Baby Don’t Hurt Me
A. S. Callaghan
The plan was to go out to dinner as a family, one last meal together before we went our separate ways again — David, the kids and I back to Los Angeles, my mom and dad back to Germany.
We were returning from a 10-day vacation on Lake Balaton in Hungary, the country my mother had been born and raised in before she emigrated to Germany and married my dad.
She was unusually quiet during dinner. My dad, faced with an unfamiliar role, tried to make conversation with his limited English, the language we used to communicate since my husband didn’t speak German. The soccer game was on the TV above the bar, Austria versus Germany, old rivals.
“No good,” my dad said to my husband when Austria scored the first goal.
The day had started with a fight. On the surface it had been a disagreement about whether we should rent paddle boats. It turned into a referendum on life choices.
I left Germany at age 23 to study abroad and met David while in graduate school in Bloomington, Indiana. One of our first dates included a trip to a drive-thru Wendy’s. I thought it was bizarre, sitting in a car while a stranger handed us a paper bag with burgers and fries. Afterwards, David stuffed all the trash back into the bag and threw it away, as if the meal had never happened. It looked so easy.
Now we had two boys, ages nine and three, who devoured their French fries with the appetite of two lumberjacks.
“American,” my father said with a chuckle, pointing at his grandsons.
“Yes, they love them,” David replied.
“Big and strong,” my dad added, this time talking to our younger son, who offered my dad a French fry.
“No, no! Full!” my dad replied, laughing, pointing to his stomach. My German Spätzle-loving father wouldn’t be caught dead eating a French fry.
After dinner, my mom suggested we go on a boat cruise. I understood this was supposed to make up for the botched paddle boat ride this morning — a peace offering.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea,” David said. “It’s late, and we have to get up at the crack of dawn.” He glanced at our younger son who was busy devouring a fistful of fries while nestled into his stroller. “You know how he gets without enough sleep”
“He can sleep on the boat,” I replied. “I’ll hold him.”
The so-called “Disco Cruise” was supposed to leave in 15 minutes. My mom bought tickets, haggling with the seller in Hungarian. It was still light out, a reminder how much further North we were compared to Los Angeles.
While we waited, my mother took out a small tablet from her oversized purse and showed me a picture of herself in a rowboat, on this very lake, taken more than forty years ago. She was wearing a white bikini, surrounded by classmates from the Young Pioneer summer camp.
“They made us work all day, picking peaches. All in the name of communism. No pay. In the evenings, we were allowed to take a dip in the lake.” My mother angled the tablet towards me so I could take a closer look. “But we thought it was wonderful, we didn’t know any better.” She zoomed in on the scanned black-and-white snapshot. “Look how thin I used to be,” she said, a look of genuine disbelief spreading over her face. Then she stuffed the tablet back into her bag.
A voice from a speaker announced the crew was ready for boarding. David struggled with the stroller’s folding mechanism. After a few failed attempts he managed to drag it up the narrow stairs to the upper deck, followed by my father, who paused on each step, tightly gripping the railing. A crew member took a photo. I made no attempt to pose, we weren’t going to buy it.
We found seats on the passenger deck. I squinted into the setting sun. The sky was the color of a melting creamsicle, like the one my dad had bought for his grandson the other day, which then promptly slipped out of the boy’s little fingers and onto the hot asphalt of the restaurant’s parking lot. David bought him a new one.
“He won’t learn to be careful,” my mother said.
The sun slid into the lake with alarming speed, I barely had time to fish my phone out of my pocket to photograph the sunset. I then asked a stranger to take a picture of us all, sitting lined up on the bench encircling the upper deck – David, our boys, my mom and dad. This was the first and last photo of all of us together this entire week, I realized.
I thought it would make my parents happy to go on vacation together, especially my mom, since Hungary was her home turf. Now I was no longer certain this had been a good idea.
“It’s not your fault,” David had said, the night before. “They can visit us in L.A. anytime.”
But my parents were getting older. My dad couldn’t walk long distances anymore, let alone make it through a transatlantic flight. He had brought a folding bicycle on this trip. At night when we walked into town, my father followed us on his bike, pedaling ahead and then falling back again, slowly circling around the moving caravan of his family like a sheep dog, his unzipped windbreaker flapping behind him like a cape. My mother was out front, leading our little group, clutching her purse, marching resolutely in her sensible shoes, passing sidewalk cafes and restaurants and souvenir shops. The town had become a tourist spot. Some of the bars even had Go-Go dancers out front. The lake had changed, it was no longer the idyll frozen in my mother’s memories.
During the day, Lake Balaton’s glimmering crystal surface lay calm, like a cool blanket. The water teemed with bathers, children and adults alike, swimming, laughing, shouting in Hungarian, a complex language that remained closed to outsiders. Once the sun had sunk behind the horizon the waves darkened and the yellows and oranges and pinks of the sunset intensified.
On the boat, couples and groups of friends were now all taking pictures in front of the evening sky, posing against the railing, behind them an explosion of color.
I studied their faces, their smiles frozen by the pre-flash which briefly illuminated their features and gave their pupils a chance to adjust before the camera took the picture. Each couple, each group of friends had a history of their own, versions of lives that unfolded according to their own logic. Was one set of choices better than another? How could anyone tell?
When David and I first met at Indiana University he took me to watch a space shuttle launch during spring break. We left campus in the middle of an April snowstorm and arrived in sunny Cocoa Beach, Florida two days later.
On the day of the launch, we got up early and went to the strip of beach in front of the hotel where we stayed. A small crowd had already gathered. David brought the digital video camera he had purchased for the trip. I was scanning the horizon, afraid we might somehow miss the big event, a fear that turned out to be comical. When the launch finally happened, half the sky exploded in a rising fireball of epic proportions.
David, who had pointed the camera in the wrong direction, whipped the viewfinder around to capture the spectacle, and accidentally shot a few close-ups of my unruly hair. Between spiky wisps the stratosphere erupted in a flash of light with a white-hot center surrounded by iridescent smoke. We marveled at the multi-color clouds that seemed to linger forever, despite the breeze that sent shivers through our thin t-shirts.
At a quarter to nine our ship left the dock, passing buildings and trees and a statue of a saint who was supposed to protect the harbor.
“Maybe this will be fun,” David said.
It was almost completely dark now, the last traces of light drained from the sky. The crew walked around with trays of plastic cups filled with cheap red wine and lemonade. Dance music came out of the enormous black speakers surrounding the upper deck which doubled as a dance floor. Nobody moved.
Above was the night sky. The buildings on the opposite shore had become dots of light. Strings of colored bulbs illuminated the ship, which had become a floating, pulsating lantern.
The crew was playing dance hits in English and Hungarian. What is love, baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more. The dance floor started to fill. We all watched, including the boys. The 9-year-old was sipping from a plastic cup of neon yellow lemonade. The 3-year-old was looking for a comfortable position to sleep on the narrow wooden bench. The sun had disappeared into the lake, yet the heat hadn’t broken yet
Someone turned up the volume, bit by bit. Songs that seemed mildly annoying but tolerable at the beginning of the journey morphed first into a nuisance and then an orchestrated assault. There is a point when music ceases to be music and becomes noise, background noise at first, the kind that interferes with a conversation and pixelates words until their meaning is lost. Once language is drowned out, sound of a certain magnitude becomes a physical deterrent, a repellant, like a citronella candle warding off mosquitos. Noise at this level saturates the air and dulls all other sensations. Maybe that’s the whole point of dance music, the narrowing down of all sensory input to a single dominant channel. When sound becomes louder still it turns into pain, pain that starts from the ear and radiates out, rhythmic and inescapable. There is a reason why playing loud music is one of the most popular forms of torture. It is as debilitating as it is difficult to trace, not leaving any outward wounds.
Despite or because of all of this, our younger son fell asleep, his cheeks flushed, his mouth half open, one leg slung across David’s lap, the other one dangling off the wooden bench he sat on. Slumped over sideways, his head had come to rest against my mother’s arm. He looked like a weary airline passenger, awkwardly snoozing on the shoulder of a stranger. Something in my mother’s posture had shifted. She stroked her grandson’s sweat-soaked hair with her free hand, careful not to move.