past them no matter how late you were. At the moment, though, there were only a few clusters, and Nicole really did have some time.
She exited the Carrera onto the much smaller Lokva Square. Apparently the tiny chapel at its apex was an important Romanesque building; Nicole appreciated the square for the 24-hour bakery off to one side -- it was practically the only place to go after hours during the off-season.
The sight of the bakery reminded her how Matija had introduced her to it and the wonders of its burek at 2:00 am.
The evening had started out as one of frustration. Oliver -- when she was still talking to him -- had cancelled last-minute on a pub-outing; they had meant to go with some friends of his from a nearby village, but somehow that wasn't going to work out, and he'd rather just stay at the cafe-bar and, surprise-surprise, make money. Aggravated, she'd called Matija and vented for several minutes, ending with, "So, what are you doing tonight?"
"Going to an exclusive party that you're not invited to."
Trusting, "No, seriously."
"You don't believe me? I get invited to parties..."
"Yea, but you wouldn't be so mean to say it that way."
Matija harrumphed. "Well, as it happens my dance card is surprisingly empty. I was going to send out a general text to everyone but you to find out if anyone was up for a drink."
She thought, "Hey, I've got a bottle of wine. If you stop trying to be mean, I'll share it with you."
"Is it that domačni wine you keep getting at the green market?" He was referring to some produce-sellers who also sold wine they made themselves.
"Hey, everyone keeps talking about all the great times they have, drinking the domačni wine..."
"Notice no one ever says it's because the wine is so delicious." He sighed. "If we're going to torture ourselves, let's go all out. Let's go watch the 'Hollywood shoot 'em up' spectacle they're showing at Gandusio's." He meant the tiny movie theater downtown which showed already-released-to-DVD films if a crowd of at least ten wanted to watch; often, they didn't make the cut. "You bring the wine, and I'll bring, ah... my charm."
"That is tortuous."
"I guess I asked for that."
Halfway through the mediocre film, and with more than half the wine gone, Matija had leaned in and whispered, "I don't know which is worse -- the dialogue or this wine."
Nicole had inhaled to make some remark, but with Matija still close, she had gotten a deep whiff of his citrus-musk cologne. Startled, she'd succumbed to a fit of giggles that a vain attempt to control had resulted in Matija's giggling along unself-consciously. Nicole finally buried her face in her arms until the laughter subsided; Matija took a long swig of the wine.
Film and bottle both finished, the pair stumbled across the square. Probably they had Sax in mind as their destination, but as they entered one of the narrow, Medieval alleys that ran parallel to the riva, one or the other of them steered into a nameless hole-in-the-wall. Bosnian folk music, an exotic mix of Eastern melody over Slavic harmony, blended with the smoke-filled air. They sat at one of those tall tables with the back-less stools. Nicole thought to observe that asking drunks to perch on such unstable seating seemed unwise, but Matija was ordering another bottle of cheap wine, and she forgot.
Matija made drunken jokes, and Nicole giggled her way through two more glasses of wine. By then, she was far beyond buzzed. Her head spun, and she realized she couldn't feel her face. She remembered that her step-mom had once recommended drinking a glass of water with each drink -- and she should know. Nicole leaned against the table with the vague notion of whispering to Matija about her step-mom, or maybe about ordering water. Matija had looked up, and their eyes had connected. Their eyes had met many times before, but this time they stayed engaged. Nicole felt her equilibrium slipping, and then somehow they were kissing.
The kiss was brief. Nicole had felt the sensation of falling, and then Matija had grabbed her arms with an "Opa!" and she was on wobbly feet in front of him. She looked questioningly up at him; he wore a look of bemusement, his lips slightly parted and his soft eyes a bit puzzled. She opened her mouth to ask him what had just happened.
Matija spoke first. He dropped his hands from her arms and slurred, "Do you believe in 'carnation?"
"The flowers?" Nicole was even more confused. Did we just kiss? What does that have to do with carnations?
"'Jeb," Matija swore. He cleared his throat. "Re-incarnation. Do you believe in reincarnation?"
"Oh." she pushed her hair out of her face, which felt flushed. "Um, I don't know."
"I do," he stated. He reached for his wine glass and looked down at it. Nicole couldn't gauge the expression on his face; he didn't seem to have one. "I think you and I were brother and sister in our past lives."
"Oh." She thought some more response might be expected of her, but she couldn't catch his train of thought. Did I just imagine the kiss? Maybe I just fell on Matija, and our lips collided. Maybe I should apologize. "Sorry."
Matija met her eyes, and there was no doubt that they were expressionless. "Bez veze." No big deal. He pushed his wine glass away. "I need some food, or it is going to be an ugly morning. Have you had burek yet?"