There was an easy matter-of-factness about her. One could certainly learn to like her, thought Molkho, one could even learn to live with her wrinkles. “Who is your daughter staying with?” he asked. But the girl, it seemed, was independent and had preferred to stay by herself. “She even does her own cooking,” said her mother, “and it’s not the first time I’ve left her alone like this either, although she does have an uncle two blocks away.” Even if she did, replied Molkho, he was impressed by such maturity.
Once they were out in the street, she began telling him about Berlin, in which she had been before. Tomorrow, of course, they would tour the city; she already had it all planned. She was looking forward to it herself, having been cooped up at the conference for three whole days, and indeed, Molkho saw, she was window-shopping avidly, stopping every few steps to look at some new display. Once again, he felt a pang: his wife’s last dresses had been made at home by a seamstress and he hadn’t looked with a woman at a shop window for over a year. And this particular woman, with her waistline that was too low and her body that seemed rather hastily thrown together, was not even as attractive as his wife. Still, did she not have her redeeming features—a certain intellectual animation, indeed an almost feverish intensity? And she was certainly high up on the bureaucratic ladder, he thought, listening to her tell him about the conference. Was her car paid for by the office or was she not as senior as all that? He made a mental note to ask her, inquiring in the meantime about the Berlin Wall. “Would you like to see it?” she asked, stopping to look at him. “Come, I’ll show it to you now.” And turning to the right, she led him into a broad, empty thoroughfare.
A frigid wind lashed at them, laced with driving rain. “It’s damn cold,” said Molkho. “We’re almost there,” she assured him, though the wall was nowhere in sight. On the contrary, though they had entered a rather desolate area, in front of them, like a purplish gash on the horizon, were nothing but factory chimneys. And yet when he suggested asking directions, she told him she knew the way. “It can’t be far,” she said, “the wall rims everywhere,” and they plodded on block after block, the rain whipping them crosswise, Molkho, loath to be thought finicky about getting wet, saying nothing more. At last, however, she stopped to ask two passersby, who pointed in the opposite direction, and after challenging them briefly, she confessed, “I’m afraid I lost my way.” Suddenly he pitied her. After all, she had meant well, had wanted to make him a gift of the wall. And so, gripping her lightly by the elbow, he said, “Never mind,” and put his arm around her, the sidewalk being quite slippery. At once, as if she had been waiting for that, she leaned her weight against him. What an old squirrel she is, he thought, amused by his own image, for he had hardly seen a squirrel in his life. Thus, he told himself, steering her by the shoulder, the grand betrayal begins.
And perhaps his wife wasn’t born here after all, but rather in East Berlin, though of course it was a single city then. The rain was falling harder now, sleety and sharp, and they took shelter from it in a clothing store, where he could finally release the legal adviser from his grip. It was a large, nearly empty establishment, on whose listless young salesgirls their entrance made no visible impression. Aimlessly they walked past rows of pants and jackets and shelves of sweaters and knitwear, all equally sexless, until they reached a large straw basket full of hats and began to rummage through it. He watched her try on hat after hat, each pert toss of her head in the mirror a drop of refreshment on his parched heart. One, a red woolen one, was particularly becoming. “Why not buy it?” he urged, helping her translate the price from marks into shekels while thinking so hard of his wife and her lost breasts that the tears came to his eyes, for here, snugly out of the rain with him before stepping out to the opera, another woman was by his side. Though he would gladly have bought her the hat himself, especially as it was cheap, he feared this being taken for a promise he would not be able to keep. We’ll see, he thought; if all goes well, I’ll buy her something tomorrow—and anyhow, I’m treating for dinner. Meanwhile, having moved on from the hat basket, she was now browsing in the pants department. Something was pressing on Molkho’s bladder. “Just a minute, I’ll be right back,” he said, remembering how he had gone to the bathroom that night in her house. Now she was sure to think he had some disease! Well, let her, he thought; it will cool her off a bit. But if he ever really were sick, who would take care of him?
While the store was modern enough, the bathroom appeared to date from a different era: its large copper faucets were tarnished with verdigris, its toilet seats were high, narrow, and stern, its rough bars of gray soap smelled of antiseptic, and an icy draft blew through it. Urinating quickly, he returned to find the legal adviser trying on a pair of sleek black pants. Now he had a better view of her waistline and rear, which were indeed low and flabby-looking—unless it was just the cut of the pants, a new style from India. At last, without making a purchase, she promised the salesgirl she would return, though no one particularly seemed to care whether she did or not.
They walked on through the gathering dusk. It was time to eat, and after considering a few spots, they picked a modest restaurant, where they sat in a cozy corner apart from everyone, as if in a bubble all their own. He was glad their first date was not taking place in Haifa, where someone was sure to have recognized them. She ordered quickly, and her choices, he noticed, were not particularly expensive. Though she was eager to tell him about the conference, he preferred to turn the talk to her late husband, refusing to change the subject, despite the reluctance with which she answered his questions. “Very suddenly,” she said when asked how he had died. He never complained of a thing. One minute he was washing dishes in the kitchen and the next he was dead on the floor. “At first we thought it was just some pot that had fallen.” “Did he like puttering in the kitchen?” Molkho asked. “No,” she said, “not especially. He just happened to be there when it happened. And his death left a terrible vacuum.” For a whole year afterward, she hardly slept a wink, so shocked had she been. Perhaps he, who had had so much time to prepare himself, found that difficult to imagine. Yes, he had been ready for Death, admitted Molkho, struck by how, though she was doing most of the talking, her plate was empty before his. Though her table manners were impeccable, she ate much faster than he did.
Afterward, they discussed the office and politics, for which she, like his wife, had a passion. His opinions, when she pressed him for them, made her look slightly incredulous, and he could see that his mind worked too slowly and banally for her, disappointing her with its simplicity. I’d better sharpen my brain, he told himself; it’s time I thought about something besides medicines, hospital beds, orthopedic mattresses, therapeutic baths, changing linens, and playing doctor. And yet they talked for a long while until, despite her repeated assurances that he looked perfectly respectable and that no one dressed for the opera anymore, because all that mattered was the music, they hurried back to the hotel for him to change. He went to his room, turned on the light, turned it off again as though someone were watching him, and quickly began to undress. Deciding to change underpants, too, he paused to examine his penis by the reddish glow of the streetlight streaming through the thin lace curtains. “So, old man,” he whispered, morosely observing how small and scrotal it looked, like a tired gray mouse. He hurriedly put on a tie and descended to the lobby, where, freshly made up but still wearing the same dress, she was waiting; he felt annoyed that she didn’t attach the same value to clothing that he did.
It had gotten colder, and the drops of icy sleet jabbed at them like little javelins. “The snow’s following me from Paris,” he said, and she answered impishly, “I wish it would catch you already. I love it.” In the taxi she took out the German program of the opera from her handbag. “It looks like a modern piece,” she informed him. “I hope we’ll like it.” “Modern?” he asked, feeling vaguely anxious. “Yes. Experimental. My brother-in-law says he’s heard it’s good. Let’s hope we’ll think so too. Tomorrow we
’ll see something more classical.” “You’ll have to explain everything to me,” he warned her, looking out at the widening streets, “because I don’t know a word of German. I’m at your mercy.” “I know,” she replied, smiling gaily while slipping a warm hand into his that sent a shiver down his spine.
His first thought upon reaching the opera house and stepping out of the cab beneath the large marquee was that they had stumbled on some college demonstration. Though he had expected to see the passengers he had flown with from Paris that morning, none were visible in the crowd, which seemed composed for the most part of young Berliners, a throng of whom surrounded them at once, asking for extra tickets. So many youngsters were unheard of at the orchestral performances in Haifa, whose elderly concertgoers seemed rejuvenated now in Berlin, quiet and well-mannered in their steel-rimmed glasses and clipped beards, so that the occasional oldster, like the tall woman leaning on her walking stick in the midst of a circle of reverently listening youths, stood out in contrast. The legal adviser, Molkho now realized, had been right, for most of those present had on jeans, army jackets, and windbreakers.
IT WAS AN OPERA from the 1930s. The overture struck up, muted but urgent, and the curtain rose on a bare canyon of a stage. Slowly, by means of a hidden effect, long strips of yellow fabric swirled across it like a sandstorm, and groups of performers, all dressed in identical black—some of them, to Molkho’s surprise, quite old—entered from the wings, dancing, singing, and even shouting, while old-fashioned street and shop signs descended from the cavernous ceiling on radiant wires. Molkho found it rather exciting, and indeed, it was very different from the opera he had seen in Paris: serious, even somber, yet electrifying the young audience, which seemed mesmerized. He did his best to concentrate, trying to banish the last twenty-four hours from his mind, yet unable to do so: the morning in Paris, the slow drive to the airport, the search for the unknown airline, his wife’s cousin’s annoyance at the sign saying Voles Opera. His eyes moved back and forth across the stage, from whose pit came music that was softly melodic and wildly discordant by turns. Had the high school boy, he wondered, remembered to shut the gas cock at night? Now the protagonists were left onstage by themselves, two men and three women who soon became involved in a tortuous operatic argument, quarreling passionately, almost murderously, and then making up again before somersaulting down a kind of manhole in the middle of the stage and popping up unexpectedly somewhere else. Gently Molkho covered his mouth with one hand, smelling his breath and reproaching himself for not brushing his teeth in the hotel, suddenly recalling that endless night a year ago when, riddled with tubes after major surgery, his wife amusedly told him that she could no longer distinguish the orifices of her body or tell what entered or exited from which, and he had listened attentively, eagerly trying to imagine the feeling, convinced that he was on the verge of a new insight, carefully probing her with questions until she fell silent and said no more. Dully he now strove to follow the performance, whose cacophonous score was giving him a headache, though the legal adviser, sitting bright-eyed beside him, seemed quite taken by it. Beneath her blouse he made out the outline of her breasts; what, he wondered, were they really like? Would he have to fondle them later that night or would a goodnight kiss be enough, leaving the next uncertain installment for tomorrow? Again he regretted having failed to brush his teeth. Feeling her eyes on him, he smiled at her dolefully. “Tell me if you understand anything,” he whispered. “It’s symbolic,” she told him. “It’s really very symbolic.” “Yes, I can see that myself,” he replied, “but of what?” Yet, though she tried explaining, he doubted she understood more than he did, and besides, they were already being shushed by the German audience, which was, it appeared, very sensitive. Considering the price of the ticket, it was odd there was no program in English. Not that it matters, he thought, shutting his eyes defensively against the violent music, which barreled on as if squeezing the life out of him, though what I need, he told himself, is some life squeezed into me, only not too quickly, for the weird clangor, he felt, shutting his eyes still tighter, was wringing him dry. He managed to drowse a bit, there being no intermission, but not for long, because suddenly the legal adviser poked him sharply and he awoke to find a floodlit stage growing still brighter and a gorgeously costumed cast breaking into an unexpectedly melodious ensemble that made him, sitting in the overflow crowd, decide it was a splendid opera after all and that, even if he didn’t understand it, that was no reason not to like it, so that he joined in wholeheartedly when the applause broke out, even rising for the standing ovation as if to make up for his catnap. “It’s true that a lot of it was over my head,” he said with a smile to the legal adviser, who, her narrow eyes appraising him, seemed baffled by his enthusiasm, “but something did get through to me in the end. I’m not sure what, but I’m certainly glad we came.”
It took a while to find the checkroom where his coat was, because they kept getting lost in the rapidly emptying corridors. Outside they discovered that the driving sleet had gotten worse. Though it was not especially late, barely half past ten, the streets were already deserted, the young audience having vanished as though into thin air, leaving only a ragged line of older people standing at the top of the steps, at whose bottom an even older footman in a black uniform and a smartly brimmed cap, a red armband on his sleeve, was trying to flag down cabs with an ancient and ineffective whistle. Feeling his companion pressing against him, Molkho allowed himself a gentle response. Did she really have the secret hots for him? But, unless he had disappointed her by falling asleep or by being such an uninspired conversationalist, the opera must have exhausted her too, for she seemed pensive and uncommunicative. Taxis were scarce and the wait was a long one. “Perhaps we should walk,” she suggested. “The hotel isn’t far, and I’m sure I can find it.” For a minute he wavered. But his faith in her sense of direction had been shaken, and the little spears of icy rain kept jabbing down. “No,” he answered, “I think we should wait for a cab,” and so they joined the long queue, which was slowly inching along.
Indeed, the flow of taxis increased, and soon they were next in line. Just then, two more cabs pulled up and the two old ladies in front of them started down the slippery steps. Though they had not exchanged a word, Molkho was sure they were together and prepared to follow them down; the legal adviser, however, held back. Sure enough, the two women climbed into a single cab and the car behind it honked softly. “Quick, it’s our turn,” he exclaimed, breaking free of his companion’s grip and darting down the rainy stairs to catch the taxi. Hurriedly, as if searching for his missing arm or afraid he wouldn’t wait, she started after him, her fur coat flapping around her. “Watch out,” he warned, seeing her stumble and then, losing her balance, pitch forward and tumble down the broad steps, stopping after three or four of them because, agile squirrel that she was, she caught herself and sat up, her face twisted in pain, one shoe on the ground behind her. Frightened, he ran back toward her, reaching her ahead of the Germans who came to the rescue too, even though he paused on his way to pick up her shoe, which looked more worn from use than scuffed. He held her arm, bending over her while she tried first telling him in Hebrew, and then the Germans in German, that she was all right. Above her ankle, where her stocking was torn, were a few drops of blood, which stirred him sadly as with an old passion. Kneeling beside her on the cold stairs, he tried helping her on with her shoe. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said crimsonly, snatching the shoe from him and getting to her feet. Then, holding it in one hand, she hobbled down the stairs and disappeared through the open door of the taxi to the relief of the bystanders, who appeared to be genuinely concerned.
Inside the taxicab, cursing under her breath, she bent down to feel her ankle. Her face looked gray and old. Although eager to remind her that he had warned her, Molkho said nothing, remembering how his wife had always hated such I-told-you-so’s. The taxi was still standing there, its driver awaiting instructions. Slowly the lega
l adviser got a grip on herself. “We have to give him the address,” said Molkho and she did.
He insisted, of course, on helping her up to her room. “Lie down, let’s have a look at you,” he said as she pulled off her stocking, catching a glimpse when he removed the two suitcases from her bed of an unlikely pair of red panties and an old-fashioned girdle that resembled those worn by his mother. At last, he could get a good look at her foot in the light. The bruise above her ankle, for which she let him make a compress from a washcloth, was superficial and no longer bleeding, but the ankle itself was swollen and painful, though when he tried to turn it gently, they both agreed it wasn’t broken.
SHE SMILED AT HIM and he smiled back, feeling fully awake now, his tiredness forgotten. Now she’ll see what I’m made of, thought Molkho. As she hopped to the bathroom on one small foot, he rose to have a look around the room, which was slightly larger than his own but, except for the double bed, furnished in the same Spartan style. His glance fell on familiar items in her open suitcases, such as the pink slippers she had worn that evening in her home. How strange to see them here in Berlin! He laid them neatly on the floor, took out several other things she was likely to need, put them on the table, and hung her cold, wet fur coat in the closet. He heard the toilet being flushed in the bathroom, and when she returned to the room, still hobbling but freshly combed and made up, he hurried to help her lie down, examined her foot again, and asked if she had medical insurance. Of course she did, she replied, though she had no intention of calling a doctor. “It’s nothing,” she smiled with a grimace. The puffy redness around the ankle looked edematous; he knew the symptoms, had become an expert on them during the past year. Lightly touching her foot, he searched for the point where the natural irregularity of the bone yielded to the actual swelling. He should make her a splint or ligature, something at least for the night, though it wasn’t the swelling that bothered her but the pain. Could he look to see if she had any pills? she asked, still badly flustered, especially as her back hurt now too. He poked through her toilet kit and found nothing but a few crumbly aspirins. “Here, let’s have a look,” he said, thinking how odd it was to be turning a strange woman over on her stomach. “I’ve become half a doctor this past year.” There was a faint blue contusion on her back, but when he pressed it gingerly, they agreed it was no cause for concern.
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