NOVEL: "Ladybird, ladybird"

Chapter 8 (before)

Sam Shepard walked into my life when I was a twenty-six-year-old aspiring actress with a fresh degree from the Academy of Dramatic Arts and arrogantly carrying around the script for my first real play – Euripides’ Medea - to be staged at the National Theatre of Rijeka. He was just like a mature Peter Pan, Mick Jagger’s unknown brother and an eternally restless rolling stone. It was a fatal attraction of inconvenience and carelessness; with passion galore and zero reasoning. Later on I depicted it as a moment of fading self-esteem on both sides. A challenge to prove that you could have what you in fact shouldn’t have; a forbidden fruit which you were not strong enough, or didn’t want, to resist. Just like the biblical apple. The problem was that he was married and 49 years old; and I was blinded by the fulfilment of a physical desire.
Months before we actually met we were crossing each other’s path at the reception of the Ri-Fit Fitness Club at the top of the steep stairs of Pomerio, next door to the neo-Renaissance building that used to be the residence of the Hungarian governor. We bumped into each other on occasional mornings in the almost empty club, in the courtyard or at the bar with its healthy foods and drinks, and exchanged glances. With his chipped front tooth, greying hair and a bold cheeky smile he reminded me of Sam Shepard. By the time I was fuzzily dragging myself in for a light cardio-vascular programme with feather-light weights, he had already finished his programme and was heading towards his restaurant.
On a morning of torrential rain when I was fighting with my unruly umbrella he rushed to open the door for me.
“Oh…thanks!”
Sam Shepard smiled and whispered something like “enjoy your work-out”. I turned around to see his perfectly toned bum rushing towards a dark blue Audi parked in front of the gym.
When Lara went to the toilet at the end of our celebratory meal in this expensive restaurant we’d never been to before, Sam Shepard invited me for a few drinks in the cocktail bar of the hotel Bonavia, the only place in Rijeka with Mojitos and Piña Coladas on the drinks list; and only sparsely populated with Italian and Scandinavian consuls and captains of foreign freight ships sitting on the bar stools and sipping whiskies on the rocks as they eyed local girls coming there for some fun. Dim lights and a piano in the dark corner where an invisible musician was playing “As time goes by…” He just whispered in my ear:
“You are so beautiful. I would love to flirt with you.”
Flattered by his attention, charmed by the high class of a place rarely entered by ordinary Rijeka people, and faintly tipsy, I laughed loudly.
“What a striking dress… It has so much to show as well…” I was wearing a knitted black dress tightly fitted around my arse and with deep décolletage, usually camouflaged with a scarf, but unlike his restaurant, the bar was too hot to keep it on.
Sam Shepard was the living proof that the levels of testosterone do not diminish with a long marriage, a family or the years going by. Didn’t Charlie Chaplin marry an eighteen year girl in his old age? And wasn’t Alain Delon always showing off his young companions?
When La donna è mobile from Verdi’s Rigoletto started playing Sam pulled me towards him and dragged me into a naughty waltz around two tables. When the music stopped, he whispered into my ear:
“Would you like to join me in my apartment upstairs…for a glass of… champagne?”
Such a cheap line, but hey why not? I was young and single. He was not. Neither of the two. However, that wasn’t my problem. Lara disagreed. It was my problem. I was breaking up a marriage, just like her dad’s secretary Dunja did when Lara was in her second year in Zagreb. That was not my intention at all – or his for that matter. It was just a liaison with no ties, no expectations, no visions or future. It was just a catalogue of passionate and educational encounters.
Lara thought I was sad and that I saw in Sam Shepard my non-present and non-existent father and that my biological shortcoming drove me to this highly inappropriate liaison. The pianist resumed his stint with Strangers in the night as we walked towards the lift. Two lonely people…lovers at first sight…Reason disappears quickly at the prospect of sensual pleasure.
“I need a shower…after the whole day in the restaurant!”
And he was already pressed against my slim body, kissing my neck and engulfing me with his arms. One hand was caressing my face with fingers gently touching my lips while the other was looking for a way under my dress.
“Would you like to join me?”
Soon we disappeared in a foamy cloud of lavender-scented gel. His body was muscular from all the hard work at the gym and his laugh was buoyant. My mind took a break while my body surrendered.
Seven floors down, the town was breathing the calm air of a Sunday night, the only night I wasn’t on stage and his restaurant wasn’t too busy so he could treat himself to this sensual escapade. Everything but this hotel was closed and people were tucked into their warm beds getting ready for another week.
He was all matter of fact, no interlude or epilogue. Just it. A highly physical encounter. And exceedingly and unconventionally pleasant. Afterwards we were lying in bed, he was gently kissing my hand thanking me and I was staring at the ceiling, trying not to engage any brain cells, but instead enjoy the relaxed mode I was in. The apartment was all in a monochrome brown tone. Even the thick curtains were dark brown and when they were drawn, it felt like lying in a brown bubble. Only the paintings on the wall were lighter; sea-themed watercolours with angry waves and fishing boats. I remember thinking of life as a staccato piece. Random people walk in, others walk out. And even if I was never to meet Sam Shepard again, those nightly moments were worth it. He was someone who would leave a memory on my skin, but never a scar. The sheets felt soft and satiny. What do you say to a married lover whom you are using as much as he is using you? He is using you because of your inquisitive inexperience and you are using him because of his undisputed experience. Fair play.
Shortly after 1am he got out of bed and said: “I’d better be going… This is the time I usually head home from the restaurant.”
“Alright…”
Of course, his wife was waiting, somewhere in their suburban mansion, oblivious to it all. I started getting up.
“But…You can stay… How about I order an extravagant breakfast in bed, some smoked salmon, some eggs, for you tomorrow morning?” And I did. I couldn’t be bothered to get dressed, get home and face Lara, who had left me behind with Sam.
Guilt is such a relative term, Lara! It always depends on your starting point. Also – we feel guilty most of the time, anyway. We seem to be born with it.
Brancin was a pricey and posh restaurant down the narrow passage at the beginning of the Korzo, the centre of Rijeka’s social life and shopping expeditions; a showy promenade of Austro-Hungarian façades, Yugoslavian ready-to-wear shops and socialist cafes. Its usual clientele was consulates, local and national politicians, directors of governmental offices and similar folk. Lara and I wanted to treat ourselves. We can afford it once a year!
“Hello girls…what would you like to eat tonight?” - Sam Shepard in his denim shirt and loose black tailored waistcoat suddenly moved a chair over from another table and sat down next to us. He glanced at our faces and said staring into my eyes:
“I haven’t seen you here before!”
“No you haven’t…”
“But you do look familiar!”
We recognised each other from the brief encounters at the door of the gym.
“Is there a problem?” – Lara’s sharp voice cut across my ‘Oh hello, we met at the gym’ moment.
“Oh no, not at all! It’s a pleasure to have you here! A bottle of wine on the house… I have some delicious white wine from the island of Krk, more precisely from the vineyards of Vrbnik… When it comes to food, I can recommend today’s specials – we have delicious crab risotto for starters and grilled sole for main.”
It all started then and there; Sam’s knee was brushing against mine under the red and white checked tablecloth and I could feel goose bumps running down my spine and ending in my crotch.


***


As I was coming to our landing, I noticed a thin line of light underneath the door of the flat. I quickly glanced at my watch. It was just before two in the morning and I couldn’t think of any reason why Lara would still be awake. I had been involved (no other word described the situation better) with Sam for a few months and even if she never blessed our liaison, she stopped criticizing it and just pretended that Sam did not exist and that I wasn’t seeing someone married and old enough to be my father, something that reminded her of her own old man and the long-legged blond lass Dunja.
I noiselessly unlocked the door and tiptoed in. After dropping my bag and coat on the floor next to the tall mirror in the front room, I hurried to the kitchen. Lara was sobbing, loudly covering her face with both hands. I had said goodbye to Sam earlier at the door of his apartment and taken my time to get home, taking a few detours through the narrow passages of the old town of Rijeka, enjoying its contemplative midnight quietness, with only occasional harmless lunatics and drunkards crossing my path.
“What’s wrong, Lara?”
She opened her hands and gave me a painful look.
“I’m pregnant!”
Her gentle and pale face was red and roughened from hours of uncontrollable weeping and nerve-racking worry. She rubbed her face and the smudges of her black mascara spread down her cheeks like a sharp cut and tears reached her shaking lips.
“But – why is that so bad, Lara?”
“We can’t keep it… Marko has just started his master’s course at the Faculty of Engineering, earns peanuts and still lives with his parents. We are just not in a position to have it…”
“How far are you?”
“Just over three months… ”
“Right… And you didn’t notice it earlier?”
“No, I didn’t… I know I sound stupid, but no I didn’t… Just lost track of time…”
She lowered her head onto her forearms resting on the table and her sobs became even harsher; it was beyond control and her whole body was shaking.
“Lara, Lara! It might all work out well in the end…” I walked around the table and hugged her trembling shoulders.
“No, it won’t… I have to get rid of it… but I’m worried that it’s all far too late…”
“Get rid of it? Are you sure that’s the best option? Why don’t you calm down and think it over? There is always a way and I’m sure you’ll find it…”
“There is no time for it… It’s already far too late and I urgently need to get rid of it… Of course, if I can find a doctor who will do it.”
“Have you ever considered having kids…sometime in your life I mean?”
“Of course I have and both Marko and I want kids…but now is not the right moment… And how about you?”
“I guess so… I never thought of it really…” I said and added: “You are right. We are too young. I’ll help you with it, Lara…”
Raindrops gently caressed the windowpane and soon the light coming from our kitchen window was the only light still on in the courtyard. Over a camomile tea and a few stale fig rolls left behind in the biscuit box, we spent another hour chatting. After the incredibly sober and grown up chat the decision she made seemed the only possible and the only logical one considering the circumstances. Lara’s lips eventually turned into a shy smile. With her translucent skin and pale blue eyes, she looked so fragile, gracious and dramatic; I could see her coming out of a Chekhov play.
Lara just wanted to get it out of the way; she didn't need to make up her mind as that was not the problem. Instead, getting rid of it was the only possible way, end of. Equally, she did not want Marko to get involved in the whole procedure. By doing this, she tried to dissociate him from the whole thing.
“I don’t want this to be our joint experience. I want this to be just a nasty episode, a moment of weakness on my part that will not affect our relationship in the long term” she explained to me.
“What does he think anyway?”
“He’d rather we don’t have it at the moment…but ultimately he wants it to be my decision, without any pressure…”
“Basically, he said he doesn't want a baby now, but he wants to make it look like it was all up to you?”
“No, it’s not like that… You can’t understand anyway. You've never had a long term relationship.”
Fair point. I did not. Marko and Lara had been together since they were sixteen. With her family life crumbling, Lara desperately needed that human feeling of belonging more than anyone else I knew; the guarantee that someone is always there for you and that you can take them for granted. Her father was ambitiously running after new business opportunities (and his young secretary, but no one knew that in those days) and mother, with her eternal halo of melancholy, found the perfect escape route in her passionate lecturing, prolific writing of papers on contemporary Russian literature and frequent research trips to the Russian Literature Institute in Moscow. On the other hand, Marko and I were always there. Marko was studying Engineering in Rijeka and Lara Dramatic Arts in Zagreb, but the distance did not affect their relationship in the slightest. He was a studious academic person happy not to have a girlfriend in his pocket and she liked the balance of commitment and freedom she had in this relationship. Early on they knew they were perfect for each other and that they would marry one day after pursuing their dreams and inspirations. Towards the end of university, Lara was obsessed with taking a year off and going to study acting in no less a place than New York - at dad’s expense. However, her father got Dunja pregnant (or Dunja got him pregnant, as Lara saw it) and needed all his money to start a new home, and there wasn't any left to sponsor his daughter’s yet another year of leisure in New York after five years of leisure in Zagreb, as he put it. Broadway did not work out, but her relationship with Marko went from strength to strength.
“I can arrange everything for your flatmate!” said Sam who seemed to always have a quick solution to everything and a mate who could do it for him. “A very good friend of mine is an obstetrician in the Department of Gynaecology at the hospital. He can do it for her. It will be over in no time and she will be able to put it all behind her and move on with her life.”
“Are you sure? Won’t she need a letter of referral or the opinion of a few GPs as she is over three months?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it… He can do it when he’s on a night shift…”
“What? Is that legal?”
“Technically speaking yes, it is legal as long it doesn’t go through the normal channels and it’s not put into the books. Don’t you worry about those kind of details.”
You’ve done it before, haven’t you, Sam? One of your young mistresses before me? It suddenly occurs to me, but I don’t say anything.
“And this friend of yours will do it for free?”
“Oh yes – he owes me a favour!”
I quickly finished my late afternoon double espresso and a glass of sparkling mineral water at the bar of the Brancin. The restaurant was just getting ready for the evening rush hour. The menu would change daily, depending on the season, the weather and what was caught by the local fishermen. Last night had been a successful night for octopus and squid and the young chef, sitting at the table in the corner and stealing glances at us, was designing his specials of the day based on the contents of boxes of fresh fish delivered that morning.
“I’ll phone my friend and will let you know… Tell Lara she needn’t worry. She is in safe hands and it will be sorted out in a few days. Trust me!” He looked deep into my eyes and then smiled and winked at me. It was then that I noticed the receding hairline on both sides of his forehead.
“Trust me. I know what I’m doing…” he repeated.
Strangely, I did trust him on this matter, but something else happened inside me in that precise moment. Yes, I’ve done it before and if you ever need it, I will help you too, I could read his mind. He was unshaven and the brownish hairs on his beard were blending with grey ones as an abrupt acknowledgment of his age, his oldness, his ripeness. Rapidly, his handsomeness melted in front of me, his mature manhood lost all appeal and the animal attraction – because that’s all what it was – evaporated. There. Leaving his restaurant by the back door. Lara was right…But, how come I didn’t see it before?
Shortly before midnight, when his restaurant had been tidied up after another busy evening and cleaners were mopping the floor and chef re-arranging his pans again eavesdropping on his conversation, Sam phoned.
“Hi. I’m phoning about the business we discussed earlier on.”
“Yes…”
“My friend is on night duty on Thursday. First he needs to assess the situation, and then he’ll decide on the best procedure. Can you meet him just after midnight? That’s usually the quietest time for him…”
“Fine with us. We’ll be there… Thanks, Sam!”
“No problem. He’ll be waiting for you… Ask at the reception to get him down, if he’s busy just wait for him.”
At exactly half past midnight Dr Sam’s Mate came to pick us up at the reception. He was more or less the same age as Sam and I was sure I had seen him before in Ri-Fit. His eyes were piercingly blue and he had longish blond hair. After winking at the receptionist ‘these are my guests and they don’t need to sign the book’ we disappeared down a dim corridor. Three nights later I was waiting for Lara at the end of the same corridor, one floor below the delivery rooms, where we had both been born.
If my mother had done it – as the circumstances were not right and she was even younger than Lara – I would not have been here. I would have ended up in a bucket, just dismembered limbs of a minuscule body after a lethal injection into a miniature heart - that’s how they do it at that stage – and would have never seen the bright light of life, would never have had the opportunity to step out in the world, learn my first words, fall in love with acting, sit on nonna Lucija’s lap and look into my mother’s soft eyes. I felt sick and ran to the toilet.
Next weekend I went to Lovran and treated my mother to a pizza. I insisted on her not working so that we could spend some time together to celebrate my role as Medea. I looked at her with a newly discovered gentleness. She was only forty-eight, but being very slim and worn out, with deep bags under her eyes and short hair, she somehow looked much older. Café Central had become her raison d’être long time ago and she still worked all hours even if she didn’t need to. That was the way she liked it; the hours spent at the café were both her job and her social life. People would pop in every day to have an espresso and a chat (of course mother, that what cafés are for, aren’t they?) and she did not feel as lonely as she would if she had stayed in the flat.
“Loredana would love to see you,” she said when we had both finished our pizza and were sipping our last drops of beer in Pizzeria Bacchus, the same place where Fabian had declared his love many years before.
“Oh, I haven’t seen her for ages. How’s she doing?” I couldn’t remember when I’d last seen my mother’s only friend and suddenly felt slightly guilty. From showering me with kisses when I was a little girl popping to the café with nonna Lucija, to giving me boxes of biscuits and packages of coffee to take to Zagreb, she had always showed her fondness for me.
“She’s alright… Did I tell you that her husband died?” My mother unexpectedly became chatty.
“No, you did not. He must have been young!”
“Well…he was caught with a sixteen-year-old girl by her father…who came home unannounced and carrying a gun…” Said my mother with a whispery voice, making sure that no one else in the half-empty place could hear it over the loud music.
“Oh gosh…did he kill him? I don’t remember reading anything in the papers.” I acted surprised, but clearly remembered this slim man with the eyes of a pervert and was surprised that he had not ended up in prison many years ago.
“No, he jumped through the window and landed on a concrete block. His brain stopped working and Loredana had to consent to his life machine being switched off a few days later. I went with her. She was devastated…”
“But – did Loredana know about all this…what he was up to…”
“Of course she did! Everyone did and felt sorry for her as she is a nice woman… I noticed it a long time ago, that time he brought back our repaired fridge and I would have never left you on your own with him after that. I even talked to Loredana about it, but she thought I’d got it wrong… Later on when many other rumours came her way and she figured it out herself, I tried to convince her to leave him, but she couldn’t… You know, three small children…”
“And how are they?”
“The oldest one is a treasure, a talented football player who always helps her a lot. She says that if it wasn’t for him, she doesn’t know how she would have survived…”
“I would like to see her, tomorrow morning, maybe? It’s my turn to buy her biscuits and coffee…”
“She’ll love that!” smiled my mother, feeling uncomfortable that I was the one paying. You deserve it, mother. I smiled at her and helped her to put her coat on.
The night I came back from Lovran, Lara seemed much better.
“I know that was the only way…but I do wonder whether it would have been a boy or a girl, whether it would have looked like me or like Marko or been a balanced combination of our features and our personalities…” she said, sitting on the sofa wrapped up in a warm blanket and sipping camomile tea.
“You’ll have kids when the time is right…” I have never been more grateful to my mother than then, but did not mention this to Lara.
“Of course… We both will… It’s just a thought…”
“I know, just look at it as a life lesson, as an episode, a moment that you’ll forget and move on from … Also – I’m also considering finishing with Sam!”
“It’s up to you… You know I disapproved from the beginning, but I’m extremely grateful to him for arranging this thing…”
“Why don’t we send him a set of free tickets to see Medea, as a thank-you present?”
“Yes…for him and his wife…”


***


On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks later, Lara and I were sipping our double espressos in the café of the hotel Continental and chatting away. Two tables away, an attractive middle-aged woman with blond hair wearing a shinny beige skirt suit with a large green crocodile brooch kept staring at us.
“That’s Sam’s wife…” whispered Lara.
“Are you sure?”
“Positive… Marko’s family knows them both…”
“Is she still staring in our direction?” I asked, petrified of turning around and manically thinking of a logical excuse and a civilised explanation. I could always say that Sam Shepard told me that he was divorced and pretend that I was just a naïve and stupid girl who believed him.
“Yes…”
“Maybe we should go…” I started panicking.
“Do you think she knows?” asked Lara, who had made Marko promise that he would never mention it to his family. Anyway, he never had that kind of conversation with his old-fashioned parents, so I was safe there.
“How would I know that? Maybe…”
Sam’s wife’s friend came back from the toilet and both of them got up. Slim and elegant, she walked directly towards us, staring into my face. Too late to run away now.
“Hello… Are you the actress who plays Medea?”
“Yes… I am!”
“I thought you might be… I saw you last week on the stage. I really enjoyed the play and you were excellent! Your performance was just captivating. It’s nice to see such a young talent in our theatre!” Her words sounded genuine.
Sam did take her to the theatre with the tickets, after all.
“Thanks…”
She smiled and joined her friend who was waiting for her outside.
“Do you think she knows?” Lara repeated the question nervously.
”I think so… I think so…”