Black and Blue

Etgar Keret is an Israeli writer and filmmaker known to Americans primarily for two short story collections, The Nimrod Flipout and The Girl on the Fridge. We’re pleased to provide this preview to his latest book of short stories, Suddenly a Knock at the Door, not yet published in English. “Black and Blue” is translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger.

In the ER they said the bone was fractured and the muscle was nearly torn in two places. Some people, the doctor said, can walk away from a 50-mile-an-hour head-on collision without a scratch. Once there was this woman who arrived in the ER, a fat lady who’d fallen out of her third-floor apartment onto the asphalt, and all she had was a black and blue mark on her backside. It’s all a matter of luck. Which she, apparently, didn’t have much of. One wrong move on her way down the stairs, an ankle that turned the wrong way—and here she was, in the hospital, with a cast.

A guy who looked like an Arab wrapped the wet bandages around her foot. He told her he was just an intern and that if she wanted, she could wait for the doctor to do it, but it would take at least another hour, because they had a backlog. When he finished with the cast, he told her that now, because it was summer, it would itch all the time. He didn’t give her any tips on what to do about this, just the bottom line. A few minutes later, it really did begin to itch.

If it hadn’t been for the cast, she wouldn’t have been home when David phoned. If it hadn’t been for the cast, she would have been at work. He told her he was in Tel Aviv, he’d come to Israel for just a week, his office sent him to some conference. Something to do with the Jewish Agency. He said he was wasting away in those lectures and he wanted to see her, and she said okay. If it hadn’t been for the cast, she’d have made some excuse and talked her way out of it, but she was bored. If he came, she thought, there would be the excitement leading up to it. She’d stand in front of the mirror and choose a blouse, and fix her eyebrows. Then, when he came, probably nothing would happen, but she’d already have gone through the build-up. Besides, what did she have to lose? With anyone else, she’d be worried that he’d let her down, but with David there was nothing left to worry about. The guy had already let her down the last time they met, yapping away about how much he loved her and, after they made out a little and she gave him a hand job, he fell asleep on his hotel bed. He didn’t phone the next day, or the day after that. And two days later, she stopped expecting him to. She knew he’d gone back to Cleveland, or Portland, or whatever the name was of his home town in America. And it hurt. It hurt like when someone sees you on the street and pretends they don’t recognize you. If she were to meet him on the street in Cleveland or Portland, or wherever, and he’d been there with his girlfriend, that’s what would have happened for sure.

Back then, he told her about his girlfriend. And that they were going to get married. She couldn’t claim he’d kept it from her. But there was something in the way he said it that made her feel like it had been true until the moment he met her and that now his life was taking a whole new direction, one that included her. But she must have gotten it wrong, or he must have given her the wrong impression. It all depends on how you look at it. And on the mood she was in when she pictured the two of them at the hotel. Sometimes she’d tell herself, lay off, you moron. He’s American, what did you expect? You think he’d dump his whole life there—the job at the JCC that he tried to tell you about? That he’d come here to work as a barman or a delivery boy just to be with you? But other times, she’d get mad. Why did he have to use that word “love”? He could have just told her he was attracted to her or that he was horny, drunk and far from home. Chances were she’d have given him a hand job anyway, but without hanging around at home for two days afterwards waiting for the phone to ring. She didn’t have a cell phone back then, so she just sat around and waited. It was summer then too, and her apartment wasn’t air conditioned. The air in the room wasn’t moving, and all day long she kept trying to read a book, Underworld by Don DeLillo, but by the end of the day she was still on the first chapter. She didn’t remember a thing she’d read. Something about a baseball game. She never continued reading it after that, and David didn’t call. But now, almost a year later, suddenly he did, and when he asked if he could drop by, she said okay. Mainly because she didn’t want him to notice that a part of her had been hurt. She didn’t want him to think he mattered so much that she wouldn’t want to see him again.

He brought a bottle of wine and a pizza. Half olive, half anchovy. He didn’t even phone to ask her what she wanted or if she was hungry at all. But the pizza was really good. The wine was white and warm, but they didn’t have the patience to wait for it to chill, so they drank it with ice cubes. “A hundred dollar bottle,” he said, laughing, “and here we are, drinking it like it was diet coke.” He must have wanted her to know he’d spent a lot of money on the wine. Since that night, he said, I’ve been feeling really lousy about what happened. I felt like shit. I should have phoned you the next morning to explain. In fact, I should have made sure it never happened in the first place. I’m sorry. And she patted his cheek, not seductively, but more like a mother comforting her son who’s just owned up to cheating on an exam, and telling him it’s not so terrible. Yes, she had thought about him after that. She’d  wondered why he hadn’t phoned. But in any case, he shouldn’t feel bad about it. He’d told her from the start that he had a girlfriend and that was that.

They’d gotten married in the meantime, David told her. When he got back from Israel, Karen—that was her name—told him she was pregnant and they had to decide whether to have an abortion or stay together. When Karen talked to him about it – it was as soon as he got off the plane—he still had her scent in his hair. He hadn’t showered since that night they were in bed together, so the scent would linger. They had to decide whether to have an abortion or to stay together, Karen said. And he didn’t want to stay together. Because of her, because of that night. But he didn’t want Karen to have an abortion either. It was hard for him to explain. He wasn’t religious or anything. But the thought of an abortion seemed so irreversible and made him very uneasy. So he proposed. A baby that’s born is also irreversible, she told him now, as if just jokingly, and he cringed, and said he knew that. And in the same breath, he added it was a baby girl, and that it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to him. Even if he and Karen got divorced, he said, which he didn’t believe would happen, because they were doing okay on the whole, but even if it did happen, he was glad that Karen hadn’t had an abortion. Their little girl was so incredibly adorable. On Friday she’ll be five months old exactly, and this was the first time he’d been away since she was born. He’d almost decided not to come to this conference either. He must have changed his mind five times at least, but in the end he took the flight. Mainly to see her. To tell her he was sorry.

“I came here to ask you to forgive me,” he said again. She wanted to tell him he was making too much of it. A mountain out of a molehill. But after another drawn-out silence, she said she forgave him. She’d never been in his situation, but she understood him completely. And she was just a little sorry that he’d never phoned back then. To say goodbye before he took off, that’s all. “If I’d phoned you,” he said, “I would have come back. And if I’d come back, I would have fallen in love with you. I was scared.” And if she’d wanted to make him feel bad, she could have mentioned that even back then, on that first night, he’d said he loved her, but instead, she just stroked his large hand that was resting on the table, and later they went into the living room together and watched an episode of Lost and finished off the wine. Three years ago, when Giora got her pregnant, she didn’t even ask him if he wanted her to have an abortion or wanted them to stay together. She just went ahead and had the abortion on her own, without telling him. Two months later, they split up. This David must have loved Karen a little more than she loved Giora. Or at least he hated her less. She knew that this night could end wherever she wanted it to, and it made her feel strong. If she drew things out a bit till it got late and said she was tired, he would leave without trying anything. If she looked at him and smiled—he’d kiss her. She could tell. But what did she really want? For him to go back to his hotel room horny and masturbate and think about her, about how things had worked out okay? Or for him to spend the night with her and feel like shit the next day? She kept changing her mind. Forget about him, she told herself, forget about him and about how he’ll feel. Think about yourself. What do you want?

Because of the cast, going to the bathroom was a whole production now. She had to hop on one leg and keep her balance. David wouldn’t let her. He picked her up in his arms, like a fireman saving her from a burning building or a groom carrying her over the threshold on their wedding night. He waited behind the door as she peed, and then carried her into the living room. By the time they got back, the episode was over. David told her the ending. He’d seen it already. In America, they screen it a week earlier. He hadn’t told her before that he’d already seen it, because he didn’t mind watching it again, with her. He wasn’t much of a TV buff anyway. The first time too, he only watched because Karen was addicted to the series. It’s hot in your apartment, he said. Stifling hot. She told him she knew. The owner had lowered the rent for her and her roommate by sixty bucks because there was no air conditioner. Since she’d broken her leg, she was stuck here, she said. At the hospital, they’d given her a pair of crutches, but who has the strength to walk down four flights of stairs on crutches. And before she realized what was happening, he picked her up and swung her over his shoulder, piggy-back, and they walked down the four flights. Just like that.

He carried her that way to Meyer Park, where they sat on a bench and smoked a cigarette. It was hot and humid there too, but at least there was a breeze to dry off the perspiration. Having you forgive me was really important to me, he said. Extremely important. I can’t even explain why. It’s not that I never behaved like shit before with girls I dated, but with you… he started crying. It took her a moment to realize this was what he was doing. At first she thought he was coughing or choking or something, but he was simply crying. Stop it, you jerk, she told him, half smiling. People are staring. They’ll wind up thinking I threw you out, I broke your heart. I am a jerk, David told her, I really am. I could have… you’ve never been to Cleveland, have you? Talk about Cleveland and talk about Tel Aviv. She could tell he wanted to say Talk about Karen and talk about you, and she was glad he didn’t say it.

They walked back up the four flights of stairs very slowly. He couldn’t carry her anymore, so she just leaned on him and hobbled up, step after step. By the time they reached the door, they were both sweating, and inside her cast, the maddening itch was starting up again. Do you want me to go, he asked, and she shook her head, but what she said was that she thought it would be a good idea. Afterwards, in bed, facing the fan, she tried to sort out the whole story. An American guy and an Israeli girl meet by sheer chance. One nice evening. A little spit on her left palm sliding up and down David’s cock. And two people, on two sides of the ocean, wind up carrying around all these not very important details for almost a year. Some people fall out of the third floor of a building, with nothing more than a black and blue mark on their backside. Others make one wrong move on their way down the stairs and wind up in the hospital, with a cast. She and David must be the second kind.

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