“Shelter,” by Nicole Krauss | The New Yorker


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The paradox of personal religion: God has abandoned me, so I’ll pray. On my knees. The sky exploding. And her on her back, gasping from the pain, making use of all the Arabic curses.

Cohen saw the pregnant woman five or six times before they ended up together in the mamak, a room with reinforced-concrete walls, a heavy, sealed window, and a steel vault of a door, that can protect residents from deadly gas, earthquakes, or the blast of rockets, one room on each floor, stacked atop one another, creating a core of safe rooms in the building.

She lived across the hall from the apartment he’d Airbnb’ed. One of those young Tel Avivian women who looked like they’d learned krav maga at the breast, waited enough tables to be able to size up what you wanted, everything you wanted, with a glance, and never apologized. Nose-ringed. Silver-bangled. Carrying low, the way his wife had when she was pregnant with their sons, the younger of whom was now nearly old enough to be drafted, but would never be, since he was not Israeli but American. A boy: the first time he saw her in the hall, the afternoon he arrived from the airport, he’d had the urge to offer her this bit of folksy wisdom that older women had once bestowed on his young and pregnant wife, but she’d passed right by him, used to the constant stream of Americans struggling with the lockbox of WOW! Super Nice Apartment in the Heart of TLV.

A boy, he was sure of it. His wife, his three children—he knew something of these things. He wanted again to tell her when he ran into her two days later at the coffee kiosk around the corner, there in the tree-lined median of the boulevard. For a moment, bewitched by the lack of boundaries that still surprised him every time he returned to Tel Aviv, he thought he might sit down across from her and start a conversation. Maybe she’d want to go with him to see a psychic in Jaffa? Cohen, who was fifty-two, didn’t believe, but there were things he wanted to know. She’d probably have no interest, knowing the future already, being the future incarnate, with the vague superpowers—technologically fostered, but extending beyond technology’s scope—that were the birthright of her generation. He never found out, because, talking into her cell phone as he stood debating with his glass of tea, she looked right through him.

He, too, had been looking right through things. Off the Percocet and the Prozac and down to only the occasional Xanax, he had taken up microdosing psilocybin, which wasn’t addictive, but he had come to rely on it to soften things, to soften him. To help him roll through the days, to add color and texture. On the flight to Tel Aviv, where he’d been sent, by the company that had bought his company, to do due diligence on the potential acquisition of another company, he’d taken what he thought was Ambien but turned out—when the whorls of hair on the man sitting next to him began to divulge their cosmic secrets—to be MDMA, which he’d put in the same pill bottle for the purpose of camouflage at customs. Did the man with the universe in his hair know that he was on a plane? Cohen felt the nearly irrepressible need to tell him and tell him.

To Tel Aviv on business, and to give his wife space, his wife, who, after twenty-five years, might be leaving him. Had betrayed him with a cardiac surgeon, that much was certain. A man who cut open bodies and rearranged the heart as needed, pulled more life out of the muscle than it had been planning to give. The richness of it all was not lost on Cohen. A heart surgeon! The doctor’s own wife had died, and after a sufficient period of mourning he had joined a book club, run under the auspices of the 92nd Street Y, and there, where free bagels were served, he’d met Cohen’s wife. At some point between the last Philip Roth and the next-to-last Amos Oz, Nadine had discovered that the surgeon, despite his loss, could achieve erection, which Cohen, constricted and suppressed and limp from pharmaceuticals, could not. Though still he found—had always found—his wife’s body to be beautiful. The way she moved through a room crowded with people could still arrest him. All that he held against her was vast, immeasurable. But now and always and still: her smell.

The space that had unfurled between Cohen and his wife: half a world. And between Cohen and his death: less than half a life. And between Cohen and Cohen something else had slipped in, courtesy of the perspective of middle age: a hand span of ironic distance. From time to time, with enough psychedelics, he even managed to see himself from above.

For four days, he had been meeting with the heads of the small Israeli company that had developed a facial-recognition technology that drew on the technology his previous company had developed before he and his partner had sold it—cheaply, at an early stage, to a far larger company. Cohen had gone to work for the acquiring company as part of a vestment schedule. In these past years, the job had become a golden cage. It paid well, if not extremely well—not the riches he might pursue if he were daring enough to try to start another company. But, more insidiously, it was easy. He didn’t have to work very hard to be seen as doing a good job by people who didn’t really understand what he did. Only Cohen knew how little effort he was making. Knew that his imagination was drying up. That he was coloring inside the lines, increasingly pragmatic about what he could do, and less motivated to think about what he might. Meanwhile, he’d watched all the bold ideas he’d once had get taken up by other companies that were actually able to follow through on them. Whereas there was very little tangible evidence that Cohen had achieved anything significant at the large company where he now worked, certainly nothing that he could hang his hat on outside it. Those within the company who had been impressed by his early ideas and looked to him as a sort of savant were fewer and fewer. Sure, he had accomplished some small, incremental things, just enough to keep him from entirely abandoning hope that his “efforts” might ultimately amount to something. And this was sufficient to convince him—even as his vague ambitions were dissolving, and his expectations for himself eroding, even as time was speeding up—that he might not have it as good somewhere else, and, in any case, would have to work too hard to find out.

“Remember—never shake on it until they show you the treat.”

Cartoon by Elisabeth McNair

On Thursday, after a long day of meetings, Cohen went out to have a drink with Gal, who at thirty was the oldest of the founders of the Israeli company, and the most brilliant. Things were looking good, Cohen told him, he would send back a positive report. He expected Gal to be excited by this news, but the younger man remained reserved and thoughtful. He had hair the color of the desert, watery blue eyes, and an occasional stutter that he mostly managed to suppress but that some part of Cohen—the part that was the victim of his own feats of suppression—inwardly rooted for, feeling a charge of joy whenever the conversation came to a sudden halt, caught in the jaws of the wild beast that wished to wrestle the word away from Gal. Cohen saw in the younger man something of the talent he’d once had, but it was this private, internal conflict that Gal had no choice but to publicly endure that most warmed Cohen to him.

The bar was on a rooftop, and in the distance, between the pale-yellow buildings, was a slice of the sea. The sun was going down, and the light grew soft and resplendent. Gal was expecting his first child in three months, and Cohen regaled him with charming anecdotes about his own children’s early years, omitting the difficult parts. He was older, he had already gone much farther down the road in life, and he felt the urge to reassure the younger man about the view from where he was, about the solidity of early promise. Twisting in his seat, he waved the waitress down and ordered another round of drinks. As he raised his glass, he almost had faith in what he was peddling, and it was only out of the corner of his eye that he caught a flash of the sword that swung above him.

Friday morning Cohen e-mailed his report, and at midday, the city slowing down for Shabbat, his depression catching up to him, he nibbled at a golden hunk of psilocybin he had got from Gal—been gifted by Gal, as he’d heard the young people say—and went to walk on the beach. And there it was, all over again: the bright, pellucid beauty of the world. The sun’s warmth on his skin, as if for the first time. All the anxiety dried up, replaced by the peace that had presupposed everything, which sobriety always obscured. Hours passed. Cohen, feet in the shallow water, lost his intimacy with failure. The red sun began to sink into the sea. Cohen lost himself, too, in reverie; the exquisite, intricate order of things, and the things behind things, and the non-things, the interconnectedness of it all, the goodness, was so breathtaking that tears filled his eyes. In that vast order he, too, had a place; he was woven into it. No, he was not lost; on the contrary, he would be shown the way if he only opened himself to the signs.

Lying on his back on the warm sand, swan-diving inward, he didn’t notice when his bag was lifted by a quick and graceful man who’d been watching him from the break wall. When Cohen at last opened his eyes, there was only a concave dent in the sand where the bag had been. Money gone, keys. His cell phone was in his pocket, but, after powering it back on, he could not think of whom to call. In the cruddy mirror of the bathroom at Banana Beach, he saw his pale and sweaty face, his crazed hair. The hair he still had, because the men in his family never lost their hair. That much he was keeping.

He let himself into the building with the code. In the darkened lobby, his phone screen glowing, he searched for the e-mail chain that would allow him to contact Hila, his Airbnb host, for a spare set of keys. He was drifting down, languid, exhaustion creeping into his limbs. Climbing the stairs, he took forever. He thought of knocking on the pregnant woman’s door, to ask if he could wait inside until he heard back from Hila. Would her husband be home? Her boyfriend, whatever: the father. Cohen had seen him, too. As young as she, but lacking her presence and beauty. Soon to lose his hair, Cohen had noted. He approached their door, stickered with millennial crap—music shows, pole dancing, Japanese anime—and was about to bring his knuckles down when he discovered a photo of the couple taped there in the middle. Cohen studied it, studied her face softened by pastel desert light, and dropped his fist. Turning, he caught sight of the metal door to the mamak, with its signage for three or four kinds of disaster. He pulled it open and breezed in. Hard, dusty mats lay rolled in a corner, as if waiting for him. The tiny, impeccable justices of the world. He unrolled one and lay down, and with a last thought of Nadine’s face—her face as it had looked reflected in the window that evening two months earlier, when he’d come upon her speaking to her lover on the phone—he drifted off.

Woken, or half woken, by—a scream? A siren? In his fantasia, Cohen imagined missiles, anti-missiles. He sat up, rubbing his eyes. Staggering to the door, he opened it and found her leaning on the railing, cursing, digging through her bag. Her gray sweatpants were stained black in the crotch and down one leg. He tried to ask if she was all right. Bathed in vague confusion, he wanted to ask if what he had heard was a missile, but reading her face he had the wherewithal to grasp that it would not be a welcome question. She had been in bed, she explained in heavily accented English. And when she turned she felt something pop in her pelvis, and the rush of fluid down her leg. Cohen thought he heard another blast, though it might have been construction work outside, or a pure product of his mind, freshly returned from alternate realities. She exclaimed in Hebrew, threw up her hands, and dropped her phone. Cohen watched as it bounced, as if in slow motion, and the screen shattered. He rubbed his face, trying to smear away what was left of his high. He tried to focus. Tried to remember the protocol. To remember what he had done right, if he had done anything right, when his wife had gone into labor. Quickly—was it quickly?—he unrolled another mat and she eased herself down onto her back, the dome of her belly pulsing, enormous.