by Moshe Dann (April 2014)
There were times when it seemed to Helen that her over-priced one-bedroom apartment – foundation of her independence and freedom – was more like a prison. In a new housing project, close to the public school where she taught 5th grade English, near a suburban shopping mall, her “home” was convenient. But it was missing what she wanted most of all.
A soft early morning light spilled across the courtyard below as the street began to fill with traffic and people. Standing in front of the window, she remembered Morris. They’d met at a New Year’s Eve party, and he’d seemed interesting, but her romantic infatuation dissolved the more he revealed; no steady job, problems with his Ex, his kids and a cloud of doom.
“It's not working,” she’d told him, wanting someone who would take care of her, not another loser.
“Let's give it another chance, Helen,” he pleaded, his sad eyes searching for a spark of hope.
“There's no future for us,” she insisted, remembering the last time that they had spent the weekend together. He'd arrived late; she was upset. It was a little thing, she conceded, but it mattered, like his scuffed shoes and frayed collars.
“You can't give me what I want,” she spoke with determination and he seemed to accept it reluctantly, without an emotional scene. It was easier than she'd anticipated; he didn’t even try to seduce her again. It was, she reckoned, quite civilized.
“We'll still be friends,” she offered as their boat sank without a sound.
“Friends,” Morris stood in the doorway, shoulders sagging. Her kiss on his cheek was like a handshake between opponents after the game is over, with a sense of relief and exhaustion. It’s over, finished, and no regrets. Her path seemed clear, but not without doubts and a confusing mixture of sadness and relief.
She had thought it would be easier and exciting after her divorce, especially without children; but it wasn’t. Men had come into her life; she had wanted one or two to stay, to leave their toothbrush and call her with mundane questions, but they seemed busy with their lives and everything else.
Time, she mused, was catching up to her. Thirty-three-not-married fear already lurked inside her. I'm still young, she reassured herself, smoothing her face; a new hair had sprouted between her eyebrows.
Helen had endured a broken-down marriage until it just fell apart and died, like her old car, its rusting hulk abandoned on the street. One day the city towed it away, leaving an empty space where it had been, bits of rubbish that had been stuck underneath and an oil stain, like blood, that taunted her unmercifully; why didn't you take care of me?
She clenched her teeth as an old woman pulling a shopping cart walked slowly past her building toward the bus stop on her way to the supermarket. A young man wearing a T-shirt ran past, tingling the wind chimes of her heart. She wondered if she was ready for a man in her life. Women friends had no demands and expectations; men wanted.
Her face reflected in the window, wisps of hair caught in the trees, something raged inside her. It was early spring and she felt empty.
Her classes at school were starting late; there was time for a quick run. Pulling on shorts, a T-shirt and jogging shoes, she glanced at the mirror. Nice body, but small breasts
Adjusting the earphones, she started the tape, filling her body with music that pulsed with a heavy rhythm, black and tough. Running swiftly past garbage containers, she felt her leg muscles tighten and breathed the scent of lilacs. Jogging in place, she watched a few young children in the park climb on the scaffold of bridges and ladders built to evoke the impression of a castle. A princess, she imagined herself, waiting to be rescued by an enchanted prince.
Singing along with the tape, she knew the words by heart. “Love me always. Let me be yours.” A passing car honked at her as two young men inside smiled eagerly. She picked up her pace again, the beat of the tune throbbing inside as she sang, swinging her arms to the rhythm.
Images unloosed, tattered ribbons of consciousness: her father’s arms outstretched, pleading with her to come back; her mother, hands on her hips, asking where she'd been and where she was going.
A garbage truck moved slowly along the street, stopping next to small piles of trash; workers dumped them into the back of the truck. One of the men pulled a handle on the side and a huge tongue sucked in and swallowed, strong jaws grinding as it filled. She spit, thinking of her ex-husband, Alex, heavy between her legs, and wondered why she'd stayed so long, going through the motions.
Alex had been a decent husband at first; they had even tried to have children. But that was before he started taking cocaine, drifting away, slowly at first, but then, on extended trips to other cities, and, she assumed, other women. Barricaded in his own world, there was no room for her. She tried to hold on, wavering out of loyalty, or fear of failure. But finally, watching him snort white dust one morning, she confronted him. “Therapy, or divorce,” she demanded. He refused angrily and threw her against the wall. After he left for work, she packed some clothes and moved back to her parents' home. The next day when she returned to get the rest of her things, he had already changed the locks. “Son-of-a-bitch,” she shouted in the hallway, pounding on the door. There was no response; there never was.
A lawyer, friend of the family, listened to her story and reassured her that he would take care of it. She wore her favorite dress, a yellow mini; she was determined to get her share, she insisted, inhaling a cigarette. He smiled confidently and as she was about to leave, put his arms around her. She wasn’t sure what he wanted until he kissed her. She smelled his cologne. “Not now,” she said, as they hugged, and she felt him hold on. “Let's get through this,” she said wearily, wondering if he would reduce the fee.
Turning the corner in front of her apartment building, out of breath, she noticed a well-dressed man looking at the mailboxes. Cute, she thought, as she approached the building. She opened the door and then stopped.
“Can I help you?”
He smiled and mentioned a name.
“Never heard of him,” she said lightly. “But I'm new here.” She smiled and, for a moment – neither of them knew what to say. He looked at his watch, as if stalling. She switched off her tape. “You can ask someone else in the building,” she offered hoping to give him more time. Feeling a rush of wildness, she shivered.
“Well…not a bad idea,” he agreed and followed her into hallway. They tried a few doors, but no one answered. Standing in the lobby, he was about to leave when she thought of another chance.
“Is he listed in the phone book? Do you have the right address?” She waited again, wondering if he was picking up her cues. “You can use my phone book, if you like.” He nodded, hesitatingly. “I'll get it; be right down.” she said and bounded up the stairs, two at a time.
When she returned, he looked carefully through the pages, but couldn't find the right name.
“Maybe the address is wrong. I've got his number back in the office,” he said, shifting his feet. Aware that she was still wearing the earphones, she took them off, brushing her forehead, feeling wet.
“I must look silly with this,” she began to apologize half-heartedly. She knew he was now looking at her carefully. “I've been jogging,” she said, sweat trickling down her back and wished she could jump into the shower with him, lathering bodies, perfumed soaps of laughter and desire. He adjusted his glasses.
“I can see that,” he smiled.
“My name's Helen,” she blurted, extending her hand. Give it a shot; it’s all you've got. She wished he would embrace her.
“Josh,” he said softly, more delicately than she’d imagined, as they shook politely.
Feeling confused and excited, unable to find her balance, something caught in her like a hook and could not be torn out without ripping pieces of herself as well. Thoughts ran through her head like a speeded-up movie, out of control. Am I tempting myself, as well as him? Would he be demanding? Critical? Would he make `killer love' to me all night? Was he funny? Moody? Intelligent? Would he listen to me? Was he financially stable and would he take care of me? Did he like small breasts? Would he give me a child?
“Maybe I'll go back to the office.”
Damn. I had a chance; maybe he’s the right one, and I lost it.
“I'll call my wife; maybe she has the number,” he pulled out his cell phone.
Wife! Helen stared at him, her lips tightly closed. Why didn't you tell me you had a wife? You betrayed me! Wanting to run, she felt trapped, paralyzed. She didn’t want to sound disappointed. Dignity first. She wanted to add that he could go to hell.
As she turned to go back up the stairs, he caught her arm. “I mean my ex-wife,” he said, as if remembering a small detail. “I'm divorced.”
She stared at him, not knowing if she could believe him.”I have to go,” she said, words stumbling out.
“If you'd like,” he said, facing her, “perhaps we could meet again.”
His gentle sincerity threw her off-balance. She had expected him to leave and be done with it, but now he had intruded again, stirring things up.
She started to go up the stairs, but noticed that he hadn't left. What was he waiting for? Simply to use me? What should I do with my hair? We'll sleep next to each other. No touching, of course, until you're inside me, and then it's too late, and you're all over me, and I can't get away.
She held the railing.”I don't know,” she said, closing her eyes, unable to decide. “I don't know,” she repeated, like a car spinning on ice.
He looked at her as if he wanted to ask a question and then shrugged and walked slowly away.
She wanted to shout Wait! but words stuck in her throat. A young couple walked across the street wheeling a baby carriage. Could've been me, she thought as she climbed the stairs. A pungent smell of barbecue wafted from the apartment of the old couple who lived on the ground floor. They were having an argument, and afterwards, as usual, a rancid silence, or the recognition that they needed each other to survive. She tried to turn her key in the lock, then realized that it had been open all the time.
Pouring a glass of water, she watched the traffic below. What do I have to give him, or anyone, for that matter? Digging her nails into her palms, she shut her eyes. If he would suddenly appear…. Shadows danced playfully between them, arms barely touching.
‘Hi,’ he might offer politely, ‘Wasn't sure if you wanted me to go, or stay…’ his voice drifting, images fading in the light. Sounds of birds busily settling in the trees, horns blared impatiently at one another like wounded beasts. Would he give me what I want? Can I take the risk again? Hold me tight. Don't hurt me, as shadows filled the room and all their braveries lay before them like a feast, unfinished. I’d trust him; we’ll grow old together and have children instead of the ache in my belly. We’ll dance together and share our secrets …”
Suddenly, she heard a soft knocking at her door. She listened, recalling his face, and then, silence.
She closed her eyes. But it’s not him I need; it’s me. Wrapping her arms around her body, she wondered if she had only imagined the sounds of knocking; and then she heard knocking again.
“Who is it?” she asked hesitantly, her heart pounding.
“It’s Jenny, from downstairs.”
When Helen opened the door, her neighbor stood in a brightly colored house coat, grey hair scattered around her shoulders, toes sticking out of red flip-flops.
“Can I borrow two eggs?” Jenny held a small empty bowl. “I need to make a cake.”
“Sure,” Helen sighed and turned to the refrigerator.
“There was a nice young man at your door a few minutes ago.” Jenny stepped inside.
Helen rushed to the window to see Josh walking through the park. He stopped to pick a bunch of lilacs, smelled them, and then continued on his way.
Helen placed two eggs carefully in the bowl.
“Thanks, dear,” Jenny brushed a strand of hair from her face. Her eyes sparkled.
“So, how are things?” Helen asked.
“We fight, make up; fight, make up.” She hesitated. “You know, life.”
Helen looked at her and raised her eyebrows.
“He loves my cakes; I love his barbecue.” Jenny smiled as if sharing an intimate secret of feminine understanding that revealed the mystery of how things work.
Wondering if Josh liked chocolate, Helen found a piece for herself, showered and dressed quickly and headed for school. On the way she picked a bunch of lilacs, breathing its sweet aroma, for a moment, hardly moving. She would put the flowers in a vase and ask her students to pass it around and close their eyes. And then, their eyes glittering with curiosity, she would give them a writing assignment, “On Lilacs,” and watch them discover who they are.
Moshe Dann is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem. His next book, As Far As The Eye Can See, will be published by New English Review Press this fall.
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