In the Presence of Strangers: Moving Day (Chapter VII)

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It was eleven-thirty in the morning and Raz wished death upon his sister. After his night in Tel Aviv, he was in no mood to begin the day before the late afternoon, and the never-ending uproar of Yael moving her things out of the house was hindering his attempts to fall asleep. He had always been a light sleeper. From a creaking door to a ringing telephone, even the faintest noises seemed to converge into an atonal shriek that gave him no peace. He kicked his legs wildly beneath the sheets, trapped somewhere between slumber and fury. For a moment, he harbored a secret urge to leap out of bed and throw his sister’s boxes out the window.

After a long time, he realized that he was asleep again. He tried to resurrect a dream that the sound of Yael’s footsteps had interrupted. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember its content beyond the fact that it had somehow involved Yasmine. He eventually decided to invent a new scenario inspired by the same theme.

He pictured himself sitting next to her on a breakwater, waves rolling rhythmically beneath them. (He took note of the uneven texture of the rocks on which they sat and congratulated himself on the realism of his imagination.) After a pause, he reached out to touch her hand. Suddenly, she began laughing at him. At first, it was only a chuckle, but it soon evolved into a giggle, and then into a snicker, and finally into pure hysterics. He wished that she would stop. He tried joking with her, reasoning with her, screaming at her, and yet she remained impenetrable. At last, as her cries reached fever pitch, he lunged forward to silence her by force and fell headlong into the sea. Drowning, he looked up and saw her for a final time sitting contentedly on the breakwater, a Sphinx complete with a misshapen nose. The answer to her riddle was in her laughter, but the question itself remained a mystery. She opened her mouth to speak. He swam toward her, desperate to hear what she had to say, and after an unbearably long pause, she whispered,

“Get out of the way, Yonatan! These boxes are heavy!”

Raz looked regretfully at his alarm clock. It was 12:02. He cursed under his breath and waited for the monitor to read 12:03. He counted the seconds silently in his head—one, two, three, four… He considered leaving the bedroom—five six seven eight… The most difficult part of waking up was done, and he wasn’t so very tired anymore—nine ten eleven… But then his mother would force him to help his father move his sister’s boxes, and that was the last thing that he wanted to do—twelve thirteen fourteen days in two weeks. Not two weeks and had gone by since her birthday and Yael had already enrolled in preparatory courses for nursing school, opening her life savings account to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv. Since then, Miriam had become afflicted with daily tantrums directed against anyone unfortunate enough to walk into her line of sight. As the atmosphere of the house became progressively more unbearable, Nachum perfected ignoring his wife and children into an art. Raz felt ready to move out. The clock read 12:04. He’d lost count of the seconds.

A stuffed dog and a blue and white plaid blanket that he had slept with since his infancy had fallen to the floor. He picked them up and tucked them both beneath his arm. He studied the ceiling of his room and counted two hundred and thirty-seven cracks. He wondered if he had counted correctly, but the darkness made it difficult to tell. His bedroom had a vaguely nocturnal air. The song of crickets was mimicked by the buzzing of an electric fan, and the glow of a fluorescent clock took the place of moonlight. Despite the late hour, the illusion remained a tolerably effective one. The pages of a wall calendar rustled to the rhythm of the fan and provided the room with an intoxicating cadence. Raz soon found himself drowsy again. He hid his head beneath the pillow. Unable to breath, he rose, turned it over, and buried his head in its cool side. He sighed and began to stroke his stomach with the tips of his fingers.

He imagined Yasmine’s hair rubbing against the hollow of his neck. He imagined the smell of her perfume, the coolness of her hands, and the weight of her body on his chest. He fumbled to find her lips and saw himself reflected in her eyes. He tasted her breath as she leaned over to whisper something into his ear. He couldn’t understand what she said, but she spoke with such self-assurance that whatever it was seemed terribly important. He cried out with pleasure. Her lips silenced him. Then, suddenly, he began to tremble. His reflection in her eyes had disappeared and in its place he saw the image of her laughing at him again. His vision began to spin until the room dissolved into a series of strange horizontal streaks. Her laughter had grown nearly deafening. His body heaved with adrenaline, and he reached into the air to grasp at nothing until he heard his mother shout,

“I want you to take this box, Yael! I want you to have it!”

“I don’t want it, Ima! I don’t need your charity!”

“Take this box!”

“There’s no room for it in the car! Besides, I don’t need your rags. I have enough clothes of my own.”

“Take it!”

“Sit on it!”

Chutzpanit!”

Raz’s body was beaded with sweat and he felt an unbearable pressure in his head. The clock read 12:45. He turned onto his right cheek, then onto his left. The clock read 12:46. He felt a mosquito bite on his left toe. The clock read 12:47. He touched a canker sore on his lower lip with his tongue, and its sour contents seeped to the back of his throat. The clock continued to read 12:47. He felt unclean, but had no energy to take a shower. Presently, he heard a loud crash in the hallway and a muffled sequence of voices.

“It was an accident! I was only trying to help.”

“Yonatan broke Saba’s lamp!”

“What’s for lunch, Miriam?”

“Did you hear me, Aba? I said that Yonatan broke the lamp that Saba gave me! Who cares about Ima’s lunches, anyway? With recipes like hers, it’s better to go hungry.”

“Did you hear what she just said to me, Nachum? Did you hear what she just said?”

“Not Nutella covered pita bread again, Ima! I hate Nutella!”

“Be quiet, Yonatan! They’re killing me, Nachum. Our children are like monsters.”

“Maybe it runs in the family.”

“That’s not funny, Yonatan. Don’t be so sarcastic!”

“Are you ready to leave, Aba? I’m ready to leave.”

“Not before you take this box!”

“I won’t!”

“Take it!”

Raz rushed into the kitchen and screamed,

“Everybody shut up!”

Miriam, Nachum, Yael and Yonatan interrupted their arguing and stared at him.

“You’re waking me up, for God’s sake,” he said more hesitantly. “Please stop.”

Yael rolled her eyes and left the kitchen to take a final box of clothing out to the car. Yonatan stared guiltily at the floor. Miriam sneered.

“Your father is breaking his back moving your sister’s trash out of this house, and you want to sleep through the afternoon? You should be ashamed of yourself. Help Aba with your sister’s things.”

“But I’m exhausted, Ima! I’m sick to my stomach.”

“Then go to the bathroom and vomit, but when you’re all done, help to move these boxes.”

“I’ll help you, Raz!” cried Yonatan. “I’ll help you!”

Raz drew a deep breath and cast his mother the most pitiable expression that he could muster up. She turned away from him, unmoved. He knew that he shouldn’t have gotten out of bed. His eyes darted about the room, eager to find some means of escape. He saw his sister reenter the house and approach her mountain of possessions in the living room. He smiled.

“Should I take this box out to the car, Ima?”

“No!” said Yael. “I’m not taking that box!”

“You are!” insisted Miriam. “You are!”

“I don’t want your box of old clothes! I don’t want anything from you! It will only clutter up my new apartment!”

“Who said that these are old clothes?”

“Anything of yours is old!”

“Are you hearing this, Nachum?”

Raz snuck out of the kitchen and returned to his bedroom. His skill at avoiding manual labor supplied him with a momentary thrill until a feeling of acute melancholy took its place. He could not forget the sight of Nachum’s expression when he left the kitchen. He had never noticed just how haggard and wrinkled his father’s face had become. He remembered a time when he had seen him as a Greek hero, a kind of Ulysses whose intelligence and sense of irony were so refined that his son could step forward and declare to the world in Shakespearean tones that this was a man. His views of Nachum had long since changed, and he felt vaguely guilty for the transition— not because he pitied his father, but precisely because he did not pity him. His quips went unnoticed, his ironies unheeded, and for all of his wit, he was nothing but an under-manager at the ELCO factory and unlikely to amount to anything else. When he wasn’t provoking an argument, Nachum had little to say, and after Raz passed beyond a certain age, he seemed to have nothing in common with his Aba. Now, he felt little empathy for the sarcastic and talentless shell of a man hunched over in the kitchen, and empathized with himself for his lack of it.

By now it was 1:30, and the house had at last grown silent. Raz couldn’t fall back to sleep. He began to play with a loose string on his T shirt and stare lazily at the rays of sunlight squeezing between the curtain and the window pane. He thought to himself that soon it would be dark again, and then it would be light, and everything at 10 Anna Frank Street would remain the same. His brother would remain a nuisance, his mother would remain neurotic, and his father would remain an emotional recluse. But then again, perhaps things weren’t as static as they seemed. Yael was leaving—Yael, whom he had loved so completely as a child, until that awkward day they never talked about which created an increasingly gaping gulf between them that widened until they seemed to share little in common but a last name.

And she wasn’t the only one on her way out. He was going to the army in October. The timelessness of summer was only an illusion. His mother, his grandmother, his father, his brother, none of them were trapped in time, none of them were immortal. They would all die someday, every one of them. He would die someday. It was as if an invisible river was pushing them all toward jagged reeds and there was no hope of escaping the current. And then there was only death, a dreamless sleep without an end, insensible and permanent. These thoughts converged into a dull ache deep within Raz’s stomach. More than ever, he found himself longing for Yasmine. His inability to understand her motives served as a convenient distraction from these kinds of thoughts.

It was 2:04. He heard Nachum sound the car-horn in the driveway. He wondered if Yael would knock on his door to say goodbye. He was her brother, after all. To his disappointment, he soon heard her taking her leave of his mother and younger brother, and realized that she would not be coming to see him after all. Now he was happy that he had refused to move her things. She deserved it for her lack of loyalty. He closed his eyes, imagining the scene in the hallway as he heard it play out.

Shalom, Yonatan. Maybe Aba can bring you to visit me next week.”

“I don’t care.”

“Why are you being such a brat?”

“Why couldn’t I have come with you today? Why is Aba the only one who gets to see your new apartment?”

“Because it’s a disgusting closet, and there would be no room for you there.”

“Thank you for that, Ima. Shalom! God help me if I ever come back to this place.”

“Remember that.”

“I will!”

“Take this box!”

“For the last time, I don’t want it! I don’t want your trash!”

“Shut your mouth and look through it before you talk!”

Shalom, Ima!”

Raz heard the sound of a door opening and closing, a long pause, and the roar of a car driving away. Yael was gone. A minute might have gone by, or it might have been an hour. He didn’t care to look at the clock. He was fully awake now, but had no strength to begin a day that was already too long. He put his hands to his eyes and pressed down on them until bursting ribbons of color formed beneath his eyelids. The sight of a yellow spark reminded him of the Dizengoff fountain, and his thoughts turned inevitably toward Yasmine again. He heard the sound of footsteps, and he felt a cold hand on his forehead. A tingling anticipation burned beneath his skin as he imagined Yasmine standing over him. Then, he opened his eyes and saw Ilana.

“Your mother let me in,” she whispered, stroking his hair. “I got here just before your sister left.”

He looked at her uncertainly for a moment.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you,” she said, sitting next to him on the bed and fumbling to kiss his neck. “We haven’t seen each other in almost two weeks. Not since that night at the beach.”

He sat up.

“That’s right, Ilana. So what do you want from me now?”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. What do you want from me?”

“Nothing! I just came to see you.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why? Because I love you!”

“You have some nerve sneaking into my bedroom without knocking. You’ve ignored me for two weeks. You didn’t even call. Get out of here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Get out.”

“Why would you say that to me?”

“Because I want you to leave.”

“What’s come over you?”

“Disgust. Disgust has come over me.”

Until that moment, he’d avoided looking directly at Ilana, but now he stared right into her eyes. Although he was ashamed to admit it, he found the expression of terror and confusion on her face gratifying. Whenever they fought in the past, he’d resisted the urge to leave her. Now the tables had turned, and he found himself charged with some newly discovered, wonderful sense of power. He rose from the bed and began to circle her in the darkness. He was almost having fun.

“I’m disgusted,” he repeated, “with you and your friends and your endless complaints. I was relieved not to have to talk to you for two weeks, to be honest. I thought that it was finally over between us… and I was right. We’re done.”

“I don’t believe that you’re saying this! We should at least talk about it more.”

“I don’t want to talk about anything. I want it to end.”

“What’s wrong with you, Raz? Stop it!”

“Happily, as soon as you leave my house. I tell you, I don’t want to see you anymore.”

She laughed nervously and moved to open the window.

“You’re sick,” she said. “Being in this room all morning has made you sick. I think you need some air.”

“Don’t touch my window.”

“You need some air!”

She pulled aside the curtain and stared at him with a desperate look on her face. The light illuminated her from behind so that Raz thought to himself that she looked more like a shadow than a human being. She sat on the foot of his bed and began to make frantic small-talk as he reached for a magazine and theatrically ignored her.

“Should we go out for a drink, Raz? Do you want to get some beer? Nathan said that his idea of a perfect life was drinking beer, listening to jazz, smoking Marlboros, and having a girl thrown into the mix. Isn’t that clever?”

Raz kept his eyes on his magazine.

“Well, that’s certainly not my idea of a perfect life.”

“Then what is?

“For you to leave me the hell alone.”

“Why are you acting this way?”

“For the millionth time, because I want you to leave!”

“I will leave!” she said, barely suppressing tears. “I will, if you’re not careful, and I won’t come back! There’s only so much that I can take! You humiliated me in front of my friends, but I was good enough to come here and give you a second chance, and you… you… you can go to hell, you and your big mouth! Nobody gives a damn about anything that you think or say, anyway! Of course, now that you’re handsome, people might pretend that they find you interesting, but they’re only playacting. You’ve never had an original thought in your life. The only way you can construct a personality for yourself is by blindly contradicting what other people say.”

He had scarcely been listening to Ilana, but her final statement caught him off-guard. He set aside his reading and addressed her quietly but deliberately.

“You don’t give a damn about what I think or say, and I don’t give a damn about you.”

She looked at him incredulously, but his spiteful expression seemed to indicate that he was in earnest.

“I won’t let you do this to me, Raz. I mean, we can’t let it end so easily! We need to talk this over some more. I gave you a chance by dating you when no one else would. I didn’t care how you looked, because I wanted you for your soul. Appearances meant nothing to me.”

“That’s funny. You just said that I was totally unoriginal and appearances are all I have to offer.”

“Don’t twist my words. I wanted you ever since we were kids and our parents would drag us to the same parties.”

“Really? I think the only reason you’re fighting for me so hard is because you think I’m good looking now, and you’d be losing a prize if I slipped through your fingers. But there’s no real depth of feeling between us.”

“You’re being evil to me. You can’t look into my eyes and tell me that I don’t mean anything to you now, after all of the memories we made together and all of the stories we told each other.”

“Ilana, I don’t have anything else to say to you.”

“But if we could only-”

“There’s no use dragging this conversation on for even one second longer. Nothing is going to convince me to stay with you. Nothing. I’ll be happier without you, and God knows you’ll be happier without me. In your heart, you know I’m right. We’re going nowhere and should have the maturity to surrender gracefully to what’s inevitable. I’ll never forget you, or that you wanted me when no one else in the world seemed to want me. But our story is over now.”

She stared at him silently for a moment before rushing out of the room. He closed his eyes very tightly. Everything seemed like a dream. He’d been so preoccupied with thoughts of Yasmine that he had nearly forgotten about Ilana’s existence. He hoped that he’d seen the last of her after that night in Netanya. As it was, he meant every word of what he said to her, though he very much regretted causing her pain. He stretched his arms and rose from bed. He felt rejuvenated and was eager to begin the day now. The clock read 3:33. He placed his blanket and stuffed dog on the foot of the bed, then walked toward the kitchen for a snack.

He didn’t pay attention to his mother sitting on the living room couch. Beside her was the little box that she had spent the previous night preparing for Yael. It was overflowing with a heap of report cards, childhood photographs, and drawings that she had saved since her daughter’s birth. She looked blankly through a scrapbook, remembering when her own mother had given her a similar album on the day she married Nachum. As she turned one of the pages, a yellow piece of paper fell onto her lap. It was Yael’s first drawing, a picture of a little house with three stick figures smiling pathetically in front of it. Miriam folded it up carefully and placed it into her purse. Then she began preparing dinner.

 

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