- February 8th, 2010
‘The History of Love’ by Nicole Kraus, p. 10-13 (pages may vary depending on your edition):
“All the times I have suddenly realized that my parents are dead, even now, it still surprises me, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist: my knees, it takes half a tube of Ben-Gay and a big production just to bend them. To everything a season, to every time I’ve woken only to make the mistake of believing for a moment that someone was sleeping beside me: a hemorrhoid. Loneliness: there is no organ that can take it all.
Every morning, a little more.
Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.
Once upon a time there was a boy who lived in a house across the field from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was Queen and he was King. In the autumn light, her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls. When the sky grew dark they parted with leaves in their hair.
Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. When they were ten he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven he kissed her for the first time. When they were thirteen they got into a fight and for three weeks they didn’t talk. When they were fifteen she showed him the scar on her left breast. Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised her he would never love another girl as long as he lived. ‘What if I die?’ she asked. ‘Even then,’ he said. For her sixteenth birthday he gave her an English dictionary and together they learned the words. ‘What’s this?’ he’d ask, tracing his index finger around her ankle, and she’d look it up. ‘And this?’ he’d ask, kissing her elbow. ‘Elbow! What kind of a word is that?’ and then he’d lick it, making her giggle. ‘What about this?’ he asked, touching the soft skin behind her ear. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, turning off the flashlight and rolling over, with a sigh, onto her back. When they were seventeen they made love for the first time, on a bed of straw in a shed. Later - when things happened that they could never have imagined - she wrote him a letter that said: When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?
Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl whose father was shrewd enough to scrounge together all the zloty he had to send his youngest daughter to America. At first she refused to go, but the boy also knew enough to insist, swearing on his life that he’d earn some money and find a way to follow her. So she left. He got a job in the nearest city, working as a janitor in a hospital. At night he stayed up writing his book. He sent her a letter into which he’d copied eleven chapters in tiny handwriting. He wasn’t even sure the mail would get through. He saved all the money he could. One day he was laid off. No one said why. He returned home. In the summer of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen drove deeper east, killing hundreds of thousands of Jews. On a bright, hot day in July, they entered Slonim. At that hour, the boy happened to be lying on his back in the woods thinking about the girl. You could say it was his love for her that saved him. In the years that followed, the boy became a man who became invisible. In this way, he escaped death.
Once upon a time a man who had become invisible arrived in America. He’d spent three and a half years hiding, mostly in trees, but also cracks, cellars, holes. Then it was over. The Russian tanks rolled in. For six months he lived in a Displaced Persons camp. He got word to his cousin who was a locksmith in America. In his head, he practiced over and over the only words he knew in English. Knee. Elbow. Ear. Finally his papers came through. He took a train to a boat, and after a week he arrived in New York Harbor. A cool day in November. Folded in his hand was the address of a girl. That night he lay awake on the floor of his cousin’s room. The radiator clanged and hissed, but he was grateful for the warmth. In the morning his cousin had explained the way three times how to take the subway to Brooklyn. He bought a bunch of roses but they wilted because though his cousin had explained the way three times he still got lost. At last he found the place. Only as his finger pressed the doorbell did the thought cross his mind that perhaps he shouldn’t have called. She opened the door. She wore a blue scarf over her hair. He could hear the broadcast of a ball game through the neighbor’s wall.
Once upon a time, the woman who had been a girl got on a boat to America and threw up the whole way, not because she was seasick but because she was pregnant. When she found out, she wrote to the boy. Every day she waited for a letter from him, but none came. She got bigger and bigger. She tried to hide it so she wouldn’t lose her job at the dress factory where she worked. A few weeks before the baby was born, she got news from someone who heard they were killing Jews in Poland. ‘Where’? she asked, but no one knew where. She stopped going to work. She couldn’t bring herself to get out of bed. After a week, the son of her boss came to see her. He brought her food to eat, and put a boquet of flowers in a vase by her bed. When he found out she was pregnant, he called a midwife. A baby boy was born. One day the girl sat up in bed and saw the son of her boss rocking her child in the sunlight. A few months later, she agreed to marry him. Two years later, she had another child.
The man who had become invisible stood in her living room listening to all of this. He was twenty-five years old. He had changed so much since he last saw her and now part of him wanted to laugh a hard, cold laugh. She gave him a small photograph of the boy, who was now five. Her hand was shaking. She said: ‘You stopped writing. I thought you were dead.’ He looked at the photograph of the boy who would grow up to look like him, who, although the man didn’t know it then, would go to college, fall in love, fall out of love, become a famous writer. ‘What’s his name?’ he asked. She said: ‘I call him Isaac.’ They stood for a long time in silence as he stared at the picture. At last he managed three words: ‘Come with me.’ The sound of children shouting came from the street below. She squeezed her eyes shut. ‘Come with me,’ he said, holding out his hand. Tears rolled down her face. Three times he asked her. She shook her head. ‘I can’t,’ she said. She looked down at the floor. ‘Please,’ she said. And so he did the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life: he picked up his hat and walked away.
And if the man who once upon a time had been a boy who promised he’d never fall in love with another girl as long as he lived kept his promise, it wasn’t because he was stubborn or even loyal. He couldn’t help it. And having hidden for three and half years, hiding his love for a son who didn’t know he existed didn’t seem unthinkable. Not if it was what the only woman he would ever love needed him to do. After all, what does it mean to hide one more thing when he had vanished completely?”