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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.

“I can’t tomorrow. I have to go to work. Can you take her for an extra day?”

“When were you going to tell me this?”

“I’m telling you now.”

“You’re going to take her for three extra days next week. I have things to do.”


“I’m sick of your shit. That’s what’s going to happen,” Teodora says and throws the phone hard into her couch cushions.

She fumes a little more, unsettled by the silence and the grim flicker of the TV in her dimly lit apartment. She knocks on Jelena’s door.

“Come out and play cards with me.”

Jelena joins her mother at the kitchen table, flopping into a chair. They play Tablić in a tense silence that morphs into something more companionable after a while.

“Can I have some rakija?” Jelena asks.

Teodora shrugs and goes to the cabinet and pours them both a splash of brandy. They raise their glasses, look each other in the eye.

“So you were number one back in the day?”

“I was, yes.” “Olympic bound.”


“And then the war.”


Jelena nods. “Why didn’t you leave like everyone else?”

Because of you. Because of your father, who wouldn’t have been able to follow me.

“It doesn’t matter. I didn’t leave.”

“I wouldn’t blame you,” Jelena says. “If you wanted a different life.”

“I don’t want a different life.”

“If I were you, I’d want one.”

Teodora looks Jelena in the eye, and her daughter holds her gaze, daring her to deny it.


The next day, while Jelena is at school, Teodora stops by Zoran’s apartment. He is surprised to see her standing in the cavernous gloom of his building’s hallway. He looks over her shoulder.

“Where’s Jelena?” he asks. “I told you I can’t take her today.”

She pushes past him into the apartment. He’s still a solid man, she notices, as her shoulder brushes his chest. His apartment is austere but well lit, his window looking down on the bustle of the farmer’s market and the streaming traffic of Brankov Bridge. She sits down at the little table in his kitchen, decorated by a vase and a single, yellow flower. Zoran pours them both a thimble of rakija.

“I’m sorry about not giving you notice,” he says. “They changed my shift at the last moment.”

Teodora waves away his apology. Gray has crept into his dark hair, and his widow’s peak is more sharply drawn on his forehead, its base receding further onto his skull. He is an attractive man, but that knowledge was always somewhat academic to her. He was her coach, and then her husband, father to her daughter, and then her ex. She was in her thirties before she really thought about Zoran the person.

“I think you need to take Jelena for a while,” she says.

“I told you I was sorry, and I said I would take her for a few extra days.”

“No, not like that. I mean, she doesn’t listen to me. She has contempt for me. She needs discipline.”

Teodora starts to cry. As an adult, Zoran is the only person she has ever cried in front of. Sometimes it was shared grief, other times he caused it.

“I’m not being a good mother to her.”

Zoran comes around the table and puts an arm around her. “You’re a great mother,” he says.

“It might be better for her. Just for a little while, until I can figure a few things out.”

Zoran nods. “I’ll think about it, okay?”

“Thank you.”

She is not sure if she feels relief, guilt, or loss. She wipes her eyes on the back of her hand and looks out the window. The Sava is an iron ribbon cutting through the city, spanned by bridges, flanked by tufts of trees, the high-rises of New Belgrade poking at the sky to the north. From here, it all seems so ordered and purposeful. She stares at the scene and then stands, kisses Zoran on his cheek, and leaves.


The man calls to tell Teodora the shell is ready, and she goes to see it. The morning is gray with a biting wind. The summer has vanished. It’s not a good day to be out on the water, but Teodora relishes it. How many days were like this when she was younger? Days when staying home curled up in her bed seemed the infinitely better option. Days when she got up anyway and made her way down to the river. Days when the boat skimmed through a film of ice. This is what it means to be rower.

The man is standing proudly, the shell newly painted, shiny and polished by his side. Teodora inspects it, orbiting it with a critical eye, running her hands along its sides. He’s painted it a pretty green, and the carbon fiber-reinforced plastic is smooth under her hand. They lift the boat off the pier. It’s so light, she imagines that once she starts rowing, she might fly right into the sky. The man helps her put it in the water. She strips off the sweats she is wearing, revealing the one-piece bathing suit she has on underneath. The man stares as she gets in the shell, settles herself in the cockpit.

“Are you sure you don’t need help?”

She uses an oar to push away from the pier, and like that, she is gliding, the man receding on the dock, and then there is only the pull of the oars, the thump of the water against the hull, the feel of her speed on her face.

The Sava is a calm river, unlike the Danube. She rows against the current, wanting to make her muscles work, making the return trip that much easier. She rows past the houseboats anchored on the shores of the treed islands she passes, under bridges with their cars and trucks zipping by. Her body knows what to do, and even though she feels fatigued, she keeps going. It has been so long since she has done this.

She can remember that last time, pulling up to the dock, the day gray and chilly. Zoran watching her, a sad look on his face. She was the only one left on the women’s national team. The others had all gone abroad, rowing for their colleges, some for their new countries. She, who was the best of them, was still there, a child and a hundred other obligations waiting for her at home.

Together, she and Zoran hauled the shell out of the water and pulled it into the boathouse perched on the river bank amongst the reeds and cattails. They dried it off, put it on its platform, and closed the door with a finality that she couldn’t have comprehended in that moment.

“It’s getting too dangerous,” he said. “They say they’ll probably target the bridges. It’s late in the season, anyway. Better to hang it up for a bit, wait until these problems have passed.”

Teodora remembers wondering when that might be. She could barely remember a time when there wasn’t war. And then the war had found her in Belgrade. In a flash, gone was any hope of the Olympics. She had still hoped optimistically that this latest war would wrap up quickly, and if not 2000, then 2004 would at least be possible. But in her youth, she had not realized how much could happen in such a short time, how life could be something completely different in the blink of an eye.

She regarded Zoran carefully. It was his dream as much as it was hers.

“We’ll have our time,” he said. But they never did.


She stays on the water as long as she can, going up and down the Sava, until the last of the day is bathed in shadows and she realizes she will be late to meet Marija. She drags the boat out of the water, enjoying the satisfying ache of her muscles, and hurries home to change.

“Feed yourself,” she tells Jelena, who is pouring herself rakija into a small, delicate glass. Teodora stares at her daughter.

“What the hell, Jelena?”

Jelena ignores the question. “When will you be home?”

Teodora is tempted to say in the morning, but that would raise far too many questions.

“Not too late.”

Teodora tries to dress casually, but Jelena eyes her suspiciously as she heads out the door. She doesn’t have much money, and she only has a few nice outfits. Jelena knows the black-and-white patterned skirt is one of them.

“There better be some rakija left when I get home.”

Jelena smirks, raises the glass as Teodora steps out the door.

Teodora meets Marija at her apartment. Marija is dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt, her thick, blond hair still wet from a shower. When Marija opens the door, Teodora kisses her hard. Marija lets herself be kissed and guided over to the couch, where Teodora continues to kiss her and starts to undress her.

“Whoa!” Marija says with a smile. “I thought we were going for drinks?”

“Sorry, you drive me crazy.”

“Don’t apologize. But I did spend an hour getting ready. I can’t have you mess it all up in five minutes.”

Teodora smiles back. Except for Jelena and her rakija, the day has been restorative and beautiful. She can wait. She sits on the couch and watches Marija apply blush to her pale cheeks. Teodora could watch Marija forever. If they never left Marija’s apartment, that would be okay. She still can’t say if she is in love. Her feelings haven’t settled into anything recognizable yet. In the past with Marija, this has bothered her, but now it feels right.

They go to a restaurant in Beton Hala. On the far shoreline, the day turns a pastel pink. Boats move languidly by.

The restaurant is popular, and this makes Teodora silently uncomfortable. Around her, patrons eat and drink on the open deck, enjoying the last of the day’s heat.

“Girls go out together all the time. You’re being ridiculous.”

But Teodora feels everyone can see through her. It is not a country that is friendly to gay people, and increasingly that is what she understands herself to be.

“How was your day?” she asks.

“It was so nice,” Marija says with a slow smile. “Steven and I had breakfast together and then we drove to Novi Sad.”

Teodora doesn’t know much about Steven other than that he is Marija’s long-term boyfriend, he is black, and he is American. Marija assures her Steven knows all about them and also assures her he doesn’t care.

“We don’t try to control each other.”

“Maybe we could go on a trip sometime. We could spend the weekend somewhere in Vojvodina. I could get Zoran to look after Jelena.”

“Maybe,” Marija says, noncommittal. And then she adds mischievously, “Or Steven could come, too.”

Teodora is quiet.

“Are you okay?”

“Of course,” Teodora replies brightly. They finish their drinks. The moon is unseen and backlights the rippling clouds.

“I should get back to Jelena,” Teodora says. “I don’t want to keep you from Steven.”

“He’s not expecting me.”

“I’m going to go anyway.”

Marija nods, her eyes narrowed in sympathetic scrutiny.

Teodora walks the two kilometers home. She makes her way over the train tracks that separate Beton Hala from the rest of the city, and then up the trolley-scored streets to the dark trees of Kalamegdan Park and back down again into the shadows and residential quiet of Dorćol.

She doesn’t want to share. And not sharing means finding someone else. And finding someone else means coming out. So maybe sharing is okay. She doesn’t know.

Jelena is getting dressed when Teodora gets home, headed out to see friends. Teodora tells her not to stay out past midnight. In a surprise for both of them, she kisses Jelena on the forehead as she heads out the door, Jelena pulling away from her as she does. Teodora feels some relief in that gesture, Jelena’s predictable teenage recoiling providing her with some sense of assurance.


The parade is scheduled in a few days, but there is growing pessimism. Last year, the parade ended in a riot. There are threats that the same will happen again and the government will use the excuse of likely violence to ban the event.

Teodora is following the events in the paper on her balcony that overlooks a small playground. She has made herself an espresso and is eating yogurt from a plastic carton. The land tumbles down below her, past her apartment complex, and eventually comes to rest at the Danube’s edge. Jelena has left the house early to stay with her father. Zoran hasn’t given her an answer yet.

Teodora both misses Jelena and doesn’t when she is gone. She misses Jelena the person, but she doesn’t miss the responsibility, the nearly hourly reminders of her own failures as a mother. She doesn’t have to work today, and the hours stretch out luxuriously in front of her. She will spend them on the Sava.

That afternoon she rows but she also drifts, letting the current take her, using the oars to make minor adjustments as she floats beneath the city on the hill. She drifts under bridges, the same reconstructed bridges that exploded during the NATO bombings, observes the same city that has existed for thousands of years, that has been razed to the ground more times than anyone can count. She glides underneath the ancient Kalamagden fort, the crumble of its ramparts still visible where the Sava collides with the Danube. Here she catches herself and struggles to row back into the Sava before she floats too far away from her boathouse.

Her muscles burn and ache, and sweat drips into her eyes. A row that would have been easy for her a dozen years ago, now an uncomfortable challenge. She has her rowing back, but it is also gone. Her prime years are behind her, the title of Olympian long since vanished. What might have been different if she had such a title?

As she struggles against the relentless currents of the Danube, that alternate life feels as far away as the vault of sky above her, as far away as the drift of birds that sail on their own rivers of air. She makes it to shore near Beton Hala, where she finds docks sprinkled with little sailboats and she stashes the boat for later retrieval. She will have to walk back to her car and return for the shell. The idleness of the day is gone, its lazy ease erased.


Her job as a server is not an easy one, but the restaurant where she works is both hip and expensive, so the pay is good. She attacks her work the way she attacked weight training when she was younger. She moves from the tables to the kitchen and back again, a repetitive motion that lets her drift, the hours before her first break both a moment and infinite.

When she smokes a cigarette outside after her shift, leaning against a wall in the back with some other waitstaff, a small figure emerges from the night. She sees it is Marija. She stubs out her cigarette and follows her.

“I’m sorry if the conversation about Steven was weird,” Marija says.

“A little.”

“He’s my boyfriend. I love him.”

“I know.”

“But we can still have our fun. If you’re okay with that.”

Teodora nods hesitantly. She isn’t sure it is enough, but at this moment she also understands that it is better than nothing, and she needs something. Marija is a good, safe guide in this new world of herself she is exploring. As long as she doesn’t fall in love, she will be fine.

“Will you go to the parade with me this weekend?” Teodora asks.

“There won’t be a parade.” Marija sighs. “But yes, if there is a parade, I’ll go with you.”

“Thank you.” She hugs Marija, feeling her tiny body beneath her own. She clings to Marija, too long, she knows, but Marija lets her, and when they break apart, Marija puts a hand to Teodora’s cheek.

“See you at the parade,” Marija says.


She is with Jelena, watching television, when she learns that the parade, scheduled for the next day, is canceled. It’s considered too much of a public danger after last year’s riots. Teodora keeps her face neutral as she watches the report, but something is fluttering inside her. She realizes it’s grief. She excuses herself to go to the bathroom, where she sits on the toilet and cries.

She’s in the bathroom for a long time before she hears a knock on the door, asking if she’s okay. She comes out, gives Jelena a small smile, and sits back at the table to finish dinner.

Jelena speaks. “I was thinking that maybe I would take more gymnastics classes. See what I can do.”

“Okay. That sounds good.”

“Don’t expect me to be as good as you were at rowing,” she warns. “I’m not you.”

“I don’t expect anything.”

Jelena gives her mother a satisfied smile, and Teodora smiles back, her grief disappearing for a moment.

Never mind what I said before about Jelena staying with you, Teodora types into her phone. She leaves the text in the bubble and doesn’t hit send. She’ll send it later.

The next day, the morning bright with a weak, autumnal sun, she walks up the hill to Trg Republic, where the parade had been scheduled to terminate. For most of the people in the city, it’s a normal day. They stroll through the square underneath the stately facade of the National Museum, they shop along the pedestrian ways that radiate out from the square, they drink coffee and rakija in the outdoor cafés.

Teodora sits on a bench and pictures what it would have been like. The crowds, the signs, the chants. A thousand people, marching, filling the plaza, the onlookers peaceful, finally curious. She imagines the bodies pressed in around her, their shouts echoing off the city’s stones. She imagines herself shouting with them. She would have shouted, wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t she have held her head up to all the world?

She sits for a long time, and then, as the sun rises to mid-sky, the day at its warmest, she starts the walk to the boathouse. She will get in her shell, and she will feel the stretch of her muscles, watch the waters part behind her, and she will look down at the river’s surface and know herself.


ROBERT OSBORNE is a consultant to not-for-profit organizations. His fiction has appeared in Witness, The Tulane Review, and The Dickinson Review. He is a well-known international speaker and workshop leader, focused on topics related to fundraising. Robert lives in New York City with his wife, son, and three cats.


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