Three thousand years have not changed the– From the introduction by Bernard Know to Homer’s The Iliad, Robert Fagles, Translator
human condition in this respect: we are still
lovers and victims of the will to violence,
and so long as we are, Homer will be read as
its truest interpretation.
I have often tried to understand love.
Is there a logic, a pattern, a process? Does it begin as a chemical reaction? Does the heart tell reason that there is no place for logic? Or does the mind direct all feelings? How does it happen that love can transport us to a state of being that we have never known before? And why do we journey so far, so blindly, so willingly, for the person we love?
I have wondered if we love only once. Or can we love different people with different loves at different times? Is it possible that love can transform itself into something sinister and unrecognizable and still be love? And if we should choose to reject love completely, what is life without loving?
My story is one of love, colored with tender moments of pleasure and heights of ecstasy. But also shadowed gray when love was crushed by shame, when lies turned passion to pain.
On an autumn night in Transylvania, October 1970, the golden days of yellow leaves had turned into smoky evenings tinged with the smell of wood-burning fireplaces. Communism was at its peak under Nicolae Ceausescu. No one could do what they wanted unless the government approved. I was outspoken, independent, uncooperative. I was being watched.
Alec, my best friend from childhood, had come to our two-room cottage late at night to give me and Petre, my husband of three years, some confidential information. I remember the storm that night, lightning and thunder, even hail. But luck was in our favor, the police preferred to stay indoors, drinking with their buddies rather than patrolling the town or watching people like us.
Alec had been my father’s student at the Technical University of Civil Engineering and his helper on Sundays in our basement, where they both sent secret messages to people in other countries. He had graduated to become the chief engineer at the Ministry of Agriculture. Petre was a doctor, specializing in endocrinology. He was in charge of the clinic in our small town, Dova.
Alec came to tell us he had news: one of the Austrian tractors the government was using to work the farms was defective. The parts weren’t available in Romania, and the tractor would have to be sent to Vienna for repairs. Alec knew that I was pregnant. He had been working on a plan to get me out of Romania, to hide me in the tractor as it traveled from Transylvania to Budapest and then by hydrofoil up the Danube to trustworthy contacts in Vienna.
“I won’t go,” I told Alec and Petre.
Petre was insistent. “Anca, this is your only chance. You can’t have a baby in this country.”
“I will not leave without you.”
“I’ll follow,” he promised.
Alec persisted. “I can make another defective tractor for Petre in two months by detaching some fine wires needed to start the motor,” he told me. “Your husband can leave then. But you must take this one first.” Petre was pacing our small living room. I had never seen him so worked up before. He was almost shouting at me. “The secret police have started an investigation on you. I know this from a patient. Someone I trust.”
“How will I be transported to Budapest?” I asked them. “The borders are locked as tight as an iron gate.”
“The tractor will be hauled in a truck from our town to Budapest,” Alec answered. “I’ll create space for you under the tractor’s seat where you’ll be hidden.”
“What about food and water?”
“It’ll be next to where you’ll lay comfortably on a mattress.”
“Comfortably?” I said, raising my voice. “Do you realize what will happen to me if the secret police come searching with their dogs?”
Alec shook his head. “As director of the agricultural project, I have the right to escort the tractor from here to Budapest and onto the hydrofoil, which I will do. Once on the hydrofoil, you’ll be on the Danube and safe.”
Petre took my hand. “Alec will protect you. He has the contacts from the Danube to the hotel in Vienna, and then…”
“No! It’s too risky.”
“You must take this opportunity!” Petre insisted. “The chief of the region is in charge of your case. He has proof you’ve given antibiotics to Gypsies and noncommunists. The police will very likely torture you. You could lose the baby.”
I was crying, pleading my case to both men, but as I felt the baby kick inside me, I knew they were right. “Petre, you promise to take the next available tractor?”
“Yes,” he assured me. “I’ll be at your side when you give birth. You have my word.”
Was I wrong to have agreed? I can’t help but wonder now: what was Petre’s true motive for getting me out of the country? Did he know then that his promise to follow me in just two months was simply a subterfuge? Over the years, I have tried to analyze the truth as well as the lies. I’ve wanted to forgive Petre, to feel less for him, to live my life guided by reason – and accept my fate. I have struggled with this. Then one morning, a newspaper and a telephone call tore my ordered world apart…
PART ONE – PENELOPE AND ODYSSEUS
NEW YORK CITY
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 10, 1989
So that I could meet the Odysseys– Homer, The Odyssey, Book 20, lines 79-90
I long for…Yet the evil is endurable,
when one cries through the days,
with heart constantly troubled.
Rubbing sleep from her eyes, Anca opened the front door of her Upper East Side apartment and picked up the Sunday New York Times. The kitchen was shadowed in morning darkness as she placed the newspaper on the marble counter and mechanically opened the refrigerator to take out a can of espresso.
She stared at her face reflected on the metal container as if she were a stranger, observing the straight black hair cropped short, hazel-green eyes so sleepy that the almond slits seemed buried within high cheekbones. The lips looked full above the pointed chin, and the oval face appeared younger than its forty-two years. She stretched her body in her blue bathrobe and tried to get her thin, five-foot-seven shape to fill the face of the silver container by tilting it this way and that.
While the coffee was brewing, she scanned the first page of the Times. She was stopped cold by one particular headline, Romania and Iran: Partners in Gold and Evil.
“Twenty years of friendship and billions of dollars in trade between Romania and Iran,” the article read. “First with Shah Reza Pahlavi, then with Ayatollah Khomeini, and now with Iran’s new president, Rafsanjani, with whom Ceausescu has a personal, financial relationship. The question is what are they planning together? Authorities talk about gold. An investigation has been traced to Transylvania in Romania.” Anca took a deep breath. Transylvania. At this moment it was tied to a gold scandal. But she also remembered her country as the place where her loving had its beginning and she could still feel his touch, his lips caressing her body. Such deep pleasure. Wanting more and more.
“Would you like a glass of wine?”
It was during the harvest, a September evening when pine trees in Romania turned gold and the Gypsies gathered grapes. Anca closed her eyes to keep the memory alive. She could feel Petre’s presence, strong and soft.
“The wine from the barrel is warm.”
The fiddler played a Gypsy song, “Te iubesc pe vesnicie” – I will love you forever.
Was she strong enough for feelings she had never experienced before?
She allowed the wine to cloud her mind and followed for the first time as he led her along a path, through the valley. He caressed her cheeks and she closed her eyes, the wine making her bold. He brought her closer, held her tighter, and laid her lovingly in a bed of golden leaves.
The next morning, with the memory of lovemaking inside her, she went to the Gypsy camp in their small town and overheard a Gypsy saying, “A woman loves only one man in her life.” Anca wondered: was that a prophecy for her?
She recalled how each year the wine harvest varied by a few days depending on nature’s whims and summer rains. In Romania, there was no calendar to tell the farmers when to start picking the grapes. Instead, they knew because of the Gypsies who wandered in from Hungary and Serbia. They arrived saying that they had come to work; the grapes were ready. And then on the last day of the harvest, they disappeared, late at night, not to be seen until the next year when the grapes had ripened again.
Anca wiped tears from her cheek remembering how three years later, Petre had sealed her fate with plans for her escape. To his mission he had remained true – working to free Romania from a dictator. While Anca had been sent to New York, alone.
* * *
Sándor Déki Lakatos–Udvözlö Liszt Ferenchez