I leave Milan to give him time to dress up for the tuition and race towards the nearest booth to phone Beda. Regrettably, his parents are at home but he’ll meet me anywhere I wish and how about a bite before going to “The Flaming Heart”? We fix a date in front of Paukert’s Delicatessen, famous for their excellent canapés and vintage wines.
Beda catches a glimpse of me from afar and opens his arms. I fall into them as if my life depended on it and kiss him, indulging in the homey, comforting odour of his tobacco and gin-seasoned mouth.
“Do you know lovers can get poisoned when they kiss as they are imbibing each other’s monoxide?” Flushed with gratification, Beda tries to play it cool.
“With you it would be more like gin-poisoning, Beda. How about some canapés, I’m starved.”
“It can be helped. Just follow in my footsteps,” he pulls my arm under his and shepherds me into Paukert’s.
“Keep us a place and I’ll take care of the rest. How many and which kind do you fancy?”
“Five. Two shrimp, two smoked salmon, one crab-meat and something delicious to drink.”
“It goes without saying. It won’t take a jiffy. Can you hold until then?”
“I’ll try my best.”
I watch Beda’s ginger head fidgeting among the dull crowd by the counter and a raw ache turns my heart upside down. What shall I become if Beda takes Goldwin’s offer? He won’t! Not without me! Strange how much I care for him. More than for Milan? Possibly. If Milan faded away I would be relieved. Or wouldn’t I? It was ghastly to think I had lost him to Bessie! -Heart has its reasons, reason doesn’t know-. Oh God! Not another quotation! As if I was scared to stir my brain to do some thinking. Am I so terrified to lay my heart bare?
“Here you are!” Beda puts the plate with canapés and a glass of white wine in front of me. “Bon appétit!”
God, am I hungry! As if Milan were feeding on me. My throat is parched, I drain the wine till the last drop and serve myself from Beda’s glass.
“My, my, what a hearty appetite!” Beda comments lovingly and proffers me his plate.
“In New York, I’ll treat you to a great lobster dinner. Maine lobster! You try it just once and you’re hooked on it forever. I know an excellent lobster restaurant on the 8th Avenue. We used to patronise it with my father. You’ll love it!”
“Shall I? How can you be so sure we’ll be in New York together?”
“Sure as hell! One day Prague will be too small for you, Europe will make you claustrophobic. You’ll need New York to get a breath of air. Polluted it may be, but it’s not a choker. Shame on me! I prattle on and on and forget to feed you. I’ll bring you some more canapés and wine.”
“I’m afraid we must go. Crowds are gathering at “The Flaming Heart” and poor Mrs. Novakova gets more desperate by the second. Do we have time enough to walk there or take a tram for old times’ sake?”
“Anything you wish, my sweet and lovely!”
We set out through the fawn dusk across the river, whooshing past the weather-beaten pillars of Charles Bridge. We stop under the statue of John the Nepomucen to honour the saint with our kiss. Rilke’s Nepomucen who gave his life rather than betraying his Queen.
We dash forward up Nerudova Street feather-light, bouncy with the joy of being together. With Beda nothing is ever the same, not even a kiss. With Milan love is getting stale. The better I know it, the worse I feel. Maybe love and sex don’t mix. Loving Milan I go against reason, loving Beda I go beyond reason.
The sight of Leo pacing up and down “The Flaming Heart” nearly knocks me over. Beda puts his arm around my shoulders and leads me to the entrance, deigning to take Leo into account.
“Good evening. Sorry to be a nuisance but I have to talk to Irene. Privately! Will you excuse her, Beda?”
“That depends on the lady.”
“Laura?” Beda’s grip tightens.
“Of course, Leo.”
My consent makes Beda shrivel.
“You aren’t obliged to talk to him!” Beda protests vehemently, unwilling to abandon his claim on me.
“It won’t take long, Beda.” I say soothingly, free myself from Beda’s clasp and follow Leo, dreading the worst. Something awful must have happened to make him abandon Zita’s sick-bed. She may be even dead!
“Let’s sit down in the car, Irene. As much as I hate it, I can’t spare you some indiscreet questions.”
Leo opens the car door for me and I settle by him meekly.
“First the good news, Irene, Zita is out of danger. But as painful as it may be for both of us I must know what really happened, Irene. So, please, don’t try to spare me or yourself or whomever else. I swear I shall never and in any circumstances use it against you. How far did the affair between you and my father go?”
I blink, unable to face Leo and feel I am blushing to the roots of my hair.
“What do you mean?”
“Let me rephrase the question. Is Egon that madly in love with you that he wouldn’t shy from poisoning Zita?”
“Why on earth would he do it?”
“Oh God, Irene! Don’t make this painful cross-examination worse. Until he met you, Egon honoured the rules of civilised behaviour and kept his philandering under control. You can’t be as naive as to think you’re the only one who has ever shared his famous “secret” love nest! Sorry, Irene, I didn’t mean to be that crude.”
He takes my hands and buries his face in them as if protecting from a blow.
“Did you promise to marry him, Irene?”
Leo’s question gives me a jolt.
“Are you mad? He is old enough to be my father!”
“Oh, Irene, if life could be as simple and one ruled the other out! Did you give him any hope you may consider him a suitable partner if he were free?”
“Don’t be absurd, Leo! You know me better than that!”
“Sorry, Irene, but I must insist on probing further. Could he have any reason to suppose you left him because he is married?”
I stare at Leo flabbergasted.
“How do you know I stopped seeing him?”
“Does it matter? Answer my question, Irene. Why did you break up with my father?”
I consider the problem: why? Do I know? Given how much I owe Leo I feel obliged to find an explanation.
“I broke off with Egon because he proposed to me! Can you imagine?”
“I can. He discussed the divorce with Zita and offered her a most generous settlement. She refused! I don’t understand why. Yes, I do! She must still love him!” His voice brakes suppressing a scream.
“I couldn’t believe when she told me tonight about it! It would be better she had died! Then I would have kept, at least, an illusion and would have been spared the iniquitous evidence: Zita has never loved ME! She took me as the nearest thing she could have for HIM! Leopold, the mock Egon! What a scream! How hideously outrageous! Well, she is out of danger and I am out of love. I’ve come tonight to make you a proposal. Will you marry me, Irene?”
I stare at him speechless. How much must he hate Zita to try to get at her through me?
“That’s hardly a time for a proposal. Let’s be glad your mother has pulled through and we’ll be spared a criminal investigation. Will you excuse me now?”
I slip out of the car and run towards “The Flaming Heart” blinking tears out of despair of my eyes. How shall I get out of this muddle? It’s so crazy! Maybe I have just been dreaming it. I wish it were true.