Our lycee had its own uniform as did all others in Budapest. It included three sets of middy blouses and skirts, a winter and spring coat, a beret with the school's insignia, black shoes for winter, white for summer, gym clothes and a pair of gym shoes. These items were only available at a special clothing store that catered exclusively to private schools. There was a strict rule forbidding jewelry. If a girl wore as much as a fine gold chain, it was taken from her by the headmistress and put in the school safe until the end of the school year. It was impossible to judge a girl's family background by what she wore. Klari Erdely was the new girl in the third form. Two months into the fall term she asked me to come to her apartment after school, ostensibly to study our lessons together. She made tea on a hot plate in the two shabby rooms she shared with her father, a sports writer for the Pesti Naplo, the major daily newspaper in Budapest. After tea she taught me how to roll cigarettes. They were cheaper than the ones that came in packets, she explained. Her father had a fairly decent income, but the school fees and clothing costs were high, requiring the sacrifice of small luxuries. She lit one up and offered me another. My every instinct said no, but I didn't want her to think I was a coward. I puffed on the cigarette like an amateur at first, then she showed me how to inhale. After three drags I rushed to the bathroom where I caught a glimpse of my green face in Mr. Erdely's shaving mirror after my stomach had yielded my breakfast and lunch. Klari opened all the windows and gave me some cold water to sip. It took the rest of the afternoon for the natural color to return to my cheeks. The lycee had a strict code of conduct; if its rules were broken, punishment was swift and harsh. We were not to speak to each other while class was in session. Klari, whose creativity in the art of mischief knew no limit, circumvented school policy by scribbling notes on bits of paper kept inside her textbook. She dropped a pencil. Pretending to pick it up, she passed the note to the next girl in the chain who seized it and passed it around the same way. We had all been thoroughly trained to respect authority and found Klari's audacity titillating. The next time we spent an afternoon at her apartment Klari told me her parents divorced when she was six years old. I had suspected as much but thought it would have been tactless to mention it. Her mother lived in Switzerland with her second husband. This struck me as very racy. My parents had been utterly devoted to each other. Divorce was unthinkable in our family. Unlike most girls, Klari had freedoms unimaginable for any other girl of thirteen, whose every move was constantly monitored by the adults who governed her life. Klari was left to do as she pleased. Her father was on assignment all the time; soccer, tennis and water polo in the summer, skating, fencing and skiing in the winter. He covered every game and match. After we had been friends for a couple of months, she told me her father belonged to the Social Democratic Party. She asked me if I would like to attend a meeting. I was curious about everything in life and couldn't resist the invitation. I told my mother I was going to spend the evening with Klari because her father was on assignment. This was the first of many fibs I had to tell her to remain friendly with Klari; she hardly ever did anything I could discuss at home. My mother was an affectionate parent, but a fearful woman determined to protect my virtue. Her notion of child rearing was strictly Victorian. I thought it best not to speak of my adventures with Klari. The meeting was in the winter. We walked by moonlight past pale street lamps. The freezing temperature and the darkness gave the outing a sinister cast filling me with the delights of a lark and nervous anticipation. The party headquarters were in a part of town I had never seen before. The building was terribly old with paint peeling off the walls of the ascetic meeting room. About thirty or forty people sat on hard wooden chairs facing a worn desk at the front of the room that bore the marks of many years usage. Initials were carved onto its surface and spilled ink no one troubled to wipe up marred the veneer. Mr. Erdely, Klari's father chaired the assemblage. The party members sang the Internationale first, then discussed the upcoming elections. They wanted to paste signs on the walls all over Budapest, but agreed it had to be done in the middle of the night, just before the voters went to the polls lest the police foil their objective by removing them. Klari was called upon to recite a poem by Endre Ady before the meeting ended. Ady was not only Hungary's greatest modern poet, he was also a socialist. Her manner was poised as she spoke the words and I was surprised to hear the strength and maturity of an older woman in her voice. I had thought of her as a daring, rebellious adolescent who enjoyed pranks. That evening she revealed a deeper part of herself, more knowing than I had suspected. We were back at the Erdely apartment by ten. I was not allowed to be out alone after eight due to another rule dictated by school policy. I called my mother to have our maid come and fetch me. Klari's maternal grandmother, Mrs. Kulcsar, lived in the countryside about an hour from Budapest by train. Klari invited me there for a weekend during Christmas break. My mother insisted on meeting her and asked her to join us for dinner. Klari had a gift for making a favorable first impression. My mother perceived her not merely as a charming girl, but an honest one as well. Klari had gained her trust completely and I received permission to go. The cottage turned out to be comfortable as well as quaint. Her Uncle Marton, who lived with his mother, was thirty-five, unmarried and a member of the Socialist Party. He casually talked about his imprisonment while Klari and I were seated at the kitchen table in the morning, eating fresh home-made white bread that had just come out of the oven. We spread a generous amount of butter and marmalade on each slice and drank our morning tea as we listened to his tales of woe. Marton was a compulsive smoker, lighting each cigarette with the still live butt of the previous one. He also had a facial tic, wore frayed, ill fitting clothes and always had a stubble on his face. I wondered when he shaved. Could it have been in the middle of the night? If he never shaved he would have had a beard, but all he had was a coarse stubble. I thought I would consult with my cousin Andras about this, but discarded the idea of even mentioning the fact that Klari had an uncle. If my mother happened upon the tiniest jot of information she would have cross-examined me. I constantly feared I might spill some detail that carried no weight in my eyes, but would have been of great significance to her. She might never again allow me to visit the cottage. My mother quizzed me about the weekend after my return. I told her the cottage was lovely, Mrs. Kulcsar was hospitable, and I had enjoyed myself very much. This was not lying, I convinced myself; I was just telling her part of the truth. The next time I had tea at Klari's apartment she mentioned her parents divorce again. While we rolled cigarettes for her father she told me the trouble had started when she was five years old. Mr. Erdely owned a large sport goods store then and his wife came in to check the books once a week. She met Pal Dukay, a very handsome young ski instructor, when her husband hired him as a salesman from early spring until the snow began to fall. Klari was awakened by a violent quarrel between her parents during the middle of the night one year after Dukay had come to work in the store. Her father said he had proof of her mother's affair with him. Her mother cried out that she loved the young man deeply. Her father called her a fool and a voluptuary, a word Klari had never heard before, but by the tone of her father's voice she knew it was something he held in contempt. He reminded his wife that she was eight years older than her paramour and predicted Dukay would cast her aside the moment she was divorced, crying out, "Can't you see that your unavailability is your greatest attraction?" She told me his voice was angry and hurt. She did not want to hear her parents fight and pulled the bed covers over her head. Mr. Erdely was not a good looking man but his wife was a great beauty. Klari related that on Sundays, when they took a walk on Szent Margit's Island, she usually overheard whispered comments about her mother. Some said she looked like a film star, or that despite her youth she had the bearing of a queen. Others remarked that her husband must be very clever and successful to have won the hand of such a beauty. It never occurred to Klari that the idle chatter of old people sunning themselves on park benches was a matter of concern. She recalled their comments acquired new meaning as she lay trembling under her quilt. Dukay had always been kind to Klari. He had taught her to swim the first summer he worked for her father and to skate the following winter even though he had another job. He brought little presents for her as symbols of his affection and gave her a beautiful doll for Christmas. She liked him and trusted him and he repaid her affection by tearing her family apart. The afternoon she told me all this I quietly swore to myself that the one thing I would never, ever do was to desert a child. Klari and I became very close friends by the end of the third form. We bought roasted chestnuts in the winter from street vendors, who were usually old peasant women dressed in layers of tattered clothing and torn gloves. We went to the theater on Saturday afternoons and took long walks along the main boulevard in the spring. When cherries were in season Klari bought the first bagful from a sidewalk merchant and shared it with me. Budapest had a strict law against littering. Throwing a small piece of paper on the sidewalk carried a fine of two pengos, the equivalent of two dollars. When I dutifully put the first pit in the bag she laughed and asked me, "Are you scared?" spitting her pit into the street. "Not at all," I replied with deceptive insouciance, and spit the pits out, convinced the police were about to close in on me. On balmy days we ventured forth on a hunt for actors and popular writers who frequented sidewalk cafes on the boulevards. They usually drank ice coffee served in tall Pilsner glasses topped off with mounds of whipped cream. If we were in luck and spotted any, we rushed in for an autograph, taking them off guard with our youth and impudence. Klari and I also went swimming at the Gellert pool during that summer. It had an electronic wave machine simulating the ocean. Our second favorite spa was the Champagne pool on Szent Margit Island that boasted an electronic bubble machine. Sometimes we went to the indoor-outdoor pool built to train athletes for the Olympics. It was open to the public for a small fee. While Klari lived alone with her father she visited her mother each summer. She had made peace with her mother's marriage to Dukay. They were obviously happy together and treated her with love and kindness during her visits. They were generous with her despite their limited means. Her trust in her mother was restored. Soon after her return to Budapest after her summer visit in 1938, her father announced his impending marriage. After many years of living alone with him, Klari had come to feel less like a daughter and more like a helpmate. She perceived her stepmother-to-be as ugly and nasty and made unfavorable comments about her appearance and demeanor. I encouraged her to give her father's prospective wife a chance. "Her name is Olga. I hate it. A woman with a name like that can't be any good." "Don't be silly and don't pass judgment before you meet her," I counseled. A week after the wedding Klari and Mr. Erdely moved into Olga's elegantly appointed ten-room apartment on Andrassy Avenue near the Budapest Opera House. I was invited to tea after school. We were served sandwiches, cakes and tea on Dresden porcelain with silver spoons and forks and embroidered Belgian linen napkins. Klari was right about Olga. The woman was ugly, but she compensated for her uncomely appearance by surrounding herself with beautiful things, wearing expensive clothes and adorning herself with exquisite old family jewels. Honey oozed from her tongue as she urged me to have more pastry. When she was out of the room Klari told me Olga took Luminal. I had never heard of Luminal and asked her what it was. "A sedative. She takes it by the spoonful, she can't go to sleep without it." I could barely wait to get home to tell my mother about the wealthy woman Mr. Erdely married whose face was such a fright she ought to go around with a paper bag over her head. My mother chided me for making such an uncharitable remark. A new acquaintance happened to be at our home for tea. Unbeknownst to us, she was an old friend of Olga. No sooner did she leave our apartment, she rushed over to the new Mrs. Erdely to relay my remark. When I rang Klari the following day Olga answered the telephone. She icily told me never to call again. Furthermore, she said, Klari had been ordered to sever her friendship with me. We were never to see each other except for classes in school. I could hardly believe the malice of my mother's friend. I knew I had not displayed good manners in company but I trusted that anything said in our home would not go beyond it. I told my mother about everything that happened. She called her new "friend." After a brief conversation my mother terminated the budding relationship. However, she said I had to apologize to Mrs. Erdely. I said if I called, she would just hang up on me. "You're probably right," my mother said. "No woman wants to have it pointed out that her major attraction is her bank account. Men and women marry for money all the time, but they like to pretend they're motivated by true love. There is no limit to the extent people will fool themselves. I think you better let passions cool for a bit, then try to see Mr. Erdely in his office at the newspaper." I kept a substantial distance from Klari in school. I didn't want her to get into any more trouble and occupied my time with other friends. I studied with them in the afternoons and went to the movies or the theater with my oldest and closest friend, Dolly, nearly each Saturday. Terez Faludi and Agi Lengyel were my special classmates from the first form on. We exchanged confidences and visited the Fine Arts Museum on occasional Sundays. Terez, who was six months older than any of us, related that Bobby, a gymnasium student she just met had taken a fancy to her. He was in his senior year. We were very impressed by her acquisition of a boyfriend; perhaps even a little envious. After one week of interdiction, I began to worry about Klari. She surprised me by calling from a public booth. "I only have a few minutes. The witch is having her hair tinted. My father is taking Olga's side instead of mine. He is completely loyal to her. Can you believe it? She brought her mother up from their country home. The old woman eats chocolates all day and keeps her eyes on me every minute. She is so fat she looks like a balloon. I'm not allowed to answer the phone and I can't make any calls." "It sounds awful. How long are they going to keep this up?" "At least another month. Keep pretending that we had a falling out. She has every teacher watching me." Mr. and Mrs. Erdely lifted the ban at the end of November. Considerable strain had developed between Mr. Erdely and his new wife, Klari reported happily. In an obvious effort to placate her husband, Olga told Klari she could invite all her friends for a New Year's Eve party. She even ordered the cook to prepare her step-daughter's favorite dishes. The Erdelys were spending the evening elsewhere. I knew I would be free to attend because my mother was having a strictly adult party with a few of her friends and my cousin Ilonka was spending the evening with her fiance. We made up a guest list to include all the boys we were related to. One girl's cousin could be another girl's beau. Terez was coming with Bobby. We could hardly wait to meet him. Mrs. Erdely allowed Klari to use her phonograph and her collection of dance records. It was the first time we heard Bing Crosby sing "Please" and we thought he was divine. The food was delicious and the punch, made mostly with fruit juices, pleased our palates and quenched our thirst. The record collection included songs we heard for the first time and we liked it. All in all, the party was a huge success. After I danced several foxtrots and a waltz, I tried to get into the bathroom just before midnight. It was our custom to wish each other a happy new year and kiss our dancing partners. The door was locked. I used the second bathroom in the apartment. Terez was looking for Bobby, but couldn't find him. "Where could he be?" she asked me. "Probably in the locked bathroom." "I wish he'd hurry." Midnight came and went. Bobby joined us at twenty minutes after twelve. Klari appeared five minutes later. Terez became so upset she called for a taxi and ran out of the apartment. I went to visit her the following afternoon. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. I asked her if she had heard from Bobby. She said he had called to apologize and to tell her he fell in love with Klari. She sobbed on my shoulder as I put my arms around her. I promised Terez I would visit Klari to find out what happened. When I confronted her face to face, she told me Bobby had declared his love for her and wanted to kiss her, but not in front of Terez. He was a sensitive young man; he didn't want to cause his former girlfriend humiliation. I could not believe how they could possibly have thought that hiding in the bathroom would protect Terez's feelings. How could they hurt Teraz? She had been a good friend to all of us. I asked Klari what could have possibly brought on this sudden declaration of love just before midnight. Was Bobby struck by lightning and suddenly bewitched by her physical beauty? Klari became very defensive and pretended she had no idea why. I was very angry and told her bluntly I believed she had seduced him. "How could you even suggest such a thing. Only a tramp would do that. I thought you were my friend." "I am, but I'm also Terez's friend." We returned to school after Christmas recess. Terez and Klari avoided each other. Dolly and I felt very uncomfortable walking a tightrope between our two friends. By the beginning of February Klari was excusing herself from class to go to the bathroom every half hour. I asked her if there was anything wrong. She said she felt nauseous. She was so dizzy one day in school she had to be taken to the nurse's office. Her eyes looked red the next morning. She asked me to tea at the beginning of March. The minute Olga was out of the room she whispered, "I've missed two periods." "What are you worried about? It happens to girls our age." "You can be so dense! I think I'm pregnant." This was the most stunning revelation of my young life. Nice girls stayed pure. It was an ironclad rule I'd never known anyone to break. I asked her if she'd seen a doctor. She said it was impossible. The witch and her mother were still keeping her under surveillance. I wondered how she and Bobby could meet. In his apartment, she told me. He had invited her over when his parents were in Vienna for a couple of days. She told her father and Olga his parents had asked her to dinner. She had been on her best behavior and they believed her. Bobby's father traveled on business much of the time and his mother was always busy with friends, she explained. His mother told him she played bridge, but Bobby thought she had a lover. When his father was out of town she stayed out all night. I asked her what she was going to do. She said she wanted to be with her mother, had already asked her father's permission to travel to Switzerland for the spring term, but he expressed steadfast opposition. He insisted she finish the school year in Budapest and wait until July to visit her mother. By the end of April her abdomen was visibly swollen. The headmistress asked Mr. Erdely to come to her office for a meeting the following morning. He mentioned the approaching interview to Klari and asked what it could be about. She said she didn't know. When she was not at the breakfast table by seven-thirty, Olga went to her room to wake her. She found her in a coma and the empty container of her own Luminal on the floor. She became hysterical. Mr. Erdely, who later filled us in on the details, called the family doctor. Klari was rushed to the nearest hospital where her stomach was pumped. It was too late; she was dead. Klari's mother was at the funeral, her face covered with a black veil. She was accompanied by Mrs. Kulcsar and Marton. Some of the other girls from school came and cried, and wondered why Terez was absent. Mr. Erdely's newspaper colleagues and political associates attended. Dolly came with her mother and Lili and I attended with my mother. She had a strong sense of decorum and asked her couturiere to quickly tailor a black linen suit for me. I was wearing my first pair of silk stockings and high heel shoes. My reflection in the mirror showed a young girl on the brink of womanhood; I felt like a lost child. Mr. Erdely was a broken man. At a small gathering in the Erdely apartment following the services, I overheard him talk to my mother. "It's all my fault. If I had been a better father she would have felt free to come to me. I would have allowed her go to her mother and she would still be alive." "Life is full of ifs. You did your best. Don't pile guilt on top of grief," my mother said. It was my first experience of the death of a friend. Struck dumb with pain, I clutched my purse as if it were a life preserver. I watched and listened with adolescent awe as the adults freely expressed their feelings of sorrow.
Martha Nemes Fried was born in Budapest, Hungary and came to the United States as a teenager.
She has published two books in hardcover and paperback and is presently
working on a novel. Her short stories have appeared in Ceteris Paribus,
Megaera, Savoy Magazine and Dynamic Patterns.
Martha Nemes Fried was born in Budapest, Hungary and came to the United States as a teenager. She has published two books in hardcover and paperback and is presently working on a novel. Her short stories have appeared in Ceteris Paribus, Megaera, Savoy Magazine and Dynamic Patterns.
May 30, 2001