the short story project


Aviad Rotstein

A Holiday for Two

   And it was just the beginning of another day. And the ceiling was the same too – same crumbling plaster, same pixilated strips of illumination. It had been a few years now she’d been waking to the same, dreary morning view. Lying in a careful pose, her back curved to fit the hollow of the mattress, the woman lingered for another moment of sobriety, of eyes opened wide. Soon, a series of grunts and snorts would emanate from the adjacent bed, and a hairy hand would fall on the alarm clock. Then would come the nauseating sucking of phlegm and gurgles of ejection. God, when would it end? And when his eyes finally opened, but before a possible meeting of their eyes, hers would close; such an intimate moment was prohibited. Nahum, filling the air with the sound of his snoring, was still an amorphous lump in the space of the room. Faint tendrils of light infiltrated the curtains and pulsated the contours of him, patiently drawing for her a map of limbs and hints of colors. His lips, dry and cracked, with a kind of white powder rimming their edges. His nose, which she had always thought of as ugly, had swelled over the years. Now it was stricken with ruddiness and riddled with bluish spiderwebs; dirty hairs protruded from the nostrils. His eyes were, perhaps, the only part of his face that could be looked at without disgust, and they were still closed. ‘Why hadn’t I looked away’, she thought later on, because the more she had looked at him, forehead, chin, stubble, and a strange wild will, the more he had begun to roam the realms closest to her consciousness, fumbling his way to a place beyond the borders of revulsion. ‘What would happen if I made him vanish, erase him from my life. The world would not be any worse without one Nahum, and I would be able to finally breathe, fill my lungs with fresh air.’ When she hurried out into the street, panicked thoughts still scampered through her mind. But as she got into the vehicle, all the morning whims were forgotten and only a dim feeling still bumped uncomfortably against her inner self, something that could possibly be described as guilt. It was Thursday, grocery shopping day and the supermarket was comparatively empty. The cashier almost smiled at her After all, they recognized each other. The woman knew the cashier’s name was Olga, a fact she had learned from the nametag pinned to her lapel, but neither had ever addressed the other verbally. She considered whether or not she should answer with a smile of her own. Perhaps a quick nod was more appropriate but, instead, she plucked a kitchen knife, which seemed exceptionally sharp to her, from the tempting stands next to the cash register, and tossed it into the shopping cart. The house welcomed her back with the quiet of a lazy, early afternoon. Nahum had gone to work and would not return until the evening. Without bothering to unpack the grocery bags, the woman sat in the armchair in front of the silent television screen and regarded the knife she had bought. The handle was green plastic, its texture coarse. The blade was stainless steel and serrated. Not a bad kitchen knife, but would it be able to slice through many layers of fat tissue? And what about the muscle element? Nahum was mostly fat, but there were tougher parts. Shadows crawled across the carpet and the afternoon sunbeams slowly, cruelly, scoured Nahum’s dull cessation. The wobbly table, the torn upholstery of the old sofa, the water marks staining the walls. In one of the shopping bags, vanilla ice cream melted into a sweet puddle, mixing with the ground beef which was beginning to reek. A fly had entered the living room, disturbing the silence with the irksome buzzing of wings. The woman followed its deceptive trajectory, and, when it finally landed on her knees, slowly brought her hands closer to it. The fly bent its legs, preparing to launch itself into the air, while the strength that had gathered in the woman’s hands burst into a precise clap, a mere few millimeters above it. The fly, sucked into that sudden vacuum, defeated, was enclosed in the cage of her palms, and when she opened them, she looked at it lying there, its wings crushed, a tiny red rivulet stretching from its remains. The wings went on twitching for long seconds, a kind of nervous fluttering, When all movement had finally ceased, she closed her fist again, enclosing the tiny corpse in her hand, feeling her nails cutting into her own flesh. As the evening dimness began to drown the living room in twilight shadows, the woman rose resolutely from her seat. Nahum couldn’t be allowed to notice something was amiss. She knew well that even behind the layers of stupidity he had garbed himself with over the years, the retired police detective still lived somewhere deep in the cellars of his mind. She quickly unloaded the groceries . Then she took the trashcan down to the street and emptied it into the larger container. She knew she couldn’t make any mistakes, leave any clues or traces. Five minutes before six, the woman sat on the sofa, turned on the television and carefully concealed the knife in the pocket of her flowered gown. Ashamed of the accelerated beating of her heart, she turned the volume on the television up as loud as she possibly could. The sound of footsteps shuffling up the stairwell preceded his arrival. Even as he reached the door, he had already lifted his shirt up to his neck with one hand and, in an oft-rehearsed movement, scratched at the tangle of chest hairs poking over the gray, eternal singlet with the other. The woman froze, but Nahum merely mumbled some indecipherable greeting and went on into the porch. He slumped heavily into a plastic chair which groaned in protest under his weight. The evening air was already cold, but sweat beaded incessantly on Nahum’s hairy nape. She wondered how he could stand himself as he leaned over the battered National Geographic magazines his brother tossed his way from time to time, when he dropped by for a visit in his new car. . The woman rose lightly from the sofa, her hand determinedly gripping green plastic. When she reached the porch door, she drew the knife out from the pocket of the gown and slowly raised it in the air. There, just one more step, one more burst of movement. “Look at this.” His tranquil voice stunned her. She quickly returned the knife to the pocket in the gown. “See this monk here? Look at the way he’s dressed. Nothing but a thin piece of fabric, standing in the Himalayan snow. Says here that scientists have measured his body temperature and discovered he can play with it any way he wants!” The woman sat down heavily in the chair beside him. The street stretched before her eyes, all the way to the kiosk at the corner, the only view she had known for the past few years. And all that business with the knife now suddenly seemed so far removed from her, filthy. She closed her tired eyes, and the image of Nahum was revealed to her, dressed in his underpants and singlet, standing, sweating in the snow. She laughed out loud, but the only response from Nahum was the sound of heavy snoring. ‘He’s fallen asleep, the ass,’ she realized. And what would become of her? If only she would be given some sign, an omen from above. Autumn had already kissed winter, and the vehicle windows glinted like a vision from the driveway below. The omen had been given. A sign and a prophecy. The woman rose and quietly slipped out of the porch. As she left the house, she collected the car keys and closed the door behind her with a light click. She was almost tempted to descend the stairs two at a time, just as she had done as a child. Out in the street, she turned and inspected the porch of their apartment on the third floor. She grimaced briefly, seeingNahum continuing to sleep his dog’s sleep. She opened the passenger door and, in the faint illumination from the streetlight found the airbag deactivation switch on the passenger side.. She set the switch to ‘off’ mode. Easy, simple and clean. Later that night, as she tossed and turned in bed in search of sleep, she smiled to herself in satisfaction at how her mind had concocted such a convoluted idea in such a brief time. Tomorrow it would be Friday, the day of their regular visit to her sister-in-law, Nahum’s sister. She would drive, as she always did, and when they reached one of the bends in the road … She knew the exact location, would have known it even on the darkest of nights. On the righthand side, there was an ancient oak tree. The perfect place for an accident. Deadly for one.. Before she was swallowed by the murky darkness of the stairwell, she lingered a moment more. She took the knife out from the pocket in the gown and tossed it into the large trash container. Scarcely a moment passed before she was back on the street. ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid!’ she silently berated herself. How could she have forgotten the seatbelt? She dug into the trash container with her bare hands and, after some time, which stretched and lingered between the bursting trash bags and their gutted innards, she finally salvaged the knife. She moved to the vehicle, pulled the passenger side seatbelt all the way to its end and sliced across it, leaving it hanging by a thread. The urban night, heavy and starless, slowly dissipated. Even through closed lids, she knew a bright morning was rising outside. The woman lingered in that hazy borderland between dream and reality. All at once, she recalled the previous night’s events. Her stomach shrank into a tight ball. Good thing she couldn’t back away now, the decision had already been made. The adjacent bed was empty and tidied, and she hurried to meticulously get dressed with a single thought in her mind; how would she look to the rescue forces? Perhaps her picture would even appear in the newspaper. But at the sight of Nahum sitting in the kitchen with his back to the door, leaning over his used magazines, something inside her eased, softened. ‘He is nothing but a man sitting in a kitchen. I am merely a woman, and today is just another day.’ “Look at this here,” he said to her. “Look, there’s this monk in Tibet, here in the picture, who was buried alive in the ground, and two hours later he gets out like it was nothing.” A toothless monk smiled at her from the large picture, his eyes full of kindness. She took a deep breath. Perhaps this was the last breakfast. And inhaled again. There, everything was back in place, almost, until it fell apart suddenly. Because when the woman went to the counter to cut the salad, she saw it lying in the dish drain, casually, just a kitchen knife with a green, coarse handle, and a sharp serrated blade. And the image was suddenly so bright, so detailed; the slitting of the seatbelt, the locking of the vehicle door, and the knife resting on the passenger seat, forgotten in the middle of the pale spot of light. Nahum rose, his body nearly touching hers, spreading dormant strength and sour scents. “Come,” he said, “we’ll manage without the salad today. I’ll take down the trash and then we’ll go.” For a moment, she felt the heat of his body through the layers of clothes, abusing her flesh with its yearning. She tried to catch his eyes, warn him, abandon it all, confess. But Nahum says nothing more, and everything empties into his silence, his feet were already shuffling down the stairs while she stood petrified in the kitchen as everything is sucked out of her, no air to breathe, no time for words. They drove in thick silence. Nahum smoked without opening a window; she didn’t even protest. The car negotiated bend after bend, slowly approaching the fateful one. “Nahum,” she said, already seeing the tree in the distance. Nahum looked at her with innocent sheep’s eyes, a cigarette stub between his lips. Through the window a fly walked on a branch of the ancient oak tree. Perhaps he didn’t understand anything after all. A sudden step on the gas pedal, a wild wrench of the wheel to the right, and the car sprang wildly at the side of the road, crossing the white dividing line. And then all its speed was gone, violently stolen by the thick, steady, ancient trunk. It had probably seen stranger things than this. It was a beautiful autumn day, green fields and gray skies. Nahum floated in the space between the seat and the window, his enormous body weightless. Before he smashed through the windshield into the expanse of the field he still managed to send her a look, a kind of reproach hidden in it. The woman followed the course of his flight. His head was so heavy it seemed undamaged as it shattered the windshield. She anticipated the blow of the airbag on her face, the pressure of the seatbelt against her chest – but they did not come. The seatbelt was, indeed, stretched to its limit, but then easily unraveled. It seemed that someone had cut it. The battered car remained behind, as the woman and Nahum sailed into the open air where the sun softly warmed them. Far below were the fields of the valley, ordered in neat rectangles. The houses were drawing further away, nothing but tiny blocks now, and glinting, far off to the left, hard to believe, was the sea. ‘It’s been so long since we went on a vacation,’ the woman thought. ‘Perhaps tomorrow we could go to that coffee shop we used to like. Sit by the narrow counter in front of the window and look at the people running down the street.’ When she looked to the side, she saw Nahum spreading his arms, a clumsy, weightless bird, and a soft look suffusing his face with a forgiving smile. She smiled back and spread her hands too. ‘I haven’t even given him any children,’ she thought. And yet, he was always so silent about it. The more they soared, the more the light became brilliant and piercing. Soon Nahum would be transparent, and he hadn’t even eaten anything today. “Nahum,” she heard herself screaming into the thin air. “There’s still time.” But Nahum was already vanishing into the bright light.                               

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