Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Encounter, by Beatrix Turán

A woman on holiday goes on a seaside walk and gets into conversation with a man. Their talk makes her ponder questions of choice, morality, and trust.

People didn’t come to this city for the sea. Some came for the cheap booze. Others for the European exotica. And yet others had always been here anyway.
It was a summer you’d picture in the Mediterranean – only more beautiful than that. There were no crowds. Even in the height of the season, even in those times when you could hear only English conversation between the waiters and patrons on the terraces of the restaurants in the city center, the atmosphere was spacious and breezy. The sun didn’t scorch – it only warmed. People on the rocky seashore left a decent amount of open space everywhere – it would have been rude and pushy to sit down too close to another lone sunbather or small group: it was exactly about the distance – the sense that everyone could have ten meters of seashore for themselves, a place no-one would disturb without invitation. And on the sandy shore, you could walk hundreds of meters, knee-deep in the water, without being splashed by happily shrieking children.

Sure, there were happily shrieking children – I know there were, I remember seeing them, witnessing their happiness, but I don’t hear their voices, I don’t feel their splashes. I only feel the warmth of the sun on my hair, the sea on my bare feet, the touch of the sand on my soles. I walked for an eternity in the sea, and imagined I could walk along the whole country without once stepping out of the water.

A summertime exaggeration; after a couple of hundred meters I came up on a barrier in the water – the end of the beach. Whether the barrier was natural or man-made, I didn’t know. All I knew was that from that point, there was nowhere to go forward – you could only go inwards, towards to shore, or back the way you came.

None of the possibilities appealed to me so I just stood there, looking back at the beach I left behind, watching the ferries leaving from the port. The waves they generated only reached me minutes later. I didn’t move, I didn’t go deeper, yet the waves now reached up to my thigh, started to soak my skirt. I didn’t mind.

It was the eighth day already, and since the seventh day, I didn’t mind small annoyances. I wasn’t looking for perfection anymore, I went wherever desire took me, and it didn’t matter if my skirt got soaked in salt water.

I wasn’t surprised when someone called out to me. I was approachable. My self, wrapped in the warmth of the sun, was slow and dreamy, but ready for everything, open to anything.


I didn’t know what protocol to follow when you’re walking knee-deep in the sea and you meet someone doing the same. A greeting is needed, surely. Not many people were out there, so far from the beach, so greeting a fellow walker was natural – the same way as you say hello to the person you meet in the forest, far from the well-travelled paths. But are you supposed to follow it with conversation? I didn’t know, so I left it for the man to decide. He seemed more well-versed in seaside habits than me.

I took a few steps deeper into the sea – I was waiting. He followed me, and I knew then that we were going to talk.

Our talk followed the usual way of such conversations: what’s my name? Where do I come from? What’s your name, where do you come from? Why are we here? The most basic questions – which are the most difficult to answer. We got over them.

“I drive an electric cab. It’s charging now, so I thought I’d come down to the beach.”
“I’m here because I always wanted to come here.”

I found the idea fascinating: meeting someone on the beach, in the middle of the workday, on a summer Tuesday afternoon. I was on holiday then, between jobs, and I was free – but I found his form of freedom even more appealing than mine. I was struck by the idea that you could come down to the beach for an hour, for the time it took to charge an electric car; by the idea that there’s no need to plan anything, no need to put together a picnic, no need to arrange towels books shades swimwear drinks snacks. You could just go.

We turned back in the meanwhile, walking towards the beach, still far from the shore. The conversation was taking off with many halts. It soon became obvious that neither of us had the knack for easy chatting. In our talk there were many pauses, interspersed with quick, banal, or depth-probing questions, and simple, honest answers.

“How’s the winter here?” I asked him. He was a local. “I see now how it is in the summer. I spent the evenings of the last couple days sitting way up there, over the port, on the rocky beach, just watching the sea turning a deeper blue, the sky getting darker – and thinking how yet it’s still not night, still not night. This eternal dusk is beautiful. But how’s it in the winter? When the dark is just as eternal as the light now.”

“Winter’s good, too,” he replied after careful consideration. “I always liked it. Perhaps because I was born in winter. I actually like it more than the summer.”

“But the dark? Don’t you miss the sun?”

“Dark’s fine. I don’t mind it. I like going home in the evening in the dusk.”

I slowly steered our walk towards the shore. He wasn’t the most talkative man I’ve ever met, he had trouble expressing himself, and he never went into details. I still found his company comfortable. I’m good at silence, too.

“What’s your plan now? Are you in a hurry? Don’t you want to sit down here in the sand for a while?” he asked quickly as we approached the shore.

Leaving the water was a transition point, and it forced us to reconsider our relations. What works knee-deep in the water doesn’t necessarily work out on the shore – his question made perfect sense. It was natural to agree whether to part ways immediately, or only after a little while. There was no other option.

I had no plan. I didn’t feel like rushing the minute to the end, forcing the moment to its crisis.

“Aren’t you afraid of travelling alone?” he asked.
“I’m not. It’s no scarier than doing anything alone at home. I like spending time alone. And I like it that here I was on my own, now I’m talking with you, and in an hour, I’ll be on my own again, with enough time to think our conversation over.”

He remained silent.
Then he asked:

“Do you want to hug?”

I froze for a moment. I wasn’t in the habit of hugging people I’ve only known for a few minutes. But it was already the eighth day, and another thing I gave up on the seventh day was my constant mistrust. Most of it.

“Why not”, I said. I didn’t ask.

Touching his sun-warmed skin was a pristine feeling. Even if some of my mistrust was still lingering in me, and with a small part of my mind, I was wondering if he’s right at that moment stealing my wallet from my purse. He did no such thing – I was ashamed of my thoughts later.

Then I buried my bare feet in the sand. He told me about his life, haltingly. About the roller-blades he lost while moving house. About his younger brother, who died. About the women he thinks about and desires. About the teenage girl sitting close to us – how she was beautiful, how he was attracted to her.

He seemed ageless to me. He possessed an ancient trust and lacked all kind of hypocrisy – I felt as if nothing could shake him out of this. I felt it never crossed his mind how his words could be understood and misunderstood – as if he never once thought about the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable desires. Compared to him, I felt flat-footed, clumsy, heavy – I felt myself judging him. He wasn’t afraid to say anything, I was; he wasn’t afraid of being judged, I was too conventional not to judge.

“But you’re an adult man. How can you speak about a young teenage girl like this? You can’t desire her. Or – you can, but…” I drowned in my words, I couldn’t express what I meant, and what I expressed, I regretted immediately. I regretted being a pedant; regretted being so mistrustful.

He took my awkward rebuke gracefully. He didn’t mind it, or didn’t show it if he did.
A bit later he said he’d go for a swim.

“Sure, go ahead, I’ll stay here and mind your stuff.”

This was a test for him, too. Can he trust me? Will I run away with his wallet the minute he walks into the water? I felt him glancing me over, considering my offer. He didn’t say anything, didn’t try joking how he hoped I’d still be there when he returned. In the end, he just nodded, and started to walk towards the sea.

I didn’t touch his things while he was away. I just lit a cigarette, and looked at his well-worn shoes – his rumpled socks in one, his wallet and phone in the other.

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