from “Tooth and Nail”

When Violet tires of it, of people, of conversation, of the party, when she wants to get away without having to explain, she says: “I have to go to yoga.”

There are moments when it is hard to claim that one has to go to yoga. So there is also the variation: “I need to get to bed. Early start tomorrow.” That sounds perhaps less zealous, but things don’t necessarily have to sound zealous, they only have to be it.

In any case, she doesn’t like staying up late. Two o’clock is late enough for her. She likes to dance, but not till the crack of dawn. On occasion she has imagined that a man might say: “Let’s go somewhere else.” But no one has ever said that. Of course, that wouldn’t be so terrible. You could always say: “I can’t really, not tonight. Maybe some other time.”

Her bed is close to the window. When she lifts her head she can look outside, she can see a little square in Amsterdam with a playground. She likes the view. She likes being downtown.

Sometimes she dances in front of the mirror in her room. It’s not a big mirror, but big enough that she can still see herself.

She has dark blonde hair, dyed light blonde now. She has a lot of hair, and not just on her head. She shaves sometimes, but complete hairlessness is not her thing. She’s not in grade school anymore.

When she fell asleep, it was on top of the book she’d been reading. Murakami, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. It was a birthday present, from two of her friends. Penny-pinching friends, one book between the two of them. Violet likes Murakami, but the problem with this book is that it’s so big. It’s not easy to take along on the train.

Lying beside Murakami is her phone, and beside her phone lies her bear. For a while there she had figured she was too old for the bear, which she’s had since she was six and which she’s always called Mr. Bear. When she went off to college Mr. Bear moved into a plastic bag, but somewhere around the start of her junior year she regretted that decision, she liberated Mr. Bear from his plastic bag, and since then he has slept beside her as though things had never been any different.

He is badly in need of an operation. Above his butt is a small hole through which the stuffing slowly leaks out, but she’s been too busy to do anything about it. There’s been no time to find a doll doctor, and it doesn’t seem like a good idea to do it herself. Sometimes she says to her bear: “We’re going to get you an operation real soon. Don’t you worry.”

For the time being, though, her job keeps her too busy for an operation, and things are only getting busier.

Her phone was what woke her, she answers it, still half asleep. “Hmmm,” she says. And again: “Hmmm.” In her dream the phone rang like an alarm clock, and only when she realizes that this is no longer a dream does she murmur: “Hello?”

Now she feels that her cheek is still atop the Murakami. She pushes the book off the bed. It falls to the floor with a thump.

That, too, is a bad thing about thick books. They fall loudly, they wake the neighbors.

“Oh, it’s you,” she says. “I thought it was the plumber.”

“You thought I was the plumber?” Roland Oberstein asks.

“I thought you were coming to unclog the toilet.”

She makes little growling noises. That forces her to wake up completely.

“Unclog the toilet?”

“I was dreaming about the plumber. The plumber is coming tomorrow. The toilet is clogged. Where are you, sweetheart?”

“In my hotel room,” Roland says. “How long has the toilet been clogged?”

“Since this afternoon. How was it?”

“It was good,” Roland says.

“Were they pleased?”

“With what?”

“With your speech?”

“Yes, I think so.”

She sighs. She rolls over onto her stomach.

“Is that all?” She’s completely awake now. As though morning had come and she were ready to get up. As though she could go bicycling off to work any moment.

Sometimes she lies in bed, tossing and turning without being able to sleep. She thinks then about her job, about her boyfriend.

“Yes. That’s all.”

Her boyfriend doesn’t talk a lot, there are days when he’s as taciturn as Mr. Bear. She’d like to get him talking, but she doesn’t know how. She’s tried lots of things. Vacations, romantic dinners, one time she even convinced him to help her paint designs on espresso cups, but when they were done he told her he felt like he’d painted enough espresso cups for the next five years. And he hadn’t talked much while they were painting them either.

When she sits at her desk in the afternoon, with a bag of licorice drops, she sometimes tells herself that she’s tried everything. To draw out the warmth she knows he has inside him. He’s like a wood-burning stove she can’t get lit.

“Are you busy with something else? Are you checking your mail? I can hear you typing. If you’d rather answer your mail than talk to me, you don’t have to call me in the middle of the night.”

“I’m not typing,” Roland says.

“I can hear you.”

“I’m not typing,” Roland says again.

“I heard you.”

“I wasn’t typing.”

“Do you think I’m crazy? You call and wake me up and you’re typing. Why do you call me if you’re typing?”

“I wasn’t typing,” Roland reiterates. “And I called you because you called me, and because you texted me. Twice, to be precise.”

“So then why aren’t you telling me anything?” Violet wants to know.

“I’m not much of a talker,” Roland says. “You know that. When’s the plumber coming?”

“In the morning. I think. You’re typing again.”

“I’m not typing.”

“Would you please knock it off? You’re talking to me now. Focus on this conversation. Stop typing.”

“I’m focused.”

Violet is sitting straight up in bed now. Mr. Bear is in her arms. He is, in fact, in a very bad way. One of his legs is coming off.

“The purpose of a conversation is that people tell each other things, right? So if you’re not going to tell me anything, why call? Didn’t anything happen that was worth telling about?”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to tell you,” Roland says. “It’s late. I’m tired. I love you.”

“Oh, could you maybe say that with a little more conviction? It sounds like you’re asking for the goddamn check.”

“I love you,” she hears again, but the intonation is the same.

Once she’d thought about joining the air force, she had wanted to do something almost no one had ever done before, there weren’t that many female F-16 pilots after all, but she had abandoned the idea.

“I won’t do it again, I promise. But if I don’t call and wake you up, you get angry too. Whatever I do, it’s wrong. I can’t do anything right.”

Would doll doctors be listed in the yellow pages? It was such an old-fashioned profession.

“Listen, I’m going to try this one more time. A conversation is when two people tell each other things. So what are we doing?”

“We’re having a conversation,” Roland says.

“No!” Violet’s shouting now. “We are not having a conversation, because you’re not telling me anything. And I still hear you typing. Would you please stop?”

“I can do two things at the same time. I can type and I can talk to you. I’m tired. If I type now, I can go to sleep later on. I’m saving time.”

“I’m not a time-saving device. I’m your girlfriend, goddamn it!”

“The one does not rule out the other,” Rolands says. “A good girlfriend is also a time-saving device.”

“OK, I’ll run it back. How did your speech go?”

“You already asked me that. Good. I wasn’t dissatisfied, it could have been better. But fine, in fact. The discussion afterward was a bit tame, though.”

“Shall we put an end to this conversation?” Violet asks. “Or is there something else you want to tell me? Let’s just stop, this isn’t a conversation. It’s nothing. It’s nothing at all.”

“No, I don’t want to stop this conversation. Not as long as you don’t. I don’t want you to be sad. I’ll go on until you hang up. I’m not giving up.”

“So is there something you want to tell me?”

“I’ve already told you everything. Is there something you want to tell me?”

“Yes,” Violet says. “Yes, there’s something I want to tell you. I cheated on you.”

She hears Roland laughing.

“Are you laughing?” she asks.

“Yes, I’m laughing,” Roland says.

“Why are you laughing?”

“Because it’s funny. Don’t you think it’s funny?”

“No, I don’t think it’s funny, no. I cheated on you.”

For a moment, all is silent.

“When?”

“Oh, so now you’ve stopped typing!” she shouts. “All of a sudden I have your undivided attention! Now the typing has stopped!”

“When?” Roland asks.

“So now the great economist has stopped typing, right?” Violet screams. “Now the typing is over!”

“I’m still typing.” Roland raises his voice now as well. “If you didn’t scream like that, you’d be able to hear me. Listen. I’m still typing. Type type type. All I want to know is: when?”

...

 

The desk is small, there’s barely room for a laptop. The television takes up too much space.

The room has a window, but it doesn’t open. Probably to discourage potential suicides.

Roland’s coat is on the bed. He’s taken his shoes off. He likes walking around in his stocking feet.

He has already tried yanking open the window a few times, even asked for a room with a window that will open, but there weren’t any, so he’s given up. He’ll be leaving tomorrow anyway. As far as he cares, the window can remain shut for all eternity.

Since the last time he checked his mail that morning, twenty-eight new messages have come in. He likes to answer his mails as quickly as possible. Then he’s done with it. The disadvantage is that new messages keep coming in all the time.

There’s no end to it. But he likes to do his work well. He never fails to answer mails from his students, or his colleagues, even when the contents don’t entirely call for a reply. He knows it’s obnoxious, but he wants to be the best. Man’s calling is to outshine the rest.

“The day before yesterday,” Violet says.

He gets up, walks to the bathroom, turns on the light, then walks back to his laptop. The keyboard used to be white, now it’s gray. There are strange-colored spots on it, he wonders how they got there.

“And with whom?”

“A man.”

“A man. Is that all? Just a man?”

“That’s all.”

“What kind of man?”

Violet designs handbags. Women’s handbags. They’re manufactured in China, but designed in Europe. Sometimes she designs something other than a handbag. An attaché case, for example.

During the day she works at a nice studio on the edge of town, where people design things that are manufactured in China. On occasion the designers get to go to China; that, it seems, is something of a mixed blessing.

“A man, just a man.”

“Do I know this man?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Are you sure? I know lots of men, including men who you don’t know I know.”

“You don’t know him.”

He nestles the receiver between ear and shoulder and opens the little closet with its three coat hangers. They’re cheapskates around here, even with coat hangers. Still clenching the phone between shoulder and ear, he hangs up his coat.

Roland Oberstein is happy, as he would readily admit, because he wants nothing he cannot get. What he wants he can get. What he can’t get, he doesn’t want. So simple is the recipe for happiness. And the idea that, in the end, happiness probably amounts to little more than comfort, contentment, the absence of suffering, doesn’t bother him in the slightest.

Of course he has ambitions he hasn’t realized yet, but he lives in the expectation that many of those ambitions will someday be realized.

“And why? I mean, are you in love?”

Roland Oberstein is sitting at his laptop again. There wasn’t one urgent mail in the whole bunch. Still, he needs to reply to them all. He forces himself to be exacting, to provide aftercare. That’s the word for it: aftercare.

There is no reply. “Are you in love with him?” he asks again, the way you might ask: “So how was the movie?”

This conversation is not taking place according to the familiar rituals, and therefore it excites him. Not just in the sexual sense. A few years ago, when he discovered two unknown letters and a postcard signed by Hayek, he had been excited too. Unfortunately, the letters were a disappointment. They would not make him world-famous.

“No, I’m not in love. That’s not why I chose him.”

“Chose him. Did you choose him? Oh. So then why did you go to bed with him? If you don’t mind my asking? If you weren’t in love?”

“Do you have to be in love with someone in order to go to bed with them?”

He thinks about it. He has said things on this subject before. Only he can’t remember exactly what he said. Every now and then he likes to make pronouncements on the subject of sex. Speaking about it is sometimes more gratifying than the deed itself, which is always a confrontation, often imperfect, something that actually can only exist thanks to the power of the imagination.

“No, I don’t think you do,” he says.

“It was a provocation.”

“A what?”

Roland closes his laptop. Usually he can read emails or the paper while he’s on the phone, but not now. It’s late. He’s too tired. He had been drinking a few different wines at the same time, followed by a glass of grappa. But that’s not it. It’s not the grappa, it’s not the wine, nor is it the late hour. It’s the images that he sees, that he generates, his girlfriend naked in the arms of a man. If he stops to analyze the pictures, and analyzing things is what he does, he has to admit that the presence of the other man bothers him less than his own absence. He wasn’t there, that’s what bothers him. He missed something.

“A provocation.”

“Is sex a provocation?” he asks.

“Umm, it can be. Yeah, I think so. Sometimes it is.”

She sounds cheerful, in any case she doesn’t sound sad. She sounds wide awake, too.

“And who needed to be provoked?”

“You.”

“Me? Oh. That explains a lot.”

So he had been there after all. Present in his absence. But it sounds contrived; the analysis—if you could call it that—doesn’t convince him. Where was he while she was lying in that man’s arms?

He waits for her to say something else, but she doesn’t seem like she’s planning to tell him anything else. The conversation has apparently come to an end.

“So what now?” Roland asks.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“What I want you to say?” Violet replies. “Christ, don’t you feel anything? Your girlfriend cheats on you and you ask her: ‘What do you want me to say?’ Is that love? Is that passion? Do you care? Do you care at all about me?”

She doesn’t sound cheerful anymore. She’s talking loudly. His phone is bringing him the penetrating voice of despair.

The day before yesterday, what was he doing the day before yesterday? He was at the conference. There was a dinner. He sat down at a table with two empty chairs. “Is anyone sitting here?” he’d asked. “You are, now,” an older historian had replied jovially, before resuming his monologue on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

Lea had been sitting to the right of him. She had tossed him a few ironic glances during the monologue about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He hadn’t been sure whether the ironic glances referred to the pact, to him, or to the historian who was delivering the monologue.

Halfway through the monologue they had stood up and gone out for a breath of fresh air. Lea had whispered: “I can’t take any more of this.”

“Wasn’t that sort of in bad taste?” he asks.

“What?” Violet says.

“You cheating on me while I was at a conference about the Holocaust, wasn’t that rather disrespectful?”

“What do the two things have to do with each other?”

“Well, quite a bit, I’d say. I’m at a conference about the Holocaust, you’re my girlfriend, and while I’m at that conference listening to readings about the annihilation of European Jewry, while I’m consorting with people who don’t think about anything but that, you cheat on me. Did you tell him that?”

“Who?”

“The man. Your man. The new man.”

“What was I supposed to tell him? He’s not my new man.”

“When you two were lying in bed.”

“That’s right.”

“Did you tell him? My boyfriend is at a conference about the Holocaust.”

“No, of course I didn’t say that.”

“Or weren’t you in bed? Did you do it standing up?”

“I’m not going to answer that. This is just too ridiculous. It’s none of your business.”

“Which bed did you use, anyway?”

“My bed.”

“Your bed. Weren’t there any other beds available? Couldn’t you have gone to his house? Or doesn’t he have a house? Is he homeless?”

“No, he’s not homeless.” She sounds fatigued now. The way she does when he makes jokes that he wouldn’t say around other people, only around her.

“Did you use a condom?”

“Yes. Obviously.”

“It’s not all that obvious. So you had condoms in the house?”

“A couple of old ones lying around.”

“Oh. Does he know you have a boyfriend?”

“Yes, I told him that.”

“What did he say?”

“I suspected as much.”

“Is that all?”

“Are you going to tell him?” Violet says.

“Who?”

“That’s what he asked me. That’s what he said. ‘Are you going to tell him?’ Before he left. He was putting his coat on. Then, suddenly, he said: ‘Are you going to tell him?’”

“And what did you say?”

“Yes.”

Him, that’s him, Roland Oberstein. There was something he needed to be told.

If a customer is to make the right choice, he has to obtain the right information. The problem is that the manufacturer and the seller of the product often know more than the customer. The customer has an information lag, which he must then do away with. At least, that’s the theory.

He is a customer who is now discreetly trying to do away with his information lag.

“And what did he say to that?”

“I wouldn’t want to know.”

“Is that what he said? That he wouldn’t want to know?”

“That’s what he said: I wouldn’t want to know. Those were his words.”

Why wouldn’t you want to know something? Does he want to know about this? How can you be sure that you know everything?

Beside the television is a mirror in which he can see himself. He doesn’t understand why anyone would hang a mirror above a desk.

“Well, then I guess we’ve taken care of that,” Roland says while looking at himself. He doesn’t know whether he sounds lighthearted or is only trying to sound lighthearted. There are days when he considers himself a fairly attractive man. On days like that, he suspects, he exudes a peculiar kind of satisfaction. But he would never describe himself as self-centered. Far from it. Good days are rare. Even for someone who knows that you should want nothing that you cannot get.

“Is that it?” she asks. “Isn’t there anything else you want to say?”

“Anything else? No, I mean, it’s a story. It’s an exciting story. That’s how I see it.”

“Exciting?”

“Yeah.”

“I went to bed with another man, and you see that as an exciting story?”

The way he’s sitting there, his laptop in front of him, holding the telephone, that’s what he sees. Violet thinks he spends too much time looking in the mirror. On occasion she has accused him of being vain, but then who isn’t? Looking in the mirror can also be a sign of insecurity. He looks to make sure he hasn’t missed something, a dab of shaving cream, a crumb, a streak of ink from his ballpoint pen.

Exciting is when the final result is still unknown, but even in the worst of cases remains bearable. A fatal illness is not exciting, because the final result is actually already known. Hoping against hope is tragic, but not exciting.

“Are you crying?” he asks.

“No. Yes. I’m crying a little.”

“That’s turning things on their head,” Roland says. “I’m the one who should be crying.”

Despair takes time, and if there’s one thing he doesn’t have it’s that: time. He should slot it into his organizer. Maybe this winter he can set aside a weekend for despair.

“So why aren’t you crying?”

He thinks about it. The moral superiority of his situation appeals to him.

But he can’t cry. It doesn’t work.

Movies make him cry sometimes. On rare occasions.

“I don’t know,” he says. “Like I said, I see it as an exciting story. The other man. You. The two of you. Naked. The bed. The condom. It’s like porn, but then different. That’s why I’m not crying.”

“That’s absurd.”

“What exactly is absurd?”

“The way you’re reacting.”

Before he goes to bed, he’ll take a shower. A long, hot shower. And then he’ll go to sleep. His plane leaves for home tomorrow morning. He will reflect, he will work, he will answer students’ queries, if necessary with a well-mannered dose of sarcasm. His happiness is imperturbable. His happiness lies in his own imperturbability.

“So how am I supposed to react?”

“I don’t know. That’s up to you. What do you feel? Do you feel anything?”

Roland thinks about it. He hears the toilet flushing in the room next to his. Feel. At a party once, a colleague from another faculty, a teacher of ethics, told him: “You act as though emotions are worthless. A wee bit arrogant.”

He doesn’t like parties. Before you know it you find yourself beleaguered by ethicists who can’t handle their own feelings. Or professors who have ignored you for years but who, in a drunken state, start reeling off an unintelligible monologue.

“What did he have to say about Mr. Bear, anyway?” Roland asks.

“Who?”

“That man. Your man. What did he say about Mr. Bear?”

“He said: What’s that bear doing here? Or something like that. He thought it was funny that there was a bear in my bed.”

“I bet Mr. Bear didn’t like that,” Roland says slowly, almost dreamily. “I bet he didn’t like that one bit.”

from Huid en haar (Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2010).  © Arnon Grunberg. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Sam Garrett. All rights reserved.