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Otto possessed a dexterity with women that frankly eluded me, I who had so clumsily dropped and broken every heart so far entrusted to my care.
He was also taller than I, Otto was-perhaps his height accounted for his amorous successes-and his suit was at least two sizes too large. My neck swimming in his collars, his tie drooping to my sternum, his cuffs tucked inside my sleeves, his trouser crotch falling halfway to my knee-was there ever a more ridiculous figure than I?
What woman, other than his own mother, would find such a clown cause for sexual alarm?
None. I knew the answer was none, and so I kept my head down and my long nose in my program, hoping to command no more attention than a shadow if I failed to meet another's gaze. The men who glanced at me glanced away again quickly, wry grins concealed within their thick beards, and the women accompanying them looked straight through me.
I'd seated myself behind an enormously broad-shouldered man and his enormously broad-shouldered wife. The man's cape and the woman's fox stole, hanging like an arras from their shoulders, formed an impenetrable horizon beneath which I couldn't see the stage. I watched the audience, therefore, before the curtain, seated on the edge of my chair, peering through the aperture formed by the couple's shoulders, their heads, and their hat brims.
It was thus, my view framed by the little seahorses of their ears, that I caught my first glimpse of her, my Venus on the half shell, my ill-starred amorette: my Emma Eckstein.
WHAT DREW my attention so irresistibly to her? Perhaps it was her broach that caught my eye. A silver angel pinned above her heart, the spangle glimmered and flashed, reflecting back light from the thousand and one gas lamps roaring in the hall. Beneath the pin, her bosom heaved in a pendulous panic as she stepped into the aisle. Verifying the seat number on her ticket stub, juggling her program against the reticule she kept in her other gloved hand, she searched the crowd in front of her (for her seat, I presumed) and behind her (for the companion from whom she'd become unintentionally parted), unable to find either, or both, or perhaps one without the other.
She was nearsighted-I could tell by the way she brought the stub to her face-but too vain to wear her glasses, allowing a squint to mar her forehead, puckering it with a scowl.
I couldn't help sighing. I've always responded, quite often foolishly, to beauty, but it's the eye, I believe, and not the heart or the groin, that is the organ of desire, the eye that in a convulsive ocular somersault literally turns the world upside down, defying the brain to make sense of it all.
But can the eye be trusted? That is the question. How clearly may it peer into the heart of our attractions, when it's the nature of beauty to beguile the eye and confound the mind?
And the Fräulein was indeed beautiful. Her nose was straight and fine, and her mouth almost too large for the trembling pedestal of her chin. Her hair, swept off her neck and pinned into place by an opal clasp, frizzled out in small exasperated tufts. She seemed older than I-she must have been nearing thirty-and yet she had about her a frazzled air belonging more properly to a maiden. And indeed, it was this sweet and mild confusion animating and irritating her every gesture that convinced me the alarums clanging in the belfry of my heart at the sight of her were genuine. I held my breath in anticipation of the arrival of her companion, hoping he would prove to be neither husband nor lover nor (in those strangely liberated times) both. However, the relief I felt upon seeing a mother and not a lover join my darling (already I was thinking of her in this way) disappeared as I watched the Fräulein, obviously chastened by her mother, attempting to decipher the elder woman's wishes, peering into her face as into a page of incomprehensible scribbling.
I followed their progress down the aisle through my opera glasses but lost sight of them when the head of the man in front of me threw itself up, a big fleshy mountain, between us. Rearing back, I jolted the glasses into the bridge of my nose and was blinded by a yellow flash of pain. Swerving my lorgnette in a panic to the right, lest I lose them, I found the Fräulein and her mother again on the far side of the woman's plumed hat.
They were speaking to a gentleman, a family friend by the looks of it, although upon closer examination-peering in, I refocused my lorgnette-I could see that the man's presence seemed to be rattling the younger woman. She seemed smitten by his person. Blushing compulsively, she dropped her head, unable to meet his gaze. Gripping her little purse by its chain, she let it dangle in front of her, as though to conceal the delta of her sex.
At that moment, I realized, with a riveting sense of shame, that I was staring at her lap!
My cheeks burned. I lifted my lorgnette and, in order to distract my gaze, took a better look at my rival. Bearded, well barbered, impeccably haberdashed, he was puffing on a slender green cigar. Steadying its nib with his thumb, he roared with laughter at some witticism or other of the mother's; tilting back his head, he exhaled, filling the air above them with a plumy smudge.
How I hated that man! I hated him the way one hates anyone who possesses what one lacks, whose sturdy happiness exposes how ludicrously constructed is one's own. I felt barred from the marvelous joke they were sharing, exiled from their witty conversation, not only by the distance that separated us-I was, after all, four tiers above them-but by my poverty, broadcast plainly to the world, if by nothing else, then by Otto's suit.
Lower your lorgnette, I counseled myself, look away, spare your heart! But instead I watched as the mother placed an ungloved hand upon the arm of the gentleman and caressed it. Meaningful looks were traded between these two. They'd agreed upon something-that much was clear-and as they turned towards the daughter to see if she concurred, and as she signaled her assent with an embarrassed charade of shrugs, I knew I possessed no hope of winning her.
My rival had bested me before I'd even announced my intentions!
THE HOUSE LIGHTS dimmed, the curtain went up, and I watched the play-half a crown is half a crown, after all-though I could barely concentrate on its plot. (Dr. Herzl's The New Ghetto, it had something to do with a count, a duel, a questionable marriage, and a coal mine.) When the gaslights came up, I stood in my box and peered over the heads of the couple in front of me to search the stalls for the girl in the lavender dress with all the extravagant flounces.
(Ah, that women no longer dress in this way, as though they were packages waiting to be unwrapped, is an understandable, if no less lamentable thing!)
I found her easily enough this time with my lorgnette. As soon as the curtain had fallen, she'd taken leave of her mother and was walking towards the lobbies. "Bitte!" I cried to my boxmates; standing, I bumped into their knees. My heart pounding, I charged out of the gallery through the corridor towards the staircases, where, hurrying, I leaned over its railing, searching the crowd below me for a glimpse of a lavender hem.
Pince-nez flashing, monocles glittering, well-dressed men stood in clusters, roaring their opinions about the play into one another's faces. Snaking through these dense knots of smokers and drinkers, I circumnavigated the ground-floor lobby, its red velvet wallpaper, its red velvet sofas, its red velvet chairs whirling about me in a hurricane of scarlet. However, the Fräulein was nowhere to be found.
Mildly out of breath, I could only chide myself: Did I really expect to find her in so large a crowd, a solitary queen inside such a busy swarm? And if I had, what did I next propose to do? Introduce myself? Declare my love for her perhaps? No, the quest had been a foolish one, impulsive and doomed. I was on the point of conceding as much when, as though alerted by a signal only they could hear, a rout of drunken loiterers moved off, scattering from the bar in several directions at once. Behind where they had only moments before stood, indeed stationed there as though by the Unseen Hand of Fate, was the well-barbered gentleman I'd seen speaking to the Fräulein before the curtain, his immaculately tailored person encircled by the whitish fumes of his cigar.
With no idea how much longer the interval might last, I seized my chance and placed myself beside him. As he was facing the bar, I leaned my back against it. As he was drinking a brandy, I ordered one as well, a fact he noted out of the corner of his eye, nodding almost imperceptibly in approval. With mirrors on all four of its walls, the little alcove seemed to repeat itself in an eternal stutter. Though a single chandelier dangled from the ceiling, a thousand appeared to have been strung, in long lines, back to a thousand distant vanishing points, and no matter which direction one faced, one could see the room from a dozen different angles. And so, although I was facing away from Dr. Freud, I was able to watch him while simultaneously watching myself. (Yes, the stranger was Dr. Freud. Why not reveal it now and get it over with? I'm not a novelist or a playwright, after all, that I must bait my reader's interest by withholding pertinent information.) Like everything else in the room, like the barman and the wall sconces and the chandeliers, Dr. Freud's figure receded into the mirrors' staggered horizons, replicated in ever smaller versions. I followed this unending trail of Freuds, moving my gaze from the back of one of his more distant heads to the front of a head less distant, jumping from mountain peak to mountain peak, as it were, moving nearer to the original, until I realized that he was doing the same with me and my many reflections, and although we were facing in opposite directions, we were very soon staring into each other's eyes. Dr. Freud seemed to note this queer fact at precisely the same moment as I, and a shockingly awkward intimacy ensued: one's habitual mask falls away and one feels naked, having presented his unguarded face to another man (better to rouge one's cheeks with the appurtenances then available to masculine physiognomy-beards, monocles, muttonchops, mustaches, dueling scars-so that if the mask slips, one mightn't lose face altogether).
Of course, it's easy enough to lionize Dr. Freud now, but even then, in the years before fame enveloped him in its luminous cloak, he possessed a brooding quality, a fierce, unblinking omniscience. His eyes were dark and lustrous, whereas mine were pale and myopically blue, and though I've no idea what Dr. Freud saw in them, as his glance swept over their surfaces, I've no doubt he saw everything there was in them to see. As his many reflections turned away from mine, I felt like a mouse that had been spared inexplicably by a cat and was alarmed, therefore, to find him now only a small distance from my shoulder, looking me straight in the eye. The looming geographies of his face, so near mine, were dizzying. Beneath the whiskery arms of his mustache, he drew on a yellow-green cigar, grinding its smoke between his teeth. Two fumes coiled out of his nostrils like a pair of charmed snakes.
"Dreary, wouldn't you say?"
I took a step away from him. "I ... I beg your pardon?" I hoped to sound as though I'd only just noticed him, as though I hadn't been watching him the entire time, as though I'd been the one lost in thought and it were he who had pulled me out of the mists of my own foggy preoccupations.
"Why, the play and its themes," he said, tilting his brandy to his mouth.
I struggled in vain to recall the play. Though I'd been looking forward to it-it was the event of the season, as far as our little circle was concerned - I'd paid such scant attention to the opening act I could barely quilt together the fragmentary fabric of its themes. Dr. Freud had tossed me an opening, and I had dropped it, like a blind man juggling eggs.
His thumb against the nib of his cigar, he leaned in closer to me and murmured, "I'm speaking, of course, of the low social status of the race to which we both belong."
At these words, all thoughts of silly Fräuleins and lavender dresses vanished from my head. "Yes," I said, "and for my generation, it's even worse."
"Worse?" Dr. Freud said. "How so?"
"Our greater expectations, based upon your own generation's accomplishments, combine with our more limited economic possibilities, to make everything far worse."
I next expressed a regret that my generation was, in fact, doomed to atrophy.
"These are strong words," Dr. Freud said.
"Perhaps," I said, warming to my theme. "However, it's difficult to feel oneself destined for a higher purpose and still be uncertain of earning one's daily bride."
Dr. Freud's brow contracted. "Bride?"
"Bread." I corrected him as politely as I could.
"No, no, you said bride: 'And still be uncertain of earning one's daily bride.'"
"Surely you misheard me." Whatever I'd said, I'd meant bread, of course (Brot in German), and not bride (Braut). Dr. Freud grinned and bit into his cigar, rolling it in quick circles between his teeth. "And if I did, what of it? It's a simple and meaningless mistake," I said.
"A mere triviality-yes!-an error in speech, and nothing more!"
With his elbow on the bar, Dr. Freud leaned his head against his fist. A thatch of his hair fell into his eyes. "I agree with you that these occasional lapses are quite trivial in nature, and yet I would suggest to you, on the evidence of my own medical researches, that there are no occurrences, however slight, that drop out of the universal concatenation of events or escape the tyrannical rule of cause and effect."
The universal concatenation of events? The tyrannical rule of cause and effect?
"You're claiming-what?-if I'm understanding you correctly that you can trace my silly verbal misstep back to the mental processes that caused it?"
"Certainly I can, and it shouldn't take long. However, to do so, I ask of you only one thing."
"And that is?"
"That you tell me, candidly and uncritically and without any aim whatsoever, whatever comes into your mind as you direct your attention to the misspoken word."
As Dr. Freud leaned in closer to me, I could smell the medicinal tang of brandy and tobacco on his breath, and I couldn't shake the suspicion that he was laughing at me, playing with me, as though it were all a merry game, or not a game, but a sport, since, like a fox beaten out of the hedges, I had no understanding of the rules that were to govern my painful exposure.
"Bit of a parlor game?" I said, attempting to make light of it all.
Dr. Freud tapped his cigar against the spittoon on the bar, letting a red plug of ash fall into it. "I've no idea what parlors you frequent, but I can assure you it's hardly a game." Once more, he confined me inside the prison house of his gaze. Indeed, I felt as though I'd been hauled by the imperial police into an interrogation chamber. However, what could I do? Refusing him was out of the question. Doing so would put an end to our conversation and irrevocably forfeit for me any chance of learning the Fräulein's name. (Though I knew not yet one syllable of it, I could practically feel my tongue and lips conspiring to pronounce it.) Slyly changing the subject would be impossible, I sensed, with a man like Dr. Freud. Ruled by his passions, he'd never permit himself to be distracted or put off. I had no idea how much longer the interval might last, and I made a quick calculus: though sounding my mental depths for the buried source of this verbal slip might take the entire intermission, thus depriving me of the moment in which I might steer the conversation towards my own uses (viz., the learning of Emma Eckstein's name), I was convinced the procedure would reveal nothing of consequence about me and that afterwards, having indulged my new friend in his harmless pursuit, I could more forcefully ask his patience in indulging mine.
Excerpted from A CURABLE ROMANTIC by Joseph Skibell Copyright © 2010 by Joseph Skibell. Excerpted by permission.
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