Writing: Nada Alic
You wouldn’t think it by looking at me now, but I was once a woman unhinged. As a teen, I came to know that frenetic, nauseating sensation of obsession for the first time; through the human vessel of a boy. Before that, my appetite for life was diffused by random obsessions spanning from BET’s 106 & Park, Celine Dion, caesar salads, platform running shoes, MSN messenger and Ljiljana Nikolovska, the front woman for Croatian pop band Magazin. I didn’t realize how stabilizing these disparate interests were for me until I attended my first dance and discarded them all in favour of one being, a mess of bangs, a new god, Acqua Di Gio, flipped collar. His name was Tomislav and I felt I would have died for him.
At 19, Tomislav was older, more sophisticated than my 14 year old self. He was tall, with dark hair and thick eyebrows. He basically looked like Enrique Iglesias without the mole. To me, he represented another galaxy: adulthood. I knew almost nothing about Tomislav besides stray facts I picked up from friends, my aunt, and the limitless interiors of my own imagination. But that wasn’t the point. He was my gateway into a world where I could astral project my fantasies until they were more real than my actual life.
There’s a certain dignity to obsession—the capacity to be consumed and to be an active participant in that process. My love for things, people and ideas was so big it terrified me. The electricity revved in my tiny body and emerged as full blown acne, gigantic pit stains and two soft nub breasts who looked surprised to be there. But nevertheless, this hormonal gremlin persisted in her pursuit of an ineffable feeling she got from the concept of boys. Not even actual boys, just this swirling, uneducated idea of them.
There was a certain alchemy that occurred when peach schnapps mixed with Narodna (folk) music that produces feelings of patriotism and romance.
Since my adolescence occurred before and during the dawn of the internet, my memory of this time is spotty at best—but what lingers is the residue of agitation. The state of being possessed; that intense, cardiovascular feeling of wanting someone or something so badly that the tiniest encounter or perceived encounter would lodge into my brain as a fantasy that would satiate me for weeks later. What evidence I do have exists in folders of glossy photo doubles I had processed at the Shoppers Drug Mart I worked at. A recent archival excavation reveals chunky blonde highlights, low slung denim flares, belly tops, a La Senza push-up bra, a crusty belly button ring with a silver rose charm that dug into my soft pouch anytime I sat down. Basically, I believed myself to a budding Eastern European supermodel. And I wasn’t wrong, at least partially. I was a daughter of Croatian immigrants, brought up in the extremely insular Roman Catholic Croatian diaspora which acted as my primary reality; my actual life as a suburban Canadian teen was secondary; background music to a life spent in banquet halls practicing dance moves, fidgeting in church pews and singing along to Croatian turbo folk in the back of my mom’s minivan. Not coincidentally, all of my friends’ parents were friends with my parents, so our friendships were a matter of convenience, cultivated in the basements of adult dinner parties; the smell of dried meats and cheeses seeped through the vents. I knew of nothing else.
An advantageous rite of passage in the Croatian diaspora community is the opportunity to attend dances while underaged. I knew about these dances peripherally, seeing my older cousins leave Christmas gatherings to go to events “Cro Club” or “Bash at the Beach.” It was 1997 and I was in fifth grade, still too young to go but I watched them pull out of the driveway in their Honda Civics blasting some patriotic folk song drowned out by a thudding bassline and I knew I wanted in. At 14, I was finally allowed to go to my first dance, a celebratory ending to a weekend soccer tournament held in Milton, Ontario on an expanse of flat farmland that featured several soccer fields and a rogue banquet hall whose only function seemed to be to operate an unlicensed dancehall for minors to aggressively dance the polka. While it wasn’t explicit, it was understood that our parents would let us go with the hope that we meet a fellow Croatian, much like they did. My parents met that way, as was the prevailing method before dating apps and I don’t know, regular bars? College? There was a certain alchemy that occurred when peach schnapps mixed with Narodna (folk) music that produces feelings of patriotism and romance. With this, there would be no curfew, no dress code, just the vague hope of us finding a suitable mate, proficient in the art of drywall, taping or in the rare instance, professional soccer.
Unlike me, Tomislav was allowed to freely enter through the front with his real ID instead of the complex labyrinth of the back door that was controlled by an unregulated racket run by the kitchen staff. $20 gets you in the door, one at a time. Standing with bare legs in February weather, I was prepared to abandon my sister and friends without hesitation, knowing that our loyalty had limits. Knowing they would do the same. Tomislav was friends with my older cousins, teenage boys who spent their childhoods letting their rabid farm dog chase me around their backyard, suddenly possessive as if I were something delicate and fragile: which also meant something to be avoided, covered up, and safely returned home. Their protective energy both endeared and annoyed me; they operated like a private security team, always in my orbit, ready and willing to physically restrain anyone who tried to talk to me. I justified this as the reason Tomislav would never talk to me. He couldn’t! Instead, I reveled in our side glances and imbued them with a meaning that transcended comprehension, mine most of all.
The room would erupt in unison, young girls previously restrained by stiletto heels running barefoot, young men’s already unbuttoned shirts, unbuttoning themselves further.
Banquet hall dances occurred infrequently, marking the start of a new season as represented by the length and thickness of my collection of multi-coloured tube tops: Easter yellow, summer white and black for goth season, etc. The period of time between dances became equally urgent and important as the nights of the dances themselves. I strategized various self-improvement techniques to mold myself into a better, sexier, shinier self. The months between were a haze of anticipation, spending weekends at the mall and logging hours in a tanning booth to achieve a glowing, Jennifer Lopez-grade hue. It was as if my primary function was to look at hot as I could, which meant that I was forced to discover new and unexpected areas of my face to apply shimmer and the more shimmer I could confidently wear, the better.
These dances became the nucleus of my social life, my very own Studio 54. Sneaking in became routine, and I developed a taste for screwdrivers, assuming throwing up my late night shawarma was standard practice for a night of drinking, oblivious to the concept of tolerance or adhering to one. For the most part, I stuck with my tribes of Ivanas and Jasnas and Marianas, until we eventually broke off on our own, finding one another only when one of us had to go to the bathroom. The music would always begin with a live cover band playing all of the hits followed by a DJ playing the original versions of the same songs. Around last call, the room was heavily buzzing off liquor and kolo, a type of dancing that required you to spin in a circle as fast as you could. They would start to play something that more or less evoked the same impassioned pride as the national anthem, something from our national hero Thompson, or Boris Novkovic’s “Malo Nas Je Al’Nas Ima” (loosely translates as, there aren’t a lot of us, but we exist!) a soccer chant that basically raps a list of every famous Croatian person ever. The room would erupt in unison, young girls previously restrained by stiletto heels running barefoot, young men’s already unbuttoned shirts, unbuttoning themselves further. In those moments, I lost track of Tomislav’s coordinates in the room and for a joyful few minutes, gave into the music, into the misplaced patriotism for a country I was once-removed from, a country I’d only ever visited once. It didn’t matter, I knew all the words and I meant every one.
From the ages of fourteen to eighteen, I was committed. I never dated anyone in the off chance that at some point, Tomislav would want to marry me. I celebrated incremental progress at sixteen, when I found out through anonymous sources, that he thought I was hot but couldn’t do anything about it out of respect for my cousins. I never heard that directly from him but I wanted to murder my cousins just in case. It never worried me that it was taking too long, I strangely had all the patience in the world, likely because I enjoyed the buildup for each dance just as much as the dances themselves. Focusing on priming myself was like existential relief from my real life, which was a slow trudge of Catholic school, night shifts at Shoppers Drug Mart and Friday nights watching Electric Circus on MuchMusic, wishing I knew any other dance besides the brisk shuffle of Balkan folklore.
I justified any other crushes I had during this time as practice; this is what I told myself as I carefully planned my first make out sesh with a non-Croat classmate named Marcus. We smushed tongues on the edge of his parents’ driveway in plain view. I amazed myself with how assertive I could be around boys my age. I would never officially date Marcus, but his interest in me amplified whatever already misguided confidence I had in myself. I sensed that on some plane of existence, Tomislav knew what was going on and was heartbroken over it. So much of my obsession had to do with the fantasy playing out in my head, the little mind games I played to bend reality into my coming of age soap opera. I knew it wasn’t real the time I unexpectedly saw Tomislav getting out of his car in the LCBO parking lot at the same time as my mom and I, and I burst into tears. Why would I do that? Because the fantasy only worked if I could control the terms of how I would be seen and without my bronzer, hairspray and harem of girlfriends, it wouldn’t work.
It’s strange to think about, but I think I only ever talked to him once. I don’t remember what we talked about, maybe nothing, maybe the weather, maybe my enduring and indescribable love for him. Nothing ever happened between us. I stopped going to the dances once I discovered emo and hardcore and pursued a journalism degree. Now, as I settle into my golden years in Los Angeles (32), my brain now fully ravaged by adult ADHD, I find myself reflecting on that time. Sure, for the most part, it was terrible: Hormonal, uncomfortable, moody. But with my senses dulling from overexposure to blue light and air pollution, I find myself longing for that singular obsessive focus of my youth: absorbing a certain artist’s discography or fashion trend like an invasive species, not stopping until every song had been memorized, every poster psychotically collaged to the wall like I was a crime scene investigator. Sometimes I worry that I’ve outgrown obsession, like it was a finite resource and I used it all up from the ages of fourteen to eighteen and I’ll never again know what it’s like to weep uncontrollably over a song, unless I’m on mushrooms.
I lost track of Tomislav over the years, barely thinking of him besides the occasional whiff of Acqua Di Gio I’ll catch from a stranger or whenever I listen to Ljiljana Nikolovska croon one of her love songs in my parents’ SUV. I guess he lives down the street from my parents now and has four kids. He’s friends with my parents and they think his wife is very cool. My mom told me that once and honestly, I felt nothing. I never loved him, not really. I loved something bigger than him, I loved the sound of an upright bass, a vibrating mandolin, and the feeling of cheap vodka slinking down my throat as I kicked off my shoes and readied myself for the fastest spin of my life.