Below is my entire new short story—’You Won’t Believe This’—never before published. As I say at its beginning, I’m telling you this incredible story to: “Test your core belief in the divine, or your firm conviction in reality and reason.” Enjoy the ride.
You won’t believe this, but it happened. And I’m going to tell you about it no matter what, just to test your core belief in the divine, or your firm conviction in reality and reason. And at the same time, while keeping my imagination mostly at bay, I’m going to ignite the power of my memory and let it loose. See where it takes me.
To Tel Aviv in the early eighties, as I recall. It was just a regular summer day—hot, humid, and miserable—with no indication of the miracle about to occur. Truth be told: I was ready to kill myself that day. It was only a matter of how soon and how to go about it. What else could go wrong, I kept asking myself as I was walking home from work. My home was a rented two-bedroom apartment with a view of the beach; close enough to smell the foam of the waves and feel the touch of the breeze coming ashore. You should be so lucky. But thinking about it as I was getting closer to home gave me no comfort on that sweltering summer day, when even the sycamore trees along Ben-Gurion Boulevard couldn’t outsmart the sun, and offered little to no escape from the suffocating humidity in the air, and the relentless beating of the late afternoon heat.
Seriously, you have to live in Tel Aviv in August to understand the force this mixture of humidity and heat can generate. But never mind that, it’s not what I wanted to tell you. What I wanted to tell you was how much I hated my life that day, and how much I hated the multitude of people walking in the boulevard, talking too loudly and sending my way stinky vapors, so busy with their pathetic daily lives. I hated the cars passing by nonstop, polluting the air with their black fumes and loud honks. Only in Tel Aviv do drivers honk like that, so insanely and so insistently.
Mostly though, I hated my work. The video magazine I’d been working on for the last three months, in my position as the head of Video Production for the Histadrut, the all-powerful Israeli umbrella trade-union, had been canned for good not even an hour earlier by my fat-ass boss. He was a low-grade apparatchik who’d bluntly accused me, at the end of a loud argument in his office, of failing to understand that I was working for a political organization, not an independent production company. (He knew my aspiration, the jerk, I give him that.) As a result, I’d neglected to include—and not for the first time, mind you, it was made clear to me—the mandatory opening interview with the Chairman of the Cultural Division.
“What is it here, Russia?” I’d asked rhetorically, trying to be clever.
All hell had broken loose as result of that remark, and I’d been shown the door in no uncertain terms. Not sure at all, I realized too late, that I would be able to open that door tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or ever again.
Oh well, add that to your list of pains, a nagging voice whispered in my ear as I was crossing Ben-Yehuda Street. Just then, as if on purpose, a speeding car almost did me in for good. I would’ve appreciated greatly such a favor that day, and in truth, it was probably me who was trying to hit the car, not the other way around. I could judge that by the raised middle finger of the driver, by his loud honks, and by my subconscious intentions—pushing up to the surface of reality—on that horrible day.
Alas, no such luck: I was destined to live a little longer. A predicament made clearer to me when the smell of the salty air coming from the sea hit my nostrils, and the soft touch of that familiar sea breeze began to caress and cool my burning cheeks. Inadvertently, I increased the rhythm of my footsteps, though they still lacked any gaiety or urgency in them.
No one was waiting for me at home that day, you see: not a wife, not a son, not even a dog. They were all gone to a different part of town. If I were to kill myself—a knife would be better than a wife, a crazy idea cut through my delirious head—no one would notice my absence for quite some time. My eight-year-old son, who’d been living with me until quite recently, was now living with his mother. I left his room intact, his bed unmade, the way he himself had left it. I’d gotten so used to taking care of him in the last year, and now that he was gone, I was left with a terrible black hole in my heart.
The only recourse left open for me was to hide in the company of my misery. I was glad, therefore, to leave the bright sunlight of the city streets behind me, eager to disappear into the semi-darkness of the entrance hall to my old, weather-beaten gray—the dominant color of that day, gray, wouldn’t you guess that—four-story Bauhaus-style building. Yet even that small step demanded of me to overcome one more obstacle; a random distraction in the form of a young woman, who came out of the building and into the sun at that very moment, so enthused with the expectations of life to be fully lived and experienced. She was wearing a short, purple sundress, designed purposely to terrorize the hearts of fragile men, such as the one beating madly in my chest, and transparent enough to evince, once sunrays had hit it, the alabaster skin of her hidden curves.
Summer looks nice on you, I wanted to tell her. But even that innocent, complimentary comment, which until then had been almost like a second nature to me, so easy to set free, was so difficult for me to say on that particular day, possibly the last summer day of my life. Because, you see: If I lost the urge and ability to approach and charm a young, beautiful woman, what reason was there to continue on living?
None whatsoever. She was just another bad joke playing at my expense. So I lowered my eyes and continued my humble, defeated walk into the confines of the building. I was nevertheless followed, in a purposeful, tormenting kind of way, by the cloud of her perfume. It reminded me of the blossom of cyclamens on my mountain of youth, where my kibbutz was nestled on the slope so naturally, so securely, and where I’d left behind my happy childhood. It encouraged also an intriguing, disturbing thought: Perhaps she was—that unidentified woman, that arrogant beauty—the last person to see me alive.
With that thought buzzing in my head, I first checked my mailbox, as if it still mattered to me what I would find there. Bills galore, that what I found, which I swore would remain unopened and unpaid forever. But the most glaring envelope, a frightfully familiar brown one, did catch my eye and my attention. Here we go again, I told myself: the army is calling on you, oh eternal soldier. A reserve duty is coming your way soon, like it or not. You have a problem with that? You have better things to do with your time? Screw you—the army doesn’t care. It’s time to defend your country, man. It’s time for uniformity and patriotic songs. Another good reason to just disappear from the face of this earth. Maybe I should look for my old Uzi, hidden somewhere in my apartment. A weapon meant, originally anyway, to be used against a potential terrorist attack from the sea. I might as well use it against myself.
Oh boy, how much I hated the army. Why did I ever volunteer to the Paratroops’ Brigade? Why did I ever go to the damn Officers’ Training Course? Why did I become a young lieutenant, now a captain already, old and bruised? Why? My life was forever cursed by these terrible, patriotic, youthful mistakes. And this duty call was probably an emergency draft to do with the impending war up in the north, in the Galilee Mountains, where the border with Lebanon was heating up once more, generating winds of war that blew hard all over the country. There was no escape from the imminent storm they were ushering, I concluded, but death.
I felt sick to my stomach as I climbed laboriously upstairs to the third floor. Above me lived the daughter of my landlord, a film editor, together with her girlfriend, a model of some sorts. I dreaded meeting her, or hearing the sound of her running footsteps, as my monthly rent was now more than two months overdue. Not to mention the general house maintenance dues, which as a renter I refused to pay on principle, since I’d moved in here over a year ago. I was a man of principles back then, you see, still relatively young and naïve in the ways of the world. No wonder Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot was my true bible. I should open it one more time and read some pages, the idea occurred to me, before closing the book of my life.
I opened the door to my apartment and entered, immediately throwing my worn-out leather briefcase on the floor in disgust, and the mail on the messy dining room table. I first went to the bathroom for a quick pee, which nonetheless lasted too long. Damn—even that simple task was not as easy for me to accomplish that day, as it had always been. Next, I released my sore feet from the burden of my biblical-style sandals and undressed, remaining in my checkered boxer shorts and sweaty white T-shirt.
As I entered the kitchen, I immediately noticed that my sink was clean spotless, empty of the dirty dishes I’d accumulated there in the last week. In the fridge, I first found my lemonade pitcher not almost empty, as I’d expected to be, but full. And then, another clear evidence that my mother, bless her heart, had been here ahead of me today: she’d left behind a large jar of pre-made chicken soup, as well as a pre-cooked dinner. Chicken, of course, with brownish fried potatoes and cooked green peas on the side. It would probably last me for the next three days, I figured, if I remained alive that long. Which I very much doubted.
In hindsight of many years, my mother’s charitable acts were the first indication that something good—what exactly even my crazy mind could not have guessed, or imagined possible—might still be cooking up for me. She was so worried about me lately, and decided to take over certain responsibilities, since my wife had left me. Had left to pursue her “artistic” aspirations, you see, as if she’d ever cared much about cooking dinner for us while we were still together as a family.
I should call her later. My mother, of course, not my wife. Her next call would come from the police, or from the morgue, informing her of my suicidal death. As for my mother, I would wait a while longer before calling her. Maybe I never would. I hated telephones the most, I really did. In the kibbutz, where I was born, I grew up without the hateful instrument. I never got used to it, here in the big city; so impersonal it had always sounded to me. And so deceiving, too: you can easily lie, if you so wish. Which I could never successfully accomplish—no kidding—no matter how hard I tried.
In any case, I’ll be sure to thank my mother in my suicide note, I decided as I entered the living room. Where, despite my gloomy mood and bleak outlook, I automatically turned on the radio, which was tuned permanently to a station (Voice Aleph, I believe it was) that played mostly classical music in the afternoon. But of course, not on that fateful day. On that day news took over, drumming the sounds of war after a night of skirmishes on the northern border. Oh man, how much I hated the news that day. And the wars, of course. Always the wars.
In a personal act of defiance and protest—probably my last such act—I tuned instead to the “Voice of Peace,” Abie Nathan’s radio station, which he operated in those days from a boat out in the sea. It faithfully transmitted, at all hours of the day and night, golden oldies and classic rock, mixed with messages of peace, directly through the air and over the waves of the sea at the window of my bedroom, and at the balcony of my apartment.
Next, I glanced in dread at my writing desk, situated strategically in a shaded corner of the room. On top of the desk, beside my green Hermes typewriter, rested my latest screenplay: Love under the Eucalyptus Tree. (You may laugh, why don’t you, I’m laughing too.) The one about the kibbutz, where my father, good health may always be with him, still lived. He deserves a call, too, I was thinking, and a mention in my final writing paper as well. After all, this screenplay was in large part about him: A Holocaust survivor, a socialist, an eternal idealist and dreamer. A curse and affliction I no doubt inherited from him. No wonder I turned out so screwed up.
True to form, and to that conclusion, I was planning on directing the film myself. It was supposed to be my film, you see, my singular work of art. I would finally create a splash here in the city, and make a name for myself to go along with it. Would rescue my future, hopefully, from the jaws of my past. Would prove to all those city-type people that I, a farm-boy from the Jezreel Valley, was capable of more than just these lousy video magazines. Even though, cut to the naked truth here, the copies I’d made so far of my screenplay, with considerable costs (money originally set aside for my monthly rent), kept coming back to me from those pretentious, brainless producers, and their fake production companies. Always rejected.
Rejected and dejected was how I felt that afternoon. I couldn’t go through another rewrite. No way. Even that, sitting at my desk writing—the one thing I liked doing the most—was too much for me on that ominous, albeit sunny day in Tel Aviv. Instead, I put my hand on the phone, resting on the broken, small black & white television set, intending on calling my son. See how he was doing. Yet I hesitated, my phone anxiety taking over big time, as I realized I would probably have to speak with her first. His mother. My wife still, officially. It was the worst, talking to her. I just couldn’t bring myself into doing that. Not now—not ever.
I opened the two sliding glass doors that separated my living room from the balcony, parted them wide and stepped outside. I placed my cold lemonade glass on the small round table, standing by my old beach chair, and raised the dusty green shades all the way up. It was like raising a curtain, as they used to do back then at the old, grand Tel Aviv Cinema Theater in town, before the screening of each film. Let it begin; I was ready for the end.
A blast of bright sunlight, full-faced, and a strong sea breeze greeted me. Exposed and spread in front of me was the familiar, yet still magnificent expanse of the Mediterranean Sea, stretching wide-open all the way to the end of the world. May it will come soon, that end, I whispered a prayer; a hypocritical prayer, mind you, coming from the mouth of a devout nonbeliever. Maybe a jump down to the busy road below would do the trick, and would bring me that desired finale.
But wait a minute, I remember telling myself: here, my friend, was the sea. Your sea. Blue all right, with whitecaps and silver brushstrokes here and there, sailing boats, surfing boards, wave riders, paddle boards, flying seagulls and cresting, rolling waves breaking into foam on the sandy beach. You name it, beach-wise I mean, it was there. Including the hill of the Independence Gardens on the right, and the marina by the Seaside Hotel on the left, creating a triangle-like bay, which opened up wide into the sea.
The beach itself, normally crowded to capacity, was relatively roomy and airy that late afternoon. And therefore much more enticing. Give me a good reason, I challenged myself, why I shouldn’t go down for a swim; see if the waves still remember me. And then, fair game, pursue a careful study of the half-naked girls lying there on the sand, sun-worshiping. With any luck, I may bring one home with me. I had dinner to offer her, an aphrodisiac courtesy of my mother, which would surely smooth her way into my bedroom, and stimulate the lovemaking to follow.
Yet even that intriguing idea inspired no urgency in me that day. I felt no vitality in my veins; no rush of blood anywhere; no burning desires or uncontrolled urges were left in me. I dropped down on the beach chair and stretched my tired legs forward on the floor. I could still see the sea, peeking at me through the peeling cement rails lining my balcony. And though I searched for answers there, I found only sadness reflected back at me from the waves. It was magnified by the sun: a big ball of fire coming down for a swim. She was blood-red, just as I imagined the heart of the world to be. One has to witness such a sunset at least once, I was convinced back then, before one dies.
I took a sip of lemonade, but it tasted not as it had tested yesterday, or the day before. It was bitter, not sweet. For some reason—unclear to me at the time—I looked up at the ceiling above me in the balcony and stared hard at it, as if seeing it for the first time. I saw that, like an abstract painting, it was full of cracks. Deep cracks, mind you, deeper than what I’d noticed before. And over on the other side, I deliriously imagined, my landlord’s daughter and her girlfriend were nakedly embraced, soaking up the last sunrays of the day.
Suddenly, I felt a pull of unbearable sorrow deep inside me. It forced me to look back at the sea, still desperately searching for answers to my life’s big questions. I saw how the sun was kissing the sea goodnight, and concluded that everything streams into darkness, and every soldier must die alone, as we’d used to sing in the army. When darkness comes, I decided then and there, I would walk barefoot to the beach and enter my sea of sadness completely naked. I would swim deep and far, and plow the dark waters all the way to the “Voice of Peace” boat, or even deeper and farther than that, why not, in search of the dying sun, as I’d used to daydream as a child. I would go after her, yes I would: into the heart of darkness, into the depth of sea.
I stretched my hand to grab my lemonade glass, intending on giving it one more try, and that when the telephone rang. It shook me up all right, I tell you, since I didn’t expect anybody to remember I still existed. Hard to believe, but I didn’t have an answering machine back then, or a long enough cord in order to bring the intruding instrument out into the balcony. It could be my mother, I thought at first, inquiring whether I tasted her chicken already. Or maybe my father was calling, demanding to know when, if ever, I intend on coming back to the kibbutz. It was possible, also, that my son was the caller, eager to tell me about his new school. Even that semi-producer, what was his name, was perhaps calling me to ask if I did the rewrite already.
Either way, whoever was calling me was persistent enough to force me, after about three rings, to get up and finally stepped back into the living room, close by the sliding glass doors, and pick up the receiver.
“Hello…” I said.
The reply came from a different direction altogether. You won’t believe this, I know, but I heard a loud, strange noise coming from the balcony. And as I looked back, still holding the receiver to my mouth and ear, I saw a large cinderblock falling down from the ceiling above my balcony, landing heavily on my beach chair. It gave wings to a cloud of dust, and a fan of debris that was spreading around, shaking the lemonade in my glass.
Automatically, repetitively, I kept saying “Hello” into the mouthpiece. But here’s the kicker, my friends: no one answered back. Nor did I hear the hanging up of the phone on the other side. No static or heavy breathing could be heard, either, just dead silence. The kind—you know what I mean, don’t you? —that makes one certain that someone is actually there, on the other end of the line, listening to you very carefully.
Slowly, ever so slowly, I hung up the receiver and stepped back into the balcony. Dumbfounded, I stared at my beach chair, crashed to the floor under the weight of the cinderblock, right where I’d been sitting before the phone had rung and had called me away. I looked up at the ceiling, but saw no naked women there, just an empty hole, opening up into the darkening skies.
From the small round table I picked up my glass. A crust of white dust had settled nicely over the surface of the lemonade, just as a golden blanket of light had covered the sea below. I took a thirsty sip, disregarding the dust like a nomad in the desert, too thirsty to bother. It tasted so heavenly sweet all of a sudden. I was still alive, lucky devil, still looking down at the sea. I listened to the ancient music of the waves, and saw how they were crashing into the sand so majestically, so methodically, and so full of zest. The sea breeze was stronger now, too, and was drying the sweat off my skin.
I no longer saw sadness in the sea, just peaceful waters glowing with life. The last of the beachgoers—swimmers, surfers and sunbathers—were leaving the sand and heading back into the asphalt of the city streets, where artificial lights were coming on in lampposts everywhere. Life was normal, it seemed, the summer invincible.
A subconscious smile forced itself out of me, spreading independently of my will all over my face. I lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply, then leaned forward over the railing of my balcony and blew the smoke out directly against the wind. It must’ve been a coincidence, I thought at first, since no other explanation was available to me at the time. I didn’t believe in divine intervention back then, you see, nor do I believe in it much now. And yet, many years later—some happy, some sad—I still wonder who was the caller who threw me this lifeline, and saved my life.