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A Girl in the Café

Ronit Matalon | from: Hebrew

Translated by : Leanne Raday

Introduction by Sigal Naor Perelman

“Do you have a cigarette? He opened the pack in front of her: Aren’t you too young for this? She gently removed the cigarette from between his fingers and lit hers: What are you, the department of education?” This question is directed by one of the two girls in Ronit Matalon’s story, “Girl in the Café”, at the clerk in the clothing store they enter. And indeed, nothing in Matalon’s story is of “the department of education.” The girls in the story, Mazi and Ruhama, one who does not know and one who thinks she knows, move inside a world in which their consciousness is outside the reach of an adult consciousness able to tame or civilize this consciousness on behalf of any kind of “department of education.” Their world is the world of a pre-conceptual stage in which the concept is obtained, as in life itself, only after actual experience; and even then the concept evades that which is ultimately determined by words and becomes language, culture and law. The words, Matalon knows, are a blazing sword that can be pierced in human states of consciousness that are never whole, never coherent and never omniscient, and kill them. And indeed, in works of great literature, nothing ever stays in its place for long, but is destined to be rephrased time and again and remain unfrozen, unbound and wild. This is how Matalon concludes her story: “Because by his speech alone he’s distancing her chance of giving him form, like one fluffs pillows, placing them on top of each other so that they won’t stick out, and from the blanket tucked tightly under the mattress, the clean fringes of a bed sheet are suggested.”

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To Tami Berger

In the corner café that had recently changed owners stood a parrot’s cage. A green cage with a domed top, a swing fixed inside it, and a slot and small drawer at the front.  The slot – just a slot, no big deal. The café customers dropped chips they had bought from the tall girl behind the counter inside, making the animal with the clipped beak and the blue and yellow down feathers talk. The animal could say: ‘My name is Samson’, ‘How are you?’ and ‘Watermelon’ and ‘Have some coffee’. A month ago the glass cover still wasn’t installed there, a sort of large bell-shaped cover that was meant to stop people from throwing food into the cage while totally ignoring the fact that this parrot was, after all, an artificial animal.

In those days of loud cheers by the dwellers, shards of chocolate-coated waffles, bread crusts, bus fare tickets and dirty, crumpled napkins, the tall girl, the owner’s daughter, would carefully unlatch the door – she also believed for just a second that the colorful stuffed animal might bite her finger off – lowered her hand in and collected the various foods. Then she would move a soft brush over the bottom of the cage and the feathers, which were glued unprofessionally and easily plucked. Sometimes, maybe once a week, she would polish the glazed beady eyes with Ritzpaz, to make them glisten. Only fourteen years old and already knew how to cross her legs properly on the high chair behind the counter: her socks were pulled up to her knees, hating the irritating tickle of a loose sock. A book lay before her, half on the counter half across her lap, her round eyes moving casually from the pages, which had the public library stamp imprinted on them, to the street, fixing on like a fishhook in an unexpected motion and lingering, slanted gaze: maybe they’ll come in, and what will be the desired ratio of coffee and milk in their cappuccino, and should the teabag be served on the side or in the cup.

Her school shirt was actually quite tight and the top buttons unbuttoned, her jeans were flare shaped, four zippers and a Bakardi label, and one onlooker, one in a hundred, maybe one in a hundred thousand, would appreciate the way her long earring brushed first against her cheek and then against the lock of hair tucked behind her ear. And despite all this, pedestrians and some especially sharp-eyed drivers know that the place she is sitting in isn’t indecent. With the calculated cleverness of peddlers, they saw before them the bubble of impeccable-boredom that she offered at her café, which was, if to tell the truth, a pretty shabby place and nothing more.

What more can you say about the appearance of a place whose ugliness stands out like a silly curl jumping out of a bobble hat? And how could someone or other who was wearing a bobble hat turn down a café whose ceiling was covered in wood, on its walls, facing one another, two florescent lamps; a place where the seats of the chairs were made of crimson plastic, where the screen separating the café itself from the toilets was nothing more than a word?

Mr. Lugassi, the new owner of the café and the tall girl’s father, itemized all these things to himself time and again. Maybe three hours he spent, itemizing over and over again, with a strange passion for the words themselves rather than what they represented he itemized; with the hope that came with any inventory list he itemized, renouncing his own declaration of misery, tempted by other people’s phrases he spoke to the passersby, as if he spoke: look at yourselves, politics has messed you up, and your mess messed up politics. You’ve turned everything into a ring where you take out your bitterness; a kind of ring, not roundish, not round, a kind of ring, let’s think about it a little, think that you can get more in than you get out, bringing heaviness into it, not boredom, boredom is light, heaviness is heavy, how’s that? Sweet boredom, the self-forgetfulness involved in stirring a cup of coffee or tea at my café. How can you understand it, I ask? You left the café to the bohemians, the middle class Polish and the bums, and this is what it looks like. I see you pass by my café and there’s a target on your forehead. That one stopping by my glass window, her son needs to pee. I know who can win and who’s throwing his life just like that, á la grande, onto the backgammon board.  First, he has a life to throw; second, the feeling of the dice in his hands is worth it all, at least it doesn’t turn you into bastards or, worse yet, into women-haters. I can allow myself the generosity of observation, because I don’t want anything anyhow and I waste what there is. I’ve got a parrot, a weakness for chocolates and alarm clocks and a girl who likes things clean. Mazi, I tell her, Mazi, sweetie, enough cleaning. Go out a little, get some air, see people, in your gaze there’s also the chill of a promiscuous street, and when you say “fling” something curdles in your voice, a sound that doesn’t count. Oh, Mr. Lugassi, I tell myself, what form of addressing yourself, what grandeur of the third person, are you fooling yourself? Moving quickly to another matter? Oh, Mr. Lugassi, maybe the small gathering on the street around him feels sorry, people like you, who look at us a little with the eyes of women and a little of children, you can’t but accept, with a degree of love, their grand halls of cocona marigo , that plummet each morning on our heads. We agreed to everything, Mr. Lugasi, but your reproach breaks our hearts, truly. This is why you should disregard the little things: a gathering on the street, a policeman sealed in uniform stepping out of a police Ford Escort, tapping Mr. Lugassi’s back with his large finger and instructing him to identify himself. And then, when Mr. Lugasi lifted the collar of his battledress, just lifted, no policemen no nothing, lifted by the power of the personality’s vulnerability; hadn’t he clung, fishing desperately, in the overly-scrawny face of a girl in the crowd who called out “police state”? Didn’t others in the crowd follow her lead and cry out “police state”? It’s hard to tell.

At any rate, the tall girl Mazal, whom everyone called Mazi, came out of the café, and with the same gentleness and assertion with which she moved the soft brush over the parrot’s feathers, released her father’s hand from the policeman’s hand; she released it very slowly, like you untangle a knot, accompanying her motions with the same senseless, soothing mutter he himself taught her when he came back in the wee hours of the night and found her sitting on the floor of the bathroom, a large bundled pup. And everything really did quiet down. The policemen were reconciled and came into the café for a drink, a few spectators who were robbed of a scandal came in too, and for the next fifteen minutes Mazi’s hands were full: three black coffees and one brandy; coke with lemon and cake, tea; two cappuccinos and a melted cheese toast. And so the place was painted that same shade that could be bestowed by people’s belongings, which showed the signs of those who used them, the affection, the context, even the aloofness: the policeman’s black peaked cap resting on the cash register, an umbrella dripping next to the mezuzah on the door, a scarf on the back of the chair, a coat on top of the scarf, a plastic nylon bag with Kumquats peeping from inside a large lady’s purse, leaning against the foot of the chair, two empty coffee cups with cigarette butts crumbled inside them on the counter.

There he goes again acting out, Mazi thought to herself as she pushed her way through the narrow space between her father’s chair and the lady with the Kumquats, carrying a tray with a bottle of coke and cake on it. You’re girl’s a real darling, take care of her, said the policeman to her father and turned the empty cup over following the Russian custom, its face turned down. Better he take care of himself, Mazi muttered with unfounded anger, being very troubled by the crumbs the policeman scattered as he got up. She’s got a real mouth on her – six feet wide, Mr. Lugassi rejoiced, forcing her to sit in his lap, firmly holding on to her waist. Enough already, don’t be so dense, she pushed him away and hurried to the counter as the couple standing there was already drumming their fingers on the cash register. What did you have, she asked, matter-of-fact as if everything was all right, as if she hadn’t been embarrassed in front of everyone, as if she hadn’t lost points over the shame, as if she hadn’t wanted to look at the clock while punching the register, as if she hadn’t lingered with the change because she was looking at the clock, as if the man in front of her hadn’t flinched when the woman beside him said “we’re going to be late for the bus”, as if the man hadn’t settled in his mind the fate of these dubious family businesses where nothing was done properly, as if her father’s hand hadn’t suddenly stretched over the sullen man’s shoulder and pulled a cigarette out of the pack in his shirt pocket. Thank you, my friend, he patted his shoulder and walked him to the door: I hope you had a nice time and will choose to have it again.

They left. Mazi scrubbed the dark circles marked by the glasses on the counter. She swept the corners, did the dishes, folded the paper napkins into straight triangles, climbed up onto the tall chair, long-legged like her, and read. Mr. Lugassi smoked and looked out onto the street: everything was pretty outside, and in the rain even prettier. People paid more attention to clothing, because there were a lot of clothes. They had better appetites and more patience. Look, almost everyone looks good in a coat. With umbrellas not everyone looks good, that’s true. And nylon bags on heads are very ugly. But a hood like that, of a coat, that’s pretty. Everyone looking like little monks.

He stepped up to the counter. Give me a drink. Mazi stretched her hand out to the bottles on the shelf behind her: This? He was looking out to the street: Yes, that. She slid the glass in his direction. Thanks, sweetie. He looked at her: What’s wrong with you? Are you crying. Yes, she sobbed, rubbing her eyes and smearing a mixture of tears and spit across her cheeks. But why, sweetie, why? Because, she moaned, my eyes sting.

Mr. Lugassi stood now on the other side of the counter, next to her, holding on to her wrists, moving her hands away from her face, brushing wet strands of hair from her forehead and cheeks. Sweetheart, he said, sweetheart, my orphan, he said time and again. He kissed her hands: Enough, it’s all because of that pencil you stick in your eye, you’ll poke it out in the end. Mazi shrugged her shoulders, savoring her final sobs: Okay, okay. You got any money?

He looked in his back pocket and pulled out a pile of notes: How much do you need, thirty? Take thirty, enjoy it. Mazi peeked through her fingers, which were still covering her eyes: Where have you got money from? Borrowed it from Morris. Where are you going?

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Mr. Lugassi followed her to the sink where she washed her face and dabbed the edge of the towel under her eyes to wipe the makeup off, and said: Ruhama is coming. He leaned toward the mirror: Will you do me this favor, will you?

She sniffled: If Ruhama is okay with it. We’ve got to buy earrings and stuff like that.

She’ll agree, he skipped to the draw in the counter and turned it out, Ruhama will agree, his fingers quickly fluttered through the papers. I know Ruhama, got a heart of gold. You just write it all down in the notepad, you see? He opened a small notepad of grocers in front of her. I wrote down three places, if you get two-three more today like yesterday – then we’ve done our bit. Okay, Mazi said in a strange voice, because she was biting her inner lip forcefully in an effort to apply the rouge so that it highlighted her cheekbones.

Ruhama – who walked through the street like Moses crossing the Red Sea, one step after the other, everyone almost moving aside; a temptress, starry eyes, even if they put her alone with a rock she’d make friends with it – arrived even before two o’clock. Slouched shoulders, eyes that didn’t mean anything, passions laid on one side, absentmindedly fixing onto the lottery stands, The Business, salads-and-kebabs: Ruhama is crossing the street! The little kiosks selling coated waffles – her father; the kiosks selling fresh mango juice – her mother; tacky little dancers in music boxes, whistles, a device that makes soap bubbles on little rugs on Allenby Street, opposite the turn to the Shalom Tower – her God. Sixteen years old and putting out more than her age. Grew up at her grandma’s house in a bad neighborhood, a street and half a street and that was it: in front of the grandma’s house was a fixed wooden-bench. You’d sit on it, talk, draw on the sand with a long stem and peek from underneath, upside down, the grandma chatting and peeling an orange with a knife, slowly, slowly.

That’s how she grew up until she started going to Ort Science and Technology High School to study dental mechanics: she had a two-hour class in fillings today and her head was spinning, wanted to split, the teacher had old woman’s shoes with laces and a beige sweater. She looked straight at the board and saw nothing but beige, beige, beige.

It’s better in Wizo schools, they’ve got fashion, hairdressing, everything, she told Mazi as they left the café. When will you be back? Mr. Lugassi called out just as the door closed behind them. He was busy painting a sawed out watermelon-shaped wooden board for summer, to place it on the counter so that people know that there’s watermelon. He was just about to mark the black seeds on with a thin paintbrush.

Seven thirty, something like that, she said facing a fellow with glasses, a passer-by who stopped and looked at the nice, painted mouth marking the syllables: “Seven thirty, something like that.” Isn’t that surprisingly wonderful? Isn’t a whole life, with hope, with the willingness to believe in time, invested in that naïve promise? There is someone in the world who is standing in front of him, it’s a girl, and by her side another girl who is silently confirming what she’s saying, now it’s two o’clock. In five and a half hours it’ll be seven thirty; his life is in the shits right now, he’s willing to believe in anything, any person who says something that justifies the outside, the momentary infatuation outside, why should he question himself? They’re offering it to you, idiot, so take it: a girl you can look at, a wet ficus tree; next to a café with steams rising from the espresso machine, pastries that you can eat just like any other person, a large window to look through just like any other person; with equanimity and patience for himself, the fellow stepped in.

The girls left. They sat in the bus stop, leaving about twenty inches between them to use as a table: first, Mazi took out thirty shekels and placed them. Then she stood up and spread her legs, pushed her hand into the tight back pocket of her trousers and took out another fifty.

– He gave you all that, Ruhama asked in disbelief.

– Uh, uh. He gave me just thirty. I took the fifty from the cash register.

– Will he know?

– He doesn’t know anything – he thought no one came in.

Now Ruhama took out twelve shekels in one shekel coins, half a shekel and ten agorot: I spent it all, she said regretfully. She pushed the pile into the hanging, embroidered purse and then, on second thought, took it out, took some lipstick and rouge out of her purse and then put the money back in. She cleaned a segment of the bus stop glass wall with spit, uncurled her curls with her fingers, scratched a pimple with the edge of her nail, smeared her cheeks and lips and then wetted them with her tongue. That’s it, said Ruhama, we’re off. Where first, Mazi asked, and after they had walked a few more minutes she added: I have two places to do.

They stopped by a clothes shop and looked: can’t you say no? asked Ruhama. Mazi shook her head with a doleful motion that brought to mind dolls whose spring had broken. When will you learn to say no already. You’ve got to learn to say no in life. He’s leading you on and you do what he says like an idiot. That’s not true, Mazi resisted, I don’t do everything he says. You do most, Ruhama held her chin, you do, honey, most of what he says, anyone can fool you. She examined her carefully: what did you do with the eye shadow, have you completely lost it or what? Why, what’s wrong, Mazi rubbed her eyelids. Nothing, said Ruhama, now you’ve got a black eye on one side and nothing on the other.

Ruhama stepped into a shop that seemed, at first glance, empty. Is there anyone here? Ruhama called out and turned to the rack of trousers, which were made of coarse cotton, corduroy, and the fabric that had taken over the fashion industry, the “Cheans“, which had a somewhat silky sheen and was hard to sew, or at least that was what the seamstresses, five of them, who worked at Mr. Victor’s workshop on Nahalat Binyamin Street had claimed.

Mazi worked for him, not for long it’s true, during the summer holiday. Leaning an alabaster forehead against the overlock machine, and the thoughts, like reeds, moved silently, bleak but very light, like “her hand at stitching”, as the old seamstresses said during the break, their mouths filled with cheese and pepper sandwiches, sweets and juicy apples.

Biting the apple and looking at it, biting and looking, turning it round and leaning outside the window. Mazi was sitting on a pile of cut trousers: she doesn’t chew apples, hates the sound and the thin juice that dribbled from the mouth, also has a dislike of fruit. Take a bit of cheese, two seamstresses begged her, but no. She carefully pulls out the soft inner part of the bread, dips bread balls in a cup of sour cream and puts it in her mouth, like a peasant. Afterwards, there are ten more minutes to the break, she also looks through the window, counting motorcycles, walking up a filthy staircase to the toilets and teasing a cat. The delivery boy on the scooter who had a package for the print shop on the second floor winked. She sticks her tongue out at him. When she returns to the yellowness of the workshop there is a small commotion: What happened? Yesterday the son of one of the seamstresses, Rivka, got married, so she brought cakes. There were no paper napkins so they took leftover pieces of fabric and used them afterwards like napkins. Hanna, the one who shared it out, gave Mazi two pieces, on account of being thin and orphaned of her mother and making a bit of money during the holiday. There was some giggling, because Rivka, who was scatterbrained – Mr. Victor wasn’t pleased with her at all – forgot about the napkins, and when she had finished eating she wiped her glasses with a napkin just as Mr. Victor stepped in with his mother in law to show her the workshop. They offered him cake, but he, the miserable old fool, maybe because of his roly-poly mother in law, commanded: Order, girls! Hanna, get things back in order round here.

Mr. Victor wasn’t always so grumpy. It was all because of his mother in law, thought the workers who had, on their side, recorded another, very sweet event: it was at Mr. Lugassi’s café, in the evening. Mr. Lugassi had an opening party and Mazi invited all of them, because she wouldn’t be working at the workshop any longer. They all came with their husbands, wearing dresses Mr. Victor had sold at bottom price, collected money and brought a gift: a blue china clock with white flowers round it. Mazi left it in the box, so that it wouldn’t get spoiled. Mr. Lugassi put some music on, more people who were just passing by the street came in, Mazi served mountains of whipped cream in wet rum baba cakes and was wearing a new gold necklace round her neck: a chain with a disc and indents and an image of her sign, Aries, and the letters of her name in English “Mazal”. Everyone drank a lot, even Rivkah who wasn’t used to drinking: At first she fell asleep, leaning her head on the table until around eleven. At midnight, when Mr. Victor rejoiced with the parrot in the cage, she woke up and said: Girls, girls, I’ve got something to say. And Mazi, who was sitting next to Ruhama on the counter, their legs almost touching the heads of the people sitting, tucked her hands under her thighs and rocked the upper part of her body back and forth, like soothing a baby. But now she was very guarded so that no one would tell, with the self-importance of an ostrich surveying the café from side to side, noting to herself that every one of the chairs, despite everything, was occupied. In the meantime everyone waited for what would come next.

Say, asked Rivkah, say, do 400 shekels sound right for 3000 stitches in a pair of pant, even if you need to keep changing the thread in the machine? First of all, 2600 stitches are roaming free in the world, the half hour it takes to get home can wipe out eight hours of 2600 stitches that no one, besides Mr. Viktor and his mother-in-law, knows anything about. Second, we need to share. Each one will take a thread in the machine: Rivkah – blue; Mrs. Binyamin – yellow; Mazal, not this one, because she’s leaving us, the other Mazal – white; Hanna – red; and you, I forgot your name – black.

Nonsense, Mr. Viktor cried, you separate between the trousers according to cut not color. Let her finish, the girls cautioned, and Rivkah continued: I’m surprised at Mr. Viktor, who has a lot of negotiation experience, he’s like that person who lets the whole caravan of camels pass and when the ant comes along he says: you can’t pass. And there’s one more thing I wanted to say: You need to open people from the outside. Momentary guests like Mazi, who come and look, and by the virtue of their dear presence – our suffering is no longer something sealed. One will bring her sister, one her son, the other her neighbor, because you sometimes need someone, not us, to say “wanker” to Mr. Viktor, like Mazi, and straight after that all the workers pressed down on the pedals and the dzen-dzen of the machine attempted to restore something that had gone wrong back to normal.

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I didn’t say wanker, Mazi disagreed, but it didn’t seem important to anyone. Even to her, who now visited Mr. Viktor’s sewing workshop only in her imagination, especially at 10 o’clock, during the break. And once she saw Rivka from afar, leaning on the pole of a bus stop, holding a shopping basket between her legs, and since it was a late morning hour Mazi realized that she wasn’t working at Mr. Viktor’s workshop any longer.

Later, not often, like now, when she’d noticed the red-blue “Viktor Exclusive” label on the pants Ruhama was holding, she remembered her and the girls at the workshop. Only Ruhama, who had the habit of getting under your skin like when a door that suddenly swings open, letting the wind and noise and smell in, said: This is a 42? And put the pants against her waist, just to see if the color was good. Mazi looked for the label: it says 32. It’s American sizes, said Ruhama and went over to the dressing stall. Mazi sat down on a stool, took her boots off and rearranged a cardboard insole she had put inside. A guy came in: Do you need any help? Not me – my friend’s in the dressing stall. The shopkeeper stepped over and listened for a second or two: Are you okay in there? He asked. Why, do you want to come in and help me? Ruhama giggled from behind the screen. The shopkeeper also laughed. Ruhama came out with the pants in her hand. Couldn’t button them up. You got a bigger size? Don’t work with big sizes, said the shopkeeper indifferently. He sat on the edge of the table, smoking and looking out into the street, giving up on her in his heart. Ruhama went back to the hanging pants: This will look good on you, pulled a pair out, look how gorgeous they are – riding pants. Mazi stepped up and examined them: Red? She asked. Try them on, try them, Ruhama pushed her into the stall. Then she walked up to the shopkeeper, who wasn’t looking: Hey, she said. Hey, he exchanged one crossed leg with the other. Got a cigarette? He opened the pack before her: Aren’t you a bit young for it? She gently pulled his cigarette out from between his finger and lighted her own: Why, she blew the smoke out, are you in the education department? He laughed: you’re a character. You from here?  – From around here. Mazi came out barefoot, pulling her school shirt up: How is it? She looked in the mirror, turned round, then came close, placing her hands on her stomach. Turn around, Ruhama ordered. She turned. Is it too tight here? She asked, feeling her behind. No, not at all. I’ve got a shirt that will go with it, looked through her school bag and went back into the dressing stall. Ruhama, in the meantime, examined lines of shirts: How much is this? She pointed to a shirt with leather badges and a special sleeve pocket. For you – 15. The two, in their new clothes, came out and looked in the mirror. It really suits you Ruhama, really, said Mazi. Ruhama pulled the shirt down: Too bad it’s not a little longer. The mirror was too narrow to contain both of them, so they pushed close together and clasped their arms, friends.

At Allenby Cinema there was something pretty: they glued their noses to the glass of the large rectangular box, a sort of display window that was used for images from the film, cracking pistachios they had held in their mouths for a long while, sucking the salt. Would you want to be an actress, Ruhama asked, emptying the content of the bag into her pocket. Mazi thought for a moment: I don’t know if I’d fit. But would you want to? Ruhama insisted. I don’t know, Mazi stuck her hand in Ruhama’s pocket taking out a handful of pistachios, but if I would, then not for long – it’s no kind of life. There’s no such thing, not for long, Ruhama argued, you’re either an actress or not an actress. A faint meow was heard from above. Mazi looked up: on the upper side of the glass box there were three kittens, one was standing right on the edge, on the metal frame, sniffing it and almost tripping. Look how cute, Ruhama, Mazi cried out, like rabbits. Ruhama took a long stick and pushed the kitten: move, silly, she said, you’ll fall and break your bones. Leave him be, Ruhama, Mazi begged, they’re used to it. It started to rain. Wait, we’ll cover them, said Ruhama and pulled a stained handkerchief out of her pocket, dragged a stone and climbed on: Well? Mazi asked and looked to both sides, maybe someone was looking. It’s a shame we don’t have a basket, said Ruhama, zipping her coat up, we could’ve put them there. They like being in baskets. Then Mazi handed her a pair of dark sunglasses: Same as last time? There was laughter. They played blind people. Ruhama put on the glasses and placed her hand on Mazi’s shoulder: you’re the guide. They walked down Allenby towards Ben Yehuda. At the traffic lights on the corner of Mugraby, cars stopped for them. Ruhama, don’t laugh, warned Mazi. I’ve got something to tell you, said Ruhama, looking straight ahead. An old lady in a plastic coat and rubber boots looked at them: Your sister? Asked Mazi. She nodded.

Ruhama laughed without making a sound: I saw Nahum yesterday.  – Where? – At the falafel shop. Mazi stood still: Was he alone? They went on walking: Was he alone? – No, with the blonde girl. They reached the entrance to the café and Ruhama removed her glasses: She was wearing a purple overall, she said. They went in and sat at a table in the center of the room. Mazi took her small notepad out: It’s not true, what you’re saying.  – I swear, said Ruhama. A waiter with a stained apron and bowtie walked up to them: What will you have, girls? Coke, cappuccino and toast, said Ruhama. And when he left she added: Like our last order, right? Mazi hugged her shoulders as if it was cold: It’s not true, I’m sure. Ruhama pulled out a crumpled cigarette and lit it: Want some? Mazi took a drag off the cigarette: It’s wet. The man brought a coke, placed a tall glass on the table and poured it. I’m sure it’s not true, said Mazi, but if it is I’ll rip his head off. Ruhama slid the straw between her teeth: Yeah, yeah, sure you would. Three people came into the café: a large man with a hat, a small woman who rolled forwards and, behind them, like a wooden horse on wheels tied with a string, a very slender girl with a hooked nose, wearing a long woolen dress with a white collar.

In the distance, about three streets from Mazi’s house, in a park adjoined to the city’s ultra-orthodox neighborhood, you can see, if you like, dozens of dresses like that that were made in America. For example, one girl, quite grownup already, in a striped dress and a tie, rocking a bulky baby stroller, a sort of tank that was blocking the way into the park, and Betty’s grandma,  the wild child, asked: Move it a little, Goldie, would you? Goldie agrees, moves without looking, her hands spread forward and her mind with Haim, the child standing in the middle of the seesaw, balancing it. Take ye good heed unto yourselves, says Goldie, and like her mother placed her hand over her heart in alarm because Betty, that wild child, pulled Haim’s tassels and her grandma, on the edge of the bench, pulled out a cardboard wafer box and scolded: Don’t be bad  Betty, don’t be bad. The grandmother offered the wafers with false kindness: Want some? She says to Haim. It’s glatt kosher. Haim wanted some: He turned his skullcap over and offered it to the grandma like a plate. Haim, Goldie scolded him, and the grandma clicked her tongue at Mazi and Ruhama, who were sitting on the bench next to her, legs spread in front of them, eating Turkish delight straight out of the box. They do their best to keep a semblance of interest, but their gaze is fixed to the right, the road, where Nahum is supposed to appear on his brother’s motorcycle. He always arranged to meet up with Mazi at the park, because her father, Mr. Lugassi, couldn’t stand him: stinks from eau-de-cologne, his mouth contracted, which is not a good sign, said Mr. Lugassi.

In the meantime, while they’re waiting, Mazi draws five lines under the words “How many people come in”. Five, right Ruhama? Asks Mazi, and the grandma wonders: Are you from the municipality? But all this was yesterday, long ago, full of small graves: impressions, sights, heartbreaks, nonsense, all that. Today, at the café, Mazi forgets to draw the lines for Mr. Lugassi, who didn’t know how things were going for other people and if business was slow only at his café. She writes the prices down, because Ruhama reminds her: coffee – one and a half shekels; coke, the same; toast – two and a half. Just like at our place, Mazi sums up sadly. Don’t take it too hard, says Ruhama. Besides, it’s all your fault. Mazi stirs the coffee for what might be the fifth time: three teaspoons of sugar and still not enough. He talked to me about it, Nahum, said Ruhama.  – And what did he say?  – Said it was because you won’t put out. The waiter in the bowtie walks up to them: Anything else? Maybe some cake? Mazi puts on a smile, like she’d seen at their café, and says: No thanks, we’re fine. When he walked away she said: Pushy, this one.

You’ve got to be easier on him, men need it, said Ruhama. The couple and the girl in the dress pushed their chairs back, the tail on the lady’s coat pulled a cup, there were drops of coffee everywhere, and the woman said, Sorry, I apologize, and tried to take the cloth out of the waiter’s hand by force: Give it to me, I’ll do it, really. But the waiter wouldn’t let her. They left and left all the coins in the man’s pocket as a tip.

What am I gonna do, Ruhama? Ruhama was busy with her earlobe, trying to stick an earring in it: Say, you love him? Mazi thought for a moment: I think so. – If you love him you’ll put out. – When?  – When? I don’t know. Today. He’s at home, I saw his sister on the way and she said he was at home. Ruhama held her hand: You know how to do? Mazi shook her head and looked out.

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Okay, I’ll tell you, said Ruhama, so you’re not scared. But only if you want me to explain. If not, it’ll just come naturally.

I want you to.

Ruhama placed her elbows on the table and leaned towards her: Look, you take your clothes off, right? Right. You lie in bed, you’re next to the wall and he’s beside you. You take off your jewelry, pins, everything, put it all in a small pile on the table next to the bed. Then you stand in front of him, don’t do anything, only a small light in the room and he can see only a bit of face and a bit of body. Then you get started: He starts kissing and hugging you and all that. You also hug, and close your eyes, and if you don’t want to kiss then don’t, you don’t have to. Just don’t worry if you start shaking all of a sudden, you always shake at first from the attempt to tear the voice, the memory, from the coldness of the touch, from the fact that his fingers imprinted on your neck don’t mean you, from the thought that passes through your head and is a kind of preparation for a woman’s life, a rebellious nun. After all that, he gets on top of you, but before, he touches you in all sorts of places: your breasts, legs, face, down there, everywhere. You don’t have to do anything then, you’re standing or lying, depends. Try to skip: your age, what the coarse matter of the world has supposedly imprinted in you, this nameless sadness, which always demands to give in sex more than it has in it. Borrow someone else: an older prostitute on her day off, not asking too much of the people looking at the fountain in Dizengoff Square like her: sitting, standing, walking, rubbing against them with sympathy and pity. Pity him, not from above, from loneliness, breathe hard and hold his shoulders or his head. Now we get started: He’s on top of you, right? You have to spread your legs, but watch it, not too much, you’ll guess: the pace can be in your hands, the noises coming from the street don’t bother, not obliterated, they have this presence, gentle, patient, part of life. You’ll see already – if you spread your legs too wide it pulls this muscle and it hurts later. But if you shout, it will pass right away. The pain is good, you’ll want it a little, this is how you feel the time, trivial movements, the nervous memory of childhood.  – Does blood come out? I don’t know. Didn’t for me. Might for you. If it comes out ask for a towel and all that.  – How many times have you done it, Ruhama? Me? Ruhama leaned back, maybe six or seven times. I cried so much at the beginning.  – Did it hurt? No, I just used to imagine I was someone else, it’s more attractive.

Later, at around four thirty, they went out to the street, leaving shifted chairs behind them along with some distant impression of their murmured whisperings, which blended in with the noise of the hot air coming from the air-conditioner. They walked up Allenby towards the market. Ruhama wanted to go in through the small alley leading to Kerem HaTeimanim, but Mazi didn’t. It wasn’t cold, quite pleasant actually, Mazi felt and also said it, it was just her hands, they felt like stones. Touch, Ruhama. Ruhama touched but was not impressed.

Allenby Street, with its famous ravenousness, hadn’t changed much: the indifference with which the passers-by treated each other made it almost the opposite of provincial, but still, it retained some warmth that was revealed in the tastelessness and assortment of shop windows, foods and the clothes of the pedestrians. And also, every place could be home in the sense that even the beggars stretched out on the pavements had long since stopped pretending to be miserable, and everyone knew it, or acted as if they knew it. In the beginning, when they’re young, they pass there, the girls, in groups, hand in hand or even embracing, aware of the care and attention of the stall owners, their mere number holding some sort of promise. Easily tempted, but still, with a certain toughness of outdoor cats, they enter the market, first walking down the main road and then through the sideway paths. In the market they bought themselves a falafel, that Ruhama said she had a hole in her stomach. They stood for a long while next to a stall where a large group gathered round a not very young man who was demonstrating how you could clean a window from both sides with a special sponge brush. Mazi ate only the falafel balls and the tomatoes and threw the pita away. She wasn’t hungry and wanted to get there already. They advanced slowly, distractedly losing each other every so often, saw a woman offering a special deal on trainers. She wasn’t making an effort, but set the shoes out tidily on her stall, displaying them in such a way that anyone who looked immediately felt the lightness and relaxed sportiveness of his own foot in such a shoe. Maybe I’ll buy Nahum a present, Mazi suggested, and immediately, as she said it, shoving her hand into the warm interior of the shoe, felt there was something repulsive about it.

Ruhama shrugged her shoulders: Buy if you like, depends how much it costs. Fifteen, declared the woman, who was supposedly not listening.

– What size is he, Ruhama?

– Maybe 43.

– Can we return them? Asked Mazi.

They bought them. The woman looked for a box, because she didn’t usually have shoeboxes, and eventually put them in a bag.

Now, while they were marching, Mazi swung the bag back and forth and felt proud of herself, feeling more worthy than before, when she didn’t do anything right and also looked and spoke out of a sense of obligation, not pleasure, because everything, or so she felt, branched out clandestinely, like on the educational programs on television, when very thin lines come out diagonally from behind the smooth frame of a square.

They reached a not very tall building, sooty, with a brick wall at the front. They looked at the closed shutter on the second floor. One-two, said Ruhama, and they both called out: Nahum! And again. Someone opened the shutter on the third floor then closed it, peeping through the slits. One-two, said Ruhama and called out alone: Nahum! The shutter opened: a scruffy head peeked out. Come up! He called. They went up. The light turned off, Mazi said: stay with me, Ruhama. Ruhama laughed in the darkness: What’s up with you? Mazi said: You don’t mind, staying. Ruhama turned the light on: Come, I’ll fix you up a little. She pulled a comb out and combed her hair, then rubbed her cheeks fiercely where the rouge wasn’t even. Do you want me to keep the necklace for you, suggested Ruhama. Mazi hesitated: Okay, she finally said. Turn round. Ruhama turned round and Mazi clasped it to her neck and said: it suits you better than me.

The door on the second floor was open. A voice called from the bathroom: how long does it take to come up. The girls sat on the sofa opposite the turned off television and Mazi said: I’ve never been at his place before. Nahum came out with underpants, a towel spread across his shoulders. What, you still sleeping, asked Ruhama. Nahum went to the kitchen, took a banana, turned the television on and turned it off straight away: There’s nothing, he said. They were silent. Nahum finished the banana and lit a cigarette. Ruhama said: She’ll do it. Nahum looked at her and then at Mazi: Will you?  – Yes, why not? Great, he said and came to sit down next to her and hugged her. Come, he said, lifting her up from her spot. Leave the bags here, Ruhama called out. Take care of them for me, said Mazi, and then, on second thought: I brought you something. She handed him the bag. Nahum tried the shoes on, but went to get socks first because he was barefoot. Just right, said Ruhama. He and Mazi went into the room. There were three teenage beds in there, and lots of clothes on one bed.

Ruhama in the meantime went to the kitchen, opened the fridge, closed it, went to the living room and opened the large shutter. She looked down. Then she took “Danny” vanilla pudding and ate it by the window. On the shelf, at the bottom of the television table, were newspapers: she turned the pages unhurriedly and lit a cigarette. When she was done, she stared into space a little and then stepped up to the side cupboard. Very slowly, she opened the drawers, opened a little and waited, opened and waited. There were photo albums there, letters, a lighter that didn’t work, and a wrapped up box of chocolates.

Around quarter to seven she couldn’t resist any longer: she put her ear against the door and listened. It was quiet. She walked around the room, stretched out, bundled her hair up and walked up to the small mirror at the entrance to see how it looked. Then Nahum came out, went into the toilet and stayed there for a long time. Well, Ruhama asked through the door. The noise of the toilet flushing. Nahum came out: She didn’t move. Okay, Ruhama said slowly, I’ll wait for her here. Nahum made coffee and turned the television on: a program in Arabic. Nahum turned down the volume and they saw large combines, a farmer in an unbuttoned shirt holding a lettuce in his hand, a production line in a factory, female workers chewing gum and wrapping oranges, an anchorman in a suit standing in a field. Ruhama stepped up to the door, listened and then knocked: Mazi, she called, Mazi honey.

Eventually she came out, dressed but barefoot. Ruhama handed her the boots in front of the television and she watched a little and sipped from Ruhama’s coffee. They arrived at the café only at eight, where everyone was already asking – those who came at night to play backgammon and poker sometimes – where’s Mazi, where is she; what, does she have a test tomorrow? And they pull two tables together, so there’s more room, and take their flat caps off and only three sit down to play. The rest lean back in their chairs and look. Just before eleven, they pull their trousers up a little and prepare for the feast: they take out oily brown papers with slices of salami, herring and sometimes green Syrian olives.

And if someone accidently steppes in, “He goes out just as he comes in,” says Mr. Lugassi. And Mazi, counting coins, lingering delightedly with every faint clinking of one coin with another, freezes in her place, stable on her long-legged chair; because by his mere words he reduces her chances to give form, like when you fluff pillows, putting them on top of each other so that they do not stick out, and through the blanket that you push carefully under the mattress, the clean rims of the sheet are insinuated.

1986

 

The Short Story Project © | Ilamor LTD 2017

Lovingly crafted by Oddity&Rfesty

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