My parents were skiing in the Austrian Alps the day Hitler’s troops marched into the village, planted their swastika flag in front of the Hotel Edelweiss and gave the straight-armed salute. Watching from above, my future parents and their guide Robert stood for a long moment, rabbits before a snake until Robert shook himself, made a gesture to the young couple to throw away their cigarettes and in his Austrian twang told them, Mir gengen, we’re off.
He led them out over the tops, across the Alps and into Switzerland where they would get a train back to their home in Prague. From there eventually they made their way to America, sailing into New York Harbor on the S.S. Normandie and less than a year later I was born.
There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays.
So begins the greatest soliloquy on blondes written in the twentieth century. Perhaps in any century. It goes on for a very long paragraph, which would put most blondes to sleep, but it is a very good passage, written by that master of English prose Raymond Chandler whose books are full of twists and turns, bodies and rooms, landscapes, cars, cops, cigarettes, drinking, wisecracks by the barrel, and blondes. Chandler wrote about crime and criminals with an innocence that turned his books into medieval romances, the knight in shining armor defending the lady fair, though many of these ladies were not the kind who appear in sitting rooms, at least not with their clothes on.
IF you walk down the main street of Bad Ischl, a spa town in Upper Austria, you will soon come to Zauner, the famous pastry shop where the Imperial family took their cream cakes and chocolate fantasies with cups of rich dark coffee, often enlivened by a dollop of Schlag. Still now, in the window of the Konditorei (as a patisserie is known in Austria), you may see a perfectly sculpted head of the late Empress Elisabeth, assassinated in 1898 in Geneva, affectionately known as Sissi when she was alive, and shortened for no reason to Sisi in the last century. It is a soft buttery yellow-white head garlanded by roses, as so often the heads of the Madonna or her son are garlanded in Italian Renaissance paintings. But Sisi’s head is fashioned in vanilla butter cream, the last substance a sculptor might turn to when choosing a material intended for posterity. Marble would be a more predictable choice, or granite, even limestone. But this is Austria, empire of Schlag (whipped cream), where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops, or so it is believed and has been believed for hundreds of years, the reality of the world notwithstanding. Continue reading “The Butter Cream Empire”
Out of the dusk they came, the ground vibrating with their approach although they moved slowly, the air still filmy with warmth as they made their way, mothers and children, grandmothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and the young sons. They ambled without haste until they came to the stream, a silver ribbon of water against the reddish sand. There they stopped. The tiniest elephant stood between its mother’s legs. The convoy fanned out in a long line at the water’s edge and drank with their trunks, then lifted them high above their heads to get the water down, trumpets against the sky.
Last April at breakfast the tears began. I didn’t know why I was crying or what had started it, but I felt a weight, not heavy, holding me down like the casting sinker on a fishing rod. I went on eating my Raisin Bran. Maybe this was a fleeting form of depression: no symptoms, just tears. Eventually breakfast ended and the tears stopped. I had a friend, S, who cried regularly, though mostly about herself, and she was diagnosed as bi-polar. About me there wasn’t much, or at least nothing new to cry about. I was on oral chemotherapy then, a pill a day, which wasn’t a hardship in itself though the side effects were extravagant, especially the spontaneous bleeding of the feet. This happened during a gay wedding ceremony on a high dune overlooking Provincetown in Cape Cod when blood began seeping out from between my toes onto my sandals. I stared down at them and thought, Jesus Christ! Then I crossed my ankles and hid my feet under the chair.
When I visited her in that place where the door was always ajar, she would be waiting in the chair at the far end until I came up with my kiss and chocolates. She grabbed them first, quickly unwrapped a truffle and popped it into her mouth. Her cheeks filled like a squirrel’s. She lifted her chin to indicate the door and the life beyond it. “They leave it open,” she explained, “because they have to drop the dead bodies in here.” Continue reading “LISA”
He was waiting outside, blue cap perched on his head, the more to light up his bonny blue eyes. We kissed and walked in, on this warm February afternoon on the Upper West Side for a celebratory lunch in a French bistro, perfect for us.
He is my other Michael, not the Michael I am married to, also not the Michael I’ve known for over 50 years, with whom I shared a flat in London in the early 1960’s and who now lives a block away from me, past the cheese store, left at the Japanese restaurant. There are many Michaels in my life, so many that Michael has nearly become a synonym for “man.” I used to joke that this made it easy to stay out of trouble, though usually Michael means my husband, the man I married on a cold November Saturday in my parents’ 350-year old house on Long Island, and with whom I have spent more days of my life than with any other person, living or dead. But Monday’s Michael, fair of face, is my boyfriend.