Anne Tourney

Into the Squat


Professional urban planners like me don’t know what to do with these modern ruins, the dilapidated remains of apartment buildings and shopping centers. Like aging, disheveled aunts, these structures haunt our cities, trailing their shattered beams and exposing the sheet rock beneath their thin walls. We destroy them not only to make way for something new, but to euthanize our failed ambitions. The intimacy of their deterioration embarrasses us; it reminds us of our own softness, our frustrated desires. They’re the lovers we can’t bear to leave, because as inconvenient and cumbersome as they may be, these abandoned buildings still hold our deepest secrets.


Behind the newly constructed hotel where I’m staying stands a squat that’s all but deserted. I see signs of life in the cells of the charred honeycomb: a faded sheet patterned with daisies hung out to dry on a balcony railing, a small light burning in the heart of the squat after dark. But officially, the building is condemned.

I’m only here in Budapest for one

week; the squat won’t haunt me for long. After my conference I’ll go back to the United States, to a dazzling metropolis where buildings are razed as soon as the paint dries. Progress is relentless. The growth of the New City is faster than light, faster than sound, and much faster than the growth of my attraction to the squat behind my hotel.

I spend most of my time trying to ignore the ruin behind my hotel, but the squat consumes the view outside my window. Behind the squat I see the steely glint of the Danube, forging its way to the sea. I requested another room, one that won’t force me to confront the squat day after day, but the hotel is fully booked this week. I’m lucky I found accommodation here at all.

I give up my fight with the hotel staff and tell myself to ignore her. For some reason, I find myself thinking of the squat as a female. Maybe it’s the intimacy of her gaping rooms, the way her interior exposes itself to my eyes. I don’t want to think about the remains of abandoned lives that lie inside that structure. I wish that I could turn away from her, but I find myself drifting over to the window again and again.

I close the blinds on my hotel

window and throw myself into my work. For two days, I manage not to think about her.

Then one night, she calls out to me. Out of the velvet tunnel of sleep comes a female’s cry, caroling through the darkness behind the hotel. The sound sends an electric tremor through my belly, straight to the tingling flesh between my thighs. Her voice rever­berates through my bones. Suddenly the squat isn’t just another ruin of an old regime, but an abandoned fortress, softening into an organic being that engulfs me with that wild, weird sound.

I climb out of my narrow, rented bed to look out the window, and in the stark beam of a security light I see the squat’s black interior behind shattered balcony rails and missing doors. Here and there along the dark expanse gleams a small light. Somehow, I’m not afraid. The squat calls me, her lights guide me, and I follow, shrouded in magic like an orphan in a fairytale. I’m not awake, but I’m not unconscious, either. I feel my way through a humid spring night, searching like a somnambulist.

The scream isn’t repeated, but I feel its reverberation in the night air as I

leave the hotel. I make my way through the aisles of parked automobiles, whose electronic hearts pulse visibly inside their plush interiors. I find my way to the building through a paved path behind the hotel, which is lined with new condominiums. Their angled walls and steeples rise against a waning moon.

These structures haunt our cities, trailing their shattered beams and exposing the sheet rock beneath their thin walls. We destroy them not only to make way for something new, but to euthanize our failed ambitions… They’re the lovers we can’t bear to leave.

The smooth pavement gives way to a vast vacant lot, which is carpeted with weeds and debris. I tiptoe through the rough grass, avoiding the glittering shards of broken bottles. Finally I stand at the foot of the squat, gazing up into the ruins of organized domestic life. Was it a fire that cleared out this building? Or just the brutal push of progress?