Kleines Cafe, Vienna
Online reviews give Kleines Cafe 4.3 stars. There’s a note about Kleines being a cafe locals go to, and a picture of a latte in a clear mug so you can see the band of espresso between the whole milk on bottom and the frothed milk on top. That is the latte I order after finding the place a couple of blocks off Stephansplatz. I navigated easy turns following the blue dot on Google maps and then, even with the cafe in front of me saying Kleines Cafe, its two doors open to a small room, I looked at the map and saw the pin dropped maybe fifty meters further and wondered were there two Kleines Cafes in the same block. Be where you are, I told myself, and stepped into an alcove of a dining room.
I am going to write. I like to sit at the side or back of a room but not with my back to others because the pause between thoughts or paragraphs is a good time to see what people are like. There really isn’t a side or back at Kleines. You’re in the middle wherever you sit. Cracked, cigarette scarred vinyl upholstered benches line either side of the room. A bar with three wood-backed swivel stools is where the waiter double-checks orders before carrying trays out to the patio tables where most patrons sit. I might have sat outside but the tables and chairs are wood slatted with spindly metal legs standing on cobblestone. I don’t like to write at a wobbly table. I sit near the door at a rectangular marble-topped table with enough space for my latte, water and notebook if I set the sugar, salt and pepper and ashtray on a chair. There are two more tables to my right, then a few steps down to the toilets and a narrow hall opening to a second room. I don’t know what’s in that second room. Maybe another bar. The kitchen has to be back there somewhere too.
I order a latte and open my notebook. When I told my husband I wanted to take the train to Vienna from Budapest where we are spending summer, I pictured this, a writing holiday of lattes and marble-topped tables. I wanted poetry or sudden, brilliant fiction born. I had three days. And then less than three days.
All morning I thought about this regret I have. For a couple of years when the kids were little I wavered as a wife and mother, insecure and angry but recognizing those currents and seeking security and peace in God. That sentence makes it tidy. The doubt and fear knotted in those first years parenting isn’t completely sorted – the doubt I should be a mother at all, the fear I ruin my children – and some mornings that dark sensation that I might throw myself off a ledge if I were not lying flat on the floor comes back. What also comes back are the prayers and assurances that might be a pebble in my pocket or a rock I stand on. All morning I’d thought about this regret, that I wasn’t wild about marriage or motherhood, that for a time I wanted neither because love was more work than I’d expected. I’ve been thinking about this a lot because I enjoy my kids more now than when they were babies and sometimes I feel bad about that. Some of the new joy is attributable to the relative ease of having school-age children who tie their shoes, wipe their bottoms, read books and play Lego. And some of the joy stems from a shoot of security I root daily, that I am loved by God.
But those early years parenting – I looked at myself and saw a lot of sin, the kind you can pretend isn’t there but it’s in your heart and head. This was Sermon On The Mount sin of whose thought was enough to condemn the sinner. My thoughts condemned. While I had been walking a direction of faith, following this Jesus for years, the path became much narrower after I had children. I was selfish. I was insecure. There was a vein of pride that I saw, like a medical test lights a pathway in the body to show the tendril curl and reach of this deadly sin. I could see how much I wanted others to like me, need me, how for years I lit up at approval. There isn’t much approval gained in the daily, unseen work of parenting. Instead, parenting is frighteningly humbling. As mama to a toddler and baby, the social media blitz of links and posts could be devastating. If I was already wobbly in my sense of worth or purpose – I am loved to love – then reading about the many best childhoods I should be giving my daughter and son, or seeing photo posts from a playdate we weren’t invited to, or thumbing through any number of “creative” or “healthy” things I might be preparing during naptime: all of this pointed at my inadequacy as a mom.
And while I was inadequate as a mom, I was also inadequate as a wife, a teacher and a writer. Each of my roles sucked competency, practice and energy from the others.
So in Kleines Cafe, I open my notebook to write more about this. I don’t figure it out. Instead I paralyze myself playing a highlight reel of my approval-seeking ventures.
At the table next to me, two women in their sixties or seventies share the bench, turned to each other so their knees touch. They order mélange and their cups arrive, accompanied by glasses of water. One woman has dark brown dyed hair and wears slacks and red nubuck loafers. Her phone interrupts conversation with a siren ringtone. She gets two or three calls. The other woman has no piece of her wardrobe to suggest personality but she keeps the conversation apace. They gesture and laugh. A crossed leg jiggles. The two women are nearly finished with their coffees when a third arrives, and the three women say hello with recognition or (maybe I imagine) friendship. This third woman wears a navy linen knee-length dress. She sits at a small table opposite the two women and the way she sits I can see up her thigh. I wonder what my legs will look like when the skin goes crepe. This third woman with shoulder length white silver hair, deep red polish on her nails, and a dress that rides up her thigh when she sits makes me want to start wearing dresses. Her movement is economical. With a slow raise of one hand she orders her coffee, then goes still. I want to know what kind of old woman I will be, if I will wear red nubuck loafers and show my teeth when I laugh or if I will wear a linen dress that slides up the thigh and sit like art. I want to ask this third woman if she worries she is out of place, if she worries the two women across the way talk about her when she is absent, if she worries how her legs look now that her body is old.
My daughter is so young. She strings together nonsensical lyrics, bounds through the street pretending she’s a husky, wears polka dot socks with stubby blue leather boots and carries a smartphone made out of a Tic Tac box covered with stickers. I sit in Kleines Cafe thinking I can’t watch her lose any of that certainty. I think of my mom who was my age, thirty-five, when I was a sophomore in high school. What did she see when she watched me walk out the door wearing old corduroys I’d salvaged from St. Vinny’s thrift shop? Did she think I was making it okay? When I was fifteen I had a shell of superiority, not too different from the armor most teenagers wear. I craved approval. Like me is a heavy chain to drag through places and relationships.
When I sit in a cafe for long enough, even just an hour and a half, tables reconfigure. Where a young couple sat (the woman talking straight through eggs, toast, coffee, juice while the man made small noises to show he followed), now a single woman slouches on the bench next to her giant straw bag. I quit writing about heart-change when this woman comes in the door because she is so obviously what I might have been if I’d scraped money for a junior year abroad. First thing I recognize is the crippling desire to make clothes say you’re thinking about more important things like poetry. At first I think she is wearing an Indian tunic which would nod bohemian but she is actually dressed in plaid navy blue men’s pajamas, a pale violet silk scarf at her neck. This is why I look up from my notebook. She is now up to her elbows in that giant straw bag. She takes out a dayplanner, flips through its blank July pages, then opens her phone to scroll for things to add to the dayplanner. She does this for a few minutes.
I just bought a purple dayplanner last week. An eighteen month dayplanner. I bought it for two reasons. One, nostalgia for my old dayplanners that will tell you how many miles I ran June 2008 and times/ duration my son breastfed in September 2010, as well as notes on hotels, school schedules, websites and recipes. Two, because it’s an eighteen month dayplanner and by the time I’m writing anything in the neat rectangles of December 2017, I’ll be living in a new country. So the purple dayplanner is a kind of wonder because I don’t know what I’ll be writing in those end pages.
I take a drink of latte and glance to my right at a new woman now at the end of my bench, sitting where the woman wearing red nubuck loafers and her companion vacated. This new woman is dressed in all black, loose wavy fabrics. She is fat, like an egg with legs. She chats with the waiter and another woman who steps down the narrow stairs to the hidden bar or kitchen. Mostly, this egg woman smokes, slow and steady, her exhalations drifting past me on their way out the door. I smoke two of her five or six cigarettes. But I look at this woman and think how nice to stop by the same cafe every day where the waiter knows you and changes your ashtray and says a few words while he lines up drinks on a tray.
At this point I give up thinking about babies and mothering and regret. I write not much of anything except description. In high school I had this spiral notebook I labeled Observations and wrote the dumbest, snarkiest stuff in cramped print. In college I started writing vignettes of people and situations I saw, guessed at relationships from eavesdropping, hoping to chance upon a story, but a couple of years ago I adopted another writer’s prompt, Here and now I am…
Here and now I am is a quick dive in your physical, mental or metaphorical state. Here and now I am sitting in Kleines Cafe drinking a latte made with full cream milk. The ceiling is the shade of dijon mustard in a glass jar. (That is it exactly). The serious young woman is up to her elbows in her giant straw bag again and this time she takes out a gold plastic bag of tobacco and a rolling paper. I watch her put the whole thing together – how much practice to lick and roll and keep tobacco from peppering your lap? – and light the cigarette with a match before taking such a deep draw she might’ve finished half the cigarette at once. I don’t care if I’m staring. She doesn’t glance my way but if she did, I’d smile. And maybe ask about the men’s pajamas. She blows smoke out her nose, forcefully, so it goes straight down her chest before wafting away.
When I was that young woman’s age, I remade myself a few times. I declared an art major but heeded my mom’s prudish worry about life drawing classes, even asking an art professor if there was a way to earn the degree skipping the nude model sketch sessions. He said, Uh. Three weeks into freshman year I started drinking beer and ordering pizza at two in the morning. I made out with boys whose faces blurred. Penitent, I went to Bible study with my residential hall community advisor, attended a few Sundays of church, tried very hard to find a place among the good Christian kids who held a kind of church service in one of the lecture halls each Thursday night. Sometimes I went to worship and found a house party after. This is probably why I don’t talk with anyone from my university years, because I was dabbling in two different pursuits. I really liked worshipping God and I really liked getting drunk and I did enough of the latter that the former was at such odds I could not go to church or flip through my once treasured Bible. I was unsettled.
I didn’t know how to date or have a relationship. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I started taking writing workshops and decided to become a writer. Then an old suggestion I teach surfaced and I applied to the school of education my junior year. I mishandled my sexuality. I mishandled friendships. I learned a little about writing and a little about teaching. I started running, called running church when I headed out on two or three or four hour Sunday morning runs, getting lost in a time before Google maps, getting lost enough I was dizzy when I finally found my way home. Twice I flirted, half dated or messed around with best friends, leveraging the high of risk (once I said goodbye to one boy as the other was on his way) against the eventual crash of a secret finally out. You aren’t who I thought you were, one young man said to me and I stood before him with no defense because he was right. If at that moment, standing in that young man’s bedroom, I’d have answered who I thought I was, I would have said I wasn’t sure – but even then I hadn’t totally spun out, even then I thought I had a measure of control if I could wake up at five in the morning and run twelve miles.
This was my early twenties: knowing right and choosing wrong, feeling powerful and awful, choosing right, feeling too late. I married a man I met in college. Justin is from our college town so when we visit his family I see the places where I so grandly fucked up a friendship, relationship, another person, myself. Only recently have I thought to pray redemption. Don’t let those years go to waste. Maybe I was no more lost than any other twenty year old. Maybe every former twenty year old remembers misplacing huge chunks of who they were or are, questioning identity and worth, wondering what to do with all the hurt, what to do with all the want.
So when I see this young woman wearing men’s pajamas rolling her own tiny cigarette I think who I was when I was twenty or twenty-one, still learning to be on my own. I missed taking a semester abroad in Europe, but if I’d gone I might have worn men’s dress shirts, on the whim I was an artist, and parked myself at a cafe just as I am now, hunched over an open notebook practicing cursive. I might have been certain enough of my talent to think I’d later refer to those notebooks as my Paris book or my Berlin work. If I had studied abroad, I might have ended up with a regrettable tattoo, a literary quote summing up a teeny tiny moment. It would’ve been on the top of my foot, across the delicate fan of bones. It would now be wearing or bleeding, smudged.
But maybe I’d have gone to Europe at age twenty or twenty-one and just gotten too depressed to enjoy a latte served in three stripes. Maybe I’d have been too sad noticing all the brass plates set into sidewalks reminding me three Jews were carted from this building and four from that building, to die in the Holocaust, and then I’d have been sad thinking I had nothing in the world to be sad about. I still get that way sometimes. The unfairness of knowing I really don’t have much to be truly sad about but I feel like shit anyway. It’s awful. Sitting in a cafe on a bright day, I’d have sensed my unnecessary sorrow keenly. Then I might have learned to roll my own cigarettes and bought a giant straw bag from a flea market. Then I might have learned to smoke ferociously.
But I didn’t go to Europe or get a tattoo or roll my own cigarettes. Instead, during my junior year at university, faced with the prospect of going to Alaska for a summer to work on a day cruise boat, I called my mom who was too busy raising my newest siblings (preschoolers, toddlers and babies) to offer much counsel. I don’t know, Sarah, she said. I must have made her impatient for I was twenty then, the age she was when she gave birth to me, but I still wanted her blessing. After that phone call, nothing resolved, I opened the Bible to a random verse I took as the most passive instruction for decision making, reading “And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left…”
That snippet of a verse haunted me for years until I reread the chapter. The prophecy in context isn’t about whether to go to Alaska or stay in Wisconsin for the summer. The verse I chanced upon, found in Isaiah chapter thirty, refers to the promise of the Holy Spirit, a gift the chosen people desperately needed as they wandered and repented to wander again to repent again. As with so much scripture, this passage isn’t intended to be a fortune cookie but that afternoon in my college dorm room, reading that I’d hear a voice saying “This is the way, walk in it” regardless my next step, I closed my Bible, looked at myself in the mirror and felt very alone.
I was a mess, trying not to be a mess. I might have done well to read the surrounding verses. Now when I reread this small bit of Isaiah I see what my twenty-year-old self needed to hear, starting at verse eighteen: “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you…” I know Isaiah is addressing the Israelites. I know they were a mess, trying not to be a mess. One afternoon in my early thirties I read through first and second Samuel in one shot, newly surprised by just what a disaster David was, this man after God’s heart, this man who wanted to love and serve God and still sinned to repent to sin again to repent again. That afternoon in my dorm room I didn’t glean wisdom or peace from quiet prayer. Then, I wanted most to follow God when I needed help making a decision or navigating a relationship but now I understand following God exacts an inconvenient price – living the gospel is constant. During my young adult years I was most interested in testing grace. I lacked the passion of David. I did not know my Father’s voice because I quit listening. Perhaps what I saw when I looked at myself in the mirror that afternoon, was that I’d finally wandered where I couldn’t see the way back.
The young woman closes her dayplanner, snaps the cover elastic in place. I look at the veins in the marble tabletop and think of my purple dayplanner with a wide open December 2017. I think how afraid I am of moving to a new country. We’ve lived in Kuwait for seven years. Our daughter and son have their whole childhood memory attached to a desert place. When we talk with them about moving we say we want what we enjoy during summer trips. In Prague, Vienna, Budapest: we walk everywhere, stop at a park to let the kids play, have a glass of beer or wine with dinner. And now that wide open December 2017 frightens me. I am not afraid of a new country. We talk about Tanzania, Kenya or Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Hungary, Poland. We could go anywhere and that doesn’t frighten me. Instead, I am terrified of how we choose where to go. I don’t want to be passive like the girl I was, weighing a summer in Alaska, wishing her mom or the Bible would say go right or go left. In the end, I didn’t make a decision about Alaska. I let the offer pass. I think about Alaska. I don’t know what my summer would’ve held if I’d gone so far north I’d have worn bells on my morning runs, mornings lit up like noon. I don’t know who I’d have met and loved, what new dream I’d carry after.
How many decisions have I not made like that, letting the edges go blurry until there is no decision?
When I think of my purple 2017 dayplanner, I want God to tell me: Go ___. I want to get still, quiet enough to hear. And I want to listen, obey. Of course God will lead wherever we go because he’s a God who redeems. But I’ve given him plenty to redeem already and think it’d be so nice to go left because he says go left, not because left offers less resistance.
Just as the tables and chairs reconfigure during an hour and a half in a cafe, so too the mind. When my daughter complains she is bored, I tell her boredom is a gift. But I also remember a friend who told me staying home with her infant was too much “navel gazing” time. I think that of a stretch in any cafe when I’ve got my notebook and pen but no assignment. I write about having a third baby to remedy lingering regret at not feeling ecstatically maternal at the arrival of the first two, or I write about wasting my writing on notebooks and unshared files, or I write about waking in the middle of the night, afraid I’ve walked right past where I’m supposed to be which is somewhere behind me now. And then I start to write about the other women in the cafe, the one wearing a blue linen dress that shows her papery thigh and the egg-shaped one smoking long cigarettes and the young one wearing men’s pajamas. None of it makes me feel better, not even the prayers that weave through my lines. I sit in Kleines Cafe, rated 4.3 stars, with an empty cup and no conclusion. This is how it goes.
When I leave, the air feels good in my lungs. I have impatience in my body, like a tight muscle, and I don’t know what happens tomorrow or whether we turn right or left. I don’t know any of that yet.
First draft shared in this post.