Pleasure trips were out of the question. They were too complicated and aroused suspicion. She did not want to be revealed, even by chance, as one who has fun in the corrupt coastal city. And he was afraid of being recognized accidentally by one of his many friends from reserve duty on the Northern front. It's really hard to believe how many people he met in trenches and convoys. Not to mention a worse possibility, being recognized by a member of his kibbutz, one of those who pop into the big city all the time. Yet in spite of their apprehensions, they met again and again in Tel Aviv. Meira had the use of an empty apartment of some distant aunt who had vacated quite a while ago. Meantime, until the war of heirs ended, the family agreed to Meira's using it. The apartment was in a small house on a side street not far from the sea. The tremendous din of the new business center, just next to the flat, didn't reach them. Their trips to Tel Aviv were like short, sweet pauses in a stream of sorrow and imminent disappointment.
They traveled separately, at different hours, not to end up on the same bus seat, god forbid. A seat loaded with sin and temptation in the crowded bus descending from Jerusalem. And once, in early spring, they traveled to Tel Aviv and went down to the beach. In Jerusalem it was still really winter. The nights were cold and the heating in the dorm rumbled and roared like a mid-winter. They passed the busy square and settled down on the pure white sands beneath it. The beach was clean, windswept and rain-washed. And between the towers of the new hotels spread the warm spring skies—high, empty skies that arose a vague longing and a strong desire for distant journeys.
He drew her to the cool sea, among the few madmen that swam and exercised on the beach. They swam a little until the cold got them. They rounded the breakwater that had been damaged by last winter's storms. On the gigantic rocks, brought from mountain quarries, fishermen stood as if petrified. For hours they stood without moving, bent and bowed toward the surf. They watched them from afar, emerging from waves to dry off. Like the points of a sundial they stood, pails at their feet, fishing rods in their hands, and the sun circling round them. He envied their undisturbed serenity and he envied their lives, obedient to the law of the sea, not to a woman's passing whim.
The sand that washed off their bodies when they came out to rest awakened many memories. Their bodies were washed and then covered with sand again, and the sunken imprints of limbs that they left in the sticky sand reminded them of the past. The coating of warm, thick sand, the gifts of the swim scattered on the beach, remnants of rotted fruit, rust-eaten poles, everything moved them and took them back to their childhood days. The bather's carefreeness, as if all their lives were summer vacations, the weight of real life left up on the street, and the liberating ease on the wharf and the piers, just as it had been years ago. For some reason, he recalled the little wagons of the hot corn vendors, the tanned, lively children who rented out beach chairs to bathers. He remembered one boy who carried a tremendous chair twice his height, streams of sweat running down his back, lips clenched with exertion, and he could see those tensed muscles clearly as if it were yesterday.
He awoke and sang to Meira the song of the ice-cream vendors that he knew from childhood, stored in his memory, in exactly the same tune and same words. She laughed and snuggled into his pile of sand. And for some reason, she remembered her hated swimming lessons, the reprimands from the strict, pedantic teacher, and the fear she had never gotten over, of the threatening treachery of the sea. She was not attractive in her old-fashioned bathing suit. Her body looked tired and too old for the beach of early summer. And in her own way, she managed to seem modest and buttoned-up even when almost naked. In the worker's settlement where she grew up, they were very strict about modesty.
Shaya Ben-Yosef got drunk on the smell of the sea and the smell of the salty distances that scorched his throat. He had melted for a while from childhood memories and even forgot his constant fear that he might meet one of his acquaintances, that the story of his infidelity becomes known. But with the outburst of the first days of early spring he already knew that the days of their love were nearly over. Revelations always came to him on the beach. It was the amazing, direct connection with the strongest powers of nature that did it. The moist, unceasing wind, the huge masses of saltwater, the surging waves and their bubbly froth—a very special arena that always aroused him to envision catastrophes still hidden beyond the horizon.
With the wiles of an experienced lover he heaped her body with the warm sand, and with the subtlety of a seducer he stroked her skin under the cover of sand he piled onto her thighs. And when he felt the time had come for frankness, he gambled and asked her, "So which teacher are you addicted to? Maybe I'm allowed to know too and maybe I'll also join in at long last? And what do you do there, in the group of the chosen, your good friends?"
But she noticed the trap he set for her. And she noticed soft fingers wandering on her legs. She did not remove his pleasing fingers, but sighed and said that she was ready to give a full answer. But only after he went through an appropriate preparatory period. "What's that? Basic training again?" he asked.
She said, "What did you think, you'd get off easy?" Long conversations and diligent reading from some books she's willing to lend him. "And one more condition."
"What's the condition?" A hard condition she fears he may not live up to. "Please, please," he implored, "what's the condition?"
"Well," she said, slowly while spreading her legs and dusting off a speck of tickling sand, on condition that he opens up. On condition that he himself break the seven locks that confine his soul. On condition that he burst the dams that enclose him, that fill and load him with impossible tension. And he remembered the young American painter who had clung to his neck at their last meeting. Distant from him, aloof, and no longer open to temptation. Adult and levelheaded and entirely different from the girl he knew that wild summer in her cabin. And she had said to him in the same tone as Meira, that he should hurry to urgent psychological therapy, before he blows himself up from all the pent-up tension he is loaded with. And before his soul flies from his body in a storm. And he never ceased to wonder, while trickling grains of sand onto her body, how the two who had never met could reach such full agreement about his captive madness.
In the evening, after they had rested up and bathed in the aunt's apartment and after defiling it too with their intercourse, as they had already defiled several rooms that last winter, he drew her to the deserted port of Yaffo. They took a table at a well-known restaurant on the waterfront, walked down the stairs, and sat clinging like a pair of teenagers. She was still warm and a pleasant softness wafted from her. Pressed close, they silently watched the fishermen preparing for the night's fishing. They ordered fish and chatted a bit with the fishermen. His other side, practical and energetic, that Meira didn't know at all, took over. He dragged her to the restaurant really against her will. The stink repelled her. She couldn't stand the gasping fish, their jerking gills, that she remembered from her aunt's bathtub. She didn't like to see how they were killed with cold cruelty. Though she refrained from eating meat, fish she allowed. But she never gave a thought to how they are caught and how they struggle and how they die. She didn't want to know how they are finally prepared for the meal. The sights of bathtub captivity she had seen in her childhood were enough.
Shaya, in contrast, showed interest in the sights of the harbor. The measured rolls of nets on the humming drums, the strong grasping hands, the broken floats, and the dripping pails reminded him of his former work in the kibbutz fish ponds. Then, when he was still a young, healthy man. The grading tables he used to work at till worn out at dusk, the fishermen's rubber suits that filled up with the day's stinging sweat. Oh, what a sudden landslide of memories caught him. And he opened up and he told Meira about those hard days of fishing he had spent in the boggy ponds. How he used to get up early and how they closed the net on the massed fish. How they cruelly spiked the water turtles on the points of iron barbs. He purposely raised his voice so that the fishermen near the boats heard his story. How they freed and threw back into the water the old mothers who sometimes weighed 15 kilos and more. The fishermen whistled in admiration and he was encouraged by their attention. In a burst of growing enthusiasm, he told her about the lengthy grading and the backbreaking loading. And about the fish that slipped away into the stream that flowed below the ponds and maybe were carried out to sea and reached Yaffo. And maybe they were caught in the net of the harbor fishermen and maybe they're the fish they had eaten just now.
The fishermen laughed, and one or two of them who answered him was drawn into a direct, masculine conversation about fishing business. He was proud of himself and proud of his strong, physical past, and proud, too, of the woman sitting at his side whose warmth had not yet faded. He knew there were prettier than her and younger than her, but what he had done with her just an hour before at her aunt's vacant apartment would not have shamed even these hardy fishermen.
He turned to her with shining eyes, full of conceit at his dark side that flashed for a brief moment among the gray years. He drew her to his shoulder and held her in a sure, protecting movement. A minute more and he would open up, liberated, and tell the fishermen in that same direct, masculine language how he had rolled her under him on the floor, in the old house on the little street. How he had smeared their love-juice on the bed and on the floor and on the towels, deliberately to anger her, just as his face had been sprayed by the sticky crust of fish scales at the grading tables.
Exactly at that moment, when she looked at him in amazement as if seeing him for the first time, he remembered how he had seen her on one of the cold nights in the little apartment. He lay covered up in bed, the favorite Mozart quartet playing as usual. He watched her as she set up the ironing board, heated the electric iron, and ironed her conservative winter skirts. In the room, between her bed and the ironing board, time crystallized and froze. The space between them evaporates, escaped from the furniture and into the street. Meira's housecoat gave off a pleasant, homey warmth, and he smiled to himself because his finger knew every patch of skin underneath. From the nearby apartment came sounds of children playing, and from the little kitchen window that she never closed a whistling wind blew. He discovered that he was granted an extraordinary sight, a domestic revelation that suddenly grew from the ironing board, from the skirt's rustle and the iron's hum. He rested his head on his palm and looked at her, past the bubble between them, severed from time. He asked himself, "Could we really have lived together? Could we really have been a family? Could I, had I wanted to, have helped her with the housework? To lie and look at her like that till the end of days. To feel that what I see will come true after many years. And to desire her from the beginning, a slow, warm desire, a homey desire that climbs from her feet up her body while she bends over her ironing wrapped in her old-fashion housecoat." He was entranced by sight for a long time. That's what the great writers mean when they say "a short fleeting moment of happiness." He didn't dare make a disrupting movement. He secretly asked himself if that's how happiness looked? Even the vapors rising from the skirts lowered their whisper in honor of that moment, which he knew would never return again.
He lowered his gaze to the table of fish and noticed that Meira's spirit had long since left. He understood that she could never tear herself away from her world of books, her total addiction to her research, and her paper discoveries that made her so happy. Maybe she too had a brief, forbidden glance into the future. But what she saw wasn't at all like what he had seen. He was sorry she didn't finish eating her fish. Too bad that everything was ending so sadly, without happiness at all. It wasn't pleasant to grasp that she too had discovered that he—like her—could not part from his family or from the land of his kibbutz, from his wife who was banned from mention between them. And he couldn't distance himself from his children. Nor could he get rid of some irresistible attraction, bursting to be revealed, to his past of active deeds. And his pride in this other life, practical and strong, which was just plain vanity. The parting was simply inevitable. He was a bit intoxicated from the frank heart-to-heart talk he had had with the fisherman in the harbor and from the smells of the active world, the world of physical strength that opened to him for a moment in Yaffo.
His past awakened, powerful and vital. He felt that he was not really old. He still had the strength to renew the joy of youth that had passed, to go out again at dawn to the steaming fish ponds and return only at dusk, to strive all day in the cold water with the weight of the full nets and the teasing of the young men who just yesterday had finished their army service. If those men only knew what a young, energy-draining affair he'd been having last winter with the woman at his side. She wasn't so young and had never been pretty, but she had some hidden sensual power that attracted him. And he enjoyed lying with her even at noon, on the bathroom floor, near the carp bathtub in her aunt's neglected apartment.
They slowly climbed the sandstone steps to the top of Yaffo hill. From there they walked north to the city. The old harbor blinked beneath them with colored lights and the smell of polluted smoke. He could sense the heaviness of the blackening waters. The sea water of Tel Aviv on their left blended with the waters of the kibbutz ponds and with the dark waters of the deserted Yaffo harbor beyond. And he felt his past was washed away like his youth had been washed away. Sliding from his body like the distant dreams he had dreamt when still a young man. Had the war done all that to him? The harsh memories from the battalion field hospital that he can't forget even in his sleep? What should he expect now with the separation from his woman? He turned to Meira and out of the blue asked her, "And youth, can they restore it there where you come from?"
Walking along, they came to the lighted streets, and not much was left of the memories of intimacy in the harbor, moments that would not return. She wasn't trapped this time either, almost the last time. She blocked him as usual, dryly and aggressively. Those fish they served in that restaurant simply nauseated her. And what turned her stomach was the phony name "fruit of the sea," really only nasty, disgusting snails and clams. And he won't get to hear about the work and the teacher from her because he doesn't want to develop himself. Whoever doesn't make an effort, let him please be content with scraps. And he can, pardon the expression, peek through the cracks like an adolescent. And she turned into one of the yards to look for a water faucet to wash away the stink of fish that clung to her hands.
Translated by Zehava Lerech