The Secular Bar Mitzvah Of Robert Oppenheimer – Novel Excerpt

At Harvard they all wondered what was it like to have a mind like his. The ones who knew him well enough to know what he could do, the ones who had seen him in action. Like the week in which he had learned to read and speak basic Sanskrit. And the several months afterward in which he had memorized the Mahabharata and began threading it effortlessly into his conversation. They didn’t say so aloud. They didn’t like to admit it publicly that Robert Oppenheimer was so uncanny and they were so merely human. He didn’t seem to be capable of forgetting things. He remembered everything he ever read, everything he ever picked up in a seminar or a lecture hall or in conversation.

His hair steamed off his head like water vapor rising off a New England pond at sunrise, cool and alluring, drifting away and gathering again as you watched it. His dark complexion looked like a rich man’s tan but was in fact the schoolboy pallor of his desert Mediterranean skin. His quiet eyes seemed to be focused beyond your face at the interior of your head where he imagined the only real part of you resided. He wasn’t quite charismatic, not yet, but he was arresting, confounding, curious.

The thing was he had only begun to accumulate a dense interpenetrated network of thought, image, idea, hypothesis, theory, explanation, commentary and criticism. He knew it would grow ever deeper, denser and layered as he worked his way through Harvard and after he left Harvard behind. He knew it meant something. He had been chosen. He liked the irony of the idea but more importantly he felt the truth of it in his being. It seemed to charge the world around him as he moved through it, sometimes impeding him, sometimes propelling him forward.

In their digs off Harvard Square, he and Freddie were taking a break from a late night of studying. He lounged in a soft leather chair his mother had shipped to him from Riverside Drive. Freddie lay on the corduroy couch he had retrieved from the street at the start of the semester.

“Tell me, old man, because I have often wondered, do you believe in God? I mean even a tiny little bit?” Freddie loved to provoke Robert with a seemingly innocent question out of the blue.

“Don’t be a bore, Freddie.”

“What? I’m only asking.”

“I believe in the second law of thermodynamics and the quantum theory of light,” said Robert rising to the bait.

“But that’s not belief, that’s knowledge. What I want to know is what do you believe in, if anything, in your scientific world of inference and deduction and logical tautology.”

“No, you don’t understand me. I believe in science. Its value, its worth. I’m not talking about what I know of science. I’m talking about what I believe in. I put my faith in Science, my allegiance, my soul.”

“You don’t have a soul. You just said as much.”

“I most certainly do have a soul. It might be the only thing I truly do have.” He got up and went to his bookshelf where the Bhagavad Gita and the Mahabharata waited to be called up to the front.

“But the human soul comes from God, it’s a spark of the divine.”

“You’ve got that from the New Testament. That’s a very dangerous book to be reading.”

“Are you saying you’ve read it, Robert? The Christian Bible?”

“Yes and the Hebrew Bible.”

“Have you really?” Freddie did not appear to be truly surprised. He was probably posing for effect.

“You have to read it. Without the Hebrew bible you are illiterate. I’ve read it. I reject it.”

“Oh you reject it, do you? The Old Testament, the New Testament and the horse they rode in on?” Freddie raised an artful eyebrow and went to put the kettle on. He seemed to be was thoroughly enjoying himself.

“Do I sound like an ass?” He knew he sounded like an ass. Not that he particularly cared. He was very good at sounding like an ass. It was a skill he cultivated.

“Not at all, my good man. You sound like a Harvard man. “What about this fellow, Siegfried? Where do you stand on Siegfried?”

“Do you mean Freud or Sassoon?”

“Freud, your man Siegfried Freud.”

“He’s not my man, Freddie.”

“Your people I mean, your tribe.”

“My tribe is science. My covenant is with science. Science will save us, Freddie, not Jesus.”

“All right, all right. I’m only asking. There is no need to get personal about it.” He had got to Freddie with the mention of Jesus’s name as if he had crossed a boundary. Freddie couldn’t quite shrug it off.

“What do you believe in, Freddie?”

He must have been waiting to be asked. He did not hesitate. “Truth is beauty and beauty truth. That is all we know or need to know.”

“Do you know it or believe it?”

“The poet is being playful. How can I know it or prove it? I can’t. I can only believe it. And I do.”

Silence. Caesura. They regrouped.

“And what of your love affair with the Dark Lady of Spinoza?” Freddie was stepping onto thin ice. He must have been bored and didn’t want to get back to work. The Dark Lady was apparently a grad student in the Philosophy Department who spent her evenings in the library reading Spinoza and writing something that seemed to be a dissertation, or something Robert hoped was her dissertation. That at least was his working hypothesis. He had chanced upon her at the start of the semester and he was smitten. He began to observe her unnoticed.  After all, Spinoza, apostate Jew of Amsterdam, master craftsman of the telescope lens, who died of lung disease brought on by the prolonged inhalation of glass fibers in his work, who still found time to strike one of the first major blows of the Enlightenment, that would have to be Robert’s kind of woman.

“I’d rather not talk about that.”

“Have you breeched the silence that surrounds her at her desk in the library?

“No, Freddie, I have not.”

“Have you slipped her a note in Latin professing your desire to know her intimately?”

“I have done no such thing.”

“Have you followed her home? Discovered her name? Stolen a glance at her dissertation? Suggested improvements?”

“Freddie, please.” He got up, went into his room, got into his bed, pulled the covers over his head and did not come out. Before he turned in at 2 am Freddie went to the door.

“Did I say something wrong? Have I offended you?”

There was no reply from Robert.

“Are you asleep? Are you alive?”

“I wish I were dead.”

That was a common trope in his college life. Not, “I am going to kill myself,” but “I wish I were dead.” Occasionally it was “I don’t want to live any longer.” Freddie had heard it many times over. The next morning he did not appear at 9 am to make himself a breakfast of jam and honey on toast, nor did he make his peanut butter and chocolate syrup on toast. I wish I were dead did not contain a call to action. It was a state of mind not a threat. That was how he intended Freddie understood it. When Freddie got home from class that afternoon, he was sitting in his leather chair with a book on his lap.

“There you are,” said Freddie with some relief. He scarcely heard him. The scowl on his face, the sneer on his lips, his staring inward looking eyes were all that was left of him. That was the extent of his consciousness. Each time words began to rise, they quickly subsided before they broke the silence in his mind. Each time the urge to move gathered in his body, it drained away and left him sunk deep in his stillness.


He moved his eyes in the direction of Freddie’s voice but he did not raise them to Freddie’s face. He saw only the black shoes on his feet. Freddie could see the effort it took and he decided to leave Robert alone.

“Ok. I understand.”

But he understood nothing. How could he possibly understand? He was a mere human, a scurrying thoughtless creature who lived for cigarettes, beer and idle conversation. He closed his eyes in disgust and quieted his mind. Freddie did not guess he had been sitting like that all day, that a feeling of stony impermeability had taken him over, that his breathing had become the respiration of the sensible world, the living unmoving uncaring unseen unheard world that was all of being. “Being. My being. Human being. All being. The universe. Reality. The world.” The words rose and fell back into silence. He roused himself a bit from his existential stupor. The words came again. “Being. My being. Human being. All being. The universe. Reality. The world.” Something prompted him to whisper them aloud.

“What?” said Freddie. Are you making contact with the external world?”  He glanced again at Freddie’s shoes. And then another phrase, a kind of mantra that had spoken itself in his mind many times before.

“The incoherence of the incoherence.” Oh God he thought not again. I cannot stand this. I have to get out of this head. I have to silence this infernal mind. So he spoke. “She is unbearably beautiful. I don’t think I can stand it much longer.”

“I really think I ought to see this woman for myself. Why don’t you take me around with you to the library and point her out?

“No! You may not gaze upon her.”

“Why not?!?”

“She is a thing of my imagination. I do not care to have her rendered into the objective world.”

“You are being ridiculous, Robert.”

He leapt out of his chair and flew out of the room, out of the apartment, out the front door into the street and ran headlong down Mt. Auburn Street to the bridge over the Charles River. Freddie chased him but could not catch him.

“Robert, he shouted, where the hell are you going? You’re not even dressed!”

He ran on with his dressing gown streaming in the breeze, reached the bridge and climbed up on the railing. Freddie caught up to him panting and grunting, grabbed him by the shoulders and felt him slip out of his dressing gown and fall away into the ice cold river. He shouted with the shock of contact with the water and disappeared beneath the bridge. Freddie cursed the best that he could and flung himself into the river on the other side of the bridge where Robert was flowing into view. He realized immediately he had chosen a particularly demanding and inefficient way to die, if that in fact was what he had chosen, one in which his body would not simply go along for the ride his head was navigating, would in fact seek to leap from the car the first chance it got, was in fact seeking to leap at that very moment when the invigorating painful cold of the Charles had overwhelmed all thoughts of doing himself in and converted them into the single word, “Help!”  If it were merely a way to make a point, he had made it quite strenuously well and now he wished to conclude the exercise while his wits were still about him and not permanently detached from his corporeal existence. The two of them, shouting and cursing and laughing and crying, made their way to the stone embankment where they grabbed ahold of the soft wet vines that grew over the pavement and pulled themselves up and out of the water.

“You confounded idiot!” Freddie shouted.

“I know! I know! I’m a hopeless fool!”

“Yes, you are!”

“Yes I am!”

As the manic urgency of the situation began to fade they shivered and shook. He stood on the embankment his eyes wide with wonder at the frigid grip of the air on his body. He shouted. He roared. “I am out of my mind!!!”

“I know you are!” Freddie shouted with the same shock of the cold settling in his skin.

“You don’t have to keep reminding me!” Breathing so deeply he thought he might burst, he panted with an animal urgency. “Why did I do that?” he shouted with confused glee. He was more awake now than he had been for years, more awake than the sailor on the Sound in his twenty-eight footer running for shore with a squall coming up behind. The colors of drab stately Harvard grew bright. The red brick of the dormitories throbbed. The blue of the sky shimmered.

“Are you happy now? You nearly drowned the both of us.”

“Much happier. If you really want to know. We must try this more often when we have the blues. It really does the trick! I feel like a new man.”

They stared into each other’s face, looking for something, they didn’t know what, but something that might explain what had just happened, looking for a recognition on the other one’s face that they had had an adventure but now it was over and they were going to be all right. When they were satisfied they had seen what they needed to see they turned towards home and walked quickly, stiffly and then more quickly breaking into a trot and then a run as the sharp wind stung their skin until they collapsed on Freddie’s sofa, stripped off their wet clothes, bundled themselves up in blankets and slowly warmed up and fell into a deep sleep.


When he graduated from Harvard in ’25, he made his way to Cambridge, to Ernest Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory because it was the center of the known universe of science. Where else could he go? He had to be at the center of this new assault on nature. He had read all of Rutherford’s accounts of his experiments splitting atoms, isolating the proton, transmuting elements like an alchemist of old, peering into the vast spaces of the atom to divine its structure. He read Bohr’s revolutionary papers about the quantum nature of the atom. He wanted to immerse himself in that world.

Rutherford sat him down in his cluttered dark office and evaluated the awkward tall American with the glowing recommendation from Harvard.  “Get yourself down to the laboratory and learn something useful. We need beryllium. We need fine strips of it for bombarding with alpha particles. Start there. Learn how it’s done on the laboratory floor, how to tinker and fuss, how to design and construct, how to think in experimental terms and not this head in the clouds fairy dust mathematical nonsense.  Learn how to use your hands, your ingenuity. Learn patience and painstaking precision. There’s a good lad.”

The lab of which Rutherford so reverently spoke was a dark humid basement, a forest of electrical wiring growing like impenetrable vines on the dank cement walls of a jungle overrun with caterwauling monkeys. Young men in baggy tweeds with burns and stains stood by radiators that hissed away. Tabletops crowded with vacuum tube assemblies, jerry-rigged batteries and heated vats of unnamed compounds looked like abandoned cities of the jungle overseen by disinterested gods who prodded and poked their intricate architecture to see what had become of the civilizations that once inhabited them.

And he found he was impossibly bad at it. Like some Dickensian clerk wasting away with starvation and cold as he counted out coins for the rich man who employed him, he stood over a table and coated delicate film with the thin layers of beryllium the apparatus required. Machines broke when he came near them. Calibrations went haywire when he breathed on them. Batches of beryllium threw themselves off the table in panic at the mere sight of him. A lethargy, a torpor came over him.

The quiet burning intensity of the young men in the lab hunched over worn tables in twos or threes wearing almost identical garb quietly arguing over the results of experiments, data, traces of chemicals, assays, titrations, it all reminded him of the fervent young men in prayer shawls and fringed vests who crowded around the tables in the yeshivas of the Upper West Side studying the words of the Torah and the Talmud for signs of inspiration from God.

He went back to Rutherford and tried to explain. He sensed that he sounded like an overprivileged rich boy from America although he couldn’t put it into words. “I am not very good in the lab. I seem to be hopeless. I am doing more harm than good. Perhaps I should go home and rethink.” He wallowed. He indulged. He excused. He wanted to murder himself right there in the room. Rutherford had seen it before. He was a bit offended by the open depth of feeling the young man expressed. “Buck up,” wouldn’t do. “Carry on,” would be of no use. None of that Rudyard Kipling nonsense seemed to be appropriate here. And so he did a remarkable thing.

“Now listen here, young Oppenheimer. I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt. This laboratory is not an off-the-rack, one-size-fits-all operation. You are a round peg. Let’s stop pounding you into the square hole.” Rutherford was rather pleased with the way that came out. Eloquent, almost. “What am I going to do with you? That is the question.”

“What do you suggest I do, sir?”

“I understand you are very good with maths.”

“Well, yes I suppose I am. I have been hearing about all this new quantum science.”

“Have you indeed?”

“Yes sir. It’s quite new, isn’t it. I never heard the words quantum physics spoken aloud till I got here sir. It doesn’t seem to have reached America yet. But it interests me.

“Look here.” He cleared his throat and assembled his thoughts. “Now that Bohr has collected his little trophy and trotted off the Copenhagen to open his new enterprise, I need a good theory man around here. Maybe you can be of some use on the theoretical side.” He had no idea that Rutherford was merely shunting this boxcar onto a siding, hoping he might get lost in the trainyard and rust away quietly. “Go about this business any way you please. Tramp through the heath. Drink in a pub. Sit in your room and scribble. Talk to the magpies. I don’t know how you fellows do it. Just go do it. Read up. Ask around. Find some like-minded monks and get to work!”

Thank you, sir”

“You’re bloody well welcome. Now is there anything else I can do for you?” He did not know this was Rutherford’s way of ending an unpleasant conversation.

“I’d like a chalkboard,” Oppenheimer replied. “I do my best work at the chalkboard.”

“Take one. They are everywhere. They proliferate. They appear to be the offspring of my graduate students. Adopt one. Do your worst. Bring me brilliant papers. Get yourself a Nobel Prize for Physics and then you may go off and found your own laboratory in the wilds of the American wilderness, like bloody Niels Bohr and his Institute for Theoretical Physics, confound his traitorous Danish soul.”

Oppenheimer stood at the blackboard in an isolated room on the top floor of the laboratory and perfected the art of chain-smoking cigarettes. Occasionally he looked out the window at the landscape of chimneys and steeples and sighed. He covered the surface of the board with the tortured Greek alphabet of pis, rhos, thetas, sigmas and gamma gamma gammas of Bohr’s quantum theories but also the new matrix mechanics of Heisenberg in Göttingen with its lockstep armies of irrational numbers lining up in military formation between long brackets. He looked for errors, for weaknesses, for entry points, for any place where he might go on, branch off, explore the formulae that Bohr and Heisenberg had bequeathed him. But he could not find a point, a path, a mountain in the distance or even a river running away into the English countryside that looked inviting, intriguing or even a little bit curious. He covered the floorboards with cigarette ash. He imagined a white streak was forming where the smoke curled up between the two thick streaks of his eyebrows singing the hair on his high forehead. He stood all day scrawling, erasing, scrawling, erasing, looking for a glimmer of intuition but nothing came.  The cigarette ashes darkened the floorboard beneath his feet. He ran his palm over his face so fiercely and frequently he imagined he was erasing it along with the equations on his blackboard. He alternated between rage, despair and anxiety. Had he overestimated his capabilities? Was the big fish from the small pond lost in the depths of the ocean? He berated himself mercilessly. You idiot! Look at yourself. You’re wasting your chance. They’re all whispering when you pass. You can’t meet their gaze. You slink. You shuffle. Where have all your ideas gone? You are unmanned and useless like Samson without his Nazarene locks. He ground the chalk with his fist till it crumbled to the floor, fell beneath his feet and mixed with the ash from his cigarettes. He sat akimbo in the dilapidated rump sprung armchair and muttered. He slept. He woke. He drowsed somewhere in between. Sometimes he got up to eat. He developed grudges on his advisor, on the grad students in the Lab, on Cambridge, on the world. He felt he might go mad.

There was only one thing left to do before he admitted failure. He engaged a psychiatrist in London who listened to his bizarre tale of the mathematical secrets he was fighting to unlock, the statistical nature of reality, the effects of gravity on time and space, the antagonisms and slights of his so-called comrades, the insidious provocations of Mr. Rutherford whom he worshipped like a father, who eviscerated him like a wayward son, his angers, his fantasies, his sense that he could pierce the veil of nature with his warlike soul, descend into the underworld, sing his gorgeous song of science and return with the beautiful damsel of truth.

“You must stop coming here,” said the psychiatrist at last. “This is very dangerous for you to elaborate these far-flung fantasies. You are suffering from Dementia Praecox.” On the corners of the desk, a small bleached skull and a rough shard of an Egyptian ruin engraved with faint hieroglyphs stood guard over his academic reputation.

Oppenheimer was dumbfounded.

“It is Latin for precocious madness.”

“I know what it means, dear sir,” and he proceeded to elaborate the etymology of the words beyond the Latin to the Sanskrit.

“Despite your illusion of deep learning or perhaps on account of it, you have developed a form of psychosis characterized by the disintegration of the cognitive faculties in the late teens or early twenties, affecting memory, attention and the ability to complete complex tasks. It is rapid and unresponsive to known treatment.  It has been shown by Kreapalin to be a progressively deteriorating disease from which no one recovers. I cannot treat you. I cannot help you. You were best to sail for America while you still can and find a safe and quiet place to live out your remaining days. Luckily you have financial resources. You need not be placed in an institution for the incurably insane. But you must make haste. Goodbye. I’m very sorry to have to tell you this. Good day.”

He stood up unceremoniously. Oppenheimer stood up and walked out. Somehow he got himself to Victoria Station and placed himself in a closed compartment. Was it in fact precocious madness and not precocious genius?  He watched the brick and mortar cityscape give way to the timber and wattle countryside. He brooded beyond words, as he had so often growing up, in a darkness where deep sadness overwhelmed him and settled in his temples, behind his forehead, in the back of his neck where his spine inserted itself into his skull, in his heart, in the pit of his stomach. As the train traversed hedgerows and country roads cut deep into the farmland he could feel his brooding deepen and darken. He went to bed and slept for days on end. He got up and sat like a mummy in a sarcophagus of depression, still as stone, quiet and silent as the undeciphered hieroglyphics on the Egyptian tomb that preserved his melancholy for eternity.

Slowly, he began to eat again. He began to walk again. He felt his faculties emerging from the darkness as light returned to his inner world. He knew beyond judgment or evidence the psychiatrist was an idiot. All of Great Britain were idiots, doctors, physicists, grad students and their insufferable, noisy girlfriends, all spectacular idiots and fools. He delved more deeply into the newest papers. These two German fellows Heisenberg and Schrödinger were lobbing bombs of seeming genius back and forth concerning the proper interpretation of the enormous amount of experimental data that was pouring forth from the Cavendish Lab, from the Manchester Lab, from Otto Hanh’s lab at Göttingen and the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Munich. It was a great time to be alive, to be thinking about quantum physics: Schrödinger’s Equation, Heisenberg’s Matrix Mechanics. He was excited by an intuition they were two sides of the same theoretical coin. This was an idea he wanted to explore. He would leave this land. He would find a better place to continue his quest. In Göttingen with the hard-headed scientifically advanced Otto Hahn, if he would have him.

But first he would exact his revenge. They had shamed him. They had thwarted him. He was not a lab troll. He was a mathematical theorist. He needed to think not tinker. He needed equations to solve, not beryllium film to prepare. He concocted a program to sabotage the exacting work on beryllium film the lab required, that he was incapable of fashioning himself in spite of the patient training they gave him and for which they shamed him mercilessly. He would adulterate the film in such a subtle, undetectable way it would queer the results of the entire lab, set them back a year and ruin the reputation of the Cavendish. He would haunt their dreams and confound their tongues. But it was not enough. He devised a plan to poison his advisor. The idea filled him with dark malevolent glee. He imagined it. He pictured it. He planned it in rigorous detail. He imagined it done. He imagined his own smug satisfaction.

But when he had made all these plans and envisioned them in exacting detail, somehow in the deepest reaches of his mind, he knew there was something else entirely that had to be done. And so he finally turned his mind to his own progress as a scientist, as a human being, as a tortured soul. He commenced to analyze himself, never mind the idiot in London with his posh accent and cold manners. He could read for himself. Psychiatry was not quantum physics, not by a long shot. He saw quickly what he would have to do. He had at the center of his emotional life an adolescent disregard for the lives of others. He could see that now. He would have to break himself of that. He would have to stop blaming the world for his troubles. He would have to grow up and resist the adolescent urge to poison and corrupt the people who cared for him. He had disappointed them. He had disappointed himself. But now we must emerge from this cocoon of adolescent depression and get on with his life.

Freddie was in Cambridge (thank god for Freddie) getting his doctorate in Medicine. “Corsica,” said Freddie, sitting gingerly in an armchair in Robert’s miserable digs. “My god, Robert. Open a window. Throwback the curtains. Wash a cup. When was the last time you rinsed out this kettle?”

“Corsica? What about Corsica?”

“Wyman and Edsall and I are going off to Corsica.”

“And who are Wyman and Edsall?”

“Good chaps. You’ll like them. Come with us. A fortnight in Corsica. Good food. Good air. God company.”


Only fragments of phrases came to him like in that novel by Joyce. “This is how.” “I am so.” “Where have I.” The inner monologue of his character.

The town seemed to rise out of the sea. No, the town seemed to have come down to the sea for some bracing salt air and now it was having second thoughts, poised at the edge of the abrupt cliffs. Red tile roofs, aging walls of peeling whitewash, soft yellow, coral and aquamarine, bright blue doors, unglassed windows behind faded blue shutters, in the harbor, sailboats in their slips, their masts in the air like radio antennas receiving coded signals on private channels for the privileged use of their wealthy owners. The statue of Bonaparte in the town square looked suspiciously like Michelangelo’s David. In the open-air market, he found red slabs of salted mullet roe, jars of anchovies with oil, garlic and parsley, thick-armed women slicing ham for passersby. In the rugged lush mountains teeming with goats and their silent goatherds, he ate lunches of stewed kid with steamed fig, knuckles of lamb and roasted tomatoes served on round stone tables, figatelli sausage from Corsican black pigs smoked over chestnut wood. The noonday sun struck his head like a mallet on a copper gong. The late afternoon sun sliced into his eyes like bright knives. The setting sun was the resolution of a symphonic movement in a minor key, pensive and peaceful. The twilight sky contained all the blues he’d ever seen. The moon. The stars.  By the time he saw her in the marketplace in Bastia his senses had been so bewitched he wasn’t sure that she was real. When he saw her again, she was standing at the corner of the street with her face tilted up to bathe in the warm breeze. There was something about the way she held the basket, something about the way she stood with her feet so close together, something about the head of hair beneath the white kerchief threatening to come undone, something about the look on her face, a pleasure so sharp it made her wince. And something about the fact that Freddie, Edsall and Wyman didn’t seem to see her at all. So he kept her for himself and waited to see her again.

He didn’t talk to women. He didn’t approach them, chat them up, make them, move on them or any of that inexplicable courting behavior. But when he saw her in the marina with its fine sailboats he heard himself speak and as he spoke he heard himself wonder how is this so easy.

“Does one of these belong to you?”

She smiled and said, “Does one of these belong to you?” Perhaps a bit incredulous that one so young might be the master of one of these.

“No,” he replied, “I come down here to admire them, the craftsmanship. I’d like to own one someday.”

“American?” she asked. “Or British?”

“American, I confess.”

“Normally I can tell.”

“Probably because I’ve been living in Cambridge, that’s a college town in England.  But I’m from New York.” He hoped that might impress her.

“And do you like it here in Corsica?”

“I’m wild about it.”

They slipped back and forth between his halting French and her stumbling English.

Ah, oui? The bee’s knees, is that the phrase?”

Bien sur. The bee’s knees. The cat’s meow. Yer aunts pants. Sorry, ça, c’est un petit off color.”

“Off color?”

“Impolite. Pardonnez-moi.”

They stood on the precipice of the moment. At some point, he wasn’t sure how it had arrived, he reached for her hand. A stern flash of her eyes and a brief shake of her kerchiefed head. He mentioned to God that he would like for her to loosen that kerchief and shake her hair loose for him someday.

“Oh but you are so forward, you American boys. This is not attractive at all. Pas de tout.

Yes I know. But I have an excuse.”


“I have seen you several times and each time I am comment dit-on, boulversé?

She laughed an extraordinary laugh like the birds at sunrise if you happen to be awake.

Boulversé, ça veux dire upset.

“I am! I am upset. You upset me. You startle me.

Vous voulez dire submerger.

Vous me submergez completement.”

“So strange, you are. So young and so handsome and yet so strange.”

The breeze under the curtains. The voices of children. “How do I?”  “What do I?” “This is.” “She is Molly.” “I am Stephen.” “Bloom.” “Dedalus.” His eyes were closed. He opened them. She was gazing at him. He met her gaze and reached for her hand beneath the white quilt with blue lilies stitched into it.

“Oh la la, what have I done? I am in shock.” But she didn’t say shock. She said “etat de choc,” and kissed him.

He did not care to think about what had happened. He had no need to rehearse or re-enact it in his mind. It was already in his body, in his whole being. It? She. She was. Her name was Emma. He was Robert. Roe Bear. With that musical “R” that tickled and caressed your hearing.

“Encore une fois?” One of them had said it. It didn’t matter which.

“Where have you been?” Freddie asked the next morning when he turned up rumpled and bleary-eyed at the pension. It would never occur to them where he had been. It would never occur to him to tell them.

“Qu’est-ce que ça veux-dire?” He asked himself. “What does this mean?” He did not know.

Emma took him into the mountains, up the winding switchback footpaths that ran along the spine of the island and showed him the sea in the distance. They stopped along the way in a small mountain town of rectangular blocks of granite and sun-bleached plaster set into the hillside by a mason from a race of giants, or like facets of a rough cut jewel. Where were these thoughts coming from, he wondered?

“All this reminds me of the desert in New Mexico.”

“It sounds very exotic to me,” she said. “Is it newer than the old Mexico?”

“You may laugh, but when the moon is low over the desert you feel like the world has just been born.”

He told her about his life in Cambridge, his work and his frustrations. She told him about her life in Corsica, her family, how they made a living, how the women cooked and the men ate, how the women worked and the men drank coffee in the cafes, how they always seemed to be happier than the visitors to the island who rushed around and missed everything. He said this place is beautiful but he could never live here and give up physics. She said if you lived here you wouldn’t need physics. He wondered if that could possibly be true. Could he ever be content to live with the day-to-day happiness he saw here and renounce the lifelong ambition that had driven him so hard he’d had to take refuge here, if only for the fortnight? They lay on a hot blanket in the spiky mountain grass, his head burrowed into her neck. He had no memory in his hands of bare skin like this bare skin of hers, the feel of it, the way it held his palms in place like magnets. He marveled humbly.

Her bed above the street rocked in the moonlight. A cotton sheet worn thin with washing on the rocks, stiffened on the balcony in the heat of the day, cooled in the evening air and saturated with the scent of their efforts settled over them till morning.

“Why are you so handsome?” she asked him as he was dressing.

“Because you are so beautiful,” he replied.

As he meandered home he asked himself was he in love with this woman? Was that possible? Was that how it works? A small boy sat in a window with his feet dangling out, his mother behind him. She spoke to him gently and ran her hand through his hair. He stopped to watch them. Seagulls came down out of the sky, wheeling around a small bubbly fountain and dropped in for a landing. A goat peeked out from an alleyway. An old man swatted his donkey as it dipped its head to examine the cobblestone. Had this never happened before? How could it be he had never appreciated the life assembled all around him? He hunkered down in a stoop and leaned against the door loose on its hinges, hugging his long lanky legs with his arms. The way he had hugged her at the foot of the bed kneeling almost in prayer. He looked into the sky. Not a cloud anywhere. Not a blemish on the world, he thought and also how unlikely were these words coming from him. He wished never to get up ever again, but he did. He rose into the summer air and thought, have I grown? Do I not take up more space in the world? Do I, square peg, not fit the round hole?

I am in love with this woman.

“Where have you been, Robert old boy? Have you been sailing? Look at you. You appear to have been out all night under the stars navigating or some such thing. Wielding your sextant. Reaching into the wind. Have you been fishing with the local fishermen? What did you catch? Have you brought nothing home to share with your hungry companions?” Freddie was his usual wordy self.

Everywhere he went he recognized that something had changed in the world. She had changed it. They had changed it. Or it had changed them. He did not think of linear algebra or calculus. Instead of solving equations for unknowns, he knew. He was certain. Everything was apparent and immediate and right.

He was in love with this woman.

They said goodbye in a small restaurant. The proprietor eyed them enviously.

“Will you come back?”

“I will.”

“Will you still find me beautiful?”

“I will.”

“Will you always love me?”

“I will.”

“Will you remember me?”

“I will.”

“Are you telling me lies?”

“I don’t know how to lie.”

“I think you do. Everyone knows how to lie.”

“No, I have forgotten how.”

“Ça c’est bon. J’aime ça.”


“Adieu, mon amour.”

On the boat back to Marseilles he watched the island of Corsica fall over the edge of the horizon and sink into the sea.

He thought, I am in love with this woman.

But also, I am in love with the world.

The one he’d always hoped for. The other he never knew could be.


Jim Shankman is a playwright and novelist. His novel Tales Of The Patriarchs is available at He has published short fiction and one-act plays with Azure, Poydras Review, Apricity, Lumina and Popcorn Fiction. The Screenwriter Dies Of His Own Free Will won a Best Playwriting Award in the New York International Fringe Festival. Teardown received a Julie Harris Playwriting Award from the Beverly Hills Theatre Guild. Billy And The Killers and Heartless Bastard had their world at HERE in NYC. He has a degree in philosophy from Princeton University and an MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College.