My nights are swarming with nightmares. Tried as an accomplice to murder, I feel the rope tauten around my neck.
“Look at her! A saint couldn’t resist that slut!” The members of the Jury cut the Gordian knot of guilt, making short works of me, the temptress. I wake up in cold sweat and swear to myself never ever to see Egon. To stick to it, I creep out of the school by the rear exit, and with it, escorted by Mirka, fearing that Egon may lie in ambush in front of the building at Vodickova Street. At school, I keep to myself and turn a deaf ear to Bessie’s happy chat about her career as Milan’s dancing partner. Bessie is bursting into bloom which makes me wonder if she has moved to Milan’s where they live together in sin. It’s perfectly possible, with a mother like hers. That’s the bright side of being “a lost case”. It would mean the end of Milan’s studies and, consequently, of our possible marriage. Yet I refrain from letting my father delude himself as Milan’s academic achievements concerns. Guess why?
“He’s doing just fine, Daddy. Of course, with the exams nearing, we don’t see each other as often as we used to. So I can’t keep you up to date.”
“Right you’re, Irene! I’m proud of you. Tell Mr. Zika to come and see me occasionally with his exams’ papers, will you?”
A full-fledged cheat and liar, I promise my father anything he wants to hear.
To give Fate its chance of a miracle solution, I try my best to exist beyond my crippling desire for Milan’s love and to accept that my craving for him is all I shall ever have; a sad outlook for a girl of my age. But then, isn’t the prospect of Milan as my husband even worse? To find a consolation I have become the patron of “The Flaming Heart”. Even if Beda isn’t much of a compensation for my lost lover, whatever there is in him, is good. He turns that strange, tender face of his to me, reaching after me through the darkness of the bar playing my kind of music. We enjoy our presence mutely. We aren’t opposed to words. We just don’t need them.
I live on easy terms with Leo, too. He takes great pains to be affable and gracious and I return his tender feelings. We aren’t as heavily involved as to wear each other’s cross.
All in all, I should be glad of the status quo. I seem to lead a charmed life if, after all these somersaults, I have always landed on my feet. Then, one day, Egon makes a lightning strike behind the enemy lines.
“Guess who’s coming for tea, Irenchen?” I hold my breath and prepare myself for the worst.
“That dear Egon! He seems to like you so much! He requires your presence! He’s a most delightful man!”
My grandmother puts a generous helping of Sacher Torte on my plate. She has every reason to approve of me, nowadays, expecting nothing of me except that I am well-behaved and good looking.
“What is it, sweetheart? You look so thoughtful! Aren’t you happy to see your fiancé’s father?”
“Of course I am. Unfortunately, I can’t have the pleasure. I promised Mirka to study with her for our geography exam.”
“Then call her and explain that something unforeseen has cropped up. Or would you prefer me to do it?”
“No need, grandmother. It’s just that I don’t like to break my word and ...”
“Irene! You aren’t up to your old tricks again, are you? Don’t try on me your childish pranks, I warn you! There are priorities in life and family comes first! Herr von Zwettler was specific about your presence. If you’ve finished your dessert, go to your room and tidy yourself up. You wouldn’t like your fiancé’s father seeing you in this unbecoming school-girl outfit, would you?”
Without a word, there’s no use arguing with my grandmother, I fold my napkin and leave. Once in my room, I give Beda an emergency call.
“You’re in a pretty pickle, girl! Trying my hardest, I see only two ways out of it: either you plead a sudden illness or you pull yourself together and face the villain. I’d opt for the second solution. Don’t worry; he can’t do much in your granny’s presence. Though be alert and don’t take any risk. The old sport must be desperate to throw himself to the wolves. I don’t blame him, given the mitigating circumstances. His serious handicap is that the amazing woman he fell for is a girl in her sweet sixteen and, to top it, betrothed to his son!
“By the way, if you do honour me with your presence at “The Flaming Heart” tonight, I’d be delighted to pick you up,” he offers timidly and I feel him blushing.
No sooner have I accepted and put the receiver down Mary rushes in.
“Herr von Zwettler is here! Your grandmother sent me for you. Oh Liebchen! Look at you! The Gnadige will have a stroke if you come in like that! All crumpled, your hair tousled! You’re in a sorry state! And Herr von Zwettler! What will HE think?”
“I don’t give a damn what old Zwettler thinks! Let my grandmother entertain him! To each his own. He’s even older than my father!”
“Oh, Liebchen! How can you say anything as unkind! It isn’t rue. Her von Zwettler is a smasher! Come on, Liebchen, put on this cute little frock and let me brush your hair.”
“Not this dress, Mary!” I snatch the token of my first date with Milan, hurl it into the closet and dissolve into tears.
“What has bitten you, Liebchen? Stop sulking and pull yourself together. Or I won’t tell you what I know,” Mary says with a poker face.
“What do you know? Tell me at once! Though I don’t see what you could know that would interest me.” I turn my back on her with studied indifference and start to dress.
Piqued by my lack of curiosity, Mary can’t hold on with her news. “That wicked mulatto- girl is in the family way!”
I am glad my head got caught in the dress I am about to put on and Mary can’t see my face.
“You know who with? That Zika boy you used to fool around with! Oh Liebchen! My blood runs cold if I imagine it could be you!”
I do my utmost to recover my poise, slip the dress down and turn my back on Mary. At last I am able to say in a detached tone of an Ice-Queen: “So what? They got what they asked for, didn’t they? Next time, be so nice as to spare me your painfully trivial gossip.”
I grab the brush from Mary’s hand and start striking my hair fiercely. Mary remains speechless for a while, then leaves the room, shaking her head. I curl my lips in a permanent smile and continue my grooming. The show must go on. Why should I mind? What’s done cannot be undone. I might as well cry for the moon.