I moved into my current apartment at the beginning of 2015. Before that I lived for four months on Salameh Street in south Tel Aviv, which was noisy all day long and scary all night long, though sometimes the shifts changed. For example, one Thursday, after girls’ night at a local club, when one woman came out shouting, “You will not so much as look at my ex-girlfriend, ya abu gever [you dyke],” to which a second retorted, “I’m stabbing you, and I swear I’ll see you in jail today” – that was noisy. Or when a drunk Eritrean guy tried to pickpocket me at the entrance to the building, that was scary. But all in all, things were generally calm. A falafel joint on the next street over would fill my room with a smell of fried food, so the windows stayed shut all day.
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I tried to make the apartment more homey with herbs and pictures, but it didn’t work. A picture and a sage plant have not yet triumphed over a main thoroughfare. I moved out on a Saturday morning, because the street was too busy for a truck to stop in the middle of the week. When I told my parents, they said it wasn’t good to move on Shabbat, maybe you should wait until Sunday. What for? Every tradition I did keep didn’t prevent me from moving into that hole, so why does it really matter?
The women who lived in the new apartment before me left behind a bunch of stuff. Mugs, clothing, a first-aid kit, bags of buttons. Evidence of the routine that dominated the place before me, like a dinosaur skeleton. I admired the lack of sentimentality that allowed them to leave so many things behind. I keep everything. I’d have died in the Holocaust from quarreling with the Nazis over whether I could board the train with letters from ninth grade – but these tenants left behind souvenirs from trips.
I adopted it all. I used the cutlery, I ate a can of preserves that I found in the kitchen, I let visitors sleep in a shirt from an old election campaign that was left in the closet. Their remnants erased the illusion of a new start and exposed the reality: This apartment was temporary. They lived in it before, I live here now, and after me someone else will come, and so on.
All places are temporary, but some purport not to be. When you move to a detached house at the age of 39, for example, the thought has to insinuate itself that, this could well be where I’ll die. This might be my last place, so the current distance between the table and the sofa in the living room is the last that my body language will need to learn.
The apartment I’m living in now? It won’t be my last. It’s a place whose primary function is to become a memory, and that memory will age and become skewed until there’s no longer any point hanging onto it. It will be a blurred, twisted map to a reality that who-knows-if it happened the way I remember it. That’s another reason I wouldn’t be capable of leaving behind coffee cups that would be able to tell me: Yes, we were there, it really happened.
When I picked up the key from the previous tenants, they asked why I was moving in on a Saturday afternoon, and I said I was escaping from another apartment. They said, “Ah, us too, good luck to you.” I assumed that this was simply the talk of people who watched a lot of television and had got used to formulating things in a dramatic way even if it wasn’t really called for. But four months later I found a 50,000-shekel [$14,000] legal claim against them in my mailbox, for damaging the roof of their now-previous apartment building. I read the whole thing. The plaintiffs sounded like nice people who were in the right, but I had to side with those who had softened my entry into the apartment so much that I felt at home the moment I entered. I put the letter back in the box and said nothing about it.
A year later, I wanted more without knowing what kind of more. A general sort of more. A girlfriend from high school got pregnant, and I thought, oy vey, what if that’s what I want. I started to grow avocado plants as a dress rehearsal for parenthood. I grew a root in a small glass of water, and then transferred it to something bigger, so the roots could stretch and ramify, then I bought flowerpots and planted them in the soil. They grew nicely, and I didn’t hit them or put them on my lap and begin masturbating – so from that point of view I felt relieved. I’ll be an alright mom. More important, I realized that the hole in my heart was still of a size that flowerpots could fill. No need for a baby; just cultivate beautiful things.
I worked a lot. Twelve hours a day plus weekends. I always had something more important to do, and when I did it there was something even more important. I couldn’t create beauty in the vast spaces of the world, I had to get along within the bounds of the little time I had. Instead of doing amazing things like fighting impossible battles and stealing blouses from chain stores, I learned where to hang a curtain. It came upon me all at once, as if I’d been inhabited by the demon of a wicked interior designer who looked at the apartment and whispered, “Why is the whole living room painted in the same shade?”
I listened to everything. I began to feel the pain of phantom bureaus and tables within me. I started to paint, to move things, to polish. I threw out or gave away via Facebook the stuff the previous tenants had left. (The Florentin neighborhood loves garbage: Upload a photo of a bag filled with potato peels to a group, and within five minutes some guy with dreadlocks will arrive to take it away). I went to a paint store, and waited for Ikea to open at 10, together with local old folks who come for a cheap breakfast and then doze off in the display rooms.
All that was left was to order a new TV; it arrived this week. Installation was free. The technician came, took one look at the old one, which was still on the wall, and said: That will be 200 shekels for dismantling. No one would ever have tried to pull tricks like that on me if I’d still been living in a place filled with garbage. Someone who lives with an upside-down milk crate as a stand for a modem isn’t going to spend money on dismantling a device; that’s information that reaches the brain reflexively, without being transcribed – like sexual attraction or hunger. I said, Sorry, do I look like I was born yesterday? No way I’m paying 200 shekels. What for? I said, No problem, I’ll remove it myself.
I tried with my hands, no go. I tried with a penknife, no go. There were no other tools in the house. I climbed up into the storage space to see if the previous tenants had left something else that I hadn’t managed to throw out or give away. There was an inflatable pool smothered in dust, a box with buttons and a wrench. I gave up any attempt to connect the dots to understand those people. They’re like a superstition hovering over this apartment, an illogical force that I rely on to arrange things.
I climbed down and dismantled the thing in two minutes.