Do you know where Szeged is?
Guys at the very back? Szeged?
I didn’t know where that was either, until a Kenyan wrote me an email during Covid and said, “what’s keeping me sane here in Hungary are your old stories.” She was reading The 3AM Man, which I wrote way back in 2015 and working her way to the most recent stories. I recently remembered her and wrote her an email asking if she survived Covid and she told me she almost ‘went mad.’ She said being alone can actually kill you. Then she told me her Covid story.
When I stopped giving the Hungarian I was married to a chance, I decided to give Hungary that chance instead. We had built a life in Budapest, a life that I slowly had to start untangling like a ball of wool. We both didn’t want babies, which made the divorce a much easier decision to make. Kids drag you with emotions, they take away your selfishness, and in divorce you have to be selfish. Nobody says, oh, I’m selfless, that’s why I’m having a divorce. I remained friends with my ex-husband because he’s a wonderful man, a true gentleman but one who just couldn’t get out from under his mother’s thumb.
I needed a fresh start, and my options were to stay in Budapest or move to a different European city and start over. I opted to move towns instead, Budapest held too many memories. I moved to Szeged. We had vacationed in Szeged once when we were married and we liked it. It had 13-century architecture and bridges [I love bridges] and a history that felt gothic at best. The air was always so clear and sharp and when you looked at it, it looked like something you could bring to your nose and smell. Like a piece of clean fabric with a softener. I love architecture and history and it felt like a place where I would never wither. The people weren’t exactly warm but I’m not much of a people’s person. I like to strike conversations with strangers but I hate having people over in my space. I hate hosting.
I lived in a detached house, sort of like a maisonette in the outskirts of Szeged. A road separated my house from a small river. I bought it using the money from the divorce settlement. It had old wooden floors and thick windows and a high ceiling. Even after the renovation work, it still smelled of old carpets and disused wooden drawers. It felt like living in a chest. It was small enough for the small life I wanted to live but old enough to make me feel like a princess. I had a small garden at the back and a wooden tool shed that I didn’t know what to do with. Still don’t. I furnished it with all the furniture I had always wanted, a sofa that didn’t make sense; too stiff at the back but very colourful, splashing life around the room. I bought lamps from antique shops and rugs from an Arab guy who ran a carpet shop. My neighbours were mostly people my age [I’m 48 but look 31] with grown children who had left for work in other cities, which meant our streets were mostly very quiet and empty. Once in a while, you’d see a couple walking or running or walking a dog. During winters you’d see nobody. Not a bird. Not a dog. Not a car. It felt like a frozen television frame. Or a framed picture.
I liked it that way. I work as an Artificial Intelligence expert in the medical field. I spend a lot of time on my computer, which means I spend a lot of time in my house drinking coffee and listening to jazz in full volume. My dad liked jazz. He also liked alcohol, but a little bit on that later.
I settled in Szeged and I soon fell into a rhythm. Things were going well until Covid happened and things gradually – and then quickly – got off the rails. There was panic, of course. There was a feeling that the end-of-the-world, that death, was finally descending upon humanity and we would cough and cough and finally die in the holes we were hiding in. Suddenly I couldn’t take the walks I was used to taking or the runs I liked to go on every so often. The shops in the local arcades closed except for a few convenience stores. I couldn’t go to my local bar to have my craft beers which I loved. I couldn’t walk to my local bistro for my morning coffee at my cafe, a thing I loved to do because it meant I had time to think during the walks. I could no longer go to the river.
Then the pandemic got worse and people really started dying around the world. There were deaths in my city, but not too many. News of people I knew back home in Kenya found me and numbed me. I feared for my mother. I worried for her.
I found myself marooned in the house with very little to do. My mom Facetimed all the time, and although it was a source of comfort in the beginning, it started getting on my nerves. If I coughed during the call she’d panic and think I was going to die the next moment and she’d call me every hour for the next twenty four hours to find out if I had died in my bathroom. She didn’t understand why I was living alone. A woman shouldn’t live alone, she’d say. Find someone. I didn’t want someone. I spent a lot of time in my backyard, tending to my small garden to kill time. When I couldn’t do anything else I cleaned the house. I got rid of shit I didn’t need. I cleaned the windows. I waited for the evening when I could talk to some friends of mine on video with a drink in hand. I looked forward to those evenings to feel normal again. My drinking started increasing gradually. My ex- husband collected wines for decades and in the divorce he let me have the wines, but during the pandemic I wondered, why keep all those wines and then die. So I drank them and I enjoyed opening bottles dating back 25 years. The drinking got worse and worse.
I grew up with a father who drank a lot. I lived in constant fear of him; he was a big, volatile man when drunk. And he was constantly drinking. He came from a family of drinkers. His brothers and some of his sisters drank copiously. I recall birthdays as a child when they would come over to our house and drink and shout, it was like a scene out of a Viking home. I hated birthdays because of that. I hate birthday celebrations now because of how they remind me of my unstable childhood.
Growing up, I once saw my uncle take a pee in the flower pot outside our house. I actually remember seeing his penis and him laughing when he saw me looking at him. I was nine. Their level of debauchery was unsurpassed. I once saw my aunt beat one of my uncles with a pan. Bam! Right over his head. He held a bloody towel on his head with one hand and continued drinking. Amid all this mayhem my mother would be running up and down serving these savages meat or more drinks, tiptoeing around my father. It was dehumanising for her and for me and my siblings. It’s not surprising that my two brothers turned into heavy drinkers by the time they were in their early twenties. One even lost his leg to diabetes because he refused to stop drinking. A leg for alcohol.
I wanted to run away from this madness. I couldn’t wait to turn into an adult and go as far away as I could from my family and the shame I felt. Hungary was a Godsend. I married the first man I fell in love with. Or rather, I fell in love with the idea of escape. I had never been out of the country, couldn’t point out Hungary on a map. It was the perfect escape. I eventually cut ties with my brothers, who were basically bullies. They couldn’t maintain jobs. Their marriages were a mess. They seemed to be in competition with my father as to who would be the greatest asshole.
My father eventually won; by dying in a car crash. Of course he was drunk. I had to attend the funeral for my mom’s sake, and as the plane touched down at JKIA in the afternoon, I got a serious panic attack for the first time. All the memories of him, drunk and abusive and violent came rushing at me as the ground rushed to meet the wheels of the plane. I sat in the plane long after everybody had disembarked, struggling to breathe into the sickbag. A kind airhostess sat with me as I cried and wiped snot off my face. She thought I was crying from grief. I was crying from fear. My father still had a hold on me even in death. It was a closed casket. My mother was inconsolable. I never understood her loyalty to this man who left her with scars on her body and in her body. I couldn’t muster grief or remorse. I tried but I couldn’t. I couldn’t wait to leave after the burial, to come back. For the longest time after I moved, I begged my mom to come live with me, to leave that monster and his relatives but she couldn’t. “What would I do abroad? This is my life.” She said, I was saddened by her resignation. But I also understood.
Slowly over Covid, I realised that I was drinking more and more during the day. I’d carry my wine to the garden to sip as I worked on my plants and herbs. I’d then pour another glass to reward myself for the good job done in the garden. Then I’d drink again with my friends on Zoom and then a last drink to celebrate a great day for just being alive. There was so much death around I figured it didn’t hurt to celebrate life. And what better way to celebrate than raise a toast?
Winter comes with bleakness. A white bleakness. Winter is death, because winter’s sole purpose is to kill everything alive so that they can be born anew. Nothing moves in winter. The trees die and look cancerous. I had restocked food and drinks for months on end. I have a big fridge and a freezer and my pantry had canned foods that I would end up throwing away because I couldn’t eat. You can’t drive either in that weather, rather I wouldn’t drive because in my first year here I heard about two people who died in terrible road accidents during winter and they lay in their cars, freezing to death as they waited for help. So, no. I spent my mornings working and drinking, my afternoons reading and drinking and my evenings sitting by the fireplace, drinking and thinking. I would connect with some friends on Zoom, but gradually that felt mournful and taxing. I was certain that I was drinking more and more now. By December I was downing four bottles a day. I had reduced my calls with my mother. My ex-husband, bless him, would call in frequently to check up on me but I also started ignoring him. I felt like he could see my shame, my drinking, my weakness, because he is the one person who has consistently known me since I was 21. He’s the one person who I wouldn’t know how to hide from but at the same time the same one I wouldn’t want to see me naked.
I started lazing about in bed longer in the morning. I started taking the work calls I needed to take in bed. I stopped washing my hair. Or shaving my legs. Hair seemed to grow faster in the winter, and before long I was like Nebuchadnezzar. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy prepping meals; cutting onions and garlic and things. Soon, I lost my cravings for my favourite meal; mushroom eggs and pancakes. I felt deeply lonely but also I felt I couldn’t face humans.
For hours I sat by my window and stared outside at nothing, drinking, sighing, crying sometimes when I thought of my mum calling and me not answering. I would black out on the couch, an empty wine bottle on the table. I stopped turning on all the lights in the house like I liked to during winter. I like the warm glow of lights, it always felt intimate, homely, like I was waiting for someone special. I didn’t have anyone special. Nobody thought I was special, not even a pet. Nobody was going to knock on my door. I stopped playing jazz and my house turned dark and bleak and a deathly silence found a home in my house. Which was a great contradiction to the loudness and chaos ensuing in my mind.
I fantasised being found in my house in the spring, sprawled on my stiff sofa, dead. One day I opened my front door and stood on my stoop with nothing but a tracksuit and a mug of wine. [I had stopped drinking using a proper wine glass. I stopped caring how I drank my wine]. I felt my feet freezing, frostbite setting in before I walked back into the house. I fantasised about dying from carbon monoxide poisoning. I had dreams of my father, vivid things that seemed so real I would wake up and smell his cologne mixed with beer.
I dreamt of him standing on my doorway, knocking, and me – a little girl again – hiding in my bathroom, scared out of my mind. I dreamt of my father at his funeral, sitting next to me, watching the funeral proceedings while trying to hold my hand. I dreamt of him and my brothers taunting me in a Zoom call, laughing at me. Many days I would wake up crying. By Christmas Day, I was a mess. I drank the whole day. I cried most days. I told my mom I was struggling with alcohol and she prayed with me over the phone every morning and evening. She rebuked the power of the devil. Of the drink.
I was slowly turning into my father, into the one person I had flown to the end of the world to escape from. I was turning into an alcoholic. The world got better as I got worse. I had no appetite for anything. I had lost weight and I was sad and lonely and I rarely bathed. One day there was a knock on my door, incessant knocking, and when I opened, my ex-husband was standing there in the brown winter trench coat I had bought him for his 45th birthday. His shoulders had droplets of water on them. His hair was wet, as if he’d come straight from a shower. His shoulders filled my doorway. His face was as kind as I remembered him. I didn’t have to say anything. He opened his arms and I collapsed into him and wept uncontrollably.
He stayed two nights in one of the bedrooms as he made many calls. He committed me to a small rehab before he left. It’s in rehab that I started reading Biko’s blog. My very first article was the 3AM man, a link sent by an old friend in Kenya. I read it at night and I remember laughing uncontrollably for the first time. It sounded so strange, my laughter. I realised I hadn’t laughed in almost a year. I started reading more and more of his work because most of it was so sad and desperate. I was looking for painful things to fill my own emptiness. But I was also looking for the laughter in them. I was also escaping. I slowly started wondering why I was feeling sorry for myself, why I was wasting my life when others had it worse out there. I read about about the lady who was raped in a forest and her father came to rescue her in the dead of the night and she ran into his arms after walking in the dark forest. I cried and cried and the next morning I emailed him and quite honestly I didn’t think he would reply and he didn’t for two weeks. When he did I felt like a little girl. I was excited.
A month or so later I was discharged. My ex-husband and his wife drove me home. I’m still an alcoholic, but I’m not my father. I’m healing. I haven’t had a drink since I left rehab and I don’t intend to. I tend my garden. I got a cat. I guess this all means I’m growing old.
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