Edifice and Artifice in Buda and Pest from Issue 98
Vanda drags at the remains of her cigarette and looks up at an empty night. There is no business for her.
In English, the sign behind her says, “Exclusive Club. No Entry Fee.” The accompanying image is that of a stripper on a pole, rendered in silhouette, like the lady on a trucker’s mudflap.
A black chill, ancient and wine-dark, rises from the Danube. She crosses her legs and binds the sash of her kimono into a double knot. Clear plastic platform heels clash together with a muffled gloss; patterned hibiscus flowers hang from skinny shoulders. It’s cold, but not cold enough to abandon the stoop. It’s stuffy inside, besides.
Károly steps onto the curb, lighting a cigarette of his own. He’s wearing his silver cufflinks and that teal suit he’s so proud of. He tells Vanda that she looks sexy in silk. Vanda ignores the comment. The truth is, the kimono is rayon. Mass-produced for American Halloween.
Vanda is very young, but she has known several men like Károly. They begin as the bouncer, the bartender, the secret admirer. They evolve into the perfect façade of chivalry: the holder of doors, the carrier of bags, the shoulder to be cried on. He will pine away, in public, hoping one day the scales will fall from her eyes and she will realize he is the only one who cares.
Vanda knows no one cares. Not even Vanda cares.
It is far easier to regard the apartment building across the street than it is to acknowledge the intrusive presence of Károly. Once, the structure was hewn from blocks of white stone; now it is ink-black, soaked in a century of soot. There are dozens of perforations where bullets passed through, sixty or seventy years before.
Vanda has been to Prague, where once there were bullet holes. They have since been plastered over, painted, and meticulously smoothed.
Vanda has been to Berlin, where they are more pragmatic. They have spackled the wounds there, leaving behind choppy white patches of dried putty. The trained eye can discern the pattern of gunfire, but the usual visitor overlooks the imperfection.
Here, in Pest, no effort has been made to heal the pitted stone. Vanda likes this idea. She finds there is a fine line between modesty and deception, and she prefers the truth, unadorned. She drops her cigarette and grinds it into the pavement with an eight-inch heel. Vanda imagines soldiers from another time, spraying leaden death from guns held waist-high.
Károly asks her to stay a little longer. It’s so stuffy inside, he says. Vanda tells him she’s going home. There’s no business for her.
She rides the metro beneath the river, into Buda. Her mother asks how the restaurant was tonight. Vanda says it was slow, too slow.