A Selection From “Stockholm” : Natasha’s Leisure Day

In this scene: a lazy afternoon breakfast, while waiting on a phone call that could change everything…

(Previously in “Stockholm”: Anakin Carver and, his now famous girlfriend, Natasha von Ottmann, have left Los Angeles for New York City. The disaster of his career in advertising and the unsettling political environment now far behind them.)

She was sitting against the door in the backseat. Large sunglasses and belted trench coat. The seatbelt gave her enough room to spread her limbs across the cushion. I’d already shot footage, now I was leaning my head against the window and looking outside. The toe of her shoe jabbed into my thigh. “What are you looking at?”

“I don’t know. The buildings, I guess. And the people.”

“And?”

“Just thinking.”

“What about?”

I turned to her, adjusting in my seat to face her without twisting my spine. “I was actually just wondering why people choose to go to public restaurants to end relationships.”

She cocked her head to one side. “Uh oh, we’re going to a restaurant…”

“No, I mean I wonder why people choose public places.  It seems self-defeating.”

“Not to mention humiliating. Everyone knows what’s happening.”

“They’ll find out eventually through profile updates.” The heavily auto-tuned voice on the radio urged us to ‘duh duh duh dance’. The driver was lurching the cab forward into the weave of traffic, causing Natasha’s torso to waver as she adjusted her balance.

“Yeah, but it’s different in person, isn’t it?” She was twisting a wisp of hair around a finger. “Although it is sort of useful if you end up needing to throw a drink into the guy’s face.”

I looked up at her. “Have you actually done that?”

She shrugged. “Probably.”

“I didn’t know people did that. I thought it was some dramatic short cut writers invented that was later absorbed back into the culture. Like the way people try to emulate the behavior of sitcom characters at their office jobs.”

She nodded. I couldn’t tell if she was considering what I was saying or just offering a neutral response. At least she didn’t say, ‘Yeah’.

“The really weird thing is when people keep referring to their meal. It’s such a disgusting word. Meal.”  I pronounced it with emphasis.

She thought for a moment. “Meal. Meeeaaaal.” She shrugged again.

“It makes me think of pulverized protein material. The kind of thing you feed to grubs or farm animals—”

“Four legs good, two legs bad!” She thought that was hilarious and jabbed me again with her shoe when I didn’t laugh but kept on talking.

“Not something you pay forty dollars a plate for.”

She shook her head. “No, not something you pay forty dollars for.” Her voice dropped into an unnaturally low register and I assumed she was imitating me.

The backs of both front seats featured no flat screens with GPS, so we had to guess our location based on visual landmarks. If we wanted to check the proximity of social contacts we’d have to use our handheld devices. Outside, three separate vehicles were battling to occupy the same length of space in the one lane. A man in a white tracksuit was break dancing backwards. A homeless person was shaking his head and waving his index finger in the air, like he was reciting from the syllabus.

“It’s right around here. You’ll like it, the walls are burgundy. Or ox-blood. One of those. Last time I was there, at least.”

“Sounds breakfasty.”

She jabbed me again. “I don’t know why you’re so pleased with yourself.”

“Hmm?”

She moved back, slightly. “You broke one of the primary commandments last night.”

“Oh?”

“No animal shall sleep in a bed.”

“And we used sheets, so we even further broke the commandment.”

“And they were of a rather high thread count. I doubt that factors, but it doesn’t help your case.”

“Well, you broke it too.” Involuntarily, my right eyebrow flicked upwards and settled again.

“No animal shall drink alcohol.”

“Hey, you sent me to that party. I would have been more than happy to hang out in the room and wait for you.”

“Did you talk to Ron?”

“I did.”

“And?”

“I’m not sure. He seemed to want to involve me in a transaction of some sort, but his language was so general I didn’t know if I was being sold insurance or something.”

“No animal shall drink alcohol to excess.”

“What’s with the Orwell?”

“My laptop battery ran out during the flight. I borrowed it from the kid behind me.”

“I bet that’s already causing conversations on his profile.”

“Yeah, I took a camera-photo for him.”

“Of him?”

“Yeah, I took a photo of him with his own camera.”

“Wouldn’t it be funny if you pretended not to understand and kept doing that?”

“No, it would probably end up on some industry gossip web cast, on a slow day. Most people don’t share your sense of humor.”

I gestured toward her, encompassing her entire body within a motion of my hand. She tilted her head slightly as if to question my intention. “No animal shall wear clothes.”

She jabbed me again with the toe of her shoe, quite hard that time. I checked my smartphone again. No new communications on my profile. No unread messages or missed calls. I realized I’d had the power to track our location all this time, with one of several installed apps. The digital clock turned from “11:10″ to “11:11″.

 

The table was no more than three-feet square with maybe half that space between the neighboring tables on all sides. The wait staff were all quite thin and wearing tight black jeans and practiced at sliding through without bumping into either the edge of a table or each other as they passed with plates of food. There was a constant metallic and porcelain clang throughout the dining area and we quickly adjusted our voices slightly above the ambient noise and below the singer/songwriter music seeping from the overhead speakers.

Natasha had asked for two empty glasses, which she now filled with her own special bottled water kept in her bag for just such an occasion. My coffee cup was chipped and she thought it was indicative of character.

“You have no idea who has drank coffee from that cup.”

“Who has drank? Is that—” Swift kick to my right shin. “You were saying?”

“What I’m saying is, it’s not some nostalgic prop stuck on a shelf for looks. It’s probably been in circulation for twenty years.”

“Mmmm.” I grimaced and moved the cup away from me, slightly.

“No, come on. I bet amazing people have held that cup.  People you’d never expect to be in a place like this.”

“Like…”

“Like anyone you can think of.”

“Francis Bacon drank from this cup?”

“The painter?”

“Either one.”

“Maybe.”

“Martin Luther.”

“Martin Luther King?”

“No, just regular Martin Luther.”

She raised her laminated menu. The light from the bank of windows behind us reflected dully in the plastic, obscuring the column of sides available with their signature custom omelets. My phone vibrated and I pulled it into view, hidden from the staff under the table edge.

“It’s a local number.” We made eye contact. “Probably Ron.”

“Answer it.”

“I can’t.” I flicked my gaze from one black-clad employee to the next. A very large, hand-painted mural near the door depicted a mid-decade model cell phone being crushed by a hammer. Above the door, a rusty sledge was mounted on hooks. My smartphone still had that shiny, unscratched gloss on the touch screen.

“Use your earpiece.” She leaned forward. Her eyes were gleaming and slightly narrowed. “Pretend you’re talking to me.”

The phone had stopped vibrating and the call was likely being transferred to voicemail. “What if they come by to take our order?”

“I don’t know. Improvise.”

I selected the number in my missed calls inventory and redialed. “It’s ringing.” I spoke directly to her. Her eyes drifted over my face. I wondered what she was focusing on, exactly. Before I was ready the call was picked up.

“(unintelligible) –drensen’s office.”

“Hi. This is Anakin Carver. I just—”

“One moment.”

“I’m being transferred.” I looked up and made involuntary eye contact with our waitress, who suddenly appeared shocked and picked up something off the counter where she’d been ringing up some other order. “Shit.”

“Who was it?” Natasha’s shoulders were revealed by the purple and beige dress. Her hair was swept back behind, framing them perfectly above the hem of the fabric. The post-punk rhythm guitar from the sound system clashed against the treblely adult-contemporary hold music in my wireless earpiece.

The call picked up. “Heeeyy, Anakin. Right?”

“Yeah. How’s it going?”

“Mish. Mish Abramson.”

“Yeah, hey.”

“Okay, so, spoke with Rooonnn…”

The waitress had been delayed by another customer three or four tables away, but was now on the approach. She twisted her hips, synchronizing perfectly around a waiter who was likely some sort of performance arts dancer.

“Right.”

“Aaand…” There was a quick series of clicks as he picked up the handset, switching away from speakerphone. ”So, I’ll be totally upfront. Ron really really wants you on this thing and that’s great, but best we really can offer you at this point is story editor.”

The waitress had arrived and switched balance from one leg to the other as she gripped her analogue pad and pen and looked from one of us to the other. I lifted my eyebrows toward Natasha. She interpreted my cue and ordered first. “I’m okay with that.”

“You’re good with those terms? In the event of a pickup we can always reneg and get you co-producer or something, but right now they gotta watch budget.”

“I completely understand.”

The waitress looked at me and blinked several times.  Just before my comment, Natasha had said something to her about papaya or egg whites. I nodded my head, looking at both of them, seeming to be in agreement. She nodded quickly and tilted toward me.

“And for you?”

I looked down at my menu on the table. It was set at a forty-degree angle and not entirely readable. In my ear, Mish was saying something about packaging and his assistant who was completely ready to take on clients and how he’d personally oversee everything and how exciting the merger was going to be for all his clients. “You choose for me.”

Natasha immediately starting talking to the waitress and pointed at several areas on the menu she held up.

“Well, we advise more than choose. Ultimately we support our clients in making the best decisions possible for their careers, but Michael is ready. I can assure you I’ll be
presiding over all his deals during the transitionary period.”

“Yeah, that’s sounds great.”

“Great. If we can arrange a time to come in—”

Another voice suddenly appeared on the line, “Mr. Carver, this is Michael, I wanted to thank you for being my first client and would you like to set up a time to come in and complete the deal memo? Whatever works for you, sir.”

“Sure, you name it.”

Natasha shook her head and handed both menus to the waitress. “He’ll just stick with the coffee. Long night. He got really hammered. Vomiting everywhere.”

The waitress tried not to react by curling her lips into her mouth and compressing her jaw while flattening her cheeks against her face. I waited until she’d turned away to continue.

“Uh, sorry, just checking my calendar. How’s tomorrow?”

“Would you like me to set up a time now?”

I really wanted to end the call and my focus was becoming increasingly fragmented. “Yeah, tomorrow morning I’ll come in.”

Natasha sipped her water and nodded her head.

“Okay great, around nine? I’ll message over the address.”

“Thanks Mike.” In my anxiety I blurted it out with slightly too much force as the current song reached its end fade and my anomalous comment had to have reached the waitress. I put my hand up to the side of my head, pretending to rub my temple, waiting to click the call button. A large man behind the counter had taken notice of me and was glaring in my general direction.  I ignored my new agent’s closing words and scratched the top of my ear to cover the subtle push of my thumb against the center button in the earpiece, which I immediately palmed and slipped into my jacket’s inner pocket.

Natasha’s eyes were momentarily wide with what looked like admiration, but may have simply been adrenaline from our little transgression. Her fingernails were painted to match her dress, though the shade was slightly different. Her wrists were quite delicate, though completely proportionate to her body type.  Her thin, platinum watchband hung the clock face upside down, dangling slightly below the inner side of her wrist.

“What did Ron say?”

“It wasn’t Ron, it was his agency.”

“And…” She waved her half-full glass of water back and forth. Light from the briefly revealed sun illuminated the minute particles floating inside.

“Well, I guess I got the job.”

She sipped her water and her eyes narrowed briefly.  “Yeah, but what is the job exactly?”

I shook my head two or three times and said, “Writing?”

“What’s the show about?”

“You know, he didn’t actually say. He just talked about representation with some assistant who wants be a junior agent.” I sipped my water and placed the glass opposite hers, on my side of the table, which measured less than my forearm. “I realize now I probably should have asked Ron what kind of show it is. He did say something about me being a story editor.”

“Ron did.”

“No, the agent guy. Mish.”

“Oh yeah, I know Mish. So you’re a writer on some sort of show, then. Congratulations.” She smiled easily and touched the base of her water glass against the lip of my coffee cup, causing a clink.

“Represented writer, too. I should update my profile…”

The corner of her mouth jabbed quickly. I interpreted her reaction as less than impressed, but acknowledging the overall benefit of the situation. Or perhaps she was puzzled about some aspect of the outcome. “That’s good, though. Mish is with one of the big three. I don’t remember which…”

“Big two, once the merger goes through.”

She grabbed my hand and rocked forward in her chair. Before she could say anything I preempted, “Hey, I just thought of something.”

“What?” She cocked her head, still looking at me.

“Let’s shoot a short piece with you talking about the Orwell book. Maybe somewhere where they sell live poultry or something.”

She didn’t say anything.

“I like this city so far. Nobody’s started a conversation with me just to mention products or services they want me to use. We’ve been sitting in this place for, what, ten minutes?  They haven’t asked us for a ‘recommend’ once. No body scanners at the door. The waiter doesn’t even know my morality rating.”

“I told you, it’s different here. I try to spend as much time in the city as I can.”

“Or…” I spun my coffee cup with a free finger by the handle. “Aren’t there places where they hang pigs up in the windows? Maybe we could go film there too.”

She looked slightly displeased as the busboy refilled my coffee cup. He dipped with a single fluid motion in his hips, never once bending his back. I sat up in my chair, pushing my pelvis forward, aligning my posture. “You never got your surprise, did you?”

“Not that I know of…”

“Hmmm.” She was looking toward the floor. Her mouth was shaped into a slight point. She looked like she sometimes did in photographs. I wondered how quickly someone in the periphery would recognize her in that pose.

Read “Stockholm” in its entirety here. Also available via Kindle in the UK and Germany and Japan.

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