Crack-Up

 

 

Crack-Up

(Excerpt from a Novel)

By Yehudit Hendel

Translated from Hebrew by Barbara Harshav

 

 

Joel was killed on October 30th, a hazy cloudy day, and he, Elhanan, moved in with Yael, a little more than a year later, about the middle of November, another hazy cloudy day that started with a light drizzle, but he simply couldn’t remember the date, how come he didn’t remember the date, after all that date changed his life, how come he didn’t remember the date that changed his life and only that it was a hazy cloudy day that started with a light drizzle, and that Mrs. Stein, the neighbor across the hall, the first one to see him go out with his case in the morning, smiled a small smile, just like Mrs. Stern next door smiled the next day, and said, Good morning, Dr. Gill, and got into the elevator behind him. In the elevator, she said: Autumn’s starting, and he said: Yes, autumn’s starting. Autumn a little early, she said, and he said: Yes, autumn a little early. Meanwhile, the elevator stopped and Mrs. Stein said again: Good morning, Dr. Gill, have a nice day, and went to the mailbox to take out her newspaper, and he rushed out the front door, ran to the car and left.
 
The clinic was still empty, and only good-hearted Rebecca was sitting in the nurse’s room, drinking tea. She too said: Good morning, Elhanan, you’re not wearing a coat and it’s drizzling and you don’t even have a spare shirt here, and he said: Never mind. Good-hearted Rebecca said: It’s starting to get cool, and he said: Yes, it’s starting to get cool, and he sat across from her and took a long sip of tea and she said: You’re tired, you look tired, didn’t you get any sleep last night? And he said: Why? I look tired? And he said to himself that she said he looked tired, but she meant he looked bad, and after all it was his night of love, how come she thinks he looks bad after his night of love, but Rebecca said that people always look tired in the morning, don’t you think so? And he said: Yes, I think so, and he said that if there was still some hot water, he’d like another cup of tea.
 
In the afternoon, he wondered whether he should go to his apartment or straight to Yaeli’s and he went straight to Yaeli’s. She wasn’t there yet, and he stood and looked out the big window at his empty apartment on the same floor in the building opposite, the window right opposite. For years he had looked from there to here, now he looks from here to there. A dull sunbeam strayed there in the apartment and he watched as if he were looking at a strange place. Then he noticed that a sunbeam just exactly the same was straying here too, and he said, Yes, sure, the same corner the same window, and he went into the kitchen, and then he went into Joel’s room. And that he remembers exactly, exactly, how the sunbeam strayed behind him into Joel’s room and landed on Joel’s trumpet on the big long cabinet, and he said, Here’s the trumpet. Yaeli didn’t move it and didn’t touch it, and he recalled that all year he hadn’t come in here even once, into Joel’s room. A pile of notes was placed neatly on the table as if they had just been used and he said, She straightens up the notes and straightens up the table. When he returned to the window, it started drizzling a little again, the glass became murky, his apartment opposite looked like an empty dead surface, and he returned to the room with the trumpet and said, Yes, she polishes it, sure she polishes it, you see that she polishes it, and he scrunched his shoulders and hunched over the trumpet. Something weighed on his chest, and he said, After all, this is the day that changed my life, what am I doing, what the hell do I have in my chest?, and he kneaded his chest a little. The doorbell rang, and Mrs. Stein stood there and said: Oh, excuse me, Yael hasn’t come yet? I wanted to ask her for something, nothing special, just something, I’ll get along without it, and again she smiled a small smile. When she left, he looked at the clock and said, In a little while, she’ll come, Yaeli, my graceful woman, Yaeli, and he started walking around the apartment, agitated. In a little while she’ll open the door and find him here. All year, before he came, he’d call and she’d say: Come, come. Now she’ll open the door and he’s here, and she’ll say: Oh Elhanan, you’re here, and he’ll say: I’m here, Yaeli, I’m here. And he saw her gold eyes resting on his face when he says: I’m here, Yaeli, I’m here, and he shut his eyes a moment. He thought the elevator came, but it didn’t. Nobody opened the door. He’s still here by himself. In fact he had never been here by himself. And now –
 
After all, she was the one who wanted that, she was the one who said: So, stay here, why don’t you stay here? It was her wish, explicitly her wish, she was the one who asked him, explicitly asked him, and after all she was the one who even said once: Joel isn’t here anymore, and he said: Yes, Joel isn’t here anymore, he, whose profession is the human soul, Joel isn’t here anymore.
 
And suddenly he heard himself repeating aloud, Yes, Joel isn’t here anymore, and he went back into the room with the trumpet. Above the cabinet hung a picture of the two of them, head to head, Joel’s hand on her hair. Joel had a big sad face that suddenly looked outlandishly big, dominating the whole picture and swallowing up Yaeli’s face which seemed to fade, and you saw only his big sad face, growing bigger, going beyond the border of the picture, and as if projected from a concealed slide projector, dominating the whole area, the whole wall, and he said, It’s crooked, it’s simply crooked, it must be the wind that made it crooked, and he raised his hand and straightened the picture. But the face still looked very sad, blurring Yaeli’s face and ruling the whole wall, as if it weren’t coming from the paper but from the wall, and he said, It’s the window, it’s that strange light, that strange day, and he lowered his hand and smoothed the trumpet. The metal was warm as if somebody had just now held it close to a living body, and he slowly passed his hand over the wide horn. The air in the opening was black, and he bent over it, looking inside into the curved, narrowing space. Some voice seemed to come from the curved black space, and he said, That’s my breath, you hear the echo of my breath from there, why am I breathing like this?, and he quickly lowered his hand, but the heavy breathing still continued, his head close to the maw of the trumpet.
 
His apartment was opposite. Joel was the one who recommended it to him, the one who said: An apartment right across from us is vacant, take it, you’re looking for an apartment anyway, and when he hesitated, he said to him: Really, right across, take it, and he took it. And then it started, in that window across. Is that when it started? Is that when it started? Oh, no, long before then it started, as soon as Joel introduced her to him it started, when he said: Meet my girlfriend Yael, and he felt her gold eyes on him and how she looked at him and how she laughed when she looked at him. As if it were today he remembers her laugh when she looked at him, and then Joel married her.
 
And then for five years he had stalked them in the window. But no, stalked isn’t the right word. Got to be precise. He watched them in the window. Their apartment was always lighted, and he watched them, darkening his apartment and sitting at the window in the dark. They didn’t realize it, of course. Five years they hadn’t realized it of course. Sometimes they said: Come over and we’ll have coffee, and he came over and had coffee with them. Sometimes they said: Come over and we’ll grab something to eat, and Yaeli would take the phone from Joel and list the contents of the refrigerator, and he heard her gold laugh and came over, of course. He always came. Sometimes they’d go to a movie together, and Yaeli always sat in the middle, between the two of them, properly, always properly, her head nestling on Joel’s shoulder, and then he’d shift to the other side of the seat. Sometimes she’d fall asleep on Joel, on his shoulder, her head dropped on his chest, and Joel would pass his hand over her head and she’d open her eyes and laugh in the dark at Joel, and then laugh in the dark at him, and in the dark her gold eyes gleamed and went with him later when he walked alone in the dark in the apartment. Their window was always lighted. Sometimes he saw them in the window standing and hugging, and then he’d get up from his chair, touch the window glass, and stand looking. Sometimes the apartment was dark and only the small wall lamp at the head of the bed was lit, and he saw Yaeli undressing. Sometimes she pulled her hair back with a rubber band, sometimes she scattered it, and he went into the kitchen, had one drink and another, and stayed in the kitchen. When he saw the light go out in their house, he turned on his, went to the window, and sat down holding the empty glass.
 
He didn’t remember if those five years were short or long, only that Joel said: Of course, friends should be neighbors, is there anything better than friends who are neighbors? And he laughed. A low pleasant laugh, a laugh that went into your heart, while Yaeli had a loud warm laugh. Sometimes he’d hear that laugh through the open window, and would close it fast. Sometimes she’d walk around the room in her panties and bra, and now and then she’d adjust her small breasts in the bra, and sometimes Joel would thrust his hand into the bra. He sat then drumming slowly on the window, seeing him bend over her neck with his hand in the bra, and sometimes he saw her laughing softly then, but he didn’t hear her voice.
 
On October 30th, every year, he’d send her flowers, usually with a stupid note like Happy Birthday or Best Wishes, and signed: Cordially, Elhanan. Yaeli would call up in the evening and say, Thanks, you sent me great flowers, you always send me great flowers, how do you always find such pink roses?, and he’d say: I’m glad you like them, and she’d say: Great, Elhanan, great, and he’d repeat: I’m glad you like them.
 
On that evening she and Joel would always go to the little Italian restaurant for pasta because Yaeli loved pasta, but on that evening, he wouldn’t go with them, he’d just wait at the window to see the light come on in the apartment, and then he’d turn off his light and sit in the dark, clinging to the window.
 
And after five years, on October 30th, on the way home, Joel was killed. Did he fall asleep for a moment? Did he daydream for a moment? Did he see Yaeli in his imagination for a moment, a split second? He shut his eyes and saw her for a split second, and in that split second, he collided with a concrete guardrail. And somebody did say that love and death are bound together, and eternity is deaf. He couldn’t remember who said that, but somebody said it. And then they found him with the steering wheel stuck in his chest. The ribs weren’t broken and the spine was intact, his whole body was really intact, only the big spot on his chest, and he’ll never forget that, that big hemorrhage in his chest when he went to see the body, he insisted on seeing the body, he was the one who told Yaeli he’d go identify it, and she said: Thanks, Elhanan, thanks, and she didn’t look at him, her eyes weren’t seen, she only clung to him and when she raised them a moment, they were big and empty as if she’d gone blind. And then that hemorrhage in the chest, got to forget things, a person has to teach himself to forget things, that’s what he tells the people he treats, those patients, and he himself, that spot on the chest, and even then she had in the house the flowers he had sent her so they’d arrive at three, when she comes home from work, and he saw her from his window arranging them in the blue ceramic vase and putting it on the table, and he waited for her to phone. But another phone call came.
 
Suddenly he felt he was sweating and he left the room with the trumpet and went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of water and drank. There was a lump in his throat, and for a moment it was hard for him to swallow the water. Then he raised the bottle and drank the whole thing and went back to the refrigerator for something invigorating. A pile of apples was there and he remembered that he had in fact brought her apples yesterday. They were all still in a pile, Jonathan Apples she loved, and he thought that tomorrow he’d buy her clementines she loved and he looked at the pile of apples and shut the refrigerator, looking at the pictures stuck to the door. A lot of small photos of her and Joel were pinned with colorful flower magnets and he tried again to swallow the lump in his throat. The heart is a muscle that recovers fast, he said to himself, and there’s no need to worry, no no, the lump will disappear and dissolve or be swallowed. But the choking in the throat didn’t stop, and he went to the window to see if she had come. A limping old man walked there, and a little boy sailed by on rollerblades, and Yaeli wasn’t seen. It’s early, it’s still early, she’s still busy in the operating room, he said to himself, they must not have finished the operation yet and she’ll come home tired. He passed his hand over his face and tried to clear his mind. The windowpane was murky now from the rain and the heavy wind, and was covered with mist. He moved his finger along the windowpane and wrote Yaeli’s name as he looked at the path to the door. The path was still empty, and he drew a line under her name. When he was a child, he’d write like this on windows covered with mist, and now he’s doing it again. He liked it, and he laughed and raised his hand to write his name next to hers, after a dash. A moment later he saw that he had written Joel there and he felt a sudden anger that he had written Joel’s name. He remembers that anger well and remembers well how he quickly passed his hand and blurred the two names and a transparent space was created on the windowpane and through it he saw the garden clearly. And he stood up, his eyes on the transparent square, and he enlarged it a little, glanced at the path that was still empty, and at the garden where a little boy and a little girl were spinning on the blue carousel. He remembers that for a long time he looked at that carousel and tried to think about something and couldn’t think about anything. He remembers clearly now that the carousel spun slowly and all kinds of things spun in his head slowly, and then he saw her coming down the street toward the house, and he remembers clearly that she looked very tired.
 
They almost didn’t talk that evening, and they ate dinner in silence, and they went to bed early, lay next to one another almost without a word, and only late at night did Yaeli say: A light is on in your window, you forgot to turn off the light, and he said: Fine, let it stay on tonight, I’ll turn it off tomorrow, and he wondered if, in the years with Joel, she had also looked at his window to see if the light was on. That thought shocked him strangely, and he said to himself, Maybe she looked, yes, maybe she looked and I didn’t know, and a small smile spread over his face. She seemed to have fallen asleep and he bent over her and looked at her face. Her eyelids blinked in the dark, and he said, She’s dreaming, now she’s dreaming, what is she dreaming, and he suddenly recalled his nightmare yesterday before dawn, he sees Joel lying in the ground and flowers are blooming on his body in the ground, and the flowers illuminate a big circle of sun scattered in flames in the ground, and when he woke up he was soaked in sweat. Yaeli was then hugged in his arms, she was still sleeping, and he said, I’m hugging her and seeing him lighted by a big sun in the ground, and that was on our night of love, he said, the sun shone on his dead body on our night of love, marvelous flowers bloomed on his body on our night of love, and he pressed her to his body so hard she woke up. I had a dream, he said. She asked what. I don’t remember, he said. She asked if it was a good dream. I don’t know, he said. So probably it was a good dream, she said, and pressed to him and fell back to sleep. Her eyelids blinked again and he said, She’s dreaming again now, but she moved her head and woke with a start. I had a dream, she said. He asked what. I don’t remember, she said. Her face was white and cold and he said to himself, It was a bad dream, she had a bad dream, our dreams crossed, but in reverse. She dreamed of me in the ground but there were no flowers and no sun and he suddenly got out of bed.
 
What is it? said Yaeli.
 
Nothing, I’m thirsty, I’ve got to drink something, he said and went to the kitchen, made a cup of tea and sat and drank it slowly, sip after sip, and meanwhile, morning dawned. He went out to the balcony. The street was empty and so was the park opposite and it was still and in the stillness only the rustle of the treetops was heard and the crows flying from one treetop to another crying caw caw, and he said to himself, They say the dead are forgotten from the heart, and he chuckled to himself and stood still, looking at the empty garden.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Copyright © by Yehudit Hendel
 
Yehudit Hendel was born into a rabbinic family in Warsaw, Poland, and immigrated to Haifa as a child in 1930. She currently resides in Tel Aviv. A well-known author, Hendel has published novels, collections of short stories and a book of essays. Many of her works have been adapted for stage, screen, radio and TV; her novels and stories have been translated into many languages. Hendel has received several literary prizes, including the Jerusalem Prize, the Bialik Prize (1996), and the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement (2003).


 

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