Jane Bernstein’s new novel, The Face Tells the Secret, is forthcoming in October 2019. This is an excerpt from the novel, from Chapter 8, “The Other One.”
The Other One
I’m standing in front of my mother’s Bauhaus building in Tel Aviv, on the corner of Rehov Nordau, a busy street with benches and palm trees in the median, waiting for her to find her keys. A Billy Crystal movie is advertised on a small billboard. Across a busy road is the beach.
“You got an apartment on the beach!” I say, puzzled, then briefly amused. My mother continues rifling through her purse.
It’s late afternoon and chilly. The traffic is heavy on Ha’Yarkon, the major thoroughfare, but Nordau Street is quiet. A boy, standing to pedal a heavy bike, barefoot, rides by. Two old women, arms linked, veer toward the edge of the sidewalk as they pass. When I hear the jingle of keys I lift my mother’s suitcase. She slaps my arm. I drop the bag. I want to go home. It’s her voice, I realize, her song that’s gotten stuck in my head. The desire to be home is now mine. Already I feel it. My house, my language, my work, in an office redolent with espresso, and not the fetid odor that assails me when we step inside the building.
My mother is weak and needs to rest after each step. The hall lights flicker on, casting a dim glow in the broad stairway. I move my bag. She curses these particular steps, places her palm against the wall, climbs, curses, rests. I take her bag. We climb the next step. The smell gets worse. I know in a way where it originates. This was the story of my life, that I was irritated by the spiny seed of knowledge inside me and yet remained clueless, oblivious.
When we reached my mother’s door the rotten smell was so strong I held my breath as she worked her key into the lock, afraid of what we’d find. The stench was terrifying, as if we might find a decomposing corpse inside, instead of rotting garbage in open bags. Organic waste, left to bake in the morning sun in this closed-up apartment. My mother nudged me forward, grumbling, and I stepped inside.
Because I was like my mother, at the sight and smell of her abode, the shocked self revolted, an essential piece detaching like a helium balloon set loose. I looked at the chaos, the living quarters of someone who was disturbed, and remembered my father vacuuming, a section of the long cord folded like a lasso in his hands as he ran the upright back and forth over the flat carpet, singing a liturgical tune in a bold voice, as if certain no one could hear him over the rumble of the machine. A stab of anguish rose—who was this man I called my father?—and then my attention returned to the cascading piles, newspapers, unopened mail, equipment, clothes.
The trickle of blood etched Ma’s cheek. I cleared the seat of a chair for her, found a towel that wasn’t too rank and drenched a corner with warm water, wanting to clean her face but worried she would sock me. “Your nose is bleeding.”
She took the towel and dabbed at her face. “It happens.” She looked at the towel and then at me. “What are you doing here?”
“Helping you settle in.”
“That’s nice, dear,” she said, suddenly tender. “Maybe another time. I’m not feeling myself.”
“That’s not so easy, Mom. You moved to Israel. You never said why.”
“You mean the Arabs? There will never be peace. They’re a primitive people who know only hatred. An eye for an eye. To them, women are shit. They take better care of their donkeys.”
“Please! Don’t say such racist things.”
“I’ll say what I damn well please.”
My mother had always been harsh, but I’d never heard her speak like this. Was it something that happened with age, some hidden racism emerging like worms on a rainy day?
“Fine,” I said. It wasn’t fine.
She stood slowly, put her hand against the wall and went into a living room cluttered with towers of stuff, an astounding amount of it on the desk, on the bamboo-framed sofa, on the floor. Only one chair was clear, and she worked her way toward it and lowered herself into the seat.
How long had she lived this way? I thought of our weekly phone calls, all the times I’d suggested a visit. Never once when she turned me down had I imagined her alone in this chaos.
When her head began to loll, I bagged the garbage, double bagged it, my head turned away. The blood beneath her nose had begun to thicken. I dared to open the refrigerator. The white cheese had turned pink and the yellow cheese dappled and blue. Inside the jar of marmalade was a fuzzy amoeba-shaped organism, straight from a horror flick. It seemed to grow before my eyes. The pantry shelves were sticky, the lids to every jar congealed with muck. The oil was rancid. Bad smells wafted up from the drain and hovered beneath the sink, behind the fridge, inside the drawers.
I opened the window and stepped onto her small balcony. Outside was a steady buzz of motorbikes on Ha’Yarkon and across the road the Mediterranean. A market was on the corner. Surely Ma had some shekels in her wallet. If I took a few, I could get us something to eat.
The zip of the change purse roused her. “What are you doing in my bag?”
I waited without moving. A moment later, she fell back asleep, her head bobbing, as if she were a drunkard.
The market was small and well-stocked. I picked up a box of tea that was possibly chamomile (picture of a plant with small white buds), and what I assumed was goat cheese (sway-backed little creature in the field). Also rolls and garbage bags. Giant radishes bloomed from a bin, rosy and beautiful. I stopped to admire them. Once, when I still believed I could get Harley to understand the ways I’d wanted to be known by my lover, I’d cried, “I want to stand naked!” Studying the radishes, I felt as if my wish had been fulfilled, but not in the way I had intended. I was illiterate, ignorant of the native language. I had no understanding of the culture, no clear plan.
“Heh,” Harley had said. “Be my guest!”
I handed a bill to a sullen-looking cashier with a thick black eyebrow slashed across his face and hoped it would cover my purchases.
He gave me a scornful look. I glared back: Who are you to stare? You’re a pariah! Everybody hates you. Everybody in the whole entire world!
I took the wad of bills he returned as change, stuffed it into my pocket and left the store. It was true, this adolescent taunt. Everyone hates you!
Instead of going back to my mother’s apartment I crossed the highway and walked out to the beach. It was dusk, and lights from the hotels to the south had begun to twinkle. A couple of boys were digging furiously, as if they had to finish their urgent job before nightfall. The waves were small and regular, with a thin line of foam that washed onto the sand. I continued down to the water’s edge and listened to the lapping of waves. I knew that as long as there was a moon, the tides would change, but I did not understand why that was so, did not understand anything, really, not when my mother had gotten this apartment, why she had moved here, or if the sea across the road had been a factor.
When the boys left, I could see no one else on the beach. Though I had only been in this country for an hour, I surmised that the beach was deserted because the only fools who ventured out in these dangerous times were boys who thought themselves immortal, and me. I was wrong, of course. When the season changed, the beach would be packed, but on that evening, when I was busy surmising, this is what I believed.
I heard the argument as soon as I stepped back into the building. A deep voice full of fury. An old woman’s tremulous rage. The door was open. In the kitchen was a huge man in a gray tracksuit, waving papers at my mother. Shaved head, stud in one ear, Star of David the size of a dinner plate trembling against his heaving chest: this was Kotovsky, the landlord. While I was trying to unearth a word or two of the language that I had not spoken since I was a toddler, my mother smacked this giant in the belly. The futile gesture startled Kotovsky and he laughed. Then I laughed. This displeased him. The drama resumed.
I was ashamed that a stranger was seeing my mother’s wrecked place and went to shut the door. I want to go home, I thought; “home” just then a state of mind, as perhaps it was for my mother, too.
Across the hall, a door opened, and a small, beautiful, bare-footed woman edged past me and walked up to Kotovsky. This was Dina. Though she was a foot shorter and half Kotovsky’s weight, she was a formidable presence, standing inches from him, her arms crossed. She had a big head, blazing dark eyes, lustrous black hair that she flipped back when she began to berate him in husky, rapid Hebrew. Her chin was a whole other language, full of emotion. Kotovsky could have grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and flung her across the room. But, no, he lowered his head, then glanced upward, like a shamed boy.
Dina turned to me, said, “Leona, this is your mother?”
“A wonderful woman. Oh!” She clutched her chest. “We admire her so! This is so pity.”
And indeed it was, I learned. My mother had neglected to pay her rent and building fees for several months. The water she’d left running had flooded the downstairs neighbor’s flat. Vermin from her garbage had slithered next door. Everyone was complaining about the stench.
Dina returned to Kotovsky, hands on hips, head thrown back. The hair toss, the jutting chin. Kotovsky’s shoulders drooped. Dina put her arm around my mother and speaking in that same husky voice, guided her through the crammed living room, toward her bed.
Kotovsky regarded me as if I were a thing, sexless as a chair. I have to admit it hurt my feelings. I started to speak in English, and he waved his hand and cut me off. “Lo.” Now the other hand. “Lo, lo.” More hand waving, as if in this interlude, a dance would begin.
After casting a spell on Kotovsky, Dina walked me to an ATM so I could get enough cash to placate him until morning. It was dark by then, and I was dopey with fatigue and felt for a moment as if I’d squeezed my eyes shut and prayed this woman into existence. The neighborhood had come alive with a multitude of young people on the street and in the cafes. Dina’s admiration for my mother seemed boundless. To have as a neighbor a great intellectual was an honor, she declared. A woman who was so admired. “Such a wonderful mother, the love you have!”
Our shoulders bumped as we walked. What love? I wanted to ask, as if we were old friends who’d grown up on the same street.
“You have a husband?” she asked.
I contemplated saying yes, as if a pretend husband might protect me in this country I did not know. “Not really,” I said.
“You have the JDate in America?” she asked.
I said yes, we had the JDate.
“I am having such fun on the JDate,” she told me. “My English, it is no longer so good. You’ll correct my errors?”
“Okay,” I said. I wouldn’t.
A shirtless boy biked past, his hair in dreads. His bearded dog trotted alongside him.
We paused in front of an ATM machine. “To be honored all across the world! To have so many accomplishments!”
The urge to confess rose like a wave. “She’s difficult,” I said, as I plucked from my wallet a card that might work here.
“Of course! You must be in charge. You must make the decisions. Oh! I am so honored to meet her daughter. We will be such good friends! You are familiar with the work of Amos Fischoff? A brilliant man, also very handsome; he is giving a lecture tomorrow night, Leona will come and you will come, also.”
She saw my stunned look of sheer exhaustion and took the credit card from my hand. “This is how,” she said, because I’d been trying to put my credit card into the slot where the money came out.
When at last we were back at their building, she said, “Now it is time for the daughter to take over. You will care for Eema.” She gave a last husky, orgasmic “Oh!” and left for the night.
With the windows open, the motorbikes on Ha’Yarkon seemed to zip through the rooms the next morning. I slid off the canvas cot, thinking I’d finish cleaning the kitchen before Ma woke. I’d found a stash of crumpled plastic bags and dumped old food into them, triple knotting the tops, quick, mindless, a human vacuum, sucking up the stuff. Then, drifting into the living room, I filled bags with newspapers and old magazines.
I was shoving a five-inch floppy disk into a bag when my mother appeared in the same thin nightgown she’d worn at my house, with its floating violet bouquets, screaming, “Get out!” kicking me with the side of her foot, nearly toppling from the effort. “Get out of my house or I’ll call the police!”
I threw on my clothes from the day before, grabbed my bag and hurried out of the building. For a moment, I stood on the sidewalk. The small stores on the street were all open, their racks of housewares and bins of produce set out on the sidewalk. Children were walking to school with colorful backpacks slung across their shoulders. Life on this crisp, bright morning seemed impossibly serene.
I headed south, with no destination, until I reached Gordon Street, where an internet café was open. I stopped in to check my email. An international crew, all of them skinny young men, sat at the row of computers against each wall. I took the only free computer, between a redhead with lace-up boots painted silver, and a pink-cheeked Hasid in a black hat and tzitzit. When I logged onto my account, I was disheartened and not surprised to see six messages from Harley.
I needed to delete these messages. I knew this in my heart and knew it because I could hear Mindy telling me not to read his email or take his calls.
I sat back, peeked to the other side. Someone reeked from pot.
Once when I’d told Mindy I was desperate for Harley to leave, she said, “You know what desperate women do when they really need to leave a relationship? They set the guy’s car on fire. They cut his underwear in squares.”
It was definitely the Hasid.
Sitting in the internet café, I thought of our silent evenings in my house, our silent dinners at the noisy sports bar Harley liked, with its huge projection TVs, the bright flickering colors, the roar of the crowd, young people squeezed close at the bar, and Harley clutching the cell phone on his lap, while I dragged my French fries through a river of ketchup. I saw myself approach him in his leather chair, his expressionless face with those dead eyes, and the words pouring out of me as I tried to extract something from him, a nod, a frown, and getting only that stony face that stripped me to the core, as if I did not exist.
“Get out of my house!” I’d screamed at Harley, throwing his wallet into the shrubs.
“Get out of my house!” my mother had screamed. “Get out or I’ll call the police!”
Don’t open his email, I told myself.
I deleted the first five. The sixth had an attachment. Squelch the curiosity! I thought, opening the attachment. A photo Harley had taken of himself flat on his back burst onto the computer screen. His face, as he gazed up at the camera, was as soft and helpless as a baby’s. I looked furtively to either side, quickly closed the attachment and deleted everything.
When I got home, I scrambled some eggs, made a salad with tomatoes and cucumbers, and put out the fresh cheese and rolls I’d gotten across the street. When I called my mother to the table, she said, “I’m not hungry.”
I said, “Show me where you sit.” She took the chair that faced the window where you could almost see the sea and ate with gusto.
That night it rained heavily, which surprised me. I had not expected rain or cold nights, restaurants full of young people, dogs in jeweled collars, laughter. I had not expected that I would read dreadful news in the English edition of Ha’aretz that my mother picked up each day—sixteen killed in a bus bombing, thirty-four in a car—then an hour later, run down the sloping path to the beach and pass muscular men playing mat-kot against a hotel wall, their bare chests bronze from the sun. I had not expected that Dina would do so much for me.
Late that night, the buzzer sounded, and I hurried downstairs to meet a man named George, who’d pulled up on a motorbike with a plastic bag full of obsolete cellphones, one of which I could rent. I chose a simple gray brick of a phone.
Dina had found George for me. Dina explained the steps I needed to take so Mom could get home health care, then she put me in touch with a doctor who would examine her and start the process. His name was Dr. Barry Berenbaum, and his earliest appointment for a home visit was in two weeks. Dina found the current phone number for my cousin Ronit, who lived with her family in Ra’anana, and gave me a key to her apartment so I could use her internet when she was gone. Dina ran a program for disadvantaged children—immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, Israeli kids at risk—and her workday ended early. When she came home, she knocked on my mother’s door to see if there was something we might need.
“To have a friend so close is fantastic,” she said the first night. “You’ll come over, we’ll have tea and talk and I will show you the JDate and we will have a very good time.”
I imagined the mother of my youth, raising an eyebrow and saying, “The JDate?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’d like that,” though having a very good time was not on my agenda. “As soon as I get this place in order.”
“I’m still working on it,” I said when I declined the next night.
By the third night, Dina looked so wounded that I opened the door wider to remind her of the crazy mess that filled the rooms, the lopsided stacks of magazines and journal reprints, restaurant napkins, rubber bands, twist ties, post cards, unopened mail, calculators, travel clocks with broken hinges, plant pots, baking dishes crusted with black grease, plastic containers, hangers, decorative boxes, floppy disks. I gestured to the gloves, scarves, knit hats, berets, galoshes, and sport jackets tumbling from split plastic bags.
“I’ve got to clear out some of this stuff before Dr. Berenbaum arrives.” I waited for a sign that Dina understood.
Then I gave up. “No sane home healthcare worker would take a job in a place like this. It’s gross. And also, if I can’t clean up, I’ll never get home.”
Dina gave me a hurt look. “You don’t like it here?”
“No!” I said. “I mean yes. But I have to keep on task, you know?”
Dina flipped her hair. She didn’t.
“I need to get Leona set up with someone who’ll be able to… She’s not the easiest person. I can’t clean when she’s awake. If she sees me touch anything, she gets upset.” I rolled my eyes and said, “Really upset.”
Should I reveal in a hushed voice just how agitated my mother became? Other people seemed to know what to tell and what to hide. Lacking this instinct, I hoped that my eye-rolling crossed cultures and communicated what I could not bring myself to say.
More About The Face Tells the Secret
Jane Bernstein’s new novel, The Face Tells the Secret, is forthcoming in October 2019, and is available now for pre-order. From the publisher:
Everything has been hidden from Roxanne G.—her birth name, her sister, her family history—until her “boyfriend” tries to ingratiate himself by flying in her estranged mother from Tel Aviv. That visit is the start of a tumultuous journey, in which she first learns about a profoundly disabled sister who lives in a residential community in the Galilee, and later begins to unearth disturbing long-held family secrets. The process of facing this history and acknowledging the ways she’s been shaped by it will enable Roxanne to forge the kinds of meaningful connections that had for so long been elusive. In this way, The Face Tells the Secret is the story about a woman who finds love and learns how to open herself to its pleasures. The Face Tells the Secret is also a story that explores disability from many angles and raises questions about our responsibility to care for our kin. How far should Roxanne go to care for the wounded people in her life—her mother, her sister, the man who professes undying love? What should she take on? When is it necessary to turn away from someone’s suffering?
About the Author
Jane Bernstein is the author of The Face Tells the Secret (Regal House Publishing, 2019) and the memoirs Bereft—A Sister’s Story, and Rachel in the World, as well as Gina from Siberia, a picture book she cowrote with her daughter, Charlotte Glynn. She is a lapsed screenwriter, whose credits include the Warner Brothers movie Seven Minutes in Heaven, and an avid essayist, whose recent story, “Still Running,” was chosen for Best American Sports Writing 2018. Jane’s grants and awards include two National Endowment Fellowships in Creative Writing and a Fulbright Fellowship at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. She is a professor of English and a member of the Creative Writing Program at Carnegie Mellon University. Jane and her daughter, Charlotte Glynn, are working on a second picture book. You can visit Jane’s website to read some of her shorter work.
The excerpt appears with permission of Regal House Publishing. Copyright 2019 Jane Bernstein.
Cagibi Issue 7