Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Secret of Room 404

By Andrea S.

3.91 GPA, George Washington University graduate, honours student, personal research assistant to professor of archaeology Allison Brooks, on my way to Greece to participate in an excavation with the know-how behind ground-breaking technology. Been to China on research, Peru on internship, just back from one year in Zimbabwe on Fulbright.

Passing through Budapest briefly to visit Dad before continuing on to Greece. Great weather, great temperature, couldn’t ask for more. Relationship with Dad a bit rocky after the divorce and he moved back to this country. Big age gap, could be my grandfather, but who knows, maybe he’s the wiser for it. Cough, cough. Left Hungary in ’56, a legal alien for 40 years before returning permanently to the home land.

Can’t relate, oh well.

Staying in Astoria Hotel, father’s place is cramped, and I need space. Strange old woman in corridor beckons me over, babushka head scarf et al. I can’t understand so well, but she says something about my life being behind a door. I smirk, sure lady, show me what you got. She leads me to a room, 404, and leaves me there. I smirk again and open the door.


An old man sits huddled over, disappearing into the large leather chair he sits in. His spectacles are inching down his nose as he peers into a vast book with old, delicate pages. Outside the window it’s snowing, Budapest’s streets wrapped in a blanket of white, softly reflecting the glow of the orange street lights. An immense winter coat is hung up on a coat rack beside the chair, along with a Bogart style hat from my childhood.

I notice for the first time the lines and wrinkles on my father’s face, marking him with the passage of time. His bent shoulders, his white and balding hair are more pronounced now than I had remembered.

There’s a quiet softness about the scene of my father in his big chair and the snow swirling outside the window that moves me. The winter coat and snow are novel, for I’ve only ever been to Hungary in the summers, and they create a new and mysterious country.


BANG! The door shuts in my face. I panic, try to force back open the door. Old woman is back, holding her hands out, demanding. Fumbling in my pockets, I produce forints. She’s unimpressed, I produce all my change. She leaves.

My head is racing. Dazed, close my eyes, retrieve image, snow swirling, swirling, but landing gently on the ground. Aware of my breath and I bring myself slowly back into room 404.

I can see my father, the snow, the winter coat, the big leather chair, and antique book. I stay there for a long time, clinging on to this image until finally the noises of the hotel, some footsteps down the hall, a slamming door, the thud of a suitcase being placed down, return me to the present.

I look down and become aware of what’s in my hand. The acceptance letter to the Greek excavation, which I was going to wave nonchalantly in front of my father that evening at dinner. I realize that this gesture was in essence a plea for attention, for acceptance, for love. My non-stop world traveling research projects and internships have been one non-stop attempt to receive recognition from someone I hardly know and who will soon fade away.

That night at dinner, I am not preoccupied by my various projects. I study my father’s face, listen to his words, don’t judge him for them, and really taste my dinner. The next day I will fly to Greece. At the end of the evening, when I say goodbye to my father, I am filled with that same panic I felt when the door slammed shut, but I reluctantly wave goodbye.

The next day my father calls me to ask whether I arrived safely.

“Yes, but I’ll need to get a winter coat,” I reply.

“Winter coat? In Greece?” He is astonished.

“No, in Budapest.”

“You’re still here?”

“Yes, I am.” I pause and look around myself. I’m standing in front of Parliament by the side of the Danube while the summer sun dances over the water. “I decided to stay. I want to see what the winter’s like.”

“Hmph,” replies my father, the noise he makes in response to all news, whether good or bad. He starts and stops several times. Finally he says, “well, if you’re staying, you will need a winter coat.”

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