The History of Love
by Nicole Krauss
THE LAST WORDS ON EARTH
When they write my
obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say,
LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.
I'm surprised I haven't been buried alive. The place isn't big. I have to
to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen
kitchen table and front door. If I want to get from the toilet
to the front
door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table. I
like to imagine
the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as
the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am
lying in bed,
I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to
arrive at the
door. If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and
back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.
I often wonder who will be the last person to see me alive. If I
bet, I'd bet on the delivery boy from the Chinese take-out. I
order in four
nights out of seven. Whenever he comes I make a big production
my wallet. He stands in the door holding the greasy bag while I
if this is the night I'll finish off my spring roll, climb into
have a heart attack in my sleep.
I try to make a point of being seen. Sometimes when I'm out, I'll buy a juice even though I'm not thirsty. If the store is crowded I'll even go so far as dropping my change all over the floor, the nickels and dimes skidding in every direction. I'll get down on my knees. It's a big effort for me to get down on my knees, and an even bigger effort to get up. And yet. Maybe I look like a fool. I'll go into the Athlete's Foot and say, What do you have in sneakers? The clerk will look me over like the poor schmuck that I am and direct me over to the one pair of Rockports they carry, something in spanking white. Nah, I'll say, I have those already, and then I'll make my way over to the Reeboks and pick out something that doesn't even resemble a shoe, a waterproof bootie, maybe, and ask for it in size 9. The kid will look again, more carefully. He'll look at me long and hard. Size 9, I'll repeat while I clutch the webbed shoe. He'll shake his head and go to the back for them, and by the time he returns I'm peeling off my socks. I'll roll my pants legs up and look down at those decrepit things, my feet, and an awkward minute will pass until it becomes clear that I'm waiting for him to slip the booties onto them. I never actually buy. All I want is not to die on a day when I went unseen.
A few months ago I saw an ad in the paper. It said, NEEDED: NUDE MODEL FOR DRAWING CLASS. $15/HOUR. It seemed too good to be true. To have so much looked at. By so many. I called the number. A woman told me to come the following Tuesday. I tried to describe myself, but she wasn't interested. Anything will do, she said.
The days passed slowly. I told Bruno about it, but he misunderstood and thought I was signing up for a drawing class in order to see nude girls. He didn't want to be corrected. They show their boobs? he asked. I shrugged. And down there?
After Mrs. Freid on the fourth floor died, and it took three days before anyone found her, Bruno and I got into the habit of checking on each other. We'd make little excusesI ran out of toilet paper, I'd say when Bruno opened the door. A day would pass. There would be a knock on my door. I lost my TV Guide, he'd explain, and I'd go and find him mine, even though I knew his was right there where it always was on his couch. Once he came down on a Sunday afternoon. I need a cup of flour, he said. It was clumsy, but I couldn't help myself. You don't know how to cook. There was a moment of silence. Bruno looked me in the eye. What do you know, he said, I'm baking a cake.
When I came to America I knew hardly anyone, only a second cousin who was a locksmith, so I worked for him. If he had been a shoemaker I would have become a shoemaker; if he had shoveled shit I, too, would have shoveled. But. He was a locksmith. He taught me the trade, and that's what I became. We had a little business together, and then one year he got TB, they had to cut his liver out and he got a 106 temperature and died, so I took it over. I sent his wife half the profits, even after she got married to a doctor and moved to Bay Side. I stayed in the business for over fifty years. It's not what I would have imagined for myself. And yet. The truth is I came to like it. I helped those in who were locked out, others I helped keep out what couldn't be let in, so that they could sleep without nightmares.
Then one day I was looking out the window. Maybe I was contemplating the sky. Put even a fool in front of the window and you'll get a Spinoza. The afternoon passed, darkness sifted down. I reached for the chain on the bulb and suddenly it was as if an elephant had stepped on my heart. I fell to my knees. I thought: I didn't live forever. A minute passed. Another minute. Another. I clawed at the floor, pulling myself along toward the phone.
Twenty-five percent of my heart muscle died. It took time to recover and I never went back to work. A year went by. I was aware of time passing for the sake of itself. I stared out the window. I watched fall turn into winter. Winter into spring. Some days Bruno came downstairs to sit with me. We've known each other since we were boys; we went to school together. He was one of my closest friends, with thick glasses, reddish hair that he hated, and a voice that cracked when he was emotional. I didn't know he was still alive and then one day I was walking down East Broadway and I heard his voice. I turned around. His back was to me, he was standing in front of the grocer's asking for the price of some fruit. I thought: You're hearing things, you're such a dreamer, what is the likelihood your boyhood friend? I stood frozen on the sidewalk. He's in the ground, I told myself. Here you are in the United States of America, there's McDonald's, get a grip. I waited just to make sure. I wouldn't have recognized his face. But. The way he walked was unmistakable. He was about to pass me, I put my arm out. I didn't know what I was doing, maybe I was seeing things, I grabbed his sleeve. Bruno, I said. He stopped and turned. At first he seemed scared and then confused. Bruno. He looked at me, his eyes began to fill with tears. I grabbed his other hand, I had one sleeve and one hand. Bruno. He started to shake. He touched his hand to my cheek. We were in the middle of the sidewalk, people were hurrying past, it was a warm day in June. His hair was thin and white. He dropped the fruit. Bruno.
A couple of years later his wife died. It was too much to live in the apartment without her, everything reminded him, so when an apartment opened up in the floor above me he moved in. We often sit together at my kitchen table. The whole afternoon might go by without our saying a word. If we do talk, we never speak in Yiddish. The words of our childhood became strangers to uswe couldn't use them in the same way and so we chose not to use them at all. Life demanded a new language. Bruno, my old faithful. I haven't sufficiently described him. Is it enough to say he is indescribable? No. Better to try and fail than not to try at all. The soft down of your white hair lightly playing about your scalp like a half-blown dandelion. Many times, Bruno, I have been tempted to blow on your head and make a wish. Only a last scrap of decorum keeps me from it. Or perhaps I should begin with your height, which is very short. On a good day you barely reach my chest. Or shall I start with the eyeglasses you fished out of a box and claimed as your own, enormous round things that magnify your eyes so that your permanent response appears to be a 4.5 on the Richter? They're women's glasses, Bruno! I've never had the heart to tell you. Many times I've tried. And something else. When we were boys you were the greater writer. I had too much pride to tell you then. But. I knew. Believe me when I say, I knew it then as I know it now. It pains me to think how I never told you, and also to think of all you could have been. Forgive me, Bruno. My oldest friend. My best. I haven't done you justice. You have given me such company at the end of my life. You, especially you, who might have found the words for it all.
Once, it was a long time ago, I found Bruno lying in the middle of the living room floor next to an empty bottle of pills. He'd had enough. All he wanted was to sleep forever. Taped to his chest was a note with three words: GOODBYE, MY LOVES. I shouted out. NO, BRUNO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! I slapped his face. At last his eyes fluttered open. His gaze was blank and dull. WAKE UP, YOU DUMKOP! I shouted. LISTEN TO ME NOW: YOU HAVE TO WAKE UP! His eyes drifted closed again. I dialed 911. I filled a bowl with cold water and threw it on him. I put my ear to his heart. Far off, a vague rustle. The ambulance came. At the hospital they pumped his stomach. Why did you take all those pills? the doctor asked. Bruno, sick, exhausted, coolly raised his eyes. WHY DO YOU THINK I TOOK ALL THOSE PILLS? he shrieked. The recovery room turned silent; everyone stared. Bruno groaned and turned toward the wall. That night I put him to bed. Bruno, I said. So sorry, he said. So selfish. I sighed and turned to go. Stay with me! he cried.
We never spoke of it after that. Just as we never spoke of our childhoods, of the dreams we shared and lost, of everything that happened and didn't happen. Once we were sitting silently together. Suddenly one of us began to laugh. It was contagious. There was no reason for our laughter, but we began to giggle and the next thing we were rocking in our seats and howling, howling with laughter, tears streaming down our cheeks. A wet spot bloomed in my crotch and that made us laugh harder, I was banging the table and fighting for air, I thought: Maybe this is how I'll go, in a fit of laughter, what could be better, laughing and crying, laughing and singing, laughing so as not to forget that I am alone, that it is the end of my life, that death is waiting outside the door for me. When I was a boy I liked to write. It was the only thing I wanted to do with my life. I invented imaginary people and filled notebooks with their stories. I wrote about a boy who grew up and got so hairy people hunted him for his fur. He had to hide in the trees, and he fell in love with a bird who thought she was a three-hundred-pound gorilla. I wrote about Siamese twins, one of which was in love with me. I thought the sex scenes were purely original. And yet. When I got older I decided I wanted to be a real writer. I tried to write about real things. I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely. I wrote three books before I was twenty-one, who knows what happened to them. The first was about Slonim, the town where I lived which was sometimes Poland and sometimes Russia. I drew a map of it for the frontispiece, labeling the houses and shops, here was Kipnis the butcher, and here Grodzenski the tailor, and here lived Fishl Shapiro who was either a great tzaddik or an idiot, no one could decide, and here the square and the field where we played, and here was where the river got wide and here narrow, and here the forest began, and here stood the tree from which Beyla Asch hanged herself, and here and here. And yet. When I gave it to the only person in Slonim whose opinion I cared about, she just shrugged and said she liked it better when I made things up. So I wrote a second book, and I made up everything. I filled it with men who grew wings, and trees with their roots growing into the sky, people who forgot their own names and people who couldn't forget anything; I even made up words. When it was finished I ran all the way to her house. I raced through the door, up the stairs, and handed it to the only person in Slonim whose opinion I cared about. I leaned against the wall and watched her face as she read. It grew dark out, but she kept reading. Hours went by. I slid to the floor. She read and read. When she finished she looked up. For a long time she didn't speak. Then she said maybe I shouldn't make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything.
Another person might have given up. I started again. This time I didn't write about real things and I didn't write about imaginary things. I wrote about the only thing I knew. The pages piled up. Even after the only person whose opinion I cared about left on a boat for America, I continued to fill pages with her name.
After she left, everything fell apart. No Jew was safe. There were rumors of unfathomable things, and because we couldn't fathom them we failed to believe them, until we had no choice and it was too late. I was working in Minsk, but I lost my job and went home to Slonim. The Germans pushed east. They got closer and closer. The morning we heard their tanks approaching, my mother told me to hide in the woods. I wanted to take my youngest brother, he was only thirteen, but she said she would take him herself. Why did I listen? Because it was easier? I ran out to the woods. I lay still on the ground. Dogs barked in the distance. Hours went by. And then the shots. So many shots. For some reason, they didn't scream. Or maybe I couldn't hear their screams. Afterwards, only silence. My body was numb, I remember I tasted blood in my mouth. I don't know how much time passed. Days. I never went back. When I got up again, I'd shed the only part of me that had ever thought I'd find words for even the smallest bit of life.
From The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. Copyright Nicole Krauss 2005. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the WW.Norton. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher.
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