Four or five men around the bar were talking about the next EU elections. They were foreigners living in Budapest. Christopher watched Cassandra’s fixed stare. She watched them, her eyes acrobatically following their lips and hands as they gestured.
She wants them, Christopher thought, she wants any one of those men, in a way she can never want me.
On the stage a minimalist rock band was playing. The lead singer was a blonde Hungarian woman. As she sang her hair fell over her face like golden fingers. She was dressed in denim shorts and a black t-shirt and Christopher thought she was incredible.
So much wanting and so little pleasure, he thought lazily to himself.
“Hey you, what’s with the sulk?” Cassandra said as she put her arm around his shoulder.
“Sulk? Who me?” Christopher knew he was sulking. It was something he did ever since he was a child. When he felt ignored and unwanted, he would pout and bow his head very obviously, hoping for attention.
He hated himself for still doing it now. Cassandra picked up on it. She gave him attention, but now it felt emasculating for Christopher.
“I’m just enjoying the show.” He said with a tired smile.
“She is fucking good isn’t she?” She said looking at the singer.
“I can’t understand what she’s singing, but the riffs are incredible.”
Cassandra paused to listen. The guitar drove on like a shunting train. It was like Johnny Cash on methamphetamines. If she closed her eyes she could feel herself bopping wildly on the music as if she were swimming in choppy waters.
“This is actually real good.” She said removing her arm from Christopher’s shoulder and taking a sip from her beer. It was good, cold beer, but Cassandra wanted to take the night to the next level and order palinka. Soon, she told herself. Hold yourself, for god’s sake.
“Don’t sound so surprised.”
“No, it’s just I never liked rock music. Really. My father absolutely hated it.”
“To hell with him.”
“To hell with him!” They raised their glasses and toasted Cassandra’s father’s damnation.
“What would he say if he knew you were in a shithole of a place like this surrounded by the dregs of Budapest?” Christopher asked, happy that she was now paying full attention to him.
“He wouldn’t say anything. I’ve been in worse places. He always knew how I was. Even if I’d be dancing on a bar at a nightclub at four in the morning, I never worried about what he would say. And now, hell, it makes me wonder; he could never tell me anything because it would have made him a hypocrite.”
“He was doing far worse things than you.”
Christopher saw Cassandra’s face fall sullen. And then, she suddenly shouted out: “we need palinka!”
They spent the rest of the night sampling different flavours of palinka. No matter what they drank – apple, cherry, apricot, pear, plum; they all tasted like sweetened gasoline. After every shot they felt like they were going to be sick. But they never were, so they ordered more.
By one in the morning the band had finished their set. The singer came to the bar and ordered a beer. Her band mates were still dismantling the equipment. The singer was sat next to Christopher. Cassandra, drunk and fully adolescent, her 35-years on this planet fading away in mere seconds, nudged Christopher on. “Talk to her you idiot, buy her some fucking palinka.”
Christopher wasn’t drunk but he was emboldened. He felt he had the bravery of a matador. He listened, also fully adolescent, to Cassandra, and talked to the singer.
“Hi, sorry to intrude, but you were amazing tonight.”
“Oh how sweet, thank you!”
There was a brief pause, like the sea dipping before a large wave. She smiled brilliantly and sincerely. Her face was fair and her skin clear of any blemishes. She had a young traveller’s face.
No, an adventurer’s face.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t understand anything. But still, music is universal, right?” Christopher could hear Cassandra snickering behind his back.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Malta. You probably don’t know it.”
“Malta! Of course! I have some friends of mine living there. It’s beautiful – what the hell are you doing in Budapest?” She laughed a smoker’s laugh. Her movements were hyper and disheveled. She spoke the same way she performed.
“I’m here to run away.” He said with a half-smile.
“Why, what did you?” She said with a terrifying wink that made Christopher feel like a small boy talking to a crush.
“Nothing, nothing! But, I like to run away every now and then. Travel clears the air, you know.”
“Oh yeah, absolutely. When you travel you feel like a child, don’t you? You’re just filled with awe at everything.”
“Do you travel a lot?”
“I don’t travel. I fly.”
“Wow, that’s really well said.”
“I’m cheating. That’s one of my lyrics.”
“Shit! I really want to know what you’re singing now.”
“Well, I do have some English songs I’ve been working on. Why don’t you guys come to my apartment and I’ll play you some.” She looked behind Christopher and straight at Cassandra.
Cassandra looked baffled. “That would be amazing.” She said. Then she turned to Christopher and said in a loud voice: “isn’t this the threesome you’ve always wanted.” She slapped him on the shoulder.
Christopher laughed but didn’t reply. They paid their bill and left the bar with the singer. She only lived a few blocks away and it was a beautiful walk to her place, she said.
Along the way, Christopher noticed how Budapest was still pulsing with life. There were ruin pubs, bars and restaurants overflowing into the street. The singer – her name was Ava – spoke with Cassandra as they walked.
Ava’s gestures were as pulsing and energetic as Budapest itself. Her hair fell over her face as she spoke, her eyes barely perceptible, like two gems hidden behind a waterfall. Christopher looked down and spoke to his father’s leg: “This feels right, dad.”
Cassandra, still riding the wave of palinka intoxication, was telling Ava all about her father. Ava paid full attention and seemed genuinely shocked by Cassandra’s father’s abuses. When Cassandra said “I’m here to press the reset button. I don’t want that son-of-a-bitch to rot inside me,” Ava was nearly in tears.
Ava stopped Cassandra in the middle of the street and hugged her.
Christopher had heard Cassandra use that phrase – “rot inside me” – before. But now it took on a graver significance for Christopher. His father truly was rotting inside him. And he could never get away from him. Even now, in the company of two beautiful women, two inspiring women he could never be with, he could feel his leg dictating his life.
He had never felt so lucky and so cursed at the same time.
He sighed deeply and the girls heard him. “What’s the matter, Christopher?” Cassandra asked.
She spoke in such caring, pitiable tones that Christopher suddenly felt low. He ruined their spontaneous, big-hearted embrace with his sulk, with his plea for attention.
“It’s nothing.” He said as sincerely as he could.
Cassandra smiled and took his hand. She then took Ava’s hand and they walked down the nocturnal streets of Budapest together. Christopher felt a bit more lucky than cursed now. And yet, he felt envious of Cassandra. She could press the reset button any time.
If Christopher wanted to press the reset button, he would have to cut off his own leg.