Translated by: by Geffen Huberman
“Did you hear about the girl?” the Candyland cashier, who resembled a human gummy bear, asked me. “You didn’t hear? She was brought to the emergency room early this morning. The orderlies are calling her ‘The Comatose Beauty,’ and—”
“I gather,” I interrupted, “that physician-patient privilege is dead? ”
I activated the milk frother in Ichilov Hospital’s coffee kiosk, where I work. The gummy bear fingered a brown sugar packet, a mischievous smile creeping onto his lips. A father, his jovial, wheelchair-bound son, and a pallid woman in a cast walked by, while a janitor stood beside a trash bin, staring dejectedly into space. When the frothing whisk descended into the milk, its whirring became a dull gurgle.
“They thought her pelvis was on fire. Turns out she dyes her Bermuda Triangle. Red. Not orange—fire red. She’s this tiny, brown-skinned brunette—hey, hey, the milk is overflowing! What, did the mention of a woman’s pelvis get you going?”
In the hospital corridors, the cry of “Careful, hot coffee!” carries the urgency of an ambulance siren. Wearing my barista uniform, I plowed my way to the emergency room, alerting a sleepy anesthesiologist, “Hot coffee coming through!”
Beneath a flimsy, overused blanket, she lay like a defunct doll, arms by her sides, her complexion chalky, a tube snaking from her puffy lips. A reddish furrow was entrenched along the brown skin of her neck. The air conditioner emitted the biting chill of a morgue, and the arrhythmic beeping from all the machines in the room was enough to drive anyone crazy. Her roommate, who was separated by a curtain, had acted up that morning and been escorted out, granting me some alone time with her. With Ella. My Ella.
It all started after Dad kicked me out of the house. Everyone who hears the story agrees that he was totally out of line. I was lying naked in bed, and suddenly he barged in—I told you not to touch the apple juice, didn’t I? I’m naked, Dad, get out of here! You drank the whole damn thing, and then put the empty bottle back in the fridge!
On the computer screen beside me a woman was doing something lewd. Taking a swing at my ribs, Dad shouted: This is what you’re doing with your life? I give you heaven on earth, and you spit in my face. Get dressed and scram. I’m not kidding, get out of my house. Come on, out, get out of here!
At first, I sort of liked the streets, the sense of freedom and distance from Dad, but then a storm came along and some wise guy convinced me to go to a shelter for at-risk youth. The kids were a bunch of animals, but it was a comfortable set-up. I stayed there for forty days, until a girl named Yona decided she could fly and jumped out the window, landing on an olive tree and breaking her neck.
I started working, cleaning offices in a high-rise, but all those languages bouncing off the walls made me dizzy. For a while, I soaped up pyramids of plates as a dishwasher in an Egyptian restaurant, then hitchhiked through the desert, where I found a golden earring in the sand—a genuine fake, I discovered when I tried to sell it. On the way back to Tel Aviv, I spotted a Bible on a bus stop bench. I flipped to a random page—the Ten Commandments. It put me in a philosophical mood. I lifted my eyes from the page, but instead of the sky, I saw her.
“Has the bus to Tel Aviv already come?” she asked, drenched in sweat.
“Not yet. I’m waiting for it too,” I told her in a transformed voice.
We sat beside each other. As we rode, I snuck furtive glances at her body, which was strong, with points of weakness; full, but somehow flimsy.
She looked like someone I could wait on, but no more than that. I was truly a boorish creature at the time. But strong-willed. I won her over with my chapped lips, landed in her heart like an unfulfilled promise, and finally, I confessed: I don’t know anybody in Tel Aviv. You know me, she said. I don’t even know your name, I said. Ella, she replied, and yours? Moshe, I replied. That’s a nice name, she said.
She lived in a one-bedroom with peeling walls. Do you live alone? I asked. In lieu of an answer, she kissed my eyelids for a long moment, as if to anoint me as king.
I found a menorah on the street and exclaimed: for our housewarming! It’s a lamp, she corrected me, but that’s a cute thought. We had a barbeque on our tiny balcony and the smoke rose to the sky.
I slowly learned to understand her volatile moods. She sweat. Non-stop. Sometimes it looked like steam was rising from her brown body. Her nether regions were salty. Her tongue, on the other hand, was cold as snow, as if she had just eaten a popsicle.
During the first week, she gave herself over to me, but after that she suddenly forbade me from going near her. What happened, I asked. I don’t like that you already think I’m yours. I don’t think that, I smirked, I know it.
It turns out that a woman’s first slap is just as memorable as her first kiss on your lips. Anybody else would have been alarmed, or hurt, or maybe even slapped her back. I knew where she was coming from. I’ve gotten into real fistfights in my life, and there’s a difference. Her eyes told a different story from her slap. Harder, I requested, my ears ringing. Give it to me, I said, gimme everything you got, I can take it. She scratched me until I bled and whispered: you’ll wash my feet and drink the dirty water. And I assented. We made up an adult version of the game ‘Land, Sea, Air.’ Some amateur psychologists might say—it’s not that she’s a sadist, it’s that you’re a masochist, accustomed to your father’s abuse.
We passed the time just like everybody else, and then one day she said: “I’m pregnant, Moshe, in my eighth or ninth week…”
My heart skipped eight or nine beats.
“If the baby is anything like my father,” I declared, “there’s no way I’ll be able to love it.”
“It won’t be.”
“How do you know?”
“Because it will never be born.”
In the waiting room for the gynecologist, a nosy woman with rainbow hair said: “Congratulations, and don’t stop at one. Every kid needs a sibling.”
“Have you heard of Cain and Abel?” I asked the woman as we headed into our appointment.
“You’re my biggest love,” I whispered to Ella as she came to.
“You’re my biggest enemy,” she snarled at me, at her sharpest even when drugged.
“We made it through,” I ventured.
“We’ve destroyed the Temple.”
“The Temple was destroyed because of idol worship and bloodshed,” I intellectualized.
“That’s just my point,” she said grimly.
I consoled her, I sympathized with her, and then I found out she was having a virtual affair with some shaggy stoner from the Galilee. You found someone to save you from me, huh? I said defensively, and she shot back—your words, not mine.
Before he disappeared he wrote her a final email, the twelfth exchange. “You’re not ready for me yet, I’ll come back when you are.” Poser. Snob. She forgot about him, but I didn’t; every time someone knocked on the door, I was sure it was him, coming back to retrieve her.
We tried to be mythological, we thought we were the center of the world, but when thieves broke into our house and emptied it, took everything we had, even the menorah-lamp, it all blew up in our faces. Curses and rebukes turned into pushing and hissing. Ella shoved an elbow into my nose. It broke, swelled to twice its size, then went crooked for good. I hated her for making me fall in love with her all over again. My life’s Second Temple had been destroyed; it would take a long time until I was ready to build a Third. The next morning, I took a taxi to the airport. What’s the next flight I can get on, I asked. Rome, the ticket agent said. Viva Roma, I replied.
Damn it! My memories halted with a screech, and I leaned over her body.
“Ella, it’s me, Moshe…” I stroked her cold cheek, her shoulder, I tugged her hand gently, shook her body until it undraped from the blanket. I didn’t stop myself from loosening her hospital gown, either. I gaped at the burning bush. She must have done it when we were apart. And maybe she didn’t even dye it—the color could have just burst from within her.
“Excuse me, who are you?”
Swiftly and sloppily, I covered her back up. “Bro—” I stuttered at the man dressed in white.
“Don’t call me bro.” Quite a feisty reply for a male nurse.
I peeked at his nametag. “Mohammed. Hi. My name’s Moshe.” At the time, I didn’t pay too much attention to the pathetic propheticism of our name combination. “I’m here to visit Ella.”
“What’s your relation to her?” What could I say: her slave, her master, her chosen one… “You’re from the cafe downstairs, aren’t you? What are you doing here?”
“I came to see Ella. Why are you looking at me like that? I know her!”
“Do you have any proof?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Are you a police officer, Mohammed?” I asked. “No? So lay off with the interrogation. See this cup of coffee? It’s for her. She’s the only person in the world who takes her cappuccino with milk and honey. Now do me a favor and give us a little privacy. It’s hard enough to see her lying here like this.”
Thinking about how even people who have been in a coma for years can hear all the crap going on around them gave me hope. I sidled up to my loved one’s ear and croaked a soft tune: “I have no other country, even if its earth’s aflame…”
“Sir, I insist.”
Mohammed’s words passed in one ear, and out the other. “With an aching body, and a famished heart…”
“Moshe, cut it out.”
“…Won’t stop trying to remind her, in her ears I’ll sing my cries, until she opens up her eyes.”
“Security!” Mohammed shouted.
I shoved him, and he pushed me back. Ella is the kind of woman who guys want to fight over, even when she’s comatose.
“Please—wake up!” I wailed, sounding so sappy that only a woman in a coma could refrain from pointing and laughing.
A security guard entered the room.
“Stop this man!” Mohammed demanded.
The security guard ordered me to follow him. I refused. He pulled out a walkie-talkie and asked for backup. I doused him with my coffee. In my defense, it had already gone cold. In response, the security guard twisted my arm.
“And I’m the problem here?” I cried out, turning to Mohammed. “Don’t you dare lay a finger on her, you terrorist!”
A few hours later, I was sitting in the police station, across from a young interrogator who said dryly:
“Tell me about your relationship with Ella.”
I’m not cut out for prison, I whimpered through my sweat. They drink Turkish coffee and take psychodrama classes in prison. I told the interrogator how Ella and I met, about the bus, the eyelid kiss, ‘Land, Sea, Air,’ the Galilee stoner, the break-in, the break-up.
“So after you broke up, you went to Rome…” the interrogator said, puzzled. “And when did you come back?”
“In Rome, I learned how to be a barista, and then I took on an apprenticeship in Madrid but was kicked out of my apartment, so I flew to Paris, where I found liberty and fraternity, but not the slightest bit of equality. In Berlin I was a rising star, until that fiasco…”
“Which fiasco?” The interrogator scrambled to keep up.
“One hell of a fiasco. I was dancing by myself in a dark club in Berlin, totally mesmerized by the glow-in-the-dark stamp on my forearm, when some kid with a cocky hairdo screams: who made your nose so long? I was saved by a Polish bartender who hid me under the bar. I owe her big time, for the rest of my life. There, between the crates of Jägermeister and Schnapps I decided to return to Israel. My two years in exile suddenly weighed on me like two thousand.”
“Sir,” the interrogator snapped, “Let’s cut to the chase, there’s a woman in a coma and you’re the prime suspect. I only want to know one thing: where were you last night?”
The sky hung low and glum outside the station window. The interrogator repeated his question with a fist to the table before giving up and leaving the room in exasperation. I didn’t get a chance to tell him how overjoyed I was after getting back to Israel and meeting with Ella on the beach in Tel Aviv.
I can’t believe it, she shrieked, taking my hands to do a little circle dance with her. In my naivete, I hoped she had been waiting for me, free of any foreign footsteps and fingerprints, but it turned out that she had betrayed me in real life to the extent that I had stayed faithful to her in my dreams, going through a Persian, a Greek, an Italian, a Muslim, a Christian, a Turk, and a Brit.
I actually have somebody local these days, she said, reminds me of you, actually, maybe you can share me. I can share, I replied immediately, and believed myself. I had matured a bit in exile, I pointed out. My Hebrew, which I had almost forgotten, was suddenly revived. The rough chet, the barbed reish, the whipping lamed.
The day I moved myself back into her apartment, someone rang the doorbell. Don’t open it, I hissed. Why, because it’s my man? You’ll finally get to meet. Not right now, I begged. It wouldn’t be very nice to turn him away, she said. Who’s turning anybody away, I feigned innocence. He loves me, she held out. I love you more. I kissed her boiling neck. But I love him too, she said, and tried to get up, so I pinned her to the bed. His knocks got louder, more desperate and insistent, and then we heard the elevator descending, with a howl of a fox falling to the bottom of a well.
An older interrogator entered the room at the police station, reeking of cigarettes. He leaned on the table and rustled a plastic bag. It could’ve driven me off the deep end. I always detested detective novels, and never had the patience for details like mystery lipstick on a noose. I made up my mind to confess to the events of last night. Just like that. What took Raskolnikov hundreds of pages, I understood in a heartbeat.
“I was with Ella yesterday,” I admitted. “But I didn’t do anything that would have…” I began crying, a humiliating kind of cry, with my chest heaving and snot coming out of my nose and all that.
“Take your time. Tell me exactly what happened last night.”
It disgusted me, how trivial it sounded coming out of my mouth: her Houdini ability to handcuff all four of her limbs with those glow-in-the-dark cable tie I’d gotten her, the yellow bag on the table containing the baklava I knew he’d sent her—that fox from the elevator—and which I’d devoured.
“You choked her,” the interrogator stated.
“Barely, and only because she asked me to. It’s a game. Look what she did to me here—” I lifted my shirt to reveal a deep scratch down my back, but he was unfazed.
“At what time did you leave?”
“Can you stop rustling that bag?” I begged. He ignored me.
“I asked what time you left Ella’s apartment last night.”
“Shortly before midnight. I had to run to my night shift at Ichilov.”
“You’re a doctor?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Barista,” I clarified. “You can ask my American neighbor in the building. She was walking her rottweiler when I headed out.”
The interrogator clacked away on his keyboard.
“I swear that when I left the apartment she was totally fine, totally asleep. She was even snoring! That’s proof, isn’t it? People in a coma don’t snore, do they?”
He searched my eyes for a moment, and then: “Okay, thank you. You’re free to go. Keep your phone on, in case we have any more questions.”
And then I was out in the hallway. My plan was to go back to the hospital, where I hoped that Ella would wake up and put all the suspicions to rest. On my way out, I was shoved aside by a police officer jerking a handcuffed suspect into a walk.
“Wait… Mohammed?” I called out, “Is that man’s name Mohammed?” I asked the secretary.
“They’re all Mohammed,” she replied.
I should have murdered him with my bare hands when I had the chance. Who would have thought he was the culprit? Ella was always being barraged with messages in Arabic. It was Mohammed. He was the fox from the elevator. How could she say we were similar? Not in the slightest!
But how had it all unfolded? Had he come over that night, after I left? And tried to kill her? Because she’d left him? For me? A nurse, taking a life? Who was it that found her and brought her to the emergency room? While I was being pelted with a waterfall of questions, the accused was strolling the streets, free as a bird.
I didn’t lay into him outside the police station. My idiocy only goes so far. I followed him down three streets until he turned into a playground. A sign on the grass read “Don’t Step on the Grass,” but apparently nothing is holy in the eyes of a monster. He walked over to a rope swing, and sat down. That’s when I made my move.
“I don’t know what you said to get them to let you go, but I know you’re the one who did this to Ella!”
I hadn’t gauged his strength properly. With a single kick, he knocked me to the ground.
“You’re the thief!” He went on the offense. “We had a good life together. Who ever asked you to come back?”
“She was mine first!” Splayed on the ground, I went for a scissor kick.
“The whole world knows she’s mine!” He steadied himself, pulled his arm back, and lobbed a fist into my chin.
“Whose world is that? You and your mom’s?” I asked, running out of steam. We tussled with each other a little longer, grabbing each other’s hair and rolling around like a single body towards the merry-go-round. I spat at him, but a rebellious wind boomeranged the saliva back at me. As I wiped my face on my sleeve, he seized the moment to headbutt me. We were both out of it by now. We lay there, chests heaving, in need of air.
“I’m not responsible for what happened to Tina,” he muttered.
“Tina. That’s Ella’s real name.”
“No it’s not,” Wincing, I lifted myself up. “That’s the name she made up as a teenager. Ella is her real name.”
“This is a pointless argument,” he said, still down.
“I can’t understand how they let you go,” I pressed on. “It’s obvious you tried to kill her. You couldn’t accept that we were together, it wounded your pride.”
He let out a bitter laugh. “That’s what the cops thought, too. Nobody can fathom that every time she spits at me, it’s like a fragrant spray of olive oil. Her morning breath? A pleasant breeze in my nostrils. I am devoted to worshiping the ground she walks on for the rest of my life, without food or water—to being her camel.”
His stale Oriental metaphors gave me goosebumps.
Rising to his feet, Mohammed said: “Come on, we have to disinfect our wounds.”
At the water fountain, he dabbed my bleeding forehead.
“It burns,” I said.
“It’s a shallow cut,” he assessed with soothing professionalism. “Don’t wipe it with your shirt, you’ll infect it.” He pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket. “She wrote to me after you left last night.”
“That can’t be. She was already asleep.”
Gently, he patted the blood from my face, then took out his phone to show me their exchange in Arabic.
“How am I supposed to understand this?” I scoffed.
“I know your language, don’t I?” he muttered with exasperation.
He played a voice message from two thirty in the morning. It was Ella, no doubt about it, and I could hear the neighbor’s rottweiler in the background, but Ella was speaking in Arabic. Mohammed teared up as his ears took in the sound of her.
“She begged me to come over,” he said, shaking his head, “but I’d just started a busy shift at the hospital. Who could’ve imagined I’d see her only a few hours later, in a coma.”
“Who brought her to the hospital?” I asked.
“The American downstairs, she went with her to the emergency room and told me everything.”
“Who probably saved Ella. She told me she had just gone out with the dog—”
“How many walks does that thing take in one night?!” I groaned.
“As many as it takes, it’s a big dog… anyway, the dog was acting weird, hugging Ella’s door, barking nonstop. The door was open, since—”
“The lock’s messed up,” I completed. “I’ve been meaning to fix that.”
“Me too,” he said ruefully. “Basically, she found Tina handcuffed to the bed, with a yellow bag over her head—”
“Your baklava bag!” I shot at him, capitalizing on what little evidence I had that Mohammed, and Mohammed alone, was to blame for Ella’s circumstances. But then he added:
“—which was tied to her head with a glow-in-the-dark cable tie. The American said it was the first thing she saw in the dark.”
That horrendous gift I’d given her, with ridiculous giddiness.
“When the neighbor ripped the bag open, Tina was already hypoxic—her brain was deprived of oxygen.”
“I just don’t get it,” I stuttered, collapsing onto a bench. “I wasn’t there, and you weren’t there, and there she was, lying handcuffed to the bed…”
“She knows how to handcuff herself. It’s this trick she does, where she…”
“I know!” I said desperately. “Who put the bag on her head? And why?”
“She did it herself,” Mohammed said. I looked at him, perplexed. “First she tied the bag to her head with the cuff, and then used the last of her strength to strap herself to the bed. She tried to kill herself.”
“No way…” I murmured. “That’s not true.”
“She left a letter,” he said. “The police told me.”
That’s when I lost it.
“What?! Why doesn’t anybody tell me anything? Why did they interrogate me as if I was a murderer? While they told you everything?”
“The letter got to the station five minutes after my interrogation started. The American’s dog found it in her living room. That’s all I heard before they let me go.”
“What did the letter say?” I demanded, my tone on the verge of a shout.
“I wish I knew more,” shrugged Mohammed.
The days went by, maintaining their circadian rhythms for everyone but Ella. Mohammed informed me that she was considered to be on the third level of Glasgow’s Coma Scale. It sounded like a low score in the Eurovision competition. They said she was braindead, but her heart was still pumping. I didn’t think my state of being was all that different. She could open her eyes, but she couldn’t see.
In her new state—“the persistent vegetative state”—it was decided that Ella would be moved to a special institution for ventilated comatose rehabilitation. When we heard the price tag, we almost needed ventilators ourselves, but then Mohammed came up with an offer I couldn’t resist. If the institution was willing to admit Ella free of charge, Mohammed would volunteer three days a week as a certified nurse, and I another three as a barista, until she awoke, or failed to keep staying alive, for good.
Relatives visiting their comatose family members depend on a constant flow of coffee to keep themselves from going under. They depend on me. I tried to guide their subconscious with milk foam drawings. For example, a uniformed soldier may receive a peace symbol atop his cappuccino. Religious Jews are given a crescent, and Arabs a Star of David. Teetotalers get a marijuana leaf. I even mastered a new symbol, made especially for the institution: an alarm clock. It’s a hit.
One of my regular customers, an impressive man caring for his comatose mother, turned out to be a policeman. He got his hands on a copy of Ella’s suicide letter for us. In it, she wrote that she was sick of her double life, that her soul couldn’t bear its weight anymore.
Days turned into weeks turned into months. We watched over her in shifts. Sometimes, we stayed together overnight. We combed her hair. We bathed her. We turned her over to keep the bedsores at bay. We did it all together. Everybody was sure we were brothers. We didn’t correct them.
Mohammed made sure that the monitors, feeding tubes, and ventilator all functioned properly. I was proud that such a man loved my Ella. We dreamt of the day she would wake up and see us side-by-side. We really were more alike than different. It’s not as if I was sharing her with some random Swede. We both wrote from right to left, were beaten as children, and loved living by the sea. I was a changed man; every twinge of violence, from the most timid honk on the road, upset me. Mohammed, too.
Every time I went to Ella’s, even at night, I greeted her with a “good morning!” I hoped that these words would beguile her into consciousness. Sometimes I felt angry. Why did you do this? We could’ve all had a life together! But maybe it required losing her first. Had we conquered her, or she, us?
“How about a nap?” I suggested to Mohammed, who was sitting at Ella’s bedside with heavy eyelids.
“No, no,” he murmured. “I’m okay. But you look like you could use one.”
“Coffee,” I said. “I’ll make us some coffee. We need to stay alert.”
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