Three Codas — “Necessary Stories” from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

illustration by Avi Katz


This is how the story ends.

Maya is in her room screaming. It’s long after a second-grader should be sound asleep. Long after I need to be sound asleep. I’m so exhausted that I can’t remember what set off the tantrum, and who cares, the tantrum is almost a nightly event.

She’s so loud that Didi, who is doing homework in the kitchen with something he calls music blaring through headphones into his ears, gives me a helpless look. He’s just started junior high school and is having a hard time.

“I’m sorry that this is the kind of home you have.”

He nudges the right side of the headphone a bit off his ear and shrugs. “It’s not your fault.”

I cast desperately around for an explanation. “Maybe it’s because she needs a father.”

“She’d probably scream anyway, and there’d be three of us suffering.”

I sigh. “I guess it’s not the kind of little sister you dreamed of having.”

“I don’t remember any dreams. One way or the other.”

I head for Maya’s room to try to calm her down.

As soon as I open her door I know it won’t work.

“I hate you!” she screams. She is standing by her window.

“Shh! Everyone will hear!”

She turns and leans out the window and broadcasts her message to the world. “I hate her!”

At least when she screams in that direction it’s probably less noisy for Didi.

“Your brother is trying to do his homework.”

“You only care about Didi! Him and his homework!”

I trod back to the kitchen. I can’t even lift my eyes to meet his.

“I can’t take it. I’m going to bed.”

I put the quilt over my head to muffle the sound. I can’t fall asleep. I turn from one side to the other and back, for a long time. I must have dozed off at one point because I wake up with a start. The room is dark. And it’s silent. I look at the clock. It’s almost 11:30. I forgot to go to the bathroom before I got in bed. I do my best to keep the quilt around me until I get my housecoat and slippers on. The apartment is dark. Not even the reading light that Didi has on the kitchen table.

The flushing of the toilet accents the silence. On my way back to bed I see that Didi’s door is open. I look in. He’s not in bed.

I touch the handle to Maya’s door. I’m afraid to set off another tantrum. But I slowly, quietly press down and open the door.

They’re both in her bed. Fast asleep. Didi has his arms around her, protecting her from all the monsters, outside and in.

And that’s the way the story ends.

*


This is how the story ends.

It’s Thursday night, late. I’ve just brushed my teeth and am heading for bed. My cell phone rings. It’s my daughter Layla. It’s not the name I gave her. She gave it to herself. She is screaming.

“Mom, I’ve had it!”

“Where are you? It sounds windy.”

That just makes her scream even louder.

“What difference does it make where I am? Why do you always change the subject?”

“I thought maybe you’re off at one of those spiritual festivals in the middle of nowhere …”

The phone goes dead. I look at it. Two seconds later her face appears on my screen again, with that shimmering green circle for me to swipe so I can talk to her. The face is from when she was in fourth grade, which is about the last time we had a normal conversation. The name on the screen is Maya, but I’m not allowed to call her that.

“Why did you hang up?”

I pace back down the hall to the kitchen. “I didn’t hang up. You must be out in the desert where the reception’s not good. Your voice keeps coming in and out.” I shiver. It’s cold.

“Mom, stop it. I’m at home.”

She lives in a hut with six other spiritual girls at a farm in the Negev, so it’s pretty much the same thing.

“I’m calling about Didi. I never want to see him again.”

Coincidentally, the land line rings at that moment. The country code is Germany, so it must be Didi in Berlin. He’s been there three years now, freelancing as a music critic.

“Mom, your phone’s busy.”

“Yes, I’m talking to M—to Layla.”

“Well, tell her from me to get off my case.”

Fumes emerge from my cell phone. “It’s Didi, isn’t it? Tell him I hope he ends up in a gas chamber.”

“Layla!”

“He’s a godless materialist self-hating self-denying Jew. And I never want to see him again.”

I remind her of something. “He’s arriving for a visit this weekend and you’re both coming over for Friday night dinner.”

The land line steams. “Mom, just hang up on her and give me a minute.”

“I’m making stuffed chicken. Your favorite!”

“That’s what you made last time!”

My cell phone is full of righteous indignation.

“Dead bird,” Layla says. “Mom, you might remember that I’m a vegan.”

“I’ll have tofu for you, but Didi’s coming home so I wanted to treat him, he lives off pizza and hamburgers there.”

“You can just make the tofu,” Didi says. “If Maya’s coming, I’ll just cancel my ticket and stay home. I’ll lose the money but it’ll be worth it.”

“Just make the chicken,” Layla says. “I’m not hitchhiking all the way to Jerusalem just to get lectured to by that asshole.”

I try my best. “What is it now? You used to play together so nicely.”

“He hates me.”

“I don’t hate her. I just offered some friendly advice. Like she should get a real job and get on with her life.”

“Look who’s talking, the bum from Berlin.”

“Well, you are both still looking for your life partners …”

Berlin is burning. “Mom, why is it always about getting married? Can’t you lay off?”

The Negev is quaking. “Mom, this is not a phase. This is my life. Get used to it.”

“So you’re not coming?”

“Forget it. Maybe some other time, when she grows up,” Didi sneers.

“Forget it, maybe in some other life, when Didi turns into a human being,” Layla groans.

And that’s the way the story ends.
*


This is the way the story ends.

I’m dying. At home, after too many times in the hospital.

“You’re not dying, Mom,” Layla says. “It’s just what the doctors say.”

Didi looks at her. It is late on a summer afternoon, and they have sent their spouses and children home.

“She’s dying, Layla.”

She begins to sob. He puts her arm around her.

“It’s funny,” I say. “I feel great.”

Didi smiles awkwardly. “That’s good. I guess.”

“All warm and funny inside,” I say. I think. “Like I did …” I think the better of it.

“Like when?” Layla raises her teary face.

I hesitate, but they are waiting. “Well, like when I fell in love with your father.” They look at each other. “I guess it’s not a good sign,” I admit.

“I just want you to know,” Layla sobs, “that you were right.”

“About?”

“You know.”

“Everything, as far as I can remember,” I suggest.

“About Didi.”

“Oh.”

“She means,” Didi says, “that I’m not such a bad brother after all.”

“You never were.”

Layla’s eyes flash. “What do you mean? He abandoned us!”

“Us?” I say in quite honest confusion. “Where were you?”

Didi puts a finger to his lips. “It’s not important. Right, girls? That’s not what’s important?”

“There’s something I want to tell you,” I say.

Didi smiles. “Tell us.”

“In a minute. Isn’t it funny that I’m so happy?”

Layla shakes her head. “Ema, it’s not funny. Are you in pain?”

“A bit. Not much. It’s not important.”

I tell them the story of that night.

Layla’s eyes are wide. “I don’t remember that.” She turns to her brother. “Do you?”

He shakes his head slowly.

I must have dozed off.

“You should go home. To your families. They need you.”

They glance at each other.

“But we’re home with you,” Didi says.

Layla nods.

And that’s the way the story ends.

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Don’t miss Necessary Stories: Through Women’s Eyes, a performance of three stories centered on women, at the Barbur Gallery, 6 Shirizli St., Jerusalem, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, at 8:30 p.m. Sponsored by Jerusalism, With Jane Golbert and Annabelle Landgarten. No charge. Repeat performance on Sunday, March 11, at 7 p.m., at Tmol Shilshom, NIS 40 minimum order per person.

Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is now available as an e-book and paperback on Amazon and all other vendors. Click here for purchase links and more information.

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