Memorial to Venus


Dalia Roselfeld

  When her imagination couldn’t make things up anymore, Mira retreated into the real world. The man who lived in the building next to hers—there were so many reasons to like him as long as she didn’t know him. For an entire year Mira was sustained by the thought that if she peeked into his window with her landlord’s low-resolution binoculars, she would see, or just about, manifestations of loneliness to match her own; or maybe all that laundry in their living rooms just meant they were lazy. Lazy and lonely. And the boiling pot of pasta on the stove? She would see that pot, and the man who lived next to her eating straight out of it, one slurpy mouthful of noodles at a time, before dropping his fork into the sink and moving into the living room. In the living room he would stretch out on the couch and light a cigarette, the fumes unfurling in her direction and coming to rest outside her window, where she would take them in like the vapors from a hot spring and try to summon an image of the Swiss sanitorium from The Magic Mountain, vaguely regretting that tuberculosis could now be cured with a simple antibiotic. But since she had never read The Magic Mountain, her mind would remain immobile, stuck in central Tel Aviv, a place she did not have to imagine because she lived there, next to a man who waved to her every time he passed her in the street, but with whom she had never exchanged a word.
  There were more than enough other people in Tel Aviv to exchange words with, and for a time she chose Nadav, who, in addition to his very good looks, stood out for hardly speaking at all, a quality which she had come to appreciate after finding herself increasingly in the presence of people whose theories about life could be summed up in fifteen seconds, but who required a minimum of two hours to get their point across, and over a glass of wine she often inexplicably ended up paying for. Nadav was not like this. Nadav was different. He was the kind of person who could say I would like a child, and within three weeks a child would be growing inside a woman’s belly, an amorphous seed sprung from an amorphous idea whose conception should have remained within the realm of the fantastical rather than occurring on the floor of Nadav’s apartment, which had never been degraded by so much as a crumb before. That Nadav didn’t actually want a child, well, sometimes words come out the wrong way. But it would have been nice to know what he was really thinking when he uttered them.
  It would have saved them both a lot of grief.

  When her mind was working properly, Mira could sit with someone for two hours over a glass of wine while they expounded, and not even flinch; all she had to do was make sure she was somewhere else, far away, so that when her podiatrist finally figured out that his waning passion for his Russian girlfriend could be explained by the sighting of a French ballet dancer at a benefit concert for lymphoma, she had not only planned an entire week’s worth of meals, but also overcome her fear of flying, befriended a family of twelve in Gaza, and made love to a Greek fisherman.
  That way, she and her podiatrist were both happy, and could remain on friendly terms.
  When Nadav entered her life, something shifted in the way she saw things, starting with the bench she met him on, which may some day bear a plaque beside it commemorating one of the strangest relationships the city of Tel Aviv has ever known. What she had viewed as a convenient surface to aid her in the tying of her shoelace became, in the blink of an eye, first an island with a single inhabitant on it—a man who had sat down to read a book, oblivious to the last 50 years he had spent alone—and then a raft bearing a woman, ready to float him out of his isolation.
  If that’s what he wanted.
  She thought that’s what he wanted.
  They were both bashful, but one of them had to take the lead, and Mira had already married, borne children, divorced, and carried the weight of multiple worlds on her shoulders, which meant one more world wouldn’t be the end of her. She could carry Nadav too.
   Nadav put down his book to watch her struggle with her shoelace, doing so with such a sweet smile that it transformed the simple act of tying a knot into an impossible feat, because someone she suddenly wanted to get to know, and perhaps spend the rest of her life with, was paying keen attention to her, when just a minute ago he was firmly ensconced with Walter Benjamin, who demanded undivided attention from his readers, and still no one understood a word.
  “I’m left-handed,” she explained, struggling away.
  “And left-wing, I hope,” the stranger said. He crossed his legs to indicate that they were in for a long evening, and that that was O.K.
  That perhaps he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her, too.
  “Maybe not as much as you are,” she said, and returned his sweet smile.
  “Would you like to go for a walk?” Nadav asked.
  In an instant Mira’s shoe was tied, and the city of Tel Aviv spread out before them. Mira did not look back at the raft they were leaving behind, because they were floating just fine without it—two runaways on a river of cement—and because it was time to replace the images of Huck Finn and Jim circulating in her head with the reality of two people who had never appeared in literature before, and yet would soon be revealed to be the stuff of it. She and Nadav were not just fast walkers; they simply could not slow down enough to acknowledge their incompatibility, insisting on viewing as special the strange silence that overtook them when they were together, rather than seeing it for what it was.
  Maybe some people are so incompatible, they can’t find a way to disconnect.
  They walked at a brisk pace, casting sidelong glances at each other to signal a mutual attraction that had begun years before they met, while lying in bed or sitting in class and daydreaming about that person they would one day meet, tall, olive-skinned and with black curls that eschewed brushing. The way she and Nadav looked themselves. When they finally stopped, it was in front of “The Third Ear,” the last place in Tel Aviv where one could still rent movies and buy music, with a café outside and a table in the corner that Nadav made a special effort to secure, knocking over a chair from a different table on his way to this favored one, which Mira was fairly certain had a story behind it that she would soon be privy to.
  “Oriana comes here to work,” Nadav said as they sat down.
  If he had placed even the slightest emphasis on her name, Mira would have asked who Oriana was, and let the story begin that way, the way a lot of stories begin, in response to a question. But as her name emerged from his mouth—as if it were part of his mouth, on a molecular level, on a level that didn’t allow for questioning—she knew in an instant who Oriana was, why Nadav had spent his life alone, and how difficult her own life was about to become.
  “How’s the coffee here?” she asked.
  “Oriana always orders a cortado,” Nadav said. “But only from here. Extra strong.”
  “Oh,” Mira said.
  They sat down at the table and she waited for something strange to happen, for a typical evening in Tel Aviv to get underway. The café was located on King George Street, a bustling thoroughfare that compelled every customer to use their outside voice, and at a volume that rendered normal conversation nearly impossible. Nadav smiled as they took in the sounds that emanated from everyone but them, then raised his voice as best he could to ask Mira about herself, and to make a reference to Walter Benjamin’s rejection of linking language to words.
  “He must have had a very wide range of facial expressions,” Mira said.
  “Benjamin believed that pure language exists only when it no longer communicates, when it stops transmitting meaning.”
   She was sure that Nadav was trying to tell her something, that even Benjamin knew there could be no second date without a subtext.
  “How tall are you?” Nadav asked.
  “5'6”,“ she said.
  "170 centimeters,” he translated. “Oriana is 160.”
  “That doesn’t mean anything to me,” Mira said, trying to tell Nadav something.
   Something very important.
  “5'3”,“ Nadav translated again.
  "Oh,” she said.
  She could have left then, citing a headache, the noise, the sadness of knowing she was a stand-in for someone else, and that she would never be loved for who she was. But Mira stayed. She stayed because she wanted to sip her first cortado and say to Nadav: How interesting. A latte in a shotglass. Something to drink and then order four more of so you can remember to order a latte the next time.
  “Interesting,” she said to Nadav. “I like it.”
  And she did like it, and the glass of wine that followed, which was drunk as wine, with no reference to anyone else, or anything but the region it came from. With every sip, Nadav opened up a bit more, prompting her to open up, and then him still more, leading both of them to lapse into a silence that would characterize the next several months, during which time stood still; but not in the way it does when you are experiencing a moment you want never to end. That would have been nice. Time stood still in that it stretched to eternity when they were together, Nadav and Mira, and eternity was a concept neither of them particularly embraced, Nadav for its theological overtones and Mira because she was about to come to know a new type of love that transcended experience, and as such, was liable to last forever.
  When all she wanted was the old kind, and an occasional bouquet of flowers.
  Or for Nadav to hold her hand.
  They sat in this bubble of noise and traffic, with dogs appearing at their table every few minutes, as if to check up on them and report back to their owners. When the silence reached its peak, Mira waited for her mind to take over and fill it with something meaningful, to construct a theory of her own life to compete with those of her friends, so many of whom were suddenly vegans; but one look at Nadav, and it was clear what was happening, that the silence was something she had been waiting her whole life for, and now here it was, flowing between them like Mendelssohn’s “Songs Without Words,” which she had played so poorly as a piano student, and still her parents would not let her quit.
  “Should we get the check?” she suggested.
  “O.K.,” Nadav said.
  She was fully herself when she stood up, even as Nadav appeared startled by her stature, as if she had grown ten centimeters over the course of the evening, and he could not understand why. They started to walk toward Rabin Square, Nadav committing to memory every part of her, his eyes darting from her feet to the top of her head and everything in between, leading him to ask why she had left America for Israel, and how long she intended to stay.
  “Forever,” Mira said.
  “Walter Benjamin received money to travel to Palestine and study Hebrew,” Nadav said. “But he abandoned his plans and stayed in Paris. He believed that redemption would only come by remembering our enslaved ancestors, not by liberating their grandchildren.”
  “So I guess I’m here in his place,” Mira said, happy to have a dead philosopher to divert attention from the real reason she had left America, divorce always such a dreary thing to talk about. “Even though I’m not sure I agree with him. I like to think that self-redemption brings redemption,” she added, the first time she had ever given any thought to that subject.
  She felt a kiss on her cheek then, because she had said something right, or because they were standing outside her apartment building, and the evening was coming to a close.
  “I like your shoes,” Nadav said. “And the way you tie them. As if you really are here to stay.”
  “I am,” she said. And then: “They’re Italian.”
  A lot can happen in a year. Or nothing at all. A husband can love his wife enough to let her leave him. A woman can love a place more than a person, move to that place, then find a person who embodies it and never pay attention to another palm tree again.
  She waited a year for Nadav to see a flower and think of her.
  She waited a year for him to hold her hand.
  She received an email from her landlord that read: “You are the messiest tenant I have ever had, but for reasons I cannot understand, I like you very much.”
  Nadav was an excellent driver in a country that only respected reckless ones. Mira didn’t remember which of them had suggested the trip, only that the road to the village wasn’t the paved kind, but the kind that evolves out of necessity and over time, and that reverts back to its primordial state in the presence of rain.
  “I’ve been to Ein Hod,” Mira announced, white-knuckled from the current of mud carrying them along the cliff, “and this doesn’t look anything like it.”
  Nadav stared straight ahead, his beautiful eyes doing the work the windshield wipers couldn’t keep up with. “Ein Hod is the Jewish artist’s colony on the other side of the mountain,” he explained. “The original Palestinian inhabitants fled here during the war, to Ayn Hawd.”
  “So there are two Ein Hods?”
  “Two Ayn Hawds.”
  Mira vaguely understood, vaguely cared. The scales of justice always tilted in the wrong direction; the goats would forever keep trying to cross the road and return to their fields to graze.
  “I’ll take that clay mezuzah I bought there down from my door,” she promised, both to herself and out loud, to Nadav. “It was kitschy, anyway. All the colors of the rainbow, as if the artist couldn’t make up his mind.”
  “Kitsch has no nuance of color because it has no nuance of thought,” Nadav mused. “Adorno had his lecture hall painted grey, to keep his students focused. He stopped writing soon after that.”
  “I do wonder where we are, though,” she said, thinking that the road to Ayn Hawd might be the one place in the world you could have a green rose, but keeping the sentiment to herself.
  “We’re here,” Nadav said, pulling into a parking lot that looked like a parking lot, when Mira was silently hoping for a patch of grass they could leave their mark on.
  Invaders all over again.
  He had made a reservation at a restaurant, and she was hungry on so many levels, she could overlook the emptiness of the place as they entered it, even take comfort in the fact that an hour earlier, the room had been teeming with diners like themselves, only with a better sense of direction, such that they tallied up more right turns than wrong ones on that mudslung road to Eyn Hawd, managing to arrive in good form and before the kitchen closed. When the server seated them at a sturdy wooden table in a corner, Nadav looked around the room as if the air were still electric with conversation, the shadows made by the flickering lights phantom patrons waiting for a fresh tray of syrupy kadayif to emerge from the oven.
  “Oriana came here with her whole family for her birthday last year,” he said, filling their water glasses with lemonade from a plastic pitcher.
  The menu was pre-set, an uncountable number of dishes representing every animal and vegetable from the region spread out before them. When the last plate was placed on the table, Mira waited for the server to wish them bon appetit and leave them to their romantic lunch in the rain; but with each dish came a description, historical, sociological, gastronomical, political: the lentils soaked in well water; the honey harvested from combs kept in abandoned munitions crates; the wild hyssop adorning the beet salad picked in defiance of a national ban on disturbing the endangered herb.
  “Because it’s not enough to uproot you from your homes. The Zionists want to uproot you from the land as well,” said Nadav.
  “That’s exactly how it is,” agreed the server, her feet planted firmly in place.
  A conversation commenced then, because some things are too important to be discussed on a different day. Between bites of food, quiet Nadav found his voice even though he wasn’t speaking to Mira, even though his insights about expulsion and dispossession were directed to the only other person in the room who was not Mira; and in this roundabout way she felt that the silence between them had finally been broken, and that their time together would now be filled with something else, echoes of a former silence which they would both yearn for and strain their ears to hear.
  On the ride back to Tel Aviv, declaring nothing in the world to be more depressing than the Occupation, Nadav put in a disc of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad for a Friend,” causing Mira to measure the comfort level between them and designate it as high. But when Nadav started to sing along with the lyrics, calling attention to their content, she felt overcome by a sadness that, while having nothing to do with either mourning the loss of a friend or the Occupation, was somehow compounded by both, such that she felt compelled to place her hand on Nadav’s knee and leave it there.
  “At least Ayn Hawd is finally connected to the power grid,” Mira said, and instantly regretted it.
  To avoid plunging into the wadi, Nadav took a sharp turn. “That’s a feel-good detail you can find on the internet,” he said unequivocally. “Benjamin would tell you that it’s more important to read what was never written. To give voice to the anonymous.”
  “Didn’t the server say her name was Haneen? And then speak for two hours straight?” Mira said, and instantly regretted it.
  But Nadav smiled and squeezed the back of her neck with two fingers, a gesture that she both treasured and strove to forget at once, knowing that she would wait in vain for it to be repeated, the closeness between them always seeming to require the presence of a third party. He explained that while Haneen had indeed spoken a great deal, she was speaking for the entire village, the whole al-Hija family, who, as it turned out, hailed from Iraq, just like his own. Mira listened to Nadav’s explanation selectively, clinging to some words while discarding others, alternately imagining his mother as a girl in Baghdad and the conscription of Haneen’s grandfather into the Ottoman army. But since her image bank of Iraq in the 1940s and turn-of-the-century Palestine was in short supply, her mind wandered to the last time she and Nadav had slept together, a few nights before, and to his strong hands limp at his side while she tried to awaken him with gentle strokes she hoped he would one day learn to reciprocate. It was one thing not to know how to touch a woman, how her body behaved when it became the object of affection, if not the love that she longed for, and which she herself felt, in painful bursts, at the sight of Nadav peeling an apple or him passing her in the street, and recognition taking a second too long to set in.
  It was another thing to be such a poor student.

  Finally, there was nothing left for her to do but go get a pedicure, to put everything in life that was important to her on hold and kick up her feet for Svetlana. Mira was aware of the risks involved, the onychomycosis that could announce itself weeks later; the toenails gasping for breath; the illusion of a body being cared for broken by the yapping of Svetlana’s stupid Chihuahua. Still, it was a respite, twenty minutes in which to rechannel her attention and to remind herself that at the end of the day, she didn’t give a hoot that the hero in the plays of Aeschylus remained mute while the chorus carried on: she would continue to vocalize her orgasms, to let loose the “Dionysian outburst” which Nadav scolded her for instead of encouraging. She wasn’t even sure how much credit he deserved for her cries, her body yielding more to a build-up of unfulfilled expectation than to his body on top of her, mechanically grinding away.
  Really, it was enough to make a person cry.
  “Why are you crying?” Svetlana asked her, testing the water with her pinky finger and deeming it ready.
  “The man I’m with, he doesn’t see me,” Mira sniffled before dunking her feet into the ritual bath. “The other night, we stood in front of the mirror with our clothes off, and he only looked at himself. Gazed, just like in a Greek play. I wasn’t even an … appendage.” She tried to wiggle her toes for effect, but the pedicurist held them down, as if in attempt to drown them.
  “The Jewish men here, they are cowards,” Svetlana said. “When I go to a bar, they feast their eyes on me—undress every inch of me—but only from a distance. If I go online, I get dozens of solicitations in one day—sometimes in one hour! But in person, not a word. They stare at my blonde hair and big tits, and crawl back into their mother’s womb. They prefer darkness to being blinded by my red lipstick.”
  “Have you considered dying your hair black, or changing your name to Hannah?” Mira asked.
  “I need a European man.” Svetlana scooped up her dog affectionately, causing Mira to quiet her urge to step on it.
  “But the European men here are still Jews.”
  “Yes, but they’re not like the Israelis. They’re from somewhere.”
  It was only a pedicure, but as Mira reemerged outside into Rabin Square, something felt different. The pond was still in place, offering up lily pads by the dozen, as was the separate, superfluous pool of water nearby, shooting jets of water into the air from a fountain so feeble that even children kept away. From where she stood, she was equidistant to Nadav’s apartment and her own desolate place, neglected over the past weeks as never before. The other day, laden with groceries, she had opened the door to stumble over two books that had fallen, belly-up, from whatever pile of random objects they had been balancing on: “1984” and “1Q84"—two novels she had found on a bench and been eager to read until both revealed themselves, after their fall, to be in German translation, causing the release of a deep-seated animosity toward a people who, eighty years after, she could only reasonably claim she disliked.
  Her freshly-pampered feet should have sent her running to Nadav’s, away from the depressing dystopia of Orwell and the other guy in German, and into the arms of someone who, while not European, she wanted to believe was still from somewhere. But instead, she let her legs lead her in the opposite direction, toward Ibn Gvirol Street and a string of cafes in which the lives of so many Israelis were lived out, and behind which she lived, on Modigliani Street, next to a man who waved to her every time he passed her, but with whom she had never exchanged a word.
  So little had happened between them, between her and Nadav, that she was beginning to think maybe nothing had happened at all, that perhaps they had never even met but were still destined to, in a different time and place, somewhere between Tel Aviv and the Syrian border—perhaps on the road to Ayn Hawd, where they would stop to erect a memorial, or to pee. For his birthday he had asked to take a picture of her posing on his bed in a recreation of Modigliani’s "Reclining Nude,” which she cautiously consented to, hoping the image on his cellphone would awaken new erotic fantasies to replace the ones that had until now been inspired by a poster of Picasso’s “Reclining Nude” on his bedroom wall, featuring a woman so full-figured as to make Mira appear anorexic. And the picture turned out beautifully, such that on more than one occasion Nadav texted her late at night to let her know he was looking at her and liked what he saw, especially her cupped breasts, which gave the illusion of being bigger than they were in real life, and toward which, in real life, he promised to be more attentive.
  But in the meantime, she was very sexy in that picture.
  Had logic been her guide, she would have gone in the opposite direction, down Frishman, King George, and finally to Nadav’s street, Lord Melchett, a man who by association lent Nadav an even more noble bearing than he already possessed, and to whom she would forever link Nadav, despite the Baron’s fervent Zionism and enthusiasm for the power grids of Jewish Palestine. Reaching Melchett Street, she would have stopped outside #54, punched in the wrong numbers on the keypad and wondered whether there was any more significance to that act than the simple erosion of her memory. And in the elevator going up to the third floor…well, it hardly mattered what she did with her hair to give it more bounce.
  Whoever said that all roads lead to the sea—that simply wasn’t true. But many did, especially in Tel Aviv, and as she headed toward home, she could swear she felt the sea beneath her, even as she was nowhere near it, an undulation of sorts that soothed her at the same time that it made her unsteady. It wasn’t a dream; it was some other state of consciousness, at the midpoint between sleep and awakening, when memories came without being called; she knew those were the best kind, even without having to eat any of those madeleines her friend always brought her back from Paris to get her to read Proust. It was as if the ground were asking to be opened up and excavated, not to reveal the remains of yet another synagogue floor or broken head of Venus, but to expose an opening in herself to illuminate the present, an “X” to mark the spot on which the first crack of history appeared, and something came out.
  It would have been so easy to start digging, but as night fell and she continued to just stand there, people began to walk by her on their way to better places, some looking quite stunning, and in stilettos, such that she had no trouble at all redirecting her attention and running inside to retire her flip flops, now that her toenails were dry. Once outside again, she fell in line with the others, intent on catching enough snippets of conversation to carry her along, until she found herself back in Rabin Square and eventually further south at a bar on Jabotinsky Street, affectionately called “Golda.”
  She had been to bars before; this would be the first time by herself.
  Aside from a life-sized portrait—painted by the bartender—of Golda Meir drinking out of one of Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans, a frothy ring around her mouth as if to suggest a Yom Kippur War that had never broken out, and for which she could consequently not be blamed for failing to see coming, the walls were blessedly bare. The place, however, was packed, and it was only by widening her stride a good few inches that she was able to secure the last free stool, and with the lasso of her purse straps, a move she felt both embarrassed by and entitled to by virtue of never having tried it before.
  There were men sitting on either side of her, and the two appeared to her interchangeable, representatives of a species rather than individuals with distinguishing features to pull her in or push her away.
  A pleasant discovery.
  She needed only to turn her head twenty degrees for the men to do the same, a trick she practiced a few times in each direction until she felt comfortable, her dizziness contained. Parting her heavily glossed lips, she addressed the man on her left:
  “Hi. You totally look like my podiatrist. Do you have a thing for French ballerinas?”
  Adjusting his angle by another few degrees, the man leaned in to answer. “With that sweet accent and figure, you could pass for a French ballerina yourself,” he said, and raised a hand to summon the bartender.
  Mira acknowledged the compliment by letting him order her a drink and peek down the plunging neckline of her jumpsuit, at her diminutive dancer’s breasts. “And what’s your excuse?” she pivoted to the man on her right.
  “Excuse for what?”
  “For also looking like my podiatrist.”
  “They say we all have a double out there,” he said, tipping back a Tuborg. Skipping over her to the man on her other side, he added: “Or is it a triple?”
  “It’s whatever she says,” the man winked.
  “Double or triple?” they asked her.
  “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
  She had momentarily forgotten she had a mandate to listen, not only to lead. It wasn’t always easy to make a role feel real, to trust the course of events in one’s life as they unfolded, especially as she often had the sensation she was observing them from afar. And to make sense of it all…to understand that to remember the day was to forget the night…
  Suddenly she wanted to sleep.
  “Tell me a story,” she enjoined her companions, trying to stay awake, swinging her leg seductively, then steadying it as the first sip of her cocktail reached her toes.
  “A story?”
  “But not about yourselves, please.”
  “Then about what?”
  “Tell me a good story about Golda Meir.”
  And they did, first Tomer, and then Lior, under a vaulted ceiling that might well have been the open sky. They told a good story about Golda Meir, starting with her birth to a carpenter from Kiev, causing Mira to steady her legs still more and wonder whether the placenta from her second pregnancy, that she had FedExed to a stem cell lab in Florida for safekeeping, was still safe in Florida, and if so, why she suddenly felt, thousands of miles away in Tel Aviv, the lurking presence of something left behind. The men’s mouths moved quickly, as if they were not in control of the words that came out, of the details which no one would recall in the morning; perhaps, like her, they had been fighting off sleep while they performed, such that the story fudged its facts—Golda disguised as King Abdullah to meet Ben Gurion and avert an attack; a war won in six days—and lost its storyteller, turning the evening into a dream beyond the reaches of interpretation, the images coming too fast to keep up with.
  Closing her eyes, Mira settled for a slower one: a man on Modigliani Street, waving to her as she passed by, a cigarette in his mouth giving off a quiet glow.