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 b