On the Tip of my Tongue
You hear a shy "Hi," and you say, "Hi!" back, followed by, "How can I help you?"
The gentleman on the other side stares at you, his mouth hanging open, eyebrows quirked up in wonder. You watch as his look morphs into one of gratitude as he tucks his phone back into his jacket pocket, and from the corner of the eye, you catch a familiar page of Google Translate disappearing as the screen goes black.
The man greets you with a real smile this time, the relief obvious on his face.
You smile back because it's polite. The man has dark skin, so you feel sorry for the traveler because you know how your town works. You know that everyone he met probably gawked at him not so subtly. They don't mean to offend him by it. You just live in the Balkans. So you offer your smile like a hand of comfort, and you see his grin as he willingly shakes it.
You're so happy that you got into writing in English when you were a kid. There's no way you'd be as good without it.
He picks the ice cream he wants after you've translated the few flavors he pointed to first.
"Do you want it in a cup or a scone?" you ask, and his eyes dart from one corner of the stand to the other; before he nods towards the cups and you make him his order.
It's just another order.
You've had at least three groups of foreigners today, and the raven-haired girl that's sat next to you lets you handle them because her English isn't as good, and most of them are from Austria or Germany.
You don't mind; you're more chatty by nature anyways.
The man realizes he's found a rare soulmate when he's already taken three long steps away from the ice-cream stand, and you want to laugh because he talks with his hands and the little plastic spoon you gave him a moment ago flashes before your eyes every once in a while.
He's asking for directions, and you tell him that the restaurant he's looking for is just straight from there and that he needs to—"Turn right once you reach the big square, you won't miss it, there's a crooked clock in the middle, you'll see it clearly."
You didn't think it was possible, but his smile widens, and he leaves you quite a generous tip. You don't have time to tell him that people don't really tip here, at least not that much, before he's thanked you for helping him and moved on.
You smile and tuck the money into your apron.
The girl next to you scrunches her eyebrows when you sit, and all you hear is "Šta znači crooked?" before your mouth is hanging open.
There's a sour taste on your lips, replacing the feeling of the little kindness. Each passing second brings out the panic in your eyes until you've searched all the storage units hidden between your brain cells, and you can't find the word. It's there- it's there, you know it, and you look beyond your mind, activating muscle memory to let it just roll off your tongue like it did a thousand times before. It doesn't.
A monument in the center of your city, and you can't attribute it to a word.
It stood there yesterday evening when you were late once again and your friend told you she'd wait for you in the same place she waited countless times before – right next to it. You stood there yesterday night when you told your dad you will wait for him to pick you up just across the street.
It stood there since before you were born, remembering when an earthquake turned the beloved skyline into dust, and it was actually a close friend of your dad's that made the monument and the fountain just behind it. You know that the time reads 09:11 AM, the exact time that the ground shook underneath your city. But you don't know the word.
You know your dad was a 3-month-old baby when it happened, and that your grandparents' old house in the country almost collapsed and that they built a new one in the city. Your granddad didn't want to move, but his dad told him that the times were changing and they had to keep up. You know how much the soil you call your backyard cost. But you don't know the word.
You know your uncle was a little older at the time and that a closet almost collapsed on him. You know that no matter how many times you want to ask your mom more about him, you never will, because her eyes always fill with tears, and a person so bright should never be so sad. You know your uncle's birthday and the fact that he liked to ski and that the last time he took a breath was the last day of the civil war. You know how much he would have loved you had you ever even known him. But you don't know the word.
You know your mom lights a candle every once in a while to remember. You know that you'll be lighting candles for the same reason once you leave this city. But you don't know the word.
And you know that you'll have to learn Slovenian now as well because you're moving away from home. After all, you're going to study in Ljubljana and it's wonderful and amazing and you're not scared, because it's better than staying here with corrupt politicians and wasted potential and heavy past. You're taking it easy, even if the classes start in two months, but you've always been gifted with languages, so it won't be a problem. You know that your sister is going to raise her children there, and you are probably going to as well, and you used to be so happy thinking about little curious creatures running around the house. You would put little tags on all the furniture so that they know that the kitchen table is sto in Serbian, that it's miza in Slovenian, and that it's Tisch in German. You know how you would help them with their homework in all those languages. But you don't know the word.
The language of the first word you ever said threatens to disperse into the wind, and you're clutching onto it tightly, holding the tearing string of a beautiful kite in a whirlwind of a storm.
Your friend looks at you weirdly, and it suddenly clicks, making you sigh in relief.
"Krivo", you translate and she nods, "Objasnila sam mu kako da dođe do krivog sata."
You know the word now, but it could have slipped away. It's going to slip away one day, and there's enough heartbreak in that that you wish the man used Google Translate after all.