“Thank you for everything.’’
The countess said this while firmly clutching my arm with claw-like fingers.Her wide, gray eyes that were framed by extravagant false eyelashes gave her the look of a medusa who could turn you into stone if she had a mind to.
Her blonde, bouffant wig clung to her head like an immoveable, hairy alien that, having sucked out her youth, had left behind a withered parchment of a face on which a nose, a mouth and those wide, staring eyes had been painted on artfully in order to present to the public the semblance of a living, glamorous being. Large, fake pearls hid the lobes of her ears. The wig hid the rest.
Robert, the production manager, should have warned me, but he never did. He merely snickered when the countess invited us for a drink after the show. He had worked with her before, so he knew what was coming.
I was the first to show up at the lobby café of the Costa Genoa. As I sat down, the countess swept in and immediately pounced on my arm like a hungry tigress.
“What will you have, daahling?”she asked.
“Campari with soda, please,” I replied, uncomfortable at her commandeering of my arm.
She called the waitress over and imperiously ordered my drink and hers, plain Perrier.
“Your drummer has an attitude and your bass player is a nincompoop, but you're okay. Why don’t you come with me to my next ship? You can’t believe the incompetent pianists I’ve had to deal with.”
The waitress brought over our drinks.
“Thank you daahling,” she said to the waitress, emphasizing the "aah" a la Zsa Zsa Gabor.
The waitress gave a sidelong glance at the countess's wide shoulders. The padding, coupled with the extra six inches that her high-heeled shoes added to her height, gave the countess a formidable, even a threatening look. She looked like Darth Vader in drag: a dominatrix in a shimmery dress.
Robert, a fleshy-faced Mancunian with an unquenchable thirst for lager, had told me that she once called him to her stateroom for instructions regarding her show that night.
When she opened the door, he got the fright of his life. The countess wore no makeup, wig or any of the adornments of a glamorous cabaret singer. She had also forgotten to put on her false teeth. In the instance of seeing her in that state, Robert said, he saw the spectre of death on her face.
“Do you want to know something?” said the countess.
As if I had a choice.
“ My father was the president of Bohemia before the war. When the Nazis came, they threw the prime minister out of the window. We hid in the countryside. My father fled to England. He entrusted me to a group of nuns. I was okay for a while. When the allies came, the Germans started shooting everybody, so we fled. Somehow I got separated. I met a group of German soldiers, they were five I think. They all raped me, each one of them. Then they left me in a ditch. Thank God they didn’t kill me. I walked in the snow and finally was rescued by some American soldiers. They fed me, brought me back to health. Those were terrible times but I survived. I was fifteen then.”
I stared at the countess, speechless with surprise. I don’t know what shocked me more, the story that she just told me without so much as a finessing preamble, or the fact that she would confess to having been gang-raped as a teen-ager. She looked back at me unflinchingly, with just a hint of a satisfied smile on her rouged lips that seemed to say: ‘’Gotcha!’’
Robert and the other musicians joined us . The countess spoke of her days as a starlet at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome back in the 50’s.
“ I was friendly with Vittorio de Sica,” she said. “I knew Yves Montand.”
The stories and the namedropping went on and on. An hour passed, then two, three. The guys left, leaving just me and the drummer with the Countess.The drummer was enthralled by the Countess’ tales, never mind that they had a problematic relationship during rehearsal. I managed to say goodbye, and her claws transferred their clutch over to the drummer's arm.