Once Werner’s papers were in order, we flew to New York where we would spend the next three weeks. Talk about awkward. My father, Gustavo, was fifty-eight years old, a prominent art collector and businessman. Werner was forty-seven and stateless. We lived in a narrow four story brownstone – no guest rooms. My mother’s studio took up most of the top floor. Below were my parents’ bedroom and the bedroom I’d shared with my sister; and below that, my father’s study and the living areas and kitchen. My mother had not seen Werner since the day he’d come to the house to photograph a year-and-a-half before. My father had never met him.
It was all very civil. Werner knew how to charm people. As we entered the house there were hugs and handshakes all around. German immediately became the language of the day, so I was left out. My fifty-nine-year-old mother, with her good bones, elegant clothes and flirtatious manner, led Werner to the couch where he was feted with coffee and strudel. Our living room was filled with art pieces – plenty to talk about. Not that that was a worry: my parents and Werner, all central Europeans who had been brought up in the same culture and faced the same calamities, bonded almost immediately. I was the odd man out, but curiously I didn’t mind that. The hum of conversation, most of which I didn’t understand, made me feel happy and secure – like a child napping to the sound of adult voices. Did I think to myself how weird it was that Trude, Werner’s previous girlfriend, was the same age as my mother? If I did, I must’ve quickly pushed the thought aside. This was a time to be peaceful, not pick things apart.
The big question was, where would Werner sleep? Gustavo wanted him to stay at a small hotel in the next block. Franyo said absolutely not. Poor Werner had been through too much, having to flee Czechoslovakia, leaving his brother and father behind. He needed the home touch. It was decided he would take my girlhood bedroom and I would stay with my governess, Suzanne, on the fourth floor.
Not that Suzanne was still my governess. She was my mother’s closest friend and ally. I guess nowadays she would be called an executive house manager. To me, who had known her all my life, she was my other mother. I could see disapproval in her eyes regarding my relationship with Werner. But who was she to talk? Her own lover, Dr. Jules, was thirty years older than she was, and it would be another four years before his wife died, leaving him free to marry Suzanne.
She did not like it, however, that at night, once the house was quiet, I would sneak downstairs to sleep with Werner. “Disrespectful to your father,” she told me in French. “You can wait till you are back in your own home.” I didn’t know what to say to that. Franyo had encouraged me in my behavior, even checking to make sure the stairs and floorboards didn’t creak.
And it was Franyo who encouraged Werner to marry me. I don’t remember any discussion with her on this topic. Had she been a normal mother, the right advice would have been: Have an affair with this man and move on fast. But she wasn’t normal; she was a supreme narcissist who saw everything through her own narrow and rarified lens. Since her personal history included a seminal relationship with a man twenty years her senior, we’re talking about a woman reliving her past. It’s improbable that she ever stopped to think who I was or what would be good for me (not that I knew myself).
And so began a weird dynamic between me and Werner and my parents that would play out over the next two decades – even after I had entered another marriage. “Your mother thinks we should marry.” That’s how Werner proposed to me. What did my father think? He remained quiet. What did I think? Stupid question. I was a puppy in love. A very foolish puppy as the next few stories will tell.
**An episode from this memoir is published every Tuesday & Thursday for those following!
**Need to start at the beginning? Find Part 1 here!