Tuesday, August 17, 2004

We arrived at the track on Saturday at around one, at the start of qualifying, after riding with Michael's friend Michael and his son David and Eric and Michael and Andrea, and meeting them in the parking lot of the Marriott where we didn't know, did we have the right place? We had wandered inside where breakfast was just being cleared and the doormen were changing shifts, exchanging chummy words, and when we walked back out Michael, that is Michael's friend Michael, Canadian Michael, was standing by the open sliding door to his van. Waving.

The night before we'd gone out to a party Sylvie had for former coworkers at one of the courtyard beer gardens that are all over Budapest, accessible from inconspicuous residential-looking doorways and a couple turns around cobblestoned alleys. CK and I had drunk wine at Sylvie's then we drank wine at the party and more wine and then whiskey and someone bought a round of Unicum, the bitter, bitter traditional liqueur that is now drunk only as a ritual gesture of festive self-punishment. And I talked to Janet who was married to Eric whose name I thought was Nick. We talked about the importance of proper sun protection for terribly fair-skinned people like us. Someone bought a round of polinka, the traditional spirit that is now drunk with pleasure and relief that no one decided to buy Unicum instead.

Writing this in Paris, the waiter just walked by me holding his serving tray lazily at his side like a sheaf of papers and then stopped and said, "Putain, mon gratin!" which means, "Fuck, my gratin!" and he turned on his heels to retrieve it from the kitchen and serve it to some long-suffering tourist. And I lit a cigarette.

Sylvie got everyone together and said let's go to Buddha Beach which is not in Buda but in Pest, right beside the Danube. Buddha Beach is a dance club in the open around a big golden Buddha. We snaked into the crowd and danced for hours to American hip hop and English pop, drunk on booze, sure, but maybe really pure kinetics. Everyone moved in a big roiling mass.     There was this German woman Kirsten. She had long dirty blond hair in a pony tail and perfect arms out a sleeveless black dress. She did this funny dance with lots of moving her arms in formal gestures, rigorous movements, not out of time or graceless by any stretch but deliberate. Categorical.

We all danced in our spot with the leaves of some tree brushing our heads. All the Hungarians knew all the lyrics to the American tunes better than me.

I got in line for the bathroom out by the river and I noticed a young woman behind me in line and I guess I gave her a good look before turning back around. A few moments and she tapped on my shoulder.


"Szia. Hello. I'm American, I don't speak Hungarian." I shook her hand. She said OK. She introduced me to two bashful friends standing behind her who emerged out of the line to greet me.

Now as I write this, a day after I started, there's a violent cloudburst and though I'm protected by the awning, mists of rain blow in my face and dot these pages with water.

My notebook. Mon cahier. That woman last summer at the cafe on Republique, the waitress, she said she liked my notebook. My ordinary all-American black-and-white Mead composition pad. That says "square deal" in a square inside the cover. I told her thanks. Where did I get it? In the U.S. And I knew not what else to say so I smilingly turned away and saw her again only when she emerged to watch the parade of striking cops chanting a protest of their own. She shook her hips and waved her arms in the air, waved them like she just don't care. Reflexively a sister to those who shout and sing in the street.

I told the young Hungarian chick I was from New York and she asked am I here alone. No, my friends are in there somewhere, I said, indicating the bobbing throng. I told her I loved Budapest and was having a great time and then we were at the head of the line and I let her go first and when another stall opened I went in; when I emerged I wandered away, wondering if I should wait. Went to the bar for beer. Rejoined the others. Periodically scanned the crowd, in vain, for her shortish red-brown hair and freckled nose.

Somebody bought a round of sweet syrupy Jagermeister and we all gathered in a gleeful circle and took the small glasses and toasted but there was not one for the older woman who was with us, the dark haired woman who had been an accountant at the company, and she danced beside us like it didn't matter but it seemed terrible.

Eventually we all wound our way back out the crowd.

If nothing is to be excluded from this writing then I write about Sylvie's hands on my shoulders on our way out, and the fact that we had danced, and she was dancing sexy, unrestrained,  and how odd because since I'd arrived she had seemed remote and abstracted, unfriendly even. And so I felt her hands and I thought, let her hands rest there and don't shake them off.

On the walk along the Danube it was me and CK and Gerzson arm in arm talking about sex somehow, and the conversation ended on some non-sequitur I can't imagine let alone describe.

We walked to some cafe, a lonely beacon on a darkened avenue, and ordered beer and I was talking to Kirsten and I think I made fun of her for being German and I comically declared to everyone around the table that I'd have a similar thing to say to each one of them just you wait and see. And it was good and we all were laughing and then the guy across from me leaned over and said he wanted to talk about September 11th. The United States has never really suffered he said, wasn't it about time for the U.S. to suffer? You needed to learn to suffer. And I was protesting drunkenly and I don't know quite what I said but I remember we were inevitably interrupted by the boisterous cheer about us and I declared civilly that this was an interesting discussion and I'd like to resume it. I'm not sure why I said I wanted to resume it. I think what I meant was I'd like to end it.

How many other people's pictures are we in? Japanese family videos. We hover spectrally in the back somewhere or walk furtively through the foreground. Unknowingly replicated again and again, bit players in countless narratives.

Kirsten was gonna drive back to Vienna in her tiny car. Put that car on the train to go home to Hamburg the next day and so she needed to leave and like an idiot I'm trying to get her to stay.

"Stay!" I said.

"I have to leave!"

So she left and I grandly poured the rest of her beer into each of our remaining glasses.

They were playing "Born in the USA" at the Paris Cafe I'm at and that's funny. On the occasion if you think about it of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Paris. And now it's "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes and I guess that's funny too.

We staggered home finally, me and CK and Sylvie and that guy who said the thing about 9/11. We sat on Sylvie's bed and he rolled a joint. I sat there saying nothing. He said you're awful quiet and I said well I'm fucked up. He seemed to me a faintly Satanic presence, this guy who'd tested me with anti-American talk and here he was with dope and obviously designs on the women. But fuck it, they're not my women, and maybe he's right after all and that's why I had nothing to say. I got high and went over to my couch in the living room and passed out face first.

For sure the Hungarians have suffered.

A man just left the cafe, a young slender man, speaking in some vaguely Euro accent to his sort of frumpy, short-haired female companion: Two years ago they started the Euro.

God you feel like you can do anything when you're a little bit drunk. You can peer into the eyes of passersby.

So I went off to bed and last thing I knew it was 6:30 so it was maybe 7 I passed out. And then I feel a tug on my toe, a terrible delicate tug that is full of meaning and implication. Awakened to the awful present. It's CK coiled at the foot of the bed and she's saying it's 10:30 and do I want to get up and go to the qualifying. And through a veil of confusion and still-drunk grief at the light of day I balked a moment but said yes.

A man with clothes the color of the street.

I drag hands across my weary body in the shower.

We got in the cab unsteady yet resolute. That shameguilt pulse that drives you forward at times like these. Arrived at Marriott. Funny there's shit like a Marriott everywhere in the world. You go to the ends of the earth and there's a Marriott. Marriott, Marriott, Marriott.

We saw Michael then we sat on the terrace and ordered coffee and water and things were better somehow. Then Drea showed up with a McDonald's fried chicken wing and I ate it with surprising desire and I was amazed how good the world already was. Something I was afraid was dead had been revived inside me. CK and I walked to McDonald's and I had to order the Royale with Cheese.

Children have to play all the time. It's not merely a psychological preoccupation, the preference of idle and unlearned minds. They're physically compelled. To fidget or fuss or beat two sticks together. Working their new bodies into tune.

We met everyone back at the car, Michael and David and other Michael and Drea and Eric. And we got in the family van and drove out to the track. We drove around and around looking for our parking lot, past stands of bullshit merchandise, beer tents, Ferrari fans, Raikonnen fans with blue painted faces, Ferrari fans, impromptu strip joints and bloody seas of Ferrari fans. A curious pageant of macho Euro-weirdness.

We went around twice and finally stopped in a vast field, Hungarian agrarian glory just about to the horizon, a foreground full of cars. We heard the solitary, strident whine of a race car circling the track and I knew it had begun.

We walked down toward the track with the first corner in our sight, at the bottom of the hill, and then suddenly a car emerged and swung around, a blue and yellow Renault, black tires tracing that ribbon of storm cloud asphalt, showing its shadowy engine with the solitary brake light. My head swam with pleasure.

We entered the gate and tromped up the little hill to our grandstands, plain rickety grandstands in the sun. We climbed the wooden stairs and found our seats. And the Renault came ‘round again. Fernando Alonso. If that's not the name of a race car driver. The car howled down the front straight at 190 miles an hour, you could see it in a quick glint. And then I heard and felt something I was not prepared for, perhaps did not remember from my childhood forays to the races. It was this: the engine's complaint as it downshifted for the turn. Traversing the staccato path from seventh gear to second in about a second and a half, from 20,000 to 1,500 RPM, the engine voiced its agony in a series of bestial yelps as each successive gear fell fast upon the shaft. But it was more than bestial – it was humanesque, eerily intelligent. It was the sound, I'm not kidding. It was the sound of a human being experiencing torture. You're tempted to call it the sound of a beast, that's the obvious and perhaps less troubling analogy. But it was closer to the sound of a human in agony from multiple blows and frightening climaxes of grief. And because it was coming from a car I'm not sure I've heard anything more beautiful. Eeow! Yow! OW! UNGG! it said. ANGG! Oww, OW! Syllables of extreme and poignant urgency signifying absolutely nothing. Other cars passed with variations upon this strangled cry. And maybe backfired pop! pop! pop! or loosed a breath of smoke from heated brakes.

And the colors and the words, the colors and the words. Red and white, yellow and black, Vodafone. West. Green and blue, Shell, made up words and real words. Mild Seven. Green and red and white. Allianz, Petronas. Black and silver, IMG. Blue and white. Yellow, Marlboro and blue. Black and white, HP. Red.

On planes we're not just infantilized; we're like patients, enfeebled. We must return to our seats and be fastened, officious men and women doing rounds to check on us.