Authors: Evan Fallenberg
During their years in America, while Joseph was studying and then completing his dissertation, Rebecca found life even harder. There were two toddlers and a baby when they left Israel and two more, the twins, by the time they returned. Joseph’s moods were unbearable and the small flat in Cambridge felt like a broom closet when he was around. She missed her cottage and her garden, the cackling from the chicken coop, the smell of baking bread from Litovsky’s ovens and the heavy perfume of orange blossoms in winter. She longed for sunshine and space, for a place where her laundry and her children would fare best if left outside in the fresh air. She suggested to Joseph that she return early to Israel with the boys, leaving him to finish writing his dissertation in peace. He pretended to protest but she could see he loved the idea. They packed up much of what they had acquired over the course of three years in Cambridge and took a last family outing to pick blueberries in the country before she boarded a train with the boys to catch a plane from New York.
Back in Israel, Rebecca felt elation and relief. Manfred had moved to the cottage, leaving the main house empty for her and her family, and she enjoyed every minute of every day after that. No task seemed impossible, except writing her weekly letter to Joseph. She was self-conscious about the many mistakes in her written English and the details of her life that would bore or upset him: Ethan and Noam starting to forget their English; one of the twins stuck in cow muck up to the waist, the other selecting from among marching ants, then eating them; the significant and unexplained rise in the number of eggs laid since their return to Israel; the cucumbers and tomatoes from the garden, now in a basket in the kitchen. Typewritten responses from Joseph arrived with not a single erasure or correction, and when he quoted a source, which he did often, he never failed to record its author, publisher, year of publication, and the specific pages referred to. She shared these letters with Manfred, who usually read them with a frown.
Joseph’s last letter was an announcement that he had successfully defended his dissertation and would be returning to Israel in two weeks, after long months of bachelor-hood. Rebecca found herself quite glad at this news. Lately she had begun to miss him in earnest and had high hopes he would return calm and optimistic, the years at Harvard behind him and a promising future teaching and writing at an Israeli university ahead. She baked a cake for the occasion and waxed the floor, and had Daniel, Ethan, and Noam draw pictures to hang on the front door in welcome. But the sullen look on his face the moment he walked in made her feel eight years old again, arriving late at a birthday party carrying the wrong gift.
“Oh, this old house,” he said dispiritedly, not two minutes after returning. She, too, noticed the sagging furniture and yellowing walls, taking it all in as if for the first time. But she loved the coziness of this house, its simplicity and quiet. She knew he would want to paint the walls, reupholster the sofa, put in a lawn. “The El Al stewardesses were rude,” he complained, “and the customs officers at the airport unbearable. Why is this country so poorly run?”
So she wonders why it was not relief she felt when he began spending more and more time away from home, going so often to Jerusalem for meetings with the rabbi who was helping him with the book he was writing. He kept promising to introduce them. He was sure she would love Rabbi Yoel, and wasn’t it wonderful that he had found a “kindred soul”—that is what he had called him—right here in Israel? He quoted the rabbi incessantly and spoke daily with him by phone.
But she could no more have imagined those two men, her husband and this rabbi, falling in love than she could imagine tossing one of her children from a speeding car.
“We need to talk,” he had said that rainy Sabbath after-noon twenty years ago, while the kids whooped and hollered in the next room. He was staring at her, standing near the kitchen sink, and continued looking into her face until she met his gaze. When he looked away she understood how serious it was. She felt a quick nervousness in her stomach. He put biscuits and two cups of chamomile tea on the table and invited her to sit with him.
What words did he use to tell her about his love for this man, about his plan to leave home that very evening, about the end of his love for her and the end of their marriage? She no longer recalls, can no longer feel the words pecking at her, though she could until just a few years ago, when she released them forever like a flock of doves. She does recall the throng of questions and images that crowded into her brain like condolence callers at a house of mourning. She sat speechless, stunned. Steam rose from her cup of tea but she could not bring herself to drink. She was doing her best to keep from retching on the kitchen table.
She watched as Joseph’s sympathy for her drained away like color from a blush. He was impatient with her lack of reaction. He expected her to say something, to cry or yell, or at least ask questions. But she sat still as death. Her eyes rested on his hands, white and benign on the tabletop, and it was at this moment that the thought struck her: they were as pale and clean and work-free as the hands of the diamond merchants and the sons of the Holocaust survivors and the inbred Swiss Jews. They were foreign, these hands. They belonged elsewhere, not in her Israeli life, not on this moshav, not with her sons. “Go,” she told those hands. “Leave us now.”
Manfred is still at the sink, with his back to her. In these last twenty years they have never discussed Joseph’s desertion. Manfred mourned his only son then went on with life. She feels a catch in her throat for this dear man, now old and lonely, his birth-year trick a thin and sorry way of trying to connect with people. She is so relieved to know he needs her, more than anyone else needs her, that she wishes she could hug him from behind, just hold him so he will know, without her having to utter words neither could bear, that she loves him, not in the way her vile neighbors thought when Joseph abandoned them—she still winces when she thinks of the whispers and stares—but simply as a caring daughter should love her dear, aging father-in-law.
How will he manage when this
gets the best of her? She rubs and pushes it, willing her body to swallow it back inside itself, dissolve it, bombard it with tiny explosions of health, anything. She is sorry now that she did not run to the clown-haired doctor. She should have heaved this swelling belly onto an operating table already, let them cut out of her what her own body could not dispose of itself. She should have had it drained, should have been tested. She should do her best to outlive him, to nurse him to his last breath—may he live to 120!
Perhaps, she thinks, lashing out would have stood her in good stead. Perhaps the snake coiling itself through her insides now would not have dared to appear had she not given it space, had her whole being been filled up, brimming over with fury like a pot of soup on a roaring flame. For years she had blamed Joseph for cowardice. He had left, after all, escaped his responsibility, run away. And she had stayed to uphold . . . but now she recognizes another truth, one that lies like an old cobblestone road beneath a well-traveled high-way: perhaps it was, in fact, Joseph who was the brave one, decisive and sure, the risk taker. He had seized an opportunity, dared to make choices, while she merely continued to play the role he had created for her, without pause or question. And now the reunion he is holding this very weekend, with all five of the sons he left behind, is proof of his triumph. Life has given him love, a family, a career, and the financial resources to enjoy himself. She rubs her belly and raises her glance to her father-in-law. Are these, then, the leftovers that life has scrounged up for her: an old man, a decrepit house, a belly full of disease?
Late in the afternoon Manfred will appear with a bouquet of anemones and cyclamen he has picked from the flower garden next to his cottage. He will be neatly groomed, wearing the shirt she ironed for him this morning. His trousers will be worn to a shine but he will not allow Rebecca to buy him new ones. She will be dressed in an old gray wool skirt, too tight at the hips, and a pink blouse, with a shawl thrown over her shoulders and wrapped snugly to cover her expanding middle. Her hair will still be wet from the shower.
His only concession to age will be Rebecca’s arm, upon which he will lean during their walk to the synagogue. The sun will have slid behind the dunes that block their view to the sea, and the sky will hover between light and night. High up in a eucalyptus tree, far above the remnants of the tree house the boys built and abandoned a dozen or more years ago, a family of bulbuls will chatter and squawk as it settles down for the night. Rebecca will catch a glimpse of a marten, long and low, slinking toward a neighbor’s coop for a raid on the hens. He will wreak havoc there, shredding the birds to bloody pieces until he has had his fill, and will cause the death of countless others whose weak hearts will give way from fear and commotion.
Several paces past the coop Manfred will stop short. “Did you ever notice this warm current of air? Right here, always the same spot. It’s only here on Shabbat, never during the week.” He will tilt his head back and his nose will quiver like a dog’s. “Curious,” he will say, shutting his eyes. He will sway with the breeze, coming to life only when he nearly loses his balance. Rebecca will pull him forward up the path. Ahead she will see only the dome of the synagogue above the line of tall firs. She will think about what lies ahead: the peaceful service, the rabbi’s short and pleasant sermon, the way the women’s section glows in pale yellow light. And after services, outside the great wooden doors, how they will all stand, shivering slightly in the winter cold, how the children will play tag between their fathers’ legs, how the grandparents and great-grandparents will shuffle slowly toward home, how the younger married women will parade their hats. It is almost Purim, she will think, then Passover, then Independence Day, her favorite season of the year.
All at once she will feel a deep and terrible sadness for her ex-husband. He will have missed all this; he even chose to abandon it. But she, if she can only keep sickness at bay long enough, will surely be privileged soon to watch her own grandchildren play tag here; she will witness the march of the generations and take her place in a chain of people and events that no longer has anything to do with her but in fact depends on her very existence. Her youngest son is married. Surely the older boys will begin to marry soon and then babies—a dozen at least, oh certainly more than that—will roll and tumble into her quiet life and she will make time for them all and teach them her little bits of Swiss wisdom, tell them Alpine stories, feed them European delicacies, drape a sweater over her shoulders, and push their prams around and around the moshav. Poor Joseph, she will muse. He has worked so hard to get everything he wished for, while she has wished for nothing and will be boundlessly content with the tiniest, subtlest pleasures. If only she can stay alive.
Rebecca takes several deep breaths to stem the maelstrom of tears and worry that has gathered in her chest. To her father-in-law’s rounded back at the sink she says, “I just want to know what you would prefer for dessert this evening, Opa. An apple pie perhaps, or a poppy roll? Or maybe you’d prefer a chocolate ring cake.” Manfred does not react at all, and Rebecca wonders whether his ears have finally reached their nineties along with the rest of him. Then, without turning around, he pronounces one word— “chocolate”—a little too loudly, and with that she knows he has been appeased and will be able to continue his morning routine. And in the very same moment, with sudden clarity, she knows precisely whom it is she must tell about the growth in her belly: Joseph, and only Joseph. She will phone him today and tell him her news. It is only right that he share the burden, and this very thought lightens her own.
“Then chocolate it shall be,” she says almost cheerily to her father-in-law. She is now free to return to her own house, where two of her boys are waiting for breakfast.
* * *
“Good morning, Professor Licht!” Shlomi Buzaglo, his favorite doorman, pokes his broad and friendly face into the taxi with an offer to escort him to the entrance. Joseph enjoys the careful attentions of this cheerful young Moroccan from the working-class south side of the city. Not having noticed the drizzle that started on the way uptown, he is surprised to see Shlomi pushing a luggage cart and carrying an enormous umbrella. The umbrella is hardly necessary when all Joseph has to do is step out of the cab and walk six or seven paces to the front door, but the management of this building—the only one in Tel Aviv with two doormen round-the-clock—sets its standards by Manhattan and London, so Joseph is duly escorted.
This morning Joseph is too preoccupied for his usual reveries; he does not wonder if Rebecca has ever come to steal a peek at this lavish lobby, so different from the simple home they shared as husband and wife. He is oblivious even to the cheekiness of the second doorman, who mocks his every gesture in spite of Joseph’s numerous complaints to the security manager. The young man holds the elevator doors and presses the penthouse button for him too effusively, a spurious smile pulled wide across his face.
Joseph enters the flat in a rush, tosses his keys onto an ornate secretary he and Pepe bought on auction in Budapest, and passes straight through to the cavernous kitchen. Shlomi is just rolling the luggage cart off the service elevator as Joseph opens the back door.
“Looks like you’re cooking for a crowd.” Shlomi’s tone of voice is always amicable.
“Well, yes, I suppose I am,” replies Joseph as he helps Shlomi move the bags and boxes onto the counters. He pauses to flick on the electricity and all at once the kitchen explodes in bright lights reflecting off shiny copper pans, gleaming crystal goblets, dazzling silver platters, beveled glass windowpanes, and highly polished appliances. Both men squint. “I have five sons and a daughter-in-law and they’re all coming to spend the whole Shabbat with me. My boys are around your age, and they eat a lot.”