It was the final weekend of summer and the next day I was heading back to Belgrade. I spent the night on the cobblestone streets of the old city, drinking and laughing. Sometime after midnight I said goodbye to my friends and started home, staggering as I went. I stumbled down the stone steps that curved toward the river, caught my balance at the bottom, then walked in clumsy strides along the walkway.
As I stepped forward, I felt a sudden punch in my bladder and I knew that I had to go. Had to go badly. I ran off the path and to a nearby tree. I tore the zipper open and then I just stood there with my pants down and my eyes closed, trying to get it done before someone came along and saw me.
I heard footsteps. With my pants hung around my ankles, I shut my eyes tight and pushed to squeeze it out. Finally the stream weakened to a dribble and I shook myself dry. I pulled the pants up to my waist with one quick tug and did them up in a hurry. The footsteps were right behind me. I tucked the shirt into my pants then turned to face the music.
I saw the figure of a girl slowing to a stop on the walkway. My vision was blurry, but I could see the long black hair and the curves of her body.
“Stefan, is that you?”
I jumped. “Yuh—yeah.”
“What are you doing in the bushes? Are you some kind of pervert?”
“What?! No, I’m just….” I took a step forward, squinting to see who it was, and slowly her features came into focus. It was Gabriella, my neighbour from down the street. I’ve known her since I was five.
She stood there with her arms crossed and her eyebrows raised. Her eyes moved up and down. Then she laughed.
“Stefan, you’re drunk.”
I shrugged. “Nah, I didn’t drink much.”
“Of…course…not,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t worry, you don’t smell like beer at all, and your fly isn’t halfway open.”
I saw her eyes dart to my crotch. I quickly turned and pulled it the rest of the way up. When I looked back she was smiling, and I felt my cheeks burn hot.
“Okay, I’m drunk. A little.”
“So, where you headed, Gabbie?”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not an old lady.”
I laughed. “I know, I know, you like Ella better. Where you headed, Ella? It’s pretty late.”
“Yeah,” she said and turned away, “not that you would know. You don’t even know where you are.”
“I told you, I’m not even that drunk.” She shook her head at that, but then we got to talking. At some point we began to walk, following the course of the river. We talked about my school and her job—she was working as a bartender at the Gallery, a pub in the old city. I hadn’t seen her much that summer and her job was part of the reason.
“This is my first night off in weeks,” she said as we turned off the main path and onto a gravel trail that cut through the trees. She was wearing jeans that hugged her hips in a spectacular way, and her hands were stuffed into the pockets of her zip-up hoodie. It was warm out, but she looked like she was shivering.
“Oh, that sucks for you. I’ve just been relaxing since exams.”
“You’ve always been lazy. When we were kids, you used to kick my ball down the street and you wouldn’t even go get it. You made me go alone.”
“Really? I don’t remember,” I lied. I wouldn’t get the ball because she always wanted to race to see who could get it first. She was faster, and I didn’t want to lose to a girl. We walked and talked like that for a while, tiny flecks of moonlight breaking through the trees and swarming over us like fireflies.
Then I asked, “If it’s your day off, why aren’t you out with friends?”
“Because I’d rather spend the night with you, watching you mope around drunk and pee on trees.”
I laughed, but this was the second time that she refused to say what she was doing out so late alone. When we came out of the woods and the moon revealed our faces, I looked at her more closely. She wore a red headband that went over her hair and behind the ears. Her hair was long now and it kept it out of her eyes, and her face looked tanned and pretty as always. But I noticed then that one of her cheeks was red.
She turned to look at me, and I quickly turned away. People in our neighborhood said her father drank too much, and that he hit her mother. I heard him yelling at Gabriella once in a while. One night in particular, many years ago, the two of us were sitting on the steps in front of her house and she kissed me. He saw us through the window and stormed out screaming, calling me all sorts of things and threatening to snap my neck. I ran home after that, and I didn’t say anything to my parents because I didn’t want more trouble. But I remember how sad she looked when I left, right before her father grabbed her by the arm and threw her in the house like a broken old umbrella. We drifted apart after that, and it was my fault. I stayed away because I didn’t want to make trouble, so she had to deal with the trouble on her own.
“Your hair looks stupid, I hope you know,” she said with a smirk. “That’s way too much gel, you look like a porcupine.”
“No, it’s my style. Girls love it.”
“So I’m not a girl? Is it because I can kick your ass?”
“It is, you know it. Anyway, don’t be so cocky. I can smell your hair from here; it smells like mint and some kind of cheese. It’s terrible.”
“Uh huh, and if girls love it, where are they? I bet I’m the only girl you’ve talked to all night.” She said this as if she wanted me to confirm or deny, but I just shrugged and tried to look mysterious.
She gave me a “pfft” and we kept walking. We were right by the river now, with the town behind us and only the trees for company. I could see the old watermill across the river, no longer functional but still nice to look at. We stopped by some rocks that were big enough to sit on.
She leaned back on the rock closest to the water, placing her hands down on the stone and resting her weight on top of them. “Do you remember this place? We used to swim here as kids.”
“Yeah,” I said, “we liked it because there was no one around.” She closed her eyes and flung her head back, long hair flowing down her shoulders. My eyes explored her body, drinking in her curves and the way her breasts moved up and down as she breathed. Then I saw her cheek again and I felt guilty.
“What is it?” she asked when she opened her eyes.
I took a deep breath. “Ella, you… you know that if something’s wrong, you can tell me.”
She just stared at me for a moment.
Before she could speak I jumped in again, “I’m serious, okay? I don’t care what it is. I’m here for you.” She didn’t say anything just then. There was only the ripple of water.
“Can you smell it?” she asked after a while. “It’s rosemary. They still grow here, up the hill beneath the trees. Winds carry the scent to this spot.”
“My childhood smells like rosemary,” she said and smiled. Then she stood up. “Let’s go swimming in the river, like before. What do you say?”
I turned to look at her. She unzipped her hoodie and took it off, folding it over the rock.
“Wait, you mean now? It’s late at night, the water is freezing.”
“It’s a river, Stefan. It’s always cold. That never stopped us before.” She pulled off her top, revealing an embroidered white bra that had a small ribbon in the middle. I just stood there, torn between the urge to look away and the need to keep watching.
“Aren’t you coming?” she asked, bending down and slipping off her jeans. The underwear, smooth against her skin, matched the bra right down to the ribbon. “Or are you just gonna stare?”
“I don’t mind staring.”
She turned to the water. “Don’t be an old lady. Let’s go.” She stepped in, her skin tensing from the cold.
I tried to argue. “Come on, Ella, I don’t feel like freezing my balls off. We’ve gone swimming here a hundred times, what’s the point?”
She stepped in deeper, gooseflesh marking her body. “Stefan,” she shouted with a quiver in her voice, “don’t you remember Greek Philosophy from high school? Heraclitus said that you can never step into the same river twice. The river is always flowing, always changing. This is not the same river we swam in when we were kids―it’s not even the same river that was here yesterday, or an hour ago. I’m the only person to ever step into this river. It will never be the same again. Now hurry up or you’ll miss it!”
She turned to me and smiled, her eyes calling me. I stripped down to my boxers and stepped inside.
The water was freezing cold. Each step was more painful than the last, and when the water splashed up against my crotch I almost screamed. Gabriella just laughed and moved in deeper, forcing me to follow. When I was in up to my waist, my hands rolled into fists and pressed tightly against my chest, she stopped.
“Screw Heraclitus,” I mumbled through chattering teeth, “I like Plato better.”
“Oh yeah, I know. All that ‘cosmic order’ stuff. But you can’t just order your whole life. That’s boring! Sometimes you have to….” She paused and the corner of her mouth ticked up, then she dove in head-first. I watched her glide beneath the water, making her way around me. When she came up again, the headband was gone and her hair was draped over her body. I could see through her bra, and I felt a warm tingle in the pit of my stomach. She moved toward me until I could feel her breath on my chest.
“Sometimes you have to just dive in,” she said and stood on the tips of her toes so that her lips were almost touching mine. Then she closed her eyes, waiting.
I cupped the back of her head with both hands and pulled her lips into mine.
We kissed, our lips crashing against each other like storm waves. I grabbed her and held her tight, so tight we almost fell over. She felt cold against my skin but I didn’t care—I wanted to feel her, to breathe her in. We staggered out of the water, still clutching each other, still kissing. I savoured the smell of her, the fragrance of her hair.
She broke away suddenly. She took her clothes and laid them down between the rocks, then grabbed my clothes and placed them over them. Then she took me by the arm and pulled me down on top of her.
We kissed again, our noses touching, her eyes peering into mine. It wasn’t cold anymore. She locked her arms around my back and wrapped her legs around my waist.
When it was over we just watched each other—not saying a thing. She stroked my hair and smiled, and I smiled back. I can’t even remember who started talking first, or what we said. I remember one thing, though. At some point she asked if I was going back to the city in the morning, and I told her I was. She simply said: “Don’t forget me.”
I never did.
We dated for a year after that. She came to visit me whenever she could, and I always came home for the holidays. But the trip to the city was nine hours by bus, and in the end the distance pulled us apart. We stayed friends until a few years later, when she told me she was getting married. It was her manager from work, and this pissed me off because I thought that maybe she was already with him while we were still together. We stopped talking after that, and it wasn’t until she had her daughter that I finally got myself to call her and congratulate.
I don’t know if she really cheated, but I don’t think so. I think that I just needed some way to blame her for how it all turned out. It was easier to blame her than to admit that it was me—that I left her on her own again because it was too much trouble. I could have moved back and found a job in town, or I could have brought her to the city and away from her father. I could have been there for her, but I wasn’t, and someone else was.
I got married too, and I have two sons. I see Gabriella once in a while, and we always stop and say “hello” and talk about how our lives turned out. We agree they turned out fine.
But sometimes I walk down by the river and through the woods, to our old place. I go right up to the rocks, and when the wind blows you can still smell the faint scent of rosemary. I just stand there, looking at the water flowing, and I wonder: What if you could step into the same river twice? What if you could go back to that river—when it was just the two of us?
But the river’s always flowing, always changing. Still, I think one of these nights I just might strip down to my boxers and go swimming in the river again. I know it won’t be the same as it was back then, but the stars will shine and the water will be cold and the river will still flow along the same path. And I think this time I won’t go in slowly, step by step, shaking and dreading the moment when the water splashes up my crotch.
I think this time I’ll just dive in.