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The Other Einstein
Author:Marie Benedict

Mrs. Engelbrecht gestured first to a girl with wide cheekbones, a ready smile, and bronze eyes. She said, “Miss Dra?i? is here from ?abac to study political science at the University of Zürich.”

Turning next to the girl with the darkest hair and heaviest brows, Mrs. Engelbrecht said, “This is Miss Bota. She left Kru?evac behind to study psychology at the Polytechnic like yourself.”

Placing her hand on the shoulder of the last girl, one with a halo of soft brown hair and kindly, gray-blue eyes framed by sloping eyebrows, Mrs. Engelbrecht said, “And this is our Miss Kaufler, who traveled all the way from Vienna for her history degree, also at the Polytechnic.”

I didn’t know what to say. Fellow university students from eastern Austro-Hungarian provinces like my own? I had never dreamed that I wouldn’t be unique. In Zagreb, every other girl near the age of twenty was married or readying for marriage by meeting suitable young men and practicing to run a household in their parents’ home. Their educations stopped years before, if they ever went to formal schooling at all. I thought I’d always be the only eastern European female university student in a world of western men. Maybe the only girl at all.

Mrs. Engelbrecht looked at each of the girls and said, “We will leave you ladies to your whist while we finish our conversation. I hope that you will show Miss Mari? around Zürich tomorrow?”

“Of course, Mrs. Engelbrecht,” Miss Kaufler answered for all three girls with a warm smile. “Maybe Miss Mari? will even join us in whist tomorrow evening. We could certainly use a fourth.”

Miss Kaufler’s smile seemed genuine, and I felt drawn to the cozy scene. Instinctively, I grinned back, but then I stopped. Be careful, I warned myself. Remember the beastliness of other young ladies: the taunts, the name-calling, the kicks on the playground. The Polytechnic’s mathematics and physics program lured you here, so you could follow the dream of becoming one of a very few female physics professors in Europe. You did not travel all this distance just to make a few friends, even if these girls are indeed what they seem.

As we walked back to the front parlor, Papa linked his arm with mine and whispered, “They seem like remarkably nice girls, Mitza. They must be smart too, if they are here to study at the university. It might be the right time to find a female companion or two, since we’ve finally met a few that might be your intellectual equals. Some lucky girl should get to share in all the little jokes you usually save for me.”

His voice sounded oddly hopeful, as if he were actually eager for me to reach out to the girls we’d just met. What was Papa saying? I was confused. After so many years professing that friends did not matter, that a husband was not important, that our family and education alone counted, was he giving me some sort of test? I wanted to show him that the usual desires of a young woman—friends, husband, children—didn’t matter to me, as always. I wanted to pass this strange examination with the highest honors, just as I had all others.

“Papa, I promise you I’m here to learn, not to make friends,” I said with a definitive nod. I hoped this would reassure him that the fate he foretold for me—even wished for me—all those years ago had become my own embraced destiny.

But Papa wasn’t elated with my answer. In fact, his face darkened, with sadness or anger I couldn’t tell at first. Had I not been emphatic enough? Was his message truly changing because these girls were so different from all the others I’d known?

He was uncharacteristically quiet for a minute. Finally, with a despondent note in his voice, he said, “I had hoped you could have both.”

In the weeks that followed Papa’s departure, I avoided the girls, keeping to my books and my room. But the Engelbrechts’ schedule meant that I dined with them daily, and courtesy required that I politely converse over breakfast and dinner. They constantly entreated me to join them in walks, lectures, café-house visits, theater, and concerts. They good-naturedly chided me for being too serious and too quiet and too studious, and they continued to invite me no matter how often I declined. The girls had persistence I’d never witnessed anywhere but within myself.