February 6, 2010

BUDAPEST: A MEMORY

On one of my business travels, I was in Budapest, Hungary. One of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe. If you haven't been there, and you have money, think about it. Go there. And while my contract negotiations with our English fellows brought me – as they always do with the English – to a strip club at 1 AM, I was at least lucky this time that one of the people in the group was a woman I liked talking to, so we talked, the boys watched, and a handshake agreement was hammered out betwen booze and boobs and noobs somewhere between midnight and 1 AM.

One of the high points of that business trip was a dinner in an a restaurant that was actually in one of the old City Residences, perfect late 18th century setting, a long table, gold plates and more waiters than guests, it appeared. At the end of dinner, a cigar sommelière came to the table and invented us all to partake. By the way I said sommelière you might have gathered it was a woman (it's the extra -e at the end). And she knew as much about the different cigars as a normal sommelièr knew about wine, and she had the ritual down, the presentation, the cutting, the warming up with a long match that heats up the cigar, but does not ignite it yet. They fan the heat by blowing on the tip, until it becomes slightly ember, and only then do they offer it to you.

The woman in my group was so utterly fascinated by it, and I told her she should have one.

"Oh no," she said, "I couldn't possibly..."

She was dressed in the business bondage suit we have devised for women these days, coming from a direct evolutionary line of aprons and skirts, cotton and polyester, a male piece of clothing that was restrictive, not in a physical, but in a societal sense, covering up femininity by blending it with a male dominated sense of fashion.

"Because it's not what a lady does?" I said. "Or because you might be seen as less feminine? Here's what I think. A lady does what pleases a lady to do. Because that – more than anything else – is what makes her a lady. Those others are beneath her. Now, if you don't want to, if you don't like to... then by all means, don't. But don't let the looks of the others keep you from doing anything that you want. And you do want to. You're licking your lips. You can't stop staring at it"

"Yes," she said.

"Then let me call back our delightful sommelière, so that you she can give you what you wish".

At first, when she had her cigar, she was almost ashamed of being seen with it. Small puffs, always with a nervous sideways glance, god, what would the boys think? And then, slowly, she relaxed. Nobody was making a joke. And she leaned back in her chair, and she started to play with it, started to let it go, whatever she was brought up with to believe, whatever she was taught to fear, it disappeared in clouds of smoke, was drowned by little sips of brandy.

"You like it?" I asked.

"Fuck, yes," she said. "I should have had the courage to do this years ago. Thank you."

After we both had survived (in the strictest sense of the word) the inevitable strip club, we both went to her suite, and we talked for the rest of the night while slowly killing the suite's mini bar. I had my cigarillos with me, and we shared them, as we shared miniature snickers and miniature gin and tonics, and she told me how much she hated to be who she was, and I told her that she didn't hate that, she hated what others wanted to see in her, another sales girl, another cog in the machine expected to perform, but never to enjoy.

And when the mini bar had been emptied, and both of us had been drunk for more hours in the day than we hadn't, I wanted to leave and return to my own suite (they always give you suites, never rooms), and she asked me to stay. I thought about it.

"I can sleep on the couch, if you like", I said.

And she looked so sad, and she said, "Not the couch. Can you sleep with me? I mean, in the same bed? Not..."

"I know what you meant," I said.

"I just... I don't want to sleep alone," she said.

And when we were in her bed, I held her, and our talk became a whisper as she told me about her life, and sometimes she cried, and I stroked her hair, and I held her close, until the whispers became murmurs, and the tears dried, and her breathing became calm and soft while she drifted away into sleep.

The next morning, she woke up, and for a moment she was shocked. She was still dressed, and so was I, but she was shocked anyway. And then memory returned, little by little, piece by piece.

"Did we do anything?" she asked me.

"No," I said. "I just held you until you fell asleep."

"Most men would have..."

".. and most men would feel like a complete asshole then, in the morning. Which would be roundabout now."

"I have a boyfriend," she said.

"Don't worry," I said. "That secret is safe with me. I won't hold it against you."

"He would never believe..."

"No," I said. "He wouldn't."

"We should have," she said.

"No, we shouldn't."

"I don't know you," she said. "I don't know you, and you're the first person who has ever actually treated me like a lady. Not just talked about it. Not just promised."

"A lady does what it pleases a lady to do," I said. "And it is not a gentleman's prerogative to force anything upon her, or to exploit a moment of weakness, as tempting as it may. And believe me, it was... very tempting."

"Thank you."

"De Nada," I said. "But I want you to not forget this night. And please note that I said 'this night' and not 'me'. I want you to think about what you told me, and I want you to think about what you want."

"I have a boyfriend," she said, stepping closer to me and leaning in. Her hand reached out to me cheek, slight touches, unsure and fearful. Her lips brushed against mine, and those light touches became firmer. Her mouth opened, and her tongue replaced her lips, a playful lick that made me gasp, just long enough for her to enter, searching and feeling and tasting. And for a brief moment my tongue found the tips of hers, and they passed, strangers that touched briefly before they went their separate ways. Her fingertips left my cheek, her lips unlocked from mine, and she took a step back.

"Maybe..." she said.

"Maybe one of these days," I said.

"Maybe if i didn't have a boyfriend."

"Yes. Maybe."

"Think about it," I said.

"I am," she laughed.

"No," I said. "About this night. About what you want, not what other people want you to want."

"Maybe."

We left Budapest.

At the airport, life divided us into different lines, at different desks, then, on different planes. When I sat on my seat, I looked out at the sky. Somewhere, on a different path, looking out, maybe, she was doing the same.

And I wondered how little time it took for a heart to be in sync with that of another, how easy it can be for two of them to beat in the same rhythm, if only for a night, if only at a place where nobody knows your name, where nobody cares, and there is no shame, and there is no pressure. And how easy it is to lose it again, in the chatter of colleagues, in the roar of the engines that bring you back to reality as you go home, to a role you play for the benefit of others.

She married her boyfriend.

That's the last I heard from her.

I hope it's what she wanted.