Zagreb – January 1993
The next day, I rifled through my backpack as if a more flattering outfit than my faded turtleneck and corduroys might miraculously appear. I felt frumpy compared to the elegant women in Zagreb. People in Europe seemed so easily stylish. Even in under-siege-Sarajevo, with no electricity and running water, the women were stunning with coiffed hair and perfect make-up. Sighing, I swabbed on more mascara and coated my lips with tinted balm. After some fussing, I finally pulled my hair back in a bun to accentuate my blue eyes. As I passed through the lobby I glanced at myself in the glass doors. I looked fine.
Crossing the long blocks to the city’s main square, I turned my face up to the sky to feel the sun’s warmth. We had arranged to meet at 3:00 at Zagreb’s standard rendezvous point in front of the saber wielding man on a horse. Jelacic Square bustled with people meeting friends and lovers. Everyone in Zagreb seemed to be out on this fluke, warm winter day. I saw him from a distance, tall and handsome. Even amongst this crowd of attractive people dressed-to-the-nines, both men and women did a double take, like maybe he was famous. I walked faster as if to keep up with my racing heart, pigeons flapping out of my way. Neil bent to kiss me on the cheek. He smelled of aftershave. Around his neck he wore a red ascot neatly tucked into a pressed white shirt poking out from under his jean jacket.
“Hello! I’m happy to see you again. You look beautiful!” He took my hand. “Let’s sit outside,” he said, steering me towards the tables set up in front of one of the coffee shops where young and old couples, entire families and groups of friends sat enjoying the sun.
“It’s nice to be able to sit in the open. Can you imagine doing this in Sarajevo with all the snipers?”
“It’s too bloody cold there. But yes, there are actually a few little places tucked away. I’ll show you when we get back.”
I loosened the scarf from around my neck. Was it the sunshine or his presumption of a future between us warming me up?
“Dva kava molim!” he called to the waiter as we settled into a table in the last patch of light. “You want coffee, right? I’m sorry, I should have asked. I love the local coffee but maybe you’d prefer a cappuccino?”
“No, I like the coffee here too.”
The waiter delivered our order, barely a shot glass full of thick coffee in little cups. I watched as Neil piled an alarming number of sugar cubes into his.
“When I first got here, it took me a few cups before I managed to not end up with a mouthful of muddy sludge from the bottom of my cup.” I was chattering, still stirring my one cube of sugar into the cup and he’d already downed his and was waving at the waiter for another.
“So what were you doing before you got into all of this craziness?” I asked.
“I worked in the film game.”
“Cool! Doing what?”
“Ducking and diving. I doubled for a lot of the taller actors and sometimes did stunt work. But I don’t think I’ll go back to it. The business slowed in England; there’s not much happening at Pinewood Studios these days.”
He puffed on his cigarette, looking over my head and across the square, turning the dregs in his coffee cup round and round.
“Let’s see, Chevy Chase, Christopher Reeves, Jeff Goldblum (he’s kind of a pratt). I did all the shite that they didn’t want to do or that their contract won’t allow. The last film I worked on was Hamlet with Mel Gibson. I was a Queen’s guard. Mel’s a nice bloke, good fun. Loves to take the piss. I also worked on A Fish Called Wanda, The Tall Guy… loads. For a few years I was also a minder with a couple of bands. Do you remember Spandau Ballet?”
“I can’t place their music but I know the name. Maybe they weren’t as big in the States. It sounds exciting – why did you stop?”
Neil lit up another cigarette and exhaling slowly, stared at the disappearing smoke before answering.
“I got tired of it. I was watching the news about everything going on over here when the war started and I wanted to do something. That’s just the way I am. Remember when they discovered all those neglected orphanages in Romania? No one else could get in and I made it through with a convoy of supplies. When things blew up here in Yugo, I called the ODA (Overseas Development Agency – a UK relief agency) and they hired me straight off. Years ago I was in the military so they jumped at my experience. And when the British offered to supply the ICRC with armored cars, I applied to be their man here. So now I’m a minder for all of the boring Swiss Delegates in Sarajevo.”
He lit another cigarette. I tipped my espresso cup to my lips in search of a last bit of liquid but only the bitter residue of grounds remained.
“Are you getting cold? Should we move somewhere inside?” He downed his second cup then tossed some crumpled bills on the table and gallantly stepped around to pull my chair back for me. I shivered and tucked my scarf closer around my neck. The sun dropped on the horizon and like that, winter’s cold returned.
As we crossed the square, he took my hand in a gentle, almost tentative grip. I curled my fingers around his massive ones. Matching his long strides as we walked down a cobbled street, I began to feel taller than my 5’ 6” as I kept pace with him.
“Where should we go?”
“How about the bar at the Intercontinental?” He glanced at me coyly as he said the name of my hotel. “You know, the one on the top floor. There’s a nice view of the city from there.”
He was moving fast now. Why not?
“Okay. Should we walk?”
“Let’s grab a taxi.” He ushered me to a line of old Mercedes waiting on a side street.
The hotel bar was empty but for the bartender. We could see all of old Zagreb tinted by the last glow of the day. Neil ordered a whiskey and I asked for a beer.
“I don’t actually drink that much,” he said as the bartender set our drinks in front of us.
That information went into the ‘positive’ column of my mental checklist about him. Most of the men I’d been with loved drinking and in the past, getting drunk became one of our primary activities. Recently, I’d been trying to limit myself rather than become like my mother who fueled decades of bitterness after my father left her, by rarely making it to 5:00 PM before she started to slur.
“I’d like to tell you something,” Neil said, lighting another cigarette. He appeared to have an endless supply of these gold packs tucked away in his jean jacket.
I looked at him expectantly. He drew in a smoky breath followed by a swallow of drink, his eyes on the bottles behind the bar. I wondered if I’d heard him correctly because now he didn’t seem to want to tell me anything. A wave of dread rose from the pit of my stomach. Here goes: he’s probably married. Didn’t he say on the plane yesterday he wasn’t? I shifted back in my chair.
“I didn’t tell you the whole story of why I came here.”
“Oh?” I waited hoping my face looked neutral, like I expected nothing from him although my heart sunk.
“I had this problem … it started after working in the film and music industry,” he paused again.
“What kind of problem?”
He turned to me and laughed, tension draining out of his face. I didn’t understand.
“Blow what?” I asked.
With a nervous chuckle he leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, drew his chair and body closer to me.
“Charlie. Cocaine. I had a problem with cocaine. I was working with the band when I tried it. One of the guys offered me some and that was it. I got hooked.”
“Oh.” What else to say? What was I to do with this information? I’d always been leery of trying drugs when there were plenty around in college and the restaurant business where I’d logged many hours. And I didn’t understand how people became hooked on, well…anything. That wasn’t my personality.
“I got pretty messed up with it,” he continued. “So about nine months ago I checked into rehab for a month and when I got out, decided to stay clear of the film and music business since charlie is everywhere there. It was bloody hard.” He turned to me with a triumphant smile. “But I’m okay now!”
“Good for you!” I answered with enthusiasm mostly from my relief that the news was not about the existence of a wife or beloved girlfriend.
“For some reason I wanted to tell you.”
“I’m glad you did,” I said as I peeled the soggy label off my beer bottle.
“I mean I feel like we could have something here. I find you attractive and well, I want to be honest with you from the start.” He swirled the whiskey in his glass.
“I appreciate it.” Rolling my beer label into a ball I tossed it into Neil’s ashtray.
The bar was still empty. Neil torpedoed his cigarette with a sizzle into the damp paper ball in the ashtray and leaned in for a kiss. He tasted like cigarettes and whiskey, neither flavors I liked, but he was a good kisser. I thought of the spacey potheads I’d known over the years – my only close-up experience with drugs. Drunks were my expertise. As Neil’s tongue searched my mouth, a surge of desire swept all the way to my toes. He pulled me closer and breathing felt unnecessary as I lost myself in his warmth.
Sitting back in his chair with a smile, he said with a sigh, “That was nice.”
“Yes.” I felt dizzy.
“So…what are the rooms like here anyway?”
“Really?” I pretended to be shocked.
“Well when you know something is right…” he looked at me expectantly.
“Do we know that?”
“How can you? We haven’t even spent 5 hours together.”
“I just do. I know that you’re the kind of girl I’ve been looking for.”
I looked at him skeptically. What did he mean? A girl who doesn’t know what ‘blow’ is? Is he for real or yet another sweet talker? I wasn’t sure what to make of him.
“I only want to cuddle,” he cajoled, taking my hand.
“All right. Let’s go.” I took my bag off the back of the chair and stood up.
He grinned. “Hey mate! Can we have the check, molim?”