KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsEthicsReadingRemembrancesWriting

Hello from the Other Side

I tasted once

The milk of a woman friend,

The milk of a sister—

Not to slake my thirst

But for the liberty of my soul.

 

—“Memory of a Strange Refreshment,”

Elena Shvarts

 
The woman was an olah from a small town just outside Yekaterinburg, near the Urals in central Russia, and waitressed at the only Yemenite restaurant in Jerusalem. She’d lived in Israel for six years, but still referred to herself an olah, or a new immigrant to Israel. This was all I knew about her after I answered an advertisement one summer for a “Room Available” close to Mount Scopus, an Israeli enclave in Arab East Jerusalem. The rent was dirt-cheap and close to Hebrew University, so I moved in.

It’s just a studio but it’s a good size, she said as she helped me haul my suitcases up four flights of stairs.

Our conversation had been so brief that I didn’t realize that we were sharing the room. I didn’t even know her name. When I asked, she laughed.

When I made aliyah, I took the name Riva, she said, but I rarely use it.

So what should I call you?

Elena.

Elena had narrow eyes and high cheekbones. She wore a simple, faded sundress. She didn’t look like she smiled very often.

You look a bit like a young Elena Shvarts, I said.

What’s that? She asked, slightly out of breath.

I said you look like Elena Shvarts. She’s a Russian poet. She’s pretty wild.

I don’t read much these days, she said. God, what do you have in here?

Books, I said.

Elena muttered something, but continued to pull the suitcase up until we arrived at the landing and caught our breath. Then she said: So this Elena Shvartz, she’s wild, huh?

Yeah, I said. I can show you a picture of her. I have two of her books.

She gave me a half-smile, and motioned me to follow her down the hall.

I didn’t get a chance to talk poetry with her that night. After I’d unpacked and we thumbed through at a scrapbook of hers, someone banged on the door, calling out for “Ruth” to go dancing. Elena arose from her bed, grabbed a shawl hanging off the back of a chair and went outside. She didn’t come back. I stayed up all night, wondering what had just happened.

When she returned later the next morning, she apologized; the man was a soldier she’d met at the Yemenite place.

Who’s Ruth? I asked, exhausted from a lack of sleep.

Oh, she said. Sometimes I think about using Riva, but I always change my mind. So I give them another name.

What do you mean?

I mean I never give my real name.

I still didn’t understand.

I want you to call me Elena, she said, as if that would offer comfort.

 

I lasted three months there. The nights were long as they were interrupted with a barrage of young men, usually soldiers bursting in, bearing candy, a piece of ribbon for her hair, plastic jewelry from the two-shekel shops in downtown Jerusalem. The braver ones showed up with colored condoms.

After that first night, Elena confessed that she’d had trouble finding a roommate. The last girl was a Christian from America who was a Biblical Student and didn’t like Elena’s lifestyle one bit. I imagined some poor girl looking up from her lessons with indignation, as soldiers barged in and asked for Ruth, Ronit, Revka, and the Christian roommate giving each of them just enough time to throw an offering on Elena’s unmade bed before kicking him out and slamming the door behind him. Elena shrugged it off, and told me that she left the front door open since she had nothing worth stealing.

Well, I do, I said, pointing to my books.

Elena looked at the four or five stacks rising from the floor, my copies of more sacred texts spread out on a small table she’d cleared off for me to use as a desk.

Then she blurted out that she’d lost her key.

So I got the lock changed the next day. The locksmith said it was an easy fix, and charged us a fair price which we split. Elena stood in the middle of the small, hot room, looking disappointed with her arms crossed over a thin tank top, her small breasts completely visible, the buzz of the useless fan scattering the flies that would come through unseen cracks. I had a feeling the former key had been given away on a whim and now she couldn’t get it back. And I had a feeling that Ruth, Ronit, Revka would probably lose the next key, and I too would have to throw out someone. But the rent was beyond reasonable, and besides, I just needed a place for the short-term, until my next stipend check arrived and classes started again.
 

When I was still a two-legged woman

And now I’m drowning, now I’m lying on the bottom

Of love, like a million-armed octopus.”

 

—“I dreamed we sailed through rice fields,”

Elena Shvarts

 
A few days later, I woke up to see her lying with an ulpan student from the States, not too different from the ones I’d seen splayed on the green patches of lawn at the university, Hebrew primers opened on bare, hairy chests, eyes hidden behind Oakley’s, earphones blasting loud enough to be heard by passers-by. He came over each night for a week, arriving when I was already in bed. They’d have sex after they thought I’d gone to sleep, and he’d call her some pretty foul names. Afterwards, he’d get up and leave. She’d whisper for him to stay the night. He never would.

He was awful, but no one compared to the Czech student she met next.

This one asked her to come to his place in the old Sephardic neighborhood of Nahla’ot. She was gone for nearly a week, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy the quiet. I tried to find interest in my research, but mostly I slept and reread Elena Shvarts poems. I still hadn’t talked about the poet Elena with this Elena, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to anymore.  During the day I took buses to different parts of Jerusalem and wandered around, writing in my notebook during the long, winding routes back to our room.

I soon began to worry about her. She’d left a phone number. One night I called, but there was no answer. I let the landline ring and ring, half of me hoping no one would pick up, half of me hoping she would. It was a strange feeling, caring for a woman like her. I didn’t sleep well that night. Or the next. Or the one after that. I was frightened for reasons I couldn’t understand. It seemed that suddenly that everyone I knew was gone, though I had friends and family nearby. But how could I explain to them that I had been not quite abandoned by someone I didn’t even know? That nothing had become more important than finding this wayward woman?

The next morning, the landline rang, and I woke up with a start. Someone in a soft whine of a scared wolf asked if I’d come and collect Rita, and then hung up immediately. I cursed Rita, Revka, Ronit and then I cursed him, and got dressed.

The Czech student wasn’t there when I arrived. Elena threw her arms around me; I immediately saw her lip was cut, one of her cheeks swollen, an eye mostly closed. I stood there with my arms down, feeling like I’d been tricked into something I wasn’t prepared for. Then we collected her things, and I navigated her bruised body through the narrow alleys, her slip of a dress inciting the wrath of the religious inhabitants who stood in their crumbling doorways, some even spitting on the ground where we stepped.

I paid for a cab to take us home. The driver threw us curious glances in the rearview mirror, and whistled quietly.

I embarrass you, Elena whispered in my ear.

What happened to you? I asked.

She didn’t answer me. Instead she asked: Do I still remind you of her?

Who?

Your brooding, beautiful, wild Elena Shvarts. You know, she was the real thing. She didn’t sell out. And she was always sexy when she read her work.

You told me you didn’t know her.

I told you I don’t read much anymore, Elena said, touching her swollen cheek.

You should see a doctor, I said.

Elena waved the suggestion away.

I was like you once, she said, and then she added: No, once I wanted to be like you.

You can always go back to school, I said.

Elena touched the swollen side of her face and laughed. I realized she had been crying.

God, you’re so young, she said, laughing. School. You’re so young.

You’re not much older than me, I said.

I’m 27, she said, but you’ll never be as old as I am now.

I held her in the cab. I wasn’t in love with her, and I knew I couldn’t help her. Whatever it was that she was doing couldn’t be undone so easily. I knew, as I helped her up the four flights of stairs back to the room, that the price she paid with the Czech student would not change anything. Up until I left, the men continued to come to our door, knocking at all hours of the night, bearing their cheap and unending gifts.
 

Elena didn’t have many friends, but she was friendly with another waitress at the restaurant. Dalia was a robust, young twenty-something Israeli who was over at our place one night when I came home. Elena wasn’t there. When I told her that I didn’t know they were so close, Dalia shrugged.

Riva owes me one, she said.

Who? I said before catching myself: Oh, right. Elena.

Dalia didn’t seem to hear me, though. She went on: I cover for her all the time at the restaurant. She’s always late, or leaves early. Always some new guy. Her type, they attract a lot, though not the best. Anyway, Riva’s with the new one and said I could crash her tonight. My home life isn’t so great.

Okay, I said, wishing Elena had asked me first.

So how do you like living with her? Dalia asked, getting into Elena’s bed.

When I didn’t answer, she laughed, tying her hair with a rubber band. Little, broken hairs stood up on her head and around her ears.

Hey. You know about her, don’t you? Dalia asked me.

Know what? I asked, now feeling very awake.

You don’t see it?

See what?

C’mon. How can you live with her and not know?

Know what? I asked, slightly exasperated.

That Riva’s not real, Dalia said.

Real? What do you mean?

I mean she’s a Russian.

So what? I said. She already told me that.

No, Dalia said, you don’t understand me.

There was something predatory about Dalia’s gaze as I waited for her to continue. I couldn’t believe I was going to have sleep across from this person.

Well, Dalia went on, did she tell you she had a Jewish grandfather? Or maybe it was the grandmother this time? Her story always changes.

What do you mean? I asked, not wanting to know. I turned off the light, and got into bed.

Suddenly Dalia said: just say you want to move out and you want your money back. That’s what I would do.

I startled. I couldn’t explain why, but at that moment, I felt protective of Elena. As if she was all I had in the world here.

And of course she showed you her scrapbook, right? Dalia asked.

I took a deep breath and said: look, I don’t have a problem with her, so there’s no need to continue this conversation.

No, you look. You do have a problem. You did not come to live in Israel to be tolerated, okay? They, these types, they lie all the time. They come here to cheat us. And they’re sick. Sick, sick people. Do sick things.

What are you talking about?

Look around you, Dalia said in the darkness. You just need to look around you.

 

I spent the rest of that morning thinking about what Dalia had said. Before coming to Israel, Elena had told me she’d been as thin as I was, but she’d gained her curves due to the many tips from American tourists who’d predicted she’d never put on weight, as if the abuses of communism were permanent.

I remembered she’d been gracious that first night, clearing out a space in her small closet for me, offering up extra hangers. She made me a cup of tea by placing an electric probe into a cup of water. The cup had been filled with cigarette butts, but she washed it first in the sink in our room. I leaned down to open my suitcases.

This is all you have? She asked.

What? I asked. The word came out very hard, very high.

She pointed inside: You really only have books. Where are the rest of your clothes?

I blew on the steam off my tea and sipped it, though it smelled like terrible and the room was very hot.

Well, I said, I’m a student.

So you own more things? Back in the States?

I did once. But I sold a lot of stuff.

Ahhh, she said, and opened her closet door again. She took out a few dresses, a coat, two pairs of jeans and several low-cut sweaters and tops, and a knitted tube dress of many colors that she’d end up giving to me because she couldn’t fit into it anymore.

This is all I have, she said. In the world.

I sat there, sipping my tea, unsure of what to say. I looked at the cracked wall above her bed. It was bare except for a map of the city. I studied it, trying to find our street, when she suddenly leaped up and grabbed a huge book from a shelf above her bed. Without a word, she came over to me and opened it right in my lap. It was a scrapbook. There were photos of her family in Russia: her father wearing a kippah as she lighted the menorah for Chanukah; her mother wearing a lacy shawl as she blessed the Shabbos over two candles; her baby brother dressed as a bear for Purim. She had her original passport from Russia, and pointed to the former hollows of her cheeks that made her seem young and defenseless.

I stole looks at her as she pointed to picture after picture. She had stringy hair and bad skin exacerbated with thick makeup that sank in the premature crevices bordering her mouth— I’d find out later that while she nursed her frequent hangovers by spending hours in the sun, as she believed it would also dry up her acne. Her penchant for all kinds of liquors would explain the slight belly, the puffy face, why her exposed back had become thick and soft. She was still pretty, though, with her high cheekbones and long legs.

She caught me looking her.

She asked: What is it?

I felt my face turning red. Oh, I said, it’s just the pictures. Were you religious?

She cocked her head at me and smiled.

Of course, she said, and added quickly: but not now.

No? I asked, as she slammed shut the scrapbook and returned to her side of the room, climbing up on her bed to return it to the high shelf. She looked at me for a moment and back at the scrapbook, and then sat down on the edge of the bed.

97% of Israel is secular, she explained, you know that, right?

I admitted that I didn’t.

She said: I know more about Israel than most native-born Israelis. I know all the Sabbath blessings in Biblical Hebrew; most don’t. I know how to celebrate all the holidays. I’ve been to a mikvah and I know concrete details of the wars of ’48, ’56, ’67, ’73, ’82 and so on.

I didn’t know what to make of this then, the detailing of a history I thought I’d belonged to, the dates I always knew would never mean the same to me as they did to the Dalias of this country.
 
For years, I’ve wondered if Dalia was right: was Elena pretending to be Jewish to escape her life in Russia?

That morning after Dalia left, I went to Elena’s shelf and took down her scrapbook. I poured over the meticulously documentation of her first year in Israel, the captions written only in Hebrew. The panoramic photos of the requisite trip to Masada, taking from top of the great, rhombus-shaped plateau that tourists and new recruits in the army climbed to live and breathe Zionism, along with a photo of her flashing her breasts nearby the remnants of a Byzantine church. In Ein Gedi, a natural reserve, there she was kissing a man under a waterfall, his hands under her bikini top. In Tel Aviv, she posed with punk rockers against a wall covered in graffiti. I remember that first night I’d moved how she read the captions giggling like a child reading her older sister’s diary, as if it was someone else and not her who’d done these things.

Suddenly I looked up. Elena was standing at the door, looking at me. I had been caught— not that I had done anything terrible. She’d showed me the scrapbook before, and standing there, she didn’t seemed surprised.

It was the way she held my gaze: those narrow eyes, that unreadable stare.

At the moment, I realized what my mid-twenties had come to mean. As my friends back home in the States were getting married and having babies, I was continuing studies I would never complete, sharing a room with a woman whom I’d never be truly close to— that I could meet up with her at Café Aroma or she could die tomorrow, chopped up by the Czech student, and I wouldn’t feel sad forever, we could never be friends, and that I was okay with that, and it would fine if I never saw her again. But none of that was true either. I didn’t know what we had become to each other. Only that if I became any more entangled in her life, I wouldn’t be able to leave.

A great fear clutched my body as she held my gaze.

A week or so later, I moved out.

 

I myself became clear and two-handed,

And a family of new demons in hungry rage

Caught my scent. Still the same torment.

 

–“When hungry demons came chasing after me,”

Elena Shvarts

 

Some years later, I ran into her in Mahane Yehuda market. She surprised me from behind, throwing her arms around me, startling me. I’d known the Yemenite restaurant ended up closing, and she told me had gone to work at another, without telling me where, exactly. After inquiring about my health, she didn’t ask me any more questions. We then shopped together, haggled for sticky-skinned oranges, bananas that we could throw into a paper bag to ripen, frothy red grapes, small, thin cucumbers, and peppers that were shaped like the stocky man who sold them. When I moved to buy baklava from a vendor, she stopped me and said to go to Abu Sier Sweets on Khan El-Zeit in the Old City, that it was superior the syrup-sodden staleness sold in this market. I still have that suggestion written down in one of my notebooks.

When we left the market, weighed down by plastic bags full of produce, we turned to each other, suddenly uncomfortable.

Do you still have Elena’s books? She asked me.

Of course, I said.

I started looking for her work, she said, after you moved out.

Did you find any? I asked.

She shook her head. Then she said, smiling: I don’t go by Elena anymore.

I stared at her; it occurred to me we’d never gone shopping together during when we’d lived together.

Are you only Riva now? I asked.

Still smiling, she shook her head. Her eyes were wet. She leaned in to give me an awkward hug, her bags banging against my body, and then said she had to catch her bus before it got too late. We didn’t exchange phone number or email addresses. I don’t even know if she lived in the same place, or if she’d finally adopted Riva as a name, or had taken another one. She left first, turning her back to me, the same shawl drifting around the same thin-strapped dress, her long legs taking wider and wider strides until she was nearly running.

Sitting here in New York now, on a dark Wednesday afternoon, the rain unending and the wind crushing, I put on Adele’s new single “Hello.” I unzip a garment bag to take out the knitted tube dress of many-colors that she had given me. I’ve never worn it. I never thought I could stand the fabric so close to my skin. As I slip into the itchy, stiff fabric, a musty smell stings my eyes, and I shut them. Hello, Rita. Hello, Revka, Ronit. Hello, Riva. I’m older now than 27, and I wonder if I’ll ever be as tough and enduring as you were then. Hello, Elena– once, and only for a brief while, we were the most real thing to each other. Hello.

Hello from the other side.