My love for German food and the German language returned. Most Thursdays after therapy, I strolled down the three blocks of
Kleine Konditorei, proud of its home cooking and gut bürgerlich ambiance, kept the Teutonic theme under control. No antlers on the wall, no decorative steins, or yodeling over the sound system, just immaculately clean windows and floors, red fabric chairs and sofas, starched white linen tablecloths, and fine china.
Anita, the heavyset Viennese waitress, was polishing the doorknob with a table napkin as I made my way in.
“Schönen guten Tag,” she chirped.
“Danke, ebenso,” I answered.
Ogling the cakes and pies behind the counter, I made my way to my favorite table. From my vantage point, I could scrutinize most of the inside tables as well as the outside street action. Across from me, three old ladies with hairdos resembling corrugated sheet metal, sat with gigantic portions of tort. They spoke a strange mixture of German and English. “Der Mohnkuchen is fantastic. So lecker! Please pass mir die milk und das Sweet & Low.”
I considered the special attributes of German Kaffee und Kuchen. Brewed with less Arabica beans, German coffee was thinner than Italian espresso, but superior to the dishwater that passed for American coffee. Americans never got torts right. Just like their saccharine smiles, their pastries were unbearably sweet. German pastries, like life, were both sweet and tart. As I sank my teeth into the scrumptious piece of Schwarzwalder Kirschtorte, a superb concoction of cherry sauce, flour, cream, eggs, chocolate, and Kirsch brandy, I mocked the accent I heard all around me: “Ziss Kriempuff is fäbuluss.”
As I licked my spoon I thought about my therapist’s question an hour ago: “Have you ever been with an older man?” and how I had rebuffed Vivian Deutsch: “No way. An older guy and me? You won’t see that happen any time soon.” Vivien had been adamant: “You ought to give it a try. Allow yourself to be attracted to a good kind man. A man with the qualities of a good father. It should help you move from romantic love and a fixation on sex, to sustained attachment.” Maybe she had a point. Even Freud had called romantic love “the overestimation of the romantic object.”
As I surveyed the room, a man with the handsome look of an old-time matinee idol caught my eye. His Basque cap, silver unruly hair sticking out from underneath, and red scarf tied around his neck gave him a bohemian flair. He took cautious measured steps, and then rested on his cane until Anita came to his rescue. She led him to a table set for a large group of people, took his coat and helped him into his seat.
“Who is that?” I asked when she passed by.
“Hans Glück. He’s a writer. Part of the Stammtisch. A group of old Jewish folks who meet here every Thursday. They all speak German.”
“You are kidding?”
“No. They’ve been coming here for the past thirty-five years. No one wants to wait on them. They sit forever and don’t eat much. Terrible tippers.”
I decided to stay and ordered a brandy. As I savored my Asbach, I eavesdropped on the discussion at their table. My ears perked up when I heard them talk about Thomas Bernhard’s latest book. One man with an Austrian accent didn’t like Bernhard: “How can he call
“Liebe Stammtischgäste, you have to meet Anna. She’s from the Rhineland, but she studied in
Now I had a chance to study him close-up. He had bushy, unruly eyebrows, and curious pale blue eyes. His right eye had a mind of its own and made him look almost cross-eyed. The enormous dark circles under his eyes held a lot of sorrow. But his lips were full and sensual. Somewhat melancholic. He must have been a good kisser. As if he had been able to guess my thoughts, he turned to me, took my hand and kissed it gently. “Junges Fraülein, we must get to know each other. I’m quite lonely these days. Come visit me,” he pleaded. Then he rummaged through his pants pocket and produced a business card. Hans Glück, Writer, it said.
I became a regular visitor to Hans’ home in
For the next year I traveled twice a month on the #1 subway from TriBeCa all the way up to the tip of
“The telephone operators say ‘Thank you,’ ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘You’re welcome.’”
“Even the dentist called me by my first name.”
Hans helped me understand the mysteries of the American psyche.
“Why do they give you their business card, act so enthusiastic, and then never call?”
“They just can’t say no. They don’t want to hurt your feelings”
“Why do they think I am overly critical when I’m just being honest?”
“They can’t tolerate the truth. They like fantasy.”
I was falling for him in a peculiar way. But when he put his hand on my knee I felt repulsed. As if I had put my fingers in an electric outlet, a shock wave reverberated through my body. Too stunned to speak, I watched him slide his hand up my leg and caress my thigh. “Are you wearing garters and stockings?” he mumbled. “I sure hope so. The invention of pantyhose was a punishment for the male species.”
My shock waves turned to nausea. The idea of sex with a man his age was truly revolting. I rebutted his offer to spend the night. ”You are out of your mind. I’m looking for a friend, someone to give me guidance, not orgasms.” Hans, disappointed, but not defeated, insisted: “What about a man like me, aged and mellow like fine cognac? I have a lot of experience pleasing women. Anything a young man does, I can do it better.”
I had no doubt. Now my experience as a Go-Go dancer came in handy. I knew how to put a man in his proper place.
“Hans, if you come on to me one more time, I’ll leave and you’ll never see me again.”
“Schon gut, I’d rather have you as a friend than not have you at all.”
Once this was settled, we kept the erotic tension at bay and for the most part got along fine. Despite our age difference, we were alike in many ways. Neither of us had found lasting happiness in love. I was married to Ernest and had started a steamy affair with Ivan. Hans had been married twice. Neither marriage lasted long. He had his reasons: “Something in me bristles at the domestication of love. The sight of the heavy oak marriage-bed repulses me. Love should be the continuation of poetry by other means.” I, brought up on tragic love stories, dangerous affairs, enchanting courtesans, and women like Emma Bovary, in pursuit of their desires, was a kindred spirit. In my love for literature, I had made a mess of my life and ended up with an unbalanced mind. Maybe it was best to settle for platonic love with Hans? A former tomboy, I had always gotten along fine with men as long as I didn’t turn them into my lovers. Intellectually stimulating conversations were gratifying. Maybe they’d be a good substitute for sex?
I could not have asked for a more captivating companion. Hans had known the best writers of his generation, both in Europe and the
I had been to
Hans, raised in a Jewish assimilated family “more German than the Germans,” amazed me with his command of the German language after more than forty years in exile. His mother tongue was the umbilical cord connecting him to his homeland. “I did not allow Hitler to destroy my love of German.” He made me feel good about being German. “There’s no collective guilt. Not all Germans were Nazis.” When he saw that I wasn’t convinced, he cleared his throat, straightened his back, and in his most dignified speech recited one of his poems.
When I think of
I think of Heine,
I no longer think of
My father, the Catholic Nazi, had tried to eradicate my artistic ambitions: “No, you can’t join the Drama Club. Forget about a career in the arts. Writers don’t make any money, at least not during their lifetime.” Hans, the Jewish Socialist, encouraged my creative desires. He came to see me play Lulu in Wedekind’s “Spring Awakening.” Like a proud father he clapped louder and harder than anyone else at La Mama that evening. When I showed him my poems, he complimented me: “Not bad at all. You certainly have a way with words.”
We argued about literature like lovers, made up like lovers, except we weren’t lovers. We had a great relationship until I lost him to another woman. He met Hannelore at an event in honor of his life’s work at Goethe House where actors and actresses recited his poems and prose. At the reception Hannelore, in a tight navy blue suit, a glass of champagne in her hand, buttered him up. “I am so impressed with your work, your talent. I have read all your plays and can’t decide which one is my favorite.” I hated her instantly. She was a provincial school teacher in search of luster for her boring life. Maybe befriending writers would do the trick. I tried to signal Hans my disapproval. He, smitten with her big tits and long blond curls, totally ignored me.
I was thirty-two; Hannelore was fifty-seven; Hans was eighty-eight. His two-volume memoir had just been published in
The Nice Guys Livery Cab service took us downtown. As we rode along the
“Don’t you think black is too funeral? I want an upbeat suit, one that shouts optimism and joy.”
“Let’s go for navy then,” I said, trying not to sound weepy.
“What a marvelous day, made for poetry,” he raved, puffed his chest and started to recite:
Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
Sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
Hinheben über dich zu anderen Dingen?[ii]
„Don’t you love Rilke?”
I used to, but now I hated him. I was glad when we finally reached
“Don’t I look elegant,’ he exclaimed. “I swear this suit takes years off my life. I feel sixty again.”
“Your father looks marvelous,” the salesclerk said. “I hear the wedding is in two days.” He knelt down, took a pin out of his mouth and started to cuff Hans’ pants. “You are lucky that we do rush tailoring.”
I didn’t feel so lucky. In fact, I tried hard not to grind my teeth. When Hans came back out in his old cloths, he sat down next to me. We would have to wait to have the pants hemmed and the suspender buttons sewed on. Hans turned to me. Even with one blind eye, he could tell I was upset.
“What’s the matter, Anna? Aren’t you happy for me?”
“I’m happy for you, but I’ll miss you.” I tried hard not to choke.
“You can always visit us.”
“That’s not the same.”
”There are telephones”
“I know. But I’ll miss our Kaffeeklatsch. Your stories.”
“Look, this is my last chance to feel young again, to be celebrated for my talent. After all the wrong women, I have to take a chance at love.” Hans lifted up my chin. “You’re not crying, are you? Don’t be sad. You’ll find the right one too, I know.”
I swallowed hard. Why would I want anybody else?
I had attended plenty of green card weddings, including my own. Elegant affairs staged in downtown lofts,
Getting off the elevator on the ninth floor, I was shocked to find crates of books stacked up in the hallway. Was Hans moving out? Inside his apartment the piles of books were gone, the chairs and tables were freed of them too. My nose led me right to the living room. His desk and dining table had been pushed together to create an enormous buffet, weighed down with his friends’ contributions to his potluck-wedding feast. Leo Blumenthal had brought his famous Würstelgoulash, Elfriede Goldberg her chicken paprika and Nicole Edelmann her Buletten. There were Lachsbrötchen, Rouladen, and even my childhood’s beloved Heringsstip, the dish I had eaten on my first outing to a restaurant with my father. I unwrapped my contribution to the party and squeezed two loaves of Zabar’s apricot strudel, Hans’s favorite, into the tiny space left on the table. I thought about all the times in my life when food had been my solace. A great meal had often provided a much superior experience than most sex, so often mediocre and disappointing. I feasted my eyes on the Central European delicacies in front of me. I had not seen such quantities of scrumptious foods since my First Communion. Why wasn’t I tempted? Why had I lost my appetite? I consoled myself with Henkel sparkling wine.
Leo Blumenthal, who fled
Ein Viertel Frühling und ein Viertel Wein,
Ein Viertel Liebe, verliebt muß man sein.
Zwei Herzen im Dreivierteltakt,
Wer braucht mehr, um glücklich zu sein?[iii]
When they stopped thunderous cheering and clapping erupted. Hans, overcome with emotion, took a handkerchief from his pocket, wiped the sweat from his forehead, cleared his throat and addressed his guests: “Liebe Freunde thank you for helping me celebrate the happiest day of my life.” Dapper in his navy suit, pink tie and rose pinned to his lapel, he looked like a professor emeritus, a distinguished scholar of philosophy. Hannelore had even trimmed his nose hairs for the occasion.
“Earlier this morning we were at City Hall. The most marvelous place in all of
“Let’s have a toast to the Brautpaar,” Leo said.
Everyone chimed in. Hoch solln sie leben. Bride and groom blushed to a thunderous applause.
Leo Blumenthal sat down again and started to play a slow, melancholy tango. Mrs. Goldberg, in long black gloves and a too tight bottle green satin dress that revealed a lot of wrinkled cleavage, positioned herself in dramatic fashion next to the piano and started to sing
in der kleinen Konditorei,
had coffee and cake.
No need to say a single word,
I understood you right away.
It felt as if a soccer ball struck my stomach. This was our song. Die kleine Konditorei, I had met Hans there. Mrs. Orenstein, a holocaust survivor, who had lost her husband to cancer three month ago, turned to me and said: “Isn’t it marvelous to find love at his age?” Trim and petite, she nibbled on her strudel. I stared at her thinning bluish hair, at a loss for words. A lady in a crimson suit came to my rescue, pulling Mrs. Orenstein to the dance floor. It was my chance to run off. At the buffet, I quickly downed two glasses of champagne. I had to get away from the radiant Brautpaar, the happy guests, the joyous laughter.
Careful to avoid anyone who might engage me in a conversation, I made my way to the back of the apartment. Between the coat rack and the bathroom, I sat down on the floor and gave myself over to a brooding unhappiness. How did people fall in love and stay in love? They had to be born with that knowledge that eluded me all my life. I wondered if I’d ever find lasting love and grow old with a man. Someone who’d walk a mile to get me hearty black bread for breakfast and remembered that plum butter was my favorite spread. I sat for hours, and only snuck out to fill up my glass. I felt like a suitcase abandoned at the airport’s conveyor belt. Full of treasures, but unwanted and forgotten. Bestellt und nicht abgeholt. No one to retrieve me.