The first time I traveled the 125 kilometers, it was cold, it was October and there was a fair, and I went unprepared, so I dragged Les Miserables and Lost Illusions in my arms to the Temple, which I had never seen live before. I didn't like the broken slab in front, neither the wind, nor the Sava river, it was muddy. I liked the bell and the width of the streets and I wanted to come again because I didn't recognize anyone on the street, although two people tried to pickpocket me when I was getting on the tram. When I traveled back the 125 kilometers again, I was cold because the wind was blowing through me. Mother said: that's what you get when you don't wear a thick jacket. Dad said: how many people were there? Mom added: now she's going to get pneumonia. Grandma said: books collect dust and you suffocate in your room. Grandpa said: that's how I went to Poland during Tito's time and brought back a carpet and a crystal chandelier. And I read about Cromwell and looked at the pictures, how nice it is there and how many people love books and how cultured they all are, and only occasionally they say to each other: go fuck yourself and your gypsy mother.
The second time I traveled the 125 kilometers was when I was going to apply for school, and Johnny said: maybe we screwed up. We left the papers in a large hall full of beautiful pictures in wooden and golden frames and Johnny said: now we have committed ourselves, we have nowhere else to go, and I was chewing the plastic spoon from the cappuccino and looking at the bronze horse. When I went back 125 kilometers and saw the cross, I knew that I would read Plato and Euripides all summer and fantasize, fantasize, how nice it is to go to a hall with big columns and a city with a bronze horseman, where everyone reads Sappho and smells of lilacs. Mom said: books wont put bread on the table. Dad said: your life, your business. Grandma said: you should have studied to be a dental technician like Aunt Bilja. Grandpa said: I was a test driver at Zastava, and later the director of the department. And I was making a list, copying the syllabi and practicing writing essays.
The third time I traveled the 125 kilometers my hands were shaking. There were about forty of us sitting in the classroom, a sledgehammer was pounding at the building next door, the benches were scratched and then scrubbed, the wooden flooor was worn out and we were sweating under our armpits. Johnny said: My essay is crap. I said: mine is crap too, perhaps nothing will come of this. Johnny's uncle took us back and we sat in a tavern, ate lokum, drank coffee and talked about whether I fucked up Balzac more than Johnny fucked up Camus, the atmosphere was gloomy and we ate nothing but lokum because in my mind I was walking the streets of Paris looking for my mistakes, while Johnny was thinking about Algeria. When I got home, I told everyone: I should have become a dental technician, I should have worked in a factory and become the director of the car parts department, I should have smuggled carpets and chandeliers from Poland, and everyone was silent and didn't want to say anything. Sister said: everything is gonna be okay. And I couldn't sleep, I was giving myself points, subtracting, calling Johnny to drink beer and plan what would happen if we stayed. We both fantasized about a home 125 kilometers away and a worn-out wooden floor. I was at Grandma and Grandpa's house and Grandma said: look how thin you are, you should eat soup. Grandpa said: what if you become autistic? The phone rang twice, Johnny said: we passed bro, we weren't the worst after all. And I couldn't accept that my crappy essay was enough, but I knew I was going to live in a city with broken granite slabs and the wind and the muddy Sava and I was glad and I decided I was never going to give my aunt a call. Mom and Dad were proud.
The fourth time we traveled the 125 kilometers together, and mom and dad cried as they watched me bring Tolstoy and Joyce into the new apartment. Mom said: look how shabby the curtains are. Dad said: you are now an academic citizen, you have to keep your back straight and not slouch like that. Johnny was waiting for me and we went in together. The professors smelled of cigarettes and told us: you did not come here to become writers, although you are elite and you will remain elite because no one but you will read Aeschylus and Brecht in this country and no one but you will know the poetics of structuralism. And in the first class at the new school, I didn't know thirty words and I secretly wrote them down on paper so that the girl next to me wouldn't see, intertextuality, mutatis mutandis, discursive, solipsism, dialectical materialism, postcolonial, topos, pirandello (which I later changed to Pirandello). I was both glad and sad because I left all those places behind, Jovanovac, Korman, Botunje, Žirovnica, Batočina, Lapovo, Markovac, Staro Selo, Velika Plana, Krnjevo, Mihajlovac, Vrbovac, Malo Orašje, Umčare and Mali Požarevac and I decided to learn all those words quickly.
And then I traveled the 250 kilometers 103 more times because the years passed.
First I learned what hypertext and somnabulism and commedia dell arte are. I went up to high galleries in beautiful halls and went down to dark cellars where beer cost 400 dinars, but I didn't care because it was life and I was counting how much I had left for bagel and instant soup. It was more and more difficult to count fences and haystacks, billboards and toll booths, and I was reading books on the bus, and it wasn't easy because the floating letters made me sick. Grandpa used to say: My aunt Leposava lived 105 years and she didn’t know how to sign her name, she used her index finger instead. Grandma said: One of my cousins studied the Serbian Language and now works in a boutique. Mom sent jam, bought quilts on installments and criticized me when I wore black. And dad didn't stop being proud, but just in case he asked: did you pay the utilities?
Later I learned what dichotomy is and the difference between the transcendent and the transcendental, and Mom would say: you are slouching again. Dad didn't speak very much because the work was going badly and Sister said: I can't stay here. Grandma asked: can you get a job with the government? Grandpa said: at the age of 15, your father knew how to take out the whole engine, take it apart and put it back together again. I was silent because I couldn't speak in complicated words, and I felt guilty that I wasn't enjoying being back. Johnny understood because he too loved Bakhtin and hated the bus.
Before I came back for the 74th time, I walked around the city, and my big city with wide streets seemed small and my grandma had seen me on television. Grandpa said: In Tito's time, they were not even allowed to even think of that. Grandma said: I just hope Koviljka wont see it. Dad said: We technically support them. Mom got angry and then she didn't want to talk to me for almost three weeks. After that, we never brought up that topic again.
What did I talk about when I was back? Again and again I would talk about exams (always technical details), about assistant professors and fees. I would talk about the state of the city, the decline of the city (which Dad always enjoyed), and then Grandpa would add his impressions about the good management of the city, Dad would shout that Grandpa was a loser and that he should be banned from voting, after which he would go around the house slamming doors and cursing the nineties, and Grandma would say: Grandpa always had a Party membership card, I celebrated our Patron Saint even when it was forbidden and he was hiding, the coward. And Grandpa would demonstratively put on his hat and go to drink beer in front of the store. I tried to talk with Mom about things in general, although not always successfully, partly because of my excesses, partly because of the fact that she didn't like how I dressed (not feminine enough), how I spoke (speak normally!) and what I ate (eat some real food for a change). In addition to this, she constantly liked to believe that I might be in a relationship with Johnny and chose what I should wear when I went out. The dynamics of the conversation with my mother always followed the same series of steps: 1) an argument 2) intense smoking of cigarettes at the window (her) 3) hyperventilating in the upstairs room and breathing into a bag (me). Although she sent me jars every month with the same persistence.
When I returned to the starting point for the 90th time, and told everyone that I was not done with school and the professors who smell of cigarettes, Grandma said: it is a sin to make a spinster of yourself. Grandpa showed me the wedding ring in which he and Grandma had engraved the wedding date, and then he added that he got married at the age of 32, which he regrets now and thinks was selfish because he had children late. Mom sighed and said: whatever. And Dad said: son, your life is your business.
That year I learned the meaning of performativity and angel in the home. Before the end of the school year, the women stood among the tall pillars and mustachioed statues and politely taught us how important a girl's own room is. What do they teach in that school, Grandpa said to Grandma next time he showed me the wedding ring, and I said that I didn't believe in marriage. Grandma patiently tried to explain to me how nice it is to have a man and then added: if you don't want a man, at least give birth to a child, like Aunt Zaga. Mom added: or give birth to a retard at forty, and went to the terrace, and Dad did not comment.
Before I come home for the 100th time, I sat with Johnny and he said: write to me and send photos. Our hands didn't shake anymore, but we were still sweating under our armpits because we were afraid, but secretly. And later I announced that from now on I will fly when I return and everyone was worried, except Sister who was happy and said that she would collect money for the ticket. Everyone came to wave to me before I sat for the first hour and fifty minutes and look at the sky through a small window. I thought it was better for a fly to get stuck in the sheet metal of a bus, because if it gets stuck in Drača it has a chance to free itself before Grošnica, though it might tear off one of its wings and stay like that forever, and if it gets stuck in the sheet metal of an airplane, it will surely die. How many flies died while I traveled the 25,750 kilometers in the Kragujekspres bus with greasy windows, while fences and gas stations idly stood by? Grandma made me some cheese pie, then she blew her nose and said she was only sorry that the house was falling apart and she wished me luck, Grandpa told me that he had also flown once, to Poland and back, and Dad and Mom hugged me and cried and they said: call me when you land, and I told Sister: collect the money quickly. When I landed in a city that was divided and then put together, I felt a little better because I was also divided, and being divided is hard, like when you fly with one wing and you always just pretend to have put yourself together, and I lifted the phone to give them a call.