Luka slammed shut his locker, finally labelled
with an engraved plastic plate, and stared at his name for a
moment. Strange-- after three years, he finally had a permanent
position in a hospital again. He was no longer a floater; no
longer allowed to drift almost aimlessly. He had been happy when
Kerry had offered him the position, though she had clearly not
shared his feelings; replacing her beloved mentor with a foreign
doctor she barely knew. He had been happy, but not today. Today
his stomach was hollow, his heartbeat dull-- a fact that would
have been surprising to many who only saw him as the amiable Dr.
Kovac. All he wanted to do was get away from the din and constant
bustle of County General and find solitude somewhere.
He crossed the locker room and yanked open the door. Malik passed in front of him, toward the exam area, and smiled. Luka smiled back, though unusually, the smile did not touch his dark blue eyes. Randi and Lucy were behind the front desk, chatting, and when they saw him walking, his pack slung over one shoulder, Randi leaned over the counter.
"Going home, Dr. Kovac?" she asked. He opened his mouth, almost answered her in his Slavic first language, and rearranged his thoughts.
"Yes; my twelve hours are up," he answered, trying to give her a smile that was more genuine than the last.
,br> "Have a good night," Lucy called, and he nodded. Walking toward the sets of double doors, he could feel their eyes on him, and a bit of amusement broke through the grey clouds in his mind. They always did that; stared at him when they thought he wasn't aware. Though they never bothered to actually talk to him much, many women at the hospitals he "subbed" at like to watch, and he was used to it. More glumness began to creep back, and he shrugged it away as the first blast of winter air hit him. That wasn't their fault. Luka didn't exactly encourage conversation with them... anyone, really. Though his real nature was still intact-- a nice man, caring, compassionate, attentive with his patients-- he distanced himself from others purposely. Floating from job to job, living on the boat, keeping to himself; it discouraged becoming too close to one person. That existence had been threatened by Carol's presence, her friendliness, and he'd felt himself being drawn to her, subconsciously yearning for that old comfort, but she was now at home with her new babies, and thankfully, he was allowed to sink back into his seclusion.
Was it thankfully? Luka looked up briefly at the falling snowflakes from the sky, enjoying the light pecks landing on his olive forehead and cheeks. Tire tracks were engraved in the light coating of snow in the ambulance bay, and he walked within one of them, staring at his feet, hearing the distant rumble of the el, remembering that the sound used to frighten him. It had reminded him too much of the sounds of the war in his homeland. The quaking of the ground, the deafening roar as it passed overhead. He unconsciously frowned, squinting painfully as images flashed behind his eyes, of his wife, Anya, being carried into the hospital in Sarajevo, her open eyes glassy and unseeing, her left arm gone at the shoulder...
A small, anguished sound escaped Luka's parted lips, and he mashed them together, holding his emotions inside. Three and a half years, and it was still the most vivid memory of his life. It was not what he wanted to see, and he nearly walked into traffic with his eyes closed before stopping himself at the edge of a snowpile. Not while he was feeling this way, not after this distressing, startling day.
He looked to his left, down the street, to where the stairs leading to the el platform were. He didn't want to go back to the boat. He couldn't bear a minute on the silent water tonight. After a minute of thought, his breath pluming whitely in the air, he checked the lane for oncoming traffic, and headed across the street to Doc Magee's. It would be crowded, but he wasn't going to disappear into the pub for the company. He only wanted the alcohol.
It was dark, smokey, loud; perfect. Luka stamped his shoes and shook his hair briefly, ignoring interested stares from several women sitting at a table by the door, and headed straight for the bar.
"Vodka, straight up," he told the bartender, after wedging himself between two occupied stools. The man nodded, and Luka placed a five dollar bill on the counter and downed the drink in two gulps, tolerating the fire as it slid down his throat. Gritting his teeth, refusing the involuntary shudder, he looked up and caught his reflection in the mirror behind the rows of bottles lining the back wall. Startled by the visage, he wondered if he really had stayed the same.
Who are you anymore? he asked himself, then jumped a bit as a small hand touched the back of his shoulder.
"Dr. Kovac?" a female voice asked, and he quickly turned his head and looked down, regretting it immediately. It was her, the woman who had caused his thoughts to return so vividly to Sarajevo. The woman who looked so much like Anya.
She was lithe, small-- nearly a full foot shorter than his six-foot, four inch frame, dark-haired, pale-skinned. Her eyes were round and widely-spaced, brown and clear. He looked past her upturned nose to her red lips and nearly grimaced as Anya's face superimposed itself over hers, her features matching the woman's almost perfectly.
He couldn't just walk away. She was smiling kindly up at him, still touching his shoulder, but he twisted enough so that she had to drop her arm. Taking a deep breath, he finally answered, "Yes."
"Do you remember me?" she asked. "Sheila Martin?"
Her question almost caused him to laugh nervously. That was an understatement. "Yes." He realized he was repeating himself, but that word was all he could choke out.
"I wanted to thank you," she said. Luka's eyebrow lifted a bit.
"I only removed your cast," he said, glancing at her arm that until five o'clock, had been wrapped in an autographed casing of plaster.
"Well..." she looked away, a bit of embarassment crossing her face. "I almost didn't come in.... I really can't stand doctors."
"Oh?" He closed his eyes momentarily, trying to force bloody images away.
"Yeah," she continued. "I didn't like the guy who put on the cast... what's his name? Shorter than you, dark hair, didn't wear a doctor's coat?"
"Dr. Dave," he answered automatically. "Today was his day off."
"Thank God," she laughed, and he opened his eyes to catch her peering at him. "Anyways, like I said, I really don't like doctors... but you were really nice to me, very kind, very patient... I just wanted to thank you for being that way."
Luka licked his lips, and finally willed back his troubled memories. This woman was not Anya. Though she looked eerily similar, her voice was different, the inflections, the accent. Concentrating on that fact, and suddenly, without reason, not wanting her to walk away, he asked, "Why don't you like doctors? Did you have a bad experience?"
"You could say that," she answered, vaguely, and sensing she wanted to drop the subject, he remained silent. There were bad apples in every profession. Her eyes had clouded, but she smiled again as she returned her gaze to his eyes. "Do you come here a lot?"
"No," he answered. He'd only been inside Doc Magee's once before, curious to see where the staff of County spent a portion of their leisure time. Surprisingly, it was similar to the pub he'd frequented in Sarajevo with the doctors he'd worked with. Some things were the same, no matter what part of the world one lived in.
"Do you come here much?" he asked.
"Sometimes," she said, looking around, then stepping closer to him as a couple edged behind her. Luka flattened his body against the bar, feeling the steel bar dig into his backbone. She seemed to notice the momentary look of panic on his face, and squinted at him.
"Do you want me to go away?" she asked honestly. Luka remained stiff, then suddenly relaxed. This woman had no idea what he was feeling, and like all the others, nothing that caused his actions was her fault. He allowed himself to smile, and let it touch his eyes.
"No," he answered, softly. "It's just been a strange day."
She briefly returned his smile, thoughtfully watching his eyes. "I have those, too." Suddenly, she asked, "Can I ask where you're from?"
"Sarajevo," he answered, not needing to explain what country the city was in, everyone in the world now knew.
She nodded, and commented, "Then you must have a lot of strange days, living here."
Luka laughed, cleansing his soul some. X marks the spot, and she had hit the x. While Sarajevo was very cosmopolitan, formerly filled with a rich multitude of arts, music and scholars, it was a pea compared to the watermelon that was the United States. "You're right," he answered, and she smiled.
"Would you like to sit down with me?" she asked. "It's sort of awkward, standing here."
Would he? He checked her face again, and saw that there was nothing there to suggest that she had approached him for anything more than a friendly conversation. Luka turned around, and asked the bartender for another glass of vodka. "What are you drinking?" he asked Sheila.
"White wine," she answered, and after a moment, he handed her a new stemmed glass, their fingers brushing. To his surprise, there was a tingle in his stomach with the contact. Wordlessly, wondering, he followed her to a table at the other side of the long room, along the wall.
"Do you live near here?" Sheila asked, after they'd sat down across from each other.
"No.... I live at the marina."
Her eyes widened. "You live on a boat? You must make a lot of money."
He chuckled and shook his head. "Not me. It's not a luxury yacht."
"Darn," she muttered, and when he looked up, she grinned. "Just kidding."
"Do you live near here?"
"A few blocks away. I came down here-- obviously-- to get a drink." She abruptly wiggled her fingers on her left hand, then flapped her hand once. "God, this feels weird."
"It will be feeling like your old arm in no time," he told her, knowing she still felt the phantom remnants of the cast.
She looked at him sideways. "And that dark hair'll go away?"
He chuckled again. "Yes. It will look normal, too."
Sheila stopped examining her hand and said, "You speak English really well."
"Old American movies," he told her, and when she looked amusedly suspicious, he added, "And school."
She nodded, and then the lull in the conversation began. Luka found that he wasn't uncomfortable with the silence, and watching her face, he saw she wasn't, either. She only stared at the wine glass by her hand, smiling slightly. He finally asked her what was on her mind, curious. Sheila looked up, then smiled sheepishly
"Well, I lied a little.. up there at the bar," she confided. "It wasn't just because you're a nice doctor that I wanted to talk to you. To be honest... you really blew me away today."
He didn't fully understand her meaning. "What do you mean?"
"I mean..." then she laughed. "You must know you're very good-looking."
"Oh." He paused, then couldn't stop the words that fell from his lips. "You really... blew me away, too."
She was watching him carefully. "I have a feeling you don't have the same reasons I did, though."
Should he explain? It was something he had shared with no one; how he'd felt these past few years, what had happened to cause him to leave his homeland. His mouth worked, and he finally spoke, cautiously, carefully. "You remind me... of someone I used to know."
"I do?" She was quiet, and he was surprised that she didn't explore further, and he was grateful, but he didn't show it, keeping his eyes on his untouched drink. "Dr. Kovac, are you okay?"
He exhaled heavily, and raised his gaze again. "I'm Luka.... that's my name." Her expression changed, and it was so lovely, so compassionate, that his feelings changed in an instant: no longer was he afraid to look at her, or troubled by the last sight of Anya. He couldn't explain why, only that he was calmed.
"Luka." She said it slowly, musing over it. "I like that. It's a beautiful name."
"Thank you." Luka raised his glass and downed half the white liquid. Sheila watched him, then raised her own glass.
"Let's make a toast," she said, and he paused in the act of setting his glass down. "To... hopefully a happier evening, and a better ending to a strange day." She was staring directly into his eyes, striking him with her forward look, and wordlessly he clinked his glass against hers.
"I'll drink to that," he said softly, and downed the rest of the vodka.
"And happier talk," Sheila finished, after sipping at her wine. Luka nodded, and easily willed a smile onto his face as alcoholic warmth spread through his body.
And the following conversation was easy. She was a born and bred Chicagoan, single, thirty. An editor for a publishing house, which he found very interesting, an avid reader himself. He nearly grilled her on the process of how a book was produced. He offered some of his life in Sarajevo, but nothing of the dark times. His leisure activities, funny anecdotes from when he was a medical student at the largest hospital in Sarajevo. Nothing about pain, about loss, and Sheila seemed to know that it was a forbidden subject. He sensed that it wasn't ignorance, but very good perception, that kept her from asking about the war, or why he had left. But while the sounds of the pub swirled around them, and they themselves laughed and talked, mingling in with everything else, he realized that both their eyes were watchful, and serious, and below the fun banter they were headed in one single direction. And as the evening grew later, and the outside snow thicker, he began to welcome that conclusion more and more. He liked her honest way of looking at things, her laugh, the shy way she looked at him from under her long lashes.
Sheila pushed her empty wine glass to the side and looked around Doc Magee's. "Well, I should be going." The pub was beginning to wind down; there were actually empty tables scattered about. Luka glanced at his watch and saw that it was just after eleven, but he was not surprised. He had grown so comfortable that the time had flown by.
She was staring at him frankly, and this time he didn't drop his gaze. She finally smiled again, and said slowly, "I don't know how to ask you to come home with me."
Luka's breath became shallow, and he answered, "Didn't you just ask, though?"
Her smile was soft, slight, meaningless. "Yes." They were silent again, ignoring a loud burst of laughter from a crowd by the bar, examining each other's faces, waiting for a crack, a slip that would turn the whole evening into a joke, make them turn away and go their own way. It never came, and she finally spoke again. "Come home with me?" It wasn't exactly a question; it was more a statement, containing the innuendo that would fill their night.
Luka stared at her wide eyes, and realized that he had turned around a full 180 degrees. What he had almost violently run away from just three hours earlier, he now wanted to embrace, wrap around himself so tightly that he would forget everything. How a face... and a voice... and some laughter.. could do that....
"I don't have a car," he told her, which wasn't completely true; his car was at the marina. She shook her head slightly.
"That's okay," she answered. "It's only four blocks... we can walk."
The outside temperature had dropped twenty degrees while they had lounged inside the pub; the whistling wind bit into his exposed cheeks, reddening his tan skin within seconds. They walked a block in silence, hovering against each other, pushing against the wind, before Luka could no longer contain the laugh that had built within.
"Windy City, eh?" he called over the wind. "I thought it was an exaggeration!"
Sheila made a sound that could have been an answering chuckle, but then she stopped, quickly faced him, and put her hands around the back of his neck, pulling his face down to hers. At first, he was surprised, and kept his lips locked, but greed and hunger took over, and he opened his mouth, allowing her tongue to explore his mouth, searching her own with his. The kiss was hot, scalding in contrast to the snow and frigid air around them. They stood that way for over a minute in the dark, licking, making sure every corner of their mouths and lips were burned with the passion that they could barely contain.
Finally, he reluctantly broke their contact, again becoming aware of their surroundings. Sheila leaned back, her eyelids heavy, breathing hard. He smiled at her expression, enjoying that he had excited her so much. Swallowing hard, regaining some of her composure, she hooked her arm with his, and they quickly walked the rest of the way to her house in silence.
It was a small, tidy brick house with a black tiled roof. The living room light was on as she unlocked the door and led him inside. Quietly, Luka removed his scarf, gloves and coat while looking about the room. White furniture, Impressionist prints on the wall, a collection of crystal figurines on a sideboard. No reminders here.
Sheila kicked off her heavy shoes and turned to him. "I hope you don't need a drink," she joked.
A bit of nervousness was creeping in. Naturally, he'd had sex since Anya's death, but the times were few and far between. He took in her lovely form, clad in jeans and a dark blue sweater, and hotly remembered their kiss in the snow.
"No, I don't need anything to drink," he told her, and she exhaled a chuckle and took his hand, gently leading him across the living room and down a hallway.
The bedroom was dark. She stopped in the middle of the room, near a large black silhouette that he guessed was the bed, and he leaned over and wrapped his arms around her waist, dipping his head to run his lips over her neck and ear. She arched her neck, pressing her backside into his front, instantly hardening his penis. Luka groaned, and Sheila turned her head to meet his open mouth, drawing him fully in again. They stayed that way, in the middle of the room, rocking against each other gently, their kisses and excited breathing the only sounds in the room.
His hands were all over the front of her body; caressing and cupping her full breasts, gently, firmly. Her stomach was flat, cold, and she flinched a bit when his own cold fingertips touched her skin. When he finally met the top of her jeans, and tried to dip his hands beneath the waist, she stepped away and quickly pulled her sweater over her head, then removed her bra. Luka loosened his own tie, trying to see her through the dark that his eyes were still unaccustomed to, then yanked it off and quickly unbuttoned his shirt. Soft breasts pressed against his hard skin as she stepped back into his arms, wrapping herself within his fold, and they hungrily kissed once more.
Luka slowly backed her up until the back of her knees met the bed, and they both collapsed onto the mattress. Thinking only of the moment, he bent down, running his tongue up and down the center of her stomach, nearly panting himself as her breathing jumped around when he dipped his tongue into her bellybutton. The jeans and underwear came off in less than a minute, and he nuzzled his mouth against the small patch of wiry dark hair on her pelvis, feeling her tender flesh on his chin. Sheila moaned and parted her legs, and Luka leaned up and easily slid two fingers into her vagina, crooking them slightly at first, then quickening the motions as her breathing became gasps and the her thick juices flowed.
Sheila sat up quickly, pushed his hand away, and grabbed him, drawing him against her naked body again. He breathed hard against her cheek, then kissed her mouth greedily as her own hands crept down and undid the clasp on his belt, then unsnapped and unzipped his pants. His large penis sprang out when she pulled down the waistband of his underwear, and he faintly wondered how she would react when she discovered his foreskin. Either she had been with an uncircumsized man before, or didn't care, because after several moments of exploring, she gripped him tight in her hand and gently began pulling, back and forth, up and down, until he was rocking on his knees and leaning into her, ready to explode.
She broke the kiss and leaned over, to her left, to the bedside stand. He waited, hands on her bare thighs, as she opened a drawer, felt around, then came back to him and put a small package in his hand: a condom. Luka stood up, feeling slightly dizzy from the excitement, and quickly shrugged off his pants and underwear and tore open the package. After rolling on the condom, he returned to her, laying his body on top of hers, guiding her legs around his waist, and kissed her passionately, loving the way her naked, soft body fit into his.
It became a tease, a dance: his center inches from hers, both hot, both barely under control. They were both yearned for the most intimate contact, but were enjoying the anticipation, also. Sheila licked and bit his earlobe, drawing a shuddering moan from him. He slid his hands under her body, to her ass, lifting her up, grinding their pelvises together pleasurably. The butterfly touches of her fingertips along his spine brought tingling goosebumps to every inch of his skin. He suckled and caressed her breasts until the nipples were full of hot blood, standing up straight, stabbing into his body when he leaned up to drink from her mouth again.
Finally, neither could stand the waiting any longer, and Luka reached down and parted her lips while guiding his penis with the other. Sheila arched her back, and sighed contentedly as he entered her, and they began rocking slowly back and forth, the mattress indenting with their motion. Luka kept his hands on her moving hips for a few moments, then rested his elbows on the bed as she hooked her legs around his hips, drawing his large form in more deeply. He wanted to hold on, drag it out, enjoy it fully, and he laid his head on her shoulder, biting gently into the skin, feeling her heat radiate into his body.
She had whispered his name, and he almost didn't hear it for a moment, but then it hit him like a flash of white light, blasting into his brain like the explosions on the streets of Sarajevo. Luka looked up, and saw her face as clearly as if they were making love in the daylight, and it wasn't Sheila; it was Anya, staring at him with heavy eyes, her lips parted.
"No," he whispered, staring at her with dismay. He squeezed his eyes shut and collapsed against her. "No no no!"
She was silent for a moment, then hesitantly touched his trembling back. "Luka?"
He was quiet, trying to calm himself. She shouldn't have spoken. Everything would have been fine if she hadn't called out to him like Anya had always done. He could have gotten through this night, and not remembered how she had first affected him.
"What's wrong?" Her voice was quiet, wary, and he straightened up a bit, his cheek to hers, unable to look her fully in the face.
"You look like my wife," he admitted to her, unable to help it. "Anya... she died three years ago. You look so much like her."
Sheila was quiet, laying under him, her hands still on his back. Luka took a deep breath and waited, wondering if he should just leave without any further explanation. Wondering if there even was anything further to say, or do. He heard a car pass by on the street outside, sloshing through the soggy snow.
Her hand crept around to touch his cheek, then draw him reluctantly around until he had to look into her eyes. They were gleaming in the dark. Anya was gone; it was just Sheila again, but he couldn't forget the startlement of the earlier moment.
"I don't want you to leave," she whispered, her emotions muted, making it impossible to tell what was really going through her head. "But I can't make you stay, if you don't want to."
"I'm sorry," he told her, holding back the pain that he had tried for so long to make diminish, biting back the tears that were threatening to fall. "I wasn't using you."
Sheila was silent, searching his eyes, then rubbed her thumb against his cheek. "Good." They watched each other again, Luka straining to control himself, until Sheila raised her head and kissed him, her lips a bare breeze against his. He didn't respond at first, only letting her softly caress his lips with hers, and eventually the gentleness of her actions allowed his mind to drift. He was still inside her, and after a while the quiet contact of her eyelashes brushing his skin, her fingertips on his cheek, and her hot breath mingled with his began to amazingly arouse him again. They slowly returned to rocking, but there was nothing urgent about it this time; only a soothing, subdued passion that led to the end they both wanted, needed.
Sheila came first; clutching at his shoulders and whimpering several times into his skin. Luka drew her up and held on as his explosion happened, screaming silently into the thick hair caught in his hands. They both sank into the bed, and gathered their breathing and emotions until each lay still, waiting. Luka finally leaned up on one arm.
He couldn't stay the night. He didn't think it would be right for either of them, knowing what was on his mind. Sheila waited silently for him to speak.
"I think I should go now," he told her. She nodded, as if she had already anticipated his words, and Luka, unsure of himself, reluctantly got off the bed, looked around, and went to the open door on the other side of the room-- the bathroom. He pulled off the condom and threw it in the toilet, then wiped off his penis with a few squares of toilet paper, avoiding the mirror that would reflect his visage. Going back into the bedroom, he began to dress in the dark, feeling around for each piece of clothing on the floor. Sheila had already began dressing before he returned to her room, and left before he was finished. When he walked into the living room, his tie stuffed into his pants pocket, she was standing by the door, shoes on, her keys in her hand.
"I'll drive you home," she said, quietly. Luka immediately shook his head.
"That's all right. I can call a cab, if you'll let me use your phone."
She shook her own head, and repeated, firmly, "I'll drive you home."
Luka stared at her, then decided to take the offer. He didn't think he had a choice, anyway. He couldn't understand why she would even want to do him a favor, though; not after the way he had acted. Pulling on his winter wear, watching her do the same, he wanted to kiss her, to tell her that he had truly wanted to be with her, but couldn't bring the words out of his mouth. She was looking down, concentrating on the buttons on her coat, and didn't seem to want to say anything to him. They left the house in silence.
The car was cold, freezing, and their breath plumed into the interior for several minutes before the heater finally brought them some warmth. The only other sound was Luka's directions to Sheila, as she expertly maneuvered the snowy streets in her Ford Taurus. Luka blindly stared out the windshield, wondering if this would ever happen again. Was it just because Sheila looked so much like Anya, or would it be any woman, speaking while they made love, that would set him off? Or would it be something else, in the future? He really wished it had not happened; she was the first woman since his wife that he'd found he felt so relaxed around.
His mouth twitched. Sheila's earlier toast had not worked. The day had not ended the way he wanted... he doubted the way she had expected, either.
The marina came into view. She drove to the end of the lot and put the car into Park.
"Which one is yours?" she asked. Luka pointed through the windshield.
"That one." It was directly in front of them; he could see it rocking on the waves. Not too bad tonight.
Sheila nodded, and finally looked at him. He was at a loss for what would be the right thing to do, and only stared for a moment. Finally, he leaned over slowly, and she met his soft kiss with parted lips. "Good night, Sheila," he said, inches away from her face, and leaned back to grab the door handle.
"Luka." He looked at her, and her mouth worked for a second before she finally spoke. Her words were hesitant, but earnest. "I never did this before," she said. "I never brought anyone home that I'd only known for several hours." She paused, and finished almost haughtily, "I'm not sorry I did."
He could answer her honestly, without faltering. "I'm not sorry, either." Her statement gave him reason to pause, however, and venture his own question. "Why did you?"
Sheila seemed a bit startled by his words. She opened her mouth, closed it, then grinned a bit and shrugged. "I don't know," she answered, looking at him through the dark. "It was just one of those times where I didn't feel...." Sighing, she looked down at her lap, where her hands were clasped. "I don't think I can explain it. I just really wanted to be with you." After a moment, Luka nodded, and she dug her hand into her coat pocket, pulling out a slip of paper. Reaching over, she placed it in his hand. "It's my phone number," she told him, and he looked at the folded piece of paper. "I'm not going to ask for yours... I don't think you need me calling you right now. But if you ever want to... you can call me. Anytime. I hope you do."
Luka continued to stare at the paper. He could tell that it wasn't a come-on; that she was offering her friendship. It was odd... that he was actually welcoming it, after such a long time of forced loneliness.
"Thank you," he said, looking at her. She nodded and smiled as Luka opened the door and returned to the freezing winter air. He stood aside as she put the car into reverse and backed out of the lot, and watched until she sped out of sight.
He couldn't tell what it had felt like. Certainly not a good beginning. Some kind of beginning... fumbling, heart-breaking, terrifying... but he realized it had been a bridge that had been a long time coming. Walking with his head bent against the wind, he trudged down the dock to his home.
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