When does love tip over into jealousy? Devotion into obsession? Indeed, how can one tell if that strange and uncontrollable sensation is the one or the other? The Parting Gift, by Evan Fallenberg, teases out a complex narrative of love and betrayal from the narrow channel that separates the most basic—and quite often, the most base—of our emotions.
Set in contemporary Israel, the epistolary The Parting Gift is anchored by the erotically charged affair between the unnamed narrator— a young shiftless American trying to find himself in Israel—and Uzi. Strong, silent, largely undemonstrative, Uzi’s uncomplicated world extends little further than his business as a spice merchant, until the day our narrator turns up by chance at his door.
The relationship is uncomplicated—unconditional, even—at first. But as our narrator finds himself first drawn to, then entangled by Uzi’s hinterland—querulous ex-wife, maladjusted teenage kids, business dealings—the complexities and contradictions begin to accumulate. Or so it seems…
A novelist and also a leading translator of Hebrew fiction, Evan Fallenberg teaches on the Creative Writing Program at Bar-Ilan University, and is the founder of Arabesque, an Arts and Residency Center in Old Acre. The Parting Gift is his third novel.
We are sitting, as I write this, as we often do: me on the sofa and you at your desk, your back to me, hunched over your computer. Your hair needs cutting, this time preferably by someone—anyone—other than Beth. You will never see, as I can, the line, or lack of one, that runs from below your left ear to below your right, how jagged it is, how unendearing. Your nape—what a lovely, raw word, don’t you think? So Saxon and blunt—is impossibly white, sickly white, and the mole that is nearly equidistant between your scraggly hairline, such as it is, and the collar of your stretch-necked T-shirt, stands out like a nipple on a pale breast. A nipple on a pale breast: a beautiful metaphor, wouldn’t you agree? It retains the bodily imagery but swivels it around from front to back. I hope you don’t feel it emasculates you, though. Beth wouldn’t approve, she’s a fierce defender of your masculinity. Such as it is. The lady doth protest a little too much.
Your nape, still bent to your work, still deathly white with a dark eruption that contains who knows what disease or tumor one day to awaken and poison you, invites kissing or strangling. I could do either, in fact. Now, though, I’m too distracted for either. I’m occupied, gainfully, with this letter, which is, or will be, my parting gift to you. In it I shall recount how it is that I washed up on your doorstep nearly four months ago, and what events brought me here. You have never asked me and I find that exceedingly nice of you— nice being a word that could have been coined specially for you had it not already been abused for centuries in describing the bland or the sweet or the cuddly or the mild—and at the same time exceedingly odd. Would I ever do the same for you, or anyone? Doubtful. But you, Adam, you are not me and I am not you, so it is a good thing that I was the one who did the washing up on the doorstep and you who did the welcoming.
I should stand up from the sofa and pull your shoulders back to keep you from slouching so terribly. You do it all the time, and recently, even when you stand to your full medium height, you do it; you are slowly slipping into the form of a question mark, when at your age you should be an exclamation mark, erect and definitive. I have spoken to you about this, in a friendly way of course, and on one memorable occasion—I know you remember it, Adam, maybe more than you’d like?—I bent down to you from behind, lassoed one arm around your neck and straightened your head against my abs. Your fingers hovered over your keyboard. It was so awkward for you! You didn’t know whether you should just carry on tapping as if I weren’t holding you, as if we weren’t breathing in sync, or whether you should give in and let me move your body as it should be moved. Beth, I’d guess, doesn’t do that for you, does she? No, you’re the man and you do the moving, the placing, the laying on of hands. Of course you do.
But I still haven’t properly explained why I’m writing this letter to you when you are a matter of two paces across the room from me and unable to keep from hearing any words I might let slip from between my lips. You are my captive audience, and too polite to ignore me no matter how much I am getting on your nerves after one hundred and eleven days on the sofa in your tiny apartment (I’ve counted). Oh, I know I’m getting on your nerves, testing your resolve to be generous and undemanding, to practice what you preach about a kinder, gentler world in which we look after one another instead of solely our selves. You loathe hoarding and selfishness and greed. How right you are that we are destroying all that is good around us, from natural resources to human relationships, and you are out there doing something about it, making a difference, making of yourself and your Project a shining example. And along I’ve come and plopped myself down in the middle of all that like some man-made eyesore—I’m thinking of a dam on a pristine river, strip-mining in a jungle; our old lit-theory prof would be proud of my “consistency of metaphor,” don’t you think?—which you are dealing with so admirably, so fairly, with such generosity of spirit. Beth has told you to get rid of me, I know it, I see it on her face daily; your mother has too, judging by a phone conversation I overheard last week. But you, Adam, you have stood your ground for one hundred and eleven days and I imagine you could hold out for one hundred and eleven more—a thousand and eleven, why not?!—but I will spare you that, I will save you the rift with your girlfriend and your mother and your conscience and in this case it will be me who does the decent thing, the selfless thing; and that is the purpose of this letter, my friend: I am leaving, in fact I shall be gone when you are reading this. It will be the long-overdue explanation of my mysterious appearance at your door these four months ago. The expression of my gratitude.
I expect you will be tempted to share this letter with Beth, your beloved, from whom you have surely pledged to hide nothing. But my recommendation is that you read it through first in secret, alone; if nonetheless you decide to let her read it then at least it will be a decision made from knowledge and not from some promise you made about open communication, or from guilt. I detest guilt as a motivating factor for anything, and as for the promises made between lovers, well, they are a blueprint for calamity, a writ of divorce rendered point by point. You’ll think I’m being cynical here—you’ve used that word on me on five occasions in these four months already— but I have more experience in this than you do. Beth, you feel certain, would break no vows made or even implied between you, and you have had no true lover before Beth, so she is the entirety of your experience, and you two as a couple are untried. But take it from me, a man with a record in the crimes of love: Promises will be broken and vows will be trampled and feelings will be hurt—oh, far worse than that. Where love is concerned the rules are not written in books of statutes but they exist all the same, and they are unbending.
But I don’t wish to turn you away—not from Beth, not from love, and not from me and the story I am about to reveal to you in these pages. So do not worry your sweet head about it, that head of unwashed, uncoiffed hair, or for that matter your gently sloping back or your hairless arms and legs or your hollow belly or sweet, bony ass. Carry on with your Project—you are typing now, furiously; it looks, from the sofa, to be yet another grant application, another long Statement of Purpose or Scope of Project essay—and do not let me distract you unduly. But do read my recounting, my accounting, and let it penetrate you at the margins of the day, when you lie in bed, your arm curled gently around a soporific Beth; let it infiltrate your pores, allow it to seep into your soul. You are too pure, my friend; perhaps this will be your chance for damnation.
But I still haven’t properly explained why I’m writing this letter to you when you are a matter of two paces across the room from me and unable to keep from hearing any words I might let slip from between my lips.
This story, like most stories, could begin in a number of different places. I could slip backward in time all the way to my grandparents in order to show you what kind of households my parents grew up in. I could start when you and I met, in grad school, so that the arc of this narrative would become our story, the story of our acquaintanceship. There are other options, and literary techniques we learned together and could both name, that would do the trick as well, but I’ll spare you the gimmickry and cut to the facts that hounded me all the way to this living room on 119 Maple Street in this wannabe bohemian neighborhood of this middling city of America. For the record, I will tell this story with the utmost objectivity I can muster, an attempt at The Truth. I urge you to read without skepticism, but since you are generally guileless and gullible I believe you will believe what I report to you, as you should. To make this accounting as readable as possible I will write it not so much as a letter, not so much as a recounting through my eyes, but as reportage, which means that I will give you the scenes as they happened, and with dialogue between the various characters that is as authentic as I can recall—and authentic it will be, since my memory is phenomenal and photographic, or whatever the audio equivalent is called. Surely you remember how I could imitate our profs, reciting whole monologues of theirs even days after hearing them, so it should come as no surprise that these events I am about to share, these events of great portent and drama that caused a grand detour in my life, should be etched onto my consciousness in such a way that they are accessible to me in bulk.
Beyond the story itself, Adam, I think you’ll simply enjoy reading this because it will be well written even without editing; time is short, revisions take long, and my writing is strong enough to present you with a first draft. I know what a good reader you are and you know what a fine vocabulary I have, my way with a sentence. Even in a graduate program in literature I stood out, right? So you can be guaranteed that I will deliver you a work of elegance and original insight.
So, Adam, leave your computer, lay aside your Project, come sit upon this very sofa, recently vacated. Turn on the reading lamp, pour yourself a cup of that awful instant coffee you drink incessantly, pull the afghan over your legs if it’s as cold in here as it is today, and read me for a few hours. As in life, I will never bore you.