Issue 163, Fall 2002
He loved the opera. He hated the opera. So when his mother insisted that he take the cherished single ticket to Verdi's Falstaff (she listened so often to the La Scala recording that he suspected she'd memorized the score), Arno responded with a formal "As you wish, mother," excused himself from the oppressive atmosphere of the sitting room, and closed himself in the toilet to scrub his hands and forearms. An impossible woman! Beautiful, that much was clear, but impossible!
When Arno was a boy and his father was still alive, they'd always watched performances at the New German Theater from a private stall, arranged by one of his well-connected patients, opposite the artists' stall for women and beside the artists' stall for men; there, in what seemed like a state room within a cloud, he'd been privy to flirtations and rivalries among the singers that later wound up in the pages of the Prager Tagblatt. One of his earliest memories from the theater— perhaps it was his first real encounter with beauty in its corrupted form—was of his father pointing out a young soprano across the way who had squeezed herself into a Gypsy costume, clearly relishing the opportunity to scandalize the audience. She had taken her seat well before the curtain, on the arm of a companion just as plain as she was striking, and her flamboyant dress, which exposed her neck, collarbone, and the powdered upper reaches of her breast, had caused a low and steady ripple as the subscribers took their seats. "That's Leo Slezak's girl," his father confided with a wink. The soprano's name had never registered with Arno, nor had he seen her again onstage or seated in the artists' stall, but as soon as the performance began that night (was it Tannheüser or Otello? Strange, he reflected, how one night at the opera is just like all nights at the opera) he'd been able to think of nothing else but her delicate collarbone where it met the shoulder of her costume, the image, like an intimacy exposed, making him feel acutely self-conscious; he trembled in his seat, convinced that if her neck and collarbone remained uncovered for an instant longer (his father was openly staring) their stall would suddenly break off from the theater wall and tumble to the gallery below. He remembered abandoning his chair against the rail and taking refuge on the bench with its obstructed view. (His mother had monitored his move with her usual air of patent disapproval.) He remembered feeling as if his entire world, such as it was, would end in darkness like a drama for the stage—that every happiness he had ever known, from the boxes of Ildefensos chocolates that his mother brought back from her trips to Vienna; to the color plates from The Macrolepidoptera of the World (Dr. Aldabert Seitz, Stuttgart) that his father sometimes let him leaf through for an hour at a time; to their endless summers at the rented house in Ferdinandstahl, where Arno ate cherries from the trees that lined the road to Haindorf, "apprenticed" with the wood-turner in his cave of a workshop, which smelled of rotting turnips, and "assisted" Mr. Neuhaeuser, their impoverished neighbor, when he went moth hunting in the forest after dark, collecting specimens from the trunks of trees he'd already scored (in daylight) with an enormous hunting knife, the woods around them thrumming with a secret life that reminded Arno of fairy tales; everything that he held dear, or so it seemed to Arno in the throes of his neurotic disturbance, was endangered by the presence of this nameless young soprano in the artists' stall across the way, taking in her lover's performance in a Gypsy costume . . . Next he remembered running past a napping usher in the corridor outside, following its horseshoe curve to the nearest staircase, and rushing down the marble steps to the WC, where he immediately started scrubbing his hands, the faintest hint of the orchestra rising, and falling, and rising again to join the sound of running water . . . At a certain point, still before the first intermission, he became aware of his parents' voices outside the washroom door, bickering over what to do about his flight from the performance, his mother preaching tolerance, his father arguing for a beating, and while he rinsed his hands in the empty washroom Arno cried, "Go away!"
Perhaps his father had burst inside at that moment, fed up with his erratic behavior, or perhaps the bursting in had come somewhat later and at the insistence of his mother (here the details grew hazy in his mind); regardless of the buildup, his father, who was dead now, did make a spectacle of himself that night and drag Arno out of the washroom with a violence that Arno would never forgive him for, not even in death. There were tears in the corridor, tears in the entryway during intermission, tears that only grew hotter (as his mother would later claim) during their nighttime walk to the Stare Mesto and their old apartment at No. 8 Soukenicka. Of this forced march home by street lamp, and what might have transpired before he was put to bed, Arno remembered nothing. Just that his worst fears, in the weeks and months ahead, had all been realized: his mother forbade him from eating chocolates; his father locked away his volumes of the Macrolepidoptera until further notice; their summers in Ferdinandstahl would grow shorter, less eventful, even monotonous, until they finally stopped traveling to northern Bohemia altogether and confined their summer holiday to a week or two on the Grundlsee in Austria.
His mother, once she had learned the rudiments of Freud's science, liked to refer to that unsettling night at the opera as Arno's "Wolf-Man episode," and Arno, though it pained him, was tempted to agree. But that discussion would come later, once Arno had gone into analysis with Mrs. Caroline Ochs, the woman who, as he saw it, would release him from the tyranny of his upbringing and change forever the course of his life.