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By Jozefina Cutura

I first noticed Nikola in the 29th November Elementary School poetry club when he stood up to recite the oath to our revolutionary leader Tito. He delivered a poem about the faithful dog that saves our great leader’s life during a crucial battle against the Nazis. He was taller than the other boys and wore a white shirt and a thin gold necklace around his neck. The girls’ contingent in the front row hushed and giggled as he stood in front of the chalkboard. After class, the girls bolted after him and chased him around the playground like a swarm of eager bees. Only I stayed behind, sitting demurely at the school entrance steps. But I kept my eager eyes on Nikola. Laughing and out of breath, he zigzagged across the schoolyard, evading the girls who tried to grab his shirt. When I got home that afternoon, I opened my notebook and wrote: “March 12, 1992. Dear Diary, I am in love.”

Nikola was in seventh grade, a year ahead of me. After class, he hung around with the cool soccer boys. I observed his every move from afar but refused to exhibit desperation by running after him like the other girls. He often looked my way, too. His friends would whisper and elbow him when I passed by. One day, he stopped right in front of me.

“Will you be my girlfriend?” he asked breathlessly.


I did not even hesitate. No other girls so easily accepted being someone’s girlfriend. I should have been embarrassed by my eagerness. I was supposed to say I would think about it and after many days of hesitation reluctantly give in. But I did not want to miss my chance.

He walked me home that night. “I will see you around,” he said at my gate, kissed me on the cheek and ran away. My concerned girlfriends worried that he would soon try to kiss me for real. But it did not even come to that, for soon afterwards the war started, and when I came to the playground most children were gone, and Nikola was no longer there either. Someone said that his mother had taken him to Serbia. I, too, escaped with my mother on the next bus out of our small Bosnian town.

I came back to Bosnia a year later during a lull in fighting. The streets of our town were hardly recognizable. Our school, where children used to sit together on the stairs and talk about poetry, had no rooftop or windows. All the chairs and tables from the classrooms had been plundered.

But the town’s ruins hardly mattered to me, for I heard that Nikola was back, too. I scoured the city’s gray landscape looking for him during my walks through town. We finally saw each other one afternoon in the main square, surrounded by shelled buildings and shops emptied of merchandise. He had grown in the past year, but still had the same unmistakably magnificent black eyes. I clutched my aunt’s hand for support, all breath gone out of me. Nikola and I looked at each other but said nothing. “Wasn’t that Nikola?” my aunt asked when we passed by.

“I guess so.”

That afternoon I was numbing my love-sick heart with endless repeats of Bijelo Dugme songs at home when I heard noise outside. I peered through the window curtain. And there he was, standing on the pavement by my house, chatting with some friends.

I watched him for a while. I wondered if I should go out and say hello. But I did nothing. He suddenly looked up and our eyes met. I quickly closed the curtain and curled up on the sofa. I stayed still and counted the beating of my heart.

I did not run into him again that summer. When I moved to California, his image slowly faded into a memory of my lost adolescence. I thought of him now and then, but these daydreams were eventually replaced by real boyfriends. Years later, while visiting relatives in Bosnia one summer, I saw him one more time. I had just finished college, had a good job and an American boyfriend. My aunt and I were having a drink at Café Milano when she suddenly exclaimed, “It’s Nikola!”

“Nikola, come here,” she shouted out to him before I managed to stop her. The prospect of a rekindled first crush excited all her romantic notions. “I always thought you two would end up together,” she whispered as he walked towards us.

He did not look the way I’d imagined. He was short and stocky and was wearing jeans and a black leather jacket. He seemed no different than thousands of other Bosnian men around us. Still, I could hardly speak.

“It’s you. You look different. I wouldn’t have recognized you,” he stammered. I happily noticed that he was nervous to see me, too.

“I’m just visiting. I live in America now,” I said, though he must have known that already. Our town’s rumor mill spun tirelessly, and my aunt had made sure to inform him about my whereabouts.

“I’m a lawyer. I have to go back to work, but here’s my number,” he said and handed me a piece of paper. “Give me a call. We should go out for a drink while you’re here.”

I watched his back as he walked away. For days I stared at the piece of paper he’d given me, studying in detail the curving of his letters. Several times I passed by the law office where he worked and thought about knocking on the door. But I just kept walking. I never called him. Several months later my aunt told me he’d gotten married to a girl from our town. Still, I keep the piece of paper he gave me in my wallet, my only tangible reminder of Nikola.

Jozefina Cutura works on gender issues for the World Bank, and has published on the subject widely. Jozefina holds degrees from Stanford and Harvard University. Originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, she currently lives in the United States and is working on a collection of short stories about the lives of Bosnian immigrants. Her stories have appeared in the Apple Valley Review, Insolent Rudder, and Inscribed. Contact Jozefina.