By Orly Castel-Bloom
Translated by Dalya Bilu
The wallpaper was red and the female body sitting on the sofa and looking at the one lamp illuminating the redness of the room was forty-one years old and neglected. On the Levantine face was an expression of faint bemusement, and the shoulders were slumped in general reluctance. The fingers were peeling an orange. The orange juice dripped on the fingers and filled the white palm. The palm was white, because she was anaemic. But the anaemia was nothing to worry about, because it was under medical treatment.
A lock of greying brown hair fell onto her right eye and narrowed her field of vision. The wet hand pushed it aside and the lock became stiff and sticky. She tried to remember when she had last washed her itchy hair. It was on a Wednesday. They were showing a programme about dolphins on television.
She got up to bathe. When she came out of the bathroom, her hair, which was full of water and soap bubbles, dripped on the floor and made puddles. She took a towel and dabbed her head with it. Then she passed a comb two or three times through her hair and stopped. The soap bubbles made a noise like empty plastic bags.
The remains of the orange were lying on the table. She wondered whether to take a bite. She took a bite, and the juicy taste was delicious.
It was only six o’clock and she was already yawning. The sense of responsibility which she had developed in her first days with Avigdor told her not to go to bed early, so that he wouldn’t think of her as a bored sleepy-head who led an aimless life. She forced herself to make black coffee. The coffee was quite tasty, but it mingled with the five oranges which she had eaten during the day, and with the drumstick she had eaten at four o’clock, and with the half-bar of chocolate, and made her so nauseous that she was obliged to vomit.
When she came out of the lavatory she drank water, remembered that the iron pill intended to raise the level of haemoglobin in her blood had also been flushed away, and swallowed another pill. Now she went back to sit in exactly the same place, a little to the left of the red lamp, contemplated the orange peels, and asked herself if she should get up and make jam from them. How I’ve changed, she thought, once I made jam from everything. Jam in quantities. I would put it in jars I collected, and dish it out to anyone who wanted it. I was generous. I smiled. I laughed. People said to me, Shifra, you’re marvellous. I would laugh and laugh, because I was marvellous. I had a calm face.
Why didn’t she get out of the house for a bit? It was a well known fact that getting out of the house could work wonders. but Shifra didn’t want to change her situation. True, she had a few girlfriends with whom she could maintain neutrality, because it wasn’t in their character to interfere in other people’s affairs, but they hadn’t come back from their afternoon classes yet, or their children hadn’t come back from their mandoline.
I don’t go to any classes. Avigdor wanted me to go to Yoga, because a number of wives of directors at his company go to Yoga twice a week and they’re very satisfied. Those cultivated creatures come back from there a different person, so they say, and that’s what Avigdor wants - a different person. Logic, if it ever entered her house, would have highly recommended her to go to Yoga, to be like everybody else - but Shifra made her husband ashamed of her. Sometimes she would come to functions he organized at the company, and there among the women who told women’s jokes she would shame Avigdor with unfunny jokes. For example, that she did her Yoga every Thursday at the Carmel market. The women would smile sourly, Shifra would roar with laughter, and Avigdor would want to bury himself deep under the ground in China. He couldn’t bear the fact that his wife bought their fruit and vegetables in the market, as if they belonged to the lowest class in the country, or maximum a tiny bit above it.
But what could she do? It was a matter of tradition. Her parents too had gone to the market every Thursday and bought the same things that she bought: vegetables, fruit and meat. Avigdor refused categorically to eat them. He always ate a hot meal at the plant, and in the evening he usually dropped in at the mini-mart and bought himself cheese and a baguette.
When she came home from the market and put her purchases away in the fridge, he would sit tensely in the living room and listen to the rustling of the plastic bags, and count the differences between him and her. He clung to the fact that he was a pure Ashkenazi and she was half-and-half, and even her Ashkenazi half was very doubtful, if you judged by the accent, at least, and to the fact that he had fifteen years of education and she had only eleven and a half, and that too had never been proven. According to her poor vocabulary and her inability to do arithmetic beyond the addition and subtraction of two-digit figures, he wasn’t even sure that she had finished elementary school.
Shifra took Avigdor’s bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon and poured a few mouthfuls down her throat. Then she wandered round the house and looked for his keys. If she found them, the chances of him coming home were almost nil. If the keys were on him, she could relax and calm down. For the mere presence of the keys in his pocket would be enough to remind him that she existed, if he had by any chance forgotten her.
Next to the big porcelain cups in the kitchen she found a green key-ring. This was the emergency ring she had had duplicated a year before. In other words, Avigdor thought he had lost his keys, and wanted to take the spare key-ring. When he was about to put it in his pocket, he had come across his regular key-ring, put the spare ring down next to the porcelain cups, and left the house slamming the door behind him. From this she could conclude, theoretically at least, that there was a chance of his return. She pulled a face. But two weeks had already gone past and he had not returned, and this led to the conclusion that he would not return. She wouldn’t be surprised if he had lost the keys, found someone else and gone with her to America as he threatened to do almost every time he lost his temper. For example, the rage of the twenty-ninth of December last year. She remembered the date exactly because of the number nine. On the ninth of December she had been born. On the ninth of October her father had died. On the twenty-ninth of March her mother had died. On the nineteenth of April she had married. After that last rage she felt as if she had aged five years overnight. Now it was already several months since that pregnancy, for every waiting for Avigdor was like a pregnancy, and accordingly she should have three children by now and the fourth on its way, and her hair was going grey and soon she would have to dye it.
Shifra quickly banished the memory of that rage from her mind, because what was the use, and she asked herself if she should change the wallpaper.
Should I change the wallpaper? Maybe leave just one wall red, and change the rest? But then it won’t look uniform. Not just from the point of view of the colour, but also because one wall will look old and the others new. But I like the red walls. All of them. My mother liked the red walls too. So I’ll leave one wall red and have the rest white. But the white will hurt my eyes. So maybe I’ll ask for red wallpaper, but new. But the red wall opposite me has signs I made when I was twelve. The man’s face with the hat I drew. So I’ll leave it all red, just like it is. And that’s that.
On that Friday Avigdor had taken his father out of the old age home for the weekend to rest and see a bit of the world. Shifra prepared lunch, schnitzel and chips, and the three of them sat down to eat. The old man looked at the couple and waited for them to ask him a question, so that he could answer it, and at the same time take the opportunity to answer a few more questions that were troubling him. Shifra felt a stir on her left side, where the old man was sitting, and closed her face and heart, because she didn’t have any desire to hear a long geriatric monologue. Avigdor was sunk in thought about a shipment of furniture due to arrive from Denmark.
After they finished eating the old man began a monologue on his own initiative and told them about his part in the partisan warfare in France during the Second World War. Avigdor nodded blandly. The old man described plans to raid a prison camp, and Shifra told him to stop because anyway no one was listening to him.
The old man withdrew into himself like a baby. Avigdor, who could have let his father go on talking like this for hours, went red with anger and the vein on his temple pulsed rapidly. He stood up, kicking over his chair on purpose, went to the bedroom and quickly packed a bag. The old man mumbled a few words in French. Shifra turned pale. Afterwards, she didn’t hear a word from Avigdor for a week. Thus their third child was born. After a week he came back, smashed a few cups and calmed down.
Now she asked herself if they were going to get a divorce.
She called Ilana.
Ilana said “Hello.”
“Ilana,” said Shifra, “don’t ask, Avigdor’s left me.”
“What do you say?” said Ilana. “Why don’t you come round to me now, my husband’s just gone out and the kids are in a class. Why don’t you come?”
Shifra said maybe, and the conversation came to an end. With this maybe she went on sitting for a few minutes, and then she stood up, put on a blue tunic with a thick blouse under it, and a coat, of course, because the cold, although it distracted your thoughts from certain harsh thoughts, in the long run increased human misery.
After two minutes in the street it began to rain on Shifra and on her parents who were buried at a distance of six meters from each other, because her mother hadn’t managed to buy herself a plot right next to her father. But the rain didn’t actually touch their bodies, because the tombstones, one of Italian marble for her father, which her mother had put up, and one of simple Hebron marble, which Shifra had put up for her mother, and to this day she ate herself up for not having had Italian marble for her too, protected them from the rain, and it would have to rain a lot to wet the decomposing bodies of her parents.
But her father had died five years before her mother, who had died five and a half years ago, already six, to be precise, and both their bodies had already rotted completely and everything was already behind them, and if the rain wet them, then it was only their skeletons, and that was a lot less horrible.
Shifra banished thoughts of her parents’ skeletons from her mind and went on walking down the rainy street.
The rain began to come down harder, and people without umbrellas ran with their coats on their heads, which was an amusing sight. She laughed merrily at a man who almost fell into a puddle. He shot her a surly look. After putting five meters between them he turned around and yelled for the whole street to hear, “Go fuck yourself,” and ran on.
People looked at Shifra. She went on walking.
Ilana lived fifteen minutes’ walk from her, but Shifra had said maybe, a word she had learnt from Avigdor.
Before they married she would ask him if he loved her, and he would say maybe. She thought it quite natural and logical for men of forty and a bit to say to their second wife that maybe they loved them and maybe they didn’t, so that they would always have the option of feeling free and unfettered.
Since marrying him she no longer asked him if he loved her, and decided to examine the question according to his behaviour. But his behaviour was hesitant too, and Shifra couldn’t tell what the truth was.
On the other hand - she herself. When she asked herself if she loved Avigdor, the answers were always a definite yes or a definite no. Never maybe.
But for some reason, precisely to Ilana, who asked her three minutes after seating her wet and dripping by the stove, if she loved Avigdor, Shifra pulled a skeptical face and said maybe.
She understood three things. One, that Avigdor’s love for her no longer interested her. Two, that she apparently had a heart of stone, and three, that it was nothing to be ashamed of.
Shifra went home and felt nothing. Her anaemia bothered her a little, but she decided to ignore the feeling of weakness and dizziness. Not far from the centre of her everyday consciousness lay a black void of blurred memories and mistakes. Most of the time she would ignore this black void and laugh, but sometimes, when she remembered, the pallor would return to her anyway white face.
Which way should I go? By Keren Kayement boulevard? Or by Gordon street? If I go by Keren Kayement boulevard, the bad smell of the zoo will reach me. But they’ve pulled the zoo down and transferred all the animals to the Safari Park. So I can go by Keren Kayement boulevard.
When she arrived home at a quarter past nine in the evening she found Avigdor sitting on the armchair in the living room and smoking a cigar.
“Avigdor,” she whispered.
“Where were you?” he asked.
“I thought Ilana was stupid,” said Avigdor, and filled the room with dense smoke.
“She’s not as stupid as I thought.” Shifra took off her coat.
Avigdor said nothing. She waited.
“How’s the anaemia?” he asked her.
Shifra laughed in embarrassment and said: “I don’t remember. Something like eight.”
“Eight? That’s very low!”
“No. It’s not too bad.”
“Maybe you should have a blood transfusion?”
“I don’t think it’s low enough for a blood transfusion.”
They were both silent. Shifra asked him if he wanted coffee.
“No thanks. I’ve just had. I was at Sam’s.”
Shifra tightened her lips in annoyance. A bad sign, she thought. Avigdor admired Sam because Sam was a lawyer. Avigdor had begun studying law together with Sam, but after three years he broke and decided that he preferred to get ahead by going into business for himself. The business failed and he wasn’t a lawyer. Sam was apparently advising him on how to divide the property they held in common. She was very pale.
Avigdor examined her and said:
“You look good.”
She laughed, because she wasn’t an idiot. She knew exactly what she looked like. She had a mirror in the house and sometimes she looked in it. Mirror, mirror on the wall, she asked it, is there anyone uglier than I am? And the mirror answered her: There is, and she asked it Where, can you show me? But the mirror was silent, or at most it said to her: I’m telling you there is, and that’s it, and she shut the wardrobe door.
She laughed a forced laugh, and jiggled her foot nervously, because Avigdor wasn’t answering the obvious question, if he had come to stay or to go.
“Did Sam tell you to stay or to go?” she said suddenly and uncontrollably.
Avigdor smiled a bitter smile and exposed beautiful white teeth. Shifra was sweating even though it was freezing cold. For five minutes she was afraid to move, because she didn’t want to influence his answer, and all the blood went down to her feet, until she almost fainted.
“I’m staying,” said Avigdor, and she sat down quickly on a chair in the dining nook.
He stood up, went over to her and stroked her cheek. Then he kissed her on her rough, chapped lips and she was sorry that she hadn’t smeared them with Vaseline so that they would be soft at least, even if not glistening and brilliant-red. But then she felt the stubble of his black beard, and she said to herself that he too wasn’t so smooth to the touch. She stroked his hair and thought that it was very nice that a man of his age didn’t have a single white hair, and she said so too.
Avigdor laughed shortly and said: “I’m only forty-four. What do you want of me?”
Shifra giggled and kissed him weakly on the cheek, and he kissed her back in the same place.
It was all so similar to the first time they met and Avigdor said that they had to mend the blind because of the rain.
He said to her: “You remember how five years ago you put on a big show for me here. Remember?”
“Yes,” she murmured.
He asked her if she was prepared to do it again for him.
“What?” She giggled. “Wait a few minutes.”
He waited for ten minutes, and then he asked her if she had renewed the lending card for the video library. She said she hadn’t.
“A pity. At least I could have seen some blue movie now.” He laughed at his own joke for half a minute.
Shifra put her hand on the blue button of her tunic.
To open, or not to open? If I open it I won’t be able to change my mind, because that’ll complicate everything one hundred percent. So what should I do? Oh, mother, help me!
Avigdor went into the kitchen and opened the fridge.
“Is there any Coca-Cola?” he asked.
“No. Since when do you buy Coca-Cola in winter?”
“So is there anything cold to drink?”
“There’s water from the tap. That’s cold enough.”
He slammed the fridge door, and a few pots collided. Who did she cook for?
“It’s lucky there’s a tap and lucky there’s a video,” he said as he filled a glass with water and raised it to his lips.
Shifra was still wondering what to do with herself. While Avigdor drank more and more water, so that it was hard to tell where it all went, she took off the blue tunic and the blue sweater underneath it, and the rest of her clothes, and remained standing in the middle of the room, frozen with cold, looking at the thirsty Avigdor’s back and waiting for him to turn round.
When Avigdor’s thirst was quenched he turned round and saw his wife naked. He went up and kissed her greedily all over her body.
Shifra pushed him off her until his body was sprawled on the orange carpet.
She hurried into the bedroom, wrapped her body in a dressing gown, and went back to stand in the middle of the living room. Avigdor was still lying in exactly the same position.
“Avigdor,” she said.
He didn’t answer.
And so on for ten minutes until he stood up and sat on the edge of the sofa.
She looked at him.
Copyright © by Orly Castel Bloom 2011, English translation copyright © the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature 2011