The Other Me

Cafe Sperl - Vienna

by Frank Thomas Smith

Vienna: it was my last meeting before mandatory retirement, something I myself had mandated. I had noticed that old people never want to let go; my father and his father were like that. My grandfather was still haunting the Board meetings at ninety. My father merely held onto the company’s reins until 75, when I took over. Although I knew that I would also some day reach the age of mandatory retirement, I mandated it anyway; 65 seems as remote to thirty-year-olds as thirty does to teenagers.

General Meetings are still always held in romantic foreign places. Considering that our head office and main manufacturing units are in Milwaukee, almost anywhere fits the description. This has the dual advantage of keeping everyone in a good mood and limiting the number of stockholders attending. I arrived a day early, wishing to renew my acquaintance with Vienna, a city very rich in history and beauty and blood and which never changes, at least not outwardly.

A block of rooms had been reserved at the Intercontinental, where the meeting was to be held. It has excellent facilities for large company meetings. I, however, booked a room for myself at the Imperial Hotel. It has not changed since the nineteenth century – at least not outwardly. Everything is as it always has been, except for the plumbing, and even that is kept highly polished. The luxurious, renowned 5-star Hotel Imperial is set directly on the Ringstraße boulevard in the heart of Vienna and takes you back to the times of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It features exclusive hotel rooms, a gourmet restaurant and a 24-hour rooftop fitness center with a sauna. It was inaugurated in 1873 by Emperor Francis Joseph as the Palais Württemberg. My younger colleagues, who little knew what they were missing, smiled at my eccentricity. But I didn’t care. There was to be a “surprise” dinner party in my honor in the Intercontinental after the meeting, at which I would give a maudlin speech and leave early so the others wouldn’t be frustrated by my avuncular presence.

On the afternoon of my arrival, I strolled down the Kärntner Ring to the OpernGasse, then back to Kärntner-Strasse. It was autumn and a chill was in the air. I looked through the window of the Café Sperl, where decades ago Anne-Marie and I had spent many a pleasant post-theater or opera hour with a bottle of clear white Austrian wine, before repairing to the Imperial for what any healthy young couple would do in such sumptuous old-world circumstances. The catch was – isn’t there always one? – that Anne-Marie was descended from minor Austrian nobility and she was, or would someday be, rich. I was neither rich, nor would I ever be nobility or even Austrian. In fact I was a mere sergeant in the U.S. Army, lucky enough to be stationed in Vienna during the Cold War. I eventually went home and Anne-Marie married some rich Austrian nobleman.

The café Sperl looked as it always had, outwardly and inwardly. The marble-topped tables, comfortable wooden chairs, newspapers hanging from racks to be read free of charge, wonderful coffee from Brazil or Colombia, but prepared a la Viennese, and sweet cakes. The young Rudolf Steiner used to hang out in the Café Sperl at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century smoking cigars, sniffing snuff and shooting the breeze with other philosophically inclined types. I entered, walked through cigar smoke (smoking still permitted, even encouraged) towards the rear and “my” corner table.

It was occupied by someone who, to me, was very strange – so strange in fact that I froze in my tracks and, I fear, gawked at him. He was me (or I was he) forty years ago. Do I remember what I looked like forty years ago? Of course, I have photographs – taken, in fact, now that I mention it, by Anne-Marie. He was totally me, at least outwardly. Should I approach and ask him if or why he is me, or turn and run. I was slowly approaching him without realizing it until I was alongside his table. He looked up from reading his newspaper, the Wiener Zeitung, and glanced at me quizzically. “Excuse me,” I said, “but I…” He nodded, indicated one of the empty chairs with his hand and went back to reading. He understood me to want to ask if one of the other chairs at his table (there were two unoccupied ones) was free. In Austria one has the right to sit at any table with an unoccupied chair; it is, however, considered good manners to ask if the chair in question is free.

I sat down and the waiter appeared almost instantly and wiped my part of the already spotless table with his cloth. My erstwhile Doppelgänger, seeing that I paid no attention to the waiter, said to me in slightly accented English, with a smile “He wants your order, sir.” Of course, I had spoken to him in English. And why not, since he was me, although I do speak German. “Oh, I see, just coffee,” I said to the waiter in English. He nodded as though to a simpleton and vanished.

I decided to come directly to the point, something I often do and has contributed much to my success in business and, alas, the failures in my personal life. “Have you noticed, young man, the similarity in our appearances.” I could have said that we look alike, but such direct speech, even from me, is not appropriate in Vienna. He seemed surprised as he looked me over. I was dressed in what for me is informal attire – gray slacks and a sports jacket, light-blue speckled tie, loafers. He was in jeans with a hole in one knee, a pink sweater (no discernible shirt), running shoes and white socks. Of course nowadays any CEO might dress that way, so there was no way of telling his social status. His hair, by the way, was so long it touched his shoulders, but at least it was clean. I had little hair left to boast about. He weighed at least thirty pounds less than me.

“Why yes, there is a resemblance,” he admitted, concentrating on my face. “You look like my father.”

I leaned closer to him. “But you see, it’s more than that. I have photos, I could show you that when I was your age…24?…25?” He nodded. “…I looked exactly like you. It’s uncanny.”

“Is that so?” he said, humoring me, I felt. “Coincidences are often most interesting.”

I shook my head. “No, I think it’s more than mere coincidence.”

“Do you? Why?”

“What I mean to say is what if you really are me…as I was then? I mean…”

“Daniel,” a young woman who had suddenly materialized at our table said in German, “we must hurry. The train is at 10.30 and if we miss it there’s not another one until tomorrow.”

I stood up, as a gentleman should: she was Anne-Marie, exactly as I remembered her face, her figure, her graceful body language. Her clothes were very different though: plaid mini-skirt, black blouse barely covering braless breasts. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. The young man also stood, not for the presence of a lady, but because she was insisting on him leaving with her in order to catch a train. She glanced at me curiously. The young man, Daniel-Me, not realizing that I understood, said in German, “This guy thinks we look so much alike that he’s me.” He laughed. “Or I’m him.” He bowed slightly to me and said, “Auf wiedersehen.” To her he said, “I’ll get a taxi,” and hurried out.

Anne-Marie just stood there looking at me. She was only an inch or two shorter. She held her hand out. I bent over and kissed it. “Come on, Annie, the taxi’s waiting,” Daniel said from the entrance. When she didn’t move, he said, “What’s the matter?”

“Well, if that’s what you look like when you’re an old fart, it’s not so bad,” she called out in German, smiling at me. It was impossible to know whether she was speaking about me or to me. Or both.

She turned to leave, then stopped and turned back to me. “Have we met before?”

My heart doubled its beat. “Actually, yes.”

“I had that impression. Where did we meet?”

“Right here, in this café, quite a while ago,” I said. “It was raining hard and we had just come from the opera, so we ducked in here.”

“The opera?”

“Yes, do you remember?”

“Perhaps … no, not really. What opera did we experience?” Her English was very good, but with a slight accent.

“The Magic Flute. It was magical.”

She smiled, “Yes, it usually is when performed here in Vienna.”

I didn't know what to say, until she asked the dreaded question: “When was that. I'm sorry, but I don't remember going to The Magic Flute with you, although I have the feeling that ….” She stopped in mid-sentence and asked, “What is your name?”

I decided to come clean, in reality I had no choice: “My name is Daniel and it was 1955.”

She shook her head and passed her hand - the one I’d kissed - over her eyes as though wiping away cobwebs. Then she turned and joined Me-Daniel at the exit and the taxi and the train to…I’ve often wondered where to..

I never saw them again. Oh, I was fascinated by those events, but I decided that if I tried to follow them up, to investigate the possibility that one or more individuals can live more than one earthly life simultaneously, that is, reincarnate before dying, I might go mad. At the very least everyone else would think me mad. I did consider the alternative of a parallel universe, but that was even weirder, so I dropped it…outwardly at least.