My budget for this basketball odyssey is a paltry $50 per diem. In order to make this work I must find free places to sleep. That means I have to rely on the kindness of strangers. It worked in Tel Aviv. My first generous host was Ron, who I met at a falafel stand. But would it work in Budapest, my next stop? Everyone in Budapest was a stranger. And nothing is stranger than the Internet.
A few days before I left the Middle East, I signed up for traveler's social networking site Couchsurfing. The site provides free lodging for the world's wanderers in exchange for nothing but company (and maybe Internet clout since the surfers and hosts can review each other's character after the stay). Since I did what I always do and waited until the last minute to find a host, I blindly sent couch requests to dozens of Budapest residents. I was surprised when I heard back that same day from D.C., a 30-something Israeli expat living near the city center who offered me an indefinite stay during my time in Hungary. I told him I'd be there and crossed that task off my to-do list and went about my final days in Israel.
My mother, who is keen on details and wary of total strangers (always on my behalf), asked that I forward her my future host's information. I promptly obliged. The following day, my mother texted me:
I brought up D.C.'s profile. Mom was right, per usual.
I could only laugh at the self-inflicted predicament. I considered staying with someone else who offered me a couch—a female student studying medical anthropology at a local university. But I had already told D.C. that I would stay with him and the neurotic pain of going back on my word and telling D.C. that I wasn't going to show up after all outweighed the guaranteed social discomfort. I couldn't even come up with a proper excuse anyway. My mom advised me to immediately be upfront when I met my host. I imagined the scenario: “Hey, stranger. Nice to meet you. I'm Isaac and I'm not gay.”
When I arrived at D.C.'s apartment complex it was past one in the morning. I promised myself that if any weirdness occurred I would handle the situation with humor and graciousness. When the cab pulled away I walked to the front gate where many stainless steel mailboxes with the names of the residents were located. I scanned the names until I found D.C.'s, but before I could press the buzzer underneath his surname a bright light shined from D.C.'s box. He was waiting for me. I shielded my eyes from the halogen beam. The front gate buzzed and mechanically swung open. I was led down the building's corridors by automated lights that preempted each of my steps. I carried my bags up the four-story staircase until I got to the top floor where I was greeted by an open door and warm light and faint music. I walked through the door and met D.C.
D.C. was short, shirtless and had Chinese characters tattooed down the left of his back. I stuck out my hand without putting down my bags.
"Hey, nice to meet you. Sorry for arriving so late."
"Oh, it's OK." He let loose a small smile and then hid it right away. "I always stay up very late."
D.C. didn't ask me any questions except what kind of beer I preferred: Heineken or Corona.
We sat across from each other at D.C.'s small IKEA dining table. I watched the cool bottle begin to sweat. I looked up at my host.
"So...How do you like Budapest? How long have you been here?"
"Oh, it's OK. I've been here a little while." I waited for something else. We just half-looked at each other. The condensation on my beer ran down my hand and onto his table. He reached over and wiped it off. I asked him another question:
"Oh, that's interesting. Do you miss Israel?"
This kind of questioning and response went on for a while. Then I asked him about his time serving with the Israel Defense Forces. He looked up at me with his eyes while he kept his head lowered.
"Oh, you'll find out soon..."
I couldn't tell if he felt like I was interrogating him and he was waiting for his attorney, if he was autistic, or trying to be coy and mysterious. Either way I was tired and told him that I was going to go to sleep. He stood up.
"The guest room is over there, but it doesn't have AC, so I think you should stay in my room; it has AC." Definitely at least Aspergers.
“Oh, that’s OK,” I said, and I walked over to the guest room and dropped my bags and lay down on the platform bed.
My naivety in couchsurfing was really willful disbelief. The Internet is 95 percent sex. People want to fuck and the Internet is the lubricant. Nothing in this life is free. I laughed at myself for my predicament. D.C. was not being creepy or fulfilling the male heterosexual stereotype of predatory gay coercion—he was just trying to get laid, an intention his profile made clear but I, in my clumsy last-minute-ness, ignored.
The next morning, D.C. lightly rapped on my door.
"There's breakfast for you."
I threw on some shorts and a shirt and stumbled out of the guest room and into the kitchen. On the table was a prepared five-course meal: perfectly circular fried eggs, orange juice, toast with schmear, sliced and salted avocados and a warmed pastry. I did not ask for this. And I felt a creeping sense of guilt and obligation to D.C. This must be what it feels like for girls when I insist on buying them drinks or refuse to let them pay for their food. Nothing in this life for free. But as awful as it felt, I still ate everything on that table.
After breakfast, and after D.C. wouldn't let me do my own dishes, we awkwardly parted. He asked me when I'd be coming back this evening. I told him I didn't know. I headed to the city center in search of courts…and other couches.