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Authors: Meir Shalev

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BOOK: Two She-Bears
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TWENTY-SEVEN

Every time Eitan came to visit Dovik he would come alone, never with a girlfriend, and he would always ask me how I was and make conversation. And when I went into the army—I didn't want to join their unit, which was how it went with them, guys bringing in their sisters—and I came home in uniform, he suddenly looked at me differently, like I was no longer his friend's little sister but someone interesting in her own right. Mainly when I came in my work uniform, which was short on me and too wide, but suited me fine. It aroused a desire to touch me, he told me years later, “to check if you were actually real.”

We began to talk, and even before we became a couple we made each other laugh, and we had looks that we exchanged when Dovik and Dalia didn't get what was funny, and there were little discoveries of our similar tastes in movies and food. Not books, by the way, for the simple reason that Eitan doesn't read. And I saw how Grandpa Ze'ev trained his eye on us the way he didn't look at others, and I picked up that not only Dovik but he too was interested in this match and that Eitan would stay.

That was it. Every encounter added more layers and desires and reasons, and we fell in love. It didn't happen as quickly as I'm making it sound, but when we fell in love we understood that we had already been in love for a long time. When I say “a long time” I mean I was already out of the army and had gone to university and gotten my teaching certificate.

That really is a long time.

Correct. But it makes no difference. Things have to happen at their own pace. We understood. We fell in love. And finally I got pregnant and then we got married. I hope you have no problem with that. Eitan joined the Tavori nursery business and Neta was born, spitting image of his father as a child. There are women who don't like the expression “spitting image.” These are women with two family names, and instead of common sense they have emotional intelligence. I, by the way, have not an ounce of emotional intelligence. I have tons of emotion and I also have intelligence but, alas, with me they don't mix.

I remember: Our first time was beautiful. That's important, because it's not like that for everyone. Sometimes it's so tense and clumsy that it's awful. From time to time my female students come and tell me that it happened and how it was and what happened and what they felt, and want to know if what they felt was okay or not, and if in the future it'll be better, as if I were some sort of authority. They sit with me under the mulberry tree and ask for advice—what if he, what if she, what if people will know with whom, and what if they tell. God, how pathetic is that. Ruta the teacher, the pal, the wild woman, the strong one who overcame her disaster, who smiles, who bravely looks to the future. Ruta-
tuta,
who hasn't had sex with her husband for years but overflows with advice for her female students: It's important that the first time be with love, and important in general that it be with love, and how you know that it's love, and at what age to start, blah blah blah…

Twice, by the way, male students came to me with similar questions. There was a period when I hoped that Ofer would come to tell me that it also happened to him. Ofer, yes, my former student, who almost drowned on me in the Sea of Galilee, the one who takes pictures, and I would tell him, Very nice, Ofer, tell me how it was but not with whom, so I won't stomp out of the woods and tear apart the girl who stole you.

Whatever. For Eitan and me the first time was during my second year at university when I came home for a holiday, and he came to visit Dovik and Dalia. He brought fish and barbecued them, and Dalia, who is a good cook, prepared fabulous rice in her special rice pot, and her marvelous spicy tomato-garlic-pepper salad, and potatoes for Dovik, for whom a meal isn't a meal without a kilo of potatoes. We drank white-wine spritzers the way Grandpa likes them, and after the meal everyone went to take a nap, Grandpa under his mulberry tree, with the big fan and the extension cord, Dovik and Dalia under the air conditioner in their bedroom, while Eitan rocked in my hammock with his eyes closed.

I sought to clarify the meaning of this takeover.

“Eitan,” I said.

He didn't reply.

“Eitan,” I said, “this is my hammock. I haven't been home in two weeks and I want it.”

He didn't answer, and I grabbed the edge of the hammock with both hands and yanked it upward. Eitan toppled over, landed on the ground, but managed to break his fall with his hands and got up quickly.

“You see? I got out for you. You just have to ask nicely,” he said.

I lay down in the hammock, he went in the house for a few minutes, came back, took a chair, and sat down next to me and rocked me gently.

“You have plans?”

“To study art in Italy.”

“I mean now.”

“To nap undisturbed in my hammock.”

“Want to take a little trip?”

“To Altamira in Spain, to see the cave paintings.”

“Not a honeymoon, Ruta. Now.”

“If you hook up the hammock on the back of the pickup and drive slowly so I won't fall, yes. A little trip now.”

“Want to go to Dovik's pond?”

“You have a bathing suit?”

“Already wearing it.”

“And you'll bring a treat for later?”

“Already in the cooler.”

“And if I didn't want to come?”

“I'd go alone and eat alone and swim naked.”

That was that. We went. We talked on the way. It felt good, like a breeze was moving back and forth between us with the tempo of the words and sentences and glances. We were at that dangerous phase where if we didn't do something we would turn into just friends and condemn ourselves to the fate of friends: permanent longing. Not to eat or be eaten. Not to drink or be drunk. Not to be satisfied or slaked. I later wrote myself a note: “We are both Tantalus, the pure water below, the tasty fruit above.”

We arrived at the pond. We lay down on the bank, Eitan in his bathing suit, I in a bikini top and shorts; that was always my style. Eitan told me how he and Dovik first met here, and I was surprised. In general everything that becomes a story has several versions, but the story Eitan told me was absolutely identical to the story Dovik told about the very same meeting. Then we got in the water to swim. In the middle of the pond I smiled at him and said, “Let's see if I can dive down to the bottom,” and I disappeared.

I dived to the bottom, hid behind a big rock, and stayed there the way I know how, my full four minutes. After thirty seconds he began to worry. He dived, came up, looked for me, called my name. I saw his silhouette, swimming and looking for me, I heard his legs beating the water, worried and scared. His voice reached my ears: “Ruta!…Ruta!…Where are you?” And again he dived down, came close, but didn't see me. Every few seconds I exhaled a few tiny bubbles, so as not to form a cluster that would give away my location.

I was filled with desire, which did its thing. Even in the water my loins were burning. Even in the water I was totally wet. You remember I told you that I cry underwater and don't feel the wetness of the tears? Well, that I felt clearly. I touched myself, I told him long after that day, when he asked if I didn't get bored there—it was four minutes, after all—I touched myself and I felt the body's tears of joy and love and lust. And that was that. I finally ran out of breath and had to come up for air.

I floated slowly to the surface. The body was still, the arms outstretched. Eitan pounced on me and began to pull me toward shore. I hugged him and laughed. “Eitan, you love me!”

“Love you? I was just worried. You're my friend's sister. What would I tell him if something happened to you?”

“Don't give me that ‘friend's sister,' ” I teased him, “you love me. You're allowed to admit it.”

I put my face close to his and we kissed. Kind of a quick peck, but tender. Closed lips but firmly pressed together, like sealing a deed of ownership.

His hand slid over my left hip, massaged it gently under the water.

“So nice to touch you,” he said.

“That's because I put on weight in the army,” I said, “I got soft. I have to lose weight.”

And I remember putting my right hand on his chest with the fingers spread out.

“That's nice,” he said, “and you don't need to lose any weight.”

“Maybe you don't see it because I'm tall but I need to lose three kilos.”

We got out of the pond. Eitan spread a blanket on the rough grass.

“This is going to be our first time,” he said, “I don't want it to be stickly and prickly,” and got undressed like a married man—I mean like someone accustomed to getting undressed in front of his woman—and lay down naked on his side.

I got undressed too, lay beside him, and we looked at each other up close. Things were suddenly very clear.

He said, “Ruta.”

“What?”

“I want to ask you something.”

And he brought his face so near that his golden skin shone warmly on my face.

“Ask me,” I said.

“It's something important.”

“I'm listening.”

“Those three kilos you're going to lose…”

“Yes?”

“Can I have them?”

For a moment I didn't understand. I looked at him and he looked at me. His face was serious and focused. I burst out laughing.

“I love it so much that you're laughing at something I said,” he said. “Your laugh makes me feel good all over.”

“Me too,” I said. “All over my body. And not just my body. Your body too. I can feel it.”

“So what do you say?”

“About the three kilos or the laughing?”

“About the seventy kilos that are left.”

“They're also yours.”

“When?”

“Is now okay?”

“Now is very okay.”

He stroked my hip again and said, “Remember we started here, at your hippy, and that'll be the first word in our dictionary, and there will be more.”

We hugged with eyes open and kissed with eyes open, and it was our first time, beside the “clear, calm, silent pond, where everything is seen and foreseen”—that's what I wrote to him afterward as a memento. I quoted, actually. As much as I love Alterman's poetry, when Bialik is good, he's better than anyone. I wrote: “With eyes that didn't blink once, not to miss the sight of the other's face. With a full heart. With the knowledge of doing what is right, the hunger to be sated and the thirst to be quenched. With the ceremony of a first time and the hope of the times to come, and in the strange lovely knowledge, so true yet untrue, that I am sleeping for the first time with a man I have slept with many times before.”

TWENTY-EIGHT

I've already told you, if I'm not mistaken, that Eitan had been waiting for me to turn forty and said it many times. Well, that day arrived. I remember: I got up early, I'm forty, good morning to me, alone in bed. I waited awhile. Nothing happened. Then I got dressed, went down to the nursery, and stood before him.

“Eitan,” I said, “I'm forty. Congratulations!”

He didn't react. He kept on dragging, carrying, working. Did what Grandpa Ze'ev told him to do. There are situations and there are men that require hard work and not psychotherapy.

“Eitan,” I called out, “this is me. Just like you always wanted me. I'm exactly forty, today.”

He didn't look at me or answer me, and I wasn't surprised. I would often come to tell him about something and he wouldn't react.

“It's a shame, no?” I stood in his way, blocking him. “Isn't it a shame I'm forty and you're no longer with us?”

He didn't say a word, set down the heavy sack in his arms, and did what he had done on a few prior occasions: grabbed me, hugged me, and lifted me like a feather. For the first second it felt good, and then I couldn't breathe. All that work had made him so strong. Like a bear. He was able to crouch, wrap his arms around a pot with, say, an eight-year-old olive sapling, stand up, and carry it to another spot in the nursery. Crouch again, very slowly, so as not to harm the sapling, and lay it gently on the ground, then get up and go back and take another one. And every time a truck arrived with merchandise he was the one who unloaded it and arranged the goods in the storehouses or yard.

Incidentally, we also sell old railroad ties, for garden paths and stairs, and he would move them too, from where they were to wherever Grandpa Ze'ev said, and then back again, sometimes just a day later. I saw him once carrying a railroad tie on his back, with the end dragging behind him leaving a trail in the dirt. You can imagine what kind of thoughts that brings to the mind.

In the beginning I would yell at him, get angry, cry: “Look at yourself, Eitan. See what you look like. Smell yourself. You stink from compost and sweat.” And once I went over and blocked his path. “Maybe it's enough, Eitan? Maybe you've worked like this enough?” And suddenly, involuntarily, I screamed, “Enough! Wash up already! Change your clothes! I can't look at you. Don't let yourself go like this!” And then too—he crouched, set down whatever it was he was carrying, picked me up, and put me aside like a mannequin. It was frightening. Look at me, I'm a fairly big woman, not a lightweight in any sense. He put me on the side and returned to his work.

He did a similar thing to Dovik once. Dovik is a friend, and a brother-in-law, and a man, and on top of these he's an imbecile, so one day he pounced on him and shook him hard and shouted, “Enough already, Eitan! Even if he told you to do that, it's enough! How long will you punish yourself and us this way?” And he picked him up too, and carried him aside, but judging from the color of Dovik's face he squeezed him harder than he squeezed me, and when he let him go, Dovik collapsed, and coughed and spit and groaned.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah, right.” He moaned. “I couldn't breathe. He could kill somebody like that, he's gotten so strong.”

Later on I found a method. I grabbed a garden hose in the nursery and sprayed him with cold water, and then he had no choice: he changed his clothes, and the occasion also constituted an overdue bath. He also had the awful smell of the cigarettes that he started smoking again after the funeral. This disaster provided us both bad habits. He started smoking and I started drinking, so that the alcohol would help me fall asleep and drive away bad dreams. Before the disaster, Eitan would come to our bed like Ruth came to Boaz. Festive and fragrant and clean, the whole biblical routine—“Wash, anoint yourself, put thy raiment upon thee, and go and lie down”—is that gendered enough for you, Varda? He had golden skin then, skin that glowed in the dark, and we would make love and then fall asleep together. And now, every night I can't fall asleep without drinking and I think I'm slightly addicted.

You started to tell me about your fortieth birthday, Ruta.

Yes. Thank you for putting me back on track. I informed him that I had reached forty, and he removed me from his path and placed me on the side. That's how he celebrated the day he had long awaited.

And what happened then?

I got up. I went back home, and then a teacher from the school called me. I thought she wanted me to substitute for her somewhere, but no. She and a few other women friends had decided to take me out for my birthday, she said. You understand? Let's take Ruta out, the poor thing. For years she's been without her son, and that situation with Eitan, and now a big birthday, let's do something nice for her.

I said thank you, I went to work, came home, drank a little, ate a little—in the evening there's a meal waiting for me—napped a little, woke up, took a shower, got dressed, went out with my friends to a restaurant.

The food was very good. I enjoyed the women rather less. I think I already told you that I've never had a real close woman friend, a soul mate to confide in, a female shoulder to cry on. Maybe because I'm not only a girl but also a guy, and maybe because, due to my family, I don't talk about everything, and also because not all the rules and codes are clear to me, especially not the rules and codes customary among women. But it's okay with me to go out with women friends for a good time and since the disaster it's mainly to restaurants. It's fine, because bereaved mothers also have to eat sometimes, and it's also fun because I truly enjoy good food. I celebrate. I enjoy it like thirty pigs. That's also a line from my first husband. “Like thirty pigs” was for us the most fun possible. Eitan would ask, not just about food, about many things: “So, Ruta, like how many pigs did you enjoy it this time?” And I would answer, sometimes ten, sometimes twelve, even twenty-seven. You don't need to lick caviar from a silver spoon. Sometimes seeing a beautiful landscape is enough, or a good movie, like Fellini's
Amarcord
or
The Straight Story
by David Lynch.

Or to be one flesh, Eitan in me, I in him. Sometimes mashed potatoes that only I know how to make but had no one to make them for. Then I would eat them alone and enjoy them, without thinking, You should be ashamed of yourself, Ruta, Eitan and Neta are dead and you are filling your belly, rebelling and defiling and defying. And playing word games.

The truth is, I'm not a glutton, I actually prefer small portions, and I also enjoy reading restaurant reviews and recipes. Sometimes I clip them from the papers. I loved the ones by the cardiologist Eli Landau, the finest gourmet in Israel. So we women went out and ate and talked and made dirty jokes and laughed a lot, and nobody flaunted what ailed them or dumped their burden on the table and we didn't compare troubles, because the idea was to cheer me up and not to show me that others were suffering too. I also got a few nice gifts, but my enjoyment amounted to maybe nine pigs' worth at most. All evening long I had this pang in my heart. “Pang” is an understatement, my heart was mashed inside a fist with my gut wrapped around it.

It started even before they came to pick me up, because while I was getting dressed and organized I again saw Eitan through the window. It was starting to get dark outside and I simply started to cry. I remembered how he had invented the word “fortyward” about this special day, the word that should have been my invention and by chance was his, and I cried even more.

Excuse me for just a moment. I have to take a breath now, a little breath, and walk around. Don't be alarmed, it'll pass quickly. I am a big strong woman, I am the granddaughter of Grandpa Ze'ev, and I am the best thing that ever happened to me. If I were a different woman in the same situation, it would be very bad. But sometimes, behind that bigness and those genes, I am really little. An empty peel. I'm like the passion fruit we used to poke a hole in when we were kids and suck out the insides and throw away. Funny, it's been a long time since I ate a passion fruit that way. Today people cut them open and eat them with a spoon, even with ice cream. Whatever. I saw Eitan and I decided to give my fortieth birthday another chance. I wiped my face, opened the window, and called out to him.

He didn't answer. He didn't even turn his head toward me.

“Eitan, look at me. I'm forty. Just like you always wanted. Let's get into bed, the two of us naked.”

He didn't respond. Dovik and Dalia's kitchen window opened for a moment, then slammed shut. A car horn sounded. The friends who came to get me were in front of the house, waiting. I wiped off my makeup. In general I don't use makeup, and if I do it's sparingly, but even the little bit I had put on was smeared by the tears. I quickly reapplied it, and went out to the street.

When I got back, very late, a bit drunk from the gin and tonics I overdid and stinking from cigarettes that someone else smoked, he was already lying in bed in the room that had been Neta's, camouflaged according to his classic rules: not budging, because the eye notices movement, and blending into his surroundings, the whiteness of the sheet enveloping his own whiteness.

I got undressed, lay down beside him, drew close.

“Congratulations, Eitan, I'm forty,” I said to him for the umpteenth time that day.

His eyes opened. I lay my hand on his belly and said, “We've waited a long time for this birthday, no?”

I thought, And now what? Leave my hand on the sheet or slip it underneath? And where to go from there? Higher up and spread my fingers? Lower down and grasp? To the right and stroke his left hippy? To the left and stroke his right hippy? I withdrew my hand, climbed on top of him, lay my whole self on him, embraced him, buried my face in his neck, pressed the mound of my
tuta
on his body, my overripe mound that drove my first husband crazy and is the reason I swim in shorts and not a bathing suit, and, suddenly, a miracle: I felt he was returning my hug. For a moment I was left breathless, but quickly realized it was not from joy or love but simply from pressure. And again he did the one thing he knew how to do: he sat up and carried me into the next room, which had once been ours, and put me in the bed where we had once both slept, and returned to the bed that had been Neta's and became his.

I coughed, regained my breath, got up. I smiled to myself, for seven times I rise and smile, as it is written of the righteous, and despite the level of gin in my system I headed for the freezer and poured myself an ample glass of my brother's homemade
limoncello.
I drank with great pleasure and then stood up and looked at the mirror and the drunken woman in it. Because if not me and Eitan, then here we were, the two of us: tall and thin, broad skinny shoulders, strong prominent collarbones, too strong, I might add. Long neck, eyes far apart. The two of us naked and drunk. Ribs protruding in the space between her small breasts, just like mine. Her feet are as big as a man's, her thighs are long, and where they meet is that domed space which only a chosen few, she and I, have. We both have muscular calves and, surprise: round ankles, almost chubby, like a baby's. Luckily I didn't inherit my mother's legs and boobs. I inherited my legs from Grandma Ruth and the boobs from Grandpa Ze'ev, and I am very happy with that. All my busty friends, who always laughed at my doelike buds, ultimately discovered that Newton was right: there is gravity and it is very strong. Now their fabulous mammaries are on the floor and my little titties are still in their original place—“Moshe, Shlomo, every man
bimkomo,
” just where God and I intended and wanted them to be, all in order. This, by the way, is one of the few things about which God and I agree: that I may be on the ropes, but my tits will rejoice on high.

“That's that, Eitan,” I told him, “we're forty years old and you're not here. I hereby announce that the party's over.”

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