At the beginning of each year, Mr. Lukács circled the same day on the calendar. The 23rd of September wasn’t a birthday or a wedding anniversary. It was the day when he emigrated from Hungary in hope of having a better life where he doesn’t have to hide who he was.
Mr. Lukács László, or ‘Laci’, or 'Luke' as his friends called him, never had dreamt of coming to live in America, simply because he had no interest. Being born as a Hungarian Jew, he had no choice but to fled the country before 1941.
But of course, nothing went as planned.
Next to the calendar, there was a black and white photo of a young girl, sat on a chair next to a dresser. The wall behind was covered with a wallpaper patterned with pretty fans and white doves. She was wearing a knitted sweater and wore a pearl necklace. Her hair wavy, tucked behind her ears, and she was looking straight into the camera. Her name was Erzsébet, Mr. Lukács’s first love.
“It’s never going to stop.” he grunted as he entered Luigi’s confectionary shop. He couldn’t stand the rain that had been falling for the past week, non-stop.
Luigi’s, the shop was around the corner from his studio in Brooklyn, named after his owner, Luigi Romano. He also emigrated from Europe, a decade earlier than him. During the years, they became good friends and often talked about the times before the war. Looking back, they never regretted coming to America. But they were both homesick from the day they set foot on the continent.
Mr. Lukács always sat at the same booth, the second from the entrance on the right. According to him, had the best views to the street. At 86, watching people coming and going in the rush hour was one of his past time activities.
“The usual Mr. Lukács, one espresso, and a glass of water. Can I bring anything else for you? Not having a cannelloni today?”
“I am craving something else, like——
“A sandwich?” asked Francesca, the pretty Italian waitress. She put her hands on her hips and raised her perfectly shaped, thick, but tasteful eyebrows.
“Mr. Lukács, what would Mrs. Lukács say?” she folded her arms on her chest, “Bless her soul.”
“It was my birthday last month, don’t you remember? An old goat like me also deserves some love. I don’t need any excuse to indulge myself.” he pinched the fat on his stomach and giggled.
"Bueno, chocolate cake coming up." she left, chuckling.
That first sip of that strong espresso was the taste of home. It wasn't because he had any connection with Italy, besides his friend, Luigi and his love for cannelloni. But the taste of the coffee reminded him of home: Hungary.
Mr. Lukács was born and grew up in the Jewish district of Budapest, and was very proud of his Jewish heritage.
He graduated as a literature and history teacher, but because of the war, he only worked one semester in the Laden house primary school. They called him in for mandatory military service. During that time, Hitler and the Nazis invaded Budapest and started the deportation of the Jews.
Most of his friends, and family were killed in the gas chambers. Luckily, he wasn’t at home when they raided their building, so he could join the few in the basement. For over 2 months, they were living like sardines in a can, and shared a loaf of bread between them. One could have only dreamt of an espresso or chocolate under those circumstances.
He was halfway through the rich, delicious and heavenly moist cake, and dropped the fork that landed on the floor with a piece of cake and cream. He swopped his glasses and in a circular motion, frantically cleaned the fog on the window.
There was her, the girl from the picture, standing in the rain to catch a taxi a couple of meters away from him. Erzsébet, the only woman he had ever loved.
Erzsikém, as he used to call her, looked even prettier than in his memory. Her metal grey hair was in a low bun at the beck of her neck, covered with a silk floral patterned scarf. She wore a brown, long jacket with a shade darker-brown ankle boots. Her moss green purse that was hanging off her bent elbow matched the color of her fine, leather gloves.
He knocked on the window, but she couldn't possibly hear him with the heavy rainfall and the loud traffic.
After sitting for a while, he needed to lean on someone to stand up after his full hip replacement last year. Francesca was busy chatting to a young man, she didn’t see him waving at her. With his foot, he flicked his walking stick towards him so he could stand up.
Inch by inch, he slid on the leather bench towards the isle. He stood up and slowly walked towards the entrance door. He didn’t bother to put his jacket on, he went outside only a shirt and knitted gilet.
Hundreds of people were coming from all directions. When the pedestrian light switched from red to green, she emerged again from the crowd. She was gliding to the other side of the street where a cab was waiting for her.
He stood in the rain and watched the taxi pulling out, becoming one with the morning traffic. He was shivering and water was dripping off his nose.
The next moment, he looked up and saw Francesca giving him a lecture, “How could you stand here in this weather? Are you crazy?”
He looked up and smiled, mumbled sorry, but his mind was far away, somewhere on the 30th Avenue in a cab.
The next morning Laszlo sat at his same place, and ordered a sandwich and a cup of tea.
“What happened Mr. Lukács? Are you all right?” She laughed and heavily gesticulated. She was a true Italian, with no filter.
“I am feeling a bit under the weather. My throat is tickly a bit.” He coughed into his cloth handkerchief with his initials embroidered.
“Oh no! Bueno, wait, I’ll bring you something that would make you feel much better!” said Francesca and left to the kitchen with the most beautiful smile. He was grateful that she skipped the ‘I told you so’ part.
“Just a coffee please. No sugar.” said the woman in his late seventies said with an unusual accent.
When Mr. Lukács looked up from his newspaper, he couldn’t believe in his eyes.
“Laci? Is that you?” asked the woman in Hungarian.
“Oh my God! Is it really you, Gyarmati Erzsébet from Kertész street?”
“Yes.” She smiled and her eyes instantly filled up with tears.
She saw that he struggled to find his balance to stand up, “No need.” She sat down opposite him. She looked even more beautiful than yesterday.
“You haven’t changed.” he gazed in her dark, grey eyes.
“You’re talking non-sense. We haven’t see each other for fifty years. That’s a long time!” she blushed as she toyed with a lock of hair.
They told their stories, laughed a lot and shared a slice of chocolate cake.
“And what happened to Mrs. Lukács?”
“She died 10 years ago.”
“I am sorry. She must have been a wonderful person.”
“Yes, she was, indeed.”
She was talking about her failed marriages and her children who left the States to travel around the world. So practically she was living alone in the big city.
“During the war, I was helping at the local hospitals as a nurse, while Budapest was bombarded by the Soviets and Nazis. Shortly after the war, I got married to my second cousin. Two years into the marriage, I left him. I packed a suitcase and went to live with my Aunt in the country. My father never found out where I had gone, so I lived a simple country life.” She paused to sip from the cappuccino. “My Aunt passed a couple of years later, and she left me the small holding with the animals. But I didn’t want to farm, so I sold the plot with everything. With the money, I found a nice place to stay and then enrolled to medical school. But that ended shortly after the Soviets invaded Budapest and crushed the revolution.”
Laci placed his hand on top of hers, “I wish you’d told me why you never came to our meeting.”
Francesca stopped at their table, “Here, Mr. Lukács. Ham and cheese tramezzini with home-made tomato sauce. Is that all then?”
She perked up an ear to figure out the language they spoke. She had never heard anything even similar before.
“I am sorry, how rude of us!” Erzsébet exclaimed, “Yes, that’s all.” She continued in English. Francesca cleared the table and left.
She took a bite of his sandwich, “Mmm. It’s delicious!”
He smiled, and rested his chin on his palm, “What is that place called?” he snapped her fingers.
“Macesz!” they said at the same time.
“Macesz, that one!” he laughed.
“I remember you were sitting in the corner, smoking. You were wearing your brother’s suit to look older.” she laughed, “but it was two sizes bigger on you, you looked like a clown!”
Laci placed his hand on top of hers, “I wish you’d told me why you never came to our meeting.”
=She looked down and fiddled with her gold bracelet.
“I am so sorry!” she sobbed like a child, “I didn’t know what to do. My father would have——
“Ssh. It’s okay. It’s okay.” he passed a serviette to her.
“You know Mrs. Fekete, our neighbour, she saw us on the street a couple of times holding hands, and hugging each other.. He asked me what was going on between us and that I wasn’t allowed to see a a Jewish man, and so on. You know his political views.” she sighed, “then on the day, I was just about to leave when he saw me coming down the stairs with the two suitcases. The timing was the worst!”
She paused, “He forbid me to see you or have any contact with you, otherwise he disowned me and threatened me to send to my aunt to countryside. He did everything to scare me off. So I stayed.”
He poured her another cup of tea, “Here.”
She sipped from the tea, “then my father sent me to my aunt. My mother thought that the country air would clear my head! Then later, when I returned to Budapest, my parents told me that you had died in Auschwitz.” She pressed her hand to her throat, “I wanted to die!”
He sighed heavy and sank into the bench. Ever since that day, he had been asking the same question over and over again. And there it was, the most simplest answer of all: it was all a misunderstanding.
“He said that I couldn’t marry a Jewish man, and that he forbid the marriage.” Her shoulders were shaking.
“I thought you didn’t want to meet me.” He wiped his eyes after having a coughing fit, “I was at the train station, waiting more than an hour for you. I looked into every train, every coach. But I couldn’t find you. I thought you changed your mind, you didn’t love me and all this, our plans, were only my wild imagination.” he pulled away.
“So I took the train to Belgium then to France. I was lucky and got on a ship that left the following day.”
For the rest of the morning, they cried on each others shoulders. They laughed, and cried, and talked about those wonderful times they spent together as young adults. The world disappeared around them, and they were overjoyed to feel each other again.
“Now that I found you, can I see you again?” she said with eyes open wide.
“Tomorrow, and the day after, and the one after, same place and same time.” He said and waved, “Goodbye for now, Erzsikem.” he kissed her on her forehead.
“And you better check out that cough and have some rest!” She smiled, “I can bring you around some of my chicken soup?”
“Nothing would make me happier.” he hugged her tight, and waved good-bye.
Until a couple of days later, they met daily for breakfast at Luigi’s. They were chatting from the morning until lunch then took a short walk to the park nearby.
They planned to move to a small town outside of the city but remain close to Mr. Lukacs’s children and grandchildren. He wanted to finally write his autobiography and Erzsébet offered to type the manuscript. They were full of plans.
She was looking forward for another fun-filled, happy late autumn day in New York with Mr. Lukacs.
“I am sorry,” said Erzsébet to the waitress, who she never saw before, “Have you seen Mr. Lukacs this morning? He usually sits in that corner.” She pointed at their booth.
“No. Sorry. I can ask Francesca, she opened this morning.”
“Would you?” she smiled, “Thank you.” and she sat down at the table, closest to the entrance.
At 10 am, by then Erzsebet had been waiting for 2 hours, a middle-aged, young looking man stepped into shop. She couldn't help herself, but to overhear the conversation.
“I am looking for someone, her name is” he struggled to read and pronounce it the correct way: “Erjeekem.”
“I am not sure.” The waitress shook her head, “I am new here.”
“It’s me.” A voice came from behind, “Elizabeth Gyarmati. Can I help you? She shook hands with the man. The resemblance was unbelievable.
“Hi. I am John. John Lukács.” he said, “May I?”
You look exactly like your father, she thought. Tall, athletic, deep brown eyes and curly hair.
He cleared his throat, “You don’t know me.”
“You’re Laszlo’s son.”
“Yes, that’s right.” said John, “It’s lovely to finally meet you.” he sniffled, and cleared his throat.
“Is everything okay with your father?” She sat up straight on the bench, “we supposed to meet here, an hour ago. I thought I missed him, and of course, he never answers the bloody phone!”
“I always told him to use the phone, but he refused to learn how the damned thing works.”
“He was stubborn.” she said.
He leaned closer, “Ma’am” he started, but Erzsébet intervened.
“Please call me Elizabeth, if that’s easier.” she said it with a very friendly smile.
He ordered an espresso and a glass of water. He downed the water as if he had been walking across the desert, and arrived at his destination.
“Last night,” he sighed as his eyes filled with tears, “We all told him to get that cough checked.” he sobbed, “But he refused to go to the hospital. The cold went onto his chest and lungs that turned into pneumonia. He died last night.”
She shook her head in disbelief, “That’s impossible! He was fine three days ago. He had bit of a cough, but that’s all.” she whimpered, “It can’t be it can’t be!” she was fighting back her tears.
John moved up next to her to offer some comfort. She was shaking, screamed of the unbearable pain. Was that even possible to lose someone you love twice?, she wondered. She had just regained her faith in life, when her world turned upside down.
He drained a deep breath, “He told me to give this to you.” He took a rusty tin box for chocolates, “You must understand what it says here.” He pointed at the writing in Hungarian.
“Százszorszép Bonbon” she said. For John’s ears, the Hungarian language sounded like a melody, especially when she read it loud.
“I am sorry, what is this?” she frowned.
“He gave it to me before…” he struggled to speak.
They were sitting still for minutes, looking at the bonbon box.
“He loved the one with the cherry filling.”
He placed his hand onto hers, “We are having the funeral tomorrow. I’ll send you the details. We’d love to have you there with us Elizabeth.”
She couldn’t speak, but nodded. If she could, she would have gone to the grave with him.
When John left, Elizabeth was starring at the box, and traced its the edges with her index finger. The hinges squeaked as she opened it. There were all sorts inside that box. A gold pocket watch, an engagement ring, black and white photos, and a stack of letters tied with a blue ribbon. On the top of letters, there was a brown envelope with her name on it. It wasn’t his handwriting, he must have asked John to write it for him.
“My dearest Erzsikem, I wanted you to know that I am going to die as a happy man because of you. When I was young, you gave me a purpose, and in the past week, I was the happiest in my life. I am ready to leave from the Earth because I know we’ll see each other soon.
The letters you find in the box; I wrote them to you, but never sent them. I didn’t know where to and I wasn’t sure if you wanted to hear from me anymore.
The ring, it was my grandmother’s engagement ring, and one of the few things I took with me. I planned to propose with it on the ship, on our way to Africa. Please wear it, so at least whenever you look down on your hand, you’ll think of me.
The pocket watch, please give it to John after the funeral, I knew he always wanted it. He is a good man.
Erzsikem, please know that I never stopped loving you. Yours always, your Laci.’
“Everything all right here?” asked the waitress with a worried facial expression.
“That box of chocolate must be so special. It is beautiful!”
She shut her eyes and signed, “If you knew…”