A boy I met in a public park told me he was "13 minus seven months." He then asked me how old I was. I told him I was really-really old, and the truth is that I have been really-really old for many years now, to the point where I don't round off my birthdays upward anymore. Not even now, two weeks before my next one.
The weeks preceding a birthday are a "sensitive period." But this year I am experiencing this period as a time of excitement and anticipation, without any hint of the decline of energy the horoscopes have predicted for me every year, at about now. I am about to celebrate Pesach and my birthday with great joy, in New Delhi, together with my eldest son, whom I haven't seen for half a year. People ask me why I am going to India, and the question irritates me. As though it's not obvious that the only reason I am going there, and not, say to Iceland or Costa Rica, is that my son is there.
You know, from one year to the next I discover that my physical maintenance is becoming ever more complicated, and that I need more and more tactical aides to animate me to become human after waking up every morning. Accordingly, the climate is becoming a personal issue for me. And I adore the concept of running hot water, toilets and, if possible, clean sheets. I also find air conditioning to be an invention of genius.
"India really doesn't attract me," all kinds of wise guys tell me. I reply that I, too, would be very happy if my son, instead of investigating the subcontinent, had preferred to explore classical Europe or even contemporary North America. "On the other hand, though," these good souls tell me soothingly, "you'll probably get some terrific newspaper columns out of the trip."
This is precisely the stage at which I feel that maybe I have reached the end of the line, that my real life is over and instead of life all I have is material for articles. Because for some time now, I have been living only so that I will have something to tell people.
"I thought you didn't have a dog," the literary editor whom I am most fond of said to me recently. "Until this moment I doubted that Shoshana exists. In fact, I'm pretty sure she is a dog you invented so that you would have something to write about, that she is a parable or a metaphor - not that there's anything wrong with that, heaven forbid."
I told him he was completely mistaken. This is what happens to people who deal with literature their whole life: The boundaries between imagination and reality grow blurred. Not that I have anything against that, heaven forbid. But just then I was hit with the thought that maybe from the outset I adopted my totally real dog just so I would have something to write about in the paper.
When I was a restaurant critic, I discovered what it means to live in order to write. It reached the point where every time I left the house I would long for food from hell: The best pieces I wrote were possibly the ones that revolved around a meal that ended with checking myself into a hospital due to monosodium glutamate poisoning. As I lay dying I discovered that the sense of impending death had a tremendously beneficial effect on my ability to create metaphors, particularly of the oxymoron and synecdoche types.
Since my weekly item became a personal column, about half a year ago, I have discovered that I rewrite in my head things people say to me as they are saying them, improving the comic timing, generating a punch line. I used to like people for their infinite complexity and changeability. Now, instead of people I see characters - or, more accurately, types - who are distilled and compacted to fit into a one-sentence description, or a gesture or two, a form of speaking, metonymy. I look at them with an investigative eye, without feelings, asking myself, as if I am columnist and TV personality Odetta, what sample of humankind they will provide for my column.
Since I have had this column, I feel that I am repeating myself even before I open my mouth. "Yes, I read it," people say to me - before it is clear even to me what I am about to relate. Everyone thinks they know everything about me. Everyone knows who I am. And it's my fault. I, who am constantly reinventing myself. I am now the only one who doesn't know who I am actually referring to when I say "me."
I hope I don't get any passages or columns out of my trip to India, because I hope not to have to think there at any given time about anything other than that very moment when my son wants to be with me.
On seder night I will be really-really old. Still, because of the column, I have a feeling that I haven't lived enough so that I will have something to tell. Or maybe I lived too much, to the point where I have run out of words. A good life does not generate good personal columns. Ahead of my coming birthday, and with the advent of the holiday, I wish myself a good life.
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