The Two Fridas, Zsófia Bán

Sept. 2009 WLT
Sept. 2009 WLT

They had us sitting together though we didn’t want to. We even said we didn’t. At that our teacher whisked her cane staff through the air, with an astonishing alacrity given her body weight. Who asked you, she asked, and since no one had asked, we decided not to answer rather than be asked again. We sat in silence. Held our traps. The whole class held their traps. You might say it’s not particularly good being a new kid. Everyone is constantly sizing you up, particularly if there are two of you, and even more particularly if the two of you are one. We tried to ease the situation by dressing differently: Frida would wear a richly laced long white dress with three-quarter sleeves, whose lower hem was adorned with a cute little red flower pattern, while I had on a blue-and-yellow top matched with a long olive-green skirt with white flounces at the hem (wearing jewelry was sadly not allowed, which always made us feel like we were going out naked). Even so, we were constantly being mistaken for each other. They said it was confusing that we both had the same name, but we thought that should actually make things easier. Not for them, though. Well, my little dolls, we were told with unbridled superiority, around here the custom is to call two identical copies by different names. So they wouldn’t be so identical. Well there is a certain logic to that, we said when we still thought there was some sense in debating them, but you must admit that another view is equally acceptable: if two identicals are identical, then their names should be identical too. The multiplicity of such systems of logic is termed “cultural difference.” This got a big belly laugh out of the whole class. The only one who didn’t laugh was the Gypsy boy Sanyi Lakatos. He could empathize; he knew from cultural differences. I’ll smash their faces in if you want, he said. We didn’t, but thanked him kindly anyway. Gracias. We liked Sanyi Lakatos. He could flip a compass over his five fingers like nobody else. He also reminded us of the boys back home. Especially Diego. Diego was half-Indian, while Sanyi Lakatos was completely Indian. One of us always carried a medallion portrait of Diego until the lady who taught chemistry confiscated it. She said it was distracting us from the compounds. If she only knew how wrong she was! The best chemistry in the world was the kind we had with Diego, but those flat-chested toothpicks couldn’t even imagine what that was. We were much more developed than they were: for one thing, we already had mustaches, something they found—how should we put it?—off-putting. (Well, all right—they gave us hell for it.) They said that sort of thing wasn’t done around here. Said we couldn’t assemble for patrol like that. Said a Pioneer couldn’t go around looking like that. Thank God, we said, one less thing to worry about. Needless to say, we shouldn’t have said that. There’s no God around here, screamed the homeroom teacher, and her face, glistening from fat, went all red. No, she said, just listen to Comrade Lenik, and Comrade Principal. (We wondered about this Comrade Lenik, but dared not ask any questions, thinking this would only make matters worse.) Pack right off to the principal’s office, and take your report cards. Our comrade principal (if he was our comrade, then we were the mayor of Teotihuacán) received us with excessive smarm, which only made him more frightening. He inquired, and I quote, what had brought us there, and had we perhaps gone a step over the line, and now now girls, let’s have a confession before I get all in a huff. Since we didn’t know why we were there, we said nothing. Girls, he said, better not squinch your eyebrows like that when talking to me, before things get ugly. Unfortunately, we were in no position to satisfy this request spliced into a threat, since we were stuck that way. It was no use Grandma Kaló’s telling us a thousand times, Oh Fridas Fridas, don‘t squinch your eyebrows because you’ll get stuck that way. We just wouldn’t listen. We squinched and squinched until, one day, we just got stuck that way. Hence we were in no position to satisfy the request of our comrade the principal, and told him as much. To this he responded that we would greatly regret this, and sternly asked for our report cards. Our comrade the principal got to writing and writing. We envied him this facility; as for us, we could spend all day trying to find the right words. There we stood, in the middle of the principal’s office, and suddenly became aware that the lazy spot of afternoon sun had vanished from the national emblem on the wall, framed by ears of wheat. In other words, dusk had fallen. Alrighty then, said our comrade the principal at last, there we are. Now you two just take this home for your father to sign. And I’d better not see you here any more because, well, you know what there’ll be to catch, he said unctuously, which sent a shiver down both our spines. Once out in the half-dark of the hallway, we had a look at what he had written. We read it through twice: “Frida bleated during class in a manner unbecoming a Pioneer. For this I am issuing a principal’s warning.” Father rolled with laughter at this for three days and nights on end, until we had to call the doctor to bind his diaphragm. The doctor praised us for notifying him in time because, and I quote, one more giggle and hasta la vista. At this, mother had a crying fit and remarked that one of us would have been handful enough, let alone two. But no helping that. There were two of us, said mother descriptively, and that’s that. But what happens, thought we in horror, if one of us dies before the other. On the one hand this would be a rude disproof of our mother’s axiom, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Much more horrible would be being left alone to ourselves. This thought was so unbearable that we determined without delay to do something to prevent this. And so it was: we filched a scalpel and clamp from the doctor’s bag, and once he’d left we went into the bathroom and set about connecting our hearts. Our thinking was that if we could make the two of them one, then we could not die separately, because the other one would also be me. Our biology teacher would have given us a B+ for this (because, and I quote, an A is only for the most outstanding). Upon completing the procedure we cleaned up the bathroom after ourselves and then, with the satisfaction of a job well done, took out the trash and did the dishes, without so much as being asked. Our mother gave an uneasy smile.

As we set off for school the next day, Frida was me and I was Frida. Even though one of us dreamed in Spanish and the other counted in Hungarian, one liked soccer and the other gymnastics, one sawed wood while the other crocheted, one liked boys (especially Diego) and the other one girls (especially Marlene Dietrich, who also came from abroad and was in the class next door), one was an alto and the other a mezzo (so in chorus we had to negotiate the overlap), but let me say right here that we weren’t about to sing forwardcommunistyouth because it would have given us, as Grandma Kaló used to say, the willies, but instead we sang “The Girl from Ipanema,” dum-de-dum, and “Off in the Gumption Fields of Russia,” because even if we didn’t know what gumption fields were, it sure sounded promising and, finally, though one of us was a Virgo and the other a Libra (this ultimately got sorted out) because we were born right before and after midnight, now we were one, and our heart leaped for joy at how we had tricked fate. But this was where the trouble began. It turned out that the class picture was scheduled for that day, which we had forgotten about, what with the heart operation and all. For the class picture you were strictly required to wear the Pioneer outfit, and there we were, not only not in Pioneer outfits but just the opposite. On top of it all we just then noticed that through Frida’s white lace you could see not only her open heart but her breasts too, which was expressly forbidden by troop regulations. What is more, she couldn’t really close off our artery with the clamp, and blood was dripping all over her beautiful snow-white dress (this actually went surprisingly well with the color of the pretty little flower pattern on the hem, but still seemed somehow untidy and undignified for a Pioneer, particularly for the class picture). The other’s blue-and-yellow top was unaffected, but we couldn’t work out the heart thing except by pulling it outside of the material, which is undoubtedly a somewhat unusual procedure (subsequently an article praising it appeared in Science), but since this was our first attempt at anything like this we were happy that it worked at all. There was, however, an aspect that was not exactly such a great solution, either aesthetically or practically, in that the artery connecting our two hearts had to be run out the sleeve of our blouses, and it ended up wound around my arm, which restricted my movements. There’s no denying our execution was a little shoddy (though the instructions on the poster said to be clean and precise), but we’d like to have seen who could do it better in their bathroom at home. Well, we got an earful. What was going through our heads. Where did we think we were living. Did we think we were in some imperialist bedlam. Did we perhaps think the sky was a double bass (this one we didn’t understand at all; we’ll have to ask about it when we get home). Did someone pull us out of the dump, perhaps, or even worse: from the clutches of imperialist capital—in other words, were we associating with some bad characters. We did not know the answer to any of these questions, so we just held hands and said not a word. Let go of your hands, this isn’t folk dance class. We didn’t let go. Well at least get out your Pioneer kerchiefs. We didn’t (we weren’t carrying them on us, and besides). Do something with yourselves at once, or else. But Miss, we have just now done something with ourselves, and this is it. Then—¡ay, mi corazón!—all inferno broke loose. We shouldn’t even think of sitting for the class picture like this. We should not consider ourselves members of the class. In fact, we were class enemies unworthy of being preserved in memory and even less worthy of serving the homeland steadfastly like it says in the anthem. This had gone on for a solid twenty-five minutes when we decided we weren’t going to listen to it anymore. We blocked the sound out of our ears, the sight from our eyes, shut our teacher and this whole crazy country from our open hearts, imagining ourselves back at Acapulco Bay, back on the Yucatán Peninsula, back on the pyramids of Tikal, Tulum, Chichén Itzá, Copán, and Uxmal, back in the jungle, back in our happy Mayan past and the arms of Diego. Then something unexpected happened. The photographer, who had been silent, spoke up. Excuse me, he said softly, if you will allow me an observation, there’s no reason, as long as they are here, to exclude them from the event. He was doubtless motivated by the documentary impulse. He doubtless wanted to record the entire truth. He doubtless would have liked to do his job with precision and would have preferred not to be obstructed in this. Afterward, his thinking went, everyone could do as they pleased with the pictures: cut them up, retouch them, tear them to bits, burn them, or disown them—but as long as he had taken the trouble to bring his equipment, why should he be denied the day as it was, there before his lens in all its fullness? Why should he be forced to suffer humiliation in his own eyes, to relinquish his professional pride? Our homeroom teacher was now staring at him in disbelief. But, comrade photographer, you see how they look, do you not? I see, answered the photographer. You see that they can’t just take a seat with their young comrades who are all in ceremonial uniforms, do you not? I see, answered the photographer, but they could be in another picture. Well the comrade photographer can do as he pleases with his own materials, but you can take it to the bank that the school won’t be paying for that picture. Not a problem, answered the photographer with the calm of a lion trainer, I’ll foot the bill for that. He could say that because he was in the private sector. We could only look on in astonishment at such goodwill and cosmopolitan generosity. Girls, said the photographer turning to us, first I’ll take the class picture, then you’re next, all right? We were so touched we could only nod. Then we all went to the courtyard, and when he was done with the class picture, he gave a wave that we were next. Now our homeroom teacher, not allowing any further nonsense, herded the class back into the school building, leaving us to do as we wished on our own. In fact this was not such an ideal day for taking pictures, as the sky was threateningly silver-gray and black: it looked like rain. He motioned for us to sit down on the bench where the janitor liked to catch some sun. Take whatever positions we liked; all he cared about was that we look right into the lens. So we sat and took each other‘s hand, and looked at the camera. Our mother stuck the resulting picture in the family album and wrote next to it, in her tiny little nervous hand, Frida and Frida, 6th grade, 1969. Here it is.

We were particularly happy that Diego was in the picture too. Viva la fotografía. Viva la vida

• 

Put your hand on your heart: Do you always wash your hands before an operation?

What do you conclude from the fact that a frog heart keeps beating even without the frog?

In your opinion, what does this tell us about the frog? Also: Is this healthy?

 

Translation from the Hungarian
By Jim Tucker


Zsófia Bán was born in 1957 in Rio de Janeiro. She is a writer, critic, and scholar. “A két Frida” (“The Two Fridas”) was published in Bán’s short-story collection Esti iskola: Olvasókönyv felnotteknek (2007; Evening school: A reader for adults), her first work of fiction, for which she was awarded the Attila József Prize. She has been a prolific writer of essays and reviews on literature, art, and visual culture. Her essay collections include Próbacsomagolás (2008; Test-packing) and Amerikaner (2000). She teaches at the Department of American Studies at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. She was a participant at the 2009 PEN World Voices Festival, representing Hungary.

Jim Tucker was once a classical philologist who now contentedly translates literature, screenplays, and other writings from German, Hungarian, Italian, French, Spanish, and Russian. He can be reached at [email protected]


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