We Could have Left Book Review

Ynet

October 9, 2011

Yotam Schwimmer

 

We Could Have Left. Mayan Rogel. Carmel Publishing. 303 pp.

 

 

“On the other side of the street sat the woman with whom I had shared the dying hours of that beautiful summer.” Thus begins the prologue to Mayan Rogel’s delicate, refined debut, We Could Have Left. The excellent title of the prologue is, “When the summer beat inside us like a pulse.” The immediate encounter with the title and the opening line is significant because it suggests Rogel’s careful aesthetic: precise, rich formulations, an emphasis on the atmosphere, and subtle imagery introduced as a way to expose the soul inside out. Throughout the story, the reader repeatedly encounters the fascinating chapter headings, the author’s keen fondness for airy, equivocal images, and a subtle veil of pure beauty.

 

Even in its title, We Could Have Left contains lost possibilities, the chance for escape, for a safe haven as an essential alternative to the harsh reality that knocks on the door of a young female couple. Yarden (the narrator) and Hila have been together for over three years, and we meet them when Hila finds out she has cancer. The difficult news—which at first comes with the terrible anticipation of the disease worsening—overturns their world completely, and as they feel reality closing in on them, the two decide to take a trip to Lisbon, to get away from the present and the imminent future. The novel, told from Yarden’s perspective, consciousness and soul, follows the changes each women goes through and the way they cope with their new reality.

 

Unsentimental

The great power of this work is in the way Rogel examines the effect of the news on the characters. She spreads out a detailed spiritual map of Hila and Yarden, both as a couple and as separate individuals. The first-person narrative does not restrict the vantage point because Yarden vacillates between individual and dual perspectives. For example: “’I don’t want to.’ I struggle, but she’s already penetrated my defenses, in a second.” And elsewhere: “A dry coughing attack wakes us in the middle of the night.” The different layers of speech integrate with each other, and although they create a clear barrier between Hila and Yarden, they also embody the power of their relationship and the way it too is affected by the disease.

 

The result is a generally spectacular array of turbulent emotions, which Rogel manages to direct impressively. She is not inclined to sentimentality or drama, yet she allows emotion to be present at all times without dismissing it. When it is hidden and restrained, so too is the narrator’s speech, and when it is open and breached, she does not hold back. There are many painful and moving moments in the novel, even in its early pages, and Rogel persists in not hiding a thing, looking straight at every moment, even those of weakness, egoism, and fracture, all of which are so central to a real emotional process.

 

Rogel’s honesty is noticeable despite the metaphorics, the multitude of images and an extraordinarily lyric realism. What might have been perceived as bothersome or alien to the story becomes the main foundation of the central plot. The images evolve as the story progresses, the soul becomes more exposed and the narrator’s voice conveys the emotional reversals reliably. The victim question, therefore, which is a natural and central element, emerges as exceedingly complex, given to interpretation because it is in the eye of the beholder.

 

It was a wise decision on Rogel’s part not to confront the two main characters with each other, or to position either one of them (the sick one, or the healthy one who must support her) in the center. We Could Have Left is the story of a couple, and as such, it deals with more than one psyche. We are not exposed to Hila’s difficulties coping with the illness, or to Yarden’s inability to accept her partner’s fate. Rather, we are privy to the delicate fabric of couplehood and what happens to it when it suffers such a severe blow, which affects it in different (yet at certain points—tangential) ways.

 

The Soul Translated into Words

Rogel’s originality is manifest in the way she translates the soul into words, in her unique linguistic choices, and in a panoramic depiction of the dramatic event and its repercussions. Naturally, the story is replete with retrospective observations of certain moments in the couple’s history, and especially in Hila’s life. This looking back occurs in parallel with the desire to close one’s eyes in the present and to take a glassy, unfocused look into the future.

 

Time becomes non-linear and the characters seem to want to keep traveling without stopping, fearing that a standstill would mean the end. As expected, the past gives presence to life, the present undermines it—and the future? They may no longer exist in it. Rogel charges this complex dynamic of time with accurate, sensitive observations about the human soul, which is strong and wild and powerful yet may shatter at any moment.

 

The wonderful characterizations are noteworthy. Rogel seems to give her characters a great deal of freedom. She does not “beat around the bush,” but rather confronts them immediately with the central problem and does not let up. However, alongside the great sadness that permeates every single movement (especially those of the narrator, Yarden), the novel is rhythmic, extremely sensual, and tender.

 

The author excels at writing short, biting scenes, sharp dialogue without a drop of excessiveness or chatter, and wonderfully intimate descriptions of this female couplehood. The novel gains momentum precisely as the ebbing occurs, plot-wise, because Rogel makes good use of language and mines every situation for the strongest emotion, whether it be happiness, sadness, loneliness, love, passion or fear. The power of emotion is communicated well to the readers, and does not trap the novel in banality even for a second.

 

Above all, perhaps, We Could Have Left is a very romantic book. Longing, love, concern, fracture, and unity—all these, as the primary markers of couplehood, are delivered delicately and sensitively, with careful attention to literary form. Rogel, like other writers published by Carmel’s “Local” series, emerges as an interesting, original voice who manages to touch upon the finest of human cords and to distill universal statements about love, couplehood and destiny out of a private story.

 

We Could Have Left - First chapter 

This is a translation sample. A second translated chapter is available. please contact me for more

 

 From We Could Have Left by Mayan Rogel

Translated by Jessica Cohen

1

The Collection of Quiet Moments

The chairs are empty. I sink into mine. The secretary’s lips move closer to the microphone and she tucks a stray wisp of hair behind her left ear. “Adina Rosen,” she says. A bald woman with her head wrapped in the kind of bandana that cancer children wear in charity commercials gets up and heads to Exam Room 3, as ordered. Adina Rosen walks slowly. A young man, perhaps her son, picks up her bag and follows her. They are accustomed. She doesn’t look at him. He does not take his eyes off her body, as if tensely awaiting the first signs of imminent collapse.

The water cooler gurgles softly, bubbling with a subterranean growl. I place my bet: three more gurgles, and it’ll be our turn.

“And now,” Lali whispers in my ear with an 80’s-game-show-host voice, her arm around my shoulder, “Adina Rosen, are you ready to play the next level of Let’s Get Down to Business?” Her whispered audience roar sends a chill down my spine. She continues: “Today’s prizes include carcinoma, melanoma, and a Caribbean cruise! Which door will you pick, Adina?”

The water cooler gurgles again. One down, two to go.

I rest my head on Lali’s shoulder. She digs her fingers through my hair. “Look at those two,” she says in a half-whisper. I watch a woman feeding pudding to a man in a wheelchair. She uses a plastic spoon; he has trouble swallowing. It’s hard to make out his fragile body against the wallpapered background.

For a week now, I’ve been interpreting dreams while still dreaming. I wake up tired and troubled.

This waiting room is better than the last few. Better than the rigid plastic chairs at our first health-fund appointment, which were cool from the air-conditioning. Better than the slightly pale family doctor’s office with its purple upholstered seating and the semi-deciphered x-ray images. And better than the exam room before the CT, with a floor that shuddered under the stretcher wheels, or the office where the pulmonary department chair sat, with a large window facing the parking lot and a child’s drawing buried under files on his desk.

Here, in our fifth room, waiting for the prestigious PET scan, the chairs are upholstered in soft fabric over a layer of foam, and thick wall-to-wall carpeting muffles the labored breaths, the stifled coughs. A plasma screen broadcasts muted news of starving, dark-skinned children.

Lali is called in a moment before the third water gurgle. I lift my head slowly, allowing her to support it until I can bear its weight alone. I hug her, and she whispers, “No kissing here, girl, we don’t want to give some cancer patient a heart attack.” She studies me. “Quit worrying,” she says, this time out loud, and marches toward Exam Room 6, the Caribbean cruise door.

For a week now, I’ve been interpreting details of my life as dream-like symbols.

On the way back, she gives me a little pat on the hand at the stoplight when I shift from Drive to Park.

“Hey, you’ll infect me with radioactivity,” I say with a smile, more aware than usual of the patch of skin on my hand. She moves the gearshift back to Drive and the car gives a little jump, ready for action. That jump improves my mood for a short while. It lasts almost until we get home.

In the pulmonary department head’s office, she had settled into the upholstered chair. “So what are we talking about here, doctor? What do I have?”

“It’s still too soon to know. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. We’ll do the PET and go from there.”

“Can’t you tell me anything clearer? What are my options?”

“It could be lots of things. I don’t want to just throw out conjectures.”

She pondered silently, thought about whether she had any other questions, then noticed the child’s drawing on the desk. She pulled it out from under the files. A boy, a dad, a mom, a house, a tree, a flower and a sun. Standard stuff. “How do you decide which drawings to hang on the wall and which not to? They all look exactly the same.”

He laughed and scheduled a date for her next appointment. I knew the answer but I didn’t say anything.

I straddle the chair and hug its back with both arms while I watch her chop vegetables for pasta sauce. She holds the knife like a child, but makes a fast and accurate dice. “I’ll probably be freezing with a bald head,” she says. I examine the muscles moving under her shirt, under her skin. Her shoulder has ached for weeks, but she doesn’t let the pain get in her way. She doesn’t allow the coughing to get in her way during sex.

“But there’s no way I’m walking around with a cancer-patient bandana. I might wear one of those baseball caps, like the cancer kids on Disneyland trips.”

“Lali, we don’t know that it’s cancer yet. You heard what the doctor said. It could be mono.” My heart beats like Bambi’s looking into a gaping rifle barrel.

“Sure, it could just be a case of viral thlobitis.”

“It could be.” I get up and kiss the back of her neck. “It really could just be nothing, you know.”

“Could be.” She takes a clean dish-towel from the drawer, wipes her hands and walks over to the fridge for more vegetables. Her voice sounds metallic.

I reach out and snatch a thin strip of red pepper. Not out of hunger—out of habit.

A dry coughing attack awakes us in the middle of the night. I wake up after my body does, and she is already in my arms. I stroke her between the shoulders. “Peter Piper picked a pepper,” I whisper. Her cough starts to abate. There won’t be any more sleep for me.

“Now there’s real poetry for you,” she says when she regains her breath, wiping the tears of effort from her face. I hush her gently, my hand on her back, guiding her body to the place reserved in mine, between my left breast and my stomach. The room is completely dark. Only a small, green light from the air-conditioner gives me an essential sense of space.

She falls asleep. I caress her warm skin, hoping to feel with my fingertips whether something under her skin is annihilating her body with every breath. I try to protect her body from itself. I wait for this night to pass too, so that I can say: six days from now we’ll know for sure whatever there is to know.

Six days from now we’ll know.

The paper burns down with a thin whisper. I can’t hear anything else. A delicate suckle, lips parting from the filter. One drag, a deeper one, then quiet. Three heartbeats. My eyes have shut, I discover. The world has disappeared. I open a small crack between my lips to let out the smoke gently, slowly, and finally I blow one ring, with a carefully timed flick of the tongue, just like Lali taught me. Another short drag and I pass the joint to Amir.

I hold the smoke inside. I allow it to sink in so that all the little pink bronchi with their big Manga eyes, their mouths gaping passionately and their hands reaching up, can grab hold of some happy smoke.

He knows.

He came over after the CT and spent the evening with us. We watched a few episodes of an animated American series he brought, munching bamba and chocolate with popping candy. He put Lali to sleep by stroking the back of her neck. Then I sat on the balcony with him until morning. He told me about the long weeks she used to spend at his place every summer, pigging out at the Burger Ranch, sneaking into the country club pool, licking ice-cream. Her hair was cropped short and the chlorine used to make it spiky. He called her “Hedgehog” and taught her how to fight, because her older sister had failed in that duty. I listened, rolled him a joint, brought him a blanket from the living room, made us herbal tea, and together we watched the night change to morning and the old ladies take their dogs out just before the sun rose completely. He was there with me when I started to be afraid.

I exhale with almost painful slowness, and hit land abruptly. We’re in a two-story house in a suburb in the Sharon region. It’s Lali’s aunt’s birthday. Happy birthday.

On the way back to the big garden where the family is gathered, we stop in the kitchen. On a glistening marble countertop, under a row of glaring spotlights, lies a sculpted cake. The icing is flawless, perfectly smooth, swallowing up the light with cook-book-cover glossiness. Lali’s six-year-old nephew is transfixed by the sugared flowers. He freezes, wide-eyed, when Amir creeps over like a cartoon character, looks to either side to make sure the coast is clear, and—as the boy’s lips widen into a grin—picks off two flowers. He holds one out for the boy and one for me. The boy runs to hide under the staircase with his stolen flower. I feel like joining him. Two little pits open up in the icing, revealing a chocolate cake. Amir picks a petal off my flower.

The rest of the family doesn’t know.

I balance my plate on one hand and use the other to pile little heaps of salad, Indian rice, and meat. Amazing, I think, the way hands know how to move. The way the body can conduct itself when the mind is distracted. 

Hadara stops me by the bathroom. She puts her hand on my shoulder.

“Tell me, is it work that’s making her look like that? Is she still doing those night-shifts?” She leans against the wall. Her hands are an older version of Lali’s. So are her near-translucent eyebrows. “She looks like a wreck. I can always tell when she’s not getting enough sleep. Are they paying for it this time at least? Not like that trick they pulled on her last year.”

I want to hide in the bathroom until she leaves. “Ask her, Hadara. Talk to her.”

“Come on, Yarden, you know how she is. She won’t tell me, she’ll just say I’m bugging her.”

“I’ll tell her to talk to you. I promise.”

“And what’s going on with that cough? Has she had it checked out? There’s an awful virus going around.”

I don’t close my eyes, even though I want to. I don’t take a deep breath, don’t brush the hair away from my eyes, don’t look away from her, from the freckles she passed on to Lali, from the lips, from the lipstick color, from the subtle glasses frames purchased only a week ago, after the last ones met their death in an unfortunate accident involving a car-seat and a phone call with Lali. I only say, “No, not yet, you know what she’s like.” I hate lying to Hadara.

“Oh dear, what am I doing holding you up here! You were on the way to the bathroom, weren’t you? Come outside afterwards, there’s an incredible cake.” For a minute I can imagine her sitting crying in a hospital hallway, one hand holding a handkerchief up to her face, the other clutching her glasses.

I don’t shut my eyes. I don’t take a deep breath until the bathroom door is locked behind me.

Nine-and-a-half-year-old Danielle, Lali’s niece, sits on her lap. Her matchstick legs swing, hitting Lali’s shins every so often, but Lali ignores the nuisance. She teases Danielle, tickling her ear with a tuft of hair.

“How’s the winking coming along? Have you been practicing?” she asks.

Danielle shakes her head. She points to Amir: “See, that’s the haircut I want. Like his.”

Hadara, with true fear for her granddaughter’s hair, says, “Like that? Like a boy’s?” She gives Lali’s sister, Zohar, an admonishing look. Zohar shrugs her shoulders, helpless in face of the girl’s whims.

“What? You want a boy’s haircut?” echoes Aunt Happy.

“Girls can have short hair too,” Danielle retorts and stops swinging her legs.

“She’s right, girls can have short hair too. I did at her age.” Danielle turns to give Lali a satisfied look. “Do you know how you get a short haircut?” Lali asks, and Danielle shakes her head a little too forcefully, flicking hair in both their faces. “You use a special machine.”

“Really?” Danielle looks to her mother for confirmation.

“Really,” Amir says authoritatively.

“I’ll show you.” Lali reaches out and runs her fingers through the girl’s long, silky locks, making a mechanical sound-effect that I find a little too convincing.

“Hila!” Aunt Happy scolds her. 

“What? She should know what this involves, shouldn’t she? Otherwise how can she make a decision? The girl should have all the data.” She pulls her hand away. “Want to do it to me?” she asks her. Danielle nods. I get up to make some coffee, concentrating on pouring hot water into the cups. Behind me, a childish voice imitates a shaving machine.

Before we leave, I give Hadara a quick, casual hug, not allowing my body to disclose anything. Amir, from the other end of the house, signals for me to call him. I nod and blow a kiss into the air, wondering if it will make it all the way to him.

We don’t talk on the way home. She focuses on driving, I read the weekend paper. My bare feet rest on the A/C vent, my toes play in the artificial cool breeze. Her horoscope is optimistic.

When we’re almost home, Johnny calls to ask what we’re doing. Hila gives me a questioning look. I shrug my shoulders: it doesn’t matter where we wait for this day to be over. Any distraction is welcome. Radiohead sing of homesick aliens on the radio. I try to stop thinking and just stare at the road. We’re not driving forward—it’s the road that’s moving backwards.

Johnny sits down in the back-seat and gives us each a peck on the check. Lali looks at him in the rearview mirror: “Nice T-shirt, John.” He looks pleased. A compliment from her is nothing to sneeze at—she metes them out only occasionally, exactly so that she can maintain that perception. It’s a faded black Aerosmith T-shirt. They bought it together at a gig, back when they were learning to roll their own joints and getting good at boosting cigarette cartons from stores.

“So…” Johnny starts, leaning forward and squeezing himself between the front seats. “The Russian chick dumped me. By e-mail.

“What?” Lali glances in the mirror and lights a cigarette for Johnny. We leave our filthy street in the Florentine neighborhood and drive onto the Ayalon freeway. Johnny takes a slow drag, a long drag, savoring it like a joint.

“Right after that thing at her uncle’s, with the stupid A/C.”

“When you walked around naked and didn’t fuck?”

“Affirmative.”

“By e-mail?”

“The truth is, I was considering doing the same thing. By texting.”

“Texting? That’s low, man.”

“I just couldn’t listen to her anymore. I had no choice.” They had walked around naked, Johnny had told us, circling around each other, careful not to touch. Everything was too exposed, he said. They spent three days like that, in a boiling hot apartment, sweltering without any clothes on. And—this was my addition—a yellow light filled everything, grains of dust floated in the few rays of light that managed to penetrate the blind slats. Silence. Then neighbors fighting. Something crashing in the building stairwell.

Lali’s phone rings. She puts it on speakerphone and says, “Yo, yo, yo!,” accompanied by an overdone hip-hop gesture. She grins at me. I want to kiss her.

“Hila, it’s gone far enough, you have to tell your mom.”

“Amir…” she tries to respond, but he won’t let her. 

“It’s just like when you came out, and then I also thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown. She interrogated me for half an hour over the phone—what’s going on with you, why do you look like that, what’s with the cough. I got out of it. Like an idiot, but I did. But that’s it. I’m not doing it again. If she calls me before you talk to her I’m telling her exactly what’s going on.

“Say hello to Pitzi and Johnny, you’re on speakerphone.”

“Hi, Yarden. Hi, Johnny. Get back to me later.” He hangs up.

We drive quietly. The radio is turned down. The memory of songs on the speakers. A watermark. Lali keeps driving, allowing the road to lead her. She heads south on Highway 1. Johnny is searching for words. I want to give them to him but I say nothing. Lali’s left hand slides softly over the wheel cover, her right lies limply on the gearshift, accustomed to its touch. Her eyes are deep in the road. The car swallows up the dividing line between the lanes. A motorized Packman.

“So, Hila…” Johnny starts but stops when he can’t find an elegant way to go on.

“So, Johnny…” She looks back and forth at me and him.

“So, um… Hila…”

“Johnny, it looks like I have cancer,” she says, putting him out of his misery.

I open the window in search of air. My Manga bronchi reach out. I can’t smell anything. We’re driving toward the desert. We pass Modi’in and then a series of small towns and villages. I memorize their names: Lapidim, Kfar Rut, Hashmonaim. We stay on the road. Nothing smells like anything.

Johnny pulls himself together. “So what now? Chemo? That kind of stuff?” He tries to sound light-hearted.

“I guess. We’re waiting for another test.”

“And you’re not telling your folks?”

I want to get high. I want to get unreal high. I want to be several feet above ground, on a happy cloud of smoke from God’s pubes, as Johnny calls it.

“There’s nothing to tell yet, really. It’s just a possibility. They X-rayed what needs to be X-rayed, checked what needs to be checked. When they know what this fucking thing is that showed up on the X-rays, then I’ll tell my parents.”

“Makes sense,” he says, and we all know he’s wrong.

“Have you ever been to Nili?” she asks and doesn’t wait for an answer. She passes the settlement entrance and keeps going. The road changes, we’re getting deeper into the desert. A sign points to Alei Zahav ten miles ahead.

The highway bisects the desert like a mirage. Apart from the sign for Alei Zahav, all the signs are in Arabic. We are worlds away from Tel Aviv.

“That stinks,” he says, caressing Lali’s hair.

“Don’t get too attached to it, Johns, it’ll probably be gone soon. What do you say, will I look good with a bald head?” Even she has trouble smiling, but she manages to eventually.

It turns out that I started crying two sentences ago, and there’s nothing I can do about it. She puts her hand on me and Johnny strokes us both, leaning his head on my shoulder.

The road stretches out ahead. Massive, empty, powerful.

Lali sees the donkey just in time and brakes. Johnny braces himself with his hands. His weight hurts my shoulder a little. We stop in the middle of the road and Lali turns off the radio. Somehow it seems like the right thing to do. 

 

The donkey is white with brown patches. His eyes are pinned on the horizon. Like a marathon runner, or a suicide. He walks straight at the car and doesn’t seem about to change course for anyone. A determined motherfucker.

“You’ll have to move, Babe,” I practically whisper. She reverses and drives onto the shoulder, slowly clearing the road for him. He keeps on walking, ignoring us. I assume he’s hot. I assume he’s thirsty. I assume he has no clue what he’ll find beyond that hill, but he’s unwilling to spend one more moment in the place he came from. He climbs up the hill with determination, transfixed by the road, by the power of his escape. I wonder what he ran away from, what broke him. He passes us without even a glance.

“I bet you he’s cursing at us silently in Arabic,” Johnny says when we get out of the car. Lali lights a cigarette and hands it to him, then lights another for herself. I watch the donkey scale the hill and disappear down the other side. He has nowhere to go back to. That is clear. He’s gone beyond the point of possibility.

I leave them alone with the cigarettes and climb up the hill. I find a comfortable rock and sit down to collect myself. With my back to the wind, among the Arab villages, the silence is undisturbed. Not a single vehicle goes by on this highway to Alei Zahav. I feel better. I’m in control of my crying. They don’t notice me coming back. I listen.

“So Johnny,” she says, and something in me tenses up, “you know how sometimes someone you know has something good, something cool, something you covet? And you keep looking at that thing and you’re dying to ask for it, but you know there’s no point, because that someone loves the thing, and they’ll never give it to anyone? So you don’t say anything, you just keep wanting it silently?”

Johnny nods. She pulls out a purple, metallic lighter with a picture of a silver dragon and hands it to him. If he knew how to cry, he would. He hugs her and kisses her forehead. I give them another few minutes alone.

 

At home when she showers, I peek on her through a crack in the door. She is so beautiful, so relaxed, her lips slightly open, her neck long. I add this moment to my collection of quiet moments.

The sobbing is waiting for me at the edge of consciousness. I don’t go to sleep. She falls asleep easily, after a coughing attack starts and ends quickly. I listen to it from the balcony.

I feel nauseous. From the apartment next-door I can smell the students making matzo brei, and I wonder where on earth they found matzo in the middle of September. I shut my eyes and Lali’s face is waiting for me there, like in the shower, like in sleep, relaxed, quiet, eyes closed, head back, here but not here.

The neighbor from the second floor takes the trash out in his underwear, humming a song by Rita. And I think: so this is what it looks like. I feel very empty, hollow. I feel as if I could fly. Apparently I fall asleep on the balcony chair. 

 

 

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