This week's Strangerville story is one I wrote about a very stupid fight Skylar and I had on our first big trip together. Text included below.
I had been dating Skylar for a couple of years when we finally decided to take an international trip. Hungary sounded exotic but not dangerous so we set off with a plan to spend a week taking a compact rental car from Budapest to a city on the southern border, Pecs. We wanted to go to the latter because of the spelling. It was a disappointment for us to later find out that the city is pronounced more like how you would say “peach” if you lived in Alabama.
It took us a few days to get from the north to the south because we stopped frequently to take in scenery and yell at each other. Driving around a foreign country with another person is a really good way to find out how much you love them, and specifically, whether that love is enough to beat the odds. This is especially true when that person is stubborn, which I had already learned Skylar was. If he was telling this story, he might object to that characterization and accuse me of projecting, but he’s not telling this story. I am. So I choose the hero here.
It was a pleasant Wednesday morning when it happened. I said a thing in hindsight I probably shouldn’t have said. We had been driving for about an hour—Skylar insisted on taking this shift. He told me why he wanted to sit in the driver’s seat, but I don’t fully remember the explanation now. Something about wanting to have “some semblance of control over my life even if only for a few fleeting moments” after spending “a week under your dictatorial reign.”
If Skylar were here, he would probably complain that I misquoted him when he should just be grateful I gave him a respectable vocabulary and didn’t use an unflattering mimic voice. Sometimes that man really struggles with gratitude.
I only said the thing I said that made him so mad in the car that Wednesday morning because someone needed to say it and since I was the only person in the car and since Skylar is stubborn, what other option did I have?
So I said it. “You’re a bad driver.”
Skylar is very unreasonable about his feelings on this. He doesn’t like it when I tell him he’s bad at something “out of the blue.” But this wasn’t “out of the blue.” He had been driving badly for over an hour and someone had to say it. It’s not like we were walking on a pier eating ice cream when I brought it up. He was doing the thing I condemned when I condemned it.
If I’m being honest, and I’m not sure I am, I admit that there were some instances of possibly-unnecessary firm direction, which I helpfully gave as he sloppily navigated roads that frankly were not that complicated to navigate, leading up to the final offense. He would call it backseat driving, and he would say it in a tone like that was something negative, like I was an officious intermeddler with an ego, even though I was more like a concerned citizen who didn’t think we should be changing lanes without using the turn signal.
I should have been commended for my enthusiastic shouting “who did you sleep with at the DMV to get a license?” rather than cursed at. But such is the reality of being with someone so stubborn.
By the time we arrived in some town we never intended to visit but impromptu decided merited an emergency detour, we were no longer speaking to one another. Truth be told, Skylar started the silent treatment, but I was doing it better than he was. He wasn’t talking to me but I excessively wasn’t talking to him. I even pretended to laugh at something I pretended to see on the side of the road and purposefully didn’t tell him what I had pretended to find amusing. He didn’t ask me about it because he was being so immature and refusing to talk, but little did he know if he had asked me, I wouldn’t have told him.
Skylar parallel parked on the side of some quiet street, which I was sure he did to hurt my feelings as he knows I can’t parallel park. I made a mental note to scold him for that later. Once we were talking again.
We stepped out onto the sidewalk and Skylar finally spoke. “I’m going to a museum,” he informed me. It was obviously a spontaneous choice. This town certainly did not have a museum. I’m not sure it even appears on most maps. It’s essentially Hungary’s version of Maybury. But even if it did have a museum, it probably wouldn’t have been open at 9:00 AM on a Wednesday morning, which was when we arrived.
The activity wasn’t the point, though. The point was in the way he said it. “I’m going,” he had informed me. Not “we.” Not “would you be interested in.” Not “I’m sorry I parallel parked in front of you; that was really immature of me.” Just simply, “I’m” without the slightest hint of invitation.
“I’m also going to a museum,” I informed Skylar, with an even slighter air of snobbery than he had summoned when he announced his plans.
We nodded at one another, and set off in opposite directions to visit our competing imaginary museums in a town that barely had a grocery store. We didn’t set an exact time to meet back up with one another but I figured I had at least a few hours to invent enough detail about my museum to make his museum seem stupid in comparison. Then he’d be really sorry that he spent his day driving badly, overreacting to my helpful suggestions, and then storming off and missing out on a fabulous time learning about World War II torture devices (I decided my museum was all about torture devices), all because he’s too stubborn. Maybe I would make some friends while we were apart, too. Yeah, I would definitely make some friends. Museum friends. Cute ones with fun accents and mysterious pasts. We would have inside jokes and everything. From then on I would refer to them as “my” friends in front of Skylar so he would remember the consequence of not inviting me to his stupid fake museum I didn’t want to go to in the first place.
I walked for a while. The town was what you would call “sleepy” if you wanted it to sound folksy. Skylar hates it when people are called “folksy.” He thinks we value folksy too much so now everyone tries to be it and he says he sees right through that.
Skylar would have hated that I was tempted to sound folksy as I described the town in my head while walking through it alone. It’s so annoying how he would probably hate things I think when he’s not even there.
Eventually I found a shopping mall that was just opening for the day. It had some American stores I recognized, like a very small Nike, and then what looked like the Eastern European versions of Gap and Forever 21. There was a store called New York Baby, which I thought seemed like a Russian communist’s idea of an American brand. It sold t-shirts that said stuff in English like, “get totally out” and “no way duuuude.” This store was the largest in the mall, so I assumed it was probably doing well, which baffled me. The customer service wasn’t even good. It took the cashier ten minutes to ring up my six or seven items.
It was a struggle to find anything to buy there at all. The brand was clearly geared toward people who are skinnier than me. Skylar would have looked good in pretty much anything in that store, which was so annoying. He always looks good in anything he tries on. Oh, and he would have loved their sweaters. They had a blue one that would have looked really good on him and would have brought out his damn eyes like you wouldn’t believe. I knew he would have loved that sweater, but he should have thought about that before he decided to make a whole day of his temper tantrum.
The mall only killed about an hour of my time, so I ventured back toward the town center, which was built around a small church that appeared to be the oldest standing building. An elderly woman was sweeping the front steps with a straw-bottom broom. She was wearing a simple flower print dress and a scarf over her head. The doors were wide open and whiffs of melting wax and organ music were billowing out of the chapel. The organ music was competing with church bells that were clanking 10:00. In the courtyard just in front of the sweeper a man was feeding birds.
The whole scene was so typical of a small Eastern European town that it almost felt cliché. It was annoying that Skylar wasn’t there to see it because this was basically why he had come to Europe in the first place—to stumble upon this kind of simple daily life happening in a foreign land. Had he been there he would have said something stupid about how amazing it is that these people live so far away from us and have such different lives and histories but they still do things we do, like sweep church steps and feed birds. He would have smiled and said how “cool” it was that we got to the church just as someone was playing the organ and he would have wanted to stand out in front and enjoy the church bells for “just a minute.” But he wasn’t there. Instead, I just had to think about how he would have loved all of that, which reminded me again of how selfish it was that he didn’t even invite me to his stupid museum that I didn’t want to go to in the first place even if it did exist. It was so annoying how much he wasn’t there.
It was then that I turned and found a café that had both outdoor and indoor seating. The outdoor seating was still wet from a rain storm that had come through during the night so I went inside to order some coffee and find a seat there. A man was flirting with a woman behind the front counter. She was wearing a red apron with a white lace border that was coming apart all down one side. She was the barista. He worked there, too, although I wasn’t sure in what capacity.
I ordered my coffee and then plopped into a red booth with a long slit all the way down the seat and white stuffing popping out. “The furniture matches the aprons,” I cleverly said to myself, even though Skylar wasn’t there to admire my quick wit and observational skills that were on point, even though I hadn’t had coffee yet. The barista giggled right then at something the man had said so I imagined the adoration was for me and I nodded, satisfied.
It was better that Skylar wasn’t there with me, I thought, because he would have demanded that we sit outside on the wet furniture. “It’s only a little wet,” he would have said, no matter how untrue the statement was. He’s such a liar. A liar who can’t even drive.
Good thing that dead weight isn’t here right now, I thought to myself as the woman dropped coffee at my table. The man had turned around and was leaning back with both of his elbows rested on the counter behind him. He watched the barista walk, flirtatiously, back toward him. They started gabbing and giggling again—two people who obviously didn’t realize how nice it was to just have the morning to yourself.
I sipped my coffee, a little unsure of what I was supposed to do with myself as I sat there. I couldn’t play much with my phone because I was in a foreign country and didn’t have cell service. Apart from the incorrigibly oblivious couple, the café was totally empty and quiet. It was around then that I thought it would have been a little nice to have Skylar there, but not talking, because I was mad at him after all. He could have just sat there being punished by my silent treatment and admiring my commitment to it.
After I finished my coffee, I walked back out to the main street. It was only a few blocks long. The street was lined with pretty trees on both sides. The place still looked mostly abandoned, apart from the sweeping woman who had moved from the steps to the general courtyard area in front of the church. Her vigor had not died down in the twenty minutes since I last saw her, and it appeared that her cleaning trajectory knew no bounds as she moved along, slapping her broom against cobblestone in the opposite direction of the church’s front doors. There’s a chance she was actually on a pilgrimage and thought she’d do some good along the way. Maybe she’s in Spain now.
I wandered the tree-lined street until I got to the end. There was a busy road and some run-down apartment buildings on the other side of it. I wasn’t all that interested in crossing, so I turned around and walked the other direction until I found a similar dead-end only a few minutes later. From the looks of things, I had already visited every mall, café, and church in the entire town, so all that was left for me was this one tree-lined street. Oh, and the museum I was going to visit.
I walked back and forth, up and down this street. Eventually the church bells chimed that it was 11:00. It was even more frustrating that Skylar wasn’t there this time as I thought about how much he would have loved it. We could have sat down for a little snack and listened to the church bells ring. There was some barely wet outdoor furniture at that café nearby that would have been a perfect vantage point for it.
Before I knew it, it was 11:30 and I had walked up and down the street another four times. How long does it take to go to one museum, I thought. It occurred to me then that maybe Skylar and I had very different ideas of how long one should pretend to be at a museum. Frankly, I could have sold my story to him after only thirty minutes of alone time, which would have been nice because then he could have gone to the mall with me and tried on those sweaters that would have looked really good on him. What if Skylar thought a person couldn’t convincingly say they had been to a museum in less than ten hours? Had he planned to spend our whole morning and afternoon like this, probably wandering some parallel street to mine and thinking of all the ways he was going to best me when we later bragged about our days?
Or, it might have been worse. Something could have happened to him. Maybe a criminal saw him alone, an American tourist well off the beaten path, and took advantage of him. He’s not hard to take advantage of, that Skylar. He’s so trusting and kind and wonderful to everyone he meets, that stupid selfless man who can’t drive but looks good in sweaters. What if he did get himself into some trouble? He would have had no way to contact me, assuming he could talk and was still alive.
What if he’s not still alive? I started to feel a little panic at this point. This town was so small and I had now spent three hours walking all over it. Shouldn’t I have run into him by that point? The museum thing was obviously not real. If he wasn’t in a museum, or in the café, or at the mall, or in the church, where could he have possibly been?
All this over a stupid fight about driving, I thought. If it meant this much to him, I could probably keep my possibly unnecessary opinions to myself next time. If there could even be a next time.
Ok, now I could see that it was pretty irresponsible of me to just let him wander off alone. If he was dead, this was all going to be my fault. I started wondering what one even does when their travel companion dies while abroad. Could I even return the rental car? It was under Skylar’s name. Do they check your identification when you return rental cars? I suddenly couldn’t remember. I couldn’t believe I was going to have think about a stupid thing like that while already dealing with the stress of filing a missing person’s report in Hungarian. I wouldn’t even have the time or bandwidth to grieve. This was all a very inconvenient way for Skylar to die, and I let it happen.
I could have just apologized when we got out of the car, even though I didn’t feel it. I probably would have felt it by the end of the apology. I had already learned by that point that the act of making peace was usually the thing that made me sincere about making peace. I could have told him I was sorry I said he was a bad driver. I wouldn’t have even had to take the comment back. He would have so forgiven me just at the proffer of regret, he wouldn’t have stopped to ponder whether I regretted saying the thing because it made him mad or because it wasn’t true.
And what was I supposed to do with his stuff when I got back to the United States? We weren’t married. He had only recently moved in with me. Would his family want his pants? Would they come get them? Would it somehow fall to me to take his pants to them? And would I still be expected to visit them on Christmas? For how many years? How did I end up in a situation where I had to drive a car full of pants across three states on Christmas for someone who doesn’t use turn signals?
It was truly irresponsible of Skylar to die before I understood my relationship to his family. This was so like him—to not think about how his death creates so much awkwardness between people who are only connected to one another because of his erratic choice in men.
I had made it up and down the tree-lined street another four times. The church bells were ringing again. A few people were sitting on the outdoor patio furniture at the café.
Just as I was starting to think about lunch, I saw him. He turned the corner, whistling, like he had just had a wonderful morning, which obviously was a musical lie.
“What have you been up to?” He asked me it as though there had never been a mutual silent treatment. He never has been very good at sticking to grudges.
I told him about my day, using adjectives to make it sound slightly more glamorous than it actually was. Then I asked him what he had been up to.
“A museum. I told you.” He pulled out his phone to show me pictures of a “natural history museum.” It appeared to all be shoved into the back room of a public library and it mostly consisted of dated posters of animals and some drawings done by local children. I didn’t regret missing out on the educational excursion, but I was impressed with his commitment to integrity.
“Should we go?” he said. “We can probably make it to Pecs by dinner.”
Then we both giggled, because we were still pronouncing it “pecs.”
~It Just Gets Stranger