ON THE HOME FRONT
by Randy Ford
It was middle of the night, and she couldn’t sleep … couldn’t sleep … couldn’t sleep. She remembered boys on two trains and how they leaned out their windows and exchanged wine bottles. Toasts were also exchanged, and toasts were exchange until their trains pulled out, while not one knew what they were heading into.
But now alone, pushed, pushed and pushed to the breaking point, she asked herself, “Is he alive, still?” For all she knew she could be a widow, and with all her heart she hoped Fritz could still hear an enemy’s reveille. If he could, it meant that he could come home, and now she saw her husband and lover charging Calvary Hill, tipsily trilling the “Hooch Habsburg-Marsch.” Felt better? No. She still couldn’t sleep and wanted to cry … cry … many more tears … but they wouldn’t come.
Wars, as you know, are never fun, never, never fun. Question is does prayer work? Prrwht! So she rarely prayed, but now she wanted to know if prayer works. So she prayed, prayed with all her heart.
Most nights she didn’t bother with sleep … how to fall asleep before exhausting herself was a mystery to her. For this woman though, it was not lack of sleep that mattered, but it was nightmares that bothered her. More than anything it was nightmares. Yells of assault, screams of agony, wrath, pain, dying and killing, all these things came too close to home.
Life didn’t suit her. This life didn’t suit her. There was no one to cheer her up. She had no one. She had to do it for herself, and she didn’t know why, for instance, but when she was with other people she felt sadder. It took courage to go out, courage to live, while courage conquered death and death ended misery. Excursions ended not with her seeking friends, but with wandering streets of Wien. Whenever she went out she rarely had a destination and usually ended up in a place where they wouldn’t recognize her.
“Why, Frau Hertzel, why?” she asked herself. “Why is it hard these days to carry on like we did before this war? And why can’t you do something that’s useful? Why can’t you contribute to the war effort? War! I thought you wouldn’t mind war so much. I just want to know what you can do, that’s all.”
“See here, we thought this war wouldn’t amount to much. Croatia isn’t far away, and with few causalities war would be over in the matter of weeks. Then if we must fight, fight we shall. War business is all very well, but it shouldn’t disrupt everything, you know. Don’t forget why we’re fighting is due to assassination of a couple. War! It takes courage on all fronts to fight a war. Courage! Austrian courage? Is it different from French courage? There’s no way of knowing for sure. Austrian courage, there is no way of knowing if it exists.”
At first they blindly went along with war. At first she tried to behave like other women she knew; she really tried, carrying on best she could, taking one day at a time. But it didn’t work for her.
It all seemed pointless. Without Fritz it seemed that way. She could’ve been spending her time helping in some way. There was so much to do.
It wasn’t long before she realized that war would drag on. Topic of conversation then became who would come home. And out of those who came out alive how many would’ve lost an eye or a limb … would’ve lost an eye, a limb, or his mind?
And for women and children who were left behind it was especially hard, and while some of them learned how to survive some of them didn’t. As long months turned into years, causalities on the home front mounted.
It helped not to think. It helped not to think too much. It was best not to think. Also drink helped but often gave no pleasure.
Why expect more from women than men? Remain strong first, then set an example by preserving home. Be best she could be. Then every time she was called upon, she was ready to help and did her best to keep her morale up.
Maybe she should stay at home. She couldn’t be careful enough. She tried to stay home, and many times she failed. She had to burst out, after she felt so depressed that she didn’t want to leave her flat.
The key, she thought, rushing out the door, must be fresh air and companionship …to forget war through companionship.
Avoiding old haunts … cafes she once knew … she went looking for something she once had. It took tremendous courage to go alone, but it got easier over time. It got easier. She overcame inhibitions. A few drinks helped. Beauty help. She knew how to use her looks. She knew how to flirt.
But one or two drinks weren’t enough. Moment she stopped drinking, her mind cleared but she never saw that she was making mistakes. Indiscretion aside, she never intended to hurt anyone.
When he approached her, he seemed lonely too. He wanted to talk. She wanted company. She craved company. But what was there to talk about? Was there anything wrong with talking to him? He asked her name. She answered him. She said just enough to keep a conversation going, and that was as far as it went.
As she reconstructed their conversation, a hollow voice sounded within her brain. There was no way around it. She had become a vamp, a sexy vamp, a silly, sexy vamp. She hadn’t come to a conclusion that she was a whore yet. If it were meant for her to realize it, she had to wait. And she had brains, but she wasn’t thinking. If she were thinking, she would not have gotten into a mess that she got into. She felt foolish and tried to get over it. It wasn’t clear if she got over it.
A voice in her brain faded, and she went out again. The place was dark and cozy, and by then she decided to act like a vamp. It made him happy, and it gave her an excuse.
“But I’m married,” she thought. “But do I care? It doesn’t matter to him, so it shouldn’t matter to me. I’m a vamp like every other vamp, and men like vamps.” So she didn’t think and didn’t have to think before she started flirting.
She felt better after her decision. There were no ties afterwards. There were no strings. War made it acceptable somehow. Spending time with him meant no more than talking to a stranger on a tram … except they did more than talk.
Careful! But she didn’t pay attention to a hollow voice in the back of her brain. Horrible!
She was lonely and was prepared to say “yes.” Then she wasn’t alert enough to say “no.” Weight of her feelings ignored, it was clear that they went too far. And if it weren’t bold and risky, what was the point?
Whore! Whores were plentiful on Krugerstrasse. If you weren’t meant to be a whore, why would you allow him to slide his hand between your blouse and your skirt? Where were your brains? She had a girlish air about her. But there in the dark, as they passed Kremsmunsterhof, it felt like the end of the world, so her pain, her loss needed an antidote.
Feeling lousy. Feeling lonely. Talk unnecessary.
That was an answer. Dive in headfirst. All she needed was a little tenderness. Then if indeed the world was about to end, what the hell!
They spent a few hours in bed looking for ways to get close, and without thinking of consequences … to hell with consequences, he bought a little time before he’d face death again.
“When were you last in Salzburg?”
“Hotel Osterreichischer Hof in der Halle. We stayed there once. I was baptized a Lutheran.”
There was never enough time … never enough time for an open carriage ride around The Prater, and it wasn’t nearly as hard for her after the first time.
With a hand on her thigh, the soldier asked her, “Again what is your name?”
“Why does it matter??”
“As a boy, I sang in the choir at Nonnberg Abbey.”
Solders always had an advantage because of war. He knew this, as he loosened the lace of her bodice. She gave no resistance. In fact, she helped him. Her vows were forgotten, swept away by passion, breaking promises that she made to Fritz. Promises didn’t mean much anymore. They were causalities of war.
His intensity and endurance surprised her. He was alive and trembling. Then without ceremony, he said goodbye, and she thought where was gratitude. Then she realized that his size meant nothing to her, but there was something that did. She was now thinking straight. She swallowed, swallowed hard, and asked herself, how many times had she forgotten Lysoform and when was the last time she had a period. Could she be? Yes, she could be.
The idea terrified her. It was a big mistake, the biggest mistake she ever made, and it terrified her. Pregnant! Pregnant and she didn’t know who the father was. No Lysoform, no lysoform in Wien. Which one was the father?
And then she remembered that for some time she regretfully didn’t protect herself. It was her responsibility and not the guy’s. Ya, it was a whore’s fault! No Lysoform, and now what did it matter? But there was no more Lysoform in Wein.
A single second made a difference in the world. Afterward, she felt clumsy and dirty, so clumsy and dirty. Oh, yes, clumsy and dirty. Oh, yes, she felt bad. She swallowed, knowing that she couldn’t keep a baby. She knew she couldn’t explain it. She knew, she knew she could explain it to Fritz. But what was she to do? She was Catholic and knew what a priest would say. She was Catholic and not Lutheran.
He began apologizing. So many of them wouldn’t have felt anything. It was clearly her fault. He couldn’t stop once he started. They were both desperate.
It didn’t matter that she didn’t know whose it was.
And so she shut her eyes.
It happened with a young boy really; then, if it was the one, she remembered that he seemed self-conscious … all fired up but self-conscious … though he could be her son. A gulf between his and her ages made no difference since no one was hurt. Age differences made no difference, no difference to her … no difference because he was old enough to die.
By time he said goodbye, he forgot her name. She never knew his name. She didn’t tell him her right name. Perhaps he didn’t care enough about her to remember a name she gave him. She couldn’t blame him, if there was anyone to blame, so blame it on war … a boy going to war. He spared no time that day to talk to her, but rushed out the door. He had a war to fight.
When she remembered him … if only she could be sure that he was the right one … she remembered how she had helped him. He was young and terrified. Yet in delight he yelp like a puppy. When she heard it, she thought of how it felt the first time with Fritz. The first time with Fritz … would she get another time with him? They had been wild with joy. Now she felt only sadness. Now instead of a whole lot of happiness, there was one small problem. She could think of it in that way and do something about it, or … she could be free of it, as long as it remained an “it”. It made her feel sad.
Meanwhile war dragged on, and people shouldn’t forget men who went to war, men who were facing death in war, men who died fighting a war.
Remember it was a war that would end all wars. They had, in fact, dug themselves into a hole.
Fritz! Caught in Hell, he no longer dreamed of glory. Instead, he dreamed of bathing, a long soaking bath. Caught in Hell, he dreamed of women. Of course, he thought of his wife. Of stoking her hair. Touching her up. Knoodle and schnitzel. Strudel. Krugerstrasse. Grinsing. Cutie pie. Songs of love, always of love, pretty songs sung by rotten singers.
Fritz, caught in Hell, dreamed of the Prater in early spring, but sounds of battle substituted for sounds of thrushes and early lambs. And obsessed on cafe life, from conversation to cigarette smoke, comfortably talking or reading, even writing, the last sanctuary known to mankind, cafes. A frustrated and unrepentant cynic, with a little alcohol and opium, dull fetishism, he needed more booze. And more booze.
War changed everything. A heavy dose of death, unmentionable horror, cold feet, froze bite did it! Eyes burning from acrid smoke! He was no hero. What if he refused to go over the top? He was no hero. They sent him crawling from trench to trench.
For as much as he wanted to communicate truthfully, there were subjects he avoided. Worst part. A broken spell worse than broken vows. After the front, everyone was game. She, on her part, also felt less willing to communicate honestly. Who was with his sweetie?
Before him lay many more battles. From cold and dreary Prussia, with a war to win and a staggering number of dead, Lord have mercy; to Belgium and to France, the war dragged on and on. Ahead of him lay Ardennes, Mons, and Ypres, places Fritz hadn’t heard of before.
”… for your reckless irresponsibility,” the hollow voice intoned, “… for violating your vows and traditions of family … family values.
To be faced with shame … delusion was easy in Wien. She never claimed to be pure.
But while she never intentionally hurt anyone, she was unfaithful at the very hour of her husband’s greatest trial.
But she quickly learned that irresponsibility didn’t pay. Irresponsibility? Was that what she called it? Now when she was faced with doing or not doing a responsible thing, she had to think of her family. Given a chance to think, and when it came down to it, it was who she was thinking of. She didn’t want to hurt them. She didn’t intend to hurt anyone.
Fritz was on another planet. Their vows were broken, and he didn’t know it. And she could’ve accepted her responsibility and not turned her back on him
Now alone she walked up Staudgasse, but once she made up her mind she didn’t dare stop. Her one regret was not what she was about to do; it was that it wasn’t Fritz’s baby. She refused to consider other options now. It was too late, too late to consider other options. Maybe she didn’t have other options.
She hadn’t slept, hadn’t slept, hadn’t slept. She knew that it would be over soon, if she could get over pain and knew that physical pain would go away soon enough. She no longer needed anyone else’s help, and she’d made up her mind without it. With some inner control she found name and address of a doctor who would take care of it … and when she was most vulnerable, but had she learned her lesson? And at the same time as far as she knew, Fritz lay dead in a trench somewhere.
What she once hoped for was lost; changes familiar by now, some were not so subtle. She tried to talk about it to herself, tried many things. Her secret wouldn’t have been a secret for much longer. And she would never tell Fritz. She would never tell anyone who was in her family. She would never confide in anyone.
So this was it, she thought, and a long bath hadn’t cleansed her. A warm douche hadn’t stopped his sperm. Why hadn’t she used Lysoform? Why wasn’t there Lysoform, Lysoform in Wein?
And now as she came to Hilderbrandgasse, with a twisted ankle, and in survival mode, she saw the address she was looking for. True, he had to be a disreputable gynecologist, or else he wouldn’t do it. A friend of a friend of a friend gave her Herr doktor’s name.
It seemed like a long wait, interminable in fact. Just a little longer. In an hour or less, it would be over. Powerless, she sat wondering what she was doing. Why hadn’t she used Lysoform? Why wasn’t there Lysoform in Wein?
Only a hundred shillings. She didn’t care what it cost. A hundred shillings wasn’t as much as you would think.
He had her to take her clothes off now. Then as she stood there he put his arm around her. It felt as if she was inside someone else’s body but had she not been naked she would’ve ran! Why did he put his arm around her?
His fingers roamed her body now, and his touch was gentle and direct as a lover’s touch. He began to say, “I could kiss you” and would’ve too had she responded. With a thousand apologies, he tried to reassure her. With a thousand apologies, he thought that he could win her over and felt faintly disappointed when he couldn’t. There were limits to how much she could stand, and it wouldn’t take much before she would crack. To him there weren’t limits.
Then finally tears came. As his short, chubby fingers cupped her breast.
He ignored her objections and tears. And he charged her a hundred shillings for an abortion, while abortion hurt less than having him kiss her. Kissed her and kissed her. Don’t complain, don’t squirm, don’t scream! Cursed dog! “Your secret is safe with me.” And why didn’t she scream? Women who came to him were never supposed to complain or squirm or scream.
“So allow me.”
Where had she heard that before? Old memories came back to her. Some of them had been gentle, and some of them had been rough, but details were now blurred …something about lying on her back with her legs spread apart.
She felt cold as she lay on a cold, steel table. She didn’t feel anything else as he separated her legs. So far it had been the worse day of her life. It couldn’t get worse, but it did.
He then turned to the business of abortion, probing and penetration hurt less than she expected. He gave her something to ease pain, but nothing eased it entirely. For about ten minutes…maybe it was half an hour, an hour … an eternity. And how she hated him, hated him, hated men, hated all men. God knew that she didn’t ask to be kissed. And her thinking got mixed up with thoughts she never straightened out. After she rebuked herself for … Wien lost much of its luster. Curious life is, really. Somewhere along the way, she fell asleep. She never knew what he did to her while she was sleeping.
In months that followed she still grew restless. But now she was hesitant. She now pulled it, it, it out quicker. She now stayed home on certain days. Now she wasn’t as assured of herself as she had been. For each time she went out she made sure. There still wasn’t Lysoform in Wien. No more Lysoform. No more… Here were other vamps who thought as she thought. For each, the most important thing was to carry Lysoform with them. But there was no more Lysoform in Wien.
For a long time she forgot about where she came from, that she hadn’t always been a vamp. But now and then, it all came back to her. She remembered as she walked through the Stock-im-Eisen-Platz and passed by an old tree trunk on her way to Stephansdom. She wasn’t looking for anyone, and no one recognized her. People surrounded her yet she asked, “Where is everybody?” Was she looking for men, when there weren’t many around? And there were thousands and thousands women without lovers. She shook her head. And there was no more Lysoform in Wien. A city without Lysoform, what a shame! It slowly came to her that there was little need for Lysoform. She might as well go back to where she came from. Do you have any idea how often she was tempted to go back to where she’d been when she had plenty of Lysoform? Thousands of women, thousands upon thousands without husbands. And without Lysoform. The same rule held for her now as it did then except now there was no Lysoform. We choose our world. We choose our protection. Had she not learned anything?
”Hey!, soldier!” she called out.
“Frauline?” he whispered, so as not to be obvious.
Frauline! Of course, she was flattered. Well, of course. As simple as that, two lost souls found each other. Sex-stuck, gosh. “Frauline, would you like…” “Well, of course.”
And back outside across Stock-im-Eisen-Platz and they passed an old tree trunk and walked together down Karntnerstrasse, where they had a particular destination in mind. Over to Eve’s on Fuhrichgasse. Hurry. Walk quickly. “Is there any hope for me?”
“No hope whatsoever.”
For an hour or two, she and a soldier played around. Then sometime before the candle burned itself out, music, emotion, and sensation set off a flood of tears … a bucket of tears