Five Seasons

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Five Seasons Page 10

by A. B. Yehoshua

  The next morning it was a few degrees colder and the city was cloaked in a chill white mist, though the promised snowstorm had not yet arrived. For three hours he stood in front of the box office, kept there only by the stubborn enthusiasm of those on line with him, some of them tourists like himself. Apparently that night’s production, which was of Mozart’s Magic Flute, was supposed to be especially good. When he finally reached the window, he saw that the prices were indeed outrageous, but he did not have the heart to walk away. The first snowflakes had begun falling outside. It was getting still colder. He thought of buying the children their presents, but the blow to his pocket was so great that he resolved to go straight back to the apartment to recuperate.

  That evening they ate early and prepared the children for bed. The doctor arrived at the last minute, straight from a difficult operation, and barely had time to change his clothes. At seven the babysitter, a gorgeous teenager, arrived. It was snowing heavily, and in a gay and animated mood they decided to take the metro instead of their car.


  THE OPERA WAS VERY LONG, lasting for some three hours. Parts of it were tiresome and difficult to follow, but there were others so superb and moving that he felt as if long-dead cells within him were thawing out and coming back to life. Whenever Papagano and Papagana appeared, a fresh, burgeoning breeze seemed to blow from onstage. The doctor, however, was too exhausted to sit through it; as early as the first act he began to doze, while eventually, seated between the two of them, he fell into a deep sleep, his head alternately falling on his wife’s and Molkho’s shoulders. Smiling, gently whispering, “How can you waste all that money,” they tried in vain to wake him.

  It was almost midnight when they left the opera house. Unexpectedly, the sky was clear and the city was covered with a thick, white blanket of glistening snow, the public statues, the iron banisters, and the gargoyles of the houses all artfully draped with festive white bunting. Molkho had never seen Paris in the snow; suddenly he felt an inexplicable fear, worried by the thought that the flight he was scheduled to leave on in two days’ time might be canceled. From all around them came the merry shouts of surprised Parisians unable to find a cab. The metro was as crowded as during rush hour, but the snow had put everyone in a good mood. Arriving home, they found the children wide awake and excited, and after briefly debating whether it was possible to take the baby-sitter home, they decided to put her up in the children’s room for the night. A great commotion of blankets and linens ensued, and it was 2 A.M. before they were all in bed. Molkho could not fall asleep. Initially aroused by the nearby presence of the beautiful French girl, he soon found himself obsessed by the music of the opera. As on the night of his wife’s death, he turned from side to side, unable to get the themes, already confused with others, out of his head, the music of Mozart now fused with that of Mahler, so that, hearing the throbbing horns, he rose from his broad bed and tormentedly lit the small lamp. His anguish must have been felt by his wife’s cousin, who, appearing by his side with a sleeping pill and a glass of water, offered them to him with a tenderness that, he felt, he had been deprived of for many long years.

  He slept late the next morning and awoke to find the house empty and an indecipherable note in French on the table. Last night’s snow shone through the window with a purplish gray gleam. He had no key to the apartment and so took his time about leaving, knowing he could not return until evening, walking aimlessly about the rooms and then leafing through magazines and picture albums until he found an old photograph of his mother-in-law, standing in a strange European city with a small baby in her arms who did not at all look like his wife. Perhaps it was his wife’s cousin, perhaps someone else. He kept on poking through closets and inspected the medicine cabinet, surprised by the paucity of its contents, which included only a few bottles of cough syrup and some agent against hemorrhoids.

  Finally, he put on his coat and made up his mind to go out. His first stop was a travel agency whose address he had, where he confirmed his flight to West Berlin. The agency was on the second floor of a large office building, next door to a ticket office for shows and tours that was filled with sightseers from all over the world, especially from India and the Far East. After confirming his flight he asked what the weather was like in Berlin, but no one was able to tell him, and so he went back outside and walked about the city, among drifts of snow that grew slushier as the clearing blue sky grew brighter. In the side streets behind the opera house, he sternly eyed some women in large fur coats whom he took to be prostitutes intent on his business, but none of them made a move in his direction. All at once he felt anxious about Berlin. Should he perhaps call the trip off and fly straight back to Israel? His left arm, he thought, was beginning to hurt, and more depressing yet were the huge throngs of shoppers who burst out of the department stores at noontime, congesting the streets. The air was warming, filling the gutters with rivulets of melted snow. He bought a few presents and sat down to wait for his wife’s cousin in a little café opposite the nursery. For some reason, she was late, and so he decided on his own to pick up the tot, who went with him quite willingly with no questions asked, standing on the street in his winter clothes like a little red bear until his mother came running, all out of breath and wearing a most becoming shawl. She gave Molkho a grateful kiss, and noting for the first time that she looked like his wife, he felt a twinge in his heart.

  When the doctor came home, they ate a delicious hot dinner while Molkho told them about his flight to Berlin, to which, he said, his office in Israel was sending him, and about his return flight via Paris, where he would only be changing planes at the airport. They seemed genuinely sorry that he would be leaving. “We’ve gotten used to you. The children are wild about you. Couldn’t you stop over for a few days on your way back?” “I’ve put you out enough as it is,” he replied, thanking them with emotion.

  It was not without sorrow that he said good-bye in the morning to the comfortable bed that he had spent the last five nights in. His wife’s cousin, who had grown attached to him during the visit and found their parting difficult, insisted on taking him to the airport. She drove slowly, carelessly, in the heavy traffic, talking about his wife and about her own problems and worries. At the airport, instead of simply dropping him off at his terminal, she parked in the underground lot and came with him. At first, they had trouble finding the check-in counter. No one at the information desk had heard of the line he was flying. The two of them ran from one wing of the building to the other until at last, in the charter-flights section, they found a small counter with the airline’s name and a piece of colored cardboard on which was handwritten Voles Opera. His wife’s cousin was first amused, then angered, and finally shocked. “Why, how could they have stuck you on a flight like this? It’s meant for opera-goers! Did you sign up for an opera too?” Caught red-handed, he turned pale under questioning. It must have come with the ticket, he stammered, pretending to know nothing about it. But when he checked his suitcase and received a boarding pass made to look like a sheet of music with a violin drawn on it, she regarded him with sudden suspicion. Overcome with guilt, he went to the cafeteria and bought a large bar of chocolate for her children.


  THE PLANE WAS A SMALL FIFTY-SEATER that belonged to an airline he had never heard of before. Its passengers were mostly middle-aged Indians, Japanese, and Koreans, with a smattering of Italians and South Americans. Some of them, having apparently flown together to Paris, were already acquainted, and a number passed the time on the flight studying musical scores. It was an oddity, Molkho thought, that such a plane and flight should exist at all. Soon after takeoff they climbed above the clouds into a deep blue sky and the stewardesses served peanuts and wine. After about half an hour, as they were descending again into a cloud bank, stormy music that everyone identified at once was broadcast over the sound system. “Wagner!” several passengers cried out, immediately beginning to argue among themselves about what opera it came from. In the front
seat a flushed and tipsy passenger rose to his feet and began ardently singing the words to the music while everyone broke into laughter and applause. The plane was pitching slightly, immersed in a milky fog that pinkened now and then while droplets of water streamed down the windows. As if his wife’s death had only now become final, Molkho was stricken by a frightening feeling of freedom. If the plane should crash, he thought as it battled the wind and the strains of Wagner grew fainter, no one would even know what had happened to him; he should never have kept this part of his trip a secret. But at last they emerged from the clouds and stopped jouncing, flying over a flat brown terrain checked with fields, villages, and a surprising number of graveyards. Although the ground looked damp, there were no traces of snow on it. It’s insane to be traveling so far to meet when we live two kilometers apart, he thought—but somehow, beginning like this in a distant and neutral place seemed the right thing to do. Soon they landed in a small airport and were immediately driven in a quiet bus to a downtown terminal. Hearing Hebrew, he spun around instinctively, but it only turned out to be a rather noisy Israeli family burdened with many suitcases and trunks. Were they emigres? he wondered, glancing at them idly while chatting with two women standing next to him by the conveyor belt that would be bringing their luggage. They were Romanians from Bucharest, they told him, opera singers themselves, who had come for the opera in Berlin. Could it be as good as all that? marveled Molkho.

  His brown valise arrived, and he took a taxi to his hotel, whose address was clipped to a page of his passport. Considering the early evening hour, the streets of the city appeared civilized and tame. Never, he calculated, looking up at the reddish sky, which glowed as though stoked from afar, had he been so far north. The thought that his wife was born and spent the first six years of her life in this city made him smile. He should have asked his mother-in-law for their old address, but that would only have made her inquire about the reason for his trip, and what could he possibly have told her? The taxi was now jolting over cobblestones, threading its way through narrow streets that clearly belonged to some old neighborhood. At last, it stopped in front of a small hotel that appeared to have only a few rooms.

  The lobby, though small, was clean and uncluttered, its walls paneled with reddish wood and decorated with pictures and prints of the Nibelungs, ancient nautical maps, and glass cabinets with old swords and daggers. And yet, though it had a style of its own, Molkho suddenly found himself missing Paris, his wife’s cousin, the baby, the snow, the crowded streets. Would he have to make love to the legal adviser in one of these German rooms, he wondered, putting down his valise and reaching for his passport, or would they be content to develop their relationship through a few hugs and kisses? And yet how ludicrous for people of their age and experience to neck like teenagers! The catch was that he didn’t feel at all sexy. Not even Paris had awakened that side of him. Why, how could he even kiss her when he had no clear notion of her body yet? Not that the lines in her face were a problem—they were light and not deeply etched—but how did he know where they led when her waistline was unbeatable and the shape of her legs still a riddle? If only it were summer, he thought, there wouldn’t be so many question marks. He would have known where he stood and what he was capable of, and he would not have had to put her through all this or to fear that, if disappointed, she might take her revenge in the office. Meanwhile, the female receptionist, whose English was exceedingly primitive, had given him some forms to fill out, after which she handed him a large copper key attached to a leather holder in the shape of a dove that had the number 6 on it. “Seeks,” she said to him, and he repeated it easily after her. When he inquired about the legal adviser, however, asking if he and she were the only Israelis registered, he was astonished to be told that he was the only guest in the hotel so far. And, indeed, all the other keys were hanging in front of their cubbyholes, eleven little doves minding their nests. The thought that she planned on sharing a room with him alarmed him. It can’t be, he told himself, asking the receptionist to check again—and indeed, this time she found the legal adviser’s name, booked for another room. Taking his key with relief, he started for the elevator, as conscious of the adventure getting under way as if watching himself in a movie. He was glad, at least, that she was no longer young, because he couldn’t count on an erection; no, if they could think of this simply as a first step, like warming up a motor, it would be a good beginning. Could he have imagined several months ago that he would soon be so free and so far north? On the walls of the small but modern elevator were more old maritime maps and another little dagger in an elegant case. Berlin must be a safe place, mused Molkho, if the management needn’t worry that some drunk might grab a weapon and start using it.

  His room, like the lobby, was small but clean, smelling of soap and starch. It had neither a television nor a telephone, and only two stations could be gotten on the radio, one with Germans singing and one with Germans talking. He went to the bathroom, not having relieved himself since Paris, but surprisingly, all he produced was a thin dribble, as if all the coffee, tea, and wine that had gone into him that morning, on the ground and in the air, had vanished somewhere in his bloodstream; then he opened his valise and hung all his shirts and jackets in the narrow closet. The last item was a book, Volume II of Anna Karenina. It was a novel he had never read, and seeing how Jane Austen had him stymied, his daughter had given it to him with a warm recommendation. “At least try it,” she said—but now he saw she had given him the wrong volume. He took a long shower, put on fresh underwear, and lay down on the bed with his head on the pillow, beneath which he felt something hard. It was another book, the New Testament, and he opened it, feeling that room service expected no less of him. It was in English, and the simple, homey story of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem made Molkho think of the Jerusalem he had known long ago, before the 1948 war, a summery city full of tension and fear, yet also of great promise and activity, with its Jewish Agency officials in dark suits, the very embodiments of Integrity and Justice, standing by the chiseled stone walls of the Terra Sancta Building and planning the Jewish State. He turned the pages, now and then stopping to read the unfamiliar tales: they may not always have been likable or logical, he thought, all those people who ran after Jesus, but they knew enough to ditch the Jews in time and cover their tracks by vanishing among the Gentiles. Shutting the book, he went downstairs, where the receptionist now was an older man with a mustache like Hitler’s, only white. The legal adviser, he told Molkho, had called just a minute ago to say she was delayed because her conference wasn’t over yet. She would be there no later than four.


  HER LATENESS ANNOYED HIM, as if it was her way of saying that, unlike him, her sybaritic companion, she was here for a practical purpose. Though the hotel’s rates, which he now inquired about at the desk, were not high, he was sure she would find some way of putting them on her expense account. Not that he could do anything about it, but he had gone over enough bills at the office handed in by junketing officials to know all the tricks. In any case, he would not wait to lunch with her, as he would no doubt have to treat her to dinner and might as well have his main meal now alone; that way, they could order less later, and anyway, she was no doubt being fed at the conference. He drank coffee and ate an order of french fries with two frankfurters while jotting down some things to talk to her about in the days ahead, for he felt rather intimidated by her intelligence. Then he strolled down a long, narrow street, making sure not to lose his way while peering into clothing stores and groceries.

  It was three-thirty when he returned to the hotel. This time the receptionist was a man his own age who told him in excellent English that madame had called fifteen minutes ago and was on her way to the hotel. He decided to wait for her in the lobby, by a column next to the elevator that was festooned with old maps and swords, from where he saw her rush in anxiously, followed by a cab driver carrying two suitcases. His first reaction—for he had expected her to be dressed diff
erently—was surprise at seeing her in her familiar clothes, over which she wore her short leopard-skin coat. The receptionist, to whom she spoke in fluent German, seemed to know her well; perhaps she brings all her lovers here, thought Molkho, deciding she was definitely a complicated woman whom three years of widowhood had not simplified. With whom, he wondered, had she left her daughter? Though the receptionist was pointing in Molkho’s direction, the legal adviser was still too busy filling out forms to look up; finally, just as someone in an apron appeared from a side door, bowed, and took her luggage, she finished the last of them and glanced around. For a moment he thought of getting even by hiding behind the column; but she knew he was there, and so, with a dancerlike grace, he stepped forward, putting on his best, warmest smile and gently embracing her in the gloomy light of the short winter afternoon. The soft fur of her coat made him think of a cold dog.

  She was heavily made up and had on a new perfume. “I just couldn’t get away from the conference,” she apologized. “I was elected to chair a committee and had no choice.” For the last two hours she had been on pins and needles; twice she had called the hotel to leave a message. Yes, he had received it, Molkho reassured her, but anyhow, it didn’t matter; the main thing now was for her to rest and be ready for the evening. “Rest?” she protested. Her luggage was already in her room, and she was all set to go out; perhaps she would come back to change before the opera, but she would take the tickets with her just in case. “You mean you’ll go as you are?” he asked in astonishment. “Of course,” she replied, “why not?” The opera in Berlin wasn’t formal. People came for the music, not to show off; he would see as much for himself.


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