For B.B. and B.
On a mild April afternoon in Los Angeles, Robert Allen Rabinowitz sat down for an essay-grading session and realized that he could no longer perform the task without vomiting. A five-year veteran of undergraduate essay correction, Robert had everything he needed in front of him: pencils, coffee and a double Irish whiskey with ice. His laptop was far enough away to mitigate the temptations of the Internet, but close enough to reach if, or rather when, he needed to verify any suspected plagiarism. Thus prepared, he read one sentence—Since the beginning of the universe, American society has always loved reality TV—and turned his head just in time to spray the wastepaper basket with vomit. He ran to the bathroom (three steps in his one-room cottage) and knelt before the toilet, where he waited for another upheaval. For several minutes nothing happened. He became aware that his knees hurt and his mouth tasted of puke.
As he brushed his teeth at the sink, he wondered if it was food poisoning. But it was unlikely that he had eaten anything dubious, as he was too poor to buy anything that he had not prepared himself. Nor had he heard of any virus going around. Usually when that happened he had a lot of empty seats in his classes. Almost as many as when the final research paper was due and his students’ grandparents started dropping like flies.
Anyway, he felt all right. He figured that it was just one of those things—or he hoped that it was, as he had no health insurance. He dumped the soiled contents of his wastepaper basket into a trash bag, rinsed out the basket itself with the hose outside. Then he returned to his desk. He read the second sentence of the essay—Reality TV is the most popular type of TV show for Americans worldwide—and immediately puked again, this time directly onto the floor, as he had left the basket outside to dry.
Robert mopped the violated linoleum, thinking that the most upsetting thing about the vomiting, aside from the pain of the act itself, was that the day had started out so nicely. It was a Saturday and he didn’t have to drive anywhere—not fifteen miles south to Compton Community College or twenty miles west to Fortas College. And, following the advice of his therapist (that is, former therapist, as she was the first thing to go when the money ran out), he had begun the day by doing something for himself or, more specifically, his car.
A week ago the check engine light had again appeared on the dashboard of his 1993 Lexus ES300. His mechanic had been uncharacteristically merciful, diagnosing at no charge a faulty oxygen sensor, even advising Robert to replace it himself. A repair manual from the public library and some ferocious googling had corroborated that (a) it was an easy fix and (b) the Lexus would not burst into flames while Robert awaited delivery of the part. And this morning it had indeed taken him only thirty minutes to swap out the faulty sensor, while the fragrant greenery surrounding his driveway vibrated in the wake of a low-flying police helicopter.
Robert’s cottage was behind his landlord’s much grander house in the hills above Echo Park. Cleaning his hands with a rag, he had watched a TV news van park at the top of the driveway. A scruffy man with a camera on his shoulder and a generically handsome man got out; both ignored Robert as they walked to his landlord’s front door. The landlord herself was a TV writer. She also had a gift for getting herself in front of the camera, perhaps on this occasion for a piece about inattentive single mothers or the perils of Botox. But cameras and crews no longer held much interest for Robert. He shut the hood of the Lexus and went inside.
His plan for the remainder of the day had been to grade ten essays, have lunch (rice and beans) and grade another ten. Then supper (beans and rice) and finally more self-care, in this case drinking a half-pint of Jameson while smoking a Macanudo that he had been saving as a reward for fixing his own car.
Instead he had vomited twice. And now, although he already suspected the cause, he wanted to verify it with inductive logic. He took his only pot from the kitchen cabinet and tiptoed over to his desk. With a kind of anticipatory wince, he glanced at the third sentence of the essay—Americans love reality TV which is fake because—and suddenly he was dry heaving over the pot.
“I’m saying that every time I tried to grade an essay I puked. I can read their names, but anything else and I puked.”
“Even the title?”
“Even the title. Well, that only made me retch a little.”
Alison, Robert’s girlfriend, was silent for a moment. Robert wondered what she was thinking, but he kept his eyes on the road. The traffic on the 101 was unusually bearable, the sky clear and expansive, and the check engine light was still off.
“And when you’re not grading essays you feel fine,” said Alison.
“Absolutely fine. That’s the strangest thing about it.”
She went silent again and now he glanced at her: concern was visible on her lovely profile. Tall and shapely, and with abundant brown curls, she was nicer and better-looking than an itinerant instructor had any right to expect from a girlfriend. Despite having grown up in L.A., she had the fundamental niceness of someone from the Midwest or Canada. But she was ambitious—a TV writer, she currently had two pilots making the rounds. And as Robert had learned in their fourteen or so months of dating, she was no pushover. She had a certain canniness or instinct for surviving in Hollywood. And yet she was a decent, unpretentious soul, a surreptitious donor to Doctors without Borders, a vegetarian who didn’t feel the need to advertise it.
“That sounds scary,” she said. “How do you feel right now?”
“I feel okay.”
Okay enough, last night, to eat a hearty serving of rice and beans bathed in Tabasco, quickly followed by two double whiskeys and a cigar. That part he kept to himself. Although Alison exhibited many un-Angelino-like qualities (e.g., a sense of irony and an appetite), she frowned upon unhealthy pastimes. Her idea of fun was to wake up early on a Sunday and head to Runyon Canyon for a hike
“It sounds psychological to me,” she said. “You should go back to your therapist.”
“I’d see him if I could fucking pay him, Alison.”
She touched his arm. “Of course. I’m sorry.”
“That’s all right. I…Jesus Christ!”
A Datsun pickup swerved into his lane—Robert braked and narrowly avoided plowing into the back of it. Its flatbed was full of badly secured jiggling pipes that appeared ready to leap from the truck and through his windshield and impale themselves in his abdomen, or worse, Alison’s. Meanwhile the exit was coming up, so he was trying to get into the slow lane, but one, two, three cars saw his turn signal and accelerated, the fuckers.
Finally he got off the freeway. At a red light he considered how much better his life would be if he didn’t have to spend so much time behind the wheel. In fact, the only significant complaint he had about his girlfriend was that she couldn’t chauffeur him around every once in a while. She had been born and bred in Los Angeles, the locus of American car culture; but she had her own psychological problem, namely a paralyzing fear of driving. She had sold her car years ago while extricating herself from a vicious marriage—Robert didn’t know the details and he didn’t press her on them. He did know that the divorce had precipitated her phobias, and that as a result, every weekday morning, she took a bus from Silver Lake to the studio where she wrote for the popular tween sitcom Chill Out!.
Fortunately her insurance subsidized psychotherapy and acupuncture, which had helped with the agoraphobia and the fear of dating, until all that remained was the fear of driving. And he wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it, because (a) he loved her and (b) she didn’t make a big deal out of him never having any fucking money.
It was still early, so Robert managed to snag a decent parking spot between a Prius and a convertible BMW 318ci (in Robert’s estimation, an underpowered car). They stretched before ascending the trail: Alison calmly lifting each heel behind her; Robert more carefully loosening his calves and quads and then leaning against a tree to tend in various ways to his lower back, which had become a trouble spot in recent months. At thirty-five he felt that he was too young for back trouble. On the other hand, most thirty-five year olds didn’t spend two or three hours a day in their cars.
They started uphill. There weren’t many people on the trail, yet it felt crowded. About one in every three hikers had multiple dogs and about one in every one had the glowing-but-underweight look of an actor. Halfway up, Robert saw a girl that he recognized, a tiny blonde with short arms striding downhill alongside a young man with alarming biceps. Robert thought that she might be a former student, until they got closer and he realized that she was—what was her name?—Hayden Panettiere.
“Hey Al,” she said, without breaking stride.
“You know her?” Robert asked, when the actress was a good distance behind them.
“I worked on Heroes for two seasons, remember?”
Although Robert was sincerely proud of his girlfriend’s career, he had never been interested in show business. He had been a journalist until the evisceration of the news business had forced him into teaching. More to the point, five years in Los Angeles had inured him to celebrity encounters. The very week he had arrived in L.A., he was en route to a meeting at the Chateau Marmont when a Mercedes almost broadsided his rented Yaris; at a stop light he noticed that the car was a beautifully preserved 450SEL and that its driver, fully absorbed by her smart phone, was a beautifully preserved Patricia Arquette. Most recently it was Kirsten Dunst at the next table in an Echo Park coffee shop. Her friend offered to bring her a muffin and she mimed sticking her finger down her throat in response.
Robert now wondered if that had been an omen—or had she cursed him, having somehow learned that he had fallen asleep during Melancholia?
At the top of the trail they stopped so that Robert could catch his breath (Alison was barely winded). There before them was the great sprawl of L.A., the flat, endlessly developed miles, the cluster of downtown skyscrapers, the haze of pollution merging with the ocean at the horizon.
Robert recalled what his West Coast agent had told him that night at the Chateau: “L.A. is the ugliest woman you’ll ever fall in love with.” And he had fallen in love with L.A., for all the clichéd reasons: the women (not ugly at all), the weather, the produce. He especially loved all the vintage cars you saw on the road. All through those first few months he had fantasized about the car he’d buy when he made a name for himself in journalism—vintage, but nothing too fancy, maybe a BMW 2002 or an Alfa Romeo Spider. But then he couldn’t sell anything, and his agent dropped him, and he had to find work, which turned out to be as an adjunct instructor. And after his first semester of adjuncting (he was now on his eleventh, if you included summers) the question of loving or not loving L.A. took a back seat to the question of survival.
Back at Alison’s place they had a satisfying quickie in the shower. Then Alison fixed lunch, a tofu scramble with veggie bacon and gluten-free toast. All horrible, of course, but Alison was back on real coffee, praise God, and for the food itself Robert kept a bottle of Tabasco in her pantry. When they’d finished he cleared the table. As he put away the soy milk he spied a pound of farm-raised salmon fillets in the fridge. He resisted the urge to slip the package under his shirt and smuggle it to his car. Actually if he stuck around, he would, in fact, be able to enjoy the salmon with Alison, as well as more sex and an evening of premium cable. But he had work to do, like every other fucking day of his life.
Alison was still at the table. She looked up from her yoga magazine and her expression shifted from contentment to disappointment.
“You have to work,” she said. “I can see it on your face.”
She sighed. “It’s okay. I understand.”
At the door, she embraced him.
“I’m worried about you,” she said.
“I’m worried about me too.”
She kissed him and he left. Driving home, he felt stupid and forlorn, and not only because he wanted more time with Alison. He hadn’t enjoyed a full day off since the winter break, which itself had been curtailed, as he had taught an inter-session class. They were brutal, those six-week classes. But not doing it would have meant forgoing a paycheck for a month. Come to think of it, he needed to ask his boss at Compton about summer classes. This would require some judicious ass-kissing, which always left him feeling like a beggar. The alternative, however, was to spend a summer as an actual beggar.
As he pulled into his driveway he realized that he was worried about himself. He felt surrounded by stress, distracted by it, as if he had his own personal swarm of gnats.
There was reason for hope and change (as the current president had promised). Next year a full-time position was open at Compton College and a contract was being dangled before him at Fortas. He had a decent shot at either job—the department head at Compton had advised him to keep his “shoulder to the wheel”; her counterpart at Fortas told him to keep his “nose to the grindstone.” Which was why he was home working on a Sunday, instead of enjoying salmon and sex, albeit at separate times, with Alison.
He spent the rest of the afternoon preparing lessons plans. At dusk he switched on his desk lamp and reached for an essay, telling himself that it was no big deal, just part of his job. He read one sentence—Morals are important because without them we wouldn’t know how to act morally in society—and within seconds he was on his knees before the toilet, his stomach ejecting its gluten-free contents.
When the whole business was over, once again he felt absolutely fine—that is, existentially miserable but physically fine, a little hungry in fact. He made a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with generic-brand condiments. He drank some water. He belched in a normal, non-pre-vomiting manner and decided that he could handle—nay, that he deserved a drink and a cigar.
Robert sat out back wearing his old (or rather oldest) sweater and tried to consider the problem objectively. Without a doubt some of the tenured faculty at Fortas College had gone decades without reading one sentence of student writing. An adjunct, however, could not afford such laxness. Well, an adjunct could get away with a certain amount laxness, but Robert’s conscience would not allow too much of it. These kids, or their parents, were spending good money for an education; the least he could do was try to provide one, even if most of his students couldn’t give a rat’s ass. Anyway he needed to find a way out of this mess. Maybe he needed aversion therapy, like Alison was getting for her fear of driving. Although there was a vast gap between what he needed and what he could pay for, in this regard and many others.
He heard the insectile hum of his landlord’s Prius turning into the driveway, its engine shutting off with a kind of descending mechanical whine. Then (please God, no), her clacking boots as she approached Robert’s cottage. And here she was, a fortyish brunette wearing an expensive-looking V-neck sweater and expertly faded jeans. It was remarkable how someone so pretty could be so unattractive.
“Knock-knock,” she sang. “So, Sienna’s sixth birthday is coming up? I’m having a little party for her on Saturday, and you and Alison are totally invited. Sienna’s registered at Sephora Kids, but don’t feel like you have to spend money.”
“I’ll bear that in mind.”
“Awesome,” she said. “And tell Alison that if you can’t make it she’s still welcome.”
“I’ll let her know.”
Her eyes were now on the cigar. She may have been trying to telegraph her disapproval, but Botox had frozen her expression into permanent neutrality.
“You should quit those things,” she said.
Finally she left Robert alone with his unwholesome habits. Maybe she was right—maybe he should give up the cigars. Already, though, he was the consumer version of Kafka’s hunger artist. Robert had given up golf, gyms, restaurants and bars; magazines, newspapers and books; a smart phone and Netflix; cable TV and a landline; new clothes, unless they were absolutely necessary; Whole Foods and Silver Lake Wine; premium gas and any hope of a new car, or an engagement ring for Alison.
Painful as it was, he had learned to live with all this self-abnegation. But he deeply regretted that he had also given up health insurance. He fretted about acquiring some injury or ailment that would bankrupt him, like a rotten tooth or a broken arm; and he fretted about the present ailments that he couldn’t afford to get treated, like his psyche and his lower back. The fretting turned into outright fear when he fetched his laptop and did an Internet search about vomiting. On the one hand, he did not have a brain injury or a concussion. On the other hand, he might have cancer. He was somewhat reassured by a website that stressed the timing of the vomiting: in his own case, there seemed to be a clear cause and effect, which suggested that his problem was indeed psychological. You might call it “adjunctivitis”—acute gastrointestinal distress precipitated by exposure to student writing. Regardless, every self-diagnostic website ended its list of disorders by urging the reader to “consult a doctor.”
There was a time when Robert had visions of wild success. Now, with all his soul, he yearned only for health insurance.
On Monday morning, as Robert drove to Compton, he repeated Armenian phrases when prompted by a cassette. (One of these days he’d swap out the tape deck for a CD player, although which one of these days was unclear and likely would remain so for some time.) He had no plans to visit Armenia or even Glendale; it was merely a way of making constructive use of his driving time. Spanish might have been more constructive in Los Angeles, but the Armenian cassettes—helpfully entitled, Let’s Armenian!—had cost him fifty cents at a yard sale, and they made the commute easier to bear. Most of the time, anyway: today’s lesson was bzhshki grasenyak, “the doctor’s office.” He shut off the radio and drove in silence. This stretch of the freeway was like a post-human landscape, nothing to see but eight lanes of road, massive concrete interchanges and (for once) fast-moving cars.
The campus of Compton Community College was spread out in that California way, with a baseball diamond and a football field and rows of long brick buildings connected by breezeways. In the distance was the Science Building, a newish glass-fronted structure that Robert had never seen the inside of. His own classes were in the trailers at the far edge of the campus, near the maintenance shed. As Robert parked, his lower back felt bruised and tight, as if an evil dwarf had been kicking him repeatedly since Echo Park. He eased himself out of the car and ran through some back stretches, feeling foolish and exposed, even though the only other person in sight was a faraway maintenance worker. Before locking up the car he reapplied sunblock to his face and arms. He was less afraid of melanoma than of ending up like the retired stuntman he had once met, a relic of the Seventies with skin like a Shar Pei.
As he entered the trailer he put on his Benign Professor expression and pronounced a cheerful “Good morning” to his remedial writing class. It was always better to project a positive attitude, even when you had to fake it. After taking attendance (twenty-eight present, seven absent) he dealt with the many students who had forgotten to bring basic school supplies. This, however, was normal, and the reason why he always had paper and pencils in his messenger bag. (As his own personal contribution to the redistribution of wealth, Robert routinely swiped these implements from Fortas College.) More troubling was that he had planned a paragraph-construction exercise. He liked to peek over their shoulders as they worked; but it would not help their concentration if, when pointing out a dangling modifier, Professor Rabinowitz sprinted from the classroom with both hands clapped over his mouth. So he had them pair up and check each other’s topic sentences and transitions and the like. It seemed to go well—at least no one appeared absolutely paralyzed with boredom. This may have been due to his positivity and enthusiasm or perhaps because today the room was only slightly warm, as opposed to its usual frigid or sweltering climate.
At the end of the period a half-dozen students formed a semi-circle around his desk, wanting to know how many absences they had or requesting an extension to their extension of last week’s assignment or posing other questions unrelated to their actual writing. He dismissed them collectively by mentioning his office hour, firm in the knowledge that very few would show up.
Feeling slightly guilty for this stratagem, he went to the English office, where he made photocopies. The Chair wasn’t around—he had hoped to ask about summer classes. He did run into Marcia Singh, Head of the Search Committee and Assistant Chair of the English Department, who was on the hiring committee for the full-time job.
“Good news,” she said. “A certain dedicated adjunct named Robert Jackson made it through the first round.”
“I’m Robert Rabinowitz.”
She frowned. “You are? Sorry. Of course you are. I don’t know why I mixed you two up.”
Neither did Robert Rabinowitz, as Robert Jackson was six foot six, in his early fifties, and black.
“Don’t worry about it, especially if I made it through the first round as well,” he said, with a fake little laugh.
Marcia’s response was to smile and say nothing, so Robert figured he’d quit while he was behind. He went for a quick piss in the heavily vandalized but clean men’s room. Shortly thereafter he was taking attendance in his Literature and Composition class (twenty-three present, fourteen absent). He had been looking forward to this one. Earlier he had photocopied passages from the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass, each relating to their self-education. And, as Robert had hoped, the students were impressed by the determination of both men—by Malcolm X, who had copied out the dictionary by hand while serving time; by Douglass, who had tricked the white boys of the Baltimore shipyards into helping him learn to write. Soon the students were discussing the difficulties they faced in completing their own educations—some had kids; most had jobs. The younger ones believed that “society” had set them up to fail, the older ones that “it’s all on you.” It was a good debate, respectful and lively, and Robert was enjoying himself until Tabitha Jackson (no relation to Roger) asked him what he thought about it.
He said, “What do I think about what?”
“Come on. We’re all black or Mexican here. What do you think about how education works for us?”
“I’m Guatemalan,” said Alma Morales.
“You know what I mean,” Tabitha said, rolling her eyes.
“Well, there’s no doubt that for some people it’s harder to get an education.”
“All due respect, Mr. Rabinowitz,” said Tabitha. “But you’re not answering the real question. I want to know if you think that society is keeping us back or if we’re keeping ourselves back.”
“You’d make a good lawyer,” Robert said, prompting a prideful half-smile from Tabitha. If only he could stop there. But twenty-eight black and Latino students were waiting for his response and he didn’t want to come off as an evasive white guy.
“Okay, yes, the American dream is more distant for some people. We saw that when we read A Raisin in the Sun. Now, that play is decades old, but I think their feelings, if not their exact situation, resonated with many of you.” (Concurring nods from everyone except Jamal, the Nation of Islam kid, who never agreed with anything Robert said.) “However, in the end, don’t we have to take responsibility for ourselves? Look at Walter in that play. He was a bitter guy and he screwed up, big time. But then he gets his shit—sorry—his stuff together and makes a decision about moving. So when I read Douglass or Malcolm X, what I find amazing is how brutal the world is to them, but there is still this tremendous discipline in acquiring education and knowledge. Those guys refused to give up.” (More nodding. He glanced at his watch.) “We’re out of time. Let’s talk about this some more on Wednesday.”
Tabitha said, “Aren’t you going to collect the essays?”
“Yes. Right.” That explained the fourteen absences. “Leave them on my desk on your way out.”
Within seconds there were students surrounding his desk again, each with a tale of essay-delaying woe. He did the collective reminding of the office hour thing and when the last of them had filed out he averted his eyes and swept the papers into his bag.
Munching an apple, Robert made his way through a knot of nursing students on a cigarette break and into the drab administrative building where the adjuncts held their office hours. Inside it smelled of old carpeting and dust. Two or three adjuncts were helping students, many more were gabbing, all looking tired, shabby, somewhere between barely respectable and one missed paycheck from disaster. Robert was saved from having to talk to any colleagues by Alma, who awaited him at a table near a shelf of Reagan-era encyclopedias.
“So what can I do for you?” asked Adjunct Lecturer Robert Rabinowitz, pulling up a chair, but not before inspecting it for protruding nails or a recent application of gum.
“Last week you gave me an extension on the paper, remember? And you said you’d help me with my thesis?”
As she spoke, she was reaching into her bag to produce a potentially emetic page of student text.
“Wait!” said Robert, too loudly. He took a breath. “Don’t show me the draft. I want you to talk me through it. It’s this new thing I’m trying.”
Ten minutes later, Alma was on her way out, hopefully more confident in her ideas. Her place was taken by James Brown (no relation), a smiling, strapping kid wearing an oversized white polo shirt and baggy denim shorts. Robert couldn’t remember when he had last seen James in class.
“Hello,” Robert said. “Where’ve you been?”
“That’s why I’m here now. I’m sorry I missed a few classes.”
“A few?” Robert checked his attendance sheet. “You’ve missed five. The maximum is three.”
James’s expression shifted from deferential cheerfulness to abject misery, and, oh God no, a tear rolled down one cheek.
“My parents are getting divorced,” he said.
“That’s terrible,” Robert said, trying to put some real feeling into it.
And he did feel badly for the kid, even though the stronger emotion was relief. It was not so unusual for a Compton student to relate that a friend or relative had been shot. There was also suspicion, unfortunately. Last term one girl had claimed that her cousin had been seriously injured in a hit-and-run; later it came out that they were both at Coachella the day of the alleged accident. Anyway, the question was what to do about James. What the kid really needed—what most of them needed—was a hug and a kick in the ass. Since neither was viable, Robert told James to forget about the previous absences, but if he missed any more classes he wouldn’t pass. James seemed earnest as he promised perfect attendance for the rest of the semester, and Robert shook his hand, thinking, We’ll see about that. Then he wondered how much of a bastard he was for doubting the kid.
No other students showed up, so Robert tried the English office a second time. And hoo-fucking-ray, the Chair was at her desk. Dr. Phelps was an African-American woman with reading glasses and graying dreadlocks. She moved a pile of textbooks off a chair and gestured for him to sit down.
“I don’t know about the summer,” she said. “We’re still waiting to see what happens with the budget. As for the job, yes, you did make the first cut.”
“That’s great,” said Robert, exhaling. “Thank you. That’s Robert Rabinowitz, right? Not Jackson?”
“I know who you are, Robert.”
“Right. Sorry. It’s just that earlier…never mind. I’ll let you get back to work.”
“Hold on. Can you make it to a meeting here on Friday? Two o’clock? We’re going over the learning outcomes for the Literature and Composition class and I’d like to hear your thoughts.”
“Friday at two, yes, I’ll be there.”
Outside the English office he checked the primitive calendar on his flip-phone—he was indeed free this Friday, or free until a moment ago. He had a similar meeting at Fortas the following Friday. Which was encouraging, since in both cases it meant that he was being sized up for a job, and discouraging, since he would be working for free and there was nothing he could do about it. He could file a complaint—Compton was unionized—but what would it get him? Booted off the shortlist for the job and passed over for summer classes, that’s what. The union representative was Marcia Singh.
Once, long ago, he had found it remarkable that the adjuncts were represented, or supposedly represented, by management; these days such contradictions no longer surprised him.
On the drive home, as a voice in Armenian described flu symptoms, Robert was thinking about James again, about the line between caring and not caring and the limits of his responsibility to his students. At a university he could refer the kid to the mental health office. At Compton Community College he could only hope that James didn’t drop out. Which led Robert to reconsider his own little talk about personal responsibility and firmly conclude that it was nonsense. Nobody gave a shit about the students of an obscure junior college whether they took responsibility for themselves or not. Nor did anybody give a shit about his lack of health insurance. Questions of responsibility and fairness were pointless in the face of the conspiracy of indifference that pervaded American life.
“Easy there,” he said aloud. “Take it easy.” He must be hungry—he had forgotten to have lunch. He shut off the radio. Rummaging around in his bag with one hand, he produced another apple. Soon he felt better, and he reminded himself that in a few months he’d have a full-time job with health insurance. So don’t take it personally. Just stay the course and you’ll be fine.
On the 110 the traffic was moving, then slow, then stationary. With some aggressive pointing and hand-waving, he managed to get off the freeway near USC. He was wondering if that might be a good place to teach, when he noticed that the check engine light was on again.
“Natali Aguirre, Sherina Benitez, Darren Brown, James Brown.” Alison snorted and, with a backwards jerk of one elbow, performed a passable impersonation of a James Brown grunt.
“Different guy,” Robert said. “Keep going.”
“Sherell Hicks, Tabitha Jackson, Vincent Jenkins, Darnell McQueen, Blanca Perez.”
“Nothing from Alma Morales? No, that’s okay, I gave her an extension. Never mind.”
“Wait, I lost my place, okay: Jose Perez, Maria Perez, Nancy Perez, Mena Ramirez, Theresa Renteria, Liana Siqueros, Jenny Toscano. That’s it.”
“That’s it? So…sixteen essays handed in. Out of a class of thirty-seven.”
“Wow. That’s depressing.”
“Wait until you hear their excuses, they’ll break your heart. Now let’s do Fortas College. That pile, there.”
Alison was at Robert’s desk, wearing his tattered robe. She swiveled in the desk chair and pulled another pile of papers into her lap. Earlier that morning she had hit upon the idea of reading an essay to Robert and transcribing his comments. She had got through four sentences before he had to run to the bathroom and pray to the porcelain god. After brushing his teeth, he emerged to find Alison still at the desk. When he saw how worried she looked he felt simultaneously grateful and embarrassed.
With the transcribing experiment a bust, Robert had then suggested that Alison read the students’ names to him, so he could at least mark down who had done the work. So far that had been all right.
“Ready when you are,” she said.
“One second.” Robert repositioned himself on the couch to ease his back. “Go.”
“Okay. Lucy Abramowitz, Daniel Aviv, Michael Barich, Rachel Chaikin, Ariel Cohen, Eli Cohen, Sarah Cohen. I’m having Hebrew school flashbacks.”
“That happens every time I set foot on the campus of Fortas College. Go.”
“Noah Copulsky, Jacob Diamond, Leah Goldstein, Shana Greenberg, Daniela Horowitz, Adam Mizrahi, Zohar Opher, Aaron Pearlman, Jared Rosansky, Robin Takahashi. Takahashi?”
“Her father converted.”
“Ah. Moses Weissman, Sharon Weissman, Tom White. He doesn’t sound Jewish.”
“He’s a reservist in the IDF.”
“Wow. Shoshana Zorman. That’s everybody. You good?”
“Good enough. A little relieved, like, ‘That’s one thing done.’ Thank you for helping.”
“You’re welcome. Do you have more work?”
Robert saved the spreadsheet and closed his laptop.
“Nope. I’m taking the day off. It’s remarkable how much free time you get when there’s no grading to do. Let’s go for a hike.”
“I have a better idea,” she said. She plopped the essays on the desk. Then she rose from the chair and, as she crossed to the couch, let the robe drop.
Later, Robert and Alison held hands as they walked up the driveway. Passing the Lexus, he resisted the urge to give it the finger. A new gas cap had taken care of the check engine light, but the way things were going its reappearance was only a matter of time. As if to taunt him, a line of late-model Mercedes, BMWs and Prii were idling on the street in front of the house. The cars were tended to by energetic female valets, all wearing black polo shirts with Mustang Sallies emblazoned in yellow across the back. Robert thought it likely that “Sallies” was an attempt to pluralize the name in the song and not a reference to sorties by horses or on horseback. Then he thought that only in Los Angeles would they define preferential hiring for menial jobs as feminism.
He kept these observations to himself. Last year Alison had taken him to a screening of a movie written, directed and starring a friend of hers, a sitcom actor. The movie wasn’t bad, save for the way that the protagonist (and thus the actor) demonstrated his likeability by befriending a poor black child. Afterwards, at a bar, the actor spoke at length about how the “brutal honesty” of his film would “spark a real conversation about race in America, not the usual bullshit, but a sincere dialogue.”
“It sounds like you’d prefer a sincere monologue,” said Robert, who was a little drunk.
On the drive home Alison had schooled him in Hollywood etiquette.
“You never say anything bad about anything or anybody. Get it? Not only because he’s my friend. Now he will never work with me.”
That had been the angriest he had ever seen her. Since then he had followed the dictum assiduously, even when it meant biting his tongue hard enough to bring blood to his mouth.
They entered Marni’s expansive Craftsman house. Inside, the ground floor was one giant kitchen/dining room/living space of burnished wood, which today felt smaller due to the presence of thirty or so children and their parents, although no less burnished. Alison quickly fell into conversation with another TV writer; Robert, hungry after losing his breakfast, made a beeline for the buffet table to fix a bagel and lox. Sandwich in hand, he installed himself in a corner, which turned out to be near a built-in shelf bearing multiple copies of Marni’s book—a memoir about her recovery from cocaine addiction and the subsequent IVF treatments with donated sperm that had resulted in her current blessed state of single motherhood. She had given Robert a copy when he had moved in. He could never bring himself to read it, partly because a book by Marni existed and a book by him did not, and partly because he had never seen Marni’s daughter Sienna with anyone other than her nanny.
While he ate he watched a young woman in a fairy costume herd the children to a mat by the French doors. A hush fell when another young woman, this one dressed as a princess, had the children announce their names: there was Sienna and Esmé and Holden, and Auden, Cobain, Beckett, Anaïs, Shanti, Tesla and Pilot. There were two boys named Django and three named Max (their mothers must have felt like they were at an awards banquet and run into another woman in the same dress). It was momentarily confusing, with this group, to hear a little girl introduce herself as Ann; upon reflection, Robert concluded that it must be “Ayn.” If he ever had his own kid he resolved to name it Jennifer or Franklin.
The princess and the fairy were singing about being happy and knowing it and the parents had resumed their chatter. And (oh Jesus) there was Alison’s friend, the TV actor Robert had been rude to—he was over by the window talking to a miniscule redhead who was about one sandwich away from starvation. Robert felt pangs of guilt and resolved that if the opportunity came he would be nice. It came quickly—the actor glanced his way—and Robert waved and smiled. The actor nodded and said something to the girl, who looked Robert up and down, turned back to the actor and laughed.
Robert felt as if he had lost ten inches in height. He was about to go in search of Alison when his path was barred by a fortyish man wearing a Sonic Youth T-shirt and a Dodgers cap.
“Hey,” said the man. “Listen, I don’t mean to be all schmoozy, I know this is for the kids. But did you get the chance to read my pilot?”
“I think you have me mistaken for someone else.”
“You’re not the showrunner for Toddler, M.D.?”
“Nope. I teach college.”
The guy walked away without another word, leaving Robert feeling even smaller. And now (what fresh hell was this?) Marni came up.
“Hi,” she said. “Where’s your better half?”
“She’s here. Hey, I could really use a drink. Do you have anything for grown-ups?”
“Robert,” said Marni, as if he had asked her where she kept her vibrator. “This party is for children.”
As Marni walked away, shaking her head, Robert decided that it was time for him to go. Alison would know where to find him. But first, a parting gift to himself: he went over to the food table and made another sandwich, this one with about a pound of lox.
“You like that stuff, huh?” a man said. “Me too. I call it ‘Jewish crack.’ You know what goes well with that? Vodka.”
“I just asked the hostess for a drink and got a smackdown.”
“No kidding? Watch this. Hey, Marni! How about two vodkas on the rocks?”
Seconds later Marni stood before them with two generous drinks in actual glasses. Smiling brightly, she gave one to Robert’s fellow admirer of smoked fish; for Robert, her smile was noticeably less bright.
“Thanks,” said the man. He turned to Robert. “So who the fuck are you?”
“Me? I’m the only guy here without a screenplay.”
“Well thank God for that. I’m Isaac.”
He was a trim man, probably in his sixties, wearing an Oxford shirt and chinos and untrendy glasses—maybe a lawyer or a successful accountant.
“I hate these fucking parties,” he said. “They say it’s for the kids, but really it’s for networking. I’m only here because I’ve got my granddaughter for the weekend. My daughter is in Palm Springs with her dipshit husband.”
All this was said at a volume that suggested that Isaac had never learned, or did not care about, the etiquette of Hollywood.
“Hey,” Isaac said, pulling a leather cigar case from his pocket. “Any idea where I can smoke one of these?”
“Nice place you got here.”
“No, it’s a dump. I was being polite.”
Robert smiled. “Politeness isn’t your thing.”
“Not so much,” Isaac said and put his cigar to his mouth. Robert did the same. It was a Davidoff, the wrapper a little darker than he liked, but he wasn’t complaining. They had finished Marni’s vodkas and moved on to Robert’s bottle of Jameson.
“So you’re not a writer?” Isaac said.
“No. Well, I used to be a journalist. Now I’m a teacher.”
“What happened to the journalism?”
Robert shrugged. “The industry died and I needed a job.”
“I don’t understand.”
Unlike many people in Los Angeles, Robert didn’t like talking about himself. Nevertheless he confided in Isaac, probably because he was the only person that day, other than Alison, who had shown any interest in him. He explained that he had landed a job at a New York weekly right after college. But by his late twenties he had tired of covering real estate and food trends; he wanted to take on weightier subjects, to experiment with narrative techniques, to find his own voice and other bullshit goals like that. So he quit his job and got an MFA in creative non-fiction—which now struck him as a meaningless term, although at the time all the reading and writing and talking about reading and writing had felt grand. Even the sixty thousand dollars in student loans seemed manageable, first because shortly after graduation he published a long piece in Harper’s, a profile of a courageous climate scientist; and second because the piece had generated some interest in Hollywood.
Robert flew out to Los Angeles, took a couple of meetings, and the piece was optioned for tens of thousands of dollars. L.A. seemed like a place where he could have some breathing room and exploit his cachet as an upper-middlebrow magazine writer. Frugal even then, he bought the Lexus and rented Marni’s tiny cottage. He pitched stories and wrote two book proposals. Meanwhile the economy imploded and his representation dropped him, and he needed income at the worst moment in American history to find a journalism job.
“So I found work as a freeway flyer. An adjunct instructor, commuting between schools. I’m trying to get hired full-time.”
“Do you like teaching?”
“I used to. I don’t know any more. Now I just want health insurance.”
“What about Obamacare? Will that help?”
“No. It’s complicated, but the short answer is no.”
Isaac narrowed his eyes at Robert and drew on his cigar.
“Jesus, kid, you’re fucked,” he said. “I am truly sorry.”
“Thanks, Isaac. Hey, I never asked what you do.”
“I’m in television.” Isaac’s phone was buzzing. When he put it to his ear, his cuff pulled back to expose his watch, which appeared to have cost roughly the same as Robert’s graduate degree. Robert’s own watch was a Wittnauer with faded gold plating, his only inheritance from his grandfather.
“My wife wants me to come up for cake,” Isaac said. “Apparently it’s gluten-free. Suddenly everybody is terrified of gluten.” He pointed the lit end of his cigar at the library books on Robert’s coffee table—a biography of Ferdinand Porsche, a Lexus repair manual, Auto Repair for Dummies. “You like cars?”
“Good to know. Thanks for the drink. Don’t get up, I can find my way out.”
Robert did get up for the bathroom, averting his eyes from the essays on his desk as he returned to the couch. He had the uneasy feeling that he had disclosed too much. He was glad that he had left out the vomiting, as well as all the difficult emotions that came with the adjunct life: the tedium, the frustration, the powerlessness. He suspected that had come through regardless.
Alison returned a few minutes later, bearing a paper bag that she put on the coffee table. She waved at the smoky air and opened the sliding glass door to the patio. Robert peeked inside the bag, which contained a half-dozen bagels and a six-pack.
“Gifts from Marni,” Alison said, opening a beer for herself. “She says, and I quote, ‘Sorry for being such a total bitch.’”
“Forget her. How do you know Isaac Loewenstein? What did you talk about?”
“I just met him and we talked about…baseball. And cigars.”
“He’s the Vice-President of Programming for NBC.”
“Ah,” Robert said. “So that’s why Marni apologized.”
Suddenly he laughed, loud and hard.
When May came there was no real change in the weather, save for it getting noticeably hotter. Thankfully, the air conditioning in the Lexus never gave him any problems, and the check engine light stayed off—Robert had preemptively replaced the other two oxygen sensors (one easy as pie, the other a motherfucker of a job). He had also changed the oil and the filters. And right now the car was driving well, even with 180,000 miles on it.
The 101 was moving until Cahuenga, when the freeway suddenly became clotted. Robert reminded himself that there was absolutely nothing he could do about it, that he shouldn’t get upset about things he couldn’t control, etc. Which helped until, during a momentary loosening of traffic, some fuckwad in a 911 Targa cut him off. Soon after he got stuck behind a crumbling Toyota pickup with a bouquet of unsecured two-by-fours in its flatbed. (On the tape player, a woman was saying in Armenian, “Is it here? No, it is there.” He turned it off.) Robert exited the freeway and drove up to Mulholland, a much prettier route, even though the extra miles meant burning more gas. He glimpsed faux-Italian villas, oversized mid-century boxes, massive McMansions. Presumably their wealthy inhabitants commuted as well, but theirs couldn’t be as bad as his. Maybe if he got the Compton job, he’d move downtown—that would shave a few miles off the trip. And if he got the Fortas job, he’d move a little further west, to Los Feliz or Hollywood Heights.
Sixty-two minutes after leaving home, he pulled into Lot D of Fortas College. Despite the air conditioning, he was sweaty and disheveled. After looking around for any nearby students—unlikely this early on a Friday morning, but best to check—he shed his T-shirt and slid into the dress shirt that he had laid across the back seat. He took deodorant and sunblock from the glove compartment, reapplied both in the appropriate places, and finally began the seven-minute walk to the school from the parking area assigned to adjuncts and the custodial staff.
With its low-slung frontage of grey, modernist stone, Fortas College resembled more a provincial museum than an institution of higher learning. The lobby furthered the resemblance, with its slate-tiled floors and high windows overlooking the Santa Monica Mountains. The same went for the main hallway, which was decorated with minor Légers and Chagall lithographs. And everything was named—the Levenstein Auditorium, the Chaikin Library, the Rosenzweig Faculty Lounge. Even his own office, according to a plaque, had been “a gift of the Bergmann Foundation,” although the pressboard desk and ancient computer suggested the donation had not been a large one.
Nathan, Robert’s officemate, was at the computer.
“Hi,” he said, squinting at the monitor. “I found some really interesting pictures of your mother.”
“What a coincidence. I saw your mother at the corner of Santa Monica and Highland.”
“Oh yeah? How was she?”
“The methadone seems to be helping.”
“Great,” said Nathan. “Do you have a good research paper assignment? My last one bored the shit out of them.”
“I’ve got something about food that goes over okay. They research a dish and connect it to the culture it comes from.”
“That’s not bad. Hey, why are you here on a Friday?”
“Faculty meeting,” Robert said. “What’s your excuse?”
“I needed to catch up on some stuff.”
Nathan didn’t have an Internet connection at his apartment, claiming that it was a distraction from his poetry. Most likely he also couldn’t afford it—he taught only two sections, one here and one at Santa Monica College. Nathan had a name as a rising young poet, but it did next to nothing for his income. He wore ill-fitting blazers that reeked of his hand-rolled cigarettes and one of his Hush Puppies had duct tape around the heel. Nevertheless Robert admired his friend’s sense of purpose, as well as the cultural capital that he had accrued, which had helped him land an inarguably glamorous fiancée.
Robert checked his watch. Five to nine.
“Gotta run,” he said. “Want to double-date next weekend?”
“Absolutely, let me just ask the boss.”
Reshouldering his messenger bag (which contained only snacks and a writing pad), Robert headed out. He dropped into the faculty lounge to check his mailbox, which was empty of student papers, but also void of the textbooks he had requested in order to sell them online. Passing through the lobby again, he nodded at a trio of girls on their way to the dining hall. He was wearing his benign-yet-busy-instructor face, which forestalled any impromptu conferences or extension requests. Or maybe they didn’t want to miss breakfast.
Entering the Finkelberg Conference Room, he reminded himself to act like he belonged. That is, to say “Good morning” and help himself to coffee. Styrofoam cup in hand, he sat down near, but not next to, the head of the oblong table, upon which he placed his writing pad. These actions had little evident effect on the two men present, who had barely returned his greeting before resuming their discussion of the construction on the 405. Still, as the other eight members of the Curriculum Committee filed in, Robert maintained the demeanor of a youngish man hoping to learn from his wiser, better-insured colleagues. He had no idea who was on the Hiring Committee at Fortas, so he was determined to make a good impression on everybody, even the Assistant Dean charged with student welfare, who steered every conversation around to his daughter’s successes at Brandeis.
The Dean entered at nine sharp. A tanned, grey-bearded man in a sky-blue polo shirt and pants of some man-made material, he looked as if he had just stepped off the links. He started the meeting by having his assistant hand out a list of proposed changes to the curriculum, not one of which pertained to student writing. Robert wasn’t surprised. When the Dean had asked Robert to attend the meeting, he had stressed it would be in a “listening capacity.” Robert, however, was surprised when the opening minutes of the meeting were taken up by an impassioned discussion of parking. Apparently the shaded lot behind the main building had been cordoned off for an expansion of the administrative wing, and the area temporarily designated for tenured faculty meant a forty-five second walk in the hot sun. To Robert’s amazement, the Dean listened with every indication of patience and understanding—fifteen minutes of complaint, suggestions and counter-suggestions, then twenty. Finally the Dean cleared his throat. “I hear you and I’ll see what I can do,” he said. “Now let’s discuss the general education requirements.”
This touched off another round of complaint. The Sociology Chair (tailored suit, chignon) was “outraged,” as she put it, that the “soft” science requirements were being reduced in favor of the “hard” ones. And the Psychology Chair (linen tunic, chunky jewelry) was “uncomfortable” with the “very patronizing and overtly misogynist designation of “soft” and “hard” sciences.”
“They’ve found a very interesting solution at Brandeis,” said the Assistant Dean.
“Nobody cares, Noah,” said the Biology Chair.
Robert was trying to follow the conversation, but it was boring the shit out of him. And he couldn’t get his head around the air of contentiousness. Most of these people were pulling in six figures; they taught two or three classes a term; they pursued their own research. So why were they all so pissed off? And why hadn’t anybody acknowledged his presence? This was in contrast to last week’s meeting at Compton, where the tenured faculty had been friendlier, warmer, although there had been no coffee. And certainly Compton lacked a small Henry Moore on a pedestal at one end of the room and at the other an abstract sculpture of flames, probably intended in some way to evoke the Holocaust.
Robert mentally checked back into the meeting: the Biology Chair, a dwarfish, bearded endomorph, was insisting that the students had a better chance of finding a job with a degree in a “hard” science. On that point, he would get no argument from Robert.
He realized now that he would not be moving to Los Feliz or downtown. If he got a full-time job he would save for an engagement ring and pay down his credit card. He’d still have a rough commute, but he could endure anything if it meant he could make a life with Alison.
It was, however, an open question if she wanted a life with him. She had told him early on that there would be no talk about “taking the relationship to the next level” or the like. Until she got her shit together, she was taking it one day at a time. At first this had been a relief to Robert; now he saw another side to it. He didn’t know what she wanted and yet he could not imagine being without her, as clichéd as that sounded. If only he was good at talking about emotions, relationships, things like that.
Then Robert was seized by fear when he realized that every eye in the room was on him and the Dean was saying something about “one of our most prized adjuncts, who has a few ideas about the writing curriculum.” It was unclear whether this was some Machiavellian test or the bastard had simply forgotten about the listening capacity. Either way, the assembled now regarded Robert with mild curiosity.
“Well,” said Robert, wishing that he had some water. “We all know that our students struggle with writing.” (Murmurs of assent, which boosted his confidence.) “But I think our curriculum is fine. The problem, in my opinion, is that writing skills aren’t reinforced in other classes.”
“I don’t understand,” said the Biology Chair neutrally.
“Okay. Half of our freshman need a remedial writing class.”
“Developmental writing class,” said the Dean, supplying the preferred euphemism.
“Yes, excuse me, developmental writing. They pass that, hopefully, and take Freshman Comp. And their writing does get better. In writing classes. In other classes it doesn’t, because there’s a tacit assumption that writing skills are the writing teacher’s problem.”
“I am very strict about writing,” said Robert’s direct boss, Professor Marcus, the Chair of the English Department. She was a plump woman in black with bleached, spiky hair and a tight face. In Los Angeles even the academics had work done.
“I know you are,” Robert said, lying. “I’m just talking grading standards. We need a rubric that we can use in all classes that require writing.”
“I hate rubrics,” said the Sociology Chair. “I hate checklists of any kind.”
The Biology Chair nodded energetically, even though he was famous for his lengthy checklists. But he was a Class A prick; and, as rumor had it, he was recently divorced and dying to nail his soignée colleague.
Meanwhile Robert felt sweat prickling his brow. He opened his mouth to speak, but the Dean cut him off.
“Okay,” the Dean said, noting something down with an expensive-looking pen. “Mr. Rabinowitz suggests that we standardize the assessment of student writing. Now let’s move on to the proposal of a Hebrew minor.”
More debate. Robert attempted to resume his listening capacity, but his mouth was desperately dry. He rose to get water from the pitcher on the table beneath the portrait of Abraham Fortas, the fifth Jewish Supreme Court Justice. Robert had just returned to his chair when the Dean adjourned the meeting, leaving him seated as everyone was standing. No one spoke to him as they gathered their things and filed out.
Alone in the conference room, Robert drank his water. He had fucked it up. He had told them the truth, but he was not in a position to be truthful.
The next morning Robert was planning the coming week’s classes at his local coffee shop, or trying to. He had forgotten that the place was packed on weekends—and that the owner had installed a ventilation unit above the entrance that emitted a violent whooshing noise, like an airplane engine, whenever the door opened. Another distraction was the heavily tattooed young couple at the next table discussing their vision boards. Robert put on his headphones and selected a Mozart piano concerto, fully aware that he himself was a stereotype: a thirty-something man absorbed by the sound and vision of his laptop. Come to think of it, maybe that was why Kirsten Dunst had pretended to stick a finger down her gullet.
He had spent the night at Alison’s, then driven home to change and pick up his laptop, and all at a leisurely pace for once. He deeply regretted speaking out in the meeting the day before, but he was not about to let that ruin the coming forty or so deliciously unplanned hours with Alison. He was less successful, however, at not obsessing over the essays that had been piling up since April. He did the math: something like ninety students in total, with two formal assignments in each class, meant around 180 papers, God help him. Any day now a student would go over his head to complain, which could hurt his chances at a full-time job. A couple of years ago Robert had read that the University of Houston had experimented with outsourcing its grading to an Indian company. He had given this serious thought until he looked up the article and learned that it would cost a third of his take-home salary.
He sighed, sipped his iced coffee and tried to write some lesson plans. He came up with nothing: nada, rien, vochinch, bupkus. Without having read any of their work, he had no idea how to help them, collectively and individually, through the rest of the term. Thus the best self-justification for his shitty job—“at least I’m teaching them something”—was no longer valid. With another sigh, he turned to his email, which had also been piling up. (Fortunately student emails didn’t make him vomit.)
First, Compton. Dr. Phelps had sent a group message explaining that she still couldn’t put together a summer schedule until the state legislature passed a budget. (Robert felt a flash of hatred for the elected officials who always managed to avoid any interruption of their own salaries.) The remaining emails were mostly excuses from students—a car accident, a dead grandmother, a dead great-aunt. (It was early in the term for the elder relatives to start dropping off; usually that happened during Finals week.) These in addition to the truly upsetting stories, like the sister with leukemia or the kidnapped Mexican cousin. He tried and failed to cheer himself up by noting that nobody had been shot.
The Fortas emails were equally depressing, although for different reasons. One student had missed half the semester because the class time conflicted with his shrink appointments. Another was stuck in Cedars-Sinai until the doctors recalibrated his seizure medication. A third was recovering from a flare-up of Epstein-Barr, and a fourth was “struggling with anxiety.” (Who isn’t, thought Robert.) The final problematic student of the week was not ill, but he was either autistic or had Asperger’s—nobody could tell Robert which—and his tutor had emailed to ask for a “sit-down.”
Each of these emails had been cc-ed to the Assistant Dean, who had also written to remind Robert that the aforementioned students had “official accommodations” and were thus allowed to miss class when necessary and have “flexible” deadlines. Robert had no problem with flexibility; but with these Fortas kids it was impossible to ascertain what they could do or when they could do it, and yet he was still required to teach them somehow. In this light, an email from a recidivist plagiarizer who wanted help with her research “so i dont get into trouble again” felt like a resounding triumph for American pedagogy.
Were any of these students lying to him? Not the one in the hospital—Robert had had the shit scared out of him once when the kid had a seizure in class. As for the rest of them, maybe, maybe not. Verifying the excuses, however, would risk inspiring negative evaluations at the end of the semester, which could also hurt his chances at a full-time job—as well as creating more unpaid work for Robert. Already he worked more than sixty hours a week for about two-thirds of a decent salary. So for efficiency’s sake he took their excuses at face value. He responded to the emails with messages of sympathy and/or condolence and tried to forget about it.
He was about to turn back to his lesson plans when Alison texted to ask if she could take him to Trader Joe’s before it got too crowded. Robert packed up his stuff—Alison’s agoraphobia was dormant, but it was best to be considerate about it. Later he would dig up some articles to talk about in class. Or maybe he would show them Dead Poet’s Society.
The journey from Echo Park to Silver Lake was a series of near-accidents, what with so many drivers on cell phones or eating or knitting or practicing the ukulele (this being the Eastside). Hey, here was an idea: he could give a lesson on irony, using himself as an example: the guy who liked cars, but desperately needed a break from driving.
Alison was waiting for him in front of her house, looking very pretty in a summery dress and floppy hat and sunglasses.
“Hey, you,” she said, sliding into the car.
She put NPR on the radio and leaned back, radiating contentment. The remarkable thing was that she was always happy to see him—even though they had parted less than two hours ago, even though, by her account, she still had “issues about being in a relationship,” she was always happy to see him.
On the way to the market he mulled over telling her the epiphany from the meeting, the one about knowing that he wanted to spend his life with her. But he figured he’d sit on that for a while, because that conversation could go only one of two ways: either she would say thanks but no thanks, which would be disastrous; or they’d start making plans and he wasn’t capable of planning anything right now, apparently not even his own classes.
Robert was guided into a parking space by a security guard in a pith helmet who bore a vague resemblance to President Obama. Inside, the aisles had not yet filled up with the sort of people who tried on outfits before they went food shopping. He left Alison to collect her foods disguised as other foods, her tofu burgers and rice pasta, and slipped off to the wine section. He had fifteen bucks left in his booze budget for the month; the question was whether to go for quantity or quality. He was examining a fourteen-dollar bottle of Saint-Émilion when he was blindsided by a confusing mix of sadness and anger. Why did his students drop their problems into his lap? How was he supposed to react when a student told him that her sister had leukemia? Or that another student had seizures twice an hour? What was he supposed to do with this information, other than feel bad?
Wait—he knew what they wanted. All these young people (and at Compton some older people) wanted him to acknowledge that their difficulties (real as they were, unless they were faking) rendered them exempt from Robert’s standards. They wanted him to tear up the contract, as it were, and pronounce them free to advance. Which he wouldn’t do, because all he had left were his standards. And yet, here he was, feeling guilty for having standards. And he felt guilty for being unable to help his students with their writing and their messy lives. Then there was self-hatred for feeling guilty, and further guilt induced by the self-hatred, and finally immense frustration for feeling guilty about hating himself for feeling guilty. All overlain with resentment for the administrators, who didn’t pay him enough to buy a second coffee for the road or the occasional (all right, frequent) bottle of what he really wanted, which was Jameson.
He put the wine back on its shelf and texted Alison that he would wait for her in the parking lot. He didn’t trust himself to stay another minute without blowing his rent money on booze.
It was hot in the Lexus. He opened the windows and put his face in his hands, reminding himself that he had a loving girlfriend and worked in an honorable profession and that the inability to afford a twenty dollar bottle of whiskey did not indicate that he was a complete failure as a human being.
His cell phone rang: somebody was calling from a blocked number.
“Hello, Mr. Rabinowitz? This is Harmony, Isaac Lowenstein’s assistant? He wants to know if you’re free to go for a drive tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
Harmony emitted an audible sigh. “Mr. Lowenstein has this driving club. Him and his friends, they go driving. And sometimes he invites people to take out one of his cars so, you know, they don’t sit too long. Seven a.m. at his house, okay?”
“Sure. I mean, yes, okay,” Robert said. He was about to ask where Isaac lived, but Harmony had ended the call.
Just then Alison appeared, still cradling a brightly colored reusable grocery bag as she slid into the passenger seat. As he explained the call to Alison, a text message appeared on his phone: Isaac’s address.
“Wow, that guy likes you,” Alison said. “I wonder how many cars he has?”
“I wonder what I’ll get to drive?” Robert said, his voice registering both trepidation and excitement.
It was a 1964 Porsche 356 SC, white with a black interior, and it was nimble, responsive and tight on the corners. The close-to-the-road feeling was comparable to a Beetle’s but exponentially better, the difference between a burger and filet mignon. Or something. Robert couldn’t think about metaphors right now, he needed to focus on the road, the crazy turns, one after another and no guard rails. He glimpsed spectacular cliffsides, vertiginous drop-offs, the shimmering blue-green Pacific. He wanted to do some heel-and-toeing; but on a road like this, getting fancy was a bad idea.
Isaac owned five cars, as it had turned out: the Porsche, a ‘69 Shelby GT500, a ‘66 Mustang FT Fastback and a Lotus Esprit from the early Nineties. His daily driver was a new Tesla. An eclectic collection, and expensive—likely a million dollars worth of cars in the spotless garage behind his house. What had been interesting, aside from the cars themselves, was that none of them really said, “Fuck you, I’m rich.” (Even the Lotus was matte black and not mid-life crisis red or notice-me yellow.) You could say the same for his house—big, but not ostentatiously so, at least from the outside. It had occurred to Robert that he kind of admired Isaac. The man was rich enough to buy whatever he wanted, but he didn’t need everybody to know about it.
“Pick a car, any car,” Isaac said, and Robert pointed to the ovoid Porsche.
Isaac handed over the key. “Don’t fuck it up.”
Just then someone drove up in a silver Aston Martin DB5, followed by a red Ferrari Daytona. The former was driven by a Dr. Jonas Furman, who was about Isaac’s age and seemed affable enough; the latter by Tom Landsman, a TV actor so famous that even Robert knew who he was. He was good with civilians, though, asking Robert where he lived, pretending to be impressed that he taught college, etc. In fact, they all treated him kindly, normally, despite his lack of wealth and/or celebrity. So as he folded himself into the Porsche, Robert was feeling okay. You might even say that he was enjoying himself. Until the car stalled as he reversed it out of the garage. His face burned with shame when Isaac called out, “Don’t fuck up my car!”
But since then it had been all right. He got the feel of the car and it was a beautiful day and he was driving a vintage Porsche. He had followed the Lotus from Sherman Oaks and up the 101 to this insane road, which now seemed to be straightening out, descending gradually to a stoplight by the Pacific Coast Highway. Isaac stuck his hand out of the Lotus and pointed left, and a few minutes later Robert relinquished the Porsche key to the valet of that restaurant where Mel Gibson got sloshed before making his notorious anti-Semitic tirade.
They took a table on the balcony overlooking the ocean, with salt odors on the mild wind and the light sparkling on the water—the sort of view that made you glad, at least temporarily, that you lived in Los Angeles. But when the waitress delivered the menus, Robert was worried: he had only ten bucks in his wallet and he didn’t want to use his credit card. Whether via coincidence or clairvoyance, Isaac announced that lunch was on him and Robert relaxed. While eating, they chatted about cars (Tom had his eye on a Porsche 911 GT3), until the conversation inevitably turned to shop talk. Even Dr. Furman knew an awful lot about showrunners and renewals and pilots. Although Robert had little to add, he was used to such moments, having sat through plenty of business dinners with Alison. He listened, laughed at the appropriate moments, enjoyed the view and his Cobb salad. Another bonus: after ninety minutes of serious driving, his lower back was quiet.
As the busboy collected their plates, Isaac and Tom rose from the table, both claiming they had phone calls to make.
Meanwhile the doctor had produced a couple of Macanudos. After the business of cutting and lighting, Robert thought he should say something, so he asked the doctor how long he had known Isaac.
“Only forty years. He’s an interesting guy.” His demeanor was friendly and matter-of-fact, as if he were an uncle explaining the garment business. “He only likes to help people when they don’t want anything from him. Let’s cut to the chase. You know I’m a psychiatrist, right? Isaac says you’re fucked up. What’s going on?”
Robert would forever after wonder if this could possibly have been prearranged, if the Head of Programming for a major network and a giant TV star had actually planned, in advance, to leave him alone with Dr. Furman. Or if they were just doing what show business people did, making phone calls, even at lunchtime on a Saturday. Either way, he saw that he was being granted a favor.
“I can’t grade essays without vomiting,” he said.
The doctor nodded once and asked Robert to describe what specifically triggered the vomiting, how often it happened and how he felt afterwards. He had more questions about Robert’s work situation, his finances and, finally, his emotional state.
“I feel anxious all the time,” Robert said. “And it’s not just because I don’t have any money. When I was a journalist I knew how to have some emotional distance from my subjects. But now my students are a mess and I can’t handle it.”
“What’s going on with your students?”
Robert gave a quick summary of the worst cases.
Dr. Furman shook his head. “Hearing that would give anybody heartburn. It’s getting to you because your defenses are down. You’re underpaid, you’re overworked and I’m guessing that you’re not getting much help from management.”
Robert drew on his cigar. In the middle distance a kind of hump appeared in the waves. He couldn’t tell if it was a whale or a big rock.
“Is there anything you feel optimistic about? What’s good in your life?”
“I really like my girlfriend, and I’m up for a job with benefits at both schools.”
“Okay, so you can maintain a relationship and there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Here’s more good news. The vomiting is normal or let’s say not abnormal. I’ve got a half-dozen clients with high-pressure jobs who get panic attacks and some of them vomit. In your case it’s probably not panic attacks but more of a psychosomatic reaction. You’re not crazy, kid. You’re just having a hard time.”
Robert felt a relief so immense that it almost brought him to tears. When he felt ready to speak, he asked the doctor if there was a solution.
“Well, for those guys I prescribe anti-anxiety medication. Because they need to function.”
“I need to function.”
“I know you do. But they make shitloads of money and they have mortgages, kids in college. You don’t. So here’s my professional opinion. You’ll be fine once you settle down at one school—that is, if you enjoy teaching. If you don’t, then figure out what you do enjoy and do that. And forget about money. You know that expression, ‘Do what you love and the money comes later?’ It’s bullshit. It should be, ‘Do what you love, at least it won’t make you miserable.’”
Dr. Furman rested his cigar on the edge of the table and produced a card from his wallet.
“I don’t normally do this, but stop by my office next week. Not for a session. You can’t afford me. I’ll leave something at the desk that will help you get through the grading.”
“You know that we want to hire a full-time writing instructor,” the Dean said. “Coincidentally, President Rogoff asked me the other day about student writing. He takes a particular interest in it, you know, so I thought it would be nice if we could give him a report. Nothing formal, just an idea of how we’re doing. You can present your findings at the next Curriculum Committee meeting. Unfortunately, we don’t have any room in the budget to pay you for it.”
“Surely you can pay me something,” Robert said, keeping his voice light.
“My hands are tied. One more thing. It’s come to my attention that you’re behind on your grading. Make sure you catch up.” The Dean did his end-of-meeting nod. “Shut the door behind you, thanks a lot.”
You outrageous fucking asshole, Robert was thinking en route to the faculty lounge. What a monumentally dickish move, mentioning the grading as a way of ending the discussion about money. So someone had ratted him out—probably Shana Greenberg, who last year lodged a formal complaint when Robert had assigned fewer essays than the number on his syllabus. The question of enjoying of his work became easier to answer with people like the Dean and Shana in the picture. Then again, as a timely twinge in his back reminded him, the question of enjoyment was moot when you needed health insurance.
There was nobody in the lounge. Robert went directly to the snack table, where he hastily refilled his Thermos with coffee and shoved a fistful of peanuts in his mouth. Chewing furiously—he had never paid the monthly five-dollar snack fee—he made photocopies. While the copier did its thing, he checked his mailbox. An examination copy of a literature anthology had arrived, along with a postcard advertising “The World’s First Graphic Composition Textbook.” So we had reached the stage where college texts are comic books. The idea added another layer to his depression; nevertheless, he put the mailer and the anthology in his bag, along with a shrink-wrapped textbook from the Biology Chair’s mailbox. (Fuck him.) This weekend, he’d sell the books online and send away for an examination copy of the “Graphic Textbook.” He had a student loan payment coming up.
Down the hall, Jacob Diamond was waiting outside his office, along with his tutor, a gangly, blank-faced young woman whose name Robert had forgotten.
“Hello, hello,” he said, aiming for cheerfulness as he unlocked the door.
With due care for his back, he took off the messenger bag and sat down. Now he was on the power side of the desk, as it were. But, unlike the Dean, Robert didn’t want Jacob leaving his office aware of his own powerlessness.
“You asked Jacob to focus on outlining his essays,” said the tutor. “And I think he’s getting much better at it, but we wanted to know what you thought.”
Jacob wore ironed jeans and a colorful sweater over a polo shirt with one side of the collar sticking out. Clearly the kid was dressed by his mother. And, according to the Assistant Dean, Jacob had never been required to write an essay until college. And yet he had made it through the admissions process—why not, since the admissions process was a credit check of his parents? Still, the boy had shown a lot of improvement last year in the remedial (whoops) developmental class.
“How do you feel about your work, Jacob?” Robert asked.
After a four-second pause, the boy looked up and smiled. This, too, was an improvement on last year, when he had been incapable of making eye contact.
“I think that the structure of my essays is better,” Jacob said. “I’ve been using the checklist in Chapter Two of the handbook to help organize the body paragraphs.”
“It still takes him a very long time to write a draft,” the tutor said, furrowing her nondescript brow.
“It takes everybody a long time,” Robert said.
“I try to remember what you said in class,” Jacob said. “You said that writing gets easier with practice. I think it is getting easier. I think I did a good job on my compare-contrast paper on professional versus amateur bowling.”
“It certainly sounds like an interesting paper, Jacob. I’ll read it as soon as I can.”
“Maybe you could read Jacob’s essay tonight and email your thoughts to him,” the tutor said.
Maybe you could fuck off, thought Robert.
“I’ll try,” he said. “Anything else?”
After another four-second pause, Jacob said, “I have one absence and I was late once to class. That’s not going to affect my grade, because the syllabus says that a student is allowed three absences and a student can be late three times before it counts as an absence.”
“I was absent once because my mother couldn’t drive me to class.”
“I know, Jacob. We discussed this.”
“So missing class once and being late once won’t affect my grade?”
Robert reminded himself that Jacob was not trying to be a pain in the ass: this preoccupation with rules was characteristic of people on the autism spectrum. Or so the Internet said. If only there were someone at the college who could explain (a) the boy’s specific condition and (b) how best to teach him. Because the boy was teachable and yet Robert felt that he was missing something, some crucial technique or method, and there was never the time to find the right books or journals. Which left him feeling guilty and helpless. Not as helpless as when Michael Barich had an epileptic seizure in class, but still plenty helpless, thank you very much.
Rachel Chaikin was in the doorway.
“I’ve got another student,” Robert said. “Try not to worry about your attendance. You’re fine, I promise. I’ll read your bowling essay as soon as possible.”
“Okay, thank you, Professor,” Jacob said, smiling again, which eased Robert’s conscience. The tutor, however, seemed displeased—maybe she was the one who had complained. He would never know for sure, so he would place that in the growing mental file of things he was trying not to worry about.
In came Rachel Chaikin, the serial plagiarist, hoping to mend her ways. She wanted Robert to look over a draft of her compare-contrast essay. Instead he angled his giant monitor her way and demonstrated, for the third or fourth time, how to use the college’s research databases. Meanwhile he shut off the part of his brain that in different circumstances might have taken a great interest in the bright smile and the tight little body tailor-made for Girls Gone Wild. It helped that she was dumb as rocks.
Ten minutes later Robert was taking his Critical Thinking and Writing class through two opposing editorials on gay marriage. This seemed to go over well, in that nobody said anything egregiously homophobic and a few students were able to identify some of the logical fallacies. And Robert was proud of himself for remaining scrupulously polite whenever Shana Greenberg raised her hand, despite his urge to say out loud that nobody likes a tattletale.
When the class ended, a scrum immediately formed around him; with a strong sense of déjà vu, Robert reminded everybody that the time to discuss individual issues was during office hours. Nevertheless, zaftig, bespectacled Shana Greenberg accompanied him down the hall, asking when she would get her essays back.
“You said that, like, four times already.”
“So now it’s five.”
“Mr. Rabinowitz, the college handbook says that instructors have one week to grade essays.”
They were standing by the door of the men’s room.
“Shana,” Robert said. “I’m going to the bathroom now.”
It occurred to him, as he did his business, that the Dean hadn’t mentioned the previous Curriculum Committee meeting, when Robert had managed to offend every member of the tenured faculty. Was that because he, the Dean, had decided not to mention it or had simply forgotten about it? One of the many horrible things about seeking employment was how you were always fretting over what everybody thought about you, when they probably weren’t thinking about you at all.
Robert became aware of the student at the next urinal, who was texting with his free hand. Amazingly, the kid changed hands to keep texting and left the bathroom without washing either hand. Another powerful argument for forbidding cell phones in class.
Robert washed and dried his own hands with scrupulous care. A few minutes later, he was passing out an article to his Expository Writing students, this one arguing that a college education was of dubious value. If someone were watching through the window, he or she would believe that Mr. Rabinowitz’s students were absolutely dying to exchange their ideas on the topic. Actually this section had a half-dozen students with attention-deficit disorder; thus, instead of debating whether their degree was worth the money, they brought up dating, drugs, dorm life—basically free-associating on the topic of college. Jacob and the other two kids on the spectrum had little to add, even though Robert strove to include them in the discussion. Meanwhile, the one student with no evident issues sat in silence, likely planning his transfer to another college. Eventually Robert gave up and had them circle every preposition in the article.
As Robert guided the Lexus out of the parking lot, Nathan’s ‘89 Tercel was coming in. They pulled up side by side and rolled down their windows.
“I completely forgot to get in touch about dinner,” Robert said.
Nathan shrugged. “I figured you were busy. How’s Operation Health Insurance?”
“Like tracking the fucking white whale. Let me go, I need to get across town before rush hour.”
Nathan put his car in gear. “You’re coming to the bachelor party, right?”
“Can’t wait,” Robert said, because he was looking forward to it, even though he did have to wonder why, whenever other people got married, it cost him money.
Robert drove to Beverly Hills. On a street lined with vertiginously tall palms he parked between a smart car and a Ferrari 458 Spider. At Dr. Forman’s office he gave his name to the surprisingly hot and surprisingly young receptionist, who wordlessly handed him a white paper bag.
He waited until he was back in his car to see what was in the bag: a blister pack, containing a dozen tiny, sky-blue pills. Ruhimil 20mg was printed on the foil backing, as well as a tiny paragraph in Chinese and another in German. There was also a note: 1 a day for 7 days. ½ pill for 7 more days to taper off.
“Fuck me,” muttered Robert.
Two weeks of medication, when he had four more weeks of classes. He’d have to wait until the last minute to take the pills. Unless by some miracle his condition went away by itself.
After a vicious hour on surface roads, he arrived home feeling even more spent (all that driving, all those students asking, needing, wanting). He went out to the patio, planning a restorative smoke before heading over to Alison’s. As he lit his cigar, Marni appeared, wearing yoga gear and carrying a bottle.
“Knock-knock,” she said. “That cigar smells so good. I just came to give you this.”
She put a bottle of Jameson on the table next to his laptop.
“Thanks,” Robert said. “Do you need me to feed your cat?”
“No,” she said. “So, um, what’s the deal with you and Isaac Loewenstein? Are you, like, buddies now?”
“I don’t know. He has been nice to me.”
Robert couldn’t help telling Marni that he had taken out Isaac’s Porsche, if only to make her jealous. It didn’t, or she pretended it didn’t.
“Oh God, Robert, you are his buddy. He doesn’t ask anybody to go driving. And he blew off my daughter’s birthday party to have a drink with you here, not that I mind.”
Robert shrugged. “Okay, so why the bottle?”
“I want a favor. All I’m asking is that when you see him again you say something about my pilot. You don’t even have to mention me, you can just say, ‘Hey, Isaac, I heard that Three Bitches is hilarious, you should green-light it.’ Because my agents have been calling him and we’ve heard nothing.”
“He’s out of town.”
“You see? You know stuff! Where is he? When is he coming back?”
Isaac had mentioned over lunch that he was taking his family to Italy for two weeks, but Robert had already revealed too much.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sorry.”
Marni responded with silence. It was impossible to tell whether her blank expression was a poker face or the result of dermatology.
“Let me know if you find out,” she finally said and turned to go, but not before grabbing back the bottle.
Robert finished his cigar and showered and put on fresh clothes. (On the way to and from the bathroom, he kept his gaze away from his desk, from the essays stacked in malevolent piles.) What a draining day, he thought, starting the Lexus. He couldn’t imagine how it could get any worse, short of a tsunami or a terrorist attack. Then he could: the check engine light was on.
In early June the days began with a haze that dissipated in the early afternoon, when the heat rose into the nineties. But it was still morning and cool when Robert entered the junkyard with his toolkit. In the section for Japanese cars, two wizened men with their arms deep inside the engine compartment of a Celica were conversing in Spanish. Otherwise it was as quiet as a library. Or a graveyard: with their shattered windshields and mangled front ends, most of these wrecks were artifacts of violence. Nevertheless, Robert liked the purposefulness of the place, the lack of ambiguity. He also liked that it meant not paying a mechanic.
Robert’s hypothesis was that the check fucking engine light kept coming on not because there were problems with the fucking exhaust system, but because the fucking computer that detected such problems was fucking dying. It was possible that a computer from a wreck would be broken; nevertheless he had decided, in this one small way, to hope for the fucking best.
Earlier on the phone he had been assured that a ‘93 ES300 had recently arrived on the lot. He found it in a row of Toyotas, all with hoods up to reveal engines in various states of plunder. He was in luck: the Lexus hadn’t been picked over yet. Unfortunately, this one had a cassette player, so no fancy CDs for Robert. He slid into the passenger seat; on the dashboard was a letter, a court order mandating that one Franklin Crandall of Bell Gardens receive counseling. Robert made a mental note never to leave personal papers in his own car and set about removing the glove compartment. He found the electronic control module, essentially a largish, hard-drive-looking thing, and got it out after about fifteen minutes of moderate but not soul-crushing hassle.
He gathered his tools and took the part over to the counter. The cashier was a scowling young guy with a tattooed neck and scalp. When he saw Robert’s credit card, his face brightened.
“Mr. Rabinowitz. I thought it was you. I’m Alejandro Guzman. I took your English A class.”
Robert didn’t remember the kid—he’d had thousands of students. But it was always nice when they remembered him.
“Hi Alejandro,” he said. “How are you?”
“I’m good. I got it together now. I’m back at the college getting my Associate’s in Auto Tech.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“Thanks, Professor.” He tapped the ECM. “So you’re replacing the brain, huh? You know you got to reprogram it with the old key.”
“Shit. I don’t know how to do that.”
“Relax, I can do it. Wait for me by your car. I’ll lock up here real quick.”
A minute later Alejandro met Robert by the Lexus and the young man swapped out the computers, reconnected the battery and finally got behind the wheel to do the reprogramming. The two wizened guys had appeared and begun working on a faded Celica a few feet from a sign that prohibited customers from working on cars in the parking lot. Meanwhile, Alejandro was pressing and releasing the pedals in a complicated pattern. Now Robert remembered him: a silent, timid-looking boy who had trouble with subject-verb agreement. He didn’t look timid now.
“You know, Professor,” Alejandro said from the driver’s seat. “I got a friend who’s into these ES300s. He fixes them up and sells them, some of them real pieces of shit. Yours is good, though. I’d bet you he’d give you two grand for it.”
“Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”
Alejandro would not accept Robert’s own proffered twenty (a relief), but the kid did accept a handshake and gratitude; and Robert went his way thinking that maybe this was the turning point, the moment when Fortune sent good things his way instead of crapping on him. The feeling diminished the closer he got to his neighborhood; it disappeared entirely when he got home, where all those ungraded essays awaited him.
At both colleges, the semester had ended the previous week. During the penultimate meeting of each class, Robert had given a short speech, apologizing for not providing the feedback they deserved. Anyone wanting to see his or her graded essays was welcome to bring a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the final class meeting; anyone who didn’t would not, repeat not, be marked absent. (In all four classes, a student had then raised his or her hand and asked if they would be marked absent.) None of this, he knew, would stave off the negative student evaluations that he deserved as a writing teacher who vomited whenever he read student writing. But it did go some small way towards assuaging his guilt. Anyway, only two students showed up with envelopes: Tabitha Jackson and Shana Greenberg.
It was hot inside the cottage. Robert turned on the ceiling fan and opened the windows. He sat on the couch with a banana and regarded the stacks of essays that had rendered his desk unusable. Today was Friday. He had one week until his grades were due—the same day that he would present his report to the Curriculum Committee. He had finished a draft, three waffling pages that shamefully didn’t say much and hopefully wouldn’t offend anybody. And, thanks to Alejandro, the car was fine for the time being. All that was left was the essays—360 of them.
No, there couldn’t be that many. He was forgetting about the Holocaust of Grandparents. It happened every semester when the big paper was due, students emailing with sad tales of a beloved elder’s demise (this in addition to the usual tales of illness and family chaos). Alison had been helping him keep up on who still owed him work—he reached for his laptop. He was deeply saddened when he saw that the total count was well over 300, even with dozens of laggards.
And he still didn’t know if he had work this summer.
Without giving himself time to think, he got up and grabbed an essay and read the first sentence: Success means different things for different people.
He looked up. He felt okay. The sentence was okay. Maybe the preposition should have been “to” instead of “for.” Still, he felt okay.
Until he didn’t. He ran to the bathroom and puked up partially digested bits of breakfast toast and masticated banana. When the horribleness was over, he sat down on the toilet and sobbed, strings of phlegm dangling from his mouth. Slowly he managed to get a hold of himself; sniffling, he washed his face and brushed his teeth and took the blister pack of Ruhimil from the medicine cabinet. Robert put a pill in his mouth, washing it down with water directly from the tap. He returned to the sofa, where he waited to see what would happen.
A few days later Alison appeared at his house.
“Hi honey,” Robert said. “What’s up?”
“What’s up? I haven’t heard from you since Friday, that’s what’s up. What’s going on?”
“I’ve been grading papers.”
“Robert, I called you four times yesterday…wait. You’re grading papers? Without getting sick? What happened?”
“Remember that psychiatrist I met through Isaac? He gave me something.”
“Let me finish this essay. The pills are in the cabinet.”
In conclusion, [better trans?] it doesn’t matter what you are. I believe we are Americans first before we are a race, [comma splice] why not say American-African, American-Latino, American-Jewish [nice idea!]. Maybe Hughes learned something about himself and his surroundings by writting [sp] his poem [okay but connection to previous sentence?]. The school on the hill is not so steep to him as it was before he “let the page come out” [good!].
Robert recorded the grade, a solid B. Sherrell Hicks had really improved as a writer. Plus she hadn’t been absent once. If he wanted to be a prick he could go strictly by average and give her a C for the class; instead Robert awarded her a B…fuck it, a B+.
“Ruhimil,” Alison was saying. “What is this stuff?”
“No idea,” Robert said, reaching for Tabitha Jackson’s essays. He was optimistic about these; she had the best shot at an A in that section.
“Robert, I’m worried about you again.”
“Why? No wait, I get it. I’m sorry I haven’t called. I have to get through all these essays by Friday.” What day was it today? Something told him not to ask Alison. “I feel fine. I’m getting my work done. I promise I’m all yours after Friday.”
Her eyes searched the room, perhaps for signs of devil worship or psychosis. All she saw was a tidy, one-room cottage—tidier, in fact, than it had been in months. He didn’t tell her that he had spent the small hours making miniscule adjustments to the placement of the furniture or that yesterday, after grading eighty essays, he had washed and waxed the Lexus. Nor did he tell her that he had decided to return all the essays to his students whether they wanted them or not. With the Fortas kids, it would be a piece of cake—the student mailboxes were around the corner from the faculty lounge. He’d snail mail the papers to the Compton kids; he’d already addressed the envelopes, all seventy of them. That had been maybe two days ago, right after he had scrubbed the bathroom. Or had it been after he had reorganized his files?
“Fine,” Alison said, although evidently she felt otherwise. “But after all this is over, you and I are going to have a talk. Do you need anything?”
He nodded, scrawled a list on a piece of scratch paper and handed it to Alison.
“Robert, all this says is ‘food.’”
He shrugged. “I have enough cigars.”
“Whatever.” She kissed him. “I’ll be back in an hour.”
“Thank you, my love.”
Robert turned back to his desk. He checked the day (Tuesday) and put a note on his calendar to call Alison every evening at 7 p.m. He was curious as to how she had gotten here and what this talk would be about. All in good time. Right now he was eager to know what Tabitha had to say about The Lottery.
On Friday Robert went to the post office and, with a great sense of accomplishment, dropped off seventy manila envelopes. (He had to put the postage on his Visa, but what the hell? Come September he’d have a full-time job.) With that done, he headed for Fortas College, driving with total concentration, knowing full seconds beforehand that the red Passat was about to drift into his lane, that he should avoid the Ford pickup with an upright refrigerator in its flatbed. He even foresaw, by the brake lights a quarter-mile ahead, the motorcycle cop with a radar gun behind the exit sign for Cahuenga. He made it to Fortas in thirty-five minutes, a personal record.
He slid the essays into the students’ mailboxes and then made copies of his report for the Curriculum Committee. Last night he had added a proposal for revamping the writing assessment test according to state requirements; he had also added some charts. He would make it impossible for the Dean not to offer him a full-time job. He might even be in a position to play one school’s offer against the other.
He entered the conference room a few minutes before nine o’clock. No one was there and no coffee or water had been set out. Robert didn’t mind. He didn’t need coffee and he had brought a bottle of water, which he set down alongside the neatly stacked reports and his writing pad. But when no one arrived at nine he was concerned; at five minutes past he was worried; at ten past he gathered his things and went to find the Dean, who was in his office, fiddling with a side pocket of his golf bag.
“Hi, Robert,” he said. “What’s up?”
“I thought we had a meeting.”
“Oh, I cancelled it. There was no point with half the committee out of town.”
“I see,” said Robert.
“I’m glad you’re here, though. I’ve decided to give you the job. Why draw it out? You’ll teach three classes a term and take charge of the writing adjuncts or in this case the writing adjunct, singular. And I want you to get our assessment tests more in line with state requirements.”
“Great,” said Robert. “I was just—”
The Dean held up one hand for silence and shouldered his golf bag.
“I can offer you a one-year contract at thirty thousand. With health insurance, of course. I’ll let you know when the contract has been drawn up.”
The Dean gave his end-of-meeting nod. So Robert walked to his car, where he sat behind the wheel and stared at a concrete wall. The Ruhimil had helped him get on top of his work, although apparently it did not blunt acute feelings of humiliation and astonishment. The worst part about it was the salary, which was more or less what he earned now. The second worse part was that the Dean hadn’t asked about the report. The third was that they had cancelled the meeting without telling him. Given all that, he found it difficult to feel triumphant about health insurance.
He started the Lexus and made his way to Compton, driving more carefully now. His left eye felt irritated: at a red light, he checked it in the rear-view mirror and it seemed fine. But he looked like a forty-eight-year-old, chain-smoking insomniac. Maybe it had something to do with the half-pill he had taken that morning, as the tapering-off period had begun.
At Compton Robert turned in his grades to the registrar. For the first time in days he felt hungry, so he went to the cafeteria and splurged on a tuna sandwich. He ate it at a picnic table in the shade of an unhealthy looking tree of some kind. (The heat was really asserting itself, showing you who was boss.) Someone had left a summer schedule on the table—Robert opened it to the English section and saw his name next to two classes. Why hadn’t Dr. Phelps bothered to tell him? For the same reason that the Dean hadn’t told him that the meeting was cancelled. Because Robert was an adjunct. And now he faced another summer in the same position, followed by more adjuncting or a degrading salary.
Well, there was still the Compton job. He’d have to teach five sections a semester, but it paid well.
On his way back to the parking lot Robert ducked into the English office to check his mailbox. An envelope was there—a letter from Dr. Phelps. Unfortunately we are not able to offer you a full-time position.
Robert put the letter in his messenger bag and returned to his car. His eye was twitching and he was very tired.
He had just merged onto the 110 when he noticed that the check engine light had come on. He got off at the Florence exit and drove to the junkyard, where he parked and searched the car for personal items. There was only the deodorant and the sunblock in the glove compartment and an old baseball cap in the trunk. He left the Armenian tapes on the passenger seat.
“Mr. Rabinowitz, hi,” Alejandro said. “What’s up with your eye?”
“It’s nothing. I hope. You still think your friend would buy my Lexus?”
“Probably. You want me to call him?”
Robert handed Alejandro the key and the envelope from his rejection letter. He had written his phone number on it.
“Have him call me. Tell him I never want to see that fucking car again. No, don’t say that. Tell him to make me an offer and I’ll mail him the spare key and the title.”
“All right,” Alejandro said. “No disrespect, Mr. Rabinowitz, but you don’t look so good.”
“I don’t feel so good.”
He walked for a few minutes up Alameda Street, passing three auto glass shops and a gas station, before fully comprehending how hot it was. He untucked his shirt and rolled up his sleeves and put on the baseball cap. Meanwhile, his eye was twitching and his back was making its presence known. His bag was too heavy—he dumped the reports in a trash can.
He turned onto some street, walked past a storefront church, a cheap furniture shop, a check-cashing place. The few passersby gave him a wary look, and who could blame them? He was a white man on foot in South L.A. If he hadn’t spunked all that money on postage he would have called a cab. Instead he went into a liquor store and asked if there was a bus or something nearby.
“Car break down?” asked the paunchy black clerk behind bulletproof glass.
“Sorry to hear that. You walk down Nadeau, make a right on Graham. Go up there you’ll see the Blue Line.”
When he got to the station, a narrow concrete strip alongside an industrial park, he had to ask a kid how to buy a card. The boy was maybe twelve, sober, polite, wearing a backpack. If he noticed anything strange about Robert—maybe that he had one eye convulsing furiously—the kid didn’t show it. Praise God, the train came quickly and was air-conditioned; Robert was in a kind of stupor until it made its final stop downtown. There might have been a train that could get him closer to home, but walking seemed less taxing than the mental strain of reading a map.
Very quickly he knew that he was wrong. The sun was relentless, with heat radiating from the sidewalks of Downtown. The tourists and corporate drones and homeless people seemed brutalized by the heat, or maybe Robert was projecting. Anyway he had learned something new: when you don’t have a car in Los Angeles you keep asking yourself, Why aren’t I driving? Also you feel ashamed of yourself.
At Cesar Chavez Avenue he caught a bus.
Alison texted: Finished work early. Where r u?
On the bus, he replied. Sold my car.
Back throbbing, face clenching uncontrollably, Robert got off at Glendale Boulevard and walked the last half-mile. When he got to the cottage he threw down the bag and stripped off his shirt. Finally he noticed that Alison was on the couch.
“Jesus, Robert,” she said. “Are you all right?”
“I want to spent the rest of my life with you,” he said, and then he collapsed.
Ruhimil, Alison had recently learned from her shrink, was banned in the United States for causing violent facial tics when the dosage was halved. A significant percentage of patients also reported severe depression and exhaustion. Had anyone asked, Robert would have reported all these symptoms and a few more that he preferred not to think about. In any case, he would not recommend Dr. Furman as a psychiatrist, although there was still something to be said for his career advice.
“Well,” said Robert. “That explains a lot.”
“Doesn’t it? I’m so relieved.”
“Me too. Turn here, honey. Wait for that Hummer.”
It was the Sunday after the Fourth of July and they were en route to Nathan’s wedding in Alison’s pristine white Prius. And how nice it was to be driven, even in a Prius, and not only because Robert intended to get profoundly ginarbookh (Armenian for “drunk”).
A few days ago, when he finally felt capable of coherent thought, he and Alison had a talk. The main point was that she had a breakthrough: she felt ready to drive again so she bought a car, and she felt ready to eventually consider talking about getting married. In the meantime Robert should move in. As for money, he could contribute what he could, she didn’t care how much. Robert said that it wouldn’t be much, as he was never setting foot in Fortas fucking College again, except maybe to swipe textbooks. He’d continue teaching at Compton, and in the fall, start their Auto Tech program.
Yes, it was ironic that he no longer owned a car. So what? Selling the Lexus covered his tuition money for the entire program (God bless community colleges). Alison, who was on hiatus, could drop him at the train station when the summer term started. And in a couple of years they’d get married and Robert would get a job as a mechanic or write about cars or all or none of the above.
It was not a perfect plan: his full-time job search had failed, or rather he had aborted the mission. In the end it was a matter of dignity. Robert simply couldn’t countenance another year of living like a subsistence farmer (or worse, because at least they got fresh vegetables). So with Alison’s help he had worked out a few things. He was checking into a catastrophic plan, fifty bucks a month in case an anvil fell on him. Maybe he’d find a shrink whose sliding scale slid low. As for his lower back, it was interesting that he had felt neither twinge nor pinch since he had told the Dean to stuff the job.
There were still a number of open questions. One was the potential level of awkwardness if he ended up in, say, a transmissions class with any former or possibly even current students. Another was the arguable stupidity of pursuing another degree while still paying off the previous one. And the final question was if he would be able to read an essay without vomiting. Frankly, that was the only one that really frightened him. But here he was guardedly optimistic, if only because horrible things were in general more bearable when you had an exit strategy.
Nathan was getting married at the Bel Air Hotel, a place of lush vegetation and gurgling fountains; shade-providing screens had been suspended above the walkways and patios. The bride was elegant and composed and the groom had cleaned up nicely. And yet Robert couldn’t take his eyes off the rabbi, who had a soul patch and sang the blessings while accompanying himself with an acoustic guitar. (Why would a rabbi wear a beard like that? Why would anyone? And who told him to bring a guitar?) Meanwhile, for some reason Alison had her eyes on the groom’s father. But when Nathan stepped on the glass, Robert and Alison were looking at each other, as if to acknowledge that one of these years they’d be up there, although not with that rabbi.
After the ceremony Robert and Alison shuffled into the cocktail room along with everybody else, Alison doing a lot of waving and smiling.
She said, “You didn’t tell me Nathan Spalding is Myron’s son.”
“This is why I love you. Myron Spalding created Vampire Wars.”
“He never mentioned it,” Robert said. It was unpleasant to learn that the starving poet bit was an act. Unless he wasn’t taking money from his father? With a kind of sudden internal firmness, Robert concluded that it wasn’t any of his business; and he felt sad that his friend found it necessary, for whatever reason, to conceal his parentage.
He asked Alison if she wanted to schmooze.
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Not at all. I’ll meet you by the bar.”
Robert found Nathan in a corner, surrounded by guests. Under the wedding canopy he was presentable; up close, in a well-cut black suit and fashionably thin tie, he seemed transformed. Nathan stepped around a seventy-year-old man dressed as if he were thirty and embraced Robert.
“Professor Rabinowitz. Are you okay? Alison told me you were sick.”
“I’m fine, I’m just sorry I missed your bachelor party. Where’d you find Rabbi Soul Patch?”
Nathan rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I know. His sister is close with my wife. ‘My wife.’ I can’t get my head around that.”
“Me neither. She’s much too hot for you.”
“Right? I definitely married up.” Nathan put his hand on Robert’s arm. “You don’t think I’m weird or fucked up or something?”
“Because of your dad? Nathan, this is a great day and I’m happy for you.”
An exceptionally thin woman inserted herself between the two men.
“I’m afraid I have to steal the groom,” she said. “Pictures.”
“Call me after the honeymoon,” Robert said. He grabbed two glasses of champagne from a passing waiter and set off to find Alison. She was standing to one side of the bar, looking very attractive indeed in her little black dress and talking to some other less attractive woman. Clearly there was much to be said for her diet of foods disguised as other foods. The other thing to be said was how casual she appeared when she did her schmoozing, like a normal person talking normally. The trick, she had once mentioned, was to talk about anything but the project.
As he made his way towards her, someone grabbed a glass from his hand.
“Thanks,” Isaac said. “What the fuck are you doing here?”
Robert laughed. “I’m a friend of the groom.”
“Oh yeah, the wayward son. I feel old. I was at his bar mitzvah.”
“Isaac, you’ll be busting balls for years to come.”
“Now that is a compliment. You look better, Robert. Meet me outside after dinner. I’ve got cigars. Now go get that girl there, you can’t take your eyes off her.”
Robert did as he was told. But as he went to Alison it occurred to him that again he felt kind of sad. If he did look better, it was likely because he no longer thought of teaching as anything more than a stopgap. So had he wasted five years of his life? He hoped not, seeing as he had done his best and maybe helped a few kids. The real mistake had been allowing shits like the Dean to take away his self-respect.
Never mind. He downed the champagne and went to Alison, who was in line for the bar. He stepped up next to her and took her hand.
Jews move quickly with death. Within two days she was in the ground. There was no shiva—she had outlived her friends and cousins and her only daughter flew back to Florida directly after the funeral. The sole remaining mourner was Edward, or Edek to his grandmother, who was gone. And her death was a blow, harder than he had expected: raised by careless parents, he mourned the unconditional love and the purpose she had given him.
Edward, in his early 40s, was of unimpressive height and had the balding man’s tonsure. And yet women liked his confidence and olive skin. As an ex-banker, he didn’t need a job; plus he had rental income from his 3-unit townhouse in Williamsburg. So what did he do with his time? He read about politics. He tinkered with his Harley. He Tindered. And he visited his grandmother. Every Tuesday and Friday, rain or shine, Edward took a cab to the Upper West Side bearing large-print books, DVDs, the bread she liked from the last Jewish bakery in the East Village. He left cash for the caregiver. (Edward’s mother, stewing in daughterly resentment, was happy to let him pay.) He sat with his grandmother, outwardly demonstrating the banker’s emotional reticence, inwardly loving how she brightened in his presence.
“Edek, that Princeton boy whose books you gave me? He writes like he’s afraid of upsetting his mother.”
“Is that a bad thing, Grandma?”
“In life, no. In literature, yes.”
She did repeat herself, asking if his house was paid off, if his tenants paid the rent on time, etc. This was understandable, given her lifelong preoccupation with real estate. Not that she had anything to complain about, with her rent-controlled three-bedroom. Anyway he had sensed that things were heading south when she said, with uncharacteristic plaintiveness, “Edek, I don’t have anything to leave you.”
“But I don’t need anything, Grandma,” he’d said.
Except her presence, which he now missed with shocking intensity. The pain was acute as he purged her apartment, the deep closets stuffed with mid-century appliances, wooden hangers from extinct hotels, photo albums, dust from the Eisenhower Administration.
Landlords also move quickly with death. Four days after the funeral, when Edward let himself in to the apartment, some douche with slicked-back hair was measuring the foyer.
“Sorry,” the guy said. “I need….”
“You need to renovate so you can charge market rate.”
“Look, I’m sorry, but business is business.”
“Get the fuck out, or I’ll put the lease in my name.”
Grandma’s valuables, such as they were, Edward sent to his mother. He kept the photo albums and her books. In his Brooklyn townhouse, single malt in hand, Edward looked the albums over, one entirely dedicated to his own life, bris to business school, others to long-dead relatives and pictures of a townhouse at the edge of some Polish square. Edward saw something mutely poignant in its narrowness, the peaked roof. An official-looking document had been folded between the pages, the lettering crowded with incomprehensible dots and squiggles. He left it there, wondering if he should have it translated, knowing he’d never bother.
It started the second Friday after her death: near lunchtime Edward found himself craving chopped liver, one of those unhealthy old-world foods that he had never liked. But it was a mere ten-minute walk to the other Williamsburg, the bearded men and tattooed women giving way to bearded men and bewigged women, their children trailing like Jewish ducklings. The deli bustled with the pre-Sabbath rush. By the time Edward got to the counter he was dizzy from hunger.
“I want a chopped liver sandwich.”
“You want schmaltz?”
“What is it, yes or no?”
“Yes, I want schmaltz.”
Edward became aware of the men and women around him; he could feel their curiosity on the back of his neck.
The man wrapped the sandwich in waxed paper and handed it over.
“You must be a Jew,” he said. “Your Yiddish is good.”
“You thought we were speaking French?”
Edward threw a twenty on the counter and rushed outside, blinking rapidly. On the street there were signs in Yiddish, or Yiddish with Hebrew lettering: Bakery. Yeshiva. Men’s hats. A handwritten sign taped to a telephone pole: Lost t’fillin, if found please write email@example.com. In the window of a religious bookstore: The bus stop for Monsey has been moved to Bedford corner Rodney.
He had lost the capability of coherent thought. He could put one foot in front of the other and that was all. And yet he was still famished. As he walked he fressed like a chazzer, ate like a pig. Thus Edward was definitely not listening to the Yiddish of the men in their shiny gabardines and fur hats. Returning to secular Williamsburg, he entered a faux-dive bar, empty save for a pair of working men having a quiet beer. He ordered a chilled vodka, neat, and wished that he still smoked cigarettes. It would have been nice to have something to do with his hands.
“We’ll be done next week,” one guy was saying.
“Do you have anything else coming up?”
“There’s a demo in Park Slope, a big job, if you’re looking.”
“I’m always looking. One for the road?”
“No thanks. My wife will kill me if I come home smelling of beer.”
An innocuous conversation, save for that it was being conducted entirely in Polish, which Edward apparently understood now as well.
Various Internet sources described it as a paranormal phenomenon called xenoglossia, when you suddenly can speak a language that you’ve never studied. Apparently, three years ago a German race car driver had emerged from a coma speaking the Queen’s English. A woman at Yankee Stadium was beaned by a fly ball and awoke with fluent Swedish. An Australian man had a mild stroke and knew Mandarin.
Edward did not believe in the paranormal. He thought it unworthy of his attention, like blended scotch or small children. But he was willing to concede that xenoglossia was a thing. It happened. But never without some precipitating incident. Nor was there an example of someone suddenly knowing two new languages and, more disturbingly, not one reputable doctor who accepted xenoglossia as anything other than utter bullshit.
Edward’s banking years had left him with Olympic-level compartmentalization skills. He could sleep, eat and screw while waiting on deals worth multiple billions; by comparison, two new languages was a piece of piss. If it didn’t fade within a few days, as the anecdotal evidence suggested it would, then he would see a doctor. In the meantime he’d chat up the cute Polish waitress at that new place on Bedford Avenue.
But he never left the house. Instead he spent the weekend streaming Andrzej Wajda movies, and then Krzystof Kieslowski movies, and then he came across Austeria, a Polish film about a pogrom that left him shaken. The setting reminded him of a Yiddish film from the 1930s, The Dybbuk, the story of a young bride possessed by an angry spirit. Someone had posted the whole thing online: one part of Edward was amused by its theatrical Yiddish, another part profoundly bored, yet another (if he was to be honest with himself) unnerved by the idea of demonic possession.
Which was why, on Sunday afternoon, after clearing away the takeout containers and empty bottles of Saint-Émilion, Edward found himself typing his credit card number into a psychic reading website that had, among its roster of charlatans, an “authentic Hasidic rabbi” whose services could be accessed via Skype for—get this—$4.99 a minute. As he waited to be connected to his spirit guide or whatever, Edward was thinking that if he ever needed to go back to work, an online psychic network would be a good business.
The rabbi who appeared on Edward’s screen was younger than expected, perhaps not even thirty.
“Shalom, hello, what can I do for you,” he said.
Edward explained that two days ago he had acquired, out of nowhere, the ability to speak both Polish and Yiddish.
“Hebrew too?” the rabbi asked.
“Just the alphabet.”
“That’s a shame. Say something in Yiddish.”
“Ale tseyn zoln dir aroysfaln, nor eyner zol dir blaybn af tsonveytik.”
The young rabbi smiled. “May all your teeth fall out, except the one with a toothache. I’ll be right back.”
He slid offscreen. Edward could hear the rustle of pages, the slap of books. After about four minutes of this, or twenty dollars, the rabbi returned. “Almost got it,” he said and then disappeared again. After another ten- or fifteen-dollar interval, the rabbi finally reappeared with a book in one hand and in the other what appeared to be a sandwich.
“Okay,” he said, chewing. “So you speak Yiddish, you know that a dybbuk is a kind of possession.” He swallowed. “It’s like a spirit, a dislocated soul, inhabiting a living person in order to complete some task. A task that’s not so nice, I should add. But there’s a nice kind of possession called ibbur. Literally it means ‘impregnation.’ Listen to this: ‘Ibbur is the most positive form of possession, when a righteous soul decides to occupy a living person’s body for a time. The departed soul wishes to complete an important task that can only be accomplished in the flesh.’”
“Is that Kabbalah?”
The rabbi held up an iPad. “Wikipedia.”
“I’m paying you five bucks a minute for Wikipedia?”
The rabbi shrugged. “Did anything traumatic happen recently? Did you lose anyone?”
“Olav ha-shalom. Did she have any unfinished tasks, anything she always wanted to do, anything obsessing her?”
“Rabbi. You’re suggesting that, in order to complete some task, I’ve been impregnated by the dislocated soul of my grandmother.”
“Not her entire soul. Your own personality is still there. But maybe some part of her soul is in you. Like her memory. It’s as good an explanation as any. Do you have any of her things? Look them over. See if something comes up. Now, let’s talk about you. I see a journey in your future.”
Edward ended the call and reached for one of his grandmother’s albums. He felt a pang when he saw that she’d written her name, Ida Maltz, on the inside cover in her spiky Austria-Hungary-era penmanship. He opened the album at random to a picture of a man on a sofa with jet-black hair combed sharply backwards and a white shirt with no tie and high-waisted trousers. The man was smiling around the cigarette in his mouth. Hanoch. He’d married Miriam, Ida’s younger sister. Edward found himself remembering that before marriage Hanoch had been a wild Jew who drank and chased Polish girls. Actually he’d chase any kind of girl, even the ones who came down from the mountains on market day smelling of their animals. But Miriam had smoothed out his rough edges. Miriam had sent the picture in ’36 or ’37, right around the time that Ida was working in that grocery on Orchard Street, which for her would forever be associated with the sharp briny scent of pickles. At night Ida studied English and bookkeeping, but she was desperate to go to college—her secret reason for coming to America and not staying in Poland and marrying Itzhak Mendel. In Poland it was hard enough for a woman to get to university, and there were quotas for Jews; perhaps in America it would be the same but in such a big country there had to be more options. Then in New York she had met Ithiel and gotten pregnant with Marilyn. And if Marilyn had turned out a disappointment, with an impenetrable shell of self-absorption, Ida had not regretted her marriage to Ithiel, a kind man who encouraged her intellectual pursuits. And Marilyn did eventually produce Edek, and who could ask for a better grandson? Anyway for one reason or another it took Ida until she was 40 to get her degree, her only child already in college herself; and it would have been nice to have had another child if only to find out if he or she would be ungrateful as well. Ah, Hanoch. Not very handsome but charming, with a little something extra in his tender interest.
Edward flipped the pages, the names flooding him with suffocating clarity. Miriam and Hanoch, Yankel and Blanka, Isaac and Rivka and Bronia. Then he was startled by the picture of that townhouse, the two doors on the ground floor, three windows on the upper floor beneath a sharply slanted roof. After the Germans retreated the Babinsky family had moved in. Ida had heard about it from Mariusz Wakulinski when, astonishingly, they had run into each other in Montreal—1952, it must have been. The Babinskys had been rendered homeless by bombs, said Mariusz. Polish partisans had killed an S.S. officer and in reprisal the Germans had destroyed the town. Almost every building had been leveled, what else could the Babinskys do? It was understandable. Ida knew that it was something her family might have done in similar circumstances. And yet the anger had never left her, because it was her house. And it flared anew in Edward as he looked up the house on Google maps. There it was in the corner of the square, a for sale in the window of what had been her father’s shop. Now that Edward knew Polish, it was easy to find the listing. The asking price was 1.5 million zlotys—about 300 grand in American money. Chump change.
Edward flew to Warsaw and spent the night in a hotel by the airport. Usually in such circumstances he’d tell the concierge to send up some company. Tonight he climbed into bed, and in the encompassing confusion of his jet-lagged sleep, he dreamed of his grandmother’s aunt, the one who according to family lore had left Poland to run a brothel in San Francisco. In the dream, the aunt was telling Ida about the 1906 earthquake, how the air had rained fire and stones. Edward awoke in the morning wondering if the dream conversation was in fact a memory.
On the morning flight to Rzeszow, it was all utterly unrecognizable—the towers of Warsaw, the silver rivers, the forests and fields—because, he realized, Ida had never flown anywhere in Poland.
In Rzeszow, he hired a taxi to drive him the sixty kilometers to Jaslo, his grandmother’s hometown.
Edward had once seen a photo essay of recent pictures of Berlin interiors overlaid with a kind of vertical strip or column from a much older picture of the same location. You’d see a hip gleaming café doubling as a louche pub in the Weimar years, slim young people adjacent to grayscale figures in old-style coats and hats. For Edward, walking through this small city in southeastern Poland created a similar feeling, if exponentially more disorienting. He was seeing it all for the first time, and yet remembering it all through Ida’s eyes, and yet so much had changed. The layout of the streets was the same as Ida’s day, and there were a few apartment buildings the Germans had missed, and the narrow ring road was still lined with evenly spaced beeches. But now rows of Communist-era apartment blocks rose above the town, painted pastel yellow and blue, as if a splash of color could prettify the past century.
As for the present century, it seemed the Crash had hit here as well, the shock waves radiating across oceans and continents, leaving empty retail spaces and for sale signs on every fifth building. But there was so much he remembered! The gazebo in the park. The ingenuous Polish faces. The scent of spring flowers and car exhaust. Well, here was something else that had changed: the blocky building with three levels of retail stores, its rooftop a cluster of TV antennae and satellite dishes—this was where the synagogue had been, the beautiful old Moorish synagogue that the Germans had blown up shortly after they had pushed out the Russians. Miriam had written Ida about it, when letters could still get out.
Edward’s hands were shaking.
He found the broad main square, with its circular unadorned fountain at one end and a kind of outdoor café at the other, its picnic benches shaded by umbrellas emblazoned with yellow beer logos. Ida had been through this square nearly every day of her childhood, heading to school, the shops, her grandfather’s soap factory. On market day the square was dense with stalls, the air thronged with Polish and Yiddish, Ukrainian dialects, accordions and fiddles, the snort and clop of horses. There used to be a town hall at the far end, looming with all the pompous dignity of Austria-Hungary. Now it was a rigid concrete building with tiny square windows. Edward sighed. Poor Poland. The Germans had destroyed so much of her: the Communists degraded the rest.
But Ida had been happy here, in the landscape of her childhood. And yet conversely or concurrently he recalled her unease, a constant low-level anxiety, like a mild case of tinnitus. Monika Babinsky, for example, could be very sweet. But when her brothers were around she joined their gleeful chanting, Zydy do Palestyny. Jews to Palestine.
The house was at one corner of the square. Ida’s house. His house. They had replaced the roof tiles with shingles. Otherwise it was the same, three sedate windows above two silent doors—the right-hand one opening into a modest computer store. Ida’s father’s tailor shop used to be in there. It was always too warm inside and the clothing fibers made her nose itch. On Sundays, Ida brought him lunch, usually leftover cholent, a slow-cooked bean dish. In the back of the house, the ground floor was an empty retail space, this one with a sign for the plumbing supply store of W. Babinsky.
Edward returned to the front of the house and stepped back to look it over again, hands on his hips. The for sale sign was in the window. If and when he proved ownership, the government was legally bound to pay twenty percent of the valuation. And that wouldn’t be too complicated, as that Polish document tucked into the photo album was the deed. He couldn’t recall how it had ended up in Ida’s hands, but so what? He had it. The question was if he should apply for compensation or just buy it outright and put the Babinskys into the fucking street. The way he was feeling right now, burning with inherited indignity, it would likely be the latter. He’d hold onto it until the economy recovered. The computer store could stay, if it generated enough rental income.
“Good day. Can I help the gentleman with something?”
A woman with a small child stood near him on the sidewalk, or near enough but leaving a safe distance from the stranger staring up at her house.
“Good day,” Edward said. “My grandmother lived in this house. Before the war.”
“Oh, how interesting. But it must have been long before the war. My family was here in the ‘30s.”
Was she lying? Or had she been misinformed? In his banking years Edward had developed a good bullshit detector. And the needle wasn’t moving. She was blonde, not unattractive, if a bit maternally worn. Monika, her grandmother, had been blonde as well, and there was a further resemblance in the arch of the eyebrows. The small child was a boy.
She looked him over, assessing the likelihood of him being a crazy person, concluding, it became apparent, that he was not.
“Would the gentleman like to come in?” she said. “I think my father is home. He knows more about it than I do.”
Walking up the staircase was not like heading back in time. Rather, with its flaking paint and gritty steps, it was simply a crappy version of the present. The interior was in better shape. There used to be a parlor adjoining the sitting room, but some Babinsky had knocked down the wall to open up the space. Edward had to admit that it was nicer this way, save for all the tschotschkes—dozens of knick-knacks, doilies, figurines, tiny cute things to fill up the space. On the big wall, there was a cross, a reproduction of the Black Madonna and a photo of John-Paul (of course).
The woman’s name was Julia. She set the little boy down on the floor with some toys. Then she called out, “We have a guest, Papa.”
Her father was wiry, in work clothes, perhaps fifty, with copious black Slavic hair and a trimmed mustache. He looked like a man who had just come from hammering something. But he looked worn as well, and not necessarily from age; you could see disappointment lurking in his eyes.
Edward felt the sunburst of clarity that signified one of his hunches. This had nothing to do with his grandmother’s memory; it was his own talent for business, for inferring the likely scenario. In this case, it was that in the days of easy credit the Babinskys had taken out a home equity loan to open the plumbing shop. The store had failed and now they couldn’t keep up the payments so they were selling the house. Yes, that’s what happened, or something like that. Which meant that it would not be unreasonable—insulting, but not unreasonable—to start the bidding at half the asking price.
They exchanged a European handshake: brief, grasping the fingers instead of the palm.
“Welcome. Witek Babinksy.”
He gave Edward a sharp look. “Krisher? That was a very common name around here before the war.”
Meaning that there had been lot of Jews with that name. Edward was not offended. It was merely the truth. And yet it was disconcerting, a way of announcing, I know you’re a Jew. He was starting to get some context to his grandmother’s anxiety. And perhaps the connection between financial acumen and Jewish survival.
“I knew…my grandmother knew a lot of Babinksys.”
“Is that so?” Witek gestured toward a mustard-colored sofa. “Please sit down. Sorry if I look a bit rough. I was helping out my brother with something in Tarnow.”
“That’s a nice town,” Edward said, recalling, although he had never been there, a tidy main square with a cube-like brick castle in the middle and another Moorish synagogue that most likely no longer existed. He couldn’t remember when exactly his grandmother had visited Tarnow, but she must have been very small. Apropos of nothing, or maybe something, a line from a Bob Marley song came into his head: your mind is confused with confusion. Because Edward was interested, fascinated, even delighted to be carrying on this conversation in another language in his grandmother’s country of origin; and he kind of liked this guy; and he was heartsick. Ida’s smaller sister Rivka had sat with her plump bare thighs on these parquet floors, frowning over a wooden puzzle, just as this boy was right now. The Germans had gotten Rivka, along with Miriam, and their parents, and Miriam’s husband Hanoch, and presumably even poor Itzhak Mendel, a dear soul, even if he had smelled of whitefish. Edward’s grandmother, he now understood, had been in mourning for her entire adult life. She had borne it silently. Then he thought, with another kind of sadness, about how the family stoicism had ruined his chance to lighten her burden. Because she had never talked about them and he had never asked.
Unless that was why he was here now. To reconcile the past.
“Everything okay?” asked Witek. “You look pale.”
“Sorry. I was thinking about my grandmother.”
“Julia, bring him tea, please.” He turned back to Edward. “You speak Polish really well.”
“Listen, I don’t mean to pry,” Witek said. “But why are you here? Can we help with something?”
“I doubt it.”
“You’re American, right? It can be hard to visit. I’ve seen it before. For some Polish-Americans it’s wonderful to come back, see the place, meet the cousins. For others….”
“For others there are no cousins.”
Julia, from the kitchen: “The gentleman says that his grandmother lived here before the war.”
“It’s possible,” Witek said. “My mother told me that her family was here before the war. Maybe yours lived here before that? Unfortunately we can’t ask her, she died years ago.”
Again, Edward’s bullshit detector remained silent. Someone had lied to them.
He said, “Was her name Monika Babinsky?”
“That’s right. How did you know?”
“My grandmother mentioned her.”
“Ah. Would you like to look around?”
“First have some tea,” Julia said.
She set down a tray before him, a blue ceramic tea kettle, three teacups, a milk pourer, an array of biscuits on a doilied plate. It occurred to Edward that they had slipped from the circuitousness of formal Polish into the familiar. They were, quite simply, nice people. He thought of that broker, the one who had appeared in Ida’s apartment with his stupid slicked-back hair and his measuring tape. Then the room had become narrower, drained of air, and sweat prickled at his forehead and armpits. He felt like the tschotschkes were closing in on him.
Edward stood. “I’m know this is rude. But I absolutely have to get some air. Please excuse me.”
“Of course,” Witek said, confused.
Edward left the apartment and went downstairs and out to the square, where it was a normal spring day in the free nation of Poland, blue sky, a light breeze, teenagers skateboarding on the flagstones, a woman in late middle age hurrying home with her shopping. At the outdoor café, two older men were buying coffee from a smooth-skinned woman with boyishly cropped hair; her youth was almost ludicrous.
Edward asked if they sold cigarettes.
The two men laughed.
“Those don’t exist anymore,” one said.
He paid for the cigarettes and a can of beer and sat at a picnic table adjacent to a spindly tree. He couldn’t recall if there had been trees in this part of the square in Ida’s day; he decided that the answer was unimportant and lit a cigarette. The first drag brought a sharp delicious pain to his lungs but no dizziness.
As he drank his beer, he kept his eyes on the for sale sign in his great-grandfather’s window. Maybe he should go back and apologize. But not right away. First he had to quiet the turbulence inside him.
The question, really, was simple: what did Ida want? Answer: the house. Evidently it had been her lifelong obsession, perhaps because it was the only solid evidence that her family had existed. The house, its furniture, books, clothes, cooking utensils, even the rusted bicycle from the cellar and from the attic that box of old toys—all of it had been stolen, and Ida had nothing. She had nothing of her family save for those photo albums and that was not enough.
She wanted the house. She wanted it as a legacy for her grandson.
But what would he do with a house in Poland? Rent it out? Flip it? All that hassle just to evict three generations of blameless Babinkys? It would easier to apply for compensation. After taxes and legal fees he’d net in the low six figures. So there was money to be made, even if it wasn’t money in the way that Edward defined it, enough to make it worth the headaches, enough to muffle his conscience.
The money, however, might quiet his grandmother. And by the way, if he didn’t come away with some kind of asset he might be stuck with her forever.
Or he could get the government money and give it to the Babinskys.
But why would he do that? He didn’t owe them anything.
Neither did he see what good it did if another family lost the house.
Edward drew on his cigarette. It was delicious. He already knew he’d smoke the whole pack and then at some future point have to quit all over again. Fuck it. Here was the thing. His grandmother had given him a task to complete, but that didn’t mean that he had to complete it. And even if he could get Ida out of his head, why should he? Because when her memory went so would every last trace of her, and her family as well, save perhaps for the scraps he’d remember remembering. As for the rest of it, the rage and sadness, the psychic pain—if Ida had lived with it, well, so could he. So then this could be his legacy—her memory and all its baggage.
One of the teenagers fell from his skateboard and his friend helped him up, both laughing. Edward took out his phone, and, beer in hand, he called his lawyer. Business hours were just starting in New York City.
Shortly after Mitch turned thirty-four, he was struck by the pointlessness of his life in New York. He had been with the same company for six years. He would rise no higher than marketing director. He was single and profoundly bored. He called a recruiter, and eight weeks later he had a job in Santa Monica and a furnished cottage on a street of tidy, proximate houses in Culver City that reminded him, improbably, of his childhood neighborhood in Queens.
There was further cause for disappointment. Despite some ancillary show-biz glamour—his new company made websites for movies—the work was remarkably similar to what he had done in New York. Also he had no social life. Angelenos were open but impenetrable, given to effusive pronouncements that came to nothing. In Los Angeles, Mitch was frequently hugged and frequently alone.
But he was determined to avoid lapsing into the usual single male triumvirate of pot, Playstation, and porn. So when a work acquaintance, a project manager who seemed to be making friendship overtures, invited Mitch to a party, he said, “Sure, why not.”
That Saturday night, Mitch’s GPS led him to a vaguely Spanish-looking house in the Hollywood Hills. Inside maybe thirty people stood around, their posture and clothing demonstrating the studied casualness that almost everyone affects in Los Angeles, including the homeless. Mitch himself felt a twinge of self-consciousness when he couldn’t see the project manager. As he fixed himself a vodka and tonic, he wondered how, in the absence of said project manager, he might actually start a conversation with someone, like that slim brunette with uneven bangs. While he waited for inspiration he checked out the books on the mantle, all of which were about acting, auditioning, and screenwriting. Mitch had zero interest in these pursuits; nevertheless, there he was, wearing an expression of anthropological curiosity as he leafed through Yoga for Actors.
“I love that book,” said an absurdly healthy looking guy who immediately starting talking about nerves and auditions and learning how to breathe, really breathe, and “fucking nailing it.” Meanwhile Mitch nodded and pretended to be interested, but when a girl came up he actually was interested, at least in the girl, who was the one with the bangs. His name was Rafe, and her name was Joey.
After a few drinks Mitch had gleaned that Rafe and Joey were “just friends,” which he found encouraging. Less encouraging—downright puzzling, really—was when the conversation turned to environmental concerns, or their version of them. Rafe was dating a girl who studied the effects of secondhand smoke on cats. Joey’s niece just had a particular kind of bat mitzvah.
“You’ll never guess the theme,” she said.
Mitch said, mildly, “Judaism?”
“Nope. Sustainability. They got hybrid buses to take the kids from the synagogue to the reception and everything was super-organic. Even the plates and the forks were like this bamboo that’s really fair trade and environmentally friendly. Get this: the yarmulkes were made in Israel from recycled materials. Isn’t that awesome?”
In the coming weeks, Mitch would often cast his thoughts back to this moment, looking to understand his motivation for what he did next. Maybe it was the egregious cluelessness demonstrated by shipping religious headgear 7500 miles. Or maybe it was just too many vodka tonics. Either way, he said something that he would later regret: when Joey asked Mitch what he did for a living, he lied.
“I run a non-profit,” he said. His eyes caught Joey’s big beige boots, the ones with the funny name. “It’s called Uggs. For Gaza.”
Rafe said, “I’ve heard of you guys.”
“I haven’t,” Joey said. “What is it exactly?”
“It’s like this,” Mitch said, warming to the line of bullshit. “What do the Palestinian people need? Medicine, housing, jobs. Serious stuff. But what do they also need?”
Rafe said, “A homeland?”
“Well, yes, that,” Mitch said, “But think about all the tension they have to deal with. There’s like crazy unemployment and…sanctions and shit. And a place like that, you know the women have very tough lives. But what’s the one thing that makes a woman smile?”
“Oh my God,” Joey said, resting her hand on his arm. “Cute boots.”
“Exactly. So what we do is we take boots donated by Americans and we send them to Gaza.”
“That’s really beautiful,” Joey said, and she gave him her number.
Later, too drunk to sleep, Mitch lay in bed, thinking: Uggs? For Gaza? What did he know about Gaza? Occasionally he’d encounter the assumption that since he was Jewish he automatically had a deep interest in the Middle East. But in college Mitch had realized that (a) politics bored him, and (b) most people are more interested in their own opinions than politics.
Mitch had visited Israel, years ago, on a teen tour. He remembered not liking it much. The heat had been outrageous, ridiculous, insulting, and the girls hadn’t given him the time of day—they were too busy flirting with Israeli soldiers. Also he recalled that the Israeli guides had talked a lot about how bad “the Arabs” were, how shifty and dangerous, but in the cafés and hotels and kibbutzim, the people with the shittiest jobs were invariably Arabs.
That had been almost twenty years ago, and he had barely thought about Israel since.
Now Mitch started to worry. What if Joey somehow looked into his claim? He was not above a little exaggeration if it helped him get laid, but this was a joke that had turned into a lie, and it would be very embarrassing if he got caught.
He got out of bed and poured himself a glass of water. Then he sat down at the kitchen table with his laptop. He sighed, and he shook his head, and he registered uggsforgaza.org. Then he threw up a web page with a few pictures (a bombed-out building, a pair of Uggs), wrote a paragraph of largely meaningless copy and a tag line: soles for souls in need. At the bottom of the page, he added, not affiliated with the Uggs Corporation.
It was now four in the morning. He tried to shuffle back to the bedroom but made it only as far as the couch. His second to last thought before sleep was to wonder what he had gotten himself into. His last thought was to wonder where he had left his car.
On Monday, when Mitch was heading out for lunch, he ran into the project manager in the parking lot.
“Dude,” he said. “I flaked on you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s cool,” Mitch said. “I had a good time.”
Mitch considered walking the twenty or so blocks to the ocean. Instead he took his brown bag to a picnic bench behind the building. He ate his sandwich with his sunglasses on, blankly staring at a line of succulents in the rectangle of soil between the patio and the parking lot. He couldn’t get over how everyone in Los Angeles reserved the right to flake at any moment. It was like the California version of Live Free or Die. At least he was learning not to take it personally.
He dug Joey’s number from his wallet.
“Hi. This is Mitch? From the party the other night?”
“Right,” she said. “I saw your website. The Uggs one.”
“Yes,” Mitch said, with blooming remorse. “What did you think?”
“I think it’s great. But there’s no address on it. I don’t know where to send my old Uggs.”
“You want to send me your old Uggs.”
“Why don’t we meet for coffee and you can just give them to me?”
“Oh. Um. I don’t know. I’m not really dating right now? But if you could just give me your address….”
Three days later, he received a pair of Uggs. A second pair arrived soon after, with a note: Joey told me about this. I think it’s awesome. Would you please send me a receipt for my taxes.
Of course all this was incredibly strange, and yet he kept forgetting about it. At least during the day, when his mental energy was focused on marketing a movie about a detective agency run by teen vampires. Then he’d get home at eight or nine p.m. and see the two largish boxes on the floor of his living room and wonder what to do with them. Then a third pair arrived with a note: Great idea! You are bringing light to Gaia and helping to heal the soul-wounds. I will sprinkle words of your doings like sparkles. Please send me a receipt for my taxes.
Mitch was suddenly very curious about something. He let the note drop to the floor and sat down with his laptop. When he got his answer he nearly spit his coffee all over the keyboard: the Uggs for Gaza website had received three hundred and twelve unique hits. Three hundred and twelve people had looked at his website and he had only told two people about it. As a marketing man, Mitch was impressed: you couldn’t buy that kind of word of mouth.
He still had to figure out what to do with the Uggs. Probably it would be best if he just chucked them in a dumpster or left them with Goodwill, but he didn’t think he could do that with a clear conscience. He could return the stupid boots to their owners, but that would be a hassle, as well as requiring him to explain himself.
Or he could, you know, send the Uggs to Gaza.
Mitch googled “gaza charity los angeles.” He combed through the links and learned that there were a number of reputable organizations dedicated to helping the people of Gaza and the West Bank. And he knew that if he called them they’d think he was insane or a moron.
Mitch then googled “mosque Los Angeles.” Before he had time to talk himself out of it, he grabbed his phone and dialed the number of the first one that had come up.
A woman answered the phone. “Quran Center,” she said.
“Hi. Okay, this is going to sound strange. But I have some…shoes. For Gaza. I have shoes to donate to the people of Gaza.”
“I see,” the woman said, as if three or four times a day she fielded questions about footwear for the Palestinian people. “I’d like to help you but we’re more of a school than a charity. You know, classes for kids, adult education, that kind of thing. And we have a mosque, of course. Have you tried Islamic Relief?”
“I did,” he said, lying. “They suggested I try someone local.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
A male voice could be heard. “Excuse me,” said the woman, and she put him on hold. Mitch waited in silence. It was disconcerting—these days you were never on hold without hearing talk radio or music. Maybe Muzak was against Islam.
“Hello,” a man said. “You have shoes for Gaza? You’re from where?”
His face burning, Mitch said, “Uggs for Gaza. Dot org.”
“Hold on,” the man said, and Mitch heard him tapping at a keyboard. “Huh. I see. You know, you really should have your snail mail address on there.”
“Sorry. I know. I’m new to this.”
“All right. Can you stop by this Thursday? At 8pm? We’ll talk. Ask for me, Dr. Hassan. I’m the imam here.”
“Got it. Dr. Hassan.”
After Mitch put the phone down he looked up the word imam. Then he put his address on the Uggs for Gaza website.
Dr. Hassan’s office was rather spare, with a wall of books, a desk, and a dying ficus in one corner, put there seemingly less for adornment than to emphasize the lack thereof. The imam himself was a man in late middle age in a white, knitted skullcap and one of those long tunics. His beard was also quite long, and he was kind of fat. His demeanor was business-like as he directed Mitch to a chair.
“So you have shoes,” said Dr. Hassan. “For Gaza.”
“Yes, Uggs.” Mitch swallowed. “They’re suede boots. A lot of girls wear them.”
“Yes, I know what they are. But I’m confused. Shoes for Gaza, that strikes me as a nice thing. Uggs for Gaza, that’s a strange thing.”
Religious people are usually relaxed around clergy: you learn not to be intimidated when the rabbi has coached your synagogue’s softball team or the pastor has been by the house for dinner. People like Mitch, on the other hand, are usually intimidated, even if they long ago decided that religion was a heap of bullshit. So maybe that was why he told Dr. Hassan the whole story—because he was afraid of him. Regardless, as Mitch spoke he felt like an idiot of Biblical proportions. The sheer lameness of the tale was staggering. Even if Dr. Hassan was poker-faced, listening without evident judgment, Mitch had never felt so stupid in his entire life. In sixth grade he had dropped a textbook and when he bent down to pick it up, resonantly farted. In seventh grade he had been beaten up by a girl. Each of these episodes had been profoundly humiliating, and yet Mitch had been able to forgive himself, because neither was his fault. But now he was in a trap of his own making. Thus he threw himself on the mercy of Dr. Hassan.
As for the imam, he was at first irritated by the story, thinking, That’ll teach you to make light of Palestinian suffering, you little shit. At the same time he was assessing Mitch, estimating his capacity for goodness. He saw a youngish man clearly uncomfortable in the presence of a cleric and possibly equally uncomfortable in the presence of a Muslim. He also saw a man with a troubled conscience.
When the story was over, the imam drummed his fingers on his desk. Finally, he said, “What are Uggs made out of?”
“I don’t know. Sheepskin?”
“Find out for certain. You can’t give them to Muslims if they’re pigskin.”
“Oh. I see. Okay. So…can you help me?”
“Can I help you?” Dr. Hassan repeated. “The better question is, ‘Will I help you?’ Frankly, I’d rather send medicine to Gaza. Or nationhood. That would be a nice thing, nationhood for the West Bank and Gaza. But Uggs, why not? As long as they aren’t made of pigskin. And as long as you stop lying. I won’t be involved if it’s a lie.”
“So what are you saying?”
“I am saying call this Joey person and tell her the truth. And set up a 501c3. If you do that, I’ll help you get your Uggs to Gaza.”
The imam suddenly let out a bray of laughter.
“Uggs for Gaza,” he said, shaking his head. “What a schmuck.”
Mitch fully intended to do exactly what Dr. Hassan had suggested, really he did. But work got busy again, this time with a movie about a precocious six-year-old with a detective agency. Meanwhile, four new pairs of Uggs had arrived, and a pair of men’s loafers, and a pair of women’s shoes that Mitch believed were called “mules.”
Then it was Thanksgiving (the holidays really crept up on you here, the calendar telling you it was autumn, your senses, spring) and he had seven boxes in his living room and nowhere to go for days, so it was time to stop procrastinating. Mitch loaded up the fridge with beer and got down to it. He opened up a dedicated PayPal account and added the link to the website. He tackled the application for tax-exempt status and the articles of incorporation: The purpose of this corporation is to send Uggs boots to the Gaza Strip. He researched the shipping options from Los Angeles to the occupied territories. He started a Facebook fan page and a Twitter account. He rewrote the copy and tweaked the layout of the website.
As he did all this there were moments when he felt a glimmer of self-satisfaction—maybe he was doing something that might, in some small way, actually help somebody. Mostly, though, he felt stupid.
He worked until the light waned on Sunday evening, when there was only one item left on his list: call Joey.
But why did he have to call Joey? Mitch wasn’t a Muslim. Mitch was barely a Jew. He didn’t even believe in God. So he was under no obligation to come clean just because that imam had told him to. If Mitch really had wanted to get into her pants with a lie, he would have told her that he was a casting agent. Anyway, the point was that he didn’t want to call Joey, didn’t have to call Joey, wasn’t going to call Joey. Which was what he was thinking as he called Joey.
“Hey, Uggs guy,” she said. “I’ve been telling everyone about you. I mean not about you as like a person? But about your Uggs thing.”
“Right, thanks. Well, the thing is….”
Clutching at his forehead with his free hand, Mitch blurted out that he had made the whole thing up.
“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe because people in L.A. are so, like, smug about the environment or politics or whatever. So I was being, I don’t know, mischievous. But also I think it was to impress you.”
“Oh, well, that’s nice.”
“Really? I’m glad. Because I met this imam….”
“You met this what?”
“This imam. It’s a Muslim cleric.”
“A Muslim what?”
“An imam is sort of like the Muslim version of a priest or rabbi,” Mitch said.
“Anyway, so I met this imam and I asked him what I was supposed to do with all these Uggs. And he said he’d help me actually get them to Gaza if I told you the truth.”
“Mick, that is amazing. It’s like karma in action.”
“Mitch. My name is Mitch. Anyway I hope you’re not mad at me.”
“Mad? Oh my God, no. This is the best conversation I’ve had in weeks.”
“So then maybe you do want to get a cup of coffee some time?”
“The thing is, Mike? I met somebody.”
“But you told me you weren’t dating.”
“Yeah. Hey, I guess lied to you too. That’s like, irony, right?”
Mitch learned about Uggs. He learned that they lacked arch support. He learned that the attractiveness or unattractiveness of said boots inspired as much internet invective as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He learned that men sometimes wore Uggs, which inspired him to go to a shoe store and try a pair on, which, after looking in a full-length mirror, allowed him to conclude that men should never, ever wear Uggs.
Four months to the day after the idea had spilled from his mouth, Mitch got his tax-exempt status in the mail. It was a huge relief—now, finally, he could send out receipts. But this would be no easy task. At this point, in addition to the loafers and mules, he had forty-six pairs of Uggs and two pairs of Koolaburras. The boxes pretty much owned his living room, which smelled like a sheepherder’s hut.
There were developments. A number of small donations had brought the balance of the PayPal account to a hundred dollars, and he had received a similar number of emails. Some were hostile:
We should bomb terrorists, not send them shoes.
Where are the Uggs for Israel, you self-hating Jew.
Uggs are so 2006, you stupid dick.
Most, however, were supportive—to the point where people were asking how they could help. Mitch usually told them to send a couple of bucks. But when some girl offered to refurbish the Uggs, he took her up on it. She came by one weekend, a DIY hipster in homemade clothes. While Mitch printed out receipts, she cleaned and patched and sewed. Melanie was the kind of person he once might have mocked—she wore a long-sleeved tie-dyed shirt and, even indoors, a crocheted Tibetan hat. But he enjoyed her company. She was quiet and mellow and her work ethic was simultaneously impressive and kind of attractive.
“I wish I could pay you for this,” Mitch said.
Melanie held up a boot, its sole flapping like a tongue. “It’s not about money. How would you feel if somebody sent you this?”
After a month of such Sundays, the Uggs were as good as new. (Melanie brought a celebratory meal, vegetarian chili and a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck.) Now All Mitch had to do was get all the moon boots out of his apartment. He sent an email to Dr. Hassan outlining what the organization had been up to and asking what needed to be done next. Dr. Hassan wrote back almost immediately and told Mitch to come discuss it in person. So one evening after work Mitch returned to the mosque. The imam was again poker-faced while Mitch caught him up, but this time the younger man was less intimidated. He told Dr. Hassan about the receipts and repairs; he made sure to add that any knockoffs made of pigskin—which he had learned to recognize by its tiny pores or holes—had been returned to their donors.
“And the girl?” asked Dr. Hassan.
For a moment Mitch was perplexed, wondering why the imam was asking about Melanie. But then he realized that the question was about Joey.
“I told her everything,” Mitch said. “Now you have to help me send these Uggs. I can’t for the life of me figure out how to get them to Gaza.”
“I’ll give you a few phone numbers,” Dr. Hassan said. He gave Mitch a measuring look. “How did it feel, telling her the truth?”
Mitch would not allow for the change of subject. “I read that there’s a blockade?”
“On the Israeli side, yes. But the Egyptians have opened their border. We could get them in that way.”
“Okay. But there’s no, like, danger in asking someone to transport these things, is there? Because I don’t like the idea of putting anyone in danger.”
Dr. Hassan smiled. Maybe this guy had actually learned something. “No, I don’t think there will be danger. It’s simply a question of money. Speaking of which.” He slid a bulging envelope across his desk. “I made an announcement about your little plan after prayers last Friday. And see Helen on your way out. She’s got some more Uggs for you.”
There was almost four hundred dollars in the envelope. And in the storage closet, twenty pairs of Uggs.
A reporter from L.A. Weekly came by with a photographer. They took pictures of Mitch in his living room, the wall obscured by boxes, the floor by sheepskin boots. When they ran the piece, the caption said, Among the Uggs: Culver City resident Mitch Blum with donated footwear.
The article was embarrassing (Mitch got a lot of mocking emails from his friends back East), but it went minorly viral, which brought in more cash and more Uggs. He sent Melanie an apologetic text, asking her if she minded doing some more mending work; he did not add how much he looked forward to seeing her.
Dr. Hassan’s secretary emailed the name of a contact at some kind of quasi-governmental relief agency. When Mitch called, the guy sounded young, English, and smoothly professional. “That’s quite a tale,” he said. “Let’s see what we can do.”
Around this time something really strange started happening. Suddenly women—attractive women—were noticing Mitch. At work, a web designer with a pierced tongue asked admiring questions about the project; he was recognized twice at Vons and once at a taco stand. It seemed that it had never been so easy for him to get a date. And that he had never been less interested. Certainly he enjoyed the attention, and (let’s face it) he wanted to get laid. But he felt a superstitious aversion to losing his focus. When Joey left him a voice mail—Hey, I saw your article, maybe we should get that coffee—he didn’t bother calling back.
Instead, Mitch dedicated his free time (and plenty of work time) to investigating how to get the Uggs to Gaza. This turned out to be paying a company to crate the Uggs and load them into a shipping container at the Port of Los Angeles whose eventual destination was El Arish, an Egyptian city on the Mediterranean. From there the crates could be trucked to Gaza City. The ludicrous bureaucracy was navigated with the help of Samir, an Israeli Arab who worked for the relief agency, with the stipulation that its name be kept out of it: “No offense meant,” the English guy had said. “But it wouldn’t do for us to be associated with something that could be construed as…frivolous.”
Mitch supposed that he understood, even though to him it was the opposite of frivolous. For him, this shit was serious. For the first time in his life Mitch was obsessed by the news. He barely noticed as the holidays came and went. The Arab world was imploding, with millions in the streets; in some countries their own governments were slaughtering the protestors. Whenever he got together with Melanie—sometimes at his place, sometimes at her patchouli-scented loft in Lincoln Heights—they obsessed over these events and how they might affect the shipment. Meanwhile it took seven weeks for the crate to arrive in El Arish. From there it would be another week for it to reach the border between Egypt and Gaza, a distance of perhaps ten miles. This last bit was the most nerve-wracking, as the Egyptians or the Israelis could close the border at any time. And then the Gazans would have nothing. Well, even if they got the Uggs they had nothing. Regardless, Mitch desperately wanted the scheme to succeed. Although Samir’s emails were pessimistic—the Israeli government would find some way to ruin it, even if the shipment was arriving via Egypt—Mitch wanted to prove him wrong. Not for any political reasons or out of some nascent sense of Jewish solidarity. It was more that somewhere along with way, the stupid Uggs had become a sacred trust.
Mitch had arranged to stay home from work the day that the shipment was due in Gaza. That morning he got up early, checked his email, cleaned his house, checked his email again. (As he showered he imagined the crates arriving, the women searching through the boxes, trying on Uggs, showing them off to each other. Some older, some young, with headscarves and without; all of them smiling, all of them temporarily happy.) Melanie expected him for lunch, and Mitch looked forward to it, even to the vegetarian chili. They’d celebrate, and then they’d talk through some serious stuff, publicity and office space and future projects, like sending Doc Martins to Darfur or Wallabies to the West Bank.
Before heading out, Mitch checked his email one last time. His heart jumped when he saw the message from Samir; after reading it, he felt like his heart had contracted. He didn’t know what to do with himself. For some reason he ended up outside, sitting in his driveway.
The crates had never made it out of El Arish. Samir had just found out. Unbeknownst to anyone, the Uggs had been shipped in the same container as a delivery of tear gas for the Egyptian army. Fearing that the gas would be used against the current round of protestors, the dockworkers had refused to unload the container. According to Samir’s contact, eventually troops arrived and trucked the entire container to a government warehouse. Samir was very sorry that he had no idea how to locate the Uggs. Nor could any of his contacts, at the relief agency or elsewhere, “involve themselves in such a way with the Egyptian Army.”
Mitch watched a few cars go by. It was winter in California, and the day was warm and sunny. In a minute he’d get himself together and call Dr. Hassan. Then he’d drive to Melanie’s house—after all her hard work, she deserved to be told in person. Mitch resolved to be upbeat when he broke the news. He’d insist that this was not the end but the beginning of Uggs for Gaza. And maybe, with Melanie, there could be the beginning of something else. In a minute or two he would raise himself from the driveway, drive to Lincoln Heights, and tell her all that. But first he had to stop crying.
The first time they met it was, oddly enough, at an Austrian restaurant. Ben had to wonder: with all the culinary delights of New York, why would a visiting German, a man of reputed taste, choose an Austrian restaurant? Austrian wines, sure. Who didn’t like a nice Grüner Veltliner? But Austrian food? All those sausages and gummy little dumplings…it gave Ben gas just thinking about. He wanted to go to Florent (it was still around then), where it would be noisy and fun and—this was crucial—affordable. But apparently the suggestion had been vetoed by Viktor, who, just off the plane from Berlin, wanted schnitzel.
Viktor and Ben were on opposite ends of the table. Between them were Ben’s girlfriend (Emily) and Viktor’s fiancée (Jane). As they had their pre-dinner drinks, the women caught up—they hadn’t seen each other since Jane had moved to Berlin. Older, impassive, jet-lagged, Viktor listened and watched. Your eyes kept going to him, to his froggy eyes, his flying-upwards-hair. A paunch was visible beneath his black silk turtleneck. An imposing physical presence made more imposing by his manner. But he was not unfriendly: before ordering the wine, he solicited opinions. Ben suggested the house cabernet. Viktor ordered a one-hundred-and forty dollar Burgenland.
Later, Emily would ask Ben why he hadn’t said much at dinner. Was he intimidated? Not so much, Ben would say, after a moment’s thought. Instead he had been quiet for two reasons: (a) because his portion of the check eradicated his food budget for the week; and (b) because, when he wasn’t obsessing about the check, he was studying Viktor. Ben had never met anyone like him. He knew successful people, but this was success. Viktor was an artist, he was rich, and lots of people—serious and otherwise—were greatly interested in his work. In him.
A word about his Viktor’s fiancée. Jane was a close friend of Emily’s, and in one of those coincidences that become less surprising the older one gets, Ben knew her from college. He found her sweet and attractive in a motherly way, with her soft voice and big tits. Perhaps this motherly quality was what Viktor had responded to, aside from her comparative youth. Apparently Viktor had met her six months or so before the Austrian dinner, when Jane had just sold a young adult novel. (It seemed to Ben that everyone in New York had a young adult novel, including his dry cleaner.) Anyway one night, this guy invites Jane to an opening at the International Center for Photography. When she gets there she’s nervous—this is outside of her usual range of experience. Stylish people are speaking various languages. Wandering away from her date (the poor schmuck) she looks at the art. The photographs are of families, shot in the middle distance. There is an aesthetic impeccability about the pictures, despite, or due to, the stiffness of the subjects. They are so stiff, in fact, so un-posed, that there is no way to understand these people beyond their external signifiers, their age or hairstyles or jewelry. She wonders if that is the point, if we are supposed to consider these people as sociological types, and then maybe to individualize them via externals? Someone touches her elbow—the German Artist, an older man with dark eyes. “I know this may seem, ah, crazy,” he says, the “z” sibilant. “But you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.”
And six months later, Ben was assessing Viktor, while pretending to enjoy his schinkenfleckerl.
As mentioned, neither Viktor nor Ben spoke much that night. But they did have two exchanges. The first was prompted when Jane asked Ben if he’d been to some exhibit, and Ben said that he’d been too busy with his design studio. Jane turned to Viktor. “In college Ben used to paint these lovely big canvases with Jewish themes, like Chagall.”
Viktor said, declaratively, “You are Jewish.”
Ben nodded. It seemed important to be casual about it. Despite this punishing restaurant, Ben sort of hoped that they might be friends. He could use an important friend right now. He might have failed to convey casualness, though, because Viktor seemed embarrassed: he looked away and changed the subject. Well, it couldn’t be easy to be a German of a certain age, with all that historical weight behind you.
The second exchange came when Emily asked Jane what kind of music they wanted at their wedding.
“It should be all Kraftwerk,” Ben said.
“But that is electronic music,” Viktor said. “My fiancée prefers Motown.”
“Honey,” Jane said. “He’s kidding.”
“Ah,” said Viktor.
Ben got some laughs when he repeated that to Emily’s friends. He wanted them to like him too, so he ignored the guilt he usually felt when he mocked people.
Emily was part of a close-knit group of men and women in their thirties. Most of them were easy to be around. Still, Ben felt some ambivalence towards them, because they were all achievers, more or less. They worked for respected magazines or made documentaries or wrote books; Emily herself designed furniture. What’s worse, most of them projected a kind of world-ease that made it all seem so uncomplicated. Sure, they had their pretensions and insecurities. (When Jane was drinking, she liked to lecture you on the Young Adult Novel As Literature.) Nevertheless, they were making their way, and Ben wasn’t. In fact, he had just endured a string of bitter disappointments. Two of his clients had gone out of businesses, leaving him with thousands in bad debt. Then his only employee had quit, taking two more clients with her. And when you feel frightened and on the verge of disappointment, it’s hard to be around bright people with interesting jobs. He was trying to work through his own situational and psychological crap by staying the course—working hard, living modestly, beating the bushes for work. And yet he kept spending more than he could afford, for example at Austrian restaurants.
At least things were good with Emily. Mostly good. Almost always good, really, save for one problem: she couldn’t sleep at his apartment. She literally could not sleep, and to see her in the morning, puffy-eyed, stumbling towards the coffee-maker, broke his heart. Was it the mattress, the spare apartment, the industrial neighborhood? She couldn’t tell him—or wouldn’t. Thus three or four evenings a week, after a long day of fighting for clients, he’d fight traffic from Queens, fight for a parking space in Brooklyn. (His car, a fifteen-year old Honda, was his one extravagance). In the morning, he’d do the same in reverse. The obvious solution would have been to move in with her, but he wasn’t ready for that.
Ben had modest goals. He wanted to make money and do interesting work. He wanted to end the inter-borough scramble without surrendering his autonomy. So maybe that was why Viktor had made such a big impression: because he made money and did interesting work, and because other people bent to his will. Shit, Ben had bent to Viktor’s will before he had ever set eyes on the man. Viktor had wanted to go to the Wien Haus, or whatever the fuck it was called, and that was that.
In all fairness, Viktor could be gracious. A week after their exploration of the culinary delights of the Österreich, the two couples saw a Korean horror movie and then shared a brick-oven pizza. The women discussed the upcoming wedding (Viktor and Jane had decided to have it in New York), while the men talked cigars—both, as it turned out, were occasional smokers. Then Viktor picked up the check. Out on the street, just before hailing a cab, Viktor mentioned that he had a show coming up at his gallery. He put his hand on Ben’s shoulder and said, “I hope I will see you at the party.”
Before they met, Ben associated Viktor’s name with architectural photography, bleak cityscapes in lustrous gelatin silver. That stuff was over twenty years old now, the portraiture from a decade ago. His new pictures were these giant, pellucid photographs of museum-goers, looking or not looking at art. As soon as Ben entered the gallery, he drifted away from Emily and stood before a picture of plaid-skirted girls at the Prado. The girls stood between two paintings, one the Velazquez portrait of the little blonde in the big skirt, the other also a Velazquez, with the girls and the dog and the dwarf. Ben was struck by the force of Viktor’s composition, by the intensity of color, by what the artist might be saying about the intimacy and spectacle of art.
After a minute or so Ben had the prickly feeling that someone was watching him—Viktor was looking at Ben looking at his picture of people looking and not looking at art. Embarrassed, Ben turned back to the work, but he could no longer enjoy it without self-consciousness. He bummed a cigarette from one of Emily’s friends and took the elevator to the street. It was a chilly night; the pavement was wet and glistening. Even after the meditative pause of a cigarette, Ben was still not quite sure what he was feeling.
Viktor and Jane were married in a chapel near Madison Park. Before the ceremony, there was an affectionate speech by a handsome woman wearing an alarming array of primary colors. Then some guy spoke in German. Finally the minister spoke before marrying the bride and groom. There was no denying that it was a lovely ceremony (nor to miss its effect on Emily, as she pressed against Ben and stroked his hand). And yet Ben missed the brevity of a Jewish wedding, where you said a few prayers, stepped on a glass, and then stuffed your face.
The reception was held at some extremely fancy venue that Ben had never heard of. Many of the guests could be described in similar terms. Meanwhile, Ben was experiencing a kind of distracting, and mildly disturbing, ambivalence. On the one hand, he had a few drinks in him, and the food was very good (simple and fresh, without the least hint of Teutonic sauces), and Emily looked slim and attractive in her black dress and heels, and he was enjoying her friends. On the other hand, he wasn’t enjoying her friends all that much—tonight there was something a little strained and smug about their conviviality. Also there was the irrational but persistent idea that he shouldn’t be here—that he would be better off at home, working on the website for the jewelry designer, or the estimate for the sportswear manufacturer, or reading a book.
After the cake had been served, he was approached by an older man, clearly a German, with his fussy little glasses and high, small lapels.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Are you Benjamin? Viktor wants you.”
As Ben made his way across the room, he realized that the guy who taken him from his cake was Gerhard Fucking Richter, and he wondered what was more astonishing: that Gerhard Richter had addressed him by name, or that the groom was the sort of man who could send Gerhard Richter on an errand.
Viktor was over by the bar, kingly and joyful, surrounded by friends.
“Ah,” he said. “A little present for you.”
He pressed something into Ben’s palm. A cigar.
“Thanks,” Ben said, touched. Because it seemed warranted that he say more, he added, “You look happy.”
“I have done the most wonderful thing in my life.”
He slapped Ben on the shoulder and returned to his friends.
After the reception, a group made their way to the West Village, where the partying continued. In a booth crammed with wedding guests, Ben fell into a debate with a German printmaker about the merits of George Grosz (Ben was pro, the printmaker con). When Emily fell asleep with her head on his shoulder, he figured it was time to go. He was tired as well—he felt as if he’d been drunk and sobered up twice. But in the cab he realized that now he was agitated, excited. The cigar was in his breast pocket. He wished he could go to his own apartment and smoke and think, but of course Emily would be pissed if he went home.
He helped her to bed and then went to the kitchen for a hydrating cup of herbal tea. Instead he poured a scotch and trimmed the cigar with kitchen scissors. To mitigate the smell he sat by the living room window. (Emily would complain anyway, but he’d deal with that when it happened.) As he relaxed into the mixed fumes of scotch and cigar, he considering how good it felt to be thought of, to be remembered by Viktor. Partially (let’s be honest) because he was famous and gifted. But mostly because he had self-respect. Viktor did what he wanted and he wasn’t a dick about it, which magnified the effect of his kindness, like when he handed you a Cohiba, which, come to think of it, was likely Cuban.
So where did that self-respect come from? It couldn’t have arisen with success. You don’t become an artist in the first place without knowing that you’re capable of interesting work. Years ago, Ben had stopped painting when he had grasped that he was not capable of interesting work. He did not regret the decision, because he knew he was a good designer; he had a feel for color and type. Still, it pained him that he achieved so little in his thirty-odd years. He assumed that no one, not even Emily, had noticed the depth of his unhappiness. He functioned in the world, drove between boroughs, paid his quarterly taxes. From a certain perspective you could say that he was doing all right. Meanwhile he felt that failure was his destiny, and neither his own modest talent or his ability to work like an animal would allow him to escape it.
But maybe (thought Benjamin, straightening in his chair), just maybe, it was not a question of achievement. It was about how to rid yourself of this terrible feeling.
The sun was coming up, awakening the sky over the brownstones and tenements of Brooklyn. Ben was heartily fucking sick of Brooklyn. He reached for the bottle and poured himself another finger of scotch. And he envisioned Emily some weeks hence, when Viktor and Jane returned from their honeymoon. They meet, let’s say, at Wien Haus again, where the dim lighting afforded some privacy. Her face puffy from crying, Emily is explaining the breakup.
“He just did it,” she says. “I woke up the day after your wedding and he did it. He hadn’t even changed out of his suit.”
“Oh honey,” Jane says. “Did he give you a reason?”
“He kept saying that he needed to spend some time alone. That was the stupidest thing about it. There was no real like explanation, he just kept saying, ‘I need to be alone.’”
“And then what happened?”
“He left. And my whole apartment smelled like his stupid cigar.”
Viktor has his face in the menu, hiding his pained expression. He is unused to such displays of female emotion. He finds it very American, the way these women cry anywhere.
Jane reaches for her friend’s hand. “I didn’t think he could be such an asshole,” she says. She turns to her husband, willing him to say something encouraging. And Viktor, already attuned to his wife, lowers the menu and says—what?
“I am very sorry for you, Emily.”
Or: “Yes, he is an asshole.”
Or: “He did not deserve that cigar.”
Or perhaps he just thinks, Isn’t it a pity about this nice girl, but she will be better off without him. Certainly I am glad that I won’t have to seem him again; there was something about him that made me uncomfortable.
I met Nigel when I lived in Poland. For a brief time, both he and I were in the Salon, a small group of artsy types who met every other Saturday to share our work. Magda was our host—lean, sexy Magda, with the bobbed black hair and porcelain skin. A politician’s daughter, she lived in Mokotów, an upscale section of Warsaw, in a pre-war apartment. We convened in the living room, where, among the books and plants, we’d talk and smoke and talk: about Paweł’s lithographs or one of my stories or Magda’s latest song. We’d say what was right or wrong with the work, how it could be improved, and if the conversation lapsed into Polish—for example, if Paweł and Ryszek fell into one of their vicious arguments about prosody that seemed to serve as their version of foreplay—then Magda would smack her palms together, shouting, “English, good people, English.”
In other words, it was sweet and innocent. And even if the preciousness of it makes my face glow with a kind of posthumous embarrassment, at the time it was exactly what I needed. I had a powerful ambivalence about my writing, a mixture of hope, bitterness and compulsion. There’s nothing more boring than writers writing about writing, so I’ll keep this short: at age 30, I considered myself a failure. Which was why, when I started writing again in Poland, I told no one about it at first. I treated it like a secret vice, as if I were not writing stories for two hours every morning but masturbating. Certainly, masturbating would have been more relaxing. Still I kept working, and the stories got better, and eventually, through my contacts in New York, I began to publish. Towards the end of my first year in Poland, I had placed two stories, another had been accepted, and it was starting to look like I might—if I stayed focused, and if I ignored the persistent notion that my stories were worthless—be able to put together a book.
But I was talking about the Salon. I was invited to join after Magda, who also taught English at the university, caught me working one morning in the cafeteria. I felt a tap on my shoulder, and I looked up to see her standing quite close, her pretty black eyes on my pages.
“What are you doing?” she asked. “Are you writing a story?”
“I am,” I said casually, although I felt my cheeks reddening.
“Is it good?”
I thought for a second. “It might be.”
“You should meet with us,” she said.
She explained about the Salon and who was involved. It sounded like the sort of thing that I usually avoided. It seemed pretentious, and in general I find it difficult to share my work. But I had been feeling that there was something unhealthy in my solitude: the Salon would at least be social. So I went, and I quickly saw that it was the right choice. We were all exposing ourselves, which created a sense of shared risk, of community. If their work was uneven—Ryszek’s poems had too much Polish bombast, Magda’s songs too many “homages” to Kurt Weill—their criticism was useful. Moreover, I liked Magda’s friends—indeed, after a few weeks I considered them my friends as well.
The best part of the meetings, for me anyway, was when the agenda was finished and we would sit around and talk. Magda, I thought, was beginning to notice me as I had noticed her—I mean that I sensed an attraction, and I was waiting for the right moment to ask her out. And I loved it when the veil of preciousness was lifted from all of us, when we bitched about politics or our jobs and I could follow, if not always respond to, their rapid Polish. It got me thinking that maybe I wasn’t just a long-term visitor, that maybe I could stay here and make a life for myself.
One night Beata asked me what I had planned for Christmas—would I go see my family, or stay in Poland?
“Oh, I’ll be here,” I said. “This time of year isn’t such a big deal for Jews.”
I reached for a jelly donut (in Poland, they are outstanding), and I munched away, until I realized everyone was looking at me.
“What?” I said.
“We didn’t know,” Paweł said.
“Didn’t know what?” I said. And then: “Oh.”
Everyone was quiet for a while.
“I have the greatest respect for the Jewish people,” Beata said, blushing.
“That’s nice,” I said. “I think I’ll be leaving now.”
On the tram ride home, I thought, That’s what you get for sharing your work.
Later, though, I wondered if I had been too sensitive. In New York, I had never experienced that kind of pregnant silence, that evident surprise, as if I had announced that I was a hermaphrodite. But there are very few Jews in Poland, and the history of Poles and Jews is complicated, to put it nicely. So it was understandable that they felt awkward about learning that I was Jewish. I decided to let it drop after Magda left a note in my office mailbox: please excuse our rudeness. I went to the next meeting, and I pretended that nothing had happened; to my relief, they did too. Perhaps I sensed a new, studied casualness in the group demeanor, as if they were trying to act normal around me; perhaps Ryszek was harder than usual on my next story, to prove that he lacked even a positive bias towards Jews. So what? Clearly they felt bad about that alienating silence, and they made every effort to avoid making me uncomfortable again.
This equilibrium remained until the last meeting before the holiday break—which was, not coincidentally, when Nigel made his first appearance. He sat, radiating self-assurance, while Magda introduced him: he was a poet and a journalist, and he wanted feedback on his memoir-in-progress. Aside from being African (which, in Poland, is like being Jewish times twelve), he was unremarkable looking: medium height, round-faced, thin. He wore jeans, a black ball cap, and a white turtleneck sweater.
Everyone murmured welcoming noises, and then it was time to begin. Beata passed around copies of her new poem. She stood, tucked her blonde hair behind her ears, and read to us in her tuneless, declamatory voice. The poem was in Polish, so I had to focus; but I was distracted by Magda and Nigel, who, from opposite ends of the circle, were exchanging amatory signals, the glances and mirroring postural shifts of a new couple.
I put that out of my head, or tried to, and read along with Beata. But when it was my turn to speak I had little to add: I said that I liked the internal rhymes but that I had trouble with the idioms. “I will help you with them,” Beata said, letting me off the hook. She turned to Nigel. “And what does our new person think?”
Magda leaned towards him, expectant, ready to be dazzled.
“It’s not fair to criticize until you’ve seen my work,” he said, reaching for his tote bag. “Does anyone mind if I read now?”
“We haven’t finished talking about her poem,” I said.
With his bag in his lap, Nigel looked at me, and then at Beata. She tucked her hair behind her ears again and sat down.
“It’s quite all right,” she said. “Nigel, let’s hear your work.”
She wouldn’t stick up for herself—Beata never stuck up for herself—and it was clear that nobody else would. But if I told Nigel to wait his turn, then it might seem like I had something personal against him. Which I did, obviously, because I was jealous about Magda. Still, I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I remembered how nervous I had been at my first Salon. Thus, while it may seem otherwise, I insist that the ensuing confrontation grew out of aesthetic considerations, which, for me, are always impersonal.
Nigel handed out his pages. I don’t recall what I did with them—probably I threw them in the trash—but a year later, I found this excerpt on the Internet. It’s pretty much what he read that evening at Magda’s:
Maybe you will not believe me; that I am not writing the truth. But it’s true! This is the real story of My Life!! I was on a plane. The day was January 6th, 2005. I flew back from Jo’burg, the capital of previously shackled South Africa. I planned in my head the article that I wanted to write; that would expose the terrible corruption of South African ministers and their sinistre connections to the Cameroonian Secret Service and the rebels of Gabon. I had the proof documents in my bag. Little did I know that I would soon fatally meet My Destiny. When the plane landed, I would be arrested. I would spend the next sixty-seven days of my life tortured, a prisoner! And a fugitive! Until I ended my adventure as a political refugee in the great country of Poland!
Immediately I suspected—I knew—it was all lies. I knew it from the over-specificity of dates, the extraneous details, the repeated insistence that he was not lying. I glanced up from the pages, hoping that someone would appear as mortified as I felt. No such luck: they all seemed to be absorbed by the work. Especially Magda, whose black eyes brimmed with emotion.
Nigel read slowly, savoring his incompetent prose. When he finished, I bummed a cigarette from Ryszek and stared at the burning tip.
“Nathan,” Nigel said. “What do you think?”
I thought that he might ask me first. I considered saying something nice, or at least something neutral: it seems like you’ve had an exciting life. But then I remembered his rudeness to Beata.
“It’s terrible,” I said.
Nigel stiffened. “Please explain.”
“Well, it’s really bad,” I said. “Even the punctuation.”
Magda said, “Punctuation is bullshit. Talk about something important.”
“Punctuation is important,” I said, feeling confused and hurt.
Magda shook her head. “Talk about something specific.”
“Okay, fine.” I said, although nothing was more specific than punctuation. “Nigel, often it’s impossible to tell where you are, physically, in the story. And I don’t understand why…oh, never mind.”
His cap pulled down low, Nigel held his pages to his chest.
“What?” he said.
“Forget it. Let somebody else talk.”
“Ask your question, Nathan.”
“Okay. Why do you keep insisting that this is the truth?”
“Why should I not? Are you calling me a liar?”
“I’m not calling you anything. I’m asking you why, on every page, you insist that this really happened.”
“I think maybe you’re a racist,” Nigel said. “Maybe you think that Africans are too stupid to write books. Maybe you believe that a black man can’t write, so you talk about punctuation.”
I sputtered, too shocked to form an immediate reply. And then I felt ashamed, and I wondered if I had been too hard on him. And then I realized that he was going on the offensive, and I grew angry. I wanted to defend myself, but every response that came to mind was a variation of the phrase, some of my best friends are black. So I went with another cliché: “I won’t dignify that with a response.”
“Wait,” Paweł said. “It is unfair to say that Nathan is racist. He is a Jew. He understands racism.”
I said, “That has nothing to do with Nigel’s story.”
“It is not a story,” Nigel said, still smiling. “It is my life.”
In the silence that followed, I hoped that someone else would come to my defense. But Magda looked at me with disappointment, and Beata looked petrified. Paweł slunk off to the bathroom, and Ryszek—argumentative, confrontational Ryszek—stared at the ceiling. Curiously, though, I didn’t feel betrayed or wounded. I didn’t need these people. I could get my work done without them. I gathered up my things, and I left.
Of course, I was angry again later. Later, I’d think of a dozen sharp rejoinders to Nigel, a dozen ways to call the others on their cowardice, and I was angry that in the moment I hadn’t thought of any of them. And when I caught myself wondering if, perhaps, I had been racist, I was angry that I had allowed myself to consider it.
But I got over it. Admittedly, I never got over Magda’s frosty politeness whenever I ran into her at the university. Still, I refused to indulge in any of the gossip about Magda and her new African boyfriend. I avoided the teacher’s lounge and the cafeteria, and I got on with my work.
Just as I had planned, I did nothing for Christmas—while an entire nation celebrated, I slept and wrote and read. I did accept an invitation for New Year’s Eve. Jacek, a philologist whom I knew slightly, was having a party. Jacek and his wife also lived in Mokotów: that night, as I got off the tram, I was irrationally afraid that I would run into Magda—or worse, Magda and Nigel. But I didn’t see them, and I assured myself that they wouldn’t be at the party, because Magda thought that Jacek was boring.
Jacek’s place was more modest than Magda’s, more modest even than my own. Regardless, the atmosphere was festive—perhaps thirty people drinking and eating with unaffected holiday joy. In such times I was very glad to be among Poles, who have an easy way with hospitality: within seconds of my entrance, Jacek’s wife had kissed me on both cheeks, his teenaged son had taken my coat, and Jacek himself had pressed a drink into my hand. He then pulled me towards a corner, where five or six people with the shabby, semi-formal look of Central European academics were having an animated conversation in Polish.
“Here he is,” Jacek said in English, practically shouting. “Now tell us about this election, Nathan. We want to know if your country will accept a black man as its leader.”
“I thought we just did.”
“Ah, but an election is one thing. Acceptance is another.”
I pulled out a cigarette. Someone lit it for me, and I nodded my thanks.
“Jacek, I don’t know how to answer you,” I said. “Do you want me to admit that Americans are racist?”
“My dear friend, I don’t want you to admit anything, I’m just asking for your opinion.”
“Jacek, let him be,” said a woman with thick glasses and tight curls. “You are always looking for an argument, even on New Year’s Eve.”
“An argument?” Jacek said. “This is an opportunity. How often do we get to hear the opinions of an actual American?”
“He is not a representative American,” another woman said. “He is a New Yorker, living in another country.”
“Hi, Magda,” I said.
I glanced around the room.
“Don’t worry, he’s not here,” she said. Then she plucked the cigarette from my fingers and put it to her lips. As she blew the smoke out the side of her mouth, she looked at my face. I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was being considered for something, assessed. It was all very dramatic and stagey and exciting.
“What’s going on with these two,” a bearded man muttered in Polish, and once again Magda had given me cause to blush.
“Nathan,” she said. “Would you like to get drunk? Because I would very much like to get drunk.”
For the rest of the night, we weren’t exactly unfriendly to anyone; however, we did make it clear that we were interested only in each other. We staked out a corner near a bottle of vodka, and proceeded to punish it, and my cigarettes. Excited by our unexpected intimacy, I disclosed more than I usually do. I told her about the bitterness that had driven me to Warsaw, how much I missed seeing her, how I wished that I had had the nerve to ask her out. And she told me that she had wished that, too.
“You are a nice man, Nathan, but sometimes you are spineless. Oh.” She touched my face. “I hurt your feelings. I’m sorry.”
At midnight we were making out on Jacek’s terrace, inured to the cold by drink and proximity. I walked her home, and we kissed again by her door. She didn’t invite me in, which was disappointing, of course. I sensed that there was something fleeting about her attention, and I didn’t want to let it go. Nevertheless, I was so happy that I splurged on a taxi ride home, and when the driver flagrantly overcharged me, I didn’t haggle.
I called her the next afternoon.
“Oh God, I am so ill,” she said. “I feel like I am sweating vodka. Listen, Nathan. I want to see you, but don’t expect too much from me. All I want right now is a friend.”
We began to spend a lot of time together. While it was nice to be around her again, the nebulousness of the situation was not good for me. My work fell off—not a lot, but enough to make me nervous—and sometimes I had trouble sleeping. I wondered if I were making a huge mistake, pursuing a girl who had been interested in a fraud. Still, as someone said, the heart wants what it wants. I saw Magda two or three nights a week, and we went out at least once every weekend. (I refused to go back to the Salon.) Despite her talk of friendship, I thought that patience and kindness would wear her down. I was right. I felt it in how she squeezed my waist when we met, in how she leaned into me for a kiss when we parted. After she left a CD in my office, I knew that I was close: her new song was called, Męczyzna z Nowym Yorku—“The Man from New York.” Never mind that it sounded suspiciously like Tom Waits. No one had ever written anything for me before.
The next time we met for a drink, I suggested that we go away for a weekend together, to Kazimierz Dolny or Zakopane. Her response was positive, even enthusiastic. But then I didn’t hear from her for days, and I stopped running into her at work. Obviously now Magda was avoiding the teacher’s lounge and the cafeteria, so I texted her a few times, and I stopped by her apartment and left a note. Then I was out of ideas—anything more and I’d be in stalker territory.
When she finally called, I was getting ready for bed, and we hadn’t spoken for two weeks.
“I am with Nigel again,” she said.
“Oh,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Nathan. I hope we can still be friends.”
I heard her light a cigarette. Although I don’t like to smoke after I’ve brushed my teeth, I lit one too.
“Magda,” I said. “There’s something wrong with that guy.”
“Oh Nathan,” she said, sighing. “When you talk about him, I think there is something wrong with you.”
I wished Magda luck, and I got off the phone.
That was the last time we ever really spoke. She stopped avoiding me at work, but when we saw each other there would be a quick hello and that was all. Early in the summer break, I ran into her at the Municipal Museum—thankfully she was alone, and I was with Basia, a striking girl whom I had been dating. The conversation was strained: I think that Magda felt a little guilty, and I felt that at any moment, Nigel would appear, smiling, superior, armored in his smugness.
Later that summer I was at an Internet café, catching up on my email after a week in Sopot with Basia. I ordered coffee and lit a cigarette, and I felt very relaxed—glad to have been away and glad to be back in Warsaw. Then I detected a kind of presence nearby, and there, on the other side of the room, was Nigel. He didn’t seem to have noticed me—he was surrounded by people and talking—but the relaxed feeling had gone. I sent a few quick emails and paid my bill.
I was almost at the door when he called my name and waved me over. Of course I didn’t have to go to him; I owed him nothing. But I went anyway, I suppose out of morbid curiosity. He was at a table with two women and a fat, younger man, whom Nigel introduced as a journalist. Someone produced a chair for me, and although every reasonable impulse told me not to, I sat down.
“We’re celebrating,” Nigel said. “I published my memoir.”
He slid the book across the table to me; its title was The Real Story of Nigel Embo. I couldn’t bring myself to open it, so I looked at the cover. I had never heard of the publisher. In his author photo he wore his black baseball cap and a white, turtleneck sweater, just as he had worn to the Salon, just as he was wearing now. I wondered how he had decided that this was a good look, and if he had a closet full of such sweaters and hats.
“Congratulations,” I said, sliding the book back to him.
“Nathan is also a writer. How many books have you published, Nathan?”
“None. How’s Magda?”
“She’s fine. She went to France for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t go. Trouble with my work visa. I envy you your American passport, Nathan.”
And I envied him. I envied him terribly. There was absolutely zero chance of his book being good, even if his editor had cleaned up the punctuation; nevertheless he had a book with his name on it, and he had Magda.
“I thought you were a political refugee,” I said.
“You said you had trouble with your work visa. I thought you were granted residency for political reasons.”
Nigel glanced at the journalist.
“You know Polish bureaucracy,” he said. “Nothing is ever straightforward.”
“Right,” I said, and stood up. “Goodbye, Nigel.”
That was the last time I ever saw him, and Magda drifted out of my life as well: when school started up again I learned that she had changed jobs.
I stayed in Poland for another full year. I broke up with Basia when she pressed me about marriage. I placed another story in a respected but little-read American magazine. I finished my collection, and a respected but small American agency agreed to represent me. When the spring term ended I turned in my notice, and I packed for New York. And all that time, right up until I got on the plane, I waited for Magda to call, to say that she had made a mistake, that I was the better man.
The hostel was supposedly near the station, but Daniel had lost his guidebook and the locals were no help. The first two people he asked had never heard of it, a fact imparted without the smallest indication of regret; and the third, a plump woman on the verge of old age, didn’t bother breaking her stride to respond. Daniel made his way instead by checking the maps affixed to bus shelters, a process complicated by his overstuffed duffel and the nylon guitar case strapped across his back. Thus it was a long, cold hour until he found it, a boxy, two-story structure with window frames the color of overcooked salmon.
Inside it smelled of cleaning chemicals and a few students were lounging by the door, smoking and talking in that idle European way. As Daniel set his things down by the desk, they seemed simultaneously to look him over and ignore him.
Good day, the clerk said. He was balding and wore a black nylon tracksuit.
If you please, Daniel said, in his overly careful French. I would like a single room, if you have one.
I do. For how many nights?
Five, Daniel said, the first number that came to him. Am I able to be in the room now?
Why wouldn’t you be able to be in the room now?
Because…because at some hostels one cannot be in the rooms in the daytime.
We have no such rule, the man said, as if Daniel should have known that.
In the narrow room he put his things on the bed. He felt nervous. Six or seven years ago his high school French teacher had said nice things about Bourges. Daniel now wondered if Mr. Foy had actually been joking. He took out his guitar, tuned it and ran scales for a half hour. When he finished he was calmer, ready to forgive himself and see the town.
Outside it remained a heartless October day, the sky bunched with iron clouds. Still, Daniel felt a little better about Bourges. He liked the little shops and streets and tidy medieval buildings, the neatly dressed people doing French things, smoking, gesturing, wearing scarves. They were indifferent to him, but that was all right. Their indifference was somehow kinder than the inhospitable bustle of Paris.
In the morning as he tried to practice Daniel heard toilets flushing, chairs scraping, voices in various languages. He gave up when someone nearby put on dance music at a ludicrous volume. He had breakfast at a café with tiled walls that amplified the chatter and the terrible music, European pop songs laden with synthesizers. He felt pursued by noise and the aborted practice had left him with the nagging sense of an undone task. And yet the croque monsieur was otherworldly and the locals, with their musical French, were charming. So this was life as French people lived it, with good food and bad music and conversation and scarves.
After eating he had intended to find the cathedral (museums, medieval squares, cathedrals: you had to see such things if you wanted to be well-rounded). But the sky had cleared and he couldn’t spend the day inside. Instead he wandered the less touristy streets of the town. There was nothing special about them, save their Frenchness, but that was enough. He found himself moved by an orderly row of fruit tarts in a bakery window, a sedate little office block, the overall calm.
Looping back toward the hostel he came across a kind of thrift store for music, where he spent a happy hour browsing the record bins and cassette racks. He picked out a couple of tapes, one by Charles Trenet, whom Daniel vaguely knew as some kind of crooner, and one by a guy named Dutronc, who looked cool on the cover, in a killer sixties suit and a cigar in his snarling mouth. The store had books as well, even paperbacks in English—these behind a curtain in the back, as if they were a form of pornography. Daniel chose a Dickens novel. As he paid, the dark-haired girl at the register did that French thing, the simultaneous looking-over and ignoring.
He then stopped into a market, where he bought bread and cheese, a liter of water, and a netting bag to carry his provisions. By now the light had begun to wane and everyone on the street had disappeared, as if by mutual agreement. Without people Bourges seemed smaller, the houses and cars like models built to two-thirds scale. One day in the future he would be asked if he had liked France. The answer would be that he liked it a lot, although often he felt lonely. But no one talked like that.
At the hostel the balding clerk was at the desk. Daniel braced himself, but when the man put down his newspaper he was almost smiling.
And now you will practice the guitar, he said.
How did you know?
The clerk shrugged. Here one hears everything. It’s okay, I like your discipline. Where do you come from?
From the town. I took a walk.
I mean where were you born.
Oh, said Daniel, blushing. I’m from California.
I wish zey all could bee California gurls, the balding man sang. Your French is okay for an American. Listen, somebody just quit. Do you want a job?
Do. You. Want. A. Job.
I do…I would do what?
Whatever I tell you, the man said. The pay is shit but you can stay for free.
For much of the day Daniel manned the reception desk, answering the phone and dealing with guests, often at the same time. Almost all of it was in French and too often, his face burning, he had to ask the guests to repeat themselves. Another stressful task was pulling reservations off the minitel, a computer with a little green screen and an undersized keyboard that baffled him. When he wasn’t at the desk he scrubbed the sinks and toilets and mopped the floors and carried the dirty linen downstairs to the industrial washers in heavy canvas bags. The stains were unspeakable. Still he could do this part of the job with his Walkman on, which made it marginally preferable to the desk.
He worked alone. The balding man, Georges—Daniel thought of him as “Georges from Bourges”—had retreated to his office, muttering about taxes. Daniel’s co-workers, a young couple, provided curt, unhelpful answers to his questions, and they ignored it when he got busy at the desk. The guy was Parisian so Daniel expected such behavior. But the girl was a big Australian blonde who insisted upon talking French. Daniel hated her and felt ashamed in her presence.
When he wasn’t working he practiced, and when he wasn’t practicing he listened to his Walkman. The cassettes had started him on an investigation of French music that got him thinking about how chords come together to make songs. All week he looked forward to his day off, when he’d have a croque monsieur at the noisy café (which did not play synth-pop when a particular waitress was off-duty) and then head to the music store.
But the store became a complication, due to the dark-haired girl who worked there. One afternoon, as he approached the register, with a kind of blooming comprehension he realized that she was beautiful. But she never really looked at him, because, he assumed, he was American.
She spoke to him once. He had become a little obsessed with Charles Trenet, the crooner, for his lovely melodies and creamy horns. After working out the question in his head, Daniel asked the girl to put aside any more of his cassettes if they came in.
Charles Trenet, she snorted. My grandfather likes him.
Daniel was mopping the lounge, working around the feet of a half-dozen robust and unwashed Germans, who re-checked their rucksacks and jabbered over their maps. By the door a tiny girl in a puffy coat shouted into the payphone in Italian. Daniel mopped and listened to Charles Trenet, still resenting the girl from the store for that snide remark. He had been in such situations before, liking things that others found weird or outdated, and this time he was determined not to let anyone ruin it for him.
Georges tapped him on the shoulder.
Listen, he said. You know we close for the holidays.
Daniel took off his headphones. No, I did not know.
Well. My cousin is going to Paris. You can stay in his apartment if you like.
It took Daniel a moment to understand that Georges had done him a favor.
Okay, he said. Thank you.
Good, Georges said. He put an envelope into Daniel’s hand and went back to his office. Inside was a slip of paper with the address. There was also an extra week’s wages and a new set of guitar strings.
The cousin lived above a lonely square. The kitchen was spare, the living room spare, the bedroom spare and freezing, the bathroom an unheated water closet. A few soccer magazines had been left on the couch and there was a small TV in one corner. Other than that the cousin had no evident interests.
Daniel killed the first few days of his break by figuring out where to shop, how to cook rudimentary meals in a strange kitchen, how to get comfortable without getting too comfortable. Within a week he was practicing five hours a day and he had finished Great Expectations and a chunk of David Copperfield. Also he spent the greater part of three afternoons on a fruitless quest for a scarf that would make him look European but not like an American who was trying to look European. And yet he still had too much time. Each morning he was tempted to slip the key under the door and head for someplace warm, maybe Morocco. But he felt he owed something to Georges.
The way that Georges kept surprising Daniel with his generosity—maybe French people were nice to you when they knew you a little? Or was Georges inherently nice? Either way it made Daniel uncomfortable. The only thing he disliked more than loneliness was feeling obligated.
Meanwhile Christmas decorations had appeared in the shop windows and one evening, when Daniel went out for a walk, a man dressed as Santa rode through the shopping district in a carriage pulled by a donkey, tossing candies to the groomed little children. Above the street oversized snowflakes had been suspended between the buildings and people bustled in the shops. It all made Daniel feel like he was missing something. He thought he should buy himself a present, maybe the Jacques Brel songbook he coveted, but when he went to the music store, it was closed for the holidays.
As he stood by the shop, hands in pockets, an old woman with a netting bag scuttled past, flagrantly not noticing him. He recalled the woman who had ignored him that first day when he had asked for directions. It made him wonder if he looked suspicious or merely foreign. To French people, he was learning, there wasn’t much difference. He should go somewhere, maybe to the cathedral, which was lit up at night. But that idea bored him, and he couldn’t face the cousin’s apartment. So he sought out a bar that Georges from Bourges had mentioned, where artists and musicians were supposed to hang out.
Inside the air was ropy with cigarette smoke and a Dutronc song was playing, the one about a quarter million Chinese and me and me and me. A quartet of girls at a table sang along, oblivious to the middle-aged hippies watching them. Daniel bought a beer and felt conspicuous as he sat down at the bar. He relaxed by paying attention to the music, which led him again to considering how chords came together to make songs. The chord progression of the Dutronc song was very simple, which made Daniel wonder if he should try writing one. But songwriters were gifted, touched by the gods. And it was hard enough to learn, really learn, to play the guitar. Anyway what would he write about?
One of the girls was at the bar. When she saw Daniel her gaze affixed on him with open curiosity. His heart contracted when he realized that it was the girl from the bookstore.
Hi, she said.
She said something that Daniel didn’t catch.
I said I recognize you from the store.
Ah. I recognize you too.
Good, so we recognize each other. Sit with us.
Daniel was afraid. It was exactly what he hoped she’d say.
They made a space for him across from the girl, whose name was Anne. Her friends asked where he was from and why he was in Bourges and he told them. They told him that were on break from various universities, where they studied practical things, social work and business and the like. None of them was as pretty as Anne, who remained silent as her friends explained themselves. Her hair was up in a ponytail and she wore a big blue sweater and a scarf. As she lit a cigarette she seemed wrapped in her Frenchness, protected by it.
So you are not a student, she finally said.
I was a student. I quit.
He shrugged. I was wasting money.
Her friends appeared puzzled. One girl said, But you go to the university so that eventually you can earn money.
Unless you always want to work in the hostel, Anne said.
Now the girls laughed, and he wondered if Anne had invited him over just to make fun of him.
I play guitar, he said.
Oh la la, a musician, another girl said.
Later the seats were shuffled and he found himself next to Anne. His eyes smarted from their cigarettes and their rapid French had tired him. Also he felt a little drunk, a sensation he had never learned to like.
I still don’t understand why you are here, she said. Americans always want to be in Provence or Paris.
I didn’t like Paris. And Bourges, the name of the city, was in my head. Because my French teacher in high school said it was nice.
She smiled and a heartbreaking dimple appeared at one corner of her mouth. And where were you before that?
I was in London for a few months. I liked it. Then it was time to leave.
I saw that I will not find it there. You have to understand. I wanted…I am searching for something profound.
Even if it was the truth he felt stupid for saying it. But maybe it didn’t sound stupid in French, because he was rewarded for his honesty.
We should meet, Anne said with finality. The day after tomorrow. I will show you the real Bourges.
He waited on a corner of Place Gordaine, a street of half-timbered houses. She was late and it was cold and his gut told him that this might not end well, or even begin at all if she did not show up. He needed to be prepared for that. Or be prepared in case she showed up out of duty, armored in politeness. Or if she appeared with a friend, a fat girl with a thing for Americans.
He wanted coffee, but there was no place to buy it to go, not on this street, not in this town, nowhere in the entire country. Nowhere, that is, aside from McDonald’s. But he could not risk being seen holding a cup emblazoned with the golden arches, a symbol that had a repelling effect on French people, like a cross to a vampire.
Not that it mattered. Soon enough he’d be back in the cousin’s apartment fixing himself a cup of Nescafe, because she wasn’t coming.
He was so prepared to be stood up that when she did arrive he had to conceal his surprise. She wore some kind of vintage trench coat with huge collars and a wary smile. As she kissed him on either cheek, he told himself not to get excited. That was just how they did things here.
It’s cold, she said. Let’s go.
She set off at a brisk pace and he had to hurry to keep up. Remarkable, how someone who walked so quickly could be late for anything. Where are we going, he asked, because he thought he should talk.
To the cathedral. Today it’s better to be inside. Wait, look at this. She took him by the elbow and pointed at a dun-colored mansion behind by a black iron fence. Georges Sand lived there.
Really? I didn’t know he was from Bourges.
She. Georges Sand was a woman.
Daniel felt his face grow hot. Oh.
As they set off again he wondered if or how he could recover from that. Despite his concern within minutes he had come across as an idiot American—he might as well have shown up in a fluorescent yellow windbreaker and brandishing a Big Mac. Then they turned into a big open square and his first sight of the cathedral distracted him from his embarrassment. He hadn’t yet seen it up close and he was taken aback by its ugliness. It resembled a cross between a giant Gothic insect and an industrial bread slicer. Of course he’d keep that opinion to himself.
At the cashier he regained a modicum of confidence when he requested, paid for and received their tickets in creditable French. Anne had studied the cathedral in high school and as she pointed out the naves and transepts or whatever they were, he made what he hoped were appropriate murmurs of approval. But the whole thing seemed off to him. Not the cathedral, which was adequately cathedral-like, with an airy vaulted ceiling and glowing stained glass. Her demeanor was off. He was reminded of a rich friend of his mother’s who had bought a house designed by a famous architect—there was a similar kind of borrowed pride. The attitude didn’t suit Anne, and it nettled when she mentioned that a painting was older than his country.
After the cathedral she suggested they go to a café she liked, which turned out to be the one he visited on his days off. The waiter raised his eyebrows when they entered and gestured to a table by the window. Clearly Daniel’s stock had risen; usually they put him near the bathroom.
So they know you here, Anne said.
Yes, I’ve been here a few times.
As he shuffled out of his coat it occurred to him that this was how he might recover, by demonstrating that he was not quite so foreign. A further plus was that instead of synth-pop they were playing gypsy jazz. Then he looked at Anne and was disconcerted by her beauty. It had been easier at the cathedral, when there had been lots of other things to look at. Now it was like staring into the eyes of a big feral cat.
The waiter took their order and returned to put down a half-carafe of red wine. On the house, he said.
Anne was suspicious. Why did he do that?
Daniel shrugged. In English, we say, Do not look in the mouth a horse that has been given to you.
We say, You don’t check its teeth. Why did you pretend that you knew of Georges Sand?
Again he felt the blood rise to his face. I don’t know. That was stupid.
Well. I thought you would be interested because you like nineteenth-century novels. I would lend you one of hers, but I doubt your French is good enough.
This was the one possibility that he hadn’t prepared himself for: that she would be unkind. She was still talking, telling him something about Georges Sand and Chopin.
She said, Are you listening to me?
I’m sorry. I was thinking. This isn’t fun. I’m not having fun.
She blinked. Maybe you should go then.
As he reached for his wallet he felt both relieved and sad.
Wait, wait, I’m sorry, she said. Sometimes I’m a bitch.
Now he didn’t know how if he was supposed to agree, which would be impolite, or disagree, which would be dishonest. So he said nothing, and she smoked a complete cigarette, from tip to filter, while both of them sat in silence.
When the food came—an omelet for her, a croque monsieur for him—they could at least talk about that. He kept things moving by asking about the cathedral and then her studies. She had wanted to go to architecture school until her father convinced her that there was no money in it, so she was training to be a civil engineer at Strasbourg. It was a difficult profession for women, but she was determined to succeed, despite the sexism. By the time the coffee arrived she had been talking about herself, not that uninterestingly, for about fifteen minutes, which clearly had helped her to relax, which helped him to relax, even though he was still wary.
I want to ask you, she said. Why you like Charles Trenet.
Was she making fun of him again? Or was she trying to be nice? He decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, though, it was not yet possible for Daniel to explain in any language how Trenet had unlocked something for him—a feeling, a curiosity, a desire to understand how those old songs folded in on themselves, floated gently from verse to chorus and back.
It’s the structure of the songs, he said finally. Very simple but at the same time complex.
Her dimple appeared. Maybe you can play a few for me. To show me.
He smiled. Okay, he said.
Then they were at the cousin’s apartment and working through a bottle of wine, or rather Anne was; he nursed his first glass while playing songs on the cousin’s crappy boom box, interjecting his halting comments, rewinding at the good parts, until she insisted that he play his guitar. He agreed only because he was buzzed; he was uncomfortable singing for her, especially in French. But she seemed to enjoy it, lounging on the couch with her legs drawn up, a glass and an ashtray on the armrest. He played “La Mer” and explained, as he plucked the chords, that yes, it was old-fashioned and the crescendo was too big, too much. But listen to how the key changes create a sense of movement.
That’s good, she said. I never thought about it like that.
She listened as he finished the song and then improvised a few chord runs. Suddenly self-conscious, he put down the guitar.
You play very well.
Your face just changed, she said. What are you thinking about?
I was thinking…that I would like to kiss you.
She laughed. Americans are so earnest.
Okay, he said, trying not to be offended. What would a Frenchman do?
A Frenchman would kiss me.
He leaned toward her and even though it involved a certain amount of neck-craning, it was nice. When she snuggled into him it was even nicer. For some minutes they continued the niceness with elevating enthusiasm and he was wondering how a Frenchman would get her into the bedroom—perhaps communicate his desire with Gallic amatory telepathy. Being American, Daniel would have to be less subtle.
You can stay, he said.
She sat up and gave him a peremptory kiss on the mouth. No, not yet. We had a perfect day. Let’s not ruin it.
In his opinion the first half of the day had sucked and what he was suggesting might bring perfection to the second half. But he knew what she meant.
She wrote her phone number on the cover of soccer magazine, saying, tomorrow I have to help my mother, call me the day after that. After one more brief kiss she was gone, leaving him astonished by his good luck.
In the morning he awoke with a sense of contentment. But as he showered and dressed he was feeling something else, something nameless and complicated. He couldn’t concentrate on his scales and he kept messing up his fingerpicking exercises. Still he forced himself to practice for two hours. When he was finished he put his guitar in its case and packed his duffel. With last night’s Trenet on the boom box, he emptied the ashtray, washed the glasses, swept the floors and stripped the bed. Finally he put on his jacket, did one last walk-through to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, and then slipped the key under the door after locking it behind him. Before heading for the train station he went by the hostel and slipped a note of apology and gratitude through the mail slot.
Within two days he was in Morocco, where he stayed for a month. When his savings from the hostel ran out he cashed a few travelers checks and went to Nashville. There he found a bartending job and spent his free time practicing and hanging around songwriters. Two years later he was in Los Angeles, where all the hard work and lonely hours began to pay off. He earned a decent living as a session player and eventually, when he found his way in, a very good living as a songwriter. As Daniel aged and grew into himself he understood that he had left Bourges because he could see himself loving Anne, following her to Strasbourg, submitting to her authority. That she was a trap best avoided. But he never lost the sense of a missed opportunity. Which was why he tried more than once to write a song about her, or for her, or about Bourges. He never got it right, but that was okay. He wrote a lot of good songs.
Hesh and his buddy Nick catch a halftrack to the Kimpo airfield, a flat expanse with rows of choppers and gleaming jet planes, snowy knifedge ridges in the distance. They’re told to wait by the benches near a Quonset hut among thirty expectant GIs all thinking, Get me the fuck out of here. It’s cold and as night falls getting colder. There’s coffee in the hut, but if Hesh goes inside some a-hole will take his spot on the plane out.
Hesh is filmed with dirt, grit in his mouth, knee wound bearable but throbbing. He’s uncomfortable after storing his weapon. It’s like when you forget your house keys, if your house keys were all that stood between you and death by Chinaman. His dick hums with the prospect of pussy and he has the existential thirst that marks the beginning of a hundred-hour drunk.
Nick says, I gotta pinch a loaf, leaving Hesh with the jug of local hooch. Yakju, it’s called. For taste it’s number ten but for a drunk it’s number one. Hesh is wondering about these two parallel rows of barrels lining the grooved concrete runway. After four months in Korea, he’s a hardened rifleman. But he’s twenty years old and never been to an airfield. He’d barely been out of Brooklyn before they brought him over in a boat, ten weeks of outrageous suffering, the heads overflowing with shit soup, the passageways slick with puke.
Hesh spots a Canadian on a bench with a couple of gallon jars of SRD rum. He gets that vibration, that moment of clarity: there’s a deal to be made.
He says to the Canadian, R&R?
The Canadian says, I fecking wish. No, I arrange air transport for some peckerhead.
Hesh says, Gotta ask you, why they call it SRD?
Because it Seldom Reaches Destination. What’s dat dere?
Korean moonshine, wanna try it?
They exchange jugs. The rum is good. The American army travels on its stomach, the Canadian on its liver. Maybe not this Canadian. He’s coughing, leaning over, spitting.
Ostie crise de tabarnak. Dat is fecking horrible.
Hesh starts to say something but then two F-86 Sabres thunder overhead trailing gray vapor. Beyond the ridgeline twin mushrooms of smoke appear, fire blooming within the smoke, then phwoosh. In the air the taste of gasoline and detergent. Luke the Gook just got napalmed. Hesh has seen it happen, heard the screams, watched their skin peeling like potato chips.
Hesh says, How much you want for the rum?
The Canadian thinks. Five dollars, he says.
Yes, five dollars. I am speaking fecking English.
American dollars or Canadian dollars?
Feck you, American dollars. Are you trying to Jew me?
I dunno, I am a Jew, you want to discuss that?
The Canadian looks away. No, he says, and he takes the five.
Hesh now with two jugs. He could drink the rum but he has a better idea. He sees a Limey communing with a bottle and a cigarette. He sees some Latin guys, Puerto Ricans maybe, talking Spanish. He sees a G.I. on the bench eyes wide and glowing in the dusk. The kid is trembling so hard he can’t light a cigarette. His buddy is a schwartze, his face stuck in the same shocked expression, like Holy fucking shit. They’re shook, no doubt about it. Sarge called it battle fatigue.
Hesh sells them the rum for a twenty.
When Nick gets back he says, They got an indoor fucking latrine, feels like shitting at the Ritz. He finishes the hooch and pulls a couple of Schlitzes from his field jacket, notches them with the can opener he wears with his dog tags. Handing Hesh a beer, he says, The best pussy is in Kee-oto, according to Sarge.
Hesh feels his heart contract.
He says, Sarge told you that? When?
What’s the fucking difference when?
I don’t know, he never told me that.
You the only guy he talked to?
Some guy in a parka staggers up in the dusk.
La piste, he says, la piste.
Nick says, La what now?
Ici c’est la piste.
The Limey on the bench is swaying as he observes. He says, I fink he’s telling you he’s pissed. Or maybe he finks you’re pissed.
Nick says, I’m going on R&R, why would I be pissed?
No, no, says the Limey, pissed, as in drunk, not pissed off.
Nick says, You been drinking?
The Limey says, Oh yeah mate, I’m fucking rat-arsed.
Now here’s the French Canadian. You dumb feckers, la piste means runway. You’re standing on de fecking runway.
In fact they have wandered onto the concrete and you can hear a plane coming in and an airman is setting the barrels alight. So that’s what they’re for, to mark the landing strip. Thirty seconds later a fat C-47 buzzes in hard, hatches swinging open with the props still going, the wash pushing grit in the eyes, airman yelling, Osaka, haul ass you pricks.
Hesh’s first plane ride. The seats are rows of indentations against the hull, like little ass buckets with canvas lap belts. It’s colder than a witch’s tit and colder still as they ascend. The air smells of steel and the noise is hideous. Hesh feels empty, helpless. He thinks he left his stomach on the piste. These goony birds go down all the time, drilling into mountainsides or tumbling into the drink. A direct flight from Seoul to Sheol. And let’s not forget enemy guns and MiGs. The lieutenant had said American air superiority was inviolate. He’d said, we got Ted fucking Williams flying a Panther jet. This situation is David and Goliath. Hesh said, With respect sir, do you know what happened to Goliath?
Nick is sleeping. The other GIs whooping it up like they’re in some movie about R&R. Hesh wants sleep too, but he’s afraid he’ll start thinking about Anderson on the ridge. He doesn’t want to be like those guys at the airfield. He understands how the body can tremble until it discharges some atavistic conniption fit.
At the Port of Tacoma before shipping out there had been a Salvation Army table, coffee and donuts and some old fart asking, What’s your religious persuasion soldier?
Hesh said, Hebrew.
The old guy handed him a Hebrew Bible.
Hesh said, got any Zane Grey back there?
Now in the plane Hesh squinting in the weak interior fuselage light at the tiny type: And the lord spake unto Moses, saying, This shall be the law of the leper in the day of his cleansing.
Well that’s no fucking help. Hesh considers reciting a protective psalm like grandma used to. But he doubts the Lord would take kindly to one of His chosen begging for a safe journey toward five days of pussy and beer.
So this was a couple of days before Hesh went on R&R. It was 0200 hours on a clear night. Hesh lay behind some bushes in the darkness on a ridge in North Korea. It was so cold he was shuddering. It was so cold he was crying.
He had on two pairs of long johns and the liner in his field jacket. Over his field jacket he had a quilted white jacket that he’d cut off a dead gook. He had three pairs of socks under his boots. He had leather gloves with woolen inserts. He had his helmet over his pile field cap and a muffler around his neck. On top of everything he had overwhites for camouflage in the snow. It didn’t matter. He was crying, his tears and snot turning to ice.
The exposed skin below his eyes burned like lye. His hands were numb. If the Chinese attacked he couldn’t shoot. His bladder ached but if he took out his dick he’d lose it to frostbite. If he pissed his pants it would freeze. Every half-minute or so he punched himself in the face because if fell asleep he’d die. Last week on another ridge Nick had come across three Chinese soldiers frozen to death in a foxhole. He’d said, Look, Hesh. Chinksicles.
That morning the captain had sent Hesh’s squad north to find the Chinese Volunteer People’s Army. The captain, who Hesh thought was no fucking genius, had said, Boys there are a quarter million Commies north of the Yalu River. Your job is to find them.
Hesh had whispered to Nick: A quarter-million? How could you miss them?
The patrol was twelve men in three jeeps, half of them green. Sergeant Anderson rode shotgun and some rookie was driving. Hesh rode between Nick and Bailey because he was the shortest. The frozen terraced rice paddies flashed in the sun. They were talking about R&R.
You see the mamasan first, said Anderson, voice raised over the chugging engine. You take your shoes off and sit on the floor and order a beer. You tell her Asahi.
Yeah, said Bailey, because it gets your ass high.
The rookie asked, So is it pronounced Asa-hee or Asa-hi?
Shut the fuck up, Nick said.
Anderson said, You give the mamasan two hundred dollars.
Hesh said, I’m not handing two hundred dollars to some Jap cooze.
Anderson said, Yes you fucking are because the Nips are honest. You drop a quarter in the street and they’ll fight for the privilege of giving it back to you.
Bailey said, And they the same motherfuckers what did Pearl Harbor.
Yeah, Anderson said, cupping his hands to light a smoke. He was a World War II vet but didn’t talk much about it. Hesh loved him dearly. Nick was his best friend but Anderson was something else. Outside of Pusan, Hesh had been hit by white phosphorus. It was like flaming fingers piercing his flesh. Anderson had plugged the holes with dirt to starve the oxygen. If he hadn’t the fragments would have burned through his organs. Hesh had seen it happen, a sergeant from another squad at the aid station, smoke streaming from the hole in his chest when he puffed on his cigarette. Anyway that was Hesh’s first purple heart.
Outside of Pyongyang when a bullet gouged Hesh’s knee, Anderson was there with morphine, sulfa and a bandage. The medic was busy because Metzger had stepped on a land mine. The kid’s leg looked like an exploding cigar. Metzger went home crippled and Hesh got his second purple heart.
But it wasn’t the medals. It was that Anderson had taken care of him.
So the patrol. Now around 1500 hours three jeeps moving north looking for the Chinese. The road narrowing between the ridgelines. At the roadside a hundred refugees heading south. The women with bundles on their heads, wrapped babies, old men shlepping overpacked A-frames. The women radiating fear and exhaustion and a kind of impersonal hatred, as if the Americans were a natural disaster, some force of nature to be endured.
The patrol forded the Yalu River entering North Korea by an abandoned village with that lingering Korea smell of kimchi and shit. The Koreans so poor they used human waste for fertilizer.
On the far bank Anderson said to stop for chow. As Hesh ate his franks and beans he heard a kind of dopplering whisper above and threw himself into the roadside ditch. The Chinese mortars hit with a percussive deafening bang and took out a Jeep with two men in it. Some rookie in the road gaping at the wreck like an imbecile. Hesh heard the enemy bugles calling the attack and he yelled, Get the fuck out of the road. The rookie turned and then mortar shrapnel tore out his throat and he went down gurgling.
The driver jumped into the ditch.
It’s a fucking ambush, he said.
Hesh said, Really? I had no idea.
The driver said, Sarge wants us to make for two o’clock. That ridge between the hills.
Hesh heard more bugles. He thought: assess. There is a burning Jeep between me and the ridge. At my three o’clock half a Chinese platoon on the road, at my nine o’clock the other half.
And some brave son of a bitch made it to the vehicle with the mounted .50 caliber and was firing north. It sounded like disciplined bursts of a monstrous sewing machine. The Chinese cut in half. Their blood splattering the men behind them. Someone else chucking grenades at the Chinese coming the other way. This is the moment. Hesh sprinted across the road, the driver following. When he made the hill some instinct told him to dive into the snow just as a Chinaman popped out spraying his burp gun. Hesh shot the SOB with his M1 but it was too late for the driver. He was beyond help, his belly shredded organs swimming in blood.
Hesh felt grotesquely exposed, the air torn with bullets. It was like a nightmare where you can only run in slow motion. But atop the hill the snow thinned and outcroppings gave cover. Hesh collapsed into an indentation behind some bushes at the ridgeline. He heard hoarse whispering in some foreign language. He realized it was his own voice. He’d been reciting the shema, the prayer for the moment of death.
Nick slid up, his face smeared with blood. They had a way of finding each other in a fight.
They drank water and reloaded. Hesh’s fingers trembled as he fixed his bayonet. He kept his head, he always did, but he was pretty sure he had shit his pants. Meanwhile Nick was cool as a cucumber. Fighting soothed him.
From somewhere down the ridgeline they could hear a guy moaning, Don’t let me die here.
Somebody else said, Shut the fuck up or we all die.
Hesh and Nick faced the road. Facing west. The sun would be in their eyes within minutes. The Chinese would attack then. Hesh knew because that’s what he would do. On top of that the wind picked up, the temperature dropping. Hesh’s teeth already chattering. Jesus H. Christ, exposed on a ridgeline with night coming. He wished he knew where Sarge was. He wished that guy would stop it with the fucking moaning.
Nick said, Hey at least we have the satisfaction of a job well done.
Hesh said, What fucking job?
We found the Chinese Army, Nick said.
Asshole, Hesh said. They found us.
At the hotel Nick insists they eat first. He says, I’m Italian, I gotta eat before I fuck. He turns to the mamasan. I wanee milkee and Asahi and big fucking bloody steakee chop-chop. Smiling, nodding, mamasan takes her two hundred but that’s okay, they’re fucking loaded, they’ve got oversized Jap money and greenbacks in every pocket. Anyway Hesh already arranged to sneak two cases of Johnny Walker in barracks bags back to the line, ten bucks per case in Japan go for a hundred in Korea. The trip is a wash.
Mamasan bows her way out and Hesh and Nick look at each other like, We’re in Japan, what the fuck? Two swinging dicks from Brooklyn. They’re barefoot before a low lacquered table in a room of paper and wood. There’s a book of erotic prints, some samurai or whatever inserting his giant veiny schvantz into a geisha’s scarlet cunt. Her face transported with pleasure. Nick says, Hesh, check out the nipples on that Nip. Hesh feels his sap coming up but he’s also thinking that was what Anderson said about Japan, that you think it’s all tidy and ordered, and then you saw something fucked up that left you scratching your head.
Like in the taxi on the way here they had been drinking and looking at these quaint little houses, an arched wooden bridge, trees wrapped against winter, bicycles. Serene was the word for it. Hesh grew up with images of squinty double-crossing Japs with buck teeth. He felt like he had been misinformed.
But then they saw this mound with a statue at the top. It looked like three squat eggs one atop another. The driver spoke English. He said, It is the nose monument. In the past when Japan invade Korea the Emperor pay the soldiers by the head. So you come home with a bag of Korean heads. But heads very heavy.
Hesh said, Right, it’s easier to schlep Korean noses.
The driver said, What is schlep?
Never mind, Hesh said.
The idea of Korean noses amused Nick. Hesh was philosophical about it. Because let’s not be hypocritical. The Hebrews brought back sacks stuffed with Philistine foreskins.
Now Mamasan brings them the Asahi and it’s crisp and dry. The steak is so tender Hesh has to close his eyes for an appended shehechiyanu: Thank you Lord for allowing me to reach this moment of Kobe beef.
Nick says, My God, this fucking milk. Have some.
Hesh says, I don’t want milk.
You don’t want milk?
Milk and meat, I don’t like that.
Oh yeah. You fucking Jews. Hey, you know how to say fuck you in Jewish? Nick spreads his hands. You say, Trust me.
Hesh shifts his knee under the table. It doesn’t actually hurt but it’s like he’s aware of it.
He says, I got a good one. You know why Jews leave the lids off their trash cans? So dagos can go window shopping.
Nick’s face is blank and Hesh feels hot fear in his throat, recalling too late the time some replacement called Nick a wop and he brained the poor schmuck with an entrenching tool. And Nick had liked the guy. Then he remembers why Nick thought the nose statue was a tickle: because he is fucking certifiable. Nick not only bayoneted the Chinaman that got Anderson on the ridge. Nick beheaded him. Bailey said, Nick, what the fuck you doing? Nick said, I’m getting head. Like it was a joke or something. His eyes blank and casual as if he were sawing wood. His hands painted with blood.
But now Nick only brays laughter and milk. Window shopping, that’s a good one. You think I was offended? Numbnuts, you’re like my brother.
A soft knock and the door slides open. In comes mamasan.
You want to see girls?
Nick says, dabbing his mouth, Yes please madame.
More advice from Anderson: wait for a good one. He was right about that too. First one’s got scraggly teeth, next one big ears, third one’s cross-eyed. Hesh and Nick shaking their heads: nope, nope, nope. The girls bowing out saying, geonamis, meaning something like I’m sorry I’m a meiskeit.
So this is what it feels like to be rich. A clean uniform. Johnny Walker and a steak and four beers. A smorgasborg of whores. A whoregasborg. Hesh is almost levitating with happiness and power, doing shtick for Nick, the Bob Hope growl, Grrrr, hey how about that tomato, and Jerry Lewis, nice Japanese lady.
They’re laughing their asses off. Until Hesh is struck by the image of Anderson’s body on the ridge. His skull and brains. At dawn a spotter plane had flown overhead waggling its wings. A pair of jets strafed the Chinamen on the hill. Then the scourging napalm. Problem solved. Except the sniper had already gotten Anderson. A man like that, dying in a fucking skirmish. It was criminal.
Hesh realizes he’s shivering. Like combat. Like in the cold. He remembers the two shook guys at the airfield. He asks himself if he’s that bad. The answer: Not yet.
Nick says, Hesh, buddy, you okay?
Hesh says, I’m fine.
He picks a slim girl with a nice serious face. Nick picks the one with the biggest tits, which in Japan isn’t saying much.
Hello, ladies. My name is Nicholas and this is my friend Herschel. Who are you?
I am Yamiko, says Hesh’s girl. Nick’s girl says, I am Kathy.
Kathy, Nick says. Weren’t you at Sacred Heart in Bensonhurst?
The girls guide them to a steaming tile bath. Yamiko gestures to a stool against the wall. She undresses Hesh, then strips herself down to a kind of t-shirt that ends just above her quim. Hesh’s dick is at full salute but he’s self-conscious. Nick is in the room and Hesh doesn’t want to have a hard-on in front of his buddy like a faggot. But Nick doesn’t give a shit, he’s on the tiled edge of the bath, his girl astride him, wet slapping noises.
Yamiko washes Hesh from head to foot with a hand towel. On her knees, gently cradling his balls, she examines his dick.
It is different, she says.
I’m a Jew, he says, making a cutting motion with two fingers.
She says, Jew?
He says, It’s my religion. Jewish.
She says, Aaah, Jewish. Eddie Fisher.
Nick and his girl take off, so now Hesh can get down to business. Yamiko helps him slide into the tub so he doesn’t slip and crack his drunken skull. The water is extremely fucking hot. What are we making here, parboiled Jew? But Anderson said you got to stick it out. And after a minute Hesh relaxes into the heat. Yamiko smiling as if bathing with him is the most wonderful thing. Hesh is stirred by this solicitude. She has that shirt on but so what. He raises his hips so that his schlong emerges from the water like the Loch Ness monster and he guides her head down. In under a minute he’s grunting, he’s heaving, the stars are exploding, the Third Temple descends from the heavens, he’s done.
Arigato, honey, he says.
For Hesh it’s utter fulfillment. It’s like the dirt and blood in his head has disappeared into the scorching water. And the girl smiling as if her dearest wish, her life’s goal has just been achieved: for a circumcised G.I. to finish in her mouth.
He shifts the girl forward, pulls off her shirt to get a look at them titties. Jesus Christ. Her back, from shoulders to ass, is a continent of scar tissue.
He says, What the fuck happened to you?
It is nothing.
Honey, that’s something.
You want new girl?
I didn’t say that. I just want to know what it is.
Her eyes averted, Yamiko says, Hiroshima.
Ain’t that a shame, Hesh says.
He means it. Sort of.
It was one of those elbow-to-elbow parties where you inhale the cigarette fumes of the guy smoking with his back to you, where other conversations force themselves into your own. A business do, held in the former lecture hall of what was once an art academy of some repute; perhaps Ruskin had spoken here, under the rococo plasterwork, the white floral shapes of the ceiling.
Bergmann’s black clothes were redolent of liquor and smoke, the bar smells that had accumulated during his afternoon shift. He was on the periphery of the tight circle surrounding Calloway, who was expounding on the sudden challenges to the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. Feeling hot and superfluous—why did he let Calloway drag him to these things?—Bergmann made for the champagne table. Reaching between two suited men, he was jostled from behind, spilled a little on somebody’s trouser leg.
“Mind yourself,” the guy said, baring a textbook set of bad British teeth. He had a kind of Prince Valiant haircut, with a wing or curtain tucked behind each ear.
“Sorry. An accident.”
“Yes, well you should be more fucking careful.” He pointed to his leg, where a rivulet of champagne had darkened the fabric. Then he took in Bergmann’s shoes, trousers and shirt. “Have we met?”
“Probably not,” Bergmann said, and headed for the other side of the room.
Over by the windows it was less noisy and maybe five degrees cooler. He lit a cigarette and looked out at the grassy courtyard behind the building. On the far side of the lawn a wedding party had gathered for pictures: men in black suits with tails; women in bright silk dresses; the bride a dazzling blur, even in the pallid English light. People chatting in the stiff manner they adopt at formal affairs. The English, with all their traditions, could be charming. The downside was when one of them behaved like the guy with the bad teeth. The English were supposed to be polite, but that was a fiction. They were ruthless.
Someone tapped him on the arm.
“Do you have a light?”
A dark-haired woman, who glanced at his face as he bent to light her cigarette. Another measuring look, but maybe there was the hint of an invitation in this one. Quick, he thought, say something.
She blinked. “This is a product launch.”
“No, I mean, I know that. Look.” He pointed out the window.
“Oh, I see. Men look so silly in tails.”
“I was just thinking the same thing.”
“Pardon me.” A man reached between them to put a glass on the windowsill.
The woman watched him go, then she turned back to Bergmann, saying, “You sound like you’re from New York.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
What lovely dark eyes she had, and an oval face framed by shoulder-length black hair. Bergmann felt a strange sense of recognition, even though he was sure he had never met her before.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Oh, I’ve lived in London all my life. Now I’m in Belsize Park.”
So she probably had money. He was about to ask her where she had grown up, but someone was tapping a glass. It was the guy from the champagne table. His wings of hair had untucked themselves and swung at the sides of his face. (Bergmann wondered how it was possible that in the long history of human tonsure, anyone, ever, believed that haircut was a good idea.)
“You’ve all had your free drinks. Now it’s time to listen to me,” the man said.
A chorus of mock groans, over which he shouted, “I’ll keep it short.”
This was followed by a brief round of sarcastic applause. The woman, however, had dropped her cigarette into the glass on the windowsill and assumed a listening pose: head cocked, arms crossed. Bergmann found himself wondering if she were Jewish. You didn’t come across many Jewish women in London, unless you went looking for them at synagogues or singles events, both of which, in Bergmann’s opinion, were to be avoided. But maybe that was why she seemed familiar. He was good at recognizing other Jews; it was the only reliable aspect of his intuition. Well, either way, she was definitely attractive. Her dress had a floral print—lilies maybe, he was no good at identifying flowers—and it tied at the neck, exposing her shoulders. He had a sudden desire to cover them with his palms. Or better yet, sweep the hair off her neck and press his lips to the nape.
When the polite applause was over, Bergmann said, “That was interesting.”
“Did you like it? What about that bit about parsing the data by sector?”
“Yes. Well. That was my favorite part.”
“You didn’t listen to a word of it,” she said, with more amusement than accusation.
Bergmann said, “I’m just here for the drinks. Like the guy said. And he was sort of a prick to me earlier.”
“He’s an old friend.”
“Oh, it’s all right. I’m not very fond of him either, but he puts a lot of work my way. My name’s Sofia.”
“Actually it’s my last name. My first name’s David, but no one seems to use it.”
“Well, I shall call you David, so you’ll remember me. Tell me, what do you do in London?”
Shit. In another minute he would have asked for her phone number and then excused himself, left her with the sense that they had unfinished business. Now he had to tell her his job. And women like Sofia, with an air of perfumed success, were never interested in guys like him. He supposed he could lie, but he wasn’t very good at lying, and if she knew Calloway (who knew everybody) she would find out the truth soon enough.
“I’m a bartender,” he said, doing, he thought, a pretty good job at keeping a note of apology from his voice. But if she did have something against people in the service trade, she was very good at hiding it.
“Hang on,” she said. “I’ve heard about you. You’re Robert Calloway’s friend.”
“That’s me,’ he said. “You know, he’s around here somewhere.” And then, forgetting he was going to play it cool: “You should join us for dinner.”
“I’d love to, but I’m having dinner with “the prick,” as you call him, and some of his investors. But I do hope I’ll see you again soon.” She took hold of his hand and, looking him straight in the eye, gave it a squeeze before walking away. Holy shit, thought Bergmann. That was nice. It was only when she was already talking to the prick that he realized he had neglected to ask for her number. But all was not lost: he could get it from Calloway. Bergmann crossed the room again, more easily now that the crowd had thinned, with crucial questions on his mind: who was she? Where did she come from? How was he going to get into her pants?
Calloway, unfortunately, was still deep in conversation. Bergmann finished his drink, then had another. When he couldn’t wait any more he stood behind the guy Calloway was talking to and tapped the non-existent watch on his own wrist. Calloway got the hint and handed around his business card, shook some hands. Then they went back through the paneled hallways and out into Berkeley Square, where the grey mansions seemed to merge into the mottled sky. This was early September in England: drab, overcast and chilly.
(New York would still be warm enough for his parents to use their house in Westhampton; probably his brother and sister-in-law would be there as well; he could see them all crowded together in the kitchen, eating, yelling, fawning over the baby. Thinking of his family always made him feel free and a little guilty, as if, by living in London, he was deliciously shirking some minor responsibility. Like when he was a kid and read The Martian Chronicles for the third or twentieth time instead of doing his homework.)
“I wish you wouldn’t do that watch-tapping thing,” Calloway said. “It’s disconcerting.”
“I’m hungry. Should we get a cab?” For some reason Bergmann thought it more appropriate to ask about Sofia in a cab rather than on the street.
“I thought you were trying to cut down on your expenses.”
“You can pay, if it makes you feel better.”
But in the cavernous back of the taxi Bergmann now felt it would be better to wait a bit. He didn’t want to appear too eager to Calloway, who would probably say to her, “Do you mind if my friend rings you? He’s desperate for a shag.’ Which wasn’t far from the truth. This past year, his first one out of Enfield University, Bergmann had had a tough time with women. It had been much easier when he was a student. As a bona fide New York Jew (he hadn’t advertised that he had grown up in the suburbs) he had been somewhat exotic, and being a couple of years older hadn’t hurt. Now he was just an American guy who worked in a bar.
Calloway, however, had money, a steady girlfriend, and an absolute conviction in his own superiority. He worked as a consultant, forging connections between Britain and the “emerging markets” of Eastern Europe. They were both twenty-four, but it often seemed to Bergmann that his friend was far ahead of him. Bergmann secretly took comfort in the fact that Calloway was advanced in one undesirable way—he was going bald. In the light coming through the cab window, his hair was a hazy nimbus, through which you could see the shape of his skull.
They got out near Soho and walked through the gathering Friday press to their favorite café, a white-tiled, utilitarian place, filled with hot kitchen odors. A waitress of nineteen or so led them to a table in the back, where it was quieter and a ceiling fan circled lazily. When they each had a bottle of beer in front of them, Bergmann felt he had waited long enough.
“I met someone at the party who knows you,” he said, as if he were discussing a mildly interesting item from the newspaper. “A woman named Sofia.”
“Oh yes? I suppose you want to know if she’s single.”
“I’m just saying. That I met her. Is she single?”
“You’ll have to ask my girlfriend. Sofia’s really more her friend than mine. You know, she’s got a five year old, a daughter.”
“You’re kidding. What is she, twenty-six, twenty-seven?”
“Closer to thirty, I should think. We’ll both be having the spaghetti platter, thank you,” Calloway told the waitress, who had reappeared with her pencil poised over her order pad.
“No, I want a Greek salad. So, she’s divorced?”
“Never married. Apparently, the third or fourth time she was up the duff she decided to go through with it.”
“Wow,” said Bergmann, remembering a pregnancy scare with a girl from college. Then as now, the idea of reproducing felt foreign and terrifying—like Beirut. Yet for some reason this new information only added to Sofia’s allure. He asked Calloway if she had a boyfriend.
“Don’t think so,” Calloway said. “You’re not put off by the child? You must be smitten.”
“Let’s not exaggerate.”
“I knew I should have left you out of this.”
“Let’s go with ‘interested’, okay?”
The waitress brought their food. The grape leaves summoned to mind some kind of alien birth-pod and the feta tasted like feet or what Bergmann imagined feet tasted like. Four years in England and he still kept forgetting that he should never, ever order a salad.
“Should’ve gone for the spaghetti,” Calloway said.
“Yeah, thanks.” Bergmann reached for the olive oil. The First Rule of Drinking with Calloway: Make Sure You Eat Something. Or else the following day you could expect gastric upheavals and a vicious headache. With careful pruning, Bergmann managed to get through most of the salad and the stale loaf that came with it.
When they were finished, Calloway put a tenner and two pound coins on the table.
“Let me leave the tip,” Bergmann said.
“Hang on to it,” Calloway said.
“I’m starting to feel like the poor relation.”
“Then get a better job.”
“Once again,” Bergmann said, “I am stymied by your superior logic.”
After dinner they met Paulina at the pub that Calloway liked, because it was frequented by young media types, and that Bergmann liked as well, because it looked like a pub, with lots of brass and wood and comfortable seating. It was here that Calloway, who often seemed un-English in that he had no evident prejudice against Americans or foreigners in general—his girlfriend was Polish—nevertheless demonstrated his Englishness, in that he had a gullet like a section of pipe: you would hand him a pint and in the time it took to sort out your change, light a cigarette and take your own first sip, half of his drink would be gone. When they switched to whiskey, Calloway drained his in three gulps, then tapped his fingers on the table until Bergmann caught up. Thus, the Second Rule of Drinking with Calloway: Don’t Let Him Rush You. This one was harder to follow, as the faster drinker always sets the pace. Although Paulina was able to nurse her vodka and tonic as she followed the conversation with an air of distracted tolerance.
“Basically, the film’s about money,” Calloway was saying.
“Then I would think you would love it,” Bergmann said.
“I don’t love money. I love what it buys. Money is the means of achieving the means of happiness.”
“Ah, you’re missing the whole fucking point.” Bergmann made the “feh” gesture, a diagonal sweep of the palm, as if batting away a fly. “Money’s like, it’s like air. You only know just how important it is when you don’t have any. What we’re talking about here is ethics.”
“That’s crap,” Calloway said. “The ethical thing was for Jimmy Stewart to take the job from what’s his name, Potter, and fuck the savings and loan. A man’s first responsibility is to his family.”
“So he should have gone against his principles.”
“Well, think about it. What happens after the movie? The money that the uncle lost is still owed. The debt was just shifted from the savings and loan to the townspeople. He’s ruined regardless. Paulina, darling, what do you think?”
“I think you are two people who like to argue. I also think I would like another drink, please.”
“It’s my shout,” Bergmann said, and went to the bar. As a rule he avoided using British expressions, which he had noted made Americans sound like they were trying to be British, as opposed to an American who just happened to live in London, but sometimes one slipped out. When he returned with the drinks, he was ready to continue with his defense of the movie, but Calloway changed the subject.
“Bergmann wants to shag Sofia,” he said.
“Everybody wants to shag Sofia,” Paulina said. “Sometimes, Sofia shags everybody.’
“What do you mean by ‘everybody?’” asked Bergmann.
“She does have standards,” Paulina said. “You have pulse?’
“Darling, you’re drunk,” Calloway said. “You’re starting to drop your articles.”
“Can we stay focused here?” Bergmann said. “I want to call her. Paulina. I want you to ask her if I can call her.”
“Good on you, Bergmann. You could do with a shag.”
“Stop saying that, that’s not it. Or that’s not just it.”
“Okay,’ Paulina said, patting Bergmann’s hand. “I will ask her for you.”
When Bergmann woke up on Saturday morning he went straight to the kitchen, where he swallowed two aspirins and then put his mouth directly under the tap. He straightened and belched. Water glass in hand, he shuffled to the sitting room and half-fell onto the couch, where he sat, alternating sighs of self-pity with sips of water. His eyes were hard and dry, like golf balls, and his throat felt the afterburn of thirty cigarettes. He was angry. Not because of the hangover itself—lately he would be surprised to wake up without one. Rather, he was angry because he had, yet again, broken the Rules of Drinking with Calloway, and he was paying for it. He felt himself a fool, an undisciplined wastrel, aware of his own mistakes yet unable to learn from them.
He found the remote and turned on the TV. The newsreader was an asexually pretty young woman of Indian descent. Bergmann couldn’t quite follow what she was saying, only the soothing omniscience of her voice. (The preternatural calm of British news still unnerved Bergmann, who had grown up with reports of apocalyptic house fires and terrifying new dangers to small children.) A quick shot of Thatcher, then a line of cabinet ministers grimly filing into Number Ten. Something about a no-confidence vote. Her days were numbered. Everyone whom Bergmann knew would be happy to see her go—even Calloway, who had benefited from Thatcherism. But Bergmann would secretly miss her strident voice, the fuck-you attitude. He understood that her tenure had been very bad for certain kinds of Britons, although it was unclear to him exactly how or why, and thinking about it seemed to deepen his hangover. Fortunately the news had switched to sport.
“Good morning,” Janie said, emerging from her room. She went to the kitchen and shortly thereafter reappeared with two mugs of instant coffee. “Out on the piss last night? I was rehearsing until midnight. Then a few of us went round to the choreographer’s. He lives in Muswell Hill, near where that plumber buried all those bodies. He seems to think it gives the neighborhood atmosphere. Any calls for me?”
“I don’t think so. Do you have any cigarettes?”
Janie took a pack from the pocket of her robe and tossed it onto the old steamer trunk that served as their coffee table. She said, “That’s strange. Nigel was supposed to leave me a message about tonight. Anyway, I really think the play will be quite good. They’ve got some lovely red costumes for the Cossacks, with curvy swords. And they’ve given me another number. But I have to wear this horrid little dirndl that puffs out so I look pregnant. You will come and see the show, Bergmann?”
Such was the price of friendship: he had already suffered through a four-hour stage adaptation of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Death of a Salesman inexplicably transplanted to Yorkshire, and Ms Hamlet. Now Janie was in a new musical based on Babel’s Red Cavalry. Bergmann had long stopped caring about her shows; he merely showed up and paid just enough attention to have something complimentary to say after the curtain calls. While she prattled on, he wondered if it was too early to call Calloway for Sofia’s number. When Janie paused for breath he asked her what time it was.
“Nearly ten o’clock. You’d better get going, darling.”
“Right.” He would make the call from work.
He went to the bathroom and took a hot shower. Somewhat restored by steam and caffeine, he dressed in his room: black polo shirt, black jeans, black denim jacket. He grabbed a book (T. S. Eliot’s Selected Poems) in case it was slow at the bar, then stepped out into another overcast day.
Bergmann and Janie lived in Kilburn, sharing the bottom floor of a narrow, two-storied house with drooping shutters, gray, pebbly siding and a short flagstone path to the street. The neighborhood was mostly Irish with a few Pakistani families. It was because of the Irish that the area had a bad reputation. To Bergmann all this was relative—before England, he had lived for a year and a half on the Lower East Side, where he had seen the wrong ends of two knives and one gun. Maybe Kilburn High Road could get a little nasty when the drunks were out in force, and it was always strewn with trash, but that just meant you had to step more carefully.
He stopped at the café by the station for a quick breakfast of fried eggs and beans on toast. He sopped up the runny yolks with bread, feeling his stomach settle and his head clear, while on the counter the giant aluminum coffee machine hissed and burbled. The waitress wasn’t bad looking, but she never smiled or spoke. Bergmann suspected she was Russian—she had the cheekbones. She was probably wondering how she got here, to a shabby café in an unfriendly city. She wore an expression of mild surprise: all that effort to get out and this is where I wind up? Bergmann, who had a soft spot for immigrants, left her a big tip.
Up on the open-air platform, he checked his wallet.
“Shit,” he said aloud.
He had spent thirty pounds last night—a quarter of his weekly earnings. Plus another five for breakfast. And on Monday he had to pay the rent and buy his weekly Tube pass. Yet again, he had backed himself into a corner: tonight, he would have to stay in and endure an evening of British television.
Oh, those happy days, when Bergmann père sent a generous monthly check! That had stopped after graduation, when Bergmann fils had written home to say he was staying in England, and not, as expected, returning to the family business. His mother’s response had been guardedly encouraging; his father had added a rare note at the bottom of the page (they used those thin, blue, self-sealing envelopes): David, the only place where a Jew can live in peace is the USA. But it’s your life, kid. For graduation I’m giving both of us a gift: your financial independence. Love, Dad. P.S. Your mother says wear a condom.
Bergmann had immediately drafted a longish response on the British democratic tradition. He never sent it, because he realized that the letter was pointless. Even if he could somehow turn his father into a committed Anglophile, an ardent consumer of Masterpiece Theater and the novels of Jane Austen, the old guy wouldn’t be sending any more money.
Now, as he navigated Bond Street Station, Bergmann was in a fog of self-reproach. He thought: Of course I have no girlfriend. I’m lazy and I have no self-restraint. I have a useless degree from a mediocre university. I’m an American without ambition and a Jew who is bad with money.
He got on the escalator, staring at the interlocking wooden slats beneath his feet. When he had first moved to London, these ridiculously high conveyances had given him vertigo, but he was used to them now. In fact, he realized that he could think of this acclimatization as a positive aspect of his character. He had come to London friendless and ignorant, but he had made a life here (such as it was). He knew his way around, knew how to cross Oxford Street without getting struck by a black cab, knew to turn left at the department store that looked like it had good prices but didn’t, knew to then turn right by the charming eighteenth-century chapel that he had never seen anyone entering or leaving, and another left onto Wimpole Street, with its attractive rows of nineteenth (or were they, too, eighteenth?) century townhouses.
By the time he opened the door to the bar, his change of mood was complete. Bergmann’s dirty little secret was that he actually liked his job. He enjoyed being the first person into the place, propping open the door and drawing back the curtains, so that light sparkled on the mirrors and rows of bottles, glowed on the burnished parquet floors and walnut paneling. Humming “If I Were a Rich Man,” he straightened the tables and chairs, set out clean ashtrays and dragged the self-standing chalkboard out to the sidewalk, where passersby could see the enticing offer of “House Plonk Only £7!!” (Hand on hip, Bergmann stared at the sign for a moment, then removed the second exclamation point with a moistened fingertip.) Back inside, he checked behind the bar and was pleased to see that Bato, who had closed on Friday, had stopped pawing the female customers long enough to restock the wine fridges.
“Ya da deedle-deedle dum,” Bergmann sang, lugging a case of beer from the closet.
He put the bottles on ice. After one final survey of the room, he silently declared the Wimpole Street Wine Bar open for business, and went to the phone to call Calloway.
“Morning. I thought we’d be hearing from you today.”
“Yeah, yeah. Is Paulina there?”
“No, she’s out. I suppose you want to harass her about Sofia. You’ve got the thumbs up, apparently. Hang on, Paulina wrote down the number. Here it is.”
Bergmann scribbled it on a napkin. “So what did she say?”
“Apparently, bookish, underemployed Jews make her mad with lust. How should I know what she said?”
“All right, take it easy. Tell Paulina I said thanks.”
“Fancy a game of pool later?”
“Sure. I mean, no, I’m staying in tonight. Economizing. I’ll call you on Sunday.”
Bergmann hung up, then lifted the receiver again, feeling like he had a small, harmless animal tumbling in his belly—a hamster, perhaps, who had trouble staying on its exercise wheel. Before dialing the number, he checked the clock. It had just turned twelve. Maybe this wasn’t the best time to call. She might be out having lunch, or shopping, or performing any one of the infinite number of non-Bergmann related tasks, and he didn’t want to talk to an answering machine.
Nor did he want to wait. He wanted to start the process, get the ball rolling, begin the beguine. This, the beginning of the chase, was the best part, so why put it off?
Then again, she had just spoken to Paulina that morning. If he called now he might seem too eager. Couple that with a bad answering-machine message and it would be goodbye Charlie.
Then again again, she knew he was going to call. She was expecting him to call. And nobody likes to wait when they’re expecting a call. Anyway, it wasn’t a big deal. All he had to do was say, “Look, it was great meeting you last night, when can I see you again?’”
No—it was too soon.
He was still by the phone, finger poised, when Tony walked in.
“Forgot the number?” he said.
“Ah, no,’ Bergmann said, putting down the receiver. “Good morning.”
“And a very good morning to you. If it’s not too much trouble, I’ll have a coffee, please. And one for yourself.”
Tony, a neatly dressed man in his early forties, owned the bar. He was also a solicitor with an office nearby. Two or three times a week he met with clients; otherwise he spent an enormous amount of time here, “looking after things,” as he put it. Bergmann would have called it “drinking away your profits.”
“You seem distracted,” Tony said, after Bergmann brought over the mugs. “Tell Uncle Tony what ails you.”
“I thought a bartender was supposed to listen to people’s problems, not talk about his own.”
“Come on Bergmann, spit it out.”
“It’s nothing. I was just going to call somebody.”
“A woman, right? So why don’t you ring her?”
“Well, I only met her last night. I think it might be too soon.”
“Wait until tomorrow, then. Everyone in England is home on a Sunday.”
Tony sipped his coffee. “I met my wife on a Friday.”
“I didn’t know you were married.”
“We live separately. Be a good lad and bring us a nice claret.”
Tucked away as it was, the wine bar didn’t get much business on Saturday afternoons. Today, perhaps because the weather was good (that is, not raining), Bergmann found himself dealing with a genuine lunch rush, or what passed for one in such a small place. All five tables were full and nearly every barstool was taken. Tony was pleased, but Bergmann didn’t like being so busy, as it interfered with his reading. However, the day did go by quickly—after most of the customers had left and he had cleared away the empties, straightened the chairs and replaced the ashtrays, his shift was almost over. Polishing the bar with a rag, Bergmann didn’t see Bato until he was standing right next to him.
“Who are they?” Bato asked, pointing to an older couple lingering over a bottle of Prosecco.
Bato nodded once, as if this were something he only reluctantly approved of. “Did you fill refrigerator? Stock shelves?”
“Clean ashtrays? Wash glasses?”
“Yes,” Bergmann said. He went to the sink to wash his hands, and Bato followed.
“This morning I fuck a woman,” he said.
“Good for you.”
“I meet her in post office. I ask her if she want to see my package.”
“That’s a good one, Bato.”
“What is a good one?”
“Mentioning your package. In a post office.”
“Yes,” Bato said, although he seemed to have no idea what his colleague was talking about.
“Okay,” Bergmann said. “I’ll be going now. So long, Tony.”
“Cheerio, Bergmann. Good luck tomorrow.”
Outside, he put on his jacket and planned his evening. He would pick up a takeaway curry, the English national dish, and eat it front of the TV. Tomorrow he could spend the day reading. He’d call Sofia before dinnertime. He was very proud of himself for refusing Calloway’s invitation. All it took was willpower. Maybe he was turning over a new leaf and moderation would be his watchword from now until the end of his days.
On the other side of Wimpole Street, Mick was poking his head out of his red VW van, his peroxided hair bristling like an anemone. Bergmann looked right, then crossed. Willpower, he thought. New leaf.
“Jump in,” Mick said. “I’ve got a quick errand and then we can have a pint.”
“I don’t know, Mick. I got pretty loaded last night.”
“Come on, I need a hand with something. You’ll be home by seven.”
“I don’t want to get drunk tonight.”
“Who said anything about getting drunk? An hour’s work, a pint, then I’ll run you home.”
Bergmann climbed in, thinking, How easily I can be talked into things.
For Mick, London was a city of shortcuts, of side streets to swerve into when he saw the brake lights of the cars in front of him, of narrow passageways to be taken at full speed. So, despite the horrendous West End traffic, it took them only about twenty minutes to get down to Imperial College, where Mick worked part-time as a lab tech. He drove past the neo-classical buildings and around the back of one of the newer generic-office-block-looking buildings to a small car park, where he backed up to a garage and cut the engine. Bergmann smelled the sweet, pungent odor of rot. Inside the garage, three dumpsters were brimming with refuse and swarming with flies.
“Are we here for the garbage?” Bergmann said.
“Look on the other side of the skips.”
Bergmann got out and held his nose as he went around. Against the back wall, fifteen or so fixtureless metal sinks had been piled like a ziggurat.
“They’ll fetch a good price at a scrapyard,” Mick said.
He handed Bergmann a pair of work gloves and they took turns shuffling to the van, Bergmann breathing through his mouth to avoid the smell. As he loaded up the last one, he gave himself a shallow but painful cut along one forearm. In the passenger seat he examined his wound.
“Great,” he said. “Now I’ll need a fucking tetanus shot.”
“Nah. Stainless steel.” Mick fished something out of his jacket pocket. “Here, this will make you feel better.” He dropped a joint into Bergmann’s palm and started the engine.
“Well hello there.”
As Mick accelerated onto Battersea Bridge, Bergmann puffed at the joint, staring at the thick, dormant smokestacks of the power station, the pockets of light on the grey river. He was feeling that shift in consciousness that makes the most banal observations seem utterly profound: The river, he thought. So stolid, so present. I journeyed to London, to the timekept City, Where the River flows, with foreign flotations. What was next? Something about churches and chophouses. Chophouses. I’m hungry.
“When do we eat?”
“Right after we flog the sinks.”
“Let me ask you something,” Bergmann said. “Let’s say you met a girl on a Friday. How long would you wait to call her?”
“You say that with such confidence.”
“It’s not complicated. One day is too soon and three days is too long. Give us that spliff.”
“It’s in your left hand.”
“So it is.”
Miles of terraced housing, chip shops and off-licenses, travel agents and electronics stores. A pub with an enormous car park. Then an industrial park, where the wide brick buildings reminded Bergmann of the family business. After high school, he had spent three years at International Leather Tab, first on the factory floor, then on the loading dock, until an incident involving a gas-powered forklift, a wall and thirteen thousand dollars worth of damage convinced everyone that it was time young David went to college. As Mick passed the joint back to him, Bergmann revisited the questions that had nagged at him for years: why, exactly, had he decided not to go directly to college? And what the fuck was he thinking when he went to work for his father? And what would his father think of him now, riding around London in a van full of sinks? The first two questions were likely unanswerable, but the third was easily addressed: who gives a shit what Mel thinks? He was an ocean away, and his opinion had no bearing. That was the finest thing about living in England—it put him outside the range of paternal scrutiny.
“Here we are,” Mick said, turning at a sign which read, Smith and Company, Cash Buyer of all Non-Ferrous Scrap Metal. The yard was surprisingly small, just a bunker-like structure surrounded by piles of corrugated fencing, unspooled copper wire, and, yes, a heap of industrial sinks. Mick turned off the engine and jumped out. Not knowing what else to do, Bergmann followed suit.
A man with gray mutton chop whiskers appeared from behind the building.
“Afternoon, Mick,” he said. “Who’s this?”
“A mate, Andy. His name’s Bergmann.”
“Is he German? Does he speak English?”
“He’s American. Have a look here,” Mick said, opening the side door of the van.
“How many you got?”
“That’s thirty quid then. I think there’s space over there,” Andy said to Bergmann, nodding towards the far side of the building. “Go and have a look for me.”
Stoned and out of his element, Bergmann did as he was told, and as he turned the corner a giant animal lunged at him with a fierce eruption of barking. Bergmann turned and smacked his knee on something and scampered behind the van.
“That’s not fucking funny, Andy,” Mick said. “He’s afraid of dogs.”
Andy, however, seemed to find it very amusing indeed.
“Don’t worry Berger,” he said. “Vic’s on a short lead.”
Bergmann forced himself to come out from behind the van and saw that the dog, a coal-black pit bull or some similar vicious breed, was indeed chained to a post at the side of the building. As it snapped at the air in Bergmann’s direction, its bunched, powerful neck straining at the collar, the dog nevertheless seemed to fervently wish that it had a wider range of movement.
“You all right?” Mick asked.
“Yeah, I’m all right,” Bergmann said, with one hand on his pounding heart. “Just keep that fucking thing away from me.”
Andy laughed like this was the wittiest bon mot ever uttered within the confines of his yard. “Down, Vic,” he said, and the animal immediately settled onto its paws.
“Let’s get this over with,” Mick said.
As Bergmann helped unload the van, he could feel the dog behind him, desperate to lunge at his throat. He caught a glimpse of Andy standing with his arms crossed, chuckling, and he wished the old man an exquisitely painful and protracted death from rectal cancer.
When the van was empty, Bergmann got in the passenger seat without looking at the dog or its owner.
“Just having a laugh,” Andy said. “Vic’s a pussycat, really.”
“I’ll have the money now,” Mick said.
Bergmann’s hands felt steady enough to light a cigarette only when they were clear of the yard and nearly out of the industrial park. His knee throbbed, he needed a bathroom and he dearly wished he hadn’t smoked that joint.
“What a cunt,” Mick said.
“Pull over, please.”
“Are you going to be sick?”
“No, I have to take a piss.”
With the van between him and the road, Bergmann urinated on a concrete wall, his eyes watering from the cigarette in his mouth. He spat it out and took a few deep breaths as he drained his bladder. It wasn’t a phobia, really. He could even like a dog if it was small and docile. It was only that he had been wary around them ever since a Rottweiler had bitten him at Rockland Lake Park. He had been eight years old, flying a kite with his brother, when a massive brown animal had streaked from the woods and attached itself to his calf. He recalled only impressions of what happened afterwards, the hospital, the cops, his hysterical mother, the penitent owner. Anyway, the important thing to remember was that the scars on his leg were barely visible now. And that in the scrapyard he had merely been the butt of an unfunny practical joke, which in no way reflected on the issue of his human competence or whether he belonged in this stupid fucking country.
Fish and chips in the van, then to a pub. After closing time they were hungry again, so Mick suggested a restaurant in Chalk Farm, where they had kebabs and Mexican beer. At some late hour Mick handed over the last fiver from their earnings, and Bergmann, longing for sleep, found a minicab storefront on Holloway Road. He was driven home by a young African man whose car smelled of cherry air freshener. He had a tape playing, something West African, with chiming guitars whose arpeggiated chords seemed to be going somewhere, but no, it was just the same two chords over and over again.
“Work, drink, work, drink,” Bergmann muttered in time with the music.
“Eh?” The driver was looking at him in the rear-view mirror.
At his front door Bergmann poked at the lock until the key went in. Janie was passed out on the couch, an empty bottle of Mouton Cadet and a full ashtray on the coffee table. Her eyelids fluttered when he passed through to his room.
“Darling,” she said. “Make us a cup of tea.”
He sighed. He had been looking forward to passing out himself, but if Janie was drinking alone, something was up. He went into the kitchen and put on the kettle. The sink was piled with dishes and the counters were smeared. They really needed to clean more.
“Everything okay?” he asked, taking deliberate, drunken steps into the living room, a mug in each hand.
“Yes, fine, thank you. What have you been up to?”
“Today? I helped Mick move some stuff.”
“Right,” she said, looking down at her mug. She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand and Bergmann realized that she was crying, and not like actress crying, really crying. Whenever a woman cried, it always made him feel guilty, even when it had nothing to do with him. He moved closer to her on the couch and put his arm around her.
“Nigel was supposed to take me to dinner, but he never called, so I went round. I found him in bed. With Celia.”
She put her face into his shoulder and emitted a long, wet sniffle.
“Bastard,” she said. “He’s such a bastard.”
“Well, Celia’s implicated in this, too.”
“Celia? She won’t have sex with a man unless he has a girlfriend. I expect this sort of behavior from her, not from my boyfriend.”
Bergmann thought it best not to mention that this was exactly what she should expect from Nigel, that at least he hadn’t totaled her car or emptied her bank account in the process.
“I suppose I’ll have to dump him now,” she said. She put her mug on the coffee table and nestled in until she was practically in his lap. As he stroked her hair, he felt an erection growing. He considered moving to the chair. Instead, he heard himself say, “Don’t worry, it’s not like you’ll have any trouble finding someone else.”
“Do you mean it, Bergmann?”
Don’t be a schmuck, he told himself. Move to the chair. “Of course,” he said. “You know, when we first met in college, I had a little crush on you.”
“Did you? Why didn’t you do anything about it?”
Because your favorite composer was Andrew Lloyd Webber.
“Because you were with that guy at the time. Kevin. And then we became friends, so I left it at that.”
“I’m not with anyone now,” she said, looking into his eyes, and they kissed.
A few minutes later, when her T-shirt was above her breasts and his jeans were by his ankles, she whispered, “Let’s go to my room.”
Bergmann awoke the next morning, thirsty and disoriented. There was an unfamiliar scent about him—it took him a moment to realize it was the smell of clean sheets.
Janie’s room, he thought, his eyes snapping open. He was feeling around beneath the covers with his arms and legs, hoping that one of his limbs would come across his underwear, when she came in.
“Morning,” she said.
She handed him a glass of water and sat at the edge of the bed.
“You know, I had no idea Jewish men were so passionate. I suppose it’s all that history. Anyway, last night was wonderful, darling.”
Gulping his water, Bergmann dimly recalled twenty minutes of fumbling, not-bad sex.
“This may seem a bit sudden,” she continued, “but I’ve just got off the phone with Nigel. I’m going over to his place so we can work things out. I don’t think I’ll tell him about last night, though.”
“Jesus, Janie, what time is it?”
“Half nine. I’m sorry, I know this is early for you on a Sunday. But I need to ask if you think I’m doing the right thing.”
“Oh, yeah,’ Bergmann said. “You definitely shouldn’t tell him about last night.”
“Not that. I mean running back to him so quickly.”
“Oh. Well.” He thought this was a terrible idea; in fact, he hoped, for her own sake, she would never have anything to do with Nigel again. But he knew her decision had already been made, and she only wanted someone to agree. She had already showered and dressed; she looked fresh and pretty. He had a momentary urge to tell her to forget Nigel, that she had everything she needed right here. Then he remembered Sofia. So he just patted Janie’s hand and said, “Be careful, okay?”
“All right. I will be, I promise.” She kissed him on the forehead. Pausing by the door, she said, “I suppose last night was bound to happen at some point. The important thing is that we remain friends.”
“Of course we’ll remain friends.”
“All right then. Wish me luck.”
“Good luck,” Bergmann said. He finished the water, belched as he set down the glass. Yawning, he pulled the covers around himself. Sleeping with her was a dumb move. At some point last night he had been worried he was taking advantage, that even though friends sometimes wound up in bed together, it shouldn’t be when one of them was at her lowest point. Nor was it a good idea when you were pursuing someone else. He probed himself for any telltale signs of guilt, like a desire to turn back the clock or clutch at his head. No, none of that, thankfully, probably because Janie didn’t seem broken up about it. And if she wasn’t going to worry, then neither would he. He supposed that he should get up, but her mattress was so much more comfortable than his futon. Just a few more minutes and he would collect his clothes and go to his own room.
And it did feel like only a few minutes later when he heard the front door slam. He looked at the clock and was surprised to see that he had slept for another two hours. Then he heard someone else speaking—a male voice—and he jumped out of bed, threw on his jeans and shirt, and opened the bedroom door just before Nigel and Janie entered the living room.
Janie, gifted actress that she was, behaved as if it were perfectly natural for Bergmann to be standing in her doorway, his hair flattened by ten hours on a pillow.
“Morning,” she said. “Are you looking for that thing we were talking about?” She came into the room and deftly kicked his boxers beneath her bed. “Here it is,” she said, pressing a book into his hands. “Go and have a seat, darling. I’ll put the kettle on.”
“Great,” Bergmann said, with perhaps a little too much enthusiasm, but Nigel, who was not the most observant person even when he was paying attention, was already splayed on the couch and rolling a joint. He wore the red beret, now faded to pink, that he had had since college, and he had cut the sleeves off his shirt to expose his thin, hairless arms. He did have a very handsome face, with dark blue eyes and well-formed features, which was one of the reasons, Bergmann supposed, that Janie put up with him.
“Smoke?” Nigel said.
“Not today, thanks.”
Nigel shrugged and lit the joint, put one booted foot on the steamer trunk. “What’s that thing you were interested in?” he asked.
“The what? Oh, um,” Bergmann glanced at his lap. “Yoga for Actors.”
“Didn’t know you went in for philosophy.”
“Um. I do. Sometimes.”
Janie returned with a cup of instant coffee for Bergmann and a can of Foster’s for Nigel.
“Bergmann, I have a favor to ask,” she said. “Nigel’s had some, er, unpleasantness with his flatmates, so he needs a place to stay. Just for a little while. I am sorry to drop this on you, but he’s desperate.”
“Oh,” said Bergmann.
He had to hand it to her—she had figured out how to make this even more awkward. Well, he could always say no, especially since Nigel looked the opposite of desperate as he watched the smoke from his joint spiral up to the ceiling. But Janie was sending a message with her eyes: please, please do this for me.
Bergmann forced a smile. “Well, if it’s just for a little while, then why not?”
“Oh darling, thank you,” Janie said. “Thank you so much. I’ll just go and clear some space in my room. Nigel, why don’t you get your things?”
“All right, love.”
With Nigel gone, Bergmann got up and stood in Janie’s doorway, watched her as she changed her sheets.
“I thought you were going to be careful,’ he said.
“Here, take your pants before he gets back.”
Bergmann shoved his underwear in his pocket.
“No wonder he was so contrite,” he said. “He needs a place to live.”
“Darling, please. Not now.”
“I should have told him to get lost, if only for your own good.”
“Bergmann, please. It will only be a little while.”
Now he finally lost his temper. First, because he liked Janie and sincerely believed that she deserved better; and second, because of course it was not going to be a little while: combining the concepts of “free rent” and “Nigel” would, in fact, result in a very long while.
“Janie, that guy has been treating you like shit for years and you know he’s not going to give you one fucking dime, or a fucking tuppence, whatever, you know what I mean.”
“Look, I’m very confused right now and I need you to be nice, all right? Is that too much to ask?”
“What’s all the shouting about?” Nigel asked as he shouldered his way past, carrying a backpack and a guitar case.
“Nothing, Nige,” Janie said. “Everything’s fine.”
“Well, all right then.”
“Isn’t there something you’d like to say to Bergmann?” Janie asked her boyfriend in the condescending tone that people use when talking to children.
“Yeah,” Nigel said. “Your flies are undone, mate.”
Bergmann thought it would be best if he got out of the house, so he changed his clothes and went to the café. With his egg and chips in front of him, he flipped through the Weekend Guardian, skimming the rote condemnations of America. How did they keep up their righteous indignation? What would happen if one of their reporters said, “I’ve changed my mind, I think I rather like the States’? Would he be pelted with stones? Run out of town?
He folded up the paper and put it aside. Whenever he lost his temper, he always felt spent and remorseful afterwards. This time it was particularly bad because he knew he had been too hard on Janie. He had always stayed out of her business, tried to conceal his dislike for Nigel. And now he would be there all the time, wearing his stupid beret, playing his guitar at all hours, leaving his crap all over the flat. Maybe if Bergmann hadn’t gone to bed with Janie he would have found it easier to say no to her. That was the problem with sex—even when it was kind of a fluke, it still confused whatever issue came up next. Anyway there was nothing he could do about it now. Sure, it was going to suck having to see Nigel’s face all the time, but Bergmann knew a way around that. He would avoid them.
He paid his bill, this time leaving exactly 10 per cent for the Russian girl. Then he backtracked and put down another fifty pence. With the paper under his arm, he checked the streets by his house for Janie’s car. He didn’t see it, so he went home, pleased that his plan was already working.
They had left, but not before giving Nigel enough time to mark his territory. There were three empty beer cans on the table, the Sunday Sport was strewn all over the sofa and for some reason he had positioned his amplifier at the entrance to Bergmann’s bedroom. But this was not the time to worry about Nigel or Janie or anything else. Bergmann needed to focus, to prepare himself for the one task that had been in the back of his mind all weekend. Stepping over the amp, he took the phone to his room, pushed aside some books to make a space for it on his table and dialed a number.
As it was considerably less expensive to phone England from America than the other way around, Bergmann and his brother, Neil, had worked out a system: the former called collect, identifying himself as some obscure figure from American sport (today it was Chi Chi Rodriguez); the latter refused to accept the charges, hung up and immediately rang back.
“Davey!” Neil said.
“Hi Neil. How is everybody?”
“Good, good. Your niece is finally sleeping through the night, so Michelle is a little less edgy. My hope is we’ll have sex again sometime before the next presidential election. Mom’s pissed off because you never write. How’s Merry Olde England?”
It was early morning in New York; Bergmann could envision his brother on his giant couch, half-watching some televised financial report.
“Everything’s fine,” he said. “Except I need to ask you something. What can you tell me about five-year-old kids?”
“What the fuck do you want to know about that for?”
“Oh, Davey,” Neil said. “Don’t get involved with a single mother.”
“Just help me out here, okay?”
Neil sighed. “All right. Let me think. Well, Michelle’s sister’s boy is about that age. You remember, the kid with the really big head? I think the issue with him is food. Apparently, once they start to have personalities, they can get very fussy about eating.”
“Good, good,” Bergmann said. “What else?”
“That’s all I got. Michelle’s the expert on these things and she took the baby to some meeting. Mommies and Kids or Babies and Mommies, some shit like that. I think it’s a cult.”
“Well, that’s a start,” Bergmann said. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure, bro. But I have to say this all sounds a little . . .weird. You’re doing a little research, I guess you’d call it, which means you like this woman, which is nice. But it sounds a little, you know, weird.”
David Bergmann dearly loved his brother, but there was no doubt that he had inherited the irritating familial trait of being categorically unable to keep from voicing his opinions.
“It’s okay, Neil. I’ll be fine.”
“If you say so. Anything else? You need money?”
Bergmann briefly considered saying, “Thanks, no,” because when you took money from people that gave them further license to lecture you about your life. But he was broke and taking money from Neil was not the same thing as taking money from their father; and he’d do the same for Neil if the situation were reversed, although how that might ever come about was unimaginable. So he said, “Yes, please, even, like, fifty pounds would be really great,” and they said their goodbyes and hung up.
Now it was time to get down to the real business at hand. He took the folded-up napkin from his wallet and placed it on the desk. He did a couple of deep knee bends, rotated both arms and, after taking a deep breath, reached for the phone. But it was already ringing.
“There you are,” Calloway said. “I called earlier and was forced to speak to Nigel. He really should be put down.”
“I was at the café. You know, I was just reaching for the phone when you called.”
“How very uninteresting. Listen, come for dinner tonight. Sofia will be here.”
Bergmann’s stomach twitched. “Wouldn’t it be better if I saw her alone?”
“You’ll both be more comfortable amongst friends. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Just be yourself. Or a more relaxed and charming version of yourself.”
A bottle of Rioja, pilfered from work, dangled from a plastic bag at Bergmann’s wrist; he held an umbrella with his other hand. The wind seemed to be personally against him as he slogged up Camden Road, the bottle banging against his thigh. He had heard it starting when he was getting out of the shower, rain clattering like someone throwing pebbles by the handful at the bathroom window. Even in this mild, manicured country, Mother Nature sometimes threw you a curve ball, as if to remind you who was actually in charge. He had had to take the London version of a cross-town bus to get from Kilburn to Camden; it let him off a good half-mile from where Calloway and Paulina lived. Everything he passed was rinsed in brown: the shuttered shops, the huddled pedestrians, the attached houses. A gust of wind turned his umbrella inside-out. He bent two of the ribs trying to pop it back into shape, so he chucked it into a bin and ran the rest of the way.
At the door, Paulina embraced him.
“Come in, come in,’ she said, tugging at his jacket. “Your friend has already started drinking.”
Passing the kitchen, Bergmann smelled baked chicken, saw pierogi jiggling in a pot on the stove. Bless her Polish heart. It was hard not to love somebody who made her own dumplings. He went into the living room, where they had covered the table with a blue-checked cloth and set it with their best dinnerware and two brass candlesticks.
Bergmann said, “Are you trying to seduce me?”
“I like to make the place look nice. Here, open this,” Paulina said, handing Calloway the Rioja.
“It looks like a Krakow brothel,” Calloway muttered, but only after Paulina had returned to the kitchen. “Why don’t you open this? You’re the professional.”
“I’m off duty,” Bergmann said. He poured himself a glass from an open bottle and stood behind a chair.
“Would you like to sit down?”
“I’m all right.”
“I’m fine,” Bergmann said, lying.
He wondered if he should tell Calloway about what had happened with Janie and Nigel. No, he would keep it to himself. Calloway could be indiscreet and Bergmann didn’t want any of this to filter back to Sofia.
A knock on the door.
There went the twinge in Bergmann’s belly and in came Sofia, shrugging off her raincoat. In jeans and a white button-down shirt, with her hair in long ponytail, she looked very young; it was hard to believe she was almost thirty and a mother.
“Am I late?’ she asked, as she handed her coat to Paulina.
“No, right on time. Please, sit down. I won’t be a minute.”
“You remember Bergmann,” Calloway said.
“I remember David,” she said, extending her hand. She gave him a brief, almost business-like shake, which was about twenty degrees cooler than the palm-squeeze-and-eye-fuck that she had given him on Friday. But her manner seemed friendly, only slightly distant, as if Bergmann were a job applicant with excellent references and she was waiting to form her own opinion before making an offer.
“I’ve never understood this habit some men have of calling each other by their surnames,” she said, accepting a glass of wine from Calloway. “It’s so public school. By that I mean private school. I always forget that’s confusing to Americans.”
“He knows what you mean. Anyway, you went to public school,” Calloway said.
“Which makes me more qualified to criticize it,” she replied. “Of course, I’ll send Bronnie to one anyway. Though God only knows how I’ll afford it.”
Bergmann said, “Bronnie—is that short for something?”
“Bronwyn,” Sofia said, turning to Bergmann.
She was just looking at him, perhaps waiting for another question, but the full force of her dark eyes was almost too much. The other night he had found her attractive, but tonight she was beautiful and he had always been a little afraid of beautiful women. Relax, he told himself. She came out in this shitty weather because she thought you were worth another look. Now say something.
“It’s a pretty name. It sounds Celtic.”
“Thank you. It’s Welsh.”
“I wish you’d let me talk you out of sending her to public school,” Calloway said.
“I know, Robert, I know. Public schools perpetuate the class system, blah, blah, blah.”
And Calloway was off: how the two-tiered British educational system inhibited the development of a true meritocracy; how he himself had graduated from the same Norwich comprehensive that had produced a former Foreign Minister, and, more significantly, a striker for Arsenal. Bergmann had heard it all before, but tonight it seemed that Calloway was giving it more than his usual gusto.
Calloway did have a competitive side when it came to women—even with his girlfriend in the next room, he couldn’t stop himself from trying to impress Sofia.
Asshole, thought Bergmann, you should be trying to make me look good. Although, maybe by staying out of it Bergmann could make himself look better, as people could be turned off when Calloway did his pointlessly argumentative thing.
Anyway, Sofia didn’t seem bothered. She had a way of lowering her face and turning up her eyes just before she spoke. She said, “Robert, most parents don’t care about making Britain into a classless society. All they want is what’s best for their children.”
“What makes you so convinced that public schools are the best?” Calloway said.
“The educational standards, for a start.”
“Bollocks. All they teach is Latin and buggery.”
“Two things to decline,” Bergmann said.
Sofia gave him a blank look, then granted him a that-was-clever smile.
“What did I miss?” Paulina asked. She was balancing two platters in her arms, one piled with breaded chicken, the other with pierogi.
“Just one of Bergmann’s labored puns,” Calloway said.
“All right, please make room,” Paulina said.
She set down the food and soon they were all eating, or all except Sofia, who had refilled her own glass twice, but was just sort of poking at her plate with her fork. Meanwhile, she and Paulina chatted about mutual friends. After some minutes Bergmann felt more relaxed—the wine was doing its job, and the world always looked better on a full stomach. Although now he was aware that he had barely said a word since she came in. He couldn’t stay quiet much longer without coming off as shy or boring. Nor could he blurt out the first thing that came into his head—the English took a dim view of chattering Americans. With them, the trick was to wait until alcohol made them more outgoing, and then they would come to you.
Soon enough, he was rewarded for his patience.
“Tell me about New York,” Sofia said. “Is it as dangerous as everyone seems to think?”
“Parts of it were pretty bad when I was growing up. I hear it’s better now.”
“Don’t you go home to visit?”
“Not often. I went back last January when my niece was born.”
He was glad for the opportunity to mention the baby. It might make her think he would be comfortable around her own daughter. Now, if only the conversation would turn to the eating habits of small children.
“His family has this huge fuck-off house in the suburbs,” Calloway said. “Lovely place. I spent a week there the summer after our first year.”
“Well, they bought it in the Seventies, when it was a lot cheaper.”
“Four bedrooms, two fireplaces, an enormous kitchen, and twenty minutes’ drive to Manhattan.”
“What are you, a real-estate agent?” Bergmann asked. He didn’t like all this talk about his parents’ house. He was not one to claim some kind of reflected glory just because his parents had money.
“It’s a nice house, mate. Seeing it made me wonder why you ever left.”
“Look, I was working for my dad and living in a dump in the East Village. After a couple of years of that I was ready for college.”
“Yes, but why England?” Sofia asked.
“I didn’t have too many options. My grades were lousy and by the time I got around to applying I was already twenty. So it was either Enfield or some obscure college in the snow belt.”
This wasn’t strictly true. There was City College, which accepted everybody, and he could have gotten into one or two decent state schools. But poking around the public library one afternoon he had come across Foreign Choices for the Non-traditional Student and he became fixated on the idea of studying in England. There, he told his mother, he could have a much richer educational experience; he told his father that even with the lousy exchange rate, the tuition at Enfield University was comparable to that of a state school. Plus, Enfield had lax admission standards for “mature” students.
“And what about you?” Bergmann asked Sofia. “Where did you study?”
“I read English at Exeter. It feels like a lifetime ago.”
“You certainly don’t look like it was a lifetime ago.”
Sofia lowered her chin and raised her eyes to Bergmann, saying, “I like this one. He’s nice.”
“Come on, you shameless flatterer,” Calloway said. “Let’s clear the table.”
In the kitchen Calloway scraped a plate over the garbage and said, “Put the coffee on. I think this is going rather well.”
“No thanks to you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“‘Just one of his labored puns,’” Bergmann said, imitating Calloway’s quasi-posh accent.
“I was joking.”
“Well don’t. You’re supposed to be making me look good.”
“All right, I’m sorry. Don’t get your knickers in a twist.”
“Apology accepted. So you think I have a shot?”
Calloway shrugged. “Why not? I’ve seen her with some absolute wankers.”
“That’s a real vote of confidence.”
They brought out coffee and Bergmann lit a cigarette.
Without asking, Sofia took one from his pack and leaned forward as he lit a match for her. As he brought the flame to her cigarette he looked down her shirt and glimpsed her small but nevertheless enticing cleavage. When he looked back up their eyes met—oh shit, busted. He felt his face flush, but she only smiled and shook a finger. Naughty naughty.
She turned to Calloway. “Is there any more of that wine? It’s very good.”
Calloway poured the dregs into her glass. “It’s Spanish. Bergmann gets it from his bar.”
“Oh, right. Where is that again?”
“Wimpole Street,” Bergmann said.
“Perhaps I should come in for a drink some time,” she said.
Over the next few days Bergmann watched the door at work. He became more vigilant in the late afternoon, glancing at the entrance so often that one older woman, perhaps believing that he had a neurological condition, put fifty pence in the Spastics Society collection box. When his shift ended at six, he went to the back table, where he read and nursed a beer.
He was taking better care of his appearance: he had gone for a haircut and every morning he shaved meticulously, then ironed his shirt. Even the book he chose to kill time with was selected with more deliberation than usual. First he had considered Les Fleurs du Mal, but that might seem too affected—any book of poetry, he figured, was better left at home, because who read poetry for fun? As for novelists, Graham Greene was too dour, John Irving too popular, John Updike too American. Finally he lit upon his copy of Maugham’s Ashenden stories, which he had been intending to read, and which, he hoped, would come off as intelligent yet unpretentious. After all this preparatory effort, there was nothing left to do but wait and imagine her arrival: how her face would brighten when she saw him; how he would sit her down at the back table and bring her a glass of his favorite Beaujolais; how she would see his book, and say, “You are so intelligent and unpretentious. Take me home and fuck me.”
On Monday and Tuesday there was no sign of her. On Wednesday he reminded himself that the week wasn’t over yet. On Thursday he wondered if he should have got her to commit to a specific day. By Friday he couldn’t fool himself any more—he had been blown off, and he felt hollow, discarded.
As he restocked the fridges he told himself to just take it on the chin and move on. He had been rejected before, and he had done his (much less frequent) share of rejecting as well. That was the way the world worked. But for some reason this one stung a little worse than usual. He didn’t understand this sense of loss caused by a woman he had only met twice. Especially since they were so ill-matched: she had a child; she was older and a professional. (What did she do, exactly? He would never have a chance to ask.) Despite the tug in his guts whenever he thought of her, in his kishkes as his grandfather would say, it was ridiculous to expect that he would have a future with Sofia.
But he kept thinking about when he had met her and how she had squeezed his arm while looking into his eyes. Or the kiss she gave him when she was leaving Calloway’s—on the cheek, with parted lips, her hand resting lightly on his chest. Remembering these moments confused him with desire. Sex with Sofia, he imagined, would be sweaty and loving. And he imagined watching a movie with his arm around her, or strolling hand-in-hand up Primrose Hill. (In these more innocent fantasies, the child was dimly in the background, a docile appendage.)
It was five o’clock. He would give it one more evening. When Bato came in, Bergmann made an espresso for himself and took a seat at the bar next to Tony.
“Ah, just the man I wanted to see,’ Tony said, although they had been chatting on and off all afternoon. “Your flatmate’s boyfriend still around?”
Bergmann said, “Yup,” then threw back his coffee.
Nigel had made a handy excuse for why Bergmann had been hanging around at the bar all week. Although he had left out the part about sleeping with Janie. And he still hadn’t told Calloway about any of it. Suddenly he had become secretive, a withholder. Which maybe wasn’t the worst thing in the world.
“Would you like some wine? I’ll have Bato bring you a glass.”
“I’ll get it, thanks. If he has to wait on me he’ll sulk.”
Bergmann went behind the bar, where Bato cornered him.
“Look at blonde one,” he said. “She is from post office.”
Three women had just taken their drinks to a table. Two of them weren’t bad, but the blonde had a hatchet face and outsized breasts.
“She’s pretty,” Bergmann said, and went back to his seat, annoyed that unlike himself, Bato had a girl who would not only visit, but also bring friends.
“What happened about that woman you wanted to call last week?” Tony asked.
“I saw her on Sunday. She mentioned she might stop by, but obviously she hasn’t.”
“Oh. That explains why you’ve spruced yourself up. Did she tell you when she might stop by?”
Tony sighed. “Young man, your university days are over. You can’t rely on running into the girl you fancy at the student union. If you want to see a woman, then you have to make plans. People are busy.”
Jesus Christ, thought Bergmann. Why does everybody want to give me unsolicited advice? But Tony was right.
“Fine. I’ll call her.”
“Good. I expect a full progress report.”
“I thought the English were supposed to be circumspect.”
“Never underestimate the thrill of vicarious pleasure.”
When, five years earlier, Bergmann had convinced his father that studying in London was both economically and academically feasible, he had thought that the matter was closed. But there was one last hurdle before Bergmann could sprint towards his subsidized independence: Mel wanted to see the college with his own eyes.
They flew out to London together, elbows battling for the armrest. After a nap in their Knightsbridge hotel, they took the Piccadilly Line to the northern reaches of the city, where Enfield University was ensconced within a leafy public park.
As he looked upon what would be his alma mater, Bergmann was exultant. There was the stately brick mansion, next to the small man-made lake, where classes were held. There were the stables, now administrative offices, that surrounded the cobblestone courtyard. There was the library, a converted and enlarged pool house, with a sweeping wall of French doors. In the autumn, Bergmann would see the grey concrete annex and the prison-like dormitory, now hidden by a row of trees; but on this bright June day, with ducks on the pond and yellow tulips in the flowerbeds, the campus looked even better than it had in the literature. In this serene environment, this Mel Bergmann Free Zone, David Bergmann’s new life could begin.
“They obviously haven’t put a dime into the place in years,” said Mel.
Over their five days together, Mel remarked often on the “seediness” of the college: he muttered about it in the hushed corridors of the National Gallery; he brought it up again over bagels in the East End. He never quite said that he wouldn’t pay for his son to be educated at Enfield. Nor did he never quite say that he would. Finally, as they boarded the plane back to New York, Mel said, “I suppose you’ll learn a lot in England. Anyway, it’s cheaper than NYU.”
In later years, Bergmann would wonder why his father had blatantly, perhaps even sadistically, withheld his decision until the final moments of the trip. Why he had felt it necessary to keep his son on tenterhooks. Regardless, there was one evening when the defects of Enfield University were never mentioned, when father and son talked for a solid hour without tension or conflict.
It was at an Italian restaurant near Soho. The walls were painted a warm red; the waiters, in white shirts and bowties, were authentically Italian; and their friendly hectoring was a welcome contrast to the superciliousness of the English.
“You know Davey, when I was your age I never would have imagined that one day I could afford to do something like this, take my son to London for a few days, see the sights, eat well without worrying about money,” Mel had said, while they waited for coffee. “Then again, when I was your age all I could think about was pussy. Remind me to get the Herald Tribune tomorrow and we’ll see how the Mets are doing.”
So, because Bergmann had enjoyed the place, and because he could just about afford it, he decided to take Sofia there. Early Saturday afternoon he had called her from the bar to ask her when she was free. There was no mistaking her enthusiasm when she said, “How about tonight?”
After work, he sprinted through the rain to Marks & Spencer, where he bought a new black shirt. Then he ran home to iron out the creases. Then back on the Tube to the restaurant, where, as he sat at the bar with a glass of Chianti, it occurred to him that he needn’t have rushed. Ten minutes went by, then fifteen. He ordered another drink, smoked a cigarette. His nervousness, as usual, manifested itself as a twitch in the belly. Most of his experiences with women involved booze-facilitated sex first, then dinner at an Indian joint some other night. This, he realized, was an actual adult “date.” He hoped he wouldn’t fuck it up.
Finally, when he was starting to worry that she wouldn’t show up at all, and yesterday’s creeping, hollow feeling was returning, Sofia was at the door, holding her raincoat over one arm. Her hair was down and she wore a kind of purposely overlarge white shirt, a big belt, black jeans and black suede boots—the epitome of a great-looking woman who was trying to look great without looking like she had tried to look great. He waved and she smiled and he was taken aback by the ease and sophistication she exuded as she walked over to him. He thought, If I don’t have sex with her, I will die.
“David,’ she said. “I’m so sorry I’m late.”
“That’s all right,” he said. He couldn’t decide whether to kiss her, so he just leaned, as if stuck at the beginning of a bow. “Can I get you a drink?”
“I’m ravenous. Let’s get a bottle at the table.”
“Okay, let me check your coat.”
As soon as they were seated a waiter brought an antipasto, a basket of rolls and a carafe of the house red.
“But we haven’t ordered,” Sofia said.
“They bring that for everyone.”
“Do they? How generous of them. However did you find this place?”
Did she mean that she liked or disliked it? “I was here once with my father.”
“So you do have parents.”
“I don’t follow you.” He put a slice of provolone and a few marinated artichokes on her plate, then his own.
“You seem to be, I don’t know, this entity. Dropped in the middle of London from nowhere.”
“Ask me anything you want.”
“No. Paulina has already told me all she knows about you, and I’d prefer not to know more for now. It makes things much more interesting.”
This was his first inkling that he could be at all mysterious or intriguing to her. Talk about encouraging. He watched her pull apart a roll into small pieces, most of which stayed on her plate. For a moment he considered eating lightly as well. But he had spent most of the week worrying about seeing her, and most of his life in London eating beans on toast, so tonight at the very least he was going to enjoy his meal.
She said, “You can ask about me if you like. I love talking about myself.”
“Okay, how old is your little girl?”
“That’s not exactly a question about me, David, but she’s five. She stays with my mother most Saturday nights, which is why I was able to see you at such short notice.”
She was letting him know that she hadn’t rearranged her schedule for him. Which was unfair, as she was the one who suggested they see each other on short notice. It was also kind of a strange thing to say just after she had hinted that she found him interesting. He was confused already and they were only on the antipasto.
What had they been talking about? Her daughter.
“So she’ll be starting school soon.”
“Yes, there’s a lovely little place in Hampstead where I’ll send her, regardless of your mate’s arguments to the contrary. Although I don’t think she’ll like it very much. I’ve tried to get her to play with other children, but she doesn’t have many friends. She’s quite clingy.”
“They can be difficult at that age. I know a five year old in New York who’s very fussy about food.”
“You seem very curious about children. Can I have a cigarette, please? Whenever I’m around you I seem to want one.”
He handed her his pack and his lighter. He had been trying to let her know that he didn’t consider her daughter an impediment, but clearly it would have been better not to have mentioned the kid. And what did that remark about cigarettes mean?
“Okay,” he said. “So we won’t talk about me and we won’t talk about children. Tell me about your job.’
“David, don’t be so American.”
“What else am I supposed to be?”
“There’s no need to be tetchy. It’s just that Americans always attach so much importance to work. That’s not what defines me. Do you feel defined by your job?”
“Sometimes,” he said, shrugging.
“Why? It’s just a lark, isn’t it? Oh look, I’ve done it again. You get so sulky when you’re offended. Listen, being a barman is perfectly respectable.”
This was unmistakably patronizing, but he checked his impulse to respond with sarcasm. He was still waiting for her to act like she had before: warm, friendly, with a look of expectation indicating that she was willing to be charmed.
“Did you have a bad day or something? Because I’m getting the idea that something’s bugging you. Was it something that I did?”
She blew smoke out of one side of her mouth.
“All right,” she said. “Yes. I mean, no, David, you’ve done absolutely nothing wrong. You’re being very sweet and I am being a bit horrible.”
“Do you want to tell me why?”
“Fine, but I warn you, it will be boring. Bronnie has been a nightmare all week and she threw a fit when I dropped her off at my mum’s, which was why I was late. On top of that one of my clients—I believe you called him “the prick”—has been running me ragged. If I didn’t need the money I’d tell him to fuck off. So you can see why I’m not—or I wasn’t—in the best of moods, and that’s all I’m going to say about it because whenever I go on like this I feel like I’m boring both of us, and I’m sorry for being unpleasant, because it really is lovely to see you.”
“Thank you,” Bergmann said. “It’s lovely to see you too.”
So she did like him. And even though she had been acting kind of horrible, he still liked her, a lot. It wasn’t just her looks—she was intelligent and mature and interesting; even when she was being a pain in the ass, she was interesting.
The waiter came, one of those irritatingly good-looking Italian men, dark and unshaven, with curly black hair that somehow managed to make his bow tie seem rakish; and they ordered from a chalkboard menu affixed to the wall near their table.
“Now we’ll change the subject,” she said when the waiter had gone. “Paulina mentioned that you live in Kilburn. How on earth did you end up there?”
“A friend from college needed a roommate.” (A very strange friend, who tumbled into bed with me, then invited her boyfriend to move in the next day.) “I knew nothing about the area when I moved there. So one night I go to this pub around the corner, where they have this green box on the bar. The barman tells me it’s for charity, so I put a coin in the slot and have a Guinness. The guy next to me leans over and whispers that I had just contributed twenty pence to the IRA.”
She smiled. “I like that story. But it’s quite rough around there.”
“It’s nothing compared to New York.”
“Are you trying to tell me what a hard man you are?”
“Not at all,” he said, thinking of the pit bull in the scrapyard. “Living in New York teaches you how to avoid trouble. It’s about peripheral vision. You develop a way of watching people without looking them in the eye.”
“One has to do that in London as well.”
“True. But in New York the muggers are better armed.”
“When you put it that way, I don’t think I’d like New York very much.”
For a while he tried to convince her otherwise, then, seeing he was wasting his time, and perhaps boring her, he changed to the tried-and-true topic of Manhattan and North London: Compare and Contrast. Thus Bergmann found himself discussing the housing market, about which he had only the vaguest notions. The clichés he had gleaned from the newspaper seemed to be doing the trick; but he felt himself on thin ice and was too concerned with keeping her attention to admit his ignorance. When the food came he was relieved. And excited—it was rare for him to have a meal without fried meat as the primary ingredient. He tucked into his pasta, relishing the peppery tomato sauce and green flecks of basil. Sofia, however, took a few listless bites, then put down her cutlery. This, he decided, was the one thing he didn’t like about her. The woman just didn’t eat. If she wasn’t hungry, then why did she order the frutti di mare at £8.50?
“No good?” He indicated her plate with his fork.
“No, it’s fine. I was famished when I came in, but the bread filled me up. I could do with more wine, though.”
Bergmann caught the attention of the waiter and asked for another carafe. He had finished his pasta and was eyeing her leftover seafood, when she said, “Just have it.”
“Just eat it, David.” She passed him her plate. “You remind me of my father. No one’s dinner was safe when he was around.”
“Where is he now?”
“He died last year,” she said.
“That’s all right.” She topped up her glass. “I do miss him. The trouble is people keep ringing me about him. He was a political journalist. Absolutely no one has heard of him here, but he was fairly well known in France. He wrote in French, even though he lived here for fifty years. He was Jewish, you know. That’s another thing you have in common.”
“Really? What about your mother?”
“Half-Jewish. But I was never really exposed to it. My father used to light a candle once a year, to honor his ancestors. Everything else was crap, he used to say.”
So his initial hunch had been right. Bergmann, thinking of the consanguinity laws, considered asking if her mother’s mother was the Jew. She would probably find that question bizarre. And why did he even care? He had never limited himself to going out with Jewish girls. But he wasn’t ready to let the matter drop.
“Why did he think it was crap?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I suppose it had something to do with having to flee the Nazis. His origins seemed to bring him nothing but grief, so he put it all behind him. He wrote a long piece about how these sorts of limiting identities lead to fascism. One gets the sense from reading it that losing religion is a relief.”
“Interesting,” Bergmann said, although he suspected that she—or her father—had it wrong, that fascists led to fascism. And perhaps this “political journalist” had ultimately helped the Nazis by abandoning his identity. Then Bergmann had the unnerving feeling that he was thinking exactly like his own father.
“You seem dubious,” she said.
“Not at all,” he said. “I’d love to read his work some time. Is it translated?”
“Not much of it, I’m afraid. He wasn’t very good at advancing his career.”
Bergmann put down his fork and lit a cigarette. She was vibrant, animated, when discussing her father. This could be a warning sign—after all, what man can measure up to Daddy? But he had to admit that her Jewish background seemed to validate her as a potential girlfriend. Maybe he was more like Mel than he had realized.
“Now it’s your turn,” she said. “Tell me something new about yourself.”
“I thought you liked me mysterious.”
“I’ve changed my mind. What are your plans for the future?”
“Plans?” he said. “I really don’t have any.” Other than spending as much time with you as possible.
“Well, do you know where you’ll be in two weeks time?” She was giving him that look, the one where she lowered her face and turned up her eyes, as if she were gazing over the top of nonexistent glasses. “There’s this thing in Paris, a sort of tribute to my father on the first anniversary of his death. I’m taking Bronnie there for a few days. You could come.”
“Are you sure?”
“Lovely,” she said, and clapped her hands once. “I was dreading it, but now I think it’ll be fun.”
“Me too,” he said, still a bit surprised. “Hey, you want coffee?”
“You sound like such a New Yorker when you say that. I’m afraid I have to say no. I have to get up early tomorrow.”
The waiter brought the check and put it down with an obsequious flourish. Bergmann put on his poker face while he computed the tip. As he counted out the notes, he was glad that he had never given Janie the rent money for last week.
“Can I help?” Sofia asked.
“Nope, this is on me.”
At the door he helped her into her raincoat. Outside it was chilly and drizzling; as they turned into Soho the lurid neon signs were reflected in the puddles.
“I really enjoyed this, David. And I really am sorry for how I behaved.”
“Forget it. Are you taking a cab home? Or the Tube?”
“Let’s walk for a while.”
She took his arm and leaned her weight against him. She had confused him again: all this heavy talk about fascism, Judaism, and then an unexpected invitation to Paris. It seemed premature to be planning a weekend away with her. He doubted that he could afford it. And her daughter would be there as well—what would that be like? His only direct experience of children was his niece, squirmy little creature with uncomprehending eyes. What if Sofia’s kid hated him? Or he hated the kid? He decided that it was nicer to concentrate on how manly he felt, how mature, escorting this beautiful woman through the streets of London. With uncharacteristic optimism, he realized he might even get her into bed. If not tonight, then soon. With this possibility in sight, even the dank sidewalks of Soho appeared exquisite.
They traversed Leicester Square and suddenly she kissed him, brushing the back of his neck with her fingertips. Then she pulled away and hailed a cab.
“Ring me tomorrow,” she said, as she climbed in.
It was all too quick for him—he barely had the presence of mind to close the door for her. He watched the car as it made its way up Charing Cross Road.
On Sunday morning Bergmann stayed in his room until Janie and Nigel left the house. As soon as he heard the front door close, he went to the sitting room and called Sofia. When her answering machine picked up, he didn’t panic—he had already prepared a message.
“Hi, this is David,” he said. “I really enjoyed last night. Give me a call whenever you get a chance.” (He thought it best not to mention that he was longing to caress her naked body.)
Now that the ball was in her court, he could relax. He briefly considered doing something constructive with his day off—taking the long walk over to Primrose Hill or going to a museum—but he would rather wait for Sofia to return his call. So he read, watched TV, masturbated to the mental image of Sofia enthusiastically blowing him, took a long shower, smoked, drank coffee, and ate whatever he could scrape up—toast, a couple of bananas, stale Hobnobs.
In the late afternoon he became restless. On the off chance that Nigel had left some hash around, Bergmann sifted through all the crap on the steamer trunk. Instead of drugs, he found a letter from his brother. He let out an ecstatic yelp when he saw that Neil had sent a money order for £250 pounds. Then he wondered why the envelope had been buried among Nigel’s discarded newspapers.
When Janie came home Bergmann was waiting for her. He clicked off the TV and said, “We have to talk.”
“Yes, we do,” Janie said.
She sat down without taking off her jacket. This gave Bergmann pause, but he pressed on.
“This important letter came for me,” he said, waving the envelope at her. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?”
“I don’t know darling, I hadn’t seen it myself. I’ll have a word with Nigel.”
“Look, no matter how many words you have with him, it won’t change the fact that he’s living here. Has he made any effort to find another place?”
“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. I don’t know how to say this to you, Bergmann, so I’ll come right out with it. Nigel and I have decided to live together. Permanently. I love having you as a flatmate, and you know that I absolutely adore you, but I’m afraid this place is just too small for three people.”
“I’m really, really sorry, but I’m quite serious.”
“Where the hell am I supposed to go?”
“Darling, please don’t raise your voice. I didn’t have the day off and the choreographer’s been shouting at me since ten this morning.”
“Janie, you know I can’t afford my own place.”
She put her bag on the steamer trunk and pulled out a copy of Loot.
“Have a look in here. And there’s no hurry, Bergmann. Take as much time as you need.”
She handed him the newspaper, then checked her watch.
“I have to go. I was supposed to meet Nigel at the Flounder & Firkin over an hour ago. Before I forget, here’s two tickets to the play. I’ve put you on the guest list for the party afterwards.”
Bergmann was incensed. He was irate. He left her holding the proffered tickets and grabbed his jacket.
“Don’t be like that, Bergmann, please,” Janie said.
He ignored her and, on his way out, slammed the front door, then slammed it again for good measure.
At the café, he chucked the copy of Loot on the table—he had barely realized he was still carrying it—then barked his order at the Russian girl. He smoked while he waited for his beans on toast. When it came, he ate in big forkfuls, gulping his tea and hating the English, for their false politeness, their shitty weather and ludicrous food, for how, just when you were feeling good, they always found a way to kick you right in the ass.
Then the plate was empty and he felt calmer. He lit another cigarette, deciding he would think this through like a rational adult.
First of all, if Janie was kicking him out, there was nothing he could do about it, as it was her name on the lease. It was sudden and it was hurtful, but he had no choice in the matter. Second, his outlook needn’t be so bleak, because now he had some money, courtesy of Neil. Although he would much rather use it in Paris, at least he wasn’t broke. And third, he had been avoiding the place since Nigel had moved in, and that was no way to live. Ergo, he had to find an apartment.
He opened Loot and quickly saw that he wouldn’t find any help within its bright yellow pages. If he wanted to live alone, all he could afford was a bedsit, a grim efficiency apartment fit only for elderly bachelors. In the section for flatshares he saw ads for dozens of available, reasonably priced rooms; available, that is, to vegans or non-smoking female professionals. There were also possibilities for straight, unprofessional smokers, if they were willing to live at the furthest reaches of the Northern Line, the most crowded and unreliable means of transport that London had to offer. And even up there, after a deposit and advance on the rent, he wouldn’t have enough money for Paris.
He remembered something his father had once told him: when you’re in trouble and there’s no one around, imagine what your most trusted friends would tell you. Calloway would suggest that Bergmann get a better job. Neil would tell his brother to come home. And Mick would offer a place to stay—in his squat.
Bergmann couldn’t see himself as a squatter. The word conjured up images of the unwashed, of heroin addicts or musicians. Then again, the last place where Mick had lived hadn’t been so bad. He had made his room quite comfortable, even renovated the kitchen before the council forced him out. And they had given Mick and his squatmates some money towards a new place to live, which most of them had pocketed, as they had immediately gone out to find another abandoned property.
Bergmann went through his options again. A bedsit near King’s Cross. A share in Barnet. Or a rent-free room and a trip to Paris.
He paid his bill, leaving £2 for the waitress, then went to the payphone near the Tube station. Mick liked to work on weekends, so Bergmann tried him at the lab.
“Don’t you have anything better to do on Sunday?” he said when Mick picked up.
“It’s the only time you can get anything done around here, mate. How are you? All right?”
“So so,” Bergmann said, and explained his predicament.
“Absolutely no problem there,” Mick said. “The room next to mine is free. I was saving it for a Colombian geezer, but he got deported. When do you want to move in?”
“When is good for you?”
“I can be at yours in about an hour.”
Bergmann silenced the still, small voice that was telling him he was making a mistake, and said, “See you then.”
Four years in London and what did he have to show for it? A duffel bag of clothes and bedding, a blanket and a futon, a portable CD player, an alarm clock and four boxes of books—one for each year. After Mick helped him carry his meager possessions to the van, Bergmann went back to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything. He found a few pence on the floor of his room, which he pocketed, and a disposable razor in the medicine cabinet, which he left. Passing through the sitting room he saw that the tickets to Janie’s play were on the steamer trunk. He left them where they were. Back outside, he slipped his keys through the mail slot and climbed into the van.
Mick said, “Shall I go through Camden or by the Heath?”
“Go by the Heath, it’s a nicer drive,” Bergmann said. In the side-view mirror he watched his house recede, then disappear when they turned a corner.
“So where is this place?”
“You know the park near the Highbury & Islington Tube?”
“I don’t know that area very well.”
“You will soon enough.”
There was still light in the sky as they went whipping past the dense underbrush of Hampstead Heath. It occurred to Bergmann that Sofia lived somewhere south of here. What would she think about his new arrangement? When it came to squatting you never could tell. Some thought the idea was repulsive; some didn’t care; and some, like Mick, made a sort of career of it. Bergmann thought it was all right for other people, but he never thought it was something that he would do. What if Sofia thought it was beneath her to go out with a guy who lived in a squat? It was entirely possible that he had ruined his chances just so he could go to Paris with her.
Bergmann came out of his own thoughts when he saw that they were passing Highbury Fields. The park was verdant from the recent rain and ringed by trees and Edwardian townhouses.
“It’s kind of upscale around here,” he said.
“You’ll feel right at home, then.”
Mick turned onto a small street of low white attached houses, each with a postage-stamp garden in front. He parked by the third house, where the weeds were conspicuously high.
“Let’s leave your things for a minute,” he said, and Bergmann, with trepidation in his heart, followed his friend between the overgrown bushes lining the path to the entrance, which opened on a musty hallway.
Mick’s room was the first on the right. It was a replica of the one from the previous squat, with the same homey arrangement: a rattan rug, an electric heater, a carmine bedspread with a guitar lying on it, books stacked in every corner.
“Now, we’re lucky because we have an adjoining loo,” Mick said. “But mind your goolies when you’re sitting down. The water comes up quite high. Here’s your room.”
He pushed open the door on the other side of the bathroom and turned on the light. Somewhat encouraged by Mick’s cozy set-up, Bergmann stepped past him and looked around. It was a fairly large space, but the floor needed to be scraped or maybe sandblasted. And he would need something to cover that bare light bulb. And a knob for the door to the hall. And curtains for the window that looked out onto the wall of the neighboring house. And to have his fucking head examined.
“All right,’ he said. “Let’s get my stuff.”
They unloaded the van. Bergmann put his books and clothes in the closet, while Mick flattened the boxes and laid the futon on them. Then Bergmann plugged in his CD player and put his shaving kit in the bathroom. After that, there was nothing else to do, so Bergmann girded his loins and asked Mick to show him the rest of the house.
Mick led him upstairs to the kitchen, where the floor was caked with grime and some wit had spray-painted “fuck off maggie” on the wall above the sink. Rectangular smudges on the walls indicated where the range and the fridge used to be, as if the appliances had been vaporized in a nuclear blast. Through the cracked glass door Bergmann saw the concrete steps that led down to the wild back garden, where someone had left a rusting water heater and a toilet.
Okay, it’s bad, he told himself, looking around the kitchen again, but it’s not that bad. He had half-expected to see the walls smeared with feces and not plain old dirt. But there was so much dirt.
“Don’t worry, mate, we’ll clean it all up,” Mick said, perhaps seeing the need for reassurance in his friend’s face. “And we can flog that old water tank to Andy.”
“I don’t think I’ll be going back there, Mick.”
“Right. Of course. Have a look at the bath.”
The bath was on the same floor as the kitchen. This room, at least, was reasonably clean, and Mick had already put up a shower curtain and some shelves.
“Here, let me show you how this works,” he said. He produced a wrench from under the tub. “Just use the spanner to turn the taps. See? Don’t worry about the brown stuff. We’ll sort that out in a day or two.”
“That’s a relief,” Bergmann said.
“Sorry?” Mick shut off the water.
“Nothing. What else is there?”
“The upstairs is this way—there’s two bedrooms up there—and through here is the cellar.”
They went down a narrow staircase to a largish room where a girl sat on the floor, crumpling sheets of newspaper into a fireplace.
“Margie, meet Bergmann,” Mick said.
“Hello,” she said. “Bring us some firewood. It’s over there.”
The room might once have been in daily use, a “finished basement” as they called it in America; but everything had been stripped, right down to the drywall and concrete. The only thing conceivably that could be referred to as firewood was a pile of broken-up furniture by the door to the back garden. Could you actually use that stuff for a fire? Weren’t there, like, toxic varnishes and shit? He decided to keep such questions to himself and brought Margie a few severed table legs and an armrest.
“Thanks,” she said. She had cropped hair and, despite the chilliness of the basement, wore only a tank top that exposed her muscular arms.
“You’re welcome,” he said. “Are you Australian?”
“Christ, no. I’m from New Zealand. Mick’s been showing you around the place? You should have seen the state of it. Hypodermics, smelly mattresses, used johnnies, broken glass—every junkie in North London must have been through here. You took the room next to Mick’s, right? That one was the worst.”
“I don’t think I want to hear about that.”
“Leave it, Margie,” Mick said. He was cross-legged on the floor, rolling a spliff.
“All right, all right,” Margie said. She lit the balls of newspaper. “So, Mick said you two met at university. I just finished a fashion course. What about you?”
“I work in a bar.”
“No, that’s not what I mean. I’d like to have a shop one day, a place where I can sell my own designs. What do you want to do?”
Nothing, other than to go back to his old flat.
“I really have no idea,” he said.
“No? Nothing at all? I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true,” Mick said. “Bergmann spends all his time skiving and smoking.”
“An unambitious Yank,” Margie said, taking the joint from Mick. “Never thought I’d meet one of those.”
They sat in a circle on the floor and smoked. Meanwhile, Margie tended to the fire. She obviously knew what she was doing because within minutes it was going nicely, without any toxic fumes. The fire warmed Bergmann’s back, but the cold concrete numbed his behind. He barely listened as Mick and Margie went over all the work that needed to be done to the house. This morning he had woken up in his room in Kilburn with nothing to do but contemplate his successful evening with Sofia. Now he was here, feeling displaced, and with weeks of cleaning ahead of him.
When he felt stoned enough to be able to sleep, he went to his room. The naked bulb was an offence to the eyes. Squinting, he hung his only sheet over the window. Under the covers on his bare futon he noticed that the sheet wasn’t long enough to cover the whole pane. And there was a draft. But he experienced his discomfort dispassionately, as if he were observing it in someone else.
He was asleep when the light went on again.
“Oh, sorry man. I was looking for Mick.”
“His room’s next door. Who the fuck are you?”
“No need to get, you know, hostile. My name’s Terence.”
“Kill the light, please, Terence, it’s hurting my eyes.”
The light went off and Bergmann saw a thin silhouette in the doorway.
“You’re the Yank, right? From America?”
“No Terence, I’m the Yank from Honduras.”
“You’re being hostile again.”
“Look, I’m sorry, but I’ve got work tomorrow, okay? We’ll talk another time.”
“Okay, right. Sorry, mate,” Terence said and softly shut the door.
“You stupid twat,” Calloway said. “What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking I needed a place to live,” Bergmann said, chalking his cue. He had told his friend about the move, but still kept the part about sleeping with Janie to himself. Aside from the possibility that Calloway might blab, it just didn’t seem like something he needed to know.
Bergmann leaned over the table and hit the white. It banged against the yellow near the corner pocket, sending both balls into the center of the table. Calloway raised his eyebrows, then calmly potted his two remaining balls and the black.
“That’s two in a row,” he said. “Best of five?”
“No, that’s enough punishment for one evening. I’ll get a round.”
Bergmann managed to separate the barman from his Viz long enough to procure two pints. They had found the pub pretty much at random after meeting on the Caledonian Road, which was equidistant from both their places. It could fairly be classified as “horrible,” with the reek of ancient beer and three local oldsters, each at his own table, clearly incensed at the idea of young men doing things in a pub like playing pool and having conversations.
He handed Calloway his pint and together they sat down. Bergmann lit a cigarette and rubbed his eyes with his free hand.
“You look shattered,” Calloway said.
“The place needs a lot of work.”
“It’s a fucking squat, what did you think it would need?”
“I don’t know. This whole thing is new to me.”
“Which is why you’re a twat. This is how Mick lives. He’s used to it. He even likes it. You, on the other hand, are a nice Jewish boy from the suburbs.”
“I don’t care what you think. I’m worried about what Sofia will think.”
“She knows you moved,” Calloway said. “She tried you at your old flat and Janie had no idea where you were, so she called Paulina.”
“Fuck. Did she say anything else?”
“Just that she’s concerned about you. As I suppose I am as well.”
Concern was good; Bergmann would take concern. “Look, there’s nothing to worry about. The place is structurally sound and Mick is trying to get in touch with the landlord to work something out.”
“And what if he can’t?”
“I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“More likely burn it. I hope you know what you’re doing. You stupid twat.”
Did Bergmann know what he was doing? Not really, when it came to the world of Do It Yourself. He had been brought up someplace else—the world of Have Someone Do It For You. Thus the new knob on his door wobbled, the curtains hung at an obvious angle, and the fixtures he installed in the bathroom leaked, until Mick explained about washers. And the tasks that didn’t require skill were sheer drudgery. In his own room he spent four miserable hours scraping and mopping the linoleum tiles and wiping down the walls. Other evenings he swept the cellar, scrubbed the bathroom he shared with Mick, and cleared debris from the front and back gardens. And all the creature comforts that Bergmann had taken for granted were gone. He kept forgetting Mick’s warning about the toilet, so every morning he accidentally soaked his scrotum with frigid water. And since every hot water tap produced only brown gunk, he had to wash at the bathroom sink. So by the end of his first week in the squat, Bergmann was dizzy with fatigue, his sinuses were clogged, his back ached, and he had ruined a perfectly good pair of jeans on a protruding nail.
Despite these complaints, he realized they were making progress. Mick had plugged the leaky roof, Margie had secured all the windows and doors, and Terence, whom Bergmann hadn’t seen since that first night, had reputedly spent the small hours rewiring the fuse box, which apparently dated from the time of rationing. And everyone cleaned: their own rooms and the kitchen, the hallways and the common bathroom.
Bergmann might not have known what he was doing, but he saw that he was among people who did. With effort and a little money, they would eventually make the house cozy. And it didn’t matter how long that would take. He could suffer any privation, as long as he was able to meet Sofia in Paris, and, once they returned, treat her to the occasional meal.
That is, if she would still have him. His tentative optimism where the house was concerned did not extend to Sofia, as the week was gone and still he hadn’t heard from her. (She knew where to reach him—after seeing Calloway, Bergmann had called her again and left his work number on her machine.) He thought it through on a Friday night as he lay on his futon, unable to sleep. He figured it could go one of three ways: either she never called him back, which would send a clear message; or she called and gave him some variation of “thanks but no thanks”; or they spoke and she expressed her concern and they made final plans for Paris. Therefore, he concluded, the odds were two out of three that she wouldn’t want to see him again. It would be ironic (in an unfunny and devastating way) if that happened, but as it was a statistical likelihood, he prepared himself for it. Although he had still asked Tony for the time off.
Something else nagged at him, beyond all the work and his unresolved situation with Sofia. This open question, at least, he could address. On Saturday morning, Bergmann knocked on Mick’s door.
“Do you have a minute?” Bergmann said. “There’s something I want to ask you.”
“I’m on my way to the lab. I’ll tell you what, I’ll give you a lift to work and we can talk on the way.”
A few minutes later, Mick was steering with one hand and rolling a cigarette with the other. “What’s up?” he said.
“It’s something that I probably should have asked you earlier. I know people do this all the time, but is it, you know, legal?”
“What, driving to work?”
“You know what I mean.”
“Take the wheel for a second.”
Bergmann steered from the passenger side, while Mick licked the adhesive and rolled up the paper. Then Bergmann leaned over and gave him a light.
“Cheers,” Mick said, exhaling through his nostrils. “Look. Squatting is perfectly legal. Any empty building is fair game.”
“So I shouldn’t be worried about the police charging in with truncheons.”
Mick sighed. “We don’t have to worry about the police. All they can do you for is breaking and entering. The window was wide open, so that’s not an issue. And we don’t have to worry about some magistrate saying we don’t live there, because I put the utilities in my name. And like I told you before, we don’t have to worry about the landlord, because I’ll work something out with him.”
“Okay,” Bergmann said, “but what will you work out?”
“I’ll offer him, say, a hundred quid a month, cash,” Mick said. “He’ll probably be glad of the money. This bloody woman refuses to drive.”
Mick flashed his headlights at the car in front, which pulled over to let him pass.
Bergmann said, “So we’ll have to pay rent.”
“What? Is twenty-five a month too much for you? What were you paying in Kilburn, fifty a week?”
“Okay, I’ll grant you that. But what if he just wants us out of there? What can he do then?”
“Well, he could get us evicted, but in that case we’ll have at least a week or two to find somewhere else. But why would he want to if we’re giving him money and improving the place? Look. In the ten years I’ve lived in London I’ve had to leave two squats. The first time the fellow who owned the place wanted to sell up, so he gave us notice. The second time the council was doing it up, so they paid us to leave. Trust me, mate. We’ll be fine.”
“Okay,” Bergmann said. “I trust you. I guess.”
At Wimpole Street he jumped out and thanked Mick for the lift.
“You can thank me by helping me with the plumbing later,” Mick said. “And don’t worry so much, Bergmann. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
“Well, I’ve never thought there was anything wrong with it, in theory,” Sofia said. “One doesn’t grow up in London without knowing loads of people who’ve done it at one time or another. Although I have to say, David, it doesn’t seem very you.”
That was not exactly a ringing endorsement, but it was better than outright disgust.
“How about another drink?” he said.
“Yes, thank you.”
He went to the bar and ordered another ludicrously overpriced Chardonnay and wallet-emptying pint.
This place had been her idea. She had called him at work that morning and apologized for taking so long to get back to him.
“Another crushing week,” she said.
But he now understood the wait. When he had thought through his chances with her, he had missed a fourth possibility: that she liked him, but he was still in the trial period. This interpretation was given credence when he returned with the drinks.
“I’m not sure if Paris is such a good idea at the moment,” she said.
He lit a cigarette, trying to keep the disappointment out of his face.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s too soon, right? I can respect that.”
“That’s not what I said. I . . .this isn’t going to sound very English. But I like you very much, David. I liked you almost immediately. So it’s not a matter of too soon. I’m only wondering if perhaps you could put the money to better use.”
“Well I like you too, Sofia, you must know that. But as for the money, don’t you think that’s for me to decide?”
“What a face you pull when you’re being earnest. Like a puppy waiting for his dinner. All right, David, come to Paris.” She took pen and paper from her bag and wrote down the address. “The apartment is in the eleventh arrondissement, near Oberkampf. Will you find it all right?”
“I’ll find it. I love the way you say arrondissement.”
“Thank you.” She patted the cushion on the seat next to hers. “Now come and sit next to me. But no snogging. I don’t like public displays of affection.”
But she did let him kiss her later, before they parted ways on Kentish Town Road. He had one hand on the small of her back and the other on her waist, her palms resting on his chest. Her mouth tasted like wine. There was a hum in his ear, as if someone had struck a tuning fork.
“Let me take you home,” he said.
“Not yet.” She broke off to hail a cab.
When she was gone, Bergmann looked around to make sure that no one was watching, then, with one hand in his pocket, he shifted his erection to a more comfortable position. He walked to the bus shelter at a slight hunch. Fucking hell, he wanted to have sex with her. Which might even be the beginning of something, rather than an end unto itself. She was still keeping him at arm’s length, and sex would prove—what, exactly? Maybe that she liked him as much as he liked her. And that someone outside of himself, someone lovely, thought that he mattered.
As he waited for the bus, still tasting her wine on his lips, he wondered how she always managed to push him away just as a cab approached. Did she keep one eye open when she kissed? Or did she have some kind of cab radar?
When he got back to the squat he was too keyed up to sleep. He went to the kitchen and filled Mick’s electric kettle.
“Making a cuppa?”
Bergmann whirled around. “Jesus, you scared me,” he said.
“I do that to people sometimes,” Terence said. “I tread very softly.”
“Do you carry a big stick?”
“Forget it. You want a cup of tea?”
“Yeah, that would be great.”
Bergmann plugged in the kettle and set out two mugs, then turned to get another look at this Terence. He was a gangly presence, probably six foot five, with streams of wavy, middle-parted black hair that brought to mind a Pre-Raphaelite heroine. His belt was a length of twine.
“So Terence, what do you do for a living?”
“I fix, um, radios and suchlike. Well, any kind of electronic equipment really, except tellies. It’s not a politically justifiable medium of communication, if you follow my meaning.”
“Sure,” Bergmann said. “You have a shop or something?”
“No need, man. I’m all sorted upstairs. Would you like to see?”
“In a second. Milk?”
“And one sugar. Cheers.”
Bergmann opened the door to the back garden and got the milk from the top step, the only place it would stay fresh, at least for a day or two, until they got a fridge. He fixed the tea and followed Terence upstairs to his room, where a worktable, covered with electronic parts, took up one whole wall; the others were obscured by steel shelving. The only personal items were a single mattress on the floor and a Deep Purple “Black Night” poster.
“What are these?” Bergmann asked, pointing at a neat row of glass cylinders.
“Vacuum tubes. From this.” Terence ran his long hand over a stunning burlwood radio case with two enormous dials. “I’m restoring it for the Imperial War Museum.”
“No kidding? Seems like you have a good thing going on here.”
“Yeah, well, puts food on the table, you know? And two weeks in Ibiza last year.”
Bergmann took in Terence’s twine belt again, nodded. He said, “Maybe you could put together a system for the basement, once we get it fixed up.”
“Good idea, mate. Oh, that reminds me. Mick wants a word with you.”
“Dunno. I think he’s downstairs, though. You go on.”
Bergmann stopped by the kitchen to drop off his mug and then went down to the basement, which had been transformed in his absence. Margie was sitting on a brown corduroy sofa, and Mick was on one of two chairs with green velour cushions and wicker backs. There was even a carpet. They had created an island of comfort by the fireplace, although the bare drywall and concrete floor still irked Bergmann.
“Where did you get all this?” he said.
“From a professor I know at Imperial,” Mick said. “He let me have the lot for fifty quid.”
“It’s fantastic.” Bergmann sat down next to Margie. “It doesn’t even smell.”
“We could have used your help getting it here,” Margie said.
“Mick, is that what you wanted to talk to me about?” Bergmann said. “If I had known it was coming, I would have helped.”
“‘If I had known, I would have helped,’” Margie said, in a moderately successful parody of an American accent. “All I know is, you went out while we stayed home to work.”
“Margie, I don’t need your permission to go out.”
“Just because you’re bourgeois doesn’t mean you get to skive.”
“Bourgeois? Since when did fashion design become proletarian?”
“Fuck off, Yank.”
“Now there’s that razor-sharp Antipodean wit.”
“Oi,” Mick said. “That’ll do. Margie, there’s no way he could have known about the furniture. But Bergmann, you did say you would help me with the plumbing tonight.”
“Oh shit, that’s right,” Bergmann said. “I’m sorry.”
“We’ll do it tomorrow. Now, Margie, apologize to Bergmann.”
“I’m sorry you’re bourgeois.”
“I’m sorry I called you bourgeois, okay?”
“I’m sorry I made fun of New Zealand. I’m sure it’s a fine place and I look forward to visiting there.”
“Don’t overdo it,” Mick said.
“Does anybody want a spliff?” Terence said. “It would be like smoking a peace pipe.”
“For fuck’s sake,” Margie said. “Where did you come from?”
Terence glided to a chair and produced a joint, which definitely helped to dissipate the tension. At least, for everyone save Bergmann, who did feel guilty for forgetting his promise to help Mick. Although he never held a grudge, and Margie seemed to have forgotten all about their little contretemps already. Maybe this would be a good place to live after all. Or at least good people to live with.
“I’ve got an idea,” Margie said. “As you may or may not know, my twenty-first is coming up. I thought we could have a party.”
“I don’t know, Margie,” Mick said. “We need to keep a low profile for a bit.”
“It won’t be a big one. If we each invited only three or four people we could keep it quite manageable.”
“I don’t like it. Bergmann?”
“It doesn’t seem like this is the best time.”
“All my friends are here already,” Terence said. “So I wouldn’t have to invite anybody.”
“Let’s leave it for a few weeks, all right?” Mick said. “We’ve all put a lot of time and effort into this place and it’d be stupid to fuck things up for the sake of a party.”
“Maybe we’ll do an end-of-summer thing, then,’ Margie said. “Something small and quiet, like me.”
In the morning they went up to the top floor of the house, Mick carrying his toolbox and Bergmann an extension cord and a lamp with no shade.
“You’re taller,” Mick said, pointing to a length of string attached to a trap door in the ceiling.
Bergmann yanked at the string and jumped to one side as an extension ladder slid out.
“You could have told me that would happen,” he said.
“Thought you knew,” Mick said. “Put that light on.”
Bergmann found an outlet in Margie’s room and, after taking a quick, uncomprehending look at the dressmaker’s dummy wearing a leopard-skin-patterned skirt of some pleated material, he went back to the hall and passed up the lamp. Then Bergmann climbed the ladder, sneezed from the dust, and stood next to Mick by a waist-high, cylindrical tank.
“Ready?” Mick said.
“For what?” Bergmann asked and Mick wrestled the lid off the tank. Bergmann gagged when the stench of feasting bacteria hit his nostrils.
“This is what’s causing the blockage,” Mick said. “Dead pigeons. The wankers who were here before closed the lid on them.”
“Well, I think you should put the lid back on too,” Bergmann said, peering with revulsion at the layers of tiny ribcages, feathers and slime.
“Can’t do it, mate. Until we clear this out, we won’t have any hot water.”
They went back downstairs for gloves, black bags, cleaning supplies, a bucket of water, and bandannas to block the stench. (Bergmann was too appalled to make any Pancho Villa jokes.) It took them an hour to clear out the muck and scrub the inside of the tank; it might have gone quicker had Bergmann been able to go a full minute without retching.
“That’s it,’ Bergmann said, when they had finished. “I’m taking the rest of the day off.”
He washed and changed and went to a phone booth to call Calloway. They met at a restaurant in Chinatown, where Bergmann told him about the water tank.
“You shouldn’t have ordered the bird’s nest soup, then,” Calloway said, and followed up this remark with a florid and comprehensive criticism of his friend’s choice of living arrangements, which Bergmann countered by pointing out that we couldn’t all be precociously successful, judgmental pricks working in the incomprehensible field of emerging markets.
An argument ensued, not the first of their friendship but one of the worst, and even though they managed to patch things up over a few pints, Bergmann went home with a splitting headache.
And then the good news: when he got in, there was a note taped to his door: Terence fixed the immersion heater. Enjoy your bath.
Bergmann stood behind the bar, looking through One Hundred and One French Verbs. In college he had taken a year of conversation classes and had found it easy up to a point—and that was the point at which he had given up. Now he wished he had applied himself. He could barely remember anything beyond être or avoir. Maybe it was all the hash he had been smoking.
A middle-aged couple came in. From the man’s golf shirt and the woman’s tightly permed hair Bergmann immediately recognized them as American.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Good morning,” the man said. “Two coffees, please.”
“And for the lady?”
“No, two cups in all, dear,” the woman said. “One for me and one for him.”
“He’s joking, honey,” the man said.
“Oh, I see. You English are too quick for me sometimes.”
“Actually, ma’am, I’m American,” Bergmann said, as he put the grounds in the machine.
“That’s nice,” she said. “We have a son about your age. He works with computers.”
“How interesting,” Bergmann said, surprised to realize that he actually was interested. It had been some time since he had spoken to Americans.
“My name’s Richard Englehardt, and this is my wife, May.”
“David Bergmann.” He set out the milk and sugar and brought them their coffee.
“Where you from, David?” Richard asked.
“Fine place. I’ve been there a few times on business. We’re from Detroit.”
“How are you enjoying London?”
“It’s lovely,” May said. “We walked all around Regent’s Park this morning. I wanted to see Saint Paul’s next, but Richard wants to go to Bond Street and treat himself to a new suit. How long have you lived here?”
“Almost four years.”
“Your mother must miss you terribly.”
“I suppose she does,” Bergmann said, remembering that he had promised Neil he would write home. His parents didn’t even know he had moved.
“How much for the coffee?” Richard asked.
“Forget it,” Bergmann said. “On the house.”
“Well, thank you very much, David,” May said.
“My pleasure. Enjoy yourself.”
Bergmann cleaned up after the Englehardts and poured himself a Coke. He had never thought of himself as being missed. But his mother had cried with happiness when she picked him up at the airport last January. Although they had started bickering almost immediately.
“You’re driving like an old lady,” he had said, which was mean but not untrue, as she was going forty miles an hour on the Palisades Parkway.
“Kish mir in tuchis,” she had replied—Yiddish for “Kiss my ass.”
He had been angry when she said this—what mother spoke to her son that way? But in retrospect, he had to admit it he kind of deserved it. The truth was that she had always driven like an old lady; he had just been surprised that she was starting to look like one. She was still trim from daily exercise, but her cheeks were a little jowly and her eye-tuck was loosening. Looking at her profile as she drove, he had felt the familiar resentment—and a strange new sympathy for her.
Bergmann took paper and pen from behind the register.
Dear Mom and Dad, he wrote. I’ve moved. Don’t worry, it’s walking distance to a synagogue. (An old family joke.) You’ll be pleased to know I actually put up curtains myself, and I’m pitching in with various other projects. (He shuddered, thinking of the pigeons.) The place needs work, but it’s in a nice area. In other news, I’m going to Paris for a long weekend. I found a cheap plane ticket and I am dusting off my French. Unfortunately there’s a lot of dust. He continued in this vein until he filled the page, then signed off: I hope you are feeling good and enjoying your granddaughter. Much love, David.
He found an envelope and a stamp, and after his shift he dropped the letter in a postbox near Oxford Circus. The train was so crowded he was unable to reach the book in his back pocket, but he took it in his stride, feeling like an attentive and dutiful son. On Holloway Road, he picked up a takeaway curry, then walked home on the other side of the road from the park (too many dogs on the lawns).
Back in the squat he went straight to his room and took a beer off the outside part of the windowsill. He was almost pleased with how his room now looked—Mick had taken him to a used furniture store, where Bergmann had picked up a sturdy little table and chair, a small dresser, and a paper globe for his light fixture. He sat down and spread his dinner out before him, salivating at the prospect of a nice hot curry and saffron rice.
Bergmann had developed a taste for Indian food. Not that he had a choice—this country offered little else in the way of cuisine. He avoided beef, as mad cow disease was turning people’s brains to mush, and whenever he tried chicken or lamb, it was invariably too dry. Fish was either deep-fried or submerged in sauce. Vegetables were boiled until blandness. The condiments were named by color: red sauce or brown. Their potato chips came in sour, bad-breath flavors. Juice was overpriced and tasted of the cardboard box it came in. Marmite, a brown sludge that they put on sandwiches, wasn’t fit for animals, yet they fed it to their children. So he ate a lot of curries or the occasional ploughman’s lunch, a wedge of bread with some cheese and salad. Or he would go to a café for eggs and beans on toast—a dish that would take some effort to screw up. As effort was not something the English put into their food, this choice was rarely disappointing.
To be fair, there were some culinary compensations. The milk was the sweetest he had ever tasted and the cheese was delicious—he loved the blue-veined Stiltons that liquefied in the mouth. The English knew their beer and they knew their dairy. Otherwise it was every man for himself.
“All right, mate?”
Bergmann twisted around and knocked his curry into an orange arc on the floor.
“Fuck!” he said. “Terence, you have got to stop sneaking up on people.”
“Um, sorry man. I just thought you might, you know, want to see the system I’m working on for downstairs. I’m really sorry about your food.”
Terence’s cheeks were flushed. Bergmann felt bad for snapping at him.
“It’s not your fault,” he said. “I’ll come up in a minute.”
He bent to shove his ruined meal back into its container, then wiped up the residue. He was about to sit down again and eat some naan bread and rice when there was a knock at the front door. Sitting very still, he heard the knock again, louder this time.
He went out into the hallway.
“Who is it?” he said.
“The owner of this house.”
Oh shit! thought Bergmann.
“Just a second,” he said.
He turned to check if Mick was in his room, but Terence was right behind him.
“Jesus, Terence!” Bergmann hissed. “Stop that!”
“Sorry. Who’s at the door?”
“The landlord! Is Mick home?”
“No. What should we do?”
“I have no fucking idea!”
The landlord knocked again.
“Maybe you should, like, talk to him,” Terence said.
“Maybe you should,” Bergmann said. “No, wait. Let me think. All right. Okay. I’ll talk to him, but we’re not going to let him in.”
He went into Mick’s room and leaned out the window. There were two of them in the garden path: a fiftyish guy in a suit of some shiny material and a younger man in a tracksuit with a shaved head and a moustache. Unlike most Britons in tracksuits, this one looked like he actually worked out. A lot. Bergmann suppressed the urge to sprint through the back garden to the nearest American consulate.
“Hello,” he said.
“What the fuck are you doing here?” the young one said.
“Well, sir, I’m not trying to be sarcastic, but I think you know the answer to that,” Bergmann said.
“How did you get in?” the older man asked.
“My friend did. I don’t really know how, but he didn’t break anything.”
“You’re American, aren’t you? What’s your name?”
“Robert Calloway,” Bergmann said.
“Robert, what do you think the British authorities would do if they knew you were squatting in my property?”
“With all due respect, sir, I’m in this country legally and legally in this house.”
“I’m going to sort you right out!”
“Steady, Frank,” the older man said.
“Let’s talk about this,” Bergmann said. “No one wants to cause you any trouble. You should know that considering how much work we’ve done to the place, we’ve saved you money. We’ve cleaned the whole house from top to bottom.”
“That’s very kind of you, Robert. I’d like to see it, if you don’t mind.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea.”
“Open the fucking door, Yank!” Frank said.
“Frank, shut up!” the landlord said. “All right, Robert. You seem like a bright young man. Tell me, other than all the cleaning you say you’ve done, what possible advantage could I gain from having you in this house?”
“Well, we could pay you. A hundred pounds a month.”
When the landlord stopped laughing, he said, “I’ll get two thousand a month once it’s renovated.”
“How much would you accept?”
“Two thousand a month.”
Bergmann had the glimmer of an idea. “Do you know when you’d like to start the renovations?”
“What business is that of yours?”
“Well it can’t be soon, otherwise you’d have started them already, right? So until you do, whether its two months or a year from now, you have trustworthy people staying here. Nice young people, with jobs. Unlike whoever was in here before. So you don’t have to worry about anyone trashing the place again, and while you’re concentrating on other projects, you’re getting two hundred a month.”
“What fucking nerve!” Frank said.
“Frank, shut up! All right, Robert. I’ll let you and your friends stay here until I get round to doing it up. I’ll take three, no, five hundred a month, cash, on the first of the month. But if I hear of any problems, any problems, the lot of you are out on your arses. Is that understood?”
“Thank you. Yes, that’s understood.”
“Good. Let’s go, Frank.”
Bergmann closed the window and went back to the hall.
“Please, Terence,” he said. “Tell me there’s some booze in this house.”
“Five hundred a month?” Margie said. “No fucking way.”
“It isn’t bad between the four of us,” Mick said. “Anyway, I don’t think we’ve got much choice in the matter. Bergmann, did you get a phone number off this geezer?”
“It didn’t occur to me to ask. I’m sorry,” Bergmann said. He was sitting on the floor with his back to the fire, cradling a bottle of Scotch.
“Don’t be,’ Mick said. “You did well.”
“Yeah, good on you,” Terence said.
“Negotiator of the Fucking Year,” Margie muttered.
“Margie, if it wasn’t for Bergmann, we could have lost the place,” Mick said. “So a little bit of gratitude wouldn’t kill you.”
“All right. Well done.”
“Thanks,” Bergmann said. “But if I did well, then why am I still so terrified?”
It was Thursday, the day before Paris, and Bergmann was on the tail end of a double shift. The entire bar, such as it was, had been reserved by a group of bond traders. There were dozens of them, all men between the ages of twenty-five and forty in identical white shirts and yellow ties; some were cigar-smoking, high-fiving Americans, the kind who rented nice houses in Kensington near other Americans. Bergmann was on his feet all evening, clearing tables, hauling cases from the storeroom, colliding with Bato as they hustled to serve drinks or mark a tab. His hands were sticky with booze, his clothes reeked of smoke and there was a black half-moon of grease under each of his fingernails. Although it was nice to see Tony so happy, as he sat in the corner, drinking and watching the money add up. Bergmann was also doing well—the tip jar was brimming. Tipping barmen was not a British custom, but if they liked you they’d buy you a round. Tony had taught him to keep an open beer nearby, which he could hold up to the customer in ersatz gratitude. Then he’d slip the cost of the drink into the jar.
At five to eleven Bergmann called for last orders and the bond traders scrambled for their final round. This last-minute rush was why Bergmann disliked closing; on a busy night it was like the fall of Saigon. While Bato dealt with the stragglers, Bergmann tallied the tabs and assured a swaying customer that he had indeed ordered thirty tequilas.
“Drink up please, it’s time!” Bergmann yelled as he ran the credit cards.
Drunks were always unwilling to end the night.
“Come on, drink up.”
He got all the signatures, then showed them the door. It was almost midnight when he cleared out the last punter and still the work wasn’t over—now he had to help Bato wash the glasses and restock. When they had finally returned the bar to a semblance of order, Bergmann lit a cigarette, opened a fresh beer and divvied up the tip money.
Bato appeared at his shoulder. “What is this?” he asked.
“This is me, counting the tips.”
“It is my money.”
“All of it?” Bergmann asked, stacking the pound coins.
“Yes, is all for me.”
Bergmann sighed. They had been through this before.
“We’re sharing it,” he said.
“It is my money,” Bato said. “Maybe I give you some.”
“Is half your money. Is half my money.”
“Gentlemen,” Tony said. “There’s no need to argue.”
They ignored Tony, intent instead on staring each other down.
Bergmann wondered how far this would go. Perhaps for half of £47 it was not worth finding out. But he had already been intimidated once this week by the landlord and his psychopathic bodyguard, and once was enough.
“Here, this is for each of you, for your hard work tonight,” Tony said and slapped two ten-pound notes on the bar.
Bato’s eyes narrowed; he swept a note and half the tips into his pocket and walked out.
“Asshole,” said Bergmann.
“He is a bully,” Tony said. “But he’s supporting his parents and two sisters in Sarajevo, you know.”
“Sarajevo? Jesus, Tony, how come you never told me? I would have given him the money.”
“Well, it’s up to him to tell you, and you did earn those tips.”
“That’s not the point.”
“That is the point. If he wanted help, he would ask for it.”
“He doesn’t want help, but he’s not above a shakedown,” Bergmann said. “Fuck it all. Let’s get out of here. Should I call you a minicab?”
Tony pulled his car keys out of his pocket and they fell to the floor. He bent to pick them up and smacked his head on the edge of the bar as he righted himself. He staggered briefly and shook his head. When he recovered, he handed the keys to Bergmann.
After locking up, Bergmann helped Tony to his car, a hunter-green Jaguar, and put him in the passenger seat.
“There’s a lock-in near my flat,” Tony said.
“You’ve had enough to drink,” Bergmann said and started the car. Oxford Street was deserted and the Marble Arch looked even more misplaced and plunked down at night. Bergmann was worn out, so he was taking it slow, but it did feel good to be at the wheel of a Jaguar; his mother used to have one, until the repair bills approached the value of the car.
“Ladbroke Grove,” Tony said.
“Come and have a drink.”
“I’m going to Paris in the morning, remember?”
“Oh, right. How can you afford to on what I pay you?”
“You could give me a raise.”
“I could keep my mouth shut. Christ, I’m going to be sick.”
“Shit, hold on.” It was a kind of low-level miracle that Bergmann managed to locate and insert the car into a legal parking spot in under a minute. He leaned over and threw open Tony’s door and the poor bastard sprayed the pavement with vomit.
“Dodgy wine,” Tony said, wiping his mouth with a handkerchief. “Must have a word with that sales rep.”
“I’m sure. Feeling better?”
“A bit. Leave the car here. My flat’s just around the corner.”
At Tony’s door Bergmann politely declined the offer of a drink; he did, however, accept another tenner towards the cab ride home. Needing cigarettes, he walked down to Bayswater Road, where he thought he had seen an open shop. Alcoholics, he thought, should not own bars.
“I’m closing,” the clerk said. He was Indian or Pakistani with a skinny chest and a high paunch.
“I’ll be quick. Do you have any cold cans of Coke?”
As Bergmann returned to the counter, a young man came in, his clothes slack, his skin yellow in the fluorescent lights. He grabbed a loaf of bread and a handful of candy bars and scurried out of the store. The clerk ran after him with a cricket bat, but was back a moment later, breathing hard.
“Fucking bastard,” he said. “He lives in the squat around the corner. Him, his friends, they come in here and steal all the time. I hate them.”
“There’s a squat in this neighborhood?”
“There’s a squat everywhere in this fucking city.”
For some reason this made Bergmann even more tired. He paid for the Coke and a pack of Silk Cut and went outside to hail a cab. He gave his address, then sank into the seat, aching for his bed.
“Is it okay if I smoke in here?” he asked the driver.
“I don’t care what the fuck you do as long as you pay me.”
Another prick, Bergmann thought.
When they arrived at the squat, he left the notes in his wallet and deliberately counted out the fare in small coins—and he had plenty of them from the tip jar. After pouring it all through the slot in the barrier, he added an extra ten pence, saying, “That’s for being so polite.”
As he unlocked the door to the squat something hit the small of his back—the ten pence coin.
“Right back at you, asshole,” Bergmann yelled, extending his middle finger.
He had a quick bath and got into bed. Four hours later the noxious buzz of his alarm clock woke him up. Bleary, he dressed and packed his duffel bag, purchased at an Army and Navy store on Orchard Street some fifteen years ago. (The stacks of boxes spilling their contents; the smell of dust and canvas; his mother yelling, “Where do you keep the jeans for the husky boys?”) Then he was outside again in the dark, climbing into a minicab. It didn’t feel like early morning, more like a continuation of the night before.
Despite his fatigue and the expense of the minicab (he really should have taken the Tube), Bergmann felt, well, happy. He was traveling again. As a student he had roamed all over England, always with a sense of excitement as he ventured into the unknown. Or the harmless unknown: for Bergmann, travel was not a test of will. The worst inconvenience was having to share a room in a hostel with strangers. Instead he traveled to acquaint himself with the place names that were already familiar: Oxford, Yorkshire, Cornwall. By seeing these places with his own eyes he hoped, in his earnest, undergraduate way, to better understand British literature; plus it helped him to avoid seeming ignorant—and thus, American—whenever someplace was mentioned.
“Salisbury?” he could say, during the course of a pub conversation. “Been there. Nice cathedral.”
The sky was pink when he arrived at Heathrow. He checked-in and was sent directly to the gate. Bergmann was taking Air India, the cheapest flight he could find. He had an aisle seat; still the white light from the windows hurt his eyes. He put on his sunglasses, which got little use in England. The woman next to him wore a sari, its green fabric threaded with gold; she was traveling with a small, sweet-faced boy whose sweatshirt displayed a giant picture of Rick Astley. The presence of the boy gave Bergmann the idea of leafing through the duty-free catalogue—maybe he could find a little gift for Sofia’s daughter. Nothing, unless a carton of cigs or a bottle of Johnnie Walker was an appropriate present for a five-year-old girl.
The excitement of travel had faded. Now he just wanted a nap. But the instant the plane took off the woman handed the boy a toy drum, of all things, and the kid proceeded to beat the shit out of it for the next ninety minutes and not let up, not even after the seat-belt light went on and the pilot announced in English, French and Hindi (or was it Urdu?) that the plane was making its descent to Charles de Gaulle.
He awoke to the sight of an unfamiliar stuccoed ceiling. A crossbar beneath the mattress, placed for maximum lumbar discomfort, reminded Bergmann that some hours earlier Sofia had led him to this sofa bed. In the light sleep of exhaustion he had heard, muffled as if underwater, doors opening and closing, the even tones of Sofia’s voice, and the higher-pitched voice of a child.
He could not remember when he had taken off his clothes. Reaching for his jeans he saw a blond, blue-eyed child standing by the foot of the bed. A hard-on had tented his boxers—he quickly covered himself with the blanket.
“Mummy told me to wake you up,” the girl said.
“I’m up. Thank you.”
“If you don’t wake up, I shall be very cross with you.”
“I’m up, I swear it.”
Sofia came down the stairs.
“Bonsoir,” she said, turning on the lights. “It’s nearly seven. You slept for hours. Would you like a coffee?”
“That would be great.”
“All right. You’ll probably want a shower before we go out.”
As Bronnie stared, Bergmann put on his jeans under the blanket. The child reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
“Where’s the bathroom, Bronnie?” he asked.
“My friends call me Bronnie. You have to call me Bronwyn. The bathroom is over there.”
That didn’t go very well, he thought, with his face under the showerhead. He toweled off and dressed slowly, steeling himself before facing the girl again. He had to make friends with her if he wanted to keep seeing Sofia; that much was obvious. It was also obvious that she wasn’t going to make it easy.
He returned to the sitting room. Sofia had already tucked the sofa bed away and piled the blanket and pillow on a chair in the corner. He took a seat and looked around for an ashtray. Then he thought he should wait, as Bronwyn was there, staring. That’s when it hit him: she reminded him of a British horror movie from the Sixties, the one with the schoolchildren with inexpressive faces and glowing eyes.
He said, keeping his voice light, “Do you want to ask me something, Bronwyn?”
“You can if you like,” he said.
“I heard that everybody in America has a gun. Have you got a gun?”
“I do. But I left it at my house.”
From the kitchen, Sofia said, “He’s having you on, Bronnie.”
“Are you telling the truth, David?” Bronwyn asked.
“No. I was just being silly,” he said.
“Lying is very bad.”
“I was joking, not lying.”
“But it wasn’t funny.”
Jesus, this kid. “I’m sorry, Bronwyn. I’ll try and be funnier.”
Sofia appeared, looking amused by her ball-busting daughter, and set down a platter. And there was joy in Bergmann’s heart when he saw the press pot and an array of Frenchie snacks—brie, gherkins, pâté de campagne, crackers. Meanwhile, Bronwyn looked with marked curiosity at Bergmann, at the food, at her mother.
“Time to get ready for bed, darling,” Sofia told her daughter.
“Mummy . . ..”
“No whingeing. Go upstairs and clean your teeth. Rutger will be here in a minute and he’ll read you stories.”
Bronwyn took the stairs slowly, one by one, as if climbing them was a great effort for her. Finally they heard water running upstairs.
“You looked shattered when you got here,” Sofia said. “Are you feeling better?”
“Much better, thank you.”
He did feel refreshed, but now he was nervous. For weeks he had been waiting for this, and now that he was here he didn’t know quite how to act. Although she did seem pleased to see him, as indicated by a recent application of lipstick and the platter. She had never struck him as the type to proffer snacks; nevertheless, she had proffered snacks.
“Holy shit,” Bergmann said. “This pâté is amazing.”
“I’m glad you like it. But don’t eat too much, we’re going out for dinner.”
“I’m in France,” he said, munching a gherkin. “I am definitely going to eat too much.”
Someone was buzzing to get in. Sofia went down the short flight of steps to the door. She returned, exchanging words in German with a fattish, bearded man wearing a black beret and a black leather vest over some kind of tunic. At the sound of the language Bergmann stiffened. He reminded himself to be nice—as an American in England, he was frequently the victim of stereotyping.
“David, this is Rutger,” Sofia said. “Give him something to drink, would you? I’ll just run upstairs and say goodnight to Bronnie.”
“Have some coffee,” Bergmann said.
“I’m all right,” Rutger said, lowering himself onto the sofa.
“So I guess you’re from Germany.”
“And you are from New York, in the USA.” He pronounced these initials as if there were something inherently amusing about them. “In Germany we hear that New Yorkers are very neurotic and spend all their money on therapists.”
And I was going to be nice to this guy, thought Bergmann.
“We say that Germans are obsessed with efficiency and have a terrible sense of humor.”
“That is partly true. We are efficient. Tell me, why does your president think he has the right to push other countries around?”
Bergmann shrugged. “Because he can.”
“That doesn’t mean that he should.”
“And how well did your country do, say, fifty years ago?”
“How are we getting on down here?” Sofia asked.
“Fine,” Bergmann said. “We were just discussing politics.”
“Yes. Well. Rutger, we’ll be at that little place on the corner. We won’t be more than an hour or two.”
They walked the short distance to the restaurant in silence. The place was undeniably charming, with candles and simple white tablecloths and whatnot; but he was too tense to enjoy it after the one-two punch of Bronwyn and Rutger.
When the waiter came, Sofia ordered a glass of white wine and Bergmann, using a phrase he had practiced, asked for a draught beer and menus.
“I didn’t know you spoke French,” Sofia said.
“I didn’t know you spoke German.”
“David, I heard what you said to Rutger about his country. Would you like to explain why you insulted my friend?”
He lit a cigarette and recounted the part of the conversation that she had missed.
“Oh,” she said. “I didn’t think he’d try that with you.”
“He did and there’s no way I’m going to take any crap from a German.”
“Well, German or not, he was out of order.”
The waiter brought their drinks. Sofia ordered a salad that she probably wouldn’t eat and Bergmann ordered the steak frites, one of the few items he could recognize without a dictionary.
“That reminds me of a joke,” she said. “Did you hear the one about the American who went into a bookshop and asked for George Orwell’s restaurant guide? The clerk said, ‘Madam, I don’t think Mr. Orwell was a food writer.’ The American said, ‘Of course he was. He wrote Dining Out in Paris and London.’”
“That’s a good one,” Bergmann said.
“Oh, dear. I’m sorry. That was in bad taste after Rutger. Now I shall have to be terribly nice to you. Have I told you how handsome you are?”
“That’s more like it.”
“And you have very good teeth.”
“I’ll pass that on to Dr Blumstein, my orthodontist. Listen, I need to ask you something and I think you should give me a straight answer. What exactly do you do for a living?”
She laughed. “I have a small public relations firm.”
“Okay. That’s one mystery solved.”
“What other mysteries are there? Oh, I know. You want to ask me about Bronnie’s father.”
“No, that’s none of my business,” he said, although he had wondered about it.
“He’s a bastard, basically,” she said, taking a cigarette from his pack. “We lived together for a while. When he found out I was pregnant he fucked off. But I decided to have it, because, well, I just couldn’t face another abortion.”
“I see,” Bergmann said. He sipped his beer.
It wasn’t shock or moral indignation he was feeling—more that he might be in over his head with this woman. He needed to say something, though, before she interpreted his reticence as disapproval.
“Well, it’s obvious you’re doing a good job with her.”
“Do you think so? Thank you. What are you planning to do tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure. Don’t you have that thing for your father?”
“I do. I thought . . .well, I have a plan. Subject to your approval, of course. The first part of the day you can have to yourself. Because, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a few hours alone with Bronwyn. It’s not that I don’t want to spend time with you, it’s only that I’ve been working so much lately and she needs to see her mother. Tomorrow afternoon, as a favor to me, you meet us at the memorial, because I’m going to need moral support.”
On the one hand all this seemed fine; on the other hand he felt outmaneuvered. No doubt about it, she had a gift for keeping him off-balance. But then he decided not to worry about it. It was an opportunity to demonstrate how gracious he could be, as well as limiting his time with Bronwyn.
“Sounds like a plan,” he said.
“Fair warning, it may be awkward for you, considering the politics of that lot.”
“You mean they hate Americans? I’ll survive. I mean, your German pal took me by surprise, but I’m used to it, believe it or not.”
“Good. Thank you, David.” She reached across the table for his hand. “One more suggestion. Let’s get pissed, starting right now.”
Bergmann signaled frantically for the waiter with his free hand.
The light in Sofia’s borrowed flat was especially strong in the morning. As they had coffee at the table by the window, Bergmann studied the nascent wrinkles at the corners of her eyes and mouth. She didn’t look old—more like she wouldn’t be young for much longer. Still he wanted to reach over and tuck a stray lock behind her ear. She was watching her daughter put together a puzzle on the carpet; suddenly she turned to him, as if remembering something.
“You have the address,” she said.
“Indeed I do.”
“And you’ll be there at two.”
“And you’ll be all right on your own.”
“I’ll be fine.”
Wait. Was she trying to tell him something?
“You know, if you want me to, I can stick around.”
No response. Why couldn’t she just say what she wanted?
He was going to repeat his offer, but then he reminded himself that he was angry with her. Last night they had been on the couch, groping and laughing, for a half an hour. But when he tried to unbutton her blouse, she withdrew, saying that she needed more time. Paulina had said that sometimes Sofia shagged everybody; clearly this was not one of those times. His unrelieved tumescence had kept him awake until he masturbated in the bathroom, which had left him feeling pathetic.
“You should go,” she finally said. “I know it wasn’t easy for you to get here. You deserve a little fun.”
He went to the bathroom to wash up. Maybe he should insist upon staying, even if that meant hanging around upstairs while she spent time with her daughter. Why not? He had brought a book. But he couldn’t forget how frustrated he had felt last night. Not one person had given him an easy time since he had arrived in France. Fuck it, this morning he was going to get some of his own back.
When he came out, she was on the floor with Bronwyn.
“I’ll see you later,” he said.
“All right, then.”
“See you later, Bronwyn.”
“Bye, David,” the girl said, her eyes on her puzzle.
Outside it was a bright autumn day, some ten degrees warmer than England, with a visible sun in a visible sky. The buildings of the district had neat rows of windows with open shutters and brightly painted shops on the ground floor. A man in a fluorescent green vest was sweeping the sidewalk. A slim young blonde in a motorcycle jacket walked by. And when he saw the baguette tucked under her arm he forgot all about Sofia and her difficult daughter—he was in Paris and he was famished. He found a café off the Avenue de la République, replete with a zinc bar and cloudy mirrors and little round tables with white marble tops. As he took a seat he worried that he might embarrass himself with his bad French. Nevertheless, he managed to order coffee and a croque-monsieur without incident. Look at me, he thought, ordering in another language.
It was a meal designed to forestall a hangover—last night he had put down three beers and, at Sofia’s urging, a final Armagnac. While he ate, he looked over the pocket map that he had bought at the airport. The sandwich was insanely good, a mini-symphony of ham, cheese and butter; and he had fun deciding where he should see some art. (His last trip to Paris had been with Calloway and they had spent most of their time in bars.) But as he paid the bill, he wondered how stupid he should feel about spending half the day alone.
On the Métro the French people read French newspapers and chatted in French. Meanwhile, Bergmann tracked the stops with his pocket map. He changed trains and got out at Rambuteau, where he took the escalator to the street, then made his way through the sudden crowds to the Pompidou Center.
It was a bizarre sight indeed, with its scaffolding and primary colors; tourists swarmed the sloping plaza. The queue, however, was surprisingly short and he was pretty much the only visitor to the sculpture exhibition on the top floor. It was a retrospective of some Swiss artist who made contraptions with cogs and pistons, the metal frames draped with red and blue strips of coarse cloth. The pieces grew larger and more complex as the exhibition progressed, until Bergmann stood before a thirty-foot vulture whose head and wings moved in jerky ellipses. When a clutch caught in one of the enormous cogs of its belly, the creature jerked and its cloth feathers shuddered. The room was filled with the clanging of metal on metal; Bergmann jumped when its beak emitted a blast of steam.
That someone could conceive of this fantastic machine, of such whimsy on a grand scale, was striking. Riding the escalator down, Bergmann wished that he, too, could make something, but that would be difficult, as he had no particular skills or talent. He would not run back to London and begin sculpting. So was he going to be a bartender for the rest of his life? And by the way, how long was he going to stay in that squat? As he emerged into the plaza he understood that he was an unserious person, but how to rectify that was a mystery. This, he realized, was a conversation you could have with your girlfriend, if and when you knew you had one.
“Henri did not like to talk about ethnicity,” said the speaker, an underweight Englishman in a grey blazer with enormous shoulder pads. “He had only two categories for human beings: the oppressor and the oppressed. And yet Henri would talk to anyone. In fact, it was his habit, his goal, his obsession, to speak to the oppressor, to try to reach him as a human being—man to man, if you’ll forgive a sexist expression. This communicative impulse was why you never knew whom you would meet at his house. There would be writers and artists, of course, and usually students. Henri, as you know, had an open-door policy for students. But there was the time that he invited me for tea and I found myself breaking bread with the spokesman of the British National Party.”
A ripple of knowing laughter.
“Above all, Henri believed in communication. In talking. And sometimes he talked too much. I don’t mean to sound disrespectful when I say that Henri had a way of dominating the conversation. I dare say, speaking strictly for myself, there were times when I wished he would shut up.”
“But Henri was my mentor, my intellectual father, my friend,” said the man, more quietly. “I’d do anything to hear his voice again right now.”
Head bowed, he gathered his papers from the podium. A second later his place was taken by Rutger, who confidently readjusted the microphone to his lower height and then began to talk in forceful, fluent French.
Bergmann tried to follow it—he caught some stuff about “solidarity with the Palestinians” and the “tyranny of identity” and repeated references to ’68. But he was distracted by the question of why Rutger hadn’t bothered to change his clothes; and it was hot in the auditorium, with all of its two hundred-odd seats filled and another hundred or so stragglers, like Bergmann himself, standing at the back.
He had spotted Sofia in the third row—he kept hoping that she would look backwards and see him and know that he had shown up. Instead she stayed very still. Whatever she was feeling—if anything at all—could not be discerned from her body language.
After a solid twenty minutes Rutger relinquished the podium to the sixth or seventh contributor, a French-looking woman with cropped hair who spoke in German. Maybe earlier she and Rutger had agreed to swap languages. Either way, Bergmann needed a break.
Outside, twenty or so young people with the shaggy-chic look of European students milled around on the sidewalk, smoking and talking. Some ten feet away a line of cars waited for the lights to change, tiny Peugeots and Renaults, a delivery truck, a 2CV. Bergmann lit a cigarette and tried to get his head around the unreality of the day—of the sculpture he had seen that morning; of Sofia’s father, who was against fascism but apparently not against dining with fascists. And he was baffled by how everyone (or at least everyone whom Bergmann could understand) kept stressing that Henri was against ethnic categories, thus categorizing him as a Jew who didn’t want to be defined as Jewish, and wasn’t that an ethnic category? But mostly he felt ignorant and American and tremendously out of place.
Suddenly people were flowing through the doors of the auditorium—the memorial must have ended. He threw away his cigarette and pushed against the crowd, muttering pardon and excusez-moi. At one end of the lobby Bronwyn was holding hands with some person who was talking to some other person. And in the emptying auditorium a dozen people lingered by the stage, smiling and hugging. Sofia herself stood apart. She was talking to, or more accurately listening to, the Englishman with the shoulder pads; she wore a simple black dress and even from here she looked pale and tired. At last she caught his eye and he read the message on her face: Help me.
But someone was in Bergmann’s path. A tall man with longish hair and a dramatic forelock.
“You’re David,” he said. “I’m Tom.”
Who the fuck cares? thought Bergmann. Nevertheless he shook the man’s hand. Then they looked at each other.
“First time in Paris?” Tom asked.
“No, I’ve been here a couple of times.”
“You’re American, aren’t you? She didn’t mention that.”
Bergmann said nothing. He was trying to figure out who this guy was and what he wanted. Maybe he was Bronwyn’s father, although there was no resemblance to speak of.
“A word of advice, mate,” said Tom. “It’s all about stability for that one.”
“Stability. Think about it. A father more interested in politics than his own family. Ex-wives and ex-lovers and half-siblings all over the place. Never enough money. What does that make you want?”
“Why are you giving me advice?”
“Because it looks like you need it. I want you to do something for me, David. I want you to tell her that I sold my novel. Can you tell her that?”
Not Bronwyn’s father. A spurned lover, trying to poison the well.
“Why would I do that?”
“Why? Because . . .because I’m asking you to.” He ran his fingers through his dramatic hair. “I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got.”
“Write her a letter,” said Bergmann, and he walked around Tom.
But now—Christ in a sidecar!—Rutger was in his way.
“Sofia tells me that you understand French a little. I am curious to know what you thought of my speech. I ask because I don’t meet people like you very often.”
“Fuck off, Rutger.”
He reached Sofia and she turned and embraced him. Her interlocutor trailed off in mid-sentence. She made no attempt to introduce him to Bergmann, thank God. She looked drained and beautiful.
“Tell me what I can do for you,” he said.
She pressed the keys to the flat into his hand.
“Vodka,” she said.
By the time they got back to the flat it was after eight o’clock. While Sofia put her daughter to bed, Bergmann dug around in the kitchen for a cocktail shaker and glasses. He chilled a few measures of vodka, then made sandwiches with the rest of the pâté and yesterday’s baguette. Sofia came downstairs, now wearing a tank top and tracksuit bottoms; she threw down a shot. When she ate half a sandwich, he was amazed but didn’t comment. She had another shot. Her third drink she sipped, smoking and shaking her head every so often. Finally she put out her cigarette, took him by the wrist and led him upstairs.
They undressed quickly, without looking at each other. At first she seemed tense as he kissed her, but that was all right, so was he. With the fingertips of one hand he studied her body, the slender arms and small breasts, the flat belly rippled by a few stretch marks. She caressed his back and his arms, and as they relaxed together her touch became stronger, more insistent. He had thought that when it finally happened he would throw her down and enter her with a mad thrust. Instead he wanted to do something for her, to demonstrate his capacity for tenderness. So he went down on her, and she took his hands and put them over her breasts.
“Yes, right there, David,” she said. “That exact spot, just a bit harder now.”
He did as he was told and her thighs closed around his ears. Her legs were stronger than they looked—he wasn’t getting much air down there and his tongue was getting tired. Suddenly she gasped and gripped him by the shoulders, her nails digging into his skin. Then she gently lifted his head. In the light from the doorway he saw the flush in her cheeks and her grateful smile.
“That was lovely,” she said. “Would you mind fetching the cigarettes?”
On the way to get the pack he ducked into the bathroom, where he washed his face and examined with pride the stinging furrows in his shoulders, the proof of his ability to satisfy her. It occurred to him that although he had no vocation, pleasing Sofia could serve as a reasonable facsimile of one. He returned to the bedroom and they shared a cigarette, Sofia tapping the ashes into a half-empty glass on the nightstand and absently stroking his belly with her free hand. Her touch quickly aroused him again, yet he felt that patience was in order; for him it had been a long, strange day; but she was processing the memorial for her dead father.
She dropped the cigarette into the glass, where it extinguished with a hiss.
“Your turn,” she said, smiling.
“It was bloody awful,” Sofia said, an hour later. She adjusted the blanket to cover her breasts, even though his hands had been all over them not ten minutes before. “You’d think from the way my cousins were carrying on it was their father who died. And none of them did fuck all when he was dying. Not even a phone call. And the speeches, Christ. Rutger said the most horrible things about Americans, putting all sorts of words into my father’s mouth. Actually, my father rather liked Americans. He hated the American government.”
“That’s an important distinction,” Bergmann said. He must have missed that part when he sneaked out.
“But what made me absolutely furious was seeing my mother play the dignified widow when he left her nothing. The house is worth something, I suppose, although it’s falling to pieces. He didn’t even have life insurance. He thought it was bourgeois. Honestly, have you ever heard such rubbish?”
“Never.” He considered, then discarded the idea of mentioning that he would have liked to have met her mother.
“The worst thing about the whole day was that I counted three women that my father had fucked. One of them even had the nerve to offer her sympathies to my mother. That’s French women for you. They shag a married man and then pretend that nothing ever happened.”
“Please don’t be patronizing, David.”
“I’m not. I could see that you were having a shitty time.” He took her silence as an indication that he should go on. “Obviously your father was a difficult guy. So it must have been hard to listen to everybody lionize him.”
“Yes,” she said, in a softer voice. “Something like that. I’m sorry I said you were being patronizing.”
“That’s all right.” He yawned and stretched; he looked forward to sleeping next to her tonight. Then, before thinking it through, he said, “I want to ask you about this morning. If you were pissed at me or something.”
“Let’s leave it, David. Actually, let’s not. Honestly, I was in a state because I had this thing coming up. But later it occurred to me that you were angry because I wouldn’t go to bed with you last night. And now that you’ve gotten your end away you’re being very sweet and I don’t I like the implications of that.”
Turning away from him, she wrapped herself in the blanket, leaving him exposed to the chill of the room. He had bungled the discussion. Maybe he should sleep on the couch.
“We should talk about this,” he said to her back.
“David, I’m not going to teach you about adult behavior. I already have a child.”
“Jesus, that’s harsh. I don’t need your life lessons. Anyway you’re not that much older than I am.”
“I’m twenty-nine. You know what comes after that.”
“Who cares? You’re beautiful.”
She sighed. “And you can be very nice, when you want to be. Please, let’s get some sleep. We’ll talk more in the morning. All right?”
She let him under the blanket and pressed her back into him. He had one arm around her; the other one, beneath him, was falling asleep, but he didn’t pull away. This was the first time she had let him hold her.
“I’m sorry I got angry about the sex,” he said. “That was immature.”
“It’s all right.”
“Actually that was your opportunity to say, ‘Don’t put yourself down. I think you’re wonderful.’”
“Don’t put yourself down. I think you’re wonderful.”
“There you go.”
He put his hand over her breast.
“That feels nice,” she said.
He kissed her shoulder and the side of her face. She turned onto her back and put her arms around him, ran her nails down his back. He reached for a condom.
“Oh,” she said when he entered her, as if she had been surprised by some interesting but not life-changing news.
“Honey,” he said.
“Yes, darling, that’s it.”
“Mummy,” said Bronwyn from the doorway.
Sofia leapt from the bed, scooped up her daughter and carried her across the hall. Bergmann covered himself, hoping to God that Bronwyn hadn’t seen anything.
“Is she all right?” he asked, when Sofia came back.
“Just a bad dream.”
“Did she see us?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“We didn’t cause any, you know, permanent damage, did we?”
There was an edge to her voice when she said, “What do you mean?”
“Um, is this the sort of thing she’ll be discussing in therapy fifteen years from now?”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she said, and went to sleep.
“Mummy has a friend who went to America and she said it was very big.”
“It’s enormous. And the place where I come from has very tall buildings, taller than anything in London. Have you seen pictures of New York?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’ll show you some sometime.”
“You can call me Bronnie, now.”
“Thanks, Bronnie.” Maybe this kid wasn’t so bad after all. “Finish your breakfast. Your mother will be up soon.”
Bronnie applied herself to her porridge, but her crystalline eyes remained focused on him. Two days ago he had found this creepy; now he figured that she was simply curious. He wondered just how many unshaven male visages she had stared at over the breakfast table. Anyway, despite what she might have seen last night, she gave no indication of psychological trauma.
When she finished eating, he spilled out a puzzle for her on the rug, as he had seen Sofia do. Then he attacked the pile of dishes that had been growing since Friday. He filled the sink with soapy water, his nose wrinkling at the bacterial smell, and scrubbed out Bronnie’s bowl. He heard her mother descending the stairs.
“Did you finish your porridge, sweetie?”
“All of it?”
“All of it.”
Sofia came into the kitchen. “Thanks for looking after her.”
“No problem. You needed the rest.”
Her arms encircled his waist. “Let’s go upstairs.”
“What?” He was confused; his hands were sudsy and dripping.
“Come on. Upstairs.”
Engrossed in her puzzle, Bronwyn didn’t look up as they passed.
On the bed, Sofia pulled off her oversized T-shirt, pulled down his jeans, put a condom on him and mounted him. After maybe three minutes they came together, both moaning quietly. She slid off him and into the crook of his arm.
“What was that?” he said.
She said nothing, just kissed him and took her clothes to the bathroom across the hall. He pulled up his trousers and went to the downstairs bathroom to wash up. When he came out, he collapsed onto the couch, wondering what the hell had just happened.
“When are we leaving?” Bronnie said.
“Soon, I should think,” Bergmann said.
“You sounded very English then,” Sofia said, coming down the stairs again, her face still flushed. “We should go. It’s nearly ten.”
They were going to the Eiffel Tower, which Sofia thought would be a nice outing for Bronnie. Bergmann had readily agreed, since the last time he was here Calloway had scoffed at the idea. (Although Bergmann hated to come across as too American, he was not above tourist attractions.) On the Métro they found two seats together and Bronnie shifted around in her mother’s lap to watch her own reflection in the window.
Sofia asked, “What time is your flight?”
“Midnight. Can I ask you something?”
“David, you don’t have to ask me if you can ask me something.”
“Fine. What was that all about? You know, upstairs.”
“That was a proper thank you for letting me have a lie-in. Didn’t you like it?”
“Absolutely. But wasn’t it a little, you know, urgent?”
“It had to be, given the circumstances. Are you telling me that you prefer to be wined and dined?”
He smiled. “I don’t know what I’m telling you. Let’s drop it.”
At their stop he flicked the latch and the double doors sprang open. On the street he waited for Sofia and Bronnie to get ahead of him before lighting a cigarette. (He might have sounded English earlier, but he was still too American to smoke anywhere near a child.) It was an impressive walk, if not exactly charming, between the giant, curving wings of the Palais de Chaillot and alongside a series of oblong fountains that fascinated Bronnie. The tower was fully visible across the river, imposing itself upon the sky. As they crossed the wide bridge, Bergmann tried to enjoy the sights, the steel-grey Seine and its tree-lined banks. But he was still mulling over how she had dragged him upstairs. On the one hand, it had been pretty fucking hot. On the other hand, after weeks of keeping her distance, he was confused by her sudden randiness. But he had confused her with his frustration, so he guessed they were even.
At the base of the tower, tourists thronged beneath its latticed arches. Sofia sent Bergmann for the tickets—the middle section would do—while she and Bronnie got a place in the line. He went to the booth and was relieved of a quarter of his weekly wages.
“Do you have any idea how much these tickets cost?” he said when he found them in line.
“Would you like some money?”
“That’s not what I meant. You have to understand that this is what Jews do for fun. We go to interesting places and complain about them.”
The view from the observation deck was spectacular, of course, with the river and buildings and all that. But the wind chafed his face and made his eyes water; and he was thinking that the second he got back to London he’d have to start looking for an apartment. Let’s face it, Sofia was not the kind of woman who dated squatters. And there was something else he had to face: he had wrangled an extension of his student visa, but in five or six months it would run out. He’d have to either find a sponsor (maybe Tony?) or apply to graduate school. Which meant figuring out what he wanted to study and how to pay for it, because his father would not, and anyway it was time to stop taking handouts.
“Bronnie’s cold,” Sofia said. “Shall we go?”
They took a taxi back to the flat, which Sofia insisted on paying for. Inside, she laid out a light lunch: a sliced-up baguette, ham, a bowl of black olives. They ate in silence—or Bergmann and Bronnie ate, while Sofia picked at the olives and drank wine. Bronnie was getting cranky, so Sofia took her upstairs for a nap. Bergmann cleared the dishes and topped up the wine.
When Sofia came back down she returned to her seat at the table. Bergmann was having a cigarette by the window.
“Cheers,” she said, lifting her glass. “To a lovely weekend.”
“Cheers. You know, we’ve got time to try another bistro tonight.”
“I’d like to, but we have an early flight in the morning.”
“Oh,” he said.
“Don’t look so sad, David. It’s been a long weekend and I’d like to have a quiet evening tonight.”
“Right. Of course. Do you have plans for next weekend? I was thinking that maybe the three of us could take a walk around Primrose Hill.”
“We can’t. I can’t.”
Here it comes, thought Bergmann. “You can’t what?”
“I can’t get any more involved with you. I thought I could, honestly. Because you are very sweet. I gave you a hard time last night, but it’s obvious that you’re a kind man. I’m supposed to have lots of friends in London, but you were the only one who showed up. For me, I mean.”
“So what’s the problem?”
She drew in a breath and let it out. “The problem is that I can’t get any closer to someone in your situation. You’re not . . .settled. Where you work, where you live, it all seems very temporary. Can you tell me where you’ll be next year? Or even next month?”
“In London,” he said. “I live in London.”
“But how long do you plan on staying? How can I let you any further into my life—into Bronnie’s life—if I can’t be sure how long you’ll be in England? What if you wake up one morning and decide to go back to New York? Or Spain or Africa?”
“I’ve never said anything to you about leaving England. It’s never even crossed my mind.”
“David, I know a risk when I see one. I’m truly sorry, but I’m quite firm about this. I can’t afford to spend the next year waiting to see how you settle in to post-university life.”
“I see,” he said.
The cigarette had burned down to the filter—he flicked it out the window. He felt as if his insides had been deftly removed and any second now he would collapse in on himself. Her last remark had been the most wounding, because it was true: he had been marking time, waiting for the next thing to turn up. Which, ironically, had turned out to be Sofia. But apparently he had never made it out of the trial period. And if he tried to convince her that this could be more than a fling, then he would be begging. Although he was perfectly willing to put his pride at stake—to explain how he felt when he held her, that simply being with her could give him a sense of purpose—he knew that she wouldn’t change her mind. She was English. She would only feel embarrassed for him.
His duffel bag was in her bedroom. It took him less than a minute to pack. Her suitcase was open in one corner; nestled atop her clothes was her father’s book. He put it in his bag. Back downstairs, while Sofia sat in her chair, he went to the bathroom and gathered his toothbrush, his comb and his deodorant.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Please believe me.”
“I’m sorry, too,” he said, and left.
The airport bar was indistinguishable from airport bars the world over; the bartender replaced the ashtray and Bergmann nodded his collegial thanks. He had paid two hundred francs to change his ticket for a five o’clock flight, and he was determined to spend the last of his French money on alcohol. For a while he was making pretty good progress, until he realized that he didn’t have the stomach for it. If he kept going like this, he would only make himself ill.
How could he have been so foolish? How could he have thought that she wanted something serious with a directionless guy like him, an American with bar grease under his fingernails?
He finished his Scotch, left all his French change as a tip. At a bureau de change on the concourse he exchanged the last of his francs for sterling. She had accused him of being “temporary,” yet he was glad to see the familiar notes with the unamused portrait of the Queen. How could he not be “settled” in England, when the dollar had become foreign currency to him?
Wounded and sober, he boarded the plane. He would call Calloway from Heathrow. No, not Calloway, who would simply restate the facts in a way that would make Bergmann feel even worse. He would just go back to the squat.
After landing in London there were some small mercies: he was waved through customs and a train was waiting at the Tube station. The journey to Highbury & Islington, however, was an hour of resentment and self-loathing. He walked home in the funereal atmosphere of a Sunday evening in England. It was barely dusk, yet the streets were deserted, the shops shuttered, the curtains drawn.
Bergmann turned the corner and stopped in his tracks. A Volvo station wagon and a white van were double-parked by the house, and Margie was screaming at some fat guy by the gate. The front garden was strewn with bags, boxes and clothing. A man in coveralls was working on the door with a portable drill. Frank stood in the garden path, holding the short leash of a Rottweiler.
Bergmann’s head felt cartoonishly large and suddenly he had an urgent need to urinate. He would leave. Right now. He had his passport, his wallet and some clothes; he would go to Calloway’s. So why were his legs moving him forward?
Frank and the fat guy watched him approach.
“There’s that fucking Yank,” Frank said.
“Not much of a mouth on him now,” the fat guy said. “Come on, Yank, give us some of that smooth talk.”
“Bergmann, they’re putting us out,” Margie said.
“What have we ever done to you?” Margie yelled at Frank.
“Margie,” Bergmann said, eyeing the dog. “Calm yourself.”
The door opened and the guy in coveralls hopped to one side.
Mick came stumbling out backwards, fell onto the path. Bergmann started towards him, but the dog was on its hind legs, snapping at the air. Frank yanked at the leash and it yelped and heeled.
“Here’s Mick,” the fat guy said.
Mick got to his feet. Another man appeared at the door. With his mustache and tracksuit, he strongly resembled Frank.
“That’s the lot,” he said.
“Close it up and let’s get the fuck out of here.”
The man in coveralls took a fist-sized padlock from his toolbox and snapped it shut on the hasp.
“Won’t be getting through that one,” he said.
“Mission fucking accomplished,” the fat guy said. He opened the back of the van and helped Frank get the dog into its cage. The other two crossed to the Volvo. Before the van pulled away, Frank backed it up, very slowly, and ran over Mick’s electric kettle.
“Jesus Christ,” Bergmann said. “Mick, are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” Mick said. He smoothed back his hair with both hands. “Guess who hosted a fucking rave last night?”
“I didn’t know so many people would show up,” Margie said.
“Yeah, it’s their fault,” Mick said.
“Don’t blame me for this, Mick.”
“Who am I supposed to blame, Margie? Bergmann was in France, I was at my mother’s and Terence hasn’t got any bloody friends.”
“I need a bathroom,” Bergmann said.
“Those stupid cunts left your window open,” Mick said.
Bergmann went around the side and checked that the alley was clear. He tried to climb through the window, but something was impeding him—the duffel bag was still on his shoulder. He dropped it to the ground. Once he was inside, he didn’t dare turn on the light, but he could see that they had stomped on his bureau and ripped up his futon. Everything else, books, bedding, clothes, was evidently in the front garden. As he relieved himself, he wondered if eventually he might look back on this day and laugh. Probably not.
Outside, Mick was loading a couple of full trash bags into the back of his own van.
“I think I’ve got all your clothes, but they’re mixed up with mine,” he said.
“Whatever. Thanks. What happened to Terence?”
“Pissed off this morning. Which, had I fucking known, is exactly what I would have done.”
“I only invited ten people,” Margie said. “How was I to know they’d bring a DJ?”
“Margie,” Mick said, “I don’t want to hear another fucking word out of you, do you understand?”
Bergmann stood by the van, hands at his sides, wondering what the hell would happen now. It came to him with welcome clarity. They would find a place to crash for a couple of days, and then Mick would find another squat, and once again they would go through the dreary business of fixing it up. But this time, Bergmann would be saving for his own place and looking for a serious job.
He tossed his duffel bag into Mick’s van. Then he picked up an empty box from the pavement and began to collect his books.
Gordon Haber’s short fiction has appeared, among other places, in The Rumpus and The Normal School, and as three best-selling Kindle Singles. His nonfiction on the nexus of religion and culture can be seen in The Forward, Religion and Politics and Religion Dispatches. His awards include a Fulbright Fellowship, a Queens Community Arts Fund grant and a MacDowell Colony residence. In addition to writing, Gordon founded the e-book publishing company, Dutch Kills Press. He does not live in Brooklyn.
Copyright © 2017 by Gordon Haber
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Dutch Kills Press, LLC.
Cover design: Sarah Bibel.
The publication of this book was made possible with the support of
LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, a program of the 14th Street Y.
Stories herein were previously published as follows: “Adjunctivitis,” “False Economies,” and “His Grandmother’s Memory” as Kindle Singles; “Uggs for Gaza” in The Normal School; “The German Photographer” in The Parenthetical Review; “Bourges, 1990” in The Rumpus; “The Real Story of Nigel Embo” in Jewish Fiction.
This book is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Second Edition: May 2017