Photo: Amit Sha’al
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Amir Ziv
Translated from Hebrew by Philip Simpson
It wasn’t until eleven o’clock at night that Sharon was in touch, calling from the public phone by the roadside. This was the first time they had spoken since the morning, and Giora didn’t even ask where she had disappeared to. “Giora, it’s lucky I’ve caught you, it’s raining here like crazy and the damn car has broken down on me, right at the end of the downhill stretch, just short of the bridge. I feel wrecked, and I’m dying to come home. You must come and pick me up from here,” she was speaking fast, as usual, but she sounded defeated. “What about Nira, is she asleep yet? Ask Buchmiller to listen for a few minutes, in case she wakes up and cries, and come and pick me up. I’m really sorry it’s worked out like this. I’m sorry about everything, Giora, but I’m already soaked to the skin, and this rain isn’t going to stop.”
“Have you tried pumping the gas twice?”
“Giora, I’m freezing to death, I’m begging you.”
“Wait for me beside the car.” He hung up.
Nira had been asleep for some time. Giora put on his sneakers again, still wet from the morning because he’d forgotten to put them under the heating pipes. Then he went into the kitchen, corked the cognac bottle, which he’d apparently brought with him to the kitchen this morning, and picked up the ring binder; a few of the poems he already knew by heart. He went to Sharon’s room, put the ring binder back in its place on the monstrosity of a bookshelf, put the bottle back in its place too, locked the cabinet and returned the key to the drawer. Then he returned to the kitchen, washed the coffee cup that was left on the table and threw into the bin the chewed remains of the bread. Aside from a short journey to collect Nira from nursery school, he’d hardly left the kitchen all day. Now he checked that the house was locked from inside, took a peek to make sure his daughter was still asleep, cuddling the red heart-shaped pillow, took the raincoat down from the hook and went out to the garage. There was a light in Jonathan Buchmiller’s house, but Giora preferred not to ask him to come in and babysit. He didn’t trust their taciturn neighbour, and despite the title of Professor of Archaeology that he took pride in, Giora didn’t know what he was really doing in his life. He never understood why Sharon insisted on staying in touch with him, and anyway a short foray to the main road and back shouldn’t take more than a quarter of an hour, twenty minutes at the most. And Nira never wakes up at night.
The van started at the first attempt, and he waited until the electric door was fully opened. Sticky rain was falling, and its ferocious drumming on the raised iron gate was deafening. The car lights groped their way forward and then turned left into the rain-soaked street. The big drops reflected a dazzling glare, and Giora dimmed the lights for a moment. Before moving away from the house he had had time for a quick glance to the right; it seemed to him that Buchmiller, as usual, was looking out his window. Nira will be all right, he assured himself, and carried on with the slow drive through the rivulets that swamped the road. What has she been doing till eleven at night, writing more poems? She certainly hadn’t stayed in the office that late, and according to her call she was coming from the direction of Tel Aviv. Since the morning more and more questions had been piling up in his head.
He drove out of the town and onto the main road. When he accelerated, the wipers struggled to cope with the force of the rain and the wind. The road was empty except for one car in front of him, moving very slowly, hugging the margin, and all its hazard lights flashing, unnerved by the storm. Giora drove behind it, trying to stabilize his thoughts until he despaired of this, stepped on the gas pedal, and overtook the car. In the viscous rain he lost eye contact for a moment with the dividing line between the lanes, and in a sudden panic he swung to the right, until he located the yellow marginal line and stuck close to it. After a while the yellow line began veering to the right, signalling the descent from the major road towards the bridge. Giora steered the van according to the signs, drove down the slip-road and turned a sharp left to the bridge over the highway. When he reached the centre of the bridge he stopped at the side, switched off the engine and dowsed the lights. Raindrops went on pounding the roof and the empty freight compartment of the van, and the echo of their onslaught was deafening. Giora took a deep breath, steadying the beating of his heart, which had been accelerated first by the dangerous overtaking manoeuvre and then by anticipation of what he was about to meet. It was only after his breathing eased that he looked down. At first he couldn’t see anything in the clinging dark, but a few seconds passed, and through the gloom and the screen of rain he could just make out a single car, stranded with lights flashing on the edge of the sharp bend of the highway.
Why didn’t she show him the poems? Giora already realised they hadn’t been written for him. Why in a youth magazine? Only someone who knows would find them there. So who knows? The joints of his fingers tightened on the wheel. Giora ran through his mind a list of the lawyers who worked in Sharon’s office. This was too easy a solution; he dismissed them one after the other. In his head he again reviewed the poems he had read since this morning. How had he not noticed until today that she was writing love poetry? Not that there was any love in her poems; would that this were love. Love he still had a chance of discovering. Her poems were about lost opportunities. Sharon wrote poems about her longing to be somewhere else.
Giora didn’t get out of the car. He stayed in the driver’s seat and went on looking down at the road below him. A few minutes passed and the lights of a car appeared, descending the steep incline. The car slowed close to the dark bend; apparently the driver was wondering if he could help the stranded motorist and in the end decided to carry on. Giora didn’t move from his place. As far as he could see, Sharon hadn’t got out of the car with the flickering lights. He didn’t get out either. About ten minutes later the rain started to weaken and finally stopped almost completely. It was only then that Giora opened the door of the car and stood by the balustrade of the bridge. A freezing gust of wind hit him, and he wrapped his body tightly in the raincoat. Another car slowed on the bend, and this one stopped beside Sharon’s car. Now he could identify her vehicle with certainty, the one he had helped her to start this morning. Through the rain he could see the driver, who had stopped, getting out of his car. Nothing seemed innocent to him now, and for a moment the thought occurred to him that this was the man who had read her poems, but then he saw Sharon opening her window and tapping her wrist with two fingers, indicating that in a few more minutes someone would be along to pick her up. The stranger apparently said something about the danger of stopping there, pointed to the upward slope and offered to take her there. Sharon raised her hand in a gesture of refusal and gratitude. The driver returned to his car and drove away. Giora still waited on the bridge.
Half an hour after she called him, Sharon opened the road-side door and stood beside the car, her back to the traffic and facing the bridge. Giora froze where he stood. It seemed she had recognised him, but she still held her ground, not moving a muscle, lit up intermittently by the flickering lights of her car. The silence was broken only by the siren of a car passing at high speed on the wet turning, dangerously close to her. Light rain was falling again, but neither he nor she returned to their vehicles. Giora’s sneakers were already drenched, and the chill came back to him – the chill that he had felt that morning on the lawn, before he read the poems. It all seemed such a long time ago, an era when he hadn’t yet known anything. For four solid hours he read and re-read the poems, absorbing more and more allusions to a whole lifetime that he had missed, examining line after line, trying to link publication dates with events in his life. This was hard – his absence was palpable in almost every line.
His breathing thickened in the cold of the night. A whiff of cognac rose in his nostrils, perhaps from his mouth and perhaps from his thoughts. Sharon who stands down there on the main road, who has she been drinking with? Cognac is the drink of old Polish crones, not whores from the suburbs of Jerusalem. Where the hell has she sprung from now? What’s she been doing in the coastal plain? He should have asked her on the phone. If she expected him to rescue her, she should have come clean to him. It’s elementary respect. She can’t exploit him like this, getting him out of his house in the cold, in the rain, and leaving Nira there alone.
Giora’s head spun momentarily with panic. Their daughter had been left to sleep alone at home in this dreadful storm, not yet five years old, and he hadn’t even asked the neighbour to keep an eye on her. After all this, Sharon would come at him with recriminations. If Nira was woken up by the thunder, she would definitely cry hysterically, not understanding where her parents had disappeared to, not answering her calls and no sign of them in their bedroom – she would certainly go looking for them there.
He leaned on the balustrade of the bridge and steadied his stance, taking a deep breath. His wife still stood down there, motionless, getting wetter and wetter, challenging him: come down and rescue me. She could leave her stranded vehicle and climb up to him, to the bridge, even if it was quite a way to make in weather like this. But she wants him to decide, wants him to want. What was going on with her, for God’s sake? Threatening and submissive at the same time, his wife stood on the road without moving, like a crocodile frozen on a winter night, its steaming mouth left open wide. For a moment he felt admiration for the stubborn figure down there, but very soon thought better of it. He didn’t pity his wife, stuck down there. She didn’t deserve his pity. On the contrary. His rage swelled.
And then the hazard lights down there on the bend stopped flashing. Not a gradual fade-out, but all at once. A human hand had switchedthem off. A final appeal. In the prevailing darkness Giora struggled to make out the figure of Sharon, and it was only when another car passed by the bend in the road sounding a blood-curdling siren that she was visible again for a moment, blurred, standing on the asphalt and no doubt soaked to the marrow of her bones. He had never before thought of defying her like this, but now there was no willingness in him – not to go down and fetch her, not even to call out to her.
A deep humming sound was heard from above, from a distance. A giant juggernaut with trailer attached was rolling down the road, and Giora heard the groan of the brakes from the start of the steep descent. The nearside wheels of the truck veered away from the marginal line, and the driver made every effort to slow down in the rain, but still the truck was approaching the sharp bend at high speed. The dazzle of the lights made it hard for Giora to locate Sharon. The squeal of the brakes was clearly heard, blending with the thunderous crashing of the two sections of the truck, careering down the road. The din became terrifying as the truck came close to the bend, the driver still unaware in all probability of the car stranded in the dark. A warning siren was heard, urgent and prolonged, like a despairing cry from the mighty vehicle as it rolled on. Giora couldn’t breathe and he bent down in an uncontrolled movement, as if the truck was about to collide with him. When he looked up again, for an instant he glimpsed a figure in the driver’s cab of the truck and an ominous metallic thud was heard as the driver tried to swerve at the last moment. Giora turned his back, clamped his hands over his ears as tight as he could. Silence reigned; Giora couldn’t hear anything now. The darkness was absolute again and for a moment he had difficulty finding the van, parked right beside him. His fumbling hand eventually found the handle and he leapt inside, slammed the door behind him and turned up the radio to maximum volume. Inside the van everything was brilliant light, dazzling enough to blind. Giora had to struggle to control the pounding of his heart and the trembling of his hands, but he succeeded in starting the engine. He pressed hard on the gas pedal, came down at last from the bridge, quickly turned left, and again joined the main road, travelling in the opposite direction, and got away from there as quickly as possible, taking care not to look in the rearview mirror.
When he arrived at his home the central heating struck his frozen face. Giora locked the door and leaned against it for a moment, stabilizing his breathing and listening to the sounds of the house as he used to do in his childhood when coming in from some late entertainment, shutting out scary imaginings and straining to hear if his parents were still awake.
Total silence reigned. Nira was still asleep and he hurriedly stripped off his sodden clothes and threw them into the washing machine. He dried himself but went on shivering, even in his pajamas and for a long time after he had curled up in his daughter’s bed, trying to dispel from his mind all thoughts of the things he must say in the morning, and to whom. He hugged Nira from behind, drawing her gently to his chest, absorbing childish warmth from her. After the night sweats she was already taking long and steady breaths. He buried his face in her slender nape and her downy hair tickled his nose. He felt exhausted. Nira shuddered for a moment. Shush, Nirosh, go to sleep. Daddy’s here, Daddy’s here.
At four-thirty in the morning Giora was informed of Sharon’s death. Two police officers and a woman in civilian clothes, whom Giora assumed was a social worker, knocked on his door and asked for his name and was he Sharon’s husband. Once he’d confirmed his identity the officers introduced themselves, asked if they could come inside, and signalled to the woman to follow them. Then they led Giora to the sofa in the lounge and waited until he’d sat down before passing on the news, with facial expressions meant to express regret. Giora still felt his daughter’s warmth on his fingertips from when he caressed his cheek with them, his eyes closed. The senior of the two cops sat down beside him. “I’m sorry this is the way it is,” he said, and for a moment laid his hand on Giora’s nape as a token of sympathy.
Through the window came the flickering blue light of a police squad car, and for a moment there was a truncated wail from the siren of the ambulance that was parked behind the squad car. Giora signalled to them to keep the noise down and gestured with his chin towards the inner rooms. The junior cop, who was still standing, drew a two-way radio from his belt and whispered something into it. A rustle of static was heard from outside, and the lights were doused.
“Our initial enquiries indicate that the accident was the fault of the truck driver who was driving at excessive speed and suffering from sleep deprivation.” The junior cop, his coat still saturated from the rain, sounded as if he was reciting an official communiqué that had just been released, and his superior was quick to divert him.
“It’s still too early to decide,” he said.
The woman sat down in the armchair nearby and stretched out a hand to Giora’s hand. “I understand how stunned you must be feeling now. That’s natural. Is there a grandmother or an aunt living close by, who can be with you when the little girl wakes up?”
Giora pulled his hand away and turned to her with a quizzical look, and she pointed with her eyes towards Nira’s doll house, which stood in the corner of the lounge under the print of Andy Warhol’s “Blue Jackie”, which Sharon had been given when she left her job at the district court. Immediately the woman felt she had made a mistake. “We saw in the reports that you have a little girl of five,” she said. The senior man gave her a stern glance, telling her to drop it.
“I shall be with her, and later I’ll definitely be contacting my mother. I don’t want to contact her now. Things are going to be hectic here.”
“If necessary, I’ll stay with you till somebody comes.”
“Thanks, there’s no need.”
The cop sitting next to him was looking around. “I know this is a hard time, but do you have any idea what your wife was doing on the main road after midnight?”
After midnight? Giora was astonished to hear the cop say that. Perhaps the man was testing him. “When was the accident?”
“We were notified at headquarters at twelve twenty-five.”
This wasn’t the truck he saw. Giora began to shake when he thought of Sharon standing in the rain for another half-hour after he’d left the scene. The woman took a small bottle of water from her handbag and offered it to him. “She sometimes comes home late from work. She’s a lawyer. I don’t always wait up for her.” Giora tried to do a hasty mental run-through of his departure with the car from the garage. Had Buchmiller seen him?
“She works in Jerusalem?”
“Yes, that’s where her office is. Why?”
“Her car came from the direction of Tel Aviv.”
Now it was the woman’s turn to send a warning signal to the cop.
“I don’t understand,” Giora said. “Perhaps it isn’t her.”
The junior cop approached him, bent down, unfolded Sharon’s identity card and handed it to him with a sorrowful expression. The photograph was of Sharon certainly, eight years younger, in youthful black and white, definitely reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy. “We found this on the seat of her car,” he said. “A formal identification will be required, but tomorrow is okay. No need to hurry now.”
Before moving away, the cop sniffed softly. “Have you been drinking?” he asked instinctively, as if Giora were the driver, and at once realised his mistake.
“Sometimes I drink a glass of cognac before turning in, it helps me to sleep,” Giora answered all the same. Could it be that the cops suspected him?
“That’s all right,” the senior cop intervened and rose to his feet, the signal to his colleague that this insensitive interrogation was over.
Giora began to cry. From the moment he’d opened and read the letter in the morning until he stood on the bridge in the rain in the middle of the night, everything that he thought he knew about his life had been distorted. Now, for the first time, he wept for Sharon. He couldn’t get out of his head the image of his wife, wet and so alone on the highway, staying there for such a long time after he’d decided to leave her to her fate. He recalled her last words on the phone. “I’m sorry about everything, Giora, but I’m already soaked to the skin.”
The cops insisted on staying with him while he made himself a cup of tea with two spoonfuls of sugar and waited until they’d seen him drink it. Only then, with great difficulty, he managed to persuade them to leave him alone for a few hours before the morning came.
“I didn’t kill her,” Giora went on to say.
“You didn’t kill her. You just left her on the road and a truck did the job for you.”
“It wasn’t my truck that killed her.” Giora looked up at Micah with the eyes of one who has been reliving the experience. “She died half an hour after I left there. The police told me the exact time.”
“They wouldn’t have needed to tell you anything, if you’d just brought her home yourself.”
“Unbelievable.” Giora shook his lowered head. “Unbelievable, a heartless creep, that’s what you are!” He looked up at Micah. “You could have rescued her a thousand times before, you could have put a stop to this madness. You saw her going crazy for you, you saw it with your own eyes, you read her poems, you were the only one who read them, and you let her carry on as if everything would work out in the end. Where exactly did you think this was going?”
“I wasn’t at the crossroads in the night. She dropped me off at my house and drove on to you —”
“And you couldn’t stop her? You let her drive on a night like that in a clapped-out car?” Giora burst outat him.
“She suggested that — ”
“Then you ran away.”
“Like you,” Micah looked straight at Giora, and Giora turned away. “At that stage I couldn’t have stopped her. She chose to drive away from me.”
The waitress passed by their table and asked if everything was to their taste. Micah nodded to her and Giora regained some composure. Not for the first time the thought occurred to him that Sharon had actually chosen that night, and the unfortunate truck driver didn’t have a chance. Each time he answered himself that Sharon wasn’t the type who would be capable of such an act, her practical nature wouldn’t accord with such a choice. But then he recollected the poems she had written behind his back, a window into a whole life that she had lived, without him knowing it existed. With all her grief, he wasn’t the man who could judge of what she was capable. He was just trying to make things easier for himself. Then, time after time, her image on that night appeared before his eyes. Not the one where Sharon stands faraway below him on the road, but the one that he saw only in his imagination. A scene precise in all its details, in which she leaves the public phone and advances in the dark, careful not to slip, out of the little grove beside the road, hair drenched and clothes soaking, and she moves step after step towards her car which is still parked there, black and frozen, ignoring the sticky mud that clings to her heels, and she continues to move closer, her body in shadow and only her face more and more clearly visible, radiant at first and then positively shining, from the light of inner salvation or the dazzling headlamps of the truck, and the screen turns blank with an ear-splitting crash before Giora can discover what has happened.
“It wasn’t until six months after she died that they remembered in her office to send me her personal effects,” Giora said, shifting to a calmer tone. “Besides the pictures and the games for Nira that she kept in her drawers, I found a letter which she apparently meant to send to you and then thought better of it. She wrote about that old dream of the pair of you, a coast-to-coast trip across the States. She wanted it to be there and back, from New York to San Francisco and returning by precisely the same route. Adventure on the way out, nostalgia coming back, she wrote, and that sentence I clearly remember. I don’t know if you could really call this a letter, there were seventeen sheets of paper there, closely written on both sides, describing the trip in detail, day by day, in the way only she was capable of. Where you were going to travel, where you were going to sleep, what kind of food you would be asking for. All from the imagination, but in the detail of a journal kept by someone who has already done the trip and documented every second of it. She even wrote that she’d heard about one of the famous geysers in Yellowstone that erupts once every ten hours for a duration of twenty minutes — ”
“Castle Geyser,” Micah heard himself completing Giora’s sentence.
“So she planned this trip in such a way that you’d reach this Castle Geyser, which is apparently the oldest one there, at exactly the right time, both going and coming back.”
Micah was re-running in his mind the moments of that comfortable morning, when the two of them were sprawled on the sofa of the lounge in her house, her house and Giora’s too, just after making love again, and planning their imaginary escape trip together. “Come on, try not to tell me today that you’re with Jenny and I’m with Giora, and that isn’t going to change,” Sharon said. “Today let’s imagine.”
“If after such a long time it hasn’t happened, it seems that’s the way it’s meant to be,” Micah insisted on continuing her sentence.
“We’ll land in New York” – Sharon ignored the interruption – “in the fall, not yet winter, but already cool. We’re going to need coats, and I’ll buy myself a fake sheepskin, orange, the kind of thing the Flower Children used to wear, but a more modern style. You’ll insist on a big parka, which is much more than you need in this season, but you’ll explain that you could spend the night in it in a tent at Yellowstone, because I insist on going that way although this means a significant northward deviation from our route. We’ll spend at least a week in New York to acclimatize to the rhythm and get over our jet lag, and then we’ll head off in the direction of Chicago. We’ll start in a rented American car with soft leather seats you can sink into, like a TV armchair, and you can also lay them completely flat. But at some stage in Pennsylvania we’ll realize our mistake and turn it in and buy a big red Dodge pick-up, second-hand and with a smell of pigs in the back, because the farmer who sells it to us on the spot for a big wad of cash won’t have time to clean it. So we’ll clean it ourselves, buy a canvas cover for the rear section, and two old mattresses we can throw in there, and really start on our journey to the west.”
Micah remembered that his first reaction had been alarm, not at the idea itself – a coast- to-coast trip across the USA seemed to him such a distant and impossible dream that it could be dismissed as fantasy – but because of the level of detail that Sharon was drawing out, as if it had been lodged in her head for a very long time. “When did you plan this?” he asked.
“Now,” she answered and smiled at him, and he knew she was lying. “You’re shocked, is that it, because you think I’m breaking the rules? Stop being afraid for just one moment, let yourself go.” Sharon reached out and gripped his penis, which was waking up again. Micah could almost feel her touch again even now, so much so that he was afraid Giora would notice, and instinctively he shifted his thighs in a brisk movement, meant to dispel Sharon from them. That Sabbath, for the first and last time, he’d agreed to collaborate in the planning of some shared destiny for the two of them, hazy and imaginary as it might be. “The trip to America” was henceforward their code for a shared life which would never be a reality. As far as he could remember now, facing Giora over the table, the idea of coming back by precisely the same route ignited a quarrel between them, since he told her he wasn’t the type to dabble in nostalgia and double experiences, and he preferred to fly back. Now he regretted being dragged into an argument over a fantasy journey he had had no intention of taking any further. The thought of Sharon sitting alone in her office and secretly covering thirty-four pages with her precise handwriting, replete with all the details of their travel plans, which from his point of view were nothing more than a voluntary game, brought him to the verge of tears.
“I was there six months ago,” he told Giora.
“At the geyser.”
“Are you kidding? By myself. I was in the States and I flew specially to Yellowstone. But I arrived a few hours late. Everything around me was still wet, but the eruption was over.”
“Apparently it needed Sharon's precision.”