There are two elevated points on the highway heading into Budapest, which offer a dozen seconds’ unconstrained view of the city ahead. At night, the nondescript grey bursts into orange, white and yellow of neon and household lights, stretching out horizontally to cut the darkness in half.
We are driving North from Balaton, which is dearer to us than the other way around, but we are also driving East which does not please you – the preference has always been going upward, Westward. I’m thinking of the first time I made the trip in this direction, unknowing I was hours away from being introduced to my third home.
„Good evening, Madame Budapest – how do you find yourself today?“
„Very well, very well, Miss Karabegovic – I apologize, do I pronounce your name correctly?“
„You’re adding a z unnecessarily in the end, but no matter, the novelty will wear off in time. Pleased to meet you. Are your bones aching?“
„Ah, as steel is wont to do, this cold makes my spine brittle. It will pass.“
„I bought a photograph of you wearing your best winter clothes once,“ I tell her. „You were…incandescent.“
„Once,“ she smiles.
The conversation tapers off. We once again descend into the abyss of night drivers. The faces of the other passengers in the small van recede from pious awe back into boredom.
Will I tell you a story of walking on the frozen lake? Will I tell you about my father’s warning, not to do as others do? The small girl on the edge of the crowd, waiting for her brother to return from his exploration and take her back to the shore by the hand? The little girl, walking away from her brother to explore on her own? Is it metaphor I am ready to accept, or an analogy I am eager to escape?
We are driving North now, but we will soon stop. Not far enough. Your boredom is familiar, softly coated in light, the source of which I cannot readily determine. Is it coming from within? What a silly thought.
„Next time, we’re not stopping when you say we do. Next time, I’ll be the one to decide.“
I say fine. Of course, sure. Fair enough. Where is far enough away?
(For a short moment, I thought I was walking on the ocean. I imagined the Earth had frozen over, and we – the last of the human race – were celebrating our victory over a certain demise by mocking the once-powerful water. We laughed and skated and ran so hard that we’d forgotten we needed water to survive. Our reprieve from death was but a blink of an eye, but we were happy. Happiness is often cruel like that.)
„There’s plenty more snow up North, where we’re bound for eventually.“
Knowing my love of winter, you try to tempt me with the cold, even if I’ve never needed a reason to follow you. Our bones might be Mediterranean, salt pillars crumbling easily, but our bodies are the mountains of our first homes. You once lay between my breasts, naked, cheek clammy from the summer, dripping sweat down my belly, and you said –
„This is the canyon of my river.“
Your river was not the same as mine; it was slow and lazy, strolling through the middle of the city in no rush. The river that bore me out came down from the mountains in a hurry, it was colder, restless, but eventually the two converged. My river, a tributary of yours; yours, coming out of the mouth of the Danube. The third winter, we watched both of our origin freeze over and stop.
What would happen to us now, I wondered, when the veins we’d relied on could no longer carry us home.
We’d seen the Danube both in Budapest and Belgrade, and it seemed a different river.
„Do I look like me in all the places you’ve seen me in,“ I asked you.
„No. But I always know it’s you, anyway.“
When I came home after a year, my mother said I no longer seemed like I belonged. Why she’d only realized it then was a mystery. That familiar little girl in another photograph, waiting on another frozen lake much smaller than the Balaton for her cousin to take her by the hand and safely lead her to the bank: she was also other. There had always been something of a stranger in me.
Where will we go after the third home? Is there another place where wanderers can feel safe? I fell in love with Budapest once, at first sight, and then soon enough I wanted to leave. How can I trust my feelings the second, third, fourth time around?
„You also fell in love with me,“ you say. It’s true. I fell in love with you the first, second, third, fourth, hundredth time around.
Budapest flickers ahead, the Second Coming. Soon, we will be in its womb, unable to see the face creased with light. Like any lover, I am enchanted at arrival, but when I see there is more road ahead, my commitment wavers. You are much the same.
Distance hurts, but it is a pain we have both grown addicted to. Our love, walking on thick ice. I am the girl waiting in the middle of the lake for you to lead me somewhere new.
„The North is cold,“ you repeat. „The ice won’t melt under our weight. The West is bountiful. Somewhere between the two, we will make a home, just as long as you don’t walk too close. We might fall through the cracks and drown. When we finally get there, we can embrace and not let go.“
Our independence has kept us afloat on both slow and quick rivers, and frozen lakes. I am the girl walking away from her brother to explore on her own, with the knowledge that there will always be tracks on the shallow fallen frost to lead me back.
There is a photograph of shadows trailing across a frozen lake, singular, but captured together in a single frame. Will I tell you a story about how they came together? Will I tell you about what binds them, and what keeps them apart? Oh, but you already know. I do, too. Safety.
Words can be beautiful, yet still redundant. There are barely any left, between us, and I am thankful for that. We pass our journey in quiet comradeship. As we reach the farthest point the car will take us to, I see the Northern Lights at last, and they remind me of Budapest. Looking over to your illuminated face, I get a glimpse of what my own must’ve looked like that evening, coming home. Almost there. You take my hand in yours. At the top of the world, we embrace.