The Waiting Room

Published at JewishFiction.net – 2011

“We all fear when we are in waiting rooms. Yet we all must pass beyond them.”
– Katherine Mansfield’s last entry in her Journals

Prologue

Mother cuts my nails. The clippings fall into her palm and she places them on a tissue, careful not to drop any on the floor. She folds the tissue in half, then in half again, and walks slowly over to the fireplace. She stands two dead matches upright on either side of the hearth, taking her time, so they will not fall.

“Now, throw the tissue into the flames,” she says. “Do not spill a nail or you will have to come back after you are dead. You will roam the earth searching for every nail clipping you have ever lost. You will have to gather up each one, or else you will never get to heaven.”

Mother tells me I’m a good girl. I watch the tissue burn.

Haifa – May, 2001

Boker tov. Good morning to all our listeners. This is Radio Haifa. An alert has been issued for a possible terrorist attack downtown. People are advised to watch for suspicious packages. The weather will be partly cloudy today, with the chance of a light shower.

“Turn it off, will you?” Dina asks.

David doesn’t move. He is standing in front of the kitchen bench preparing sandwiches from leftover challah for Shlomi’s lunch. Dina spoons Nescafé into her cup. Nes means miracle in Hebrew, each sip like a shutter in her brain opening up one slat at a time. She adds cold milk, stirs, then pours in hot water from the jug.

“You’re in my way,” David says, pushing the bread board towards her.

Dina knows she shouldn’t drink coffee while she’s pregnant. She stares into her cup at brown blobs that rise to the surface, chasing each other in circles, changing shape as they spin. The last trace of dissolving coffee looks a bit like Australia. She catches it with her spoon and swallows it. She throws the jar of coffee into the bin without thinking, then reaches in to fish it out before David notices, shoving it back onto the pantry shelf.

The newsreader’s voice blurts out a report from the Counter-Terrorism Bureau regarding two terrorists thought to be en route to Haifa. Dina has lived in Israel for ten years and yes, she thinks, perversely, you get used to hearing these warnings all the time, all over the country: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the West Bank. But here, right in the middle of Haifa? It’s the first time there has been an alert right in her backyard. The news is always full of horrific tales, and today it’s too close to home. Dina walks over to the radio and turns the dial to The Voice of Music, filling the kitchen with one of Chopin’s Nocturnes. She takes her cup and saucer across to the table and sits down. The morning paper lies in front of her; headlines shriek about a three-month-old girl killed by a sniper’s bullet. Dina flips the paper over, covering the photo of the baby so that Shlomi won’t see. She sips slowly, dabbing at a coffee stain on her pants with a crumpled napkin.

“Mummy, where is my songbook?” Shlomi asks, rummaging around in his Power Rangers schoolbag.

“I saw it on the couch,” David replies. “Come on, hurry up, Shlomi! Mummy doesn’t like to keep her patients waiting.”

The children have an evacuation drill for their first lesson. Shlomi grabs a book off the shelf about a lion that has a thorn in its paw, so he won’t be bored in the bomb shelter. He also takes his Gameboy to shoot Pokemons. At school, the children sing songs of wild cyclamens and anemones in the hills. They sing of a time when there will be no more war.

Dina knows how accustomed you can become to war, yet she and the rest of the country live with a hope it will end someday. Even a simple hello or goodbye in both Hebrew and Arabic – shalom, salaam – has the word peace embedded in it. The whole nation utters it like a mantra, millions of times every day. Another ten years, she thinks, and Shlomi will carry a gun. His eyes are already too deep for a child’s. She would prefer to watch him play Aussie Rules football in Caulfield park; delete from his lexicon intifada, bomb shelter, gas mask, dead baby. But she also understands that David would never leave his country. And, in all honesty, could she leave David, take Shlomi away from the father he adores so much? Maybe all this craziness will be over by the time Shlomi grows up.

Chopin is interrupted by a news bulletin announcing that the parents of the baby killed last night refuse to bury her until the Israeli Army demolishes the house of the Palestinian sniper’s family. Dina feels a sudden kick under her liver, as if her own baby is protesting against the world it hasn’t seen yet. Dina walks over to the radio and turns it off. She knows the day will go on regardless of a terror alert, despite the murder of an infant, but Shlomi doesn’t need to hear about such things.

“I was listening to that.” David scratches the stubble on his chin.

She walks back to the table to finish her coffee. Shlomi is sitting opposite her now, his hand deep inside the cornflakes box, rummaging around for some Pokemon hologram card, hoping for Pikachu, a kind of jaundiced alien rabbit. It’s his favourite, and the only one missing from his collection.

Dina yawns. Shlomi woke her last night, climbing into bed next to her. She reached out to touch him, feeling his chest rise and fall softly. Each of his breaths, a gift. She covered him with the duvet, tucking it firmly around his back like a cocoon, and lay awake listening to his little grunts and moans as he tried to fall asleep.

“Are you okay?” she stroked his hair.

“I can’t sleep. Can you read me Surf’s up, Pikachu?”

David rolled over, grunting in his sleep. Dina dragged herself out of bed and they shuffled down the corridor to the living room. Huddled together on the couch, wrapped in a Spiderman blanket, she read Shlomi the adventures of his favourite, a Pokemon with an electric generator on each cheek, who helps his friend Ash win all manner of battles. He rates high on a list of immortal warriors who fight the forces of evil, second only perhaps to David, who has Superhero powers that make Superman, Batman, and Spiderman look like wimps.

She turned off the lamp beside her and rested the book on the coffee table. Shlomi’s small face was streaked with pale, orange light that stole in from the street lamp through the half-open blinds. She sat with her arms around him, trying to keep him warm, just like her father used to hold her when she was small, telling her Yiddish stories about lonely calves being led to market, sick geese, village idiots, bird dealers, children lost in dark forests. Dina had always listened patiently to her father’s tales, but every night, after she had finished a story, she would insist he read a little from her favourite book, Dot and the Kangaroo. So many years after her father’s death, and so long after that book was stuffed into a garbage bag, along with all the toys Dina had outgrown, and dumped on the doorstep of Josie’s opportunity shop on Carlisle Street, she can still recite the words of her favourite part by heart.

Eventually, around two a.m., Dina woke Shlomi to take him back to bed; long gone the days she could lift her boy. As they walked towards his room in the dark, Shlomi turned to her and whispered:

“Can I ask you something?”

“Yes, of course you can.”

“Are you going to die?”

“Not for a long, long time, darling. Only old people die,” she lied.

She tucked him back into his own bed. Yossi Benayoun, Maccabi Haifa’s star midfield attack, watched her from a poster on the wall. Her back ached as she bent over to kiss her son goodnight.

“Go to sleep now, Shlomi.”

*

Shlomi pulls his hand out of the cereal box suddenly, as if something inside has bitten him. Dina notices that his fingernails are dirty and need trimming.

“Mummy?”

“Yes, Shlomi? Which one did you get? ”

Dina takes a bite of toast, preparing herself for Shlomi’s Pokemon spiel and for the tears in case the toy from the cornflakes box is not his beloved Pikachu. She glances at her watch. It’s seven-thirty already. They need to leave the house in five minutes to get to school by the first bell at eight, but Dina knows that now she will be privy to a recitation of a list of all the little Pokemon characters Shlomi has ever collected. She even counted them last night when she couldn’t fall back to sleep after he’d woken her: Bulbasaur, Meowth, Charmander, Jigglypuff. They jumped up into the air like deformed sheep, shooting randomly in all directions as they landed on the other side of the fence.

She smiles at Shlomi and waits for him to tell her which one it is this time. He is staring at Dina, his blue eyes wide open.

“Mummy?”

“Yes, darling?” She smiles.

“What happens to a suicide bomber’s eyeballs when he explodes?”

Outside, an orvani, a native crow, sits perched on the branch of a pine tree in the garden, peering in at them. The bird is a native. It raises its dark crest and ruffles its blue wings, waiting to be fed. The child spoons some more cereal into his mouth, wiping the milk moustache from his upper lip onto the back of his sleeve.

“Shlomi, finish your breakfast and go brush your teeth. You need to get a move on; we’re running late,” Dina says, brushing crumbs from the tablecloth into her palm. “Pack your reader; you’ve got English with Jennifer after school. And don’t forget to take your phone.”

“Mummy?”

She feels the muscles in her shoulders tense up as she waits for the next question.

“Can you make latkes with apple sauce for dinner tonight?”

She breathes out as the knot in her heart unravels.

“Only if you finish your cereal.” Shlomi shoves another spoonful of cornflakes into his mouth.

“I’m full, Mummy.”He scrapes his chair backwards and runs off towards the bathroom, kicking his soccer ball down the corridor. She makes a note to buy some apples on her way to work.

Her coffee has gone cold. David says she makes coffee like the devil. He won’t touch instant. Instead, he makes it from hell, cardamom; sets the heart racing. He boils up the finjan on the stove, fills the bottom of the metal pot with coffee grounds he has bought from the huge sacks at Suidan’s grocery store downtown. Dina imagines when David dies, the witches that stir the cauldrons of hell will take one bite of him, chew on his soft centre a little and spit him right back out again, because his skin is so tough.

She first met David back in 1989, during a visit to Israel. She took the first direct flight she could find from Vienna, after a romantic skiing tryst in Austria with the Viennese doctor, Karl Jager, a charming registrar from the Lehrkrankenhaus at Garmish-Partenkirchen, turned sour. Leaving her ski pants beside his on the drying rack, she dumped him in the midst of ein aktiver Winter in Zugspitzland.

She arrived in Israel for the first time and soon felt strangely at home, surrounded by people whom she eerily felt she recognized instantly, even though she’d never met them before. She felt enfolded in familiarity. She registered at a medical conference in Haifa for a few days. Israel was so warm after Europe that one morning, staring out of a window in the conference room on the top floor of the Dan Panorama hotel, Dina decided to ditch the dullness of Professor Noam Zarfati and his colleagues who were fascinated by his Observations of the limitations of quantitative sensory testing when patients are biased toward a bad outcome, for a swim at the local pool.

She was doing laps on the left side of the lane and didn’t see the guy who was coming straight at her from the opposite end. They collided head on, right in the middle of the pool. As they both treaded water, he pointed to the sign that hung on a rope suspended above them and said something she didn’t understand. She read the letters out loud, slowly sounding each one in turn, remembering her rudimentary Sunday-school Hebrew.

“I-t-t-i,” she said. “What does that mean?”

“Slow!” he said in English, with a heavy Israeli accent. “You need to slow down.” He lifted his goggles, resting them on his forehead. She stared at his sea-green eyes. “You were swimming too fast. And on the wrong side.”

His face started to blur as tiny lights buzzed around her field of vision.

“Are you okay?” the swimmer asked her. It sounded like he was calling out to her from somewhere far
away.

“I’m feeling a bit light-headed.”

“Come,” he said, putting a strong arm around her, guiding her to the side of the pool. He hoisted his tanned body up over the edge in a flash, then reached down and lifted her out of the water with the ease of a father lifting a baby. Her head pounded, and the noise of the music in the background sounded distorted.

“Lie down,” he said, kneeling beside Dina.

Time seemed to slow down as she listened to the lifeguard, yelling through his megaphone from the other side of the pool. It sounded like a simple song, an uncomplicated hymn telling her to reach up and touch this man she had crashed into.

“David,” he introduced himself, holding out his hand.

“Dina,” she said, looking away, the floor tilting under her.

“Shalom, Dina. Where are you from?”

“Melbourne.”

“You know something, Dina from Melbourne?” he said, smiling broadly. “I have been swimming a hundred laps of this pool, every morning, for years and I’ve never had the pleasure before of crashing head-first into someone, especially a young woman from the opposite side of the world.”

They began to swim together every day.In the afternoons they drove to Dado Beach, diving into the dappled light under the waves. Dina heard the gurgling of bubbles, the rhythmic in-out of her breath as she came up for air. Theylay beside each other on the sand.

“People have always found love in the waves of this ancient sea,” he said as he traced his finger over her belly.

And war, she wanted to say, but bit her tongue. She looked down at her feet, her toes covered in globs of tar.

They surfaced like two lost shipwrecks, creaking back to life, hauling in rusty anchors, casting off forests of tangled seaweed. And in his eyes she gazed upon the memory of exile, of stones and cities and prophets she had scorned. She smelled the scent of fruit ripening, remembered desert winds and spilled blood. And soon he was grafted onto her, knowing full well that she was grafted onto the stump of her mother’s roots.

Loving each other began with longing, weaving her loneliness with his. Sweet pain drove her down into him. Not gradual descents, but plummeting, not knowing when she would stop. Bathing naked in the dark, Dina drifted in and out of the sea, with the current of David’s warm breath on her skin. He was the first man who didn’t seem frightened by the past she carried along with her everywhere she went; a heavy sack of the dead hoisted over her shoulder.

He asked her to marry him as they stood above the Baha’i gardens on Yefe Nof Street, looking out over Haifa Bay. She heard the word yes fall out from somewhere inside her, not sure now if she was speaking to him or to a place she finally felt was her home. She saw her own reflection in David’s eyes. He held her hand and she felt freed from the suburban shackles of Caulfield, where Holocaust survivors built new brick veneer houses and sought sanctuary inside them from the fires of Europe. Where her mother used to shop at the SSW supermarket on Glenhuntly Road by day, and trudge through the heavy snows of Bergen-Belsen at night.

*

David is filling Shlomi’s Superman thermos with tap water. Dina places her empty cup inside the sink, careful not to brush up against him.

“Why don’t you give him bottled water?” she asks. “The tap water tastes disgusting.”

“It’s not so bad. I’ve been drinking it all my life and I’m not dead yet.” He keeps filling the bottle from the tap.

“Did you hear what Shlomi just asked me?”

David slams the lid on Shlomi’s lunchbox and loads the dishwasher, stacking the plates and cups as close together as he can squeeze them, as always reorganising the way Dina threw them in. Soon he’ll deliver the usual lecture on how much water she wastes when the level of the Sea of Galilee is so low this year. Instead, David stands with his back towards her, silent. She notices his hair thinning.

“You know what your son just said?” she persists. When David doesn’t answer, she knows she should back off, but instead, she goes for the jugular. “I’ve had it with this place.” She flicks the crusts from her plate into the rubbish bin. He picks up a cereal bowl and tries to fit it on the top rack, which is already full of dirty glasses. “For God’s sake, David, he’s only eight years old. Have you watched him playing with his Power Rangers lately? I’ve seen him strap plasticine dynamite onto the black one and toss it in the air, shouting Allah hu Akbar.”

David rattles the cutlery.

“Don’t put the sharp knives in upside down. It’s dangerous,” she says. She lowers her voice, checking to make sure Shlomi isn’t within earshot. “Maybe we should take him to see a child psychologist?”

David turns around to face her, rubbing the stubble on his chin. He is smiling, but it is not the broad, gentle smile that Dina fell in love with years ago.

“Don’t be such a galutnik,” he says. Galutnik, a Jew from the Diaspora. To David, a galutnik is a coward, an eternal victim, a lower form of being than the Sabra Jew born in Israel. “There are hundreds of warnings every day in this country. The kids get used to it; life goes on .You’re the doctor; you should know how people adapt – it’s simply a matter of attitude.”

“But it’s different this time, David, and you know it. We can ignore it when it’s happening somewhere else, but it’s right here on top of us today; some lunatic terrorist running around in our own backyard.”

She twirls her hair and pins it up into a top knot.

“Oh, really, Dina. Get a grip! This country’s been through far worse than this intifada,” he says. “People forget how many wars we’ve had. An Israeli woman would take it all in her stride. It’s all part of life here. The kid only reacts to your overreaction; you’re the one making him nervous. You want to run back to your so-called peaceful Australia, hide among the goyim? But you know what? One suicide bombing in the middle of Melbourne is all they need to wake them up.”

“So what are you telling me in this lecture?” she prods. “That you’re not scared now? That you’re some kind of Uber hero?”

“Of course I’m worried. Don’t start that with me.”

“And you think Israeli mothers are so brave? Well, I’ve got news for you. I’ve had mothers come in, stomachs torn up with ulcers, having panic attacks, and when I press them, sometimes they tell me their real reasons. They’re scared to death for their sons. So how the hell would you know what they are really feeling? All you ever do is sit in your office staring out over the sea towards Cyprus as you contemplate Hegel’s Dialectic on Camel Poo.”

“Oh, cut the you’re-only-an-academic crap, will you, Dina? I’m sick of hearing your endless complaints. If you’re not happy here, all you have to do is get out your shiny Australian passport and leave.”

The door of the dishwasher gapes open beside him, filled to the brim with greasy dishes. He bends over to sprinkle powder into the machine, accidentally spilling some on the floor.

“And don’t think that just because you stop Shlomi from watching the news he doesn’t hear about the killings from his friends at school,” he adds, closing the door and pressing the start button. “It’s a fact of life here. It’s something we’ve all grown up with, and the more you make of it, the more neurotic the kid will be. Children take it in their stride. In fact, they even see it as exciting.”

What can she say to this?

Haifa has always prided itself on being a model of co-existence, a city where everyone lives in harmony: Muslims, Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Druze. Up until this morning, Dina felt like some exotic fish, swimming around inside the safety of an aquarium, staring out at a distorted, blurry world.

The dishwasher grunts loudly, clicking into its wash cycle. David stands in the middle of the kitchen, rubbing at a stain on the front of his t-shirt.

“Maybe we should go home for a few weeks,” she asks. “We could spend a few days down at Wilson’s Prom, go bushwalking, just get away for a while, relax a little?”

“We are home,” he says, looking up. “Besides, we can’t go anywhere now; you’re seven months pregnant. Or did you forget that?”

Dina rubs her belly, trying to think of something smart to say, but David drones on with his lecture: “Anyway, you think Melbourne is that much better? At least here people know how to live as proud Jews; they don’t shut themselves up in their comfortable, suburban boxes.”

“Oh, I almost forgot,” she snarls, “You don’t do relax in Israel.”

Dina picks up a dishcloth to wipe some crumbs and accidentally sweeps a sharp knife onto the floor next to David’s foot. She storms out of the kitchen, fed up with his tough Sabra bullshit. She is tired of this country and its new breed of Jew, outwardly strong and so in your face. She’s sick of herself, the cowering Diaspora Jew, always waiting for some catastrophe. But David knows better than most that his wife was raised to fear the worst. Her mother survived internment at Bergen-Belsen and fled Germany after the war.

“I chose the furthest place I could go,” her mother used to say. But as her daughter, Dina still grew up under the shadow of Europe’s smokestacks, breastfed with the knowledge that home and family were something you could lose in an instant, without warning.

Dina has been there hundreds of times in her mind, staring at women in black hats and gloves, clutching elegant purses, carrying suitcases stuffed with jewellery and clothes, as if they were off to some holiday resort, crushed against each other inside closed cattle cars reeking with shit and blood. A notice is pasted on a wall in the morning and by the afternoon, torn away from all they know, they are crammed in with everyone else.

Dina tries to bring herself back from there, to see her face in the hall mirror as she paints on pink lipstick, but it only makes her mind travel faster, backward through the years to all that past dreaming. She hides behind the fence, trying to steal a glimpse of her mother. Maybe she can catch her eye in time to warn her about where they are all going. Her hands grip the steel bars. She is hoping that her mother will pass right in front of her when suddenly she sees her, a middle-aged woman by her side. Look! Dina whispers to strangers standing beside her. There they are, waiting in line. Her grandmother clutches a bag under her arm, holds her mother tightly with her other hand. Dina strains to see more, but something is tugging at her, trying to rip her away, back to where she belongs. She will not let go. She needs to stay. She must see them board the cattle car together. She calls out to her mother, who turns towards her, searching amongst the crowd of people behind the barbed wire fence, but she is staring somewhere way off into the distance beyond Dina. Now the guards are locking the cars crammed with people. The train starts to move, slowly at first, pulling away from the platform, taking her away from Dina. Now is the time to act. It is this moment that will change their lives forever. Dina could jump out and halt the cars with her bare hands, stop them.

She watches the death car rattle off into the distance, waits until the guards and their dogs have gone. The platform is empty again. Silence drapes the air. She jumps over the fence and sees a crumpled letter lying there. She picks it up, smoothes out the paper.

My dear daughter,
I am on the train and waving you goodbye. I know you are standing there, hidden between the years that lie ahead, waiting for me to come, yet warning me not to leave. But if I do not journey forward along these tracks, you will never be born. Then who will there be left to tell my story? And if I do not go, I will never cradle you in my arms and fill you with my love, my dreams. So, farewell for now, my darling. Be good.
I will see you when the journey ends.
Love,
Mother

Shlomi dashes past Dina, carrying one of his shoes in his hand.

“We have to leave, darling.” She ruffles his blonde curls. “That old Evgeni’s probably already at the clinic by now.” She loops a lock of his hair around her finger, but he pulls away, heads towards the door, calls out to his father:

“Bye, Abba.”

David emerges from the kitchen holding a dish cloth in his hand.

“Have a good day,” David says, hugging Shlomi. He turns to Dina. “I’ll see you later.”

“Don’t count on it,” she snaps, turning her back. She snatches Shlomi’s bag from him and slings it over her shoulder. Shlomi picks up his mother’s briefcase and holds her hand tightly.

“Fine,” David wrings the dishcloth in his hands. He heads back to the kitchen.

Just as they are about to walk out the front door, Dina trips over a pile of old newspapers that David must have stacked there for recycling last night. She stumbles and leans on Shlomi to steady her. She notices that one of her heels is coming loose, but there’s no time to change shoes now; she’ll just have to make it through the day. They rush downstairs to the car park. After she drops Shlomi off at school, she might be able to pop into the supermarket to buy some apples for the sauce. Ha! Wouldn’t that make David happy? Dina would stand in front of the stove this evening, calmly stirring a pot of applesauce, in the midst of a bomb scare. She would finally become his vision of the perfect Israeli wife.