By Martha Nemes Fried  
  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 
    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 
    "Don't be silly and don't pass judgment before you meet her," I 
    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 
    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 
    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 

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.

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May 30, 2001
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