A plume of smoke rises from a campfire at the edge of the vacant lot. In the daylight, I saw a cluster of urban encampments there, shacks insulated with cardboard, woolen blankets and sheets of plastic. Now all I see is the smoke spooling through the darkness. I turn back to the cavern of the apartment block. I think about the effort required to build just one simple habitat, and about the irresistible pull that brings every human shelter down.

The night is silent. No human sounds shred the darkness that veils the squat. But as I stand among the shattered glass in the soft tangle of weeds and refuse, I hear laughter. It starts at a low pitch and rises in a crazed crescendo, echoing against the squat’s burnt walls. In this waking vision, I enter the squat, moving deeper between its falling structures. I follow the laughter to the dark place where it begins, in an apartment that opens to me like a blackened conch shell, revealing a stained and battered mattress on which two bodies lie intertwined.

The woman on the mattress rises over the body of her lover, whose face is masked in shadow. Her breasts

slope from a pale torso, nipples two black points. Her ribs are sharply shadowed in the moonlight, her belly a hollow curve. Between her thighs is the dark notch at the core of this mystery.

I follow the laughter to the dark place where it begins, in an apartment that opens to me like a blackened conch shell, revealing a stained and battered mattress on which
two bodies lie intertwined.

She rides her lover with a deliberate greed. A ragged curtain of hair half-covers her face, but I can see the lines of an aging profile that is still strikingly beautiful. That wild laugh spills from her open lips and echoes through the squat. She throws her head back as she laughs, brushing the ratted hair away from her face. Suddenly she turns, and our eyes meet.

I stop breathing. She stares at me without self-consciousness. I’m the one who’s out of place here, a ghost lurking in the darkness. A skein of desire connects us, but I don’t know where that thread begins or ends.

Then the woman makes a sweeping gesture with her arm, dismissing me with a torrent of Magyar. Her invisible lover pulls her down into the shadows, out of the shaft of moonlight. I don’t understand what she said, but I know what she told me.

I’m not welcome here.

Not yet.

Reconstructed

In the morning I walk down the street to the train station. I’m in Budapest to attend a conference on urban planning. My work on the Modern Market is part of the endless effort to renovate the old buildings of Europe. Our goal is to make their gracious, decaying bodies respectable again, as if the deterioration of organic matter were a source of shame, like the hot self-awareness that follows complete sensual abandon.

After years of climbing the ladder in my profession, I’ve arrived in a city with two selves. The city of today encompasses the quiet, restrained Buda, and her arriviste sister, the ambitious Pest. I get lost in the exotic tangle of Magyar street names and miss my station. Somehow I end up in the heart of one of the city’s older labyrinths.

The soot-smeared Old World structures speak to me. I hear their soft mutter in my head like schizophrenic conversation, their words speaking of loss and dreams. The ornate facades, the crumbling colonnades, part of a single, living body that calls me to come and settle into its softness. Throughout the city, I feel them beckoning, the ruins of old regimes.

I get lost in the exotic tangle of Magyar street names and miss my station. Somehow I end up in the heart of one of the city’s older labyrinths.

***

At the conference, I sit in a dark, air-conditioned theater sipping coffee from a paper cup, watching endless images of sleek, flat surfaces. I listen to men and women in impeccably tailored suits talk fervently about the thrust and push of new architecture, a school that worships the skeletal steel of contemp­orary minimalism. I listen, but my mind is on the woman from my sleepwalking expedition, the woman with the smudged cheeks and glittering eyes.

literature
literature
222
223