My friend Shawn lives in Budapest.
He has lived there for the past two years, ever since he met his Hungarian girlfriend, Dóra, in Laos. The two traveled together for a bit, fell in love, and he jumped. He took a risk; she took a bigger one; and now I have a reason to visit Europe.
Which, conveniently, is exactly what I was looking for, Christmas 2017.
In early November, when C left Chefchaouen after three days stay at the hostel I was working at, I intentionally did not get her contact information.
We had passed a wonderful time together. We had spent hours talking at the desk while I worked; we had kissed; we had just brushed the surface of each other. I begged her to stay another night, so we could spend one night together, fully. I managed to make her miss one bus, but not two. She left. I didn’t walk her to the door.
All I was left with: two pictures she had taken on my sister’s phone. Her, in one of Chefchaouen’s endless blue alleys, sticking out her tongue, which had been painted blue by some chemical-filled candy. She had been obsessed with finding those candies, she said, ever since she saw some kids with blue tongues on her way in. Cute pictures. They were all I had.
Better to leave it, in memory, I had thought. Just a shining three days. I took no contact info. I asked for no Facebook, and I let her walk out the door. I had the sense, even then, that I could become obsessed.
She tracked me down.
Slowly, we started to exchange messages.
“I just wish I didn’t have all this rage in me,” over her last relationship, she wrote. A long-distance, international romance, it had taken place all over the world — but never at home. The hurt was still raw and oozing, I could tell.
“I don’t know why I am telling you all this,” she said, via Instagram DM
“Because we had a connection,” I responded.
“We did, didn’t we?”
I am careful with the messages. I use a light touch.
It is a cautious dance; one that plays out over the course of weeks.
“Men are stupid,” someone at the hostel says. “Why don’t you just tell the truth? Let her know how you feel.”
No, no, I say. Not with this one.
I tell her I am considering going to Budapest for Christmas.
If you go, I’ll come visit you! She says.
I book the tickets the next day.
Last time I’d been in Budapest, it had been October 2016. Age 24. My first time in Europe. The city was dark and dreary. The trees were dead. The death of summer was in the air. A dour dread hung overhead – the spectre of coming winter.
I found it painfully romantic.
How could I not?
My first time in Europe, walking around parks and castles, strolling along magical rivers and drinking cheap beers, new food, and marveling at something so different, yet so familiar. Seeing young couples gleefully kiss in public, showing off, performing their love for all to see.
Sleeping on the couch of Shawn and Dóra, two people who were obviously, freshly, flutteringly in love. Two people who had made the largest leap they could — thrown caution to the wind, crossed borders, changed plans, abandoned their homes to be together.
Theirs was a wild, crazy love story. The kind I’d always wanted.
I’d spent my childhood buried in books, eyes so close to the stories that by the time I was 12, they couldn’t focus the way they were meant to. With glasses and braces and a big nose perpetually painted with traces of the printed word, I was a lonely kid.
But I’d grown up; made many friends, had a lover or two. I knew how to move in the real world. Most days, I didn’t feel so lonely.
But that first time in Budapest, my heart was aching.
I was in the throes of processing a breakup; a big, painful thing that was certainly not helped by my decision to write a series of blog posts delving into every little detail. The blog was finding an audience; I was making great money at my remote job; and Shawn was happy to spend his every spare minute with me. We climbed a lot. Things were good.
But Shawn wasn’t the person I wanted to share the city with.
Coming back to Budapest after a year, these emotions came racing back to me. Every corner of the city triggered recollections; memories; moments filled with pain. I was surprised to find I remembered them so perfectly.
But the other surprise: they were completely irrelevant.
How things can change in a year, I found myself thinking, again and again. C would rewrite Budapest for me.
I arrived at 3 in the morning, on a cheap red-eye flight from Agadir. I rode Budapest’s public transit, familiar to me even through the dead-of-night grog and the tired fluttering of my stomach. I showed up on Shawn and Dóra’s doorstep at 4 in the morning, said hi, and promptly passed out.
People who let you do that are good friends indeed.
The next day, I meet C at Buda Castle. She is with some friends from Lisbon. Brazilians, living in Budapest, in the middle of winter. They aren’t very happy.
My heart jumps at the sight of her. She is dressed nicely, in a wool coat with a cute red hat. She looks a woman — different from the child-like backpacker I met in Chefchaouen.
I am in a garish, bright-orange Arcteryx jacket — a piece of highly technical mountaineering equipment which I brought because it packed down small and would serve as a raincoat in Africa. It is NOT suitable for a cosmopolitan European city, and I stand out like a tropical bird in the Arctic.
Despite the schifo coat, she wraps her arm around mine, grasps my hand almost immediately. We look out across the Danube, towards Pest, and the picturesque Hungarian Parliament. It’s one of the most treasured views in Hungary. “I can’t even brag on Europe to you, because you’ve been here before!!” she says, exasperated.
“I’m not your typical American,” I give her, with a sideways grin.
No,” she allows. “You’re not. Or I wouldn’t be here.”
We walk together along the ramparts, and talk about her life.
“Well I’ve been very depressed,” she says. Stuck at home, applying for jobs, and unable to find anything.
“I don’t want to spend winter on this continent, Daniel” she says. “I was in Mozambique last winter. It never gets cold there.”
We sightsee for a bit. Eventually, we seek shelter in a pub.
The evening is filled with drinking. First with C’s friends, then Shawn shows up, then Dóra. Then the Brazilians leave. Shawn, Dóra, C and I head to the Red Ruin Bar, a Communist-themed pub in Budapest. We share space in the basement with Hungarian teenagers, and put down beer after beer, laughing. The night disappears quickly, one beer flowing into another, and then into another, and then maybe a touch of palinka, the Hungarian moonshine, and then why not, another beer, as often happens in Budapest.
In the bathroom, at the urinal next to me, Shawn asks: “This is the first girl you’ve really cared about since Holly, isn’t it? I know there have been others, but not like this, right?”
“Yeah,” I say, nodding with no hesitation. “She is.”
“Good,” he says. “She’s cool. We approve.”
Later, when we stumble out into the street, Shawn says: “You two can crash at our place.” He leans in close, “the only thing is you can’t fuck her.”
Shawn and Dóra share a studio flat.
“Thanks for the offer man,” I say, laughing. “But I got an AirBNB.”
The sex is a problem.
She is stiff; hesitant, and unsure what to do with a man’s body.
She wants gentleness. I am too drunk the first night to notice it.
The next morning though, I clock it.
Laying naked in bed as the morning sunlight diffuses into our apartment, I ask C how long it’s been since she was with a man.
She gives a number that’s measured in years. It’s been women, ever since.
“I was drunk, I cheated, and the sex was bad,” she says. “I took the Plan B pill, and spent the whole next day crying. So you don’t have a very high bar to live up to.”
I felt horrible that I hadn’t thought about the experience of this person I cared for.
Of course, I thought, this was always going to be difficult.
So I let her take the lead on the sex, for the most part, and focus on the romance.
I could have had easier sex in Chefchaouen, I knew. More people; less complicated people; less baggage and more desire to do something wild and free.
I hadn’t come to Budapest to have sex.
I’d come, as I’d told C, not just to fuck the one who got away, but to spend some more time with “one of the coolest people I’ve ever met”.
“You have no idea how much I needed to hear that,” she’d messaged back. “I’ve been feeling like such shit about myself, lately.”
Our flat has a balcony, from which we can look out across the city.
It’s December, cold and gray. Steam rises from all the chimneys.
“Ohmigod!” C says, the first time she sees the view. “It looks just like Dickens! Don’t you think?!”
I laugh, grab her from behind, and agree. Yeah, it kinda does.
“That’s so cool!” she says. “I love this little balcony. I feel just like I’m in Victorian London.”
Her wonder is so raw, so palpable; I can’t help but spin her around and kiss her fiercely. People like this are rare in the world.
“What was that for?” she asks.
“I just think you’re awesome,” I say.
“You’re not bad yourself,” she says with a laugh, a little punch, and a twinkling smile. “Thank you for inviting me.”
“It’s cold though!” She adds, laughing. “Let’s go back inside.”
Budapest goes in a flash. We spend lazy mornings huddled up in bed, naked, pressed against each other. Sunlight streaming in, smiling, laughing, exploring each other as best we can. We drink wine and look out across the Dickensian rooftops. We wander around and take in the city’s incredible architecture. We have a nice meal, and it feels like a date. We go thrift shopping, and we buy me a new coat, to replace the traffic-cone-orange rain jacket. It costs €1, and I look amazing.
A cosmopolitan woman on my arm, a snappy coat, and a 4€ bottle of wine in hand; I feel like I belong, there in Europe. It is an intoxicating feeling. It is love.
It is an impossible dream, shimmering in the air: oh so close.
Like a mirage of water in the desert, it seems like one most simply reach out their hand, and grab it.
Before I know it, it is our last day together.
We are supposed to go meet Shawn and Dóra for ice-skating in Heroes Square, another of Budapest’s famous landmarks. Every Christmas, they freeze the plaza, creating a giant skating rink. It is a romantic date; young love in the shadow of the stories of old.
We are late, of course. Wrapped in each other’s arms, under the covers, why would we go anywhere else?
We meet Shawn and Dora and catch the bus to Heroes Square. We walk through the park, holding hands, talking shit. I speak with Shawn, C talks politics with Dóra up front. Off on a double date with old friends. I haven’t had a lot of that lately, with all the travels. It feels good.
We meet two more friends of Dóra’s, a Hungarian woman and her Argentine boyfriend. The Argentine and I start chatting in Spanish. I love Argentina, I say. Everyone I meet from there is so cool!
We converse for a while, and he takes off on his skates again.
“Wow Dan!” says Dóra, who speaks Spanish in addition to Hungarian, English, French, and a bit of Portuguese. “You got much better at Spanish!”
“It was kind of my New Year’s Resolution,” I say. “I’ve been working on it.”
“Well,” she says with a sly smile. “If that was your resolution for 2017, maybe your resolution for 2018 can be learning Italian!”
I dare not hope too much.
“Inshallah,” I say, a Moroccan saying that means: “God willing.”
I give her a wistful smile, before skating off at a sprint, to scare C from behind.
We finish our visit at the Rudas thermal baths. Hot springs, or thermal baths, are dotted all around Budapest. By order of the government, there’s at least one bath in every district — it’s that important to the residents of the city.
Built by the Turks in the 1500s, the natural hot springs at Rudas are some of the best in the city. Or so Shawn says, anyways, and he’s spent a lot more time in Budapest than I have.
C and I pass four, five hours there, laying in warm pools, snuggled up against each other; making out, holding hands… the baths are a romantic place. Unlike Moroccans, Hungarians have no problem with public displays of affection. They encourage it, almost.
Late at night, we sit in the rooftop pool of Rudas, and gaze out across the Danube river.
Budapest isn’t one city: it’s two. Buda and Pest. The Danube river splits the city down the middle; only a handful of major bridges link the two sides. On the roof of Rudas, located on the banks of the Danube, we sit on the Buda side.
Pest opposes us, impressive, impassive, yet somehow alive with life and energy and hope. The city absorbs our eyeballs and throws our gazes back at us, in the form of endless lit-up windows, street lights, and the shimmering headlights of the number 2 tram, tracing its regular path along the banks of the river. We kiss.
“I like that I can make out with you in public,” C says. “In Africa, you know, it’s not so acceptable for two women to be together. My ex and I couldn’t even hold hands in public. We had to be really careful no one found out.”
“For a first love,” I say, “sure sounds like you didn’t pick an easy situation.”
“No,” she says. “But I didn’t really have a choice, you know?”
As I stare into the beautiful eyes of a woman who will return to Italy in 12 hours, I know all. too. well.
“Tell me about the first time you fell in love,” she says.
“I was 18,” I say. “At university. She was in my dorms. She was just off a breakup,” I said, giving C a sad sideways smile. I am capable of seeing my own patterns; sometimes. “We were together for two years, the first not officially, you know, and the second one we were dating.”
I stare out across the river, lost in recollection. You never really forget a first love, I know. The woman I’m with — no, I think to myself, the girl I’m with, here on this rooftop — is not over her first love. The Africa romance, she has told me, was “paid for in blood.” I am in truly dangerous territory. But I cannot stop myself; nor would I want to. My eyes, she says, shimmer in the darkness.
“But that second year, she got hit by a car. Hit her head. And after that,” I say, determinedly staring ahead; off into the past, “she got really depressed. Suicidally depressed.”
“Oh… no. Was she ok?”
“She’s ok in that she’s still alive,” I say. “I think I was able to help her with that, a little bit.”
“That’s hard though,” C says. “I couldn’t imagine.”
“It was really hard to understand,” I say. “Because she would just see black. I was a kid — I didn’t really understand it, you know. I was always trying to convince her life was worth living, show her all the great things in this world… but that’s not how depression works, you know? She just couldn’t see things that way. Not possible. And I really struggled with that.”
“But, weird as it sounds, — and as painful as it was at the time — I think it was actually good for me.”
“Because I started really, intentionally looking for all the great things. I started looking for reasons to be alive. Things to appreciate. And I found so many.” The emotion starts picking up in my voice; a shiver runs through me. Maybe the cold winter winds blowing off the Danube. I shrink down lower in the hot tub, so only my head is above the water.
“There’s so much beauty in this world,” I say. “Like… you can fly to Morocco, spend three months relaxing in the Moroccan mountains, smoking… smiling every day; meet a girl; chase her to a foreign city, where you can sit on the roof of a centuries-old bath and feel so full…” I look at C. I catch a strange expression on her face, and look back towards the city. “But you can’t do any of that if you kill yourself,” I say.
She grabs me, tenderly, turns me around, and kisses me.
Eventually, we pull away. But our faces stay close. We look at each other.
“I can see the lights of the city in your eyes,” she says, enchanted.
I just smile. The moment lingers, hanging between us.
It fades into the steam.
We soak in significant silence.
“Have you ever been cheated on?” she asks me.
“No, I don’t think so,” I say. “Not that I know of, anyways.”
“I have. I been on both sides,” she responds, speaking slowly. “Cheated and been cheated on. I cheated twice. The last time I had sex with a man. And then once in Africa. I was drunk, I hadn’t seen my girlfriend in so long, and I needed it. That one was the worst.”
“Why?” I ask, running my hands up and down her hips.
“Because I had to tell my girlfriend. And when I told her, I could see the hurt in her eyes. I had the power to make her hurt — and I didn’t want that power.”
A man with real power runs us out of the baths at closing time, first speaking harsh Hungarian at us, and when that fails to register, screaming in aggressive English: “FEENISHED!”
We run away, laughing.
By the time our four days in Budapest are up, she has already gained the power to hurt me.
Our final hours together, we sit in the flat, packing, writing, drawing what we can for each other.
I feel a clenching in my chest that I haven’t felt in a long time.
“This hurts,” I say to her, plaintively. “I don’t want to say goodbye.”
She takes my face in her hands, looks at me, and pulls me into her bosom.
“Let’s just appreciate what we had,” she says.
We get on the number 24 tram, which we ride to the airport bus.
She snaps a picture of me: I look sad, lost; somewhere far off.
I turn my lens on her. I take three.
In one, she makes a face like she’s annoyed with me.
In the second, you might see some sadness.
And in the third, she smiles.
The clock in the tram shows 00:00.
It’s officially Christmas Eve.
I take her to the airport. We get pick up my sister, who has arrived fresh from Western Sahara: the one place I had wanted to see more than any other on the Africa trip. We stand around for thirty minutes, killing time, waiting for the bus back to the city, procrastinating the goodbye.
Finally, it arrives. Christina gets on. C and I stand in the cold, outside the terminal, caught between a bus and a plane. We kiss and kiss. I don’t want to let go.
Finally, the hydraulic shocks on the bus snap to life with a violent HISS! We jump, and disconnect. “FEENISHED!” I say. We laugh, laugh, laugh… and walk away.
I get on the bus. Right before the driver closes the door, I stop, and turn around.
I yell her name.
She turns, and I stick out my tongue at her. It’s painted blue; I’d snuck one of the candies out of Chefchaouen, saved it for a moment of sentimentality. She laughs, blushes, and turns so I cannot see her. The driver snaps the door shut, and the bus rumbles to life, away from the terminal.