Growing Up Is the Deadliest Summertime Sport

"1998" from SWEETLUST by Asja Bakić, recommended by Jennifer Zoble

Introduction by Jennifer Zoble

Over the nearly six years that I’ve been translating Bosnian author Asja Bakić, the word I’ve used most frequently to describe her narrative voice is wry, with its dual connotations of drollness and distortion. Her protagonists are often too clever and cynical for their own good and find themselves in disorienting, sometimes supernatural predicaments that shake their complacency without blunting their tart humor. In Sweetlust, her second collection out with Feminist Press, Bakić deploys this wry sensibility while delving further into themes of sex, gender, and power, which were prevalent in her previous book, Mars. Like its predecessor, Sweetlust is populated with monsters—some of them human, some of them birthed by the human imagination. But Sweetlust is a darker, dirtier, queasier, wetter book. 

The unnamed teenager whose summer camp mystery we follow in “1998,” the first story in the collection, is a precocious table-tennis athlete who’s struggling to understand so many things: her body, her competitive nature, her atypically old-school cultural affinities (she listens to Yugoslav pop from the sixties), and, perhaps most of all, her gender’s second-class status, both in junior table tennis and the wider world. She spends much of her time at camp observing the other kids from her perch on a hill while reading a French novel about enslavement and sexual violence. She prefers swimming and hiking alone. But she’s not an outcast—she’s there at the invitation of a good friend and teammate. Rather, she’s a thinker, a watcher, and keenly aware of the monstrosity of adolescence, with its cascading hormones, pretenses, and injustices. When girl after girl in her tent starts bleeding profusely in the middle of the night, she immediately intuits that the problem is not anemia or menorrhagia, as the camp staff suggests. 

Foreword Reviews, in its starred review of Sweetlust, noted that in the book’s “daring, imaginative short stories, strong-minded women fight for survival and search for meaning in disturbing dystopian worlds.” The protagonist of “1998” is the first, and youngest, of these women. “Surviving the first half of the nineties had been a real miracle,” she thinks. “Surviving girlhood would be an even greater accomplishment.” Reading this story, we’re transported back to the time in our own lives when every word, especially those uttered by our peers, contained perplexing subtexts; when even the simplest interactions carried a whiff of menace; and when practically anything could make our world go awry.

– Jennifer Zoble
Translator of Sweetlust

Growing Up Is the Deadliest Summertime Sport

1998 by Asja Bakić

She’d planned to stay home with her mother that summer until her father and sister returned from the European Junior Table Tennis Championships in Italy. Instead she spontaneously took a bus trip to Jablanica Lake with her friend Anida. Anida’s mother was the secretary to the director of the postal service and sent them to a summer camp organized for the children of its employees. She was sixteen. She brought a two-piece bathing suit, teen angst, and the novel I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé. She was looking forward to a perfect summer.

When she got off the bus, she realized she’d be sharing a tent with at least six other girls, which didn’t particularly please her since she’d always found it difficult to make friends. She’d spent her life training at table tennis out of emotional obligations and habits, not because she enjoyed the company of others her age. Physical exertion made her feel good, but socializing exhausted her. She tended to expect the worst of people, primarily because players from the other team would always insult their opponents during matches to demoralize and weaken them. She dreamed of fair play, an atmosphere in which she’d be less anxious about losing. She was sensitive, but not in the same way as her peers. Anida, who was slightly younger, adored the film Titanic—she’d seen it at least twenty times. But she didn’t share Anida’s tastes, or even her sister’s.

At the entrance to the camp, which was across from a lake, there were picnic tables where everyone ate. The kitchen was there, too, and next to that, a small infirmary. A hill rose above them. She knew right away that she’d spend most of her time up there; she was always looking for an isolated perch from which to study someone else’s upbringing in order to forget about her own. Hordes of children packed into the same place was not an especially pleasant scenario for the organizers either. At times the racket seemed to reach all the way to the Amalfi Coast. But that wasn’t her problem. Like any child, she needed a vacation from her own hormones, from the nightly growth of her breasts, which was driving her crazy. She loved other girls’ tits. For herself she just wanted a straight line to death.

On the first day, right after breakfast, she climbed the hill and sat in the shade. Anida was going swimming with her friends and called out to her, of course, to join them. But she turned her down. She only went swimming at dusk, when there was no one left in the lake. She’d been watching them curiously from the hill. They may have shared the same tent, but they clearly didn’t share the same thoughts: the other girls were obsessed with boys, and she couldn’t bring herself to think about them. Still, she would occasionally wonder what she might be missing out on.

It was only on the third day that she dared to go in the lake with everyone else. A boy immediately grabbed her leg, wanting to start a conversation. It was a stupid, childish move, but she laughed. He was not repulsive to her. She swam away quickly nonetheless.

She experienced swimming differently from table tennis. For her it wasn’t a sport. The nausea she woke up feeling on competition days disappeared in the lake water: she threw it to the muddy bottom with each crawl stroke. With each backstroke she unloaded the burden from her shoulders.

Shit! she thought. I’m even competitive about intimate feelings.

Everything in her world had become one big sports metaphor. Her muscular body carried her thoughts upstream, away from the tumult. She regarded the other swimmers with curiosity, like someone who had already beaten them at growing up, and at life. It was a sad gaze, but in the spirit of victory, she had to move on. After swimming, she climbed the hill more slowly than usual. She’d brought her book but she didn’t feel like cracking it open.

The reason why she hadn’t gone to the European Junior Championships was trivial: the table tennis federation couldn’t afford to pay for her travel as well as that of her colleagues. The two best teenage girl athletes had stayed home. The kids in the younger division had gone; all the boys had gone. And it would’ve been fine (she was used to not having money) had she not, to her intense regret, reached an age when she could finally perceive the connection between money and men. She didn’t want to think about it, but she had no choice.

That spring, the coach had invited her for fitness training camp. Everything that the boys’ teams did, the girls would have to do, too, except there was no financial support. But they didn’t tell her that before the trip. She ran for hours in sneakers with flimsy soles. She had blisters for days. Sometimes she squeezed her racket too hard, horrified by the thoughts that were bubbling to the surface, thoughts she couldn’t make sense of. She needed to talk to the other girls. Who was crushing on whom was, of course, a common topic in the locker room, but the girls never complained about the poor conditions because there were always boys playing in the hallway outside, at the tables in the best locations, with the best lighting. The girls trained obediently under flickering bulbs, on damaged floors. They showered and laughed together, but dreamed separately, each in her own room, steeped in lukewarm water and surging hormones. Perhaps it was then, as she watched her peers struggling to grow up, that her dissatisfaction asserted itself for the first time: Could a girl ever be important enough to be placed at the best table, beneath the best lights?

On the hill she could indulge the vice of thinking in peace. She sat up there until lunchtime, then went down among the other kids and chatted as much as she had to. Anida spoke loudly about the band The Kelly Family. She didn’t know what to say in response. She preferred old Yugoslav pop songs. She could listen to Ivo Robić and Gabi Novak all day, but how to admit such a thing?

When lunch was over, the others retreated to the tent to rest. Near the lake was a large meadow that led to an overgrown forest. She set off on a hike. She felt free when she didn’t have to watch what she was saying. She walked wherever she wanted. Just when she began searching for a spot where she could briefly lie down, she spotted in the distance the boy who’d touched her in the water. She ducked behind the nearest bush, hoping he hadn’t seen her. Once she was convinced he wasn’t following her, she got up and headed back to the camp. The kids had gone swimming. She sat by herself. Everything was all right.

In the evening she wanted to swim again. She was most attracted to water when she couldn’t see her reflection in it. She swam frantically, like she was racing. Suddenly, in the middle of the lake, someone pulled her by the leg. Twice, quite hard. She paused.

“Don’t!” she said.

But when she turned, there was no one in the water.

That night, she couldn’t sleep. She remembered her first fitness training in Hungary where, one night, in the cabin that housed all the girls, hundreds of cockroaches had fallen on their heads. Roaches had rained down from the ceiling at every angle. Wasn’t this invasion of disgusting insects the perfect herald of a dangerous adolescence? She was thirteen then and looked like a boy. Even now, three years later, things hadn’t changed that much. She hadn’t gotten her period. She wasn’t interested in boys. The picture she kept in her notebook wasn’t a photo of the famous Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, but a portrait of the Partisan hero Rade Končar.

She listened to the other girls breathing in the tent. She didn’t have a watch, but she could sense that dawn was approaching. The first rays of the sun put her to sleep. She didn’t go to breakfast. She even slept through lunch.

At the lake, she and Anida spoke briefly about table tennis. When summer was over, they’d have to start training again twice a day, sometimes for an exhausting six hours if the school allowed it. One hundred crunches, at least half an hour of running, and then stretching. She had to practice her spin and watch out for dangerous shots that opponents aimed at her torso. Her reflexes needed to be faster. Her wrists, more relaxed. She looked down at her legs: she was as agile as a cat, but twitchy. Her legs could not lessen the tension of her head. When she was depressed, not even a strong forehand could help. Her mood swings were visible to everyone. She didn’t fit in. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that she played in poor lighting. Sports had sculpted her body, but the grimaces came from within, from a place she wanted to hide.

Sports had sculpted her body, but the grimaces came from within, from a place she wanted to hide.

When she swam, time stood still. She stared down at the water: the surface of the lake thickened, grew more viscous. She swam with difficulty, as if through pancake batter. She felt herself becoming gooey, like a piece of dough changing shape. She wasn’t scared; she’d always imagined growing up that way. The roar of the children around her continued unabated. She was the only one to notice what was happening. She knew such changes were necessary. In a couple of years she’d even love cabbage rolls: that’s how deep the transformation would go.

As for Tituba, the Black witch of Salem, she delighted in her character: “Out of them all, you’ll be the only one to survive.” The first part of the novel ended with these words. She didn’t dare read any further. The sun was beating down on her head. She set the book down on a towel and went back into the water. Surviving the first half of the nineties had been a real miracle. Surviving girlhood would be an even greater accomplishment. She admired herself for not bleeding. Nothing kept her from swimming. In high school, she never even missed gym class. Especially not when they were at the pool. The “women’s problems” that plagued her had to do with the plot of Maryse Condé’s novel, not with menstruation. The water didn’t completely soothe her readerly unease, but she swam and swam. Had she continued at that pace, she could’ve crossed the Adriatic and gone to the competition in Italy. She was only sixteen, but she knew her efforts were insufficient. She could try her hardest, but it wouldn’t stop her breasts from growing. She’d soon be crossing into puberty. Aging wasn’t something you could postpone.

Out of them all, I’ll be the only one not to survive, she thought.

She choked. She’d swallowed some lake water and it brought her back to reality. The young man was paddling his legs in the water. He observed her carefully. No one else seemed to pay him any attention. It was as if they didn’t even see him. She knew he wasn’t staying in the camp. No one in his family worked for the postal service. She dove down into the water. When she surfaced, he was gone. She thought of the lake fairies who dragged men under. Maybe the young man would be their first victim this year?

During the night she was awakened by a loud cry. The girl next to her had begun to bleed profusely. They helped her to her feet. Blood soaked her sleeping bag. Her sobs soon woke the rest of the girls. First they wadded some hand towels between her legs, then they switched to beach towels. Then they wrapped her in a sheet. When they saw that she wouldn’t stop bleeding, they took her to the infirmary. The woman who worked there was awful. She asked the girl whom she’d slept with, whether she was a virgin or not. She yelled and insulted her. The girl was rapidly losing blood. The doctor on duty mentioned a miscarriage, then menorrhagia, which they’d never heard of. Ultimately the girl, wrapped in a sheet like a corpse, was thrown into a car—not an ambulance—and sent home, one hundred eighty kilometers away. The doctor didn’t even bother to call her parents.

The whole tent reeked of blood. No one could go back to sleep. The girls were shuffled around to other areas of the campsite. She grabbed her sleeping bag, climbed the hill, and stretched out in the same spot where, earlier in the day, she’d sat thinking. Under the clear night sky, it suddenly occurred to her that the heavy bleeding hadn’t been a gynecological problem. Something else was going on. She would have to find out what had happened to the girl.

Over the next five days, three more girls from her tent ended up in the infirmary. They were raced to Jablanica for a blood transfusion because all three had collapsed at the same time. Swaddled in blankets, they looked like rag dolls. Their parents needed to be notified of the incident, but the trip organizer wanted to cover it all up, lying to the mothers and fathers that it was simply anemia. When the girls returned to the camp, she noticed how much they had changed. Everyone pretended that nothing strange had happened, but the girls’ faces looked different than they had before. She could clearly see the transformation. They still went swimming with Anida, but they walked strangely, as if they’d gone to a place that had turned them upside down.

Nothing bad happened to the boys in the meantime. For them, the summer was truly perfect. They played basketball and soccer. They swam, ate overstuffed bologna sandwiches, and thought about the girls—but also about the adult women who ran the camp.

“The things I’d do to her,” she heard one say.

In her mind, those “things” could only mean going to the European Junior Championships instead of her, in her place.

“Gross!” she said.

The kid turned, the first hints of fuzz erupting from his upper lip.

“What are you whining about?” he shouted. “As if you wouldn’t! Did you see those tits?!”

He thought he was addressing another boy. Then he looked at her more closely.

“I thought you were a guy,” he said, confused.

She became a piece of dough again, and the ground on which she trod turned to water. She turned and swam away. Why did she lose to men every time? She wandered absently into the field and entered the woods. She walked, contemplating her own gender. How could you beat an opponent if you started the match with half the points already decided in his favor? You play until 21, and the scoreboard says 0–11. You haven’t even taken your racket out of its case yet, and you’re already losing.

She hiked for at least half an hour. Then she heard the sound of water. No one had mentioned this at the camp. Through a thick tangle of branches she spied a low waterfall cascading into a small pool. Beneath it was bathing a young man she instantly recognized. Actually, not bathing; only half of his body was in the waterfall. He looked as if he was stuck in the water, but he wasn’t. She hardly blinked and he was gone. When she’d managed to get through the thicket, she went in the water. Unlike the lake, it was very cold. She nearly lost her breath. Not only her breath; the cold prolonged her entry into the waterfall, as if the moment when she’d stepped into the stream had been frozen. Then she felt a strong grip, like she had in the lake. This time someone seized her arm and pulled her under the waterfall. When she came out on the other side, she was greeted by an inverted image of the place she’d come from: the same stream, the same thicket. She walked through the same forest. For half an hour, just as she had on the way to the waterfall. Everything looked the same.

At the camp she saw the same people. It was lunchtime and everyone was sitting on picnic benches and eating. She looked around for Anida. As soon as she saw her, she went up to her.

“Scoot over,” she said.

Anida shifted to make room for her. When she sat down, she carefully scrutinized her friend. How well did they know each other? She wasn’t sure. Maybe she would be able to recognize the change in Anida, if only she would look her in the eye, but instead she kept her eyes on her plate, as if she knew. She chewed on the same slice of bread, it seemed, for hours.

“Are you looking forward to practice?” she asked Anida.

Her friend just stared ahead, replying, “Not really. It’ll be hard to go back to school and train every day.”

Okay, that sounded like something Anida would say. She wanted to ask her something more intimate, something that this Anida wouldn’t know, but she needed to do it without making her suspicious. “I haven’t told anyone this, but at the tournament, A. gave me his track jacket.”

“And?” asked her friend.

“I took it to my hotel room, locked the door, and put it on over my bare skin. I didn’t tell you this, right?”

She waited for Anida’s answer with great trepidation.

“No, this is the first I’m hearing it.”

Her words were reassuring. Maybe she’d just imagined that this was the “wrong” Anida. They looked identical, and their voices sounded the same. But the doubt lingered, because her friend was gobbling up food from a plate that didn’t seem to have emptied at all.

“Why aren’t you eating anything?” Anida asked her with her mouth full.

“I’m not hungry. I’m going for a walk now, so I’ll see you at the lake.”


She didn’t want to put anything from this world into her mouth. She’d read somewhere that when you eat something from the underworld, you get stuck there. She wanted to make sure she could still escape. But the longer she thought about her situation, the more her discomfort subsided. She climbed the hill, almost joyfully. The landscape was unchanged. In the tent, which did not smell of blood, she found her book. Tituba bore the familiar inscription from her sister; the handwriting was unmistakable. This world was real. She felt relieved. She was not nervous about talking to others. She slept peacefully that night. In the morning she had fun swimming.

Just a little more, she told herself. An hour or two and then I’ll go back. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave.

Things were better for her here. She felt good in her own skin. She didn’t think about Italy or table tennis. It was as if she’d offloaded her trauma. The next day, without any apprehension, she started talking about music while everyone was playing in the lake.

“Do any of you listen to old Yugoslav music from the sixties?” she asked. She was proud of herself.

“Like Gabi Novak?”

“Yes!” she said. “Doesn’t she have an amazing voice?”

“She does,” someone said.

It was Anida’s turn to reply. She was expecting the same lecture she’d heard from her friend a hundred times: There was no band like The Kelly Family. Everyone else was garbage.

“I like Tic Tac Toe the most,” said Anida.

Saying this, her friend finally looked her right in the eye. A smile flickered across her lips. There was something awful about the way her mouth twisted, as if half her face were paralyzed.

Moving slowly away from Anida, she gave a laugh. Her heart was pounding in panic, but she knew that she mustn’t show any fear. This place, whatever it was, had sucked her in, and there was no need to further provoke it.

This place, whatever it was, had sucked her in, and there was no need to further provoke it.

“I’m getting hungry,” Anida said. “Do you want a sandwich?”

She wanted to slowly disappear from Anida’s sight and run back to the waterfall. She’d stayed here too long.

“I was thinking of eating too,” she said, maintaining her smile. “Can I get you something from the kitchen?”

She wouldn’t give up. She refused to let Anida come along. How would she ditch someone who was following her?

“Okay,” Anida said.

She took two sandwiches and headed back to the lake. She gave one to Anida, and then threw the other in the bushes.

“I’m going up the hill to finish my book.”

She went to the tent, grabbed Tituba, and hurried out. The book was her only proof.

“Where are you?” she heard Anida’s voice in the distance.

She was a long way from camp now and knew she shouldn’t stop. Even one step backward would be an act of insanity.


The drawn-out crackling of Anida’s voice sounded like someone setting up a radio antenna.

She quickened her pace. “Let’s plaaaaaaaaaaaay!”

She heard the sound of a rumbling stomach. The footsteps behind her resounded more and more clearly. She ran. She shoved the book down her pants to free up her hands. She parted the branches and ran as if she weren’t a table tennis player but a track athlete. Her knees buckled in fear. She didn’t want the fake Anida to catch up with her and send a doppelgänger in her place. When she finally reached the waterfall, she turned and saw that, instead of her friend, the young man she’d seen at the lake was staring at her.

“Where are you rushing off to?” he asked.

He stood still. He didn’t go into the water after her. He figured he didn’t have to.

“You look like a guy,” he said.

“I know.”

“I don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind either,” she said.

“You’re lying.”

Before the trip through the waterfall, that would’ve been true, but she wasn’t lying now. She didn’t care what she looked like. She just wanted to survive. That was the most important thing to her. She said to him, “The fact that you didn’t know her favorite band gave you away.”

He laughed. And his stomach growled again. His voracious mouth widened into an even bigger smile.

“Do you want to eat me?” she asked.

“Just below the waist.” He fixed her with his gaze. “You have nice muscular legs. Nice thighs.”

It didn’t sound like he was describing a drumstick. Maybe his appetite was different?

“Why are you so hungry?”

The answer hung in the air. She watched his every move. It helped that she’d had practice reading other people in table tennis. She’d often seen people using their hands to hide the setup of their serves in order to confuse her. When she got back home, when she survived this, she’d train for seven hours, go running, exercise like crazy. She wanted to read her future opponents like an open book.

The young man didn’t budge. He just stood still and watched her. So she stood motionless too. She was careful not to turn her back to him.

“I wonder what you did to the other girls.”

“I made them happy, that’s all,” he said.

“I wouldn’t call bleeding ‘happy.’”

“Blood is the consequence of great fun.”

“Yours, perhaps,” she said.

“Don’t be cruel. If they weren’t having fun, they wouldn’t have kept coming back. If anyone was hungry, it was them.”

He shrugged as if indifferent, but his face twitched. This discussion was wearing him out.

“You’re stubborn. Don’t you feel relieved that you’re here?” he asked.

“I do, and that worries me the most. Problems don’t just disappear like that.”

“You sound like a precocious child,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Unfortunately I do.”

He grinned, but in agony. If he made even the slightest movement, his prey would escape, and then what would he do? Play with himself? Where was the pleasure in that?

“We can stand together here under the waterfall—we don’t have to touch. I just want to get close to you.”

A shiver passed through her. She was sure he would grab her at any moment and drag her into the woods.

“You’re different, better than the other girls,” he said.

She laughed. She knew she wasn’t better. That realization would save her.

“They were the appetizer?”


Now her stomach began to growl. She had to get out of there. She was overcome with lust. Her stomach grew louder. Her knees buckled, but not from fear.

“You’re not really my taste,” she said with great difficulty, stepping back. “After practice, I could eat a whole fridge. You’re just scraps.”

“Clever!” he yelled. “This isn’t over.”

He ran into the water after her, but her athletic reflexes saved her. She ducked under the waterfall. He grabbed her by the arm, but she slipped through his grasp. She fell hard in the shallow water, breaking her nose. Survival wasn’t elegant. The book got wet. Her sister’s inscription bled across the paper like a common stain.

When she arrived back at the camp, the sun had already set. The kids were sitting around a fire. Anida was telling jokes. She looked at them all briefly and then, when her breathing had finally calmed down, she took a triumphant step toward the infirmary. She was happy there was no blood running down her legs.

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