On his way back, Michael stopped at the middle school. The hallways were swarming with children. He watched them run, laugh, and push each other. He thought of his son and daughters. The principal was a tall woman about his age with dark, curly hair styled like an afro. Her name was Shoshanna. He told her in a mixture of Hebrew and English about Tavi’s slides, and she quickly lost interest.
“I don’t think so, but let’s talk to Shmuel. He’s the librarian”
They left the main corridor, passed a few classrooms, the natural science lab, the gym, and the restrooms. The air smelled faintly of detergents. They entered a room with about twenty computers set on as many tables. Bookshelves stood against the walls. There were no children in the room, and, sitting at his desk, Shmuel was reading a newspaper.
Shoshanna explained in Hebrew the purpose of their visit.
“Imagine if we accepted photographs from everybody,” Shmuel started in perfect American English. “Where would we store them?”
“These are not photographs, they’re slides, and they are of a professional quality.”
“Yeah, I believe you.”
Shoshanna took a step to the nearest desk and moved the mouse on its pad. The screen flickered.
“Listen,” Michael insisted. “My father’s collection focused on Jewish culture from all over the world. I think the slides could be of interest. He photographed the Holocaust memorials in Miami and Baltimore. He photographed Notre Dame Cathedral in Reims, the one with the statues, you know, the Church and the Synagogue represented as two women side by side, the Synagogue with a blindfold. Don’t you think your students would want to see it?”
Shmuel looked at Shoshanna as if requesting permission. “The children can Google all of this,” he said apologetically.
In his throat, Michael sensed the taste of Felicia’s honey. The way Shmuel and Shoshanna exchanged glances was belittling Tavi’s lifetime passion. “It’s too bad,” he said sadly, “but you know, they’ll never be able to Google my father’s spirit, floating like the images on Chagall’s stained-glass windows.”
Just then two boys rushed in through the open door. They were yelling at each other, panting. When they saw the principal they froze, then quickly turned around and disappeared. The principal hastened after them.
The shelves in the shelter were now bare except for the thousands of slides and two rows of dictionaries, reference books, and travel guides he still had to sort through. As he pulled some of them out, he found a thin book behind the others: Sixty-Nine Easy Positions for Improving your Sex Life, Pamela Lupus, PhD, Jerusalem, 1986. Holding it in his hand, he was unable to decide if the book had been hidden there on purpose. It looked almost like an art album, with elongated hard covers and black and white photographs on glossy pages. The fact that his stepfather, who barely spoke English, would have read such a book was both amusing and surprising, as was the year of the book’s publication — by that time Tavi would have been sixty-three.
Larissa was in the living room. The night before, the open house had been a success. People had walked away with china and cutlery, small kitchen appliances, bedding. They even took some of Tavi’s wooden sculptures, to Michael’s relief.
Three people from the shipping company were supposed to show up later, and Michael could see the light at the end of the tunnel.
The first photograph in the sex book showed the man on top and the woman underneath, her legs wrapped around the man’s waist. The face of the man was turned away, but the woman looked at the reader with an acquiescent smile, like a surrender. She had short hair, dark eyes, and chubby cheeks. Tavi would have taken a better picture, and Michael wondered if the woman was Pamela Lupus. The caption identified the position as classic, or missionary. According to the text, it was the most known and commonly referred to position, although not the most frequently used. It provided intimacy, the hands and lips of the lovers being free to caress and explore.
The next picture represented entry from the rear, or the doggy position. The woman was on all fours with her torso angled downward, while the man, kneeling behind, kept his hands on her hips. By aligning her, the man could gain maximum penetration. The position lacked warmth and reduced the opportunity for rubbing of the female erogenous areas.
Michael regarded the female erogenous areas as a somewhat taboo subject. One day at age thirteen, he had drawn a letter Y flanked by two soft brackets, and, pushed by an inexplicable impulse, he had allowed himself to dream of the mysteries of a woman’s body. He had taken the time to thoughtfully shade in the top of the Y and elongate the brackets. He had leafed through an encyclopedia and found a colored reproduction of Goya’s La Maja Desnuda. Preferring his prepubescent perception to the clinical precision of the sex manual, he now felt aroused and guilty, as if leafing through the book was a shameful activity. If Larissa walked in on him, he’d fake indifference. He turned the book upside down, weighed it in his hand, and looked at the index. Then he dropped it in the trash bag and cleaned out the last two shelves of the bookcase.
He carried the trash bag into the hallway and rode down in the elevator. The embarrassment was still with him. Walking across the parking lot was rejuvenating, and the dumpsters were again empty.
Later he photographed the items that Larissa had selected for shipping home: family albums, an ancient looking draftsman’s tool set in a rectangular black leather box, an old slide rule, a TI calculator in a yellowed plastic sheath with the original user’s manual, an abacus, a Leica camera, Tina’s Japanese tea set comprised of six matching porcelain cups and saucers, one tea pot, a sugar bowl, and a creamer, all decorated with gold leaf warriors and dragons, and an antique cuckoo clock without the cuckoo that had been modified by Tavi to run backwards. “Like Hebrew writing,” Tavi used to say proudly.
“The shipment might get lost and we would need proof for insurance,” Michael said while adjusting his camera.
“I’m also taking these three pieces,” Larissa said pointing to three of Tavi’s sculpted branches. “We should keep these, to remember…”
Everything they wanted shipped took up only one-eighth of a container. While the movers were wrapping and packing, Michael had to run to the bank to get cash: the shipping company didn’t take credit cards. The bank manager asked for his passport. He knew his parents and wished Tina and Tavi all the best in their new life in America. They had been his customers for over twenty years. The well wishes grieved Michael; his parents would never return to this place where everyone knew them.
The packers left and Michael filled more trash bags. They threw away thousands of slides and all of Tavi’s remaining sculptures. Herr Octavian was spared: Irene had promised to take it and place it in her garden. Methodically, Michael carried down three or four plastic bags at a time, again and again, until the apartment was cleared of all personal items.
Then he showered, and they went out for dinner at a restaurant on the beach. On the way they stopped at the drugstore, and Larissa bought two tubes of medicated skin cream for Tina. The storeowner spoke English. When Larissa mentioned her mother-in-law’s name, he smiled and shook their hands, then he called his wife, and they both started reminiscing about Tina and Tavi, wishing them health and good fortune.
At the restaurant, they were seated outside. The sun was already low above the horizon. They could hear the sea and smell the salt in the air with a tinge of mold from the stagnant water of Little Volga. A soft wind was stirring, chasing the heat of the day.
They ordered hummus, falafel, and two Maccabee beers. Michael took a sip and leaned back in his chair. “I wish I could relax, but I feel disheartened.”
“You need to rest,” said Larissa.
Michael didn’t answer. Pamela Lupus was watching.
“There is something to be glad for,” observed Larissa. “We’re finished.”
“You nailed it. It’s over.”
The finality of their short sentences floated through the air. Soon it got dark. They sat without talking, watching the sea and the line where the water met the sky and the colors were brighter.
The waiter brought them an oil lamp and the food and set it all on the table. The hummus, drizzled with olive oil, was spread thickly on a wide platter, decorated with violet pickled baby aubergines, pickled cucumbers, and white tahini sauce. The pitas were so full they were standing on their plates, overflowing with lettuce and chopped tomatoes. The waiter placed a separate dish on the table with a red sauce in it.
“That’s kharif, very hot,” he warned them.
“I love the food over here, and the spices,” said Larissa, her eyes dancing in the light of the oil flame.
Michael ate little. He dipped pieces of his pita in the hummus. He drank some beer. He split the chickpea balls in half and dribbled them with kharif. They burned his lips. He drank more beer, and ate more of his pita.
The wind picked up, and they heard the crying of seagulls.
Back at the apartment they got ready for bed. There was nothing they needed to do until morning. Michael was hot, and he turned on the air conditioning and directed it toward the bed. He left his pajamas on the floor and went to sleep in his underwear.
“I’m cold,” Larissa shivered after a few minutes.
“You’re always cold,” answered Michael and looked at her. She was covered up to her chin with a blanket. “I’ll bring you another blanket,” he offered.
“We don’t have another one.”
He lay next to her, cold air blowing against his bare skin. “Larissa, please, a few more minutes.”
“You know what?” she whispered. “Can’t wait to be back in America.”
Michael got up and readjusted the fan to blow towards the living room. He came back to bed, stretched out, and closed his eyes, but sleep wasn’t coming. He felt clammy. His mind was a cauldron of thoughts. Larissa seemed to be sleeping.
He tiptoed into the living room, where he started pacing. Even though he was barefoot, his steps had an echo. There were no rugs left in the room, no drapes or pillows that could absorb the noise. The Bernsteins might hear him, as might Larissa. He stopped with his back to the blasting air conditioner and raised his arms. His back got cold, but his face, chest, and stomach were burning. One green light from the microwave oven cut the darkness. Through the sliding doors he could see the pale glow of a moon that was too high in the sky and out of his field of vision. When he couldn’t stand the cold on his back any longer, he turned, raised his arms, and faced the air conditioner.
Something wasn’t right. It wasn’t just the heat or the cold that was bothering him. His joints ached, and his eyes were watering. Maybe he was coming down with something.
The sex book, that’s what it was, his stepfather’s illicit interest. There was a limit to how much a man should find out about another. What a person was doing in the privacy of his home was nobody’s business. A man’s home was his castle.
But at age sixty-three, still preoccupied by sex? Did he buy the book himself or did somebody give it to him? Maybe he had been simply curious? Michael himself would be curious to read some of the chapters. Maybe he should do just that, walk downstairs and fish the book out of the dumpster. No, that was silly. There was nothing to read that he didn’t know already, although sex, he had to admit, was always a fascinating subject.
Michael shivered. He moved out of the path of the air conditioner and sat at the table. He was no longer hot, and his mind was still racing.
This business about dismantling one’s parents’ home — that was a tough business. Of course, they had no choice: some memories to keep, and some to discard — painful decisions. They had been efficient. Not even five days, and everything was done: sold, shipped, gifted, and trashed. Finished.
It had taken his dad and his mom thirty years to build their nest, to perfect it, make it comfortable. And then he and Larissa showed up, and hash, hash, took everything to pieces. How proud Tavi must have been to have a modern kitchen! How much he had worked at his slides and his silly statues! His parents were known to the whole neighborhood, and then they were gone, disappeared.
They say the average survival rate in a nursing home was eighteen months, twenty-four if you’re lucky. They fed you, bathed you, changed your diapers and wheeled you out in the garden. The children who put their parents in these homes claimed to have done the right thing. They were told they were helping. Perhaps that’s why in his old age Tavi had turned his attention to improving his sex life — everything else was bullshit.
Michael felt hungry and thirsty. He turned on the light in the kitchen and found bread, butter, sliced Swiss cheese, and half a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. He poured himself some wine in a paper cup and drank it. Whatever was left over would go into the garbage tomorrow. He drank more and stuck the bread in the oven. The toaster had gone to the neighbors.
When the bread was done, he put it on a paper plate, buttered it, and placed a slice of cheese on top, but the cheese didn’t cover the whole surface, so he cut several narrow strips and matched them. Then he took the time to carve small circles from another piece and plug the holes in the cheese slices. When he was finished, the bread and cheese looked neat, and he liked it.
He drank more wine and then silently went back to bed and tried covering himself with the blanket. Larissa moved. She moaned. He wanted to protect her sleep, but she pushed herself toward him and nestled her back against his chest and stomach.
There was a term in the book for this — spooning.
Michael was alone in the apartment. Larissa had gone to the Bernsteins to say good-bye. Now all he had left to do was get rid of the remaining garbage.
It was a beautiful morning.
The dumpsters were full, and Michael left the garbage bags on the ground. On the left side of his car, he noticed a bicycle chained to a post in the fence. The chain was rusty. The bicycle looked a lot like the one Tavi had bought for him decades ago — the same rimmed wheels, shiny handlebars, and brown saddle.
He went back upstairs and took a few pictures of the apartment. Then he grabbed the two suitcases, shoved Herr Octavian under his arm, and left. The door locked behind him. In the elevator he lowered the suitcases and pushed the ground floor button with the arm under which he was holding Herr Octavian. As he did this, he felt Herr Octavian move. The wooden statue slipped a fraction of an inch and rotated. He tightened his grip. The curvature of the wood pressed now directly against his rib cage. It felt as if Herr Octavian were alive, a human being trying to press against Michael and find shelter; it felt as if it were a child seeking protection.
The elevator doors sprang open. Michael picked up his suitcases and walked out to his rental car. He opened the trunk, put the suitcases inside and nestled Herr Octavian in between them. “Here, buddy,” he said to the statue. “You’ll be safe in here. You’re going to Irene, who’s my cousin. She agreed to keep you in her beautiful garden. Trust me, you’ll be very happy.” Michael winked, slammed the trunk and opened the car door. He was content they had managed to save Herr Octavian. He had even considered having it packed and shipped home, but who in his right mind would send a tree trunk all the way to America? This way, they’d come back to visit and see Herr Octavian. Stay in touch, so to speak, forever.
Michael started the engine. He looked out the window and saw that the bicycle was gone. He smiled. Such was life. There had been something important in that spot, and now there wasn’t.
Please comment, clap, and share.