The boy I loved in high school wears pink jeans to our twentieth reunion. His blond hair is not as floppy as I remember, but he smooths it back from his forehead with a familiar nervous motion. He holds a cigarette between his bony fingers and he nods in my direction through the crowd of our classmates greeting each other. He later makes his way to me and we hug—I like to imagine that it’s longer than necessary, but it probably isn’t. I try to sit near him during dinner, but he ends up at another table, with the popular kids.
All night I work hard at not sounding like I’ve lived abroad for these twenty years. It’s an effort to speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences, without any ticks from speaking English. In Hungarian, it’s not a “pair of pants” just “pants.” Things like that. I don’t even notice it anymore, unless someone points it out. But I am conscious of how we used to make fun of people who left Hungary and returned years later speaking broken Hungarian—people in my grandparents’ generation who left behind war and revolution. The implication was that if you had forgotten your own language, then you had forgotten your roots. Everything “grown up” happened to me in English: college, jobs, marriage, parenting. I see how easy it is now to slip into another life and how hard it is to translate it back to where you came from.
At the end of the night I bump into him on my way out and mumble something about a flight I have to catch the next day. Like an idiot, I say something about “a big plane” and he looks at me, head cocked. What is it about the heart that ties the tongue, I wonder? He is standing there with two other classmates, drinks in hand, and I feel them looking at me too. I ask him if he could call a cab for me—my cell phone doesn’t work here. He does and he walks me out onto the street like a gentleman and on the ride home I stare at his name on the cab’s meter and think about the afternoons our senior year when we’d get off at the same bus stop: me heading to my babysitting gig in the fancy part of town across the Danube; him heading home. I wanted these walks to last forever—or at least until I was able to get a quick glimpse of his flat, pale stomach under his white t-shirt, his loose jeans hanging just-so on his hip bones—and also to end as soon as possible. I could never think of anything smart or interesting to say.
Twenty years later, I still can’t.
My first boyfriend is Palestinian and speaks Arabic to his friends and his parents and brother, but our common language is English and the few words of Hungarian he picks up at university in Budapest. He speaks English with a sweet, passionate accent, as if the words were part of a melody. I meet him at my cousin’s birthday party—she is funnier than me and speaks much better English. He is supposed to be her date.
When he calls me a few days later, I worry about my cousin and we do clear our romance with her. I wait weeks before I let him kiss me and months before I sleep with him. My parents are worried that he is about to kidnap me—they make me read the book Not Without My Daughter, in which an American woman is held hostage by her Arabic husband. I later learn that they kept my passport hidden that entire year, just in case.
I sneak around, skipping French and biology classes to lie in his bed on rainy mornings. I take off my clothes and let him teach me. “Now you will always want it this way and this much,” he whispers to me and calls me “habibi.”
I find a photo of my grandmother online, just by typing “Dachau” into Google. She is sitting in front of a row of German soldiers, looking up at an officer standing right in front of her. I have seen similar pictures of her taken during a war tribunal after the war, but this particular photo is new to me. She is wearing dark-rimmed glasses and she looks like my mother.
I know from my grandfather’s stories told over Sunday chicken soup how she was taken to Dachau at the end of the war, how she was made to march from Budapest to Vienna and then to Dachau, how the camp was liberated soon after, and how she served as an interpreter for the American troops stationed there. I often wonder what it must have felt like to watch German officers get tried and executed and to know that she helped make that happen with her fluent English and German.
I start English lessons when I am six or seven. My parents shuttle me to classes once a week and wait in front of the school until I am done. I have private tutors and go to language camps. It’s non-negotiable: nobody speaks Hungarian, so if you want to make it anywhere else in the world, you have to learn English. Speaking other languages can save your life. It can give you a new life.
I sneak into my grandfather’s room to borrow his German-Hungarian dictionary—a thick, gray volume with yellowing pages—to translate articles about my favorite German band. Posters of the band line the walls around me and my purple boom box is blasting their latest song. It’s slow, tedious, exhilarating work, as the meaning is revealed, word by word, sentence by sentence.
I think of this years later when we are on my narrow dorm room bed and the German exchange student who’s been mixing fuzzy navels for me all night whispers “Wahnsinn” under his breath when I first reach into his jeans. I make a mental note to later look up what it means. When we write to each other he often writes in German and I respond in English, but in person we speak in English—until he is unraveled by lust. I find him the most irresistible when he speaks German—even if some of the meaning is lost to me, I know those words are the truest. My German is passable after years of studying it in high school and in college—and those hours spent with the dictionary—but I am too shy to speak it to him.
I look up “Wahnsinn” once he is asleep. It means “madness.”
After college, when he returns to Germany and I stay in the US, we promise that we will always be in touch. We promise that even once we are married and have children—with other people—we will seek each other out. That we will always want each other. We imagine secret trysts, away from real life, away from responsibility.
We understand nothing.
I flirt with Drew by teaching him Hungarian curse words. Some ancestor of Internet memes floats around by email: a list of Hungarian curses and their English translations. Drew finds them hilariously inappropriate: the many ways in which we can suggest sexual intercourse between family members and animals.
I also flirt with him by cooking him Hungarian food and by giving him a book about Hungarian history. We take long road trips to get out of our small Pennsylvania town—sometimes it takes us three hours to get home from the mall thirty minutes away because of the many detours and stops Drew takes in his little white Neon. I recognize in him a restlessness that feels familiar—his road trips are a way to see something new and exciting without actually leaving his comfort zone for too long.
He practices one sentence for weeks, before my parents arrive in the US: “Szeretném megkérni a Zsófia kezét.” I want to ask for Zsofia’s hand in marriage. He says it over and over to me during these road trips or during our walks to work and finally says it on his mom’s porch where our soon-to-be-joined families sit on a summer afternoon. My dad responds, in broken English, that he wishes us happiness and many children. He gives his permission.
We need an interpreter at our wedding. All parties must be clear about the promises and obligations. The translator has to be someone who can prove proficiency in both languages—you can’t fake this. The official text of the ceremony is translated in advance so that the interpreter doesn’t have to improvise. We hold hands and face each other as the lines are read, one by one, first in Hungarian and then in English.
We both listen and nod—in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer—that’s the same in every language. Drew says “yes” in Hungarian and our guests applaud and we laugh and kiss and toast with champagne. Afterwards, in the reception line, Drew gets kissed on the cheek by many of my mustachioed relatives who don’t care much about whether he speaks Hungarian or not—they talk to him anyway. He is part of the family.
We spend our wedding night in a fancy hotel along the Danube, some place I would never stay as a local. I change my last name and practice my signature—the new curves of m’s and l’s of his Irish last name against the sharp v’s and d’s of my maiden name. It all fits.
Twice a month my son Sam and I drive to Boston for Hungarian school. This is Sam’s non-negotiable: nobody speaks Hungarian, so if you do, you never know what kind of advantage it will mean, how it might save your life.
While he is in class, I watch the other Hungarian parents—the dads, mostly. There is something manly and at the same time soft about them, something foreign, exotic. The way they take charge, the way they dress—their tight jeans and Euro-sneakers—their old-world manners, the way they gently tease women with dirty jokes. I can’t put a finger on it—maybe they remind me of my dad or brother—and I try to imagine life as a Hungarian wife.
During a class field trip to an apple orchard, one of the Hungarian moms packs leftover roast duck and plum sauce for her kids’ lunch. I buy Sam a donut and some apple cider—I packed nothing. “You have never been a Hungarian mother,” my mom says when I tell her that I find it hard to fit into the group. And she is right—the last time I was “Hungarian” was when I was eighteen. The Hungarian moms seem perpetually prepared with homemade snacks and face wipes and sewing kits and band aids and tissues and changes of clothes. My parenting is haphazard compared to theirs—American, loose, informal.
Drew comes to Boston with us a few times and takes a class for adults. He gives up after three classes—Hungarian is too hard and he is too far behind.
“I love you sweetie, sleep well,” I tell Drew at the end of our phone call. He’s away on business—Florida? Ohio? I’ve lost track—and we finish our conversations like this every night. His background on FaceTime is some beige hotel room, mine is bath time and a pile of laundry. That night, for some reason, I catch my reflection in the screen of my phone and watch myself mouth these words: “I love you sweetie, sleep well.” How odd, I think, that my face, my mouth, my throat make these sounds, these words. After we hang up I try them out in Hungarian: “Szeretlek édesem, aludj jól.” Would I say “sweetie” in Hungarian to anyone? I think of the blond boy in pink pants from high school and whether he says “édesem.”
“What I heard your wife say,” Mr. S picks up my sentence, “is that she is worried about you. I didn’t hear her say anything about leaving.” Here we are, needing an interpreter again, even though we are, technically, both speaking English. We have a choice of where to sit in our therapist’s spacious office but we always end up on the uncomfortable, too-squishy love seat, side-by-side.
We stumble through our sessions, carefully choosing words, one by one, as to not offend, to avoid any chance for misinterpretation. What I think means worry, he thinks means nagging. What he thinks means support, love, I think means control, distrust. Maybe after sixteen years it’s inevitable—we are set up to hear what we want to hear and we say things that we spent months, years, brewing into a poisonous spew of words—all foreign, all impossible to take back.
Sam and I spend long summer days in Budapest every year, wandering around my old turf. The thrill I feel showing him around my city is unexpected: We sit on the terrace of my favorite coffee shop, I show him my elementary school, my high school, the ice cream shop where I used to stop on my way home. We ride the metro, the tram, the bus. We walk down the wide, tree-lined street where I lived and stop at the shabby, wooden gates of my old apartment building.
We talk in Hungarian the entire time—Sam making a great effort to keep up, to not slip back into English, which is so much easier for him. A few times he stops to say “Mama, hogy mondod azt, hogy…” How do you say that? People stare at us on the bus—this white-blond boy speaking in broken Hungarian to his dark-haired mother.
We are exhausted by the end of the day and we leave the hotel windows open at night to listen to a thunderstorm brewing outside and the pigeons cooing on nearby rooftops. A tram passes on the street and its familiar electric hum lulls me to sleep.
Back home, in the early morning hours, I hear Drew stir and he reaches for me. He moves aside pillows and blankets and sheets—all the things that come between us. He rubs his soft beard on my shoulder, his hand traveling lower on my stomach. He pulls me closer and then on top of him and our mouths are full of breath and heat—and no words.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.