I dated a baron once. An Austrian baron, who desperately wanted heirs. I didn't know anything about his lineage when we met in the Sao Paulo airport. I noticed him because he was handsome and had a certain carriage.
I had a four-hour layover from Rio for my flight back to the US, and instead of waiting in the gate area, I went to the main atrium and installed myself at a café table on the second floor, opened my Brazilian fashion magazine to practice my Portuguese reading skills, and ordered a caipirinha. The café tables were set along a railing and facing the main walkway in front of various shops and other establishments. It was here I first saw him walking, slowly, without a destination in mind, a man killing time. He was thin and quite tall, and held his head a little up in the air as he surveyed to his left and right in passing.
I had noticed him when he walked by the first time, how he only vaguely looked at the shop windows, and when I had taken him in, I turned back to my magazine, wondering if he had a spectacular looking Brazilian wife who was on her way from somewhere to meet him. When I looked up again a good ten minutes later, he was coming from the opposite direction, walking just as aimlessly and slowly. I wasn't sure if he had looked in my direction or if he had even seen me. I turned back to my reading again, thinking he might instead be waiting to board a plane, as I was. The third time around, I thought to myself, "Poor man. If only he knew that he could strike up a conversation with me and the time would pass so much quicker and more pleasantly for both of us." I told myself that if he came around a fourth time, I would get his attention and invite him to sit and have a drink with me. I busied myself with the items on the table, rearranging the stand up drink menu (caiprinha, cairpiroska, cafezinho, chope, suco de abacaxi, suco de maracuja) and the position of the salt and pepper shakers. I fiddled with napkins. I turned the pages of my magazine. When I looked up, there he was again, this time heading toward me, away from his former path and toward my table. I caught his eye and smiled. He smiled, bent forward in a slight bow and said in German-accented English,
"I told myself if you were still here when I came by the fourth time, I would come and talk to you," I laughed and said I had said the same thing to myself, that I would have invited him for a drink if he had come by again. He asked if he could sit down, and did.
We quickly established that neither of us was Brazilian - I thought he was a Brazilian businessman - he was Austrian - and he thought I was a Brazilian TV star - much, of course, to my delight.
“Nope,” I said, laughing, “I’m an American assistant.”
“You are so luminous,” he said, his eyes scanning my face,”It was your light that I saw from far away.” For those who don’t know, mistake a woman for a TV star and call her luminous, and the battle is half won.
He asked me, being an American, what my experience had been of September 11th. It was January, so very little time had gone by. I didn't mind the question as much as I thought I might, and answered that it was personal for me in a way that I didn't quite know what to do with. I hadn't lost anyone, but it made me keenly aware of the people in my life who were important to me, and I tried to contact them all to tell them so. The first person I had thought of, when it seemed that the world itself was dissolving, was the man I still loved, despite everything. I had desperately wanted to hear his voice, to know that he was alright, and I had hoped that the very nature of what was happening would jolt him out of the rigid state he had created and coveted, protecting himself from his emotions for me. He was unchanged, and still afraid of what seemed to me to be, on that horrible day, totally insignificant. Of all days, of all moments, I thought this one would be the one where he would let go and give in to love. It had crushed me that he hadn’t. I also felt very strange and petty and selfish, crying for my lost love story, and at the same time, I had cried for the thousands of people who cried for their dying, dead, missing husbands, lovers, children and parents. As I shared my reaction, tears came to his eyes. I was impressed at his sensitivity and closeness to his emotions. It takes a lot for a man to be comfortable enough to tear up in front of a woman he does not know who is sharing something personal. I thought his tears showed he understood me.
In the end, I said that my country's reaction to the event had disappointed me.
"We always overdo it," I grumbled, citing the forced patriotism, the ubiquitous flags, the maudlin appropriation of others' grief. "We could go for poignancy, but instead - and I don't know if this means the same thing in German as it does in Yiddish - but instead, we go for schmaltz."
He burst out laughing. Reaching in his briefcase he handed me his business card and said, "You must keep in touch. That is the first time I have laughed like that in many months." I looked at the card. It was white and simply decorated with a crest-like logo at the top, and his name, "Guenter Fhr. von F..." with the contact numbers below. I remember thinking it sounded like a noble name, but I had no idea what the "Fhr" stood for - I thought is was a middle name or some kind of diploma title. The German speakers, I vaguely recalled, were big on titles, with different ones for different academic degrees. For all I knew, it meant he was a dentist.
I asked him what had brought him to Brazil.
"It was the last place my wife and I were happy, when she was healthy enough to enjoy herself. She died last year of cancer," he answered, smiling sadly, "I came to see how it felt without her. To see if I could recapture some of it. But it wasn't the same, and I couldn't stay. I am now returning to Germany." As he told me how, when they had discovered she had little time left to live, they had decided to travel the world, he sometimes stopping every hour to carry her to the bathroom, it was I who had tears in my eyes. She had made him promise not to pity her, and she did not share her pain or thoughts of death. They had sworn they would only share happy times, and he carried her and her IVs, her myriad pills, from port to port.
"I do not think I did enough to save her," he said, looking down.
I don't know what made me do it. In an instant, I grabbed his hands across the table, and looking him in the eyes I said,
"She was very lucky to be loved by someone like you, who took her to see the world she would be leaving instead of fussing over how it might hasten her end. You loved and respected her deeply. She would be proud of you, now, for being here, trying, out in the world, when you could be crumpled up in a little ball on the floor, hiding from life in grief and loss. You honor your love for her much more by going on." I felt it was what she would have said to him if she could have spoken.
"Thank you," he said, simply.
By the time we both had to leave to catch our flights, we had talked for hours. We were standing, with the table in between us, neither of us really wanting to go.
"Well," I said, smoothing my shirt and gathering my things, "I'm so glad you came over. Look how nicely we've spent the time."
"I hope to hear from you soon," he said, taking my hand. For a moment, I thought he might kiss it.
I went to catch my flight. I was in such a daze that I missed my gate completely.
We had arranged to meet in Atlanta. I had no idea what he might want to do, and didn't really know what to expect from the visit. We had talked a lot on the phone, mostly about his deceased wife. He was going through some sort of legal battle with her family, over her belongings they wanted back, most especially a red dress.
"She looked fantastic in it," he remembered, "she wore it to the village festival her last spring. I have half a mind to send it to you, and tell the family I don't know what happened to it." I was strangely touched. I tried to picture what it might look like, and if it would fit me. I imagined a long formal gown, sleeveless but with a dramatic choker that would fasten elegantly in the back, emphasizing the shoulders. Tight fitting at the hips, and flaring at the ankles, touching the floor. I alternately envisioned a short sleeved summery affair, filmy, loose and asymmetrically ruffled about the hem. But the more I thought of it, and what I might actually do with it if he indeed sent it, the prospect of ever wearing a dead woman's dress was a little macabre. Especially since it made me feel a little odd, as if he wanted me to become her. More than a few friends of mine thought it downright creepy when I told them.
On the day of an important turn in the trial, he was apprehensive, and I sent him a text message on his phone to encourage him.
"Be strong. Remember how much you loved her. No court can take that away." He called me later to tell me it was 'perfect' and that he had read it aloud to the court. I was flattered, and glad I might have helped sway opinion in his favor. I felt for him, for the loss of the woman he loved. I wanted to help him heal and forget. Because I wanted to do the same.
To prepare for his visit, I made a booklet, complete with labeled sections of the things to do in and around Atlanta. There was a tab for "Restaurants" "Nightlife" "Day Trips" and "Exhibitions." I thought he might like to be the one to choose what we did. I wanted him to enjoy himself, take a break, and escape his memories.
A few days before he was to arrive, he mentioned our parting in the Sao Paulo airport.
"Do you remember," he asked, "when we said good-bye, and I kissed you?" I remembered a light, platonic peck on the lips. Faint, quick and dry, spontaneous, yet hesitant.
"Yes," I said, a little nervous that he might ask if I had liked it.
"That is the first time I have kissed anyone but my wife in ten years." I was stunned. I hadn't even really considered it a kiss. I suddenly felt an enormous responsibility to be careful with this man's feelings. My adventurous side was appeased by the chance encounter in the airport, the strong emotional connection with a stranger, and my sentimental romantic side was intrigued by what that might mean. Perhaps it was fate? I was relieved, excited and nervous that this might be more than a fling. That this might be terribly important to him, that he might have hung his hopes of finding love again on my door. That perhaps I might find it too. I wanted to know more of him, understand his story, the way he thought about things. Something about his sorrow, his love for his lost wife, touched me, and I wanted him to feel he could share it with me whenever he wanted to. I wanted him to know I understood what it felt like, in my own way, to be haunted by love.
I was determined to play close attention to any clues he might give me. Distance I would interpret as conflicted feelings and the need to go slow. I would give him room to be however he wanted to be. I would adapt, and take his lead.
"My home and my heart are open to you," I wrote him, "Come, and be welcome."
I had carefully prepared. My studio apartment was cleaner than it had been in months, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot was chilling in the fridge. I had even bothered to paint my toenails.
I picked him up at the airport, and he greeted me with a peck on the cheek while grasping my hands. In the car, he was quiet, and I tried to fill the silence with light chatter.
"How was your flight?" I chirped.
He didn't respond for some moments, and from the corner of my eye, I could see a sort of pained expression on his face.
"I need a moment to arrive," he said. I took the hint and dispensed with the small talk.
On the way to my apartment, I pointed out the buildings of interest in the skyline and other attractions I thought he would want to know about, carefully phrasing things so they required no input from him, letting him “arrive” and absorb. Who knew what things he had been through with her family, who knew what memories haunted him at that moment?
When we got to my apartment, I hung up his coat and put his small suitcase in the closet, motioning for him to sit on the tiny sofa and make himself comfortable.
“We could go have a drink somewhere,” I suggested, “or I have some champagne here if you would prefer.”
“Champagne,” he said. I brought the bottle out from the kitchen. “I see you have good taste,” he commented. I smiled and served him. We sat together and sipped the champagne, and I watched him for clues. He seemed to be relaxing and getting more comfortable. When we had both started our second glass, he leaned over, took me in his arms, and kissed me passionately. This was a signal I could read loud and clear.
The next morning, as we lay in bed, his arms wrapped around me from behind, I felt so at ease, as if slipping into a comfortable pair of jeans that had been worn so much they fit only me. Here we are, I thought, two wounded souls, finding solace in each other’s arms. It felt so good to be held by a man, a man who felt things deeply, his head buried in my neck. It was a lovely cool and sunny day. I suggested several options for breakfast. We decided to walk to the square to one of my favorite cafes, a bohemian affair that served cappuccinos and lattes in big hand painted cups, with a nice patio that gave out onto the sidewalk. The covered portion had a gas fireplace that was lit. We snagged the two rocking chairs in front of it. I suggested bagels for a touch of local flavor, not sure if they existed in Austria and Germany - were there enough Jews left to want them? He loved them, having never heard of them, and ordered a second helping. When we had finished eating, and were nursing our second cups of latte, I pulled out the book I had made for him and handed it to him.
“I thought you could look it over, and decide what you wanted to do. You are my guest, so you choose, and we’ll do it.”
“That color looks very good on you,” he said, appraising my rust and black outfit. I was glad he liked it, and made mental note to wear it again. He began to page through the booklet. “This is perfect,” he said, tapping it. He seemed very pleased that I had gone to the effort of putting it together, and liked that it was up to him to decide. I had the feeling he liked the organization of it, and approved of it in a way a manager might approve of a well-put together presentation from his secretary. I understood from this that he was a man who was used to having things done just so, organized and ready for him to make the final decision. He seemed like a man who knew what he wanted, and who had always gotten it. “How far away is the BMW plant? I would like to see it.” I had included it because I remembered he had worked on some projects with them. It was about three hours away by car. We decided to leave immediately, and dine in Athens on the way back, in a restaurant that had gotten rave reviews for its frothy cauliflower soup, urging Atlanta readers that it was worth the 70 mile drive. I packed the car with plenty of CDs and put him in charge of them and the map. My collection of music ranged from Khaled to Mozart. I like music that transports me.
He amused himself by playing a few songs from one, before changing to another, going through the entire collection until he found one he wanted to hear all the way through. He seemed intrigued by the eclectic selection, and would cock his head to the side listening to rai or fados for what I gathered was the first time. I translated lyrics when I could. I began to call him “DJ Guenter” and teased him periodically with, “Alright ya’all, check it out! DJ Guenter’s in da house!” putting an imaginary microphone to my lips and pointing the fingers of my other hand down to a beat. I could tell the reference was lost on him. I didn’t think he was a man who had seen too many hip-hop videos.
The BMW plant was closed for tours, so we explored the visitor’s center, watched a documentary film on how the cars were assembled in the factory, and had some good German beers in the café. I watched him as he drank, fascinated that his whole face changed when he tilted the glass back to sip from it, his lips pursed almost prettily. Sitting in the atrium, a beam of sunlight across his face, I told him he was handsome.
At dinner, he reached across the table and took my hands in his, saying,
“It would make me very happy if you took the dress,” His eyes bored into mine. He said he would send it to me when he got back. I thanked him, sensing the dress meant a myriad of things for him. Did he expect me to wear it he next time I saw him? I wondered if I looked like her, but didn’t dare ask. Or was it a convenient way to get back at her family? I asked her name. Regina, with a hard g. I felt funny saying it, as if it might bring her back to life to speak it, like speaking the name of a dead pharaoh and awakening his long quiet ka.
He told me about his house in the country, a “castle” he called it. I wasn’t sure if he knew the right word in English. His English was understandable, but very Germanic, peppered with the declarative and absolutes.
The next morning, he murmured in my ear that he wanted a “real American breakfast.” I took him to a diner, and he ordered a stack of pancakes with a sickly sweet strawberry sauce and whipped cream, sausage and two eggs on the side. For some reason, watching him eat it amused me greatly. It seemed so incongruous, the way he cut into it with a knife and fork and ate it slowly, bite by bite, his back perfectly straight.
We went to an antique shop next door, and I noted the pieces he liked best were large and imposing and very expensive. “This would look wonderful in my castle,” he said, pointing out the largest armoire I had ever seen in my life. A mere $8,000. I slowly opened the door to peer inside.
“Max and I could live very comfortably in here,” I said, my voice echoing from inside, “it’s about the size of my studio.”
He nearly bought me a 1920's cup and saucer set, perfectly art déco in gold and black and white. He pointed out necklaces he thought would look nice on me. I didn’t like any of them, but wished I had; he seemed to want to see me them on me.
“I want to see pictures of you as a child,” he declared, as I was admiring a fiery red glass bead choker he hadn’t noticed.
“Oh, well, we would have to go to my mother’s house for that,” I said, straightening up from the display case. “But we’re right nearby.”
On the way there in the car, we got stuck in traffic. He started talking about titles, and asked whether in English we had different titles for different academic degrees. I explained we called people with PhD’s “doctor” but that was it. He said that in German, they had titles for everything, from lawyers to teachers.
“What is your title?” I asked, remembering he had said something about a Master's in engineering.
“It’s on my card,” he said, smiling.
“No, it’s not,” I said, “I’ve looked at it a million times.”
“Yes, it is,” he insisted. He seemed amused I didn’t know already.
“Okay, but I’m driving and can’t get it out to look, so tell me,” I said.
He turned to look at me squarely. “I'm a baron.”
My mouth dropped open at the cars in front of me. I slowly turned to him, “You’re a fucking baron?!?” I said, laughing.
I made love to a baron, I thought. I have a baron in my car. I took a baron to a diner to eat sugary strawberry pancakes.
"So that wasn't your logo on the top of your card, but your family fucking crest?!?" I laughed all the way to my mother's house.
When we got there, I wondered if it might look shabby to him. I winced at a half full coffee cup sitting on the counter in the kitchen as we entered. I wondered if my mother would kill me later when she found out I had taken a baron to her house without warning her first.
We went through photographs of my childhood, and I was exceedingly grateful that they were organized and that my father had been such a good photographer. He seemed to be looking for something in them, searching for a clue. What was he trying to find? How often my father appeared in the photos and what that might mean about my way of relating to men? If my mother dressed me well? If I was a real blonde? At least he appeared to approve of what he saw.
As we were leaving, he said, "I want to eat in the best restaurant in Atlanta. Tonight.”
I mentioned the two or three I thought deserved the title, and as I guessed, he picked Seeger’s, the eponymous restaurant of a German born chef, Guenter Seeger, who had once been the star of the local Ritz-Carlton.
Lord help me not make an ass of myself, I thought, suddenly self-conscious. I am liable to commit some unforgivable fancy restaurant faux pas, and all my Southern Belle breeding will be for naught.
We called and had to take an early seating, as it was last minute. We were led upstairs, and the restaurant was nearly empty. The waitress hovered stiffly over us, as if wanting us to make her the center of the experience, ask her opinion, be awed by her knowledge of food and wine. She kept coming over to see if we needed any help. We were both mildly annoyed. I was surprised that he did not know many of the terms on the menu, and surmised that haute cuisine in Austria and Germany must be less influenced by French cuisine than in the US. Could it be more Italian? Or Hungarian? Or was it simply a test of my own knowledge? I explained timbale, coulis, brandade, pave and tartare, keeping a wary eye on the waitress, who was watching and listening intently, seemingly miffed at being left out. He asked for the wine list, and painstakingly read every selection in the near 30 page book. The waitress looked like she might burst out of her vest and apron to keep from making a suggestion, her hands planted flat against the wall behind her, as if ready to pounce. He finally signaled her over with a movement of his head, and ordered a German red wine. I was curious to try it. Not able to stop herself, she commended him on his choice, and while opening the bottle tried to engage him in conversation by asking if he had picked it because it was "home." He made no sign of having heard the question, tasted the wine, and dismissed her with a nod. I couldn’t help smiling. I raised my oversized glass for a toast, but he looked sternly at me to signal that this was not done. I wondered why not, but took the hint. Faux pas number one, apparently.
The food was delicious, and I savored each morsel, exclaiming at the different flavors and presentations. He seemed amused I was so involved in tasting every little thing, but seemed to catch my enthusiasm, and joined me in trying bites from my plate and his. I felt certain this was out of character. At one point, he said something that made me laugh, and the sound echoed around the nearly empty room. Faux pas number two, I wondered?
"I want you to meet my neighbor in the country, the countess," he said, "she laughs just like you."
"I'd like to meet a countess with a raucous laugh," I said, picturing a small and thin older woman in a tailored wool suit. For some reason I imagined her looking like a cross between my childhood piano teacher and my former landlady in France, with thin bony hands and the scent of bergamot floating about her.
"But I think," he said, his eyes scanning me slowly and smiling, "you are almost more aristocratic than she is." At that, I had to laugh even more. He looked very proud of himself to have discovered the likes of me.
The next day, I made breakfast and cappuccinos at my place, pointedly using my cups and saucers from Germany with its matching little gold spoons. Neither of us was in a hurry to leave the apartment. He announced he would like to take a bath. I brought him fresh towels and soap, and left him to bathe. In the next room, I put on a CD of Puccini arias. It fit my mood, and as the first wistful strains of “O Mio Babino Caro” floated around the apartment, I went to check on him. Peering around the door frame, I found him submerged in the bath, moving almost imperceptibly to the now plaintive notes. With his head back and his eyes closed, the sun pouring through the blinds and making glittering stripes across the water, a smile of such contentedness spread across his face. He must have felt me standing there watching him because he raised his head up and caught my eyes from across the room and steadily held my gaze until the last note.
A couple of days later, he went back to Munich, and I told a few people about the visit and my discovery of his lineage. Somehow, it got around to the girl at work whom I had replaced and whom I vaguely suspected of being intimidated by me. I heard footsteps coming down the hall towards my office, and she stopped in the doorway.
"I hate you," she said.
I looked up from my computer.
"Good morning," I replied.
She looked a little chastened. "Only you would meet a baron in an airport," she said by way of explanation.
I laughed. "I talk to strangers," I said, shrugging.
I made plans to visit him in Munich, and he wanted me to meet his mother and sister in Austria, whom he had apparently talked to about me. I pictured a formal afternoon tea, where he might be grilled about "settling down."
"My sister says I should have children with you," he said, not revealing much more about the conversation.
"Did she say how many we are supposed to have?" I asked sardonically. Did people actually have these conversations where things like this were decided so strategically?
"She knows that I want children very much," he said, "and she says you are the right age."
I vaguely felt like a race horse or a pure bred show dog. "How much influence does she have over you?" I asked.
"Not too much," he assured me, laughing. I amazed myself by actually picturing being the mother of his children. What on earth are the children of a baron called? I wondered.
For days leading up to the trip, I frantically searched the internet for etiquette tips on how to address a baroness. As far as I could figure, I was about to meet two of them. Your Ladyship? Does one curtsy, or is a handshake acceptable? I found a French site on modern noble families, and emailed my questions. I received an amused reply from a certain Madame Blanche de Kersaint, saying, "Nobility no longer has any importance, my dear!" I suspected it was a subject she rather attached quite a lot of importance to, having started the site to track the marriages and births of the modern vestiges of the French aristocracy.
I bought some German language CDs, determined to address his mother and sister in their native tongue. Listening to them in the car, I couldn't help myself from sticking my chest out and straightening my back as I exaggeratedly repeated phrases like "Das ist ein huntewetter!" Normally a pretty good mimic, there were many sentences I could not even begin to repeat or remember in time. I couldn't distinguish the words from each other, and as soon as I said them, I forgot what they meant. Oh no, I thought, I'm going to want to say 'Nice to meet you' and ask them the price of a double room with a shower instead.
The formal way of saying "Nice to meet you" ended up being breathtakingly long, and to this day, I can only remember the last part, ending in something like "Sie kennen zu lerhnen." All that repetition for a little end of a phrase. I can remember phrases in Czech I learned 14 years ago better. Perhaps because at the time, it was so novel that I was in Prague right after the Velvet Revolution, or perhaps because I was ready to weep with gratitude at the end of a long hot day wandering the streets when the phrase, "Two glasses of white wine please" actually produced the said items. (Dva bile vino prosim vas.)
Guenter had told me he lived and worked in Munich, and had talked a lot about his "castle" in the country, and how he would most often fly his plane there and back. He had flown several trips back and forth from Munich since our first meeting, and I had always been a bit anxious until I heard from him again that the flight had turned out fine and he was safely back on the ground. I arrived at the commercial airport a bit disappointed he had not been able to pick me up in his plane - I would have liked to have watched him at the controls.
When he drove up in his candy yellow Renault 5, I began to realize how different this trip would be from what I had imagined. Blanche de Kersaint might prove to be right after all.
I threw my things in the back seat, and peered into the front of the car. I had never seen an interior so basic, so little between the road and the people inside as the sheet of metal that made up the hood. When I got in, I didn't shut the door correctly, but couldn't find the handle to open it again. The car was so primitive, so rudimentary in its fittings, that I assumed the inside handle had fallen off and not been replaced. There was even a hole where it should have been. Rather than point this out, I rolled down the window to open the door from the outside, and when he saw me, he laughed and pointed to the hole on the inside of the door.
"That's how you open it," he said, smiling.
"But there's nothing there but a hole," I said.
"Stick your hand in it," he coached.
I was dubious, but stuck my hand in the hole. Lo and behold, I felt a latch, that when squeezed, opened the door. There isn't even a handle, and there isn't supposed to be, I thought.
We drove into town, the noise of the engine, the rattling of the metal and the vibration of the wind almost too much to bear, he gesturing with his hands to make himself understood over the din, his ears protected with plugs. He explained before we started that his long road trips in the car (when he could not take his plane because of bad weather) had began to affect his hearing and his doctor suggested he wear them.
Shortly, we came upon a huge walled-in complex, and he pointed across the street to indicate where his office was. I looked at the wall on the opposite side. With a chill down my spine, I realized what it was: the Dachau concentration camp.
"You actually work across the street from the concentration camp?" I asked incredulously. How could one walk in front of it every day, walk out of the office facing it? I made him pull over. I couldn't simply drive by it, and nod, "Oh, ok, that's Dachau on the left." I had to go inside. I had told him of my Jewish ancestry (my grandfather's family had emigrated from Russia) and I remembered my father telling me when I was a little girl that if I had been alive back then, Hitler would have killed me. It only took one Jewish grandparent to seal your fate.
I told Guenter he didn't have to go with me, but that I had to go inside. We skipped the visitor's center at the entrance. He came with me as far as the reconstructed barracks, but waited for me outside as I went in. The signs and photograph captions were only in German, and I was mildly relieved not to understand the words. The bunks were made of wood and I wandered past them in a daze, only barely looking at the black and white images on the walls, afraid of what I would see. It all led to a small tiled room I realized was a gas chamber. I stared at the drain in the middle of the floor. It was all so spartan and simple. That was what struck me the most, how innocuous it all seemed. How non-threatening. Stripped of the victims and the surrounding barracks, it vaguely reminded me of a Red Cross camp I had attended as a child, when I had been forced to gather around the leader's bunk bed to listen to the kids share stories of how prayer had changed their lives. I had tried to get out of it politely, saying I preferred to read my Nancy Drew mystery, but it was made clear to me that it was not an option. Bunk beds had always made me uncomfortable, making me feel packed in, forced into proximity with people I could not relate to and who could not relate to me. They were always in dark places in the country, far away from my parents; they evoked scratchy wool blankets and forced exile disguised as character building.
I suddenly understood, standing in the dark barracks and unable to move, people slowly shuffling past me, how it might have been possible to walk past this place every day, open your windows across the street, go about your daily business, without noticing what was going on inside the walls. How I could have easily been one of those people who saw but did not choose to see. I stepped out into the sunshine and found him sitting on a bench. How odd that they had installed benches outside. Was it for those who could not bear to go inside and were waiting on those who could not bear not to? He thankfully did not speak or ask me any questions. Back in the car, I said how odd it was that for my first trip to Germany, the first thing I saw was a concentration camp. I fervently hoped the sightseeing would improve from there.
We decided to drive straight through to Coburg, where his castle in the country was, and spend the night there before going on to Austria the next day. I was excited to see it, and a little apprehensive, as this was where he had lived with Regina and her daughter. He would drive to Munich on Mondays and spend the week there, returning back to the country on Fridays to spend the weekend with them. He explained that most of the furniture had gone to her family or had been moved to his place in Munich. I pictured a half empty castle, its walls still vibrating with the memory of her.
We drove for a few hours, not talking as it was impossible over the noise, and finally arrived in Coburg. He suggested we get a bite to eat in town before going to the castle, which was outside of town. I was beginning to understand that when he said "Munich" he did not mean "Munich", so "Coburg" did not mean "Coburg." The town was picturesque and well preserved, with winding cobblestone streets and a pretty little square with a large statue of Prince Albert who, he explained, married Queen Victoria, linking the two royal houses, though this would later be hushed over after the two World Wars. I was surprised at the vibrant colors of the buildings, not expecting the warm yellows and rusts, having imagined more blues and grays.
We found a modern little restaurant called, much to our amusement, "Brazil", and settled in to eat. I was very frustrated not being able to understand what was being said to me, and having to rely on him to translate and order for me. I silently cursed myself for not having enrolled in German classes at the Goethe Institut back home before coming. I hate not being able to communicate. The waitress, a pretty but unsmiling young girl, looked at me harshly, her eyes scanning me once over and looking away in dismissal. She leaned provocatively over to take his order, making sure he could see straight down her shirt. When she walked away, I leaned over to him and breathily asked what Freiherr von F... desired, squeezing my breasts together.
We drove for about an hour outside of town, and were deep in the countryside when he announced we had arrived at his castle. We went down a long tree-lined drive, and wound around until it appeared into view. It was smaller than I had thought it would be, and even in the dark, I could tell it was painted the same lemon yellow as so many other buildings I had seen in the region. There was a gravel parking lot in what looked like a courtyard in the middle, the structure making a u shape around it, prettily framed by a high lemon yellow archway atop thick square columns. It looked rather new, not stone and ivy covered as I had expected.
"Do you have company?" I asked. He looked momentarily confused. I motioned to the other cars parked in the courtyard.
"No, they live here. They are my neighbors." I looked around. There were three rows of big windows running along the building, so I surmised there were three floors, and as I looked closer, I began to understand that the castle had been divided up into apartments. There looked to be ten in all. I smiled to myself. Coburg is not Coburg and a castle is an apartment in the country. He grabbed our bags out of the car and proceeded down some steps to one of the two side entrances. Inside, it was badly lit and smelled very strongly of wet dog. There was a ground floor apartment door to the left, but he bounded up the unstained wooden stairs to the second floor. I looked down, and in the dim light, realized I was standing on a patch of astroturf. Astroturf in the entrance to a castle? How could they, I thought. I followed behind him, and he opened the door. Immediately to the right was the bathroom, a big bulky square tub taking up most of the space, and the sound of dripping water echoing from inside. Straight ahead was a closed bedroom door. There was no entry hall to speak of, but a small space off of which branched two more rooms and the kitchen. The ceilings were high, the floor parquet, and the windows in the rooms reached from mid wall to the ceiling. I put down my bag, not sure if I should go ahead without him. There was a distinct feeling of emptiness, of loneliness and isolation, and it made me suddenly cold.
"Let me show you the place," he said with obvious pride and fondness. He led me through the kitchen, with a cheap looking table and three chairs in the middle, to what had obviously been the living room. Stripped of most of the furniture, it seemed small and sad, a long dead plant in the corner by the large curtainless windows. I tried to fill it with furniture in my head, imagine it as it must have been with Regina and her daughter to give it life. There were a few pictures still left on the wall, one of which looked like a strange type of photograph of him.
"This is my hologram," he said, straightening himself up in front of it and smiling, his hands on his hips. "I spent a lot of money on it; they are very rare." I looked at it, remembering a hologram of a human skull on the front of a National Geographic that, as a child, I had spent hours turning this way and that, the rainbow colors at odds with the solemnity of the skull's frozen grin. He was much younger in the picture, his eyes open alertly, his smile one of fascination and novelty, as if congratulating himself for having had the idea to have it done. Why would someone want such a thing? I wondered. I slowly walked around it, watching his face appear to come out of the frame and into the room. I looked at it hard, knowing it would be the last time, knowing that the next time I passed it, I would avoid its slightly manic gaze.
He showed me the rest of the apartment, the two now empty bedrooms, and talked of how happy he had been here with his wife and her daughter. I wondered where the daughter was now, and why she was not with him, but assumed she was with his wife's parents. If they were in court over a red dress, they surely had gone to court for custody of their daughter's girl.
I went to take a bath, and soaking in the tub, I thought of Regina and what her life must have been like, living in this apartment carved from a castle, hidden away in the countryside, waiting for him to come home on the weekends. I pictured her in the red dress, looking sadly out the window. She had been a teacher, I knew, in a local school. Did the children miss her, think of her, know she had died? Did shopkeepers in town, forgetting she was gone, still ask after her, and wince at their gaffe while holding the box of pastries or wrapped meat over the counter to him, the package immobile in the air like the question, until one of them looked away?
When I emerged from the bathroom, I found him standing in the hallway, a painting in his hands of yellows, reds and greens in the form of a woman.
“This is my wife,” he said, holding it up.
“Oh, someone painted that of her?” I asked, toweling my hair dry and tilting my head to get a better look.
“No,” he said, “this is her.” And then I saw it - the impression of her body, like a technicolor shroud. She had painted her hips and thighs and legs yellow, accenting her nipples in red and her pubis in green, and pressed the canvas up against her dripping form. Her body was slim and curved in all the right places. The pure defiance in the face of death by leaving a mark of herself, the body she knew she would one day abandon, the sheer will to be alive again each time he looked at it and remembered a caress or the taste of her nipples in his mouth, sent a shiver down my neck.
He had made a makeshift bed on the floor of the living room, and as we settled into sleep, cradling me in his arms from behind, he murmured into the back of my neck, asking me what I thought of the apartment. I didn't know what to say. My silence was punctured intermittently by the sound of dripping water from the bathroom. I didn't like anything about the place except the windows, precisely because they led away from this empty, isolated and unremarkable apartment he had called his castle. I had visions of standing endlessly at them, tugging at the uncomfortable red dress, waiting for the chance to slip away. I imagined myself there, far away from even the small town of Coburg, not speaking the language, and alone with the imprint of a woman I had never known. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
"I could never live here," I said, feeling bold, "I'm a city girl."
The next morning, we took the bright yellow Renault 5 on the autobahn to Vienna. I was excited about seeing it, and had grand plans to lounge in rococco cafes and watch passersby. He was tired, so I drove the yellow beast, as I began to affectionately call it, as fast as I could make it go, marveling at the gear shift that came out from the steering wheel, and smiling at the people who stared at us as they whizzed by in their BMWs, Audis and Mercedes. Several people honked and waved, charmed at seeing a car that reminded them of their youth spent hitchhiking across Europe, or their first love, a bohemian artist who slept on the floor in front of an unfinished canvas, hoping the images in his dreams would somehow leap up onto it.
Somewhere between Germany and Austria, we stopped at an outdoor café on the grounds of a castle, high atop a hill and overlooking the valley, and ordered two beers named after his family, served in glasses with the same family crest as the one on his card. Sitting in the sun under the parasol, squinting from the reflection of the white tablecloth, his hand on top of mine, I watched a fly lazily buzz about and land on his arm. It was at that moment when he told me the date when he would marry again - February 3rd of the following year. I asked if this meant he knew who his future bride would be, and he said he did not, but knew it would be that date. I quickly calculated that if I were a candidate in the running, which I assumed I was, we would have known each other a little over a year. I wondered who else was being considered, and if they had been offered the red dress. I wondered if he would even propose to the chosen one, or simply assume it was a foregone conclusion.
We reached Vienna in the middle of the afternoon, and soon saw signs pointing towards Schönbrunn. I said I would very much like to see it, so we parked the Schönbrunn Yellow Beast and headed to the castle to take the tour. It was unlike any other one I had seen, its long lemon yellow shape so imposing. We seemed to have a tendency to tour things in an odd order, so we started with the carriage house. Walking along the amazingly overly decorated structures, peering inside them and trying to imagine gathering all those skirts into such a small space, I was struck by how some of the gilded and intricately carved ones looked almost gaudy, like the cheap overly done decorations of a Chinese restaurant. I said this to Guenter, and he looked at me strangely. Perhaps he had never been in a Chinese restaurant, I thought. Walking from the carriage house to the main castle, he had his arm about my waist, and mentioned that he thought I had lost weight since the last time he had seen me in Atlanta. I said I hadn’t consciously tried to do so, but that is was possible I had.
“You should lose more,” he said, patting my waist. I drew away from him and said I thought I looked just fine. It was one of the rare times in which I actually felt that way, and I was determined to enjoy it. I decided to ignore the comment and put it down to German’s propensity to sound demanding.
We went inside the main castle and opted for the recorded guided tour. I was embarrassed to have to ask for the English version. We followed along, shuffling with the crowds from room to room, and I struggled to work my headset right, often skipping ahead too far or going back to the beginning. When we arrived at a particularly beautiful portrait of the Empress Elizabeth, or Sissi, as she is affectionately known in Austria, he caught my eye when the narrator talked of her slim figure, which she obsessively preoccupied herself with, often eating only broth to preserve her figure of a mere 90 pounds. I raised my eyebrows at him from across the room, and stuck out my tongue.
Later that day, at the Hotel Sacher, I flipped through the menu pages and burst out laughing at the claim that Empress Sissi herself was fond of Sacher tortes from the hotel and regularly had them sent to Schönbrunn. “She didn’t eat them, she weighed 90 pounds!” I exclaimed.
“She must have had a happy life, living in luxury and being so adored by Emperor Franz Josef,” he said dreamily.
“Are you kidding?” I said, taking a sip of my “gas lamp lighters” coffee, a sweet concoction with a kick of cognac. “She ate fucking broth all her life!” I shook my head in disbelief, remembering the impression I had gotten of her as a pretty little object in a lemon yellow prison, fighting with her mother-in-law and adored but misunderstood by her husband. “She was miserable,” I said, though I didn’t know anything about her previous to the tour, which had only cemented my feeling that had I been her, I would have been very unhappy indeed.
We went from there to check into our hotel, located in a Turkish section of town, a nice older hotel with large mirrors and a chandelier in the room. I flopped on the bed, exhausted and ready to relax.
“Would you like to go to the opera tonight?” he asked from the bathroom.
“Oh, yeah!” I said. I had seen pictures of the Staatsoper and had thought how nice it would be to go there with him. But it was already early evening, and I wasn’t sure if we had time.
“I’ll go ask the concierge to get us some tickets,” he said, and went downstairs.
I took a shower, lingering under the hot water, willing myself to wake up. Hot water always made me sleepy, but cold water went against my principles. He came back up and announced that we had gotten tickets, but that I needed to be ready in 15 minutes. I couldn’t remember getting ready for anything that quickly, not even when I was late for work, but I rushed out of the bathroom, upended my suitcase on the bed, and dumped the contents of my jewelry case, sifting through it for the necklace and earrings I wanted. I chose a black velvet bolero jacket with white satin cuffs and black pants, and my sexy black high heeled sandals I had bought for pennies in Brazil. I applied my makeup in a flash, and was glad I had chosen to go with the smoky-eyed look, as a steady patient hand was not at my disposal at the moment. Twelve minutes later, my hair still wet, I was ready. He looked me over approvingly. We went arm in arm downstairs and jumped into a waiting taxi. On the way there, I fanned my fingers through my hair, trying to simultaneously style and dry it, while also attempting to get a glimpse of the city whizzing by.
We got out a block down from the Staatsoper, an imposing structure lit up on the outside, and I straightened up and tried to look relaxed as we walked through the huge entrance doors. I felt glad to have my arm laced through his, as he seemed very much to belong to this old world of large ornate buildings and maroon carpet covered stairs. He spoke to an usher, who pointed up to the last floor. We climbed up four flights, and once at the top, a little out of breath, he led me to our seats. Since we had last minute tickets, we were relegated to the cheap ticket section, where young art and music students sat crouched on the stairs scribbling in notebooks. The ceiling was very low, as we were basically right under it, and I was immediately uncomfortably hot. The opera was unknown to me, but the composer I knew. I was impressed that each seat was outfitted with a small digital screen that could be angled up however the audience member wished, and that there were many languages to choose from for the subtitles. I looked around at the predominately red and gold decor, and marveled at how the even the exit signs blended in and looked elegant. The opera began, and it was immediately apparent to me that the opera singers were far superior to any I had ever had the chance to see. I wondered if they were well known in Austria or Europe, or if they were merely average local talent. At the intermission, he asked if I wanted to get a drink, and I was glad to get a respite from the stuffy air and cramped quarters. We headed down to the first level ballroom, where drinks were served in real glasses. (No plastic cups here, thank you very much. It always managed to make me feel totally desperate, like I absolutely had to have a drink, so much so that I was willing to wait in a long line to pay way too much money for a really crappy wine. In a plastic cup.) I ordered a “sekt” a sparkling wine with orange juice - a mimosa - I realized with amusement. We sat at one of the small tables, covered in tablecloths with little lamps on top, and I craned my neck to look out the enormous windows, open to the spring air and the buzzing of the city at night.
When intermission was over, he led me to much better seats in the main gallery, and I tried not to meet anyone’s eyes lest they know we were taking someone else’s seats. It is one of the ways in which I am very American - I don’t cut in line and it never occurs to me to take a seat I haven’t paid for. But I had to admit, the view of the stage was fabulous, and it was worth any wayward glances we might have gotten. He stared straight ahead, his head held high, as if he owned the place. I doubted anyone would second guess him.
I had thought that with my blonde hair and blue eyes, I would blend into the background in Germany and Austria, but I did catch people looking at me as if wondering where I had appeared from. I asked him about it once when we were in some small town in Germany on our way to Austria.
“Look around you,” he said. I did, and took in the young couples, the families, the older people walking by. They looked not much different than me, I thought. “Do you look like anyone here?”
“What do you mean?” I asked. He fingered my purple boa, and nudged my blue sunglasses playfully back up my nose.
“You look like a moooofie stah!” he said, laughing, and taking me in his arms.
We walked out of the Staatsoper arm in arm and crossed the street to a lit up sausage stand.
“You have to try some of this,” he said. I was starving. It was more than a mere sausage stand. It was a fully functioning kitchen with every space used for displaying sausages, drinks and candy. I looked at the different cans, smiling at the yellow one (yellow again, I thought, there has got to be a reason behind all this yellow). It had a cartoon alpine boy and girl on it. He pointed to it, and said he grew up drinking it. I made him order me one with the sausage he liked best. We stood there, leaning up against the makeshift counter, eating off of paper plates in our opera best, the streetlights shining on his chiseled face. I nuzzled into him, and he wrapped his arm around me, feeding me bits of his sausage, and explaining the differences between all of them. He wiped a smudge of mustard off my nose and kissed me, to the amusement of the Turkish and Armenian men around us.
We flagged down a taxi and returned to the hotel. I had barely removed my earrings and necklace before he picked me up and carried me to the bed. We made love slowly and tenderly underneath the crystal chandelier.
In the morning, I dragged him to the newly opened Leopold Museum, featuring mainly Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. I was slightly disturbed at how much he liked the dark, angry unsettling paintings of Schiele. His nudes I thought were fabulous, but the others looked to me like the product of a very troubled soul. Perhaps there was some echo of death in them that attracted him.
We went from there to another section of town, in search of some of the more historic cafes. Walking through the city, my arm laced through his, as if we were descending the stairs of a royal palace, the immense, stately, ornate buildings so imposing and curlicued and, well, imperial, made me feel like a princess surveying her grounds. We stopped under a centuries old archway held up by columns in the shape of men like those I had admired in Prague, to listen to a quartet play Mozart sonatas.
On the way to the most bohemian and intimate of the cafes, I spotted a little girl on a bicycle, her dress caught in the rear chain, her mother admonishing her angrily. I pulled him over and whispered for him to help her. He bent down and patiently worked the material free from the chain. When he stood back up and patted the girl on her head, she gazed up at him as if he were an apparition of a savior prince, arrived at the very moment she had wished with all her might for help. The mother gushed words of thanks, her frustration completely dissipated, her eyes going from me to him and back again. She seemed to be trying to figure out who we were and where we had appeared from. I felt her gaze follow us in wonder as we walked away. “You are that little girl’s hero now,” I said, squeezing his arm. He smiled and chuckled to himself.
When we had ordered our coffees in the café, he began to tell me again how he was ready to get married again and have children of his own. I set down my cup and listened. As he talked of wanting to hold his own child in his arms, I thought how easy it would be to let myself be molded, to give in to his every whim, to let go totally. To surrender to a man, completely, one who knew without a doubt what he wanted, was determined to get it, and was not shy of speaking it, had a certain delicious feel of letting go, like slipping off a sock under the sheets in the middle of the night.
The next day we drove towards Graz, and ate a cozy dinner in a country inn restaurant. I could tell he enjoyed ordering for me, and was proud of the wine from his region of the country. I genuinely enjoyed it, but was most charmed by his careful attention to me, in making sure I understood what everything was and where it came from. He draped his arm protectively around me, and would occasionally look around us, as if to check that everyone understood I was there with him. We were meeting his mother, sister and brother in law the following day at a wine garden. We were apparently very close to where he grew up, and where I assumed his family still lived, near Graz, although by this time I had understood that Munich was not Munich, a castle was not a castle and Graz was not Graz. I was very nervous, but didn’t say so to Gunther. I vaguely felt as if I were being tested to see if I was good enough to carry on the von F.. line, but wasn’t sure who was testing me more, his family or he himself. I was determined to take Blanche de Kersaint’s advice and “be myself.”
to be continued...