Assisted Living

 

 

Assisted Living

By Yael Medini

Translated from Hebrew by the Author

 

 

“What a pleasant surprise!” Ditsa and Yoss exclaim when they open the door and engulf Yona with hugs and kisses before she has time to decide whether this is just a routine welcome or they forgot that Ditsa had phoned the day before to ask her to come over because Yoss has something special to show her, and between the two of them they decided upon the day and hour. The embrace with Ditsa is naturally warm. With Yoss it's naturally restrained, but, still, it enables her to feel the new — for her! — involuntary tremor in his hand. And then, already on the threshold, her heart sinks. She assumed, of course, that the new place they moved into in the assisted living residence would not be large enough to accommodate the grand piano, but not even a standing one? Not even one of those shortened-keyboard pianos rented for beginners before they prove their talent?
 
“Now you’ll tell me that I shouldn’t have,” she anticipates Ditsa who frees her hand from the bouquet of flowers with her enchanting smile that smoothes her wrinkles.
 
“It wouldn’t occur to me to say such a silly thing,” Ditsa retorts, truly happy with what is revealed when she removes the cellophane wrapping. “Look,” she turns to Yoss, “did you know that they succeeded in cultivating red chrysanthemums?”
 
 “Trust those engineers of the soul of flora,” Yoss responds. It seems to Yona that the look he directs at the flowers is not altogether focused. This reminds her that she heard first- or second-hand that the two cataract procedures he underwent had failed.
 
“The red vase would be perfect,” Ditsa announces and in two-and-a-half steps to the left she is in the middle of the open kitchenette. “Yoss,” she asks, “would you know where the red vase is?” Yoss shrugs his shoulders. When did she last notice how they shrank, Yona asks herself, and immediately has an answer: two years ago at the brit of their third grandson. Now they are also caving in. “Yoss, don’t you remember?” Ditsa repeats her question, “because the whole world and his wife knows that my memory is nothing to boast about.” Yoss then suggests that the whereabouts of the red vase might be discovered if she opens the doors of the cupboards, one by one. Ditsa heeds his advice, but to no avail.
 
“How about this?” Yona comes to her rescue by pointing to a glass container on the shelf above the sink.
 
“What for?” Ditsa looks at her, perturbed.
 
Yona hesitates before she answers: “For the chrysanthemums.”
 
“Ah, yes.” Ditsa nods her head as though not wholly convinced. And it seems to Yona that now there is a slight sharpness in the hazy look that Yoss directs at her. With a tug at her heart Yona fills the container with water, retrieves the flowers from Ditsa’s hands, ducks them in the water, and finds a place for the container on a square black Formica topped table in the cramped dining alcove. Ditsa follows her and her key-board fingers — whose delicacy does not hint at their strength — hover over the red elongated petals and says, “I’ll be forever in love with flowers!” The two women then embrace again. “Yoss is the cousin,” Ditsa overflows with feeling, “but we two love each other by choice."
 
Yona nods in assent and the memory of the bond-of-blood-and-soul becomes a lump in her throat. Lest it burst she’d better not dare to utter a word now. She and Yoss — the same-age cousins — coined that epithet for themselves in the innocence of their childhood, kept to it in their excitable young teens and found in it deep meaning when they sobered in late adolescence. An inseparable pair they were from kindergarten through school and the youth movement, via the games they played together, the books they read together, the fun, the earnestness, discovering the ways of the world. And now, what should she do about her curiosity regarding that thing that Yoss wishes to show her? Should she refer to it outright? What is the meaning of the fact that neither he nor Ditsa allude to it? Have they forgotten? Or maybe they changed their mind and decided to ignore it? In that case, she would surely not embarrass them with a question about it. Whatever the case, it must be significant. Her curiosity, therefore, heightens. But maybe Yoss was not at all privy to Ditsa’s invitation? Perhaps it was only a ruse of Ditsa's to get her to come over? Hoping that now, when a new chapter has opened in Yoss’s life, the two cousins will mend the rent that tore between them many years ago, the rent that so saddened the family and their mutual friends? In that case, what Yoss wishes to show her is this move of theirs from the big house into this small place in the palace of assisted living. Plain and simple. And if it's not, what if she doesn’t get to the root of this enigma? Isn’t it inane to believe that every mystery comes to light in the end? Isn’t it more true that in the end only some of the things come to light? That most of them do not? That in the end there is no end?
 
Keeping all these ruminations to herself, out loud she remarks that this table looks familiar. Yoss raises two thumbs to confirm her good memory. Relying on the weakness of his eyes, she now allows herself to look straight into them. They are no longer clear light blue. They are gray, even dark gray. When did they change color? Obviously, she answers herself, during all those years she could not look straight into them, that had she done so, their clear light blueness would not have darkened, their sharpness would not have dulled. How silly can she get, she scoffs at herself. Since when has she begun to believe in myths and legends. But wait a minute, she stops herself, don’t myths and legends harbor kernels of basic truths? And what is her basic truth? Her basic truth is that it was more convenient for her to distance herself from Yoss after he decided to become an officer in the army than to confront him about his relinquishing the conviction they both so proudly held to ever since the last grades in school, that they would never-ever constrain themselves to regimented thinking, that their horizons would be forever open, forever growing wider. They never defined this conviction in so many words. It was rather a self-evident silent pact between them. In time, of course, she came to understand that survival of their country cannot be ensured by a paper-tiger army but by an army that proves its mettle and invincibility every once in a while. And being true to herself, she’s fully aware that she was privileged to save the purity of her open-mindedness by sitting atop the Academic Olympus on the merit of her research and articles and lectures about the fickleness and betrayal of intellectuals from time immemorial. Still, she could not come to terms with Yoss’s decision to become part of the military establishment — that automatically put an end to the full openness between them. And once it was short of full, it could only be null and void.
 
“What a memory, Yona’leh,” Yoss compliments her, and the loving suffix of her name that in childhood was used only by their mutual grandparents gives her heart another tug. “This table was, indeed, the wedding gift that we received from Grandma and Grandpa.” Yoss joins his hands together as if to emphasize the family tie.
 
“Right, right,” Yona says.
 
“And you probably remember how in time the table was demoted from a small kitchen table for the two of us to a side table on the veranda,” Ditsa picks up the tale. “I always covered it with a tablecloth because something about the sheen of the Formica began to annoy me…” At that point her stream of lively details dries up, and she looks alternatively at the table and at their guest. “Strange that I forgot what specifically annoyed me about that sheen,” she says. “Did I change? For better? For worse?”
 
“We’ve all changed,” Yoss smiles, “and only for the better, of course.”
 
In her imagination Yona compresses this whole miniscule place into that large veranda which she well remembers. She didn’t stay away from family gatherings and social events to which Ditsa would call to invite her. In those events the two cousins learned to limit themselves to sketchy greetings and minimal updating, words that fizzed out like bubbles into nothing, that didn’t delve into the substance of things, a substance that used to grow from the fertile bond-of-blood-and-soul, and then trickle back to make that bond more fertile, again and again, in a constant spiral motion. When she would happen to hear his voice from somewhere in the crowd, parroting “it isn’t as simple as it seems,” “a coin has more than two sides,” “one cannot pass judgment until one is in the eye of the storm,” how painfully she yearned for the unbound freedom that typified their conversations in the past on anything under the sun, the way they poked fun at whatever popped into mind, their irreverent censure of public figures, celebrities, icons, political slogans.
 
The relationship with Ditsa was smooth sailing from the minute Yoss introduced them to each other about half a year before they got married. She always felt at ease in her presence: first, because of her disarming spontaneity and down-to-earth wisdom, and, secondly, because of her piano playing. Oh, her heart glows, what wondrous music! Ditsa never seemed to be bitterly jealous of those who ascended to stardom, never berated herself for remaining down in the valley of mediocrity. Playing for herself and teaching children filled her musical world to the brim.
 
“Yes, the table was demoted,” bemoans Yoss as if sharing a sad misfortune, “but it always knew how to overcome humiliation and fulfill its duty faithfully.”
 
“Like a disciplined soldier,” the words escape Yona’s lips.
 
“Exactly, Yona’leh,” Yoss agrees with her, “like a disciplined soldier.”
 
“What did I look for earlier?” Ditsa’s brow frowns. “what didn’t I find?”
 
“The red vase,” Yoss reminds her patiently and he and Yona exchange a brief look.
 
“Ah, yes,” Ditsa is grateful, “the red vase which we bought on that trip to Italy, in Murano, remember, Yoss? How it looked like the mother-of-kitsch among all those hundreds of vases looking all exactly alike in that workshop, spitting-image, but as one single vase it had a special charm. But why didn’t I find it?”
 
“You’ll find it tomorrow,” Yoss tries to ease her concern.
 
“Yes, tomorrow is another day” — Ditsa is easily encouraged — “as somebody has already said,” and her keyboard fingers hover again on the red chrysanthemums.
 
Oh, Ditsa, my darling Ditsa, Yona laments inaudibly, how can you live without a piano?
 
“Since my memory is quite shot,” Ditsa admits as if afflicted by an embarrassing defect, “isn’t this the first time that you came over here since we moved?”
 
Now Yona is certain that the invitation Ditsa made over the phone the day before yesterday has completely slipped through the sieve of her memory. Now she also clearly remembers Ditsa's saying, “Yoss has something to show you.” Out loud she confirms her guess, and then adds that until today she unfortunately didn’t have a spot of time for that because of all those chores and tasks that incessantly pursue each other to fill her days.
 
“Still full of steam at the university?” Yoss both asks and ascertains.
 
“Not really anymore” — Yona looks straight into his eyes for even though he does not see her clearly, she knows that he knows that that’s not the reason — “since naturally I’m already retired, but there are still many loose ends to tie up: students to whom I promised to go over their theses, consultations with old colleagues, meetings. But in the main,” she confesses lightheartedly, “habit makes it hard for me not to get to the campus first thing in the morning, even for just a few hours in the library.”
 
“So you’re still alive.” Yoss winks his special double wink that zigzags between his eyes.
 
Yona gulps. This is the very double wink that he directed towards her in the wedding hall of the rabbinate when he checked the poles of the chuppah, mimicking a wish to test their sturdiness — a double wink that stopped her crying on the spot. But then, as an unjust compensation for ceasing to be absorbed in herself, she could hear Aunt Shoshana whispering behind her to whoever stood by, that cousin Yona was crying her heart out because Ditsa the bride usurped her place. She didn’t turn her head to that know-it-all aunt to put her in place. She never thought, or wished, to marry Yoss. Maybe only in kindergarten in those groom-and-bride make-believe games. It was this official ceremony in Yoss’s life that brought on her tears. At that moment, though, it did not occur to her that aunt Shoshana’s brilliant observation would strike roots, because it was confirmed quite soon afterwards by the rent between the two cousins that naturally became common knowledge. Go invite everybody concerned and perorate about the true sequence of events.
 
“I can’t remember how long it is that we’re here.” Ditsa turns to Yoss for help.
 
“Two and a half months,” he says, “exactly ten weeks. And now, most honored ladies,” he stretches his arms forward to emphasize his ceremonial invitation, “the time has come to give our esteemed guest a guided tour through our new abode. You’re already acquainted with the regal entrance hall, Yona,” he begins with no further ado, “the spacious dining-corner and the full kitchenette. And right now our feet are standing on the threshold of what we decided to call our li’l-lounge. As you can verify for yourself, it has most generously agreed to accommodate some of our old faithful pieces of furniture.”
 
Yoss's good-natured imitation of high style warms the cockles of Yona’s heart. She certainly recognizes the two armchairs and the coffee table. A neat stack of newspapers occupies one of its corners, their sharp folds proof that they were not touched by human hands. She points to a homemade ashtray next to them and says that that too is familiar.
 
“You’re right.” Ditsa picks it up, pats it lovingly, and relates with sweet nostalgia that Dani, their second son, made it in his ceramics class when he was eight. “It was always on the coffee table in the lounge in the big house,” Ditsa continues the tale, “but nowadays, when everybody is off smoking either for reasons of health or fear of being ostracized, I fill it with chocolate truffles when we expect the children and grandchildren. Look,” Ditsa brings the ashtray closer to Yona, “the glazing is a bit chipped here and there, like our own, right? But, at our age, we no longer think of things as they are but of their meaning.” Then, realizing that Yona’s eyes are drawn to the two-seater, she explains that it's a replacement for the large couch of their big house because there was no room for it here, and one of the children is happy with it.
 
“Another example of the arbitrariness of life,” adds Yoss, “that at this stage of shrinking reality, two old cronies like Ditsa and I are compelled to acquire a new piece of furniture.”
 
“What are you talking about?” Ditsa’s eyebrows contract. And when Yoss explains that he's referring to the two-seater, there is a slight uncertainty in her face, and Yoss takes her hand affectionately and casually explains that the two-seater is a new acquisition of theirs. “Ah,” she nods again, not completely convinced.
 
To change the subject, Yona steps to the window to admire the view outside. It works. Ditsa and Yoss come to flank her. Private villas peep out of well-tended courtyards beneath the height of the seventh floor. “Beautiful, right?” says Yoss and it seems to Yona that he tries to fill this vague adjective with real meaning.
 
“Those sweet homes,” Ditsa gushes, “each one a greenhouse of blooming life.”
 
Ditsa was always blessed with good cheer. Even when she played a somber piece of Beethoven or a gloomy piece of Mozart, she inspired them with optimism. For years Yona had an agreement with her, that if it were an early afternoon when she was on her way back home from the university, she was welcome to stop by, enter quietly by the open kitchen door, sit there at the table and eavesdrop on the piano lesson going on behind the wall. She would never forget the explanation which she was once an unseen listener to. “Don’t we see what’s happening in this fugue, Noa?” Ditsa was speaking for both herself and her pupil. “The parts wander, meander, each one finding its own independent route. But eventually they all unite, come together in the final chord, and peace reigns. This is Bach’s signature. He was a great believer.”
 
“Also in a world where terrible things happen?” Noa, the precocious teenager, was quick to protest. “Also in a life that ends in death?”
 
Ditsa was silent for a moment and then said, “He believed in the greatness that’s beyond, in the greatness of the universe that’s beyond, in the great chord that’s beyond. This is what I hear in Bach. This is how I play him.”
 
“Come on, girls,” Yoss resumes his guiding role, takes three steps into the narrow corridor, and pointing to a small room on the right, says, “This, Yona, is our shelter-room, about which Ditsa keeps asking what we need it for when we’re already living in this fortress of assisted living, and I tell her that this is a shelter-room-plus.” And he looks at Yona with that preciously cherished look of the past, when the bond-of-blood-and-soul guaranteed that the tiniest of clues between the two of them would speak volumes. And though she is not sure about what he really sees, she wants to believe that he really sees her, her own inner self — that if she only wanted, if she were generous and wise, they could both disregard that old rent, overcome it, forget it. It really depends solely on her, because she was the one who initiated the rent. She is, therefore, the guilty party. And guilt gets heavier with time, should get heavier with time. She takes a swift look at the shelter-room and identifies the single cot and the small desk which stood in the children’s room in the big house. The bookcase whose shelves were once filled with books and notebooks and writing utensils is now almost bare save for a few framed photographs and an assortment of objects d’art. “Yes,” says Yona, “things here are also familiar.” And when Ditsa is perplexed, Yoss explains to her that Yona refers to the furniture that she remembers from the big house.
 
“Good for you,” Ditsa smiles her angelic smile. “It took us days-weeks-months to dismantle the old house, to empty our life inside out…” She suddenly stops and brings her hand to her mouth, “Yoss!” — she is jubilant — “we gave the red vase to Liron!”
 
“That means that we can put our hearts at rest.” Yoss imitates a sigh of relief and explains to Yona that Liron is their eldest granddaughter and that the red vase has surely found a good home with her. This explanation makes Yona wonder whether he might have known about the whereabouts of the vase right from the beginning, that he feigned ignorance to allow him to join in Ditsa’s forgetfulness.
 
“She has a real mentsch for a boyfriend,” Ditsa now adds. “It’s only that I forgot his name.”
 
“Ruvi,” Yoss says, “and he really is terrific. And we, most honorable ladies, shall continue with our guided tour” — Yoss urges them in good humor — “for we still have a long way to go, don’t we?”
 
Yona follows him in the narrow corridor, and behind her Ditsa whispers to herself, “Liron and Ruvi, Ruvi and Liron.” 
 
When the three of them enter the bedroom, Yona immediately reacquaints herself with the bedspread covering the double bed and the two night tables on either side. “From this window the view is spectacular.” Ditsa pulls up the blind and opens the window. “Such a spectacular view we didn’t have from our bedroom in the old house. It’s a view that compensates…”
 
Fearing that Ditsa’s words may remain in mid-air too long, Yona asks which direction this window faces, explaining that ever since entering the building on the main floor, turning right and left and taking the elevator up to their floor, she lost her sense of direction.
 
“No problem,” Yoss, whose sense of direction used to be his second name, holds forth imitating a professorial pedant. “According to the sun, this window is supposed to face west, but since no building blocks the view from this height, and since it’s summer now, and since we don’t see even one speck of the sea, this window unquestionably faces north.”
 
Intimating a mixture of certainty and doubt in Ditsa’s face, Yona looks for herself. Behind the nearby strip of an open mall there is a stretch of open fields which are divided in the distance by a triple-lane freeway. Further on, an expanse of open fields is bordered by high-rises standing like sentries on duty. They are separated from each other by sharp-edged rectangular patches that are not blue. In the bright sunlight the water glitters like silver. “Children,” their old teacher would call their attention, “what three natural borders does Israel our Motherland have?” And the class would answer in unison, “The Jordan river in the east, the Litani river in the north, the Mediterranean in the west.” Oh, Yoss, Yona is heartbroken, how your clear voice used to lead that unison.
 
When they return to the li’l-lounge she and Yoss sit down in the two armchairs. It now seems to Yona that the dimensions of the place that seemed to inflate during the guided tour have now deflated again like an accordion. She refrains from saying this out loud, first, because it’s impolite, and, second, because she remembers how Ditsa detested that instrument, calling it a travesty of music.
 
“What would you like to have?” Ditsa asks, standing now between the kitchenette and the li’l-lounge.
 
“Whatever is least trouble,” answers Yona.
 
Ditsa is silent for a long moment, gazes at the flowers and says, “The right vase for these red chrysanthemums is the red vase which we bought in Murano, during our first trip to Italy, remember, Yoss? That in that workshop it looked like the mother of kitch…”
 
“And it is now at Liron’s,” Yoss’s voice fuses with hers to navigate her to a safe harbor.
 
“Ah, Liron,” enunciates Ditsa flatly, and when she repeats the name a second time, “Liron,” her voice softens, deepens, and her face radiates, “Liron, our eldest granddaughter.”
 
“Dits, I for one am for coffee,” suggests Yoss. And Yona’s heart flutters for a second remembering that she was the one who invented the shortened Yoss for Yosseph that in no time was adopted by one and all.
 
“Yes, we shall all have coffee,” Ditsa says, and walks over to the kitchenette. “The red vase found a good home at Liron’s,” she carries on from there, “and I only forgot what she’s studying at the university.”
 
“General BA studies,” Yoss fills her in.
 
“Let me help you,” offers Yona.
 
“Thank you,” answers Ditsa, “I can manage, but only in a slower tempo.”
 
“Andante, largo, adagio,” Yona humors her. “I remember that you explained to me that these indications don’t only refer to different tempi, but to dynamics, to expression.”
 
“Good for your memory,” Ditsa laughs heartily and from the rising pitch of the flow of water it can be easily surmised that the kettle is overflowing. “Because if you ask me to repeat those explanations now” — she at long last turns the faucet off and empties the kettle from excess water — “I doubt that I shall ever pass the test.”
 
“Finito,” Yoss double-winks at Yona, “all those tests are behind us.”
 
A shutter then opens in Yona’s memory. After Yoss winked his double-wink that stopped her crying in the wedding hall of the rabbinate, when everything was ready, the chuppah standing, the ktuba signed, the rabbi impatient to start officiating, Yoss asked for another minute, because he was expecting a close friend of his who had to come from the base and he would not get married without him. And his parents — Aunt P’nina and uncle Meshulam — argued that he was not marrying a friend from the base but a bride who is present right here, all in white, her head covered with a bridal veil. And he argued back that a bride is a bride, and a friend is a friend. And she asked herself who that friend could be, because Yoss had expressly told her that Ditsa and he decided to have a small low-key ceremony in the presence of the two families only. Just then who should appear at the doorway of the hall but their classmate Kalman Halevi in crumpled fatigues, his officer’s rank on his epaulettes. Since she happened to be the first he bumped into, he shook her hand and wished her mazal tov, and hurriedly informed her that he came for just a second because he was under terrible pressure to take care of an urgent matter. She managed to quip that word got around that he proved his mettle in the armed forces before Yoss rushed to him. They embraced vigorously, spotlessly gleaming white shirt and greasy khaki enmeshed. And when Ditsa came over, the friendly way with which she shook hands with Kalman Halevi obviously meant that this was not their first encounter. Yoss then introduced him to some distant relatives — which was superfluous for the close relatives who had known Kalman as a classmate of the two cousins ever since the lower grades. And she walked away to the farthest wall to lean against it, and from that vantage point was impressed by the closeness between the two young men. That made her deduce that like many of the boys in their class, their joint military service bolstered their school acquaintance into a strong camaraderie. At that point the rabbi’s assistant clapped his hands and announced that the hour of the chuppah had indeed arrived, and from the corner of her eye she saw Yoss and Kalman parting, again in warm embrace. Kalman already turned to leave but retraced his steps to say, “See you very soon, buddy” and Yoss said, “Ditto,” smiling from ear to ear.
 
Yona is puzzled now at Ditsa’s efficiency when she is already coming from the kitchenette to place a tray with three cups of coffee and a sealed plastic box of cookies on the coffee table. “Oh.” Ditsa removes her cup from her mouth with distaste after the first gulp. “I didn’t turn the kettle on!” And she’s already on her feet to rectify her omission.
 
“No need,” Yona stops her with a hand on her arm. “On a hot day like today lukewarm coffee is perfect, and that’s the miracle of instant coffee that it dissolves in any temperature.”
 
“In that case” — Ditsa is contrite — “you’d like to have cold or iced coffee.”
 
“Everything is fine, Dits.” Yoss too tries to assuage her. “Don’t you remember that in the health talk we had last week, the doctor suggested that in our young-old age, we should opt for lukewarm?”
 
“I too go to all these lectures,” says Ditsa, who has regained her easy-going composure. “The difference, though, is that Yoss understands what they’re talking about and tucks all that in his memory while I don’t understand and, thus, fortunately, have nothing to remember.” And the three of them enjoy a good giggle.
 
“Please.” Yoss offers Yona the sealed box. Hungry Yona would gladly avail herself of two cookies right away, but since she’s hopelessly clumsy with this new-fangled packaging she desists with thanks.
 
“Oh, let me open it.” Yoss, who is on to her difficulty, gets up.
 
“No!” Ditsa almost shrieks and immediately modulates her voice. “You know that you and a knife are not exactly the best of friends.” And she takes the package and goes to the kitchenette and asks, “Tell me, my good friends, what am I supposed to find among the silverware?”
 
“The knife to open the package of the cookies,” Yoss patiently enlightens her.
 
“Isn’t it a godsend that there is somebody around who always knows what-whom-where-and-why?” Ditsa is rattling in the drawer, and she returns to the li’l-lounge and offers Yona the open package.
 
How circumspect of her to limit herself to one single cookie in spite of her eagerness. She washes the moldy taste in her mouth with a long gulp of the tasteless coffee. What a far cry are these industrialized old cookies from the wondrous cookies that Ditsa used to bake! Ditsa, who brought up the children almost single-handed because Yoss was forever away on military duty, and took care of the house and gave piano lessons, also baked those divine Quaker Oats cookies. Should she mention them now? She deliberates and decides not to.
 
“Do you remember my Quaker Oats cookies?” Ditsa does it in her place.
 
 “Like Proust's madeleine,” she retorts.
 
“They were the last straw, right, Yoss?” Ditsa turns her head from side to side. “I placed two pans of them in the oven and cheerily left an empty house to go to the hairdresser. When I came back some neighbors were already outside saying that they almost alerted the police and the fire department.”
 
“That means that it also had its silver lining,” says Yoss. “That it gave us the last push to move here, and not a day passes that we don’t bless that move.”
 
“You really have a nice set-up here,” agrees Yona.
 
“There’s something strange in this place” — Yoss moves his arms in and out — “that one moment it looks big and the next one small, inflating and deflating like an accordion.”
 
“Exactly what I felt during the guided tour,” says Yona. And it’s so marvelous to look straight into his eyes, because even though they’ve changed from clear light blue to dark gray, they are still those eyes from way back, when they used to say that the eyes are the windows of the soul, say it and believe in it. And then she looks at Ditsa and waits for her to derogate the accordion as a musical instrument. But Ditsa is silent.
 
“Yona’leh, listen” — Yoss breaks the silence, his back stiffened slightly and his voice suffused with the old undertone of intimacy — “I always think about you, but especially in the last few days.”
 
“For what rhyme and reason, Yossin’kah?” Yona responds in the same vein with the endearing suffix used by the elders of the family.
 
“Well, this is the rhyme and reason,” says Yoss. “About two weeks ago an old friend called me on the phone. Do you remember Kalman? Kalman Halevi, our classmate?” Yona nods and overcomes the impulse to share with him and Ditsa the memory of his meteoric appearance in that rabbinate wedding hall a second before their chuppah got under way.
 
“He and Chava moved to an assisted living residence before we did,” Ditsa contributes.
 
“Chava is his wife,” clarifies Yoss. “And they kept needling us to do likewise, and this too had an effect on us. Anyhow, to be shorter than short” — Yoss clears his voice — “Kalman called to say that he’s into sorting out all those reams of papers and letters and documents that he has accumulated throughout all these many years, and he came across a letter I must read, and he would mail it to me. And I didn’t need to ask him what it was about, because I knew what’s written there by heart. And a few days ago the letter did indeed arrive. And I read it, I mean, I only saw it, because since my eyesight is no longer twenty-twenty, my reading has become zero-zero, but I of course knew I’d guessed right. And the first thing that immediately came to my mind was that I wanted you to read it.”
 
“You have no idea what ensued here from that moment on.” Ditsa cannot contain her excitement. “Yoss didn’t stop saying that Yona must read it, that Yona must read it, and I decided to call you and ask you to come over for that, and while we’re at it, you’d also see our new doll’s house. And I forgot that I decided, so how lucky that you surprised us today.”
 
“Lucky indeed,” agrees Yoss, and his loving gaze envelops her. “This is a letter that I wrote a long time ago, and for a certain reason that you’ll understand in a minute, it remained with Kalman.” Yoss now stretches his arm to the black Formica top table and gets hold of a sheet of paper which lies on top of a pile of documents that rests neatly there. “Look, Yona’leh,” he brings it close to her and the involuntary tremor in his hand makes it rustle, “to the end of my days I shall not forget the day that I wrote this letter.”
 
In a flicker of a second Yona perceives that this is a yellowing tattered typewritten letter, stamped officially at the top, under it some military marks, under them a row of letters and numbers interspersed with slashes, and below it an official opening, followed by three paragraphs, ending with a handwritten signature. She sharpens her eyes and ascertains that it couldn’t be her cousin’s Yosseph Ravshal’s famous clear handwriting, and she gives up deciphering that chain of hieroglyphics, and easily reads the name typewritten under it — Kalman Halevi — and his rank.
 
“You understand, Yona’leh” — Yoss is so close to her that she inhales his breath — “I remember it as if it were today, as if it were a minute ago, the state I was when I wrote that letter, when I came back from the inspection I had made in one of the bases in the north near the border. Shocked isn’t the word. I was devastated. Unkempt soldiers, sleepy, yawning officers who did not know how to discipline them, disrupted human relationships from top to bottom and backwards, and of course — of course! — ammunition in awful condition, dusty, not oiled, not properly maintained. I returned to headquarters boiling and immediately called the secretary — Zeva was her name — and dictated this letter to her and straight away sent it to Kalman who was the chief commander of the area. Was that just in the nick of time! Because a week later the base was infiltrated. Blessedly that ended with no casualties. But were it not for my alarm…” The shudder that shoots through Yoss’s body finishes the sentence for him.
 
“And how good it is that Kalman kept the letter,” interjects Ditsa, “they say that he keeps every scrap of paper that passes through his hands.”
 
“I of course showed it to the children,” Yoss says. “They didn’t say much, but I felt how moved they were. And now you’ll read it too.” He offers the letter to Yona. “Your eyes are as sharp as ever.”
 
How fresh his voice sounds in Yona’s ears, how free of clichés. “So sorry, Yoss” — she takes the letter from his trembling hands — “but you’ll be surprised to hear that to this day I’m unable to concentrate on a text while being watched. But the main thing is that you told me what’s written here, and this, of course, moves me no end, as it moves you, as it moves the three of us.” And her eyes steal to Ditsa whose expression is pure placidity.
 
“How about photocopying it for you?” suggests Yoss when she returns the letter to him. “You could then read it at leisure.”
 
“That’ll be more than perfect,” she agrees. She is so happy about her response. Maybe the old bond-of-blood-and-spirit can be revived.
 
“I’ll do it downstairs in the office,” says Yoss. His Adam’s apple bobs up and down. “Yona’leh, you have no idea what it means to me that you shall have this letter.”
 
“I do, Yossin’kah,” she says, and her throat thickens. Had she found herself in a similar situation, she reflects, and had she had children, could she count on their sensitive behavior? Hiding the truth from their father for his own good? Maybe she was spared that predicament from the children she didn’t have, she smiles wryly inwardly. Maybe there’s some benefit to glean from childlessness.
 
“Isn’t it marvelous that Yigal, no, Yuval, kept that letter?” Ditsa says. And Yoss and Yona exchange a furtive look that connotes that when not vital, any correction is only superfluous, for it makes another dent in Ditsa’s failing trust in her memory. And out loud Yona says that her time is up.
 
“But you’ve just come,” pleads Yoss. “Please stay for lunch.”
 
“Yes, please do,” Ditsa joins him. “I am through with cooking and I don’t miss it one bit, but do they pamper us downstairs!”
 
“The choice they offer!” Yoss smacks his lips. “First, there’s the cafeteria which offers more than your heart desires, and next to it there’s a proper restaurant that changes the menu daily: Italian, Chinese, Oriental, and even shtetl food, and Japanese is going to be on the menu, too! Is it or isn’t it assisted living! So do stay and break bread with us.”
 
“Another time,” she promises. “I can’t today.” Can’t she, really? No, of course she can. But she must hurry to be alone, mull this hour over just between her and herself.
 
“Because of all those chores and tasks that incessantly pursue each other to fill your days.” Yoss quotes her own words from just a little while ago and goes on to warn her with his index finger, “Just don’t let them catch up with each other.” And she wants to put her arms around him and kiss his two eyes that see the world through fog. “It would be delicious if you surprise us again,” Yoss adds. “Kalman might find another letter of mine.”
 
“Hopefully,” she says and gets up.
 
“We’ll go down with you and catch three birds with one stone.” Yoss winks his double wink at her. “I’ll make you a photocopy, and Ditsa and I will do the honors of seeing you out, and then we’ll already be downstairs and have lunch.” He then removes a scarlet pashmina shawl from the hanger next to the front door and hands it to Ditsa.
 
“What for?” she wonders.
 
“Sometimes the air conditioning is too strong in the restaurant,” he reminds her.
 
“But why the restaurant?” she keeps wondering.
 
“To have lunch,” he answers.
 
“Is it time already?” she asks.
 
“It is,” he answers.
 
“If you say so.” She imitates the grimace of a good-hearted clown.
 
Then, before the front door locks behind them, Yoss and Ditsa make sure that they did not forget their key. Even though nothing untoward would happen if they did, they explain to Yona, because the service here is so efficient that on every floor next to the elevator there is a stand with an intercom for any kind of an emergency, you just name it.
 
When they emerge from the elevator onto the main floor, Yoss goes to the office while the two women stroll down the spacious marble-walled lobby in the direction of the exit. “Yoss feels so good about giving you a photocopy of this letter,” says Ditsa. “A letter he can’t read, and I can, but the words do not metamorphose into meaning.” The mending process of the rent between the cousins that might be in the making echoes in the overtones of Ditsa’s words. Then spontaneously she describes to Yona the different activities going on behind each door on both sides: gymnastics, arts and crafts, paramedical treatments, study groups in history and Jewish heritage. When Yona asks her what is the activity closest to her heart, Ditsa points to the last door saying, “It’s in the music room.”
 
“Can I have a look?” Yona’s heart misses a beat.
 
 “Of course.” Ditsa opens the door. Comfortable upright chairs line the three sides of the room, and there, next to the fourth wall, stands a black grand piano. It’s Ditsa’s! It’s the piano on which Ditsa played wondrously, the piano on which she taught generations of children. She once told Yona that her parents bought it for her when she was discovered to have an unquestionable musical talent at the age of seven. Her father being a clerk in the municipality and her mother a cook in a boarding school, it took them a dozen years to pay off the monthly installments. “What do you do here, I wonder?” Yona pretends whimsical ignorance.
 
“Twice a week there is a terrific get-together here for lovers of percussion instruments,” says Ditsa, and goes on to enumerate them. “Triangles and tambourines and drums and a wooden xylophone which has a deep mellow tone, not metallic and unnerving. The instructor gives each one his part and then she both conducts us and accompanies us on the piano. I love it. I was always very good in keeping time, pardon sounding the braggart, but already in kindergarten I was the one they always gave the cymbals to. I didn’t believe that the other children couldn’t really keep time. I thought they missed it on purpose.”
 
“And is there another instrument on which you play?” asks Yona.
 
Ditsa shakes her head. “The grandchildren did bring me a recorder,” she says, “but hard as I tried, it was no go. In the percussion group I am a real virtuoso. Would you believe it?”
 
“I do,” Yona agrees softly.
 
When Ditsa closes the door of the music room behind them, Yoss appears at the far end of the lobby. “Is there anything that can be done for Yoss’s eyes?” Yona hurries to ask Ditsa.
 
“Not for the time being.” Ditsa purses her lips. “The ophthalmologist blames him for putting off the cataract procedures until it was too late. But I don’t think he put it off. I think he simply didn’t feel how his eye-sight was gradually weakening. There are processes that you don’t feel at the beginning until they hit you full blast. But Yoss is optimistic.”
 
“What is he hoping for?” asks Yona.
 
“That something will be discovered.” Ditsa is smiling her enchanting smile. “Don’t they constantly keep coming up with improvements and innovations? And here he is.”
 
Yoss hands Yona the fresh photocopy and the three of them continue to walk towards the exit, the guest flanked by her two hosts. “I checked, Yona’leh, it’s Chinese today,” Yoss tries to tempt her when they stop in front of the revolving door. “How about giving in?”
 
“Hard to withstand the temptation,” she says, “but if I don’t go now, how would I ever be able to come again?” The three of them chuckle then together in memory of those same words they heard time and again in childhood. “Bon appétit,” she wishes them.
 
“Why?” Ditsa looks askance.
 
“Because you and I are going Chinese now.” Yoss locks her arm in his.
 
Yona embraces the two of them together and kisses their cheeks. Now, in parting, she lets loose her warmth towards Yoss, patting his arm, squeezing it.
 
 
 
On her way to the parking lot her expert eyes run through the photocopy. In a few concisely articulated sentences Kalman Halevi lists his complaints to the echelon above him: his overlooked due promotion, ditto updating of his salary, ditto his vehicle and professional trips abroad. She tears the photocopy into small pieces and throws them into the gigantic trash container standing in the corner of the parking lot. After she gets into her car, belts herself in, turns on the ignition and starts going, it strikes her that had she regretted that impulse, she wouldn’t have been able to retrieve those torn pieces from the deep bowels of the container and piece them back together like a picture puzzle, the way she and Yoss did that night so long ago, seventy years ago, to be exact. It was after the family Friday night meal when it did not occur to any of the adults in the dining room that the two teen-age cousins who took to the veranda to play checkers could also share in the drama that took place among them. Through the glass door she and Yoss, spellbound, watched Aunt Nyuta adamantly waving a picture in the air for everybody to see, saying that it had slipped out of Bialik’s volume of poetry when she dusted the bookcase that morning in honor of Shabbat, and she understood that her idiot of a husband had hid it there. Their uncle Shmulik evaded her piercing eyes and looked up at the ceiling while she tore the picture to small pieces and threw them dramatically into the bin under the kitchen sink. And late that night, after everybody had gone to bed, the two cousins overcame their revulsion and scavenged through the smelly wet garbage, found the tattered pieces, locked themselves in the bathroom and pieced them together to have an alluring smile, like that of a Hollywood star, smile at them. They quickly turned the picture over to find undecipherable handwritten Cyrillic letters. Frustrated they threw the pieces back into the dustbin. But then, at least, they understood why their uncle Shmulik didn’t come straight back home after the exhausting debates of the Zionist Congress, but prolonged his stay in Carlsbad for another extra week.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © Yael Medini 2012
This story was originally published in Hebrew in 2009 in the literary monthly, Iton 77.
 
 
Yael Medini was born in Israel. She served in the army and lived on a kibbutz. She received a B.A. from Hunter College and an M.A. from New York University. Over the years she published (in Hebrew, of course) stories and novels for children and adults. Her novel for young adults, The Boy I Did Not Know, won prizes from Yad Va’shem and the Ministry of Education and Culture. She has also published stories in English in the New York based monthly, Midstream, and in a collection of stories, Children of Israel, Children of Palestine, published by Simon and Schuster. Recently her short story, “Suddenly, All At Once,” translated by Zeva Shapiro, was published by the online journal Melusine.
 
Four of her radio dramas were broadcasted on Israeli radio. One of them – “Gitta's Lamp” (translated into English) – was short-listed by Channel Four of the BBC. She wrote the libretto for Oasis, an opera for children composed by Dr. Tsippi Fleischer, which was performed in Karlsruhe, Germany. Yael Medini is married, is a mother and a grandmother.


 

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