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Sisters in Vienna

My sister and I are very different. Liz is a painter; I am a writer. She looks like my mom; I look like my dad—as long as you swap the noses. Liz can slay a room with her wit; my gifts lie more along the lines of the brilliant faux pas. I live on a farm and she lives in a Bohemian apartment in Brooklyn. If my wedding was a page out of Anne of Green Gables, hers was 1930s Hollywood glam. But our differences can be deceiving. Beneath the more obvious elements of taste and temperament—and a few stubbornly held opinions—we share a bedrock-level sympathy that is not only integral to the fabric of my life, it’s a continual delight and surprise. From the days when we were children playing “covered wagon” in the back hall, strewing our westward passage with doll funerals and Indian raids, to more recently effecting a rather indecorous after-hours escape from Hyde Park (who knew that they actually locked those big iron gates at midnight?) we have shared an imaginative perspective that is almost preternatural at times. (It used to alarm our friends, I think, when, out of the blue, one of us would catch the other’s eye in the midst of an unrelated conversation: Liz would lift an expressive eyebrow; I would twist my mouth thoughtfully. “Do you really think so?” she’d say. “Yes—yes, I agree,” I would reply, thus settling a question which no one else realized had been raised.)

I love going places with my sister. Liz walks as fast as I do, maintaining an unbroken stream of conversation all the while. She knows what to say in the face of a lovely view or a breathtaking masterwork of art—and, perhaps more noteworthy still, she knows when to keep silence. She can take a great city on foot without flagging, but she senses just when a nice little pick-me-up is in order. And she loves to people-watch as much as I do—which is a lot.

Last time I visited her in New York, we strolled across Central Park via “The Res” (she wouldn’t let me call it that—she said it sounded too affected and transplant-y for a visitor) to the Met, where we encountered record-breaking lines for the Alexander McQueen exhibit. Though we only wanted the permanent collection, we would have had to stand in a line that went all the way around the block and down the street, so after a few moments’ mental scanning of her favorite small museums, Liz suggested the nearby Neue Galerie, a German and Austrian collection of early 20th-century art and design. Housed in a gilded age 5th Avenue mansion once occupied by Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, the Neue was a sudden oasis of cool white marble and fancifully scrolled wrought iron: just perfect for a sisterly outing.

A respectful quiet seemed to hold the place under a spell, and we wandered amid the Klimpts and Viennese objets d’art encountering few other patrons. It wasn’t a large collection, but after completing the third floor we were tired and in need of one of our famous pick-me-ups. Art really takes it out of you, you know. Liz mentioned that there was a nice cafe on the first floor, so hither we hied, with visions of schlagg dancing in our heads.

I have to wonder if there is a more interesting place on earth than a museum café, particularly one in a great city that has its original in another great city. A New York destination in its own right, The Sabarsky was patterned after the famous Viennese cafés that formed such an integral culture of artistic and intellectual life in the early days of the 20th century. The interior is richly paneled in wood and lit with dim period fixtures that cast an amber glow over the old-world interior. Though 5th Avenue and the Park could be glimpsed through the great windows, it may as well have been the 5th Avenue of Mrs. Vanderbilt’s day, for all the atmosphere that the place evoked. We literally felt like we were in Europe, grinning at one another across our tiny marble-topped table—and given the fact that we were probably the only people in the room of non-Germanic descent, we may as well have been. The only thing lacking to complete the heady flight of time and distance was the scent of cigarette smoke, a ubiquitous detail with which we were only too willing to dispense. A man at a table next to us opened up a German newspaper; a party across the room was speaking French; the table on our other side ordered a $100 bottle of champagne. At three in the afternoon. Just because.

We pretended to entertain the magnificent champers, then opted for espresso under mountains of crème and decadent confections of chocolate and glacéed fruit. And from behind such a screen of profligate pick-me-ups, we people-watched to our hearts’ content. A beautiful room crammed with fascinating humanity!—it almost went to my head (or maybe it was all that schlagg). At any rate, we savored our desserts and coffee in an almost silence, drawing the moment out as long as we respectably could, unwilling for that magical stumble into another world to come to an end. But after our waiter had approached our table for the fourth time to inquire if we needed anything else, we regretfully agreed that it was probably time to “signal for the check.”  We couldn’t stay in Vienna forever—we had dogs to walk on the Upper West Side.

Just at that moment, however, the door to the café swung open and an absolutely resplendent woman entered. Liz and I both saw her at once, and exchanged wide-eyed looks of admiring amazement. Every eye was on her, in fact, as she moved with a fluidity of grace towards a large table near the center of the room to join her party. She was wearing a hunter green crushed velvet shift with a low-slung belt of gold medallions—astonishing for August, but astonishingly approprié, all the same. Her skin was ivory white, of an almost fairytale variety, and her dark curls were arranged with artless intention, as if she had just come from a sitting with Klimpt himself. She had a thin, interesting mouth which bloomed into a wide smile at the sight of her friends. She seemed to exude mystery and secret joy and a little bit of sadness. S.S.P., I realized, with an inward lift: Serious Story Potential.

“She looks like a Belle Epoch duchess,” Liz whispered.

I didn’t say anything. I was jotting frantic mental notes in my “interesting characters” file, wondering if it would be completely malapropos to retrieve my notebook from the field bag under my chair.

Without a doubt, that woman will make it into a book one day, I thought. And maybe one of mine.

(She never would have ingloriously scaled the Hyde Park gates in full view of half of Kensington, I might have added. And I’m sure she never would think of alluding to the Jackie Onassis Reservoir as ‘The Res’. I, on the other hand, would never think of wearing velvet in August—but perhaps that one would be worth a rethink. . . .)

I smiled at Liz, relishing not only the proletariat pleasure of sitting nameless in a famous café, drinking in ambiance with all that crème-laced coffee and making things up about people I had never met—but the fact that she was doing it with me. That she understood—which is only everything. It’s fun to daydream alone; it’s bliss to do it with a sister who knows your own soul. Liz sensed the presence of Story as keenly as I did; her imagination was firing, drawing on a shared literary history ranging from the mysteries of Nancy Drew to the novels of Edith Wharton to the supremely high-Victorian fiction we had swooned over as teenagers.

I remember how when we were girls visiting a hotel with our family, we would immediately and almost unconsciously do two things: assume an imaginative identity for ourselves, right down to fanciful names which we would assiduously call one another for the duration of our stay; and start making up stories for the interesting people around us. Those memories of joint collaboration with my sister are seriously among the most precious of my life. They have tinted the landscape of my imagination and colored many a story of my own. As an adult, they only continue to underscore the happy fact that the more things change, the more they remain the same. That lovely woman in the café may very well find herself in a tale I’ve written some day. And I have every confidence that my fellow artist, imaginative collaborator, comrade in daydreams, kindred-souled sister could illustrate her for me. Down to the last eyelash.

(By the way, Liz and I may not have actually been calling each other Geraldine and Rosamund by the time we left the café that day. But it wouldn’t have been too far off the mark.)


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