Aleksy, who is not a hero by any stretch of the imagination, wakes to the sound of retching. Iwona is ill in their bathroom. Aleksy is afraid she will wake either his sister, Wiesława, or his colicky nephew, Lew, both of whom sleep in the second bedroom off the kitchen. Aleksy is nervous because tonight he and Iwona will meet that renowned Jew, Doctor Jakub Feinman. A great man. In the technikum high school where the teenage Aleksy trained as an IT specialist, they read about the doctor, about his ghetto fights, and to this day it is difficult for Aleksy to conceive of him as the sort of human being one has over for dinner. It takes Americans, Rabbi and Pani Craner, to befriend a man like Doctor Feinman. In their blithe American way, they think nothing of dining with him at home, Aleksy and Iwona the only other guests.
Iwona heaves more wetly now. A splash in the toilet. Aleksy can’t help thinking about morning sickness, which afflicted Wiesława during her pregnancy. She thinks her morning sickness had a human source—the evil eye, the curse of some jealous spinster from her place on Ulika Jakuba. Wiesława is, depending on the day, an old-fashioned Polish Catholic or a functioning lunatic, conflating the New Testament and folklore in her worldview. All of which is to say that although she believes in the eye, she’s also devoted to her god. Yesterday, she texted Aleksy photos of the black-clad women who passed beneath her bedroom window. Look at these whores on strike. They’d kill the baby Jesus. I hope you go to work like a normal person. Aleksy responded with a picture of a dog someone had dressed in a black sweater.
Iwona spews one last time. Aleksy used to go to her when she got sick like this, until she told him it made her feel embarrassed. Now, instead of fussing, he says, “Will you live?”
So Aleksy lies on his back and lets his mind continue to wander: vomiting, evil eye, Iwona, mothers, sisters. His sister, Wiesława. When it became clear she’d have to move in with him in his flat in Łódź, Aleksy was forced to admit Iwona was already staying there. That was five months ago. Evil eye.
Lew is crying now, his steady baby cry. It’s not loud, just constant. Wiesława rouses and rolls over on her creaky mattress. Iwona is still in the bathroom, taking deep breaths to calm the spasms in her stomach. They live so closely, so cramped, Aleksy can hear everything. Is this what the ghetto was like? No, the ghetto was worse, and to make any comparison is an insult to Doctor Feinman.
“Please shut the fuck up, please.” Wiesława’s voice comes through the wall, though it’s impossible to tell if she’s talking to Iwona or Lew. Probably Iwona, whom Wiesława resents for never having gotten knocked up. Yes, Iwona’s sick this morning, but not sick with a baby. She’s just hung over because she and Aleksy went to the Craners’ house for drinks last night, after the protest, and helped put away whole bottles of wódka. Craner compared Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Poland’s new conservative party, to the crazy Republicans of America, but then Iwona, who speaks with so many Americans when she’s giving tours of the Jewish cemetery, corrected him. PiS is like the Republicans in its denial of rights for gays and immigrants and women, but PiS is unlike the Republicans in its generosity, handing out stipends for dependent children and lowering the age of retirement.
This morning, Aleksy tests his body, wiggles his fingers, and makes certain he, personally, does not need to throw up. No one thing, it occurs to him, is perfectly like another. PiS supporters are not Republicans, because Poland is not America. PiS supporters are not Nazis, because, well, he’s not sure. It’s hard to think over his apartment’s noises for too long. Iwona gargles with saltwater, but not quietly enough. Lew is still crying, and Wiesława’s voice comes through the wall again. “You’re in league with the Devil. It’s the only reason you won’t shut the fuck up.”
Aleksy feels sympathy for his sister, who is a pain lately, but only because she’s angry and she never gets to sleep anymore. He’ll watch the baby for her this weekend, he tells himself. She can pass out all day tomorrow, Saturday.
Iwona was still wearing black at the Craners’, a black sweater and black lipstick that made her pale skin radiate. Aleksy found himself desperate to get her home, lift the sweater up over the luminous moons of her breasts. He’s terrified about PiS, these people who will not admit what everybody knows, that eighty years ago so many in Łódź desired nothing more than to murder their Jewish neighbors. These people who might create a financial crisis, if the international papers are to be believed. These people who would watch women like Iwona, like Wiesława, bleed out. Abortion has always been banned, but now it will be more so. No exceptions for incest, none for rape. Not even if the baby is already dead, or the mother will be.
Evil, but Aleksy is only a man. Some ignoble part of him hopes for another deathly law, another protest, as soon as possible, so Iwona can dress up in black again. Thinking about it excites him, so by the time he hears the flush with which his beloved banishes her vomit to the new wastewater treatment plant north of town, the footsteps that carry her back to bed, he’s ready. Lew’s cries still fill the apartment, but this is good, because it will distract Wiesława.
“You know what’s great for a hangover?” He has no clothes to take off, because he sleeps naked. He lifts up the quilt so Iwona can see his erection.
“You have no shame.” She sweeps her straw-like hair behind her neck and opens her threadbare robe. “Twenty minutes. We have work.” She crawls under the quilt on top of him, her thighs wrapped around his waist.
Aleksy kisses her so she can’t talk more; she tastes like mouthwash. He doesn’t care about his job. Before he met Iwona, he was often late. Since they’ve moved in together, all he wants is this: her panting in his ear, her hands kneading his shoulders. To stay home with her all day, every day, a fantasy Wiesława and her baby have not quite managed to disrupt.
On the bedside table lies the journalist Hanna Krall’s interview with Doctor Feinman, one of few interviews the doctor has ever given. Last week, when Aleksy first heard he’d be meeting the doctor, he went out and bought a copy to read during the long, boring stretches at work. As a result of this reading, he finds himself having the most intrusive thoughts. For example, now, in bed with his girlfriend, he wonders if the doctor ever stopped resisting Nazis to indulge in the physical act of love. There are pages and pages devoted to the idea that only being attached to another person could save the Warszava fighters, and yet, so far, Doctor Feinman doesn’t tell Krall whether he himself had a woman in the ghetto. There is vague mention of an Elżbieta, but Aleksy can’t remember who that’s supposed to be. Was she in the first book, the one he read in the technikum? Has he forgotten so much?
Aleksy catches his thoughts trailing off and forces himself to focus again on Iwona, the sex they are having here and now. She smells like soap and looks like a princess from the book of fairy tales his mother used to read at bedtime. She is bringing Aleksy’s body back to life.
“You think I don’t know what you’re doing? You’re both disgusting.” Wiesława’s definitely talking to them now. Aleksy tries to keep going anyway, ignoring his sister the way he always had to when they were teenagers, when he’d brought some girl from the technikum home to the cramped apartment he and Wiesława and their mother shared. He pumps his hips upward, but Iwona’s already rolling her eyes, rolling off him. It’s cruel, the way she can go about her business.
“Where the fuck were you yesterday? Don’t tell me you went on the fucking strike. You’re not even a fucking woman.” Stanisław looks at Aleksy with his evil eye, loose cheeks flapping, spittle raining.
“I called in, remember? Sick to my stomach.”
“You were out there in the streets with all those baby-killing bitches. You’re trying to make me fire you so your poor sister drops dead of grief.” Stanisław and Wiesława go to the same church, which is how Aleksy got this job.
“I’m not trying to make my sister drop dead.” Aleksy fantasizes about having some sort of power, the power of a curse. He’d like to give the evil eye back to his boss, make Stanisław’s blood curdle.
He tries it, just for a second.
“What are you looking at? You need to take a shit?” Stanisław sits back down in front of his shiny Macintosh and opens up a game of solitaire. The computer is to better keep track of all the records in the dank city-owned basement in which they toil: the signed and dated licenses of long-dead shop owners, the maps of sewer systems that no longer exist, the least useful papers to survive, in some cases, multiple wars. Within the year, Aleksy suspects, he will be given a scanner and asked to digitize all the documents, a task Stanisław could never complete on his own. When this is done, Stanisław will get a transfer to another office, and Aleksy will get a better-paying job with one of the call centers that have sprung up lately, all over Łódź and the rest of Poland.
Until then Aleksy has nothing to do, and no computer at his desk. He uses his house key to pick the grit out from underneath his fingernails, so Doctor Feinman doesn’t find him disgusting at dinner. The papers molder behind Aleksy in their cardboard boxes, on their metal shelves—they smell like old books. He wonders if Doctor Feinman will be bothered. Of course, Rabbi and Pani Craner have said the doctor won’t care about anyone’s fingernails, about anyone’s smell, that he doesn’t think of himself as the sort of man for whom young people get dressed up, that he hates to be praised for a war hero or badgered for sage advice. That he isn’t an oracle but a cranky senior, no more special for the losing battles he once fought on the streets of Warszava. Aleksy can’t tell how much of this disclaimer is Doctor Feinman’s own reticence and how much is the Craners’ stubborn American informality. He’ll stop in the work bathroom at the end of the day to change into a white button-down shirt, slick his hair back, and swish with mouthwash.
Stanisław thumps his hand on his desk. He’s won his game of solitaire. “You look nervous. Seeing your boyfriend tonight?”
Aleksy doesn’t take the bait. “I’m going to a dinner.”
“Your sister’s taking you outside looking like that?” Stanisław points at Aleksy’s bare ankles, the place where his work pants are most obviously the wrong size and cut.
“My sister isn’t invited,” Aleksy says.
“So it’s just you and your boyfriend.” Stanisław bats his eyes and makes kissing noises.
“You know what? You caught me. I’m attending an orgy at Klub Ganimedes.” Aleksy puckers his lips at his boss. “Join us?”
Stanisław throws a stack of papers at Aleksy—blank records-request invoices—but misses. The papers land on the floor between their desks. “Pick that up,” he says, and starts a new game of solitaire.
Aleksy does not pick up the papers, but he considers it. He’s feeling restless. It’s hard not to picture Iwona and Pani Craner, how they are leading schoolchildren through the Park of the Rescued. The kids are just like Aleksy and Wiesława used to be: curious, bright, hungry sometimes, but not as often as Aleksy and Wiesława were hungry growing up. They’re from Baluty and Old Town, their streets criss-crossing the ruins of a ghetto they’ve never heard of. When the tour is done Iwona and the children will make chalka, just like Aleksy’s mother used to make. The Jews make the stuff, too, and call it challah. All over the world, the Jews of Israel and the Jews of Argentina, but not the Jews of Łódź, not anymore, because they have been so thoroughly decimated, because they have fled to places where no evil eye can find them. There is only Rabbi Craner, who had to be imported, and Doctor Feinman, and the several middle-aged ladies Aleksy’s met because they work at the cemetery with Iwona.
It’s not yet noon. Stanisław stares at the screen. Aleksy’s nails shine. Nobody comes through the door. They never do.
He takes Krall’s book out from his bag and reads at his desk. The best way to describe this book is as a collection of tiny stories from the doctor’s life, juxtaposed for maximum effect: a successful postwar career as a heart surgeon, notes on the process of starvation in ghetto children, machine guns in the streets. The anecdote about the woman whose blood flow had to be reversed in an unproven, as-yet-undiscovered procedure. A Jewish girl raped by Ukrainian guards while hundreds lay prone on the floor around her. The ghetto policemen who were later executed by resisters. Aleksy is most moved by the story of the barrel, a story from before the ghetto existed. Doctor Feinman watched as a stooped Jew was placed atop the barrel by tall, uniformed Germans. This Jew didn’t fight, and neither did Feinman. The Germans had shears, which they used to hack away at his beard. It’s funny these things happen, that armed soldiers are so fixated on the facial hair of strangers. Passersby were laughing.
He closes the book and looks around, antsy. In the office, the clock inches forward. Still not noon, but closer. Ten minutes. Stanisław wins another game, thumps his hand on the table again. Opens up the internet. Aleksy can’t make out which website he’s visiting.
It occurs to Aleksy that he also laughed at an injured Jew, just yesterday, during the protest, though the circumstances were more excusable. He and Rabbi Craner held up a sign, but the sign blew back in the wind, bopping Rabbi Craner on the nose. Craner said, “Fucking Christ,” which is a funny thing for a rabbi to say, so Aleksy laughed. They both did.
But yesterday is not today. Today, the evil eye casts its glance upon his happiness, which wilts. Men like Stanisław are not just his boss, but the bosses of Poland. Their foot soldiers are women like Wiesława. And for what? The child stipend? She’s perfectly capable of holding a job. She used to clean rich people’s homes for the second-best maid service in Łódź. The day she realized she was pregnant, she spewed a spectacular, filthy arc of half-digested breakfast kanapka across a rich person’s kitchen tiles and had to scrub the whole thing again.
She told Iwona about the kanapka one night, shortly after the three of them and Lew began living together, during that magical week when Aleksy thought everybody might get along. But Iwona didn’t understand why throwing up in a rich person’s house was funny. “Why did you keep it, if you were so sick?” she asked.
“Not it. Him.” Lew was lying in Wiesława’s lap. She licked her thumb, then used it to rub behind his ear, where he gathered lint. It was only later, while Aleksy lay in bed, the sleeping Iwona beside him, that his phone beeped: Tell her my baby is not a thing.
He should encourage Wiesława to find her own place. He’d like to be more like Doctor Feinman. He’d like to shoot all oppressors, but who are the oppressors anyway? Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, certainly, but PiS is many people—from Jarosław Kaczyński, who appears on the news with his too-tight, too-pressed suits, all the way down to Stanisław. Aleksy’s elderly mother, who was for PiS before she passed. PiS supporters cannot be Nazis, then, because Aleksy hates Nazis and he loved his mother.
Doctor Feinman is not an oracle, but Aleksy needs to ask someone what to do with an oppressor who is your family, a mother who was kind and then passed away, a sister who is more overwhelmed than evil, who won’t reveal the identity of her baby’s father and won’t talk to psychiatrists. Who appears, most of the time, to be fine, so fine even Aleksy can forget she’s not. Who oppresses only because of her own pain. Or does that not matter? Is he supposed to fire a gun at half the people he knows?
Noon finally arrives, but before Aleksy can take his book to the milk bar around the corner, Wiesława bursts into the basement. “Surprise! We brought you lunch.” She wraps her sharp right arm around his shoulders and kisses each cheek. Lew, in the crook of her left arm, is smooshed between them. She must have caught a bus all the way here, and with the baby. Aleksy knows he should recognize the long ride as a sign of his sister’s love, but he’s frustrated. He wants her to be this friendly with him at home, in front of Iwona. He wants her to hug Iwona.
“Good day, Pan Lewandowski,” Wiesława says.
Stanisław hacks up some phlegm. “Good day, Pani Nowicki.”
Aleksy ushers her back to the break room, where they sit on padded chairs that were once gray but are now stained a sort of mottled brown. Between them is a sticky plastic table, on which Wiesława places Lew. The eye with which she regards him is not exactly evil but not exactly loving either. “So you skipped work yesterday. Is Pan Lewandowski mad?” From her purse, she pulls a Tupperware container of cucumber soup. Honeyed ribs wrapped in wax paper, the best food her tool of guilt. Lew is more awake than usual, and bats at the paper.
“I told him I was sick.” Aleksy can’t look at her—some failure of manhood, some further proof he is not Feinman—so he looks at Lew. The baby reaches out a hand. He might be trying to point at Aleksy, only he hasn’t mastered his fingers.
“That Jewish cow.” Wiesława curls her bottom lip, and Aleksy notices how chapped the skin is, raw and chipping. “Only a year and you’re ready to murder babies for her. She’s cast a love spell on you. There’s a willow in the courtyard; that’s how.”
“Iwona’s not even Jewish.” Aleksy sticks one of the ribs in his mouth. It’s never worked to tell Wiesława she’s crazy, so he tries to sound tough. “Look, you cooked this in my kitchen. In my home. Where I let you live. Don’t pick on my girlfriend.”
“Whatever.” Wiesława unspools the swaddling cloth in which Lew is wrapped, as if she hasn’t even heard. “Tell your cow we could get along if only she made less noise in the morning.” When Lew is free, giggling in his diaper, she lifts him so he’s eye to eye with Aleksy, nose to nose.
“Your baby smells wonderful,” Aleksy says.
“Except when he smells terrible.” She takes her son back, yanks on the side of the diaper, and peeks inside. “We’re safe just now, though. Take him. Tell me how glad you are he was born.”
So Aleksy holds Lew drooling on the shoulder of his work outfit, and at the same time he rubs his sister’s shoulder. “Of course, I’m glad he was born. But I worry. You look like someone punched you.” It’s true, she does. The bags under her eyes are purple and yellow, her whole body sick from sleeplessness.
“I only got three hours last night.” Suspended in her words is an acknowledgment that something might be causing her to lash out—at him, at Iwona, at the women who march. “If you worry about me so much, you should watch him tonight.” She looks up at Aleksy with eyes that could melt the brittle steel frame of this building. “Come on, I made you lunch.”
“I’m so sorry.” He is sorry. He’s in pain just saying the words. Will this make her worse? Is he not taking good enough care? Would his mother disapprove? And yet, he can’t be free for Wiesława all the time; she should learn that. The baby is still on his shoulder, making fussy, gaspy baby noises, so Aleksy dances back and forth, back and forth. “Iwona’s boss has a famous guest tonight, but tomorrow we’ll take Lew to the park. All day.”
“Figures the Jews won’t let me get any rest.” Wiesława rubs her eyes—tired, or weepy, or both. “You aren’t mad at me lately, are you?”
Aleksy is absolutely mad at her lately, but now is not the time to say so. “I adore you, Wieska. Nobody’s mad. It’s just I’ve got to get back to work soon.” Aleksy hates himself. “You know you don’t have to cook for me.” Lew’s gaspy noises become a full-blown cry, then Aleksy feels a wet heat on his back. Spit-up. He deserves it.
The Jews, Rabbi Craner has explained, do not think of the evil eye as a curse administered by an individual. Rather, it is a force, natural like thunder or soil. It’s in the air, seeking love to destroy. You cannot tell someone you adore them, because the eye will rain down a pogrom on your village. You cannot kiss your nephew’s full cheeks or let your sister feed you lunch. You can never enjoy yourself. That is how the Jewish evil eye works. They call it the eyn hore.
When PiS won an absolute majority, Iwona said, “Fuck everything, there goes
my life’s work.” But then she bounced back. Something always comes through for her. She’ll do a cemetery tour for a pack of Israeli émigrés, and they’ll generously tip this Polish girl who has taken time to de-vandalize their people’s graves, and she’ll spend the tip money on some frivolous gift, a bottle of cologne or a trip to the Muzeum Sztuki. There is no ill fortune she can’t surmount. If the evil eye is a curse or a grudge, if it’s inevitable, none of this matters. She’s immune.
Women. Doctor Feinman was not going to be a doctor, not until a woman, an optimist, came along to chart his course. The war ended, and he had no idea what to do with himself, so he wandered from city to city. He was adrift, the way Aleksy sometimes feels adrift, except that’s not right at all. It was a more legitimate kind of adriftness, because where Aleksy only gets depressed about the state of the world, Doctor Feinman saw actual torture and death. And then he was snapped out of it, the same way Aleksy was snapped out of it, this morning and so many times before. It was the doctor’s wife, Ala, who registered him for medical school.
Aleksy reads about Ala just as his workday ends, and he feels that Ala is some consolation for the roughness of the doctor’s life, the bad things he was forced to do, or to witness. There was the prostitute who fed the Warzawa fighters and snuck them out through the sewers, by a route that only she knew, but Doctor Feinman wouldn’t let her go with them. Why not? He simply admits to Krall that he told the prostitute to go back to the nearly liquidated ghetto, and she did. Like Wiesława, she won’t beg.
He closes the book a final time and sticks it in the interior pocket of his coat. Perhaps what he and Feinman have in common is not just this habit of being rescued by women, but something darker. They’ve both been shits to women, Wiesława and the unnamed prostitute, and so merit the evil eye’s attention. Why pretend to be faultless? Aleksy, like his hero, might be a disappointment. He might.
It doesn’t help that Wiesława was such a good sport, just before she left. She said that’s what babies do, and it’s no big deal. She said if he really promised to watch Lew tomorrow, she could wait that long. She said to invite her next time he’s having dinner with a famous person, but she still didn’t ask who that famous person was. She chatted with Stanisław on her way out.
Stanisław. He hacks up more phlegm, wipes the phlegm on his sleeve, and wipes the sleeve on his own pants. “You’re an asshole, Nowicki. Your poor sister. Have fun at the orgy.”
Aleksy cleans himself up in the bathroom, mouthwash, hair, new shirt. He tried, earlier, to wipe off all the spit up, but he can still smell it and the doctor will be able to smell it. Not the gentle smell of old papers after all, but a sourness that clings.
“Your sister’s not right in the head.” Iwona tells him this as if it were news. They’re at the bus stop on the way to the Craners’, to meet Doctor Feinman.
“You should have heard the things she said about you!” But Aleksy doesn’t really want to talk about his sister. “Tell me about your day,” he says. He wants to hear what happens out there in the world of the living, with the kids from his old neighborhood and Pani Craner, everyone so clear-headed and curious. He’s exhausted, not physically, but he needs Iwona to soothe him.
Instead, she’s stuck on the thing with Wiesława. “I’m sure it was filth, Aleksy. She’s always saying filth about me, but I still feel sorry for her. She’s had a difficult time. She’s only a little crazy. Don’t detach.”
“Watch me.” He’s not even sure what he means, what this conversation is about. Does Iwona think he’s prone to detachment?
“Did Stanisław pick on you again?”
“It’s not like that. Stanisław doesn’t pick on me.” Why won’t she just talk about her day? Aleksy’s aware of the outdoors, the park around the corner, the fresher air, which is always a relief after a day in his basement. The coolness of his city’s sky, the way the air spirals down to him. Iwona’s lavender hand lotion, which tickles his nose.
The bus to the Craners’ house arrives, and they get on. Aleksy feels even more exhausted from Iwona’s questions, her habit of guessing his feelings, the way she’s usually right. He keeps his mouth shut, saving his energy for Doctor Feinman. The bus takes a wide turn while he and Iwona hang from their straps. They lean so close he almost falls into her. What does Iwona know about family obligation? Her parents are so reasonable, so fun and cosmopolitan. They live in Warszava, Doctor Feinman’s city. They own a thousand books. Once a week, a maid comes to dust the books’ spines one by one by one. What can Iwona understand, then, about a sister like Wiesława?
They stand in silence on the bus until it reaches its destination, then they walk in silence to the Craners’ front door, as Iwona cheerfully ignores his sulk. Once they arrive, Aleksy will feel most keenly the pangs of jealousy he gets, more often than he’d like to admit, for people who grew up with money. The Americans live not in a flat but in a real house, one with three stories. They have something they call a “man cave” in their basement, with a flat-screen TV mounted on the wall, as wide as any TV Aleksy has ever seen.
Rabbi Craner took Aleksy down there once and explained that his parents had paid for the furnishings in the man cave as a sort of gift, when he left the US. “I just kind of relax down here and think about them, my mom and dad,” the rabbi had said, and Aleksy struggled against his resentment. But it didn’t work. If he could have cursed the rabbi in that moment, he would have. Aleksy only ever thinks about his mother when he’s alone, in the shower, where Iwona can’t ask what’s wrong.
When he and Iwona arrive at the Craners’ house in just ten minutes, he will lift up an ornate door knocker and Pani Craner will meet them in one of the baggy but somehow glamorous outfits she brought from America. Iwona will compliment the outfit, and Aleksy will be too awed by the presence of Doctor Feinman to remember he’s annoyed with his girlfriend. They will both be drawn into conversation, as everybody is with the Craners, then they will find themselves talking to each other. He can feel it coming on, even now. Iwona is right; he should remember that his sister, all of Poland, even Stanisław, has had a difficult time. Nobody is quite themselves.
The Doctor Feinman in the book recounts death after death after death. The book is suffering, every possible culmination of evil eye. The Doctor Feinman who sits beside Aleksy at the table chews the chalkah-challah made by Iwona’s cemetery tour kids earlier that day. He has sharp, dark eyes, set deep into his skull. He sits in his electric wheelchair with dark hairs growing out of his ears and white fluffs of hair on his head. The candles have been lit, and glasses of wine consumed, and Feinman seems sleepy. Rabbi Craner is trying to engage him in a conversation about Iwona, the hard work she puts in every weekend keeping the headstones of Feinman’s friends pristine.
“A remarkable young lady,” he says without feeling, without even looking her way. The conversation lulls. Aleksy thinks maybe the doctor is avoiding his eyn hore. Maybe he’s scared to call attention to himself with too much dinner conversation, or by having a good time with the Craners. If Aleksy had killed many Nazis but also let the prostitute die, if he were this man he’s been reading about all day, he’d be waiting, even now, for the other shoe to drop.
Pani Craner says, “Be right back,” though it’s not clear who she’s talking to, and gets the wódka from the kitchen, along with gołąbki and mashed potatoes, a light salad. She’s taken to cooking the more complicated Polish dishes. If Wiesława were here, she could render a verdict on this latest recipe’s success more authoritatively than Aleksy and Iwona can. Iwona, especially, is more the type to boil pasta while Wiesława tut-tuts from the couch.
“Did any of you go to the protests yesterday?” Feinman asks.
“All of us.” Pani Craner glops some potatoes onto his plate. “We believe in a woman’s right to choose.”
“It’s more than that,” Feinman says. “The choice is important, but it’s more than that. Women are human, and humans must take back their bodies from the state.”
The Craners look bashful, but what did they expect? Feinman is a genuine Bundist. “I’m not sure I follow,” Rabbi Craner ventures. “Are you saying abortion isn’t a women’s issue?”
“I’m saying it’s more than a women’s issue.” The doctor pours himself a glass of wódka. “They don’t have many socialists in America, huh?” He raises the glass. “Chluśniem, bo uśniem.”
Aleksy only means to liven things up, or maybe after all his reading today he’s come to believe that the man in Krall’s book is the only one who can answer his most burning questions. He’s been specifically warned not to, but he asks anyway: “Speaking of abortion,” he says, “can I ask your advice about my sister?”
Iwona gives him a little kick under the table. The Craners, as Americans do when they are preparing to be offended, purse their lips and look to the side.
“Doctor Feinman doesn’t like to give life advice,” says Rabbi Craner. “Right?”
“I’m not a wise man. Does your sister need heart surgery? That’s all I’m good for.” The doctor tips back his wódka and downs it with alarming speed.
This only makes Aleksy more determined to get his question out, now, before Feinman is too drunk to answer. “She’s nuts, but she’s also a diehard right winger, even more so since her son was born. She thinks if Iwona and I go to the protests, we must be thinking of her, how she shouldn’t have had her baby.”
The Craners are looking at Aleksy, their mouths set in two perfectly straight lines, and Iwona is looking at her plate.
“Why do you ask me? I’m not a psychiatrist.” The doctor makes a gesture like a shrug, but with one hand then striking out toward Aleksy, then stopping mid-air. The book mentioned how sometimes he would slap his fellow resistors across the face, in the ghetto, if they showed signs of losing nerve.
“He’s read your interview with Krall, Doctor,” Iwona says, eyes still on her plate. “My boyfriend admires you a great deal, or I’m sure he wouldn’t pester you.”
Doctor Feinman reaches his hand out more gently this time, and rests it on Aleksy’s shoulder. “I don’t feel pestered. It’s just stupid. I am no font of compassion.” He takes his hand back.
Aleksy doesn’t like being called stupid, and he’s sure this is a lie. Yes, the doctor let the generous young prostitute die, and he slapped his fellow fighters, and this was not compassionate, but Krall noted how he has also exchanged letters with a former teenage Nazi, consoling him for having walked over the bodies of dead Jews during conscription. Like consoling Eichmann for a hangnail, Aleksy thinks. But surely this exchange denotes a surfeit of compassion on Feinman’s part, even if misdirected.
“He doesn’t mean to be rude,” Rabbi Craner says, refilling the doctor’s wódka.
“I just thought it would give us something to talk about,” Aleksy says. “You look a little bored with us.” Aleksy doesn’t mean to be peevish, to be one of the many who resent the doctor for not giving of himself at dinner parties. And yet.
The doctor waves his hand as if Aleksy were a fly buzzing in his ear. “Your sister sounds like she’s more focused on the child than on politics. Does that sound right?” The doctor takes another long swallow of his wódka. “I’m not wise, and I’m not a font of compassion, and I resent very much the way you have ambushed me mid-drink. But since we’re here, I’ll tell you she’s secretly unhappy about something else.” He puts the glass down on the table and leans in toward Aleksy. “In the depths of her own suffering, she’s unable to think outside of herself, her child. End her suffering, and she’ll remember her obligation to every other woman in Poland.”
“That’s what I keep telling him, Doctor Feinman,” Iwona says. “His sister’s a little off. She thinks I’m a witch, and she sends Aleksy these mean text messages. And I’m not sure she has any friends. We should take her out somewhere, even if she’s embarrassing.” She kicks Aleksy again. “Not that I wanted to make any of this your business, Doctor.”
“This is what I was talking about last night,” says Rabbi Craner. “We have people like this in America. They’re isolated, and it makes them behave inappropriately.” Pani Craner nods.
“That’s unkind. I’m sure his sister’s not so far gone as an American,” Feinman says. He points at the gołąbki. “I need some of those. I don’t like potatoes.”
There’s an instant in which it feels like the other people in the room have been paused, Iwona and the Craners suspended in a bubble of untouchable time, as Aleksy regards his hero. There’s no way around it; this man is anti-charismatic. The fat of his cheeks wobbles as he talks, and the last fluffs of his hair stick out comically. His eyes are not honest or dishonest, but they fail utterly to draw a person in. His voice is the voice of frail old men all over the world, and Aleksy is not surprised. Krall wrote about Feinman’s lack of charisma, describing the time he gave a speech at a secret meeting with representatives from the underground parties who wanted to hear a report. The doctor was a disappointment to those comfortable people to the west who had funded his desperate battle. They’d expected a man named Leyzer, the first leader of the ghetto Resistance, but Leyzer had committed suicide. They’d expected the noble fighter to give a speech of gratitude, a show of strength, but Feinman arrived starving, not strong. He was bitter. Out of his depth. Worse, he was insensitive. Worse still, he told the Allies that Leyzer had been a con man before the war, a coward who had wasted a bullet on his own death. Unconsciously and without affect, as if he could barely be bothered with his audience, he scolded his patrons. He had the right, Aleksy supposes. After all, he was the only survivor who had fought in both the ghetto and Warzawa.
According to Krall, Feinman wasn’t even satisfied with his own uprisings. He said that During those twenty days, it might have been possible to have killed more Germans and to have saved more of our people. But they had not been properly trained. The representatives thought him ungrateful, and Feinman didn’t care what they thought and was not invited to give any further reports, not then or in the decades that followed. He was written about, referred to euphemistically as a “gruff” and “complicated” person. He was rarely interviewed, because nobody wanted to hear that the hero did not consider his mission any sort of success. This is why Aleksy has read so much about Feinman but so little in Feinman’s own words. The man was too hard and too helpless all at once.
Aleksy lays his hands rudely on the Craners’ white tablecloth and leans forward to examine the pallid skin, the gaping pores of the living monument who sits alternately farting, salivating, picking his nose. This senior was on the right side of history once, but history doesn’t care for the unglamorous. A true hero takes initiative, handles his familial obligations instead of letting some wiser woman, some Iwona, nag him to do the right thing. Feinman is not qualified to be a hero. Not because he lacks compassion, or because he’s pugnacious, but in some essential, spiritual way he’s as stuck as Aleksy. Unable to imagine the world any better than it is. Or maybe just unable to pretend.
“Young man, are you quite well?” Feinman snaps a finger right in Aleksy’s face.
Iwona taps his shoulder. The bubble bursts, and time moves forward. The American couple piles Feinman’s plate high with half the gołąbki, and they discuss Feinman’s electric wheelchair, how it shorts out on cold days, and his favorite flowers: daffodils, which he lays at the ruins of the ghetto umschlagplatz during each year’s commemoration ceremony. The question of how Aleksy should handle his sister is forgotten by everyone but Aleksy, because the fact remains that he has spoken about his problem to someone great. This is significant, he thinks, even if Feinman didn’t like hearing about Aleksy’s personal life and didn’t have any answers, even if Feinman is so unimpressive in person. What matters is that just by asking the question Aleksy has engaged in an act of social bravery, crossed some sort of border with the doctor, and nobody’s too angry. Unlike for Feinman, the eye of the world fails to notice his transgression. Iwona presses her leg against his, and everything is fine, or will be fine, or he hopes it will be fine—he truly hopes everything will be fine from now on, for his sister and nephew and friends, the Craners, and his love, his Iwona. He knows they can all have the best possible life, notwithstanding PiS, the eager, all-seeing eyes of would-be fascists across the generations. If only he could be better than he is, a better man.