Excerpt from Chapter One: A Letter, from The Invisible Bridge by ©Julie Orringer (courtesy Random House, Inc., May 2010). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Later he would tell her that their story began at the Royal Hungarian Opera House, the night before he left for Paris on the Western Europe Express. The year was 1937; the month was September, the evening unseasonably cold. His brother had insisted on taking him to the opera as a parting gift. The show was Tosca and their seats were at the top of the house. Not for them the three marble-arched doorways, the façade with its Corinthian columns and heroic entablature. Theirs was a humble side entrance with a red-faced ticket taker, a floor of scuffed wood, walls plastered with crumbling opera posters. Girls in knee-length dresses climbed the stairs arm in arm with young men in threadbare suits; pensioners argued with their white-haired wives as they shuffled up the five narrow flights. At the top, a joyful din: a refreshment salon lined with mirrors and wooden benches, the air hazy with cigarette smoke. A doorway at its far end opened onto the concert hall itself, the great electric-lit cavern of it, with its ceiling fresco of Greek immortals and its gold-scrolled tiers. Andras had never expected to see an opera here, nor would he have if Tibor hadn’t bought the tickets. But it was Tibor’s opinion that residence in Budapest must include at least one evening of Puccini at the Operaház. Now Tibor leaned over the rail to point out Admiral Horthy’s box, empty that night except for an ancient general in a hussar’s jacket. Far below, tuxedoed ushers led men and women to their seats, the men in evening dress, the women’s hair glittering with jewels.
“If only Mátyás could see this,” Andras said.
“He’ll see it, Andráska. He’ll come to Budapest when he’s got his baccalaureate, and in a year he’ll be sick to death of this place.”
Andras had to smile. He and Tibor had both moved to Budapest as soon as they graduated from gimnázium in Debrecen. They had all grown up in Konyár, a tiny village in the eastern flatlands, and to them, too, the capital city had once seemed like the center of the world. Now Tibor had plans to go to medical college in Italy, and Andras, who had lived here for only a year, was leaving for school in Paris. Until the news from the École Spéciale d’Architecture, they had all thought Tibor would be the first to go. For the past three years he’d been working as a salesclerk in a shoe store on Váci utca, saving money for his tuition and poring over his medical textbooks at night as desperately as if he were trying to save his own life. When Andras had moved in with him a year earlier, Tibor’s departure had seemed imminent. He had already passed his exams and submitted his application to the medical school at Modena. He thought it might take six months to get his acceptance and student visa. Instead the medical college had placed him on a waiting list for foreign students, and he’d been told it might be another year or two before he could matriculate.
Tibor hadn’t said a word about his own situation since Andras had learned of his scholarship, nor had he shown a trace of envy. Instead he had bought these opera tickets and helped Andras make his plans. Now, as the lights dimmed and the orchestra began to tune, Andras was visited by a private shame: Though he knew he would have been happy for Tibor if their situations had been reversed, he suspected he would have done a poor job of hiding his jealousy.
From a door at the side of the orchestra pit, a tall spindling man with hair like white flames emerged and stepped into a spotlight. The audience shouted its approval as this man made his way to the podium. He had to take three bows and raise his hands in surrender before they went quiet; then he turned to the musicians and lifted his baton. After a moment of quivering stillness, a storm of music rolled out of the brass and strings and entered Andras’s chest, filling his ribcage until he could scarcely breathe. The velvet curtain rose to reveal the interior of an Italian cathedral, its minutiae rendered in perfect and intricate detail. Stained-glass windows radiated amber and azure light, and a half-completed fresco of Mary Magdalene showed ghostly against a plaster wall. A man in striped prison garb crept into the church to hide in one of the dark chapels. A painter came in to work on the fresco, followed by a sexton bent upon making the painter tidy up his brushes and dropcloths before the next service. Then came the opera diva Tosca, the model for Mary Magdalene, her carmine skirts swirling around her ankles. Song flew up and hovered in the painted dome of the Operaház: the clarinetlike tenor of the painter Cavaradossi, the round basso of the fugitive Angelotti, the warm apricotty soprano of the fictional diva Tosca, played by the real Hungarian diva Zsuzsa Toronyi. The sound was so solid, so tangible, it seemed to Andras he could reach over the edge of the balcony and grab handfuls of it. The building itself had become an instrument, he thought: The architecture expanded the sound and completed it, amplified and contained it.
“I won’t forget this,” he whispered to his brother.
“You’d better not,” Tibor whispered back. “I expect you to take me to the opera when I visit you in Paris.”
At the intermission they drank small cups of black coffee in the refreshment salon and argued over what they’d seen. Was the painter’s refusal to betray his friend an act of selfless loyalty or self-glorifying bravado? Was his endurance of the torture that followed meant to be read as a sublimation of his sexual love for Tosca? Would Tosca herself have stabbed Scarpia if her profession hadn’t schooled her so thoroughly in the ways of melodrama? There was a bittersweet pleasure in the exchange; as a boy, Andras had spent hours listening to Tibor debate points of philosophy or sport or literature with his friends, and had pined for the day when he might say something Tibor would find witty or incisive. Now that he and Tibor had become equals, or something like equals, Andras was leaving, getting on a train to be carried hundreds of kilometers away.
“What is it?” Tibor said, his hand on Andras’s sleeve.
“Too much smoke,” Andras said, and coughed, averting his eyes from Tibor’s. He was relieved when the lights flickered to signal the end of the intermission.
After the third act, when the innumerable curtain calls were over—the dead Tosca and Cavaradossi miraculously revived, the evil Scarpia smiling sweetly as he accepted an armload of red roses—Andras and Tibor pushed toward the exit and made their way down the crowded stairs. Outside, a faint scattering of stars showed above the wash of city light. Tibor took his arm and led him toward the Andrássy side of the building, where the dress-circle and orchestra-floor patrons were spilling through the three marble arches of the grand entrance.
“I want you to have a look at the main foyer,” Tibor said. “We’ll tell the usher we left something inside.”
Andras followed him through the central doorway and into the chandelier-lit hall, where a marble stairway spread its wings toward a gallery. Men and women in evening dress descended, but Andras saw only architecture: the egg-and-dart molding along the stairway, the cross-barrel vault above, the pink Corinthian columns that supported the gallery. Miklós Ybl, a Hungarian from Székesfehérvár, had won an international competition to design the opera house; Andras’s father had given him a book of Ybl’s architectural drawings for his eighth birthday, and he had spent many long afternoons studying this space. As the departing audience flowed around him, he stared up into the vault of the ceiling, so intent upon reconciling this three-dimensional version with the line drawings in his memory that he scarcely noticed when someone paused before him and spoke. He had to blink and force himself to focus upon the person, a large dovelike woman in a sable coat, who appeared to be begging his pardon. He bowed and stepped aside to let her pass.
“No, no,” she said. “You’re just where I want you. What luck to run into you here! I would never have known how to find you.”
He struggled to recall when and where he might have met this woman. A diamond necklace glinted at her throat, and the skirt of a rose silk gown spilled from beneath her pelisse; her dark hair was arranged in a cap of close-set curls. She took his arm and led him out onto the front steps of the opera house.
“It was you at the bank the other day, wasn’t it?” she said. “You were the one with the envelope of francs.”
Now he knew her: It was Elza Hász, the wife of the bank director. Andras had seen her a few times at the great synagogue on Dohány utca, where he and Tibor went for an occasional Friday night service. The other day at the bank he’d jostled her as she crossed the lobby; she’d dropped the striped hatbox she was carrying, and he’d lost his grip on his paper folder of francs. The folder had opened, discharging the pink-and-green bills, and the money had fluttered around their feet like confetti. He’d dusted off the hatbox and handed it back to her, then watched her disappear though a door marked private.
“You look to be my son’s age,” she said now. “And judging from your currency, I would guess you’re off to school in Paris.”
“Tomorrow afternoon,” he said.
“You must do me a great favor. My son is studying at the Beaux-Arts, and I’d like you to take a package for him. Would it be a terrible inconvenience?”
A moment passed before he could respond. To agree to take a package to someone in Paris would mean that he was truly going, that he intended to leave his brothers and his parents and his country behind and step into the vast unknown of Western Europe.
“Where does your son live?” he asked.