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You Can Never Return to Someone Else's Home (Short Story)
The mountain range that separates Istria from the rest of Croatia is over my left shoulder. Straight ahead is a small church and an iron gate that guards a cemetery, not locked, perhaps just to keep animals from desecrating the graves of the 50 or so families who have lived in this village for the last 150 years.
I am on my knees in front of a black marble headstone, which sits on top of an identical marble platform, roughly the size and shape of a casket. I don’t ask why this is so, or if the bodies are buried stacked on each other. My grandfather stares back at me from a photo permanently affixed to the marker and I picture his rotting body below my hands resting on the stone.
Outside the cemetery I stop, overcome with emotion and cry into my hands. Sitting on a stone fence I hide from everyone, knowing that they all watch me, and I try to seem like I’m not crying even though I never met my dead grandparents, which makes me feel like a deadbeat though it is not my fault. Surely that is enough to excuse my behavior, which has caused my second cousin Ana to sit at my side, look into my eyes and tell me that the neighbors probably don’t appreciate me sitting on their fence, because they don’t know me and have never seen me before.
Back inside Ana’s parents’ house I drink white wine mixed with carbonated water, which is refilled until my head swims. I look at family photos again, because it is the only language we now share. Ana has gone home to meet her husband; Diego left me to go meet someone delivering his new LCD TV, and I am awkward and smiling, excusing myself to smoke a cigarette with Ana’s father, Ljubo. He points out the kiwi fruit plants that cover his pergola and we smile at each other, knowing that our words mean nothing, but are slightly less rude than silence. He knows I cried on the fence, but he is a big strong Croatian man and will not offer me condolences. He instead puts his hand on my shoulder, making a sweeping gesture with his free hand encompassing everything I see, and says in English, “Home.”
* * *
Nearly 40 years ago my father left this place, these villages, this life. I see it all through the window of Diego’s car. “I don’t think my father will ever come back here,” I say, and he makes a severe face.
“Why do you think that? I thought you said he would come when he will retire. His sisters and brother very much want to see him again.”
“He tells me he wants to come, but he won’t take the necessary steps, the paperwork that is required. Right now he is a man without a state." He’s not a US citizen and he hasn’t established Croatian citizenship, so he’s just free floating with a subconscious excuse that shields him from the emotion and pain that will come from returning. This place is different that when he left. It’s different from when I was here four years ago.
“If he doesn't come, I don’t know if I, myself, can come back either,” I added.
“It just doesn't feel right without him. I can’t be what his brothers and sisters need. At some point, it’s just better that I take some time away. I came here four years ago to see where I came from, and I have a pretty good idea. Maybe when he dies I will back.”
Diego turns up the volume on the car stereo, filing the cabin with Metallica, Master of Puppets. He is shifting gears.
* * *
My uncle Rudi sips coffee and talks to Diego. They both look at me and both become silent. “Millica is sick. He thinks she will die soon,” Diego says. Rudi looks unkempt. What was once the family dining room where I had met so many new faces four years ago is now a bedroom, converted because Rudi's wife never leaves the first floor, no longer able to climb stairs or cook or clean. The house did not appear dirty, but Rudi’s hair looked like it needed a cut. I suppose this is something she used to do for him.
I enter her room and it is dark, the only light enters a break in the curtain panels. She is thin, almost gaunt, unlike how I remember her. I look at the doorway and Rudi and Diego are watching me. She looks angry, nothing like the manic spirit of welcome and excitement that I remember. I kiss her hand. She glares and it’s clear that she does not remember me. I’m surprised that my presence does not immediately kill her. I kneel out of respect, but for whom I am not sure. No one in this family likes her, or ever has. They call her a hypochondriac and speak of how she made my father’s mother feel unwelcome, a burden in her own home. She would sit her outside on the porch in the shade, leaving her out there all day in the shadows, dressed in the typical black dress of the Balkan old lady.
“We should go,” Diego says. I unzip my backpack and remove a few hundred dollar bills. “Give these to Rudi. Tell him it’s for letting me stay here last time.”
Rudi won’t take the money and I grab his hands and wrap his fist around the bills and say “Molim?” asking him please. He will not make his hands connect but thanks me with “hvala” and holds onto my hand as we walk back outside to the harsh sunshine and the car.
I put the money back in my pocket.
* * *
The roads are winding, more cart path than car path. They trace the contours of green hills and fill the space between small fields. They were worn by feet, perhaps the feet of my father and his father as the rode a wagon to the nearby village to sell red and white wine. It wasn’t the best wine, but it was good and certain families enjoyed it, families that did not have the skills to show the grapes through their decay, to take the vines from the blood red earth.
“Is that power line new?” I ask.
“Yes. They build two years ago.”
“It kinda ruins the view.”
“Showing up without calling. And what I said earlier about not coming back.”
“Is it true?”
“A little. I know that I will return someday, but I should wait a while.”
“Until when? When your uncle dies? He is eighty. Until your aunts die?”
“Death will probably be why I come back.”
“I wish it did not have to be that way.”
Copyright 2011 by the author/poster. All rights reserved. Reprints by permission only.
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