Word Count: 5375
This is one of my less depressing stories, but it has undergone major revisions since I first wrote it three or four years ago. Any help with the bare places is much appreciated!
A boy stood on the street corner, toes rubbing against the cobblestones opposite the bridge, the famed bridge built under the Ottoman Empire. Tourists came all over to see it before the war. Now no one remembered it or them. His older brother had jumped the twenty-seven meters off that bridge into the river with his friends, the ultimate test of a young man’s courage. Not that that mattered now. His brother was lying at the bottom of an unmarked grave outside of one of the concentration camps surrounding the city.
The streets around him were silent, but he was sure people were lurking within the windows of the buildings, waiting to die. Everything was waiting, always waiting. Even the bridge, wedged solidly between the Christian and Muslim sides of the river, seemed to wait for the bombs. His hair fell across his thin face; it had been a long time since he had to worry about things like a hair cut. He started to rummage through the pocket of his jeans to find a crushed box of cigarettes. Extracting a slightly bent one from the pack, he placed it between his lips and exchanged the pack for a lighter. The cigarettes were cheap, but he hadn’t been smoking long enough to figure that out. He inhaled deeply, smiling when he successfully suppressed the urge to cough. Lifting his head, he blew all the smoke out towards the sky. He let his hand fall, but kept his neck bent so he could still stare at the smoke as it dissipated into the air.
The explosion threw him backward, away from the river; his neck snapped back, but did not break. His small body hit the wall, and he fell to the ground, the broken bits of building digging into his thin chest. The bridge was gone. Jagged stone and thick rock dust had replaced it. The huge noise was not followed by any others, which was unusual. Only the sound of centuries-old rock crumbling into the river remained.
He closed his eyes and scooted his body closer to the wall. Blood ran from his nose down his face, but he just wiped it away with the back of his wrist and tried to stand up. Though his bones hurt, it was a normal feeling for him, so he just made himself walk over to where he had been standing. The cigarette was still burning, lying on the ground where it fell.
Samir stood in his yellow socks in front of the microwave, shirtless with his red boxer briefs peeking out above his jeans, and lit a cigarette. He tossed the used match into the cup that was precariously balanced between the sink and the coffee machine. He blew smoke onto the glass door of the microwave, and then took the cigarette away from his lips to crack his neck and yawn. The microwave dinged, so he took out the cracked blue bowl and pivoted to sit at the desk that served as his kitchen table. He finished his cigarette quickly, tossing the butt into the overflowing ashtray in the corner of the desk so he could drink his breakfast. The soup burned his tongue, but he didn't really have taste buds anymore anyway.
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and dropped the dirty bowl in the sink while reaching for the on-switch of the coffee machine with his other hand. His mother hadn't sent him coffee beans with the package filled with cigarettes and a sweater his grandmother had made him, so he was stuck drinking weak shit he had found in the grocery store. He rummaged for the soap under the sink and washed the bowl so he could use it for his coffee. The smell of the coffee seemed to leap into the kitchenette as he poured it into the bowl and set the bowl on the desk. He set the pot in the sink and leaned his head against the cabinet above it, shutting his eyes and trying not to grimace. When he thought he had a hold of himself, he took a breath, stepped back from the sink and drank his coffee standing up. The view from the window of the apartment was fairly dismal, though it was nearing spring and therefore pretty elsewhere in the city. Looking out the window at the concrete world below it, he could see how the colors or the world changed beneath the cold air.
But he was late, so he left the bowl in the sink after rinsing it out and headed over to the dresser beside his bed to change. By the time he had dressed and brushed his teeth, he needed more coffee, but he had to hope that someone had made a pot at school, so he left the apartment as it was and locked the door behind him. The corridors in the building were small and not well lit, and smelled funny, though he was unaware of this last detail because he couldn't smell anything through the smoke that always seemed to cling to his nostrils. He wanted another cigarette, but he knew he needed to save money for food and tuition. He stuck his hands deep into his pants pockets so they wouldn't give into the temptation to creep to his jacket pocket for the crumpled pack of cigarettes within.
At the stairs, Emily nearly ran him over. Samir vaguely wondered why she was out and dressed so early in the morning. She smiled at him and murmured an apologetic good morning, holding herself away from him in a way that seemed rigid and unnatural coming from a body with the soft curves he remembered. She spent the night often on weekends, since the time she came over once through that ESL program to help him with his first report for work. She pushed past him towards her apartment, and though the doorway was small, he still wondered if she pressed herself against him like that on purpose. He glanced over his shoulder to see her flounce down the hallway but then shook his head and rubbed his face. He had forgotten to shave.
The beginning of spring in DC was evident just by standing in the metro at rush hour, people pouring into each car, smiling. They breathed deeper before they got in the metro, bodies taunt and waiting for the kiss of the sun against their faces. Samir held on to the rails of the top of the car with one hand and held his giant thermos of shit coffee in the other, sipping it at each stop and trying not to get pushed over as people rushed out into sunlight. Towards his stop, the metro emerged from underground. Most of the people had already escaped at this point so far from the nicer parts of the city. The energy here had diminished. Here, Samir could better identify with the exhaustion of some of the people on the metro, people with long commutes and too much time to think. Samir had to lean his head against the window. Had to focus on the movement of the buildings as the train went by.
But Emily was at the metro stop, wearing a dress that celebrated the sun. It clung to her, and as the metro passed, the dress whipped around her. She smiled slowly at Samir when the doors opened. He nodded to her, watching her as he walked past. Her voice stopped him before the escalator. “Samir!” When he turned to face her, she asked, “What are you doing tonight?”
He didn't have time to answer, the metro bells sounded and the doors shut. He walked back to the apartment slowly, feet heavy even under early spring sunshine. At the corner, he took out a cigarette and stopped to breathe it in after he lit it. He walked up the stairs to his apartment, but stopped at Emily's before he got there. On the back of a piece of junkmail he had in his back pocket, he wrote her a note.
There was one year in Mostar when not one building had a roof. This was before he was sixteen. His mother wanted them all to sleep in the basement after his father was shot on the bridge, before it was blown up, so he obliged her for the first week. But the darkness was so heavy beneath the stone house, and all the earth over them could not block out the explosions that shook the city.
His sister’s heavy breathing often made him wonder if she was dying. He used to lie awake listening to the duet of the rise and fall of his mother’s and sister’s ribcages, but he could never add his own steady breathing to theirs. One night, he stood up and walked barefoot across the cold floor and up the narrow stairs. He continued to the third floor, where his room had been. It had become difficult to navigate through the hallway because the rubble from the roof coated the floor, leaving very few bare spots for a shoeless boy. He pushed aside the shingles until he had a place big enough for him to sit. He pulled out the cigarettes from his pocket again and looked up towards the sky, hugging his knees into his chest and watching the shrapnel fly through the sky like meteorites.
Emily spent the night. Samir did remember to clean out the ashtray before she came over. They sat at the table eating spaghetti, which was pretty much all he could handle in terms of cooking. Emily talked. About when she was in school, about the work she did now at a non-profit across the city, about her family, about traveling. While she talked to him, her face was opened up in a smile.
“Did you travel much when you lived in Europe?” She asked him, twirling her hair with her finger.
He took a breath and leaned back in his chair. He wanted to smile at her, at the way she looked to move her body closer to him, but his lips wouldn't oblige him. So he responded, “When I left Bosnia, I came here.” He didn't mention the time he spent in the refugee camp in Switzerland. It probably didn't count as the kind of travel she was talking about. He coughed, breaking their gaze, and fished a cigarette from his pocket.
Emily sighed. “You aren't serious, are you?”
Samir breathed in and looked over at her. “What?”
She shook her head. “You Europeans and your smoking.” Samir breathed in again and wondered if he should put out the cigarette. But she was still smiling at him. “You know, when I was in elementary school, we had to send letters to members of our family who smoked asking them to quit. I sent one to Eric--- my brother--- who had picked up smoking when he moved to Bosnia and started dating this woman---”
Samir reached out and stopped her. “You never told me your brother lived in Bosnia? Where? When?”
Emily shut her mouth and looked down at her plate, moving the noodles back and forth in the bowl. She tried to smile at him, saying, “Yeah, I was a lot younger than him. He used to say I was an accident. Anyway, he moved to Mostar actually maybe a year before the war--- I don't know, I was a kid. He fell in love, the whole deal.” She opened her mouth a few times, her breath catching as though waiting for words. Finally she offered, “He said the skiing was awesome.” When Samir didn't respond, she laughed at herself and began to talk some more, this time about her fear of skiing. Her voice as she talked seemed to flutter around the apartment, alighting on Samir, who sat still want to reach out to her, wanting to cut through all her words to what she didn't say.
So Samir leaned over and kissed her. Her body immediately responded to him, and he let one of his hands wander down her back to pull her in closer to him. She was the one who broke away, standing and reaching for his hand to get her to follow him. She was quiet, moving to the bed, pushing his dirty clothes off the bed, continuing to kiss him. He thought he felt her cheeks wet against his skin, but she was pulling off her clothes, pulling off his, her fingers tracing the cigarette burns, one for each death, along his forearm.
When they were lying in bed afterwards, she pulled blankets over them and lay against his chest. She was quiet, just exploring his skin with her fingertips until her breathing slowed. Samir listened to the rise and fall of her chest well into the night. For once, Samir was able to lie still with her in his arms. When she woke up in the morning, she said he twitched in his sleep. He found that strange. He didn't think he slept at all.
Emily was boiling water on the stove and spooning ground coffee beans into another pot. She was wearing the dress again, the one that made her look like she was floating. “Where's the sugar?”
Samir pointed, breaking the pencil from the paper where he was writing up a rough draft of a grant for work. The words on the paper seemed so much more solid than those on the computer screen. But his fingers were cramped and his eyes fuzzy. He fingered the cigarettes in his pocket. All he wanted to do was lean his head on the table, still his thoughts for a moment. But he didn't want to scare her. She was talking about someone at work, her voice reinforced with an edge he was not used to hearing, so he tried to clear his head to pay attention to her. He tried to hang onto her voice, but he finally had to close his eyes and lean his head against his fists.
Her hands were cold, but felt refreshing against his face. “Are you okay?” She whispered. He knew she saw he was lying when he said he was fine. Her eyes told him. But what about when she lied to him? Weeks had gone by, she did not mention her brother. So he did not mention it either. He waited. And she kissed him gently, pulling him back to her.
She broke away from him to return to the stove. She poured the boiling water into the pot with the coffee and put the coffee on the still-hot burner. Samir got up and walked over to her. “Where did you learn to do this?”
She smiled. “My brother.” Turning back to the burner she said, “I know how bad American coffee is. He always talked about that, even sent us some coffee. My mom wouldn't let me drink it because she said I'd be too hyper.” She took the coffee off the burner and started to pour it into the mugs on the table before Samir stopped her. He sprinkled sugar on the coffee and then spooned the surface, letting all the grounds sink to the bottom. Then he filled the mugs halfway and added more sugar. He sat down and looked over at Emily.
“Thank you,” he whispered. He reached out, groping for her hand, needing to touch her.
For some reason, she didn't respond, and he thought he saw her flicking tears from her eyes as she lifted her mug to cover her face.
He swallowed and turned towards her, trying to seem eager, to respond to her the way she did him. He knocked the ashtray onto the floor. “I'm sorry,” he said and scrambled to brush the ashes back off the floor.
Emily stopped him. “Will you do something for me?” Her eyes were still wet.
He brushed her hair away from her face. “Sure.”
“Will you take me with you? To Mostar? I mean, if you ever go back?”
amir set his coffee onto the table carefully. He opened his mouth. Closed it. Found words. “Emily, I---” He didn't finish. He picked up his mug, took a drink, and walked to the couch. She didn't follow.
A young boy fingered the box of cigarettes in his pocket but didn’t dare take them out. Looking down the line of people waiting for water ahead of him, he jiggled his leg and chewed his lip. The line moved so slowly. A man ahead was finally leaving the line, and he seemed to exhale the smoke from a newly-lit cigarette at the people still in line.
Biting his finger to keep from feeling too tempted, he shifted his weight again. He knew that if he took one out, he would have had to share with the other people in front and behind him. He coughed and leaned up against the building beside him.
Snipers are easy to hear, but usually they reveal themselves after it is too late. The man in front of him collapsed on the ground, blood spreading through his thin white t-shirt.
He wasn’t quite a child anymore, but he was just barely a teenager, and he was still small. People started scattering in slow motion, trying to decide if it would be better to die now or later. He was sure there were other shots, but he couldn’t hear anything. The hand of the body in front of him was close, and he could see that it clutched a packet of cigarettes.
Samir's apartment, Samir and Emily's apartment, was dark and quiet. He wondered where Emily was, if the darkness was because she wasn't there. He put the mail on the table. Stretched. Sat down. His head ached, and he felt drained. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, the glow from the end illuminating the mail strewn over the table.
Laboriously, he stood to open the curtain of the tiny window over the sink and switched on some lights. He took the cigarette out of his mouth with one hand and rubbed his face with the other, wondering when Emily was coming home. The apartment was so heavy. But then he saw the bed. Bulging suitcases were collapsed against the bed, where Emily lay. Emily's chest rose and fell in ragged breaths, her face sunk into the pillow. Samir finished his cigarette and put it out in the ashtray nearby. He rubbed his face again.
“Emily?” He said.
She sat up. “I'm sorry,” she said. “I---I'm leaving.” Her face was swollen, and her hair stuck to her forehead.
He sat next to her on the bed and reached out to smooth her hair. He was shaking.
“Please don't,” he said. She leaned against him, sobs subsiding, but his shaking didn't stop. Then she left.
Later he found her calendar in the trash with the name on it. One word, written spastically as though it needed to be written, but she couldn't do it. Eric. He called her. She came over and spent the night.
“What happened, Emily? To Eric?” It was breakfast. Samir had made her pancakes, brought them to her in bed. She was drained of color, and the muscles in her face wobbled too much for her to smile.
“I just had a rough day, yesterday. It happens to everyone.” She reached over to squeeze his arm briefly before she took the plate of pancakes from him.
Samir coughed, reached for his cigarettes, but did not light one. Just wrapped his hand around them. “No, Emily. Please.”
She stopped eating and dropped the fork to the plate. Again, she tried to smile but ended up biting her lip. “He's dead.” The tears overflowed from her eyelids, but she prevented herself from sobbing. “His wife was killed. He began to backpack across the country. We don't know what he was doing, but one day he called me. I don't remember what he said anymore. He stepped on a landmine. He's lying in a shallow grave somewhere, his body in pieces. I don't remember what he said.” She took a deep breath, steadying herself against Samir. He reached over to get the hair out of her face, and kissed her.
“I'm sorry,” he said. He pulled her against him, breathed her in, remembered the night before without Emily. The darkness. And he decided he wanted to give her something. He bought tickets to Sarajevo. As the plane landed, Samir looked out the window to see buildings still pierced with bullet holes.
Samir carried Emily's suitcase as she walked into the store. Emily glanced back at Samir before approaching the store owner with her wallet. “Koliko je ovo?” She asked him, pointing at a loaf of bread. Samir wondered how Emily knew that phrase. Her accent was so bad though that Samir was not sure that the man would understand her. Yet the man nodded, took Emily's money, and gave her back bread and some change. The man smiled toothlessly at them, and the wrinkles around his lips reminded Samir of the first time he stole. Of course, he was in Switzerland then and he had not had anything to eat for days. He dropped his eyes to the ground and tried not to remember the feel of his ribs stretching his skin every time he breathed. He had been a small teenager even if he had had the normal weight of a healthy boy. Dropping his eyes to avoid the man who reminded him of that baker, he followed Emily's feet out of the store.
She smiled at him and reached up her hand to rub the stubble on his face. “Are you okay, honey? Maybe we should stay here tonight.” Her voice was much softer now. “We don’t have to rush to Mostar. I mean, we’re both really tired.” Her eyes searched his to see if he was with her or away in another world. She knew he wouldn’t tell her though.
He nodded and pulled her against him, kissing her forehead so he wouldn’t have to look into her eyes. She had answered his question, but her eyes always asked him the questions that he didn’t want to answer. Like they knew when he drifted away.
“Baby, please put that out.” She stumbled towards him, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and yawning. Her hair was a mess, but it made her look so disheveled and out-of-control, which she didn't use to be. The t-shirt she had taken from him was pulled up in the front to reveal her bright pink underwear. He wondered if she did that on purpose.
Samir looked out the open window towards the mountains that surrounded the capital and blew out smoke. His head pounded. He rubbed Emily's already messed up hair with his free hand briefly before returning his gaze to the window. She wrapped her arms around him, her hands cold on his bare chest, and laid her head on his back.
“You know I don’t like it when you smoke,” she said as she began to play with his belly-button and run her fingers down towards the top of his unzipped jeans that he had pulled on just to walk from the bed to the window. When he didn’t respond, she tried to hold him even tighter. He felt tears against his skin.
He put his cigarette out in the ashtray on the windowsill, trying to think of anything but the memories in his head trying to escape out of him. Dislodging her fingers, he turned around to hold her. Though her hands were cold, her body was warm. He lifted his head from where it rested on top of hers and looked down at her face. She looked back at him, a sleepy smile on her face, and she began to run her fingers up his spine.
“I love you,” she said, snuggling against him even closer. He wrapped his arms tighter around her and pressed his lips against her hair.
He didn't want to ask her what was wrong, didn't want to look at her with the same eyes she always looked at him with. So he held her and hoped the feel of his skin against hers make it better. Maybe it did.
Before they could see the city, three garishly huge white crosses took up the landscape from their places atop the mountains opposite the road that wound down into Mostar. He tried to focus his attention on anything but those crosses, wondering why they still had not been taken down. They had been erected after the war. His sister had told him about it when they talked. It wasn't often. She lived far away now. Emily reached over and rubbed his shoulder.
“Hey.” Her voice was very soft, as it got when she tried to keep him with her. He wrenched his thoughts from the crosses so he could turn to look at her. She smiled at him and released his shoulder to put her hand on his leg.
There were not as many people on the road as he was used to driving into the city. He almost didn’t recognize some of the newer buildings, but then he would spot the skeleton of the bank or the empty shell that had once been a Turkish bath and remember where he was going. He found a place to park, hoping it wasn’t illegal but wondering who would care. She got out first, throwing her sandals out onto the ground for her to step into when she stood up. Closing the door, she stretched and surveyed the buildings around her. When she realized that he was still sitting and staring at the steering wheel, she bent down and stuck her head in the window.
“Are you okay?”
He could feel her eyes searching him, hoping to find what it was that bothered him so she could kiss him and make him better. So he stood up and dragged himself out of the car. She ran around and attached herself to his arm.
Her lips were against his arm, but that did not inhibit the flow of words coming from her mouth. She was looking up at him. She gripped his hand, and he let himself be pulled away from the car. “Let’s go get something to eat.”
Along the river Neretva, that separates the Muslim side of Mostar from the Christian side, the restaurants were just starting to regain their previous prestige. Outside, scaling down the cliff-like rocks that line the river, Bosnians and the occasional tourist filled the tables at the restaurants, plagued by the stray cats that had multiplied in the city after the war.
She was not heading for any of the restaurants on this side of the Neretva, though. He started to redirect her away from the old part of the city, where she was headed. She just gripped his hand tighter. He knew there was not a way to get across the river there, not after the one built during the Ottoman occupation to link the Muslim side with the Christian side had been blown up.
He could tell that she was making an effort to slow down so they could walk beside one another, but she was failing miserably. He took longer strides to accommodate her. He followed her through the streets and tried to look at the city as someplace he had never been before. He kept his eyes focused on her long hair that fell across her back heavily. As long as he could see the glitter of the sun in her dark hair, he couldn’t see the stains on the walls that he knew had to be there.
The cobblestone in the older part of the city was rougher than that in the newer part. Emily's pace was finally slowed down so she could pick her way delicately to keep from slipping. He held her arm, focusing his attention on the ground to make sure she didn’t fall. When she stopped, he continued looking down, waiting for her to continue walking.
Her lips were very close to his ear, so he could feel her wet breath when she spoke quietly. “Samir. Look up.” Her arms were around him then, and he tried not to let his weight slip against her. He had to stay steady.
It was the bridge. So many years earlier, he had watched it get eaten by the river, ravaged by the Christian bombs. And there it was, staring him in the face, cleaner than he had seen it when he was a child. Ten years beneath running water could do that to stone.
“It reopened five years ago. Didn’t you see it on the news?”
He couldn’t speak, only shook his head, eyes fixed on the bridge. He felt Emily's lips on his jawbone and remembered to breathe.
“Do you want to walk across it?”
He tore his eyes from the bridge to look at her. She squeezed him tightly and then began to walk forward, letting him follow her. People were gathered around the bridge, but no one was crossing it. He could see why when Emily stopped and pointed. A skinny young man in a speedo stood poised on the thick bridge railing. He gave a thumbs-up to someone in the crowd and jumped.
“Oh my goodness!” She breathed from beside him; she pushed over to the railing to look in the water below as they heard the splash.
“My brother did it. My father probably did, too,” he whispered. He looked into the almost greenish water below that was still rippling, watching the other young man swim over to the rocks alongside the river.
Emily turned her gaze to the water, lacing her fingers with his against the stone of the bridge. “Do you think Eric did it too?”
A teenage boy stood on the street corner, toes rubbing against the cobblestones opposite the bridge. He didn’t have the urge to cough every time he took a drag on his cigarette now. The sky was dark, occasionally lit up by bombs streaking through the sky. He wondered if his sister was alive, if anyone was alive anymore. His hoisted his tattered backpack, containing what little food his mother could prepare for him, higher and took a step forward. He only looked back once.
He walked with a purpose through the old city. He pulls out a cigarette and lights it, letting the smoke travel through his veins to calm him.
“You aren’t going to rethink this?” She asked, struggling to keep up with him.
He stopped just before walking onto the bridge. He handed her his cigarette. She put it out, crushing the smoke into the cobblestone beneath her foot. He pulled his shirt over his head and took off his pants and handed them to her. He rubbed her arms and looked into her dark eyes. “It will be all right.” As he started to turn away, she dropped his clothes to the ground, grabbed him, and stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. His spine tingled and he rubbed the small of her back before breaking her hold to smile at her. “I love you,” he said.
As he turned away, she called for him to wait. She began peeling off her clothes in the middle of the bridge before Samir stopped her. “I want to go with you,” she said. Her eyes were bright in the midday sunlight, her face open. He squeezed her hand and smiled at her, his face warm.
They walked up the bridge and hoisted themselves up onto the railing. The sun shone off the water’s surface into their eyes. They took a deep breath and let their bodies fall through the air.