My father-in-law was an accomplished photographer. From amazing black and whites, to slides, to macro photography, he did it all. He knew how to take advantage of the light, how to frame his subjects, how to hide or enhance certain features of his work. He took pictures his entire life, and collected thousands upon thousands of photographs and slides.
Like most members of our family, he was an immigrant. He was born in Romania. Later he immigrated to Israel with my mother-in-law, where they lived several decades, and, toward the end of his life, they shuttled between Israel and the United States, to spend time with their daughter and I. When he died, we had the unpleasant task of closing down his apartment in Israel. There was a lot of stuff.
Of course, the biggest problem we had was to decide what to do with his photographs and slides. Are somebody else’s memories your own? Can they ever be? Do they have any meaning to you?
Herr Octavian is inspired from these events. When I started writing it, I thought it would be quick – ten typed pages, the most – but thoughts and feelings kept coming to me.
Please review the excerpt I’m posting, and let me know what you think.
It was afternoon when they touched down at the Ben Gurion Airport, but to Michael it felt like early morning. In fact, for him, it was early morning. They had embarked for the eleven-hour flight out of Newark the previous night, and it was now only seven A.M. on the east coast of the United States.
Next to him, Larissa was busy with her little hand mirror. She seemed surprisingly focused after the sleepless night, and, while the aircraft was taxiing to the gate, she applied her lipstick and her eye liner, filed a nail that had started bothering her during the flight, and combed her hair. When they married twenty-three years ago in Bucharest, her hair had been perfectly straight and black. It was wavy now and dark brown. Michael liked it. Larissa was a beautiful woman, a little fuller now than she had looked in her wedding gown, and more self assured. The passionate tension that had existed in their early years had been replaced by a satisfied coexistence. They knew each other. Sometimes after sex, she turned silently away, and he marveled at the appealing line of her back: the soft roundness of her shoulders and the pronounced dip where her narrowing waist met the lazy oval of her hips. Nature had given woman this perfect shape, and this one was his. He’d pull closer to her, bring his lips to her shoulder blades, and touch her dark brown hair with his fingers.
“We’re here,” Michael said looking outside, able to see the airway inching toward the plane. He sighed, knowing that the days ahead would be difficult.
“I’ll stand up now, stretch,” Larissa said and gave him a comforting smile. She shoved her book and Time Magazine into her shoulder bag.
Michael was happy to have Larissa with him. The previous time he traveled to Israel several months ago, he was alone. He went to bring his aging mother and stepfather with him permanently to the States, and place them in the upscale nursing home he had waiting for them. For the entire duration of that trip his mother had kept silent, while his stepfather had succeeded in making everybody around him, and especially Michael, feel guilty.
That trip had also been difficult.
Michael’s mother’s name was Tina. His stepfather’s name was Octavian, but most people called him Tavi. Michael knew that his stepfather’s name was of Roman origin. He considered it pompous and not very appropriate. In his mind, Tina and Tavi were a contrived combination. He had been only seven years old and lived in Bucharest, when Tavi had suddenly appeared in his life, and from the very beginning Michael had felt conflicted over him. While growing up, he treated Tavi with indifference, sometimes mixed with an embarrassed discomfort; and he had never addressed him as ‘father’ – just Tavi, like everybody else around them.
Later in life, after getting married to Larissa, moving to America, and starting a family of his own, Michael allowed his feelings toward Tavi to become controlled by a sense of duty, like a quid pro quo or a recognition of the man who had provided for him as a child and had stood by his mother. Unavoidably, he found out many facts and details about his family and his stepfather.
For instance he knew that Tavi was a Sephardic Jew whose grandparents came to Bucharest from Seville at the end of the nineteenth century. He knew that Tavi grew up in a small house on Clarinet Street, not too far from the Old Jewish Quarter. Tavi’s father, who was an insurance salesman, bought the house as a young man, and died soon after of a heart attack. Tavi and his sister, Edith, were raised by their mother who had never remarried.
Michael learned that his own mother belonged to an Ashkenazi family who settled in Southern Bucovina in a town called Campul Lung, on the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at a time when the area was friendly and relatively prosperous. She had a large family with six brothers and sisters. Palestine was a world far removed. During their frequent and enjoyable gatherings, the thought that their peaceful existence would suddenly change never came up. Then World War II started and Tina was deported to Transnistria, along with her family and most of the Jewish population from the area. Her mother and grandmother died of exhaustion.
When Tavi was nineteen, at the start of World War II, he was beaten for his Zionistic views on the steps of the Polytechnic Institute in Bucharest by pro-Nazi youth. He was rounded up a few months later and sent to a labor center for Jewish men, who fixed roads and dug trenches for a country at war. Given his meticulous nature and knack for technical things, Tavi was eventually transferred to a munitions depot that supplied the Romanian army with bayonets, hand grenades, and gun powder. He returned every night to his home on Clarinet Street, and considered himself lucky. Edith joined the underground Communist Party.
After the war Tavi completed his engineering studies and quickly married a vigorous brunette who lived in the neighborhood. While he went on assignment to various new construction sites that had sprung up all over Romania, his wife cheated on him, and they divorced several years later.
After the war Tina went to Bucharest to study chemistry. In Transnistria, her life, and the lives of some of her family members, had been saved by the advancing Soviet Army. Upon return to Romania, she, too, joined the Communist Party. While attending the University she met Michael’s natural father, a charming young Jewish man and a rising star in the party hierarchy. They got married and the party rewarded them with an apartment that occupied the main floor of a beautiful villa on a lake, in an area of Bucharest reserved for the party elite. Michael was born. When he turned four years old, his father was sent on assignment to the Soviet Union, where he disappeared and was presumed dead. Such tragedies were common in the mid-fifties’ Romania and Soviet Union. People did what they could to go on with their lives. Tina seemed no different.
After she married Tavi, they had to vacate the villa – she no longer belonged to the higher echelon of the worker’s society.
As a child, Michael had often visited the house on Clarinet Street and had met Edith. Tavi and his sister were as different as night and day. Tavi was laconic and perpetually concerned; Edith was talkative. He was short for a man and rather stocky; she was tall for a woman, slender, and big chested. Tavi was comfortable with mundane topics and organic chemistry; she had studied Latin, read literature and spoke several languages. He was on his second marriage; she lived alone and would eventually die in the house she was born in.
On Michael’s eighth birthday, Tavi got him a second-hand bicycle advertised in the classified section of a Bucharest daily. The bicycle had a shiny frame, a soft brown saddle, white rimmed wheels, and had been brought over by a diplomat from Czechoslovakia. Tavi cleaned it, brought it secretly upstairs and placed it in the living room against the commode. The he called Michael.
“I bought this for you,” he said. “Do you like it?”
The boy nodded and looked at his mother. She nodded also.
“Take it. It’s yours,” said Tavi. “But first give me a kiss.”
Michael looked down, approached the bicycle, grabbed its chromed handlebars, and silently wheeled it out of the living room.
That year they spent their first summer vacation as a family in a fishermen’s village on the Black Sea. Tavi took up photography.
During the hot and endless afternoons, while Tina and Michael rested in their rented room, read, or shopped for dinner, Tavi wandered the almost deserted village streets and the sandy beaches searching for exciting and original subjects that he captured inside the black soul of his Russian-made camera: the mud huts, the fountains, the exploding light, the breaking surf, the crabs, and the dried-out rolling thistles. One day he photographed an unsuspecting young woman basking in the sun, and another day he walked all the way to the nudist colony close to the border with Bulgaria. He was wearing a pair of baggy brown shorts, and from a distance his slightly protruding belly on thin white legs made him look like a spider. His head was wrapped in a pirate’s red scarf. He was balding.
In time, Tavi perfected his skills with the camera. He converted a closet in their state-issued two-bedroom apartment into a dark room and started developing his own work. He learned to play with light and shadow and started performing darkroom tricks: in one picture a female acquaintance sat on a sofa holding in her voluptuous lap the decapitated head of her husband; in another, Tavi photographed himself in a mirror. He took snapshots of rising steam and through layers of water; he blurred contours, changed shapes, and displayed naked women in sepia. The more he improved, the more he shared his collections of nudes at dinner parties.
For a while Tavi worked in a chocolate factory and then at the Ministry of Heavy Industry. As he grew professionally, he was reminded by his superiors of the need to brush off his political pedigree, give up his Zionistic ideas and join the Communist Party. He resisted.
On Michael’s eighteenth birthday, he announced he had decided they would emigrate to Israel. Tina gasped. By that time, she had already retreated into her state of almost perpetual silence and lack of emotional display. Given the circumstances her reaction was powerful. Any attempts to leave Romania, or the stated desire to do so, were frowned upon by the communist government, and often prosecuted.
Michael protested: he had a social life of his own and was in love with Larissa.
“You are betraying your country and my deepest beliefs,” Edith said with conviction.
“I’ve made up my mind,” Tavi answered.
Michael stood in the narrow aisle behind Larissa, waiting for the passengers to start moving. Before long they would be walking along the sun drenched arrival concourse toward the luggage carousel. On the other side of Customs, Irene and her husband, Baruch, would be waiting.
Irene was Michael’s cousin, his mother’s sister’s daughter, his closest relative alive besides his mother, three years older than him, strong and voluntary. She did everything with gusto: eating, drinking, defending Israel in political discussions, working, going to bat for her family. Her body showed the wear and tear of a life without rest, and her clothes, although of good quality, somehow did not fit well together. Her face was luminous, and in it Michael found a strong resemblance to Tina, a core of features that had stayed the same through bloodlines and generations. He felt close to her, and, whenever in Israel, under her protection. Often he wondered how Tina and Irene could look so alike and act so differently. He remembered his mother, even in her young age, being always placid, indifferent. Tired was her favorite word, for anybody asking. Once Michael couldn’t help it and made a comment to Irene, to which she responded:
“Don’t forget what Tina had to go through when you were little and your dad disappeared,” Irene had told him.
“But she remarried,” Michael said.
“Do you think that was easy?”
Michael himself had taken after his lost father. He was tall and slender, with strong masculine features, aquiline nose, dark eyes, and straight hair that used to be brown and was now graying slightly. Tina had told him his father was always calm and reserved, and Michael tried hard to behave in that manner. His maintained cordial relationships with most people, and lately, with Tavi. Michael knew his stepfather had never managed to fulfill the role his true father had abandoned. While he regretted it, he also took pride in it, as proof that he didn’t need anything from the others. Since he was a little boy, Michael felt that Tavi tried to purchase his love, not earn it, and he always remembered the bicycle
Yet he acquired one thing from Tavi – the love of photography.
The next morning they had breakfast with Irene and Baruch at their house outside Tel Aviv, on a shaded patio that overlooked their small garden. An underground sprinkler system sent water jets in a rotating pattern, droplets disintegrating in the warm air and forming thin, disappearing rainbows against the sun light. A flowerbed edged the patio. A tall brick wall ran across the back, separating this garden from the one next door. The wall was overtaken by ivy. Young palm trees grew in front of it. Everywhere else the ground was covered by grass that was dark green and vigorous, yet somehow less perfect than Michael’s lawn in America.
Toughness seemed to define the plants in this garden.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Larissa said, sipping her coffee.
Irene nodded. “You’ll figure it out, and we’re here to help you.”
“You’ve seen the apartment,” said Michael. “It’s cluttered.”
“No. Clutter is not the right word. What’s clutter to you was a lifetime to your parents.” Irene looked at him with the eyes of his mother.
“How long have they lived there?” Baruch asked.
“Half a year, maybe,” Michael answered. “It was the move into their new apartment that did it. I have no idea why he decided to move, but it was too much for them. From that point in time, things have only deteriorated.”
“Moving is hard for old people,” Baruch said. He looked at Irene and smiled. “That much I can tell you…”
They weren’t moving anywhere, but Baruch was older than Irene by about twelve years and somehow he never failed to remind people of it. He was a small man; or perhaps not small, but delicate, and looked tinier when he stood near his wife, although he was taller than her and had broader shoulders. He was a doctor. He was well read, intelligent, and Michael listened to his opinions.
“I should have known when Tavi called us from Israel,” Michael exclaimed. “I should have said no to him, right then and there.”
He remembered the moment clearly – Tavi’s forceful and almost angry voice over the international wire, the crackling background sound, the pauses, the echo. “The apartment has an open kitchen, just like your house in America,” Tavi told him. “And it’s new, Michael, new and clean. You’d like it.”
“He found two dead cockroaches in the kitchen,” Michael said now, first looking at the flowerbed at the edge of the patio, then raising his eyes straight at Baruch. “That was the end of it. He decided he couldn’t live in the old place any longer. The neighbors were savages, the staircase dirty, the building administrator corrupt and lazy. They lived there for thirty years and it had been OK until that very moment, but not any longer. Oh, I should have seen it for what it was: his mind slipping. I should have said no, you stay put, you’re not moving anywhere. But I didn’t. I don’t know if I didn’t realize what was wrong with him – with them – or if I didn’t want to admit.”
“Stop blaming yourself,” Baruch said. “You couldn’t have done anything and he wouldn’t have listened. He’s been his own stubborn man all his life. Besides, if they didn’t move, do you imagine they’d have stayed young and vigorous?”
It seemed strange to Michael to be enjoying his breakfast in this sun-drenched garden and be talking about his parents like about a lost cause or entity. There was no malicious intent to the conversation, but no sadness either – just the philosophical, almost magnanimous recognition of something unavoidable. He had talked about them in a similar fashion with his American friends, and, of course, with Larissa, but having the discussion in Israel, the country they had made their own, seemed more difficult to him, more affecting. It was almost as if in coming to dismantle their apartment, Michael had hoped to discover a miracle about his parents that would explain or resolve everything, and as if, suddenly, the miracle wasn’t happening. Yet he knew life held no miracles. And he knew that Israel was his country, too – a country he had adopted as a young man after he had left, willingly or otherwise, his country of birth, Romania. He had later left Israel to go to America and he could explain the reason for it: because Larissa had wanted it. But Israel had remained a familiar country to him, a country he was comfortable in, a country he even loved. And he needed it in order to understand his parents, and, to a large degree, to understand himself. In that sense coming to Israel was nice even under these circumstances, because it made him feel like descending into his past, when his parents were active and healthy, and even like returning to his childhood in Romania. Because Israel was a little like Romania, at least to him: it was a small place with many Romanian Israelis who still spoke the language, stayed in touch, discussed Romanian politics, shared memories, and cooked the old Romanian dishes. By contrast, America had been to Michael like a summer storm at the ocean that erases all the footprints in the sand and replenishes the beaches. He could still remember a few faces from his childhood, the apartment building he grew up in, and the language – poetry he had to memorize in middle school. But his value system had changed, as had his worldview and understanding.
“Tell me,” Baruch said, “how long have they lived in the previous apartment?”
“Over thirty years,” Michael answered thinking that Baruch should have known since he had immigrated to Israel from Romania approximately at the same time as Michael and his parents. He had met Irene in Israel, married her, and met Michael’s parents.
“Yes, right,” Baruch said. “That was in the early seventies. When your parents arrived they were already in their forties, and I’m sure that getting used to the Israeli way of life had been for them a mixed blessing.”
Baruch was right. Michael remembered the early days, first as newcomers at the Hebrew school, or ulpan, and then in a small rented apartment. A few months later Michael went to live on the university campus. While he found his new life exciting, his parents were tormented, frustrated. Hebrew was difficult and they couldn’t find work. They were getting limited financial help from the state, but seemed misplaced, lost, even scared. The days were too hot for them, the streets too noisy, and the choices they had to make disorienting.
Even photography was different – they used color in Israel.
Eventually Tavi started working as a technician at a refinery in the Gulf of Haifa, and Tina found a job at a chemical plant not too far from her husband.
After several years they purchased the three-bedroom apartment in Nahariya where they lived until recently. Michael visited them on weekends. The apartment was on the fifth floor, in a building not too far from the Mediterranean. Over the red tiled roofs to the north, on clear days Michael could see Roch Ha’Niqra from their balcony shimmer white against the vaporous Lebanese border.
At times of war, and sometimes during peacetime, katyusha rockets fell from the north on Nahariya.
Tavi bought a Peugeot and took driving lessons. He acquired the skills, but never learned to relax or enjoy his new means of transportation. He washed his car every Friday, polished the dashboard, and changed the oil with clockwork precision. Michael found this laughable. Tavi worried. The neighborhood was full of young immigrants from Russia, Georgia, Morocco. Two blocks away lived the Arabs. At night, he covered his car with a tarp and inspected it carefully every morning. He drove like an old man, scrunched behind the wheel, eyes squinting.
After graduation, Michael returned to Bucharest to marry Larissa. Together they set out for America.
Michael started corresponding with his parents. Phone calls, at the time, were expensive. He started by writing once a week, then once a month, then only on occasions. Tavi wrote back, longer letters than Tina. His handwriting was cursive and surprisingly orderly. He related much of their day-to-day life and used humor occasionally. He embellished his letters with simplistic and sometimes silly doodles and sketches.
From one letter Michael learned that his stepfather had received a promotion; from another that he had became head of engineering. Tina’s pay increased also. With more money to spend, their life seemed more manageable.
Tina’s large family had moved from Romania to Israel – sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles. Tavi was alone in the world, except his sister in Bucharest.
Most mornings Tavi dropped Tina off at her job, then drove himself to work and spent the next ten to twelve hours there. They were both tired in the evenings. They labored six days a week every week and entertained Tina’s relatives and a handful of friends on the Shabbat. They ate ready-made foods from the supermarket. Sometimes they drove to Haifa and Tel Aviv; rarely they took walks by the seaside.
One day a piece of shrapnel hit their balcony.
Michael’s son was born in America, then his first daughter, the second. Tavi and Tina packed their bags and came to the US for a vacation. Tavi photographed the grandchildren.
In 1989 the Communist regime was overthrown in Romania. Edith was alone and sickly. Tavi visited her and stayed with her in his parents’ old house, which he found overstuffed and dirty. Upon return he started sending her money.
When the time came, they had a nice retirement party for Tavi at the refinery, and sent him away with a cash bonus, a gold watch and a world atlas. He wrote to Michael that he had suddenly felt part of a larger community; that he thought of himself for the first time as belonging.
He continued to drive Tina to work, and in his spare time he took pictures. He photographed merchants and merchandise at the market, flowers in bloom, the sunset over the Mediterranean. An almost dried-out river ran through the middle of the main thoroughfare in Nahariya, and Tavi walked along it in the shade of the plane trees, talking to locals and storeowners. The locals called the river ‘Little Volga.’ The streets didn’t seem noisy anymore to Tavi, and the choices predictable.
He wrote to Michael that most days he ate lunch alone at his kitchen table. He had fresh salads, toasted bread, cold cuts and Swiss cheese.
Michael remembered Tavi’s Swiss cheese sandwiches. He would butter the toast, lay a slice of cheese on top and fill the wholes with matching small cut-outs from another piece. Especially now, Tavi had no reason to hurry.
There was a small olive grove near the parking lot where Tavi waited for Tina to return from work every evening. Once he found on the ground a large V-shaped olive branch that looked like the crotch of a woman. He placed it in the trunk of his Peugeot, cleaned it up the next day, waxed it, and made a stand for it. In the following days he picked up more branches, more pieces of wood, oddly-shaped rocks, shells, shards polished by sand and water, shrapnel. Over time he filled up the living room, the balcony, the bedroom, and his study with assemblies and silhouettes. He referred to these objects as his children, his sculptures, creations. They looked like injured giraffes, like monkeys, lizards, old people. He considered himself gifted – Picasso, Giacometti.
Michael saw them during his visits to Israel. He thought the apartment started looking like an overgrown garden.
Tavi’s friends rewarded him with smiles; Tina didn’t say anything – she was weary.
When Tina retired Tavi convinced her to travel. On their way to America they stopped
in different places in Europe. He dragged her to visit cathedrals, churches and synagogues; he showed her the tulips in Holland, got her a beer at Tivoli. They paid their respect at Auschwitz and Dachau. They went to Dubrovnik. The more they traveled, the more Tavi photographed and collected memorabilia. His letter got longer and fuller, with drawings and details. His energies exploded at home when he turned his pictures into slides – when he classified them, numbered them, dated them, wrote explanatory captions on them in black marker. He tried to make his explanations funny, and sometimes he succeeded. He arranged the albums by subject matter and geographic origin, framed the postcards, built new shelves for his trinkets and ornaments. He placed his slides in indestructible metal boxes with clearly marked labels and decorated the spaces around them with his sculpted branches.
Yet Tavi’s most treasured acquisition had nothing to do with his travels. It was a thick olive trunk, almost a meter tall, he had found on the bank of Little Volga. The hard wood looked mellow and possessed the tired curvature of an old man’s torso. Split at the bottom, it could stand on its own, resting on two twisted stubs like the hind legs of a rat terrier. Tavi placed it in the foyer and made it his alter ego: Octavian, he called it…Herr Octavian.
When Edith died, he went back to Bucharest and spent several weeks there. He felt horrified at the misery he found in the house, the broken plumbing, the spider webs, the darkness. He felt guilty that he had left her behind and imagined her last days alone, sick and unable to struggle. If he’d only been more generous with his sporadic allowances, she’d have been able to hire help, cope better. Then he discovered all the money he had sent her over the years in a wad of cash in the drawer of the old kitchen table. He cried. He got a grip of himself. Aside of a few family heirlooms, he threw most of the stuff away and donated whatever had any redeeming value. Raw capitalism was blooming again in Bucharest, and he managed to sell his parents’ house for a good price, transfer the funds to Israel, and then to Michael in America.
More years went by; Tina and Tavi got older. They still traveled at least once a year to visit the grandchildren, stayed over for longer periods of time, and reduced their visits to Europe. The maid from Ethiopia who used to come in the past twice a month, started coming more often. She dusted and vacuumed, but she also cooked for them and did most of their everyday shopping. Tavi seldom drove anymore, and their apartment lost its luster. The caulking turned black in the bathtub, tiles became loose in the foyer. The galvanized railing of their small service balcony, where they hung their laundry to dry in the sun, became stained with white pigeon droppings. Dust accumulated on almost every high horizontal surface.
One day, Tavi found two dead cockroaches in the kitchen.
A spot on the highway between Haifa and Tel Aviv had impressed Michael thirty years earlier when he first arrived in Israel and started his life as a student. He had never seen a multi-lane highway before, and in that spot the lanes were carved through a rock at the edge of the Mediterranean. Seen from the speed of a traveling bus, the straight walls of the rock on both sides possessed the silkiness of the desert. The bus was clean, every passenger had a seat, and the driver seemed a gentleman. In his previous life in the workers’ paradise, the bus drivers looked proletarian. In that spot, young Michael saw the unity of the universe, mountains and sea coming together, sunshine, and the sparkle of civilization. He was longing for Larissa, the girl he had left behind. He wanted to return to her, bring her here and show her this spot, then go and explore the world together with her. A few years later he did, and since then they have been together. They traveled. They saw the seas and the mountains: the Norwegian fiords, the Pacific Coast Highway, the narrow road in Amalfi. Since then many things changed and now, as he drove through that area again, the rock looked to him sadly barren.
Soon, the city of Haifa appeared to the east: first the University building on top of the tallest hill, then the winding road to Carmel and the hotels in the harbor area. They passed the old German quarter and caught a glimpse of the golden domed Baha’i shrine. Traffic grew to a crawl among warehouses, gas stations, office buildings, and dilapidated minarets and old Arab houses. At Check Point, Michael took the old road to Akko.
“You still remember your way around here,” Irene noted.
“I used to live in this area.”
In Nahariya, they rode a few hundred yards along the main thoroughfare and turned right at a side street with a supermarket at the corner. His parents’ apartment building stood on the left. There was a fenced in parking lot on three sides, with the fourth occupied by two large green dumpsters. A barrier on a post with a small push button panel blocked the car entrance.
“I’ll go ring the Bernsteins,” Irene said. “They know you’re coming.”
When she retuned with Mrs. Bernstein, Michael and Larissa stepped out of the car.
“Oh, Michael!” Mrs. Bernstein exclaimed. “What a joy to see you! How is dearest Tina? How is Tavi? Tell me, are they doing all right? Such wonderful people. Just this morning I was talking to Bébé and realized that it’s been four months since their departure.” Bébé was what she called her husband. The brown housecoat she was wearing seemed worn in the bright sunlight and a pale yellow kerchief kept her thinning white hair off her forehead. “And this must be your lovely wife, Larissa,” Mrs. Bernstein continued. “So happy to finally meet you. Michael had told us so much about you. He loves so much, you know. Oh, but we need to talk. All of you, you must come over for dinner. Bébé is so excited.”
“Mrs. Bernstein,” Irene said, “there is time. As I told you, they’ll be here for several days emptying the apartment.”
“Yes, and it’s sad. Because it is irreversible.”
“My parents are happy now,” Michael said. “They are in a home where they receive very good care.”
“My God,” Mrs. Bernstein said, “you mean, in a home for old people?”
“Yes,” Irene said. “But they are in America, so no need to worry.”
“I hope you’re right,” Mrs. Bernstein uttered.
“It’s really nice where they are,” Michael affirmed softly, as if mostly to convince himself. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have placed them there.” For a fraction of a second the dark colors of the carpet that covered the hallway of his parents’ nursing home appeared in front of his eyes, filling him with a guilty sadness. “You go in,” he said, “and I’ll park the car and bring up the luggage.”
Michael came in through the foyer and entered the living room, which was empty. He could hear women’s voices coming from the bedrooms: they were looking around, planning. He rested the suitcases against the kitchen counter, retrieved his digital camera and went back to the foyer. Herr Octavian stood alone in a corner. Michael touched it on its wooden head and greeted it aloud as one would greet a real person.
A slight pain went through his chest, a contraction.
“This is it,” he said to Herr Octavian. “The end of a chapter.” He snapped a few pictures and the flash cut though the semi-darkness. The air was warm and stuffy, as he’d expect in an apartment locked for several months.
Back in the living room, he pulled the sliding door to the balcony open. A set of outdoor furniture, including the tied down umbrella, was exposed to the mid-day sun. Behind Michael, the living room, the dining area and the open kitchen formed one large and bright space that continued with a corridor to the master bedroom, the guest room, the two full bathrooms, the utility room with its service balcony, and the obligatory Israeli shelter. That one Tavi had outfitted with a pull-out sofa, a desk, and shelves all the way to the ceiling. There were modern oil paintings on the white-washed walls of the living room and the corridor, and every corner and the top of every piece of furniture was decorated with clusters of Tavi’s sculpted branches. The living room sofa and the two armchairs were covered by white cotton sheets, which Michael had placed before his last departure. Two brown cupboards filled with china and silverware stood along the wall, next to a teak dining room table and six chairs. The kitchen was well equipped, but the refrigerator and pantry were empty. A film of white dust covered everything.
Irene and Larissa came out of the master bedroom.
“Michael, you’re here,” Larissa said. “There’s so much stuff everywhere, I don’t know how we’ll manage.”
“You’ll manage.” Irene placed her protective hand on Larissa’s shoulder.
“We need to go shopping, serious shopping,” Larissa continued. She looked at Michael and smiled. “I know, you’d think that the last thing we want is more things, but there is no food in the house, nothing to drink, no detergents. There is no soap in the bathrooms.”
After shopping, they drove half a mile west to the end of the main thoroughfare. Little Volga ran into the sea forming a small estuary of brown water protected by a jetty. A sandy triangular beach extended on both sides. They parked near an open air restaurant and followed a promenade to the left along the sea shore. A number of new apartment buildings shone in the late afternoon sun. The sound of waves mixed with the that of steps, children’s laughter and music from portable cassette players. There were people everywhere and they spoke many languages. The sun parted the sea with a golden swath that trembled on the water surface.
The following days, Michael and Larissa spent most of their time inside the apartment. They cleaned and they organized. They sorted. Larissa started by working her way from the kitchen to the living room and master bedroom. Michael worked in the shelter.
There were several piles of items: those destined for America, those to be given away, those to be further looked at and evaluated, and the rubbish. The ones be given away were in turn subdivided: Irene and Baruch, the Bernsteins, the neighbors, and other people they knew in Israel.
The paintings came off the walls and out of their frames with non-glare glass, and were placed in a leather portfolio. Towels and linen got washed and hung out to dry on the service balcony.
One thing neither of them touched: Tavi’s sculptures.
The weather was hot and the wall air conditioner of little help, especially in the shelter. Michael sat at the desk, trying to move as little as possible. He leafed through art albums and reorganized books by subject matter and potential recipient. When he looked at the boxes of slides he shrugged his shoulders. A few times a day, he filled plastic bags with stuff, took it to the elevator and down to the dumpsters. Outside, beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
By the second day, the first dumpster was full.
Irene called and gave them the name of a real estate agent. It turned out that the man didn’t speak any English and Michael had to use whatever Hebrew he remembered. The agent visited the apartment together with a young woman who worked as his helper. Together they inspected the appliances, opened the doors to every closet, measured the length and width of the rooms and checked the view from the balcony. When they finished, the agent told Michael that times were tough in Israel and it would take a while to sell the apartment. They talked about renting the place, and the agent nodded profusely.
One evening they dined with the Bernsteins. The apartment, although of the same size as Tavi’s and located directly underneath, seemed smaller, more crowded. The furniture was bulkier and a wall separated the kitchen from the dining and living areas. Michael asked permission to take a few pictures.
“All units have a wall to the kitchen, except yours,” Mrs. Bernstein said. “Tavi negotiated with the contractor to have the wall eliminated. That’s how it is in America, he used to tell everybody. He wanted to emulate your way of life, Michael, because he missed you.”
Michael had never thought that Tavi felt that way. Instead of responding he clicked at his camera.
“Our son, who’s a doctor,” Mrs. Bernstein said, “has been many times to America. He has told us of the beautiful open homes you have there.”
“I prefer a separate kitchen,” chimed in Mr. Bernstein. “I don’t like the smells and the heat of cooking to linger in the apartment.”
“But you like to eat what I make for you, don’t you Bébé?” Mrs. Bernstein’s lips formed a coy smile.
She served Romanian food, heavy on meat and potatoes. For dessert she prepared blintzes with apricot preserves and cream. She offered coffee.
Sitting across the table from Michel, Larissa was hardly participating in the conversation. Michael wondered if she was bored. She was shy and didn’t easily open up, especially to people she had just met. To him, the Bernsteins were no strangers – he had known them for years.
Mrs. Bernstein asked Larissa how things were going and before waiting for her to respond, she suggested they held an open house for the people in the apartment building. The people would come, look at things, and take what they wanted.
Larissa liked the idea and Michael complained he didn’t know what to do with Tavi’s slide collection. “He has slides from all over the world, many on Jewish subjects. He’s put so much passion into photography.”
“We know,” Mrs. Bernstein said. “Every time they came back from a trips, they would invite us over and show us the pictures. I remember the one with the glass windows by Chagall. They were beautiful.”
“There are thousands of them,” said Larissa.
“We can’t take them home with us,” Michael said. “I mean, not all of them. What would we do with them over there?”
“It’s sad, but people don’t need other people’s memories,” Mr. Bernstein said. “You have no choice but to throw them away.”
“I’m not sure I can do it,” said Michael.
“Of course you can’t,” Mrs. Bernstein exclaimed. “A collection like this is too valuable. Donate it. Bébé, don’t you think they could try at the library?”
“I don’t think so,” Mr. Bernstein said. He had a stern face, not looking at all like a man who’s nickname was Bébé.
“Try,” Mrs. Bernstein insisted. “Or if not, try the high schools. I’m sure the high schools would be interested for the benefit of the children.”
“Michael, do you know Mrs. Goldblum?” Mr. Bernstein asked.
“Yes. She was friends with your parents.”
“I remember her,” Michael said. “Her son went to live in Toronto.”
“And forgot that he has an old mother who lives alone,” Mrs. Bernstein said rolling her eyes. “He doesn’t write her at all, and he doesn’t visit. You should see the poor woman, so lonely in her old age. We are lucky with our children. They are nice, like you are, and we see them almost weekly. They live in Tel Aviv but they visit.” Mrs. Bernstein touched her husband’s arm. “Aren’t we lucky, Bébé?”
“Michael, did I tell you our son is a doctor?” Mrs. Bernstein asked. “He has a busy life and two children.”
“Michael,” Mr. Bernstein said. “Could you do Felicia a favor?”
“Depends on the favor,” Michael said.
“You know the two armchairs you have in the living room? You’re not going to sell them, are you?”
“Bébé!” Mrs. Bernstein said.
“Let me speak,” Mr. Bernstein replied while Mrs. Bernstein started clearing the table. “Felicia needs an armchair; two, if at all possible. You know, she survives on a very small pension, and it will be in the name of your parents. If they were over here, they’d be happy to the armchairs to her, I am certain.”
Felicia Goldblum rang their bell at eight the next morning. Michael was shaving. Larissa invited her in and offered her coffee.
When Michael joined them, the first thing he said was that Felicia could take the armchairs. He was in a hurry. He and Larissa had decided to have the open house in the afternoon and had a lot to prepare.
Felicia clasped her hands in surprise. She got up, looked at the armchairs, smiled, circled them, and caressed them fondly. If Michael hadn’t known otherwise, he would have thought she’d just heard they were in town and stopped in to say hi. She seemed that kind of a person: small and coy, with soft and insecure gestures. Almost immediately she started talking affectionately about Michael’s parents.
After a second cup of coffee, she turned to weather. It was hot in Israel all the time, or it rained cats and dogs in the winter. They, of course, had it nice in this apartment, they had air conditioning. She asked about life in the United States, brought up Canada, and lamented over her son in Toronto. Her face, many years before, had been beautiful. It was wrinkled now, round, parchment colored.
“Life is difficult there,” she said. “I mean, in Toronto. I haven’t visited, but I know that my son is very busy. And his wife, well, his wife, she is grabbing all his attention. People say otherwise, but I understand. I know better.” White hair fell on her forehead, and her expression reflected conviction. Life’s a serious endeavor, she seemed to be saying. Don’t get fooled and don’t take it too easily.
Michael realized she was stalling. He figured she’d keep talking unless he offered to transport her furniture. After all, she alone couldn’t do it. She didn’t drive and couldn’t afford to pay anybody. “Let me bring the armchairs to your apartment,” he said suddenly. “They’ll fit in my car, I believe. One at a time, I’m sure.”
“Michael, sweetheart,” Felicia responded.
An hour later Michael brought the second armchair up the stairs and into Felicia’s living room. The air conditioner was off, or there was none, and the shades were pulled over the windows. Once the armchairs were arranged, Michael grabbed his digital camera and shot a few pictures. Just like that, for memory. His flash illuminated the rest of the room. Felicia thanked him again and insisted he tried the baklava she had made the previous evening. He wiped the sweat off his face and mumbled something about being in a hurry and Larissa waiting, but he was unable to refuse her. They went to the kitchen, and he sat at a table squeezed between the stove and the refrigerator. There was light in the kitchen.
Felicia moved around quickly. She took a flat cake platter out of the refrigerator, removed the plastic wrap, lifted two pieces soaked in thick honey with a spatula and placed them on a white plate. She handed the plate to Michael.
“No lunch today,” Michael joked. His mouth was watering.
She rummaged through a drawer and picked up a small fork. “Here, take this. It’s silver, and it belonged to my grandmother.”
The fork was slightly crooked and worn around the tip from too much use, and its etched handle was blackened.
Michel took a first bite and the sweetness choked him.
“I know it’s not easy for you,” said Felicia. “You’re a good son and people admire you for what you did for your parents, for what you’re doing for them, God bless you. Not many children would do it. Your parents are lucky. You’re lucky. And your wife is supportive. That’s what a family is all about, love and togetherness.” Felicia paused, and sat down near him. “I hope your children will take care of you one day as you do for your parents. There is nothing worse then being alone at my age, believe me. I, too, had a family once, a child and a husband.”
Silent tears formed in her eyes, rolled down her cheeks, and fell on her bosom. Michael lowered his head and stopped eating. The taste of honey in his mouth spread to his throat, flowed through his veins, coated his joints. The centuries-old mellowness of the Levant took over. Time expanded.
He touched her slim fingers.
She shrugged, started smiling.
On his way back, Michael stopped at the middle school. The hallways were swarming with children. He watched them running, pushing each other, laughing. He thought of his son and daughters. The principal was a tall woman about his age with dark, curly hair styled like an Afro. Her name was Shoshanna. He told her in a mixture of Hebrew and English about Tavi’s slides, and she quickly lost interest.
“I don’t think so,” she answered, “but let’s talk to Shmuel. He is the librarian”
They left the main corridor, passed a few classrooms, the natural science lab, the gym, and the restrooms. The air smelled faintly of detergents. They entered a room with about twenty computers set on as many tables. Bookshelves stood against the walls. There were no children in the room, and, sitting at his desk, Shmuel was reading a newspaper.
Shoshanna explained in Hebrew the purpose of their visit.
“Imagine if we accepted photographs from everybody,” Shmuel started in perfect American English. “Where would we store them?”
“These are not photographs, they’re slides, and they are of a professional quality.”
“Yeah, I believe you.”
Shoshanna took a step to the nearest desk and moved the mouse on its pad. The screen flickered.
“Listen,” Michael insisted, “my father’s work focused mostly on Jewish culture from all over the world. I think they could be of interest. He has slides with the Holocaust memorials in Miami and Baltimore. He photographed the Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims, the one with the statues, you know, the Church and the Synagogue as two women side by side, the Synagogue with a blindfold. Don’t you think your students would be interested?”
Shmuel looked at Shoshanna as if requesting permission. “If they want, the children can Google all of this,” he said apologetically.
On his hand Michael could still sense the warmth of Felicia’s fingers. What was going on right now smelled of conspiracy. He knew it wasn’t so, but the way Shmuel and Shoshanna exchanged glances made him feel they belittled Tavi’s lifetime passion. “It’s too bad,” he said sadly, “but you know, they’ll never be able to Google my father’s soul, floating like images on Chagall’s stained glass windows.”
Just then two boys rushed in through the open door. They were yelling at each other, panting. When they saw the principal they froze, then quickly turned around and disappeared. The principal hastened after them.
Later that morning, Michael received the same treatment from two other schools, the city library, the municipal museum that boasted an art collection, a collection on the history of Nahariya and one on the Western Galilee Archeology, and charity for the socially disadvantaged.
Most of the shelves in the shelter were empty except for the thousands of slides at the top and two rows of dictionaries, reference books and travel guides he still had to sort through at the bottom. As he pulled some of them out, he found a thin book behind the others: Sixty-Nine Easy Positions for Improving your Sex Life, Pamela Lupus, PhD, Jerusalem, 1986. Holding it in his hand, he was unable to decide if the book had fallen there or had been hidden on purpose. It looked almost like an art album, with elongated hard covers and black and white photographs on glossy pages. The fact that his stepfather, who barely spoke English, would read such a book was both amusing and relevant, as was the year of the book’s publication – by that time Tavi would have been sixty-three.
Larissa was in the living room, sorting things. The night before, the open house had been a success. People had walked away with china and cutlery, small kitchen appliances, bedding. They even took some of Tavi’s wooden sculptures, a relief to Michael. The apartment was almost empty – that is, except for most of the furniture, which was all right, since the real estate agent had found a potential tenant who preferred it that way, and Irene had agreed to represent them after their departure.
Three people from the shipping company were supposed to show up later that day.
Michael could see the light at end of the tunnel.
The first photograph in the book showed the man on top and the woman underneath, her legs wrapped around the man’s waist. It was a cartoon-like illustration, purged of any revealing body parts or anything that could seem pornographic. Tavi would have taken a better picture. The face of the man was turned away, but the woman looked at the reader, displaying an acquiescent smile, like a surrender. She had short hair, dark eyes, and chubby cheeks. Michael wondered if she might be Pamela Lupus. The caption identified the position as classic, or missionary. According to the text, it was the most known and commonly referred to position, although not the most frequently used. It provided intimacy, the hands and lips of the lovers being free to caress and explore.
The next picture represented entry from the rear, or the ‘doggy’ position. The woman was on all fours with her torso angled downward, while the man, kneeling behind, kept his hands on her hips. By aligning her, the man could gain maximum penetration. The position lacked warmth and reduced the opportunity for rubbing of the female erogenous areas.
Michael regarded the female erogenous areas somewhat as a taboo subject. One day at age thirteen, he had drawn a letter Y flanked by two soft brackets, and, pushed by an inexplicable impulse, he had allowed himself to dream of the mysteries of a woman’s body. He had taken the time to thoughtfully shade in the top of the Y and elongate the brackets. He had leafed through a dictionary and found a colored reproduction of Goya’s Maya Nuda. Preferring his prepubescent perception over the clinical precision of the sex manual, he now felt aroused and guilty, as if leafing through the book was a shameful activity. If Larissa walked in on him, he’d fake indifference. “Look at what my father was reading,” he’d announce with a fake stupor. Since he hadn’t shown her the book, he would keep it a secret. He turned the book upside down, weighed it in his hand, and looked at the index. Then he dropped it in the trash bag and spent the next half hour reviewing and cleaning out the last two shelves of the bookcase.
When he finished, he grabbed the trash bag and went into the living room. Larissa was at the table.
“Come here. Look what I found,” she told him.
“First let me take this out,” he responded. The feelings he had experienced earlier were still with him. He carried the trash bag into the hallway and rode down in the elevator. Walking across the parking lot was rejuvenating. The dumpsters were again empty.
Later he photographed some of the items that Larissa had selected to be shipped home: a draftsman’s tool set in a rectangular black box complete with six and four inch precision compasses, a beam bar and a technical pen adapter, an old slide rule, an IT calculator in a plastic sheath with the original user’s manual, an abacus, a Leica camera, a Japanese tea set comprised of six matching porcelain cups and saucers, one tea pot, a sugar bowl, and a creamer, all decorated with leaf gold and silver dragons, two doilies knitted decades ago by Tavi’s mother, a thermometer and barometer set in a teak frame, and an antique cuckoo clock without the cuckoo that had been modified by Tavi to run backward. “Like Hebrew writing,” he used to say proudly.
“Just to make sure,” Michael said while pointing his camera. “The shipment might get lost and we would need proof for insurance.”
“I also set aside these three pieces,” Larissa said pointing to three of Tavi’s sculpted branches. “We should keep these.”
There were many left around the apartment, and Michael thought that her idea was sweet, even though he didn’t like them, especially the one that looked from up front like a slender man with a fur hat on his head or perhaps like a wounded soldier.
Everything they wanted shipped, the items they selected that morning, the artwork, the books, and the few boxes of family slides, took up only one-eighth of a container. While the movers were wrapping and packing, Michael had to run to the bank to get eight hundred dollars in cash. The shipping company didn’t take credit cards. The bank teller asked Michael for his I.D. and when Michael gave him his passport he called the manager to double check. After giving Michael the cash, the manager wished Tavi and Tina all the best in their new life in America. He had seen their names on the account and remembered them for having been his customers for over twenty years. The well-wishes grieved Michael more than the identity check to get money.
The packers left and Michael filled more trash bags. They threw away thousands of slides and all of Tavi’s remaining sculptures. Herr Octavian was spared. Irene promised to take him and place him outside in her garden. Methodically, Michael took down three or four plastic bags at a time, again and again, until the apartment was empty.
Then he showered, and they went out for dinner at the restaurant on the beach. On the way they stopped at the drugstore, and Larissa bought two tubes of medicated skin cream for Tina. There was an equivalent in the United States, of course, but Tina maintained that the Israeli product was better, and Larissa wanted to please her. The store owner spoke English. When Larissa mentioned her mother-in-law’s name, he smiled and shook their hands, then he called his wife from somewhere in the back of the store, and they both started reminiscing about Tavi and Tina, wishing them health and good fortune. Michael left the store as quickly as he could. Larissa came out and handed him the little plastic bag with the ointments; it was really nothing, but he complained about having to carry it while going to dinner, so Larissa grabbed it back and shoved inside her purse.
At the restaurant they were seated outside. Michael was hot even though the sun was already low above the horizon. They could hear the sea and smell the salt in the air mixed with a tinge of mold from the stagnant brackish water of Little Volga. A soft wind was stirring.
They ordered hummus, falafel and two Maccabee beers. Michael took a sip and leaned back in his chair. “I wish I could relax, but I feel disheartened.”
“You need to rest,” said Larissa.
Michael didn’t answer. Pamela Lupus’s eyes were still watching him.
“There is something to be glad for,” observed Larissa. “We’re finished.”
“You nailed it. It’s over.”
The finality of their short sentences floated through the air. Soon it got dark. They sat without talking, watching the sea and the line where the water met the sky and the colors were brighter.
The waiter brought them an oil lamp and the food and set it all on the table. The hummus was on a wide platter, decorated with pickled violet baby aubergines, green pickled cucumbers, and white tehina sauce. The pitas were so full they were standing on their plates, overflowing with lettuce and chopped cabbage. The waiter placed a separate dish on the table with a red sauce in it.
“That’s kharif, very hot,” he warned them.
“I love the food over here, it’s fresh and tasty,” said Larissa. Suddenly she looked like a schoolgirl, her eyes dancing in the light of the oil flame.
Michael ate little. He dipped pieces oh his pita in the hummus. He drank some beer. He split the chickpea balls in half and dribbled them with kharif. They burned his lips. He drank more beer, ate more of his pita.
The wind picked up, and they heard the crying of seagulls.
Back at the apartment they got ready for bed. There was nothing they needed to do until the next morning. Michael was still hot, and he turned on the air conditioning and adjusted the slots in such a way that they blew toward the bedroom. He left his pajamas on the floor and went to bed in his underwear.
“I’m cold,” Larissa complained after a few minutes.
“You’re always cold,” answered Michael and looked at her. She was covered up to her chin with a blanket. “I’ll bring you another blanket,” he offered.
“We don’t have another one.”
He lay next to her, cold air blowing against his bare skin. “Larissa, please, a few more minutes.”
“You know what?” she told him. “I’m glad we’ll be out of here tomorrow, and I wish we could stay longer than only one night in Haifa. Are you sure we couldn’t spend more time just the two of us? Can’t we enjoy ourselves, rest a little? Do we have to be with Irene every day we are in Israel? After all, our flight isn’t until Sunday.”
“We didn’t spend every day with Irene,” he objected.
“No, of course not, but I have this distinct feeling that you’d have wanted it.”
“For crying out loud, Larissa, she’s my cousin. I don’t have anybody closer.”
“You have me.”
Michael got up and readjusted the air conditioning to blow toward the living room. Larissa was right. It was only Wednesday, and they could spend two days in Haifa and arrive in Tel Aviv on Saturday. He had made a reservation at the Dan Carmel Hotel. They thought if they finished early, they would allow themselves a short but much deserved vacation. The hotel was overlooking the bay and was beautiful. It had a large swimming pool and a few restaurants on the premises. They had stayed there once before and enjoyed it tremendously. But Irene had insisted they come right back to her house. She wouldn’t hear otherwise. Her insistence was endearing in a way, but suffocating, also. Her house was small, and having two people over for too many days wasn’t easy.
He came back to bed, stretched out, and closed his eyes, but sleep wasn’t coming. He was warm. His mind was a caldron of thoughts. Larissa seemed to be sleeping.
He got up and tiptoed into the living room, where he started pacing. Even though he was barefoot, his steps had an echo. The room was empty of any objects that could absorb noise, like rugs, drapes, or pillows. The Bernsteins might hear him, as could Larissa. He stopped with his back to the blasting air conditioner and raised his arms. His back got cold, but his face, chest, and stomach were burning. The open kitchen was in front, along with the dining room table and the counter. One green light from the microwave oven cut through the darkness. Out the sliding doors he could see the pale glow of a moon that was too high in the sky and out of his field of vision. When he couldn’t stand the cold at his back any longer, he turned, raised his arms, and faced the air conditioner.
Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t just the heat or the cold that were bothering him. His joints ached, and his eyes were watering. Maybe he was coming down with something.
The sex book, that’s what it was, the secrets of his stepfather. There was a limit to how much a man should find out about another. What a person was doing in the privacy of his house was nobody’s business.
But at age sixty-three, was that really possible? Did he buy the stupid book himself or did somebody give it to him? Maybe he had been curious? Michael himself would be curious to read some chapters in the book. Maybe he should do just that, walk downstairs and fish the book out of the dumpster. No, that was silly. There was nothing to read that he didn’t know already, although sex, he had to admit it, was always a fascinating subject. He could get some ideas from the book and discuss them with Larissa. Who knows what surprise might be lurking.
Michael shivered. He moved out of the path of the air conditioner and sat at the dining room table. He was no longer hot, and his mind was still racing.
This business about dismantling somebody’s home – that was a tough business. Of course, he and Larissa had no choice but to do it. And to what avail, what price had they to pay, psychologically?
They had been efficient. Not even five days, and everything was ready. A man’s home was his castle, as the saying went. Or did it go that way, Michael couldn’t remember?
It had taken his dad and his mom thirty years to build their nest, to perfect it, make it comfortable. And then he and Larissa showed up, and hash, hash, took everything to pieces. How proud Tavi had been to have a modern kitchen! How much he had worked at his slides and his silly statues! His parents were known in the neighborhood, and then, suddenly, poof, they were gone, disappeared.
They said that the average survival rate in a nursing home was eighteen months, twenty-four if you’re lucky. They fed you, bathed you, changed your diapers and wheeled you outside in the garden. The children who placed their parents in such homes pretended to be proud. They were told they were helping. Perhaps that’s why Tavi had turned his attention to sex – there was nothing else in this life besides procreation.
Michael felt hungry and a little thirsty. He turned on the light in the kitchen and found bread, butter, Swiss cheese, and half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. He poured himself wine in a paper cup and drank it. Whatever was left, would go into the garbage tomorrow. He drank more and stuck the bread in the oven. The toaster had gone to the neighbors.
He remembered how much Larissa had liked the food at the restaurant. Larissa, she was so nice and reliable.
When the bread was toasted, he put it on a paper plate, buttered it, and placed a slice of cheese on top, but the cheese didn’t cover up the whole surface, so he cut several more narrow rectangular pieces and matched them until the bread was evenly covered. Then he took the time to carve small circles of cheese and plug the holes in the cheese slices. When he finished, the bread and cheese looked neat and he liked it.
After he ate, he drank same more wine and then silently went back to bed and tried covering himself with the blanket. Larissa moved. She moaned. He wanted to protect her sleep, but she pushed herself toward him and nestled her back against his chest and stomach.
There was a term in the book for this move – it was spooning.
Michael was alone in the apartment. Larissa had gone to the Bernsteins to tell them good-bye and leave them the keys for the real estate agent. Michael had said his farewells earlier. Now all he had to do was get rid of the remaining garbage, then carry the two suitcases and Herr Octavian to the car and wait for Larissa.
It was a beautiful morning.
The dumpsters were full, and Michael left the garbage bags on the ground. On the left side of his car, he noticed a bicycle. It was chained to a post in the fence, and the chain was rusty. The bicycle looked a lot like his own from decades ago, the one Tavi had bought him from that guy from Czechoslovakia – same rimmed wheels, same handlebars, same brown saddle. Of course it was not his bike, it couldn’t have been, but he felt a jolt and thought it was a telling coincidence. He hadn’t seen it before, only today, his day of departure...
He went back upstairs and took a few pictures of the apartment. Then he grabbed the two suitcases, shoved Herr Octavian under his arm, and left. The door locked behind him. In the elevator he lowered the suitcases and pushed the ground floor button with the hand under which he was holding Herr Octavian. As he did this, he felt Herr Octavian move. The wooden statue slipped a fraction of an inch and rotated. He tightened his grip. The curvature of the wood pressed now directly against his rib cage. It felt as if Herr Octavian were alive, a human being, as if he were trying to glue himself to Michael, find shelter; it felt as if he were a child seeking protection.
The elevator doors sprang open. Michael picked up his suitcases and walked out to his rental car. He opened the trunk, placed the suitcases inside and nestled Herr Octavian in between them. “Here, buddy,” he said. “You’ll be safe in here. You’ll be going nowhere. I mean, you’re going somewhere. You’re going to Irene, who’s my cousin. She agreed to keep you in her beautiful garden. Trust me, you’ll be happy there.” Michael winked, slammed the trunk and opened the car door. He was content they had managed to save Herr Octavian. He had even considered having him packed and shipped home, but who in his right mind would ship a piece of wood all the way to America? This way, they’d come back to visit and see Herr Octavian. They’d grow old together, so to speak. Irene was a smart person. He’ll talk to her about spending a second day in Haifa, and she’d understand, he was sure.
Michael started the engine. He looked out the window and saw that the bicycle was gone. He smiled. Such was life. There had been something important in that spot, and now there wasn’t.