09. 13. 2011. 08:41

Dear Unknown (excerpt)

The community they lived in, a couple of thousand people in the city (most of them young folks) readily spread the sad news. All threads seemed to somehow intertwine in the city. Everybody knew everybody from somewhere.

It was spring, late evening, and the radioactive rain was pouring down. Emma and Emőke walked either side of a nameless guy with their arms interlinked as they dragged the young psychiatrist through the centre of town like their catch. And that’s what he was, their catch: they came out of the concert on Ráday Street and managed to pull him away from three aggressive girls and the other members of the band and pull him into the unknown or rather Emőke’s place because the flat happened to be empty. Magda Feld was in the heart hospital, where, according to Emőke’s cynical take on things, Mum was training at altitude in preparation for her suicide attempt (then when her words proved to be a prediction in September, every last one of them came tumbling back down on Emőke’s head). But it was still only spring, late evening, and the three of them tramped along under the big, black umbrella belonging to the nameless young psychiatrist that their catch gripped tightly with both hands. He was the temporary front man for Dawn Abdominal Hyperaemia, the nameless young psychiatrist.

“My girlfriend needs a good shrink! She’s gone mad. She’s been running around in the rain all day. That right, Emma? Just look at her!”

Emma had a large red patch on her face. She was cuddling a bottle of cheap brandy that she passed around every now and again but she showed no signs of its effects. She smiled as she gestured to the nameless young psychiatrist, don’t pay any attention to what Emőke’s saying, she’s the lunatic.

“She does it because she doesn’t want kids!” Emőke went on. “She's got a mother complex because her mum really is more beautiful than she is.”

“Man!” the nameless young psychiatrist whistled. “I’d like to see that woman!”

“You hear that? It was a complement!” Emőke whooped and carried on selling Emma. “You see, she wants to be a muse! But a really great muse. You know, like that woman… that Lou… that Lou… that Lou Andreas-Salomé, who started with Nietzsche, went onto Rilke and ended up with Freud. She runs around in the rain to make herself believe that she’d only ever have a disabled kid from all the radiation so she won’t have one after all and she can happily become a muse.”

“Emőke, sweetie,” Emma addressed her girlfriend, “a bit more respect.”

“I completely respect you, sister,” Emőke reassured here and then turned to the psychiatrist. “So, you see, she’s the muse and I’m her manager. A muse needs a manager, doesn’t she? You two can talk now.”

Emőke completely misunderstood the situation. Something completely unexpected happened to Emma: she went dumb. She simply couldn’t manage to speak in the presence of the nameless young psychiatrist. She just couldn’t find the words. This pleased her because for a while she thought she’d set her sights too high: there wasn’t a boy in this city who’d be good enough for her. (There should be at least four or five suitable men in her age group or that’s what she and Edit Perbáli had guessed.)

“You need a manager?” the nameless young psychiatrist asked.

Being as nothing came to her mind, Emma shrugged her shoulders: yes.

“Why, what do you do, besides being a muse, that is?”

“Guess!” Emma said, sticking her chest out and pulling a proud face. Because she was angry with herself for liking the nameless young psychiatrist and completely incapable of speech in his presence. Well, she could speak but couldn’t manage to say what she wanted which was that she never went to this kind of concert and she’d only come along this time to please her girlfriend who went by the name of Emőke Széles and was walking on the other side of the nameless young psychiatrist. They should be the ones talking to each other.

“You’re an artist,” the nameless young artist said with a condescending tone. “Am I right?”

“We’ve just told you that I’m a muse,” Emma wanted to say. “Didn’t you hear? I wrote a poem when I was sixteen and it had everything in it and I swear it was like someone dictated it to me. But then it turned out that I don’t actually have a mission in life, I’m not a genius, I’m no real talent, I’m nothing, I’m a student. But you’re not an artist either, you’re just a big nobody!”

“Yeah,” said Emma in a haughty tone in preference to this monologue.

“A life artist?”

“Ha-ha,” said Emma. 

The nameless young psychiatrist started to explain to Emma that she wasn’t risking the life of her unborn child by running around in the rain. This rain wasn’t all that dangerous. The city was full of shock stories. Emma desperately wanted to respond by saying that her unborn children were none of his business but instead she told him to shut his umbrella if he dared. The nameless young physiatrist shut his umbrella. Emőke Széles muttered something about stupid kids and opened her own.

“Is this what you wanted?” the nameless young psychiatrist asked.

Emma wanted to come back at him with a sarcastic “So now you think you’re living dangerously?” But nothing actually came out of her mouth, which she managed to cleverly conceal with a timely pout.

“You’re think a lot of yourself,” the nameless young psychiatrist nodded. “You’ve got your own opinion about everybody.”

“Is that a problem?” Emma asked when she really wanted to say, “Right, I know. This is the part when you tell me that I’m a narcissist.”

“You can still just about get away with it.”

“I should hope so!” Emma retorted but she really wanted to ask what it was she could still get away with. Surely not being a narcissist?! And what did he mean by ‘still just about’?! Was he trying to say something about her age?!

“Have you got such little self-confidence?” the nameless young psychiatrist attacked. “Do you really have to play the über girl?”

Emma had chatted to lots of boys and they nearly always ended up on the subject of her personality. And none of them had been psychiatrists. (There’d been the odd psychologist among them.) She’d never been out with anyone for longer than two weeks. She had no self-confidence. That’s why she couldn’t speak. Now she would have cut back at him with,

“Guys like you who make a show of being so self-confident are the sort who end up joining some sort of cult.” But she didn’t cut back at him with anything. The über girl was pretty spot on. Her tongue paralysed again.

“Women like you,” the nameless young psychologist continued in a superior tone, “are the sort who end up joining some sort of cult! I don’t want to scare you.”

Emma wanted to respond to this by asking, “Where do you get the barefaced cheek to use phrases like ‘women like you’? ‘Women like you’ don’t exist! People exists. Do you have such a low opinion of people?! The fact that you’re used to having women fall at your feet and Nietzsche sticking out of your pocket in German doesn’t make you an artist however loud you shout into the microphone.” She was angry enough to have said that now but she didn’t want to flatter the nameless young psychiatrist and that would have qualified as flattery. Instead, all she said was,

“Why, what’s a woman like me like?”

“Pretty good,” the nameless young psychiatrist courted. “You just wear too much makeup and you think you’re the queen.”

“I don’t think, I know!” Emma exclaimed and for once this was what she wanted to say because this was what she wanted to think. Because she’d been insulted.

“Typical,” the nameless young psychiatrist chuckled.

“Because you’re not typical?!”

Emőke Széles peered out from under her umbrella with a smile of satisfaction as she witnessed their love affair beginning. At least that’s what she thought she was witnessing. In fact she was actually witnessing Emma being taken for ride. If she’d ever realised what she was witnessing, she’d never have tried to get them together. But she didn’t know. She sensed no danger. She thought that a free-speaking guy like this would do Emma some good because he’d get bored of her soon enough. (She also saw what appeared to be some sort of fellow feeling between Emma and Kornél of which she was a little wary.) It never occurred to her that the nameless young psychiatrist might fall for Emma or that perhaps he wasn’t as uninhibited as he first appeared.

It happened to be public knowledge that the nameless young psychiatrist would end up paralysed in the next couple of years. He wasn’t the only one in the city with such depressing prospects. Many other good-looking guys suffered similarly complaints (infertility, mind on the brink of insanity, schizophrenic episodes, etc.) and most of them made no secret of it. In fact, they complained to the women they met but always with a serious expression after a lot of obvious hesitation. They had their reasons. They wanted to prevent girls from tying their lives to them at the same time making girls feel sorry for them, which they really wanted. This is what the nameless young psychiatrist was also playing for. He wanted the best girls in the city to panic and line up for a chance with him before he was forced into a wheelchair for good. Emőke Széles reassured Emma with a clear conscience: she really didn’t have to take the nameless young psychiatrist seriously, he would only leave any woman he met because he wanted to experience life to the full because he’d soon be paralysed. The community they lived in, a couple of thousand people in the city (most of them young folks) readily spread the sad news. All threads seemed to somehow intertwine in the city. Everybody knew everybody from somewhere. (In fact, even vaguely before that.)

Emma and Emőke became friends because of smelly feet, which they both experienced as children but reacted very differently. They made Emma feel quite sick while Emőke couldn’t let them pass without a cutting comment which saw the owner of the smelly feet throw her out of his flat. They were in the same year and lived in similar circumstances (alone with a divorced mother) and yet they still looked on each other with a degree of hostility for the longest time although Emőke’s hatred started to wobble when Emma turned up to a lecture entitled An Introduction to the Science of Law at the end of the first term in a powdered wig and crinoline skirt she’d made herself. She admired Emma for her audacity but she still kept her distance until the college outing when the subject of smelly feet came up along with the taste of a certain cake.

They were sitting in a wooden chalet in the Sopron campsite at night and, as usual, Emőke Széles held the floor. She explained why she never managed to learn French. Her mother found her a French teacher who taught from home in the late afternoon. The teacher came straight in from school where he’d been standing all day and could hardly wait to slip his shoes off. He sat at a desk in his socks and stretched his feet out right under Emőke’s nose who sat on the other side. His wife placed a plate of cakes down on the desk and then left them to it. There wasn’t a smell in the world that could have ever distracted Emőke Széles when presented with crumbly cherry cake but they had cheese scones for the third lesson and that was just too much to handle. Emőke Széles had to pinch her nose to consume the scones. When the teacher asked her why, she told him simply that she couldn’t stand the smell of cheese. Then she couldn’t stop herself from taking a sniff under the table and they threw her out.

“You’re just mad!” the others laughed. They liked Emőke Széles.

“We went to the same teacher!” Emma piped up who’d been reading up until that point and only listening to the tale with half an ear. She’d rushed home after the first lesson and told her mum she couldn’t take the smell of feet. Edit Perbáli was unfamiliar with the phenomenon even though she’d had private language lessons but a good twenty years earlier shortly after the middle of the century. And the world was a very different place back then. Her elderly French teacher sat at his desk in shoes. His lace-ups were rather worn but polished to perfection. He wore an old but otherwise immaculate dark suit with a bow tie. He was a gentlemen from a previous age. So that’s the image Edit Perbáli had in her head of a French teacher. She just nodded and found Emma another French teacher, this time a woman but it still ended in smelly feet. Sadly, Edit had no sense of humour, which would have helped a lot in such a tragicomic situation, and so when Emma came back from her second first class and said how sick she felt, it led to an argument about what sort of pathetic individual her daughter would become before Edit eventually slapped Emma hard across the face and they both ended up in tears.

After a short and exited exchange, Emma managed to convince Emőke that they were talking about completely different French teachers and completely different smelly feet but by this time, the rest of them had joined in. It turned out that three of the others had come across the same situation: private teacher, late afternoon, desk, smelly feet. And it soon transpired that this wasn’t unique to those teaching the French language but occurred across the curriculum. Smelly feet now acquired a social background and a historical depth because the reason lay undoubtedly in an impoverished state economy: for years on end, there wasn’t an effective ointment available to treat athlete’s foot east of the Elba where personal hygiene and frank expression were dying out. Sitting around in the chalet in Sopron, this bunch of law students didn’t get as far as the social background but this fleeting recognition of their shared generational experience brought them all that little bit closer together.

But by that time Emma and Emőke were far away, walking and talking in the dark Sopron night. Only the Iron Curtain blocked their path or rather a couple of young border guards in a jeep patrolling the Hungarian side of the nearby Austrian border. They gave the girls a very sour telling-off for having entered a forbidden zone, threatened them with legal proceedings but then, as could only happen between two pretty students and two young border guards, the boys smiled and gave the girls a lift back to the campsite.

Translated by: Ralph Berkin

Tags: István Kemény