Photo: Orel Cohen
Eight Encounters with Sue
By Shay Aspril
Translated from Hebrew by Ruthie S. Almog
As you slowly climb the stairs, something tells you that this is the last time you’ll be seeing Sue.
The daughter called you a few hours ago, and even though it was the first time you had ever spoken on the phone with her, you recognized the voice at once. She said that Sue was asking for you. You procrastinated a bit, but after a few minutes, you left the clinic and got into a cab with mud-streaked leather seats. You asked the driver to let you off at that building over there, the one you had passed from time to time in the last few years while running some errands in Tel Aviv. You used to stand across the street or sit in the café opposite the apartment, the one that went under and in its stead a vegan restaurant sprang up. Among the dried-up old ladies sipping coffee, who were eventually exchanged for the rail-thin younger generation preferring tofu and rice curry, you would look out at the window, that hadn’t changed in all these years. You knew that behind it sat Sue, sometimes supine, thinking about her son, and staring at his picture, sometimes with the daughter, who is now opening the door, expressionless. She looks different than when you met her the first time, a few weeks before, when she came knocking at your door, her hair dripping wet from the rain.
You touch the daughter’s shoulder and catch the scent of cigarettes butts emanating from her. During your first meeting, you detected that she had Sue’s facial features and movements, but mainly had taken on the particular way she used to smoke.
You go into the apartment that you had been in a few times, and glance at the sink full of dishes and at the kitchen table. It is laden with letters, pieces of paper, and empty glasses with used teabags. You also notice bottles of morphine, codeine, and methadone.
The way to the bedroom is familiar to you. This is the room where she has slept alone for the past fifteen years. She told everyone that she and Neil, her husband, weren’t getting along anymore. But to you she disclosed during one of the rare telephone conversations that you would get at the clinic (or later, on your cellphone), that Neil simply discovered the thing he had to find out. The room gave off a faint smell of sweat, urine, and medicine. On the brown bedside table another bottle of morphine stood at attention, next to which were a bottle of water and a baggie full of medicinal marijuana.
You sit on the bed, sodden with her disease, and look at her. Her face is wan and her yellowish-green eyes seem to be receding. This is the look you have seen many times in the ER, or on one of your dogs, moments before it died.
You wipe her brow and check her pulse, though you know that it is more out of habit than having any medical efficacy. She tries to lift herself towards you and you help her. After she coughs into your well-worn rust-colored jacket, you cradle her trembling body, rife with pain and torment. You can feel her fragile frame clearly, chewed up from within, and try to think what to say. Finally you hear yourself mutter, “It’ll be all right, sweetie.” You think about this being only the second time you have used some sort of endearing term with her. The first time was that night, twenty years ago, in this room, under this very duvet, or one that looked just like it. It was the moment that you filled her with what would become her new raison d’être, with a new life that would replace the one that was cut short.
“You’ll take care of her, won’t you?” she says, or asks, in her raspy voice, her face buried in your shoulder. You are silent, as you purse your trembling lips. As you draw what is left of her defeated body closer, you recall the first time you saw her. It was in the winter, about two weeks after you began dating Miri. You were walking along the beach and spoke of a film you might see together at some point during the week. You remember how you were looking at the waves and then Miri turned around, because she thought someone was calling her. You turned around on cue, and caught sight of a young woman and a small boy running clumsily in your direction.
“That’s my friend Sue. We used to dance together,” Miri said to you with a smile, as you strode towards them in the soft sand.
You remember her exact words. You always had a remarkable memory.
The boy, out of breath from running, was wearing an oversized coat, mittens, and a wool hat, and held his mother’s gloved hand. You looked at him and recognized in him characteristics similar to yours when you were a boy. Maybe it was the wistful eyes, or the tilt of his head, or perhaps it was the expectant look towards his mother.
Sue extended her gloved hand.
“Nice to meet you,” you said, but you focused more on the boy, who smiled as he pointed at you.
Yes, you always had a way with kids. Even today, you regret not specializing in pediatrics.
You remember well the second time you saw Sue. It was a few months later, in the spring. Then you were still a resident in the ER and you were on your way home from a night shift. You took a nap and in the evening you went over to Miri’s, as you had planned the day before. You entered the building and pushed the key into the door. You were hungry and hoping she had made something to eat. She was sitting on a chair, expressionless, and didn’t utter a word, even when you said that you hadn’t eaten a thing all day.
You moved closer towards her, and you noticed that she had been crying. You thought that perhaps something had happened at work; you stroked her hair. In one swift movement, she dismissed your hand and said something. It took you a few moments to take in what was going on. A stream of cold sweat trickled down your spine.
“I’m going over there now,” she mumbled through spent tears that seemed to you a bit melodramatic. You said nothing and gave an almost inaudible groan from somewhere in your diaphragm. You longed to get out of there, to get back to your little studio apartment, but you heard that familiar voice of yours suggest that you join her.
Now, as you lay Sue back down on her pillow and offer to roll her a joint (she refuses), you look at her, at her big eyes and thick lips, and think that despite her worn out body and soul due to the misfortunes of time and fate, she hasn’t changed much. Her hair has greyed slightly, little wrinkles appear at the corners of her eyes, and her body has shrunk, but her overall beauty has remained unchanged.
You remember that you walked in with Miri, still hungry, and you immediately noticed Sue, who was sitting on a leather couch, sickened and shaking, her face contorted in anguish. Next to her sat an older, heavily made-up woman – perhaps her mother – smoking with one hand and holding a wooden ashtray with the other. Neil sat on the armchair opposite the two. He held his head in his hands and you discerned between his two fingers a forsaken, smoldering cigarette. Sue didn’t look at him, but sat smoking in silence, her eyes puffy. And intermittently, as if digesting the news for the first time, she covered her face and moaned, “No…”
Miri, who had sat down on her right, held her close. You sat down to the right of Miri and because you had no idea what to do, you stretched out your hand and rested it on Sue’s shoulder for a few seconds. Every now and then, you stretched out that same hand on the table in front of you, on which were unsipped cups of tepid coffee and a plate of cookies. You tried to chew quietly and, from time to time, you lifted your eyes towards Neil’s hazy flakes of cigarette ash hovering in the air.
But on that night, listening to the sound of the sleeping Miri’s breathing, you recalled a moment from that morning, just after you had finished your shift. Then, through the usual screaming and yelling of the paramedics, doctors and concerned loved ones, you heard that someone had shouted that a three-year-old boy had arrived suffering from a severe head injury. You remember that at that same moment, you rose from your warm bed and went into the bathroom, and only there, leaning on the edge of the sink, your face dripping with water, did you allow yourself to cry.
You didn’t attend the funeral the following day, but Miri told you that Neil screamed at the kindergarten teacher and blamed her for the death of the boy, and Sue just held onto the body and didn't let them bury him. “She wailed the entire time: ‘He’s still a baby, he’s still a baby.’”
The next time you saw Sue was at a New Year’s Eve party that you threw in the apartment you were living in at the time, eight months after she had buried her boy together with his favorite stuffed toy.
Sue and Neil, who were torn apart by what had been holding them together – love, or routine, or whatever it had been – decided on a trial separation. He moved into a studio apartment near the university where he worked, and she stayed in the apartment and tried to resume her work as a graphic designer at a publishing house, one that has since closed down.
She arrived at the party alone around nine o’clock. First, she removed her coat and hugged Miri, and then she kissed you on the cheek. Later she sat on the side of the yellow sofa you once had, and smoked a joint. From time to time, someone came and sat down next to her. A little before midnight, she got up and put on the long coat that is now hanging on a hook in the entrance.
You offered to walk her home, using the excuse that it would be almost impossible to find a cab on that day and at that hour. She agreed.
You walked in silence in the cold air. Behind you, an old man was walking his dog, and you could easily make out the sound of its claws tapping on the pavement. At the corner, she said, “This way,” and you walked north, passing a couple that was kissing in honor of the incoming new year.
You mentioned something about your work and she said that she couldn't stand hospitals anymore. Because you knew that she had studied at the Art Institute, you told her that when you were younger, you had, in fact, dreamed of being a sculptor. You recall that she looked at you for a moment and smiled. As you were walking across Malkei Israel Square, she said, “This way,” and you wended your way through some boisterous teenagers who were smoking. You tried to get past them quickly; it began to drizzle suddenly. You increased your pace, walking mostly in silence. When you arrived at her building, it had begun to pour and she offered to wait with you. You told her it wasn't necessary. She saw that your teeth were chattering.
“Come up and have a cup of tea until it lets up,” she said almost imploringly.
Entering the apartment, you noticed immediately that it looked different from what you’d remembered, but you couldn’t put your finger on what had changed. You took off your coat and you sat down on the black leather sofa that was facing the television.
As she was putting on the kettle, she asked whether you wanted regular tea, green tea, or coffee. A moment later, she added that there was also hot cocoa. Yes, you remember her offering you four types of beverage. You asked for hot cocoa. You watched her dainty steps and her fragile body as she poured you the cocoa, which was hot and sweet; you complimented her on it. She said her son liked cocoa.
You bit your lip, and then you heard her ask what she had been dying to ask all the time you were walking. You said that yes, Miri was pregnant.
She didn’t say a thing; she just began rolling a joint. You glanced behind her, at some piece of fabric that seemed to resemble the mitten her son had been wearing. Something in you shuddered, and your eyes reverted towards her. Only when she passed you the joint did she say something about the first trimester of her pregnancy. About the morning sickness.
You decided to leave as soon as the rain subsided, but it only came down harder.
Through the clouds of cannabis smoke, you saw the loneliness of the woman sitting in front of you, in her expression of wilted sorrow, and something inside you broke.
After five months, when Miri was in her eighth month, and you were eating dinner, Miri told you what you already knew deep inside.
“Is she still with her husband?” you asked as an afterthought, breaking off a piece of bread.
Miri said that she didn’t think so, and that lately Miri and Sue had hardly been in touch.
After you did the dishes, you told Miri that you were taking the neighbor’s dog for a walk, as you had begun to do lately. They were on vacation in Rome and you had offered to help.
You walked the dog to Sue’s place. She opened the door wearing an expression you couldn’t quite decipher and she took a look at the white animal.
You looked at her new body: the belly, the hips and the breasts. You touched her shoulder and then went in and sat down on an upholstered couch that you hadn’t seen before. The house looked different again, even from the time you’d come to console her, or from that rainy evening when you’d gotten her pregnant.
She asked if you wanted cocoa. You told her you didn’t. She sat down next to you and she looked at you with her green eyes, the ones she had passed on to her daughter on that rainy night.
You slept with her again, this time in the living room, while the dog napped on the rug close by.
You came together and screamed together, like wolves in the night. Only then did the white animal stir and begin to bark.
After it was over, Sue lit a cigarette, and said that Neil has asked to come back.
“Does he know?” you asked, and through the smoke rings you heard the faint “Uh-uh” in reply.
The fifth time you saw her was after Miri had given birth to your son. Sue came over with a seven-month belly and red flowers, kissing you both. She smelled of the scent that was so familiar to you.
“It's a girl,” she whispered to you as she was leaving.
Two months later, you saw Sue for the sixth time. You came to visit her in the maternity ward, her room not far from the one Miri had been in when she’d had your son.
You sat down next to Sue, who was reading some sort of magazine, and you could smell her, just like you can now. She had a faint smell of sweat, and blood, and disinfectant, and maybe of the cottage cheese that she had eaten before you arrived.
You told her that Miri would pop by later, and she smiled. Then you asked how it had gone. She said it was okay, and you asked if Neil had been with her.
Knowing that made you feel better.
In the bed next to Sue’s, a woman began to speak loudly, and Sue told you that she had to go and feed the baby. You went with her and you glimpsed at the child. You picked her up for a moment. The baby’s scent – that of afterbirth and hospitals – reminded you of your two-month-old son, but you knew that you wouldn’t be able to raise this daughter as you would raise your son. You distanced her from your face and took a long look at her. She had lots of hair and a roundish face like the boy who had died.
Now, as you lay her half-sleeping mother back down on the pillow, that baby who has become a young woman enters the room in which she was conceived, and asks if you want something to drink.
You look at Sue, who will die tomorrow or the next day, and say, “Yes. Coffee.”
As you exit the room, you steal another glance at this fading woman, who circumstance brought you together with so bizarrely, and you leave.
“When do you finish your military service?” you ask your daughter, when you are sitting next to the table piled with papers, envelopes, and bottles of painkillers. (The cups had been removed while you were sitting with Sue.)
She says, “In a couple of months.” and then you remember that you asked her the same question when you saw her a few weeks ago – the second time in her life you’d seen her, a few moments after she knocked on your door.
Miri was the one who had opened the door, and she called you straight away.
Later, you sat, the daughter and you, and you spoke a little. Miri had shut herself in one of the rooms and came out only after about a half an hour, as your daughter brought the meeting, shrouded in dreadful alienation, to a close, and told you of Sue’s illness.
“Are you planning on going to university?”
“I haven’t given it much thought,” replies the daughter as she pulls out a cigarette from the pack on the table. She draws on it lustfully, like the way her mother used to.
You take a sip from the mug and place it next to the codeine. You stand up and instruct her on which pills are advisable to administer, no matter what. You both know that it is doubtful whether Sue will last the night, which is forecast to be a stormy one.
“You know, you can come and live with us. It’s not centrally located like here, but there’s a park and dogs, and you’ll have siblings more or less your age.”
You suggest this even though Miri, who has stopped speaking to Sue, will be put off by the idea. You sense that even today, almost twenty years after you confessed about what happened, she still finds it difficult to forgive you.
The daughter doesn’t answer, and you get up and turn towards the room to take a last look at the woman who, under different circumstances, could have united the two of you. Or, on the other hand, could have caused you never to meet. Her eyes are closed and she is breathing heavily, like a dog. Every few seconds she coughs, making a horrible sound, and you wonder how they released her from the hospital.
When you look at her body consumed by disease, your lips sag, contorting into a child-like cry. Now, standing in the corner of the room, you can’t help thinking of the dead son, how he pointed at you, and his beautiful smile that haunted you for years during your fitful sleep at home or in the ER.
You turn towards the door.
“Let me know how she is later,” you say to your daughter, and brush her shoulder. Facing the door, you hear her voice.
“What was his name?”
You freeze, and remember how he looked at you then on the beach.
“I only found out about him two years ago,” she says, “but she wouldn’t tell me what his name was. But I understood that Neil wasn’t his father.”
Your silence continues and you turn around. Suddenly you recognize in her face what she was trying to tell you.
You begin trembling uncontrollably in your coat, and realize, for the first time in your life, that your memory has betrayed you.
In an instant, you are transported to one of the winters in the 80s when you were still in med-school. You remember you were on reserve leave and you and a friend went to a party hosted by art students. You entered the smoke-filled apartment and you looked out the window and watched the sky illuminated by lightning bolts. You remember that your friend began to dance but you sat down on the couch, holding a glass, and you watched him moving to the rhythm of unfamiliar music. You now recall a girl with a shaved head who sat down next to you and said that you looked like a sculptor. You smiled at her and told her that that’s what you always wanted to do, but actually you are studying medicine. You also recall a different scene of the two of you later that evening, in one of the rooms in the apartment, a blue or purple room, lying on the bed smoking something.
Your head begins to reel, and you become unsteady.
A moment before you are about to turn towards the door once again, you answer her in a faint, agonizing moan.
When she repeats the child’s name, whose death evoked her birth, you leave. As you falter down the hallway, you hear her crying behind the door you just shut. Your pace quickens until her voice is diluted with the echo of your boots. You jerk the lobby door open and go out into the night, and only then notice that it’s begun to rain.
This story is dedicated to Luiza.