Read More: A brief interview with Rachel Ann Brickner
What I remember most is the blood red lining of the train car’s seats and the depth of the darkness outside as we pulled to a stop. We arrived in Budapest from Prague a little before midnight, the only ones left on board. Mathieu and I walked the dark streets as he led us to the hostel’s office with a map in his hand, stopping occasionally beneath street lamps to check that we were on course. This was before we could afford smartphones. They were too expensive for us then, so as we traveled we relied solely on maps, internet cafes, and the hostel’s computers, writing directions in our journals and on the backs of receipts. We’d both just graduated from college a month before, the first in our families. His father was a farmer outside of Paris and mine was a country mechanic. Both of our mothers were homemakers.
As we walked, I was surprised by how deserted the streets were. It was nothing like the other cities we’d seen at midnight—Paris, London, Prague, Berlin. It was as if the whole city had gone to sleep, but when I think of it now, it very well could have been a Sunday, and at least at home, Sunday always meant rest. The next day we were tired from weeks of travel. We had spent most days walking, spending money on nothing but street food, beer, and museums, and we felt obligated to continue moving, not to take a day for rest. We knew everything would be different after this trip. We’d have to look for jobs, decide where to live—together or apart—and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to travel so freely again.
The first day we explored the city, we tried to understand the underground trains, but we couldn’t, and we were sick of talking to one another by then. I’d been sneaking off to bathrooms and crying, and he pretended not to notice. We’d been dating for months, met at the same college in the middle of nowhere when he was studying abroad for the semester—long enough for me to know the exact location of the cluster of freckles on the side of his pale neck, how his lithe body moved on top of mine, and what topics of conversation made him close in on himself like I often did. Weeks before arriving in Budapest, after I met him in Paris and we traveled outside the city to stay with his parents, he told me about a woman he used to love, how he’d spent a night with her days before I met him overseas. It meant nothing, except now he knew it was really over. I didn’t cry like he’d expected me to. I only told him I understood as I dug quietly into myself, trying to hide my feelings in a place where I might never find them.
As Mathieu searched for someone who spoke English or French at the train station, I watched people walk by and through turnstiles. A tall man dressed in tatters yelled in an agitated sort of way, and when I looked toward him I saw another man sitting at his feet who was filthy, his mouth slack and moist, wearing a shirt too small for his large, round body. The man sitting threw up in his lap while the standing man yelled at him in what I assumed was Hungarian, kicking the side of his leg as he swung a dark green bottle in the air. I saw a puddle of blood beneath the sitting man’s bare foot before Mathieu found me and suggested we go.
We left the train station without any answers and went to bed early, prepared to rent bicycles the following morning.
Mathieu asked me what I wanted to do. We were standing in our bathing suits, dripping wet outside the makeshift changing room and locker they’d given us at the baths. It was similar to that of a dressing room at a second-hand store at home, the cheaply constructed door made of painted plywood with a wobbly silver doorknob.
A Hungarian boy stared at us while trying to make out what we were saying in English, Mathieu occasionally cursing at me French, words I only recognized from past arguments. The boy could have been only sixteen or seventeen. His blond hair was cut short, most likely for the summer, and his blue eyes were large and anxious as he looked away and back at us, his eyes downcast, bowing his head occasionally as he said something in Hungarian, interspersed with very sorry, very sorry.
I smiled at him because I felt sorry that he was the only employee at the baths who knew enough English to attempt to communicate with us. The rest of the staff appeared to be middle aged and female, their hair rough and dull, curls bouncing as they said no, no, shrugging their shoulders or shaking their hands at us as they said no, no, walking away until one of them, her hair dyed a yellow blond, finally brought the young boy to us.
I told Mathieu I didn’t know what I wanted to do, whispered it really since I didn’t want the boy to see how upset I actually was that my bag carrying my very expensive new camera had been stolen from the cubbies outside the sauna. I felt guilty and foolish and I couldn’t stop thinking about the man sitting in his vomit without any shoes, a puddle of blood beneath his foot.
It was not my idea to carry the bag with us through the baths, I wanted to tell the boy. I wasn’t the one who was paranoid someone would steal it from the small room with the wobbly silver doorknob. Please don’t think I’m another selfish, stupid tourist, I wanted to tell him. But, of course I know now that I was. I am.
I was wearing only a thin brown bathing suit I bought for very cheap at a chain store we also had back home. I didn’t think it looked great on me, although I’m sure now I’d feel differently, maybe even think I was beautiful with my muscular legs and arms, my skin sun kissed, shoulders a little burnt. I remember because Mathieu had kissed them and they hurt to the touch.
I watched Mathieu’s back as he pedaled away from me to call home, and I felt lighter once he left. I stared at a map for a long while then looked ahead. The park was immense, more beautiful than anything we saw our entire time in that city, except for an abundance of massive old buildings, each with a history I would never know despite the notes I kept in my journal about what to look up when I got home. I said goodbye to my rented bike as I walked past it. The lock’s key was in my stolen bag.
People stared at me as I walked through the park and then onto the city streets. My thighs rubbed together. My wet hair dripped down my neck, shoulders, and arms. It was the first time I didn’t care to be seen in my body like that. Or, I cared, but I didn’t much have a choice, and something about that made me feel more free inside myself than I’d ever felt.
Eventually I stopped looking at the map, stopped trying to get back to our hostel, and I walked wherever I pleased. I tried going into a museum where an American photographer’s photos were showing—large Hollywood-style productions of women looking forlorn in front of their bedroom vanities, eye makeup streaked across their cheeks from crying—but the guard wouldn’t let me in. I laughed as he walked me out, grabbing someone’s forgotten black sunglasses on a bench as I ambled away.
When I walked into the bar, I sat on the stool next to him as if he’d been waiting for me. The place was empty except for the bartender who took little notice of me walking in. He was too busy reading what looked like the same TV guide I noticed a man in the sauna reading earlier that day, except it wasn’t curled from heat.
My thighs stuck to the worn brown leather as I spread my legs open and leaned forward to signal the bartender. I pointed to the drink the man was having next to me—something too dark looking to be legal, a kind of liquor I was unfamiliar with—hoping he would also pay for me.
“Hello,” I said.
He nodded without looking at me.
I examined his face. He had to have been at least twice my age. His cheeks were covered in old acne scars only slightly dulled by dark stubble and shoulder-length hair that fell partially in his face. I found him attractive in the way one is attracted to cacti. You are compelled to touch it, but you must do so hesitantly and with care. As soon as I saw him, I wanted to touch his pitted face with the palm of my hand. As soon as I saw him, I wanted to feel the heat of him.
He turned to me slowly. “What?” he said.
The edges of his eyes were naturally downturned like the sad brindle cat that hid in our garage when I was a kid.
“English?” I asked him.
“No,” he said.
“Really?” I said.
“Ya,” he said.
I stared at him and he stared at me. He looked at my open legs on the leather stool, then to my bathing suit, and finally to my face, but I didn’t recognize any desire in him, only observation.
“What?” he said, nodding to my body.
“Mistake,” I said.
“Mistake? Mistake,” he said, nodding slowly, taking a sip of his drink.
I lifted my hand towards his face and he watched me from the corner of his eye. He let me get almost close enough to touch his rough cheek before he grabbed my wrist. His thick fingers curled into a fist, the cuticles torn, his knuckles chapped.
He moved my arm slowly and gently, resting my hand on top of my thigh.
“Sorry,” I said.
We finished our drinks in silence, and I knew to wait for him to make the next move. I stared into the mirror behind the bar as I drank. It was dark inside the bar even though it was daytime. Thick red curtains covered the only window. I stared at the shadow of my pale shoulders, my dark hair still damp from sweat and pulled high on top of my head. A few old men stumbled in, I assumed still drunk from the night before.
I began to cry right then for no reason other than for feeling alive, with only a dim idea of what had come before this moment and no knowledge of what would come next. I wanted to sit like this forever, looking in this shadowy mirror, not so much to see myself, but to continually disappear inside the reflection.
“Now we go,” he said suddenly. His voice was quiet, his accent, which I couldn’t place, was thick. He pulled a bill from his jean pocket, threw it on the bar, and I followed him outside.
The sun was hotter than it was that morning. Sweat rolled down my back and legs as I followed him through cobbled alleys littered with trash, turning so many times we could have been going in circles. I should have been afraid, but I wasn’t. I’d gone home with other men before, knowing what they might do to me once we were alone, and I felt I could trust him. There was no hunger in the way he looked at me, only a kind of soft care in his eyes as he turned around to see if I was still following him.
He stopped when we reached a stoop at the bottom of a locked gate, and he dug his hand deep into his jean pocket for his keys.
“Here,” he said. I walked past him into a dark foyer. […]
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Rachel Ann Brickner was a runner-up in the 2017 New Writer Awards (fiction)
Read More: A brief interview with Rachel Ann Brickner