It was the biggest game of the season. My team played against the best team in the country. A lot of coaches were there to see us play. We fought hard for 40 minutes, and we finished with a tied game. We went to overtime and lost by one. It was the biggest loss of my career, but probably the biggest day of my life. I dropped 41 points that game, and a lot of international coaches were there, all offering me a professional contract. Wow. Sixteen year-old kid receives an offer to play for big bucks. I was stunned. Some of the biggest european clubs wanted me to sign with them. And then, all of the sudden, two weeks after the game, the coach of the opposite team invited me to go there. That was serious. The best basketball club in my country wants me to go there — that is a tough offer to refuse. So I agreed.
My dad didn’t want to let me go at first, because we lived alone, I was the only thing he had in this world. But I knew that it would do no good if I stay, so I decided to start building my career, and my life. It was a hard hit for him, probably the hardest one since my mom died. She died when I was 5 and she’s one of the things that keeps me going. I know she wants me to succeed in everything, so whenever I am struggling I just remember her. She’s my guardian angel.
It was a hot August day, and I started packing early in the morning. I managed to put my TV, two large suitcases, three backpacks, pillows and blankets in my dad’s car. My aunt came over to help me. I had a lot of stuff to move to my new apartment in Belgrade. It was a 4-hour drive to there. I couldn’t sleep in the car. I was excited and sad at the same time. Excited because I will experience a lot of new things, living alone, living in one of the biggest cities of Europe, playing for one of the best basketball teams in Europe and attending the hardest school in Serbia. I’m sad because I was leaving my dad alone. I knew how much it hurt him that I was leaving, but it was the matter of my future, I had to go. When we arrived to Belgrade I was stunned. It is always a great experience when you go to a big city, but this time I wasn’t only going for a visit, I was going to move there. I entered my new apartment. It was an one bedroom apartment, with small kitchen and no balcony. I sat down and talked to my dad for an hour. We talked about all the great times we had. We were just trying to avoid talk about me moving out for good. He decided that it was time for him to leave, so we hugged and I walked him to the car and told him to call me as soon as he gets home. While I was waiting for the call, I went outside to the bakery just down the street to grab some dinner. I saw a lot of high school kids there. They’d look like they were freshmen, just like me. I noticed this girl, who was almost as tall as me, and I was 6’6″. You don’t see that very often. I thought it was funny, but I didn’t really think about her after that. Anyways, I got back in the apartment, started unpacking, but I guess I was too tired, probably because it was a hard day, separating from my dad, and I guess I was a bit scared of the big city. Two hours after, my telephone rang. I thought I slept for 10 hours I felt so disoriented. It was my dad. He just called me to say that he arrived home.
“Hey Marco,” he said “I just wanted to let you know I’m home. What are you doing? I miss you already.”
“Dad, I’m so glad you called, I was tired so I fell asleep. Thank you for waking me up, I didn’t even set the alarm for tomorrow. I don’t want to be late on first day of school,” I replied.
“Okay, make sure you get something to eat. Call me tomorrow after school, I want to hear everything about it. Good night son, love you.”
“I have some croissants left in the kitchen, I’ll call you right after school, don’t worry. Good night dad, love you too.”
Well that didn’t seem painful. But it sure was. Talking to one person, who is the only support in your life is good, soothing. But it’s not good that you don’t have anyone else you can talk to. I decided I’ll make friends tomorrow at school.
I woke to the a pleasant sound of birds singing, and the first thing I saw were green leaves of an Oak tree right outside of my window, swinging on the slight summer breeze. I felt good. I was excited. I went down to the same bakery I went to the day before, and I got something to eat before my first high school class ever. When I walked down to the school, I was scared. I saw a lot of older students standing in the courtyard, smoking cigarettes, looking at us, freshmen, as if we are just kindergartners. I didn’t like that scene at all. The school building was like a labyrinth to me. It was huge. It had 3 floors and every single one looked like other two. I needed 15 minutes to locate my classroom. It was a good thing I got there 30 minutes before the class started. When I got in, I expected a lot of chatter, loud noises and such. But no. Everyone was quiet, sitting in their chairs as if they were waiting for me. I looked around the room and there weren’t many free seats, and all of the sudden I saw the tall girl from the bakery sitting alone, down in the back. I decided that she will be my first friend. I sat next to her. She looked and me, I smiled. She didn’t. It felt weird. Maybe because I was wearing braces. I don’t think she really liked me at the moment. I wanted to start a conversation, but everybody in the room was dead silent, so I thought it might be odd if only the two of us were talking. A minute after I came, our teacher came. She was also our advisor, for the whole class. She was teaching German, language not so pretty for ear, but easy for me. I’m fluent in German. She had a big smile on her face, from the moment she went into the classroom, until she sat down. She said “Guten Tag.” I was the only one who replied with the same phrase, like I was the only one who understood what that means. She saw that we weren’t very talkative, so she started talking. She kept talking on and on, and I decided to make a first move. “What’s your name?” I wrote on a piece of paper and slid it to the tall girl. She looked at it, looked at me, and said “Alexandra.” She looked away instantly. It was pretty clear to me that she was different than other girls I knew, and that made me want to know her better. When the class was finished we went to a break in the schoolyard, and I decided to follow her. She sat on a bench and lit a cigarette. It felt weird – I wasn’t expecting of a 16-year-old girl to smoke cigarettes, but hey I knew this was no ordinary girl. I sat next to her, again, but I decided to go strong this time.
“So what’s your story, Alexandra?”
“My story? What do you mean my story?”
“Well you are 16 years old and you’re smoking. Isn’t that odd?”
“Well if you really want to know, over the summer I had a fight with my ex-boyfriend, and I started stealing cigarettes from my mom to calm down. You know how they always say that smoking relieves stress? It really does.”
“Well I’m a basketball player so I swore that I would never smoke.”
“All right, I don’t want to push you, but you know, you’re missing on a lot”
“I assure you that I am not.”
“Ok, whatever.” She sounded so uninterested in me, that I had to do something to make myself attractive to her. Then, out of nowhere, came this small skinny guy, everybody called him Smiley, because of his wide smile he carried everywhere. He sat next to me and lit up a cigarette. So I sat in between two smokers. Me, a young athlete, who just came to this big, crazy city.
He started a conversation.
“You want a drag, big guy?” he asked me.
“No, I don’t smoke.” I replied and started coughing.
Alexandra blew smoke in my face. I didn’t see it coming, so I inhaled a lot of it. My eyes became red and I felt nauseous.
“All right I see. You don’t want me here if I don’t smoke. I’m going to go to class now.” I said, and left.
I was the first one to walk in the classroom. This one was much bigger than the previous one. This one had a lab in it. I was looking at all the liquids in the cabinets, and as I was going towards the back of the room a strong, male voice interrupted me.
“What do you think you are doing, young man?” That was my new chemistry teacher. He seemed like he was 50 something, and obviously didn’t like freshmen who are wandering around his classroom.
“Um, excuse me sir, I was just interested in all the chemicals you have here.” I said, scared.
“You are not allowed to go back there before you learn all the safety measures. Understood?”
“Yes sir. It won’t happen again.” I sat all the way in the back. I guess I was too scared of my new chemistry teacher. We both sat in silence for five minutes until the rest of our class came in. Both Alexandra and Smiley came. They were actually talking to each other. I couldn’t believe it! Just an hour before this she wouldn’t even say hi to me. I was pissed off. They sat right in front of me. Smiley turned back to me and said “Oh I’m sorry, do we smell like smoke? Can you breathe?” and they started laughing. I hated that guy so much. But she seemed to like him. And I didn’t like that. I was looking at them talking. They talked while our teacher was talking.
“You two in the back, leave my class. Now.” He seemed mad. And he absolutely should be, on the first day of school some freshmen come to your class and don’t care about what you have to say, that makes every teacher mad. So I was sitting all alone in the back of the chemistry classroom, looking at teacher in the eyes, but my mind was someplace else. I didn’t even hear when he said his name. I just named him Mr. Safety. I was looking at him, and acted like I care what he was talking about, but actually I was thinking about those two smokers who just got kicked out of class. Where are they now? Are they smoking again? Is that the only way to become friends with her? I spent the rest of the class thinking about that. I thought it wouldn’t hurt me if I smoked one cigarette on the next break. Just one, so she doesn’t hate me anymore. Just one, and she will like me after that. And the break came. I went outside and I saw them sitting on the same bench they sat on the last break. I approached them and sat next to her. She looked at me like she saw a stranger.
“What are you doing here? I thought that you can’t breathe while you’re close to us.”
“Shut up and give me one.” I said. I was determined to do it.
“Okay, but next time you have to buy your own. I don’t go around giving people stuff for free.”
“Just give me the damn cigarette.”
And she gave me. When I lit it up I felt guilt. Immediately. I was thinking about what my father would say to me if he saw me doing this. Is this the thing why I came to Belgrade? To start smoking? I was ashamed of myself. But I wasn’t a quitter. I didn’t want to look like a wuss. Not in front of Alexandra. And although I was coughing and feeling nauseous when I took my first few drags, I told myself “Come on man. You can do it. Just this one time. One time and never again.” And she seemed like she liked me more. And I felt happy. Even Smiley went to sit on the other bench. I was finally able to speak with her.
“So what kind of cigarettes are these?” I asked her.
“Marlboro Gold. These are my favorite. Do you like these?”
“Absolutely. Considering this is my first cigarette ever, these seem pretty tasty.” We started laughing. And as I was going for another drag, I saw a familiar face looking at me. My heart stopped beating for a second. It was my new coach.
“I would advise you to go home and start packing. Leave the apartment tonight.” he said, like he does that every day. Like it’s nothing new for him to crush young people’s dreams. I was speechless. I didn’t even put the cigarette away. I was holding it in my right hand, with my jaw dropped, and I started shivering. My whole world just crashed in front of my eyes. I came to play basketball for number one team in the country and I didn’t even go to my first practice, And they’re already sending me home. The amount of thoughts passing through my head was unimaginable. Why did I do it? What will my father say? What would my mother say? Who does this coach think I am now? And most importantly how could I let some girl that doesn’t even like me make me do the one thing I swore I would never do.
After the coach said that, he just turned around and went out of the schoolyard. I couldn’t move. The class started, everybody went inside. And I kept sitting outside, alone. At least I expected Alexandra to stay with me, because she saw what just happened, but no. As soon as the bell rang, she went inside. She didn’t say a single word to me. I felt like crying. But I didn’t. I stood up, and started walking towards my apartment. Good thing it was only one block away from the school. When I finally got in, I sat on the couch, breathed deeply and called my father.
“Hey son! How was school? Tell me everything!” He was obviously enthused. I wish I gave him a reason to keep feeling that way. But I didn’t have one.
“Dad, I need you to come here tonight. Something bad happened. Please hurry.” That’s when I started crying.
“What!? What the hell happened? Talk to me!” Suddenly he went from being enthused, to being concerned and mad at the same time.
“I’m fine, I just need you right now. Can you please come tonight? I can’t talk to you about this over the phone.”
“I’ll be there in four hours.” And he hung up.
I lied on the bed, hugged my pillow and kept crying. I never cried that much before. In fact it was my first time crying since I was a little kid. I don’t know why but it helped. It was like I let all the negative feelings flow out of me. I felt relieved. It wasn’t long after I fell asleep my telephone rang. It was the director of my basketball club.
“Marco, I heard what happened today. Coach Dusan told me. I hope you understand that’s a serious offense. The rules of this club compel us to expel you. I am sorry that it had to end this way. We were really excited about working with you, but you obviously had more important things to do. I wish you a successful career.” He hung up, without letting me to say a single word. He just heard me hyperventilating. I tried to calm down. When I finally did, I started feeling all needs that were probably repressed by emotions. I started feeling hunger and thirst. I had a whole hour and a half before my dad would arrive, so I decided to visit the bakery, where I first saw Alexandra, for the one last time. When I walked in, I went straight to the counter and ordered my food. When I turned around I saw it. I saw the face that made me smoke. She was staring at me. Finally she said “I am so sorry about what happened today. I am sorry that I left you sitting alone after that. How can I make it up to you?”
“You can’t. I’m leaving tonight.”
She kept looking at me, straight into my eyes. I was looking at her, but as soon as I started lowering my head, she put her hand around my neck and kissed me. I could feel the taste of cigarettes, but I didn’t mind it. I didn’t want to throw up, in fact I enjoyed it. And suddenly, the kiss stopped.
“Let this be my sorry and my goodbye to you.” And she ran out. I just picked up my food and went out to see if I could see her, but she was already too far away. So I walked slowly to my apartment. I walked so slowly, that I noticed many things I had never noticed before. Like how beautiful a sunset can be. The sound of the kids coming from the playground was much less annoying than it was before. My mind was clear. I saw the world with different eyes. I sat on the bench close to my apartment and ate my food. I looked at people, I looked at buildings around me. I was trying to capture this moment. This was my last hour with this beautiful city. After some time I checked my watch and realized my father was about to arrive. So I went back to my apartment. I started packing. Luckily, I didn’t unpack all of my bags yet, so there wasn’t much stuff to be packed. I heard someone knocking on the door. It was my dad. When I opened, the first thing he did was he hug me and say to me he loves me. Then he asked what happened.
“Nothing dad. Nothing I am available to tell you right now. I just need to move out. We’re going home.” He seemed sad, but he seemed happy too. Living with me was the one thing he enjoyed the most. He helped me take the bags down to the car.
While we were driving out of Belgrade, I whispered to the city It was nice meeting you Belgrade. I promise I will stay longer next time. And as we were going further and further a tear ran down my face. That tear was me, and my eye was Belgrade. That tear belonged in the eye, just like I belonged in Belgrade. I closed my eyes. Just like Belgrade closed itself to me.