There is only one comfortable way for two grown men to fit in a trunk. One has to spoon the other. This is how I find Emir and Mizra when I pop the trunk of a beat-up Yugo and try to set them free. Over the border. Out of the Balkans. Somewhere in the south of Hungary.
Journalists aren’t supposed to cross these kinds of lines, smuggling those caught in war zone the hell out of there. But I crossed that line with two Bosnians in my trunk.
Emir’s got his arm around Mizra. They told me they’re brothers. One of them was with their father when a sniper got him. Their father suffered from diabetes, and without medication his time had been limited anyway. Their mother killed herself three days later. Sleeping pills. There are still peaceful ways to die during a war, but Emir and Mizra don’t want to die in this war. They just wanted out of it.
I had told them I had a car. Well, I could get a car – an old Yugo, missing all its mirrors and almost outlined in rust. The plan was just to get them out. Plan is perhaps the wrong word. I didn’t think this through, and now I have two Bosnians.
Neither of the young men attempt to get out of the trunk. They are shocked to think this is as far as we go. It’s hard to think during a war. They look at me. Not moving. Just looking for a better answer. Freedom is not the side of the road, at least not this road. Their release is put on hold. I close the trunk and with them in it drive to the center of Budapest. The closest salvation I can think of is a tiny bar off Oktober Street.
The bar is almost in city center but not quite. It’s tucked down a narrow side street seldom traveled. Around the corner are restaurants and shops. But the whole city seems sleepy and quiet tonight. I park right in front of the bar. It’s not really a space, but I’ve done it before. Uri has put up Christmas lights, framing the front door and crossing the awning. The colored bulbs blink. There are a few that are burned out and will probably never be fixed. I think it’s for ambiance, but he has the season wrong.
Even before we enter, I can hear Zene – a one-man show, attempting to imitate the contemporary, grunge music of America. It makes me feel closer to home.
My Bosnians stare blankly at the front door. I open it. They continue their empty gazes. Not at the stage or at the few patrons. Not at me. Not at each other. They just stare out and then sit close to each other when we take a table in the corner, right by the door. I don’t imagine either one has said a word since Sarajevo.
I walk up to the bar to get us drinks and talk to Uri. He kisses the air on both sides of my face. He asks what I’m drinking. He asks who my friends are. How I have been? How have the Balkans been? I don’t answer any of his questions. He hands me a bottle of wine and three glasses.
I tell Uri I’m supposed to be in Sarajevo.
“No one is supposed to be in Sarajevo right now,” he says.
“You were never supposed to be there, Grace. Why are American girls so stupid?” he says, pouring me a shot of brandy.
“I’m not,” I say.
“American or stupid?” he asks, but that’s not what he really wants to know. “What are you going to do with them?”
The questioning could continue, but it doesn’t. I drop off the wine and fill the glasses, then go back to Uri. I look back at my Bosnians. Their glasses remain untouched. Their stares still as blank as their futures.
“You kept them in the trunk? What’s wrong with you?’ says Uri, almost laughing like some sort of humor just hit him.
“I’m a journalist, not the UN,” I tell him, and he smirks like it’s funny, but it’s not.
“They are not pets. They are refugees,” says Uri.
I start to drink my brandy, but mid-gulp I decide to down it. I stay up at the bar with Uri. It’s his bar. Opened it four years back with a sense of accomplishment given his past. It is a long past, and that is usually all he says about it. He escaped something in Russia and can never go back. Before that he was in Israel. He looks his happiest when he talks about his late wife, but that look is fleeting. I think all his stories have sad endings so he doesn’t always finish them. But now he’s okay. Life has been different since he crossed the Hungarian border.
The bar is nearly empty, as it is most nights. Uri put up framed pictures of famous Americans to make the expats feel at home and give the locals a spot to view the stars. When I can tell he’s not looking at me, I follow his line of sight. Robert De Niro. He locks eyes with the photograph like it’s a staring contest. When Uri breaks away, he looks defeated.
“I get it,” I say to him when he looks back at me. Only I don’t. This is not my job. I don’t even know if this is how you help people. “Yugoslavia is the saddest place in the world.”
Uri tells me I’m wrong. All war is sad and I am just new at this. Then he tells me I belong at home in America. Too pretty to be killed so far from home.
I don’t say anything back. It’s okay. Our conversations often drop like this. We both focus on Zene up on stage. It’s not really a stage. There is no lift, just an imaginary line where the bar stops and his performing begins.
Zene’s musical talents arose at a young age. He washes dishes on the nights he doesn’t perform. But tonight he’s somebody.
He strums an acoustic guitar while singing “Come as You Are” by Nirvana. He sounds just like Kurt Cobain. He doesn’t speak a word of English but sings it flawlessly. He told Uri once to tell me his heart speaks English. When I laughed, Zene looked embarrassed. He left the bar and bought flowers from a gypsy woman around the corner. He came back and laid them down in front of me. “Love,” he said and went back to the stage. It was the only time he ever spoke to me directly.
Zene’s not bad looking. He’s got blue eyes and floppy hair. When he rolls up his shirt sleeves, the fabric hugs his muscles. He would probably be gorgeous if he had better posture. He’s really tall, but doesn’t ever seem to stand up straight. Even when he sits down, his shoulders point inward.
He’s had a crush on me for a while. I’m exotic to him. The first American he’s ever met. Uri says he’s got it bad for me. If my Hungarian was better, I might see that he was a great guy, he says. It doesn’t matter.
“So, you have no plan?” Uri asks.
“I don’t know. Let’s get them something else to drink.”
Uri goes behind the bar and pours four shots of vodka. He motions to me to meet him at the table serving as my refugee camp.
Uri is a short man but still tough. He has his thick gray hair and always wears his shirt unbuttoned a little more than he should. I like him because he’s always serious. We never have funny stories to share. That’s okay. He’ll let me tell him all about the Balkans when I take a few days in Budapest. He says I’m his best news source, but he has never read my work.
I think about the deadline I’m going to miss, and panic for a second. It’s important for a second. And then everything fades to a moment where the most important thing is a bar in Budapest.
“Drink,” I tell my Bosnians, but I say it in Serbo-Croatian.
They stare at me like they don’t know what I am saying. I hold up my glass. Uri holds up his. “To the future,” I tell them like it is a promise of something. They lift their glasses and we all clink in the middle of the table before downing warm vodka.
“But really, what are you going to do with them?” Uri says in English like it’s our secret language, and for now it is.
“I’ll get them a hotel room. Then see what the embassy says in the morning.”
“Bad idea. Never involve officials. I can get them work. What can they do?”
“I don’t know if they are ready for that.”
Zene is singing Screaming Trees’ “Nearly Lost You.” He sounds just like Mark Lanegan.
Around nine o’clock, the Russian enters the bar. We’re both in our late twenties, but he’s hyper like a child who can’t seem to get enough attention. He never seems able to sit still for too long. He comes every night after working a long shift at a nearby hotel. Every time I see him he is happy and drunk. He usually drinks until Uri kicks him out for being sloppy.
He remembers me and leans in to kiss my cheek. He grabs a chair from the next table, but Uri shoos him away and he listens. He takes a seat closer to the stage and drinks alone.
“We don’t need him here tonight,” says Uri. “So, what happened to that businessman you sometimes bring here?”
“He’s around, I imagine.”
The businessman is Dan, an American, a handsome older man with money to invest in off-the-radar real estate. He buys up everything he can. It’s real cheap in Budapest, but he says that won’t last. He probably owns half of the city by now. I haven’t seen him in a year or so. But he could give my Bosnians a place to stay. I will call him tomorrow.
I like Dan. We like to talk about our careers and all we’ve sacrificed. A permanent residence for a well-used passport. Friends for colleagues and acquaintances. Love for lovers.
“You know, Grace,” says Uri. “He comes here with other women.”
“He’s not my boyfriend. It’s okay.”
“There are a lot of them. And he’s here almost every night.”
For some reason, it feels like heartache. Just a bit. “It’s okay,” I say again. There are bigger things at play than my heart. But, still, this is my bar. I brought Dan here on my last break from the Balkans. He lectured me about being on the wrong side of the world and then fucked me in my hotel room by the train station.
We met in America at a party. At best, we both knew a few people there and were only a little out of place. He knew the world better than I did at the time, but things are different since I went chasing stories through a war. And things are different again.
Uri says I remind him of a wife who got sick and suffered and died. He says it’s easy to mistake things that are less important for love. He says nothing more. He flags down the waitress to bring the bottle of vodka.
Before we toast again, Emir asks in broken English if we are celebrating. Yes, I tell him. Emir had lost track of normalcy and forgotten his last birthday. Mizra counts on his fingers and tells his brother that he missed two birthdays and is eighteen now. We toast to future birthdays and the ones we have missed.
Uri flips his shot glass upside down on the table. Then he takes all the shot glasses and wants us to use them to show how the war looks.
“These guys are the Serbs, right?” he says with one shot glass. “Now you got the Croats over here and over here.” Another shot glass and another. “And the Muslims are pretty much here.” He drags my wine glass to the center of the table.
But wait. There are battles everywhere. And the Serbs have Sarajevo surrounded. There aren’t enough shot glasses. I take back my wine. Uri tops off my glass.
“What’s going to happen next?” he says.
“There is no more Yugoslavia,” I tell him.
Emir chimes in and says they are never going back. I wonder how much English he knows. He phrases it like a question, and I make a hollow promise that they never have to go back. If the shot glasses had not just been turned into forces of war and its people, I think they would have wanted to toast to that.
Zene takes a break after singing Soundgarden’s “Fell on Black Days.” He sounds just like Chris Cornell. He sits down and pushes the siege to the side. Then he flips over each glass, and the battleground becomes a table again.
“All countries stumble out of communism in bloody ways,” says Uri. “I think you Americans call it transition, but it’s not like that. Ask your friends here if their country is in transition.”
“It will be after the war,” I say.
“Or there will just be another war and everyone will be sad and poor and hungry and drunk. Why are you helping them?”
“They asked me. I interviewed one of them about an underground tunnel near the airport. They thought it was their way out. They got to the tunnel and were denied entry. They didn’t have the right paperwork to go through. Even in war, it’s all about who you know.”
“So what did they do?”
Emir’s glass of wine looks untouched. I want to tell him that a few drinks can numb our worst thoughts. He would tell me that I can’t imagine his worst thoughts, and he would be right. Mizra polishes off his last sip. Takes it like medicine.
“They moved around a lot. When I found them, they were sleeping in a café. The café was dark and had been closed for a while. Everything was a mess. At first I thought they were just bodies, but then I saw one of them move through the window.”
“And now? Are they more than just bodies?”
I look at them again. I push the bottle toward them and tell them to drink more. They listen. There are no smiles. I haven’t seen anyone smile in a long time and I’m not even sure my mouth can mimic the gesture anymore.
“Yes. I saved them from being just bodies.”
“It takes a lot more than what you did to save someone,” says Uri.
Zene takes my hand. I try to pull it away, but he holds it tighter and moves his face in like he wants a kiss. I turn my face away. One of the Bosnians whispers to the other. I pull my hand free. Then I look at Zene who looks just as sad as everyone else at the table. Camp Grace.
I can’t help but wonder if I might see Dan tonight. If he comes with another woman, can I still ask him for help? What do I even say to him? I imagine him laughing, like somehow the most serious thing in my life would be nothing but a joke to him.
Zene puts his hand on my leg under the table. I’m too tired and drunk to fight off his advances. I close my eyes for a second to see if it feels like Dan. If I can remember Dan. I’m not sure. I turn to my Bosnians and ask if they’re hungry. No, they’re fine. I’m fine. We’re all fine.
After another glass of wine and a few shots, Zene gets up and goes back to play. With a guitar in hand, his foot taps the beats to “Comedown” by Bush, and he starts to sing again.
The Russian knows all the words to this one. He stands up and starts clapping with the beats and dancing in the aisle between mismatched tables and chairs. Zene’s song has become a duet.
The Russian applauds loudly for Zene when the song ends. No one else seems to notice. The Russian is still standing. When Zene starts up again, the Russian continues to dance by himself. No one pays him any attention. But then he falls, and a group of local guys pick him up. The Russian seems to think it is an invitation as he pulls a chair over to their table. It’s not. They give him funny looks but let him stay when he yells out an order for a round of drinks on him.
I wonder if the Russian knows Dan. I feel like it’s wrong to think about Dan tonight. He’s not thinking of me tonight and certainly not doing anything half as important. I will call him for help tomorrow, maybe. Nothing more. We were lovers, not in love. None of that matters.
My Bosnians have dark circles under their eyes. I’ve had a hard time sleeping myself. In Sarajevo, I couldn’t help but dream about war. I don’t know if it was the sound of gunfire in my dreams or the real thing that would wake me. But I woke up, and it was all there happening. A constant terror in the destruction of a nation where home will never be the same. Right now we feel farther away from it than we really are, but that’s okay. It’s a good thing.
Uri takes out a pack of cigarettes. He pulls off the cellophane and smells the pack. Then he holds it out to the Bosnians.
“Tell them it’s good, real good ones. They never had this kind before. Tell them to smoke.”
I translate and the cigarettes get passed around. Both Bosnians take one so I take one too. Inhaling smoke feels like the best thing I have done for myself in a while.
Zene is singing “Today” from The Smashing Pumpkins.
The Russian comes back to our table. “Dance,” he says in English.
“No, thank you.”
“Dance with me.”
I wait for Uri to tell him to leave us alone again, but he doesn’t. It’s almost as if he wants to see how this plays out. The Bosnians are watching, too. I turn to them and say that this drunk is trying to get me to dance. “Dance,” says the one closest to me.
The Russian puts out his hand. I take it. We walk up near to the stage and then dance close like lovers. We’re moving too slowly for the music. I put my head on his shoulder. I pretend he’s someone else. I close my eyes. I pretend I’m somewhere else. I wonder if I really remember what home feels like. Does it feel like a stranger’s embrace? Yes, right now, I think it does.
The music stops. Zene pulls me away with one hand and punches the Russian in the mouth with the other. The Russian fumbles a few steps back. He charges at Zene and head-butts him in the stomach. Zene doesn’t even flinch. He lifts the Russian up with both hands and throws him against the wall. Two chairs break, and the Russian is down for the count. Julia Roberts falls off the wall. The glass in the frame shatters.
Uri yells at Zene in Hungarian. Then he yells at the Russian in Hungarian. He orders Zene to the back room, the Russian out. Uri has to help the Russian up and practically carry him to the door. Then he pushes him out. Through the window we all see the Russian fall on the sidewalk. Uri tells him never to come back. He sits back down and motions for me.
“You okay?” he says, kicking out my chair with his foot.
I take a seat. “It wasn’t his fault, you know?”
“It was nobody’s fault. It was everybody’s fault. What’s the difference? He will be back tomorrow, and the same thing will likely happen again. Or maybe not.”
“But you told him never to come back.”
“I tell him that all the time. His Hungarian sucks, and I guess I’m just never mad enough to say it in Russian. I don’t think he knows what I’m saying.”
“Zene thinks he loves you. Love is the second most stupid thing, right after war.”
“He doesn’t know me,” I say.
Maybe I should go before Zene comes back. The tab is all set. It’s on him, says Uri. “Come back tomorrow,” he tells me.
I leave with my Bosnians, but first take one more cigarette out of the pack on the table. I don’t light it until I get outside. My Bosnians and I walk down a quiet, midnight street. They are safe. I pass my cigarette to them when I see the Russian, sitting on a storefront stoop. They sell dresses inside there. The display window features outfits that look a decade old. I stand in front of the Russian and ask in English if he’s okay. He looks up. I can’t tell if he has been crying or if it’s just his eye starting to swell. He stands up.
“Come with me,” he says.
“One minute. You come with me.”
I tell Emir and Mizra to wait and that we will be going to the hotel soon. I follow the Russian into an alleyway between the dress shop and an all-night falafel place. He stops walking and leans up against the one of the buildings.
“What?” I say to him.
“Kiss,” he says.
“No.” I start to walk away. He grabs my hand. Please, he says.
I turn back and let him pull me in. We kiss hard and fast, and it feels like it means nothing, but I let it go on. Maybe everything will feel like it means nothing from now on. He puts his hands on my hips and pulls me in closer. Pelvis to pelvis. I think I can feel his dick getting hard. I try to back off, but I don’t stop kissing him. He grabs my crotch. I swat his hand away. He does it again. I stop. The kiss stops. His hand falls by his side. I say nothing and walk away like none of this just happened.
My Bosnians are waiting. With one hand I wave for them to follow.
Photo: “Chain Bridge at Night, Budapest” by David Beddard.
David Beddard is a photographer and traveler from Dorset, United Kingdom, currently living in Sydney, Australia.