You’re not large enough
for a whale
and much too fat
to be a shark
said I to my love.
was her reply
thought the mind
of my eye
and began to cry.
I found this poem in Mailer’s book Cannibals and Christians. I would not have expected such tenderness from the boxer and knife wielder who, as Carolyn Forche told us, greeted young pretty girls (including her) on Provincetown’s streets with the flirtatious taunt: Are you a feminist? But then so much of my month at the colony was not expected—like the story of Mailer’s plaintive explanation to his last wife when she complained that all of his adulterous lovers were such ugly dogs: “Sometimes I need to be the pretty one.”
I arrived convinced I’d leave with a novel at least half finished. Each morning I dropped Nanoush at her favorite beach, “the norman mailer house beach,” as she called it, where she made her stories in the sand with scallop and mussel shells and hermit crabs and her new friend Jewel. And each morning I went to my kitchen table.
Monday. Chapter I. In a clipped voice. “I’m a professional Islamist, by accident, as most people’s lives tend to proceed. I had a crush on a long-haired biker whom I’d met one day on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, and turned out to be an Israeli and an Arabist. My life’s obsessions have always been conceived in the cradle of a crush.”
Tuesday. Chapter I. In a suspenseful voice. “I saw Ali’s form through the white slip curtain. I had his pistol. The berretta he couldn’t find two days ago. Don’t play games, he’d shouted. I denied playing games so vehemently that he began to worry—one of the hotel cleaners? Were they plotting something?”
Wednesday. Chapter I. In a breathy voice. “It was a warm night, a soft wind through the palms, the gunfire had receded. I wondered what it would be like to be with such a man. I took his arm, and washed my hand along its curves. Outside was the smell of dripping petrol and the generator exhaling and panting.”
Thursday. Chapter I. In a child’s voice. “Tahir bought me a saraj today, a little bird with an orange face and yellow wings. He put a string around its neck and though I’d like to let it go, I’m going to keep it.”
Friday, Chapter I. No more voice. “You see a narrative was forming. It was a good one. And the Afghans began sticking to it. If you were a Tajik commander you could be smug about the narrative. Like Baba Jan the old communist. When the two Arabs posing as journalists (the ones who would kill Massoud) showed up to film his ammunition sites he told his guard to send them away. ‘Tell them that Allah has sent many messengers to the Arab people, but the Arabs still haven’t got the message.’ Everyone blamed the Arabs for infecting their land with terrorism, for occupying Afghanistan, for their pan-Islamic designs, for stealing their women. Some blame the Arabs for bringing Islam to Afghanistan 1400 years ago. But those are rare. And have short hair.
Saturday, Chapter 1. “The Italian doctor told me, Your blood pressure is really shit. But I was stuck in the Hindu Kush with no way out. I took medicine and moaned through the night. Occasionally I felt Alberto stroking my head with pity and I’d drift back into dreams of dragons, turbans, burkhas, bullets, and canaries. I was going to be sick again, and dragged myself to the walled in hole in the courtyard. I had nothing left to puke but something fluttered into the hole and I pinched my matchbook flashlight to see. Ten feet below was a mountain of shit. Years of it. And atop it all were the last of my crisp green Ben Franklins. A nasty metaphor of our enterprise in this forsaken land I thought, and went back to bed.”
Sunday, Chapter 1: “If my notebooks were better they could tell you exactly what it was like, they could tell you about Dunn’s screeching voice when we got hit, and the crackle of leaves under my palm, and the smell of Connecticut woods, though they couldn’t tell you what was going on in Dan’s head who was further up the Korengal mountain. If I had sat like a spider inside the head of the Colonel, of Razzaq the smuggler, Abdullah the Taliban, Clinard the soldier who watched his bestfriend die, 12-year-old Sweeta raped by the commanders, the kind nurse who thought I must be pregnant when I wretched in the hospital from the smell of burnt flesh, then maybe I could deliver a kaleidescope of what went on this past decade.”
Monday again, Chapter 1. “I’ve started a book about an American girl who went to Iraq to find out why another American girl was killed only to find out the American girl who was killed had fallen in love with an Iraqi and only to fall in love with an Iraqi killer herself. I’ve started a book about another American girl who fell in love with a warlord and was the object of affection of a Taliban commander and caused an assassination that changed the course of one province’s war. American innocence abroad. The story never ever changes. I may not finish this book either.”
Tuesday afternoon notes. “Everyone here is writing about war. Internal, external, foreign, familial, psychic.. There is always an enemy, a fight against dying and entropy or there is no writing.”
Nanoush asked me if she could bring the hermit crabs in her bucket from the norman mailer beach back to our house on Race Road. I told her they would die. One by one she let them crawl onto her hand and then into the ocean.
Elizabeth Rubin is a writer who lives in Brooklyn with her 3 year old daughter Nanoush. She has spent the last decade and a half covering conflicts around the world. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Harper’s Magazine, and The New Yorker.
Elizabeth is also a Mailer Nonfiction Fellow. She is using the month of residency to work on…well, see above.