If my friend Michaela’s plan had worked out, I would have fallen for her little sister Bettina during the week I spent in Vienna over Christmas, 1972. If so, it would have been as Michaela’s brother-in-law rather than detached observer more or less bereft of emotion that, years later, I attended Bettina’s funeral. She had died relatively young from breast cancer.
I had met Michaela in Paris where she was successfully pursuing a career as model. She was indeed possessed with breathtaking beauty but was also preoccupied with the love life of her little sister. By all evidence, this fixation was compensation for something she yearned for but could not allow herself. I had always known I hadn’t the slightest chance to win over the older sister’s affections. Her life experience and working conditions had taught her a harsh lesson. Striking beauty is a boon. It should not be casually bartered, let alone thrown away. Beauty is a burden to which a woman unfortunate enough to be taxed with must single-mindedly sacrifice herself.
According to Michaela, her little sister did not have to suffer the onus of exceptional beauty. She would be free to give and take love, in particular mine. That was indeed a back-handed compliment to me. Michaela perceived my attraction to her and obviously thought me worthy of reciprocated love, just not hers. Bettina was to be Michaela’s surrogate. And in the photo shown me Bettina did bear a certain resemblance to her unobtainable older sister. It was beauty I was willing to settle for.
There was another promising factor. Like me, Bettina was obsessed with poetry and novels. So when Michaela proposed that I travel to Vienna over the Christmas holidays and profit from the hospitality of her book-loving sister, I began harboring fantasies about the books, and everything else, we would share,
Paris had become boring to me. So as soon as I got the money in hand, I bought the train ticket and also paid a full month’s rent in advance. Everything I possessed and wanted to keep I packed in a suitcase which I put into a corner of my rented room, so I would be able to send for it easily from Vienna. What remained behind I threw away, though like everyone in our neighborhood I surreptitiously put those shabby goods out on the sidewalk in the middle of the night. Early next morning I took the métro to the Gare de l’Est to catch the twenty-four hour train to Austria, my backpack laden with the books that I hoped would help me in my intended sweet and bookish seduction of Bettina.
But the best-laid though never explicitly acknowledged plans shared by Michaela and myself ran into an unforeseen obstacle. A week before I stepped out on the platform at the Westbahnhof, Bettina had fallen wildly head-over-heels in love with a young poet from Südtirol, who had come to Vienna to hone his German. Twenty years later I caught sight of him from a distance at Bettina’s funeral, balding with a greying beard and little beer belly. He apparently didn’t recognize me. Why would he have? I was but the unknown Frenchman who spent two excruciating nights grinding his teeth, ears wedged between pillows in the furthest corner of the small room he had had to share with the two lovers upon arrival. To please her sister Bettina had politely welcomed me. But as soon as she could arrange it she found a spare couch in a nearby shared apartment.
Thus begins my story.
A translation from my own German Schlafsofa. See also A Café in Vienna.