03. 12. 2007. 09:40

Violetta's Surprise (short story) II.

Paul Olchváry

"...on sleek black roller skates and carrying a thick, leather-bound book, was King Matthias. He, too, wore a Burger King crown, over a thick red wig that reached his shoulders. (...) Why, I wondered, was the king, who was supposed to be incognito amongst the peasants, wearing a crown?"

There was Violetta, too. At first I considered the spectacle coming my way with the detachment of someone watching a comedy film at home. Indeed the air was so soothingly warm and the traffic was so hushed by now, that momentarily I really did feel as if I was already at home watching the absurdity unfold on television: as if the reality suggested by the image was a safe distance away.

How impossible it was, however, to say just where this reality ended and the image began, and just what role I played in the whole affair! Was I drunk or stoned? I was neither.

Sure enough, there she was, my love, my Violetta, on the back of an elephant—an Indian elephant, I thought, for the ears seemed appallingly small—at the head of a parade heading up Andrássy Street toward the Oktogon, where the boulevard had now been blocked off by the police.

Only the next day did I learn, from Zsolt, how smashing I looked on the evening news spot about the promotional stunt for Mihály’s musical Matthias the Just. How I’d run about for all the city, nay, all the country to see between a slowly moving police car up front and that elephant. With one hand I held the champagne bottle like a club; with the other I angrily flailed that bag of ravioli. All the while I edged backward to accommodate the snail’s pace of the parade. I shouted, with a mix of humiliation and rage, “Violetta, would you mind telling me what you’re doing up there?”

As I learned later, Mihály was pleased at this unexpected turn of events, for although my words were indistinct on the news, this minor scandal was just what it took to assure the inclusion of the spot on the seven-thirty news on state TV. It was seen, he estimated, by three million people, from the foothills of the Alps in the west all the way to Transylvania in the east. Why, if interest in his musical picked up, he might even have to move the venue from Margaret Island to the larger stadium on the outskirts of downtown.

Violetta, my Violetta, was dressed like the queen of Sheba, adorned with jewels from head to toe. Minus a pair of skimpy leotards, there wasn’t much else on her seductive body. This was not my image of Beatrix. Come to think of it, never, so far as I could recall, had I seen a depiction of Beatrix that resembled any other. In one image her face was slim and comely, if somewhat conventional, like that of Violetta; in another it was chubby and worn, rather like that of her much older husband, Matthias. The book of legends I’d read as a boy spoke of her as a beauty all right, but then I also recalled a biographical novel according to which her single remarkable feature consisted of penetrating eyes. But never mind all that. Did Beatrix wear leotards? Was her hair pulled around each side of her head and over her full round breasts like armor? Did she, I ask, wear a Burger King crown? This last distinguishing characteristic, it turned out, was Mihály’s farcical statement on the intermeshing of the shallow, money-grubbing values of the present and the traditional culture of the past. It wasn’t a bad idea, I’ll grant him that much. Many a time I’d passed by a grimy old bum who sold wilting flowers in  subway stations and, yes, wore a tattered Burger King crown. Surely most Budapest residents, like me, had seen that ludicrous-looking fellow, so in this respect Mihály was all but sure to elicit the reaction he intended. But never mind all this. Did Beatrix ride an elephant at all?

As my thoughts flitted about this way and that, the police car came to a halt, as did the TV van off to the side. An officer jumped from the front passenger seat and walked toward me with a dumb, determined gait, but before he could get a word in edgewise, Violetta called out, “Surprise!”

“What do you mean, ‘surprise’?” I shouted frantically. The camera was rolling to my side, but what did I care?

“Didn’t you get my message?” The elephant trumpeted loudly, impatient to return to the good old zoo after this once-in-a-lifetime harrowing stroll through downtown. As Mihály told me later, the Budapest Zoo had only been too happy to loan out Csoma the Indian elephant for a pretty little sum.

“What message?” I shouted. The policeman was now at my side, and despite a confused scowl he kept quiet, since it must have been apparent that the two of us knew each other.

“On the answering machine—to meet at the corner, at the Oktogon, at six-thirty.”

I wanted to answer gruffly: Did she think I had the time to go home first from that day’s appointments—I had to drop off a translation and then pick up my pay for another—before meeting her at five-thirty as we had agreed, so I could listen to a lousy message that might not even be there? No doubt she would have retorted that, in fact, she’d left the message yesterday and that perhaps next time I should review the tape more carefully and stop thinking about other girls; besides which, I might have taken the trouble to review my messages over the phone. We didn’t sleep together every night, living so far apart as we did; besides which, Violetta’s ungrounded suspicions about how I spent those other nights irritated me to the point that I took pleasure in simply staying home alone, casting aside all thoughts of companionship in bed and instead fixing myself some chicken paprikash, reading and smoking and working and writing letters to friends, and turning the ringer off the phone—all with the fringe benefit of spiting Violetta. Ironically enough, however, the pain or the fear that this invariably evoked in me—Was she distressed? Was she screwing someone else?—was precisely why I wanted us to live together. Which is not to mention the fact that I loved her, or at any rate I had loved her through the afternoon, while the rain had lasted and assured my somber mood, and I was sure of loving her for several hours at a stretch at least a few days a week.

But there was no time for us to say all this; for the young policeman finally lost his cool and took me firmly by the arm. I could feel his fingers—I counted: one, two, three, four, five—dig in hard, like a vice. Did I know what was good for me? He asked me this much and then let go. My thoughts were still focused on Violetta, so before I had a chance to articulate a reply, he added, Well, if I decide I do know, then I’d better scat and leave the paraders in peace—they’ve got a hungry elephant to return to the zoo. Or, if I wish, I could hop into the back of the squad car, in which case I’d have some questions to answer later on at the station. Had I ever been to the station? They have coffee at the station—it’s cheap coffee, he said, but then again, I wouldn’t get any, anyway. But I could make friends with some real nice Gypsies. How about that? I said Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, but before moving off the side I managed to get in one more question to Violetta. Now the cop and I were standing squarely between the squad car and the TV van. As poor Csoma ominously raised his trunk high up into the air, Violetta, looking down upon us as if in judgment, now looked positively like a queen. Where was she going? I asked her. Anywhere my heart desires, replied Violetta-turned-Beatrix. That’s not what I mean, I said. I mean now. Oh, she said, hushed, to the zoo, of course, to return Csoma. Meet me by the front gate at seven-thirty, huh? I implored her. Violetta nodded, but it sent a chill up my spine: this was not the deferential nod I had seen many times before, in a thousand variations that all boiled down to the same thing—obedience, I called it. No, this was a patronizing nod accorded by a queen to a subject.

And so I backed off to allow the procession to continue. Now that I could see it all from the side, I saw plainly what a little parade it was. In the lead were Violetta and Csoma, whose penis, even limp, seemed almost as long as I was tall. Behind them, on sleek black roller skates and carrying a thick, leather-bound book, was King Matthias. He, too, wore a Burger King crown, over a thick red wig that reached his shoulders; his nose was sharp and prominent and his cheeks were plump, not only like those of the bona fide Matthias but also like Mihály’s, except that they expressed not resolve but an almost feminine look of anxious apprehension. Why, I wondered, was the king, who was supposed to be incognito amongst the peasants, wearing a crown? Matthias, who was otherwise decked out in a plain, period costume, resembled the sullen-faced British fellow who had struck up a conversation with me a couple weeks earlier as I was dressing to leave a Turkish bath, complimented my hair, and proposed that we go have a coffee together; I told him that would be splendid, gave him the name and address of an imaginary café deep in the Buda hills, told him I’d be waiting for him there that evening at eight, and I left in haste, never to see him again.

On second glance I recognized King Matthias for who in fact he was: a famous comic actor. So Mihály had managed to round up at least half a star-studded cast. The King, who was zigzagging about on his skates, waved now and again with his free hand, his large palm sweeping the air back and forth like a pair of windshield wipers. He nodded sublimely to the camera. Except for some stray, nonplussed shoppers, there was no crowd to speak of.

Bringing up the rear, there sat Mihály, the seasoned choreographer, behind the wheel of a shiny blue Mercedes capped off with a huge, three-sided sign advertising the musical. Behind him was yet another police car. 

What to do? I had almost an hour, but not wanting Violetta to elude me this time, I figured it would be wisest to head them off rather than try to keep up with the procession on foot. Given the king’s roller skates and Csoma’s brisk pace, they were moving along at a good clip. And so I let them pass by, crossed Andrássy Street, and walked up a couple blocks to the underground station there. On peeking down the tracks to the left I could already glimpse the headlights of the oncoming car.

Four stops later, at the Széchényi Baths in City Park, I got off and walked to the other side of the ivy-covered, massive old building housing the baths and then across the road that skirts around the park, to the zoo. There I awaited the ridiculous little troupe. The park’s many trees gave the impression that the sun had nearly set. But, over Andrássy Street and Heroes’ Square, I knew, the day was still very much alive. My watch read seven. I waited.

Finally I saw her, in the distance. There was Violetta, coming around the bend on Csoma the Indian elephant at Gundel’s Restaurant. As fixedly as my eyes held them in sight, never had Violetta seemed as far away as now. I puffed away at another Multi. Looking their way all the while, I bent down to pick up what appeared from the corner of my eye to be bit of stray tar. I squeezed and shaped this tar in my palm before realizing that it was a desiccated piece of dog shit. Then I walked back across the road to the baths, my stinking hand fidgeting with emptiness, and watched as Csoma strode eagerly back into captivity. Violetta didn’t even turn her head. The king, who by now was holding his crumpled Burger King crown in a hand, rolled right in on his skates. 

Mihály parked his Mercedes across the street, a stone’s throw from my post on the steps leading to the main entrance of the baths. All at once he slumped behind the wheel as though he had died. But then, eyes still shut, he slid a cigarette between his bullfrog lips and lit up. A Marlboro. That much, I could see from the red-white box. Mihály was waiting for my love to come back out. Figuring I’d use the element of surprise to my own advantage now, I walked over to the open window. The cop cars had left, as had the TV crew. Except for an unusually meager flow of pedestrian traffic along the edge of the park, Mihály and I were alone. I was about to lean down and say something witty; something like, “So, nice parade, but Csoma—that his name?—didn’t look too thrilled . . . ” But then a tender, perfumed palm covered my eyes from behind. Violetta giggled. I waited in vain for her to introduce me to Mihály before realizing that all the travelling I’d done had spoiled me: while in America people might concern themselves with bringing strangers together to assure that no one is left sulking alone in a corner and everyone is happy, here in my native land it was up to me. I pronounced my name and extended my right hand, realizing with a malicious sense of satisfaction that some of the stink just might rub off on him. He replied in kind, crushing his half-finished cigarette in the empty ashtray, but his eyes still seemed closed as he began to pronounce his last name. Although Mihály was not dead, after all, it seemed that he strained to recall his first name, which of course I knew full well. All at once, however, his eyes popped open as if to an alarm, and he said with an odd, lascivious grin as we obediently squeezed each other’s palms, “Mihály.”

“That was some parade,” I said.

“It was a procession, not a parade,” replied Mihály. Fine beads of sweat glistened on his high forehead, and a fat vein pulsed just above one of his eyebrows. “Got that?”

Never had I met anyone before who could say such words, “Got that?” without so much as a hint of malice evident in his tone of voice. Mihály had done just that. He appeared to have meant it objectively, even cordially, to affirm that I had understood. In reply I mumbled, “Oh, yes.”

“Let’s go,” he said. Violetta climbed into the front seat.

“Where?” I asked.

“Oh, to have a drink.”

“I’d love to,” I said, “but I’ve got to work.” It was a lie, of course. Today was my birthday, and Violetta knew this, too.

“Coffee, I mean.”

“Where?”

“The café at the Béke Radisson Hotel. Smaller but far superior to the one at the Forum Hotel, you might say. A statelier affair, not to mention cozier. Just for a few minutes. They’ll tape the news spot from the TV. I can watch that later. I’ve heard so much about you.”

The hotel was just a few minutes away by car, on the Ring Boulevard near the West Railway Station. I got in the car and sat behind Violetta. While Mihály drove I pinched her, once, but she squawked, “Stop that!” And so I lit up. Violetta said, “Mihály doesn’t smoke in his car.” I thought: what had he been doing before we started off? But I said only, “Why not let him speak for himself?” Mihály said, “That’s right. But if you open the window and lean your head out a bit, that’d be all right.” I said, “I can wait until the hotel.”

The Radisson was compact but elegant enough. True, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the row of overhanging lights in the hotel lobby: big white dull globes not unlike those in the cheapest, smokiest restaurants in outlying towns. Things looked better, though, as we walked up the plushly carpeted stairs to the café. Along came a shy, blushing waitress who asked us, quite unnecessarily, if we wanted to sit down. What did she think we wanted to do? The round marble table had four velvety chairs. Was I the only one wondering how we were to sit? Mihály went straight for the chair by the window niche overlooking the now dark boulevard. This provided him a commanding view of the goings-on in the café. Smart, I thought, the man may not be pretty but he has a mind for strategy. There he sits like some general, confident in the awareness that his men have made it to the top of the hill before the enemy. Was I the enemy? Violetta sat next to him—not conspicuously close, true, but close enough. I was left with little choice: I took the seat beside her. And so she was sandwiched between us. The empty chair divided Mihály and me.

For a long time we studied the menus. I then looked up at Mihály, hoping that perhaps the sight of his bullfrog face would console me. But I could not stop thinking: this is my birthday, and here I am sitting at a table with my girlfriend, who is wearing only leotards under her sweater, and another man, an aging but confident choreographer who smokes Marlboros and sure looks like he wants nothing more in life than to fuck her brains out. Maybe he does want her, maybe he doesn’t. I could be misreading things. In any case, she seems open to the idea and I’m not so sure there’s much I can do to stop her if I’m right. But I must keep all this to myself. That much is certain. If I even hint at it she’ll think I’m jealous, and my position will be even worse than it seems now. Mihály’s thick, bullfrog lips now parted, and I imagined him letting out a croak.

“Violetta’s a talented girl.” She smiled, flushed.

“Yes, of course,” was all I could say. How I wanted to contradict him, to say, I know her, I love her, but you just want her, you don’t mean it, you sly bullfrog, you. Then it occurred to me that perhaps I was now beginning to love Violetta once again mostly because she seemed so far away and not so much because in fact I really loved her. So how could I reply as I was all too tempted to do? Could I pretend to know Violetta  more than Mihály did? On the basis of personal observation borne of regular contact? What was this worth compared to Mihály’s professional opinion?

“I certainly hope you don’t mind my stealing her away a bit to exploit her talents. Violetta’s talents demand exploitation. They cry out for it—a piercing, poignant cry. I am grateful for the day I walked into that library. It’s been only a few weeks. But these things take time, you know.”

A different waitress took our orders. She was easily ten years older than me, a tall, seductive woman who undoubtedly had given birth to one or more children, but whose body had emerged from the experience robust and healthy, having lost that gangly  look that plagues so many younger women. Further, although she didn’t smile even once, she was no run-of-the-mill waitress: the years had driven from her face the fickle glumness that so often afflicted Violetta, leaving in its wake a supple, intelligent, sexy acquiescence to all the shit life presumably cast her way. Before Mihály could do so, I prepared to order for Violetta, as usual. “What will you have, dear?” I asked with exaggerated tenderness. “A slice of walnut cake,” she replied in a firm tone which belied the embarrassed smile she had conjured up a moment before. She looked squarely at the waitress, adding, “and a cappuccino.” They were out of walnut cake, said the waitress. “A poppy-seed roll, then,” said Violetta without hesitation. Her certainty embarrassed me, since I for one was still hopelessly torn between Eszterházy cake and an apple strudel and another rice pudding. In fine cafés they use real butter in the Eszterházy, this king of cakes that has more ground walnut packed into its rich layers than does walnut cake; which is not even to mention its sweet white icing ornamented with fine ribbons of chocolate. Then again, I was awfully fond of apple strudel, and there weren’t too many fine specimens to be had in town—only in places like the Radisson and the Forum, which I couldn’t afford to visit too often. As for the rice pudding with fruit, my old standby, although it would surely be better here than at the Sziget, I had already had one that afternoon.

Such were my thoughts when Mihály pronounced, “An Eszterházy cake and an espresso.” Thus my choice, an apple strudel, was the result of a simple process of elimination; for I could not appear to be tagging along with Mihály, and I’d had enough rice pudding for one day. Craving bitterness, however, I also ordered an espresso; that much could safely be done without raising attention.

The waitress walked away. Violetta must have caught me glancing contemplatively upon her ass, for she said, in a renewed tone of tenderness—perhaps borne of guilt, but this only made me feel worse— “Happy birthday.”

I pretended not to notice, at first, but a delayed sense of decency then compelled me to force a grim nod, which I nullified by turning toward Mihály and asking, “Will she sing?” The silencing effect of the nod still lingered, however, for a few interminable seconds later, before either of them could reply, I added, “You will sing, Violetta?”

“So you misunderstand,” said Mihály, “don’t you.” He looked momentarily more like a hyena than a bullfrog as he now bared his formidable teeth just before methodically lighting another Marlboro, as if in an ancient ritual of reverence for smoke. As before, however, there was no harshness in his voice, only a muted compassion—compassion for me? He continued. “Beatrix will sing. And how. She will outsing Matthias. She is the embodiment of the West, you might say: desirable but shrewd, concerned more with refurbishing the royal palace to suit her own, carefree taste—open, airy, sunny rooms, marble and all that—than with Hungary. She’s young, the flirtatious sort. Doesn’t make a big impression on the court, on those stuffy old blokes. Matthias is too old for her, anyway. He’s not concerned so much with passion, you might say, but with his domain.”

I couldn’t help but ask, “You mean Violetta can sing?”

“Ah, but you misunderstand,” he repeated, but then seemed to evade whatever it was I didn’t understand. “Beatrix is a symbol, you might say, of the simultaneous good and bad wrought on Hungary by its newfound association with the free, capitalist world. Burger King crown and all, she will be a living statue—the most daring role of all, you might say, for her effect on the audience will be dependent on one thing, really, one thing above all: her resonance. Her ‘glow,’ you might say.” I was getting tired of Mihály repeating “you might say,” for it seemed he did so not out of uncertainty or agitation but by an underlying conviction that I was compelled to agree with whatever he said, so that the phrase was simply a gracious euphemism for this bitter truth. I lit another Multi to confront him and his Marlboro, and to indicate my disgust. Mihály didn’t catch on, though, for he continued, “You misunderstand.”

“And you will dance?” I turned politely to Violetta and asked, with a mixture of envy and dismay, “You will dance, my dear?”

Violetta, biting her nails, almost laughed. “You do misunderstand, don’t you?”

“She’s a talented gal, er, woman,” said Mihály, puffing away. “Everyone has to start somewhere.” Beatrix—no, Violetta, I’d confused Violetta with Beatrix—didn’t seem irritated by the smoke coming from between Mihály’s bullfrog lips. “It would be superficial, I think, to call what she will do, dancing.” This time, rather than inject the “you might say,” he removed the cigarette from his mouth, clenched it awkwardly between his thumb and fat palm, and accusingly pointed his index finger—at me? Or behind me?

I had no idea what he was getting at until he added, “This will be Hungary’s Aida, you see. Hungarian lighting, Hungarian elephants, and so on. And it will work.” You might say? I thought, dubiously recalling the disastrous performance of Aida not so long before, which he had referred to, when for all the parading of exotic creatures about town, and the vast amount of money spent on the first great operatic production in newly capitalist Hungary, the debut performance was called off at the last second, after everyone had taken their seats, because the French lighting crew had been unable to make the lights work. So this was Mihály’s grand ambition aside from sleeping with Violetta: to pull off a musical as grand as the rock opera that had swept the nation off its feet some decades earlier, István a király—Stephen the King. A sort of Jesus Christ Superstar, except with Hungary’s first Christian king, crowned in the hallowed year 1000, as the hero.

I had no idea what to say. I puffed. Mihály puffed. And, it seemed, Violetta edged that much closer to the aging, amphibious choreographer. I was pleased to notice that he looked more intimidating in Népszabadság than in real life; he was conspicuously shorter than me, and he had no facial hair from what I could tell. The truth was, those Marlboros didn’t impress me much, either; knowing that he was a choreographer and that choreographers, like others in the world of performing arts in this part of the world, prefer Marlboros to Multis, they only made him seem like just another snob. And that, to me, signified a certain triteness of the soul that I couldn’t be bothered to deal with. What disturbed me nonetheless was Mihály’s apparent hold over Violetta; on leaving this café, it now seemed almost certain, I would go one way and they would go another way. Although I tried my best to think other, happier thoughts, a picture was inexorably developing in my mind: Mihály and Violetta making love, his bullfrog lips on her breasts, her mouth around his shy, secret, blossoming flower. Chilled to the bone, I said, tensely, ready to leave, “So what about the dance school? It’s so she can dance, no?”

The seductive waitress now arrived with the pastries and coffee, diluting the force of my question all in one blow. Not that I looked at her for long, not this time. We began to eat. Violetta sipped her cappuccino; Mihály and I, our espressos. Mihály wasn’t flustered a bit. We were from different worlds. He had an answer for everything. Either he was of aristocratic or at least bourgeois stock, or else the peasant in him was a couple generations removed from the earth; then again, perhaps his folks had been urbanite commie cardholders whose kids could do little to express themselves but question the values of their parents, while generally doing so on their parents’ resources and going abroad and to the theatre and all that, in the end, only to form the crux of a bastardly new aristocracy. Most of them had become active fledgling Party loyalists by high school, then lived lucratively off the contacts they established with others who, like them, had tied their compromises “reluctantly,” only to jump ship when the political tide turned the other way, insisting they’d always thought of leaving the Party anyway. I didn’t buy it. If you think of something, do it, and hell with the consequences; that was my motto, anyway. Like Violetta, I’d been raised in a village outside a mid-sized city well away from Budapest; my folks had been simple people, the sort who slaughtered hogs and sipped fruit brandy before breakfast and wore welcoming smiles. They wouldn’t have known privilege if it hit them on the head. So they were closed-minded and they told Jewish jokes with a frightening maliciousness. But hadn’t I corrected this fault of my progenitors by moving to the big city? Yes, Mihály could relax here at the Radisson confident that state subsidies would be forthcoming even in this new, independent, market-oriented Hungary of ours for any old trash that ostensibly blended a patriotic theme into art so long as he had friends in the right places, from government ministries to newspapers. It was a world I despised, but that I, given all the networking requisite to assure a steady stream of contracts, was slipping headlong into all the same; what’s more, even now I depended on any number of people who were very much like Mihály. Suddenly I imagined a photograph: my children, twenty years later, looking like bullfrogs and with a tennis racket under each of their arms. I was terrified. But no one could tell.

Mihály stared at the ceiling. My question about Violetta’s dancing had surely caught him off guard, I thought. Meanwhile Violetta pinched a sugar cube from beside her cup, extended her arm unhurriedly in front of Mihály, and dropped the cube into his espresso, which was still almost full. Taking up her spoon, she stirred. He didn’t seem to notice. Recalling the supposition that Beatrix herself had killed Matthias with a dose of arsenic, I managed to distract myself momentarily from the intimacy this act implied, and saw instead, in a desperate vision, a conspiracy between Violetta and I against the bullfrog. Confidently I repeated my question. “What about the dance school?”

An awkward silence ensued as Mihály pressed a fork into his Eszterházy cake and broke off a formidable chunk. I looked on with envy and glanced at my watch, stealthily, not so he wouldn’t take offense but so he wouldn’t spy impatience and thus weakness on my part. But already Mihály had won. It was eight-thirty: time to go home and celebrate my birthday, with or without Violetta. As for telephoning my drinking chum, Zsolt, that could wait until tomorrow or the next day: I was beyond consolation.

Mihály now spoke. “Violetta, you should know, is the best beginning dancer I have seen in years. What’s more, she can sing. Of course, this doesn’t mean she’s ready to be a star just yet. This time around she’ll say with her resonance what, in two or three years, she’ll say with her voice and her feet in some bigger role. It’s what she needs at this point. This is why I have included her in the supporting cast. She will be Beatrix’s lady in waiting. A few lines here and there, plus slow, subtle movements. Not quite dancing. More, you might say.”

They were right. I didn’t understand. Here she was, Violetta dressed up as a modern, perverted Beatrix, and now Mihály was telling me she wouldn’t be Beatrix after all! Seeing the confusion on my face, he continued. “No, you see, I’d already promised the role of Beatrix to a young Italian lady in England. Adele Epifania, that is her name. She did much for me, you see, besides which, Adele too is a rare talent, so I am bound to honor her past favors.” Surely he’d contrived to substitute “you might say” with “you see” to drive home the point that I, as a man, was obliged to understand what he meant by “favors.” Or was he in fact referring to professional favors that I, a professional in my own right, was supposed to “see”? Mihály went on, seeming almost embarrassed. “It’s too late to undo that now. Not to mention that Adele, since her mother was Hungarian, and she speaks our language passably, will do much of her singing in our language.” Never mind, I thought, that Latin was the language of the court. “As for Violetta,” he continued, “she was gracious enough to take part in the procession, and, of course, I can only expect that so long as we don’t let her talent go to her head, that if she does a good job as the lady in waiting, there will be other roles where this one came from.”

Sure you would say that, I thought, You want to fuck her brains out. Do you think I’m a fool? But Mihály spoke again. “I’ll be honest with you. I like Violetta. There’s something about her, you see. It’s not just her name, though frankly it was a revelation to discover that among all Hungary’s Violas and Violets there is at least one Violetta.” I crushed my cigarette, dug the fork warily into my strudel, and didn’t say a word. “I know all this may be hard for you to hear, but it’s important to what I have to say. She has a special charm, you might say. Well, on account of this, and to make her feel right, I saw to it that a colleague of mine—not me, a colleague—auditioned her. I wasn’t even there. I didn’t go. I mean, it would have been too painful to see her mess things up. What would I have done? Let her into the school just because she’s got this “special charm”? Works sometimes, but I couldn’t have done it with her. Some of those other gals, to be honest, can hardly even walk, let alone dance, but of course they pay. Violetta pays, too, but she’s a talent, you see, she’s a real talent and I don’t know how I had the good fortune to run across her, but she’s learning fast and I think she’ll go far. We’ll go far, won’t we, Violetta?” Mihály smiled, again like a hyena. Violetta smiled, her full, cherry-red lips turned upward just so, and even now, before the end, this filled me with a hopeless nostalgia although I detected slyness in that smile, as if tiny fangs would protrude at any moment from the dainty corners of her mouth. Was this the smile I had always known? Again she said, “Happy birthday,” but in the same breath she now edged closer to her teacher—no, in the manner neither of a lover nor of a disciple but of a friend, or all three combined. I gulped down what remained of my espresso, which by now was only lukewarm; the foam had flattened into a bland, cold sheathing stuck to the inside of the tiny porcelain cup. How I wished to be somewhere else, to be doing something else, to be someone else. To be clinking shot glasses with Zsolt. To finally translate that outlandish book. To be one of Borhidi’s friends and see, firsthand, the sense of momentary triumph he found in mimicking Hitler. Or was this mimicry not so much a victory, but a bitter acknowledgment that, after all, what has happened, has happened, and even if we find ourselves infected with the sinister resonance of the foe we have studied for so very long, it is better to work it all off by making silly faces now and again than to brood all day? The waitress approached our table hesitantly with the bill—who would pay?—and for a moment I pitied her, terribly, imagining that she was Mr. Niederbühl’s cook, who had served a passion fruit gone bad and was now unwittingly bringing the Führer the bill. “Bet you didn’t know this about Violetta,” said my rival, who was being easy on me knowing he had won, which I humbly appreciated. He parted his bullfrog lips to speak once more and reached toward the waitress, gently, as if pulling back a tennis racket to catch an easy serve—but all the while he looked at me. “Surprised?”

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