Sándor sitting alone in a bar on MacDougal Street. I think it’s 1968. He’s been staring at the blank page for an hour and is on his second – maybe third – whiskey on the rocks. He’s about to order one neat.
“He always wrote me this terrible poetry,” Max had said. “All birds and angels and flying things, clear blue skies and sugar-spun clouds.” She had scowled. “Pigeons and hornets, more like. Horseflies. Horseshit.”
“But the emotion was sincere, surely?” he had ventured, trying to keep his distance from the topic of Max’s love life. “Birds are one of the most universal and beloved images in poetry.”
“Birds are filthy little rats,” she had cut him off. “There’s nothing exalted or glorious in a pair of wings. Hollow bones and dry little feathers filled with dust. The only thing that exalts a bird is our own desire to fly, our own impotence. Any poet who blindly uses a goddamned bird in his work as a symbol of anything is just revealing how stuck his own feet are in the sewage.”
Delicate as always, Max. With her cigarette pinched between her fingers and her hair undone, casting down proclamations like a prophet on a mountaintop. Or a critic at the New Yorker. She was a caricature of herself and Sándor suspected that she knew it, but her words stuck in his head. Hollow little dust-filled bones. Our own desire to fly, our own impotence.
Somewhere in the middle of his neat whiskey, his notebook is filled with this:
In Hungary there is a particular variety of mayfly called the Tiszavirág, or “Tisza flower.” They are large for mayflies, with a wingspan of about an inch and a half, and usually white or pale pink. They are thoroughly unremarkable, except for one thing.
Every spring, over the course of just a few days, the entire population of the species swarms over the river Tisza – and only the Tisza, no other river on earth – to mate and then immediately die. The corpses of the insects strewn across the water, their wings outstretched, look like millions of flower petals floating on the surface of the river. Their mass suicide is transformed into a grand work of art.
Sándor barely remembers Hungary, and speaks with only the hint of an accent, more a slight melancholy song-cadence than any deformation of the words themselves. His family was prescient enough to flee before the war broke out, and his only memories of his native land are a few surreal dream-like images of childhood. Not events, not people, just images: the stone lions on the bridge over the Danube looking directly at him and frightening him, the snowdrifts of pale green petals falling off the linden trees in late August and whirling through the broad streets in Pest, a huge orange moon illuminating the night in Óbuda so brightly that the birds started singing, but not brightly enough that the crickets stopped. The moon hung in the sky like an enormous lantern, silently watching and casting a long shadow on the statue of St. Florian, while the deserted streets floated somewhere unreal and ghostly between night and day.
Max is from Westchester. Her real name is Marion. She will verbally eviscerate anyone who points out either of those facts. The day she turned twenty-six and therefore fell off the edge into her late twenties, she stood up from her secretarial desk job, stopped returning her devoted but boring boyfriend’s calls, and moved to Manhattan. As is tradition, the objective is to become a writer and the reality is waitressing. The difference is, she’s aware she’s a cliche.
This should be a love story, but it never will be.