ELZA

by Magdalena Parys, writerBerlin, Germany, 2012

“We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep” ( William Shakespeare) The doorkeeper opened the door. Elisabet Bergner confidently crossed the threshold of a Parisian hotel. She was wearing a white dress and a hat. A round, large collar lined with a velvet ribbon harmonized with the black belt and a scarf. She was tall, narrow in shoulders and slim in waist. She did not resemble the small girl from “Panna Eliza”, a film that Bruno saw seven times in the cinema – the last time yesterday, a few streets away. He felt drops of sweat on his forehead. Calm down. She looked different than he could have expected, but it was her. Elisabet looked around and, after a moment, started walking towards him. She was walking towards him! He shrunk. Whilst walking, she was taking off her gloves, the scarf and the hat. He felt her power and shivered. The hall was not long and she was walking fast. Three more steps, two more. The heels of her shoes were clattering. He saw her high forehead, bright hair (no longer dark!) and round eyes in front of him. He felt weak. It was HER. How many times was he stroking her forehead and her eyes in modest dreams, calming her and himself down that maybe everything would turn out fine, that the end of the film would be different? For the first time, he cried; the second time too and the third one as well. The fourth time and the fifth time he felt angry; the sixth time, he was infinitely sad. He did not remember the seventh time. In the film, Elza always died. He would enter the cinema first and sit at the back in the right-hand corner – this corner seemed darkest to him. He left last. Later, in the street, he pretended that in the cinema it was not him, Bruno, the serious man – thinking about himself in such categories was not easy, but it brought relief – a teacher – here, he grimaced even more: he cannot be so weak and should pull himself together. Immediately. But, the very next evening, he would go to the cinema again. Nobody knew about these trips, not even his sister. He explained his prolonged stay in Warsaw by unforeseen problems with the publisher in letters to the family. He felt some inexplicable bond with Elisabet – Elza in the film – who, just like him, was born in Drohobych and was Jewish by origin. This bond went through various intensities; at a key moment, it even became an obsession, fed by legends told by inhabitants of Drohobych about their great and famous actress, who was making a career in the world. Only after years, common days changed the obsession into longing for an unknown, but close, Person. Bruno seemed to control it. Several years passed. He came to Paris. The true reason for his visit was clear – an exhibition of his works, which he brought in two large suitcases. Yet on the first day, a strange man in a red hat and a dark worn-out tail coat (one of the strange old men whom he met everywhere here and then met them in dreams), when looking carefully at his works said that they resembled an actress who was currently staying in Paris. As far as he knew, she was staying in a nearby hotel. “Do you always sketch Elisabet Bergner?” he asked, handing the works back to him. Could this fact be new to him? However, he felt a piercing shiver and went to the cinema on the same day. For the seventh time. He was sitting in the first row and did not see anything. This time, reality was bothering him. Was he really painting ELISABET? Here, in this city, he became aware of what he failed to comprehend. He did not remember the name of the hotel – was that of any importance? It was enough that it was the one located near, in front of the townhouse where Chopin died. “Excuse me,” he stammered. “Excuse me, are you Miss Bergner?” As in a pantomime, he stretched out his hand towards her, and the words became unclear whisper. Sleepless night behind him made his movements slower. Or maybe the world stopped? It was as if he saw it once before, slightly bent, almost broken in half. Something has to happen, the image has to move. He has to say something – immediately. Otherwise, he will freeze forever. Eternity is good, but not now. Therefore, he has to move himself and the world. He has to speak. He has to say something charming and wise – what was it? He was learning it by heart. He looked at the flowery ceiling of the hotel and deeply inhaled. Yes! He knows! He opened his mouth. It was too late. “Elisabet!” he heard somebody’s voice behind his back. A muscular man passed him over and shut out Elisabet from his view, the foyer, everything. He embraced Elisabet’s waist with a commanding gesture. “You are heartily welcome,” said a man with a napkin on his forearm and led Elisabet and her partner in the direction of the hotel restaurant. The coat check intercepted the hat, gloves and Elisabet’s scarf. Bruno was looking at the smooth, soft fabric. Soft and transparent: like him. * Almost all tables were occupied. There was clatter of cutlery and subdued noise of conversations. A sad pianist once again intoned La prière d'une vierge. Bruno tried not to look towards Elisabet, but he could not do it. “Have you read the script?” the partner looked at Elisabet and emptied another glass of wine. She pouted. “Have you read it?” “In England, writing scripts is a serious and respected profession, similarly to here. In Hollywood, the situation is completely different,” she said. “May be, but consider…” Bruno stopped listening. He was observing Elisabet. Initially, she was listening attentively, but after a moment, he registered fatigue on her face. He was able to read women’s faces; he was able to read Elisabet’s face. Her partner could not do it. He was eating and talking at the same time, not letting Elisabet utter a single word. Finally, he stopped eating and talking. He wiped sweat from his forehead with a huge handkerchief and upset a glass of wine. The clank of broken glass and a curse drowned the music. The waiter ran to his guest in order to help him find way to the toilet a moment later. “Go, but when you come back do not talk so much. And do not drink,” Elisabet did not say it loud, but whoever was supposed to hear it, heard it. “The waiter is jumping like a monkey and Elisabet’s partner looks like a wounded drunken centaur,” thought Bruno. He thought that he would make it the first act of something that did not yet exist, but would come into being and drew out his sketchbook. The pianist started a happier and faster composition, unknown to Bruno. Elisabet’s foot in a shoe on a high, very thin heel (Bruno has not seen such heels before) was moving to the rhythm of the music. Her partner was not coming back. Elisabet finished eating and wiped her lips delicately with a napkin. Silver bracelets touched the table. Elisabet’s lips were very shiny. He felt that she was very close to him. A very important moment was approaching. He thought that in spite of everything they were there together. Not at one table, but in one room, distanced from each other by only three metres – maybe four. “Would you like anything else?” the waiter was stooping over him. The snow-white napkin on his forearm swung. Bruno asked for a bill. The waiter left. Bruno drew out an envelope from his pocket which he did not manage to give to Elisabet in the foyer and put something that he sketched in it. NOW! He got up and approached Elisabet’s table on shaky legs. She looked at him without a smile. He bowed humbly, handing her the envelope on the hard sketchbook, as if on a tray. She looked at him as if he was a freak. “I brought you Drohobych in this envelope,” said Bruno and kneeled in front of her. She did not answer. Bruno got up and left. She did not know whether it was a dream or not. And later, he did not know it either. She never opened it. She kept it as a talisman until her death.