Authors: Evan Fallenberg
Joseph’s mind ran to Rebecca, tight-lipped that morning at the rabbinate. “I’ve come for a book your husband promised me,” he said. The steady calm of his voice surprised him, gave him courage. “It’s a small volume. I think I remember just where to find it on the shelves in your library.”
The rebbetzin’s eyes widened, the cigarette poised to drop burning ashes onto the patterned rug. “You have tremendous nerve coming here unannounced and asking me for anything at all. Your wife must be much more under-standing than I about all this.”
“We are divorced,” he said without emotion, “as of this morning.”
“She is divorced, I am widowed, and all of our children are orphans. You and my late husband, may his memory be wiped clean from the hearts of the pure, deserve an eternal hell together. Now go, Monsieur Licht, without your precious book, and do not return to this house, or I will tell my father you have been plaguing me and he will see to it that your punishment begins in this world, not the next.”
Out on the street, in fresh air, Joseph found himself surprisingly lighthearted. He felt mischievous and daring; he’d even thought of sticking out his tongue at Yoel’s widow or dashing to the library at the back of the house and stealing the book before bolting for the front door. While his colleagues at the university tried to make him feel better than he thought he ought to, she was the first person he had encountered who thought less of him than he did himself, and that liberated him somehow. He spent the rest of the afternoon aimlessly wandering the streets of Jerusalem, peering at his reflection in shop windows. He saw there a divorced man, a man once married but no longer, a bachelor again at thirty. From here, where?
The following Friday was Joseph’s first outing with the boys, nearly three months since he had left home. He dipped into his meager savings to rent a car. His hands shook as he pulled away from the rental agency but as the roads opened up before him he relaxed, grateful for the wind that slapped and revived him. He had rarely been out of the city in all that time and now the smells of the farms he passed soothed him. About a mile before he reached Sde Hirsch the fist headache suddenly punched its way into his consciousness, but he banished it successfully and felt this was a good omen for the day.
Daniel, Ethan, and Noam were waiting for him at the bus stop at the entrance to the village. They wore sandals and white shirts and plaid shorts of different colors. All wore baseball caps, Noam’s turned backward. He was eating cereal from a sandwich bag. A canteen hung against Daniel’s hip and Ethan held a misshapen wooden box reverently in front of him with both hands. “Daddy, look!” he shouted as Joseph came around the car toward them. “I made this from Popsicle sticks!”
Joseph could barely stand, his legs were wobbling so badly. He leaned on the warm car for support but was choking on his tears and could not speak. Noam reached his hand up with an offering, one licked cornflake. Joseph tried to laugh, but a moan escaped instead. They had changed, his sons, in tiny, imperceptible ways; nothing he could pinpoint, just a graceful, gradual metamorphosis toward the young men they were becoming. He tried to study them all at once, to concentrate on each feature. But there was so much to look at and his eyes were blurring with tears. He breathed deeply and looked at the sky.
“Hey, what’s that?” he cried, pointing at the top of the grain silo, relieved he had found his voice.
Daniel and Ethan turned to the silo but Noam stared at Joseph’s outstretched finger. Ethan spoke up. “On Independence Day they lit it up. It says, ‘Happy 28th Birthday, Israel’ in different colored lights! Amos Kriegman made it with his dad.” Asmall stab. What projects had Joseph carried out with his boys even when he had lived with them?
“I thought we would go for a ride, maybe over to the ruins at Caesarea.”
“Oh,” Daniel pouted. “We went there on a field trip last week. It was boring.”
“Well,” Joseph drawled, “we could take a tour of the winery in Zichron Yaakov. . . .”
Just then Miriam Wolloch—a childhood classmate of Joseph’s—and her daughter Leah rounded the corner and nearly fell on top of Joseph and the boys. A breathless “Oh” flew out of her, then she took Leah firmly by the hand and marched on.
The Lichts could hear Leah as her mother pulled her down the street: “Mommy, why didn’t you say hello . . . ? Mommy . . . ?”
Daniel scowled and spit, but his aim was off and saliva dribbled onto his shoe. Noam shoveled another handful of cornflakes into his mouth. “Daddy, why don’t you live at home anymore?”
Joseph bent down on one knee and pulled Noam’s face close to his. “You know, maybe I will have a cornflake after all,” he said.
During the months that followed Joseph invited the boys in different combinations—Daniel with the twins, or sons number one, three, and five—and he kept a large poster chart in his kitchen to keep track of whom he had seen and for how long. He was careful not to show partiality for any particular son, though he did take Daniel out once alone on Rebecca’s insistence. The outings were mostly disasters: the boys would fight, they would embarrass him in public, they were untamed and uncontrollable. Daniel was uncommunicative while Ethan chattered and tried to monopolize Joseph’s attention. Noam was easy, but the twins were still toddlers and they invariably grew tired and cranky. The mounting futility of these outings numbed Joseph, and more than once he wondered whether the boys would be better off without him. So when the head of his department, Professor Gabison, offered him a year’s teaching position in Cleveland through a friend—“You’re good, Joseph, very good. You’ve got a future here. But you’ve been through quite a bit this year and you need to recharge your batteries”—he imagined himself in a tiny apartment in the American Midwest with no reminders of Yoel, thought of the boys moving on with their lives, and accepted gratefully on the spot.
The academic year began much earlier in America than it did in Israel, and with so much to arrange Joseph felt it best to leave as soon as possible. He notified Rebecca of his plans by postcard, and asked her to allow him one last meeting with all five boys together, a picnic on the beach. His flight was leaving on a Wednesday and the day before, a Tuesday afternoon in late July, he took a bus north to a town close to Sde Hirsch carrying a huge hamper filled with sandwiches, fruit, sliced cheeses, frozen juices, and pastries, then hired a taxi to fetch the boys from the moshav. He was nervous, but the boys were so animated, laden with inflatable toys and plastic pails and sifters, that he could not help but laugh aloud.
There was no way for Joseph to describe that day to himself other than perfect. The sea was calm and warm and the boys were free to romp and push and splash. Only here, at the beach, could their noise and wild antics seem small and self-contained. He ventured out into deeper water with Daniel and Ethan and Noam and sat on the shore with the twins digging holes that flooded over again and again, leaving slick and shiny sand they loved to sink their feet into. Daniel led a campaign to bury Joseph under a mountain of dry sand but the digging wore them out and in the end they decided to bury only his legs. They took a walk to collect the shiniest, most colorful shells and sea glass in cloudy shades of green and gold.
At the end of the afternoon they sat in a huddle wrapped in towels and watched the bloodred sun inch its way closer to the horizon like a pomegranate too heavy for its branch. Joseph pointed out to sea. “That’s where I’m going,” he told them. “If you sail straight ahead, all the way to the other side of the Mediterranean Sea and then across the entire Atlantic Ocean, you’ll find me there.”
Noam squinted, looking for land. The twins, for once subdued, stared straight out to sea, looking at nothing. Ethan asked, “Can we visit you there, Daddy?” Daniel looked up to catch Joseph’s answer.
“I’ll only be gone a year,” he said. One year. He calculated: one-eighth of Daniel’s life, one-sixth of Ethan’s, one-fifth of Noam’s, and a third of the twins’. An eternity for them all, and longer than that for Joseph. It had seemed like such a good idea for everyone. He spread his arms around them, pulled the huddle closer. “I’ll write you all the time, and send you pictures. And next summer I’ll be home and we’ll spend plenty of time at the beach together. This was lots of fun, wasn’t it?”
When Rebecca came to fetch them he had already said his goodbyes. From a safe distance he watched them tumble into the station wagon and heard their cacophony of little voices shouting bits of information about their day to Rebecca. He lifted a hand to wave but caught only the sky’s reflection in the car’s window. Its tires spit pebbles and sand into the air as it sped away.
Professor Gabison had been right to send him away. Joseph saw this as soon as he got settled in Cleveland. Teaching kept him tremendously busy and focused his mind. He, a native speaker of Hebrew, was teaching English literature to English speakers. Obsessed with forcing the right sounds out of his mouth, he used exact and appropriate expressions, becoming more American than the Americans. He graciously allowed himself to be corrected, and quickly discovered this endeared him to colleagues and students alike. He learned to spread his a’s wide and send them through the roof of his mouth like they did, picking up their shortcuts and saying
, though he could never bring himself to tell people he taught
. He was well liked and, as an outsider, nonthreatening.
Before he even landed in America Joseph had decided to spend one hour every day on his children. This could be writing a letter to them or preparing bits and pieces of a package he would send. Sometimes he taped his voice, talking about what he was doing, what Cleveland was like, how much he missed them. He made up stories about the ducks in the lagoon at the art museum, described the view of the city and its lake and river from the Terminal Tower, collected veiny red and orange leaves from Sunday walks. He sent them maple sugar rosettes in the fall and red-and-white candy canes at Christmastime. In the spring he sent them Frisbees and baseball bats and tetherballs with instructions on how to play these exotic sports. And when the days grew longer and warmer he sent them a huge inflatable raft. He licked his lips for salt as he imagined them bobbing on the waves with him in just a few more months.
He received in return two envelopes from Sde Hirsch over the course of the year. The first held a bundle of letters and bills, with several drawings of farm animals by Ethan and the twins. No note. The second, in spring, was a packet of Passover greetings that his sons had prepared in school, all but Daniel. When Joseph telephoned, the older boys were usually out playing or too busy to come to the phone. The twins always wanted to talk, or at least breathe into the phone, but he only managed to catch the older three a few times.
Joseph set aside time that year for Yoel as well, time for reliving the relationship they had started to create, for imagining the press and warmth of his massive body. Joseph did not allocate an hour a day to Yoel as he did to his boys, but in fact he spent far more time than that with his dead lover, mostly in the quiet hours of the late night or early morning when he could shut out the day’s intrusions and give himself wholly to this one man much as he had when Yoel was still alive. He hugged his pillow and tried touching himself the way Yoel had, but those large prodding fingers had carried so much curiosity and sadness and love that Joseph merely made himself ache with desire for what he could not have. He cried sometimes, but mostly he stared at the dark ceiling in disbelief.
Often he tried to picture the life he could have had with Yoel. He imagined them trekking the rim of a Norwegian fjord, his hand cupped in Yoel’s larger one, or buried in a deep sofa, barely touching, each with his own book. Most of his reveries included just the two of them, sealed in their own hush-tone private world, but occasionally he would picture a festive meal with their nine collective children, later joined by daughters- and sons-in-law and hordes of grandchildren turning pirouettes and playing tag willy-nilly around the adults. They would all be charming, healthy, well behaved. They would come to their two grandfathers for advice or a gentle game of rummy, to share stories of classroom battles and triumphs or to play a soulful tune on a violin. As grandfathers, Yoel and Joseph would listen patiently, offer wisdom, and dole out silver coins or chocolates wrapped in colored tinfoil. When the children all left, the house would reverberate with their songs and laughter, so the grandfathers would never feel lonely.
Still, he could never help imagining a different, less attractive scenario of Yoel moving past fifty, sixty, seventy. What would Joseph have found in him then? When would the man he loved—the uneven stubble of his beard a sign of insouciance and rebellion; the broad thickness of his chest, legs, fingers testimony to his strength and solidity; the receding hairline a sign of virility; the lines and creases in his face the badges of a life of enriching experiences and meaning— have become just an unkempt, fat, bald, wrinkled old man? When he began to discover Yoel’s foibles and flaws would he then have weighed them against Rebecca’s? Would his heart’s desire, the object of his love and longing, have turned into heart grief? Would their small, self-contained world have been able to sustain them? Since Yoel had opened new worlds to Joseph, his death signaled the eradication of love, the annihilation of intimacy, the end of hope.
Joseph had not been prepared for the physical pain he felt at losing the boys. For years he had jealously watched Rebecca, always pregnant or nursing, her whole body caught up in creating and then providing for new life. His own body was useless to each new baby that arrived. But now it was as if each son had been severed from him like a limb, and he ached at their absence.
The English Department threw him a farewell party at the end of the spring semester and the university president invited him to lunch and offered him a position whenever he wished. But Joseph was desperate to return to Israel and booked a flight that would launch him back into his life just as soon as he could grade the last exam. He bought extra luggage to haul all the gifts he had purchased for the boys. True to his word, Professor Gabison had an office and a course load waiting for him.