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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss



Epstein, new again to everything—new to the blazing white light off the waves, to the crying of the muezzin at dawn, new to the loss of appetite, to the body lightening, to a release from order, to the departing shore of the rational, new again to miracles, to poetry—took an apartment where he would never have lived in a thousand years, had he been living a thousand years, which, new again most of all to himself, he might have been. The sun didn’t wake him because he was already awake, the windows all thrown open so that the waves sounded as if they were crashing right inside his room. Agitated, pacing barefoot, he discovered that the whole floor sloped toward the shower drain, as if the house had been built for a time when the sea would finally try to drown it. The agent had barely unlocked the door when Epstein announced he would take it, offering three months’ rent in cash on the spot. In his polished shoes, he must have looked out of place in the broken-down apartment, which is to say, perfectly fitting the part. How many times had the agent seen him? The wealthy American, come to Israel to dip into the rich, authentic Jewish vein all those US dollars have gone to protect, so that he knows it’s still alive over here and doesn’t have to regret too much; come to turn himself on again in the bracing atmosphere of Middle Eastern passion. The agent had already been shrewd enough to inflate the rent, while claiming to be giving him a special deal as a friend of Yael’s. But one look at Epstein’s rapture as he surrendered to the horizon and he regretted not raising it higher. Still, he knew better than to trust the first flush of American enthusiasm. Knew how they came, and for a week fell in love with the urgency and the argument and the warmth, with the way everyone sits in the cafés and talks and gets into each other’s lives; the way that even if on the outside Israel is obsessed with borders, on the inside it lives without boundaries. How there’s no disease of loneliness here, and every taxi driver is a prophet, and every salesman at the shouk will tell you the story of his brother and his wife, and next thing you know the guy behind you in line is chiming in, and soon enough the crummy quality of the towels doesn’t matter anymore, because the stories and the mess and the craziness—all that life!—are so much more essential. They come to Tel Aviv and find it so sexy, the sea and the strength, the nearness to violence and the hunger for life, and how, even if Israelis are living in an existential crisis all the time, and sense their country is lost, at least they live in a world where everything still matters and is worth fighting for. Most of all, they fall in love with how they feel here. This is where we come from, they think as they duck through the tunnels under the Western Wall, slink through the tunnels dug by Bar Kochba, scale Masada, stand in Levantine sunlight, hike the Judean, camp in the Negev, come to the Kinneret, where the children that could have been their own grow up wild and barefoot and related to the past mostly through acts of discontinuity: It’s this that we didn’t know we missed.

But the agent knew well that after a week or two they start to feel differently, these Americans. The strength starts to stink of aggression, and the directness becomes pushy, it begins to grate how Israelis don’t have any manners, how they have no respect for personal space, no respect for anything, and doesn’t anyone do anything in Tel Aviv aside from sit around talking and going to the beach? The city really is a shithole, isn’t it, everything that isn’t new is falling apart, the whole place smells of cat piss, there’s a sewage problem right under the window and no one can come for a week, and actually Israelis are impossible to deal with, so stubborn and intractable, so frustratingly immune to logic, so damn rude, and it turns out most of them don’t care for anything Jewish, their grandparents and parents ran as far away from it as they could, and the ones that do care, they’re over the top, those settlers, totally out of their minds, and frankly the whole country is a bunch of Arab-hating racists. And so just in the nick of time, before they put down the deposit on a two-bedroom in the new glass high-rise going up over Neve Tzedek, it’s back in the cab to the airport with their suitcases fragrant with za’atar and laden with silver Judaica from Hazorfim, and their Lexus keys newly hung on a hamsa.

And so the agent, lighting a cigarette, letting the smoke curl out his mouth and inhaling it back through his nostrils, squinted at his well-heeled client and said it was a deal if he was willing to drive to the ATM right then and there. He had his motorbike parked in front, he added, cracking open a window so that the smell of the sea could help Epstein think. But Epstein didn’t need to think, and five minutes later he was clutching the agent’s waist as they flew over the potholes, not caring a bit if someone somewhere might confuse him for a cliché.

That evening, the sky going orange to violet, Epstein stood shirtless before the sea and felt an exuberance, a birdlike freedom, and believed that he at last understood what all his giving up and giving away had been in service of: This sea. This lightness. This hunger. This ancientness. This flexibility to become a person drunk on the colors of Jaffa, waiting for his cell phone to illuminate with a message from the other side; from a larger existence; from Moses on Mount Sinai who had seen it all and was hurrying down now to tell him; from a woman to whom he had nothing left but himself to give; from the people he had entreated to deliver four hundred thousand trees to a barren mountainside in the desert.

His days became diffuse. The line between water and sky was lost; the line between himself and the world. He watched the waves, and felt himself to be also endless, repeating, filled with unseen life. The lines from the books on his table swam up from the pages before his eyes. At dusk, he would go out and walk, agitated, waiting, lost among the narrow streets, until, turning a corner and coming upon the sea all over again, he was unskinned.