In the end, what came to seem the most significant about my lumps was not how they caused me pain or fear, but how their meaning kept on changing even as the lumps themselves stayed the same. The night I first found them, they offered a nice, charged sense of drama. I was staging a performance art piece in my dorm room. The materials—a camcorder, a crocodile mask, a few boxes of wine, friends, the kind of multicolored parachute you would find in a child’s gym class—were spread out on the floor. These were fall days, and the air outside was still warm, and my bed was pulled up right next to my window on the second story over DeWolfe street. I spent a few hours each day sitting up against my bedframe, watching people passing by on the street below, and calling out if I knew them. That evening I flagged down my friend Owen as he walked by, asking him to come take part in my performance piece, and he agreed. I needed six people to hold the parachute in order to pull of the piece successfully, so I was glad I’d spotted Owen.
Owen didn’t show up, though, and neither did a few other people. In the end I was short one participant. I sat in the middle of my parachute on the cold tile floor and thought, sigh no one came to my performance piece. Yes, I thought the word “sigh”, accepting the moment as an early taste of what was to come, which was a long sad life as an artist who would never be able to get anyone to come to her performance pieces. Later Owen told me his dog had died that night, and his mom had called on the phone, just as he walked out of sight of my window, to tell him the news.
No one came to my performance piece, I said out loud at the end of the night to the person who used to sit in my bed, beside the spot next to the window, where he sat now. The person sitting in my bed said, Five people came. And we’ll try again tomorrow night. And poked a finger into my melodrama, bursting it.
We were like two sculptures at the time. Each of us had sculpted the other. The sculpting was never quite finished. There was always prodding to be done. It was prodding me in this way he found the lump. “What’s that,” he said. “What is what,” I said. “That,” he said, having located a flaw in the material. It was true. There really was a lump in my breast. It was an inch across. It felt like obsidian.
Two women, close friends, lived in a place they described as a great rock in the middle of the sea. The place was actually a seventy-four bed live-in clinic for patients undergoing psychoanalysis. This was where the two women worked. It was in landlocked Berlin, but nevertheless they often spoke about a ship that was supposed to come and take them away. They sat in the window day after day, hoping to spot someone they knew passing by in the waters below.
Due to their work schedules, they lived on the rock at alternating times; whenever one was there the other was away. They prayed for the ship to come so that it could carry the one who was there to the one who was not there. They wrote one another letters and described their ship near obsessively.
For a while our ship was gone, then it reappeared on the horizon and came closer and closer.
The ship had disappeared entirely on the horizon, but now it has surfaced again and is heading slowly in our direction.
Our ship must be something quite old-fashioned, a screw steamer, or perhaps a sailship in a calm sea.
We watch it all the time. That is actually our main occupation.
At times, we think we see it emerging in the distance, and then it sails past us, just as it did with Salas y Gomez. A German poem with this name, by the poet Adelbert von Chamisso, tells the story of a boat mooring at a jutting island in the sea. The sailors clamber onto the land to find a man lying down. The man opens his mouth and eyes wide, and cries out, simply, “Free!” The man has grown very old waiting.
A month or so passes by below. My mouth and eyes and flesh and I, we are open wide. New lump in my right breast. The lumps no longer belong to one night and one room; they have rather become the most palpable example of what seems to be a general woundedness about an inch below the skin, all the way around, day after day.
The missing person never arrived to the performance piece to take their place and complete the circle around the parachute. The warm air in the room leaked continually out the window. The person who used to sit in my bed has left for good.
My period came for the first time in years. Came paint-bright and water-thin. Something truly odd happening with hormones. I can’t stop thinking of the word ‘pain’ because I feel it brimming over the top of me. Bedroom is in entropy. The unstoppable accumulation of debris. Used cups are the fiercest adversary. Food is growing difficult too. Down fifteen pounds. Trapped in bed under a great rock. Sad how it is impossible to trick someone into loving you again by presenting them with memories. Radiator broken. Between losing the heat and the fifteen pounds, very cold. Another barrier to emerging from blankets. I understand the predicament of the man from Salas Y Gomez. There is no choice but to wait forever.
Supine. A very useful word that means both to exhibit apathetic inertia and to lie on your back, facing the world. Palms facing upwards. A small aspirational gesture, in case something miraculous should choose to arrive.
It’s true: Rotating something to face upwards can change a great deal. One of the women who lived on the rock once met the second woman, plus a third one, for a reunion, during which they went walking through the fields. The third woman had lost a little brooch there weeks earlier.
The first woman set off to search. She walked up a slope, through the trees and meadows. The snow was melting and strawberry leaves emerged. Bending down to caress one, she turned a petal over, and the brooch, of course, was there beneath it.
Somehow the woman had anticipated her random success. Please let me look, she had begged the others. So much I have lost. This I shall find.
I knew something about being engulfed in sadness, but I’ll own up to the fact that I did not know what it was like to lose a daughter.
The death of Eva Rosenfeld’s daughter left her desolate. No hope. Engulfed in sadness.
I know because of the letters Anna Freud wrote in the 1920s and 30s to her one truest friend and confidante, whose name happened to be Eva Rosenfeld, like mine. Anna was the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s daughter, and both of the women were psychoanalysts themselves. The book was compiled by the writer Peter Heller, who was Anna’s patient in Vienna as a child. Eva Rosenfeld had, among other good qualities, an uncanny knack for tracking down brooches in fields.
I thought the book of Anna and Eva’s correspondence would document a back-and-forth conversation, but I forgot about the nature of letter-writing. How the two sides of the correspondence wind up, by definition, in different places. The book documents only Anna’s side of the correspondence. But we hear what Eva is told, and we start to decide what kind of person she was. We come to know her that way, by her contours.
The names of the two women are Eva and Anna, like me and my sister. The women use no punctuation when they sign off, like me and the one friend who is my most stalwart correspondent. (It is very rude to do so, my friend once wrote to me.)
Hold me very tight and I will be decent again
Eva’s daughter Madi died at 15 years old in a mountaineering accident, partway through Anna and Eva’s period of correspondence. On the anniversary of Madi’s death, Anna apologized that she couldn’t be there for Eva in person. Actually she was there all the same, she revises, because basically external separation means nothing.
This is the truth told from within, she wrote— Everything real takes place within.
My birth control implant was inside my left arm for close to three years. I’m mostly sure that gives it the record for the longest time a foreign object has lived inside my body. (Mostly sure because I did once eat a chewy bar with the wrapper still on for a dare when I was 17. So)
I went to the clinic to get the implant removed because of the possibility that it was a culprit in my hormonal weirdness and my breast growths and my inexplicable periods and because on principle all records must eventually come to an end.
A few weeks earlier I’d had my final appointment with the hospital breast specialist for the foreseeable future. I was given ultrasound after ultrasound after ultrasound and I got to watch the monitor and look inside my chest where so much of my life takes place. Then they told me things were probably going to be fine for me.
“Here is the bad news,” the gynecologist said to me at the implant removal appointment, forgetting to follow up with any good news. The news was that three years earlier, a spate of unqualified doctors across the U.S.A. had gone around inserting the Nexplanon etonogestrel implant much too deeply into thousands of doomed upper arms. Mine had spent the three intervening years getting itself embedded in my muscle tissue, and now I would need to get it surgically removed. The gynocologist wrote me a referral and sent me on my way.
“Thirty dollar copay,” the receptionist said to me.
“Thirty dollars? Even though they didn’t do the procedure?”
“Because they didn’t do the procedure.”
After that, I still had the lumps. They were the same lumps as before; but now they were lumps I was supposed to be not worried about. I still feel them, roll them in between my thumb and index finger when I’m getting distracted. Instead, the site of damage was relocated about six inches to the left, where my implant was experiencing the inverse problem. It was supposed to be discernable by touch just beneath the skin, but it was buried so deep that it couldn’t be felt at all.
The surgery was scheduled to take the morning but took the day. Nurses rotated through, each one draping me with a heated blanket, which was a warmed-up regular blanket. As one nurse rolled me in a wheelchair down to the imaging room, I saw one of the giant heaters where the warm blankets were stacked, which looked like a refrigerator but did the opposite thing a refrigerator would normally do. By the end of the day I was a shapeless mass covered in room-temperature blankets. I went under and woke back up. I left the hospital with a nice thick gash. A cold front came through that night, and I fell on the ice on my front porch, turning the rest of my arm purple and brown. It was funny to think that only now that these problems had been resolved had they become visible to the outside world.
The wounds were not yet done fading when I entered the era of my body called peacetime. It arrived quickly, taking a strange form. It was the form of an urge. The urge could get pretty strong in the restaurant where I worked. Like when the owner would come in on weekday mornings and leave his crossword on the counter when he left again. We would stand around and fill it out between rushes. There was a woman who came in on those slow days with her baby. The slowness made the mornings more agonizing, since I had plenty of time to think about how the baby was right there at the table in the far back corner, and how you can’t ask to touch the babies of strangers. So the crossword was a good distraction, if not the final line of defense keeping me at bay.
The form that had entered me was both the yearning for a daughter and the daughter herself. She was not a human form, but something that could be best described as an abstract shape that looked like a soul glommed onto mine.
She was luminous. Nothing felt more urgent than materializing her. Yet she was already there. I knew because she had gone to work making changes. There was one January morning I was eating breakfast in a dining hall when I heard a baby laugh. Everyone in the hall just went on eating as if nothing celestial had transpired, which was incredible because to me it sounded like we had been momentarily transplanted to an amphitheatre awash with the laughing sound. While I walked home, I felt the sun shining out of my body. I wanted to give away my possessions. I called my grandma, I did all my housemates’ dishes, I thought I might be happy for two years straight. It was suddenly obvious that the kinds of things we give to other people—like care, like love—we could go on giving forever. My daughter said nothing and she told me that. It was the truth told from within.
The strongest instance of this sensation came at the tail end of that cold front, one night at the movies, right after I’d returned to school after winter break. There was an Iranian filmmaker who came down to stand in front of the screen and talk about how social media degrades intimacy. I heard someone say that he had a baby. And that the baby was even there. And thought, I gotta see that baby. But when he came to the stage and his shape silhouetted against the screen, he was just the shape of one man.
The Iranian filmmaker summoned his wife and collaborator to the stand. And I thought, she’ll bring down the baby. But she came alone. Someone, I was like clenching the seat in front of me begging the cinema gods, bring out the fucking baby!!!
They didn’t, so something desperate grew inside me. During each scene I imagined telling my daughter about how much I needed her. I made lots of blueprints in my head of how I would acquire a daughter, surprising myself by even daydreaming the logistics. But the gist was that I would unpack my stuff, register for my classes, and have my daughter.
She did not love me, I only reminded her of someone!—said the man on the screen. I need you!—said my brain, to the creature I felt residing somewhere in the vicinity of my ribcage, up my throat, and spreading warmly to my cheeks. Long before I knew you, even then I needed you. There is no need to worry about showing up at the station and finding nobody there to receive you. As soon as you’d arrive I’d know. I would wake up in the morning with a headache. My forehead would beat with the secret, sacred knowledge of you. The day would be as erotic as the night. I’m asking too much, but here’s why: You are inside me but I want you attached to me. I want you strapped to my back. I want you strapped to my chest. I need you sitting in the bed of a motel room. Humming beside me unintelligibly while I type up the day’s transcript. Yet I understand you by your pitch.
In my thoughts I sit next to you every evening. Anna signed one July 1930 letter to Eva. She often conjured images of physical presence when signing off. A favorite was, Your voice over the phone sounded so near.
Later that month: All sorts of things are going through my head, but I will have to see what settles down and remain when I am with all of you. In the last words of the phrase she let slip the metaphysical secret known between friends and mothers and daughters and some other selected creatures: presence and absence are not the same but they often take place at the same time. Part of Eva is already there with her.
In the meantime, she concludes, keep your fingers crossed for our ship!
I would like to be a little bit of Madi for you, Anna wrote to Eva that same July in 1930. I don’t know what Eva wrote back, but I am taking the liberty of imagining, and hoping she will forgive me for overstepping. The following correspondence, from Eva Rosenfeld to Anna Freud, is not real, it is made up, by me.
After Madi’s death, you saw (from so far away) that my problem was not only the empty space left inside me, but the excess that still poured out of me. I was full of the kind of stuff you give to another person—I was generating more every day—but I had no receptacle. You said, here, I will take it from you, and did.
For these last few years, I feel we have formed one strange shape. It is not the lyrically and geometrically perfect circle from that Aristophanes myth of the other half, where love is two beings rolled into one perfectly round whole who cartwheel their way around the Earth for all eternity.
It is you and I at the writing desk, where you have located my gaps and holes and needs and plugged them up with something that fills the space just right; you have diagnosed my excesses and growths and protrusions and taken those into yourself. I wonder -- have I done the same for you? Though maybe the question has by now become irrelevant: I suspect that this giving and taking has gone so far that the place where I end and you begin has become not so clear, and now we are something between one and two—between liquid and solid, and we flow into one another—and I carry you inside me, and I will not stop until the day we are done existing at all.
In the meantime, I see that you have an oddly shaped hole somewhere in the vicinity of your gut. I have the perfect thing to fill it. I will send it to you in the mail.
A kiss and I am ever your
"So now we know: You are I and I am you and any part of me that you can use, you must always take, because you have a right to it.” Anna wrote this in June 1929, dropping it matter-of-factly into a brief note, nestled snugly inside a paragraph of logistics.
It’s probably worth noting that some time around 1940, the women began to gradually disentangle themselves. The letters slowed down. Eva opened a school for girls and searched for Madi among the young students. Anna continued her work as a psychoanalyst.
There are a few words from Eva, in the very back of the book, from the years after the intensity of Anna and her friendship had waned. In 1950, several years after the death of Anna’s father Sigmund Freud, Eva wrote this: Every summer I am sad not to be with you and this time especially, because I feel that you need the right kind of care for once, the thousand details which would only occur to someone who has the right notion of what you need. I didn’t invent that one. She really wrote that. I would make that up but I didn’t.
Peter Bradley was one of two children formally adopted by a woman named Edith Ramsay Strange: he survives; the girl is dead. Edith Ramsay Strange took in 62 other foster children but she did not adopt any of them. Edith brought Peter to her home when he was three days old; Peter did not know from where. He did not know why he was adopted and the others were not but he did know that being adopted meant that he could paint. Peter had pocket money, his own room at the top of the house, and tailor-made clothing. None of the other children had these things and Peter could feel that his mother bestowed these privileges on him not because she favored him over the others, but as a shield against the taunts that would surely come from the children who Edith Ramsay Strange had not chosen to adopt.
The house where Edith Ramsay Strange brought up Peter Bradley was in Western Pennsylvania and it had 27 bedrooms. The window in Peter’s bedroom looked onto the Youghiogheny River, a river that George Washington’s horse crossed when George Washington was on his way to set up Pittsburgh.
Peter woke up each morning and spent the day painting. In the evening, his mother came upstairs after a day of work. Edith Ramsay Strange did not do the work expected of a Black woman in Western Pennsylvania in the 1940s, she refused to do that, just as she refused to be listed in the Green Book (you either knew or you didn’t). She did not sweep white floors; instead, Edith Ramsay Strange accepted payments from the state of Pennsylvania for each of the 62 children she fostered, and she held shares in famous jazz clubs in Detroit and Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Every evening, Peter’s mother came upstairs and leaned against the left side of the door to his room and the Youghiogheny River reflected the light of sundown against her reddish hair. She asked how many drawings Peter had made that day and Peter told her how many and she said, “I like this one,” and “I don’t like that one,” and then she asked how much paint Peter needed for the next day and he told her just how much. Then she went to the paint store, which in their town was called Bradley Paints, a coincidence.
In the living room, books on railroad law were stacked on the coffee table and among picture frames, as if the house was a furnished rental owned by a railroad company.
It was, in a way. Peter got the name Bradley from Edith’s second husband, a man named William Bradley. William was a cook for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, which is one of four railroad properties one can purchase in a game of Monopoly. When a train carrying Mr. Bradley passed by, Edith stood on the back porch and waved but William did not look up from the flank steak before him. How could he have known? Edith’s porch was just far enough from the tracks that her hair did not rustle as the train passed, but the bird feeder a yard closer did give a shudder. His “father’s” work and the law books were Peter’s clues that the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company was not a ghost in the house but a landlord.
Edith Ramsay Strange’s lease on the house was a precarious arrangement. Someone at the company had taken a liking to her and decided that she and William Bradley should live there and pay very little money. Because the house was given to her off-the-books, seen as charity, Edith did not enjoy the ease of entitlement that someone who had acquired a house with 27 bedrooms through inheritance, or oil money, might have. She could have lost it at any moment, had the smoky paunch over at Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company decided that the home would be better suited in the hands of a more lucrative employee. The house belonged to Edith Ramsay Strange but, lest it be revoked, she committed herself to a frantic milking of the space, a total use.
A long time later, in 1976, Peter Bradley found himself in the window seat on a flight home to New York City next to a man who seemed to wish that he, and not Peter Bradley, were sitting in the window seat. When Peter looked down into his pack of peanuts he felt the man lean over him to watch the city grow larger in the window. Soon, the man turned to Peter. “This is a good suit,” he said. Peter wore a silk suit custom-made by Roland Meledandri, of Fifty-Fourth Street between Park and Madison Avenues in Manhattan. Peter Bradley almost always wore custom-made suits, and had since he was a child, so when the people at Perls Gallery, where he worked selling art, tried to get him an account at Bloomingdales, Peter said no, it would be Meledandri or it would be nothing at all. And yet, at Perls, Peter had to eat his lunch upstairs inside the gallery because they did not want him having his lunch with the Sotheby’s Girls across the street.
The man in the aisle seat was named Thomas K. Wong. He was the head of the Chinatown Service Center, which controlled large buildings in downtown Manhattan. Thomas K. Wong asked Peter if he would like to come and check out this firehouse he had Downtown. Peter Bradley’s mother had taught him to like unusual houses, so Peter said yes, he would come and take a look.
Firehouse Engine Company Thirty One on the corner of Lafayette and White Streets in the lower part of Manhattan was built in 1895 to resemble a castle in France. When he saw the firehouse, Peter told Thomas that yes, he would like to live there.
An unlikely sequence of events led Peter Bradley to stand in 1976 on a sidewalk outside an empty firehouse: In 1972, Engine Company Thirty One dissolved. The firehouse passed from the New York City Fire Department to the Chinatown Service Center, which gave Thomas K. Wong control of the deed. The Chinatown Service Center put ping pong tables on the ground floor for community use. They were in search of a tenant for the upper floor when Thomas K. Wong met Peter Bradley on an airplane and heard that he was looking for a new place to live. Peter’s mother had a house with 27 bedrooms because a vacancy had needed filling; both he and Edith were seen by their landlords as temporary, stopgap tenants but they did not see their tenancy that way, for why would a person see themselves as temporary?
Although Peter paid Thomas $450 in rent each month, he moved into the firehouse as if he had purchased it. Peter was not at all cowed by his renter status, nor by the many empty rooms in his new house. The cavernous top of the firehouse was not too large for Peter Bradley, his wife Suzanne McClelland, one Basenji named Rue, and one Rhodesian Ridgeback named Ruffian (all of the animals they ever had would be named with the letter “R”). The family expanded, grew louder, until the house was just the right size for the four of them. One bedroom, three studios, one kitchen, one living room, and two closets. Peter ordered a 30-foot Saguaro cactus from Arizona and planted it in the center of his living room, like a flag on the moon. When it arrived on Lafayette Street, a crane had to tip the cactus from the sidewalk, over the terrace, and into the firehouse through an open window. It seemed to trail red sand the way children’s feet track through the house when they return from the beach.
The firehouse did not have any heat, so Peter and Suzanne burned wood they brought from forests upstate where it was free. At night they also took wooden crates from the Gristedes parking lot which had held tomatoes or bananas in the afternoon and they burned those.
Peter used 7500 Altec Lansing speakers, the best kind, he thought, to keep away the silence. He liked to listen to the same musicians that his mother picked up from the train station and drove to her house, where they could sleep and have breakfast. Music played all the time in the firehouse. This tactic he had also learned from Edith, who played music all the time in the same way that in a quiet forest, you speak too loudly and step heavy on the path, to scare away the snakes. If the music stopped, Peter and Suzanne heard the dim thud of ping pong paddles. Later, they heard a family downstairs listening to the Beatles.
On Friday afternoons, the Boys Choir of Harlem took a yellow bus to the firehouse. They ate popcorn and drank guava juice seated on the edge of low white couches draped with cowskins. They were told to take off their blazers if they really wanted to paint, and then they entered the studio near the kitchen and Peter began their art lesson.
If he had any Black neighbors, Peter Bradley did not know them. In the 1970s and 1980s, the people who owned large lofts in Soho and Tribeca were white. They were not yet hedge-fund people, they were artists, but they were white people. Peter would have liked for the firehouse to be a place where Black artists gathered, but this did not happen naturally because most of the people who drifted in and out of the firehouse lived nearby. Peter had done four shows with André Emmerich, a prestigious gallerist who did not show any other Black artists in that decade or in any decade which had come before. Peter was aware of his place at the mercy of the white curators, dealers, and collectors.
In the spring of 1981, Peter found two white men standing in his firehouse, having a look around, checking out his walls and windows and tiling. (When the Chinatown Service Center had knocked out all of the tiles downstairs and they lay in a quiet heap, Peter carried them upstairs in cooking pots and lined his kitchen and bathroom with rescued porcelain.) Peter saw the way these men were appraising his home and he called into the bedroom, “Suzanne, they’re going to try and take away our firehouse.”
Jon Alpert was a 33-year old white man from Port Chester, New York, who owned a television company and held a black belt in karate. Earlier in 1981, the City of New York had indicted Thomas K. Wong for corruption or embezzlement and control of the firehouse fell to another landlord, a man more interested in profit than Wong. Soon after, Alpert and the Downtown Community Television Center had moved in downstairs, replacing Thomas K. Wong’s community center and its ping pong tables.
Alpert’s ambitions turned out to be larger than one third of a firehouse. Alpert had tried to buy out many of Peter’s neighbors, but when they’d said no, he backed off. With Peter, Alpert was dogged, remaining at his heels, deterred neither by adamance nor by outrage. He did not accept Peter’s no as he had the no’s of the other loft residents and Peter recognized this for what it was.
Peter fought the eviction for five years. If the new landlord won, he would not buy Peter out; he would tell Peter to leave his home and then he would give Peter’s lease to Jon Alpert, who would soon have the money to buy the firehouse. Peter never learned the name of the law firm he was up against and he felt that his own lawyers were unreliable and lethargic. To pay for these lawyers, Peter painted Downtown courthouses for Rambusch Decorating Company. Each day, Peter was required to use two full gallons of paint. He was permitted only to use a brush and not a roller, which made painting walls and ceilings very slow, and by the end, Peter needed a new shoulder.
A doorway, rather than a real door, had always separated Peter’s floor from the floor below. Only the sort of people who Peter wanted to see came up the stairs. But after Alpert’s lease had begun, Peter sometimes came home or out of the bathroom to find an old white man and woman standing like ghosts in his loft. Peter looked at them—they looked back and did not speak. Taking their time, they nodded formally before returning downstairs. Peter learned that these were the parents of Jon Alpert. He installed a door with a lock at the top of the stairwell.
One day Peter returned from the courthouse to find that another Rambusch Decorator had left a 12 gauge sawed-off shotgun leaning against his door. People who spent lots of time in the firehouse hoped Peter would kill Jon Alpert. Many felt as if the firehouse was being taken from them, too. Suzanne became pregnant that year, and Peter said, it would now be a crime to take the firehouse away. The child was born. Jon Alpert was lucky Peter was an artist, Peter thought with relief, or Peter might have killed him.
Jon Alpert might have thought about things like this: here is a large place that I want and here is Peter Bradley, who is, one might say, already something of a misfit in the neighborhood. Jon might have thought: there is a temporariness of Peter Bradley in this neighborhood beyond the temporary quality of his rental of the firehouse, and then Jon might have guessed that things would yield to his gentle prodding more easily if he went after Peter Bradley’s home and not the home of another person in the neighborhood, that Peter’s being Black would make him much easier to dislodge.
Peter Bradley never ceased to resist eviction, and yet, in September 1989, Jon Alpert took his firehouse. Peter thought, this is a terrible, terrible interruption. A friend of Peter’s came to help him move and they stood together in the living room, pushing things out of the house. And then Peter’s friend did something strange. Almost everything was gone and they did not want to leave this firehouse and stand on the curb and wonder where to go. A large, heavy chain lay on the floor and the man walked over to it and picked it up, and Peter looked and did not stop him, and in lieu of a final scream, the man threw the chain out the door, where Jon Alpert was standing, watching.
Peter Bradley did not have a home for the three days after his birth, until he was adopted by Edith Ramsay Strange. 52 years later, Peter found himself homeless once more. He did not move to a new house when he left the firehouse; he did not have another house. Peter lived on the streets of Manhattan that fall, and in the winter, too.
Peter lost a lot of things along with his firehouse: a Saguaro cactus, a beautiful French vase, silk suits made by Roland Meledandri, four hundred paintings (his friends’, his wife’s, his own), the skull of an elephant from South Africa who had only died and had not been killed. He lost his friends, because one cannot continue to see the same people if they have no way to come and see you, or if the only place they know to find you is inside of a small crack house on 10th Street and Second Avenue. He also lost his daughter, who moved with Suzanne into an apartment her parents bought for her in Battery Park City. Peter was not allowed to move with them; he was, as Suzanne’s father put it, out of control.
In 1990, Peter Bradley stopped living on the street and began to live on the road. He drove towards Canada with a man named Art Blakey, a famous jazz drummer from Pittsburgh, which is near the Youghiogheny River. Peter and Art were in Saugerties, New York, and it was snowing, when they drove past a stone house that was very large, and where not a single person had lived for sixty years. Peter lives there now, with a woman named Debra and a dog named Ruffian that is not a Rhodesian Ridgeback but a different type of dog altogether.
When I was nine years old, my dad killed our dog Max. That was something he would regret for the rest of his life; something he had never planned on doing. Especially not when, ten years earlier, he drove a rental from Colchester to Yorkshire and back to get my mom the dog of her dreams.
Max was a small Terrier that we all adored. My parents got him when they were in their last year of law school in England. A few months later I was born and we all moved to Tel Aviv. Even today, years after Max died, my dad still keeps a photo of him in his office. It shows the dog and my pregnant mother, lounging on my parents’ bed in Colchester, posing like two Gap models.
My dad has always been a Notoriously Good Person who sometimes messes up but never means to. In our city, he was somewhat of a local celebrity. He owned a small law firm and was known by his nickname, Dov, which had belonged to his grandpa and meant Bear in Hebrew. Being his son meant getting into concerts and nightclubs for free, but also hearing the rumors people spread about him.
Some said he’d broken somebody’s nose in middle school because the guy called my grandma a hooker. That he’d lent a million shekels to a client, who fled to Bulgaria and disappeared. That he’d cheated on my mom with a Brazilian tourist.
But one thing seemed to be clear to everyone, even the girl he knocked up at seventeen and the principal who kicked him out of high school: My dad was always full of good intentions. Which, if the saying was true, meant that he was on the highway to hell. Which somehow squared with the fact that he had killed a guiltless Terrier right in front of me.
But my dad never believed in hell. Both his parents were Jewish, but only in the technical sense. His mom, who had converted from Catholicism, kept whispering her Ave Maria every night before going to sleep. His dad would spend his Friday evenings playing cards with friends—his private version of a synagogue.
Sometime around his Bar Mitzvah, my dad vowed to be the correction of his parents; he made up his mind to be a good Jewish kid. And good Jews, as he explained to me one Yom Kippur, believe that it’s impossible to know anything about the World to Come. So instead of trying to solve a puzzle with far too many missing pieces, good Jews take upon themselves a challenge they can actually rise up to: They try to perfect our world, here and now, for the living.
“I don’t know,” I said as we were walking back home from the evening prayer. “I guess God is not my thing.” I had just started fourth grade and begun grappling with life’s big, existential themes.
My dad nodded gravely. “Ever heard of Rabbi Akiva?”
It was getting dark. Our street was empty.
“Sure,” I said, not knowing who the guy was but assuming that he was a man of consequence.
“He said you should wake up every morning and remember that you’re the son of a king.”
I remained silent. “A nice thing to have in mind,” my dad said. “Don’t you think?”
I thought it was anything but nice. It was dumb, and weird, and arrogant. But, being the non-confrontational kid that I was, I said nothing.
“What do you think?” He asked.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, you’re not a king.”
My dad laughed. “Well, I don’t really matter.” He pointed up to the sky, smiling. “We’re talking about this guy here.”
A few days later, my dad killed Max.
We were driving to my school bus stop. I remember every turn we made on the way from our house to Kashani Street. The bright yellow of the recycling bins where we stopped to drop some old bottles. The tapping of the rain on the windows of our Jeep Cherokee. The washed-out color of the leather seats and the misogynistic song my dad was playing that, even by my nine-year-old standards, was way too offensive. I remember Max’s warm body, his tremors on my lap, and the massive handbrake my dad had to pull up to park the monstrous vehicle.
I remember the clicking of our seat belts. The metallic gray of the Jeep’s door and the thundering sound it made when my dad slammed it right as Max was jumping out of it.
And then, the longest shrill I’d ever heard.
My dad ran out of the car and opened the trunk. He took out his black lawyer’s gown and jumped into the blood puddle that was spreading over the street.
“Don’t look,” he ordered me as he was wrapping Max’s body with the dark fabric. It was still raining. His suit was covered with stains of blood and water. I stayed in the Jeep, holding my breath and sinking slowly into my seat. I heard the nervous laughter of my friends, who had been waiting at the bus stop. I wanted to get out of the car and disavow any connection with the man in the suit. “Help,” I wanted to shout. “I’m not really his son. I have no clue who this man is or how I got here.”
My dad peeked into the car and offered to take me home, but I closed the window and asked him to leave. When I got out of the Jeep, trembling, I saw my friends staring at my dad as he put the black bundle that used to be our dog in the trunk and drove away with the nonchalance of a serial killer.
The school bus arrived after a few minutes that felt like a year. My cheeks were burning with disgrace. I whispered to myself, “I hate him I hate him I hate him” and swallowed down my tears. When the bus doors opened, I sat as close as possible to the driver, giving my friends silent permission to proceed to the back seat. I took my blue Nokia flip phone out of my backpack and dialed the only number I knew.
“Mom,” I whispered, hoping not to be overheard. “Max is dead. Dad killed him.”
I cried from the moment we left my neighborhood to the moment we arrived at school. Just before the driver parked the bus, I got a text:
i love you. have a blessed day. kisses and talk to me, yours, the king.
He was trying to make me laugh. I didn’t find it funny.
When I got back home that evening, he was sitting shirtless on his black couch in the living room with Shai, my younger brother. They were watching a basketball match of their favorite team, Maccabi Tel Aviv. My mom came out of the kitchen and laid on the table some beers and bowls of peanuts, pickles, and sunflower seeds.
“Eli’s here,” she told my dad, staring right into his eyes. “Do you have something to tell him?”
My dad looked at her and then at me. “Oh, my treasure,” he sighed. “How are you feeling?”
I put down my backpack and nodded silently. He reached out to me, inviting me to sit on his lap. I closed my eyes and buried my head in his chest, which was warm and hairy. I allowed him to wrap me with his arms, even though all I really wanted was to go to my room and close the door behind me.
“Don’t worry,” he said, stroking my head. “We’ll get you a new dog. I don’t want you to be too sad about this.”
“I’m not,” I said and stood up. “I’m fine. Really. Good night, dad.”
“Good night, my king.”
I wanted him to leave me alone. I didn’t want him to see me cry. His touch was making me sick.
The next day, we drove with Shai and my mom to a beautiful pet cemetery and buried Max between a tombstone with an epitaph in Russian and a willow tree. I helped my dad dig the grave, a small pit in the ground in which Max’s body fitted perfectly. He told us to cover it with dirt and put some stones on top of it. “These will ensure that he’ll never try to run away again,” my dad said, smiling. We’ve never talked about Max since.
The following month, my dad decided to take us all to London on a whim. He had some meetings in town and thought it would be a good opportunity for a family retreat. “The four of us can use a break. Besides, I know how much you love theater,” he told me, “so we’re going to see the best musical in the city.”
On the advice of his only gay colleague, my dad got us tickets to Rent—a show that I would grow to love, but struggled to appreciate as an nine year old who thought AIDS was a food allergy. We left Shai with a babysitter at the hotel and took a taxi to the theater.
That evening made me realize that my dad was one of the worst audience members in the universe. He paid hundreds of pounds for our seats, but seemed to be doing everything he could to get us kicked out. He asked the vendor at the box office if they had a stud discount (the stud being himself). Later, he lit a cigarette in the foyer and got into a fight with the house manager. By the time the piano started playing the first notes of “Seasons of Love,” my dad had already made himself at home, resting his feet between the elegant coiffures of two British ladies. And halfway through “One Song Glory” he was fast asleep, accompanying the heartbreaking ballad of the HIV-positive Roger with his heavy breathing.
My dad retired to the hotel right after the intermission, leaving some cash for me and my mom to take a taxi. But I wished he had stayed. His early departure made him miss the one number he might have actually liked—“Take Me or Leave Me,” a brilliant duet between the lesbian couple Joanne and Maureen.
The turbulent relationship of the two couldn’t have been further from my dad’s own marriage, which, as I would find out later, was already on the verge of disintegrating. But somehow, their song encapsulated something essential about my dad. Like him, it was honest, direct, and unapologetic. That was his way with his legal clients, which ranged from British billionaires to Jewish charities; with his friends, who bonded in the 1970s over a mutual love of surfing and stayed together long after they were too weary to hit the beach; and even more so, with us, his family.
So if you give a damn, Maureen sang to Joanne at the climax of Act II, just like my dad was singing to my mom over twenty years of marriage. Take me, baby, or leave me.
After much deliberation, Joanne decided to stay; my mom, to leave.
I first heard about his Problem when I was fifteen. I had just moved to a new high school and was struggling with having great expectations and not enough friends to help me live up to them.
My dad was never short on problems. His divorce, shrouded in an aura of The-Kids-Are-Alright, eventually tore up our family. His coughing fits, a predictable outcome of his four-decade loyalty to Marlboro, were getting more and more frequent. And money was always an issue.
In the years that followed Max’s death, I saw him less and less. He was slowly withering and, knowing that there was nothing I could do to to save him, I started fading out of his life. I ignored his phone calls, texts, and emails. But he never stopped trying. He quit surfing and started growing a beard. He lived in a small hotel room by the beach until he ran out of money. Then, he moved in with my grandma and eventually became a drifter, relocating almost every year. His belly was growing; his circle of friends was shrinking; he closed his office for a while and even considered bankruptcy.
But that one Problem, capital P, was different—unlike the others, we’d never talked about it.
Until one afternoon, when Shai called me and said that our dad had locked himself in our backyard and started burning our belongings.
“What do you mean,” I asked him, attributing the call to the long hours he had been spending with his Call of Duty clique.
“I mean that he is just about to throw The Velvet Underground into the fire,” he said, “so if you care about your records I think you should be here.”
I was deep into A Midsummer Night’s Dream—an arduous rehearsal process, led by my high school’s drama teacher. This time, I got to be the King, but not quite the one my dad had envisioned. I played Oberon, Lord of the Fairies. Dressed in leotard and tights, covered in glitter, I met my proud Titania by the moonlight on a daily basis. The show was just about to open; leaving the rehearsal room for any reason other than terminal cancer was synonymous with quitting.
Earlier that week, my dad’s new girlfriend, who had just moved in with him, had announced that she was leaving. So he begged and prayed and pleaded like a good lawyer, and when words failed His Highness moved to action. That was when he called Shai, who had spent the previous night at a friend’s house, absorbed in yet another battle with the Nazis.
“Dad called me five times until I picked up,” Shai told me later that evening. “He said, I need you. I said, what for. Don’t ask questions, he said. I need you. He made me take a cab to his house. I’ll pay, he said. Don’t worry. When I got there, I saw smoke coming from our backyard. I heard crackles and explosions. The kitchen’s floor was filled with broken glass and porcelain. He’d broken our entire collection of china. Take a towel, he told me. We’re burning down the house. Stop, dad, you’re crazy, it’s not funny, I shouted at him. Take a towel, he said and started pouring gas on the deck of our yard. And call your mom. Tell her to come. I want her to see this.”
Shai said the neighbors hadn’t been happy about the smell of gas and the screams. They had told him they’d call the cops. Our dad, in a kingly manner, had given them the finger.
I checked my phone and couldn’t find any messages from my dad. I knew exactly why he hadn’t called. Deep inside, he was ashamed and knew I’d be ashamed of him. Besides, if you’re burning down your house and looking for assistance, whom would you call—your son who slaughters Nazis on his Xbox or the heavily made-up King of the Fairies?
“I wanted you to come,” Shai told me, “but you said you had rehearsals, so I called Mom. She arrived with the Fire Department and Dr. what’s-his-face-David. Who knew dad even had a psychiatrist?”
I didn’t see my dad at all that month. Shai told me that he was staying at a friend’s house up north by the Sea of Galilee. One day my dad called and asked me to meet him outside my mom’s house. We drove downtown and had coconut ice cream. We talked about my play, which hadn’t gone as well as I had hoped, and about Maccabi, which had just won the national championship. He didn’t tell me anything about the day he had tried to burn down our house and I didn’t feel like asking.
A few hours after we said goodbye, I got an email from him:
i am sitting in my office, the beach right in front of me, and i think how blessed i am and how much i enjoyed spending time with you. i had a great time and thank you for the person you are you amazing treasure
i went through my calendar and saw a reminder about noam, your old bar mitzvah tutor—reach out to him, you can also just say hi and that you hope to see him soon—it’s worth to stay in touch and in general he’s a very nice person and can teach you a lot i think
i am doing ok, love you, kisses and talk to me.
My dad, my mom, my brother, and I spent years talking without really saying anything. But my grandma, who was raised in a convent and suffered through thirty years of unhappy marriage, had enough silences for one lifetime.
“You see, your dad has a problem,” she told me one evening over a pot of pasta in her kitchen.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, fuck it,” she said. “I wanted you to hear this from him, but he’ll never say anything. Sweetie, your dad is sick.”
“Is it cancer?”
She slapped me on the shoulder. “What are you talking about,” she yelled, spitting on the floor. “God forbid. I don’t know what it is.”
“So why are you telling me this?”
“Because I want you to be gentle with him,” she sighed. “And because I know that unlike your brother or your mom, you will listen. It’s not an easy time for him.”
I wasn’t surprised; I just wanted to know all the details.
“Can I talk with him about it?”
“Have you lost your mind?” she raised her voice again. “Don’t you dare say anything. He’s an adult, he’s taking care of it. You know him. He’s been holding this family together for years. And he loves you like crazy. It’ll break his heart to know that you think something’s wrong with him. Now pass me your bowl. I’ll get you a refill.”
Later that week, he drove me home from a party. He’d had a late night at the office and texted me to see if I needed a lift. The summer break was just about to start. I was tired and drunk and carried the unmistakable smell of sex about me.
We were listening to David Bowie’s Heroes when suddenly he asked, “Is there someone in your life?”
“What do you mean?”
“Did you have fun? At the party?”
“Yeah. It was nice.”
“Will you tell me if there is?”
“I don’t care who it is.”
“Is everything Ok, dad?”
“Of course. Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’m just tired.”
“Yeah. I’m good.”
“You can drop me off right here.”
“Good night, dad.”
“Good night, my king.”
My best friend Gaya has recently started to watch this new TV show. “It’s brilliant,” she tells me on the phone one evening. “Sleeping Bears. You have to see it. It’s about this woman who starts to receive anonymous letters. Someone wants to expose summaries of her therapy sessions, including all the shit she said about her husband and kids. I think it’s genius.”
“Well, families are kind of like that, right?” She says. “Like sleeping bears, I mean. There are things you don’t want to wake up. So you keep your voice down. You tiptoe. You let them sleep.”
I tell her that the show sounds cheesy and that I think it’s not for me. But after we hang up the call, I google “how to wake up bears” out of curiosity. On the official website of the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary, under the promising title “THE TRUTH ABOUT BEARS AND HIBERNATION,” I find out something interesting.
“It is a common misconception that bears hibernate,” the article explains. “While bears tend to slow down during the winter, they are not true hibernators.”
Apparently, bears go into a state of torpor, from which they wake up frequently. They find a den in which they curl into themselves. Then, their hearts slow down. Their breaths become less frequent. Their body temperature decreases. But even when they close their eyes, bears never sleep as deeply as we think.
The first weeks of summer, I knew no one in Santa Fe but my coworkers at the newspaper’s culture desk. I covered arts and music and literature, local goings-on, regional history. Quickly a peculiar pattern appeared in the cultural landscape. Everywhere science pervaded.
The first tip-off was all the science fiction writers. You could barely take take your dog to the park before he sniffed the butt of a science fiction writer’s dog. The first few weeks of my job, I was sent to interview them in hordes. I asked my copy-editor Joan what the deal was, blessed Joan, who shared my cubicle, who possessed an infinitely replenishing supply of red pens, who turned her chair around one-hundred eighty degrees for my every dumb inquiry. Joan, when people say Anglo here, do they just mean white? Joan, what is a Frito pie?
Sometimes, her answer was not an answer at all. “Joan, where are all the science fiction writers coming from?”
“Ah, yes,” she says. “It’s because of Los Alamos. Plus there’s Roswell, where the aliens landed in the 60s. There’s the real science, and the woo woo science, but it all gets mixed up. So, science fiction.”
Her answer felt like the delivery of some mysterious package, pulsing with significance.
If you walked into a bar or festival or concert or coffee shop in town there was a pretty good likelihood of its being alien-themed or outer space-themed or nuclear-themed. The cultural centerpiece of the summer was the Santa Fe Opera House’s production of Doctor Atomic, set in the nearby town of Los Alamos—one of the strangest locales in America. It is a city of labs, or the labs and the city are one. The labs emerged suddenly and covertly during World War II. Thousands of scientists uprooted their families and relocated to the secret, militarized town. They needed a place to build the atomic bomb. The opera tells the story of the creation of the atomic bomb, but set to music.
I went on a few mediocre dates with physics students working at Los Alamos and they unfailingly brought up the extreme security measures. Their favorite was this: “If you leave your bag lying around unlabelled, they’ll blow it up.” It was never clear who the “they” were. The dates said this like a brag. To exist amongst operations of such gravity.
Something about this place had drawn the science fiction writers; the alien conspiracy theorists; the new agers. As if a giant magnet sat beneath the city pulling in all who sought a quick spiritual fix. Each visitor wanting something desperately, unsure exactly what, feeling that this place would provide it.
Or there was some other mystical entity nestled underground, like a large, shimmering crystal, which, in fact, there was. Henry, who was studying hyper-fission at the lab and seemed to know something about science, told me so. We were sitting at one of the atomic themed bars. At first, I didn’t believe it. It sounded too much too much like what all the gift shops were offering up—salt lamps and star charts and other new age commodities. And it sounded too much like what so many Santa Fe folks were telling me when I first arrived—that there was some buzzy current in the air that made life here different and strange and wonderful, but there was also something out there that might doom you. That this was the price you paid for specialness.
Every season, Henry said, the crystal sends up energetic waves into the city. You vibe with the energy or you don’t. Then, the lands accepts you or it doesn’t. If it accepts you, the city gives you little gifts, serendipitous moments, and things go well for you here. If it rejects you, life becomes a chain of misfortune. Sometimes it rejects you then accepts you, or accepts you but then rejects you for a little while and then accepts you and rejects you off and on for a few years, and so on, and it all sounds suspiciously like life.
But then I asked copy-editor/personal oracle Joan, and she told me that there actually does exist a bed of obsidian beneath the city. She even took a chunk of it out from her coin purse. When my eyes widened she shot me a look: “We all buy into the woo woo a little, or we wouldn't have come.” I get it. It’s like the zodiac. Another language to talk about ourselves. Don’t begrudge us our tiny scrap of cosmic significance. How could I, when I counted among the converted?
I should disclose, this particular summer was even more science-crazed than ordinary. That’s because the city of Santa Fe deemed it the “Atomic Summer,” a celebration of the state’s atomic heritage.
This question was like a nudging cat that refused to be ignored but shrunk away when I tried to grant it attention: What is the toll on reality when we mythologize daily life, when the quotidian becomes the cosmically fated sublime? This could be a benign game, I figured, or an act of survival, or escapism, or a dirty trick. But in the case of Los Alamos, this mystification process seemed plainly harmful.The trope of the bomb’s creation is of the naive scientist: bewildered that his invention has been used for evil. This may have been true of certain individuals, but collectively, Los Alamos was explicitly, flagrantly nationalistic. It may have been born in ignorance, but it was brought up by the hand of the United States military. Santa Fe was once home to an 80-acre Japanese internment camp. The labs themselves still bear the oddly juvenile motto, “The World’s Greatest Science Protecting America.” A paradoxical claim when you consider that in 1945, the U.S. military, fearing the end of the world as we know it, introduced the possibility of apocalypse. They looked to peril abroad and dismissed the big, atomic threat simmering in their own conversations at the dinner table, or huddled around the office water cooler.
This is what I was thinking about before I met Rebecca, the first friend of my summer. What did I do, those first few weeks? They now seem holistically insignificant, since they were without her. I went on hikes. I was good at my job at the newspaper. At work one afternoon, I caught a flash of myself in the monitor’s reflection, copy-editing with a red pen. A red sweater and a ponytail, bubble gum, the covers of old issues lining the wall behind me, and for the first time I felt preemptive nostalgia for my time at this job in this city. I got sick with a slutty headache, which is when you feel like shit but you feel kind of sexy about it. Like you’re lying around with a fever in lingerie, or dying of tuberculosis. I smiled meekly at the men who shouted at me on the street. I was careless about closing the blinds when I changed, though workmen passed my window in plain view.
I was okay with being at the world’s whim. That’s why I had come to Santa Fe to begin with—because it had called to me, and if I stayed there long enough, eventually something would happen. I didn’t believe in a giant crystal that ruled my fate, but I might as well have.
Rebecca was the opposite. She had come to Santa Fe for cheap rent and a quiet place to stay home and work on her screenplay. She had six close friends scattered across the United States (I would become the seventh) and once told me her biggest fear was the fact that you never know how you’re affecting someone else. She didn’t want other people to affect her, either. She dreamed of a world where everyone could exist side-by-side and never smudge, perfectly retaining their own innate qualities forever. But I wanted to be changed by every encounter. Like I could selfishly pull moments toward me like poker chips and stack them up until I was buried beneath a giant, fascinating pile of life’s miscellania. This glorious mass would constitute my self.
Rebecca took me to Santa Fe’s premier roller rink, housed in a small, outer-space themed warehouse. On the walls aliens wore boy shorts and baseball caps and spun basketballs. We zig-zagged, swerved right through gaps in crowds. Once, Rebecca overheard the rink’s owner telling another skater, You let the music come in! And hearing that kind of changed Rebecca’s life; she said, Somewhere in me is the kind of person who dances first. There was a kinship on the floor that scrubbed away the waxy coats of moralistic daily alarm around physical contact and chummy interaction—Lord knows I participate—but: no way you can be upset with someone for grabbing your shoulders or holding your hand if they are about to fall on their butt. Or start a skate train. Or hand you half a cherry AirHead while whizzing by, as someone does the first night. So Rebecca and I wove. Boundless. I thanked some nebulous force for the easy merging of our two lives. I appreciated its chemical rarity. By chemical, of course, I mean spiritual. A man was falling in the corner, saying Aw jeez Aw jeez Awww Jeeeeez, but it came out Hot cheese hot cheese hooowwwt cheeeese. We rolled our eyes. Hot cheese will not save you, sir, Hot cheese won’t stop your fall. But then I got it in my head too, as in, Hot cheese I like how it feels to be on wheels, be together and be not afraid, Hot cheese somewhere in me is the kind of person who is free, hot cheese please grant me the mercy to keep moving this way forever.
Soon, Rebecca and I developed a routine. We saw one another every day. We kept rituals. Wednesday night live music on the hill, the roller rink, writing side by side at Betterday Cafe, hiking up Monte Sol.
One Friday after work, Rebecca and I drove to Abiquiu Lake, to camp out where Georgia O’Keefe used to paint. Rebecca’s dog, Duke, stuck his head into the front seat panting. Outside the window, tall trees tipped and leaned like drunk brothers. There was a mode of careless sharing that had by then become our versed way, like there was no way of talking about ourselves before summer and never again would there be after. We each liked to understand how the other had processed her life, then imagine how we would have done it differently.
I told her about an incident last winter. I was collecting wood and milking cows for room and board at a farm on a mountaintop. A few nights in, a man entered my room holding up a large machete. I pretended to sleep while he stood over me. He receded to the closet. I turned on my flashlight and called out, but he didn’t respond. I felt quite certain that now was the time, as in every girl’s life, when I was going to be raped by a strange man at machete-point. I considered whether I should jump out of bed and run (though there was nowhere to run, it being a mountain top) or continue pretending to be asleep (though I had just proven I was not). I jumped, and ran across the house to the bathroom and locked myself in. The man paced in front of the bathroom door until morning, and at some point, gave up and left.
Waiting in the bathroom, I did not feel particularly afraid. And I haven’t felt fear thinking of it since. I resented being told that I should feel particularly torn up at this or other moments like it. Rebecca understood. She found my reaction bizarre, but we both agreed that emotional response seemed to defy this type of codification. I had to believe this, because I did feel visceral fear all of the time, and it did not correspond to real life moments of risk—and trying to chart where the two things matched up felt as random as if I’d spilled a box of pins at my feet.
At some point around the third grade, I’d fixed in my mind the schema of things that were genuinely worth being afraid of. These mainly involved serial killer clowns, flesh-eating skeletons, lamprey men coming out of my toilet, and other horror creatures that mostly emerged from the horror stories that got me sent to the principal’s office that year. For years after, I checked under my bed before sleeping. Sometimes I still do. My first night in the house in Santa Fe alone, I pressed a knife under my pillow in a 3AM panic, picturing supernatural clowns. I spent the interim until I fell asleep keeping watch out of the window for ominous shapes. I wished I could scrape these thoughts from my brain. But some obsessive quality kept them entrenched. After all a fear of this intensity and duration must betray some fascination.
The next morning Rebecca and Duke and I stood beside the lake. A flower poked through the white stone at our feet—a plant you saw all over the place here, one that unfolds methodically, over the course of many hours or even several days, like a blues singer alone on a stage, singing the slowest blues. Green dress, shaking hands. The slowest blues you ever heard.
Rebecca dove right into the lake and Duke followed her, as he followed her everywhere, but I had pause. I could directly trace my nerves, embarrassingly, to a late 2000s Animal Planet series called Lost Tapes, which I used to watch compulsively in elementary school. It produced in me a reaction of immense fear and immense pleasure. Each episode is a stand-alone mockumentary, but the show tries to pass itself off as nonfiction. The premise is the recovery of lost tapes—usually a combination of home video and surveillance footage—that prove the existence of mythical creatures. Sasquatch, aliens, Mothman, and so on.
At this moment, the Oklahoma Octopus episode was getting me. I don’t think I’ve ever entered an opaque body of water where this octopus did not enter my mind. The episode follows the show’s typical formulaic arc. A group of unsuspecting acquaintances, armed with a camcorder, enter a territory known to be home to some mythical beast—in this case, it’s high schoolers out on a lake trip.
THERE ARE CREATURES SCIENCE REFUSES TO RECOGNIZE, a booming narrator insists at the start of each episode. Over the next twenty minutes, the Oklahoma Octopus makes itself known from beneath the lake’s surface, flashing a tentacle here, a tentacle there.
BUT NEW TECHNOLOGY MAKES US QUESTION WHAT IS REAL. His disembodied and trustworthy voice offers statistics and history over informational graphic reels, and by the end of the episode, the teenagers are mostly dragged underwater by the beast.
INTO A REALM WHERE FACT MEETS FICTION
WHERE SCIENCE MEETS LEGEND
WHERE NIGHTMARES COME TO LIFE. In the end, as always, the camera lies skewed on the beach, knocked out of some victim’s hand. One survivor lives to tell the tale, and the viewer is confronted with the ever-lingering question…
...DO YOU BELIEVE?
I always did believe, at least a little.
The Opera House’s production of Doctor Atomic was approaching, the heart of the city’s cultural fascination with the scientific and the mystical. One day at work I summoned the nerve to ask Joan across our cubicle if I could go. The paper agreed and got me a press pass.
The show’s libretto is thick with poetic allusions, in large part because J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, was himself a lover of poetry. He and his wife Kitty Oppenheimer used lines of poetry as both erotic and practical code.
The bulk of the opera narrates the World War II scientists’ decision to test the world’s first atomic bomb in Southern New Mexico. When it came time to choose a code phrase for the test, Oppenheimer went the pious route, named the test site “Trinity,” and borrowed this line from the poet Donne John: “Batter my heart, three person’d God;…break, blow, burn and make me new.”
Oppenheimer might have been the poster child for the total entanglement of science and spirituality. “Now I am become Death; the destroyer of worlds,” he famously mused after the Trinity test, quoting Hindu scripture.
Deeming himself manifester of the sublime because a uranium-235 atom absorbed a neutron and split in two.
His religiosity was extraordinary among scientists but hardly unique. Throughout the twentieth century, Los Alamos scientists ran radiation tests for bomb fallout on their own children. Like Abraham binding Isaac to the rock, like science was a god worth sacrificing one’s son to appease. Doomsday, long having signalled the Rapture or the Second Coming, has been invoked since the 1940s by the Bulletin of The Atomic Scientists to warn the populace of impending nuclear armageddon (and more recently, climate armageddon). Before that first Trinity test explosion, one of the stated risks was that the scientists would set the atmosphere on fire, yet they felt themselves entitled to play the odds. The night that bomb was set to detonate, a thunderstorm arrived. General Groves threatened the weatherman physical violence because of the bad conditions, forgetting that men are not gods.
My editor assigned me a news piece about an acclaimed Los Alamos chemist. The chemist, when we met, was a booming presence with a hulking frame and broad gestures. He spoke and spoke, long after I’d gotten down all the information I needed. He spoke of his childhood abroad, his critical role in conceiving optical effects in LCD screens, his children’s national quiz bowl championships.
When he traveled for work, he never booked a hotel room, he said. Instead he would crash in the lab or work through the night. “There are many things we are told we need, that we don’t need,” he philosophised, and I nodded along. We meandered through the city together after the interview was over, and he invited me to live rent-free in his downtown adobe house for the summer, and I said I’d think about that.
I liked him. I left smug. A chance encounter delivering a friend and a housing offer, and the man was interesting, and if interesting things came my way then it must have meant I had some quality that attracted them, and therefore I was a worthwhile human being.
I imagined him toying with vials in his Los Alamos lab. I imagined Oppenheimer doing the same three quarters of a century ago, peering at atoms and thinking of the bomb to come. There was something so alien about the way he’d related to the bomb and to his own self-importance. Where I liked to float along the cusp of great forces, these men liked to wield them.
This seemed to suggest on my part some essential inadequacy, one that forever preceded action, preceded being. The image of letting life accumulate around me until I was buried suddenly seemed less like an act of creation and more like, simply, being crushed. I don’t know who I want to be but I don’t want to be a person made of violence.
I did have one more acquaintance in Santa Fe—a long-lost relative in her seventies. That night we met for dinner. I told her about the chemist. “That chemist,” she said, “is a liar and a narcissist.” She knew his ex-wife well. (It was a small town.) She went on: “She had a restraining order—Oh yes, it was abuse. And he forced those kids to do quiz bowl.”
Later my editor assigned me to cover the 73-year-after-the-fact congressional hearings of the atomic “Downwinders,” those mostly Indigenous and Hispanic New Mexicans living downwind of the first atomic test at Trinity. Several women testified before Congress, asking for federal compensation for medical costs. To keep the test discreet, the scientists evacuated no one. Mostly farming communities—so that not only their air and homes but their water and food were poisoned from the radiation. A plague of cancer slipped into their bodies, their families’ bodies, their genetic legacies. To swallow families whole.
It’s not just that the government has never paid for healthcare costs for atomic victims; they’ve never admitted that the land could be toxic to begin with. I interviewed one woman who was eight days old when the Trinity test bomb erupted, and she filled the space of six minutes listing her family members sick or dead with cancer. Not until just five years ago, when she saw a woman discussing the bomb on TV, did she have any idea why. She wondered: did god himself despise her? As if for dystopian flair, the Department of Energy maintains today that the area was unpopulated all along.
With the federal government shrugging the plague of cancer into the realm of the inexplicable, the downwinders had no knowledge of the toxic matter embedded in their land and bodies; and how, then, could they even begin to keep safe?
And just imagine it, being a rural farmer when the sky erupts with fire. What do you do, what can you call it but the apocalypse?
In the hypothesis of Native scholar Dr. Cutcha Risling Baldy, the zombie apocalypse took place many years ago. In the mid-19th century, California miners held “Indian hunting days,” organizing militias to hunt Native people. They were compensated by the state of California. Baldy writes, “If you were an Indian person walking around, something or someone might just try to kill you. They were hungry for your scalp and your head. They had no remorse. There was no reasoning with them. And there were more of them then there was of you. Zombies.”
The city has structured its Atomic Summer around “Atomic Heritage”, that scientific legacy, those jobs created, these grand histories recalled; but Atomic Heritage rings a wholly different sound when one thinks of the particulate matter, the mutant cells, the death sentences transmitted from generation to generation. Yet this second heritage is not parsed out from the first. In fact, proximity to danger only furthers the fascination. In the city’s festivities—in its obsession with forces of the beyond—it forgets the atomic evidence of violence that radiates from the very land beneath our feet. All of history is subsumed into the mythos of science and pop-mysticism that has made Santa Fe what it is: its heritage.
The pilot episode of Lost Tapes, titled “Chupacabra”, follows a Mexican family crossing the border to the United States on foot. The daughter, Eva, brings along the camcorder she’s been given for her birthday. As the family treks, the mythic, vampiric chupacabra prowls. The narrator lists the dangers of border-crossing: heat, reptiles, cops, AND POSSIBLY SOMETHING EVEN MORE FRIGHTENING. “Of all the potential dangers,” the narrator concludes, “The most feared is the chupacabra.” As the monster attacks Eva’s parents, leaving her to wander the Arizona desert solo, the narrator makes tenuous claims to reality, describing the feeding processes of vampire bats and leaving us to our own conclusions.
The show feeds on this ambiguity. It asks, always, “Do they live among us?” In Lost Tapes, the object of horror is always off the back of the real horror, as if what Eva has to fear is a chupacabra and not structural violence. When American soldiers are attacked in a cave in Afghanistan, we are told that the nightmare is a group of cave demons and not the American bombing campaign that prompted them to enter in the first place. The show’s problem is not that it inquires into the possibility of myth, it’s that it displaces fear, that it sends fear outside the limits of our knowledge. The show says that danger comes from the unknowable beyond, effectively denying its existence in our own environment. It tells us that we don’t know what we think we know, when knowing what we know is so often how we keep safe.
By the end of the episode, two policemen have tracked down Eva in the desert. They’re no help. Darkness chokes out the scene and becomes the main character. Three faces peer out into the sagebrush sea like they’re all facing the same beast. The night rustles.
My roommate has some sort of condition where she gets freaked out by small holes. Trypophobia is what she calls it. It is hard not to make immature jokes about the fact that she is scared of holes, obviously, but for her this fear is very real.
I’ve never understood it. There is nothing frightening about holes. Holes are empty. If you dig a hole in the ground you can hide inside it, you can cozy up and feel the edges pressing in, nice and safe. A small hole in a sweater is something you can poke a pencil through, drag your fingernail around when you are nervous. Comfortable and secure. Nothing to fear.
What I do not like is the idea of small particles; miniature bits of a thing. Amathophobia, my friend Frank explained once. Fear of dust.
The thing about tiny particles is that they used to be part of something bigger but broke off, seceded from the mass, or maybe the mass disintegrated. I do not like these particles because it is not clear to me at what point they stopped being a part of the larger mass and started existing as their own small things, and this ambiguity makes me nervous. It is impossible to sort out when the particles lost the essential nature of the thing they used to be and became a flake, or a kernel, or a tiny morsel that is absolutely nothing at all besides the flake kernel morsel; that stands for nothing bigger than its atomic unit; that has no higher meaning than its small, miserable self.
We shed 1.6 pounds of skin every year. Live skin cells become microscopic dust. When my skin peels away from my body can I stare at the tiny skin flakes on the ground and say, there is Eliya? Of course not. So what does that mean about the skin flakes that are attached to me right now? Are they any more Eliya than the skin flakes on the ground? Structures of identity begin to crumble very quickly when particles get involved. I do not like it at all.
I know that I do not want to be here as soon as we step out of the van. I can feel it all over, my whole body sinking into itself, sending my brain a firm no, thank you. The sky is a bumpy sort of grey, like there are a lot of tiny particles floating around, like pointillism without any of the colors. But I am here, so. My brain with apologies sends my feet trudging forward.
My classmates and I sip coffee while we wait in the security line. We arrived in Poland the night before, and none of us have slept. We’re all in that kind of dull sleep-deprived stupor that feels a little bit nice as long as you’re with other people. But every time I look past the line of people and see the hazy sky in front of me, I have to fold my hands together to keep my thumb from twitching. I would like to leave, it is telling me, stretching of its own accord to point in the direction where our van is parked.
A group of girls glides to the front of line and hovers at the entrance. When there is a gap, they slither forward, approaching the security counter.
“Cutting the line at Auschwitz?” my friend Mitch whispers, eyeing the girls. “Jeez. Not a good look.” We all giggle quietly.
After security, a mittened man hands us headphones. The tour is thoughtfully orchestrated so the guides do not have to yell; because even on a day as windy as this one, the information we are about to hear is not meant to be screeched. The guide murmurs a greeting into her speakerphone; it lands directly in our ears. Thank you for being here. Crisp and clear. So we will not miss a word.
We follow her to our first stop: the metal ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign that hangs over the entrance to the camp, and this moment feels like plunging my head into ice-cold water, because suddenly there it is, here I am, that sign, this place, really really.
I am thinking back to the young adult Holocaust novels I pored through as a child, many written autobiographically by survivors of Auschwitz, most of whom, on their way to a hell they cannot yet contemplate, pause underneath the lettering, which seems to loom incredibly, monstrously large, to have a think. Arbeit macht frei. Work will set me free? Hmm. These soon-to-be-heroes never seem to believe the sign’s promise. Clever Jews.
I know it concerned my parents, the ferocity with which I flew through these concentration-camp memoirs. Are you sure you feel okay reading this? my mother would ask me gently. Can we talk about what you learned from your book? Are you upset about that? It was an oddly maudlin habit for such a cheerful child, but I couldn’t help myself. I was doing research.
Mostly, my interest was theoretical. I was curious in a clinical, distant way: what is it, exactly, about me and mine that made a whole lot of people want to make us go away forever?
But every once in a while, I heard about how someone painted a swastika on a highway barrier nearby, or a kid in my Sunday school class who went to an elementary school in rural Ohio told me they made fun of his yarmulke, and I thought about how Granny was born in 1938 and Hitler did his thing in the forties and Granny wasn’t all that old, really, and if one person (Granny) could live long enough to watch the world swing from scary to safe, it was not out of the question that another person (me, maybe) could watch the world swing all the way back.
And in those moments of paranoia, the YA Holocaust books became how-to guides. This boy, how did he escape? This girl, she lied about her age. That is a good trick. I will lie about my age, too, when the time comes.
I used to ask my friends: If there is a second Holocaust, can my family live with yours? Are you sure? My dad eats a lot, can you promise to feed him? You’ll need extra groceries, you know. And a sliding wall, do you have one of those? One girl I read about lived behind a sliding wall. Well, maybe you should build one. Just in case.
So when the guide starts talking about how someone stole the ARBEIT MACHT FREI sign recently, a tiny little part of me is thinking: I should practice how to cry quieter. If the people who ever stole the sign come to steal me, I will hide in the attic and they will never hear me. One of the girls in one of my books did that and they never found her.
But the mature, rational part of me knows this is silly, knows I am safe, is focused on staring ahead, like the rest of the group, calmly taking in the sign. It’s smaller than I expected, I decide. Like when you see a macho celebrity in the airport and discover he’s actually only 5’7”. Not so intimidating, actually.
Often in my books around the time the narrators encounter the sign, they have some sort epiphany about the sky. They stare up, as high as their necks can crane, wondering if anyone is up there thinking about the people on the ground, but all they see are flecks of ash dotting the sky, spreading out infinitely in every direction. And then they realize that these small dots comprised, until very recently, a person who was actively producing thoughts and feelings and sweat and excrement and is now a tiny piece of white flake drifting dully through the sky.
And sometimes these books have an additional horrific moment wherein a character has been assigned the task of cremating the dead bodies, and comes across his own father, inert in a pile of similarly cold naked emaciated Jewish men. Or watches her sister march into the gas chambers and hours later smells the scent of burning flesh. Smelling is just inhaling tiny particles of a thing into your nose.
Our arrival in Poland comes just a few months after 60,000 white supremacists march in Warsaw; a month or so after the government announces a ban on the labelling of death camps as “Polish” in an attempt to remove implication from the Polish people for the massacre of Jews, to refocus the conversation on the non-Jews who suffered and died during the Holocaust; and just weeks after backlash against this law spurred increasingly virulent anti-Semitic epithets, sentiments, and demonstrations, like the march where Polish nationalists carried signs that read “Take off the Yarmulke - sign the law” and “stop Jewish aggression against Poland.”
It is also a month or so before a survey emerges concluding that people are forgetting about the Holocaust: 66% of millenials cannot say what Auschwitz was. I do not know this particular statistic when I am there, but I know the trends. Rising white nationalism, Holocaust denial, xenophobia, anti-Semitism.
A few days after we tour Auschwitz, we visit the Schindler Museum.
I like historical museums–these places of quiet communion with the past. Sometimes in museums I stare at an antique uniform or a cluster of words on the wall and I feel like it’s just me and history, alone together. And then I look around and there are so many people inside our little museum cosmos; there is a pleasant hum of empathy because we are all here, we are all absorbing these narratives of times long ago, forming silky threads of connection, soaking up the past and thereby affirming our faith in the future.
I assumed this museum would be about Oskar Schindler, but I find very little of the information on him. Most of the museum’s focus is on World War II in Poland. There is also a lot of preliminary information on the history of Poland. I learn things like how Poland was sort of tossed around by a lot of Big Kahuna colonizers that kept trying to inhale it, like Russia, and how World War I was a good thing for Poland because it finally became an independent nation. And how when World War II came, the government told the citizens not to worry, that this war would be quick and neat and they would all go back to celebrating their newfound countryhood lickety split.
I also learn a lot about how much the people of Poland were not in charge of their fates, and how such loss of agency therefore disqualified Poles from being in charge of the fates of other people, like Polish Jews. How the Nazis pinned posters everywhere with lists of Jews and intellectuals and other unacceptable people for whom they were searching; how they threatened to murder entire families belonging to adults who knew but did not disclose the whereabouts of these listed people. How they cut the Polish people off from credible news sources and distributed newspapers that justified the Nazi cause and played propaganda films in public squares.
I am thinking about today’s Poland, the way many people are sick of the interminable guilt. It makes some amount of sense, I conclude, that they are fed up with the rhetoric of blame. Maybe there is a difference between atrocities committed out of malice toward others and those committed out of fear for the self, and maybe the people in this country have felt seventy years of guilt for the things their great-grandparents did because they were confused and afraid. And maybe the recent push for new laws came from this place of frustration.
“Polish people are people,” our guide tells us. “They need art and entertainment to live on just like everyone else. Of course they were going to…” she trails off. “To watch the films.” And turn in Jews, I think she means to add.
In Auschwitz, I am not thinking at all about the Polish land we are standing on or the Polish people who may or may not have condoned the atrocities here. I am thinking about the Jews and the others and myself and death and the Banality of Evil and mostly trying to cry quieter because people are starting to look at me and I feel like an idiot. Plus I only brought one tissue and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find dry real estate for nose-blowing.
We pass through dark rooms, empty except for the glass display cases. Each has a different theme. A pile of silver pilfered from prisoners. A mountain of shoes. One display case is full of baby’s clothes–tiny dresses, period onesies. A whole room of hair. So much hair, heaping piles of it. I don’t understand how it is in such pristine condition. Doesn’t hair decay? Perhaps seventy years is not so much time after all; not enough for decomposition to set in.
Our guide explains that the Germans wanted to use every part of the people they captured. Redistribute the precious items. Turn Jewish bones into hairpins, skin into couch cushions. Waste not.
In one barrack, we pass through a long hallway. On its walls are photographs of people who died in Auschwitz.
There is a Polish theater artist named Tadeusz Kantor who made a lot of avant-garde art about both world wars and he has this thing about how photography complicates the idea of death. According to Kantor, if you can look into someone’s eyes in a picture and see life inside, this person can never truly die. This makes sense to me intellectually, but in reality, I think it just makes the pain of death more acute.
Like the picture of Anne Frank on the cover of her diary, my favorite of all the YA Holocaust memoirs I ever read. I thought Anne was hilarious and cool and self-aware and brilliant and everything I wanted to be; I felt that she understood my angst and I—so far as I could empathize—hers. Plus everyone told me I looked like her, which I loved. In this picture, she stared up from her desk, caught mid-sentence, a huge grin, bright eyes. I used stare at her face for hours and think how easily, with a simple cosmic switch of birth years and locations, this girl could have been me, how horrible it was that this person had to stop living.
In Auschwitz the people on the walls feel the same. The hallway is so long and the pictures do not end, it feels like, there is just face after face, staring me down, eyes that believed they would keep blinking until the new millennium and on but that instead went cold just years, months, days after this image froze them in time.
Eventually the hallway of faces ends and we go down a tiny staircase that is dusty gray–like everything at Auschwitz, except the lower we go the dustier and grayer it gets until it is very difficult to see anything. It begins to smell a little bit, and I try very hard not to think about the tiny particles flying up my nose.
We go lower and the guide is murmuring about how down here is where they kept disobedient prisoners. They implemented all different kinds of torture regimens, she says, take your pick, empty dungeons everywhere. On your left is the cell where insubordinate prisoners had to stand up without a break for days and weeks and sometimes months, too narrow to sit so they just stood until they died. Or look to your right, this one’s a bit roomier, that’s where they starved people to death. Shuffle forward please and here if you peer into this peephole you can see the tiny room for suffocating which is exactly what it sounds like, just a lot of Jews in a small room and not enough air to go around. Voila.
My tissue by this point is so saturated with liquid it has no more capacity to absorb anything and as I am futilely wiping my nose, my thumb begins to twitch again, like it did at the beginning of the tour before I knew quite how much I did not want to be here, and I drop the tissue on the ground. The tissue is so wet and the ground is so dusty; I cannot pick up the tissue because in its wetness it has attracted specks of brown and if I use it I will be wiping tiny parts of dead Jew, little molecules that once were faces on the wall, onto my sticky lip. I stare at the tissue where it sits collecting pieces of jew and my snot, untissued, begins to plunk itself in droplets in the dirt. Does snot contain DNA? I decide it does. I am leaving a piece of myself here, I think, and I can’t tell if I like this.
Our group is leaving so I grab the tissue, carry it between my nails so my fingertips don’t have to make contact with the powdery brown specks. We are shuffling so slowly and now there is another tour group blocking the stairs but we go up them anyway, pushing past limbs and torsos and feet. Over our headphones the guide is saying how we are passing by the place where they tested the first gas chambers and ssssss–the feed cuts out and I cannot hear what she is saying–the first time they tested the gas chambers they didn’t put enough sssssss and when the guards went to check after a full day the people inside were still alive so ssssssss coughing wheezing prisoners trapped inside forced their way toward clean air but the guards ssssss slammed the door, locked the Jews back in the sssssss put another dosage of poison so ssssss the next day ssssss some dead some alive sss and sss two full days sss slowly dying until ssssssssssssss—By this point I am shoving people out of my way, which I have not done in my life ever, but all I am thinking is that I have to get out of the underground place so the static in my ear will turn clean again because now I’m taking shallow breaths so I can stop inhaling dead people particles up my nose, because I’m getting a little bit dizzy, because it is hot and crowded and the air is goopy and I’m getting droopy and—
But I am being silly. There is no Zyklon B seeping through my skin, no one slamming a deadbolted door in my face. The only thing between me and clean air is a few tourists walking a little too slowly. I shove my way toward the top of the staircase and emerge into the gray sunshine.
Apparently Hitler wanted to make a museum about Jewish people once they were all gone. That’s why we have most of the stuff that the Nazis didn’t burn or redistribute—the piles of hair, of baby clothes.
I can’t stop thinking about this as we explore Krakow. Because in this city, I am coming to understand, Judaism has become not much more than a relic, something fragmentary from another time. A poorly curated museum.
A tiny mural on the corner of a building, handpainted: “IN MEMORY OF THE BOSAK FAMILY, RESIDENTS OF KAZIMIERZ 1633-1941.” The occasional Jewish star paved at the foot of what might have been a synagogue. A Jewish museum where the man tells me there are no Jewish employees, “but we had a Jew intern here a few summers ago. Josh. From California. Maybe you know him?”
At the Schindler museum, the guide mumbles something about “One hundred fifty left” in the middle of a vague sentence about demographics, so when she is done speaking I pull her aside and ask her to clarify.
“Were you saying there are 150,000 Jews left in Poland?” There were 3.5 million Jewish people in Poland before the Holocaust, so I suppose this number makes sense.
“Sorry,” she says. “We have to keep moving.” I cannot tell if she is being odd or if she does not understand me. After the next stop, I ask her again, loudly. What does this number mean?
She stares at the ground. “One hundred fifty, yes. In Krakow today.”
“One hundred fifty thousand?” I ask.
“One hundred fifty. Jews. Living in Krakow.” She does not look at me once during this conversation.
After we leave the Schindler museum, I call my parents and tell them about what I learned—the way the Nazis coerced, threatened, propagandized the Poles. Maybe it isn’t fair to be so angry about the Polish bystanders, I say.
Maybe none of us are very good anyway and maybe these people were scared and misinformed and knew not what they did and who are we, really, to say that these people were so evil.
“Yes,” my mom says. “Fair. But Polish people turned in Jews at far higher rates than practically any other country. A lot of people there really hated Jews.”
“Did and do,” my dad chimes in. “Poland is like, massively anti-Semitic. Probably the most anti-Semitic nation in Europe. Sorry, sweetie.”
I hang up the phone, feeling silly. I knew this, of course. But in the warm, cobwebby narrative I began to tell myself of this pretty city, I switched out hatred for apathy, and the whole thing felt a lot easier to swallow. An easy mistake, I suppose.
Halfway through the Auschwitz tour my leaky face dries up, because the human body can only store so much water, and I drank a lot of coffee waiting in line.
We have landed in the center of Auschwitz I, facing the camp’s wide gallows. The guide points in the distance to a picturesque yellow house. This is where the head guard lived with his family, she says. In front of me, another man on the tour has reached his hand over to cup his girlfriend’s ass, and watching this interaction makes my stomach churn, so I turn away from the group and stare at the house for a while.
It really is very pretty. In a tasteful way. Pretty yellow house for a pretty yellow-haired family. Pretty pretty, and suddenly everything is pretty, and I am watching this pretty Aryan family, so happy, blonde and coiffed, bouncy pink cheeks; cozying up in quilts when it gets cold, driving to the beach when it is warm. It is nice, I see this; nice to have so much space, to be able to stretch their strong arms and legs wide, yawning into the lebensraum nice Herr Hitler made good on: throwing open the curtains to let sun beam down on the manicured carpets, peeling the windows open to breathe fresh air on calm days. And then, on days when the breeze picks up, discreetly shutting the windows, so the ashy particles floating by don’t contaminate the tiny lungs tucked safe inside the tiny blonde children tucked safe inside this pretty cottage tucked safe inside this horrifying death factory; lungs that will stretch and grow and inhale for years and years, even as tiny lungs this very same size wheeze and expire elsewhere in the camp.
The guide has turned her attention to the gallows. These ones were for group hangings, she explains, but the nooses are gone and everything still looks pretty, so all I can think is that the structure looks like a big swingset frame. You could probably fit six or seven swings on it. Six happy children, swinging, shrieking; fourteen little legs, Jewish legs, pumping higher and higher; stretching to reach heaven, I imagine, like babel.
And then the man in front of me who was fondling his girlfriend has now pulled out his phone and is scrolling through Facebook, and it is not pretty and nothing here is, but before I can decide whether I should punch this boy, the guide is saying “here is a crematorium” and my Mortal Enemies have chosen this time for a photo-op. They crouch next to the smokestack, this couple, and pose for a selfie. In my head their smiles stretch so wide their gums are shining and the smiles turn to grimaces and blood oozes out of their mouths, staining the ground.
I want to sit down, I want to call my mother, I want to scream. Why did you come here? Why the hell did you come here? Because if here in this place we are not all feeling the same pain then dear god how can there possibly be any potential for shared empathy anywhere else?
The guide is saying that one of the big-name Hitler cronies was killed here after the war, that his war crimes judge sentenced him to hang from the same noose he had forced thousands upon thousands of Jewish necks into. I know this man was probably not born evil, was likely just one of those strong-jawed sheeple who wanted to feel special, who fell under the spell of a system that told him he was born superior. He was just following orders, following rules, I know. I know that a life is a precious thing to lose. In this moment I do not care.
When I imagine the man’s stiff body swaying languidly in the breeze, tiny flecks of skin drifting off cell by cell, until he is no longer one body but a million pieces of indistinguishable dust, it is my turn to smile real big. Cheeeese. It is pleasing to me. Molecules of Nazi, signifying nothing. This death is sweet.
In a gift store on the streets of Krakow, I find rows of tiny porcelain figures sitting on a shelf. They have cute bug-eyes and cartoonishly large noses and payot—traditional Hasidic hair curls—and yarmulkes and prayer shawls. And they are all clutching a real one-cent Polish coin the size of their tiny porcelain faces.
I show the figurine to Mitch, who is with me in the store, who is also Jewish; I hold it in the air with my eyebrows high and he stares at it for a moment and then says—
“Aw! So cute!” and returns to the chess board he is inspecting as a gift for his grandfather, the one who escaped Krakow with his family when he was a little boy and the Nazis were just about to close in and never not one time came back.
“No,” I say, and point at the money my figurine is clutching. “It’s a Jew begging for money.”
“Oh,” he says, and we stare at it for a little while. “Or is he showing off how much money he has?”
The version of me that I would like to be in this story pockets the little Jew and glides out of the shop and then throws it on the cobblestones outside, smashes it to tiny pieces, bashes its head in so that no one can have this perfect little Jew, so that no one can take it home and put it on the window sill to laugh at. And then this ideal-me picks up the little Polish penny that the Jew used to be clutching from where it has landed on the sidewalk and adds it to her wallet alongside the abundant America coins that my plush paint-bearing ancestors earned in a place that was not Europe while people less fortunate than Mitch’s grandparents choked on poison. Because waste not a single part of the Jew.
But in the version of this story that actually happens, I just return the figurine to the glass shelf from whence it came and nod shyly at the stoic lady manning the counter. Sorry, I try to say, except I don’t speak a word of Polish.
The thought of stealing the figurine doesn't occur to me even until much later. I follow the rules. I am a rule-follower extraordinaire.
The town we pass on the ride home from Auschwitz is dilapidated and feels very empty. There are rundown gas stations and graffitied signs advertising something via photos of sexy, windswept women. Presumably people live here, because there are all the requisite signs of civilization, although we don’t see any of them.
I wonder what it is like for the people who live within walking distance of this place where millions of people took their last breath. Does it feel haunted? Probably it feels like nothing at all. In America we live in a country that has taken land from people and killed other people and subjugated even more and I think that if aliens learned our history and then came to visit they would wonder how we could possibly live with the knowledge that our ancestors did this thing and we’d be like “idk I don’t think my actual ancestors did the actual thing so it’s not really my emotional burden” and they’d be like “yeah but you inherited all the benefits of the thing they did” and we’d be like “yes” and then we’d go back to our knitting. Probably life in this rundown Polish town is unremarkable.
I don’t feel much like chatting on this bus ride, and I have seen enough of this town, so I pick up my phone. There isn’t any service, not much to do; I flip halfheartedly through my photos.
I took two pictures in Auschwitz, both of them in the final segment of the tour, Auschwitz II Birkenau.
While Auschwitz I was created for torturing and punishing and killing enemies of the reich of all sorts, Auschwitz II had a much simpler mission: it was constructed after the head honcho Nazis decided on the Final Solution for the express purpose of killing as many Jews as possible. Complete extermination of the Jewish race. Auschwitz II Birkenau is where the massive gas chambers once stood, before the Nazis burned them down to cover their tracks.
This section of the tour is less directed, so we’re all sort of wandering around, staring at the rubble. I expected to be able to feel the evil rising up from this place where so many hundreds of thousands of human beings lost their lives. But there is no sense of anything powerful buried in the charred wreckage. It’s just vast structures crumbling into increasingly smaller pieces. Someday there will only be piles of soft ash left, someday even this will be gone entirely.
I wander around until I come upon a series of rectangular stones with words inscribed into them. I find the one written in English. Its message is bleak—“For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity,” it begins. But what I like about the inscription is that lower down I see the word JEWS, and that next to the English stone is another stone and another and another, maybe twenty stones that all say the same thing, each in a different language, each language’s word for JEWS. JEWS JEWS JEWS.
And here amidst the ruined gas chambers, surrounded as I am by charred lumps devoid of meaning, suddenly the plenitude of JEWS is something I would like to quantify. Because they tried to make us go away but here we are, everywhere; the massive diaspora endures. So I take a picture.
I am still trying to fit all the stones into one frame when our guide wanders past. She doesn’t appear to be doing anything, so I make my way over to her. I ask her awkwardly because I do not know how to phrase it, why does she do this thing that she is doing. She is very nice and does not seem offended. She tells me in a voice much softer than the tinny one I had been hearing over the microphone that her grandmother was forced to do manual labor for the Nazis and her grandfather was part of the Polish resistance and tried to save Jews. She says that she gives tours at Auschwitz because of them.
I ask her, because she seems amenable, what she thinks of the recent laws restricting the way people talk about concentration camps. “I do not support my government,” she says, looking steely.
She tells me that she has been doing this for twelve years, Monday through Friday most weeks. I ask her how she does this every day, because I cannot imagine that I would be able to return here ever again, least of all make this place into a habit.
She shrugs and shakes her head, like she doesn’t know how to answer this. Does it help to not think about what she is saying? I ask. To make herself a little bit numb?
“No. Never,” she says. “I will never be indifferent to what I am saying. Not ever.”
As for the second photo: this one happened on our way out of the last barracks we visited, the very last stop on the tour. I noticed an etching here scratched into the wall. So high in the sky I almost missed it, all caps, no punctuation, scratched so faintly into the light brick I could only just make it out.