It was the summer of 1931 in New York City and Ilona was discovering that her life could be deconstructed and reordered in these, the latest pages added to the leather bound dictionary. Through judicious saving, her father had been able to steadily acquire a few pages each week. Every addition was read through, with Ilona carefully filling the margins, inking in miniature illustrations for some of the words, and fashioning a distinct look for each section. A for Appalachian, pertaining to a mysterious place called Appalachia, located in the vast country that rose and dipped well beyond the two rivers that bound her new city. B for bemuse, another kind of state that seemed to occupy an in-between space. And so on. In this way, she made her way from A through C.
Ilona had taken on the daily trips to the shops, looking for appealing ingredients that they could afford. Her mother was the real cook in the family, and Ilona was slowly learning how to keep them fed. She had begun to vary her path, just a block here or there, and had found a number of galleries and she lingered at their entrances or in front of the more important looking windows. During one outing, she saw working artists, in spattered pants and workmanlike shoes, inside an empty storefront. They had only the bare work lights and kept their woolen jackets buttoned. Inside, a woman with black hair and red lipstick was gesturing. She was pointing, a cigarette between outstretched fingers, at a spot on the wall. The men were sitting, legs splayed, yet they seemed alert to everything the woman was saying, tracking her as she walked. She was telling them something important and moved her arms in a sweeping motion. Ilona wanted to be there, in the room with them, asking where did they get their canvases, and could some be found for little money. Or how to build the wooden stretcher, where one could even find wood in the city. One of the men picked up a large canvas and pressed it to the wall, looking back to the woman. Another man caught sight of Ilona and turned to her with such a frank and expectant expression that she pulled back and hurried away. She would come again, some other day, when she could stand alone with the work and wonder about the men and the animated woman at the center of it all.
At home, the letter D had been freshly placed into the book and Ilona turned the pages, loving the feel of the words in her mouth, her new language. Dearth—a scarcity of that which is held dear. Depression. The world’s or her mother’s? She would read the official nuances between clinical depression and sadness after G through R were paid for and had taken their places in the book. Only then would they get to S and sadness. Even though Ilona could have already explained, if someone had asked, how depression deadens with the slow bleeding out of the spirit, while sadness rubs the skin raw and stabs at the heart with shards of brightly colored glass. Sadness held within it all the colors of her palette. Momma would never last through the collection of S, although that was now her particular letter, the start of the thing that would forever be her story, and to some degree, Ilona’s. She did not assign to her mother S for story. No. Momma would get the word suicide. That one was hers. Her mother failed at that, but it was still hers.
And so the collection continued, in a few short weeks E then F would be completed. Father, the man and the word, would be coming home with the pages, unfolding the paper wrapper, adding them to the growing book splayed open on its stand. Presently, it held dismay. The word was built from a hissing sound followed by a softly opened mouth like a prayer. She dipped her brush into the ink not needing to read the definition printed on the tissue-thin page. Ilona’s dismay was knowing that nothing can be rushed into being before its time.
She smelled Erich before they had exchanged any meaningful words, before she had seen the way his pupils dilated ever so slightly when he returned her gaze. She sensed him, nose first, like something feral, when she had to lean across the armchair to pass along a plate of cheese and crackers to the old woman who frequently visited. Erich had not leaned back, as most people would, especially men. It brought them close enough for her to take in his secret odors, not the stench of work or worry, but his primal, truthful scent. She recognized the very smell of him with a painful pulling in her belly, as if they had lain together again and again. So it was just a matter of time until they would begin. A woman would know these things, even with no experience to back it up, she was certain of that.
Then came the day Erich showed her a worn book of stories he always carried and he read one aloud. After that things progressed quickly, predictably. He sang a melancholy song in his unexpected baritone and when he looked at her in surprise that she did not recognize the tune, they smiled, beautiful teeth glistening in the dim room. She forgave him for forgetting that she came to this country too late to be indoctrinated in the common lore and seasonal songs that every student learns, everywhere in the world, some version of which she, too, had learned when she was young and her mother was still smiling Rosaline, the lovely, funny winner of her father’s heart.
Ilona and her father visited the asylum the morning they transferred her mother to a different hospital bed, her ravaged health terrible in the harsh light. Her mother’s life, once so large and central, was unspooling in front of their eyes. Cancer, the American doctor had said in his flat voice. It had spread, it was only a matter of weeks. What a waste the disfiguring suicide attempt had been, he seemed to be implying, but aloud he said “If only she had waited.”
“She has always loved irony,” Ilona’s father said and Ilona, who was holding his hand as they stared blankly back at the doctor, said, “Yes, she will be pleased with that.” They spoke the words in Hungarian, knowing as they did, that this American doctor would not understand that for their family it was not just a grim joke, but a pain shared and swallowed and left to grow among its members. That families like theirs, Magyar families, were formed along a communal bruise, each generation pressing along its edges, testing their forbearance.
Erich and Ilona came together one drizzling afternoon. It had been a long cool season of rain—so unexpected for the autumn—the rain falling in slanted sheets that ripped the leaves from the branches before their bright and beloved colors had fully faded into brown. They crashed together, and something inside Ilona wanted to devour him, to press her lips to the salty skin of this other, this strange man in the strange land. In the weeks that followed, she buried her mouth into the soft thatch of his underarm, she rocked him against her breasts in a singsong motion. She loomed above and pulled the clip from her hair, the dark waves spilling forward; she leaned over him, letting the ends trail across his face.
He liked to talk after. Some days that would be all they did. He drove a taxi, he came from New Jersey and both his parents still lived there. He read and tried to figure things out and one day he gave a ride to two actresses and he sang with them. He met Ilona’s father first, it was how they happened to come together. Over music, a small job brought about by a chance meeting, everything is chance, he told her. Ilona’s father had been an accomplished musician before coming to America. There was no chance in that, just endless hours of practice, but Ilona nodded, loving the way Erich looked, rumpled and searching, and how it felt when he touched her.
Some afternoons, Ilona would come outside with Erich and slyly wave goodbye on the corner before they parted. She would continue on to the shops, compulsively winding up on the sidewalk outside the storefront where the woman in red lipstick had stood among the paintings. There was a time she thought she saw one of the artists walking with his hands in his jacket pockets. She thought she recognized the scuffed and splattered boots, just as he disappeared around the corner.
Once, in the middle of making love, Erich spoke, urging Ilona on using words she knew were considered insultingly dirty and she slapped him hard across the face. They stopped, stunned. It may have been the conversation that went before, one of those testy conversations that can so quickly veer off in the wrong direction that made them cross and prickly. He had been wondering how it was that her mother, who was not a Jew—he did not think to use the word gentile, so typical, really—he wondered how her non-Jewish mother had married her Jewish father. Ilona had merely shrugged and he had added in a tone of real concern, but weren’t her parents worried that their children will never know who they are? Children? There was only Ilona, and she knew perfectly well who she was, and, besides, both her parents were from the same side of the Danube, and to some that was a keener distinction. Of course, he wasn’t really talking about her parents’ imaginary children, but his own. He was picturing his future and it would not include her. At that moment, she knew this would be the last time for them. And somehow it was only right that it should end this way and on that day. In a very few days, she would have no afternoons. She would be sitting vigil at her mother’s bedside, waiting for the end. In the emptiness that would inevitably follow, there would be time to reflect, with a mixture of shame and exaltation, at the void filling afternoons spent with the young man and his small book of stories.
She looked away, not wanting to meet his eyes. She brought her lips close to his ear, smelling his shaving cream, this little present he gave her each time, his newly shaved cheek. She spoke in her Uralic tongue, so closely that her lips brushed the tight folds of his ear. He responded to the rhythm and then to her urgency as she spoke faster, harsher. He did not know that she brought him to completion while reciting the words to a child’s song. It was one of the folksongs every child was taught in school and dutifully performed whenever the parents came to see what their young progeny had learned.
She was wrapped in his shirt, keeping his warm smell present and alive. Only this time, he would need the shirt back. He could not afford to leave it with her, not when there was no chance of collecting it again, cleanly pressed, on some other day. She could see it caused him some pain, in the way he hesitated before asking for it in an embarrassed voice. She took it off and offered it to him. She was in her slip, her hand stretched out and he took the shirt and left, the door shutting with its basso clunk of metal adjusting itself. She held her breath as she listened to the sound of his excision. His footsteps moved softly at first and then faster down each flight until the final burst and slam through the front entrance.
Upstairs, Ilona lay on the day bed, her one hand held up as if holding an invisible paint brush. If she were to attempt his portrait, it would be in front of these long, grey windows, streaked with rain. She would paint in blue- sketching in his features with indigo ink. She would use broad strokes for his body, the steeply sloped muscles running from his neck and disappearing into wide shoulders, the deep groove of spine flanked by sinew and strength. His cheek, yellow. His belly chalky pale. His face a crisscross of opposing lines, the startling coldness found in the whites of his eyes.
Ilona had thought, girlishly, that her life story would begin with her first lover. A would-be scoundrel or prince or husband, she was never certain on that point, only that it would be momentous, the crossing over into womanhood and bestowing her life with a new seriousness, a way of standing that made it clear she had arrived and was no longer a leaf, a blade of grass, a cotton dress to blow about in the wind. And it was true, she no longer felt unpossessed and too light to tether herself to the earth. But that was all.
She did not miss him after the first few months or at least not like she did those first weeks when she would weep in the night, rolling onto her side and pressing the blanket hard into her mouth to stifle a cry roiling up from the deep and swelling in her throat. Eventually, what she missed the most was the way he always called her by her surname. Not like it ought to be said, Furady, like gently calling Ffraddy, like a whisper. Erich said her name in his own way, drawing out the first syllable and striking the last like a point of punctuation. Fury-dee, he called her. She had never told him D was her favorite letter. Fury, too, was a word she knew was the unleashing of a bottled rage. A feeling best kept in the jar of yellow ink. She had not yet illustrated the recent additions to the book, and she paused, pen in hand, above the word. She will start high on the page and fill the margin—a miniature night sky with a gathering of clouds over the trees and tall buildings, just above the round wooden shack filled with water that blighted their rooftop. She will sketch all of this in precise detail and then will add a single dagger of stark yellow sweeping down from above.