Hiroshima

Hiroshima. Yes. In the morning, in bed, I would think about Hiroshima. Just lying there and thinking. Every morning. Maybe I shouldn’t have told her that I had these kinds of thoughts, but she was so good, so good to me, that I had to answer her. “What are you thinking about? Just tell me.” In the end, I told her.

It was a horrible year, you know. So many bad things. Every time I thought, That’s it, it’s over, it can’t get worse, I was struck by another blow. It started with being fired and the complications with the mortgage, then my dad, then, right after him, my mom. Entire nights in the emergency room, the horrors of the geriatric ward, and then, as the final bonus – in the middle of shiva – my leg. For five weeks, I hobbled around on crutches. I couldn’t even hobble because the truth was that I didn’t have the strength to move. I couldn’t sleep at night, and in the morning everything hurt. The body or the soul? Everything – together. Leaving the house seemed like a nightmare and everything I needed to do to get out of this situation also seemed like a nightmare. Job applications, lawyers, telephone calls, the mess that my mom left behind, my uncle, that crook, pretending to be senile. And for her, poor thing, my bad luck meant lots of bad luck too. It hadn’t even been a month since we’d moved in together – and I was flooded with misfortunes. Think about it: a woman moves in with a man – a man who, if I may say so, is in a good place in his life – a man you could say is reasonably happy. And a month later, less than a month, this man turns into a wet bag of misfortune. Not exactly what she’d hoped for. A woman less good would have, naturally, packed her bags and left.

In just a moment, I’ll get back to the issue of Hiroshima, in a moment. Right away.

Love? It depends. At first, I think, yes, after I was fired she still loved me. At least it seemed that way. We started out well – lots of excitement and laughing together – that kind of energy, it seems, doesn’t evaporate in an instant. But later, gradually. . . Who wants to live with someone else’s troubles from morning to night? And we weren’t married, after all, so why should she burden herself with my problems? She had her job, where they appreciated her, she had her close friends that she could laugh with. By the way, I have no doubt what they said she should do. I have no doubt, and I also understand.

One evening, I remember, she was called into work, she was on call. Neither of us had a car then, and the weather outside was horrible. A wintry mix of snow, rain, sleet. The sidewalks were icy. Not even a dog would have left the house on a night like that. But she, when they called her, she was happy – happy that she had an excuse to leave the house.

Her problem was that she was a good person. She saw herself as a good person, and so, I think, just out of stubbornness, to keep being a good person, she stayed with me. A good person, after all, doesn’t abandon a friend in need. She had the kind of personality that, with every misfortune that fell upon me, made her more stubborn. As if staying with me was some kind of mountain-climbing challenge – and, precisely for that reason, she’d climb wearing a smile. Smiling was her faith. Even with bloody bitten lips – you have to keep smiling. During my most difficult days she insisted on appreciating the little things. Insisted that the world was basically nice and beautiful, and, well, you just have to try to see the full half.

I’m telling you all this to explain why I had to tell her about Hiroshima. She wasn’t just good, she took care of me, she worried about what was going on in my head, and was questioning me all the time, though I always gave her miserable answers. What am I thinking about? What could I really be thinking about most of the time? I was trying to remember whether the bank was open in the afternoon, and the name of the banker that once got my parents an extra loan. I was thinking about the job I didn’t have, the money I wasn’t making, the payment I had to send to the burial society. Or else I was trying to figure out how the hell I was going to get up to the second floor on crutches when I did finally get to the bank. Nothing anybody actually wants to hear about.

Mornings were the worst. Everything I was supposed to do grew into a kind of globulous blob. And starting to do something when there’s this blob. . . And I couldn’t think straight, anyway, because I wasn’t sleeping, and the hospital smell – the smell of soup mix didn’t just stick to my skin, it was like it got in my blood – and my tiny polite mother letting out those screams. . . It doesn’t matter. What matters is that, when I opened my eyes, I wasn’t really able to think. I mean, I wasn’t able to think about what I was supposed to do. The only thing I felt was that growing blob that seemed to be finishing me off: no air, no way out, never would be.

That’s how it was, more or less, and somehow, to let off some pressure, I’d think about Hiroshima. Only after that, after I thought about it enough, I was usually able to get up. . .

In the end, I had no choice, I had to answer her. Explain to her what was going on in my head when I lay there in bed with my hand over my eyes.

So what was going on in my head? August 6, 1945, 8:45 AM. People are up, they’re on their way, when from the sky a “Little Boy” falls on them – and in an instant they turn into a cloud of steam.

That’s what I’m thinking about? That’s what’s on my mind? From her tone it was clear that she really, but really, didn’t like it. I told her that if I’d been able to imagine Pompeii then maybe I’d have focused on Pompeii. Her tone had startled me, and I was trying to be smart and make light of things, so I added that I’d always had a problem with the ancient world, men in skirts and all that. But she wouldn’t be distracted. “Why do you have to think about that?” Why think about it? I don’t know. Does a person choose what to think about? All I knew was that I thought about it all morning – thought about the people of Hiroshima. I didn’t have names for them, I don’t know any Japanese names, but I could imagine people – so I imagined them. An example? For example, a housewife abused by her husband and mother-in-law who, at 8:45 AM, was on her way to the market. Her mother-in-law had sent her with a shopping list just so that later she could yell at her about buying all the wrong things and send her right back. Except there was obviously no “back,” and there was obviously no “later.” There was nothing. Not for the poor woman who was considering suicide, not for the mother-in-law, and not for the husband.

Or, for example, there was a man, a bank teller, and he made some terrible mistake that only he knew about. He’d discovered this terrible mistake the day before, but it was clear to him that today, at some point, his supervisors would discover it too. They’d discover it and then, that’s it, it’s over. For him, this is the end.

Tens of thousands of deaths in Hiroshima. Tens of thousands who died in an instant. Thousands died later too. Whatever was important to them before – was no longer important or no longer existed at all. An entire city. This is what happened in an instant. One moment you’re here, putting on a coat, walking toward the door, and the next moment – not a single thing you know is left on the other side of that door.

So these are the kinds of thoughts I had. You could call them fantasies. And when she insisted that I tell her, when she sat next to me and questioned me, I admitted to some of them. I didn’t tell her everything – after so many months thinking about this, my head was full of miserable people, each in a predicament of their own. I just gave her an idea of what was happening in my head. Enough that I was sorry as soon as I lowered my hand from my eyes.

Like I told you earlier, there was no longer any love between us – not the kind that a man feels for a woman, or a woman feels for a man – an active breathing love. She was an angel, and like a stubborn angel she really tried to help me. But I had ideas of my own about what was going on in her head. I understood that when I got better – if I got better – she’d leave me, and that until at least something got better, she wouldn’t feel free to leave. Yes, sad. It was sad, and no, I didn’t tell her what I understood. As talkative as I am with with you now, that’s how silent I was with her. But let’s leave that alone. Yes. Anyway, after I told her about Hiroshima, the moment I looked at her, I could see what she was thinking. Her release date. It seemed even farther away.

“But why? Why are you lying here thinking such terrible thoughts? How exactly is that going to help?”

I didn’t answer her, I remained silent, but like I said, she was a mountain-climber, and like the best of mountain-climbers, she found a positive answer for me – saying that when you think about some disaster that might happen, when you think about something horrible like the atomic bomb, only then do you understand how important it is to live each moment to the fullest, and just how blessed we all are. “Don’t you think so?”

When I remember this I get goose bumps – because she kissed me on my forehead. At first she gave me a caring kiss, a sort of caring castration on the forehead, and then she stood up – and with the cheer of a hospital worker announced that, now that we’d reached an understanding, maybe she’d make us grilled cheese sandwiches with mushrooms and mozzarella. What did I think?

Mushrooms and mozzarella. That’s what she offered to live the moment to the fullest. I’m the last person to blame her. The guilt is altogether mine, and eating grilled cheeses, well, it was something we could still do together. Had I been just a little bit nicer – just a bit more of a decent human being – I would have gotten up, brushed my teeth, sat with her in the kitchen, and then started dealing with the day’s bureaucracy. But I didn’t have the strength to be a human being, certainly not to be a man, and I was left stuck with what she called expressionless eyes. Disgusting. Completely disgusting. Now what? What’s happening here? “Talk to me. Talk. Come on. Words.”

I mumbled that she didn’t understand and she said: “Really? And what exactly don’t I understand?” I could tell from her voice that I’d pushed her over the edge, but still I said: “The whole Hiroshima thing.” I don’t, in this particular context, want to use the word “explosion,” but how can I put it? It turns out that even mountain-climbers have limited endurance. She doesn’t understand? That’s how I see it? Actually she understands my problem perfectly well. Too well. I’m lying here imagining atomic bombs because that’s my biggest hope. A bomb that would come and finish off everything – a bomb that would destroy her too. Because the fact is that she, too, would turn into a cloud of steam – I really don’t care about that. What kind of freak comforts himself with fantasies like these? What kind of depraved mind feels better from tens of thousands of deaths – and doesn’t even care that his girlfriend would go up in flames? That’s my salvation? Because it seems like that’s what I’m hoping for. Hell. Hell and death.

The fact that she was yelling actually woke me up. It’s not easy to admit, but I suddenly felt . . . present. A little more present. In retrospect, I thought that maybe it would have helped if, from the very beginning, she had been a little less patient with me. But I know that she couldn’t have done anything differently. A good person is good. Nothing to be done about it.

So how did I react? I tried to defend myself a little, obviously. I argued that no one, including her, chooses what to think about, but my argument – how can I put it? – wasn’t accepted. I heard that I was depraved and disgusting and that my thoughts were disgusting. If I didn’t believe something positive could happen, something more positive than an atomic bomb, then she really didn’t see the point anymore. “Let’s hear it,” she said to me, “tell me one wonderful thing that you believe could happen.”

I should have told her that she was that wonderful thing. Even though she was sick of me and there was no chance of anything working out – she deserved to hear that. But I obviously didn’t say that. Instead I murmured something about my lawyer, that maybe he’d call me in the end, and maybe, just maybe, he’d also succeed in getting something out of my uncle’s lawyer. . .

She cut me off before I finished. That’s it? That’s my best? That’s the best I could hope for?

She found me disgusting. She was completely justified in finding me disgusting. And all the justified disgust she felt left me no choice but to disgust her even more. I told her that I didn’t think they’d amputate my leg, and that at least she didn’t have to worry about that, because I felt pretty optimistic.

Why did I throw that at her? I don’t know. I can only assume that I wanted things to end quickly.

I clearly succeeded. To end things quickly, I mean, because as soon as I dished out my smart comment she got up and left the house. Left, walked out, drove to work, without saying goodbye or anything. I comforted myself with the thought that at least there were no more kisses on the forehead. Though I wouldn’t have minded a kiss on the forehead. You know, it’s complicated. Yes. Very complicated. Completely.

That night, when she came back, we sat in the kitchen and had a long talk, but it no longer had any emotion, almost without emotion, as if months had passed from the moment when she left the house until she came back. She’d spoken to her girlfriends that day, I’m sure, and when she spoke to me it was already the kind of mountain-climbing that was more about “staying friends despite everything.”

She didn’t have to say it was over. But she did say things like “Look, in the end you broke me,” or, “Look, in the end I broke.” And I, like the best of friends, assured her that anyone else would have been broken long ago.

To end things on a good note she formulated the problem between us as a question of different personalities. And again I didn’t argue. She explained that she was simply unable to lie next to me in bed while I was thinking about Hiroshima. For someone with a personality like hers it was simply too dark. And what depressed her the most was that I – with my imagination, with my ability to imagine Hiroshima – that, precisely because of my personality, I could never imagine the opposite situation in which everything was wonderful.

What’s the opposite situation? Think about it: what would be the opposite of extinction? I don’t understand now, and I didn’t understand then either. I’m a secular person. I don’t believe in a Messiah. So what exactly am I supposed to imagine? A UFO that brings world peace? Shimmering aliens on Temple Mount? An incredible explosion of health? A raging fire of goodness? A blast of happiness? Well what? Tell me. . . An anti-atomic bomb? There won’t ever be anything like that. There won’t be – though it would actually be nice. “Little Girl” – that’s what I’d call the anti-bomb of happiness.

But what she told me was right. You should know that she was right. Hiroshima happened. The horror of “Little Boy” really happened. What’s already happened is always possible. And a “Little Girl,” on the other hand, was not something I could imagine.

What does this say about me? What does this say about life? I have no idea – I didn’t philosophize with her either. We agreed that, as sad as it was, our personalities weren’t going to change at this point, and four days later, at the end of that week, her brother came with a pickup truck, brought some boxes, and helped her pack.

I was devastated, obviously, that much is clear, but since I was devastated before that . . . I don’t know. I can’t say what exactly it did to me.

Later – well later, as you now, things got better. Slowly but basically steadily. My leg healed. I got a job. Actually I got the job before my leg healed. They were impressed that I came to the interview on crutches. Money problems continued for a while, for more than two years, but in the end . . . in the end my lawyer wasn’t as bad as I thought. So things got figured out. And by the third anniversary of my mom’s death I was able to stand next to my uncle at her graveside without feeling like I was going crazy. I even cried a little.

During that period, until things really got settled, I still imagined Hiroshima, but with time it happened less and less. At some point I realized that I could get up from bed without imagining my characters there, and that now I got out of bed without fantasizing about the possibility that the day that was starting wouldn’t exist.

Now? Now it almost never happens. The days are beautiful. I met you.

Look, maybe everything I’m telling you isn’t really important, but it’s something that I wanted you to know. I don’t know what it means, I’m not a psychologist and I’m not a philosopher, but the truth is that even now I can’t imagine an anti-bomb – and don’t really see any kind of ending that could be happy.

*

translated from the Hebrew by David Stromberg

*

David Stromberg is a writer, translator, and literary scholar. He is author of four collections of single-panel cartoons, including BADDIES (Melville House, 2009), and two critical studies, Narrative Faith: Dostoevsky, Camus, and Singer (U Del Press, 2018) and IDIOT LOVE and the Elements of Intimacy (Palgrave, 2020).

He has published fiction in Ambit, Atticus Review, and Chicago Literati, scholarly articles in Comparative Literature Studies, Journal of Narrative Theory, and American Journal of Psychoanalysis, and translations in The New Yorker, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Lapham’s Quarterly. He is editor of In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times (Delacorte, 2018), a collection of stories for children, and recently published a series of personal essays in Public Seminar about growing up on the ethnic and cultural margins of Los Angeles.

Gail Hareven

Gail Hareven

Gail Hareven is the author of seventeen books, including short stories, novels, nonfiction, plays, and stories for children. She has published two novels in English, Lies, First Person (Open Letter, 2014), and The Confessions of Noa Weber (Melville House, 2009), for which she was awarded the Sapir Prize for Literature and the Best Translated Book Award. Her translated stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Lilith, and Asymptote, and her story, “The Slows,” was adapted by Nicole Perlman into a short film. She is also co-translator into the Hebrew of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. She is a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language and is a laureate of the Prime Minister's Prize for Hebrew Literary Works (2013). Her most recent book is Biblical Miniatures (Bialik Institute, 2018), a collection of retold stories from the Hebrew Bible.
Gail Hareven

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Author: Gail Hareven

Gail Hareven is the author of seventeen books, including short stories, novels, nonfiction, plays, and stories for children. She has published two novels in English, Lies, First Person (Open Letter, 2014), and The Confessions of Noa Weber (Melville House, 2009), for which she was awarded the Sapir Prize for Literature and the Best Translated Book Award. Her translated stories have appeared in The New Yorker, Lilith, and Asymptote, and her story, “The Slows,” was adapted by Nicole Perlman into a short film. She is also co-translator into the Hebrew of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. She is a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language and is a laureate of the Prime Minister's Prize for Hebrew Literary Works (2013). Her most recent book is Biblical Miniatures (Bialik Institute, 2018), a collection of retold stories from the Hebrew Bible.