For the month of February, each writer’s post will begin with the same line, which we’ve borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
All this happened, more or less.
As I made the commute south along the Danube, I didn’t review my lesson. We are on week three of food vocabulary cards, so the prep required for chicken, kiwi, or potatoes was limited. Once off the tram I ambled slowly along the street, watching the stunning similarity between the flirtation strategies of pigeons and teenage boys, pecking at the poor girls with unwanted attention.
Looming over a narrow brick street, the building in which I tutor stands bulbous in contrast to the simple glass-fronted businesses on either side. Stones are blackened and cracked and even the construction scaffolds along the roof were abandoned.
I punch in the code on the outer door, 94201, and the familiar long, low beep lets me know the door was unlocked.
Up the staircase, I stared out into the vacant courtyard that runs through the entirety of the building like the center ‘o’ in a donut. Across the broken stones, on the other side of the building old tarps lay scattered and broken glass jeered at me in the sun’s setting light. Unlike this half, that side of the building was empty. Abandoned to the pigeons and flapping drapes.
The tutoring was held in an empty room in a flat that had been revamped as a massage studio. They must have insanely cheap rent. Due to the evening hour of the lesson, I had never met any of the massage studio employees, so I was surprised to find the door open. A high-pitched woman’s voice came from the office down the hall. Ah, just someone working late. I quietly closed the door behind me and set up in the spare room of the foyer.
Ten minutes pass. I hear the woman gather her things and leave. I play Bejeweled on my phone till it dies and realize it is twenty minutes past the hour. The girls have never been late. I wait five more minutes then decide to head home. I walk to the front door, distractedly zipping up my coat, and realize I can’t turn the knob.
The door locks from the outside. The woman must not have heard me come in and locked up for the night.
My phone is dead and I am locked in an abandoned building in Budapest.
Immediate sweaty palms.
Okay. I could sleep here…
Food, fridge empty, Cupboards empty.
Alright. One night, I won’t starve.
There is a futon in the next room. It’s April, no need for a blanket…
Am I crazy. I am not sleeping here.
I have to get out.
Wait. There has to be a way out.
I stride to the balcony and peered over the edge. Three stories down people walk quickly in the fading daylight on their way home from work. Beneath me was the outer granite wall, slick with cold dew of the day’s misty precipitation.
Could I climb it?
I scour the wall for any ledges, any possible edge to rest a hand or foot. Nothing.
The drop to the next balcony I would guess is eight feet. Not impossible.
I would have to angle…
If I leaned my legs left and jumped at a 45 degree angle…
As I leaned over the wind caught my hair and whipped it viciously across my face.
I looked down. Beyond the lower balcony was another forty feet of open air before the hard brick street. The street. Not yet empty, though the population of pedestrians has dwindled.
Will anyone hear me? If they do, how can I explain?
What is the Hungarian word for help?
This is embarrassing.
How will I explain?
Lungs expand, “HHHHEEEEELLLLPPPPPPP.”
Look down. Nothing. No reaction. No heads have turned. No uplifted faces. Not even the pigeons have moved.
I back into the flat. Some emotion is trying to override fear. Embarrassment?
Really Bex? Is your ideal of self-reliance actually the most important thing to focus on now?
Decide. Stay the night or scream again?
I don’t know when someone will be in tomorrow. What if they don’t speak English? What if tomorrow is the day off and no one comes in? What if the police come?
Scream. You have to.
I cross the room again, out on the balcony I look down and realize with a quickening pulse that the street is nearly all in darkness.
I scream. I scream as though I am being stabbed (though I have never been stabbed). I scream out my fear. I scream out my panic.
I scream until the evening’s coldness bites my lungs.
I look down and see a mother and her young daughter staring up at me, their faces pale against the grey street.
“Help. I am stuck.” (please speak English, please speak English)
THANK THE LORD. Shoot. How can she help?
The wind has picked up and as I try to explain my words are stolen and scatter across the cold stone buildings across the street.
“I will write,” I screech.
Running back into the flat I find a pen and paper.
“I am locked in the 3rd floor flat. The key code is 94201.”
I rush outside and freeze because the street is now so dark I cannot see the woman.
“Are you there?”
“I throw paper down.” No need to use correct grammar. Understand, please understand.
I toss the paper horizontally, away from the building but the wind catches it and pulls it onto the balcony below me. I watch it flutter, useless, against the wall.
I scribble down the message again and this toss makes it down.
The woman, God bless her bilinguality, reads it and scurries to the front door. I hear the distinct beeping of the key pad.
They are in.
Thank the Lord.
I stand on the balcony for a moment. The night has settled, the sun slipped beyond the Buda hills and I am lost in a sea of unfeeling darkness.
A knock on the door.
I scramble into the flat, collect my bag and the scattered vocabulary cards “chicken,” “kiwi,” and “potatoes” and rush to the door. Through the rippled glass pane, I see the woman and her daughter. The distortion of the glass makes it hard to distinguish their faces.
Shit. They need the key.
I search my pockets. The key is cold in my hot palm. There is a window in the kitchen that I might be able to pass the key through. I run, open the window and call out indistinctly to the woman, my arm compressed in the narrow slit. She instinctively reaches out. Six-inch gap. I feel like Michael Jordan in Space Jam.
Stretch arm, dammit stretch.
She stands on the old bent railing, her daughter’s thin arms tangled around her legs and with the new height she can reach the key.
I hear the key scrape in the lock as I scramble back to the front door. It opens and I rush out. I hug the woman, “köszönöm, köszönöm.” She hugs me back. Tightly stretching her arms across my back, while her daughter squeezes my legs.
I think we all cried but I am not sure.
When we release and step back there is a moment of quiet, then a quick laugh and we hurry down the stairs. Away from the black gaping hole that is the vacant courtyard. Once outside we all head for the tram. The woman’s English seems to have disappeared. We try to talk, to connect, but my Hungarian is too bare and her English too sparse. We sit together in the fluorescent glow of the tram car and smile shyly at one another.
I want to tell this woman she is now closer to me than family. That I owe her, if not my life, at least my sanity. I want to tell her I will start a college fund for her daughter to study anywhere in the world. But I can’t. My language limits me to repeat “köszönöm” over and over while she modestly shakes her head.
The woman and her daughter leave the tram before me. She squeezes me hand and kisses my cheek. Her daughter waves at me through the window before the tram rushes into the evening.
I make it home at the normal time. Caroline has just begun to prepare dinner.
Rebekah (’12) teaches English as a second language at Grand Rapids Community College. She does not drink coffee nor purchase Apple products.