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By Yael Hedaya, Jessica Cohen
Picador Copyright © 2001 Yael Hedaya
All rights reserved.
Dana sat waiting on a chair in the nurse's office. The nurse sat on the other side of the desk and pretended to be busy. She riffled through her papers and tried to come up with a phone call she needed to make — something that would sound important, or at least real, because she knew the girl would easily pick up on a fake call. But she had no one to phone. To avoid Dana's look, which was directed at the floor and, being lowered, seemed all the more invasive and bothersome, she picked up a pen and started scribbling.
Half an hour later, Yonatan Luria came to collect his daughter. He was dressed in faded corduroys and the brown suede jacket he had worn every winter since the girl started in first grade, all those mornings when he was called to the nurse's office. The nurse walked Dana and her father down the wide corridor leading to the school entrance and then went back to her room, where she sat down at her desk again and returned to her papers. She was not amused by what she saw, but rather a little worried; she had written Yonatan Luria over and over again, like a schoolgirl, filling up half a page.
She envied the child for her daily proximity to this man. There were times, as she sat with Dana in the room that smelled of iodine and Band-Aids, cut off from the chaos of the school, taking her temperature and pressing her tongue down with a wooden stick, when she wanted to ask her about the man who was known around school as Dana's dad but whom she preferred to think of by his name, Yonatan Luria. She couldn't fantasize about Dana's dad.
He was always polite and inquired about his daughter's health. He listened quietly when she suggested treatments and wondered whether she thought they should go to the doctor to get a prescription for some new antibiotics, or whether they could make do with the supplies they had at home. She knew what was in their medicine cabinet but wanted to know more; although she did not have the authority to prescribe a particular course of action, she always tried to find ways to prolong their conversations. Yonatan would say goodbye to her at the school entrance, placing his hand on his daughter's shoulder as she stood next to him, downcast, and add: "Well, thanks, Esti, and I hope we won't have to meet again this winter."
But the nurse knew they would, because she followed the girl during recess, in the yard or in the bustling hallways, which, during winter and with the windows closed, had a sour smell of damp bread and cheese and fruit sweating in plastic bags. Then, whenever she caught Dana sniffling or if her eyes looked suspiciously shiny, she went up to her, put her hand to the girl's forehead, and asked softly if she felt well. Sometimes the nurse also found an excuse to order her, with the same authoritative tenderness, to come and have her temperature taken. Temperatures can vary, but since in Dana's case you couldn't take any chances, she would call Yonatan without hesitation but with butterflies in her stomach. She always forgot that before he arrived to pick up his daughter, she would have to spend at least twenty minutes trapped in her office with the girl.
* * *
Dana was quiet all the way to the car. She walked behind her father, who strode quickly, as he usually did, particularly when he had been taken away from his thoughts in the middle of the morning. It was as if he believed the quick striding would salvage his severed train of thought — although Yonatan knew it had long been cut off — and prevent it from being severed again. Because the routine of phone calls from the nurse had become part of his new life, he was easily able to integrate a separate track of thoughts into the noisy lanes of his existing thoughts, practically without disturbance. He no longer bothered to slow his pace as he used to, after Nira, his dead wife's sister, had commented gently but with the superiority of someone trying to sound convinced that he was acting out of ignorance and not lack of love (either way he was hurt by her words), that he walked too fast, that he looked as if he were trying to get away from his child. To demonstrate, his sister-in-law had walked quickly back and forth across the rug in the living room. She said the last thing the girl needed was to be afraid that her father might also disappear.
Dana was ten now, and she no longer tried to make things easier for him or find things to talk about when he picked her up from school with her shivers and her runny nose and sore throat, or to placate him because of these repeated disturbances which prevented him from working and meant he could not write; she knew his writing also suffered from an illness, one that had begun before her mother died and worsened afterward. When she tried to imagine what her father was feeling when he sat at his computer in the little study between his bedroom and hers, unable to write, she thought about the cramps she got in her legs after gym class, which was boring but at the same time too exhausting to allow time for thought and so she especially hated it. The pain was a familiar one but she was not afraid of it because she knew that although it appeared gradually, it disappeared at once, and she wondered if that was what he felt too, and where he felt it — perhaps in his chest, because that was where she felt fists of pain when she cried, or when she tried not to cry. She wondered what would happen if whatever he had did not go away, either gradually or at once, because she had been seeing him sitting at his computer looking cramped for a long time now. It scared her to think he might become permanently paralyzed, like the dad of a girl in her class who had been injured in army training. But with her father it would be different, a paralysis of the spirit, worse than that of the other dad, who was a happy, funny person and volunteered to do magic tricks for the class at all sorts of events.
She didn't ask him about it, because she didn't want to worry him and didn't want him to know that she knew, because that would make him even sadder. She assumed he was aware of his condition, and sometimes she told herself encouragingly that his stillness only looked like paralysis to her; it actually involved some hidden motion that she could not detect because she was too young, and perhaps because she was his daughter and was too close to him — just like he didn't notice what she was going through — and that in fact when he was not moving, the writing was raging inside his head and that he was afraid if he moved it would all escape; he was just waiting for the right moment. But she remembered that when she was little, three or four, she would stand outside his study door and hear the rapid clicking of his keyboard, and sometimes also the wheels of his office chair moving back and forth on the floor. Her mother would tell her not to play there so she wouldn't disturb Dad while he was writing, so she learned that writing was the sound of clicking and wheels; over time her mother understood that her daughter's games involved listening to her father write, so she let her stand by the door as long as she kept quiet.
Noise of any kind drove Yonatan out of his mind, apart from the noise he himself made. In addition to the sound of his writing, there was also the noise he made when he paced restlessly around the apartment between paragraphs, listening to classical music, going in and out of his study, turning the volume up or down according to how things were going for him: High decibels meant inspiration, bad days were always quieter. The noisier he was, the more confident they were of his good mood, and that made them happy too. But her mother had often said, "People change," and that gave Dana hope that perhaps things had changed with him. The fact was that he had also started speaking more softly in recent years, and she had too, and he cooked and ate quietly, as did she; everything was done quietly. Even his driving had become quieter — he didn't curse anyone or get annoyed — so it seemed reasonable to her that the book he had started five years ago would now be written in absolute silence.
When her teachers or the parents of kids in her class asked if her dad was working on a new book, she said he was, even though she knew by their tone that they were not interested in the book but rather in how he was getting along without a wife. The nurse asked several times, while examining her, if she knew what the book was about. Was it another romantic novel like the previous two? Dana said she thought it was. The nurse said, "A writer's daughter should know what a romance is," and Dana said yes, and the nurse said, "I bet he doesn't tell anyone what he's writing about, not even you."
"He does tell me," Dana replied, and the nurse said, "Your father doesn't talk much, does he?" Dana said nothing, and the nurse smiled and said, as if to herself, "Your father protects his privacy." Dana thought about the term your father, which on the one hand didn't sound like her father at all and on the other hand described a mood that seemed to fit his condition.
He didn't tell her what he was working on and she didn't ask, because by this point, after four years, they had reached an understanding, and she was afraid to destroy it. She had once read in an advice column that when you love someone you don't ask too many questions; it must be true because he didn't ask her questions either, except for essential things. Theirs was a two-way understanding and also a dead-end road: The widower knew he could not protect his ten-year- old daughter from what she had already endured, while the worried child wanted to understand her quiet father.CHAPTER 2
Dana got into the car and fastened her seat belt. While she had been sitting in the nurse's office she had prepared a mental list of topics to think about on the way, because over the last four years she had learned to take advantage of the silences instead of fearing them. There would be at least twenty minutes before they got home, because of the traffic, and because her father always drove slowly when she was in the car, deliberately. While he turned the engine on and pumped the pedal with his foot and cleaned his sunglasses with the edge of his sweatshirt, she tried to decide what to think about first — because the first minutes of the drive were always quieter than the final ones, when subjects would come up, like what there was to eat and what was on TV, and reminders to buy juice and go to the drugstore — how she wanted to stop her piano lessons; or the Girl Scouts, which she also wanted to quit; or the slumber party she had gone to over the weekend, which was where this flu had started.
She didn't like Lilach Kahane, but when Lilach invited her to the party, she was glad they were considering letting her join the "team." The invitations were always covert, delivered by a messenger during recess, and every girl who accepted — and they all did, including the ones who were invited out of pity and knew it — was given a long and impossible list of things to bring, written by Orit Segal, Lilach's second-in-command, who sat behind Lilach in class and played with her hair and traced things on her back while she sat erect and squirmed with delight.
After Ilana's death Yonatan, who hated groups, had forced himself to be slightly more forgiving toward these childhood rituals whose significance he had long ago forgotten and had, if truth be told, never really understood. He only realized this after he was left alone with his daughter; he had never, as his mother liked to complain and cheerfully tell Dana, been "a real child." Dana wanted to know more, as if this diagnosis had something to do with her future rather than her father's past. "But what does that mean?" she asked. Her grandmother explained willingly, saying, "If you really want to know, though it's not a nice thing to say, your dad was insufferable."
Then came the questions, which Dana never tired of asking, and which Yonatan's mother, as she grew older, increasingly enjoyed answering. "Was he naughty?" His mother said no, quite the opposite. Dana would say, "What is the opposite of naughty?" and her grandmother would say there was no word for it. Dana asked if he was rude, and his mother said that sometimes he was, when he was in a bad mood, especially to his father, who put up with a lot from his son. Dana asked whether he was often in a bad mood, and her grandmother said he was born in a bad mood. Is that why her father was insufferable, Dana asked, wondering what kind of mood she had been born in. Her grandmother said, "Not just because of that — I got used to that a long time ago." Had her father been a sad boy? As Yonatan sat quietly smoking, pretending that he also enjoyed this game, his mother gave him a wink, which in recent years was starting to seem like a nervous tick, and said, "Yes, your dad was certainly sad." When Dana asked why no one tried to cheer him up, her grandmother said, "We did. We tried the whole time, but he was a lost cause." Out of the corner of her eye, Dana saw her father blowing rings of smoke into the air and smiling to himself.
When Ilana was alive, the questioning would continue later, at home. Dana always wanted to know more, while Ilana, making light of it, going about her business, would say she hadn't known Dad as a boy but she thought that Grandma was trying to say he was special.
"Special like you?" Dana asked, and Ilana said no. "Like me?" Dana asked, and Ilana, who knew how much the girl admired her father, said, Yes, special like you. Those words, which had been so pleasing at the time, now haunted her but could no longer be taken back. Dana understood that she too, like her father, was insufferable and sad, that she was special but not real, and perhaps also a lost cause.
Before the party they had sat in the kitchen and gone through the list Orit Segal had given her. Yonatan thought the pink fluorescent writing looked violent, but he kept quiet and watched his daughter mark a check next to each item. When they got to the photograph she had to bring, one of her as a baby, alone, Dana said she had chosen the one of her in a swimming pool, floating on her stomach with two inflatable wings on her arms, looking up at the camera and smiling, her hair tied up in two wet pigtails. Yonatan had taken that picture when she was three. They had gone to visit Ilana's parents in New Jersey, where Nira and Ilana had been born. Maxine and Gerry had returned to New Jersey after a failed immigration attempt that had lasted eighteen years and left them with a hatred of Israel, leaving behind their two daughters, who were in their twenties at the time, one married and the other single, a student in East Asian studies.
Yonatan said it really was a good picture and asked if she would get it back after the slumber party or the entrance exam or whatever they called it, and regretted his cynicism immediately. Dana said she didn't know, she hadn't asked. To change the subject (because he could see the picture business was starting to trouble her), he asked what she would give the girls for the gift she was obliged to bring for every invitee. That morning he had given her fifteen shekels to go to the toy shop on King George Street after school to buy each girl — all of whom he hated by now — a small present, "but not a token," as Orit Segal had instructed.
Dana ran to her room and came back with a plastic bag and emptied its contents onto the table. She arranged the little items in a row, pointed to each of them, and told him how much it had cost and whom it was for. Knowing she would be happy to explain, he asked her why this particular item was for that particular girl, although the gifts looked identical to him in their plastic cheapness, and they seemed very much like tokens to him. Dana described the different girls' personalities, and he listened, amused by her insights as he recognized in them his own cynicism. But he was also worried; the eight girls now appeared to him as a field of land mines that his daughter had no chance of surviving intact, particularly Lilach and Orit, whose gifts were larger than the others', and more expensive.
Excerpted from Accidents by Yael Hedaya, Jessica Cohen. Copyright © 2001 Yael Hedaya. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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