By G.Y. Dryansky
At the end of the summer of 1970, three years after the Six-Day War, Rodolphe Immerman was nearing his twenty-fifth anniversary as a noted piano teacher in Paris.
Once a year Immerman would show up at the consulate in the avenue Franklin Roosevelt to prove he was still alive.
“Still here, Monsieur Immerman?” the woman at the desk in recent years would say each time. “Still with us?” He guessed that she had grown up after it was all over. Maybe she was just performing her insensitive idea of chitchat. He didn’t feel that she was malevolent, although she liked to break out of German to belabor her tasteless banter with the note of irony in her “Monsieur”. Her provocation seemed to him the condescension, mitigated by a version of friendliness, that the young sometimes assume with the elderly. Something not remote from the outrageous teasing that nurses practice to cheer seriously ill patients. She was there to administer to him, even if the closest she would get to the laying on of hands would be to ensure that his check came without a hitch for another year.
Or it might just have been that she resented him because he was handsome and she, with her choppy features, was unquestionably ugly. He was handsome in a delicate, elderly man’s way. He had never cared for his receding chin. But his hair, still as thick as Mahler’s, gave him the distinction of his calling: artist. Maybe she didn’t dislike him after all. Immerman, in any case, was not a man to look trouble in the eye if he could look the other way. He would always sign with a false little “It is always a pleasure to see you, Fräulein,” and leave quickly.
But this time she changed her line and went too far. Right or wrong, Immerman heard an echo of an old murderous slur, even if she were too young to be aware of the association. “What are you going to do with all your money, Monsieur Immerman?” she teased. Before he could let his dainty intelligence guide him, Immerman blurted, “I’ll spend it in Israel!”
A few minutes later, Rodolphe Immerman, formerly Rudolf Immermann, was sitting on the terrace of the Berkeley on the avenue Matignon, trying in vain to calm himself over a cup of chamomile tea. Well he would keep his word. He could hear her a year from now: “So how did you find the Holy Land, Monsieur Immerman?” He’d come prepared with some little, insultingly ugly souvenir and a triumphant reply. “The closest place to heaven, Fräulein!”
And that, believe it, was how Rodolphe Immerman, his mind still astonished by the perseverance of his angry heart, found himself on a plane from Paris to Tel Aviv. His section was filled with a group of dark, Sephardic French Jews of his own age, ambling up and down the aisles from friend to friend with a nervously festive, impatient air. Immerman was going to separate himself from these people as soon as the plane landed, but his own plans filled him with another sort of restlessness, an ill-defined, uncomfortable anticipation almost tinged with fear. Israel for Immerman meant his brother.
Sometimes it happens in far-flung Jewish families that the connections fray, the current fails to jump the gaps and brothers forget brothers installed in wholly different lives. Rodolphe Immerman had trouble these days recalling the names and ages of Helmut’s children. Helmut, moreover, was no longer Helmut; he was Avigdor, and he had converted Immermann to Sharel. Rodolphe’s correspondence with Avigdor had trickled into guilty notes on New Year’s cards and far more rare and guilt-driven phone calls.
In point of fact, his brother had invited Immerman to visit many times. And each time he’d demurred. He said he had a fear of traveling and that he was seeing someone to get over it. And that maybe next year.... In point of fact he was seeing no one. He had made a little world of his apartment in the rue de Bourgogne, of the apartments of his students, and of the Paris he liked to walk through alone. All this fit him. Comfortably, he could say. He had developed, over the years, an excessive apprehension of not being comfortable someplace, of finding himself in strange surroundings as if in a room full of painful noise. He didn’t need that. He needed, he told himself, what he had. His personal calamity and his accommodation with it together formed something like a cyst that no longer hurt. He didn’t need to have anyone else break into that, either. And by now his brother in was, to tell the truth, a stranger.
“You have a standing invitation,” Helmut wrote. To display his choice of life? Helmut wrote and spoke to him on the telephone in English. “I have forgot my German,” he said once, and that was it. Helmut’s French was bad. He had never been a good student in Hamburg. He would never have become a good lawyer. God knows what he might have become. Now his world was oranges and dates.
Immerman had learned enough Hebrew to do his bar mitzvah, but he couldn't speak it. He had trouble thinking of that ancient script as a spoken language. When he would hear Israeli tourists on a bus in Paris, their way of talking sounded stranger than any he’d ever known. A sort of choppy relative of the Arabic you commonly heard in the suburbs.
The chartered flight landed at Lod past midnight and Immerman went straight to his hotel to get first of all something close to a night’s sleep. When he awoke he did not like the room he had barely glanced at the night before. It shocked him that such a well-known chain could have provided such tired bedcovers and drapes. The bathroom floor tiles were gray from having been wiped with a dirty mop. He thought of a room in the Astoria he had once had on a trip to Leningrad arranged by “Connaissance des Arts.” This room was almost as bad. He went to the window where he did not find anything like the compensation of Saint Isaac’s square covered with snow. There was a beach. Gray, reaching out to gray water, and the heavy people lying in the gauzy sunlight seemed made of gray, pink and brown clay. Immerman had never seen the Mediterranean shore look so melancholy.
He was this slender, natty person of fifty-two whose sensibility was as vulnerable as his physique. Once a student of his had said of a man she had refused to marry: “I had the feeling, finally, that he was inviting me to a play (un spectacle) that I did not care to see.” Immerman had never remotely approached getting married, but life often presented him with little spectacles he did not care to see.
He had planned a day in Tel Aviv before driving to the kibbutz at Y—. Jerusalem he would visit before flying back to Paris. He got into his Hertz car and began driving around the city and it did not take him half an hour to dislike Tel Aviv. We are talking 1970. There were neighborhoods near the sea where he could not tell whether the buildings were going up or falling down. Business streets he got stalled in had a shabby retro look and bustled with a Middle Eastern confusion of old crowded-together storefronts arraying dusty, outdated wares. Immerman remembered Istanbul. He had been there and many other places before coming here, and now he did not regret his priorities—although Helmut was another story. Had it not been up to Helmut, who had provoked the estrangement, to have taken the initiative in restoring better ties? But the fact that Immerman could ask himself that question proved, in itself, how little spontaneous feeling remained between them. Yes, but it was Helmut’s fault. Maybe it was their father’s fault for having treated Helmut the way he had—but Helmut had turned his back on both of them, his very young brother as well as his father, with a forgetfulness more crushing than anger—for it was Helmut who had written off their importance to him. Fault, fault, fault… But all that had become an old misfortune buried in memory under the real vast Catastrophe that he and his brother had escaped, like miraculés a personal conflagration. In matters of the heart, about which Immerman admitted to know very little, he knew at least that no one could be faulted. The feeling was there or not, or it was there to the degree that it was there, no one owed any measure of it to anyone, no sense of owing could engender it, no one could claim it like a check to be cashed.
Yet, having come to this strange country impetuously, through a surprising gesture of defensive pride, a sign even of self-love, he could not conceive of being here without visiting his brother. Some feeling was there in some degree, but the feeling was vague to him, and what new definition it might take he could only know— Immerman was no sentimentalist— after he had seen Helmut again. In the meantime, he was fed up with the major city of his brother’s chosen fatherland. He finished a lunch of white bread, potatoes in gravy and tough liver at a sidewalk restaurant, tasted a cup of coffee made with brackish water and decided to take to the road immediately.
He felt good when he reached the desert. He rolled down the window of his air-conditioned rented Dodge and breathed in the hot dry empty afternoon. It felt healthy, like a sauna. His chest expanded and it seemed that his heart was unbinding itself. Then he rolled up his window and began to drive faster. There were rhythms in the sand that made him think of music. He liked the vastness, the subtle abundance for the eye. Road signs gave place names, but there was only sand. As if life, which teemed in Tel Aviv, had staked only a symbolic presence here, as if a lord had posted a wild preserve where he never came to hunt. But Immerman knew from what he’d read that someday all this would be green with cash crops and bustling with geometrically-laid-out dwellings, the way he expected Avigdor’s kibbutz to be.
The sand changed near the Dead Sea. Strange crusts like frost began to appear, then sticky puddles and rivulets. Finally, the flat, gray expanse of thick water itself. Immerman saw a faded wooden bathhouse. He stopped his car and fished his bathing suit out of his valise. Inside the bitter-smelling shack, there was a row of worn blue lockers.
The woman who gave him his key sat down a few feet away on a bench where two other women were sitting. When he came out of the locker room, the three of them in one-piece bathing suits were eating cherries from a paper bag and their mouths were red with the juice. All three gave the stranger a similar gaze, accomplished with almost the same slow movement of the head, as if they were each a camera slowly panning the movements of an insect on a wall. They were women in their forties or fifties, heavy-fleshed and dark. He thought he saw a prurient flicker in their eyes as he went by them in his trim trunks, on his way to the water.
He waded for a long time under the glaring sun and the water did not get deeper than his knees. Water? A strange thick, slippery liquid. Finally, he just plunged. He tumbled onto his back. The Dead Sea pushed back at him. He experimented with a few strokes. It was ghastly but he had done it. He had wanted to do it and he had done it, been there. He hurried back to shore with the water drying into an itch on his back. Well it was an experience: he had entered the Dead Sea. Looking up, he saw that the three women had come out to watch him, silently. As he passed them again, they smiled at each other, and one of them gave him a glance that was this time, he thought, an unequivocal come-on. He kept walking while behind his back they broke the silence with titters and low-spoken words of demotic Hebrew that he could not understand.
Back in the car, Immerman’s memory of those strange muses on the shore with cherry-smeared mouths turned into an image of their sitting on toilet bowls. It was a scene that in various versions involving different women invaded his imagination often. He was ashamed of it, but had no defense against it.
Night had fallen when Immerman approached the kibbutz at Y—. From far, he could make out two high watchtowers looming over the sands. He came to a gate in a chain fence; a heavy man in shorts was standing on the other side, peering into the night toward the headlights of Immerman’s car. He heard a rough voice.
“Rudi—is that you, Rudi?”
“Helmut!” Immerman shouted enclosed in his air conditioned air. “Helmut!” And then suddenly aware that he might be no more audible than a guppy, he cranked down his window, stuck out his head, and spying at that same moment a metal object in his brother’s hand, he had just enough presence of mind to convert his shock into a joke:
“Don’t shoot me please, Helmut— Avigdor,” he cried. “I promise I’ll write more often.”
They embraced. A rush of sentiment overcame Immerman. Helmut had a belly, had thin gray hair, was old, and he, himself, was no youngster, and the years of trivial, faint attachment that had been a guise for detachment were lost years—years when each had given the other nothing, had got nothing from the other, when nothing had flowed between them. Immerman suddenly perceived their separation as something like a death—a loss worse than a loss of possibilities, a loss like a true loss of human life; standing there with his arm around his heavy brother, Immerman saw the two of them in his mind as mourners at a grave. And the real dead one was still another presence, a ghost hovering beside them. Their father. Helmut’s estrangement had begun with a sharp quarrel between Helmut and their father. Helmut had become a Zionist midway through Gymnasium and had turned his back on studying to be the lawyer who would inherit the rich practice that their father, one of the great Hamburg maritime lawyers, was preparing for him. “For what reason? To pick oranges with a lot of Polacks in Palestine?” was how Immermann père, already generally embittered by having lost his wife when she gave birth to Rudi, had put it. Who would follow in his footsteps, who would keep his hand in for him in the affairs of the port, when he’d be a very old man? His younger son was hopelessly uninterested in anything but music. After Helmut had boarded a ship for Haifa, Manfred Immermann went into mourning, refused to write. “He’ll be back in a year,” he would say to Helga, his parlor maid, his closest companion in the house, since Rudi did most of his communication with a piano. “The weather is very different from what we have at home.” That kind of talk went on for years. Then Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor and Manfred Immermann had other reasons to grieve and worry.
Avigdor led the way across a darkened open space, a sort of campus, toward one of the two-storey concrete buildings at the other end. On the second floor Mrs. Sharel was waiting for them in a room like a motel room. There was food on a table.
Immerman kissed his brother’s wife. They kissed each other on both cheeks–– two strangers, conventionally related, with skins strange to each, full of awkwardness. Lea Sharel was a thin woman approaching sixty— thin, like the svelte Rudi, but her thinness had a drawn quality that suggested that she was burning her calories at the ends of her nerves. Her hospitality had the edge of a reproach: “I thought I had better bring something back to the room,” she said, “when you didn’t arrive for supper.” Immerman’s little swim had held him up. Supper hour here, he realized, was the time well before dinner when in Paris he would go out for a glass of white wine or pour himself a scotch and soda. Like the men, Lea spoke in English. Avigdor had immediately made it clear once again that English would be the language in which he and his brother would grope toward each other, face to face. He had answered Rudi’s German with English and Immerman had followed without hesitating into the no-man’s-land.
Like me, like me, Lea seemed to be trying to say as she urged Immerman to eat the food she had got together especially from the stores of the refectory. Immerman was not very hungry. Avigdor had already settled into eating a second supper. “Eat, Rudi,” he urged. “Do you remember old Nanny and her threats? ‘Eat before you get eaten!’” Immerman watched his brother with the fascination of a tourist as Avigdor smeared a variety of Middle Eastern dips onto slices of white bread.
“Tomorrow,” Lea announced, “we will eat with everyone else.” And then, half to herself, she said, “Nobody noticed how nicely I laid everything out.”
The room they ate in was the Sharels' living quarters. Behind curtains, there was a bed. There was the table on which Lea had set out the food and paper napkins, and some Swedish-Modern style blond wood chairs. They had had three rooms, Avigdor explained, when the children had grown too old for their communal dormitory. Now that the children were off on their own, they were back to one room. Who needed a palace?
The room in a neighboring building that Avigdor showed Rudi was almost identical to the one they’d left. But someone had embellished the white walls with travel posters: San Francisco, Paris, the Basque Country of Spain.
Strictly reserved for guests, Avigdor explained with a note of pride. Immerman opened his suitcase. Lea was suddenly on the threshold.
“Is it all right, Rudi?” she asked.
“Far nicer than the room I had in Tel Aviv.”
Her eyes fell on one of Immerman’s silk jacquard Hermès neckties. “What a beautiful tie,” she said, as she picked it up and held it against her husband’s polo shirt. “Sometimes, it’s a pity, Avigdor, that you don’t wear ties.” Oddly, as if to add a note of drama, she darted out of the room. They heard her “goodnight” from the hall. Avigdor lingered beside his younger brother.
“You’re tired?” he asked.
“Not at all.”
“Then tell me everything.”
“Everything,” Immerman said, and shrugged. Avigdor was opening a glass door that led onto a little balcony. He stepped out and Immerman followed him. The sky was full of stars. “It looks like it won’t rain,” Immerman tried to joke.
“We make our own,” Avigdor replied. “We irrigate.”
“I don’t know what to begin to tell you,” Immerman sighed.
“About Paris. Do you make a living?”
“I have plenty of students, even talented ones. And once a month Willy Brandt sends me a check.”
Avigdor said something in Hebrew that sounded like a curse.
“If only Papa had listened,” he said. “The handwriting was on the wall. On all the walls. Imagine a Jew in Germany and he hasn’t packed his bags in 1940? What did he say to you when you went to France in ’38?”
Immerman smiled bitterly. “‘You’ll be back,’ he said.” He shrugged and his shrug turned into a sort of shiver. “Hamburg was his city, Helmut, what did you expect? He was born there, his great-great-grandfather was born there. We owned a piece of it. It would have killed him to leave.”
Immerman realized the absurdity of his last sentence. Avigdor imitated the wraith of a laugh.
“No it’s true, even if they killed him for staying.”
They kill you everywhere. One day or another,” Avigdor insisted, “they’ll try to kill us everywhere. Only they’re not going to kill this country, you see.”
Immerman held his tongue as he tilted his head toward a strange constellation of stars.
“Before the war, they were sending rockets over here. It affected Lea very badly. She holds in a lot of fright.”
Avigdor glanced at his brother to see whether his look would say that he’d notice a strangeness in his wife. “She’s from the city. She’s not used to being out in the open.”
Immerman gave a nod of comprehension that said nothing.
“What about the French?” Avigdor provoked. “Pétain. Laval. They were as bad as Hitler.”
“A Frenchman saved my life, Avigdor. He hid me in an attic for four years.”
“I can imagine what the rent was like.”
Immerman let that go by. “All I could think about for four years was how scared I was. I think the fright must have killed some of my brain cells somewhere.”
“So you lost an ‘n’ in France, eh Rudi?”
“Right after the war… I didn’t want to seem too German.”
Their eyes met, and at last their minds too, as they both began the same dry laugh at the same time.
Immerman awoke before dawn. A hot wind was fluttering the red folkloric-print curtain. The air conditioner stammered complaints about the open window. He stepped onto the balcony in his dressing gown and looked up at the stars. Yes, they seemed different from the ones over Paris, but he wasn’t sure, perhaps they were simply more clear. He had forgotten how the world moved in relation to the universe. Forgot his Gymnasium astronomy, and astrology was humbug that had never interested him. He was sure it could never reveal anything about his future, in any case. His life was settled, was what it was now and what it would be. And he wasn’t sure he had the energy to welcome any great changes, even if they took the form of good fortune.
He stretched and his muscles ached lightly with fatigue. He decided to go back to bed. Last night, just as he had tried to fall asleep, he was kept up by the sound of piano music: someone playing Chopin’s First Ballade, over and over. The piano was out of tune, but the hands, amateur as they obviously were, didn’t lack sensitivity. They had the theme right, the melancholy paradigm of a question that Chopin had composed on leaving Poland and that went without an answer, a true resolution— the question followed only by improvisations when the piece was finished six years later in Switzerland. It was a tour de force of improvisations— which the hands Immerman had heard had managed creditably. The theme was attacked evenly, with sobriety, as Immerman himself would have done it, and not with the too heavy injection of drama one heard so often. It was at the beginning of the end that the player kept losing hold. He, or probably she—because it was from Immerman’s experience a female sort of fault—couldn’t achieve both the cleanness and the loudness at last necessary, and the crucial transitional chord, the return to G Minor, was marred crucially at each try by a flutter of false notes. Half asleep, finally, Immerman had wondered whether he was indeed listening to a real piano or simply a memory of some lesson he’d given and forgotten until now. Real music, or an echo his mind had pent up until finally setting it free in the desert?
Immerman ate an Israeli breakfast and on the way back from the refectory it began to tell on him. Radishes, onions, peppers, tomatoes and fresh cheese: his stomach was not equipped to handle all that at eight in the morning, nor was he used to taking the several cups of coffee that he always needed to become awake with someone else present, let alone thirty strangers sitting at a long table. The refectory was the kind of room he had never been in but had sometimes glimpsed at, passing office buildings in Paris. This one was more Spartan and at the same time less clean. Immerman was a fastidious man, but the refectory, he assured himself, was unclean by far more indulgent standards than his own. He had seen a large window completely clouded with grease. Beneath it, he’d noticed a shabby piano.
Avigdor was leading him to the palm groves. His brother had the morning off to show him how everything functioned. This month, he explained, he was working among the date palms, next month it was oranges for him, and afterwards the onerous refectory. Everyone except those with inimitable skills—mechanics, electricians, carpenters, teachers— rotated their functions. There had been a vote taken on this long ago, by another generation, and most people still believed that rotation made the time pass more pleasantly.
“It’s only with the refectory that we’ve got a problem. Nobody wants to clean up for the crew that came before, nobody wants to leave the place cleaner than he found it. It’s a vicious circle. What can you do, Rudi? Even in a kibbutz, human nature is human nature.”
Avigdor showed his brother the palms heavy with clusters of reddish dates. He led him to the shed where the dates were gassed after they were picked.
“How can you eat them?”
“In two weeks, they’re okay. You’ve got to kill the insect eggs, Rudi.”
They went through the orange groves where showers of water were mitigating the dry heat. They visited the dairy building, where cows stood with their necks in long rows of halters.
“Where do they graze?”
“Right here. We bring them everything.”
“What’s out there for them? The heat?”
Avigdor conceded that the system of indoor grazing did not always work perfectly. Sometimes the milk ran short. To keep its commitment to the distributor, the kibbutz would blend in dry milk purchased in large sacks from Northern Ireland.
“Why doesn’t the kibbutz make butter?” Rudi asked. He had noticed that there was margarine on the table that morning.
“Not efficient for us. We figured out the cost.”
“Not even to eat on the spot?”
“Rudi, understand that this is not an idyllic little Bauernhof in the Black Forest. This is an institution devoted to supporting three hundred people.”
Immerman did not reply. By Helmut’s tone he knew that his question had offended.
“It all seems to run like a charm,” he offered, finally, as they headed back to Immerman’s room.
“It runs like a real kibbutz. Nowadays everything calls itself a kibbutz. You have what I consider Disneyland kibbutzim. The American ladies with the blue hair arrive, they show them around; they give them a room. Like a hotel. They go home saying they stayed on a kibbutz. They rave about the breakfast.”
“It was really very good this morning,” Immerman interjected, repentantly.
Avigdor went on: “There are kibbutzim engaged in light industry now. They hire Druzes. Rudi, this isn’t what Americans could compare to a country club. But we don’t have our darkies bending in the fields either. This is a real kibbutz. Nobody makes anything off anybody else’s labor. Everybody puts in what he can, and nobody owns anything, not even the shirt on his back. Even the radio in my room belongs to everybody.”
He seemed to realize that his voice had grown defensive. Bitter perhaps. He shifted course and brightened: “Listen, there’s a piano, Rudi. Not a concert instrument. But there’s a woman here who’s not too bad when she plays it.”
“Helmut, are you happy?” Immerman blurted.
“Rudi, except when I’m a sentry, I haven’t a care.”
Immerman wanted to hear about his brother’s children. As they sat in the cool of his darkened room, Avigdor explained that Moshe, who had flown in the historic mission over the Egyptian airfields in 1967, was now a middle-level manager with El Al. Hannah had a business. “Prêt-à-porter,” he said, “You, of course, know about that. Fancy clothing like in France. She designs, she is very creative. She is living with a smart Moroccan Sephard in Old Jaffa. He runs the business end. Our Eli is a lawyer in the port of Haifa.”
“Atavism,” Immerman joked.
Avigdor barely smiled. “This country was born on a kibbutz,” he said, “but countries, like people, grow up different from what they were. What’s good for one person may not be good for another.”
“So you don’t feel rejected, Helmut?”
Avigdor fled the matter with a generality. “Rudi, the important thing is to have children. To have a future. To feel part of the human race.”
“Helmut,” he could not keep himself from asking, “are you proud of that affiliation?”
“You got another?”
Immerman felt a provocation.
“Let’s eat,” Avigdor said.
Lea was at their table for lunch. She had almost nothing to say and she left them early to get back to her kindergarten. Avigdor and Rudi lingered over tea in little glasses, Middle Eastern style.
“Lea was very anxious to hear something about Paris,” Avigdor chided.
Immerman sipped his tea.
“What do you have there?” Avigdor persisted.
“I’ve made a little life.”
“You give a lot of concerts? I don’t see the European papers.”
“Teach. I have not given a concert since before the war, Avigdor. I was just starting out then. And then four years without touching a keyboard. Why do you think they give me a pension? Reparations. ‘Permanently impaired in the pursuit of my profession’.”
Avigdor frowned into his tea glass. He took a moment before looking up again at his brother. Immerman watched his spoon squeeze the tea bag against the side of the glass. Dark tea poured out like blood. Avigdor reached across the table and put his arm on his brother’s shoulder. “Do you have anyone, a woman?” he asked.
“Women,” Immerman lied, as jubilantly as he could.
What should he have truly said? To a brother who had become a stranger? And who seemed to him now more foreign than ever. What private truths was he obliged to deliver? Immerman had been twelve when his brother, the Zionist, had left home, Helmut eighteen. They hadn’t even grown up together. They had never been close, he recalled, with a strange sense of satisfaction.
A moment after they had separated over the empty tea glasses, Avigdor had turned and called out a reply: “Many women are no women, Rudi. A man without a woman at his side is divorced from real life.”
What then should he have said? That at fifty-two he was happy not to need a woman too often and that when he did he made a quick choice from the flock in a street adjoining the Madeleine, and, depending on the skill with which she practiced her profession, he had various degrees of successful sex. That maybe three or four times he had met a real woman from whom he had felt a certain current pass, had even felt it on his skin. But nothing had ever gone further. Ever. He was who he was. Such was his place in this world. Maybe it was lack of courage that kept him from pursuing the contact, maybe she, in each case, hadn’t felt the current; it could have been of his invention. And maybe he was just as well off in the end anyhow. Everyone keeps getting divorced. After a while, remembering those women he had met briefly— at a dinner from which they went home separately or at a cocktail party—he would imagine them sitting on a toilet and that would kill his lingering regret. Sitting on a toilet, something they inevitably had to do—
—“Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits!” And the Reverend Dr. Swift died as he predicted, and in many other ways crazy. Died “at the top”. No Celia for him. There was still God—
The memory of that line coming back so easily was a compliment to his intelligence, but it didn’t serve to absolve him of his fixation.
And could he have unburdened that craziness on Avigdor Sharel? Helmut, the only woman I could marry is a woman who does not ever use the toilet. And he could hear his brother answering seriously, with his Israeli self-assurance: “That’s it, Rudi, that’s the heart of your problem. You spend your lessons driving people toward perfection. But perfection is not of this world.”
Immerman bit his lip, perceiving the enormousness of that truism.
There was a woman in Rudi’s room when he went back to have a nap. It was Lea. “I checked a stereo out of Supplies for you.” She had propped a large portable record player on his dresser. “And some records. So you won’t miss hearing music.”
He took her rough hands in his and thanked her.
“Mozart, it’s all right?” she asked. “Who can not like Mozart? Do you have any wash?”
He told her again that she was thoughtful and handed her a pile of soiled clothes he had balled together in a shirt at the bottom of his closet. She ran her hand over the Hermès tie he had hung up on the inside of the closet door.
“Avigdor never wears a tie,” she said. “But maybe Eli, when he goes on trips…”
“Lea, please take it. Please.”
Immerman was suddenly mortified to realize that he had not thought of arriving with gifts. When his laundry came back with one of his Charvet shirts missing, he did not say a word.
That evening before sleep Immerman listened to Mozart’s Sonata in A Minor. The music of the first movement reached his ears like a series of wonderful little packages, like brilliantly wrapped presents being brought to a king by a procession of nobles. He felt wonderful and he realized that it was the first time he had felt any good at all since he’d come to Israel. It barely mattered that the record was worn. The magic lasted until the phonograph was challenged by the sound of a piano. Just the start of the coda this time: hands aware that they were wrong, groping over and over, trying to get right the beginning of Chopin’s cry of regret.
Lea came to his room again before breakfast. Was everything all right? She held her hands in front of her with a nervous, beseeching gesture. Perfect, better, he insisted, than a luxury hotel in Tel Aviv.
“But Tel Aviv isn’t Paris.”
“I loved the records you brought me, Lea.”
“I’ll get you more when you’re ready. Nowadays you can only check out one album at a time.”
A look of guilt passed over her face. Immerman guessed in an instant that she feared he would bring up the missing shirt.
“Were you born on a kibbutz?” he continued.
“I am from Tel Aviv. My father drove a bus. It wasn’t so great.”
“You’re happier here.”
“It’s one big family here. Sometimes I still can’t get used— I was an only child.”
“I like cities,” he said. “I used to love the life we had in Hamburg when Avigdor was still in gymnasium.”
“Rudi,” she blurted, “he doesn’t even open a book anymore. He goes to the TV room in the evening and falls asleep in a chair.”
“He works hard for a man his age.”
“He’s always setting the example!”
She twisted her fingers, and turned away her gaze. “Rudi,” she said, “it’s like everyone’s his brother or sister. And me too. He talks to me the way he talks to anybody else.”
Immerman was silent. Silence seemed to fill the room with the impact of a shrill noise until Lea spoke again.
“I noticed, Rudi, you brought a lot of underclothes. Avigdor likes to work in a T-shirt.”
“Take,” he said, clearing his throat, “take whatever you think my brother needs, Lea.”
That evening when Immerman heard the Ballade again, he rose from his bed and dressed. Outside it was clear to him that the music was coming from the refectory. He recalled the sad piano. He crossed the star-lit campus quickly. Lea had left him with a warning not to go out alone, unarmed, at night, that there was still a danger of Fedayeen from across the border infiltrating past the sentries. He didn’t know whether to trust everything she said. Soon, in any case, he entered the long refectory. There was silence now. Just one bank of lights remained on, yellowing the grease-filmed glass. A woman with long blond hair was seated with her brow pressing the keyboard cover.
Immerman coughed into his fist and she swiveled around on her stool. In the pale light he saw a handsome woman somewhat younger than him, with the narrow eyes Immerman associated with a Khazar strain in Eastern European Jews.
“I beg your pardon,” he said. “I’m a teacher… It’s the way you’re holding your right hand at the beginning of the last part, the coda, if you want to call it that, that’s causing all the trouble. I can show you something.”
He took her hand in his and held her fingers over the keys.
And that was how Immerman started to fall in love.
He told her several things that first night that had nothing to do with the feeling her hand created in his. He showed her how her thumb, placed advantageously to hit the white key was cheating her little finger out of the right position to shift from its black note to its white. “You’re hitting your first sixths in E Natural instead of E Flat,” he said. He mimicked her mistake and then took her hand again and placed it squarely opposite the keys. He showed her where her hand had been too low and sprawled, so that she’d failed to raise the volume that the weight of her arm would have provided. “More intensity!” Immerman insisted, each time she tried again. “More intensity!” He took her warm arm in both his hands and held it up to show where it should be. And then he showed her how with everything else, her wrist had to be as limber “as a rattlesnake”: to hit her sixteenths fast and cleanly. He charted her whole way over that difficult passage. He led her through. But she could not get all of it right at once.
She thanked him but she didn’t think she would ever get it right, and it didn’t matter, she insisted, she just played to relax. She was working on the kitchen squad these days. Every night, after she had finished scouring the big pots and gone home to shower, she would return to the piano to loosen the muscles that got knotted when she stooped over the sink in the kitchen. She played simply to relax, she insisted again. The piano, as he could see, wasn’t much anyway, just there for pounding out horas on festive evenings.
He brushed all that aside. “It’s because you’re tired,” he said “but you’ll get it.” Her name was Lydia. “Come after work tomorrow, Lydia,” he said, “and we’ll try some more.”
She tried the next evening and she was better. “More intensity,” Immerman still prodded, though he believed that even her phrasing elsewhere in the piece was improving, acquiring a certain sureness he thought of as lyric discipline. The way she responded so quickly to his influence created a confused excitement in him and spurred him all the more to make another appointment. In his mind it had, already, the aura of an assignation.
“I can’t pay you,” she said, when she came the next evening. She blushed. I’m embarrassed, but no one has any money to speak of here.”
“How can you talk about money and Chopin at the same time?” he answered heatedly. He had come dressed to look as gallant as he could, in tropical tan, with a paisley cravat covering the loose skin at his throat. Her reaction pained him. He would have called it clumsy at a different time. But she agreed to another lesson the next evening. Another. Another. Another. For an entire week, Chopin resounded with increasing violence over the darkened kibbutz.
Of course he could not tell her he thought he’d fallen in love with her. He saw over and over her face and blond head in his mind. Her name was plain Lydia, but to himself he called her Lorelei. Immerman was not sure of what it was for him to be in love, but it seemed to him that it must be what had happened now: an irrational first-sight stroke of need. Getting to know someone and loving her because of it seemed to him out of the question— all his life whatever familiarity he’d known had simply made him more and more aware of the other’s otherness. So deep down he already knew that if intimacy would ever come into his life, it would not come through familiarity but only from the sudden miraculous sense of having been stricken that he felt now.
He was not entirely happy with his need. He tried to tell himself it was an illusion, an abnormal emotion brought on by his having plunged into a totally alien environment, a distorted form of self-protection. He tried to take issue with the First Ballade, blamed it for the “obscure almost unhealthy excitement” that Tolstoy had found Beethoven’s late sonatas capable of engendering. The same dangerously “shapeless improvisations” on the part of Chopin. But he knew that was nonsense. Every night, after their appointment, he would lie in his room repeating Mozart on the stereo, using it as she would, for calm— corrupting its independent worth, but he could not get calm all the same. Then he would close his eyes and try to put his Lorelei on a toilet bowl. But this time it wouldn’t work. He was sure he was in love. What should he do next?
He would mope all day waiting for evening to come. He would go out and look at the cows ruminating in their dark stalls. He would walk around the orange groves and watch the dates being brought in to be gassed. All day long his stomach felt queasy.
Lea came to get the stereo back. Someone was waiting for it.
“Lea,” he said giddily. “I brought too many socks.” He was pleased by the way she plunged in to gather some from his chest of drawers; he had a peculiar feeling that depriving himself of something would be like a salubrious bloodletting. The other day it had given him an inexplicable pleasure to look at his t-shirt forced onto his brother’s stout torso. With the socks and the stereo gone, his stomach felt much the same, though. And then something like a knife went through it when Lea popped in her head again to say,
“There are other guests scheduled for the room, Rudi. They’re asking in the office about your return.”
That evening they were celebrating Succot, the feast that commemorates the first encampment of the Exodus. The refectory was decorated with palm leaves. There was roast beef. After dinner the chairs were piled against the walls. A burly, hairy-legged man in shorts went up to the piano and began to pound out a hora and the floor filled with dancers. Immerman had not danced since he’d been sent to waltz classes at the age of fourteen. He stood by the wall and watched the world of Y— dance by in a circle. All he could hope for was that he would not see his Lorelei with her arms entwined in the arms of two men. He closed his eyes. But when he opened them she was still nowhere in sight. The dances followed one another in furious monotony. The air became quite gamey. And then everyone went back to the rear of the room where some chairs had been left in place. There was lemonade in little plastic sacks on a table and people were helping themselves to it, when a man began to rap on the bottom of his chair with his fist. He stood up.
“I should like to bring to everyone’s attention,” the man said loudly in English, “the guest appearance in our midst of a great Parisian artist. I mean the pianist Rodolphe Immerman.”
God, what might Lea have told about him? There was some hesitant, nervous applause, as if the people felt they were supposed to be aware of who Immerman was and of the special treat his presence meant. Immerman, in his corner, felt their gazes like Saint Sebastian the arrows of his martyrdom. He flushed so hard it seemed to him that his blood might flow out of the pores of his face.
“I wonder,” the man went on, “if we could prevail on Monsieur Immerman to break up his vacation for only a few minutes and treat our ears to some wonderful music.”
Immerman stood up. Wounded, dumb for the moment, red-faced, not knowing with what words he was going to demur. Then he saw Lydia. She was beaming a look of complicity straight at him, as she raised her hands in front of her face and began to applaud.
There was an exquisite moment when he heard only her hands, then the room filled with the sound of clapping. He wanted to sit down, then he wanted to run out into the dark desert, get shot, be anywhere else, until he caught her eye again. He felt his longing click on. He felt almost nothing else as he headed for the piano, where he sat down. His fingers seemed to have decided for themselves as he began Schubert’s Lied der Mignon, after Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.
The tuning was still hopeless, his hands were stiffer than he’d dare believe, but Immerman barely heard his own music. His eyes were fixed on Lydia while his mind sang the words. Allein und abgetrennt von aller Freude— alone I languish— he heard, over and over.
When Immerman had finished his first public performance since before the War, the acclaim was thunderous. People stamped their feet, as in Salzburg. There were calls of “Encore” but Immerman rushed toward the lemonade. If he had walked from the Dead Sea to the kibbutz he could not have been more thirsty. The man who had asked him to perform stood waiting beside the table, holding something wooden, but Immerman did not see Lydia anywhere.
“I’m Lydia’s husband,” the man said. “She tells me she has never met anyone like you in her life. That you have magic in your hands. And you’ve given her a little bit of your magic. That’s precious. I don’t know how we can thank you for something like that.”
Where was she? Immerman could not bring himself to ask. His head was spinning. The man did not say why she’d disappeared. He held out the object he had been clasping. “Before the War,” he said, “I was a cabinet maker’s boy apprentice in Łódź. I want you to have something that means something to us. I made this to please my master, who went up a smokestack, God rest his soul.”
It was a little box inlaid with several kinds of wood, a container for jewels perhaps, mementos, anything precious. Immerman caught its perfection in a glance and felt the cool smoothness of its lacquered finish, pairing that sensation with the icy feeling in his stomach as his eyes raced around the room, but Lydia was nowhere in sight. For a mad instant he believed that she might have slipped a message for him in her husband’s gift. He turned away from the man after faintly murmured thanks and, back in his corner, he pulled open the box. But it was empty except for the odor of rich wood.
Immerman went to see Lea during the rest period at her kindergarten, while the children were lying in their underground dormitory, which was also intended as their shelter against rockets. He asked her to come to his room. He had emptied his drawers and the closet onto the bed.
“It makes no sense,” he said. “I have everything in Paris and you can’t get anything here. It makes no sense for me to carry all this back with me.”
His sister-in-law threw her arms around him. She kissed his hands and wept.
Avigdor wept too as Immerman said goodbye below the sentry post. They embraced and Immerman became aware again of his brother’s alien girth. The years had turned to flesh; the flesh had constructed a person other than the one he had known long ago. He knew that now as well as his own name. A feeling close to guilt drove him to make a sudden gesture. He handed Lea his nearly empty Hermès suitcase.
“Please,” he said, “use it for your trip to Paris.”
He held out his empty hands toward them. “God bless,” he said, finding in the imprecision of the English expression, his imprecise goodbye. “God bless.”
He didn’t go to Jerusalem.
He forgot about the spiteful souvenir for what’s her name at the consulate.
At Lod, while the tourists sweated through the assiduous security searches, Immerman swept by, empty-handed, light as a bird on the wing. The El Al flight back to Paris was uneventful. He had got accustomed to that kind of food.
In Paris, one of the first things he did was to go to his bank safe deposit box. Immerman was not a man of wealth, but before he’d left he’d put a few things of personal value out of reach of burglars. Paris was becoming as bad as New York for break-ins.
A young girl from behind the bank counter led him down into the basement, opened a barred door and locked it behind him. It was cool and clean down there among the rows of shining little numbered cells in which the French hid wealth from the tax collector. Immerman breathed in a whiff of oiled metal. He opened his own box and got out an envelope full of old brown photographs, some rolled diplomas and a little purple velvet bag in which there were a set of phylacteries and a Torah that had belonged to his father. A decent neighbor had undertaken to hide them, just before the police had come. To the neighbor, Manfred Immermann had also entrusted the Iron Cross that he had won when he’d charged up Monte Mateiur behind Oberleutnant Rommel, a hundred against seven thousand Italians. That too had come back to Rudi after the second War.
Now Immerman could not keep back the memory of a street of brightly colored houses. White sails on the Alster. Blue water blotted the long row of gray steel lockers from his awareness. But as he closed his eyes, no specific moments poured back. No human company. The times were gone from his mind as if goods had been stolen from his vault. There was only the memory of a river and then a surge of painful emotion riding on a melody:
—Ich weiß nicht, was soll es bedeuten,
Das ich so traurig bin—
It wasn’t nostalgia; it wasn’t even the torture of old grief; he didn’t know what precise etiology it had, but it hurt all the more for its elusiveness. And so, as if to give a physical presence, an exact place in the world to his pain, Immerman squeezed hard the corners of his father’s cross.