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The man pulls the shell from the boathouse and hauls it onto the dock like it’s a fish he just caught. He regards it critically, wiping away the dirt and cobwebs from the body, and breaks into a smile.

“It’s in pretty good shape,” he says. “I can have it fixed up for you within a few days.”

Teodora watches the river. It sloughs past her, shedding foam and bits of detritus onto the shore, scattering light from an acutely angled sun. Her city of Belgrade is at the junction of this river, the Sava, and the Danube. She has avoided both rivers as if they are betraying lovers. It is only recently, as summer fades and her world has become more disquieted, that she feels the urge to return. She started with early morning walks, when the heat from the previous day has almost dissipated before gathering its strength again and birds idle on the river’s edge. The walks remind her of an earlier time, of daybreaks, of the churn of muscles as she flew over the water, of the perfect synchrony of her arms and the oars. The swing. Those were the best of times, and as such times do, they vanished suddenly. Only now does some return seem possible.

She nods to the man, tells him to let her know when it is ready.

“I give lessons, too.” He says, now eyeing her with the same critical gaze. “You have the physique for it.”

“I know I do. And I don’t need a lesson.”

She turns and makes her way up the embankment, to the pedestrian path that snakes along the Sava’s edge. With her back to the water, she feels its pull fade, but she knows she will return. The gentle smell of rot, the moist breeze, the river’s murmur all tell her that this time, the river will not let her go. This time, they will stay together.


Marija is soft, skinny, and small-breasted, as pale as the moon. They are curled together on Teodora’s couch, midday sunlight peaking underneath drawn blinds.

Laying here with Marija, smelling the lilac scent of her hair, feels both right and strange, just as returning to the river and buying her new shell felt both right and strange. She wonders if she is Marija’s only female lover.

“Do you want to get a drink?” Marija asks. Naked, she pulls a cigarette out of the pack lying next to her and lights it, letting the curls of smoke float lazily into the air. Teodora hesitates, and Marija laughs.

“Nobody’s going to know we just fucked.”

“I know.” But of course, that is exactly what Teodora is thinking. “Sure.”

Marija pulls on her clothes. Teodora does the same, watching Marija as she gets dressed, admiring the curve of her hip, the tightening muscles of her abdomen as she lifts her arms to pull a shirt over her head.

They find a café close to Teodora’s apartment on a tree-lined block with a raised wooden pagoda for outdoor eating and drinking. They sip white wine under the sun, and the day feels timeless. She doesn’t think she is in love. It is more like recognition.

“Are you going to the parade?” she asks Marija. Teodora sips her wine to hide her face.

“The parade? Why would I?”

She knows Marija does not consider herself gay, or rather finds the label tedious and boring. Marija is sexual. That can translate to different things on different days.

“Are you?”

“I don’t know.” Teodora might go. She doesn’t think she will make any great declarations that day if she does. But she wants to see it. She wants it to happen.

“You should go. For you, it will be meaningful.”

The parade will have meaning for Teodora, but she isn’t sure what that meaning is. It is a thing she badly wants to do. She can’t remember wanting something so much for a long time.


Teodora goes to see her daughter Jelena’s gymnastics practice. She recognizes herself in Jelena’s powerful body, the ease with which she can control it. What is foreign to Teodora is her daughter’s indifference to her own talent and ability. Her sullen resistance to anything productive seems to go beyond teenage rebellion and angst and to something more endemic and problematic.

In the car ride home, Teodora says, “If you gave even half a shit, you’d be a champion.”

Teodora can almost see the eye roll in the reflection of the car window, her daughter’s gaze on the old communist era block towers that pass by, their gray and mustard walls garish with graffiti and tags.

“I like what I like. Not what you like.”

“And what is it you like?”


When Teodora was Jelena’s age, it was the daily routine of pull, pull, pull, the water parting for her as if she were Moses. There were only the strokes, the speed, her gaze on her teammates as she lost them in her wake. It was days in the gym, runs on the river, no thought of like or not liking. There was only purpose, only identity. She misses that. Life had been an effortless glide, and then it had turned so quickly. Her life now is as if she is fighting through the churn of an endless collection of wakes.

At home, Jelena promptly goes to her room, leaving Teodora to cook dinner for the both of them, a task she does more and more begrudgingly. She is okay with being a mother, but she doesn’t find any grounding in it. It is not so hard for her to imagine waking up one day and walking out on motherhood entirely. She loves her daughter, but they could be roommates and that would be fine. She doesn’t need to feel needed. She does need to feel appreciated.

Teodora calls Jelena to dinner. She’s warmed up some grilled beef and prepared a tomato and cucumber salad. Jelena takes the plate and retreats to her room, shutting the door before Teodora can say anything. Teodora fumes in front of the TV before calling her ex, Zoran.

“When are you getting Jelena tomorrow?” she asks.