July 11, 2017
In Marko and Ana’s living room in Astoria hung a framed piece of Paška čipka—Pag lace—attached to a piece of creased cerulean paper. Last year when they were packing their bags to leave Croatia, Marko told Ana not to put it in her suitcase but she was hurried and stuffed everything in. Her makeup bag had crushed it. Marko had been upset. The expensive doily-like lace was attached to the paper like an artery; it was impossible to remove without damaging the design. Once cut, the threads would unravel and unravel. Months of a grandmother’s labor transformed into crumpled thread. She’d tried to smooth the paper, forcing it flat. Spidery blue veins, a backdrop mostly hidden behind the intricate lace, were a constant reminder of her mistake.
Nearly a year later, in the dim stairwell of their apartment building, Marko and Ana argued about which suitcase she should take down the stairs. Ana’s suitcase was larger, but she wanted to carry her own. Marko wanted her to carry his. “Your back,” he said matter-of-factly. “Your back, too,” she said. She didn’t want his old tennis injury showing up again. She felt like throwing her suitcase down the stairs, watching it tumble and crash into the putty-colored walls. Without looking at him, she let go of the handle.
Ana had wanted to live in a brownstone. Marko had wanted to live in a modern apartment building with an elevator and a doorman and bright lighting. “Why live like our parents when we can have something new,” he’d said. At eighty, his mother still climbed the four steep flights of her apartment building in Astoria. “Because those buildings don’t have souls,” Ana had said.
She wrote in her diary later: Those buildings have stacked people, small cities teeming with thousands, more people than my father’s village. They live in apartments numbered 7985 and 9921. In the well-lit hallways, neighbors avert their eyes and don’t say hello. What are the roots of neighbor? The Internet says it comes from the Old English nēahgebūr: nēah—near—joined with gebūr: inhabitant, peasant, farmer. Peasants, farmers, like my parents. But here, everyone is near and no one is close.
When Ana had married Marko, she knew there were parts of her he wouldn’t understand. Parts of her he wouldn’t want to acknowledge or see. She didn’t know those parts of him, and had grown to believe they didn’t exist. Before, she thought everyone had those spaces where pieces of life that were too raw or too dark went to fester.
After losing Antonija, Ana felt more spaces develop. The pregnancy had been ectopic. Less than two months in she’d felt pain in her abdomen, a piercing cramping. Old blood stained her white Hanes underwear brown. She’d never been with child before; she didn’t know what was normal and what was not.
Marko had taken her to the hospital. The doctor explained that the fertilized egg hadn’t moved from the fallopian tubes to her uterus. He said her life would be in danger if they didn’t perform surgery right away. “Emergency surgery,” he’d said, just urgently enough to make her instinctively bite her thumbnail.
The wound site below her bellybutton was keyhole small, with dissolvable stitches. Further down on her abdomen, over her right fallopian tube, another incision. The doctor explained that the muscle would take four to six weeks to knit back together. He said, like with any surgery, there would be some minor scarring. He said not to worry; the scar tissue wouldn’t affect future pregnancies. “Not to worry,” he’d said, and smiled.
At home, her body still felt pregnant. She knew the egg was gone but she still felt the weight her body had accumulated in preparation. Her swollen breasts sagged like ripe figs. She fingered the dissolvable stitches binding her wounds shut. Every time she sat down, stood up, went up or down stairs reminded her. Every morning when she got out of bed. Some days, she sobbed so hard she thought the stitches would burst. Everyone had said not to name the baby yet but she couldn’t help it: Antonija.
The name haunted her, even in sleep. During the day it cycled through her head like a song on loop. Antonija. Antonija. Antonija. She tried to concentrate on her clients’ bodies, all knotted muscles and stressed limbs. As she massaged them she gave everything she could, everything that was left. Sometimes she wondered if anyone sensed anything was wrong, if they even saw her as a person, or just a therapist there to perform a service. It was a transactional business, so intimate and yet impersonal. She had her repeats, but sometimes she never saw people again. Often, at the high-end Midtown spa where she received generous tips, powerful corporate men made a pass at her. “You’re too pretty to be back here, doing this,” one man had said in the dark room. After she told him to take off his clothes and lie facedown on the table, she wondered if he even remembered her name.
* * *
It was Marko’s idea to go to Pag early. They would stay in his mother’s ancestral house by the sea like they did every year, but this year would be different. The decision to leave early was made in the dead of winter, after the surgery, when June still seemed so far away. “Something to look forward to,” Marko had said. Ordinarily they visited in September, when the weather was still warm and the tourists were gone. This year it seemed like too long to wait.
Even though Marko and Ana were born in America, the Old Country pulled them back every year like a primordial siren. Their parents had left Croatia when it was part of Yugoslavia in search of opportunities not available under communism. In the United States, Ana didn’t feel American. In Croatia, she didn’t feel Croatian. She felt suspended somewhere over the Atlantic, drowning under waves of her parents’ making.
On the packed plane, she sat opposite from a child dressed entirely in pink, from her pink headband to her pink sparkly T-shirt to her white-and-pink star leggings. She wore pink Hello Kitty socks and tiny pink Crocs. The girl’s mother was in the seat in front with a smaller child on her lap, a blond ponytail sprouting out of the crown of her head. They were both covered in muffin crumbs. The baby dropped her bottle and it rolled down the aisle. Ana could have reached down and picked it up in time, but she didn’t. Instead, out of the corner of her eye, she watched it pass by her seat. The man behind her handed it to the mother, who thanked him, wiped off the nipple, and gave it back to the child.
The older child drew a princess and handed it to her mother. “Oh, thank you,” the mother exclaimed. “How pretty!” The younger child squirmed on her mother’s lap. Ana tried not to stare. Antonija. Antonija. Antonija. She concentrated on her pack of lightly salted peanuts, arranged in a cluster on the napkin, and the ripples in her glass of water caused by mild turbulence.
“Abby, Abby, Abby!” the older girl said, bobbing her head side-to-side. The younger child stumbled into the aisle and leaned on her sister’s chair. “Peek-a-boo!” the older one squealed, over and over and over. Ana picked up a peanut and rolled it around in her mouth, letting the salt dissolve on her tongue. She took a sip of water, which tasted like the sea. “One little finger, two little finger, three little finger, four little finger, five little finger. Yaaay!” They clapped their hands. Ana wanted to scream.
Suddenly, Abby turned around and clutched her pudgy fingers around Ana’s armrest. The child’s fingers grazed her arm. Ana retracted her elbow, her hand resting on her abdomen. “Sorry,” the mother said, unfurling Abby’s fingers and plopping her on her lap. Ana nodded and smiled. The girl let out a high-pitched screech, which resonated in Ana’s stomach. “She’s in the ninety-ninth percentile of weight,” she heard the mother tell the woman in the neighboring seat after awhile. “Ever since she was little, she just loves to eat. It’s her favorite activity.” The child hugged her Barbie and pulled the doll’s hair.
Ana had been the opposite. She was a picky eater, an underweight child. Her mother, a fixture in their kitchen, always commanded: Pojedi, pojedi! Eat it all. She had no appetite except for ballet. Her body had been made for it. Even now, in her thirties, her limbs were still long and graceful. This body she had once loved; this body that had betrayed her.
Marko, isolated in the window seat, had ignored the entire scene. His lanky frame was hunched over the laptop, immersed in a spreadsheet. Rows and columns and numbers. Ana had the sudden urge to leap out of her seat. In her mind’s eye she saw herself opening the red emergency exit, watched as her body was sucked through the door, disappearing into a thick pillow of clouds. She fell through the fog, engulfed in white mist. Marko’s hands were on her skin, moving her hips in a gentle rhythm, her legs splayed wide. Every muscle she knew so well from years of training tensed; those miniscule muscles, alert with vibration, followed by an ache that simultaneously ripped her apart and filled her up inside.
Ana folded her hands on her lap and pressed her nails into her skin.
“What are you doing?” she said, glancing at Marko’s screen.
Marko didn’t lift his eyes. “I need to finish this. I don’t want to be stressed about it when we’re on the island.”
Ana stared at Marko. His furrowed brows were like thick sideways apostrophes. She tried to remember their early conversations, when they were so enamored with each other that they would stay up all night talking and fucking. Every discussion seemed important. His words and his body made her shiver. She didn’t know what had happened to that man she met ten years ago, who came up behind her at a Croatian bar in Astoria and lightly touched his warm fingers on the nape of her neck, who said, without introducing himself, “I want you to someday be my wife.” She’d spun around on the stool and laughed. What a line! But she’d agreed to see him the next day. And the next.
He no longer looked at her the way he once did. When she’d told him she was pregnant, he gazed at her like that again, like the first time he saw her at the Croatian bar. His eyes were bright with possibility. After the surgery, he didn’t look at her at all.
Ana reached under the front seat and rummaged in her bag for her headphones, searched for the Croatian band “Dalmatino” on her iPhone, and turned the volume up high.
* * *
After they landed, the heavens opened. Rain shivered across the car windows like tadpoles swimming upstream. The window wipers were useless. They didn’t really wipe anything away; they only moved it somewhere else, leaving dirty half-moon streaks.
Marko had rented a car in Zagreb. Renting a car always made her feel like a tourist, but they needed one, since they wouldn’t be so inconsiderate as to ask their relatives to drive hours to pick them up. It was cheaper to fly into the capital airport rather than Zadar’s small coastal airport, which required an extra transfer. Marko didn’t mind driving. Sometimes, on the weekends at home in New York City, he would rent a car and they would just drive in silence for hours with no destination. Even without a map, Marko never got lost. Ana had no sense of direction.
Croatian folk music blasted on the radio. Through the blurry window, she watched village after village pass by. Every house had its own garden. How different from our life, she thought. Things always appeared simpler here, but she knew they were just as complicated. Croatia, the newest member of the European Union, struggled financially. Besides, a pastoral life had never been for her. Ana’s parents had moved to New York to escape this and create a better life. Her father had built a successful construction company while her mother stayed home and raised Ana and her younger sister. Branka had moved to California to become an actress, but she was waiting tables more than she was acting.
After her injury, Ana had lacked ambition. She had immersed herself in dancing, spending hours every day at the studio in Manhattan. Her teacher told her she would dance for ABT one day. She’d suffered through stress fractures and sprains, shin splints and blisters, but when she’d ruptured her Achilles tendon, she needed to spend ten weeks in a cast. Ana couldn’t stand not training for so long, to be so limited in her movement. She was crushed when another girl replaced her as lead. Her starring role—gone, just like that, like she’d never had it. So easily replaced. She begged the doctor to take off the cast a couple weeks early so she could dance in the final performances. The doctor took off the cast and she injured it again. And again.
Ana had poured her heart into dance and it had abandoned her. Dance had made her feel free. She felt she belonged to something beautiful. It seemed cruel that her body was so young but her career was over. At sixteen, she was broken. She learned early on that some things never heal.
Even now, she couldn’t watch dancers. Marko had offered to take her to the ballet at Lincoln Center for her birthday. Instead, they went to a Broadway play. She had tried to explain why she couldn’t be a spectator. Her limbs knew those movements, had practiced them thousands of times. In her seat, she felt constricted. The stage felt so far away. Marko didn’t understand. “But that was so long ago,” he’d said, shaking his head.
Through the rain, Pag’s bridge emerged. She heard the pelting water lighten, as if to invite their arrival. Ana looked down at the crumbling Fortica ruins. The limestone fortress blended with the island’s barren, rocky landscape—a product of the harsh Bura wind, which prevented anything from growing on the coastline facing the mainland. “Only the stubborn and strong survive here,” locals liked to say.
They spent the entire drive in silence. Salt flats spread out in uneven patches. A sliver of sun peaked through the clouds, creating a wall that divided the drenched landscape. They passed olive groves and pastures, following the single undulating road to the northern tip of the skinny island, a bony finger extended in the sea. Three rams grazed on sparse vegetation near the side of the road. Their horns curled like giant snail shells.
“Let’s stop for lunch at Šime’s,” Marko said.
Šime’s restaurant didn’t have a sign or a menu. When he saw them, he winked and brought out a plate of scampi, so fresh they seemed to be virtually crawling off the plate. A thick swarm of flies circled the food.
“Muhe,” Marko muttered darkly, swatting away the flies.
Ana pulled off the scampi’s legs and peeled the shell open.
“What do you want to do?” Marko said.
“Maybe take a swim?” Ana said.
“I want to get unpacked first,” Marko said, ripping off a scampi’s head. He sucked out the juice.
“Fine. That sounds fine.”
The Adriatic sparkled in the distance, beckoning her. Swimming was the only other thing that made her feel free. She could lie buoyant on her back for hours until her fingers pruned. She’d let her body drop into the water, just low enough so her nostrils could still suck in air. Sometimes, a small wave pushed seawater into her nose and she’d sputter and cough it out of her lungs. She would gasp and hold her breath and dive, engulfed in eerie underwater sounds.
The platter was a graveyard of shells, heads and legs. Flies had descended on the spoils, greedily sipping on the corpses. Ana looked up at the grapevine-shaded terrace; sunshine pushed through the overlapping leaves and warmed her face. Lazy fishing boats bobbed on the water.
“When I was a kid, our family went here during summers and there was no running water,” Marko said. He motioned to Šime for the check.
“Yes, you told me,” Ana said.
“You didn’t let me finish. I was going to say I can’t believe places like this still exist.”
Šime placed the check on the table and Marko took some kunas out of his wallet.
“It’s nice that some things don’t change,” Ana said.
* * *
At Marko’s family’s summer home, they unpacked wordlessly. A layer of dust coated the furniture. The sheets smelled of mothballs. Marko opened the windows to let in air and the house sighed in relief.
In New York, Ana had to explain to her friends that having a summer home didn’t mean Marko’s family was rich. Back when Croatia was part of Yugoslavia, it was common for people to own two houses, even three—one in Zagreb and one on the coast—because properties were inherited and passed from generation to generation. Some Croatian immigrants were jealous of Marko’s family. They’d lost their deeds during the transition from communism to capitalism after the 90s war. Marko’s family had paid off the mayor of Lun, and in exchange, the mayor watched over their property. Marko’s father had also helped the town repair their church. Marko joked that it was always good to have God on your side.
After they unpacked, Ana changed into her bikini. The scars were still visible. She thought of changing into a one-piece, but decided against it. Who would even notice? Marko barely looked at her these days, anyway. They made love in the dark. He would always suck on her breasts first, then slowly make his way down. After the surgery, he skipped her mid-section.
Marko navigated the way down to the rocky beach. He swam far out, but Ana stayed near the shore. She liked seeing the bottom through the clear water; not being able to see below made her uneasy. She bobbed in the sea while Marko plowed into the depths.
Ana spread out on her towel, watching as Marko came into shore. His olive skin was already starting to tan.
“How was it?” Ana said.
“Refreshing,” Marko said, toweling himself off.
“I think I’ll take a walk. Maybe have a coffee,” she said.
“I’m going to get some sun.”
“See you for dinner, then.”
She threw on a cover-up and sunglasses and walked uphill. Ana had never understood this growing apart that her divorced friends had described. It feels like you’re talking to a stranger you’ve slept next to for years, one friend had said. It felt like rust; a breakdown, a weakening of bonds.
The beach bordered the centuries-old Lun olive grove, filled with gnarled trees whose ages surpassed the island elders. Ana decided to take the shortcut through the trees. Their silvery-green leaves winked in the breeze. Gravel crunched underfoot. Other than the chirping cicadas, the landscape was silent. She stopped to listen to the wind but heard footsteps on gravel.
A girl, maybe seven or eight years old, was peeking out at Ana from behind a thick olive tree. She wore a bright blue dress that exposed her scraped knees.
“Hello. What’s your name?” Ana said in Croatian.
“Aleksandra,” the girl said, dancing around the tree. “What’s your name?”
“You speak funny. Why are you here?” Aleksandra said.
“I’m from America,” Ana said. “I’m with my husband. Why are you here?”
“I’m friends with the trees,” she said. “This is Ivo. Do you want to meet him?”
“Sure,” Ana said hesitantly. She wondered if the girl sensed her awkwardness. She had never been good with children.
Aleksandra ran over and reached for Ana’s hand. The girl led her to the trunk and pressed Ana’s palm on a knot in the bark.
“Ivo, this is Ana,” Aleksandra said. “She’s from America. That’s very far away.”
Ana stared at Aleksandra. Her pale skin was sunburned, her blue eyes wild.
They sat down at the base of the tree, avoiding sharp stones jutting out of the parched terrain. The tree’s roots bore into the ground like determined veins. Aleksandra picked up a rock and threw it toward the sea.
“Ivo is sad,” Aleksandra said.
“Why?” Ana said.
“Because you’re sad,” she said.
“Ivo is right. I am sad,” Ana finally said. She took a deep breath. “I’ve lost something.” She couldn’t believe she was saying this to a child.
“Can Ivo help you find it?” Aleksandra said. Her inquisitive eyes were so clear that Ana feared she might fall into them. Ana thought about Antonija, how her daughter might have looked at that age.
“It’s gone.” She felt a tear slide down her face behind her sunglasses.
“I’m sorry,” Aleksandra said.
The girl reached over and hugged Ana around the waist. She didn’t let go. Ana wrapped her arms around Aleksandra. They sat under Ivo’s shade on the land where only olive trees could grow. Ana was suddenly tired, her eyelids impossibly heavy, her face wet. She leaned against Ivo and fell asleep.
Aleksandra was gone when she awoke. Ana’s body ached from resting on Ivo’s uneven roots. She stood up and studied the way his body twisted, growing in every direction but straight upward. She marveled at his ancient bark, smooth and rough in places. He was split and scarred by bitter cold, dry and hollowed by the unforgiving sun. Ivo, a thing of beauty, had survived all these years. His leaves fluttered in the salty breeze. Late afternoon rays illuminated the jagged landscape, turning it golden. In that moment everything was so touched with fire that she barely recognized the shadows.