“You may take your seat,” he finally said and gestured toward the empty chair. It was my luck that the only remaining seat was the farthest away from his podium. “We have already begun.”
Begun? The class was not designated to start for another fifteen minutes. Were my classmates told something I wasn’t? Had they conspired to meet early? I wanted to ask but didn’t. Argument would only fuel the fires against me. Anyway, it didn’t matter. I would simply arrive fifteen minutes earlier tomorrow. And earlier and earlier every morning if I needed to. I would not miss a single word of Weber’s lectures. He was wrong if he thought an early start would deter me. I was my father’s daughter.
Nodding at Weber, I stared at the long walk from the door to my chair and, out of habit, calculated the number of steps it would take me to cross the room. How best to manage the distance? With my first step, I tried to keep my gait steady and hide my limp, but the drag of my lame foot echoed through the classroom. On impulse, I decided not to mask it at all. I displayed plainly for all my colleagues to see the deformity that marked me since birth.
Clomp and drag. Over and over. Eighteen times until I reached my chair. Here I am, gentlemen, I felt like I was saying with each lug of my lame foot. Take a gander; get it over with.
Perspiring from the effort, I realized the classroom was completely silent. They were waiting for me to settle, and perhaps embarrassed by my limp or my sex or both, they kept their eyes averted.
All except one.
To my right, a young man with an unruly mop of dark brown curls stared at me. Uncharacteristically, I met his gaze. But even when I looked at him head-on, challenging him to mock me and my efforts, his half-lidded eyes did not look away. Instead, they crinkled at the corners as he smiled through the dark shadow cast by his mustache. A grin of great bemusement, even admiration.
Who did he think he was? What did he mean by that look?
I had no time to make sense of him as I sat down in my seat. Reaching into my bag, I withdrew paper, ink, and pen and readied for Weber’s lecture. I would not let the bold, insouciant glance of a privileged classmate rattle me. I looked straight ahead at the instructor, still aware of my classmate’s gaze upon me, but acted oblivious.
Weber, however, was not so single-minded. Or so forgiving. Staring at the young man, the professor cleared his throat, and when the young man still did not redirect his eyes toward the podium, he said, “I will have the attention of the entire classroom. This is your first and final warning, Mr. Einstein.”
October 20, 1896
Entering the vestibule of the Engelbrecht Pension, I closed the door quietly behind me and handed my damp umbrella to the waiting maid. Laughter drifted into the entryway from the back parlor. I knew the girls were waiting for me there, but I didn’t feel up to the well-intentioned interrogation just yet. I needed some time alone to think about my day, even if it was just a few minutes. Taking care to tread lightly, I started up the stairs to my room.
Creak. Damn that one loose step.
Charcoal-gray skirts swishing behind her, Helene emerged from the back parlor, a steaming cup of tea in her hand. “Mileva, we are waiting for you! Did you forget?” With her free hand, Helene took my hand in hers and pulled me to the back parlor, which we now referred to among ourselves as the gaming room. We felt entitled to name it, as no one used it but us.
I laughed. How would I have made it through these past months in Zürich without the girls? Milana, Ru?ica, and most of all Helene, a soul-sister of sorts with her sharp wit, kindly manner, and, oddly enough, a similar limp. Why had I waited even a day to let them into my life?
Several months ago, when Papa and I arrived in Zürich, I could not have imagined such friendships. A youth marked by friction from my classmates—alienation at best and mockery at worst—meant a life of solitude and scholarship for me. Or so I thought.
Stepping off the train after a jostling two-day journey from our home in Zagreb, Croatia, Papa and I were a bit wobbly. Smoke from the train billowed throughout Zürich’s Hauptbahnhof, and I had to squint to make my way onto the platform. A satchel in each hand, one heavy with my favorite books, I teetered a bit as I wove through the crowded station, followed by Papa and a porter carrying our heavier bags. Papa rushed over to my side, trying to relieve me of one of my satchels.
“Papa, I can do it,” I insisted as I tried to wriggle my hand out from under his grip. “You have bags of your own to carry and only two hands.”