july, twenty

I woke up on a Sunday morning craving dad’s spaghetti and feeling like there was an elephant on my chest. That’s how I knew I was homesick.

I longed for a place that is far away but lives inside me. I longed for a place (one I never knew in the first place) so much it made my insides tighten and my bones ache. I kept the feeling at bay most of that Sunday but I’ve dragged it along like a wet towel for weeks. Heavy and thick, dripping with regret and spite. It wasn’t until I returned to my flat fourteen hours later, halfway through a message to him, that I started crying. Howling and unable to catch my breath. If anyone were to hear me, it would break their hearts. But they did not. As a twenty-seven year old, I still cry like I did when I was three. My lips curl into a painful grimace and large tears roll down my face falling onto the floor. It sometimes takes seven or eight months before I get to this point but when I do, it is always ugly.

Two months earlier, we sat opposite each other with a large plate of seafood between us. La Barceloneta sparkled in the sun. The sea swelled towards the shore in calm waves and backwashed in an even tempo over and over again. There was nothing to it except the two of us spending time together on a particularly beautiful day. After years of absence, it was like being able to breathe again. Because it was my birthday; because his visit was a surprise gift; because I didn’t think I would ever get to spend time with him like that again. I realized why it never worked out with anyone else.

She died thirteen months ago — my paternal grandmother. Since then the concept of death has consumed me. Mental images of her casket lowering into the ground lower and lower until we couldn’t see it anymore. The cemetery is in our street in Banja Luka, next to the tennis courts where both my father and I have played in the past, surrounded by residential buildings. It is absurd. Then the plain concrete top. Her name printed in Cyrillic; next to my grandfather’s. I hated the hierarchy of order, in which we stood around the grave. My uncle, father, and I (the only Tomovic) on one side grouped together, while my mother stood opposite with everyone else. Because nobody else was blood. And that was it. This is how the world buried her. Eighty-seven years, almost a century of being a human being. All of her — gone, only memories remain and I don’t have a whole lot of those either. I keep imaging the way her flesh will have peeled away from her body. A slow, morbid, and terrifying process of becoming a skeleton. We came from the earth, we must return to it.

That afternoon in Barcelona, I told him about life. My own and in general; about death; about good things and bad things; about how people keep disappointing me which is why I am still alone; about places I’ve been to the past three years; about my family. There is still a lot left to cover. Saying it all out loud made me vulnerable, made it somehow more real than it was before. I couldn’t have foreseen though that something about recounting the memories will stir the emotions and push them to the surface at some point. Like floods when they push through whatever barrier was before them. And I didn’t know when that would happen. It turned out to be a Sunday. I often think of that conversation. How perfect the entire weekend was. Even then, he offered much more in return than I would ever be able to convey. We parted ways after and went back to our lives. Sort of.

She is no longer with us and I’ll never see her again. What no one prepared me for is that despite that she’s still my grandmother and it’s something I have to live with. With her photos, with her handwritten inscription inside a book that was a gift for me when I still lived 9,000 km away, with my prominent cheekbones that are hers. Back when I didn’t know her. Back when I didn’t know that I do know her. You cannot make familial blood unknown. This familiarity is what I haven’t made space for; the familiarity of having accepted that this is how it is now.

It scares me so much. It makes me panic. I am scared that I will end up without the only thing that matters — family. But I’m writing to him. I’m sharing my thoughts with him and he listens. And maybe it’s nothing but it feels like something. It means I am not alone.