When Ilan clears away the dishes from the table I stay seated and watch him. After discarding the leftover mashed potatoes and fish bones into the bin in the corner, he puts the dishes in the sink. When he turns on the tap a gentle waft rises from my stomach, a second that lasts eons; like a stone that whistles on its fall into a well, and then goes mute after hitting the water.
Ilan, with his back to me, keeps talking about something that happened at work. But I can’t remember anymore who said what to whom and what they were so angry about and what petition they signed. And when he says, “Do me a favor, Yardena, give me a hand with the glasses,” I feel like he just woke me up from a dream.
He stands before me with soapy hands. Behind him, the flow of the hot water is steaming, as though someone put a piping-hot stone in the sink. I notice the glasses that have slipped down on his nose and only then realize what he wants from me. I snap out of my daydreaming and get up to push his eyeglasses back up.
“Are you okay?” he asks, studying me with his beautiful eyes from behind the lenses. I respond “Why?” And he says, “Don’t know, a shadow just passed across your face,” and I say, “What are you babbling about?” and kiss the tip of his nose. He turns back and puts his hands into the hot flow, and I turn to go.
I leave the kitchen as my cell phone rings, and I turn to the living room to take it. But by the time I pull it out of my bag the ringing has stopped, and I sit down for a moment on the piano stool. When Ilan comes home from work I stop practicing. He usually gets bored rather quickly and dismisses me with a forced “Wonderful,” although he does listen to me play sometimes; but what he really can’t stand is the repetitiveness of practice. “It’s like watching an athlete training for the Olympics,” he once told me. I get that: what’s so interesting about watching someone doing stretches, weight training and hours of mental preparation? It’s no wonder that he doesn’t hear the same things that I hear when I practice; that he doesn’t notice the difference between one run and another; that he wants a bit of quiet after a long day at the office.
I put my fingers on the piano lid and spread them on the smooth wooden surface. Ilan comes out of the kitchen and finds me sitting and staring. “Yardena?” he calls at me, surprised, and I ignore his tone and answer, “We should redo the lacquer,” and he asks, “What, on the piano?” and I say, “Yes, it protects the wood.” And he’s already standing behind me rubbing my shoulders.
I close my eyes at his touch and feel the thin flow that runs from shoulders to fingertips, like gentle electricity. Surrendering to his hands, still warm from dishwashing, that move over to the neck, I sigh, and forget, and ache to lay my head on the piano and let go. Ilan says, “You’re so stiff,” and his words blend with the erotic aroma that I imagine to be smelling. Everything dissolves. I get up and move away from him and sit on the couch in front of the TV.
“What’s with you?” he asks as he comes over to sit next to me. I say, “Nothing, it’s nothing,” escaping to a long-winded account of what I did today and what I have planned for tomorrow. And so we are drawn into one of our blank conversations that allow us to drown together in life’s emptiness: to fuss over a broken washing machine or debate whether we should change our car or subscribe to the Cinematheque. I turn the TV on and we both get sucked in, almost hypnotized. We’ve been married for five years already, I think in anger, five years. We run on two different courses that draw two separate circles. He with his software, I with my music and frustration. Every now and again we go out or have friends over for dinner, but on most weekdays he can’t be bothered meeting other people. So we stay in: a random connection of two biographies.
He puts his hand on my knee, and I sense that he gets me. I stand up hurriedly and say, “I actually need to pee.” Ilan mumbles, “Fine, so go,” and the TV emits the mechanical laughs of some British comedy show that he found on cable.
I go into the bathroom, switch the light on, stand before the large mirror, lean on the sink and look at myself. Suddenly, the light goes on in the ground floor apartment of the next-door building, and the corner of the yellow-lit rectangle window glows on the tips of the palm tree in the yard.
I hurry to turn off the light and lean against the window to watch. Then I see him – the man who lives there – hesitating before the sink, washing his hands and looking in the mirror. He pulls down the toilet seat and sits down with his legs spread apart. And from here, through the opening that offers me an oblique view into his bathroom, I can see his everything.
We’ve been living in this apartment three years now. In this time, the small bathroom window of the flat across from us has been occupied by an old lady, a forty-something single woman who covered the pane with a curtain, and two young students whom I rarely saw, who removed the curtain. Then he came. Our encounters are brief and one-sided. I see him but he can’t see me, and he doesn’t know what strange access this small window provides into his intimacy. The first time I saw him he was standing completely naked before the mirror, shaving. I got so scared that I left the window and walked around the house ridden with guilt – Ilan was still at work – and by the time I found the guts to go back and watch, he had already gone into the shower and the window pane was covered with steam. Since then, every time I walk in here, I take a quick peek through the window to see if he’s there. I’ve already grown accustomed to the small glowing rectangle of his bathroom window casting a triangle on the palm tree; and I’ve already seen him smoking while he defecates, and pulling out a splinter from his foot, and lying in the bathtub and reading. But for the past three months I haven’t seen him at all. And when I see him now, a wave of joy washes over my heart, blue and clear; I’ve stopped feeling guilty for watching him.
I think he’s just sitting there, with his legs spread apart, staring listlessly, seeming a bit lost. Then I notice that he is sliding his right hand on his thing, so I come closer to the window to see better, and it’s really what I think it is: he’s touching himself. The familiar tickle of desire starts sliding down my belly. I turn my face away and hug myself for a moment, thinking that this time I’ve gone too far; it’s one thing to spy on him here and there, shaving or showering, but to watch him masturbate is to cross a red line.
Once I asked Ilan if he ever does that. He burst out laughing and said that he hadn’t for a long time. But after a brief interrogation he confessed that sometimes, when I play a concert abroad or when he travels on business, he gratifies himself. “How do you do it?” I asked. He laughed again, embarrassed and surprised, and said, “With hand cream or something.” “Do you fantasize when you masturbate?” I asked, and he said that he does but wouldn’t say what about. “That’s something I keep to myself, Yardena, and besides, it’s not like I masturbate that much, so why are you so interested all of a sudden?” “No reason, I’m just a bit horny,” I replied in our direct language, drawing closer for a kiss. We rolled on the living room couch, and I remember opening my eyes and looking at Ilan when he came.
The masturbating man is still there. All the window usually allows me to see is his torso when he is standing before the mirror; or his back and his long dark hair that goes down to his shoulders; and when he’s sitting like that on the toilet I can see his legs and genitals, and him stroking himself. And yet I recognized him when I saw him accidentally in the corner shop. It was a complete surprise, like meeting someone from the orchestra in the changing room at the gym. He was holding a tub of tahini in his hand, and when I looked at him it took me a moment to remember that he actually doesn’t know me; that to him I’m just some stranger holding a four-pack of yoghurt. He is a large man, tall and broad. He turned the tub around to read the back label, and stood like that for another minute, as though lifting the tahini. Then he turned to pay, and left, and I entertained the thought of approaching him and saying something like, “Hey you, I spy on you from my window.”
Standing at the window, a pang reminds me that I need to pee, but I do not stir from the window as he grows longer and longer. Joining his left hand to the task, he pauses and takes two quick steps toward the sink that I can’t see and returns to the toilet holding what appears to be a liquid soap container. He sprinkles some of it into his hands, continues rubbing himself with long, slow movements, and I see that he is already half erect. He leans his head against the water tank, stretching his neck upward, and without actually seeing it I can tell that he is closing his eyes. What is he fantasizing about? What experience is he conjuring up, from what period, and what woman is he visualizing to fan his desire? I don’t masturbate, but ever so often I do think about other men during sex with Ilan. We’ve been married for five years now and have known each other for eight. This is how I explain to myself this distraction, which sometimes takes me away to another sex life, with random men, nameless faces, bodies without a soul to fall in love with. It is always stormy over there. They always want me with insatiable desire, but before I reach my orgasm I return to Ilan and me, making love like a couple that has been doing it for eight years. But what do I know? Maybe Ilan cheated on me. Maybe on one of his trips abroad he slept with some programmer from his team, or just a random woman at the hotel. Sometimes I enjoy toying with this thought, with finding an aspect of Ilan’s clockwork personality that would compel him to go wild. But I can’t picture him flirting around or being intimate with someone else. It’s so unlike him, a man so happy with his lot, that when I do manage to picture him doing it with other women, it doesn’t even make me jealous. It’s simply not an option, and it’s not really an option for me either. And maybe that is why I’m not leaving the window right now.
But something is going on with my masturbating man. When he slows down I think of his hands that held the tahini container. The large hands of a workman, who, from my forbidden viewpoint, is living quite a strange life. Once I saw him getting out of a shabby green truck with a sign Gardening, Pruning and Tree-Clearing, so it’s probably his. Sometimes his truck stays parked in front of the building for weeks, during which the lights in his apartment are turned off. I almost forget he exists, until I notice that the truck is not there again. And on some evenings I peek through the bathroom window to see if I’ll catch him there. Like now, as he is slowing down the strokes and then drops his left hand sideways, still rubbing the wilting organ with his right, until he stops for a rest.
I glance at the window on the floor above him. The kitchen is dark, but light is coming from one of the other rooms. In the summer, the windows are shut and the entire neighborhood is abuzz with air conditioners. But now, in our brief autumn, the proximity of open windows in neighboring buildings oozes promiscuity. I’m not ruling out the possibility that someone hears Ilan and me when we have sex, recognizing my voice and Ilan’s long sigh, spying on us with ears, the way I’m watching the man in the ground floor apartment, who is now jerking his thighs like someone sitting on a suitcase in a railway station. I hear my ringtone rising muffled from my bag in the living room, and Ilan calling, “Yardena, you’ve got a phone call.”
“Say that I’m in the shower,” I respond from my hiding place. A moment later the ringing stops and I hear Ilan saying, “Hi, Ronit, she’s in the shower,” and then coming to check on me.
He knocks on the door, and I tell him, “Ilan, give me a minute here,” and he says, “But you’re in the dark,” and I switch the light on and say, “Not anymore.” He asks, “What are you doing in there?” and I answer, “I’m in the shower.” After a brief pause he refuses to let go and says, “Really? But you took a shower before dinner. Come on, Yardena, what’s going on?” And I tell him, “Just give me a minute, Ilan, I’ll be right out.” Finally he lets go and asks if I’d like some tea and I say that I would.
I hear Ilan’s steps heading back to the kitchen, and I turn off the light and post myself again at the window, seeing the man still sitting on the toilet seat. What’s he waiting for? And what am I waiting for? What moment have I been avoiding all day long, what bitter news, what disappointment? Suddenly I feel like a pervert, and this whole voyeuristic business feels like something that I should talk about with a therapist. Maybe that’s why I haven’t told anyone, because I’m afraid that the minute I’ll confess, this act will take on other meanings, more than the excitement of spying on someone else. Besides, there’s also the moral aspect. There must be some law that I’m breaking right now as I intrude on his puzzling failure to gratify himself. I leave the window and look in the mirror above the sink at my blurry reflection in the bathroom darkness. I need to lose three or four kilos. My body is too round, and when I walk on the street I notice that men don’t turn to look at me. My hair is too long and I feel like changing my hairstyle, maybe to a layered style. I take off the hair band and let my hair loose, trying to imagine what I would look like with trimmed bangs. I saw someone with this haircut the other day and I liked it. Trimmed bangs are trendy and young; maybe that’s what I should do first thing tomorrow morning. Book an appointment with my hairdresser, and when Ilan comes home in the evening, a different Yardena will be waiting for him. And when I ask him what he thinks, he’ll say, “It’s very different,” like he said after I got a bob. What do I want from Ilan? Once he told me that that’s what partners are for, to have someone to take out all the anger on. I disagreed and said, “No way, partners are for having a family with.” He said, “Loosen up a little, Yardena,” and I knew that he was right, and I cuddled into him. Then he suggested that I play something. I walked over to the piano and dived into the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. When I finished he said, “Wonderful,” and we made love.
The sound of glass breaking pulls me away from the mirror and sends my pulse shooting up. I lean against the door and place my ear on the smooth wood. The door of the kitchen veranda opens, and a moment later I hear the tinkle of dragging pieces. Ilan is sweeping.
“What happened?” I call at him behind the door, and he says, “Nothing, just dropped a cup,” immediately adding, “are you coming?”
“In a second,” I shout, and walk over to look through the window. He’s still there. On the toilet seat. Sitting with his legs spread apart, holding the root of his thing with his left hand, rubbing its crown in circular movements with his right. His head is tilted back and his hair is spilling down between the shoulder blades. In a minute he will jerk his knees dazedly, and then arch his head forward and retract into himself like a human ball. He’ll come and will keep sitting like that for a long moment, bent, curled up. I picture this to myself and smile.
I hear Ilan opening and shutting the door of the kitchen cupboard, the knock of the cup on the counter, and a few tablespoon clinks, which always remind me of the sound of the triangle: thin, smaller and purer than any other orchestral instrument. Downstairs, in the ground floor apartment, things reach a point of no return. He stops, covers his thing with his hands, one on top of the other, the way you give CPR. But he doesn’t budge. It’s like he’s got something to hide. After a moment he lifts his right hand to hold his forehead as if taking his own temperature. Then he lifts his other hand, covering his face like a praying man. He gets up from the toilet, his torso only exposed briefly to me. But I get to notice his shriveled organ before he turns around and walks into the shower, where I cannot see him.
“Yardena, it’s ready,” Ilan announces as he moves from the kitchen to the living room. I switch the light on, put down the toilet seat and turn around. Before I pull down my slacks and underwear, I see my reflection in the mirror. Without looking at the proof in the stained pad, I know I got it.
I go through the motions quickly, and then pee and wash my hands. I come out to Ilan, who is waiting for me in the living room in front of the two tea cups. The moment he turns his face at me I see his beautiful eyes widen in anticipation behind the lenses. I sink next to him on the couch and warm my hands on the tea cup. Ilan wraps his arm around my shoulder, leans over to me and asks in a whisper, “What happened, Yardena?”
“I got it,” I whisper back and feel how his arm tightens around me. As I lift the cup to try and drink, my hands are shaking so hard that Ilan has to pull the cup away from me gently. I bury my head in his chest, and he wraps me over with his other arm as well and says, “No big deal, Yardeni, we’ll try again next month.” And the moment I hear him calling me by my nickname, I can’t take it anymore and I begin to cry, and cry and cry. He cradles me in his arms and whispers, “We’ll keep trying until we get it right. We can’t give up.”