Sara Blake
Hotel Suzuki
Essay
A true story of strangers uniting across language when they witness an act of domestic abuse in the night. An escape ensues. The police are friends with your cousin. Croatian jokes are just as brilliant translated. Light and dark intentions abound under the full moon.

“Should we take the long way or the short way?” Mile asks. We were full of fish, steak tartare, a basket of bread, and several beers—an absolute feast owing to the 10X more favorable Croatian Kuna to the U.S. Dollar. We’re happy. Worry-free. Slightly gassy.

Mile was asking this question partly because we’d chosen to take “the long way” all day—as couples are wont to choose when they have time on their hands. But were we still up for it again at midnight?

Without showering, we’d arrived to dinner straight from a trail run on the outskirts of Šibenik, and to my delight, it was quite permissible to arrive to fine outdoor dining wearing Adidas sandals and smelling of body odor and salt. In Croatia, life is all about enjoyment. And besides, doesn’t everything along the Adriatic have a pleasantly briny tinge? Locals are kings, and I just happened to be sitting across from one. “Don’t worry,” Mile assures. “We can basically get away with anything.” Our unrequested second round on the house corroborates his claim.

The first “long way” of the day had partly been on purpose—a conscious decision for a markedly physical challenge—but partly also due to the fact that we’d gotten meaningfully lost at what was supposed to be the halfway point. (We had neither our phones nor any knowledge of the trail.) Then the sun had set. (We didn’t have headlamps.) But we relished in such surprises. They were fun. Unexpected. Romantic. And my partner was finally showing me around his hometown for the first time after a three-year postponement due to the pandemic. Just getting here had been a much anticipated “long way,” and we intended to stretch and savor every situation. A good, old-fashioned adventure was in order—a nice yarn to bring home.

By the time we made it to the restaurant, we were pleasantly famished, achy, and satisfied with our moonlit, nine-something-mile run, according to our Garmin. At this point in the story, Mile would have me clarify for our native English speakers that his name is pronounced “Mē-lay,” and we did not run nine of him. (Decidedly, that would have been the short way.)

“Let’s take the short way back tonight,” I reply, my legs heavy, my Karlovačko buzz fading. After all, we should get some sleep. If we could succeed in summoning ourselves from bed before noon, tomorrow held the promise of another adventure. This, however, would require willing ourselves into the kiln of summer’s early daylight hours before any sensible Croatians had unshuttered themselves from their homes, but we were up for the challenge. We had planned a drive along the coast to Dubrovnik and—to save money—a sleepover in Mile’s sister car, a bright blue used stick shift Suzuki whose portage offered a convincing real-life simulation of Super Mario Kart. We fully embraced our newfound coastal free spirit. Hotel Suzuki was booked.

We set out arm-in-arm along the marina toward Mile’s family home about half a mile away (or, if you do the math, approximately 440 Mē-lays), giggling about one thing or another. To our left, the Adriatic shimmered under the stars. To our right, moored boats rested on platforms with delightful names you can’t invent, our favorite of which—“Take my Brath Away.” Behind their collapsed sails were the stone walls of the old city, still pockmarked by bullets and shrapnel, though to be a local is to not mention their still fresh and painful attributions casually.

We ascend an old stone staircase that rises into the cascading hills of the back neighborhoods overlooking the sea, but midway our giggles halt, making space for the strange sounds above. Labored grunts, panting, and a raspy voice repeating something in another language, neither English nor Croatian.

We lift our gazes to a steep retaining wall towering a full story above the stairway. A metal fence punctuates its border, enclosing what seems to be a small private yard jutting from a nearby house. Directly above us, a bleary-eyed man careens over its rail, resting his elbows between its finials. The immediate list of possible scenarios tallies in our minds, not an uncommon survivalist tactic for two well-seasoned New Yorkers who are accustomed to choosing between doing the right thing, a good story, and making it back to our apartments alive.

Public copulation. Public masturbation. Communal crying. Mushroom-acid-party.

Mental breakdown. This is my three-second shortlist. But this is also Croatia. We aren’t in the land of the free mental breakdowns anymore. Here, it seems, they are at least confined indoors.

“What’s that voice saying?” I ask Mile, as we climb another step. “It’s German,” he says with an eerie solemnity. “It means ‘get away from me.’” His translation stops us in our tracks, though only momentarily as we register our urgent need to seek cover from the man leering overhead.

A humming panic suddenly replaces my weariness. We march up the run of stairs and pause on a nearby landing, straining our ears against the night’s silence. “I think that guy has a woman pinned under his knees,” Mile says. We exchange hushed expletives and await further acoustics that might confirm our suspicions.

Three teenagers on our same path join us on the landing—two girls and a boy. It’s not clear their relation to one another, but it’s evident the girl with long, fake eyelashes is their leader. They, too, have heard the strange sounds, and they loiter with us in our mutual wary recognition. SMACK, SMACK. Dampened slaps reverberate over the stairwell, and our eyes dart to meet one another’s in our sudden silent understanding. Mile and the teenagers confer in whispered Croatian, and he relays our assumption of German tourists in a physical domestic dispute. Their Leader turns to me and speaks, assuming I’ve been following their conversation. I shrug, looking up at Mile, and she suddenly understands that I’m a tourist too. We lock eyes in our shared concern, bridging the divide between our separate languages.

We all shift our weight nervously, recognizing the present moment’s need for our choice. We can choose apathetic laissez-faire—or we can choose resistant intervention. Together, the five of us assess our next steps—Mile and I in English, and Mile and the teenagers in Croatian. Though I can understand none of their words, the teenagers’ bewildered expressions and frenetic movements speak plainly enough. “They’re going to call the cops,” Mile translates. I watch the Leader dial Croatian 911 from her smartphone, and she relays our location to the voice on the other end.

It immediately strikes me how much safer I feel interposing myself into a situation like this compared to the States. Guns are hard to come by in Croatia, despite a war that called its civilians to arms only thirty years in its rearview. Whatever shakes out, I know it’s unlikely we’ll suffer violence as a consequence of our attempt at crime prevention. We do, however, have one indication of an imminent threat: a sharp, baritone bark, the tenor of which quite obviously assuming a sizable owner. If the bleary-eyed man wises up to our involvement and releases the dog, we’re surely pseća hrana. Dogfood. As if each of us has simultaneously but separately arrived at this very same conclusion, we hotfoot it up the final flight of steps and sprint down a dim alleyway.

When we collectively sense we’ve reached a safe distance out of both sight and earshot from the house, we slow, then stop at a quiet single-lane intersection. The moment feels anticlimactic, and we wait in the street, disoriented. I look back toward the house, stretching my tight back over one hip, as I absorb the scene. Mile, too, employs the moment for personal care, producing a magnificent fart. One of the teenagers spins around, confused, and I collapse into laughter. Though I consider myself a sworn protector of my partner’s dignity, the comic effect of flatulence overpowers my duty. How big must a crisis be to not laugh at a fart, I wonder.

In a borborygmus instant, Mile and I snap free from the voyeurism of the relationship-gone-wrong down the street and are transported back into our own love story, full of giggles, delight, and flatulant comedy. What must go so sideways to end up like them, I wonder? Were they, too, once happy and carefree, just like us?

Mile asks if I think the teenagers heard his posterior tuba from the other side of the street. “One hundred percent,” I reply. Without the reference of our phones, Mile and I wonder how much time has passed since we called the police. Meanwhile, our compatriots' faces glow against the light of their digital props, and I feel the canyon of our age differences, their futures still so bright with scrolling and appropriate sphincter regulation.

Our detention begins to feel indefinite, and we wonder if we should all just give up and go home, foregoing a statement to the cops. The Leader’s phone alights as she again dials the dispatch to find out if anyone is coming. On this beautiful seaside night, it would be hard to blame the cops for a scenic detour—perhaps a bite of Burek or a sip of Rakija—but at last, we receive confirmation that a unit will arrive momentarily, and we’ll get a call back when it’s safe to return to the scene. “Do you really think they heard me?” Mile asks again. “One hundred percent, babe,” I certify.

At last, the Leader’s phone rings. It’s time to turn back. “Are you coming too?” the teenagers ask in Croatian. Mile and I look at each other and consult briefly in English. Mile relays our verdict. Yes, we’re coming. “Sada smo tim,” he says in Croatian. “We’re a team now,” he repeats its translation in English. We chuckle at our unlikely alliance, and set out toward the house, united in our quest for justice—and the unspoken reality—satiety for our curiosity. How does the story end?

Without the constant hedonic pull of our abandoned smartphones, I notice how over the course of our trip, I’ve become increasingly calm and contented—no news stories to enrage me, no spectacles from strangers to ogle—and slowly but surely, the drug of distration had left our systems. But now, marching down the dark alleyway, I can’t help but acknowledge my hunger for real-life drama and its imminent resolution. We’re all still out past our bedtimes because we seek lawful retribution for a stranger unable to act in her own self-defense—and yet, it would be dishonest to claim our vigilante crusade isn’t turning out to be entertaining—and dare I say, fun. “But we’re helping,” I reassure myself. “Aren’t we?”

When we arrive back on the scene, still, we see no sign of the police. Instead, two boys who more closely resemble unhousebroken adult-sized puppies bound down the steps moments after our arrival. One cranes his face into mine from the shadows to see if he recognizes me. I retract my head like a turtle into its shell. He does not know me. Certainly, I could have assisted with this information right away, but I am powerless to express it. Their purpose soon becomes clear, and my furtive suspicions of entertainment are confirmed. They have been notified by the others that there is “a situation” unfolding. They are here for the theater.

The house is silent, and we shift indecisively while the boys ricochet about, until at last, we spot two officers climbing the stairs from the marina below, and they meet us on the landing. “Are they even carrying guns?” I ask Mile. “I don’t think so,” he replies. We scan the objects dangling from their belts and spot only so much as batons and pepper spray. Seemingly without any fear, one officer knocks on the door to the dark house, and the woman with the raspy voice answers in English—the sister tongue for those who lack one another's mother tongue. The officer asks for the large dog to be put away, and the conversation becomes too muffled to understand. The second officer remains outside with us. He’s relaxed and begins the procedural formality of taking our information. Mile asks the girls if they have their IDs. The Leader holds out her phone and says something in Croatian with an air of dry sarcasm that I can sense even without language. Mile erupts into laughter. “What did she say?” I ask eagerly. Recuperating his breath, Mile repeats in English, “My only ID is Instagram.”

Among the additional vestiges of modernity that we have discarded for the duration of our trip are our IDs. With my adopted status as a local, Mile’s language and family name are the only passports we need. Without any physical accessories on hand except enough Kuna for our next meal, I feel untethered, identity-less, and free—like some international spy, an anonymous wayfarer drifting amongst others with real lives. I like it. And sure enough, because I am the only foreigner, the officer doesn’t bother with my information. I escape questioning, my name never given, the record of my attendance never recorded. Perhaps I really am a spy.

The Leader shakes her head reflectively and tells Mile this is her second police report of the day. She had called only that morning from Bilo just a few towns over to report a similar act of abuse by another tourist staying in an apartment she managed. I feel momentarily shocked, then look up at the sky, again noting the perfect full moon. Bizarre events converge on full moons. Certainly. it’s a much preferable myth to the more likely reality that this sort of thing just happens all the time. Perhaps I’m not the only tourist feeling intoxicated by my freedom, though the only byproduct I’ve considered being worthy of envy is lighter pockets and anonymity—not impunity from my transgressions.

The new teenage boys bounce around the steps as if the soles of their shoes have been programmed with a time limit for surface contact, and Mile and I exchange looks of amusement and incredulity. Eventually, one departs, realizing the late hour. The other remains and chats with the officer who is taking our information. In a whisper, Mile informs me that somehow the two have deduced that one knows the other’s cousins. “Of course,” I laugh. It’s not even a joke or a slur to remark that all Croatians know each other. In a place where the entire country’s population is that of Manhattan during a regular workday, it’s almost understandable. Only the day before, Mile and I had hiked the Krka waterfalls, and after mentioning his grandmother’s name to the park ranger, we’d gotten in for free.

We can hear nothing more than murmurs inside the house, and the only man’s voice belongs to the police officer. Suddenly, Mile dissolves into laughter. “What’s happening now?” I ask, confused. Mile translates again. “One girl just asked the officer what’s going to happen to the guy, and the other just said that, for all she cares, he can look for her poop in the bathtub.” Mile had primed me long before our trip that Croatian humor is all about how you say things. Translation: “I don’t give a four-letter word what happens to this guy, but I hope it’s about as fabulous as trawling for my turds in a bathtub.” Her sentence strikes me as pure art. I love this country.

We decipher more hushed conversation in English between the officer and the woman with the raspy voice. We deduce that the man who we’d heard hitting her is “not there.” She claims she is drunk and alone. “Bullshit,” we remark to ourselves. “She’s covering for him. He's hiding—or has fled.” We raise our eyes to the security camera, presumably installed by the property owners to surveil their home during the tourist season for this very purpose. The answers to the man’s true whereabouts surely lie within that camera. It begins to become apparent this is where they will remain.

One of the officers tells us he could file a report and press charges, but since the guests of the house are Germans, not much would likely ever come of it. It’s our word against theirs, and we’d simply clog the Croatian system with non-citizens. The Leader mutters her exasperation of failed justice and Mile translates her regret of not videotaping the sound of slapping against the backdrop of the house’s address placard. She’s right. These days, the burden of carrying one’s camera-equipped phone is also often our only assurance of the potential for accountability. We’ve willingly strapped ourselves into a steady IV drip of cats wearing costumes in exchange for our attention, and this constant and omnipotent access has become our trade for the illusion of fair play. Yet, no matter where we go in the world, we’re always still at the mercy of someone else’s “system” awaiting our clogs.

“So that’s it?” I ask Mile. “There’s nothing else we can do?”

“I guess not,” he replies.

The officers return their notepads to their pockets. The teenagers return their phones to theirs. Without any of the resolution we’d sought, I sense an unspoken fear for a new possibility. Behind closed doors, have we actually inadvertently made things worse? Will the man we’d seen leering over the fence take even further vengeance against the woman with the raspy voice? Has our intervention achieved the opposite of its intention? I fear these questions’ answers and banish them as best I can. We bid the teenagers goodnight and congratulate one another on our attempted good deed, though the mood is distinctly forlorn. 

On our walk home, Mile and I exchange both our frustrations and our appreciation of the evening’s surreal events. “The system,” we assure one another, is still made up of good people trying to do the right thing. Whether you find yourself in a palazzo or a hotel with wheels, we’re just in this mess together. Through all our stitched languages, the best hand any of us has to play is our shared understanding of some moral code that transcends international law. It’s really quite a marvel that any of us are walking around in relative peace at all, we point out. This fact alone is a testament to our greater humanity.

“Are you really sure they heard my fart?” Mile asks again.

When we get back to the house, we lie on the floor with Kornet ice cream cones. We reflect on how much can change with every small choice—the long way, the short way, left or right, yes or no. What outcomes do our choices unfurl? What outcomes do they forego? I think back to how years ago it was simply a series of seemingly unremarkable small choices that had resulted in Mile and I exchanging our numbers in the first place. “What if we’d chosen the long way home?” I ask. “I guess we’ll never know,” Mile says. “But I do know one thing. I can’t get up early tomorrow.”

Hotel Suzuki will have to wait until next year.