Photo: Lia Yaffe
By Mayan Rogel
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
I remember Mom crying in the kitchen. She says, “Yoni, we’re so stupid. Why did we agree?” He answers her quietly so I can’t hear. I remember the smell of laundry and cooking. Dad made Chinese, with peppers and candied pecans.
We go into my Mom’s house. It’s bigger than she needs. And the grandchildren don’t sleep over there anymore. Mine are too big. Nir’s are just the right age, but after covid, we agreed she is too old for that now. We have stopped counting on her, started calling her more, coming over more. We have urged her to give up the car and the driving. She, for her part, has stopped telling us where she is going and when. She fights for her independence like old people do. My kids talk to her in that pitying tone that breaks my heart – as if they’re already saying goodbye. But today she looks fine. She hugs me. She smells like laundry and caramel. Which is why I remember that time she cried. Probably.
When Nir walks in with the kids, I feel a throb of fear and longing deep in my stomach. I’m familiar with it. It happens to me a lot. Every time something good happens, it scares me. I etch this moment deep into my memory, miss it even as it happens, because there are places you can never go back to. I had a therapist once, a decent psychologist, who said it is one of the soul’s defense mechanisms, and I mustn’t neutralize it. But I didn’t believe her, and I keep trying anyway.
There’s no special event today. Two weeks ago it was my dad’s birthday and I went with Mom to the cemetery. But today there’s nothing, just a Friday dinner. In two weeks, we’ll be back here.
It throbs, this phantom longing. As scary as water breaking at the start of a birth. I silence it and go hug everyone. Nir’s eldest, Yael, is on edge. Glued to her cell. “I have teenager dramas at home now,” Nir says, and kisses my forehead. He always kisses my forehead, that little brother of mine. Stealing my part.
It’s snowing. I’m eight, I think. Nir’s still little. He’s in Mom’s arms. He’s laughing, she’s laughing. My dad is standing on the balcony like a child, arms thrown wide, face towards the snow, mouth gaping. Then he shouts at my Mom, “See what we agreed to do it for? See? Admit it! You never thought you’d see snow again.” Then we’re all dancing in the snow, gathering it from the rail. We go down together to the park. When my parents are busy taking pictures of themselves and Nir, I take off my shoes and put my bare feet in the fresh snow. The cold steals my breath away. My toes dig in. This cold is happiness.
Lior, my son, puts the news on. He feels responsible for all of us. He was honorably discharged from the army. He is too old for his age. Even though he’d served close to home, in an intelligence unit, he’d matured as if he had returned from the front. I look at him and the longing for the baby he once was breaks my heart. I miss the way he used to suck on my cheek, leeching onto the meaty part, holding my face and suckling until a reddish mark appeared and my stomach hurt from laughing. I miss his baby hands playing with my hair. Then I feel ashamed of missing him like that when he’s right here beside me. He watches the news and there’s nothing. We thought there’d be something. We all did, after a committee had investigated, after it turned out we had been nothing but pawns in a game played between two superpowers.
“It’ll blow up soon, big time!” Lior said six weeks ago, when the press conference was held. But it didn’t blow up. Everything went quiet. Two days, three days, a week, two weeks. It’s been a month and a half with the news full of all the ordinary stuff – domestic violence, fires, natural disasters — nothing out of the ordinary. He turns on the news every evening, eagerly anticipating some large-scale event, thinking of an impending revolution, demonstrations blossoming into riots. Something.
There’s nothing today, either.
I’m ten, peeking at my parents watching the news when they think I’m reading in bed. They sit poring over a chart. Dad is writing things on it. Mom nods. They’re both tense. As if the news is not summing up the things that were, but what will be. An anchorman says they’ve found the remains of the Titanic. Mom says, “I don’t know, Yoni. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost the same. The deviations are awfully small. I’m not sure we’ve managed to pull it off.”
Mom sits beside Lior watching the news with him. She tells him, “Liori, whatever happens, happens. You can’t be the world’s babysitter.” He kisses her on the cheek. Of all the grandchildren, he’s always been closest to her. He listens to her more than he does to me.
I look at my youngest, Netta, playing on the gaming console with her cousins. She’s better than them at the racing games, less so at the first-person shooter games. Nir is standing behind her. “You’re a little getaway driver, aren’t you?” he says, and she laughs. “One day, when your Mom’s not looking, I should take you for a little drive in the parking lot. What do you say?”
He gives me a defiant look. I’m supposed to scold him. Instead, I feel tears welling. November. The end of November. The twenty-fifth. I know it’s an important date and try to remember why. The forecast says it’ll rain next week. I’m at my mother’s and I miss the way her house smells, laundry and caramel, though it still engulfs me, absorbed by my skin, my hair.
Actually, I went down to the snow on my own. I was eight years old. They had stayed home with Nir and I went outside on my own. My Mom said, “It’s fine, Yoni. It’s different now, let the child go downstairs. It’s snowing. There aren’t any cars anyway.”
I went downstairs on my own. Barefoot.
I went downstairs barefoot, then ran out into the snow. The cold of that day has remained solid in my memory. I remember – it was the coldest winter I ever experienced. It was my first snow. That is something you never forget.
The clatter of the dishes. The plates, the murmuring voices. They usually fight, the children. But today no one is crying, shouting, or arguing. They are six kids, and we are four adults. Five, counting Mom. That’s a lot of people. A lot of dishes, a lot of voices to hang onto. And I think, If this is the last time, then it’s fine. Let it end like this. Then I am upset at myself. “This isn’t pessimism,” that psychologist told me. “It’s holding on.”
I sit in front of her. I’m thirty, here to see her because of the panic attacks. Michael insisted. In my hands, there’s a cup of tea spiced with herbs from her garden. There’s some anise in there, with an overly potent smell. But the tea tastes good. It soothes my mouth. She waits for me to tell her what I remember of the fire, of that moment when my life had been cut off and then started over. She looks at me and her pen hovers above the page. I sit there with the tea in my hand, and I realize the memory contains nothing of that. I can’t recall the smell of smoke, or the blazing heat, or the firemen. Nothing. I tell her I can’t remember anything. Only that we came out of the house, the three of us, and my mom already had a tiny pregnant belly, and I had a doll in my hand, and I can’t remember what happened to it. She listens and writes. And writes. And writes. I drink the tea and think about not remembering what happened to that doll. A plush dog. I think. Red.
They are standing out on the balcony, Mom is smoking a cigarette. “If things get messy,” she says to Lior, “promise me you’ll stay away from the streets, from the riots. You hear? Promise! Don’t look at me like that. If there’s rioting, you’re responsible for making sure that no one, not you, not your parents or your sisters, goes outside. You get me?” He nods, takes a drag, and only then sees that I have seen. He quickly hands the cigarette back to her. I want a drag, too, but I’m too ashamed to smoke next to him. He motions to me with his hand that she’s not okay in the head. My mom. His grandma. They’re washed-out.
It’s evening. I’m in the shower, changing the water from scalding to cold. I love the feeling of that change on my skin. I’ve completed my army service and am now before the big trip. I hear Dad shouting, “There it is! There! He shot him!” I get out of the shower with the towel wrapped around me. The television is on. The news is chaotic. Dad is standing by the television. He says, “They shot Prime Minister Rabin.”
When they announce on the news, with astonishment, that Rabin is dead, my parents hug. She tells him, still in his embrace, “It will never be the same.”
In the kitchen, she puts a hand on my arm and says, “Listen, I told Lior, I’ll tell you too. If this turns into rioting, you’ll stay away, you hear me? Stock up the house. Tomorrow. Don’t go anywhere. Deliveries only.”
“Mom, are you feeling all right? Have you been sleeping well?”
And she tells me, “Yes, sweetie, yes.”
“It’s the anxieties again? Like in the lockdown?” I ask, my hand on her shoulder. Her body is still strong.
“Just promise me you won’t let the children go out. You’ll keep away from the streets. Promise me.”
And I say, “I promise, Mom, okay? I promise.”
She doesn’t tell him that things will never be the same. She says, “It’s not the same. Not the same timeline, Yoni. Everything’s fine.”
And in the background, the official statement from outside the hospital. Over and over again. The government of Israel makes the announcement, with astonishment. She smiles in tears. And so does he. Tears of relief. I just can’t get my parents.
Maybe I’ve drunk too much. I go out with a Coke to the yard next to the building. Nir comes, too.
“Tell me, does Mom look all right to you?” he asks.
“Not really,” I reply. “Has she told you not to leave the house, as well?”
“Yes. I don’t know. Those two months on her own really did her in. She’s lost her balance. As if Dad’s death finally got to her. Maybe it’s genetic and you’re gonna lose it soon, too, you old hag.”
I punch him in the shoulder. And we’re two little kids. I feel like telling him sweet little things, feel like hugging him.
But in the end, we just go upstairs.
“Nothing’s ever mine. Everything is on loan. I’m always a guest,” I tell the new psychologist. I came to him because my dad had died of a heart attack. Because Mom’s grief is killing me. And also because the panic attacks still wake me in the middle of the night.
He says, “It sounds like you rehearsed this. Like you’re used to seeing the world like this. Let’s try to take it apart.” It’s a first session, and his office smells like upholstery cleaner and disinfectant. I know this is going nowhere. I don’t feel like talking about my childhood and my parents again, and how I never had an extended family. And the fire that I don’t remember, and the kids and Michael. I really don’t feel like doing any of this.
“What therapy could possible help when reality is so unstable?” I ask.
He says, “The instability is yours. The reality is always the same.”
As I’m leaving, at the entrance, I am scratched by some plant. A long, shiny scratch on my shin.
I remember myself at five years old. There are only a few of us in the kindergarten. I am wearing a white shirt. It’s raining outside. The teacher asks us, “Do you know what day this is?”
One of the girls says, “November twenty-fifth.”
And I say, “Memorial Day.”
We’re both right. It is two weeks after my dad’s birthday. I baked a cake with Mom for him. Now it’s Memorial Day, but I’m not sure in memory of what.
Time moves on, and the sun has started to set. Mom gets another news update with Lior. Nothing. Just some car accident in Wadi Araba. She has the hot flashes she gets when not at her best. If I could follow what’s going on in her brain, get some clear snapshot, I could breathe easier. I’m afraid that the next time we come she won’t be so lucid anymore. Each time could be the last, and, yes, I know this can be said about anything. You can’t live like that. Maybe it was my last shrink who told me that. “Each time could be the last. You can’t live like that.” Or maybe I said that to Michael.
Sometimes, like now, it’s hard for me to hold onto the memories.
At the door, she gives me another hug. She says, “Remember when we moved here? When you were little? After the fire?” I tell her I do. She says, “Do you remember the before?” I tell her I don’t. Still in the hug, she says, “So remember, okay? I need you to remember. Call me when you do.”
I say “See you next week. I’ll drop by, okay? Maybe with the kids.”
And she says, “Yes, sweetie,” holding onto the hug. “Promise me that if it begins you won’t go outside and you’ll keep safe. I love you.” She kisses me on the forehead. There are tears in her eyes. Deep in my gut, a tiny nuclear explosion goes off, sending heatwaves of panic through my body from the center to the edges, until my face is burning with fear.
I’m six. We rush out of our old apartment. It’s in a high-rise building. I know I’m not supposed to ever go out by myself. It’s dangerous. When we leave the house, Mom holds onto the handle for a really long time. Dad says to me, “Come on, honey. We’re late.” I have a little plush dog in my hand. I ask where we’re going and Dad says, “We had to get out, there’s a fire. Can’t you smell it? A fire broke out and we have to leave the house.”
We drive home. Lior says he’s going out tonight. I think he has a new girlfriend. The kids talk among themselves. Michael and I are quiet.
I cry when Mom takes the plush dog from my hand. We’re in a big, big room, and it’s cold. There are other people around. And soldiers in the doorway. She explains that I have no choice. Not everything can come with us. Nothing can come with us.
Darkness descends early. I etch this brief family drive into my memory, as well, so I won’t lose it. I hope we’ll go and see my mom again. I hope I’ll get to drive the car with my three children again. With my husband.
I realize I’m saying goodbye to them. To our lives. No one can live like this.
I sit in front of the TV with a glass of wine. Lior is getting ready to go out. I ask him if he’s sure it’s a good idea. He tells me, “Now you’re starting, too?” and laughs.
That’s just the way it is. “My mom and I, we come from the same planet,” I say, and we laugh. But fear ties knots in me and I can’t breathe. I ask Michael to get me a pill.
Mom shows me photos. We live in a small apartment with a door that has three locks. The air conditioning is on and outside it’s hot and yellow. Mom shows me old photos on a touchscreen, even though I’m little, and these are supposed to have been taken in the eighties. There’s a photo of my parents there, with ruins behind them. It’s the Knesset building, and it’s in ruins. Mom is young in the photo, and there is blood on her face and a black flag in her hand.
Lior comes out of his bedroom. He smells good. Like his Dad. And he’s wearing the cologne we bought him. Now I’m sure he has a girlfriend.
I say, “Keep safe.”
I’m like Mom. I’m not entirely all there since the lockdown. But I don’t want to admit it. I feel its traces in my body, my consciousness.
I actually remember a fire. But at a later age. I was twelve. There was a fire across the road, on a thistle-covered hill. The smell came to us through the window. Mom held my shoulders, and Nir stood beside me. And I was surprised. I remember being surprised, because I didn’t know they smelled like this, fires. This was the first time. You never forget something like that. My first fire. At the age of twelve. Not six. Twelve.
The water is pouring over my body, and I feel the heaviness of tiredness, and alcohol, and the pill starting to take effect, and everything starts swirling together in my head. There wasn’t any fire when I was six. Dad lied to me, and he’s too dead now to properly explain why. I have to remember on my own. Mom is waiting for me to remember on my own. I open my mouth under the stream, allowing water and memories to fill my body.
“Fuck!” I hear Michael shouting. I get out of the shower, wrapped in a towel. He is holding his head in both hands in front of the television. Standing. “Fuck,” he says again.
I call Lior and ask him to come home. “Now,” I tell him. “Bring the girl with you. Straight home. No nonsense.” He doesn’t argue. He hears something in my voice, and says he’s on his way. I sit on the sofa, still in the towel. Michael remains standing. It’s November, but I’m not cold. Winter hasn’t been cold for years. And it hasn’t snowed for years.
I remember cold. I remember looking back, I remember a red plush dog that stayed behind, and my parents holding my hands and Mom telling me, “Here it comes. Close your eyes now.”
And I close my eyes.
I call Mom. In the background, the television is humming and hissing. Michael finally sits down. The dial tone pulsates in my body. She answers.
I tell her, “Mom, I remember,” and she begins to cry.