The End to an Era

12 min read

Secrets and desires recalled…

Art by Isabella Chen

The simple passing of one day into the next had become the event of the century, filled with pomp, pageantry and glorious excess. Young men and women, having put aside their sombre black coats, turned the streets of Budapest into a colourful, glittering riot.

From her apartment overlooking Deák Ferenc square, Zsófia drew the heavy curtains aside and climbed onto the high ledge of the window with ease. It was cold and she would turn seventy-eight in three weeks, but she did not feel age in her bones.

She supposed the entrance into the new millennium was indeed something special to be celebrated, but in truth, things changed so fast these days she was no longer sure she knew what mattered. Life always carried on wonderfully, but her millennium was 1935 and her performance as Cosette in the Christmas ballet of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Memory is a tricky beast and although her mind remained sharp, memories often eluded her. This day, however, was clear as if painted on celluloid.

It was a day far colder than this balmy winter from the future. Snow had fallen relentlessly since dawn, blanketing the city’s monumental buildings and boulevards. Budapest, with its usually blackened streets and sandstone buildings, was now chaste and white, sparkling in the yellow glow of the lights adorning its avenues.

The snow was glorious, but she worried it might delay her parents, who were coming in from the countryside for her debut. Her godmother, Izabella, assured her they would be on time, and that she’d pick them up from the train station as soon as they’d arrived.

The day unfolded in a relentless slew of activity, dry-runs, costuming, more dry runs; she soon forgot her worries and was wholly focused on the performance ahead of her.

There was also Gellért, her co-star, who played Jean Valjean, Cosette’s saviour and the protagonist of the ballet. He was twenty-eight, but they made him look older for the part, and she adored him. She knew he thought of her as a sister, though she was secretly in love.

During the long months they’d spent practicing for this performance, he had been a wonderful mentor. She remembered the night he’d stayed with her, when her body ached and her feet were killing her more than usual, to tell her that the pain would always be there, but she’d live through it all.

Then, there was dancing with him. There was nothing else which held her so completely in thrall as when her body flowed with his until their minds entwined. Back then, she thought he was the only person she would ever experience such epiphanies with. He never missed a step, always in sync with her even when she erred. And when she flew, he caught her — his hands, large and firm, finding their way around her waist and sometimes, her thighs.

She couldn’t do the steps any longer, but often replayed them in her head. They were glorious. She remembered the intense focus as they danced and how all the world disappeared when he picked her up, lifting her high above his shoulders as she unfolded into the Swan Song.

In that ballet, as in life, he had always been there for her. It was she who left him.

The performance was an immense success. It was a sell out; the audience clapped long and hard, and she and Gellért had bowed, hand in hand, more times than they could count.

It was only hours later, near midnight of Christmas Eve, that she realised her family hadn’t arrived, for no one had come to collect her from the dressing rooms. Not even her godmother. Looking out the window, the snow was several feet high and although the main avenues had been swept clean, there was almost no one walking the streets. Most of the cast and crew had already left and she was forgotten.

“You’re still here.” A voice, Gellért’s, as he opened the door to her dressing room.

“My parents must have stayed in Pécs, there’s too much snow for them to have made it.”

“Come with me. It’ll hardly do for you to spend Christmas Eve in this cold dressing room.” He picked up her coat and helped her into it. “We’re going to the Grand Hotel.”

She could barely suppress her delight. Although it was difficult to become more intimate than they were when dancing, she relished the thought of spending the night with him, even if it was in the company of others.

There was no place like the Grand Hotel this time of the year. It was decked out in the finest ornamentation and champagne sparkled in the hands of party goers who filled its floors. Their party consisted of Gellért, András (who was of an age between hers and his), Natalia, another soloist, and Dominique, the French costumer. Zsófia was unfamiliar to them, but they took to her quite quickly.

“You’re old enough to drink, aren’t you?” Natalia asked as she poured a glass of champagne.

“It’s Christmas, I’m usually allowed.”

The night wore on in revelry and silly games. Eventually, only Gellért, András and herself remained. She’d half fallen asleep on the sofa when she was woken by the sound of a lamp hitting the floor.

“Ah shh… we’ve woken her now.” Gellért’s voice.

Zsófia sat up, startled. With the lamp broken, the room was dark, lit only by the half moon. In front of her, Gellért and András had stripped down to their underwear and were disentangling themselves from an embrace. Shock at first, then embarrassment, swept through her. She felt stupid for being infatuated with him.

Not knowing what to do, she sat motionless, unable to take her eyes off them. Especially Gellért, with his beautiful, muscular body, silhouetted under the silver light. The disappointment she felt was acute, finding its way deep into her.

“We’ll take it to the bedroom,” András said, picking himself up.

“No, no, you take the bed, we’ll stay here.” Gellért stood up.

“I’m not sleepy anymore.”

A long pause as they each contemplated their next move. Gellért began pouring a round of palinka for them.

“I think she likes you,” András whispered.

“I can hear you,” Zsófia said, not moving from where she was.

“Join us.” Gellért walked up to her, his body, graceful as ever.

They downed the palinka and he came to sit beside her, hand on her knee, lips close to hers, almost touching, yet not, waiting for her.

Her heart fluttered and she felt warmth and excitement blossoming in her belly. She’d fantasised about this moment many times before, and she felt now exactly as she did in those daydreams. Tentatively, Gellért began kissing her, chaste kisses where his lips found hers, sucking gently on them. Although it was her first, her tongue instinctively sought his and soon she found herself breathless, straddling him. His hands encircled her waist and she melted into their familiarity.

Another pair of hands, András’s, slipping underneath her buttocks, reaching for Gellért’s underwear. He lifted her from him and gave András the space to pull them from his thighs. She felt his sex, hard, wet, pressed against the thin material of her panties, under her dress, its head against her thigh. Although it aroused her, she felt its presence so close to her sex disconcerting and adjusted herself so it lay directly under her underwear, not touching her skin.

“You’re afraid,” he said. “Why?”

“A little. It’s just that… hmm… I’m uh… am unfamiliar.”

“Shall we stop?”

“No, no. Don’t.” She kissed him again, half her mind inundated in the ecstasy of the moment, the other half contemplating her options.

She thought about it years later — in retrospect, it had all been very risky. She could have gotten pregnant, it would have ruined her career, but as all young people are, she was reckless. Truth be told, she still was.

His fingers found the buttons on the back of her dress, and undid them with urgency. As the cloth fell from her skin, she felt the cool air prick her as his hands roamed across her back, pulling her close.

Art by Isabella Chen

He lay her in his place, kneeling between her legs, pulling her panties off. Feeling vulnerable, she tried to draw her knees together, but his hands held them apart and his tongue found their home among the folds of her sex.

Between her legs, it was warm, wet and delightful. A little ticklish at first, but soon she felt the stirrings of a crescendo in her. András watched them, seated beside Gellért, his eyes glowing. Soon, any anxiety she’d had was gone to the wind. As Gellért ate her fervently, her legs splayed apart, heels on his shoulders, her fingers entwined in his hair.

András moved behind her, his hands slipping over her neck, cupping her breasts, his lips finding hers. He kissed expertly and his breath was sweet, but she could tell it was different with him. Nevertheless, she gave herself to the revelry, fell into the embrace of hands and lips, fingers, tongues and thighs.

András came to kneel behind Gellért, his hands urging him to get up on his knees. He’d stripped his underwear off and was naked, the beautiful lines of his body penciled in moonlight, his erection eager, pressed against the other man’s back.

Zsófia looked away. Distracted, Gellért paused; his teeth found the insides of her thigh and as András penetrated him, they found her flesh. Gasping, she clutched at his hair, making it hurt. He looked up, his big, beautiful eyes dilated in rapture.

“Slow down, you’re hurting me.” He raised a hand; the other man took it, entangling his fingers in his. Andras leaned over him, burying his face in his neck, a tender, intimate gesture. They were so familiar with each other.

Zsófia found herself greatly aroused, watching them together. Although this night was new to her body, her mind had been to such decadent places and she felt it the most natural thing in the world.

“I’ll come soon…” András increased his vigour. Gellért buried his face between her legs, his breath hot against her lips. Somehow, he passed on the pleasure mounting in him to her; although he barely touched her sex, she felt her climax building.

András came, his body shaking with release. It was wonderful as it was terrifying. When she touched herself, when she came, she was always quiet about it. Hardly calm or composed, but silent, often burying her face in her pillow, even when she had the house to herself. But this, this felt like a battle.

Pulling out, his cock glistening, the younger man leaned over to kiss her lover. He stood up and came to her, kissing her on the forehead. Then, without a word, he gathered his clothes and went into the bedroom, leaving them alone.

Gellért, still shaking from the passionate violence that had taken him, joined her on the sofa, pulling her legs over his lap and drawing her close.

“You’re beautiful Zsófia, so beautiful.” His hands ran across her thighs, stroking them, as if she were a kitten covered in the most luxuriant fur. For her first time, this night was already more perfect than she could imagine.

“None of this seems to surprise you.”

“Why should it? Even creatures who have no understanding of such things indulge in it. Why should I be surprised?”

“You were afraid.”

“I am. A little. But please don’t stop.”

Her hands sought him, under her legs, her fingers coaxed him, and he responded.

He flipped her on her back, his torso, lithe and taut, above hers. A shiver passed through her, she felt her heart drop into her stomach. She was overcome by a wanting unlike any other. All thought was banished, this was the moment and she wanted to remember every detail, every sensation.

His advances were uncertain, perhaps he was afraid of hurting her, but she guided him to her entrance, raising her hips, urging him in. She was too tight, and although he tried, she seemed closed to him. He lifted her legs and spat on her, his fingers teasing her open. His head queried her, softly but insistently, until he found his way in.

She would never forget that moment. The feeling of sudden awakening — the novelty of it all, coupled with the most intense pleasure she’d ever felt. There was nothing like it in all her life, it was sublime. All those stories, Tristan and Isolde, Orpheus and Eurydice, she understood now the desire that drove them.

Pain and pleasure were one and the same and she felt total submission under the weight of his body, the movement of his hips as he took her, as she swallowed him in. Tears formed in her eyes for the beauty of it. She was in love.

Each time he found her target deep inside her belly, the sweetest sensation filled her, adding to her mounting desire. She grasped at him, hands pulling at the flesh on his chest, his back. If only he could become completely part of her; if she could but engulf him.

Wet, she was so wet and sticky with desire, and with blood. The metallic tang was unmistakable. He was in control and he took her, his previous caution lost. He wanted her in a selfish way that could only come from an insatiable craving.

“You’re so tight.” His breath tremored.

He manoeuvered her so her ankles were on his shoulders, and like this, he thrust deep into her. She gasped.

She lay splayed on the floor, arms above her head, his hands upon her shoulders, pinning her down. He reached for her neck, slowly taking the wind out of her, and she felt her pleasure reaching a peak. Unexpectedly, it came from her, her mounting thrill bubbling over. She tried to squirm away, afraid she would wet herself, but he continued and she came and came until tears pooled in her eyes and, to her horror, she pissed herself.

He came with her, amidst the madness, pulling out just in time to release a pool onto her belly.

“God Zsófia, if only you had any idea how good you feel…” He kissed her lips and came down to lie beside her, on his belly.

She remained on her back, still, her body suffused with sweet paralysis. Her sex was raw, her flesh yearning for him to touch her again. She wished he’d pick her up into an embrace.

“I have to stay with András tonight.” He broke the silence, placing an arm across her shoulder, pulling her towards him.

“Do you love him?” A thread of jealousy passed through her.


Zsófia considered his words. “Is this a betrayal?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. But such moments do not come often… perhaps he understands.”

She knew he did not intend to be cruel — no, he was not.

“You’re hurting.”

She lay motionless. After a long while, “Shall I go home?”

“No, stay.” He sat up so he could look at her. “Join us in bed.”

“I don’t want to intrude.”

Gellért traced a finger over her collarbones, over her ribs that poked from between her breasts, cutting across the splatter he’d made on her belly. He ran those fingers across her face, the slight, astringent smell of his cum filling her nose.

“Stay for me.”

Their affair lasted seven glorious months. While political turmoil unsettled the city and fear began to spread like a plague among the bohemian circles her family moved in, she ensconced herself in blissful ignorance.

After that night, they met several times, the three of them, in Gellért’s apartment. Although she and András enjoyed each other’s bodies, they did it mostly for Gellért. Eventually, he split his time between them. It suited Gellért to pretend to court her, dispelling dangerous gossip that had began to creep around his relationship with András; but she never doubted that theirs was the affair.

Her parents knew nothing of the liaisons, although she believed her godmother, who often picked her up after rehearsals, had her suspicions. Izabella never judged her for it, even once telling her to relish every moment, for such pleasures were often short lived.

And short lived it was. As the year progressed, the city grew restless, with Germany becoming increasingly hostile and Hungary finding herself trapped between two great powers. Life carried on nonetheless; many were in denial that war would come to them. And even if it would, what choice did they have? Most had no opportunity to leave.

But there were signs everywhere of the coming night, and although she was oblivious in her childishness, her parents were waiting on edge.

Then, on the evening of August 23, she came home to chaos.

“We found a ship to the United States leaving Trieste tomorrow morning, we catch the train to Italy at midnight,” her father told her. “See if there’s anything left in your room you want to take along, but the less we bring, the better.”

“What? When did this happen?” She turned to her godmother, as if to ask her to speak sense to her parents.

“I’m leaving too,” she said. “Which world have you been living in, Zsófia? There’s hardly any work left at the theatre, there’s no food in the cafés. The city is a dangerous place, especially for us.”

Zsófia did not answer. She knew this was coming but had chosen not to believe it would. She had to tell Gellért. Racing to her room, she pulled open drawers and cupboards looking for anything she might want, but frankly she didn’t care. The only thing she wanted, she would have to leave behind.

“I need to see him,” she demanded, eyes pleading with her godmother.

“There’s no time,” her father said.

“I’ll take her, we won’t be long,” Izabella promised.

As she pulled her car up the sidewalk outside Gellért’s building, she told Zsófia to take as much time as she needed.

“Four hours till the train leaves, you may never see him again. I’ll wait for you at the café around the corner.”

She raced up the stairs to his apartment on the attic floor. She hadn’t seen him for a week now. Since work had dried up at the ballet, they’d seen less and less of each other. She knew things were also becoming increasingly tense between him and András, although she didn’t dare ask why.

It was András who opened the door. He was shirtless in the summer heat, his skin glistening with sweat, face unshaven. Without inviting her in, he called Gellért to the door and went back inside.

“Can’t I come in?” she asked, as Gellért stood on the landing with her, closing the door behind him.

“It’s not a good time.” He raised her chin and brought her face to his, kissing her. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m leaving. We depart from Trieste tomorrow, for New York.”

Pain flitted across his face.

“You need to leave too, both you and András. It’s dangerous here.” She ran a hand across his chest, his shirt soaked in perspiration. It was so awfully stuffy here.

“I’ve been trying, he doesn’t want to.”

“I want you to. Can’t you find passage?” Unable to control herself, she burst into tears.

He pulled her into an embrace and she wiped her face uselessly against his drenched shirt. She breathed him in, imprinting in her mind every detail of that moment. He kissed her through her sobs. Tender kisses soon became impatient, and he lifted her, pinning her against the wall.

Pulling her panties aside, his sex found hers, entering her; then, that delightful, familiar sensation of fullness. Nothing in her life thereafter matched that bitterest and sweetest of moments again.

Quickly, his thrusts reached a crescendo and she begged him to find his release inside her. She had begged it of him many times before, but he’d always refused.

“You’ll forget me soon enough.” He placed her back on her feet.

“Won’t you come join us in New York?”

His fingers ran through her hair, tucking a loose lock behind her ear.

“I’ll try.” But even as he said it, she knew the truth.

Electronic music boomed from the makeshift stage on the square below. The streets were still gray, but it was a world of difference from that Christmas past. She’d returned to Budapest, hoping to find the memories she’d left behind, but it was impossible to reconcile her nostalgia with what was before her.

That world was forever lost.

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