Photo: Bar Gordon
Each and Every Child
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Tal Nitzan
Translated from Hebrew by Galia Vurgan
This baby, where is he buried, where have I left him,
where have I forgotten the baby, without any water or air?
- Nurit Zarchi
But to love a child
is sometimes to fail at love
while the dead look on
with their abstract sorrow.
- William Matthews
It was through three mists and three mistakes that Alex saw Eli for the first time.
Through the haze of the heavy heat lying like a beast’s hoof on the breast of the city for over a week; through the heat vapors rising from the bottom of the building and gathered under its roof, in the little hallway between their apartments on the third floor; and through the thinnest yet most misleading mist of them all: the fog covering his glasses – the one that made him think this was the new neighbor, Eli Dayan, whose name had appeared on the mailbox a few days earlier. He had actually imagined this Eli to be a rather older man, of solid build, even thuggish. Surely heavier than this slender guy with the spiny haircut. And it was only when the guy, about to enter his apartment, turned to face him that he found out: neither a guy nor Mr. Dayan, but a pale, short-haired young woman. At that same moment he noticed the kid clinging to her, about three and a half or four years old, wrapping his hand around her jeansed thigh the way kids do. Alex knew a thing or two about teenagers, but young children puzzled him.
Well, Eli Dayan has a wife with a delicate face – delicate yet somehow tough – and a kid looking like a soft golden version of his mom, as if he was drawn using circles only: moon faced, with golden-brown eyes and light hair falling smoothly down his temples, except for one stubborn tuft sticking up like a water fountain at the crown of his head. Alex wondered how the three of them – Eli, his wife and the kid – squeezed into a flat as big, or rather as small, as his, and even managed a grumbling thought about Eli Dayan being the kind of man who doesn't bother to add his wife's name to the mailbox tag, when she said: “Hi, I'm Eli.” Instead of extending his hand politely – the longtime tenant generously welcoming the newcomer – he just stared at her and asked blandly, “Eli?”
A hint of fatigue or impatience fluttered across her grey eyes when she said, “Elisheva.”
Here is what Eli is gradually finding out about Alex Kogan, her next-door neighbor:
The scooter parked downstairs belongs to him, though he is no doubt too big, gawky and bearish for such a compact vehicle. Noam eyes him with funny fondness, like a grownup looking at a kid on a toy bike.
Big and bearish, indeed. Almost a titan. How does this Gulliver fit into the Lilliputian flat similar to theirs? And at the tip of him, a spectacled face, a broad jaw dotted with light bristles and brown, sunburnt hair. Despite his size, he is not memorable. The kind of face you would immediately forget, unless you ran into it again and again in the stairwell.
He has been living in the building for a long time – had two next-door neighbors before her.
They share the same landlady, Mrs. Averbuch.
(There's a third flat on their floor, locked up and uninhabited for years. Mrs. Auerbuch has her eyes set on it, but a legal dispute between heirs prevents her from making the purchase.)
It is unclear how he manages to pay the rent, because he doesn't seem to have a job. At least not the kind that requires leaving home during regular working hours.
He sustains his shyness courageously, like a man who has learned to limp gracefully. Whenever he is embarrassed – that is to say, any time he takes part in a conversation – his hand shoots to his glasses, as if they were conspiring to fly off his nose.
Twice he has helped her carry the groceries up to her apartment, with no hint of the condescending smugness that sometimes sneaks into other people's expressions on such occasions. He actually seemed shocked by her intention to do it on her own.
A rather strange thing: he plays the guitar, but focuses on one piece a week only. He puts it on the stereo first, then plays along time and again, with endless devotion. She hears his persistence through the walls every night. He keeps getting better, and by Saturday night he plays the piece quite impressively – no seams, no effort. Then he abandons it in favor of a new one. She wouldn't mind some more diversity, but he has good taste, with a certain tendency towards gloominess. In the first week the walls emanated the slow, somber sounds of Tom Waits' “Bronx Lullaby.” Then he played Portishead's “Sour Times.” The third week was dedicated to Nick Drake's “Day is Done,” and she realized she regretted having to part with it on Saturday.
Once she saw him from afar, sitting on a bench in a little park she visited with Noam from time to time. He was reading a book, with a grey-white cat in his lap. This was a bit strange, too. If he has a cat, why in the park? And if it's a park cat, how come it sits so peacefully in his lap? It seemed as if he were sitting on his own sofa, only it was in the park.
Here is what Alex has learned about his new neighbors:
Eli is warm with her greetings, but she never really smiles. Her impatience seems to be rather a result of circumstances than a feature of her personality, yet it lurks behind every cordial gesture and limits its duration. Her child is the only one to win her infinite patience.
The kid, from his safe haven next to his mother's jeans, gives him a friendly, curious look (in order to do that he has to tilt his head backwards). Sometimes he nods at him as if saying, I know you and you're all right.
The child's tricycle is the only vehicle they possess.
Her beauty hides, or is rather intentionally hidden, beneath her slender “tough guy” looks, just like “Eli” hides the beautiful name “Elisheva,” which so becomes those full, curvy lips, and especially the strange grey eyes, set slightly apart from each other.
It's actually the back of her neck that really disrupts his peace of mind. Clearly this is not the intended effect of the short haircut – on the contrary – but this exposed piece of flesh undermines her reluctance to exhibit her beauty, and displays it as though without her knowledge. He cannot ignore this neck. It provokes a great impulse to protect it, as well as the opposite impulse: to lean forward and touch it with his lips.
One Saturday night someone picked them up in a car and dropped them off a few hours later. He saw her from above, through the shutters, entering the building at night with the sleeping child in her arms – a round cheek leaning against a slim shoulder. Despite the extra weight, she seemed to be floating. The Madonna of the Third Floor, he thought for a moment, and rapidly dismissed it, just the way he dismissed the urge to go out and help her.
Being exceptionally brave in one of their hallway chats, he found out that she's the editor of the Culture section in a lifestyle website bearing the silly name of “Harmony,” or “Melody.” Or maybe “Destiny.” “Destiny”? No way. Probably “Harmony.” That night he looked it up on the internet. The red-pink-purple homepage was packed with photos and links, and he had a hard time finding the Culture section. There was a bold reference to the seven most popular articles: A Mushroom Quiche in Five Minutes, The Beauty Secrets of Reality Stars, A Ballad for Salad, Tips for Using Your Eyeliner Correctly, Tips for Better Performance in Bed, A Different Gazpacho Recipe, The Comeback of the Natural Look. The gazpacho sounded interesting, but he clicked the last link by mistake. Instead of cold tomato soup he got plenty of actresses and models photographed, as claimed in the inscription, with no makeup on, followed by a nine-step makeup-manual for achieving the same natural look. Before resuming his search for the Culture section, he gazed for a few seconds at the final clause: “…and this is how you get the right, cool, effortless look of the truly beautiful women.”
Summer would not release its grip even on the first day of school. The air was blazing orange, full of evil, and sunlight pierced the eyes mercilessly. On their way out, they met Alex unlocking his scooter and exchanged good-mornings. His hair was cut short, he was clean-shaven and wearing a buttoned-down shirt. A little mystery has just been solved: he is a high school teacher, here in the neighborhood. “What do you teach?” Eli asked.
“History and philosophy,” he replied. And for some reason added, “I also give private lessons.”
“In philosophy?” she asked, with the same restrained smile of hers, stopped short at the eyes, like a cautious cat on the doorstep.
“Math.“ Oh, do shut up, his heart pleaded. “At the rec center on Katzenelson Street,” his chin gesturing as if said establishment was right there at the entrance of their building. Her quarter-smile grew to a half as he settled his glasses.
“I'm going to Sylvia's preschool,” Noam informed him, nodding twice as if confirming what he has just said.
Other parents, most of them mothers, lingered at the kindergarten to make the parting easier. To soften the abandonment, Eli thought. They were sitting on tiny chairs reading stories out loud, or standing in the yard, holding their child's hand, pointing at the slide or the sandbox. But Liri – an assertive, cheerful little girl with curly black hair, whom Noam had gotten to know during the summer vacation – took his hand in hers and dragged him along to build something with the blocks, and he hardly had time to offer his cheek for Eli's kiss, followed by a quick caressing of his hair. Nevertheless, she couldn't shake off a dim yet persistent feeling of distress when she pushed open the iron gate and walked away. Sylvia had a constantly weary, drained expression, more acceptable on the last day of a school year than during its first hour. In a parents' meeting held a week earlier, she had made excessive use of “whereas,” “thereon,” and “notwithstanding,” and made sure to attach a smile to each warning and restriction – an aggressive smile which dissolved immediately without leaving a trace.
Avigail, Sylvia's very young helper, with translucent green eyes and a dark golden mane, wearing a long, saggy, faded purple dress, was one of the most beautiful women Eli had ever seen. She found it difficult to take her eyes off her. But Avigail seemed drowsy and indifferent, as though under the influence of some sedative. And who knows, maybe she had really taken something, anxious to place a barrier between herself and a day full of children. Oh, these children. Especially the boys. So bristling, alert, sneering. Always up to something. They reminded her of barbed wire. How soft is my child, Eli sighed, and sought a distraction. As she tried to turn her thoughts away from the kindergarten, Sylvia's place was taken by Smadar Kerem-Adler – her boss, the editor-in-chief of “Harmony” – to whom she was now drawing nearer as she made her way to the office. This woman had been nurturing a repressed yet firm and consistent hostility towards her. She couldn't tell whether it had anything to do with the Culture section, which was always the least popular section in “Harmony” – and Smadar never missed an opportunity to point out that Eli was no more than a fig leaf – or if it was something about Eli herself that got on her nerves. Probably both, Eli thought. There was no contradiction. On the contrary, only an annoying person like me could edit the Culture section, someone in jeans and sandals and a short haircut, who is the complete opposite of Smadar Kerem-Adler, the inverse mirror of the other woman’s blond wedge cut and manicure and expensive designer skirts. Dis-Harmony. Sometimes she felt that Smadar really needed her, as a living example for whatever it was that was sabotaging traffic on the website, as a model for everything the other editors should refrain from. Maybe that was why she wouldn't let her work from home, though there was no real need for her daily presence at the office – none other than the editor-in-chief's own need to summon her to her office and scold her one way or another. Even assignments and instructions were actually a scolding. At the end of an exhausting negotiation, Eli was finally granted one day a week of work from home, and she knew well enough not to raise the subject again. Without explicitly stating so, Smadar has made it clear to Eli that only her status as a single parent prevented her dismissal, otherwise… And that she had better not put this defense to the test, either. “I know very well what it's like to be a working mother, okay? I've been there. But whoever decides to raise a child on her own…” Eli once heard her saying to Gal, the Fashion section editor, stopping abruptly the minute she herself entered the office.
But why is she torturing herself with thoughts about her boss before she has even set foot in the office, while on her march in Nahalat Yitzhak that feels like rowing through some dense material, different from the heat itself? Think about something else. About Alex, the neighbor, for example. You need to reorganize his character according to the new information gained this morning. A teacher, of all things. With his quiet voice and anguished shyness. How does he manage to get any history and philosophy into those spiny heads? How does he make them listen? Maybe they're in awe of his size. Height and breadth in the service of education. If I had dared to try it, they would have eaten me alive. After all, she thought while crossing the street, we're all animals.
He heard the thump on the door and went over to open up. Sarah glided in, arrogant and indifferent, brushed against his leg on her way inside, went around a pile of books that blocked her path, and hopped to her usual place on the couch.
“Aren’t you hungry?” Alex asked. “Well, I guess you just missed me.”
Sarahnarrowed her green eyes at him, and from then on ignored him and began licking herself thoroughly, in the usual order: back, belly, legs, tail. Finally, and most gracefully, she licked her paws and rubbed them on her face. After that she embarked on a second round.
“Listen, there’s something I want you to hear,” he said. Suzanne Vega’s “Caramel”filled the room as he touched the computer keyboard, and he took the guitar he had put down when she arrived and began playing. There was this accordion solo in the middle, and although he had especially arranged it for guitar, it still didn’t sound quite right. He had three days left to rehearse this song; the urge to move on to a new one hadn’t kicked in yet, but he could already see it coming.
Sarah remained frozen for a minute, her rear leg up in the air, and then resumed the licking with diligence.
This is no country for hints, or subtleties, or soft transitions. The summer went away immediately, without warning and without leaving a trace. Fall was three minutes long and then turned into winter. One of many heat waves ended up in a haze, and the haze swelled up and grew grey and black, and the long-forgotten rainfluttered in the air for a moment and then poured down furiously. The familiar, intoxicating scent of wet soil was back at last, but the rain kept falling, almost incessantly, for five days. A wet stain appeared on the kitchen ceiling after three days, and on the fourth it began dripping. That afternoon Eli put a bowl on the kitchen counter and went with Noam to knock on Alex’s door.
“Hey, sorry to interrupt,” she said when he opened it. “Is it dripping here, too?”
He nodded, indicating a bowl in the corner; or was he inviting them in? Eli opted for the first option, but Noam suddenly noticed the beautiful grey-white cat dozing on the couch, released his mother’s thigh and simply walked in, as if he were entering his own room. Eli opened her mouth to say something and immediately shut it, giving Alex an apologetic look instead, but he ignored it and opened the door even wider, calmly waiting for her to pass through. Despite her previous doubts, she could now, for a moment, actually imagine him facing a wild class with fearless confidence. He closed the door behind her and they both followed Noam to the sofa. Sarah raised her head and fixed them with a cautioning stare.
“Can I pet her?” Noam asked. Eli noticed he was not addressing her.
“Sure,” Alex answered, “she loves kids.”
He had no idea whether Sarah really loved kids, whether she loved any group of creatures whatsoever, and whether he was authorized to allow petting on her behalf. He did know well enough, though, that she had sometimes pounced on his stroking hand and bit it a little, as if playing with him, or manifesting the primal instinct of a street cat, or even expressing affection. So he sat beside her, just in case, and put a comforting hand on her neck while Noam began smoothing her back hesitantly. Eli sat on the other side of the cat, and Alex wondered how Sarah was going to react to all of this uncalled-for company. Just for once, be a good sport, he pleaded voicelessly. But it seemed that Sarah had not perceived the two as a threat justifying retreat from the cozy couch, and she rather enjoyed the boy’s clumsy stroking. She rested her head on her paws once more and closed her eyes. Eli looked around: a light colored carpet, a director’s chair made of worn black leather, a big old wooden crate serving as a coffee table, and a large bookcase covering most of the wall facing the sofa.
“I didn’t know you had a cat,” she said.
“What’s her name?” Noam asked.
“Sarah,” he replied, and went on to explain, “she’s not really mine. She lives in the back yard, but I once took care of her when she was sick, and ever since then she comes here to eat and sleep whenever she feels like it. Especially when it rains outside.”
“Why is the tip of her ear cut this way?” Noam asked.
“Because she’s neut—”Alex began, but Eli gave him a sharp look and said, “She’s just like that. Some cats are like that.”
Noam raised his amber eyes to look at his mother, and Alex was surprised to notice some kind of a secret agreement between them: she would protect him from dubious information, and he would simply believe her, without causing too much trouble.
Sarah began to purr. “She turned on the engine,” Noam said, laughing at his own joke, and Eli smiled at him.
“How come you’re home so early?” Alex asked.
“On Tuesdays I pick up Noam from kindergarten earlier, because I work from home,” she said. And then added: “Mainly doing some small jobs for private clients.”
Since she had volunteered information, he felt it was all right to enquire further.
“Marketing and copywriting,” she said, slightly twisting her lips.
Noam’s stroking became more skillful, and Sarah rolled over and stretched.
“This means she’s ready to be your friend,” Alex said.
“That’s right.” The child seemed self-assured, and Alex could hardly repress an urge to caress his head, with the funny little tuft in the middle.
“I never really understood what that means,” he said to Eli.
She sighed. “I sell writing services that help people sell other people all kinds of stuff most of them don’t really need.”
His curiosity was now aroused beyond polite interest. “For example?”
“Training, guiding, coaching, mediation, personal development, coaching or guiding or personal development by way of art or breathing exercises or mandalas, guided imagery, spiritual consultation, energetic consultation, styling, awareness workshops, libido conversion workshops, magnetizing your soul partner…”
“Yeah. Matching souls, you know.”
He reflected briefly on the new information. “And these clients are difficult to find?”
“Not really. They are the ones who find me; I have a website. Everybody’s got to make a living, but it turns out only a few can really write – I mean, put a decent paragraph together.”
“Now I’m gonna read a story,” Noam informed them, moving away from Sarah. He crouched on the carpet and began browsing through a colorful Hundertwasser book that Alex praised himself for having been too lazy to put back on the shelf.
“And the work itself, is it difficult?”
“Mostly boring. The difficult part was finding a proper name for the website, because all the catchy ones were already taken: ‘Word for Word,’ ‘The Right Word,’ ‘The First Word,’ ‘The Last Word,’ ‘Bottom Line,’ ‘A-B-C,’ ‘From A to Z’…”
“So what did you call it?”
“Well… it’s a bit silly.” Again he waited silently, and she felt she had just gotten another glimpse of the power hidden behind his timid looks. “SpEling Success.’ A little bizarre, but turns out people find it interesting.”
“I think it’s a good one.”
He had nothing else to say, and felt he was about to exceed his query quota. The irritating sound of a drop landing in the water bowl was clearly heard in the silence that followed. “Can I offer you something to drink?” he asked, and immediately wished he hadn’t, because it sounded even to him like a polite way of suggesting that time was up.
“No, thanks. We were just leaving. Say, could you talk to Mrs. Auerbuch about the leakage?”
“Sure. I’ve already left a message, but I’ll call her again tomorrow and let her know you’ve got the same problem.”
“Thanks. Come along, kitten,” she called Noam, and he detached himself reluctantly from the book and sneaked a last glance at Sarah.
They left, and Alex sat himself in front of the computer screen and searched for “SpEling Success.” Something bothered him. Something he wasn’t yet able to identify gnawed at his mind and demanded his attention. He entered her website and smiled despite himself. “Who We Are and What We Offer,” “Copywriting and Marketing Experts,” “Effective Branding and Differentiation” – everything on her page suggested a vibrant team of writers, editors and advisors, bombarding the world with a succession of exquisite websites and brilliant texts from some fluorescent-lit open-space office overlooking the freeway, and not a young woman with a very short haircut typing restlessly in a tiny suburban apartment, a woman whose smiles always stop short of her eyes and – He suddenly realized what it was that was gnawing at him: when Noam joked about Sarah’s engine, Eli had actually smiled, a full smile, lips and all.
Business promotion, organizational development and management consulting are all services that we at Fishman Strategies provide at the highest professional level. Our goal is to guide growing organizations and companies in the process of identifying needs, increasing efficiency and fulfilling their business potential, by way of empowering human capital and through effective, result-oriented management. We initiate and implement multidisciplinary solutions and innovative methodologies aimed at reaching your business objectives in the simplest and quickest operational way.
Our skilled team at Fishman Strategies includes carefully selected experts in the fields of consulting, instruction and human resources, offering you their comprehensive professional and practical experience, combined with a profound understanding of organizational development and business strategies.
Among our clients you’ll find well-established and accomplished companies along with fresh, young organizations in the spheres of industry, trade, finance and technology.
Fishman Strategies seeks excellence and constant improvement in all—
Eli leaned backwards in her chair, closed her eyes, and rubbed her temples and forehead. A few moments later she picked herself up and switched to another screen, which had been flickering for some time, to a chat she had abruptly abandoned with a “Talk to you later” a few hours before.
You’re back. Nice of you :)
Yeah… where were we?
You wanted to ask something
Oh yeah, I wanted to ask if you’re really tattooed all over
I’ll let you find that out for yourself
Don’t like tattoos?
No problem with tattoos
You just look so tough
But I’m not that tough in bed
I like to be dominated
Is that a problem…?
Except for SM
Not into it
No SM, not really
Just… you know, you’re on top, you decide
Super, I’m on
On me, you mean
Can you send another photo?
Ok, one sec
You have a full body pic, maybe?
Clothes on is fine :)
Don’t have one…
But I can describe
Awesome. Start with the tits
Don’t think I can handle abnormal :)
(she grabs the bag lying on the floor and takes her mobile out.)
Not very tall
Petite, in general
You prefer them XL?
(She checks the time on her mobile, turns the alarm on and chokes back a yawn, as if he can see her.)
French. I love it
You speak it?
Will you speak to me?
I mean, French
I mean, in bed
I like going down
No problem with that
Nice of you. Again :)
Will you sit on me too?
Anything special U wanna have?
I’ll let you find out for yourself
Just one thing
I meet on Tuesdays only, noon time
I’ll get to see the normal tits in daylight
So can I have your number Eleanor?
Just give me yours, I’ll call
It turned out later that the raging storm only came around to clear out the endless summer, and a warm, lenient fall followed. And at the end of this soft season war broke out, like the sick spasm of a degenerate body, unable to do any good but still capable of evil and destruction. The onset was not incidental. There were those who decided on it, and those who supported it, and those who carried it out, and those who kept silent about it. There was even a slogan, some biblical war name with a touch of fall. They were bombed, we were shelled, missiles reached far and wide. A few were killed here, dozens there. Noam explained to Eli that angels were playing war games with devils, or maybe it was witches with dwarves, whatever he had heard in kindergarten combined with his own interpretations. Eli tightened her lips and waited for it to be over. In the small office she shared with the editor of the cooking section, she forced herself to watch slaughtered children on her browser every morning. Their blood-soaked clothes, their frozen, glazed eyes, the eyes of their mothers, the timid smile of a green-eyed young girl, her hair gathered into two tight little ponytails, next to the photograph of someone leaning over that same girl’s burnt body. Then she would cut and revise and rewrite pieces about a special stand-up event and a comedy festival, embedding as many visuals as possible, feeling that these slick, deceitful articles were spraying cheap perfume over the stinking corpses. Every siren evoked a wave of helpless wrath within her, and an urgent need to run to the kindergarten, and in the afternoon she would indeed run there, quite frantically, and grasp Noam to her while his face became one with the glowing round face of the timidly smiling girl in the photograph. After seven days it was all over. Ordinary life took over instantly, like water swept aside and quickly slithering back, with artless, indifferent persistence. Till the next round, Alex thought.
Like every Wednesday, at the end of school, Amit Danon, the eleventh grade homeroom teacher, parked her small car two or three blocks away and made her way on foot, through the cold wind, towards the building. As always, she couldn’t resist the urge to shoot a quick glance upstairs, although it was impossible to see anything through the window, and couldn’t hold back the hasty ascent up the stairs, after which she would gasp and try to catch her breath in front of the door. The moment of entrance was always awkward: she had to squeeze in while he closed the door behind her, and then put down her bag and turn to hug him. After that she let him take off her coat and they exchanged a few words on their way to the bedroom, where he removed the rest of her clothes. They were very efficient using their limited time, but made sure they avoided the dry practicality that would have insulted them both, and learned to ride the waves of affection and gratitude. The noon air was clear and crisp beyond the closed bedroom shutters, the wind flew wild around the building, and she shivered when the cool sheets touched her skin. His strokes, at first meant to warm her, soon aroused them both and, eyes shut, she followed the progress of his lips down her shoulders, breasts and belly, feeling her blood swirl and her body tenderly give way. She was a tall, stout woman, and her body formed an effortless friendship with his right from the very beginning. Over a year had passed and they were now both racing skillfully to the peak of pleasure. Sometimes, like on that Wednesday, she even had to restrain it a little, to delay the convulsion, before she finally let go and the tremor swept over them both, for a minute pushing them even closer to each other, and then loosening up. She remained engulfed in this sweetness for a few more moments, her face buried in the hollow of his neck, till their double panting subsided. The light outside became slightly dim, foretelling the early winter darkness that would fall in less than two hours. The sounds of the world outside their shady capsule grew distinct once again: the rumble of a motorcycle, a dog barking persistently, the wind whistling. Everything she had pushed away – her two kids, the house, the troubles at school, the rest of the day’s chores – came crawling back into her mind. As did the fact that she refused to acknowledge for the time being: that she would have to give this all up one day, put this secret in a box and lock it away. She held out her lips and they kissed at length. Then there was another short kiss, followed by a fluttering farewell gesture, and she dressed almost as quickly as she had been undressed, and left.
A few minutes later Alex heard the thump on the door and the short mewing that sounded like a tweet. How come she never arrives when Amit is here? he wondered. Tearing himself reluctantly from the warm bed and the light scent Amit had left behind, he put on his clothes and went over to open the door. Sarah walked in haughtily, tail up, brushed against his leg and then rubbed against it once more, as if reassuring herself of her possession of him. Then she arched her back, and he bent over to stroke her, wondering if she thought he, too, was some kind of a big cat.