Rachel Stern, in Rome, Meets Fellini
By Ruth Almog
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
Rachel Stern was taking a shower, and as she absent-mindedly soaped herself, in the automatic way in which such actions are usually performed, her hand unconsciously brushed against that place. Something in her mind came to a stop and everything inside her froze. But she immediately recovered, and the tireless buzzing of the thoughts in her head, absorbing into itself an endless stream of sound from the external world, the splashing of the water, the singing of the birds, the noise of the cars in the street, an occasional human voice, a balcony shutter being dragged along its tracks, this commotion of thoughts and sounds instantly renewed itself and Rachel Stern washed off the soap, dried herself, combed her hair and made up her face.
Then she went into the bedroom, opened the closet and searched through the dresses. In the end she chose a dress with a floral pattern in pastel shades, of which she was particularly fond, and put it on. She looked in the mirror and was pleased with what she saw. After this she tidied the house.
She did everything slowly, in a distraction for which there was no apparent reason, and as midday approached she had not yet left the house. When she went into the kitchen she forgot what she had gone there for and she returned to the living room and looked round her and asked herself what it was that she wanted, and then she remembered that she needed a dusting cloth, and when she came back again she forgot the cloth in her hand and straightened the divan cover instead. Something, and she knew what it was, was inhibiting her actions and making her thoughts stray aimlessly and tortuously in a dark labyrinth where she could not find her way.
I have to get finished here and get going, she thought, soon they’ll close the bank and I’ll be left without money, but there's something else I have to do first...
What it was that she had to do she could not remember, but she knew that she was not yet ready. And once more she went from room to room, looking around her, searching, trying to remember. In the end she went up to the bureau and began distractedly paging through the telephone directory.
Perhaps it’s someone I have to phone? Who did I invite for this evening? There’s something I’ve forgotten, what is it? What? She repeated over and over to herself.
A smell of flowers reached her. Rachel Stern did not remember that it was her own perfume. She had many bottles of perfume, one more way of overcoming her malaise, in bottles of various kinds, and from time to time she would change and choose another. I simply can’t remember, she thought. Rachel Stern was not a consistent woman, not as far as perfume was concerned, at any rate. Now she breathed in the hot, yellow scent of flowers and saw the tired, yellow fields of standing corn stretching slowly and wearily to the horizon. In them too, as in Rachel Stern herself, there was an oppressive weariness, the exhaustion of the end of a scorching day. Standing in the shade of a eucalyptus tree, she gazed at the white butterflies hovering in the hot, dry air and heard the buzzing of the bees in the summer fields. Recently she had often felt this kind of fatigue.
Yesterday, she thought, late at night I felt like this, but now it’s morning and I must, I have to pull myself together.
Late last night, sitting in a Roman cafe, she had suddenly felt a grinding, terrible tiredness. She remembered that yesterday too, in the cafe, she had very much wanted to concentrate, but had not succeeded. A kind of fainting feeling had lain heavily on her eyelids and all she could think of was this intolerable weariness which had come upon her so suddenly, without any warning, without a reason, and she asked herself: Am I sick? Am I going to die? I’m so tired. All I want to do is close my eyes and sleep.
Rachel Stern wanted to concentrate on the thing that she had to do, but the urgent need to lie down and sleep prevented her from doing so.
Perhaps he’ll call a cab? she thought. Perhaps he’ll take me to a hotel.
The limbs of her body were rapidly receding into the distance. For a long time now they had not belonged to her, and now they were stretching and growing longer and longer. No, not now. It was yesterday, in the Roman cafe, and she would not let it happen again.
Perhaps he really will call a cab? I have to rest...
Rachel Stern stretched out a long, long arm and laid it on the table, from beginning to end, the palm of her hand facing limply upwards, and then she laid her head on her arm and felt a certain relief. Someone came up to her and said: Can I help you? Aren’t you feeling well? She did not know Italian, but she understood what he was saying. And since she could not lift her head, she looked up at him from where her face was resting on her arm lying stretched across the table. Her eyes took in a middle-aged, almost old man, fat and bulky. A big man with a big, heavy head. She knew who he was. She recognized him immediately.
"It’s Fellini," she said to herself in a whisper, in Hebrew. Fellini didn’t hear. Only she heard the jubilation which began shrieking around her like a demented parrot in a shrill, screeching voice.
Afterwards she said in English: "I don’t feel well," and she repeated it in French and Italian and any other language in which she could construct a broken sentence.
The man looked at her and said: "Where do you live? I’ll call a cab."
A cab? she thought. No. That’s too expensive. And then she said to herself: Maybe he’ll want me for a movie? Why shouldn’t I be an actress? There must be some part...
The light in the rooms is soft, grayish, inhibited by the half-shut blinds, the curtains which filter it, and Rachel Stern imagines that it is twilight because she hears the birds crying outside as if it is dusk. The noise of the cars driving up the nearby avenue invades the dim rooms and reaches her hushed and hesitant, as if from a great distance. She shakes herself and tells herself that it is morning, that the rooms are dark because the sky is overcast and the blinds are half drawn and that she is about to go to the bank, like every Friday.
But this Friday something had changed, the weather was different, and the rain that fell in the night after so many summer days had washed the dust off the trees and the streets, and Rachel Stern thought that the air outside must smell good. Again the sweet, heavy buzzing of the bees in the summer fields reached her ears. Damn this town, she said to herself, with its noise and stink and crowds and ugliness, I can’t stand it any more.... And then she thought restlessly: The bees of my childhood have come back to me today, perhaps because of the smell given off when the rain wets the dust. Who did my father sell the beehives to, I wonder?
When she was a little girl her father would take her out with him when he went to work in the fields. He wore special, thick clothes to protect him from the bee stings, and when they reached the fields he would put on special gloves and cover his face with a net of fine wire mesh. He would put her down on the edge of the field to play by herself. She remembered this now and a powerful sensation of pleasure flooded her, dulling the restlessness which had been stirring inside her for many days now and had broken out this morning with such violence. And together with the powerful sensation of pleasure she was afraid, afraid of the smell of the wet earth waiting to greet her when she stepped outside: another smell from another place and another time.
No, she said to herself, no. No longings. I won’t let you. She would go to the bank and buy herself a bunch of roses. Yellow ones. Or marigolds. Perhaps the ragwort was already out in the yards. Once one of her teachers had told her that only the insane liked yellow. He hated yellow, and when she came to his classes wearing yellow he would get angry and take every opportunity of mentioning the insanity of van Gogh. And when he asked her to do some acting exercise in front of the group, he would treat her with suppressed anger and make insulting remarks in a cold voice. Many years had passed since then, since the days when she still believed that she could be an actress, that there were a lot of parts suited to her talents. Many years had passed and she had gone on liking yellow. She no longer wore yellow. Now she preferred dark clothes, but the vases in her house were full of yellow flowers.
Rachel Stern thought about the fact that it was Friday today, and that she would soon have to go to the bank, and that there would probably be a long queue, as there always was on Fridays, and that she would enjoy standing in the queue, as she always did, because standing there in that passive, impersonal way somehow had a beneficial effect on her, perhaps because it enabled her to forget herself, to look around her and take note of other people. She especially enjoyed it when people began to quarrel about their places in the queue, or to complain about the tellers and get into conversation with each other although they were strangers. Standing in the queue at the bank helped to dull the distress that Rachel Stern was always seeking ways of escaping, a distress for which friends and books provided no remedy. And so Rachel Stern said to herself: hurry, it’s getting late, and she thought that after the bank she would stroll along the streets and buy flowers with a scent as bitter as cinnamon, and that after all it had rained last night, and everything would therefore be better, everything would be all right, fresh and clean, less dusty, less ugly. She longed for the blossoming of the freesias, whose scent was yellower and bitterer than any other, and she felt a sudden desire to go and look at the geraniums blooming on the balconies in Gordon Street.
I am no longer beautiful, she thought, but nevertheless there must be some parts that I might, perhaps... The big fat man had disappeared. He had probably gone to call a cab. Now she felt again the terrible tiredness crushing her in the dark confused labyrinth where her thoughts strayed. There was no connection between them and she began running to and fro between Rome, Paris and Majorca. It’s all because of the books, she thought, they’re destroying me, those books. Rachel Stern wanted to stay in Rome, to see how it all ended, to see if he really had gone to call a cab, if he would take her to a hotel. Perhaps he would even go up to the room with her.
She lingered still beside the heavy oak chest. She leant against it and passed her hand over the dark brown surface. The wood was not quite smooth. You could feel the invisible cracks in the wood, the result perhaps of the damp in her parents house, or simply, perhaps, of age. She felt the little grooves and the slight roughness. Then she raised her hand and stroked her cheek. She thought about the beautiful old things standing behind the glass in the kitchen dresser. She thought about their years, their strangeness, about the fact that they did not truly belong to her or really suit her.
She would often open the carved door of the dresser and take the utensils out one after the other, look at them and touch them, and then put them back in a different order. She loved the things she had inherited. I’m not so young either any more, she thought. Her hand touching her cheek felt the tiny wrinkles. You can’t really see them yet, she thought and asked herself if he would call a cab, if he would accompany her to the hotel.
But her weariness would not let her linger there, and she began to roam, rushing between the remote, enchanted cities, which she had never visited in her life, and meeting celebrated people. How childish, she thought. Suddenly darkness came down on her and she no longer saw anything. She repeated to herself: Where did he go? Why did he leave? I want to know the end of the story, but I can’t stay. I have to go to the bank, do the shopping. I’m having visitors this evening...
Yesterday, it was simply because of her weariness that she had not stayed there and had suddenly slipped into the world of unbidden dreams, the ones she had no control over, the ones she never permitted herself, not even when she was so terribly tired... Even when her thoughts were rambling and confused, even then she was able to put up a barrier and bring herself back from that dangerous borderland to thrilling events, to unexpected meetings, to the Princes she loved, Andrei Bolkonsky or Myshkin, according to her mood. But when she fell asleep at last there was no escape. Then she was forced to walk in boundless gardens, open to the infinite spaces in which she floated, glided, running among the sprinklers, soaked to the marrow of her bones, arriving all dripping with water at the big hospital to wander there among the beds laden with bloody amputated limbs, or entering burning cities, and on her way—meeting nightmarish people, or falling from measureless heights, or confined in closed, stifling places, always feeling the same nausea, the urgent need to run when her legs were paralyzed, the horror, the dark, terrible dread, and the desperate effort to utter the scream which would not come.
Now she thought, still standing next to the bureau and leafing through the telephone directory, that there was no real compensation in her fantasies, since they never ended, although what she required from them was precisely the end, the famous happy end. She understood that her dreams were meaningless, since if the dreams were reality she would have had to decide if she would go or not go to the rendezvous, she would have had to get involved, to determine the nature of the relationship, to examine the possibilities, the conditions. Whereas as things were, everything was possible, but at the same time eternally open, eternally without an ending.
If I want to act in a Fellini movie, she said to herself, to meet Prince Andrei, to love Akavia Mazal, why shouldn’t I? What’s stopping me? Why don’t I ever attain my heart’s desire, after all, everything’s possible, the space of fantasy isn’t confined as in life, the borders there are flexible, and nevertheless, I never manage to finish the story. Is it because that’s the way I’m built, and just as in life, here too I’m afraid of taking action?
She said to herself: I have to begin again, from the beginning. So, I was tired, terribly tired, tired unto death. And suddenly this man came up to me and asked me, and I knew at once who he was. I knew that he would help me overcome my weariness. But I’m so tired, so confused. No. I’m not in Tel Aviv now. I’m in Rome, in a cafe, tired to death, and this man comes with his magician’s eyes and I know who is. He doesn’t introduce himself, but I know who he is. He asks me. He’ll call a cab. He’ll take me to the hotel. There I’ll be able to sleep. To rest. For a day. Two days. Three. To sleep until I feel recovered. He went to call a cab. He went....
Naturally you can’t finish it, she said to herself, it’s a cheap, trashy romance, it’s simply not real enough...
She took her bag, keys, glasses, checkbook, locked the door and went out. Outside she saw the wet leaves gleaming in the late morning light.
First she stood at counter number three, where she had to have the check signed. The queue was as long as she had expected.
It was a small bank and that morning it was full of people. The crowding and the restlessness of the people standing in the queue did not bestow the desired tranquillity on her. A man standing behind her was smoking a pipe and the sweetish smell of the tobacco made her feel sick. She raised her hand to her face, felt the dryness and freshness of the skin and breathed in its scent. But the smell of the tobacco was too strong, it overpowered her scent. The proximity of the man with the pipe, who was crowding against her, upset her. She turned around and gave him an angry look. She wanted to say to him: the smoke from your pipe is bothering me, making me feel sick and giving me a headache. What right have you got to rob me of my once-weekly pleasure... She turned and looked at him: he was a handsome man and she realized that it was silly to be angry with him. He looked into her eyes with a kind of impudence, and a note of something like intimacy was struck between them. Rachel Stern turned her head back and smiled secretly to herself. The crowding no longer bothered her, nor did the smell of the tobacco. The queue advanced by fits and starts. Rachel Stern took care to stay close to the man behind her. Once she almost touched him without meaning to, and she was flooded with pleasure. Afterwards she reached the teller and forgot about the man while she conducted her business.
There has to be a continuation, she said to herself as she went across to the cashier, I can’t stand it when things are cut off so abruptly.
The smell of the tobacco, the brownness and denseness of the man disappeared, and Rachel Stern was alone and disconnected again. And then the man came to the cashier’s counter too.
Once more he stood behind her. She turned her head, she wanted to be sure that it really was him. And again he looked at her, this time from narrowed eyes with a faint, quizzical smile.
In a minute I’ll reach the counter, she thought, cash the check and leave the bank, and then it will end, not the way I like it but the way it must. Perhaps I’ll meet him again next Friday. Perhaps he goes to the bank every Friday, too.
She looked at her watch and saw that it was half past eleven. I’ll come at the same time next week, she decided.
Rachel Stern cashed the check and went outside. She made for the bus stop. She decided not to go on foot although she liked walking, because it was hot and late and she had a long way to go. Now she was eager to sit on the bus, look outside, rest and ask herself all kinds of questions about the man with the pipe. She slung her bag across her shoulder, and as she did so her upper arm brushed against that place. She said to herself, aloud: that man, that man, ask myself questions about that man. The uncertainty was encouraging. Nothing was definite and everything was possible. She reached the stop and stood a little way off in the shade. The sun was blazing and it was very hot, but she stood in the shade where she was able to recover a little of the freshness of the morning’s cold shower, the light perfume, the ironed dress. In the shade it was cool and the wet smell of the earth, which was quickly evaporating, still pervaded the air like a hint. Rachel Stern looked at the pavement. A column of ants was crawling over the paving stones, carrying food. Again she saw the yellow fields and heard the heavy, exhausting buzzing of the bees. My father’s bee hives, she thought, the big fat man is asking me something in Italian. I can’t answer. I’m too tired. I want to sleep. Perhaps he’ll call a cab. Perhaps he’ll take me to some hotel...
Suddenly the pungent smell of tobacco reached her nostrils, sweetish and nauseating.
The man from the bank, she thought.
He was standing in the sun, a little distance away, and staring at her insolently. Rachel Stern was alarmed and averted her eyes.
She thought: this freshness is false, borrowed. Now he is seeing me in the sunlight, as I really am. I don’t want to travel on the bus with him. Absolutely not. What number is he waiting for. Did he follow me or is it just a coincidence, and why is he looking at me like that. What does he want.
Rachel Stern lowered her eyes and encountered an oil stain glittering on the street in all the colors of the rainbow. Her mouth dropped open a little with the force of the surprise. How lovely, she thought, and she did not take her eyes off the shining colors systematically and methodically constructed in a fluid circle, whose circumference was blurred, and whose every point was situated at a different distance from the dull, fixed center. There was bright purple next to yellow like gleaming light and pale blue next to dark crimson. She could not tear her eyes away from the sight, but then the pungent scent of the tobacco reached her nose again and her eyes rose of their own accord, and met those of the man, who came closer and stood next to her, on the other side.
She did not know what to do with her hands and her feet, which suddenly felt very heavy, and so she took a cigarette out of her bag and began to smoke. I really shouldn’t smoke, she thought, it all comes from smoking, they say. And nothing helped: the man stood there facing her, planted as firmly as a tree, full of confidence, broad and bronzed with the pipe in his mouth, staring at her shamelessly.
What an impudent man, she thought, I would really like him to start talking to me, to suggest something, but I mustn’t take any notice.
The bus arrived. Rachel Stern hurried to get on, gathering up the full skirt of her starched, flowered dress. She paid the driver and went inside. She sat down next to the window and saw the man still standing at the stop in the sun, looking at her, smiling at her with his eyes narrowed because of the pouring light.
He’s waiting for another bus, she thought, now I can begin again from the beginning. A big fat man comes up to me and asks me and I know who he is, I recognize him immediately...
That night, after the visitors had gone, after she had taken a shower, careful this time not to touch that place when she soaped herself, after putting on her nightgown and getting into bed, her husband began to make love to her. I’m too tired, she said to him, but he was insistent and he took off her nightgown and began to caress her, impatient to arouse her, too. His hand came up and touched her breast and began to stroke it, and Rachel Stern panic-stricken, froze and failed to push his groping hand away in time.
"What’s that?" she heard him say, "what have you got there?" And his finger paused, probing. Rachel Stern lay still and said nothing. Her husband got up, put on the light, stood over her, tall and threatening, and looked at her. "It’s nothing," she said. Her voice choked. "Come to sleep, I’m terribly tired." She wanted to go back to the story. Desperately she hung on to it, and thought, where did he go? Did he go to call a taxi? Will he take me to a hotel? But her husband’s voice penetrated the story and reached her against her will and now he was shouting, actually shouting: "Why didn’t you tell me? Why haven’t you done anything? How can you run away like that?"
"I’m going to call a cab," he said. "I’m taking you to hospital."
"Are you mad or what?" she said. "It’s Friday, it’s night, it can wait, it’s nothing, I tell you...:"
And he got back into bed and lay down beside her and switched off the light. After a while she heard him crying in the dark and she put out her hand and stroked his head. "It’s nothing," she said, "it’s nothing," and her thoughts went on straying to the cafe in Rome, and asking if he would call a cab, if he would take her to a hotel...
Copyright © 1986 Keter Publishing House and Ruth Almog
English translation copyright © 2010 The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature 2010. www.ithl.org
Ruth Almog was born in Petah Tikva, Israel, in 1936 to an Orthodox family of German descent. She studied literature and philosophy at Tel Aviv University, and has taught at all levels, from elementary school to the departments of philosophy and film at Tel Aviv University. She has also been deputy editor of the literary section of the daily Haaretz, and writer-in-residence at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Almog has received the Ze`ev Prize twice (1985, 2000), the Brenner Prize (1989), the Yad Vashem Prize (2000), an Andersen Honor Citation (2000), the Agnon Prize (2001), the Newman Prize (2004), the German Gerty Spies Prize for Literature (Rheinland-Pfalz, 2004), the Bialik Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2006) and the Prime Minister's Prize twice (1995, 2007).