the short story project


Emanuela Barasch Rubinstein


I tell myself again and again, but I’m not convinced. I explain, elaborate, clarify, but nothing makes me change my mind. I hold my belief in spite of my own counter-arguments. Don’t be a fool, I whisper to myself, like a childhood friend who wouldn’t hesitate to bring up embarrassing memories and sweet victories. You really should see everything differently, tell yourself that it could be interpreted in another way. Everything would be easier, more pleasant, you’ll spare yourself the aggravation. But I shiver slightly and then sit erect, my tight lips revealing my profound skepticism, and I know that once again I’ve failed to change my own mind.

Over the last couple of months, I had an affair with Alice, a woman about my age whom I met in a bar in London. She worked in an insurance company. She wasn’t pretty, but she was feminine in a deep and captivating way. Her laughter was so inviting, rolling and soft. Her lips tinted with purple lipstick, her tight shirt revealing her full breasts, her narrow skirt with a deep slit covered her soft knees – every moment I spent with her I felt I was a man, and she was a woman. But I didn’t trust her. Somehow I felt she wasn’t honest. Sometimes her phone rang and she didn’t answer; every now and then she went out to the porch and spoke on the phone, and she had a small notebook she closed in haste every time I stood next to her. She told me she was divorced and that she had a daughter who had married and moved to the US. Twice a year she went there to visit her – but I wasn’t sure she was telling the truth. She said her ex-husband was an insurance agent. After their divorce, she began to work at the insurance company, and then she became a senior agent with a nice salary. I thought she looked like a person who was constantly looking for something she had lost.

At first, distrusting her was a sort of inner joke. I ridiculed myself for imagining things, just like my father. He sees an enemy in every stranger, wondering at the tactics the would-be con man would use to deceive him. Every client may be stealing, taxi drivers never give the correct change, the doctor is depriving him of the proper care to save money, the mailman is lazy and throws his mail to the trash, even remote family members invite him to visit only to ask for money. Aside from his wife and children, he feels surrounded by people who never wish him well. I make fun of his excessive suspicions, and it embarrasses him. He is a very religious man. “It’s all in God’s hands,” he tells me, “all in God’s hands. God searches the heart and examines the mind. Only He knows man’s true motives.” “But why are you suspicious, then?” I ask him, “Why assume that everyone wants to deceive you?” He looks at me like I am a stubborn child who fails to see what every baby knows, and says quietly, “Man was created in the image of God, but he lives here, in this world. Maybe this is the reason for his troubled soul. As it has been said, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?’ People who trust God rather than men are like ‘a tree planted by the water.’[1] A man should accept whatever the Lord says. When I am sure about something but then realize the bible says otherwise, I convince myself that I am wrong and accept God’s words. I explain to myself that there are things I can’t understand and I force myself to accept whatever is written in the scripture. Eventually, I fully believe it. If the Lord says something, who am I to dispute it?”

Unlike my father, I am not religious at all and can’t turn to any transcendental entity for answers. Suspecting Alice was irksome, again and again, I asked myself if there was anything wrong about the way she behaved or if it was me misinterpreting her words and actions. Maybe everything was very plain and simple, without any hidden intention. She didn’t take the call because she didn’t want to work while spending time with me. The notebook she closed in haste had details of clients she should never reveal. I looked her up on Facebook and found she had a rather ordinary account. Sometimes I thought there was nothing wrong with her; sometimes I followed her intently. A couple of times I placed my cell phone next to her to see if she would try to take a look. I once placed a photo of a woman I used to date on the table to see how she would react. She laughed in such an attractive manner, stretched out a hand and invited me to sit next to her, and then she caressed my shoulders, my upper back, and my lower back, and I completely forgot I had had a hidden purpose.

Two weeks ago, I happened to run into a high school friend. We had a long conversation and, for some reason – I’m not sure why – I told him about Alice and my strange suspicion. I replied to his questions as if he were some kind of expert: “No, I’m not sure she isn’t married, she may be cheating on her husband, I never asked too much about her life, but there is something dubious about her.” He said nothing, immersed in thought, and so we sat together silently. Finally, he coughed, as if he were about to deliver an important message, and said, “Listen, I think you should adopt a completely different perspective. You don’t love her, so what does it matter if she’s hiding something you’d better not know? I think you should change your mindset. As long as you enjoy spending time with her, everything is fine. It makes no difference who she really is. The only thing that matters is you want to be with her.”

He’s right, I thought as I walked briskly home. It made so much sense. Thinking about his words, I was overtaken by joy, as if previously I had been carrying a heavy weight that now fell and broke to pieces. A smile spread across my lips; I walked lightly, suddenly feeling a pleasant breeze caressing my face and disheveling my hair. I’m so glad I ran into this friend, I thought. I could have been so worried, wasting days and nights speculating if Alice was married, wondering how long this relationship would last, trying to guess why she didn’t reveal more about her life. I even imagined an angry husband standing at the door, yelling and trying to attack me. But the friend’s words made everything so simple, erased any complications. I want to keep seeing her, and that all. She is very feminine; every moment I spend with her reveals a chunk of masculinity I didn’t know existed in me.

Over the next couple of weeks, I took great pleasure in every encounter with Alice. The food in the restaurants was tastier, the beer in pubs created a liberating intoxication, the music had an invigorating rhythm, walking home in the rain under a big umbrella was always accompanied by seductive smiles and sarcastic comments, Alice who took off all my clothes, watching me lustfully and only then took off her dress – they all turned this relationship into pure pleasure. I almost didn’t notice her going out to the porch to answer phone calls and not saying anything about her life. The ex-husband came up in conversation only because he introduced her to the insurance business, her daughter was mentioned in a discussion on prices of flights, she never invited me to her home. But spending time together was exhilarating, a present that didn’t stem from the past or lead to the future, but existed in itself. Sensual evenings and nights in which the naked body made hidden whims visible; something about the way she finally relaxed in bed and lit a cigarette made me smile with satisfaction.

Yesterday, I laid next to Alice, my lax body parts spread across the bed. I sank into a deep sleep but heard a strange ticking, a sort of uneven set of knocks. A woodpecker drumming with its sharp beak and an old clock crept into my dreams, but finally, I managed to open my eyes and listen carefully. I looked at the dark ceiling, at the window through which a thin moon could be seen, and suddenly I realized Alice wasn’t lying next to me and the clicking was coming from the other room. Self-reproach surfaced for a single moment – I told you, I whispered to myself silently – but then it faded away and disappeared. I decided I would get up and look for her.

A naked woman with a full round body, light skin, and slightly disheveled blond hair was leaning toward a wooden cabinet, gently moving a drawer. As it slid out she opened the small box within it, took out money and put it into her purse, which was on the floor.

Weakness overtook me. My legs were shaking, my stomach contracted, I could feel a passing spasm in my chest. I leaned on the door so as not to fall. In spite of feeling dizzy, I could see the feminine hand with its long nails stretching from the box to the purse, and again to the box. I thought I heard a muffled growl, which was probably coming from me. What does it matter? I whispered to myself gasping, what the hell does it matter? You’d willing to pay to spend time with her; had she asked for money for every evening you wouldn’t have refused. You’re paying for everything you do together, so what not raise the price a bit? What if the restaurant would have been more expensive? What if you went to a hotel? Spending time with her was so satisfying. Every morning as she left a small inner bubble that collapsed years ago filled up with air, and you held your chest upright again.

It seemed as though I fully convinced myself. In a moment, I would have touched her and said, I’d simply give you the money. But an oppressive, high-pitched voice, like an annoying, impatient old man, yelled within me: Police! Call the police! She’s a thief, a criminal, she may have stolen other things as well. Kick her out, she should never come again, stop her from searching your drawers and taking what isn’t hers.

As Alice turned her head and saw me, panic filled her eyes. Her naked body, which previously had spread open toward me, now contracted into itself. She held her purse and looked as if she were about to escape. We stood facing each other, naked and shivering, without saying a word. Finally, she disappeared into the bedroom, and then I heard the entrance door slam and the sound of steps in the hallway. I could hardly walk; I managed to get to the bedroom and collapsed on the bed and was left there for long minutes, watching the ceiling. Her perfume still filled the room; the bedsheets smelled of her body. Come on, quickly, I yelled at myself, run after her and bring her back, what are you waiting for? What do you care if she’s taking money? You love being with her so much. But, much to my dismay, I couldn’t silence the whisper of the damned old man that emitted from within me, chuckling and gloating: Thief, thief, thief.

[1] Jeremiah 17:8-9.


On the cover: Vasily Kandinsky, Improvisation no 30 (Cannons), 1913, Courtesy of the Art Institute Chicago