For Colonel Adam Bieliński
I was sitting in a café on the corner of Hess and Allenby and I had just enough for one more beer when the girl walked in, the one who’d gone with me to Tiberias and Eilat. She took a seat at my table and I had another look at that little scar on the bridge of her nose. I couldn’t see it very well, even though it was sunny out and a hundred degrees. I was sitting in a dark corner, where the ones who drink on credit sit.
“Pretty mouth and green eyes,” I said. “You ought to be in Eilat or Tiberias.”
“The heat’s unbearable now in Tiberias. You see that fellow over there, at the bar?”
I turned around and looked at him. He must have been sixty, at least. He was drinking coffee and I saw that his shirt was soaked through with sweat, even though he was sitting in front of the fan.
“Not bad,” I said. “I saw him last night, when he came out of the nightclub on HaYarkon.”
“He wants me to go with him.”
I looked at him again. I don’t know why he was drinking coffee. The veins on his neck were bulging and he was instinctively pressing his hand against his heart like those heroes in silent films, whose lips always tremble so perfectly as they kneel on the ground, while the villain with the gun has a shaky hand.
“Did he tell you it was good for his health?” I asked her.
“That’s all he said?”
“He said I remind him of his daughter. She died.”
“Could be. What happened to her?”
“She was ill. She took her own life.”
“What do you expect from a girl whose father’d pay fifty pounds for ten minutes?”
The waiter came over.
“What are you drinking?” he asked me.
“I’m trying to decide.”
“You’ve been trying to decide for two hours.”
“I don’t like to be lavish with money.”
“That you’ve never been.”
“She’s paying for me,” I said. “But the idea’s the same.”
“What’ll you have?”
“The same,” she said.
The waiter left and brought us our beers. He was wearing a white shirt, tuxedo pants and a belt. It all stuck to him like he’d stepped out of the bath.
“What do you want from me?” I asked.
“I don’t like that old man,” she said.
“Fifty pounds isn’t bad. A construction worker makes seventy in a week. And this is ten minutes, that’s all.”
“Come with me?”
“You want pointers?”
“You’ll be my boyfriend and we’ll walk in front. He’ll follow us.”
“I see,” I said. “We’re a pair of lovers and he’s just a passerby who happens to be heading in the same direction.”
“The police have been hassling me.”
“Alright,” I said.
She put the money on the table and we walked up to the old man, and once more I noticed his bulging veins and his cloudy eyes, even though he never touched alcohol. Even in that dive bar he went to every day, he never drank, he just bought rounds for the girls and for anybody who asked, but he never took a sip himself. He had enough money to believe that people liked him, but not enough to be worthy of their disdain.
“We’ll walk in front,” she said. “And you’ll follow behind us.” She caressed him and leaned in and whispered something into his ear. I couldn’t hear it. Then we went out onto the street and he walked behind us in the sun. I didn’t say anything to the girl from the Salinger story and I hated Salinger for being the one to come up with her name, but she really did have green eyes and a pretty mouth, and I thought about Esther. When I saw her the first time, she was standing in the middle of the dining hall with thirty people eating their meals. She was talking, her slender shoulders were dark from the sun and strong, and all the men in the hall were looking at her. But she had no idea about any of that. She was too young and pretty to understand their glances. Exactly like that girl I had before her, the one who later, when she’d already left me and started up with others, began to realize that men were in love with her. But she could never see they hated her because she was too pretty for any man to believe she could really love him and be with him. She’d have to be a few years older to understand that. And when she does finally understand, it’ll be clear that her knowing it won’t make a damn difference, and that’s how it is with all of them.
“Is he following us?” I asked.
We walked through a doorway and up a set of stairs. He was walking behind us clutching the handrail at each step and I heard his heavy breathing, and the girl next to me climbed the stairs like a cat, quiet and easy; I didn’t see a drop of sweat on her face or a drop of sweat on her dress, and when we stopped at the top of the stairs, she turned to me and her breathing was clean, like the breathing of a child.
“Wait a second,” she said.
She walked down the hallway and when the door opened she spoke with somebody. They argued for a while, and the old man reached the top step and stopped next to me.
“I could use a drink of water,” he said.
“I don’t feel good.”
“But I’m sixty years old.”
“And you’ve got fifty pounds,” I said. “And she’s just about to tell you you’re the best she’s ever had. And I’m going to stand here and wait for you.”
“I could use a drink of water,” he said again. “What are they going on about?”
“They’re negotiating a price.”
She came back and she said, “It’s no good, I’m afraid. Somebody snitched on them. We’ll go someplace else.”
“I have to drink some water,” the old man said. “I lost my pills. I have a bad heart.”
We walked down the stairs and onto the street and he followed behind us. The girl walked quickly and even I had trouble keeping up with her. She had long legs and she was strong as a cat and quick as a cat. So we walked, the two of us, on the sunny side of the street, and the old man walked behind us and I heard his fitful breathing. It was midday now and people were napping, and I was remembering the time when Esther sat next to me as I drank, and she didn’t say anything, she just looked at me. I didn’t know what to talk about with her, but there was a lot I could have told her. I could have told her I’d been looking for her this whole time, that I’m not young anymore, that every woman is a whore, and I could have told her I’d been looking for a saint and that saints do exist, even if they aren’t found among us. They’re inside us, in our tired hearts, in our heavy blood, in our miserable dreams and in the desire we push onto those who are cheap and quick and who we ought to forget right away, but who stick in our mind nonetheless. And I could have told her that inside of me there existed one good and pure woman; and I could have stretched out my arm and told her she was the one, but I didn’t. I was too embarrassed. Then I realized I was just too stupid. But now that Esther’s not here anymore, I know that I was just too weak to get myself a pure woman. When I was young and healthy I might have had one, if only I’d have been able to forget what I lived through, what I’d seen, what others had told me. Because I didn’t know back then that if a man and woman meet each other for love, then they meet up in an empty space, somewhere right in the middle of a burnt-out land, out of the reach of any sound, any noise, and where all the words she said to others and you said to others never come back. And it’s true that you can make a whore out of any woman, but that’s only because we aren’t in any condition to make them into saints. And they only do what we make them do. I couldn’t do it and few of the men I knew who tried could do it either, and I knew a lot of men. I knew pilots who flew airplanes no insurance company would cover; I knew sixteen-year-old terrorists who were murderers; I knew lots of people. They drank like fish and they’d fight when there was no other choice, and they’d fight too when they could have just as easily walked away. And they all managed somehow in the desert, underground and in prison, but none of them were brave enough to really believe in the goodness of a woman. Not the drinkers, not the murderers, not the ones in jail. I couldn’t do it either. I could talk about it but I couldn’t believe in it. And now, walking along the street, I thought how I’d walk by those girls and never tell them. But one day I’d be an old man and I’d have to pay for their love, I’d instruct them what to say when their young bodies rubbed up against the sweat and the stink of my decaying flesh. And they’d say what I wanted to hear, and it wouldn’t matter anymore. I’d listen, even though I’d have a lot to tell. I could tell them all about it, but they wouldn’t listen; they’d go running to some young guy who wouldn’t be able to tell them anything at all.
And I thought about the day she came to me for the first time, that was the day my landlady threw me out because I’d lost my job and I didn’t have anything to pay her with. We walked along the sea and rain was falling so we found shelter in the lobby of a movie theater. I kissed her there and I told her I loved her, and then the film was over and a group of young men came out. They were gloomy, with tenacious looks on their faces, and I watched as they walked out into the rain in a swagger. You didn’t even have to see the movie poster to know they’d just watched a Western. But now, walking along the street with the girl and listening to the breathing of the old man walking behind us, I would have given a lot to know what that film was. But Esther wasn’t here anymore. She wasn’t here, and there was no point in guessing.
Then I found a new place but the bed was so narrow the landlady’s previous tenant must have been a dog. I went over to see my friend who worked in a blacksmith’s shop, and when the owner went home for the day he gave me a key. I detached my bed frame with an acetylene burner, fused on a piece of another frame, and if I hadn’t been in such a mad rush it would have been a good and reliable bed, but she was supposed to come into the city that night and I did everything slapdash, and it didn’t turn out as I planned. In the middle of the night the whole construction collapsed with a bang, and the landlady came in and threw me out because I’d promised her I wouldn’t bring anybody home. So I took Esther and we went for another walk along the sea, and rain was falling again, and we took shelter in the lobby of the movie theater. I threw my coat over her shoulders. She didn’t say anything and blood was seeping through her dress, and then those same boys came out of the movie and this time they were hunched over and their faces were full of bitterness in their knowledge of all those tumultuous lives cut short by 24,000 volts of electricity, and I looked at them and I was sure they’d seen a Bogey picture, but I can’t remember the name of that one either and it doesn’t matter now, she’s gone.
We climbed the steps of another building past dust and the shrieks of cats. The old man was behind us and she walked on, and I waited in the hallway and smoked a cigarette, then I smoked another one, and finally he climbed to the top of the stairs and stood next to me, and I looked at his cloudy eyes.
“I don’t feel good,” he said.
“We’ve been over that.”
“I lost my pills. I have a bad heart.”
“Not for long.”
I looked down the hallway. She was standing there and saying something quietly and we couldn’t hear a thing. Only the whining of the cats and his breathing.
“Why are you set on her?” I said. “For all that money you can have ten other women.”
“Because she’s good.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I don’t know her.”
“You will in a minute. She’s just a prostitute who’s going to cost you fifty pounds.”
“She’s good,” he said. “I watch her sometimes. I’m too old to be wrong.”
“At your age it doesn’t make a difference. You can talk foolish or you can talk smart. Nobody listens to you anyhow.”
She came back and said that somebody’d died and the place wasn’t in business today, nor tomorrow, and so we walked down the steps again and he walked behind us, and I was thinking about how I got into an argument with Esther once and went on a bender. I realized afterwards I was in the wrong but I didn’t have money for the bus, so I hailed a taxi and he drove me to her place. I told the driver to wait, but he was smart to me and he pulled out a wrench. He was standing in front of me and we began to fight, and he drew blood, but then I landed a good one and he fell to the ground slowly, pathetically, like the autumn in Virginia, and I went to look for her. They told me she had gone to the movies, so I walked in just as there was a fight on the screen between a taxi driver and a drunk so I started to laugh. Then they flicked on the lights, because of course the movie was just being screened in the clubhouse. They all turned to look at me and I stood there laughing and leaking blood. He’d hit me on the head with that wrench, and Esther got up and came to me, and she led me out of there and we began arguing again. Then I walked back into the theater, ripped the reel from the projector and set it on fire on the floor. It was an old film, I realized, it was an old car on screen, and the driver in the movie didn’t need to resort to fists, he could have just grabbed a wrench; then the police came and took me away. After they put me in the jeep she came up to me and said she’d decided to get rid of the kid. I was drinking a lot in those days and somebody had told her the baby wouldn’t be healthy. I couldn’t explain to her that it was otherwise because I had to wait till I was let out of lock-up. When I got out she told me she’d already done it.
I took her with me to the desert and we lived in the cab of a truck, where there was a bed for a second driver and a hand-operated machine gun. At night the jackals howled and it seemed like a bad movie where a fellow named Rappaport keeps arguing with his accomplice, but we had to pull the plug on that movie life because we were in a bad way with money. The desert, the jackals, the machine gun, they make for an entertaining flick, but you’ve got to make sure that after the screen goes black the viewer can still live in the film, in what he’s seen, for a little while. But me and Esther, we had nothing but the truck, my machine gun, and cans of corned beef that we ate with a knife. We had a few oranges, too, and milk cans full of warm water that we covered with a wet cloth so the water would stay clean. I told her I wouldn’t let her go until it was too late for her to do the same thing again. She was twenty years old and she was so beautiful. I was twenty-six and besides her and the child I was hoping for, and which I had no money to support, I had nothing. It’s just that it was my first kid, and I was her first, too. And so we had to make our peace with the jackals that were out of a bad movie and with the moon over the desert, the moon that was too pretty to ever be able to write about or mention. I could have made my peace with everything, if she’d only have let the child live.
Esther had to return home and I stayed behind. I slept in the truck with another fellow who didn’t speak a word the whole day when he was sober, but he started to talk as evening came on, when he drank a good half a bottle. I kept myself dry somehow. But then we drank together, we drank for two weeks until I returned for a few days to Esther and left him alone. And even today I still don’t know his name or where he came from, because he spoke a language I didn’t understand, and he couldn’t understand me, either. She told me that she wouldn’t go to the doctor a second time, even when she was ready to give birth, because the doctor who did the procedure was a real snake and he’d come on to her. I tried convincing her day and night not to give birth by herself but she was stubborn. And when it was time, we went to my friend’s place outside the city and he lent me his house and his jeep. We lived there for a while. It was just me and Esther, and after a few days I met the other woman.
I was driving into the city and she waved me down on the highway and asked if I could give her a lift into Haifa, so I picked her up and we started talking. She told me she was a medical student and she’d come here on vacation. She was waiting for her fiancé and then they were going to return to the States. I took her to Haifa and she invited me for a beer, but I thanked her and went on my way. I was gone for two days, then I returned. That was the most difficult period, when I wasn’t allowed to touch her and I couldn’t tell her how we could do everything differently. She was too young for that and too naive, and I didn’t want to do anything to upset her. Because back then I still believed I’d spend my whole life with her. And now, walking along the street with this other woman and the old man hurrying behind us, I thought that the one time in my life I hadn’t been wrong was when I was lying beside her, thinking to myself I’d be with her forever.
“Listen,” I said to the girl with green eyes. “I’m tired already. Get this over with.”
“I don’t like him.”
“You don’t have to like him. Take the money and let me go. What did he ever do to you?”
“Nothing. He told me I’m good. And more things like that.”
“He’s stupid, like every old man. But he doesn’t feel well. He lost his pills.”
“He said so.”
“I took them. I pulled them from his pocket and tossed them. I know he’s got a weak heart.”
“You’re a miserable bitch.”
“He told me I’m good. And he told me that all women are good and it’s only because of men that they become otherwise. Do you believe that too?”
“No,” I said.
“Why did he tell me these things?”
“He wanted to make you feel nice.”
“You’re costing him fifty pounds. He’s paying a lot, so he can say a lot.”
“You think he feels bad about the money?”
“He feels bad about everything. He even feels bad about the stupid things he’s done. And he feels bad he can’t do them all over again. But it’s too late to talk about that.”
We kept walking, and I thought about how a few days later I was driving on the highway once more and that girl flagged me down again, and her boyfriend was with her; so once again I took them to Haifa and when they invited me for a beer I didn’t turn them down, and we sat there for an hour or so. The boyfriend told me about his brother who’d spent fourteen months in a POW camp in Korea, and what it was like there. But I wasn’t paying attention and I still don’t know what those Americans who fell into the wrong hands went through. I watched him and I knew it was bad we’d met. I hadn’t thought about her until the moment those two sat down and caressed each other. They were happy, I noticed that she was damn pretty. I hadn’t had those thoughts for a while, even though I had the right to think about it night after night, since I had been without Esther a long time and I had been faithful to her. But it wasn’t at all easy to lie there next to her and think about how it had been with us once.
I drove on to Acre and I stopped by to see a friend who was a doctor, and I told him that Esther had insisted on giving birth by herself and that there was nothing I could do. He told me it was madness, and I said he didn’t know the women who were born here in Israel. And then he gave me the address of a midwife who lived nearby, and I went back and drove to see her, and she told me the same thing. But since she was born in Israel too I didn’t have to say anything to her about Israeli women. Her husband was a sweet man and we sat until late at night drinking beer, and he told me about the pilots in Israel, how they fly between rock cliffs faster than the speed of sound and place bets on whether their wings will clear the width, just like our boys in Poland used to fly under bridges, and he told me a lot of other interesting things, but I wasn’t listening very closely. I was thinking about that girl, the one I’d met on the road, I thought about how long it had been since I’d been with Esther. It was because I loved her too much. Then the midwife said it was possible things would be alright, and she asked if I had a telephone. I told her that all I had was the jeep and it would only take me three minutes to come pick her up when the time came. I went back to Esther again, I lay next to her and I couldn’t sleep.
A few days later my friend Yoram came to see me and Esther went into the other room, and I had to tell him that Esther wasn’t feeling well, but that wasn’t the truth. Esther didn’t like Yoram, who knew how to put a few back, and she was furious with him because she thought he would get me to drink, too. The same thing always happened with Yoram’s wife whenever I went to visit him. I told him we had better go for a swim, so we walked out of the house. Driving in the direction of the sea I saw that same girl, the one who didn’t have a car, and she was trying to get to the beach, too. So we picked her up along with a few bottles of beer and we went to swim. Then Yoram, who’d already had a head start when he came by to see me, drank too much beer and on top of that two shots of cognac and he started to move in on the girl. I looked at her and she looked at me right when Yoram was promising to take her that evening to the city and show her all the sights, and I knew that his wife wasn’t home that day. And when he kissed her all of a sudden, I pushed him away and said, “Yoram, you’ve got a wife and this girl’s got a boyfriend.” We returned home but the conversation was like dead weight, and it was many months before Yoram stopped being furious with me. Yoram was a short man and it was hard for him to play the role of lover, even on the amateur stage. Like all short men, he homed in on women and did everything he could to seem the Casanova and he would get furious when it didn’t take. And that same night I told Esther that when I die she shouldn’t get married to any of these short men with cloying eyes because they’re never faithful. And I told her that when I die, she should find herself a handsome man who loves to drink once in a while with friends, because they’re the only ones who make good husbands and they have to be forgiven for drinking a little too much, or when he goes home with a girl who brings up marriage in the morning, because in his drunken state he forgot to tell her he was married. I said all that to Esther because I was thinking a lot about death then. But it wasn’t me who died, I was just the one who killed Esther because I loved her too much and I didn’t want to be unfaithful.
Once you start to think seriously about death, you’ll never stop; I was thinking about death especially a lot when Esther was in her final month, while I was waiting for that child. Esther’d think up names for him, and at first she’d like those names, but then she’d think of new ones. Then she’d go back to the previous ones. And she’d think up what the kid was going to be, and at first she liked what she dreamed up, but she’d then come up with other things; then she’d go back to the previous ones. It didn’t even occur to her that the kid would choose for himself what he wanted to be one day, and that other women and other men would invent names for him. Just like I called Esther “Conjuring Cat” and now everybody called her by that name and that name only, even her father and mother, the ones who came up with and gave her her real name. One day her mind was put at ease when she read how much money pilots on commercial airlines earn, and she decided that our son would be a pilot and she stopped thinking about having a daughter. Maybe it was because Esther loved me and knew I wanted a son, and so she got used to the idea and when I bought a giant stuffed Goofy the Dog, she told me that boys don’t like toys like that, and it didn’t even occur to her that it would take time for the child to develop into a real boy or girl, and she didn’t like that stuffed dog who slept with us in our bed. And I was constantly thinking it would be better not to be alive and that everything would end the moment the child came into this world, because then I’d no more have the courage to do what it was I’d always thought about, even though I understood that was faulty thinking, since all sorts of people commit suicide: lonely people, happy people, fathers. And I thought about how my whole life I’d lived this way, trying to make it so that when I died there’d be no reliable memories of me. That’s why I never told anybody the truth about me and that’s why I made things up, tall tales out of thin air, and that’s why I ran away from anything that could actually happen to me. I was afraid of people and I didn’t want anything to remain after I was gone. And now it was already too late. Now I knew I’d leave a trace, a trace who would live many years and through whom my life would be remembered.
Esther couldn’t leave the house and I’d go out for milk and groceries once a week, and to the pharmacy for sleeping pills, but they didn’t help me very much. I lay beside her at night and I couldn’t sleep, I’d think about how it had been with her a long time ago, back then, the first time, at my place. And I thought about all those nights in the desert when there wasn’t any water to take a shower but she was pure honey and I’ve never met another woman like her. And I thought about how in hard times she shared her food with me, and I thought what it could be like now, when we had a house until the fall and plenty of food and water, and even a bit of money to go to the movies or to invite somebody over to the house. And I thought about how Esther hated the spotlight and how she was so shy, and how when we’d go on a date, unaware of her own strength, she’d hold me in an embrace so close I couldn’t breathe. I recalled how Esther would curse but it was like when children curse, they repeat a word without understanding its meaning. And I remembered, too, how at night in the desert, when it got cold, Esther would lie close and we were almost the same height, it wasn’t easy to hold her to me. And I thought how I would have been able to do all of that with her and then sleep, but there was a little person in the way, who I wanted and who both of us were anxiously waiting for. And I also thought about how one day the baby would be born, and so much time would pass, and Esther would once again be like she used to be, but maybe she’d become somebody other than who she was. And I thought about all the women whose figures had been ruined by having children.
The old man hurrying along after us stopped suddenly and we turned around, and he stood leaning against the wall and breathed heavily.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s my heart.”
“There’s a pharmacy right here. If you want to we can go in.”
“No,” he said. “Is there far to go?”
“Yes,” she said. “But I’m going with you. That’s what you wanted.”
“You’re going with him,” he said.
“So the police don’t stop us.”
“You really can’t walk with me?”
“No,” she said. “But we’ve got plenty of time.”
She walked ahead again and led him, but not down streets where there were nice stores and comfortable cafes, and where you could walk in the shade of curtain-draped windows. She walked along narrow streets where there was no shade, where the sun beamed right into your eyes, and he dragged himself behind us, and when I turned around, I saw his face. He was in pain. And suddenly he put his hand to his heart like that singer who does the song about how his heart belongs to all women, yet they still run from him. It’s a lousy song and the singer is lousy, too, and when he’d walk offstage only a few people would clap.
“I don’t get why he’s so stuck on you,” I said. “Have you been with him already?”
“He’s never done anything nasty to you?”
“You asked that already.”
“I’ve got to talk about something in this burning sun. It’s nice gabbing with you. Plus you’re paying me ten pounds.”
“I’m sick of life,” she said. “Do you want to take that apart?”
“I can. People who want to kill themselves often try to get others to do the same, and when those other people succeed, it’s like they themselves have gone through it. I’ve read mounds of those stories. Your idea isn’t original. And this is an old man. He doesn’t need much.”
“How do you know all that?”
“You’re not the only one who thinks about it.”
“But most people want to live.”
“You’re not too bright. One way or another, you’ll never get out of here. You’ll stay here forever. Maybe you’ll stay the same, maybe one day you’ll turn into a flower. There’s nothing else to say about the subject.”
“Everybody talks about it.”
“It’s not a bad thing to talk about. And for that you ought to thank God.”
“My boyfriend died,” she said. “And since then I haven’t loved anybody.”
“That’s a nice story,” I said. “‘When I was young I had a boyfriend, he died, and since then I’ve never…’ and so on. I’ve heard lots of stories like that in my life.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I told you. It’s a good story. You can tell it and people will always believe you. But you should add that the boyfriend was an idealistic crusader, or something similar. Just a few extra words and it’ll sound much better. So what happened to him?”
“He was killed on the Syrian border.”
“That won’t do,” I said. “He ran across the field with his rifle, shot at the enemy, and died like a man. No, change your story. Let it be a car accident. Then you’ll have a senseless death; that’s something you can never come to terms with. You understand?”
“Yes, but before you said he died fighting for a wonderful idealistic cause.”
“I changed my mind.”
“None of that’s true, what I told you. I never had a boyfriend like that.”
“That sounds better already. But just say that at the end. A longing for love. Emptiness. It’s more contemporary. The crux of it stays the same.”
“Anyway, you know it’s you I love.”
“No, I don’t know anything about that. How long have you felt like this?”
“I saw you one day in a restaurant.”
“Was I happy as a fool or something?”
“Then it must have been right before I told a girl what you just told me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have had anything to pay for all that happiness with.”
And I told Esther I loved her, but I didn’t want anything from her. And then, when Esther was already gone, I said it to every woman, so it would lose meaning in my life forever; and that’s the only thing I’ve ever succeeded at. I tried to write and I tried to be a pilot; I wanted to join the Foreign Legion and then I wanted to go to Vietnam. And later I had a rich wife; and later still a different rich woman, and I told all the women the same thing I told Esther. The same words at the same moments, because Esther was gone, and I wanted to destroy everything that had belonged to her, and the women didn’t know about it. When I told them, they didn’t believe me and went with me to different psychiatrists; some went with me to nightclubs. And I always told them the same words I told Esther, and then I explained everything but they didn’t believe me, even the dumbest of them. I couldn’t save Esther, so I wanted to destroy everything that had belonged to her; I couldn’t tell her anything anymore, so I told it to other people, but they didn’t believe me. I couldn’t even do that. But Esther had believed me always and maybe she’d have gone to the hospital if I’d insisted and if I’d have spoken to her parents. And maybe I could have even taken her there by force. But she was with me and she believed that nothing bad would happen to her as long as she was beside me.
She believed me when I said I’d put away money for an apartment, and then we’d have books and money for the movies, and she believed me when I told her I wouldn’t drink anymore, and she believed me when I told her that one day we’d go to Europe. Maybe we’d go to Sicily, and then I’d show her all the hired assassins who’d been kicked out of the States, and who the barmen always called Commendatore. And she believed me when I told her that high up in the mountains, there would be electricity when I touched her. And she believed me when I told her all I’d seen, but I hadn’t really seen that much, so I made up different stories about different people I didn’t know. And she believed me when I told her about made-up films, because that was back when we didn’t have money to go to the movies, and Esther loved the movies. And then I made up imaginary books, made up everything I told her about the paintings in the Louvre, though I’d never been. And everything, everything I told her became true.
I went to the sea and swam for a long time to tire myself out so I could finally sleep, but the only thing that could really exhaust me was Esther. Sometimes I brought that girl with me, if I could find her standing on the road, and when she wasn’t there I’d see her on the beach and we’d talk sometimes about different things with the exception of that one single thing we were both sure about. Because what was there really to say? She told me that her fiancé had left earlier than she’d expected, and I had even less to say to her. I looked at the newly built houses and thought about how in a few years Israel would have the same government as everywhere else and there wouldn’t be any reason to live here. But in those days there were still only a few people and a few cars, and the tourists who came here usually got heatstroke and left in a hurry, saying all the while how they’d never seen a more beautiful country or had better cuisine, but I’ve got to say, the food in Israel is such that even the convicts in Europe would go on strike if they had to eat this goddamn kosher meat without a drop of blood that tastes like boot soles on a corpse. But back then there were still orange groves, the desert, and those stupid cliffs they show in the lousy movies. There were a lot of things here I couldn’t stand, and that’s why I loved this country.
The girl would swim far out to sea, and sometimes she’d be gone for an hour and I’d look out toward her and think about how Esther was forbidden to swim now, but she could swim better than this girl and better than me. And I thought about how Esther had become heavy and sleepy, and I couldn’t be sure if she’d stay like that forever. And again I began to think about all those women whose figures had been ruined by childbirth. About the creases on their stomachs and their breasts, and how one woman told me that after giving birth she hated her own child. And about another woman, in America, who told me how she stopped loving her husband because she couldn’t forgive him for the pain of childbirth. And I recalled yet another woman who told me that she didn’t know a more beautiful feeling than giving birth, and she wanted to have a child with me, but it never worked out for us. I turned over in my mind different circumstances, I harangued doctors and women with questions, and thought about it again. But I couldn’t think about the simplest thing, that a child would rob me of Esther for a long time, and that I loved her too much to survive even a night without her. But all this was from another stupid song, from another stupid performer. Though it really was like that and I started to think about those jackals, about that machine gun, which as a rule I had to have with me at all times, even though what the hell was I supposed to do with it at night, but orders are orders. And I started to think about all those irritating films again, where there’s too much truth about us all and which nobody likes.
Then that girl came back and she told me about school and how in two years she’d be a doctor, and she told me how much she was going to make her first year, and how much in her second, and she knew everything that was going to happen until the day her husband and her dogs would kick the bucket.
Once again we walked into the stairwell of a building, and the old man dragged after us but the green-eyed girl confessed that she’d gotten her doors confused, and we went back down and walked into the next stairwell, but he didn’t have the strength to go up anymore, he stood on the stairs and she reached out an arm.
“Come on,” she said. “We’re here.”
“Help me,” he said.
She came down two steps and reached out her arm again.
“It’s close,” she said.
“You didn’t even knock on the door. Maybe somebody’s in there.”
“No. I’m sure this is the place. There’s enough room in there for all of us. Let’s go.”
He walked up one step and grabbed her hand, but she shook him off.
“Come on,” she said. “I don’t have time.”
And then I understood, and I turned my head when she unbuttoned her dress all the way down, and then he lifted himself up to the landing and fell, and she leaned over him.
“Now he’s supposed to tell you you’re good,” I said. “That’s how it’s supposed to end. There’s folks who’d love to make a film out of this. Anyway he wanted to see his daughter again. Now you’re supposed to say something. Maybe you should act disappointed?”
They took him away and I went back to the restaurant. She was walking behind me. I went in but I didn’t sit in the dark corner. I took a seat at the end of the bar. The waiter came up and I turned the fan towards my face.
“I’ve had trouble enough from you,” he said. “Someone must have told the boss I’ve been letting you drink on credit.”
I put ten pounds on the counter and he brought me a beer.
“No,” I said. “Cognac.”
“Don’t ask stupid questions. I’ve got no reason to drink the good stuff.”
She sat down next to me and I looked at the reflection of her face; even in the dark mirror she was damn pretty.
“Can I drink with you?” she asked.
“I’ll never understand why you drink,” I said. “You’ve got money and you can find enough people in this city who’ll believe anything you tell them.”
“You won’t believe me.”
“I don’t understand what you wanted from that old man,” I said. “Yeah, he was a bastard. I saw him a lot, how he used to sit and stand others a drink, but he never drank himself. Still, I don’t understand. I don’t understand anyone in this city, and I don’t give a damn about anyone.”
“With the exception of one person.”
“I never made a secret of that.”
“But you like to say you don’t think much of yourself.”
“That’s true, anyway. What did you want from him?”
“What’s it your business?”
“What if he hadn’t croaked? It would have been a waste of time.”
“He’d already had two heart attacks.”
“What’d he need a third for?”
“So you’d believe me.”
“I believe you. But that doesn’t change anything.”
“Next time I’ll do myself in.”
“There you go. You’ve watched too many bad movies.”
“That wasn’t a movie, what you just saw.”
“The worst I’ve ever seen. And why’d you undo your dress when he started to die? Is that from the Bible? Moses, forbidden to cross into the Promised Land?”
“Then what was it?”
“You told me last night. That you wanted to write a story about a man who walks through the city and dies of desire. You’re the one who thought up the bit with the skirt. And I told you it was nonsense, but you said you could do something with it. I wanted to show you how stupid it was.”
“Last night I was drunk. I don’t remember what I said.”
I ordered a cognac and thought about how, when the labor pains started, I ran to the jeep and everything happened like in a bad story, because the motor didn’t want to start and I had to open the hood and then I saw that the ends of the cables were moist; after all, the car was parked not far from the sea. I lit a match, dried it off, and the rubber got a little burned, and I drove to the midwife but she wasn’t there. And there was nobody home to tell me she’d gone to see a different woman who was giving birth. I banged and banged on the door and nobody opened it, then I drove to that girl, because I remembered she was studying medicine. But at that moment I forgot it had already been four months I hadn’t touched Esther, but when she opened the door for me and I saw her, sleepy and tan, I remembered it and when we got there it was already too late, and I know it happened only because I loved her too much and I didn’t want to be unfaithful. It turned out that way just because I’d met her boyfriend, and we see women through the eyes of another man, that’s it, and when I first saw Esther she was standing in the middle of the dining hall and hundreds of men were drooling over her. So it ended just like it started, and it had to be that way. The end is always the same as the beginning. And there’s always pain filling the time two people have together, everything starts with pain and ends with pain. And the sorrows that occur between the pain of a mother and the pain of her child, dying sixty years later, that’s called love too and maybe it should be. But nowadays people croak without pain and maybe they’ll even give birth without pain, and lose their innocence without pain.
“I think that’ll take all the fun out of it.”
“Why don’t you believe me?”
“Just hold on. With a little more to drink I just might. Yesterday I believed in the story with the old man.”
“You still think it’s good?”
“No,” I said. “He should have said something at the end. But not something about life and death. Something completely unimportant, which turns out to be important.”
“Do you have something in mind?”
“No. I’m bored with it already.”
I ordered another cognac and I thought about what we saw when we walked in the house. And three days later I went out from there and thank god she wasn’t on the road, where she usually was, when I used to pick her up. And thank god I didn’t see another man stop his car and pick her up as she waved her hand to flag down a car. And I never returned, not to her and not to her house, and only once I went by there, it was in the rainy season, and I was alone in the car, and I wasn’t headed to the desert, but in the opposite direction. And I didn’t even recognize the house where I’d killed Esther and the child. I just drove through the rain and thought about how I’d repay my debt at the restaurant where I was sitting now. And that was it, the only thing I liked about the whole story.
“Another cognac,” I said.
“You’re putting them away fast.”
“I’m not going to sit here all night.”
“You won’t be able to sleep. Why won’t you sit with me?”
“Alright, I’ll sit with you. Have I told you that you’ve got green eyes and a pretty mouth?”
“All the better for you. I’ll repeat it the whole night.”
“But you won’t believe me.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I love you.”
“But tomorrow you won’t remember a thing.”
“I might. I forgot the story with the old man.”
“That’s why you drink.”
“No. I drink because I don’t want to remember. Did I tell you what he should have said at the end?”
“No. You were drunk. You only said he should stand on the steps and I should stretch out my arm to him, and he should come after me, reaching for my hand.”
“Did he really tell you you were good?”
“I never told you that.”
“No. Last night, all you told me was that you don’t like new books, and you said why. You said they don’t have enough women. And that men don’t need women anymore, and that all this new literature belongs to pathological homosexuals. And that you don’t care about tragedies with prostitutes and alcoholics.”
“You said, what’s missing are pure women.”
“I always have one. But she’s inside of me.”
“Tell me about it.”
I was tired and I didn’t feel like drinking anymore. I knew I wouldn’t get drunk, and that tomorrow would be terrible. I paid up and saw I had enough money for the movies.
“No, Esther,” I said. “I’m tired already. All day I’ve been trying to think up some kind of story about you and about the kid we could have had together. But nothing seems to come out right.”