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Earlier in the evening, there was a situation with a hand and a bare leg. The hand was the responsibility of a sweating American. The leg, mine.
You’re a very sexy woman, was what he said as he slid his hand upwards.
I requested for him to remove the hand from where it perspired onto my thigh. He acquiesced, but not before briefly tightening his grip and calling me a little whore.
You’re ugly, too, he added.
I watched his broad back as he stalked away into the crowd, wondering what the chances of him finding and murdering me later that night might be.
I looked down at my leg where he had grabbed me. I could still feel exactly where his fingers had been. That part of my skin felt hotter than the rest, but there was no visible mark.
Three Canadians stand before me now in sundresses, smiling their milky smiles. We are staying at the same place. I already know that one of them is called Alyssa. I remember her name from earlier when we met in the dormitory, although the names of the others elude me. I am glad to see them, but I also worry that their nonchalant vitality might attract the attention of the sweating American again. I glance over my shoulder.
Are you waiting for someone? Alyssa enquires.
More like looking out for someone. In the sense that I want to avoid them at all costs.
We talk about museums and thermal baths. They tell me about a bar they went to the night before, with an open-air dance floor.
It’s on top of a parking lot, one of them says.
I ask if they will go there with me now, but they say no, they won’t be staying out late tonight.
Not to worry, I say brightly. I’ll go there anyway.
You’ll go alone? Alyssa asks.
I do everything alone.
I go to the bathroom and apply some reddish-brown lipstick in the cracked mirror above the sink. I am dissatisfied to discover that it picks up the heat flush and sunburn on my skin. I think I looked better without it.
I am impressed by the building that houses the rooftop bar. It is imposing and utilitarian, qualities which I admire and which I would like to cultivate more of in myself. At the side of the building, a door stands open.
Inside, there is a lift. I push the button for the highest floor. It chugs to life and begins to convey me upwards. About halfway up, it grinds to an abrupt and spluttering stop. The doors seem to twitch slightly, then creak open. I stare into the cavernous blackness. A fresh gust of air blows in.
Oh my, I say, stabbing the button for the top floor again. Slowly, the doors drag closed, and the lift shudders on. When they open again, I find myself at a stairwell lit by fluorescent tube lights. Underfoot is thick grey linoleum, and I can hear muffled voices echoing from above. Music thumps louder as I climb. When I reach the top, I see red strobe lights that pulse and flicker over the open-air dancefloor. Spangles of city lights spread out for miles around.
A handsome barman smiles as I approach the bar.
One negroni, please.
You like it here? he asks me as he mixes the drink.
I think about this for a moment before concluding that yes, I do like it. I like being on the roof of this menacing building. I like looking out over the expanse of this city, split duplicitously into two parts by the conniving Danube. I take my drink to the wall to look over the edge. People dawdle on the street-lit pavement below. I resist the urge to pour a drop, just a speck, of my negroni on their heads. I am deep in thought about how it might feel to be going about your business, ambling along on the pavement in the evening time, to all of a sudden discover that a delicious bitter crimson drink is raining down upon your head. You know, I think I would like it. I am deep in thought about this, when a voice close behind my ear says, Found you.
Jesus, I say, and turn to see Alyssa standing there. Her baby-blue cotton sundress ripples in the slight breeze.
We lean against the wall and talk about all sorts of things. Alyssa turns and presses her front against the wall. She looks down at the pavement and then up at the darkening sky, which flaunts its beauty still, audaciously shot through with rose-coloured clouds. She tells me about her Iranian family and the degree she is studying for. She is doing a semester abroad in Brussels, she explains. Her friends have come to visit her, so they can travel around Europe together.
Have you ever been to Iran? she asks me.
No, should I?
Definitely. What’s the best place you’ve been on your trip?
I liked Tbilisi, Georgia.
You’ve gone all that way? she says in amazement.
I wish I could have gone further. But I think Iran deserves its own trip.
Some others who we know from around come to the bar. Two Norwegians with yellow-blonde hair. A German man wearing linen trousers. The darkness deepens, and the music seems to hijack my heart; both beat at the same tempo, with the same urgency. We all dance together and I lose Alyssa in the crowd for a while. The German man tries dancing closely with me, but I twirl away from him in one deft and beguiling motion. Alyssa materialises next to me. We stand side-by-side at the bar, waiting for glasses of water. I feel her fingers like tentative tendrils curling towards mine and I let mine open so that hers can slip in between them. I look at her and she is staring straight ahead, smiling, her skin glistening in the dark.
I knew I was going to like you, she says, still looking ahead. As soon as I saw you. I just knew.
And that’s the way it goes then. We become wives for the evening. We walk through the city in the early hours of the morning. She takes my hand in the street.
We should be careful about holding hands here, I say.
Don’t worry, she tells me. It will be okay.
We come upon a fountain.
I need to dip my feet in there, Alyssa says.
The water is lit up and gurgles invitingly. We sit on the fountain’s edge and ease our feet in, letting it cool our skin. There are coins on the fountain floor – brass, gold and silver. I run a hand through my hair, damp and dirty with sweat and dust. Then, I swivel around, hold on with my hands, and dunk backwards, my back arched, to let my hair get wet.
I would like to do that, Alyssa exclaims.
Well, go ahead.
I’m afraid. How can you do it without falling in?
Here. I’ll hold you.
I hop off the fountain and stand by her side. I put one hand under the middle of her back, and one at her neck. I lower her gently backwards. She closes her eyes and smiles. She gives a little gasp as the back of her head touches the water.
Yes. A little further, please.
I lower her until all her hair is submerged. She looks like a goddess with her crown of black curls flaring outward. We stay suspended like that for a moment. Our breathing seems to synchronise. Then Alyssa opens her eyes and we both laugh. I help her pull herself upright. She takes hold of the length of her hair and twists it to wring out the heavy water.
That felt so good, she says.
On the walk home, a light wind picks up, and I wrap my arm around Alyssa’s shoulders. Back at the hostel, we creep to the shower rooms and step into a single cubicle together. We lock the door and stand under the warm water. Afterwards, she slips into my bed, and we fall deeply asleep, bodies melded. We sleep through the morning, blissfully ignoring the comings and goings of our dormmates, wrapped in our own private cocoon of comfort and warmness.
In the early afternoon we drink small strong coffees in a café near the Gellert Hill. We have discussed climbing the hill. Indeed, we intend to do so. Alyssa talks about the thesis that she is writing in Brussels.
It’s an analysis of surveillance theory from a queer perspective, she tells me.
That sounds interesting, I say, although in fact the idea gives me a sense of deep unease. I want to change the subject but I know that social niceties stipulate that I must allow her to hold forth for a few more moments at least. She talks about seeing ourselves through the oppressors’ eyes, and the types of experiences that let us know they are always watching. I feel a fervent desire to burst into song, or to skim a pebble across the surface of a vast body of water.
Alyssa wants to use the bathroom. She rises to go inside the café, then stops at the entrance and looks back at me as though she is considering saying something. But she doesn’t say anything, and continues on inside. The way she looked at me, I don’t know about it. It was as though she was seeing me for the first time, and I’m not sure that the impression was entirely favourable.
Alone at the table, I drink back the last of my coffee and look around. I see plenty of tourists on their way towards the hill. Suddenly I realise that I don’t want to be one of them. I don’t want to be standing around in the dust, looking up at the liberty statue. I’ve already seen all the way across the city from a height, and I know that the daytime view will disappoint in comparison with the night. If I go up and look down now, there will be no twinkle, no mystery. There the city will be, offering itself up to me in the glaring light of day. I unlock my phone and check the train schedule. I realise that if I leave now, I can catch a train to be in Belgrade by evening. I don’t allow much more thinking to take place than that. Instead, I let my feet do as they please, and it pleases them to run.
I leave a five euro note down on the table. I turn to walk away and then think better of it. I take the note back and replace it with a ten. I want to at least pay for Alyssa’s breakfast, in honour of the time we spent together. I tuck the note under the saucer beneath her coffee cup, and I take off in a light jog. My legs are stiff with adrenaline and propel me along in sharp clipping motions. I hope with all my might that Alyssa doesn’t emerge just now and see the back of me, running away from her. At least if she comes back to discover the empty table and the ten euro note, she can imagine for herself what might have happened. She can imagine some emergency – a sick relative, the next flight home – where it was simply impossible for me to stay. But I wished I could. I really did.
I breathe out as I round the corner, down a side street towards the hostel. I reach the right street and as I run down it, a blob of rain hits me in the face. Good, I think. Maybe that will make Alyssa stay put just a little longer. Let her just shelter there under the awning for a few more moments. I hurry to the room to get my bag. The room is mercifully empty. I grab my errant things and stuff them inside my rucksack.
At the hostel reception desk, the woman’s hair is in locs and she is clothed in various drapings in colours of dark and possibly poisonous berries. She is deeply engrossed in reading a battered copy of Death in Venice. I have to interrupt her from her reading to pay my bill, and I feel sorry about that. I give her my money and rush out into the courtyard, the rain falling in big, ripe drops now, falling as if it has something to say. I turn my face upwards to feel the water on my skin, and I let my feet carry me onwards, out the entrance way and onto the street, turning my heart towards the next place.
About the author: Áine Travers is a writer and research psychologist living and working in Dublin, Ireland. | Twitter |