"Fuck your café-bar." Finally extricated form the booth, she stood before him quivering in fury. "And fuck you!" She grabbed the vodka-juice and threw the drink in his face. She slammed the glass down, turned on heel, and stormed out of the café.
The cold November night did nothing to calm her fury. She stomped across the square, glaring balefully at the cupid fountain, daring it to comment. She felt insulted and disgusted with both Oliver and herself. Oliver was a reprehensible crow, and she'd allowed him to get under her skin. He had an inflated sense of self – for no reason that she could discern – and was a flake into the bargain. She hated egomaniacs, and she abhorred flakes! She'd known people like him back in Denver, basketball players mostly that she met a jock parties with Shaun, and she'd always made a point to steer clear. But, once again... She wasn't in Denver anymore. Again she questioned the advisability of deciding to spend the year abroad, discover a new culture – part of her mother's culture – meet new people that had nothing to do with Shaun and his jock crowd…But at least back in Denver she'd be on familiar ground. She wouldn't be so bored and lonely she'd resort to socializing with a flaky crow!
Normally when Nicole 's emotional circuits were overloading she'd call on Maura or Leese to settle her down. Here in the middle of a Saturday evening, with no phone card and not near enough credits on her cell, she didn't have that option. There was Martina, sure, but the punk girl didn't seem the nurturing type. She scrolled through the few names in her cell and came to Matija's. Of course, Matija. If there was one person who could brighten her mood, it was Matija. She hit the call button.
"Allo, Nika. Šta ima?" What's happening?
"Hi, Matija. I'm sorry if it's late or if you're out with someone." She realized belatedly that he might have Saturday plans that were working out better than hers. "But I just… argh! I'm just so angry and I need to, you know, talk to someone!"
"Oh, allo, it's ok. It's not late, and I'm not out. Where are you?"
"I just passed the stupid fountain. I'm sorry. I feel bad for calling…"
"No, nothing. You're downtown, then?"
"Yes. Now I'm going past the ice cream shop – one of the millions of ice cream shops this stupid little town has."
"Ok, it's ok. Do you remember where I live?"
Nicole had only been there once before. "I think so."
"It's on Mihoeljec street. Go through the passage…" Matija explained to her how to get there, his deep, gentle voice soothing her. The attention she had to pay to his directions further calmed her temper. By the time she'd reached the twisty, cobbled street that led up the hill to Matija's ground-floor flat, the blood no longer thundered in her head.
Matija lived in a good-sized studio with windows looking out onto the street on two sides. A quick glance told that he spent the majority of his home-time either at the computer or before the TV: papers, books, and even a plate with the remains of a sandwich were scattered on the computer-topped desk, adjacent to a decked-out TV stand with stacks of DVDs as well as a set of hand weights propped against the television. A big bed – this evening with notebooks, papers, and Matija’s gradebook spread out – took up most of the rest of the room. A wardrobe huddled in the corner, looking ashamed of itself. His sparse kitchen and equally Spartan bathroom sat side by side in the rear, like sad sisters not invited to the dance.
Matija had his head stuck out the side window so he could watch for her. When he’d spotted her, he greeted, “I don’t see any blood on your hands so you can’t have murdered anyone. I was afraid of that when you called.”
“No, I haven’t, but I was tempted.” She followed him into his apartment but stopped short when she saw the shambles of his bed. ”Oh, no, I’m interrupting something.”
Matija surveyed the mess and laughed. “Yes, I was having an orgy with all this paperwork, but I had finished anyway.” He stacked his gradebook onto a pile of notebooks, which went onto a stack of other notebooks; he removed these to his desk. “Have a seat,” he invited. “Do you want something to drink? Ah, I don’t have wine, but I have beer or rakija…”
“Wow, that bad? Ok.” He went into the kitchen to pour the brandy. As he did so, he called through the archway, “So, who do you want to kill? Not me, I hope. After hearing how angry you sounded on the phone… well, I’ll apologize if it’s me.”
Nicole perched on the corner of the bed he had cleared for her, already feeling her mood lifting. “No, of course it’s not you. It’s stupid Oliver again.” Matija returned with a rakija for each of them. Once he’d handed her one of the glasses, he sat at the head of the bed, back braced against the wall and naked man-feet planted on the bedspread. Nicole took a tentative sip of the brandy, which burned the whole way down, before continuing, “He’s just such a flake. And an asshole.”
“Oh, it’s stupid anyway. We were supposed to go to the movies, but then when I showed up to his café-bar as agreed, he acted like we hadn’t made plans at all. He just wanted me to hang out at his stupid café-bar.”
“Was it a date?” Matija asked, a curious neutral tone to his voice.
“Stars, no. Just a friend thing, like you and me.” Nicole flashed on the maybe-kiss; she put it out of her mind. “Only Oliver’s not cool like you.”
“Well, thank you.”
Nicole wasn’t sure if she detected irony in his voice. She looked over to him, but he was taking a swallow of rakija. “No, seriously, you’d never… I mean, Oliver called me his girlfriend and a whore.”
“Which was worse?”
Nicole’s eye shot up to his face; as she watched, amusement twinkled in his eyes. “Excuse me?”
Matija held up a hand in placation. “I’m joking. Did he say it in English or Croatian?”
“What difference does it make? He called me ‘kurva’.”
“That can also mean bitch.”
“Now’s not the time for a language lesson,” she snapped.
“Matija…” However, when she peered into his face she saw a smile tugging at his mouth. “This isn’t funny,” she insisted. However, she felt the knot she’d been experiencing release its hold of her chest.
Matija agreed, “No, not really. ‘Kurva’ is a pretty strong word. But this is Croatia, and we use strong words a lot. You said yourself you couldn’t believe how many times you hear ‘Jebi ga’ as you’re walking around.”
“Yea, but ‘fuck it’ is different from ‘She’s a whore’.”
“I assume you told him to fuck off – did you at least remember how to do it Croatian?”
Nicole ducked her head sheepishly. “Well, I did it in English, but I’m pretty sure he got the message.”
Matija didn’t appear to even be trying to hide the amusement now. “What did you say?” He took another sip of rakija and shifted against the wall, as if settling in for a good story.
“Well, it’s not so much what I said as… I yelled at him in the middle of the bar.”
Matija flinched expressively. “That’s not very discreet.”
“And then I threw a drink in his face.”
Matija’s eyes went wide, glittering as he stared at her. Then he gave himself over to amusement. Laughing almost helplessly, he choked out an admonishment. “Nika, this isn’t Denver. Rovinj is a village. You’ll see Oliver again and again.” He indulged in another fit of laughter.
“Matija… he provoked me.”
“I got that from the thrown drink.” He calmed his mirth. “ ‘Ajde, Nika you do have a temper, and I get it that he made you angry.”
“I’m not apologizing,” she warned.
“I wouldn’t ask you to – not while you’re holding that rakija. I don’t care if it’s in my face, but I have to sleep in this bed.”
Nicole shot him an apologetic look. “Matija, you know I would never…”
“My point is, this is Rovinj, Croatia, not Denver, USA. There is a big difference.”
Nicole’s earlier frustration came out. “I know. It’s a tiny, boring little town and I hate it!” Mortifyingly, she felt near tears. She looked down, into her rakija.
“Ah, Nika, just because Oliver-“
“Not just Oliver. Oliver and sometimes Martina and Tena and that Dejan guy and… everyone. I’m not- I’m an outsider here, and I really feel like one. I just stay home and-“ She stopped herself. She couldn’t admit to I how lonely she felt.
Matija scooted along the bed. When he was close enough, he put his hand on her shoulder. In his gentlest voice he said, “I’ve never done it, but I think it must be very hard to live in a foreign country. More so when you come to a village like Rovinj, where we’ve all known each other since we were children.” He lightly squeezed her shoulder. “We have a history that you can barely know and never share.” He exhaled loudly. “But that is also an advantage, if you want it to be. You can be…someone different.” Nicole, who had been looking into his brown eyes, sweet like milk chocolate, saw them go flat for a moment before the amused twinkle returned. She thought briefly of his scars before he continued. “Of course, for now you are the Crazy Woman of Café- Bar Oliver.”
She winced. “I really messed up then?”
“Ma, fuck Café-Bar Oliver.”
“That’s what I said.”
Matija grinned. “Pa, that is not the place to hang out anyway. We will stick with Sax and Bolero.”
He started to move back across the bed, but Nicole reached out and grabbed the hand he’d put on her shoulder. He looked at her small hand on his for a moment before looking up at her face. She stated, “Matija, I feel like you’re the only real friend I have here. Thank you.”
He returned her look for a long moment. Then he smiled his characteristic impish smile. “Well, I could say you’re a real friend, too, and we could cry on each other’s shoulders. Or I could just poor some more rakija.”
Nicole thought she would have taken the hug-out if he had offered it; not wanting to seem weepy, though, she smiled wryly and said, “I guess we should go for the rakija.”