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Kafka Gets Laid

by David Holzel

Waking from deepest slumber, eyes still shut, Kafka drinks the cognac of retreating sleep. He pulls the heavy blanket tight about him and buries his face in the pillows. He hears the play of water in the bath. v Yes, that will do, Kafka thinks. Morning stillness. Dappled light. The sounds of another soul serene in the adjoining room. Two minds with an interval to consider what their bodies have wrought. v Kafka opens his eyes and turns to the window. The curtains billow. Perfect scene. She has been in there, what?, twenty-five, thirty minutes? He turns to the door. Gretchen will be flesh and blood today, he thinks. Not a woman who, after an all-night tumble, strains his thigh and announces she is an apparition before disappearing at dawn.

She was a clerk at the bank where Kafka went to make his weekly deposit. From his place in line he watched her smile shyly when customers spoke to her, averting her gaze if they made her laugh. A girl really, twenty-one or twenty-two, yet she seemed so unapproachable in her high collar with the ivory buttons, that he never dared ask her to dinner.

For a year Kafka tried to melt her shy severity with witty remarks as she stamped his checks with a crack and tallied the entries in her massive ledger. She had told him her name and that she had come from the countryside, and that is all Kafka knew.

One evening in early spring they came upon each other in the market. The magazine had unexpectedly purchased one of his stories and, with a few crowns jingling in his purse, Kafka was in a gay mood. He enjoyed her surprise as they rounded an onion stall from opposite sides.

"What are you doing here?'' she said.

Kafka answered before he could laugh, "Buying onions.''

Her hair was not tied tight in the usual manner, but fell loosely around her shoulders. Without her ledger and the iron bar that separated her from the customers, Gretchen's shyness had no sanctuary. Kafka watched her chest heave.

"Will you have supper with me, Gretchen?''

Before she could gather an excuse he made her agree to immediately accompany him to what he promised was a restaurant of mystery just a short ride away. Facing her for the first time, Kafka noticed how slender her shoulders and hips were. Her boyish frame reminded him of Berta, with whom he had an affair the year before. Whereas Berta's breasts were small, Gretchen's tightly laced bodice indicated something more voluptuous, although Kafka was unable to calculate to what degree.

Berta had pretensions of being a writer. They met at a party hosted by a garrulous, but unsuccessful publisher of Kafka's acquaintance. He found Berta in the corner of the publisher's drafty sitting room, smoking cigarettes and holding forth on her plans to make literature conform to the aesthetics of the machine age.

"Who would read a book printed on sheet metal in which every page repeats the one before it?'' Kafka asked after listening a few moments.

"In five years workers will be so much like machines that they will welcome a literature that reflects their experience,'' Berta answered and bit her thin lips.

She did not invite him home that night. But within a week their affair had begun. Kafka soon adopted her habits, eating little except when invited to dinner parties, sleeping in the afternoon, still awake at dawn planning a novel without verbs. He enjoyed their conspiracy of the artist.

Later, he discovered that for all of Berta's pretensions, she wrote little. Her attic room was squalid. He often found her there, entertaining friends who would ask Kafka for money and never repay it. Her lovemaking increasingly seemed to be modeled on the machines she so triumphed. He now found coarseness in her candidness, bitterness behind her sharp questions and strong opinions.

One day she announced their affair was ended with the unexceptional explanation: ``The magic is gone.'' It was true, but her artlessness pained him. Now though, as the cab slowed to a halt, the sight of Gretchen's slender form and the association with Berta that it caused warmed Kafka like brandy.

Kamp Kafka

[ How I spent
my summer
vacation ]

The orchestra was playing
as they entered the restaurant. Revolutionaries in torn gray jackets smoked cigarettes and dipped heels of bread in mustard pots. In the mirror, Kafka watched them lean close together as they conspired. Further on, clerks in bowler hats sat across from their wives at small tables and dined on sausage.

"Where is the mystery that you promised?'' Gretchen said as they were shown a table in the recesses of the restaurant.

"You must wait for it,'' Kafka replied. He ordered a carafe of wine, hoping Gretchen would see in his presumption a flourish to the drama he wished them to enter.

"A glass of wine is a woman of dainty youth,'' she said when the waiter had filled their glasses.

"Too much wine, her grandmother,'' Kafka replied laughing. "But you don't seem much like Helga Stern in 'Bitter Embers.' I think in the chapter before she spoke that line to Baron Fassbinder she had already poisoned Herr Glick the lawyer.''

"You can relax, I haven't poisoned anyone today,'' Gretchen said. "But you do remind me of the baron. So perhaps, sir, you could tell me how much wine is too much?''

"One never knows until it's too late.''

They finished the carafe before the meal arrived, and in the smoky light Kafka began to discern new details in Gretchen's face. When she laughed her mouth was like Anna's, with broad lips curling around a delightful overbite.

Anna was a nurse. Kafka had come to the hospital to visit a friend who was recovering from surgery. He found Anna in the sickroom, helping the friend from bed to a chair. That done, she left the room, returning a moment later with some medicine.

As Kafka greeted his friend, he watched Anna. Her steadiness in supporting the much larger man contrasted with her ungainly walk once relieved of that burden. Physically, she was similarly in conflict -- the body of a thin woman in battle with an incipient thickness.

In subsequent visits Kafka spoke to Anna. But it was weeks before she agreed to see him outside the hospital, weeks more before she betrayed any affection for him. Except his writing, this was the most patience Kafka had devoted to anything.

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