I should have known. We were supposed to meet at the antiquarian bookshop by the Margaret Bridge at five-thirty, but in the half-hour that elapsed before the snug little store finally shut its door and the lingering customers dispersed with disenchanted stares into the summer rain, eight trams came off the bridge from the Buda side of the Danube and, no, of all the passengers who got off—not one was Violetta. Knowing this is how she would come, if she would come at all, I went to the door and stepped outside each time I noticed the yellow glint of the tram on the store window, searching the crowd of passengers who’d just gotten off for the rosy, squirrelish cheeks and long, orange-blonde hair of my Violetta. Her eyes, under splendidly arched brows and a forehead so broad and white it looked naked, as though it were her belly, were frozen in a perpetual squint one noticed only upon a closer look: youthful pain or skepticism that persisted no matter what I did to make her happy or to quell her doubts; but I would not see this from far away.
Above all, since her willowy form was of a conventional sort, I looked for her garish red umbrella, which opened up to spell, in dazzling white, Good News; she’d insisted on using it since receiving it a couple years earlier from an American evangelist she met at a metro station. Violetta had accepted the gift without hesitation after a long talk with the man, although her English was so mediocre I doubt she understood what it was all about.
So that red umbrella had led to a fierce argument, Violetta insisting she didn’t give a fuck what those big white words Good News meant, for the umbrella was a gift from someone plainly good; while I pointed out the evils of those purporting to be good. But my argument was hopeless. Even her sedate tone of voice irritated me, as I already seemed to be losing her to their influence. The anticipation of that umbrella thus made me all the more tense as I went back and forth between the door and the shelf marked “History” toward the rear of the shop, where I’d begun paging through a peculiar volume by the noted historian László Borhidi, whose title I had tentatively translated as Dictatorial Diets: Hitler and Stalin in the Dining Room. I was surprised to find it in a used bookstore; since it had appeared only a year before, I assumed I still had plenty of time to convince the publisher, a friend of a friend, to have me translate an excerpt into English for sale abroad. I was slipping toward debt, and this book could spell financial security for a few months. As a mutual friend had told me, Borhidi, of Jewish descent, would sometimes fall into a trancelike state when in the company of a friend or two and walk erratically about a room mimicking-mocking the Führer, brutish gesticulations and all; never for more than a minute or two, that is, and his friends, more often than not of like heritage, smiled knowingly at such raillery or lunacy, whatever it was. Flipping the book open to a random page, I glanced at the second hand on my watch and imagined the words in English: Two slices of crispbread with cheese and jam, plus coffee with milk and ample sugar: such was the large part of the Führer’s breakfast that fateful morning, as Johannes Niederbühl, a well-to-do Bavarian farmer and benefactor of youth causes, later recorded in his diary. But that was not all: Mr. Niederbühl’s cook brought to the table a tiny basket heaping with pomegranates. (Pomegranates? Oh dear, he’d ordered mangoes.) Hitler fished out an apparently magnificent specimen, followed by his two aides and, last, Mr. Niederbühl. Unfortunately, Hitler’s choice was putrid, as he discovered only after hastily shoving a heaping spoonful of the brownish, fleshy seeds into his mouth, and Mr. Niederbühl, who had wanted only to impress the Führer, ended up spending two days in jail along with his cook on suspicion of attempted assassination. I did wonder momentarily whether Borhidi had made this up, but decided that with all the odd sources at the disposal of a diligent historian, surely the incident was plausible - why not? In any case, my time wasn’t bad; I could ask for 1,000 forints a page, so taking taxes and social security and expenses into account I’d still end up pocketing about that much an hour—enough for a modest meal out for two. Ah yes, English was my forte, not Violetta’s.
Embroiled in such thoughts one would think I had happily distracted myself from the problem at hand, but alas, all the while I thought: no Violetta.
The awareness that this would lead inevitably to an argument, if only a trivial one, pained me more than the argument itself ever would; for by the time the shouting ended I would be strong and firm knowing I was right—after all, I was here and she was not. To avoid making matters worse, however, rather than boarding the tram headed the other way to go straight home, once the bookshop closed at six I walked down the block to the Sziget—Island—pastry shop, named after bucolic Margaret Island, whose southern tip extended just under the middle of the nearby bridge. The Sziget was the most popular second-class pastry shop in that part of town, where the Ring Boulevard divides the elegance of the center-city streets that sweep outward from the Parliament building toward the Opera from the more sooty, working class ambience of the capital’s outlying districts. The cakes were all-too spongy and sweet at the Sziget, the décor was Communist-era kitsch, the tables and counters were anything but marble, and the cheap green-red neon sign out front was likewise a holdover from a state-owned past. Perhaps it was fashionable to preserve such holdovers, perhaps it filled some people with a comforting nostalgia, but I would just as well have bulldozed the lot of them. Still, the espresso at the Sziget, while typically bitter, was not without taste. It did not help matters, though, that the glass was too hot to touch and that the froth was full of incongruous bubbles, which would never occur at first-class cafés. I also ordered a rice pudding. This, too, tasted decent enough, but for the presentation: the top had congealed since morning or the previous day, so the spoon had to be hammered through to the sweet creamy stuff underneath.
For all its faults, however, the Sziget was just the right place. Here I could stay dry while sipping my coffee at a counter. Though I could not see the approaching trams, each time a tram passed by on the boulevard I stepped outside for a moment and looked to the left to scan the crowd of departing passengers. Once, while washing down the final spoonful of pudding with the espresso, I glimpsed what I was looking for passing right by the sidewalk in front of the Sziget: Good News. But on scurrying outside I saw, standing hesitantly at the corner under that umbrella—as if he, too, was waiting for someone in vain—one of those squat, black-haired Bolivians whose bands play thunderous mountain music at metro stations and, during breaks, take mighty swigs of beer. All the while someone works the crowd with a handful of tapes, and the masses, young and old alike, look on with quiet appreciation and glistening eyes, as if momentarily saved from the very same doom as the gentleman a few yards away telling a much smaller crowd how wretched a life he led before seeing the light.
My watch said twenty-five past six. Few of my friends, I knew, would wait so long. I lit a Hungarian-brand Multifilter, went back in, and chided the raw-boned waitress as she reached for my glass, thinking I’d left—the froth, I said, the froth is still there, who do you think I am? Running the spoon along the inside of the glass to scoop out the now-cold froth, I coughed in disgust, perhaps at myself for making enemies with this pitiable waitress, who was, after all, just doing her job; perhaps at my own poor taste, on noticing bits of congealed pudding still clinging to the bowl. But this pitiful coughing was, after all, really directed at Violetta and her little surprises. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Having paid earlier at the register, I walked brusquely out the door.
Turning right toward the West Railway Station, I hung close to the block-long apartment buildings whose survival through two world wars since the golden age a century earlier filled me with awe; although, to be fair, they were glazed thickly with car exhaust and their facades were often peeling away in distressingly large flakes: countervailing attributes that filled me with disgust. The roofs jutted out just far enough to keep me dry. A final spate of rain passed over as I walked down the first block, past a shoe store, a cosmetics shop, another shoe store.
But then I turned back, figuring the stop back by the bridge was closer; what’s more, I could already see an approaching tram, at the Margaret Island stop in the middle of the bridge.
The tram came to a stop and I flung what was left of my Multi on the tracks opposite. A friend of mine once tossed a cigarette butt onto the street while on a visit to Stockholm, whereupon a cop who’d been standing nearby with nothing better to do bawled him out and imposed a hefty fine. To hell with Germanic tidiness; I was glad to live in Hungary, where, even if the day-to-day struggle for cash was all-consuming, at least I was free to compensate with such a cynical gesture knowing that others couldn’t care less, and that if they did care, most likely they were on my side; for we were all in the same creaky, splintered wooden boat—a boat that bullishly held water even though we, each in our own ways, had been tossing still-red butts all over our floors ever since we could remember.
No sooner had I begun to revel in this pathetic freedom than an elegantly dressed old woman with a horselike jaw gave me a sour look, as if to say, “Sonny, I was born long before the War, and God knows things were bad then, but folks still respected their county and didn’t go about using the street as a trash can.” I sneered, thinking the bitch was surely from an ivy-covered villa in the Buda hills, and had either inherited everything she had or else had been the wife of a card-carrying Party man who had had privileges coming out of his ears. Surely she’d never had a worry in her life.
Apparently she misunderstood, thinking my malevolent look was a gesture of deference to board before me: she smiled an amiable thank you, and stepped up.
The tram had already veered right past the railway station when I saw a boy wearing a baseball cap and just walking past my favorite undergarment store—when the full plastic bag of ice in his arms fell on the sidewalk. Hundreds of cubes scattered about and the boy just stood there, his head drooping, as frozen as that ice. No one else on the tram seemed to notice. Surely not the young man and woman, both about twenty-five, seated beneath me, facing each other; I had not yet determined if they were a couple. The man—who, with his thick brown moustache and bristly cheeks, resembled the wild boar my father had shot the previous winter—was reading a front-page article in a second-rate newspaper on the battle between the finance minister and the privatization minister for control of economic policy. The woman, whose half-closed eyes suggested sleepiness and sensuality in one, was engaged in an article entitled “The First Kiss,” in a popular weekly woman’s magazine. How simple things could be, I thought, looking at them. The man is concerned with life’s practicalities and the woman, with life’s sentimentalities. But no. Surely things are not what they seem. Say, he’s hopelessly in love with her and she has a lover; or all he’s thinking as he reads the article is that bigwigs have the luxury to argue and make promises while the little man must work, but really he has no idea what he’s reading about; whereas at least she’s learning something useful about kisses.
All at once the man looked up at me and smiled, just so, as if to tell me that while he didn’t mind my looking on as he read—he would have done the same, after all—he did want me to know that he knew. But then I noticed, off to my side, in the vacant middle of the tram, where the two cars were joined, a drunk old man talking to himself, with surprising lucidity, about the utility rate hikes due on the first of the month. So, as with the old lady, I was wrong again: the young man had in fact smiled at me to say, “Let the poor old geezer be, let’s have a silent laugh listening to his gibberish and take solace that we’re not like him.” I wondered if we wouldn’t someday be like him. “Natural gas,” said the old man, his right arm flailing about like a baton, “a rate hike of twenty-three percent, they say, but don’t believe it! Read the fine print. That’s for industrial consumers. Yep, for households it’s twenty-eight percent—and remember that the next time the government appoints a finance minister who says it’s important for Hungary to show the International Monetary Fund, those cohorts of Israel, that we’re happy as can be to cut state subsidies, to impress the world with economic discipline.” He went on, but I stopped paying attention. The bit about Israel, while not unexpected, was the one point where lucidity crumbled into disarray or, rather, something the old man had been fed by the spoonful as a youth and had never managed to spit out, perhaps because it filled his stomach in times of hunger. The tram hadn’t yet gotten far past the station, so after a brief, unwilling smile back at the young man, who then returned to his paper, I looked outside again. There was the ill-starred boy, now standing to the side as pedestrians skirted around the ice and as a dour-faced clerk in my favorite undergarment store came to the window to see what was up.
What did I think of on seeing all that ice, but champagne. This in turn reminded me that whether or not Violetta turned up, I was sure as hell going to celebrate my birthday, which was today, and that one stop on, at the Oktogon intersection, was a supermarket open until eight where I could buy a bottle. Moreover, I knew there was a phone booth around the corner, on that venerable old boulevard, Andrássy Street, which extended straight-as-an-arrow away from the Danube toward Heroes’ Square, and which many people were still in the habit of calling by the mind-bendingly bland name it held for decades until only yesterday, it seemed: the Street of the People’s Republic.
From there I’d try calling Violetta, just to cover all bases.
Did she have dance practice tonight? No: Mondays and Wednesdays. Today was a Thursday. All the same, in view of her job and the traffic, I should have said six, maybe even six-thirty. We could have agreed to meet at the Sziget. No doubt I was partly to blame for her lateness, assuming it was indeed lateness, so in retrospect her surprise seemed not so much of a surprise after all, but predictable. However, were I to let on that her lateness was in fact reasonable from this perspective she would no doubt agree, and the fault would be no one’s or, more likely, mine; and I would end up feeling worse than when the argument began.
The tram was now half-way to the Oktogon, that grandest of downtown intersections, where two time-honored boulevards met. A Wendys appeared on one corner soon after Hungary opened its doors to the West, followed in short order by a Burger King on another corner and, before long, a McDonald’s on yet a third corner. The final corner was yet unsullied by American fast food.
The evening had turned dazzlingly clear. A happy resolve came over me and I thought, no, I would not allow Violetta the chance to blame me for her being late, not on my birthday. The truth was, I feared not so much a dent in my self-respect but a repeat of our first big argument, about the dance school.
I could not help but remind Violetta, now and again, that it was my money she’d used to enroll. That trickster named Mihály who’d walked one day into the library where she worked and told her she had what it took to be up there with the best of them had, in his effort to get into her pants or under her skirt, been less than sincere. Of this I was certain. Mihály, a choreographer, had recently returned to Budapest after years in London; no doubt his parents had been pedigreed Party animals, meaning he’d gone to the best schools and lived abroad as a boy. Yes, he’d enjoyed all the fruits of life in a one-party state before realizing that it was one big sham, if indeed he’d truly realized this—so he’d become an artist. Having inherited a talent for pulling strings, but having neither ideology nor that much talent, Mihály was well positioned to bring fatuous ideas to fruition using state subsidies in much the same way as the Party animals had.
Violetta had come to my place that evening to tell me once more, but with unprecedented, pitiful enthusiasm, that she always knew she’d be a dancer someday—yes, a dancer, like Ginger Rogers. At which I reminded Violetta that Ginger Rogers was not quite the ballerina sort. But Violetta said What does it matter? For I could be her Fred Astaire. But I don’t like dancing, I reminded her, irritated at her sentimental drivel. At which she reminded me that she could just find another Fred Astaire to dance with: Balázs or Bertalan or Boldizsár, she said, naming a few of her handsome but thus far innocuous friends. After a pause she added: or Mihály.
A year, she pleaded once I returned from a smoke in the kitchen. Yes, in the kitchen. That much, I’d acquiesced: no smoking anywhere but the kitchen and the terrace when she was over.
A year, said Violetta, would surely be enough to land her at least a bit part in some amateur production, and then she could see for herself to getting up there on stage at the Katona Theater dancing in … Cats, I interjected sarcastically. But she took it as a compliment, pointing out only that Cats wasn’t at the Katona but at the Madách. So I repeated, bluntly, Cats—was that what she wanted? To leap about and swing from ropes with fake whiskers on her pretty face like some dimwit? Did she call that dancing? At which she said, Even Ginger Rogers had to start somewhere. I said: And just how much do you expect to earn dancing here in Hungary, where even I, working myself silly translating everything under the sun, earn barely enough to save for a house of our own, much less for a rainy day? You want me to tell you, Violetta? Peanuts. You’re fooling yourself if you think there will ever be money in this. Or respect. At the library they like you, hell, they love you, not to mention that you can count on at least a little something every month. Plus you don’t get stressed out. At most you’d spend your whole life wasting away as a Cat and, come to think of it, not even your whole life, because come thirty, maybe thirty-five, forty tops, your legs will be wasted and someone else just that much younger and prettier will come along and you’ll be a stray, yeah a stray cat picking on scraps and hunting mice in basements at night. You want happiness? I asked Violetta. Her eyes were now watering, whether from exasperation or vexation or dejection. Why then, be happy you’re where you’re at and that at least we can get by a tad better than most folks on what I pull in. Hey, I said, trying to win back her lost smile and temper my guilt, we’ll move in together and you’ll have us a kid and go on maternity leave and be a loving mother and, you’ll see, we’ll be happy. But then, already sorry I’d said this, I added: and who knows, maybe we can hire someone to look after the kid now and then while you go to dance class.
The government’s cutting back on maternity benefits, she replied.
Her awareness of current affairs caught me off guard. To an extent, I said, to an extent—at least you’d still be assured your job, and that’s what counts. Don’t worry, I’ll do more interpreting once I beef up my contacts and then I’ll make enough for us both and baby and nanny too. No, said Violetta flatly, she wouldn’t even think about moving together until she’s doing what she wants. People have got to understand themselves, be happy with themselves, before they can be happy with someone else, she said, not realizing that this was not an absolute truth but a post-Communist cliché. For me that means dancing, said Violetta, looking me squarely, menacingly in the eye: so if you think you can pull one over on me by putting it off till later you can just go find another lady to give you a baby. But the money, I repeated, there’s no money in dancing. It’s uncertain. Don’t you worry, she said so fiercely that I knew I must soon acquiesce to save what potential for a cease-fire still remained. I’ll take my talent once dance school’s over in a year, she said, Yeah, I’ll go abroad for six months—to Italy or, better yet, to Greece. It’s warmer and sunnier in Greece, huh? That it is, I agreed, but it’s drier, too, besides which, Athens isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Loud and filthy, that’s what it is. What are a few ruins worth? I’d take Budapest any day. But back to the point: You know what they think of pretty Hungarian dancing girls in Italy and Greece? Well, I said, my fingers toying with another cigarette, readying it for the kitchen, they’ll take you in with a sly smile, paint you from head to toe and everywhere in-between with make-up—everywhere, Violetta, think of it, my dear—and hand you a silky costume skimpier than you’d have even as a Cat. And, before you know it, the manager at the club or cabaret or whatever you want to call it will put a mighty hand around your sweet, slender wrist and ask you if you’d be a good girl and give private dances, too. You know, the sort where they brush up against the patrons. Really brush up, I mean. And you’d do it, too. Not because you’re a whore. No, don’t get me wrong, baby. Because you don’t have enough money to get home. And how very much you’d want to go home. You’d feel this pain in your bosom, a deep pain, the sort of pain Dorothy felt in The Wizard of Oz. But you could click your heels all you want. No happy endings for Hungarian dancing girls abroad, not like in American movies. There you’d be, wanting to go home, except that by now the manager would be saying, Listen here, honey bunch, there’s a room upstairs where you just take that fat sweaty patron once he’s nice and drunk after a bit of private dancing. And will I be there to save you? Nope, I’ll be . . .
Violetta looked as if she was about to cry. She begged me to crush my cigarette, which I’d lit, though I’d taken only the first drag. I put it out not so much out of acquiescence but to avert her tears, which would surely have been like acid poured on my dwindling resolve.
It worked, but no sooner had the smoke cleared and the moisture disappeared from her eyes than she coolly observed that I smoked like a common laborer, savagely, and cheap cigarettes at that. You don’t have class, do you? she asked. You don’t know cigarettes, I replied, Multifilters are damn good, better than those vile French things what’s-his-name, Balázs or Bertalan or Boldizsár, smokes, yeah Gauloises, and when you consider that János Kádár smoked Workers’ brand and he held this pitiful country together for so many years, he did, even if he was a goddamn dictator and a fucking jerk to cozy up with the Russians, I’m well ahead, ain’t I? Violetta stared and didn’t say a word. I’m a good Hungarian, that’s all—no foreign shit for me. Fortunately it didn’t occur to her that the company that manufactures Multifilters had been sold to foreigners along with the rest of the cigarette industry after Communism fell.
I’m no Commie, I said, but you’ve got to admit one great scourge of this newfangled, free-market economy of ours: people without talent think they’ve got it, and spend themselves silly making utter fools of themselves—whereas they might be happy with what they have.
I had gone too far: my inadvertent allusion to Violetta and her insistence on the dance school was not lost on her as was the comment about the foreign cigarettes. She now shed a tear. I watched with hopeless compassion, not so much for her as for myself, as the tiny bead trickled down her cheek. At which I said, Okay, look, I suppose there’s no harm in registering. Just one short course. We’ll see how it goes.
There was no turning back. I awoke the next morning thinking I’d made an appalling mistake, that it might have been best to say, Fine, Violetta, enroll if you want, you’ve got my moral support, baby, but have your parents pay for it, goddamnit.
The compromise we reached, finally, was that she would enroll initially not for a year but for an eight-week introductory course, after which we’d decide whether she would continue; I was unwilling to spend a fortune only to see her grow tired of it after a couple months. Violetta was happy. I was relieved. We downed a bottle of wine, had a hasty bath, and flung aside our towels in our headlong dash to bed. I kissed her shy secret flower until it blossomed like never before; and for once she didn’t flinch when performing the corresponding service for me. Oh, the look on her face when Violetta arrived at my door a couple weeks later—three weeks before her surprise, my birthday surprise—with a bottle of choice Tokay and announced that her audition had been a success! As of the following Monday, from six to nine on Mondays and Wednesdays, she and nine other ladies would attend a class taught by Mihály. The Mihály.
Odd, my jealousy surfaced hardly at all. I was even happy for Violetta and told her so. I didn’t make a fuss of the fact that the class was being taught by Mihály—who, I had since learned from an interview with him in Népszabadság—People’s Freedom—was an innovative, seasoned choreographer who’d spent several years in London and was now busily promoting the summer debut of his very own musical in the open-air theater on Margaret Island. Although I necessarily read Népszabadság regularly for its in-depth news coverage, I could not help but view the paper with mixed feelings, as not only its name but also its socialist sympathies were likewise holdovers from the past. It provided a cozy forum indeed for those who’d sympathized with or at least gotten along with the old regime; those who now made it their business to criticize the less appetizing aspects of capitalism, including a slew of uninspired hucksters who’d carved out their niche in the academic world, or in art, and acquired the requisite funding by shaking the appropriate hands and signing the appropriate forms. Mihály, I presumed, was of this crowd; no doubt he’d gone to England when the timing was right to establish a new life, a new image, as an innovator, and had now returned to make it big back home. Népszabadság, with a circulation several times greater than that of any other daily, could pretty much do as it pleased, as evidenced by its congested look and wordy, pedantic features that few people, certainly not the people, had the time to read.
The full-page interview with Mihály fit the mould: clichés clothed as novelties, questions by an interviewer too timid or uncritical to pose anything his subject might not be pleased to hear; answers from someone whose greatest talent, as I saw it, was talking in circles. However, owing to its subject—a man who, I believed, was out to screw my girlfriend, if he hadn’t done so already—I read it scrupulously indeed.
Mihály’s musical concerned the heroic and learned King Matthias, drawing on the legends of how the exalted king had toured Hungary way back in the fifteenth century in disguise—by turns in student garb and dressed as a peasant—out of the conviction that a good leader was obliged to understand his subjects. The central scene was to feature Matthias’s Italian wife, Beatrix, arriving in Hungary from Naples riding an elephant. Never mind that this is not how it happened; Mihály sought “a truth greater and more noble than some feeble attempt at banal historical accuracy would allow.” An elephant was just what he needed, he explained, to express the lofty ideas brought to our backward land by the Renaissance as notable Italians hitched a ride to Hungary with the shrewd, comely Beatrix. So then, Beatrix was to be atop the elephant, with Matthias meandering about somewhere off to the side. So what if Beatrix’s questionable morals had—so it was rumored by malicious souls who wouldn’t have bet their lives on her purported chastity—already led to the murder of one fine gentleman back in the court of her father, King Ferdinand? The Pope wanted the marriage; the Italian nobility wanted it; and Matthias wanted it. And so it was. The royal castle was remodeled to suit Beatrix’s Italian taste, and Hungary edged that much closer to the West. So what if she—vainglorious, staunchly virtuous lady that she was—proved not to be the favorite of the Hungarian court? Poor Matthias, having to endure her constant headaches. So what about all those wild rumors that she was behind the death of Matthias himself, killing him with gradual doses of arsenic in a frantic and ultimately unsuccessful bid to ensure that her father’s dynasty might gain a stronger foothold in the Kingdom of Hungary? Or did she just miss home sweet home?
Beside the article was a black-and-white photo of Mihály leaning back in a plush chair and smoking a Marlboro; the red and white pack lay precariously on the arm of the chair. He looked vaguely like a bullfrog, just the sort of big-lipped creature I’d seen lately on the cover of Hungarian Fisherman being stalked by a pike. But, alas, Mihály was a brutally handsome frog. His silvery hair barely touched his enormous ears; his eyes were narrow and penetrating to a tee; and his jowls were fleshy but well-defined, as if the vile past had somehow been stuffed neatly into his mouth for redigestion as something that, next time around, would surely come out looking better. Mihály was a confident man. Jealousy kept me from showing the article to Violetta, who generally read the color tabloid Blikk, not Népszabadság. I made a point of not asking her how many applicants—who were to pay almost half of what I made a month—she thought had been turned down. Not many, no doubt.
The tram stopped at the exalted, ever bustling, eight-cornered Oktogon intersection. Inadvertently cutting off a lone, shabby-looking skinhead as I stepped down to the tram stop, I crossed the boulevard to the sidewalk and entered the pricey, Rothschild supermarket; above the doors was a Coca Cola Light sign quite out of sync with the store’s epicurean glitter. Yet another reminder that I lived in Hungary, not Sweden, not America. That pathetic sense of freedom—a Hungarian’s dumb yet cherished freedom from the obligation to be in sync with the anal personalities that ruled the smoothly oiled machine we called the West—came over me once more. The rush-hour traffic had waned, but being a Thursday, most shops other than my favorite antiquarian bookshop were open a bit later, and so shoppers were still milling about downtown. Had I turned left around the corner of Andrássy Street rather than go straight into the store, I would have glimpsed Heroes’ Square at its terminus a twenty-minute walk away. At its center stood an imposing white column flanked on both sides by a semicircle of equestrian chieftains from the pages of Hungarian history. What with its hushed, Austro-Hungarian grandeur, Andrássy Street evoked in me an altogether more comforting sensation than the Champs Élysées—which it was modeled after—ever could. For one thing, its stately residential district between the Oktogon and Heroes’ Square lacked commercial pomposity; even the first long stretch of Andrássy Street, from its head to the Oktogon, was sufficiently tree-lined to cloak its boutiques and cafés in a timelessness that gave me a sense of quiet contentment on returning some years before to Budapest after a brief, disastrous few days in the French capital. I’d been in Paris on one last salvaging mission to visit my wife, Monika (two serious girlfriends before Violetta), who had defected to France a couple of years before the curtain came down. Monika could hold her nose high, but I still had Andrássy Street to call my own.
Pensively I entered the supermarket, picked up a plastic shopping-basket, and tossed inside one bag of vacuum-packed ravioli—enough for two, said the label, but I was hungry, so if Violetta would not turn up all would not be lost—and a bottle of dry Törley champagne. The label on the bottle was hands-down more attractive than on the champagne from the Lake Balaton vineyards, BB, besides which, the supermarket was out of sweet BB, Violetta’s favorite—so, what better excuse than this, Violetta’s nasty or negligent surprise, to buy what I preferred for once? It was, after all, my birthday. Before proceeding to the register I slowed down in the candy aisle to get a little rum-flavored chocolate bar: an economical means of staving off hunger until dinner. All at once I noticed, milling about beside me, the very same skinhead who’d gotten off the tram behind me. He seemed to be scrutinizing the ingredients on a pack of gum with some concern. Do skinheads check for sugar? He looked like a buzzard that had strayed from its flock. On taking another discreet look at this young ruffian I noticed a tuft of hair protruding from the back of his otherwise clean-shaven head like a dorsal fin on a dolphin. This led me to imagine him hurtling from one wave to another on some distant ocean. I wondered, too, what a tiny silver earring was doing pricked through his right earlobe. Perhaps he was not a fascist skinhead, after all, but an anarchist skinhead; the sort that, while they did not pester foreigners and Jews, dutifully spray-painted bus-stop timetables and did the same and worse to public telephones in order to disrupt the functioning of organized society. Didn’t they realize that such nonsense ultimately rendered but a trivial dent in society? That it really disrupted only the lives of commuters, who were left wondering when the bus—which came, anyway—would come? And that hapless callers would not be able to read the digital read-out below the spray-paint on a public phone to confirm the number, or else wouldn’t be able place their calls at all, not from a smashed-in phone? What good was such anarchy without bombs and mass murder to back it up? What could they care? They were incurably young and screwed up on top of it all. The anarchists secretly irritated me even more than did the fascists, if only because, under their dictatorship-free dictatorship, no one, not even I, would have better odds than anyone else to survive. Then again, drawing such distinctions seemed foolish; for as a human rights activist noted in a recent Népszabadság interview, even some anarchist skinheads or punk rockers had it in them, when sufficiently besotted and when there are enough of them about to make for a spirit of skin-headed camaraderie, to become fleeting fascists if they chanced to come across a dark-skinned foreigner or two, or else a Gypsy, on a barren, late-night bus or street corner….
I left the skinhead with his gum and walked over to the empty line at the register. After paying I walked out the door, turned left, and headed for the phone booth on Andrássy Street. The air was now warm and fresh, and the sun still lingered above the buildings. I unwrapped the candy bar and bit slowly, savoring the rum-flavored chocolate. In my one concession to Germanic tidiness I threw the wrapper into a trash can. Then I lit another Multi before turning left onto Andrássy Street. A heady green summery scent was in the air. Had the verdant fragrance of City Park, on the far side of Heroes’ Square somehow managed to waft its way downtown? As I walked toward the phone, I bent down to pick up a ten-forint coin on the sidewalk, but paid for it by inadvertently biting the cigarette nearly in half between my lips. The booth was occupied. I dropped the dismembered Multi into the gutter with an abandon that reminded me of the anarchists I so detested. Staring at the grimy concrete, I flicked my lighter and stuck a fresh cigarette between my lips while trying to recall Violetta’s number: 175-5543. No, that wasn't it. 175-5453. Just as odd-sounding. The 175 prefix was right, but the rest: 5455? By now I was fairly certain that I had only to concern myself with the numbers 3,4, and 5; that the four-digit sequence began with a 5; and that the second was by no means a 3. How many alternatives did that leave me? Many, all too many. Given all that was on my mind, plus the prospect of celebrating my birthday at home, alone—there was no telling whether my favorite drinking chum, Zsolt, would be around—it was hard to think clearly. Why did I not carry Violetta’s number in my wallet? Why had I not recorded it on my pocket list of important numbers? Presumably for the same reason that I had no picture of Violetta: the underlying fear that we might just break up and I would be left with a phone number and picture to dig up unwittingly a week, a month, a year later and suffer all the stupid pain that came along with it; or else suffer guilt for not suffering pain. Of course, when Violetta raised the picture issue, as my serious girlfriends generally had, I had offered my stock reply: Pictures are temporal, my dear, they are not you, no more than a hat full of strands of your hair is you or a handkerchief soaked with your tears is you or a letter you write is you. You are you, and that is what I want to see. And when I’m not around, Violetta shrewdly asked, what then? Do you think of other women? Don’t be silly, I said with finesse that comes only with years of practice, raising an index finger to my forehead, you are in here, I see you as clearly as the light of day. If my memory of you is not enough, a picture certainly can’t be any better. I neglected to acknowledge, and thankfully she didn’t point out, that a picture could indeed compensate for a while as memory obscures over time, but then again, never had we been apart for more than a few days. What did all this matter, anyway? Violetta knew it was my birthday, and she had a key to my place. I would just go home.
No sooner had I taken that first mouthful of smoke and turned around than I saw, before me, coming down Andrássy Street from downtown, Violetta’s surprise.
(To be continued)
Paul Olchváry is a writer and translator who has rendered nine books of Hungarian prose into English, including Károly Pap's Azarel and György Dragomán's The White King. After ten years in Hungary, he resettled in America in 2000 to work as a copywriter at Princeton University Press, but by 2005 the prospect of writing and translating away at his log cabin in the woods of Kismaros (an hour north of Budapest) was just too great; and so he moved back again to Hungary. Currently, then, he divides his time somewhat fitfully between Kismaros and various reaches of the northeastern United States.
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