Love: A Novel

An excerpt from Maayan Eitan's new novel about a young prostitute in a Tel Aviv-like city.

Love, by our co-editor Maayan Eitan, has been published in English (translation by the author) by Penguin Random House.  Set in the present in a Tel Aviv-like city, it tells the story of a young nameless prostitute, following her as she goes into strangers’ cars and gets out of them, has sex, and meets other sex workers, prostitutes and pimps. It rejects philosophical or psychological explanation systems as it asks whether “love” can exist in a world of pornography and prostitution. The author Nell Zink wrote: “Maayan Eitan is a pensive rebel seductress and a literary trickster. Love, her debut, is celebrated by various deans and kingmakers of Israeli letters as one of the new century’s most important books. Her prose-poem account of life as an underage whore is so emotionally persuasive, so transparently metaphorical, so startlingly concrete, so obviously not true, that it had everyone in Israel convinced it was straight-up autofiction.”

You didn’t have any friends

You had a terrific laughter. You had long legs, big tits, flat belly. No, you were fat. You came from ruined homes, well-off families, your parents were madly in love with each other. Your father was an accountant, a kibbutz member, homeless, a linguistics professor at a university. He loved you like his youngest daughter. You were an only child. You were born to a large family, after years of treatments, you were adopted. Immigrated from Ethiopia. You were good at math, you majored in accounting. Hebrew literature. Kinesiology. You wanted to work with children, become lawyers, your mother was a drug addict (sobered up without help), your uncle was a doctor. No, he was in jail, for attempted murder. You were blonde, in summer the ends of your hair were bleached white. No; your hair was as black as a raven, and curly. You were born in St. Petersburg. No no: your parents came from America, you were born in the suburbs, you replied to them in Hebrew when they talked to you in a jumble of foreign languages. You spoke Russian until you were seven then you forgot it, the snow too. You knew no other language but Hebrew. You refused to answer your grandparents when they spoke Amharic to you. You pretended not to understand them. Your father, the accountant, raped you in his office. Your grandmother kept the key from the ‘48 war. You were the good granddaughter, the prettiest girl in school, you had eyes that turned violet when you were angry, that you made sure to close on your first kiss. You had sex. You never came. No! You came every single time. You hated swallowing but did it anyway. You liked it so much you stopped in the middle to run to the bathroom and stick your fingers down your throat just so you could taste him again. You spat. Two months later you jumped off a high-rise. You were admitted to a psychiatric unit. You arrived at the ER with low electrolytes and acute liver failure, but they pulled you back right from the edge. Lucky you. You spent a week in the ICU, then returned. Now you had money. You bought nice clothes. Toys for your nephews and nieces. Sponges so you could work through the month, without stopping. When you ran into each other in the car – someone getting in, someone out – you didn’t smile. You laughed. Your laughter was so loud that your neighbors got sick of it. You pretended to moan while you wept miserably. You wept miserably. When you returned home and removed the makeup from your face it blended with tears of happiness. When you went out with your childhood friends you ordered cheap drinks, then more expensive. You didn’t have any friends. You had a boyfriend who was a computer programmer and you worked only when he was on reserve service, or abroad for work, and you talked of getting pregnant but you were on the pill and didn’t tell him. You liked women. You liked men. A lot. You didn’t like anybody. You were pretty, you had normal skin, freckles, chapped lips and you clipped your nails until your fingers bled because you were afraid that you might hurt someone. You didn’t want to hurt anyone. You wanted to kill them all, you wanted to shout, one time you screamed. But it was a mistake and you did not repeat it. You kept your mouth shut. You had sex in public restrooms, dance clubs, on the steps of the lifeguard tower on the beach, in a luxury apartment hotel, in your own bed. You got in the car that waited for you in the evenings with the same ease that you got out of it in the morning. What did you have to lose? You didn’t have anything.

Men looked at me

They stared at me when I sat alone in the cafés, searched for my eyes when I walked past them in the street. They called me names: sweetheart, beloved. They kissed me with their eyes closed and stroked my face with their fingertips. I pushed my body to theirs, held their flesh, told them my secrets. They didn’t want to hurt me. I am not strong. You never know how much I could suffer. I wore my ring in a thin chain around my neck. At first I felt its absent weight on my finger, then I forgot about it. I found other things to do: wandering the city cafés with nothing to do, I pulled books out of my bag and returned them. Men looked at me. If there was need for it they’d asked for my number, or leave theirs, but I preferred joining them, in their rooms. They cooked black coffee on the stove while I threw up the contents of my stomach in their bathrooms; recited poetry to me; we smoked together. Then we had sex, their stubble scratching the inner part of my thighs, the house cat jumping around us. Their semen never had any flavor. I bit them. They didn’t bite back. I waited for them to fall asleep before I got out of there. I’m not pretty. Men looked at me. They talked to me, stopped me on the street, in bars, in the cafés. We spoke. They went to the world’s top universities, wrote books, poetry. They came in my mouth, my butthole, on my breasts and belly. Their semen was thick and sharp, dark almost. I slowly gathered my clothes even though their eyelids were heavy and they weren’t looking at me. Then I got out of there. Men looked at me. They stared at me, bared their teeth when they smiled to me. They had money; the whiskey we drank was well-aged; they had heavy carpets, large TV screens, clothes made of expensive fabrics. I nodded when they spoke. Any other reaction would have been impolite of me. I bought new clothes every day; thin, black silk tops that slipped strangely chill on my belly when I removed them. I slipped a bottle of perfume in my pocket; I liked its name. I fell asleep with their arms around my waist, but my sleep was erratic, brief, and eventually I slipped from under their bodies, put on my clothes again, and got out of there. I am not pretty. At first I forgot their names; then the sight of their homes, their bodies, the things they told me. Finally I decided to go to the hospital. The money I had in my wallet was exactly enough for buying the disposable razor and for the taxi fare. I tore the plastic apart with my teeth in order to take the blade out of it. I am not pretty. I returned the next morning. Men looked at me, smiled to me when I passed them on the street, said that I’m pretty when I asked them. I was running out of money. The eyeshadows I bought were expensive, the dresses, the high heels with the black, thin ankle straps. In the cafés I ordered cheap drinks, then progressively more expensive. Only rarely I ate anything. When my money was almost completely gone I looked for a job, but the food joints and big business owners refused to hire me. I’m not pretty. Men looked at me. I walked them home arm in arm, I rode their cars with them. They had goosebumps when I touched them. I’m through, I thought, I’m really through now. They fell in love with me. When I snuck out of their bedrooms at dawn I looked in their wallets. Before I took the blade out of the razor I checked which bus lines stop by the hospital. My silk blouses stuck, wet, to my wrists, and were completely ruined. I returned three days later. Men looked at me. They bought me presents, gave me money. I laughed loudly when they complimented me. I’m not pretty. They slept with me, pouted when I didn’t come. I wore lace top nylons. When I returned home I showered or did not shower. Men looked at me. They touched me, pulled up the hems of my dress on the steps of the lifeguard tower on the beach. Winter will soon be here. When they left I stuck my finger and drew long, deep lines in the sand. Then I put it in my mouth and chewed the sand that got stuck to it. It had no flavor. But men looked at me. They dedicated poems to me, books, electronic messages, newspaper articles, conceptual artworks. I am not pretty, but my movements are quick and my mind is sharp. So I didn’t throw away the razor and also bought an antiseptic cream this time. When I ran out of savings I went to the desert, knocked on my father’s door and asked him to stay there. He gave me a bed in my childhood room. Men looked at me. They slipped their hands down my back when they welcomed me, prick up their ears when I talked to them. How long could I stay there. At nights I read cheap paperbacks, thick novels, everything I could lay my hands on. When I fell asleep my sleep was erratic, brief. I dreamed that men were looking at me. They ripped the nylons off my thighs, moved my silk underwear to the side at once. I felt nothing but the slight wind. On the beach I searched for mother of pearl shells, and found none. Seahorses hovered in midair. I closed my eyes. The waves had a salty sound and the sand again didn’t have any flavor. Something came in, went out, and left something. Men looked at me. They rented ]rooms by the hour for me in the suburbs of the big cities, gave me money, asked me: what is this thing. I changed my telephone number. I bit the tips of my fingers till they bled, my lips. I tried to come; I adhered to the adequate level of honesty; occasionally I sighed. Then I got out of there. Men looked at me. They were worried about me, paid for the coffee I ordered, tried again and again to talk to me. I smiled. I am not pretty. I switched the black silk tops for a tall leather skirt and a sharp-heeled boots that I slipped in my bag when one of the salesgirls wasn’t looking; at midnight I got in the stranger’s car with a sure foot. In the morning I returned to the café, my eyes free of makeup, and men looked at me. I looked back. I went with them to the matinee. The reconstructions have been made as authentically as possible! The films have been made as authentically as possible! When they shivered I put my hand on their heart. After the movie we drank hot chocolate. I laughed. They looked at me and I saw that there was true affection in their eyes, the corners of their mouths. Even though I’m not pretty. The short skirt lay in my bag. At half an hour before midnight we said goodbye. I kissed them on their cheek, laughed again because their stubble tickled me. Then I got out of there. In the mall restroom I tore the plastic off the disposable razors and changed my clothes.

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