A fevered storyteller and a captive audience revisit the past in both of David Grossman's novellas, trying to make sense of a betrayal that neither one can put to rest. In Frenzy, a reserved and respectable man draws his sister-in-law into a paranoid conviction-that his wife is having an affair. In the title novella, a successful but embittered novelist delivers a merciless account of her dying mother's love affair with a much younger teenage boy. "Suffused with delirious tension and characters more substantial than in most novels twice its size" (The Village Voice), Her Body Knows is a disquieting journey into the nature of infidelity and desire.
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Her Body KnowsTwo Novellas
By David Grossman
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2002 David Grossman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneHow does she do it? he wonders. Over and over again, the meticulous rituals she must perform and the nervous scurrying through rooms before leaving, slamming closet doors, opening and closing drawers. An impenetrable expression grips her lovely face during those moments-God forbid she should forget a comb or a book or a bottle of shampoo, or everything might collapse. He sits at his empty desk with his head in his hands as she tosses him a quick goodbye from the door, and his heart sinks: she didn't even come near him to take her leave. Something special is going to happen there today, and she's already rushing out into the street, looking down so as not to make eye contact with anyone and get entangled in a needless conversation. How does she keep it up? Where does she find the strength to go through with it every day?
Then, after this momentary lapse of watchfulness, he shuts his eyes and hurries to accompany her as she gets into her car, a little green Polo. He had bought it for her as a surprise. She was horrified by the color and the extravagance, but he wanted her to have her own car. So you can come and go as you wish, he had said. So we won't keep fighting over the car. And he wanted her to have a very green car. He pictured it as a shiny microchip inserted into her veins so a camera could monitor her. Slowly he lowers his head against the back of the chair, and she drives away. Her face is strained and held too close to the windshield. It will take her about eight or nine minutes to get there. Allow for any unforeseen delays (traffic, a broken stoplight, the man waiting for her there at the apartment mislaying the keys and taking a while to open the door), and already another four or five precious minutes are lost. "Elisheva," he slowly says out loud, enunciating each syllable.
Then he says it again, for that man.
The man who does not want to have to waste any time later undressing-time is short-so that while she navigates the car through the braids of tiny streets connecting this house to that one, he already begins to undress in the bedroom, or perhaps by the door, taking off his baggy brown corduroys and large faded shirt. It used to be orange or brown, or even pink-he was certainly capable of wearing a pink shirt, what did he care what people thought? That's what's great about him, Shaul thinks: that he doesn't care about anything, unconcerned by what people might think or say. That is his strength, his healthy internal perfection; that is what she must be attracted to.
She drives to him, charges toward him, her eyes pinned on the road, her mouth pulled taut. Soon that mouth will be kissed and it will soften and swell and burn. Lips will slide over it, first only flitting, barely touching, then a tongue will come and trace the outline of her lips over and over and she will try not to smile as he grumbles, Don't move while I'm drawing. She will let out a moan of consent; then his lips will rest on hers with all of their rough, masculine force, they will swallow them, wallow in them, and leave them for a moment. A warm breath will pass over them, then they will slowly be sucked with the solemnity of truly great desire, tongues will intertwine with each other like creatures with a life of their own, and she will open her eyes briefly with a weak sigh, her eyeballs will roll up a little, fade, disappear. Half-closed eyelids will reveal an empty, frightening whiteness.
She is a large woman, Elisheva, her generosity extending to her body too. She's even a little too large for such a small car, and perhaps this was why she had been angry that he'd bought her the Polo, of all things. This also may have been precisely the reason he had chosen it-this thought has only just occurred to him-for the sense of her practically bursting through its shell on her way there, erupting toward the waiting man as she tries to keep her mind on the road, delighting in her guess that he and she are thinking the same exact thoughts. That way we gain another few minutes together, she once told him.
She charges ahead, the green car dances through the network of arteries that spreads from here all the way to him, and when Shaul emerges from the wave of pain, she's already there with him. He can see them dimly, a large wide blur of warmth, solid arms, and her brisk movements as she holds on to his shoulder with one hand and bends over to pull off her shoes without unbuckling them. Her fingers stiff with longing, she touches his naked body; his clothes are already at his feet, and hers fall on top of them, and Shaul shuts his eyes and absorbs the blow embodied in this intermingling of fabric, and it hurts so much that he has to look away from the man's clothes, because, for a moment, even the man himself is less painful than the clothes shed on top of one another. This man who had undressed early to save a few more precious seconds, had waited for her anxiously as he walked around the house naked and burning with excitement, thrilling himself with thoughts of the large, beautiful, decisive woman who was pressing on toward him in the green, sexy car-that was how the grinning, dark-skinned salesman had tried to sell it to Shaul; that word had left Shaul no choice but to buy it. The naked man had rushed around the tiny apartment, even though he is a fairly slow man by nature, and Shaul can actually see every single one of his motions, the way he walks and his slightly plodding, authoritative speech. But now his excitement builds because she is already hurrying up the steps; she is really coming now and he opens the door and carefully selects the position in which he will appear to her, because his nudity is, to put it delicately, perhaps not likely to awaken any joy in Elisheva, particularly when he stands, especially in daylight, which certainly does not flatter the many moles that dot his stomach and chest or his large, masterful male breasts and ample gray hair. As she runs up the stairs today, he opens the door just a crack and hurries to the bed in a carefully darkened room, where he lies down in a flattering pose on his stomach, one knee slightly bent, as if he had dozed off into a pleasant snooze as soon as he had opened the door for her, sleeping with the carelessness of a thoroughly healthy man who has no problems with digestion or conscience, so that the first thing she sees when she enters is his back, which looks strong-and probably is strong-then his buttocks and his legs, which look almost youthful in this position. She stands there for a moment, watching, smiling to herself, then she walks to the bed and with calculated gentleness runs one finger along his back, from his neck to his buttocks, then leans over and runs her tongue slowly, reservedly, over his neck from side to side, just the tip of her tongue, just a hint of her mouth's moisture, and he shudders with a restrained moan into the pillow as if he were about to be beheaded-
Later, two or maybe three days later-when Elisheva was gone, time became a round prison cell-Shaul lay sprawled on the backseat of a large Volvo. The windshield wipers intermittently smeared then erased the chilly, misty October night. Next to him on the car floor lay a pair of crutches. His left leg, fractured from ankle to knee, rested on a frayed old cushion, and he stared at the whiteness of the cast moving this way and that, as if struggling to understand how it concerned him. Esti, his brother Micah's wife, was driving, and they had been driving for almost half an hour without managing to strike up a real conversation; every sentence they uttered stirred in him a sense of dejection. She was five years younger than him, maybe six, he couldn't remember for sure, and he always felt even drier and more shriveled up than normal around her. His long, thin limbs, his sharp face, even his prominent Adam's apple, all seemed exaggerated when she was near him, with her full body and her dark, broad face. Every time she looked at him in the rearview mirror, he reminded himself of one of those old wooden rulers his father used to have, a grooved yellow yardstick that folded up into thin segments. As she had helped him into the backseat, there was a moment when almost his entire body had rested on her shoulders, and she didn't even grumble. If his weight had been hard for her to bear, she probably thought it was just because of the cast; he knew he had no weight in her view, and that her body was making the inevitable comparison between him and his brother. She glanced in the mirror, alarmed by his sigh: she had never heard him this way.
His brother was supposed to drive him, but at the last minute he was called away to handle an acetone spill on the Coastal Highway, and Esti had turned up at his door. She stood with her arms at her sides, apologizing for not being Micah, and bothered by a vague sense that she and Shaul were staring at each other as if looking into a funhouse mirror. She took a deep breath and unconsciously hunched her shoulders in anticipation of the approaching storm, and at first he seemed not to understand who she was. Then he was taken aback: No, no, thank you, I need Micah, only Micah. But as he spoke he took a step forward, as if to push his way outside to leave, then went back inside and grasped the door handle and stood with his head down, trying to recall something.
But where is Elisheva? she asked urgently, as if wanting to know why his mother wasn't looking after him. She had always thought he seemed lost without her, and even more so now, with his bruised face and one leg in a cast. He did not answer but just stood and stared at her, at her nomadic features, suddenly sharper now. This was exactly how she had first arrived in the family years ago, standing next to Micah in this posture with the same frightened, wild expression. "From the slums," his mother had decreed at the time, and Esti knew perfectly well what he was seeing now. She planted her feet firmly. Inside, she searched frantically for her ore of survival skills, for the unloved but stubborn little girl who had known how to turn herself, when necessary, into a tiny fistful of a human being, one who comes along and joins in precisely where she is unwanted, then stands there and slows her pulse down to a standstill, until somehow everyone becomes accustomed to her presence and to what little she has to offer, and finally cannot manage without her-
She had risen above all that, with all her years and all her children and Micah and the fullness of her flesh, and she crossed her arms beneath her chest and said perhaps he shouldn't go in this condition, just hours after such a bad accident, and she cautiously asked just how it had happened. He withdrew again, retreated into the house, and almost collapsed, still unskilled with the crutches, seeming not to have heard her at all. His eyes were red, from crying or from lack of sleep, and from something else that burned in them and that she did not recognize. He whispered hoarsely that he had to go and that she couldn't possibly drive him. Skirting his unconcealed hostility, she asked where exactly he wanted to go, and he said, South. Then all at once he waved a crutch in the air with a ludicrous birdlike motion and said, All right, we're going. He tried to fake a merry laugh and announced that the whole situation was completely crazy but he had to be there tonight, it was a case of force majeure, he enunciated in an accent which sounded to her under the circumstances like the rustle of a ruined nobleman's silk robe. Explaining the obvious, he told her he simply could not get there on his own in his condition, and that this was why he had asked Micah to take him. She tried again to understand where exactly he expected her to drive him in the middle of the night on such short notice, but he did not answer, and she silently fumed at him, but even more so at Micah, who had sent her on this mission only to please his brother, who would never do such a thing for him, much less for her. Shaul sobered for a moment, as if her silent anger had managed to trickle through the chaos within him, and he glanced at her with a look that almost shattered her with its misery and said, I know this is hard for you, but I really don't have any choice. She nodded, confused and slightly alarmed at what she saw. On the way, he said, I'll explain on the way.
Sometimes they have calm days over there, truly peaceful, Shaul reminds himself as he lies feverishly in the back of the old Volvo, trying with all his might to rid himself of the presence of the silent driver and the swarms of invisible ants crawling along his leg beneath the cast. Like the day before yesterday, for example-or was it four days ago?-when Elisheva walks into that apartment through the door left ajar for her, saunters with her shoulders tilted provocatively (who knew she still had this sense of playfulness in her?), and smiles with relief at being back there, where she is free from pretending and faking, from the endless effort of her other life. She pauses for a minute to get her breath back, and wonders how many more years she'll be able to run up the four flights of stairs like that. Perhaps it will not be long now until they have to look for another place again; they had already had to change apartments six or seven times, they were unlucky with real estate, but perhaps you could not be lucky with everything. She puts down her blue gym bag and quietly clicks the front door shut and is filled with new joy, because she knows that he, her man, can hear even this soft sound, and that his eyes are squeezed shut as if they could no longer contain anything more, and that his flesh is straining toward her like the needle of a compass. But he doesn't know she has other plans today.
She slowly walks down the hallway, wondering how to convince him to let it go today, unaware of the effect of her slow walk, which seems deliberately feline to him, twisting the tendons of his passion until it hurts. She stops when she reaches the room and leans against the doorway and looks at him tenderly. I'm here, she says quietly. He turns around slowly, as if surprised by her presence, carefully holding in his gut. Here you are, he says, unable to hide his happiness, his face actually opening up and shining, and she still does not move as she inhales the scene, absorbing and carefully distributing it to every cell in her body, provisions that must last her for a long time, for another whole day of hunger and thirst. She envelops his entirety with her gaze, from the soles of his large and venerable-looking feet, with toes splayed out, to his luminous face, and smiles as she whispers again, Here I am. The man does not think there is anything superfluous in her utterance; on the contrary, he expands his chest to take in everything contained in those three words. Here I am, here is all of me for you, here I am as I truly am, here I am-unpeel me.
Excerpted from Her Body Knows by David Grossman Copyright © 2002 by David Grossman. Excerpted by permission.
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Her Body Knows,
Also by David Grossman,