Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
Most mornings, weather permitting, I am accustomed to take a ristreto sitting at one of the Café Fürst front row tables, facing onto Bonn’s broad Fürstenstrasse. Normally a garrulous type; at this time of the morning I prefer to be left alone to brood over my copy of the General-Anzeiger. The staff, knowing my preference for privacy will steer customers away from where I sit, allowing me to scrutinize the day’s news without disruption. Usually I have my head buried in the tabloid, preferring its generally dreary content to observing the passing of people on their way to work. However, something – fate perhaps – on that particular morning caused me to raise my head above the paper’s rim.
It was a blemish and not the bearer, which aroused my curiosity. A young woman, paused in front of the cafe to talk to a friend. Her left foot rested on the upright pedal of her bicycle. To balance herself, her right leg was stretched to meet the ground and the hem of her cornflower blue dress had hiked up, exposing to the full extent of her inner right thigh. From where I sat – a mere two meters distance away, my eyes were drawn to a small blue but not unsightly disfiguration, high on the inside of the unveiled flesh.
When I raised my eyes from the imperfection to the woman herself I was ensnared. She had a most appealing open face, with huge pale blue eyes. Her breasts weren’t overly large but they were in proportion to her slender waist and slim hips. She was petite – almost elfin, with an unruly thatch of greyish blond hair which did nothing to deter from her feminism. Making her acquaintance, as I became determined to do presented no problem. Bonn is a small place – a town aspiring to be a city and Gaby, the friend she paused to speak to, was a nodding acquaintance of mine. A few days later I met Gaby by chance and it was she who gave me the information I desired.
Herta – Herta Huber, the woman who had so mesmerized me, Gaby enlightened me, was a thirty-seven year old single mother, employed in the antique cum-second-hand book shop, in the Friedenstrasse. At the first opportunity I began to frequent the chic – too pretentious by far for my taste – store where she worked.
Herta and I were soon on speaking terms; somewhat warmer after I paid an inflated amount for a mangled, first edition of Karlheinz Adler’s, Romantische Rheinland, dated 1843. Following innumerable phone conversations between us, a gift to her of a potted, Captain King’s Dendrobium – her favourite orchid, a dinner invitation to le Petit Poisson and two ridiculously high-priced seats for The Marriage of Figaro, at the opera house. Herta and I slid into a relationship.
If only I could have known how that fleeting, glimpse of flawed skin and the bearer of that bewitching scar, would lead to so much anguish, I would never have been so insistent. It was not that I had been forewarned. Gaby did caution me not to be tempted into a friendship of any nature with Herta. She had not elaborated on this cautionary piece of advice and regrettably I had failed to elicit more from her.
The relationship started pleasantly enough. Her company was most agreeable and we seemed to agree on the majority of points. Our liking for shell fish and Mediterranean food made choice of restaurant relatively discussions free. Our mutual fondness for Brahms, Mahler, Dvořák and the theatre, made for enjoyable conversation and I was pleased to be seen with her, although her keenness for informality in dress I found not to my taste.
On my initial dinner invitation at her apartment – in one of those tranquil, leafy streets off Poppelsdorf Alle – she had greeted me well enough. Delia, her absent twelve year old daughter, I was informed as though in apology, was staying the weekend at a friend’s place in the Eifel. After taking and hanging my coat on an antique carved coat stand, which I admired, she ushered me into the kitchen, accepting my two bottles of Schafer-Frohlich Riesling with a smile approval and a nod of her head. A round, scrubbed-topped table had been tastefully prepared for two. She took a bottle of Sekt from the fridge and handing me the chilled bottle and a corkscrew, resumed cooking. The fragrance of garlicky, middle eastern ingredients infused the evening air and I detected Dvorak’s eighth symphony playing subtly in the background.
Handing her the glass of wine, I leaned over and kissed her gently on the nape of the neck. I must admit I was taken a-back when the response was an angry shake of her head. With her back still to me, she raised the glass in the air and muttered, Prost. I was a little confused; her reaction I found, was quite off-putting.
Dinner, I must say, was an excellent one, during which there was no uneasy lag in conversation. Later on the apartment’s tiny balcony, overlooking a tree-filled Hof we sat together on a double, swing seat and drank iced Quantreau. It was a pleasurable enough evening and for a long while we sat silently wrapped in our own private thoughts, her right hand rested on her leg and my left hand lay lightly on top of hers. Aren’t you taking me to bed?” She asked, breaking the silence.
I have never made love like that before. There were no preliminaries, no endearing words required. Satisfaction was achieved, at least on my part; with the female species one is never sure. The whole event was akin to the signing of a contract – agreement finally reached now let’s get on with the business in hand – our relationship. After this first, furious and thoroughly enjoyable coupling, our love making – sex , would be repeated on a once, occasionally twice a week basis, alternating between her or my apartment. She made it quite clear that it should be placed on the back-boiler of our association.
I still do not know why I did not end the affair then, when things were not going according to my design. Not for the first time I believed I had found my muse – the inspiration needed for the third novel I was battling to complete. Yet again, how mistaken I was. At the beginning and at her best, Herta was all I could have wished for. Later and at her worst, she was everything I really did not need and I knew I had lost control of the courtship
Later, the blame for the deterioration of our affair would be placed by Herta, her parents and their numerous disapproving friends, squarely on my shoulders. Past breakups in my relationships were similar to this. The female need to pin a label of disapproval – too charming, too cold or too complex – on me. If I have a fault it is my reluctance to accept orders, especially from the female species. Although an ardent admirer and a once dedicated pursuer of the opposite sex I have, on more than one occasion, been told I am more a man’s man than a philanderer. I see little point, once the objective is achieved, to resume the long conversations of courtship or to present more orchids. Tickets I am still prepared to indulge in because I too enjoy opera and the theatre.
I am not the complex creature I am made out to be; quite the contrary, I consider myself to be without hang-ups, unless of course you call punctuality a neurosis; on which I show my displeasure to those who are not. I am not arrogant but have been branded cynical. Sometimes I meet a person who overawes me because I feel they can see through me. With these people I will do anything to prove how sincere I am and should this not work, candidly, I quickly lose interest in them. But with Herta, at first, it was different. I could not help but be intimidated by her meticulousness, which she considered her strength. She blamed this fastidiousness on being too German but in her case perfectionism was not a virtue. I quickly noticed that she set herself impossible goals and then blamed herself when she failed to achieve them. She set her standards too high and was obsessed that no one, including myself, could do things as well as her.
She was not one of those happy-go-lucky-into-sexual-adventure brand of women. Herta was precise and so dreadfully intense in that anything and everything required her precise attention however peculiar it appeared to me or others. She could not accept being wrong and would never apologize. Frankly, she did not reciprocate my love in the way I would have desired. When we did stay together overnight, she could appear most affectionate. After our love making she liked to press up against me, her arm over my chest and her knees fitting into the bend of mine. But should I turn to embrace her, I could feel her rejection. I fast became aware she had little sense of fun and what she had was of a foolish kind.
She blamed her former husband for her problems. It was, according to her, an unhappy union but… really, is there such a thing as the perfect marriage? The only truly happy ones I know of are to be found in novels. According to what she later told me, her ex-husband and father of the child, was a musician – a cellist, the only child of some minor Italian aristocrats and incapable of holding a job even with the most mediocre of small town German orchestras. They had hurriedly married when she became pregnant and equally hurriedly, separated and divorced before the child reached her second birthday. The last she heard, he had formed a Boccherini quintet in Verona. Apart that he never made any contribution to the child’s wellbeing, it did not take me long to find myself in sympathy for the man.
Backed by a first-class degree from Bonn University, Herta’s speciality was in the conservation of old prints and drawings but she was also in occasional demand for her expertise in book binding. She and her rather stiff-necked family, as I soon realized, knew everybody who should be known in Bonn. Her father, a man of some eminence in the city, taught mediaeval history in various German and Austrian universities until retirement. The quarterlies, Zeitgeist, Die Fackel and other like journals continue to publish particular papers of his. Hiltraud, her psychoanalyst mother is one of those permanently well groomed and outspoken, professional females; an echte Deutsche Dame and the dominant partner in their marriage. Her much visited practice is located in Beethovenplatz. To me, try as they did, their grand piano, crystal ware and an Art Nuevo dining room did not give them the ducal past they strived to attain.
When did it start to fall apart ? The difficulty of love between the generations had been on my mind for some time, although Herte said the disparity between our ages – I being fifteen years her senior – made no difference. Indeed she claimed there had always been a preference for a father figure in her past relationships. In her mind, the broken marriage with a man of her own age added weight to her argument.
I well recall one warm, spring evening and I was not at my best having suffered through a mediocre, vegan dinner given by a couple of Hetra’s alternative friends. We were leisurely walking back to her apartment. The cherry trees along Heerstrasse were in full blossom and it should have been a romantic twilight stroll but I was already having doubts about our relationship.
“Why,” I casually asked, “do you need a man in your life?”
“For all the usual reasons, I suppose.” She replied, stopping to give me one of those hostile frowns which German women seem to have patented for themselves. “Why do you ask?”
“Well. You have everything you need to manage without one, except for the sex – and you’re not overly interested in that, are you?”
“I need a man.” She retorted without hesitation. “I worry that if I don’t have some male support I will begin to depend more on my daughter to support my emotions.”
On hearing this I had to consider that, if it was not me, would it have been just any man or worse – was I that any man?
“You know,” she attacked, “you are not the knight in shining armour you think you are. From the beginning, mother said your charm is skin deep and she’s right, isn’t she?”
“I’m flattered she allows me such a endowment – however shallow. I’m sure she’d have preferred a more puffed-up and patronizing partner for her daughter.”
“Meaning someone less bloody English.” She uttered, releasing my hand and hurrying ahead of me.
“I imagine she said similar of your former Italian husband.” I replied, caching up with her, determined to continue the fight. She stopped and turned to face me, angrily brushing a few strands of grey blond hair from her face.
“I could ask the same of you – why do you need a woman in your self-centred life?”
“I need a muse, someone to inspire – to motivate me. I did… I still do…”
“But not me, right? She scoffed. “You should have looked for one of your hot-blooded English tarts.”
This and other similar angry spats – and I thank you for bearing with me, dear reader, was the end for me. Oh yes! I almost forgot… the imperfection. You may be curious to hear more of the object of that initial fleeting glance. During the first furore of our passionate coming together, I completely forgot about the insignificant scar. When I did express my curiosity she declined to enlighten me. Since – and when I look back, including that first night’s unexpected burst of ardour – she always managed to keep our naked bodies and our sexual gymnastics under the covers. The more she avoided my seeing it, the less interested I became. However, one evening, in the course of one of our now frequent quarrels, she drank too much, and fell asleep naked on her bed. I discovered, much to my horror it was not a mole; neither was it a birthmark. It was a tattoo; a miniscule one but nevertheless a tattoo? The disfiguration, mutilation or the tanning of one’s skin I have always found to be abhorrent. My grandfather used to say only sailors and fallen women had the prerogative to be tattooed and I am of the same opinion.
The final nail in the relationship coffin was not her complicated character or her psuedo-sophisticated parents or her need to control. It was the imperfection on that otherwise perfect thigh. Two words by Horace – shamefully I had to look up the translation – minutely etched that read – Aude Sapere – Dare to know.
I am almost ready to pick up my life again, I still drink my ristretos at the Cafe Fürst and I each day I peruse the General-Anzeiger but now I take care not to raise my head above the newspaper’s rim.
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