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From The CriticsFinely wrought...muses on love [and] also on the nature of family relationships, the importance of memory....strikes an original note.
—Washington Post Book World
"It's me, Mother—Hamutal."
She was standing by the glass door, pulling her scarf tightbefore venturing into the wind, when the nurse's aideshouted after her: "Excuse me, Shifra's daughter, do me abig favor if you're going now. You see that man in the greenjacket? Get a hold of him and tell him his father's diapersare all used up." She added: "Thanks such a million."
Hamutal, suddenly recalling the days when she was"Shifra's daughter," turned her head and peered past theedge of her scarf at the aide.
"Size Maxi, tell him to bring some today, if you don'tmind, otherwise first thing tomorrow. He got so thin andall, with the Super Maxi everything leaks out."
And that's how it began.
In the parking lot outside the nursing home, beside hiscar with the newspapers tossed onto the back seat, in frontof the building whose windows watched them like dozensof pairs of eyes, with wind whipping the edges of her scarfto her right, his collar to his left. There they stood, face toface. She'd seen him opening the car door and rushed tocall him before he got away: "Excuse me, please," and thenwhen he looked up and saw her running toward him, wavingher arms, he straightened up and waited, like someoneexpecting a bearer of bad news.
At that moment she couldn't find the words.
"I ... the aide asked me to tell you about ... uh, yourfather ..."
Only then did she take in the full meaning of what she'dbeenasked to relay. And she saw him standing there, waiting,very serious, inclining his head like a tolerant doctortoward an annoying patient, regarding her with indulgentcuriosity, as if to say, "What was that stupid running allabout, and now this stuttering?" She said, embarrassed,feeling her color rise, feeling a glimmer of anger over thismission she'd been asked to carry out, intruding on astranger, bringing this mortifying moment on herself. "Thediapers ... that is, she asked, the aide asked if you coulddo it today ... he's running out of diapers ... and you haveto ... bring him Maxi ... because with the Super Maxieverything ... the Super Maxi no longer fits."
They stood for a moment on either side of the sentence,two people dressed with a certain elegance, oneclutching the collar of his jacket, the other the ends of herscarf, witnesses to the absurdity and the terror, the futilityand the despair in the sentence suspended betweenthem, as if for one moment a screen had dropped andrevealed to them with rare clarity the world as it was andthemselves as they were: two strangers in an accidentalplace at an unexpected time, exposed together to somethingthat inexplicably breached their anonymity, so thatthe pretense with which they daily adorned themselveswas suddenly uncalled for. It was as if, in the game everyoneplayed according to familiar rules, they were startingin new positions.
He said, "Thank you very much," his look free of arrogance,and she, glad that she had washed her hair after allbefore coming to visit her mother, said in a mild voice,"You're welcome," and turned to her car, with its toys scatteredon the back seat and its stickers on both bumpersthat read LET ANIMALS LIVE.
They got into their cars and went their separate ways.
"What's with the philosophical look?" Her husband aimeda wedge of pear at her and she opened her mouth, fishlike.Then she remembered the nursing home and took thewedge from his hand.
"I went to see my mother today." She dodged his hand,which was moving another wedge toward her mouth.
"The pears are too hard." He ignored what she said andraised the wedge level with his eyes.
"She recognized me immediately and kept pleading withme to take her home," she continued, ignoring his attemptto move the conversation away from the nursing home."But there was someone there in worse shape. A man withblue eyes. In diapers. Imagine, a man in diapers. He waslying there staring at the doorway without blinking. Hisson was there—"
"Before I forget, our daughter left a note saying she wasgoing to Semadar's after dance class."
"He was a good-looking man, if the son is any indication.Must have had lovers"—she didn't know why she saidwhat she said—"and to think that this man is lying therenow with strange women changing his diapers—" She wassilent.
"Can you picture anything more horrible than that?"
"No you can't."
"Actually it could be quite enjoyable." He dropped ontohis back, flailing his arms and legs like an infant on achanging table.
"You are so warped." But she was amazed at the wayhe'd managed to extract a laugh from her.
"That reminds me of the nurse we had in high school.Have I ever told you about the school nurse?"
"I don't remember."
"They said she was from Finland. A real beauty, like onthe cover of those noir novels, looking as if she just thatsecond got out of a warm bed, you know the type? Kind ofrosy. We used to wait for her between periods and followher down the hall. I spent whole classes daydreaming thata snake bit me and they took me to the nurse's office andshe had to take off all my clothes to find the wound. Whythis mysterious smile?"
"You should have brought the snake to school yourself."She'd forgotten about the nursing home.
"Now that's an idea."
"Since statistically speaking, the probability that a snakewould turn up at your particular school and bite you inparticular—"
"Too bad I didn't know you then. You've got such a practicalapproach."
"To make fantasies come true you have to be practical."
"This is a rule?"
"Yes. Otherwise you'd never succeed in deluding yourself."
"That means," he said carefully, "am I to understandfrom this—"
He was crossing a line that had blurred between themin the last few months. With light banter they still sometimesmanaged to imitate the old, familiar ease, but thiswas an attempt to inject something they knew for its simplicityinto what had now become complicated. Unsurewhere he was aiming the sentence, she did her best tokeep the game going and maintain the blithe tone: "Why,certainly."
"If so," he said, "might I hope that you won't fall asleepon me tonight before—"
Now she had no doubt where he was headed, and toovercome her awkwardness she surrendered to the wave ofgaiety: "Might I remind you that the carpenter was heretoday and walked off with the door because of the hingeproblem?"
"We won't let hinges get in our way."
"And where will we find a snake?" There was a momentumto affected merriment.
"I'm willing to stand in for now."
"And the Finnish nurse?"
"She must be in the nursing home herself. You can takeher place."
They kept their voices low that night, conscious of the girlsacross the hall, and pretended that everything was asusual, the way they had during the evening's amusing conversation,which recalled but did not revive something ofsubstance that they had shared until about three monthsago. Even if they could both sense other, subterranean currentsrevealing themselves in their bodies' involuntarymovements—inept liars that bodies are—they could stillpin the blame on the missing door.
And all that time—even as, with eyes half-shut, shemurmured the usual nothings in Arnon's ear—the wraithlikeold man in diapers was with them, a pale presencelying at the foot of the double bed, fixing stricken eyes onthe doorway that gaped through the darkness toward thehall, as a foul liquid trickled slowly from the gap betweenhis chalky, withered thigh and the gathered plastic edge ofthe diaper into a sticky pool around his haunches, stainingthe elegant irises outlined on the sheet.
Once, she was certain, beautiful women had lain besidehim; now he was shrinking day by day, lying motionless inthe room opposite her mother's, and soon would need aneven smaller size. She dived under the blanket, pulling theirises up to her eyes, suddenly aware that the man in thegreen jacket had also been in the room with them thewhole time, never taking his eyes off her, somberly observingher every move while considering where he might findhis father size Maxi that night.
The next day, still disturbed by the awkwardness thathad accompanied the sex with Arnon, by the memory of abody obeying like a bored but assiduous student, she satin her office confronting the images that Noa, the graphicdesigner, was stacking on her desk, saying: "Let's go withDali, Max Ernst, and Frida Kahlo—and maybe van Gogh.Those seem most suited to the subject. I'd love to put inMagritte, but they warned me not to go near him—hiswork is handled by hysterical agents who charge a fortunefor rights. So I'll do without those, much as it hurts. Lookat this one: it would be terrific with the dream about thewoman and two men in Noah's ark. A Dali landscape."
Hamutal looked carefully at the picture, her eyes sweepingpast the black islands that floated up in the distanceout of pale water, past the figures and the angel standingat the edge of a cliff, to concentrate on one stone in thewall, focusing on the marginal detail as if a camera hadbeen mounted in her pupils and was zooming in for aclose-up.
"What is it, Hamutal?"
Hamutal grasped the print with both hands, understandingsuddenly why her eyes were drawn to the stone:it was the same green as the jacket of the man who wassent to get diapers for his father.
She put the picture down slowly, aware of an urgent,certain, clamorous excitement stirring in her, aware also ofthe insistent tone in Noa's voice, asking again:
"What's going on with you, Hamutal?"
"Nothing's going on." Hamutal caught Noa's inquiringglance, remembered the nursing home, and shook herself.
At that moment the secretary's metallic voice came overthe intercom: "Sorry to bother you, Hamutal, but yourdaughter's here."
"Who?" She realized she wasn't managing very well toconceal her turmoil.
"She wants to talk to you."
Hamutal hesitated a moment, wondering whether Noa,who was now looking over the reproductions, whose eyesobserved and ears absorbed more than Hamutal intendedto convey, had picked up the shock in her voice. She apologized,then worried that she was exposing herself by apologizing,then got up and left the office. In the waiting roomshe found Hila standing and hugging her book bag to herchest as if she were trying to hide something, her rigid posturetaking the shape of a dare.
"Has something happened, Hila?"
"No disaster, if that's what you mean."
Hamutal stood facing Hila, calculating how to behavetoward her daughter with her secretary watching and Noalistening—still in her office and undoubtedly straining tohear. Though they weren't in the habit of touching, shelifted her fingers to the elbow pressed against the book bag,knowing they were both aware the gesture was artificial.
"Am I disturbing you?" Hila asked in an accusatorytone, shaking off the fingers at her elbow.
"No, no." The fingers dropped, insulted.
"They told me you were in the middle of a meeting." Theaccusation was more overt.
"I've got the graphic designer in my office." Hamutalwondered what she was being accused of. "We can windthings up quickly, though. If you wait just—"
But Hila had already pivoted toward the exit, the bookbag swinging with the momentum of the spin and slidingover her shoulder. Now it seemed to Hamutal that she wastrying to conceal her back.
"I'll see you as soon as we finish," Hamutal called afterher, as if with the force of her voice she could stop thehand reaching for the doorknob. She was aware of theattentive ears of the secretary, who was now carefullyperusing the phone book.
"`As soon as' doesn't work for me. Bye-bye." The doorslammed. Hamutal pulled herself up like a trained performer,camouflaging the pain and the anger, and strodetoward her office and Noa, waiting there. She arranged ameeting for the next day and let her go.
After that she took a couple of aspirin, put her headbetween her hands, and pressed her fingertips against hereyelids in a relaxation gesture she had practiced sincehigh-school exams.
At about age eight Hila had begun to withdraw from herfor reasons that remained unclear: she sealed herself offmore and more, said as little as possible, locked the bathroomdoor to keep her mother out, never asked anything ofher, took care not to touch. During the same period sheestablished a bond with her father, timed her return fromfriends' houses to his return from work, whispered confidences,volunteered to go with him to the garage and thebank and anywhere else he went after work. SometimesHamutal would invite herself along on their outings withthe dog, or waylay Hila when she got home early and try toengage her in conversation without Arnon around, but thegirl would dodge her, give vague answers, and shut herselfin her room, emerging only when she heard her fathercome home.
She had tried to talk to Arnon about this, but heshrugged it off with a joke. Hamutal told herself he wasjust pretending not to understand what she was trying tosay and that maybe he was right and it was better that way,since things sometimes had a way of setting themselvesstraight through some intelligence of their own, somethinginherent. She recalled a Chinese saying, that the path iswiser than those who walk it. If she left Hila alone andignored her capricious behavior, maybe things would goback to normal on their own.
Today—she pressed harder with her fingers to stop thetremor in her eyelids—a golden opportunity had happenedalong and she had failed to take it. Today Hila hadtried in her confrontational way to invite her across theboundary she had drawn between them, and Hamutalhad hesitated at the critical moment. Had Hila sensedthe undercurrents between her parents and tried to offerherself as a bridge? A malicious voice inside her retorted:Hila wasn't offering herself for any lofty purpose; she hadcome to provoke and wasn't willing to wait two secondsfor her mother to end the meeting her arrival had interrupted.She just stood there hugging her book bag—Hamutal'shead shot up in alarm: had her daughter beenannouncing unconsciously that she was pregnant?
She packed up her things in a hurry and drove home,where she found Hila sitting alone in the living room,watching a movie.
"We can talk now if you want," Hamutal said, eyeing herdaughter's belly.
"I'm in the middle of a movie." Hila showed no sign ofsurprise that her mother had come home early.
"I wanted to tell you I'm glad you came in today."
Hila hunched over toward the screen. "Could havefooled me."
"But that's the truth."
"It doesn't matter now." Hila pulled her lips taut andscrewed up the corners of her mouth.
"I can wait till the movie's over," said Hamutal, resentingher own humility.
"I have to go out after this."
"If you want to come with me to see Grandma, she'd bedelighted."
"I guess I'll pass on that."
"Just tell me, what did you want to talk about sourgently today?" Hamutal swallowed her pride.
"I got ninety in math. I wanted to brag."
"Is that all?" She knew immediately she'd made a mistake,and it was too late.
Hila took her eyes off the screen and gave her mother apiercing look.
"I mean, not `Is that all?' about the grade. Ninety inmath is really ... I mean I thought you'd come aboutsomething else altogether." But it was too late to makeamends.
"That was all," said Hila icily and moved her eyes backto the screen.
The impotence she felt at the sight of her daughter'simpervious profile gave rise to violence, and Hamutal, terrifiedof the new urge gaining in her, felt a tingling in thehand that yearned to fly off and slam itself against thetranquil cheek, to smack and smack until the storm in hersudsided.
Excerpted from A MAN and a WOMAN and a MAN by SAVYON LIEBRECHT. Copyright © 1998 by Savyon Liebrecht.
Translation copyright © 2001 Persea Books, Inc..Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.