THE END OF AUTUMN
Lori rose from the couch with the agility of a dancer, her heels drumming on the floor of my office as she extended her bony hand to the door handle. With fingernails glistening with fresh polish, she smiled broadly in my direction, batted her false eyelashes, and purred at me, “See you, Dr. Oren.”
I watched her leaving as I mumbled, “See you next week.” After the door closed, I sank into the chair by my desk and buried my face in my hands, distressed and short of breath. I’d been seeing patients daily for more than 20 years, but not once had I come upon a case like this. Hoping to find some logic in the sordid story I had just heard, I reached for Lori’s file from my cabinet.
I had met Lori about two years prior. She was referred to me by Dr. Warner, an attending psychiatrist at the nearby psychiatric hospital, after she had grown obsessed with Dr. James, a resident in the outpatient clinic. Lori would sit all day, every day in the waiting room, anticipating the moment Dr. James would leave his office, and harass him with endless questions. She flooded his voicemail with long, tiring messages, bought him expensive gifts, and refused to give him a moment’s rest. Attempts to refer her to other therapists in the department met with failure. Lori clung doggedly to Dr. James. The Department Head, Dr. Warner, explained that he had decided to send her to a private clinic in order to take the load off the unfortunate Dr. J. He warned me that she was a difficult case and rather hesitantly wished me success.
Lori then presented herself at my clinic in Palo Alto. Young, in her mid-twenties, with exotic features that revealed her Japanese heritage, she had an alluring figure, highlighted long hair, slanted eyes adorned with fake lashes, and a wide, sensuous mouth that glistened with lipstick and flashed indulgent smiles in every direction. Lori seemed like the sort of woman with a constant row of drooling admirers in her wake. Her low-pitched, caressing voice reminded me of Shirley Bassey. When I asked what she did, she answered in childish slang that yeah, like, she was a singer who wasn’t singing right now and, actually, she’d never sung for an audience, professionally. And, yeah, she was bulimic, binged on huge amounts of food, and immediately needed to throw up. This happened three to five times a day. And yeah, she got depressed and sometimes cut herself with a razor blade to feel that she exists. Yeah, like, she got married about a year ago to a guy 25 years older than her; met him in Las Vegas when she was drifting from bar to bar with her drunk friends. She didn’t elaborate on the subject of her marriage.
Lori confessed to a little quirk: she buys clothes from mail order catalogues. She bought dozens of items to be delivered. When they arrived, she would try them on, decide to keep a few of the items, and return the rest by mail. Sighing heavily, she explained that the problem was that she opened everything at once and then got confused between a red bra from one company and black panties from another. With a bashful smile, she admitted that she never received refunds for the items returned to the wrong store. When her credit card reached twenty thousand dollars, her husband cancelled the card. Lori protested angrily, cried, and cursed the man. “I hate him, hate him, the dumb retard!” she shouted in the clinic, her face scrunched up like a little girl who’d been wronged by life.
I arranged a meeting with the husband, to size him up. I found a pleasant, well-spoken, intelligent, meticulously dressed man who was a senior executive in a respected company. He spoke about his wife’s hospitalization in a psychiatric ward in the short course of their marriage, her outbursts of rage, deep depression, constant vomiting, and uncontrolled behavior. He was compassionate toward her, as if to a beloved, wayward child.
A complex case: co-morbidity of borderline personality disorder with obsessive-compulsive tendencies, bipolar disorder, and an eating disorder. I decided to begin treatment by putting her on medication, then regulating her eating disorder. The rest of the plan remained to be seen.
In the first year of treatment, Lori found a young lover, Steve, in one of the bars she frequented drunkenly on her own. He was a guitar player who barely made a living from freelance performances. He was impressed by her sweet voice and asked her to join the little group he had formed with another guitarist and a drummer. They spent many romantic hours of endless rehearsals together and did a few performances in San Jose bars. During this time, Lori seldom went home and stopped coming to sessions with me. “I’m well,” she told me about a month after she had met Steve. “My life is just amazing.”
A year later, only a few weeks before the tragedy, she called and asked to come back for therapy. She complained of depression, insomnia, and unexplained stress. I tried to understand what had recently changed in her life, but she was incoherent.
Then, at the end of the week, my home phone rang. It was Lori. In a tearful, broken voice, she told me that the police had come knocking on her door. The burned wreckage of her husband’s car, they told her, had been found north of San Francisco. The body inside was unidentifiable. They wanted to know when she had last seen him. He’d left the house early on Saturday morning before she had returned from a night out with her lover, so she’d last seen him on Friday night.
I went to Lori’s house the day after her phone call. I found a disheveled, inconsolable woman without a trace of makeup. Her eyes, devoid of the false eyelashes, were red and swollen, her lips, pale. She wept bitter, heartbreaking tears and moaned like an abandoned kitten seeking solace.
To my surprise, Lori pulled herself together in only a few days. The hair, the eyelashes, the red lips, the high heels, and the miniskirt entered my room. I, who had been expecting a woman in mourning, was in shock to recognize the same old childish demeanor, with its familiar eyelash batting and seductive smiles.
It was the same old Lori, speaking of the compassionate phone calls and the adoring attention she was receiving from her late husband’s friends. “Wonderful people!” she said, clasping her hands as one does while enjoying a place in the spotlight, and not quite recalling the tragic nature of the situation. With a joyful, confident smile, she described the ceremony she was planning to commemorate her husband. She’d chosen a beautiful church with a romantic view overlooking the sea. She’d decided who would read a serious, moving poem and who would deliver a eulogy. No, she was not going to speak, she explained piously. She was going to sing her husband’s favorite song. In his honor, she said while batting her heavy eyelashes, she had ordered tons and tons of white lilies and narcissus to fill the church with their scent. There would be tiny black caviar sandwiches and classical background music. She had bought herself an elegant black suit for the occasion.
Lori’s excitement reminded me of a bride preparing for her wedding. Or, perhaps more accurately, of one of my friends, carried away with the enthusiasm of planning a son’s Bar Mitzvah. There was not a trace of sadness in Lori, nor any sign of mourning. I wondered if her meteoric recovery indicated an antisocial personality, in addition to the staggering string of diagnoses she already had.
That day, Lori turned up at the clinic even more radiant than usual. She had just been informed that the insurance company would be depositing two million dollars into her bank account. Her husband’s life insurance was all hers. “I knew he was insured,” she said, beaming, “but I didn’t know it was for so much money!”
In the same breath, she sailed into farfetched, grandiose plans. She would invest the money in real estate, in bonds, in high-tech shares. She was thinking of starting a business: import-export, maybe a designer fashion store. “So many possibilities,” she sighed with satisfaction.
I was troubled. Before me stood an infantile woman, suddenly playing her hand at a substantial sum, and not unlikely to lose her livelihood in one ill-advised move. I asked Lori if there was someone whose judgment she trusted, who could be asked to give her financial advice. “Sure,” she nodded energetically. “Steve and I have been discussing it for ages.”
My blood froze. For the first time, the suspicion crept into my heart that there had been a murder and not an accident. I searched my memory as to whether I was obliged to protect my patient’s privacy or report to the police. No. I had never heard Lori planning or threatening to commit murder. I had no cause for suspicion. But why had she returned for treatment four weeks before the accident? I mulled over this distressing question. Surely, Lori’s request for treatment four weeks before the accident was merely a coincidence and not an alibi prepared in advance to prove that she suffered from a serious mental condition. I debated with myself in an effort to reject subversive thoughts. After all, I’m not a police investigator, not a detective, I repeatedly told myself. Best leave the investigation to the professionals who had examined all possibilities connected to her husband’s death.
I had to admit that I had lost my empathy for Lori. I would have to consult my colleagues. I decided to raise the matter at the coming professional meeting. But still, I was troubled by the fact that I no longer saw Lori as the wayward child, so loved by her late husband and in need of protection.
I put the matter aside until I could think more objectively and returned Lori’s file to the drawer. The weekend was approaching, and I remembered that it held a promise of adventure. I had to get into a different frame of mind: lighter, more personal, and more feminine. Taking off my professional tailored suit, I quickly slipped into jeans, a loose sweater, and clogs and shoved the high heels and suit into my overnight bag. I turned off the classical music in the waiting room and locked the file cabinet that contained my patients’ files, in keeping with California’s laws of confidentiality.
I took one last quick look around to see that everything was in place for work in the coming week and returned the box of tissues to the shelf under the coffee table and the DSM-IV to the bookcase. I smiled affectionately at the statue of Freud that sat upright and earnest in a sexy chair shaped like a woman’s curvy legs in can-can dancers’ boots and garters. It was the work of the sculptor Frank Meisler and Yoel’s gift to me for my fortieth birthday, five years earlier.
As I locked the door, I glanced at the plaque I had earned through so much toil and sweat: “Dr. Daniela Oren, Psychologist.”
I strutted to the parking lot, slung the bags onto the back seat of the car and, opening a map of Northern California, studied the roads that lead to Lake Tahoe. Four hours of driving ahead of me. Onward to Dumbarton Bridge, Highway 880 North, from there to Oakland and then Highway 80 to Truckee.
It had been some time since I had driven such a long way on my own. I was usually in the passenger seat on longer trips and relied on Yoel to get us where we were going. Normally, after a day’s work, I rushed to pick up Maya from elementary school and Alon from high school, glad that Ayelet now got around on her own. With the two sitting quietly in the back seat on good days or quarrelling loudly on not-so-good days, I would stop at the supermarket, fetch the dry cleaning, dash home, and prepare dinner. Then I did the dishes, walked the dog, and collapsed in front of the television.
That day, with a sense of great freedom, I broke the routine. They’ll get by without me, I thought. Yoel will take over, and nobody will feel my absence. In my mind’s eye, I saw him handling the kids. There would be no arguments when he allocated tasks. Nobody would sing the familiar tunes: “Why me?” “It’s not my turn today.” “Not now.” Even the dog, Oscar, named after the writer, would obey Yoel’s commands. He routinely ignored me, even though I was the one who fed him, petted him, and attended to all his needs. It seemed that I lacked the necessary charisma.
I inserted Crime and Punishment into the CD player to fill a gap in my education. Mika had suggested it. A long journey seems shorter when one listens to a story. I stepped on the gas, and off I went, down the road that led to a dream cabin in a forest in the mountains, where my four friends were waiting to spend a weekend with me.
A moment before Raskolnikov took command, Daniela the Psychologist transformed into just Daniela, and I let my thoughts roam freely among the day’s patients, starting with Helen, the anorexic Orthodox Catholic, angry with God for withholding suitable opportunities from her, despite her tremendous effort and sacrifice; Ryan, the physics doctoral student, a narcissistic depressive who found no purpose in life once he realized that his research would not change the world order; Nicole, whose soul was scorched by childhood traumas and who lived from one crisis to another; young Michael, taking his first steps with the fair sex, paralyzed by panic, his hand in mine as we paced virgin territory. And the last one of the day: Lori. I have to consult one of my colleagues, I told myself, and the sooner the better.
I turned my attention back to the tape, ready to listen to the shocking psychological encounter between the interrogator and the murderer. I left Highway 880 for Highway 80, as the skyscrapers of Oakland’s downtown passed on my right and mellow waves struck the shore of San Franciso’s bay on my left.
The road from Oakland to Sacramento stretched over three tapes, and I decided to postpone the fourth and final one and leave the remainder of Raskolnikov’s torment for another time.
I took the winding road up the mountain toward Truckee. The sky turned from blue to pink and then was covered in dark purple before finally becoming black. A full moon hung over the mountains and reflected the light of the sharp, snowy peaks in gleaming white. I couldn’t remember seeing anything so beautiful since my visit to Emerald Lake in the Canadian Rockies. There too, nature was revealed to me in full splendor, a copper-green lake surrounded by stark white ancient icebergs that were reflected in its water like a mirror. Exactly like Yoel’s green eyes. I had a moment of sadness at not sharing the beauty of this moment with him. I missed Yoel.
There were fifteen miles to Truckee, according to the sign on the right of the road. I retrieved a slip of paper from my pocket with precise directions from Mika. Right, left, straight for two miles, sharp turn right to a side road leading into the forest. There was a stream to the right of the path. One last turn, and the new cabin that belonged to Mika and Shaul Navon appeared on the mountainside.
The girls’ weekend at Mika’s was actually a farewell party for Gabi, or Gabriella. She was our beloved friend and a painter who promised us a creative workshop before she packed her belongings and her five children and left Silicon Valley to go home to Jerusalem in the coming summer, while her husband continued his constant world travel for work.
I slowly maneuvered the Toyota into a parking spot next to the double-storied cabin. I recognized Gila’s jeep and Anita’s jaguar. A cold breeze stung my face as I got out of the car. I stretched my tired legs and loosened my joints, which were cramped from four hours of driving.
Mika opened the door, her brown eyes brilliant, her pale features chiseled like those of a Greek goddess, and her short hair like ripples of honey. Regal in a black, velvet dress, she gave me a warm hug and showed me into a huge salon pleasantly warmed by a fireplace in the center. A white Steinway stood in a corner of the room, much like in all of her houses. Mika was a talented pianist.
On the coffee table, there sat a plate overflowing with fruit and cakes. I hugged each girl in turn and handed Mika the gift I had brought: a shallow Japanese vase filled with pebbles, which I was pleased to note complemented her cream-colored carpet. Two purple velvet couches and three black loveseats adorned this elegant living room, in which sat three lovely nymphs, their legs wrapped in wool blankets that resembled mermaids’ tails. My girlfriends.
Gabi had invited all of us to the painting workshop. Nira was the only one who didn’t turn up. She wouldn’t miss the monthly marathon, this time in Boston. Not even for the unique occasion of this sorority gathering. Nira never, ever broke her ironclad rules.
Generally, neither did I, which is why I hadn’t joined the others when they set out for the cabin early that morning. I felt that despite the warmth of my girlfriends, something was missing. It was a naked feeling. Yoel and the children, who usually clung to me like clothing on my body, were back at home.
I looked at the women. Gabi was my best friend, but the others were also dear to me, each in her own way. I loved Mika’s noble spirit, her generosity, modesty, and talent. Gila was a woman of the world, witty and charismatic, sweet and warm. To me, she represented a glamorous world like Alice’s Wonderland. And then there was beautiful Anita, who, with all due respect, had forgotten that not long ago we had all waded in the same swamp from which her husband, Ido, had emerged as the Prince of High-Tech, kissed by Lady Luck. Anita had also placed a crown on her flowing hair, spread her wings, and flown high. As I remained in that old swamp surrounded by the croaking of frogs, Anita, like Eliza Doolittle, had transformed her voice. Since the moment she took flight, I had been relegated to the outskirts of her social network. My spot had been replaced by far more influential, glamorous folks.
Mika served me mushroom quiche with cheese and salad. I devoured it. I recalled that I hadn’t had a bite since morning.
“Mmm, could I get your recipe?” I asked.
“No problem,” she answered, “I’ll send it to you.”
Nothing was a problem for Mika. She was a woman for whom everything was easy, effortless, and successful. Apparently, taking it easy was a mark of her childhood. I, on the other hand, grew up in a home where food carried no importance. My mother was the sort who hoped that some day pills would be invented that would serve as a replacement for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At home, I was called the fisherman, as I fished out the onion from the salad, the cabbage from the soup, and the olives from anything set before me. I grew up mainly on dinner rolls with chocolate spread and toffees. In my adult life, I admired friends who produced delicious, exotic dishes. Most of all, I envied Gabi, who deserved a culinary medal of honor. Everyone in the Israeli community of the Palo Alto diaspora knew that Gabi’s dining table would be loaded with quiches, salads, stuffed vegetables, omelets, roast beef, fish, and irresistible desserts. Everyone knew that diets and resolutions were useless in the face of Gabi’s delicacies. Her guests licked their fingers and feasted on the cornucopia as Gabi melted with pleasure at the sound of compliments and chewing and completely forgot the three days’ work she had put into preparing the heaps of food.
With my quiche on elegant China, I joined the group, which was in heated discourse over the obvious topic of conversation for any group of women of our age: status updates on our children. And, of course, we started with Gabi, whose five children born over the course of 10 years served as the glue for our little group. Every one of us had at least one child whose age matched one of Gabi’s.
There was nothing as efficient as motherhood for forming deep ties among women in the Valley. Everyone participated in driving the children to school, extracurricular activities, and play dates. We made plans for the school holidays, exchanged educational advice and babysitters, and put out one another’s little fires when necessary. Back home, we had enjoyed the help of mothers, sisters and sisters-in-law, but as foreigners in America, we sought out ethnic warmth and came to regard one another as family: blood sisters. Asking an American neighbor for help was out of the question. Most of the time, they preferred to keep their distance behind shut doors anyway. Such was the way in America at the time.
“They expect children to act like little trained poodles! Do you have any idea what the kids will do to Yaniv in Israel if he shows up acting like a little American wuss? The kids will eat him up alive. How do these Americans expect such discipline from them? They’re only children,” Gabi lamented. Yaniv’s natural chutzpah had been drawing fire from his fourth grade teacher. Gabi shifted her plump body, her black curls in disarray on her forehead. From behind her thick glasses, she focused her blue eyes on us like a belligerent lioness. “Whenever a little problem arises, the teachers send the kids to the school psychologist and call the parents without making the least effort to handle the situation themselves.”
Anita, in her expensive jeans and stylish jacket, rose from the couch and sat on the floor, crossing her legs. On her left hand, she wore a glistening rose diamond ring worth more than the jaguar she had parked outside.
Recently elected to the board of the Albert Einstein School for Gifted Children, Anita now rose to the defense of the establishment. “Albert Einstein is a small, private, high-quality school. The teachers are carefully chosen to foster excellence, and they are not there to handle problematic behavior,” she said with a rigid glance at Gabi. “Anyway, since when do parents come with complaints against the school? In Israel, did we even think of interfering or going to see a teacher?”
“You’d be surprised,” Gila flung back at her. “Things are changing everywhere. Nowadays, parents are involved in the curriculum and have influence. After all, he who pays the piper calls the tune, here and in Israel, too.”
The jab was directed at Anita. Ever since a few–some say a few hundred–million dollars came her way out of a clear blue sky two years earlier, with the sale of Ido’s company to Oracle, her life had been transformed. She was appointed chairperson of all sorts of things, including the West Coast chapter of the Women’s International Zionist Organization and Technokid, a nonprofit organization that provided a computer for every child in the Middle East in order to create amity and hasten the peace process. Recently, when a huge amount of money from Ido and Anita Eitan flowed into the building of a new swimming pool in the local community center, she became a member of the Executive Board in charge of a think tank for future programs. From the platform, at the “crowning” ceremony, she declared that her itinerary was packed and her plate was full. Her friends would testify to the fact that it was high time she learned to refuse invitations to head this or that organization. However, she confessed with a million-dollar smile, she still had not learned to do so. Since then, Anita walked shrouded in mystery, looking important, networking, known and in the know, presenting and representing, but mainly meddling in politics, both local and within the Israeli community. Nothing escaped her, and she devoted herself wholeheartedly and dynamically to every task.
“What do you expect from an American teacher?” asked Mika, whose children had passed in elementary school and were now trudging through high school. “We Israelis aren’t suited to the American mentality. Their ways are foreign to us: their rigidity, snobbery, and worship of academic degrees from the right universities,” she said with a consoling smile in Gabi’s direction. “They live in closed, patronizing circles that exclude anybody who did not have a bourgeois American upbringing. They’re sure they can educate us, the primitive Israelis. It’s hard to make any real contact with them; I really struggle with their superficiality.”
“And the suspicion,” Gila added. “You can’t imagine the interrogation I had to endure when Netta invited a friend to sleep over. And Netta’s almost seventeen! ‘Full of shit.’ I believe that’s what they call it,” she said in English.
“What does that mean?” Gabi stared at her, taken aback.
“Pretentious, condescending behavior. Something smelly.” We laughed.
“Still, we have a lot to learn from the Americans,” said Anita, whose financial circumstances now enabled her to have a hot romance with American High Society. She was Cinderella at the ball, dancing with San Francisco’s aristocracy, who had no idea that the ball gowns in her closet were only acquired recently, when her husband became a rich man.
“Last week I was a guest at the home of Sylvia and Gary Goldin. Do you know them? They own that jeans brand that’s gotten so popular. Believe me, I’ve never seen anything like Sylvia’s hospitality in any Israeli home. Amazing.” She dropped a few more big names to prove that she rubbed shoulders with the right people.
“I hope that there’s actually something to eat at the Goldins’,” said Gabi ironically, “but you have to search for the food when you’re sitting around the table of an average American family.”
We laughed. We roared with laughter, remembering our own embarrassing encounters with the local culture. Anita ignored the fact that for the second time that evening, she was hurting Gabi, who was our very own hospitality queen.
“I realized long ago that American Jewish culture is very different from our Israeli culture,” Gila said, plucking a juicy red grape and sucking on it like a lollipop. “We were raised on theater, music, and a very unique sense of humor. And I miss it so much! When I watch entertainment shows on television, I don’t get the point. I can’t believe they call that garbage entertainment. Not that there’s a shortage of garbage in Israel,” she amended, “but there’s an essential difference in the handling of the material. But the real dilemma is how to educate our children while we’re here. In terms of which culture? Which identity are we shaping for them? And in a much more concrete sense, which youth groups should we send them to? The Israeli scouts, or the American Jewish organizations?”
“Sorry! My kids won’t go to Israeli scouts,” Anita declared. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do. You can’t raise a child with a split personality. We don’t live in Israel and there’s no point in insisting on preserving a culture that separates us from our environment,” said Anita, an Israeli in personality and an American when it was convenient.
Gabi stretched in the armchair and pulled her dark curls back from her face. Her beautiful face became serious as she fixed her blue gaze on a hidden point in the distance. “That’s the main reason why I’ve decided to go back to Israel,” she said quietly. “Roni’s about to be called up for her army service and, afterwards, she’ll go to university. Who knows whom she’ll marry if we stay here. The rest of my children are standing in line. Now,” she stressed, “we have to go back. We can’t delay it. Danny’s always been full of excuses and good reasons to go on living here. This thing’s dragged on for fifteen years. But I’ve decided that we’ve run out of excuses. It’s now or never.”
Her decisiveness made us uncomfortable. We all lived in the shadow of the decision to stay or go, now or who knows when. We were all worried and indecisive about our children’s future. Mika, who had raised four children, two of whom were already adults, split her time between three continents. Her eldest son was in the army in Israel; her daughter, already out of the army, was studying at the Sorbonne; and the twins, who were sixteen, were in high school in California.
“There are no easy solutions,” Mika said. “My daughter once said, wisely, ‘You know, Mom, you don’t have to move to wherever I happen to be living.’ Since then I wander around, hopping back and forth.”
“She’s right, your daughter,” loyal Gila backed her up. “The young generation, they are citizens of the world. Netta’s meant to have a career as a professional musician, and I don’t think she’ll find her place in Israel. The country’s too small for her.”
Gila was ageless, her long hair was streaked with silver, and she had feline grey eyes and a Julia Roberts smile. Her body was as slender as a ballerina’s and she wore black. Always black. That day she wore a short, classy cashmere sweater that revealed the tiny navel on her firm stomach, tight pants and high-heeled cowboy boots. She was acting in avant-garde theater in Israel when Yigal, an outstanding medical student at Haifa Technion, lured her off the stage.
They were married several years after her brother was killed in an air force pilot training accident. Gila’s parents never recovered from the loss. Her brother was the pride of the family, their hope and joy. Gila tried in vain to take his place, to grant her parents a pinch of pride and satisfaction. But as far as they were concerned, she remained in the shadow of her dead brother, in spite of being a celebrity on stage and a guest television star. She could never match the son who was no more.
It was hard to detect sadness in Gila, who played the role of a perfect wife in real life, too. Her picture-perfect husband Yigal was a professor at Stanford and a senior neurosurgeon in great demand worldwide. Netta, their picture-perfect and only daughter was born destined for greatness. Gila’s home had two grand pianos, back-to- back in the middle of the salon, their hearts exposed to declare the order of priorities in the house: piano above all. Gila’s collection of famous friends and her wide network of connections were as picture-perfect as she was. Only her gnawed fingernails and some unexplained aches and pains ever betrayed a touch of disquiet.
Gila had pressed Yigal to leave Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital in favor of a secure job at Stanford, in order to advance and enrich Netta’s musical education, because she’d heard that the music department at Stanford encouraged gifted children.
“My girl studies piano with an a-ma-zing teacher.” Gila emphasized each syllable. “He won the Rubenstein Competition years ago and now devotes his time only to brilliant students,” she said with a level look at Mika, who comprehended the subtle distinction between talented and brilliant. “It’s only a shame that there aren’t any violin teachers here. Too bad Yitzhak Perlman doesn’t live in Palo Alto anymore.”
Gila consoled herself with the hope that when she finished high school next year, Netta would study with Daniel Barenboim in Berlin. She had a good chance of being accepted. In any case, the Academy of Music in Berlin was far better than Juilliard, and presumably Netta would find a suitable violin teacher there.
“They’ve already offered Yigal a position at Humboldt University,” she reminded us. “Berlin will be a real upgrade for all of us.”
Gila thought that life in America suffered from intellectual and cultural aridity in comparison to classical Europe. In her opinion, Silicon Valley was far worse than the East Coast. It was well known, she informed us, that to find an excellent teacher, one must head to New York, or at the very least to Los Angeles.
On her periodic visits to Israel, Gila caught up with the latest developments in theater, as well as with local celebrity gossip. When she returned to California with a slew of page-six news, we–her girlfriends–feasted on the delicious info like pigeons on breadcrumbs, like devotees of some venerated rebbetzin.
The conversation was interrupted by a phone call. It was Ido on Anita’s mobile, asking where their first aid kit was. Ma’ayan was hurt. She hit her bare foot against the wall and he was afraid she had a fracture.
“Should I take her to ER?” he asked Anita.
Taking advantage of the pause, Mika went to the kitchen and came back with long-stemmed glasses and a bottle of cabernet. Gila stood up to help, and the two of them began whispering to one another. I guessed that it was about Netta’s audition for a junior piano competition. Mika was trying to calm Gila, whose veneer of perfection was suddenly showing signs of cracking. Gabi took the opportunity to phone home and check what was going on in her absence. Danny, as usual, was on a business trip. Roni, the eldest, was looking after the little ones. I imagined Gabi’s fridge bursting at the seams, as always, and knew that Roni, who was blessed with a serenity she didn’t inherit from either of her parents, could easily cope with her four siblings. But Gabi was worried. Anxious.
Anita navigated Ido to the first aid kit in the second drawer on the right of the sink in the children’s bathroom. “And take her to have an X-ray. It can’t hurt, Honey,” she commanded. After a few comforting words to the tearful Ma’ayan, she returned to us.
“It’s amazing how a successful businessman like Ido loses his cool when confronted with children’s tears. I’m surprised he didn’t phone to ask where the cups are kept in the kitchen,” she grumbled. “It’s like he’s a houseguest! I should have kept the nanny over the weekend. I knew Ido couldn’t handle it.”
Once, years before the sale of Ido’s company to Oracle, and before the pink diamond ring adorned her finger, Anita had complained to Ido that all the other Israeli couples found the time to go shopping together, to furnish the house together, to watch the children’s baseball games and attend PTA meetings together, whereas she and Ido just slept together and, actually, never saw each other outside the bedroom. Anita had told us that with a gentle, accepting smile. Ido had answered, “Isn’t that better than the other way around? What if we went shopping together, shared a laugh at the baseball games and the PTA, and didn’t sleep together?”
Almost twenty years had passed since they met at the air force base. Ido, a quiet, confident F-16 pilot, was made for success. He lost his heart when Anita was posted to the squadron, equipped with long legs and a jaunty smile--beautiful in that Audrey Hepburn way. Her short stint in the army ended when she became pregnant. It didn’t occur to Ido, a nice boy from Tel Aviv, to do the responsible thing and marry Anita, but he couldn’t resist her tearful outburst, her hurt feelings, and the pressure from her family. Her parents made it clear to her in pure Rumanian that she was not welcome back into the family home unless she returned with a ring on her finger. Immediately. That is how the intellectual family of Professor Michael and Dr. Amira Eitan of Tel Aviv and the working class family of Margo and Yosef Berkowitz of Bat Yam came to be joined.
Anita, with her shrewd, capable senses, understood that there was much to be gained from the close connection with the Tel Aviv elite. She would observe and learn their ways. She made up her mind to distance herself from her parents, dampening their hopes of close family ties with the Eitans.
Pressure from her family increased when Ido became rich. With the sale of the company, Anita and Ido received a long list of demands from the Berkowitz family. These included the purchase of an apartment for Anita’s divorced sister, as well as a monthly allowance to support her children; settling the grandmother in a luxurious home for the aged; a seven-figure sum, in dollars, to enable Anita’s parents to retire; and an additional assortment of demands that Anita and Ido met as a loveless obligation, despite the knowledge that there would be no end in sight.
Mika poured a full glass of wine and handed it to Anita.
“You know, men are like little children. So dependent, they can’t manage without us. We’re the ones who actually make sure the home goes on functioning,” she said, handing us each a long-stemmed glass of dark wine with an earthy bouquet. She speaks in a soothing, sweetly authoritative voice, like a big sister. She doesn’t push, she doesn’t project frustration, and she doesn’t hunger for success. She’s comfortable with her gracious, feminine image. Only if pressed will she speak about her latest concert performances or her respected place in the world of music.
“Maybe they behave like children,” Gabi remarked, “but let’s admit, we live in a man’s world. Look around. How many women make it on their own merits in the high-tech world? I can count them on one hand.” She was quiet for a moment before adding, “Nor do they really excel in other fields, not financially, anyhow.”
“What are you talking about?” Anita bristled. “Is there a shortage of successful women? Women move mountains!”
An embarrassed silence ensued. Gila sided with Anita, “It’s just a matter of choice. If they wanted to, women could build even better careers than men. I know some American women who’ve made millions.”
“And what, are those successful women married? Have they got children and husbands who support them?” Gabi cross-examined her.
“No, most are single,” Gila answered, “but that’s also a matter of choice.”
“There’s a lot of research,” I intervened, allowing myself to showcase my professional expertise, “that finds low self-esteem among adolescent girls. The males are so much more aggressive due to all their testosterone, and the females are left marginalized, assuming a social role of self-deprecation. I’d guess that successful women have a comparatively high level of testosterone,” I said. Pursuing my train of thought, I added, “They also probably have more satisfying sex lives, because testosterone is responsible for sex drive and sexual pleasure in both sexes.”
“Really?” said Anita, amazed. “I didn’t know I had testosterone!” She snickered.
“Oh, definitely,” I answered.
“Whatever the case, I wouldn’t trade places with any man,” said Mika. “Look how nice it is, among women. The men are too busy achieving goals, whereas we enjoy a more stress-free life. If women ran the world, it would look much better,” Mika sighed.
“There’s nothing like a reunion with high school friends. Last time, we had a psychic tell us we had a wonderful future ahead of us,” she added.
“Apropos long friendships, I have something important to tell you.” Gila sounded as if she was getting ready to reveal a secret. “We should keep this to ourselves.” She hesitated, wondering whether to maintain privacy or reveal the secret. Maybe she was testing us again, asking herself if we could be trusted not to spread her private matter. Finally, it seemed that her need to get her secret off her chest overcame her doubts.
“Tell me, have you heard of Hevreh, the website?” Tech-savvy Gila didn’t pause for our response and proceeded to tell us that anyone could sign into the site and search for old friends. In Israel, it’s the rage–everyone is reuniting virtually, and there’s immense excitement.
“Thanks to Hevreh, I found Talma, my best friend from childhood. She was a year older than I and lived two floors above me. I always admired her–beautiful, brilliant, an amazing athlete. On the way home from school we used to dawdle for hours talking about absolutely everything. I’d wait for her at the gate every day. Those talks with Talma were the best part of my childhood. We spoke about the other girls, the boys, our bodies, our dreams for the future. We made a pact of sisterhood. We swore oaths, got lost in fantasies together. Every summer, she went to visit her grandmother in Belgium, and I was alone, counting the days until her return. And she always came back radiant, wearing the latest European fashion. And her stories! Some of them she probably made up, but they always left me with my mind blown. At one of our sleepovers, she even showed me her nipples after they first started swelling.”
Gila’s eyes shone with nostalgia. Ours too. Suddenly faced with our own nostalgia for our childhood friends, we listened to Gila, moved and longing.
Gila continued, “We parted ways in our teens. Talma began dating young, and at that point I still had no idea what the boys wanted from me. She got married so young that she didn’t even go into the army and moved to a small agricultural town in the south. Her parents moved to another city, we lost contact and, in fact, we never saw each other again.”
“When I was surfing the site, I looked for her name on the list of my classmates. I emailed her, and we arranged to meet in Tel Aviv. That was a month ago, on my last visit to Israel. My life changed from the moment I saw her. At that moment, we both knew we were meant for each other. We couldn’t restrain ourselves. We just devoured each other. Talma is fantastic!”
Gila delivered her dramatic monologue slowly, emphasizing each word, using her acting talent to hypnotize us, her captive audience. Gila. She loved words that were larger than life–words meant for the stage.
“She’s breathtakingly beautiful.” Her voice shook a little, a blush covered her usually placid face. “Blue eyes, coal black hair, and always wears white. It turned out that she divorced her husband years ago and left the small town with her three children. She now stages events in Tel Aviv. Our love for one another is stronger than anything I’ve ever felt. She connects with me in places nobody knows and nobody else has reached. We discovered that our strong childhood bond has never unraveled. The seed that was sown is now blooming. We simply could not understand how our paths had not crossed until now. I’m torn with longing every moment we’re apart. Life flows by, and we must find as much love as possible, as much as we can.”
Silence. The bomb Gila had dropped stunned all of us except Mika, who never looked surprised. As if there was nothing new under the sun, as if she’d heard everything that was to be heard and nothing could shock her.
“So, are you lesbians?” Anita broke the silence.
“I always have been bisexual. When Yigal met me, he knew that I had one-night stands with women and that I was an unconventional girl. He chose me anyway and accepts me as I am. That’s the beauty of Yigal. He’s a wonderful person. When things are okay with me, he’s okay too. I won’t give him up, either.”
“So how does this triangle work?” I asked, trying to digest the news.
“Look, Yigal is open-minded. He puts his heart and soul into his work, and golf is the love of his life. He loves me in his own way, which is accepting and not stifling. He’s not shocked that I’m in love with Talma. He knows I’ll find a way to combine my two relationships without anybody getting hurt.” Her words sounded convincing in their simplicity.
“Talma and I have decided not to make any changes in our lifestyles. I want to keep my family life intact for Netta as well as for Yigal, who is a wonderful person and doesn’t deserve to be abandoned. Talma wants to raise her children until they leave home. Until then, we’ll go on living apart and get together from time to time in one part of the world or another.”
Profound silence. Gila’s experiences always carried an aura of glamour and adventure. Her lesbian affair was depicted as an enviable adventure that the emotional bank of ordinary people could not afford.
Against the glamorous aura of Gila’s lifestyle, I often felt like a provincial village girl who didn’t know what she was missing. Now, too, confronted with the loud drama of her life, the grayness of mine seeped into me. A perfect story! Even the colors of the two women–Gila in black and Talma in white--complemented each other, like queens on a chessboard. There was no limit to Gila’s passions or experimentations. She had no guilt; she allowed herself to shed all conventions and experience her life and love with intensity.
Actually, I mused, it was the sort of emotional intensity I had seen only in my bipolar patients. For these patients, the superego is weakened during the manic condition, and they allow themselves to behave in ways healthy people never would. Was Gila one of these? Not likely. Could Gila’s drama turn into tragedy in an instant if this fragile romantic threesome shattered?
Gabi sat in uncomfortable silence throughout Gila’s monologue. It occurred to me that Gila’s romance was rubbing salt in some of Gabi’s old wounds and scars, particularly when Gila described the ecstatic heights she reached in her affair with Talma–heights a run-of-the-mill marriage could never attain. Gabi kept her distance from Gila, an obvious distance. Maybe she was afraid her silent shout would break free and sound itself if she dared admonish Gila and accuse her of irresponsibility.
Mika looked dazedly at Gila. “Someone should outlaw reunions like that. Something strange happened to me, too. Since I met some of my high school classmates on my last visit to Israel, I’ve been having trouble sleeping at night. It isn’t healthy,” she said, not elaborating. I wanted to ask her what she meant, but her expression communicated to me that she wasn’t willing to elaborate.
“It’s late,” Gabi yawned, implying that she’d had enough. There was too much electricity in the air; we all needed to pause and take it all in. “We have a long day of creative work ahead of us tomorrow.”
The canvas, paints, and brushes packed in the trunk of Gila’s jeep awaited our hands and inspired spirits. After swiftly clearing the glasses and plates and loading the dishwasher, we went to our rooms, only to meet and wait our turns outside the bathroom. Eventually, we emerged in our nightgowns, our faces smeared with colorful creams.
Good night, friends.
I was in Mika’s son Yuval’s room, not accustomed to a twin-sized bed. I contemplated Gila’s dramatic confession, seeking hidden meaning. I wondered if I was surprised to hear her coming out of the closet. Apparently not. I thought of my patients, how painful it was for some of them to come out. In this, too, Gila was unusual; it was clearly not at all painful for her. I remembered lectures on homosexuality. Sexuality, in both men and women, is genetically influenced. Most of us have mixed tendencies and are attracted to both sexes. But for some of us (the research varies in its estimates from two to 10 percent), there is clear homosexual preference.
I wondered where I was situated on the continuum line and concluded that, as much as I enjoyed women’s company, men excited me more, and there was no substitute for them.
I thought about the bonds we’d formed amongst ourselves, women living on a cultural island in the heart of California. We were all married to Israeli men who were constantly on the move worldwide. All of us had families in Israel, an identity we longed to reclaim. We all lived on the edge, visiting Israel a few times a year for a breath of love, a portion of culture, and a recharge of our batteries. We all returned stocked with new-release books and suitcases bursting with clothes, shoes, and jewelry. As if there is nothing to wear in the States. In this way, we try to dislodge the here and now and reinforce our ties with the there and then. We were all up-to-date on new plays and new restaurants in Tel Aviv. We all have our favorites--Israeli hairstylists, fashion, and furniture designers--and looked down on what we found to be boring, stereotypical American tastes. We all celebrated the Israeli holidays and festivals in a kind of modernized kibbutz style.