Image © Brian Morrow 2017
|by Norman Belanger||December 15, 2017|
The Danube is not blue. Tonight, anyway, it is green and deeply murky. Something fetid rises up in the mists of it, a miasma stink that will always remind me of this sad city, a scent of rotting vegetation and dank, dead things that float to the surface of its turbid waters. When the white bulbs flicker along the Chain bridge, their reflection is almost beautiful, but it’s a trick of the light, the winking eye of a stranger that is there, and fleeting, gone.
The waiter is giving me looks, I’ve overstayed my welcome under the dripping red awning of the corner café. Here, on the flat bank of the river, the slapping waves and the hush of rain might lull me, but he coughs discreetly and jingles the change in his apron pocket to remind me of his near presence. I toss some coins onto the tiny zinc table top, where my scotch is half drunk. The last cigarette smolders in the overflowing ashtray. With a deft movement, he scoops up the money, and leaves me to myself. As he goes inside, the sound of a violin, and an off-key piano- a dancing tune, plaintive and sweet- soars and falls. People sway and sing, a few at the bar and couples at candlelit tables, Americans mostly, who laugh too loud and too much, in this city where no one seems to laugh, but this crew, who are warm and snug and drunk and happy, inside. I am the only one fool enough to be out here in the cold and the damp evening, where the icy air is tinged with the rot of decay, where the moon is never seen in the steel night sky, where Spring seems far away.
I’m in no rush. There is no hurry, no need to go back to the hotel, not now. I know he won’t be there. I know he will be gone. There is no need to rush back to the room, where the bed will be freshly remade and neatly turned down, and the maid will have tidied up. There will be no damp towels where he left them on the tiled bathroom floor, no hairs in the sink from his morning shave, no clothes of his in the drawer where he kept his few things, even the sweater he borrowed from me will be gone. No trace of him will be left. No signs of our last scene. All will be put right, and the room will be like a stage set, like any anonymous room in any hotel in any city in the world, and he will be gone. But still, there pulses the slight possibility, as vague as the fading light in this hour when the tired day surrenders to darkness, that maybe he still waits, a sputtering hope that maybe he is still there in that room as I left him. I shrink, half afraid to find him, more afraid not to find him, afraid that I never will again. As long as I sit here, with this drink by my hand, and the river running foul and shimmering with faint lights, the truth of that lonely room is still unknown. Still, he will be gone.
The first time I saw him, he stole my lighter. He’d bummed a smoke, and casually pocketed my blue Bic. I suppose this should have been a sign of things to come. If I noticed it, I pretended I didn’t. But it was a sign, the first of many. There would be others.
If you want to know, we met like this:
It was raining, the old city seemed to sigh in the gray mist, a faded Hapsburg lady shivering in a once fine shawl as rain spouted from gutters, shutters banged shut, crumbling facades mutely lined the silent street when I stumbled along the pavement. I was just out from the baths, where the warm waters were supposed to soothe away the damp coldness, but my bones still ached. I was miserably hungover from last night’s debauch, the last in a parade of nights, the fever of the end of the millennium, the last spring of the old century, that great yawning gasp, the end of the world.
I came to the famous Turkish bathhouse on the advice of the teenaged concierge. “Very good” he’d said, twice, touching his acne scarred nose absently, then holding out his hand for a tip. You learn quickly, nothing is free here, but anything can be bought.
I took his directions and went to find the place: “Just a very few minutes away by foot,” he’d promised. I went, down meandering half streets where battered signs on some corners stood in unpronounceable arrangements of letters that seemed familiar and yet alien. On every street, there were churches to some unknown martyred saints, falling edifices with statuary and crosses, all looking the same, and squat apartment blocks, and grit filled lots where old places had been blasted to make way for more ugly squat boxes, tiny grassless parks where sullen children played in the gravel with a stick and a ball, thick limbed ladies in sturdy shoes bustling from bakeries with brick like loaves tucked under their arms or stuffed in burlap bags full of onions and bottles of wine, the lumbering trucks on paving stones, and bicycles zipping by. Accidently, eventually, I found the ancient round domed building on a formerly grand main avenue, where stunted trees grew up out of the concrete sidewalk.
The baths are for men only. Once divested of clothes, clad in a rough square of dingy cloth, you walk barefoot through a labyrinth of dark rooms where the masculine of the species stretches and groans in all its voluptuous naked sagging hairy tumescence. I got a massage. An enormous fat man in a diaper loincloth slapped me around for several minutes with a fine whisk broom-like implement, then he hosed me down with a blast of frigid water before pushing me into the first of a series of baths, interconnected caverns, each lit by a sole aperture in the ceiling, like a one- eyed god looking down at his most loathsome creation, this sprawling heap of lurid nudity made eerie in the glowing phosphorous atmosphere. Men of every shape and size lolled along the stone rim wall of the bath. No one spoke. Only the gurgling of the constant spring echoed in the chamber like space. Even the hustlers seemed listless, offering barely a glance and a flick of inky black lashes, before slipping back into the whispering corners.
I did not stay long. I grabbed my clothes from the locker in a wall of metal lockers and dressed in the changing room where an olive-skinned boy for hire lingered too long by the sinks. An ancient attendant propped himself up against the wall, with fresh towels at the ready, for a small fee, of course.
I stood before the unblinking 100 year old matron to pay my bill. The massage and entrance to the baths costs a little over 8 crowns. I handed her a 10 note which she took, not once raising her eyes to meet mine -as the sole female in the establishment she must have turned blind to the fleshy sins of men long ago- her claw like hand grasped my damp bill, and it vanished into an unseen drawer. I stayed, apologetically running my hand through my still wet hair, waiting for my change, but she remained as still as a battleship, expressionless behind a pound of caked powder, and so I surmised she was keeping my overpayment as her own emolument. Even her surly muteness costs something here. Just about two crowns, not a bad exchange, considering I’ve paid more, for less; much more for much less.
“Goodnight, Gorgeous,” I said. She nodded, a barely perceptible movement of her head, her coiffed hair a tight coil pinned up, exactly the size and shape of the turd of a larger breed of dog, and nearly the same shit brown washed out color.
On the street again, I felt the rain on my face, and stopped to light a cigarette- the least fatal of the bad habits I’ve picked up again since coming here. There is something in the soot stained gray sameness of the place, something in the dankness that permeates from the old stone, that makes you want to hasten death, by inches, by degrees, and here no one seems to care. With each exhale, I give up a little more of myself to the wet afternoon.
“May I have one?” a voice said, a voice that came out of the misty grayness, and then a face: handsome and hard boned, a mouth that smiled that tight lipped grimace of these joyless people, eyes black and glittering, with a hint of a question, or an invitation maybe, or maybe I saw in his eyes what I wanted to see- to tell you truthfully- I was alone, and lonely, physically raw and mentally exhausted, after too many nights that would have made a Roman blush, at the end of an endless, sleepless rutting, a drug fueled, seamless twilight blur of men and hotel rooms and back streets, and so I arrived on the pavement in front of the old Turkish baths like a fallen smut smeared angel beyond tarnish, beyond redemption, bone weary and so very alone. At this moment, all I craved was the little death of sleep, the dress rehearsal for the final act I was too numb to play, but here he was, on cue, my last knight.
“You are very tired?” he asked then, reading my mind, one of many tricks he was to master. He lit the Camel from the pack I offered. That’s when my lighter, that first small insignificant thing, disappeared at his touch.
“American,” he said, “very nice” I was not sure if he meant the cigarette, or me, but he blew a plume of smoke in my face in a manner most suggestive, with that almost smile on his hard, cruel looking mouth, and those black eyes looking at me.
“Very nice” he said again.
Norman Belanger is an HIV care nurse by profession, and a writer by some character flaw to be worked out in extensive therapy. He lives in Cambridge, MA. Some of his short works of creative non fiction can be seen in AIDS&Understanding, Red Fez, Sibling Rivalry Press and Blunderbuss magazine.
Brian Morrow is a Photographer/ Musician/ Performer
Liverpudlian residing in Berlin
a founder member of anarcho Puppet Theater Das Helmi.
He enjoys Bicycles,Cooking, playing Drums, drinking coffee and hanging out with his kids.