In another land, in another time, a man I met told me about his homeland. He had been away for a few years, and when I asked him what he missed the most, this is what he told me:
His family, like so many other Croatians, has a holiday house by the sea. Down on the Dalmatian coast, the little islands that the country is so well known for, form a buffer between the open wide Adriatic sea and the coastline. He told me that the sunsets were the most beautiful he had ever seen; that as you walked along the coast in the last light of the day, the lights on the islands started to twinkle. Some nights the sheltered sea was so calm that you could see the lights reflecting on the water. He told me this, and I imagined the darkened Adriatic looking like an otherworldly sky of stars. Even though I had never yet set foot in his homeland, I swear that is the moment I fell in love with it.
I told you about the lights and the sea on that first night after everyone else had gone. We would exhaust the night and come back home as the sun was rising; but back then it was still dark, the sea was a hue of heavy blue, and your eyes were glued to me as I stared out to the water.
‘Do you ever get that feeling’, I remember saying, ‘that you are experiencing something unique, like this moment will never happen again?’
I see you in snapshots now, like Polaroids spread over a table, overexposed, underdeveloped, badly framed. Each captures a moment when everything changed ever so slightly. The fort. Red wine spilled on my black dress. A dime in my wallet. Feet in water. Hand in hand. Loud music. Blackberries. Sunsets. Red lipstick. Your jade bracelet. The capers and the one-eared cat. Me, on the back of your motorbike. You, your arm around me, saying the words to the boy trying to smile at me. She’s mine. She’s mine.
I love the lines in the corners of your eyes. They’re a map that show where your happiness lies. I love your stories. I listen to them intently, perhaps on the back of my mind thinking to memorize them, that in some distant future I could be a part of them, too. You are the coolest person I know, and you think I’m the bravest girl you have ever met. You are intrigued by me. It makes you laugh when I call you by the name of the tragic hero of my favourite book. You laugh a lot with me.
We celebrate my one-month anniversary in Croatia with a bottle of red high above the town. Sibenik is the oldest seaside town on the Dalmatian coast, and devoid of the maddening crowds, it is a city made for just you and me. We’re perched atop a stone wall, pretending to be the rulers of this ancient fort, sun setting into the sea behind me. I’m not even looking at it. I can only see you.
Maybe it happened somewhere between the sheets or the sips of wine straight from the bottle, or maybe it begun earlier, on that beach that first night, but suddenly I have fallen into you like into the crystal clear sea. After just two days of you I have resolved to follow your route, and strangely, you don’t seem to mind. In fact, it’s you that says it first. ‘I think you should come to Hvar’, you say. ‘I heard it’s a good time.’
You don’t like being alone. That’s why your friend from home is flying in to travel with you in two weeks. I’m almost too happy with my own company, but being with you feels comfortable. We flow.
I book the hostel in Hvar right away.
For a fraction of a second I wonder what happens when time runs out, as it inevitably does when you’re travelling on a deadline, but in these first days we have plenty, and I push the thought away.
After two hectic nights of beers and strange blue drinks, the sleepy island of Korcula seems like a relief. The sand-coloured streets are narrow and lined by pink and purple flowers. Every street seems to lead to the sea, and the sea sparkles here in fantastical hues of turquoise and aquamarine. Croatian red, white and blue still adorn every window, reminiscent of last night’s football finale, bringing bright colour into the sun-beaten town.
Korcula is the birth place of Marco Polo. I have to wonder how a place that humble could have inspired him to go out and explore. Then again, maybe that is exactly what awakened the wanderlust in him. Perhaps he first left to escape the dullness. Don’t all travelers?
The island is also known for its sandy beaches – far and few in Croatia, whose coastline is fringed by dark stone – and wines. Sand stays stuck in my shoes as we enter the winery, empty except for a tabby cat sleeping on the front step. She stirs and smiles as I bend to scratch her good ear.
It isn’t the first time I’ve been to a wine tasting, but you are the only person who has ever taught me how to do it right. We talk about our childhood memories a little too loudly as the wine slowly starts to sink into our veins, and we cough and cringe after a shot of home made rakia like children trying sour candy for the first time. I laugh at you until I taste it too, and I try to play tough and not show how much it burns my throat, but you see right through me, you’ve always seen right through me, and you laugh at my discomfort.
The cat has joined us. She purrs at you and lets you pet her belly. Something sweet swells in me, and maybe it’s the wine or the sun or my stupid stone heart finally starting to beat, but I look at you and I think that I could get used to this.
Later, rain. We find shelter under the pumps at a petrol station, a little light-headed from the beer we’ve had at the club, and we take turns finishing the last can. I can hear the drunken Aussies behind us talking about their next club. One of them seemed to have a thing for me. You find it funny because you know that in the end I will always come back to you.
‘That club was terrible.’
‘Did you see the girl bleeding on the floor?’
You grimance. ‘I’m done with drinking tonight anyway.’
‘Ugh, I’m wasting so much money on beer on these goddamn islands.’
‘I almost wish I was coming to Bosnia with you.’ In my head, I want to respond: Why don’t you. ‘I have to spend another two weeks in Croatia after my friend comes. I’m bleeding money.’
I hesitate for a moment, needing to know but not wanting to break the delicate illusion we have created around ourselves. ‘This friend of yours, is she a friend or…’
‘We hooked up a few times’, you tell me. I have to appreciate the honesty. ‘She’s fun. But she’s got baggage.’
‘Don’t we all?’
‘She’s got a lot. I don’t know about her.’ Your words flow so casual, so cool, that they soothe my burning curiosity. And your hand, the one that is not holding a beer, finds its place on me again.
‘I like you.’ You smile like you weren’t telling me everything.
‘I like you, too,’ I respond. Smiling back at you comes easy.
Our room is a lovely little home, with a table out under the vines and a garden full of cacti just outside our windows. We cover them with towels so that no one can see inside.
We could be any man and any woman on their Croatian honeymoon. It is as if no one knows us here. I barely even know this place; the first time I heard of Pelješak peninsula was when you said you wanted to go there, so I promised to follow. I follow, even when you get lost looking for lunch.
I think the waiter at the diner must hate us. We have ordered the cheapest thing on the menu, and we’re sharing the fries. A regular pair of cheap backpackers saving every penny for the next bottle of wine. You finger the bracelets on your wrist as you tell me about Borneo and Africa and Nicaragua all over again. I remember you telling me that you only wear the beads when you’re travelling. I’ve got my bracelets, too, that I wear when I travel. I wonder if I’ll ever take them off now that I’m permanently on the run.
I am free to go anywhere I want now. Colombia. New Zealand. Barcelona. Even San Francisco.
You find it exciting that I have no clue where I’m going and ask me to describe where I’d like to live. After I have finished, you look at me and as if thinking out loud, ‘That sounds exactly like California.’
Jade and black, your fingertips count the beads absentmindedly, jade and black, jade. ‘Dark green is my favourite colour’, you say and casually slip the jade bracelet on me.
I wonder if it’s a present I have been gifted indefinitely. I doubt so. I run my fingers on the beads as I’m laying in bed later, touching it like a rosary, listening to you talking to her on the phone outside. I don’t mean to eavesdrop but you left the door open. You’ve said you couldn’t even be bothered to talk to her now, but when you do, your voice is soft and relaxed. The connection is bad, so you come back in.
As you walk past, you reach out to me, and as easy as anything, you slip the bracelet out of my hand.
We have spent every moment together for days, yet tonight something new is in the air. It’s almost like a smell, so faint I can barely catch it, like a smell of something sweet and warm, like something rotting. I feel dislocated; like my presence has been shaken up and doesn’t quite fit in my core anymore. I am almost afraid to touch you. I fear that instead of skin meeting skin my fingers would just touch cold plexi glass, transparent but impenetrable. Something has come between us.
The Adriatic sea glistens underneath. The sun is setting to our right behind a ridge, I can’t see its golden circle anymore, but Korcula on the other side of the bay is bathed in its glow, the warm light turning the tiny town into the mythical city of gold.
We take turns swigging from the bottle. Have we been drinking every day since we met? I can’t remember a day that I haven’t been tipsy.
‘Thanks for being so cool about all this’, you start and look at me.
I’m not, but what can I do?
I shrug. ‘Your life is a mess right now. She is obviously very into you, but you don’t even want to talk to her.’
‘I don’t know if she is. I think she is just happy to get away for a holiday.’ I know you’re lying. I wonder if you know it yourself.
‘How long have you been going out?’
‘I don’t know, like a month. I don’t know if it will work out with her.’ You look straight at me and confess: ‘The truth is, I’m not completely over my ex yet. I don’t know if I’m just using her as a rebound.’
‘I feel bad for her. I would never want to be in her position.’
‘I know. I know.’
I don’t feel for her. It is not her fault, but I don’t feel for her. In two weeks I will be gone, still travelling, still lost in foreign lands, and she will still be there for you. I have no right to be jealous of her; I have no claim to you. We have made no promises. Even without her, we would have no hope.
As far as choices go, I’m not a great one. I’m a wild card, a risk. Maybe worth taking? If I only knew. I’m too wild, too restless. I get bored fast. You want someone you can hold onto, but if you take a chance on me, I might just run through your hands like sand runs in an hourglass. I don’t even know what continent I’ll be on two months from now. How could I make any promises to you? And if this is true, why should I expect any from you?
I’m torn. Could I risk my unconditional independence for a chance at love galore? On the other hand, can I risk letting you go for something as petty as my selfish freedom? The road stretches out in front of me, enticing, enthralling, longer than I can see; the one that leads to you is shrouded in mist. My lonely road leads anywhere, and I’m afraid yours might go nowhere.
And behind all this is her, her always, her reminding it might not be my choice at all.
I wonder about her. Does she know about me? When you go back to her, will she know of all the sweet things you’ve whispered to me, will she know of the way you’ve looked at me when you’ve planted both your hands around my face to kiss me? Does she not care, or does she pretend not to care? If she knows everything about me and she still chooses to stay with you, then maybe that’s the way it is supposed to go. If she can erase all traces of me on you, she is a better person than me. I see her written all over you and it makes me sick.
But you have started calling me sweetheart, and every time you do, my heart leaps a little.
‘I’m sorry you have to be a part of this. If you wanted to go on solo, I completely understand.’
‘No, no, I don’t’, I stammer, and as a horrible thought pops into my head, ask: ‘Do you?’
‘No, not at all.’ You pause. ‘It was never meant to go this far.’
You reach out to me and I meet your mouth. You are real to touch, a human again, present for me, just for me. Something has irrevocably changed, though. We are not alone anymore. I know now what it is between us. It’s not a wall of glass, it’s her.
She sits just out of reach, patiently waiting for her turn.
I start to see the pattern. You come to me every time you are done with her like a felon turning himself in. Guilt makes you overcompensate; you show me all the affection you can’t give her over the phone line.
‘You look beautiful today’, you say, as you finish your call and return to the hostel room.
‘That dress looks great on you’, as you put away your phone after a text to her.
Sometimes you come back and just kiss me.
I don’t think you even notice it. You don’t mean to be mean. But with every word told to her that you repeat then to me, with every selfish moment that you go back and forth between us trying to make up your mind, you push me a little further underwater.
Returning to the mainland marks the end of our imaginary honeymoon. We book our last accommodation in Split, a city aptly named for a place for us to part. It doesn’t seem like there is anything for us to do there but sit idly by the street and people watch. It’s easier than looking at you, anyway.
I hate the wrinkles around your beady little eyes. They show your age. I have heard all your stories a million times already, and I hate them. They remind me of you before you knew me. I think I will be added to them as a footnote when you reminisce about your time in this country. You are the most selfish person I’ve met, and I can tell I have started to bore you. I hate that you’ve never read my favourite book. All you care about is reading your messages.
And your cooking is not even as good as you think it is.
My head is a mess and my hands tremble as if in expectation of something terrible about to happen. In my chest an anchor, pulling me down, underwater, until my lungs are burning and I can’t see the soft film of the surface anymore. Is this what it’s supposed to feel like, I wonder, like always swimming up for air, like always fighting for you?
So I do what I do when I don’t know; I go to the shore. I talk to the sea about you. She understands, because she has been there from the beginning of us. And I write everything down.
This feeling, like something left incomplete, will never fade. I am used to feeling until I have exhausted every emotion, and only then can I find peace. But between you and me, there are still words unsaid, touches amiss, a fragile future neither of us dare to speak out loud. Between that: her, always her, calling out to you and you turn away from me just as I’d extend my hand to touch you, so that my fingertips would only caress the empty spaces between us.
As hard as it is to let go of someone you love, it is equally hard to let go of someone you almost did. If we were madly in love, we would do everything to stay together. We would fight to make it work. But time, cruel in its rapid passing, has not left us much to miss. All I can wonder is if what you saw in me is enough to carry us through a separation.
I don’t think so.
And that is the hardest part of letting you go: walking away and knowing it is the last time.
We dance along the street, hand in hand, you spin me around and I spin you. When you kiss me in that way, my fingertips tingle like you were sparkling. Late at night the busy city calms down as its crowds flock to the bars and clubs downtown and in the harbour. We did too; we’ve had beer for dinner. Even late at night, the Mediterranean air sits hot on the skin. The moon is almost full and so bright it draws a bridge over the darkened sea.
The girls we met tonight thought we looked cute together.
I don’t know where she is, but I can’t feel her presence tonight. Either we’ve escaped her to the dimly lit alleys or she’s considerate enough to give us space for this one last night.
We hug right there on the street, clinging to each other. Earlier that day you threw a coin in a wishing well we found at the underground Roman market and joked that it was for long life. Now you confess that your wish was for me, that you wished you would see me again.
‘I don’t know how you’re going to just go straight back to her’, I tell you. ‘Because for me it will take some time.’
You shake your head ever so lightly. ‘She is great’, you say. ‘But she is not you.’
And if I will never have you, I will always have those words. It is a useless victory in a war long lost, but it is a betrayal against her you can never take back.
I walk you to the bus station. We embrace hastily. She is standing over your shoulder, one foot in the bus already, looking on, waiting. She can have you now. You’re lost to me now, anyway. You have exchanged more words with her silent on the screen this morning than you have with me. You turn to look back as you embark, but you are already elsewhere. And I’m finally sober.
‘I’ll talk to you soon, okay?’ Those are your last words to me. It’s the first promise you have ever made me and you won’t even keep it. So you slip right out of my story, smooth and easy, like water washing over rocks on the shore.
As I watch you drive away, my heart crackles and cracks, like walking on thin ice. I let it.
I wonder if she will see me on you now.
The day I left you, I left behind the Croatian sea as well. Seems like the bright blue water was the only thing that tied us together. We made our promises but they will be forgotten as soon as I wash the salt off my hair. In time, I will forget everything there is to remember about you, except for the way you made my heart leap when you called out my name.
So for a while longer I cling to my memories, nostalgic and sad, hopeless in the knowledge we will never meet again.