“The house-plant in the front room is dead. My plant, remember, the fern. I’m sorry, I know you helped nurture it for years, but it’s old and dry and, well you know, it was its time.” The letter, blue ink on thin paper, was matter of fact in its delivery. Csilla sat and stared, her hands trembling. House-plant was code for grandparent. Front room meant grandmother, the sitting room meant grandfather. My plant - it was her mother’s handwriting, which meant her mother’s mother was dead. It was ironic, somehow. Her mother had lost her mother and her daughter. All alone, a generational island.
“I’ve considered taking a vacation, but I’m really so busy with work. I don’t want to miss a single day, I love it so much,” the letter continued, cheerful in its obliviousness. She meant she wanted to escape, to flee the country, but she couldn’t find a chance to get past the strict government controls. “I hope you are well and happy. I know the West is big and scary, it must be terrifying for you to be detained. Don’t worry, we will figure out a way to get you home soon.” Another trick. She meant she was overjoyed at her child’s freedom and hoped she would never get detained and exported.
“It is a terrible shame, but I seem to have gotten a small cold. It’s harmed my productivity so much, so I’m trying to recover as fast as I can, but it really seems to be quite the deep chill. I miss you so much darling. I love you more than you could ever know.” With that, the letter concluded. The official red stamp from the government adorned the bottom right corner - of course they had read it, what didn’t they read? They knew where you were, who you spoke to, what you did. When you went to sleep. What food you bought.
She pushed the stool in front of her. Tables were expensive. Everything in America was expensive. She ate moldy cheese because she couldn’t afford proper cheese. Her bread was as dry and cracked as her fingertips. The room she rented was tiny and faded; even the windowpane, covered in chipped paint splinters, was warped. The floorboards creaked unsteadily under her feet. Her only decorations were reminders of home - a small Hungarian flag in the corner of the room, bright red paprika powder in a small glass container next to her bed. So she used a wooden stool as a table. She’d barely picked up the pen when her husband, Daniel, walked into the room. He noticed his wife’s quivering hands immediately and reached for the letter. Csilla sat still, her eyes filling with tears as Daniel read it.
“Pneumonia?” He looked up at her. “If it wasn’t serious, she wouldn’t write about it.”
“She thinks she’s going to die,” Csilla whispered, her fingers interlacing. “You know the way she is. She won’t even talk about being sick, even with a fever. If she’s bold enough to write it… she really thinks she’s going to die.”
Daniel enveloped Csilla in his arms. “Vilagom, I’m so, so sorry.” Vilagom. My world. A term of endearment that had always seemed silly and far away until they had fled their worlds for a whole new one. They remained intertwined for what felt like forever until Csilla broke the embrace.
“I need to go back.”
Daniel gaped at her. He stuttered, unable to form a sentence.
“Are you crazy?” was the best he could come up with.
“It’s my mother! This woman raised me. She loved me. Even when the government made us act a certain way, she encouraged me to be myself. No matter what. She loved you, accepted you from the first time she met you, even though she disapproved of how you turned her only daughter into a revolutionary. She-”
“Csilla! They will kill you. You know that.”
“She’s going to die alone. My father’s dead, his parents won't visit her, my grandmother just died, she’s going to be all alone.”
“She has friends, she has hospital workers, besides it’s not even sure she will die,” Daniel objected, but he quickly fell silent as he saw the look on her face. They both knew that if there was even a single doubt in her mother’s mind, she wouldn’t have written about being sick. Whether or not it was true - and it was most likely true - Csilla’s mother was the type of person who would never, ever, draw attention to herself unless absolutely necessary. This was her big goodbye.
Socialism. What an ironic term. Supposed to be for the people, and yet here the people were, unbearably lonely.
“We barely got a year ago,” Daniel said, and his eyes flashed as he remembered all those they’d lost. The year of 1956 had been somewhat unremarkable for the rest of the world, but for Hungary, it had been a year of unmitigated bloodshed and heartbreak, concentrated on the young, the educated, the passionate. “Margit. Viktor. Gergely. Erzsi. Ildi. Bela, both of them. Do I need to go on?”
“Can you imagine? She raised me during a time when the entire world was going to hell. There was always food on the table and love in her heart. And now she’s going to die, alone, in a bed where the doctors only see her as a piece of meat, some machinery to repair for the big factory. She’s going to be terrified. She doesn’t deserve this, please Daniel, you need to understand, she deserves to have so so much more, and she’s so young still, Daniel-”
“I love you.” Daniel’s response was simple as Csilla crumbled to the floor, sobbing. “I love you so much, for being so compassionate and grateful. But do you think they’d even let you see her? They’d kill you as soon as you stepped foot in the country. And do you really want your mom to know that she killed her daughter? By telling you she’s sick, by pressuring you to go back home, she is issuing you a death sentence. It would be the last thing she would ever, ever want.”
Csilla lifted her tear-stained face. “I am so guilty,” she whimpered. Daniel reached down and held her cold fingers in his hand.
Two months later, a letter arrived in the mail, crisply informing Csilla that her mother had died peacefully in her sleep a few weeks earlier. Csilla read the letter, stone faced, and then went and laid in her bed. She refused to speak or eat, but the grief was too overpowering, too exhaustive for even tears. There was no point to tears. There was no point to life.
Daniel comforted her as best he could. He brought her food and tissues and relentless love. He shoved so much love into her that despite the pain, one day Csilla stood up and got out of bed and went to work, and then she came home and cooked a real, proper Hungarian meal, the way her mother had taught her, with chicken thighs and spicy red paprika. That was when Daniel knew that she would survive. She would hurt. She would cry, and stare at the wall for hours, and insist that their first daughter would have her mother’s name, but she would survive.
It was another six months before a letter arrived from Zsofia, Daniel’s sister. “I am very interested in learning a new language. Maybe a dead language, like Latin.”
Csilla was amused by the code language, and she even cracked a smile, the first genuine, utterly unobstructed smile since her mother’s death.
“She wants to come here,” she said, looking up at Daniel.
He paced back and forth. Somehow, the extremely high risk of death, disappearance, maiming, torture had seemed far more worth it when it was his life that he was gambling with. His baby sister? She needed to stay put before she got hurt.
“We still have that friend, Zoltan or whatever his name was,” Csilla ventured, waiting for Daniel’s reaction.
“It was so much more romantic when we did it,” Daniel muttered.
Zsofia got in touch with Zoltan. Everything was arranged. And then, she didn’t arrive. Daniel waited exactly one week before contacting Zoltan. The news was dark - Zsofia had been detained at the border. Daniel insisted she would be freed; Csilla knew he knew otherwise, deep down. Now the roles were flipped. Daniel laid in bed and shivered with rage and misery, Csilla made soup and gave him massages.
“What I wouldn’t do to strangle those bastards,” Daniel said once, staring at the wall. “It would be worth it to die just for a chance to take at least one of them down with me.”
“Zsofia didn’t die for you to die also,” Csilla said soothingly, privately thinking about the irony of their contrasting statements.
One morning, Daniel got up and went back to work, and Csilla understood the way he’d felt, like even with all the guilt and rage, there was still a life to live.
Friends got married, other friends died. Some disappeared without a trace, leaving their families to pretend that they had never had a son or daughter, a brother or wife. Csilla and Daniel got jobs and moved into an apartment that had actual windows, not broken, not even cracked. They made American friends, who spoke with an odd freedom they’d never considered before.
“Sal cheated on his wife with that slutty waitress,” Ellen said, lounging on the one nice chair they owned. “I never liked him - you know his car? He bought it so cheap because it’s stolen - but I never thought he would stoop this low.” Csilla marveled at the way she so freely expressed disgust and delight, how easily she dropped parcels of gossip. Back home, nobody talked like this. Everyone talked about the weather and the health of their relatives and then that was it. Good things only. It was incredibly rare to hear someone express disapproval of anything, or anyone. And there was absolutely no discussion about cheating or illegal activity. Ever. That was the kind of stuff that got you killed.
In 1989, Csilla and Daniel’s son got married and socialism in Hungary fell. Csilla and Daniel held hands at their table, tearing up as their son danced with his new bride, an American girl. They ate the food, generously seasoned with paprika, and danced to the American music that the bride’s family had picked out.
“We should go back,” Csilla said, observing the bride’s three sisters hug each other and jump up and down.
“We should,” Daniel agreed.
It took them five years to be able to do it. They needed to be sure that socialism wouldn’t return, that it wasn’t all an elaborate trick. Paranoia dies hard. Their first grandchild had been born by the time they disembarked the plane to a country they didn’t recognize at all.
Graffiti adorned the walls of the streets. Beer bottles clanked in the deep pockets of the drunk homeless men on the streets, their skin tough and leathery from the constant exposure to the elements. Girls with pink and blue hair danced and laughed in the streets. Csilla eyed the police officers lazily patrolling the streets, but they appeared not only bored but completely uninterested in the civilians. It was a marked change from the sharply dressed, aggressive officers from before, who’d questioned anyone walking by, whether they looked suspicious or not.
The house that Csilla had had an apartment in still stood, devastatingly socialist in its appearance, tall gray cement with rows of identical windows, a small patch of grass out front. Daniel’s old house had been torn down and replaced with a quaint looking yellow house, a bright and sunny gravestone to the tragedies that had once occurred there. The children exiting their old schools had uniforms, but it was clear they had embellished them in their own way. The commercialism of fast food and supermarkets was sprinkled throughout the city. There was a hum, a vibe, a sense of being awake and alert. The repression had finally ceased to exist.
Csilla insisted they walk back into the apartment building. They stood, older, slower, sorer than they had been when they’d left the heavy door frame, decades earlier.
“I miss it, and I don’t,” Csilla admitted, softly touching the walls.
Daniel stood at her side, silent in his agreement.
A week later, they went home to America, their hearts in their throats the entire time until they were safely back in the air. A sense of deja vu enveloped Csilla as she stepped back into their house in America, the small Hungarian flag in the corner.
“We did it,” Daniel said. “We made it.”
“It’s weird,” Csilla sat down. “I missed it so much more before we went back.”