Asleep in my father’s apartment, I dream that someone is at the door. It’s him—he is three, or maybe four, years old. He’s crying; I don’t know why, only that he is bitterly disappointed. I try to distract him by showing him a picture book with beautiful illustrations, in colors far brighter than those one gets in life. He glances at the book, but carries on anyway. In his eyes I see that everything has already been decided. So instead I pick him up and carry him around on my hip. It isn’t easy, but that’s how it has to be, because he’s so upset, this tiny father-child.
The latch of the front door awakens me. I’ve been living here alone for more than a week. Now, lying still, I listen to the sound of footsteps entering, and a bag being set heavily on the floor. The footsteps move away, toward the small kitchen, and I hear the creak of the cabinet open and close. The sound of water rushing from the tap. Whoever it is knows his way, so there is no one it can be.
From the bedroom doorway I see the stranger’s broad, stooped back. It takes up half the tiny kitchen. He gulps down a glass of water, fills it again, drains that one, and a third. Then he rinses the glass and places it to dry, upside down, on the rack. He’s sweated through his white shirt. He unbuttons the sleeves and rolls them to the elbows. He splashes his face with water, removes the checked dishcloth from the peg, dries himself brusquely, and stops to press the towel into his eyes. From his back pocket he produces a small comb and runs it through his hair, smoothing it into place. When he turns, his face is not the face I expected, although there was no face I was expecting. This face is old and refined, with a long nose and high, flared nostrils. His eyes are hooded, but surprisingly light and nimble. He walks the few steps back into the living room, tosses his wallet on the table, and only then, looking up, does he notice me watching him from the doorway.
My father is dead; he died two months ago. At the hospital I was given his clothes, his watch, and the book he’d been reading as he ate alone at the restaurant. I searched his pockets for a note to me, first the pants and then the raincoat. Finding none, I read the book, about legal theory and Maimonides. I couldn’t make sense of the words. I had not prepared myself for his death. He had not prepared me. My mother had died when I was three. We had already dealt with death, in our way we’d agreed to be finished with it. Then, without warning, my father broke our agreement.
A few days after the shiva, Koren brought me the keys to the apartment abroad. I hadn’t known there was anything that had belonged to my father there. In the five years before he died, he had taught the winter semester on the other side of the world, in the city where he grew up. But I always assumed that he lived in rooms loaned to him by the university, the sort of spare, impersonal place visiting academics are always given, which have everything and nothing: salt in the cupboard, but never olive oil; a knife, but a knife that doesn’t cut. He told me almost nothing about where he lived between January and May. But he had not been secretive about it. I knew, for example, that he commuted to the campus in the suburbs three times a week because he preferred to live in the city, and that the apartment where he stayed was not far from the sea, where he liked to walk in the early morning. When we spoke on the phone, as we often did, and he told me about the concerts he attended, the dishes he had tried cooking, and the book he was writing, I never pictured his surroundings on the other end of the line. And when I tried to recall those conversations, it seemed to me that there was nothing beyond the sound of my father’s voice: It absorbed even the need to imagine.
And yet there was Koren with the keys to the apartment I hadn’t known of. It was Koren, the executor of my father’s will, who’d taken care of the funeral arrangements; I had only to be present when they lowered him into the ground, to add the first shovel of dirt. The hollow thud it made on the pine casket made my knees buckle. Standing in the cemetery in a dress too heavy for the warm weather, I remembered the one time I’d seen him drunk. He and Koren had sung so loudly it had woken me up: Chad gadya, chad gadya. One little goat, one little goat. The dog came, and bit the cat, that ate the goat, that my father bought for two zuzim. Once my father told me that the Torah contained no mention of the everlasting soul—that the soul as we know it came along only in the Talmud, and, like all technological advances, it made things easier but cut people off from something that had once been native to them. What was he saying? That the invention of the soul made people strangers to death? Or was he instructing me not to think of him as a soul once he was gone?
Koren copied the address onto the back of his business card and told me that my father had wanted me to have the apartment. Afterward, as we stood in the fluorescent-lit hall waiting for his elevator, sensing, perhaps, that he had not adequately conveyed some message, Koren added, “He thought it was someplace you might go sometimes.”
Why? Why, when all these years I’d never visited him there, nor had he ever invited me? I had cousins in the north of the country, but was rarely in touch with them; their mother, my father’s sister, was nothing like him. My cousins are hard, practical, unsparing people. Now they already have children of their own whom they let run freely in the street, playing with sharp and rusty things. I admire them but don’t know how to speak to them. After my grandmother died when I was ten, I’d only gone back once. There was no longer any reason to go. As if something had been decided, my father gave up speaking to me in his own language. I’d been answering him in English for years and so I hardly noticed, but later I came to sense that the language he still dreamed in was an argument he had lost with someone else, not me.
Now when the stranger in my father’s apartment speaks to me, I answer reflexively in English: “I’m Adam’s daughter. Who are you?”
“You surprised me,” he says, clapping his chest. He sinks down onto the sofa, his knees falling open.
“You’re a friend of my father?”
“Yes,” he says, rubbing his throat under the open collar. The hair on his chest is sparse and gray. He gestures for me to sit, as if it were I who had appeared unannounced in his living room, and not vice versa. With shining eyes, he takes me in. “I should have guessed, you look like him. Only prettier.”
“You didn’t say your name.”
My father had never mentioned a Boaz.
“I’m an old friend,” the stranger said.
“Why do you have the keys?”
“He lets me use the place when he isn’t here. Now and then, when I come through the city. I stay in the back bedroom and check on things for him. Last month there was a leak from upstairs.”
“My father died.”
For a moment he says nothing. I can feel him studying me.
“I know.” He stands up, turning his back to me, and easily lifts the heavy bag of groceries he’d set down earlier. But instead of leaving, as I expect—as any normal person would—he retreats to the kitchen. “I’m making something to eat,” he says without turning. “If you’re hungry, it’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.”
From the living room, I watch him nimbly chopping the vegetables, cracking the eggs, and rummaging in the refrigerator. It annoys me to see him making himself so at home. My father is gone, and yet this stranger intends to take advantage of his hospitality. But I haven’t eaten all day.
“Sit,” he commands, sliding the omelet from the skillet onto my plate. Obediently, I take my place, just as I used to do when my father called me to the table. I eat quickly, without seeming to taste the food, so as not to give him any pleasure—although it’s good, the best I’ve had in a long time. My father used to say that food tasted better to him when I ate it, but it also always tasted better to me when he’d prepared it. I pick the last salad leaves off the plate with my fingers, and when I look up, the stranger is watching me with pale green eyes.
“Your hair,” he says, “you always wear it so short?” I shoot him a look to make it clear that I have no interest in getting personal. He eats in silence for a few minutes before trying again: “You’re a student?”
I drink my water without bothering to correct him. Through the bottom of the glass I see his blurred mouth.
He tells me that he is an engineer. “Then you can afford to stay wherever you want when you come to the city,” I say. He stops chewing and smiles, revealing small, gray, childish teeth. “I work for the municipal department,” he says and names a city in the north. “Anyway, this is the most convenient.”
It makes no difference to him, whoever he is, that my father has died—why should he let that get in the way of convenience? I decide to tell him to leave right now. I push back my chair and drop my plate in the sink, but what I find myself saying, instead, is that I am going out for a walk.
“Good,” he says, and goes on chewing in a slow manner, his fork and knife poised delicately in the air above his plate, “get some fresh air. I’ll do the dishes.”
It’s late in the afternoon, but the heat hasn’t let up. All the same, my annoyance dissipates once I’m outside. On the taxi ride from the airport, I’d been surprised by how ugly and rundown everything looked, the pockmarked walls and rusted iron rods poking from concrete columns on the roofs. But now I’m already used to it. It even comforts me in a way, this lazy decrepitude, along with the dusty trees, the yellow sunlight, and the sound of my father’s language.
Soon I come to the water. I sit cross-legged on the beach and choose a small piece of the sea to watch, a tiny piece that changes with the light and the wind and some force far below. A child is sitting at the shore’s edge, shouting with glee every time the waves lap her legs, while her parents sit in plastic chairs, talking and sharing a thermos of coffee. It’s easy enough to understand what drew my father back here. More difficult to understand is why he stayed away for 20 years. He left with me after my mother died. He got a job teaching across the ocean, I started school, and we spoke less and less about my mother’s absence or our lives before. I became a native, but he could only ever be a foreigner, and now that I am here, in his city, I wonder for the first time why he waited so long to return, after I’d already grown up and finished college. When I’d first opened the door of the apartment I hadn’t known about, I was overwhelmed by what I found: the walls lined with books, the faded rugs my father must have hunted for in the market, his opera records, the baubles on the shelves, mementos from his travels, the tin tea caddies and the colorful dishes in the cabinet, the battered upright piano with Bach still open on the stand. Even the smell of spices in the kitchen. It was my father’s place, there was no question of that; here were all of the things he loved. But it was exactly this thoroughness that surprised and unsettled me. It was as if I was looking at my father’s life upside down: This was his real home, and the apartment I’d grown up in was merely the place he stayed when away from here. Standing in the middle of his living room, I felt a stab of betrayal. If there were such thing as a soul, however refracted, to where would his return?
By the time I get back to my father’s street it’s already dusk, and I see the lights on in his apartment. My eye catches something moving on the washing line that extends from the bathroom window. Some shirts—my shirts—are swaying in the shadows. I follow the cord until my gaze arrives at a pair of large hands, delicately pinning my underwear up to dry.
Racing up the two flights of stairs, I bang the light switch in the hall, fumble with the keys, and fly through the door. “What are you doing?” I explode, gasping for breath, the blood buzzing in my ears. “Who gave you the right to go through my things?”
The municipal engineer has stripped to his white undershirt. The basket of wet clothes is balanced on the stool beside him.
“They were on top of the washing machine. I stained my shirt cooking and it seemed a waste to run a wash for nothing.”
He places a clothespin between his thick lips and turns back to the careful work of pinning my clothes and letting out the line. His shoulders are covered with the sun spots that come with age, but his arms are thick and muscular. He wears no wedding ring.
“Listen,” I say in a low voice, though he is already listening. “I don’t know who you are, but you can’t just go letting yourself into people’s apartments and invading their privacy.”
He puts down the clothes and removes the pin from his mouth. “Have I invaded your privacy?”
“You’re going through my underwear!”
“And you think they interest me?”
Now the heat rushes to my face. The pair of purple underwear that was in his hands a moment ago is old and childish, the elastic stretched out.
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“So what are you saying? You don’t want me to do your laundry? Next time I won’t.” He pins the last shirt and turns away from the window. “There’s ice cream in the refrigerator. I’m going out and I won’t be back until late. There’s no need to wait up for me; I have the key. In case you have nowhere to go, there’s a good movie on at nine.”
Why do I watch the movie? I eat the ice cream and watch the movie, just as he suggested. The movie isn’t half bad, it’s true, but I fall asleep anyway, and when I wake up something else is on. It’s past midnight. I put my father’s watch to my ear. It will only go on ticking for so long, and soon the surplus of time he left for me will be spent. But for now it goes on ticking.
Somewhere there is a cat crying, or maybe a baby. I run the water for a bath, and lying back I notice for the first time a dark water stain on the ceiling where the plaster has begun to peel from a leak. Before I go to bed, I knock on the door of the tiny back bedroom, although I know he isn’t there: I would have heard him come in. I flip the light switch. The narrow bed is as neatly made as a soldier’s. He seems too big for such a bed—my bed, it suddenly occurs to me, the one my father meant for me to sleep in if I’d ever come to visit. But I had not visited, and so in the meantime the small bed had been loaned out to a stranger.
There is a wooden dresser at the foot of the bed, the only other piece of furniture that fits in the room. Opening the top drawer, I find a shaving kit, toothbrush, and a change of underwear. The others are empty.
In my father’s bedroom, I take out the small leather photo album I found in the drawer of his night table. In the apartment where I grew up, the only photographs my father kept were of me, and now, since I found the little album a week ago, I can’t stop looking at it. On the first page is a picture of him as a young man, even younger than I am now. He wears shorts and hiking boots, and stands in front of the rock wall of a canyon. It’s uncanny how much the face in the photo looks like mine. Though we always shared a resemblance, it was muted by the difference in our ages. But in this picture it’s easy to see how it happens—how one nose gets passed down through time; one set of ears that stick out a little too much; one eye that is just the tiniest bit smaller than the other, as if to hold itself back from seeing. Even our postures are similar, as if we were born, one after the other, to occupy the same spot.
It takes me a moment to pick him out in the next photo. He’s swimming in a pool under a waterfall with some others, mouth open, eyes laughing, the shutter snapped just as he was shouting to the person behind the lens. In the third photo he’s crouching on a rock, shirtless, a cigarette cupped in his hand, a smiling girl next to him. Now the familiarity of his face, which is also my face, begins to feel even stranger, because this relaxed young man has so little to do with my father, who was disciplined and rigorous even in the pursuit of his pleasures. In the last photo, his arms are thrown out, and he is laughing in a desert that stretches behind him forever. It fills me with longing, as if I, too, had been there years ago, or as if part of me goes on being there, or maybe it’s just the feeling that I would give anything to meet him there, to stand face to face with him, a mirror image of the desert stretching behind me forever.
I fall asleep without realizing it, and when I open my eyes again a filmy dawn fills the window, and I have the sense that something has woken me. In the dream I was having, many people were coming and going from a place that was supposedly my father’s apartment, but actually looked more like the train station of a small town. I understood that my father was dying there, in the stationmaster’s office, like Tolstoy. I get up for a glass of water and in the hall I see that the door of the spare bedroom is slightly ajar. When I push it open a heavy odor drifts out, the odor of a man’s body abandoned to sleep. I see him sunk into the covers, legs thrown over the edge, arms wrapped around the pillow, breathing evenly. Submerged in sleep, given over entirely to it, as if he no longer had any responsibility left in the world but to sleep like that—to sleep the sleep of the dead. I feel myself growing drowsy just watching him. As if his sleep has cast a spell over me, suddenly my limbs feel heavy and all I want is to collapse back into bed, to burrow down in the blankets and abandon myself to a long and dreamless sleep. I’m so exhausted that, if the bed in the small room hadn’t been so narrow, I’d have crawled in next to him, curled up, and closed my eyes. I have to fight to pull myself away and back down the hall, and when I get there I fall into bed.
When I finally rouse myself it’s already noon, and sunlight streams through the slats of the shutters. The long blind sleep has left me agitated and restless. The door of the small bedroom is closed. I walk all the way to the pool on the roof of the mall in the center of the city. The women with saggy-bottomed bathing suits drift back and forth, and the old man with the gold swimming cap is there again, doing his knee bends in the shallow end. If he slips below the surface and doesn’t come up, the lifeguard will come down and fish him out, but once he leaves and goes home there are no lifeguards. One day he will slip below the surface in his own house, or on the street, the way my father slipped below the surface in a restaurant. Or maybe it isn’t like that at all—maybe the weights that hold life down suddenly lift.
I swim 30 lengths then walk back to the apartment. The door of the stranger’s bedroom is still closed. I make some toast and afterward go out to read at a nearby café where the waiter in skinny jeans with a lazy eye smiles at me while he squeezes my orange juice. Afterward I wander through the market. A man tries to sell me a hat, but I don’t want a hat. What do I want? the man wants to know. I go to the beach and watch the hairy men playing paddleball. By the time I return to my father’s apartment it’s already late in the afternoon, the shadows on the sidewalk grow away from the sea, and the municipal engineer is in the kitchen baking stuffed peppers. Only at that moment, the moment I come through the door and see him peering into the oven, does it occur to me that my father might have arranged this. That just as he had prepared his will, gave Koren the keys, and made sure his wish for me to come here was communicated, my father might also have gone to the trouble of asking his old friend to watch over me, or to pass something on to me, however discreetly, some message or sign of what to do now that he’s gone.
“You’re back,” he says, lowering the volume of the news from the radio. “Good. Dinner is almost ready. You like cherries? The grocer had cherries today.”
I want to ask him where he was last night. I want to ask about the undertow that pulled me out with him into fathomless sleep. But what would be the question? Instead I set the table and wonder which chair my father used to sit in. I decide it must have been the one closest to the stove, facing the window—the one Boaz sat in yesterday. This time when we sit to share the meal he has prepared, he in his chair and I in mine, I make a point of being more friendly. Something has changed and he knows it. His nimble eyes, even lighter than I’d remembered, regard me with a questioning look, and something else, too, a kind of sad patience. I wish he would talk, but he carries on eating in silence. It’s up to me to speak, so I tell him that I’m not in fact a student, that I’ve been working in an architecture firm for three years, but that I don’t like it. When I wake up in the morning, I tell him, I don’t look forward to the hours in front of the computer, the architect’s bad-tempered outbursts, and the complaints of his rich clients.
“So why do you stay?” he asks, wiping his mouth.
After dinner he takes a bath, and in my room I hear the water ripple each time he moves on the other side of the wall. Twenty minutes later, he comes out of the bathroom dressed in the same clothes, freshly shaved, his wet hair neatly slicked back.
“I’m going out for a while,” he says, “so you’ll have the place to yourself.” He goes down the hall to the small bedroom carrying his toothbrush and towel. I can smell his aftershave in the humid air that floats out of the bathroom.
“What did you come here for?” I blurt out when he appears again. It isn’t the way I’d meant to ask, and immediately I regret it. I want him to know that I understand the need to uphold our parts in the charade we’re playing for my father’s sake. And so quickly I add, “Just to check for leaks?”
“To see someone,” he answers and by the way he says it, shoving his hands into his pockets, I sense that it’s a woman. For the second time, I’m surprised at myself, at the way his answer disappoints me. It was not what I’d expected him to say—though what was it that I’d expected him to say? That he came for me?
And I surprise myself yet again when, a few moments after he goes out the front door, I slip out after him and hurry down the stairs. I follow him at a distance down the street. He passes under a mulberry tree, so I pass. He crosses to the other side, so I cross. He stops to look up at the tall building they are raising, and I, too, stop to look up, and it seems to me that I could go on doing this for a very long time, shadowing a life.
Soon we are in an unfamiliar part of the city, more rundown than the rest. The terraces seem to be hanging on by a few screws. He stops at a bakery and comes out again holding a small box tied with string. Cookies? What kind? Cakes? The woman’s favorite kind, which she waits for every time and has come to expect? He looks across the street, and for an instant it seems that his eyes catch mine. But his face registers nothing, and he turns away and continues to walk. A few blocks farther, he goes into a supermarket and this time I wait behind a car until I see him come out with a plastic bag.
By now it’s dark. The stranger, Boaz—if that’s his name—is still moving up ahead. We walk for almost an hour. But I don’t mind, I’ve always been a good walker. My father used to say that even as a little girl I would walk very far and never complain. If it weren’t for my thirst, and the fact that I ran out without my wallet, I’d be content to go on like this all night. But soon I’m really dying for a drink, and every time we pass one of the wire recycling cages filled with the negative shapes of so many quenched thirsts, I’m reminded.
At last, the stranger stops in front of a squat stucco apartment building. The small front garden is overgrown, crowded by a large bush that grows by the entrance, and a wild-looking tree whose dark, glossy leaves partly obscure the façade. He pauses to look up, and through the leaves I see that the windows of the first floor are lit up. He goes through the front gate, but instead of entering the building he walks around to the side alley, and four or five skinny cats spill out of the bushes, threading through his legs and purring as he removes some tins from the supermarket bag. He peels off the tops and sets the tins down on the ground. The cats swarm, more appearing from under the bushes. When he kicks some empty tins aside, they leap back and tense. He says something to calm them, and they return to devouring the food. I stand under the street lamp, no longer caring if he sees me. But if he knows I’m there, he doesn’t let on. Stuffing the plastic bag into his pocket, he comes back around to the front and pauses, as if to sniff something in the night air, and looks up again at the lit windows through the leaves. The branches move in the breeze, tapping the glass, and he stands, jingling the coins and keys in his pocket, as if trying to decide something that could go either way. Then, squaring his shoulders, he hurries up the path and disappears into the dark lobby. A cat yowls, somewhere a television is on, but otherwise it’s quiet. For a moment I think I can hear the waves, but it’s only the breeze rising in the leaves. I cross to the other side of the empty street, but it’s even harder to see into the windows from there. It’s obvious I’ll have to climb the tree. Standing at the base of the trunk, I search for a foothold and manage to hoist myself up into the branches. The twigs catch on my t-shirt, and the resin that oozes out of the broken stems makes my hands sticky. Once my foot slips and I almost fall. But then I am high enough, and close enough, that I can almost reach out and touch them: a young woman and a child, sitting peacefully at a table, framed in a rectangle of light. Her long hair is braided down her back, and when she looks up from her book to see what the child has drawn, I see her light-colored eyes, and the thought comes to me—calmly, clearly—that somewhere, somehow, someone has given him the wrong key and that she is the daughter he has come back to watch over. Legs trembling from effort, I grip the tree trunk, waiting for her to hear the doorbell and to let him in. What could be taking him so long? What is he rehearsing on the other side of her door? And is it only their own doors, the doors of those they love, that become locked to the dead?
At that moment I hear his footsteps below, and see him hurrying underneath into the street. The twigs tear past on my way down, scratching my face and arms. I jump the last part, land hard, and begin to run. At the top of the block I see a figure turn the corner, but by the time I get there there’s no sign of him, and the quiet street ends in a wide and busy avenue. Traffic speeds past. A bus groans to a halt and it seems possible he’s on the other side of it, but when it pulls away the sidewalk is empty of him. I look into the only place that’s open, an all-night pharmacy on the corner, but there is only an old woman leaning on her cane among the boxes and bottles, patiently waiting for her prescription to be filled. How could he have just disappeared like that? I think, angry at him and at myself. Though maybe the real question is how I managed to follow him so far.
No place in this city is ever far from the sea, and when I find my way to it and get my bearings, I realize I’m closer to my father’s apartment than I’d thought. The sea is different in the dark, more vast and alive, filled with intelligence. When I get to the rock jetty behind the old shuttered discotheque, I see a group of men casting their fishing lines off the end into the black water. I watch for a while, but nothing comes of it. I wonder whether I should go home and wait for the stranger. But I feel he won’t come back, not tonight, and not tomorrow either, just as I also feel that a decade will pass, and I’ll have children of my own, before I finally change the lock.
By the time I return, it’s past midnight. I check the stranger’s room but it’s empty, as I knew it would be, the bed neatly made. My head feels heavy, and a feeling of exhaustion comes over me. I strip off my clothes, dropping them in a trail down the hallway on my way to bed, as I’ve always done when I’ve lived alone. The shutters are closed, and I inch through the pitch dark and collapse on top of the covers. Only then, lying still with my eyes open, do I hear the rhythmic breath of someone already asleep in the bed. I scream out, arms flailing, and my fist sinks into something soft and warm. I grope for the lamp, and when the bulb flares I see the stranger sprawled out in his undershirt, mouth half open, abandoned to sleep just as before. He couldn’t have gotten home long before me, and yet he’s already so far from the shore of wakefulness that neither my scream nor my fist has roused him. Heart pounding, I snatch my t-shirt from the floor, and throw it over my head. I mean to shake him awake and demand an explanation for everything, to tell him to get out of my bed, or my father’s bed—at the very least a bed that isn’t his, for his is down the hall if it is anywhere at all. But just as I’m about to grab him by the shoulders a powerful chill comes over me. Suddenly I’m afraid to disturb him, as if he might have been sleepwalking all this time, as if waking him might unsettle a balance, causing something to cease or fall still forever.
I switch off the lamp, close the door gently behind me, go down the hall to the spare bedroom, and climb into the narrow bed. For a while it seems that sleep will never come, until I open my eyes and it’s morning, and I hear the sound of the bath running. But it isn’t the bath; it’s the sound of water rushing through the pipes in the wall from the apartment above. Perhaps soon there will be another leak, and then the stranger will have to wake up and deal with it. I get up and go to look for him in my father’s bedroom. The door is open and the bed is empty, the sheets unmade. Entering the living room, I almost trip over him. He’s curled up on the floor, legs pulled into his stomach, hands tucked between his knees, sleeping like a baby. Very gently, I prod him with my foot, but he carries on serenely, untouched in his vast sleep. How long can this go on? I wonder. Soon winter will come, the sea will darken, and the rain will fall, leaving puddles in the broken asphalt. But even as I think this, I know in my heart that it will go on a very long time. That I will get used to stepping over the stranger on my way to the kitchen because that is the way one lives, casually stepping over such things until they are no longer a burden to us, and it is possible to forget them altogether.