Suddenly, a note
What do we think we know about those closest to us? Excerpts from 'Second Person,' a new novel
The lawyer went into his study to get the book he had bought that afternoon in the used books store. He noticed the pack of cigarettes and lit one up. He heard the sound of his son's crying from upstairs, then of the few footsteps of his wife from bed to playpen. The crying stopped. The lawyer was content to take a few long drags, then forcefully ground the cigarette into the ashtray. But because he was never certain that he put out his cigarettes completely and was afraid that a gust of wind might enter through the window of the study and revive the fire, he poured a little water into the ashtray from a bottle that stood at the edge of the desk. He then took a long swig of water, picked up "The Kreutzer Sonata" and left the room.
The lawyer did not like getting out of bed once he had slid under the covers, so even though he did not feel the need, he entered the toilet, which was located between his daughter's room and the study, and tried in vain to urinate. He then placed two pillows for back support, turned on the night lamp shaped like a pink rabbit, lay down on the girl's bed and clasped the closed book with both hands.
Even though it was a used book and had possibly been through the hands of quite a few readers, it was in pretty good shape, almost new. To the lawyer, this attested to the character of those who had read the book before him. They had appreciated it and taken good care of it. The lawyer took care of his books, too, and they always looked like new. He never folded the corners of pages, never wrote in books and always used a thin piece of paper as a bookmark. He looked at the cover, which he found fairly ugly. Two thick black lines divided the cover into three unequal sections. The top section, which was colored yellow, bore the author's name, Tolstoy, and the bottom, which was colored green and was the same size as the top, bore the title, "The Kreutzer Sonata." In the middle section was a quite disagreeable illustration in pastel colors. On the right of the illustration was the profile of a man, his eyes blazing fire and his nose aquiline, gritting his teeth and holding a huge dagger; while on the left side stood a faceless woman, her body naked and blurred, raising one weak hand to protect herself from the murderer who was about to attack her. If he had not known the author, the lawyer thought to himself, he would never have been drawn to buy a book with such a terrible cover.
He opened the book to the first page, where the author's full name appeared: Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. He repeated the whole name a few times to himself, ashamed that he was not familiar with it and imagining that he was invited to a television quiz show in which he might be asked, "What are the first and middle names of the famous Russian writer Tolstoy?" He was pleasantly surprised to discover that there were four stories in the book, not just one, as the cover suggested. In addition to "The Kreutzer Sonata," which was the opening story, there were "Family Happiness," "Three Deaths" and "The Snow Storm." The lawyer despised long books. Both because he did not have much leisure time and his reading was done in the minutes before he fell asleep, and because he liked to move ahead, to check off another item on the list of books he felt obliged to be acquainted with. In the upper left corner of the page he suddenly saw the word "Yonatan," written with a blue pen by a gentle hand. The lawyer paused a moment at the handwriting of the person who must have been the book's previous owner. Many of the secondhand books he bought bore the name of the former owner on one of the first pages, but the lawyer had never given this a second thought. For some reason, this name, or more precisely something about the soft, feminine handwriting, begging for help, almost like the woman on the cover protecting herself from the man with the dagger, caught his attention momentarily. Well, never mind, the lawyer said to himself, and started to read the story. He knew he did not have much time to read. True, the next day was Friday, a holiday for both the children and the lawyer, and he would not have to get up early, but because of the dinner he had got to bed relatively late, and the wine he had drunk had done nothing for his wakefulness.
The lawyer read the epigraph to the story: "But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. - Matthew 5:28." He guffawed inwardly. If so, then he was the king of the adulterers, even though he had never had sex with any woman other than the one who had got out of her bed a short time ago. The quotation was enough to transport his thoughts to other places. He had not yet even begun the story, yet in his imagination he returned to the morning, to the cafe and King George Street, and recalled all the women - young, old, secular, religious, Ashkenazi and Mizrahi, Arabs and Jews - who had filled the main street. He recalled how he had examined almost every woman who had walked in front of him, toward him or next to him, how he examined their bottoms, irrespective of whether they wore pants or a skirt, how he looked at their knees, the thin ones and the fat ones, and knew that no one noticed what he was doing, knew that he did not create the impression of someone who stared - he was quick, but did not forgo the details. He needed a few fractions of a second to take in the faces and bodies of the women in the center of town, his eyes proficiently seeking out cleavages, the outlines of underclothing, bra straps. He examined their way of walking, the way they shook their rear ends, the size of their breasts. The lawyer never had any intentions. More than anything, he tried, with his gazing, to examine his taste. He knew he was not attracted to his wife, who was considered a good-looking woman, in the way he would have liked, a fact he attributed to her build, and sometimes to her hips, which had thickened a little, and maybe to the stretch marks on her skin, which had appeared after the birth of their son. Sometimes the lawyer thought he desired the bodies of all women except for the one that belonged to the woman he was married to. And sometimes, when his eyes alighted on a woman and he followed her, observed her and coveted her, he knew that the body of the person walking in front of him up King George Street was amazingly like the body of his life partner.
The lawyer shook his head to rid himself of the vain thoughts that had assailed him. He tried to get back to the book, but knew he would not be able to keep his eyes open for more than a few minutes. There's no point starting, he decided. He was too tired; best to go to sleep and start reading tomorrow, from page one. Before turning out the light he wanted only to see how long "The Kreutzer Sonata" was. He riffled through the pages gently and let the mild wind created by the rapid turning of the pages carry to his nostrils the familiar pleasant smell that old books give off. He got to page 102, where the story ends. Just as he was about to close the book, a very small white piece of paper fell out. The lawyer smiled at first when he picked up the note and read what his wife had written in her hand, in Arabic: "I waited for you but you didn't come. I hope all is well with you. I wanted to thank you for last night, which was wonderful. Call me tomorrow?"
The lawyer jumped out of his daughter's bed in order to kill his wife. He would stab the whore all over, he would cut her throat, he would rip out her eyes and slash her organs. Or he would strangle her, sit on her stomach, pin her body to the bed, seize her neck with both hands and dig his thumbs into her throat. He saw her gasping, saw her eyes popping out of their sockets and him looking angrily and contemptuously at her frightened, beseeching gaze. He would pull her throat up and down and she would try to resist, her fingers would clasp his arms as they locked on to her windpipe like iron rods and he would press more strongly, his fingers would rip the skin of her throat and be covered in blood. He would go on pressing even after her body stopped twitching beneath him.
Taking the stairs two at a time, he rushed to the top floor. His thoughts grew foggy, he saw his wife in front of him, at least he thought he did, even though the woman he saw did not look like her in the least, saw her naked, chortling as he had never heard her chortle, naked in front of a strange man who lacked facial features, but he knew he was a scumbag, a type of hoodlum, maybe the man on the cover of the book, brandishing the dagger. He saw her in his mind's eye as he had never seen her before - groaning, scratching, holding her hips, which were suddenly thin and shapely, holding the waist of the man who was lying on top of her. His gaze filled with loathing, spitefulness, maybe after all it was someone he knew. In his wife's eyes he saw lust that he had never seen there before. She scratched the man with long fingernails she didn't have and whispered words of love as she arched herself under his body.
The lawyer felt he was choking. Shooting pains ripped through his head and his heart pounded wildly. His breathing was quick. Short breaths. He lacked air. He would kill her. He would wake her up and not say a word, or maybe he would wake her up and tell her what he knew and then kill her. Instead of the bedroom, he went to the kitchen, opened a drawer and looked for the biggest knife he could find. Holding the knife in his right hand, he entered the bedroom.
His wife lay on her stomach, the thin summer blanket covering one leg and the other stretched diagonally across the bed, completely exposed. She looked calm, her breathing regular. She slept in her green panties, which had become wrinkled on her bottom, and in a simple white tank top that covered her upper body. Her face was tilted to the right, half covered by her hair, which slid across her ear and cheek. This was not the same woman he had wanted to kill a moment ago. And next to this woman who was sleeping in the bed lay a year-old baby boy.
His muscles, which had been so taut they hurt, suddenly relaxed. The hand holding the knife rested now next to his hip. He bent his head and cried softly by the bed, because he understood that his wife would never have dared if she had not been certain that he was always a coward.
He straightened the pillow his wife had placed on the side of the bed on which the baby was sleeping. A thousand times he had warned her not to do that, explaining that the pillow would not prevent the baby from falling out of the bed if he should turn over in his sleep. On regular nights, when he would wake up in a panic in the middle of the night and run to see if his children were all right, the lawyer would pick up the baby boy and take him back to the playpen that stood next to the double bed, but now he was afraid he might wake up. He placed another pillow at the foot of the bed, at the spot where he estimated that his son's small head would hit the floor. He then fixed his son's blanket. His son? A flash of pain stabbed his chest, though he did not dare conjure up the thought.
Translated by Ralph Mandel
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