Marko grimaces with every bite he takes.
“You okay there?” – I ask him.
“This fucking chili...”
“I thought you asked for it.”
“I did.” – he says, a quick succession of blows coming out of his mouth.
The bar is crowded and only getting more so. All kinds of languages are spoken around us. English, German, Spanish, Dutch, some Hungarian. It’s Saturday night and everyone’s laying groundwork for the heavy drinking that will follow, gobbling the meat and sauce drenched buns, washing them down with draught beer from plastic cups. Budapest is the city with the cheapest prices of beer in Europe, I learned that a couple of days ago while doing casual alcoholocation scouting. I take a bite of my own burger.
“So when’s your first day of class?” – Marko asks.
“First week of February I think.” – I reply through a mouthful. “I’ll have to check.”
“Excited for it?”
“I’m looking forward to it.” – I say, “Much more than to all of the administrative bullshit I have to settle beforehand.”
“Don’t fuck around with bureaucracy. Get everything sorted on time.”
“Since I’m already here, I have all the time in the world.” – I take a handful of fries. “Do we have any ketchup?”
Marko passes me a bottle of Heinz. We are sitting at one of the communal tables and it seems like a group of guys will come and join us. One of them is dressed in a condom costume and slobbering from the corner of his mouth. It doesn’t look like he’s wearing anything underneath.
“Hey, mates!” – one of the better clothed ones says. I give them a lazy hey back and Marko follows it with a look and a nod of the head. “Not drinking anything?” – the guy adds.
“Not yet.” – I say.
“Matt’s getting married, you should.” – the guy says.
“Does Matt know he’s getting married?” – I say, pointing with the back of my hand at the condom guy.
“How do you know Matt?”
“We went to school together.”
“Aww you’re taking a piss mate.”
“Yeah, kind of.”
“Have some shots with us.”
“We’re good.” – I say, waving the offer off.
Marko leans into me. “Why not man? – he asks. “We should warm up a bit.”
“Ok, why not.” – I say. “What are we drinking?”
“Palinka!” – they chant back, ordering it. It looks like the Hungarians made them fall in love with the other local liquor, and not my newfound friend Unicum. We chug a shot of palinka and the crowd of guys erupts into ecstasy, banging the table, yelling nonsense. We decline their offer for a second round and leave them a couple of extra seats while picking up the garbage we’ve left behind. I throw the crumpled burger box in the direction of one of the bins. I miss.
“So close mate.” – one of them says as we exit the joint.
We’re outside now and after checking all of my coat pockets I realize I have no cigarettes left.
“I think I’ve seen a tobacco shop over there.” – Marko says, nodding at the way we came from.
“Lead the way.” – I say, gesturing for him to move in front of me.
“I would’ve hit that.” – he says, a couple of steps later. “The bin.”
“Does that make you feel good and strong?”
“Yes it does.” – he says, turning around and beating his chest.
The sidewalk is overflowing with people. They come from every direction and out of every crack, reminding me of childhood newsreels where people cued for bread in nineties Serbia. At the end of the street, we reach a clearing but there’s no tobacco shop in sight. I can see the top of St. Stephen Basilica rising above us in not too great a distance, and Marko suggests for us to look for a shop somewhere close to it. He can check out the church that way. We walk back across the Deak Ferenc park for the third time this evening.
“Remember the one-on-one day?” – I ask Marko.
“The day we played ten 21’s?”
“We played five times before lunch and I won all five.” – I say. “Then you went home, ate some crap, and came back to kick my ass for the other five.”
“We never played the deciding one.”
“No, we never did.” – I say, as we wait for the traffic light to turn green. “I miss playing basketball.”
“You miss being twelve.” – he says.
There is less of a crowd around the basilica and the people are gathered outside the nearby wine bar, huddled beneath red heating lights. I notice a small fountain in front of the bar with an obelisk in its center and patches of ice on its sides – one of those fountains people throw coins into when full, hoping for a stroke of luck. I wonder once again about who gets to keep all that money at the end of the coin-throwing season. Glancing at the basilica upon us, I come up with the first suspect. We climb its stairs.
“I only saw it from the outside before.” – I tell Marko. “We should see if we can get inside.”
“You want to pray or something?”
“Depends on what you had in mind for tonight.”
“Ooh I like it when you’re that way.” – he says.
Inside the basilica, the senses of hearing and smell flare up. Echoes and incense. We approach the center passage and I look at the ornamented dome above us where I see detailed illustrations of saints and angels, distinguishing the two by what they have surrounding their heads. I credit childhood cartoons for recognizing the angels, and history textbooks for saints. Gold plated candelabra illuminate these depictions with light bulb imitations of flames. I move my gaze downward and see the floor covered in black and white rectangular tiles.
“It’s like we’re standing on a chessboard.” – I say.
“Yeah, check that out.” – Marko says, looking down, following the tiles with his finger up to the altar.
“Chess and sacrifice.” – I say, looking at the Christ figure. “Subtle enough.”
To the left, I see scattered individuals sitting in benches, praying or hustling for warmth, and grouped ones forming a line in the corner. Curious, we walk in the direction of the latter. We learn that there is a glass box containing the mummified remains of St. Stephen’s hand on display in one of basilica’s rear chambers and that everyone is waiting in line to see it. We decide to join them. The line exclusively consists of tourists and many of them are annoyed to learn that the use of cameras is prohibited in the chamber. Those more cerebral ones acknowledge the presence of smartphones in their pockets with devilish grins. The line moves fast and we are now standing in front of the chamber’s entrance, next to one of the confession booths.
“I always thought the whole confession thing is cool.” – I say, nodding at it.
“I have to take a leak.” – Marko says.
The chamber doors swing open and one of the orderlies welcomes us inside, letting us know the closing time is in fifteen minutes. The room is larger than I expect it to be and populated by other artifacts as well, crosses and crowns and whatnot. No one dedicates much attention to these; instead, all of the people are located at the end of the chamber, surrounding the biggest box containing the smallest exhibit. They are subtle in wrestling their way close to it, and then quick to express their disappointment.
“It’s like the hand of that guy from Scary Movie 2.” – Marko says. “You know, the creepy butler.”
“It does look like the butler’s hand.” – I say, stepping back from the crowd. “Let’s get out of here.”
We leave the chamber and head toward the exit where another orderly gives us a scornful look. I attribute this to the fact that neither of us crossed ourselves. You should cross yourself when you get in and cross yourself when you get out. You should go for the double-cross. As we walk down the steps we agree that Budapest needs more tobacco shops.