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Places With You and Places Without You
By Ingrid Maltrud

In this hemisphere the winter nights crowd the day and by mid-afternoon the yellow haze of lamps lights the streets of Budapest. I cross the square and the click, click, click of my heels echoes off the towering stone soldiers on horseback. Communist cars sputter and impatient busses squawk at me. My Walkman accompanies me on my journey, as does Sade's song of love that won't leave, the song that conjures my longing for you. In my haste I pass the caramelizing pastry from Gerbaud, the bronzed gaze of Imre Nagy, and finally the imposing spires of Parliament. So familiar are these sights that they no longer engage my thought or wonder, but rather they mark my walk home. What was once foreign is now home for me. After the slam of the phone last night, I wonder if you are now foreign and no longer home for me?

I am to see my first real castle today. I crowd off the bus with a dozen of youthful 20-year-olds and our anthropology teacher. My extra ten years of what they jokingly call "wisdom" only contrasts their eagerness against my melancholy. We trek up the hill and they shout and laugh while I nurse my vodka hangover and a tinge of shame over an elevator-to-bedroom incident with one of my fellow students. I try to distract myself with romantic Hollywood images of windswept hills, crumbling bastions and dark men. Rocks grate under my feet and the afternoon sun clears my fog as we come upon the assertive fortress -- the gaping arch of the entrance, the worn reddish color of the bricks covered by the dusty damp smell of old places. We enter into the compound and a stone path leads me to the small chapel. Cracked panes of stained glass filter a kaleidoscope of light onto Christ's body, protector of the altar. Dusty particles dance in the air as I count the small wooden pews and statues of saints that line the walls.

I spot her, instantly drawn to the strain on her face. Mary hides in a room warmed by the waxy scent of candles, an evil serpent lodged under her left foot. I turn to explain to you that this life-sized plaster of Mary wears a red cape around her shoulders (not the usual blue), which is a symbol of her sacrifice for Christ. My words fall empty into the silence behind me, and I abruptly leave, the echo of my steps left for the ears of saints.

When we first arrived in Budapest for our academic year, one of the young girls asked me if the man who wished me farewell at the San Francisco airport was my husband. Surprised by her question, I retorted with an abrupt no. Then with a light laugh I told her you were my ex-lover. I could have told her you were the only man I ever loved so passionately, but that you had wedged a stake of lies into our center. I wanted to call you and ask you what you would have said, but I wasn't ready to hear your answer.

I make light steps down the worn stairs into a dusty room where a large round wooden wheel rests against the back wall. I pause. Hairs dance on the back of my neck and my stomach collapses. My breath hides in my chest and then slowly escapes. Mounds of dirt and piles of bricks are scattered around the room. The ceiling is low and it smells of iron down here. Some of the other students begin to tauntingly scream "torture chamber." Panic races up my legs and into my eyes as I look for a way out, my sense of direction distorted. My mouth turns to bitter dust and my wrists feel pinched by metal. I can't place where I am. Madness reverberates off the walls. I can see them now, dirty men and haggard women, slouched in corners, scratching at the ground and hanging from the walls. I push their cries of pain into the empty corner and turn to you for reassurance. My parched mouth whispers, "did you feel that too?" If you had been there you would have led me out of the torture chamber.

Last night you pretended I was just another friend calling to lament about all the turkey I ate. But I am in Budapest and Thanksgiving was celebrated with a weak plate of salty mashed potatoes and cheap red wine. Do you remember that rainy Wednesday before Thanksgiving when we hopped on your old Norton and buzzed up and down the hills of San Francisco, stopping in at our favorite pubs? We drank sweet dark beer, smoked European cigarettes and talked about cranberry sauce, the beauty of our shiny city, and my plans to return to school. As we stumbled toward the Lucky Thirteen pub, a black man stepped into our path. Robed in torn red velvet and crowned with a Burger King hat, he cleared his throat and then offered a sonnet for a buck or a beer. I requested a sonnet of love. You gave him a five and he began, his voice shrill with madness.

"Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once. You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it: I loved you not."

The black king then swiftly removed his crown and in a smooth and feminine voice murmured, "I was the more deceived."

In that brief murmur of Ophelia's deceitful anguish I felt as if I were standing stark naked in a fog-chilled forest. You reached for my hand, but I pulled away and broke the silence with applause. With a bow he wrapped the torn fabric around his body and pushed his cart up Market Street. You apprehensively touched my cheek, laughed nervously and put your arm around me as we continued on to the Lucky Thirteen, joking about love and madness. We kissed for hours in the corner of the bar and later fell into your bed intoxicated with the nectar of hops and barley. You told me you loved me that night.


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