Which one should I look at, I asked, holding my palms out next to one another.
How should I know – came the reply. Look at whichever one is longer.
She finished washing the dishes, vigorously wrung the sponge dry, wiped her hands with a dishtowel, and left the room. I walked over to the washbasin, since I wanted to take a glass for myself, but the drying rack was on the exact opposite side from where I always stacked them. Everything in this kitchen irritated me to no end; everything was in the wrong place. The entire flat was demonstrably governed by my mother’s left-handedness. The matches were on the left side of the stove, the detergent and the sponge on the left side of the basin, the dishtowels just as much on the left, as was the damp one that she had hung up to dry.
Obviously, I do not have a long life ahead of me. On my left hand, the lifeline breaks off somewhere in the middle and picks up again further below, extending almost to my wrist; the missing part, however, even with the best of intentions cannot be seen as any kind of continuity. According to one friend, the gap indicated something like a coma lasting for several years, a parenthesis after which life continues anew. There was no break in the lifeline on my right hand; the line, although steady, was considerably shorter and branched off strangely at the end, like a split hair. I used to reflect quite often upon the message contained within this splitting: was it a coma, or some kind of a rupture? But my mother was never able to say which hand spoke the truth.
The lifeline on her hand also broke off at one point: it resembled mine.
I returned to my room; time to get back to ancient Rome. Already, I had crammed more than half of the material. It was stiflingly hot; I sat down on the floor among the empty Coca-Cola bottles and strewn clothes and tried to see if I could put my notes in order using my bare toes, then if I could turn over the pages in this way. I couldn’t, and it gave me an awful cramp in my foot; I had to stand up for it to pass. This was my final exam, and then it would be summer.
Please don’t cry, I beg you, there’s no sense in that.
I didn’t know the character doing the grilling. I didn’t go to the lectures much; I wasn’t interested. I was in love, and was thoroughly bored by historical dates and blank maps. I wandered through the university corridors, ill at ease, always getting lost and mixing up the class schedules, and I had no idea of what the whole thing was supposed to be about. Nor did I have any idea why I had to know the location of the printing-presses of the Hungarian Calvinist Church. I was terrified that someone would discover I was there by accident: excuse me, they would say, this has all been a terrible mistake. Let’s learn Finnish, my girlfriend said to me one autumn morning, as we sat in the lecture of one instructor yelling into a six-fingered shaman glove; let’s learn Hebrew, she said one winter morning, that’s it! – and we really did study Hebrew for three weeks. Then one spring morning she greeted me in the buffet with the news that she had found a rather good Polish face cream. One that doesn’t stick? I asked, stirring my coffee, although generally speaking, my experience with Polish cosmetics had been good. At the end, we didn’t even major in Polish, but remained in the same departments; the days, however, began later and later and towards the end, I didn’t even bother going to morning classes.
But now I still had to mark the places of those wretched cities. I looked at the lines drawn in ink; perhaps one was a river, since it broke into two at the bottom of the page. Slowly, against my own will as it were, my tears began to fall, rolling down my face and trickling onto the map, tiny magnifying glasses as underneath one drop the river meandered, growing thicker. Or maybe it was a border, or who the hell even knows what it was. I wanted to wipe the tear off with a handkerchief, but then the entire thing would be hopelessly smeared.
I stared out the window past the guy’s head; through the nylon curtains, you could see the cars moving outside.
He was around thirty, with a slightly upturned nose, and very scrawny. With his long sallow fingers and crinkled jacket, he was a sorry sight. It must really suck, I thought, to have to sit here with me in this heat. I’m the last one, even beyond the last of the last, a special appointment, everyone else went off on holiday long ago. His mouth is moving, the cars worm along outside. I quite simply removed the sound from the picture and concentrated on the window frame, and if I turned my head away even slightly, the edge of his face and his ear dangled just a tiny bit into the picture. He kept his good humour and was still calm, seeing me as a problem to be solved, a test of his patience, a necessary millstone around the neck to be borne with humility, and without resistance to the ways of Fate.
Suddenly the sound came back.
– Why don’t you answer me?
I looked at him as if surprised that I was sitting in that room full of varnished wood, on that chair upholstered in fake leather, when suddenly something in my throat began to speak, as if I were a ventriloquist. It spoke, and this is what it said:
– I don’t want any of this.
I was in the corridor when I sensed his presence. He was waiting for me. I loved him so much that I could sense his nearness anywhere; I simply knew that he was there. I stopped and turned; he looked into my eyes.
– Don’t worry. Calm down. You can try again in September.
I ate the sandwich that he had brought me. It had been in plastic wrapping since the morning, so it tasted a little like the morning snacks I used to bring on school outings. He had cut the spicy part off of the paprika.
– Very tasty.
We sat on the bench in the corridor, like people waiting for a train; even he seemed exhausted.
I told my mother that I had decided to postpone the exam, and that we were setting off; I would take it again in September.
You know best – she said.
In my life, I most often heard the following three sentences from her: you know best, I can’t comment on that, pull yourself together.
Usually, after you know best the word but followed; yet she nonetheless knew how to mix countless threatening and blackmailing shades of meaning into that you know best; having grown up on it, my ear was immediately capable of distinguishing its proportions from restrained displeasure to overt condemnation. If she had more serious problems on her mind, and she succeeded in making this known to me, I mean that if my mother had to put down whatever object she was holding in her left hand – whether scissors, a wooden spoon, perhaps a telephone receiver – she would then generally issue the statement I can’t comment on that. It was like a television quiz show. “Now let’s move on to sports. Let’s ask our lovely guest – do you usually watch sports broadcasts? At home, perhaps with your dear husband. I can’t comment on that. Think carefully now: if you can’t, then we’ll move on right away to the wild-card topic.”
The third sentence was pull yourself together. As if she were talking to a tiny child who had just thrown the Legos all around the room: pick yourself up. In this statement was a counter-attack (they’re not my Legos, you were the one playing with them) and a threat (I’m going to throw them all away!), as well as a reproach (I never had any Legos myself). Pull yourself together, take out the rubbish, all in the same tone of voice as if she were admonishing: don’t pick your nose.
We’re going down to Lake Balaton, I said to my mother. I was not expecting her to reply.
We’re going down to Balaton, he said to his mother. We were positioned exactly at eye level with her buttocks, so that we were actually talking to her bum; she was standing atop the toilet, in her hand a roll of self-adhesive wallpaper printed with a tree pattern.
You kids, go ahead. It’s stinking hot anyway.
And she continued to apply the paper to the toilet tank, which somehow didn’t seem to fit into the picture. Everything in her flat was either brown or white, according to the tastes of the era. All the older pieces of furniture were hidden under brown-and-white striped covers; in the dining room, brown and beige pillows were lined up; in the bathroom, on the edge of the beige-coloured heater, stood a row of brown vessels filled with shampoo or bath foam. Somehow, the toilet tank just didn’t fit in. Now that she would be alone in the apartment (her husband, that is to say my love’s father, had informed her a few days previously that he would be traveling by himself, to which she replied you know best without even turning around, and only kept picking at the flowers on the balcony); in other words, now that she was alone in the empty apartment, she had painted the ceramic plant pots and purchased a roll of self-adhesive wallpaper.
She climbed down and looked at the tank from the hallway, outside of the bathroom itself. It looked quite dreadful: there were wrinkles in the corners, and she had clearly stuck on a different patch of wallpaper here and there, but it didn’t match with the rest of the pattern.
It’s perfect, said my love. I envied this family as they both gazed at the toilet tank; your father won’t even notice, in fact it’s much more attractive this way and from a distance you don’t even see the wrinkles.
– You kids be off, just take care of yourselves!
We lay in the mildewed darkness of the wooden cabin and watched TV. Crocheted doilies hung from the walls around the bed; on the table was a black Korond vase and ashtray, the protective paper still inside it.
Outside, the temperature had reached thirty-two degrees Centigrade. We smeared each other with after-tanning lotion and watched TV. János Kádár had died. Actually, I felt sad. I felt sad that I wouldn’t hear his name anymore in the news; I felt sad that the décor of our childhood was going to disappear forever, that the crepe stand on Kalvin Square would be demolished and that entire blocks of houses would vanish; that the streets would curve differently now, that a strange unbridgeable gap would come in the chain of events, breaking all continuity; that everything would be so different than what we had been used to. We would so often sit at the crepe stand together when we were first starting to know one another; not long after that it actually was demolished. Cracks suddenly began to appear in the familiar dingy walls, and through the cracks a brighter world, frightening and unknown, could be glimpsed, a world to which we had never had access in our wildest dreams. I was angry at my mother and all of her relations, I was angry at my teachers, I was angry at the Skala Department Store, but somehow wasn’t angry at János Kádár, as if he had nothing to do with all of the pullovers that looked exactly alike, and everything else that went on in that country.
János Kádár’s just died, could you please put some lotion there on my shoulder? Yes, there on the side. That’s always where you get the worst sunburn.
I recall that later on I sat in a summer cabin in the same way with another man, whom I loved but who didn’t love me any more, and behind his head, on the silenced TV, the bridge in Mostar was in flames. They showed the prime minister’s portrait for a long time: he had warts on both sides of his face. German shepherds usually looked like that, as did ours.
The day after János Kádár’s death, my love said to me, let’s go out for dinner. There was something he wanted us to discuss. He had something to tell me.
I dried my hair in the bathroom, glanced into the round mirror, and removed the sound from the picture. The sharp-nosed, orange-yellow hairdryer circled around my head like the prowling fox in a puppet show. “Clippity-clappity, yum-yum-yum, and now the feast is in my tum. Tell us another story, Uncle Remus!”
Are you ready?
We sat in the restaurant – his behaviour was somehow strange, perhaps a little too polite. Then he loosened up, and even smiled now and then. There were three young men sitting at the table next to us who were uttering an endless stream of vulgarities. How they were able to insert the word dick into every word of their sentences was an operation of true virtuosity. “What that dickhead is dickin’ on about, only dick knows.”
We listened to them, and then had a good laugh. This is what they term colloquial style; that’s a good one, we laughed for a while, then suddenly he grew serious and put down his fork.
– I don’t want any of this any more.
I pressed down mechanically on the crepe with the back of my fork, and made little streams in the flow of chocolate sauce on the top. Tiny rivulets began to run onto the white plate, what is this, what is this.
Please don’t cry – he said clumsily. I sat doubled over behind the closed door of the toilet and sobbed. I don’t even know how we got home, all I can recall is my sudden shock in the restaurant: that I couldn’t even understand what he was saying, and maybe this wasn’t even happening to me, perhaps this was all just a movie in which the waiter had come over and people were sitting all around us.
I still had my face bent down to my stomach, while he lamely, rhythmically stroked my head. All at once I looked up, and right in front of my eyes was a handkerchief of Veronika’s, and above it on his chest, improbably, an inscription commemorating a swimming race across Lake Balaton.
– Why didn’t you tell me before?
– Because of the exams.
– And now? Why the hell did you have to drag me down here? Why didn’t you come here with her? Why? Why? Why?
I can’t comment on that. He gazed into the air, out through the toilet window, with full attentiveness as if he saw something in the darkness between the foliage of the fake cypress trees.
I rocked myself to and from on the toilet with my arms folded together, like someone with terrible stomach pains. He was still standing beside me, and after a while he spoke. I’m sorry. (Sorry, but I’m taking these Legos back now. I was just letting you borrow them.)
After a long time, the voice went away, but the rocking continued for a while, as if I were being shaken in a pot lined with cotton, up and down, up and down, like those times during my childhood when we captured ladybugs in medicine vials: what is that strange smell. (They put you in the salty drain, then they take you out again).
– Why don’t you answer me? Can you hear what I’m saying?
I heard him. I didn’t answer. I looked out the window past the head of the doctor: there’ll be an end to all of this. Two weeks of an unreal dream, a mute floating above all sounds and dialogues, underpasses of cambric, a continuous jolting from the walls of the vial, I’m river-water, I have become river-water, but there is no ocean where I belong.
– How are you feeling today?
I don’t answer, I don’t feel anything, I only look. Silence, deafness, a stripe without sound, two and a half centimeters above the wrist. And so it was: the left one spoke the truth, after all.
In our family everyone – except for me – is left-handed.
My mother sits by the bedside. She tries to hold my hand, the one closest to her – my right hand has the IV tube attached to it.
Pull yourself together.
I look at the wrinkles on the blanket, a great white blank map where all of the cities need to be indicated. But who knows where they are.
What country is this, anyway?
Translated by Ottilie Mulzet