Coffee on the Dorotheergasse
David Brendan Hopes
Her sisters reminded her on several occasions before the wedding that her fiancé did not have a handsome face. Each time, the revelation came with a little startle because, though she had noted he was not attractive in that way, other things about him occupied her mind so thoroughly they drove that detail out. Teddy was so much the other things she wanted in a man that his lack of conventional handsomeness hardly mattered.
It was true that “handsome” had been necessary to the package all through her dating years. Handsome had come to her effortlessly because she was pretty. Handsome is drawn to the pretty more than it is to the beautiful, for in the pretty it finds a worshiper and in the beautiful a rival. The men she dated in college could have sold clothing in a magazine. She assumed she would marry one of them and raise pretty children and handsome children, and the beautiful photos they took at Christmas and birthdays would pass down to admiring generations. This did not happen. She had gotten past it, but her sisters had not.
Teddy was walking a little in front of her on their first day in Vienna. From the back, his looks were a different story. His impossibly broad shoulders condensed in a curving taper to his narrows hips. His T-shirt could barely contain his upper arms, and the muscles of his back stretched the fabric across them, making brightness and shadow play in the creases as he walked. His stallion neck lifted up a deep tangle of light brown hair feathered gold at the edges in the morning light. What she did not say to her sisters, what she meant to keep to herself as long as possible, was that her husband was a god wearing the mask of a hardware salesman. His plain, manly face was a kind of courtesy, for the voluptuous maleness below had been unbearable had it been crowned by a face to match. His beauty below the chin was all but superhuman, and, because of the superficiality of most glances, it was all hers.
“You don’t have to walk behind me all the time,” he said, slackening his pace.
“It’s fine. This way I can stare at your ass.”
He laughed, not fully aware she was quite serious.
He was her secret. She didn’t even call him “Teddy” in her thoughts, It was always “He,” the essential other. The man. The one man. She was a little frightened by the thought that he might be all she needed in the world.
She asked him once, “Am I all you need in the world?” His answer “Yes” was so easy and so without context it was not completely satisfying.
Her sisters, who were significantly older and therefore empowered to impart wisdom, had warned her never to confess to wanting sex from a man. To give and withhold, they told her, was the apex of her power. This tactic worked less well on beautiful men, who knew they had another option on every bar stool. Her sisters were not as pretty as she, and had left this out of their calculations. Men would come to her even if she seemed needy. They would bless their luck. They would look around the bar to see if maybe somebody was playing a joke.
She did not use strategies on Teddy, even once. She said to her sisters and her girlfriends, “He’s a man, if you know what I mean,” without always knowing what she meant herself. But she meant in part that if she wanted him to fuck her, he would, and if she asked for another go, he gave it. There were no games. She admired how he kept his big body fresh and clean. She admired how he could pick her up and slide her down on himself, and she’d would wrap her legs around him and they would do it with him standing up, leaning against a wall. She liked that.
He held nothing back. She supposed men played games as well as women, but if he did, he was so exquisitely subterranean that she had never caught on.
They were in the Dorotheergasse because she had wanted to see the Jewish Museum. They got to the door, and there she saw the rifle. She decided in an instant that she didn’t want to see any more if the first thing they had to show her was a rifle. Her emotions at that moment didn’t make much sense, even to herself, but Teddy put his wallet back in his pocket–he was already starting to pay for the tickets– and moved off without comment. Though he’d asked for no explanation, she wanted to explain. “If only I thought that Jews had used the rifle instead of having it used on them,” but something kept her from expressing her thought. Something wanted her to sound flighty and fretful in their first hour off the plane. He had been maddeningly efficient. He’d got them to the hotel even thought it was she who had practiced saying the hotel address in German.
She felt the need to regain a measure of control. She had chosen Vienna. She had talked up its glories, squelched his yearning for Greece, and now he was walking ahead, not even looking at the map, leading them successfully from sight to sight. So when the came to the Café Hawelka, which she was sure had appeared in her travel material, she said, “Let’s stop here.”
She ordered for them. She retained fragments of German from a college course. Everyone spoke English, but just in case, she was ready. The waiter nodded to indicate he’d heard the order, but then he kept saying “Cake? Cake?” She waved the cake away, but somehow it didn’t take, and the waiter kept looking inquiringly at them saying “Cake?” Maybe you were supposed to have cake at the Café Hawelka. Maybe that was the thing to do. She felt her confidence ebbing away. Finally Teddy said, “No cake.” The waiter vanished as if he were mist.
The day was young and it was Vienna at long last, but she felt undefinable irritation moving from a great distance toward her. She had dragged her husband to the Jewish Museum, then refused to enter for reasons she failed to explain. He’d said nothing. He hadn’t made a show of saying nothing. He just turned and walked out, as though both the coming and the going had been his idea.
“Are you disappointed we didn’t go in?”
“You’re the one who wanted to see it. I’m just happy to be in Vienna.” He added “with you” a noticeably long time after.
The café was the first one you saw after passing the museum door, so there was no great burden of choice, and yet such choice as there was she had made, and she was at pains to find delight in whatever she saw around her. Scaffolding masked the opposite structures, so the scenery was not what it might have been. American girls were sipping cappuccino and giggling. Workmen at the construction site spoke in German to each other, which she found exotic even while reminding herself they would scarcely speak anything else.
When she listened carefully, she learned that the American girls were complaining about the café, how they would never come there again despite what the concierge had said, and if one of their friends came to Vienna after them, they would urge them in particular not to stop at the Hawelka. Was it the immoderate offering of cake? As she listened, she realized that the girls had been shortchanged because the café had, or claimed to have, no change at that hour of the morning. What of far-famed German efficiency, she wondered.
At last their own cappuccinos appeared, and the girls sauntered off, and for a few moments her dream of an deal first morning in Europe was being realized.
“The Albertina after?” she ventured.
“Sure, “ he said.
Realizing they had already discussed this at some length, she added “Just making sure.”
He never made sure. He never checked back or reconfirmed. Decided, done. She was, at that moment, exactly on the edge of not knowing whether this were a virtue or a shortcoming in him. It was certainly not her way, and yet she could detect no attitude in him when she reconfirmed some decision or goal for the fourth time. It was simply “uh huh,” toneless and informative. Was that enough? Why was he not as eager to reconfirm plans with her as she was with him? She tried to brush all this away as not the right issue to pursue on their first day in Europe as a married couple.
The foam on her cappuccino was exactly right.
The map suggested the Albertina was not more than a block away. Their morning would be shapely and efficient. She paced herself, watching Teddy, so that they’d finish their coffee at exactly the same moment. He was watching the workers across the street. Or perhaps he was watching how the sharp shadows of the buildings changed as the sun altered its position in the sky. They’d sat so it would be difficult for him to look very steadily at her, and yet she found herself wishing he were. She’d plopped herself down in such a way as to predestine the arrangement. She stopped herself from thinking “I’m at fault again.” He could have moved his chair.
Management of the euros she had taken to herself, supposing, for some reason, that Teddy might be confused by them. He had said nothing, and handed her the bills when something needed to be paid for. He carried them between purchases; an attack by a mugger on him was unlikely. She kept the exchange rate in her head, so she could at all times calculate the real cost of things. Teddy tended to be extravagant, but in the most endearing ways. She said, “I hope you’re not counting a dollar to a euro. I was doing that the last time I was here and–“
Teddy caught the eye of someone in the street. He said “Gruss Gott” even before the strange woman did. Who had told him to do that? She nodded vigorously to demonstrate she was proud of him, but she wasn’t sure he had seen.
The waiter had not brought a bill, but the prices were printed on the menu before them, and she had already decided not to let the pace of waiters determine the pace of their day. “I’ll do it,” she said, rising an turning toward the dark interior of the café. When she went inside to pay the bill a peculiar thing happened. Maybe the American girls had been on to something. The waiter said, “Fourteen euros forty.” She handed him a twenty, fresh from the airport exchange booth.
He said, “You must have something smaller.”
“No, sorry.” She spread the wad of new bills out toward him like a fan, so he could see that she had just arrived and had not bought anything so that she might have small bills. He shrugged. He pulled a five euro bill out of the drawer and handed it to her. Then he shut the drawer.
“No, that’s not quite right,” she said, as though he were a small child who’d made an error in arithmetic. “You still owe me–“
The waiter made a humpfing sound, and walked out to a table where there was a new customer. He left her standing inside the café with a five euro bill in the middle of her hand, being wafted from side by side by the morning breeze. Normally she wouldn’t quibble over sixty cents, even considering that euro cents were worth more than dollar ones. But there was something unsettling in the waiter’s attitude. She was alert to the way in which Europeans would cheat Americans if they could. The travel books warned you about this. She stood waiting for the waiter to come in, so he could be made to understand, but he was spending a long time with the new customer.
She gave up and came out to where her husband was sitting.
“Hmmm,” she said.
“Well, the bill was fourteen forty, and I gave him a twenty, and he gave me a five, and he doesn’t seem anxious at all to hand over the remaining–“
”Sixty cents,” he said.
His tone was wrong. It sounded like he thought the issue was petty. So did she, but his tone revealed his ignorance of the importance of asserting oneself with foreigners out to cheat Americans. Too many probably let it ride. It just encouraged the practice. It set the next tourist up for even more outrageous treatment.
“Don’t just shrug it off like that,” she said, “We have a long time before us to be taken advantage of by European shopkeepers.”
She plopped down and began arranging her purse so they might get up and continue on to the Albertina. She expected that to be the end of it. She wanted it to be the end of it. She was ashamed at how it continued to rankle. But she had been no more to the waiter than a buzzing fly, and she didn’t want that to set the tone for their whole trip. She sighed.
“Still on the euros?” he said.
“Think of it as a tip.”
“The Germans resent tips. It says so in the. . . in the book. He just–“
“Oh, nothing. It’s over. Never mind.” Against all conscious impulse she added, “If you had just come in with me–”
She had not invited him to come in. The finality of her tone concerning payment suggested he should not go in. Any man who’d known her for five minutes would have let her to go by herself, fearing the consequences of not. She had no idea why she’d blurted that last comment out. “If you had just come with me.” It was so plaintive. So defeated. Teddy hadn’t reacted, so perhaps he hadn’t heard. But if he hadn’t heard, it meant he hadn’t been listening, and if he hadn’t been listening to THAT, whatever in the world—“ She stopped the futile circle of thought she saw unraveling before her, with a physical gesture like the slamming of a door.
Wind blew up the corners of the tablecloth a little. She held her purse in that way that signaled she was ready to go, but Teddy continued sitting quietly, as though something in the activity of the street had captivated him. After a moment he got up and headed toward the interior of the café. The waiter was still talking with the pretty Austrian girls who had come to sit down. Teddy grabbed him by the sleeve and led him into the café. She got up and followed. When all were safely inside Teddy held out his hand, flat, the way you feed sugar to a horse.
He said, “Now.”
“Sir, I have no idea–“
It’s possible that the waiter didn’t know what Teddy was talking about. His eye was so keenly on the women that he might not have seen Teddy at all. But when she-of-the-sixty-cents entered behind him, it must have become clear.
You could see the waiter freezing his expression in place, so it would neither provoke nor gratify the big American who was suddenly giving orders. He went to the register, opened the drawer, and handed Teddy sixty cents in shiny euros, which they had clearly had all along. Teddy made a gesture with two of his fingers, and the waiter stopped and waited for them to leave the interior of café ahead of him. Teddy waked out into the light and she followed. He did not look at the waiter, nor the waiter at him.
But neither did her husband look at her. She waited for him to turn and flash a conspiratorial grin, but he didn’t. He walked a few paces into the street and opened the map, making sure of the way, then turned and strode toward the Albertina. They had been in Vienna for two hours, now, and that’s the first time he had marched off in a direction without checking with her, whether it was the right way, whether she still wanted to go. It had been their process, she thought, the check and rechecking, the constant testing for changes in mood. It was her way. They were married now, and soon it ought to be his.
Teddy hadn’t appeared to be angry. He didn’t appear to be so now. She stopped in the street waiting for him to acknowledge her, but he didn’t, and kept walking briskly, so in the end she had to trot a little to catch up.
“Wait,” she said in a tiny tone.
If he heard her, he didn’t wait. Something passed over and into her, a perception which she tried to stop at the outset, to deflect away from the brilliant morning, but which she could not. He had not checked with her before facing off with the waiter. How could he be sure it was the right thing, a thing they could both agree upon? He strode out onto the Dorotheergasse without checking back with her– yes, to a destination they had already agreed upon, but what if she’d changed her mind? What if she wanted to double-check to make sure it was the right direction? He had not offered her even a glance at the map. What if she preferred to go another way? What if she had needed to make some remark about the time or the quality of light or the recently consumed cappuccino?
He looked big on the narrow street, and huge when the light between buildings slashed across his shoulders. One of the workmen stopped his work and gazed appreciatively as Teddy passed. Of course there must be gay Viennese, but that one should notice her husband, on their first day, within the first three hours, was not something she had prepared for.
She imagined mentioning it to him. She imagined his responding, “It was just a glance.”
No, no, she wanted to say, not just a glance, not just–
She realized that she was about to find fault with things she had loved about him ten minutes before. He was big. Opposition would not work if he did not let it. He was decisive, a trait hidden because he always–rather elaborately, she thought now– deferred to her. What if he did not defer? She would be one of those wives trailing behind, offering her timid opinion in lulls amid the conversation of those who counted.
The light in the street was cut off by overhanging buildings. She felt cold.
He could be a bully if he wanted to. He could have his way. He hardly noticed when, in pretend play, she hit him in a muscle as hard as she could. His fists were big as her jaw. He gave her sex whenever she wanted, but the other way of looking at that was he always made her ask. He was not even handsome. The Vienna trip, which was her idea, was suddenly irritating, for when she opened the subject he had agreed so smoothly, gave up his dream of Greece so easily, it didn’t seem as concession on his part at all, now. He had taken away her victory. She had never intended for her life to turn out this way.
Not quite too far off to be called to, he was walking with that hussar stride of his, about to turn a corner and be gone. She vowed to stand in the street until he came back to her. The waiter at Café Hawelka might still be able to see her, but she didn’t care. No humiliation could match what she felt, without being able to define for herself exactly what the humiliation was. She vowed to stand where she was until he came back with a worried look on his face and inquired whether the Albertina were still her chosen goal. Might she want the boat trip down the Danube instead? Might she want a quiet lunch? She wanted none of those things, but that was not the point. Her skin prickled with tiny darts of anger. Still he strode on. She would wait for him to come back. If he did not come back, in exactly the right way, it would be ruined. She prepared for it to be ruined.
A bicycle bell at her back warned her she was blocking the middle of the street. She moved a little to the side, into shadow, where he would have to work a little harder to find her. He was out of sight now. She had not gotten married to be alone, but there in Vienna, far from home and family, she was alone. She wanted to race after him, but she would not. The bicycle bell rang again, around a corner, out of sight. Maybe it was ringing at him, at her husband, telling him he had forgotten something, telling him to go back. She moved against a pale stucco wall to be out of the way, and so anyone looking from the café could not see her. She waited. It was colder on the street than the concierge had led them to expect.