Karl met Hélène in a café on a Saturday afternoon.
He had been visiting bookstores in and around the Sorbonne and in the mid-afternoon he stopped at a café on the Boulevard St. Germain. He ordered a glass of pinot noir and slowly sipped it, while perusing the books he had purchased: Ernst Jünger’s journal written during the Second World War and the Germans’ occupation of Paris and Georg Heinrich Löwe’s strange book about his imprisonment in a POW camp in Stalin’s Russia. Germans who were also Francophiles fascinated Wisent and the mysterious Löwe, whom he had known most of his life, still had the ability to mystify and entertain him.
These books emphasized a period of history that he, as a German and as a European, wasn’t particularly proud of. Many times when he was walking on the streets of the Left Bank, visiting bookstores or attending films, he would imagine those same streets fifty years before. In 1992, he was thirty-two years old and his mother was fifty-five. She was born in 1937 and was five years old in 1942. In 1942, his grandfather, the man with whom he lived after his father left his mother when he was twelve, was fighting in Russia. In 1992, most of these people still lived. Yet, the events of fifty years ago seemed mythical and ancient to him. As he poured over these books, trying to understand the mind of the generation that had preceded him, he realized he didn’t feel free to sit down with his grandfather and ask him to explain why Germany went to war against Europe and why he had felt the need and duty to go to war. Wisent assumed his grandfather would respond with some short canned answer about his duty as a German citizen. But Wisent agreed with Sartre. There are no accidents. A man who takes up arms and goes to war goes because he has made a decision to go to war. Therefore, the war was his grandfather’s war as much as it was Hitler’s. Jünger and Löwe, too, decided to make the war against France their war no matter how they may later view or try to describe it in their journals.
He noticed Hélène as she approached the café. It was approximately 5:30 p.m. and he had just ordered a second glass of wine. Her walk was what attracted him. It was not a natural walk; instead, it was a stylized movement, like an elaborate dance step. He knew she was aware of what she was doing. Her hair was thick, a rich golden-brown, like honey, cut short on the sides and back, but curly and thick on the top. Like a shaved poodle, thought Wisent, realizing this was not flattering but also suspecting she had chosen the cut, like the walk, for the effect it would produce.
Her eyes were blue, her facial features small and delicate, and her skin clear and translucent like so many French women who spend hours on their complexion. She was tall and slim with narrow hips, small breasts the size of his fist, and slender legs. On that day, she wore a pale silk dress, no hose and flat shoes. Her only jewelry was a pair of silver earrings molded in the form of an Egyptian scarab or dung beetle.
She sat at the table next to him, choosing a seat facing him, rather than taking the other, which would have turned her back to him. Wisent screwed up enough courage to look at her again, but, to his surprise and chagrin, she turned away. He thought she was planning to move on because he noticed she had drained her glass of Coca Cola and was now bent forward, fishing in her purse, in a movement that obviously signaled her preparation for escape. However, instead of retreating from the field, she pulled out a lipstick and compact and slowly and sensually applied the lipstick on her large lower lip before turning toward him. He was transfixed watching the simple gesture. When she turned, he said, “May I join you in a drink?”
She finished her lips and put her lipstick and compact away and said, “Oui.”
He moved to her table and shook her hand.
“Je m’appele Karl.”