He and She
If they were trying to account for their meeting and acquaintance, they could probably have done it with a single statement that had ensconced itself in Yashe’s childhood: “It was destined to be that way!” But it’s hard to explain one’s whole life with a single statement.
On that spring day, Rachel, as she did every morning, was strolling on the boardwalk with her mother. Suddenly a wheel from her mother’s wheelchair got stuck in a crack between two boards. The wheelchair turned to one side, and the old lady was at the point of falling out of it. Rachel lost herself for a moment; she grabbed her mother’s coat with one hand, and with the other hand she clung to the wheelchair so it wouldn’t overturn completely. She felt that she wouldn’t be able to hold out long that way, and wouldn’t be able to free the wheel from the crack by herself. She was ready to cry out, to call for help, but an unknown man clumsily bumped into her with his shoulder, bent over to the wheel, and in an instant the wheelchair was again standing on the boardwalk on all four wheels.
Rachel immediately ran to her mother, felt her for broken bones, straightened out the bonnet on her head, and, at the same time, stroked her frightened face. A weak sound emerged from between the two thin strips of her mother’s compressed lips, which could have represented either a groan of pain or a capricious squeak from a spoiled child. Rachel smiled at her mother and excused herself for her clumsiness. She had to calm herself down, and after doing so, she straightened up and sighed, and only then did her gaze turn to Yashe.
He shrugged his shoulders and cast his eyes downward. It looked almost as if he were accepting guilt for the fact that a rotted plank in Brighton Beach’s broad, long boardwalk had collapsed. She thanked him and apologized for his having wasted his time on her because she hadn’t moved quickly enough when the mishap with the chair occurred.
“Without you, I really don’t know what would have happened.”
Yashe shrugged his shoulders quietly, rubbed his neck and shook his head. Suddenly he pulled the knitted woolen sports-cap off his head, and, pressing it to his belly, began to knead it with his fingers. The morning breeze immediately took hold of his sparse yellowish hair and ruffled it on his pate.
Rachel interpreted his movements in her own way; she stuffed her hand in her pocket and reached for something there.
For the first time, Yashe let his voice be heard: “No, no.” He confirmed his words by shaking his head. “No.”
They both stood there confused for a few moments. Then he raised his cap to Rachel and said goodbye to her. He also bent over to the old lady and gave her a wink.
Later on, sitting on the long bench against the red brick wall, he more than once “replayed” that morning’s episode with Rachel and her mother, the way he always did after finishing a game of chess, especially when he had lost. And, if when he analyzed his defeat he was quickly successful in finding his wrong move, Yashe was defeated in the game by both sides of the chessboard, because he saw himself playing against both the “white” and “black” pieces. He was suddenly seized by a feeling of shame and longing. Though longing was something he felt frequently, he had long since stopped thinking of such a thing as shame.
For Rachel, too, after the momentary, accidental encounter with the “Russian,” there remained a feeling of worry and distrust, just like the one her newly-arrived Russian neighbors elicited in her. They now occupied almost all the apartments in the building where she lived with her mother. She knew the faces of many of them and greeted them; mostly they were older than she, and often they were very old people, like her mother. The young folks left early in the morning, to who knows where, “to look for something to put in their mouths,” as Rachel once heard one older woman explain to another. Rachel knew no Russian, but those words she understood because they were said in Yiddish. Her Russian neighbors also recognized and always greeted her. They behaved very politely, but only spoke to Rachel in Russian. When Rachel showed them that she didn’t understand their language, the women would start to speak to her more loudly and more screechingly, adding hand motions, as if she, Rachel, were hard of hearing. Often she grasped a few familiar words from their speech similar to those she used tohear from her mother many years ago. She had almost forgotten Yiddish, the language of her childhood, and, together with the language, she had pushed bits of recollections, experiences and feelings to the back of her memory. But now the few Yiddish words flew out like bright butterflies of light from out of the darkness. On occasion, she received warm, empathetic looks when she appeared in the courtyard, pushing her mother’s wheelchair ahead of her. But she didn’t get too excited about that, and she didn’t do it only because she was a faithful daughter. Her mother, who had lived and worked hard in America for some forty years, couldn’t expect the same social privileges from the American government that the elderly Russians received from the day after they arrived in the “Golden Land”. She had had to pay for her illness out of her own pocket.
Standing in front of the mirror, Rachel would say out loud, as if she were answering someone, or making excuses to someone: “Go understand them!”
The next day, as she was passing the restaurant Moscow, she stopped and looked at the benches on which some three pairs of chess players were already sitting, absorbed in the game. Several elderly men were walking around next to them, speaking Russian. On the previous day, before Rachel left the boardwalk after the “accident,” she noticed that the Russian man had left her to go to the bench. Perhaps he was here today too, among the chess players? Yesterday Rachel hadn’t needed much to immediately evaluate the stranger’s situation. He didn’t look like a man who slept on soft pillows and put on a fresh shirt every morning. The collar on his dark-blue, checkered, long-sleeved flannel shirt did not look fresh, to say nothing of the jeans, held up on his belly by a worn-out belt without a buckle. His pitiful appearance was actually the only reason her hand had crept into her pocket; she had done it automatically, especially when he had pulled the sports-cap (which looked more like a dishrag) off his head. The beggars that she encountered in Brighton often did that too. But her womanly instincts told her that yesterday’s Russian was no beggar — rather, he was just an unfortunate person, a luckless fellow.
She didn’t see him among the morning chess players, and she continued on her way, which she used to do almost daily, as a need that was inseparable from her existence, from the fixed responsibility that she had borne since her mother had become ill. Since her mother had become paralyzed and Rachel had decided to remain close to her, she had become a slave to worry. Her hands were as if chained to the wheelchair, had become like two mechanical pieces without which the entire machinery could not function. She could have freed her hands and left her mother in an old-age home, where aides would have looked after her, perhaps no worse than she herself did. But Rachel had immediately driven such thoughts from her mind, not surrendering to a seductive weakness, and it was hard to determine which was the more important component of her decision — her moral obligation and concern as a daughter, or a hidden desire to demonstrate, to herself, first of all, that there could be no other path for her.
Yashe had sidled up to the two women so quietly that Rachel, not expecting it, began trembling slightly and stopped for a moment.
“Excuse me — I seem to have frightened you.”
Rachel turned her head toward him. Something in him had changed, she thought; the previous day’s beard seemed to have been shaven off, revealing a genteel, round face with naïve blue eyes. For a moment her gaze rested on his shirt, a different one and clean, though the collar looked wrinkled. Out loud, Rachel said: “Just a bit, and do you know why?”
Yashe shrugged his shoulders and just listened.
“Because I was looking for you myself before.”
She gave the wheelchair a push and continued slowly on her way. She didn’t look toward him, but she sensed that he was walking alongside her, like a companion or perhaps an admirer. Rachel started laughing. The word admirer, like those little moths of Yiddish, had flown up from some hidden chamber of her memory.
Yashe interpreted Rachel’s unexpected chuckle in his own way: “I understand — I look funny.”
“No, no,” Rachel caught herself. “Excuse me. I was just thinking of something silly. Have you been here long?”
“You mean in Brighton Beach?”
“Three and a half years.”
“So you’re still a ‘greenhorn,’ though your English. . . . Did you learn the language here?”
“Here, by practice — though I took English as a subject in school and later in the university.”
“You studied in a university?” The question burst out of her with an astonishment that could also have meant: “How were you able to do that?”
She herself felt it immediately, and tried to gloss over her tactlessness: “I meant to say that there among you in the Soviet Union it was certainly not easy for a Jew to get to study in a university.”
Yashe gave her no answer. He retreated into his isolation, but only for a moment. Again returning to the conversation, he said with deliberate playfulness: “It’s been almost a whole day since we met, but we haven’t yet introduced ourselves. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”
“A little, yes.” Rachel immediately responded to the playful tone, pleased that the brief tension, introduced initially by her, had been resolved in such a way.
They didn’t shake hands; just looked at each other, and each one said his or her name, adding, as is usually done: “Very nice to meet you.” And, “Me, too.”
The spring day was pleasant. Cool streams of air, full of morning freshness from the ocean, blew over the beach, which was occupied by seagulls that didn’t rest for a second. They quivered on the damp sand, audaciously shoved one another, screeched, and opened their broad, pointy-twisty beaks widely, splitting them into two halves, so their narrow tongues vibrated between them and gave the throaty sound an especially penetrating quality. They flew away into the heights, separating themselves from earth-crawling creatures — flew way into the sky, and there, with their narrow, sickle-shaped wings, they tore the oncoming air-streams into shreds. At this time of year, the strip of sandy ground between the water and the boardwalk belonged to the coddled birds, whose chaotic hustle-bustle spread throughout the neighborhood.
The “official” introduction gave Yashe courage, and he said: “I see you here almost every day. You’re very faithful to your work.” He added more firmly: “You do a good job.”
That drawn-out compliment about her “job” irritated her, though she understood that her new Russian acquaintance meant it sincerely. Looking straight ahead, she said: “This is my mother, but I do indeed do the job not badly.”
Rachel suddenly realized that it had been quite some time since she had had such a free and open conversation, especially since she never moved even a step away from her mother. The words and concepts she had used during these last years at home related only to the constricted framework of actions connected with serving her mother. She had actually become unused to carrying on a conversation with anyone because she usually only had occasion to speak to herself. She had gotten unused to posing questions because she didn’t expect an answer. The only words or brief speech that she uttered to her mother fell onto a mute emptiness, like pebbles thrown into a deep well from which the living water had run out.
Rachel was also listening to the voice of her new acquaintance, and although he soon fitted her name to his Slavic accent, that didn’t bother her. Furthermore, in his pronouncing her name in his own way — Retshil— she heard a distant echo of her childhood: her father too had been unable to pronounce his daughter’s “American name” correctly.
They continued to stand facing the building where Rachel and her mother lived.
“It’s twelve o’clock already,” Rachel announced, as if she wanted to excuse herself. “We have to go home already.”
“How quickly the time has passed! I’ve almost stopped noticing it lately.”
“You don’t live far from here, I gather?” Rachel asked.
Yashe broke out into a smile and answered as if the question had been quite different: “It won’t be difficult for you to come here tomorrow? If you wish, we can meet, like today, across from the Moscow restaurant.”
“By all means — it sounds very romantic,” Rachel agreed, and added, “Will around nine o’clock be good?”
Once she was in the house changing her mother’s clothes, she recalled how she had picked the time and was now astonished at herself: Why in the world “around nine o’clock”? Why not simply “nine o’clock”? And she burst out laughing. She embraced her mother and gave her a kiss on the forehead.
The rain began during the night and continued throughout the morning. Two of the apartment’s windows on the ninth floor, where the mother and daughter lived, looked out onto the boardwalk, and farther, to where the horizon met the ocean. Rachel’s mother had moved into the apartment about ten years before. There was a light-filled bedroom with a spacious living-room and all the conveniences. For her mother by herself, it had been a successful purchase. Through decades of hard work and paying rent, she had saved up for a place of her own in her old age. Rachel wasn’t living in New York at that time, but after she came back there to her paralyzed mother, the apartment became her home, too. Though she felt pent up there, especially during the first half-year, the two windows that looked out on the always-lively boardwalk and the spacious ocean sometimes brought hope into her enforced loneliness and occasional bitter depression. Standing thusly at the window, especially in bad weather, she used to suddenly have the thought that her gaze was searching for something far, far away, where there is no beginning and no end; there, where her father once used to search for his lost source of support: his destroyed home and his murdered little daughter, Mirele. Did she, Rachel, born in another world and time, have to share his fate? Be plagued by her parents’ yesterday? She drove away those thoughts and stubbornly searched the cloudy sky for something that she could hang her hat on — something through which she could air out her own exhausted worries.
Going for a stroll today was out of the question. Rachel looked at the clock — it was a quarter to nine — and went to the window through which she could better see the section of the boardwalk that led to the “Moscow restaurant,” as Yashe had called it. She did not really expect to see Yashe there, but her heart was pounding nevertheless, and her gaze, which had often been immersed in the gray, cloudy distance, now knew what to search for. Rachel had felt this way even during the night, perhaps with the first raindrops that rapped on the windows and woke her up. She slept in the same room as her mother, and, with time, had learned to listen for her mother’s breathing while she was asleep. Raising her head from the pillow, Rachel pricked up her ears. The rain had gained strength, and had been transformed from a buckshot-like rapping into a steady hum, mixing with the high waves of the ocean. Her mother was quietly panting and smacking her lips in her sleep. Rachel lay down on her back and closed her eyes again. She immediately started to sink into a soft, warm mass similar to the sand on the beach on a hot, damp night. She saw hanging over her forehead a damp image of a masculine face, which was swaying slightly, as if on the surface of the water. Tender caresses wandered over her body, which was still wrapped in her nightgown, and they awakened forgotten womanly desires. She moved her lips toward the face, but it immediately moved away, as if excited by her. From her temples to the tips of her toes, a shudder of lust passed through her that captured every one of her limbs in its net. The masculine face was again hanging in front of her eyes, but it was now a clear one with features that she recognized immediately: “Nati, Nati,” she heard her own quiet whispering, and like an echo, her mangled name — “Retshil” — tore through the noisy weather into her dreamy state.
Rachel awoke. As was her custom, she immediately listened to her mother’s breathing. Weak and sweaty, Rachel sat for a while on the bed, hung her bare feet down, and leaned over the edge of the bed. Day was beginning to break. She thought: “Today I won’t see him,” and stuffed her feet into her soft bedroom-slippers. The awakened new day met her with the same worry-wagon to which she had permitted herself to be harnessed and was pulling submissively. On days like this, when the weather was bad, she couldn’t go outside, so she particularly sharply felt the loneliness and isolation from another life that might have been hers. On such days, instead of taking a stroll she would move her mother’s wheelchair to the window, would sit down in an armchair, facing her, and would read a book aloud. Reading aloud to her mother had remained a habit from her school years. While catching on quickly to the spoken language, Rachel’s mother had had no time or opportunity to learn to read English fluently. But her curiosity about life in general, and about the reality of her new home in particular, sought an outlet. Buying a television set was, for the time being, a luxury, so one evening when Rachel was reading a book, she had asked her to read aloud. Rachel was astonished: “Why, mama? After all, this is just a textbook.” “So I’ll learn something too,” her mother answered seriously. “I lost my chance to learn in the ghetto.” Her daughter liked the idea, so they used to spend their time reading almost every evening. Rachel would read and her mother would listen while embroidering a picture with colored cotton thread, so as not to interfere, God forbid, with the special closeness that had been created between her and her daughter by the reading. Only once in a while would she interrupt Rachel’s melodious little voice to ask her to explain this or that word.
Recently they had been reading a thick book with the beautiful name Evergreen — a biography of a girl from Eastern Europe. Since Rachel had begun reading the book, a certain thought wouldn’t leave her alone: that all Jews from the other side of the ocean were at all times divided into two categories — those who always dreamed of moving to America and those who had already done so, but never stopped yearning for the “old country.”
The stroke had taken her mother’s legs, arms and speech from her, but had left her hearing. The doctors believed that her ability to understand was also limited, but Rachel had already noticed, several times, that her mother was shedding a tear while she was reading her a book. That was not an accident — her mother had been weeping in the right place, with understanding. And the few tiny tears on her sunken cheeks definitely encouraged her daughter — a quiet hope beat in her heart.
Rachel read not loudly but clearly and distinctly. On the other side of the window, they could hear the stiff waves throwing themselves angrily at the shore, and after every such attack, the waves would capture another piece of sandy territory for a few moments. Then, unwillingly, they would pull back to their boundaries, in their hurry dragging back everything that allowed i, and leaving behind fat, squiggly strips of foam on the sand. Sometimes the grating cry of a seagull, apparently looking for its flock, would cut through the angry roaring.
The little doors of the elevator that stopped across from their apartment opened with a bang, then closed, and it again became quiet. Rachel stopped reading and dashed to the door like a shot, leaving the book on the armchair. Not saying a word, she turned the lock. Wet and frozen, Yashe was looking at her from the other side of the door.
“Did I forget my umbrella here by any chance?”
From the time he was small, Yashe had been surrounded by the love and concern of three women, his mother and her two sisters, who didn’t have very much happiness in life. Furthermore, the gift package that is supposed to come to everyone in life, the one that the Almighty distributes to all His children — as “Grandfather Frost” used to do at children’s New Year’s parties, never reached them either. But did anyone ever hear a complaint from them? Not at all! They got away with their lives after such fires of war — wasn’t that something to be happy about? They found their house almost undamaged, and they settled back into it — was that not a piece of luck?! They earned enough for a piece of bread and didn’t go naked or barefoot — so they should say, “Thank you!” And if anything wasn’t the way they might have wished, they had something with which to justify it: “That’s the way it was destined to be.”
Such a "happy” life used to shine from the eyes of millions and millions, especially during the festive demonstrations twice a year — on the 1st of May and on the 7th of November, the day when the great October Revolution, which made it possible to create such a “happy life” on one-sixth of the entire globe, had taken place. That’s, at least, how it was taught in school, and so was it etched in Yashe’s memory: the long columns of dressed-up people with varicolored balloons and little red flags in their hands; the men carrying large banners, preceded by strict-looking people with dark expressions and streamers in the middle of every column. On long, red pieces of canvas stretched out over the lines of heads, just a few words were written with big, white letters. From one demonstration to the next, little Yashe could read them more and more easily, but what those screaming white letters meant he didn’t understand, even after many years, till he stopped thinking about them at all.
In those late 1940s and early 1950s, everyone lived with one worry: no matter how bad things were, just let there be no new war. The fear of a new war trembled in everyone, and not only because they could still see frightful scenes from yesterday before their eyes — the fear also emanated from the little radio-speakers on the walls, which spoke all day with hoarse voices like someone with a cold; even the songs they transmitted sounded as if they were being played on rusty instruments.
Later on, when Yashe had already learned to read, he used to take a look at the local newspaper Pobeda (“Victory”),which the mailman used to deliver every Friday morning. Yashe already knew that if the dogs started barking angrily, it was a sign that the chubby man, who walked like a duck (the heavy bag that he carried on one side pulled him down to the ground) and wore a cap with a shiny visor, had already appeared on the street. Running out of the house toward him, Yashe would grab the newspaper and, first thing, would start to look for photographs in its four columns; only after that would he try to read the headlines with the larger letters. The pictures were dark and not clear, and the screaming headlines, pieced together from unknown words like those on the banners in the parades, emitted an acrid odor of ink. He would immediately start to sneeze, and he wanted to take the newspaper home so that his mother and his aunts would find it waiting for them after work. One evening, Yashe heard his mother, after putting down the newspaper, exclaim unhappily: “A whole newspaper, and there’s nothing to read in it!” Yashe immediately felt his aunts’ eyes upon him. One of them quietly but reproachfully said to his mother: “Don’t talk so much!”
But that’s the way his life remained, and whenever he picked up a newspaper, he immediately felt the acrid-allergic odor creeping into his nose and throat.
And yet, in those turbulent years when he was far from satiated, Jewish mothers pounded into their children’s heads that even if something was not destined for them, they should at least get a good upbringing and education. To that end, they started the trend of teaching the children to play a musical instrument. Each Jewish mother dreamt that her little son would play the accordion and her daughter — the piano. Why precisely the accordion and piano? They explained it very succinctly: because they’re beautiful. To Yashe’s good fortune, and the misfortune of his mother and his aunts, the music-teacher, a tall, stooped man with red, watery eyes they invited to determine Yashe’s musical talent, told them: “Your problem is solved — I could more easily teach a bear to dance.” If not music, it had to be something else, so they racked their brains; it was impossible that their little Yashe didn’t have any talent whatsoever. But Yashe himself discovered his talent.
One day, while strolling in the city park, he saw two men playing chess. At that time he had barely heard of such a game, but the black and white squares of the chessboard, and especially the beautifully carved figurines, fascinated him so much that he left his companions, his two aunts, and seemed to become grown into the bench. His gaze followed each figurine; he watched how they moved, how they “fought” to capture their opponents’ squares, and how they got “killed.” And suddenly he thought: It’s a real battle, a war, similar to the one that the boys carried on every day in the street. But here everything took place on a chessboard, and two armies — black and white — fought to the last soldier. Yashe didn’t yet know at that time that a soldier was called a pawn in chess language and an officer was called a bishop, and that all the figurines moved according to strict rules. At that moment, fascinated by the unfamiliar game, he stretched his hand out to a white figurine that resembled a little horse and moved it across the chessboard.
“What are you doing, little boy?’ he heard, and trembled.
The man who was playing with the white figurines looked angrily at him.
“Where is your mother?” he questioned him further.
At that point, Yashe started crying. His aunts, of course, immediately came running and attacked the chess-player, poor fellow, because he had frightened their child! And the child was standing there crying and still couldn’t take his eyes off the chessboard. Finally, when everyone around had calmed down, and his aunts wanted to leave the park, because the mood had been ruined anyway, a second chess-player approached them. He bent down to the little boy and handed him the little white horse.
“Take it,” he said softly, “and let it be a memento of your first chess game.” He ruffled the hair on Yashe’s head and explained to the aunts who he was. His name was Isak Yefimovich Schwartz, and he was the director of a chess club in the municipal pioneer palace, which was located in the very center of the city. It was in an old and beautiful house that had belonged to a rich merchant before the war, when Bender was still a Romanian city in the province of Bessarabia. The Soviets had confiscated the house, and the merchant himself, if he hadn’t managed to flee, would have either been exiled to Siberia or shot. That didn’t bother the young pioneers very much. They knew from books and movies that to be rich is not good; one has to be equal to everyone else.
The pioneer palace was full of children’s happiness, and the happiness was an absolutely sincere one. Children from the whole city would gather there and immerse themselves in joy. The palace became Yashe’s second home, to which he would run after school. Isak Yefimovich, as it turned out, was not only a good chess teacher but an unusual person — the ten or fifteen children in the chess club treated him like one of their own. Yashe, who had grown up without a father, felt a particularly strong attraction to him. Isak Yefimovich apparently felt it too; he invited Yashe to his home more than once. He had no family and lived alone in a rented room, in which there was, besides the narrow couch with a small table and a stool, a small étagère with books — his only treasure — off in a corner. It held dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of books about the chess kingdom, as the teacher called it. Years later — Isak Yefimovich was then no longer alive — Yashe came to understand that the chess kingdom was the only place where his first chess teacher could hide from his past, in which his whole family had been killed, and from his lonely today; and perhaps he was trying to save Yashe and his other students from tomorrow? Once Yashe heard Isak Yefimovich say quietly, as if only to himself, that the rules of chess were the most humane rules that had ever been conceived.
The game of chess fascinated Yashe. He found his friends and enemies in the chess kingdom, and knew how to behave with them. He took successful steps forward: at the age of fifteen, he was already playing for the city’s men’s team in the all-Republic chess competition, and he won second place; about two years after that, he was included in the all-Republic men’s team to play in the all-Union championship in Moscow. His mother and aunts, of course, became fierce fans of chess. They knew the names of many famous grandmasters, but not infrequently got them so mixed up that Yashe didn’t know whom they meant. Naturally, in their honest opinion, all world champions in chess should be Jews, but when the Jewish Korchnoi lost the chess crown to the Russian Karpov, Yashe’s mother was not too disappointed.
She said at the time, quite seriously: “I’m sure that his real name is probably Karpinovich. But it’s not appropriate for Jews to always be first.”
Yashe always strove to be first, and experienced each failure painfully. Isak Yefimovich, who already knew him better than his mother and aunts did, said to him more than once: “Yashe, losing one match should encourage you to win two others . . .”
Of course, the old teacher was not just referring to chess — but to wisdom that comes with age. After finishing school, many of Yashe’s friends, the Jewish ones who wanted to study further, went to take entrance exams in distant cities in Russia, even as far away as Siberia. There, their parents claimed, it was easier to get into a university; there, they said, there is less antisemitism. Yashe was fortunate not to have to travel to study in faraway places; he took the exams in Kishinev University and he was accepted. His mother and aunts were in seventh heaven with happiness and pride!
“If you have a good head,” they boasted to the neighbors, “all doors will open for you.”
In a certain sense, they were right, but Kishinev University’s doors didn’t open for Yashe because he did well on his exams, but because of his accomplishments in chess. The university badly needed a player like him, so they closed their eyes to his Jewish background. He studied in the department of physics and mathematics and was supposed to become a teacher in those two subjects, but most of his time was taken up by preparations for the matches and the matches themselves. After barely reaching the third semester, Yashe decided that after the world student championship in Budapest he would leave the team for a while and spend all his time studying.
He was among the first on the list for the all-Republic team. This was supposed to be his first trip abroad, and he forgot everything and everyone and devoted himself only to his training. He never again felt as good and inspired as he did at that time. For his trip abroad, his mother and aunts “obtained” an “imported” suit for him.
“A trifle,” said his aunts tremulously. “After all, you will represent the entire country there!”
But his mother just said: “Wear it in good health!” Her eyes were dry and sunken. She looked very weak after her operation; they all believed that everything had been taken care of and that she would regain her strength, but the illness did not leave her — it tormented and tortured her for two years . . .
The day before Yashe was supposed to leave, the team’s head coach came up to him. From his expression, Yashe instinctively felt that something had happened, and that this “something” had to do with him.
“You can’t go to Budapest,” Yashe heard, and right after that he felt the trainer’s warm hand on his shoulder, “but don’t ask why . . .”
Yashe needed a few moments to digest the unexpected news, and suddenly, as if someone had whispered in his ear, he quietly whispered: “My Jewish mother bothers you?”
The coach, who had already started to leave, turned toward Yashe and calmly answered: “I, personally, am not bothered by her . . .”
Yashe decided to leave the university, but he knew how badly his family, especially his mother, would take his decision. He also couldn’t not say anything to them, because he wanted to go back to Bender. His physics professor, a Jew and a well-known name in that science, gave him a piece of advice: “Transfer to a correspondence course; it would be a shame to abandon the diploma so foolishly.” He knew the real reason for Yashe’s unexpected decision, though Yashe himself had blamed it, in the dean’s office, on his mother’s illness; his professor felt that ambitions should be expressed where they could be useful. “There, my friend, is where you’ll have the opportunity to lay your head . . .” the professor told him. Yashe swallowed it. Several years later, Yashe accompanied him upon his departure for Israel, for good. When they said goodbye, at the railroad car, the professor gave his former student a second piece of advice: “Don’t waste your time, Yashe — there’s nothing for you here!”
To study by correspondence, Yashe had to work somewhere, so he went to the “pioneer palace” — still a pedagogical type of work. Isak Yefimovich had already died by that time, and the chess club that he had founded was barely gasping, so they suggested that Yashe direct it. Work with children fascinated him; it was as if he were again returning to his own carefree childhood years. He continued to live on the same street and in the same house, together with his family. He began collecting books, which contributed to his long list of debts at that time, and he spent a lot of time at the “book-lovers” club. He understood that just like Isak Yefimovich in his time, he was looking for a way out . . .
But reading didn’t save him. Worse yet: the books that he used to get for a short time and read secretly at night, so a stranger’s eye shouldn’t oversee him, God forbid, made him even more confused and drove him to despair. No, Yashe never considered himself a “hero,” though he knew that there were those who did not remain silent — they fought, risking their lives. . . . He certainly understood that his former professor had been right — that there was nothing for him here, but it was not only Yashe who had to decide whether to leave or not. His mother and his two aunts didn’t even want to hear about leaving. “What’s so bad for us here?” they said, and again mentioned the “great good fortune” that they enjoyed in their life. “It’s our destiny!” they sighed. Yashe didn’t argue, not only because his words wouldn’t have convinced them but because he himself wasn’t yet mature enough to make such a decision. Furthermore, he met Clara at that time, and that encounter suddenly changed his whole approach to life . . .
Yashe remained standing facing the building where Rachel and her mother lived. Yesterday they had said goodbye and decided to meet today — “about nine o’clock.” She had said it so naturally, Yashe thought, as if such an arrangement had been in place between them for quite some time; all they needed was to add: “as usual.”
The previous night it had taken him a long time to fall asleep. Bits of conversation came to his mind, words from the discussion during his stroll with his new acquaintance. He listened to her voice in his mind as if, through its soft, somewhat muffled tones, he could feel her breath and perhaps even the touch of her lips to his ear. Unexpected desire seized his imagination. He repressed the feeling, but he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He was supposed to tell her and explain a lot of things, because she was from an entirely different world, the opposite of the world where he was born and grew up. On the other hand, was it so important for a man and woman, who were both looking for someone to lean on, for a bit of warmth and concern for each other, to rummage around in their yesterdays? Yashe found no answer to that question, but his memories pulled him back every time, perhaps because there he felt on firmer ground. The rain that had begun and had rapped on the window with the first heavy drops confused his thoughts and introduced an uneasy feeling into his shaky hopes that something would change in his present life.
The wet wind that blew over the slippery planks of the boardwalk seemed to latch onto Yashe’s loneliness and indecisiveness. It was already a quarter to twelve, and it was clear that Rachel wasn’t coming out today — she wouldn’t leave her mother alone. The slender thread of his nighttime hopes was about to burst at any moment.
A man came up to him and asked in Russian: “Do you have a cigar?”
Yashe shook his head “no.”
But the passerby wouldn’t let him alone — he asked further: “Perhaps you know someone who is looking for a dog to mate with a bitch? I have a Pinscher with a good pedigree — you could make a few dollars from it.”
Only then did Yashe notice a small dog, with a long, pointy face and round, black, bulging eyes, sitting at the stranger’s feet. Its two pointy little ears were shivering from the cold. The owner was holding it by a narrow leash and kept pulling at it as if he wanted to convince himself that his dog, his source of income, hadn’t run away from him.
“What’s your dog’s name?” asked Yashe seriously, not understanding himself why he had to know that.
“Bolivar!” said the person in a dignified manner.
Yashe broke out laughing. The name of the little dog reminded him of the story by O. Henry about the two gangster friends who were left with only one horse, whose name was Bolivar. And Yashe said, like one of the gangster friends: “Bolivar won’t support both of us!”
The passerby with the little dog had apparently not read O. Henry, so he interpreted the words in his own way: “Are you drunk, or what?”
And suddenly Yashe understood what he had to do next. In a few minutes he was at the entrance door of Rachel’s building, letting his gaze wander across the little black buttons on which the apartment numbers were written. Hundreds of numbers, but he needed only a single one. And again luck was with him: an elderly woman came up the stairs, breathing heavily, and stopped for a moment, facing Yashe. In her eyes, apparently, Yashe was very attractive, so she looked him over from head to toe with tense attention.
But Yashe didn’t wait for her hospitality and spoke good-naturedly: “Rachel and I arranged for me to come with my car to pick her up and take her mother to the doctor, but I’ve forgotten the apartment number. You know her, of course?”
“Who doesn’t know Rachel — such a faithful daughter,” remarked the woman, now in a much friendlier tone. She pointed it out exactly, opening the entrance door with her key. “They live on the ninth floor, directly opposite the elevator.”
The woman got out on the eighth floor, so Yashe had occasion, while riding with her, to think up another story in order to answer the question of how he had come to know Rachel and her mother.
After the door of the elevator closed behind him, Yashe realized that all his improvisations, till then, had been just chatter, but what would he say to Rachel? What was he looking for here, at the threshold of the apartment of this woman he hardly knew?
He started to feel hot. He felt how heavy his clothes were. Soaked as they were from the rain, they were pulling him down. At that moment, the door opened in front of him. Rachel didn’t ask anything; she covered her cheeks with her hands, as astonished children often do.
As was his habit, Yashe shrugged his shoulders and said the words that came to his mind at that moment: “Did I forget my umbrella here by any chance?”
Rachel invited the unexpected guest into the house, pointed to a chair next to the door, and told him to take off his wet clothing and leave it there. She herself went into the next room, and by the time Yashe had taken off his short coat and his soaked sneakers, she was back, holding a towel in her hand.
“Here, Yashe — wipe your face meanwhile,” she pointed to where he should go, and added:
“There’s the bathroom — I’ve already prepared everything for you.”
Yashe obeyed every word, walking clumsily and carrying his jeans so they wouldn’t drag on the floor and get it wet. It was only a few steps to the bathroom, but Yashe walked there as if on crutches. Closing the door after him, he wiped the sweat from his face. The hum of the water that was filling the bathtub returned him to reality, for the few moments since he had crossed the threshold of the apartment had fallen out of his consciousness. He suddenly began feeling around, searching, not understanding himself exactly what for. “Your wallet with your documents,” came the belated answer. His hands didn’t find anything and remained hanging helplessly. He turned his head to the right, looked in the mirror, and encountered a lost face. His sparse hair was stuck to his sweaty forehead, his cheeks were sunken, and there were two dark semicircles under his eyes.
“Ku-ku, Yashele, ku-ku,” a distant, soft voice called out. That’s the way his mother used to play with him, looking into the mirror with him, when he was still a very small child. Perhaps “ku-ku” was one of his earliest memories. The hum of the water hadn’t stopped — the bathtub was already sufficiently full, so he turned off the faucet. He tested the water temperature with his hand. A bit too hot, but Rachel had said beforehand that he needed a hot bath. Yashe got undressed quickly and crept into the tub. He lay with his head under the water, his eyes closed, holding his breath as if he could remove himself from life, not feeling anything and not thinking about anything — melting into the liquid and becoming a transparent drop. He had once read that every human being consists of almost ninety percent water, so he was missing only ten percent to turn into a puddle. But it was precisely that ten percent that made him a human being, a sentient creature . . . is that a privilege or a punishment?!
In Bender, they hadn’t had a separate bathroom, so they used to go to the public baths once a week. On the other days, especially in the summer, his mother would warm a pail of water in the evening, place Yashe in the broad and deep enameled bowl — green on the outside and white on the inside — and pour water on him from a pot. Small rivulets of mud would trickle down his bony little body, sunburnt and dirty from running around and rolling in the dust with the other boys. His mother and his aunts had strictly forbidden him to run down to the Dniester with them to bathe. Later, when he was already in the upper grades, their forbidding and their threats that he would be dragged down into a whirlpool, God forbid, had very little effect on him; he’d run off there throughout his summer vacations.
One day when he was in the bathtub and his mother had soaped his head, little Yashe heard an unhappy voice above him, speaking to his mother: “Shame on you! Why do you drag the young man to bathe with you?” Yashe opened an eye carefully: two fat pink thighs were rubbing against each other, separated from a fat, wrinkled belly by a patch of black hair. His mother didn’t answer the woman, but after her further words — “He could have gone to the baths with his father!” — she got angry. She answered: “We can do without your advice!” Nevertheless, a week later she asked their neighbor to take Yashe with him to the baths . . .
He came out of the bathroom refreshed, wearing dark-blue silk pajamas with a thin black belt. It was a bit narrow in the shoulders, but, on the other hand, the trousers hung over the cloth nose of the bedroom slippers. Rachel had prepared the pajamas and slippers for him to put on during the few moments when he was trudging alone down the narrow corridor. Yashe just stood there, not sure what to do next. He called Rachel softly, but she didn’t answer, so he went into a large room with two big windows. A crude sofa, covered with mustard-colored plush, stood next to a wall. Farther down on the same side of the room, closer to one of the windows, there was a deep armchair, also covered with the same mustard-coloured plush fabric. Separating those two pieces was an old-fashioned floor-lamp with a tall, green lamp-shade and a narrow, round marble table. Across from the sofa, against the opposite wall, was a small, glass cabinet with dishes on the shelves — Yashe’s mother would probably have given it the fancy name “servant,” which he had heard for the first time when he was about twelve. His mother had come in one day, happy, and the minute she crossed the threshold had said: “Sisters — I just got a quarterly bonus, and we’re going to buy a ‘servant’!” Off in a corner, on a wooden stand, was a television set with a small screen, far from the latest model. Yashe’s gaze also didn’t omit the two framed pictures on the walls, beautifully embroidered with colored cotton thread. They, in turn, evoked memories of his mother’s and aunts’ house in Bender, when, during the long winter evenings, all three sisters would sit on their sofa and little Yashe would squeeze himself in among them. Cuddling with one another, as if all four of them could grow together into a single creature, they would hold hands and look at the few yellowed photographs that miraculously remained from their cut-off youth . . .
And another picture on the wall, a larger one right over the sofa, painted with oils by a firm, artistic hand, drew Yashe’s eyes to it. Two raging forces of Nature — the sky and the water — had thrown themselves upon each other; the excited waves, with angry, white foam at their edges, had risen up to the thick, dark clouds that lurked above them, spreading their godly power throughout space. And between the two natural forces, hanging like a torn-off ray of light, was a seagull carrying a red child’s shoe in his beak . . .
He heard someone opening the door to the corridor. For a moment, Yashe felt lost; he wasn’t in a position to ask who was coming, as if he were the master of the house, especially when someone was opening the door with his own key. It never occurred to him that it could be Rachel, but then she appeared with several plastic bags in her hands, with her face wet but looking pleased.
“I see I’ve come back right on time.”
“Does that mean that I was alone in the house?” It still didn’t make sense to Yashe.
“No, my mother was in the house, after all.”
Rachel went into the kitchen with the packages and asked from there: “What’s the problem — are you afraid to be in a house alone?”
Yashe broke out into a smile. The momentary inner tension disappeared. He went over to the open door and looked into the kitchen — a narrow one with a little window — designed, apparently, only for a housewife with an elegant figure. Rachel was puttering around at the narrow table with the packages she had brought in. She arranged little cans and packages and put something in the refrigerator.
“I just thought,” Yashe said, “that you were in another room with your mother. . . .”
Rachel’s eyes rested on him. “The pajamas suit you,” she said quietly, quite differently than before. “My father rarely wore them. He felt that only aristocrats wore pajamas.”
“To tell the truth, I never had any pajamas before either, except that when I was still a child of about five or six my aunts sewed me a pair of pajamas. But I didn’t want to sleep in them, because, I told them, ‘one doesn’t sleep in a costume’.”
They both broke out laughing. Suddenly, Rachel caught herself as if she had remembered something, and apologized: “I have to leave you alone for a few minutes to see how my mother is doing.”
Yashe, who was still standing in the doorway leaning his shoulder against the doorpost, moved to one side to make room for Rachel to go through. For a moment he smelled the same apple-scent of the shampoo with which he had just washed his hair . . .
They ate lunch together, in the kitchen, at the narrow table. It didn’t bother Yashe at all — on the contrary, he told her a well-known Russian proverb and translated it into English: “Crowded, but in peace.”
“You know, of course, that you can get all kinds of Russian foods in the International store. But I don’t understand anything about them; furthermore, the names of the dozens of sausages and pastramis drive me crazy — I can’t wrap my tongue around them. Fortunately, I met a Russian neighbor of ours there, also an immigrant, and she explained everything to me.”
“I must tell you, Rachel, that your Russian neighbor didn’t mislead you. Everything is very delicious, especially since you did it just for me . . .”
“Are you sure?” the mistress of the house remarked playfully. “I’m eating those delicacies of yours too, after all, and I hope I won’t get poisoned.”
“Americans adapt quickly to the cooking of various peoples, especially here in New York with its worldwide menu.”
Yashe, whose “Russian lunch” at Rachel’s was his breakfast as well, tried not to show how hungry he was. But he was apparently unsuccessful in pulling off that trick, because the hospitable lady of the house kept constantly pushing more food under his nose. He noticed that, and as if to justify himself, said:
“I had almost forgotten how delicious these snacks are.”
“You know what?” Rachel proposed unexpectedly. The “what” remained hanging in the air for a moment, till she pushed herself away from the table and opened one of the three wall-closets. “I have a bit of Scotch here — it’s certainly no vodka — but still, I’m sure that won’t interfere with your appetite.”
She put out two little glasses on the table, and Yashe poured the whiskey. He raised his glass, and looking at the golden brown bit of Scotch, said quietly: “I propose a toast to two things: the rotted board on the boardwalk, which caused us to meet, and the rain, which arranged today’s meeting...”
“Very original mediators,” Rachel smiled, and suddenly added: “Zdorovye!” (to your health).
One’s tongue usually gets looser after drinking. With Rachel and Yashe, however, it was just the opposite. They sat there quietly, as if as if they wanted to listen to the noise of the rain — a partner in the group — and perhaps because the no-longer-young people needed the silent pause in order to search their souls again before continuing farther along the road of being destined for each other.
“As I understand it . . .” Rachel said, drawing out the words softly, as if she hadn’t entirely made up her mind whether to ask or not:
“Do you live by yourself?”
“Yes,” Yashe answered, ripping himself out of his own reverie; “it’s been half a year now since my former wife and our daughter moved to Boston.”
He reached for the bottle and filled his glass. Rachel didn’t ask any more questions. She felt that now Yashe himself had to decide whether he should continue telling things or perhaps make do with the few previous words.
“Clara, my former wife, is a dentist — a golden trade in America. But she had to pass exams, of course, to obtain permission to work here. Even before coming here, we had thought that before anything else I would try to find some kind of work, wherever I could, and she would study. My mother-in-law and father-in-law, who came with us, have many relatives here, and one of them helped me get a job as a taxi-driver . . .it was not easy, but we knew what we had come here for, and that there was no road back. I must say that her parents helped us a great deal, especially by looking after our little girl, Marina. She was nine years old then. Clara studied, and I — I turned the wheel, sometimes for twelve or fourteen hours a day. In short, after a year and a half, Clara obtained permission to work and quickly found a job in a private clinic. We rented another apartment, not far from her parents, and gradually began to stand on our own feet. I was already sick and tired of being a taxi-driver, but, for the time being, I was unable to quit. Of course it got easier after Clara started to work, but the better you live, the more you want. So I thought to myself: I’ll hold out for half a year, until winter, and then I’ll take a computer course. After all, I’m no dumber than anyone else, and it’s a good business, well-paying. And that’s what probably would have happened — I’m a determined fellow. But one day I came home late at night. Clara, as always, gave me my food, and then just like that, sitting across from me as you are sitting now, she said to me that, somehow she had fallen in love with another man, a doctor who lived in Boston, and they had decided to get together.
Yashe had a choking lump in his throat. He was still holding the glass of Scotch. “Strange,” he continued. “This is the first time I’ve told the story out loud. It probably sounds very trivial, no?”
Rachel didn’t answer. She had also avoided looking straight at his face while he was telling the story. She knew herself, from her own experience, that one can often be torn to pieces by such pain, but when you tell it to someone else, it elicits no more than a sigh of sympathy.
“You know what, Yashe?” she suddenly proposed. “Let’s drink coffee.”
She didn’t wait for his “yes” or “no” — getting up from the table, she started puttering around at the stove.
“Do you know, Yashe, what a finjan is? A finjan is a kind of brass utensil in which one cooks real coffee. I’m not such a great cook, but I can make good coffee — they taught me that in Israel.”
“Yes, Yashe. I lived there for quite a few years.”
“You definitely have to tell me about that.”
Rachel turned her head toward him, now looking him straight in his eyes, and said: “I’m afraid my story will also sound trivial.”
At that point, Rachel was not inclined to expand on that theme, and taking advantage of her rights as mistress of the house, she said: “Enough sitting here crowded in, Yashe. Take your glass of Scotch and the bottle and go into the parlor. You’ll be more comfortable on the sofa than here. In about ten minutes I’ll bring you the coffee.”
Yashe sat down on the sofa, leaning his neck against its soft edge. He left the empty glass and the bottle of Scotch on the marble table under the green lampshade. He again held his breath, as he had earlier in the bathroom when he had immersed himself in the bathtub full of water. A weary weakness spread over his body and poisoned every limb, every drop of blood; only his head, as if it were separated from his heavy, weakened body, swayed slightly — back and forth, forth and back. Each of the old-fashioned objects around him contained its own special secret and magic, which were capable of awakening things and events from long ago and binding them to today, drawing human beings into a deceptive game of time. In his “today,” he could see no way out, so he looked for support from his “yesterday,” and there he encountered the porcelain toy that used to stand on a glass shelf in the house of the three sisters. Among themselves, they called the coddled thing “the Chinese emperor”; the emperor sat on his throne, with his legs in loose trousers and shoes with pointed, turned-up tips tucked under him; his arms supported his great, round belly, with his belly-button showing. He sat there proudly and sedately, and only his shaved head, with its short, black, brush-like mustache swayed slightly back and forth, back and forth . . . to little Yashe, it always seemed that the Emperor’s eyes were following him and knew about all his mischief; that indeed was why he always looked so displeased and was constantly shaking his head — “ay-ay-ay.” Yashe’s gaze continued to search in the corners of time till it came to rest on another head, a little head, also of a doll but a living one, with sparse, black hair and unfocused pale blue eyes; she was sticking out her little tongue, which was the size of a thumbnail, and licking the drops of water off her lips: his week-old little daughter, Marina. They had named the child after Yashe’s mother, whose name was Manye. Understandably, Manye was too old-fashioned, so Clara agreed to Marina, Marinetshke — it sounded pretty. Clara and her mother were afraid to bathe the baby, so Yashe carried out his first paternal mission. Where did he get the courage and knowledge to bathe a tiny creature who was only as long as an arm from palm to elbow?
Rachel appeared in the room with a narrow, square, silver platter in her hands, and on it there were two small china cups filled with coffee. “Well — here’s my patented Israeli coffee.”
Not receiving an answer, she bent down toward her guest and encountered his sleeping smile. She felt embarrassed for a few moments and then took the platter back to the kitchen. Then she brought a pillow and a thin blanket from the cabinet in the corridor. Going over to Yashe, she touched his shoulder lightly. He barely opened his eyes, looked confused, and murmured something, probably in Russian because Rachel didn’t understand it.
“Go to sleep, Yashe — don’t be ashamed,” she interpreted the murmur in her own way.
Rachel covered him and quietly went into the other room, where her mother was waiting for her.
An instant before Yashe opened his eyes, he felt the touch of her gaze on his eyelashes, or so he imagined. The old lady was sitting in her wheelchair, motionless, looking at him as he was lying on the sofa. The morning sunshine was falling on her face and was emphasizing every wrinkle on her thin, pale skin, under which one could clearly see the projecting bones of her sunken temples, cheeks, and pointy chin. The long illness had sucked all the color of life from her body — only a few rare signs had been preserved on her shrunken, emaciated features, like reminders drawn on a portrait. They also came through the dark, deep eye-sockets and fell onto Yashe’s eyelashes like warm drops.
He didn’t move, as if the sickly image of the old woman, torn away from reality, were some sort of nuisance that was still following him from a bad dream. But no! Quite the contrary — Yashe seized upon the image with a fluttering heart; God forbid that he should drive it away and lose her again, this time forever, because only there, in his dreams, could the image find refuge.
“Mama,” his lips mouthed the word soundlessly.
After the operation, they had all hoped that she would regain her strength. Her sisters never left her bedside for a minute. It was always that way when one of them got sick: they didn’t eat and didn’t sleep and didn’t know what to do with themselves. That was also true when he, Yashe, would catch cold. All three of them were a single body, and each felt the pain of the others, perhaps even more strongly than her own. Yashe was quietly astonished by that. He had told Clara about the three sisters, and they had only just begun dating, but Clara wasn’t surprised. She found an explanation for it, which she referred to by a long modern word, probably some sort of medical concept, which Yashe promptly forgot. He would surely not have remembered about it if not for the fact that all three of the sisters died within a single year.
That was the year he married Clara. Almost three months before the wedding, his mother took a turn for the worse. The doctors just waved their hands in futility — the disease wouldn’t let go of her and it spread all through her body. It made no sense to keep her in the hospital any longer, and his mother herself pleaded for them to take her home. She sat on her bed, her feet covered with a blanket, leaning her back on two pillows. Her head, which she kept wrapped in a white kerchief, was bent to one side, exactly as in the picture in which she was photographed with Yashe when he first started school. The photographer had sat them down on a bench at that time, putting several thick books under Yashe so he would look taller. Stepping back a few paces, he had considered them for a moment and then had bent their heads and pushed them lightly together. “Your heads, your heads!” he had suddenly cried out, running to his box-camera on its tripod. “Another second . . . there, like that!”
His mother had asked the sisters to leave the room, and when they closed the door behind them, she drew the corners of her mouth back slightly. “They’ll have to forgive me for discussing secrets with you.”
Yashe had taken her hand and had tried to answer in the same tone: “Are you sure, Mama, that you want to keep secrets from them?!”
“From them, maybe not, but don’t interrupt me.”
She was breathing hard and mumbled something, as if to a third person: “I’m not destined to dance at your wedding . . .”
“Why are you talking like that, Mama?”
“Hear me out, Yashele — it’s not good to postpone a celebration to another date; that’s not the way Jews do things . . .”
“Mama . . .”
“Don’t interrupt me . . . there, in the “servant,” on the shelf with the Chinese emperor, you’ll find your father’s address. It wouldn’t be nice if you and Clarale didn’t invite him to your wedding . . . he’s still your father, after all . . . and now call your aunts back in . . .”
Several days before going with Clara to register as husband and wife, Yashe suddenly remembered — the box! Truth be told, till then his mind hadn’t been on fulfilling his mother’s request. They hadn’t postponed the wedding, but they had decided to make it a very modest one, more like a dinner for close relatives and friends, and certainly without music. He took the porcelain toy, the “emperor,” down from the shelf. It shook its head in dissatisfaction, as if to say: “I’m the boss here!” Yashe immediately recognized the box his mother had mentioned. It looked like some kind of sea-treasure, covered on all sides by tiny pieces of varicolored stones and shells, and on the lid, in the middle, there was a rose made of mother-of-pearl strips resembling long, pointy flower-petals. In the lower right-hand corner of the lid, on a flat, black, polished oval stone, there was engraved, with beautiful cursive letters, “Odessa, August 1954.” His mother had gone there at that time on vacation from her work in a sanatorium, and little Yashe had been left at home with his aunts for three whole weeks. She came back from the seaside tanned and happy, and with gifts for each of them. For quite a while later his mother would recall how beautiful the city of Odessa was, and how warm the water of the Black Sea.
He opened the lid of the box. It contained his four medals won in chess tournaments in various years, and two certificates: sports-master and a rectangular certificate enameled with Bordeaux color, with a golden seal of the Soviet Union in the center — he had received that, together with his diploma, when he graduated from university. Among themselves, the students had called the rectangular certificate “the little swimmer,” perhaps because the university diploma made it possible for them to keep themselves afloat on the sea of life. There was another thing: a faded, square piece of oilcloth with a little hole in one corner, on which one could barely make out his surname, the day, month, and year of his birth, his sex and weight, and the number of the hospital ward where his mother had given birth. Yashe smiled — he recalled how his mother had once showed it to him. At that time a white gauze ribbon had still been attached to the little hole. “This is your first document,” his mother had explained. “They attached it to your left foot in the obstetrics ward.” And what’s this?! His first baby tooth? It had been shaky for a long time but hadn’t wanted to fall out. Yashe had been very annoyed by that because almost all the boys on his street had already lost a tooth. When his tooth finally fell out, his mother had taken it from Yashe to throw it out in the attic. “When we do that, we mustn’t forget to say,” his mother had said, “Here, mousie — a milk-tooth, and give Yashele an iron one instead.” Yashe was sure, at that time, that his mother had actually done that. And now, another thing that had once given him so much joy but ended up in bitter tears: after dozens of years in which it had lain hidden, Yashe again held in his hand his dark-green fountain-pen. Now he could himself read the inscription on its shiny surface: “Use it in good health! Your father.” Simple words, but because of one word, father, he hadn’t written a single letter with the fountain-pen. What in the world had happened between two people, his father and mother, that had been capable of erecting a wall of alienation between them, one that had also walled him in for twenty-seven years? Could one explain and justify it just by the cloudy words “it was destined to be”? Who would explain it to him now?
At the very bottom of the box, he found a small, white sheet of paper, folded in half. Written on it, in his mother’s handwriting, was the address and telephone number of “Fime” (Yefim), which was his father’s name. Yashe had found that out for the first time when he was enrolled in school. His mother had led him to a table at which sat a woman who promptly extended her hand and said her name: “Lyudmila Antonovna.” Yashe didn’t get confused, and he called out his name loudly. The woman smiled, and taking her pen out of the inkwell, she bent over a fat book similar to his mother’s bookkeeping ledgers. “This is the way we’ll register you in the class journal: ‘Yacov’,” said Lyudmila Antonovna.
“Not Yacov but Yashe,” he corrected her.
She stopped writing and explained softly: “Yashe is your name at home, but your full name in Russian is Yacov,” and she suddenly asked: “Otshestvo?”
Yashe was hearing that word for the first time, and he raised his head toward his mother. He noticed that she got confused for a moment, but then quickly answered: “Yefimovich.” He answered the rest of the questions that Lyudmila Antonovna put to him quickly and smoothly.
The unfamiliar word again popped up that evening, when Yashe was already in bed. “Mama,” he recalled asking, “what does otshestvo mean?”
And his mother answered him briefly: “Patronymic. Go to sleep, son, it’s already very late.”
Yashe’s father, as it turned out, lived in a different city, Tiraspol, which was across the Dniester from Bender. Yashe decided not to go there, but to call his father on the telephone and invite him officially to the wedding — to fulfill his mother’s wish, so to speak. But when he did so, and heard, after a pause, a choked answer: “I’ll be there, and good luck!” something seemed to tear inside him. It was like a belated echo of the few words that had been spoken at the school gate years before, by the same voice, with the same tremulousness. It even seemed to Yashe that he was once again feeling the touch on his shoulder by the unknown man. His father promised to come to the registration at the marriage-palace (that’s what they called the beautiful building in which they performed the solemn ceremony of registering the marriage). A considerable crowd was standing on the steps to the entrance, because aside from Yashe and Clara, a few other couples had gathered meanwhile to “solemnize the marriage.” Clara held his arm and leaned slightly against him. Their friends surrounded them, joked, encouraged them, and whispered among themselves; Yashe smiled and answered something, but his eyes restlessly searched among the heads for a man whose face had whirled before his eyes once in his life and had then disappeared. Could he have forgotten? Yashe’s gaze, like a searchlight, highlighted various known and unknown faces from the crowd, and then quickly left them and shifted its focus to someone else. Suddenly he heard, very close to himself, someone calling out: “Yashenke!” He turned his head and finally saw the face he had sought so eagerly. At that moment, looking at the strange, elderly man who was awkwardly pressing a bouquet of flowers to his bosom, Yashe realized that the distance between the two of them was too great to be overcome.
He never saw him again, but Yashe saw his father’s face before his eyes more than once, especially at the time of his separation from Clara, when his little daughter, Marina, ran up to him before leaving for Boston and, hugging him, whispered in his ear: “I love you very, very much, Papa.”
Yashe suddenly woke up. There was nobody next to the sofa, and he thought to himself: “This apartment has a rare ability to awaken memories. Apparently the walls and the objects here have absorbed a great deal of worry and pain from the people who’ve lived here.” Yashe looked around, and his gaze again hit upon the picture that was hanging above the sofa. What attracted him so much? It depicted a complicated subject: the stormy ocean and the gray-black sky over it, and the hustle-bustle of seagulls between them were nothing new in such landscapes, but the little red shoe in the bird’s beak injected a certain degree of drama.
He would probably have continued looking at the picture, satisfying his early morning fantasy, if Rachel hadn’t come into the room.
“Good morning,” she said. “You couldn’t have been very comfortable sleeping on the sofa?”
Yashe became confused: “Why would you say such a thing — I haven’t slept very well in a long time. And first of all, excuse me for . . .”
Rachel interrupted him: “You’ll find your clothes in the bathroom.”
Without another word, Yashe sidled out of the room, not taking his eyes off Rachel, like a little boy who had just done something mischievous. Looking at him, Rachel burst into laughter.
His clothes lay washed, pressed, and folded on the laundry basket, where he had found the silk pajamas the previous day. He quickly got washed and dressed, combed his sparse hair with his fingers, and went out to Rachel.
She was already expecting him in the living-room, next to a low, mobile table on wheels, set for two people. “I can’t let you go without trying my patented coffee. Sit down, Yashe.”
“Thank you very much, and excuse me again for my foolish behavior yesterday.”
Rachel quickly poured the dark, thick, boiled liquid into the cups from the brass vessel that yesterday she had so proudly called by the Arabic word finjan.
Yashe felt more at home. Sitting down on the end of the sofa, he drew in deep breaths of air and exclaimed enthusiastically: “Such an aroma must have come from the Shah’s palace in Baghdad when the beautiful Scheherazadewas serving him a small, white cup of coffee on a golden platter.”
“You’ll have to take it from my hands,” said Rachel, handing him the coffee from the platter.
“With great pleasure, milady.”
They broke out laughing, going along with the improvised drama.
“By the way, what you call finjan we in my home town of Bender called by the Turkish name dzhesva. To this day, there is still a fort in Bender left over from the Turks.” Yashe took a few more sips from the cup and added: “True, I never saw such a thing as a dzhesva back in Bender — you couldn’t find it in the stores. Perhaps because no one there drank Turkish coffee.”
Rachel broke out laughing again. She put her tray down on the table and wiped away her tears with the napkin. “I haven’t had such a good laugh in a long time. Especially in the morning. My mother always used to say that it isn’t good to laugh very early because the day may end in tears.”
The words delighted Yashe.
“You know, Rachel? My mother and my aunts also used to say exactly the same thing. Interesting...”
“They said it in Yiddish, no doubt, but I, unfortunately, have almost forgotten the language of my parents.”
It got quiet for a moment. Those last words introduced a gnawing yearning for days long gone by, filled with very different sounds, aromas, and images, of which there is only a faint memory today; and they are hidden at that — and it is not at all clear whether that is because we want to keep them for ourselves or because we are ashamed of them.
“I wanted to ask you yesterday,” Yashe carefully unraveled the silence. “What kind of painting is this?”
Rachel immediately turned her gaze toward the wall above Yashe’s head. “You like it?” and not waiting for an answer, she added: “I brought the picture from Israel. A local artist painted it there.” And she grew silent.
“A white seagull . . . a red shoe,” Yashe continued, drawing out the words as if he were trying to tease out the continuation of a story.
And Rachel went along with him: “I heard the story from a girl who had a rare talent for understanding what seagulls say to one another. She used to do that often, while sitting along the beach. One day she heard a beautiful, white seagull say that once upon a time there was a little girl whose name was Mirele. She was always cheerful and happy because she always felt the soft, warm hands of her mother on one side and the thick, firm fingers of her father on the other side. But there came a dark time when bad people appeared in their city. Then Mirele and her parents had to hide somewhere in a dark cellar. There were other people there too, frightened and hungry just like them. How long they sat there crowded together is hard to say, but suddenly Mirele felt hunger cramps in her belly and started crying. Her mother begged her to restrain herself for a while longer and not cry, but it didn’t help. Then her mother whispered quietly in her ear that when they went out into the open air she would buy her a pair of beautiful red shoes, and they would all, all three of them, again stroll along their street. But Mirele’s pain wouldn’t leave her, so her mother picked her up and, holding her by the hand, pulled her after her. Mirele looked around, searched for her father with her eyes, and grabbed for his strong hand with her other hand, but her hand remained hanging in a dark emptiness. The fresh air lapped at her face, and it was so unbelievable that the little girl stopped crying. It was night-time, but compared with the darkness in the cellar everything around them looked bright. Further, the sky was studded with stars, and each star was sparkling to the little girl. Suddenly they heard someone yelling at them. Her mother pulled her again, but strongly this time, and they started running down a narrow, abandoned little alley. Three men with rifles quickly caught up with them; they tore Mirele from her mother and attacked her mother. They beat her, screaming for her to show them the place where the others were hiding. Her mother remained silent, and the men began to tear her clothing off. Mirele was lying frightened on the paved gutter where she had fallen, and had already completely forgotten about her belly. The only thing that was whirling around in her head was the question, why was her father not with them? He was a strong and mighty person, after all — he wouldn’t have allowed such things! And then the girl heard her mother screaming to her: ‘Run, Mirele, run and don’t look back!’ And Mirele got up and started running. She didn’t know where she was running to, but the piercing cry of a bird — short, like a gunshot — stopped her. She felt as if she were being dragged into a long, narrow tube. She closed her eyes, and opened them only when gusts of wind were rocking her on their flexible backs. She was
flying . . .”
Rachel ended her story and added:
“The painter was the first person to whom I entrusted that story.”
“Did you love him?” Yashe asked.
Rachel hadn’t expected such a question. She again looked at the picture and said:
“That’s an entirely different story, Yashe.”
They said goodbye at the elevator. Yashe again felt confused and helpless; he shrugged his shoulders and kneaded his knitted cap with his fingers, as he had at their first meeting.
“I want to tell you, Rachel, that you are an unusual woman.”
“Thanks, Yashe, but . . .”
“Don’t interrupt me, please. My English is not good enough for me to say what I want to say. . . . In your house, for the first time since I came to America, I felt calm and at peace, as if I had caught my breath after a long, exhausting journey and could now look back.”
He was speaking and looking into Rachel’s eyes. Her pupils gradually dilated, and her eyes came closer to his. He felt the moist touch of her lips on his.
The little doors of the elevator closed and he was gone.
“Oh, the ending is a good one,” Rachel said — something she often used to hear from her mother. “He has again gone away in the rain without an umbrella.”
The ring of the telephone made Rachel shudder. Her mother, too, woke up and squinted, not understanding. The ringing seemed to have erected a wall between yesterday and today, between “what was” and “what is.” She picked up the receiver and heard Yashe’s voice. He had called to tell her that he was going to Boston for a day; that he had to meet his daughter, Marina, and tell her everything . . .
“Children today understand more than we think,” said Yashe, justifying himself. “After all, she is the closest person in the world to me. She and you, Rachel.”
Late that evening, when her mother was already sleeping, Rachel went over to the window of the living-room. The rain had stopped, and the full moon had playfully rolled out from behind a thin cloud. A streak of moonlight, plastered with myriad silver potsherds, spread across the water. “Tomorrow will be a beautiful day,” thought Rachel.