“Ya’allah, Vivi. You’re crazy. It’s four in the morning. Don’t you sleep anymore?”
Pincho has just come home from work at Indigo to find Vivi hard at work on the living room floor. She is surrounded by photographs, tools, a sewing kit, glue and sequins, picture frames, magazine clippings, and various bits and pieces of junk she has collected over the past few weeks.
“Who needs sleep?” she says, a big, crazed smile on her face. “I’m loving this, feeling so … engaged all the time. You know, I don’t even have time for cigarettes anymore. I think I’ve just given them up without ever meaning to. Anyway, my mother always says there’s plenty of time for sleeping in the grave.”
“I’ve heard that joke,” he says, trying to clear a place to sit on the armrest of the sofa. “But seriously, when’s our apartment going to turn back into a place where two people live?”
Vivi looks up at Pincho. There is glitter in his hair and his trousers look newly pressed, but his beautiful face lacks luster, his eyes are dull. She puts down the photos she is holding. “You are such a dear for putting up with me,” she says. “How did I ever get so lucky?”
“Yeah, yeah, kiss my ass,” he says with a laugh. “You think if you’re nice to me I won’t complain?”
Vivi stands up, stretches. “How about if I give you a tour, show you what I’m working on.”
“You’ve been so secretive, I’ve been afraid to ask.”
“Silly, isn’t it? I guess I just … I don’t know, I want this to work out. I really want to get this right.”
“All right, come on. Show me around my own apartment.”
Vivi takes Pincho by the wrist and leads him to the upended cable spool that serves as their dining room table. “I dug out all my old woodcarving tools,” she says as she lifts a small figurine into her hand and passes it to Pincho. “I didn’t even think I’d find them.”
Pincho handles the polished wood likeness of a male dancer with great care and runs a finger down one smooth thigh then the other. “How … ?” He stops mid-thought, entranced. “It’s just beautiful, Viv. I …”
She smiles proudly. “You didn’t know I could do this.”
“It’s not that I … I know you’re really talented but …”
She plucks the statue from his hand. “I did it from a photograph of him. Something from the fifties.”
“What’s this?” he asks, lifting a jumble of cloth from the back of a chair.
“Oh, wait!” she says. He freezes while she gingerly lifts it from his hands. “It’s full of pins.”
Carefully she holds up a not-yet-finished white bolero jacket with brass buttons and presses it onto Pincho’s body: “It’ll be on a mannequin, you see, black tights on the legs, a white shirt on top and this jacket over the shirt.” She leans her shoulder into Pincho’s torso to hold the jacket in place and reaches to the table for a floppy black bow, which she hangs from the jacket, just under his chin. “It’s an exact copy of the costume he wore for this ballet he danced at the Royal Danish Ballet. Don’t you love it?”
“You’re … you’re crazy!” Pincho says with a laugh. “I can’t believe you’ve managed all this.”
As she drapes the jacket over the chair, taking care with the pins, she says, “I’ve got a few amazing recordings, too. Music from his ballets, even a dance lesson he gave once. The sound isn’t spectacular but you can hear that it’s him. The accented Hebrew, the way he kind of barks when he’s peeved.”
“You’ve really taken this all so seriously,” Pincho says. “Taken him seriously. Shit, Vivi, is there anything you don’t know about the guy by this point?”
She looks aimlessly out the window. “Lots. He’s still a mystery, even with all this unearthing. I have to admit I feel kind of like an archaeologist, dredging up layers and layers of him. Hang on a minute,” she says, ducking into her bedroom, then reemerging with a stack of photos. “This is really the crux of it all.”
Together they gaze at one photo after the next. First there is a black and white series that she herself has created: the old man reading his mail, sipping his coffee, walking past the coffee shop, chatting with Yossi. He is never caught gazing into the camera, in fact seems not to sense its presence. The photographs then push back in time, through his six decades of dance in Tel Aviv, and earlier.
“Where did you get these?” Pincho asks, all the while staring at the photographs.
“Mostly from the dance archive at Beit Ariella,” she says.
He gives her a horrified look.
“You monster, I didn’t steal them! They’re prints, anyone can get copies. I got his secretary at the ballet and even his housekeeper to cough up some things, too. That one’s no pushover—talk about loyalty to her boss!”
“Wow,” he says, holding up a prewar family portrait.
“Wait,” she says. “The best one’s at the bottom of the stack.”
They scrutinize a few more photos before they reach the last one. In it, an impossibly young Teo Levin, wearing the very costume Vivi has been sewing, stands holding a barely drunk glass of champagne. To his left and slightly behind is a strikingly handsome and well-groomed man in uniform. His gaze is on Teo.
“Who is this?” Pincho asks.
“No idea. It’s from the archive of a Jewish photographer who came to Israel from Germany in the late 1930s. She died pretty young. Her photos wound up at Beit Ariella and I was lucky enough to stumble onto this gorgeous portrait. I might not have noticed it was him, but then there was the costume. I’d seen it in another photograph.”
“The other guy’s an officer,” Pincho says. “High-ranking. German, of course.”
“Bizarre, isn’t it? I wish I could ask him …”
“Does he know about all this?”
“Of course Teo.”
“He knows I’m working on something but he doesn’t know what.”
“And you think he’s going to be okay with this surprise?”
“Hard to tell. Yes. I mean, eventually. Anyway, nobody may ever be interested in showing it as an exhibition. So he’d never know. But if so, I’ll find a way to break it to him. I think he’ll like it. Ultimately.”
“Well, you know the guy, I don’t. I hope you’re right. But from what I can see, you’re really on to something. This thing’s a winner. So you’d better start thinking how you’re going to handle it.”
They are quiet for a moment as they stare at the photograph.
“Look at this guy’s eyes,” Pincho says, pointing to the German officer. “I know this look.”
“I’m sure you do. Men fall in love with you every day.”
“That’s not love, Vivi,” he says, a trace of bitterness in his voice. “You think that’s a look of love?”
She takes the photo from his hands, studies it. “What do you think it is?”
“Desire. Hunger. He’s looking at Teo like he’s prey.”
“That’s all? Nothing more?”
Pincho pulls the photo away from her and looks at it again. “I don’t know,” he says, a quiet admission. And then: “You can never know, can you? Not really.”
Vivi puts her arm around Pincho’s waist and squeezes. They breathe in unison, his eyes still on the photograph, hers on him.
“Pinch,” Vivi says, after a few long moments, “what do you think about me having a baby?”
He drops his gaze from the photograph and turns his whole body toward her. “Are you pregnant?”
“No, I mean, what if I decide to become a single mother?”
“I’d say you’d better get this apartment cleaned up before you bring a baby here. You’ll never find him.”
“Really, Pincho, what do you think?”
“It’s hard work, Vivi. I have six little sibs, I know what it’s all about. You’d be spending your whole salary on day care. How would you manage?”
“Oof, you’re so practical.”
“Look, you’d make a great mom, that’s for sure. But maybe the timing isn’t right.”
“Timing? I don’t have much time left. Maybe it’s even too late.”
“You really want a kid, huh?”
“I do. I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
“I would help. Our schedules are so different, I could probably be here to take over from you a lot of hours.”
“Are you crazy? You’re supposed to be working hard, studying and trying to find the perfect man. Being stuck at home with a baby is not in the plans!”
“I’d do it for you, babe.”
“Thanks, Pinch. I appreciate it. But if I make up my mind it will be because I think I can handle it on my own. Or nearly on my own.”
“You know what?” he says. “I just realized something: you’re happier than I’ve ever seen you. Is this about the project? Or maybe having a baby? Or is it something else?”
She laughs, clearly delighted. “You’re lovely,” she says. “Absolutely lovely. Now let’s see if we can find our way to our beds.”
They hug for a moment. Still smiling, Vivi presses her ear to his chest. She can hear his heartbeat, solid and steady.
On an impulse she takes the phone with her to bed and drifts in and out of sleep waiting for the sky to lighten. She dials her mother from under her comforter. “Are you terribly disappointed not to have any grandchildren?” she asks when her mother answers on the second ring, Leah’s voice only slightly groggy.
Leah used to tease Vivi and her brother, Assaf, gently about this, but with a daughter-in-law unable to conceive and an unmarried forty-two-year-old daughter, she dropped this sport long ago. “I can live without grandchildren, but I’m sorry you and Assaf haven’t had the experience of raising children. It’s like nothing else I know.”
“But as a Holocaust survivor …”
“Ah, that.” Leah sighs. “The war produced so many ironies and incomprehensible situations, it’s just one more on the heap. I’m pleased to have raised two healthy and intelligent and caring children. That was my mission. But why are you asking me about this now?”
“It’s been on my mind a lot lately, that’s all.”
Both women know there is more to say, both remain silent.
“What do you think about these women who have babies by themselves? Career women, I mean, who get pregnant through a sperm bank or a friend?”
Vivi waits patiently, surprised. Her mother is always so sure of herself; she has always been able to answer any question without hesitation. And here she is contemplative, for once weighing her words with true care and attention.
“Yes,” she says suddenly. “I think you should do it.”
“Just like that?!”
“No, not just like that. I’ve been thinking about discussing it with you.”
“Really, you have? You think it’s a good idea?”
“In your case I do. And I’d be willing to give you all the help I can.”
“You don’t think it’s just too selfish of me, without a husband and all?”
“I’ve come to think that husbands are a highly overrated commodity.”
“You certainly didn’t feel that way about Father …”
Leah is silent for a moment. Vivi waits, quiet. Two crows clamor on the sill outside her window. “It was certainly useful having Amatzia around, at least some of the time, that is …”
“That’s all? Just useful?”
“Well, in the beginning it was more than that. But—maybe we should be having this conversation in person, not over the phone …”
“No, Mother, don’t stop now, please …”
Vivi recognizes the sound of her mother’s morning coffee mug meeting the Formica tabletop. She is clearly steadying herself for whatever comes next. “Well, it didn’t take me long to figure out that he wasn’t for me. His interests weren’t mine, his culture wasn’t mine, and eventually his body wasn’t mine, either. You remember the little hotel we ran back then on Ben Gurion Street?”
“Yes, of course.”
Leah takes a deep breath. “Well, room number six was his, and he did no small amount of entertaining there. Sometimes I saw the girls coming or going, they wouldn’t have known I was his wife.”
“Oh, it was hurtful in the beginning. I wanted a divorce. But life was hard enough and I knew he’d make it harder for me, so I just swallowed it all and went on raising you and running the hotel and talking publicly about my Holocaust experiences and lobbying or protesting for good causes. I had enough to keep me satisfied and busy. And eventually, when he gave up all that skirt-chasing, we got along all right. Relatively.” She sighs deeply. “So that’s why,” she continues slowly, “I think it’s wonderful that women have the option these days to have babies without having to hitch themselves to some man who may hamper them or make them miserable, that’s all.”
“Mother, I don’t know what to say.” She feels oddly detached at this momentous news, as though her budding happiness has provided an extra layer of protection against sadness, anger and loneliness.
“Let’s talk about it when you come to visit. You haven’t been up here in a while, you know.”
Vivi clears her throat. “Do you think … do you think I’ll make a good mother?”
“An excellent mother,” Leah replies soberly. “And I’ll be a first-rate granny.”
“I’m busy now, a new project,” Vivi tells her mother. “But when I finish—”
“All right, we’ll talk more about it. Do you have an idea who you want for the baby’s father?”
Vivi stares up at the ceiling, then pulls the blanket up to her chin. “An idea? Maybe,” she says. They both sense the conversation should end here and they ring off simultaneously without another word.
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