January 25, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsReadingRemembrancesWriting

I Wanted to Ruin It for You: On Yael Hedaya’s Housebroken (Part 1)

 

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Do you remember that strangely addictive taste of drugstore lipstick on your teenage lips And how it wouldn’t taste the same if you bit right into it?

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

* * *

I received Dalya Bilu’s translation of Housebroken, a collection of three novellas by Yael Hedaya, as a farewell gift one hot September day at a Sbarro pizzeria on King George Street. Sbarro isn’t the kind of place you make plans to meet; it’s a place you just end up. So my soon-to-be-ex and I ended up there, at that particular downtown Jerusalem  location which had been rebuilt after a suicide bombing the previous year. And that afternoon it was crowded and brimming with all sorts of people, tourists and locals, young and old, mostly those who had somewhere else to be, who needed to be quickly on their way, their minds on some other final destination for the day.

She and I had just sat down when a group of twenty-something American guys sauntered in, a single file of smug, uncertain faces partially obscured by baseball caps, with the one bringing up the rear announcing to his friends that new bombers return to old locations. He said it as if he were making a joke. I watched him watching his friends, all of whom stood in front of him staring up at the menu as they waited in line, not paying him any mind. Then he said it again, shaking the shoulders of one of his friends, this time trying to make a joke. His friend pushed him off, and talked to another guy beside him. The would-be joker looked around, adjusting his baseball cap over his reddening face.

My soon-to-be ex rolled her eyes at them, at their Americaness, which is to say that particular form of foreign bro-ness, which countless Israeli friends– both men and women– have told me means a certain obviousness of swagger that is most unnatural and unearned.

She signed and took a sip of her soda. We hadn’t ordered anything else but drinks. She and I hadn’t dated very long, and we’d started as friends, the kind of friendship that begins in mild flirtations. A good enough friendship to sustain, a promise of lifelong candor and little drama: if only we’d been more mature about things. I knew from the start we wouldn’t be right for each other, romantically, and I felt that she knew this too. I felt bad that we’d been so careless. I felt bad about taking up the table on such a hot day, as the sweaty-browed mothers looked for a place to plant their irritable children, and I felt bad about the American joker waiting in line with his friends. I felt terrible about those baseball caps pushed way down on their heads as they glanced at their phones, and readjusted their baggy shorts and polo shirts in the oily swelter of the pizzeria, simultaneously mumbling to each other while shouting insults at each other at the same time. They were noise. They were an unnatural, artificial noise in a Western chain of food we were not eating, and I had no idea how we’d decided on this, why this place decided on itself, why this was a place at all, why anyone would ever come here.

* * *

Just a week before we decided to stop seeing each other, we took a weekend trip, which is to say the wrong kind of weekend trip, to spend the night in a cottage on an alpaca farm in the Negev desert. It was too hot, she’d protested at first, and that we should wait until the winter break. But I wanted to go; I was anxious to get out of Jerusalem and feel something palpably soft and gentle between my fingers. I also yearned for the starkness of the desert, a large, open space in which I could breathe, where we could go horseback riding along the edges of the Ramon crater. I tried to explain this best as I could.

So we went, leaving early on a hot September morning, but she was annoyed with me from the start. We didn’t speak when she picked me up in her car. We didn’t listen to the radio. We drove in silence. She knew the way. She turned off the air conditioner and rolled down our windows. She reached into her bag and threw a snack into my lap. All the time, she looked ahead at the road, the ever winding road. I didn’t need to help her with anything.

When nearly two hours later, having driven in complete silence, we rolled up to the gate of the farm, some of the alpacas came running to the fence, to see who’d come. There was a hodgepodge of red, black and white wooly coats, some monochromatic, some spotted or splashed with another color, all with long eyelashes, humming and snorting, and still others spreading their uncertainty in bird voices, or baying in the manner of wind-ups toys on their last leg. Their voices startled me; how quickly I’d grown accustomed to the silence in only a couple of hours.

While the car idled at the gate for the groundskeeper, I found I couldn’t wait. I was overwhelmed with this sudden burst of life. I opened my door and ran to the fence, to their large, slender nostrils flaring and eyes curious. She called to me out of the open window, yelling at me to get in the car, then suddenly cursing at me. I remember turning around, surprised at the sharp cracks in her voice, not understanding her anger against the backdrop of alpacas, bordering the fawn-colored moonscape rim of the Ramon Crater in the middle of the Negev desert. I remember standing there, against the warmth of their wet breath and wooly bodies poking through the fence, the desert sun hitting me hard in the eyes and throat, and feeling confused, how did I end up there, at the farm, in the Negev, in Israel, with this angry person in her car, my mind for a brief moment cleared of all awareness and memory.

 

We shouldn’t have gone, my ex said to me that afternoon in the Sbarro. I watched her take out a small mirror and a tube of lipstick. She wasn’t one to wear makeup much less preen in public, so I was surprised when she swiped it on, in small, stabbing motions. The lipstick was the cheap kind, the kind I used to wear as a teenager, a bright shade of fuchsia, so pink it was nearly purple. It clashed horribly with her natural beauty, her lovely olive skin and long, dark hair. As I watched her apply it, I realized she had somewhere else to go, her mind on some other final destination for the day. At that moment I didn’t want her to leave me. I didn’t want to go anywhere else that day. As stuffy as it was, I would stay there in that Sbarro, and not because I didn’t want to lose her, exactly, but because I didn’t want to move. I didn’t know where I’d go next.

We shouldn’t have gone, she said to me again, checking her lips in the mirror before depositing it back into a small case, which she then dropped in her purse. She moved to take another sip of her soda, but pressing her lips together, thought the better of it. She pushed her soda away.

When I didn’t answer her, she stood up and said: We hadn’t even gotten past the gates yet, and I wanted to ruin it for you.

I didn’t say anything to that either; I needed time to process her words, but it was difficult in a Sbarros filling with people complaining of the heat while eating hot food. And she probably wasn’t expecting to me respond, as she reached into her bag and pulled out a book, which she threw the book in my lap, but it fell to the floor, with all day’s crumbles and spills, used napkins and used plastic forks and splashes of red sauce.

By the time I retrieved it from under the table, she was gone.

* * *

Publisher’s Weekly described Housebroken as a “somewhat bleak trio of tales dissecting failed relationships, with zealous attention to detail,” geared toward “readers with a taste for existential angst.” For my mid-twenties, ever-wandering, ever-broken-hearted self, this could be not be a more perfect discovery. While Hedaya is well-known novelist and head writer of In Treatment, a popular Israeli television show (check out “Therapy on the Screen and on the Page” with Hedaya at Standford Jewish Studies), her debut book of long-form stories holds a special place on my shelves. For me as both a writer and a Jew, Housebroken is undoubtedly a first book, by which I mean it’s completely unaffected, so that one trusts the narrators are telling their stories the truest way that they can be told. It’s is also undoubtedly an Israeli book, or at least for me as a diasporist Jew, holding that certain edge, that sharpness, of living in Israel as a woman. I don’t know if my ex read the novelas before she gave it to me, or if it were mere chance to pass along a gift so fitting for a breakup.

In the title novella “Housebroken,” a man and a woman, both unnamed, meet on a blind date and stake their relationship on the discovery of a stray dog; the man persuades the woman to take the dog in, assumes responsibility himself and then moves in with her, bringing along with him the baggage of past relationships including a devious female friend who refuses to let the woman have him completely. (None of the characters are named; the dog eventually is called “Anonymous” by the man when he takes him to the vet.) The woman herself suffers from an anxiety that never was “satisfied with anonymity, that one day it would demand a name, something catchy or banal, something like the fear of being alone” (45). For different reasons they attempt couple-ness: cooking together, traveling, entertaining at home, the dog being the thread that bind them. But the dog is “neither a street dog nor a house dog” but “a kind of in-between dog, a temporary pet” (120) whose unfortunate fate reflects the toll that mistrust and betrayal takes on the relationship.

There’s a particular scene in the “Housebroken” I remember reading that autumn, when it was still rather warm during the day, and I’d open the windows only to have hot air escape and enter at the same time. It occurs when the the man’s female friends calls the woman to “remind” her to plan the man’s birthday. Though promising to bring friends to the party, the female friend arrives alone with a large cake and the same denim shirt that women has bought for him (the friend hides it after the man opens the woman’s gift first.) But when it comes time to cut the cake, the friend “hurried to the kitchen and got a big knife and smiled at the woman… the woman stepped back and watched [the friend] sticking the knife into the middle of the cake” (123). This scene foreshadows the following scene in which the friend attempts to seduce the man, who gives into her, more out of a half-hearted yearning for his single life, a time when he’d visit the friend from time to time as she was a “friend with benefits” but one he never had to commit to. Though it’s cheating, it is and it is not quite an affair, more a revelation on those languid, comfortable types of relationships of convenience, very different from the many love-and-hate games played between the man and the woman, the latter whom discovers on a trip to Paris that “his unhappiness was the reason for her happiness” (110). In the end, it’s not a matter of attaining happiness that drives the man and the woman forward, shaking him out of his indolence and releasing her from her anxiety; strangely enough, it’s their inability to name things, to label them, whether it’s the dog, their relationship or the power dynamic, its ever-swinging pendulum, and it’s that inability which brings them back to each other just as it pushes them apart, while the dog absorbs and suffers from one too many blows of such wild oscillation and uncertainty.

I remember sitting at my window, needing to get on with a thesis statement from a now-forgotten paper, finishing this story instead and returning to the beginning; its first chapter is the ending of the novella’s linear self, a point in which the dog has snapped, lashed out and attacked an elderly woman. Exhausted and weighed down by its guilt, the dog does not put up a fight when it’s captured and taken to the pound; instead it seems to “the neighbors, who crowded into the street to watch the final stage of the captured, that the dog wanted to go” (7).

I remember thinking to myself: if you knew the ending all along, why did you go through the pains of reading the story? Why did you just put yourself through that?

Because Hedaya is the kind of writer in which nothing escapes her and no mercy is spared, in all her eyes of all her characters. Because no one emerges unscathed, untouched, brushed aside; because the anonymities of her story are universal as they are Israeli. Because the dog is so much larger than itself, than the couple, than the story.

We hadn’t even gotten past the gates yet, and I wanted to ruin it for you, my ex had said to me. She had known the ending all along too, only she didn’t want to put herself through it. I thought about that hot, sticky afternoon in SBarro, and how she’d applied the bright pink lipstick, as if for the first time, and for someone else. Then I remembered my Mexican cousins putting makeup on me for the first time. I was around seven or eight, and my cousins, who often flipped through their issues of Cosmopolitan while spiritzing themselves with fragrance from squeezable bulbs of perfume bottles, were the most glamorous people in the world to me. They took me under their wing and behind my mother’s back, and introduced me to thosevswivel-up cylinders of Cover Girl, Maybelline, Revlon pigments. They’d apply one color, wipe it off and then applied another. I savored each one, the taste on my lips so particular that it was the most natural thing in the world, that is to say the whole ritual of discovery in the arms of those you love and trust, the bonding, the delicious holding still and surrendering to wiser hands.

I remember later sneaking into my cousins’ room, the small room they shared at my Aunt Nena’s house and taking a green plastic tube of a soft rose color and inhaling deeply. I was headed back to my parent’s house, and my cousins had already wiped away all of their handiwork, the blush, the eyeshadow and the lipstick. I couldn’t reapply the lipstick for fear of my mother’s wrath. So instead I took a taste, intending to take the smallest nibble, when I was struck by a sudden ravenousness, some monstrous, deep-seated hunger that frightened me as it was happening, and bite clear through half of the tube. A bitter, waxy taste filled my mouth, and I spit it out on the floor. I ran into the bathroom and rinsed my mouth out with water, wiped off my pink-stained teeth with tissue. Tears were streaming down my face, though I didn’t completely understand them, when my cousins knocked at the door, telling me it was time to go, checking to make sure I was okay.

I remember not wanting to leave the bathroom. I stood there by the sink, the water still running, looking at myself in the mirror but unable to look into my one eyes, focusing on my chattering teeth as my tongue ran up and down them, trying to name what I’d just lost.

There is a 3-part series on Yael Hedaya’s Housebroken. The second part will explore the next novella in the collection, “The Happiness Game” and the third part will examine the final story, “Matti.”