A Storyby Manikya Veena
I saw the man for the first time in Budapest on the Széchenyi Bridge. The chain bridge connected the western and eastern parts of what was once two cities, Buda and Pest. We exchanged a smile, as any two people might. Standing a few feet apart, we saw the Parliament House and Margaret Bridge on one end, the Freedom Statue and Royal Palace on the other, and the quiet, flowing Danube separating and connecting the two cities. We watched the same things, like lovers seeing the moon on a dark night thousands of miles apart, yet together.
A few hours later I saw him again, entering the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus my husband recommended. “This is the best way to see the city by yourself,” my husband said. He would be busy at the conference for the next few days and felt guilty about my being alone. Oh, how he wanted to see the city with me, he said, but I was glad to be on my own, free and independent, my sensibility so different from his.
From the upper deck with the open roof, my eyes followed the man who was heading toward the upper level. I turned and saw him walking toward the front, looking for a seat with perfect views, where I was seated. His eyes wandered to the one empty seat beside me. He gestured, asking if he could sit.
“I was hoping you’d ask,” I said with unaccustomed boldness and then hoped he might not understand English after all.
“And I was hoping you’d say okay.”
His voice was deep and full. He reminded me of my favorite Hindi actor, a tall, handsome man I fantasized about, a man of few words, confident on the outside, with a childlike vulnerability inside.
“First time here?” he asked.
“You’re alone?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t ask me the same. I was tired of defending and justifying why I was alone—why I didn’t have a partner before I was married, why I was alone without my husband while I was married. The man didn’t ask, and I was relieved.
“Yes, always alone,” he said, shrugging casually and putting on his headphones.
How comforting he made it sound—alone, like an exotic indulgence.
Alone, I thought as I sat up straight, tucking my chin, feeling intoxicated instead of burdensome.
The man had an educated, traveled accent. His olive complexion and dark hair could have been from three-quarters of the world. His sense of style was European—a crisp blue shirt, narrow linen pants, and a printed scarf around his neck. He looked professorial with his black-rimmed glasses. He smelled like fresh rain, and I breathed him in.
A bit later he tapped my shoulder and pointed at the open map in my hand. I took off my headphones.
“How many days here, tell me again?” he asked as if I had already told him.
“A lot for us to do in three days, huh?” he said, peering over his glasses.
I liked his confidence.
“What would you like to see? The Gellért Bathhouse for sure, yes?” he continued.
“I’m Raoul, by the way.”
It was strange, even absurd, that this man invited me, a stranger, to be a part of his journey. He was either very dangerous and I, apparently, easy prey; or he shared the familiarity and warmth I felt. Either way, he talked, I nodded, I talked, he nodded. With fascination I watched his arms, his long fingers, his clean, clipped nails, and his mannerisms. I let myself be hypnotized by his vocal undulations, his accent sounding like musical notes. I was glad I wasn’t wearing my wedding ring. I noticed he didn’t wear one, either. Together we chalked out a plan to see Budapest.
In the nearly two years I’d been married, my husband and I never planned a day together. He decided what we did, where we traveled, what and who we saw, even the menu when we hosted. He was a stickler for detail. I’d been a thirty-nine-year-old spinster (too dark, too educated, too short). If I were a woman of a younger generation, I might have worn my personality and my education as a mark of pride. Instead, when my husband graciously offered to marry me without a dowry and implied I should be grateful, I acquiesced.
“Wait for me,” I said as we stepped off the bus at the bottom of Gellért Hill.
“Not going anywhere without you,” Raoul replied, offering his arm.
I took his hand and we walked up Gellért Hill to the Freedom Statue. For once I didn’t hear the voices I’d heard all my life—what will people say, what will they think, think of your reputation, please don’t bring us shame. For once I wasn’t a student, an employee, someone’s wife, someone’s daughter. For once I wasn’t the responsible, sensible one. Even as I was distracted by my thoughts, I realized this was the first time in twenty years I was excited by a man.