The whole morning was ahead of me. I went for a stroll and stopped by a few of the shops that sold my factory’s products. I visited a few stamp dealers in Herzl Street and Allenby Street, inspected a lot, and bought very little. What did they have to offer me?
Then I looked at my watch and saw that I still had time before one o’clock. I bought a paper and went into a restaurant—the Tnuva, to be precise. I ordered two fresh rolls, a green salad, an omelette, yogurt, and coffee. While waiting to be served, I killed a fly with one deft blow and opened up the paper.
The waitress, a small woman, painted and ugly, asked me how I wanted my coffee. At that moment, I saw another fly, and this one, too, I squashed on the table with a brisk hand movement. I asked for coffee with milk. Suddenly, a woman stood up at one of the other tables and scolded the waitress, complaining that “even here you can’t sit in peace.” I realized that the rebuke was meant for me, and I told the woman that as much as the noise was disturbing her the flies were disturbing me. Tova shrank back into her corner and didn’t say a word. I drank and ate and read the paper.
The restaurant was almost empty: Tova, me, and the waitress. The waitress smoked a cigarette, and opened the Hungarian paper Új Kelet. Tova smoked and wrote something on a sheet of paper torn from a pad. I wondered if it would be worth it to smoke my lunchtime cigarette now, out of boredom. But I looked at my watch and decided against it.
Suddenly the waitress said, “It’s starting to warm up outside.”
I was quick to agree with her, because what she’d said was quite true. I said, “Yes. Warming up.”
And, after a prolonged silence, Tova said from her corner, “Well, we can stand the heat, but this humidity will be the death of us all.”
I was fed up with the paper. I pushed the empty ashtray away, and I thought, Maybe I’ll pay and go. The question was, Where could I go now? The waitress had gone to the kitchen and was cursing somebody there. I could hear but I couldn’t see whom she was cursing. Meanwhile, I looked at Tova. I was relaxed and completely lucid. Even now, putting these things down on paper, I am lucid and relaxed. At the start of my Army service, they used to say of me, “That Eliezer, he won’t lose his head in a hurry.” I saw smoke rings and the quiver at the corners of her lips. I saw how the flies were gathering around her coffee cup, and she either didn’t notice or didn’t care. But now, when I remember all these details, it seems to me that there was another detail, perhaps a central detail, that escaped me.
I said, “Are you waiting for someone?”
She started to answer me and suddenly began coughing. At first it was a light cough, as if she were clearing her throat. Then she started choking and wheezing, and the distorted and ugly sounds emerging from her lungs almost resembled the barking of a dog. She stood up unsteadily, and immediately had to clutch at the table for support, her mouth gaping like the mouth of a thirsty fish.
I didn’t hesitate. I approached her and slapped her back. She recoiled and tried to say something. Her lips trembled. But, when her coughing subsided and she managed to say what she had wanted to say, the words came too late: “Don’t touch me.”
I begged her pardon and offered to go and get her a glass of water. I had no ulterior motive; I just wanted to help her.
“I don’t need help,” she said.
I smiled. “I never yet met a girl who didn’t need help.”
“I’m not a girl,” Tova said, taking a glass of water from the Hungarian waitress. “I’m a woman of thirty-three.”
When she made this strange remark, there was a kind of smile on her lips—and only on her lips: the rest of her face seemed reluctant to participate. Something not far from contempt was implied in the corners of her eyes. I decided to exchange fact for fact.
“And I’m twenty-eight years old. My name is Eliezer. Free agent.”
These words seemed to appeal to her. This time her eyes smiled, too, through the veil of tears brought on by the coughing fit. She hurriedly turned over the sheet of paper on her table so that I couldn’t see what was written on it, and said, “Sit down, if you like.”
But I’d had a quick glimpse of the page, on which there was a series of short lines. I sat down at her table and said, “A blessed place this is, bringing together a poet and a poetess. May I read it?”
She wavered for a moment, a shadow of suspicion passing across her eyes. Finally, she came to a decision and lit a new cigarette. “What do you want from me, anyway?”
“Nothing in particular.” The question surprised me. “Just to get acquainted. I’m Eliezer Dror, from kibbutz Tel Tomer. And I write poems, too, sometimes, especially for kibbutz festivals. Humorous poems, but usually they come to a serious conclusion.”
Tova said, “Most kibbutzniks have no manners. You seem to be all right. I saw how you jumped up to help me when I was coughing. My name is Tova, and I smoke too much. So thank you very much, you can go now, you’re liberated. A free agent, like you said. I’m O.K. now.”
“Just a moment,” I said. Now I was really annoyed with her, and I had no intention of passing over in silence the two insults, neither of which I deserved. “One moment before you expel me from your table. First, you’re far from O.K., and, second, what is that supposed to mean—‘kibbutzniks have no manners’? I could make generalizations, too—for example, that poets are disturbed creatures.”
“That’s true. Especially when people are disturbing them. Perhaps you could let me know, finally, what it is that you want from me?”
She panted. She pulled the ashtray toward her, picked up the cigarette that she’d stubbed out during the coughing fit, and relit it. She lit the cigarette with knitted brows, with strong and supple fingers. At this moment, I noticed something else for the first time: the thumb of her left hand was missing, and this aroused in me a brief but intense thrill. I said, “If I’m disturbing the muses, I’d better go straightaway. I only wanted to tell you that I really do love poetry. Now I’ll ask you to excuse me. Goodbye.”
“No, wait,” Tova said. “If you’re not in a hurry, sit with me for a while.”
“I’m not in a hurry,” I said. And, right then, I decided to smoke my lunchtime cigarette.