Justine's Choice

 

 

Justine's Choice

By Fred Skolnik

 

 

Justine-Malka came back from Paris after a year looking like a whore. The family had thought that under her Uncle Yehezkel's watchful eye she might make a successful match there, preferably with a scholarly young man whom they could lure back to Jerusalem with the promise of what was called in the jargon the "full setup," that is, an apartment and everything that went with it, as opposed to the "partial setup," meaning just the furnishings. They didn't notice the mascara and rouge and lipstick and the miniskirt that showed off her bare legs until she was almost through handing out the gifts. It was her father, Reb Moise, who saw it first. They had picked her up at the airport in a cab and he had gone afterwards directly to the synagogue for evening prayers. It was when he got back that he saw her legs. "Why are you dressed like that?" he said through his teeth. His wife, Jacqueline-Rivka, gave him a warning look that said: Don't go off half-cocked and drive her away. We'll talk it over later and find out what's going on. Reb Moise understood the look immediately. He was, after all, a man of the world, or at least a certain kind of world, with properties, entire buildings in fact, in Paris and a chain of stores in Jerusalem that his wife managed very efficiently while he looked after the investments. Therefore he held his peace, going into the kitchen and asking one of the girls to make him a cup of tea. There were five children still in the house. Justine was twenty-two. Her younger brother, Menachem, was already married and had a child.
    Reb Moise sipped the tea and listened to his elder daughter's excited voice. Later in their bedroom, behind the closed door, he immediately started shouting at his wife as if she were to blame and before long she was shouting back. On more than one occasion in the past he had hit her, and she had retaliated by denying him sexual favors and becoming quite hysterical when he tried to force himself on her, so that once a neighbor had called the police and he had told them that she had a mental condition, which she didn't deny. That had taught him a lesson, though. Now he wouldn't have dared to raise a hand to her. Justine could hear them screaming from her old bedroom, where she had doubled up with her sister Miriam, recently engaged.
   "Infamy and shame," Reb Moise shouted. "She'll go straight to hell."
   "We'll get her in harness and she'll come back to earth," Jacqueline said.
   "What do you mean?"
   "I'll put her in one of the stores."
   "Doing what?"
   "Behind the counter. Maybe she'll catch someone's eye."
   No one in the neighborhood recognized Justine when she went out the next morning, though her mother convinced her to put on a longer skirt and cover her legs. She wore fashionable Paris clothes with a chic hat and high heels. She might have been modeling for Chanel. The neighbors remembered her as a mousey girl with narrow, hunched shoulders.
   She took a bus into town and walked around for a while with everyone staring at her. Jerusalem wasn't Paris. Later she met her mother in one of the stores. They went into the back and had tea. "What is going on with you?" her mother said.
   "It's a big world out there," Justine said.
   "What does that mean?"
   "I want to be like everyone else."
   Her mother tried to talk some sense into her but realized that she wasn't equipped to defend the faith the way the rabbis were, not knowing what consequences to invoke and in the end falling back on platitudes. Justine listened to her impatiently, tapping her foot. She had acquired a new set of foreign mannerisms. She also smoked.
   "Did you have boyfriends in Paris?" her mother said half-contemptuously, to make it clear that it wouldn't have surprised her if she had and that she didn't approve, but also half-curiously, wanting to know if Justine was still a virgin. Jacqueline also knew something about the world and had been a ball of fire in her youth, until they had saddled her with Reb Moise, twenty years her senior.
   "One or two," Justine said.
   "Jews?"
   "What difference does it make?"
   Jacqueline sighed and shook her head sadly. At least she was in Jerusalem now, though there were enough pitfalls here too: drugs and drinking and wild dancing. Even Jacqueline was too embarrassed to ask Justine directly about her virginity. In any case it was clear that she wasn't going to make a match if she insisted on dressing like that. In fact, the whole family would be shunned, which meant that the younger children too wouldn't be able to make favorable matches and the boys would be excluded from the better yeshivas.
   "Your father won't let you stay in the house like this," Jacqueline said.
   "I'll get my own place."
   "How will you support yourself?"
   "Don't worry, I'll manage."
   Jacqueline was about to say: How, by selling your body? but thought better of it. She only said, "Sending you to Paris was the biggest mistake of our lives."
   "Why? I had a good time," Justine said.
   "We aren't here to have a good time," Jacqueline said.
   "Really?" Justine replied, somewhat archly, in her new style.
   Jacqueline talked to all the women she knew whom she could talk to about these things. That meant two of her sisters, a sister-in-law and a cousin she had always been close to. Reb Moise talked to their rabbi, a formidable figure who had to break off the audience every minute or so to take calls on his cell phone, despite the fact that he had two male secretaries taking calls in the other room. The rabbi talked about the Evil Inclination and ingeniously linked all the woes of the world to the miniskirt. Jacqueline and her confidantes speculated about Justine's virginity. But in the end they all said the same thing: they had to get her married, and fast.
   The first candidate was a little freakish. Though he wasn't a Bretslaver he didn't look at her directly, twisting his neck in an awkward way so that his eyes would always be cast down on the ground or at best staring at the wall. Justine knew the old adage: better to look at a woman and think of a wall than to look at a wall and think of a woman. She for her part didn't hesitate to look at him. He was pale and scrawny and dressed in black. When she accompanied him alone to the bus stop she caught him casting a furtive glance her way. They hadn't exchanged two words in the hour they were together.
   The next candidate was fat and jolly, an extrovert. Reb Moise vetoed him in a hurry. Justine felt trapped. The thing would go on until she had to say yes. She dressed modestly on these occasions but without her makeup and expensive clothes she didn't look like any great prize. Of course she didn't have to. Her parents' wealth made her as desirable as a princess, even if her complexion was a little sallow and her breasts were a little small. On the other hand, she had fine legs, which in Paris she had liked to display.
   The fifth candidate wasn't bad to look at and had an easy manner. What was more important, he was working in his father's business, making deliveries of some kind in a pickup truck. He wasn't a scholar. It was just a matter of two rich families getting together. Justine was interested. When everyone was out of earshot she said to him, "Do you ever go out with girls?"
   He looked at her in an almost amused way and said, "Is that what you did in Paris?"
   He was of course wearing a black skullcap but he wasn't wearing a black suit, or at least not the jacket, nor one of those 10-gallon Sabbath hats planted on the heads of thirteen-year-olds to make them look like grownups. He wore a clean white shirt with the sleeves neatly rolled up. It was a hot day. Justine knew how to talk to young men. She wasn't shy.
   "What if I did?" she said.
   "That's your business," he said.
   Justine tried to gauge his interest. His eyes were running up and down her body, undressing her no doubt. Justine liked that and got a little aroused herself. She smiled demurely and crossed her legs. She would have liked to have a cigarette. She wasn't kidding herself, though. Certain standards of propriety would always have to be maintained, at least publicly. The rest depended on how adventurous a young husband in a black skullcap might be.
   The parents came back inside. She accompanied him to his pickup truck. They made up to meet in town the next evening. This was in fact a date. They were negotiating an undefined no-man's-land between the strict observance of the ultra-Orthodox and the looser living of the knitted skullcap crowd. His name was Shalom.
   "He's cute," Miriam said when they were in their bedroom. She was eighteen and would be married at the end of the year. Justine showed her all her Paris clothes, including the lacy black underwear. "How can you wear that?" Miriam said.
   "You want to try something on? Put on the nightgown."
   Miriam blushed.
   "Don't you want your husband to desire you?"
   "Not like that. That's licentiousness." Her vocabulary was very rich when it came to moral distinctions.
   "It's just sexy," Justine said. "What you do in bed is no one's business."
   "You have to respect each other."
   "Is that what the rabbi's wife told you?"
   "What's wrong with that?"
   "You have to teach your husband how to give you pleasure. Otherwise he'll never know."
   "You learn together."
   "Not if you look like someone's grandmother."
   Justine met Shalom under the clock in front of Hamashbir, the department store on King George Street. He wore the same black pants and white shirt. She could imagine that the family kept dozens of each in some communal household closet. Justine wore a long skirt and a flouncy blouse that hid her small breasts. She'd touched up her eyes a little and wore the lightest shade of lipstick. That would show him she cared how she looked. She was a little late. She'd read that it was always good to keep a man waiting, though she wasn't sure to what extent this applied in Jerusalem. Shalom took a step toward her and then an awkward step back, as if he'd been tempted to touch her in greeting but then thought better of it. "Hi," she said.
   They walked aimlessly for a while and then went into a cafe after Shalom inspected the kashrut certificate. They only started really talking when they were outside again. This time they took a walk in Independence Park. Justine asked him about his work and he asked her about Paris. These were neutral topics. He looked at her a great deal and smiled every time she caught him at it. She believed he was trying to tell her he liked what he saw. She'd had a couple of friends who'd made her over in Paris and assured her that her winning personality would make up for whatever else she lacked. She didn't remember ever having had one but her new manner tended to throw people off their stride. They didn't know what to make of her. This was conceivably an advantage.
   "Did you really go out with boys in Paris?" Shalom said.
   She was tempted to lie, not wanting to frighten him off, but she said. "Once or twice."
   "What did you do?"
   "What we're doing."
   "You walked around?"
   "Also the movies."
   "In a movie theater?"
   "Well, yes. That's where you go. Haven't you ever been to a movie?"
   "No, but I saw one on television once."
   "You have a television?"
   "At someone's house."
   "What did you see?"
   "Kuni Lemel."
   Justine laughed. "You want to go?"
   "Where?"
   "To a movie."
   "When?"
   "Now. We can go to Malcha. They have a few theaters there."
   Justine watched him weighing the idea. Going to a movie was like crossing a line. The old rules wouldn't apply anymore. She could see that he was a little afraid.
   "It won't kill you," she said.
   He came along reluctantly, that is, he drove them there in his pickup truck without saying too much. She picked a fairly innocuous French film that she'd seen in Paris just before leaving. In the dark theater, after half an hour or so, when she could sense Shalom loosening up a little and beginning to enjoy the film, even laughing once or twice, she leaned toward him so that their shoulders were touching and her face wasn't too far from his. That was as far as she could allow herself to go. Shalom leaned against her too and they sat like that for the next hour.
   Outside, she said, "Did you like it?"
   "It was okay," he said.
   "Not so terrible, is it?" she said. "Just a movie."
   He looked at her now. It was clear that he too didn't know what to make of her but he must have understood that she might take him where he'd never thought to go. Maybe that worried him. Maybe he wasn't ready for it.
   When she got home her mother was waiting for her. She knew she'd been on a date. Her father didn't.
   "Well?" Jacqueline-Rivka said.
   "We went to a movie."
   "What?"
   "Don't start in with me. That's what people do."
   "Not us," her mother said.
   "We just sat there and there was nothing wrong with the movie."
   "I know what movies are. They're full of dirt."
   "Did you ever go?"
   Jacqueline-Rivka chose not to reply. She shook her head and went into the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea. Justine went upstairs to her bedroom. Miriam was up too and they had the identical conversation about movies and dirt. In bed she masturbated. She had only started doing that in the last half year and now she couldn't stop. Her girlfriends had assured her that it was better than sex, especially with the types they were bound to be wedded to.
   In the morning she went into town with her mother and started working in one of the stores. Her mother went everywhere by cab as they didn't own a car. The store sold jewelry and watches with a watchmaker in the back for repairs. Justine knew jewelry. She had worked there before. She sat at the cash register when she wasn't serving customers. Two older women also served the customers. The place was air conditioned and pretty expensive. A day later Shalom came in at lunchtime and offered to buy her lunch but the other two women were out so they talked for a while. It was already clear in her mind that she was going to marry him but she was a little worried that she might scare him off so she reined herself in and became less forward, blushing charmingly when he flirted with her. She would have liked to be kissed by him but dismissed the idea from her mind. He came back the next day too and after that they went out a few more times and he came into the store at least twice a week and they also had lunch together once or twice. 
   "Do you like working here?" he asked her when he dropped by again. The other women were out. He usually timed his visits that way so that he could be alone with her.
   "It's all right," she said.
   "Do you sell a lot?"
   "Enough."
   "What do boys buy for their intended?"
   "Mostly watches."
   "Show me a nice one."
   He looked into her eyes and she knew it was settled. They both smiled.
   The wedding was in November, before Miriam's. He kissed her for the first time, after the ceremony, in the private room where soft drinks and some pastries had been laid out for them. Then he touched her face quite affectionately. Her eyes were shining and she was excited but she remained demurely passive. After the reception they went directly to their new apartment with an army of relations carrying up the gifts. The purchase of the apartment had been brokered by one of the machers who were always hanging around Reb Moise waiting for crumbs. They had a hand in everything, finding houses, putting together business deals, dispensing legal advice, even arranging medical consultations. The bedroom had twin beds pushed together. Shalom was far from being an extraordinary lover and Justine was after all a virgin so it was over in less than a minute. Justine was in a little pain and Shalom looked a little confused. After a week, when she was "clean" again, it was as if they were starting all over and it wasn't any better. It took another month for him to start exploring her body a little and she let him know she was pleased by sighing and occasionally moaning, which aroused him enormously. After they had become completely intimate she threw off all restraints and they made love quite freely, relatively speaking. She had taken him where she had wanted to go.
   However, she also got pregnant.  
   Shalom was of course overjoyed, as was everyone else in the family. Superstition kept them from finding out the baby's sex but it was clear Shalom wanted a boy. Justine would have preferred a girl but it wasn't something she was going to worry about. She was infatuated and smitten and hungry for sex but in no proper sense could it have been said that she was in love with her new husband and couldn't even imagine what that meant, though she had heard it said that love only came with time, so that if you didn't enjoy sex you had to tolerate a stranger under your feet for as long as it took.
   "Do you love Father?" she asked her mother.
   "Of course I do," Jacqueline-Rivka said.
   Justine recognized this as a meaningless answer. Her mother wondered if there was a problem with the newlyweds. "Of course not," Justine said. "Everything is fine."
   She was in the third month now. Shalom got all his information about sex from her and from his rabbi, so they were occasionally at odds, though there was no inherent objection to making love during pregnancy and since the woman was always "clean" now it was actually a lot less trying for all concerned. She had fantasized about his taking her from behind but could see that that was never going to happen. Once or twice she had managed to get on top of him but this was clearly not to Shalom's liking. Otherwise he took the time to arouse her and that was admirable on his part. Occasionally she had to masturbate after he fell asleep, which was not ideal but something she came to think of as part of the sex act. Only occasionally did he put his hand there, as though by accident, but he had very little understanding of a woman's anatomy and it would have been a little awkward to explain things to him.
   After she recovered from the birth things went back to the way they had been and she knew that she was going to have one baby after another for the next twenty years. The baby was a boy, which made all the men in the family happy. Shalom was a little hungry afterwards so she had him on top of her three or four nights a week until she started showing again. In this way five years passed. They had four children now and lived in a little ground floor house off a courtyard at the bottom of a labyrinth of winding alleyways on the side of a hill in a religious neighborhood. While their front door opened onto the dark, narrow street, the courtyards were not meant to communicate with one another so children wandering through them literally had to climb from one to another. One afternoon there was a knock at the door on the courtyard side and Justine was surprised to discover two men dressed like hikers though both were wearing skullcaps. One was clearly Israeli but the other one looked like a tourist, dressed a little less conservatively and carrying a backpack. They both spoke French.
   After excusing himself the tourist said, "How do you get out of here? We're trying to get to the street."
   There was in fact a series of rocky ledges leading up to the next level, but once you were up there it would be difficult to get back down and if you were unable to negotiate the next plateau you might find yourself stranded in someone's courtyard. Justine told them that they'd have to go through her house to get to the street. The two older children were standing behind her holding on to her skirt. Shalom was at work. She let the men in and led them to the front room.
   The French tourist came back the next day, in the middle of the morning. This time he knocked at the front door, on the street side. He was alone. She was surprised to see him, but also glad, and a little excited. He must have been her own age, rugged in build and with a handsome, weatherbeaten face, as though he hiked professionally. Life had become very trying for Justine in the last years, reducing itself to a series of rituals and ceremonies in which her role was purely functional. Her husband had become a lackadaisical lover and between the weddings and funerals and births and bar mitzvahs, not to mention keeping house and caring for the children and preparing for the Sabbath week in and week out, she rarely had a minute to herself.
   "Are you lost again?" she said with a little smile. It was obvious to her now that he wasn't religious and was only wearing the skullcap in the neighborhood to fit in or perhaps to accommodate whomever he had been with on the previous day. She wondered if he would realize that she wasn't too religious herself. Perhaps her little smile would give her away.
   "Just passing by. Could I trouble you for a glass of water?"
   She hesitated but invited him in. The older children were at nursery school. The younger ones were napping. He sat down at the kitchen table and she handed him the glass.
   "Where are you from?" she said.
   "Paris," he said.
   "I was there for a year," she said.
   "What for?"
   "Looking for a husband."
   "And you found one."
   "He's from here."
   "I'm looking for a wife," he said. "I'm settling here."
   She felt a little surge of excitement. He had a neatly trimmed beard and looked like he knew a thing or two about the world.
   "But you aren't religious," she said.
   "No. Do you have to be to get married?"
   She allowed herself to laugh. "You won't find anyone on this street," she said.
   "I think I have."
   She didn't know whether to answer him, or to pretend to misunderstand, or if she really had misunderstood. In the end she said nothing.
   He came back the next day too. He seemed to know the best hour. He stood in the doorway grinning. "Out hunting?" she said.
   She glanced up and down the street to see if anyone was watching. Then she let him come in for his glass of water. This time he stayed an hour. He had studied at the Sorbonne for a couple of years, had been to the Far East, knew all about music and art and literature. All this became clear in the first half hour. In the second half hour he clearly tried to size her up. Justine wasn't sure what he expected from her.
   "Are you happily married?" he asked her.
   "Happiness isn't an issue for us," Justine said.
   "Why not?"
   "That's just the way it is," Justine said. She knew she could fence with him like this for as long as she had to. She had all the answers, even if she didn't believe them.
   "There's so much out there," he said.
   "I know all about that."
   "Is this better?"
   She didn't answer him. She knew that if she gave him the slightest sign they would be making love inside of a minute. Part of her wanted to but she was afraid to let it happen. "You better go," she said.
   He didn't come the next day and she was disappointed. In fact, all she thought about was seeing him again. But he didn't come the day after that either, so she dropped the toddlers off at her sister's place and started looking for him. This was crazy, she knew, but she couldn't help herself. She thought he might be staying in the neighborhood, maybe with relatives, so she walked to the top of the hill and then back down and into the adjoining alleys. The streets were fairly deserted in the middle of the morning. She looked everywhere. She found him in a grocery store. He was wearing his skullcap and his hiking clothes. His face lit up when he saw her and she acknowledged his look with a slight nod of her head that no one but he would have noticed. She bought a loaf of bread for appearance sake and followed him out.
   "Do you shop here?" he said.
   "Sometimes."
   "I'm staying up the street. With my aunt."
   "For how long?"
   "Oh, I don't know," he said with his most charming smile. "It depends on the weather."
   "It can get chilly at night."
   "That's okay if you have someone to keep you warm."
   "Do you?"
   "Not yet."
   They were walking toward her house. Justine felt a little unsure of herself. The conversation was at least an octave above her normal range. He came in right after her and this time, without any declarations or further ado, took her in his arms and kissed her. Justine didn't resist, or respond. She was thinking what she should do. Finally she said, "Wait," and he said, "What?" and she said, "I can't," but he must have seen that there was no conviction there so he moved her toward her bedroom and eased her down on the bed and took her. Afterwards he lit a cigarette while she stared at the ceiling.
   "Hey," he said.
   "This will destroy my life," she said. He had undressed her completely and had touched her as she had never been touched before. She had the twisted sheet pulled up to her neck but her bare leg was touching his.
   "Why?" he said.
   "Because I'm married," she said impatiently. "And I have children."
   "Do you love your husband?"
   "That isn't the point."
   She was angry at him now. He must have sensed it and understood. "Okay," he said. "Think about it a little. I'll be around."
   "There's nothing to think about."
   "That's up to you."
   After he left, Justine lay in her bed for a while. She felt like sleeping, but her mind was troubled. She took a shower and went over to her sister's house to get the children and on the way back picked up the older ones as well.
   Shalom came back after dark with one of the machers and they talked about buying a piece of land for an hour while Justine served them supper, did the dishes and put the children to bed. Then he went out again for a lesson with his rabbi so she washed the floors. He came back at 11 and dropped off to sleep the second he was in bed. Justine tried to think but was afraid of the ideas that might come into her head. Shalom had a little pot belly now and an unappealing slackness in his face when he slept. She certainly didn't despise him. He was not unkind to her. She even enjoyed their love making, or at least the anticipation of it and the preliminary kisses and caresses though she was always left wanting more. But she didn't really love him in any profound way.
   Justine got out of bed and looked in on the children. She could imagine leaving them, but could not imagine what her lover might have in mind. His name was Alain. He clearly came from one of the old French Jewish families and was very comfortable in his world, which made it a mystery why he wanted to live in Israel. Justine imagined living in Paris again, with Alain. She was twenty-eight, certainly young enough to start a new life, though she also could not imagine what such a life would be like. It occurred to her of course that it could turn out to be not so very different from the one she already had, with another set of children and another kitchen to clean. But for the first time in her life she felt something like passion.
   Alain left her to stew for the next three days and she was afraid now that he was never coming back. But he did. She jumped when he knocked at the door and they stood in the doorway looking into each other's eyes for a full minute. Her heart was pounding and she knew that this was love. When he said, "Come away with me," she said, "Okay." 
   At the divorce Shalom spat at her in the prescribed manner, adding a look of contempt and real hatred. Reb Moise had tried to convince him that she had been possessed by a dybbuk and even arranged for an exorcism with a well-known kabbalist, but Shalom wasn't buying it, nor was Justine for that matter. The children stayed with him. Justine and Alain rented an apartment in a suburb of Haifa. Alain went to an ulpan to learn Hebrew and Justine found a job in a jewelry store. Fortunately Alain had money, so they got a car, which Justine learned to drive, and didn't have to stint in any way. Justine walked around in slacks or jeans when she wasn't in one of her miniskirts, throwing off the old restraints one by one. Her family disowned her though she occasionally talked to one of her sisters on the phone. She liked her new way of life and was madly in love with Alain.
   Alain loved her too. He kissed her and fondled her at every opportunity, which was a novelty, brought her flowers, and talked a little dirty in bed, which excited her. The first year was a long honeymoon. For Justine it was also an education. Alain introduced her to French literature so she began to read novels and poetry though she preferred films and popular music. They got married, in Paris, after she became pregnant, and bought an expensive apartment in one of the new North Tel Aviv residential towers. After the birth Alain bought into a jewelry store in a Tel Aviv hotel for Justine to run. He had studied archeology but had no real profession, just a lot of money, so he made a few more investments and enjoyed a leisurely life, moving with Justine in a French-speaking circle where they went to concerts and films and parties and even literary evenings. They had another child too so as far as they were concerned their family was complete. Justine occasionally thought of the children she had lost with a heavy heart but was determined to bear the burden like any other loss, recover from it and make the most of what she had. Only once did she try to see them, after her sister told her where they were, but she didn't recognize them, so in a strange way it was as if they had vanished from the face of the earth. By this time Shalom was remarried, to a widow with five children, and now they had three of their own as well as Justine's four. "Now everyone's happy, I guess," she said to Alain.
   Justine's best friend now was a young woman of similar background but less happy in her new life. Marcelle, however, had broken away before getting married so her husband was her first lover and their marriage struck Justine as being like any other she had observed, composed of equal parts of affection and bickering. Marcelle had wanted to be a singer but apparently did not have the talent for it, so she was frustrated, having a dream that would not be fulfilled as many of Justine's acquaintances did, also having wanted to become more than they were. Marcelle's husband perhaps didn't know how he was wounding her when he attacked the religious community for not allowing women, and men for that matter, to become what they were capable of becoming, though it should have been clear to him that few people in any community were capable of becoming more than they were, like his wife, and like himself, for Shaul was an undistinguished university lecturer with an unread book to his credit and a name that no one knew. No doubt he had had dreams too. Marcelle's frustration made her touchy and short-tempered. Her husband was that way too when anyone attacked his cherished ideals.
   "They both need therapy," Alain said.
   They were in bed, relaxed after making love. He ran his finger along her thigh and she was happy. "Marcelle should have stayed where she was," Justine said.
   "Do you think so?"
   "Definitely. This isn't the right life for her."
   "And you?"
   "It's right for me," she said.
   "So why is she different?"
   "You see for yourself. She isn't happy."
   "But she wasn't happy before either."
   "That's a tragedy then. But most women there are happy enough, not less than here. My sisters get on fine."
   "Do you miss it?"
   "Not at all."
   Justine had changed, or perhaps grown. Like Alain, she was comfortable in herself, in the middle of the journey. Alain called himself Ilan now and was more alive to the country's politics than Justine, leaning to the right, unlike Shaul and other friends of theirs, who leaned to the left, but Justine was more attuned to the country's culture, following all the reality shows on their wide-screen TV and the lives of local celebrities in the gossip columns. Otherwise she ran her jewelry store and the family went camping and hiking and once to Turkey in the summer and twice to France and Alain had a paunch too now and Justine's waist was getting a little thick but Alain still desired her and she desired him and no one would deny that they had a good marriage.
   At a certain point Marcelle and Shaul got divorced. This didn't come as a surprise to anyone. They had two children too, a little older than Alain and Justine's, their girl going out on "dates" at the age of nine and the boy spending four hours a day playing computer games and walking around in $200 designer jeans. Alain and Justine were more sensible and had strict limits for everything. Nonetheless Justine felt that the children belonged to a culture that was still a little alien to her, at least in the way children grew up in it as opposed to the way she had grown up. Already they had the sullen, aggressive voices of the actors she watched in the television dramas, picked up by everyone before they got through nursery school. Anger was the new national disease. She and Alain had avoided it. Justine gave Marcelle a job in the store and Alain remained friends with Shaul though whenever they were together they argued about politics. Shaul had begun to rub Justine the wrong way and in fact she often found herself defending the religious way of life when he was around. All his arguments about religion were familiar to her but she had enough of an understanding now of what people actually did with their freedom from religion to mock it a little in her somewhat caustic way, which never failed to infuriate him.
   Alain, who was wise, said, "Freedom only has meaning for a small elite."
   "Wait till someone enslaves you," Shaul said.
   "Religious people aren't enslaved," Justine said.
   "Their minds are closed. The rabbis tell them what to think."
   "We have rabbis too," Alain said. "They're called news analysts and commentators."
   "But we don't have to listen to them."
   "But in the end you always listen to someone, so what difference does it make."
   "You listen to whoever shares your views."
   "So do religious people," Justine said.
   "But their views are false."
   "But their values aren't," Alain said. "At least they're decent."
   "Not to their enemies."
   "We aren't even decent to our friends," Justine said.
   "That isn't true."
   "At least they don't walk over bodies to get what they want," Alain said
   "That isn't true either."
   "Really?" Justine said.
   Marcelle was less argumentative. She was only bitter. Every week she bought a lottery ticket, hoping it would change her life. Justine trusted her with the store so she had a little more time on her hands now but for want of anything better to do she opened a second one. Alain was involved in a new project, a shopping center outside Tel Aviv, so she seldom saw him until late at night, but that remained a special time for them that made up for the rest of the day, even if it excluded the children. Alain was a marvelous lover, in her view. She liked to remember the first time he kissed her and the first time they made love and still remembered how her leg had touched his on top of the twisted sheet and the churning in her stomach when she understood that her life had changed forever. Justine considered herself fortunate, even if she had lost a family. Alain had never stopped loving her. He still brought her flowers and sat her on his lap and kissed her and fondled her and talked a little dirty in bed. It had been a miracle to find such a man.
   Alain wanted to live in the country so they bought a smallholding in one of the moshavim around Tel Aviv where no one cared if you worked the land and built a big house that they filled with imported furniture, though it still looked pretty cavernous when they were done. Each morning they left for work in their separate cars, letting the children fend for themselves. The children were teenagers. The girl confessed to her that she had been having sex since she was thirteen though she didn't really like it because it hurt but felt compelled to go along because that was what everyone did after standing around outside the discos on Friday night drinking vodka or smoking hashish. The boy got drunk too sometimes in the village with his friends and had been carrying a knife since the third grade to protect himself. She couldn't really control them anymore. All she could do was warn them of the perils.
   Justine was forty-three now. One night she had a dream, seeing many men crowded into her bedroom doorway staring at her and laughing as she lay alone in her bed and she thought they were going to rape her and screamed at them to get out and leave her alone and she was frightened, but then she saw that there were also women there and they were laughing too. Alain said, "What's wrong, what's wrong?" and she said, "I was dreaming, oh it was terrible, don't let them touch me." But the dream came again and she realized that it was the bedroom of her old house and sometimes the men did touch her and she began to scream until Alain calmed her and at other times the neighborhood children would be staring at her through the courtyard window and calling her a witch. Justine began to be afraid of her dreams and did not want to sleep or be alone. Alain took her to a doctor but he couldn't help her. Every night the men came and looked at her and she screamed, and sometimes she thought she heard the rain falling but understood that it was in the dream too and was afraid the men would take her outside and hold her on the ground.
   "This is crazy," Alain said.
   "I can't help it. I'm sorry. Maybe I am possessed. Remember?"
   "That's crazy too."
   "So what is it?"
   "It's just a dream, but you have to overcome it."
   "I can't."
   The dream caused her to go back to the old neighborhood and see the old house again. Another family was living in it now, of course. She knocked at the door and told the woman who she was and the woman invited her in. Justine had worn a long skirt and a kerchief and looked like anyone else in the neighborhood. The woman had four small children in the house, just as Justine had once had. She said, "Where do you live now?" and Justine said, "Near Tel Aviv," and the woman said, "I'd never leave Jerusalem." They stood for a while in the courtyard, which was filled with warm sunlight and fixed up with swings and a slide now. The four children ran back and forth laughing and shouting and their mother watched them fondly. When they went back inside Justine looked into her old bedroom and again remembered that day so many years ago and wondered if this woman too would ever question her life but realized that it would be pointless to ask her what her life was like because it was really the only life she could have. Justine contemplated her for a moment and found herself wishing that she could have that life too again, though this time with Alain, and then maybe it would at least be better with the children, even if she had lost her faith. After she got back the dream stopped coming, for she had understood it though she had not disarmed it entirely of the poison it had wished to inject into her life. She tried to spend a little more time with the children now, but they weren't really interested in her company, and sometimes she watched the two or three men in the village who still farmed for a living and found herself wishing too that they might have a simpler life, she and Alain, as simple as it had been not so long ago in villages like hers throughout the land, but realized that that was gone too. It seemed to Justine that life would just go on and she was happy enough and liked ringing up sales at her stores and buying things for the house and eating out and making love and seeing new places but sometimes she felt an awful emptiness inside her and couldn't say what it was.
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Fred Skolnik 2011
 
Fred Skolnik was born in New York City and has lived in Israel since 1963, working mostly as an editor and translator. He is best known as the editor in chief of the 22-volume second edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, winner of the 2007 Dartmouth Medal and hailed as a landmark achievement by the Library Journal. Other award-winning projects with which he has been associated include The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (co-editor, 2002) and the 3-volume Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust (senior editor, 2001). Now writing full time, he has published dozens of stories in the past few years (in TriQuarterly, Gargoyle, The MacGuffin, Minnetonka Review, Los Angeles Review, Prism Review, Underground Voices, etc.). His recently published novel, The Other Shore (Aqueous Books, 700 pp.), set in Israel in the 1980s, is an epic work depicting Israeli society at a critical juncture in its modern history. 

 

 



 

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