Degrees of Freedom
Luka sat down at the counter and took a long sip of coffee. Hed worked the night shift, and then Kerry was late coming on in the morning. Something about an accident on the El, which Luka believed. It had to be something serious for Kerry to be late. By the time she got to the hospital hed worked well into the afternoon. It had been busy, and Luka had spent the shift moving from one patient to the next seemingly without pause. It was good to sit down. The coffee was good for American coffee, at least and there was room to spread out his newspaper, and Luka was content with that. He looked around. He wondered what all these people did for a living. They cant all be ER doctors, he thought to himself jokingly they dont look tired enough. Curious, Luka scanned the coffeehouse crowd. A lot of the customers were working; it seemed every third table sported a laptop.
As he scanned the customers, he noticed a young woman in the corner, working intently. He was noticing women again these days, finally having come out of the daze Carols leaving had thrown him into. She was pretty. Not beautiful, but Luka found her appealing. Maybe it was her casual appearance, not a lot of make up, hair falling loose and messy like Marija. A look Luka had always preferred to the heavily made-up women he often saw downtown. Luka watched her. The distractions of the coffeehouse seemed to have no effect on her. Her face was devoid of expression as she worked, typing rapidly, staring at the screen. After a while she stopped and peered at the screen as if contemplating what she had just written. She shook her head almost imperceptibly in a silent rejection of her own work. She lifted her hands off the keyboard to shake them lightly, sipped her coffee and gathered her hair into a messy ponytail. The feminine motion pleased Luka, and he smiled. Just then she looked up. She met his eyes and returned the smile warmly before ducking her head and returning to her keyboard. Luka felt an old, vaguely familiar feeling jump in his stomach.
Luka continued to watch her. After his disastrous courtship of Carol Hathaway, he had taken refuge in work as always. He worked long hours and extra shifts. He knew if he worked, hed be okay. After a while it started to be true, and it didnt matter anymore. He was actually able to convince himself that it was for the best, that the girls should know their father, that Carol should be with the father of her children. A family being together was more important than his happiness. He had put the idea of Carol largely out of his mind.
But it was hard to go back to being alone. Carol had been his friend, whatever else she wasn't, and he didnt have many friends. It had been nice to have somebody to spend time with. He had enjoyed meals together the most. Luka found nothing more lonesome than eating by himself. He often grazed throughout the day so that he didnt have to sit down to a meal alone. At home he ate fruit and bread and cheese and cold meats mostly. He could rarely muster the energy to make a hot meal. It was too depressing to have to eat it in silence. Carol had let him escape that occasionally. When Carol had told him she was going to Doug, he thought that he was losing the chance to love. It turned out instead that the loss of Carol as a friend was the greater blow. He missed simple human companionship more than he missed the companionship of a woman.
But he did miss that, Luka thought, watching the girl in the corner. He had buried his need to have someone in his life for so long that after he started letting it back to the surface with Carol he found it difficult to suppress. Once he admitted the possibility of finding a woman he could share even a piece of himself with, he found it to be a possibility he wasnt ready to part with. Carol had let him begin to rediscover women and then cut the process short. Now Luka found himself facing the prospect of a loneliness that would be vastly more frustrating than before he met Carol and let down his defenses, or the prospect of dating, which Luka found daunting for more reasons than he could count, not the least of which was that he had no idea how or where to meet women. And if he did meet a woman, he had no idea where to begin.
It had been hard enough with Carol, and with her he had been able to talk about the hospital or her pregnancy; then the girls were born and he could talk about them; he could fix the hot-water heater and the plumbing; he had so many crutches available, and hed used them all. Hed never have been able to reach out to Carol without all those things to fall back on. Then she left, and what little romantic confidence he had been able to muster had been badly damaged. Now he felt a greater urgency for companionship than ever, but even less confidence. Malucci, Luka thought, would walk right up and start talking to that pretty girl. He realized with surprise he was still watching her.
She could feel Luka watching her and blushed slightly. Her smile grew and she looked up at him. He was positively beautiful. A quick glance around the coffeehouse revealed three other women staring at him with varying degrees of boldness. He seemed oblivious to his charms, but she could hardly think with him watching her with his half smile. She was utterly distracted. After one typing mistake after another, she finally laughed softly to herself, shaking her head and looking down at her fingers as if to implore them to just do something, anything, right. She threw up her hands in mock frustration and disgust and grinned at Luka. There goes my muse, she said to him across the way.
Your what? Luka replied.
My muse. She was smiling at him. Luka hesitated. His instincts were blunted. Once he would have known how to read that smile, but now.... She seemed nice, it had been a long day, and Luka had the urge to keep company with her. Her smile tugged at a half-buried desire hidden in the fog.
Steadying himself inwardly, he stood and crossed over to her in two long strides. Sorry?
My god hes tall. My muse, she stammered. My inspiration. Its dead. My god. She stared up at his face and blushed again when she realized she was staring at him. He was even more beautiful up close. His eyes her stomach did somersaults.
A shame, Luka answered, smiling down at her. He noticed her staring at him. I could try CPR.
CPR. On your muse. Im a doctor.
Oh. She laughed self-consciously. Right. On the *muse*. She shook her head sharply to knock out the image of him bending down over her, his mouth closing over hers Im sure thats not necessary. She grinned. Blushed. Itll recover.
I hope so. Luka took a deep breath. Hi. My name is Luka. What a sweet blush, he thought. She probably blushed when a man undressed her. The unbidden thought hit him like a hot breeze. He was stunned to have thought such a thing. His stomach jumped again.
Luka? Hi, Luka, Im Anna.
Hi, Anna. How do you work in here? he asked, looking around at the crowded coffeehouse, grasping at conversational straws.
Apparently I dont, Anna replied with a smile. His accent was vaguely familiar, his voice rich and warm. Soft for such a large man. At least not today.
What are you doing?
I was working on my dissertation. Its an off and on process these days. More off than on Im afraid.
Dissertation, eh? Lot of work. What do you study? Luka asked, sitting down across from her. Maybe he could do this after all. He could ask her questions about her work, and let her talk, and maybe along the way he would remember what to do next. He picked up a book and read the title aloud. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia: Ethnic Conflict and the Dissolution of Multinational States. He picked up another. The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1809-1999. Luka swallowed hard. You study Yugoslavia? His voice was low and steady.
Not exactly. Political science. I study the link between nationalist movements and state building. The former Yugoslavia is just one case Im looking at. She spoke rapidly, full of energy. Im also looking at the Basque movement in Spain. You know? ETA? And Chechnya. I dont think Chechnya will be able to break away the way the former Yugoslav republics were able to, or the other Newly Independent States, which is really the better comparison. The Chechen national movement will probably be destroyed. Itll probably always simmer underground, aslready you can see them moving back to the guerilla style, but they wont be able to affect the contours of the Russian state. Im making Switzerland my counter case. Strong linguistic differences but they dont become national identity movements that fracture the state, unlike Yugoslavia, so the key is to explain what features of the Swiss state prevent a Yugoslavia-style meltdown - or a Chechnya style insurgency. Thats pretty oversimplified but She looked across the table at him. He was staring down at the book, his face slightly pale against his black hair and eyebrows. His mouth was set. Oh God. His accented English, so recognizable to her now his coloring Luka oh God what did I just do? Oh God oh God Sorry, thats probably way more information than you wanted, she finished sheepishly and ducked her head.
Luka kept staring at the book in his hand. Ethnic Conflict and the Dissolution of Multinational States. His grip tightened slightly and he looked up at Anna staring down at her hands. Im from Croatia, he said.
Yeah. I think I just figured that out. I should have recognized the accent. And your name maybe. Im sorry, I hope I didnt say something stupid. Anna blushed again. I mean, I must sound so stupid. She grimaced. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Luka watched her. He set the book down and took a deep breath. I dont want to talk about this, he thought. I just want to sit here with a pretty girl. Something about her pulled at him, made his pulse beat harder. He exhaled. He watched her holding her breath, could see her wondering if she had hurt him, insulted him, offended him, angered him. He had known journalists who had approached the war as a story, a lead, a career move. He hated those people. So objective, so professional, covering shellings and snipings and murders and blundering through the war from one battle to the next like bulls in a china shop. Running over peoples memories. Using them. This girl didnt seem like that, but I dont want to think about this, he thought. I really dont want to think about this.
He looked across the table. Anna was pressing her lips together hard, looking at him from under lowered lids. She had gone pale. She was lovely. His blood stirred.
He took one long deep breath and plunged ahead. Thats okay, how could you have known? His voice was very low, and Anna had to lean forward to hear him. Do you mind if we talk about something else now though? It was not a question.
Anna let out a long breath. She hadnt noticed she had been holding it. She watched a shadow pass across his face and saw him push it away by the sheer force of will. Her mind flipped through her files of interview transcripts and raced through a dozen scenarios. She had the unexpected urge to press her hand to his cheek and brush away the shadows. She looked at Luka across the top of her laptop and her stomach lurched and her heart broke at the same time. Change the subject, a voice in her head screamed, say something!
Let me just save this document. I think my battery is dying. I should shut up. I mean I should shut down. The computer, I should shut down the computer, Anna stammered. Oh god, I probably *should* just shut up. Anna shook her head and pulled the band out of her ponytail. Her hair fell to her shoulders and into her eyes, and she briefly hid her face with one hand.
The gesture charmed Luka. Its okay. He felt himself warming to her. For reasons he couldnt identify, he was enormously attracted to her. A gentleness spilled off of her like a familiar scent. He couldnt stop thinking of freshly baked bread. She intrigued him. But he was walking through a fog, trying to find a path he hadnt walked in many years. He had to keep her talking, and he could follow her voice through the unfamiliar terrain. Thats a nice machine, eh? Tapping the laptop as she closed it.
Anna lunged at the diversion. Yeah, its alright but it weighs a ton for a portable. But the battery is great. Ive been here almost six hours. Its durable, too. I definitely traded lightness for sturdiness. It was worth it, though, this thing has seen a lot.
You carry it around a lot? She was calming down now. Luka soothed her with questions, like he did with a frightened patient resisting a procedure.
Oh, yeah. Ive lugged this thing all over Croatia, she stammered slightly over the name, Spain, Switzerland. I havent made it to Chechnya.
Luka laughed out loud. Good God I hope not. Youre not going there are you?
No. Im stupid, but Im not insane. I mean Ive gone some stupid places in my day, but I have to draw the line someplace. Russia restricts travel to the region anyway. Id never get in. Or more likely, I could get in, but Id never get out. I could probably get smuggled in through Georgia, I know a guy who knows a guy, but Im not big on getting kidnapped and held for ransom, you know? Then get killed for my troubles anyway. No, not a big life goal.
Luka smiled. Smart girl. Part of him wanted to ask her when she had been in Croatia. Where had she gone? Did she speak Croatian? He guessed she did. She had repeated his name back to him perfectly, not just the American Luke with an uh at the end, but Luka. It had been years since hed heard him name come out just right. What a pleasure it would be to chat in Croatian again, over coffee with a pretty girl. Hed feel more confident in Croatian. Maybe. Instead he asked her where she studied.
I did my graduate work at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, then I spent about a year on my field research in Europe, but now Ive got a research position at the University of Chicago while I finish up the dissertation. Not too interesting, but it pays the rent. And I get a few short term research gigs on the side to make ends meet. Well, my ends never actually meet, but once in a while they can at least see each other, she finished with a smile.
Luka laughed. Yes. I remember it from medical school. Always living tight. Wondering how long the money would last, when wed go broke. Luka smiled to remember those days with Marija when they were first married and he was still in medical school and he wondered from morning to night how he would take care of her. Marijas ability to stretch his stipends and paychecks constantly amazed him. On Saturdays they would go to the market and make a game out of who could buy the most with the same amount of money. Marija always won. She amazed him in a thousand indescribable ways. In a way it was fun, Luka said quietly.
Yeah, fun like a root canal, Anna replied. She recognized too late the wistful quality in his voice and tried to take the edge off her comment. But if you were able to make it fun more power to you.
Luka shook himself out of the memory. It was okay. I think stipends in Europe are more generous than here, though. At least Im amazed at what our medical students and residents have to put up with.
Well, its even worse in political science, trust me.
So you study and work? That must be hard.
Just tiring. Sleep is the luxury of the rich, dont let anybody tell you different, she said with a wink. Actually, the research work is kind of interesting. Right now Im translating a public opinion survey on political efficacy in former Soviet bloc states.
Luka wrinkled his forehead. Political what?
Political efficacy. Its basically the degree to which people feel that their actions can affect political outcomes and institutions. If you have no sense of political efficacy, youre going to think political action is worthless and become apathetic.
Oh, that sounds interesting. Luka had no idea what she was talking about.
Thats polite for sounds boring, right? Anna laughed a little. Its okay, most people glaze over after two minutes once I start talking about work. I guess I can understand. Its pretty ivory tower stuff I guess.
Yeah. Whenever people want to criticize academics and say we dont know what were talking about, they say were up in our ivory tower, not down in the real world. Especially academics who study international conflict. Were safe in our ivory tower universities, so we must not know what the hell were talking about. Like we never do field research or something. Anna cringed. Yeah, your field research really stacks up against the real thing. Compared to this guy you probably dont know what the hell youre talking about. Watch your words, you idiot.
Luka watched her wince. No, its polite for sounds interesting. She seemed to be treading so carefully. He could see her filling in the blanks, with what he didnt know, but it seemed she had decided to presume the worst and to walk around it carefully. He wasnt sure how he felt about that. It was thoughtful that she would shy away from what she guessed would be painful, but irritating that she would presume. Not everybody came out of the war with horror stories, didnt she know that? Maybe he *wanted* to talk about home? Of course, he didnt and he had told her so in no uncertain terms, and she was just trying to respect his edit. Given the type of work she did, it was a pretty tall order, he should appreciate she was trying rather than berate her for it. He liked talking to her. She triggered a warm glow in him and made his pulse beat hard in his ears. He didnt quite know how to handle the unfamiliar sensation. And it sounds relaxing. I work in the emergency room at County hospital. A calm job would be nice sometimes.
Youre an ER doctor? That must be exciting. I had an EMT friend once. He always had great stories.
Sometimes, Luka answered noncommittally. He didnt really want to talk about work. It had been a long night and a long morning and he had come here to wind down from it and forget it. But it was something to keep her talking longer. Last night was pretty hectic, and I had to stay through an extra half shift. But its not always like that.
Anna noticed his face change. Do you hate talking about your work as much as I hate talking about mine sometimes? she asked.
Sometimes. Im sorry. Luka shifted nervously in his chair. It was a rough shift. And a half. Were shorthanded right now, and everybodys taking some extra work.
So this is one of those times, huh? Okay. Well make a rule: no dissertations and no hospitals.
Okay, Luka answered with a smile. Anna leaned her elbows on the table and rested her chin in her hands. She smiled encouragingly, but without work, he didnt have much to talk about. He was suddenly stricken mute. They sat awkwardly. He wanted so desperately to talk to her, but he didnt know how.
It had been so hard with Carol, trying to remember how to court a woman, to show her he was interested, to share himself again, to read her signals. He never could read Carol. He was just getting his feet under him when she left for Seattle. Hed wandered around the hospital in a daze for weeks after that, just trying to catch his breath. Hed taken shifts for anybod who asked, just to fill up the empty hours until everybody pegged him for an easy mark and started taking advantage of him. He hadnt cared, but Kerry put a stop to it. She made him go home. She told him to go to the beach or the park or a ballgame, she didnt care, but if he didnt bring back a picture of himself in the fresh air he was fired. Luka was pretty sure she was joking, but not entirely. He never could read Kerry, either. So he went home. He changed clothes. He went to the drugstore, bought one of those cheap throw-away cameras, and went to Oak Street Beach.
And an unexpected thing happened. He found himself noticing the pretty college girls. He asked two of them to take his picture with Lake Michigan in the background, and he noticed them staring at him when they handed the camera back, and he noticed that he liked it. A long buried instinct had stirred in him. And he realized that although Carol was gone, the part of him that wanted to be with a woman hadnt left with her. If anything she had awakened it, and then left him. A frustration he hadnt known he had been experiencing overwhelmed him. Suddenly the world was filled with women, and it was hard not to think about what it would feel like to be with one again. He saw pretty women on the El, on the street, at the hospital. He found himself lying awake at night imagining what it would be like to bring a woman into his bed and his blood roared in his ears.
But next to that desire sat an uncomfortable fear. His courtship of Carol had been clumsy, tentative. Each new step forward had filled him with doubt. Am I doing this right? What is she thinking? He never knew what she was thinking. That uncertainty had thrown him the most. He had known Marija better than his own self, could read her shifting moods and colors like a map. He could hold her hand over dinner and know by the strength of her grip if the children had been fighting or if they had been sweet. When she stroked the back of his hand and tickled his wrist he knew her mother had them for the night and she wanted to make love to him like they did when they were first married and they didnt have to worry about who saw them or heard them. An elaborate meal meant she had had a hard day and was soothing herself with domestic comforts. When she picked at her food she had something hard to tell him, usually about money. Prices had gone up again. Jasna needed new shoes. In a disagreement, a single look could silence him. Her soul was open to him every day. The sensation of giving a woman flowers and having no idea if that even had made her happy had stunned him.
If he hadnt known what Carol was thinking, imagine how little he would know about what a stranger was thinking. Luka shifted awkwardly in his chair.
Well, thats a nice little rule we made, Anna finally said. Weve agreed not to talk about the things that take up, what, 80% of our days? What should we talk about, then? Surely you do something besides work? she offered.
Luka considered the question. Actually, he responded, lately I have done very little but work. He wondered if he should explain. You see, I dont know a lot of people here, and the person I knew the best moved away recently. When she moved I realized, well, she might have been my only friend. Instead of trying to make more friends, I just took on more shifts at the hospital, Luka finished lamely.
Yeah, I know the feeling. I moved here six months ago and I still dont know a soul outside the University. So I do the same thing. Work, work, work. Its easier than meeting people.
They fell silent again. He seemed so lonely. She was inexplicably drawn to him.
But look, Anna offered brightly, we each just met each other! She smiled and held out her hand for him to shake. Im Anna Simpson, she said with mock seriousness.
Luka Kovac, he answered, taking her hand with a smile. A shock ran through him and he watched it run through her as well. He held her hand for too long, then dropped it with a start. She stared at him.
Luka laughed to cover his growing confusion. His heart was pounding. Its nice to meet you, Anna Simpson. He looked at Anna across the table. Can I get you more coffee?
Oh no thanks. Ive had more than my quota today already. As it is Im going to have the shakes all night and get to sleep at about three a.m. if Im lucky. Nasty grad student habit. Way too much caffeine, strange working hours, irregular schedules. We develop the weirdest sleep patterns. Or non sleep patterns. God help me when I get a regular job with regular hours. She was leading him now, giving him the generous answers he needed, filling up the empty space between them. She wanted him to stay. He felt the warmth coming off of her, and the fog burned off a little.
Sounds a bit like doctors. I just worked all night and half the afternoon. Now Ill go home and fall asleep by mistake and then wake up at midnight and not be able to fall back asleep. Its like having jet lag all the time. Well probably both be lying wide awake in bed tonight at the same time. This time it was Lukas turn to blush at the sudden image of lying in bed with her. I mean I keep strange hours, too, he said awkwardly. Luka pursed his lips together to suppress a grin, but it played around his mouth. He glanced at Anna. She was blushing too, but she was looking right at him. He imagined her flushed face in his hands, how soft and warm her skin would be, how her hair would wrap around his wrists like little vines and fall in his face when he kissed her.
Tea, she said.
What? Luka jolted out of his daydream. He didnt know if he was more shaken by the picture hed had, or the fact that hed had it at all. He didnt know what had gotten into him. All his long pent-up desires were washing over him at the most inopportune of times. Get a hold of yourself, he thought sternly.
Tea, Luka, you could get me some tea. Anna smiled. She put her hand lightly on his forearm. Luka stared at it and felt heat pour through his shirt. Such a little hand. The chai, actually. Lukas eyes moved from Annas hand up her arm to her shoulder and neck and finally to her face. He was dizzy from looking at her.
A curl of hair had fallen into her eyes, and Luka reached across the table to tuck it behind her ear. A shiver passed through Annas entire body and came to rest warmly in her stomach as his finger grazed her cheek. Luka looked at her quizzically. Anna smiled back. Luka let his finger rest lightly on her cheek for just a moment and then withdrew his hand.
Lukas head was spinning. All the feelings that had been smothered for so many years, that Carol had woken but then held so firmly at bay, were crashing over him. He had fallen for Carol, loved the girls, but she had always been reserved, and the few times he had kissed her he knew her response had been lukewarm. Hed never pretended to himself it hadnt been. It had been a long time, but not so long that he didnt remember what it felt like when a woman truly kissed back. He remembered that feeling every night when he closed his eyes and thought of Marija. But an uncertainty had always hovered over Carol, and he had always respected it. She had held him at arms lengths as a man, had never tried to excite him, never communicated any real desire for him. He had kissed her twice, and never got the feeling she cared for more. But Anna was telegraphing desire, consciously or not, and he was getting swept up in it.
Chai? He asked, even though he had seen it many times. He was stalling for time, trying to steady himself. After keeping a firm lid on his desires for so long he found the cracks in the dam Carol had opened were widening. He took a deep breath to compose himself. Having allowed himself to feel next to nothing for so long he was discovering that hed lost the ability to temper himself. It was like trying to put toothpaste back into the tube. He felt himself being pulled along by desire like a teenager. He suddenly realized it had been five years since hed been with a woman, and hed probably lost the ability to temper himself in bed as well. Hed be a clumsy teenager all over again. The thought brought him up short like a bucket of cold water down his back.
One chai, coming up. Luka pushed back his chair and walked to the bar to order. He had begun to enjoy discovering women again, as bad as he was at it, but clearly he had failed to think it through to its logical conclusion. At some point he would face the question of intimacy, and he was beginning to think he couldnt possibly take a woman to bed. He probably wouldnt remember what to do with her, he certainly wouldnt remember how to control himself, to take his time with her, to really please her. It would be over as soon as it began. Luka cringed. Mortifying. Or worse, he would close his eyes and pretend he was with Marija in their cluttered apartment, and his heart would break when he opened them again to a strange face. Either way it would be miserable for him and insulting for her. Truth be told, a small part of him had always been relieved by Carols coolness. It took the pressure off. But this girl. She radiated a familiar warmth, sweet and promising. For Gods sake, he thought angrily, she touched my arm my shirt! and I got hot like a fourteen year old boy. In a coffeehouse! I must be out of my mind. Stop acting like an idiot. Take the girl her tea, make pleasant small talk, and say goodbye. No good can come of this.
When Luka returned to the table he saw Anna had packed her bag and was rising to leave. He should have been relieved, but to his surprise he wasnt. He wanted to put the brakes on his growing sexual attraction, but he hadnt wanted to lose her company altogether. Attraction aside, she appealed to him in a way he couldnt quite put his finger on. Since sitting down with her the hectic night and morning had receded into the distant past. He had hoped for more time with her.
Is it in a to-go cup? she asked. Good. Walk with me. I need a change of scenery. Ive been sitting here for hours. Please come with me, she thought. She reached out and put a light hand on his arm. Can you come walking?
The light touch jolted Luka. He felt his heart pound. No, go home. Tell her youre tired, you worked all night and half the day. You wouldnt even be lying. Stop this idiocy now. Anna moved her index finger slightly, a tiny caress, and took a half step forward. Her warmth and desire crashed over him. It was unmistakable, even to Luka. Its been so long I must be reading this wrong, Luka thought. This pretty girl isnt going to sleep with a total stranger, least of all me. Stop insulting her by thinking she would. Luka smiled at his foolishness. But Anna misunderstood and smiled back. Come on, Luka. Walk with me.
Okay. But you have to let me carry that heavy laptop. What am I doing?
Better yet, Anna said with forced nonchalance, walk five minutes out of your way and I can dump it at my apartment. She was staring straight ahead, not daring to look at him. Its right by here. Then nobody will have to carry it.
Luka looked at her sideways. Sure, he said even as he thought to himself, what am I doing?
They set off down the street together.
Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia: Ethnic Conflict and the Dissolution of Multinational States (Exploratory Essays, No. 3) by Andrew C. Janos.
The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the Great Powers 1809-1999 by Misha Glenny.
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