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Streetcars and Green Stockings

by Frank Thomas Smith


Egon Schiele: Blonde Girl with Green Stockings - 1914

                                       

Prague

            A lecture wasn't exactly what I had in mind for the evening, but there we were, Katrina and I, approaching the hall where it was to take place. A full moon shone into the narrow cobblestoned street. Its presence more or less guaranteed that there would be no more snow that night.

             That same day, I think it was early afternoon, I had boarded a streetcar and found a spot among the standees, when the clasp on my briefcase somehow opened as we rounded a sharp curve and the books and papers tumbled out. I bent to retrieve them and fell against another standee, knocking her over and falling almost on top of her. Her long skirt hitched up somewhat and I noticed that she wore green stockings. I stammered apologies in German, my native tongue, instead of Czech. My reaction was automatic, but the fact is that in that enlightened age all educated people in Prague spoke German. Hers was lightly accented. She helped me pick up my things, which were strewn around and soiled by the slush the passengers' shoes had tracked into the car. An elderly couple vacated a double seat at the next stop and I quickly grasped the hand-guard and invited her to sit next to the window. I took my place next to her on the aisle.

            She wasn't a beautiful woman, at least not in the usual sense. You could have called her attractive though. Her most salient feature was her smile -- wide and spontaneous, lighting up her face. Though she wore a heavy fur coat against the cold, I could tell that she was somewhat plump, which was to my taste. And she didn't have the thin, bloodless lips of most German women; rather the full, sensuous ones of the Czech.

              The bump, the fall and the shared retrieval task had served as an icebreaker, so I introduced myself and we talked and laughed about it and, naturally, I invited her to join me in one of those delightful Prague cafes for coffee and cake. But she pleaded a previous engagement, so I asked her to go with me to the theater that evening. She blushed, smiled, and said yes. When we reached her stop she started to get off, but at the door she turned and said, quickly, "No, don't buy the tickets, but we'll meet there anyway. I'll explain later." The doors opened and she stepped down and out. I noticed some of my fellow passengers smirking, but I didn't care about that, I was already in love -- at first sight, as they say. A little boy sitting on the aisle stared at me with a fey look. I looked at him inquiringly and he turned away, frowning.

              Katarina was already waiting at the theater entrance when I arrived five minutes early. She smiled and I shivered more with expectation than from the cold. “I'm so sorry," she said, "but I forgot an engagement for this evening when I told you I could go to the theater." My heart sank, but she continued before I could say anything. "I'm going there alone though. Why don't you join me?" That was more like it. I agreed of course. "We must hurry," she said. "We don't want to be late."

              "Of course not," I assented, although I couldn't have cared less. "Where are we going?"

              "To a lecture, it's not far from here."

              My heart sank again or, more accurately, took a little dip, for my idea had been the theater, then dinner with enough good German (or even Czech) wine.  We were together though and that, although the circumstances were different from those I had anticipated, was sufficient to make me happy. She took my arm and we walked carefully over the icy streets.

A poster was stuck on the door of the lecture room. It said something about "Spiritual Science". My God, I thought, what have I gotten into? Many believe that now, the beginning of the twentieth-first century, is a materialistic age. The fact is, however, that the first quarter of the previous century was at the apogee of materialism. Everyone believed in natural science then, and its findings and its arrogance were unquestioned.

The lecturer was to be a Dr. Rudolf Steiner.

            The room, not very large, was almost full and there were no two seats together. Katarina sat on the aisle and I had to sit two rows behind and to the right of her. This arrangement was unsatisfactory of course, but I appeased myself with the thought that I could at least observe her profile instead of Dr. Steiner's pot-belly.

Exactly at the starting time he entered from a side door and stood alongside the podium instead of behind it. "Sehr geehrte Damen und Heeren ..." A formal opening in a deeply resonant, Austrian accented voice. I had decided to listen with at least half an ear in case she wanted to discuss what he said afterwards, but that was impossible. Rudolf Steiner captured one's attention totally. He didn't have a pot-belly, by the way. He was thin, of average height for those days, dark complexioned with pitch-black, straight hair. He was dressed in black as well, with a frock coat and an artist's flowing black silk tie.

            After the formal opening he became warmer, then, after a half-hour, very warm. He turned the world upside-down, saying things that were completely new to me, but which I somehow recognized as being true, as though I had always known them and was now being reminded. He spoke of a spiritual world that was real, of the nature of man as a spiritual being who is in a constant process of development through many lives.

           My head swam and I completely forgot Katarina's profile. In fact, at one point near the end I felt I was going to faint, so profound an effect did he and his words have on me. (Katarina told me later that people actually did faint sometimes, which could be embarrassing if they were sitting on an aisle. When this happened Steiner didn't even pause while the unconscious body was dragged out into the fresh air.)         

            After it was over and the thunderous applause died out, I sat alone. Katarina came and took my hand. I stood up and followed her out of the hall. I suppose the cold air brought me to my senses. We went to a cafe after all and I asked her about what had just happened, which was the turning point in my life, what was left of it. We were together on the following two evenings, and never again. I was a lieutenant in the German army and had to leave on the third day for the front. It was August 1914, and I, fool that I was, had volunteered to fight for our glorious fatherland. We spent our last evening together as lovers. I had an intuition that I would never see her again and I think she had the same feeling. Not that I believed I'd be killed in the war, young men never think that until it happens.

Sojourn

My sojourn in the other world was so short because my life on earth was brief. It is only recently that I have had the ability to see my past life, parts of it at least, and to catch glimpses of the immediate future. I know that Katarina is here, because she also died young, and we will meet on a streetcar again. I've concentrated to the limit of my powers, but have not succeeded in determining where I should look. Perhaps I shouldn't look, just wait for it to happen of itself like last time. But no, things have changed and I must use my intelligence and will -- and hope for luck, that's still allowed.

San Francisco

            Luck came my way today. I switched on the TV and saw a picture of one of those famous San Francisco cable cars. Of course. Why hadn't I thought of that before? I flew to San Francisco and have been riding the cable cars for the past week. After the first two days I decided to ride only during rush hours -- eight to nine in the morning and five to six in the afternoon -- when there are standees and I can be one. A problem is that there are no curves to cause the accident. It has occurred to me that I could be in the wrong place. Once I was in Lisbon and rode on a similar streetcar, but with curves. It's probably still there. Lisbon doesn't change. But my intuition tells me he's in America and San Francisco seems to be the most likely place. No, "he" isn't a slip of the tongue. I haven't mentioned yet that I'm a woman in this incarnation and Katarina is a man; should be at least, it's the rule.

            Today it happened. During the middle of the short uphill trip a handsome young man in an air force officer's uniform got on. I noticed that one clasp of his attaché-case was open and I waited for the other one to spring. He placed the case on the floor alongside his leg and opened a newspaper to read. The headline read: U.S. Ground Forces to Leave Iraq. I decided to give karma a kick-off and nudged his attaché-case with my foot. It fell over and the other clasp clicked open. He leaned down and quickly picked up the case by its handle. The contents, loose papers and two books, flew out. Just as he bent down to retrieve them the streetcar's brakes squealed, he fell against me and we both went down, me on the bottom. I was wearing green stockings under a mini-skirt. He helped me up, apologizing and trying frantically to gather up his things. I looked out of the window to see what had caused the sudden stop. The driver leaned out and yelled at a little girl to watch where she was going or she'd get killed. She looked at me from the sidewalk with that familiar fey look. Then she disappeared into the crowd. I helped him pick up his things and we sat in the seats vacated by a gay couple. After introductions and some small talk, he asked me to have dinner with him tonight. Naturally I accepted.

We are in a restaurant in Chinatown. He sips a glass of California wine and tells me that he's an instructor at a nearby airbase, but he's had no combat experience so he's requesting a transfer to the Middle East. It will be good for his career. He is so happy about it, so convinced, so foolish. Oh God, must it be a three-night stand again? Is there no way out? If I tell him what I know about us would it help, or will he think me mad? Behind him, on the wall, is a large mirror in which I can see the back of his head, myself and the street through the window behind me. My heart jumps when I see the little girl with the fey look outside on the street staring at me in the mirror. "No!" I cry, and put my hand over my mouth. The little girl's fey look slowly relents and she smiles.

"Is something wrong?" he asks.

I look into his concerned eyes and say, "No, everything's fine," because I know, I pray, that it will be different this time. When I look back into the mirror I see only the back of his head, myself and the window behind me. The little girl is gone. 

Three nights later we are in my bed and he seems sad, so I ask him, coquettishly, I admit, if he is already tired of me. He laughs and kisses me for the hundreth time that day and explains that he is only disappointed because he just learned that he will not be going to the Middle East - Iraq or Afghanistan - but to Germany.

"Oh," I exclaim, "that's wonderful!"

When he asks why I explain: "I am German. I came to America when I was a child and I have been considering applying for a Fullbright scholarship to study German history."

"Mein Gott," he smiles. "Will you teach me German?"

"Aber natürlich," I answer. "With all my heart."



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