This story is by Julie Furxhi and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Dita quickly opened her umbrella and hurried down the museum steps. A feeble attempt in this rain, she thought. Despite the downpour, they had agreed to meet at their favorite café. As she turned the corner, she ran right into Liridon.
“Hey! You came more than halfway,” she teased.
They lightly kissed right cheek, left cheek, right again, lingering just a moment.
“I wasn’t sure you had an umbrella,” he said with a shrug and a bright smile.
They met a year ago among mutual friends. If anyone were to ask, it was those dark chocolate eyes of hers that made him fall. She didn’t know she was looking for love, but it found her in him. He gave her the sense he would always be her shelter in a storm.
The hinges squeaked from decades of overuse as they pushed open the café door. Spoons clattered on saucers. Cigarette smoke hung low and stale in a space not much larger than her family’s living room. Liridon held up two fingers to the waiter, the universal sign for two espressos.
He worked in imports-exports. The innocent, easy smile enchanted her and his customers alike. He was the life of any party without being overwhelming. He’d known his closest friends since childhood. He dressed nicely but only because his older sister helped him shop.
“So, how’s your grandma?” he asked while shaking the wet chill from his shoulders.
She put up a hand toward him as if to keep the tears at bay.
“The same. Stares out the window and mumbles. I don’t know.” Anything her lovely grandmother wanted to say and everything she hadn’t shared of the last eighty years were stuck in her mind, forever. Dita did not want to imagine a day without her.
After they finished their coffee, they pushed back from the table and stood.
“See you tonight?” he asked.
They often met with their friends at Bar Grand for cocktails. It was never planned, they just all expected to see each other there any night of the week. She bit her lip. She really should be getting ready for the museum’s exhibit celebrating their independence from the Ottoman Empire 100 years ago.
She was a curator at the national history museum. She started as a university intern and stayed after graduation. She enjoyed the quiet, the calm, the order. Her co-workers were great, too. She was proud of the stories on display at the museum. Most of all though, at the museum, she treasured decoding the past’s mysteries.
Eight years ago, a beachgoer found a trove of artifacts in a cave along the southern coast. Among the centuries-old debris were the determined remains of a letter. Two years later, three more letters were found along the shores of her home, the Land of Eagles, Albania. Now, there were enough letters to clean, categorize, decipher, organize and display for the next ten years, at least.
That night at the bar, the DJ’s reggaeton playlist seemed to make Dita’s own bones rattle. She tucked her shoulder into the back of his arm a little deeper. They walked through happy, energized conversations laid out over cushy patio furniture and flickering tea lights. Even still, an urge tugged at her to run for the beach caves, to the stories her grandmother told when she was younger, to sleep among the grapevines that were planted on sun-soaked terraces fifty years ago. That was life, she thought.
A boy, no older than eight, meandered through the tables selling roasted almonds wrapped in paper. Liridon waved him down and bought four packets. Her heart melted a bit more. He caught her looking at him and winked.
The city still bustled as he walked her home along the tree-lined streets. Heels clicked along the sidewalks. A gypsy, piled in her layers of clothing, held out a hand to passers-by. Fresh pizza tempted them at every other corner.
“That used to be me, you know,” Liridon said.
“What? Who?” she said.
“I sold almonds when I was a kid. I sold popcorn on the beaches in the summers, too. It was my lunch most days.”
“Really?” she said, incredulous. Pity and pride swelled in her at once. There was still so much they didn’t know about each other.
“Anyway. Won’t go back to that,” he said, squeezing her hand tighter.
On Monday morning, one of the Letters technicians called.
“Hey, Boss,” Genti said. “I’m in Dhermi. You’ve got to come see this for yourself.”
“I’ve been to Dhermi a hundred times.”
“You have to feel what it’s like here.” A thrill rushed through her.
“Ok. I’m coming.”
She hung up and a tinge of guilt poked at her. She called Liridon to come with her.
“Oh!” He hesitated. Or was he distracted? It was hard to read him over the phone. Was it too soon?
“I mean, I’ll be back tomorrow, I just thought…” she said, fumbling through the awkward silence.
“No, no, you go on.”
“Ok, well, I’ll call you as soon as I’m back.”
It took half an hour to reach the edge of town. The city limits gave way to villages surrounded by fields. The fields gave way to the Ionian Sea and its beach towns. She drove slowly up and over the enveloping mountains. As she navigated the narrow switchbacks, she thought of the generations before hers. They fought with pride in times of war and celebrated life beautifully. They had built, accomplished and endured more than she could understand.
Dhermi was situated like a mediator guarding the sea from the sharp mountain. The town was all but boarded up in the off-season. Dita parked her car where the dirt road became sand. She would see Genti later. For now, she wanted to be alone.
The cave was at the tip of the bay, a smart defense. She made her way over the rocky land dotted with neglected olive trees. Inside, she was able to stand to her full height. She tried to imagine living a day, weeks, perhaps months, in here. Genti was right. She could feel a storm on its way from southern Italy but inside this cave, time stopped. Her very soul stilled.
“I’m back,” she said over the phone two days later.
“Can I come by?” Liridon said.
“Yes, of course.”
Her heart flipped as she opened the door for him. Right cheek, left cheek, right again and deeply on her lips.
“Hi,” she said, giddy.
“Hi.” He kissed her forehead.
He greeted her parents and grandmother. Dita and her mother quickly served coffee and pastries and light conversation. Too many cream-filled croissants later, he stood to go. Hand in hand, they walked out to the dim, breezy stairwell.
“So,” he began with a deep exhale.
“So?” She felt her heart beating faster.
“So, I accepted the job in the Istanbul office.”
“The job? What job?”
Tears came hot and fast. Shock drowned out the hum of the light overhead and ignored the chilly humidity in the air. It was as if her hands were in a fire but she couldn’t feel a thing. Just behind the shock was a deafening hurt silencing the questions screaming in her head.
“It’s a bit of an advancement, with a pay raise, and it’s in Istanbul. Istanbul!” he saw her face and paused, but continued, “There’s so much to do there! We’ll walk the bazaars every weekend, we’ll find an apartment on the Bosphorus, we’ll–”
Her heart and soul were battling it out, leaving her speechless.
She dropped his hands.
“I thought…” he started, quietly.
Blindly, she shook her head.
“This is my home,” Dita finally managed. “I want, I want…I..can’t…How…” She couldn’t. She couldn’t finish her sentence. She couldn’t leave with him.
The shell of her walked back inside and sat on the sofa. She held her grandmother’s hand and looked out the window.