Below is my entire short story—’A Surprise Visit’—never published before.
A strong autumn breeze, coming from the Mediterranean seashore, rattled the branches of the sycamore trees above the two young men who walked closely on the sidewalk. They came to an abrupt stop and looked up and about, searching for a house number, receiving little help from the lampposts along Nordau Boulevard. One was taller, and was wearing a long black overcoat, which highlighted his shiny blond hair. He rested his arm on the shoulder of the shorter man for just a second, giving him a squeeze of encouragement, or farewell, before continuing his walk down the boulevard.
For a moment, the man left behind stood still, sucking hard on a cigarette. He adjusted a wrapped book he was carrying under his arm, while tossing the cigarette butt down on the pavement. He stepped on it, killing the spark, then looked up again at the old, whitewashed building in front of him, whose cracking walls decorated an adorned entrance. He rolled up the collar of his army bomber jacket, as if shielding himself not only from the cold wind, but also from what lay ahead of him. He turned towards the narrow path that led into the entrance, frightening a black cat into a quick flight, and was soon swallowed by the dark mouth of the old building.
He came out again into the open space of the roof after climbing four flights up the winding stairway. He breathed deeply first, inhaling the cool air of the moonless night, and then looked around. What he saw was a roof like many others in Tel Aviv of the mid-seventies, white in color and bare for the most part, except for some colorful items of female clothing and underwear dancing playfully in the wind, up on the laundry rope.
The door to the old laundry room had a small square window, covered with a purplish curtain, which nonetheless allowed for some fuzzy burgundy light to filter out, imparting an aura of mystery. He could hear low, unidentified voices coming from inside, which caused him a long moment of hesitation, as he rearranged the book tucked under his arm. But the idea of turning back was not an option for him that night, or it was simply against his nature. He knocked on the door.
The voices inside died down immediately. No one looked through the curtain or opened the door for him, though, increasing his discomfort. He plowed his fingers through his long, curly dark hair, and looked around again over the roofs of the white city. Under skies lit by artificial bluish glow, he could see countless television antennas growing up like weeds out of the barren concrete surface, ruling the nightly landscape. Behind him the curtain finally moved slightly, betraying the hope that he was no longer there. But when he turned his head towards it, the door was already open.
In the dimly lit doorway stood a young woman, wearing a flowing, flowery dress that fell all the way down to her bare feet. She held the door ajar with one hand, while the other fixed her black hair in place, even though it was already collected nicely in a ponytail. She lowered her eyeglasses, as her pale blue eyes were flooded with the light of memories, coming from a corner deep in her soul.
“Beni…” she whispered.
“That’s me, Noa.”
“You just fell from the skies, or what?”
He smiled. “You haven’t changed much, you know,” he said and handed her the book. “Happy birthday.”
She took it from him hesitantly, while her cheeks heated up. Her tight lips opened in spite of herself, allowing a childish smile to escape.
“Come on in,” she said, opening the door wide.
“Better not,” he said and took a step back. “I…”
“You what… don’t be stupid.”
She grabbed hold of his hand and pulled him inside, closing the door behind her. She stepped ahead and, giving him no chance of retreat, introduced him to another man who was sitting on a straw mat on the floor. It was unavoidable: the room was so small, with the ceiling bearing down over their heads.
“Dovik, a friend from work,” said Noa to Beni. “And this is Beni, from the kibbutz.”
Without getting up, the bespectacled Dovik, with thinning brown hair crowning his head, reluctantly offered his hand to Beni.
Beside him on a paper plate a partly eaten chocolate cake, with a layer of creamy frosting on top, attracted Beni’s attention. An open bottle of cheap Carmel red wine was there too, with two plastic cups, half-full, guarding it on both sides.
Noa tossed the book Beni brought her on the single bed, with its mattress almost touching the floor, then put her eyeglasses aside and turned to face Beni. She found it embarrassingly difficult to take her eyes away from him, as he brought with him so many smells and sights she yearned so much to breathe and see again.
“Sit down,” she ordered Beni, and pointed at one of the small cushions thrown randomly on the floor. “I’ll pour you some wine.”
She turned to the tiny kitchenette, which occupied only an alcove in the small room, and looked for another cup. The walls surrounding her were colored in deep red, decorated with paintings and drawings, hanging loosely here and there.
Soon she was back at the center of the room, after finding another plastic cup. She poured wine for Beni and refilled the other cups.
“L’chaim,” said Beni and raised his cup. “Mazal Tov.”
“Thanks… you sure knew when to come.”
Her gentle, lovely face grew paler, with beads of sweat glistening on her forehead. Perhaps she was sorry she’d said these last few words, realizing their potential implication; or perhaps she was angry with herself for asking Beni in, to begin with. Impulsively, without drinking any wine, she grabbed her eyeglasses back from the corner of a small easel, upon which a painting of a nude, sleeping woman was in the process of taking shape, and put them on.
“I’ll make some coffee,” she said.
In the kitchenette again, she filled the coffee percolator with coffee and water, then turned it on. She stretched her hand to grab coffee cups from an open shelf but then halted, feeling dizzy. In her head a sweet melody—from a different place and a different time—was playing softly, bringing moisture to her eyes. She carried it with her into the small bathroom, where she stopped by the sink and looked at her face in the mirror.
She left behind a dreadful quiet, percolating deep and steady, together with the coffee being made. Dovik was pretending to read, holding an open, thin paperback book of poetry in his hand. Beni drew from his pocket a yellow pack of Ascot cigarettes and offered one to Dovik, who shook his head in disdain. Beni struck fire and inhaled deeply, releasing a long funnel of smoke.
“You work together, I understand,” he said, trying to break the ice.
“Yes, we do.”
“You’re a draftsman, too?”
“He’s an architect, Beni,” called Noa through the bathroom’s open door, still in front of the mirror, carefully inserting a contact lens into her eye. “Not a draftsman.”
“I see… sorry.”
Dovik responded with a forced smile. He seemed very uncomfortable, preferring total quiet. He couldn’t concentrate on reading the book though, and when Noa returned, placing down between them a round tray with three small Arabian cups of steamy black coffee on it, he closed the book with a thump, releasing an inadvertent sigh.
“I must go,” he said and handed her the book.
“No, you’re not,” said Noa in alarm as she took the book from him. “Drink your coffee first, we’ll read some poetry together.”
“It’s very late, Noa. I’ll see you tomorrow at the office.”
He got up and moved to the door, opening it. Noa followed him, looking at him with concerned eyes. He hesitated for a moment, as if he was waiting for her to say something—make a meaningful gesture, maybe, such as a hug or a kiss—but when she didn’t, he turned around and disappeared into the darkness.
Noa stayed in the doorway momentarily, looking outside, before turning inside and closing the door. She stayed there, leaning back on the wall by the door, one hand on her hip, the other holding the thin poetry book. She stared at Beni with burning eyes and tight lips.
Beni put down his cup of coffee and raised his eyes to her. “Good coffee,” he said nonchalantly. “You didn’t forget how…”
“You bastard,” she cut him off, her eyes flashed with anger. And impulsively—true to her nature, though—she threw the book at him.
It grazed his head first, before continuing its trajectory towards a pile of old records leaning on the wall by her bed, crashing into them.
“Why didn’t you call first?” she demanded.
“You don’t have a phone,” he answered, his hand massaging lightly the spot where the book had hit him.
“I do, at the office.”
She stepped closer and kneeled on the floor beside him, her hands on her knees, looking at him puzzled. “Where did you come from so suddenly, anyway?”
“Here. The city.”
“Don’t tell me…” her voice trailed off as she took both his hands in hers. “You left, too?”
He nodded, a mischievous smile passing across his face, as if a page from a book were turning over. And she: she took that smile away from him and transformed it into a burst of all-out laughter. Crazy laughter, at that; so much so that she lay down on the floor, on her back, her whole body shaking with pleasure.
Unsure how to react, Beni tossed his half-smoked cigarette into his empty cup of coffee. He watched closely the thin, bluish line of smoke that began to spiral up to the low ceiling, as if containing—but not revealing, not yet—many secrets. He took a sizeable bite at the cake, consuming it hungrily.
Seeing that, Noa stopped laughing as sudden as she’d started and moved closer to him, sitting on his stretched legs. She took hold of his hands again, asking, “When?”
“Three months ago, almost.”
“And you couldn’t find a moment to visit me yet, eh?”
“Here I am.”
“At the wrong time, as usual. How come you remembered?”
He shrugged off both her disparaging remark and the question that followed it.
“It’s so unlike you, you know,” she said.
“You’re twenty-one, aren’t you?”
“Twenty-three, sweetheart. Give me a kiss.”
Without waiting for him to respond, she collected his head in her hands and planted a tender kiss on his lips. He absorbed it, but didn’t take full advantage of it. She looked at him straight, as his eyes turned shyly down.
“Thanks, Beni… let’s celebrate!”
Quick as an alley cat, she jumped to her feet and threw open the door to her cupboard. She took off her long dress in one easy move and tossed it inside. She looked at the jumble of clothes there, not shy at all about being practically naked, but for her tiny red panties. She grabbed a thin black sweater and put it on, long enough to cover—just about, though—her buttocks and reach her upper thighs. Next, she removed the rubber band that had held her hair together and shook it loose, allowing the smooth, soft hair to fall naturally on her shoulders.
Beni, who observed her movements with detached curiosity, turned his eyes away from her now and zeroed them instead—appreciatively so—on the nude woman in the painting. But Noa sat down again and, as if on purpose, blocked his view. Her bare legs were touching his, while she unzipped his bomber jacket.
“You’re not in the army anymore, Beni. Take off your battledress.”
“I’m a bit cold.”
“You’ll be warm soon.”
She sent an enticing smile at him, then poured more wine into their cups. They sipped it slowly, meditatively, looking at one another as if they were both back home after a long journey, rediscovering the color of each other’s eyes. He was the one to look away first, though, as he got hold of the present he’d brought with him and handed it to her.
She unwrapped it and looked fondly at the cover of The Lover, a book by A.B.
Yehoshua. She opened it and read his dedication.
“Thanks, Beni. It’s a wonderful book.”
“You read it already?”
“Yes, but I don’t have it. And now I do,” she said and stuck her tongue out. “What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Did you like it?”
“I… I haven’t read it yet. It just came out a few–”
“Liar,” she said, cutting him off. She put the hardcover book aside and got hold of his shirt, pulling his face very close to hers. “I can still read you, Beni, like an open book.”
He smiled, a flush of pleasure stealing into his face. “And what do you read there?”
“Oh… let me tell you, sweetheart: an old-fashioned story about a lover who never truly loves.”
A heavy silence hung in the dense air now, as if not only suspended, but trapped as well in the limited space between them. They were both challenged by their shared memories, yet were dealing with them separately, differently. Noa was quicker to shake them off, as she finally let go of his shirt and opened some distance between them, still staring at him intently.
“What are you doing here in the city, anyway?” she asked.
“Not much what?”
“Me and the Arab workers are building a university,” he said, a bitter smile playing on his face. “For the religious people.”
“You didn’t leave the kibbutz for that, did you?”
“And what if I did?”
“Nonsense. What do you want to study?”
He hesitated, unclear of his future plans. Or perhaps he was clear, just unsure about opening that door for her.
“I’m taking art lessons now,” she volunteered. “In the evenings.”
“I can see,” he said, looking again at the painting-in-progress on the easel. “I hope you’ll stick with it.”
“Of course I would. My crazy days are over.”
He looked at her closely, as a smirk was struggling to appear on his face.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said tersely, quick to kill that smirk before it had a chance to spread. “And you?”
“I don’t know…” he said, hesitating. “To have some freedom.”
They stayed motionless for a long moment, holding each other’s stare without flinching, and without speaking further. She was trying to read his mind, but he allowed no hint to pass through.
“What… you have a new girlfriend in the city already,” she said, losing patience. “Some stupid blond piece?”
He turned his eyes away from her, towards an empty square of a red wall. What he saw there was not red, though, it was black and white: An old photograph of a young, handsome soldier in uniform, a forelock of blond hair falling on his forehead, a far-off look reflected in his eyes.
“Forget I said that, Beni,” he heard Noa’s voice coming as if from a great distance. “What about the army. Did they release you at last?”
“Release me from what?” He gazed back at her, unfocused.
“From your unit, fool. From the army.”
“They can never release me from that, Noa. You should know better.”
“Nonsense. No one is irreplaceable, even you.”
She got closer to him again. Her bare white legs encircled him, as her arms struggled to hug his shoulders. “Is that why you stopped coming?” she whispered. “Stopped writing, too. The wars… the dead?”
He shrugged, lowering his eyes.
“I would’ve helped you, stupid, you know that.”
She inserted her fingers deep into his thick, unruly hair, and pulled his head closer to
hers. She smelled his hair, inhaling deeply, as her tender lips touched his forehead.
“Did they call you a traitor there, in the kibbutz?” she asked, pulling her head back but still looking at his eyes inquisitively, trying to penetrate them.
“They sure made me feel like one.”
“I bet you didn’t take anything with you.”
“Like me,” she said and released him from her hug.
She lay down on the straw mat beside him, her head resting on his thigh, as his hand—ever so hesitantly—smoothed her silky black hair gently. Before long, she was smoking one of his cigarettes, blowing rings of smoke up and around his head.
“My parents, how are they doing?” she asked.
“Your father is worried. He reminded me of your birthday when he gave me your address. Wanted to send you some eggs and cheese, too.”
Noa chuckled, in spite of herself, spitting smoke. “They are still angry, I know.”
“Bitter, maybe, like all the veterans. Seeing how the bourgeoisie destroying their back-to-earth revolution.”
“And blaming their children for it,” she said. “Worse than here in the big city, if you ask me.”
She dropped her cigarette in disgust into the empty bottle of wine. They both watched in silence, befogged by memories, as the smoke searched for an escape first, serpent-like, then swirled up and free into the air.
“What about Gali?”
A shudder ran through Beni’s back, as if a current of electricity had shocked him suddenly. She noticed that and raised her eyes at him, asking, “Still there?”
“Yes… keeping the flame burning.”
“I heard the two of you became… I don’t know, real good friends in the army.”
“Stories,” he said, averting his eyes away from hers. “We haven’t spoken to each other since second grade.”
She giggled, enjoying it, though she knew otherwise. “He intends on staying there, deep in the cream pit?”
“Of course. Who will plow the fields if not him?”
“Not him, I’m sure,” she said. “And anyhow, there are hardly any fields there anymore.”
“There are, don’t exaggerate. Some fields, many factories.”
She raised her hand to his neck, still lying on the floor with her head on his thigh. She drew his head closer, as if to kiss him, but instead she just looked at him deeply for a moment, before whispering, “Will you stay the night?”
He just looked at her; not entirely surprised, yet unresponsive. She kissed his lips tenderly. “You were my first, Beni, you always will be.”
Before he had a chance to respond, or hide his discomfort, she was up on her feet. First, she lit a pink candle on her nightstand, which was just an old cardboard box. She then searched among the records lying disorderly by the wall, and quickly showed him what she’d found, a wide smile spreading on her radiant face. She placed the small 45 record on an old turntable resting on the floor beside her bed, and turned it on.
Soon, a song by a men duo—the same slow, lingering tune she’d heard earlier in her head while in the bathroom—filled the room. Next, Noa turned the overhead light off.
“Pretend it’s your old shack there, years ago,” she said and rushed to the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
Beni stayed put, stiff and pale. He glanced at his wristwatch, and then zipped up his bomber jacket. He collected his cigarettes and matches and shoved them into his pocket. He looked at the small, single record still spinning, resisting the pull of the song. The flame of the candle was gaining strength, just as he looked at the red wall behind the bed. And again, what he saw there was not the dance of the candle’s flame, but a black and white photograph: An open gravesite, with two soldiers standing close by, their heads bowing down; the arm of the tall, blond soldier resting loosely on Beni’s shoulder.
At the same time, by her mirror, what Noa saw—listening to the song, praising old places, old times and old folks—was a bed with two naked bodies lying still, entangled in a lovemaking embrace. Expansive moonlight was pouring down on them through the wide-open window, covering their bodies with a blanket of silvery glow.
“Get undressed, Beni,” she called loudly. “I won’t kill you.”
But when she opened the bathroom door—white naked, only the black sweater tied loosely around her waist—she found her room empty. And empty of music, too, just the sound of the needle could be heard, hitting the end of the record repeatedly.
“Bastard…” she cried and ran to the door. She opened it wide into the dark city night. “Why did you bother me?” she shouted into the wind. A chilly wind that forced her to close the door. She looked at the bed, at the empty wine cups and coffee cups, at the remnants of the cake, at the book he’d brought her. Her eyes were shiny red; her face was deadly pale; blue veins bulged in her neck.
She moved slowly, unsteadily into the center of the room. And suddenly, with much force, she kicked one of the coffee cups. It hit the wall directly and was shattered into pieces, splashing muddy coffee on the red wall. She looked at it for a moment but didn’t care one bit; she was about to collapse on the bed, feeling the tears shooting into her eyes.
But then her look fell on the easel, and on the unfinished painting of the young woman sleeping. Or dreaming. Her eyes caught something and she kneeled down by the easel. Her sweater fell off as she picked up a thin brush and dipped it lightly in water first, then in color. She began to paint, adding some brown into the mostly red background. She soon stopped and examined what she had just done. She liked it. So she continued to paint, both she and her subject stark naked.
Outside, Beni was just emerging from the old building. Above him the windows were mostly dark and shut. A lone lamppost illuminated him with an umbrella of fuzzy yellow light, as he halted by the turn to the sidewalk, drew his cigarettes pack from his pocket and put one in his mouth. But then he took it out, saying, “Want one?”
A figure rose from the dark corner of the concrete fence, guarded by the bushes, and joined him in the circle of light. “No. Let’s go,” he said.
It was the tall man with the blond hair and black overcoat; the soldier from the old photographs as well.
“Sorry I’m late, Gali. I…” said Beni, hesitating.
“I just came back, don’t worry,” said Gali. “How was it?”
“Did you tell her?”
Beni shook his head and lit his cigarette.
They turned to go, the smoke curling up behind them, hanging like a gray cloud over the white building. They crossed the street into the center of the narrow boulevard, and continued to walk closely, Gali’s arm over Beni’s shoulder. They headed up towards Ben Yehuda Street, walking against the strong wind, blowing directly at them from the Mediterranean seashore.