the short story project


Yossi Waxman | from:Hebrew

Gabriella (from Liebchen)

Translated by : Maya Klein

Image: Marc Chagall, Blue Lovers, 1914

Introduction by Eli Hirsch

When I first read Liebchen by Yossi Waxman, I didn’t know it was Waxman who had written it and didn’t know his name. I was, at the time, a judge on a 2003 ACUM award panel of judges reviewing literary pieces that were submitted anonymously. The novel swept us all away immediately – me and the other panel members, Haim Be’er and Savion Librecht – with its amazing originality and force. Only one year later, when the book was published and sent to me, I realized who we had given the prize to. This week I reread Liebchen and found that what we wrote at the time to explain why we had chosen it was still very pertinent. And this is what we wrote (with some minor changes due to context and the time that has passed): “Liebchen tells of the great love between Gabi and Gabriella – a young, successful and happily married man and an eccentric elderly Holocaust survivor who lives with her cats and confronts her nightmarish memories day in and day out. This is a deep and uncommon romantic love that opens the hatch to a dark, horrifying world which constantly tests the readers’ sensitivity and draws them in with a magical lure… With its virtuosic precision of language, surprising ingenuity and rare talent for emotional balances, the author of Liebchen manages to turn the encounter between Gabi and Gabriella into a convincing and powerful love and the twilight zone in which they function into a trustworthy world that is rich with meanings and full of light.”


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Also, I’m crazy about him and I don’t care what the neighbors say. I’ll even wear a leather skirt slit up to here if he wants. And with no underwear either. Nu, I’m a crazy old woman, that’s what I am, just an old hag, past my prime. Lucky for me, I still have my scent; I mean my eau du toilette, my signature scent never gets old. It tricks Gabby’s nose. I always douse myself real good before I go feed the girls. Even in the morning, when he doesn’t have time for me. Gabby is a gentle man, but I can see the crazy in his eyes. I’m something of an expert on nut jobs, being a former psycho with a psychopath’s past. Gabby is crazy, but he’s a light kind of crazy; he doesn’t have the kind of psychosis that could kill someone. I was like that too, all bells and whistles, but on the inside, good to the bone. Yesterday was our first date. He struck up the nerve and made a move. When Gabby makes up his mind, that’s that. He doesn’t waste any time buttering me up. I love that in him. His wife thinks he’s indecisive; he told me so himself. But with me, he’s different. Som’how I managed to poof up my hair and set it with the hairspray, I wouldn’t want it to go and collapse on me. I put on my face: make-up, rouge, lipstick and lots of eyeliner to highlight my dramatic eyes. I’m always painting myself. Strengthening the brows; enlarging the nostrils, plumping up the lips. I confuse the enemy. Draw beauty marks anywhere I see fit – on my left cheek or my right, or on my chin. I’ve always painted myself, invented myself, so they wouldn’t recognize me, god forbid, so they wouldn’t catch me. In fifty-nine they almost found me out, but I managed to outsmart them. I’m a natural, a born escape artist. A real artiste.

We went to Café Kapulsky. I would’ve preferred he take me to a club or a bar at the Opera Square. But one thing at a time. I’m still letting him adjust to our flirtation. He hasn’t exactly called it by name, not yet. But he’s going along; he’s getting with my program. And I’ve got it all planned already. He bought me a bouquet. Lilies of the valley. I brought him an autographed photo of Marlene Dietrich that I got on Allenby Street a million years ago .He can add it to his antique collection. He said thanks and put it in his pocket. Also, we drank cappuccinos and ate a slice of cremeschintte that tasted like margarine and stuck in my throat. Later I ordered a whiskey- neat, just to impress him. And he laughed, “Granny, what’s up with you? Have you suddenly become hip”? That got me real mad, “I’m not ‘nyone’s Granny, in my mind I’m a horny babe, got it?” Someone in the kitchen must’ve been stunned by my response and a tray dropped to the floor. The shattering glass was a crescendo to my ears. And my earrings were laughing on my lobes. Nu, I lit myself a Broadway 80. The smoke got into Gabby’s nostrils and he started coughing. But he didn’t make a fuss, just sipped some water and smiled. And then he tried some of the whiskey. I could tell right away he’s not a drinking man. He’s a big pink baby with a paunch that drives me absolutely wild. UUgghh… I wish I could shove my fingers inside of his bellybutton, and lower down too. I would get his shlong hard, easily; he would have a good time with me. You can tell that he doesn’t have good sex. It’s a pale life. In our medical clinic, I learned to analyze people according to how they look. Doctor Bloch taught me. “Nurse Gabby, life is a routine diagnostic test – you have your good cholesterol and your bad cholesterol. Everybody gets the disease they deserve, and the symptoms that best match their character. Yes, the lipids in the blood aren’t great, but the potassium in the urine is high. Nu, the liver is completely fine. But there’s no balance. It could be hormonal. Oh, and take off your clothes. So we can see your insides. Maybe we’ll find some love there for a poor old widowed doctor.”

The doctor used to be my lover. Not a very smooth talker, with him, everything was innuendo. Actions spoke louder than words. His clever fingers taught me many things I didn’t know about my body. On Tuesday nights, the examining table soaked up our love. Later on, the only thing we were left with was friendship, and old age, and the memories. But the old juice used to seep through the paper sheets we would spread on the examining table: liquid that was quickly swallowed up. Love hides in the stains, that’s for sure. Also, Gabby, keep me safe, don’t laugh, I’m fragile on the inside, even if it doesn’t seem that way. But he laughs. He’s just a kid. Forty something. I told him he’s wunderbar.

Here we are walking down the street. A young man in the midst of a mid-life crisis and an old woman holding a bouquet of lilies that hides the sadness in her heart. People think, mother and son. I think motherfucker and her boytoy. Gabby says, “It’s strange isn’t it?” I say, “A child died of stomach typhoid fifty years ago. That’s a thousand times stranger.” And Gabby said, “Liebchen, stop being so enigmatic.” So I was less enigmatic and told him that he needed to lose weight. And he made a philosophical face at me, “Honey, I’m addicted to food. That’s how I unwind, blow off steam.” So I told him that if he keeps it up he won’t have any life to unwind from. And he laughed, “I actually like my fat body. It’s my haven. Like a shelter I can escape to.” Nu, now he turns secretive on me. I tried to corner him and asked what it was he is escaping from. And he laughed, “I’m escaping from love, just so it won’t catch me and kill me.” So I shut up real fast. And he smiled, “My banlon.” Uchhh… I absolutely hate it when he calls me his banlon, but I keep quiet, or rather, I don’t externalize. I learned that word from him, and now I can externalize and I can also not externalize, according to the mood my dummkopf is in. I think that he is my solace. He came at the right time. I hope that I won’t be his punishment. He’s not to blame. My sins are to blame. A bad woman and a man baby. Nu, I’m from Venus and he’s from Mars. The horoscope lady was telling those lies on the Friday night show. I like her. She says I’m up for a nice surprise in the romance department and foretells drastic changes for me financially. Now isn’t that something?

Und in the evenings we feed the girls. Sophie’s kittens don’t dare come close. His blind dog scares them off; she’s always bumping into the sprinklers. To tell the truth, she scares me too, rotting away like that. Her foul breath could kill a herd of elephants. But I hold my tongue, for the sake of our love, and for my plans, for my program. His terrier is cute, though, to die for. She stands on her hind legs, waving the front two paws like a circus performer. Gabby told me that her little circus act saved her life. The lady som’how brought her from the animal shelter; she was standing on her hind legs inside her cage. Dancing for her life. For two weeks she was like that. If not for the wife of his that fell in love with her, she would’ve gone straight to the pound. A terrier, surviving the horrors of life. It’s just like me, only a thousand times different. But she’s a pure soul. And I’m one hell of a badass. I’ve always been that way. I can’t control my psychosis. It comes out whether I want it or not. I’m falling apart in my mind while the world around me appears to be intact. Fragments of “me” are scattering on the kitchen floor, and the world couldn’t give two hoots. It just isn’t concerned with the pain of old women that are falling apart. So then I really give it to the kitchen cabinets and the dishtowels, and the plaque that gathers on the faucet, I make them all shine. That’s the way it is. I’m obsessed with cleaning. And totally fucked up.

Also, anyone that dared talk back would get a licking, straight away. Und I was like, totally cruel. I went all out with my act. I hid the goodness deep inside of me, because it was strategically beneficial. Mister Halgerfurer, may he rot in hell, would stand on the balcony and watch me, like a marionette in his puppet show. But the girls couldn’t see through my supposedly tough layer of epidermis. They couldn’t see my eyes, which were really dying for love. They couldn’t see into my suffering. Inside I was on fire like you wouldn’t believe. And I screamed: Schnell! Schnell! Move your asses already or… you’ll be a piece of… or… The word “death” wasn’t part of my vocabulary, that’s for sure. To the world I was “The blonde bitch from block 17” but to myself I was as delicate as the lace on a bride’s veil. I barked loud in order to scare off death that would eat people up like potato chips. I screamed my head off, trying to keep death away from my girls. And I humiliated them too, how else? Cruelty was like currency there, and you needed to hurry up and use it to buy life as quickly as possible before it disappeared off of God’s supermarket shelves (if there even is such a thing as God, I don’t know). But when one of the girls couldn’t bear it anymore and finished, part of my body would finish too, and my soul. How I loved those girls. I did. Helga and Bebby and Greta and Sophie and Marlena. And I loved Lilly the most. It’s too bad they couldn’t hear what was going through my head. Love kept quiet there like a coward, and death pulled the wool over our eyes. That’s the way we were back then, dying emotionally. But the passion for life was stronger than anything; it was like an obsession, a perversion.

And now the knives are coming back. You little putz, you’re giving us a bad name. Oh, you guys – here you go again, would you give me a break, let my mind rest, stop crushing me. Go on, go back to the knife drawer in the kitchen. Go deal with the Jews. Use your hands, pleasure yourself, Fraulein. Beasts, at least give a chance to an old lady from the third floor walk-up on block 19. Alright Fraulein, carry on. We’re taping.

Herr Otto, may he forever be eaten by cockroaches amen, would count the heads in the block. That’s the way he would get to me, trying to break me. He drew up a chart and tacked it on the office wall, calculating the dead and the living, like a game of Remy Cube, torturing me with Lagerführer calculations: “Yesterday zero und today two! That means that tomorrow there will be four, eh Fraulein? Wunderbar!” And after he took off my underwear, “Also, meine Liebchen, why the Stabat Mater face, have you suddenly become holy? Smile for poor uncle Otto…” It was then that I dared talk back. And I told him that he’s damn right I’m holy, and he should be careful of me and of the angels that are protecting me. He blinked his small eyes at me, “Ach so, your angels have long forgotten you.” But I didn’t give up, I said that they forgot uncle Otto too, naturalich. He puffed up a little and then sighed, “There is no such thing as angels, those are just words, and they represent nothing. You either live or die. Yesterday zero und today two!” Between one calculation and another he offered me wine or tins of real Russian caviar. And you know I’d better eat up all those recompenses. And I’d better say danke a thousand times and take off my clothes. Including my underwear and bra. So he could enjoy my “Aziatish nakedness.” He didn’t dare touch me with his sausage-fingers or his pea-sized dick, god forbid he’d contaminate his epidermis with my Jewish filth. Fastidious piece of shit. But jerking off in front of my ass, that he loved. Oh, that he loved plenty. “Also, meine Isolde, stop crying already, they won’t be resurrected with your tears. Be beautiful for Uncle Otto, jerk off for Uncle Otto. Use your finger. Two fingers.” Swine. I threw up the Russian caviar all over his shiny boots. To this day I don’t know why he didn’t stick a bullet in my head. Maybe because he was up to his ears in love. Like some English gentleman, to die for. After he came, he would fall asleep like a baby, you could just eat him up. Pink and bald and drooling. Also, I got dressed and stood on the balcony that looked out over the courtyard: “Hey, you! Yes, you, Fraulein Helga. Stand up! You too there, Greta. And you with the red rag. Attention! Stand, Jewish whores, stand or…” I would pelt them with canned preserves. Pow! As if they were sitting ducks at the amusement park. Pear puree, whole anchovies in oil, French goose liver pate, real Russian caviar. May the cans all grow on my breasts, amen!

Also, what else? Also, sometimes I heard whispers that would bury me alive, my sweeties would wish me such suffering. They’d devour gourmet de la gourmet preserves and curse me without thinking twice. Curse like mad. You wait, just wait Miss Fraulein, after the war you’ll be sent to a desert island, with no one, without your putz from the balcony, without the breasts that you love, you pervert. And your blonde hair and goy face won’t help you then; you’ll have rats for lovers then, rats! Your skin will be covered with disease; the ovaries in your belly will be seared by burning x-rays of light. You wait, just wait, Miss Fraulein, we’ll be done with you before the Americans arrive. We’ll hang you by your breasts. Jew bitch.

Nu, the Russians were the ones to arrive after all, liberating us from the Germans and while they were at it, raped my girls just to blow off some steam, damn them. Pogromchik bastards. And now I’m crying. I wish that rats would eat my breasts, amen. That’s easy for you to say now, Fraulein. Nothing hard about saying that now. Yes, but… No buts. You’re avoiding your punishment, and beware! But I don’t deserve punishment at all. I swear, although…

I ignored. The cursing and the yelling were my jewels, undoubtedly. Cruelty was my make-up and rouge. That’s what I deserve. The crows hanging on the balcony at the Lagerführer would mock me, “You’re classy, Fraulein! You’re really zuper!” But I ignored the cries that echoed in my mind, I sold them my soul so cheaply – they got it for peanuts. Also, I wasn’t scared at all. Not one little bit! You little liar. We don’t believe you. Don’t then. Who needs your faith anyhow? Whoever saves one woman saves the block entire. And I saved more than one. That was my program. I ate death for breakfast. I gave him love and I showed him who wears the pants around here.

I’ll have you know that obsessions rule my brain these days. They’ve become permanent fixtures there. But I’ve adjusted to it. I go with the flow; I let the craziness ruin me. Go for it. Go all out. I understand. And I enjoy it. I collect all of the craziness and all of the troubles in large trash bags and then I hide them in the neighbor’s bomb shelters. Every day I go to a different building so they won’t find me out. Sometimes I create trash on purpose, squashing vegetables, tearing up one of my shrunken slips, breaking old kitchenware, that sort of thing. In the mornings, before I change the girls’ water, I scout out my buildings. I go real early, before the normal people wake up.  I have two entrances in Block 7 and one in 6. Two days ago I started stuffing the bags in 12 too, but there’s an old lady there that has insomnia. She almost caught me red-handed with the craziness in the bag. Rats, hope the garbage trucks won’t take the bags away. Also, it’s so I can control my troubles. So I can go visit them whenever I feel like it. Isn’t that a hoot? And now I’ve forgotten what I wanted to talk about, what I wanted to tell you. Nu.

In the meantime, I’m not revealing anything to Gabby. I’m Madame de la Secret. If he knew, he’d probably run twenty blocks away from me. I’m sticking to cats and “animal rescue” and all sorts of phrases that I’ve picked up along the way. It’s doing a hell of a job at impressing him. Nu, words were always my strong suit. And sometimes we don’t talk. It’s the silences I love the most. Sitting on the stone fence and looking at the moon. He flutters his pretty eyes at me, back and fro, until I melt. Acchh… Tony Curtis eyelashes in the moon. And in my heart I hurl insults at that rotten moon, which, in its insolence, shined a million years ago too, in that place I called the end of life. It shined just to spite us, Jewish girls with diseases and lice. Cheap bastard moon, didn’t even throw us a bone. Hear that Sophie’le? The American girls were waltzing in the moonlight but we were dancing too, dodging the bullets that flew out of the Lagerführer’s pistol, Also.

Enough. Stop with your “Also” already, as if you were German. Nu, you’re just an imposter. Well, the inhabitants of the bottom drawer are back. Shalom Aleichem, welcome, friends. But Mother and Father were born there. Liar. They were born in Czechoslovakia, or rather in Slovakia, which is as low as it gets. Spoke German as if they were full blooded Germans. Put on airs, like they were “cultured,” listening to Bach’s Requiem, reading Goethe and Schiller. Germans my ass. Frauds! Don’t insult my parents. It’s none of your business the way they spoke. And anyhow, it doesn’t matter anymore. Stupid, it matters plenty. Speaking in those people’s language, it’s disgusting. What a pile of horseshit. These days it’s in vogue to get a German passport, or a Czech one. Polish too. So you can go work in Euuuropa, with no boundaries, free as a bird. Hope the people who get their Deutschland certificates die! Die! Shut up, one more word out of you and I’ll stuff you in a trash bag and throw you in Block 7’s basement bomb shelter.

Go on and tell them that God created the world in Hebrew and destroyed it in German. And that’s why I speak this way, in Hebrew that I contaminate with German. In the kind of Hebrew that the young people use, the language of the high school kids, which is the dirtiest and most beautiful language that I’ve known. A language that has lots of sex and violence, stuff like that. It’s a language that recreates the world. A smart Hebrew that no longer needs the Almighty Master God. Nu, and the stupid world, the oilem-golem, stands aside and thinks I’m off my rocker, yeah right.

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