Just Like That, My Dear
What Leib could never tell his roommate, not ever, is that he had solved the problem of sex long ago. Once every three weeks, on Wednesday afternoons, Leib changed into jeans and a t-shirt, grabbed some extra shekels and left Jerusalem on the 12:15 bus to Tel Aviv. He spent his afternoons in Liat’s bed, with its crisp cotton sheets and large fluffy pillows, a welcome distraction, several hours of rigorous sex and long conversation in which he did most of the talking. He was back on the bus to Jerusalem by late afternoon. Her three children home promptly at 6:00 PM each day.
He’d found her at the beach. They had danced around each other for most of the afternoon. He stayed close, careful to glance her way just every so often, while she watched him from her blanket. By mid-afternoon, she announced to the children that their father would be arriving shortly. Pack things up and I’ll see you again soon. They did as they were told. She walked them to the busy curb, left her stuff behind. Once her kids were tucked into the back seat of their father’s sedan, she returned to the beach and sat directly on his towel. He laughed.
“What’s so funny?” She smiled.
“That was quick,” Leib responded, leaning in, their bodies touching. He moved some sand around with the palm of his hand.
“Mah zeh, ‘Quick?’ It’s been two hours since you arrived. Zeh lo ‘Quick.’ Come with me. I live just down the street, a few blocks.”
Leib soaped her up in the shower. Bent her over in the bedroom. Watched her cheeks turn pink and her tongue reach for his. When they were done, she handed him his clothing, directing him to the bus around the corner on Ibn G’virol. “It’s your last chance to get back to Jerusalem.” Leib gathered his things and left quietly, no offer to meet again, no exchange of phone numbers.
He made it to the Central Bus Terminal just in time for the final bus of the evening, his head bobbing against the window as he nodded in and out of sleep. Once back in the apartment, he checked on his roommate, Yossi. His nightlight cast a glow upon all the books surrounding his bed. On the nightstand, on the dresser, even some on the floor. The gold-leaf edges and maroon bindings reflected and illuminated the walls. Yossi’s shaggy blond hair peeked out from underneath the sheets, a tiny snort from his lips, like a baby cub. Leib breathed in the intimate smell of sleep, removed his shoes and walked closer to the bed, watching Yossi’s eyelids flutter, his mouth open slightly, his hands tucked underneath his cheek. Time was running out.
The following week, he took his extra shekels and boarded a bus for Tel Aviv, hoping to find her again. Leib looked out the window and found that Cod was written on a passing wall. He was certain that it was supposed to be God, but the author—most likely Israeli—forgot the little downspout that belonged on an uppercase G. So he wrote about a fish instead. How undignified for a street artist, to write about a fish. Leib imagined the laughter from his friends, those more fluent in the English language, those who snickered at the artists’ attempt to say something meaningful. Yes, we all desire to say something meaningful, but we lose our way and forget to add the important stuff, leaving us with declarations about a bony, tasteless freshwater fish rather than about the presence of a godly figure in our lives, on the street, in the urban center where canine excrement and flies and cigarette butts reigned supreme. God was forsaken, forgotten, left to fight for a space on the wall, to make a place among a godless people. This was Tel Aviv. And Leib wasn’t sure he could find Liat again in this mass of bridal boutiques and motor scooters and candy shops and peeling concrete. Jerusalem, at least, had holy sites and bookstores and rabbis, all which gave the appearance of sacred space, of journeys revealed, of people found rather than lost.
Where was this woman with the long, smooth legs and tiny bikini bottom who welcomed him so easily into her bed, whose insatiable appetite for experimentation, just in the course of their initial three hours together, made Leib’s desire almost uncontrollable? If he didn’t find her with her children at the beach, he’d knock on her door, see if she was available. She must be available.
But she wasn’t there, at the beach, and she wasn’t in her apartment, so he left her a note, and slipped it under her door: I’ll be back in three weeks. At 2 PM. That’s how it began. He went back three weeks later. She had cleaned the apartment, put out flowers, purchased chocolate candy and new silk panties. There had been other women, but not like this. Never had he experienced such generosity. Never so appreciated in all his life.
Tel Aviv lingered on Leib’s clothing. Soap from Liat’s shower, her cooking on his lips. Yossi asked where he’d been.
“Just to the beach. Just to get away.”
Yossi looked at his roommate from across the study table. He inspected Leib’s hair. It was fluffy from Liat’s expensive shampoo. “Why Tel Aviv?” Yossi was quick to reproach. “Rabbi Hersh would say no.”
“Are you planning on telling him? I mean, I could lose my spot. They could ask me to leave.” Leib shifted in his seat. Clipped and unclipped his kippah.
“There’s naked girls there, Leib.”
“Not true. They’re wearing bathing suits.” He wished he hadn’t said it.
“You know what I mean.” Yossi looked down at the shtender. “What beach have you been going to? What if they ask where you’ve gone?”
“Just the religious beach. Near the Hilton Hotel. Come with me,” Leib quickly urged, in a whisper. “We could go together, on Friday, before Shabbat.” Leib was lying by saying he’d been there. He’d been close. He’d walked past. And he’d seen the men entering and exiting. Their faces sweaty from the travel, carrying large plastic sacks of wet clothing. Bright towels draped over their black coats. Little boys following close. Leib wondered what happened on that beach. Did they know how to swim? Did they dunk and splash and shout, Watch me Watch me Watch me! Did they bring their favorite novels and recline on their towels? Or did they talk Gemara even there, among the lifeguards in their short shorts, the rocks on the horizon, the rabbis of yesterday always present?
Yossi fingered the edge of his book. Leib looked down at his volume of Talmud and saw some words about “redeeming the captive.” Yossi remained quiet. One time, when he had just arrived in Jerusalem from Ohio, Leib disappeared for six days, from one Saturday night to the next Friday morning, having only left a note. Yossele: Gone for a few days. No need to worry. I’ll be back. Leib traveled down through Arad, past Dimona, into Eilat, where he slept in a dirty hostel, drank cheap beer on the beach, and had sex with several women. He arrived back in Har Nof smelling of pussy and cigarettes, his white shirt stained and his socks missing. Yossi had laughed, but this time, things weren’t as funny.
Leib tapped on his volume of Talmud. “Nu? Are you coming, or not?”
“No, but promise that you’ll only go to the religious beach,” Yossi responded.
“I promise.” Leib knew Yossi would never join him on this proposed excursion. Yossi’s own life had shifted towards the tethered, a communal obligation that kept him within the confines of Jerusalem.
“Don’t go looking for girls. Maybe you need to talk to Rabbi Hersh, like the rest of us. He’ll help you.”
“I don’t need help. I just need time away. I’m fine, Yossi.” Leib was beginning to get agitated by Yossi’s assumption that he needed help, like he had some disease or addiction.
Yossi shook his head. “Just make sure you come home to sleep.”
“Where else would I sleep?” Leib smiled at Yossi, grateful for his permission.
“Only in our apartment. Do you understand?”
Leib smiled. “I’m all yours, Yossi.”
“If you don’t come back this time, Leib, I’m moving out. You can find another roommate.”
To this, Leib nodded solemnly.
Liat rarely said much, just that she’s so glad to see you, my dear. I need you, my dear. Yes, more, yes, just like that, my dear.
For almost two years they met, never straying from her apartment. She lay around and painted her fingernails while he talked. He told her about his cleaning schedule, and about Yossi. His life, during their time together, changed dramatically. But hers stayed the same. Leib narrated how he scrubbed Yossi’s new apartment in anticipation of his wedding night with his new bride. How he helped pick out the sheets, made sure to wash them before wear, fluffed the pillows and put candles in the bathroom. Danced at the wedding until the sole of his shoe flew off, then danced in his socks, then danced Yossi and his bride out of the wedding hall and into the car that was waiting to take them to their new home.
“Did you share any secrets with him?” Liat asked.
“What kind of secrets?”
“Like, you know, what to do with a woman, once they’re finally in bed?”
“Like how I run my fingers up and down the inside of your soft thighs?”
“Or how I kiss your soft bottom lip, biting until you gasp?”
“Or how I lick your soft, pink nipples, like this?”
“Nope. I’m not sure how Yossi’s doing with his bride. Not my concern, really. You’re my concern.” Leib checked the clock as he opened her legs. Only 15 more minutes before departure. He slid in, her wetness surprising, a final gift before the bus ride back to Har Nof.
Somehow, she never scolded him, never told him to leave Jerusalem, it’s all a sham, what are you really doing, if you can’t do it fully, if you can’t find your own bride and make a home? He was grateful to her for that, perhaps more than what she provided in bed, he was thankful she never told him his life was a lie.
When he asked about her children, she shook her head. When he asked about her ex-husband, she changed the subject.
“What can I ask you about?”
“The place between my legs.”
“C’mon. I want to know about your life.” He kissed her belly button.
“This is my life. You’re living it with me.”
“That’s not true. Sex in your apartment once every few weeks isn’t living your life.”
“But this is what I do, you see.”
“What do you mean?” Leib’s heart started to beat fast.
“Do you think you’re the only one I spend time with?”
“Yes.” He immediately regretted revealing this naiveté.
“How’s a single woman to spend her days when her children are in school?” Liat ran her fingers through his hair.
Leib didn’t answer.
“Don’t worry. There’s only two others.”
“Two?” Leib shut his eyes. It became hard to look at her, her face suggesting pleasure in the conversation. “Who are they?”
“Don’t you know not to ask?”
“I can ask.”
“No you can’t.”
“When do they come?”
“What makes you think they come here?” Liat reached to her bedside table and grabbed a bottle of pale pink nail polish. She began to paint her left hand.
“How often do you see them? More than me?”
“I see them enough.”
“Do they pay you?”
“Leib.” She stopped playing with her nails. “What do you think I am?”
Again, he didn’t answer.
“I go to them, my dear. You’re the only one I let come to my home.” She kissed his forehead, opened his eyes with her lips. Tried to smooth the wrinkled brow.
“Why did you tell me this?” He asked.
“I don’t want you to think you can marry me. I don’t want you wanting more.”
He did want more, but he couldn’t tell her. He wanted to visit every week, arrange a ride to save on bus fare and time—take her to a café, linger over coffee, hold her hand and walk down the street. He’d keep his Tel Aviv uniform in her dresser drawer, changing out of his black and white upon arrival. These fantasies occupied much of his time during his cleaning routines around Jerusalem. He filled his mind with images of the two of them taking her kids to the playground, shopping at the shuk for soft pita, making love in her warm bed. His fantasies became so overwhelming, occupying every inch of his brain, suffocating him and ruining sleep that he called Liat one evening and told her it was over.
“But I keep you alive. How will you live without our visits?”
“I’ll manage. In fact, I’ll be better, more focused.” He curled the phone cord around his fingers. “I have course work to finish.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? I’ll miss you very much.”
“You’ve got your other men to keep you happy.”
“Don’t say that. It’s not nice—I want you. You keep me happy.”
“Not happy enough for more time.”
“That’s not it. You have your life too. Don’t act like this is all about me.”
“What life? What life do I have?” Leib felt his nose tingle.
“Don’t reduce yourself to nothing. That’s not fair. And it’s not attractive. You do have a life—with your yeshiva and your study—”
“It’s not a life. It’s an existence. All these months together and I see that it should be more.”
“So make it more.”
“I want to make it more with you, Liat. But you don’t seem to want that.”
She got quiet.
“Have you ever told anybody about me? Do I even exist?”
“Of course you exist—what kind of question is that? Besides, have you ever told anybody about me? And why do people need to know about this?”
“Witnesses make it concrete. They make us accountable.” He paused. “I’ve never been able to tell anybody about you—but that’s because of the company I keep. But you, you could tell your friends. You could tell your other lovers. Have you at least told them?”
“Yes. They know about you. Just as you know about them. And my brother knows about you. Does that make you happy? Does that make you exist? If you need somebody for that purpose, I suggest you look elsewhere.”
“OK. I’ll find somebody else.” He hoped it would sting.
She paused. Leib could feel her thinking. He waited.
Her voice was soft. “You should find somebody, Leib. In Jerusalem.” She paused again. “Leib, my love, you should get married. And have your own children.”
“You’re right—your children aren’t my children—you’ve made that clear.” Leib’s voice got loud. “In all our time together, you could have at least told me their names.”
“Daniel. Shira. Eden.”
“Which is which?”
“Does it matter?”
“No, I guess it doesn’t.”
“You’ll name your own children, one day, Leib. I’m sure of it.”
“What was this for you, this whole time? A charity project? A way to get me to see what I really need in this life? A way to convince me that it’s not you that I need, but a family of my own? Have you been planning on releasing me?”
“Leib, my love, you called me, remember?”
Yes. Of course, he was the one who initiated this. He was the one who called to tell her he was done and it was over. But he didn’t expect her to agree with him. He thought she would say yes to his terms—agree to see him more often, to let him meet her children, to empty a dresser drawer.
“Why don’t you come one last time? See how you feel? We should say farewell in person, no?”
Leib agreed. “Yes, of course. One last time.”
On the afternoon of their final visit, he canceled his chevruta with Yossi, left Jerusalem early, wandered through her neighborhood. The cafes on Basel were crowded, as were the maternity shops and jewelry stores. He found a small side street, sat for a few moments on a park bench, listened as the nearby playground filled with children. It was a beautiful part of Tel Aviv, and these streets had long worked their way into his fantasy. The fantasy he knew would be the hardest and final thing to leave behind—not her smell, or the way she loved him—but the animated future he had managed to conjure. Evenings with her youngest, a little girl of four. He would take her to the park, push her on the swing, buy her vanilla ice cream and wipe her chin. Together, they’d clean her bedroom and organize her tiny toys. Then Liat’s little girl would say, “Thank you! Now let’s play!” and he’d sit on the floor and play dolls and ponies.
Leib found a specialty store to buy Liat some flowers and a few truffles they’d share. A farewell of sorts, a celebration of their lives together, every three weeks, these past two years. He wanted to leave her feeling grateful, feeling strong. But as he was paying, he glanced out the window, and there she was with another woman. Chatting and laughing, arms flying about, telling a story. How was she laughing just an hour before they’d say goodbye? He finished the transaction and followed her and her friend down Basel Street. They meandered and stopped to talk to a young family, some new mothers sitting in the square with their strollers and babies. Leib kept his distance, but watched without pause. Her life was full. She had all that she needed, he thought. Friends, money, beautiful children, a beautiful apartment. Several lovers. She didn’t need me here, not more than my allotted time, my portion-controlled three-week visits. He noted this new emotion, churning and oozing its way through his limbs and blood: jealousy. How has it arrived just now, as he prepared his thank-you-for-all-you’ve-created-goodbye speech?
When he rang her bell thirty minutes later, he’d gotten himself worked up. He kissed her hard, turned her over, pushed deep inside. She didn’t cry out, didn’t tell him to stop, instead, she urged him on, like his team captain. If her hands were free she’d clap and cheer. But they weren’t. They were pinned behind her back, or tied to the headboard, and when none of this caused Leib’s release, when his love for her wasn’t returned, Leib’s final departure left him emptier than he’d ever been.
Years later, he still thought of her. He would imagine Liat getting dressed in a long skirt and white sneakers and coming to find him in Har Nof. They would bump into each other at the bus stop, or in the supermarket, and Leib would be surprised to see her, and also so grateful, and they’d get shy and search for a quiet spot to say hello. Sometimes it was behind a stack of boxes, near the peas, other times it was under an abandoned awning, the shade giving them enough privacy to smile at each other. They would walk back to his apartment and he’d unlock the door and there she would be, in his space, among his books and his clothes and his food. First in the living room and then in the kitchen until finally, he’d brew tea then serve her ripe, dripping fruit until he brought her to the bedroom to peel away her layers and find her smooth legs and her lace, pink panties. He’d tease and pull and bite and tickle and sometimes even spank for taking too long to find him. His heart had wept and she hadn’t even cared.
In these fantasies, Leib always put Liat on the last bus of the evening. Sending her away. “Can’t I sleep over?” she’d ask. He always said no. A few days later, his phone would ring, and it would be her, and she’d ask to return, but he’d say it was too risky. “I’ll call soon, when I have some time.”
“Please,” she’d beg.
Eventually, the fantasies waned. But every now and again, they’d reappear at the oddest moments. And they suffocated and choked and sometimes even paralyzed. There had been one Friday afternoon where he was sitting on a bench near the market and the image of her coming to find him clouded his vision and he missed all signs that Shabbat had arrived. People shut their booths and the sun set and Leib sat with Liat for the entire afternoon. Eventually, he felt thirsty, and looked down to see his six heavy plastic bags at his feet. He looked around and noticed people in their Shabbat finery, walking and smiling and wishing one another a Shabbat Shalom. Leib stood up and grabbed his bags and walked for hours back to Har Nof. He missed dinner at Yossi’s house. Arrived just in time for dessert and a glass of wine.
His former roommate, seated alongside his pretty wife, knew not to ask.
Danielle Leshaw is a rabbi, writer, parent, and has served as the Executive Director of Hillel at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, since 2002. She writes non-fiction about Jewish parenting, Israel, and life as a rabbi in the foothills of Appalachia. Sections of her novel-in-progress, The Most Beautiful Alone, have earned her 2012 and 2014 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards, the leading state grant for writers.