The man who knew what I was about to say sat next to me on the plane, a stupid smile plastered across his face. That’s what was so nerve-racking about him, the fact that he wasn’t smart or even sensitive, and yet he knew the lines and managed to say them—all the lines I meant to say—three seconds before me. “D’you sell Guerlain Mystique?” he asked the flight attendant a minute before I could, and she gave him an orthodontic smile and said there was just one last bottle left. “My wife’s crazy about that perfume. It’s like an addiction with her. If I come back from a trip and don’t pick up a bottle of Mystique from duty-free, she tells me I don’t love her anymore. If I dare walk in the door without at least one bottle, I’m in trouble.” That was supposed to be my line, but the man who knew what I was about to say stole it from me. He didn’t miss a beat. As soon as the wheels touched down, he switched on his cell phone, a second before I did, and called his wife. “I just landed,” he told her. “I’m sorry. I know it was supposed to be yesterday. They canceled the flight. You don’t believe me? Check it out yourself. Call Eric. I know you don’t. I can give you his number right now.” I also have a travel agent called Eric. He’d lie for me too.
When the plane reached the gate he was still on the phone, giving all the answers I would have given. Without a trace of emotion, like a parrot in a world where time flows backwards, repeating whatever’s about to be said instead of what’s been said already. His answers were the best possible, under the circumstances. His circumstances weren’t so hot, not so hot at all. Mine weren’t all that great either. My wife hadn’t taken my call yet, but just listening to the man who knew what I was about to say made me want to hang up. Just listening to him I could tell that the hole I was in was so deep that if I ever managed to dig myself out, it would be to a different reality. She’d never forgive me, she’d never trust me. Ever. From now on, every trip would be hell on earth, and the time in between would be even worse. He went on and on and on, delivering all those sentences that I’d thought up and hadn’t said yet. They just kept flowing out of him. Now he stepped it up, raising his voice, like a drowning man desperate to stay afloat. People started filing out of the plane. He got up, still talking, scooped up his laptop in his other hand, and headed for the exit. I could see him leaving it behind, the bag he’d stashed in the overhead compartment. I could see him forgetting it, and I didn’t say anything. I just stayed put. Gradually, the plane emptied, till the only ones left were an overweight religious woman with a million children, and me. I got up and opened the overhead compartment, like it was the most natural thing in the world to do. I took out the duty-free bag, like it had always been mine. Inside were the receipt and the bottle of Guerlain Mystique. My wife’s crazy about that perfume. It’s like an addiction with her. If I come back from a trip and don’t pick up a bottle of Mystique from duty-free, she tells me I don’t love her anymore. If I dare walk in the door without at least one bottle, I’m in trouble.
The first story Maya wrote was about a world in which people split themselves in two instead of reproducing. In that world, every person could, at any given moment, turn into two beings, each half his/her age. Some chose to do this when they were young; for instance, an eighteen-year-old might split into two nine-year-olds. Others would wait until they’d established themselves professionally and financially and go for it only in middle age. The heroine of Maya’s story was splitless. She had reached the age of eighty and, despite all the social pressure, insisted on not splitting. At the end of the story, she died.
It was a good story, except for the ending. There was something depressing about that part, Aviad thought. Depressing and predictable. But in the writing workshop she had signed up for, Maya actually got a lot of compliments on the ending. The instructor, who was supposed to be this well-known writer, even though Aviad had never heard of him, told her that there was something soul-piercing about the banality of the ending, or some other piece of crap. Aviad saw how happy that compliment made Maya. She was very excited when she told him about it. She recited what the writer had said to her the way people recite a verse from the Bible. And Aviad, who had originally tried to suggest a different ending, backpedaled and said that it was all a matter of taste and that he really didn’t understand much about it.
It had been her mother’s idea that she should go to a creative writing workshop. She’d said that a friend’s daughter had attended one and enjoyed it very much. Aviad also thought it would be good for Maya to get out more, to do something with herself. He could always bury himself in work, but since the miscarriage, she never left the house. Whenever he came home he found her in the living room, sitting up straight on the couch. Not reading, not watching TV, not even crying. When Maya hesitated about the course, Aviad knew how to persuade her. “Go once, give it a try,” he said, “the way a kid goes to day camp.” Later he realized that it had been a little insensitive of him to use a child as an example after what they’d been through two months before. But Maya actually smiled and said that day camp might be just what she needed.
The second story she wrote was about a world in which you could see only the people you loved. The protagonist was a married man in love with his wife. One day, his wife walked right into him in the hallway and the glass he was holding fell and shattered on the floor. A few days later, she sat down on him as he was dozing in an armchair. Both times, she wriggled out of it with an excuse: she’d had something else on her mind; she hadn’t been looking when she sat down. But the husband started to suspect that she didn’t love him anymore. To test his theory, he decided to do something drastic: he shaved off the left side of his mustache. He came home with half a mustache, clutching a bouquet of anemones. His wife thanked him for the flowers and smiled. He could sense her groping the air as she tried to give him a kiss. Maya called the story “Half a Mustache,” and told Aviad that when she had read it aloud in the workshop, some people cried. Aviad said, “Wow,” and kissed her on the forehead. That night, they fought about some stupid little thing. She’d forgotten to pass on a message or something like that, and he yelled at her. He was to blame, and in the end he apologized. “I had a hellish day at work,” he said, and he stroked her leg, trying to make up for his outburst, “Do you forgive me?” She forgave him.
The workshop instructor had published a novel and a collection of short stories. Neither had been much of a success, but they’d had a few good reviews. At least, that’s what the saleswoman at a bookstore near Aviad’s office told him. The novel was very thick, 624 pages. Aviad bought the book of short stories. He kept it in his desk and tried to read a little during lunch breaks. Each story in the collection took place in a different country. It was a kind of gimmick. The blurb on the back cover said that the writer had worked for years as a tour guide and had traveled in Cuba and Africa and that his travels had influenced his writing. There was also a small black-and-white photograph of him. In it, he had the kind of smug smile of someone who feels lucky to be who he is. The writer had told Maya, she said to Aviad, that when the workshop was over, he’d send her stories to his editor. And, although she shouldn’t get her hopes up, publishers these days were desperate for new talent.
Her third story started out funny. It was about a pregnant woman who gave birth to a cat. The hero of the story was the husband, who suspected that the cat wasn’t his. A fat ginger tomcat that slept on the lid of the dumpster right below the window of the couple’s bedroom gave the husband a condescending look every time he went downstairs to throw out the garbage. In the end, there was a violent clash between the husband and the cat. The husband threw a stone at the cat, who countered with bites and scratches. The injured husband, his wife, and the kitten she was breastfeeding went to the clinic for him to get a rabies shot. He was humiliated and in pain, but tried not to cry while they were waiting. The kitten, sensing his suffering, curled itself from its mother’s embrace, went over to him, and licked his face tenderly, offering a consoling “Meow.”
“Did you hear that?” the mother asked emotionally. “He said ‘Daddy.’”
At that point, the husband could no longer hold back his tears. And when Aviad read that passage, he had to try hard not to cry too. Maya said that she’d started writing the story even before she knew she was pregnant again. “Isn’t it weird,” she asked, “how my brain didn’t know yet, but my subconscious did?”
The next Tuesday, when Aviad was supposed to pick her up after the workshop, he arrived half an hour early, parked his car in the lot, and went to find her. Maya was surprised to see him in the classroom, and he insisted that she introduce him to the writer. The writer reeked of body lotion. He shook Aviad’s hand limply and told him that if Maya had chosen him for a husband, he must be a very special person.
Three weeks later, Aviad signed up for a beginner’s creative writing class. He didn’t say anything about it to Maya, and to be on the safe side, he told his secretary that if he had any calls from home, she should say that he was in an important meeting and couldn’t be disturbed. The other members of the class were elderly women, who gave him dirty looks. The thin, young instructor wore a headscarf, and the women in the class gossiped about her, saying that she lived in a settlement in the occupied territories and had cancer. She asked everyone to do an exercise in automatic writing. “Write whatever comes into your head,” she said. “Don’t think, just write.” Aviad tried to stop thinking. It was very hard. The old women around him wrote with nervous speed, like students racing to finish an exam before the teacher tells them to put their pens down, and after a few minutes, he began writing too.
The story he wrote was about a fish that was swimming happily along in the sea when a wicked witch turned it into a man. The fish couldn’t come to terms with his transformation and decided to chase down the wicked witch and make her turn him back into a fish. Since he was an especially quick and enterprising fish, he managed to get married while he was pursuing her, and even to establish a small company that imported plastic products from the Far East. With the help of the enormous knowledge he had gained as a fish that had crossed the seven seas, the company began to thrive and even went public. Meanwhile, the wicked witch, who was a little tired after all her years of wickedness, decided to find all the people and creatures she’d cast spells on, apologize to them, and restore them to their natural state. At one point, she even went to see the fish she had turned into a man. The fish’s secretary asked her to wait until he’d finished a satellite meeting with his partners in Taiwan. At that stage in his life, the fish could hardly remember that he was in fact a fish, and his company now controlled half the world. The witch waited several hours, but when she saw that the meeting wouldn’t be ending anytime soon, she climbed onto her broom and flew off. The fish kept doing better and better, until one day, when he was really old, he looked out the window of one of the dozens of huge shoreline buildings he’d purchased in a smart real estate deal, and saw the sea. And suddenly he remembered that he was a fish. A very rich fish who controlled many subsidiary companies that were traded on stock markets around the world, but still a fish. A fish who, for years, had not tasted the salt of the sea.
When the instructor saw that Aviad had put down his pen, she gave him an inquiring look. “I don’t have an ending,” he whispered apologetically, keeping his voice down so as not to disturb the old ladies who were still writing.
A father and son are sitting at a desk in an acupuncturist’s treatment room, waiting.
The acupuncturist comes in.
He sits down behind the desk.
In strangely accented English, he asks the son to put his hands on the desk.
The Chinese acupuncturist puts his fingers on the son’s arms and closes his eyes, then asks the son to stick out his tongue.
The son sticks it out defiantly.
The Chinese acupuncturist nods and asks the son to lie down on the treatment bed.
The son lies down on the bed and closes his eyes.
The father asks if the son should take off his clothes.
The acupuncturist shakes his head.
He takes some long, thin needles out of his desk drawer and starts sticking them into the son.
One behind each ear.
One in each cheek, close to the nose.
One on each side of his forehead, close to the eye.
The son moans quietly, his eyes still closed.
Now, says the acupuncturist to father and son, we have to wait.
And after the treatment, asks the father, will he feel better?
The acupuncturist shrugs and walks out.
The father goes over to the bed and puts a hand on his son’s shoulder.
The son’s body contracts.
The son didn’t flinch when his skin was being pierced by needles, but he does now. Half an hour later, the Chinese acupuncturist comes back and pulls each needle out with a swift movement.
He tells the father and the son that the boy’s body is responding to the treatment, and that’s a good sign.
As proof, he points to the spots where the needles had been inserted. There is a red circle around each one.
Then he sits down behind the desk.
The father asks how much the treatment costs.
He’d planned to ask before the treatment, but forgot. If he’d remembered to ask earlier, he would have had a better bargaining position. Not that he planned to bargain. After all, we’re talking about the health of his only son here. His only living son, that is.
The acupuncturist says 350 shekels per treatment and then tells him that there is medication the son has to take after eating, and that costs another hundred.
The acupuncturist explains that the boy needs a series of treatments. At least ten. Every day except Saturday.
The acupuncturist adds that it would be better if they could do the treatment on Saturday too, but he doesn’t work Saturdays because his wife won’t let him.
is almost the only word other than
that he says in Hebrew.
When he says
, the father feels a terrible sense of loneliness.
Then the father has a strange idea.
He wants to tell the acupuncturist that he has to use the bathroom, and then, after locking the door behind him, he’ll masturbate into the toilet.
He thinks this will bring him some relief from that sense of loneliness. He’s not sure.
In Chinese medicine, sperm is considered a form of energy. When you ejaculate it, you are weakened, and that’s why it isn’t recommended. Especially when you’re weak to begin with.
The father doesn’t know any of that, but he gives up on the idea anyway. Loneliness is hard for him, but he doesn’t feel comfortable leaving his son alone with the Chinese acupuncturist.
Every day except Saturday, the acupuncturist repeats. He thinks the father wasn’t listening the first time.
The father pays with new bills. Exactly 450. No change necessary.
They make an appointment for the next day.
On the way to the door, the Chinese acupuncturist says in Hebrew, “Be well, you two.”
The son thinks it’s weird for the acupuncturist to say that. After all, he’s the only one who’s sick.
The father doesn’t notice it. He’s thinking about something else.
Be well, you two
Be well, you two
There’s nothing stranger than hearing a Chinese man speak Hebrew.