By Kalev Pehme
Love is always at first sight. Vartan Petrosian, one of the top classicists in the US, recognized for his work on Greek philosophy and mythology, was stunned to see Veronika Schygulla when he came into the room. She was sitting on a divan in the middle of room surrounded by six men, all of the university, all of whom spoke German. While there was a tent city in Central Park and people were starving while they endured the Great Depression, the men were dressed in tuxedos and holding large crystal classes filled with scotch and other liquor. Every time Veronika would say something, the men roared in laughter.
Veronika was not voluptuous, but thin with well-formed breasts. She was not a Lola Lola or something out of Mine-Haha; she was dressed in a long studded bluish-white dress and a neck decorated with pearls. She had black hair cut into a severe bob and seductive make-up, diamond ear studs and she smoked with a long ebon cigarette holder. Vartan had expected Veronika to be a doughty woman, even a lesbian, a scholar of no erotic interest who had made into the academic community simply because she was well connected with someone. Instead, Veronika looked like star in the new art of the cinema or some aristocratic woman who should be on the arm of a Prussian count, anything but an expert in the most unknown or ambiguous particles of the archaic Greek language.
Veronika was a world-recognized classicist in her own right. She has done work on Greek religion and mythology that had broken such new ground that the implications of her discoveries and her analysis would not be known for years to come. And yet here she was completely at home with the social graces that were expected of a woman one would find in any royal court, at least of the ones left in Europe.
Germans in the group at the party were in excited about the elections. After the Reichstag fire, there was great speculation whether Adolf Hitler would win enough votes to become Chancellor. At least two of the German circle around Veronika were obviously pro-Hitler, and it wasn’t clear whether the others would quickly change sides in the event that Hitler would win. Outside, the weather was starting to thaw New York City out, but it was still cold, and Veronika wore a large fox coat that had been dyed white. She could have been an Erté model in the previous decade.
Vartan was irresistibly drawn to Veronika. He wanted to speak to her, but Vartan spoke no German, knowing only English and Armenian, while being incredibly conversant in Greek and Latin. Veronika spoke only German and Italian, while being an expert in Greek and Latin. It was hard to tell who knew the dead languages better, Vartan or Veronika.
Vartan waited for the right moment to interject himself as two men were drawn away by Columbia’s president, leaving him a space to sit besides Veronika. He smiled at her, and she reciprocated. Introducing himself solely with “Vartan Petrosian,” Vartan gambled on what he thought might be charming to Veronika as well.
“I am totally enraptured by you, goddess,” Vartan said, but he said in his best Attic Greek, the language of Socrates and Plato.
Veronika lowered her eyes just a bit, smiled, and glanced at his face, saying, in her best Attic Greek, “Rash young man. Have you no shame? Where are your manners?”
“O goddess, forgive me, but I worship you.”
Veronika decided that it was about time to give Vartan a bit of a run for his money. She unloaded a very quick and densely worded assault on his manhood, including a suggestion that he castrate himself in her honor as the worshippers of Cybele once did in the ancient world.
Vartan neatly and just quickly gave her a witty response and by the time he had uttered his first aorist, Veronika was ready to spend some time with him. Love is always at first sight.
For months, Vartan and Veronika only spoke the ancient Attic Greek with each other. As part of the conversation, they attempted to show superiority in ability and in knowledge. Highly obscure uses and vocabulary would suddenly appear out of nowhere on both sides of the conversation. Both also had memorized vast parts of Greek literature, including Homer and Hesiod. But the conversation changed little by little as Veronika decided to learn English as Vartan was hopeless with German. Veronika got English down in record time.
When Hitler became Chancellor, Veronika decided not to even go back to Germany. She had her things and her money transferred to New York. Vartan was never sure how wealthy she might be, but it appeared that Veronika was far better off than he was, a simple professor.
When they married, the ceremony was partially in Attic Greek, the language of vows.
Veronika and Vartan’s life together before the war was one of study, reading, and teaching. Veronika was given a position at the New School for Social Research as if she were a Jewish refugee, although she was not. Frankly, Veronika’s reputation as a genius on certain aspects of Greek language and mythology was enough to secure her a place almost anywhere. But she didn’t want to be at Columbia with Vartan, because secretly Veronika thought she would upstage her husband.
When the war broke out in the US, Vartan attempted to enlist, but was rejected for poor eyesight. Veronika had read enough about warfare to be relieved that Vartan would no have to serve and would have to spend the duration of the war teaching Thucydides to a few women and to others who could not make it into the army.
Yet, everything they did drew them together. Their marriage was one where they could sit in the living room of their apartment on West 110th Street overlooking the Hudson River and read and not say a word for hours. Veronika one day realized as she stood up after two hours of studying next to Vartan that she has felt that she learned so much from him as if they had been talking for hours instead. Veronika smiled at the realization, and then interrupted Vartan with some well placed kisses.’
The McCarthy years were not dangerous to either of them, as no one would be understand the natural right understanding of life that the couple leaned to, as it was all embedded in Plato and Aristotle. Vartan and Veronika had many friends who lived in constant fear, but they never abandoned them. They didn’t have children. During the 60s, they were incensed at the War in Vietnam and marched with the general run of New Yorkers against the war, and they lived out their lives in the 70’s.
The problem that arose was Veronika’s health. She never quit smoking and Veronika ate with relish a lot of bad food, and she drank a lot of bad alcohol, while Vartan’s spare approach to eating and not smoking, and perhaps his general constitution kept him in good condition. By the end of the 70s, Veronika was very sick, but she kept it to herself. Vartan sensed that there was something wrong, but he trusted Veronika to make decisions for herself. He always knew that she was smarter than he was.
During their lives together, both Veronika and Vartan published many articles in journals and several books. Veronika wrote a particular scathing monograph on the way men controlled women in ancient Athens that somehow found itself into the pages of various feminist magazines in the 70s. The control went so far as to carefully circumscribe the mourning of dead soldiers so that mothers could not say, “No war is worth the death of my son.” What was more important was that the death was a sacrifice for the city and the mothers had to control their grief so as not to influence other mothers and sisters to undermine the city’s war efforts.
When the recession hit in 1975 in New York during the city and state fiscal crisis, Veronika was in constant and debilitating pain. She had grayed completely, and lost a lot of weight. She was too thin, and the thinness made her seem much older. Vartan took her to Columbia Presbyterian, but there was nothing that could be done. Veronika could no longer read or write.
On a warm and fragrant Indian Summer day, Vartan came home to find his wife sitting on their bed. They embraced and kissed, and suddenly Veronika said to him: “You are going to promise now that you will do all I say without any denial or question. Do you swear?”
Vartan, whose entire life was the Greeks and Romans and his wife, without hesitation, replied, “I swear.” He said with an affirmation that evoked all the gods in the way the gods swore darkly on the River Styx.
Her demands were business-like and impervious to question: “Vartan, I can’t stand the pain any more. I have to die now. Over there is a tank of helium with a tube. I am going to put this plastic bag over my head, and you will turn on the valve as I attach the tube to his breathing hole here. I should be dead in two, three minutes at most. You will then return the tank immediately to Sunny’s, and destroy and get rid of the rest. Because helium is difficult to test for, it will look that I died a natural death, and you can’t be held responsible for helping me to die. Believe me, love, there is no pain or suffering, except, I know, for you. But you also understood that this suicide is like the Roman one, for freedom. Now don’t say a thing, and do as you are told. But give me a kiss first.”
Veronika’s kiss was long and magnetic, and it filled Vartan with life and a desire for her not to die, but Vartan had learned long ago that Veronika was right in these things. He performed all the tasks as demanded, and he removed all evidence that he was involved in the death. Eventually, Veronika’s death was listed as owing to natural causes.
Vartan’s grief was intense, but he kept a reserved, Stoic appearance in keeping with Veronika’s Roman decision. To his surprise, Veronika, who kept her finances to herself, had left him a fortune beyond anything he had expected. He was now quite old himself, and he felt his age in the magnitude of his loss and the fact that he had helped to kill his own wife, for good cause; nevertheless, subtle guilt and doubts moved like spiders in his mind. After a while, he decided to retire from Columbia. Saying good bye to the pillar of his life and his friends, Vartan went out into the countryside like an 80-year-old sannysin until he found a small house, more of a cabin, looking south, on a high ridge overlooking a large valley and river in a nearly unpopulated part of Arizona. Vartan, the complete urban man, had overturned his life.
He had brought many books with him, but when he started to read he stopped. He had exhausted his books. Instead, he turned to walking the countryside, making an occasion trip to the local village for supplies and a bit of neighborly chit-chat, and spending his time attempting to learn from the nature around him. Vartan spent many nights looking at the sky he never saw in New York, including the Milky Way. The light pollution in the city never allowed him to see the millions upon millions of stars the ancients had identified. But what stirred him was that the clouds that never seem to produce any rain where he was, and he noticed that when clouds are in the air the sunsets can be any color, even a bright apple-green.
But, when the air is clear of clouds, the sunset follows a predetermined tiered pattern. About 45 to 30 minutes before sunset, in the west, the sun begins to affect the color of the sky just below it, while in the east the sky descends from blue to pale blue to pale orange. There is a brown glow around the sun at the same time a yellowish band in the west.
Vartan sat on the porch of his house overlooking the valley and the river and could see both east and west easily. He had chosen his retirement well, he thought.
He then noticed at that sunset, the sky was layered bluish-gray with the earth shadow rising in the east. In the west, there is an overarching blue, some gray, a brown ring over the setting sun, with a bluish-white and whitish center with low jaws of yellow and orange.
Keeping track of time with his wristwatch, Vartan watched at 10 minutes after sunset that in the east there was a descending layer of blue, yellow-blue, rusty-orange, purple, and red with a dark gray blue laying just above the horizon. In the west, the brown ring remained over the whitish center sitting on the fog of yellow and whitish-yellow over the horizon.
Twenty minutes after sunset, it was red-purple and dark gray-blue balancing the salmon pink of the west and by an hour after sunset it was dark purple black in the east and dark blue, faded blue, and bluish-white in the west, the color of Veronika’s dress when he first met her on the upper West Side where the Moon was about to rise above the Hudson.