Fiction // Those Who Go About the City

By | Jul 02, 2013

But she read quicker than he, and when she turned the page, he had said, without thinking, “No, wait—I didn’t finish yet.” She had turned around, amused and shy, eyes twinkling at the young man who had been reading over her shoulder this whole time. And somehow these six words had landed them in the cinema the next night, at a small wedding party at her parents’ apartment six months later.

Their courtship had been a whirlwind of evenings at the theatre and walks along a blossoming Chistoprudny Boulevard on spring nights. They were young, carefree, dependent on nothing but love and knowledge. She was studying Gogol and Chekhov, he enzyme kinetics and organic solvents. But both read, both laughed, both came from proper intellectual families with grandparents with names like Moishe and Rokhel. Somehow, things had been different then and there. He had come to visit her during the summer at her family’s dacha in the suburbs; they would go on hikes through thick woods and she would force him, with a teasing smile, to pick raspberries by the baskets while she trailed after him, reciting Lermontov from her small worn book. Over tea later, on the cottage porch, they’d eat the raspberries until their stomachs ached. Her mother would exclaim at the sweetness of the malina, and that surely to find such good berries requires talent and perhaps even knowledge of chemistry.

But the strolls and raspberries happened in some other volume of their lives. The six words that had started everything—they had brought them to this moment too, 22 years later, a son Ron in a yarmulke and uniform, a Jerusalem apartment in which her soft footsteps still echo.

He leaves the lights off when he comes in, letting the faint street lamp outside be the only light in the dark apartment. As he hangs up his jacket he realizes how peaceful it is with the lights off, how he barely remembers the rooms without the light on—she had always kept it on, through the night, to allow her to study and write. And when he’d wake up, he’d see her at his side, sleeping deeply, the rooms already full of morning light.

So he leaves it dark. He takes out his cell phone and checks again for any missed calls or voicemails. The screen is the usual picture of an azure beach. No blinking symbols to speed his heart rate, to spark his fingers to clumsily dial his PIN number and listen with held breath.

Alright. He closes it calmly and sits down in the armchair, the one they had bought when she insisted he have somewhere to sit and read his newspaper and smoke his cigar.

But I don’t smoke cigars, he had protested, standing in the furniture store.

She gave him a look. Oh, don’t talk, Lyonya, and filled out the order form. He had tried convincing her it was unnecessary, but saw that she wouldn’t budge from the romance she was writing for herself. A dignified professor of chemistry for a husband, a fitting set of furniture to match, a vast home library.

This is Jerusalem, Anya. We’re not in London.

He thinks of calling her cell phone again. The previous 17 times he has tried calling (unless one counted the times he began dialing; that would make it 42) have brought him to the automated reply. Please leave a message after the beep.

Avital Chizhik is a graduate of Yeshiva University whose writing has appeared in The New  York Times, Tablet and The Forward. She is a regular contributor to Haaretz, and currently lives in New York City.

A message would do nothing, anyway. If she still has her phone, wherever she is, she’d know he was looking for her. Yet he dials again and waits for the beep. “Good evening, Anya,” he says into the silence of the voicemail box. “I hope all is well with you. Please call me as soon as you can.”

I need you. Where have you gone?

Why have you gone?

“Oh, and on your way back, if you could just stop at the super and pick up a carton of orange juice, that would be lovely.”

He takes a small breath. “Good night.”

Tomorrow, he tells himself as he closes the phone, if she doesn’t come, he’ll call someone.

Their copy of Anna Karenina is the same one which had brought about their meeting. Of the few books they had been allowed to take out of the country, Tolstoy had naturally been the first choice, closely followed by Pushkin and then Lermontov.

No wait I didn’t finish yet. That’s what he had said, that very first day, the words she quotes back to him in her cursive handwriting in the Camus volume. No wait I didn’t finish yet. He wants to tell her that now—No wait I didn’t finish yet we didn’t finish yet why have you left?

Leon brings the book close to his face and inhales the mustiness he had begun to associate with Soviet books. Surely old books from other countries also smell musty, but they can’t possibly be as yellow and promising as those from the Soyuz.

It had never had an inscription in it before, had it? He squints through the dimness, trying to make out the scrawled writing in the inside cover. When he brings it closer to the window, he almost laughs, thinking it must be some kind of joke.

“I think it was Jane Austen who wrote that happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. Some kind of cruel, cruel joke.” He doesn’t throw the book down, like he wants to, but sets it down gently. So gently, that it all but disappears from his mind’s eye, as he climbs into bed. I won’t follow you, Anya, book after book. God, we have hundreds of them! I’m not a child; what do you think this is, a birthday party, a scavenger hunt?

And then, mocking him further, old pious Chaim Isaakovich from next door screams. Leon turns over in bed to face the window. These shrieks have been going on for months, ever since the old man had moved into his computer programmer son’s apartment. “The watchmen that go about the city, they have found me!” The raspy voice has some sort of power over the walls of the building. And then in Yiddish: “I ask them if they have seen me, and they tell me that they saw a man riding on a red horse.” Footsteps on the other side of the wall, soothing whispers.But I am not on a red horse! I am not that man!”

“I think it was Jane Austen who wrote that happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. Some kind of cruel, cruel joke.”.

“Father, father, please.” Leon hears the neighbor and his wife, their voices dripping with exhaustion.

Leon turns over again, pulling the blanket over himself. Never mind.

The neighbor’s old father is sitting alone the next morning in front of the building. He has a wool blanket on his lap, a thick unopened book in his potato-skin hands. Leon barely notices him as he runs out, checking his phone and wondering if he has to call now or if he can wait till the evening.

“I know where she went,” the old man calls out.

He stops, halfway down the walkway. Turns around. “Pardon?” Leon carefully holds his unruffled good-morning smile in place.

“The rose of Sharon, of course,” the old man smiles, and when he sees that Leon’s face is still blank, adds,

“The lily of the valleys.”

“Ah, yes.” Leon nods coolly and turns back toward the parking lot.

He doesn’t go home immediately after work that night, but instead drives over to the center of the city. He drives around for 20 minutes searching for a parking spot and finally settles on the municipal parking lot. The cashier at the entrance smokes a cigarette and drones that the parking lot closes at 11.

Leon walks into a cafe on King George. The young waitress asks him if he’d like sugar in his coffee and he says no thank you. He watches a well-dressed couple at the next table. The man is in a suit, she is in a sleeveless top and finely cut trousers, laughing breathily. Beyond them sit three Orthodox teenage girls, sipping frappucinos, chatting and drunk on the air.

He walks far after he finishes the coffee. Past the glimmering hotels, the pillared YMCA, up the stairs and suddenly the Tower of David rises before him in the night sky. The Old City’s cobblestoned streets bustle with tourists and pilgrims who still have the golden dust of travel on their clothing, but are too busy looking, touching, breathing. He remembers a tour they had taken, back in ’91, when they first arrived. They are young, confused, dependent on government immigrant welfare. An all-too-eager tour guide, his Russian r’s already trilling like in Hebrew, the model of the perfectly content immigrant—“If I can do it, so can you”—and exclaiming, “It is interesting that the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the very center of the Jewish world, has no main road to it. If one is coming from the west, one must go through narrow alleyways and arched streets. Perhaps it suggests that no way to holiness is direct.”

But he doesn’t go to the Wall. He goes as far as an Armenian kiosk, only a few turns away from the illuminated central Plaza. And then he turns back, walks back to the municipal parking lot, pays the cashier and drives back home.

He knows that opening the Austen collection and finding the next inscription is easier than calling the police. Just like working out the formula by hand is easier than consulting the computer.

So he does not touch the phone. For very practical reasons, of course. Of what help would a bunch of uniforms be? They’d come in, ask idiotic questions and write his answers down. And then promise to call if they get any leads. Which they wouldn’t get—all the leads are right in his hands.

He opens the leather-bound edition, and finds it to be empty. Perhaps this is the end of the game? He looks around; there are another three books with Jane Austen’s name on it. And in the cover of a relatively new paperback Pride and Prejudice, something almost too poetic for his wife to have written. But it’s there, in her handwriting:

“‘Who will change old lamps for new ones? New lamps for old?’ One night, you were asleep and I was up working and I heard a dark man’s voice outside, summoning me to change my old lamp for a new one. I told him I have no golden lamp, I have no djinn coming at my bidding. He laughed, smelling of cumin, a muezzin prayer echoing in his laughter. ‘Then give me a desert,’ he said. ‘And I shall give you a garden.’”

She had often asked over tea why they didn’t go to America along with his brother, a passionate Zionist who’d sworn he’d only go there for one year. He stayed there for three years and then died. Leon would glare at her thunderously whenever she mentioned Semyon; she enjoyed testing him. “It’s much bigger there. In America,” she continued, despite his fidgeting with his cup. He stood and dropped it into the sink with a purposeful noise. “Imagine—a land almost expansive as the Soyuz.” He was silent. She took the plunge: “Not narrow like here.”

Slowly he said that he liked it narrow, and that if she yearned so much to see a wide land with endless kilometers of nothing, she was welcome to book herself an Aeroflot ticket. And she did, every year. She stayed in Moscow, spent a few days in St. Petersburg, met with old school friends who hadn’t left. Theatres, gardens, operas, tours, banquets. “Real ice cream, not that slush they sell here.” When she came back she was always flustered, happy, a young girl after a night out dancing.

3 thoughts on “Fiction // Those Who Go About the City

  1. Mazelt tov, Avital. Beautiful story.

  2. Leah says:

    incredibly cliched

  3. sydney herbert says:

    What does it mean?

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