|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
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By J. Sydney Jones
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2016 J. Sydney Jones
All rights reserved.
I was born in the difficult year of 1916. The year of my birth saw not only the coming defeat of Austria, but also witnessed the death of the old emperor Franz Joseph. The collapse of everything anyone living had known, that is what was presented to us in 1916, yet we had to endure the lingering denouement for two more terrible years of war. Life is a bad playwright.
I first saw the light of day in the pauper's ward at the Lainzer Hospital in Vienna's Fourteenth District. Of course, at that time, it was hardly a crime to use the services of such a ward. Weren't we all near starving then?
I have very few memories of the first five years of my life. Perhaps they are stored somewhere deep in what is known as the subconscious, but I — now an old, if not an elderly, man — have much time for reflection. Every instant of my life I eagerly pore over, sorting through the exhilarating and boring alike as through a box of yellowing and curling photographs. If such early memories were there to be found, I fully believe that my mental Dominicans — my very own hounds of God — would have sniffed them out by now. Either I had no experiences until five years of age, or at about that age, my perceptive and receptive faculties became fine-tuned enough to begin the lifelong task of recording and storing experience.
My first remembrance came on a snowy evening in Vienna. Some places associate themselves in one's mind with certain weather. Snow and Vienna are indelibly matched in my mind. Snow is to Vienna as sun to Hawaii, the monsoons to India. Growing up, there was a water-filled glass bubble enclosing a miniature Steffl — the south tower of St. Stephan's Cathedral that stands at the very center of Vienna's old city — on my bedside table (I have it here with me now, as well, on the mantel). One turns the bubble upside down and a flurry of confetti snow swirls around the steeple. The same storybook recollection of Vienna in the snow forms the backdrop for this very first memory.
It had been snowing heavily all day. I lay awake in my bed in the single-room apartment and listened, for a time, to the scraping shovels of neighbors clearing the sidewalks outside. This was followed by the crunch and huff of plows coming muffled through the closed shutters. The pillow was partly over my head to shield my eyes from the light. Frau Wotruba from across the hall was sitting with me while my parents were out for their monthly fling: a show at the Volksoper opera house — Lehár, as I later discovered — and a hot chocolate at the Café Museum afterward. This must have been the beginning of our "affluent" period, for even so little as a night out per month was a great splurge in those miserably poor days.
Frau Wotruba lit another cigarette. I remember looking over to where she sat in my father's armchair. It was the one decent chair in the flat, and she lounged in it like a marionette whose strings had been cut, her heavy winter stockings rolled down beneath her knees and one hand busily scratching at a bite or some minor skin irritation on her lower thigh. A weekly illustrated magazine rested in her lap. With her other hand she guided the oval cigarette to heavily rouged lips, puckered, and drew in a tremendous amount of smoke, which she proceeded to jet out of her nostrils. Sitting under the only light in the room, she was wreathed in a blue halo of smoke. Her lips went back to forming silent words as she read, then a smile as something in the article pleased her.
Her right hand continued to scratch, and she lifted the hem of her dress higher to get at the itch. I liked Frau Wotruba — she would sneak me an occasional bit of sugar, though the entire ration in our home went into my father's morning coffee — and I felt vaguely that it was wrong to spy on her thusly, but I could not bring myself to break off watching. Quietly and cautiously, I peered on, afraid even to breathe lest I remind her of my presence, for her hand continued to wander up her thigh, searching out the itch.
I must have moved or somehow caught her attention, for she looked up suddenly from her magazine and caught me staring at the full expanse of her milk-white thigh. (Later calculations put Frau Wotruba at thirty-one at the time at which I write. She had survived two husbands, one lost in the war and another a tram driver who died a grisly death, run over by his own tram as he descended to throw gravel on icy tracks.)
"You're awake, are you, Schatz?"
I didn't reply, hoping my silence would fool her. My eyes closed now, I heard the squeak of springs as she got up from my father's chair. Footsteps approached my bed.
"Hello, possum." Her hand brushed my cheek.
I opened my eyes as if awakened from a sound sleep.
"Frau Wotruba ... Is it morning already?"
She chuckled merrily at this. She had — and it was one of her finest traits — a very full laugh. But now it was only a pleasant snicker, an ironic recognition of my deception.
"Soon, Schatz, soon. Are the plows keeping you awake?"
I nodded. How to tell her it was the reading light and her oval cigarette, the glimpse of her dimpled thigh?
She sat on the bed next to me and a strong, warm, womanly scent enveloped me as snugly as the eiderdown comforter covering me.
"Why don't I rock you?"
I did not need to be asked twice, but quickly positioned my torso in her lap, my legs still tucked under the comforter. The soft curve of her left breast pressed against my cheek. She rumpled my hair and laughed again, then hugged me to her, rocking back and forth on the creaking bed, humming a folk lullaby that haunts me to this very day. For years, I will lose the melody. There are no words, you see. Nothing to fix it mnemonically. Then one day some other melody intrudes — I have music around me constantly (at this very moment, I am listening to Richter playing Brahms's Second Piano Concerto) — and the music will remind me of the lullaby in some inexplicable way that occurs before knowledge, before perception. Then Frau Wotruba's song rushes back to me all in a blur like a fast-moving train.
Her breath, heavy with the aroma of nicotine, was hot in my ear. It tickled. I remember the sensation still! Such a tickle as to reach my very soul. I pressed my cheek more closely to her, and she brushed my face with her soft hand. I felt a sharp object scrape against my cheek. It was the garnet ring that her second husband had given her shortly before his death. It was Frau Wotruba's one bit of "opulence," one that she now, in hard and evil days of hunger and soup lines, wore stone inward to avoid potential thieves on the streets. Yet it was not a particularly noble ring, nor was the stone all that large. I believe it had been in the husband's family for a time, but that does not establish worth other than sentimental. Perhaps it was Frau Wotruba's vanity that made her turn the stone inward — the finest ladies in Vienna were doing so with their diamonds at the time; neither was there a single fur wrap to be seen on the Kaerntnerstrasse.
I winced at the touch of the garnet and she pulled her hand away, frightened. There was a small scratch on my cheek from the setting, and she was solicitous, patting it with kisses transmitted from her rouged lips to the fingers of her right hand. I wanted desperately to feel her bright red lips on my burning cheek. Nestling closer, I felt a hardness through her dress. It was a mystery to me, this erect hardness amid the softness of her bosom, and I was drawn to it. I soothed the scratched cheek by rubbing it against the muslin front of her dress, caressing her breast inadvertently as I did so.
Frau Wotruba was very silent; only the crunch of the plows from outside and the slightest creaking of the bedsprings could be heard in the room. After what seemed a long time, I heard another sound: the deep, trembling breath of Frau Wotruba. I was startled, for I thought I had done something to make her cry. Looking up, I saw her mouth barely open, her tongue pink on drawn lips. Her eyes were closed, and there was an expression something like pain on her face. The pain seemed to intensify when I stopped brushing my cheek against her front. She pulled my head to her bosom again and I continued brushing against her. Then a sound like a whimper escaped her mouth; she leaned down and kissed my cheek. Her lips were warm, soft, moist. They felt like angel wings caressing me.
When I awoke, it was morning. Father was putting a celluloid collar on his shirt; a cup of coffee was steaming on the table. Mother was carefully measuring out the grains of sugar from a tiny silver spoon. Frau Wotruba was no longer there.
* * *
So! I can hear you muttering. That explains the man. Sexually abused as a child. Son of a strict authoritarian who would not even share the sugar ration. Such are his determining influences.
There is self-satisfaction in such a summation. I know that only too well from personal experience. One likes to have one's preconceptions confirmed. It is pleasing to be able to encapsulate the world in the cause and effect, bump and grind, of psychology. Yet, unfortunately, it is not all that simple or clear-cut.
Frau Wotruba may have been my initiator into the world of sex; she did not, however, determine my behavior or ruin the experience for me. Granted, I did learn from her that a woman's breasts are magical butter gourds: hard and soft at the same time. For some women they are buttons of pleasure to be turned on and off at will. For others, they are unseemly and these women do not want them noticed, let alone touched — not even by the softest cheeks.
I did learn from the strange pleasure of pleasing someone else sexually: the mixture of sensuality and power it evokes. Yet, I hardly think that ruined me either.
There is one evil thing our sex games may have done, however, and that was to give me false expectations about men and women. The synchronism of men and women is almost nonexistent in reality. Few women are so uninhibited as Frau Wotruba; most achieve their satisfaction only after the most arduous of efforts on the part of the man. They hold on and on after a man has reached his moment, squeezing the last drop out of him. And sex is only the most obvious example of this disharmony between the sexes. Romantic love is yet another: By the time a man finally wins a woman's heart, he no longer yearns for it. We give ourselves up at such vastly different rates and frequencies that we are forever out of step with one another, we men and women. A man wants a woman's heart at the outset of a relationship, not halfway through! For a woman, however, love is like achieving orgasm: a long, uphill struggle.
But if a false impression about the ease of men and women together is the worst that could be said of Frau Wotruba's gift, then it was a fine thing, indeed. What Frau Wotruba and I had that snowy night, and what we continued to share once a month for the next four years, was a warmth and a softness. A giving in to each other that defies understanding or explanation, just as does the capture of her lullaby in my memory.
I shall have more to say of Frau Wotruba in these pages.
* * *
Our apartment, as I said, was on the ground floor of a building on Hubertusgasse. The tall windows began just above street level, so looking out, one had a view of hats and glistening umbrellas on rainy days; of bonnets and derbies on fine ones. Men and women did not go about hatless as is the custom today. Most even wore some form of headgear to bed.
These windows took up one side of the flat. Against the opposite wall was my bed, partially shielded from the rest of the room by a faded Chinese screen that my mother had found at the flea market. Mother was a frequenter of such bazaars; they were, in fact, a mania with her even later in life, when she could well afford to buy new. It became a challenge for her to see what bit of another person's detritus could become something essential for us. The screen was such a purchase, though it was found only after the scene with Frau Wotruba that I have just related.
Next to my bed there was a wardrobe of elephantine proportions. Lord knows it had to be large, and this is not simply an aberration of a child's memory, for it contained the clothing for all three of us — four with the arrival of my sister, Maria. Surmounting this wardrobe was an elaborately carved finial, all flowing scrolls and bird wings, done in cherrywood. This bit of artistry was dwarfed by precariously stacked wooden boxes full of off-seasonal clothing: winter coats safely mothballed in the summer; shorts and sandals likewise stored during the winter. Here also was the logical hiding spot for any present that it might have been my great good fortune to receive.
Mother and Father slept in a bed near the windows, which, by the clever addition of large throw pillows covered in Turkish cloth, was transformed into a sofa in the daytime. Above this bed hung photos and etchings of relatives long deceased: the "family album," Father derisively called it, for these pictures depicted none of his blood relatives. Immediately between the photos and the pillows was a strip of paisley cloth, giving their corner something of the feel of the opulent late nineteenth century. For those readers who have no idea of that period, the closest parallel might be the classic photo of Freud's couch.
In the center of the room, under a chandelier made of wrought iron and frosted glass, was the table, circular, with four matching chairs. It was a solid bit of furniture, able to withstand not only spilled dishes of hot broth, but also my unsteady feet when Mother had me climb atop it to make tailoring adjustments on father's hand-me-down pants, or on other "sharp purchases" — her words — she found in the Jewish bazaars in the Second District or the mean cobbled streets near Ruprechtskirche in the First District. This table and its chairs were a deeply stained oak, the thick legs ending in roughly carved lion paws. The massive stature of this furniture derived from what is called the Alt Deutsch style of the late nineteenth century.
Between the wardrobe and my parents' bed, against the west wall, was a coal stove, and near it stood Father's armchair. This was as massive as the table, an enormous coquillage that engulfed the sitter, covered in a floral print that looked more cottage style than something that belonged in an urban flat, but of which no one complained. It had been a wedding present from my mother's parents, intended most likely for her pregnancies, but appropriated by Father.
(Lest I give the wrong impression about Father — that is, that he was the ultimate tyrant in our home — let me say now that Mother and he had their separate spheres of power. What Father appropriated in the home — the sugar, the armchair — was what Mother allowed him to appropriate. More of this presently.)
One tiny cubicle, reached via a door between my bed and the wardrobe, a room much too small to be anything but practical, held the wood-burning range upon which Mother created her less-than-appetizing meals. Any raised eyebrow from Father at one of her concoctions would bring an instant storm of abuse, prefaced always with: "You want fancy French cuisine, you bring home a fancy wage."
These were the physical borders of our life. The temporal borders were equally well defined, and they revolved around my father's getting up, going to work, and returning from work. It seemed all the household was planned directly around these contingencies: the weekend could not even begin until he returned from his Saturday half day. It was our custom on these days to have a large midday meal, which meant that Father, who liked to tipple now and again, was not free to stop with his friends at the local inn for a viertel of wine, but that he must return home immediately from work to the steaming plates of whatever it was Mother had solemnized the day with. On Saturdays, there might be meat — a bit of overdone bacon or wurst. Later, I learned that her Saturday mealtime caveat was Mother's way of controlling the wage packet, for Saturday was payday, and she was not about to have Father squander a Groschen of it on wine.
Excerpted from The Edit by J. Sydney Jones. Copyright © 2016 J. Sydney Jones. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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