Lives of the Cannibals: Empty Liquor Gift-Tins and the Horror of the Magyar Moment

Shannon has left me.

No, wait. That’s not right. It’s I who’s left her, and I did it a while ago, too.

I sit in a drab apartment on the third floor of a complex off vaci Utca (VAHtsy OOtsa) in Budapest. There is fabric on the walls–scored beige, thick and hard as amphibian skin–and two putty-colored easy chairs, straight out of Super 8, and a coffee table of black-lacquered particle board, and a glass-doored hutch against the wall, also black-lacquered particle board. The tone is set by the single sad decorative effort: two shelves of empty liquor gift-tins, carefully arranged in the hutch: Dewar’s, Johnny Walker Red, Beefeater, Absolut.

Budapest in 2001–surely it’s a different place now, fast as Eastern Europe is these days, fast as it was in those days–is a city so sexy its longtime residents have relegated their constant hard-ons to the drear of daily life. The women are blonde; they have enormous breasts; they wear thongs; and over their thongs they wear filmy tights or tiny skirts. The men are powerful specimens, tall and muscled and preternaturally confident. These men could crush me in the crook of their arm. They are the Dutch, they are the Danish, but unburdened by the weary sophistication–political, social, sexual–of Western Europe. They all must be unbearably good in bed.

And they have discovered the candied bliss of the American shopping mall. Sixty feet away from my front door, just across vaci Utca, is a pristine five-tier retail mecca, replete with indoor vegetation, multi-screen cinemas (a captain’s easy chair for every paying customer), and countless stores selling whorish outfits for pennies, for spare change, forints. Each shopgirl is a dream of womanly abundance. There are fantastic asses everywhere you look. And the eyes–they seem to invite. (Is it my imagination? Almost certainly it is. I am terribly lonely here.) There’s a TGI Friday’s on the north end, first floor. It is my favorite restaurant.

What I mean to say: Budapest is the perfect place to watch the end of the world.

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And Shannon has left me.

What destruction we cannot wreak by our own hand, we wreak passively. In the case of love: a thousand miscast glances, the contemptuous homemaking demands of a tyrant (well-suited for a ’50s housewife in high heels), and a precisely limited sexual plan, designed for my pleasure, designed for my pleasure.

We are in Venice, the living, gasping, brackish museum, in a fabulous apartment, in a fabulous palazzo, terra-cotta roofs in every direction. But for me, I am occupied by flirting with the bar girl. Shannon is at my side, doing the International Herald Trib crossword. The bar girl has sensual lips, that priceless Italian insolence, and is pleased to fuel my fantasies. Meanwhile, Shannon ignores it as best she can. There is grocery shopping to be done, and she’s always on the look-out for a provocative blouse to interest me, and she is deeply in love with Venice. She thinks she loves me, too, but in truth I am only a conduit, a way to get her in. And for me, Shannon is a way, was a way, to get me out. Out of Bennington, Vermont, out of the Bush-addled United States, out of a life that bored me. And here we sit, in this Venetian bar, where the bar girl has just walked by and brushed her hand against my shoulder. That insolence, those sensual lips. I’d like to do terrible things to her.

Venice is a small town for expat Americans. When Shannon has taken all she can take, when my contempt, my wandering eyes, my fury at her insufficiency, at my insufficiency, peak, I must find a new place in which to decay. Budapest, Buda-Pest, city on the Danube, where the buildings proudly bear the bullet holes of 1956, where the women, the girls, twitch their bethonged asses like seasoned pros. Budapest is the place to be, baby.

I am inside my apartment, inside my hard beige walls, because my eyes, my fantasies, are bigger than my courage. I’d like to be a player, but let’s get real. I’m too sensitive, too diffident, too weak, to make the necessary moves. At 3 pm, I turn on CNN and watch massive death in real-time. I see the second plane. I see the desperate, brave suicides. I see the towers fall.

What destruction we cannot wreak by our own hand, we wreak passively.

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Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language, unrelated to the other languages of Central Europe, and as one of the small number of modern European languages which do not belong to the Indo-European language family it has always been of great interest to linguists. It is spoken in Hungary and by the Hungarian minorities in seven neighboring countries. The Hungarian name for the language is magyar. [–Wikipedia]

Halál. Death.

I do not speak Hungarian. I cannot pronounce Hungarian. For days I wander the mall, the streets, staring at the newspaper photographs of fire and death, halál, captioned and headlined in a language of stacked consonants and inscrutable syllables. I speak to no one.

Two weeks later I move to a new apartment, farther south, away from the mall, the TGI Friday’s, the fulsome bodies of the girls of my sad little dreams. In my new home I do not get CNN, but Fox News. I develop a disturbing relationship with Bill O’Reilly.

The previous occupant of my apartment, the son of my landlord, has left a cardboard box of videotapes, which I sort through in a pathetic attempt to avoid the writing that is, supposedly, my mission. But they are all in magyar, all useless, all but one. It is unlabeled, black, anonymous. It is unmitigated hardcore pornography. It is an Italian import. There is no sensuality here, no insolence, only fucking. Only death.

Thank you, I say. Thank you, whoever you are. This is everything. This is enough.