Monthly Archives: December 2012

I am supposed to be above the Russian girlfriend and her lingerie, I know, but I nonetheless take a photograph of my own, create a mask in Photoshop, and color correct the bra and panties to go along with the blog entry. I leave one strap unchanged, just to see if you’ll notice. You don’t; you’re busy. I have been distracting you from your work. And so I retaliate with a story about S., a small-time criminal I met in Athens one summer. He’d managed to get out of the Soviet Union, I don’t recall how, but I do remember that he’d procured papers certifying a non-existent Jewish heritage to apply for repatriation to Israel if all else failed. But Athens was fine for S.; he had a small racket, a group of women painting Matryoshkas for him, the little Russian nesting dolls carved from wood. These dolls were different, though: the hollow figures were not of the usual plump, rosy-cheeked women dressed in sarafans and headscarves, but political leaders, the largest and fattest being Yeltsin, inside of whom was a slightly smaller Gorbachev, followed by an ever-diminishing sequence of Brezhnev (Andropov and Chernenko apparently too insignificant to merit inclusion), Khrushchev, Stalin, Lenin, and Nicholas II, and finally Catherine the Great, Peter the Great, and Ivan the Terrible.

We spent the days in a room near Syntagma Square in a hotel left over from an era grander than our own, with green onyx shelving and brass fixtures and a heavy-lidded, sullen staff whose eyes barely moved from the TV screen when we entered the dark lobby from the blinding afternoon sun. The room was cool; the two twin beds kept sliding apart on the polished inlaid marble floor, and so we finally pulled the mattresses off the dusty box springs. It was almost too hot to do anything else but have sex and smoke and trace the contours our bodies drew against the dimming light of the window above. Passing a cigarette back and forth, watching the smoke rise in a lazy swirl, I asked him what he’d done before. He was an engineer, he said, he played the piano, but he seemed indifferent to his past, didn’t mind his new life at all. He blew one small calamari-shaped ring through another that had spread in size, grown fuzzier as it drifted upwards towards its own dissolution. When I told him I was a painter, he offered to let me decorate dolls for him. I declined; we never visited the markets where they were sold. I considered whether this was some special privilege he was offering me, considered whether his women were employed in other ways when they weren’t painting dolls. He asked me if I wanted a set, but I didn’t really have much use for them. I told him I’d been trying to find a grant source to move to Athens for a year; he wondered aloud if my skills could be useful in terms of assessing the relative accuracy of forgeries. But my money was running out, I hadn’t found what I was looking for, and I wasn’t planning to stay in Athens much longer.

Soon afterwards, when the Matryoshka dolls turned up in Berlin in small wooden cases jittery, sideways-glancing vendors spread out on the pavement before them, I bought a traditional set of nine, with the smallest doll shaped like a bowling pin no more than a half-inch high. It was the set I would find empty one day, its progeny pilfered, months after I’d discovered with horror that our babysitter was in fact a kleptomaniac and had stolen an array of small personal items I grieve for even still—including my grandmother’s soup ladle, a fountain pen made of blown glass, and an original copy of Ram Dass’s “Be Here Now,” identifiable as mine by my own fervent, truth-seeking, gullible, adolescent signature—leaving behind only the outer shell, a barren Matryoshka.


Mother:      Why is she in Berlin if she’s an artist.  All artists are in Italy.

Me:              What all artists are in Italy?? Italy’s poor for artists—you have to be rich to live there.

Mother:       Well, isn’t she rich?  You told me she was on television.

Me:               On the radio, I said!  It was an interview—you don’t get paid for interviews. And artists go to Berlin these days, it’s become a big cultural center. Paris is for when you’re dead, for the tourists.

Mother:        Of course Berlin is a cultural center—I know that. Escada!

Me:               That’s Munich.

Mother:        That Russian girlfriend you had, the one in New York, she bought nothing but Escada when she came over.  Escada, Escada.  Why would she buy Escada in Vienna?  You gave her your credit card.

Me:               Because Escada is what they all wore in New York in those days.  And I did not give her my credit card.  She had her own.

Mother:        Yes you did!  I remember!  She also bought lingerie with it.  It was all red! She said they wear red in Russia for good luck. She wanted red for the New Year.

Me:                Really? I don’t remember the red lingerie.

Mother:         Well, she stayed for New Year.

Me:                Maybe it was for Russian New Year.  For after she went back to New York.


Mother:         I won’t let her hurt you.

Me:                A. won’t hurt me at all.  She’s scared stiff. Scared that I’ll hurt her.

Mother:        Ha.  Two kids…  you found each other.


undies 2

How many people have I hurt? And who is the woman I used to be? There was a time when everything that happened to me was new, when the carousel sparkled with tantalizing colors and I hadn’t yet begun noticing things in the background blurring by, the impassive faces of those who watch, but decline to take part. One more time around, and then another, and I began to detect patterns in things: the way I always notice the ring a moment too late to catch it, the way I sometimes remember the giddiness of jumping on and jumping off more vividly than the whirling ride itself: the price I’ve paid for my adventures, my seductions.

flowers cw


And what does this have to do with you? Are you there, just beyond reach, or will you vanish the moment I come looking for you? I write to retain something fleeting, render it real; I shore up sentences like a seawall against the annihilation that swells over me each night, against the panic upon awakening. I can dream, I have become proficient at that, but can I sustain a wakened state? Is there anything I can offer you besides my imagination?

I wrote it in jest: a demand that you come here today, my birthday. I, who am not capricious, actually imagined you would indulge me this one extravagance and appear, genie-like, at my door. You with your elderly mother, working throughout the night towards another deadline; and I, who am behind in everything: time should stop to let us climb the cliff together and duck into our secret magic fort. And already I have crossed a line and entered the land of need, left behind the masquerade to appear naked before you, although you may not have noticed—you who notice so much.

I have missed the cues so many times, a slipping into the past tense as though by chance, a slipping away behind reassurances. And I have been guilty of this too: backing out the door with a cautiously worded promise that collapses in on itself like the empty construct it is, designed to divert attention as I tiptoe away. It’s always so much easier to say what a person expects to hear: attempt the opposite and see how stubbornly they continue to understand what they want to be told.

Is it different this time? You sent me a recording, speaking to me in an Earth-to-A. way: I’m in a spaceship disguised as a coffee shop; there’s music in the background, there’s din all around me. I told you I loved your voice; you wondered if I would consider backspacing to the letter r.  I close my eyes and listen to it again and again, not quite ten seconds long, a digital garbling of an acoustic reality with its abbreviation of sound waves into staggered frequencies and its truncated background blips. All at once, I’m curious. I consult Wikipedia and read up on the physics of digital recording; I learn that sound is transcribed as a stream of discrete numbers representing changes in air pressure, an abstract sequence that is then reconstructed into analogue wave form. In terms of imagining your actual physical presence, this is less than reassuring. As my mind struggles with the concepts of dithering and signal-to-noise ratio, I marvel that a living body nonetheless begins to conglomerate around this information like a cluster of ghostly molecules; that behind this faintly robotic sound is the sonorous, self-assured, practiced voice of a former actor who really exists somewhere in London, who is really caring for his elderly, diva-like mother with a glittering, passionate past and an uncanny instinct for human nature, and my mind backspaces to the letter r for a man who is still licking his wounds over a failed marriage, no doubt giving in to the hope now and again that she, the mother of his child, will suddenly, miraculously change her mind and want him back. How could he not long for that—to be allowed to resume what he thought was a perfect life, with the perfect woman, in good times and in bad, committed and ready to give everything he had?

My mind strays; there’s mail again, an early birthday greeting from you, a declaration of—what? A promise to remember and cherish a “presence I gave you”—and this very act of slipping into the past tense (why not: have given?), this confusion of the preterit, progressive, and perfect, typical for native German speakers, triggers something I am barely aware of—and already I feel the dread in my breast that anticipated the last goodbye, the unfurling of an implosion. Careful analysis informs me that it’s in all likelihood a hallucination on my part, and yet I am afraid. How can we assess where we’ve been damaged when the parts we need to perceive this no longer function as they should?

Me:                   She said OK for London. 

Mother:            She did… Well, OK.

Me:                    Thank you.

Mother:             As long as she doesn’t hurt you.

Me:                    But how will you travel on your own?  I can take you to the airport, we can

book a wheel chair, but Ilse will have to get someone to pick you up.

Mother:             Don’t you worry.  I can travel left, right, and center.  Ilse has Matti.

Me:                    Matti doesn’t drive for her anymore.

Mother:             So I’ll take the coach to the bus station.  Ilse can come there.

Me:                    I won’t let you take some bus.  That’s nuts… What do you mean “hurt me?”

Mother:             Does she know about you??

Me:                    She knows I’m 56, she knows I live with my mother, and she knows

I’ve been out of a job.

Mother:             Good!  (Laughs.)

Me:                    What are you laughing about?

Mother:             Why would she go for you?

Me:                     Because of the man I used to be?  How’s that for an answer?

Does it happen to me too, you ask? How to even begin to approach that space we inhabit when we believe we’re in love. Spongelike, the things around us absorb us, retain the stark sensations that have taken possession of us, pulsate with them for months, for years. How to explain that the place where my bed meets a bookshelf was once a vertiginous ravine I gazed down into and saw the wrong turn I’d taken, realized I was on the wrong path, was meant for someone else.

In the park, in winter, twin leaves clinging to a tree at eye level: brown, as thin as parchment, as thin as skin; curled inwards to form two horn-shaped vessels, snow-filled papooses joined by a brittle twig—not a simile, but two real leaves in a park that had held fast through November as the last of the year’s unfallen finally fluttered and twirled in the cold rain and the ground turned slippery and black; through the snowstorms of a steadily darkening December, nights of sleet and frost and then: a damp, cacophonous, unseasonable dripping thaw. And I, waiting to hear from V., walked to the park and the tree each day, trudging through the slush or the snow, eyes downcast, alert, the ground different each time with its endless vocabulary of surface formations. And one day, preserved in the hardened soil, a pattern I’d never before encountered: there had been a light rainfall throughout the night, then a rapid freeze followed by a sprinkling of fine snow, and what I saw before me was a fragile layer of fine mud cracked in a thoroughly alien, exquisite way. But no: the surface, as it turned out, was unbroken, the mud frozen in a thin, perfectly opaque layer covering the leaves on the ground and adhering to their brittle contours, the leaves’ edges etched in ice and their spidery white lines scuttling everywhere.

Startled by the unexpected deception, I now saw scattered leaves frozen-stuck in a filigree design that crunched underfoot, that I had taken to be evidence of something else altogether. And here and there, individual leaves neatly covered, cookie-cutter-like, in a thin layer of powdered snow that stood out against the mud-colored, warmer ground where the snow had melted more quickly before the early morning frost had set in and arrested the process. And then, one day, the two snow-filled leaves were gone. It was his birthday, a day he’d planned to spend with me in Berlin, and at once I knew it was over.

There are moments with half-lives that exceed our own, that are capable of emitting shock waves well beyond the memory’s duration. I approached the tree and touched it cautiously, thinking I must be mistaken. Perhaps the tree had hidden its two pupa-like leaves to protect their metamorphosis, to allow them to emerge undisturbed? There was the tiny round navel they had been attached to, no more than a hard brown scab now; I pressed my lips to it and closed my eyes. A moment later, frantic, I searched the ground around the tree, and as my eyes wandered beyond it and saw that the entire park was covered in leaves, all of them brown, all of them curled and brittle, I fell to my knees, and though I felt capable of a systematic search, of sifting through thousands, even hundreds of thousands of leaves until I found the unique pair I had paid a pilgrimage to each day for three months, I understood that it would change nothing: that they had held on but had finally let go, and that it was in keeping with the truth of our situation.

I think of you bringing her back to the restaurant she’d met her lover in so many times, searching her face for a telltale twitch, watching it take in the familiar surroundings of her rendezvous, feign pleasant interest. I see you take note of each detail, think of the chilly sting to the spine, the pinprick of pain concealed in your composed features. We are too civilized to kill, it seems, but there are times a glass shattering against a wall is a soothing sound.

How to explain that the betrayal is of another kind altogether? I know the tidal pull of the blood; that a mere glance can send plumes of fire curling through the nerves. After J. arrived: the sudden, mind-controlling molecular saturation of pheromones in the air, a maddening inability to concentrate, to think of anything at all. Intoxication, situational insanity, delusion. An attraction so fierce it made me angry; the almost violent force required to resist it. Focus on what you don’t like—it’s all there, right in the very first moment. Just take a look back and you can see it clear as day: the sober assessment, the critical points like elephants weighing down the wrong side of the scale, and then the sticky-sweet goo of self-deception oozing all over it like an egg cracked atop a skull, the giddy, hypnotic, honeyed brilliance of it—ah, love! How blind does it have to be to erase that immediate recognition of disaster? Men have their siren song to lead them astray, but what about us?

But the betrayal isn’t about that, it’s about the cowardice of pretense, the sideways-glancing mediocrity of the lie. It’s about what you thought your life was, where you were in a given year, a given summer, never suspecting that her momentary absences were furtive opportunities for making phone calls, arranging trysts. Is that the part that aroused her the most? Innocuous code words in her appointment calendar, alibis so close to actual circumstances that the crucial deviance was rendered invisible—it was an art form for all you know, the essential element she needed to survive. But how many knew, and how many situations did she allow you to blunder through unknowingly? That is the deception: subsequent years spent sifting through the evidence, holding each imperfect memory up to a magnifying glass to search for the shadow in the mirror, the shoe poking out from beneath the bed.


(Mother-from-across-the-living-room: “What is it?  Why are you laughing?  Why are you laughing??  I want to know!”)

There’s a pit, an empty spot where we used to put all the perfect things we’d find; we thought they’d be there forever, as shiny as the day we discovered them. A soft exhalation in a quiet laugh and the half-closed eyes that accompanied it; a cell phone ringing in a museum and the delight in the misdemeanor of it, the air of conspiracy. How could anyone wish to give that up for anything else, give up the absolute truth contained in a whisper? The lightness, the humor and playfulness, my voice in his ear and his in mine, all of it dead now, chiseled into my mind like words in stone, but these things once issued their immediate commands. And then, the agony of his withdrawal, the agony of his agony, the awful certainty that he would carry on as usual, sleep next to a woman with her back turned to him each night and wake up with the alarm each morning, day after day, like acting in the same one-man play, performing again and again and calling that life, how is it he doesn’t die from the sheer repetition of it, how is it that some part of him doesn’t announce its blatant refusal? An ear that refuses to hear; an arm that refuses to move until its case is heard, a heart that ceases to beat.

And you? Is the pain of leaving any less? What is it one feels when one feels love? An echo in the mind, the heart, something both deeply familiar and disconcertingly foreign. And just as I feel a cold nothing in the face of cruelty, but break down at acts of kindness, an unexpected gesture of tenderness opens a valve in you, releases a high-pitched trill in your nerves, the frequency of your own pain. Your knees buckle; you grope for a cigarette. I think of nights I woke to go to the bathroom and had to grip myself to keep from shaking. We live as though trapped, frozen in the blind space behind a mirror, waiting for a glance of recognition to climb out and breathe again.

Me:         I think A. wants to see me.

Mother:  (In bed, opens her eyes) Really?

Me:          I may have to go.

Mother:   Go.

Me:          She’s worth it, you know.

Mother:   Go.

Me:          Yeah?  What if I left you for Christmas?

Mother:    Go.

Me:           Nah, I won’t leave you for Christmas. I want my presents.  Maybe New Year.

Mother:    Go.

Mother: Hey!  Who is this? Severin??

Me:         No, look again. Don’t you recognize her?

Mother:  No… I don’t. Who is it?  She looks intelligent.

Me:         Think so?

Mother:  Yes, it shows on her face. She looks kind, too.  So, who is it? I don’t remember.

Me:          I was teasing you. It’s that new friend in Berlin.  We talk on the computer.

Mother:  You were laughing with her?  I thought it was Severin.

Me:         No, it wasn’t Severin.

Mother:  And… she wants to see you?  Are you going there?

Me:         No. She just wants to talk.

Mother:  Oh. Is that all?!

Me:         Uh-huh.

Mother:  You’re being stupid… She looks like my friend Mildred.

Me:         No way. Just the glasses, maybe.

Mother:  Who was that girl in New York?

Me:          Who?

Mother:   You know, what’s-her-name, the one you almost married.

Me:          (Pause.) Juliette? Kathleen? Jennifer?

Mother:   Juliette!  She looks like Juliette.

Me:          That was over thirty years ago!  How would you remember her?

Mother:   It just came back to me.

Me:          Well, her name is A. Juliette is older than me. And she doesn’t look the same today.

Mother:   Maybe not now.

Me:          A.’s an artist.

Mother:   So was Juliette, wasn’t she?

Me:          A. wrote a book.

Mother:   And? You read it?

Me:          I’m not done yet. I’d have to read it again though, in one shot.

Mother:   Why?

Me:          Because it’s a whole.  I was interrupted a hundred times and I had to put it aside.

Mother:   It’s a hole?

Me:          A whole, Mother, something that’s entire, like a painting, sculpture, music.  You don’t listen to music in bits and pieces, you know.

Mother:   That’s a lot of music.  First book?

Me:          First published book.  She’s got other stuff in the works.

Mother:   And she wants to talk… ?

Me:          Ya.

Mother:   Can you open the wine?

Who is this person I’ve been writing to for a month?

An inbox full of emails; a man who drops down from the sky, just like that. One day I’m commenting on a friend’s thread, and before I know it we’re writing to each other eight times a day. But whose story is this, and what were the others that preceded it, and how can I even begin to tell you how many of my own footprints I catch myself retracing? Here, this was the path that led to the cliff—I let myself fall and fully expected V. to catch me, but V. was worried about other things, proposals and deadlines and that glittering family veneer and who knows, maybe throw in a lecturing career, a publishing or talk show sideline on top of that, a man who looks ahead, a man with vision—why not? In academia since the age of 17, that’s two-thirds of a life in college, an entire life in school for God’s sake. Campuses and competitive sports and ambitious students obsessed with their grade point averages, but maybe I never liked it enough, never liked the idea of fraternities and sororities, old money and initiation rituals, whereas the important things are learned well beyond school, everyone knows that. Toss in a bit of failure and you’re in business.

How it began: V. describes himself as a train wreck just waiting to happen, and me as the person who will change all this, but what does that vision consist in, I wonder? I am different, unlike anyone he’s ever known before, he tingles with anticipation, but then he maps it out and grows dizzy from the mind-boggling complexity of it all: the uprooting of lives, the imperfect merging of families, a vindictive spouse. We booked a room and spent an entire day in the dim light shining in from a small hotel courtyard, the first new lips I’d kissed in how many years and the rest of it a rapturous blur. And afterwards, for months, an agony of absence: running my tongue along my own flesh to recapture some sliver of that day, the way it zoomed out in all directions at once like a bomb exploding in slow motion, creating not a cloud of hurtling debris but a perfect reality unfurling in some other dimension. Odd how disembodied the carnal instincts can be. And afterwards, my mind careening back to that day again and again: the floating stillness, the quiet, carnivorous inhalation of one another’s being. Incomprehensible to live in a world where I couldn’t close my eyes and transport myself back to that hotel room, at will, instantly.

And you? I hold out my hand and we walk to that cliff, careful to stay far enough away from the precipice. I will not close my eyes this time, won’t let myself fall, my hair flowing out from my scalp as though I were floating on the surface of a phantasm. And what is that part of you that has been cauterized inside and joined back together, and how long does it take for the nerves to grow back, to regain feeling in that scarred spot, two millimeters a year, I’ve read. The pain was once so intense that it burned a hole right through me.

I open my mail, and already I have to smile. I click on your name, and there you are, measuring the secret distances between my words, the hidden associations, then snapping your folding ruler shut like a handyman, smug with bemusement. I’ve never even heard your voice, but I can already hear the nasal Viennese, the flattened vowels. I laugh. We’re both supposed to be working, we’re both on deadline, but it’s so much more fun to misbehave, play hooky for a change. You test the waters of my jealousy, disconcerted that I don’t bat an eyelash. I’m less coy than you think possible; you “test my mettle” and I patiently, maddeningly no doubt, elucidate the mechanisms that have long since been disengaged. I am a Jack-in-the-Box who no longer pops out, a defective Juliette-in-the-Box, a dented can on the back of the shelf.

“Are you translating?  You’re not, you monkey, because I see you smiling.”

Me:         So… I sent my picture to A.

Mother:  The one I saw?  On the computer?

Me:         Ya.  I took it with the webcam.

Mother:  How do you do this?  You should teach me.

Me:         I tried getting Fluffy in the background. I put a treat for him on the floor, right where I wanted him. But he snapped it and went out of the frame with it.  And that stupid painting of him showed up on the photo. I forgot to remove it.

Mother:   It’s not stupid. My Fluffy is not stupid. You’re stupid!

Me:          Fluffy barks at his own reflection, he doesn’t come when you call him, and he walks on top of the sofa to get to his spot at the other end, like a cat, instead of just jumping there.  And that painting is embarrassing.  I’m throwing it out.

Mother:   Don’t you dare!  Go back to  Vienna!  How can anyone like you?!

Me:          Everybody likes me!

Mother:   Well, I don’t!

Me:          Yes you do.

Mother:   No I don’t!!   You drive me crazy in my own home!!

Me:          So do you!! In your own home!!


Mother:   You mean she liked you without knowing what you looked like?

Me:           No. I mean yes.

Mother:   All this time. And she didn’t know?

Me:          Nope.

Mother:   Did she say anything?

Me:          Yes.

Mother:   What did she say?

Me:           She said it was it was nice to see who she’d been talking to so earnestly all this time.

Mother:   Is she a diplomatic sort?

Me:           Always. It was short, she’s also very busy now.

Mother:   Are you disappointed?

Me:          Not sure.  Should I be?

Mother:   What kind of men does she like?

Me:           Never said.  But from the photos, my guess would be fair-haired and lean. Hungry looking, artsy types for all I know.

Mother:    Her boyfriends?

Me:           No, just folks… and her ex-husband.  More women than men, though, in the pictures.  Hard to say.

Mother:    What did you expect her to say?

Me:           I dunno. Something.  Like I have a small nose.  Anything.  I told her she was beautiful right away.

Mother:    She’s got a very okay face.

Me:           Shouldn’t she have said something?

Mother:    Don’t be silly. A girl doesn’t come out saying things right away.  What do you expect?

Me:            And these days, I’d have to grow on people.  Well, it just gets tougher, doesn’t it.

Mother:    What about people who know you. What’s going on with Severin?

Me:            You must be kidding.  I know her too well, she makes life worse.

Mother:      I liked Severin. She was fun, but she was after money.

Me:             If she was, she didn’t get very far. She’s stuck in Los Angeles now, in a million-dollar home they can’t sell.  She wanted things right away, and when she had them, she didn’t like them anymore.  Sound familiar?

Mother:      Don’t you start. Don’t compare this bird brain with me!

Me:             I thought you liked her!

Can you imagine if you were someone else? I used to think about that a lot, that it could be just as natural to be gazing down at a completely different big toe—I mean, the toe I’d be seeing would seem normal to me, because that toe and not this one, the one I’m looking at right now, would have been the only big toe I’d have ever known as my own. As though it weren’t too much more than an accident that I turned out to be me and you turned out to be you.

Mama always said that’s not philosophical thinking, philosophical thinking is something else entirely. And I always said, Mama you’re wrong, it’s just that I don’t like abstractions, I need the example, even if the example still doesn’t get across what I’m trying to say because it’s more about what I feel when I look at the toe and think it could just as well be a different one, one that would seem just as normal to me. My own toe would be the weird one then, the way it stretches out and then curves up a little bit, but no one seems to know what I mean. It’s the thing I feel when I say “toe,” it hides behind the words somewhere and I can’t really pin it down. I always wished for someone in my life to understand, someone I could say “toe” to and they’d understand exactly what I meant, they’d nod and say, “strange, isn’t it?”

It’s funny she told me in the end. Mama, I said, why didn’t you tell me before, and she said Phoebe Marie, I wasn’t sure if you should know or not, but now that my days are numbered I think differently, and I don’t want to take this to the grave with me. And ever since then I’ve been wondering what it would have been like if I’d have known all along.

But here I am with my toe and the other toe and all I can say is that it often feels like I could just as easily be someone else. I open my mouth to say something and what do you know but that my voice sounds strange, as though it were coming from somewhere outside of me. There’s this disjointedness that I’ve never been able to describe, the voice is out there, outside my head somewhere, but what worries me most is this feeling that everything is random, that it could just as easily not exist at all. I hurry down the street to catch a bus just like anyone else, but it’s not like I have a sense of certainty that this is all exactly what it is, this and nothing else—this street, this blinker signaling a right turn, that driver motioning me across the street with a wave of the hand that’s starting to get impatient, because I’m stalling, I’m holding him up, and then I hobble across as best as I can with my bum leg, and here I am in the midst of things, going about my business without the slightest doubt that this is this and that’s that, or so it seems.

I always told Mama I felt there was something wrong with me; there are people with phantom limbs that ache and ache even though they’re not even there, but with me it’s my whole self that aches, Phoebe and Marie, both of us feel like we’re not there, but that can’t be, of course. One of us must be here, because there’s always so much to be done, there’s the shopping and the laundry and then there’re the stairs that have to be swept and the hallway rugs to shake out and somebody is always passing by whom I have to say Good Morning or Good Afternoon to as the case may be. I usually take the opportunity to rest my hands on my broom and to straighten up a bit, and that’s when I feel the ache, standing there in the stairwell with the light shining dimly in and exchanging a few words with whomever happens to walk by. I see the kindness in their faces, the sympathy in the way they carefully skirt around the piles of dust—they’re glad I’m here, keeping the building clean and chatting pleasantly, it makes them feel better, but it leaves me feeling so lonely that I’d like to blurt something out, but what could I possibly say? I’m here and I’m not here, I don’t know where I am? I’m sweeping, in a moment I’ll be mopping, but I can’t say for sure if any of this is real: it’s not a phantom limb, but a phantom self I’m talking about here, can you help me?

But this must be real, because if I disappeared they’d notice it. At first they’d notice the hallway getting dirty, and then the ones I do laundry for would wonder where all their socks went, but it wouldn’t dawn on them just yet, because I’m the one who brings their laundry to them, what’s the point of getting someone else to do it, I always say, if you have to bother about picking it up yourself? But then they’d eventually realize something was wrong and they’d notify my employer, and he’d call the police, I guess. Oh, they’d notice all right, maybe not at first, but soon enough, and so how can you say you don’t exist when a couple of dozen tenants can identify you, would have things to say about you, Mr Macintyre would know all about the vacation I took to the Poconos once; I described it to him in great detail.

Jeez, Mama, you could have told me. I stood there next to the hospital bed and looked out the window at a concrete foundation being laid for a building about to go up on the other side of the street until I suddenly realized that I’d walked along that long construction fence plastered with notices just a few minutes ago, without the slightest thought as to what might lie behind it, and here I am on the fourth floor now looking down at the entire scene, the Caterpillar parked at the far end of the muddy field and the deep curves of tracks going this way and that, and then I look at the faces of people hurrying past, their steps pounding across the wooden planks as they squeeze by one another without the slightest curiosity about what might lie just beyond that fence, without the slightest inkling that a whole huge space is right there on the other side, spreading out to the farthest end of the city block, but isn’t that how we live our lives, anyway? Not the slightest inkling of what might be right there, at arm’s reach. If she’d told me maybe I could have found some help somewhere, there’s someone out there to help you with everything these days, isn’t there, but now it’s probably too late, I’m not young anymore and it’s hard to teach an old dog, as they say, but there’s a point to that. I always needed a sister, needed someone to understand me, and it’s true, you know—she guesses my every thought, and I hers, and we get on each other’s nerves sometimes because we’re so much alike, and so what drives me crazy about her is pretty much what drives me crazy about me, but for the most part we’re glad to have each other, it’s not like with other sisters who can’t tolerate one another at all, because you see that kind of thing happening a lot, take the Sutton sisters on the third floor, unmarried, you’d think they’d stick together but no, they can hardly stand being in the same room, fighting like teenagers, and about what, nonsense for the most part.

Take Edna, if there’s one thing I’ll never understand it’s this urge to broadcast to the general public, God knows what she’d do if she lost her voice, what she’d do if she couldn’t gossip. You think something out loud around her and the whole building knows before you do yourself. I asked her once what brought her to these parts, living with Martha like that if they didn’t get along, and her eyes got as small as pins and she cocked her head to one side and peered at me with such mistrust that I never asked again. But I was only wondering, really, it was a notion I had all of a sudden, what it must be like to have a sister—not a long-lost twin to suddenly arrive in your life like a true-blue miracle, but one you’d rather be rid of altogether—I just didn’t get it, I’d have thought you’d be grateful for any company life provided you with, all the better if it’s next of kin.

Now that I know, what am I supposed to do? Go back to work tomorrow, tomorrow’s Thursday and Thursday’s the day I do my weekend shopping, I never shop on Friday, the supermarkets are too crowded on Fridays, either you forget what you wanted to buy altogether or it’s not there because someone else has grabbed it right from under your nose. I saw Martha Sutton stuff a piece of cheese right up her coat sleeve once, I could hardly believe my eyes, what would she do if she got caught, they’d make her go to the back of the store with them, make her sit down in their grimy office with piles of cash register receipts stuck on top of those pointy pronged things, and then they’d check her bags and her coat pockets and wait for the police to come, and maybe they’d even get one of their female employees to frisk her, who knows, maybe she’d have a leg of mutton stuffed down her drawers as well, anything is possible. For my part I’d be mortified, but maybe she thinks she’s charmed, that no one would call the police on an old lady, and maybe she’s right, who knows, but that’s still no excuse to shoplift like that. I wonder how they divide the work, those two, always bickering, always complaining, any opportunity that comes along, one about the other and vice-versa, but they seem used to it, used to the bickering hell they’ve made for each other, yet I can’t help but wonder why their ways didn’t part long ago, what was it that stuck them together like that, a big blob of invisible glue it must have been, some folks you just can’t understand no matter how hard you try. Now, if they were twins, see, things would be different—twins are made from the same ball of wax and so naturally they’d want to spend a lot of time in each other’s company, that’s a completely different story of course.

Mama. Maybe you never should have told me, but then it would have been like it’d never happened, and maybe it explains some things to a certain extent, although I wish there was a book you could buy that was written exactly for this particular predicament, or someone you could talk to about it all, I wish there was a place you could go with exactly this problem and then they’d point to the sign hanging up above their desk and smile; they’d be able to help you. It’s like I’d finally gotten things into some kind of order in my life, what with the job and the building and all, I don’t mind the work, really, it helps me plan the day, and so there I was with everything all set up and then Mama goes and dies but first she tells me this. And so all of this order is peeling away like paint on a rusty railing, and I sit and stare at nothing and my mind wanders off like a hungry dog and I start imagining what everything would have been like if… It’s like this huge absence has entered my life now, a big blank space that takes up all the room around here with its silence and its blackness, and so I spend my time trying to fill it in, and every day I invent another tiny bit, but the absence is so vast and empty that the parts I invent don’t amount to all that much more than itty bitty iotas, little pinpricks of light in a nighttime sky, and it will take me to the end of my days to amass a couple of clusters as best as I can but I’ll never be able to make the sky bright with life, and all of it will be my own invention.

It’s getting harder and harder to concentrate now, and I’m starting to make mistakes, I gave Mr Macintyre’s laundry to Mr Schiff by mistake, Mr Schiff laughed it off, but Mr Macintyre didn’t find it funny one bit, I guess he’s sensitive about his girth, because he really does have an unusual figure, so wide in the middle, and such short legs, and for a week I was wondering if he’d stop having me do his laundry altogether, because it’s not like I have a whole lot of extra money right now, what with Mama’s hospital bills the insurance didn’t cover and all, but he calmed down after a few days and then everything seemed okay. Mr Schiff held up a pair of pants in the hallway and laughed his head off, it looks like someone was hit by a ton of bricks, he wheezed, look at these legs, squashed right down like silly putty, and whose laundry did you say this was? Now let me guess. And it was all I could do to get the bundle back from him, and I guess it wasn’t really necessary, either, I don’t know why folks have to go poking fun at people all the time, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you’re never going to change them.

And so I have to watch out now, and I’ve taken to writing little notes to myself, don’t forget to sweep on Monday, don’t forget to lock the broom closet, I nearly forgot again last week and if I do and the supplies get stolen then I’ll have to make up for it out of my own pocket. So I try to limit myself, I pick times to mop when I know I’ll be left alone for the most part, and then in the afternoon I make it down to the park and sit on one of the benches outside, that gives me time to think although there are so many muggings these days that I wouldn’t risk venturing too far inside, I’m not a spring chicken anymore and what with my leg acting up again and all. So I walk down the street arm-in-arm with this big blank thing now, and I think of how much time a life actually is, all these minutes and seconds and what would it be like if you could turn it all back again somehow, take away those seconds one by one, undo all the layers until there you were, just about to be born and without the slightest notion of everything that lay ahead—that’s the nature of the absence that I’ll never entirely comprehend, that’s it exactly.

I remember when Mama asked me who I was talking to one day, I can still recall the look on her face when she said it, Who are you talking to?—thoroughly spooked, and I didn’t really know what to say, and so I said myself, I guess, but she looked at me for a long time and from then on I tried not to do it when she was around, but sometimes I slipped and then I’d look at her and laugh a kind of guilty laugh and she’d say, Well I suppose that’s why I gave you two names, Phoebe Marie, because there seems to be two of you in there. And so we pretended it was a kind of joke, and I believed it, I really did, but I guess somewhere deep inside I knew that it wasn’t really a joke, knew from the way she’d look at me sometimes that she was spooked by it, there’s no other word for it I guess, and so while she’d sometimes ask me who it was she was talking to that day, Phoebe or Marie, I always said both, Mama, you know that, and I tried to act nonchalant-like, but she sensed something, I know she did.

It’s a real gift in life to have someone just like you to confide in, but that Edna Sutton walked in on us one day just as we were in the middle of a disagreement, I didn’t notice at first but then I turned and saw her all of a sudden, and Edna seemed a little shocked, which is hard to accomplish in a person as contrary as she. So I had to be more careful after that, and even if it stopped her in her tracks for once, even if it actually shut her up, she must have gotten over it soon enough and advertised it everywhere she could, I’m sure of that, and although no one in the building seems to pay her any mind, you never know nowadays when people are going to say you’re crazy and have you locked up, so I tried to watch out as best as I could.

It’s not like we never fought though, and sometimes I got the blame for things I didn’t do, and I’d be the one left standing there and it’d be up to me to invent an excuse, but for the most part we got along just fine. But there were days when we just didn’t see eye to eye and then I had to think that if she weren’t my sister I might not want to have anything to do with her at all anymore, that’s how bad things got sometimes, imagine that, a sister getting on your nerves like that and you have to keep quiet about it, none of this complaining like Martha and Edna all the time, and so naturally she got away with a lot of things she’d never have gotten away with if I’d have been able to tattle on her, if I’d have been able to tell Mama.

But now Mama went and took her away from me, took her away just like that and left me with a big fat blank, like she’d stuck a pin in some tremendous balloon and it burst, but only so far, disappearing not into nothing but leaving a kind of negative space behind, and all tattered-looking, like molten metal that’s fallen into cold water, spread for a split second like a fast and crazy explosion, and then frozen solid in a quick hiss. And so where I had a sister I have nobody now, and if Mama hadn’t told me I’d have never known, because it was just a little bit of a thing that died that day, lost to this world before she even had a chance to see the light of day, and now there isn’t enough life left to fill it all in, I’ll never get her fleshed out enough, and she never even had a name, and she’ll never do, this twin, and so it’s just Phoebe Marie now, and it’ll never be Phoebe and Marie again, and what would that have felt like to have a sister, I wonder, someone just like you.



Sisters, winner of the 2007 Hackney Literary Award


Interview with Rainer J. Hanshe, founder of Contra Mundum Press

Contra Mundum Press, founded in New York in late 2011, is an unusual new press with a distinctive list of publications to date. It debuted with a new translation by Stuart Kendall of the ancient epic Gilgamesh, which unites recent scholarship and a spare poetic sensibility to capture the consciousness of the archaic mind in the early days of our civilization. Thereafter, in rapid succession, CMP went on to publish six more books, including Self-Shadowing Prey, one of the last works written by Romanian Surrealist poet Ghérasim Luca, a stunning linguistic achievement that, as Gilles Deleuze wrote, “makes stuttering an affect of language and not an affectation of speech.” Committed to publishing challenging and innovative writing, including texts that have either never been translated into English or have long since gone out of print, CMP defines itself as “dedicated to the value and the indispensable importance of the individual voice.” CMP champions innovative fiction, drama, poetry, philosophy, essays, and writings on the visual arts and cinema. Forthcoming this fall is the world premiere of Pessoa’s Philosophical Essays and the first English publication of director Elio Petri’s Writings on Cinema. In keeping with its international perspective on exceptional literature, CMP’s aspiration is to eventually publish books in languages other than English, and its founder, novelist Rainer J. Hanshe, has relocated to Berlin to facilitate this aim.

“A press’s survival is contingent upon the practical necessity of having current readers, and we certainly want a devoted readership for our books, which is more valuable than what is commonly understood by ‘success.’ What we have here is a certain absolutely vital force … Like any other craftsman, though, a writer should be able to survive and live from his or her work, especially if they are entirely devoted to it. Yet writing, as most art, is considered to be essentially superfluous. Who is an artist before a surgeon? Or a scientist? But the fact that tyrants and political forces of every age have been threatened by art again and again, condemned it as degenerate or poisonous, and have silenced, brutalized, or murdered artists because of their work only serves to illustrate how significant art is, that it is our one greatest power. I would even go so far as to say that the tyrant ‘understands’ art more than the devotee, for the latter is generally too ‘pious’ and adoring, almost like a simple-minded believer overwrought by faith who simply loves and finds everything ‘great,’ whereas the former suffers the transformative threat of art more, is even endangered by it, hence their terror. It is the Platonic fear of art’s power over the ‘soul.’ And the fear of the destruction of the polis, but destruction only leads to new creations. Art is the life force, the vital breath that sustains us in the midst of our most excruciating trials.”


Now online at The Brooklyn Rail:

CMP Pessoa cover

Visit Contra Mundum’s website:

Twilight of the Superheroes, the stunning title piece of the fourth and most recent collection in Deborah Eisenberg’s Collected Stories, homes in on the time immediately preceding and following the September 11th attacks. The story goes far beyond this, however, as it crystallizes into a cogent mise-en-scène of American society at the end of the last millennium.




The “Superheroes”—four young, ambitious friends who gather together to sublet the absent Mr. Matsumoto’s fabulous Manhattan loft that Nathaniel’s benevolent Uncle Lucien has made available to them—exhibit the paramount American attributes of the “Age of Dross” as seen through the eyes of Nathaniel’s comic strip figure “Passivityman”: “a gift for exploiting systemic weaknesses,” “an obtuse, patrician equanimity in the face of damning fact,” and a “spectacular level of aggrievedness.” Over time, these “superhero” features—originally the key to the four friends’ easy success—metamorphose into a Venn diagram of rampant opportunism, unilateral rectitude, and isolationism. For his part, Passivityman—who has previously been “constantly vigilant against the premature conclusion, scrupulously rejecting the vulgar ambition, rigorously deferring judgment and action…and all for the greater good”—seems to have given in to political apathy. “His rallying cry, ‘no way,’ which once rang out over the land…has been altered by Captain Corporation’s co-optophone into, ‘whatever.’” And then came the attacks, which changed everything.

The future ahead of them, it’s now obvious, had itself been implied by a past; and the terrible day that had pointed them toward that future had been prepared for a long, long time, though it had been prepared behind a curtain…a curtain painted with the map of the earth, its oceans and continents, with Lucien’s delightful city. The planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay right behind it, of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.

Read the full review here:

A few years ago, some good people here in Berlin began putting together a project for NPR Radio called “Berlin Stories,” a collection of short pieces about the city read aloud by the authors who wrote them.

I adapted an excerpt from A Lesser Day (2010, Spuyten Duyvil Press), a scene set in 1993. I was living next door to an old woman who’d been the building’s superintendent throughout the rise and reign of National Socialism; one of the last of her kind, she’d been presiding there for over sixty years.

The piece is currently offline; I will repost the link when the archive is complete.

Scrima pic

The above image is taken from a series of installations titled Shelf Life. The pinned notes of the shelf lives of perishable goods were found on the inside of a kitchen pantry door of an old woman who had recently died. English translations (sample):

The following keep for:

1/2 year         fats, cereal products, dough products

1 year             meats, fish, berries

2 years           light fruit

2 – 3 years    spinach, celery, tomato paste

3 – 4 years    legumes, green beans, kohlrabi, root vegetables, mushrooms


One night, the smell of smoke sent me hurrying out into the hallway. I began to knock on her door, calling out Frau Chran, Frau Chran! as I stared at the sign above the bell with her name written in a shaky hand, and then I began knocking more loudly when all at once I heard Frau Chran fumbling with a set of keys from behind. And then the door opened a crack, and I pushed against it, only to discover that the chain was still attached. Let me in! Something’s on fire! and Frau Chran, with a look of fear and confusion in her eyes, obeyed and slid back the chain. I hurried past her into the living room, where a Christmas decoration hanging above a sideboard had caught fire, one long burning garland strung across the wall, and beneath it a smoking candle. I ran into the kitchen and found a bucket under the sink; I turned the knob of the faucet as far as it would go, but nothing more than a thin stream of water trickled out. I have to call the fire department, I thought frantically, but then I remembered that Frau Chran had had her number disconnected, and I realized that I would have to get her out of the apartment somehow. All at once Frau Chran began to whimper. Frau Chran, we have to leave, we have to call for help, I said as I tried to guide her out of the kitchen, but she pushed my hand away and cried out What? What are you saying? And I shouted We have to leave! and yanked her by the elbow, but she struck out with her cane and lost her balance and nearly fell to the floor as I caught her just in time. I’m not leaving, I’m not leaving, she screamed, her hands clasped around my arms, and then I saw that the bucket was nearly full, and I freed myself from her grip and pulled the bucket out of the sink, ran into the living room, and threw the water onto the flaming garland as a loud hiss rose up in the room. Frau Chran came hobbling in; she was wailing now, you won’t tell anyone, will you? Then a crafty expression crept over her face. I have a little savings, she began, if you could find me a nice young man who’ll paper the room, and then I heard myself telling her that everything would be alright, but I knew it was only a matter of time until someone would assess the danger she was beginning to present to the rest of the building’s inhabitants and notify the authorities.