The Elusive Merlot
A million stars in the expanse of the night sky, a war that brought them back together, & an elusive bottle of Merlot. How hard can it be to find a bottle of Merlot in the middle of a war?
The soldier rubbed his hands together as he stepped out into the crisp, autumn air. The blue hour had just receded, and night had fallen. Smoke from the barrel fires wafted past him in thick clumps. Street lamps lit the path ahead of him, the path that would take him through the cracked concrete streets of Gospic. He turned left of the barracks, tucking his chin into his jacket collar, and then made his way past the football field, the crumbling apartment blocks and finally the government building that stood tall on the corner, unaware of its insignificance in the grand scheme of the world. He nodded to passing locals, parents of friends he had known since high school, relatives he actively avoided interacting with unless he was forced to at family engagements.
He had opted to move to Croatia’s capital in 1989, but the stint was short-lived for within two years, he found himself back in his hometown, a member of the fumbling, newfound Croatian army. The army had spent two years trying to gather some kind of structure so it could be deemed more than just a civilian resistance. By 1993, it had found its feet and become a force to be reckoned with against the already organised JNA- the Yugoslav People’s Army.
Mateo Jambrosic was always a believer that everything happened for a reason. There was no wrong path in life, and that one always made a decision on something for a higher purpose, even if they didn’t understand what that was at the time. His return to Gospic was a chance to rekindle his relationship with his high school sweetheart that never was: Mirela. When she was in a relationship, he was single. When he was in a relationship, she was single. Life got in the way, and he moved to Zagreb, and she went to study in Split.
It only took a war to reunite them.
‘Hej stari,’ her familiar voice called out to him as she emerged from a darkened porch.
Mateo’s ears perked up, an excited energy surged through his vein. ‘Mirela.’
She stepped forward and hovered in front of him, contemplating whether to motion him forward on their walk or to greet him, somehow, first. A kiss on the cheek? The double-kiss? A kiss on the cheek and then a hug? Or just the hug? Or maybe a handshake was more suitable?
Mateo stood still. He didn’t want to be too much, too forthcoming, but didn’t want her to think he was sending mixed signals. Didn’t they say that it wouldn’t be awkward this time around? What if their awkwardness meant they weren’t going to work out? What if this was it? Or worse, what if they barely had a thing to talk about all night? What if the night only lasted an hour, if that?
‘You look beautiful,’ he finally said, pecking a kiss on her cheek.
‘Thank you. You look…’
Mateo looked down at his neatly pressed uniform and chuckled. ‘Like a soldier?’
‘Do you know how annoying mama has been with Sve Bi Seke Ljubile Mornare? I told her it doesn’t count because you’re not a sailor, but she insists.’
‘And now I’m going to spend the rest of the night with that song stuck in my head. Thank you very much, Mrs Martinovic.’
Mateo could listen to Mirela’s hearty laugh for hours, days, years on end. He missed it. He had dreamt about it, and thought it was like a nostalgic song, taking him back to a time where things seemed so much simpler than they were now.
‘Shall we?’ he offered his arm.
‘Where are we going?’
‘Well it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if I told you, would it?’
‘You know I hate surprises.’
Mateo paused and turned to her. ‘That’s a very good point. I do know that.’
‘You always did know things about me. Things that I didn’t even know about myself.’
‘Well hang on there, now you make me sound like a stalker.’
‘You know what I mean.’
Mateo shyly smiled as he allowed her to walk in front of him to avoid bumping into the couple coming in the opposite direction. ‘We’re going to get some food that I organised at the kavana, and then we’re going to have a nice picnic in the park nearby. Something different, you know? They even helped me out with some heaters too so we didn’t freeze.’
‘You did all that for me?’
‘I mean, it’s only been... how many years in the making?’
Mirela slapped his arm, her hand scraping against his jacket. ‘Better late than never, no?’
‘You bet. Now come on, the food should be ready now.’
‘What are we eating?’
‘Oh come on, at least leave that as a surprise?’ he teased. ‘It’s from Mandolina’s so you know it’ll be good.’
The pair found their way to Mandolina’s and walked into the cosy kavana to the scent of cigarette and fire smoke. The interior was decked out in hues of chestnut, mahogany and moss green, the seats made of a worn leather. The walls were adorned with sporting memorabilia. Photos of its owner, Tomislav, with athletes and celebrities hung proudly against the stone walls. The chalkboard next to the bar had the daily special written in chalk. The low murmur of the radio hummed beneath the chatter of patrons, playing a combination of pop songs from Oliver Dragojevic, songs from the north like that of Kico Slabinac, or patriotic songs from Marko Perkovic Thompson or Duka Caic.
‘Majstore!’ a boisterous Tomislav greeted as he walked out of the kitchen. ‘And Mirela, beautiful. Exactly like your mother at your age. Actually, exactly like your mother still to this day but I can’t say that or else my beloved best man will punch me.’
‘I won’t say a thing,’ Mirela laughed, zipping her mouth with her fingers. ‘Besides, I think my dad wouldn’t disagree with you.’
‘Neither do I,’ Mateo added. ‘I mean, about you. Of course, your mother is very beautiful but I mean you. I was talking about…’ he sighed. He turned to Tomislav. ‘The food please. And the bottle of wine. Help me out before I say something I shouldn’t.’
With a snicker, Tomislav passed the containers filled with mixed grill coated in a family secret concoction of herbs, a tub of ajvar, some kupus salata and a container of fries. He reached out for Mateo’s shoulder and pulled him closer to him, and whispered in his ear.
‘We had a mix-up with the wine.’
‘What kind of mix-up?’
‘Well, we had one of the diplomats pass by today and Sara gave him the last bottle, not knowing we were keeping it for you.’
‘Oh,’ Mateo pursed his lips. ‘No problem. I can go by Stana’s. She would surely have a bottle.’
‘Are you sure? I can try and find something else here?’
‘No, no. It’s good. You’ve done more than enough to help me out. The heaters and all that are all set up?’
‘Sara felt so bad she may have gone overboard with that.’
Mateo chuckled. ‘No problem. Thanks uncle.’
Mirela waited for Mateo by the door and caught a whiff of the food in his hands. Her stomach rumbled, her mouth salivated with excitement at the thought of devouring Tomislav’s cooking. It was home to her.
‘I just need to drop by Stana’s and get a bottle of Merlot,’ he explained. ‘I can take you to where we’re going and then quickly jump in?’
‘No, no. I’ll come with you now.’
They walked diagonally across from Mandolina’s and walked into a quiet Stana’s. From the outside, it replicated Mandolina’s, but the interior opted for emeralds and yellows with the cherry wood-topped bars.
‘Mateo!’ Stana boomed with her hands in the air. ‘And Mirela. What can I do for you?’
‘Do you so happen to have a bottle of Merlot?’
Stana’s face reflected her disappointment in not being able to help them out. ‘Tsk, son. If only you came ten minutes ago.’
Disappointed but unsurprised, Mateo flicked his hand forward and flashed his boyish grin. ‘Ach! What can you do? No problem. Thank you anyway.’
Mirela watched him huff out of Stana’s and forced her lips together. ‘Are you going to scour all of Lika for a bottle of Merlot?’
‘Yes. Yes, I am.’
‘Mato, you don’t have to.’
‘Why? We can have something else.’
‘Because I want this to be perfect.’
Mirela paused, and observed him. The relaxed, jovial Mateo disappeared. The Mateo in front of her shuffled his feet beneath him and rubbed the back of his neck, imprinting his skin with his grip. ‘What’s gotten into you?’
Mateo took a deep breath and exhaled. ‘I’m sorry, Mira. I just,’ he shook his head, ‘I just wanted this to be perfect for you. We spent so many years with other people, trying to run away from one another and now that we’re here...I just wanted it to be nice.’
With the bag of food becoming squished between their bodies, Mirela stepped forward and planted a gentle kiss on his lips. Her chin raised and her gaze locking on him, she then stepped back, awaiting his response.
With a flash of a smile, Mirela winked at him. ‘Come on stari, I think I know where we can find your bottle of Merlot.’ She took his hand and led him to the supermarket at the top of the street.
Finding themselves beneath the stars, their bellies full of delicious grub and holding their glasses of Merlot by the stem, Mirela nestled her back against Mateo’s chest as they searched the constellations that hovered above them. Their being seemed so insignificant in contrast to the expanse of the night sky. The stars danced across the blank canvas, telling stories of ancient history, and guiding sailors across vast oceans.
‘Even after all this time, why me?’ Mirela wondered, turning her head up and resting her cheek against his shoulder.
Mateo shrugged. ‘I just always thought that if I had you in my corner, there was nothing I couldn’t face.’
‘I didn’t know that’s what you thought of me.’
‘Your turn: why me?’ he asked her, gulping down the last of his Merlot in preparation for the answer.
Mirela sat up and crossed her legs as she faced him. She drew an invisible line across the blanket beneath her. ‘It was always supposed to be you. I didn’t want to lose you. I thought it was easier to date someone else than be with someone I loved because I’d rather get my own heartbroken than break yours. I was 16. The thought of you not being in my life scared me. And then you weren’t. I don’t have many regrets, Mateo, but of those I do- you were one of them.’
Mateo bowed his head slightly to get her line of sight. He raised her chin with his index finger and saw the tears that creeped to the corner of her eyes.
‘Take my hand.’
‘Take my hand.’ He hopped to his feet and extended his hand for her to take.
As she took his hand and stood opposite him, he twirled her around and pulled her close to him. She felt his breath against her forehead as their bodies began to sway to the sound of the music playing from the konobar nearby.
‘Promise me something?’ he asked.
‘Don’t worry about the past anymore. We’re here now. That’s all that matters.’
The corners of Mirela’s lips curled upwards. She nodded. ‘I promise.’ She pressed her body close to his, resting her chin against his shoulder. She inhaled his musky cologne, and then looked up at the night sky.
The lustres of the moon twinkled a path upon them, as they danced amidst the flames, the stars and the momentary serenity in a country ravaged by war.