“It’s October 28th. It’s her birthday again.” Marco opens Instagram and sees she just posted a picture of her sweet almond and cardamom flour cake with pistachio infused in coffee and agar agar. The bisque filling is topped with whipped cream and desert dry, dark brown raisins, like the cake Marco used to eat at the car factory when he met Mona five years ago. This one has love mixed into the batter though. He told her about it on their first date and she promised him with a fall in love with me smile that she would make him one too. Now, Mona shares it on the other side of the world with an older man that introduced her to opium and a different lifestyle. A warm rush of sadness flies through him. It was their ritual. Why is she sharing it? Why did she bother posting it today, and with that stupid ring?
Maybe she wants him to know she still thinks about him. Marco thinks and wishes her happy birthday with a copy-pasted blessing of health and prosperity he barely believes. He remembers the fights and the other signs, and it aches to remember he fell in love while she didn’t. He wants to write another message. Tell her that piece of cake looks like a bland piece of bread with rabbit shit splattered over it, but he knows better.
He gets out of bed and stands naked in front of the tall mirror of the AirBnb he’s staying at. Marco closes his reddened eyes and breathes deeply, slowly, and tries not to remember the invitation to her wedding he received a couple of months ago.
“It’s just your jealousy. It’s OK to grieve. It’s not about you, she’s proud of her cake. It has nothing to do with you anymore…Don’t you remember how vain she is?”
The sky is damp and grey. Good. Why should it be happy and colorful anyway? Truth hides in neutrality and maybe elegance. Yes. I must try to be elegant. He puts on a black tracksuit, sits half-dressed in the empty living room filled with dark green flora from floor to ceiling and various DVDs he’s never heard of. There’s a blank space on the wall opposite the mud coffee couch, a tall mirror hangs between it and the DVDs, some bison fake furs, and a hole in the ceiling just above his head where a projector used to be. He stares at it until deformed shapes and bony faces begin to crawl out of it. Open mouths with yellow teeth drip from the ceiling. Another deep breath then his mind focuses on one of the faces with long hair. He shapes it into hers. First, her small Italian nose, then her blue sapphire lively eyes, and the rest comes naturally. How easily he remembers the face that used to wake up next to him, the soft skin of her back that never pressed away from his chest. Her long thin neck that used to fall asleep in his right palm. How easily Love tricks the soul into melancholy.
If he was with her, it would be easy. I would know what to say, I would know how to embrace her and kiss the veins on her neck, bite her earlobe with tenderness, and wish her happy birthday the way it’s meant to. Mona’s curious eyes look at him and whisper.
“Then why aren’t you here? Why don’t you tell me now?” He looks away from the apparition and hides in the flowers. He looks again at the living room, there’s a large ebony table with three equidistant chairs opposite a long bench and another horizontal mirror the length of the table above them reflects the light from the garden and the tall chestnut tree that’s been there for at least 50 years. It looks like his host used to entertain, maybe there was a bigger couch too. One where she shared someone’s embrace did but not anymore. Escape is easy when you bring the past with you. The pain is there when you need to remember to live, and so is the joy when you want to smile.
“Why don’t you tell me now?” She repeats. He looks at her in the mirror again. My eyes changed. My cheeks are fatter than before but my hair is still the same. I know I’m beautiful, that makes everyone around me beautiful too. I could tell you everything but this is just another Friday morning. It’s another grey morning, what I feel for you pumpkin needs more.
“More of what? Don’t you know that every moment I spent with you was heaven? Your silence just makes me think you don’t care about me, about anything.”
That’s not true.
“So say it!”
“What do you want me to say?!” Marco jumps at the wall. “That every moment without you makes me feel like there’s half of me that’s missing! That you stole it and ran away from me?! That I despise you for breaking our promise.”
“What promise darling?! You only called me when you wanted to see me. You only kissed me when you wanted to kiss me. You only took care of me when I begged you to and you only held me in your arms after fucking me! Tell me what promise did I break by leaving?!”
“That we would spend our lives together and have children and build a long wooden deck together where we would grow old in each other’s arms. That we would smile at each other first thing in the morning then kiss and make love to chase away bad dreams!”
“But you’ve never said that to me and anyway it’s been years…”
“The years don’t matter. We both felt the Truth together. Why would you walk away?”
“The Truth Marco? Is it the warmth I felt in my chest and around my heart when you were holding me tight in your arms, the naked selfies in bed, green tea in the kitchen, making pasta embraced together, walks by the lake, and kisses behind trees? Or was it when you would leave and go see Beatrice back in your studio? That your fucking bed was one floor above mine?! Is seeing you passed out, high on my bed, unable to speak also the Truth?! Is the pain I felt those nights also the Truth?”
“Beatrice…Beatrice… That was before we got together, that was before we started living together. But I understand. I see where you’re getting at. You’re saying it’s all my fault?”
“It’s not just your fault, I should have spoken up, I should have told you how I felt about you… You should have told me too instead of trying to love me like a puppet at arm’s reach.” Marco closes his laptop and stands up as the apparition falls to its knees and wraps her arms around herself with pity. Warm, translucent tears drip down its cheeks and it quickly swipes them off with the back of its hand. He kneels by her side. She’s not real. She’s not real Marco.
“You know damn well I love every strand of your poorly cut hair and your tortured soul.”
“No! No, I don’t know that because you never told me anything like that! You think kisses speak a thousand words but they don’t. They only tell me I turn you on and that maybe, I’m a good fuck but they don’t say you love me. And now, when I remember them. They make me feel like a cheap doll.”
“Honey, you couldn’t have felt that way. There’s… I’m sure you knew how I felt. The way I took care of you when you were sick, the way I cleaned your make-up after a night out… The way we kissed every day…” He looks at her with pleading eyes and waits for an angel to give him absolution from the brutal memory of a regretful past and the eternal pain of knowing he could have done better if he knew himself.
“Why didn’t you say it if you felt it?”
“I thought it was cliché…” He says with a broken solemn voice.
“You don’t even realize how much I hurt, do you? You don’t even realize that I could be hurt because of you? Your stubbornness and your weakness cost me two years of my life and hoping will torture me for even longer.”
“Hoping? I’m the one that’s hoping. Wait! Hoping for what?”
The ghoul disappears with a fading veil through the white wall and leaves Marco on his feet. He scans his body with a sharp gaze that hides his built-up anger. He could almost let it slip through his skin and show it on his lips or let it pierce through his eyes. How much does it cost me to keep this up?
He goes back to his small room and packs his lenses, his films, and his Hasselblad in a large LV bag with a safety lock. He gets dressed quickly too, black socks, black Levi’s and black cotton second-hand shirt, a few rings and bracelets on his porcelain wrists, and Marco dashes through the cobbled street to catch the 8:50 metro going towards the lake.
Flavio, one of his Italian friends and promoter, rented a studio for today’s photo shoot. I didn’t even research the brand! I don’t even know what they want from me. At least I’m shooting with Domenica, she’s cool, and come on, relax, you’ve known her a long time. She’ll help me. Yeah. She’ll help. He closes his mind and looks at the crowd of people rushing to get to work, just as late if not more than him. They’re quiet, lost in their worries or their music or a book. At the next stop, a man of about 50 in a long wool coat and grey sweatpants comes in and starts making his way through the crowd. He’s not completely bald but his hairline is struggling and his eyes show that he’s had a long night. After a minute, he makes his way to the back of the metro and stands right next to Marco. He gives him an innocent and tired smile and Marco moves a little bit to the left to give him a breath more space. The metro brakes heavily at Marco’s stop and just before it fully stops, the older man slams into him and grabs onto his shoulders tightly. He also makes sure to poke and grind on his thigh with something hard underneath his waistcoat before he lets go still with a smile on his face. Marco’s first thought is to slam his face into the handrail but he can’t. The door’s closing and he’s late.
In the studio, Marco’s friend is nowhere to be found. Only Domenica is there and she struggles to set up the reflector under the white screen.
“I hear your footsteps, Marco! Bring me some tape. This piece of shit doesn’t want to stay open.”
“It’s good to see you too Domi.” They share a quick peck on the cheek and a hug.
“You seem upset amore? What’s going on?” Marco pulls her back and just as he’s about to open up, a crowd of assistants, make-up and hair artists, and other non-essential members of Marianna’s entourage show up in a loud ruckus that covers the emptiness in their hearts, and the lack of honesty their presence brings. A whiff of PVC and leather emanates from them as one of the skinny girls opens a window.
“I’ll tell you later.” The two split up and weave into endless half hugs and exaggerated kisses where everyone smiles through their teeth. Domi gets set up in a chair and Marianna’s needle-thin arms pull Marco aside. She pours it all out between her neon pink bangs and cloudy emerald eyes.
“Hey, hey, It’s good to see you again. You look great. I’m in charge today. So look, we want it to be fashionable, we want it to be modern but retro you know? Like give it a flashy feel but not too much, we don’t want to come off cheap you know? My boss warned me about looking cheap and I know it’s a tight budget but it’s all about the clothes in the end, right? You got me right?”
“Yeah. I got you, don’t worry. I’ll make it cool and sexy.”
“Great! Great! It’s so easy to work with you.” She runs her toothpick fingers over his arm. Marco knows it’s part of the job to always be flirty and relaxed but it only reminds him of the guy in the metro. He chases that thought away. Domi will make it cool and sexy. I just need to relax.
“Do you want some cocaine sugar? You seem a bit tense. Like you’re hyper tense you know.” One of the assistants comes over and shoves her slick, chiseled face into him as her pupils dilate.
“Thanks but I’m good. I always get like this. I just want the shoot to be great you know.”
“Oh don’t worry about it. I’m sure it will be fine.” It’s my job to worry about it, sugar. He adds to himself as Glamorous plays on the speakers. Marianna whispers something to Domenica then she turns around, raises her hands, and shouts at everyone.
“All right people, let’s make some magic.” Moments later she turns up the bass and the photo shoot becomes a pseudo nightclub. Domenica gets set up, unbuttons her shirt, clacks her pointy black lacquered heels, and strikes a few poses. Marco tries to get in the mood by giving her directions over Marianna’s screams.
“Beautiful baby! One more!” More and more people join the herd of the coked-up, hollow entourage. Not wanting to make a scene, Marco turns around and gives them a dark gaze that Marianna interprets as an invitation to join him behind the camera and take over the direction of Domenica’s poses.
“Open your chest a bit more, try… try and put your hands over your head. Yeah yeah.” She somehow found a moment to get drunk and is barely standing on her walking stick legs. She leans on the reflector and makes it tumble down over the white paper behind Domenica. A dry shriek fills the room as the crowd goes quiet and the umbrella slices through the paper. “Oh shit, oh fuck. I’m so sorry. It’s not that bad, we can fix it. I’ll fix it for you guys.” She tries to get back on her feet but her hair is caught in one of the tripods and she breaks the lighting too. Thank God I only brought my camera today. That thought calms Marco’s mind for a moment until he sees the arrogant emerald eyes staring right at him. She’ll find a way to blame him for all that’s happened. I need to act fast before she causes more damage! He gestures to one of the assistants to come help her.
“Listen up everybody.” He says. “This is a photo shoot, not a porno, not a nightclub. Everybody out, now!”
“You can’t say that!” Says Marianna. “I’m in charge here!”
“If you stay, I’m gone. I have two hours left to get your pictures. If I leave, good luck finding another photographer before you get fired.” Her hazed eyes clear up and she lets herself get carried away by the assistant.
“If I don’t get those pictures, it’s on you Marco!”
“Yeah, whatever, just leave.” Domenica turns to him and sees he needs a moment, she walks over to his bag and unlocks the compartment where he keeps his memory disks.
“How did you?”
“You showed it to me a couple of years ago. I know it’s still her birthday…”
“Well, who changes backpack locks?”
“People who change lovers usually.” A short cackling laugh bursts from Domenica as she passes him an empty memory stick. The large window behind Marco swings open and almost breaks as it bounces off the wall. Bright sun rays mingle with burping engines and annoyed honks downstairs as a swift breeze carries the lake’s freshwater dust into the studio.
“Let’s move the light there, actually just the diffuser. There’s plenty of sunshine there.” Olive-skinned Domenica sits on the edge of the window, readjusts her clothes then looks into the camera.
“Wait, you look too pretty. Scratch your head and mess up your hair. Make it look like one of those rolling balls of grass in Cowboy films.”
“Like tumbleweed? That’s a change. Normally, you want me perfect.” She notes before she violently shakes her head and almost falls out of the window. Marco steps quickly towards her slender frame and grabs her by the arm. Her skin is so soft.
Her pointy black heels intertwine and she lands flat on her back with a dry thump. The thump breaks the sound barrier of Marco’s thought and the moment, the image he couldn’t see before, manifests in his camera. Natural, and inviting, Domi looks beautifully vulnerable with a golden sparkle in her dark honey-glazed eyes.
“Close your blouse. I want them to focus on your eyes.” She flows from pose to pose like a venerable viper for the rest of the session and in half an hour, it’s in the bag. They go through the pictures and send a couple of them to cocaine skeleton Marianna as they open a bottle of Hendrix.
The night is almost here. Domenica comes back from the bathroom in the same rugged punk rock torn black jeans she came in. Her olive skin and tumbleweed hair still shine under the lonely reflector as she sits with her back against the torn white screen.
“I broke up with Julian last week…” She says in a lonely, mouse quiet voice. She almost hopes he doesn’t hear her.
“Oh, I didn’t know… You didn’t post anything.” Marco answers but his heart sinks when he remembers what’s happening a few kilometers south of the studio, in a cozy chalet by the lake. “I should have called…How do you feel?”
“How would you have known? You never call anyway. I feel like a punctured tire that’s been run over by a ten-tonne truck.”
“Did he cheat on you?”
“No. NO, he would never…but I would and I did.” Marco slides the half-empty bottle of gin towards her and drags the chair next to her. “You know what scares me the most? It’s how natural it came to me. How easy it was to seduce someone else and I feel so guilty because I’ve never been more turned on in my life. I knew he was at home waiting. You understand?” She says and sips the bottle then passes it back.
“Knowing you were hurting him made it that much sweeter.”
“It’s as if he was with me in that nasty bathroom. That’s how much I was thinking about him. The other guy’s hands were all over me, squeezing me tightly and I knew the other women in the bathroom could hear me but I didn’t care. I pictured Julian standing there looking at me. I swear I could breathe fire and when we came… Oh, God…” Marco crouched next to her while she talked and put his arm around her since her eyes watered under the reflector.
“Did it feel like you were cucking him or was it something else? Something just yours?”
“No, no. It’s just, he wasn’t there sexually, I just wanted him to see me. I wonder if that’s how Mona feels…”
“What do you mean?” He asks and takes another sip as she breaks apart and tries to get on her feet.
“I don’t know. I lost my train of thought.”
“You know she’s getting married as we speak?”
“Married? Her?! Where?”
“By the lake, I have the invite… I don’t know if I should go.”
“Oh you have to go. We have to go! Come on! Let’s get this party mobile. I’m done sulking about my shame.” They reach the door and Domi turns around and gives him a quick kiss out of nowhere. “Be straight with me Marco. Do you still love her?” She sees him get lost in a train of thought and barks. “Simple! Yes or NO?!” Her words slap the air out of him.
“Yes. Yes, I do still love her.”
“Then let’s go and get her back, for both of us! Who is she marrying anyway?”
“Some English lawyer, Brandon. I think.” They squeeze through the tight staircase and dash out into the crowded street where ten thousand ants carry their worries over the hot concrete. “And to think it was cloudy today, it’s a cauldron right now.”
“Some lawyer. She doesn’t belong with a lawyer. You make sure I tell her that. You make sure Marco it’s very importwant.”
“Importwant Domi? It’s importwant?!” He adds with a smile and hails a cab.
“You know what I mean.” Marco gives the address of the cozy chalet by the lake to the driver and they swerve through traffic as Domi takes a short but very effective nap.
The cab driver halts about 5 minutes away from the entrance. Marco hands him a couple of bills and they jump out of the cab, arms intertwined around each other more for balance than intimacy. Domi gives him a big thrust in the thigh and laughs. Her cackles echo over the still lake.
“You know I got groped by some weirdo in the metro this morning?”
“You got groped? Looks like it’s your lucky day big fella.” And she thrusts again, laughing even harder this time.
“Stop, it’s not funny. I felt disgusting afterward.”
“Just forget about the sad shit. Let’s get in. I can hear the band. Oh! It’s so pretty!” It was indeed beautiful and elegant. Long strands of fairy light hung from the second floor and went all around the chalet. Half of the lights were reflected in the lake and created a half-circle in the water just below a wooden balcony where some guests were taking pictures with their arms wide open. The rest of the lights shined elegantly over the roof and formed a blessed electric halo over the whole event. There was no one at the door so Marco and Domenica just walked right into what seemed to be Gatsby’s living room. Crystal chandeliers hung above every silk-clothed table, champagne towers stood proudly on every side of what was now a grand ballroom that still kept an intimate and cozy side due to the wooden pillars. White rose petals were thrown a little bit everywhere and the guests were dressed in black tie attire with the women mostly wearing long velvet dresses that went all the way down to their ankles, white pearls around their elegant necks, and long black gloves that covered their elbows. It looked like the party had been going on for quite a while now and even if everyone’s hair was a little messed up a snobbish air wave still lingered.
“Great! I feel like the ugly duckling now.” She says and tries to cover her punk rock torn jeans with her long olive-toned arms. “What do we do now?” Marco isn’t looking any better himself with a wide open, grey linen shirt and smelly armpits retorts.
“It’s a wedding. We get drunk of course!” They catch a few strange looks on their way to the bar and Domi lines up shots of VSOP cognac for them. They run a few more rounds with their backs turned to the dance floor until they’re both warm and comfortable. Only then do they turn around to find Mona with her arms crossed over a beautiful short white dress with lace details with a piercing rage in her pale blue sapphire eyes, hidden behind the thin white sheet of her calm expression. She hasn’t been a competitive swimmer in years but her muscles are still toned and cut sharp, just like her jawline. He steps back as Domi jumps in her arms and squeezes her tight.
“Hey, you two.”
“Bitch! You didn’t tell me you were getting married! Congratulations!” Marco remembers that drunk Domenica usually involves two non-exclusive reactions. Hypersexuality and brutal honesty as indeed, her long olive-skinned fingers make their way to Mona’s butt and give a gentle squeeze.
“Hi M.” Before he can continue, Domenica interjects.
“Now, who’s this wealthy daddy you’re getting in bed with? I mean look at this! It’s a Disney castle for the depraved.”
“I’m pleased you think that way since I’m taking care of the check tonight.” An older, slim man with a struggling hairline walks over and takes Domenica away from Mona. “My name is Luciano but you’re probably looking for my son Brandon.”
“Domenica. I think I’ve been looking for you for a long time Mr. Luciano.” She answers with a smile. “You should take me for a dance.”A quick thought crosses Marcos’ mind. That old man… Luciano nods and guides her to the only place on the floor without roses. Marco and Mona stay by the counter. The noise and the party quiet down all around them as he reaches over the bar and grabs a shot glass.
“Always a wildcard with Domenica.” He pours what’s left of the cognac and hands it to her but she puts it back on the counter.
“She’s hot-blooded what can you do? Thanks but I quit actually.”
“You did?” He says and puts down his drink next to hers.
“Yeah, a year ago now. When I met Brandon.” His heart sinks to the bottom of the lake.
“Well, congratulations. Are you happy? Are you loved?” He asks unsure if he means it and runs a finger over the edge of the glass. Mona’s hands hold on tighter to her arms, and her neck twitches just like it used to when cold winds breeze over her black hair.
“Thank you. I’m all right. I’m not running anymore.” Marco thinks about asking her to introduce him to Brandon but changes his mind once he sees the struggle in her eyes. I’m just causing her more pain. I’m her past now.
“That’s all one can ask for I suppose. I guess I better go. I hope this is the start of a very happy, loving life for you M.” He kisses her on the cheek and walks over to a swinging Domenica without turning back because if he did he would say something stupid like I’m sorry. “Domi, Domi! Let’s go! I can’t be here anymore. It was a bad idea to come here.” She stops dancing and turns around and seems to sober up when she meets his sad eyes.
“OK. All right, let’s go. The exit’s that way.” They walk through the crowd and end up outside, right below the balcony and the half-circle of bright fairy lights. “Ah crap, I think it’s the other way. Why did you let me lead? You know I’m drunk. These lights are making me dizzy, now I need to sit down.” She takes off her boots, rolls up her jeans, and dips her feet into the chilly lake. “AAAH, that’s better. Anyway, what happened?”
“She said she was a year sober. She quit when she met him.”
“So?” She asks puzzled. “That’s no reason to leave Marco.”
“I know but I realize I want her and I can’t stand to remember us. Our vanity, my impotence… That’s all I see when I look at her now. I don’t see this perfect, wonderful person anymore and it doesn’t help that she can’t hide the pain she sees in my eyes either.”
“It’s a strange thing how unbearable the most beautiful and loving feeling can become when you try to control it don’t you think? Regret is not a good dessert.”
“I didn’t understand a word you said.”
“Remember when I was telling you about Julian and the other guy? I remember why I thought of Mona but I think it was related to you. You didn’t trust her as you know you should have. You weren’t completely honest, naked with her and the regret is eating you away now. You know very well this could have been your wedding, minus the champagne and the chandeliers of course. Just like it could have been mine with Julian…” She adds and plunges her head into her hands. “Ah! Stop! I said I was done with this!”
“Domi, do you think we just made a mistake, or is it just something fundamental within us to hurt and run away from those that want to love us?” Marco hears dry leather footsteps thump clumsily on the patio.
“Beautiful!” says Luciano as he sits down next to Domenica and runs his hand over her dark curly hair. “Why are you so sad? Come on, come back inside and dance.” Marco leans forward to get a better look at him.
“Hey, old man, did you take the metro this afternoon? In a long wool jacket and grey sweatpants?” He senses his anger boil inside. It’s not all due to the disgust he feels toward him but it doesn’t matter. There he is. Luciano puts his hand over Domi’s shoulder plates and slides it towards her waist.
“No, nono.” He says with a smile but Marco stands up and tightens his wrist, his nails dig into his palm.
“Yes, yes you were. I remember that sleazy smile.” As Marco stands up, the DJ invites the guests to go on the patio for a group photo. Domenica misses that announcement and in a sharp, aggressive reflex grabs Luciano’s hand and throws him over the patio into the lake.
“Don’t touch me you creep!” She quickly raises her legs as Luciano tries to grab onto her feet and pull her into the chilly lake. The ripples in the water break the half-circle of light. More and more leather footsteps and heels clack on the patio behind them as a rough, strong hand snatches onto Domenica’s shoulder. She sighs in pain. In a flash, Marco punches the elbow up. The grip loosens and for good measure, Domi and Marco latch onto the man’s torso and throw him into the lake as well.
“Brandon!” They hear Mona shout behind them as she pushes the velvet and black tie guests apart. “There’s a way out, there on the right, swim!” She turns to Domenica who’s busy putting her boots back on. She doesn’t look at Marco. “What did you two do?! Why do you ruin everything?! Always!” She looks as though she rubbed her eyes and her cheeks with dry salt. Red and burnt all over. Domenica lashes out a powerful howl at her.
“That creep gropes people in the tube! And your hubby is no better, he’ll grow up just the same and just as pathetic! Look!” She turns around and reveals the reddening hand grip Brandon left on her left shoulder. “Just the same! Now, get out of my way!” Mona’s rage dissipates or translates a little over to Brandon and his father as the pair climb out of the lake, soaked and angry without helping each other. Mona’s clenches her fists and she’s on the verge of going nuclear. The guests start to murmur and whisper to each other as Marco casts a last look towards Mona’s white back before parting the crowd in the same place as Domenica with large swift steps. He catches up to her where they left the cab, she jumps in his arms and sobs before wiping her eyes on one of the wings of his grey linen shirt.
“That was a mistake you see.” She says as she gathers herself. “That was a mistake but it’s in us Marco, we destroy and we run. We’re destroyers of the ones who love us.” She adds with calm serenity as though everything made sense on a molecular level to her. Marco stays quiet as his What’s App rings. It’s skeleton Marianna. Domenica leans over to read it as well.
Loved the pics, excellent work darlings! Come join us at The King’s! We’re celebrating!
“What are we waiting for? Call a cab, and let’s celebrate that elegant wedding and our tasteless decision-making.” They cram into the backseat of a Peugeot cab. Another sip of their favorite lie awaits at the King’s as ghosts of an ideal past squeeze their hearts closer together with vines of hope that next time, they’ll get it right.
Inspired by existentialists, spiritualists, and horror artists, Vladislav Ceperkovic works as a business development manager and web developer. He likes to entertain and explore stories with characters and worlds in order to better understand himself while listening to old blues records.