The COVID-19 pandemic prompts a middle-aged woman to reconnect with a part of her past in this short story by Yishai Sarid.
I remember almost nothing about him. So many people have passed through my life since then, and he was no more than a marginal episode, a transient character. I never paid him any real attention before. And yet here I am, thirty years later, going to meet him. I recall the way he addressed me in one of his old letters: “My love, my gorgeous.” I may have been gorgeous, but I was never his. All he ever did was bring a brief, vain smile to my young face.
It’s midmorning and the roads are completely open. I have my well-worn classic rock ballad playlist on, the one I know by heart. I can’t listen to the news anymore. I’m sick of illness statistics, isolation restrictions, and politics. I almost texted him to cancel when I was about to head out. I was plagued with doubt. Meeting him is irrational, and contains a hint of infidelity, and I’m no cheater. But my heart told me to go ahead. I needed it too much.
It all started with an overflowing filing cabinet. I couldn’t fit a single piece of paper in. Because of the pandemic, I suddenly had lots of free time on my hands, and I decided to clean it out. Old bills, bank statements, traffic tickets, a history of life’s nuances all mixed together in terrible disarray. I pulled out the heap of papers and went over it, one document at a time. I crumpled most of them, taking pleasure in chucking them in the trash. Then, at the bottom of the pile, I found a large envelope stuffed with old letters—from my parents, my friends, my former lovers. Now this is interesting, I thought. I made myself a cup of coffee and settled in. Through these letters, I dove into a former incarnation of myself, like a land submerged underwater. Some of them made me laugh. Others moved me with the affection they contained. Then I came across one of his letters. The first words hit me, burning with an intense love. I see your face everywhere, he wrote, and I want nothing from you, only to be by your side. There were five letters from him in the envelope, growing more and more desperate, until he stopped writing. At least write me back, he begged. But I hadn’t. I never wrote him a thing. Nor did I call. Through the letters, I re-created the details of our brief acquaintance: he was friends with my roommate, and the three of us went out for a drink once. Later on we must have gone on a group trip up to the Galilee. It looked like we may have gone to a movie, just the two of us, and then once more to the beach. That’s all that ever happened between us. Then I cut him off. He wasn’t interesting enough. In his final letter, he apologized for that time he called me, crying and begging me to see him again. I won’t bother you anymore, he wrote, but please know I’ll always love you.
I put the letters down on the desk, stunned. You should write him, I told myself. No one ever loved you like he did. Others wanted you, sure, but they didn’t burn with this kind of fire. Not even the man you married. I knew if I waited, I’d be overcome by hesitation and would change my mind. So I went straight for my computer and searched for him. When I found him, I sent a friend request. When he didn’t respond, I was relieved. I imagined he wanted nothing to do with me. Why should I invade his life all over again? But a few hours later, I saw he’d accepted my request and written me a message, saying he was happy to hear from me. “Where are you? What do you do now?” he asked.
I laughed. How could I possibly summarize thirty years, in all their ups and downs, to a stranger? I wrote that I live in the city, that I am married, that I have two kids, the eldest already out of the house, the youngest in military service. I told him a little about my work, and how I was working from home now because of this stupid pandemic. There was plenty that I didn’t tell him, of course.
“I live in a village,” he answered. “My kids are grown up too. All that my wife and I have to take care of now are two old dogs. I’m an archaeologist. You probably remember how I talked your ear off about antiquities on that trip we took.”
I remembered vaguely that he was studying something unusual. I wanted to keep chatting. It felt nice. We both made sure not to get too personal. The words were brittle like eggshells under our fingertips. If he was still hurt, he concealed it well. His writing was wise and clean, and the things he told me about his work truly were interesting. He wrote that his specialty was the Canaanite Period, and that he’d just completed a riveting dig in the Carmel region, the results of which have yet to be made public. Then he asked if I was still in touch with his old friend, my former roommate.
“I haven’t heard from him since we graduated,” I answered.
He said, “Me neither. It really is prehistory, isn’t it?”
He’d built a nice life for himself, and I had left no baggage, I thought, a little disappointed. This wasn’t what I wrote to him for. I wrote to him to rekindle his flame; to have someone yearn for me, the way people used to. I didn’t answer his last message. That’s it, it’s over, I told myself, returning the letters to the bottom of the filing cabinet.
Then, a few days later, he offered a sign of life: “Good morning, I was sent home from work too. Want to see my excavation site before the rest of Israel storms the scene?”
My heart pounded. I was a young girl again. I’ve been married almost twenty-five years, and I’ve never gotten carried away on an adventure like this before. Not that I feel trapped in my marriage or anything. I’ve always been independent and my husband doesn’t keep a close watch on my comings and goings. Sometimes I even wish he were a little more jealous. Reading the archaeologist’s message, I hesitated. My thoughts were impure, so I didn’t respond right away. That night, before I got into bed, I gave myself a close look in the mirror. I looked into my eyes, tried smoothing out the wrinkles, combed the graying hair. It wouldn’t be a romantic rendezvous, I assured myself, making excuses. Nothing more than a meeting with an old friend.
“I would love to,” I wrote back. We made a plan to meet two days later, assuming the police didn’t shut down the roads by then. Suddenly, everything accelerated.
What was I going to wear? I found a few old-fashioned glossy photos of myself from back then. They emitted a glowing youth that blinded me. There I was in shorts, a slouchy t-shirt, and sneakers; a naive, captivating smile on my face. I could see why he fell for me. But I knew I couldn’t re-create that charming girl. I no longer looked like her. Even my smile was different. The first moment is the crucial moment, I told myself. It will be disastrous if all he sees when he looks at me is the horror of passing time. I rummaged through my closet over and over until I finally found the right dress and the right shoes. I used just a little bit of natural-looking makeup and hit the road.
My husband is out at his essential job and won’t be back until late. If the police stop me on the way, I decide, I’ll lie that I’m going to buy my mother some groceries before she starves to death. Echo and the Bunnymen sing about a killing moon, and from behind the screen of music I recall his voice as he cried over the phone, begging me to see him again. I just hope he isn’t looking for revenge now. Just don’t let him humiliate me.
I drive according to his directions toward the observation tower in the heart of a forest. He said he’d meet me there. I arrive early. There’s no one else around. I get out of the car and look at the thick woods all around. I close my eyes and feel the breeze, listening to the silence, letting the sun caress my face. The sound of an approaching motorcycle startles me.
He removes his helmet and approaches with hesitant steps, pausing two steps away from me. A man with the sad eyes of a boy. I wouldn’t have recognized him if I ran into him on the street, and his voice doesn’t sound familiar, either.
“Is it really you?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he laughs. He has a kind face and his gaze envelops me with affection. “Have you ever been here before?” he asks.
I say I can’t remember. Perhaps on some Scouts field trip when I was a little girl.
He gestures toward the houses of Haifa on the horizon, and points out the roofs of his small village in the distance. “Let’s go,” he says. “It’s in the forest, there’s no paved route yet.”
He leads the way down the narrow path. I’m not prepared for the steep descent into the ravine. When I almost stumble, his arm shoots out to steady me. His touch is tender, pleasant. “Sorry,” he says, startled.
“It’s fine,” I say.
As we walk, he tells me about the ancient civilization that used to live here, which subsisted on agriculture and fishing. Then he points at the sea that suddenly twinkles beyond the trees. Occasionally he glances back, making sure I’m still listening. Making sure he’s got my attention this time.
“Remember that time we went to the beach together?” he asks all of a sudden, as we reach the bottom of the ravine, picking our way between ferns and thorny raspberry bushes.
“Yeah, sure,” I say with trepidation. This is when the revenge happens, I think. The nasty words, the mortification. He could murder me in this thicket and no one would ever find out.
“That was a wonderful day,” he says. “I was so happy.” Then he starts climbing up the other side of the ravine.
I shouldn’t have worn a dress. It keeps getting tangled in branches, my legs getting scratched and more exposed than I’d like. He strides up the incline, leaving me behind. “Hang on,” I call out.
He pauses. “Sorry,” he says, coming back down the slope. He’s got a nice large head and even his thick glasses suddenly look cute. We climb together now, one step at a time, to the top of the gorge, where we find his excavation site: dug holes containing the foundations of ancient structures. He presents them to me with pride, showing me the ruler’s palace and the homes of the simple folk. When we reach the top of the hill, from which we get a breathtaking view of the sea, he reveals the pièce de résistance: a stack of chiseled rocks. “This used to be the altar,” he explains. “We found some animal bones underneath, as well as a wonderful statuette of a fertility goddess. We’ve already had it shipped to the archaeology museum in Jerusalem.”
“It’s pretty,” I say, tentatively touching the highest rock of the altar. “What happened to the people who used to live here?”
He spreads his arms and shrugs. “I don’t know. Disappeared. Maybe they died in battle. Or a plague. Or just gave up and moved elsewhere.”
Silence. Only the wind blows. He takes a seat on a boulder and stares into the distance. Finally, he gets up, and his sorrow fills the world.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I was young and stupid.”
He looks at me with desperate longing and says softly, “It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m glad we met again. Now I can remember you forever. I don’t need more than that.”
“Don’t be silly.” I lean against his sacred altar and open my arms to him. “Of course you do.”
"סידור מגירות" © Yishai Sarid. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Yardenne Greenspan. All rights reserved.