97. The Campground

OFTENTIMES I FIND MYSELF thinking about Imre and Lazslo and Attila in the back of the car sharing a bottle of brandy and arguing about something inconsequential, something only three men can argue about, and not just any three men but three men who love each other like brothers, who despise each other like brothers too, men who could just as well kill each other as die for one another. And meanwhile Yasmin and Anita are sitting alongside me in the front, sharing a cigarette and laughing to the edge of exhaustion, to the point of annihilation even, paying the men behind us no attention, laughing at the kind of thing only women can laugh about, and not just any women but women who have known each other forever, who have known each other too long. I recall drives down to the coast with all the windows down, on hot July nights when sleep was out of the question. I can picture the campground on the beach that only opened in the summertime, with a small bar that stayed open until dawn every night. I picture the owner, whose name was Renan, moping around, complaining that the village had been ruined by local gangsters and thugs on holiday from the capital. I remember thinking he was going to seed in this miserable little beach town, and urging him, You really need to do something with yourself, adopt a child or something, write a book, anything, just to stop yourself from becoming a travesty of yourself, a figure of fun with the neighbourhood children. But, he replied, I am already a figure of fun with the neighbourhood children. Driving down to the campground by the beach is something we must have done twenty, thirty times that summer. Sometimes we brought tents with us, sometimes we slept on the ground out in the bar itself. Often we were its only customers, although it's hard to tell, as sometimes I conflate things that happened on two, three, four different nights into a single one. Other times I split a single night - the more eventful nights heaved with drama, they were Breughel-like pits of joy and despair - into two, three or more different storylines, threatening to turn my memories of them into an infinite ocean whose exploration can never be complete. And of course there is no way of verifying my memories, cross-referencing them against someone else's memories, checking them for accuracy, for the others are all gone now, Imre and Anita live abroad, Laszlo and Yasmin are divorced, and as for Attila no one quite knows what could have happened to him, except maybe for Imre, and he has never showed the slightest inclination to tell us anything. As for the campground, it no longer exists. Its demise dates back to that very summer. In August we noticed a car parked almost permanently outside the entrance of the campground. Renan thought they were local gangsters trying to panic him into paying protection money. Consider it a form of insurance, we said, urging him to pay the money and be done with it, promising him we would keep coming, vowing to bring more friends from the city. Eventually the campground burned to the ground one night in late September, after we'd stopped going. Somebody heard on the grapevine that some local gangsters were somehow responsible, after Renan had refused to pay up, although, the rumour went, Renan had just taken up fire insurance. That was the end of our drives to the coast. Renan moved elsewhere, for one thing - no one knew exactly where, although there were conflicting theories. At around the same time Attila vanished too, without warning, without explanation, without leaving the slightest clue. Then we all in turn received visits from the police - Interpol, actually - telling us they were investigating the fire at the campground. I told them that as far as I knew it was just another sordid village mafia story, that quite frankly I missed Attila and wanted to know where he was as much as anyone. When one of the cops asked me if I had perhaps been romantically attached to him, I replied, Let's not mince words, Inspector, I was in love with him, but I have told you everything I know, which is nothing. I never heard more from Interpol or from Attila - he simply vanished. Through all the intervening years, I have oftentimes imagined him living a new life somewhere, with a new woman, new friends, a comfortable life perhaps, assuming everything went according to plan and he and Renan split the money as agreed and didn't throw it away on something inconsequential. Other times I have imagined him dead, a corpse rotting in a shallow grave somewhere, or under a body of water, maybe even the sea. I have gone over and over the events of that summer, trying to find a possible flaw in the plan, something we did not foresee despite our meticulous planning, a blind spot. I have imagined countless scenarios where something went wrong, despite our endless rehearsals, despite our best efforts. Try as I might, there's nothing I can do to stop myself from remembering. It is a quite involuntary act, I have learned, even - especially - when it is most painful, one memory followed by another, then another, like drops from a leaking tap, or the incessant lapping of waves on a shore.