“Observe the events from an adult perspective. What would you tell the little girl in that situation if you were the observer?” the therapist asked.
“I’d tell her to be very careful,” I replied. “It will surely happen again."
For the longest time, I was incapable of seeing that nine-year old child through a magnifying glass or the rearview mirror. I only recognized her in quick, isolated moments, at the skating rink, riding in a car, in an occasional photo or at school. Her innocence was hijacked from under her while traveling across time zones on a trip that was built upon a foundation of lies that she and her family found themselves sleeping in sometime later. She had no idea as it was unfolding.
That child was me.
I don’t remember any preparation or tearful good-byes, but I recall a surprise going away party thrown in my honor by my fourth grade teacher and my classmates.
The next thing I remember is that I am somewhere else.
It is December 1969. America is entrenched in Vietnam and I am sitting in a café in Vienna drinking coffee and eating cake with my father and brother as if this is the most natural set of circumstances in the world. Sitting with us at our table is a woman. She has blue eyes and big, horsey teeth. She wears too much foundation and heavy perfume. Her extra large lips are painted red.
She is not my mother.
I recall nothing of the plane ride from Cleveland to New York or the subsequent flight to Austria that dropped us in this foreign country that had suddenly landed on my napkined lap. I am confused by the time difference, foggy and tired from jet lag, eating torte as my father chats animatedly with the woman with the equine face who I am suddenly supposed to like. Her mane is dyed an unnatural shade of black and has the cursory 60’s flip. I want to break her jaw every time I see her mouth move, as she tries to pronounce my name or engage me in conversation, as if her own words are being dubbed. I imagine her chewing hay.
My next memory is of the opulent Hotel Am Stephansplatz where we stayed. More explicitly, it is the aromas I remember. The powerful lure of strong coffee and breakfast pastries permeated the long, wide hallway each morning, mixed with the invasive yet incongruent odor of tar from construction going on outside. Every day, these two distinct smells greeted me and waged a strong battle with my grumbling stomach and fascination with all things sweet at the time.
I recall the dull colors of the carpeting and heavy furniture, the archaic elevator and dim lighting, no matter how many huge, gilded chandeliers hovered over us. This combined with the gray skies of Vienna cast a pall over an already cold and somber city. It is a feeling I am unable to erase in subsequent visits. As beautiful as it is, Vienna elicits a sense of sadness that I can’t shake and a chill that can’t be warmed. Most of Austria does, for that matter. In French, it is called “tristesse”.
I almost immediately notice the stiff formality of the language and culture. A part of me suddenly connects the dots and understands that our family and way of life had been sociologically transplanted from these roots and had taken up residence in Cleveland, where we were as mismatched to it as it was to us. I will spend years often feeling similarly misplaced, yet constantly uprooting myself, without knowing why.
I was struck by how old everything was and how worn and tired everyone and everything felt. I remember how the bullet holes in the buildings frightened me. I wondered why they had not been patched up as we did with ice at the skating rink, after someone had stuck a toe pick in too deeply and mined a large chunk of it. I did not have the intellect to grasp that only 24 years earlier, Vienna was as war-torn as most of the rest of Europe and that the scars were still openly visible, even if the wounds they caused were not. You could not clear the ice of the past with a Zamboni.
I’m not sure how many days we spent in Vienna before continuing our adventure, but it seems that we saw the woman frequently, sometimes with her son Mickey, who was close to my brother’s age. We visited her in a store where she worked as a clerk, took coffee at her apartment and had dinner with her on the outskirts of Vienna in Grinzing where I remember little more than enjoying delicious crepes for dessert. It will take matching sets of months and years to figure out that while on this trip, my father was also having his cake and eating it, too.
The memories of those weeks play out in my mind under soft, dreamlike light, as if it is someone else who experienced them and I am watching them through a director’s carefully unfocused lens in a darkened theater where I sit alone. There is little or no dialogue then or in subsequent years. They are merely splices of memory etched in film that I catch like melting snowflakes that land on my mind. On other days, they are more like a silent reel of feelings for which I somehow found drawers to bury them in.
Almost 40 years later, I find myself looking into the bureau of my own investigation.
The case is now wide open.