That summer was hotter than usual. The fan shook its head ‘no’ all day, and was of little use. Her mother was locked up in that place, her father was at his other home (which she still didn’t know about) and her brother had gone to a kibbutz up north in order to work as a volunteer and lose his virginity. She inhaled the freedom and tranquility. She sat for hours in the beat-up armchair on the terrace, facing the pine trees, the mountain, and the dispirited fan. On the floor beside her, a stack of books was piled high. The rustle of the pages mingled with the rustle of the pine needles out in the yard and she felt herself grow smarter with each passing moment, until she was practically on the verge of the secret of life itself.
Sometimes she got tired of sitting around all day. She would put on her crocheted bathing suit and a long white gallabiah cover-up, which she had filched from a market stall in Daliat al-Carmel the previous summer, when she tried to run away from home and wound up going back after a day and a half. She then hitchhiked to the Carmel Center, stopping rides by the small florist shop. From there, on the corner of Derech Ha’yam Street, she stuck out her hand, waiting for another ride to take her to the beach. She’d find an uninhabited spot and sprawl out on her towel, and with her skin glistening from coconut oil and eyelids orange in the face of the sunlight, she would dream about all of the places that she still hadn’t seen, somewhere on the other side of the sea that lay at her feet. In the evening, she would go babysit Ann’s son. Ann was the Belgian neighbor renting the upstairs apartment from Zippora, who became religious and moved to Zfat. She thought about Ann leaving her scientist husband behind in Brussels and coming to study mathematics at the Technion, and about her baby whom she never saw because he always slept when she arrived and never woke up. She thought that maybe Ann had even invented the story about the baby, but really why would she do that.
There were a few other young mothers that she babysat for from time to time. She liked thinking of them and even devised little contests between them, who was the most pleasant, the prettiest, the most fun to talk to. There was Rosy, the bubbly blonde, whose son was bubbly Ran, there was Ofira with the cropped hair, serious, bespectacled, who always asked about her schoolwork and had a fussy baby girl, and there was Ann.
She loved coming to Ann’s. The top-floor apartment was softly lit by a lamp covered with a dark yellow lampshade. You could almost drown in the huge wine-colored sofa (their own model was stiff, with teak wood armrests) and Ann would leave a dish filled with dark Belgian chocolates out on the coffee table for her. She could never help herself from devouring them all.
Ann was always rushing off someplace. Every time she would show her where the emergency bottle was, the phone numbers just in case… see you sweetie, enjoy the chocolate! She said in her thick French accent, and slammed the door behind her. She would sit on the soft sofa, reading and nibbling chocolate, or stare at the view out on the terrace, it was the same terrace they had, but from the third floor everything seemed a bit different. Only the tops of the carob and pine trees in the yard and the red roofs of the houses on the green hill across the ravine.
She thought of Ann. Just little thoughts, about Ann’s smile that always won first place in all of the contests, or about the winter in Belgium, when Ann was a teenager like her and made an enormous snowman. She had never seen snow herself. She shoved a soft square of dark chocolate into her mouth, then another and another, chewing slowly and thoroughly.
Once she went into Ann’s bedroom. The crib was in the corner, covered in white tulle as thin as a wedding veil. She could hear the baby’s soft breath, but couldn’t see his face, which was buried in the blanket. She knelt before a large chest of drawers. Baby clothes and diapers. More baby clothes and swaddling blankets. Only the bottom drawer contained letters, scattered inside. Her hands sifted through envelopes that bore foreign postage stamps; she made a fan out of them. Which one should she read first? She finally decided, opening the folded piece of paper. The white sheet was covered with blue words. Foreign. She couldn’t understand a single word.
Maybe there was something in the big closet. The door better not squeak. It squeaked anyhow, sighing like one of the old ladies that sat on the bench next to the grocery store. The shelves held rows of folded t-shirts, underwear and bras. She had never seen so many bras in a woman’s closet. Her mother always wore the white bra, plain and unadorned, or the beige cotton one. These are the only two that aren’t too tight, she explained. Then she would toss them aside as well, and walk around without. Her heavy breasts swung under the flowery nightgown that was never washed.
She pulled a lace bra out of the pile. Quickly, she removed her tank-top and tried it on. The lace cups remained creased and practically empty. The baby sighed and she hastened to remove the bra, shoving it back into the closet.
Ann got in late but the following day was vacation and she didn’t mind. She always tensed at the sound of the key in the door, and Ann burst in smiling, kicking off her black flats, sinking down on the sofa beside her and asking how it went. He didn’t even wake up once, she would reply and look at Ann’s face, her large brown eyes, her straight nose, her smile, and at the hands that would be rummaging through the wallet, extracting her pay. Sometimes her eyes would travel down to the full breasts – maybe she’s still breast-feeding, she wondered, and thought about her own tiny buds, still unworthy of a bra, then quickly lifted her gaze. Ann didn’t ask where her parents were, they hadn’t been seen around in the neighborhood for some time. Her friends Orit and Racheli did ask; but she just said that they were away, and now that summer vacation started, she hardly ever even saw them. She would rise reluctantly from the sofa, gather her books, sometimes a pen and notebook too, where she would scribble all kinds of notes and poems. You’re really a bookworm, Ann remarked once. You’re welcome to borrow some of my books, I’ve started reading a little in Hebrew, Ann smiled, her face lighting up. She had an air of distant places, of Leslie Caron in An American in Paris which was on television, and her father, as was his habit, told her how he used to admire Gene Kelley when he was young, and her mother, who saw everything negatively at the time, said that Leslie Caron wasn’t beautiful at all. But she disagreed. “Will you come borrow books?” Ann asked, reaching a long-fingered hand and patting her arm. She mumbled something in response and fled, galloping down the stairs, unlocking the door breathlessly, leaning against it, closing her eyes.
Since then, Ann would sit beside her on the sofa whenever she returned from her nights out, and tell her about books that she read, places she visited (all over the world), films she particularly liked (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort and The 400 Blows, almost the same as her). She told her how in ‘68 she marched with the man who later became her husband on the Champs Elysess and carried a sign with a picture of Lenin crying red tears and underneath the caption read ‘Wake up Lenin, they’ve gone mad…’ and how the blood boiled back then, and how life has changed ever since…
Ann apologized for getting in late, but it’s summer vacation now, so no big deal, she can stay a little longer because it’s so hot that she’ll never be able to fall asleep. She talked about the baby, who is already 18 months old, and how from day one, he sleeps eight hours straight, and she even talked about love, with a kind of French philosophicalness, ‘l’amour’, ‘l’amour’, all that ‘l’amour’ and ‘ne me quitte pas’. Where does love disappear when you are abandoned? Sometimes she would get up off of the sofa and stretch, walk over to the record player and put on a record by some singer with a silky voice, quietly, so as not to wake the baby. Once she put on a record by a female singer. That’s Veronique Sanson, she smiled, I love her the best. With round movements she danced on the rug and sang along in her beautiful French that sounded like music itself. Ohlalah, it’s so hot here in Izrael, she sighed and went out to the terrace. Later Ann stood in front of the fan, shaking out her thin blouse. She remained seated on the sofa, heavy and awkward.
You’re all skin and bones, what do you eat all day? Ann asked one night.
That summer, for the first time, she had tried her hand at cooking: chicken scorched and charred, soup seasoned with five tablespoons of black pepper. For the most part she ate ice cream, pretzels and Belgian chocolate, of course.
The sun was still a fiery burn in the sky when she returned home, her feet in flipflops, still covered with the stubborn bit of sand that couldn’t be removed by the outdoor showers at the beach. Ann stood at the entrance, right before their door. There you are! I was looking for you. I’d like you to come over tonight. But I’m not going out. There are a few things I don’t understand in a Hebrew book I’ve just started to read. Maybe you could help me out? I’ll prepare something nice for us to eat…
An entire evening with Ann at home! She jumped up and down in front of the mirror in her parents’ empty bedroom. Her face was sunburned. The nose was completely scorched. It’ll peel soon. How ugly I am! She wondered what Ann must think of her. That she’s a kind of ‘Pippi Longstocking’ that lives all alone, completely independent even though she’s only thirteen and a half? That she’s an abandoned child who should be pitied? Maybe that’s the reason Ann invited her to dinner and helping with Hebrew is just a pathetic excuse? Does Ann think she’s cute? Interesting? A book-worm? A geek? Weird? Never mind. She probably doesn’t even think of her at all.
At eight o’clock sharp she rang the doorbell on the third floor, and Ann opened the door immediately. Shhh, she whispered, he just went down…The table in the small dining room held a large bowl of salad, omelettes, soft cheese and even a bottle of wine. She devoured all of it. It was so delicious, like dinner used to be before the mess with her mother started, when she would help chop vegetables into tiny cubes for the salad and her brother would set the table. Her father would arrive from work in the middle of the meal and fish a tomato from the salad bowl, before washing his hands and sitting down to join them, and from the open window there came a waft of fried onions and eggs from the neighboring houses, everyone was preparing dinner just at that moment, and everything was precise the way it is in Scrabble when you manage to find all of the words.
She watched Ann gather small bits of fried egg on the tip of her fork and chew with polite delicacy. Sometimes she wanted to touch Ann, to make sure that she wasn’t just spun out of a reel of film. She smiled with a mouth full of food, and drank from the wine in large gulps, looking like a thirsty drifter. As soon as she finished one glass she felt warm inside and slightly dizzy. She drank another glass because she was thirsty, and another because she grew thirstier. Then everything really spun round, the sofa, the table, chairs, the lamp with the dark yellow shade. She wanted to waltz with Ann and Ann laughed, you’re drunk, kid.
What about that book you didn’t understand, she tried to get her bearings, but the room floated in front of her eyes and Ann said that maybe she shouldn’t have let her drink.
They sat on the sofa together, the book between them, their fingers practically touching, and she read aloud about how Hana Goren said that her ability to love is in the process of dying, she doesn’t want to die, and her heart pounded and pounded like a clock gone mad. She felt as though her head was about to roll down onto the shaggy beige rug, as if sliced by a guillotine. With her eyes closed she heard Ann’s voice saying, come, rest your head on me, on my shoulder. They sat that way in silence for a few minutes, or maybe it was longer, she didn’t know how much time had passed. She could feel Ann’s breathe, her chest rising and falling, and she was sure that Ann heard her heart beating. Her palm, which rested on Ann’s black skirt, sensed the delicate curve of the thigh beneath the fabric. Ann’s face was before her, close, close, nostrils, lips coated in clear gloss. Suddenly she was flooded, overpowered by all of the emotions that had disappeared in the past few months as if they had been covered by a layer of fine sand, ever since two burly attendants arrived to take her mother away and picked her up off of the floor, and her mother went wild and screamed help help, but they took her anyhow and for a long hour later the screams still echoed in her ears, and the cotton balls that she shoved in them didn’t help, and it didn’t help when her father, who left as soon as her mother was taken away in order to bring her mother a bathrobe and a few other items, said to her, you’re a big girl now. At your age I was already working at the German headquarters, clearing debris caused by the bombings. You can stay at home, and I’ll be with mother and I’ll call once a day to check on you.
All of the emotions that had been held deep inside, between her stomach and her chest, rose up, flooding her. She buried her head in Ann’s chest and something like crying bubbled and burst out. Ann held her and stroked her hair, she kept wailing, surrendering to the addictive weeping which had no end, and Ann’s blouse was soaked with her tears. Ann bent over and kissed her head, murmuring, “ne pleure pas” don’t cry. But she didn’t want to stop, it felt so good. Her breath was still jagged when eventually her tears dried up, leaving her eyes bloodshot. What happened to your husband, she dared ask Ann when she straightened up. Ann was silent for a moment. Her hand still stroked her hair absentmindedly. He’s a neuroscientist, Ann said, he’s looking for new cures for diseases, but he lost his heart on the way. C’est la vie. We’re not even on speaking terms. Our lawyers are the ones that speak for us. Sometimes I sit here on the sofa at night and think of him. How little control we have in the life of the people that are close to us. And now he’s so far. Ann wiped her eyes with the palm of her hand, and she wrapped Ann’s shoulder in an embrace, and suddenly she felt Ann’s back shudder. She stroked Ann’s head slowly, languidly. And then the wine swirled within her and she found it funny the way they were both crying together or maybe she was struck by wild joy at the fact that they were sitting there, like two friends on the soft sofa and the tops of the pine and carob trees were peeking out from the terrace and Veronique Sanson sang quietly in the background. She couldn’t help herself. A mass of marbles were tickling her throat. She laughed a little, then a little more. And then, all of a sudden, all of the marbles burst out. She was laughing so hard that she couldn’t speak. Ann lifted her head in surprise, but the laughter caught on, and soon they were both doubled over on the sofa, unable to calm down. They stopped for a moment, gave each other a stern look, and again, hahaha… my stomach… already… aching, Ann whimpered. She sent forth a cheeky hand and placed it on Ann’s soft stomach. They paused and looked at each other. The palm was still resting on the warm curve of the stomach. Ann got up abruptly. You’re totally drunk, kid. Go home now. She was completely serious, as if she had snapped back to adulthood after getting a glimpse of the girl she used to be. She stared at Ann, awakening from sleep. Her face was tear stained and her heart was still racing. Ann smiled a sheepish kind of half-smile. Go on, sweetie.
She passed her, her feet still unsteady. Thanks for dinner-
Summer was almost over, and she had finished The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and The Age of Reason. She met her father at the milk-bar at Hadar and he bought her a vanilla milkshake and chocolate cake and told her that he’s coming home because it’s all over, and even though she really is mature and independent she still needs some supervision. What’s happened? she asked, and he shook his head and urged her to finish her milkshake. (Only years later when reading his diaries would she understand). Her brother returned from the kibbutz happy and tan. He didn’t talk much but she gathered that there was a Scandinavian volunteer who helped him lose his virginity, and she laughed at that expression, losing your virginity, as if it’s something that you later search for the rest of your life. She sat on the terrace, facing the pine trees and the mountain, and still went down to the beach, but in the evenings she sat and stared, and once she even went up to the third floor and stood by the door but then she went back down. Ann still lived there but ever since that evening she didn’t invite her over to babysit, or to help out with Hebrew. She ran into her one day at the entrance to the building, wheeling the baby in his stroller; he was round-faced, bright eyed and quiet and looked nothing like his mother. And once she saw Ann walking in town, engagé with a tall bearded man. She wondered if the man was her husband, the brain researcher who lost his heart. Ann greeted her with a little hello, and nearly stopped, but quickly lowered her head and moved on.
And one morning, as she was on her way to the beach, she saw a big truck parked on the sidewalk in front of the building. Movers were lugging wooden crates and two of them carried out the soft wine-colored sofa and placed it on the curb. Ann and her bearded man went down the stairs with bags in their arms. She looked back for a moment. It seemed as if Ann were looking at her too above the plastic bags. The sun briefly blinded her eyes and she closed them. Inside her lids all she could see was orange.
Afterwards, her mother returned home silent, soft and quivering, and autumn came.
*The story was first published in Iton 77.