By Yael Unterman
A throaty bell splits the silence. Karin scrambles to pick up.
- Shalom. This is Netta from the Society for the Protection of Foreign Workers. I was wondering…
Karin sighs. The tortuous passage of a month has not sufficed to eradicate her fantasy of Bo’s rich voice bobbing on the other end of the line. Surely he will soon call, admit his hastiness, error and wrongdoing, beat his breast, beg to be rehabilitated in her life?
“Hope limps eternal,” she chides herself, and reluctantly agrees to donate thirty shekels.
- Would you like to make that a regular contribution of eighteen shekels per month? Chai shekalim?
Karin gulps down her sarcastic rejoinder (how are eighteen shekels a month equivalent to a one-time sum of thirty?)
- Look, I’m poor . . . I’m a student.
Netta sounds disappointed.
Karin sits in the kitchen, eating a carrot and averting her eyes from the history textbooks piled on the table. Crusaders, Provençal exegetes, disputations; right now they are about as important to her, as the Hebrew idiom colourfully had it, ‘as the garlic peel’.
Her mind seems to be elsewhere, so she sets out to look for it outside. Children in bobble hats and stripy socks streak past, laughing. Head down, hands in pockets for warmth, she kicks at the slush until her boots are soaked, realizing belatedly that she should not have worn these cheap fur boots from China, an impulse buy from one of the many shoe shops along Jaffa Street. Permeable to water, they have quickly transformed into two sodden, leaden clods slip-slapping around her ankles. The snow has fallen rather high for Jerusalem; she cannot remember the last time it chilled the flesh of her calves like this.
Something lies dark and quiet on a clean mound of snow. She picks it up. A red glove, with a flower-shaped button above the thumb and an elasticated corduroy sleeve extending almost to the wrist. Unique, and evidently of high quality. The found object dangling in her hand, Karin wanders aimlessly, solitary, for another few minutes, until the soggy boots make it impossible to advance without kicking out her feet in an awkward sloshy goose-step. She heads for home, and passes a tabby cat sitting on a wall, its tart green eyes unblinking as its head swivels to follow her ungainly walk. Nowadays, whenever she passes a cat she flinches involuntarily, recalling Bo’s words on their last day together, prelude to break-up:
- You know, I’ve noticed that you stare into the eyes of every street cat you meet.
- I do?
She had responded absently, her attention caught by a poster advertising a lecture at the Begin Heritage Museum.
- Yes, as if you were looking for something.
The shift in his tone had caught her attention now. Something was about to happen. She turned abruptly and searched his face.
- Looking for what?
He avoided her eye.
- Answers, companionship . . . I don’t know. And that’s the problem.
- That I stare at cats? That’s a problem?
She was trying to ignore the fact that he had not said ‘a problem’ but ‘the problem’–two words with a steely ring, like guillotine plummeting into wooden block.
- The thing is–what I’m trying to say is…
He mumbled something out of her hearing. Her breath backlogged in her throat.
- It’s not enough for you, being with me. There’s some lonely thing in you, way beyond where I can reach. I’m not deep enough for you; I don’t really get you the way you deserve.
- That’s not true . . . that’s a lie, you get me plenty.
Her hand, reaching out to slap him into some kind of sense, had frozen midway and wilted back to her side.
- It doesn’t feel that way. You’re always somewhere behind a wall and I can’t break it down.
- We’re back to that again, are we?
- What again?
- You want me to be mushy, just like your other girlfriends. Some kitsch Hollywood chick overflowing with compliments, hanging on your arm all lovey-dovey. I’ve told you, I’m British, we don’t do that. Doesn’t mean you and I don’t have a good relationship. Cause we do, we definitely do.
Now she sounded like she was trying to convince herself. There was a silence. All the blood had drained out of his face.
- A really good relationship, she added, digging another inch of her own grave.
There was a very long pause.
- Look. I just don’t think this is going to work, he had concluded sadly. And there was clearly nothing more for her to say.
Super. You’re breaking up with me because I’m lonely. That’ll help a lot, thanks.
Bo’s real name is Boaz, but as a teenager he wanted to be cool and different so he shortened it to something spunkier, more modern and Western sounding. Only his parents and his boss call him by his real name. Karin boasts an excellent Hebrew, having studied it at university, but she always spoke to him in English, ever since she met him at a klezmer concert at Beit Avi Chai and compared notes on the sax player. On the short side, with a profile sharp and angled like a palm frond, Bo is modest and sweet, athletic and health-conscious, with agile blue eyes and bushy auburn eyebrows. He is covered in light freckles the colour of his hair, and also sports a cluster of four moles on his face, arranged in an unusual diamond pattern that drew Karin’s eyes often, especially at the beginning. This was Karin’s first real relationship since the one in Cambridge six years earlier. Her boyfriend Laurence, an overweight, navel-gazing poet and pipe addict, walked out one night and never came back, calling two months later from Australia to ask her to ship the stuff he had left behind. She was twenty-four then. Bo came along a week before her thirtieth birthday, just in time to save her from the over-the-hill-and-on-the-shelf crisis about to drop like a cartoon anvil upon her head. The crisis was merely suspended, though; in the weeks following the break-up, it showed up in a far more lethal form. No escape.
It is obvious where her mind is: Bo has sprinted off with it. She has been unable to think since he went; urgently needs it back.
As Karin unlocks her front door and enters, she hears the phone shrieking from the back room.
- Uh . . . hello? she wheezes, breathless from her mad dive.
It is Rivka from the Association for the Blind. Rivka rattles off her interminable speech without allowing Karin any possibility of interruption. After what feels like two or five lifetimes, she concludes:
- So you understand now that this is a very important cause. Any contribution will be greatly appreciated.
- Sorry, says Karin.
- Even a small contribution?
- I don’t give on the phone.
- We can send you our envelope in the mail.
- Sorry. No.
- Are you sure?
- Yes. Sorry.
- Okay, then, if you’re sure, says Rivka.
- Good luck.
Feeling empowered by her resistance to Rivka’s bullying, Karin hangs the red glove up to dry on a line strung across her ceiling. She clips it with a wooden clothes peg, adjacent to three other gloves dangling there: one large black, one slim brown leather, one small fluffy pink. Now that she has four it is actually turning into a collection. Ironically enough, though, she still does not possess a proper pair of her own–she keeps forgetting to go to buy one. Perhaps if she picks up enough strays she will find two that match.
She considers them for a long time, daydreaming about their owners. Sherlock Holmes would probably have been able to glean large amounts of biographical information merely from looking, but all she knows is that somewhere out there, a man, two women and a child have one cold hand and one warm one. Perhaps, she reassures herself, they are with someone whose hand they can hold, at least until they can get to a shop and buy a new pair. Surely the child at least will be fine. Children always have people whose hands they can hold without need for endless analyses and bickering or illogical rejection because they stare at cats. How nice to be a child.
??? thinks Karin, as her bus jolts its way round the slippery curves in the Katamonim area. The route seems to have changed while she was busy having her crisis, and she hopes that it will still end up taking her where she needs to go. Though she is only a ten-minute ride from her house, the population here is very different. In the summer, men in stained undershirts play backgammon on verandas and in yards, bags of sunflower seeds to hand, myriad dark shells littering courtyards. Now, though, everyone is bundled up in their coats, faces shielded against the wind, and they look exactly the same as her own neighbours back in the wealthier neighbourhood. All people look the same in the rain, she thinks.
She is on her way to her Judaism classes. She decided to study Judaism intensively this year. She has never been very religious, describing herself as a ‘fundamentalist agnostic’ for many years, but somehow this year it seemed the right thing to do, having landed up unexpectedly in Jerusalem, studying for her doctorate at the Hebrew University.
On the bus, she finds an old green glove with a hole in the finger lying unruffled on the next seat. It looked like a workman’s glove, though only Sherlock would know whether a gardener’s or a builder’s. With one deft movement she appropriates it for her growing collection.
The class is on Talmudic laws. This week’s topic is, aptly enough, lost objects. Jewish law requires a person to try to return a lost object if it bears identifying marks, such that the owner will not have abandoned hope of finding it. You are supposed to leave a sign with your contact details, and you ask callers to give the code, the identifying marks that prove they are for real.
Karin finds herself considering her collection. Should she have tried harder to locate the owners? The black and the pink one are nondescript and generic, impossible to return. But the brown leather and the red are expensive and unquestionably missed by their owners. And what about the one she has just taken from the bus? It is old, but maybe has sentimental value after being used for so many years? Perhaps this owner is at this moment beseeching the bus driver, Are you sure? Could you just check once more for me?
She feels a start of guilt. Surely not. Rather say that it had been left on the bus deliberately because it is worn and useless. She has not even considered, when picking up these gloves, that she might do any harm. People often do not consider, do they, that they might do harm? Most just open their mouths and begin spraying out harm at all angles like some agricultural aircraft flying over a field of beets. They are not careful with their words, as she is.
Her incipient bitterness bothers Karin. She has lately been thinking that she should just call Bo. There were misunderstandings. So much was right between them that she is not willing to forgo it without a fight, waiting around for another six long years for the next man whose company is more than just sufferable. She is not the black or pink glove! She is the red one! Bo was right for her, in a way few men are. It was simply his insecurity, triggered by her lack of expressiveness, that torpedoed their togetherness. That could be remedied–couldn’t it? She should call.
The teacher, an older man with liver spots, is now saying:
- Incidentally, the Talmud introduces the subject of lost objects elsewhere, in a surprising place. In discussing the active role of the man in creating the sacred bond of matrimony, the Talmud notes: It is the custom of a man to go in search of a woman, but it is not the custom of a woman to go in search of a man. This may be compared to a man who lost an article. Who goes in search of whom? The loser goes in search of the lost object.
He looks around at his students.
- No arguing with that, right? When was the last time one of your lost socks showed up at the door looking for you?
The class laughs, but the thoughtful expression never leaves Karin’s face.
It is raining quite heavily as she walks out into the thick night air to catch her bus home. On a bench, a man is lying under some wet newspapers and she guesses that he will be very inky by the time the rain finished. Bo told her that he had once walked by a beggar rolling half out of his mind on the streets of New York, and had felt such pity for the man that he invited him home. The man ended up staying in his apartment for two weeks, by the end of which Bo could not wait for him to leave.
He had confessed: It makes me feel ashamed to tell you that.
Karin had remarked: I could never have done that, invited a strange smelly individual into my home.
She wanted to add, but didn’t: You have an incredible heart.
His arm curled, a warm, insulating belt around her waist.
- You have other strengths.
She had thought then how utterly amazing he was, and how happy she was to be with him, but she had not said so. She had believed her smile would let him know everything he needed to know. Stupid smile. F for Fail.
When Karin gets home, she shifts the gloves so that she can clip the old green glove next to the small pink one, where it seems to belong. They swing together gently, like a little girl and her grandfather. She decides to take the lecturer’s words as a sign. She will not call Bo; he has to come to her.
The following day she is actually in studying mode for a welcome change, buried deep inside her books, when the phone begins its catcalls. This time Karin just knows it is Bo; she can practically feel his warm, masculine energy emanating from the instrument.
- Hello? she cries, almost pulling the phone out of its socket.
- Shalom, says a deep male voice.
Her heart leaps. The voice continues:
- Have I reached family Abramson?
It is yet another charity call. She has finally figured out that the reason they call her so frequently is because her last name begins with the first Hebrew letter, aleph. By the time they get to the last letter, taf, the callers are exhausted, hoarse, or dead. Tomorrow she will change her name to Tabramson.
- No! says Karin grumpily.
- This is not family Abramson?
- There is no family Abramson. You’re speaking to Karin Abramson. No husband, no boyfriend, no
children, not even a pet lizard. Understand?
An awkward laugh. They must have to deal with their fair share of nutters.
- Ah, hi Karin, this is Kobi from the Israeli Epileptic Society.
Karin makes a face at the phone.
- We work with populations all over the country–
She interrupts him:
- Kobi, are you married?
- Yes, I am.
- That’s nice for you. Very, very lovely.
- Er, Karin, I’m calling to ask you–
- Sorry, I can’t give now.
- Shall I try again at a better time?
- Oh, does it get better?
Another awkward laugh.
- So can I call you again next week?
- I have to go.
Karin slams the phone down. Her concentration lost, she sits there, staring at the gloves. She stands up, and unclips the black one and the red one, slipping them gently onto her hands. The black one is a little too big, the red a little too small, perched on her fingers, the elastic sleeve choking her circulation.
- Darrrling, says the black glove in a deep voice, I just wanted to tell you you’re an amazing person and I’ve never met anyone like you.
- Why thank you, says the red glove in a high-pitched voice. I appreciate you saying that. I feel the same way.
- I know I made some mistakes.
- I did too. I should have told you more about my feelings . . .
- No, I should have been more sensitive and not tried to force you . . .
- No, it was me . . .
- Me . . .
- I miss you . . .
The two gloves nuzzle up to each other. Karin strips them off in disgust and throws them onto the floor. She jumps up and down, thudding onto the floor each time and yelling nothing in particular. Then the phone rings again.
- HELLO? she shouts.
- Uh–may I speak to Karin Abramson?
It is another unfamiliar voice, a woman’s voice. Karin does not reply, so the voice repeats its request. After a moment, Karin finally says:
- I’m sorry, I’m not in at the moment.
- You’re . . . you’re not in?
- No. I’m out. Call back next century.
Karin hangs up.
The next glove Karin finds is purple, with a fur ruff. Another distinctive one. She briefly considers making a sign, but lacks materials to make it with. A proper Jew, a really good Jew, would go home, write a note, return with cellotape and thumb tacks and a hammer and bang it up on a tree. But she just takes home the glove, and strings it up on the line.
- Uh, okay folks, your attention please. Everyone, meet purple glove. She’s new, be nice to her. Remember what it was like for you when you first arrived . . . I just know you’re all going to get along.
How do all these absent-minded people keep losing their gloves? Do they take off one glove to light a cigarette and then, in the headiness of smoking, just drop it? Does it fall out of a pocket or a violently ransacked bag? She has filled nearly the entire length of the string in the space of only three weeks.
Before Bo, Karin would probably not even have noticed the gloves at all. Three months with him have transformed her. He taught her to observe the people on the street as never before, to pay attention to the details–the “delicates,” he called them. Her default mode for wandering the streets is to be lost in a philosophical daydream, but he roused her by plucking abruptly at her sleeve and saying, “That old woman, don’t focus on her flaccid skin and bleached hair, look instead at those sorrowful eyes, imagine what they have seen, maybe she came over on a boat as a little girl, from a country where she lived in a huge white house with a view of the souk, or maybe she lost her beloved son in the Yom Kippur war, the son who reminded her of the father she never knew. There is an entire world there.”
Bo taught Karin to close her eyes and enter a quiet space inside her, away from the gaggle of intellectual concepts migrating in her mind. He took her to meetings of people from many countries who spoke about politics and peace: Palestinians, Germans, Swedes, African Christians, American Jews, Israelis. He opened horizons for her, yet she could not open to him. He gave her worlds, but she withheld words. That is her custom, her way.
The day after she finds the purple glove, Karin visits the little booth where Sasha, her shoe repair guy, sits, outside the post office on Keren Kayemet Street. Sasha is a Russian Jewish immigrant who inevitably greets her with a wide smile full of yellow teeth and a wave of his filthy hands: Ma nishma, motek? Perhaps he greets everyone this way, but she believes that he genuinely likes her, and he has twice waved her off when she tried to pay for a small job, crying, with thick Russians lameds clotting up his Hebrew: “Lo, lo tzarich, metukah!”
Today she has come to pick up her boot, one of a pair of expensive shiny pointed brown boots she brought from America, the only high-heeled shoes she owns. The heel had come loose and he had told her to return in two days. This was last week. The booth is closed and she expects to see a sign saying that he has gone to lunch. Instead, a scrawled notice on a torn piece of paper announces that he is in hospital; for all inquiries call 0545-094-6532. Dismayed and thrown, she dials the number, but there is no answer. She treads the street, imagining him lying in the hospital all alone, and experiences a desire to visit him, though perhaps he would have no idea who she was. Hard on the heels of this noble feeling comes the selfish one. She planned to wear those boots to a wedding this week, but now she cannot even access the boot, locked away as it is in the booth. She thumb-pads the number again but in vain.
No one answers over the next few hours either. Sad as she is for Sasha, she cannot help feeling aggravated by the situation. He always inserts the client’s phone number into the bag with the faulty footwear, and whoever has the key to the booth should, from an ethical and moral perspective, have troubled to call up the shoe owners and arrange for pick up. Maybe someone is at this very moment hopping around barefoot in the cold? It is a human rights matter.
Karin chides herself for entertaining ludicrous and selfish thoughts while Sasha is lying ill. She tells herself that all this is actually a punishment from heaven for taking those gloves instead of trying to return them to their owners. Just as they now have only one glove, so she now has only one boot. As the Sages say: Mida k’neged mida, measure for measure.
Bo, who has a bit of a Gandhi fetish, told her about the time one of Gandhi’s sandals had slipped off his foot and down onto the railway tracks just as his train was pulling out of the station. He quickly threw his other sandal onto the track alongside the first, explaining to puzzled bystanders: “The man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.”
That tzaddik strove to reunite footwear, while she, Karin, a wicked person, is making zero effort to help the lost gloves locate their other halves. What would Bo have thought? That’s just it, he would not have thought. He would have gone out, bought a huge bag of snacks, and gone directly to unearth Sasha in whatever dismal hospital he had washed up in. What her ex set out to find, he found.
She doesn’t want to think about Bo any more. At home, she takes the remaining shiny brown boot out of her closet and stands it up below the line of gloves.
- Here Betty Bootie, hang out with these guys till Bernie Bootie returns. If he ever does.
A week passes. Karin gives up on the useless number, and goes to visit the booth again instead. No Sasha. She feels alarmed, pained. Is he still alive? She thinks of all those shoes, stifled in bags in their dark prison, and is happy that the gloves she rescued are out hanging in the light and air with each other for company. Poor little shoes.
An unexpected tear rolls out of her eye and down her chin.
- You’re going crazy, she reprimands herself stingingly, and it feels like swimming in the Dead Sea after shaving.
In front of her on the street, a woman wearing a headscarf takes a plastic bag out of a stroller, and a glove falls out onto the ground. It is a red glove and from a distance Karin has the impression that it is an exact match for the one she has at home. For a moment she experiences a powerful urge to keep silent, just let the woman walk on so that she can take possession of the glove and finally own a pair. But instead she shouts, “Excuse me!,” not once but several times, until the woman turns around and notices her wild gesticulations. When the woman picks up the glove, Karin sees that it is not the same design at all–no fancy button, no long sleeve.
The woman thanks her, walks on. Karin advances a few steps and then a cup of coins is rattled so loudly it is practically in her face. It is the beggar woman sitting on a stool on the corner of Keren Kayemet and King George streets. Karin has walked past her a million times. This time, for some reason, the coins’ rattle roots Karin to the spot. She notices for the first time the woman’s disheveled hair, lopsided nose and sensitive brown eyes gazing dully out from under her ghastly torn wooly hat. The old woman–is she even old, or just beaten down to a pulp of ugliness?–puts down the cup and reaches out her hand, palm open.
- Please, please, dollar. Please, please, ten dollar.
Karin looks at her, remembers the Judaism class a few weeks ago on the laws of charity. The most fundamental charity situation is when your brother, who has fallen low, opens his hand to you. Give. Do not be stone-hearted.
- Here you go.
She takes out her wallet, and before she can change her mind, places a one hundred shekel note into the plastic cup.
The woman’s face, a pastiche of features that would not have looked out of place in a Picasso painting, breaks into a shocked smile. She proceeds to caw a volley of blessings at Karin’s receding back: May you have children and wealth and all God’s bounty. Karin turns to smile awkwardly at her, and then walks on, the cracked voice following her volubly until she rounds the next corner.
- Shalom, Mrs Abramson? This is Etty from the Association for Autistic Children. Do you have a minute?
- Good morning Etty. I have no doubt you do excellent work, but in order not to waste your time, let me explain that I give to my own charities and not on the phone. Sorry to disappoint you.
- Not even a small contribution . . . ? Eighteen shekels?
- No. But keep up the good work, and I really wish you the best of luck. Shalom.
Karin replaces the phone, and reaches for her pen.
It’s been four months, and I am more or less recovered, but there’s still stuff I need to express to you. It’s important sometimes to speak things aloud, to get them out of your brain and into another’s ears.
I’m not trying to get anything from you or get back together. I ran into Yuval at the supermarket and he told me you’re doing well and have a new girlfriend. Apparently you’ve even asked people to start calling you Boaz. I confess I was surprised, I thought hell would freeze over first.
Anyway, what I want to say is that I’m grateful I met you. You changed my life, in so many ways, both subtle and significant. Since our break-up I’ve embarked on a new trajectory which I think will take me to good places.
You complained that I never told you, while we were together, that I love you. As I mentioned then, I was brought up in a family that never said those words. I do not recall even one occasion when they were said in my hearing. It was assumed that true emotion is expressed not in speech but in action. Too many people in this world employ those words facilely towards people whom the next moment they unhesitatingly abuse in some way. My parents were, and are, very principled people, and they do not treat words lightly.
While I now see theirs as an extreme stance, and I hope to one day tell someone I love him, I still hold that phrase to be incalculably sacred, to be used only when expressing no less than a willingness to commit for a lifetime. Accordingly, I still cannot really say that I definitely loved you. But I do know, Boaz Bar-Shalev, that I definitely gloved you.
What is that? I hear you ask.
To glove someone means to send all your heart’s warmth their way, so as to defend them from the winter cold–simply because you would do anything to protect them and make them happy. It means that your skin is a second skin wrapped around theirs, fitting all of their curves and crevices, following them in their highs and lows and trying to serve as a barrier from the worst of the blows. It also means knowing that you are one of a pair, and doing your best not to get lost, because that leaves the other glove on its own, which is pretty useless (believe me, I know).
Yes, I did glove you, very much so. And I really apologize for not telling you at the time. To some extent, behind the excuse of my upbringing, there was simply a lot of fear, I admit. And I know you suffered because of it.
I’m happy to have had the opportunity to say this, and I bless the time we had together.
All good things,
Gently she laid the letter and her pen aside, and curled up in her bean-bag, hand upon her face, thumb inwards. Soon she was soundlessly asleep, while above her serene face the gloves swung gently in harmony on their line, as the spring current wafted in through the open window, bringing with it the scent of fresh life and love.
Copyright © Yael Unterman 2012
Yael Unterman grew up in Manchester, England, and now resides in Jerusalem. She holds an MA from the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University. She has published academic articles, poetry, stories, and book reviews, and has performed her play, After Eden, internationally. Her first book, a biography entitled Nehama Leibowitz: Teacher and Bible Scholar (Urim) was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards. Her new book, The Hidden of Things (Yotzeret), is a collection of interlinked short stories dealing with young, single Jews seeking love, God and identity in a confusing world. See www.yaelunterman.com.