Paris- city of love

Ilsa straightens her hair in front of the mirror, again. This is her third night in Paris, and her first grownup dinner party; even in Oslo, her parents never let her stay up for one. They didn't have many -- times were hard, money was scarce, the world was changing too fast to hold steady.

Her family friends, the Johannessens, are hosting a dinner party for some of the local resistance; no one actually said as much to Ilsa, but she figured it out. She has a new dress and Karen Johannessen, who is twenty-five and utter sophistication, curls her hair.

The doorbell rings; Ilsa smoothes her dress down again, and walks carefully down the stairs, holding her head up high like the woman she is.

But she stumbles when she hit the bottom step; the man standing in the doorway, taking off his coat and laughing, wide and friendly, looks right at her, and her ankle just gives way.

Victor, his name is Victor Laszlo, he's telling her his name as if she doesn't already know it, as if she hasn't known his name her whole life. His voice is low and smooth and intimate, as he helps her stand, asks her if she was all right, does she want to sit down, does she want a drink, or a smoke. Ilsa doesn't smoke (her mother didn't allowed it), but she takes one anyway, wanting to seem grownup, sophisticated. It tastes good: smooth, smoky, worldly. She taps her ashes out and tries to seem as if this is nothing new, nothing spectacular, as if she often attends dinner parties with famous leaders of resistance movements. Her hands shake when she tries to light her second cigarette; Victor does it for her, a look of incomprehensible tenderness on his face.

Victor dominates the dinner discussion, full of facts and ideas and much of it just goes right over Ilsa's head. He talks about the Sudetenland, and the German Socialist Party, and world leaders she's never heard of, and even though it doesn't make any sense she loves it, loves it all. She loves the passion and force and sense of rightness, righteousness, Victor is brimming with, at all times, the purpose that fills his limbs, makes him take up all the space, all the air, in the room. He crowds everyone else out, loud and big and open.

Her father was part of the merchant fleet to Britain during the Great War, her parents distribute pamphlets speaking out against the German remilitarization; they gave money to Jewish family friends to make the trip to America. Her parents read Victor's paper, when they can get it, and Ilsa has read it too, had loved the power behind his words, his utter conviction. He is a hero, her mother told her, burning the paper after they were all finished with it. He has the courage to take on the whole world.

Ilsa understands, vaguely, that the uneasy peace cannot last much longer, that her parents are risking their lives to fight for what they believe to be right, and she is proud of them. But in Oslo, it all felt so far away, a war that was never going to reach her home. Here, in Paris, sitting across a candle-lit table from Victor, it feels real and immediate and she suddenly wants, desperately, to be involved, to fight herself.

As he leaves, late into the night (in Oslo she'd have been asleep hours ago), she corners him as he leaves. "I want to fight," she whispers. "Only tell me what I must do." He squeezes her hand back, and then he is gone.

She goes back to Oslo briefly, to see her parents, before going back to Paris. Victor is in Paris, and so that's where she must be too.

"We're in love," she tells her mother. "He needs me." Her mor strokes her hair, and tells her they're very proud of her. "This is good work you're doing, kjære. Victor laszlo is a great man. We're so proud that you're carrying on the work."

She takes a boat back to France, and her parents drive her to the docks, kiss her, wish her well. She never sets foot in Norway again.

Victor runs a printing press in Prague, writing to speak out against the Third Reich. Even after they shut down the newspaper, he manages to smuggle one of the smaller printing presses out, and continues to write and print. Ilsa helps distribute the papers, to homes and businesses of likeminded allies.

One night, out with a friend delivering Victor's papers, a soldier stops them, demands to know where two women are going so late at night. They show him their papers, but he doesn't believe them. The soldier grabs Alojzia roughly by the arm, sticks his hand into her coat. Alojzia gasps and tries to shove him away. Without even thinking about it, Ilsa slaps him; surprised, he loosens his grip, and she yanks Alojzia away, and they run down the street, gasping. Ilsa finds herself laughing, because she's not scared at all. She feels brave and dangerous and exciting.

She doesn't tell Victor, because she knows he'd worry, and really, it was nothing.

They get married in the minister's living room, just the two of them and Victor's cousin as a witness. She wears the ring on a necklace underneath her dress, and they spend two whole days, just the two of them, in his tiny little apartment in Prague. The world recedes away, and so do its problems. Victor is funny, sweet and loving, and he kisses her and murmurs Czechoslovakian sweet nothings, and Ilsa feels powerful and loved and dangerous.

At the end of the second day, at eleven at night, there's a knock on the door. Dusan has been arrested, and Victor's into his coat and shoes before Ilsa even knows what's happening. He kisses her without slowing down, and that's their honeymoon.

They come for him at night. Ilsa is sleeping, deeply for once, when they come crashing through the door. Victor fights them, but they hit him over the head, once, a sickening sound, and he slumps over, compliant. She never understands why they didn't take her too; in the weeks and months after, with little news and none of it good, she sometimes wishes they had.

The force goes out of her, the fight. The soldiers took most of the printing press supplies with them; she has no way of continuing Victor's work. Within a month, she leaves Czechoslovakia, on her way to friends in Poland, and from there to Sofia. There is still work to do, even if she doesn't feel like it anymore.

She's in Athens when she gets word that Victor has died in the concentration camp. Her heart breaks; it is not just the death of her husband, of Victor, but of all his ideals, his vision of what the world could be. The letter is dirty, torn, a hasty scrawl -- V died in camp, Poland, Nov. condolences, and though it isn't safe, she keeps the note. She can't bear to burn it.

She makes her way to Paris, to be with friends, even though she doesn't really want to be in the place they fell in love. But Paris is where they need her: the fight goes on around her, if not within her. Paris is the most romantic city in the world, and oh, she fell in love here, she did, and now she's back with a broken heart.

She meets him one morning in a market; they reach for the same bottle of wine. Initially, she resists his invitations, but he's so funny, so charming, so uncomplicated.

"I'm Richard," he says, graciously handing her the bottle. The ground shakes a little as a plane flies overhead, sending a streak of smoke through an otherwise cloudless sky. "Nice weather for a war, isn't it?" Ilsa can't help but smile, even though it's not a very good line.

Richard takes her dancing, boating, driving in the country, teaches her to play poker. They fall in love as if there isn't a war going on, as if the outside world can't touch them. It's all Richard's selfish American insularity, beautiful and stupid and reckless, that protects them. He makes Paris romantic -- the city of lights, as if the Germans aren't moving closer every day.

Victor never played. Richard's American, through and through; he can drink champagne and laugh while the German guns sound; he does not have the weight of the world on his shoulders. She feels horribly guilty for preferring Richard's blitheness, feels horribly guilty for choosing ignorance, knowing full well that Victor would never let a moment pass, not when he could be doing some good.

She manages not to think about it until the night she runs into an old friend at a nightclub. She and Richard are dancing; Richard spins her, laughing, and Ilsa laughs too, twirling out from him, until she bumps into a man, standing by himself in the middle of the dance floor. It's Erik, Erik, Victor's cousin, the witness at their wedding, and she knows by his posture that he's meeting someone here -- working. He's trying to save the world; she's dancing with her American boyfriend. For a second, hot shame floods her body. But she straightens her back and the moment passes; not everyone can fight, not everyone has it in them.

The rule -- no questions -- is her idea, because even in death, Victor needs to be protected. She is still in danger herself.

At night, the silence from the blackout is oppressive, and it crowds into Ilsa, choking her. Richard doesn't ask any questions, of course not, but he holds her and in those moments, Ilsa understands that his Americanness, his flip charm, is an act too.

When the police stop them on street corners, Richard talks their way out of any problems; she never once has to show her identification, and Richard usually doesn't have to, either. In a club, the owner claps Richard on the back and reminisces about their time together in Spain, in 1936; Ilsa can feel her eyebrows raise as she realizes, Richard fought for the Loyalists.

She asks Sam one day why Richard had to leave America. Sam looks at her helplessly. "Miss Ilsa," he says, running his fingers lightly over the piano, "it don't do to dwell on these things."

"Can he go back?" she asks.

"No," Sam says. He looks terribly sad. "I can't either."

She promises Richard, "We'll get on a train together and never stop." Richard kisses her hair and says, yes, they will go and go and keep on going, and that staves off the dark for another night.

The letter is stained and dirty and torn, just a brief note: I -- I am alive, in hiding in Belgrade. Please come for me. Josef knows where to find me. -- V.

Victor is alive. The letter was left for her under her pillow, and she collapses onto the bed and sobs, sobs.

The news of Victor arrives two days before the Germans do. She still meets Richard at the restaurant, and it feels hollow, silly.

"Henri wants us to finish this bottle then three more. He says he'll water his garden with champagne before he'll let the Germans drink it."

Richard watches her as she sips, forces herself to swallow over the lump in her throat. He wants to get married in Marseilles -- on the train, even -- and yesterday she would have yes with joy in her heart. But Victor is alive, and she must go to him.

Josef comes by that night. "You will leave tomorrow, to go to him?" he asks, and Ilsa nods. "He loves you, he needs you, only the love of a wife will help him. He is still very sick. The whole resistance needs him, and he needs you."

It takes five sheets of paper to write a note that's not covered in tears. She sends it to Richard's hotel and heads to the train station early, to catch her own train out of France. She feels sick herself, heavy with her responsibility to her husband. Surely Richard saw through her act yesterday; she was too miserable to pretend to be happy.

The train pulls out of the station, and Ilsa searches for Richard in the crowd, even though he won't be arriving for at least an hour. She tries not to think about his face when he realizes she's already left.