“Why is that, Mr. Einstein?” I turned to face him square on, daring him to challenge me. Did he think I couldn’t handle Lenard, a text far more complicated than our basic physics curriculum? Because he was quite a bit taller than me, I was forced to look up. My short stature was a disadvantage that I had come to loathe as much as my limp.
“You seem the consummate student, Miss Mari?. Always in attendance at class, following the rules, scrupulous in your note-taking, toiling for hours in the library instead of whiling them away in the cafés. And yet, you are a bohemian like me. I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“A bohemian? I don’t catch your meaning.” My words and tone were sharp. By calling me bohemian, a word I associated with the Austro-Hungarian region of Bohemia, was he insulting my heritage? From cracks made by Weber in class, Mr. Einstein knew I was Serbian, and the prejudice of the Germanic and western European people such as himself against easterners was well known. I had wondered about Mr. Einstein’s own heritage, even though I knew he hailed from Berlin. With his dark hair and eyes and distinctive last name, he didn’t look the traditional Germanic blond. Perhaps his family settled in Berlin from somewhere else?
He must have sensed my latent anger, because he rushed to clarify himself. “I use the word bohemian in the French manner, after the word bohémien. It means independent in your thinking. Progressive. Not so bourgeois as some of our classmates.”
I did not know how to read this exchange. He didn’t seem to be mocking me; in fact, I thought he was trying to compliment me with his strange bohemian label. I felt more uncomfortable by the minute.
Busying myself with the remaining sheaf of papers on the carrel’s desk, I said, “I must go, Mr. Einstein. Mrs. Engelbrecht keeps to a strict schedule at her pension, and I mustn’t be late for dinner. Good evening.” I sealed my bag shut and curtsied in farewell.
“Good evening, Miss Mari?,” he answered with a bow, “and my gratitude for your help.”
I passed through the arched oak door of the library and across its small stone courtyard out onto R?mistrasse, the busy street bordering the Polytechnic. This boulevard overflowed with boardinghouses, where Zürich’s plentiful students slept at night, and cafés, where those same students debated great questions in the daylight hours not spent in class. From my furtive glances, it seemed that coffee and pipes were the primary fuel for these heated café conversations. But this was only a guess. I didn’t dare join in at one of these tables, even though I once spied Mr. Einstein with a few friends at an outdoor table at Café Metropole, and he waved me over. I pretended not to see him; sightings of women alongside men for these free-spirited café exchanges were rare, and it was a line I couldn’t yet bring myself to cross.
Night was falling over R?mistrasse, yet the street was bright with electric illumination. A fine mist began to form in the air, and I pulled up my hood to prevent the dampness from settling on my hair and clothes. The rain increased—unexpectedly, as the day had started bright and clear—and I found it harder to weave my way through the warren of R?mistrasse. I was by far the shortest person in the crowd. I was drenched, and the cobblestones were getting slippery. Dare I break my own rule and duck into one of the cafés until the weather broke?
Without warning, rain stopped pouring down on me. I glanced up, expecting to see a shaft of blue sky, but instead saw only black and rivers of water gushing down all around my sides.
Mr. Einstein was holding an umbrella over my head.
“You are dripping wet, Miss Mari?,” he said, his eyes full of their usual humor.
What was he doing here? He did not look ready to leave the library just moments ago. Was he following me?
“An unexpected deluge, Mr. Einstein. Many thanks for the umbrella, but I’m fine.” It was imperative that I insist on self-sufficiency; I didn’t want any of my classmates to see me as a helpless female, Mr. Einstein in particular. He wouldn’t want me as a lab partner if he perceived me as weak, would he?
“After you saved me from the certain wrath of Professor Weber with your correction of my calculations, the least I can do is to escort you home in this rain.” He smiled. “Since you seem to have forgotten your umbrella.”