The blue minivan zipped down the highway. The sun was bright in the clear, blue sky. It was the perfect day for a ballgame. John was at the driver’s seat. His fiancé Daisy sat beside him. She was a slender woman with blond, curly hair and blue eyes. Ben was in the back with his family. His wife Helen had short, brown hair and green eyes. She sported a Brewers jersey and cap. Her face had a tough look about it. 2-year-old Vince was their son. He had short, brown hair and green eyes. He was happy and giggly. Darko and Cynnie sat in the middle.
Darko turned his head to calmly stare at Cynnie. He raised his eyebrows at her. He did not know this many people would be going to the game. The car was packed! He was not good with so many people. Cynnie gave him a small, innocent smile and shrugged.
“So, Darko,” Ben said loudly. “Where are you from? Originally, I mean.”
Darko felt uncomfortable with the question. He did not like talking about his past. It brought up too many bad memories. But how could anyone here know that such a simple fact was a sensitive subject? He decided to just be brief. “Montgomery, Louisiana. It’s a small town.” He could tell that Cynnie found this interesting.
“Cool,” Ben said. “I’ve never been down there. Are you a Saints fan then?”
Ah, football. Darko gave Cynnie a look. She just smiled innocently again. He was glad Ben could not see him. Not that it mattered. He was good at not showing his emotions. Maybe that was why everyone believed the lies about him. He answered quickly to keep away the invading thoughts. “I used to be. I was never a huge fan, but I always watched all the games. That was when they were never any good.”
“So you quit on them before they won the Super Bowl?” Helen said, her voice showing confusion.
Darko suppressed a sigh. Were they really going to make him explain? The year the Saints won the Super Bowl was the last year he had lived in Louisiana. He had run off to New Orleans, actually. That had been a big mistake. That city did not have what he was looking for. And the football team just reflected all that. He had needed to get away. But how did he explain that to these innocent people? It was best to stick to strictly football. “I didn’t like the way they were playing when they started to get good,” he explained. “Their defense especially. And now with this whole bountygate thing coming out, I can sever the tie for good. That is not the type of team I want to follow.” He had enough of a stain on him already. He did not want to voluntarily get himself involved with such matters.
“Ah, I see,” Ben said. “I understand. I never thought the Saints deserved to advance to the Super Bowl that one year either. It should have been the Vikings!”
“Uh oh,” Helen mumbled.
Darko frowned. There was something wrong with that statement. “Aren’t the Vikings your rivals?” he asked cautiously. These guys were Packers fans, right?
“That’s right,” John snapped from up front. “And you’d best remember it, Ben.”
“John,” Daisy said warningly.
“Ha!” Ben exclaimed. “Me remember? You’re the one who insists on ignoring 16 years of Packers history!”
Darko stared at Cynnie. Her face was contorted in a grimace. Why did everyone seem to know what was going on except him? It was highly frustrating. “What are they talking about?” he asked in a low voice. Something was gnawing at the back of his mind, like he should have already known the answer.
“I’m not the one who threw them away. It was him!” John said accusingly.
Cynnie put her face in the palm of her hand and shook her head slowly. “Brett Favre,” she said wearily. She removed her hand and looked at Darko warily. “Don’t get involved. Please.”
“He didn’t have much of a choice!” Ben shot back. “A true Packers fan would have stuck beside him.”
John shook his head vehemently. “No, a true Packers fan sticks with his team above all players.”
“But this is not just any player we’re talking about! It’s Brett Favre!"
“Boys, please!” Helen shouted with a hint of anger in her voice. “Can’t we for once focus on baseball?”
Darko gave Cynnie another look. She squirmed and glanced down, appearing guilty. He knew he was correct. There was something wrong with these people. Not just the ones in the car. It was the whole city, and probably the entire state. How did he ever get sucked into going there?
The arguing ceased, but Darko found it best not to get involved in the rest of the conversation on the two-hour drive. Cynnie kept glancing at him as if she wanted him to speak, but she did not press him. He was grateful for this. He was not in his natural setting. He was much better talking with just one or two people. The radio was turned on, giving Darko a good distraction until they reached the stadium.
Milwaukee was much larger than Green Bay. Downtown was easily distinguishable. Aside from the multiple breweries, the city had the feel of a modern metropolis. Darko tensed at the strong smell of malt that awaited him as he stepped outside.
Darko was surprised to see how many people were crowded outside Miller Park. Was there a football game going on and he missed the memo? With a laugh, Cynnie told him that this was normal. Apparently, tail-gaiting was huge among Brewers fans. It seemed like everyone was cooking bratwursts and drinking beer. Darko had to concede and give them credit for their spirit. Perhaps Wisconsinites did care about baseball after all. At the very least, their loyal fans were passionate, which he had to give them credit for.
Miller Park was impressive enough. It was a four-tier seating bowl consisting of the field level, loge level, club level, and terrace level. The playing surface was natural grass. Darko had heard the park had a fan-shaped retractable roof so that baseball could be played no matter what the weather. He found that to be a great idea. He liked baseball. It was too bad New Orleans did not have an MLB team. All he could watch growing up were minor league games, which were fun in their own right. He had enjoyed playing little league with his friends. His appreciation for the sport had been lost since that one incident in his past. Maybe it was time for it to be renewed.
Their seats were in the club outfield box on the right side of the field. They were two levels up, but they had a great view of the bases. Darko had used his 25% discount at Sports authority and bought a Brewers shirt and cap. Everyone else at the game was decked out. Many people were waving banners and posters. He noted that attendance was not full and there were a good number of Arizona Diamondback (the visiting team) fans.
Darko bought a hot dog and a large Dr. Pepper. He sat down on Cynnie’s right. Ben was on his right. Both had bratwursts. Darko did not understand the obsession with the sausages. It must have been a German thing. That explained the beer as well. He hoped to avoid that particular part of Wisconsin culture. He pushed away thoughts that threatened to resurface. He was going to have fun and that was final.
The game began and he became quickly involved. Some people thought watching baseball was boring, but he found it fascinating. He enjoyed the strategy that the game employed. He loved to keep and try to figure out what each player should do at any given time. This was a silent activity, though. He was not prone to jumping up and cheering like all the other fans, especially those he had come to the game with. Throughout the game, there was always someone trying to talk to him and or get him to be more expressive. He just ignored them. He was not comfortable with the attention. He preferred to be passive and take everything in his own way.
Ben nudged him during the fourth inning. “Hey, Darko, do you want any beer?” He had nearly drained his own bottle.
Darko stared at him and frowned. “No thanks,” he said politely. “I don’t drink.”
Ben’s mouth fell open and his eyes widened. It looked as if he had never heard of such a thing before. “What do you mean you don’t drink?”
“Maybe I should rephrase that. I don’t drink beer. Wine is fine. And it’s more sophisticated.” Not that he drank that much wine. He would enjoy a glass at dinner every so often. Nothing too excessive.
Ben’s face suddenly had an annoyed look. “Sophisticated? You think you’re better than us, huh?”
Cynnie shot a frown in their direction before looking back at the field.
Darko resisted the urge to roll his eyes. He had to remain calm. He would not give in. “No, it’s not that. I just like to keep control of myself. All beer does is destroy judgment and brain cells.”
This just seemed to make Ben angrier. He glared at him and seethed. “That is not what beer is about. Just ask anyone here!” They were attracting attention from the rest of the family. Everyone was giving Darko disapproving looks.
Darko shifted uncomfortably. “Can we have this discussion somewhere else?”
Cynnie touched his arm. “Why don’t we switch seats?” She did not seem happy.
Darko flushed as he took her suggestion. He looked away, gritting his teeth. He was angry with himself and with the situation. How had he let things get so far? This was no way to make a good impression on Cynnie’s family or Wisconsinites. He was trying to fit in with them. But to do that, did he have to compromise part of himself?
It was a cool Saturday afternoon. Cynnie was pacing the living room back and forth. Ben and John sat on the couch watching her. She appeared agitated. Her eyebrows were scrunched up and there was a frown on her face. Finally, she turned to her brothers and said, “What do you think of Darko?”
“He doesn’t belong here,” Ben said with a shake of his head. “He doesn’t understand us or our culture. I’ll bet he hates cheese.”
“He does think we’re too obsessed with the Packers,” Cynnie said.
Ben rolled his eyes. “Where would he get that idea?” His hand touched something in between the couch cushions. Surprised, he pulled out a scrunched up Packers hat. “I’ve been looking everywhere for this!” he exclaimed.
John stared at him. He looked back at Cynnie and shrugged. “Aside from the arguments, I did not hear him talk much. I don’t think he likes us very much.”
“Or Wisconsin,” Ben said.
John nodded. “Right.”
A troubled look crossed Cynnie’s face. “I’m worried about that too.” She bit her lip. “I invited him because I thought we could get to know each other better, but he seemed so distant. Maybe he just doesn’t like me.” She had been annoyed and frustrated with Darko’s behavior at the game the other day. She did not understand it. He had not been this way when she had talked to him on other occasions!
John stood up and placed a hand on her shoulder. He gazed at her sympathetically. “I doubt it’s anything to do with you. He just seems like one of those loner types. Maybe he’s an introvert.”
“So maybe you should leave him alone,” Ben chided from the couch.
Cynnie’s frown deepened. That was what Megan and Julia had advised as well. Was she just too blind to see the truth? She let out a heavy sigh. “What if I don’t want to?”
John looked at her in concern. “I don’t want anything to happen to you. Don’t beat yourself up over some guy. There will be others. This one does not deserve you.”
A slight smile flickered on Cynnie’s face. She loved her brother for looking out for her. But she was still curious about Darko. She was not ready to give up just yet. “I’ll just hang back and see if he contacts me first. I won’t initiate anything.”
John nodded. “That’s a good idea.”
Ben shrugged and looked away. “Whatever.”
Darko’s apartment was messy and thrown together. Clothes, papers, and books were in random piles in various places. Cat toys were all over the place. Two bowls were in the kitchen filled with cat food and water. A saxophone case was propped up against the wall. The coffee table was fairly empty except for a Bible in the corner. There were more clothes in Darko’s room. A simple cat bed was near his bed. On the night stand lay a purple, green, and gold Mardi Gras mask with feathers.
Darko sat on his bed with his face in his hands. He looked tired and worn-out. His Devon Rex cat Elva hopped up onto the bed beside him. The cat was a chocolate patched ticked mctabby. She was light brown with darker brown stripes and paws. Her belly and lower muzzle were almost white. Her ears were unusually large and pointed.
Elva rubbed her body against her owner and meowed. Darko let his arms drop and put his right one around the cat. Elva squirmed out of his grip until she was in his lap. She nuzzled his chest before lying down and purring. Darko gently stroked her back. He appreciated the fact that she always seemed to be able to sense when he was sad. She was almost like a mother to him. She was the only one he had now. She was the only friend he had.
He was still worried that he had ruined his chance with Cynnie. He knew he should have talked to her more at the game. But she had had so many family members there. He had not thought it had mattered until he saw how troubled she looked. He knew he had messed up. He wanted to blame his introversion, but he knew it was much more than that.
It was not that he did not want to get close to people. He wanted it more than anyone else. It was just hard to do so when everyone he had ever opened up to had turned on him and cut him deeply when they found out the truth about his past. Why should this girl be any different? He should just give up the hopeless dream and find a way to cope.
But the loneliness of his life seemed to be eating him alive. He had to try to find a way out even if it was a lost effort. That was why he found himself inviting Cynnie over for coffee the following Sunday. She had sounded polite enough on the phone. He hoped the one-on-one time would be able to convince her to change her mind about him.
She smiled at him and gave him a friendly greeting when he let her in. Elva immediately raced over to the door and meowed at her. The cat always had to know what was going on. Cynnie let out a surprised gasp. “Oh, you have a cat?” she said in a happy tone. She bent down and scratched Elva’s head, who purred gratefully.
“Her name’s Elva,” Darko said. “She’s a four-year-old Devon Rex.” He wondered if she would think he was pathetic for having a cat. Guys were supposed to have a dog. Though, Elva acted enough like a dog for him.
Cynnie stood up and beamed at him. “I love cats. I’ve got too dogs at home though.”
“Dogs are good too,” Darko said. They were just harder to travel with. And he would have had to get a small dog, which yapped and were not as fun. Elva trotted back over to him and rubbed his leg while purring. When he picked her up to hug her, she licked his face.
Cynnie smiled. “That’s so cute.”
Darko glanced down uncomfortably. When he looked back up, his face was composed. “Shall we have coffee?” When she nodded, he set Elva down and led the girl into the kitchen. He got out two mugs with cats on them and filled them from the pot he had recently brewed. He handed a mug to Cynnie and then motioned for her to sit down with him at the small kitchen table.
“This is good,” Cynnie said.
Darko nodded. “Thanks.” He paused. He was not sure if what he was about to say was necessary or not. Would it just make matters worse? Something gnawing on his conscience made him go on. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. When he spoke, his voice was low and controlled. “Cynnie, I want to apologize for what happened at the game last week.”
“It’s ok,” Cynnie said immediately. “My brothers can be kind of forward. Especially Ben. He’s obsessed with sports and anything to do with Wisconsin.” She rolled her eyes.
Darko glanced down at his coffee. His hands were around the mug, warming them. He stared into the black depths of the drink. “Still, I could have been more polite. I just feel like I owe you an explanation.” When he looked back up at her, her voice was unreadable. He urged himself to continue. “You see, I’m not used to interacting with a lot of people. I’m better at situations like this.” He motioned between them. “I live a very solitary lifestyle. It makes it hard to make friends.”
Cynnie blinked. She seemed genuinely interested in what he was saying. “Why don’t you just change your lifestyle?”
He shrugged and glanced down at his coffee again. “I can’t. I move around a lot. It’s what I do.”
“But what’s the reason for it? Something had to initiate the process.”
Darko shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. It’s in the past.” He wished that were true. He wished he could forget the reason why he had to live the way he did.
“What’s that supposed to mean? If you don’t like it, just stop.”
He pushed down his frustration. It was not her fault she did not understand. He looked at her. “It’s not that easy.”
Cynnie rolled her eyes. There was an agitated look to her face. “Well, why not? Are you running from the law or something?”
This caused Darko’s body to heat. “No,” he said sternly through gritted teeth. He had to stare at his coffee again. He did not want to give Cynnie the wrong impression. “I’m sorry, but it’s personal.” He heard her lean back in her chair. To his relief, she did not press the matter. They sipped their coffee.
Elva meowing from the kitchen floor caught their attention. Cynnie looked back at Darko and smiled politely, though he could tell it was forced. “I think I should be going,” she said.
Darko nodded without saying a word.
He knew he should have stopped her from leaving, but something held him back. As he let her walk away again, he wondered if she was leaving his life.
Elva meowed from behind him. He knelt down and let her run into his arms. “Thank you, girl,” he murmured as he pet her back and head. He pulled her away from him and stared into her curious eyes. “Do you think I should give up? Is it worth the effort?”
“Meow,” Elva said.
Darko nodded. “You’re right.” He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I’ve hardly begun.”