And Then She Left Him
And then she left him.
David looks at the line. It is written in blue ink, pressed into the sheet of paper—vigorously here, faintly there—with his usual stroke, a stroke that drives through the spikes and valleys in the shapes of the letters at a steady slant. The line reaches the margin, where it is punctuated, unexpectedly, by a red stain.
|ואז היא עזבה אותו|
Blotting it is bound to leave fingerprints, and so he decides to leave it alone. He lifts the paper by its corner—and a drop bleeds down; he lays it down on the desk—and the stain goes on spreading. Going back to his writing, he applies too much pressure on the pen—and the pointed nib digs into the paper. Taking a deep breath, David tries to compose himself. The pen is his weapon. The simple act of pulling it over the soft, white surface has never failed to calm him down. Letter by letter, mark by mark, it will soon draw him into a different state of mind.
In this state, an alternative universe awaits him, a universe that exists in his mind, with details roughed out from memory or from imagination. This is his escape: A place faraway from the wild, maddening affairs of everyday life. Once there, David will take control of his thoughts. He will be able, at last, to leave her behind.
He will populate this place with invented characters. Right now they are still a bit sketchy, nothing more than stick figures: A woman, and a man who loves her. He, the writer, will dictate their actions. He will choose when to reveal himself, giving them his emotions: Simple moments of joy, the intricacies of pain. At other times he will choose to mask himself, becoming that which he is not. A woman, a man who loves her. In this place, he is God. He is the writer. He has control.
And then she left him.
These words are so painful to him, so penetrating, they feel like a pin through the core, a pin that fixes him in position, as if he were a dying butterfly. What other words are there; how else can his story start? Finding the right expression is always a fight: The writer in him wages battle against the editor; one is bold, the other—doubtful. They struggle inside him for control of his pen; one—to write, the other—to cross out.
David reflects upon his writing method. In his mind, it is best to skip any introductions and open, quite abruptly, from the middle of things. There may have been some events in the past, events leading you up to that first sentence—but he, the writer, allows you just a sense of them, a sense vague enough just to come closer and listen.
Beginnings, David tells himself, are cheap. They come to him every morning by the dozen; and as easily as they come, he finds himself compelled to discard them. Too bad about the trees. Most of them have been sacrificed for nothing, for the pulp upon which he attempts to write his first, second and third drafts. His waste basket is already overflowing with crumpled beginnings.
An ending, on the other hand, is precious. It comes rarely, sometimes in a dream. He has to jot it down quickly, before it evaporates. A good ending allows the tale to linger in your mind, well beyond the last sound of the last sentence. It invites the words, utterances and expressions, the little fragments that float there nebulously, over his head, to come to him. Once captured, they will flow out of his pen. Only then will he pour himself out. But right now—without an end—he is stuck.
For she was his muse.
The sad part, he wants to write, is not the fact that she left him. Nor is it the fact that she left him abruptly, after thirty-some years of marriage. At the time, it had taken him completely by surprise, for he adored her, wanted her all for himself, showered her with gifts, lavished money on her, took her abroad on expensive voyages and, being a good provider, insisted she should stay home, and forget about finding a job.
Her beauty had been diminished by time—but David was blind to her puffy flesh, which she massaged morning and evening; blind to her thinning hair, which she teased up and curled constantly. What he saw was her eyes. There was a flash in them, a green flash that seared him and left a burn mark, especially when he caught her looking at him. But most of the time she evaded him; which made her, in his eyes, even more alluring. He was consumed with jealousy when other men as much as laid eyes on her.
And then she left him.
He asked himself over and over, Why? How did he deserve it?
The kitchen table, bought in a garage sale long ago, when he was a young student, a couple of French landscape paintings, bought on the first morning of their honeymoon, and the festive set of china, which he bought her just last month, to celebrate their anniversary, were all carried off to her new place: An apartment his wife rented right around the corner. And so, his ability to dictate actions, either as a writer or as a husband, turned out to be nothing but fiction. There was nothing real in it, nothing to which he could hang on. She abandoned him. He was left there alone sitting at his desk, staring blankly out of his window, hoping; counting the seconds, the minutes until her return.
Now that, he thinks, is the saddest part of all. David wants to write about it, but cannot... His hand trembles. Forgiveness is not in his character. He remembers threatening to divorce her, to take a new wife—but both of them knew these threats to be empty. So he threw himself feverishly into writing:
First, a story about handing Halloween candy to some kids, which—strangely enough—landed him in bed with the mother. Next, a story about attending a wedding ceremony, which landed him in bed with the bride. Then, a story about planning a Bar-Mitzva event, which landed him in bed with the Rebbitzin. Somehow, every female character he wrote ended up sharing these brief, outrageous adventures in his bed. The duller his life—the more uplifting became those hot, imagined quickies.
Meanwhile, his wife stayed estranged from him. Estranged—yet close. Close enough to keep an eye on him, and never let him go. How, then, could he recover? At every chance meeting, when he saw her walking on the other side of the street, she hinted that she might be coming back, perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week.
He wonders: Why did she say that? To quell his feelings—or to ignite them anew? There was no way to know for sure—but oh, how desperately he needed to believe! After a sleepless night David would call her, overcome by desire, as if he were a teenage boy. He yearned to lay his head in her bosom and cry, cry for the mistakes, the time lost, the missed opportunities.
As a writer he found a story with a happy ending to be boring—but now he hoped he yearned for one. David wished he could say, Let me tell you how things will turn out. But there was a lump in his throat; and so, when she picked up the phone he fell silent. Even so, she must have known how lonely he was, how much he wanted her back.
Her voice was distant, even cold at times. No, she insisted, there was no one else in her life. No one but him. This month, however, she was too busy to talk, having been hired, just the other day, as a receptionist. There was, she said, too much pressure right now at work.
Then with a slam, she dropped the receiver at the other end. So well he remembers the sound of it. It must have been accidental. She could not feel that angry, that mad at him as to have done it on purpose.
At this point he changes the period to a comma, hesitates, then adds a sentence: She left him, saying she could only be his. As soon as he lifts up his hand, ‘be his’ gets absorbed, and sinks into the stain. He crosses out that entire sentence, and stares at what is left. Not much. He finds himself stumped. There is no flow to his story. The paper is still rustling there, under the shadow of his pen.
Thinking about his characters—a woman, a man—he scribbles a few notes to himself: Is the man too jealous? Does she hate him? Is she uneasy, for some reason? He drifts off for a while, then reads his notes again, aloud this time—but somehow they make no sense to him.
How can a woman feel uneasy, constricted by attention, even by jealousy? This is unbelievable! Unreal, really! He, David, is a better writer than that! Isn’t jealousy a sort of compliment, the highest, most sincere compliment a man can offer? His wife should be happy, she should be flattered that he loves her so much, so deeply!
Last night, he recalls, was again a restless one. He tossed off the blankets and got up in the dark, cursing himself, cursing her. When daylight finally broke in, it seemed to kick things off in the same manner as any other old day. The same words—David can still hear an echo of them—came stammering out of his mouth.
Secrets and lies, lies and deception! She was driving him mad! He could not go on like this, trying to trust her, doing his best to suspend disbelief. This was his life—not some fiction! There was no patience, no time to pretend any longer. For the sake of his sanity, he had to find out the truth. She could be his, only his—but was she?
He knew the address of her office, having followed her there a few days earlier. David buttoned his shirt, placed the cover on the pen and stuck it in the shirt pocket. Then he dashed out the door. Walking at a brisk pace, he reached the intersection. There he halted at the red light, flanked on each side by men, tense young men in grey suits, who checked their watches every so often.
This edginess, he decided, would be of use to him in fleshing out his characters. A woman; a man, waiting.
The man was still only a figure in his mind, a stick figure bracing itself for the most dramatic day of the tale of its life. Was the woman cheating on him? Would he kill her—or, perhaps, himself? The stick figure, like these jumpy men around him, could be coming to a stop; waiting at a red light, and checking its watch nervously.
Without even knowing how he got there, David found himself standing in front of her office building. The glass doors swung open before him, giving him a glimpse of a small window directly across from him, on the back wall of the lobby. Reflected in the windowpane was a slender woman. She was dressed in a low-cut, blue blouse. From a distance, it looked like a mark of indigo ink. He saw the big hairdo and suddenly recognized his wife.
At once he turned around and went out. His heart pounding, he found a dirt path around the building, located that window and cowered underneath the ledge. The bushes at his back were prickly, so David could not allow himself to lean against them. His feet dug themselves into a hole. From time to time he straightened his back, took a quick peep at her through the window, and hunkered down again.
Some insect fluttered away; perhaps a butterfly. Something that felt like a worm crawled around his sock and into his pants. The sun kept rising. He rose, glanced in and hid again, and then repeated the sequence. After an hour of this spying routine, he was wet with sweat. His knees swelled, and his leg muscles started to burn under him—but he was bent on his task. He pulled his pen out of the shirt pocket, intending to take notes; the information he was gathering became increasingly more promising:
First, a few people lined up in front of her. Five minutes later she was alone, leafing through some paperwork. Next he noticed a tall man with broad shoulders, whose back he could see, dressed in a business suit.
The man came over and approached her. Five minutes later, they were still chatting. From a distance, the conversation seemed to be somewhat too friendly, evoking too much warmth between the two of them. Then David caught her asking something in a bold, flirtatious manner and alas, smiling.
To his dismay, he had to hide a little longer this time, suspecting that someone on the inside might have spotted his head, bobbing up and down over the windowsill. Someone, he figured, might think he was trespassing.
By now it must have been noontime. Drenched in sweat, David glanced over his shoulder at the thin, thorny branches surrounding him; and suddenly the shame, the humiliation of where he found himself and what he was doing caught up to him. No woman was worth it.
He rose to his feet with a sigh, prepared to give up and go home, and then caught a sound of snapping branches coming from behind. David turned around when—out of nowhere—a heavy fist pounded him square on the chin, making him sway back and forth until finally, losing his balance. The only thing that cushioned his fall was the prickly brush behind him.
Standing victoriously over him, a big halo of sunshine crowning his head, was the tall man. His shoulders seemed even broader at this close range.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Never mind that,” muttered David. “What did you punch me for?”
In place of an answer, the man stepped forth even closer and—without a warning—set his foot down, directly on top of David’s shoulder.
Meanwhile, a head appeared at the window above him. “What happened?” cried his wife. “What are you doing down there? You stalking me?”
Lying there helpless, flat on his back, exposed to her scrutiny, David felt his face turning red. He was twice scolded—once, by the heat of the sun and a second time, by the green flame in her eyes. There was no way, no reasonable way to answer, which—quite inevitably—ignited his anger. Armed with nothing more than a pen, he thrust out his hand, aiming straight up at his attacker.
The pen rose in the air, flipping reflections in the sunlight. It went spinning, rising higher and higher in its flight, until reaching the big halo of sunshine, the halo crowning the standing man—at which point a large fist, belonging to him, attempted to reach out to the pen and snatch it.
The hand must have been extended a bit too far, with a disastrous result quickly following: His attacker staggered, lost his footing on the ground and came down heavily, snapping at branches and even breaking some of them along the way. The only thing that cushioned his fall was none other than David, who found himself suddenly pinned down, and utterly short of breath. Nonetheless he managed a sharp cry, and raised his eyes to heaven.
Which was where the pen took a turn in its flight. It arched—ever so slowly—over the frame of the window, and missed his wife’s head by no more than a hair. She parted her painted lips; her smile, he noted, was tinged with revenge. She held out her hand, waiting calmly for the thing to reach her, which indeed it did, as if she were some kind of a magnet. Then she clasped the pen, and started dangling it playfully, and plucked its tip as if it were an arrow, in front of the two lying men below her, one on top of the other.
The pointed nib gave a steely glint. The last thing David saw before passing out was her eyes. At that instant, he thought he saw a flash of insanity. She winked at him and then, took aim.
How long did he stay there? David has no idea; it could have been seconds or hours. He cannot recall how he managed to free himself from the weight of the man on top, or even if there was such as weight at all. Nor can he remember the way back, how he carried himself back home.
But somehow he knows, deep inside, how she must have felt; he has a sudden sense of her pain, and of her need for giving pain in return; and he comes to accept her way of looking at things, for the first time in his life. Is it too late for him? Is it too late to turn a new page? Can he hold on, just long enough to try, try to say he is sorry? At this point David finds himself sitting at his desk, pressing one hand to his temple, where a sharp pain shoots through him. His other hand is clutching his weapon: A pen.
There is not much time. The ending has come to him at long last; and so the battle between the writer in him and the editor, the battle that was waged inside his mind, turns easy all of a sudden, and the triumph—joyous. David pours his heart out, filling one sheet of paper after another with his bold, fluid stroke, a stroke that drives through the spikes and valleys in the shapes of the letters at a steady slant.
In this landscape of blue ink, he writes without stopping, without editing or crossing anything out.
Then he lays his head on the surface of the desk, gives up control, lets his eyes fall shut and at long last, falls asleep. In his dream he views this last sheet of paper. Its texture, seen at an extremely close range, right there next to the pupil of his eye, is that of crushed, flattened pulp. He notes each and every fiber. He can tell the different shades of their whiteness. The paper carries a faint imprint, the imprint of a stain that has seeped through from the first sheet, the one at the top.
At this moment the imprint seems to change colors; by now it has turned dark brown; and if you pass your finger over it, it would feel dry to the touch. In it, you can find his fingerprint. It is the writer’s signature, because sleep came abruptly, before he had time to spell out his name. Scribbled directly above this signature are these last words:
She said, Time to go. He asked her forgiveness, and then she left him.
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