The Longing

What woke him up was a single, acute beep. Miljenko turned his head to the side, opened his eyes only to be met with the indifferent darkness of his studio. Night time. Outside his window, a lamppost illuminated raindrops as they cascaded onto the street below. Rain. He mulled briefly over the state of the world as final remnants of dreams dissipated. Miljenko raised his head and flinched at the newfound neck pain – he really had to stop falling asleep at his table like that, he thought, and as his eyes met the university work that had bored him to sleep in the first place, let out a sigh.

The beep had come from the electricity shutting down. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness Miljenko could make out the clear plastic circles of his Christmas lights. They were haunting, sad, hanging in the darkness. The rain grew lighter and its pitter-patter less anxious. Miljenko fumbled around for the general switch, hit it, heard another acute beep and the Christmas lights turned on again. The sight of those tiny orbs hardly illuminating the space was sadder than the sight of them hanging lifelessly, so Miljenko turned on a ceiling light too.

In the blackout the microwave had reset its clock. Another sigh. Miljenko started setting it and in doing so realised how late it was. Too late for dinner, though it hardly mattered, Miljenko was not hungry anyway.

The rain fell with reinvigorated energy. A mist of sorts enveloped the city, with its tallest skyscrapers losing themselves amid the clouds and its narrowest alleyways concealing their dead ends. Rainwater gathered in puddles on the side of sidewalks and in those puddles were reflected parked cars and shop windows. The sea must have been an angry thing, with towering waves that tossed fishing boats around. Miljenko imagined it because he could not observe the sea any longer. He felt almost regretful thinking about it: in the year he lived in Greylake’s harbour, he had failed to fully appreciate the view. He had appreciated the seagulls. He missed them, with their squawking and bickering over the bread Miljenko left for them on his balcony.

Rain inspired longing. Rather accentuated it, because longing has always accompanied Miljenko like a shadow. During rainy days he felt the world longed for something too and, like himself, it was something vague and indescribable and that only grew more distant through the years. Miljenko could fool himself – briefly – that he found it when he allowed himself to curl up in the wool blankets his mother knit and sent him, sipping coffee and losing himself between the beige pages of a second-hand book. But then the illusion would fade and he would have to accept the longing was still there. Unlike the seagulls he had left behind in that other apartment. No place in Greylake was distant enough from the sea to be truly free of the seabirds’ dominion, but to Miljenko it seldom felt that way.

He had learned (later than he would have liked) to distinguish between nostalgia and longing. Miljenko used to mix up the two when trying to put his feelings into words and words into poetry; he would think that his longing was in reality a nostalgia for the country his parents had hailed from, a country he had never seen wherein the people spoke a language he did not understand. Then he moved to Greylake and the nostalgia turned towards his home city of Polni – too inland for seagulls and too urban for wild birds, dominion of the pigeons and crows. But Miljenko had since realised that his longing transcended geography. It ran deeper than that, through the veins of the earth itself and then deeper still, through time and reality.

Low, infrequent thunder began accompanying the rain. Miljenko had spent his life following a compass – he wrote once. He had earned himself a scholarship in the country’s most prestigious university, moved, studied, but what then? He would graduate in a subject that did not interest him. Find a job he could not sleep on. And the longing? Would it still embrace him as it always had?

Miljenko had already fallen asleep by the time the thunderstorm died off, distant and silent. He had turned off the ceiling light and one set of Christmas lights, leaving only the string that framed the window above his sofa-bed. He hoped by morning his neck pain would be gone. He hoped by morning he would have the energy to unpack the single box left since his moving. He promised himself he would finish his coursework. A part of Miljenko’s brain mulled over mental to-do lists, another part strayed from the compass and flew away like a seagull. Towards that place Miljenko longed for, a place that only existed in his mind. A sleepy town hidden in the Alps and built around a Gothic church, where rain immediately turned to snow and snow blanketed the town, made it sparkle. A quiet place. Streets that smelled of fireplaces and homes that smelled of cinnamon. Miljenko could imagine it as much as he wanted but details only served to further distance it from what he longed for. Because maybe he had yet to realise that what he longed for had never been a place, but a feeling of belonging somewhere.