Editor’s Note: Read an interview with Nicole Krauss about her writing process.
My boys are standing at the edge of the jetty, and either they will jump or they won’t jump. It is early summer, June, under the great bell of the sky, on the island on which I was raised. The waves are coming in from such a long way off that no one can say when or where their turbulence began, only that they are the transmittance of an energy that finally breaks here and resolves into the shore. I watch them, my two boys, from the sand. My father, unusually quiet today, wearing a hat against the sun, watches too. He isn’t yet old, but at this very moment I can’t recall exactly how old he is. If his life seems long to me, it’s because he has changed more than anyone I know. One day, over the course of many years—there is no other way to put it—he took all his great anger out to sea, let the wind out of its sails, and came back home without it. Came back home with a stillness and patience where once the rocking fury had been.
Sometimes I forget my own age too. When people ask the ages of my boys, I round up to give myself time to get used to where they are going. But although my father doesn’t have very much time left, and I have some, my boys still have all the time in the world. The younger one does a little dance on the edge of the jetty. The older one tilts back his head, spreads his arms, and shouts something toward the sky.
I watch my boys and talk, and my father listens. Life, I say, or am trying to say, which is always happening on so many levels, all at the same time.
That summer, while her boys are on vacation with their father, she goes to visit her lover in Berlin.
“You see,” he says, leaning down toward her and lowering his voice so that those passing by won’t hear, “one thing you don’t know about me is that I like to serve.”
It is a surprising thing to hear, coming from a man two meters tall and built like a heavyweight. In fact, he is an amateur boxer, or rather was one for many years, until a month ago, when an attack of Schwindel—of vertigo—briefly hospitalized him, turned up a scar in his brain, and put an end to it. And yet, though he claims that he will never step foot in the ring again and though he is employed as an editor at a highly respected newspaper, she still privately refers to him, both to her friends and to herself, as the German Boxer. It is easier than using his name, which means “little gift from the gods”—because of that, and because calling him the German Boxer highlights their differences, and preserves a sense of ironic distance that keeps her grounded in the new land she’s recently discovered, like some Christopher Columbus of the soul: the land of being unattached and free.
They are walking around Schlachtensee—a long, thin lake at the edge of the Grunewald Forest—discussing whether or not 80 years ago he would have been a Nazi. The German Boxer thinks it is moral grandstanding to claim that he would not have been, as most everyone else in his generation claims, but now he goes beyond the usual argument of how he would have been shaped by historical forces that would have made his participation nearly inevitable, to offer the particular vulnerabilities of his own character.
“I am exactly the kind of person they would have recruited for the Napola,” he says, referring to the elite preparatory schools where they groomed the strong, obedient, and relatively clever German youth into leaders of the SS. “I’ve always overly idolized my mentors and striven to fulfill every last demand they made of me, because it struck fear in me to imagine failing their expectations. That, along with my size and build, makes me just the sort of person they would have wanted. And, being wanted, I would have felt honored. It’s my weakness for honor and praise, you see, that would have sent me right into the ranks of the SS.”
“Plus you would have loved the uniform,” she adds, thinking of the row of white shirts tailored in London that hang on a bar in the sunlight of his bedroom, of his suits made in Naples not only to his measurements but also to his precise taste (no silk, no lining at all, only materials rough to the touch), his winter coat of wool so finely stitched that he avoids putting his hands in the pockets for fear of ruining it. Of his white-leather boxing gloves, handmade by Winning in Japan to fit his slim fingers and wrists. She does not offer this evidence gladly. She would prefer to believe that the man she is sleeping with could not have been, under any circumstances, a Nazi. But by now she knows him well enough that she can’t truly disagree.
Along the shore of the lake, lovers spoon in the sunlight or under the alders, kissing or lazily stroking each other’s half-naked bodies, and whenever she and the German Boxer pass an attractive couple, he points them out with a sign of appreciation, or maybe even envy. He was happily married for nearly a decade, blazingly happy, as he describes it, until his wife, an actress, left him for the man who played Lancelot to her Guinevere at the Volksbühne. Since then he’s lost the feeling he’s had all his life of being blessed and untouchable. Those close to him see this as a positive development, he admits, since until his divorce felled him, he was often insufferable. But he has been broken by it, and he would have preferred to remain happy and insufferable than whatever he is now.
Arriving at the beer garden at the eastern end of the lake, they stop to have a drink. It is a Sunday, and the tables covered with red-and-white-checked cloths are crowded with Germans enjoying their nature. Joyful shouts of children float up from the water’s edge. The German Boxer is telling her that her older son’s lankiness and long arms, which he’s seen in a photo, would make him an excellent boxer, and it does not seem necessary to her to repeat that her son would never box, that her son is nearly as far from boxing as he is from being German. Not finding a foothold, the conversation moves on to Oktoberfest, and he begins to explain to her what a dirndl is.
“But you would have killed?” she asks now, though perhaps with less incredulity than she might have expressed toward someone who had not, on occasion, knocked out a stranger with a single punch, or nearly snapped the wooden bars of her headboard because in the midst of orgasm he experienced an uncontainable desire to destroy something.
“Of course I would have killed,” he says. “Killed while believing—having been built to believe—that I was doing the right thing.”
“I could never kill anyone,” she insists.
Over the top of his beer glass, the German Boxer eyes her with a look of polite skepticism. And it is true that as soon as she has made this assertion, her mind begins involuntarily to supply exceptions.
When, a few days later, she makes reference in a text to him showing up at her door in 1941 in leather boots, he replies that one thing he could not have done was kill innocent people. This seems in contradiction to what he so plainly asserted while walking in placid sunshine around the lake, but when she writes back to clarify which people it was that he had been so certain he could kill, her text remains unanswered, hanging in WhatsApp limbo, stamped with only a single gray check, because the German Boxer likes to turn his phone off when he feels finished with it. Later, when she meets him for dinner at a vegetarian restaurant in Mitte, he says that of course he couldn’t have knocked on people’s doors and deported or executed them. What kind of person does she think he is? When he said he could kill people, he meant in battle, because he was sure that he would have been assigned to the Waffen-SS and sent to the front. She does not have the wherewithal just then to ask what makes him so sure he wouldn’t have been assigned to the Gestapo; or the Allgemeine-SS, responsible for enforcing Nazi racial policies; or even the Death’s Head units, which oversaw the concentration and extermination camps.
They sit in silence, waiting for their dumplings to come. After a few moments, the German Boxer suggests that he might be wrong. After all, he says, his grandfather was in constant trouble with the Nazis because he’d allowed Romanis to stay on his land, his great-grandfather was murdered in Aktion T4, and his father was the sort of man who refused to follow anyone. No, perhaps he wouldn’t have been a Nazi after all—let’s hope as much, he says. She nods. In truth, she agrees that their conversation is an impossible one, given that whoever he is now would not have been who he’d have been back then, shaped as he would have been by different forces, and whoever he’d have been then did not exist.
Though, naturally, she continues to think about it.
A mutual friend set them up in New York, and over email they agreed to have dinner the following night. He asked if they could meet on the later side, because he would be boxing in the afternoon. Where did he box? she asked; she was curious to see this. In fact, she had never seen anyone box, not even on TV, since brutality and blood made her queasy. He wrote that she wouldn’t want to meet him after he sparred, that it was the kind of gym where no one showered, but that if he liked her after tomorrow, he would take her to the gym and they would fight; until then, it would remain a secret gym. “Nobody knows me there, or what I do or what I think or what I want,” he wrote. She read his email three times, then replied that he ought to be careful, that she was deadly. She didn’t know exactly why she wrote that. Maybe because of the arrogance in his phrasing, the indirect challenge of it: If I still like you. Because of the sense of pride it tripped loose in her, even if she knew he was writing in a language not his own, without the nuance he had in German, and because she wanted him to know that she was someone who had—who had always had—a certain power over men. Or because she wished to imply that whatever was explosive in him was also explosive in her, that there might be a parity there, and maybe more than a parity: that the scales of explosiveness, of a form of strength, might even tip in her favor. Which may or may not have been grandstanding.
“My ribs have a tendency to break,” he wrote back. “Please be careful when destroying me.” In other words, he knew exactly what to do with her. Caught her and spun her around and drew her close; knew how to work her, knew just what a mix of strength and vulnerability in a man can do to certain women, of which she was apparently one. As it was, after this brief exchange she knew that she would take him home to bed.
When she arrived at the restaurant, he was already there, the way German trains are always already there, waiting in the station. His size was something else again. It was impossible not to notice him, looming a head or even two above everyone around him. If someone asked her in that moment—the waiter, for example, going past with his tray held high—whether she liked being made to feel physically small next to a man, she would have had to answer yes. Yes, but with an asterisk! *Physically small but spiritually powerful. In other words, she liked him to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing until she said he could be a wolf, and then he should be pure wolf with no trace of the sheep for the duration of time they would spend fucking in her bed, after which he should go back to being someone who wouldn’t in a million years think of grabbing her throat when he wanted something. Was this a problem? And one more thing: From time to time, he should be very slow and gentle when he went about blowing her house down.
He handed her a stem of tiny, pale-purple flowers. She thought he’d picked them on the way, but later it turned out that he’d bought a whole bouquet, but given the rest away to a pregnant woman on the subway who’d admired them and asked whom they were for, because at that moment it occurred to him that he’d bought a bouquet of flowers for a stranger, which might have been overdoing it. They were shown to their table. The restaurant was dim and warm, the walls lined with the old glass cabinets of the pharmacy the place had been until, after having been boarded up for decades, it reopened as an Italian restaurant. Whenever a waiter or waitress came to the table, the German Boxer stopped what he was saying to smile and thank them for whatever they had just set down.
The conversation moved lightly, swiftly. His nose didn’t break easily, only his ribs, he told her, and his lips—his lips tended to get busted and bleed when he boxed, because they were big. He asked if she had long arms, and before she could answer, he took her hand across the table and guided it to where his bottom-left rib stuck out because it had been broken clean through, leaving it to float unattached in his body.
The waiter came and poured their wine. When he was gone, she took the German Boxer’s hand and guided it to the same rib on her body, which jutted out at the same angle, and had been that way for as long as she could remember. “How is that possible?” he asked in surprise. “You must have broken yours too.” But as far as she knew, she had never broken any ribs. The ribs, it seemed to her, went all the way back to the beginning, and were trying to say something amid their generational confusion about what it was to be a man and what it was to be a woman, and if these things could be said to be equal, or different but equal, or no.
Her bed, which was queen-size, was too small for the German Boxer, so he had to curl up in it like a child. The light from a Himalayan salt lamp cast his torso in a warm, pinkish hue. They spoke about: his growing up on a farm near the North Sea and how, when his family went to other people’s houses for dinner, they always brought flowers picked from the fields, how this had instilled in him a sense that all flowers should look as if they had been stolen; the books they liked; whether it was strange to be a German man in bed with a Jewish woman whose grandparents were Holocaust survivors; her sister; his brother; the fact that she never wanted to get married again; the fact that nowadays it was often older women with much younger men, men who wanted to have children that the women, like her, had already had; the problem with monogamy; the problems without monogamy; his belief that boxing was not about violence but about discipline, physical discipline and the discipline of facing his fears.
Then it was four in the morning, and he said he had to go home. She told him he could sleep there. But he couldn’t, he said, sitting up and pulling on his jeans. He couldn’t fall asleep with someone else in the bed. When she expressed surprise, his face darkened. “No one likes it,” he said, as if a referendum had been held and the results decisive. When his wife had left him for another man, she’d told him that it was because the other man held her as they fell asleep. Of course, there had been other reasons for her dissatisfaction, too. When she finally admitted that she was in love with someone else and was going to leave the German Boxer, she did it by phone, and during the conversation he took notes so that he wouldn’t forget anything. These he took down on the endpapers of Ghosts by Daylight, a memoir by a journalist on her 20 years of reporting from war zones. And at the top of the list, underlined twice: the fact that he had been unable to hold his wife through the night.
It wasn’t that he didn’t wish he could sleep next to someone, he told her now. He simply couldn’t find any peace that way. He remained alert, on edge, and so it could take him hours to fall asleep, a problem exacerbated by the fact that he knew that if he didn’t get enough sleep, he was likely to get a migraine. He had been getting migraines since he was 13. They arrived with an aura that blacked out parts of his vision, and when they came the only thing he could do was curl up in a fetal position until they passed. Though it was impossible to say exactly what caused them, he was certain that lack of sleep was a factor, and so sleep had become of paramount importance. Only when he was alone did he feel at peace, and then he fell asleep moments after his head touched the pillow. It had been like that always, he told her. The last time he could remember sleeping well with someone next to him was when he was 5, and had asked his mother to sit by the bed and hold his hand. But he still remembered the serenity of that, the goodness. And yet, whenever the German Boxer spoke of the unhappiness his inability had caused his wife and other women since her, his tone became frustrated and resentful: Why couldn’t they understand that it was bad for him to share a bed? That it caused him to suffer?
On the only night they ever slept together in a bed—they were in the middle of a forest; he had no choice—he asked her if she minded if he said the Lord’s Prayer. He had just flipped her over, pinned her arm hard against her back, and leaned his 200 pounds into her. Now they were lying peacefully, her back against his stomach, his long arms around her. “Vater unser im Himmel, geheiligt werde dein Name,” he whispered. “Dein Reich komme; dein Wille geschehe, wie im Himmel so auf Erden.”
That same summer—the summer her boys were 13 and 10, and she was sleeping and not sleeping with the German Boxer—she’d been driving with her friend Rafi back from the moshav where he’d grown up, outside Tel Aviv. The name of the moshav was Freedom, though it sounded better in Hebrew, less remarkable, but all the same that was the place where he was born and grew up, and as they approached on a dusty road that wound through fields of orange trees, their children shouting in the back seat, he told her that when he’d at last begun to see a therapist, at the age of 42, he’d asked aloud, almost to himself, in the way that one can ask unanswerable questions aloud in the presence of such people, “What do I want? What is it that I really want?” To which the therapist had answered, “What you’ve always wanted: freedom.”
It was Saturday, and they’d left Tel Aviv early that morning. Rafi had texted her when she woke to ask what she was doing with the kids, and to suggest that they all go somewhere together. Where? she’d written back. To the fields of my childhood, he replied. Their children, all boys, got along well enough that they usually wandered off to kick a ball or climb something, leaving her and Rafi alone to talk. Rafi was a dancer, had been one since the age of 3, when he’d started in his mother’s dance studio. Everything always began and ended for him with the body, whereas she had spent many long years in her mind (or so it felt to her), and had fully emerged into her body only after she’d borne one child and then another, after she’d fulfilled the commands of her biology, and, having done with it, at last took up true residence in her body, and started to dance at the age of 35. Sometimes they talked about this, and sometimes they talked about their relationships, or the things they still wanted from life. The boys ran wildly around the playground where Rafi had lost his virginity. He’d had sex everywhere around there, he told her—in that once-abandoned building; behind that shed; up on that dry, grassy hill.
Next they all went to his childhood house, and the boys filled their pockets with red lychees from the tree and got bitten by nasty ants in the grass, and then they drove to the neighboring Arab village for lunch and got chastised by the owner of the hummus place for giving their dog water from a bowl that humans ate out of. A plastic takeout box was brought for the water, which the dog didn’t want anyway.
Now they were on the highway driving home, and she was saying to Rafi that all week people had been telling her the most astonishing stories. She was not aware of having asked for these intimate and staggering stories about their lives, but maybe in her way she had been; maybe she had the look of someone who was trying to work something out, something at once vast and fleeting, which could never be approached head on but only anecdotally.
The sea was going by turquoise in the passenger window. The kids were laughing or complaining.
“I told you the one about the chicken under the car in Lebanon, didn’t I?” Rafi asked. No, he hadn’t, she said; she would have remembered if he had.
Rafi might have been a dancer, but from the ages of 18 to 23 he’d been in the Sayeret Golani, an elite special-forces unit known for the physical extremes demanded of its soldiers. To become a man in his country was to become a soldier—being a soldier was the passage you had to go through, whether you liked it or not, on the way to becoming a man, though no one could say exactly when along that passage you stopped being a boy. The first time you fired your gun at a moving target? The first time you saw the enemy as an animal? Or the first time you treated him like one?
Like every other 18-year-old, Rafi had no choice but to enlist. But he had not been required to go through the grueling selection process to be chosen for the special forces, or the year of masochistic training that followed; nor had it been required, after completing three years of necessary service, to sign on for another two years as an officer. Yet it had always been Rafi’s understanding with himself that he would serve in the special forces, in a unit that would push him to the furthest limits of his physical and mental capacity. That he would become an animal, but a pure animal that operates on instinct alone, like the flying tiger, which was the symbol of the Sayeret Golani, and which its commandos received during the induction ceremony in the form of a small metal pin.
“There would be a field of thorns,” Rafi told her, “and you’d have to cross it. And to do so, your mind simply has to refuse to consider the pain. To think only about getting across, to make the pain irrelevant.” Or there was Hunger Week, during which the recruits were not allowed to eat or sleep for seven days. Each evening, the officers would make a barbecue next to the starving recruits. They would grill steaks, lay out a feast, and then say to the recruits, “Come, why don’t you eat with us?” And if someone gave in to his hunger and ate, that was the end: Just like that, he’d fallen, and that same day he was sent back to the regular infantry. Once, the officers gave out chocolate balls. “Just a small treat,” they said. “We’ll all eat them together.” And on the count of three the soldiers put them in their mouths and bit down on what turned out to be balls of goat shit.
Of course he had been ready to die for his country, Rafi told her. To believe that one was willing to die for one’s country was the bare minimum required to even enter into the selection process, though along the way many boys or men discovered that they were too afraid to die or to suffer, that they couldn’t dissolve their fear so that it seeped out like an odor from the pores of their skin, and the moment this was detected, they were immediately disqualified. It was not until later, after Rafi was discharged from the army and fell in love, that he came to see the grotesqueness and absurdity of dying for one’s country, of dying and also being willing to kill.
In the back seat, their boys became quiet: The oldest one, the only one with a phone, had taken it out, and the others were leaning in to see.
It had happened when he was an officer, during the years that Israel had occupied southern Lebanon. His unit was given the assignment to kill the Hezbollah leader in the region. Intelligence knew that every single day at 6:30 a.m. sharp, the Hezbollah chief left the house and got into his car, and their instructions were to rig the engine with a bomb. There were 15 men in Rafi’s unit, and they were carried over the border by helicopter and dropped at a mountain hideout. At 10 p.m., they set out crawling down the mountain and through the fields. For four hours they dragged themselves along on their stomachs until finally they arrived at the village. A UN convoy was there, and the peacemakers were up laughing and drinking, because the UN people are always happy, Rafi said, for them, it’s just one long party. The unit slid past the UN tent on their stomachs and surrounded the house of the Hezbollah leader. As the officer of his unit, Rafi was positioned near the front door, and it was then, lying on his stomach with his gun trained on it while the explosion specialist disappeared under the car, that he noticed the pairs of children’s shoes. Three or four pairs lined up at the entrance, little rubber sandals just like he and his brothers used to wear on the moshav, when they wore shoes at all. No one had mentioned any children. Though why would they have? Children had no value in the calculus of military operations or wars. And in all of his nearly five years in the army, no one had ever told him anything beyond what he needed to know, and he hadn’t asked. About civilians, the question had only ever been: Should you encounter one in your mission, what will you do? Of which the only three options were: kidnap, kill, or let them go, and no answer was right or good. And yet the fact that Rafi had not known about the children and now was lying 10 meters from their sandals disturbed him. At that moment he felt a tap on his shoulder and, lifting his eye from the crosshairs of his gun, he saw the face of the explosion specialist, painted dark green like his. The specialist gave him the thumbs-up: The bomb was in place, rigged to go off the moment the Hezbollah chief touched his foot to the gas pedal. Rafi signaled to his men to retreat, and for four hours they crawled back on their stomachs to the mountain hideout, where they collapsed in exhaustion.
By then it was close to the hour that the Hezbollah chief left his house every day and got into his car. An unmanned aircraft flew overhead and provided grainy footage of what was happening on the ground, and at 6:20 the unit gathered around the display monitor and waited. There on the screen was the house they had left four hours before, dark and still. First it was 6:28, then 6:30, then 6:35, and nothing; 6:45, 7, 7:15, and only that haunting stillness. “What the fuck?” someone said more than once, possibly many times. Intelligence had established that each day without fail, at 6:30 sharp, the Hezbollah chief stepped out of his house and got into his car. So what was going on? Seven-thirty arrived, and still nothing. Rafi radioed to the general of the Northern Command. “Boxer to Kodkod North, over. What’s happening?” “Kodkod North to Boxer”—because Boxer was always the radio name of Rafi’s position, the officer of the anti-terror unit—“Kodkod North to Boxer, stand by, over.” Then, just after eight, the door of the house opened, and the whole family stepped out.
Rafi, who was holding the monitor, felt himself grow cold. In the grainy picture, the father, the mother, and three children approached the car, opened the doors, and disappeared inside. The bomb was rigged such that turning the key in the ignition and engaging the engine activated it, but detonation occurred only at the first millimeter of movement on the gas pedal. At the first millimeter of movement, the car and all of its passengers would be blown to pieces. The doors of the car closed, and now there passed a moment of stillness before the key was turned and the engine came alive. “We have ignition,” came the confirmation over the radio.
“The seconds that followed, as I remember them now, were the longest of my life,” Rafi said. “I sat watching and waiting, in a state of complete and total horror. One second, two seconds, five. And then after 10 seconds, the driver’s door opened, and the Hezbollah chief got out, bent over to look under the car, and pulled out a chicken.”
It must have been a family chicken, beloved enough that someone in the car would have asked about its whereabouts before they pulled away. Where is—whatever her name was—look, she’s not there with the others! Or I just saw so-and-so run under the car, she hates it when we leave, she always does this. Or whatever one of the kids piled into the back seat said the moment before their father applied the first touch of pressure to the gas, which would have exploded them all in an instant.
“Out came the chicken,” Rafi said, “and then the guy ducks down again for a second look, straightens up, and orders everyone out of the car. All the doors flew open, the kids tumbled out along with the wife, and everyone went back into the house. Around me, many of my soldiers were furious—all of that for nothing, the mission had failed, our superiors were pissed off as hell.”
And him? she asked. How did he feel?
“The thing is,” he said, “that I can’t remember. And the more time passes, the more I feel I need to know what it seems I will never know: whether I was relieved, whether I understood at that moment that that chicken had saved my life, too, or whether I was no longer even an animal, and had become a machine.”
It was late afternoon now, and they were driving away from Freedom, a fact that wasn’t lost on either Rafi or her. She’d had boyfriends one after another before marrying, and then after a decade of marriage she’d gotten divorced, and after that she’d been with a younger man for a long time, until now, at last, for the first time in 20 years, she wasn’t attached to any man at all. It was a lack that had first produced in her a sense of terror that went so far back that she couldn’t identify its source. At the start of what had become a nightmarish period, she had met a friend for lunch who’d said to her, “There is no woman, however loved, who isn’t terrified of abandonment,” and for a very long time she’d tried to work out what that meant. Was it only because the friend was much older, shaped by a time in which women had little or no access to the avenues that might lead to self-sufficiency and independence, that she believed this? When she herself thought about it, there was very little left that a man could give her that she really needed, aside from sex, which was easy enough to find. After six months of panic attacks, unremitting insomnia, and depression, the fear of being alone, without the life support of a man, had at last receded and been replaced with a feeling of quiet euphoria.
As for Rafi, a year earlier he and his wife had decided to open their relationship of 23 years. They had a good and loving marriage, the heat between them had remained, and still they had arrived at the decision together, with the desire for growth and new discoveries. At first Rafi was unsure if he would ever want another woman. He thought he might be like his father, for whom his mother had remained the main force in his life, and to whom his father had remained entirely dedicated. And then, during a residency abroad, Rafi slept with a much younger dancer from Korea, with whom he thought he was in love, until he met another from Thailand who blew his mind. When he returned home, the Thai woman broke things off from Bangkok, and after some weeks of pain, there was a very young French woman, then two or three Israelis. Meanwhile, during that time, his wife went to the beach with their children, and while they played in the waves with the dog, she met and fell in love with a man 15 years younger than her.
Rafi and his wife had not made any rules before they started. To make rules about freedom had seemed antithetical; either that, or they had been too impatient to hold the dreary, diplomatic conference that would have been necessary to establish such rules. But very quickly it had become clear that the absence of rules led to enormous pain, and though love can be mutual and shared, pain only ever happens in a place of radical aloneness.
During the tumultuous period that followed, both Rafi and his wife, Dana, had often called her to talk. She had heard the story from both sides, or the two different stories, which as the weeks passed came to resemble one another less. She’d had to be careful not to share with Rafi what Dana confided in her, and not to share with Dana what Rafi confided in her, which became more difficult and exhausting as their stories diverged, and the pain and anger on both sides became greater.
Dana remained with the younger man for five months. The days and nights when she would return to their apartment after making love to him, or during which she would endlessly check her phone for his texts, were nearly unbearable for Rafi. He would sit smoking a joint on the terrace, surrounded by the brown, shriveled potted plants that hadn’t survived the brilliance of the Israeli sun, and sometimes he listened to the sea, and sometimes he realized that he was talking aloud to himself. What did the young boyfriend give her that he didn’t? He, who all his life had been a dancer, had always found that everything began and ended with the body, but Dana was an actor and a playwright, and she had always moved as fluently and swiftly in language as she had through space, and he couldn’t always reach her there, in the realm of words. Could the boyfriend? Rafi had experienced enough pleasure in new bodies to know how exciting it was; that much he didn’t have to imagine. And yet of course he couldn’t help but imagine it all, regardless. He drove himself crazy imagining it, and when at last he couldn’t take any more pain, he broke down and asked Dana to end the relationship with the boyfriend, but two days later he changed his mind again, having absorbed the fact that if she ended it because he’d asked her to, that might also be the end of the experiment, and he was no longer who he had been before it began. In other words, he no longer wondered whether he was a man for whom the main force in his life was the one woman he was married to. He was finding things out about himself, his sense of himself was expanding, and he didn’t want to lose his new freedom, however painful it was to live next to his wife while she enjoyed hers.
But it was too late. In the meantime, Dana, who had taken his pain to heart and did not want to destroy their marriage or their family, had told the boyfriend that they had to end things. And he came to agree: The situation was too much for the boyfriend, too. He wanted to have children, and though he was in love with Dana, he wished to find a woman he could make a life with, one his own age who wasn’t already married to someone else. Dana was heartbroken, and even more so when she found out, soon afterward, that he had begun to date a yoga teacher. She watched his online activity on WhatsApp so closely that she could tell when he was doing something outside of his normal schedule. If she texted him, she waited to see how long it took for there to be two blue checks, and if the checks stayed gray, she was miserable, and if the checks became blue, even if he didn’t reply, she knew that he still thought about her. Dana missed everything about him, but most of all, she became obsessed with the sex that she’d had with him.
During this period, Dana spoke with her so often about the size of the boyfriend’s anatomy that at a certain point, after many weeks and months, she finally had to tell Dana that she could no longer hear about it. Though she understood that it had become a sort of stand-in for many other things that Dana wanted or needed, all the same she had trouble relating to Dana’s obsession, because, in her experience, an enormous penis wasn’t always the most comfortable sort to have inside you, especially when one had a fine penis at home already, one that had been enjoyed for 23 years, belonging to a man with whom one had gone through so much and still loved. To this, Dana replied that what had looked like happiness had, in the light of fresh experience, turned out not to be happiness after all, but something she’d told herself was happiness because she hadn’t known better. But we very rarely can know better, she pointed out to Dana; we simply know something different, since our memories of the past must always adjust to keep our stories coherent. A point with which Dana agreed, but was helpless to employ.
It was around the time that a ban was placed on the discussion of the penis that, during one of the many terrible fights that Rafi and Dana had, Dana let something about it slip. She said it, and once she did, there was no way to take it back. After that, according to Dana, the fights became more violent, and for the first time in their long relationship, the illusion of equality began to break down. Money, which Rafi earned and Dana did not, moved from being something that simply made it possible for them to live to being a source of power, since now Rafi lost no opportunity to remind her that she was dependent on him, that he was the one working a job all day while she was at home trying to write her play. In time, Dana came to feel that the experiment of opening their relationship had only brought pain and confusion, that whatever growing they had done had only brought misery.
On the one hand, during the many conversations she had with Rafi during that time, he never mentioned anatomy, violence, or money. What he said was that for as long as he could remember in his relationship with Dana, he had been the one who gave more, who gave most willingly and easily, and that he had grown tired of it. That what he wanted was for the exchange between them to be more equal. And yet although he spoke of wanting an equality of giving and receiving, he never gave up on speaking about wanting freedom, though the first concerned how one was treated and valued by another inside a system of relationship that involved compromises and limitations, and the other concerned the destruction or transcendence of that system, of going beyond it to that no-man’s-land where one stood utterly undefended, with nothing that one has promised and nothing that has been promised to one, but with a bright, clear view that goes on and on, all the way to the horizon.
My boys are in the back seat, exhausted by the heat and the day-long sun, leaning their heads back and staring with glassy eyes at the passing sea, and either they are driving away from freedom, or toward it. After the difficult months of my undoing—months during which they watched over me with worried eyes, wanting to know how I’d slept, how I was feeling, not wanting to leave me, wanting to know whether my struggle would ever pass—they have been restored to their carefree state: midsummer, joyous, watched over.
My store of knowledge about them seems to me the closest I’ve ever come to possessing something infinite, and only a small part of it can find a foothold in language. And that’s part of what is asked of us, isn’t it? To be a witness, to be able to recount our children’s stories from the very beginning? Exactly when and where they were conceived, how the older favored the right side of the womb and showed little interest in the left and punched against my belly skin from the inside with a knee or fist; how the younger came into the world with a furrowed, philosophical look, a slight skepticism almost, but a willingness to be convinced, and a downy fur on his shoulders that later fell out. I’ve told them the stories of their births many times, but at some point something shifted; they began to insist on making me the hero of these tales, rather than them. Now what they want to hear is how hard I needed to work to push them out, how I refused any pain medication because I wanted to be able to stand and walk and writhe however necessary to help them through the birth passage. They want to hear, again, how great the pain was that I had prevailed over—can I describe it? To what can it be compared? What they like, it seems to me, is to hear what an act of terrible strength it took to push them into the world, and that I, their mother, was capable of it. Or maybe what they want is to celebrate, again, the old and fading order of things, where they are not called on to protect, but are themselves watched over and protected.
Enormous at birth, both are now so slender that their rib cages are visible under their skin when they lift their shirts over their heads. I know everything about what is visible of their bone structure beneath the skin, and about the skin itself, the precise location of each beauty mark and when it arrived, and the scars and what caused them; I know in what direction the hair on their heads grows, and the way they smell at night and in the morning, and all the many faces they went through before the ones they each wear now. Naturally I do. When the older one worries that he is too thin and weak, I tell him how my brother had been built the same way when he was young, until—without warning, like a storm come so suddenly that someone, somewhere, must have prayed for it—a change came over him. That the thinness is in their genes, the sticks for arms and narrow waist and ribs poking out, all of it written into their bodies like an ancient story, but that sooner or later the time will come when this smallness and thinness will be overwritten, subsumed by mass, and the boys they are now will disappear, buried inside the men they will become.
Your brother? he asks, trying to imagine it. My brother who he once, but only once, saw, in a moment of fury he failed to contain, push me across the room and threaten me with a fist.
The small one is still too young to long to fall in love. He is surrounded by love, and that is still enough for him. The older one has already begun to long for it, but his body hasn’t yet caught up with him. About this, he can still joke with me. For now, desire and the workings of the body are still subjects for humor, but as the months pass, something has begun to loom behind it, larger and larger. He is waiting for the changes he sees overtaking his friends and worries they will never come to him, that he will never desire the way the others do.
It’s like a switch, friends who have boys tell me: One day it is flipped, and after that things are never the same; the door closes on one side and opens to another, and that’s that. Another friend, a man, says that he had been a quiet reader all through childhood, and then between one month and the next he began to throw chairs. This worries the older one, too: the possibility that he will no longer be who he has always been, that he will lose something of his sensitivity, so valued by everyone who loves him, that he will become capable of violence. When I go to kiss him goodnight, he curls his body into mine and in a nervous voice tells me that he wants to remain a child, that he doesn’t want anything to change. But already he is no longer a child. He is standing out on a bank between the shore and a sea that goes on and on, and the water, as they say, is rising.
This story has been excerpted from Nicole Krauss’s forthcoming story collection, To Be a Man.
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