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.
The liberation monument looked eastward, her metal hands holding a palm leaf above her head. She was majestic, exuberant in liberty. The monument was installed by the Soviets, who freed Hungary from Nazi occupation. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the monument was preserved and reinvented. A new plaque read: “To the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.”
“What would you do to reinvent yourself?” I asked Raoul.
“Become your pet, of course. A little Chihuahua that fits in your handbag,” he said, making me laugh.
“You want a photo with this view?” I asked, my hand still holding his.
The city below looked like a picture postcard. The sky was blue, and beneath it lay the Danube. On either side of the river were buildings old and new, each with a distinct style and built during different times.
“No, because all beauty can only be captured here,” he said, tapping his chest.
“Then you’ll take one of me? I want the river and bridge in the background, okay?”
I thought of my husband, of showing it to him if he asked.
I posed twice for Raoul—once for a photo on my phone, once for his.
“Want to see?” he asked, showing me his phone.
I didn’t recognize myself. My complexion looked radiant, my height seemed befitting rather than mockable, my hair cascaded–my “crowning glory,” just as my mother always said. I looked chic instead of homely. I had a smile I hadn’t had in so long. I blushed. He put his phone away, took my hand and locked it around his elbow, and in step we walked back toward the bus stop.
Raoul was an Italian-English translator. He was in his early fifties and single, though I found it hard to believe he didn’t have someone significant in his life. He was about six feet tall with a head full of peppered hair and a well-trimmed beard. Although briefly married when he was much younger, he said he had no children.
“Did you not find anyone else to marry?” I asked.
“Hard to live with a man who travels; it’s selfish, you know. And you?”
“I am a scientist, trying to change the world,” I said, surprised at my confidence and pride.
“Aha, no Chihuahua for you, then?”
“Oh, yes, yes, a Chihuahua-prince, like a frog-prince, of course,” I said. I watched him tilt his head back and laugh. I yearned to drop all caution and let go of the reserve that ruled my marital life.
I dreaded the thought of going back to the hotel room, of interacting with my husband. The room overlooked the busy street close to the old Jewish quarter and was central to sightseeing and public transport, yet it was dark, dingy, and claustrophobic. My husband didn’t notice. He came in late, did his work, and slept.
“Let’s change our room,” I said after we checked in.
He considered me fussy.
“I feel claustrophobic; the ceiling of the portico feels like it’s on my throat.”
“Aww, stuck in an elevator. Heard that story. Get over it.”
“Please,” I pleaded. “I find it hard . . . it’s like your OCD, you know,” I added, hoping he would understand.
“Oh, please, Revati, don’t compare my need for being clean to your silliness,” he scolded.
Once, early in our marriage, I suggested that my husband see a therapist for his OCD. Instead he called me lazy and clumsy.
“I’ll pack, I’ll get another room on a higher floor, it’ll be nice,” I persisted.
“Stop. Don’t waste my time,” he said, shooing me off without looking up from his computer.
An engineer from MIT, my husband assumed we would be a good match. Both of us were educated and independent. He was charming and convincing. I had heard of his brilliance in academic circles. He came to Budapest to negotiate an important contract, hopefully make enough money to retire and leave enough for our children, he said, then bit his lip. I didn’t believe he could ever retire, and by mentioning children, he made me feel like a failure.
At the hotel, after my first day sightseeing with Raoul, I was surprised to find my husband back early from his conference. I pulled out the Budapest map. I also wanted to show him the pictures Raoul took of me looking beautiful.
“Looks like these folks here are interested in closing the deal,” he said, his eyes on his computer.
“That’s good. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.”
I too was busy looking at my screen. That’s how it was with us. We carried on conversations as if nothing happened between us or ever would. A new email was in my inbox. Patent approved, said the subject line. My patent! Raoul brought luck into my life, I thought.
“I have good news too,” I said, but my husband didn’t respond.
I retreated to my world, recalling my mother’s words: “If he wants to share, good. If he doesn’t, excellent!” So I sent out some emails sharing the news of my patent, then showered and went to sleep excited about meeting with Raoul the next day. My husband worked well into the night. When I woke up the next morning, the room looked sterile. My husband had tossed out loose bills, receipts, brochures, and other trash. This was his routine.
Each morning I looked forward to meeting Raoul at the junction stop. I walked one level down from the street, went through the underground tunnel to the other side, climbed stairs, walked past coffee shops, and waited for him. We hopped on a bus and worked our way through the city, per our plan. No one paid any more attention to us than they would to any couple. Over the course of time, I rested my head on his shoulder, put my arm around his waist, wiped crumbs near his lip. His arm intertwined with mine, my hands interlaced with his. Like an entitled wife, I let him buy me lunch and care for me. I fussed and whined about my tired feet, and he indulgently got us foot massages. He sensed when I was cold and helped me put my jacket on. He watched me try on swimsuits, my first ever, so we could spend time in the bathhouse. I should have felt awkward or exposed, but I didn’t.
“Looks too old for you,” he said when I tried one on.
“Yes!” he said of another. “Perfect.” He pushed my wallet back into my purse, and I let him pay.
Ritually, each day he took two pictures of me, one on his phone, one on mine.
We got used to hopping on and off buses—green line, red line, purple line, yellow line—going to different parts of the city. We took breaks for coffee or lunch. We sat on park benches, people-watching, leaning into each other. Where had he been all my life?
On our last day together, Raoul and I pretended it was just another day. I hadn’t felt the need to talk about my life, and so I hadn’t told him about my patent or my past. We were like children with no concept of beginning or end. We were like the Danube—flowing on. That morning we were unusually quiet. We chose the longest route to the outskirts across the river. We held hands, as if letting go might jolt us back to reality. He guided me to the ferry, putting his hand on the small of my back. We cruised along the river and got off at Margaret Island and sat on a bench with our lunch bags. We watched the locals run and stretch, mothers and children at play, and young lovers lost in their own world.
I felt as old as the river and as young as a teen. I wondered if Raoul imagined a life with me, as I did with him. To have his baby, speak his language, sleep with him at night, grow old together, bicker about our pets and our kids. I stopped myself. Alone, I thought. Alone.
“We’ll stay in touch, yes?” Raoul said, as if reading my thoughts.
I held onto his arm as we walked back to the ferry. The evening sky was clear, and against it the Gothic Parliament House stood tall. The river reflected its lights’ glowing amber. Its Gothic steeples soared into the sky like dreams of all its people. Its Revival dome embraced old and new. With Raoul, my eyes opened to beauty. The din of life melted into silence, and we communicated without words.
As we approached the terminal, I dreaded our farewell. Would we make promises to each other? Would we rehash our time together? Would we ask each other questions that might or might not have answers? Would we exchange our contact information and plan to meet? Would this be a tearful goodbye? Did any of this mean anything to him? We would kiss, wouldn’t we?
I saw the hop-on, hop-off buses gathered, conductors removing their vests, marking the end of the day. A few of them sat at the roadside café, sipping coffee or beer. I was unable to let go of Raoul’s hand. We would always sit in one of the cafés—Raoul drinking beer, I sipping coffee—before we parted.
But before either of us could speak, I saw my husband sitting at one of the cafés looking at every passenger who got off the bus. I quickly retracted my hand from Raoul’s before my husband saw us. Then he came forward.
“Oh, there you are, Revati. I was hoping to find you here,” my husband said, hugging me uncharacteristically, his eyes scanning Raoul.
“Come, it’s getting late,” my husband said as he took my hand and led me away.
What happened then I don’t remember, just a few words like dinner, colleagues, contract, words I didn’t care to weave into anything meaningful. I turned around to look at Raoul, who still stood by the bus. When his eyes met mine, he pointed to the map in his hand and mouthed, “Your map has my contact info.”
That night at the company dinner my husband was in a good mood, probably because his male colleagues were impressed with me—beautiful, intelligent, funny, they said. My husband, talking with his boss, placed his hand on my back, claiming me. The evening came to an end inconsequentially, as all the company dinners did. Later in the night my husband stroked my arm… afterward falling comatose.
The next morning he was in a good mood. The meetings had earned him praise. He went down for breakfast, and I stayed to pack and to think about the previous day. I sat on the edge of the bed and closed my eyes. Over and over I replayed the last scene with Raoul. He wanted to stay in touch. He had a plan. He always did, and it was all on the map.
I toppled the contents of my purse onto the bed. I emptied my backpack. I opened my suitcase. I checked between the pages of my books. Where was the map? Then I remembered that I’d emptied all my papers on the bedside table before dinner last night. I looked there. Nothing. I looked under the bed. Nothing. I looked in the trash. Nothing. I left the room, looking for the housekeeping cart. “I lost something,” I said to the housekeeper, shaking her hand, and she looked at me with dread and pity. “Please find it. I lost something.” I ransacked her trash. She helped. Nothing.
Back in my room the phone rang. It was my husband, asking me to come down.
“The taxi will be here soon.”
“My map,” I said, “my map, the hop-on, hop-off map, where is the map? It’s red. Did you take it, did you toss it?”
“What map? I didn’t see any map,” he said. “I threw out some trash, that’s all. I didn’t see any map. Hurry up, Revati.”
I sat on the bed. Little plumes of tears sputtered down my cheeks, the room closing in on me.
After a few moments my husband came in, his expression shocked at seeing my clothes scattered on the bed.
I sat unmoving. “Where is the Budapest map? I want the map.”
“Enough of this nonsense!” he shouted, his spittle spraying. “Get up now, we have to leave soon.” He pulled at my arms to make me get up. I furiously punched his hands, and he swung his right hand across my wet cheek.
I stood up almost compliant, possessed by the ghost I’d become. But then I paused. I was shocked at what I did next. I grabbed his arm and bit deeply, then pushed him. He stumbled onto the bed.
“Don’t ever touch me again,” I said.
He looked bewildered. He took his right hand with his left and started slapping himself on his cheeks. I had never seen him do this. Then he kept hitting his head with the base of his hand. I wanted him to stop. “The bed is a mess. Clean it up,” I said, then took my purse, wiped my eyes, and left.
Manikya Veena was born and raised in Hyderabad, India. She earned a master’s in economics from Osmania University, and authored a short story compilation for children, The Banjara Boys. She serves on the advisory board for Narika, a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area, whose mission is to help South Asian victims of domestic violence. She also volunteers at Community Overcoming Relationship Abuse (CORA) in San Mateo, answering hotline calls. She is a master class student at the Writers Studio in San Francisco and works as an assistant editor at Narrative. First published in the Narrative Magazine. This story is reproduced with the permission of the author.
This story was originally published on November 14, 2019 and curated by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain.