Encounter with a Young Man
I was in high spirits: forgetting about many things, I fumbled to light my cigar, and then we began walking down Andrássy út, the grand avenue of Budapest. My beatiful and darling wife was smiling at me from beneath the veil, my beatiful darling, who, behold, loved me, and had allowed me to love her.
I met the young man on the Danube bank, around six o’clock. He walked past us: I did not notice him in the dusk. He was twenty steps away when I spotted him from behind. I stopped talking as an uneasy agitation came over me. His slender waist was well visible in front of a freighter ship, yet I think I recognized him from his step. His garments were quite worn. In his hand he carried a large copybook. Eighteen, maybe only seventeen years old— I hesitated, I didn’t dare to believe it. I wanted to turn away, but then I felt a sharp pain flash through my heart, and such a heavy pounding in it that I had to stop. It was one of his gestures I saw, as he lifted his hand, and held it out: woe is me, it was that hand, I even recognized the cut from the gymnasium…
My wife gave me a surprised look, and I just stammered:
‘Please— will you wait for me? I need to talk to this young man.’
I left her standing there and hurried forward. In a short while, I slowed down my steps. It was getting dark already. The young man did not turn around. He knew I was behind him. He kept his calm and walked on: he stopped by a bollard, and turned to the quiet Danube, his gaze resting on the distant hills. I was horribly embarrassed. I cleared my throat. I stood next to him, so that he would notice me. I stole a glance at his mouth, younger and narrower still than mine. His eyes larger and lighter. Him, it was him. And the copybook in his hand, the old copybook… that I threw at the bottom of my cupboard and forgot. It was agitation again, grave and unsettling.
‘Well… don’t you see me?’, I said at length, softly.
‘I do’, he said, but did not turn to me.
I grew silent, embarrassed. I felt ashamed. This is ridiculous. This is a young man of eighteen years. The encounter is strange, but I need to find a handle on it. I will be impartial. He should be glad to see me.
‘I recognized you,’ I said loudly, ‘immediately when you walked past me.’
‘I know’, he said.
‘Why didn’t you come to me then? Didn’t you wonder what happened to me?’
He did not answer. I got annoyed.
‘Well, yes, I know you are reserved and proud. But you see, this makes no sense… Believe me, I know it makes no sense… I will tell you about it. You will see why I couldn’t stay reserved and proud— But why won’t you look at me? Look, I have grown a mustache— I am twenty-six years old… You’re so strange. Are you angry with me?’
He did not answer. He pursed his lips bitterly.
‘Eh’, I said, ‘such magnificent silence! All right, all right, I remember now. But what then? You can’t keep it up forever. Look there, will you reproach me? Please. Your silence is not such a great matter… I can’t see that it did you much good. Your clothing, that’s pathetic, my son. And you’re thin. I beg your pardon, I couldn’t wear clothes like these… What’s the matter? If you just cry a bit, they’ll throw you a penny.’
Now he turned to me for the first time. He looked me hard in the eyes. Then he turned away again.
‘You talk too much’, he said dryly.
I was hurt.
‘Oh? Nonsense! You think you’re so perfect. Well yes, I talk because I want to teach you— do you understand? After all, I’m the older one… and I’ve seen a lot… and experienced a lot… and you’re just a child, what do you know?’
My voice faltered all of a sudden. I hung my head, and gave a faint and uneasy smile, and I lifted my hand faintly and awkwardly, and whispered, still smiling uneasily:
‘What could I do? It couldn’t be done the way you thought. Believe me, it couldn’t… I tried… but really, I couldn’t—’
He turned to me again. With a sagging mouth, a loathing look.
‘Where’s the aeroplane?’, he asked hoarsely.
I stammered defensively:
‘Well… I couldn’t help it… it was invented— Farman… the Wright brothers… I couldn’t be there. But believe me, they did a good job… fairly good, relatively… it can fly—’
‘I see’, he said ironically. Then he looked at me again. ‘Where’s the North Pole?’
I lowered my eyes.
‘Some Peary bloke, he reached it… Please, I had no time… you were wrong… one can’t do everything… and I was at university back then—’
‘Really?’, he said.
‘Where’s Hungary, the proud and free country?’
‘Please… you’re so strange… we’re working on it… myself too, but it can’t be done so quickly… one has to live, too.’
I started spluttering:
‘But you see… I did my best… to accomplish at least some of… the things I promised you— I was writing. I wrote fairly good things. Look at the shop windows… my name is known… I’m famous, like you wanted to be… and I’m well respected. And you see, I wrote books… like you conceived – look, here’s one, fairly good—’
Nervously, I dragged one of my books out of my pocket (it had funny drawings and short stories in it), and showed it to him.
‘Look… it’s fairly good—’
He just glanced at the book, but did not reach for it.
‘Yes, I’ve seen it’, he said curtly. ‘Fairly good.’
He extended his arm towards the darkening horizon, towards the curving hills.
‘Where’s the great symphony, the terrible comedy about the grey horizon and the proud gods who throb and writhe beyond?’
‘Well, you see… it couldn’t be done… It can’t be done in three acts… You were wrong… An actor cannot play the grey horizon… then I realized it wasn’t even the right genre… and I couldn’t complete it… But then I wrote a pretty sonnet of it… It was published in a good anthology… and it was liked, and since then I’ve been paid better—’
He made no answer. He sank into a gloomy silence, his gaze disappearing in the distance. I wanted to say more, to explain how he was too young… but I faintly remembered that at times like this, when his countenance was like this, he was not to be disturbed. This reminded me of my wife, and I grew anxious.
‘Please come with me’, I said, ‘let me introduce my wife. You will be happy. She’s a very beautiful woman… a worthy, magnificent woman… you see… and I conquered her, she loves me… you see… I am someone… like you wanted—’
He looked at me again, with scorn in his eyes.
‘You conquered her, didn’t you?’, he said. ‘Nonsense! Are you the proud one! You went to her and conquered her… The castle descended from the mountain, and seized the valley by siege! The oak conquered the weed, and encircled her lovingly… Why doesn’t she come over here?’
My eyes narrowed.
‘You’re a fool’, I said. ‘You’re just a child. This is phantasmagorical. You’re wrong. I’m right. I’m an adult, and I have learned about life. What do you know about life? You’d be ridiculed by everyone!’
He came close to me, and looked me in the eye. Now I saw his thick auburn hair.
‘I didn’t want to learn about life: I wanted life to learn about me. Yes, I would’ve been ridiculed, and you didn’t want to be ridiculed because of me… But you know— look at me, I dare you to look me in the eye! You know you are the pathetic and small one, and that I’m right, and what I say is not ridiculous: you know I’m right – poor thing, small thing, you’re nobody. I dare you to look at me!’
I had to turn away: it was such an awkward and stupid situation. He walked away slowly, and he didn’t look at me anymore – he walked away, lost in thought…
Minutes passed before I could speak:
‘Where are you going? Stay’, I whispered. But he did not turn back. I only heard his voice from the distance:
‘Remember that you met me, this one last time. And if some of me still remains in you, dip your pen in the flames of the setting sun, and write it down for them, write about this encounter— and write for them about how I left you, how I disappeared, melting into the dusk, staying young, beautiful and infinitely free, never to see you again—’
I heard his last words very faintly. His slender form grew narrower, then he started flowing and rising. I kept watching him: I thought I still saw him, but I realized it was only a thin cloud floating in the sky.
My wife grew impatient.
‘Who was this young man?’, she asked.
‘An old acquaintance’, I said, embarrassed. ‘A nice boy.’
‘Yes, he is’, said my wife, with a slight edge in her voice. ‘But he has bad manners. Why didn’t he introduce himself? He looked very much like you.’
After that, we came to this café. I felt downcast, but the gloom was slowly ebbing away.
‘This is a great theme’, I said to myself, lightening up. ‘It’s a bit too long for a poem. But one can make it into a short story. Brief, satiric. After all, it’s Tuesday today, I ought to deliver something.’
I asked for paper, and, with some hesitation, I wrote this title: ‘Encounter with a young man’.
There remained nothing but a dull pain from the wound.