One Woman, One Time
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Yoav Shutan-Goshen
Translated from Hebrew by Dalya Bilu and Ksenia Tserkovskaya
The two flies rode one another in a manner that left no room for doubt. They stuck to each other with such determination that it seemed they had merged into one huge insect with two heads. Even the gust of wind that came through the window did not stop them from pursuing their acts, but only blew them to another place in the living room without separating them.
On that quiet evening Ido wasn’t doing anything. He was simply sitting in an armchair and staring at the mail from work. Amnon asked him to prepare a statement of claim. Adva asked if he could send her an example of a written declaration in an alimony case. He turned off the phone and stared at the flies. He reached for the financial newspaper, rolled it onto a club, raised his arm, and then changed his mind. His conscience would not permit him to destroy the pair.
Why was he actually wasting his time on staring at two flies fucking? On the other hand, did he prefer reading emails from work? Perhaps he should take advantage of the spare time to do the laundry? Or fix the broken lamp in the bedroom? Or perhaps he should use the time to be with Nurit? After all, he came home early specially after they hadn’t seen each other for a week, so why didn’t he get up now and find a babysitter, so that they could go out to a nice restaurant or just take a walk in the neighborhood and chat? And what was she doing in the bedroom anyway?
‘Nur-Nur? Where are you?’ Ido called and put the phone down on the table.
And then she came into the living room. Came into the living room and stood in front of him. Stood in front of him and looked at him with hurt eyes. Looked at him with hurt eyes and started to cry.
Seeing someone cry could be very upsetting, especially when the person was a woman as happy and lively as Nurit. Ido leant down and tried to comfort her, but the weeping only got worse. He bent over her, patted her shoulder, gave her a gentle kiss, and the crying got even louder. He wondered if he should ask her what was wrong, but she was so distraught that he decided to wait a minute before talking. Perhaps it would be better to calm down first, take a steady breath. He went on embracing her, and when the crying only grew worse, he began to think that something terrible had happened.
‘Is Nofar okay?’ Ido ran a trainload of catastrophes through his head, beginning with head injuries, through a dread disease whose name he was afraid even to mention, continued to the compartment of road accidents, and skipped over kidnapping by terrorists. Nurit mumbled that the child was all right.
‘Did somebody die?’ He went through a list of all his loved ones in his head, his family members and Nurit’s, and tried to remember which of them were particularly old, sick or particularly prone to accidents and terror attacks.
Nurit shook her head.
She shook her head again.
That was not a small thing: the child was all right, no one was dead, and no one was injured. Whatever the trouble was, there was no doubt it could be fixed.
Ido went on calming Nurit, and actually himself as well, and tried to think about the whole thing logically. His wife was crying and upset, and there had to be a reason. He should try to get to the bottom of it. He repeated to Nurit that every problem had a solution, and in the end everything would be all right.
Did every problem really have a solution? Ido thought to himself that people often said this, but was it really true in the case of the traffic accidents, wars, and diseases lurking in every corner? In fact, it was doubtful if even ten percent of problems worked out for the best. It was possible that something had happened that had no solution and that would end badly. But what kind of trouble was Nurit in? Perhaps she had lost her job. Or she had been charged with negligence. Or she had lost the necklace she had been given as a girl by Grandma Miriam. Or perhaps someone had insulted her? Had she been attacked by a violent thug? What the hell was it?
Maybe a glass of water would cool things down a bit, stop the tears. Ido stopped stroking her for a moment and got up to go to the kitchen. Nurit’s crying calmed down a bit immediately after he stopped stroking her and stood up. There was no doubt about it. The sobs were quieter. By almost half a decibel. Strange. Nofar sometimes cried, and then a sudden change distracted her and she calmed down instantly. Was that what had happened here? Ido took a second step back. The sobbing went on dying down, and Nurit even stopped to blow her nose. Ido went on walking away and stopped at the living room doorway. Now there was no doubt that she had recovered her self-control. He turned back to Nurit and she started crying again. Very strange.
Ido tested the mechanism again. He moved away from her and she calmed down. Came closer and the crying started up again. He tested the hypothesis two more times. Definitely unusual. He had never come across crying that changed according to the distance between them before. High tide and low, with him the moon and her the sea.
Maybe she was actually crying for joy? Not very characteristic of Nurit, but perhaps she had been awarded a prize or received a particularly tempting proposal. No. Definitely not in the cards. This was agonized weeping. Perhaps she was pregnant and she didn’t feel ready for another child. But in fact they wanted another child very much. They had only recently discussed the matter, spoken about the biological clock, the fact that Nofar needed a sibling, about a gap of three years, and about Nurit going off the pill. No. It couldn’t possibly have happened so quickly. He didn’t like to admit it, but they hadn’t really done anything for the past two weeks. Maybe because of the work load, especially a week before she went abroad.
Maybe she wanted a divorce? No. That option was off the table. Ido and Nurit were in a really good period. Not that every morning they kissed passionately and fell on each other with animal lust, and not that they didn’t occasionally quarrel, but on the whole things were fine. Only two weeks ago, for instance, they had walked to the car parked up the street, and used all the hundred meters of pavement to hold hands. And a week ago, the night before she flew to the conference in Spain, she had left the child with her parents so they could have an evening together, and they had gone to see a movie in the mall, walked home, and chatted in bed until the clock demanded that they go to sleep. Before Nurit fell asleep she had sniffed the nape of his neck and whispered that she would miss his hugs. Not to forget the secret and basic sex that had perhaps been less frequent over the past year, but still filled them both with desire and left them warm and close. True that since Nurit had returned there was something a little strange about her behavior, but it was always like that when someone came home from abroad.
But Nurit was still crying, and Ido still didn’t know why. He had to find a theory that would explain it all, a solution to the mystery of the sobbing that increased whenever he came closer. A frown furrowed his brow, sown with the seeds of impatience. Could it be that she was crying because something in his presence made her feel uneasy with herself?
The concern in his expression turned into something else. Suspicion.
‘Okay, what’s up?’ he asked, and for first time a note of impatience stole into his voice.
Nurit did not reply. She stood up, paced up and down the living room, dried her tears, let them trickle down again, pushed her fingers restlessly through her curls, tried to say ‘Listen,’ succeeded in pronouncing only half a word, tried to speak again, and stopped herself again. She took a lungful of air, continued with a few quick, shallow breaths, stood still, looked at Ido, and then simply said it.
‘I slept with someone. I’m really sorry.’
She said that it was a mistake. That there was nothing she regretted more than this superfluous event. It had happened two days before, at that conference in Majorca. She didn’t really know him. Yes, he was also in the field, some Swiss dentist. She had
once read an article by him about particularly short implants, and they began to chat. Beyond that she had no idea who he was, and she didn’t know how it happened. Obviously it was completely insignificant. Fact, she couldn’t wait to tell him. No, there was no problem in their relationship. On the contrary, she loved Ido more than ever, and she knew that they had wonderful intimacy and sex (this is how she said it: ‘intimacy and sex’, in that order). There was no doubt that she would never see that Swiss doctor again, she had never done anything like that before, and she never would again. They had been together for over ten years, and this was really the only time, she swore. She hated herself so much; she didn’t know what to do now.
Ido looked at Nurit, trying with all her might to explain that it was completely meaningless. She repeated that she didn’t want anyone else, that she loved only him, and it was simply an urge that had overcome her, a kind of animal that had escaped from its cage.
He paced up and down the living room, his arms crossed, and listened in silence. Nurit went on to say that it was very hard to convince people that something had just suddenly happened, they always assumed that there was a reason hiding behind everything, but that really wasn’t true. She didn’t know how to explain it, she only knew that it happened, even to the best and most loving couples, and maybe she had just somehow landed up in the unavoidable statistics of the rate of unfaithfulness. ‘Please believe me.’
For a moment Ido thought of embracing her, simply out of habit.
He sat down and maintained his silence. He tried to shut his eyes, rubbed the bridge of his nose, and asked himself if it was possible that she was just pulling his leg. Could be. Why hadn’t he thought of that before? Soon it would be his birthday, so perhaps it was some kind of weird joke, a macabre overture to suddenly pouncing on him with an excited cry of ‘Just joking!’ and taking him off to Paris for the weekend. Perhaps in a minute friends would jump on him with cries of ‘Surprise!’ and hold a birthday party. True, the actual date was a month away, but maybe it didn’t work out, and they’d moved the event earlier. What exactly was she telling him? She had slept with another man? She had actually slept with him? Gone to bed with him naked and let him come into her?
Nurit burst into tears again and covered her face. Ido put his hands in his pockets and felt that his own face was growing hot and rigid. He made an effort to look as dignified as possible. Not despondent and slavish. He had to stand up straight, proud and strong. He got up and walked stiffly round the room with a tough, stern expression on his face, frowning and stamping angrily on the floor. Inside him a fierce fire began to burn, an unfamiliar feeling of anger, vengeance, something unexpected, dangerous, even satanic, not at all the mild, calm, compromising person, the devoted, loving family man he had always been. He forced himself to pull himself together and think clearly and logically. In fact he didn’t have a lot of options; he had to choose one of two possibilities. Either break off with her immediately, or somehow accept it. ‘Contain it,’ as Nurit liked to say.
Breaking up would be hard, but not impossible. He would find another apartment in the neighborhood with a room for Nofar. All in all he was still a handsome man. He had a well-paying job. He could still begin a new life. The real problem was the child. So small and tender, not even three years old. At night she would creep into his bed, ask where Mommy was and ask to go home. He would embrace her warmly, take advantage of the darkness to hide his face, try with all his might to protect her, console her for being born into a broken family. He would buy her every toy possible. He would be the best possible father. And they would have a strong, quiet connection, an alliance between father and daughter against the treacherous world. He would cut off all contact with Nurit. He would take care to finish it nicely, without legal disputes, just cool, formal relations. Tomorrow I have Nofar, just to remind you; the day after tomorrow when she’s with you, she has an appointment at the well baby clinic. Goodbye.
Could there be any other way? What, was he supposed to try to forget and carry on living with her as if nothing had happened? Ido tried to imagine himself sleeping in the same bed as Nurit, holding her hand walking down the street, even just sitting opposite her at the breakfast table. It was intolerable. Beyond the bounds of human consciousness.
He went on walking aimlessly round the living room. For a moment it seemed to him that he felt dizzy, and he might trip if he tried to take another step. He had to pull himself together. He mustn’t allow her to feel that she had succeeded in hurting him. She had to see before her a strong, detached man. Not to panic. The colder his stare, the more it would hurt her. The longer he kept silent, the more she would have to flog herself and the guiltier she would feel.
This would never have happened to Amnon, that was for sure. Amnon was a real man. Enough to look at the picture hanging in his office to know. There he sat on the deck of a yacht, bare-chested, looking proudly at the huge, menacing fish he had hooked. A predatory fish with a snout like a sword which had popped up from the depths and been caught on Amnon’s fishing rod. Yes, it would never have happened to Amnon. Brandishing that fish, that huge marlin with the frightening spear-like snout and the dorsal fin, Amnon made it clear to anyone looking at the picture which of them was the strongest. The swordfish may have devoured the innocent little fish swimming in the ocean, but Amnon was crueler than it was, and he would soon be chewing up the swordfish. What a pity Ido wasn’t Amnon. What a pity he didn’t have a tough, painful handshake or an impressive authoritative voice. How great it would be if his office too reeked powerfully of tobacco. A reek that announced to all and sundry that this was the office of a real man, that the person who sat here drank like a man, scratched his balls like a man, and if you dared to annoy him, he would dislocate your tailbone like a man.
Amnon would never have been taken off guard and allowed his wife to stray. If Amnon had even suspected his wife of fantasizing about another man, he would have grabbed hold of the poor chap, cut off his balls and made him eat them. But as already mentioned, Ido was not Amnon.
Maybe that was it. Maybe he wasn’t enough of a man for her. He was a loving, considerate partner. An equal. Cleaned the house, did the laundry, took Nofar to the kindergarten, and helped Nurit in the clinic. But he wasn’t a man. He was a pussycat. In the office, too. Timid in confronting the prosecution, trying to see both sides, explaining to his clients why they should consider negotiation, never shouting, always in a hurry to settle, avoiding confrontation, and closing most cases with a compromise. In short, a nice guy, affable, someone you could easily bend into touching his toes and turning himself into a perfect zero shape.
What had happened now was apparently a case in point. Although Nurit always said that she didn’t want to live with ‘some baboon’, she apparently did want a baboon, or at least not some silly little pet monkey. Apparently she felt bad kicking someone who was always so nice to her, but that was exactly the problem. She didn’t want soft and gentle. She wanted hard and strong. She was right. She was still young, and there was no reason for her to go on living with a man who barely succeeded in putting up a shelf worthy of the name in their daughter’s bedroom, after drilling for fifteen minutes with a wood bit cutter rather than a concrete bit; who inserted a dibble that was too narrow, hammered in the screw with clumsy blows that loosened the plaster, and landed up with a far from level shelf which earned from Nurit the response, ‘Good enough for toys.’
Ido maintained his silence. Nurit looked at him in alarm, and asked if he thought that he would ever be able to forgive her, and when he didn’t answer she turned pale, started crying again, and from time to time stole a glance at him to see how he was reacting. After a few minutes of his continuing silence, she came up to him and yelled, ”Say something already!”
But Ido said nothing. Not out of cruelty, or not only out of cruelty, but simply because he didn’t know what to say. The thoughts coiled round one another in his head in a whispering viper’s tangle, one hissing ”Revenge!” the second ”Divorce her!” and the third ‘Loser!’ And what with each viper pulling in a different direction, and none of them enjoying an advantage over the others, Ido remained frozen in his place, with no idea what to do or say.
‘What exactly happened there? Tell me everything,’ he said in the end, giving her a hard stare, to remind her that the right to remain silent did not exist here. Start talking, he demanded with his eyes, and felt that something in him wanted to see it, to know exactly what had happened and how it had happened. Even if it hurt, he had to know who it was, what he looked like, what he said to her before, and how he did it. ‘Who is he? Was he circumcised? Did you come? Did you enjoy it?’
‘If you must know, then he was some dentist, I already told you,’ she muttered, and when she saw that Ido was not satisfied with this reply, she added that he was a little shorter than Ido. He had a beard, if it made any difference. They started talking by chance. In the hotel room. The missionary position and that was it. It was all very spontaneous and quick, she really didn’t pay any attention to the details. She’d already said that she didn’t know how it happened. And no, she didn’t come. ‘And now please let it go.’
Ido listened with a suspicious ear. He felt that she was telling the truth, but there was still something missing. A collection of dry facts from which someone had filtered out the feelings. A gift of holiday treats from a neighbor that was full of only plain biscuits, which a mischievous child had left on the table after appropriating all the goodies for herself.
And he still couldn’t believe that she had really done it. It had never occurred to Ido that either of them would do such a thing. Obviously, he too had thought about it, and occasionally flirted, even if relatively rarely. For instance there was that time with Yael, Itai’s mother from Nofar’s kindergarten. They’d spoken about the silent battle waged in the kindergarten concerning which child was most often chosen to be the King of the Sabbath, went on to discuss the workload accumulated after the holidays, and in the end she’d mentioned her recent divorce and how liberated she felt. At the end of the conversation she’d asked Ido if he felt like coming round for coffee sometime, and paused for a moment before adding, ‘Bring Nofar along.’ That night he lay in bed without falling asleep, sank into carnal thoughts and desire, imagined her opposite him, and couldn’t fall asleep, until he got up and relieved himself. Not that Itai’s mother was particularly good-looking, but the mere thought that she was actually there, that she had invited him, made her into an option. There was nothing more attractive than an option, either on the stock market or in life. But he hadn’t done anything! With him the whole thing had remained in his imagination! Not that he was some paragon of morality, but he had red lines. He had never even contemplated cheating, and even now, after what Nurit had done, he had no intention, not even the shadow of an intention of –
Just a minute. Ido frowned and tried to calm down. He stood in the middle of the howling, biting pack of wolves running around in his head, and silenced them all in favor of one clear thought. Maybe now he did have an intention. He stacked the conclusions up methodically and made a quick table in his head: It happened because he wasn’t enough of a man, so if he wanted to deal with it, he had to do it like a man. He had to be vengeful, strong, assertive, determined, and every other adjective that had a whiff of an armpit more hairy than usual.
For the first time in a few minutes Ido succeeded in thinking clearly. There was no point in trying to ‘contain’ what had happened. On the other hand, it would be a pity to break everything up finally. Nurit had come and confessed, and she was begging him to believe her that she was sorry and that she loved him. He had to find a practical solution. Something that would allow them to carry on together, but would also ensure that it wouldn’t happen again. A solution that would compensate him for the severe injury, and somehow leave them together. Apparently there was only one way of getting there.
‘I know exactly what has to be done, and I have no intention of giving in here.’
Nurit looked at him slightly open-mouthed, her eyes fearful.
‘It was once only, right?’
Nurit nodded firmly.
‘And you’re sure that it isn’t some affair that might go on?’
She shook her head as energetically as her neck allowed.
‘And you’ll never see him again, right?’
Her eyes promised she wouldn’t.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she murmured through her tears.
‘So this is what we’ll do. I’ll go to bed with someone too, and we’ll be quits.’
Sixty seconds had passed between Nurit saying ‘I'm so sorry,’ and Ido replying ‘Then I’ll go to bed with someone too, and we’ll be quits.’ And sixty seconds can be extremely long. It is safe to say that these could be packed with sixty kilos of thought, could fill in the whole of six Russian novels, or fuel up a year’s worth of conversation with six taxi drivers.
Not all the thoughts were well organized or lucid, of course. For instance, between the seventeenth and the eighteenth seconds, right after a furious gunshot of reflection, Ido suddenly remembered that the ink in his printer was running low, and there was a small stationary shop near the office (he’d better write down the model of the printer; otherwise he’d buy a cartridge that wouldn’t fit). In the following seconds he returned to the subject in question, and asked himself what kind of a man was that son-of-a-bitch who had dared to touch his wife. All that Ido knew was that it was a Swiss dentist we were talking about. Swiss, so he is obviously called Wilhelm. Presumably he also looks like some gorgeous Norse god. Smooth blond hair, majestic as the feathers of a peacock, shoulders broad like an eagle’s wings, blue Aryan eyes, thick shapely moustache, and of course – how can it be otherwise – the penis of a war horse. This Wilhelm, who probably has already gratified dozens of women throughout his hell-raising life, meets Nurit wearing a light blazer, and asks, ‘May one invite the lovely lady for an afternoon schnapps?’
Granted, quite a corny pick-up line, but this is what Ido comes up with, and one does not judge the creative taste of a person in a moment of crisis.
And there is Nurit, staring dazedly at the revelation of this god, and the only thing she manages to force her mouth to take the shape of is a small embarrassed smile. Moses saw the Burning Bush and immediately took his shoes off. Nurit saw the Swiss god and immediately took off her knickers. But hold on with the knickers. After all this is a European lover we are dealing with here, the classic type, with the moustache and a gentle scent of cologne. Not someone who immediately rushes over to the bed. So back to the hotel bar where Wilhelm is just telling the barman off for the schnapps not being cool enough; he demands that another drink be poured immediately, and then offers the glass to Nurit.
‘Shall we take a walk?’ he asks, and instantly harvests her short nod of admiration. And here they are, strolling through the hotel gardens, among marble Renaissance statues. Suddenly Nurit is in a black evening dress, a seductive slit stretching along her leg, and oh how beautiful she is, her curly hair voluminous and glossy, her skin glowing with a golden tinge, and her breasts gift-wrapped into the low cut of her dress, as marvelous as her gentle shoulders. And here is that son of a gun walking by her side with his arm in hers, shamelessly lusting after the poor lamb, telling her she looks wonderful, and whispering French into her ear.
They are walking through that horribly European rose garden when he stops and kisses her gently on the neck. And now Wilhelm is suddenly wearing a black suit and a bow tie, and he is inviting Nurit for a waltz in a resplendent ballroom, under an enormous chandelier that is shooting bundles of glitter left, right and center. His bangs are combed to the side, and he is searching where to put his glass of schnapps; not finding a table or a dresser, he just pulls a drill, a dowel, and a borer out of his trousers, and in two seconds puts together a sound and sturdy sideboard that can hold not only the damned glass, but also Nurit’s weight, as the Swiss raises her by the waist and puts her slowly on that same solid and steady sideboard. Of course she is smiling at him, especially when the next moment he pulls out a joker card from between her breasts, asking her innocently: ‘Is this the card that you’ve chosen?’ and there is nothing left to Nurit but to nod and whisper ‘Take me.’
And he does. Of course he does. This Wilhelm, he is not a schmuck. There he goes, picking Nurit up with his arms of steel, walking into his suite and laying her onto a four-poster bed. He undresses her in a flash, in one swing of a hand tears off her clothes and beholds her shining nakedness, the flower that she is offering him. In a blink of an eye he takes his clothes off, too – ta-da! He is completely naked! And what an impressive thing he has down there, it is hard to believe one’s eyes: something enormous, an independent entity worthy of a word of its own, but with no name in Hebrew; maybe something from an African language, or an ancient dialect that will reflect its powerfulness, length, and gigantic size – say, yobogaandevo. Nurit stares in excitement – fair enough, she’s never seen a yobogaandevo in her life. Wilhelm is waving this yobogaandevo of his all over the place, gathers in the crops of Nurit’s adoration, and then approaches her determinedly, turns her over, picks her up, drags her, seats her down, spreads her legs, leans in, licks, is licked, kisses, is kissed, sucks, bends, raises, lowers, inserts, turns over, pierces, scratches, is scratched, hugs, is hugged, sticks, thrusts, and again rolls over, turns over, and again, ticking like a Swiss clock, scoops one boob, wraps a buttock, swallows, keep on going, and yes, and no, and gee! And harder – ooh! And slower, give it to me – and he does – and aah! And hoo, and everything at a dizzying pace, and for a second Wilhelm looks like Amnon, Ido’s boss who is in fact a predatory fish with a snout as sharp as a sword, and Wilhelm unashamedly pokes Nurit too. And again, Wilhelm, and this time he shoots the apple with his bow and arrow, and also slices through Ido’s head – what a messy cut, look where you’re shooting! Though, to be fair, his aim is perfect when he needs it, and this Wilhelm, this Eric the Red, this Karl the Great with a great penis, keeps on, and while at it he gives out a roaring battle cry, and Nurit groans and moans underneath, and immediately issues a mighty outcry of pleasure, screams as she has never screamed before in her life, shudders as if electrocuted, and the scream echoes around the whole room, and the curtains billow, the walls start to move, and only the sideboard remains standing, strong and stable. And suddenly the marble Corinthian column comes crashing down, and the chandelier swinging from the ceiling is swaying from side to side, and one of the bulbs glows with sudden lightning and immediately burns out, exactly like the lamp at the entrance to the flat that burnt out just like that, in a flash. It should have already been replaced ages ago, and actually near the office there is a store to buy bulbs like that, and while he is at it – the ink is running low in the printer, only he’d better write the exact model of the printer down, cause otherwise he is bound to buy a cartridge that wouldn’t fit, and that’ll be a shame. A damn shame.