Milano Square

 

Milano Square

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Haim Lapid

Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu

 

Ten days after her husband’s death Ilana went to bed with Mahmid. When her husband Nahum lay dying Ilana saw a documentary on the television set suspended over his hospital bed, about women who had fallen in love with murderers serving life sentences, and devoted their lives to them. She watched the film on mute, in order not to disturb the patient, even though he was unconscious most of the time. The night before her meeting with Mahmid she saw the movie again in a dream, an almost perfect replica of what she had seen in the hospital room. Except that the muteness imposed on the movie due to the circumstances under which she had viewed it, now infected its characters. Therefore they had used a lot of vigorous hand gestures which the cameras had shot in close-up. Jewish talk, her father had called it, mostly with a dismissive wave of his hand.
 
In the morning Ilana woke with a feeling of oppression and guilt and decided to cancel the meeting. Should she text him on her cell phone or talk to him? In the end she sent a text message. He himself had sent her a number of text messages during the days of the shiva. In one of them he had spelled the word ‘condolences’ wrong. She had sent him a correction and this had silenced him for a while. Perhaps that was my secret intention, she said to herself, although habit had played a role here too. Before Nahum made money, not to the extent of some Russian oligarch, but becoming a well-off, even a rich man, she had worked as a science teacher in a high school, and correcting her students’ spelling mistakes had become second nature to her. Mahmid actually made few spelling mistakes. He wrote poetry in both languages, and his Hebrew was no less rich than hers, but there were some basic things that were hard to change. Apart from which, she told herself, judging by her experience – richness was no guarantee of accuracy. On the contrary, the more limited the vocabulary, the less risk there was of making mistakes.
 
In reply to her short message canceling the meeting, Mahmid sent her a long text message – which could be summarized with the claim that being excluded from a circle of mourners, as he was sentenced to be, was even harder than being excluded from a circle of celebrants. Even though his relations with Nahum, as a private nurse hired to take care of him during his stay in the hospital, did not justify his inclusion in either. In conclusion he announced that he would come for a short visit at the time they had arranged, so that he could pay his respects at last, unless she strongly objected. Since she did not know how to put him off in a short message without insulting him, and the thought of a proper conversation with him over the phone for some reason made her throat constrict with a choking sensation, she did not reply.
 
Promptly at seven o’clock he stood in her doorway with a bunch of flowers in his hand. Big red petals with little pink shell-like petals blooming inside them. She had no idea what they were called. Beforehand he had identified himself, almost without an accent, over the intercom, and she had sent the elevator down to bring him up to her penthouse apartment. The dressy brown shirt he was wearing suited his big, reddish-brown eyes with their eager, wistful expression. On second thought, she said to herself, after the white gown in which she had seen him up to now, anything else he wore would have seemed both festive and strange to her.
 
 
Something had to be done with the flowers he brought. He helped her take down the vase resembling a Hellenistic clay jar from the shelf where it stood. A gift from a Greek shipping magnate from which Nahum refused to part, even after she had clumsily broken its handle. Together they trimmed the stems of the flowers to fit the receptacle and stand up straight in the ‘liquid that gives them life’, according to one of Mahmid’s surprising poetic phrases which she didn’t quite know how to take. Now she was supposed to seat him opposite her on the shiny leather sofa and offer him something to drink or eat, but for some reason she didn’t want to see this man whom she had never seen eating – but whom she had once, due to his own negligence, seen sitting on the hospital-room lavatory with a strained expression on his face – masticating a piece of poppy-seed cake or cold quiche, which was all she had on hand. Chewing, grinding and ending up full of black specks or greasy leftovers stuck between his teeth. Before she had time to think she found herself complimenting him on his white, even, well-cared for teeth. As if he was a native of some African tribe. And then, embarrassed and silly as a teenager on her first date, she made things worse by asking him if as a nurse he received free dental care, or was it due only to his youth? She tried to remember the teeth of her sons, who were only a little younger than him, but without success. To her surprise he blushed – the blush was evident on his dark face – but he didn’t lose control. The teeth are the mirror of the soul, he said with such surprising seriousness that she, against her will, burst out laughing.
 
At the sight of the turquoise zinc plate with which Nahum had ostentatiously covered the western half of the north wall of the living room, he stared in wide-eyed astonishment. But he did not react when she explained that Nahum had copied the design from a public library in England, where the façade of the building was covered with a similar zinc plating. Nahum had met the famous architect responsible for the design and received his permission to copy it, although the architect himself was unwilling to come to Israel. A reluctance she may not have agreed with but completely understood. She led him to the west wing of the apartment. Here, as in the south wing overlooking the square, a remote control button raised with a quiet whoosh the electric blind which consisted of two layers of woven strips of leather. The double layer of the blind allowed almost complete darkness or shade which softened the harsh Israeli light and gave it a more European tint. Nahum would never forget to inform visitors at this point of something completely irrelevant – the first person to install something similar in Germany and perhaps the whole of Europe was Goebbels. She repeated this to Mahmid now, but from his pretended admiration she understood that he had never heard of him. Before them lay the sea, a strip of gray glittering in the last light of dusk. If we stand here patiently for a few minutes you’ll see a sunset you’ve never seen before in your life, she promised him, certainly not in Tel Aviv. Except from one of the tower blocks, where Nahum was never prepared to live, she said to herself.
 
Mahmid was silent. It seemed to her that he was looking for something poetic to say to her. Instead he began to speak in the usual clichés, albeit well put, about her dead husband, whom he had only known from his brief and agonized stay in the hospital. That Arab will kill me, her husband said to her once or twice in the German of his childhood to which he returned in his pain. Afterwards Mahmid began to talk about her. When he described, first indirectly and then openly, her great loneliness there in the hospital, even among her family, her sons in particular, she suddenly burst into the tears which she had hardly managed to produce up to then, in spite of the inquiring, expectant looks of those surrounding her. He stroked her hair and she fell round his neck with the thought which suddenly came into her head that apart from her two sons, who responded to such gestures with chilly reserve, there had been no one, in all this time of illness and dying and death, who had provided her, alongside the endless stream of words of sympathy, with even the smallest physical consolation. Until in her despair she had gone to her osteopath and complained of pain in her waist so that his big, warm hands would massage her there with the expertise of a practiced professional. Mahmid gathered her into his arms, patted her back and let her rest her head in the hollow of his neck. When he went on pressing against her, gently but urgently, with his hips, like a boy on his first dance, it touched her heart and made her sob even louder, which made his hugging and stroking bolder. Her body, which had not known a man for a long time, responded to him. Once, at the beginning of Nahum’s hospitalization, she had stroked him, in obedience to his urgent demand, under the striped hospital sheet, and helped clean him up afterwards, her heart pounding fearfully in case anyone surprised them.
 
When they crossed the spacious living room they passed the big eye-wounding oil paintings which Nahum had acquired from a Russian painter, whose genius had not yet lived up to his expectations of international recognition. Next they had to pass the black piano polished to such a sheen that half the room was reflected in it – both Gadi and Shai had played on it as children – standing under an abstract work by the sculptor Danziger which was so admired by her husband. He was in the habit, which she had been meaning for years to say something to him about, of circling it as if by accident after emerging naked from the shower, his penis raised before him like the trunk of an old elephant. With her eyes half closed she led Mahmid to the pretty little guest room, whose bed was the only one in the house that had never been used by her and her husband. Let me, he said as she began to take off her long sleeved tee-shirt and loose linen slacks, and he did so with the practiced hands of someone who had dressed and undressed a lot of old men and old women. But to her surprise she no longer cared. The shivers which had taken hold of her were far stronger than the shame at her thickened waist, and her bare breasts rose to meet him ‘like silvered waves at high tide. A gift of rare, precious joy, hidden too long in the home safe.’ As he described it in a poem he wrote three days later, in Barcelona, reading it to her in a café on the Ramblas where nobody else could understand his strange, beautiful, high-flown Hebrew. She took hold of his forearm lying on the table and squeezed it so hard that it hurt. Afterwards she asked him to read it to her again and suggested delicately that he change the plain and somewhat awkward ‘hidden’ to the softer and subtler ‘secreted’. The speed with which he accepted the suggestion alarmed her.
 
 
Never before had she made arrangements for a trip abroad in such a hurry. The experienced traveler in the family was her husband. From time to time she had joined him on his business trips. Mahmid helped her to find last minute tickets to Barcelona at a bargain price on the internet. All the money they saved on the tickets they spent on an expensive hotel near the La Boqueria market, the only place that could offer them a normal double bedroom at such short notice. She paid for him too, as it was clear she would, and she was even quite glad to do so, both because he didn’t have her means, and because he had lost enough money in this week of absence from work. The job itself, in the Israel Nursing Center, he managed to keep only after persuading, with great effort, two of his colleagues to stand in for him.
 
They couldn’t decide whether to appear at the airport together. If they stood separately it was likely to avoid superfluous questions. But what would happen if they made the connection on their computers between her credit card, which she had used to pay for both their tickets, and him? Besides, something in her protested against the need to ignore each other at the airport, to pretend that they didn’t know each other. What harm were they doing anyone? Mahmid dismissed all her doubts. It makes no difference, he said, in any case they’ll make my life difficult, that’s what they’re there for.
 
They did indeed make difficulties for him. She paid for the solidarity she chose to show with him by being stripped, like him, in a small cubicle, while other hands searched through every article in her suitcase. The questions, in a cold, demanding, offensive tone, were no less intrusive.
 
In the plane after they took off he made light of it and told her a joke. A taxi driver picks up a woman standing naked as the day she was born at the side of the road and waving her hand. As he drives he keeps looking at her in the mirror. In the end she bursts out: Tell me, what are you staring at? Haven’t you ever seen a naked woman before? As a matter of fact I have, the driver replies in embarrassment, I just keep asking myself, where are you going to take the money from?
 
This was the moment when she asked herself if she had made a terrible mistake, because of his uninhibited laughter. What do they think we’re hiding there, he went on to explain the joke to her, afraid that she might have missed the point.   
 
 
She had visited Barcelona about a dozen years earlier. Then she had followed obediently in Nahum’s footsteps as he kept strictly to the route recommended in the German guidebook, which he claimed had no competitors. This time they contented themselves with a superficial Hebrew guidebook intended for tourists on a seventy-two hour tour of the city, even though they were staying twice that time. In short order they put the guidebook aside and let their feet lead them through the labyrinth of alleys in the old city which opened onto big, imposing squares, even though they were a little boring in comparison to Rome, the only place abroad Hamid had ever been to before, with its amazing squares and fountains. She, who for some reason felt a little hurt by the comparison, found herself defending the city with the help of the explanations she had read in the museum on Montjuic, the hill of the Jews. The architectural beauty of Barcelona, she said, without revealing the source of her knowledge, was characterized by the fact that that the road, the avenue, was the main thing and not the place that it led to. The view of a poetess, said Mahmid and stroked her knee under the table of the crowded tapas bar where they were sitting – they avoided any expression of physical affection in public as far as possible – but in life itself one must let prose speak.
 
Didn’t this switch on, or shouldn’t it have switched on, a warning light inside her? No. True, she was living in a dream, but in the narrow strip of wakefulness nevertheless remaining to her, she saw these words as representing the practical side of his character, which existed alongside the tenderness and poetry. A practicality which did not put her off at all. On the contrary: What was the use of a man incapable of standing with both feet on the ground? She saw how ashamed and hurt he was, when in contrast to this image of himself, he had fallen victim to a local pickpocket. Both in the hotel and in the brochure they had received at the tourist information office, they had been warned against them. But there was a big difference between what was written on the page and the young boy, a child you could say, who tried to sell him tickets to some stunning flamenco performance at a bargain price, demonstrated a few steps, jumped round him like a Red Indian, and then accepted his refusal with surprising ease and went away. This is what aroused his suspicion. He immediately put his hand in his pocket for the wallet stuffed with her money he was carrying, and in a second he had already run down the steps and turned the corner quickly enough to see the little ruffian disappear into the crowds filling the harbor on the fine summer day. He didn’t want to pursue him any further, afraid that she might panic and think he had disappeared himself. Especially since, as he told her later, the first line of a poem was already running through his head – ‘In Barcelona they dance when they pick your pockets’ as opposed to the probing of your ‘body and soul’ when they searched you at the Ben Gurion airport. And she, seeing how upset and hurt and wretched he was, hugged him and encouraged him and said to him: Silly, I would never have thought you had disappeared. And suddenly she knew that she would have, that he was right, it was the first thought that would have entered her head, and she hugged him and held him in her arms and her eyes filled with tears that turned into stifled, happy sobs. Mahmid, who thought she was crying because of the blow of having her money stolen, tried in vain to comfort her. Without understanding that it because of him she was sobbing, because of this strange young man, only a little older than her sons, with his muscular, slightly fleshy shoulders, and the curve of his nape, both delicate and manly, the childish, serious face, the big brown eyes secretly examining you all the time – which she attributed to his being an Arab – and the ordinary, everyday Hebrew words which in his mouth took on a kind of embellishment foreign to her.
 
What do I actually know about him? she asked herself from time to time, as she should have, and also out of the strength of her feelings for him. Perhaps for their sake. That he had gone to study nursing only because from a young age everyone had told him he should be a teacher? So why nursing, why not medicine? Only with difficulty she refrained from addressing the question to him. Perhaps because she already guessed the answer – that unlike a doctor, a nurse had a lot of free time which could be used to write poetry. The poetry he clung to all the time, and when she once tactlessly referred to it as a ‘hobby’ he had been deeply offended. About his family, parents and five brothers and sisters in Um El Fahm, he said little. As she set aside her sons. What do I know about him at all? And what did she know about herself, shameless old woman that she was? In a small, half empty science museum, in a black-curtained room where they were screening a video about the discovery of the bones of a prehistoric man, she said to him that if he didn’t do it to her now, this very minute, she would die. At first he refused, but after going out for a moment and checking that there was nobody else on the floor, he did it, in haste but very passionately. Then she knew that he was hers. You’re crazy, he said, and finished fixing his clothes just as a whole class of schoolchildren dressed in blue-gray uniforms and a lot less rowdy that their Israeli peers, burst into the room. But she, while pressing her legs together and still breathing heavily, gazed with tenderness and wonder and an all-encompassing love of mankind into the eyes of the teacher, a woman younger than she was who now entered the room  and appeared to immediately grasp what had been going on there, turned to her pupils, raised her hand, and said something to them in a sharp voice, capturing their full attention, while the couple who had almost been caught in the act hurried out of the door.
 
 
On the eve of their return home, when they went for a farewell walk on the Ramblas, they were surrounded by hordes of half drunk English football fans gathered there for the football match: Manchester versus Barcelona. Even I know that, she said and clung to him because of all the prostitutes popping up from all directions, laying hands on every single man in the vicinity. ‘Like lit-up silver taxi-cabs gliding towards the passengers ejected from the bowels of an airplane,’ Mahmid described them, and in return she gave him a quick kiss on the lobe of his burning ear. In the pandemonium, in the dark, nobody would have noticed them anyway, as if anyone was interested. But it wasn’t just anyone who suddenly bumped into her, with her arm round Mahmid’s waist, but her cousin Levia, accompanied by a local girlfriend. An event whose probability was not much greater than the chance of the planet earth colliding with a meteor. An occurrence with whose help, as an experienced teacher, she had been in the habit of alarming her students. First she would describe at length and in detail the terrible chaos which would ensue from the collision, and then she would reassure them with the infinitesimal chance of it ever occurring. David, she said loudly, almost shouting, with the appropriate gesture, after Levia failed to catch her first mumble, David Darling. The ‘David’ slipped out by surprise, unintentionally, but the ‘Darling’ was already there, from her moments of joy with him, which was what she called him then. If Levia was surprised, she knew how to hide it. My condolences for Nahum, I’m sorry for your loss, she said in the most natural tone in the world, as if she hadn’t already expressed her condolences a few days before, in Ilana’s apartment, at the shiva.
 
 
At the airport her two sons were waiting for her. One look at their faces was enough for her to know that they knew. Gadi, the eldest, sturdier than his brother, balding, resembling his father, looked angry, colder and more reserved than usual. He worked in an advertising agency and she had never had the opportunity of seeing him there, but she imagined that with clients he was capable of looking different, turning on the kind of slightly bearish charm which it was occasionally possible to see in him with other people. A very Israeli combination of friendliness and aggression which obliged you to stay on your guard because you never knew where it was coming from. This was according to some expert on communication at a course for teachers she had once attended. The other teachers refused to take him seriously, mainly because of his ostentatious homosexuality, but as far as she was concerned it was a revelation, which enabled her with hindsight to identify this at once attractive and repulsive combination in her husband Nahum, albeit in a softer form than the hard and frightening one sometimes shown by her son. 
  
Yes, in her heart of hearts she was afraid of her sons. She didn’t know when it had started. It hadn’t always been so, but it was a fact that she was afraid of them both, Gadi and Shai, who was a year younger than his brother. When she tried to talk about it once to a close friend, in whose company she usually found it difficult to finish a sentence, this woman gave her a long stare. It’s just that they’re so together, she found herself apologizing, it’s impossible to get between them. Shai, who in his fair coloring resembled her, had also inherited her talent for numbers, her rational, scientific thinking, so she believed, but to the disappointment of his parents he decided to study accounting. A subject at which he excelled to such an extent that already at the age of thirty-two he was considered a rising star in the firm for which he worked, and where he undertook more and more tasks that would carve out his way to a partnership. Nahum had tried to persuade him that before throwing himself into the fray, into those murderous working hours, he should travel to India or South America like all the others of his age, study philosophy, take a break, enjoy his youth, at his father’s expense. Too late. After he himself, a man of much knowledge and many artistic talents, or so he was generally believed to be, had chosen rather to go into business as a contractor, what could he expect from his sons? For children, another piece of wisdom she had garnered from that teachers course, often betray their parents, not by doing the opposite of what is expected of them, but by doing what is expected of them to an excessive degree. In this case, to stand, like their father, with both feet firmly on the ground. But unlike him, wholly neglecting, almost with contempt, all the rest. Finer feelings, as Nahum referred to them. Planting all the creative, even romantic genes they had inherited from her and their father, in the dry beds of  material success they had chosen.
 
None of this prevented her from being momentarily moved by the mere fact of their presence. These two young men were hers, nobody could deny it. My orphans, she called them tenderly in her heart the moment they arrived at the hospital ten days before in urgent response to her call. She enjoyed, this was the truth she hid from herself, seeing them crushed by the force of the blow, the tears, after all the years in which these children of hers had not shed a tear, certainly not in her presence.
 
Even as they were relieving her of her small amount of luggage, they didn’t stop scanning the passengers emerging from the doors in her wake. In vain. Mahmid deliberately lagged behind. I’ll go sit in the toilets in the meantime, he said, how seriously she couldn’t tell, they don’t like it when an Arab hangs around in the airport for too long.
 
 
The first thing I want you to know, apart from the whole question of your inappropriate behavior itself, is that you hurt us with your lack of honesty towards us.
 
In response to this sentence which seemed to have been prepared in advance, she said nothing. They hardly looked at the Calvin Klein shirts she had bought them. If only they knew how she had driven Mahmid crazy over them. How many times she had changed her mind, dithered, made him try them on, because his body was exactly in the middle, between the fuller Gadi and the slimmer Shai, who started his day at the pool with the same dedication as a religiously observant Jew started his by reciting the morning prayer.
 
They sat in Gadi’s spacious study in his apartment in Ramat Aviv. Gadi’s taste was cold and expensive, which seemed like an exaggeration of Nahum’s, with his hatred of anything resembling ‘shmattas’ and his affection for furniture in the pure ‘Nordic’ style, as Gadi called it, not exactly correctly. Because Nahum’s taste was far more eclectic and liberated. But Gadi had been greatly influenced, so it seemed, by an event that took place in his boyhood, when Nahum acquired, for a tidy sum, they were then just beginning to become wealthy, a set of tableware designed by a famous Finnish architect. Nahum insisted on using it not only for special occasions. The unexplained, but perhaps also unavoidable, disappearance of one of the spoons led to a furious attack by Nahum on their longtime maid, who was driven in disgrace from the house, Ilana having failed to protect her. The argument, not original but just in her eyes, that if he had come across a similar occurrence in a novel or a movie, he would no doubt have identified with the maid and not her employers, only made him angrier. Perhaps because he knew how right she was. Something that was expressed in a no less emotional outburst, breast beating and exaggerated pleas for forgiveness, when the missing spoon later came to light. A real melodrama. It was Nahum who bought both boys the apartments they lived in, paying only half the price on educational no less than financial grounds.
 
They arrived at Gadi’s apartment exactly when Miri, his recent wife – her rounded belly sailing gracefully before her – and her ten year old daughter Lipaz, were setting out for the same school. Miri as a pedagogical advisor and Lipaz as a student. At the sight of Gadi’s grim expression as he hurried them out, Ilana decided to make do with a parting wave to the little girl, and to her mother, even though of the two she was closer to the daughter, for whom a special gift was waiting in her suitcase. But the girl, slender, dark and upright, like an Egyptian princess –  Ilana assumed that she resembled her father, whose red-haired wife had left him for Gadi – asked, in her unclear pronunciation due to the braces on her teeth, Ilana, can you swoop? When the surprised Ilana replied in the negative, the child said firmly, okay, then I can, dragged a red plastic stool from her room, stood on it and kissed her on both cheeks. Only then did the penny fall.
 
 
Don’t you have anything to say?
 
She admitted weakly that she shouldn’t have lied to them.
 
She knew that it made no sense, but now, left alone with the two of them, with nobody to separate her from them, her fear of them grew stronger.
 
Lies don’t solve anything, she said in a firmer voice. But you were so disapproving about the whole trip that I was afraid if I told you that too…
 
Before the trip she had argued with Mahmid about the very same thing. You won’t be able to withstand their pressure, we’ll go and then face them with the fact. When she brought up her fear that she would have to pay a price, because her sons, in their way, were very conservative, he said: What can they already do to you? With us, people get killed for something like this, but the Jews are merciful.
 
Was he serious? Up to now she didn’t know.
 
You simply lost your head, Mother, said Shai, but if you understand that it was wrong of you to lie to us, that’s already  a step in the right direction. Now tell us who it is. Someone young, I understand.
 
She said nothing. From the airport Mahmid had gone straight to take over from another nurse caring for a patient with muscular sclerosis. A woman of your age, he said to her.
 
Gadi lit a cigarette.
 
Have you started smoking again?
 
He nodded.
 
Were you waiting for your father to die?
 
He didn’t let her change the subject.
 
Levia said he’s the same age as me and Shai. Will you please tell us who he is?
 
And when? When did it start? said Shai.
 
Don’t you think that it’s not really any of your business?
 
We discussed it, Shai and I. We both came to the same conclusion – in the circumstances that have arisen, if we see ourselves as a family, we have to talk about it.
 
If she couldn’t lie, all that was left her was silence.
 
How long have you known him? Who is he? A teacher from the school where you taught?
 
Levia, that talkative cow, said that her Spanish friend said he looked like a physical education teacher.
 
She shook her head.
 
Well, so who is he? Mother, we’re not going to play twenty-one questions with you.
 
In their impatience they both stood over her. In their childhood they had been so different from each other. Shai had been born chattering. Gadi didn’t say a word until he was two, they had sent him from one expert to another.
 
Bring me a glass of water, she ordered him.
 
She and Shai waited for him in silence. She gripped the arms of the chair. I won’t give in, she said in the meantime to the rounded black metal. A student of hers, a quiet, perfectly ordinary little girl, had chosen to write about the electric chair to demonstrate the principle of electrical circuits. Two days ago, in the hotel in Barcelona, she had told Mahmid about it. There’s an electric current in the palms of your hands, he said, while expertly massaging her back. She was laying naked on her stomach, while he, still excited by the ‘firm fullness’ of her body, as opposed to the slackness which according to him did not exist, repeated the names of part after part, as if confirming through her body his mastery over the Hebrew language. The girl’s parents had complained to the principal about her – the child couldn’t sleep at night, she had nightmares, she could smell charred flesh, refused to touch the roast. Ilana exaggerated more and more, but Mahmid remained serious. All her life she had been surrounded by excessively serious men, although in Nahum’s case, with the clownish cover he sometimes adopted, it was much more complicated.
 
They waited until she put her glass down on the polished metal table with its sharp edges.
 
If you had an affair with someone, it was you and father’s business, not ours, but after he died, couldn’t you restrain yourself a little, wait a while?
 
And if it’s such a young man…. as it seems to be. Really. Mother, did you ever think what he wanted from you….? We won’t let anyone take advantage of you.
 
She promised them that it wasn’t from before their father. The awkward phrasing wasn’t accidental. She didn’t know exactly how to put things. It all happened so quickly. There was no way to explain to such practical children how it really was.
 
It only happened just now, she tried to explain.
 
Now? During the shiva?! An almost savage dismay appeared for the first time in Gadi’s voice, causing her to immediately try to appease him.
 
No, Gadileh. She shook her head. Afterwards.
 
Afterwards, what do you mean afterwards? Afterwards you went off.
 
Is it a Spanish man? asked Shai in an almost admiring tone.
 
No, he’s from here. You’ve known him since Daddy became sick.
 
She couldn’t understand how they didn’t take the next step on their own. How could  they not grasp that it was Mahmid, these two bloodhounds? She didn’t realize, with her sharp but somewhat limited logic, at least in these circumstances, how far this possibility was from their comprehension.
 
Someone from the family? Someone who came to visit him?
 
She shook her head. You knew the family from before.
 
Shai stared at her, uncomprehendingly, frustrated by the closeness of the prey, out of reach even as its smell rose in his nostrils. The moment in which the student went from not understanding to understanding. Like a dewdrop suspended from your hand, said Mahmid. Keep them in suspense, the inspector advised her after watching her give a lesson, you give it up to them too soon. Students are like men.
 
It’s someone I met recently who was of great help to me and your father in the most difficult days.
 
The two of them went on staring at her.
 
And even though he doesn’t exactly belong to…. our camp, he is much closer to me than many others who do belong. She had these formulations ready to hand, she had already practiced them in her head more than once.
 
…..and once you remove the uniform the person will be revealed, manly, sensitive….
 
For God’s sake, Mother, who have you gotten involved with? Some sex-maniac in the army?!….
 
Shai was very close to boiling point. Her use of the word ‘uniform’ had been a mistake, she had led them astray. Especially Shai, who had been expelled from an officers’ course for cheating. In this Mahmid and her son were alike, they both hated military men. Mahmid had once been humiliated by a soldier in the hospital. A real man has only one weapon, he said, when he told her about it and led her hand to the spot. The thought of Mahmid flooded her with heartfelt longing, her face softened, something was revealed on it, something clearer and more precise than any words, because she saw it coming, happening to Gadi, the understanding. For the first time she realized that it was actually like an orgasm of thought, you stimulated and stimulated and then it came, bursting out and pouring in a flash of light from  your eyes. She marveled at the speed with which her mind had succeeded in coming up with this analogy, and also at its bluntness. Without understanding, perhaps because for all her attachment to the humanities, she had been educated in the natural sciences, how much cleverer than herself was the psychological mechanism responsible for it. Moderating the meeting between this moment of monstrous revelation, from Gadi’s point of view, and her precious, vulnerable secret.
 
It’s Mahmid, the nurse who looked after Daddy, he said.
 
Mahmid? The Arab? asked Shai stupidly, refusing to believe it.
 

When she nodded her head, her eyes were full of tears.

         

This excerpt is from the novel Milano Square, Keter Books (2005) Ltd. 2014

Copyright © Haim Lapid

English translation © The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. Translated by Dalia Bilu. Published by arrangement with The Institute for The Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Haim Lapid, writer, scriptwriter and social psychologist, was born in Ramat Gan, Israel, in 1948. He studied psychology at Tel Aviv University and has taught social and behavioral psychology. At present, Lapid lectures on negotiation theory and is an organizational consultant for hi-tech companies. He also teaches screenwriting at the College of Management and holds writing workshops. Lapid was awarded the Prime Minister's Prize in 2002.



 

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