Moment-Karma Foundation Fiction: Infections
By Dalia Rosenfeld
The onion Lotzi was eating could be smelled five floors below him in the entrance to Migdal Zahav, the Golden Tower of Jerusalem, where he lived. Lotzi always waited for me to arrive before retrieving his knife from the cupboard, a gesture that was never lost on me since I feared he would one day use it to take his life. With one clean cut the onion would separate into two halves, each half rocking on its domed back for a second or two before coming to rest on the countertop. Lotzi ate it with bread, one slice for every three bites of onion, and washed it down with a cup of tepid Wissotzky made from old teabags reduced to the size of walnuts. He always offered me tea but never anything to eat, as though the onion and bread were part of a ritual reserved for him alone, a Jew from Lvov who had lost everything but the taste for bitterness and dry bread.
I never asked him any questions, and he never gave me any answers. We both knew where the other came from, and that seemed to be enough to establish a relationship. When my training session at Amcha was over, the group leader handed out the assignments, reminding each volunteer to make contact as soon as possible. “Many survivors who wake up in the morning do not know whether living another day is a blessing or a curse,” she told us by way of parting. “You will make it a blessing for them.”
Every week I sat across from Lotzi at his small kitchen table and waited for his story to begin. It would not have been my first. Just the other day, standing in line at the shuk for tomatoes, I was accosted by a childhood friend of Anne Frank’s and made to understand that Anne would have grown up to look just like me. Lotzi sat with his onion and bread and tea, and said nothing. Occasionally he would raise his head and clear his throat, and I would tell myself to get ready, to brace myself for what was to come. Then he would hack into a napkin and continue eating.
One morning from my bedroom window on Jabotinsky Street, I saw a young man and woman dressed in overalls digging up pansies from the square that separates the president’s residence from the prime minister’s. I went downstairs for a closer look; the flowers were disappearing quickly, and from the roots. After a bus went by I crossed the street and stood in front of the pair, staring at the garbage bag filling up by their feet. The man looked up first, then the woman. “What do you want?” they both said at the same time. I shrugged and asked, “Are you planning to sell those?” The woman struck her spade into the earth, working the roots like a kibbutznik. “Not to you,” she said.
For a full three weeks I stopped visiting Lotzi. I bought a bicycle and rode it, first only up and down Jabotinsky, then branching out onto busier streets where I often found myself stuck behind a taxi or a tour bus waiting for the light to turn green. I disliked the bicycle the moment I got it and made a point never to lock it. At the beginning of the third week I decided it had to go, and abandoned it next to a pretzel cart outside the entrance to Jaffa Gate. When I returned to Lotzi he looked at me blankly, as though he had never seen me before, or perhaps as though I had never been gone. We sat at his kitchen table in silence, and he ate his onion and bread. I didn’t apologize for my absence. Before I left, he lifted his head and said, “Cars in America are big, eh?” There was nothing cryptic in his words; it was just a simple question asked by a simple man. Still, I spent the rest of the day wondering what it meant. It was the only question Lotzi ever asked me.
The first young person I spent time with was Srulik. It was not by choice that I spent time with him, but the enforced reserved seating for holders of a Cinematheque pass that allowed this to happen. For every screening Srulik and I sat one row apart, his mop of red curls clashing with the brown upholstery of the seats until the lights were dimmed and his fire snuffed out. Sometimes he arrived late, and the space in front of me would suddenly darken, like one shadow eclipsing another. At the end of the screening, before the lights even came back on, Srulik would swiftly turn around to ask whether I had enjoyed the movie. From the expression on my face, which always registered displeasure, he must have thought I hated them all.
We had coffee together only once, upstairs at the Cafe Cinematheque, overlooking the Old City. I learned everything I cared to learn about Srulik in those 45 minutes: He was trained as a lawyer but had never worked as one. He had been a tour guide in the army. He was from a kibbutz in the Negev that supplied the entire country with chocolate pudding. About me, Srulik wanted to know more than I was willing to share. Twice during the course of our conversation he said enigmatically, “I know; I can tell,” in response to the information I gave. When I did not ask him to elaborate, the eagerness in his face faded and he excused himself to go to the bathroom. Srulik moved ponderously; he had huge feet and a body that in its bulkiness seemed not to want to follow their lead. I felt sorry for him but for myself as well; most of my friends were either dead or dying. When Srulik returned, I looked at him with great intensity and asked myself whether I might feel just a little less sorry for myself if I slept with him a single time. From across the table I could smell the medicinal smell of bathroom soap on his hands. More sorry, I decided, not less.
One afternoon I knocked on Lotzi’s door and nobody answered. I had arrived a few minutes late but no later than usual, and I was not ready to consider the possibility that these few minutes that I might have spent brushing my teeth or looking for my shoes or stopping at the Jerusalem Theater to check a showtime were significant enough to be registered by anything but a clock. I put my ear to the door and knocked again; this time it opened. Behind it stood a young man in an army uniform, a pair of thick black eyebrows fringing his face like epaulets. I took one look at him and had to muffle the sound of my breathing, as though I had been running for days and had not found a reason to slow down until now. Lotzi was there too, sitting at the table with his eyes fixed on some faraway spot. When I saw that nothing had changed but the additional person in the room, I felt a wave of relief wash over me and silently rejoiced as Lotzi shuffled into the kitchen in search of his onion knife.
I spoke to Lotzi more that day than in all my other visits combined. I told him about my life in New Jersey, the strip malls and the synagogues, and my parents who had raised me to be the kind of Jew who could plant a tree in Israel without having to stay and watch it grow. I told him about the man from the park, and about another survivor I used to visit who always spun a globe while she spoke. I told him I liked falafel. The young man who was not Lotzi listened politely to my ramblings but did not respond. Lotzi did the same. When I was through, I stood up and asked Lotzi for a glass of water. “Help yourself,” he said agreeably, and continued eating.
I waited for some movement in the room that did not originate from me. A few nights before at the Cinematheque I had seen Srulik plop himself down in a seat at the opposite end of the theater, in defiance of the rules, and felt a momentary pang of guilt at the thought that I was still causing him to suffer. Then a young woman sat down next to him, a braid like a challah winding down her back, and pecked him on the cheek just as the lights were starting to dim. With a twinge of regret, I realized that I had probably not caused him to suffer enough.
At the sound of running water, Lotzi turned to me attentively, as though I was only just preparing to speak rather than silently vowing never to do so again. “In Lvov there was no falafel,” he said while I drank. “In Lvov there was Jewish food.”
On any other day I would have reacted to this statement like a mother to her baby’s first words, but as Lotzi spoke and I drank, the soldier was slinging his backpack across his shoulder and heading for the door. “I’m off,” he said, but did not open it. Outside it had started to rain, obstructing the view from the living room window, and I knew that if I did not permit myself a good look before he left I would not have a chance to do so afterwards, from five stories above. “Where are you going?” I blurted out. “It’s raining. Do you have an umbrella?” The soldier turned to me in surprise, and I studied his face shamelessly, my eyes like a lizard’s, darting every which way in search of equilibrium. “I have a car,” he replied casually. “Do you want a ride?”
We drove across the city to his apartment. It was rush hour and the cars were relentless, linked to one another against their will like the segmented tail of some ugly animal. As we inched along, I allowed myself to study Yair’s face, the lines that converged around the corners of his eyes, the thick vein that bulged from his neck whenever he honked the horn. Yair noticed me looking.
“What are you looking at?” he asked shyly, his mouth sprouting new lines, curved like the crest of a wave. “A map of Israel,” I said, smiling back.
When we arrived at his flat, Yair tossed his backpack on the couch and made straight for the fridge. “Are you hungry?” he asked me, concealing himself within the cold rectangular box. “Yes,” I replied. A few minutes later we were eating by candlelight, an array of cheeses, pickled salads, stuffed vegetables and pita spread out before us on the kitchen table. I waited for the food to fill me with the courage to speak, then said, “So how do you know Lotzi?” Before answering, Yair poured himself a third glass of wine and drank half of it. “I don’t,” he shrugged.
That night I saw Yair without his army uniform. A hamsin had blown in from the desert, filling the air with a fine sand and stray refuse from the Jerusalem streets: candy wrappers, plastic bags, partial pages of newspaper swirling around as though in search of a fish to wrap themselves in. Yair’s uniform looked cleaner than the shirt I had been wearing all day, a white tank-top quickly going gray. When he began to undress, sitting on his bed and starting with his socks, he handed me each article of clothing as it came off, pants, shirt, undershirt, boxers. I held the bundle close to my body and waited for the earthy smell to be absorbed by it; then I tossed it onto the floor and let my own clothes fall on top.
Afterwards Yair told me that he had to leave the next morning, and that while he was away, communicating would be difficult. “Nobody likes guarding checkpoints,” he said, turning to his side and leaning into his palm. “But the snipers are willing to wait all day for that one soldier stupid enough to try to make a phone call while on duty.”
In New Jersey I had once told a man I thought I loved that I wanted to go with him wherever he went. “Even to Trenton?” he had asked, smiling. The next day we broke up. I looked at Yair, his body taking up the length of the bed, and tried to imagine the people who would wish to do him harm seeing him like this, naked, the curve of his clavicle resembling the curve of their clavicles, the absence of foreskin on his penis resembling their own penises, then putting down their weapons and running home to look at themselves in the mirror. “Doesn’t your mother go out of her mind?” I asked.
“My mother passed away a few years ago. But yes, she would have,” Yair said.
“And your father?”
“My father is a patient man.”
In the morning, yair filled a bowl with cucumbers and tomatoes, and we ate breakfast on his balcony overlooking the Supersol and a slight suggestion of the Judaean Hills behind it. He was in uniform again; in the middle of the night I had woken from a dream and taken the liberty to wash it, trying to remember as I fumbled with the dials and detergent whether it had been a good dream or a bad one. When Yair hugged me good-bye, I asked him whether wearing a clean uniform made it more or less likely that he would be the target of an attack. Throughout breakfast I had been playing a paranoid’s game of Russian Roulette with myself, stabbing the vegetables in my salad and counting what came onto the fork before I ate them: more cucumbers than tomatoes meant there was nothing to worry about and Yair would be safe; more tomatoes than cucumbers, and our happiness would be cut short. Yair led me inside and sat me down on the bed, where I watched him put on the same pair of boots I had seen him take off the night before. “If my mother were alive, she would have asked the very same question,” he said, leaning over to kiss me on the cheek. “And I would have answered her the same way I’m going to answer you.”
He kissed me on the cheek again.
After yair left, an early spring virus swept through Jerusalem, creating a panic among the old German Jews of Rehavia, where I lived. Jabotinsky Street was teeming with Filipina live-ins sent out by their elderly charges to stock up on boxes of tissue and bottled water. They walked alone, wheeling collapsible metal carts behind them, a look of Asian agreeability on their faces that contrasted sharply with the cross-grained impatience of the Israelis who raced past them. My neighbor, Mrs. Spangenthal, who had fired her Filipina for repeatedly failing to remove the bones from her fish, sought my help after returning from the makolet on the corner with more than she could carry. Together we schlepped three cases of Evian up two flights of stairs, Mrs. Spangenthal pausing at the landing to catch her breath and count the years that had passed since her husband ’s heart had given out. “Did I tell you my husband died?” she said to me before we parted, her eyes brimming over. “Ten years now.”
Every day I waited for the phone to ring and Yair to call and every day he called, sometimes in the middle of the night when the city was so quiet I felt I could not raise my voice above a whisper, and sometimes first thing in the morning to the sounds of the muezzin floating from the Old City through my open window. I told Yair that I missed him and that everyone in Jerusalem was at home, sick in bed. Yair asked after my own health, shouting into the receiver as though the subject caused him great concern. Through the static I tried to make out the noises in the background, hoping to hear something to make me worry less about where he was: a snatch of a conversation, a toilet flushing, the wheels of a car being let through and driving harmlessly by. Before we hung up, Yair asked when I was planning to visit Lotzi again, and for a split second I didn’t know who he was talking about. Then I said, “Today. Right now, in fact,” and glanced out the window to see if it was raining.
From my apartment, the way to Migdal Zahav was all downhill, past schools and post offices, Ottoman-era houses and cinder block structures hiding behind coils of bougainvillea and street signs chronicling the country’s history, much of which I discovered I still needed to learn. As I approached Lotzi’s building, a rush of diesel fumes from a Tnuva milk truck assailed me, and I coughed all the way to the fifth floor. Outside Lotzi’s door I heard more coughing, like the cracking of dry branches, and I wondered if the fumes could have followed me that far. Then I remembered the virus.
Lotzi opened the door just wide enough to tell me to come back tomorrow. “In the morning,” he managed in a single breath. “Ba’boker.”
I waited for the door to fly open and Yair to pull me over the threshold. “Do you need anything, Lotzi?” I asked through the crack. “Do you have enough food? Are you drinking?”
“Ba’boker,” he repeated.
At the end of the hallway, an old woman emerged from her apartment, holding onto a walker for support. “Why all the shouting?” she wanted to know, taking tentative steps toward me. I let her come a little closer. “Lotzi is sick.” I pointed to the door, which was begging to be pushed open, and tried not to think about who would nurse Lotzi back to health if not me. “And who isn’t?” the woman retorted. She stopped in her tracks, as if waiting for an answer, then turned around and shuffled back to her room.
“I’ll come tomorrow morning,” I promised Lotzi through the crack. “Ba’boker.” He didn’t answer, but I knew he had heard me. The sound of his coughing accompanied me all the way down the corridor.
On the way home, I saw a group of German tourists gathered around the square with the flower bed that had been denuded a few weeks before. A young Israeli tour guide stood listlessly at the helm, shielding her face from the sun with her hand, and directed everyone’s attention to the new plantings. “Here are some pretty flowers indigenous to Jerusalem,” she said of the common pansies clustered at her feet. “Around the corner at the president’s residence, you will see more.” One of the tourists glanced at the flowers, then reached down to run his fingers along the perforated black tube lying under them. “Is this strange snake the source of their hydration?” he asked doubtfully, removing a handkerchief from his pocket. The tour guide looked down and readjusted the rubber with the toe of her shoe. “Yes, it is,” she said. “It’s a slow-release system and one of Israel’s greatest agricultural achievements. You will see more of them at the president’s residence.”
When Yair called in the evening, I was all worked up. In my mind’s eye I could still see the German tourists standing in a semi-circle around the network of tubes and flowers, shaking their heads in schadenfreude at the ugliness of the whole enterprise, at the failure of the Jewish state to meet even the minimum standard of aesthetics and self-respect. Forgetting for a moment where he was and how I should be feeling about it, I asked Yair what he thought about the black irrigation snakes swallowing up the flowers they were meant to sustain. “Why can’t they be buried under the soil with the beetles and worms?” I wanted to know. “Why do they have to be so conspicuous?”
“I don’t even notice them,” Yair said.
“But the Germans do.”
“I don’t notice them, either.”
We spoke for as long as circumstances would allow it, the cord of the telephone wrapped around my finger like a resistant lock of hair. I wanted Yair to understand that he had existed in my imagination for years, that he had been part of the landscape I longed for but could never find, as real as the Jerusalem stone and the driftwood from the wadis that surrounded me now. But how could I explain it? I told him that in Israel when the sun blazed I did not feel the heat, and that when it rained I did not run to seek shelter. He laughed at the melodrama in my voice and said he understood, that I didn’t need to try to explain anything at all. “And when will I see you again?” he asked when our time had run out.
I filled my lungs with the sound of Yair’s voice and swallowed. “That’s what I should be asking you.”
“Ask? But I’m seeing you now.”
In the morning, when the muslims of the Old City were summoned to their mosques and Christians rose to the reverberations of church bells one quarter over, I waited for something to call me to prayer, to coax me like a snake charmer from the coil of my sleep and lift me to a higher state of being. There were plenty of Jewish sounds around me, but none was the sound I needed, the supplication of a stooped old man rapping at my window in search of a tenth soul for his minyan. This was the tradition of my shtetl ancestors, set against the squall of roosters and ruffians on horseback looking to ravage any village that had enough Jews in it to make their savagery worth the strain of the saddle. During these hard times, a wizened knuckle testing its strength on a drawn shutter was as loud as we could afford to be. For generations, it managed to make itself heard.
I remembered my promise to visit Lotzi.
A taxi was waiting in front of Migdal Zahav when I arrived. It was a Mercedes, a gift to Israel from a Germany still trying to make good. First I smelled the fumes from the snorting engine, and then I spotted Lotzi, leaning against the vehicle as if trying to check its pulse. I was surprised to see him there, a man too sick even for his own bed. But it was clear from the curve of his lip that he had some mission to accomplish and that nobody was going to stop him. I certainly didn’t try.
“Shalom, Lotzi, where are you going?” I waited for some sign that he was not sick anymore, a rush of color to reach his cheeks, a glint of recognition in his eye. At that moment it didn’t occur to me that I had never seen him look any other way.
The driver was getting impatient; his cigarette had only had a few sucks left. “Where are you going, Lotzi?” I repeated. This time he regarded me and nodded his head slowly. “Come,” he said, fumbling with the cab door. “There is still time if we hurry.”
I climbed in.
Looking out the window, I had all of Jerusalem before me, but with Lotzi next to me the only landscape I could absorb were the thick veins in his neck, throbbing with agitation and old age. From his profile I could see that he had not shaved in days; his cheeks were sunken, as though struggling to support the excess stubble on them, and a scab had formed on his chin from some previous mishap. The driver charged through the city at a reckless pace, paying no heed to potholes or pedestrians, or to his sick passenger in back, his frail body being pulled every which way from the twists and turns of the taxi. When we came to an intersection, I noticed the rows of residential units giving way to tall hills and a sky bluer than before. “L’an?” Where to? I called out to the driver. “Kiryat Hayovel,” he shouted without turning around. “Ask the old man.”
The light turned green, and I saw exactly where we were. Yair’s apartment building loomed before us, a grey slab of cement erupting from the ground like a weed in a garden. I stared at this eyesore with a pounding heart, not knowing if I was looking at a Jerusalem rebuilt or destroyed. On the balconies I could already see the heads of plants turning inwards.
Pulling up to the entrance, the taxi came to a halt and the Oriental music that had been wailing from the radio suddenly went quiet. “Nu? We’ve arrived. I wish you all the best. Shalom,” the driver said.
I helped Lotzi out of the cab and onto his feet, turning away from the dust cloud that rose up from the wheels as they sped away. Step by step, we inched our way forward to the entrance of the building, Lotzi’s weightless arm in mine, a slender bone picked clean of the flesh that had once protected it. At the front door he removed a folded envelope from his pocket and a key from inside it. “This is the one,” he said, turning it a hundred different ways before it slid into place.
I would have helped Lotzi up a dozen flights of stairs if it meant getting to Yair. But there were only two, and that was hard enough. I took Lotzi’s hand, then his elbow, then his shoulder. By the time we reached the top, my arms were wrapped around his body like a brace and did not want to let go.
We stood in front of a door that could have been any door in the world, and neither of us knocked; we just stood there silently, willing it to open on its own accord. After Lotzi returned to himself, he placed the key in my hand and gestured for me to put it to use. “Open it,” he said, in case I didn’t understand.
But I wasn’t ready to open it. I put my arm around Lotzi again. “So he’s your son,” I said.
“My son,” Lotzi confirmed. He nodded once, then tried to open the door himself.
Together we walked inside, looked around, breathed in the emptiness.
We sat at the kitchen table but did not eat. We sat long enough for me to figure Lotzi out, to understand what it meant to be one kind of a survivor and have a son who is another. I knew he would keep the virus at bay until Yair came home.
When it became clear that his son would not return before nightfall, Lotzi reached into his pocket and pulled out a pocketknife the size of his index finger. “Please, a glass of water,” he said.
I cut the onion into small pieces, then added a cucumber and tomato to it the way Yair had done only a few days before. I waited for Lotzi to count the cucumbers on my fork and say, “He’s safe,” but he didn’t look like a man who wanted to play games. With the feverish fire spreading across his face he looked like his son, but not in the eyes, where it really mattered. The resemblance stopped there.
Lotzi’s fork shook in his hands as if it had a life of its own. When he had cleaned his plate, he looked up at me and said, “I’ll take a pillow and a few shirts. Maybe some dishes. That’s all I need.”
At that point, I was still a girl in love, crossing the days off the calendar in my mind. There were only three left. “That’s all you need for what?”
“To remember him.”
We gathered Yair’s pillow and clothes and a few dishes, and called a taxi to take us home. I did not tell Lotzi that in less than three days his son would return and ask for everything back—the pillow that we had shared, the shirts I had never seen, the salad bowls still smelling of onion. I did not tell him that a fever as high as his could make a person say things he might later regret.
The old man carried me the whole way down.