A tourist couple in their mid-forties strolled down the narrow street in the Old City of Ljubljana.
Lilly paraded with confidence, carrying a large, vinyl dome umbrella over her head. Lloyd trudged beside her, wearing a blue plastic poncho. His hands were laden with the souvenir bags. The water ran down the hood of his poncho and dripped mercilessly on his nose and forehead. From time to time, he would stop and wobble his head like a donkey, getting rid of the water.
They came under the awning of a small restaurant next to the shoe store. Lilly shoved her soaking umbrella into Lloyd’s hands without looking at him.
“Hold it, honey,” she commanded. “This must be the restaurant Phyllis was raving about!”
Lloyd read slowly, knitting his eyebrows, struggling with the foreign language. “Restoracija Koroshka.” He shook Lilly’s umbrella to get rid of the water. “Are you sure this is the one?” he asked.
“Of course I’m sure, Lloyd. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Yeah, why would you?” replied Lilly, pulling at the door handle.
They entered a hall that appeared to be too small by the restaurant standards. A few peasant-style wooden tables for four were crammed along the walls. One more table for two was placed next to the bar. The walls were covered with beehive art typical in Slovenia.
A friendly young waiter with a haircut that resembled one of the Andy Warhol’s wigs approached them immediately.
“Dober dan,” he greeted Lilly and Lloyd in Slovene. “Welcome,” he added in English, immediately detecting they were tourists.
“We’d like a table for two, please,” said Lilly.
“How about the one by the window?” the waiter asked, clasping his hands and producing the most radiant smile. Lilly blushed. Lloyd smiled and quickly moved his eyes away embarrassed by the waiter’s flamboyancy.
They took their seats. Lloyd removed his poncho. The waiter snatched it from his hands swiftly and hung it on one of the chairs.
“I’ll take care of the umbrella too,” he said, smiling again.
“Thank you!” replied Lloyd handing it to him.
“Will be back in a minute with the menus,” added the waiter and dashed away.
“God, I love Slovenia!” said Lilly, with a wide, white as a snow smile. She adjusted the silverware on the light blue tablecloth. “They’re always so nice and so polite. Try finding the same service in Belgrade or Sarajevo!” she added putting her hand close to her mouth. “Not a chance!” she added, chopping her words.
“Yeah, I like the décor,” agreed Lloyd, gazing around. “So Phyllis suggested this place?” he asked.
Lilly nodded vigorously. “What a place, huh! In my book, Phyllis is a genius. By the way, have you had a chance to read her last chapter from the Fire in the icy cave?”
“Is that the one where Nicolette runs away with the billionaire from Nice?”
“No, no, no,” she replied. “That was two chapters ago!” she added, tapping on the table with her index finger. “Don’t you remember anything we read in the club, honey?”
Lloyd bit his tongue. He didn’t like Phyllis’s book and would usually skim through the chapters without paying attention. In fact, he couldn’t stand her writing. He didn’t like Phyllis much either but had to hide his feelings from Lilly, avoiding clashing with her. “Sorry, dear. I must have forgotten,” he replied, making it look as if he was ashamed by this unfortunate lapse. “Can you please refresh my memory?”
“Well, as you recall, Nicolette fell in love with Coby, who’s a senior partner in the large holding invested in liquefied natural gas shipping equipment and nanotechnologies.”
“Oh, the billionaire guy!” chipped in Lloyd, trying to sound interested.
“Yeah! It’s good that you remember at least that. Anyhoo, in this chapter, we learn that his full name is Coby Ben-Aria. He’s a handsome Israeli colonel who served in the army as a fighting pilot. When he finished his service, his father, one of the largest traders on the Diamond Exchange, sent him to the best business school in the United States. There, Coby had built his most important business connections, and after finishing it, had taken a management position in a large investment bank. He became a multimillionaire when his seed investment in one of the Internet start-ups paid off handsomely. Coby meets Nicolette when his life is taking a harsh turn, as he had lost his wife to facial cancer while his son, who’s been mired in decade-long depression, overdosed on a speedball in his boyfriend’s apartment in San Francisco.”
“What’s a speedball?” asked Lloyd, propping his glasses.
“Wow, what an amazing story,” replied Lloyd, shaking his head. What a load of stinking crap, he thought to himself at the same time as he was forcing a mask on his face so Lilly wouldn’t suspect him.
“Just as I said, honey, Phyllis is a genius,” she replied putting an accent on a. “There’s a reason she’s so successful!”
There’s a reason junk food is successful too, thought Lloyd, trying not to dwell too much on the lack of acceptance of his own writing. The world isn’t just ready yet for Lloyd Brent.
“What can I say,” he replied, taking his glasses off to wipe them. “When you right, you’re right!”
Lilly nodded energetically, showing too much of her front teeth again. He adored her smile. If only she would just smile and do nothing else, he thought. Though Lilly liked to smile and did it often, she also talked, and when she did, it would usually rub Lloyd the wrong way. What rubbed him the wrong way even more, was the fact that she was published more often, and earned significantly better royalties than him.
The waiter came back, carrying two menus. He placed them in front of Lloyd and Lilly and stood by waiting for their drink orders.
“I’ll have your house wine,” said Lilly.
“A house wine. And you sir?” asked the waiter, turning to Lloyd.
“Two glasses of house wine,” Lilly jumped in before Lloyd was able to make up his mind. She touched his hand, stroking it gently. “Somebody needs to watch his belly,” she said with a wink when the waiter was off.
Lloyd sighed. He would rather drink beer. Union to be exact. He liked the taste of the local lager. Now he was stuck drinking wine because Lilly had a strange idea in her head, that he was still young enough to develop a six-pack. He argued that the six-pack was never gone in the first place, that it was just hard to see because of the fat, but Lilly wouldn’t listen.
“So,” she said, reading the menu. “Anything catch your eye?”
“I don’t know. I’d like some meat,” replied Lloyd, moving his finger along the lines. “Hey, look. I see something, a barbeque sausage with an eggplant and roasted potatoes.”
“Anything healthier?” asked Lilly, still reading her menu. “Something with less calories maybe?”
“We’re in Europe, love. The portions are not huge. Everybody loves sausages in Europe. Every nation has its own kind. Germans, Swedish, even Italians for God’s sake. My god, Italians are so thin! Maybe it’s because they eat their sausages!”
“Maybe,” replied Lilly. “But chances are it has nothing to do with the sausages and everything to do with the fact that they never overeat,” she added, twisting her lips.
Lloyd tried to protest. “It’s just a damn sausage! I wasn’t born to count calories. I want to enjoy my food. I…”
“Fine,” interrupted Lilly. “Gorge on your greasy fat sausage. We’re on vacation after all. But I’ll have grilled salmon on an arugula salad with cherry tomatoes on the vine,” she added closing the menu. “It’s a much healthier choice. Besides, salmon is good for your brain.”
The waiter came back with two glasses. He put them on the table and poured wine.
“Here’s your wine,” he said, flashing his signature smile, clearly aiming to charm Lilly.
What a tip hustler thought Lloyd in disgust. Hey, this could be a story! A midnight cowboy of the restaurant business… He smiled to himself. He was never easygoing and playful around women. He could be intellectual and witty, but very few women were patient enough to wait for his good qualities to hack through his impossible shyness and gawkiness.
“Have you decided what you would like to eat?” asked the waiter.
“Yes,” replied Lloyd.
“He’ll have a pork sausage with roasted potatoes and I’ll have grilled salmon on arugula salad,” said Lilly. She smiled at the waiter. “I wanna ask you a question if you don’t mind.”
“How come Slovenians are so good at hospitality? Why Ljubljana is so much different from Belgrade?”
Good god, thought Lloyd, What if this guy is a Serb! How can she be so insensitive? I would have spat in our plates if I were in his place.
“Even Zagreb it’s not the same,” she continued her politically slippery questions. “And I’m not even mentioning Sarajevo!”
Despite Lloyd’s fear, the waiter appeared to be a true professional. “Well, you see,” he replied with his soft Slavic accent. “Maybe in Slovenia people are more laid back and relaxed compared to other parts of former Yugoslavia. We like to party. We like to spend time outside.”
Lilly nodded vigorously. Lloyd thought her head would roll off her shoulders if she were to keep her enthusiasm at the same level any longer. “Slovenians speak a better English too,” she said, enchanted by the young man.
Lloyd couldn’t help but notice her affection. He ground his teeth, praying for the waiter to move on to other tables. He got his wish granted as soon as the new customer walked into the restaurant and the waiter went to greet him.
Thank god, they’re understaffed, thought Lloyd.
Lilly took a sip of her wine and closed her eyes in enjoyment. ”To think a glass of wine this good can cost only euro twenty,” she said raising her glass, looking through the ruby liquid at the chandelier. “Good luck finding something as good in Venice. There you have to pay six or even seven euros and for what?”
“Italy is more expensive in general,” said Lloyd, taking a sip. He had to admit the wine was good, not as good as a pint of Union of course, but he consoled himself with the prospects of eating a pork sausage.
“Yes, I get it. It’s more expensive in general,” said Lilly, rolling her eyes. “Yes, you can find cheaper wine in smaller towns, but I want you to show me an inexpensive place in Venice that serves a decent house wine!”
Lloyd sighed. “I didn’t argue with you, honey. I just said that Italy was…”
“By the way,” said Lilly, interrupting Lloyd. She leaned forward. “About your last chapter. I think you need to trim some of the dialogue.”
“It slows down your story.”
“But that’s what my characters do in this chapter. They seat in the restaurant and talk.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. When I was reading it, I felt like there was not enough action. Just seating and talking. I mean how much people really talk, huh? ”
“People eat and talk in the restaurants. What action have you expected?” he sneered.
“Lloyd, you have three people chatting away for almost five thousand words. It’s hard to follow who says what. And besides, the story grinds to a halt!”
“I thought you liked my dialogue before.”
“Of course I did, and I still do, but Phyllis told me that she felt there was not enough action.”
Here we go again. That fucking Phyllis of course, thought Lloyd, squeezing his fists under the table. God is my witness. I could kill that bitch!
“Why couldn’t she tell me that at the club?” he asked, struggling with a desire to smash his wine glass into the wall.
“Well, she thinks you wouldn’t take her criticism lightly,” said Lilly.
“All she ever says after reading my stuff is ‘nice’ and ‘thank you’” grumped Lloyd. “If she doesn’t like my writing, she should have just said it to me in my face. Why did she have to use you?”
“So you think she’s not honest with you, but how about you?”
“Yes. You. Do you always say what you think about her writing?” asked Lilly, taking a sip.
Lloyd was caught off guard. He realized that he almost exposed himself with his reckless reaction.
“Well, Phyllis is such a respected author,” he said with an apologetic grimace on his face, “she’s so good at what she does that I can’t even think of any imperfections. But I see what you mean. I’m not pointing out some minor holes in her plots and an occasional bad choice of words. Guilty as charged.”
Lilly smiled victoriously and said, “Only in your case, it’s not the mere choice of words. I think Phyllis was able to nail your biggest problem, and she was considerate enough not to do it in front of less experienced writers to avoid tarnishing your image in the group. You should thank her for that.”
Lloyd was able to swallow Lilly’s words, though it wasn’t easy. I’ll prove that bitch wrong, he thought, my new book will make it big, I have a good feeling about it.
“So you think the chapter is too much of a talkie?” he asked.
“I’m afraid so.”
“What Phyllis thinks about your Secret Garden of Youth?”
“She raved about it! She totally gets it. Totally! Especially the half-dog half-man character. She finds the symbolism to be very powerful.”
I bet she does, thought Lloyd, she takes any bullshit for fucking symbolism. “Your book is bound to become huge when you publish it,” he said aloud with a smile.
The waiter returned, carrying two big plates. As Lloyd had expected, his sausage appeared to be big and juicy. The fat sizzled, oozing out of the ruptures caused by the grilling. He marveled at the sight of the round new potatoes generously covered with melting butter and dill. Lilly’s salmon looked appetizing too, but in Lloyd’s mind, there was no comparison.
Lilly pulled out her big heavy DSLR and began taking pictures of their food. After that, she asked the waiter to take a picture of her and Lloyd together. He snapped a couple of shots inside the restaurant and volunteered to go outside to take more through the open window. Lilly glowed.
“See,” she said to Lloyd when the waiter rushed away to serve the next customer. “What a nice guy! I just love Ljubljana!” she added, grabbing her knife and fork.
At that moment, just as Lloyd was about to indulge in his coveted dinner, Lilly had done the unthinkable. She plunged her fork right into the soft body of Lloyd’s sausage and cut it in half as he was watching her in bewilderment. She proceeded to divide the rest of their food and, after she was done, their plates looked identical.
He fantasized about sticking a fork in Lilly’s hand, but he knew he would never summon enough courage. Maybe she ’ll choke on a fishbone, he thought, keeping a nice smile on his face while the fire ravaged him from within.
“Oh, my god, honey, let me see if it tastes as good as it looks!” exclaimed Lilly, spearing a piece of sausage on her fork. She chewed it slowly. “Uhm! This is incredible!” she added with her mouth full.
“Your salmon is excellent too,” said Lloyd, forcefully chewing the pink flesh. He kept staring at his wife gobbling down his potatoes, still unable to believe his eyes.
He wanted to finish the salmon and arugula as quickly as he could to concentrate on the sausage, but the way Lilly was eating, he was afraid she would attack the rest of his meal if he weren’t quick enough. That thought ruined his mood to the point he had lost his appetite. Lilly, on the other hand, was busy devouring her plate, constantly praising the quality of the meal.
Lloyd put down his fork and stared at his wife as she chewed her food hastily, head down, completely immersed in her experience. Suddenly, he noticed a fishbone on the table. It was long, white, and quite thick, the kind of a bone that is usually found in trout, but at least five times bigger. He couldn’t remember if it came from one of their plates. At least he didn’t remember finding it. Didn’t it say ‘filet’ on the menu, he wondered. Unable to explain how the bone ended up on the table, he tried picking it up, but his fingers went through it. Startled by this peculiar hallucination, he closed his eyes tight and shook his head. When he opened his eyes again, the fishbone was in the same spot.
A panic came over him, but he was able to calm himself down. Still, it was unsettling to see something and not being able to touch. He decided that if the fishbone was a product of his imagination, maybe he could use his imagination to get rid of it. He stared at it and tried lifting it up with his mind. After a minute of concentration, the bone took off and remained floating in front of his eyes. He forced it back on the table. It obeyed.
He tried more tricks. The fishbone was following his commands. Left, right, make a circle, spin on the spot – he was having fun with it.
“Lilly!” he whispered. “Lilly, I’m experiencing the weirdest hallucination ever. I have an object in front of my eyes that I can move with the power of my mind! Can you see it?”
She didn’t reply, continuing to eat as if she hadn’t heard him.
“Lilly!” he raised his voice. “Can you see the fishbone?”
He tried nudging her shoulder, but his hand went through her body. Lloyd’s heart sank. Was my food poisoned, he thought in fright. He patted his own shoulders and knees, making sure that he hadn’t turned into a ghost. Lilly was still eating. She looks okay, he thought. Well, if it’s not the food, why am I seeing this damned bone and why can’t I touch my wife?
He pondered what to do. The bone was still floating in front of his eyes. He sent it closer to Lilly’s face. Poke, he commanded. The fishbone obeyed and poked Lilly’s forehead. She immediately felt the pain, jerking her head up. She looked around and went back to eating without saying a word. Holy shit, thought Lloyd, just to think what I can do with it! I can just… just…
He gathered all the will he could muster, and commanded the fishbone to move toward Lilly’s mouth as close as possible. The bone did just that and parked itself opposite her upper lip, waiting for further instructions. Lloyd saw Lilly spearing some arugula leaves and as soon as she carried her fork to her wide-open mouth, he sent the bone deep into her throat.
She stopped chewing at once, her eyes swirling out of their orbits, her hands grasping at her neck, guttural groans and coughing escaping her mouth.
She fell off her chair and rolled on the floor, waving her hands aimlessly, struggling to breathe. Her face turned blue. Lloyd didn’t move. He was watching his wife choking with great pleasure. Only now, he had fully realized how much he hated her guts, how badly he wanted out of their abusive relationship, and how intolerable the mandatory visits to their book club had been. He wanted out.
The waiter rushed to help Lilly. He knelt beside her, placing his hand on her chest. Lloyd attempted to join him, but his legs wouldn’t obey. Waiter’s eyes darted angrily in Lloyd’s direction, ordering him to stay away. Lilly stopped jerking and laid still on the floor. He closed his eyes with both hands, peeking cautiously between his fingers. The waiter took three deep breaths as if he was preparing for meditation, and moved his hand slowly up her chest, straining his ears, until he reached her throat. He stopped and turned his gaze up to the ceiling and prayed, squeezing his fists tight, lips moving silently. A small white spot soon appeared on Lilly’s neck. It grew larger with every moment until it popped and a golden brown discharge burst out. The waiter kept moving his lips until the tip of the fishbone appeared. He grabbed it with the nails on his thumb and index finger and pulled it out. The bone was laying in his palm covered with Lilly’s blood. The waiter blew on it and it dissolved into the air. Lloyd looked at Lilly’s neck. Only a tiny white hole remained.
She stood up as if nothing happened and took her seat. Her plate was empty. She finished her wine and blotted her lips with the napkin. Lloyd didn’t know if she was alive or it was his mind playing tricks on him again. The way she looked, nothing suggested she was in agony only a minute ago. Even the white spot on her neck was becoming invisible.
“I just love Slovenia!” she resumed her rave. “If I had another life, I would have spent it here, in Ljubljana. My salmon was practically melting in my mouth it was so tender. How was your sausage, honey?”
“Wouldn’t you know?” he replied, baffled by her question. “You ate half of it!”
“What are you talking about? Why would I eat your greasy sausage? I ate fish! Nobody mixes salmon with the pork! It’s ridiculous!”
“You didn’t eat it?”
“Of course not!” she protested, squinting her eyes. “Honey, are you okay?”
Lloyd stretched his arm and clutched at her shoulder rudely. He could feel it. He then tried touching her face. She jerked her head away, appalled by his sudden lack of manners.
“Are you okay, Lloyd?” she repeated her question with a frightened look on her face.
“I’m not sure,” said Lloyd, studying his palms as if he saw them for the first time. “Lilly, I have to tell you something,” he added.
“What is it?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“Something I wanted to tell you for a long, long time.”
“I don’t like Phyllis’s book. In fact, I hate it. Her plots are shit and she writes like a third grader.”
Lilly’s mouth opened wide.
Lloyd continued with a deadpan expression on his face, “I hate Phyllis personally too, I really do. She’s a fucking bitch.”
She looked at him with motherly concern, struggling to respond, but couldn’t fill her lungs with enough air.
“There. I said it,” continued Lloyd, hammering away. “But it’s not all. I hate you too, Lilly. I hate you so much! I curse the day I met you. You never listen to me! We only do things you like! And most of all, I despise your talentless, stupid young adult fiction!”
He took a short pause, wheezing through his nose and went on. “Phyllis’s right. I don’t take her critique very well. You wanna know why? Because it’s pointless! Do you hear me? P-O-I-N-T-L-E-S-S! I’m sick and tired listening to your bullshit and it stops right now!”
She glanced at him sheepishly. “Is there a chance we could still work it out, Lloyd?” she asked with a sob, tears welling in her eyes.
“Not even one in a million, Lilly,” replied Lloyd, throwing a hotel key and a fifty-euro bill on the table. “So long,” he blurted and walked out of the restaurant into the rain without bothering with his poncho.