The clerk at the desk was a kindly older man who always wore the same sweater. It had wooden buttons and leather elbow patches and was the color of hearty soups Ilona remembered from childhood, made from nettles and herbs.
"I kiss your hand." He greeted her in their native Hungarian.
He retrieved a rubber-banded stack of DVDs and VHS tapes from the metal shelving behind him and presented her with the paperwork, to which she affixed her tight, loopless signature.
She'd been watching countless films for her dissertation on the history of Hungarian cinema and had begun to feel like a walking catalog of esoteric nonsense. If Ilona were honest with herself, she doubted whether the films were completely to blame. She liked to joke that being an academic was the convenient outward expression of an inner condition, by which she meant the condition of being a Central European immigrant. The joke might have been true, if it weren't for the fact that being an academic was hardly convenient at all.
Here she was, for example, at the Hungarian Cultural Center, preparing to binge-watch four or five movies she wasn't permitted to remove from the premises. Procured on loan from archives in Hungary, they were otherwise unavailable in all of New York. She had no choice but to watch them in one of the Center's small screening rooms, which were cleaned with an eye-stinging solution of ammonia and cherry fragrance that lingered in her clothes for hours after her immersive viewing.
It was immigrants from elsewhere who did the cleaning. She'd once witnessed one of the coiffed dowagers from the Center's administrative office scolding a brown-skinned woman for slopping too much water on the bathroom floor when she mopped. To her shame, Ilona hadn't said anything, she'd just quietly dried her hands and slipped out. It was difficult for her not to see the old woman's hauteur arising from some misdirected sense of injured pride, an insecurity she knew her fellow nationals far from home always carried with them. Collectively they created a makeshift aristocracy out of this silly sentiment, one from which she found it difficult to exclude herself, no matter how distasteful it was to her.
She set the pile of videos on the AV trolley and hung her coat on one of the wallboard pegs. Perhaps if it didn't come in contact with the institutional weave of the couch it would absorb less of the room's sharp odor. There was little hope for her skirt and sweater short of stripping down. She would have, as a reproach to the dowager’s propriety, but for the thought of the chivalrous man at the desk just outside. She pulled her pen and notebook from her purse and flipped to a fresh page. She reviewed the videos for where to begin.
She had finished with the pre-1956 socialist realists, all those dreary farm and factory films, and was now making her way through the livelier movies born of political thaw: screwball satires of bureaucracy, lyrical odes to youthful rebellion, more blatantly allegorical or experimental works. Still, a mounting trepidation had dogged her steady progress as she proceeded chronologically through the years. She knew her father's films, which had put her on this long ridiculous track in the first place, lay in wait.
And now, suddenly it seemed, the moment was here. Among the videos, in a clear plastic sleeve stuck to the tape's case, was a card with her father's name and the film's title. The card had been handwritten, possibly by someone in Budapest who had known him, worked with him, or at least seen his movies in the coffee house cinemas where they'd originally screened. As a teenager she'd haunted such places, ornate old movie palaces fitted with modern cafés, book stalls, gallery space for shows by contemporary artists. Her father's movies by then were out of favor, purged at first during a brief fit of political reaction, the memory of them then washed away in the flood of all things Western.
She swallowed hard. She hadn’t exactly forgotten the movie was going to be in today's shipment. Yet she had put it out of mind. Or else had it dislodged by Roger's anxious phone call earlier that morning, insisting they meet.
He'd been manic since getting back from Australia. She might have been amused by the existential hysteria brought on by his sudden inheritance, his various plans and good intentions that changed from day to day. But she was well acquainted with his mild-mannered fecklessness. It was tied up in their shared tragedy, which she preferred not to rehash now that her dissertation was finally going somewhere. She'd nonetheless agreed to meet that night. Where he was concerned, it seemed, she couldn’t say no.
She fed the tape into the machine and perched on the unyielding couch. She was nervous, even though, now in her early thirties, she had mostly quit her old habit of building her father up only to tear him down. She held her breath, pressed play on the remote.
The titles wavered, accompanied by bleary soundtrack music, a chamber piece for strings in a minor key. In voiceover, the narrator read a letter addressed to his mother. He described his life as a painter in Paris, while onscreen a rakish man presumed to be the narrator went about his day, buying cigarettes, fixing a meal, cleaning brushes, greeting friends at a café. Streets intended to stand in for Paris, it was obvious to Ilona, were not Paris. The scene shifted to the elderly mother reading the letter. The wallpaper was old and faded. She lived with her daughter-in-law. The two women didn't quarrel, but their relationship seemed uneasy. The film went on to follow the life of the daughter-in-law, who worked as a salesclerk in a state-run department store. It became clear that she, along with her friends, was being watched by secret police disguised as workmen. Soon the mother, who was senile, deteriorated; soon the daughter-in-law's friends were picked up by the police one by one for questioning.
The daughter-in-law, it seemed, might be next. The only relief in her and her mother-in-law's lives, as well as in the tone of the film, were the painter's letters, which recounted successful exhibits and sales of his work. He would soon have enough money to buy their way out of the country. But his mother died before this could happen. A wave of political liberalization followed, and it was revealed that the painter had not been in Paris after all, but in prison; his wife had written the letters to her mother-in-law and then intercepted them on arrival so that she could read them to her and discard the domestic mailing envelopes. He was released and returned home, his health in ruins.
Despite this, the movie ended hopefully, with the couple attempting to resume their lives together, but Ilona knew the hope was meant ironically, and her mind once again drifted to Roger as she thought apprehensively of their meeting later tonight.
She told herself the tears in her eyes had more to do with the sweet chemical sting in the air than with what she'd just watched. Still, almost against her nature, she was moved. Not by the story, which she found thin and over-literary, having been adapted, according to the title sequence, from a work of fiction. And not, she thought, by any identifiable traces of her father, whom she barely actually remembered. She pondered the elusiveness of her feeling, going no further with the other films. She hadn't made any notes, her notebook sat adrift beside her.
The room's gridded fluorescents buzzed; she got up and turned them off, but left the blank-screened television on and returned to her place on the couch.
She remembered the time shortly before she and her mother had left Hungary when she was fourteen or fifteen. The Berlin Wall had recently come down and she hardly ever came home. In order to make the additional money they'd need to leave, her mother brought Western backpackers from the train station to the apartment to sleep on the foldout couch. The couch had been Ilona's; whenever they had a "guest" she slept with her mother, or stayed out.
One night she crept in late. Tiptoeing down the hall she heard voices, a man's and a woman's. They were speaking English. She came to a stop in the darkened dining room, which adjoined the living room. From what she could tell the man was on the foldout, the woman in a sleeping bag on the floor. They didn't know each other. Ilona’s English wasn't good, it had only recently begun to be taught in school, but she found she was able to follow along. The woman was talking about camping by herself somewhere in the mountains. She told him of having to tie her food into a bundle and hoist it with a rope over a high tree limb to keep out of the reach of bears.
Even then Ilona had been cynical about most things. But those bears.... She saw them, on their hind legs, reaching for food just beyond their grasp, batting at the air before falling back down on all fours. Now, though, worlds away on the screening room couch, breathing fumes in the television's ghostly light, she thought not so much about the bears as about the woman, alone in her mountain camp.
Eventually her level-headedness reasserted itself and she watched two more films by different filmmakers. She made notes on storylines, actors, cinematographic technique, slashing her way across the pages of her notebook. Later she would transfer her shorthand to her computer and work it up into something fuller. Film by film, decade by decade, she was proceeding, building an argument. The work wasn't easy, or completely fulfilling, but for now it was the only thing she felt capable of doing.
She sniffed her coat before putting it on. At the last minute before leaving she prised her fingernails under the plastic sleeve and removed the card with her father's name and film title on it. She slipped it into her coat pocket. Then she moved the tape case to the bottom of the pile.
The gentleman at the desk was eating something garlicky out of the large plastic lid of a squat thermos. At her appearance he brushed at his mustache with the edge of a hand and stood. She set the videos on the desk. Smiling warmly, they said goodbye to one another, again in the formal register of their shared language.
Erik DuRon is a writer and bookseller. Alongside Jess Kuronen, he is a proprietor of Left Bank Books in the West Village.