Tóth Krisztina költő, író, műfordító

Fotó: Bulla Bea     

Lukewarm Milk

 

(Barcode)

I played out the entire scene in advance in my head. In any event, I often amused myself with such things: I worked out the scenarios, I composed the dialogues; then there was nothing left to do except to wait for reality to play out, with greater or fewer blunders, what I had planned beforehand. The imagined scenes were generally much more colourful, more dizzying than the live film as it came into realization from spoken words and series of gestures, which chance amply embroidered with unnecessary pauses, deviations, and indeed at times completely ruined.

I had been waiting for her arrival for weeks. I imagined how, in the blindingly white Hungarian winter, she would put down her suitcases and, smiling, look around. I repeated to myself, so as not to falter in my role, all of the English phrases appropriate to the situation. I rehearsed the scene countless times, and from various points of view: as she stepped into my room and I showed her the cupboard cleared out in advance for her use.

In that inner film, her winter coat was pink. After all, she wrote her letters on pink stationery, and in the picture she sent of herself she was also wearing a pink sweater, standing in front of a house with a white fence.

I had only one pink pullover, which had started pilling and was losing its colour from many washings. However, the sleeves hardly reached below my elbows, because my parents had brought it back from Vienna when I was in the eighth class, and I had grown ten centimeters in the two years. Similarly, I had long since outgrown the light-blue slippers that I had been given along with the pullover, but I didn’t have the heart to throw them out: I kept them near the door to my room, as if I had just stepped out of them, or as if I had accorded them the place of honour worthy of a valuable ornament. Interestingly enough, the adults behaved similarly in this regard: they treated every object from the West with a peculiar devout veneration. My uncle, for example, placed all of his empty beer cans in a row on the top of the kitchen cabinet, as if the phalanx of colourful soldiers from Gösser and Heineken were triumphantly salvaging something from that unreachable, scintillating, exciting world in which perfumed women and smoothly gliding cars proceeded along streets glittering with advertisements. The criterion for things that came from the West was the barcode. Even otherwise useless articles were endowed with the little black strips and their magical appeal; the code transformed them into the heralds of another world, unapproachable in its existence – the heralds of a world where objects were placed into sparkling boxes and gift-wrapping, and human bodies swathed in soft fabrics. No one was ever able to explain to me what exactly the little stripes with the tiny row of numbers was for. Classmates of mine who were in the know – their parents shopped regularly in diplomatic shops off limits to mere common mortals – said that the code was always read at the cash-desk, and that told everything. In a strange way, these codes made me think of the numbers tattooed on the wrists of prisoners; the number from which the name, age, sex of the condemned could be traced. However, the barcode did not bring news of the all too familiar hell comprised of family whisperings, but of a paradise on earth – similarly mentioned under one’s breath – of the world beyond, where everything can be had, everyone is beautiful and happy, even bafflingly young. At least that is how we pictured it as teenagers. If we ever happened to see on the street particularly well-dressed and attractive-looking people, the adults would always comment that they must be from the West.

My classmate Robi also got his shiny blue hockey skates from Vienna; the most coveted professional sports gear that winter. (Later on, Feri got a pair as well.) From that point on, Robi went to the rink every afternoon for a couple of turns on the ice, amongst the giggling girls in their white figure skates, their hair streaming behind them, and the envious boys in Czechoslovak hockey equipment.

For Christmas, I also got a new pair of skates from my parents; I was only able with great difficulty to talk them out of buying me figure skates, thought to be feminine, but which reminded me of shoes for an expectant mother. After a long period of bargaining, they bought a pair of black and white Alpina skates – ungainly, as far as they were concerned – from the sports commission shop. I didn’t want to be feminine, I wanted to be tough. Anyway, the point behind the whole skating thing was to impress Robi: the ball-point-pen inscriptions written on my jeans were for him too, as were my attempts one afternoon, secluded in front of the bathroom mirror, to stab my earlobe with a pin. I could have looked pitiful with a safety pin dangling from the lacerated hole in my ear, but I knew that Robi didn’t like girlie chicks; I tried to draw attention to myself using the wildest of ideas. Unfortunately, I could only go to the ice-rink on Saturdays; on the days in between, in our brief conversations during breaks, I tried to captivate him with my black nail polish and my panda-like black eye shadow.

Cathy arrived a good two weeks later than she had originally promised. She was apparently meeting relatives of hers living in Szeged, where she had never been before in her life; they were expecting her back after the two weeks spent in our company, so that she could meet the family members who lived in the village.

What a great conversation they must be having, we snickered in the corridor: pig-killings, fish-soup, palacsinta, Jimmy Carter.

Instead of bright winter sunshine, it was pouring rain. The American girl arrived in a quilted red coat. Everything about her was red, even her wheeled suitcase; her hair, though, which had looked brown in the photographs, flashed out dazzlingly blond from under her knitted cap as she sat in the car. There was no way for me to trot out my rehearsed sentences; we had to get her baggage quickly out of the car in the heavy rain; and as we stepped into the house, I was stupefied to notice that my mother didn’t ask her to remove her mud-soaked shoes. Only once before had I experienced the fact that the family rules were not operative at all times and for all persons: that was when the form-mistress of the secondary school I was to attend came to see my parents about something before the start of the school year and my mother, giggling, ushered her straight into the house from the torrential rain. Cathy even asked, pointing at her running shoes, if she should take them off, but my mother simply shook her head kindly, while I was stuck there in my socks, until at last I could stick the quilted red coat on the rack. So Cathy was a blonde, and she had absolutely dreadful braces on her teeth. My mother was already pouring out the soup when at last I had pieced together a sentence in English, and I dared to ask her out loud – since when had her hair got so bright. She didn’t understand what I was saying. She turned her downy face, spotted with tiny freckles, towards me above the dinner plates and smiled at me inquiringly. I had to repeat my question once again. She still didn’t understand. Maybe if my parents hadn’t been staring at me tensely, if every step of the lightning-quick calculations hadn’t been so evident on my father’s face, if I hadn’t known that he was estimating just how much he had paid so far for four years of private English lessons, if the thought had not been reflected back at him from my mother’s troubled smile that she had predicted this right from the beginning, I certainly would have started pointing at my own hair – but I gave it up. At the end of the day it was all the same to me when she had become blonde; she could have been bald, as far as I was concerned.

I watched the noodles swirling around in the soup, and I pondered if the word for braces – fogszabályzó – was in the dictionary. Cathy eyed the yellow chicken feet jutting out of the tureen for a while (my mother asked her several times if she would like some soup) and then indicated that she would like to go to sleep. Whereas before, I had been burning with my questions, now she didn’t even turn to me as an interpreter, and only protested when I dragged her red suitcase into her room. Or rather, into my room, which yesterday I had had to clean out. Cathy looked around appreciatively; my parents at least deduced from the ceaseless okays and thankyous that she liked the room. She still had her running shoes on.

In the morning, no one was allowed to make any noise, because the American girl was still sleeping. My mother went as far as to ask me to flush the toilet quietly. I don’t know how to flush quietly, I said, so let me flush so that she can get up already and drink her morning cocoa, or I won’t flush at all and then at around ten a.m. she would have to face the terrible fact that indeed Hungarians tend to shit in the morning hours. My mother qualified my marks as vulgar and loathsome, and then asked if I didn’t think I should be making some coffee with cream for her, at which point I said – but of course I’ll make both, and throw in a cup of tea into the bargain as well, but that maybe we should make a long-distance call to her parents before she wakes up and ask what she would like the very best of all. My mother couldn’t take it any more and yelled out from the kitchen that they, as a matter of fact, had made a great sacrifice, and that Cathy was my guest. I called back that her yelling was already much louder than the sound of the toilet flushing. With that, we had stepped onto terrain familiar to both of us. From here on, we knew the concluding words, we reiterated the exasperated dialogues in which the expected turns were arranged around the key phrases you’re so ungrateful, only in your interest, you take no account of others and you live here like a lodger. I set off from home without my hat, and when I was out of eyeshot, immediately turned up the cuffs of my jeans so that the inscriptions in ballpoint pen – against which my mother protested so much – were visible. Little does she know what’s inside, I formulated the thought, applying it to myself as well as my jeans, and not thinking for a moment that my mother always washed trousers inside out. Including the jeans.

Robi was late for the first class that morning, so we could only talk properly during the main break. He listened flabbergasted to my narrative of the little monkey in the red quilted coat, in which I depicted Cathy as a small, braces-wearing rodent, rounding off the depiction with a reference to her querulous voice and her spectacles.

Each day of the week, I furnished Robi with new data as to the idiocy of the American girl: after school, I had to run home because she was afraid of our dog; the dog was consequently kept cooped up in a tiny pen all day and every afternoon I had to take him for a walk. Robi accompanied me only as far as the tram stop; he was hurrying to the skating rink, but before he left we had a good laugh at Cathy’s pronunciation of Duran Duran, and how stupid she looked when pieces of lettuce got stuck in her braces.

Djan-Djan.

Seriously. Like that. Djan-Djan.

She doesn’t eat meat.

She photographs everything. Even the last stop on the bus line.

In the morning she drinks lukewarm milk, you have to take off the skin.

And she sleeps with a white teddy bear!

I called out the last sentence to Robi from the tram, then watched his back as it receded into the distance with the two blue skates hanging from his shoulder. His shoulders were so broad.

On Saturday, we awoke to a bright glittering winter’s day, just as I had originally planned for Cathy’s arrival.

My mother asked if I would take the American girl to the skating rink. The park was so beautiful.

She doesn’t have skates, I cut her off.

That’s fine, she can rent them.

My father rushed to my aid with the comment that the idea was really disgusting, Cathy certainly wouldn’t fit into a shoe worn by just anyone, but that – he’d just thought of it – I should get my old figure skates from two years ago out of the closet and see if these might fit her.

They won’t be the right size, I said.

They were.

Cathy wore a thick white sweater and a white knitted cap which she removed after the first turn around the rink and, growing warmer, shook out her hair.  Those skates fit well on her, I thought. It would have been better if they hadn’t, because she could hardly skate – nothing would have been easier than, apologizing profusely, to bump into some girl stumbling around on the ice. I shrugged my shoulders; what could I do, I had to bring her with me like an idiotic younger sister. Robi brought us cups of tea, then, weaving backwards, disappeared into the crowd only to appear half a minute later braking right behind Cathy, skates flashing. He showed her the trick of how to stop on the ice a few times, then gave a demonstration of how you had to go backwards. Cathy fell down; he helped her up. He took her hand and pulled her along to the inner part of the rink, where in a small, clearly demarcated circle the real pros zigzagged around.

I’ll go get some grub – I called after them, and it was only once I was standing in the queue that I realized I had no money – my wallet was in my bag in the changing rooms.

I wandered around a little bit more, went to the toilets, but even while standing in line I continued to hunt for the shiny blue skates. I didn’t see them anywhere.

What, no food?

They were sitting on a little bench on the other side of the rink.

How many more days will you be here? Robi asked, and from his exaggerated articulation it was clear that he had posed the question several times, only Cathy didn’t understand. With the finger of his hurricane glove, he drew a round sun in the white dust on the ice’s surface, and then a question mark. How many days?

She’s leaving tomorrow, I said. So she has to pack tonight. My voice could have sliced through the ice of the rink.

Cathy stayed with Robi and didn’t come to the changing room; as I approached the tea-stand, I saw Robi giving a pen back to the boy at the counter and then pressing a slip of paper into Cathy’s hand, clearly it contained his address. “How many days?” The jerk.

We didn’t say a word to each other on the bus going home. Cathy fell asleep and had to be shaken awake. She went to bed early, withdrawing to her room with the white teddy bear.

She must be tired. Did you talk a lot – asked my mother, who was extremely pleased that my English was coming along so well, and was convinced that over the following week I would learn even more. For that was the secret, the best way, and what is more, the American girl was so lovely and modest. Excuse me while I shit my pants. That evening, I tried to strip off the black nail polish, but it wouldn’t entirely come off, somehow sticking to the edges of my nails so that it looked as if I had been digging in the earth. Even after using an entire half-bottle of acetone.

The next day, Robi got to school at a quarter to eight, but he didn’t talk to me; he went to the boys’ loo for a smoke. He didn’t even come over during lunchtime, and the teacher never scheduled a break between the two history classes that followed, so I knew that we wouldn’t have a chance to talk that day.

The history teacher was also our form-mistress. In her forties and the mother of a family, she had an ample, dough-like body; and in her broad countenance, devoid of interest, only the unusually large gaps between her teeth were capable of momentarily arresting my attention. She seemed very old, and spoke with immeasurable slowness, devoid of any stress or pauses, summarizing the main points of what she had to say with meaningless summary headings. From the beginning, she wanted to win us over, but her gestures, intended to be frank, only seemed affected. And I hated it when she perched herself on the first bench in the classroom, resting her shoes on the seat back. Today, she had forgotten to bring her textbook. As I sat the closest to her, she borrowed mine. She was wearing brown stretch nylons, making her calves seem even more distended; her leg hairs stuck out even through the thick stockings. At the very least she could have shaved her legs. I had fallen out of the habit as well, even though mine weren’t half so hairy as hers. I was pondering these questions when suddenly I remembered the sentences inscribed in my textbook.

I frequently wrote secret messages in the lower part of the pages. The letters would be stretched out so much that their distorted lengths resembled thin sticks, turning the written word into a pair of stripes running alongside each other. If I thickened the stalks of the letters, however, the secret inscription looked like a barcode. To decipher it, you had to look at the writing from another angle: if you flattened out the book and held it in such a way as no one would normally do while reading, the foreshortened angle caused the inscription to become legible. It took a great deal of time and effort to prepare one of these inscriptions, and from time to time I became so immersed in stretching out the letters that I hardly noticed if someone was talking to me.

The class was proceeding at a dreadfully slow pace, and I pricked up my ears only once, at the word “Luddite”: it looked as if she was going to start in with a summary, I thought. The next time I came to, I felt that something unusual was happening. The class was watching in silence as the teacher held my book horizontally, flat before her eyes.

My, this is interesting.

She tipped the book this way and that, squinted at it.

The class watched expectantly; she, however, must have felt that she couldn’t let this opportunity granted by sheer chance go by – she would have to cross that invisible boundary which, she suspected, a teacher must never cross, and if its price would be the never-before sampled taste of complicity, so be it. She could sacrifice one soul for the sake of the sympathy of the other twenty-eight. For a second she didn’t look at me; that was only a part of the game.

My, this is interesting, she repeated. There is something written here.
A small pause for effect.

She could not turn back now; she tipped the book and read the inscription aloud.

I knew what was coming: it was opened to the page with the chronological table.

I love you Robi dearest.

I sat motionless, without taking a breath, not even daring to take out my paper tissues, fearful that in the churning, bursting air of the classroom, my shattered defenceless body would suddenly become visible. I still sat there, but like a puppet, a supernumerary rehearsing a role in her own life, for whom the teachers’ oft-repeated reproach was for once perfectly true: you’re not here. No one in the class laughed; they did not take part in the game but sat silently, as if waiting for the next homework assignment.

I drew in my breath only when the bell rang; until then it seemed as if the malignant stifling gases trapped in my chest were filling up my brain as well, my pulse deadened by the whirl of brutal embittered images. I saw her with her face mangled, ill and confined to a wheelchair, yet my precipitous imagination never hit upon that one scene – in which our predetermined roles would be reversed – that would have granted me relief.

The teacher, who was never in the habit of long breaks in her classes, clambered up from the bench and tossed my book down casually next to my notebook.

I have to run into the staffroom for a minute; don’t go. I’m coming right back.

I had to decide quickly, so quickly that I didn’t have time to think through the details.

I called after her into the hallway.

Ma’am! I need to speak… with you.

She turned towards me with an indifferent face; only in her eyes, in her tiny bleared grayish eyes, did there lurk an unidentifiable gleam resembling malicious joy.

Is it urgent? Can it wait?

I did not give free rein to my impulses: everything depended on whether or not I could hit that precise semi-tone which had just stopped her now. I could not show myself to be either too alarmed or too menacing.

My parents… they’ll be coming later… to talk to you… from the hospital…

She was taken aback; she was expecting something else. That was it. I plunged into my story.

I wanted even before now to talk… to you, you see, the tests have come back…

More than a few of my fellow classmates were peeking out into the corridor and watching as we stood there face to face. She was confused by the situation; it could have looked as if I were calling her to account for her previous little joke.

Come into the staffroom, she said.

On the way, all of the sentences were already formed within me, and on the stairs – the great theatrical talents of the world would recognize this – I suddenly tripped; I began to perspire and my face turned red.

We sat down in the corner of the staffroom reserved for smokers: she turned to me with grudgingly dutiful inquisitiveness while – as I saw – glancing at the clock.

I began to speak as an individual entrusted with an important official mission, for whom the time to convey the message had come. Neither the cadence of my voice nor my face betrayed the slightest emotion. I knew better than to enlarge too much, that too many extraneous details would lead to questions – and questions, even in the short run, were dangerous. I suspected in any event that in exchange for that one irrevocable moment I could extract the satisfaction of only a few hours of torment.

Lately… I’ve been so tired. – It sounded like a confession. – Surely you have… noticed.

And?

And my mom and the rest took me to the doctor… and it turned out… in a word… we just got the results back and it turns out that – here I paused modestly for effect – it turns out that I have leukemia.

The teacher turned frightfully pale. I used her motionless silence to say that I was most likely looking forward to a lengthy course of hospital treatment, that I really wasn’t feeling too good right now, and that my parents didn’t even want me to come to school this week, because I really needed to rest a lot before the treatment and I also needed to take a lot of vitamins, but still I wanted to come to school and… I could hardly stop myself. I would have liked to add what would happen if I should die, but with an instinctive sense of proportion I simply allowed her to suppose that this too figured among the various possibilities of the tale’s denouement, and with more than a bit of likelihood. In the meantime, I began to sweat profusely, my eyes even began to tear for some reason – clearly one of the symptoms of leukemia. We had never before had cause for such a personal, you could even say intimate, conversation, and in the course of nearly two years she’d never had any reason to doubt my words: she was incapable of any sort of cogent response. Her gaze, intended to be commiserative, was permeated with a kind of irritated impatience, as if her eyes were saying: this is just what I needed.

Wouldn’t you like… to go home now? she asked in a transformed voice.

I sat motionless, like someone who hardly had the strength to get up anymore, whose final reserves of energy had been drained for good by the exertion of the past few hours.

She then asked if I wouldn’t like to have someone see me home and promised she would speak with my parents as soon as possible. Until then, she assured me, I didn’t have to worry at all about missed classes. Several times, she said that I should only be concerned with one thing, and that was my health; she got so carried away that she actually squeezed my hand, like a lady doctor trying to cheer up a dying patient. Suddenly, she was embarrassed and stood up.

The bell had rung long ago by the time we got back to the classroom. As I packed up my bag, I felt the confused, uncomprehending gazes of the others on my back. In the meantime, the teacher had begun the lesson, and when I left the classroom my gaze, veiled from illness, swept over the room once more as with a pregnant glance – perhaps for the last time – I took my leave.

Take care of yourself, the teacher called after me. I closed the door and trudged along as if I barely had the strength to walk.

I went down to the basement and headed straight for the lockers. Robi’s was at the very end: he kept his skates and hockey stick in the cubbyhole between the metal lockers and the wall, as they couldn’t fit anywhere else. His locker was packed full of all kinds of crap; LPs and anoraks on the shelves, gym gear below. I took out my coat, my hat; put on my gloves. Then I slung the blue skates over my shoulder and I took out the hockey stick. I went out across the courtyard through the back entrance; I was afraid that if I went out through the main entrance, someone would see me from the classroom. The teacher rarely walked around while she was teaching, but I was afraid that this time she’d be watching me.

For safety’s sake, I trudged along until the corner, although I already had the stick propped up by my side like a sword. The laces of the skates were tied tight together, I couldn’t even undo them until I reached Móricz Zsigmond körtér, and they even made my nails break off. That’s how tight they were, the jerk. I like the fact that I looked to the passers-by as if I were headed to the rink. The frail girl-child with leukemia and her hockey equipment.

I threw one of the skates into a metal skip on Villányi utca; the other one I dragged all the way to the end of Karinthy Frigyes utca, where I pitched it into a rubbish bin. It would have been impossible to break the hockey stick in two. I grabbed it and leaned it against the wall in an entranceway: someone would make good use of it.

I hoped Cathy was no longer at my house. I never wanted to see her again, hoping that she would be taken away at dawn and in secret, like our previous dog; that I would never have to hear anything about her so I could completely erase her from my memory, as if she had never existed.

As I opened the garden gate, I already felt that she wasn’t there. The yelping of the dog was different somehow. Wagging his tail, he rushed towards the gate of the tiny pen: he was waiting for his walk.

I walked over to him, as if about to let him out, then in the last moment closed the gate again and turned my back on the dog. I saw the water in his dish was frozen solid. He became crazed and, yelping wildly, rushed at the wire fence: he thought this was a new kind of game. When I had closed the house door behind myself, he realized I’d tricked him, that for some reason we weren’t going for a walk today, that he would remain there, enclosed in the two square metres of dog-pen.

I warmed up my lunch, put it on the plate, then scraped the entire contents into the toilet; I did, however, put the fork and plate in the dishwasher. Then I threw in a crumpled tea-towel.

Fully clothed, I stretched out on the sofa and I concentrated. I observed as, cell by cell, my blood was by degrees turning white, because I imagined that leukemia must feel something like this: as if you were turning white from the inside out, tiny bit by tiny bit, insidiously, irrevocably.

From outside came the dog’s continual sharp howling and the rattling as he pushed his water bowl around. I thought that if I were to cut my veins open now, a thick white liquid would drip from my wrists onto the rug, with infinite slowness, and by evening would congeal into a thick skin, just like lukewarm milk.

 

Translation © 2006 Ottilie Mulzet

 

Welcome , today is vasárnap, 2019-05-19