מתרגמת: ירדן גרינספן
Right before I fell asleep, something tickled my back. I thought it was Arik. I hoped it was Arik, to be honest. Maybe he finally noticed me lying next to him? I didn’t turn around, but I made sure to bat my eyelashes hard, to let him hear my eyes. I didn’t want him to think I was asleep and give up.
But a few seconds later tickling became much more demanding. Pointy. It was as if someone told Arik that poking pencils into a girl’s back is a good make-up trick. It was definitely not arousing. It even hurt. I turned around to ask why he felt the need to write on me in the middle of the night, but I found him sound asleep. Well, maybe “sound asleep” isn’t the right definition. He always sleeps completely silently, curled into a fetal position. Anyway, he was asleep. I could tell he was asleep even though he was lying with his back to me. I know him. When he sleeps, his breathing slows way down, sometimes seeming to even stop and pull over for a few moments.
I turned around and tried to think about nothing. I have no idea how long that nothing was running around in my head, but the pricking continued.
Could there be something in the bed? I shot out of it and shook out the blanket. I thought Ruti might have left me an ants’ nest. It’s not such an unlikely scenario. She’s going through puberty. The last time she got pissed off at me was because I said she had to be home by midnight. That night, I found Yani’s hamster waiting in my bed. Ruti must have overfed it that day, because the little creature smirked at me and relieved itself on my pillow.
I felt around the sheet. It was clean of ants and hamsters.
And then it happened all at once. My back began twitching, trying to pop out of my body. It was scary. What the hell was happening? Nothing like that has ever happened to me. I had a similar feeling raging in my pelvis. My thighs, my butt and my belly were very warm, almost bubbling. I was a boiling kettle.
I was getting scared. I touched my back gently. And when I felt it my hands darkened with terror. My back was crumbling, like it had been plowed. Thorns or prickly branches or god knows what erupted from within my skin and flesh. The growth was strong and fast and noisy, like a bullet shooting out of a gun.
Still, I didn’t want to wake Arik. He hates being disturbed when he’s asleep (and he isn’t too crazy about me anymore either). So I continued to twist and turn on my own. I reached a hand to my back again and this time I could feel the branches. I pulled out some leaves. They were moist and tender and perfectly real. Any hopes I had of having were now gone. I could tell it was a fig tree – the leaves were ripped palms in my hand.
I screamed at Arik to wake up and collapsed against the wall.
Arik showed no sign of waking.
The fig tree popping out of my back was thick and prickly and heavy. Every movement entailed sharp pain. The branches were long. I couldn’t get up. I could barely move at all. I touched my back again. This time when I pulled back my hand it was sticky with fig milk. I reached back again and picked four plump and juicy figs. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I couldn’t help myself. I shoved them into my mouth. They were soft and sweet. The figs I picked from my own back were the most delicious figs I’ve ever tasted.
I wake up, crashing into Arik’s shoulder blades. He’s in the same position, balling himself up so tight that I can see his vertebrae poking through his shirt. His elbows are tucked into his chest. His hands are in tight fists. Like a little boy, making sure no one takes anything from him.
For one last tired moment I can still feel the fig honey sweetening my mouth. Was it a dream? I try to get up and fall back into bed. My body is numb and it sinks into the mattress like memories sink into my mind.
I’m craving figs, but even this early in the morning, I can tell this makes no sense. You can’t get figs in February. Not the kind I’m yearning for, anyway. I try to get up again and again I fall back down. The nightgown spills to the sides and one of my breasts escapes out. I don’t feel like adjusting it. I want to stay this way, exposed. “Are you asleep?” I blurt out, wanting to plant the question into the crook of his neck.
Every day when my dad got home from work he planted some words in the crook of my mother’s neck. He did this before he even said hello to me or to Rakefet, before he put his lunch box on the table. He whispered into her neck, as though that’s where her ears were. Then he went to us. “Ach, ya ruchi,” he’d say and kiss me and lift me up in the air. Then he did the same to Rakefet. I know she was thinking the same thing I was. What exactly did he tell Mom? To this day I have no idea. It must have been something funny, and maybe a little dirty, because she always let out a short, surprised, slightly embarrassed laugh.
I’m six- or seven-years-old. My parents and I are climbing HaZionut Avenue on foot. It’s a hell of a climb, and it’s hot outside. My father tries to hold my hand, but his is sweaty and it keeps sliding out of mine. My mother is walking behind us, almost running. When she catches up, she grabs my left hand and the three of us walk in a row. Her hand is almost as small as mine, soft and tender, and very dry. I smile at her but she doesn’t notice. Her eyes are wandering up and to the sides. She’s looking for Zofia and Amos’s house.
At the end of the climb we see the giant, round balcony. Mom tells us to stop. “Here it is. Zofia said we would see the balcony from the street.”
Dad stands up straight, loosening his belt and tucking his Sabbath shirt in, even though it looks fine. “If Zofia said so, she probably knows,” he blurts.
I stare at the three-story high building that looks like a tower to me. “I didn’t know Zofia lived in a castle,” I call out merrily.
We walk into the living room through a lobby of hand-painted tiles. I skip a beat. “Wow, this is gorgeous!” I yell. Mom pulls on my arm to shut me up.
The domed ceiling is baby blue. Faded golden trim frames the doorways. Arched windows are covered with long, thin embroidered curtains. Layers upon layers of floating color. A cool wind roams around the rooms and I chase after it. Between adoring steps I catch Zofia speaking to a low-calorie lady. She’s so thin I think her dress would look perfect on me. “You can see the sea from anywhere in this house,” Zofia says.
A row of colorful lights hangs diagonally from the ceiling, reflecting in the sparkling expanse of floor. Who polished it so carefully? There must be a whole army of eunuchs whose job is to make the lights shine every morning.
But there is no army, only one maid.
We’ve already been at the Fishmans’ new home for a few minutes, and I’ve already seen her climb and descend the marble steps without pause. Carrying trays, running back and forth, making the figure eight around two giant tables that block any passageway. She never rests. From the top floor to the bottom floor. From the balcony to the living room. From the living room to the balcony and back again. She reminds me of the train at Fogel’s toy store. And just like the engine of that train, that whistles every few seconds, the maid never stops offering refreshments. “Have some yam latkes,” and “This is something new I just made, spinach patties,” and “Here are salty cookies Zofia baked and stuffed cigars that I made.”
It must be hard to say those lines so many times without messing them up. And all the while keep handing out clean napkins. And pick up the dirty ones from the windowsills. And throw away those elusive toothpicks. And wipe off the pink rings of wine glasses. And smile. Smiling with no reason is the hardest.
“Good, I see people are beginning to drip,” Zofia tells the stick woman.
What’s good about the fact that they’re dripping? I wonder. The maid will have to clean after them.
The maid smiles at me, revealing a mouth that requires urgent dental care. She runs a sweaty hand across my cheek and disappears down the exterior spiral stairway. Two minutes later she appears again with four glasses, their stems grasped between her fingers. A bottle of wine is resting between her arm and torso. If only she could rest, too. “A little something to wet your whistle,” she recites new lines, pours and smiles. “Walla, this is wine Amos brought back from France, just a few sips,” she says. And to the couple that nods at her and returns to their conversation: “You must, you must. C’est tres bon. Today is a holiday.”
Her legs are tangled in her maxi skirt. Don’t let her fall. Her bra straps are showing beneath her white blouse. Her apron is stained with food. It’s tied too tight. I hope she can breathe.
I notice her glancing at Zofia, who communicates with her through her fingers. Only her fingers. She draws meaningless circles in the air.
“Enjoy, enjoy, eat and be merry.” The maid greets guests as if they’re sick, and she herself looks breathless. Circles of sweat form below her eyes, leaving colorful makeup stains on her cheeks. Again she runs to one of the guests with wine and another glass I have no idea where she got. Such a hurry. Like he was a bus she was about to miss.
The furniture in this house is heavy and fancy. Each sofa is covered with plump pillows, and when you stand up you leave a dent in the seat. I’m amazed to find roaring lions and prancing deer and elephants with trunks rolled up like snails carved into the wooden backs of dining room chairs.
I hear Zofia talking again, this time to another woman who must be really important because suddenly Zofia isn’t frugal with her words anymore. She talks and talks without end. “… Even the shoe closet. It’s all handmade. You won’t believe where we found it. Remember I told you about that store in Tel Aviv? Yes, yes, on the corner of Dizengof. Of course you know it, they only carry Italian goods.”
Just her living room alone is twice as big as our entire house and Aunt Aida’s house put together. Several hallways twist out of the living room, leading to several bedrooms, bathrooms and showers, and to two rear balconies where you can play basketball quietly. I counted four toilets and three bathrooms. The Fishmans must be very clean people if they use all these bathrooms. How many bedrooms? I swear I lost count.
I go back to the living room. I don’t want to get lost. That happened to me once. I got lost at the Shalom department store. After that happened, my mom couldn’t stop discussing it, in great detail, with anyone who would listen. She warned me that if it ever happened again I’d get a punishment I’d never forget. And as Mom knows, I have a very good memory.
At the end of my journey through the house I stop by one of the porcelain bowls that are strewn on dressers and stools around the living room, carrying candles and perfumed water. Trying to identify that sweet scent, I bring the bowl closer to my nose. I sniff. The conclusion is obvious. It’s boiled myrtle twigs, just like my mom brings out every Saturday night for the Havdalah prayer that separates the Sabbath from the new week. I feel spiritually uplifted. I’m a part of this world too.
Without anyone noticing, I rummage through the drawers of the dresser that stands along the hallway. Some of them won’t open, others won’t closer. They’re heavy and overflowing with beads and gems and jewelry boxes I’d love to take home.
But I’m not allowed. I know I’m not allowed.
I can only look.
The drawers look like miniature models of the caves from a Thousand and One Nights, and the stories my father told me each night are coming to life. Here are Sheikh Ibrahim and the Wazir el Fadel bin Hakan, clad in fantastic robes. They meet the three young women from the tale of the porter and his strange fruit shipments. Here they are, moving like the belly dancers in the Arab movies everyone in our neighborhood watches every Friday afternoon. Other women burst out of the rooms, all in skimpy, chiming clothing, hiding and revealing twice as much. See-through fabrics held at eye level dance with the joy of their vibrating stomachs and their overflowing breasts. They play drums and cymbals and walk jauntily across the picturesque floor. Men with mustaches and genteel eyes stand in a secret circle, whispering, in the midst of a transaction: the purchasing of magical horses.
I can’t believe my ears? How much?
One thousand! One thousand golden dinars!
If I had a thousand golden coins I’d give them all to my father, so that he can finally stop talking about money.
Zofia stands by the doorway. Her legs crossed, her hands on her hips, as if she’s going to break into the Irish jig. She watches over the small kingdom she and Amos recently purchased. The light blue dress creates a perfect holiday pallet against her pale skin, the colors of the Israeli flag. Her short hair is rough and dyed. Like a doll’s. It is pinned to her head. Trapeze-shaped, dark glasses rest unnaturally on the bridge of her nose, as if they pasted to her face. Even when she bends down to pick up a beautiful white kitten that is curled on one of the sofas, her glasses remain in place.
After watching her for a long time I’m finally able to interpret her mute gestures. Her examining nod is meant to assess the impression the house makes on those who come in. The pigeon-like stretch of the neck checks the arrangement of food on platters. Her raised chin and leaning gaze are designed to make her look distracted or maybe ponderous. Even the circles her fingers draw through the air finally gain meaning. It’s how she instructs the maid to make another round among the guests.
On the armrest of one sofa is a round man with a grave face. He is immersed in smoking his pipe or stuffing his pipe or some other indecipherable task. It must be Amos, Zofia’s husband, who, according to my father is “some piece of shit millionaire.” His name came up several times in the loud, stressful argument my parents had before we arrived at this annual Independence Day party, which, this year, serves in a second capacity as a housewarming party.
The smell of his tobacco wafts straight into my nostrils. It’s sweeter than Grandpa Yusuf’s tobacco, perhaps because it is diluted by the scent of myrtle. Zofia’s reproachful fingers reach her husband’s shoulder. Turns out he has a hard time understanding their significance. He doesn’t budge until Zofia berates him with furious whispers. “You have guests here, don’t you? Leave your pipe and get up!”
Amos stands up slowly.
Zofia must have noticed me staring at them curiously. “Where are Mom and Dad?” She gives me a plastic smile.
I point in their direction.
“Go call them over, sweetheart,” she says quietly.
I hurry to fulfill her orders.
“So that’s your daughter, Rivka?” Zofia asks Mom, and Dad’s face turns dark.
“Yes.” Mom nods. “We left the little one with her grandmother. And this is Zion. My husband Zion. I’m sorry we didn’t –”
“Oh. Hello Zion. Hello Zion. Thanks for coming.”
Dad debates whether to stretch out his hand again. At the beginning of the night, when Zofia greeted us at the door, his hand remained hanging, unanswered, in midair.
“Make yourself at home. Eat something. Ninette made excellent food.” Zofia slants her eyes towards the maid, who in turn brings the trays closer to my parents.
Amos hurries to sit back down on the armrest. Maybe so that he can easily escape when need be. His shirt collar is starched and impeccable like the corner of a book’s page. His pants are neatly pressed. A bald head rests atop his shiny moon face. He looks at me and my parents, but he doesn’t smile. He only nods, once, and returns to his pipe.
I wonder if this is what a king looks like. All he’s missing is a crown.
My mother clasps an angry hand around my arm and pulls me from my spot. “Irit! That’s impolite! Don’t stand like that!”
“Like that!” Her doe eyes skip over the hosts and guests.
“I wasn’t doing anything.”
“They aren’t our friends, you know.”
How should I have known?
Stone pillars shaped like female bodies create a half-circle around the giant balcony. They look like beauty pageant contestants, tall and white. I stand on tiptoes. The bay shines at me. A burgundy sea sticks its tongue out and hits the port. The lights strewn across the waterfront shimmer like a pearl necklace that had burst apart, signaling to me to get closer. Large Israeli flags wave outside the windows of the houses next door. Long, blue and white ribbons wrap around the gutters, twisting among sun-heated water tanks and glimmering antennas. Along with the lights, they tie the streets of the lower city to the Hadar neighborhood and the long, steep avenue below the house to the neighborhood on the northwest corner of the mountain.
Several beams of light move toward me with speed, blinding me. Where is my house? Where is Grandma Subahia and Grandpa Yusuf’s house? Where’s Aunt Aida’s house?
There are the grain elevators. And there’s the pointy spire of the small mosque. And the dome of the clock tower. If you walk straight from there, you get to the Abu Nader House. And from there it’s simple. The Shifra stairs wall. And the palm tree we climb in summer, using a rope. It’s so beautiful, seeing everything from this height. “Dad, you’ve got to come over here!”
“Shu?” Dad approaches me. He puts his always-warm hands on my always-cold shoulders. “What did you see?” he asks in Arabic.
“I see Aunt Aida’s house. Isn’t that Aunt Aida’s house?” It was like discovering a new continent.
“Mish mumken yishuf walla ishi baswad,” he says. You can’t see anything in the dark. His voice is warm too, soft and sweet, like chocolate cake just out of the oven.
But his words alarm me. “Dad.” I look around me. “Don’t talk like that here.”
He leans on the stone wall, an ancient ivy plant twisting behind him. Green hyssop leaves emphasize the bricks’ contours and the house’s old age. And even Dad suddenly looks really old. Almost elderly.
Mom joins us. “Isn’t it beautiful?” she says and touches Dad’s shoulder.
Dad pulls her into a hesitant hug. “Yes, and the Amos and the Zofia are also beautiful.”
“Why enough? Isn’t the Amos beautiful?”
“Stop it, Zion, this is my work. People can hear you.”
“So now you’re afraid someone will hear me, too?” He adds angrily, in Arabic, “You can’t say anything in this country anymore.”
I cross the balcony. They can fight as much as they want, just not around me. I don’t want to hear it. I stretch my toes again, trying to see the view.
Suddenly the dark grows larger, shaking its claws, stretching its snaky neck. Its eyes search for prey. That’s how it is. Using its power to blind me, grunting all the shatters and noises and whispers and shouts and moans and sighs it collected during the day. I hear it. I hear it so well. A loud monster that feeds on little girls.
I should get out of here.
I leave the stone wall and retreat. For the past year I’ve been carefully practicing walking and skipping backwards. Once this skill is mastered, I’ll turn to the next task. Learning to fly. I really want to fly. It’s what I want more than anything.
One step and another. I keep walking backwards and bump into a girl that, it turns out, has been standing behind me. I turn to face her and meet two foaming sea anemones in her eyes. I can tell she’s angry at me just as quickly as I can tell that she’s several years older than me. Or is it only her dress? It might be. The dress is at least three sizes too big for her. The long sleeves hide her fists. The webbed lace pours onto the floor like melting whipped cream. She tugs at it now and then, trying not to step on it, but it’s no good. She keeps standing on the edge of the fabric.
“You should look where you’re going!” she reprimands me.
I go silent. Something about her jubilant curls, her burning eyes, the enormous dimples that appear without her even smiling, awakens a vague jealousy in me.
“And try not to get in my way when I dance, all right?” Even her voice sounds bigger than me. Without another word she walks to the other end of the balcony, over to a giant record player that resembles an oven, and places the needle on the record. I’m not even allowed to use the record player at home. Dad decided I was the one who scratched the Farid al-Atrash record, though I never even touched it.
The guitars electrify the night. The sounds of Kaveret’s album Poogy Tales take over the balcony. The girl rushes to the center of the floor and begins twirling. Within seconds she blends all possible dance styles. She rounds her elbows and squeezes her forearms like a flamenco dancer, segues into a series of Yemenite steps, hops from side to side in a version of the Druze Dabke and twists her wrists like a belly dancer. I don’t understand how she isn’t embarrassed. She pulls her sleeve off her shoulder and shakes the fabric around. Her round belly wobbles like a bag filled with water.
Calls of excitement sound from all around, even from within the house. Guests step outside to discover the reason for the tumult. The girl looks at them piercingly. Her movement, like her eyes, is on fire, overflowing with rhythm and rage. And courage. And it doesn’t end quickly. Not at all. The song has changed a while ago, and yet she continues to shimmy and shake. With one flip of the buttocks she raises the edges of the dress that had been stained dark earlier, revealing thick, childish ankles.
The balcony becomes filled with guests, and again I hear Zofia exalting, only this time it’s the girl who’s winning her praises. “She’s a wonder child,” she says. And then, “A wonder child I tell you.” And later: “So talented. A terrific girl. She comes over every year, and every year she steals the show.” Zofia speaks decisively, as is becoming of a school principal who “runs a tight shift,” as my mother claims.
Mom is the secretary at the same school. I’ve never been able to figure out if she said this with admiration or contempt.
“That girl doesn’t look Moroccan at all, does she?” Zofia goes on. Then she determines: “No, she doesn’t look Moroccan.”
What does it mean, looking Moroccan? And how come that girl doesn’t?
I can’t stop looking at her. At least ten minutes have gone by, and she’s still dancing. Some of the guests have grown tired of watching, but she’s only getting started. Now she stares through the air, stomps the floor, pushes out her chest. She sends one foot forward while the toes of the other tap vigorously. The train of her dress twists through the air. I can see her underwear. She arches her back and lands on her knees. She smiles quickly at the cheering audience and disappears inside the house. When the applause refuse to die down she returns outside and then disappears again. The third time she does this, she walks towards me. I skip a beat. As if deciding to make up for her earlier behavior, she speaks kindly. “It’s your first time here, right? Come on, come on. I’ll show you how things work. You might as well have some fun.”
I nod happily. How does she know it’s our first time here?
We get invited every year, but this is the first time Dad agreed to come, and even that happened only after Mom already told Zofia she’d be coming alone. This time, she decided, there was “no way in hell” she was missing the party. They started arguing about it back in Passover. “If you don’t want to come, don’t come,” she announced so loudly that the entire neighborhood heard. “I’m going, whether you like it or not. It’s part of my job!”
I couldn’t figure out how this was part of her job. Neither could Dad. “Your job?” he yelled. “What does a party have to do with your job?”
Mom gave him all kinds of explanations that all involved Zofia and Amos, together or separately. That wasn’t a very smart move. Dad kept shaking his head and saying words you shouldn’t say. But a few days ago he finally gave in. Don’t ask me what made him change his mind, but I don’t get what the problem was in the first place. This is fun.
In spite of her performance, the girl isn’t tired at all. She runs ahead and I follow her. She’s really fast. Murderously fast. Luckily, we run into Amos, who stops her. It’s enviable, how happy he is to see her. He even puts down his pipe. “Rosy!” His face lights up like the moon in the story about Hana’le and the Sabbath dress. “You’re wonderful! You’re the best!” he shouts. His excitement is loud. It’s the first time I’ve heard his voice. It’s as smoky as Golda Meir’s voice, plus ten extra packs of cigarettes.
He hugs Rosy, running a hand through her curls. She could use a comb. Then they chat in French and I can’t understand a word they’re saying. The language is so delicate and elegant. It smells of perfume. So different from my parents’ throaty, gurgling Arabic. I can’t stand my parents’ language.
We leave Amos. Up until a moment ago I thought there was no one less likeable than Amos in the entire universe, but now he actually seems like a really nice guy. I’ll tell Dad, he’ll probably be glad to hear it.
Rosy stops again, this time in front of a man I take to be her father. “This is Robert. My Robert Redfod,” she garbles the name with pride. “Doesn’t he look like him?”
“Yes,” I blurt. I have no idea who he’s supposed to look like.
Robert hugs her, happy, then kisses her cheeks about twenty times. Rosy parts with him and stands behind the maid. She unties her apron and carefully reties it, as if they were best friends. “And this is Ninette.” She looks at me. I’m alarmed to find that the maid is this girl’s mother. “But you can call her Nina. People who like her call her Nina. Right, Mama?”
The maid still isn’t taking a break. She’s carrying another tray of goodness that conceals some of the green dip stains that have flourished on her apron. Rosy speaks to her, but Ninette doesn’t seem to be listening. She’s watching Zofia’s circling fingers. “Sure, sure,” she answers her daughter distractedly. “Whatever you want, baby. Bless your soul. Whatever you want.”
Robert sits down at one of the corners of the balcony and signals to us to take a seat next to him. Rosy sits down and I remain standing. “Sit down, sweetheart, no charge.” He laughs. His hair is long and wavy, almost reaching his shoulders. It hides his ears, framing his face. He has the same skin as Rosy’s: mocha with extra milk.
“I like standing,” I lie without meaning to and glance at Rosy. She smiles at me and takes my breath away. My eyes are playing Ping-Pong: Rosy. Robert. Rosy. Robert. They look so alike, you could never mistake their relation. The thing that stands out the most is the humongous dimples breaking through both their cheeks. The only difference is you can see Rosy’s even when she isn’t smiling.
I have no idea who Robert Redfod[YG1] is, but I think Robert really does look like an American movie star. Then it occurs to me: maybe I misheard Zofia? Maybe she said “American” rather than “Moroccan”? That makes a lot more sense. I know what Americans are supposed to look like. They wear cowboy hats and they have lots and lots of money. Rosy really doesn’t have either. This beautiful girl isn’t wearing a hat and she definitely doesn’t have lots of money, because her mother is a maid.
Now it all makes sense.
“Now show me your parents,” Rosy orders me. I search for them with embarrassed eyes and find them sitting in silence against the ivy-enveloped wall. Side by side, uninvolved in the action on the balcony. When our eyes meet they both smile at me and add a small wave, making sure I saw them.
Just don’t let Dad ruin this for me. At school, we just learned the biblical verse “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” Life or death now depend on whether Dad chooses to use the wrong language.
I turn the other way, leaving the repeated, concerned wave unanswered. Trying to figure out how to get out of this mess.
“Are your parents the ones sitting over there?” Rosy grabs my arm, not letting me escape.
“Let’s get a drink, I’m thirsty.”
As we walk she tents the ends of her dress, looking as if she’s about to curtsy and ask me to join her for a waltz. A bit delayed, she says, “You never told me your name.”
“Irit,” I answer.
“I’m Rosy.” An unnecessary introduction. The pits of her dimples suddenly fill up. “I hate my name.”
“Why? What does Rosy even mean?”
“It means… a rose,” She stutters. “Isn’t that a dumb name?”
I’m pleasantly surprised to find that some things actually embarrass her. Rosy really is a bad name. Her parents should have called her by the Hebrew version: Vered.
“Hey,” I try to change the subject. “Irit is also a flower! We’re both flowers.”
Rosy laughs. “It’s funny that they named you after a white flower.”
“Because you’re black.”
Before I can get a chance to pick my heart up from the floor, Rosy puts her hand on my shoulder and says: “But you’re pretty… even though you’re black. You’re actually pretty.” A moment later her finger is busy pointing and making fun at a couple sitting side by side and sharing a mountainous portion of appetizers. “Look at those too, they’re cows, I swear… look at all that food on their plate!”
I’m still debating whether or not it would be appropriate to tell Rosy that cursing and pointing are both very impolite, when she switches to French. “Alors.” Her parted lips reveal gaps left by fallen baby teeth. “Let’s go make the list.”
I have no idea what list she’s talking about, but I follow her into the house. On the way there she stops by a group of men who are arguing loudly. “That’s Golda’s side,” she tells me. “And these are the Goldas themselves.” She points to a circle of women in tailored suits and thick high heels.
The chilly night does nothing to cool the atmosphere of the party. All the irritating, irritable words from the past year knife through the air. Again with Golda and Dayan and Dado and Gorodish and Bar Lev and Zeira, and the conception and the failure and the Egyptians and the Syrians and the Arabs… the Arabs? I panic again, looking around for my father. Just don’t let him join the conversation.
In the mélange of voices and arguments, I’m saddened to find the women, sitting with crossed legs and inhaled bellies, busy in a submissive, pseudo-cultural discussion on issues such as “How can Barbara Streisand walk around with that nose? What, she can’t afford plastic surgery?” or “Yardena Arazi has to start wearing her hair down. She’s not a child anymore.”
They glance at the arguing men. “Why do you have to shout?” one woman with a Japanese haircut says. “Can’t you say the same things quietly?”
“You’re right,” says another, who has more hair than her head can carry. “What is this, Africa? Why can’t they speak like civilized men?”
Rosy pulls my arm. “Come on, this is depressing.” She walks deeper into the house and I hurry to step on her shadow, trying to mimic her walk. The swing of the elbows, the perkiness of her shoulders, the melody of her fingers, moving to the sounds of the bizarre background music. Years have gone by since that Independence Day in 1974, and sometimes it feels like I’m still trying.
“Wow, whose room is this?”
Talya’s room is huge, just like the rest of the house. It has wide windows featuring mighty views. The lights of the Krayot region keep flickering, but this time I sit down with my back to them. Rosy wanders the room as if it were her own. She pauses in front of the dresser, opens one of the drawers and pulls out a heavy photo album. “Look,” she says. “You know Yula and Tali went to Paris?”
I hesitate. “You think we’re allowed?”
“What, to go to Paris?”
“No, to look through an album that doesn’t belong to us.”
Rosy shrugs. “I have no idea, but I want to go to Paris too.”
“What’s so funny?” Rosy demands.
I say, “People don’t just go to Paris.”
“They do too just go to Paris.” She continues flipping through the pages. A few photos fall out.
I stand up and pick up the photos, sticking them back between the album’s crammed pages.
“It’s a good deal, being their daughter.” Rosy’s eyes are melancholic.
“I don’t know.” I chuckle. “I’m not so sure I’d like to be their daughter. Zofia looks like she’s made of plastic, and Amos looks like he’s made of paper. He might just catch fire from his pipe.”
Rosy bursts out laughing, and I, pleased with myself, join in. We both giggle until Rosy turns serious and silent all at once. She sweeps her dress onto the bed with miserable slowness. Desperate exhaustion. Like an undecided tug-of-war game. Her bouncy curls are tangled like scouts’ rope ties. She catches my eye. “What?” she mutters.
“Your curls,” I mumble enviously.
“Oh, this?” She pulls a curl into her line of vision and squints at it. “I never comb it,” she says proudly. “I don’t wash it. I won’t do anything that hurt.”
I’m about to explode with jealousy, me with my long, tight welded braids, like Siamese twins. Every other day at seven o’clock they foam up my hair with shampoo and then rinse it off. Then they do it again, shampooing and rinsing. The last time is the most painful. Mom burrows her nails into my scalp as if she’s trying to peel it off like the Indians do. Then she shampoos and rinses it again. Then the second phase begins, and it’s just as awful as the first one. Mom wraps a towel around my head like a Muslim fakir, so wet and heavy that it feels like my head would break off. I stay like this for half-an-hour. I can’t take if off any sooner because I might “catch a cold.” Then the third phase. Combing. The comb’s teeth plow through my hair, pulling out rocks and weeds. Mom puts the final touches on this sequence of torture, milking my hair into two braids, ignoring my screams.
I sigh. With a suddenly-kindled intimacy, as if we already know we’re going to be best friends, Rosy announces: “All right, now let’s make the list.”
“Of all the things we hate,” Rosy rolls her eyes and explains the obvious.
“My father always says you should do onto others what you would have them do to you.” I’m glad to pull out this proverb my father repeats every chance he gets. I glance at Rosy to see if she’s impressed. She isn’t.
“You talk funny… say ‘others’ again…” She mimics my throaty consonants. When she sees me getting upset she quickly pacifies me: “It’s all right, it’s all right, the way you say it is also correct.” Then she stands up and picks up a pencil from the dresser. She flips through a notebook she finds in the drawer, skillfully skipping over the first pages and carefully tearing one out. Then she sits back down across from me. The bed shakes. I giggle. Rosy examines me, dead serious. I silence my last giggle.
“What do you want?” I’m getting defensive. “It’s like we’re on a raft. We might drown!”
“You say ‘raft’ funny too. You really talk funny.”
I go quiet and look at Rosy.
She splits the page in two with a perfectly straight line. On one side she writes “Rosy,” and on the other, “Irit.” “You start,” she orders and stands up again, this time to pull out a book to use as a tabletop. “You go first.”
“All right,” I mumble. “The thing I hate most is… combing my hair.”
Rosy repeats after me, breaking the word into syllables and writing with her left hand: “Comb-ing-my-hair.” Then she looks up. “It really is a nightmare to comb hair like ours. Yours is even worse than mine, you have black girl hair.”
That’s too much. I fight to hold back tears.
Rosy notices, says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I won’t use that word anymore. I’m sorry. You forgive me?”
I nod but avoid her eyes. I feel like leaving. I feel like the most wretched person in the world.
Rosy gets back to the list. “I hate having to wear my older brothers’ hand-me-downs.”
I struggle to fix my funny speech and pray for a light bulb to explode. You can’t tell how black I am in the dark. “You have older brothers? I haven’t seen them,” I mumble. “Are they here?”
“No.” Rosy becomes sad. I’m happy to find out she can be sad too. “I mean, yes, I have brothers, Yuda and Simon. But they aren’t here. They’re at the kibbutz. They live there and they only come home every other weekend.”
Rosy leans over the page and writes, accompanying the words with her voice. “Ol-der-bro-thers’-hand-me-downs.” She turns to me again, putting her hands on my knees. “Your turn. Find another one.”
Her touch comforts me and I take my time, enjoying it.
“What, is that the only thing you hate?” Rosy urges me. “You don’t hate anything else?”
“Sure I do,” I answer hastily, though to be honest not many things come to mind. “I really hate showering.”
Rosy breaks the word apart again. “Sho-we-ring.” The pencil squeaks and it hurts my ear. I’m very sensitive to squeaking, but of course I don’t say anything. Rosy says, “I really hate Sundays.”
“Why?” I ask. Sunday is my favorite day. After Saturday, of course. On Sunday, Dad doesn’t have to get “additional income,” which is a nice way of saying “working the night shift.” He comes home at eight.
Rosy explains: “Because on Sunday the weekend is over and my parents have to go back to the factory, and because Yuda and Simon go back to Ayelet.”
“Not who, what.” Rosy giggles. “It’s their kibbutz.”
“It’s called Ayelet?” I wonder. “That’s a girl’s name.”
“Yes,” Rosy says seriously. “And its last name is HaShachar. Ayelet HaShachar. I take it you’ve never heard of it.”
The truth is I don’t know the name of any kibbutz. I’ve never even been to one. I dream of living at a kibbutz, doesn’t matter which one. It seems like heaven to me. Grandma Subahia says kibbutz members get anything they want for free. They have the best lives. On the other hand, Dad hates kibbutz members. That’s a problem. If I become one, he’ll have a hard time loving me.
“It’s near Kiryat Shemona,” Rosy continues.
“Does that mean it’s dangerous?” I try to demonstrate my knowledge. Everybody knows Kiryat Shemona is a very dangerous place. It’s always mentioned on the news. There was a terror attack there just a few days ago.
“Why do you say that?” Rosy asks.
“Because it’s full of Arabs. The Arabs just killed eighteen people there.”
“No way!” She raises her voice decisively to cancel me out, just like Zofia, who, at this very moment, is giving a thank you speech out on the balcony.
“Yes, there’s a ton of Arabs there, I’m sure of it.” I realize Rosy isn’t crazy about my attempt at confidence and decide to drop it. “Well, never mind.”
“It’s your turn.”
I think. “Write down that I hate nighttime.”
“Because I can’t sleep.”
“You can’t not have nighttime, and you can’t not sleep.” Rosy seems very sure of this. She employs the tone of a person who knows what she’s talking about. “I can’t write that down.”
“Because you can’t not sleep.” Though she won’t come up with logical reasons, I realize I have to adhere to this wonder child’s line of thinking. Her dimples slam shut and she goes on. “You can’t not have nighttime, that’s why! That’s not the kind of thing you love or hate.”
“But you can’t not have Sundays, either…”
Rosy is unimpressed.
“Then write that I hate it when Rakefet interrupts my stories,” I accede.
“Who’s Rakefet and what stories?”
“Rakefet is my sister, and there are all kinds of stories. It doesn’t matter right now.”
“That’s too much. I can’t write all that down. You have to make it shorter. Can you say it in one word?”
“Rakefet. Write Rakefet.” I begin to despair.
“You asked for one word, so write Rakefet. Or write sister. Rakefet is my sister.”
“Well, I understood that part.” Rosy is losing her patience. “But I can’t write that down either.”
“But she bugs me and I hate her.”
“You can’t hate your sister.”
“I… I don’t always hate her but she always bugs me. Just write Rakefet..”
“I can’t!” She drops the pencil on the embroidered bed spread. “Where is this Rakefet anyway?”
“At my grandma’s.”
“You’re so lucky to have a grandma.”
“I have two. I have Grandma Suba… I mean Simha.” I hurry to replace her Arab name with its Israeli version. “I have Grandma Simha…” Nobody ever uses her Hebrew name. The last one to use it was some “stinking Mapai member” who came to ask “who’s name the house was under” and my grandma yelled at him that Mapai was “stealing all the land” and that “all the money is going to your kibbutzes’ swimming pools” and to shut up about it already, though Grandma was the one making all the noise. The stinking Mapai member didn’t understand a word she said, because she mainly spoke Arabic, but tried to explain the work of the committee for the “Location of Absentee Landlord Property.”
Grandma, who didn’t even understand what the committee was for, only got angrier. She cursed him and all Ashkenazi Jews. Maybe he did understand some of it, because he never came back.
“Grandma Simha lives on HaShomer Street,” I finally stutter.
“Hey, that’s where I live!” Rosy jumps happily off the bed.
“Really?” I make a mental note that Rosy is even poorer than I thought. HaShomer Street is the worst street in Haifa, other than Chalisa. “So we can meet sometimes,” I say. “When I come to visit her.”
Rosy nods enthusiastically.
We get up to look for the pencil that got lost in the bedspread, stretching the fabric until it appears. “Anyway,” Rosy gets back to business, “what should I write? I can’t write you hate your sister, I told you.”
“Fine, then write that I hate Choney.”
“Who’s this Choney all of a sudden?”
“And what reason do you have to hate your neighbor?”
“She’s like a cat, she meows all the time,” I explain. “She’s absolutely nuts.”
Rosy looks at me with wonder. “What, like a real cat woman? She really meows?”
“Really-really. Meow. But long, like, meooooooowwwwwwww.”
“It isn’t funny.”
“All right,” she says and puts on a half-serious-half-joking face. “Why does she meow?”
“Because she’s crazy, that’s why. Hitler drove her mad.”
Rosy freezes, looking at me admiringly. “What, she’s met Hitler?”
“Sure. She really hates him.”
“Wow.” Rosy sighs with amazement.
“It’s not wow. He killed her entire family. Mom told me that Choney used to have a mother and a father and three siblings and now only one sister is still alive. Everyone else passed away.”
“Make up your mind, did they pass away or were they killed?”
“No way.” Rosy smooths her curls, which bounce back. Then she clears her throat as if about the give a lecture. “‘Passed away’ means a person just died. ‘Killed’ means someone made them die… Look, there are all sorts of ways to die. There’s ‘murdered,’ there’s ‘exterminated,’ there’s ‘perished,’ there’s –” She pauses and immediately continues with renewed energy: “There’s ‘gone extinct,’ there’s ‘ravaged,’ there’s ‘fallen,’ there’s ‘snuffed’ and there’s ‘gone.’ And there’s ‘passed away.’ Each of these means something different.”
I nod silently.
A moment later Rosy asks, “So does she meow because Hitler killed her family?”
“That’s why she’s crazy. But just so you know, she’s going to make me crazy too. Because of her Hitler I can’t sleep. Her meowing wakes me up. So do her closets.”
“What do her closets have to do with it? Do they meow too? Are you pulling my leg or what?”
“No, definitely not. I’m telling the truth. Every night she pushes her closets against the door and it makes so much noise. But she doesn’t care. All she cares about is that Hitler can’t get in her house.”
“But Hitler’s dead. He committed suicide. He can’t go anywhere.”
“What’s suicide?” I ask.
“Oh, yeah,” Rosy gestures satisfaction at my question. “Suicide is another way of dying. When someone wants to off themselves they commit suicide and then they’re dead.”
I nod again, as if able to follow the differences. Long story short, they’re all dead. What difference does it make how they die? “But maybe… Choney doesn’t know he’s dead?” I wonder.
“What, she thinks Hitler’s still alive?”
“I have no idea,” I say weakly. “But it looks like she thinks Hitler can get in her house.” Silence floats between us for a moment, then vanishes. “You know Hitler was bad, right?” I add. I’m not sure Rosy understands what I’m telling her. Her expression is too cheerful. It isn’t the right expression for discussing Hitler.
“Sure I know, you think I’m retarded?” She gets upset. “And not only Hitler was bad. All Germans were bad. They were all shits.” She says the last word very loudly.
I get scared and whisper, “You can’t say that word. My dad gets so mad when people curse. He says the curses come right back to you.”
Rosy is unimpressed, but is finally convinced to write: “Cho-ney.” Looking at what she has down so far, she asks, “What’s Choney? What kind of name is that?”
“And everyone calls her that?”
“Yes, except for Ziso.”
“Who’s that, her husband?”
“No, the third-floor neighbor.”
“But Ziso’s never on the third floor,” I explain. “He’s always sitting on the bench outside our building, staring at the Persian lilac next to Miko’s grocery store. Sometimes he picks up the tree’s rotten fruit too.”
“Boy, what a crazy neighborhood you’ve got.”
“Yes.” I nod. “My mom tells my dad the same thing… There’s nothing we can do about it. Ziso met Hitler too, but Ziso, even though he’s crazy, is really nice. You’ll see him if you come to visit me. He doesn’t meow or anything, just sits quietly on the bench.”
Rosy puts the pencil in her mouth. “All right, enough for today. The fireworks are about to begin. This house is so cool. You can see all the way to the fireworks at Memorial Garden, and in the Krayot.”
When Arik still loved me, he held me close every night. All night. I got used to his warm, comforting, blanketing body, until finally I wasn’t able to fall asleep without it. I’d cuddle close to him and he’d repeat the sentence I knew so well that I completed it for him: “If I die in the middle of the night, just know it’s because your curls are in my mouth and I can barely breathe.”
But that never stopped him from holding me tight. He’d curl into a fetal position, lock my legs between his knees, his penis blushing against my behind. His right hand under my waist, his left hand pushing the curls aside. Another moment of mumbling, and then he was asleep. And I stayed awake. I only fell asleep towards the end of the night, shortly before he woke up.
He tried to help me fall asleep. “Enough, Iriti. The past is the past. You can’t go on like this.” He smoothed his fingers over my closed eyes, like my father used to. “Sleep. You have to sleep.” Then the grating of his teeth signaled he was already dreaming.
/* Style Definitions */
mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;