On the Dalmatian Coast

By Lana Spendl

           This piece first appeared in Restless and was later reprinted in the anthology Everywhere Stories III from Press 53

In a moment of bravery Vinka volunteered to interview the painter for the school paper, and now she had to push herself forward and find his beach house and shake hands with him and nod approval to his sentences. Lost, she trod down the deserted beach, water to one side, a line of trees on the other. The sand sank under her sneakers, making it difficult to walk. A pale figure reclined in the distance—Vinka could not see if it was a man or a woman through the heat—and she yelled out a hello once and then again, but her voice broke the second time like the voice of a stranded, middle-aged woman, and she felt embarrassed.

The figure rose onto an elbow. It was a topless woman. Vinka slowed but then stepped forward, because she felt that there was no turning back after she’d called attention to herself. The woman rose to her feet and she was not only topless but fully naked with a dark bush between her legs.

“I’m sorry,” Vinka said. “I did not see.”

“You did not see what?” The woman placed her hands on her hips. Coarse brown hair fell over her shoulders, and she had a slight overbite that made her look as if she were over-enunciating words.

Vinka shook her head, blushing.

The woman furrowed her brow. “Are you in the habit of not finishing your thoughts?”

“I’m sorry,” the girl said again.

“Don’t apologize to me. You don’t know me.”

“What does that have to do with it?”

“You shouldn’t waste energy apologizing to someone if you might never see them again.”

“Oh.” A fat drop of sweat slid down the middle of Vinka’s back.

“Now, what do you want? I don’t have all day.”

“I—I’m looking for a house.”

“A house? Here?”

“No, not here. I mean, yes, it’s on the beach. A painter. A painter owns it.” Vinka searched for his name in the passageways of her mind, but it evaded her under the woman’s hard gaze.

The woman’s eyes widened in recognition. “Oh, you’re looking for Josip’s house! You’re the girl!” The air grew light, less humid. “I live there with him. I’m one of his models. You know, I left the house early just because I wanted to avoid you?” Her eyes crinkled in smiling delight. “I hate—and I mean hate—meeting new people.” She laughed and touched Vinka’s arm affectionately.

Vinka gave her a shaky smile.

“Come, I’ll show you where it is.” The woman bent at the waist and picked through her pile of clothes on the sand.

Vinka snuck a glance at her naked bottom. She seldom saw people naked, although she sometimes stumbled upon her mother changing clothes in their family apartment. Her mother’s body sagged with age and cellulite, and it smelled of baby powder and something more intimate. The older woman always covered herself with a slip or a towel. Disturbed, Vinka averted her eyes during these moments, but now, on seeing this woman, Vinka observed the strength of her thighs and the length of her torso, feeling interest in how different this body was from her own.

How strange, that bodies grew so varied—the legs lengthening in this instance but not in that one, the chest ripening into fullness here but not there. If one looked at any body long enough, something curious could be found, something awkward.

On this woman’s body, a birthmark the shape of Italy extended down her calf. Old crones said that when an expectant mother craved something during pregnancy, the desired object imprinted itself on the baby’s skin. These cravings were usually edibles, but perhaps this woman’s mother had craved a whole country. Perhaps she had wanted to swallow its entire landscape with its cobbled streets, suntanned men and extensive vineyards.

The sun hid behind a cloud. Color drained from the beach and it suddenly felt like late afternoon. The woman slipped her shorts on without underwear and pulled a white cotton shirt over her head. Her dark nipples showed through the fabric.

“Come,” she told Vinka.

They left the beach and entered the shade of the trees. Vinka hurried to keep up with the woman’s stride. Their arms brushed against each other’s and Vinka jumped when she felt the warmth of the woman’s skin. A shame spread through her—as if she were being watched through the branches of the trees and silently criticized—and in a desire to protect herself, she stepped closer to the woman.