|The author in Budapest, 2007|
I performed three Bartok folk songs yesterday. With the performance came this memory.
One rainy evening in early October 2007, on a winding residential street in Budapest, Hungary, I got lost. I pulled out my notebook, squinting at the greying street signs as I tried to decipher something about my location. “Utca,” I mumbled, looking at the hastily written glossary I had begun building the day before: “Alma=apple. Gyorgy=health. Ut=street.” So “utca” must mean lane or little street.
I was illiterate, surrounded on all sides by new construction, hastily built stucco and plaster mansions for the nouveau riche who were coming to the formerly Soviet country in droves. I had a sudden vision of my body, violated and strangled and tossed by Russian gangsters in one of the many blue dumpsters that held construction-site waste. The gruesome vision quickened my pace as the rain stung my face and bare arms in the fast encroaching dusk.
I was afraid and alone. I felt in that moment that if I disappeared, no one would miss me.
My then-husband and I were in Budapest so he could compete in the Rubik’s Cube World Championships. We had taken a romantic Danube cruise earlier that afternoon, admiring the soaring span of the rebuilt Elizabeth Bridge, the reconstructed Parliament building, the bleached white Fisherman’s lookout.
“I want to go for a walk,” I told him after the cruise. I hoped—how foolish!—he would offer to come with me.
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll meet you back at the hotel.” I was too proud to ask for help, too proud to admit how lonely I felt. So I walked away.
Now, cold and unprepared, I shivered, seeing the spider cracks in our foundation, spreading and threatening to destroy the entire edifice of our marriage. Our perfect marriage.
My cheeks were wet, though I couldn’t tell the tears from the rain. I thought of Thomas Wolfe: “A stone, a leaf, an unfound door, of a stone, a leaf, a door.” Where was the door that would set me free?
Then I heard the violin music. It was Bartok, a simple folk song, with words I had learned as a child to sing in English: “Give to me the roses red, two I said! One alone would die forlorn, e’er the morn. Oh, no no! Off you go! Both of them are mine.”
I had stumbled in my peripatetic folly upon a music academy, and I listened in delight to the clean, crisp, rhythmically surprising songs of the Hungarian composer I’d studied when I was young. The music filled me with the joy of childhood discovery, the sense that things were possible.
I climbed the nearest hill, the music receding into the twilight. Searching for the lights that glittered along the Danube, I saw my way back.
When I entered the hotel lobby, drenched, shivering, my husband did not look up from his varicolored cube. I stumbled to our room and collapsed into a merciful, dreamless sleep. When he told me the next day, “You don’t love me like you used to,” I looked away, remembered Bartok’s roses.