NicolasKrauss_HistoryofLove

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THE night before I was scheduled to model for the art class I was nervous and excited. I unbuttoned my shirt and took that off. Then I unbuckled my pants and took off those. My undershirt. The underpants. I stood in front of the hall mirror in my socks. I could hear the cries of children in the playground across the street. The string for the bulb was overhead, but I didn't pull it. I stood looking at myself in what light was left. I've never thought of myself as handsome. As a child my mother and my aunts used to tell me that I would grow up to become handsome. It was clear to me that I wasn't anything to look at then, but I believed that some measure of beauty might come to me eventually. I don't know what I thought: that my ears, which stuck out at an undignified angle, would recede, that my head would somehow grow to fit them? That my hair, not unlike a toilet brush in texture, would, with time, unkink itself and reflect light? That my face, which held so little promise--eyelids as heavy as a frog's, lips on the thin side--would somehow transform itself into something not regrettable? For years I would wake up in the morning" and go to the mirror, hoping. Even when I was too old to continue hoping, I still did. I grew older and there was no improvement. If anything, things went downhill when I entered adolescence and was abandoned by the pleasant attractiveness that all children have. The year of my Bar Mitzvah I was visited by a plague of acne that stayed four years. But still I continued to hope. As soon as the acne cleared my hairline began to recede, as if it wanted to disassociate itself from the embarrassment of my face. My ears, pleased with the new attention they now enjoyed, seemed to strain farther into the spotlight. My eyelids drooped--some muscle tension had to give to support the struggle of the ears--and my eyebrows took on a life of their own, for a brief period achieving all anyone could have hoped for them, and then surpassing those hopes and approaching Neanderthal. For years I continued to hope that things would turn out differently, but I never looked in the mirror and confused what I saw for anything but what it was. With time I thought about it less and less. Then hardly at all. And yet. It's possible that some small part of me has never stopped hoping--that even now there are moments when I stand in front of the mirror, my wrinkled pischer in my hand, and believe my beauty is yet to come. The morning of the class, September 19th, I woke in a state of excitement. I got dressed and ate my breakfast bar of Metamucil, then went to the bathroom and waited in anticipation. Nothing for half an hour, but my optimism didn't wane. Then I managed a series of pellets. Full of hope, I waited some more. It's not impossible that I will die sitting on the toilet, pants around my ankles. After all, I spend so much time there, all of this raising another question, namely: who will be the first person to see me dead? I gave myself a sponge bath and dressed. The day crawled on. When I'd waited as long as I could, I took a bus across town. The newspaper ad was folded into a square in my pocket and I took it out a few times to look at the address, even though I knew it by heart. It took me a while to find the right building. At first I thought there was some mistake. I passed it three times until I realized it had to be the one. It was an old warehouse. The front door was rusted and held open with a cardboard box. For a moment I let myself imagine that I'd been lured there to be robbed and killed. I pictured my body on the floor in a pool of blood. The sky had gotten dark and it was starting to rain. I felt grateful for the feel of wind and the drops on my face, thinking I had little time to live. I stood there, unable to go forward, unable to turn back. Finally I heard laughter coming from inside. See, you're being ridiculous, I thought. I reached for the handle on the door and just then it swung open. A girl wearing a sweater too big for her came out. She pushed up her sleeves. Her arms were thin and pale. Do you need help? she asked. There were tiny holes in the sweater. It came down to her knees, and under it she was wearing a skirt. Her legs were bare, despite the chill. I'm looking for a drawing class. There was an ad in the paper, maybe I have the wrong place--I fumbled in my coat pocket for the ad. She gestured upstairs. Second floor, first room, on the right. But it doesn't start for another hour. I looked up at the building. I said, I thought I might get lost so I came early. She was shivering. I took off my raincoat. Here, wear this. You'll get sick. She shrugged, but didn't move to take it. I held my arm outstretched until it was clear she wasn't going to. There was nothing more to say. There were steps, so I went up them. My heart was beating. I considered turning back: past the girl, down the rubbish-filled street, through the city, to my apartment where there was work to be done. What kind of fool was I, to think they wouldn't turn away when I took off my shirt and dropped my pants and stood naked before them? To think that they would observe my varicose-veined legs, my hairy, sagging knedelach and, what--start to sketch? And yet. I didn't turn back. I gripped the banister and climbed the stairs. I could hear the rain on the skylight. A dirty light filtered through. At the top of the stairs there was a hallway. To the left was a room where a man was painting a large canvas. The room on the right was empty. There was a block covered in a length of black velvet, and a disorganized circle of folding chairs and easels. I went in and sat down to wait. After half an hour people started to wander in. A woman asked me who I was. I'm here about the ad, I told her. I called and spoke to someone. To my relief, she seemed to understand. She showed me where to change, a corner where a makeshift curtain had been hung. I stood there and she pulled it around me. I heard her footsteps move away, and still I stood there. A minute passed and then I removed my shoes. I lined them up neatly. I took off my socks and put those into the shoes. I unbuttoned my shirt and took that off; there was a hanger, so I hung it. I heard chairs scraping and then laughter. Suddenly I didn't care anymore about being seen. I would have liked to grab my shoes and slip out of the room, down the stairs, and away from there. And yet. I unzipped my pants. Then it occurred to me: what, exactly, did "nude" mean? Did they really mean no underwear? I deliberated. What if they expected underwear and I came out with my you-know-whats swinging? I reached for the ad in the pocket of my pants. NUDE MODEL, it said. Don't be an idiot, I told myself. These aren't amateurs. The underwear was down around my knees when the woman's footsteps returned. Are you all right in there? Someone opened a window and a car splashed past in the rain. Fine, fine. Vll be out in a moment. I looked down. There was a tiny smear. My bowels. They never cease to appall me. I stepped out of my underwear and crumpled it into a ball. I thought: Maybe I've come here to die after all. Wasn't it true that I had never seen the warehouse before? Maybe these were what they called angels. The girl outside, of course, how could I have not noticed, she had been so pale. I stood without moving. I was starting to get cold. I thought: So this is how death takes you. Naked in an abandoned warehouse. Tomorrow Bruno would come downstairs and knock on my door and there would be no answer. Forgive me, Bruno. I would have liked to say goodbye. I'm sorry to have disappointed you with so few pages. Then I thought: My book. Who would find it? Would it be thrown away, along with the rest of my things? Even though I thought I'd been writing it for myself, the truth was that I wanted someone to read it. I closed my eyes and inhaled. Who would wash my body? Who would say the Mourner's Kaddish? I thought: My mother's hands. I pulled back the curtain. My heart was in my throat. I stepped forward. Squinting in the light, I stood before them. I was never a man of great ambition. I cried too easily. I didn't have a head for science. Words often failed me. While others prayed I only moved my lips. Please. The woman who'd shown me where to change pointed to the box draped in velvet. Stand here. I walked across the floor. There were maybe twelve of them, sitting in chairs holding their drawing pads. The girl in the big sweater was there. Anything that feels comfortable. I didn't know which way to face. They were in a circle, someone was going to have to face my rectal side no matter which way you cut it. I chose to remain as I was. I let my arms hang at my sides and focused on a spot on the floor. They lifted their pencils. Nothing happened. Instead I felt the plush cloth under the soles of my feet, the hairs rising on my arms, my fingers like ten small weights pulling downward. I felt my body waking under twelve pairs of eyes. I lifted my head. Try to keep still, the woman said. I stared at a crack in the concrete floor. I could hear their pencils moving across the pages. I wanted to smile. Already my body was starting to revolt, the knees beginning to shake and the back muscles straining. But. I didn't care. If need be, I would stand there all day. Fifteen, twenty minutes passed. Then the woman said: Why don't we take a quick break and then we'll stan again with a different pose. I sat. I stood. I rotated so that those who hadn't gotten my rectal side now got it. Pages turned. It went on, I don't know how long. Once I thought I would pass out. I cycled through feeling to numbness to feeling to numbness. My eyes watered with pain. Somehow I got back into my clothes. I couldn't find my underwear and was too tired to look. I made it down the stairs, clutching the banister. The woman came down after me, she said, Wait, you forgot the fifteen dollars. I took it, and when I went to put it into my pocket I felt the ball of underwear there. Thank you. I meant that. I was exhausted. But happy. I want to say somewhere: I've tried to be forgiving. And yet. There were times in my life, whole years, when anger got the better of me. Ugliness turned me inside out. There was a certain satisfaction in bitterness. I courted it. It was standing outside, and I invited it in. I scowled at the world. And the world scowled back. We were locked in a stare of mutual disgust. I used to let the door slam in people's faces. I farted where I wanted to fart. I accused cashiers of cheating me out of a penny, while holding the penny in my hand. And then one day I realized I was on my way to being the sort of schmuck who poisons pigeons. People crossed the street to avoid me. I was a human cancer. And to be honest: I wasn't really angry. Not anymore. I had left my anger somewhere long ago. Put it down on a park bench and walked away. And yet. It had been so long, I didn't know any other way of being. One day I woke up and said to myself: Its not too late. The first days were strange. I had to practice smiling in front of the mirror. But it came back to me. It was as if a weight had been lifted. I let go, and something let go of me. A couple of months later, I found Bruno. When I got home from the art class, there was a note from Bruno on my door. It said: WARE ARE YOU? I was too tired to climb the stairs to tell him. Inside it was dark and I pulled the string for the bulb in the hallway. I saw myself in the mirror. My hair, what was left of it, stuck up in the back like a wave at its crest. My face looked shriveled like something left out in the rain. I fell into bed still wearing my clothes minus the underwear. It was past midnight when the telephone rang. I awoke from a dream in which I was teaching my brother Josef how to pee in an arc. Sometimes I have nightmares. But this wasn't one. We were in the woods, the cold bit at our behinds. Steam rose from the snow. Josef turned to me, smiling. A beautiful child, blond with gray eyes. Gray, like the ocean on a sunless day, or the elephant I saw in the town square when I was his age. Plain as day, standing in the dusty sunlight. Later no one could remember having seen it, and because it was impossible to understand how an elephant would have arrived in Slonim, no one believed me. But I saw it. A siren sounded in the distance. Just as my brother opened his mouth to speak, the dream broke off and I woke up in the darkness of my bedroom, the rain pit-pattering on the glass. The telephone continued to ring. Bruno, no doubt. I would have ignored it if I hadn't been afraid he'd call the police. Why doesn't he just tap on the radiator with his walking stick like he always does? Three taps means ARE YOU ALIVE?, two means YES, one, NO. We only do it at night, during the day there are too many other noises, and anyway, it isn't foolproof since usually Bruno falls asleep wearing his Walkman. I threw off the sheets and stumbled across the floor, banging into a table leg. HELLO? I shouted into the phone, but the line was dead. I hung up, went to the kitchen, and took a glass down from the cabinet. The water gurgled in the pipes and splattered out in a burst. I drank some down and then remembered my plant. I've had it for almost ten years. It's barely alive, but it is alive. More brown than green. There are parts that have withered. But still it lives, leaning always to the left. Even when I rotate it so that what faced the sun no longer faces the sun, it stubbornly leans to the left, choosing against physical need in favor of an act of creativity. I poured the rest of my water into its pot. What does it mean, anyway, to flourish? A moment later the phone rang again. OK, OK, I said, picking up the receiver. No need to wake the whole building. There was silence on the other end. I said: Bruno? Is this Mr. Leopold Gursky? I assumed it was someone trying to sell me something. They're always calling to sell. Once they said if I sent in a check for $99 I'd be pre-approved for a credit card, and I said, Right, sure, and if I step under a pigeon preapproved for a load of shit. But the man said he wasn't trying to sell me anything. He'd locked himself out of his house. He'd called Information for the number of a locksmith. I told him I was retired. The man paused. He seemed unable to believe his bad luck. He'd already called three other people and no one answered. Its pouring out here, he said. Couldn't you stay somewhere else for the flight? In the morning it'll be easy to find a locksmith. They're a dime a dozen. No, he said. All right, I mean, if it's too much ... he began, then paused, waiting for me to speak up. I didn't. OK, then. I could hear the disappointment in his voice. Sorry to have disturbed you. And yet he didn't hang up and neither did I. I was filled with guilt. I thought: What do I need with sleep? There will be time. Tomorrow. Or the next day. OK, OK, I said, even though I didn't want to say it. I'd have to dig up my tools. I might as well be looking for a needle in a haystack or a Jew in Poland. Hold on a second, will you--I'm getting a pen. He gave me an address all the way uptown. Only after I hung up did I remember I could wait forever before a bus came at that hour. I had the card in the kitchen drawer for Goldstar Car Service, not that I ever call it. But. You never know. I ordered a car and started digging through the hall closet for my toolbox. Instead, I found the box of old eyeglasses. Who knows where I got them. Someone probably selling it on the street with some mismatched china and a doll with no head. From time to time I try on a pair. Once I cooked an omelet wearing a pair of ladies' reading glasses. It was a mammoth omelet, it struck fear in my heart just to look at it. I fished around in the box and pulled out a pair. They were square and flesh-colored, with lenses half an inch thick. I slipped them on. The floor dropped from under me, and when I tried to take a step it lurched upwards. I staggered toward the hall mirror. In an effort to gain some focus I zoomed in, but miscalculated and banged into the glass. The buzzer rang. When your pants are down around your ankles, that's when everyone arrives. I'll be down in a minute, I shouted into the speaker. When I took off the glasses, the toolbox was there under my nose. I ran my hand across its battered top. Then I grabbed my raincoat off the floor, smoothed down my hair in the mirror, and went out. Bruno's note was still taped to the door. I crumpled it into my pocket. A black limousine idled in the street, rain falling in the headlights. Other than that, there were only a few empty cars parked along the curb. I was about to go back into the building, but the limousine driver rolled down the window and called my name. He wore a purple turban. I walked up to the window. There must be a mistake, I said. I ordered a car. OK, he said. But this is a limousine, I pointed out. OK, he repeated, motioning me in. I can't pay extra. The turban bobbed. He said: Get in before you get soaking. I ducked inside. There were leather seats, and a pair of crystal liquor bottles along the sideboard. It was bigger than I'd imagined. The soft exotic music coming from up front and the gentle rhythm of the windshield wipers only barely reached me. He pointed the nose of the car into the street and we headed into the night. The traffic lights bled into the puddles. I opened a crystal bottle but it was empty. There was a little jar of peppermints and I filled my pockets. When I looked down my fly was open. I sat up and cleared my throat. Ladies and gentlemen, I'll do my best to keep this brief, you've all been so patient. The truth is I'm shocked, really, I'm pinching myself. An honor I could have only dreamed of, the Goldstar Lifetime Achievement Award, I'm practically speechless.... Has it really been? And yet. Yes. All of the evidence suggests. A lifetime. We made our way through the city. I've walked through all of those neighborhoods, my business took me all over the city. They even knew me in Brooklyn, I went everywhere. Picking locks for the Hasids. Locks for the shvartzers. Sometimes I even walked for pleasure, a whole Sunday I might have spent just walking. Once, years ago, I found myself in front of the Botanical Garden and went in to see the cherry trees. I bought some Cracker Jacks, and watched the fat lazy goldfish swimming in their pool. There was a wedding party taking photographs under a tree, the white blossoms made it look as if it alone had been caught in a snowstorm. T found my way to the tropical greenhouse. It was another world inside, wet and warm, like the breath of people making love had been trapped there. With my finger I wrote on the glass LEO GURSKY. The limousine came to a stop. I put my face up to the window. Which one? The driver pointed to a townhouse. It was beautiful, with steps up to the door and leaves carved in stone. Seventeen dollars, the driver said. I felt in my pocket for my wallet. No. Other pocket. Bruno's note, my underwear from earlier that day, but no wallet. Both pockets of the coat, No, No. I must have left it home in the rush. Then I remembered my fee from the art class. I dug past the peppermints, the note, the underwear, and came up with it. Sorry, I said. How embarrassing. All I have on me is fifteen. I admit I was reluctant to part with the bills, hard-earned wasn't the word for them but something else, more bittersweet. But after a brief pause the turban bobbed and the money was accepted. The man was standing under the doorway. Of course he hadn't expected me in a limousine, and out I'd popped like Mr. Locksmith to the Stars. I was humiliated, I wanted to explain, Believe me, Vd never mistake myself for anyone special. But it was pouring still, and I thought he needed me more than he needed any explanation of how I got there. His hair was matted down from the rain. He thanked me three times for coming. Ifs nothing, I said. And yet. I knew I almost hadn't come. It was a tricky lock. The man stood above me, holding my flashlight. The rain was dripping down the back of my neck. I felt how much depended on my unlocking that lock. The minutes passed. I tried and failed. Tried and failed. And then at last my heart started to race. I turned the handle and the door slipped open. We stood dripping in the hallway. He took off his shoes, so I took off mine. He thanked me again, and went to change into dry clothes and call me a car. I tried to protest, saying I could take the bus or hail a taxi, but he wouldn't hear of it, what with the rain. He left me in the living room. I wandered into the dining room, and from there I caught sight of a roomful of books. I'd never seen so many books in one place that wasn't a library. I walked in. I, too, like to read. Once a month I go to the local branch. For myself I pick a novel and for Bruno with his cataracts a book on tape. At first he was doubtful. What am I supposed to do with this? he said, looking at the box set of Anna Karenina like I'd handed him an enema. And yet. A day or two later I was going about my business when a voice from above bellowed, ALL HAPPY FAMILIES RESEMBLE ONE ANOTHER, nearly giving me a conniption. After that he listened to whatever I brought him at top volume, then returned it to me without comment. One afternoon I came back from the library with Ulysses. The next morning I was in the bathroom when, STATELY PLUMP BUCK MULLIGAN, rang out from above. For a month straight he listened. He had a habit of pressing the stop button and rewinding when he hadn't fully understood something. INELEC-TABLE MODALITY OF THE VISIBLE: AT LEAST THAT. Pause, rewind. INELUCTABLE MODALITY OF THE. Pause, rewind. INELUCTABLE MODALITY. Pause. INELUCT. When the due date approached he wanted it renewed. By then I'd had it with his stopping and starting, so I went to The Wiz and got him a Sony Sportsman, and now he schleps it around clipped to his belt. For all I know he just likes the sound of an Irish accent. I busied myself looking through the man's shelves. Out of habit I looked to see if there was anything by my son, Isaac. Sure enough there was. And not just one book, but four. I ran my finger along their spines. I stopped on Glass Houses and took it off the shelf. A beautiful book. Stories. I've read them I don't know how many times. There's one--the title story. It's my favorite, not that I don't love them all. But this one stands alone. Not alone, but apart. It's short, but every time I read it I cry. It's about an angel who lives on Ludlow Street. Not far from me, just across Delancey. He's lived there for so long he can't remember why God put him on earth. Every night the angel talks aloud to God, and every day he waits for some word from Him. To pass the time, he walks through the city. In the beginning he's in the habit of marveling at everything. He starts a collection of pebbles. Teaches himself difficult math. And yet. With each day that passes he's blinded a little less by the beauty of the world. At night the angel lies awake listening to the footsteps of the widow who lives above him, and every morning on the stairs he passes the old man, Mr. Grossmark, who spends his days dragging himself upstairs and down, upstairs and down, muttering, Who's there? So far as he can tell that's all he ever says, except for once when out of nowhere he turned to the angel as he passed on the stairs and said, Who am I? which so startled the angel who never speaks and is never spoken to that he said nothing, not even: You're Grossmark, the human being. The more sadness he sees, the more his heart begins to turn against God. He starts to roam the streets at night, stopping for anyone who looks like they need an ear. The things he hears--it's too much. He can't understand it. When he asks God why He's made him so useless, the angel's voice cracks trying to hold back angry tears. Eventually he stops talking to God altogether. One night he meets a man under a bridge. They share the vodka the man has in a brown bag. And because the angel is drunk and lonely and angry with God, and because, without his even knowing it, he feels the urge, familiar among humans, to confide in someone, he tells the man the truth: that he's an angel. The man doesn't believe him, but the angel insists. The man asks him to prove it, and so the angel lifts his shirt despite the cold and shows the man the perfect circle on his chest, which is the mark of an angel. But that means nothing to the man, who doesn't know from the mark of angels, so he says, Show me something God can do, and the angel, naive like all angels, points to the man. And because the man thinks he's lying, he punches the angel in the stomach, sending him tottering backwards off the pier and plunging into the dark river. Where he drowns, because one thing about angels is that they can't swim. Alone in that roomful of books, I held my son's book in my hands. It was the middle of the night. Past the middle. I thought: Poor Bruno. By now he's probably called the morgue to find out if anyone brought in an old man with an index card in his wallet that says: MY NAME IS LEO GURSKY I HAVE NO FAMILY PLEASE CALL PINELAWN CEMETERY I HAVE A PLOT THERE IN THE JEWISH PART THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. I turned my son's book over to look at his photograph. We met once. Not met, but stood face to face. It was at a reading at the 92nd Street Y. I bought tickets four months in advance. Many times in my life I'd imagined our meeting. I as his father, he as my son. And yet. I knew it never could happen, not the way I wanted. I'd accepted that the most I could hope for was a place in the audience. But during the reading something came over me. Afterwards, I found myself standing in line, my hands shaking as I pressed into his the scrap of paper on which I'd written my name. He glanced at it and copied it into a book. I tried to say something but there was no sound. He smiled and thanked me. And yet. I didn't budge. Is there something else? he asked. I flapped my hands. The woman behind me gave me an impatient look and pushed forward to greet him. Like a fool I flapped. What could he do? He signed the woman's book. It was uncomfortable for everyone. My hands danced on. The line had to move around me. Occasionally he looked up at me, bewildered. Once, he smiled at me the way you smile at an idiot. But my hands fought to tell him everything. At least as much as they could before a security guard firmly grasped my elbow and escorted me out the door. It was winter. Fat white flakes drifted down under the street lamps. I waited for my son to come out but he never came. Maybe there was a back door, I don't know. I took the bus home. I walked down my snow-covered street. Out of habit I turned and checked for my footsteps. When I arrived at my building I looked for my name on the buzzers. And because I know that sometimes I see things that aren't there, after dinner I called Information to ask if I was listed. That night before I went to sleep, I opened the book, which I'd put on my bedside table. TO LEON GURSKY, it said. I was still holding the book when the man whose door I'd unlocked came up behind me. You know it? he asked. I dropped it and it landed with a thud at my feet, my son's face staring up. I didn't know what I was doing. I tried to explain. I'm his father, I said. Or maybe I said: He's my son. Whatever it was, I got the point across because the man looked shocked and then he looked surprised and then he looked like he didn't believe me. Which was fine with me, because after all who did I think I was, showing up in a limousine, picking a lock, and then claiming to be the progenitor of a famous writer? Suddenly I was tired, more tired than I'd been in years. I leaned over, picked the book up, and put it back on the shelf. The man kept looking at me, but just then the car honked outside which was lucky because I'd had enough of being looked at for one day. Well, I said, making my way toward the front door, Yd better be going. The man reached for his wallet, took out a hundred-dollar bill, and handed it to me. His father? he asked. I pocketed the money and handed him a complimentary peppermint. I stuffed my feet into my wet shoes. Not really his father, I said. And because I didn't know what else to say, I said: More like his uncle. This seemed to confuse him enough, but just in case I added: Not exactly his uncle. He raised his eyebrows. I picked up my toolbox and stepped out into the rain. He tried to thank me again for coming but I was already on my way down the stairs. I got into the car. He was still standing in the doorway, looking out. To prove that I was off my rocker, I gave him the Queen's wave. It was three in the morning when I got home. I climbed into bed. I was exhausted. But I couldn't sleep. I lay on my back, listening to the rain and thinking about my book. I'd never given it a title, because what does a book need with a title unless someone is going to read it? I got out of bed and went to the kitchen. I keep my manuscript in a box in the oven. I took it out, set it on the kitchen table, and rolled a sheet of paper into the typewriter. For a long time I sat looking at the blank page. With two fingers I picked out a title:

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