If only I could remember Roxy now, how she felt the night we met at Chapeau Rouge. French name, Hungarian bar. Outside: dewy cobblestones shining under hollow cones of streetlight, hemmed in by one-lane sidewalks. Inside: a room packed shoulder to shoulder, people clutching pints and blowing streams of smoke into the ceiling fans like howling pack animals. Gas lamps flicker across the wall dressing, silks of pink and burgundy with raised garlands and gold brocade.
Roxy was tucked away in a corner booth, mashed up with friends and strangers. I noticed her in the pause before cigarette reaches mouth. Her lip curled, as if struggling with gravity and diamonds of light played in the glossy sheen of her lips. She hardly gave a nod when we were introduced—she was fixed on a pale, reedy Turk who was speaking of cocaine—but I noticed her cross her legs in my direction under the table. The conversation melted into the cacophony and watched her lips move, hover and wait.
There was nothing frail about Roxy, equine power in the lines of her thighs falling carelessly from skirt. I would have been content just to wrap one of those thighs in the embrace of a lost child.
The Turk disappeared and then we spoke. Her accent was difficult to place and she told me she was a translator at a online sex chat parlor; she helped the Eastern Bloc girls with their diction, keeping their syrupy tongues sharp, their actions direct: Your ass, darling, he wants you to touch your ass.
But that wasn’t her only job, she was quick to say. During the day she worked with an group that helped refugees assimilate to life in Budapest. I detected a socially redemptive construct to balance the lurid aura of her late night gig. I didn’t buy it and I believe that Roxy was a translator. I didn’t want to believe it. I’d rather imagine her giving it up for a pinhole camera when the green light says go.
The Turk returned and and she excused herself. That suited me. I came to learn that Roxy was best consumed in small doses, and this time I had poked through her shell. The next time we met I could peak through.
The rest of the crew stepped outside to smoke a joint, leaving me alone to think about her patchwork of truth sewn sloppily into a canvas of lies, one as easy as the other. After a few minutes Roxy and the Turk reappeared outside with the others. As I wondered if she could see in as easily as I could see out, someone passed her the joint and she seemed to look in my direction as she took a drag. Whether she was peering at me or at her reflection, tough to say. I’d guess the latter.
I didn’t speak to Roxy again that night until the evening broke. When I said goodbye, declining an invitation to the drug addled parade that often formed in the wee hours of the Budapest morning, I heard disappointment in her voice, the way her words curled up at the end. I felt it in the fingernail she grazed across my forearm. She split me open, flayed me from navel to solar plexus.
* * *
If I had my way, Roxy would wear only gauze after the ribbons fell, and when the evening sun slipped away she would exist only in silhouette. Let the third dimension reside where it belongs: in the sensual truth of darkness, softened by a single flame.
“What’s your name Roxy?”
“What do you mean,” she said. She was blowing out the candle.
“You know what I mean.” She rolled toward me and our nostrils filled with the waxy odor of charred wick and before her lips touched mine I said, “You know exactly what I mean.”
There were times when Roxy could take no more. She would clench her teeth and hold her arms out like she was trying to keep two invisible walls from collapsing. Then she clutched at linens and rolled like an ocean swell. The wave passed and she traded the sheet for a handful of my hair. Predator and prey. Which was which, who was who . . . I had no idea. But it felt good to be gored.
I could sleep in Roxy’s bed, better than any other in Budapest. It was not the comfort of her bedding that eased me: her sheets were starchy and thick, the blankets smelled mildly of burnt tobacco. And Roxy was a capricious bedmate—embracing you one minute and clawing you the next, soundly sleeping all the while. I was a drunkard, drowned in a shallow peace, giddy knowing I would wake next to her, whether aroused by the snooping light of dawn or jolted by a knee to the midriff. It was a matter of joy. I laid in bed and through her window watched the pastels fade up, and I thought of maternity, how through all of the unpleasantness, a mother ushers child into the world, driven by a divine joy. Did I feel like the mother or like a fraternal twin, womb-bound with a restive sibling? Perhaps a some of both…
* * *
At the café one evening, our last.
It was a café fit for Toulouse-Lautrec . . . marble-top tables, too small for anything more than saucers and ashtrays. Along the wall brass lanterns divided broad, tall mirrors. Chairs with wrought iron backs, curled and twisted . . . chairs that made you fidget, chairs that stirred a restless mind and fueled dissent. The lower of the two levels was more of the same but with couches along the back wall.
I found a place in our favorite spot while Roxy went to the bar for drinks. Roxy loved the café at night, when the place was full and the conversational din purred. I preferred it during the day.
Surveying the crowd I saw the usual lot: artists and intellectuals and those posing as such. They bored me senseless. But then I spotted a thin girl sitting alone at a corner table. She had been crying, her lashes were heavy, black, clotted with tears and mascara. Her head rested sideways on her open palm, elbow on table and she stared through the hovering smoke. I imagined a lover had forgotten her or worse. She was resigned, exhausted by caring . . . . anyone with arms to embrace her may as well have had wings. I could comfort her, I thought. I could cross the room and tell her I was never without the feeling that plagued her now, and yet I was alive. But Roxy would soon return and it would not please her to find me across the way with my arm draped around another fallen angel.
Outside, at the river, the fisherman were collapsing their poles and cinching up their baskets. The sky was streaked in violet and rose, the colors their beacon, the spilled light of dusk. The poetry of it meant nothing to them, their hands were cracked and dirty and a warm stove waited at home.
After we left the café, I probed Roxy’s capacity for silence. She rarely offers it on her own. I was feeling ruthless, I’ll admit. She had made a production of our departure, stopping to adore her acquaintances as we meandered toward the door, and there was one at every table . . . O, popular girl . . . No one was concerned with me, and I was glad I not to have to ape any phony shows of affection. I was churning.
My anxiety was evolved, well formed . . . an orchestra that builds in fever and pitch to a painstakingly controlled hysteria, internal, virtually invisible from the outside. First the feathering strings . . . violins rise, edging through the crowd, brushing shoulders with passersby. And as we pass, we pass. The exchange is fleeting, like silver fish surfacing to throw back a sparkles of sunlight. Eyes dart and flit away. We move slowly, then in bursts. We move, and as we near the door and I could see the vacant street beyond I felt my breath returning, and she stopped . . . . Once again I was stranded and with nowhere to go I paused in the center of the room and felt it coming on . . . . bass drums rumble forth, no place for my hands. I notice my clothes are haphazard and unrefined. Should I feign anger, or am I clearly and altogether purposeless. Everyone so engaged, talking small and smiling, the touch of fingertips, twirled tresses of hair. And I stood paralyzed, the misfit praying for invisibility. I fixated on things that warrant only a moment’s study—a mechanical train or a post card on a rack near the register—and moment pass, Roxy all the while chatting, flirting, making plans for rendezvous that will never be kept . . . . The timbre rises, carried clearly from the center of the room. Intimacy, brushing strangers, I try to move, certain that my eyes are beginning to bulge with horror and that any moment I will be yanked toward the ceiling, suspended by piano wire as the room becomes an amphitheater that encircles the social idiot . . . . Cymbals crash, violins wail. Don’t move enough to set the wires swinging, don’t let them see you writhe. Be unaware that gravity is done with you, that you are airborne jetsam, dangling, alone. Unwilling statuary. I studied the ceiling tiles, leveled a gaze at the liquor bottles along the top shelf and tried to make out the brands.
Roxy was oblivious to my terror. How could she not be? I was concealed it well and, what’s more, I never told her anything about the years following the divorce, nothing whatsoever about childhood. To her I was a man, tuned elsewhere and uncaring, hardly noticing the people around me, whittling thoughts of my own. And in her ignorance she was unaware of her greatest power: to bring calm as readily as she could destroy it.
We were to say goodbye in the morning so these last few moments were not to be wasted. I loathed each person she stopped to kiss.
While the fishermen slept, we walked toward the river. My persistent silence was more than retaliation, after all, Roxy had apologized when we finally made it outside, going so far as to recognize my paralysis.
“You are such a nervous boy,” she said. Then she curled around my elbow and huddled close as we walked. She said she wanted to be seen leaving with the recluse. “People know you, you know. And I wanted our last parting to last and last and last.”
I wasn’t sure if this was in jest and so I asked her why she cared to be seen with me.
She leaned close and I could feel her breath on my ear. “Because I’m the only one,” she breathed.
That was Roxy. The ego that petrified and crumbled, just moments ago, slipped back over me like a cloak.
There was a reason I needed to see if I could hear nothing with Roxy. Silence between lovers has two undercurrents: one is a desperate grappling for the reason for the silence and the second, deeper and more complex, is a state of meditation where all traces of self and other dissolve, when you fade into a canvas of light and shadow, sounds and the weight of the air. When sustained, mutual silence is pure intimacy. I wanted to know if the chatty Roxy, so restless and aware, would sense that.
We reached the Duna, an inky mirror throwing back the lights of the ramparts. Midway across the bridge I let her disappear but for the ginger grasp of her hand and, thrown by the breeze, the feather wisp of her hair against my cheek, the warmth of her palm and the suggestions of her scent, so soon to all be memory. I let her hand fall out of mine when the image was complete. I heard the echo of the river lapping the bridge supports . . . a rhythm of kisses, not a childish smack but a delicate meeting of parted lips, when breath is exchanged rather than taken away.
The thunder of an approaching streetcar overcame the sounds of the river. The tram passed, then a file of buses and trucks and the air became thick with diesel exhaust and road dust kicked up by the lorries.
“Did you notice how th—,” I said, but I was cut off at the fifth word by a slow, sensual hiss…
“Shhh…” I turned and she smiled, still looking ahead. Roxy retook my hand as we took our last few steps across the black, crawling river.