Baptism by Storm

Image: “Les Tuileries sous la neige,” Agence de presse Mondial Photo-Presse, Agence photographique (January 1933)

Baptism by Storm

by Kristina Smoljanovic Glavas (Paris, France)

This is a Red Alert. High probability of a hurricane. Do not leave your location unless in an emergency. Possible freezing of roads in the early morning with wind strengths of up to 250 km/h. From noon, main state highways closed for most vehicles, including trucks, buses, trailers, and vans. All routes connecting the seaside to the continent closed due to possible blizzards. Tunnels along highways A1 and A6 open until noon, then closed for all traffic until further notice. This is a Red Alert.

Moira had just finished reading when the phone went off in her hands. The volume, set to maximum, made her jump up in the hotel bed. This was her private ringtone, “Everything I Wanted” by Billie Eilish, but it still jolted her cortisol levels, screaming emergency directly into her guts, just as the business phone did.

That one came with a generic zen ambient music, the kind a massage parlor might play, but it meant new patients and their cancer treatments, doctors from the Belgrade state hospital, middle management meaning the boss, or the “We kindly ask you to provide us with all the screenshots of your customs clearance documents and all the bills related to your trip. Please provide us with as many details as possible on the equipment’s status and functioning, which need to be updated in the twelve hours after you reach your destination, then every day, until you terminate your current assignment” people.

But this wasn’t that. It was a call from an unknown number, trying to reach her privately. She simply stared at the phone until it went silent. A break is a break, she reminded herself. She’d earned her two hours of peace and quiet in the evening, and she’d been looking forward to them the entire day.

She was fresh out of the hot tub where she’d spent almost an hour blissfully undisturbed, and was still wearing the brand new, curiously comforting bathrobe, the kind they handed out in the five-star hotels that were to become her new home on the road. She got up, walked over to the minibar, and poured herself a whiskey straight. Taking a generous sip, she plopped back into bed, in the barefoot hanged man position, waiting for her peel-off face mask to dry. She grabbed a marzipan chocolate from the golden, oval box on the nightstand. Earlier that evening, she’d found it waiting for her at the reception, along with the largest bouquet of roses she’d ever received. Moira hated being given any kind of dying flower, but she’d politely taken them to the room and left them by the door.

The phone rang again.

“What?!” She sat back up, grabbed the phone from the nightstand, and answered it with a pointed “Yeeesss?!”

“Good evening, madam, sorry to disturb you. I know this must be a bit unexpected, but I just had to tell you myself…”

“And who am I talking to?”

“Oh, um, yes, this is Vladimir. I work with Interpol, which is how I got your location, and your mobile number. I know it sounds a bit creepy, but I just needed to find you to tell you that…”

She instinctively pounded her chest, laughing.

“Well, Vladimir, I hope your company’s not after me as well. That would be a bit much for one day. Thank you for the chocolates, by the way, they’re really something, I just had a few. And the bouquet, well, that one’s just… thanks!”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really, I just felt like…”

“A bit shaken?”

“No, I meant to say, I felt like, um, an idiot. I mean, I wanted to say I’m sorry for the way I talked to you, earlier today.”

“But it’s a good thing you talked to me after all, right?”

“Haha, yes, that’s true. I’m very lucky I get to talk to you again…”

“I’m sure.”

“I know you went out of your way for me, and that was a beautiful thing to do, extraordinary even, when you think of it, especially in those circumstances. I’m really, honestly sorry I didn’t listen to you straight away, I mean, I totally…”

“Belittled me and then ignored me?”

“Um… yes, and then it turned out just as you said it would, and the…”

“Well, we all learn our lessons, one way or another. Don’t beat yourself up, Vladimir, it’s great you’re still alive. I didn’t think you’d make it, to be honest.”

“I have to agree on the lesson part, you know, my wife, I mean my ex-wife, she would always tell me to…”

“Listen, I appreciate this, but I do have to run. It was great to hear you’re feeling better.”

“No, no, no, of course, I wouldn’t want to take up any more of your time, and you must be exhausted, but I just had to say thank you, and I wanted to at least take you out for a nice dinner, a night on the town, if you’re free. It would be the least I could do.”

“Oh, but you do remember, you gave me an important piece of advice as well, and I’ve really taken it to heart. So, you see, I’d honestly love to go out and live a little, but I do still have to hold all four corners of this beautiful suite of mine.”

“Ah, yes, about that, I already said I was an idiot, and I’m sorry I was. I don’t really think that women should stay home and guard the perimeter, I mean, women are not exactly dogs…”

“But we look out for dogs as well.”

“Um, I meant to say, you’re not a dog. The way you acted, it changed my…”

“Look, it was lovely to chat, Vladimir, and I hope you’re more careful in the future. You know, our minds can drift off and take us places we don’t really want to go. Just try to be the man you seem to be right now and respect the other forces out there.”

“Now you must think I’m the kind of person who treats all women poorly, but I…”

“No, I don’t really think about the kind of person you are. Have a good night, Vladimir.”

She pressed the red button and tossed her phone across the king sized bed.

Getting out of the city was the easy part, even with the rain pouring and the wind trying to snatch the trees. She’d rather have stayed home if she’d had the choice, but that wasn’t the case. Her new job was to drive herself across the continent, past the state borders, carrying the Swiss medical equipment and newly approved therapy drugs from Croatia to Serbia, making sure everything passed the border control and reached the patients waiting for her at the Belgrade state hospital. The study group consisted of three patients recently diagnosed with various degrees of brain cancer, waiting to start the newly authorized medical procedure, their last straw of hope.

This was the first time she was driving across the country, and all the way to Belgrade, alone. It was her first day on the new job, her first travel assignment, crowned with what was quickly turning into the first snow of the year. The weather people acted as if they’d never seen a storm before, broadcasting eerie echoes of a “possible worsening of everything that can possibly worsen.” She knew better than to focus on things and stories out of her hands.

Besides, I’m a good driver, and this car is way safer than the Lada, even in seriously unruly conditions. If I could drive that blue can for fifteen years, in a city where real traffic was never planned to happen, I can drive this Japanese tank on a modern highway, without crashing and having to explain myself to him.

Am I ever going to go anywhere without a guilt trip following me around? Just a week ago, she’d saved a woman’s life on her coffee break. She’d gone to the bathroom, finding the cleaning lady unconscious on the floor with her legs spread outside the stall and her head right next to the toilet. There was no blood anywhere, but she wasn’t breathing, so Moira had jumped in and given her CPR. She’d called the ambulance, making sure the woman’s breath was there and stable, and waited with her until they’d arrived.

It had happened on her last week as Goran’s tutor. She’d been on speed dial with the parents of the special needs teenager for the past four years and had truly become a part of the family, even if she didn’t really want or need another one. The boy was turning eighteen in a few days, and he was just about to finish his catering school, hoping he’d pass, be able to work, and make his parents proud. She was overjoyed for him—and to finally retire from the job. The last days had seemed to drag on forever.

Her new job didn’t involve any foreseeable boundary issues with exhausted parents in need of a two-in-one part-human part-angel tutor still available at ten o’clock in the evening. And it had even allowed her to quit her second job, providing lymphatic drainage treatments to clients with slowing metabolisms. Her self-styled motto of “making the lymph flow, their collagen levels grow, the skin glow, and keeping them all coming back for more” could no longer hide the fact that after more than a decade, she was sick and tired of the whole thing.

Waiting for the yellow toll barrier to let her out onto the highway, she noticed a black BMW, right in front of her, furiously pulling away. The car was brand new, and the driver was acting as if there was some kind of criminal squad after him, not a woman in a Toyota. Why is it always a BMW when it comes to bad manners and road rage? Do these hajduks really think no other car can handle them? Except this one had German license plates, so she figured the driver must be a foreigner, unaware of his surroundings and the weather ahead.

Her emerging “On the Road” soundtrack needed a strong, soothing voice, so she typed “Adele, 30,” and picked the whole album. Fuck it, I’ll just play my song right away, there’s no one here to judge me, no reason to wait for it to come. “Can I Get It?” Yes, you can, Moira, you can play your jam and put it on repeat:

Pave me a path to follow
And I’ll tread any dangerous road
I will beg and I’ll steal, I will borrow
If I can make, if I can make your heart my home.

The song lifted her spirits, but she couldn’t let the rhythm carry her away; the snow was already making the ride somewhat challenging. Even though it was still morning, the visibility kept getting worse, and the bura pushed the car to the right, forcing her to hang on to the steering wheel. But she knew the road well—at least this part of it—and there was no going back.

Eighty kilometers of heavy battle with the wind, and she was tempted into a ceasefire by the thought of fresh coffee. She drove up to the next rest stop, hoping it had a decent enough restaurant offering some freshly made breakfast. The parking lot was deserted except for the black BMW, standing right in front of the entrance. What is it with this car today?

After an icy 30-second sprint from her car, she hurled herself through the door. The only person inside, other than the server, was a man in his fifties, sitting at the table farthest from the entrance. This must be him,she thought, mildly surprised that he didn’t seem like a total douchebag. She went up to the counter, ordered a cappuccino and toast, then sat down at a safe distance from him. Her toast was better than expected, and she thought about having another. No, you gotta stop this gluten thing, it’ll get you where you were two years ago. She added a full dose of sugar to the cappuccino and drank half of it before she noticed. You’re not supposed to ruin your coffee like that. Have a chocolate instead, a Bounty will do.

Having settled the score with her cravings, she glanced in his direction again, flash scanning his style. He had a polished look about him, with a silver buzz cut and no visible scruff. He was wearing a white shirt and a navy blue sweater with old school braids, a pair of khaki pants, and chestnut Chelsea boots. There was nothing truly interesting about him, except for the way he ate his hot dogs. Bent over the morning paper he was using as a plate, he seemed rather unhurried, with his legs spread wide and his attention focused solely on the page in front of him. So, no foreigner, then. His mobile phone kept vibrating, but he didn’t answer or even check who it was.

A break is a break, she told herself, maybe I could pick up a new habit here.

With the server nowhere to be seen and no further quirks to dismantle, she checked her phone and saw that she had no incoming calls, no new emails or unread messages to tend to.

Has this ever happened to me before? she wondered. Am I even still on the grid?

Finishing his espresso with a quick gulp, the man picked up his newspaper and crumpled it into a ball, tossing it in the can on his way out. She waited a few more minutes, but since  she’d already paid and there was no one to say goodbye to, she went to the restroom, left the restaurant, and hurried back to her car. On the road again, she could see nothing but the icy gray asphalt leading through curtains of snow covering the trees, the emergency lanes, even the sky.

How can one become so bounded
By choices that somebody else makes?
How come we’ve both become a version
Of a person we don’t even like?

A few moments later, she saw the black BMW again, driving in the right lane. But just as she began to creep up to it, it veered over to the left and blazed away.

Does my breath stink? Jeez, I wasn’t anywhere near his ass. He must really hate company. But this is a tricky part of the road, and he doesn’t seem to know, or care.

Fuck it, I’ll blink and warn him. If it’s his first rodeo, he has no idea what’s ahead. Moira caught up with him, turned the music down, and started double-flashing the headlights. After more than a minute, he began to slow down, switched to the right lane, and finally pulled over. Parking her car about ten meters behind him, she put on her beanie and scarf, then stepped out of the Toyota. Leaning in against the wind, she slowly made her way up to the BMW, barely managing to hold her ground by the front door. Be polite, she instructed herself, resisting the urge to knock on the window.

By all means, take your time, it’s lovely out here in the blizzard, and it’s not like I have anything better to do. A few endless moments later, he finally lowered his window, staring out at her without saying a word.

“Good morning, sir, um, I just wanted to warn you. You see, there’s a real tricky portion of the road ahead of us, and there’s sort of a death slide right after the tunnel. It’s a bit windy today, and there’s also the morning ice, and the snow, so the visibility won’t be great once you come out the other side. Cars often slide over there, it can be really dangerous. I know there’s a warning out on the radio, and they’re going to close this road in the afternoon, but I just wanted you to know, in case you missed it. You know, since you have such a strong car, and you’re not from here. Don’t go testing that engine on this road, alright, sir? Be safe.”

“Yes, lady”, he responded in English, with a strong Slavic accent, then switched to fluent Serbian: “And do you mind telling me what in hell dragged you out here, when you ought to be at home? Don’t you know women still need to hold their three corners of the house? I mean, sure, I can see how you’d be scared out here, all alone, with that sorry excuse for a car, but trust me, darling, my machine obeys its master, and even when things get tough, it doesn’t whine. It purrs.”

A rush of blood hit her head, pulsing through the vein in her temple, and she was sure he would have noticed if not for the snow.

You have no time for this. Do not engage with him, just be on your way. He doesn’t seem to be stupid, but he sure thinks he’s smarter than he is, and he won’t be helped by your logic, nor your intuition, nor any God you could plead with right now. You’ve done your part, now leave.

She flashed a quick, sour smile, turned on her heels, and marched back through the blizzard to her car. Once inside, she hit the steering wheel twice, hard. Letting off steam is vital for your health, and you can curse as much as you like. She put on Courtney Barnett, volumed up, and in two minutes, she was back on the road, inspired by her own unwavering front of politeness. Calmness. Poise. Some might even call it grace, but it was more about being beyond tired, combined with a hard-earned sense of when to go all in and when to disappear completely.

Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami honey,
I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny.

Five minutes later, she emerged from the other side of the tunnel. For a few seconds, she couldn’t see the road. Hoping it would reappear, she slowed down to sixty, then fifty, and finally forty, praying no one would rear-end her. All the dimensions were blurred. It was impossible to distinguish the road fence to the left from the lane margins to the right, there was no difference, everything was equally white. The air was cloaked in the tiniest of snowflakes, whirling around as if they had nothing to do with the complicated rules of life on earth. Just then, a gust of wind parted the snow curtain to her right. For a few seconds, she could see a portion of the road. Gripping the steering wheel, she pressed on, promising herself she’d never do this again.

Never, not for all the money in the world. This wasn’t your brightest idea, Moira. When will you learn the difference between bravery and stupidity?

Another gust of wind cleared the air, and she saw the black BMW again, in the middle of the road this time, turned on its back, less than half a kilometer away.

Fuck. I hate being right.

She pulled over right away, turned off the engine, pressed the handbrake button, grabbed the first phone she could find, and ran up to the car. Getting on her knees by the front door, she tried to open it, but it was stuck, the window shattered. He was still strapped in, but his airbag hadn’t gone off, and his head was hanging down loosely, without any support. His eyes were closed, and he wasn’t moving.

I can’t touch him, can’t pull him out, he could get more hurt. He might have a concussion, so he mustn’t fall asleep now… No, no, no, don’t panic, call the ambulance, girl, you should call them first. Hands trembling, fingers freezing, she placed the call and hung up, hoping she’d somehow managed to give all the crucial information.

“Sir! Wake up, sir! Hello! You have to wake up!” Her legs soaking up the snow, her chest pounding hard, her head inexplicably hot, she knelt by his side and kept shouting.

She had wanted to become a doctor, more than anything else, to be of service to others using her mind, her uncanny knack for absorbing the weirdest information in no time, her unerring ability to discern what was from what wasn’t. But her father had said that she needed to be more realistic about her ambitions, that she needed to bring money to the table as soon as possible, that she needed to start a family as expected of her, so it would do for her to become a physiotherapist. Sadly, advice was all he could offer, so she had to put herself through years of university spending her nights bartending at an underground club and her days massaging stressed out yuppies at spa resorts.

Suddenly, he woke up. Moving his head slightly to the left, he saw her through the shattered window. He started mumbling incoherently.

“Are you in pain, sir? You just had an accident. The ambulance is on its way. Don’t worry, you’re going to be okay. My name is Moira and I’m here to help you.”

His eyes were cloudy, without visible hemorrhages. They were almost fully closed, but he would open them a little every few minutes, fixating on her. She kept shouting at him to stay awake, and in turn, he blurted out incomprehensible sounds before closing his eyes again.

“I cannot move you from the car, sir. You need to stay with me. What’s your name?”

It was still dark outside when Moira stepped into the living room, trying her best to avoid the legos scattered all over the floor. Making her way to the kitchen, she automatically picked up some blue and orange plastic cups, drawing paper, and a Barbie doll from the dining table. She made herself a fresh moka pot and headed over to the small bay window at the end of the kitchen, right opposite the bigger one in the living room, where the linden tree would provide the loveliest shade in the summer, hosting a thriving colony of bugs.

During dim winter mornings, this smaller booth was a smarter choice, partially shielded as it was from the wind, with smudgy windows mostly cleaned by rain. The sliding doors, covered in cartoon stickers, separated it from the rest of the kitchen, and the space was big enough to fit in two wooden chests and a small table in between. She needed peace to have her first two cigarettes of the day, but the wind kept splashing strokes of rain against the windows, unsettling her before she had a chance to fully awaken.

Her thoughts went to the to-do list she’d prepared for her husband and left on the kitchen table. Her wifely duties included active listening, problem solving, daily cooking, all the cleaning, grocery shopping, morning school runs, taking care of the children’s unpronounced needs and overwhelmingly loud tantrums, her husband’s younger sister’s needs and her first baby’s needs, and finally, her parents’ needs, mostly made known on the weekends and some evenings when they only needed quick help with a new gadget. They’d wholeheartedly said yes when he suggested they move into the small but beautifully designed apartment next door. She hadn’t thought it was the best idea at first, since any help she could get from them with the kids sounded more convincing in theory than in practice, but at least, it would make her parents’ needs more convenient to attend to. If she ever needed to jump in, and hold it all together, they’d be right next door.

She was having her second coffee in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet, pondering the looming prospect of the kids not being ready to spend a few days without her. But they’ll have to be alone with their father some day, and with clear instructions, they might even make it through alive. Besides, kids are resilient. He might be exactly their age when it comes to regulating his emotions, but he’s well-informed and equipped with a full fridge, multiple food apps, and a six pack of pale ale, therefore set to survive.

He was an architect at a reputable firm. He’d usually come home from work after a drink with the guys, then start complaining about his crazy schedule, his irrational clients, and their impossible budgets. He’d usually have his dinner waiting for him, walk the dog, have a quick shower, take a power nap, then start complaining about the kids being kids, never really listening to him, not responding to what he tried to teach them, not caring about anything other than their phones. He’d occasionally lose his temper minutes after they got their screen bans, because then they’d need to be entertained, so he’d allow them a cartoon or two, or even a PS game, because that wasn’t the phone after all. Finally running out of steam, he’d turn to his carefully curated list of Netflix series, open a can, and doze off on the sofa.

She sensed a taste of guilt kicking in with the protein bar that was her breakfast on the go. The job description didn’t spell out that she’d miss her kids for several full days a week, but that’s what it meant. The granny-nanny next door would surely step in if needed, for a reasonable fee, but work away from home a few days a week was only ever truly okay if you were a rock star, or a man on a mission. A man, in any case. She’d even gotten the explicit “you could fuck up your kids for good with that job” line over a cigarette break from an ex-colleague during her last week at work. She hadn’t dignified it with an answer; saving souls simply wasn’t within her paygrade. Some people may, on rare occasions, save lives with their advice, some simply need to be heard, and some are just plain jealous. She knew the difference, but the line still stung.

Keep your eyes on the prize, Moira, she told herself. The new job will pay as much as the previous two combined, the two she needed to work to make about the same amount as him. His salary was decent enough, but he was always saving up, “putting something aside for a rainy day, because one never knows what can happen down the road,” so the budget was always tight. They were fully ready for a new inflation to happen any day, but that wasn’t enough in case she really wanted to get her Ph.D., like some of her professors had advised her to do after she’d come top of their class. And they’ll get better toys. Way better, bribe toys. And maybe they’ll even make him grow up a little during a few never-ending days without me. At the very least, he’ll catch a glimpse of the life I’ve led for the past ten years.

In order to make it work, she’d have to borrow his car, because hers was already ancient, and it couldn’t stand any real blasts of wind, and none combined with snow. This made for a sort of hostage situation disguised as a budget negotiation. All those miles would allegedly damage his car’s amortization, a point he made repeatedly during many in-depth explanations in the weeks leading up to this, her first day on the job. She’d promised she would buy herself a new car as soon as possible, and sealed the deal by assuring him she could never manage any of it without his unwavering love and support.

Getting ready to leave the apartment, she lit up the third cigarette, then checked the weather forecast.

This is a Red Alert. High probability of a hurricane. Do not leave your location unless in an emergency. Possible freezing of roads…

Great, she thought, so this’ll be a baptism by storm.