Norman Bolzman, sitting on a bench in Edith Wolfson Park, Tel Aviv, October 1979. I've always been sensitive to the pain of others, always tried to feel a part of everyone else's suffering. I'm Jewish, a Mexican Jew, and I know the history of my two peoples. That says it all, I think. I'm not trying to justify myself. I'm just trying to tell a story. Maybe I'm also trying to understand its hidden workings, workings I wasn't aware of at the time but that weigh on me now. Still, my story won't be as coherent as I'd like. And my role in it will flicker like a speck of dust between the light and the dark, between laughter and tears, exactly like a Mexican soap opera or a Yiddish melodrama.
Everything began last February. It was a gray afternoon, fine as a shroud, the kind that brings a shudder to the skies of Tel Aviv. Someone rang the bell of our apartment on Hashomer Street. When I opened the door, the poet Ulises Lima, leader of the self-proclaimed visceral realists, was standing there before me. I can't say I knew him, in fact I'd only met him once, but Claudia used to tell me stories about him, and Daniel read me one of his poems once. Literature isn't my specialty. It may be that I was never able to appreciate the quality of his work. In any case, the man in front of me looked less like a poet than a bum.
We didn't get off to a good start, I admit. Claudia and Daniel were at the university and I had to study, so I let him in, made him a cup of tea, and then went into my room and shut the door. For a minute everything seemed back to normal. I immersed myself in the philosophers of the Marburg School (Natorp, Cohen, Cassirer, Lange) and in some commentaries on Solomon Maimon, indirectly devastating to the Marburg philosophers. But after a while, it might have been twenty minutes or two hours, my mind went blank and in the middle of that whiteness the face of Ulises Lima, the recent arrival, began to take shape, and even though in my mind everything was white it took me a long time, I don't know how long, to make out his features precisely, as if Ulises's face were getting darker instead of brightening in the light.
When I came out he was sprawled in an armchair, asleep. I stood there watching him for a while. Then I went back into my room and tried to concentrate on my work. I couldn't. I should have gone out, but it seemed wrong to leave him alone. I thought about waking him up. I thought that maybe I should follow his example and go to sleep too, but I was too afraid or too embarassed, I can't say which. At last I took a book from the shelf, Natorp's Religion at the Limits of Humanity, and sat facing him on the sofa.
It was around ten when Claudia and Daniel came in. I had cramps in both legs and my whole body ached. Worse, nothing I'd read had made any sense, but when I saw them come in the door I somehow managed to raise my finger to my lips, why I don't know, maybe because I didn't want Ulises to wake up before Claudia and I could talk, maybe because I'd grown used to hearing the steady rhythm of his breath while he was sleeping. But when Claudia, after a few seconds of hesitation, saw Ulises in the armchair, it was all for nothing. The first thing she said was carajo or bolas or cámara or chale, because even though Claudia was born in Argentina and came to Mexico when she was sixteen, deep down she's always felt Mexican. Or so she says, who knows. And Ulises woke up with a start and the first thing he saw was Claudia smiling at him from less than a foot away, and then he saw Daniel, and Daniel was smiling too. What a surprise.
That night we went out to dinner in his honor. At first I said that I really couldn't go, that I had to finish with my Marburg School, but Claudia wouldn't let me get out of it. Don't even think about it, Norman, let's not start. Dinner was fun, despite my fears. Ulises told us about his adventures and we all laughed, or rather he told Claudia about his adventures, but in such a charming way, in spite of how sad everything he was telling us really was, that we all laughed, which is the best you can do at times like that. Then we went walking home along Arlozorov, taking deep breaths of fresh air. Daniel and I were ahead, quite a long way ahead, and Claudia and Ulises were behind, talking as if they were in Mexico City again and they had all the time in the world. And when Daniel told me not to walk so fast, asking why I was in such a hurry, I quickly changed the subject, asking him what he'd been doing, telling him the first thing that came to mind about crazy old Solomon Maimon, anything to put off what was coming next, the moment I was afraid of. I would happily have run away that night. I wish I had.
When we got to the apartment we still had time for a cup of tea. Then Daniel looked at the three of us and said he was going to bed. When I heard his door close I said the same thing and went into my room. Lying on my bed with the light off, I heard Claudia talking to Ulises for a while. Then the door opened and Claudia turned on the light, asked me whether I had class the next day, and started to undress. I asked her where Ulises Lima was. Sleeping on the sofa, she said. I asked her what she'd told him. I didn't tell him anything, she answered. Then I undressed too, got in bed, and squeezed my eyes shut.
For two weeks a new order reigned in our house. Or at least that was how it seemed to me, deeply disturbed as I was by small details that perhaps I hadn't noticed before.
Claudia, who for the first few days tried to ignore the new situation, finally came to terms with reality too, and said that she was beginning to feel suffocated. On the morning of the second day he was with us, while Claudia was brushing her teeth, Ulises told her that he loved her. Claudia's answer was that she already knew. I came here because of you, Ulises said, I came because I love you. Claudia's answer was that he could have written her a letter. Ulises found that highly encouraging, and he wrote a poem that he read to Claudia at lunch. When I got up discreetly from the table, not wanting to hear it, Claudia asked me to stay and Daniel seconded the request. The poem was essentially a collection of fragments about a Mediterranean city, Tel Aviv, I guess, and a bum or a mendicant poet. I thought it was beautiful and I told him so. Daniel agreed. Claudia was quiet for a few minutes, with a thoughtful expression on her face, and then she said that we were right, she wished she could write such beautiful poems. For a minute I thought everything would work out, that we were all going to be able to get along, and I volunteered to go buy a bottle of wine. But Claudia said that the next day she had to be at the university first thing, and ten minutes later she had shut herself in our room. Ulises, Daniel, and I talked for a while and had another cup of tea, then each of us went to his room. Around three I got up to go to the bathroom and as I tiptoed through the living room I heard Ulises crying. I don't think he realized I was there. He was lying facedown, I guess. From where I was, he was just a shape on the sofa, a shape covered with a blanket and an old coat, a heap, a lump of flesh, a shadowy figure, heaving and pathetic.
I didn't tell Claudia. In fact, it was around then that I first began to hide things from her, keep parts of the story from her, lie to her. As far as our daily lives as students were concerned, things didn't change at all for her, or if they did she did her best not to let it show. When Ulises first came to Tel Aviv, Daniel was his constant companion, but after two or three weeks Daniel had to buckle down again too, or risk jeopardizing his exams. Little by little, I became the only one still available to Ulises. But I was busy with neo-Kantianism, the Marburg School, Solomon Maimon, and my head was a mess because each night, when I got up to pee, I'd find Ulises crying in the dark, and that wasn't the worst of it, the worst was that some nights I thought: today I'll see him cry-see his face, I mean, because until then I'd only heard him, and who could be sure that what I was hearing was crying, and not, for example, the heavy breathing of someone in the middle of jerking off? And when I thought about seeing his face, I imagined it raised in the dark, a face bathed in tears, a face touched by the light of the moon filtering through the living room windows. And that face was so desolate that from the very moment I sat up in bed in the dark, listening to Claudia's raspy breathing beside me, a weight like a rock settled on my heart and I felt like crying too. And sometimes I spent a long time sitting there in bed, repressing my urge to go to the bathroom, repressing my urge to cry, all for fear that it would happen that night, that he would lift his face in the dark and I would see it.