Ben Lerner

October 13, 2015 
The following is from MacArthur Grant winner Ben Lerner’s novel, 10:04. His novel Leaving the Atocha Station, won the 2012 Believer Book Award, and excerpts from 10:04 have been awarded The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize. He has published three poetry collections: The Lichtenberg Figures, Angle of Yaw, and Mean Free Path. Lerner is a professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Two days after providing a sample of my reproductive cells for analysis, I was in the basement of the Park Slope Food Coop bagging the dried flesh of a tropical stone fruit, trying not to listen to one of my louder coworkers as she explained her decision to pull her first-grader out of a local public school and, despite the cost and the elaborate application process, place him in a well-known private one.

The Park Slope Food Coop is the oldest and largest active food cooperative in the country, as they tell you at orientation. Every able-bodied adult member works at the co-op for two hours and forty-five minutes every four weeks. In exchange you get to shop at a store with less of a markup than a normal supermarket’s; prices are kept down because labor is contributed by members; nobody is extracting profit. Most of the goods are environmentally friendly, at least comparatively, and, whenever possible, locally sourced. Alex had been a member when I moved to Brooklyn and it wasn’t too far from my apartment so I’d joined. Despite being frequently suspended for missing shifts while traveling, and de- spite complaining all the while about the self-righteousness of its members, its organizational idiocy, and the length of its checkout lines, I’d remained a member. Indeed, for most of the members I knew except Alex, who rarely complained about anything (“You do my complaining for me”), insulting the co-op was a mode of participation in its culture. Complaining indicated you weren’t foolish enough to believe that belonging to the co-op made you meaningfully less of a node in a capitalist network, that you understood the co-op’s population was largely made up of gentrifiers of one sort or another, and so on. If you acknowledged to a nonmember that you were part of the co-op, you then hurried to distinguish yourself from the zealots who, while probably holding investments in Monsanto or Archer Daniels Midland in their 401(k)’s, looked down with a mixture of pity and rage at those who’d shop at Union Market or Key Food. Worse: The New York Times had run an exposé about certain members sending their nannies to do their shifts, although the accuracy of the reporting was disputed. The woman now holding forth about her child’s schooling was almost certainly a zealot.

And yet, although I insulted it constantly, and although my cooking was at best inept, I didn’t think the co-op was morally trivial. I liked having the money I spent on food and household goods go to an institution that made labor shared and visible and that you could usually trust to carry products that weren’t the issue of openly evil conglomerates. The produce was largely free of poison. The co-op helped run a soup kitchen. When a homeless shelter in the neighborhood burned down, “we”—at orientation they taught you to utilize the first-person plural while talking about the co-op— donated the money to rebuild it.

I worked in what was known as “food processing” on every fourth Thursday night: in the basement of the co-op, I, along with the other members of my “squad,” bagged and weighed and priced dry goods and olives; we cut and wrapped and priced a variety of cheeses, although I tended to avoid the cheese, as it required some minimum of skill. In general the work was simple: the boxes of bulk food were organized on shelves in the basement. If dried mangoes were needed upstairs, you found the ten-pound box, opened it with a box cutter, and portioned the fruit into small plastic bags you then tied and weighed on a scale that printed the individual labels. Then you took the food upstairs and re- stocked the shelves on the shopping floor. You were required to wear an apron and a bandanna in addition to your plastic gloves. Open-toed shoes were prohibited, but I’d never owned a pair of open-toed shoes. For better or for worse, most people were sociable and voluble, like the woman talking now—this seemed to make the shift go faster for my comrades; for me, the talk often slowed time down.

“It just wasn’t the right learning environment for Lucas. The teachers really tried and we believe in public education, but a lot of the other kids were just out of control.”

The man working on bagging chamomile tea immediately beside her felt obliged to say, “Right.”

“Obviously it’s not the kids’ fault. A lot of them are coming from homes—” The woman who was helping me bag mangoes, Noor, with whom I was friendly, tensed up a little in expectation of an offensive predicate.

“—well, they’re drinking soda and eating junk food all the time. Of course they can’t concentrate.”

“Right,” the man said, maybe relieved her sentence hadn’t taken a turn for the worse.

“They’re on some kind of chemical high. Their food is full of who knows what hormones. They can’t be expected to learn or respect other kids who are trying to learn.”


It was the kind of exchange, although exchange isn’t really the word, with which I’d grown familiar, a new biopolitical vocabulary for expressing racial and class anxiety: instead of claiming brown and black people were biologically inferior, you claimed they were—for reasons you sympathized with, reasons that weren’t really their fault— compromised by the food and drink they ingested; all those artificial dyes had darkened them on the inside. Your child, who had never so much as sipped a high-fructose carbonated beverage containing phosphoric acid and E150d, was a more sensitive instrument: purer, smarter, free of violence. This way of thinking allowed one to deploy the vocabularies of sixties radicalism—ecological awareness, anticorporate agitation, etc.—in order to justify the reproduction of social inequality. It allowed you to redescribe caring for your own genetic material—feeding Lucas the latest in coagulated soy juice—as altruism: it’s not just good for Lucas, it’s good for the planet. But from those who out of ignorance or desperation have allowed their children’s digestive tracts to know deep-fried, mechanically processed chicken, those who happen to be, in Brooklyn, disproportionately black and Latino, Lucas must be protected at whatever cost.

Noor interrupted my reverie of disdain: “Remind me, do you have kids?”

“No.” Noor was bagging the mangoes. I was tying, weighing, and labeling the bags.

“I couldn’t,” she said, “deal with navigating New York schools.”

How would Alex, or Alex and I, deal with it, if we reproduced? If I had enough money for private school, was I sure I wouldn’t be tempted? I was eager to change the subject. “Did you eat junk food growing up?”

“Never in the house, but with my friends—all the time.” “What did you eat at home?” Noor was from Boston and was in graduate school now, I’d learned on our previous shift.

“Lebanese food. My dad did all the cooking.” “He was from Lebanon?”

“Beirut. Left during the civil war.”

“And your mom?” I realized I’d been labeling the man- goes incorrectly, had entered the wrong code into the electric scale. I had to do them over.

“She was from Boston. My family on that side is Russian, Jewish, but I never knew those grandparents.”

“My girlfriend’s mom is Lebanese,” I said for some reason, perhaps to distance myself mentally from Alex and the topic of fertilization. Alena’s mother was also from Beirut, but who knew if Alena was my girlfriend. “Do you still have a lot of family in Lebanon?”

She paused. “It’s a long story. I have a kind of complicated family.”

“We have more than two hours,” I exclaimed with mock desperation, but, because Noor looked upset, or at least grave, I moved on quickly: “Nobody in my family could cook, so we—” But then she did begin to speak, both of us keeping our eyes on our work. She spoke quietly enough that we wouldn’t be overheard by the others, who were now discussing the merits of Quaker pedagogy.

My dad died three years ago from a heart attack and his family is largely still in Beirut, Noor said, although not in these words. I’ve always thought of myself as connected to them, even though I barely saw them growing up. My dad had a really strong sense of Lebanese identity and I did too. They tried to raise me bilingually. He was a very secular Muslim, as much a Marxist as anything else, and one of his parents had been Christian, but in the U.S., maybe as a reaction against all the racism and ignorance, he decided to join a mosque in Boston—really it was more of a cultural center than a mosque. I grew up going there a lot and developed a sense of difference from most of the kids I knew. In high school and then in college I was active in Middle Eastern political causes and majored in Middle Eastern studies at BU. I was involved with the BU Arab Student Association, although that could be complicated sometimes since my mom’s family was Jewish, even if not at all religious, and regardless, it was often tense with my mom because she felt I was only interested in my dad’s history, had identified with him at her expense. Anyway, about six months after my dad died, my mom started dating—dating was the word she used—an old friend of hers named Stephen, some kind of physicist at MIT, who I’d always known a little because we’d played with his kids occasionally when we were younger; he’d since been divorced. My mom told my brother and me about Stephen at dinner one night, said she knew it was going to be hard for us, but hoped we’d understand. We said we understood, although we were both weirded out, and my brother in particular was furious it was so soon, although I think he only expressed his fury to me.

I wasn’t living at home, Noor said, I was a senior in college and lived with friends, so I didn’t see Stephen very much, but my brother said Stephen was coming around all the time, and my brother and I were both pretty upset at the speed. We were both suspicious—how could we not be?—that their romance had a history, that it must have started when my dad was still alive. I told my brother that the rela- tionship was probably just mom’s way of trying to deal with her grief, probably wasn’t serious, but every time I talked to my mom she seemed to be with Stephen. Well, about a year after my dad died I was planning to go to Egypt for three months because I’d been offered this fellowship at the American University in Cairo for recent Arab-American graduates, and I was also planning to visit Lebanon. A few days before my flight my mom called me and asked if I could meet her for lunch. It was immediately obvious to me from her tone that she was going to tell me she was remarrying, I knew it right away, and I knew she wanted to tell me in a public place because she thought it might tem- per my initial reaction, and then she would ask that I help her tell my brother, who was going to freak. I was surprised that I wasn’t angry, maybe in part because my parents had so clearly been estranged in the last years of their marriage, but I felt sad and a little sick and we met at some overpriced French place in the Back Bay.

At this point in Noor’s story, a voice came over the PA asking if dried mangoes were out of stock—“are we out of dried mangoes?”—or could somebody from food processing bring some up. This was unavoidably my job, no matter how reluctant I was to interrupt her narrative. I told Noor I would be right back, made a kind of pouch out of my apron that I filled with some of the small, labeled bags, and took them upstairs. As always, I was embarrassed to emerge into the semipublic space of the shopping floor with a ban- danna in my hair and sporting a pastel apron. The aisles were mobbed—the co-op had fifteen thousand active members and a shopping area of six thousand square feet, not to men- tion a checkout system of radical, willful inefficiency—and I had to fight my way to the bulk section, where I deposited the mangoes. I didn’t get cell phone service in the basement, and now my phone vibrated in my back pocket, indicating I’d received a text, a one-word query from Alex: “Results?”

Back in the basement I saw another member had usurped my place beside Noor; he must have finished whatever he was bagging and then taken over my job. I was usually quiet and accommodating in the co-op, however critical my internal monologue, but this time I said: Excuse me, but I’d like to have my job back so I can continue my conversation with Noor. He said sure without a trace of resentment, and I resumed tying, labeling, weighing. The problem was that my butting in had drawn a few other members’ attention, and Noor wasn’t going to resume her story if they were listening. We worked in silence, which communicated to others that we knew they were listening, which further piqued their interest. An excruciating ten minutes passed in which Noor was quiet and I imagined possible conclusions to her story: Stephen turned out to be a virulent Islamophobe, and/or he worked for the FBI and tried to use her to infiltrate the BU Arab Student Association, or maybe the Lebanese part of her family had cut everybody off out of rage that her mom had plans to remarry.

When our coworkers had finally struck up their own conversations and forgotten about us, Noor picked up her narrative without my having to ask: So there we were at this French restaurant. As soon as the waiter had taken our order, Noor said to me, I said to my mom: You’re going to marry Stephen, aren’t you? and she laughed nervously and said that Stephen and she had in fact discussed marriage, that maybe that could happen someday, but that wasn’t why she had asked me to lunch, at which point I assumed that she was going to tell me she had cancer or something. But instead she said to me: Noor, your father and I made a decision when you were a baby and I’ve always wondered if it was the right decision but your father was sure and insisted that we had an agreement but since he’s died I’ve been thinking it over and now I feel that we were wrong. Your father, my mom said to me, Noor said, although not exactly in these words, was not your biological father. I got pregnant by another man but your father and I were in love and he wanted a child and so we got married, deciding that we would raise you as our child and that’s what we did and your father as you know loved you tremendously and thought of you as his own child always. There had been so much turmoil and cutoff and exile in his family I just think we wanted you to feel like you were fully our child, fully in your home. We fought a lot when you were in elementary school because I regretted not telling you, but at that point his position was that it was too late even if we had initially been wrong because you would feel betrayed and confused and it would be psychologically damaging. But in the last year I have been thinking about this constantly, Noor’s mother said to her, and thinking about my own mortality, and I just feel I have to tell you however disturbing this news might be. Also, I’ve been in therapy with someone who has helped me understand that telling you this is important for our own relationship. What I want to be clear about is that your father loved you as much as any father could love a daughter and whatever decision we made, rightly or wrongly, we made out of a sense of what would be best for you. She’d clearly memorized, Noor said to me, the last part of her speech.

“Jesus,” I said.

It gets crazier, Noor said, smiling. A waiter put a salad in front of me and I remember staring into the salad trying to take in what my mom had said as she waited for me to respond. I remember we were both sitting there in silence not eating, waiting for my response to form. I felt like I was bracing for some impact because I simply couldn’t feel anything and then my mom went on: Noor, she said, now more quietly, I imagine your first question is going to be who your biological father is—which actually was not my first question, Noor said to me—and part of why I wanted to tell you all of this, part of why it felt absolutely necessary, and part of why I’ve been so involved again, I think, with Stephen—

“Jesus,” I repeated. I was working as slowly as possible so as not to let finishing the mangoes interrupt the story again. Noor slowed down the rhythm of her work along with me, which led to her slowing down the story.

Right, Noor said to me. It’s because, my mom said, Stephen is your real dad, and then corrected herself: your biological father. I had dated him before I met your father and although it was clear to both of us that our relationship, at least our romantic relationship, wasn’t going to last, and even though we were being careful, I got pregnant and your father, I mean Nawaf—Nawaf was the name of the man I considered my father, Noor said to me, and it was horrible to hear my mom say his name, since she’d always said “your father” or “dad”—Nawaf wanted a child badly, Noor’s mother said to her, and we were falling in love and so we decided to get married and have a family. We told Stephen our plan and Stephen at that point in his life didn’t want anything to do with a child and he said he would respect our decision and that he wouldn’t ever say anything. And Stephen, as you know, eventually had his own family. It’s funny, Noor said to me, I still didn’t feel anything; I put my hands on the table on either side of my plate and I remember waiting and waiting for the impact and the only thing that happened is my hands seemed to fade.


“I mean they started to pale,” Noor said, raising her gloved hands from her work as if to show me. “I had always thought of my skin as dark because my father’s skin was dark, because I took after him, because I was Arab-American, and as I sat there looking at my hands, without feeling anything, it was like I could see my skin whitening a little, felt color draining from my body, which it probably was because I was in shock, but I mean I started seeing my own body differently, starting with my hands.”

“What did you say to your mom?” I asked. Noor was olive-skinned. Did she look different to me now than earlier in our shift?

“I said that I had to go to the bathroom and just walked right out of the restaurant. It was kind of funny,” Noor laughed, “that I told her I had to go to the bathroom, since she could just see me walk right out of the front door, it wasn’t like she thought I was coming back. Anyway”—Noor’s tone shifted a little, indicating she was going to draw her story to a close—“you had asked me about my family in Lebanon— it’s complicated now because I don’t know if I can call them my family, exactly.”

“Do they know the story?” I asked.

“Not unless my dad told them, which I can’t imagine him doing. My mom doesn’t think so.”

“Did you see them when you were living in Cairo?”

“I didn’t end up going anywhere. I spiraled into a big depression and when I finally climbed out of it I applied to grad school and moved here.”

“Do you”—I wasn’t sure how to put the question—“do you still consider yourself Arab-American?”

“When I’m asked, I say that my adoptive father was Lebanese. Which I guess is true. I still believe all the things that I believed; it hasn’t changed my sense of any of the causes. But my right to care about the causes, my right to have this name and speak the language and cook the food and sing the songs and be part of the struggles or whatever—all of that has changed, is still in the process of changing, whether or not it should. Like, somebody wanted me to give a talk at Zuccotti Park about Occupy’s relation to the Arab Spring and I didn’t feel qualified, so I said no. There are a lot of people I haven’t been able to bring myself to tell because, even if they don’t want to, they’ll treat me differently—I treat me differently.”

“I can’t imagine what any of this must have felt like, must feel like,” I said. I wanted to say that it’s not the sperm donor that matters, that the real father is the man who loved and raised her, but before I could figure out how to articulate my position tactfully, I was distracted by a vision of Alex in the future, falling in love with someone, maybe moving out of the city with “our” child. Would I be thought of as the father? Just a donor? Not at all?

Since she’d fallen quiet, and I felt I should fill the silence, I opted to say something vague about the connection between storytelling and manual labor, how the latter facilitates the former, the work creating a shared perceptual pattern, but the way she nodded indicated she’d ignored me.

“A lot of the time I still feel like I’m waiting for the impact, feel the same way I felt at the restaurant. My mom and Stephen live together now, by the way. They didn’t marry. We’re all trying to work things out. What I would say is that it’s a little like—have you ever kept talking to somebody on your cell phone not realizing the call was dropped, gone on and on and then felt a little embarrassed?”

I said that I had.

“I have a friend who was really wronged by his older brother but had never confronted him about it. The details don’t matter. But one day he got the courage to do it, to confront him on the phone. He’d been building up the courage for years. And he called his brother up and he said: I just want you to listen. I don’t want you to say a word, just listen. And his brother said okay. And my friend said what it had taken him such a long time to say, was walking back and forth in his apartment and saying what had to be said, tears streaming down his face. But then when he finished talking, only when he finished talking, he realized his brother wasn’t there, that the call had been lost. He called his brother back in a panic and he said, How much of that did you hear? and his brother said: I heard you say you wanted me to listen and then we got disconnected. And my friend for whatever reason just couldn’t do it again, couldn’t repeat what he had said. My friend told me this and told me that now he felt even more confused, more alone, because he’d had this intense experience of finally confronting his brother, and that experience changed him a little, was a major event in his life, but it never really happened: he never did confront his brother because of patchy cell phone service. It happened but it didn’t happen. It’s not nothing but it never occurred. Do you know what I mean? That’s kind of what it felt like,” Noor said, “except instead of a phone call it was my whole life up until that point that had happened but never occurred.”

Although I felt Noor had been speaking for hours, only forty-five minutes of our shift had passed. As we bagged the last of the mangoes, someone came from checkout and asked if anybody had ever worked at the register; one of the cashiers had had to go home early and they needed another person. Noor said she had done checkout before and discarded her gloves and bandanna and apron and, after smiling goodbye to me, went upstairs. I spent the rest of the shift bagging dates and trying not to look at the clock.

When my shift was over I left the co-op, buying a couple of bags of mango first, and, since it was unseasonably warm, decided to take a long walk. I walked on Union Street through Park Slope and my neighborhood of Boerum Hill and through Cobble Hill and beyond the BQE until I reached Columbia Street, a walk of a couple miles. I turned right on Columbia—the water was on my left—and walked until it became Furman and then continued a mile or so until I could descend into Brooklyn Bridge Park, which, except for a few joggers and a homeless man collecting cans in a shopping cart, was empty. I found a bench and looked at the magnificent bridge’s necklace lights in the sky and reflected in the water and imagined a future surge crashing over the iron guardrail. I thought I could smell the light, syrupy scent of cottonwoods blooming prematurely, confused by a warmth too early in the year even to be described as a false spring, but that might have been a mild olfactory hallucination triggered by memory—or, I found myself thinking, a brain tumor. Across the water, a helicopter was lowering itself carefully onto the downtown heliport by South Street, a slow strobe on its tail.

I breathed in the night air that was or was not laced with anachronistic blossoms and felt the small thrill I always felt to a lesser or greater degree when I looked at Manhattan’s skyline and the innumerable illuminated windows and the liquid sapphire and ruby of traffic on the FDR Drive and the present absence of the towers. It was a thrill that only built space produced in me, never the natural world, and only when there was an incommensurability of scale—the human dimension of the windows tiny from such distance combining but not dissolving into the larger architecture of the skyline that was the expression, the material signature, of a collective person who didn’t yet exist, a still-uninhabited second person plural to whom all the arts, even in their most intimate registers, were nevertheless addressed. Only an urban experience of the sublime was available to me because only then was the greatness beyond calculation the intuition of community. Bundled debt, trace amounts of antidepressants in the municipal water, the vast arterial network of traffic, changing weather patterns of increasing severity— whenever I looked at lower Manhattan from Whitman’s side of the river I resolved to become one of the artists who momentarily made bad forms of collectivity figures of its possibility, a proprioceptive flicker in advance of the communal body. What I felt when I tried to take in the skyline—and instead was taken in by it—was a fullness indistinguishable from being emptied, my personality dissolving into a personhood so abstract that every atom belonging to me as good belonged to Noor, the fiction of the world rearranging itself around her. If there had been a way to say it without it sounding like presumptuous co-op nonsense, I would have wanted to tell her that discovering you are not identical with yourself even in the most disturbing and painful way still contains the glimmer, however refracted, of the world to come, where everything is the same but a little different because the past will be citable in all of its moments, including those that from our present present happened but never occurred. You might have seen me sitting there on the bench that midnight, my hair matted down from the bandanna, eating an irresponsible quantity of unsulfured mango, and having, as I projected myself into the future, a mild lacrimal event.



From 10:04. Used with permission of Picador. Copyright © 2014 by Ben Lerner.

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