Arnon Grunberg

New York / Miami

At a Bar Mitzvah party where I was acting as barkeeper, I met a forty-six-year-old widow, Fay Sheslow. Of course, I didn’t know she was a widow when I met her.
But within a few hours she’d told me everything. A hideous disease had consumed her husband. She didn’t want to mention the name of the disease, but she didn’t skip a single detail when it came to the consuming part.
I live off of other people’s stories. I can’t afford to spend the whole day at my desk. Then I’d have to write stories about cockroaches and mice.
“What’s someone like you doing in catering?” she’d asked.
“I’m one of those writers people tend to puke out,” I replied. With a little smile, just to show that maybe life had done its best to pull me down, but that it hadn’t completely succeeded.
I diddle people out of stories, in return for illusions.
“You mustn’t give up too soon,” Fay Sheslow said, and took my hand. “By the way, I’m Fay Sheslow.” That her name was Fay Sheslow I’d known for quite a while; she’d already introduced herself three times.
“Well, dreams don’t pay the rent. Would you like something from the bar?” “A cocktail. It doesn’t matter what kind,” said Fay Sheslow.
I’d had a lot of cocktails in my life, but I’d never paid much attention to how you were supposed to make them.
“Vodka tonic with a dash of cranberry juice?” “That’s fine,” said Fay Sheslow.
Then I had a flash of inspiration. I can’t remember where it came from. I looked at Fay Sheslow’s face, mixed her drink and suddenly I said: “I can’t afford to go chasing rainbows. I have a son. He’ll be nine next month.” A string quartet was playing its ten-thousandth Israeli folk dance.
“Where is he?” “At a boarding school in Switzerland.” “What about his mother?” “She’s Swiss, from Lausanne. At the very end we couldn’t stand the sight of each other. She went back to her family.” She petted my cheek. “What’s your son’s name?” That’s how I got a son at a Swiss boarding school and, for the first time in months, my life had taken on a little perspective. I should have gotten started with that son ages ago.
Fay Sheslow didn’t leave my side for the rest of the evening. The string quartet had already gone home, but Fay Sheslow was walking around like the whole party still had to begin. “My children are old enough to take care of themselves,” said Fay Sheslow.
Ten days later we were in Miami Beach. In a cheap hotel where forty rappers were staying as well. The rappers liked to practice between midnight and six. Every morning I woke up with a headache.
I’d told her I didn’t have enough money to go to Miami.
Fay Sheslow understood much, and paid for everything.
The first time she put on her bathing suit she said: “My legs are pillars. After I had children, I let my body go completely. My husband never looked at it anyway.” Her legs were indeed pillars. Pillars can be nice too. A manufacturer of illusions must be mild when it comes to beauty. “Fay,” I said, “your legs are the pillars of a Greek temple.” It didn’t matter whether she believed it, the point was she wanted to believe it. As a manufacturer of illusions you only have to worry about what people want to believe. Everyone wants to believe something else, but they all want to believe.
Human longing was a hole I’d jumped into, but it was so deep and wide that I couldn’t reach the edge anymore.
Early in the morning we sat at one of the sidewalk restaurants along Ocean Boulevard and looked at endless rows of half-naked people. Sultry music was playing everywhere. At the spot where Versace was gunned down, we kissed passionately.
“You have to go on with your writing,” said Fay Sheslow.
“Life is an ongoing series of selection procedures,” I said. “Some of those selection procedures I didn’t make it through. Now I’m in catering, and it’s a good thing, too.” The first part was right, but the point was to bend the procedures to your own advantage. To no longer be selected, but to do the selecting yourself. To select people, select words, to write.
“You’re not like other men,” Fay said. “You’re tender and aggressive at the same time. I think that’s very sexy. And you could have been my son.” A bullfighter lived on Ocean Boulevard as well. A bullfighter with a beard, and no teeth. Every afternoon from three to five he fought cars in return for small change. Fay said: “That man is the miracle of Miami Beach.” The fourth night, everything went wrong. I’d taken Fay Sheslow to an expensive French restaurant for a change.
“Tonight is my treat,” I said. I felt like having at least one good meal while we were there.
We had a lot to drink, and when we got back to our room my manliness lay in Fay Sheslow’s hand like a tiny little sausage. Like a mini-frankfurter some bored guest has stuck to a floral arrangement, toothpick and all.
“It doesn’t matter,” Fay Sheslow said. “That can happen.” But of course it mattered.
My manliness kept shrinking. From the mini-frankfurter it had been, it now started looking more and more like a cocktail onion, and soon it would disappear altogether.
“It’s your son,” Fay said. “You feel guilty.”
I’d completely forgotten that I had a son.
“You’re right,” I said. “I think about him a lot. Please don’t take it personally.”
“My husband had the same thing all the time,” Fay said. “So I’d ask him: what is it? Am I too fat? Don’t you find me attractive anymore? Are my legs too fat? Is it the cellulitis?”
“Stop. Please, Fay,” I said, “stop. You mustn’t think of yourself that way. You don’t have cellulitis.”
“Yes I do, look.”
She showed me her thigh and a bit of her buttock, and in her hand she was still holding the cocktail onion.
“Let’s call it something else,” I said, “let’s call it mandarin skin, or the skin of young tangerines. If you change the words, reality changes too, do you understand?”
“No,” she said, “I don’t.”
I went into the bathroom and said: “Sweet God, please give me an erection. If not for me, then do it for Fay Sheslow. She thinks her legs are pillars, and she’s right. But pillars can be nice too. Beauty is only an idea that can be challenged, like a boxer. And adjusted. And turned inside-out.”
But the god of erections was too busy that evening. Of course there were those pills, but I didn’t really want to get started on that. If you used those pills the wrong way, you could get a coronary. They seemed to me to be exactly the kind of pills I’d use the wrong way.
“What’s bothering you?” Fay Sheslow said when I came back into the room with a towel around my waist.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Next time,” she said, “I want you to bring a picture of your son. I want to see if he looks like you.”
What was I supposed to say? There is no picture, there is no son, there is no next time?
“Rape me gently,” said Fay Sheslow.
I was already lying on top of her. This was the landing pattern on the way to love; that there was no airfield was merely a detail to which a manufacturer of illusions need not give a moment’s thought.
“You mean it, right?” Fay asked. “You do mean all those things?”
If I had my life to do over again, I’d become a tango dancer. But then one who’s lost his tongue.