Authors: Evan Fallenberg
“Leave, Father,” he said to the wall.
“I am certain I did not hear you properly,” Manfred answered, his German consonants slicing the Hebrew words into sharp, neat cubes.
Joseph sat up in a mangle of sheets and faced his father. His hair was slick and matted, his mouth coated and foul smelling. His shirt twisted sideways, the third button sacrificed to the bedclothes. Anger raged from his every pore, and Joseph spoke with a clear and controlled menace through gritted teeth. “I said leave my home. Go back to your moshav and do not bother me here again.” He stared into his father’s face through wide-open eyes and neither blinked nor swallowed.
Manfred opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. His bearded jaw quivered and Joseph detected a tic flickering lightly under his left eye. But his father said nothing. Instead he turned his back and left the flat, closing the door as lightly as if he were parting from a sleeping infant.
“No!” Joseph yelled. “That’s not how you do it!” He bounded out of bed, threw open the door, and shouted into the empty hall, “I’ll show you.” And he slammed the door shut, again and again and again, until the hinges rattled, and the doorknob came loose, and the ringing in his ears matched the shouts and moans and sobs that wrenched themselves free from his throat.
Joseph experienced the weather as an internal phenomenon that spring as he stumbled from home to work and back each day. He mistook the raging heat for the aftermath of an explosion he had detonated in the middle of his life, felt it shrink and shrivel the lobes of his brain until there was nothing left in his head but a few dried peas and a lot of swirling hot dust. He woke up parched each morning with a pain in his throat that felt like a fish bone caught sideways. His eyes stung and his nose bled often. Joseph’s sense of loss was so great that sometimes he would pinch himself in the leg or arm, surprised to find all his organs and appendages intact.
there were days of great beauty and clarity that spring. Crocuses blossomed along the banks of the Yarkon River in festive quantities and a fresh sea breeze blew gently across Tel Aviv, fanning away the smog and the grime, but Joseph was oblivious to the change. There is nothing redeeming about me, he thought as he plucked blackened bread from his ancient toaster. I deserve this punishment, he told himself in an office at the university, when a shelf of books loosened itself from the wall and tumbled onto his head. The pain was a welcome relief, a diversion.
He had been hired as an associate professor at Tel Aviv University and was assigned to teach two introductory literature courses and an upper-level tutorial on the English romantics that semester. He had prepared his lectures in the preceding months, had sounded out ideas on Yoel. Now he was walking through them in a daze. He found he could suffer the time in front of the class if he just concentrated on reading his notes. He was aware of the need to clear his throat often, as though a layer of fine sand and dust had settled there. Attendance flagged as his voice flattened to a monotone, his range as thin as parchment.
Joseph declined all invitations. The department head requested his company for a home-cooked meal; colleagues offered coffee, a movie, even a weekend in the Galilee. His only social engagements consisted of meetings with lawyers, his and hers. He agreed to everything, all conditions. When Rebecca’s lawyer insisted that Joseph be forbidden from meeting with more than three of his sons at a time, his own lawyer tried to rally him to protest, but the Rabbinical Court had stipulated no visitation rights until the divorce was settled so Joseph consented and consented. By the time her lawyer was pushing a clause that would bar the boys from ever sleeping over at Joseph’s home, neither he nor his lawyer reacted at all.
During that spring only one thing surprised Joseph, the realization rousing him from his stupor: that it was not only Yoel he mourned, but his boys, too. Living with them, he had been an impatient, short-fuse father, offended by their noise and too preoccupied to respond to their constant pleas for attention. “Daddy, watch this!” they would cry as they turned somersaults or flew paper airplanes or jumped from hills of dirt. “Over here, Daddy, look!” they would call as they carried trays of eggs from the chicken coop or shimmied up the trunks of towering eucalyptus trees. He would glance, smile, and return to what he was doing, even if he was not really
anything. In fact, during his last months at home, he was always thinking, planning. When would he get to see Yoel next? What elaborate web of lies would he have to construct to arrange an overnight tryst? What clever gift could he bring to his lover at their next rendezvous?
But now that he had lost them, his boys became his obsession. He longed for their endless questions, ached to watch them curled in their beds, kicking off sheets and blankets almost as fast as he and Rebecca could cover them. He was desperate for dawn, the silence of night’s end pierced by their croaking voices. “I’m the first awake
!” Ethan would call brightly each morning. “Quiet!” Daniel would mumble, and the twins would spring awake, rattling the bars of their cribs with a song from nursery school. He pressed his hands flat to his face as he thought of bath time, when the old claw-foot bathtub became a sailing ship, a submarine, a sea. Their whoops and shouts resounded in his brain, bouncing madly in that empty cavern. He recalled the last bath, Noam and the twins screeching their own version of the chant they had heard Daniel and Ethan create when it was their turn in the water: “Don’t want shampoo, don’t want soap. Don’t want nothing, nope, nope, nope!”
Up until the Saturday night he had left home, he had counted on love, had not, in fact, given it a thought. His wife had loved him quietly. Yoel had loved him with passion and fanfare, with bells and whistles and fireworks, and, also, with the dark, sad beauty of a requiem. The boys had loved him, though they would never have known to name it love. Joseph knew that even his father loved him without ever once in his life having told him so. And he, Joseph, had loved them all in return, in different measures and shapes.
So now that he had stuffed all this unwieldy love into a large cloth sack and tied it closed, now that he had choked off this protean but constant supply, he began to ponder the nature of love. He wondered if he could survive without it, wondered if their stifled love would wither and die or whether it would swirl around, puffing up and out and eventually spilling back into his life. He wondered if the different loves he felt for them—and surely, he thought, the love he felt for Yoel and the love he felt for the boys should have different names, their natures were so vastly different—would grow or diminish, would fossilize or metamorphose.
The divorce came to court during the second week in May. A headache the size of a fist had wedged itself behind Joseph’s left eye, and he felt himself involuntarily winking at the three rabbis on the dais in front of him. Rebecca seemed plumper but pale, and she wore a suit he knew she hated, a hand-me-down
from a Swiss aunt. Her hair was freshly washed and gleaming. She was hatless, though Joseph was certain her lawyer would have instructed her to cover her head in respect for the court just as Joseph’s lawyer had instructed him. He couldn’t help smiling at her bullheadedness, risking the capricious wrath of the court on principle; no one could tell Rebecca what to do when she knew she was right. Joseph understood it was not because she was so sure she would get what she wanted from the court but rather that she refused to win on any terms but her own. She was stubborn but right, he reasoned, exactly like his own father.
During his first week on his own Joseph had removed the
from his head and the
fringes he wore under his shirt, shoving them to the back of a drawer stuffed with socks. He had watched the sun set, commencing his first Sabbath away from home, and flicked the lights on and off to see what would happen. It took several weeks for him to use a pencil or turn on a gas flame; until then he found excuses for why he had no need to write or cook on the Sabbath. He was still separating milk from meat and keeping
food out of his apartment so that, he hoped, his sons could one day eat a meal in his home.
The triumvirate of rabbis shuffled papers, sucked on their beards, sighed. The eldest of them spoke up, addressing no one in particular. “And you have done everything in your power to make peace between yourselves? You have made every effort at
for the sake of those five boys?” And to Joseph, quietly, as if it were only the two of them in the court-room together: “Surely this madness is behind you. A lovely wife, a lovely family. You are a religious man and a learned man. You know what the Torah says: a punishment of immense proportions.” The fist behind Joseph’s eye had swollen to the size of a small boulder and was pressing his nose, his ears, threatening to break through the top of his skull.
“Excuse me, Rabbi,” said Rebecca’s lawyer, “but this divorce was initiated by
client. Mr. Licht has no choice in the matter.”
The rabbi stared hard at Rebecca’s lawyer and then at Joseph, but said nothing. Joseph felt the rabbi was willing him to refuse to sign the
, urging him to use this divorce document to make his wife his prisoner. A ceiling fan whirred over Joseph’s head, and he shuddered. He signed. The proceedings ended and they were divorced. The lawyers shook hands and chatted amicably while Joseph and Rebecca stood on opposite sides of the courtroom.
It was barely eleven o’clock when they emerged from the building together. “I’ll call you about arranging a visit with the boys,” Joseph told Rebecca. She stared blankly ahead. Divorced, severed, that was what they were now. He knew the reality: he was lonely, but free and unencumbered in Tel Aviv; she was saddled with five young boys and a father-in-law in a rural village. He looked closely at her, trying to see her from another man’s perspective. Quietly attractive. Composed. Relaxed. The reality again: she looked haggard and defeated, hardened, a woman deprived of love. He knew this was his fault. He looked away.
Rebecca and the lawyers headed toward a nearby parking lot. Joseph’s headache had lifted. He was feeling better and did not wish to return to his lonely apartment on this significant day. On an impulse he caught a taxi to the Central Bus Station. A bus would be leaving for Jerusalem in twenty minutes. He bought a ticket, then ambled past the merchants’ stalls, fingering fabrics and dried fruit and cigarette lighters as he went. He stopped at a falafel stand to buy a cold drink.
The man at the register smacked the change into his palm and pulled him closer, meeting his face halfway across the counter. “Brighten up, pal,” he said. “Tomorrow’s another day.” Joseph longed to tell him he had been divorced less than an hour earlier, but instead he pulled his hand away and shoved the straw into his mouth, sipping greedily at the sweet juice. He backed away from the stand, catching a brief glimpse of himself in a small mirror. Did he really look that glum, that miserable? He wound his way through the crowd and reached the bus just as it was beginning to load. In a few moments he was off.
How different this trip to Jerusalem felt, as the bus sped past the tiny settlements and their furrowed fields. There was no longer the tingle of anticipation at seeing Yoel, no longer the clandestine pleasure of hopping a bus to a secret, passionate meeting. Joseph had not been to the capital since the day of their last tryst.
In Jerusalem he caught a taxi to Yoel’s somber and imposing home on Elharizi Street, where his widow still lived. Again Joseph was taken with the steeply sloping roof, so incongruous with the flat-topped buildings surrounding it. He paid the driver and watched as the cab inched its way down the narrow street. He pushed the gate open, scanning the windows for signs of life. He thought he saw a face behind thin white curtains at an upstairs window, but he could not be sure. An aproned maid answered the door.
“I’m here to see Rebbetzin Rosenzweig,” he stated, wondering if others also still used the honorific for the wife of a rabbi when addressing her.
“Madame is expecting you?” inquired the maid in a French North African accent.
Joseph stared past the maid at the long corridor and the winding marble staircase. “No,” he said flatly. “But the matter is urgent.”
“What is your name, and what do you want?” she asked bluntly.
“Joseph Licht. I’ve come . . .” He stopped short at the sight of the small, emaciated woman at the top of the stair-case. She was a convergence of planes and angles. Her simple housedress gave her the look of a seamstress’s mannequin. Her hair was tucked completely under a white turban, and a thin brown cigarette smoldered between her fingers.
Joseph pushed past the maid into the foyer. Yoel’s widow stared down at him, speechless. After a long moment she lifted the cigarette to her mouth, never taking her eyes from Joseph. She inhaled deeply and pushed the smoke out slowly. “Dina, ammene Monsieur Licht au salon. Je viendrai.” Dina dutifully led Joseph into the salon without a word and shut the tall doors behind her as she left.
Joseph paced the formal room, stopping in the center to glance at the dark oil paintings, the deep, plush rugs, the heavy European furniture. He could imagine Yoel in this oppressive room, sipping cognac with guests and dreaming of escape. Thick curtains were drawn against the piercing Israeli sun.
She entered through a side door wearing a long robe pulled tightly around her. She was smoking another cigarette. Small pearl earrings peaked out from the edge of the turban.
She did not move close to Joseph, speaking from behind an overstuffed sofa. “My husband’s lover and assassin. How odd to be meeting you.”
Until this moment Joseph had not known what he would say, what pretense he would give for interrupting her peace. He had assumed she had never before heard his name and would believe he was a colleague, a student, an admirer of her dead husband.
“Don’t look so surprised, Monsieur Licht. He told me all about you and your filthy relationship the day before he slashed his wrists.” She lifted the cigarette to her mouth but did not inhale. “This has all been terribly hard on my children but, frankly, I’m glad he killed himself. What he did with you, the acts you . . .” She faltered, grasping the back of the sofa for support and taking a deep breath before continuing in a low, thin voice. “You and my husband, may his name be blotted from God’s memory through eternity, you committed an unforgivable sin, you disobeyed God in the worst way and you squandered my husband’s God-given gifts. You had your fun while my children and I must endure the damage every day of our lives.”