Blesok no. 42, May-June, 2005
There are three unaccountable trips to Budapest wedged between Jaksha and me. They loom over us like unfinished business. Or like an inexpressible confession that has passed its expiry date and after which there is no hope for atonement. The here and now we share is infected with a lethal virus from the brooding and insidious past. Even in this small train compartment, which can hardly take more than two human souls, those three trips he took lay between us like a trail of junk – discarded rusty cars or broken cookers, rotting slowly deep in overgrown woods. This is a crime against nature. When I look at villagers from outside of Zagreb, I learn what they do with their junk – they think it has disappeared from the slopes of the Medvednica mountain once it is out of their sight. Even when they revisit the spot where they dumped their old Yugo car, they pretend it is nothing to do with them any more. Is it possible that they no longer see it? These sweating, toiling villagers have more sense than I do. They look at their mischiefs and stubbornly shake their heads in dispute when asked who did it. Can we do the same? Make a conscious choice about what happened in our past?
Jaksha and I are not sure what to do with our unpalatable past. We can't seem to shake it off. We discarded it into a ditch by the roadside hoping that the elements would make it disintegrate beyond recognition. It didn't work though – we lack the villagers' wisdom which is capable of painlessly severing the tie with a twenty-year old car even after a life-time of faithful service. Instead, we keep coming back to the same place in the woods and we complain about primitive people leaving their junk behind. Shouldn't we just turn around, choose another route and pretend it wasn't us? No, it has surely nothing to do with our past! There is even a slight obsession in the ritual of revisiting the old junk yard. As if we were taking care of a pet, bringing it food and water each day. When actually, Jaksha can't stand junk and dirt. He can hardly put up with a layer of greasy dust combined with the smell of other people's sandwiches that covers the fabric of train seats. I ask him not to smoke in the stuffy compartment. Not even with the window open. The train mocks us with its crawling pace across the Panonian heathland, hypnotically boring landscape, and it looks like we are getting to Zagreb much later than scheduled. This had been the last time we visited our hungry junk yard. Jaksha says it is time to put a stop to this irrational custom of ours.
For seven years we have been looking closely under Europe's skirt – we saw both the glory and the shame of an old beauty. Even when plane tickets from Prague to St. Petersburg were cheap, we chose the railway sleeper car, knowing that the bedding was rarely changed there. We made love on uncomfortable seats and breathed air filled the with thoughts and desires of previous passengers. After crossing each time zone, we made toasts with warm red wine which would lose its quality after being shaken on the train for hours before. We couldn't stop. Drink dry – we would say. As long as there was wine, as long as there was us. We then gave each other the right and duty to travel separately. There was always a moment when rows became too frequent, the flat too small, and the air too thin for two pairs of deep lungs. We had a good feeling when that moment arrived. To leave home meant more than just being curious or physically restless. Choosing to be alone on the slowest means of transport or in a sterile hotel room meant detaching ourselves from the everyday reality around us. Doubting everything that was offered unreservedly – the same order of things in the flat, years of tedious jobs or looking into the same face, night after night in the same bed. Yet, in the end, coming back to old, proved values. Jaksha would lay himself open to beautiful women in Eastern Europe and I would enjoy the charm and good manners of Western men. Was it brave or weak not to succumb to lively colours of the new and exciting? For a short time, we would leave our nest to question its truthfulness under the bright lights of different experiences. We saw each other off thinking that each time it could have been the final good bye – giving each other into the arms of new lovers. But it didn't. As long as we let each other go, then welcomed one another in nights full of passionate stories and embraces, everything made perfect sense. Yet, those three trips that Jaksha took last year to Budapest didn't belong to that reality. I found out about them only accidentally, months later. I wanted to hear the whole story – how it was, whom he met, why he never said anything – but Jaksha remained silent, never looking into my eyes. He didn't want to share.
I am still not convinced of the effectiveness of the remedy with which we are trying to heal our wounds. Going back to Budapest together, Jaksha assured me, would chase away the demons of the past. When the city where he took refuge in a moment of weakness loses its mysteriousness, we will be able to embrace the old belief. Travelling is nothing more than life in a higher gear. Everything we discover only justifies our previous choices. New faces we meet are there only to bring us back to the ones whose shape we carry in the memory of our fingertips. You and I, my dear, we are a myth. There can be no space for contradiction. Even when I do stupid things which hurt you, I am only guided by one idea. Jaksha packed our things in a suitcase, stapled our tickets together and decided to let go of his secrets and talk away my doubts. Nothing happened in Budapest. I kept repeating his words. Nothing but thoughts. And when it comes to thoughts, we are all sinners.
The weather was diabolical that day – the celestial army was out of control, and people gazed at its outbursts in wonder; we gave in only after the hail attacked the city. In a split second the clouds over Dunakorzó grew dark and slit open, emptying a barrage of icy bullets on us. We ran for cover under the Erzsébet bridge. There, trapped with us, was another couple. We kept silent, only observing the murky waters of the Danube slowly making their way between the stone arches. Our hands were blue with cold. Throughout the unexpected attack from the sky, the river surface remained still. It was grey, heavy and determined in carving its deep rocky bed. It was too much to be conquered. The woman and the man spoke in English – he was a foreigner. They thought we couldn't understand them. With tenderness in their voices, they shared excitement over a weekend spent together and the raging weather that had caught up with all of us. I tried to imagine what their love story was like, conjuring up pictures of their lives, what they were like before they met, then their fateful encounter in the National Museum. How many people did they hurt by being together, I wondered. The woman was wearing a deep golden scarf proudly spread around her shoulders. It was a gift from him. My imagination wouldn't stop. But suddenly, Jaksha's firm grip on my forearm brought me back and I found myself trying to run after him through puddles of rain. He was hurrying us because the sunshine had already embraced the Danube coast and Belváros – the art deco inner city which was calling us in to explore it. With arms around each other, we swallowed wide avenues of Pesta where traffic was stopped for the weekend. Hungary was preparing to join the EU. There were people gathering around wooden stalls where leaflets were displayed and speeches about good and bad sides of the future partnership shouted out. Men drank and unbuttoned their tight shirts, women sold traditional flat bread from which pork fat oozed in half-solid drops. Everywhere around us, there were reminders of 1956. Even then we knew where we wanted to go, people were saying. Communism was just an accidental stop – a detour from capitalism to capitalism. We shall forget our false past, the voices from band stands echoed. I was looking at the glowing faces of women and children in wonder. They were looking forward to their forgetting. Once we passed the Kossuth Lajos street, Jaksha made a sudden turn towards the Ferenc Liszt square, where several fancy Hungarian cafes took out their lazy terrace furniture. He said it was there that he waited for a Hungarian-Argentinean politician whom he wanted to interview. Jaksha drank a few pints of a lousy Hungarian beer and waited patiently until he felt his appetite building up. The politician clown never showed up. Instead, Jaksha took Reka to dinner – a Hungarian girl who he casually talked to about communist statues and the importance of the national history. He asked me if I knew that Hungary was the only country which saved all the statues of the communist leaders they once worshipped with such humbleness. I said I wasn't interested in that. But Jaksha went on. Isn't that a wise middle route? To assimilate both the goodies and the baddies and make them part of the history? He looked at me warmly, his face glowing brightly with his ingenious idea. Not like us in Croatia, he continued. We constantly burn down and start anew. Erasing and rewriting. Finally, we don't know who we are any more. Tragic. Jaksha, I asked him, do you remember where you took your Hungarian friend to dinner? That touched the raw nerve. We have come here to forget whatever happened, even though he said a million times that nothing actually ever happened. But, if it would make me feel better, he said, he'd show me the place. It's really nothing special.
In the evening, a chilled wind came from the river. The pace at which we walked through the city seemed too quick for an average tourist experience. There really was no geographical goal that we had in mind to reach, apart from the last tram on the Moszkva Tér. We crossed the river several times, exchanging Pesta for Buda and back again. Riding the tram across the Danube, while the lights softly broke against the flowing water, we discovered the true purpose of the Hungarian capital – the city was built for kings, not for people. Budapest is not a walking city. The size of a human step is too small to encompass the idea on which the empire was built. People can't help being short-sighted by nature, Jaksha said. Our tiny bodies dilute the myth of origin and continuity. We are slaves to a perspective which is too narrow.
In Buda, we ended up drinking Bikavér in our old bar, where we used to come three years ago. There was a plate of savoury biscuits covered with cling film on the table between us. When the wine unleashed his appetite, Jaksha reached for the biscuits. I scolded him. Last time we made the mistake of giving in to our hunger, we were ripped off for a morsel of bread. Everything that happened three years ago was allowed to be discussed. We were not to remember Reka and the excellent restaurant where they had a homemade paprikás csirke. That place was left behind, in Pesta, on the other side of the river, and Jaksha convinced me that we were too tired and too drunk to find it at this hour. We ended up eating in a soulless tourist haunt, next to our favourite bar, because our goal was to forget.
It is not Jaksha's fault that the woman fell in love with him and wrote him love letters full of longing. After we had read through the neatly folded bundle of papers, we decided to throw them away. There is no trace of them in our home any more, but I still mention them. That night, as we strolled down the steep narrow alleyways of Buda, holding on to each other, I asked him how it was possible for a woman to fall in love with him only after a single dinner. I trusted her suffering more than Jaksha's rational explanation about how it doesn't take much for a lonely woman to give in to momentary excitement. She begged him to make her dreams come true, she was happy, she had everything but him. I would help him get ready for business trips, but she waited him for romantic weekends. Three in a row. In a foggy Zagreb morning, he would come back for his winter coat because he didn't trust the capricious April weather. He would arrive at Keleti station lit with sunshine. My Jaksha – her saviour. The next couple of times it was only an afternoon coffee. He wouldn't even meet her in the evening. Her letters spoke of places up the Danube, where the river turns green surrounded by the budding spring forest. She complained about his quick pace, but only jokingly. She actually enjoyed catching up with his long strides. Sometimes she included details of her life that had nothing to do with him. She thought he needed distraction from his hard work. There were stories about her car, her trips to see her grandparents, her walks in the countryside, yet every paragraph ended with a painful sigh – you're gone, Jaksha, why can't you make up your mind? Jaksha counted on me knowing him – he never talks about his private life. At least not with strangers. It is impossible for him to be close to anyone apart from me. Before he would hit the road, he used to moan how bored he was and that he needed a change of environment, he needed a challenge of finding something, anything. There was no goal – neither geographical nor spiritual. Budapest was not Budapest and Reka was not Reka. He would leave for the sake of leaving, and he returned for the sake of returning to himself. Whatever happened in the meantime was a way of finding out about himself. No matter how much it hurt me. Once the letters were gone and he talked to Reka for the last time, we believed we could go back to how it was. We trusted each other to be mature enough not to dwell on past mistakes. Even the careless friend was forgiven for bringing the whole case out into the open. Igor could not believe that something like that stood between us. Sometimes, I think it would be better if the truth did not exist at all. Yet, if I say it out loud, I am told off by Jaksha. He is convinced that truth is a relative thing.
Jaksha is not always that strong. There are ways to persuade him to do things he doesn't want to, ways to explain to him that what I want is really what he wants as well. Next morning we woke up late, under the spell of the fresh air from the nearby forest. We snatched the last pieces of cheese and a luke-warm jug of white coffee from the breakfast table. The maid gave us a scornful look. We were running late with our check out. On a messy bed, with our suitcase already packed to go, I lied on top of Jaksha's long body and started kissing his ear. He was still. I took his shirt from his belted trousers and felt his reluctance. I knew from then on we were stealing every minute from the next guests who paid for our room in the Hungarian pension. My firm hand talked him into compliance. He smiled finally. He said, right then. gripping my wrist, he showed me what I did to him – what my persuasive womanliness was doing to him. He whispered he wanted me; dirty, clean, unconditionally, all the time, on every bed. He was looking at me as I took off my fresh morning underwear from underneath my velvet skirt. Our bodies, entangled in clean clothes ready for departure, started the clumsy quest for their satisfaction. We kissed insatiably, much more than back home. I was hungry for his breath and his saliva, whose taste I had slowly begun to forget. There was a wave of pleasure overtaking my senses, as if I was in a trance. So, just like the rest of the mass, I fell for the myth – not noticing the moment when Jaksha entered my body. He was the first, and last and always. This should be our bet from before, I said. I couldn't remember what we bet was about, but I knew it was him who lost. He had to screw me on the train to Budapest in that case. The train is dirty, I smiled at him. So he agreed. It was much better this way, he said and held my breasts in a close grip. My body was being crushed beneath him. It was the third hour that we stole from somebody else's day in the pension.
The train compartment on our way back to Zagreb has unusual red seats. It doesn't seem uncomfortable. It's only the smoke that bothers me. Jaksha is usually very thoughtful and goes out into the hallway to smoke. He stands next to the window and peeps at me through the glass. On his side of the compartment, with a spare seat in between them, there sits a dark-haired girl, chain-smoking. Even if we could speak the same language, I don't think she would ask for permission. I don't recognize the cigarette pack. They are Hungarian. Dressed in black cords and black woollen jumper, the girl's body looks slender and fragile. She slowly leans forward as she flicks the ash from her burning cigarette. When she does that, she looks like she is in pain, or as if she had cramp in her stomach. Her slick long hair falls from her shoulders across her face and that makes her nervous. Especially when a lock lands on the purple gloss covering her lips. The hair gets greasy that way. The same thing happens to me sometimes. My body feels relaxed and light stretched out on the seat. I enjoy love-making in the morning or before long journeys when I know I will spend hours cramped in an awkward position. Jaksha takes out a book and gets ready for one of his favourite pastimes – reading on the train. He doesn't notice the girl in black. Never once does he look at her and acknowledge that there is somebody there disturbing our perfect romantic duet. Between us, things are sorted out now, the past forgotten, we move on into the bright future. I don't know myself why I keep looking at this strange girl. Even if she hadn't got on the train in Budapest, I would have guessed she was Hungarian. Her dark skin has an olive sheen and her cheek bones stand out. Her hair is shiny, tied in a bouncy pony tail. She peeks at me from time to time, with no intention of communication. But otherwise, she stares through the window with an ambiguous smile on her face. It's the self-satisfied grin that troubles me, I think. Why would somebody be happy all the time? Why would some Tartar girl be happy about being with Jaksha and me in the same train compartment?
Siofok is the last town through which the train passes before it starts snaking its ways along the shallow sandy coast of lake Balaton. We took this route many times three years ago. All the stops along the lake have the word Balaton in their name. Balaton something. I never know their exact number. I only know the last one, going from Budapest to Zagreb, or the first one coming from Croatia. There, Jaksha almost got stranded last year. It was his third weekend with Reka. The ticket inspector kicked him out of the train because he didn't have a reservation. The spring had blossomed into summer too early that year. The sun scorched the flat Panonian town as though were a desert. The streets were empty, apart from a handful of ice-scream sellers. But they are useless, not speaking a single foreign language. Jaksha had Euros. He urgently needed to change the money to catch the train to Budapest that was leaving in twenty minutes. He was walking along hot roads following the direction given to him by ice-scream people, cursing his bad luck which might stop him from seeing his friend and tell her that it was the last time – everything was a mistake, she misunderstood him, it was the language barrier, Hungarian is not an Indo-European language. He rushed out of the shabby hotel where German pensioners had booked their holiday and with money in his sweaty palm he ran towards the train which was already leaving the station. Balatonszentgyörgy – Budapest. I knew everything about those parts of the story. About boring tourist packages to Balaton which attract the Central European elite. It was the context that needed to be avoided. I was not allowed to mention Jaksha's Hungarian experience.
I couldn't sleep. I was looking at the strange Hungarian girl playing with her mobile phone. I stared impolitely, obsessed one minute with her physical presence and the next with the growing fear that Jaksha's little friend might have looked alike. Aren't all Hungarian girls Jaksha's little friends now? When she spoke on the phone, I tried to guess from the intonation of her voice what she was saying. I couldn't. So I felt betrayed. She could have said about me that I was a bloody bitch, that I was looking at her like I was mad, she could have been plotting against me, even though I wasn't sure why she would do such a thing. The train slowed down. The girl leaned through the window and as she recognized her stop, stood up and tidied her crumpled clothes. She loaded her bags on both her shoulders, hunched up under their weight. Glancing at me, without words, she then left the compartment while Jaksha held the door for her. That was the first time he took notice of her. The girl said, köszönöm. Köszönöm szépen. Her hair hid her face as she swiftly made her way out. I have no idea in what tone the Hungarian thank you is pronounced, but her voice was sad and mellow like 2velvet. As if she was mourning the last moments of a precious experience.
I was looking outside, into the darkness, following her small shadow rushing towards the sign board Balatonszentgyörgy. What if that was really her and if our trip back from Budapest on the same train was not accidental? Just as I had managed to talk Jaksha into making love this morning even though time was short, he was couldn't say no to Reka's last wish – to see me, the woman he was leaving her for. I felt an icy breeze that came through the open door lashing across my bare legs. I wanted no more accusations. The words I needed to voice, I swallowed – be it a reasonable doubt or a paranoid thought. I remembered I had conceived a myth deep inside me this morning. It was two people's bodily fluids mixed together, but it was one idea.
As the train speeded up, the ticket inspector reminded us that we needed to change our compartment. We took our things and obediently followed him to the carriage heading towards Zagreb. We were alone. Jaksha asked if he could rest his head on my lap. He took his shoes off and nestled comfortably as if he was in bed. I held his face in my hands and I knew I couldn't think of Hungary any more. It was unwise to listen to the echo of the painfully seductive tone of an incomprehensible language scattered around the empty Panonian landscape. I have to forget. Forget what needs forgetting and remember what must be remembered. This is the idea that lies behind all great nations and all great loves.