It seemed like an odd place to die, in a hard wooden chair placed in front of a back-facing bedroom window.
“I told you that nothing is to be moved,” Ofek had ordered while showing the apartment, when I tried to place it next to the wall so that I could take in the view. “Especially the chair.”
“And the sign?” I said nervously, looking down on the big black banner hanging from the outside railing. From the outside it couldn’t be missed. It depicted the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef looking out, from the railing of a floor high up in a tall building, or perhaps from heaven itself, over a huge crowd of black-clad men. “Abba mistakel milema’alah,” proclaimed huge white letters: “Father is watching from above.” Below it, in the bottom left corner, was a voting slip for the Shas party.
“Does that have to stay?”
“Because I’m really not going to vote for Shas.”
“Neither was Ema. But maybe she thought that if Rav Ovadia was looking down in to the yard, he wouldn’t see what she was doing up here. Or at least that the neighbors wouldn’t see.” He laughed, but I saw a trace of bitterness in his eyes.
The chair was one of only two in the entire apartment. “It really would be more useful in the kitchen,” I suggested. “There’s another chair there to keep it company.”
Ofek shook his head firmly enough that a wave ran through his long black curls. I thought I saw a small tear descend from the corner of his left eye down to his soft, short beard. I pegged him at maybe thirty-five, thirty-six, only three or four years older than me.
Just a week before I’d returned to Israel after a quick and nasty divorce that had drained me of emotion, strength and purpose. On the Sunday after my arrival I wandered through a Jerusalem neighborhood I liked because it had numerous bus stops and supermarkets, and was on the other side of town from my parents, and I happened to spot a rain-wrinkled mourning notice on one of the multiple entrances to a run-down, train-like housing project. It announced the death of Lily Assouline. I figured that the place was probably crummy enough to be barely affordable for me. The gabbai at the Sephardi synagogue across the street gave me Ofek’s number. He was the youngest of the children, and single, so he was the go-to person. At first he refused flat out.
It was apparently a tradition, a Moroccan one, that when a mother died, her home had to remain untouched until the mourning year ended. I promised I would leave it all untouched and asked if he would show it to me. After a two-minute grand tour, I persuaded him that it would be nicer if someone kept the place clean and dusted the large twin cameo-framed portrait photographs of a young woman with chiseled features and a penetrating glare alongside that of a man with narrow face and moustache. The family, he said, came in every Friday morning to pray together and say kaddish. I promised not to be there. He called his brother and sister who told him to do what he thought best.
I moved in on Monday afternoon, bringing one large suitcase and a cardboard box with some basic household items. The rooms matched my mood. They were bare, lonely, pallid. The campaign banner didn’t help. I skirted the chair and leaned out the window to examine it. I wondered if covering it up with a sheet would be a violation of my contract. While I’m not a particularly political person, Sephardi-Haredi was definitely not me. I sighed and figured I’d better let it be for now. After nearly a year of being branded a frigid, self-centered and inconsiderate man-hater by Gilad, my ex, I guess I could handle being taken for a pious rabbi-worshiper.
It was the end of March. Summertime had not yet begun, night still came in early. The apartment’s bare bulbs cast a cold light that made me want to cry. I decided not to do that because it would have been a victory for Gilad. I thought I might go to bed. But that didn’t work. I’d bought a tiny reading lamp, but there was no table or headboard to put it on, and to get light on the page of the crossword puzzle that was supposed to put me to sleep, I had to scrunch down in a way that hurt my back. The mattress was as hard as if it had petrified over the decades during which Lily had slept on it by herself.
There was a hook on the wall just above the chair facing the window. Perhaps a photo had hung there. I managed to hang the reading lamp from it and sat in the chair with the crossword book and pencil on my lap. Still, I wasn’t able to concentrate, so I gazed out the window. The darkness was lit by the bedroom of the fourth-floor apartment in the building directly across from mine, separated by an untended and litter-strewn yard. I could make out a closet with cedar-stained doors and what might have been a dressing table. A bright orange collapsible wire-and-paper lampshade, one of the kind that Gilad and I had in each room of our student apartment, gave the room a warm glow that suddenly brought up a silent smile from deep down within me, from that place where smiles had been hiding for so long.
My smile was answered by the laugh of a naked young woman who pushed open the door of the bedroom I was looking into. I saw the laugh in her body, not on her lips, as she was looking over her shoulder. Her night-black hair was done in a careé, and a sparkle at her ear and neck indicated jewelry. It was a fine body, trim and well-proportioned, not all that different from the way my own had been before the anxiety and despair of a deteriorating and abusive relationship led me to eat too much and robbed me of any interest in exercise.
A young man followed her in. He had a towel around his waist, but not for long. He was laughing, too, a laugh that lit up his eager body from the dark curls above, not unlike Ofek’s, to those below. I tried to turn away but found that I couldn’t. Surely they would draw the curtains or put down the shades. I realized that, as their building was half a floor higher than ours, they probably assumed that no one could see. Or perhaps they saw that Rabbi Ovadia was looking down and not across, and figured that anyone else who looked out their window would do the same. They embraced, sank down till I could no longer see them, and I imagined them tenderly and eagerly making love. Desires I had not had for too long welled up within me.
The next morning, while I was eating breakfast, there was a knock on the door. With my mind still on what I had seen from the window, I opened it and found myself facing a short, wide man with a bushy gray beard, wearing a black suit and a white shirt open at the neck. He looked as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
“Are you Mrs. Asouiline’s daughter?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I’m the tenant. She died more than a month ago.”
“Baruch dayan emet,” he exclaimed. “Such a pious and modest woman! The Holy One, Blessed be He, must have wanted her by His side.”
“I’m sorry, I was ill, had the flu, was out of commission for a few weeks,” he apologized. “Last time I was here I promised to bring her a special benediction in gratitude for her consent to put our Holy Rabbi Ovadia up under her bedroom window. No one from her family is around?”
He offered me a card and I promised to pass it on to Ofek.
“I think I figured it out,” Ofek said. His dark curls, framing a face with a short soft beard, were invisible, as he was lying on his back with his head in the cupboard under the sink. From my vantage point on the single rickety kitchen chair, though, I had a fine view of him from the waist down. It was Thursday evening, my fourth day in the apartment, after three nights of the best sleep I’d had in a year, each time after watching the show put on by the uninhibited couple across the way, each time feeling that my body had taken another step back toward me. The leak under the sink was not that urgent, but he’d appeared in some of my dreams.
When he emerged I made him tea, using of course cups and spoons I had bought, not the single glass and spoon Lily had left. He leaned against the tiny kitchen counter and refused my offer of the chair. His curly head was framed by the rays of the setting sun coming through the kitchen window.
I handed him the rabbi’s card. “A man from Shas came by with a benediction for your mother. He didn’t know she’d died.”
“Oh. Okay. Thanks.”
“He said she was a pious and modest woman.”
Ofek frowned. “Let’s say lonely, the way widows are. And sometimes wives.”
I questioned with my eyes, as I pictured her in the chair, watching, night after night.
“She had a compulsion for getting rid of things. That’s why it’s all so bare here. We’d buy her a plant, a picture, towels, a nice set of dishes. A couple weeks later we’d find it all in the trash bin outside.”
Surprised at his candor, I said: “Do you mean …”
“Exactly. She got rid of people, too. Picked them up and threw them out.” He gulped down the rest of his tea. “My Dad. That’s why I swore I’d never get close to a woman. I’ve seen what betrayal looks like.”
I looked at the floor to hide my tears.
“She turned seventy last November. And then she just started eating less and less.” He sighed “‘Why live if I’m alone in bed?’ she told me. Can you imagine a mother saying that?”
I grimaced. “Gilad didn’t like being alone in bed, either. So much so that he made sure someone was always in it with him while I was at work. After that, I thought that, for the rest of my life, all I wanted was just a bed of my own.”
He put his empty tea glass into the sink and took the sponge I had brought and washed it out. “Promises broken. It can kill you,” he whispered to the sink.
Through the darkness that had fallen outside the kitchen window, I saw the light in the bedroom across the way go on.
“Isn’t it odd,” I suggested as I rose from the chair, “that what kills one person can bring another back to life?”
He took my tea glass from me and washed it as well, placing it in the dish drainer over the sink next to the one he had drunk from.
He turned slowly to face me. “What do you mean?”
“Come to the bedroom. Sit in the chair. I’ll show you.”
“Show me what?”
I touched his back. “Your mother. Watching from above.”