This is it, then, the festivities, the high color, the bewildered spark of crowds. It's not what I've expected, but it'll do. I'm lucky to be here, I was invited, I didn't have to beg. That's one thing I'll never do, I'll never beg.
We'll be staying here for a while. That's what we were told, and that's fine with me. As long as I'm here, my time is theirs. I'm a man who understands the wishes of his hosts. I also recognize the extent of my options.
Peterson comes into my room. He's a stocky man who dons an impressive mustache. Most men here, I'm told, wear mustaches. If it is decided that I belong, I may have to grow one myself.
I pour Peterson a drink, and we sit down at the table. Without a word, he pulls out a deck of cards and begins dealing. I'm not familiar with this particular game, but I'm quick on my feet. That's how I keep up. That's how they all do, I suspect.
Linda, my wife, comes in, carrying bags. She nods at Peterson and goes into the other room. Then she comes back, wearing an outfit I've never seen before. It's a pink dress, cut very low. I can see her breasts. So can Peterson. She's got a nice pair, Linda does. She walks from one end of the room to the other. It's very distracting, not to say, excruciating. I want to tell her to stop, but I'm afraid it would appear as though there were tension in the room.
Finally she takes the couch, and Peterson turns his chair to get a good look. I look at his neck. It is thick and short. It's odd. I feel I am the one who must leave the room.
It is good to follow one's instincts, especially when in a new place, in a new situation. Linda always follows her instincts, and, most often, she is proven right.
I get up and leave the room. I go into the bathroom and look in the mirror. I haven't changed much. I still have what is considered a youthful expression. My eyes shine brightly, my skin exudes hope and good will. I have not as yet reached my full potential. Looked at from all sides, my future is still a viable asset.
Not Like This
They’ve had a rough night, but now, sitting on their balcony with their morning coffees—she in a pale blue housedress, pink flip-flops, sunglasses, rollers on her head; he in a black, short-sleeved shirt, red shorts—they both seem poised, composed. God only knows what’s in her head as he talks, raising his hand toward the horizon. We don’t know what’s in her head, but she sits up straight, holding up her mug with both hands as if giving thanks or begging for more. The mugs, incidentally, are white, and so are the hands.
She, who used to sleep "like a baby," now often wakes several times in the night. Thankfully, she usually falls right back to a fitful sleep, but there are nights when her brain, as it did last night, gets to work, reviewing the days ahead and/or the days before, scanning its vastness for problems still pending resolution, or problems still lying-in-wait in the future, usually problems involving the outside world, namely people, be they friends or family or people she has to deal with for one reason or another (bank clerks, for instance); too often, people mean conflict or at least an annoyance that has to be dealt with and then, hopefully, forgotten, and this is what her brain goes searching for in the middle of the night if and when she allows even the tiniest opening, even as she tries her mightiest not to, not to let her brain go anywhere, but remain in a semi-coma which will allow her to close her eyes and fall asleep again.
But, as said, last night she must have allowed the tiniest opening and her brain leapt and was out the door, rummaging through the various compartments, and she knew it would be hours before she fell asleep again, while also still trying to talk her brain out of roaming and into contracting itself into a tiny corner of itself, as she repeated her home-made mantras, words like BROOM and PUMA, chosen not for content but for sound, words, indeed, that her own brain offered up when Life showed its ugly face.
Now, on the balcony, she may be blaming her overactive amygdala, or the position of Mercury in the sky. She may be thinking about yesterday, about the awful experience of calling her insurance company, when she sat and listened, for about thirty long minutes, to the charmingly pleasant male voice that kept whispering in her ear: Please hold while we’re transferring you to an account specialist, the expected wait time is fourteen minutes, meanwhile, may we offer you more services from our basket of excellence?
At first she held on, as if mesmerized, but in the end she broke down and sobbed and screamed at her husband, Why is this happening to me? And her husband—well, what could she say about her husband? He was her husband, she married him, but, to his credit, he took her screaming like a man, he was calm and tried to calm her. She was a good woman, she took her vitamins, she exercised, she smiled at her neighbors, if absently. She was neat and often domestic in the traditional ways. She made sure her closets smelled nice, that her silver- and glassware shone when she raised them to the light. She tried to remember when and how she became so fussy, but couldn’t. Maybe she’d always been this way but never thought to think or worry about it.
It is also safe to conjecture that her erstwhile lover popped into her head, erstwhile, in fact, only since yesterday, everything went catawampus for her yesterday, every turn was a wrong turn yesterday. She had sent him an email, as she had done many times these past few months, but this time he—or, more precisely, the automated program, as she soon realized—responded instantly, telling her that it had given up trying to dispatch her email, and that the remote host had said: message rejected.
It stunned. It stung. Just like that, she had been cast aside, no longer the adored and beloved she used to be. Now she could admit to herself, or had to admit to herself, that she had known all along that the relationship would not last forever, that one day, like all things, it would have to end, but not like this, her heart moaned, not like this. And, worse, there was no one she could commiserate with, it was too humiliating, she had to keep her mouth shut and watch her husband’s knobby knees as he sat there in his red shorts and pointed at the horizon. The horizon! What did she care about the horizon? The remote host, like any machine, was programmed to be heartless, but Bud, her wonderful lover, must have known that such a blunt message rejected would kill her, and this right after the insurance business! How much can a person take? Will there ever be an end to suffering?
She tried to call him, there was so much she needed to say to him, it was all so clear in her head, the words were ready on her lips, Bud, Deary, what has happened? Only yesterday, both you and your remote host liked me well, always responsive and gracious and loving, and now this. She tried to call, her speech ready, but his answering device cut her off. She tried his Facebook page, but there, too, she was shunned, having lost all Friend privileges.
Her husband rose, shook out his legs and looked at his watch. Really, she thought, he ought not to wear shorts. She considered telling him that, but to what end? The knees were his knees, the rollers were her rollers, night after night the two of them snored together in the same bed—what more did she want?
In the Dead of Night
Am I inert? A plant?
No. I can make a phone ring. Not unlike the insane, I dial his number, delighting in a thrilling furtive act no one will ever know about.
Of course I'm aware that he could not possibly be in his office, but I dial anyway. Normal people at this hour are at home, in their beds, in the warm bosom of their families.
There are plants in his office. Once a week a woman wearing a blue apron comes around and touches the plants. She waters them and discards the dead ones, replacing them with new, bright plants that sport young leaves.
I love the plants in his office. One of them sprouts a delicate white flower in the midst of wide masculine leaves. It's sturdy, it must be, against the onslaught of all this aggressive greenery.
Will a ringing phone disturb the peace in a room? Perhaps a picture hung on the wall will tilt to one side, perhaps the order in the family portrait will alter. I don't want to harm anyone. I only want to disturb some, reclaim a power I once had, when I got what I wanted, what I had signed for.
I favor change, I applaud it. Really, I do. But I'm only human.
It's late. I'd better wake up, hang up on this dead sound, let the plants live as they may, let a picture hang serenely on the wall. It's not my wall; I have no rights or obligations to it.
I hang up and go to the kitchen. I take out a large glass bowl and begin to fill it with cut-up tomatoes, cucumbers, red peppers, scallions. I squeeze a whole lemon and mix it in, then sit down on the couch, balancing the bowl on my thighs.
No one I know eats like me. No one I know dials a number for the sheer idiocy of it.
I make myself laugh. This life is not cut out for idiots. You can be in love with the ghost of love for only so long, and then you'd better hang up.
I'm not being fair. The moments that came and went gave us our due share. We caressed and kissed and did all the things a man and a woman do to one another. We danced to slow music, we drank from the same glass. We wished we died together right there and then many times. We said everything we wanted to say, without pause, without recourse, and we believed it.
I wrote this last paragraph in the past tense while the future was still ahead of us, and still is. But I'm rushing things. It's a tickle I deplore and can't resist.
Tsipi Keller was born in Prague, raised in Israel, studied in Paris, and has been living in the U.S. since 1974. Novelist and translator and the author of ten books, she is the recipient of several literary awards, including National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowships, New York Foundation for the Arts Fiction grants, and an Armand G. Erpf Translation Award from Columbia University. Her short stories and novel excerpts have appeared in journals and anthologies in the U.S. and in Europe (in German and Romanian translations). Her fiction is often characterized as literary and urban/noir.