When Daniel and Ida met for the first time, Daniel was only twenty. He was the leader of a band which started to gain some traction on the Budapest rock scene and was about to release its first LP. He looked like a cross between a rocker and a Gypsy. His raven-black hair was long and untidy, he wore a crumpled hat, tattered discoloured sweatshirts and cowboy boots. He was a bit inarticulate and did not look straight into the camera when interviewed by journalists. Everybody agreed that he was cute, but amateurish. At the same time, when dealing with the other band members, he had the adult demeanour of somebody who from an early age had to support himself and look after others. This was true; his musician parents abandoned him before he started school and subsequently they had new families and six more children between them.
Ida was twenty-three and was studying architecture and fine arts. She wore her auburn hair loose and liked soft baggy jumpers worn with trousers of contrasting colours, hats and sunglasses. Her unaffected, slightly hippie appearance betrayed her living among things which were of high quality and achieved without effort. She was the only child of a couple of affluent architects whose ancestors lived in Budapest for many generations. They included some of the most famous people living in this city: craftsmen, writers, politicians. Some people called them the Hungarian Buddenbrooks, except that they didn’t squander the family fortune; most of it was taken by the communist government and nationalised. Ida was a popular girl, despite being rather quiet, although not because of shyness, but a sense of her value and a conviction that she didn’t need to impress anybody. Maybe for this reason, she was still single, while all her female friends by this point had serious boyfriends.
Daniel and Ida were introduced by somebody who knew both of them, during a festival, where Daniel’s band was performing. It took only seconds for them to realise that they wanted to be together. Daniel suggested that after the gig they go for a drink and aferwards Ida went to his tent. They talked for a couple of hours and then made love. There was no questioning of their motives; no worry that he would find her ‘easy’ or desperate to get laid and that he was a ‘Casanova’ preying on naïve female fans. They knew they weren’t any of that. The next day Daniel and Ida were inseparable and before the festival was over, they were talking about moving in together. By this point Ida was still living with her parents and Daniel was staying in an apartment which belonged to his friend. In fact, he’d been staying with friends since he was sixteen. Before that he lived with his grandparents, whose house was over a hundred kilometres from Budapest.
Ida suggested that they move to an apartment which her parents bought for her a long time before (one of several properties which they owned), but were renting out, as at that point she had no reason to live there. Daniel, however, had a better idea – he knew about a family who were moving abroad and needed somebody reliable to look after their house when they were away. It had a garden and a grand piano, which was ideal for Daniel. The rent was low, and would be even lower if each of them paid only half of it. This solution would also prevent Daniel from feeling like a guest in somebody else’s place, as this was how he’d felt for the last four years. Ida agreed, even though she was worried that her parents might disapprove. It turned out they were fine with this plan because they warmed to Daniel immediately. They were impressed by somebody who was so industrious and successful at such a young age. There was also poise and inner equilibrium about him.
”He might be a rocker,” said Ida’s mother, “but there is something about an accountant about him too.” Moreover, she told Ida that she wasn’t aware one could find such an attractive man in Hungary. “Of course, character is more important than beauty, but beauty can reveal something about character,” she said.
Ida had to explain to her that he was so handsome because he was only half-Hungarian. His second half was Spanish or even more complicated than that, as there were traces of Columbian and Mexican blood in his veins.
Ida was slightly disappointed about her mother’s enthusiasm for Daniel, as she felt that it undermined her own value. She even thought, Buddenbrooks’ style, that her parents should consider the fact that there was a huge gap in their economic status and make sure she didn’t end up like Tony from Mann’s book. But they didn’t think in such terms. Times had changed, obviously.
It took Daniel and Ida a couple of months to move their things to the new place, not least because during the summer Daniel was working non-stop, mostly playing at festivals outside Budapest. It was September when they started their new life. Before they moved in together, Daniel cut his hair very short and bought a painting by Ida’s favourite Budapest painter, on which he spent half of his savings. It was meant to be a gift for both od them. Only when Ida saw it, it occurred to her that she should also contribute something, but then it was too late.
Ida’s mother once said to her daughter that ‘the best way to find out if the man suits you is through checking what he does when you move to a new place. The less he wants to change, the better’. Daniel practically did not want to change anything and he brought little to their abode. Most of his belongings were musical instruments: two guitars, a drum set and some rattles he made himself. He put them next to the grand piano which was the main piece of furniture in a large salon.
”You can put your easel here and stuff for painting,” he said as he turned to Ida, showing her the opposite part of the room. “I can play when you paint.”
“But I’m not sure if I can paint when you play,” she replied. She didn’t like anybody observing her work, not even her parents, because she didn’t like to be judged on the basis of something which wasn’t finished.
As there were many rooms in the house, over the following days Ida arranged her study in one of them, so they could both work undisturbed. Yet, Daniel liked visiting her, to be close to her and to find out what she was doing. When she reluctantly showed him her painting in progress, he asked: “Why have you chosen these colours? How have you mixed these paints?” If it was an architectural project, he inquired: “Why is this building these dimensions? Why are you using these materials?”
He didn’t want her merely to explain, but to show him how she did things and he immediately tried to repeat the motions and was remarkedly good at it.
“You are a living proof of the uselessness of higher education, as what I have learnt studying fine arts and architecture for four years, you have mastered in one month,” she kept saying half-jokingly.
“I’m sure there are many things one can learn at university which I will never learn, like theory. I don’t know any theories. But you are right that university education must be slow, while I had to be a fast learner to survive.”“It was the last year of Ida’s study, so she was spending most of her time at home, working on her final project, which was meant to be a design of a concert hall. Daniel, on the other hand, was away a lot, as he didn’t want to miss any chance of performing and earning money and he was finishing working on his next LPs. One day he was playing with the band, another day solo, then with some electronic musician, then he went to the studio. He was also learning DJing and using synthesisers, and bought himself an accordion.
When Daniel was playing in Budapest, he returned home as soon as the gig was finished and he and Ida had supper together, which she cooked, following recipes from cookery books which her mother collected but never used. Daniel did not have high expectations in regards to food. He liked almost everything, as long as the meal was enriched by large quantities of olives, pickled peppers and dried tomatoes. Although he lived all his life in Hungary, he had a distinctly Mediterranean taste, as if his genes were stronger than his culture. Whatever Ida prepared following this simple rule, Daniel praised. Ida was first thinking how easy it was to please him, unlike all the other men she knew, including her own father, but later it occurred to her that it had less to do with his actual pleasure and more with him not being used to complaining.
After a meal they smoked cigarettes, drank coffee or wine and Daniel told Ida about his gig. Usually it went well. When it didn’t, it was because the audience was too small, but he wasn’t put off by it and with each month he had more fans. Daniel also asked Ida what happened when he was away, but usually she had little to report. On occasion, she met her girlfriends and went to the cinema or an exhibition, or visited her parents. Mostly, however, she stayed at home, worked on her project and waited for Daniel. Although she was tired by the time he came back, she couldn’t fall asleep without him.
Daniel did not cook, not because he regarded it as a woman’s preserve, but because he never before had his own space – he lived with other people, who prepared meals for him or expected him to eat out. He ate whatever was available or nothing at all; he could go for days without a proper meal, when he had no money or was immersed in music.
To make up for his lack of contribution to their shared meals, Daniel took responsibility for cleaning the house. His habit to keep everything clean and tidy was, again, a legacy of being a tenant, used to cleaning rotas and to living in a limited space, which shrank even further if one was chaotic. In cleaning Daniel was very methodical. He never left anything dirty because dirt, he learnt, was infectious - one dirty thing made the whole room dirty. Conversely, when something was very clean, it could stay this way for a long time. Unlike Daniel, Ida was disorganised. When she was drawing or painting, pieces of paper flew in all directions and could be found in the furthest corners of the house. When she was cooking, she needed to put pots and food on chairs and the floor, as there was not enough space on the countertops and the table. When Daniel caught her in such disorder he smiled, not with admonition, but admiration and nostalgia. For him, Ida’s disorder was a sign that she belonged to a world of plenty, of surplus, of slack, which he was denied and could only taste now, indirectly.
After they settled in the house, Daniel suggested that they travel abroad together. He always wanted to visit places, but first he had no money and then no company. He’d only been to Spain once, when he was seven or eight. He travelled with his grandmother to visit his mother in Barcelona. The purpose of the trip was to persuade his mother to return to Hungary to take care of him and his two sisters. But the mission was in vain; Daniel’s mother never returned. He always wanted to go back to Spain, although he wasn’t sure whether to recreate or erase the taste of the first visit. They thus decided to go there first.
They flew in late October for two weeks in Andalusia. It was still warm and they managed to spend a couple of days on the beach near Malaga. Ida noticed that people looked at them, especially at Daniel and some discreetly took photographs when he emerged from the waves.
“I’m the whitest boy on the beach,” he said to her in English, when he noticed two middle-aged men taking a photo of him.
“Of course you are, but don’t make too much of it,” said Ida. She expected him to reciprocate, but he didn’t.
The rest of the trip they spent in the cities: Malaga, Granada, Cordoba and Seville. Ida had visited most of these places before, but it was a new experience for her, as before she usually travelled with her parents and she never had sex in hotels. Moreover, Daniel had a special gift for spotting unusual posters, graffiti, road signs and, of course, music and street noises. He memorised them and juxtaposed with things which he saw or heard before. She called him a “mental magpie,” but he corrected her, saying that he was a “mental remixer.”
In the galleries Daniel could spend long hours. He didn’t just admire art, but wanted to learn how the painters painted, how the sculptors sculptured, designers designed. Everywhere he took photos and sometimes made sketches. He had particular affinity for the modernists: Picasso, Magritte, Miró, Gris. He was proud to be Spanish like Picasso and that they shared a name – as Daniel’s middle name was Pablo.
“This is great,” he kept telling Ida, when they saw this or that work by Picasso or Miró.
“Don’t say such things,” said Ida. “It is like saying that the sky is blue or the sun is yellow. The sky is blue, but everybody knows it.”
“For the person who looks at the sky for the first time, it must be a surprise that the sky is blue,” he replied.
When they returned home, Daniel started playing with motifs which he noticed in the galleries, drawing, colouring, making cutouts, to come up with a design for his band’s first LP, posters and to make his own art. When he showed his work to Ida, she told him that they were too similar to the originals: they were imitations, not reworkings; they lacked a personal stamp.
“You are probably right,” he said. “But it is how great art begins – with imitation. You want to repeat what you admire and you keep repeating till you are able to add something to it. This is how we started the band, by covering songs of Beirut and other bands. Then we started writing our own songs and they were different from those we covered and today nobody remembers that we started trying to be the Hungarian Beirut.”
Ida was thinking that with her it was different. She never wanted to imitate. Even if she loved a painting or a building, she immediately thought about how would she paint and design it differently. Maybe for this reason she wasn’t prolific and she was unwilling to share her work with others. Living with Daniel only reinforced her secretiveness, because his taste for mimicry made her extra-sensitive towards her failures to be original. This slowed her down considerably. Sometimes the whole day passed with her unable to achieve anything tangible. This made her resentful towards Daniel, even more so, as his methods worked for him. When he played her his new songs, they didn’t sound like anything which she heard before and were good in their own right. Daniel also shed the remnants of his Gypsy look and created his own style, with a penchant for patterned shirts, bright-coloured trousers and matching jackets made of soft materials.
During the first year of Ida and Daniel’s life together they visited four countries, Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. Ida liked travelling with Daniel, because they were happiest when seeing new places and staying in hotels – every trip felt like a honeymoon. But they had a different effect on them upon returning. Daniel went straight back to work, to make up for the time spent on pleasure and to take advantage of what he learnt during travelling. He was in a hurry and had little time for Ida. When she was telling him something, he was often yawning, although this was due to tiredness rather than boredom. He also often fell asleep as soon as he went to bed and slept like stone up until the very minute when he needed to get up.
Ida, by contrast, needed a lot of time to return to the rhythm of work after each trip and it took her longer, the longer they were away for. She didn’t sleep well and the smallest thing distracted her. At night she was replaying in her head the moments when Daniel was abrupt or mentally absent with her. She also thought about all his trips to visit his grandparents and sisters, which took place always when she wanted them just to be together, doing nothing. One day she also realised that the amount of her photos on Daniel’s Instagram had decreased. Unlike at the beginning of their life together, when every second one posted was of her, by the end of their first anniversary she was reduced to pictures taken during holidays, as if she was only his part-time girlfriend. When she raised it with him, he told her that he hadn’t noticed and apologised. A couple of weeks later he arranged a professional photo shoot for them, “in case we wouldn’t have wedding photos any time soon,” he said.
The photos turned out very well, and thousands of people liked them on Instagram, but Ida was not satisfied. She thought that Daniel’s responses to her complaints were always mechanical – he limited himself to dealing with the manifestation of their problems, not their root causes. There was also a certain hastiness about his reaction - he wanted to deal with them as soon as possible, rather than using them as a springboard to a better understanding of each other. She said this to her mother, but rather than showing Ida sympathy, her mother said: “Rather than pondering on what he is doing or not doing, pull yourself together. Otherwise you will lose him.”
Such words made Ida angry: “I don’t care about losing him. Maybe he should be worried that he might lose me,” she said.
“You might never again meet somebody like him, who is hard-working, loyal and willing to pay half of the rent.”
“Mum, I’m only twenty-four. There are billions of men on the planet. There are even millions in Hungary.”
“Yes, millions of losers. Winners are few and far between.”
Ida had to agree that Daniel was a winner. During the time they stayed together, he recorded two LPs: one with the band and one solo. For the second he got an award for the best Hungarian record. Daniel thought it was the best year of his life. He told Ida more than once that she was his lucky star. She couldn’t reciprocate, because not everything was so lucky in her life. She was losing her girlfriends, because she had little time for them, always being with Daniel, or waiting for him at home, as a faithful Penelope. Most importantly, she couldn’t finish her final project. Her supervisor was unhappy with her work and Ida had to apply for an extension. He asked her to give up on designing a concert hall and try something simpler, like a holiday cabin, taking an existing design and changing a couple of elements, enough to make a plausible claim that it was her own work.
“We have to be pragmatic, you know. Better to get a degree than not. It would hurt your parents badly if you failed. They put a lot of faith in you and I’m sure that in the fullness of time you will flourish.”
Ida felt ashamed, and her supervisor humiliated her even more by being friendly and considerate: “I also know about your boyfriend, as my daughter is his fan. Love does not help creativity as it takes a lot of time and energy, but try not to be distracted.”
Ida was not sure if she should tell all of this to Daniel, but she said the first part, omitting the suggestion that he was a distraction, and he replied: “You have a great supervisor. I wished somebody took the trouble to guide me in my work. I also think he is right. Designing a holiday cabin is the right to do. It is a small and useful thing – I can pay for the prototype and we might get an allotment on the outskirts of Budapest to put it there, or keep it in my grandparents’ garden. The earlier you finish, the more time we will have for travel.”
“I will not design a cabin. I would rather give up my studies.”
“You shouldn’t. You cannot be an architect without a degree.”
“Maybe I won’t be an architect.”
“So what will you be?”
“Maybe I will be nothing, or better squander the family fortune.”
“You wouldn’t like it. Your parents wouldn’t like it.”
Listening to Ida, Daniel was thinking that her sulking reminded him of something buried deeply in his memory. Eventually he realised it was his mother, when she was talking to grandma. As his grandma told him, his mother always wanted what she couldn’t get and was not interested in what she had, most importantly her kids.“Just deal with it,” said Daniel in the end. “When it’s be over, you will be free and can start something else. And we will go to Israel to escape the cold.”
In the end Ida finished her project. It was late January when she handed it in and couple of weeks later she defended it. Like everybody predicted, the world felt brighter, when her study was over, even though the days were still short and Budapest was covered in snow.
Daniel, with his Mediterranean genes, didn’t like such weather. For over a week he was shivering and spending most of his days in bed, burying himself in quilts and covering his ears with headphones.
One morning, when he was still in bed, Ida went out and built a snowman in their garden. It wasn’t an ordinary snowman, but really a sculpture of Daniel made of snow. He had a slightly bent nose made of a carrot, buttons eyes, eyebrows made of black beads and a mouth from pieces of a tangerine. She also gave him a small guitar fashioned out of a large squash and pieces of rope and put on him Daniel’s old clothes, including a hat which Daniel wore when they met for the first time. She was very proud of her creation. She even thought that it was the best artefact she created since she moved with Daniel; superior over her architectural works, paintings and drawings.
She went twice upstairs, asking Daniel to go outside and see his alter ego, but he didn’t want to leave his bed. When he went out to check the next day, there was practically nothing left of the snowman – it had melted and its decorations made a miserable pile – like human remnants found in a coffin opened after centuries. Ida put them in the bin and told Daniel that his doppelganger had died. Daniel apologised, but half-heartedly, saying: “There will be many more snowy winters in our lives. And more instruments. Next year you can make a snowman with an accordion. You will need a giant turnip for that.”
Two more days passed and then Daniel got up and disappeared for three days, only telling Ida that he had something important to arrange and that he didn’t know when he would be back. When he returned, he said that he had had a screen test. He was approached to play in a television series, a kind of Hungarian version of Riverdale.
“They needed somebody young, who can play a teenager, and be able to sing and play guitar. They couldn’t find anybody suitable through the normal casting process and then somebody showed my picture to the director and he decided that I fit the bill, as far as appearance goes. So I went to see what’s on offer and it looks like they want to cast me. I didn’t want to tell you about it when you were still finishing your project, in case it would upset you.”
“Why do you think it might have upset me?”
“Because if I decided to go for it, it would be like signing my life away for a year or more. I will have even less time for us. But I will earn enough to buy us this house and an apartment for my sisters so that they can move to Budapest. So, what do you think? Should I go for it?” he asked Ida.
“Sure, go for it. But it doesn’t matter for me any more,” said Ida. “I’m moving out. I have already packed my things, but didn’t want to take them, when you were away.”
“Why are you leaving?”
“I just don’t like to be here any more. I need my own space.”
“I thought there is enough space here for both of us. I thought we were happy together.”
“You were, perhaps, but not me.”
And she left. For the next couple of months, Daniel continued posting photos from their travels on his Instagram, in part trying to capture what went wrong with them and partly to woo Ida back. He also phoned her several times, asking if she wouldn’t change her mind. Eventually he gave up, because there were fewer and fewer good photos of Ida in his collection and the festival season began. This was meant to be his last festival before starting working on the series, so he didn’t want to miss any opportunity.
One day Daniel went to a café with some guys from the band to have coffee and ice cream as the day was very warm, and he didn’t like drinking alcohol during the day. He noticed that they were served by a pretty waitress. She had very dark hair and large dark eyes. There was grace in her movements and melancholia on her face. She looked ethereal and slightly exotic, although in an indefinite way, probably the same way he looked exotic. Maybe she was Jewish. He thought that she was in the wrong place, as she belonged to a ballet or a troupe of travelling mimes, not a café full of noisy kids and tourists. But if she felt it, she didn’t want to show it, being very polite, although not in a pushy way. On a couple of occasions their eyes met and he knew that she liked him. By this point he was told many times that every girl in Budapest fancied him, but this felt different; it felt like her eyes reached his soul, the sadness he carried with him.
He couldn’t concentrate on the conversation with his friends, because he couldn’t take his eyes off the girl. He wanted his pals to leave, but there was no way to tell them this, so he stayed for as long as it took to finish their sweets. He left with them, but when they all were outside, he told them that he needed to go back, because he left his cigarettes and lighter on the table. They did not contradict him, as they never did. Back inside he caught the “ballerina” (as he called her in his mind) carrying a tray of milkshakes.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Eszter,” she replied.
“Are you free after work? Would you like to go for a drink?”
“I don’t drink alcohol,” she replied, “as I’m allergic to it, but we can go for a smoothie.”
“Sure,” he said. “Let’s go for a smoothie. I’m not much into alcohol myself. When do you finish?”
“At seven,” she replied.
“So I’ll come pick you up here at seven.”
At home Daniel spent some hours at the piano. Then he had a shower and put a new shirt on and his favourite yellow jacket. On the way to the café, he bought a small bunch of yellow roses.
When he arrived, Eszter was already waiting for him, and she gladly accepted the flowers.
Walking to the smoothie bar, which was nearby, Daniel was thinking that he had just started a new cycle of love. It should last longer this time. After all, he was a fast learner.
Ewa Mazierska is historian of film and popular music who writes short stories and creative nonfiction in her spare time. In 2019 she published her first collection of short stories, Neighbours and Tourists (New York, Adelaide Books), which won Grand Prize in Eyelands Book Award competition. Ewa is also a Pushcart nominee. She was born in Poland, but lives in Lancashire, UK.