It is late October on Gay Street, in Knoxville. He sees her leaning against a red cane on which yellow butterflies have been painted. The woman is wearing a paisley bandanna around her white hair. From her neck flows a long scarf of the palest yellow. It is his former wife, love of his life and most bitter enemy. She looks up and sees him watching her.
“Well, hello you,” she says. “It’s been awhile, hasn’t it?”
“Seven years,” Karoly says. “It’s been exactly seven years.”
She flings the yellow scarf around her neck and he remembers when they were first together in his small apartment at Summit Towers, how she would fling her multi-colored scarves in exactly the same way and sing out, “I am the queen of the gypsies!” Weaving the scarf around him, pulling him close, then pushing him away, she would cast her spell on him.
“How could it be that we have gone so long without speaking, Ava?” he asks her sadly. “I remember when we couldn’t go an hour without calling one another or meeting.’
“I remember, too,” she says.
Through the mist underneath the yellow streetlight, Ava reaches out to touch Karoly’s face, as if she had waited an interminable time to do so. In fact, this was true, though she did not realize it until now. He touches her hand on his face and they have a moment of perfect union as they remember a shared past. She takes his hand and kisses it. Young couples coming out of Suttree’s look at them strangely. Ava laughs softly.
“Look at how they look at us,” she says, “as though we are ancient relics from a shipwreck right here on Gay Street for young people to stop and stare at. When you’re young you think that getting old is something that only happens to other people.”
“But we are only 70,” Karoly says.
“When you are 25, 70 seems ancient—someone to be pitied. Look at all the advertisements—creams to hide your age lines, lotions to make you look 10 years younger overnight. How many people are advertising products like, ‘Miracle Age—A Cream Guaranteed to Add 10 Years of Wrinkles to Your Face by Morning.’”
They laugh together at this, and Karoly says ruefully, “But look at the bright side: We could get the senior breakfast for only $3.35 at the Krystal if we are there before 10.”
“Well, one of our fights could age me more than 10 years. In 30 minutes or less,” she says.
Karoly puts his arm around Ava’s shoulders. A cloud covers the moon and it is very dark save for the orange tips of the cigarettes that pass from their fingertips to their lips.
“You want to go to the steps?” Karoly asks. The long white steps at the LMU law library was always their special place.
“Of course,” says Ava, leaning against the arm he offers gallantly.
They reach the law library and its expansive white steps, which lead up to grand columns at the top. “Stairway to heaven,” Ava says, and they sing the closing line of the song in tin-ear harmony.
“When I used to call you to ask if you wanted to meet for a shot of whiskey, you would arrive all dressed up with two crystal wine glasses. In the middle of the night!” Karoly exclaims. “I was amazed every time. Nobody ever did that for me before.”
“I would have gone on doing it forever,” says Ava, and they wonder silently what went wrong.
The beginning of the relationship was like a dream, where everything is known and understood. They had sat long hours in his apartment with the Hungarian flag on the wall, telling secrets. His escape from Communism, her escape from drug addiction in New York City. Their longing of someone who understood them, their finding it in each other. Days and nights running into each other. His night-time weeping over the massacre of thousands of Hungarians. Listening to Omega, a Hungarian rock band that also brought on tears.
Sharing dreams—his dream of owning his own restaurant again, her dreams of traveling to Africa. Dancing cheek to cheek as Al Green sang “Let’s Stay Together,” and vowing that they would. They did not.
There were jealousies over imagined betrayals, and imagined betrayal is no less anguished than the real thing. Bitter accusations, then passionate reconciliations. At difficult times, they wondered if it was worth it. It was. But the heart grows weary and gives in, lets go at the very instant it should have hung on one more time.
The two former lovers huddle closer together as the fall wind begins to blow. A helicopter flies noisily overhead, taking someone to the hospital to face either death and departure from the planet, or to a renewal of life. Who decides which way it will go?
“I’d better be going now,” Ava says, though she doesn’t know why. She has nothing to do.
“Of course,” says Karoly, in his courteous way, though he doesn’t know why either. He is as idle as Ava, He holds his hand out to help her get up and they walk slowly back toward Gay Street. Ava makes a quick turnabout.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something,” she says, puffing on her cigarette and looking at him with a spark in her eyes.
“Yes, dear,” he says tenderly.
“You got any whiskey?” she asks and they laugh together.
“In fact I do,” he says, pulling out a decorative flask and handing it to her.
She takes a swig and the warm liquid runs down her throat, flowing to the bottom of her toes. She had been sober for the last six years. Now she wonders why. She passes it back to Karoly, and as he drinks, all the years apart seemed to vanish and they are once again newlyweds.
“Do you remember after we went to the courthouse and got married, how you put the marriage license on the mantle and said, ‘We’re married, we’re married,’ over and over. And then we danced and drank champagne?” Ava asks. “You were so proud.”
“I remember everything,” says Karoly, his eyes wet.
“And how I woke up in the middle of the night, telling you of my dream of the sea, and you responded, ‘It was the Adriatic Sea,’ as though we were having the same dream.”
She touches the middle of his forehead with her forefinger.
“I wish for your eye to fill with light,” she says, and at that instant the cloud passes away from the full moon and Market Square glows with a white light so beautiful, so ethereal, that they are unable to speak. After the rapture begins to wane, they both wonder what is going to happen next. Each feels regret for the past seven years they could have spent together but had not. Can great love remain great?
But Karoly and Ava are through questioning for the time being, falling asleep on a park bench in Krutch Park where the early morning street sweepers will find them, leaning up against one other as the wind blows random pieces of paper around the couple, like tiny birds who have not yet determined where they will land.
Donna Johnson describes herself as a person who thrives on breaking the rules other people have made while also creating rules for herself that do make sense. “My rules do not necessarily follow the law set out by the government and law-abiding citizens,” she says. “They follow an inner law, one unto myself, and when I attempt to go outside this, to conform, disaster follows.” Her stories are often about people who are not recognized by others, who may even seem invisible, but “they often have a great truth to share if one but listens.”
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