Kala is not happy.
It's her last night in Berlin, and she's in a popular nightclub . . . alone. In a booth. Guarding purses.
Kala glares at the dance floor. She feels like Cinderella, watching the evil stepsisters (actually two women from Sales) party it up.
It's her own fault: She volunteered to be the first to stand guard because the purses were too large and bulky to bring to the floor, and who wants to look like an unsophisticated tourist on the dance floor? Anu and Satya were so excited to be in a Berlin nightclub. How could Kala say no when they begged her to stay with the bags?
So Kala stayed and sat with the purses and watched as Anu and Satya bounced around to German techno.
They came back almost a whole hour later, saying they were thirsty, and then they said she could go dance while they stayed.
Kala thought they were joking. She wasn't going there alone; she didn't have the nerve.
Since neither Satya nor Anu felt up to going with her, Kala sat with them. Then they all had a drink, and Satya had a second. Then Satya disappeared to go to the facilities. Then Anu saw Satya waving wildly at her while being pulled (laughing) back to the dance floor by some large man. Then Anu darted off after Satya before Kala could protest.
That was another half hour ago. And now the club is filling up and locals are mingling with tourists and everyone is having fun . . .
"I can't believe they left you here by yourself for the night."
Kala looks up and sees the woman she met at the cafeteria yesterday. Even in the dim light, she looks stunning in a slinky black sheath dress. She's a VP of a Korean corporation that does business with Kala's company. Kala remembers that her name is Sun.
"I'm glad to see a friendly face," Kala says, smiling at her. "You saw?"
Sun nods and sits across from Kala in the booth.
"I saw," she says grimly. "I thought that was you when I came in awhile ago. I would have come by sooner if I didn't have to babysit." Sun tilts her head in the general direction of the dance floor. Kala looks over and finally picks out Sun's brother having a great time wedged between two chesty women. He'd hit on Kala at the salad bar in the cafeteria yesterday, during the lunch break for the conference they're all attending. Sun had intervened and picked him off so smoothly that Kala looked for her to thank her over the soup bar today. They'd had a nice lunch together.
"Joong-Ki almost came over to hit on you again, but I reminded him he'd already tried once yesterday." Sun shakes her head. "I told him you're the picture of the rice cake." At Kala's quizzical expression, Sun gives a wry smile and explains: "Korean saying my mother used to tell us, when we wanted something we couldn't have. We say it's just the picture of a rice cake, not the actual rice cake. Move on." Sun wrinkles her nose, gives a smirk. "It doesn't translate very well," she admits.
Kala laughs. "It doesn't matter," she says. "Thank you. Again. I feel so awkward with that kind of attention. No one ever made a pass at me back home."
Sun rolls her eyes, disbelieving. "I think you've just never had someone as in-your-face about it as Joong-Ki," she observes. "And if you didn't look so angry, someone would have hit on you here."
"I don't think so," Kala demurs. "Did I look angry?" She's amused by that since she's normally so cheerful-looking. "Anyway, I'm not sure I know anything about getting hit on. It's different in India."
"Is it?" asks Sun, and she looks pointedly at the two women who'd come into the club with Kala. Both of them are flirting outrageously with two men, dancing much closer than they would have ever dared at home. Neither look up to even check on Kala.
"Mmm," Kala replies, frowning at the reminder that she's been abandoned. "Well, your brother is the first to try with me anyway."
Sun looks back out to the sea of people and nods in a general direction. "Then you're about to repeat the experience again."
Kala looks where Sun stares, alarmed, but it's not Joong-Ki she's referring to: There's a man making his way in their direction from the other side of the floor. When the lights flash, Kala can see that he is very good looking: short blond hair, rugged stubble along a cut jawline. Although the club is full of tourists, he looks German. And from what she can see, he is built well, too. "Oh dear," Kala says faintly, feeling herself getting flustered. "How do you know-"
"Don't get too excited: That's the wingman," says Sun.
"Do you see the man about five paces behind him? "
Kala's brows furrow in concentration until she catches sight of another man, taller, thinner, with a long face and darker hair that he keeps pushing to the side as he trails behind the blond man. She can't see him too clearly because the light is too dim.
"He's been eyeing you for awhile. His blond friend just got here; I was standing next to them when I saw the taller man gesture in your direction. I think he convinced Blond Friend that he needs to help him meet you." Sun smirks. "You probably put him off earlier with your scowls."
Kala mouths a faint "oh" as the men get closer. She feels a rush of disappointment before she quells it. "So what is a wingman?" she asks.
Sun pauses for a moment. "He's the one that will either say something to you so you will talk to his friend, or he's going to say something to me so his friend has time to talk to you himself."
Kala frowns, but this is as much of an explanation as Sun can give, because the Blond Friend crosses over, gets his bearings, and makes his way to their booth, bypassing the other two that have a mix of couples.
He faces Sun first. "Hallo," he says, stopping right beside Kala's seat. He smiles at Sun, who only smiles back faintly, before he turns to Kala. He has a lovely smile that falters for the merest moment when his eyes alight on her.
"Hello," she says, smiling back.
Sun rolls her eyes and contains a smirk. Kala doesn't notice.
"Hello," he says again, in English.
Kala laughs a little. "Hello," she repeats.
He grins. "You speak English, of course. "
"Yes." Kala thinks he looks even more attractive up close. He has marvelous blue eyes that don't leave her face and seem to crinkle up in laughter. She knows she probably looks like an idiot, responding to that look with a grin of her own.
"I know this is bold, but my friend and I were hoping we could join you," he says, then pauses, as if he thinks better of what he is going to say. Instead, he gives a little shrug, and dips his head towards Kala, looking apologetic. "That's all. I don't have anything really special - a line - to say. Just ... we hope it's ok, that you'll say yes."
It is a disarming admission, and it is hard to concentrate with those eyes looking so keenly at her.
"I'm Wolfgang." He extends his hand.
"Kala." She places her hand in his. He shakes it firmly and doesn't let go right away. "This is Sun."
He looks back, eyes lighting on Sun, and seems to recollect himself. He releases Kala's hand to extend his to Sun. Kala thinks Sun looks oddly amused as she shakes his hand.
Sun indicates the pile of bulky purses on the bench beside Kala. "I'm not sure we can all fit," she says.
"We can stand," he replies. But instead he reaches over to one of the tables where there's a group of people and just takes a chair. Kala is amazed no one makes a fuss.
Kala looks quickly at Sun, who merely shrugs her indifference. "So where's your friend? " Kala asks.
As if on cue (and Sun would almost certainly argue that that is the case) the taller, thin man materializes from the crowd and approaches the table.
"Hallo," he says. Up close, there is something about him that is so open and friendly that Kala can't help but smile back. Where Wolfgang is dressed very simply in a casual black button-down shirt and black jeans, his friend is wearing a crisp black dress shirt and skinny black tie with red jeans.
"You speak English?" he asks, and nods when she and Sun reply in the affirmative. "I know it. My English isn't as good as Wolfie's," he says. "I asked him for help. "
"Wolfie?" Kala turns laughing brown eyes up at Wolfgang, who looks annoyed.
"Wolfgang," he corrects. "This is Felix."
"I'm Kala." She extends her hand to Felix, who shakes it with exuberance. Kala laughs.
"I'm Sun." Sun gives a cool nod to Felix, who looks put off by Sun's casual sophistication.
Kala looks back sympathetically at Felix. "If you find that English is too difficult, Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch."
"Whaaat???" Felix looks genuinely excited, and he plants himself on the bench next to Sun, where there is just enough room to sit. Wolfgang's face is a little more cryptic, but he sits on the chair that he's scooted next to Kala. She tries to ignore how pleased she is by that. "You speak a little German? Wolfie, do you hear that? I don't need you to translate for me after all! "
"I can speak enough to get by," Kala says quickly, anxious lest he think her proficiency better than what it actually is.
"Beautiful and smart," Felix states so sincerely that Kala can feel herself blush. She looks over at Wolfgang and sees the corner of his mouth tick up in a smirk. "Yes," he agrees, and if possible she blushes even harder when she meets his eyes.
"But English is appreciated," intervenes Sun in precise tones, "since I don't speak German at all."
"Of course!" Felix agrees, but he is regarding Kala so excitedly, that Sun may as well have said nothing. "Do you want a drink? Is that ok? Would you like to try a shot?"
Before Kala can respond, he is hailing a server carrying a tray of shots. He gives Wolfgang a meaningful glance, and Kala catches a faint, rebellious look cross Wolfgang's face before he turns to Sun.
"Would you like to dance?" he asks her. Sun looks back at Kala, her expression quizzical.
"That's ok," Kala says, ruthlessly stomping her envy. She likes Felix; she doesn't mind talking to him. Kala smiles encouragingly at Sun.
Sun moves to stand and Felix can't hustle fast enough to let her through. Sun and Wolfgang make their way to the floor just as the shot tray arrives, and Felix buys Kala a drink that she politely accepts but doesn't tip back in one swallow, like Felix. She nurses it while they talk.
It's obvious he finds her attractive. Felix stares at Kala as if he can't quite believe he is sitting with her.
It would have been very awkward if he isn't also easy to talk to: Felix is frank and funny, breaking out in "Denglish" when a particular thought gets away from him. Kala finds out that he and Wolfgang are life-long Berliners who grew up together and are now in business, co-owning a successful security company. He compliments her shoes (black Italian kitten heels that she splurged on just before the trip) and divulges that he has a shoe fetish of his own, showing off flashy crocodile loafers and outrageous shiny socks that make her laugh outright. He isn't remotely offended but smiles back good-naturedly. She is flattered by his attention.
He asks what she is doing in the city, and she tells him she is there along with several other colleagues from Mumbai attending an international pharmaceutical conference. He asks her what she does, encourages her to tell him about herself.
That's when Kala starts to lose him.
Without thinking, she tells him she has a postgraduate degree in biochemistry, works in R&D at a large pharmaceutical company focusing on psychopharmacology. She thought about culinary school because her father owns a restaurant and she knows her way around the kitchen, but she loves science too much. She also loves learning languages and speaks three with varying degrees of fluency (English, German, and French), as well as two Indian dialects (actually three, but she isn't counting Hindi). By the time Kala gets to that, Felix is looking at her in wide-eyed awe. And something close to panic. He asks if she wants another drink. Kala almost turns him down, but he looks so cornered that she says she'd love a glass of wine. He gets up to go to the bar.
He looks relieved.
Kala steals a glance at the dance floor, telling herself that she's only looking to see if Sun is ok. She spots her close to the middle, dancing gracefully to a thudding remix of a pop song, smiling up at her partner. Wolfgang bends forward to say something and gives a wide smile at whatever Sun says in reply. He looks up then and meets Kala's gaze. Kala smiles back faintly, waves. Is she being a horrible person for wishing her position is switched with Sun's?
Wolfgang glances next to her, notes Felix's absence, looks around, and spots Felix at the bar. He bends back down to Sun and must have asked if they should return because Sun nods and they both make their way back.
They arrive before Felix, all conspiratorial smiles. Kala tells herself that she is glad Sun is having a nice time.
"Felix is just getting some wine. He'll be back shortly," Kala tells them.
Wolfgang looks back in the direction of the bar. "While you're waiting, would you like to dance?"
Kala looks at Sun in surprise. "I don't know," she stammers.
"I'll watch the bags," says Sun. When Kala hesitates, she arches a brow. "Don't you trust me?"
"Of course!" Kala is flustered. She looks uncertainly at Wolfgang. "But Felix will be here soon. Aren't you tired?"
He scoffs and smiles encouragingly. "Felix will be ok. Come on."
Kala looks at Sun who just shrugs, her mouth creeping into a smile. Kala gets up and allows Wolfgang to lead her out to the floor, hand in hand. She feels a little self conscious when she notices that her outfit (a black skirt that reaches mid-thigh and a sheer black blouse with a tank underneath) is too conservative; everyone else looks so much edgier, sexier. But Wolfgang doesn't seem to notice. He squeezes her hand and flashes her a smile that has her nearly tripping over herself. How had she missed that he has dimples?
It's very crowded on the floor, but Wolfgang maneuvers their way to a spot near the center, faces her, and starts dancing, gesturing for her to join him. He's confident and self-assured and clearly having a good time. Kala laughs and looks around and realizes no one is paying them any attention and finally starts to loosen up, swaying to the beat of the music. Wolfgang grins at her, leans over so she can hear him over the music, and says,"There you go!" She feels emboldened to actually raise her arms and move with more rhythm. Wolfgang grins his approval, and Kala laughs again, much more at ease.
They manage a conversation over the music. She asks him about himself. Wolfgang gives a shrug. He tells her he and Felix own a business together and confirms he's a lifelong Berliner, even going to university there. He did ok and barely graduated with his business degree, he winks. He speaks Russian (his parents were Russian), and attributes luck to having turned Felix's modest locksmith business into a large security company. He asks her if she's having a good time in Berlin; she answers that she hadn't had an opportunity to really explore until tonight, that her flight leaves late afternoon tomorrow.
"If you don't have any plans, I'd love to show you around," he says.
Kala's brows lift in surprise, and before she can stop herself, she asks, "But aren't you the wingman?"
He throws back his head and laughs outright. "Scheisse," he says. "Your friend just told me I'm a pretty bad wingman." Wolfgang tips his head toward Kala's booth and she looks over to see Felix sitting with Sun, drinking a beer while apparently Sun is drinking her glass of wine, unconcerned about open drinks from strangers. They seem to be talking congenially. "I knew as soon as I saw you that Felix was going to be in over his comfort zone," Wolfgang says. "Beautiful women don't intimidate him, and beautiful women that are smart are ok, too. But he is too easily intimidated by ones that are too smart. And when I saw he was gone, I knew." He moves a little closer and leans over to ask, "When you told him about yourself, do you think you intimidated him a little?"
Kala bites her lip and looks guilty. His mouth twitches into a smile.
After a moment, he asks, "Are you disappointed?" He is watching her closely with those lovely blue eyes, and Kala realizes that they've both stopped dancing. "No," she says.
He gives a slow smile, seems to relax a little; she hadn't even noticed he was tense. "Good."
Someone bumps Kala and pushes her into Wolfgang. He catches her immediately. There is perhaps a second of an embrace, when Wolfgang's arms come around her to the small of her back, before Kala draws away, flustered.
"So will you tell me?" Wolfgang gives an awkward little laugh as he releases her. Kala can feel his reluctance to do so, and her heart thuds hard in her chest. She really doesn't want him to, either.
"Tell you what?" she asks, confused.
"About yourself. What could have had poor Felix quaking in his fancy shoes? "
She laughs at that, shakes her head, and it breaks some of the tension as they resume dancing. She repeats what she told Felix, and in the end laughs again and admits it sounds like a curriculum vitae.
"Mein Gott, and you threw in Latin?" sighs Wolfgang in mock horror. "No wonder poor Felix scurried for the bar."
"And what about you?" asks Kala, looking at him curiously. "Are you intimidated?"
Wolfgang looks down at her, almost surprised by the question.
"Your intelligence just makes you more desirable," he says simply, and Kala smiles skeptically, wonders if it's a line but, oh, he looks sincere. He must have noticed because he smiles ruefully. "You don't believe me. But beautiful women - beautiful people - are common. Ones that are also brilliant - like you - are rare. I prefer a smart woman every time." She gives him a look and he smirks back at her. "But since you're beautiful, too, I'm the lucky one, right?" Kala doesn't know how to respond. He looks at her with a softness that belies his flippant words.
He gives a big grin. "Do you like karaoke?"
"What?" Kala's head spins at the change of topic."I've never -"
Wolfgang shakes his head. "You've never been to a karaoke bar? Then you must go to the one down the street. It's more fun than this noisy club. You can't leave Berlin without trying."
He takes her hand, tucks it under his arm, and leads her off the dance floor toward the booth. Kala is very aware of that hand and the heat coming from that solid body and her mind is starting to think completely inappropriate thoughts.
By the time they return to Sun and Felix, the flush on her cheeks has little to do with dancing.
"Are you ready to go to the karaoke bar?" Sun looks at Kala as if there's no question; evidently this had been part of her own discussion with Wolfgang earlier. "I'm not going. I have my own trouble," she says, gesturing to her brother.
Felix looks at Wolfgang, notices Kala's hand still tucked under his arm, and while Felix looks surprised and curious, he seems to take it in stride and shrugs. "Mind if I stay with you?" he asks Sun.
Sun tilts her head and gives him a considering look. "Not at all." She hands Kala her purse and draws Kala down a little so she can tell her that she left her number in it if Kala needs anything, and to whisper that she thinks Wolfgang seems like a decent enough guy if Kala wants to have some fun. Kala blushes furiously. Louder, Sun looks Wolfgang in the eye and tells him to make sure Kala has a nice time. "I know where to find you," she adds with a smile, but there's an undercurrent of warning in her tone.
Wolfgang doesn't look offended; he merely smiles at her and says thank you. Kala leaves without telling Anu or Satya, before she has time to talk herself out of it.
The karaoke bar really is "down the street" from the club. It's busy, but comfortable, with people of varying degrees of skill trying to sing and the crowd raucously supportive of every attempt. Most of the songs are English, some German, one French, and Kala and Wolfgang join the audience in singing every chorus to every song, regardless of language. They wince at missed pitches and tease each other over mixed-up lyrics. They interact with other people sitting by them, in English and German, and eventually, Wolfgang is encouraging Kala to get up and try a song.
Kala shakes her head and laughs and finds herself being loudly encouraged by the people around them. She finally agrees to do it if Wolfgang comes up with her. She is flushed and smiling and looking at him with large dark eyes that are vibrant with joy, and he can't say no. He takes her hand while she drags her purse and they clamber to the stage together.
Kala makes Wolfgang hold the microphone. She chooses an old song in English that they both know well enough to try; the crowd gives mixed cheers and jeers when the guitar starts. She is tentative and embarrassed when the first lyrics scroll up (they both miss the opening line which seems to creep up on them), but Wolfgang smiles at her and sings with a confident abandon that draws her out of her shell. She finds that she remembers most of the lyrics, and if she watches him, she isn't nearly so nervous to be singing on stage.
So they sing the song together, to each other, with the audience joining in on the chorus but largely forgotten as they immerse themselves in the moment and smile and laugh and lean into each other.
And in four minutes, the song is over, the audience is clapping loudly, and Kala is looking up at Wolfgang's face, his mouth very close to her own. A breath away.
And she wonders when it happened. When the attraction suddenly became an overwhelming need.
She looks into his eyes and she knows he feels it too. He straightens up and returns the microphone. He smiles at her strangely.
He takes her hand and they walk back to their table oddly silent, this thing humming between them.
They stay at the karaoke bar for another song or two before Kala suggests she should head back to her hotel. It's not quite three in the morning.
Wolfgang nods his head. "Sure, sure," he says distractedly. He gets up and they leave in silence, her hand tucked again in his as he maneuvers them through the crowd.
The air outside is refreshingly cool against her heated cheeks. She doesn't really know how to proceed. They walk thoughtlessly in the direction of the club.
"If you're serious about showing me around tomorrow- today," she begins.
Wolfgang stops and gives her a faint smile. "Yes," he says, and pauses, oddly hesitant. "I'd like to kiss you," he says. "May I?"
Kala's eyes widen, her heart beats furiously. She looks around but doesn't really take in what she sees. "Yes."
He cups her chin and tilts it up, lowering his mouth to meet hers. His lips are cool from the night air, and they touch her mouth with a lightness that eases her apprehension until she finds that her hand has crept its way to the back of his neck to press him closer still.
They kiss teasingly, lips barely parted, nipping, until Wolfgang lifts his head slightly, draws his tongue along the seam of her mouth. Kala releases a low sigh, meets his tongue with hers, and lets their kiss deepen until it is no longer enough. Wolfgang draws back and presses his forehead to hers.
"I know it's different for you," he begins, his breath ragged. He is fascinated by her lips, full and parted and too close to his. He can't think straight, and his hands have settled on her hips, just as hers seem to have settled on his waist, canting their bodies a little to each other.
"Do you really speak German?" he finally asks.
Kala nods. "Yes."
"Das heisst, du verstehst, wenn ich sage, dass ich dich vom allerersten Moment an wollte."
Kala can barely breathe. You understand when I say that I wanted you from the first moment that I saw you.
"Dass ich weiss, dass du mich auch willst." That I know you want me too.
"Komm mit zu mir nach Hause. Bitte." Come home with me. Please.
It is the absolute worst idea ever. Ever. She doesn't know him. She is returning to India tomorrow - today. She is never going to see him again.
But she looks into his eyes and her heart clenches and she thinks if she doesn't, she will always wonder "what if". She will regret not seizing this moment for the rest of her life.
So Kala nods. "Yes," she says. Wolfgang looks at her with an intensity that makes her weak. But there's no victorious smile at a new conquest, as she half expected. Instead, his eyes are soft, grateful, aware that she is doing something that is not like her. He kisses her forehead and hails a taxi and they get in.
His home is a flat in a trendy neighborhood not too far from the center. It's clean and minimalist and very ... German, Kala thinks. The door closes softly behind them and he puts Kala's purse on a nearby glass table, gathers her in his arms, and just holds her, his chin resting on her head. He's warm and undemanding but she can hear his heart beat rapidly beneath her ear. She realizes then that he's letting her take the lead, letting her cues dictate whether they do nothing more than this or proceed forward. She pulls back a little and smiles up at him before she draws his head down for a kiss.
Kala looks at the text message from Sun and smiles faintly. It simply says "he's the picture of the rice cake."
Kala sighs and looks up at the calm Mumbai sky. It's still hot and the sun has almost fully set as she leaves the lab, late as usual. It's been nearly four weeks since Berlin, but she is still in regular contact with Sun.
Sun is the only person to know she'd spent the night (morning?) and the rest of her last day with Wolfgang. Anu and Satya ran into Kala as they were leaving the hotel and she was checking out. They asked what happened to her, although they were grateful Ms. Bak, of Bak Industries, was actually watching their things: They were able to network a little, after they got an earful about leaving Kala alone. They both apologized sheepishly for abandoning Kala: That was never their intent!
Kala smiled and told them it was ok before she mumbled something about running into a friend. They didn't connect her to Wolfgang, waiting for her in the lobby. And since their flights were earlier, they also didn't see that he drove her to the airport. He'd parked and accompanied her as far as he could before he said goodbye. She was more upset than she thought she'd be, but she didn't show it to him.
Kala has not been able to get him out of her mind. They live-chatted a few times, exchanged text messages, had a couple of long and comfortable calls. Wolfgang confessed that he had asked Sun to be his wingman while they were dancing because he knew Felix would be too intimidated to pursue Kala. And when Sun asked what he'd do if he is wrong, Wolfgang only shrugged and smiled. "Then Kala can decide."
But Kala hasn't heard from him in almost a week. Thus, Sun's response to her sad little text: "is this it?"
Would someone who was only interested in a casual hook up have spent the time with her that he had? Shown her his city the morning after, held her hand, and made her feel as if no one existed but the two of them? Kept in touch- at least until this week?
She is so inexperienced with casual hook ups. Kala scoffs; she's never had one before Wolfgang. She is hurt and sad and doesn't know what to make of his sudden silence. Sun doesn't want to encourage unrealistic expectations. Kala and Wolfgang live on opposite sides of the world.
Kala says goodbye to some of her colleagues and makes her way to the bus stop for the commute home. There's normally one other person at the stop at this hour.
Tonight there are two.
She squints a little and her pace slows. Her mouth dries and her heart begins to hammer so loudly that the blood is pounding in her ears. Her feet take her the next few meters without her really being aware.
She is looking up into laughing blue eyes and a lovely smile that draws one from her in response.
"What are you doing here?" she asks breathlessly. It feels like she's been walking uphill.
He shrugs, reaches for her. "Waiting for you," he responds. "I'm on holiday. I was hoping you could show me around. "
She laughs as his arms curl around her waist, dips her head and buries it in the curve of his shoulder; her own arms encircle him. It feels right: She doesn't care that anyone can see she is glowing. "I would love to," she says. She tilts her head back to look at him. His eyes are soft. "What would you like to see first?"
He kisses her then, briefly, but deep and full of promise. "You," says Wolfgang. He presses his forehead to hers. "Just you."