The Alone Thing
April 10, 1998
I saw Benny, owner of People of the Book, at the one-year memorial he’d organized for Allen Ginsberg. He invited me to his seder.
No thanks, I said.
You know what a seder is, right?
I know what a seder is. You chew horseradish and sing songs you don’t understand. Six hours later you get to eat some chicken soup.
Not at my seder, Benny said. It’s vegan!
Before I could ask what he did for lamb shanks, a singer-songwriter began singing a reggae adaptation of “Howl.” More readings followed, then some free-form chanting and two drunken testimonials. After, I leaned against Benny’s Great Wall of Literature and watched poets rush the wine and cheese. Benny twirled his tzitzit, chatted with what passes for luminaries in our part of the world (a Kerouac ex, the poet laureate of Vermont), and wondered about his salesgirl, Clementine, who looked like a twelve-year-old Romanian gymnast and stood behind him wherever he went.
Given another chance, I thought now, I’d gladly cross the street for some vegan soup, whatever that was. Andi, my daughter, was on her annual camping trip at the Radisson with her de facto father, my best friend, Jeanette, was at an Instant Gratification workshop in Barbados, and I felt passed over. Already I’d cleaned the coffeemaker and piled last year’s clothes on top of Andi’s bed. (When she got home, she’d shake her braids at me and say, You want me to go through my clothes again? We just did that like yesterday! I’ll stop growing if only you’ll please, please stop going through my clothes! Then she’d ask if she got a tan at the Radisson’s indoor swimming pool.)
I’m not very good at the alone thing.
I looked out my window at People of the Book, at the warm light in Benny’s apartment above. I could almost smell the tofu turkey. Which made me think of the Thanksgiving seaweed stew I’d once had at Trixie’s Macrobiotic Café, may it rest in peace, and the reading I’d done there on her “soapbox.” Which reminded me of other readings, which reminded me of Bloomsday.
Bloomsday! A mere ten weeks away! So much to be done! I almost ran to the chat room of the Translators of Note.
The Translators of Note are an agglomeration of translation superheroes—in disguise during the day, doing the impossible at night. While not our most illustrious member, I was possibly our most industrious: I served the New York branch as secretary, Bloomsday Charwoman (sic), and assistant to the King of Arms.
By charter, we met the first Wednesday of every month, though we weren’t regular about much. Except our annual meeting, which we held, rain or shine, on International Translators’ Day, in honor of Jerome, our patron saint. At that meeting we officially welcomed, i.e., hazed, probationary members, and introduced rogue authors into the All-Time Translators of Note Rogues’ Gallery, a gilded scroll commemorating same to be held that year by the translator who’d suffered most at the hand of such an author.
Qualifications for membership: experience with literary translation, nomination by a member in good standing (I’d been nominated by Benny, who, in addition to running People of the Book and the lit mag Gilgul, occasionally translated occasional verse from the Hebrew).
Unofficial qualifications: a penchant for trade gossip, a sour-grapes disdain for dullards and sellouts, i.e., academics and technical translators. Because many of our members were in fact dullards and sellouts, we used anonymous handles, not just online but at gatherings, like a bunch of Trekkies.
We weren’t particular about translation achievement—good thing, because my output was slim: some Dante in grad school, a volume of stories, a handful of feuilletons.
Because of our handles, the identity of our national members was often unclear. We could guess at some, from their idiosyncratic obsessions and self-promoting e-mails. Chive Pancake, for example, was obviously a Chinese pornographer—I wasn’t the only one who thought so.
My purpose that night? To call an extraordinary session of the New York branch.
The usual suspects were chatting away—few of us, apparently, having anything better to do on a Friday. I could identify three strands of discussion. First: what was the least we’d accept to translate a difficult novel (several admitting they’d do it for free—most likely academics conjecturing comfortably from their ivy-lined closets)? Second: what did we think of that Younger Poet’s translation of The Life and Death of Cormac the Skald (responses ranging from brilliant to skalding to all poets who suddenly decide they’re translators should be shot; one Slavist reminding us that Yale the Younger was no longer that younger) And third: who belonged in the All-Time Translators of Note Rogues’ Gallery?
Among the candidates, a half dozen Korean novelists, all nominated by Chive Pancake, who I guess we now had to agree came from the peninsula. These unfortunates had all been seconded by someone new: Bi Bim Bop. By tomorrow, the conversation would have shifted to this newcomer: who was he? The unenlightened would suggest jazz writer; the sophisticates would say, Translator of Asian cookbooks. My guess: an illegal second handle for Chive, invented so he could exact his peculiar revenge. It wasn’t impossible, but how could I prove it and why would I try?
An Extraordinary Session
April 11, 1998
I scheduled our extraordinary session for the next day at the Eight Bar, a blues and burger joint eight blocks up on Broadway. The Eight Bar served a few dozen varieties of burger, a reasonable selection of draft beers, and other reliable bar fare.
It was a fetching spring day, brightly blue and clear. I arrived to find Contessa at the back, waving and shouting, Carina! Sono qui!, her bangles bangling, a long cigarette shedding ashes onto her silk blouse. Contessa was a fake Orsini who showed up at literary gatherings wearing sunglasses, whatever the weather, chain-smoking and bragging about literary contacts in a gravelly, heavily accented voice. She was not known to have translated anything, though she spoke often of Roth and Updike, their evergreen appeal in the Mezzogiorno. She brought a case of unlabeled red to our annual meetings, from her family’s estates in the Abruzzi, she said, though I suspected it was Mondavi. She was our most fierce and magisterial member, well able to protect a large table from angry waiters and encroaching diners. On this day, she’d chosen a spot by the Ladies, out of consideration for White Russian (aka Marina), who was getting on.
Contessa called me ragazza, or girl—one of the reasons I adored her. Another: she knew of my writing habit and didn’t judge me; she’d ask about my stories, in whispers, so the others wouldn’t know I’d crossed to the Dark Side. Usually I wasn’t writing, so I’d tell her tall tales about my life as a temp. For example, my boss at CMQ real estate. What he really wanted was to coach ballerinas; he was third cousin to Rudolph Nureyev, or so he said. “Smile!” he’d shout as he passed by my desk, which was more often than need be.
Marina arrived. A palsied exile, she’d made her way to the States via Nice, churning out old-fashioned, self-published, Russian-language editions of Zola and Balzac. She claimed to read fortunes, though she’d been hard-pressed to find my lifeline last time she’d tried. She kissed each cheek at least once, then more folks trickled in: Lady Murasaki, aka Jessica Einhorn, who specialized in uncovering Great Lesbian AutHERs of the Past (cf the GLAP Web site); Henry the Bald, otherwise known as Hank—a translator of Provençal love lyrics, who was besotted with Jessica; BertAndErnie, a specialist in Lusophone Africa (whose real name I’d forgotten); and Gustavo, who ferreted out and translated social realist Latin American works—works that could never, in any way, ever be called magical. He refused to give himself a handle, and so became Grumpy. And there, laughing with Grumpy as they walked through the door, could it be? Josh Bernstein?
With his permanent five o’clock shadow, his gold stud and ironic thick-rimmed glasses, Josh was handsome in a way that suggested deep humors and bubbling passions. Last I knew, he was living in L.A., cajoling grants out of Rotary clubs to translate the works of desperate dissidents, the literary importance of whom he frequently exaggerated.
More cheek kissing ensued, and introductions. Josh’s handle, he said, was Embassy Brat.
I hadn’t credited him with so much self-knowledge: Josh didn’t play well with others. He was that guy (you know the one) who has to deliver a twenty-minute monologue at every conference Q&A—forcing the presenter to say, I’m sorry, Josh, did you have a question, forcing Josh to again stand and reiterate his “question,” leaving the audience to put its collective head in its hands and sigh.
I’m a hopeless case: I found such behavior attractive. I hunted him down at a conference in Wichita. You don’t believe Brandeis was Montale’s muse? Tell me more, I said, and bought him a Pernod.
I thought of Josh later, sometimes. His smell, mostly. His armpits, acrid after our exertions . . . his morning breath. . . . It wasn’t something I tolerated, I couldn’t get enough! Breathe into my mouth, I said, and buried my nose in his groin, licked the sweat off his back. Before the conference was over, I’d stolen one of his shirts, a felon of love, so I could keep smelling that smell. Then batted away his e-mails like so many flies.
Embassy Brat, he explained at the Eight Bar, because he’d been a wanderer in his youth. I remembered: “diplomat” parents assigned to jungly hotbeds of communism—Vietnam, Angola, Chile, Rome at the time of the Red Brigades.
Have you met? Grumpy asked. Josh was looking especially fine, in his cliché black, his five o’clock shadow perfectly groomed.
I’ve had the pleasure, I said, and looked away.
Brat leaned down to kiss my cheek.
Josh grabbed a chair, made a point of bringing it to where I sat, inserted it (excuse me! excuse me!) between me and Marina, causing no end of shuffling. He was sitting way too close.
Long time, he said. I smiled weakly. I’ve moved to Manhattan, he said. Now we can see each other all the time.
I turned to Hank.
So what are you working on?
Funny you should ask! Hank said.
I heard all about Hank’s troubled efforts to bring a troubadour musical to Broadway. I was trying to imagine what might pass for a production number in the thirteenth century when Jessica said, Will your musical include the lyrics of prominent autHER Bieiris de Romans?
Which meant Hank was no longer available for conversation.
Brat was watching, smug as a bug in a rug. Where was Benny when I needed him?
What happened between us didn’t happen! I hissed, and pinched his black-clad thigh.
He growled—a low, feral growl that caught Marina’s attention. She gave me a sympathetic look.
When Hank began singing “A chantar m’er,” it was time to call this extraordinary session of the Translators of Note to order.
I gave a rousing speech. On June 16, when Ulysses fans around the world gathered in Irish pubs to read about Leopold Bloom’s daylong wander through Dublin, we would gather at non-Irish pubs to read translations of same. I solicited volunteers: Marina would identify drinking establishments; Grumpy would recruit readers; Jessica would try (unsuccessfully, if past years were any guide) to interest the press. Brat kept waving his hand and saying, Call on me! Call on me! but I wouldn’t. Then the poetry translators whupped the prose translators at darts, the winners bought the losers another round, and it was time for us to go.
At the door, Brat kissed me ostentatiously on the mouth and slipped a piece of paper into the pocket of my blouse.
I waited till I was in front of the Love Drugstore to read it. It contained just a phone number. And the words, Reasonable Rates.
April 12, 1998
When my daughter was born, I knew life had to change. I could lose the occasional weekend, but only in places like Wichita, where they would stay lost. Torrid was out. Moderation was in. I was all for the Golden Mean, the unwobbling pivot, the not too much of this, not too much of that. I devised rules for anyone wishing to date me: one get-together per week, no family introductions, no overnight stays. Pressed, I’d explain: there will be no strange men bearing gifts, I’ll not put my daughter through that.
There had even been a Solemn Oath, pronounced by me and Andi’s de facto father one evening after his live-in left, an oath we solemnized by spitting Armagnac out the window. In his words, we agreed we would never ever bring another man into our home, be he ever so adorable. We would never let Andi become attached to some shitty fuck-up asshole of a cuntface who would love her, then leave her. In our drunkenness, this sounded reasonable; it still did.
My best friend, Jeanette, called my rules “nonconducive.” She despaired of ever seeing me coupled.
Soulmate, shmolemate, I’d say.
How long has it been? she asked.
In fact, it had only been a month, but Jeanette didn’t need to know everything.
Celibacy clears the mind, I replied.
She laughed for five minutes, then reminded me of her dating rules: one week’s notice. If he flinches when you ask for steak, leave before dessert. No boroughs, one venue, no kissing on the first date. Shira, are you listening? I said no kissing on the first date!
I tried to follow at least some of Jeanette’s rules—because I saw the sense in them and because I had to report back.
How the mighty she-lion had fallen! When Brat called, I managed barely half.
Look, I said, trying to head him off at the pass (so to speak). Wichita was fun . . .
Topeka. We met in Topeka.
No, I said.
I have the matchbook to prove it. I look at it every day.
Really, I mean, Topeka?
Good times, eh? So what’s your Monday like? We could go to the Northern Lights Film Festival.
You know, films by Alaskans, Siberians, Finns.
Sorry, I lied. Busy.
Bola’s having an opening on Thursday. Wine and fufu in Chelsea.
The Nigerian installation artist. You know. Or, let me see (I heard the rustle of newspaper), Paradise Crossed: Rap Artists Take on Milton at Symphony Space. Near you, if I’m not mistaken. The Hot Latkes at the Knitting Factory . . .
You’re making this up.
Never, he said, and suggested a musical-dance-mime extravaganza, a gospel version of Our Town, set in post–World War II Japan. At the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He could get tickets: he knew someone who definitely knew someone.
No boroughs, I said, and patted myself on the back.
Problem with the subway? We could get a car service.
I don’t want to go to Brooklyn, I said, realizing that I’d somehow agreed to see him.
OK, he said. Dinner. No show. No installation, no Northern Lights.
Good, I thought to myself. One venue, no boroughs. I wasn’t doing too badly.
It has to be expensive, I said, and you have to pay.
Best in Manhattan, he said, and gave me an address on the Lower East Side.
You’re not bringing me to Katz’s, I said, because deli doesn’t count.
No fear, Brat said, laughing. You will be dining at Chez Moutard.
Right, I said, and wondered what I’d done.
Get Some Salami
April 18, 1998
I arrived on Ludlow Street fifteen minutes late. It was raining, the corsage Brat had sent me looked like a piece of wilted cabbage.
You sure this is it? the cabbie asked. I don’t see any French restaurant.
To make sure, we drove around the block three times.
I was angry. Infuriated! With myself, mostly, for agreeing to see him, and for letting my phone go dead.
I stepped out of the cab into a puddle the size of an irrigation ditch. It was light, still, but hard to see through the rain. Water dripped off my umbrella onto my silk dress, my brand new spiky shoes.
And there it was. Across the street. The apartment building across the street. On the doorbells, someone had pasted the words Chez Moutard over a resident’s name. Brat! He’d invited me to his apartment!
I turned, intending to leave. But it was raining so hard! I had to leave. I’d go to Katz’s, get some salami (Get Some Salami for Your Boy in the Army), catch the F to the A to the 1.
Nice shoes, a voice said. I turned. Brat was holding a large towel.
Oh, I said. He wrapped my hair, then brought his mouth to mine.
I let him kiss me, to my shame. I even kissed him back.
The Fireworks Scene
June 16, 1998
Statelig og trinn trådte Buck Mulligan frem øverst i trappen . . .
Brat and I arrived at the Polish Social Club—our first Bloomsday venue—pre-polka hour, just in time for golumpki and a Norwegian “stately, plump Buck Mulligan.”
Because none of us was getting any younger, except maybe Contessa, Marina had restricted our crawl to six watering holes, three readers per bar. Brat and I would read the fireworks scene (Flecchia translation) at our penultimate hotspot: the Tokyo Hose.
We’d been having a good enough time. Nine dates, nine Saturdays. I’d gone to some cultural events, he’d taken me out for some good cheapie meals. We’d laughed, had sex through the night, spoken between dates only when necessary. There’d been a few unfortunate moments, as when Brat had asked to see me midweek, perhaps at my place? I reminded him of my rules, tickled his toes, unbuttoned my blouse. And otherwise kept conversation to a minimum. My stolen shirt collection now included a muscle shirt and a stained Juventus jersey; Brat was none the wiser.
He must have been just what I needed.
What’s wrong with you? Andi asked, ever suspicious, as I pushed her on the swing. As far as she and her de facto father were concerned, it was Jeanette I saw on Saturday nights.
What do you mean, my lovely, my precious, my pumpkin, my sweet?
You’re so . . . happy, she said. It’s weird.
Race you to Cohn’s Cones!
Benny noticed, too.
Someone’s getting some, he said when I stopped by.
He was on a ladder shelving poetry, tall enough that he need only stand on the bottom rung to reach the uppermost shelf.
I blushed and invited him to Bloomsday.
I’ve already been recruited, he said. I’m doing the bit about the Citizen in Hebrew.
All right then, I said.
Take this, Benny said, and handed me a book. Early Paul Celan. Know him?
Vaguely, I said. Holocaust poet, writes in German?
You’ll like it, Benny said. You’re not really seeing Josh Bernstein, are you?
I blushed again.
You thought I had better taste, huh?
He’s a bit . . .
Pompous? Affected? Say it.
I guess, Benny said, playing with his beard. I was going to say difficult to talk to. I’ve never managed it.
Hmm, I said. Maybe.
I would have thought talking would be important to you, he said, looking back at his books.
I mumbled something about wanting to have fun for a freakin’ change, then bought a novel I didn’t want, his Romanian gymnast salesgirl replaced, I saw now, by a blond giantess with Chinese neck tattoos.
For Bloomsday, Brat made us matching T-shirts. His James Joyce talking head said, “Breakfast? Let’s relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls!” Mine said, “Lunch? How about some stewgravy with sopping sippets of bread!”
You want us to wear these? I asked in front of the Polish Social Club. He looked at me like I’d stepped on his toe, so I said, Thanks, Boo, and slid it over my tank.
Part of the charm of Bloomsday Our Way is you don’t have to listen—it’s understood that you can’t understand. Our readers try hard to engage us—with props, costumes, visual aids; sometimes they just shout. I joined Contessa’s table while Brat got the slivovitz, asked if she’d seen Benny. For some reason I was missing him. She said no but whispered something about a new reader, a silver-haired Serb, stopped when Brat arrived and she saw the shirt.
By the time we left for “Calypso” at the Golden Horn, we were both a bit potted. Brat put his arm around me; I shrugged it off. Matching T-shirts was one thing, but Public Displays? Why not brand me, clip on a collar? I fast-walked ahead, introduced myself to the silver-haired Serb, explained how thrilling I’d found his “Proteus.”
At the Golden Horn, I shared mezze with Marina at a table built for two. Brat tugged my arm: May I speak with you, please?
This moment? I said.
He looked positively unmanned. I followed him away from the bar where, if my Spanish could be relied upon, Bloom was explaining metempsychosis (metempsicosis) to Molly.
Something wrong? he asked. I hated him at that moment, with his five o’clock shadow, his Father Knows Best glasses. I wanted to throw myself onto him, too. I didn’t know what to say.
You don’t want to be seen with me, he said.
You’re crowding me, I said, embarrassed. You must see that.
Wow, he said. And I thought we were getting on.
We are! Of course we are. Brat?
Please don’t call me that. I hate it when you call me that.
Can we talk about this later?
What’s to talk? You don’t want to be seen with me.
Back and forth we went, forth and back, I insisting that I wanted to be seen with him, but did he need to plaster himself all over me like a wet blanket, he insisting that it was time we took our relationship to the “next level.”
The next level? Josh, we agreed: there wasn’t going to be a next level!
Sit with him exclusively! Spend the night with him! See him more than once a week!
I’ve got a daughter! I said. I’ve explained this, like, a hundred times!
Introduce me to your alleged daughter! he said, his voice rising.
Alleged daughter? You don’t believe I have a daughter? Would you like to see pictures of my alleged daughter? I can produce pictures, boy can I produce pictures!
He stormed out. I burst into tears. Bloom stopped talking to Molly, all eyes turned to me. I ran outside to find Brat, but he was gone.
Later in June
By the next day, it was over—in my mind, anyway. I threw away the condoms in my purse, made plans to see Jeanette on Saturday, the Saturday after that. Brat wasn’t the first who’d wanted too much, he wasn’t the first I’d had to let go: this was Shira territory.
I shouldn’t have answered the phone.
You should be with someone who wants what you want, I said.
This was supposed to be fun. Josh, you knew that . . .
I can’t be what you want me to be, Josh . . .
I’ve made up my mind, Josh. It’s for the best . . .
I tried to be reasonable, but my heart was pounding.
Talk to me! is what he said. Can’t you just talk to me?
I am talking to you! I shouted. This was a mistake, I said, and we were done. Just like that. It felt like someone had sucked the oxygen out of the room, like I was on some mountaintop, airless, the molecules in my brain no longer cohering.
I couldn’t sleep. Should we have found another way? Might we still? Could we find a way to talk, to really talk? Might we find the words, then—he to explain his need, I to explain my need for no need?
Chive Pancake posted an apology in the Translators of Note chat room, suggested we dine at Chez Moutard.
Enough! I thought, but still I slept with his T-shirt crumpled in my hand.
The Five Calamities
Contessa called: It’s time to plan the annual meeting, she said. Shall we say seven at the Eight Bar? She’d made a list of nominees for the Translators of Note Rogues’ Gallery, all well qualified. I was on hiatus, I told her. A possibly permanent hiatus.
He’s not worth it, carina. He’s not the one for you.
It’s not that, I wanted to say. You’re right, but it’s not that. It’s something else. If I could explain it to you, I could explain it to myself.
Andi, who knew when things weren’t right, climbed onto my lap. She was embroidering a MOM! handkerchief for me in chunky pink letters and sneaking peeks at the clock, which was telling her it was time for bed.
For me? I said, fingering the hankie’s scalloped edge.
Who else? she asked. Stop! You’re squeezing me too hard!
Benny called. I missed you at Bloomsday, he said. I hear there were fireworks.
Fireworks, but no fireworks scene.
Apparently, I’m incapable.
Maybe you haven’t found the right talkee.
He talkie, I walkie, ha ha.
You sure you’re OK?
What’re you up to these days? Got plans for the weekend?
Fasting. Mourning the five calamities. Leyning Lamentations.
Eh? I said.
Tisha B’Av? Destruction of the Temple?
Fasting meant no vegan soup, so I let it go and spent that Saturday night, and the Saturday after with Jeanette—till she banished me. I was using her as an excuse not to get out there, she said, wherever there was.
You’re blue, she said. I can’t fix that.
Not blue, I said. Bored.
Those rings under your eyes? Epic.
Boredom keeps me awake. I need a hobby.
Hobby shmobby, she replied.
I’m going to teach myself German, I said. Benny gave me a nice German book.
A lie, of course, but I liked how it sounded, so full of Teutonic purpose. Better than saying, I cry myself to sleep and don’t know why.
Excellent, Jeanette said. German has cured many a depression. Call me if you need to talk—but I didn’t. Instead, I went straight home after work, watched Andi color in her Moths of the World coloring book and cut topless African women out of National Geographic.
Don’t you have anything else to look at? she asked.
And spent the next Saturday alone, staring out the window at the warm light above People of the Book and alphabetizing my spices. This was aloneness, I realized. This was me for the rest of my life.
Stations of My Loss
I called Brat the next morning, said I’d been thinking about that new level of his.
What makes you think I’d still be around? he asked.
I apologized. I lied. I blamed my mother, who’d abandoned me; I blamed my father, who died too young. I cared about him, I said. Couldn’t we try again?
Maybe, he said. He’d have to see how it went.
We met for Cuban-Chinese; he brought no flowers, no James Joyce T-shirts. He was all grudging, I was all contrition, there was no more laughing, I let him fuck me in the hall of his apartment building, which I guess was his way of telling me what was what.
He didn’t smell the same.
We saw each other Saturdays, some Wednesdays. Brat shared his opinion about conceptual art, abstract expressionist art, figurative art, minimal art, other arts I knew nothing about; I nodded, which was all I had to do to give Brat a good time—which was a relief. I avoided People of the Book: I didn’t want to have to explain to Benny what I couldn’t explain to myself.
I still wasn’t happy. My boss started calling me sourpuss, so I told Durlene to find me another job. I was tired of real estate, tired of Giselle piped into the ladies’ room, tired of ballet motivational posters and happy hour “at the barre.” I’d go back to the no-kill shelter for cats and dogs if I had to.
She got me a new job—at Well-Bred Bread on Bleecker.
Yes, the Village. My native land. I’d forgotten to specify, No Village. Maybe I’d thought it written on my chart. The Village was my Discomfort Zone, home to all the Stations of My Loss. Where I’d lived with my mother, back when I had a mother, then again when I didn’t. Where my father died, where I watched a friend get killed by a car. Where after twelve years, the love of my youth crushed my tender heart. (He forgot to take his ring off during one of his rare visits to town. I hadn’t realized he’d married—he’d neglected to mention it last time we’d had phone sex. Water under the fridge, he might have said when I saw the ring, but I was out of there.)
When I arrived at Well-Bred mornings, the baker was already tired, his day nearly done. He spoke in half sentences, his breath yeasty, his hands shaking. Sixty-five percent wholesale, he said. Not bad, but the collections! He thought I knew something about accounts payable; maybe I did.
Enough that it took me just two hours a day. I advised Durlene at SuperTemps.
Ours is not to wonder why, she said. Bring a book.
So I did. The book of poems Benny had given me. And, because I was still (nominally) a translator, a dictionary, German-English. And a children’s grammar book (Was tun Sie heute abend? Spielen Sie Karten?). A legal pad, my favorite retractable pen. I read while nibbling the day-olds.
Celan’s poetry was all but impenetrable, but it seemed to plead for understanding: this moved me. How alone he must have felt, trying to see through the blinds of his incomprehensible poems. He called himself persona gratata: separate, kept apart by a grate, grated by his separateness. Yet he wrote—he never gave up hope, until he did.
I imagined a girl like that, yearning but incapable. She wants not to be separate, but she doesn’t know how.
I took up my pen.
Brat and I went to a party at Benny’s store, celebrating an author who’d just published another book—a translation, as it happens. I tended not to like Benny’s parties—I’d never just published another book—and I wasn’t keen on bringing Josh, but it was Saturday, so I couldn’t say no.
It was August, a dog day. No one should have been in town, but there they all were, Gilgul alumni congratulating each other on all their literary triumphs. Translators, too: Contessa, on the arm of the silver-haired Serb. Marina, Lady Murasaki. Brat, always most at home in a crowd, crowded a reviewer for the Voice. I slipped into the poetry section, holding my Campari in what I hoped was a sophisticated manner.
My new favorite, Benny said, next to me suddenly. He pointed to an edition of Celan’s late work. Bilingual, he said. Well introduced.
I blushed and checked Brat: he was still speechifying. Contessa was watching him and the reviewer from a distance, as if wondering whether to intervene. I turned back to Benny.
I’ve been reading the other one you gave me.
Touched by Benny’s kind eyes, the goat-cheese crumbs in his beard, I dared tell him about the idea I’d had, for a story, about the poet. Triggered also by the Ginsberg memorial he’d organized back in April, remember? About a Ginsberg-inflected innocent looking for love in all the wrong places.
I can relate, Benny said.
She feels trapped in herself, I said, trapped by who she’s always been. She wants to get closer to people but she doesn’t know how. She meets Celan, that least innocent of poets. He seems to get her, this opens something inside her. Too schematic, did Benny think?
Too heady, maybe?
You think? I whispered. Really?
Benny was about to say something, something I knew I needed to hear, then Contessa was upon us.
Ragazza! she said, steering me away. There was a Pennsylvania Dutchman she wanted me to meet.
After, Brat was on fire. The Voice reviewer had been very interested in Brat’s thoughts on Montale! Could I even begin to imagine how big this was? I couldn’t, he said, because I didn’t think big, but Brat thought big. I allowed him into the apartment for the first time, paid Andi’s long-time babysitter, who looked as disappointed in me as I felt.
I let him use me like a rag doll, then I told him it was time to go.
The next morning, Sunday, I brought Andi to People of the Book, pointed her toward the kids’ books in back.
You mean I can read them all for free? she asked.
Yes, I said. She looked to Benny for confirmation.
Go mad, he said.
I don’t know how you expect to earn a living. You got Wing Dings?
After ascertaining that Wing Dings were not something he could get from the Chinese takeaway, he sent his new salesgirl, a pretty Panamanian named Stella, to get chocolate bombs from Cuppa Joe’s. He wrote the order down because, he said, Stella’s English was “a work in progress.”
You still sad? he asked. You seem sad.
Maybe, I said, looking away. I don’t know.
You’re still seeing Josh Bernstein. Does that have something to do with it?
I didn’t know what to say.
He steered you around the room.
His hand on your shoulder, yes he did. He did all the talking.
Oh, I said. It’s not like that. It’s . . . I don’t know what it is.
Benny let it go, and we sat at his folding-table café, where I explained more of the story I’d imagined. He coached me in German, the details of Celan’s life; we talked about poetry—I felt like I was recovering from an illness.
I shortened my hours at Well-Bred, promised SuperTemps I’d go back to full time once Andi went back to school. We visited the store afternoons, then, both of us feeling like we were getting away with something. When I thought I had the story right, Benny would adjust his sunburst skullcap and say, No, not quite, not yet.
One Wednesday, Brat looked at me funny.
You seeing someone else? he asked.
You seem different, he said.
No! I said. Of course not.
Did I want Benny, that tall, bookish man with the rabbi beard, more gray by now than brown? The great long length of him, those way-too-open eyes? Did I stand too close to his “I Was a Teenage Wasteland” T-shirt, trying to get a whiff? No, I told myself. No!
When Andi started school, I continued going to the store. We talked about Celan’s alleged hermeticism, the fact that some considered his work too fractured and personal to be understood. Not only did Celan reject this charge, he seemed hurt by it: he’d staked his life’s enterprise on the potential of language to lift us, occasionally, over the abyss.
Do you understand this feeling? Benny asked, and his eyes hurt me.
Maybe, I said. Maybe.
We pored over poems for a line that might bring my story together, found it, finally, in Niemandsrose:
When only the nothingness stood between us, we found our way, all the way, to each other.
Beautiful, I said. We were sitting at a folding table, sipping organic ginger beer.
Hmm, Benny said.
Niemandsrose, No One’s Rose, and I realized: my character was Rose! She calls herself Rose No One because she believes herself a cleanable slate.
Rosh Hashana’s just around the corner, Benny said. Birthday of the world.
A perfect time, Rose thought, to begin again.
I leaned forward, surprised by the urgency I felt: did Benny think it possible to begin again?
Weren’t we always what we’d always been? Destined to make the same mistakes over and over?
Wasn’t language always opaque? Translation hopeless, storytelling a waste of time?
Don’t we always, all of us, stand speechless before the abyss, unable to make our way across?
That thing Celan said, about two people finding each other? Did Benny think it possible? How could it be possible? Did he really think it possible? How could it be possible?
Shira, he said, you’re in such pain, and took my hand.
Oh, I thought: this.
No! I said, and yanked my hand from his.
Benny just looked at me. Again, his eyes hurt me.
I gotta go, I said.
I stand now before the Love Drugstore. My face in the store window looks terrified.
It’s possible, is what he said.
I don’t know what I’m going to do.