The following is an excerpt from “The Road Not Taken“—the debut novel, out September 4, by feminist playwright, documentarian and writer Susan Rubin. In the book, one woman traverses through space and time on an epic journey of self-discovery—and in an effort to change world history.
The café was crowded and the jazz musicians on stage were loud. The interior was so filled with smoke that my friends and I chose an outdoor table. I was smoking a long, thin, pastel colored cigarillo in an ornate holder. My fingernails were black and as I looked at my reflection in the window of the café, I saw that my eyes were all blacked, too. I looked around at my companions dressed in flamboyant reds and yellows. They too had on defiant smoky eye makeup, with bright red lipstick and lots of beaded necklaces over their glamorous dresses.
My companions were pleasantly tanked up, and so was I. We had been drinking everything in the café, from beer we had moved to mixed drinks. We ate no food and smoked one pastel cigarillo after another as we talked in loud voices with extreme enthusiasm for our subjects.
“Who cares about this silly man with the greasy hair and stubby mustache—why are people taking him seriously? A house painter for God’s sake! Women like us are free! Not chained to a husband or children, we meet every night at the café to talk art, politics, sex. This freaky little man can’t touch us.”
The exchange was deep and intense, and I had never been so happy. Then the conversation got very loud. “He and his cronies call us degenerates. Ironic, isn’t it? Obviously, they’re the degenerates—we’re the way of the future!!”
The discussion got louder and more frantic as we all got drunker. By now two of my companions, one woman in a bright yellow dress with a plunging neckline and covered in feathers, the other, in deep scarlet with some huge, red beads I envied—they looked like real rubies although that was impossible. Anyway, these two came to verbal blows with one calling the other a “moronic revisionist with no understanding of history” and the other retorting with, “Wait, he will be chancellor and our freedoms will be the first casualty of his regime.
The first woman stood up, waving a cigarette drunkenly in a circle. By now she was crying and screaming. The wretched emotional outburst of a drunk telling the truth: “You’ll see, we’ll all be shoved back into the misery of the past. What the hell do you think they’re selling with their constant shouts of ‘Kinder, Küche, Kirche?!’
This was a phrase I couldn’t translate so I looked at my guide. She was laughing, drunk—more relaxed than I had ever seen her. While the two women kept haranguing each other, I got up and moved to a seat next to her and whispered, “What does that mean? Kinder, Küche, Kirche?” She stared at me, her eyes trying to focus so she could cut through her drunken haze to answer me. She picked up her cocktail glass, which was half full, and in one gulp she emptied it
“Children, Kitchen, Church. That’s what it means.” She leaned back and I watched as she teared up.
I could see a wave of something terrible come over her. I picked up a random cocktail that was left on the table. I took a sip, it was very strong and extremely sweet. I drank it all and then realized how much I needed to empty my bladder of the various intakes of alcohol. I stood up, I was wobbly, but so was everybody else, so I stumbled my way through the tables and headed for where I had seen the bathrooms.
My bladder was an emergency so I ran in and almost fell into the first open stall, desperate to relieve myself.
When I opened the stall door again, the first thing to hit me was the silence. I washed my hands and looked in the mirror preparing to gussy up a little—reapply some makeup. But the woman I saw in the mirror was devoid of the glossy red my lips had been showing off. My eyes were no longer smoky and enticing, I had on no eye makeup at all. My hair was not puffy and elaborate as it had been minutes ago. Instead, the hair was pulled back in a severe bun. My satin and velvet gown—the most perfect shade of Chambord—had been replaced by a drab grey suit jacket. I wore the matching drab grey skirt and looking down I saw that my shiny red pumps were gone. I wore Oxfords.
I ran out of the bathroom and stopped dead. The nightclub was gone. The music stands, the musicians, the instruments, the laughter, the joy of the dancers, the booze and cigarette smoke all gone. The witty conversation and elaborate political debates were silenced. There was instead a butcher shop with a glass case that showed off an awful display of sausage, beef, pork chops. Not even chicken for those of us who don’t like the taste of blood.
There were two butchers behind the case, and three women ordering from them. The women could have been nuns. Their clothes were colorless, their faces austere and without makeup. I walked as unobtrusively as I could back to where the outside seats had been. I needed the woman who had brought me here. I spotted her outside the shop, and walked quickly to join her. She wore a severe black overcoat and all trace of her fantastic getup had disappeared.
“What’s happened?” I asked her.
“You were gone, history moved forward.”
“To what?” I looked around.
“Kinder, Küche, Kirche.”
She turned and began quickly walking away. As I followed her down the sidewalk, the world around us shifted and began to dissolve. I wondered where in Time and Space she would take me next.
A few days later, I opened my eyes and I was on the bathroom floor at the nightclub in Weimar. I was in my gorgeous Chambord dress, my red pumps were on my feet, and when I stood up and looked in the mirror, I was gussied up in true nightclub style: black smoky eyes, very red lips, hair all over the place, lots of beads. I was wearing the ruby-colored beads I had admired on my first visit here. The two-woman argument from before was now a full-out screaming match with every woman at the table participating. It seemed right for me to join in.
“She’s right. He will become Chancellor and you will lose all of this.”
Everybody at the table turned to stare at me.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?”
“I’ve been here before. I’m here as a person who knows what’s coming your way. I would like to help you to stop it. The new Chancellor will embroil you in a ghastly, disastrous war. He will unleash levels of cruelty never seen in modern society. All of you will be forced into roles of abject submission to your husbands, fathers, ministers, even the butcher who sells you your pork.”
I blurted this all out. I stood up and began to leave: I was blocked by a very large man in a brown uniform.
“Where are you going? Where are your papers? What is this bilge you have been telling these women?”
Grabbing me by my shoulder, he tried to spin me around so my back was to him. Obviously he would then put his arm across my throat and snap my neck or just restrain me. It was not to be allowed. I turned back to him while his fingers dug into my skin. I looked at him very closely, and then from nowhere I swung my fist at his throat and made a direct hit on his Adam’s apple. He fell hard onto the ground and was choking. I was shocked at myself as I leapt on him and pounded him with both fists. Pounded as he tried to catch his breath. A disgusting smell and a gurgling sound came from his mouth.
I looked at the women who had been my drinking companions on my first visit here. They were shocked and horrified by my behavior. They were also staring in awe at what I had done.
“Stop staring at me,” I said. “Figure out how a woman my size could overpower this huge bully with nothing but my rage. Find your own rage before it is too late. You will not survive what is coming if you are complicit.”