I was so nervous about meeting Werner’s ex, Trude, that I slugged down quite a bit of Scotch in the half hour it took me to get ready. My hands were shaking visibly. I felt as if I were going to meet someone’s parents, only worse. And how to dress for such an occasion? Quiet, plain, understated. Definitely not sexy. My goal was to melt into the background, look as old as possible. I was only twenty-three so that was difficult. I pulled my hair back, wore glasses instead of contacts, donned a black coat, skirt and top. I brought the bottle of Scotch with me and took several more slugs in the car. One good thing about Werner was he was tolerant of my drinking, thought it was cute. Not so much the cigarettes I was addicted to — those had to be hidden.
Trude lived in what looked like a newer building on the corner of a wide, tree-lined boulevard. There was no elevator. A well-lit stairway led up several flights. As we closed the entrance door, I heard a voice call hello from above. Leaning into the stairwell was a slight woman with a mop of blondish curls. She sounded so friendly that I called hello back and proceeded up the stairs, Werner lagging behind. When I reached the third floor, there she was, smiling and holding out her arms. “I had to have a few drinks to do this,” she whispered, giving me a hug. “Me too!” I exclaimed. We looked at one another. It was only about noon. “In fact, I’m more than a little tipsy,” she admitted.
“Me too,” I repeated, and we both started giggling. She led me into the apartment. I handed her the bottle of scotch and she said, “Ah good,” and immediately poured us drinks. We downed them quickly, wiping our mouths with the backs of our hands. Werner was nowhere to be seen. We studied one another seriously. She was a small, spry, energetic woman with brilliant blue eyes and a very open, appealing face. She looked a good deal younger than her sixty-three years.
“Yes, I see why Werner would like you,” she said. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but her presence was so friendly and engaging that I didn’t read any malice in the words. By then Werner had appeared. “We still need a few things for lunch,” she said, handing him a list. As soon as he was gone, we lit cigarettes and had another round of drinks. Her English was excellent. For the next half hour we spoke easy, scotch-fueled girl-talk. I don’t think it mattered what we said; we were sizing one another up and realizing we liked each other very much. By the time Werner returned, we were fast friends.
Her apartment was open, airy, book lined. Sometime during lunch we agreed that we liked each other better than Werner. It might have been the booze and cigarettes that ignited our friendship. We couldn’t stop talking or laughing. Werner remained in the background as we shared details of our lives. Like him, her existence had been torn apart by Hitler and the Nazis. Born to Jewish parents in Vienna, she fell in love with a Czech, moved to Prague to be with him, and ended up in a camp. The boyfriend died but Trude kept going, probably saved by her training as a nurse. A year or so after the war ended, she met Werner in a camp for displaced persons where she was working for the Red Cross. She never moved back to Vienna.
She had a senior position now as a book editor, a job that earned her a good living in Soviet-run Prague. I didn’t sense any bitterness in her regarding my relationship with Werner. In fact, she seemed genuinely pleased that he might have a better life. “We will see each other again soon,” she said as our visit drew to an end. Werner and I were flying to Morocco the next morning to continue work on Cities of a Thousand and One Nights. But we would, over the years, see Trude in Vienna, where she had a sister. For me she embodied the light at the beginning of the long downward-sloping tunnel that was my marriage to Werner Forman.
To be continued…