The following is from Eshkol Nevo’s novel, Three Floors Up. Set in a Tel Aviv apartment building, this best-selling Israeli novel examines a society in crisis, through the turmoils, secrets, unreliable confessions, and problematic decisions of the building’s residents. Eshkol Nevo is the author of five novels, all best sellers in Israel. His novel Homesick , was a finalist for the prestigious Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
You’re probably surprised to get this letter. We haven’t spoken in a long time, and who even writes letters today? But email is too dangerous (you’ll see why in a minute) and the truth is that I just don’t have anyone else to confess to.
I actually tried to call my psychologist. The one I went to back then, remember? I had good chemistry with her. It all boils down to chemistry, even with psychologists. I used to go to the small basement under her house in Har Adar, crushed, and I’d leave just as crushed, but a little less confused. She didn’t speak in the usual clichés: id and ego and your mother and how does that make you feel. She spoke simply to me, down to earth, and sometimes she would tell me little things about herself. If we went a bit overtime, she didn’t make a big deal of it, and at the end of a session, she’d put her hand on my shoulder (she actually touched me!). And all those years, I told myself that if I ever lost my balance again, I’d have someone to call.
Her son answered.
I asked if I could speak to Michaela.
There was silence. A long one. And then he said that she had died. Two years ago. “Of what?” I asked.
I didn’t know what to say. So I said, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for your loss.”
“Your mother was a very special woman.” “Yes.”
It was obvious that he knew I was a patient. It was obvious that he already knew how to handle calls like mine, from patients, and that he’d be happy to end the conversation as quickly as possible.
I remained standing there with the phone in my hand even after we hung up, listening to the beeps that came after the call was disconnected. What a nerve she had, I thought, to die on me like that.
For the entire week before that call, I imagined how I’d sink into the soft armchair across from her, the thick wine-colored rug at our feet, the spiral heater between us, with only one spiral working, as usual. In my imagination, I gave her a bit more gray (after all, fifteen years had passed), but I left her the frumpy brown sweater, the oversized glasses, and the Werther’s Original candies she put in a small plate at the beginning of a session, saying that based on the number of candies I unwrapped during our hour together, she’d know how I was really feeling.
I had an opening sentence prepared. Something intelligent. I’d already imagined the way the conversation would go, the moments we’d be silent and the moment she’d make the connection between my mother and my anxieties about Lyri, and the moment I’d burst into liberating tears and she’d hand me a lightly scented tissue, and the moment she’d glance quickly at the clock behind me, on the left, and the moment I’d take out a check and ask her whether the fee was the same as it had been then. I imagined her hand on my shoulder, lingering there, before we said goodbye, and my brisk steps from the basement door through her blooming garden to the parking area, and the slow traffic around the hills to Route 1, with the radio playing a song I love (let’s say, Neil Young, let’s say “Out on the Weekend”), and I’m once again open enough to let the music enter me, flow through my blood. Now there’s no garden and no Neil Young. One phone call was enough to push me down the ladder right back to the starting point:
Something is happening, Netta, and I can’t tell anybody. But I have to, I just have to tell it to someone.
It got so bad that yesterday I looked for a church with a confessional. I drove to the American Colony. Remember when Nomi — when she was working for the Society for the Protection of Nature and was always using the word “magical” — took us on a tour there, and we ended up at a foreign workers’ church?
So I walked around there for about two hours this week and couldn’t find a trace of it. Finally, I asked a guy who was riding by on his bicycle (exactly your type, bristly cheeks and broad shoulders) and he said that there really had been a church there, but it was bulldozed a year earlier and they put up an office building in its place, and there it is, right in front of us.
“I thought churches were supposed to be eternal,” I said.
He nodded without understanding and pedaled onward (young guys don’t even see us anymore, have you noticed? Wait, maybe they do see you) and suddenly, the energy drained out of me all at once.
That’s not the Hani I know. I can actually hear you thinking that, maybe even saying it out loud in your living room in Middletown.
And maybe that’s why I’m writing to you. Because you remember the good version of me. Just writing your name on the top of the page is enough to make me feel a tiny bit cleaner.
I have a lot of friends here, I don’t want you to think I don’t (I’m popular! For the first time in my life!), but I don’t trust any one of them. I met most of them (the truth is, all of them, but “all of them” sounds pathetic) through the kids. That’s the way you make connections in the suburbs. A short conversation when you’re picking the kids up from preschool leads to playdates which, if they don’t end in disaster, lead to other playdates, and while they’re playing, you and the other mothers talk, first about the kids, how terrific they are, even though they can definitely wear you out, and then you gossip about the preschool teacher — don’t you think it’s a bit much that she takes two days a week off? I can understand one day, but two? And it’s very nice that she reads to them from the newspaper every morning, but I’m not sure that kids that age need to know the difference between a Qassam rocket and a Grad rocket. By the way, they have a special in the park on Sundays — the kids eat for free — and it really pays if you order pizza, for instance, and have you heard that the new pool is going to open this summer? The mayor wants to score some points before the election, and there are no two ways about it, Dr. Caspi is the best pediatrician in the area, it’s worth suffering the endless waiting and his grumpy receptionist just for that moment when you look at the pictures from the family trip to the Black Forest and realize how much they’ve grown . . .
At first I used to wait for the moment when some kind of truth would emerge from all that trivial chatter. We’re just feeling each other out, I thought, testing the waters. In a another minute, one of us will break free from the need to present her life as perfect, and then a real conversation will begin.
With time, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. It was going to stay the way it was. A flight to nowhere.
But it’s up to you too! I hear you saying on the other side of the Pacific Ocean (or is it the Atlantic? I never remember which of them separates us). After all, Hani, you can guide the conversation to things that interest you more! But that’s just it, at first I tried. I tossed out the bait.
But none of them bit.
I’d say things like, “Sometimes I have a really strong urge to get up and leave everything.” Or “I haven’t been able to read since the kids were born, and that makes me feel hollow.” Or “My daughter still has imaginary friends. And I’m afraid she’ll end up like my mother.”
They responded with an embarrassing silence. Averted their eyes.
So after a few silences like that, you stop trying. And settle for the chatter. After a few years of it, when a new mother who doesn’t know the codes moves into the neighborhood, and when you’re both waiting for your kids to come out of the pre-judo class, she suddenly says to you, “I always feel sad and don’t know how to stop, I’m afraid my husband will leave me if it goes on like this” — you give her that same silence because you’re afraid that after all those silences, if you open your mouth now, lava will come gushing out of it and scorch everything.
(Remember that night in Guatemala when they took us to see the volcano that had been inactive for two hundred years, and suddenly it started to spit out lava? You know what, I think that was the only time in our friendship that I saw you scared. Really scared.)
The asterisk is when I get up for a nosh or to pee. Or when it’s really hard for me to write something and I have to take a breath before I do . . .
I’m scared now, Netta. I’m scared that if I don’t tell someone what’s happening, I’ll just go crazy. That’s nothing new, Hani, you say. You’re always afraid you’ll go crazy. Right, I answer. But this time it’s for real. One owl in the tree, okay. Two, fine. But what’ll happen if one night, there are three?
But wait a minute, before the owl I owe you an apology. For the way I behaved when you were in Israel last time. (Maybe you’ve completely forgotten about it? Maybe you didn’t give it much thought to start with? Maybe it was only for me that our friendship is so alive, and for you, it had already faded and you don’t have the slightest idea where all these parentheses are coming from now?)
It was a great idea to take the kids to the places where we spent our childhood in Jerusalem. Really. To show them where we played hopscotch, where we hid when we ran away from home, where we tried to ride our bikes without training wheels for the first time . . .
Except that I couldn’t stand the jealousy.
I didn’t understand it like that at the time. Only now, because of what happened these last few days, have I realized that the sudden pain I felt in my midsection that made me cancel at the last minute (it was, in fact, after the last minute, because you were almost there already, and maybe that’s why you were so angry) was the pain of jealousy. Actually, of the premonition of jealousy. Of the knowledge that if I didn’t back out of the meeting of our families in Jerusalem, I’d find myself in the same unbearable situation I’d been in when you came to visit us a few days before that.
And it wasn’t because of how you looked (fantastic, by the way. It’s incredible how you look more and more beautiful with the passing years). Or because of those touches of Americanness I could see in every movement you made: the way you sat, the way you stood up, the way you held your coffee cup with a finger raised . . .
It was because of Noam. I mean, not because of Noam himself. That is, yes because of Noam himself. But not because of Noam as a man. Damn! I’m making a mess of this! It’s unbelievable how hard it still is for me to say this.
It’s because of that equal parenting you and he have. In simpler words: I could see that you’re together about the whole thing with the kids. That he doesn’t “help you,” as men like to say, but that he’s just like you.
Involved to the bone.
In the simplest words: it was unbearable seeing such a good father, while Assaf was on another one of his trips. And it’s not like I’d never seen good fathers before Noam, but none of them was your husband. There’s too long a history of comparing myself to you and coming out the loser most of the time. But that’s okay, it always made me try harder, and maybe the fact that I’ve stopped trying has something to do with the fact that you’re not here and I have no one to compete with (I remember your back before the 600-meter run— what kind of distance is that, 600 meters? Only in the Hebrew University High School could they have thought up something like that — and how it moved steadily away from me up the hill).
Don’t get me wrong. I was absolutely thrilled to see your girls in my house. (Remember when your Alma and my Lyri drew a picture together so companionably, as if they’d known each other for years, and we both looked at each other and had the same, unspoken thought: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the second generation of the sudden, inexplicable, strong chemistry known as “friendship between girls”?)
And your Mia, she’s gorgeous. And it makes me want to laugh out loud that she, who was given that Hollywoodlike name, babbles only in Hebrew. And don’t think I missed the way you restrained yourself when I told you that I hadn’t been working since Nimrod was born (you could have pried harder, could have hurt me), or the fact that you avoided waving your wealth in my face (in small ways, like the kind of clothes you dressed your kids in, or by telling me that you didn’t have any pictures of the new house you bought). Nettush, you were just as wonderful as I remembered you, the same old wonderful you.
But every time Noam went over to one of the girls to see why she was crying . . .
And every time they curled into his arms . . .
And when he took Mia for a walk in her carriage just so we’d be able to talk . . .
It made my insides constrict. It was an actual physical pain. As if someone had grabbed me by the spleen and twisted.
That’s how it is. Sometimes someone who sprinkles salt doesn’t know that it’s missing the salad and landing on a wound. (I promise that my metaphors will get better as the letter goes on. I haven’t written in a while.)
In any case, I’m sorry for canceling the nostalgic trip to Jerusalem at the last minute. And for not saying goodbye before you flew back. And for causing trouble between you and Ariela Klein in the tenth grade.
Do you understand? And forgive?
I’ll assume you do. I have no choice but to assume that you do.
From Three Floors Up. Used with permission of Other Press. Copyright © 2017 by Eshkol Nevo.