An Affair of the Heart

October 19, 1988. From Wee-enna, as the driver says, to Auden’s grave in Kirchstetten. A photograph of W.H.A. is encased in the gateway to the small church and surrounding cemetery, where the stone, head against the wall and shoed-in between two other plots, is both sadly out of place and as unkempt as he was himself. An iron marker doubly identifies the poet as a “Man of Letters,” a description that would have appalled him. The “Audenhaus,” at the end of Audengasse, is undergoing much-needed repairs. Difficult to picture him in this melancholy village, with its crossroads crucifixes, to imagine the orgies, the gramophone blaring Wagner. At nearby Melk, the steep staircases leave me pale and panting.

20. While climbing steps at [my son] Alexander’s pace in the Secession Building—the Assyrian W.C., as the Viennese call the mysterious, temple-like structure—I feel sharp chest pains, dizziness, and shortness of breath. We push on, nevertheless, to the abodes of the great. Whereas the pilgrims to Schubert’s birth-place and Beethoven’s Pasqualati house are mostly Japanese, the only addresses in the guestbook at Freud’s apartment are in New York.

A rainy evening. After a birthday dinner at the Imperial Hotel, we tour a neighborhood in the Gürtel where prostitutes with their leather mini-minis, white stockings, red blouses, and white umbrellas might be a “chorus” from a Broadway musical.

25. New York. Lenox Hill Hospital. After four hours of tests—radiological, chemical, electric (EKG), supersonic (the echogram), Dr. Moses, my cardiologist, diagnoses stenosis of the aortic valve with the diktat immediate (open heart) surgery. I am terrified.

November 8. Back in Florida, solar plexus of Baudelaire’s “Eldorado banal de touts les vieux garçons,” I enter North Ridge General Hospital, Fort Lauderdale, for the cardiac catheterization test. After processing in the lobby—the photographic exhibition here, “The Many Faces of Percutaneous Transluminal Coronary Angioplasty,” might be a one-man show at the Whitney—a volunteer worker two decades older than I am wheels me to room 227, where I am glued and wired with electrodes, fettered with a transistorsize recorder, and plugged in for teletromic monitoring. Next come rubber tourniquets and puncturings for blood (more misses than hits), specimen gathering, pulse taking, blood pressure pumping, and a nurse’s far from shy shaving of my groin. My roommate, a deaf elder tirelessly fond of TV soaps, suffers from, whatever else, permanent hiccups.

9. A 5:45 reveille for measuring and weighing reveals that I am neither taller nor shorter, nor heavier nor lighter, than last night. Not until 9 AM is a five-hour delay in the angiogram scheduling conceded, and four more hours elapse before I am sedated and rolled to the operating laboratory—through a corridor decorated with bloodcurdling pictures of cardiovascular systems. Inside, four insouciant young nurses in shower caps and surgical masks begin to prepare me, placing a green towel with surgical instruments on my chest, a substitute tray. One of them inquires …

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