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THE 42ND FLOOR


Illustration by Linda Montgomery/SIS, who holds copyright. Not for use without permission.
In the narrow bedroom she was about to rent to me, Mrs. B poured two glasses of apple juice. She lifted her glass, so I lifted mine, and across the small table we clinked. We were sitting knee to knee in an apartment on the greener side of Budapest. An agency that arranges inexpensive stays in homes had sent me here.

A rounded woman, Mrs. B wore a brown skirt with a flowered blouse that slid off one shoulder in a respectably disheveled way. She could have been 40 or 50 or 60, with dyed black hair in a bun. She had pencilled her eyebrows into a look of permanent surprise.

I had been touring Europe for almost three months now, long enough to know that my greatest need, besides a place to wash my socks, was the kindness of strangers. Or at least I needed to avoid their unkindness. Wise travelers build up thick skins. But me, I had fretted over every Englishman who gave me the cold shoulder, taken to heart the snubs of waitresses throughout France.

I was glad that Mrs. B was friendly, but I drank my juice quickly. Since I didn't speak Hungarian, I was afraid I might annoy her. My plan was to keep as much as possible out of her way.

After the juice, she led me into her kitchen, even narrower than my room. She set a calendar on the table and opened it to June. "Negy nap?" she asked me, and when I shrugged, baffled, she held up three fingers and a thumb. "Oh." I nodded. She circled the four days I planned to stay. I counted the money out. "Jo?" she said. Jo? I realized, once I figured out that it didn't mean yes or thank you, meant "good."

Before I knew it, Mrs. B started feeding me. She took a pot out of the refrigerator and showed me the beet-colored soup inside. "Jo?" she asked, and then answered herself, "Jo?" She ladled out two bowls.

I lifted my spoon, prepared for the tartness of beets, but to my surprise, the soup was sweet. "Csereznye?" she explained. She showed me the bags of cherries that crowded her refrigerator. She sat down again, and with the back of her spoon, she nudged a clove to the soup's surface: "SzegfŸszeg."

"SzegfŸszeg?" I chimed.

I don't think she had planned to serve me an entire meal, but now she was having fun. On the stove, she heated up a delicious, creamy broth with peas. "Borsš furz alek?" she said. I tried these words but mangled the vowels badly.

Then she warmed chicken wings in a red pan. "Csirke?" That was easy to pronounce--"cheerka."

"Jo?" she said happily, "Csirke?"

Over the next few days in that tiny apartment, I was constantly bumping up against Mrs. B's good nature. Everything was "Nem problema?" She did laundry for me in a washing machine that fit under her bathroom sink and drained through a tube into the toilet. Once, during the wash cycle, I unthinkingly set the tube on the floor. Soapy water flooded everywhere.

I ran for my phrasebook. "Sajnalom?" I shouted, rushing into the kitchen. "Nem problema?" She insisted on mopping up herself, stopping often to wring the towel into the bathtub.

The longer I spent with Mrs. B, the better we understood each other. Each day, we sat in the kitchen over coffee and gestured our way through complicated conversations. Thanks to her gift for pantomime, I forgot that we spoke different languages. Instead, we just talked. She told me that she had worked for 40 years, and that her pension came to 1,100 forints--less than $10 a month. The apartment cost $90 a month, and the tourists came only in June and July.

She told me that she had met Poppa? her handsome, barrel-bellied husband, at a dance, back when they were both a lot thinner. Now there was no romance left. Poppa got up early, demanded his breakfast, talked and talked and talked. But he was all right, because he didn't spend her money on other women. Her sign for "other women" was patting an imaginary arm hooked around hers.

On the morning I was supposed to leave, moving on to an Austrian border town, I couldn't bring myself to go. The idea of packing myself onto a train, on my own once again, unexpectedly made me want to cry. Instead, I found Mrs. B and pointed to her calendar. When she understood, she stroked my arm: "Jo, jo?"

During the next days we crossed over from being friendly to being friends. The change began late one sunny afternoon, when she pulled back her skirt to show me her shin, which was angry red. I went straight for my 30 SPF sunscreen, grateful to be able to do something for her for once. She thanked me, but I soon realized she was happy to be sunburnt. She had worked on it all day.

She talked about the pleasures of sunbathing, raising her hands and throwing back her head in luxurious joy. You wouldn't want to come with me, would you? she asked in so many gestures. I felt too honored to say no.

Did I have a bikini? I went and got my conservative one-piece suit. She frowned at it. Then she threw her hands up: It would have to do.

So off we went the next morning. Our suits under our clothes, we walked along a congested street until we reached a park that was grassier but not much bigger than a vacant lot. On the branches of a sapling we hung our clothes, and then we spread our towels out. We lay on our stomachs, side by side. I looked over at her round face, softly flattened against the towel. She was looking back at me with one eye open. Seldom have I felt such uncomplicated ease with another person. I was delighted to be with her and she was delighted with me. There was no need to say a thing. Right then, neither of us had a problem in the world. Nem problema?--Laura Shefler?


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