Life On Sandpaper

Yoram Kaniuk

Photograph by Kevin Kunstadt

Alex liked me despite my being a Zionist colonialist from Palestine. He was one of the bravest revolutionaries in the Village, which as we know was hardly empty of competition in this regard. He knew Plekhanov's The Role of the Individual in History, most of Lenin's writings, and Das Kapital by heart, and would recite Yesenin and Aleksandr Blok—The Twelve in particular—and Pablo Neruda too. Sonia, whose beauty was faded like an old photograph of herself as a girl, challenged him at every opportunity, but they still served the best beef stroganoff in town. That's what Gandy and I used to eat there with Freddie who Alex always hoped would come along with us because he was a Jew whose wife had been exploited by imperialism and instead of jailing that scumbag Truman they'd put her inside for two weeks. Freddie would stand outside Alex's restaurant and shout to his wife on the fenced-off roof of the prison and cry since he didn't have any new sweaters and then he'd eat something with us. Sometimes in the evening other communists would drop by. Sonia would sing "Carry a Flag to Zion" and "Hatikvah" and "Be Strong, All Our Brothers" and other Zionist songs to spite them. They would drink vodka and sing working- class songs that I knew in their Hebrew versions. Between rounds of cooking Alex sat and thought up strategic plans that he called "subterfuges" to overthrow American capitalism, and Sonia would counter by declaiming the number of kibbutzim in the Negev Desert and singing Hebrew pioneering songs that got on his nerves.

One day, Gandy, Freddie, and I were sitting there and Sonia lost her temper and tore up a photograph of Stalin and replaced it with one of the Labor Zionist leader A. D. Gordon. Alex was shaking with anger. But the ideological struggle that had persisted between them for forty years had taken its toll and finally exhausted them. They started yelling but fell asleep in the middle. When they dropped off, usually in the middle of fighting but also occasionally while cooking, they would sink onto the green couch under the photograph of Plekhanov, who, to Alex's sneering delight, Sonia didn't know was one of the revolution's greatest thinkers. On the couch they would embrace. She would curl up to him and with a sweet smile on their faces they'd fall asleep. As they were childless, due to what Sonia called the ideological struggle that had consumed them, they became their own children. They were fully aware of each other's weaknesses and laid semantic ambushes for one another. And practical ones too: the Daily Worker was replaced by Ha-Doar. Their prolonged battle was bitter indeed, since it's no easy thing to foment an international communist revolution from a small restaurant that only has ten tables on the ground floor of an old building facing the old Jewish-Portuguese cemetery, next door to the building where I lived then, just as it's no easy thing to conquer Umm Joni, irrigate the Negev, and strike back at communism from the other side of the same restaurant. Sonia had wonderful eyes, soft and kind, and Alex wasn't exactly Gary Cooper, but he beamed a stubborn authority and he really and truly burned with ardent conviction. Sonia said that Alex was far more of a Talmudist than a communist and at night when they were tired and before they fell asleep embracing on the couch, her head in his lap, he'd sing Hasidic songs in a voice full of yearning purity. At night, in the silence of the night, on the couch at the entrance to the restaurant that was all they had, America was no longer a branch of Chase Manhattan and Israel wasn't the world's enemy and what saved Zionism was Sonia's borscht which she only ever made on the condition that Alex left the kitchen because otherwise he'd steal her recipe.


Adele talked about her own youth with such enthusiasm. With passion. Oh, Adele, Adele, what a titan you were, Adele. Everything about her was tempestuous. She spoke in a booming voice that scared off at least three out of every four men who tried to seduce her. Adele's eyes carried a perpetual sadness, and behind the exotic curtains of her life she seemed just a frightened woman-child. Adele announced that she'd dumped her Jack Daniels lover, or that he had dumped her, I don't remember. She wasn't affected by that in the least. She said that in any case she didn't trust men. My father, she said, threw me out onto the street when I was only a few months old because his wife died. I finished the painting and Gandy didn't like it. Adele did a series of paintings of birds and announced that she wanted to have a baby. We offered our services but she looked at us with disdain and said she already had brains, she didn't need any more. What she wanted was the body of a real man. For the father of her son she had no need for puny, flaccid Jews who painted and sat around contemplating Spinoza. Adele went to Jones Beach. She wore her tiniest bathing suit. She spread a blanket near a life- guard station and lay down. Each day she'd set up near a different station. In one hand she had a notebook and in the other a pen. She assessed the lifeguards and made notes: Object #8. Name: Neil (Irish). Height: 6'1''. Looks: Handsome, 6 out of 10. Strength: High, likely an excellent sexual athlete. Total sexual potential: 8. Remarks: Inefficient. Strong. Swimmer. A fine member, as seen through swimming trunks. Blond. Servile. No freckles. Slight stutter. And that, oh, Adele, Adele, is only one example. After a precise inspection she had nine potential fathers and closed in on one lifeguard whose name, as far as I can remember, was Guy. She wrote about him: Height: 6'3''. Beautiful shoulders. Muscular arms. Not disgusting in the least. Under "remarks" she wrote: Good clean bloodline. No hair on his chest. A healthy goy. No fool. Though not intelligent either. This was followed by: And he can lift a boat. Saved a little girl and an old man from drowning. Keeps his temper. Maintains composure and doesn't drink lotto much. Has stamina and is patient. Skin doesn't get very red in the sun. Eats lettuce, yogurt, and steaks. Sexual potential: two hundred thousand orgasms. Excellent potential longevity. Next she witnessed him saving an old lady from drowning. He pulled her ashore. Sweet, she said, and he spoke to her gently, though she always felt the strength in him. She let him notice her and chase after her for about two days and then agreed to go to a motel with him. They were there for two nights and she left before he woke up.

It was summer and the story of Adele on the beach, taking down notes, made me miss the sea. I went to Jones Beach as well. There were thousands of people there and I stripped down to my bathing suit and swam while an entire white blazing city was swimming around me; the sky was gray, the heat stood like a giant tree, and there was no air. When I came out of the water the heat dried me up. Everybody around me was in bathing suits and it was so hot that I couldn't help look at the wonderful bodies of the young ladies and then I noticed a man in a business suit sitting on an old deckchair holding a walking stick, wearing a tie, a hat on his head, and he was watching the bathers and smiling a kind of malicious but not evil smile. He looked over at me because I was looking at him and I said it was hot. He said it was hot. I said it was very hot. He said it was very hot. I said the water was cold. He said sure the water's cold and where are you from, my dear sir. I told him. He said, It's probably hot there. I said it was. We exchanged a word here and a word there and I finally couldn't restrain myself and asked him why he was waiting on the beach of all places. He said he wasn't waiting for anybody. I said, Then why the hat and the suit, this isn't the opera. He said, See here young man, don't flaunt your youth. It's a fleeting matter. I'm eighty-six years old. Don't ever get old. Old age is a disease. My wife died six years ago. I met her one Sunday in Central Park as she was taking a walk with her nurse and she was wearing a crinoline. All the young men were trying to catch beautiful young ladies and I caught her. I loved her at first sight. She was beautiful and with the permission of the nurse who encouraged me we talked and afterward we met the same way on numerous occasions and to cut a long story short, we decided to marry, her parents agreed, they lived in Rhode Island and we went there to get married. Anyone who was anybody was there. It was a magnificent wedding. We drank champagne and danced and then they sent us to a lovely building in the park which surrounded the estate and we went inside and what do you know—after we'd been to bed and there was a faint light I discovered she was bowlegged. Do you see? For sixty-three years I lived with a bowlegged woman. I come here every week to envy the young men who can watch their ladies swimming and see who not to marry. But on the other hand, I also come for revenge, because your generation knows nothing about the mystery of a man's courting a woman. The journey of it. Having to imagine. Having to talk nonsense for a year in order to get her into bed. But it was an exciting sort of mystery and your generation has no mysteries. You've lost all your surprises, even the nasty ones, like my wife's bowlegs. He bought me an ice cream and I ate it and he laughed: Oh, bowlegs.

The guy who'd impregnated Adele had apparently been looking for her but didn't find her. Her belly swelled and we sat with her like you sit in a house of mourning. According to Reich's theory the em- bryo's character is formed in the womb. So she sang it songs from Westerns. She went to see crime and action movies on Forty-second Street so it wouldn't hear only Mozart or jazz. Then she gave birth. She brought the baby boy back to the studio and we had a party in her honor. The Jack Daniels was long gone. She put a tin bath in the middle of the studio and said that the baby could do whatever he wanted, because according to Reich a baby should be free. After about eighteen months he was already peeing standing up in the bath and in the other parts of the studio and also on me. She continued visiting her Reichian therapist who'd hit her so she'd have more orgasms. After her two hundred and third orgasm she took the boy and went to the Rockies so he could experience force and vigor and she taught him the names of wildflowers because she loved flowers and understood them and she began planning gardens.

translated from the Hebrew by Anthony Berris

Used by permission of Dalkey Archive. Life on Sandpaper will be out in bookstores in Feb 2011.