An excerpt from the novel, Ship of Girls (published in Israel by Xargol) by Michal Zamir, translated from the Hebrew by Mitchell Ginsburg © 2009.
“For fuckless flings, there are prettier girls around,” Lt. Col. Shuki spat. He’s a nobody, I never feel like doing it with him. He’s almost forty and still stuck at Lieutenant Colonel. But, truth is, I wasn’t looking too hot after the second scraping. It was only a cleanup job, the abortion just happened. I wasn’t even sure it had happened, although my period was darker than usual and there were a few lumps. The gynecologist at the army med center confirmed that there’d been a miscarriage and that I’d need a scraping just to be on the safe side, to clean things up. Be careful, he said. Avoid these situations altogether. Be sure to use contraceptives.
I wasn’t bummed that he wouldn’t give me an IUD. I’m not a big believer in birth control anyway. I basically know how it all works, technically speaking, but those things aren’t for me. He doesn’t get that each body has its own way. Mine’s built for pregnancy. Even if no one sleeps with me I still get pregnant every once in a while. It’s something spiritual. I could’ve skipped the gyno visit, it was a natural abortion anyway. That way my medical file would’ve stayed clean. All these pathetic little solutions, trying to outsmart the body and prevent pregnancy, seem far more dangerous than the scrapings. Scrapings are part of the rhythm, part of the larger plan. Every two-three days the instant coffee runs out, every five days—the Turkish coffee, once a week the Sweet and Low, once a week the sugar, twice a week the disposable cups, once a month the paper clips, once every two months the staples, the large brown envelopes, the standard-sized brown envelopes, the long line at the quartermaster’s office, and the endless forms. Weekends at home.
Ten to five. The office is in order. Brig. Gen. David Kochavi: “Got any more coffee or are we closed already?” “For you, anything,” I answer with a smile, cursing his mother and her big fat ass, as he sits himself down in a chair opposite me and slowly stirs the sugar through his Turkish coffee. “So, how you doing?” He inquires, and I have no idea whether I should bring up Michaela or not—its been three months; I’ve already had my second scraping—it’s not exactly fear that I’m feeling but there’s a certain discomfort.
“It isn’t easy here at night, is it?” He says, still in the midst of his contemplative stirring. “I actually like it,” I answer. “Central location, but far from home.” My lower abdomen hurts—leftovers—and I’d like to shower and go to sleep. “Good to be young,” he chuckles. I smile and silence ensues.
“We’re just getting older and older,” he says, his spoon banging the glass, giving me chills. “Each year the gut and the bald spot grow. The uniform looks ridiculous.” He takes his time moving from sentence to sentence. He’s in no hurry. “You’re always young and pretty,” he says, taking his first sip, slowly, his lips drawn in. “Good coffee,” he says as if he hasn’t had a glass of Turkish coffee in a year. “Look at me, rotting here, waiting for retirement. What’ll I do in the meantime? I have no choice but to grow old, wait for the pension plan, for the last raise in rank, till the chief of staff decides to send me home.” A deep sigh. “I should’ve left when the time was right. Now it’s too late. But back then no one knew that the heavy brass wouldn’t mean shit anymore these days.
“I was wrong, big time, as you say. All said and done, I was an idiot. Naïve. Patriotic. Nu, what did I get out of it? I’m still waiting for last year’s promotion. I’m stuck here, a brigadier general, an eternal bum, like a thorn in the ass of the Israel Defense Forces, maybe a thorn in your asses too. But believe me, my life sucks. Waiting here like a dog for a promotion that’s never going to come. A man in my position in the civilian world has a nice house, he takes his family skiing, and he deals with people like him, people who wear good suits. I’m miles from a good suit. The most I can imagine myself in is a tankist’s jumpsuit, if it’s at all possible to imagine myself in anything other than these disgusting fatigues.” Beyond the strange quiet that has wrapped itself around his sentences, I recognize a tone of personal accusation, of anger, of violence—circling, eventually to come crashing down.
This place, this vulgar jungle, its rules—it takes over and dirties everything. This place has a soiling effect. My military service soiled me. I know I’m an asshole, but it’s not my fault.
“We don’t get any younger either,” I respond, “We just change.” Awkward, unnecessary. His eyes continue to focus on me, as though I’m at fault for all this. Out of nowhere, a weight drops down on my shoulders. I can’t let my guard down, can’t fall into this trap that’s being laid. It’s just about five. I don’t want to make anything up to him, I just want to close up and go.
“See, for us it’s really difficult. This place, this vulgar jungle, its rules—it takes over and dirties everything. This place has a soiling effect. My military service soiled me. I know I’m an asshole, but it’s not my fault. Maybe it’s my fault for not leaving at the right time, but consider where I came from, where I could go back to. Can you even understand what it was like for me, the son of a bicycle repairman from Ramat Gan, to be an IDF officer? Yeah, I took a stupid gamble. Now I know that anything above captain is a step down. But how could I have known then? All I knew back then was that I wanted to marry my secretary and live on the kibbutz. That’s as much as I knew.
“And this shit doesn’t leave any room for the outside world to seep in. You tell me, what the hell do I, a Libyan, get out of marrying an Ashkenazi girl from a kibbutz? What do I get out of the fact that we live in a cottage in Ra’anana and my two oldest kids are in university? Believe me, they spit on me. I brought home the bread, defended the country, was driven home by a driver—but she raised them, they’re her kids. They’re nothing like me. Ashkenazi kids from a good home that served in the intelligence corps and in the IDF spokesperson’s unit. One’s studying law, the other film. Imagine, my son’s studying film. Fucking-A. You see what I’m saying?” I nodded, but how did this help his advance? Where was this going?
“You girls screw up our family, the kids, the fun rightfully earned by people with ordinary lives, people who’ve done something, who were given a chance, who the IDF gave a chance to. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe you’re our consolation prize? Life sucks, but we have our own perks. You can forget the wife and kids and pretend you’re a king.
“Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on in your head.” He raises his eyes and takes another sip, long and loud. “Nothing’s going on in my head,” I say as I look at the clock on the wall behind him and see that it’s five-twenty. “You probably think you know what I want, but you have no idea. Neither do I.” I hear the voices of the other girls on the path that leads to the mess hall. I’ve become really hungry. “I’ll tell you more than that, I have no idea what I want out of my life, what I want out of you, and I have no idea what I wanted out of her.” His eyes skim over the photo of Michaela. It’s no longer covered with the sun-bleached black ribbon. “It kills me that it’s pointless. That I know it’s all pointless and that still…I didn’t mean to do anything to harm her. Believe me, I didn’t even consider that. I didn’t even consider that as a possibility. You tell me what went through her head, maybe you know, maybe you understand.”
“Most of the time I don’t feel the need,” he says staring into the coffee grounds padding the bottom of his cup. “I don’t need anything more than for time to pass, promotion or not. Until I see a girl who forces me, forces me to prove to her and to myself that I’m a man. Excuse me, maybe this repulses you or is difficult for you, but I have to. I’m willing to give them a ride back home, make sure they’re treated with respect on the base, and I really do look out for my girls, but they need to look out for me too, to satisfy me, to ignore the bulge and the bald patch and the bad breath. They need to love me. I know it’s five-thirty and you’re dying to go, but believe me I’ve been stuck for thirty years. So just one more minute, one more cup of coffee. Black, two sugars. And get me Katri’s number at the transportation and vehicle maintenance command and write it down for me on a note, so I’ll have it.
“I’ll be done with him in a second. Here, she’s patching me through to Katri. You’re a little pale, no? No worries, you’re doing me good, calming me. Hey, what is it about you that’s so calming, ah?” He doesn’t even bother to cover the telephone when inquiring what it is exactly about me that’s so pleasing while I miss my free time and my dinner at the soon-to-close enlisted mess hall. “Katri, David Kochavi. Bentzi from northern vehicle maintenance called me yesterday and said he’s not responsible for the repairs of my vehicle, even though he’s on loan from the central command…yeah, yeah of course, that’s exactly what I told him and that’s why I called, so that you’d drop a word, I want this over already…”
My mom would tell me not to get involved. It’s all fine and well that he talks to me this way, but nothing good can come out of it. Sit still and don’t get involved. He can say whatever he wants and I won’t respond. First of all, ’cause I don’t know anything about that stuff. And it’s already a quarter to six and I should be with my friends, gossiping with Kochi, ironing uniforms, eating dinner, showering, doing things appropriate for a girl my age and not getting involved in all kinds of dirty words and problems I can’t understand.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
Since I am writing this in the morning, I am imagining what would have made it perfect. So, considering the pleasant December sun rays, the street noise and the fact that I have several hours before my daughter returns from school, I think it would be nice to re-read Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway in the new Hebrew translation. In this morning, sunny and warm, Mrs. Dalloway would have definitely carried her soul to lunchtime with rational mellowness, peppered with distant memories of loss, and sharpening the read with the conjunction of the concrete and the associative. This way, one could definitely think about life and its losses without pain.
Twelve Fantasias for Flute Solo by Georg Philipp Telemann.
For a sunny autumn morning I would recommend a Telemann fantasy or just a flute solo, preferably with the authentic instruments. It combines wonderfully with a light breeze coming in from the half-open window, and with Clarissa Dalloway’s morning, which “was lovely. Like the beat of a perfect heart, life beating in the streets. With no recoil, no hesitation.”
A poppy pastry (In a bakery near you…)
What’s left is a poppy pastry. Sweet, but not banal. Sweet, but not up to the point of suffering. Perfect for a morning of pleasant autumn, for caressing sunrays, for Clarissa Dalloway’s shopping before her evening party, for Telemann who I already replaced with Handel. Perhaps Mrs. Dalloway too could be replaced by some other lady, but the sun rays and the poppy pastry are irreplaceable.