The Manuscript

An exclusive English translation of a new short story by Sapir Prize-winning novelist Ruby Namdar, set in 1970s Tel Aviv.

The Tel Aviv Review of Books and Jerusalism are proud to present a Zoom talk with Ruby Namdar on July 15th. For more details, please see here

Tel Aviv in the 1970s (Credit: Yael Rosen)

It happened a few decades ago. Tel Aviv was still a young, voracious, reckless city. Ugly whitewash facades concealed envies and urges, conspiracies and conflicts that would have put to shame real cities like New York, Paris, or Rome. Tel Aviv was almost defined by a sort of provincial intimacy, hot and sweaty, imbuing the relationships between writers, artists, and bohemians who crowded into its famous cafés with an incestuous air. The men were rough and ragged, potbellied, lustful, uninhibited. They wore overly tight shirts with undone buttons that revealed hairy chests, grew thick sideburns, and reeked of savage masculinity. The women were no more refined. In spite of their bursting sexuality, they talked, moved, and carried themselves just like men. They laughed out loud, cursed, and smoked long cigarettes whose filters were stained with bold lipstick, as if dipped in blood. They gathered together around café tables covered with packs of locally-made cigarettes, colorful matchboxes, stainless steel ashtrays filled with crushed butts, and heavy sugar bowls, also made of stainless steel, which one could hardly distinguish from the ashtrays. The coffee was served in thick, stocky glass mugs, and the cheap local brandy—which everyone insisted on referring to by the pretentious name “cognac”—came in tall, robust water glasses half-filled with the intoxicating orange liquid.

The written word was still in the height of its glory. Poets, writers, and playwrights were worshipped as cultural heroes. Only few felt talented enough to dare and try to publish their work, fewer still passed the high bar set by publishers and enjoyed the privilege of seeing their words in printed, bound form. Every book that came out made an impression. Critics and readers alike leapt at any new publication as if it were a precious treasure, eager to praise or pan it in the same unrestrained manner in which everything else was done in Tel Aviv in those days.

***

The teacher was one of the rising stars in the skies of Hebrew literature and theatre. He wrote dark, dense prose with a cumbersome, dreamlike quality, as well as popular plays dominated by a similar mood. He was an inseparable part of the Tel Avivian bohemian scene, and took great pride in his proletariat roots and the street grit that had clung to him ever since his derelict childhood in one of the city’s southern slums. He remained a tough alley cat even as an adult, a sort of tan, muscular urban predator, flexible and dangerous, all pure instinct—utterly different from the terribly responsible and disciplined image of the Hebrew writers of current day, always carrying the imagined burden of morality and conscience on their backs. He loved and exalted his hoodlum reputation, the rumors that spread throughout every literary cafe about his wild adventures and romantic conquests. His macho roughness only intensified the disarming impression made by the surprising tenderness that often appeared in his writing—a sensitivity that critics dared describe with the loaded adjective “feminine”—and the unexpected beauty that occasionally emerged between the lines, carrying readers far beyond the sooty streets and tarred roofs of the city, toward some sublime, eternal horizon of beauty.

The student was the antithesis of the teacher, the other extreme of his larger-than-life personality. He belonged to the new generation—a generation that was softer, more refined and domesticated than the wild generation of the teacher and his cohort. Unlike the teacher, the student’s childhood was spent in a bourgeois neighborhood, the Old North of Tel Aviv—a privileged, perhaps overly shielded youth in the lap of a cultured and educated middle-class family.

They met at the university, in a workshop taught by the teacher, which was mostly attended by young, misty-eyed female students drawn like moths to the flame of genius that surrounded the man. The student, who also admired the teacher and saw him as one of the greatest writers of Hebrew—and perhaps global—culture, gathered his courage one day and walked over to the teacher after class, waiting politely for the last of the students to finish gushing about how his work had influenced their lives and the art they hoped to make in the future.

The teacher listened to them all with the polite boredom of one accustomed to flattery. He only shook off his indifference when a speaker was exceptionally attractive. Then his golden-green tiger eyes would flicker with seductive vitality. To the student’s surprise, and maybe even the teacher’s, a similar flash appeared in the man’s eyes after the student had managed his two or three stuttered and unoriginal opening lines.

On the face of it, there was no reason for the teacher to take any interest in the gangly, bland young man standing before him, mumbling admiring clichés the likes of which he’d already heard hundreds, if not thousands of times. But for some reason, something about the young man caused the teacher’s eyelids to lift and his nostrils to flare almost imperceptibly, like the nostrils of a big cat that had just detected danger or prey. He fixed his gaze on the student’s round face and timid eyes with curiosity and near wonder, cut off the young man’s clumsy murmurs at once, and asked him with an inexplicable impatience that made his question sound more like a command, “Do you write?”

Blood rose into the young man’s cheeks. His tongue failed him and he could only nod in confirmation.

“Did you bring anything with you?” the teacher asked with the same peculiar, demanding impatience.

The student nodded again, rushing to unlatch his briefcase and pull out a file folder, handing it over wordlessly.

“Take down my number!” The teacher barked. The young man rummaged through his briefcase with an urgency that verged on the comical, fished out a pen and a notebook, and, with a shaky hand, jotted down the number that the teacher dictated quickly, not waiting for the student to finish writing one digit before moving on to the next. Then the man turned away sharply, tossing him a quick “goodbye” as he walked out the door, leaving the stunned student behind, holding a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other, his heart pounding mightily in his chest.

***

The student spent the next two weeks in torturous anticipation. He didn’t know when would be an appropriate time to call the teacher, and how long it would take the man to read the slim stack of papers that was contained in the folder he’d given him. He experienced violent mood swings, shifting between intoxicating euphoria and moments of embarrassing sobriety, repeating to himself that the teacher must have forgotten he even existed as soon as he walked out of that lecture hall, and that the brown folder must now be resting underneath a dusty pile of similar ones in his office—that is, if he hadn’t tossed it in the garbage on his way out of campus.

One night, near dawn, he dreamed about the teacher. The dream was very vivid and sharp, committing itself to memory with a greater intensity than some waking moments. In the dream, the student was walking down a long, dim hallway, its walls completely overtaken by bookcases. At the end of the hallway was an open door out of which bright, greenish daylight emanated, bathing the corner across from it. The student walked down the hallway and turned with hesitation into the illuminated room. The teacher was standing at the center of the room, a row of windows behind him surrounding him with a rectangular aura of light. He was bigger and taller than the student had remembered, and his arms were spread out as if to embrace a beloved. The student walked over, awe-struck, shakily resting his cheek against the teacher’s muscular chest. He felt the older man’s big, strong arms wrapping around him with unfamiliar tenderness, and could clearly feel the teacher’s beaming, comforting smile, even though he could not see his expression.

The student startled awake, his heart pounding and his skin covered with goosebumps. To his embarrassment, he could feel himself holding onto the warmth of the near-stranger’s embrace, refusing to let go of the wonderful sense of safety it offered.

Later that day, bolstered by the remains of the dream that still circulated through his bloodstream, imbuing him with atypical confidence, he called the teacher.

“Oh, it’s you!” the teacher greeted him with amused grievance. “How long did you think I was going to wait around? You think you’re doing me a favor?” He cut off the stuttering student, whose heart had melted with gratitude and relief, and asked-ordered him with a masterful tone, “What are you doing today at five? Don’t be late, you hear? I have another appointment at six.”

***

The student knocked on the teacher’s door at five o’clock on the dot. An expressionless woman of average stature opened it. The student knew who she was right away. Like everyone else, he’d heard the stories about the teacher’s wife. She was known for her submissiveness and her willful blindness, which shielded her from her husband’s many ugly indiscretions as the rest of the city gossiped with amused cruelty. Feeling a peculiar guilt toward the woman, the student averted his eyes as she led him silently to the teacher’s office down a hallway that wasn’t nearly as long or dramatic as the one in his dream.

The teacher was also shorter and skinnier than he’d dreamed him. He leaned back in his chair, his legs sprawled over the desk, revealing the filthy soles of his shoes. A burning cigarette raised smoke from the ashtray beside a partially-filled glass of cognac.

“Oh, it’s you. Sit!” the teacher commanded, never looking up from his reading material. “You want some cognac?” It wasn’t clear from his tone whether or not this was a serious offer.

The student mumbled something politely and sat carefully in a small chair in the corner of the room.

“One minute, okay?” the teacher determined, continuing to pore over the papers in his hands. After another moment or two of awkward silence, he put down the pages, making sure to place them face down on the desk. He got up and walked over to the student who leapt to his feet at attention. “You’re an interesting writer,” he said, fixing his bold gaze on the student’s bashful eyes. “But you’ve still got a lot of work to do. A lot of work.” The student sensed that this last, equivocal statement was actually the greatest compliment the teacher could give.

***

And thus the teacher became the teacher and the student became his student. Their relationship, which more closely resembled one of a Medieval artist and his apprentice than a modern-day teacher and student, was characterized by the lack of boundaries that was part of the spirit of the time, not to mention the teacher’s dominating personality. The teacher didn’t hesitate to request that the student perform all sorts of small services for him: proofread papers, borrow or return library books, even pop over to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes. He once asked the student to cover for him while he traveled to Eilat with a rich young heiress whose name was prominent in the gossip columns of the time. “She won’t ask,” he declared with his characteristic certainty. “She won’t ask. But if she does ask, tell her you were with me at the Scottish Inn in Jerusalem and that we were working on the proofs of the new book. Got it?”

The student could do nothing but nod in understanding, perhaps even attempt a complicit wink—a gesture that felt artificial and ridiculous. The wife, by the way, never asked, and the student, blissfully, was not forced to lie to her. And yet, his conscience plagued him whenever she opened the door with that alienating silence and led him into the teacher’s office.

Sometimes days, even weeks went by, without the two men even discussing the student’s writing, and yet, for some reason, he never felt like he was being taken advantage of. He felt he was learning something important, even when the teacher wasn’t focusing on his work, something profound and inexplicable about literature, art, perhaps even life itself.

The teacher treated the student in a capricious, fickle manner. He could speak to him with near-paternal affection or treat him with a generosity that made the young man’s heart overflow with gratitude, then, all of a sudden, his voice would shift, booming in a humiliating tone as he asked-asserted, “Say, are you an idiot?!” when he didn’t like one of the student’s questions or ideas. The student tried to train himself not to take offense at these sharp turns, but it was no good. Once and again, insult burned his skin like a fresh slap scorching his cheek. Sometimes, the teacher sought his student’s counsel with utter seriousness, treating him as an equal. But other times he blatantly disregarded not only the young man’s talent or intelligence, but even his masculinity, which was so different than the teacher’s bursting male ego. The difference between them was so extreme and visible, and the teacher wouldn’t let the student forget that for a second: he could sense that the student was bashful and timid about women, and enjoyed flaunting his real or imagined sexual conquests, dropping the names of famous women into his soliloquies with the salacious tone of a sworn playboy, insinuating that they’d fallen into his trap. He used the same sultry tone when he mentioned, in or out of context, the name of the student’s new girlfriend, which he’d tricked him into revealing. “So how’s Hemda?” he’d suddenly ask with a crooked, double-entendre smile, fixing his feline eyes on the student, not letting go until the latter’s pale baby-face flushed and his entire body twitched with awkward discomfort.

***

But there was a moment when all this tension vanished. The moment when they both delved into the work. Then the teacher’s crude exterior would melt away, giving way to a man of truth, a sensitive artist thirsty for beauty. Then one could suddenly see how such sublime gorgeousness might emerge from the writing of such a brute. In these moments, the student also shed his hesitant, flaccid cloak, uncovering the hard nucleus of talent, letting it shine like a diamond in the rough. In those moments, one could see what the teacher had recognized in his student during their first encounter at the university and marvel at the astuteness of his perception, which had broken through the student’s unappealing façade, seeing through to his heart and mind, recognizing the rare gift they contained. In these moments of grace, the two of them would sit shoulder to shoulder, poring over the typewritten pages. The teacher would move his big, strong fingers—which still looked like a laborer’s, in spite of wielding nothing but pens, women’s bodies, and bottles of booze for years—over the lines, whispering the words to assess their tonality and rhythm. The student would listen with mesmerized alertness to the teacher’s soft murmur, feeling as if he were hearing the words for the first time and experiencing the beauty contained in every line, sentence, and syllable.

The magic of these moments would break quickly, and the teacher would return to his old ways, reinstituting the partition of imperiousness and condescension between himself and the student, but some part of the spell lingered in the young man’s soul, continuing to grow and evolve within him into an artistic confidence the likes of which he’d never experienced before.

***

The idea for his first novel sprouted in the student’s mind a few months after he met the teacher. It was the first time he felt prepared to veer beyond the narrow limits of the short stories, poems, and play drafts that filled his drawers. He waited to catch the teacher in high spirits so he could report his ambition to try his hand at a serious piece of writing.

In spite of the student’s hopes, the teacher was not excited by this news. He glanced at the student with a doubtful, almost suspicious look, and asked, “Really? Are you sure you’re ready?”

The student, though familiar with the teacher’s gruff manner, had still dared hope in vain that the man would stand up, pat him on the back, and encourage him to get to work on his masterpiece. He swallowed the insult and said, “Yes, I’m sure.”

The teacher hummed something skeptical and returned his eyes to the page in his hand. The student hoped to share his ideas for the book he wanted to write, but the teacher wouldn’t even listen to the general outline. “I don’t want to know!” he shouted, now sounding more appeased and affectionate. “Don’t show it to anybody until it’s finished! Let yourself stew in it alone! Only fools share unfinished work. Take me for example—it would never even occur to me to show a single page of my new book to anyone before it’s done, and I’ve been working on it for years! Years!” Though the teacher’s voice rose vehemently, he felt his innards contracting in pain. The truth was, he had no new book. He didn’t even have a first draft or a collection of disjointed notes. He had nothing. He was completely blocked. Paralyzed. He hadn’t been able to write in months—years, really—ever since the publication of his most recent book, which was considered an incredible bestseller in those days’ terms and had enjoyed great critical acclaim.

***

The student took his teacher’s advice and stewed alone with his work for months. He spent days at the university or with the teacher—who never asked him how the writing was going—and nights with his manuscript, the pages stacking up dizzyingly on the tray beside the typewriter. He never felt more alive or more alert than he did in those late-night hours of writing. Sometimes, as his writing peaked, in those somnambulant moments between clarity and delusion, he sensed his spirit and that of the teacher merging to form one being. He felt himself growing thin and clear as a glass vial as the venerable teacher’s brilliance rumbled through him, pouring out of his hands straight onto the typewriter’s clattering keys. He often dreamed about the teacher during those nights, in the few hours of sleep he got between writing and rushing off to class. The dream repeated itself over and over again, nearly unchanged: He was walking down that same hallway from the first dream, which now seemed like ages ago, carrying the pages of his manuscript as someone might carry an offering to the gods. He knew the teacher was in his office at the end of the hall and could clearly sense his presence, but the hallway kept extending the farther he walked, and he always woke up just as he was about to enter through the door.

But one night, a few days after the student finished revising and proofreading the full draft of his book, the dream changed. This time, he didn’t wake up at the doorway, but walked into the bright space of the office. The teacher was waiting for him there, tall and robust, his eyes beaming and his arms open wide. The next day, the student gathered the pages of his draft, smoothed them out carefully, slipped them into a new file folder, and delivered them to the teacher’s apartment, his heart brimming with giddiness and awe.

As usual, the teacher’s wife opened the door with a blank face and led him to the office as if this were his first visit. As usual, the student felt the same familiar mixture of guilt and compassion as he walked behind her, preparing himself for the fateful encounter. The excitement and sleep deprivation made him feel weak, hollow, and dizzy. As usual, the teacher was leaning back in his chair, his feet up on the desk. The anxious student’s hyper-sensitivity made him notice, for the first time, that the teacher had no qualms about resting his filthy shoes directly on his students’ papers. The crudeness of this obtuse, entitled gesture enraged him, but he didn’t dare indulge in the resentment that awakened within him, doing his best to focus on his mission. To his relief, the teacher did not mock the precious token the student handed him with a fluttering heart. He even bothered to stand up as he accepted the manuscript and said, “Well, well! I wasn’t sure you’d be able to finish. I’m looking forward to seeing what you did there…”

Just as he had the first time he came to this office, the student once again sensed that this twisted statement was the greatest compliment the teacher could pay him in that moment. He didn’t dare ask when he could expect to get the teacher’s notes on the book, nor did the teacher volunteer this information. Instead, the man dropped the folder on top of the mess of papers covering his desk and changed the subject, as if this hadn’t been one of the greatest, most decisive moments of the student’s life.

***

The teacher did not feel as indifferent or casual about his student’s manuscript as he’d pretended. He opened the book that very night, after returning from an evening of drinking at his regular café. It was almost one in the morning. The light of streetlamps streamed into the office through the open window, pretending to be moonlight. The teacher lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, pulled the pages from the folder, and delved in. The first lines took his breath away, his senses attuning and his intoxication lifting He couldn’t believe his eyes: the manuscript seemed to have been forged directly from his own imagination, as if someone had read his dreams, stolen them away, then handed them back, written more expertly and more beautifully than he could have ever expressed them. The words chased each other down the paper, lunging pristinely off the page and playing in his head in perfect harmony. Every line made him feel weaker, less potent, talented, or capable, while the student’s image—which had, thus far, been small and unassuming—grew in his mind, took on enormous dimensions. He paced the room, his eyes as wild as his hair, like a caged lion, chain smoking, devouring one paragraph after the other, and desperately trying to make sense of the situation. How could the student have invaded his brain and stolen his talent, his inspiration, suckling on his soul like a vampire for the ideas and gestures that had been spinning aimlessly in his mind for years, never managing to produce a single worthy sentence? How did this spoiled brat, this little nothing, this loser, pull it off? Where did he learn how to write like this?

A pale, sickly dawn filtered into the room as the teacher—also pale and sickly—finished reading the manuscript. He placed it on his desk, lit the last cigarette left in his pack, and plopped exhaustedly into his chair. The mighty man who’d always felt much younger than his years was now as meek and meager as if he’d aged overnight. What now? He thought with desperation. What now, huh? Now, what?

***

The days went by with excruciating slowness. The student, a gentle and well-mannered soul, didn’t press the teacher for his opinion about the manuscript, and the teacher didn’t bring it up. Days turned into weeks. The student’s distress deepened. He was paralyzed, unable to concentrate, and certainly unable to start working on anything new. The teacher’s image stalked his dreams almost every night, but this time the man’s expression was threatening and distant, far from loving.

After a little over a month the student mustered up his courage, picked his moment, and asked with feigned casualness, “By the way, did you have a chance to look at my manuscript?”

The teacher, who didn’t bother looking up from the page, mumbled some empty apology and promised to read it soon.

Two more weeks went by, and the student, now completely desperate, asked again.

The teacher answered blandly that yes, he’d started reading it, and it was “very interesting.” The sleepy, absentminded tone with which he’d said the words “very interesting” disturbed the student. He turned it over in his mind again and again, trying to guess what the teacher was getting at.

During this time, the teacher grew more aloof and preoccupied. He locked himself in his office, hardly even speaking to the student, claiming to be hard at work on his new book, and reminding the student how he didn’t like to share his work before it was complete. The student’s visits to the teacher’s apartment grew less frequent, and their phone calls became brief and awkward. Once, when the student called after several days of silence, he heard the teacher whispering to his wife to say he wasn’t home.

A hole opened up in the pit of the student’s stomach. He felt betrayed and marred not only by the teacher’s aloofness, but also by the metallic tone in the poor woman’s voice as she had to lie for her husband. In his despair, he returned to his manuscript, writing and rewriting, changing words and sentences that required no change, slowly spoiling it as he waited painfully for the teacher’s response—a response which, deep inside, he knew would never come.

***

After about two months (now the rift between the teacher and the student had become a fact), rumors began to spread through literary circles about the teacher’s new book, which was coming out soon, after years of prolonged silence. On the day of publication, the student went to the university bookstore to purchase a copy, a stack of which had been presented prominently on the front desk. Glancing at the book’s cover, the student felt his head spinning, as if he’d just downed a big glass of cognac. The title of the teacher’s new book was the same working title the student had given the manuscript he’d offered him a few months earlier. He stumbled out of the store, leaned against a concrete pillar to steady himself, opened the book, and started reading. His dizziness increased, accompanied by nausea and difficulty breathing. The words, printed so authoritatively on the page, were monstrously familiar to him. The teacher had hardly bothered to change a thing. The student’s manuscript was fully contained within the pages of this open book.

***

The country was all abuzz upon the book’s publication. Literary supplements of newspapers’ weekend editions competed to see who would offer the highest praise, most flowery superlatives, or pseudo-artistic blows. “The years of silence have paid off!” announced one critic. “A once-in-a-lifetime book!” declared another. “The best wine is the one aged in its barrel for years,” wrote a third, who’d never tasted a fine vintage in his life and whose drinking habits were limited to a sickly sweet Carmel Mizrahi wine. Not only newspapers celebrated the greatness of the teacher and his new book. Radio programs also dedicated long hours to broadcasting interviews with the author—whose captivating, mischievous charisma came across perfectly on the air—and to reviews of the groundbreaking book that was proving to be his greatest tour de force. The written word was still, as previously mentioned, in the height of its glory, and the teacher’s book became the talk of the town in cafes, at salons and student get-togethers, and even on the street. The student, feeling as if he were losing his mind, wandered the city like a rabid dog, his reddened eyelids torn open, as if his manuscript’s ghost had risen before his eyes. He didn’t eat, barely slept, and couldn’t think or talk about anything save for the stolen manuscript.

He spent long hours in his friends’ rented rooms, obsessively repeating his unbelievable story and hanging on to the smallest, most insignificant details, as if hoping that one of them contained the key to unlock the mystery that had overtaken his mind and his life.

His friends, who were neither numerous nor particularly close, feigned commiseration, but secretly doubted the reliability of his claims, which sounded—to be honest—completely unfounded. Even his girlfriend, Hemda, who had grown tired of his company anyway, couldn’t bring herself to believe him the way she perhaps ought to have. “Are you sure?” she asked once or twice innocently, or perhaps not so innocently. “Are you sure it’s really your book? Could there be some sort of mistake or misunderstanding?”

At this, the student was filled with helpless fury, screaming at her with a voice thin with distress, “Are you mad? You think I don’t know my own book?”

He was tempted on a near-daily basis to go to the teacher’s apartment, knock on the door, and demand an explanation. But the mere thought of the teacher’s burning tiger eyes and horrid roar of rage made him flinch with terror and postpone the prospect of confronting him for another day.

Desperate, the student decided to contact a Tel Aviv lawyer, an acquaintance of an acquaintance, who specialized in intellectual property. He couldn’t even afford a consultation, and had to borrow the money from his elderly mother who lived off a small disability fund, and from his friends who knew full-well he’d never be able to pay them back.

Even just scheduling the appointment with the lawyer lifted the student’s spirits, returning some of his self-esteem and sense of control that he’d lost since the book came out. But sadly, this sensation evaporated as soon as the lawyer finished listening to his fervent explanations and began to respond. He peered at the student over the tip of a large British pipe held between his teeth, which made him look ludicrously provincial, and asked with hurtful matter-of-factness whether the student had any witnesses who could corroborate his testimony.

This obvious, straightforward question was like a punch to the gut. The student hadn’t thought of that before. No, he had no witnesses. Well, actually, he had one—a single witness, the teacher’s wife, who opened the door and led him into the teacher’s office as he carried the folder. But even in his shaky mental state, the student could tell right away that the wife’s testimony would be no good. She didn’t know what was in his folder, and hadn’t been in the room with them when he handed her husband the manuscript. Even if she had known, the student realized with bitter clarity, she would never dare testify against her husband.

“So, it’s your word against his,” said the lawyer, his voice lingering doubtfully.
“Wait! I have one of the two originals,” the student declared. Until now, he’d somehow forgotten the print-out he’d brought with him especially for this purpose. “This is my proof!” He pulled the second original, riddled with cross-outs and revisions, from his bag, and showed it to the lawyer, refusing to let go of it.

The lawyer glanced at him with a mixture of contempt and compassion. “And what exactly do you plan to prove with this? He’ll say you bought his book and copied it on your typewriter. Now, how are you going to prove you didn’t do that?”

The student was startled by the absurdity of the claim. “What? Why would I do that? Who would do such a thing? What do you think I am, some sort of nutjob?”

The lawyer pulled languidly on his extinguished pipe. He seemed to be losing interest in this case, which was turning out to be a dud.

“How should I know?” he said. “People do all sorts of things. There are plenty of nutjobs in this town.”

***

The book sold many editions. Rumors spread of its unprecedented success, multiple translations, and negotiations for film rights with a well-known Israeli producer living in Hollywood. How much of these were true? The student couldn’t say. His nerves were shot. His obsession with the stolen manuscript had taken over his life. He lost a lot of weight, stopped shaving, and was looking more and more disheveled. Not surprisingly, Hemda left him for another guy. As often happens in these situations, the few friends he had left pulled away from him. It’s easier and more pleasant to befriend happy, successful types than miserable losers. Who needs all that sorrow? Life is hard enough as it is.

***

One night, fairly early, the student had an awful dream: he was lying in bed, naked, his face heavily made up, his lips painted red and his eyelids adorned with mascara. The teacher, also naked, walked over to him, smiling lecherously, climbed on top of him, and began forcing himself on the student, who was paralyzed with horror and humiliation.

The student woke up in an awful panic, looking around with torn eyes, whining like a battered dog. He felt dirty, as if his sheets were stained with the teacher’s semen. He glanced at the clock on his bedside table. 1:15 a.m. He jumped out of bed, skin still prickling with terror and loathing, got dressed quickly, and ran to the teacher’s building, not pausing to think what he’d do when he got there.

The lights inside the teacher’s apartment were on in spite of the late hour. His wife’s cumbersome figure moved between the windows, like the image of the expectant sailor’s wife in the songs and ballads that were popular at the time, waiting for her husband to return from sea. This time, the student felt neither compassion nor guilt toward her, but a kind of dim detestation. The lights went out a little before two in the morning. The student remained on the sidewalk, hiding along the hedgerow. He still had no clear plan for what he’d do when he encountered the teacher. He ran different lines through his mind, each one more ridiculous than the one before, and wrestled with the urge to flee as long as he had the chance.

At 2:30, the teacher appeared around the corner, swaying and supporting himself against fences and electric poles. The student imagined he could smell the man’s putrid cognac breath from a distance, but it must have been a false perception, a result of his inflamed imagination.

The teacher spotted the student right away, in spite of his cover of darkness, and sobered up immediately. His acute senses, the alley cat instincts of a hoodlum who’d made it in life, remained as alert as a wild animal’s.

The student, whose befuddled strategies were forgotten as soon as he was face to face with the teacher, pounced with the inept motion of a person who’d never been in a fight, crying, “Thief! Thief!” with the heartrending tone of an insulted little boy, and tried to punch the teacher, who evaded the maneuver with the ease of an experienced streetfighter.

The student’s weak, clumsy body fell forward, bumping against the low stone wall surrounding the yard, and falling to the ground. The teacher approached him menacingly, his right leg raised back as if gathering momentum to kick the sprawled student’s belly. He looked at the boy with contempt, almost disgust, and roared, “Are you an idiot? Are you stupid? You really think someone like me would steal a story from someone like you? Who do you think you are? Do you really think you’re talented enough to have written something like that? Where would you even get the strength to do that, huh? Tell me, where? Who are you kidding? What are you, a child? Get out of here, little boy! Go on home, and don’t let me see you around here again, you hear me?” The teacher’s right leg hovered as if to kick the boy’s trembling body, but the kick remained hanging in midair, sketching an invisible arc of violence and fear. The student bleated something unintelligible in a meek voice and writhed on the dirty sidewalk.

The teacher’s fury rose, thickening and hoarsening his voice: “You call me a thief? Me? The man who taught you everything you know? I’m a thief? Me? If anyone’s the thief here, it’s you! You came to me like an intruder, like a jackal, like a hyena. Slithering into my brain like a snake and sneaking off with my inspiration! You asshole! You child! You baby! Get out of here!”

The teacher put his foot down on the ground, turned around quickly, walked into the building, and started taking the stairs two at a time, eager to leave behind this ugly scene, which seemed to have been lifted from one of his plays. The student remained lying on the sidewalk for another moment or two, doubled over with pain as if the teacher had actually kicked him. Then he rose heavily from the hard ground, gathered his aching limbs, and limped away, his hunched body swallowed into the darkness of night.

Translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan. 

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