A Headachy Day

Zsuzsa Takács
translated by Erika Mihálycsa 


Barely more than half an hour after the handing out of the awards, the ceremony came to an end. A series of awards were given, the iron, diamond, silver and gold diplomas, and in a moment everybody was swarming around the tables, heaping rich booty on their plates. I was loitering about with the youngest member of our research team, not in the mood for eating. All of a sudden a burly, seventyish gentleman made way for himself loudly in the throng of people, pushing his podgy wife in front of him, and cried out at me: "Rozika!" I didn't want to say my real name, why should I spoil his joy. One time, about twenty-five years ago, for instance, I was walking my two young daughters on Sashegy when an old lady, looking for Dohány Street on the Buda side, stopped me for directions, and after I filled her in, took leave: "Thank you, young man, and by the way, congratulations on the cute little boys!" Needless to say, I was wearing a skirt. Why should I change my longstanding habit and reveal my—utterly arbitrary—name and identity, thus obstructing the path of rejoicing over shared memories? I had no inkling who the man shouting at me was, but, judging by the diamond diploma he was squeezing under his arm, it was obvious that he could almost have been my father. "Do you remember forty-eight? How mad I was about you?" he said enthusiastically, with a mischievous smile. I nodded with a long face: "I gladly remember everything. Especially the things that never happened!" Nobody laughed at my little joke, and my young colleague tactfully drifted away.

For days I had been suffering from a violent headache, and by now a sharp pain transfixed me at every move. I walked out to the restroom, I was shocked by my look in the mirror. There was no question that the elderly gentleman mistook me for somebody else, but it scared me that even to myself I looked at least seventy. Curiously, and as if in resignation, I didn't even bring my thickly veined hands to my furrowed face to smooth it out, instead I tried to gently scrape away a stain from the lapel of my jacket, but the fabric disintegrated under my nails and a small round hole appeared in it. At that moment I saw in the poor neon light that the sleeve of my jacket was frayed and the buttons were hanging. It took me some time to find the exit. Lately everywhere the way to the restroom leads through mirrored halls and the pictograms for ladies and gents are almost interchangeable. It is a matter of merest chance which door you enter. Now I was worried about getting lost in the maze of mirrors. But my fear was unfounded. The next instant I bumped into my acquaintance of a moment ago, who had planted himself in front of the restroom. He had probably left his wife parading in a frilled gown, like an umbrella with a lace trim, propped up against one of the tables with cookies in order to get a chance to talk with me. "Do you remember Jancsi?" he thrust the question at me with no delay. "He was executed for sabotage." Rubbing his swollen eyelids with his tattered handkerchief, he was desperately eyeing me. I felt I was close to tears myself. "The ink had not yet dried on his degree!" I whispered. To stifle my hiccupping sobs, I pressed my left palm to my mouth and with my right I captured his writhing hand as a sign of good-bye. He tried to detain me by force, but in vain did he pull me to himself and plead: "But you haven't even had a bite to eat!" I left the building in a rush.

Driving out of the parking lot, before the last curve of the maze I could already feel that the extra painkiller was of no use, because apart from the eventual illness lurking inside, some extraneous cause was working to undo me. Punctuating my way with unwanted pauses, I struggled out fitfully into the open but right there, at the end of the last aisle, I got entrapped. A concrete ridge about half a meter in height was blocking my way. I don't remember having ever seen a speedbump so unfit for enforcing the speed limit or redirecting traffic, and one so threatening at that. Luckily, as I squeezed myself out of the car through the crack of the open door, I managed to get a foothold in the narrow trough. My auto mechanic, always gentle with an eye to generous tips, was standing by my side, now as ever, to help me through times of trouble, and took my car keys. Behind me a line had already formed. "You are lucky," he said, "that you were not flattened out, but now speed up!" I was offended by his abruptness, never heard before, but thinking his behavior was due to my disheveled appearance, I didn't protest. In the hall the personnel had already gathered at the uncommon news and in no time identified the scapegoat, if not quite the cause. From the otherwise happy-go-lucky eyes of the always-florid porter facing retirement, tears rattled down with an irritatingly sharp noise into his tin plate. The charges must have caught him at the end of his soup: Around the porter's lodge thick clouds of asphyxiating cabbage smell were aggregating.

I was surprised myself at how easily I gave up the car, the meat, vegetables and other edibles stuffed in the trunk, even my new camel coat which I could easily have taken along. So I crossed the ring of onlookers without my belongings. The city was otherwise deserted, everybody had long gone home, because there was the finals of some decisive championship on tv. Distant but very loud, the threatening barks of football fans were approaching from a side street. I hastened my steps on the still empty street. The wind was chasing discarded newspapers and plastic bags, they rushed on like flaccid sails, to be shipwrecked among the concrete reefs. I managed to cross the frozen seas with dry feet. Lifting the hem of my long skirt with one hand, with my other hand I clung to the strap of my shoulder bag. I tried to jump over the hurdles as elegantly as possible under the circumstances. I needed to, as I was passing a café from which well-dressed people with tiny name tags on their chests spilled out on the street. Like the asphalt waves reminiscent of the sea a while ago, they too parted to let me pass. I like to feel the smooth stretching of my tights on my skin, the silk of my skirt's lining, the protective embrace of my blouse, this delicately affirmative touch. This time too I was walking with head held up high, proud. I could feel my headache easing, so I breathed a cautious sigh of relief.

The café seemed a place to my liking. Luminous but not dazzling, not crowded but not deserted either, spacious but not cold. I found a place in the corner and went over the menu. I ordered salmon for a starter, asparagus soup and—skipping the main course—walnut and poppy-seed beigli for dessert. As I didn't feel in the mood for the invigorating smell and flavor of coffee, I stuck to tea, what is more: Wantonly I gestured at the cigar boy who, according to the customs of the last century, carried his wares in a heavy wooden box hanging from his neck. I was looking for Memphis cigarettes, but against my will my index finger pointed at a ringed cigar. It was the veins of the tobacco leaf that caught my eye, I might say, were it not so preposterous. Only after removing the tax stamp from its metallic tube did I take its slender body in my hand, stripped it of the cellophane and pulled it through the ring, in other words, only then could I see, touch, scrunch it. I lifted it to my nose, got a whiff of the Havana's tobacco-field perfume, of the salty vapor of the nearby ocean, of the fresh exhalation of the leaves. The cigar boy who, looked at from close up, was rather ancient, lighted my smoke with trembling hand. I helped along with deep breaths. My slender cigar was burning impeccably with a perfect circle, no stalks or charring marred it. I found it utterly appropriate to smoke a cigar in an elegant posture, with legs crossed at a café table after a late, light lunch, and resigned myself without qualms to the thought that the shape of my body was slowly changing. But after a few draughts I felt nausea. You wouldn't suspect until it happens that when you feel sick, in the span of an hour or two you metamorphose—with the utmost naturalness, so to say—from a woman into a man and back. Yet I felt this was happening to me. What a moment ago was pleasure, the curling smoke of my Havana, the sizzling of the ashes eating up its body, turned decisively nauseating. I got the hiccups. I told the waiter I wanted to pay and asked for a directory. I wanted to call a taxi, but in a momentary lapse couldn't remember my address, all I could recall was the number: 33. Three times three equals nine, I thought, but three to the third power equals twenty-seven, whereas twenty-seven to the third power equals . . . I took a pen and made the sum, it equaled—I remember—12,683. Before the new exercise could have made my head burst, in order to escape the compulsion to torture myself with raising to powers, I took refuge in reciting the multiplication table of nine. In front of my eyes the back cover of my onetime math exercise book appeared, I was reading out the multiples of nine printed on the crumpled pink paper. I was getting on to seventy-two when the waiter returned with the directory. By then the signs of my bodily deterioration showed unequivocally. And yet I didn't feel as sick as a well-meaning spectator would have presupposed, judging by my outward appearance. My brain recorded every single minute detail sharply, it was only my tongue that was moving too slowly in my mouth, and my hands lost the strength of their grip. On my spine ran, as they say, rivers of sweat and if I had not nested myself inside the chair, defying the violent shaking of my body, perhaps I would have even slipped to the floor. The stuck record voice of Hark, Rozika sweet! was trumpeting in my ears, sung by the gentleman with the diamond diploma. I have long known that clinging too much to our names can also denote uncertainty. My rigid stance derives solely from the exaggerated competitiveness of the ghastliest chapter in the modern and the most recent age, that is, of our history. The medieval painters and sculptors, the Great Anonymouses didn't sign their names on their work, and they were right. Only the quaint, inexpressive NN or MS initials preserve their personhood. Who can tell if Shakespeare's name is not a pseudonym really, which—as the possibility is entertained nowadays—could plausibly hide the person of any old Smith or Mrs. Smith. Sunk in barren cogitation and tormented by the mercilessly repeating snatches of melodies, I was hoisted up, seated in a wheelchair, and, accompanied by two ambulance nurses, rushed toward the closed door of the exit. Before my wheelchair could get stuck with a clatter in the glass frame, a waiter sprang to our assistance and threw open the door. I felt infinite trust in everyone, I would have liked to voice my overwhelming feelings, but couldn't work my mouth to utter a single word.

The ambulance slowly arrived with me at the emergency of the hospital on duty. An obese woman seated on a bench in front of the examination room was insistently staring at me as I jerked in the ramshackle wheelchair. Even in my sorry state I felt irritated by her sheep's eyes feasting on my face. "Don't you find the sight disturbing?" I turned on her, forcing my tongue with great effort of will to somewhat regular articulation. She couldn't answer my question and reacted with the mysterious smile of the dumb. Her muteness filled me with satisfaction. I had to wait for a long time until I was placed in a space of half a room's width, curtained off from a larger room. On the two other beds at an arm's length, two others were already lying. On the bed parallel to mine, a woman with her chin thrust upwards was staring into empty space. After a while she turned to me: her eyesockets were dark, her look inquisitive. On the pillow of the bed placed at about half a meter from my feet a white, fluffy, candy-floss-like shock of hair was pointing at the same ceiling. A female ward, I acknowledged with relief. I stretched my arm so they could insert the perfusion. The nurse's needle was jumping like a grasshopper up and down on my skin to my jerks, but in the end settled somewhere and pricked at a vein. My spasms eased almost at once. There was, I can't deny, a heavy smell in the room, yet it didn't come from the catheter bags under the neighboring beds: a much thicker blend, the characteristic stable smell of inpatient wards enveloped us. The last time they aired the room was probably the last warm day, I thought, months ago, it being the end of December. In the meantime they pushed in the trolley laden with the trays with our lunch. I was handed a stylish, glossy nickel plate; under the lid there was a deliciously spiced, tender chicken thigh and potato mash with marjoram. I looked at my watch, it was noon. If this is true, only half an hour passed since I left the award ceremony, provided I ever attended it indeed, and the ambulance didn't take me to the hospital directly from home, with my unbearable headache. I was given no cutlery: the nurse on kitchen duty gave me a dry kaiser roll, out of whose crust I carved myself some sort of scooping instrument; after finishing my royal banquet and eating my spoon, I lay down on my pillow. In the meantime they seated my neighbor on the edge of the bed, she gurgled down the soup without swallowing, nearly choked, then they took the tray away and she was put on infusion. "What a gorgeous lunch!" I said to the nurse coming in to collect the trays. She said nothing. "Do you also get this to eat?" I continued in a cringing tone. "Only if the patients haven't picked at it," she answered, piqued. The lovely nurse with the dark tresses showed up again at my bed. Proudly I held out to her my by then untrembling arm, but this time too she only managed to find a vein after three attempts. I hadn't yet heard that we needed to put 300 forints on the sheet, so they would palpate our arms first to find a suitable vein.

Yet I wouldn't say that everybody wanted money rightaway. There was a young resident, she for instance even said hello for free whenever she entered the ward. On the whole, however, anybody who smiled, let alone was good-humored, seemed suspect to me. I have only witnessed unabashed cheerfulness in the dark-haired nurse with a penchant for puncturing our arms, and in the physician standing in for the ward doctor, whose make-up was always impeccable. It is true, in the latter's case it only happened once, when she let the nurse persuade her to skip the evening ward round. She was sitting in front of her computer in the on-call room, and—as I gleaned from their conversation and from the odors—was eating blackcurrant pie with vanilla sugar icing. I was just waiting for the scheduled venipuncture and my hostility towards her surprised me even, given the fact that she never as much as said a word to me, as though I were thin air. I, on the other hand, didn't hesitate to open my mouth to complain that the woman with advanced diabetes on the bed next to mine kept begging for a glass of water all night but never got anything to drink. "She sleeps through the day and gets bored during the night", the dark-haired nurse explained to the doctor who was meticulously picking up the last crumbs of the cake, then she quickly took out her needle and, as was her custom, pricked me here and there.

"Help me spend New Year's Eve at home!" I addressed the resident doctor the next day. She grew stern, but this seriousness suited her well. "I confess it is more convenient for the hospital if the patient is not discharged over the weekend", she said thoughtfully. She waited a bit before adding, in a conceding tone, "Although, if they can do the required psychiatric examination tomorrow, perhaps you can go home." "Psychiatric examination?" I froze. "Since your lifestyle doesn't account for your symptoms, we need to ascertain that you are not schizophrenic." But her attention was quickly diverted from me, because at the end of the corridor appeared, causing mild panic, an outlandish couple. The chubby man in toga-like apparel was helping a beaten-up young man to stumble toward the examination room. My doctor put an end to her sentence and, driven by curiosity, disappeared behind the door of the aforementioned room.

Friday morning they warned me that I must not put on my street clothes, even though I was going to the psychiatric hospital at several blocks' distance from the ward. Thus wearing my coat over my pajamas and in my brogues I made the smaller outing along the snowed-in streets to the second floor of the faraway, utterly run-down building, where the otherwise uncommunicative hospital staff gave directions with ubiquitous helpfulness. As soon as I uttered the ward's name, awe and respect appeared on their faces. As it transpired, I had to look for the men's secure ward, it was inside its grates that my interview with Dr. Lamm was to be conducted. I demonstrated foresight, though, for I left a note to my daughter on my bed, a message in a bottle, telling her where I was going. I lingered for a long time on a crumbling bench. Now and again somebody would knock or bang on the door that was locked from the inside, at which someone waiting nearby pushed the door handle and opened the door to them. First an old man in paper diapers and undressed from the waist up appeared in the waiting room and announced to us all that he was going for a walk, but the male nurse pushing through the door turned him around with no delay. The old man continued walking with the same momentum, in the opposite direction. But the third one in the Indian file, an elderly man spinning at high speed around his own axis, took advantage of the escape route opening up unexpectedly, he spun beyond the magic threshold and planted himself in front of the nurses' room. He must have been the spokesperson of those impatiently demanding their lunch, because once arrived on neutral territory—among the outpatients, that is—he looked around with incisive eyes. "Will there be lunch today, yes or no?" he boomed his cunning question. In a few minutes my daughter arrived. I had barely started into the report of my vicissitudes when Dr. Lamm's crestfallen, long face appeared in the door and waved at me invitingly. "May I come in?" I asked, albeit with utterly superfluous politeness, and stood up. "You meeeh," he answered, strangely lengthening the tremulous syllable.

The doctor sat down in front of his computer and, twisting his curly locks, transposed my first-person answers to his showering questions into the third person, into his own opinion, as it were, typed them, printed the sheet and handed it over. "This is the medical report," he declared. The whole conversation didn't rob us of more than ten minutes of our time, but even so, the tension made me sweat abundantly. I needed to be careful not to stand too close to him, lest he catch my smell and start suspecting that I was holding back something from him. I was attentive with my phrasing, I didn't use similes or analogies, gave short and relatively intelligent answers within the confines of educated standard language use. I was glad to see that in my appropriate behavior he didn't spot the marks of schizophrenia, what is more, he even made note of my sound apper- and perception. I also managed to draw his attention to my symptoms of anxiety, he became convinced that I needed medication and prescribed something. When he was turning the key in the lock to let me out, for a moment he became insecure. He stopped and, following a brief battle with his conscience, shaking in a negating fashion his peculiar haircut, whose locks were long on his nape but gradually shortened towards the top of his head, with one foot pushed open the door a crack. Then he stared with an almost unintelligent expression, insistently, now at me, now at the floor, but I stood his jumping gaze, with my nerves strung to the breaking point, with an outward display of indifference. Slowly he appeared to come to his senses, he warned me with a sigh that this would not suffice, and that because of the strong medication I would have to go back for a control. "Call meeeh", he made me promise, "before coming."

Once you start eating you work up your appetite, as the saying goes. Slogging back with my daughter in the slushy snow we weighed the consequences of my—potentially unauthorized—leaving. We agreed that, although we didn't find out what was wrong with me, my symptoms had disappeared, the laboratory values were normal, so I needed to regain my freedom before the long holiday weekend. At the gates of the ward I heard the clattering of the plates and, obeying the urge of my demanding hunger, said good-bye to her. I started upstairs to the second floor, nose held high, threaded on the ever more inebriating odor of cooked celery and apple with cinnamon, as though on a string. I had planned to feign sleep after lunch and, taking advantage of the hour of rest, to stealthily walk back to the psychiatric ward around five o'clock—when dusk would be already setting—and ask to see Dr. Lamm in order to check if he was wearing a wig. I felt I needed to solve this riddle, I owed it to myself. Perhaps if I could stand behind him and suddenly pull at his toupee made of animal hair! If the wig is left in my hand, I will apologize, but if not—that is, if sheep's wool indeed grows on his head—I would expose the hospital's dark secrets to the wide world. But my resolution was thwarted by the sleepiness dragging me down. Although I had only allowed myself fifteen minutes for napping, it was more than two hours later that I woke from my profound sleep, not by myself but at the young doctor's voice announcing: "Your discharge papers are ready." She stood above me: "We are letting you out." I could barely disguise my disappointment.