Illustration by Denis Shifrin
Damn it. Why couldn't she sleep? Tova had always slept on her back, but lately her throat filled with phlegm when she lay straight. She coughed and turned onto her side. Now her feet couldn't find a comfortable spot. She sat up and carefully maneuvered first one and then the other leg out from under the blankets. Yaakov was a light sleeper and if he didn't have his seven hours, then God help them tomorrow.
She looked at her two legs hanging over the side of the bed. Knees, calves, ankles. “The girl with the movie star legs” they used to call her. Now here they were, two grotesque protuberances sticking out from under her bunched nightgown. Loose skin, hairy, the years mapped in the purple, varicose veins.
She padded across the cold floor tiles and pulled two extra pillows from the closet to raise her head. Just like her mother in the months before she died. 85 years old. Skinny as a wraith. Sitting up all night propped up against pillows, eyes wide open, terrified that she would stop breathing. 2.30 a.m. Horns were still blaring and teenage voices shouting to each other. "C'mon sweetie. Let's take another spin around the block." Somebody turned a car radio to full volume. “Yuh gotta love, love me baby. Light my fire.” Friday night in North Tel Aviv.
These kids never went to bed. In her day they'd also stayed up on Friday night, but they had spent their time dancing the hora, discussing politics and building bonfires on the beach. They sang songs about nature and romance under the pomegranate trees. What kind of romance can come out of light my fire, fast cars, disco dancing?
Foolish nostalgia. As though she knew so much about romance. "And still, Mama, you thought I would be disgraced."
She moved her head back and forth on the pillow to make a little hollow for her neck. She was accustomed to her mother's voice droning inside her head. It had long been the backup music to her days and nights. "You want to go? You'll give me a heart attack, a stroke. What for? You'll ruin your skin, your hair, your future." "Ah Mama, Mama." Tova whispered out loud. "You should have a nice life in heaven."
Her mother certainly hadn't had an easy time of it on earth. Her husband had seen what was coming in the 30s and insisted that they get out of Warsaw. Bella had screamed her protest, but he had been firm. He'd saved her life, but then left her to do with it as she pleased. His work thrived. He traveled to America, to Japan, to Argentina, and Bella bore her little girl, Tasha, alone in a small town north of London.
Tasha had spent her early childhood living a double life. Mornings and afternoons she wore the uniform of an English schoolgirl and ate peas and trifle. At three o'clock her mother swept her into their third floor apartment filled with the crystal goblets and lace antimacassars that they had brought with them from Warsaw. The gramophone played Chopin while Tasha drank sweet tea from a glass and munched almond cookies. She was not allowed to go visiting. "You stay with mama, darling." When they disembarked in Israel after the war, Tasha was astonished at the sight of children her age roaming free. On their first ride through Haifa she couldn't take her eyes from the taxi window. Boys and girls running along the sidewalks, crossing roads, racing bicycles.
Even now, Tova could feel her mother's tight hold on her hand during that first ride. Bella had carefully packed the crystal goblets and the gramophone, certain that she could once more duplicate the Warsaw life in their Haifa apartment. But Tasha quickly became Tova and Mama cried. Almond cookies and tea were no match for the vibrancy of Israeli life in the 50s. Mama fought hard but she was fighting the waves and the sunshine, the sharp smells of fried chickpeas and freshly baked pitta, the feel of bare toes in the sand.
The coughing started again. Tova swallowed twice, trying not to make a noise. "Dummy," she whispered to herself. Was there nothing in her head except these foolish thoughts going round and round? Mama. England. Sweet tea.
She fluffed the pillows and finally slept.
A car alarm went off under the window. The boys were laughing and shouting. "Hey, idiot! Shut that off." "You think I wouldn't if I could, dumbell. It's stuck." "Come on." "Yahla. Let's go find the girls."
The screech of the car alarm. Young voices.
"Find the girls." The girls…the girls…the little girl.
"C'mon Tova. Come with us. We won't go to school today. Let's go to the beach instead. No one will know." They danced crazily. She saw them wearing white nightgowns, feet not touching the ground, hair blowing in all directions.
"Oh I want to. I want to." Tova held out her hands to her friends, reached far enough to feel the touch of their fingers.
"Tasha. You'll be sorry if you go. You'll wreck your life."
"But Mama. They had so much fun. When they came back they had sand in their hair. They were giggling and whispering and they wouldn't tell me why. Mama, why don't you look at me? Where are your eyes? I didn't go. I really didn't go."
"Hey. There they are, the girls. Let's offer them a ride down town."
The cars crashed against each other under her window, but made no sound. Go girls. The sun was hot. The beach was exciting and now she was the girl.
"Hey Tova. Come on over here. You're cute." He thought she was cute. Cute. Cute in her bathing suit. It was night time. There comes a star shooting from its place to the left of the moon, straight into the water. Look. It's rising again and landing beside him on the sand. He reached to pick it up. He wanted to give it to her, but the star was gone. Now it was beside her head, on the pillow, between her and Yaakov. "He likes you. He really likes you" All the girls whispering, giggling. "He's the head of the scouts. He's in the army. What sexy eyes. He likes you, Tova."
"Don't go, Tasha. You'll be sorry. Look at his family. Nothing. Look where they live. Nowhere. Two rooms. Stay here with me. I'm all alone."
"Mama. Enough. I'm an old lady now. It's all past. Stop worrying."
"Don't go. You'll wreck your life. You'll be sorry."
"But look at his eyes, mama. He likes me. He thinks I'm cute. Listen to how he talks about the desert, the land. I feel excited with him. Look at his hands."
"His hands? Foolishness. Trouble. Get it out of your head."
"See that crow over there? The brown head? The black body? It's big, so big it shuts out the light. See how it walks straight towards our building? Something bad will happen. Decide. You want your life to be nice. Beautiful. Orderly. You want everyone to say you're a success or you want to ruin everything? Choose. Choose. Choose now."
"But I am a success, Mama. Look. A nice house. My husband. A professional man, just like you said. I did everything right, mama. So what's wrong? I chose. I choose. I will choose. I have chosen. I always studied. I got good marks in English. I can recite the past perfect and the conditional. I would have chosen. I should have chosen. Why is my head filled with the same thoughts going round and round? Why have I no memories?"
"I'm old, Mama.Where are they – my memories? Why only the same words over and over? Where are the wonderful pictures? The ones that could make me sigh with pleasure, breathe quickly, know that I did it, flew. Look. I'm flying. No. I'm falling. I can't fly. The wings - they don't lift me. I'm fat now. I'm old and I'm fat and I can't fly. What's wrong?"
"Wrong? What could be wrong? Girls don't fly. Everything's right. Everything fits. Good girl. Good girl. Here's your sweater. Button up."
"I don't want the sweater. I'm tearing it open. I'm going, mama. I'm going with him now. I want him to take me behind that big rock where no one can see us. I want him to hold me and run his hands over my body. I want him to touch my breasts and kiss me long. I want him to look at me with his dark eyes and tell me things. Things I don't know. Things that make me excited. Things that make me afraid. I want my body to tremble. I want him to take my hand and run with me on the beach so that all the other girls see. I don't care what they say. I don't care if they gossip about what we did behind the rock. I don't care if he leaves me tomorrow."
"You'll be sorry, Tasha. Remember what I tell you. Trouble."
"'Tova, Tovalah, Tovinka," his voice in the breeze. "We'll climb the rocks, the dunes. See how high we can go." My hand in his. I trip but he catches me. The sky reaches down to meet us. What a wind. An eagle swoops towards our heads. Big. Powerful. Black. I can feel the swish of his wings and smell the strong odor of a predator. "Mama, where are you?"
Gone. The bird's gone. Disappeared into the clouds. Now he's gone too. I'm alone. Alone at the top, but happy, whirling in the wind, as light as an oak leaf. Whirling. Dancing.
"Foolish girl. You could have been hurt. People will talk. Alone at the top of a mountain. Whoever heard of such a thing?"
"But it was wonderful, Mama. And the memory, the memory. It would have been mine forever. Even now when I'm old, Mama. It would have been mine."
"Sure you got old. What did you expect? Varicose veins. Phlegm in your throat. Be careful. No mistakes. Good job. Steady man. Didn't I tell you?"
"But the memories, Mama. I long for memories. Sweet pictures. Sweet feelings. Excitement in my skin. In my bones. With those memories I wouldn't mind the varicose veins and the droopy skin. I'd be a woman with a mysterious smile spreading across closed lips. A smile to appear at unexpected moments. I can see her. Me. An old lady on a bench in the park, clouds swirling around her head. She's wearing a flowing satin dress and smiling enigmatically.
Now she's sitting on a blue sofa, chatting with friends. There's a pause in the conversation. A lovely feeling rises through my body and floats a picture, once lived, into my thoughts. Slowly, slowly comes the smile. A lady with long earrings is looking at me. Wondering. Yesterday, or maybe it's next week.
"What's the smile for, Tova?" I don't answer. Silently, I remember and remember until the smile slowly fades.