Authors: Evan Fallenberg
For Hagai and Micha, more than ever
e said, “Where's Rona.”
She said, “Who's Rona.”
These were, in fact, their first words, though neither would have remembered them even a week later, had anyone asked. And the issue of Rona was never solved, since there had never been a Rona. Maybe she was Nora, or Nola, or Ola, or Ora; he was always getting it wrong. But she had brought his coffee the way he liked itâstrong, one sugar, hot foamed milk on the side, along with a glass of water with ice and a slice of lemonâand so that morning when
had appeared at his table, this new she, he was already missing someone he had never really cared for beyond his cup of coffee.
Their encounter took place in a Tel Aviv coffee bar so small that it cannot be called a restaurant and barely even a cafÃ©. When disassembled at the end of the day, chairs piled on tables and stools upturned on the bar, it squeezes into an area no bigger than a closet. But this coffee bar is in an old shopping arcade, once newfangled and popular, that stands near Ibn Gabirol and King Saul streets, occupying a niche, an alcove, that most people run past to get to the medical center at the back, the cosmetician, the sex shop, or the ballet studio in the basement. Regulars come here to swap complaints with Yossi, the proprietor, while enjoying the brew from his excellent Italian coffee machine, but others notice nothing more than the fake tulips budding from tiny vases on each table as they whip by.
“Where's Rona?” he asked, tilting his head back and fixing a watery gaze on her disheveled face.
“Who's Rona?” she asked, startled not by the question but by his eyes, one blue, the other green. They made her feel that the floor was gently tilting.
“Never mind,” he said, and he gave her instructions on how to prepare his order.
Teo stops for coffee late in the morning on the days he now comes to supervise, advise, or merely watch the dancers of the Tel Aviv Ballet; he no longer teaches. After he has unlocked the studio doors, turned on the lights, aired the place (there is always a below-ground mustiness one gets used to in minutes), he checks his desk for mail or messages left for him by the ballet company administrator, then heads upstairs for coffee with a pile of paperwork and dance magazines in hand. Within just a few days Vivi knows to have Yossi start preparing the coffee the minute she sees Teo pass by on his way downstairs, so that his order will be ready by the time he reemerges.
hen Vivi leaves the coffee bar she never takes the short, direct route home. First, in nearly any weather, she steps outside the shopping arcade, parks herself on the nearest benchâa slatted wooden affair that the Tel Aviv municipality occasionally paints greenâand smokes one of the three daily cigarettes she allows herself. She stretches her legs out as far as they will go, wriggles her toes, watches passersby and birds, and enjoys each deep inhalation of her Winstons. When she has had her fill of smoking and looking, she rises slowly, as if with regret, and chooses a direction. Sometimes she will walk to the right because the woman who just walked by was wearing a beautiful pair of shoes, and sometimes she will walk to the left because there are a few clouds in that direction. There are days when she closes her eyes and spins around, then chooses left or right, and days when she stands waiting for a sign, any sign, and does not move until that sign appears. It always does, though once it took a full five minutes, during which a little boy stopped to ask if she were lost.
Then she begins her perambulations, wending her way from street to street in concentric, uneven circles. She walks eastward down Kaplan Street past the peaked-roof houses with flowerboxes built by the Templars, toward Azrieli Center, where she bends her head backward to stare at the edge of the triangular tower as it spikes the sky. She walks north to the open emptiness of Rabin Square. She walks west under ficus trees dangling vines like moss to the shade of the Royal Poincianas at Masaryk Square. And mostly she walks south, where Tel Aviv really happens.
She has what she calls her Theme Walks, still capricious but with a motif. So there is Scent Walk, where she picks up on the smells of coffee and steamed milk, falafel and shaved lamb's meat, hyssop seasoning and roasting cashews and coriander and chicken on a spit and even certain people, leaning into their wakes as they pass; there is Foliage Walk, for noticing and naming the great many flowering plants she encounters; there are Jewish Walks, mostly at holiday times, when she counts Stars of David and synagogues and Orthodox passersby and Chabad emissaries and old men selling skullcaps on overturned orange crates. She has Graffiti Walks and Merchandise Walks and Architecture Walks and People Walks. Her most frequent are Baby Walks, featuring soft, cuddly babies of every color and size and women with bellies in various stages of pregnancy. On bad days she has Ugly Walks: dog shit on the sidewalk, people spitting, honking cars, the junkies and pimps near the old Central Bus Station. No matter what kind of walk she is having, though, she is aware of the stunning, relentless blue sky and green leaves nearly all year round. She wanders past old storesâZion the Tailor, Madame Julie's Institute of Beauty, a hardware store offering “Hebrew labor”âand shiny new places, their names written in English only. She cuts through parking lots and apartment buildings and hotels in order to reach backstreets, she emerges at the seashore and traverses beach after beach, each with its own crowd and style. There are people she waves at along her wayâsome whom she knows, some just because they seem pleasantâand at times she stops to exchange a word about the weather or the traffic or a cute baby or an elegant dress. She talks more to women than to men, since the men usually misinterpret her intentions, but children get more of her attention than anyone else. She walks like this for an hour, sometimes two, until finally she has had her fill of the city and can go in peace and silence to her apartment.
This ritual began years earlier, in a different country and climate, and continued quite naturally, almost compulsively, after her dramatic return to Israel. Mostly, in the twenty years that have passed since then, she has not missed a day, whether she has just finished work in a bicycle repair shop, a nursery school, a pastry shop, a libraryâafter all her jobs, no matter whether she spends her days on her feet or at a desk, she walks, clears her mind and fills it up again, tries to observe but not to think or even feel. Her footsteps grow slower as she approaches home; she smiles less. There will be no messages on the answering machine save those from her worried mother, Leah; there will be breakfast dishes to wash and rumpled sheets either to stretch taut or nap on, there will be walls taunting her loneliness and framed photographs flaunting other people's happiness and her own, long ago.
Maybe her flatmate, Pincho, will be home and awake, maybe not. She likes finding him there, a genial, patient presence, a good listener, someone who, like Vivi herself, has few plans outside work and welcomes time-consuming disruptions, always ready for a new project, an adventure. She loves, too, his perfect, effortless male beauty, the way every feature seems expertly crafted. After nearly two years sharing a flat, that beauty still catches her under the rib cage, tingles in her fingers and toes. She wipes her face of all interest or attentiveness but secretly she watches every movement and gesture: the way his pale gray eyes grow luminous with excitement; the way his smile spreads slowly, evenly, across his face until no corner of it remains untouched; the nervous thrum of his fingers when about to meet a member of his family; and the tightening of his countenanceâeyes that narrow, lips that purse, all of this puzzling to Viviâwhen he realizes that a man or a woman has taken notice of his looks and is wooing him.
She lets herself into the apartment and knows at once she is alone there. Pincho's door is ajar, the flat is fresh with open windows and cross breezes. His favorite mug and anotherâone neither she nor he drinks fromâstand drying on the countertop. She peers into the waste bin and sees tissues, the glint of a shiny packet farther down. She assumes it is a condom but she closes the lid before she can tell for sure. She glances about the kitchen, uncertain what to do now or for the next bundle of hours that stand before her like a dark thicket of pines.
he spotlights are blue and gold, the air around him speckled with floating gems that sparkle and shimmer like bubbles in his wake. Dark figuresâhis fellow dancersâcrowd the stage, but they are silent and still, and, like the enraptured audience, focused completely, solely, on him. Indeed, he feels himself to be the source of all the air and light and energy in the great theater, as if he had sucked it away from everyone and everything else, gathered it in from every corner of the cavernous hall. His feet effortlessly negotiate a complicated routine but his body simply twirls, spinning evenly under a powdery trail of stars. He neither tires nor dizzies. His arms levitate to shoulder height and bob there on waves of air.
A man in full dress uniform joins him onstage, barely visible at the edge of a gold spotlight. He continues to spin as the expressionless man sidles closer, stealing into the arc of his dance. The man presents him with a rose, whose scent reaches him and catches a ride on a twirl. He still watches the stars but is also, always, aware of the intruder just beyond his vision.
The uniformed man raises a gloved hand and the dancer halts, his back to the officer. The spotlights dim and the stars flicker and fade. He can feel the officer close behind, the man's breath on his neck. Quite suddenly the officer rams the rose, now thick and hard, inside him from behind. It penetrates and pierces, and he feels the thorny, leafy flower climb higher and higher in his body, snaking past his heart and through his lungs until it rises through his throat and pries open his mouth, wider and wider, climbing all the while so that his head swings back on his hinged neck and the rose pushes upward past his gaping mouth, growing and smothering and growing and smothering until the tips of the petals tickle the ebony sky.
Teo awakens before dawn, more stiff and sore than usual. With difficulty he closes his mouth by cracking his jaw sideways. He catches a sidelong glimpse of Nelly in her nightdress standing at the edge of the bed as she gently lifts his head, with its thick and unruly mane of white hair, and slides under it the freshly plumped pillow. He stares up at the ceiling as he catches his breath and regains his bearings. After a minute he asks quietly, in Polish, “Was I â¦ moaning again?”
Nelly, patient and stoic as an old dog, nods. She turns and walks silently from the room, but Teo can hear her morning sounds from the kitchen and knows she will return soon with a cup of steaming tea and a glazed-glass bowl of sugar cubes and two butter cookies on a china plate. It is too early for the tiny single rose in the porcelain bud vase or the linen napkin; those will arrive with breakfast, precisely at seven. He knows the night-darkened sky keeps Nelly from breaking routine, that as a creature of habit she will refuse to alter their schedule a whit until it has become perfectly clear that these early mornings of fear and pain have in fact
their routine; that each day, before morning's official arrival, he will awaken parched and cheerless and contorted and that she, his faithful housekeeper for twenty-five years, will bring him tea and comfort on a tray.
He does not tell her of his nightly dream; their intimacy, though recently expanded due to his increasing frailty, has always been minimal. In fact, apart from discussing the weekly letters he receives from his sister, Margot, they talk little beyond the technicalities of their mutual existence: the daily menu, the weekly schedule, the rare visit. When he was younger, healthier, still choreographing, she kept the house silent and guest-free to enable his creativity, and managed the household with a bare minimum of questions in spite of her faltering, primitive Hebrew, a handicap with shopkeepers and handymen. Even now that he no longer creates and few people come to call, their cloistered existence renounces change, their quietude turns its back to noise and life.
A tall eucalyptus tree in the garden strums its soft, drooping leaves against the bedroom window. It is too early for the birds, those that did not travel south to the Nile Delta or the Red Sea; only an occasional car horn in the distance reminds him he is in the heart of Tel Aviv. As the sky lightens he can tell it will be cold, colder than yesterday, that they will probably skip their afternoon stroll today, too.
Nelly enters with his predawn repast, a small surprise: hot milk it is, with a touch of rum and sugar. She places the tray on his nightstand and helps slide him into a sitting position. The smell of camphor reaches his nose. “Nelly,” he asks, “is your tooth hurting again?” She lowers her eyes, embarrassed to be caught. “Really, Nelly, this is absurd. You do not need to be with me every second of the day, I can manage by myself. If you put it off any longer you will find yourself terribly ill.” She stands at his bedside as he lectures her between tiny sips of hot milk. “Make an appointment for this afternoon. Promise me you will go today.”
The camphor scent hovers above him even after Nelly has silently removed his tray to the kitchen.