(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Edna Mazya
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu
In certain couples who bitterly persevere in their lives together, consoling themselves with the thought that happy marriages are rarer than snow in Egypt, the arrangement between me and the Irishman gives rise to envy: we see neither too much nor too little of each other and thus avoid being defeated by daily life on the one hand or by longing on the other.
The Irishman is a theater director who lives in London and works in Europe, while I live and work in Tel Aviv. Due to the peripatetic nature of his profession, we usually meet – six to seven times a year, two to three weeks a time – in the city where he is putting on a play at the time: Graz, Basle, Zurich, Weimar, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Utrecht, Brussels, Antwerp, a partial list. It goes without saying that maintaining the relationship extracts a good deal of cash; evidently the laws of the market apply here too – whatever is common is cheap and whatever is rare is expensive.
After the play opens we stay in the town, depending on the town, or take a vacation in one of the surrounding villages, doing in abbreviated form what others do at length, and even if the reality is more faded than its image, as is its wont, we are still talking here about a high tide, stable and crisis-less, that has forded nearly fifteen long years packed with phone calls and emails.
But despite the relaxed and good-humored nature of our relationship, the rules beneath the surface are rigid, demands of any kind are out of the question. Your partner is not there in order to solve your problems and your salvation will not come from him. Not only because of noblesse oblige, the Irishman claims, should a person suffer without troubling his mate, but mainly because of practical considerations. To expect your mate to be able to stand in your shoes in order to get a full picture of your point of view is an absurd and baseless expectation which leads in the end to pettiness and recriminations. You can never truly satisfy a hurt or disappointed person, and therefore in difficult times we should quietly withdraw, each to his own corner, and take comfort in the healing properties of time.
As far as the Irishman knows, I obey the rules not only easily and naturally, but out of an authentic choice stemming from my personality which is no less individualistic than his. He sees me, with a certain justice, as his neighbor in the same spiritual domain, a strong woman with an independent mind and a demanding career, embracing the same proud creed, at the core of which is a belief in keeping the right distance. Not to burden, not to tire, not to bore, not to ask leading questions, and mainly to avoid demonstrations of jealousy or excessive emotion; emotional displays are as meretricious in his eyes as melodrama lacking in irony in the theater.
But even if feeling is in short supply with him and warmth is often deceptive, the Irishman is inspirational company by any romantic yardstick, which as far as I’m concerned makes the effort worth while. He’s brilliant, interesting, generous, amusing, and attentive to nuances. As a wealthy man who has not experienced life’s potential for tragedy and sorrow, at least not on an oppressive daily basis, he has also never sought a helpmate. Which is his good right.
To his credit it should also be said that he applies his rules successfully to himself as well, and in the past fifteen years I have almost always met him cheerful and free of venom. If the play he was directing was frowned on by the critics he never took out his frustrations on me, but withdrew into himself for two or three days, trying as he did so to speed up the healing process and exhaust the insult and self-hatred as quickly as possible, in order to resume his accustomed point of view and get things back into the proper perspective. Self-control, in his view, constitutes the main difference between us and the animals.
During those first years, when I was madly in love with him, the effort demanded of me in order to maintain the required mask was quite exhausting, and necessitated heavy doses of the desired self-control. Each time afresh I fought the need to hold onto him too tightly, or to share passing distresses that had no practical solution with him, and always, a minute before breaking the rules, I remembered that younger and more beautiful women had lost him before me the moment they slipped up, and I’m not talking here about ordinary little slip-ups that are only to be expected, he’s not a robot after all. In his defense he argues that he never imposed his point of view, which might seem cold and detached to us, any of the women in his life, and they for their part can’t blame him if he moved aside when he felt crowded.
I have no family of any kind, neither close nor distant – my last uncle, from whom I inherited a small publishing firm, an apartment and a bit of money, died seventeen years ago when I was thirty – and so, even without being in love with the Irishman as I was during those first years, I was in no hurry to endanger a meaningful relationship. I kept repeating to myself that it was better to enjoy the plenty I possessed than to lament the little that was lacking.
The situation changed when, five years later, I met Tibi Wexler. Only then, when I had backing, could I at last comply with the Irishman’s rules naturally and sincerely, and slide easily into a warm, calm, and even quite symmetrical relationship. Keeping the right distance turned not only into my second nature, but even became an advantageous arrangement.
‘Handsome Tibi’ they called him in the Tel Aviv of the eighties. But for some sloppy dental work, he could have been taken for a living Adonis: thick, smooth honey-colored hair, a dramatically sculpted fair face, and brilliant green eyes twinkling with human warmth. In spite of being a homosexual with a fully formed sexual identity, he succeeded, quite consciously, in playing havoc with the hearts of women too.
An orphan like me without any family, Tibi moved into the apartment opposite mine in the building in Rothschild Boulevard where I still live today. From almost the word go we became bosom friends, and in less than a week we found ourselves popping into each other’s apartments with the intimacy of family members, feeling as responsible for each other as siblings, but without the genetic and historical burden that turns them willy-nilly into secret enemies. We were a couple in every sense, with one exception, thanks to which the Irishman generously gave his blessing to the relations between us. There were no rules between us, and no need for masks, inside and outside were the same. We wore our weaknesses like festive apparel. We gave our mutual consent to nagging each other for hours or even days on end when required, and agreed that every doubt or worry – both important and trivial – had the right to be chewed over ad nauseam. As opposed to the Irishman, to Tibi I even dared confess my secret dream of one day writing a novel, when I found a worthy subject of course – in the meantime only tail-ends ran round like tadpoles in my head – and he, with boundless patience, encouraged me, praising my talent for writing, some of my letters to him were nothing less than literature, all I had to do was persevere, for perseverance too was a kind of talent. And thus, gratified and satisfied by his belief in me, I could put off the day of reckoning without any qualms.
I knew that he wrote himself but we didn’t talk about it. It was a sensitive subject. As a literary editor in a publishing firm owned by me, the manuscripts of friends are a plague for which I have lost more than one or two friends, I have even strangled my own literary ambitions just so I won’t be caught with my pants down. But Tibi, as it transpired later on, preferred to offer me his manuscript only when he was sure that I wouldn’t have to squirm before him in the attempt to disguise my disappointment. Nine perfect stories arrived on my desk, and I asked him meekly if he would agree to take me on as his publisher and personal editor.
In the years that have gone by since then I have published and edited his five books, three novels and two collections of short stories, and apart from occasional brief if acrimonious flare-ups, we have successfully combined our private with our professional lives.
The rough and tumble of life apparently drowned out the warning signs, and I failed to read the hints which with hindsight I can see were scattered over the days like a trail of breadcrumbs. It took me some weeks to realize that he was trying to tell me something. When he himself realized that he would have to make a hole in my temple in order to pour the information into my head, he sat me down opposite him in the kitchen – this was eight and a half months ago – and said that since he had failed in his efforts to inform me indirectly, he would have to tell me straight out the news of whose cruelty he was well aware. The richest publisher in the country had made him a lethal offer, a salary plus fat royalties, and he was going to sign a contract for his next book with him. To his regret, even if I offered him the same terms – something that was impossible in view of the modest dimensions of my firm – he would not be able to accept them, since his new conditions were daylight robbery, and it was only from a firm that was part of a cartel that he had no moral scruples in demanding such high royalties, and mainly the fat salary he needed so that his writing, as capricious as an adolescent girl, would not turn him into a slave to her whims.
Exposed and defenseless in my inability to take it in, I asked him what it meant. He gave me the compassionate look which usually brought me relief, but in which this time I found nothing but processed regret, and said, ‘It means I’m leaving your publishers.’ I asked him to please go away immediately. ‘It’s only money, Naomi,’ he pleaded, ‘you have to understand me, I didn’t inherit a publishing firm and an apartment like you, I don’t have the reserves that you do.’ The fact that I was unable to condemn him for these economic considerations only made things worse. I told him that I didn’t hold it against him, but I couldn't cope with the insult. It engulfed me and I sank.
In spite of the longings and suffering to which the parting gave rise, and in spite of the Irishman’s pressing offers to act as a arbitrator, I was unable to overcome my feelings and be reconciled. Instead of changing my apartment I changed my personality. Tibi tried to penetrate it through every possible crack, but his attempts only increased my feelings of insult. I stopped up the cracks with hurt pride disguised as indifference. When we met in the stairwell I automatically adopted the attitude of a person in a hurry, ‘Hi, good morning, how are you, bye.’ Sometimes we chanced to take out the garbage at the same time, and here and there we exchanged small talk, but the moment I sensed him trying to light a spark of intimacy, I quenched the conversation. When his book came out I suffered the talk of the town in silence. Tibi Wexler’s best book. In one of the local papers they even wrote that the present book proved that it was sometimes a good idea to change your publisher and editor. Which in this case were one and the same. I got into bed and covered myself with the fresh insult.
The Irishman produced a measured empathy. He argued that after a reasonable period of mourning, which gave the vanity and insult of non-obsessive people time to evaporate, I should be able to forgive and forget. Hadn’t I myself told him that the relations I enjoyed with Tibi were an ideal version of those between brother and sister, without conditions or judgement, and now I was failing the test of reality. I produced the doomsday weapon of the insulted. ‘I wasn’t upset by the “what”’, I said, ‘ but by the “how”.’
‘Do me a favor, there’s no easy way to say a hard thing.’
‘All the stammering, the lies and the evasions that I only became conscious of after the event,’ I moaned, against all the rules, ‘and especially that in the end he said what I hoped he would spare me, “if you ask me to I’ll stay”.’
‘But it’s clear that he would squirm and evade and lie. That’s Tibi. He’s too delicate to deliver bad news. So he went to another publisher out of financial considerations, what’s the big deal?’
I replied that people as unfeeling as him had no idea of what happened below the head, in the area of the heart. To those who had one, I added. He smiled with the self-satisfaction of a man proud of his reputation and said, ‘So what’s new?’
Without Tibi my days were empty, and thus the parting from him turned into a double punishment; the moment the backing he afforded me was removed, I could no longer enjoy the lukewarm arrangement with the Irishman. He for his part was already used to the endless rope I had placed in his hands, and so, to put it crudely, I was left bald on both sides.
And now, in Ben Gurion airport, on my way to one of our perennial meetings, on a deceptive March day – blowing hot and cold alternatively – I stand agitated and nervous in front of a cosmetics counter in the duty free, and ask myself if the capricious decision to fly to him in Vienna in order to propose a change in the ground-rules of our relationship isn’t patently absurd. After all, there is no such entry in the lexicon of our behaviors as ‘a serious talk about the relationship.’ We are practiced in the imitation of people conducting serious talks about their relationship, but we lack the tone and expression required for a real heart to heart.
But even if let’s say the tone comes to me naturally and I don’t feel foolish and artificial, what am I going to say to him? That I’ve become needy and afraid? That I am no longer able to contain alone the miserable feelings that have recently invaded my life like stowaways breaking onto the deck when there’s nobody there, a tendency to burst into tears, a sense of futility, pointlessness, missed opportunities, apathy, nagging introspection, anger, and boredom that fills the intervals between bouts of anxiety – all the attributes he is so happy that I don’t possess? That I am no longer who he thinks I am, and it’s doubtful if I ever was? That to my shame I have come to realize that I sought to be a thousand times more bold, adventurous and sophisticated than my true personality permits? That I have nobody close to me left in the whole world except for him? That after cross-examining myself I now understand that I gave up having a child not ‘as a protest against the egoism of bringing children into a spoilt world without a future’ as I declaimed to him – saintly me, holier than the Pope – but that I renounced motherhood in order to become his most valuable ally, a woman born without the vulgar instinct for self-duplication; something else that distinguishes us from the animals. By the way, in order not to be left to fight the lonely battle alone, he co-opted two more couples, worn out by failed fertility treatments and an easy prey for his sweeping charisma.
So what am I going to say to him? That even if it’s too late to place the blame, I am no longer able to bear the pain of missed opportunity alone? That even if he sees it as a vulgar display of idealization, I am beginning to think that perhaps only a child could have provided moments of fullness, stopped up the cracks of emptiness, repulsed the boredom and anxiety, gladdened the embittered soul suffocating behind the facade. And mainly, to come to the concrete reason for my journey, is there any chance of persuading him to agree to the plan which has been taking shape in my mind in recent days and whose realization is about to become urgent: to take a year or two off from publishing and come to live with him on a continuous basis.
The urgency of the trip stemmed from a motive which in normal times would have seemed to me contemptible. Ever since Tibi had entered my life I had loosened my hold on other connections – Saturdays and holidays we always spent together cooking and drinking – and now that the first Passover seder without him was approaching, the festival had deviated from its usual modest importance in my life and turned, to my dismay, into a depressing reminder and symbol of my situation. When Orli, my loyal secretary, asked me where I would be this year at the seder, I felt that my honor was being trampled beneath the pity flowing from her tough regard, and so the decision was made even as the words were pronounced. ‘In Vienna with Kiran,’ I replied. This is the Irishman’s name, but ever since I met Tibi we started referring to him by his nationality, and this is what I came to call him to myself as well.
In all the simulations I conducted in my imagination, even though I saw the expression of outrage spreading over his face when I made my proposal – in one of our phone conversations, when I tried to talk to him about the emotional aridity liable to dry up non-intensive relationships too, it reminded him of a joke he read in The New Yorker, ‘A thirsty Yuppie wanders through the desert moaning “Perrier, Perrier”’ – I said to myself nevertheless that perhaps it was all only an affectation, a manner that had become a habit. After all the idea of being together for an extended period had never been explored, and perhaps he too, at the same advanced age as me, had begun to feel the need for a permanent ally, a lasting anchor, a miniature army of two in the face of the coming battles. Perhaps he too was tired of bearing himself alone, and was prepared to consider a possibility that had never been investigated, or even pronounced, living together without masks and rules, in the gray areas of intimacy, with a commitment and responsibility stemming not from bourgeois coercion but from personal choice. After all we could rely on our good taste not to slide into anarchy.
The Irishman was very surprised to hear that I had decided to join him in Vienna, I had never been prepared to go to Vienna before, for family reasons, so what had happened all of a sudden? ‘Nothing special happened,’ I said crossly, ‘there’s a writer I have to meet.’ Which was true.
‘Can I offer you a face mask at a bargain price?’
A charmless but extravagantly made-up cosmetics saleswoman interrupted my train of thought, and in face of the primeval thrill aroused in me by the seductive little pots, the pale, white essences of baseless hopes, the memory of the Irishman evaporates, and I am trapped without a fight in the jaws of the practiced saleswoman who has identified a easy prey. With a nonchalant gesture she stokes her viciously pulled back, gel restrained hair, and explains that as far as she’s concerned I can take – cunningly, she doesn’t say buy – only part of the series, but in her opinion it would be a pity, even a great pity: if a girl is standing at the gates of Paradise, wouldn’t she make the tiny effort to step inside them?
The thrill evaporates at the moment of payment, and I leave the Duty Free unconsoled and more anxious than I was when I entered. My thoughts, as if they were waiting at the exit, fall on me like children abandoned by their mother and now demanding a double dose of attention. The Irishman’s pale face appears like a cloud over my head, his lips twisting into a malicious smile, ‘Maybe you want to get married too, darling.’
The first call for passengers on the El Al flight to Vienna comes over the loudspeaker. Vienna. Up to now I have succeeded in banishing it from my mind. Even when the Irishman expressed his surprise at my intention of coming to the previously banned city, I felt no more than a faint annoyance, but precisely now, when the name of the city is pronounced so naturally by the young voice over the loudspeaker, a stab of the ancient dread which its name has always aroused in me returns, a violent cramp in my guts as in the face of a catastrophe. It’s nothing, I immediately scold myself, irrational impulses have to be stifled before they gain practical validity. The time left before the queue for the plane dwindles I’ll spend in the bookshop, among my old protectors. I won’t look, of course, at Tibi’s book, I’ve managed to avoid it up to now, and there’s no reason why precisely now, with the cloud of dread already hanging over my head, I should step on another mine. But in spite of myself my feet carry me towards the counter where the new books are on display. An impressive stack rises in the center of the counter, ‘The Unsatisfied’ by Tibi Wexler. Before my pride can send me packing, I quickly snatch the book on top of the pile, leaf though it stealthily, and pause at the end,
….The snow came this year for a visit of unprecedented length, as if Jerusalem had fallen asleep and woken up in Europe, and I immediately said to myself that there no time more suitable to visit my dead, children of the snow who had withered into desert. When I arrived at the cemetery I couldn’t believe my eyes. It looked like the habitation of angels. The snow covered the vegetation, piled up on the tombstones, buried the names engraved in the stone, the last reminder that the dead had ever existed in this world, had cherished their lives, and through no fault of their own had been infected, like all the living, both with the arrogance of forgetting death, and with the dread of it.
I shut the book and return it to the counter, buffeted by a torrent of longing, bitter as the longing for the dead, all the vain promises we had made to each other had turned out to be false, solemn but empty declarations, the talk of hopeful drunks. One evening, two or three months after we met, we went to a restaurant to celebrate his birthday, and after polishing off two bottles of wine, when we were both tired of making clever remarks, he enveloped me in his warm, twinkling look, and said that he had a proposal for me. He was ready to be my family if I was ready to be his family in return. ‘What does that imply?’ I asked happily. ‘It doesn’t imply anything practical,’ he replied with airy gravity, ‘just that the news will go out that we are a kind of family, loving and loyal.’ With the excitement and the alcohol we slid into our first and last kiss, which although it may have had the appearance of a real kiss we both knew was no more than a ritual act sealing a business deal.
‘This is the final call for passengers on the El Al flight to Vienna,’ the loudspeaker announced, and I hurry to the counter, submit meekly to the reproachful look of the flight attendant, and set out. The flight is unbearable, my nerves grow increasingly frayed. The brief encounter with Tibi not only intensified my disquiet, but in its light the memory of the Irishman too darkens, and in a fit of the shame that overcomes egoists when their selfishness is revealed, it occurs to me for the first time that I failed completely to take into account the fact that he is four days before the opening of his play, and the time couldn’t be less suitable for bringing up private concerns, especially ones of so demanding a nature. I should have remembered that the opening of a play in the theater is more fateful than the launching of a manned spacecraft by NASA. My flight to Vienna is in vain, I could have waited a few days and joined him in Frankfurt. How didn’t I think of it, how didn’t I think. At a late reunion of students in the literature department, each of us was asked to recount something typical he remembered about a fellow student. ‘Naomi Keller,’ someone said, ‘acted first, and she didn’t think afterwards either.’
The two beers I put away accomplish nothing but a need for a cigarette and a trip to the toilet. The cruel light in the cubicle inspires another corrosive wave of hopelessness. My skin is dry, secret shadows have stolen under my eyes, and even my luxuriant blonde hair, so beloved by the Irishman, looks at this moment like a field of wilted wheat. What will this panic trip bring me but humiliation? What degree of desperation had led me to believe that this cold fish would change his spots, and what was worse, how was it possible that at the age of forty-seven I had not succeeded in establishing within me reserve forces to fight the feelings of devastating loathsomeness that have recently attacked me on every feeble pretext. Not that I hadn’t tried to help myself. When I understood at a certain stage that metastases of my mood were beginning to spread to my work – my only refuge – I went to talk to a psychologist. In order to shorten the process, I confined myself to talking about the relevant issues connected to the crisis with Tibi and the difficulties with the Irishman, but to my annoyance he kept trying to drag me stubbornly back to the past, to what he defined as ‘the origins of the sense of being orphaned’, which he had the impression had suddenly flared up in me, perhaps because ‘it had never been properly worked through.’ I explained to him that it wasn’t due to repression but to considerations of convenience that I wasn’t interested in talking about my family, not about my parents who had abandoned me in my childhood and whom I hadn’t seen since, and not about my legendary grandmother who brought me up and died when I was a young girl. I explained to him that the pain and flinching from sorrow caused by the memories, both good and bad, had led me to conclude that at the age of forty-seven when for better or worse most of my life was already behind me, I had the right to circumvent obstacles and not to insist on being hurt by them. Picking at old wounds only inflames them anew, and at my age it was preferable to invest my failing strength in practical projects. Out of free choice, I made it clear to him, I preferred not to read their letters, not to look at their photographs, and not to visit the place of their birth. As a result of a conscious decision my childhood memories have become a reservoir of slimy, stagnant water, and apart from subversive dreams at night that sometimes churn up bits of evidence whose reliability is doubtful, my childhood for me is like another country which exists as a biographical dimension lacking in reality. The people who invaded it and conquered parts of it, and who might have granted it validity, died a long time ago. What good can their memory do me? I ignored the patronizing look the psychologist gave me, and continued, countering it with a patronizing tone of my own, to explain to him that in my opinion the ambition to unite the tattered fragments of childhood for the sake of obtaining a clear, true picture, is doomed to failure in any case, since the human need to improve the picture makes it impossible to capture the moments as they really were. Therefore, just as in any work of reconstruction, the reconstruction of childhood too results in a new creation whose reliability is not to be trusted. And in general, I concluded, the fashionable search for roots is in my opinion overrated, and the least I can do to oppose it is to keep an ironic distance. He maintained a costly silence at my expense and I said sulkily that I might as well have stayed at home to talk to the cat, if I had one. He smiled sadly and said that I was apparently not yet ripe for therapy, and since at the moment I was only interested in hearing bottom lines, he was prepared to tell me that in his opinion I was suffering from a problem of synchronization between feeling and intellect, and there was nothing more dangerous for intelligent people than a false self-awareness. My refusal to confront the past was a clear proof of this. I walked out slamming the door behind me, and said to myself that just as I thought, I would be better off buying myself something pretty to wear.
So look where I landed up. My past is rapidly approaching me. We are requested to fasten our seat belts because in a few minutes we will be landing in Vienna, the birthplace of my dearly beloved grandmother, Ruth Stein.
Copyright © by Edna Mazya
Worldwide translation rights © by The Institute for The Translation of Hebrew Literature