By Nurit Zarchi
Translated from Hebrew by Lisa Katz
As usual, when he came to visit the children as he did every week, he preferred to drink coffee with her in the kitchen, rather than spend time with them in their room.
He sat in his usual place. She asked herself whether that happened automatically, and whether that meant that on a non-existential plane – on an atmospheric level, so to speak – he still lived with her in this house, and whether for some reason he chose this seat to say to her, “I’m still here, I still have rights here,” perhaps so that she wouldn’t think she could demand anything, for example, dental treatments for the children, because in some way, he was still her husband, living here with her, and she still had to be considerate of him.
She didn’t ask “Milk and sugar?” She remembered, of course. She now realized, seeing through his eyes, that some of the cups were cracked, but one survived like an archeological remain, and she chose this one for him, so he sat, warming his hands on the mug even though it was midsummer, and she noticed his fingers, the way she had noticed them before, because the image floated up unchanged in her brain, which seemed to preserve memories together with word pictures. The images were like the blind newborn of some animal, something between mammals and lizards.
In the first months, or maybe the first year or even two years, she’d cry when she saw him. Not out of sorrow but out of pain. If you think about it, even though they are similar, they are not the same. From the material point of view, pain is made of metal and sorrow from water, so that while sorrow may drown you, pain kills.
What can be done to dislodge pain? The ancient Indians say, cause pain.
For one instant she thought he would engage her in conversation, and then he spoke: “This cat” (a cat from their life together which now curled up in his lap) “will never have kittens again, she’s too old, isn’t she?”
“She didn’t have kittens when she was young.” After she uttered it she understood why the sentence seemed overly intimate, offensive even.
He placed her, without her having asked, in before and after boxes, like the ads which featured women before and after cosmetic improvements, and that alone was enough to make her angry, a familiar anger.
They had never really conducted a conversation. They didn’t speak even when they were forced to divorce.
Forced? To a certain extent, since the waves that rose were higher than they were, and they couldn’t call them back. It was because of their powerlessness and not because of their will. She was the one who insisted when it became clear that their life together was incorrect. Incorrect in what sense? In that it was buried deep, emerging only seldom as the only way to survive, even though in retrospect a lot of masks show up, like lies, as the only way to survive.
She felt that it was in her power to get him back at the moment when this became the right thing to do. Like a magician whose abracadabra cancelled out gravity. She attributed importance to this feeling, and understood that she had to move forward at any price. She had to act as she acted, and assumed that because of her willingness to pay for her deeds, the world would cooperate with her, such a fighter.
She was thinking about this now for the first time, but couldn’t tell him. She knew he would ask, “What do you want now? The past is over.” Something which she of course never grasped as true.
“Dad, where are you?” Dror called from the other side of the half-open door of the children’s room. He didn’t want his mother to come in.
“Wait,” called her husband, standing up unenthusiastically.
But before he rose, she managed to say, “The children tell me you have a serious girlfriend.”
“Yes,” he said, half standing, half sitting, frozen in movement like someone caught in a stop-frame.
“I told them. I thought it was the right thing to do.” He said this in a half-questioning tone.
“Sure, sure,” she said. “It’s for the best.”
Not to keep fishy stuff behind one’s back.
“At first I didn’t want to tell them, but when I realized it was becoming a regular thing…” his language twisted and separated, but not decisively, like paths to the sea still bluish with water.
“Yes, for how long?”
“What’s the difference?”
He threw the cat down with a bang. Kitta wrinkled her face as though she’d eaten something sour.
“I’m coming,” he said to Dror, but not before he asked, “Yariv’s not here?” He tended to call the boys a team, to her annoyance.
“No, he said to tell you he’d come by to visit you, he had to go out, they had practice today and they’ve lost twice already this season. Tell me, how long has this been going on?”
She was aware of the tone in her “this,” as if it were an act unworthy of a name. Her ancient hostility revealed itself like a weed poking out of a flowerbed, hostility which always led her to demand something from him. That bottomless hunger, which had to be thrown a sacrifice. He wasn’t the victim, she was the only one, and she wanted, without being aware of it, for him to understand this.
“What do you care?”
If he had wanted to protect her, he succeeded in doing the opposite.
But she surprised herself as well when she said pleasantly: “Perhaps you should bring her to dinner. Then you can see Yariv and give the children a feeling that everything’s okay.”
“I don’t know if Shlomit will agree,” he said.
“Shlomit? Ah, yes. Of course she’ll agree.”
That’s how it is, women always want to take over the entire space, you know. She could have said: Hast thou killed and also taken possession? They were of the generation that knew the Bible.
But she understood – she thought the minute she pronounced the words – and he did too, that she was the one who had run through the fence of their marriage at a gallop, and dismantled it. He was the one who, despite her wish, failed to stop her.
Even if he wanted to fling blame at her, or, as he usually did, mockery, he didn’t do so, because straight answers weren’t their style. She preferred this as the reason, rather than to think that he believed it was better to forgive a woman who spoke a certain way because she was pitiable.
And so she said, with weird enthusiasm, “How would Tuesday be?” And he answered before he shut the door to the children’s room, “If Shlomit says yes, then from my point of view it’s fine.”
She had to gather herself up after he left, it was always the same.
Her eye caught the sink, the chair he’d been sitting in, the door to the children’s room which shut after him, the hallway, the sofa – witnesses to their attempt at happiness.
Happiness? Or the desire to lose themselves somewhere inside one of the cells in a beehive: to buzz and fly inside and out along the flickering lanes, among the honeysuckle bushes and the eucalyptus trees and the rest of the flowering weeds, where socially-minded bees recharge their batteries with pollen.
“Dror said you invited dad and his girlfriend to dinner. Are you out of your mind, or what?”
“That’s no way to talk, Yariv.”
“You know it will make you nervous. You yourself always say that dad makes you nervous.”
“So I said it.”
“And his girlfriend, she’s probably very annoying.”
“Annoying? What’s she like?” she asked, a researcher pleased to unexpectedly trip over a finding.
“I didn’t say she was, but she’ll annoy you.”
He wanted to protect her, so she wasn’t angry with him. “It’s ok, Reevie,” she said, taking a chance by calling him the name she used only infrequently, when she dared not to be surprised by the anger she’d aroused.
“I’ve got to go,” he said, a roll still in his mouth, his bag on one shoulder, “Just remember that I warned you, and you should know that I won’t be any part of it. If you want to do this, it’s your responsibility.”
“Of course,” she said, taken aback for a moment. Responsibility and solitude were words that stood too close together; in her eyes, they were almost interchangeable.
She sat in the kitchen, itself overwhelmed. The remains of Dror’s breakfast, Yariv’s undrunk chocolate milk, and yesterday’s dinner dishes sat on her conscience like sins.
But this time they encouraged her to cross the domestic Rubicon.
Dinner: carbohydrates-protein-fats mixed together until they were unidentifiable. If you can read, you can cook, she used to say, gathering up her courage to plan the menu.
She discovered broad expanses of generosity within herself, and out of this space she purchased purple bowls, and wine goblets whose burnished glass reflected the table around which sat an unseen extended family on Friday nights and at Passover seders; she had bought them second hand. She had a good excuse and so she didn’t feel guilty but rather drew great enjoyment from them, like someone in the middle of a diet whose doctor makes her eat a huge plate of ice cream. And she also bought a bouquet of flowers, purple delphiniums and snowy white flowers, to match the exciting tremor of flickering candles.
“In the middle of the week?” the saleswoman asked.
It was obviously the right thing to do. The whole house was upgraded by the flowers, which set into motion the motes of light around them until they reached into all the corners of the room. The entire space quivered with pain.
The napkins, which looked like flamingo wings, she stuffed into the glasses at the last minute.
“How does it look?” she asked Yariv, who stood staring at the table from the side. She couldn’t help but notice that he’d gathered up his long hair into a rubber band at the back.
“What a nice girl you have, lady.” She’d heard these comments, innocent or cutting. His sexuality wasn’t formed enough to stand up for itself in the exchange of representative signs.
She felt a stab of pain, knowing this was how he was trying to protect her from the possibly judgmental invasion of the guest.
She lit the purple candles at the center of the table.
“You’ve gone completely mad,” Yariv said. Dror was standing at his side, like a small tree next to a large one, and it was unclear whether they were of the same species or not.
“No,” she said, supported by a rare feeling of confidence. And then a knock was heard at the door.
What was surprising about her, about Shlomit, wasn’t her round face in relation to her slim, honed figure, and not her clothing which was, as to be expected, original, but the way she deviated from the ordinary, and the knowledge that she had a real existence of her own.
It might be that this was it– and not because she didn’t allow her and her husband to carry on with their old conversation, to encourage the feeling that at any moment she so desired she could retrieve their old life, its image loose and trembling in the air – perhaps this was the thing that determined the impossibility of ignoring the strange woman’s presence.
Shlomit said, “How pretty you are!”
Shlomit said, “Hi boys,” not in an arrogant way and not in a flattering way.
Shlomit said, “Yigal, why didn’t you tell me that your wife” – yes, she used the word “wife” – “knows how to cook?”
Dror and Yariv’s faces, their mother didn’t like to call them the boys, showed small crevices, jigsaw puzzle cracks, as they appeared and disappeared behind the flowers in the vase.
Shlomit’s face glowed above the table, like a not-completely-full moon, the kind whose shortcomings are hard to discern.
She poured wine into the glasses, and when it was finished she brought out the bottle she been keeping since their wedding. Someone had given it to her and her husband, and they’d never found the right moment to open it. She wanted to give her all, to celebrate his finding a woman after her own heart, a woman she could go the distance with, a woman who understood why she’d had to leave her husband, because she understood that solitude was a place he could not penetrate. All of this because…and she spoke the end of the sentence aloud:
“He has a happy nature.” She turned to Shlomit over her shoulder.
And then a small sort of earthquake passed through the table, and Shlomit threw a glance at her ex-husband. The alliance she’d tried to build with her against him hit the impermeable wall that Shlomit had erected around him simply by virtue of her existence.
When she cleared the dishes from the table, which looked like the ruins of something that could never have existed, she felt that she was being moved, dragged outside the sheltering canopy she’d received from her husband, still there dangling by a thread. The light fixture, the chair, the thin curtain, the way the insides of homes look from the street when you take your evening stroll and a great longing arises: Even if you have such a corner in the world, she thought when she was supposed to be sleeping, someone on the other side of the wall of sleep was moving around in the drops of morning rain on the roof. And then her fear dissipated for a moment, or withdrew at least.
Fear of what? Of everything. Of the solitary moments, balling up one by one until they all roll together, and the streets which stretch out to somewhere: The fear grows stronger because she knows she can’t bring her husband back, even if she proves that her migrating birds are actually roosters on a farm.
She covered Dror, who’d fallen asleep on the sofa, as Yariv turned the dishwasher on angrily, to support his declaration that he wouldn’t help her.
“Don’t you see,” he dismissed her, his lips soft but contracted in silence.
Her husband’s eyes still hovered in front of her; they had prevented him from kissing her goodbye as he usually did when he visited the children. He held Shlomit’s waist, and Shlomit, as if in homage, draped herself against his side, leaving with a hasty thank you, returning generosity that was now tainted with suspicion.
She wanted to say something to Yariv that would save her honor, to explain why she was the way she was, but she herself wasn’t any more responsible for this city – the one lit up in her brain, like the holy cities in medieval pictures, even if they were false visions – than the one who had created her like this. What was this truth she was beholden to, more important to her than self-defense, the truth in her mind- which she could no more refuse to obey than geese a change in weather. She would have to walk the paths in her brain to the end, and there would be all the life to come to understand, if she ever understood, that they are not a primitive vestige, as we assume when we want to justify the patterns of our lives, but great privileges that we don’t choose, like those awarded virtuoso violinists with wounded fingers who, Paganini, for example, play our fate magnificently.