The airport bus to the metro station passes through a foul smell, a sinister burning under the wet gray sky. From the nearest subway station I walk fast in the gloom and noise of the streets to the Odeon cafe, and once past the double doors I am relieved to see the couches and arm chairs are just where they were the year before.
Around me are the same grim faces, miserable or just locked in concentration. Nevertheless I've found friends in this city, and one of them expects me to call her this morning. I set down my bag, arrange my books on the table. Across the room, sitting where I usually do when I have a chance, is a young woman alone. She looks back at me. There is something taunting in her expression. Her hair style looks newly achieved, and expensive: let it be a warning. I get up and say hello.
Yes, I am American. Don't really do anything, had in the past made money dealing with old watches between other dealers, in a small way, but at the moment was writing. Writing what? Stories of trials, police, courts, in Cyprus and New Jersey. You get yourself into trouble? Sometimes. So far I have always got away unharmed, left it all behind. Mostly I read all day. Am I from New Jersey? No, Los Angeles, but part of my family moved there. She's has to leave for an appointment, but gives me her phone number when I ask.
And that is it. How I met my wife. I call her the next day, and we meet at the shopping mall across the river in Buda. It is another cold, fogged in, rainy winter's day. We go to a cafe in the atrium, sit beside each other at the table. We talk. We seem to understand each other but we both know we don't. We like each other but somehow are in a fight with each other. She's touchy, takes offense at phantoms. She asks me what's wrong. I answer, I am lost here. In Budapest? No, here with her. Don't I like her? Should she go? No, she shouldn't. We had already made arrangements to meet again. She is polite with me, then suddenly sharp. Am I not interested in her life? She has told me she studied English Pedagogy at the University, was working at a school teaching English, and has signed a contract with a music company to sing with a band and record a CD. They want to make her a star, create an image for her. Did I care? Was I interested? I didn't like popular music? No, I did, would like to hear her sing. She doubts my sincerity. She starts to walk away, I catch up with her, tell her don't go. I'm lost, she says.
Next time we meet to see a musical comedy on stage at a small theater. We're early so we have tea at a near-by Chinese restaurant. What did I think of her, she asks. Don't know her, don't understand her. Why then am I there? I'd like to get to know her. Why? It was the old story of wanting to have a story. What else was there in life? Why was she here with me? You're interesting, she answers. A stray. A hermit hiding in the open, an adventurer against his will, a reluctant warrior. Better and better! I say, and thank her for the flattery. After the play, her car isn't around the corner where she expected. It takes us half an hour of walking deserted streets to find it.