The birds were singing; the sun was shining; and someone, somewhere, was playing the bagpipes.
"Goddammit," Sonja muttered, tugging her pillow over her head. When this didn't block out the awful sound, she gave up and got out of bed.
Squinting against the blindingly bright sunlight, trying to ignore the hangover headache building behind her right eye, Sonja threw open her sliding door and stepped onto the balcony.
"For the love of Jiminy Cricket, STOP THAT FUCKING RACKET!"
The bagpipes played on; defeated, Sonja sank down into a patio chair. "Why? Why bagpipes this early in the morning on a stat holiday?"
She wasn't expecting an answer, but an amused voice responded anyway. "It's Victoria Day. They do British stuff. It's a thing."
Too bleary to be startled, Sonja glanced calmly to her right. Cute Neighbour Boy was also on his balcony, relaxing with a cup of coffee and what appeared to be a week's worth of crossword puzzles.
"Oh, it's you," she said, blasé. "How can you be mentally active right now?"
Somewhere in the back of her mind she realized she should be ducking inside to avoid him, as she had been doing for the past three weeks, but she couldn't remember exactly why.
"I've always been a morning person," he replied cheerfully.
"I haven't. Also, I may or may not be hungover, so I am issuing a disclaimer that I will heretofore not be responsible for anything that comes out of my mouth."
He raised his eyebrows. "Those are some pretty big words for someone who says her mental processes haven't woken up yet."
"Yeah, well I think in big words."
"In that case, do you have a five-letter word for 'beginning,' starting with O?"
Sonja thought about it. "Nope."
"Oh, 'onset.' Thanks, you're a genius."
"I am mildly offended by your ability to be both witty and sarcastic this early in the morning on a holiday Monday."
"Thank you for your honesty."
She rolled her eyes and tried to think of a comeback, when suddenly, a SECOND bagpiper started playing, and she could do nothing but throw up her hands in horror.
"What the fuck is it with this city and the fucking BAGPIPES?"
Cute Neighbour Boy calmly took a sip of his coffee. "Dude. It's Victoria Day. Also, this city is fucking insane. Everyone knows that."
"I hate this city. It's all limestone, and Scottish street names, and Monarchist League members."
"Which is your way of saying, 'Wow, just discovered the WASPiest city in the universe!'"
Sonja glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, trying to determine his status as a W, AS or P. "Maybe."
"Shoulda read the info packet before you moved here." Cute Neighbour Boy leaned back and picked up another crossword puzzle.
"Is there seriously an info packet about how Presbyterian this city is? Because honestly, this is the most Scottish place I have ever been west of Nova Scotia."
"At least you don't live in Nova Scotia."
"Yeah, that would be a frosty Friday in July."
"Never say never." Cute Neighbour Boy stood up, waving his coffee cup. "I'm going to get a refill. Want some?"
Sonja made a face. "I think I can trust you not to roofie me. So, yes."
"Oh, wow. I am so incredibly thrilled to have passed your non-sketchiness test."
As he disappeared inside his apartment, Sonja stretched out in her chair, basking in the sun and trying to ignore the bagpipes. The humidity was just starting to rise, meaning it would be downright muggy by the end of the day. Hopefully it stormed and broke before tomorrow, so she wouldn't have to sweat all over her business casual on the bus to work.
Sweating all over her business casual made her think of laundry, and she suddenly remembered getting on the elevator, heading to the laundry room with a basket of dirty clothes, period-stained panties evident on the top of the heap. And she remembered Cute Neighbour Boy dashing down the hallway asking her to hold the elevator for him. And she remembered him glancing at her laundry basket and looking quickly away, embarrassed and awkward.
She cringed. So that was why she had been avoiding him for the past three weeks. Oh, well. He had probably forgotten all about the period underwear by now. Hopefully.
"So I'm guessing you're not a cake, then."
Cute Neighbour Boy was back, handing her a cup of coffee over the partition that separated their balconies.
"A what?" Sonja asked, accepting the coffee gratefully and taking a big gulp.
"A cake. A mangia-cake. It means… uh, a stereotypical, you know, Anglo-Canadian…"
"Oh, I see. No, I'm not a cake at all."
He grinned and stuck out his hand for her to shake. "I'm Alessio. It's Italian."
"I'm Sonja. It's Slovenian."
His grip was firm, skin a bit rough against hers, and Sonja felt herself beginning to tingle.
"I'm from the GTA," he continued, withdrawing his hand and sitting down again.
Sonja's brain was still fuzzy. "Who what-now?"
"The Toronto area."
"Oh, the land of the devil. You might just have said so."
"Anyway," he said emphatically, rolling his eyes, "I'm from the Toronto area, and when I first moved here I was shocked at how… overwhelmingly white it is."
"I'm from Edmonton, where people are more likely to trip over 'McEachern' than 'Kowalchuk'," Sonja offered. "Although it's still pretty white."
"The problem with Ontario, is that the rural areas were almost entirely settled by people from the British Isles-or from the States, but they were all originally from the British Isles too-and then when later immigrants came they all went to the major urban centres, so the more rural areas are still… pretty much the same as they were a hundred years ago."
"Ah, someone is up on their grade nine history. Whereas the West was settled later, by people from all over Europe. I know the story."
He smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. I'm a bit of a history buff."
"That is A-OK. I feel like it's allowed on the day we celebrate the birth of a queen who's been dead over a century."
Cute Neighbour Boy-she supposed she should think of him by his name now that she knew it, but Cute Neighbour Boy was more fun-continued to talk, but Sonja felt a sudden wave of dizziness come over her and closed her eyes. The dizziness didn't go away, so she pushed her fingers against her temples. That seemed to make it worse.
"Are you okay?"
Sonja pinched the bridge of her nose and winced. "Yeah. In a minute. Probably should have realized caffeine wasn't the best thing when I was already dehydrated."
"Hungover," Sonja specified. "It's the May 2-4 weekend, remember?"
"You drank a two-four?"
"Not by myself, obviously," she ground out as the dizziness increased. "Do I look like I could drink 24 bottles of beer in one night? There were four of us. We had six beer each."
He started to say something else, but Sonja was suddenly, unbearably nauseous, and she clamped her lips together and covered her face with her hand. The stupid bagpipe droning on wasn't helping any, either. At least the sun had dimmed, hidden behind angry grey clouds.
"I'll go get you a glass of water."
The slamming of his screen door jolted her a bit. The nausea passed, and Sonja slumped in the deck chair, hand still over her face. More or less embarrassing than the period panty incident? she wondered.
The screen door slammed again, and Sonja opened her eyes, gazing out at him between her fingers. He paused for a moment, reached out and set the water glass on her side table, and then vaulted over the partition.
"What are you doing?" Sonja asked, chair skidding away from him as she almost jumped in surprise.
"Making sure you're okay." He held the glass of water out to her hesitantly. "I'll go back if you really want me to."
Sonja grabbed the glass and took a long gulp of water, closing her eyes as the sweet, cool sensation hit her.
"No, you can stay."
She finished the water and set the glass down, trying to shift to curl more comfortably. Cute Neighbour Boy reached down and shifted her over, sitting beside her in the wide deck chair.
"Here, let me-"
"Seriously." Sonja sat straight up, ignoring the new wave of dizziness. "What are you doing?"
"I'm just trying to help!" He threw his hands up in frustration. "You're not all cake about having people touch you, are you? I mean, seriously! People in this country are so afraid of physical contact! Except for sex, I guess. But, I mean, people have these personal space bubbles and sometimes, I swear, they don't even let their families in them."
It wasn't the fear of physical contact in general that was freaking Sonja out so much as the fact the fear of physical contact with him when she wasn't wearing a bra, but she decided it would probably be better not to explain that point.
"I was just surprised," she said instead. "Because most people wouldn't voluntarily cuddle up to a stranger. I guess because of the cake thing. But really, I don't mind."
This seemed to appease him, and he settled back into the chair and wrapped an arm around her. Sonja found herself half on top of him, head resting against his shoulder, one arm providing a convenient barrier between her braless breasts and his chest. It was a surprisingly comfortable position, and she closed her eyes and felt the dizziness melt slowly away.
She supposed that now they were all cuddled up she really should call him by his name. Alessio. A poetic, almost melodic name-but then, most Italian names were. He was still talking, in a low, soothing voice, but she wasn't listening to his words, just his tone, and it was lulling her to sleep. Trying to get more comfortable, she wriggled a bit, and nuzzled her face into his neck.
"How are you feeling?" Apparently her nuzzling had distracted him from whatever he was saying.
"Miraculously better," she sighed contentedly, lifting her head to thank him for taking such good care of her.
Her eyes fluttered open as she realized how close they really were, and then, slowly, his lips met hers, tasting of dark-roast Italian coffee. He kissed her gently, but it was enough to send her head spinning with a whole different kind of dizziness.
They kissed again, longer and more deeply, before Sonja laid her head back on his shoulder and her hand against his chest. By now the whole scene had the surreal quality of a dream, so she was barely even surprised when the heavens opened up and rain came pelting down in front of them. It made the covered balcony feel even more like a safe cocoon.
Cuddled up in the deck chair, they alternated between deep, languorous kisses, and slow, gentle caresses. The smooth slide of skin on skin, the fresh scent of rain, the distant rumble of thunder-it was timeless, earthy, primeval, natural. No thinking, just feeling and doing.
But the sudden and insistent jangle of Sonja's phone broke the spell.
"Mmph." She pulled away and stood. "That's probably my mom, I have to get it…"
Alessio followed her inside, and stood awkwardly by the doorway while she talked to her mother. Sonja passed a hand over her face. Really, what was wrong with her today? Her mother asked the same question, noticing she was distracted, and Sonja had to say, "I'm fine, really, Mom, just a little tired, that's all," about fifty times before her mother would believe it.
When she was finally able to appease her mother and hang up, Sonja glanced back at Alessio. He stood by the screen door, arms crossed nervously.
"You can come in. You know, make yourself at home."
"Feels weird to be coming in from the balcony," he mumbled. "At least the bagpipes have stopped."
Sonja sat down on the sofa. After a moment Alessio followed suit, crossing his left ankle over his right knee.
"We should probably… talk."
"Yeah. I mean, probably."
Sonja bit her lip. "Thanks for, you know, taking care of me and everything earlier."
"Yeah. No problem. Just being a good neighbour, right?"
"No, I mean not many people would do that for someone they didn't really know. You're a good guy."
"Well, it's no problem, really. Like I said, just being a good neighbour. Besides, I like you." He didn't quite flush, but a completely mortified look came over his face. "I mean-I mean, whenever we run into each other in the hallways, you seem really nice. And sometimes when it's quiet, I can hear you singing through the walls. It's nice."
"You can hear me singing?" Should she be embarrassed or flattered?
"Yeah. And sometimes yelling at the TV when there's a hockey game on."
Raising her hands, she laughed. "Oilers fan. Guilty as charged."
"Well, I guess what I was getting at is that it feels like I know you better than I actually do. You know what I mean?"
She thought of elevator rides, of the animated, high-volume conversations he had with his grandmother once a month, of the time she'd forced herself out of bed early on a Sunday for high mass and seen him on the other side of the church.
"Yeah. I know what you mean."
They smiled at each other for a moment, and then Alessio said, "Alright, let's start this thing from scratch. Hi, my name is Alessio, I'm 24 years old, I'm from Toronto, and my favourite colour is green."
"And you're a morning person, and you do crossword puzzles, and your grandmother asks you every month when you're getting married," Sonja teased. "See? We already know too much about each other to start over completely from scratch."
When he rolled his eyes at her, she sighed. "Fine. Hi, my name is Sonja, I'm 22 years old, I'm from Edmonton, and my pet peeve is people who don't use Oxford commas."
"Oh, I'm a big fan of the Oxford comma."
"But I could also add that you really like to sing 80's pop music, you have a very foul mouth when you watch sports, you get really excited whenever you get snail mail that isn't a bill, and you have really interesting-coloured underwear."
Alessio winced. "Okay, that sounded way less creepy in my head than when I said it out loud. Can we forget I said that?"
"No." Sonja felt her cheeks flush bright red. "Explain."
Sighing, he closed his eyes. "You were in the elevator one day with some laundry, and the colours were just so bright and eye-catching-you know, lime green and electric blue and hot pink and stuff-and I looked before I realized it was underwear. But I stopped looking as soon as I realized, I swear!"
Sonja replayed the moment in her mind. Her basket had been filled with lingerie-type items, and her period panties had been on the top on one side of the basket, but she supposed her collection of lacy neon thongs must have been on the other side. And then he had come into the elevator, glanced into the basket, and looked away uncomfortably-not because he had seen the period panties, but because he had been fascinated by the fun panties.
Had she really been avoiding him for three weeks while he'd been thinking about her thongs? It was too much. She had to laugh.
Her laughter broke through the awkwardness in the room. At first Alessio looked confused, but as she continued to laugh, he joined in. She laughed until her stomach hurt, because it felt good to laugh, and because damn had she been stupid!
"So… I'm guessing you don't think it's completely creepy?" he asked when she could breathe again.
"No. Obviously not. And the look-on your face-oh my God, you are so adorable."
That embarrassed him again, and it was so adorable that Sonja launched herself at the other side of the sofa to kiss him.
He responded eagerly, nibbling on her lip as she clutched her fingers in his hair. She felt breathless, giddy, and more alive than she had in a long while.
"We should-hang out-sometime," he panted between kisses.
"Mm," she assented.
"Do you have-cable?"
She pulled back abruptly. "Excuse me?"
"I was just thinking, tomorrow evening, maybe I could come over and we could watch the Giro d'Italia together."
"It's a bicycle race. Like the Italian version of the Tour de France. Tomorrow it's going through Belluno. Beautiful scenery."
Sonja shook her head and stood up. "You are so adorable."
"Come on." She took his hand and pulled him to his feet, ignoring his protests. "Tomorrow evening we'll cuddle in front of the TV and watch your big bike race. But this afternoon, this lovely holiday Monday, we are going to do a different kind of hanging out." Halfway down the hallway toward her bedroom, she paused to give him a wink. "Maybe you'll even get a chance to see what colour my panties are today."
He did. They were neon purple.
And each of them felt a great deal more fondness for Queen Victoria and bagpipes that they could have imagined.
A/N: I know, I know. You are all saying, "spaghetti! How in tarnation did you upload something else so quickly? You have never written two things this close together in the history of ever!"
Well, the truth is that I already had this half-written since I started it last year on Victoria Day weekend. There. Not so awesome anymore, am I?
So... I am currently living in the most Scottish city west of Nova Scotia (which shall currently remain unnamed for privacy reasons, since I don't think any of you lovely people would stalk me but it's better to be safe than sorry). Seriously. Bagpipes aren't even an uncommon occurrence here. As some of you who read "Summer of LOVE" will know, I spent the last two summers working at a historic site. Last year on Victoria Day (after we all sang God Save the Queen to the portrait of Victoria hanging in the back parlour) we could hear someone playing the bagpipes, and I was like "Oh, lol, bagpipes, isn't that funny?" (like you do when someone plays the bagpipes). And my one coworker was like, "Oh, I love bagpipes!" And my boss was like, "That's an excellent idea, I should go get my bagpipes from my office!" Which he did, and then proceeded to play them. He tried to play God Save the Queen, but he couldn't quite figure it out, so he just did Scotland the Brave instead. And then my other coworker was like, "Oh, I can step-dance to this!" Which she then proceeded to do. And I was like, "...um?" And then I realized that I was the only person working at the entire site who didn't have an English or Scottish last name.
Yeah, I don't work there anymore. I work in a place where I get weekends and stat holidays off, which is WONDERFUL.
True story: Actual comment from actual Scottish exchange student watching the pipe bands at the Santa Claus Parade: "This is... wow. They're wearing kilts. They're all wearing kilts. I can't... I seriously think this is the most Scottish thing I've ever seen. This is really, really odd. Can we leave now?"
Yeah. I've been living in this city for too long. I need to get out.
ANYWAY, sorry for the random tangent! Please tell me what you think! Happy May 2-4! (Oh, and FYI, May 2-4 weekend is also Victoria Day weekend, and refers to the tradition of drinking a two-four of beer (case of 24) over the course of the weekend.)