Written for International Women’s Day – 8th March 2016.
“We’ll go abroad.” Matyas says. “Just me and you, it will be romantic. How about France? Or Milan? I know a guy who can get you a job as a hairdresser there, you’ve always wanted to do that? This shithole is only good to rot away in.”
The man in the new leather jacket spits on the ground outside my mother’s apartment.
“You know as well as I do that the only way you can make something of yourself is to leave. Trust me princess, if you stay here you’ll lose your sparkle and fade away into nothing, just like everybody else.”
Matyas looks into my eyes, gripping my shoulders with his strong, smooth hands. “My princess. You’re too pretty for this place.” he says. The hopelessness ingrained in me from growing up in a town turned backwards by poverty ceases for a moment, and the warmth of fantasy pours down. I want to dance in it.
True, I was never going to become a successful businesswoman in the small town I grew up. Opportunities were next to none; everyone driven by poverty. Women either marry and have kids, sell drugs or they end up as whores. That’s just the way life was in that forsaken corner of the world, my world.
He always called me princess. In those first weeks we spent together I really did feel like I was walking through the scenes of a Disney film.
‘Cinderella,’ I thought, ‘the girl who went from poverty to prosper thanks to a handsome man.’ I ended up as the barely conscious girl of whom every strange suitor treated as a right. Sleeping beauty; beauty and all those beasts.
I haven’t known Matyas long but he’s generous and film star gorgeous. And anyway, I can’t stay, not in this town. For my whole life I have seen my mother slave for 12 hours a day doing field work, travelling for an hour on a rickety old bus each morning and night, barely affording to put food on the table. There is such little work available. A few years ago my aunt took to shoplifting and going into town to sleep with strange men for money. Anna’s ‘work’ is the shame of the family. It only gets mentioned in rare and heated outbursts during family arguments about money, usually followed by someone storming off. I would hate to end up like her. I pity her, and the thought of having to do that, it, each night makes my throat tighten up and a numbness wash over my body. I have a chance to be better than that and to make a life for myself that others would desire.
I have ambition, drive. A career in the city would suit me. I’m picturing myself cutting hair in a modern salon. Chatting to customers and colleagues about where they were going on their holidays, being paid a real wage, and then going home at night to the arms of a strong and loving man. Matyas? I feel dizzy. I continue to daydream sat on the bed in my small room at my mother’s dank communist built apartment. My window looked out to the train station. Since I was eight or so I’d had a recurring dream about running away but I always woke up before it ended.
I had met him in the local bar one Saturday evening in June. I had never seen him around before, or met anyone like him, anyone with money, but heard he was the cousin of one of my older brother’s friends. He worked away in the city, apparently, and abroad. The man drove a shiny Subaru and had an expensive watch. Considering that the residents in my town made do with cranky, aging Ladas, deemed too old and unfashionable for the richer European countries it seemed like a Bentley. My neighbours’ cars squeaked down the potholed roads and often broke down at inconvenient moments. I couldn’t have imagined Matyas’ shiny red motor breaking down any time soon. I didn’t stop to think that it might not even be his, and the purpose of its being parked on the street outside the bar might solely be to impress, to entice impressionable young women like me.
“International Trade.” Matyas says, his deep oak-aged voice sounds like desire as he orders me a martini. My finger come to a rest on the rim of my glass; as I look up at him he holds my gaze and I honestly think my chest is going to explode. A sexual enticement that’s founded on an innate confidence and heightened by effortless style, sharp foreign suits and slightly lop-sided smile. He looks like Ryan Gosling and I don’t move away when he moves his hand nearer to mine. Judging by the bulges under the material of his shirt, Matyas obviously works out at a gym.He keeps himself well groomed, I like that. He puts his hand on my arm and I sigh nervously. He’s so close now I can smell his aftershave. What is that? Bergamot? It’s nice, masculine. The music in the bar seems distant now and the illusion that we’re alone in a bubble stretching from the floor to above our heads, encasing both of our bodies. He kisses me and bites my lip so gently, but just hard enough to turn me on. The knots in my stomach do somersaults in the digesting vermouth. I giggle shyly and look around. I saw a group of girls from a nearby village casting me envious looks like daggers of jealousy. I hate to be competitive but I can’t help feeling a little bit of glee that he’s picked me when he could have had any one of them… They look away quickly and carried on with their hurried, tipsy conversation.
“Your beauty is bewitching, mind and body.” He says to me. He is interested in me and that is going to be my ticket out of here.
After sending flirtatious texts for a few weeks Matyas whisks me away to a 5* hotel in the nearest city. It’s smarter than anywhere I’ve ever been before, I’ve only ever seen this kind of opulence on movies. Luxurious white linen and little bottles of sweet smelling shower gel and shampoo in the bathroom, I feel like I’m living the life of a famous actress. I put on the white dressing gown from the wardrobe and dry my hair with a hair-dryer I find in a drawer next to a bible. Matyas hands me a glass of red wine and we sit on the bed, he starts to stroke my leg. It’s glorious feeling so cosmopolitan, so desired. I think of my aunty Anna, who said I’d never amount to anything and smile, triumphant. “To us.” We chink glasses.
I think of my mother and a pang of pain runs through my heart. To continue with my life I have to leave her behind. I ease my guilt by thinking of the money I could send her over once I got paid. Did they pay monthly? I wonder. Or weekly? Would I get paid by cheque or cash? There were so many things I’d have to get used to. What would I wear? How should I conduct myself professionally? What were suitable topics of conversation to speak about at work? The only job I’ve ever had before was cleaning a shop in town after hours and I didn’t have to speak to anyone.
When I tell my mother I’m leaving she sobs inconsolably but she does not try to stop me. “My precious girl, go and have the life I wished for you.”
Matyas had to leave town and is waiting for me in the capital. I hadn’t realised my aunt Anna knows Matyas and some of his friends, but she knows a lot of people from bars in town. Anna comforted my mother by saying she would accompany me to meet Matyas in the capital, which seemed to ease her worry. We were to set off on Saturday and spend the night in the capital. On Sunday Matyas and I would head off for our new life in Milan the next day. I prop up the small photo of him I have on my bedside table and turn off the light.