My fingers are cold. I throw away the half-smoked cigarette, put my hands in my pockets and look around, still waiting for Marko to come up. There is a passage right across the busy street and that’s where most of the people are heading. The passage is lined up with bars and cafes, and promo girls are dispensing leaflets in front of each. They are wearing open top shoes and Jägermeister branded skirts. Their toes, legs and faces are frozen colorless. Smiling seems to be the only facial feature allowed, as well as possible past this point, in the current temperature.
“I’m going to need some help with this.” – I hear Marko’s voice.
I turn around and see him carry four shots of whiskey in his hands.
“Gladly.” – I reply, taking and drinking two of them.
“So, where to next?”
“I have no idea.”
“What about this?” – he says, pointing at the passage.
“How about anywhere else?”
“Yeah, it doesn’t look too good.”
We go down the street, bypassing fellow smokers populating the sidewalk. Another group of Brits cuts in front of us, sharing a liter bottle of vodka between them, passing it through the air. I think of turning to one of the quieter side streets. Before I get the chance to do that, I see a clean shaven old man wearing a cream-colored coat, a hat in his hand, walking steadily towards us. From a distance, he reminds me of Henry Fonda in On the Golden Pond. As we get closer, I notice the sleeves of his coat are torn. He answers my curiosity by extending his hat to me. There are coins and paper notes in it. I stop for a second, confused, then fetch my wallet and offer him 1000 forints. He takes them, drops them into the hat, and bows.
“It’s very cold tonight.” – I say.
“Very cold.” – he says, in surprisingly good English. “Thank you.”
“Enough?” – I ask, pointing at the hat. “For a cup of tea?”
“Yes.” – he says. “Maybe I get rum.”
“Do you live in this neighborhood?” – I ask him, glancing at Marko who is busy inspecting a nearby poster.
“My whole life.”
“Then you must not be happy with the way it looks like now.” – I say, gesturing broadly at the street.
“No, no. I get money this way.” – he says, smiles, then walks away.
Marko is back at my side, laughing.
“You’re getting drunk man.” – he says, throwing his arm around me.
“Maybe I am.”
“I found the place for us.” – he says. “It’s called Boguedita. Cuban place.”
“You mean Bodeguita?”
“Yeah whatever, the pictures on the poster look cool, you’re going to love it.”
The place turns out to be right around the corner. Its entrance has a small outside foyer adorned by a pair of columns on the sides. People are sitting in tall lounge chairs here, smoking cigars and cigarettes in equal measure. We pass through the door and a hostess welcomes us in the hallway. She directs us downstairs to the coatroom. As we wait in line, I hear the muffled sounds of last summer’s pop hits infused with Latin beats emanating from the speakers above. We climb back up and enter the club just when the DJ invites the crowd to blow his whistle baby. Two bartenders are juggling bottles of liquor and the third one is lighting a row of shot-glasses on fire. I sense sweat and cheap perfume in the air, punctuated by the sweet, acrid odor of the fog machine.
“Are you sure about this?” – I ask Marko.
“Are you sure about this?!” – I ask again, screaming into his ear this time.
“I had no idea it was going to look like this!” – he replies, also screaming.
“I’ll get us a couple of beers and we’ll have a smoke in that foyer we passed through.”
Marko nods his head and moves in the agreed direction. I spend the next five minutes trying to get the pyro-enthusiast’s attention. I succeed finally, only to be offered two Heinekens at piss temperature. I wave at him to protest but he is long gone by the time I finish mimicking my issue. Defeated, I make my way to the foyer, trying not to slip against the damp tiles of the dancing floor.
In the foyer, I see Marko talking to an unknown man at one of the tall, long tables. An attractive dark skinned woman is standing at the same table. She’s wearing a white dress with short sleeves and a pair of knee-high cowboy boots. She’s taking turns pulling on her cigarette and sipping on a pinkish drink through a straw.
“Hey, you got a light?” – I ask, approaching her, shaking my lighter. “Sorry to bother you, but this one seems to be weather-sensitive.”
“I know how it feels.” – she says, smiling and rummaging through the purse hanging over her shoulder. “Let me check.”
I slide one of the bottles down the table and Marko catches it, continuing his conversation.
“I got some matches if that’s all right.” – she says, pulling a small box out of the purse.
I light my cigarette and give the box back, noticing goosebumps on her skin.
“Ridiculous concept with the coats in this place.” – I say, blowing out the smoke. “It’s not like you can check it in and out whenever you go outside for a smoke.”
“You probably can.” – she says. “As long as you pay each time.”
“We should ask the tobacco lobby to chip in.”
“There’s an idea.” – she says, smiling again. “But I think they’re just better used to the cold here.”
“Judging by tonight, they better be.” – I say, tipping my bottle towards her.
She clinks it with her glass.
“Where are you from by the way?” – I then ask. “I mean, you’re obviously not from around these parts.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“In most of the cases.”
“Hey, I like Eastern Europe.”
“Well it’s always nice for a Serbian guy to hear that.”
“You’re Serbian?” – she asks, her eyes widening. “My husband is also Serbian” – she adds, in a quieter voice, nodding at the guy Marko is talking to.
Marko and the guy look our way. I put out the cigarette.
“Hey honey, I have a countryman of yours here.” – she says.
“How you doing brother?” – her husband asks me in Serbian.
“You didn’t hear the language we were speaking?” – Marko asks, also in Serbian.
“Ha-ha.” – I smile, then add in English. “Didn’t notice.”
“Marko tells me your day.” – the husband says, switching to broken English. “So you move to Budapest now?”
“Yeah. Starting my postgrad studies here.” – I say, my eyes alternating between the freshly discovered couple. “How long have you guys been in Budapest?”
“Oh.” – she says. “Two years now I believe.”
“Yes.” – he confirms. “I work here for two years. I move here for work.”
“What’s your line of work?” – I ask.
“I fix things.” – he says.
“He works in a service center.” – she adds.
“Electrician.” – he says. “I get Hungarian papers when they need workers with skill. Now I’m Hungarian, but always Serbian here.” – he smiles proudly, pointing at his heart.
“Is that where you two met?” – I ask. “At work?”
“No, we met here actually.” – she says, nodding at the club’s entrance. “I was dancing here on weekends.”
“I thought she Cuban.” – he says, hugging her.
“And then he found out I was Nigerian.”
“Now we both Hungarian!” – he says, then laughs loudly.
We all laugh. I swallow what’s left of my beer and set the bottle down.
“How about we go dancing?” – she asks, looking around at everyone, then settling on me. “I’m frozen here.”
“Thanks.” – I say. “But it’s not really my spot, this one.”
“We should get the coats.” – Marko adds.
“We all go.” – the husband says.
Inside, we wave our goodbyes and Marko and I turn left for the stairs. They turn right towards the dancefloor. I see them waiting in line to get in, his hand on her ass. I walk down, step by step.