Imi calls me up Wednesday to get drunk. We meet at Madách Square, but he’s alone.
“The others?” I ask.
“They didn’t show.”
“What do you mean, they didn’t show? We promised after our last withdrawals that—”
“They didn’t show.”
We leave it at that. We go into a bar. Imi buys the first round, four tequilas and two beers. I whistle. It’s part of the pact that no one ask why the other wants to drink, but with such a heavy start I feel like it’s necessary.
“Why are we drinking?”
“Because life is fucking great.”
We clink glasses. Imi snorts, he doesn’t like alcohol, which is partly why he started smoking way back when. Or because getting high as a bird is the best thing out there. Then came the rest. I don’t know. We’ve never talked about it, that’s part of the pact too.
“And what have you been doing since?” he asks.
“All kinds of bullshit.”
“I don’t have anything better to do.”
He nods. He gets it. I study, Csaszi is an alcoholic, Feri spends around eighty a month on weed, Nikó got fat. That’s what happens when you come off it. His girlfriend’s the only reason Imi’s alive.
We leave after the next round of tequila because Imi says there’s going to be a concert at Kuplung later. He has molly too, so we can really get wrecked. He offers me some, but I don’t want any. If I’m gonna be clean once and for all, I’m gonna be clean. Besides, he invited me out to drink, so according to the pact I’m responsible for him tonight.
There aren’t a lot of people at Kuplung. Imi disappears once we step inside, so I’m left alone with the empty tables and the lamps that hang from the taut wires around me. I can’t even make it to the bar, I run into people I know right away. From Pázmány University. It’s only nine o’clock, but they’re wasted, they ask what’s new with me. One of them heard I was able to come off the stuff. What’s on the tip of tongue is call it by its name goddamnit, but Imi reappears with two pints of beer.
“What should we drink to?” he asks.
I look to the Pázmány’s.
“To two years being clean!”
Imi laughs, it hasn’t been two years yet, but whatever. One year, two years, five decades. It doesn’t matter. We ditch my old classmates and sit down under the lamps. Imi’s rolling, talking about something I can’t follow. Old times, I guess.
“What are we doing here?” I cut him off.
“You don’t like this place?”
“I do. I just don’t get it.”
“This is where I first met Fanni.”
He gulps his beer.
“I asked her to marry me yesterday!”
I congratulate him, give him a smile, hug him. Nice job, thanks man, let’s drink to that, I’ll get the next round, etc. I go to the bar and order two whiskeys; if I remember correctly, Imi hates that the least. Meanwhile I’m thinking about how this is what a rehabilitated heroin addict should look like. Not like me, or the others. Imi has a job, money, a fiancé. In short, a life. It’s all worked out for him. Of course, it all depends on your perspective. I’m alive, so if we look at it that way, it worked out for me too.
“Prost!” I sit back down at our table and raise my glass.
“Cheers, in German.”
“Why the hell do you know German?”
I’m just beginning to enjoy Imi’s company when the Pázmány’s come over. They congratulate me again for being clean and with that they settle down next to us. Newly rich imbeciles, one of them’s bragging about his job, the second about his thesis, the third about how you can’t find a hotel for under thirty-five euros a night in Dublin. I don’t care to listen to them, so I motion to Imi for us to get out of here. He misunderstands me. He finishes his whiskey and burps in the face of the guy sitting next to him.
“Get out of here,” he says calmly.
I hold my head in my hands, but it’s too late. The guy acts indignant, beats his chest, and because Imi doesn’t move, the guy gets brave, though he’d be better off dipping out. Of course, there’s no way for him to know what’s coming. He hasn’t seen Imi on Bethlen Gábor Street punch his dealer in the back of the neck because he found cheaper heroin at Mátyás Square and realized that his dealer had been ripping him off for months. And now the MDMA is coursing through him too. I reach over the table and grab his arm, but he sweeps it away. He gets up and punches the guy in the gut. The others lunge after him and I step back because I know he’ll take care of them too. Luckily the bouncers show up and kick him out before he can cause an even bigger scene. I follow them out reluctantly, it’s not like I can say anything to absolve Imi, like sorry, my friend is drunk. All of Budapest is drunk, and yet only he starts fights.
“What was that?” I ask as we trot along Király Street.
“The kid pissed me off. He was spitting bullshit.”
“You didn’t have to beat him up for that. You’re always spitting bullshit.”
“You can go to fucking—”
“Why, you think it’s okay that your girl agrees to marry you and the next day you’re in jail?”
I stop in the middle of the road. Some tourist runs into me. He yells at me, and I send him to hell in English. Imi looks up at the starless sky a little ways away.
“Didn’t you ask her to marry you?” I walk up to him.
“And she said no?”
“You could’ve told me that sooner. I wouldn’t have bought all that whiskey.”
“I could’ve bought twice as much vodka.”
“You can now,” he says, and heads for a bar.
We get drunk quickly. We’re systematic, like back in the day, only now there’s no flickering guilt that we’re inching towards death. The bar is quiet for eleven, despite the fact that it’s full. Imi’s talking about his girl, whose name I can’t even remember. I’m thinking about how strange it is, back in the day we kept a list of each other’s girls and then analyzed the likelihood of whether one of them had AIDs. We had to because we shared needles. Now I can’t even remember this one’s name. Not like Imi’s bothered, he’s painting a vivid picture of how he prepared for the big moment. A movie at an independent theater in the afternoon, then dinner by candlelight at Pomo D’Oro, then a walk along the Danube with a bottle of wine. Everything was going according to plan, except for when he got down on one knee. The girl started crying.
“She was planning to break up with me that day,” Imi says.
“And did she?”
“No,” he chuckles. “I got up and left her there.”
“Like a real man.”
“Why, what would you have done?”
“I don’t know. Maybe cried a little. Or shot up.”
Imi doesn’t say anything, just nods like, you see. I bite into my fried chicken sandwich, but then I remember something, and the bite gets stuck in my throat.
“Imi,” I falter, after I’ve coughed myself to tears, “you didn’t?”
“You didn’t shoot up after, did you?”
“Shot up, my ass.”
“It’s not worth it any other way.”
“It didn’t even come to mind.”
“Don’t let it.”
We drink. I slow down, I can feel I’ve had enough. Not Imi. The bar closes at two, the bartender lets us stay until three then kicks us out. I buy a vodka and head towards the tram, but Imi calls after me, says let’s go down to the Danube. Let’s go, it doesn’t matter to me. I have just as much work to do tomorrow as any other day, I can stare at the walls of my apartment hungover, too. Imi doesn’t say anything, just walks with huge steps and cranes his neck left and right. I remember the time he walked down Rákóczi Street just like this, asking every passerby if they had any heroin. None of our connects were coming through and he needed a hit; he would’ve asked a cop if he would’ve crossed paths with one. Now he’s looking for a fight. I envy him. At least he wants something.
By the time we get to Bajcsy Street he grows bored of looking. He starts talking about rehab, about his memories of the last times we did heroin, the stupid fucking psychiatrist who Csaszi slept with at the end. And then he’s talking about Csaszi, how he was never even our friend, only hung around us for the heroin, because he was broke and we always shared with him, and now where is he when we need him, he can’t even keep the pact. I say he’s probably lying somewhere drenched and drowning in his own puke, that was his ideal night back in the day too, shooting up and passing out with a needle in his arm for six, seven hours. Imi laughs. I ask him, why, were we any better? But suddenly he shouts, “Fucking Americans!” And he runs toward the Parliament.
Drunk tourists stumble around before the fountain on Kossuth Square. Two girls and two guys. They can barely stand on their own two feet, they’re trying to take pictures with the Parliament in the background when Imi goes after them. He smacks the phone out of the taller guy’s hand, then punches him in the face and knees him in the stomach. The poor guy doesn’t even have the time to scream for help before he’s lying on the ground. Imi yells and looks for the other guy. The other one’s stepping back, but his pride won’t let him leave the girls there.
“I’m gonna kill you, you fat fuck!” Imi yells, and uppercuts him in the chin so hard it cracks.
The guy goes down, but Imi doesn’t quit, he stands the guy up and keeps hitting him, his groin, his ribs, his everything. The guy’s body goes slack, his head falls onto his shoulder, but Imi doesn’t care. He yells at the screaming girls to shut up and gets back to it.
“Go and fuck yourself, you piece of shit! You come to Budapest, huh? You cocksuckers! You come here because the beer is cheap, and you scream into the night with your lousy accents? What’s your accent worth now, huh? What the fuck is it worth?”
And he hits him, and he would keep hitting him if I wouldn’t go over there and grab his arm. Imi turns around, almost comes at me, I’m ready to headbutt him if I have to, but his eyes find mine, and he calms down. I tell him we should go, because the cops will be here any minute, and he wheezes and follows me down to the shore towards Jászai Square. We cross Margit Bridge without a word. Imi’s wiping his bloody fists onto his clothes and panting like some rabid dog. He changes course at Margit Island and doesn’t respond when I ask him where he’s going. I run after him, follow him to the shore.
“Did your girl leave you for an American?” I sit down next to him on the cold stones.
I nod. The sky is clear, the moon is white. What I’d give to shoot up right now. Across from us is the dug-up Danube shore, backhoes and brown mounds. Even taking a hit from a light bulb would be something. A drop of blood lands next to my foot. Imi’s nose is red, it looks like they nailed him with a punch. He rips a leaf off the branch above our heads and blows his nose into it. He flings it into the Danube and stares with a glassy gaze at Árpád Bridge and the ship swimming towards it. Written on the side of it in about thirty languages is the phrase “See you later.”
“Let’s shoot up,” he says.