DAY ONE

 

“I’M STUCK, Kristi. I’m not going to make it tonight.” Through the glass walls of the terminal, I could see the December drizzle outside, glittering in the night lights. My carry-on in one hand, the phone in the other, I poked my check-in bag with my sneaker.

“Where are you?” my friend asked, concern and disappointment clear in her voice.

“In Basel. Lufthansa is on strike. So there goes my last connection.” I looked around the almost empty terminal with disdain. The café by the entrance to the departures hall was closing; a plump girl in a white dress shirt was stacking folding chairs against the wall. It was late.

“Oh honey, you must be exhausted.”

I was. I left my apartment in Dubai twenty-four hours ago. My ex-apartment, ex-roommate, ex-job. I put on a fake smile for the invisible crowd and infused some cheer into my hoarse voice. “I’m fine. I’m energized. I’m on the verge of a new era. No airports anymore, no more passengers. I’m going to reclaim my life. As soon as I get out of this particular airport.”

Kristina didn’t laugh.

“You think you can get a flight to Schwechat tomorrow?”

“I hope so. All the other airlines work as usual. There might be delays, though. I don’t know.” There was a queue in front of the airline service desk. I balanced my carry-on on the other piece of my luggage and walked the few steps toward the last open shop.

Kristina sighed into the phone. “You’ve sucked as a flight attendant, Ondro. You hate people. How you could make it work for eight years still baffles me. I don’t blame you for quitting.” Another sigh. “I still don’t get why you’re coming back here. It’s fucked up.”

She was right. I hadn’t thought this through. “I’ll be fine. I’m not going to offer my life on the altar of gay rights. I just want a fresh start. Quietly. In a corner. Nobody has to know.”

“And it has to be right now? When all that’s rotten is floating on the surface in this country? It’s bad, Ondro. Bratislava is swamped with pamphlets; there are marches, demonstrations. You wouldn’t believe the backward bullshit they preach in the churches. The Pope himself would be appalled. It’s escalating. A couple of guys were attacked on a city night bus last week….”

I clenched and unclenched my fist, then reached carefully for a water bottle. The chill running up my arm soothed me. “Kristi, stop. I know. I’m not going to get in the middle of that.”

“But how, you dumbass? It’s everywhere. They have flyers in schools, in doctor’s offices. At the entrance of every high-rise in the city, there’s a hate speech taped to the wall. It’s what everybody talks about. It’s what’s on the news every night, and what every family argues about over dinner. You are going to be in the middle of that whether you like it or not!”

“You sound like there’s civil war, for fuck’s sake.”

She laughed harshly into the phone and cursed. I switched my hands, holding the phone to my left ear instead so I could pay for the water.

“I’d still rather you wouldn’t come right now. I mean, I’m overjoyed that we’ll see each other again, but the referendum is more than two months away. It’s not war, no. You probably won’t get hurt. Nobody will die. But it’s heavy, Ondro. It’s suffocating and scary. The people here…. It’s not worth it. You shouldn’t have to deal with this. You don’t owe anything to anyone. If you really want to come back to Slovakia, you could wait until February. Nobody even knows what Peter was to you.”

There I had to stop her. Because I didn’t have any logical arguments, I just had to do something. And this was the thing I felt like I could do. “I quit the job, I moved out of the apartment, and my shit is coming by cargo in two weeks. I’m doing this.” It’s not like I have anywhere else to go.

“Peter’s been gone for six months. You don’t have to—” She had to bring that up.

“And you didn’t tell me! I found out three weeks ago on fucking Facebook!” I retorted, not meaning to sound angry. But hey. Jet lag.

She deflated, suddenly quiet. “I know, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to do that over the phone. I wanted to tell you at New Year’s.”

The wave of emotion came and went, leaving me numb. “Sorry. It’s not your fault,” I interrupted before she got even more upset for nothing. “I get it. We wouldn’t be friends if we weren’t both emotionally stunted.”

She snorted. The sound was deep and very unladylike. “So you’re coming anyway.”

“If the couch offer still stands, then yes, I’m coming.”

“The offer stands. I’ll be happy to have you,” she answered flatly. I could almost see her face in front of me, her dark eyes fierce. My Kristina, she’s half Roma and a human rights lawyer. The number of obstacles she had to overcome in her life is unimaginable to me. I’m a Slovak gay man—which is bad enough—but being a Slovak Roma is like having the word turd tattooed on your forehead. Nevertheless, when half of our generation was leaving the country for greener pastures, she stayed, and she’s still fighting the psychotic system tooth and nail.

“Good. See you tomorrow, then,” I said, suddenly longing to hug her again.

“Text me when you have an ETA. I’ll pick you up in Vienna.”

“You don’t have to.”

“Yes, I do. I haven’t seen you in two years, Ondro. Two fucking years. Yes, I want to pick you up and give you a ride. With the new overpass finished, it’s barely an hour, and I don’t have any meetings tomorrow.”

“’Kay. You are awesome.”

“I’m worried.”

“And I have to go. There’s only one guy in front of me at the service desk. I’ve got to get a hotel and a taxi.”

She grunted disapprovingly.

“I’m coming. You couldn’t stop me. I’m hanging up now.”

When she spoke next, she sounded resigned. “Take care. And text me.”

“Yes. Love you, girl. Bye.”

I took a deep breath, pocketing my phone. A strange reality that had felt so far away for so long was suddenly here, close and personal. I was coming back to Slovakia. After eight years. But that’d be tomorrow. Tonight, I could still pretend that I was the ultimate globetrotter, too cool for such mundane things as nationality and descent.

 

 

WHEN I reached the service desk, the previous man was still there, arguing with the official, wasting his time and mine. There were no more flights today. I had no idea what he was trying to achieve except making me scream from sleep deprivation.

He was scrawny. At least ten centimeters shorter than me with bony arms sticking out of a baggy T-shirt. I only saw his back, but he looked young. He dressed young at least, and weird. He had faded black jeans around his skinny ass, and atop his head sat a purple hat. No kidding. A hideous, purple, plasticky straw fedora. Tinky-Winky purple. That would have been enough by itself. But then he leaned onto the desk, and his feet almost left the ground. He rubbed the top of his left foot against his right calf, his pant leg went up, and I saw black-and-yellow-striped socks. I bit back a groan. I’m being held back by a fucking bumblebee in a purple hat.

He finally left the desk with his shoulders slumped. His posture showed that whatever he’d asked for, he hadn’t got it. I passed him just as he bent to retrieve his gargantuan luggage, and I cast the awful hat one last annoyed look. I limped to the counter, achingly aware of my sore, swollen feet.

Have you ever noticed how everyone changes upon entering an airport terminal? It’s as if they transform into the worst psycho-thriller version of themselves. And I do that too. I’m aware of it—I just can’t stop it. I would have been a perfectly nice guy, I’m sure of it. If not for this fucking job. I hated airports, loathed them deep within my heart.

“I want a hotel and the first flight out of here tomorrow.”

The woman tried to hold my gaze for a second but gave up, getting slightly paler. “Of course, sir,” she mumbled and cleared her throat gently. She took my ticket and passport, turning her attention to the screen. Her eyes were red-rimmed, and a faint mascara smudge decorated her left cheek. “I can make a reservation for you directly.”

We exchanged formalities, and my gaze started wandering around on its own. I was so drained I barely kept my eyelids halfway up. All the jet lags I’ve had over the years just accumulated, adding ten years to my already daunting thirty. Kristina’s couch gained supernatural qualities in my mind. It was like a cloud of warm white feather pillows at the end of the rainbow.

The girl was still typing away when I noticed the skinny bumblebee crouching a few meters from me, his insane socks peeking out, drawing my eyes like a mucous mole on a big nose. He rummaged through his backpack, his freaky hat sitting on another piece of luggage. His face was down, his longish, messy, and a little oily hair sticking out in tufts around his head. I guess we both looked awful after a day like this.

He found what he was looking for and stood, his head still bent as he tried to extricate a set of headphones from a mess of cables. He lifted his head when he managed to solve the puzzle of wires, and he looked directly at me. I sucked in a breath. He jumped.

The creature actually jumped when he saw me. I wasn’t scowling that bad, was I?

To most people, I seem ill-natured, barely approachable. It’s my eyes. They’re slanted and mean. But he looked like Bambi caught in the headlights of a monster truck. And it threw me. I tilted my head to the side, and he still stared back open-mouthed. Okay…. Maybe there was a ratchet missing in his clockwork.

I let my gaze go up and down his body and study his face. He was cute. Go figure. Despite the disgustingly colored hat and bumblebee socks, he looked lovely. He had the soft boyish type of face I used to go for before I…. Before.

He was pretty. The longer I looked at him, the prettier he seemed. Huge, scared, pale blue eyes with girly lashes, an irregular dusting of stubble after a long day, straight nose, small but full of character nonetheless, full curvy mouth, and an innocent forehead. He was beautiful in a way that required a second and even a tenth glance to appreciate fully. His clear skin was so pale with bluish shadows around his eyes, he looked translucent, like an elf. Or a vampire. And he was still staring at me.

“I have a room available at the Riverside Hotel on Utengasse. The flight to Vienna leaves quarter past one tomorrow.”

I reluctantly looked away from the beautiful weirdo and faced the uniformed girl again.

“Nothing directly to Bratislava?” It was a stupid, unnecessary question. I knew the answer.

“No, I’m sorry, sir.”

Well, Kristina would have to pick me up. I mean, I could get a taxi. But I wanted to see her there, waiting for me. To see that someone cared where I was. Someone knew me and wanted to see me after all those years I had been abroad.

The woman handed me back my passport and gave me a stack of vouchers. I nodded goodbye and picking up my stuff, I searched the terminal for the bumblebee.

Just outside the glass door, I saw him again. He huddled in a black hoodie and a dark parka, his hat back on his head. He was smoking, but his movements were clumsy and self-conscious—the cigarette he was holding must have been a rare occurrence for him.

Looking at his delicate profile, I felt my exhaustion lift like a morning mist giving way to a sunny day. I had a free night in this city and hadn’t got laid for four months. The last time was Clive, my roommate in Dubai. He was from Australia. If you’re picturing Jackman or Hemsworth, forget it. Clive was a towheaded, clingy drama queen with a permanent sunburn and a squeaky joke of a voice. Most of the time, he’d got on my nerves. Hell, he got on everybody’s nerves. It didn’t stop me from fucking him, but in my defense, I was drunk that one night. Oddly enough, he helped me with my luggage last night when I was leaving Dubai. He hugged me, whispering mournfully that we probably wouldn’t see each other again. And I realized that there’s a difference between lonesome and lonely, and that I no longer knew which one applied to me.

I deliberately wiped my mind clean of desolate thoughts. Walking purposefully and holding my head high, I approached the boy in the crazy hat. I was sure he was intentionally looking away.

“Did you manage to get a flight for tomorrow?” A non sequitur? Maybe, but we’d seen each other, noticed each other. He knew that I knew. So why bother with formalities. I admit that my social skills have always been limited, and I exhausted them all on the job I abhorred.

His big blue eyes snapped at me in confused surprise. Then he frowned, clearly uncomfortable.

“Yeah,” he breathed.

The horrible sound of luggage wheels on concrete ceased, immediately making the silence between us deafeningly loud. He took a drag from his cigarette.

“Where are you headed?” I asked.

He huffed out a breath. The smell of his cigarette was surprisingly pleasant in the cold, humid air. His annoyance was just a disguise. He was nervous. I thought of his terrified stare back inside the terminal.

“Edinburgh.” He had a rich voice, a little nasal like people with allergies sometimes have. And an obvious American accent. My smile became smug.

“Then back to the US?”

“No, I live in Scotland,” he said harshly, grimaced, and sighed. “I’m sorry, man. I’m not in the mood.” He pressed the cigarette in the ashtray with more force than necessary and eyed me, frowning deeper. Then he averted his pretty blue eyes and squinted into the rain.

I watched him and waited to see if he would turn back to me. He didn’t. He seemed to be expecting me to leave. I scrambled for something interesting to say, to catch his attention, keep him talking to me. Watching the slope of his nose, the curve of his upper lip, I lost my line of thought and came up empty. Why did I even think it was a good idea to bother him? How come I couldn’t remember even a single one of those lines that had always worked?

Several seconds went by, and I heard him breathe out slowly. “Sorry, I’m really tired.”

Not interested. Of course not.

“I’m disturbing you.” I nodded once. “I should be apologizing, and you should continue scowling.” I was ready to move on when he laughed briefly, surprising me with the sound. He finally lifted his face and glanced my way carefully. His eyes felt assessing and distrustful, yet a shadow of the brief laugh was still lingering in the corners of his lovely mouth. I couldn’t help it. His features were mesmerizing to me; every emotion seemed to reflect on his face so openly.

I felt a familiar warmth of embarrassment on the back of my neck, realizing I was just standing there and staring at this surreally beautiful person, who just wanted me to get lost.

“I should get a cab,” he mumbled.

He nodded to himself and tugged on his luggage with brute force. The monster rolled forward threateningly. It seemed likely to dislocate his shoulder on the nearest curb. He gave me one last solitary half smile. “It was nice meeting you.”

Yeah, right.

I watched him load his bags, with the reluctant help of a ginger-bearded, fat taxi driver, just ten meters away. If I could move my feet, I could get to him in a matter of seconds and ask him to give me his number. But how would I justify the request? Hey, we have a free night in town, let’s have a few margaritas and suck each other off? He didn’t seem to like me much. Not that I blamed him.

He looked my way for half a second, not meeting my eyes. The door of the taxi closed, and the vehicle rumbled past me. Another insignificant meeting, another human being I felt a brief connection to and would never see again. If I had a list, there would be hundreds of them from all over the world.