Mrs. Dolly Jacobus, who in recent years had arrived at a sure and sedate self-love, sat at her desk pondering how to finish a letter. It was a letter to her husband. All morning long she had basked in the fact that he was at an architects’ conference in Malta, and that she could write him there, write the word Valletta, which had such a light and chivalrous sound that it made her think of a young, robed knight quickly dismounting and elegantly stripping off his riding gloves: Valletta. Not until she had sat down to write did the reality become too much for her: what really did she know about such places, or about the space, proper or outlandish, that Meir Jacobus occupied in them? She could never imagine her husband once she was no longer by his side. Perhaps he had a different existence then, a different face.
Mrs. Dolly Jacobus took her pen and continued to write:
It is 10 A.M. now. Lots of light strikes the desk through the branches of the big olive tree. Do you remember how uncertain I was whether you had planned the window correctly? It seemed so high. But I’m glad of it now: there’s just the right amount of light at just the right times. It’s a lovely house, Meir. When I go to town and come back—and I don’t go that often, because it’s still been very rainy, and between one rain and the next the whole city is out in the streets trying to catch up on its affairs—it seems to me that someone has been in the house and has managed to slip away while I was still on the stairs. I look in the mirror and try to make out who it was. Perhaps it’s a sign that you’re thinking of me and the house. If you’re planning to bring me a lace scarf from Malta, please bring a golden, white, or ivory one, and, in any event, not black. And since I have no idea how you’re managing your time there, let me remind you of the advice that you once gave me: surtout, pas trop de zèle. Adieu, my dear friend.
She quickly reread the letter: yes, it would pass muster beneath her husband’s finely critical eye. There were no annoying questions in it of the how-are-you? when-are-you-coming back? variety, no burdensome I-miss-you’s or it’s-so-difficult-without-you’s. Meir Jacobus had taught her long ago that an undue concern for the practical arrangements of life was a distinctly plebeian trait. Within a year or two of their marriage she had learned not to ask what would be. What will be, will be, he would quietly answer her. Sometimes, taking pity on her anxiousness, he would add: “In the station that you’ve reached, Dolly, you can afford to be impractical.”
Mrs. Dolly Jacobus took a long envelope, sealed the letter inside it, and addressed it to the hotel in Valletta in a slightly slanting hand. Her handwriting was unusual: the letters were long, tall, personal, somewhat squared at the edges, as though she had practiced developing a private calligraphy of her own. Only her signature was small and crumpled, a shelter within a shelter within a shelter. A graphologist had once frightened her with the opinion that it was a drawing of a fetus in the womb. Four consecutive miscarriages of indeterminable cause had left her without children and with the perpetual irritation of an impatient soul that strives for wholeness and cannot understand why it has not come, what can be taking it so long? Only in recent years had this irritation begun to wane. It was with a measure of optimism that she now looked after her home, her husband, and her many flower pots. She regarded herself in the mirror with a satisfied if slightly critical air. She went to lectures at the university, where she had her favorite professors whom she never missed, and her passing academic friendships with their head-nods across rows of chairs and their between-class banter.
Self-love had descended on her slowly, by degrees; it had grown securely out of that greater, more comprehensive love that she had felt for her beautiful home, her books, her paintings, her expensive shoes that were too elegant to be Israeli, her restaurants, her credit cards (yes, Mrs. Jacobus, of course, Mrs. Jacobus), her view of the walled Old City of Jerusalem on which the windows of her house looked down. Dolly Jacobus considered this view to be a private performance put on in her behalf, which she would watch from her gallery in all its many aspects of time and light. Once a visiting friend from the university had sat at the wide window bathed in Herodean light and asked after a long silence:
Do you mean to tell me that you can go on looking out on all this every hour of the day without feeling anxious?
Dolly Jacobus lifted and dropped one shoulder.
“And you can just go on looking down on all this?” the visitor asked again wonderingly. “Just looking down?”
“I must be a butterfly,” said Dolly Jacobus. Her face broke into the lopsided grin that helped make her so likable. “But I want you to know,” she added, “that being a butterfly is something that I have to work at very hard.”
She was too rich for anyone to feel really sorry for her, yet people still said “poor Dolly” when they mentioned her. Nobody knew why. A year before, she had taken up batik and made gifts of her many creations, but the dyeing proved too messy for her and she gave it up in the end. Instead she tried writing haikus. She would in fact have sent her husband a few pithy haikus right now in lieu of a letter, but for her fear that the poems might travel poorly and spoil in the course of their flight over the unnecessarily large ocean that separated her from Meir. All a person really needed in the way of room, she had once thought to herself, was three or four streets around him. Only someone who had never been a refugee could dare dream of oceans and great expanses of space. And twenty-five years ago Dolly Jacobus had been a refugee. To this day she was astonished by such things as central heating which kept on burning warmly, really burning, in a house while the rain remained outside. Truly outside, it wasn’t just an optical illusion.
It turned out that she was out of postage stamps, and since she had planned a trip to a delicatessen downtown anyway, she decided to go buy some. Settling into her small car, she reached into the glove compartment and took out a pair of embroidered house shoes in which she preferred to drive. With her feet in the soft slippers, the car itself became a kind of private room. The rear-view mirror showed her a pointed, attractive face with the barest hint of—not that she actually had the beginnings of one, but the skin above her lip was a trifle darker than elsewhere, so that in all her photographs she was obliged to have it lightened—a mustache over her upper lip. Dolly adjusted the mirror and turned the key in the ignition. To her satisfaction, the motor started at once despite the cold weather.
The city sped toward her in a rush of confusion. People had trouble deciding whether to open their umbrellas or close them: those who opened them had them blown inside-out like a funnel by the wind, while those who closed them were liable to be drenched by a sudden gust of rain. Both parties hurried impatiently, lengthening a stride to avoid a puddle or shortening one against a blast of wind. The hair of the women blew wildly; here and there a young girl ran giggling to catch her kerchief that had flown away. Dark patches of rain stained the walls of the houses. Blotchy clouds sped through the sky between the roofs, through which at irregular intervals the sun struggled to appear. Some children were sailing a paper boat in a dirty puddle. A gray truck whose driver seemed lost in thought drove right through it, spraying grimy water mixed with bits of paper in every direction. The city stone seemed dim and weary. The whole street smelled disagreeably of wet dog fur. For a minute Dolly contemplated turning back to shelter within the clean, warm comfort of her house with its central heating that burned, really burned, cheerily all the time. But she had already come too far.
She parked in a lot downtown. Meir Jacobus’s office was nearby, on the top floor of one of the new sharp skyscrapers that seemed determined in their hatred of the city to get as high above it as they could. No private individual would ever build such a thing for himself; people did such things in groups to get rich quickly from the city. The contracting firm that built this particular building also employed its guards and maintenance staff, as well as the attendants in the nearby parking lot. Once, while having her car washed, it was whispered by one of them in Mrs. Jacobus’s ear that the firm was not on the up-and-up, and even short-changed its employees in their paychecks. For a while she thought of doing something about it; after all, people should have a union that will press their demands. Not that she knew the first thing about it, far from it, but these were matters that everyone read about in the newspaper: workers had unions and even went out on strike. It upset her to see people ill-treated, and she raised the subject one day in Meir’s office. It was afternoon and she had come to drive him home. His sister and partner, Bilhah, an architect herself and a triple divorcee with an exaggeratedly svelte body and a passion for jewelry, was there too. Almost apologetically, Dolly Jacobus murmured something about exploitation, about overtime, something about unions. Bilhah glanced up from her drafting paper, her bracelets and bangles coolly silent, and said:
Really, Dolly, I don’t know why on earth you should want to be such a do-gooder.
Dolly didn’t want to be a do-gooder. She dropped the subject. Still, something of the good will she felt remained with her, something of that indefinable sympathy that everyone can sense even if no one can put a finger on it, so that the men would smile at her especially and inquire how she was. Sometimes she would put a question to them herself and get an answer. She knew, for instance, that the parking-lot attendant on duty today had recently divorced his wife after no end of tribulations and appearances in court. Now, having parked according to his directions that bore more resemblance to a personal plea, she observed him carefully through the window, then took a little notebook from her bag and wrote down:
The divorced man: his shirt more pressed than usual (laundries), his shoulders more hunched than usual (restaurants).
Her notebook and the insight that went into it improved her mood. She considered herself an astute observer. Dolly has a keen eye, she often remarked to herself. She snapped her bag shut as the attendant approached the car window, “Good morning, madame, how are you today, maybe you’d like the car washed?” She flashed the broad smile that she reserved for her faithful followers, “No thank you, the car won’t be here long enough, but please don’t forget to remind me next time, you know how forgetful I am, really, I don’t know what I’d do without you.” As she talked, she felt that she was overdoing it, saying and smiling too much. Meir would have gotten the same message across with two words and a short wave of his hand. The attendant too was confused and didn’t know whether to stay or leave. Was there something else the lady wished to say to him? Luckily, another car entered the lot at that moment and saved him from his predicament.
Dolly locked the car door and made a mental note to give the man a gift for his politeness on the first available holiday. Indeed, Purim was next week: perhaps some imported deodorant would do. It was a pity how few people in this perspiring land understood the importance of deodorant. Such a gift would be both practical and pleasurable. Yet Dolly Jacobus was far from a brainless woman: what would happen, she asked herself, when the supply of expensive deodorant was used up? The parking-lot attendant had alimony to pay and certainly could not afford such luxuries, while she and Meir could hardly supply him with deodorant forever; a can every holiday, or perhaps even every week, how absurd. In the meantime the sun reappeared and the clouds in Dolly’s mind dispersed too. She would give it to him this once and take her chances. What was so wrong with making a man happy just once? Life was all ups and downs anyway.
Having withstood the temptation to succumb this time too to an undue concern for practical arrangements, which was always a source of anxiety, her mood improved even more. Dolly Jacobus was an orderly woman who didn’t like to leave problems unsolved, not even the bare thought of one. She smoothed out her dress and walked to the building. A silent elevator took her quickly to the top floor, where her husband’s office was.
The door was open. Bilhah was inside by herself, bent over some tracing paper with a compass. She was always bent over something. A low desk lamp cast an intense pool of light on the table, in which Bilhah’s rings bubbled as though being brought to a boil.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Bilhah Jacobus unenthusiastically. Her rings fell silent for a moment, then started to bubble again.
“Are you alone? Where’s Esther?”
Esther was the secretary, a tall, ugly, unpleasant, gum-chewing girl who wore a wig made of someone else’s hair and had never learned to answer the telephone properly. Moreover, she didn’t even need the job, nor did Meir and Bilhah really need a secretary; but her parents, of a prominent Jerusalem family that had two or three different marriage ties with the Jacobuses, had pleaded for her.
“Esther has been working so hard all year long,” said Bilhah sarcastically, “that she decided to take a vacation. Now that Meir is away, she thought she had one coming to her.”
“Maybe she did.”
Bilhah threw her a mocking look that left nothing out or unalluded to, from Esther’s glum, gum-chewing slow-wittedness, to the niggardly, have-pity-on-me vibrations that she gave off. Before such realities Dolly Jacobus could not but bow down. In Meir’s and Bilhah’s tolerance of Esther, it seemed to her, was a certain hypocrisy, a kind of mock stoicism that was too much for her to understand.
“What are you doing now, Bilhah?”
“The same as before Meir took off.”
“Entrances for Zone Three of the Jewish Quarter. Didn’t Meir tell you?”
Bilhah knew perfectly well that Meir never told her anything.
But Bilhah placed her hand over the paper.
“There’s nothing to see yet. You wouldn’t understand it anyway.”
Each time Dolly felt all over again how out of place she was in this office, which was Meir’s workaday world. Whenever she telephoned and was answered by Esther’s wooden voice, her depression was so great that she couldn’t remember what she had called to say. More than once she had actually forgotten some urgent matter and hadn’t dared call back again. It was like standing by a sea rail and watching things fall from one’s hands into the water, irretrievable.
“I’m going to the post office now, Bilhah. Is there anything urgent for Meir?”
“Look on his desk,” came the indifferent reply. Bilhah returned to her measurements. Two heavy bracelets jangled on her wrist.
Dolly Jacobus went over to the window, which wasn’t a real window but an immovable panel of glass. The sight of the bare, unshaded light bulb burning in the broad daylight of the room made her uneasy. There was something abnormal, something hybrid and unlifelike about it, almost a sin against those natural processes that have their own relaxed flow. This dizzying, too high, too enclosed, eternally air-conditioned room with its hermetically sealed windows and its strong lamplight at eleven o’clock in the morning, when a premature spring wind was whirling outside, disturbed her peace of mind and all but depressed her. She felt the need to get outside into the fresh air and wind, though it flail at her with blown paper and leaves. From time to time an unmistakable gust from the south pierced the galloping whirlpool of air, flaring the nostrils with keen desert desire—a southern breeze such as could only be felt in Jerusalem in autumn and spring. To get away, away, to gallop quickly, to give oneself away.
Nothing of this could be felt in the office. Bilhah Jacobus was confined to her white beam of light, from which she declared:
There’s something there from Grandma Haya that Meir hasn’t seen yet. She commands us to close the windows in her dining room that face out on the new housing projects. She says that she can’t stand to look at them, that each time she sees how they’ve ruined her mountain, her blood pressure goes up.
There was always some new story about Grandma Haya that was always being told with the same helpless affection. Grandma Haya was a monument, and monuments are a law unto themselves. She was eighty-nine-years-old, though she confessed to only eighty-seven, and still cooked all her holiday specialties for her daughters-in-law, who—poor things!—had no strength of their own. One time she paid a royal visit to Dolly’s and Meir’s house, where she sat for a long time at the broad window that looked down on the Old City from above. Yes, yes, she said. It all belonged to her. She could look out on it all, she who had never been a young starving refugee with a funny family name that had to be changed in a new land. Grandma Haya appraised Dolly sternly and asked if there were roaches in her kitchen. “No, Grandma Haya, there aren’t,” said Dolly, hiding a smile. Grandma Haya declared firmly:
I congratulate you.
Meir’s and Bilhah’s grandmother lived in an old house full of arches with an outdoor toilet that she used day and night, summer and winter, and refused to exchange for a modern, indoor one such as Meir and Bilhah had been begging her to install for years. The rooms of her house were abrasively spotless, cleaner than clean, with their white curtains, whiter tablecloths, and heavy silver candlesticks polished to such a brilliance that they seemed to shine even at night. In his childhood, Meir claimed, he had been afraid to sleep in the same room with the candlesticks because of their light. Each time he awoke, he thought he was seeing a thief’s flashlight.
One wall of Grandma Haya’s bedroom was covered with a large map of the world in which were stuck little flags. Grandma Haya was a sixth-generation Jerusalemite, she had grandchildren and great-grandchildren all over the globe, and she wanted to know exactly where each one of them was. An orange flag with the name Nurit on it was thrust into London. A bright blue flag that said Elisha and Tali was near Tel Aviv. There was a reddish flag for Yoav somewhere in Sinai. (Not that Yoav ever served in Sinai, but Grandma Haya assumed that if he was in the army, it could only be there.) She had once been in Sinai herself with her departed husband, the doctor, on an expedition of Englishmen, and had ridden sidesaddle as was the custom of ladies in those days. Her memories of the trip—more portraiture, really, than memory—were of ravens, cliffs, and untold dangers. Perhaps vague longings for the place lingered on, for why else would she so staunchly insist that Yoav was there when he wasn’t, braving all those dangers, especially when she couldn’t even recall very well how he looked?
Grandma Haya was distressed that so few of her flags were in Jerusalem, while in the United States alone there were three, one belonging to Adi, who had been married there in a Catholic church. At first Grandma Haya had wanted to pull that flag out of her map, but at the last minute she relented, so that it remained crookedly in place as though it did not quite belong. Dolly clearly remembered the moment nearly twenty years ago when Grandma Haya had risen from her seat, and planted in the heart of Jerusalem a lemon-colored flag that said Meir and Dolly on it. They had already been married two weeks at the time, but to all of them this seemed the real wedding. At last Dolly had come home. The bare, goaty hill outside the window had seemed to her a potential disaster area of which she alone was afraid. Now that her flag stood firmly in Grandma Haya’s map, she felt that she too could relax.
Dolly Jacobus stood in her husband’s office and pressed her head against the storm-beaten, forever-sealed window; Bilhah sat in the strong beam of light silently swearing at some unsuccessful calculation, her jewelry coming slowly to a boil again, and up on her hillside Grandma Haya sat at home, furious at the intruding projects that had put her old age to shame. For once in her life she too had no strength to fight back.
There was a long line of people in the post office. The fan on the ceiling wasn’t working. At the head of the line stood a messenger boy from some office with several dozen registered letters. As soon as he finished, two soldiers advanced out of turn and demanded to be served. The post office kept growing more packed; it was as though half the city had decided to crowd into it, each person with many items to mail. The clerk at the window was slow and incompetent, complaints began to be heard. Dolly Jacobus would gladly have left, but she was already nearer to the front of the line than the rear, and to elbow her way back out through the dense crowd seemed harder than waiting her turn. Perspiration formed on her forehead.
Directly in front of her stood a very small teenage girl with the emaciatedly thin, almost monkeylike appearance of a stunted child. Only her chest and her buttocks stuck sharply out like false appendages that didn’t quite belong to her. There was something pitifully sharp and shrunken about her, as though privation had caused her to stop growing in the womb; she seemed more a homunculus than an actual person, a snuffed-out, light-less little candle. A strong smell of the cheapest violet-scented perfume came from her body together with an odor of cigarettes and sweat. No doubt the perfume took the place of daily baths, very likely she slept in her clothes. Amid the great press of people, her curly hair was thrust right beneath Mrs. Dolly Jacobus’s nose. She wore tiny doll-like blue jeans that were slightly open at the waist and a purple blouse still shiny from some bargain stand. Where the two failed to meet, a strip of naked, pathetically lackluster skin was exposed, on which grew a dark tuft of animal-like hair. She looked concentrated, smoky, and bad. Her neck was unwashed.
In the girl’s hands, Mrs. Jacobus saw, were two registered letters from the law office of Advocate Yitzhaki on Ben-Yehuda Street. Dolly Jacobus and her husband knew Yitzhaki well and had often visited his large home in the German Colony, which somehow made the girl seem less a stranger to her. With her usual avidity to be liked by her inferiors, or perhaps out of a loneliness so habitual that she no longer even sensed that it was there, she smiled encouragingly at the girl. The complaints and congestion had grown worse, if such a thing were imaginable, and Dolly Jacobus sought to free herself of them by moving forward a bit, when she suddenly realized to her astonishment that the dark-skinned waif of a girl not only failed to move too, but deliberately seemed to press backward and turn her head, so that her dark mouth unmistakably delved like an inquisitive kitten’s against the soft silk bodice covering Mrs. Dolly Jacobus’s right breast. A current of rare flame shot through Dolly’s body, and with it, an indistinct fear. She sought to move away once more, which was far from easy in the great throng of people that had long ceased to preserve even the semblance of a line. This time, however, there was no possibility of error: the girl pressed against Dolly Jacobus’s stomach again, as though in an open and explicit invitation. She could feel the burning, monkeylike heat of her seemingly chronically feverish body. All of a sudden the girl looked up and regarded Mrs. Dolly Jacobus with a sharp, clairvoyant impudence.
A hot wave, heavy, tropical, and damp passed over Dolly Jacobus. She jerked back her hand so as not to touch the girl’s waist and offendedly clamped her mouth shut. Yet she knew, with a weak, sinking feeling, that she could no longer resist the wave of desire rising, inimitably shameless, within her. Not that she was unaware of the element of sadism in this sudden new passion, of her need to trample, to assail. But the girl appeared not to mind, appeared to size up the situation exactly with an omniscience as old as the world. Compared to her, I’m an amateur, Dolly Jacobus thought to herself, a rank amateur. She shut her eyes, conscious that in another moment she would move closer to the knowing little body of her own accord. Just then, however, the post-office manager sent a clerk to open a second window; the line melted away, and the girl stepped forward with her registered letters as though nothing had happened. She mailed them and left the post office without looking at Mrs. Jacobus.
Dolly Jacobus put stamps on the letter to Valletta, which was no longer a knight or even a geographical place but simply a sound. She bought a few extra stamps and dropped the letter in the mailbox, as though glad to be rid of it. When she turned to look for her, the girl had already disappeared among the passersby and been swallowed up by the street. Dolly Jacobus retraced her steps toward the parking lot, entered a dimly lit café on the way, drank something hurriedly, and thought that the storm had subsided. Yet when she turned onto Ben-Yehuda Street she felt suddenly so faint, and the slope of the sidewalk seemed so steep, that she feared she would have to negotiate it on all fours. How, she wondered, could everyone else be taking such a precipitous drop in stride? I will never make it to the bottom, she said nearly out loud to herself. Hesitantly she began to walk step-by-step to her car, when she chanced to meet an acquaintance, a tall, merry young student from the university wrapped in a duffle coat against the errant wind, who mercifully accompanied her part of her way. By the time he took his leave with seven-league strides, he left her feeling better, sorry to see him go.
Dolly Jacobus had often wondered about the meaning of home. There were so many homes in the world, so many houses, and out of them all each person had one alone in which he knew where everything was. Of all the hundreds of thousands of homes, she thought, there is one alone to which I have a key and know that in the top drawer of the chest in the bedroom to the left is a tan camel’s-hair sweater; of all the impenetrable, anonymous houses there is only one in which I can find right away the set of dishes that Meir brought from Spain. The lighter. The broom. The wash-and-dry sheets. Now, however, as she sat motionless in her car, she was no longer so sure of this nexus of knowledge between her and her house. If she were to return to it this minute, she felt, the key might not fit the door, so that she would remain trapped outside in impersonal space. And if it did fit, her memories might not. The sweater might not be in its drawer, and who knew whether the chest would be there at all; whether a different table would not be standing in place of the one she knew; whether the whole familiar house would not turn out to have been a dream, and the house she returned to a strangely furnished place that she had never arranged. Instead of her rose bushes there might be a strip of concrete on which an electric generator clanked intolerably away. Perhaps a gang of workers. Perhaps the house had been condemned already without her knowing it.
She ran a hand over her forehead to drive the nightmare away. It wasn’t the first such ghastly vision she had had in the past two or three weeks. Several times she had dreamed that a stranger, someone she should have known but somehow was unable to recognize, had broken into her house; struggling with the hideous, mocking secret of who he was, she had broken free each time with a choked little cry. When Meir was home, he would wake her. Now she was alone, and it was hard waking by herself in the middle of the night. Often she left the night light on. Yet the panic underneath remained.
This is no good, Dolly Jacobus said to herself, wonderingly: this is no good. Pulling herself together, she stuck the key in the ignition and decided to visit Grandma Haya.
If the weather outside was still behaving strangely, none of it was noticeable in Grandma Haya’s house, which had a weather all its own. Meir had once remarked that Grandma Haya was the last ecological person in the family. She would never have dreamed of buying parsley and other spices; she grew them herself, planted by the fig tree and the lemon tree in the courtyard. The idea, Grandma said, of buying a lemon in a store. The balsam with which she scented her linen closet was picked by her in the hills, or by one of her granddaughters when her back hurt too much to go look for it. An egg was a meal for her, and who could explain to her, pray, why people ran around as they did nowadays and caused themselves all kinds of diseases of the liver and the heart? People don’t live by human proportions any more, she would say: they build too high, live too high, and talk too high. It’s an insult to creation. Offices, everyone must have an office.
It was indeed Meir’s and Bilhah’s good fortune that she had never been to their office, because if she had, who knew whether she wouldn’t have taken a stick to them on account of the unopenable windows, fraudulent windows, an arrogance of a building. Once, when she went to town to buy fabric for a dress, Grandma Haya took one look at the prices and threw the cloth back on the counter. “The nerve of you,” she said to the salesgirl. “The nerve of you.” Then and there she swore that she would never buy another thing until impudence passed from the world. Over her dead body would the speculators get rich. Several years before she had gone to Tel Aviv and returned in a rage; ever since, her favorite phrase of dismissal was to say, “That’s from Tel Aviv.” If someone brought her a box of chocolates, all becellophaned and beribboned, she would wrinkle her mouth sarcastically and ask: “Is that from Tel Aviv?” And once, when Dolly had brought her a book by some young author, she had declared after reading it: “It must be from Tel Aviv.” It was common knowledge that you didn’t bring Grandma Haya flowers unless you had grown them in your own garden. Flower butchers was her name for flower shops.
In the middle of the Yom Kippur War, when she had grown tired of baking cakes for the soldiers, Grandma Haya decided to step out: she had an urge to go see the Chagall stained-glass windows at Hadassah hospital. Buses either came in those days or they didn’t; over half-an-hour later Dolly found her sitting on the stone bench of the bus station, and suggested that she take a taxi. “What’s gotten into you, child?” Grandma Haya scolded her. Besides which, taxis were built low, you couldn’t see anything out of them. Buses were built high, at least you could look out and see.
Grandma Haya no longer stepped out any more. She was tired, tired in that quiet way that marks the end of all wanting, of even the hint of a desire. I’m not afraid to die, she told her family. I’ve never quarreled with my body and I don’t intend to quarrel with it now.
“Come on in,” she said to Dolly with a bright smile, opening the door for her. “You can help me slice string beans in the kitchen.” Grandma Haya never sliced string beans the lazy way, across. She always sliced them lengthwise, her knife passing right through the little seeds in the pod. It gave them an entirely different taste.
They were seated opposite the black grandfather clock in the kitchen. Through the short, starched muslin curtains the light half-filtered in. Dolly had no idea why she had come. If it was to bare her heart, she herself wasn’t sure what there was to bare. There was an opaqueness in her that she failed to comprehend but that kept her from returning home. She was in that state of blind anticipation in which a man vaguely senses that things have come to a head, without knowing exactly what things or what head. Grandma Haya sliced string beans and talked.
“Once when Menahem, may he rest in peace, was alive, two young yeshivah students came to see him one Saturday morning. ‘Doktor, kumt.’ ‘Where to?’ asked Menahem. ‘Our rabbi has had a heart attack.’ Menahem was already halfway out of the house with his doctor’s case when I decided to open my mouth. ‘Just how do you expect him to come with you on the Sabbath?’ I asked. ‘He won’t be able to drive his car down your streets.’ ‘Then let him walk,’ said the students. ‘Oh no,’ I said, ‘oh no. My husband is a man of more than seventy, and he’s not going anywhere on foot.’ ‘Just a minute,’ said one of the students to me. ‘We’d better talk things over between us.’ So they went outside and whispered a bit, psss, psss, psss, and then came back in. ‘Doktor, kumt!’ ‘How is he going?’ I asked. ‘In his car,’ they said. ‘But they throw stones in your streets at cars traveling on the Sabbath,’ I said. ‘Doktor, kumt,’ they said. ‘Just let him drive slowly behind us, everything will be all right.’
“So he got into his car, may he rest in peace, which by then couldn’t have gone very fast anyway, neither it nor he, and drove slowly behind the two students, who walked ahead of him shouting ‘Shaa! Shaa!’ to their left and to their right. When Menahem reached the police barrier blocking traffic into the quarter, the police were fast asleep, they never dreamed that anyone would try driving a car into Mea She’arim on the Sabbath. By the time they woke up, the two students had moved the barrier and Menahem had driven through. A policeman ran after them in a state of shock, shouting, ‘Hey, it’s shabbes!’ So what did the two students do? They turned around to him and said Shaa! That’s how Menahem drove into Mea She’arim on the Sabbath, with the two students shaa’ing all the shabbes-cryers. He examined the rabbi, gave him something to feel better, and came home. We had a good laugh over it.”
“How did he get back out, with the students?”
“No, by himself.”
“And what happened?”
“They stoned him of course, what do you think? Dolly, you’re younger than I am, throw out this garbage and put some water in the kettle. Where is Meir?”
“Meir is in Malta. At an architects’ conference.”
Grandma Haya made a face.
“Why on earth Malta? What can a man expect to find in Malta? When is he coming back?”
“I don’t know,” Dolly confessed. “He didn’t say exactly. Perhaps next week.”
Grandma Haya was annoyed.
“What kind of business is that? A husband goes off to Malta-shmalta and his wife doesn’t even know when he’s coming back. You’re an idiotic generation. I suppose you don’t even know what’s written in your marriage contract. In a Jewish marriage contract it says that a husband mustn’t go off to the end of the earth without first asking his wife’s permission. Did Meir ask your permission?”
“I gave him permission, Grandma Haya,” smiled Dolly, the old, habitual darkness in her heart. “And you know he would have gone without permission anyway. That’s how men are.” Suddenly she found the courage to add: “Don’t you think it might be better if women didn’t marry men at all? Perhaps what a woman really needs is another woman.”
But Grandma Haya wouldn’t hear of it and flapped her hands in distress:
What sort of nonsense is that? Really, the things you people say. A woman needs a woman, feh. What is this, Tel Aviv?
Dolly made a soft, sweeping gesture with her palms, as though gathering in with great gentleness the curly head in the post office, like gathering a flower. She rose to go.
“I’ll pour you your tea, Grandma Haya, and then I’ll be off. Please, you needn’t get up.”
Grandma Haya got up anyway. In the grave, she said, is where I’ll stop getting up to say goodbye to my guests. She kissed Dolly at the door with the cold lips of a person who no longer has much vital heat. “And tell Meir that I don’t like this going off of his one bit. Besides which, I want him and Bilhah to close up my windows in the dining room. There’s enough to do here in Jerusalem. What is he running all over the world for?”
Home, when Dolly returned to it, was warm and very clean, and smelled unmistakably of comfort and wealth. She took off her coat and sat down at the table, exhausted in advance, as though some grim and unavoidable disaster awaited her and she hadn’t the strength to begin. Soon, however, God knew from where, a sharp burst of energy ran through her: now, at once, this evening, she must understand everything about herself once and for all. It was time she knew. She rummaged through the closet, took out all the albums and began feverishly looking for the few rare snapshots of herself from her refugee days. None lit the faintest spark. She could not find herself in any of them. Perhaps, she thought, if only, if only I had some picture from my childhood, from the age of four or five, perhaps then. But such a picture was not to be had anywhere on earth. It was as if Dolly had been twice-born, and her first, perhaps realer life had ended abruptly at the age of fourteen. Afterward another, post-diluvian life had begun, with its disguises and new names.
A great wave of sadistic compassion, a feeling not unlike that of a little child who plays lovingly with a doll and a minute later punishingly tears out its hair, cast the girl from the post office up inside her again. The shame of it, thought Dolly dry-mouthedly, the wonderful shame of it. Why, I practically am in need of her. Already she was planning how the two of them would sit here, at this table, studying English together. Dolly would teach her patiently, yet sometimes not, losing her temper in a fit of erotic anger; and as the weather would be hot, and the air-conditioning was out of order, the two would take off their blouses. They would wash each other in the shower. One more step and the girl would be hers, a gutterbird, pinched and adroit.
After midnight the wave vanished as suddenly as it had come. That’s the last of it, she thought tiredly, the absolute last of it. I almost made a terrible mistake. Thank God I got over it in time. The situations a person can get herself into, really. She left the night light on, took a sleeping pill, and drifted off into a deep, obtuse sleep.
At ten o’clock the next morning, without knowing a minute beforehand what she was about to do, Dolly Jacobus settled vehemently into her car, slammed the door shut with pursed lips, and drove off with a violent grinding of her gears. She parked in the usual lot, which was attended this morning by a new, unfamiliar face, and walked with quick steps in the direction of Advocate Yitzhaki’s office. In her panic that she might reconsider and change her mind, she nearly ran up the steps. The lawyer’s office was composed of two rooms entered from an old, peeling corridor that housed several other offices as well, in addition to a bathroom with a gigantic old key in its door and a small cubicle in which an aged, immortal-looking man sat making tea and coffee for the office workers. The older he grew, it was said, the more polished were his copper trays and the dirtier the drinking glasses borne on them.
Dolly Jacobus was still examining the name plates on the wall when the bathroom door swung open at the end of the corridor and the girl in the purple blouse emerged and stopped to turn the key twice behind her. She looked even tinier than she had yesterday in the post office. An ancient, wicked triumph shone in her eyes when she caught sight of Mrs. Jacobus. She stepped up to her, too concentrated a ball of impudence for one small girl.
“Would you like to come work for me?” asked Dolly Jacobus. She felt that her generally musical voice lacked all expression, was as toneless as a block of wood.
“Whaddam’ I gonna do fa’ you?” asked the girl with a trace of scorn. “I ain’t no cleaning woman. I work for a lawyer, y’know.”
“I know that you do,” said Mrs. Jacobus. “You’re Advocate Yitzhaki’s messenger girl. But wouldn’t you like to get ahead in the world? I could teach you English if you’d like.”
The girl stared at her blankly.
“It won’t cost you a penny,” said Dolly Jacobus. “You can come every day to study for an hour, an hour-and-a-half.”
The girl gave her head a skeptical shake.
“You’ll be sorry y’ast.” She seemed to hold the consonants and then spit them menacingly out of her mouth. Cheekily.
“Wouldn’t you like to try?”
The girl looked at her askance. To do so she had to throw back her head, since Mrs. Jacobus was much taller. From the girl came the smell of a recently chewed sesame bar.
“When do you finish working here?”
“Me? At six.”
“Fine. Be down near the Agron building at six. I’ll be waiting for you in my car.”
“Me? I can’t today. I gotta date with my boy friend, see?”
So soon, so soon the degradation if it had begun. Dolly Jacobus could feel the knife that was being slowly, almost gently turned in her body. Already I am at the mercy of her whims, of her boy friend, who may or may not exist, most likely not. A terrible pity flooded her eyes. She placed a gentle hand on the girl’s cheek.
“All right, little girl. Let’s make it tomorrow.”
The girl must have had no idea of how to respond to an innocent touch, for immediately she-thrust out her hips like a streetwalker’s, as though it were expected of her. Dolly Jacobus swallowed a hot lump, turned on her heels and began descending the stairs.
“Hey, missus!” called the girl after her, leaning over the balcony. “Missus! Listen, missus, it’s okay. Let’s make it today.”
And Dolly Jacobus felt weak with happiness.
A letter was waiting for her at home from Meir, special delivery, as was his habit. She put off opening it. There were two telephone calls. A friend called to invite her and Meir to Friday night dinner, but said quickly when told that Meir was still away, “All right, then, let’s make it some other time. Bye-bye, Dollinka, and send the man my best.” Then Grandma Haya called, querulous, cross, and very old. Why wasn’t Meir back yet? Why weren’t her windows taken care of? Did they think she was going to live forever? She had completely forgotten Dolly’s visit of yesterday.
Otherwise, there was nothing to do. Lust turned into a series of practical details: a meal ready in the refrigerator, plates on the table, a record that took a long time to choose, a new blouse that lay in its wrapper in the bedroom to give the girl as a gift. She had bought it in a children’s store, since sizes that small were available nowhere else. Three times she went to town shopping and three times she came back. It all became so new, blind, and inevitable. Hurry, hurry.
The Agron building was very white in the dusky light. A gray haze rose from the acacia trees to mingle with the exhaust of many cars, against which the lampposts and yellow fences stood out strongly. Dolly Jacobus felt everything intensify: all shapes seemed more significant, as though—the white gleam of the stone that faced the office building, that street light over there that was trying to say a clear sentence—they were all in a code that had to be learned to be read. The cloud-dampered, haze-dimmed twilight did not surprise her: why, since last evening her world had been darkening—since well before last evening in fact—with that last, eerie glow that portends a certain disaster. I am waiting for my love, she told herself, for my poor, ugly love with her smell of sweat and synthetic violets. To support her in the style she will become accustomed to. I shall not skimp.
She waited a long time. The girl did not appear. A gang of boys on their way to Morasha passed by her car and peered apathetically inside at her. A young mother screamed at her son with practiced, despairing, almost ceremonial screams. Two foreign journalists whom she knew waved at her on their way to the press club. Suddenly, in a gust of evening breeze, the acacias began to touch one another, to talk back and forth. The city whirled the evening around inside it, rings within rings; soon it would be suppertime, soon it would be nighttime, soon there would be street lights and movies and people clustered around hot popcorn. The whirling rings slowly thickened into solid darkness. The girl had not come.
At seven o’clock, cold, beat, and aching, Dolly Jacobus pressed the accelerator and headed for home. What luck, she thought, at least she doesn’t know my name and address. All I needed was to have a blackmail case on my hands, she and her boy friend together, don’t get wise with us, lady, we know all about you. Or some venereal disease, who knows. How could Yitzhaki even employ such a horrible girl? Why, one ought to . . . one ought to. . . .
She hurried to enter the house, which seemed to her now all Meir’s: those were his clothes in the closet, his slippers on the floor. What a disgrace, really, the things she had thought of doing in it. Even the shirt from the children’s store that lay on his side of the bed. Blushingly she took it and threw it in the garbage pail. I didn’t do anything, Meir, she said to herself, I only thought of it—and thoughts aren’t deeds, Meir, are they? She drew open the heavy curtain, which revealed the most stunning landscape on earth: the old walls of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount and Mount Zion. It’s all there, she reassured herself, it’s still there, all those thousands of houses dipped now in darkness as though they, as though they alone were the only true houses and deserved to have their wishes come true. She looked around her. The pictures still hung on the walls, the books hadn’t vanished, her shoeless foot sunk as sensually as always into the Mashhad carpet. My God, how could I? How? The lunacy of it.
She suddenly made up her mind to call Meir. True, he had firmly, with all the authority of a rational man, warned her not to do it, so that she feared the moment of his anger and surprise—but she must hear his voice, if only to tell him about Grandma Haya’s windows, or to find out the number of his return flight, just to talk. She explained to the long-distance operator that she did not know the number, but that she wanted to get the Hotel Phoenix in Valletta. Yes, Valletta, the capital of Malta, that’s correct. Once again it seemed to her the most cavalier and elegant of cities. Yet it was hard for her to imagine Meir walking its streets without his car, since he had long ago turned into a centaur, part man and part automobile. It was perhaps only in bed that he sometimes still lay peeled of his layers and defenseless. Who knew what his strength was without his car in the streets of Valletta?
While waiting for the operator to call back, she prepared herself a sandwich, which she ate sitting on the arm of the easy chair, her bare feet crossed. Soon I will speak with Meir, she thought, I will hear the wonder in his voice—the same mild wonder I always hear, as though life itself was not what he had expected. Meir Jacobus, the architect, the man who found it easier to talk about entrances for Zone Three of the Jewish Quarter than about what was going on inside him. We’ve drifted apart a bit lately, Meir, thought Dolly, but it will all work out, won’t it? We will talk now and it will work out.
The sandwich was eaten. Dolly had just gone to the kitchen to get an apple when the telephone rang. She left the unwashed fruit by the sink and ran barefoot to the telephone.
The long-distance operator told her to wait. She heard her talking to the operator in Valletta. Then to the desk at the hotel. So many different voices talking so far away—Dolly had never been very good at understanding such things. Attendez un moment, said the operator at the hotel. Then: “Mrs. Jacobus, here’s your call.”
“Hello?” An unpleasant and familiar woman’s voice sounded in Dolly’s ears. For a second she failed to understand: why, it was the wooden voice of Esther, ugly, gum-chewing, wigged Esther. The secretary. Then she understood. Slowly she replaced the receiver.
The long-distance operator was persistent. She rang again. “Your call to Valletta, Mrs. Jacobus.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” Dolly said. “Please cancel it. I’ve changed my mind.”
So that’s how it is, said Dolly out loud in the empty apartment. That’s how it’s been all the time. I’ve really always known. But what actors we all are.
She turned off the light and sat on the window sill, looking out at the broad canopy of sky and many lights. Something fell away from her and dropped, perhaps the paths that henceforward would go their different ways, with cosmic speed, so that there would be no remembering even when she had still been her undivided self.
Why, one ought to, said Dolly out loud to the shadowy paintings, whose frames glittered silently in the dark room. One ought to.
Tomorrow, she thought, I’ll know what one ought to do.