He was not my father and not my mother so why did he open the door of their house to me, filling the narrow space with his body, squeezing the door handle, and I began to retreat, I must have mistaken the floor, but the decorated plate insists that it is their house, at least it was their house, and in a weak voice I asked, what’s happened to my parents, and he opened his big, gray mouth wide, nothing’s happened to them, Ya’ara, my name fluttered in his mouth like a fish in a net, and I burst inside, my arm brushing against his cold, smooth arm, crossed the empty living room, and opened the closed door of their bedroom.
As if caught red-handed, they jerked their faces toward me, and I saw that she was lying in bed, her head wrapped in a flowered kitchen towel, her hand holding her forehead as if to keep it from falling, and my father was sitting on the edge of the bed, a glass of water swaying in his hand, moving rhythmically from side to side, and on the floor between his feet a nervous little puddle had already formed. What’s wrong, I asked, and she said, I don’t feel well, and my father said, only two minutes ago she was feeling fine, and she complained, you see, he never believes me. What did the doctor say, I asked, and my father said, what doctor, she’s as healthy as an ox, I wish I was as healthy as she is, and I insisted, but you called a doctor, didn’t you? He opened the door to me, didn’t he?
That’s no doctor, my father laughed, that’s my friend Aryeh Even, don’t you remember Aryeh? And my mother said, why should she remember him, she wasn’t even born when he left the country, and my father stood up, I’d better go to him, it’s not nice to leave him by himself. He seems to be doing OK, I said, he acts as if the place belongs to him, and my mother began to cough, her eyes reddened, and he thrust the glass of water, which was already almost empty, at her impatiently and she wheezed, stay with me, Shlomo, I don’t feel well, but he was already at the door, Ya”ara will stay with you, he said, stepping into the transparent puddle, what are children for.
Angrily she drank the rest of the water and shook the wet towel off her head, and her sparse hair stuck up in sad wisps like a hedgehog and when she tried to make it lie flat on her scalp I thought of the braid she used to have, the magnificent braid that accompanied her everywhere, as full of life as a kitten, and I said to her, why did you cut it off, it was like amputating a leg, would you have cut off your leg so easily? And she said, it didn’t suit me anymore, after everything else had changed, and she sat up in bed, looking nervously at her watch, how long is he going to go on sitting in there, I’m tired of lying in bed in the middle of the day.
You’re not really sick at all, I said in surprise, and she giggled, of course not, I just can’t stand that character, and I said immediately, neither can I, because the touch of his arm on mine stung like an insect bite, and I even checked to see if the arm had swollen or turned red, and then I asked why.
It’s a long story, she said, your father admires him, they studied together thirty years ago, he was his best friend, but I always thought that Aryeh was only playing with him, exploiting him even, I don’t think he’s capable of feeling at all. Take now, for instance, for years we haven’t heard from him and suddenly he turns up because he needs your father to fix something up for his wife.
But you said he didn’t live here, I found myself defending him, but she went on angrily, that’s right, they’ve been living in France, they’ve only just come back, but if you want to keep in touch you can from there too, and her face shrank to a point of concentrated insult, a triangle covered with wrinkles and age spots but at the same time childish, with the eyes narrowed in suspicion, dusty as windows that haven’t been cleaned for years, guarding the beautiful straight nose, which I have inherited, and below it pale lips set in bitterness which gradually emptied, as if they were being sucked in from inside.
What was he doing in France, I asked, and she said sourly, the same thing he does everywhere else, in other words nothing. Your father’s sure he was there on some sort of security job, something high up and secret, but in my opinion he was simply living on his rich wife’s money, a guttersnipe who married money and now he’s come back to show off the airs and graces he picked up in Europe, and I saw that her eyes were fixed on the mirror on the opposite wall, watching the words coming out of her mouth, dirty, venomous, and again I thought, who knows what she’s capable of saying about me, and I felt suffocated next to her and I said, I have to go, and she exclaimed, not yet, trying to keep me with her like she tried to keep him, stay with me until he goes, and I asked, why, and she shrugged her shoulders in a childish gesture, I don’t know.
A sharp smell of French cigarettes rose from the living room, where my father, who never allows smoking in his presence, sat shrinking on the sofa, shrouded in the heavy smoke, while on his favorite soft armchair the guest sat at his ease, complacent and relaxed, observing my entry into the room. You remember Ya”ara, my father wheedled, almost pleaded, and the guest said, I remember her as a baby, I would never have recognized her, and he rose to his feet with surprising agility and held out his beautiful hand with its long, dark fingers, and asked with a mocking smile, do you always expect the worst? And he explained to my father, when she saw me at the door she looked at me as if I’d murdered the pair of you and she was the next in line, and I said that’s right, and my hand fell from his, heavy and surprised like the hand of someone who has just fainted, because he suddenly dropped it before I was ready, and he sat down in the armchair again, his somber gray eyes scanning my face, and I tried to hide my face with my hair, I sat down opposite him and said to my father, I’m in a hurry, Yoni’s waiting for me at home. How is your mother feeling, the guest asked, and his voice was deep and provocative, and I said, not so good, and a crooked smile escaped me, like always when I’m lying, and my father looked at me with his eyes twinkling, you know that we studied together when we were young, he said, younger than you are now, we even lived together for a while, but the guest’s eyes didn’t twinkle back at him, as if he were a lot less enthusiastic about those memories, but my father persevered, wait a minute, he sprang up from the sofa, I have to show you a picture of us, as always the past gave rise in him to enormous, almost insulting, excitement.
From the next room came echoes of his search, drawers opening, books thrown to the floor, covering up the silence between us, an oppressive, unpleasant silence, and the guest lit another cigarette, he didn’t even try to make conversation, he looked at me with his arrogant look, provocative and at the same time indifferent, his presence filled the room, and I tried to look back at him brightly, but my eyes stayed low, not daring to climb up the open buttons of his sport shirt, exposing a smooth brown chest, and they strayed to his feet, to his highly polished, almost ridiculous, pointed shoes, and the big, black shopping bag between them, with words “The Left Bank, Paris Fashions’ printed on it in gold letters, and I swallowed a snigger, the dandyishness rising from the bag confused me, how did it fit in with the coarse purposeful face, and the snigger stuck in my throat and I coughed in embarrassment, searching for something to say, and in the end I said, he won’t find it, he never finds anything.
He won’t find it because I’ve got it, the guest confirmed in a whisper, and at that moment there was the sound of a thud and a curse, and my father limped into the room, holding the drawer that fell onto his foot, where can it be, where can that picture be, he muttered, and the guest looked at him mockingly, leave it, Shlomo, it’s not important, and I felt angry, why doesn’t he tell him that he’s got it, and why don’t I tell him, and how does he know that I won’t tell, like a pair of crooks we watched him rummaging desperately through the drawer, until I couldn’t stand it anymore and I got up, Yoni’s waiting for me at home, I repeated, like a magic formula, the magic formula that will rescue me. That’s a shame, said my father regretfully, I wanted to show you how we were, and the guest said, she doesn’t need it, and you don’t need it either, and I said, that’s right, even though I would actually like to see the blunt dark face in its beginnings, and my father accompanied me to the door limping and whispered, she isn’t really sick, is she? And I said, of course she is, she’s really sick, you should call a doctor.
The steps at the entrance to the building were covered with slippery leaves which had already begun to rot, and I stepped carefully on their quiet ferment, holding fast to the cold railing, only yesterday it blazed in my hand, and today the heat wave had passed and the sky was even drizzling a little, a half-hearted autumn drizzle, and I reached the main street at the hour when the drivers are beginning to put on their lights, and all the cars look the same, and all the people resemble one another, and I mingled with them, the evening blackened us all, my mother imprisoned in her bedroom, and my father veiled in the smoke of the friend of his youth, and Yoni waiting for me at home, blinking tiredly in front of the computer, and Shira who lives not far from here, right here in this alley, in fact I was already standing opposite her building, and I was tempted to see if she was at home. I felt as if I had a lot to tell her, even though we already spoke at lunchtime, at the university, and I rang the bell but there was no reply, and nevertheless I persevered, maybe she’s in the shower or the toilet, and I went around to the backyard of the building and knocked on the closed shutter, until I heard a wail and Shira’s cat Tulya jumped out of the kitchen window, tired of being alone in the house all day, and I stroked him until he purred, lifted his gray tail, and the stroking calmed me a little, and him too, and he lay down at my feet, and he appeared to be asleep, but no, his erect tail accompanied me as I left the yard and advanced down the dark alley, where the single street lamp flickered and died.
Tulya, go away, I said to the cat, Shira will be back soon, but he insisted on accompanying me, like an overzealous host, and I thought of how my father was now accompanying his guest, clinging to him like a sweet memory, and it seemed to me that they were crossing the street opposite me, my father with short, hurried steps, his delicate limbs swallowed up in the darkness, and next to him the guest, with bold steps, his bronze face firm and resolute, his silver hair shining in the night like a reflector, and I ran toward them with the wailing cat behind me, and I kicked out in his direction, Tulya scram, go home, and I crossed the street after them, and suddenly there was a screech of brakes, a faint thud, and a car door opened and someone shouted, who does the cat belong to? Who does the cat belong to? And another voice said, it doesn’t matter now.
I ran away from there, not daring to look back, seeing my father and the guest walking arm in arm in front of me, my father’s head rubbing against his broad shoulder, but no, it wasn’t them, when I ran past them I saw that it was a couple, a man and a woman no longer young, but their love was apparently still young, and I rushed down the busy road to our building, my sweat pouring down like the cat’s blood, which followed me down the slope in an aggressive stream, and I knew that it would flow and flow and only stop when it reached our door.
What happened, Moley, Yoni asked, his face warm, his soft paunch wrapped in an apron, and I saw that the table was laid for supper, the knives and forks waiting politely on the red tablecloth, and instead of being glad I was annoyed, don’t call me that, how many times do I have to tell you that I’m sick of you calling me that, and his eyes opened wide in hurt feelings and he said, but it was you who started with those names, and I said, so what, I stopped it too and you didn’t, only yesterday you called me that in front of other people, and they all thought we were idiots. What do I care what they think, he muttered, I care what we think, and I said, when will you get it into your head that there’s no we, there’s me and there’s you, and each of us is entitled to his own thoughts, and he insisted, but you used to like it when I called you that, and I snapped, OK, so I’ve changed, why can’t you change too, and he said, I’ll change at my own pace, you can’t dictate to me, and he snatched up his plate resentfully and sat down facing the television, and I looked at the table which had abruptly changed its nature, suddenly turned into a table for one, and I thought how sad it was to be alone, how could Shira stand it, and then I remembered her cat, plump, pampered Tulya, soft and furry as a cushion, and I said, I’m not hungry, and I went to the bedroom and lay down on the bed and thought what were we going to do now without our sweet little names, he wouldn’t call me Moley anymore and I wouldn’t call him Ratty, so how were we going to talk to each other?
I heard the phone ringing and his soft voice coaxing the receiver, and then he came into the room and said, Shira’s on the phone, and I said, tell her I’m sleeping, and he said, but she needs you and handed me the sobbing receiver. Tulya’s disappeared, she wept, and the neighbors said that a cat was run over here before and I’m afraid that it was him, and I whispered, calm down, it must have been another cat, Tulya never strays far from home, and she cried, I have a feeling that it was him, he always waits for me in the evening, and I said, but Tulya hardly ever leaves the house, and she said, I left the kitchen window open, because there was still a heat wave this morning, I didn’t think he would go out, why should he have gone out, what did he lack at home?
He’s probably hiding under the bed or something, I said, you know what cats are like, they appear and disappear as the fancy takes them, go to sleep now and tomorrow he’ll wake you up in the morning, and she whispered, I wish, and she began to cry again, he was my baby, I’m lost without him, you have to come and help me look for him, and I said, but Shira, I’ve just come home and I haven’t got the strength to move, let’s give it one more day, but she insisted, I have to find him now, and in the end I agreed.
At the door he asked, what about the food I prepared, his eyes disappointed above his chewing mouth. A bit of tomato slipped out with the words and hung trembling on his chin, and I said, I have to help Shira look for her cat, and he said, you always complain that I don’t prepare food and when I do you don’t eat it. What can I do, I flared up, if you had told her I was sleeping I wouldn’t have to go out now, believe me I’d prefer to stay at home, and he went on chewing steadily, as if he was chewing over what I said, turning the words over in his mouth, staring at the television, and I gave him a farewell look and left, whenever I parted from him I was sure that I would never see him again, that it was the last time, and instead of all the hundreds of times I was proved wrong shaking this certainty they only reinforced it, they only increased the fear that this time it would happen.
Shira was sitting in the kitchen, her head on the dirty table, her hair mingling with the crumbs. I was so afraid of this, she wept, and in the end it’s even more terrible than I imagined, and I said, wait before you begin to mourn, let’s look for him first, and I started crawling round the apartment, looking for him under the beds, inside the cupboards, and calling like an idiot, Tulya, Tulya, as if the harder I tried to find him the less guilty I would be, because of course I should have taken him home, or at least removed him from the road, and I went on crawling stubbornly, fuzzy curls of dust covering me as if I had dressed up as a sheep, cursing the moment when I had decided to drop in on her, why hadn’t I gone straight home, what did I have to tell her that was so urgent, until my knees hurt and I said, enough, let’s go and look outside.
When we went outside she clung to me, her tiny body rigid, and whispered, thank you for coming with me, I don’t know what I would do without you, her words fixing the guilt to me like sharp nails, and we walked up and down the little streets next to the main road calling, Tulya, Tulya, and every time a cat jumped out of a Dumpster she grabbed my hand in suspense and then let it go in disappointment, and in the end we had no option but to approach the main road, and she said, you look, I can’t, and I searched between the fast, cold lights, pair after pair of malevolent eyes, and I couldn’t see anything, so quickly had they removed the big, pampered, trusting body with the long whiskers hiding an imaginary but absolutely palpable smile.
This shows me how lonely I am, she said when we sat down on a bench next to the building, you’re lucky not to be alone, and I felt uncomfortable, as always when the subject came up, because she had known Yoni before me, and it had always seemed to me that she was in love with him, and now I had taken not only him from her but also the cat. Now I could no longer say to her in a joke, you take Yoni and give me the cat, as I would sometimes say when Tulya fawned on me, reminding me of all the cats I had loved in my life, I had always gotten along better with cats than with men, but Yoni wouldn’t let me keep a cat because in his opinion it never ended well, and now it seemed that he was right, but what does end well? I felt so bad it was hard for me to breathe, and then the upstairs neighbor came out with the garbage, and Shira asked her, have you seen Tulya, and the neighbor said I think I saw him an hour or two ago, following a tall girl with long curly hair, and her hands trying to sketch the height of the girl and the length of her curls froze in front of me, and I thought in dismay why didn’t I change my clothes, or tie my hair back, and Shira looked at me and the neighbor looked at me, and I said, no, not me, I wasn’t here today, I was at my parents’ place, I stayed because there was somebody there with a frightening face, and the neighbor said, someone who looked like you in any case was hanging around here and the cat followed her in the direction of the main road. I heard that a cat was run over here before, Shira mumbled, and the neighbor said, I don’t know anything about that, and she went into the building, leaving me alone with Shira, and I said, Shira, I swear, I would have told you, and she cut me off in a cold voice, I don’t care what happened, I just want my cat. He’ll come back, I pleaded, you’ll see that by tomorrow morning he’ll be back, and she said, I’m tired, Ya”ara, I want to sleep, and again her voice broke, how will I sleep without him, I’m used to sleeping with him, his purring calms me, and I said, then I’ll sleep with you, and purr like a cat, and she said, stop it, that’s enough, you have to go back to Yoni, she always made a point of considering him, showing her love in indirect ways, and I said, Yoni will manage, I’ll stay with you, but she said, no, no, and I heard the heavy, uneasy doubt in her voice, I have to face it by myself, and I whispered in a small voice, there’s still a chance that he’ll come back, and she said, you know he won’t.
On the way home I thought, I’ll always deny it, nobody but me knows, and if I deny it for long enough the truth will be defeated by the lie, and I won’t know myself what really happened, and I thought about the anxiety that had seized me on the slippery steps, how it sometimes precedes the event, and I tried to remember what had been so threatening about that face, and I couldn’t remember the face but only the fear, and as always at moments like these I thought with relief of dear, sweet Yoni, now we would begin the evening from the beginning again, and I would eat the food he had prepared, I wouldn’t leave anything on my plate, but from outside I saw that the apartment was dark, even the television was off, and only the telephone was awake, ringing insistently, and I picked it up, afraid that it was Shira again, but it was my mother.
He’s still here, she whispered angrily, I’m telling you that Daddy’s doing it to me on purpose, I know he is, he wants to see who’ll break down first, I’m dying of hunger and I’m shut up here because of him, and I said, so go out to the kitchen for a minute, what’s the problem, and she said, but I don’t want to see him. So close your eyes and you won’t see him, I suggested, and she shouted, but he’ll see me, don’t you understand? I don’t want him to see me, and I said, don’t worry, Mother, he won’t stay there forever, and I went into the dark bedroom. Yoni lay there breathing quietly with his eyes closed and I put my hand on his brow and whispered, Good night, Ratty.