The Miser of Love

by Moshe Dann (July 2013)


Jonah stood in the old part of the city, overlooking a low plain of rooftops that spread out around him like a steppe towards the surrounding hills. Weary from his long trip, he dropped his backpack to the ground and leaned against the railing, absorbing the new sights and sounds that surrounded him. Gray perfumes of light hung on the horizon, bleeding from the jaw of darkness. He watched the colors fade softly before him, a bit afraid but still curious what had brought him to this place so far away from home. He was eager to discover where he was, and felt a familiarity and its strangeness. Sweet aromas from nearby windows made him even hungrier, and stirred him to think about where he could find something to eat. But he didn't know anyone and people spoke in a language he didn't understand, so he couldn’t even ask properly for help.

At one end of the narrow street a man unloaded boxes from a wagon, bending slowly each time as if praying. Shouts of laughter tapped along the stone pavement making him feel more alone. A sharp cold wind rushed against him; he shivered with a sense of isolation, instinctively rubbing his arms to warm himself. Suddenly, a young woman came up to him and handed him a plate of food. Her dark eyes were radiant in the fragments of light. Would I seduce her? he wondered.

"I live there," she said, pointing to a doorway. "If you like, you can wait inside until I come back." She smiled, looking at him as if about to answer a question, but then turned and walked quickly away into the silent labyrinth of streets.

Jonah pushed open the old wooden door and entered the small apartment hesitantly. What am I doing here? he thought.  And, how could she trust a perfect stranger? But fatigue and curiosity offset his ambivalence. The room was simple: a few shelves of books, hand-embroidered and knitted things hanging on the wall, an old floor lamp next to an older reading chair. It was a woman's room, soft and yielding, balanced with hues of warmth and subtle passion. But he realized that he was not alone.

A small boy dressed in a blue shirt and overalls stood in a corner showing him proudly a sandwich that he had made. He has her smile, Jonah thought as they watched each other, and her big black eyes. Jonah motioned to the boy to come closer, but he didn’t move. He stared at the plate of food that Jonah held, and then, with a flourishing gesture to an empty chair, too mature for his age, he beckoned him to eat. Jonah needed no encouragement and nodded his thanks.

Smiling cautiously, the boy took a bite of his sandwich. Jonah sat across from him at the table, eating furiously and wondering if there had been other visitors here like him. ‘Perhaps they never left this room,’ he thought, ‘drugged, murdered. This could be a conspiracy to kidnap me,’ he thought anxiously. But the food was good, and for a moment Jonah thought about home, when he was a boy, running away, exploring, and returning in the evening, unannounced, full of silent mysteries, restless to embark again. The boy reminded Jonah of himself. They watched each other for a sign of recognition, as if they had known each other before, trying to remember rules of an old game. 

She returned just as Jonah was wiping the last bits of food from his plate, and with only a glance toward him, took off her coat and hung it on the back of the door. There were other coats there. A heavy man's parka, dark as a drunken peasant, looked like his own. 

She stood in the center of the room.  It was the first time that he'd had a chance to get a good look at her. Solidly built, her long dark hair draped her face, her eyes, strong, intense; she was pretty, he concluded, but not exceptional. For a moment she glanced at him kindly, with an air of self-confidence. She was an adventurer, he imagined, an explorer, restless, full of silences and strangers, willing to take chances, a sailor standing on the deck of an old wooden trawler, face to the wind, on her way out to sea, the voyage inside her before she began.

Her son rushed into her arms and she caught him in a wild embrace, swinging him around and closing her eyes with joy. She kissed him and whispered something that made him give her an even stronger hug. They laughed softly together, as if sharing a secret. Holding his face in her hands, she looked at him, her eyes full of appreciation. "You are my special child," she said, as they touched noses. Jonah was jealous of the boy, overwhelmed by a longing to be embraced. He took a deep breath. What does this have to do with me? He felt awkward since he didn't know them at all.  They mean nothing to me. I will leave soon and we'll forget each other quickly.  But as he watched, their intimacy tempted him.

"Well, you're here," she said, with a rise in her voice, as if Jonah was a friend she hadn't seen in a long time. She smiled broadly, looking directly at him. Does she recognize me? He wondered. Why did she seem familiar? Although unable to remember, he felt quite comfortable with her.

"Do you write poetry?" she asked, pulling her hair back into a pony tail. She smoothed her neck, resting her fingertips against her lips.

"Yes," he answered, still puzzled by her invitation. "And you?" he asked, trying to find his balance. She smiled and nodded.

"Will you read some to me?" she tilted her head to one side, her eyes sparkling. “And you met my little boy,”she said, moving towards the kitchenette at one side of the room. She turned on a light over the sink, took two mugs from a cupboard and began to make tea. Through a half-opened door Jonah could see into another room; a bed and some clothes. Pants and a shirt like his. Was she married? Did she have a lover? 

“Did you eat enough?” she asked. Jonah nodded, but she was talking to the child. The boy explained that he was full and rubbed his stomach. “And now you're tired,” she suggested. “Let's go to bed.” She picked him up and hugged him. His arms wrapped around her neck, she kissed him as she carried him into the other room and laid him gently beneath the covers. Jonah wondered if she would do that for him too. She closed the door behind her and taking the mugs of tea from the counter, gestured to Jonah with her head to join her in the middle of the living room floor.

She sat down as if she were covering something fragile; he sat opposite her, taking one of the mugs and holding it against his chest, feeling its warmth flow through his body. She held her mug close to her lips, caressing the edge before she took a sip, as if amused, or testing him. She moved carefully, like an animal, deliberately, fully aware of herself. He wanted to ask her name, but it didn't seem to matter. Something needed to remain hidden, secret and unspoken, as if the intensity of passions could easily be destroyed, or destroy them.

They talked about visions, ideas; he let himself swirl into depths of feelings.  It was quite sudden and he felt vulnerable and exposed, as if he was swimming far out into the sea, and, although scared that he might not be able to get back, yet wanting to go farther. He felt lightheaded, eager to share his deepest secrets. He wanted to tell her everything about himself and wondered if she would be able to understand who he really was, to decipher his secret codes. She seemed to know exactly where to look for questions in him, and her interest encouraged him. They laughed together like children; their hands touched.  

He reached out, slid off the band that held her hair, running his fingers through it and then pulled her close to him. She did not resist, but when he tried to kiss her, she gently pushed him away.

"There’s someone else,” she stared at him. “I'm with someone," she said, looking toward the darkened window. Feeling foolish and abandoned, he wondered if she would ask him to leave. Nevertheless, he held his hand on her back and she didn't seem to mind, as if testing him and herself as well. There are many ways to seduce and be seduced, he thought and did not let go. He touched her face, her reluctance and willingness.

She stopped him and pulled back, looking at him startled by her sudden desire  "When I'm with you I realize that I love you," she said softly. There were tears in her eyes. He tasted them and brushed them with his cheek. “Oh, how did we find each other?” she said simply, shyly, as they embraced, their bodies merging into an intense flame.  

Afterwards, lying next to her, he listened to the sound of a clock. Didn't she want to know who I was? he thought overwhelmed with curiosity and suspicions. How could she make love to a stranger? Had there been others like me? And who is she? I don't even know her name! Does it matter? She gave herself to me, and that was enough for the moment. But he wasn't satisfied. He had to know more.

What about her unfortunate boyfriend? Either she didn't care enough and would eventually dump him, or allow the poor fool his time, without his being aware. Did she have an “understanding” with him that allowed her be with other men? What did she want from me? Jonah felt confused, teased by his own need to be closer to her, and yet, unsure if he was safe. The more he wanted, the more he was at her mercy.

There’s nothing between us, he reassured himself, but this moment which bound us together in what we had stolen, where we had come from, impatient as children and desperate as animals caught in traps. Once it was over there would be nothing left to speak of, only vague memories of their time together.  He felt the chill of loneliness haunting him and pulled closer to her. She caressed his head. 

Shadows played wildly across the ceiling. Needs without boundaries. He watched them move as delicately as cobwebs and useless as a torn umbrella in a storm. A small residue of light hung on to the window, staining the edges with doubt.

He wanted to speak to her, but she put a finger to her lips and shook her head, hinting that there were limitations. More questions rattled against the black bones of his suspicions. Why did she tell me about her boyfriend? She could have just as easily not told me. Was I meant to replace him? Was she bored, or using me to make him jealous? Perhaps she was searching for new excitements. Did he know that she was betraying him?

He touched her belly. She put her hand firmly over his as if clinging to something inside, fragile and unformed. “Do you think there’s a baby there?” she asked, smiling provocatively, sensing his anxiety, and then laughed. “Oh, don't worry,” she said.

But he knew that he had not been careful. He had taken her for granted.  It relieved him that she seemed unconcerned, but he was uneasy.

“Do you like it here?” Her voice seemed to waver, an afterthought.

“Yes,” he answered, still unsure, “with you,” wondering what he was doing there, and where he would go, and, when he left, whether he could find his way back from where he had come. Would she rescue me?  “Do you want me to stay?” he asked hesitantly.

“Of course; you are here with me. I will care for you, but you can leave whenever you want," she said quietly, testing him.

Was this a warning? Was it over already? He was afraid. Did she see my vulnerability? He tried to steady himself. What does she want from me and what do I want from her?

“Here I will teach you to love,” she caressed his chest, “but you must be willing to stay with me and be open and honest. You must learn to contain what you need.”

He thought about things he had to do, people to meet and places to explore. Wasn't this just a casual affair? What do we have to do with each other? If I walk out, would it matter?

A loud conversation was going on in the street below, but he couldn't understand it. Distractions. For the moment, we need each other. Isn't that enough? Perhaps it's better this way. Not all things are forgotten so easily; each loss leaves its mark. We are like cripples trying to find an amputated limb.

They had no names for each other, and in the beginning it hadn't mattered. In fact, it seemed better in case things turned for the worse. But now he wanted to stay longer, to know more.

“Who is he,” he finally insisted, “the other one?” She turned away without answering and continued to stroke his hand as if she hadn’t heard him. He was worried that he had gone too far. But now that he'd asked there was no turning back. “Do you love him?” She smiled and nodded. “And me too?”

“Yes, of course, I love you too.”

“But... how...?” he felt confused.

“Please don't ask...” she said softly, carefully. “Does it matter to you now? You are special. I want to be close to you. Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” Jonah insisted. “I want ...” he hesitated, thinking of the risk, but driven blindly into that storm. What do I want? “Are you thinking about him? Is he handsome, intelligent, exciting, young, wealthy ...?”

She looked at him suspiciously. He felt that cornered. 

“Well, I am curious" he admitted cautiously, clawing for recognition, the raw wound from where he had come.

“It's not important,” she said, as if to avoid the issue. “You are here, with me,” she said simply. "Isn't that enough?" Her openness and strength drew him closer to her.

What must I give up? Was she simply reassuring me? Can I trust her? I need my independence. I could always leave when I didn't like something, or was bored. The risk was minimal and left little room for pain. But if I want more from her, I must know more. And if I am taking someone else's place, she might turn around sooner or later and find someone else to replace me.

“I want to know more about you,” he hinted. “I love touching you, holding you in my arms. But I must know...” She stopped him again with a finger to her lips and then to his.

“Why do you need to know so much?” she asked. “We could be so close to each other. I'll love you with all my heart. Isn't that enough for you? Why do you always need so much more?”

“Don't you want to know more about me?”
“If there is something you want to tell me, but it really doesn't matter. Love is only the desire to give, to trust.”

He wanted to speak, but it didn't seem important now fearing that he would shatter the fragile link that bound them together. But he had to know whom she had betrayed, and why.

“Is it me you want?” she asked.  

He felt satisfied in his conquest, but began to sense that perhaps it was really the other way around. He was the one who had been seduced.

“I want to feel close to you. You are so special,” he answered evasively. “But I'd like to know why you invited me in. Who are you?”  Her face seemed covered with a mask. The affair was coming to an end too quickly. Off balance, he could no longer hold things together

“Why do you continue to struggle so much? she asked quietly. "Why are you so needy? Can't you just take things as they are? I've given you so much, and yet it's not enough … nothing is. Before you can love, you must learn to trust. You want to be cared for, but like a child you fight against it.” She looked at him sadly. He tried to touch her, but she pushed his hand away.

“Do you want the truth, or do you want to escape into your fantasy with me?” she asked. “Do you really want to know who you are, or will you settle for what you will take from me now?”  He felt lost, in panic, unable to move. “You have stolen intimacy from me and from yourself. You used me to avoid what you dread most, betrayal and abandonment. Embrace yourself. Stand alone; trust what is deepest inside you, believe in who you are. There you will know about love.” She moved away. “Now you must go.”

She got up; he tried to stop her.

“No!” he insisted. “Why now? I can't leave; not yet!” He tried to put his arms around her, but could not hold on. “I’m afraid you’ll take everything away from me,” he cried out.

“Ah, my dear sweet little thief,” she shook her head, “you have nothing left to give."

“Please,” he pleaded. “Tell me” he insisted, as if that would save him. “Who is he?”

“Why does it bother you so much?” she asked. “Why does it make such a difference? You never believed that you could be loved. How then could you dare to love anyone else?”

“WHO IS HE?” he screamed.

“My dear,” her voice scraped like a knife on a sharpening stone, “don't you know?" She touched his face. "Don't you remember?” she asked. “You,” she whispered. “You,” she repeated softly. “It was you.”

Jonah tried to move. He closed his eyes, hardly breathing. When he looked around she was gone. Standing up, he slipped quickly into his blue shirt and overalls, pulled on his parka that hung by the door and walked outside into the street of illuminated dreams.

 

The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.   

 

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