... jacqueline ...
... feldman ...
commitmentCommitment?! She just wanted someone who’d get the joke, find it as funny as she did. Jumping up on the bed, throwing pillows around—that’s it! That’s the whole joke! You have to keep living!
plenty of death leftWe stopped in Jerusalem, my father and I, to see the attractions, next to the Wailing Wall a clarinetist and his friend; a third man getting ready to sell yarmulkes was shaking them, curled tight as cowrie shells, out of a plastic sleeve.
“We have our capitalist Israeli family,” I said, “in Tel Aviv, and then we have our socialist Israeli family, in the south.”
“I think you’ll find the kibbutz is not that socialist,” my dad said. “They have people working temporarily who come from Southeast Asia. They definitely exploit labor. They are always looking for new products to sell.”
There had been amazement that in spite of my having been able, as a young Jewish American person, to avail myself of a perfectly good free trip, my dad was taking me on this vacation. “It’s a kind of private Birthright,” my “uncle” David said. He was beginning to call me, reacting to responses I made to his own comments, “perceptive” or “astonishingly perceptive.” He was, with his family, expert. They were bringing us to Masada, a mountain. There was a story to do with this mountain that made it a tourist attraction, but I had no data and, what’s more, nobody, none of the other passengers in that van, would tell me the legend in question—out of embarrassment, apparently.
“It’s not a very Jewish story,” my “cousin” Horam said, “and it’s not a very good Jewish story.”
We dismounted from the van to see an ibex eating trash. “They have done very well here,” Horam said.
“Ibexes?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s a remarkable achievement, really. There is at this region a kind of zoo in which all animals mentioned in the Bible are grown.”
“I think you mean ‘bred,’” my “cousin” Ofek, who was still in high school, remarked.
“Of course,” Horam said. “The animals are bred.”
“Hang on,” my dad said. “I forgot about this, but I brought hats for everybody.”
“Hats!” David exclaimed.
I put my hair in a ponytail. Murals of Jewish stars in a lobby had been conceived without irony. I looked back to see my dad held up in a doorway, doing something challenging with a zipper of his backpack.
We had to take a chairlift. “My grandmother really believed,” David said, “that if she died and was buried in the Bronx, an underground tube would suck her over to Israel.” His hat was purple, with a tiger on it.
“I don't think my grandmother spoke English,” my dad said. His hat was green, with dragons.
I was using both hands to work on the spot where my hair came out of my own hat, fixing it up as I could; the hair tie needed to be on the outside of the hat band but was badly stuck.
“Ow!” Ofek said.
“Sorry Ofek,” I said. One of my elbows had struck him in the face. “Are you OK?”
“If I’d moved back,” David said, “it would’ve been a failure. That was plain from the start.”
We got down at the top. Ofek had a black eye. “If you look in this direction,” David said, taking a few steps away from us, “you can see a sliver of water. There where it shimmers. That’s the Red Sea, and that’s where we’re going.” An engineer, David was employed working at what my dad had described to me as a “salt factory.”
I went off with Horam, who was in medical school. He had served in the Israeli army as a medic. “What was that like?” I asked.
“There have actually been some interesting developments,” he said, “if you’d care to know about them.”
“Of course,” I said, and thought suddenly of stuff that had fallen into my sneaker, dry grass. “Hold on a second,” I said, and he offered me his elbow as I removed the sneaker and gave it a shake. Out fell a big, dead spider that was already dry.
“What a surprise,” I said.
“It happens,” Horam said. “They don’t have poison. There were rumors,” he went on, “of an elite corps of dolphins.” We were inspecting a set of cubbies that had long ago housed pigeons, messengers, and saw, turning back, David showing something to my dad, touching a model of fortifications that was hot, I thought, from sun. He pulled a hand back fast. Kids eating potato chips were crying.
“Among army people,” I asked, “or among suspicious civilians?”
“Among army people,” Horam said.
“What could the dolphins do?”
“You could train them Pavlov-style,” Horam said, “and get them to carry packages.”
“Could they spy?” I asked. “Like, could you put cameras on their heads?”
“No, these would be, uh”—as I let the record show, he audibly swallowed—“suicide dolphins.
“What are you writing all this for?” he asked, just after that. He was leaning as if rakishly upon a guardrail, letting his forearms all but absorb it.
“I’m thinking of pitching something,” I said. “I have a friend I want to impress who put me up to it,” I added.
“Ah,” he said. “I thought it might have been something like that.”
As soon as I had the chance, I went for a walk with my dad. David’s way of speaking, its deliberateness, had struck me that whole day as interesting. “David speaks very deliberately,” I said.
“When we were kids,” my dad said, “David had a terrible stutter. And he worked, in fact, to overcome that stutter. The work was noticeable. It was as if he had on his own decided, one day when we were ten, that he just didn’t want to have it anymore. Of course his parents were glad. I think they were proud. They may have thrown a party. I was too young to understand what was going on. It was the change I noticed, because the stutter was normal, from my perspective. But I certainly noticed the work David put in. It was the kind of thing a grownup would’ve been likelier to do.”
All of us got into and finally out of the van heavily, limbs heavy from the heat. It was Shabbat, and the operation of machines in various greenhouses had been by the kibbutzniks slowed to a stop. These greenhouses lay across the main road from a grove of buildings in which these people who were not our family lived. They had machines of yellow metal used to lift a single worker high as eighteen meters to pick dates. These were the machines that now lay still, folded in like sleeping roe deer on themselves.
“We had the unique experience of dedicating a Jewish cemetery,” David said. “We walked around this thing chanting songs for what felt like hours. What really moved me was that the rabbi said, afterward, ‘This is what separates a temporary settlement from a permanent settlement,’ and we were settlers, so I took that as a compliment.
“After you,” he added, holding open a door like a cloud.
We had seen a kind of field of fallen date palms that could not grow tall in sand but toppled over, as David explained. The sea, he’d said, was running out of salt.
“They had to bring in oil drilling equipment to get to this water,” David said, “water that hadn’t seen the light of day in millions of years. Some of it is geothermal. It comes out at a hundred degrees. We had a fish-growing operation there, but it collapsed because we grew too many fish for ourselves but we are too far from Eilat to ship them anyplace.”
Lining the greenhouse were gray-white tables bearing seedlings, hundreds of seedlings, plants too young to announce themselves as belonging to one species or another. My dad had taken off a hat, his sunglasses, and was using a bandana to clean his face. All through the greenhouse light was low and mottled by the spotty plastic of tarp walls.
Ofek dropped a set of keys and, apologizing, bent to pick them up.
A sound began deep in the greenhouse. It was irregular, a kind of pinging. We saw, far off, a cat, leaping between pieces of equipment.
My dad had stopped what he was doing and was looking in wonder. “What a stupid cat,” he said.
“It’s playing,” David said.
My dad went off to take a look.
The rest of us stepped outside to wait for him, David showing me the field of slim logs that was an impound lot for date palms. Behind it, visible to us, were mountains that the country shared with Jordan. In between were sheds I judged to be of tin or something. That was where the workers slept. We continued to be reached by the distant sound of pinging that, after my father joined us, as we walked leaving the van, went on.
My dad had a stomachache.
“I’m afraid it might have been the peppers,” David said. “We had them sprayed last week. Most people are able to take it. I would never forgive myself.”
My dad was, to rest up, napping, napping during the party, the Passover party. I had found a natural rise in the land from which I could, taking a break, regard as if objectively the scene of tables, plates textured by their specks of horseradish, and homemade instruments that had been put to use in the night’s course. There was music still, a DJ’s. In a ring a dozen dancers made their way around a pool. The desert all around was dark. The area of the pool was bright as if on fire. My “uncle” found me where I sat. “I know how it looks,” he said. “It’s not Paris, I’ll give you that,” he added. “It’s funny,” David went on, and I noticed that he had taken his hat into his hands and was worrying it as he looked with me, in the same direction, standing by the bench from which I had not risen: “When I was young, when I was your age and even a little older than you, nothing in the world could have made me believe, or accept the belief, that that circle of light in the middle of that vast expanse could have everything I’d need in life. But I think you’re smarter than I was at your age, and so maybe you can understand. You have a lot of energy.”
We watched quietly the scene below us as around us spread the realization, rising, becoming undeniable, that David expected me to respond by saying something. Laughter rose as well, accompanied by shouts and burbling until at once there was, amid much laughter, an enormous, world-ending splash as a body, with us watching, landed in the pool. A snaking wire trailed after, flashing even now. That was when the lights went out.
a plan—You just need to all get drunk and do to him what Plath did to Hughes.
—She bit his cheek! Or, no, she bit him on the nose.
—You better look it up!
two waysWhen I had done something wrong I would be asked if I’d done it by accident or on purpose, and then the reaction would come. I could tell “by accident” was the thing to say; that was obvious. But I was always curious about that forbidden “on purpose,” a term I didn’t know the meaning of but which reminded me of the animals, of porpoises, I did know what those were, like dolphins, and would have been able to tell you down to the last detail the differences between these species. I was so curious that one day I couldn’t resist, I said in answer that I’d done whatever it was on purpose, beautiful phrase. My mother’s anger was something terrifying; it terrifies me to think of it today. She would never have hit me, but she might have wanted to.
the fate of jeremySome people in this town where I have moved are saying it was manipulative of me to have waited to have a boyfriend in place before having a breakdown. I just woke up crying in the night. “I ruined my life,” I cried.
Jeremy drew me toward him. “No such thing,” he said.
interioRsI got up and went into the kitchen, a room I liked, in that apartment, particularly. The woman whose apartment this was had taken pains to render it attractive and uncluttered. Everywhere were large glass jars she had provided and in which she expected my roommates and me to store dry goods so that we would not be surrounded by the clash of brands. In the days after my arrival and before her departure for New York City, where she, a historian, was doing archival research, my landlady had painted the table. She had chosen a cobalt blue with a lot of green in it that was surprising but, like her other design choices, tasteful and pleasing. She had done the job carefully. The surface was, legs and all, vivid and glossy.
I had two roommates, one of whom had arrived recently and was living in the bedroom our landlady had vacated. People, Americans, are attracted to France for different reasons, a lot of them nonsense, but for that roommate, who was from Ohio, the appeal, though not something I talked about with her, observably was that of living in a country where her intelligence, patience in applying herself, and sense for rules and getting around them would be valued and rewarded even as the North American ego and its cousins would be understood for what they were, ridiculousness. A graduate student specializing in French literature, she was, in addition to finishing her dissertation, volunteering with an organization supporting people requiring grants of refugee status. A volunteer paralegal, she was training for a marathon. But she had a sense of humor, and my affection for her derived from moments in which she as it were looked up from everything and, all at once, appeared—this was sweet, unfeigned—quite helpless.
The kitchen was small, blue table pushed against a wall opposite the sink and fridge. You entered the kitchen with the table to your left and the fridge and sink to your right. Ahead of you a counter, which the stove split up, wrapped around, and there were cabinets above it. There was a big square window above the sink, its sill flush with the counter, and that view, of an alley threading housing projects of a melancholy characteristic of that section of the Eleventh Arrondissement, was most days bathed with a kind of light common in Paris, a city of light-gray buildings in a river basin. The sun doesn’t come in directly but comes in after hitting a light-gray surface, some exterior wall you usually see. It will appear white in its radiance. A glow like that can also come around a corner.
Directly opposite that window, above the table, was a series of slim windows that gave onto a hallway. I’d go into that kitchen to see the roommate I liked look up sheepishly. Although she did not want to hog the space, she liked to work at that blue table. She had her laptop in front of her. She had something to say; I could see her getting ready, starting to let herself smile. She liked so much to sit in that kitchen, at that low table; with those windows to either side reflecting the weather she had the feeling that she was in a boat.
But just then I was alone. I had taken a tray of eggplant I was roasting out of the oven. It sat on the stove. The coal-black skins that were visible glistened with oil. I took a fork, stabbed at a piece of eggplant so it came up off the tray, and tasted it. I had thought I was so smart in sprinkling those pieces of eggplant with sesame seeds, but I hadn’t done that properly. I would have had to use egg or something to get the seeds to stick, and the burned seeds, strays, looked like an insect colony, or mouse droppings—uncleanly. I was in the habit of roasting an eggplant each week. I would take leftovers to the library throughout the week. I ate some more eggplant and then, quite to my surprise, threw up into my hand. I had to bring up the other hand in a hurry. I put the vomit in the trash under the sink and, after rinsing my hands, vomited another time.
It did not end well with that landlady. The signs had been there all along. And yet from one day to the next—an idiom with a perfect equivalent in French, du jour au lendemain—I became incapable of responding politely or by dropping dead to any of the emails she was in the habit of sending. We knew that she was rich. But this latest, addressed just to me, had included two paragraphs about an increase in the monthly bills that had alarmed her followed by a plea I leave my computer unplugged whenever possible and certainly overnight, while I was sleeping.
I was sleeping badly. I had stopped going to the library, opting instead to do my work at home. There were practical reasons. I had amassed a number of notebooks—forty-seven—in my initial research and, by that point in my process, made regular reference to all. Just as it wasn’t easy to transport them, it wasn’t easy, either, to guess which ones, on a given day, I’d want.
I bought the notebooks at the BHV (with the exception of the first three, acquired before I figured out what to do). So they were uniform. Their uniformity entailed a problem as to storage, each being asymmetric in the same way. The solution I had found was to pile them with spiral bindings alternating so that the stack was level. A delicate “off” pink, rose cassé, salmon or raspberry pink, they made one think, in any case, of food. I kept the notebooks in their stacks in cardboard boxes I’d obtained at the market held weekly in the neighborhood where my roommates and I lived. Most fit in a box that had held grapefruits. I liked an icon on its side, verisimilar and pink as gums. I kept the overflow as well as material I’d drafted and printed in a box that had been used to ship, actually, eggplants. The aubergines had come from Holland. The men at market had been nice about my asking. People need large cardboard boxes for all kinds of reasons, for a move. The need is not unusual. Those men, meanwhile, have to put in work to get rid of them, breaking them down.
My landlady, before going to New York, had had the opportunity (when I left the door ajar) to glimpse the boxes. I didn't think she liked them. I had on my arrival found the room almost over-furnished. In addition to the desk and bed, a twin, there was a wicker chair, a wardrobe, a dresser, a bookcase, a rack for clothes, an end table, a shelf, a chest made out of wicker in which an air mattress was stored, four lamps, and a bulletin board; the room was not, however, large. I was able to fit the cardboard boxes under the desk and on top of the wardrobe. My landlady had taken care in preparing this room for my arrival. She had taken the chair cushion to the cleaner’s. But she hadn’t removed, nor did she comment on, a bar for exercising stuck up and quite useless to me in the doorway of the room. Suction held it up, a pull-up bar. Her sons were grown, but she often spoke of paying for their education; it seemed each of them was still receiving an education. The project to which New York archives pertained was, I had learned, a project she’d begun some decades earlier before becoming pregnant for the first time. My assumption was that it was a continuation of the project that had been her doctoral dissertation. My landlady spoke of having been a long time away from academia—she had worked for many years in publishing—and of her own bravery in, despite obstacles so numerous and obvious the whole world might have been counted in, picking up with her long-held ambition. She wouldn’t have used a word like “ambition.” I was not brought up to believe in such a thing as a life’s work, but it was in a belief like this that my landlady had been, by whatever mechanism, educated. My roommates and I, all students of some kind, were only the most recent of the students she had taken in. She needed the money, as she always found her chance to put to us. It would have been out of the question to mention in the hope of redressing a significant bloodstain I had found on the underside of the mattress. “That girl was crazy,” the roommate I didn't like as much, who’d been there longest, said. The roommate I didn't like as much was, like me, like the other, an American woman in her late twenties; she had come to Paris to go back to school at a university of prestige and chic equipping her to do something with refugees. The girl had been twenty-one, I think Slovenian, Erasmus. “I have never seen anyone eat so many bananas. She would come home with two bunches, and in a day they’d be gone.” It seemed this girl who’d used to live where I lived had been broke or anorexic but still menstruating.
She favored three-ring binders of German manufacture, buying them identical, in gray. They warred for space. “How many books do you think she has?” my roommate asked, as if the books in question weren’t right there in front of us to be, if the question were of real interest, counted. Madame’s project had to do with the Holocaust, the Holocaust and the performing arts. A question that came to preoccupy me, and which neither of my roommates, not even that one who had been there longest, could answer, was whether she was Jewish. Obviously I tried telling a couple of French friends what her last name was, and they said after what seemed merely cursory reflection that it could go either way. She didn’t offer any comment on my Jewishness as French people, in my experience, do; they will come up with some remark about my Jewishness, to show that they have wised to it, or else spell my last name, which is Feldman, with two n’s (thinking I am German). My suspicion about my landlady was that she was a Gentile.
My landlady, before leaving, had shown me her library. That was not my first time getting acquainted with a system maintained by a French person in which books were stored two-deep. Each shelf held a different category, as if my landlady had allowed the number of shelves and not the requirements of the collection to decide the categories she made. And with every intention of respecting the rules by which my landlady organized her shelves—it had occurred to me already I’d be able, using scraps of paper, to mark spots opened by the books I borrowed—I listened carefully. There were, in addition to various national literatures, subdivisions with a more academic flavor, like “Cultural Studies,” labeled unusually in English. A high shelf was another exception, given over to works by a single author. A Twentieth-Century author, the author was Céline. My landlady took down a volume. Reaching for it in a movement that involved her body’s full extension she wobbled, briefly on the metatarsals. She let out a peal of laughter. (I was taller than my landlady even if I was less imposing physically. I dressed like a child, in jeans and loose-hanging T-shirts, and I didn’t brush my hair.) My landlady, managing, grasped a yellowed Gallimard, the author’s correspondence. She hit it suddenly, making a cloud of dust go up. “Horrible man,” she added, in a tone that I found difficult to assess.
Months went by, and she came back. It was going to take her a couple of days to go through all her things. By that time I felt quite at home. I had acquired, by then, a quantity of books. They didn't all fit in the bookcase my landlady provided in my room, and so I fitted a couple—the ones I liked least, though there was no way for anyone else to know that—into a low shelf where the row was loose. My landlady must have gone right to them. They were books of bright primary colors, red, yellow, books whose material properties my landlady would help me, in her way, to appreciate.
In those months I had experienced a kind of heightening of every sensitivity I harbored to interactions of my process and environment. I was able, in the course of this heightening, to access grace. A trick of perception, it did not, however, spare me. I was able to give myself over. I had been developing a practice by which I arranged draft pages in such a way as would facilitate my taking tape and scissors to them, which I did feeling a frisson of guilt, a feeling I could all that time deny or, in psychoanalytic parlance, repress. Not only does playing with tape, scissors, paper serve the writer, speaking theoretically, as a mechanism of procrastination, I knew and on some level had always known that even if I had created passable or, to be clearer, publishable pieces of writing using this method, none was accomplished in the way of works that I was able in a feat that had not always seemed so valiant to write from beginning to end. (Light changed with the sun’s position in those months. When stuff came up in a window box, I found another canvas for my labor. Lovingly I pulled away all that seemed dead to me, expired. In with it, something growing always caused my hand to itch.)
Cuts made by my landlady were sure and clean, the work of knives. Title pages, typeset, smiled weakly up. I never did learn what my landlady found to do with the covers, as neither she nor I would encounter, after the discovery that I made privately, an opportunity to mention the books—not my books, not what became of them.
mon vieuxSo it’s not easy for the woman, right, because she faces, right, material consequences for, right, not wanting what you’re supposed to want. But refusal is important for the artist. Seriously folks, will no one lend me a fucking handkerchief to clean this up w—
end of the dayIt feels as though we’re speaking across a distance (and not “at” it). The gloss on a skyscraper when dusk comes. The arrival of a flock, wheeling in its downward spiral as it caws, fuck. In California a lark has died. In Nevada. In Rhode Island they all know. Check the oven for the pizza that I got you. They’re informed. They’re very open people. Glass in every verse as well as stuck between their teeth. (Solution to the riddle: They are worms.)
In Nevada a pan of purest tin. A roommate, in Albuquerque, needs a reference. What is your number now? What is your number? Lark in the pan, a pizza sky, everything generous that isn’t beautiful. A ride home of pure tin. A lark in California. On its wing…