Life in Fifty Minutes

 

Life in Fifty Minutes

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Benny Barbash

Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu

 

‘All there is between me and my husband is a coffee stain.’
 
Said Zahava after thirty-seven minutes of soul-searching as she lay on the couch, taking full advantage of her right to silence in the framework of the therapy contract.
 
Until that minute she didn’t utter a word because she was afraid that from the moment her vague feeling turned into an explicit statement accusing her husband of the failure of their marriage, of cheating on her, of robbing her of her life – her whole world would collapse. It was one thing to sense things vaguely, and like most of us to carry on living as if they didn’t exist; but to dare to think them, and what’s more to put the elusive thoughts into clear and explicit words said out loud, into the listening ears of a stranger, even if he was a therapist, that was already a radical act capable of disrupting the order of her life, shaking the foundations of her world, and even destroying it.
 
Already when she was climbing the stairs, weak-kneed – these therapy sessions that forced her to confront not only the therapist but also herself, really stressed her out – she had made up her mind that today she would break her silence and pour out her heart. After all, she was paying the full price for this analysis, and she should make full use of the services of the well-known psychotherapist which she had purchased for fifty minutes, twice a week. It made no sense for her to drive all the way from her home to the clinic, climb three flights of stairs, pay a fortune, because this therapist was expensive, and in the end waste the time she had paid him to listen to her on silence. If her muteness during the sessions continued, she thought, she should get a refund. It made no sense to make her pay  the sum required for an hour of talking/listening for an hour of silence. Even if you took into account the fact that sometimes silence was part of the process, as the therapist had explained to her after one the sessions when she hadn’t opened her mouth, it couldn’t be the whole story. She had enough of silence when she was alone at home; and even when her husband was there with her, it was only rarely that the silence between them was broken ever since they had both realized that they had nothing new to say to each other, and what had been was what would be and what had been done was what would be done and all that remained was to keep quiet or repeat the same things over and over again.
 
What did occasionally interrupt the silence were the day to day affairs that oblige couples to converse never mind how sick and tired they are of each other: who pays what bill and when; arranging to go together to a movie or a play they both want to see, and it would be odd, even in their own eyes, for them to go separately; changing the washing machine that had started to make a noise and failed to wring the laundry properly (‘It really is high time, it’s done it’s job’); a meeting of the residents committee (if they lived in an apartment); a memorial for one of their parents (sooner or later, if we don’t die before our parents, we’ll be orphaned and obliged to pay a visit to the cemetery); the wedding of a close friend’s daughter (‘She’s already twenty eight? How time flies’ or ‘How much to make the check out for?’ – necessary arrangements between a husband and wife who share a home, a bank account, a son and daughter who have already flown the nest even though they continue to be supported by their parents, to enflame their guilty feelings and to exploit then whenever they get the chance.
 
When she knocked on the clinic door with a faltering hand, like someone facing a guilty verdict, her stomach turned over and her thoughts writhed in her head like a nest of snakes invaded by a burning torch. Today I’ll talk, she repeated to herself, trying to overcome her fears. I’ll spill it all out. I’ll vomit up all the poison that continued silence has been fermenting in my blood for years. I have no alternative, this is my last chance to abort the insane plan which if carried out would wreak havoc with my life, and already the words were collecting on the tip of her tongue, the place from which such (often irresponsible) outbursts were usually launched into the world, harsh statements rivaling each other in their severity: my husband is a cheater, he’s cheating on me like he cheated on his God. When I fell in love with him he was a different person. Completely different, and if human relationships were subject to contract law, which is one of her husband’s areas of expertise, she would certainly have had grounds to sue him for breach of trust on one of the fundamental terms of the agreement. He wasn’t the same man she had met in the faculty cafeteria all those years ago.
 
He’s older. Much older. Sometimes, however intrinsically untenable, it seemed to her that the number of years he had lived through since they met was greater than those she had lived through. Nothing in his face, his body and his soul reminded her of the young man she had fallen in love with then, when she had upset a cup of coffee on his trousers, if she had ever actually fallen in love with him, which was now also open to doubt.
 
He was handsome, curly-headed, with a winning smile, witty, without any wrinkles, with a twinkle in his eye, religiously observant with a passion which succeeded in sweeping a secular person like herself into his world. When she paged through the photograph album or looked at the whole wall devoted to family photos in his study she was astounded at the changes that had taken place in all of them, but mainly in him. As if in some ironic reversal of the wheel of time, the glorious butterfly he had once been had given birth to an ugly wrinkled cocoon. Perhaps he wasn’t the same person, the thought sometimes came into her head, maybe the man who snored next to her and woke up four or five times a night to go to the toilet was a faded replica of her husband, to take his place while he himself absconded to another country with the blonde whose hair she had found on his undershirt.
 
Sometimes, when he sat up in bed and groped with blind feet for the slippers that would lead him in the dark to the lavatory, she would wake up and watch him. He would heave himself out of bed with a stifled groan, accustoming his eyes to the dark and shuffling heavily towards the bathroom. The light from the street lamp filtering in through the slats of the blind stripes his slightly stooping shadow on the opposite wall. He doesn’t close the door or switch on the light so as not to disturb her, lets his pajama pants fall to his ankles and sits down heavily on the lavatory seat. Once in a while, in the agonizing wait for his body to organize itself to operate its treacherous urological system, he falls asleep and wakes up in a panic, looks around him in bewilderment, as if asking himself when and how he had arrived here, and then, when he is wide awake, he wonders whether he has already peed in his sleep and should say the blessing to ‘the Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and vessels. It is well known before thy glorious throne, that if but one of these be opened, or one of those be closed, it would be impossible to exist and stand before thee. Blessed art thou O Lord, who art the wondrous healer of all flesh’, which he had once recited with pious fervor, even after passing one little drop of urine, and with the passing of the years mumbled out of habit, and gradually completely abandoned, like all the rest of the religious rites and rituals which he had shed together with his yarmulka, with the four-fringes, with the tefillin, with the covering of the bedroom mezuza during sexual intercourse with his wife, not because he was disappointed in the betrayal of his body and its ailments and had ceased to see God in his flesh, but because of a profound and systematic loss of faith. Since when had he started to pee sitting down, like a woman? She forgot about Job and returned to her husband suffering on the lavatory and waiting for the minor miracle to take place and open the requisite orifice at last.
 
This isn’t the product I bought, she would say to the therapist when she finally decided to open her mouth without counting the cost. Don’t you think, she would continue, that people should go about with their expiry date branded let’s say on their back, or their backside, so that you can tell when the person you set out with will stop being the one you knew and turn into someone else? And when her reserved therapist, who was careful to stay in control all the time, would look at her in surprise and wonder how a woman so withdrawn, who had held her tongue for two and a half entire sessions, would release it from its bonds in order to pronounce such bold, cutting words, she would add that it was a pity she hadn’t taken an exchange voucher. Would you like to exchange your husband? perhaps he would ask, and his question would bring to the surface the main reason she had come to him in the first place: the blonde hair she had found curled around the strap of her husband’s undershirt and all the other evidence it had led to, which for several weeks now had been upsetting her life and driving her crazy.
 
There was no doubt that this hair provided decisive proof of the extent of her husband’s treachery. What other explanation could there be of this discovery? she repeatedly asked the private detective she had hired and two or three close girlfriends in whom she had confided, but all the answers she received did nothing to silence the suspicions echoing in her head with a deafening ring, threatening to smash it to smithereens. Perhaps it was time to include the therapist too in her questioning.
 
My life is cursed, she would go on to say to the therapist, when and if she decided to open her mouth, my mother cheated on my father and now my husband is cheating on me. Do you think you can remove this curse from me like removing a coffee stain from a pair of trousers, or perhaps what we have here is a genetic problem, an organic defect that no psychological treatment can cure?!
 
And again, inevitably, in the whirlpool of thoughts spinning round in her head in an exhausting, echoing loop, like a broken record, the vital question returned: ‘Who does the long (fourteen centimeters) blonde hair I found on the strap of my husband’s undershirt belong to?’
 
In many senses it could be said that the discovery of the hair and the chain of events ensuing from it, including the hiring of the private detective to follow her husband, had led Zahava in the end to the well-known therapist. This hair would not leave her be. It had swelled and lengthened and thickened like an enormous tapeworm feeding on her anxieties, and finishing the rich meal with her suspicions for dessert, creeping heavily through the tunnels of her head, coiling its filthy, sticky body round her thoughts, surfacing in her consciousness at the most unexpected moments and sending its offshoots into every nook and cranny, clinging to the crumbs of her life scattering in all directions, to the point of taking it over completely.
 
She had already heard from a number of girlfriends about the destruction inherent in the question marks sown in the heart of a woman who suspects, without any definite proof, and perhaps without any justification at all, that her husband is cheating on her. The absolute enslavement to her suspicions, making her entire existence turn round a single axis. Every action of the suspect, every gesture of his body, is judged and interpreted to comply with the suspicions and nourish them. Everything the husband does or says fits into the jigsaw puzzle whose pieces the suspicious wife puts together to conform to the picture she has in her head in advance. If he murmurs in his sleep, he must be thinking or dreaming of the other woman. If he blinks during a conversation and averts his eyes, he must be trying to hide something from her. If the call is cut off when she answers her husband’s cell phone by mistake, it must be the mistress quickly disconnecting the phone when she hears the voice of the legitimate wife. If he yawns and shows signs of tiredness early in the evening, no excuse, however logical, will withstand the perfect explanation put forward by her suspicions, according to which his tiredness stems from his vigorous fucking of the other woman that morning. Doubt as the organizing principle and interpreter of reality, her physicist friend once told her, is more productive than all the scientific theories attempting a comprehensive explanation in which all the phenomena existing in the world come together in one watertight body of evidence confirming the hypothesis.
 
When she listened to her girlfriends’ stories – one of them attacked her husband during a family dinner and stabbed him in the cheek with a fish fork when her suspicions that he was cheating on her swelled to such giant proportions that they drove her out of her mind – she thought that at least she was saved from this. Why should she care if a strange man, who happened to be married to her and living with her for over thirty years, went to bed with other women? But as opposed to what she thought at the time, it turned out later that she too was destined to suffer from the Othello syndrome, which described, as she learned from the private detective she hired and the psychotherapist he recommended she go to, the very symptoms she herself was exhibiting.
 
It all began, therefore, with the hair, and whenever she remembered it, immediately, in a kind of Pavlovian response, it triggered the memory of the discovery, when as she was separating the laundry into white and colored items she suddenly noticed it, coiled like a sleeping snake round the strap of her husband’s undershirt. She freed the strap from the clutches of the reptilian seducer, stretched it out in front of her eyes and stared at it for a while. It was a long, fair hair, neither thick nor thin, neither smooth nor rough. Quite an ordinary hair. A hair about which, under different circumstances, there might have been nothing particular to say.   
 
At first glance it could safely be assumed that it was a head and not a pubic hair, since as far as she knew the latter were not in the habit of growing so long. It was also almost certain that it was a woman’s hair and not a man’s. On closer inspection, under the magnifying glass she found next to her son’s forgotten stamp collection, she discovered that the texture of the hair was not uniform. On one side, a few millimeters from the end, the hair was gray, and the last millimeters at the other end were a little burnt.
 
What synthetic blonde with dyed gray hair do I know? she asked herself, and as always when she tried to focus her thoughts, they scattered like clouds dispersed by the wind. For a moment she forgot what it was she was trying to remember until one of her straying thoughts hit upon the verse ‘grey hairs are here and there upon him yet he knoweth not’ and returned her to the matter which had made her lose her concentration, except that as opposed to the passage in the book of Hosea in which the old man paid no attention to his graying head, the blonde whore had certainly paid attention to the gray hairs here and there upon her head, and she had taken good care to hide them and thus snare Zahava’s husband in her net.
 
A parade of her girlfriends, the wives of her husband’s friends, secretaries in his office, and other women they had known in the course of their lives together began to pass before her mind’s eye. Tall and short, shapely and dumpy, smiling and sad, with perky breasts and sagging ones, bold and timid, elegant and slovenly. She lined them up before her in an attempt to identify the criminal by comparing the orphaned hair lying in her hand to the hair of the suspects, which gave rise to a vague memory of the course in ‘material evidence’ which she had taken in her second year at law school when she still believed that she would have a career as a successful lawyer or a judge who would inspire fear in everyone who appeared in her court. A hair from the crime scene certainly qualified as hard evidence since DNA testing could identify the criminal from whose head it had fallen. In that case, all that remained was to send the hair to a forensics laboratory – there was an excellent one in France, she remembered – and to compare the results of the tests to the DNA of her suspects, who would have no objections to giving her a scrap of skin shed from their foot in the course of a pedicure, a handful of hair from their hairbrush or a sample of their saliva. That was all she would need.
 
After dismissing the curly-haired, the cropped, the brunettes and the redheads, there were four candidates left who might match the profile of the transgressor, without taking into account the women she didn’t know existed. This made her think of the separate worlds inhabited by her husband and herself, and the restricted overlap between them – a bedroom with two beds separated by a bedside table; watching the six o’clock news show together on television, if her husband came home from work early enough; a quick cup of coffee in the morning before her husband hurried off to his office or the courts; the festive Rosh Hashanah meal or the Passover Seder held since the children grew up at one of her husband’s sisters’ homes; the Philharmonic subscription which they hardly used anymore because of the closeness imposed on them for two hours at a time by the adjacent seats in the concert hall; the walk-in closet where even their clothes maintained an appropriate distance from each other; a common bank account in which he deposited his income and from which she withdrew her expenses; and two children one of whom was wandering aimlessly round Australia and the other teaching neuro-sciences in Canada, as if they too had smelled the stench of the decomposing connection between their parents and made up their minds to distance themselves from it as far as possible. Such are the profusion of thoughts  which a single hair in certain circumstances is capable of producing, until it itself is forgotten.
 
If she had found the hair on Dov, her husband’s, suit, or even on the shirt underneath it, she would almost certainly have shaken it off without a second thought and gone on sorting the laundry. It happens that women’s hairs, which they shed at a rate of about a hundred a day, are blown in the wind and float in the air with all the rest of the litter filling the world, and sometimes land by accident on the clothes of men passing by. But a hair which had breached all the armor of the outer garments and succeeded in infiltrating the undergarments, and moreover in winding round the strap of the undershirt like the straps of the tefillin encircling a man’s forearm in seven tight rings?! Someone had invested a lot of effort in her handiwork here and there was no way it could have happened by accident. In other words, resting in Zahava’s hand was no less than evidence of breach of trust, and to put it more bluntly, betrayal. But on second thoughts, was it possible to speak at all of trust in a relationship which had long been empty of content, which was maintained by force of habit, routine, and the hollow gestures which are the repertoire by means of which almost every couple maintains the show of a life in common, until they take over completely and cover up the black hole yawning between them? Zahava asks herself and answers no. You couldn’t talk about trust in this situation. And if there was no room for trust here then there was no possibility of breaching it either. And if there was no betrayal of trust, why the feeling of anger or perhaps even jealousy growing inside her? It made no sense! And in spite of the logic inherent in the hypothesis and the necessary conclusion, it appeared that matters of the heart and soul were not subject to the dictates of common sense, and the proof lay in the hair which now lay in Zahava’s hand and awoke from its slumbers some buried instinct, some savage and forgotten animal baring its fangs, whose presence inside her she had not guessed even when she was young and had just met Dov. Another woman in her husband’s life endangered the routine of her own life, which however dull and dreary was also safe and secure. If he moved in with her and had children with her – for even old men did not lose their virility until the day they died (and some of them maintained their erections even after they were dead, a fact she had once heard in a lecture popped into her head) – what would become of Zahava then? What would become of her home, her livelihood, the habits carrying her safely along a regular, familiar path? What would become of her identity which was already woven into his identity and imprinted on their common identity, which was so self-evident and imperceptible that sometimes, like the air you breathed, its importance only became evident when it was about to slip out of your hands or deliberately stolen from you by your rival, and she returned to staring at the hair to one end of which all these dangers seemed to be connected, and all that was needed for all of them to invade the fortress of her life was a slight tug on the other end. Who is this whore?! the question cried out inside her, urgent and panic-stricken. I have to know who she is! And she held up the worm and inspected it against the light, perhaps a few more details unnoticed on her first examination would be revealed to her, but in the end she realized how pointless it was to attempt to find a connection between the evidence, which was almost invisible in the glare of the sunlight, and the accused, and she succumbed to a mild attack of nausea, which obliged her to sit down on the lavatory seat. Unconsciously she began to wind the hair around her finger, tightening it more and more until her finger began to turn red under her fingernail. I have to calm down and think logically, she ordered herself and tried to steady her breathing and slow down the beating of her heart, and after she had calmed down a bit she allowed herself to dissolve into the puddle of suspicions and self-pity which had begun to collect inside her. In the mirror on the door her reflection looked back at her with the face of a stranger, someone completely different to her, older and more miserable, and unable to bear  the wet and beaten gaze of the woman looking at her, she dropped her eyes. The hair could only provide supporting evidence, she remembered another concept from the distant days of her studies; she needed something more conclusive, proof of guilt  beyond a reasonable doubt, like a photograph of the blonde lying naked in her husband’s arms, or an eye witness, a note explicitly expressing her husband’s feelings for his mistress or her feelings for him, a text message arranging a rendezvous at a love nest perhaps maintained by her husband in addition to his two offices and the three apartments they rented out. As she sat on the lavatory reconstructing in her memory the lessons of the course on rules of evidence she had completed with full marks thirty-two years before, she calculated the number and was horrified by the results, the voices of a man and a woman rose from behind the wall. They sounded muffled and it was impossible to make out the words. Only the tone. The stifled and tearful voice of a defensive woman and the angry and demanding voice of a man. Like the exchange between the sad wails of a jackal and the angry, excited barks of a pack of dogs she had once heard on the outskirts of a Polish village she had visited with her father when he decided to share his past with her. The memory of the roots journey made her forget the hair for a moment, but then the sound of a distant door slamming came from the neighbors’ apartment, followed by an oppressive silence which left her with herself and her reflection rubbing the incriminating evidence between her fingers.
 
For some time she went on sitting there limply and hopelessly and suddenly she rose abruptly to her feet, and full of renewed energy hurried to the walk-in closet in order to look for additional incriminating evidence. She swooped down on the spacious enclosure, organized with her husband’s German orderliness, going from shelf to shelf and hanger to hanger, savagely pulling out the pocket linings, rummaging through the collections of bags with eager fingers, delving into the compact suitcases with their many compartments and zips, which he took on his short trips abroad, turning over elegant shoulder bags and shaking them violently to spill out their guts, inspecting the rucksack he had used when he was still serving in the reserves as the commander of an armored company, delving into the briefcases including the prestigious Old Angler she had bought him for his sixtieth birthday; only a few months had passed since the huge party she had thrown for him, but it seemed like an eternity.
 
After about an hour she sat down on the ladder-stool which she had climbed in order to reach the top shelves and sweep down the summer clothes now lying scattered over the floor, and surveyed the havoc she had wreaked and the little loot she had caught in her net: a few foreign banknotes and coins, an empty magazine and three bullets green with age, two tattered maps, one of Istanbul and one of Livorno, marked with routes joining smudged ink X’s, an ancient chap stick, an identity disk threaded with a gray whistle on a silver chain, an old soldier’s ID card and a disintegrating field dressing, a transparent graphic tactical plan with blue arrows representing our forces and leading to Shula one, two, three and four, and Hedva five and six, representing enemy forces pictured as red eggs, and on the margins details of the forces that would infiltrate, penetrate, overwhelm, occupy and take control of the Shulas and the Hedvas – they even take their sexual fantasies with them on military campaigns, she thought bitterly, by giving women’s names to the fortified enemy objectives. From there she went on to four notes hastily scribbled during legal proceedings, detailing questions for the cross-examination and on the margins sketches of the judge and others present in the courtroom, which her husband was so good at drawing, and three folded pages printed in a very small font in English, describing the complicated course of events in a shady business transaction, starting in a chemical plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, and continuing in a factory manufacturing electronic boards for weapons systems in a remote district of Poland, and disappearing in Transnistria, apparently another one of the exotic cases obliging her husband to travel from time to time to one of the fractured states torn from the dead body of the Soviet Empire and scattered roundabout it, like the ricochets of an exploded meteor; a flow sheet charting a process which he never succeeded in getting to the bottom of, old passport photographs of him, her, and the children when they were about seven and nine, all of them deadly serious, except for the younger son smiling with a mouth missing two front teeth and with an optimism which over the years proved unjustified. A bunch of keys which did not fit any of the doors in the house, candy wrappers, old receipts, drawing pencils, a few diskettes from the previous generation, two notebooks with various memos, dates of the birthdays of family members and friends, shopping lists of Barbie clothes and Lego set codes dictated to Dov by his children before his trips abroad. His German passport and her Polish passport which they had acquired to be on the safe side, a black silk skullcap and two knitted skullcaps, a set of phylacteries which he had used when he was still observant, and a yellowing paper napkin on which a telephone number was written in what looked like a woman’s pink lipstick.
 
She lined her booty up on the bed and inspected it as closely as a sergeant major on morning parade inspecting the cheeks of new recruits for stubble. After considering the legal worth of the exhibits, as she began calling the objects to herself, she left on the bed the key ring attached to a babushka and consisting of four standard sized Yale keys and one tiny silver key (exhibit 2), the maps of Istanbul and Livorno (exhibits 3 and 3a), the napkin with the telephone number (exhibit 4) and the hair marked exhibit 1. She wondered whether to include in the exhibits of the prosecution the document concerning Transnistria: this miniature state, like others in Eastern Europe, was full of impoverished blondes whose readiness to give themselves to wealthy foreigners from distant lands was a well known fact, but in the end she decided to leave it out. She looked at the silent chosen objects and tried to guess what stories they would tell if they could speak, and since they maintained the right to silence and the chance of getting them to talk seemed weak even to a woman in her state, she began to tell herself her own version, since our entire elusive existence and tenuous identity are only a reflection of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and hear from others about us, and we have no lives without a life story, as she learnt in a course on qualitative research when they discussed the theory of narratology.
 
She took this course in the framework of her studies for a teaching certificate in literature and biblical studies, after she graduated from law school but regretfully abandoned the idea of an internship, which would have been beyond her powers as the mother of two small children and the wife of a man investing all his strength and energy in his career, in pursuit of a partnership in his strict father’s law firm. The above theory, which denied the rigid, positivist assumption holding that there were objective measurements for the explanation of reality and the classification of the individual personality, won her over at the time, among other things, because of the relative freedom it gave people to shape their own identities and destinies. Now she was going to apply it in practice by stretching its limits to realms unimagined by its formulators, as she wove all the incriminating evidence she had found into one hair-raising and tightly constructed narrative, combining the stories of her husband’s two mistresses; one a married Muslim from a pious Sunni family, who would pay with her life for the forbidden relationship if it was discovered, which was why she conducted the affair in absolute secrecy. They meet in a secret apartment in the Ortaki quarter in Istanbul, marked with the first X on the map (exhibit 3). The other X’s represent a few safe meeting places, and the colored-in routes show how to get there and how to escape in the event of hot-headed family members discovering the illicit affair and trying to locate the adulterous pair. The Turkish woman kept a few sets of clothes to change into in the love nest, a simple enough matter for a woman whose wardrobe consisted of identical black burkas, and washed  them with the same washing powder she used at home so that they  would smell the same when she went home after copulating with Zahava’s husband. However wanton and passionate she is in bed, she comes back to her senses as soon as Dov has satisfied her appetites. She examines herself in the mirror and makes sure that no external marks have been left on her body and then, in the shower, she soaps her private parts thoroughly with an antiseptic liquid, until no trace or remnant of Dov’s miniscule ambassadors remains inside her, as the prophet Hosea said – again Hosea pops into Zahava’s head –‘let her therefore put away her whoredoms out of her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts,’ so that even a pathologist would not be able to find signs of her guilt if she should die, by accident or intent, and her devoted brother wanted to prove her innocence to her suspicious husband. When she emerges from the shower she shakes out both their garments thoroughly to remove any body, head, or pubic hair shed or uprooted in the rough and tumble of their abandoned kissing, petting, sucking and licking. Whatever fell from the garments onto the carpet, she Hoovered up with a small vacuum cleaner and emptied the bag into the lavatory, which she flushed twice. The Turkish woman’s thorough and energetic activities reminded Zahava of Dov’s grandfather’s performance of the pre-Passover removal of the leavened bread from their house in the first year of their marriage, which the astonished Zahava thought must be the strictest, most finicky spring-cleaning operation since the world began, especially the cleaning of the grooves between the floor tiles with a toothpick and a toothbrush. But even he did not approach the degree of thoroughness with which the Turkish mistress removes the evidence from the scene of the crime. When she finishes cleaning up she puts on the  burka or the niqab, Zahava did not remember the exact difference between them, which covers her from head to foot. Through the loopholes exposing only her burning eyes, she scans the room to confirm the kill and make sure she has utterly annihilated all the incriminating evidence, bends over Dov who tends, like most men, to fall asleep after energetic sexual activities, kisses him through the veil on his forehead and steals silently from the room, consumed by feelings of guilt and remorse which will not prevent her from doing the same thing in the future. The Turkish woman has black hair and even if she were blonde she would never have allowed a single hair of her head to fall to the ground and remain there, never mind wound round Dov’s undershirt – like her thighs round his body a moment before the climax of her passion as she shouted in a choking voice: Allah hu akbar! Allah hu akbar! – a sentiment with which Dov, who had abandoned his belief in a god many years ago, apparently did not concur, but what kind of a man would enter into a theological argument with a woman while she was in the very throes of her passion. The paper napkin too was not connected to her since as a pious Muslim, even if she transgressed one of the Prophet’s commandments, and not the most trifling of them, did not use lipstick. Two of the keys (two fifths of exhibit 2) opened the front door of the house and the door of the studio apartment with its breathtaking view of the Bosphorus, in which Dov delighted after waking from his pleasant sleep, the sweetness of their lovemaking still percolating through his limbs like honey, as he sipped a dry Martini and enjoyably nibbled a bitter, fleshy Turkish olive.

 

Zahava would never be able to find the Turkish woman due to the prodigious care she took to obliterate her traces, and no less important, it was not the Turkish mistress she was seeking but the blonde who had left her stamp on the undershirt (exhibit 1), which leads to the plot thickening in her feverish head two thousand kilometers West of Istanbul, to Livorno (exhibit 3a), the Italian town on the shores of the Ligurian Sea, where the mistress with the dyed hair lives, a woman who presents herself as forty-two although she had turned forty-nine two years ago, the age at which she had decided to rebel against the laws of physics and biology and turn the arrow of time backwards. She is the owner of a small publishing firm, the pathetic remnant of the illustrious printing press established by her forefathers in the seventeenth century, which had published the works of many of the scholars of Jerusalem and Aleppo at the time. She is twice divorced and her only daughter who attends a Swiss boarding school prefers to spend her holidays with her stepfather. She is neurotic, has a forced, irritating laugh, and when she is excited her neck is adorned, like a vulgar ornament, with a thick, blushing band emphasizing the weakness of her sagging chin. When she is angry the Italian is in the habit of cocking her head strangely to the left, and on the few occasions when she is paying attention to and concentrating on anyone besides herself, she sticks the tip of her tongue to her upper lip, which lends her face the foolish expression of an embarrassed little girl. To her credit or not, depending on who you ask, is the fact that she is loudly multi-orgasmic and gives energetic head – attributes that for a not inconsiderable number of men is like honey to a bear. She drives a red sports car with a convertible roof which seats two people, and she spends her holidays on the French Riviera or in Monte Carlo. She deals mainly with cookbooks or leisure reading, but keeps a bookshop specializing in antique Uudaica inherited from her grandfather, which brings Dov to her door as a collector. The somewhat faded woman, who dyes her gray hair a glaring blonde reminiscent of the sun on a hot day in the Sahara, wears tight skirts that firm her sagging buttocks and cradle her drooping nipples in push-up bras that swell her breasts and threaten to burst her too-tight blouses that button up with difficulty. The number found by Zahava was no doubt that of her home telephone. She had scribbled it with lipstick on the paper napkin (exhibit 4) when she met Dov in a restaurant near the bookshop, where they closed the details of the transaction involving the acquisition of a number of rare books. After writing down the telephone number she takes a little mirror out of her handbag, smears her lips with the lipstick, licks them with the tip of her pink tongue, returns the mirror and the lipstick to her bag, and only then slides the napkin towards Dov’s hand lying on the table, brushes his fingers with her long purple claws, and with an ingratiating smile says that she very much hopes that he make use of the number and give her the opportunity to cook him a homemade dinner over which they would not talk about books and figures. When Dov asks her in surprise what they would talk about, she replies coyly that if he doesn’t call he will never know, and then glances casually at her watch, murmurs something about another appointment, sends him another inviting, promising smile and makes off at exactly the point calculated to arouse the curiosity and expectations of any normal member of the male species. At first the Italian woman thought that Dov was too old for her, although she is closer to him in age than she is to most of her lovers, whom she prefers young, but in the course of their meeting she has been charmed by him, like most of Zahava’s girlfriends. Her physicist friend has told her several times that Dov was a man from another world. Charming, humane, full of tenderness, broad-minded, with an amazing smile, and she really couldn’t understand  what Zahava was talking about when she described him as withdrawn, strict, unimaginative, dry, square and apparently an emotional cripple. If Zahava ever went off the rails and decided to leave him, she – the physicist – would be at the top of the queue to plunder the loot.

         

This excerpt is from the novel Life in Fifty minutes, first published in Israel 2014.
Copyright © 2014 Miskal-Yedioth Ahronoth Books and Chemed Books 2014.
English translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. 
Translated by Dalya Bilu.
Published by arrangement with The Institute for The Translation of Hebrew Literature.
 

Benny Barbash was born in Beersheva in 1951, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He served in the IDF for 11 years and sustained serious injuries in the Yom Kippur War. Barbash holds a BA in history from Tel Aviv University. During the 1980s and 90s, he was a leading figure in the Peace Now movement, and was involved in many initiatives, both local and international, to further Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. He has written fiction, plays and screenplays, including the script for Beyond the Walls, a landmark in Israeli cinema which won several international prizes. Barbash has received the ADAI-WIZO Prize (Italy, 2006) and the "Public's Favorite" Prize for My First Sony (Paris, 2008).



 

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