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She is with me.  I can feel my mother’s presence over my right shoulder as I count backward, going under for the first time in my life. I wake in a sea of hospital beds, starched white sheets and nurses dressed like nuns. When I’m ready to be released, Michael is by my side, and he takes my arm as we walk across a green lawn, the beginnings of spring poking up through the cool ground. We climb into an ordinary local taxi, which happens to be a cream colored Mercedes; just one of the everyday facts about Vienna that makes this place feel magical to my eighteen year old self.  Moments after we enter our apartment, the phone rings, and it’s her; six hours earlier in New York.  “My darling girl,” she says, “how do you feel?” The authority in her voice, that laser sharp focus my mother sometimes chooses to invoke, wraps me in a cloak of comfort, and I know in that moment that I’m going to be okay, that I can handle this.

It’s the winter of 1988. I’m taking a semester abroad and living with a boyfriend in Vienna, on Nussdorferstrasse in the ninth bezirk.  If New York is a grid, Vienna is a donut: the center of the hole is the first district, the city Zentrum, contained by the Ringstrasse, a grand circular boulevard. Districts two through nine are in the next layer, the cake of the donut, contained by the outer edge of the circle, known as the guertel, or belt, a far less stately circular road where one finds prostitutes, gas stations, tire shops, and the like. Beyond the guertel is the outer city, districts ten through twenty-three, some parts fancy, other modest, just like cities the world over.  The current president of Austria is Kurt Waldheim, a former intelligence officer in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and to the east all the countries are Communist.

It’s amazing to me that I’ve pulled this off: that I convinced Barnard to let me start my junior year abroad during the second term of my sophomore year, that Michael, the Viennese guy I met here while travelling around last summer, managed to find us an adorable apartment to sublet from a friend, that we’ve set up house in this adult, intimate way.  Our place is on the second floor of a typical old Viennese building. You enter off the street and climb a wide, limestone stairway, then use a medieval looking key to open the double doors, which are wood inlaid with tall panels of frosted glass. The apartment opens into a welcoming foyer – coat rack, umbrella stand, ornate mirror. To the right is a bathroom with a large tub, and the living room is straight ahead overlooking the street, one wall covered in books. The furniture, cheap but stylish, is rattan with white cushions. The bedroom, to the right of the living room, looks incongruously tropical because Michael and I put the mattress on the bare floor and decorated with two beach chairs and a few inflatable beach balls. On the other side of the apartment, left of the foyer, we have a kitchen, a small separate dining room, and a toilet room, here called the klo. That last room is always slightly cold and no matter how hard I clean it, there’s a persistent vaguely unpleasant odor. But the rest of the place is gorgeous -- blonde floors and high ceilings with elaborate moldings. The woman who owns it, a friend of Michael’s from high school, is an orphan – her whole family was killed in a car accident when she was a teenager, and she inherited this place from her grandmother. Now she’s trying to break into the film business in Los Angeles and we’re happily ensconced in her home, paying 2,000 schillings a month in rent.

Michael (pronounced the German way, Mik-ay-el) is twenty-four, a trained goldsmith and the son of a cobbler. He works for his friend Alexander, a rich kid from a family of successful merchants, and the two of them run a little jewelry shop together on a busy commercial street in the second. While he’s at work, I do some housekeeping. I vacuum, make the bed, clean the bathroom. I buy liverwurst, eggs, bread, and jam, the staples that we like to have at home; I love making small talk with the shopkeepers, using my most formal and polite German. They must wonder who I am, this light-brown skinned girl in a land of bundled up, stern, white people.

I never once come across anyone who looks remotely like me. The only black people I see, maybe one or two a month, are pitch black Africans, and they’re always serious looking young men, students at the university. There are pockets of Turks, and gypsies, and even though our skin may be the same shade, they’re much more exotic and look Eastern, in their layers of clothes, and ways of keeping to themselves. They’re referred to as Gastarbeiter, guest workers, and it feels like they are so low on the totem pole as to barely exist.  So having no one with whom to identify, I find myself an anomaly here, and I revel in the freedom of being a complete outsider.

All day long I eavesdrop on conversations; my German is good enough that I can make out some of what people are saying, but not everything by a long shot. The big difference is that I don’t understand the context –- cultural, sociological, historical -- the way I do back in New York, so it’s hard to feel judgmental, or judged. I’m just curious, soaking it all up, floating around this foreign world like an invisible observer. I can pick out the parts that I like, try to make connections if I want, but I don’t have a real role in this world, and that feels deliciously liberating.

I wander the city, spend an inordinate amount of time on the Strassenbahn, never paying my fare (it’s expensive, I’m broke, lots of people do it) and always hoping that today won’t be the day an inspector gets on board.  I ride it everywhere, go north to the outskirts of town where the Heuriger are, the old traditional wine bars, visit the ancient cemeteries and churches, ride around and around the Ringstrasses looking at the imposing imperial government building and museums. I wander the gardens at Rathaus, the City Hall, lay on the grass in Stadtpark. I traipse in and out of dozens of cafes each month, ordering café mélange and trying to read Die Zeit on a wooden stick. More often than not, I give up and move on to The International Herald Tribune, and take a stab at the crossword puzzle. I’ve become obsessed with Egon Schiele, and Klimt of course, and I buy postcards of their work and send them to my oldest friend Lalou, and my mother, on an almost daily basis.

I’m taking classes, one a week at the University, and another couple at the office of the Iowan University that sponsors my program. The American classes – German and Art History -- are way too easy, take almost no time, and the Viennese class, Psychology, is frankly impossible because I understand so little of the academic German. I go, and I do my best, but it all feels sort of unreal, like a dream, like any expectations of me can’t possibly be too serious here. I feel less like a student and more like an explorer. The classes aren’t what preoccupy me; it’s the life that I can’t get enough of.

I try to get jobs, because Mom can’t afford to send me much for my living expenses. She’s a writer and an independent filmmaker and money’s always been a struggle for us. The fact that I’m here at all is a testament to her ingenuity and the sense she embodies that all things are possible, but the reality is that we get by month to month.      

The American Embassy allows me to post a sign for babysitting work; I offer my housecleaning services to a guy from Mississippi who owns a local fitness club, and he hires me for a weekly clean of his apartment, but instead of paying me cash he decides to give me a free membership, which I hardly use. I prefer instead to visit the nineteenth century bathhouses around town, where I pay a low student rate and spend afternoons taking steam and eucalyptus baths with naked old ladies. Watching their loose, decrepit bodies fills me with a peculiar awe of lives fully lived, and I have to be careful not to stare too much. I admire the camaraderie and ritual of these women, the way they enjoy the cold plunge baths and scrub their skin with hard bristle brushes in the saunas.

Last night Michael and I were out at a bar/restaurant behind the Nordbahnhof with a bunch of his friends. Like we do most nights I drank viertels of red wine and ate schnitzel with katoffelsalat and gurkensalat, this amazing cucumber salad that I crave daily. The exchange rate is great for Americans right now, and for the equivalent of twenty dollars I eat a meal in a restaurant like an adult, every night. There were a few dogs in this particular place, sitting under tables by their owners’ feet, which is not uncommon, and everyone was smoking, including us. Back in New York I’m barely out of high school, but here I’m smoking Gitanes in a bar with people in their twenties and thirties, being nuzzled by my handsome guy.  Michael affects a James Dean kind of look, tight leather jacket over a crisp white shirt, jeans or slim khakis, always impeccable leather shoes handmade by his dad. His hair is dark and straight, combed back off his face, but slips down in his eyes at times. He has full, perfect kissing lips, and large dark eyes, brown and soulful; he speaks slowly to me in German, always teaching me the Viennese slang in every situation, and calling me libeling, or schatz. We got drunk last night, and when we left the bar we wound up making out against a wall in an alley behind the train station. It’s February, so it was freezing, but he pulled down my tights and we had sex right there, in the cobblestone street.

In March, my period is late, so I go to a local Apotheke and buy a test. Lo and behold, I’m pregnant. God damn disgusting diaphragm with all that goop. I feel foolish and embarrassed for messing up like this.  I know right away that I’ll have an abortion; there’s no question in my mind, or in Michael’s, that we’d consider having a baby at this point in our lives. But I’m upset; scared about the procedure, nervous about dealing with this in a foreign culture. I find a gynecologist in the phone book, an older male Frauenarzt, in a neighborhood I like, and I go there alone. The doctor performs a sonogram and curtly informs me that Austrian law requires one to wait until after the twelfth gestational week to terminate a pregnancy. All this: the sight of the baby, the sound of its rhythmic heartbeat, the mandated wait, seems a little cruel. I feel shaky and I barely make it out of his office without crying. I’m biting my lower lip as I pay, and hastily fold up the referral sheet his nurse gives me, to a clinic in the leafy outskirts of town.

I have to wait over a month to abort this baby, and it feels endless, walking around pregnant at age eighteen. I’m in touch with Mom through it all. When I first call her, she says "oh, Neen, I’m so sorry, but it’ll be ok." I tell her I want to come home and have the procedure done at Planned Parenthood in New York, but she says that that isn’t a good idea, that it’s too expensive to fly back, that I should stay in Vienna and deal with it here. I push, and she pushes back, not wavering for a moment. During one conversation when I start to cry, she says sharply, "Nina, you’ll deal with much harder stuff than this in your life. This you can get through, I promise." A few days later, a week before the scheduled procedure, I get a letter:


Sunday – after your call

Dear Michael and Nina,

I just wanted to reaffirm what I said on the phone: that this is an experience,  and like any experience it can either be slouched through unaware and unconsciously or lived to the fullest – acknowledging that this is a birth for which you are not yet prepared and therefore must return to the universe. Thank the universe for the existence of life and the sacredness of it and at the same time acknowledge your firm belief that as life continues eternally it is simply not a moral question but a question of embracing this present experience by choosing what is best for you, knowing that the flow of life goes on.

That is all I care about – that there is never any carelessness in one’s attentiveness to living and to what life brings. Know that I love you both, that I see both of you honoring each other and honoring whatever experience life presents to you as a couple, and that this awareness and respect are the true victories of living: to live in total awareness at every moment. This is all I hope for you both…

I will call around midnight our time on Tuesday – and will be with you just as if I were standing right beside you throughout the time…

Love, Mom

And she is with me. When I’m having the abortion, I can feel her by my side. 


The rest of my time in Vienna continues like before; I’m happy, clear. The steady stream of letters from Mom, at least one a week, often more, are breezy and full of gossip from Piermont, my hometown in Rockland County, about what my brother Emilio is up to, what she and Alfred, her new husband of six months are doing, stories of the neighbors and her work, what film projects she’s trying to get off the ground. She writes to me on blue airmail paper, the kind that is also its own envelope, which I love to carefully unfold, making sure not to tear into the text I so value. Her scrawl can be hard to decipher as she often seems to be writing on the go. One letter starts with her classic verve “I write this in the car as I wait for a speeding ticket to be administered.” My mother is more loving in these letters than I’ve ever experienced; she talks obliquely about her own emotional unfolding, an awareness that maybe she hasn’t always been available to us in ways she should have been, or would have liked to have been, when we were younger. I bask in it.

Michael gets four weeks vacation, and in August we decide to go to Portugal for the month. At the American bookstore in Vienna I find a dog-earred copy of Let’s Go: Portugal, the Harvard student franchise I love, and the book becomes our bible and guide, telling us what to do at every turn. We take trains across Europe to get there – eighteen hours to Paris, then south via San Sebastian, to Lisbon, and then an endlessly long bus ride to our ultimate destination, a beach town on the tip of the Algarve called Sagres.

We rent the front bedroom in an old lady’s tiny house, just walk right up and knock, and use hand gestures and cash to communicate that we’d like to stay a bit;  all in response to a sign in her window, which our book had told us to look for. The room has a pink cotton bedspread and just enough space for us to throw our things on the floor; we gingerly use the woman’s one bathroom, being careful about sand and noise. Our days are spent on the beach, playing Scrabble and reading books, me usually topless, and at night we go to one of the two bars in town and drink sangria and eat fish. It’s ferociously windy here, as we’re on a point, and the place is as undeveloped as I’ve ever experienced. The town is shaped like an isosceles triangle, with a few low-key business establishments on each long side, and a road traversing the point at the bottom. Inside the triangle is a green patch of grass, in the center of which stands a lone glass phone booth, the only one in town. Other than that, it’s beaches on either side, and inland, as one heads east, clusters of middle and lower class pastel-colored homes, with small bits of garden next to concrete driveways.

Tonight I’m calling home. We’ve been on the road for almost two weeks, and I’ve been out of touch the whole time; no letters or phone calls. The stars are brilliant here every night, but tonight it’s like they’re on steroids; constellations everywhere. Michael is nursing a beer in the outdoor bar across the street, listening to live music and waiting for me, while I stand inside that one phone booth, the beacon on the green. I’m tan, and my hair is crunchy from all the salt and sun, and I feel healthy and in love, phenomenally relaxed, like I own the world.  I get through to the international operator and ask to place a collect call. 

“Nina?” Mom says, “is that you? Oh thank God. How are you, my sweet?”  I gush for a few minutes about how incredible our trip is and how in love I am until she interrupts me and says, “Nina, honey, I need you to come home. The cancer I once had is back.  I’m fine, I’ll be completely fine," she says, "but I think you should come home and see your brother. He needs to see you.” I think to myself, what cancer, what the hell is she talking about? She has cancer? But instead I say, “how, when?” She tells me to take the train immediately to Geneva, where my godfather Bob Thompson, who works for the UN, will get me on a plane home. “Now?”  I ask densely.  “Yes,” she says, “immediately.” I don’t know why I don’t ask any more questions, I just don’t. Something in her voice tells me I can’t. I tell her I love her and I’ll be home soon and I hang up.