Hunger overcame me on a day grey and cold in 1928 when I did the unthinkable.
Holding my coat around me to keep warm, I was on my way back to my pension after being turned down for a job, my spirit shaken, my belly empty, when I saw apples fall out of a woman’s cloth shopping bag. They rolled toward me in perfect precision as if I’d willed them to do so, their shiny red and yellow-hued skin making my mouth water, my knees weak.
I couldn’t stop myself from rushing toward the round bulbous apples, my arms outstretched to grab the forbidden fruit, when I lost my balance and skidded across the thin ice covering the sidewalk as–
The woman turned around and saw the lush fruit rolling toward the dirty gutter. Cursing, she reached down to retrieve the apples but I was faster. I grabbed two apples before she could pick them up and stuffed them into my pockets, then raced down a dark alley.
Lungs bursting, I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. Wet, shivering, pale, I hated myself. I was a thief. How many times had I seen prostitutes in the street fighting over a customer? Or two scraggly boys scuffling over a half-burned cigarette dropped in the snow?
I was no better than they.
As I sank my teeth into the juicy apple, someone grabbed me by the shoulder, making me choke.
“Are you that hungry, Fräulein?” a man asked, his voice inquisitive.
“Don’t turn me over to the police, please,” I begged him, speaking in English.
Surprised, he released me, but I didn’t run. I sensed he wouldn’t hurt me, this gentleman with the kind, limpid eyes.
“Have you ever hunted butterflies, Fräulein?” he asked. I shook my head. “They are magnificent creatures and worthy of study when you catch one.” He took me by the elbow. “Will you join me for lunch?”
He took me to a small restaurant where I sat in a fine wicker armchair and dined on sausages, potatoes and coffee. He was Russian. A writer, he said, but he had a passion for hunting butterflies, their symmetry and beauty fascinating him as did my powder-white blond hair.
It made me appear childlike and innocent, he told me. A young girl unaware of her sensuality and the effect she had on a man. Like a butterfly flitting from flower to flower with no one to guide her.
I smiled and told him about meeting the Berlin intellectual, the monocled gentleman who invited me to his hotel room. The Russian shook his head and warned me about the dangers of an older man’s desire to recapture his youth with a young girl.
I noticed he made notes on the menu as he spoke, then he went about his business; but not before reminding me that giving away my youth to an older man without love was just as fruitless as keeping a butterfly in a glass jar.
I have never forgotten that.
His name was Vladimir Nabokov and years later he wrote a novel called Lolita.
Lady Eve Marlowe