As I leaned against the wall, tamburitza in hand, I suddenly felt foolish. Why should I expect them to accept me after I’d declined their invitations so frequently? I wanted to run back upstairs, but Helene noticed me and stopped playing.
With her characteristic warmth, she asked, “Will you join us, Miss Mari??” She glanced at Ru?ica and Milana in mock exasperation. “You can see that we can use whatever musical assistance you can offer.”
I said yes. Within days, the girls catapulted me into a life I’d never experienced before. A life with like-minded friends. Papa had been wrong, and so had I. Friends did matter. Friends like these anyway, ones who were fiercely intelligent and similarly ambitious, who suffered through the same sort of ridicule and condemnation and survived, smiling.
These friends didn’t take away my resolve to succeed as I’d feared. They made me stronger.
? ? ?
Now, months later, I plopped down into the empty chair as Ru?ica poured me a cup of tea. The smell of lemon wafted toward me, and with a self-pleased grin, Milana slid over a plate of my favorite lemon-balm cake; the girls must have specially requested it for me from Mrs. Engelbrecht. A special gesture for a special day.
We sipped tea and nibbled on the cake. The girls were unusually quiet, although I could see from their faces and the glances they shot one another that it was a hard-won restraint. They were waiting for me to speak first, to offer up more than an appreciation for the treats.
But Ru?ica, the most high-spirited, couldn’t wait. She had the most abundant persistence and the least patience and simply burst with her question. “How was the infamous Professor Weber?” she asked, eyebrows knit in a comic interpretation of the instructor, well-known for his formidable classroom style and equally formidable brilliance.
“As billed,” I answered with a sigh and another bite of cake; it was a glorious mix of sweet and savory. I wiped away a crumb from the side of my mouth and explained, “He insisted on consulting his roster before he let me sit in the classroom. As if he didn’t know I was entering his program. He admitted me himself!”
The girls giggled knowingly.
“And then he made a dig about me coming from Serbia.”
The girls stopped laughing. Ru?ica and Milana had experienced similar humiliations, having come from far reaches of the Austro-Hungarian Empire themselves. Even Helene, who hailed from the more acceptable region of Austria, had suffered her own degradations from her Polytechnic professors because she was Jewish.
“Sounds like my first day in Professor Herzog’s class,” Helene said, and we nodded. We had heard Helene’s tale of mortification in excruciating detail. After noting aloud that Helene’s surname sounded Jewish, Professor Herzog spent a substantial part of his first Italian history lecture focusing on the Venetian ghettos where Jews were forced to live from the sixteenth to eighteenth century. We didn’t think the professor’s emphasis was a coincidence.
“It isn’t enough we are but a few women in an ocean of men. The professors have to manufacture other flaws and highlight other differences,” Ru?ica said.
“How are the other students?” Milana asked in a clear attempt to change the subject.
“The usual,” I answered. The girls groaned in solidarity.
“Self-important?” Milana asked.
“Check,” I said.
“Heavily mustached?” Ru?ica suggested with a giggle.
“Overly confident?” Helene proposed.
“Any overt hostility?” Helene ventured, her voice more solemn and cautious. She was very protective, a sort of mother hen for the group. Especially for me. Ever since I told them about what had happened to me on my first day at the upper school in Zagreb, the Royal Classical High School, a story I’d shared with no one else, Helene was extra wary on my behalf. While none of the others had experienced such overt violence, they’d all felt the menace seething beneath the surface at one time or another.
“No, not yet anyway.”
“That’s good news,” Ru?ica announced, ever optimistic. We accused her of fabricating silver linings in the blackest storms. She maintained that it was a necessary outlook for us and briskly recommended that we do the same.
“Sense any allies?” Milana tiptoed into more strategic territory. The physics curriculum required collaboration among the students on certain projects, and we had discussed strategies about this. What if no one was willing to partner with me?
“No,” I answered automatically. But I paused, trying to follow Ru?ica’s advice to think more optimistically. “Well, maybe. There was one student who smiled at me, maybe a little too long, but still, a genuine smile. No mockery. Einstein, I think is his name.”