by Edina Kikić
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“Do you think you can trust your friends?”
A boy, almost a young man, doesn’t answer. He is polite – he just came back to the apartments. Zora is speaking in strict Croatian while Aida translates. The boy looks from one woman to another, watching the language being shaped like a ball so it comes to him coloured, with an accent. Five of his friends evaporated in the sunset, across the bay, grabbing their last few drinks before their boat for Split.
Zora has left to consult the owner, but Aida believes she will make the decision by herself. Zora knows her duties and she can’t allow any blame to be pointed against at her in the future. The boys are her responsibility – and the guests, the vines, the bathrooms, the floors, the couches, as well as stains on crisp white bedsheets, fingerprints on glass doors and mirrors.
Aida and Zora know the exact amount of everything in those apartments, built one on top of the other.
Aida was aware of it before she started her second shift. She was wiping the surfaces with wide strokes, in a hurry. But these boys were coming in, so the cleaning couldn’t be done. The process itself, is not to be seen. Money and jewels on the table, or on the bed and floor, joints and hats as strange private witnesses to someone else’s life. They were tokens only to be moved slightly, gently to the side when doing the cleaning, then returned. Funny thing this is: to be allowed to touch private belongings.
“I thought I saw girls inside, so I got excited!” A thin boy with a Brooklyn accent laughs, while his friend searches for the first aid box.
By policy, Aida has to leave as soon as the guests enter the room, so sometimes she is unexpectedly free. She doesn’t have to check on many things – small bottles of shampoos and lotions left on the floor, spilled at times all over the glass shower cabin, and the rest of it: the ashtrays and the state of the terrace, bed sheets, stains, the toilet and the paper, the stairs and the trash. She can go now.
“I just want to go out for some pizza, you see. Believe me, we hate when this happens. We wish the glass door wasn’t broken. Zora seems to be certain everything was fine before you boys came.”
A blonde boy looks down, and then he looks at Aida: “You should absolutely go out to have some pizza!”
“But we have to settle this matter and I have to translate. You are from New York? A student?”
He looks a lot younger than he is. He mentions the university and Aida tells him she is a teacher. The conversation is pleasant now. The sun is setting over the harbour.
Aida thinks of the past few days when she had gone home infuriated. She hadn’t seen the boys at first. She and Zora will employ their slender magic fairies to find the right place for every little thing in this place and make it all gleaming and perfect. Yet, Aida can feel the anger boiling inside Zora as she picks the condoms from the floor and the broken glass from the terrace. She spares Aida from these tasks.
“You can’t expect me to change my ways Aida. To be professional. I am too old now. I yell!”
“I can’t have anyone yelling at me anymore. I start to make mistakes; I shake. And we have to hurry, don’t we?”
One of the boys starts to sing. It’s a pleasant harmony, until the voice curves in a common, generic way that seems an impression of some famous pop singer. A bit boring, Aida thought, unlike the tension, smoke-like manifestation climbing in her insides, crossing from her to comrade Zora. As the boys return earlier than expected, the control is lost: they have to vanish. Aida sees it all in Zora and wonders where it would fall – the experience is repeated, continuous and constant.
“You know what Zora? Do you know what they are?“ Aida says. “Privileged little pricks. The entire world is like their mother, cleaning after them!”
The word prick is funnier in their language, so Zora laughs and responds: “I am fed up with cleaning after boys, men, entitled rich bastards!”
Aida moves a little, dances a tiny escape.
It’s such a warm evening, she’s thinking about the full moon. She will go back to her place. Her friends will be waiting. They have plans to swim under the full moon where the beach is white and bare under the big light. You have to drive over the cobble road to reach it.
Today it’s Petar, with his reckless driving. Her legs are shaking as she gets out of the car and she walks down the tree roots, towards the beach, unsure, as always, a bit uneasy. For a moment, she thinks that her friends are creatures constantly covered in seawater, with saltiness living on their tongues, never apart from each other.
They simply undress, standing there without a thought in the head, defiantly naked in the shallows. She runs fast by them, topless, her hands protecting her chest, in some way – aware, every second, that she is doing it for the first time, every inch of her muscles in constriction. She swims towards the moon, all warmed up by the water, she carries on without the slightest intention to stop. Her movement soothes her discomfort: away from the white beach, shouting into the white circle ahead. The moon is bouncing in front of her, over the ripples and waves: Aida allows the moon to dissipate her fear of the dark and the depth. Right there, a hand grabs her calf.
She lets out a screams.
She didn’t hear Petar chasing up on her and she doesn’t really understand what he is saying now, moving around her like a dolphin.
“The water is warmer than the air outside!”, Aida hurriedly yells to her friend who had remained on the beach, still unwilling to jump in, yet performing her sacred movements for Bereginya: her hands behind her back grasping the energy, across her chest, tied to the body and then up towards the moon light in a structured dance motion, celebrating the upper world, the connection. But now, heading back is imminent. Aida’s limbs are shaking out in the air: the moment is over, so she swims towards the shore.
Aida moves further away from all of them and lays down on the sand, a few buttons on her dress left unhooked, not hiding in white light.
His eyelashes are long. He speaks responsibly under the curl of his blonde reddish hair. He is the only one polite. He wears those white guest slippers, perhaps purposefully: maybe he is aware of the floor being very clean. Maybe he is aware of the ways others contribute to make his life comfortable, even so close to the beach and the haze burning inside his youthfulness. Aida thinks of her own shyness and the way she was at his age: watching rock concerts on MTV, hiding behind a cushion, finding escape with her boyfriend, as they were unable to leave or travel. Both of them were penniless students without a passport or the opportunity to contemplate a castle, a museum or a vista, never a chance to grasp what was out there, far away. They used to hide in music, from the dysfunctionality of their parents. At times, they would read themselves into the oblivion, careful enough to avoid drugs, booze or unexpected pregnancies.
Now, this young boy talks with good manners and confidence, while staring at her beige dress and the buttons holding it up in the wind.
“Which one of my friends was searching for the bandages?” he asks.
Aida describes the bandage boy and she confirms his identity, after having been shown a photograph.
Then, Zora comes gliding down the stairs with a serious frown, wearing a stiff white shirt. She says that only half of the deposit can be returned. The voice is flat and resolute; kindness and sweet disposition are a luxury, in this case. The boy accepts it, goes inside the room and returns with money in his hands.
He gives it to Aida.
“You don’t have to do this.” Aida says, searching his eyes to convince him.
“I have to thank you; you did such an amazing job here.”
Zora tells her she should never refuse a tip. Also, she suggests they could share it, once the money has been exchanged.
Warmed up by the sunset sun, the stone is smooth, white, and slippery underneath the sandals. The alley is narrow. People look up from their plates sometimes. The waiters move swift and with purpose. Aida gazes at those big plates they’re holding, she gazes at their steps – coffee coloured haste. She moves away from their path, now feeling hungry, as hunger is always waiting, sometimes manifesting in rows, even in the heat. In the end, Aida steps into the square, into the twilight, looking for a word inside her.
For the first time that month, she felt useful – she translates her frustration.
She felt Seen.
She knows she doesn’t look different from anyone else there. She might as well be on vacation – in fact, she has the dress for it. A dog meets her on the stairs, alongside voices and board games on the table. Her friend Mia tells her about the food they have kept aside for her – she receives a hug – it’s warm and soft and motherly. She sits on the terrace, behind the dips and chips, angry and tired. Aida casts a glance at Petar and his face is pale, lips curved down. Mia got through to him, somehow:
“What do you really know about sex if the main reference is porn? The only way a woman can really open, is if her heart is open. And what do you want from sex?”
“I am satisfied if I see she is satisfied.”
“Uh I don’t believe that really! You know women pretend. I don’t even know if you have been in love, ever! I am your sister, and I love you, but I am not sure if I would have been your friend.”
She concludes regal as ever, voice deep and confident, shoulders and sighs moving alongside the shall and feather earrings she had made herself.
The game of Ludo was positioned carefully and with reverence in the middle of the table, so everyone could reach it. That balcony used to be a restaurant only a few years ago. The space left for gatherings, sewing sessions, big family lunches and spontaneous workshops. Petar is eager for his turn, he plays with special satisfaction as he kicks the players’ pieces out of the game. Apparently, that evening, it is very important to win the game. In frustration, Aida breaks her bracelet, made of tiny round magnets.
“Shall we go for a swim tonight or not?” She says, adamant, and the others are surprised.
“Yes absolutely! The moon is full”, her friend replies.
One picks up the towel, the sweater, the shawl to cover her shoulders in anticipation of this cold September night, cold even here on the Adriatic, cold even after a sticky warm day.
Every ritual needs preparation.
One drives down the old road towards the white stone beach.
One screams and swims, in the lushness that comes when you dare to claim some space.