Coming home for lunch the day after the birthday party, I am alarmed by grandmother’s stern expression. What happened? Has she discovered the truth?
“Zita is in hospital, Irenchen! Poor Leopold! He had to cope with it all alone. His father took the early flight to London and from there flies directly to New York. Even his secretary doesn’t know where to find him. We must wait until he contacts her.
“Those separate bedrooms! I’m strongly opposed to this pretentious nonsense. ‘Not to be woken up!’ As if a wife couldn’t get up with her husband and keep him company at the breakfast table! It is for the comfort of his family a man works so hard! Luckily Leopold dropped into his mother’s bedroom before leaving for the Faculty. Poor darling! He found Zita agonising in her bed! He saved her life!
“They stayed up until the small hours and Zita instructed the maid not to be disturbed until she’d ring for her breakfast. Even if the exact cause of Zita’s illness isn’t clear yet, it looks like food-poisoning. It must be the oysters. I, personally, wouldn’t touch them anywhere else but in a first class restaurant by the sea-side and, even then, it isn’t hundred percent safe. To tell the truth, I feel rather peculiar myself. At least you’re alright, child. Are you alright, Irenchen? You’re so pale! Ghost-like! Let’s see if you’re running a fever. Thank God, no. Anyway, I’d better call Professor Brdlik.”
“Don’t, grandmother, please! I’m fine. Maybe Zita isn’t seriously ill. You know that Leopold dotes on his mother. And then, all doctors get into a state if it goes about their family.”
“I wish you were right, sweetheart. We shouldn’t fret. Zita indulged in the food too much and too late. Her organism is weakened by her continuous slimming and God knows by what else! She’d stop short from nothing to stay young. A woman with a grown-up son! A lady should know how to grow old gracefully.
“Why aren’t you eating your luncheon, Irene? It won’t help your fiancé if you become ill on your turn. It isn’t such a tragedy to miss your tuition, is it? Zita will recover in time for the Medical Ball, don’t worry. Would you like us to do something amusing together? Going to cinema, maybe?”
“Grandmother, don’t worry about me, please! I have to study and I’ll go to bed early to recover after the party. I only hope Zita will pull through. If anything happens to her Leo will let himself die!”
“Do you think so, sweetheart? Men are strange creatures. Stranger than you think.” My grandmother says with a quizzical smile and I wonder: is my grandfather included in the “creatures” category?
After luncheon, I am released on the promise to consult Professor Brdlik at the first sign of an illness. Now I am free to go to Milan yet, strangely enough, I would prefer to study with Mirka or see a film with my grandmother. Love afternoon glory rubbed off like the wings of a cupped butterfly. Does Milan feel the same? Seemingly not. He has remained the former tender, affectionate lover. But “men are strange creatures”, aren’t they? And maybe I am not yet smart enough to take a hint. It seems we should restrict ourselves to once a week, as love is all we can make together and a good kisser in not a good talker necessarily.
I walk to Milan’s dragging my feet, pondering how to handle the delicate situation, no more in need of taxis to stand in for the wings of love.
“You’re late, babe! Thank God nothing happened to you! I know you never look out before crossing the street. You’ve scared me stiff. I even thought of phoning at your place. Don’t you ever do that to me again, babe! Next time give me a ring if you’re late, please! “Milan draws me in before I had time to ring the bell and crushes me in his arms. I feel ashamed and scared. Ashamed of myself, of my lack of love; scared of Milan’s passion. So it seems, I shall never be free again and will be obliged to come to him every day, now and forever, until death do us part.
I once read in John Galsworthy’s “Dark Flower” a quotation that burnt so strongly into me that I still know it by heart:
“Loveless marriages are dreadful. But there is something more dreadful than a loveless marriage. That’s marriage where there is love, but on one side only, where there is devotion, but on one side only and where one of the hearts is sure to be broken.”
Then I was impressed. Now I am horrified.
Needless to say that John Galsworthy is my grandmother’s author, whom I read before my grandfather took over my “éducation sentimentale”. Yet I wonder; is my grandfather right despising “that kitsch”? Is there a border between great literature and trash if the feelings are true? Between Rainer-Maria Rilke and John Galsworthy? Grandfather’s Rilke, whom he and I know by heart. “It is beautiful because it is true”, affirms Madeleine de Scudéry, whose writing is the border-line where my grandfather and I go apart.
I should stop seeing Milan before it’s too late. When is it too late? When was it too late? Why did I re-open a closed chapter? Why didn’t I leave him alone? Why didn’t I leave him to Bessie? WHY?
“Babe! Anybody home?” Milan’s soft, warm lips are touching my brow.
“What’s wrong? You know you can tell your old Milan everything, don’t you?”
I know I can’t. Better tell nothing or even a lie. How can I hurt him who loves me so dearly?
“I told you about Leo’s birthday party, didn’t I? One of the oysters was contaminated and Zita had to be taken to hospital. Leo is staying with her. So I won’t be at the tuition tonight.”
“Oh, babe, it’s nothing to be sad! Tonight, you’ll have Mirak, anyway, so we won’t dance together. You gave me hell, babe! I had you in my arms and felt alone! I dread the day I won’t be enough for you. Don’t you worry about Leo’s mother, she’ll be alright. Or do you care for Leo that much? I know he’s a better match for you than I am, even though nobody can love you as much as I do!” Milan pleads, making love to me so utterly and so deeply as if he was dissolving himself into me. I give in with a spine-tingling terror. There is no way back. Accepting Milan’s love I have become a part of him and I can’t leave him without destroying us both.