I snatch a bottle from my father’s liquors cabinet and take it to my room. I would prefer Beda’s gin but beggars can’t be choosers and whisky is my father’s favourite drink. I spend the rest of the afternoon lolling on my bed getting myself drunk. I somehow manage to get dressed and go down to wait for Leo in the parlour to save him the look of his future spouse reeling down the stairs on her liquored feet.
Leo watches me with concern but refrains from any comment. He gives me his arm and helps me to his car.
“Are you sure you want to attend the tuition, Irene? How about a nice rest in the rear of the car? I’ll cover you with a blanket and treat you to a lovely drive about Prague.”
I decline Leo’s thoughtful offer, decided to see Milan at any cost and ask him the vital question now when whisky has screwed my courage up.
“Thanks, Leo, a little nap is all I need. Wake me in front of the Rotary, will you? No need to worry, I’m not that much “under influence” to cause a public scandal.”
“Anything you wish, Irene.” Leo covers me with a blanket, tucks me in and starts the car.
He wakes me up gently and puts a cup of coffee to my lips. Dear Leo! He is such a caring man! I hook my arms around his neck and kiss him lengthily. He doesn’t shrink away from my alcoholic breath and takes my outburst with courage. He gets a powder compact and a comb out from the glove-compartment, dives for my shoes and puts them on my feet. I enter the Rotary fresh as a rose bud. Were it not for the dance floor heaving like a stormy ocean under her feet, the lady wouldn’t be reminded of being a tramp.
As in a dream, in the distance, I hear Mr. Mirak start the tuition. Waiting for my turn to be led off into Milan’s care, I rock in Leo’s attentive arms. Thank heavens the tango is such a clinging dance! I recline in Leo’s embrace in complete surrender.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Irene!”
I answer with a vague smile and stick closer to Leo.
“May I have the pleasure of this dance?”
The two men exchange worried glances and Leo passes me on to Milan carefully, as in doubt whether I can keep on my feet for this short moment. Milan’s professional grip is a real let-down for me. He pulls me round the dance floor like a millstone on his neck, smiling at someone who isn’t me.
“Are you dance-weary, Gnadiges Fraulein? Shall I bring you back to Herr von Zwettler?” He offers when, collapsing with sleepiness, I stumble against his feet.
“I couldn’t feel better. Thank you anyhow.”
Trying to impress my ex-lover with a set of elaborate steps, I nearly knock us over. He holds me steady tightening his clasp. I feel his heart beating against mine, a sensation as distressing and insistent as the ticking of a clock in a deserted house that used to be my home. I swallow the tears welling in my eyes and choke a sob. Milan stops dead:
“What is it, babe? Tell your Milan! There’s nothing I can’t understand! I love you! Don’t you know it, babe?”
“You liar! You double-crosser! How dare you talk about love after what you’ve done to me!”
“What have I done?!” Milan watches me flabbergasted.
“Bessie is pregnant!”
“Is she? That’s some news for me. Then I’ll need another dancing partner.”
Curbing my urge to slap his face, I kick him in the shin.
“Don’t give me that, you scoundrel! It’s no secret that you two live together, sharing that big bed of yours!”
“Oh, babe! You foolish little darling! How can you believe a ludicrous gossip! How could I do it to you? How could I do it to myself? The only time I hold Bessie in my arms is at Mirak’s and that’s for professional reasons.”
“Swear to it!”
“I swear on my love for you! Does that mean you still care for me?”
Suddenly stone-sober, I cling to Milan body and soul. I love him. Now I know. Until hell freezes over. And still more.
“Be careful, Irene! Bessie keeps a close watch over you. I don’t like the look in her eyes,” Leo warns me after I have been turned over into his hands.
As if I cared! The world can crumble, I won’t bat an eyelid. I turn a deaf ear to Leo’s advice and tackle the tricky problem at once.
“I’d like to ask you something, Leo. I won’t go straight home after the tuition. Can you cover me up, just in case?”
“Of course I can. Would you like me to drive you to Milan’s? Though let me ask you something first, Irene. You’re taking precautions, aren’t you? In case you need something, anything, I can help you out.”
“Oh, Leo!” I kiss him straight on the mouth, right here, before the very eyes of all and he doesn’t seem to mind. After all, we are an engaged couple!
The second half of the tuition passes like a dream. I laugh. I dance. I am happy. Leo treats us to a drink before driving us to Milan’s through the city turning from winter to spring.
“Is it all right with you if I come to pick you up at midnight?”
A nod is all I have time for before taking Milan’s hand and fly.