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excerpt: The Retelling

Ah, to be alive, I thought. Not a small miracle, considering the events of the past few weeks, and the growing uncertainty I sensed all around me. Breaking ‘miracle’ into its components, I counted seven letters and three syllables, numbers which, momentarily at least, reassured me some, bearing, as I saw it, a favorable message. I was alone in my small, neighborhood park, saturating my eyes with the lush sparkling green of young leaves. Their exuberance cheered me, and I sat there, drawing on their energy, when a light rain began to fall. Damn, I thought, trying to decide what I should do: go home, or wait for the drizzle to stop. Concentrating, I trained my gaze on the spaces between the falling drops and saw, through the mist, Elsbeth shimmering among the trees. She wore a severe and haunted expression on her face, but her white, strapless dress, her wispy blond hair, and her smooth, bare shoulders, softened the overall, waif-like image. As always, her beauty moved me deeply, and my whole being swelled with gratitude for the gift of such a luminous visitation. I wanted to stand up and call to her, but I knew I mustn’t move, or even blink, if I wanted this fleeting, gossamer apparition to last a little longer. She had come to console me! The thought blazed through my mind, bringing self-pitying tears into my eyes and drowning the cherished image. A steady rain was falling, mingling with my tears, yet I remained on my bench, willing Elsbeth to reappear. In the distance, the three fountains roared up to the sky, then came down in a loud, greenish splash. How strange, I thought, that Elsbeth was "there" and I was "here." Early this morning, walking to the pool, I noticed a couple of pigeons on the sidewalk, peacefully squatting in a puddle from last night’s rain. Light and shade trembled in the perfect circle of the puddle and, as I stood and marvelled at this still life, a sudden urge to leave everything and go away somewhere overwhelmed me. Lately, a kind of permanent bubble encircled my middle, a heaviness of heart that encumbered my step and dampened my spirit. Maybe it was a cloud, not a bubble that followed me around, and life, or my control over it, seemed to be slipping from my hands. My nerves were on edge, and people, merely by existing, infuriated me with maddening speed. A stranger on the street who walked too slowly and blocked my way, or else a neighbor on my floor who let his door slam shut, causing my door to echo and vibrate. Why can’t people be more considerate? I fumed. Why must they be so noisy? This inner aggression, carried to extremes, worried me, and I regretted, and feared, the vicious scenarios that sprang, of their own accord, in my head. Maybe it was my thoughts, not life, that crowded me in, a disquieting apprehension about the future, about the meticulous day-ness of it. Every now and then I experienced subtle reality shifts, as if I existed, simultaneously, on two or more fault lines and could not always trust what I thought I saw or heard. I found myself doubting small, ordinary things. Before inserting my key in the lock, I paused and checked several times, making sure I was on the right floor, facing my own door. I listened raptly as I heard myself talk to inanimate objects, apologizing for having dropped them to the floor. During meals, I suddenly opened my mouth and let out a long, hard burp, then blushed, flashing a discreet, apologetic smile, begging the indulgence of potential guests. Everything seemed comic somehow, not quite real, or, if real, a bit off. Is it me, or is it me? I wondered. When I remembered something particularly annoying, like Mr. Daley’s positively grotesque shaved head, I paced the rooms and hurled curses at the walls. I worried about the neighbors, listening from behind their doors, then calmed myself with the thought that they didn’t know I was alone. Still, I felt uncomfortable when I encountered them in the elevator, confirmed in my belief that people, in general, were particularly wary of those of us who lived alone. These moments of doubt were disconcerting, to say the least, especially when I caught myself wondering if I even knew who I was, but, in the end, self-preservation won the day, my normal self re-emerged and, with it, a measure of self-control. Last night I tossed and turned in my queen size bed, tormented by the belief that I was being punished, and that the worst was yet to come. As I tried, vainly, to hold onto the thin veil of sleep, Lydia insistently crept into my thoughts, and I, helpless, considered the tyranny of friendship. Lydia used her sting sparingly, and yet so effectively, just being around her sometimes was enough to make me doubt my own, and Lydia’s, mental and emotional stability. She was an only child, as I was, and it occurred to me that we recognized in each other certain peculiarities which bound us like sisters and yet grated on our nerves whenever we met. Last night, during dinner, she made one of her characteristically insensitive and blunt remarks about Elsbeth, and I, who should have known better, responded in kind. It all began when I suggested, ever so tentatively, that everything seemed tenuous to me, that the world "as we know it" was gripped in a downward spiral. Look around you, I said. At the slightest provocation, people pounced on one another with an explosive ferocity that was both scary and fascinating to me. This inner tension, I said, this inner aggression, could be, and sometimes was, alleviated when a stranger smiled and shrugged, as if to say: "Go figure!" but most New Yorkers didn’t bother anymore. I smelled fear, I said. The collective fear of small animals trapped in a cage. It made you wonder, I mused aloud, why, in our mad pursuit of success and material comfort, we were so intolerant of those around us who, after all, were engaged in the same pursuit. As I was talking, Lydia’s face took on a stony expression, an expression I knew well, and for a fleeting moment I considered stopping right there, but, perhaps perversely, I insisted on my right to complete my "sermon," sweeping in its condemnations as it was. I didn’t mean to spite her, I don’t think, but it was curious, I thought, how people like Lydia could remain so earnestly complacent in face of the small, yet alarming, signs. The world is falling apart, I said, and even before the words left my mouth, I knew what Lydia would be thinking. She would be thinking that maybe I was falling apart, or that my world was falling apart, but not the world at large. The world, her world, the world of her colleagues, the world of cell phones and urgent appointments, the world of rising markets and luxury items, would continue to exist. After all, Lydia was in the thick of things, making tons of money selling condos and townhouses to the newly rich, whereas I was living off a small stipend and "eating up" (her words) my inheritance, while trying to finish my "feminist" dissertation. In Lydia’s eyes I was behind the times, hopelessly old-fashioned in my aspirations, and she saw it as her burden to open my eyes and save me while there was still time. She never tired of lecturing me about how careless and passive I was, and, in her fervor, basically discounted whatever I thought was significant in my life. Naturally, I was filled with such corrosive resentment toward her, I often decided never to call her again, but she was one of my oldest friends and, I knew, she did care for me, in her own, singular way, so it was hard to let go. Additionally, when I listened to her tightly reasoned arguments and considered her impeccable makeup, her impeccably ironed clothes, I imagined her neat closets and felt a twitch of envy, wishing I had it in me to become as organized and sure about things as she was. She couldn’t help it, I thought. She believed that success was our supreme duty, and that money was the key. I believed she was simply in love with making money, even consumed, or maybe addicted: the more she made, the more she needed to make. She had been trying to convince me to sell my co-op and move into a new, luxury condo with marble baths. My apartment, she said, was run-down and too large for one person, and when I tried to tell her that the walls and rooms were dear to me because my mother had lived in, and still permeated, the rooms, she said that such devotion was both misplaced and sentimental, and that even my mother would wish that I moved. For better or for worse, I knew what she was thinking when I said that the world was falling apart, but she didn’t respond, not right away. She looked at me with her exotic, almond-shaped eyes and continued to chew with her strong, picture-perfect teeth. Only later, while daintily dipping her spoon into her chocolate mousse, she said: "Your apocalyptic vision has nothing to do with reality, and everything to do with Elsbeth. She was a bad influence. She practically ruined your life, and you let her. It may sound cruel, but, in a way, you’re lucky she is gone." Lydia’s brutal assessment of the situation hit me hard, setting off explosions in my head. I sat there, stunned, as my brain went about its work, sifting through the rubble of her words. I had to come up with a cutting response, but couldn’t think where and how to begin. "How dare you say such things to me?!" was one option, but I knew it wouldn’t satisfy my need to retaliate. I also needed, urgently, to demolish her assertion that my life was a ruin. And yet, as often happened in such situations, I was too enraged to find just the right retort, and so I attacked her instead, saying (perhaps in too loud a voice) that she was obnoxious, and that her life, no matter how much money she made, was a waste and a sham. I also said that I didn’t appreciate her sly insinuation that her vision of reality was truer than mine. More venom spilled out of me, although I can’t recall its exact content, while Lydia blanched all over her makeup and cast a quick glance at the couple seated at the next table. The man and woman, approximately our age and very successful-looking, had obviously overheard, and delighted in, my little speech, which made everything even worse for Lydia who abhorred the disgrace of "public scenes." We paid our bill without saying another word and each of us went her way, seething with indignation. Outside, I did try to make amends, for I regretted my outburst and felt sorry for Lydia whose face, when I sneaked a glance, revealed her distress. Lydia, I knew, was quite defenseless, even if she pretended always to know what was best. I reached for her and said, "Lydia," in a conciliatory tone, but she waved her arm and shot me a look full of hurt, and walked away. And so, all night, exhausted and victimized, I lay spread-eagle across the bed, opening myself up and wishing for composure to descend from above and, like a soft, soothing blanket, smother all doubts. I hated conflict, any kind of conflict, and still it annoyed me that it was I, yet again, who tried to patch things up, and to no avail. Why do I even bother? I asked myself again and again. Lydia, I concluded, was evil and passive-aggressive, and yet, at the same time, I couldn’t help the sneaking suspicion that it was I who was evil and passive-aggressive. Nonetheless— I argued— even if I was evil and selfish, I, at least, was willing to admit it! I, at least, questioned my motives and behavior, while Lydia, hardheaded and inflexible, never gave the matter another thought. Lydia, in all likelihood, was sleeping soundly, while I, as usual, was battling the deepest misgivings and regrets, pondering why, after all was said and done, such trivial clashes took place in our universe at all, what ultimate purpose did they serve in the infinite scheme of cause and effect? Maybe, I thought, they were subtle warning signs, and it was up to each of us to recognize what we were being warned about.

When I finally let go of Lydia, or Lydia let go of me, I continued to toss with the mangled sheets, embroiled in a long, agonizing dream where I couldn’t find my keys, even though I looked for them everywhere. In the dream, it is Thanksgiving week, but nothing came in the mail, no greetings, no gifts, except for a musty manila envelope from Nili and Ethan, containing a crinkled plastic sheet with small bubbles on it, and a cardboard drawing depicting a spectral yellow moon on a black backdrop. In the bizarre way that dreams are sometimes coherent, the yellow moon looked like a drawing one of their children might have made. Usually, even when flustered and distraught, I liked myself better in the reality of dreams. I was aloof, acknowledging and acting out my feelings, instead of hiding behind a sociable veneer. I shut my eyes and the cardboard moon drifted away. For a brief, soothing respite I found myself walking among the stalls of the Farmers Market in Union Square, buying vegetables: an everyday, all-absorbing activity, devoid of malice and contention, but soon after, I was jolted to wakefulness again, sitting up in bed and coughing, filled with derision for my weak, smoking self. God knows I wanted to quit, still, I couldn’t imagine going on, day after day, bereft of my sole, and always reliable, tranquilizing angels. A cigarette allowed you to be alone with your thoughts, and even as I sat in bed, coughing my guts out, I had a romantic vision of myself, sitting at the window with a shot of whisky, waiting for the sun to rise and taking long, satisfying drags, watching the tip glow in the ashen, pre-dawn light. Cigarettes gave me something to do and kept me company when I most needed it, very much so these days when belligerence and hostility had become my habitual survival aids. On the whole, I was in good shape, radiating health and a sturdy physique, never mind what my periodontist, in his soft, periodontal voice, said yesterday when I came for a cleaning, warning me about nicotine and the damage it wrought. It thinned the blood in the tinniest vessels in my gums, engendering decay and gum disease. It was never too early, he said, to worry about such things, and need he mention the stains that yellowed my teeth and darkened my lungs? No, he needn’t mention it, I said, I knew all about it. Tobacco, I had read, caused arteriosclerosis, ulcers, halitosis, and was the main culprit when cancer proliferated along the "smoke alley," namely, the lips, the tongue, the lining of the mouth, the jaw, the esophagus, the windpipe, and lastly the lungs. It was in Nazi Germany, I read further, where the connection between nicotine and cancer was first established, and Hitler, a reformed heavy smoker himself, stoked the fires of the anti-tobacco and anti-Jewish campaigns, blaming Jewish capitalism for the prevalence of smoking in Europe.


Tsipi Keller

Tsipi Keller's short fiction and poetry translations have appeared in various journals and anthologies. She lives in Turtle Bay, Manhattan.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR-MAY 2003

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