Photo: Sharon Gabay
By Gilit Chomsky
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
My first time in the forest was before the child was born. I was freshly discharged from the army and had come to a picnic with two girlfriends from the service. One was a tall girl who was an excellent painter, and the other a very skinny girl who could calculate math equations in her head.
It was winter, and the ground was cold and wet. The great, exuberant blossoming that always announced spring had not yet begun, but primroses were already growing, and anemones had started to poke their crowns above ground here and there. We spread a blanket on the damp earth and opened a bottle of wine, a precursor to the girls-on-the-verge-of-being-women talk we were all looking forward to. Back then, I did not know that the forest would soon be my own backyard, and that simply being, living, would be imbued with a sense of adventure. But the intimacy we had experienced during our service was already beginning to unravel. Gradually, I found myself preferring to talk only with the tall girl. A conversation with the thin one required a very real effort. It was as if, until then, she had only ever heard of heart-to-hearts from others and was now eager to conduct them according to the same rules. I felt trapped in this triangle we had somehow committed to, and I started to feel it would be best to distance myself from both of them.
All around us lay the blankets of others enjoying this sunny midwinter day and the first signs of nature beginning to bloom. To the best of my memory, the child was there, too. I know she wasn’t really. She couldn’t have been because she wasn’t born until years later. But still, a clear image is etched in my mind: two older girls laughingly playing ball with a younger girl, parents watching them comfortably at ease, sprawled on a blanket.
The thin girl asked, “Well, have you met any hot guys?” I was kind of hoping to be able to talk about someone I had met, a sad and deep encounter I had felt would drag me into some sort of deep depression. But the manner in which the question had been asked now paralyzed me, and the story bubble just thickened in my throat instead of bursting. I retreated from the conversation, leaving the other two to talk, and lay on the blanket with my face turned to the forest. The proximity to the moist earth was pleasant, and there was a tiny jungle now at the level of my eyes, a spider and beetle crawling through the miniscule thicket. I let the beetle walk onto my finger and moved her to another flower, enjoying being the higher power in control of her fate.
Not far from us, a family hung a hammock between two trees. I raised my eyes to the real forest. It was deep, almost impenetrable in a manner that surprises me to this day, and I saw movement. I had no reason to suspect anything. The forest wasn’t empty, and plenty of people were roaming among the trees. But the movement I saw was in a corner of the forest where there were no picnickers, and something about it aroused also the attention of the father of the family next to us, the family that had the hammock. He looked hard into the forest where the movement had been, still not rising.
The tall girl changed the subject of the conversation to a girl who had been discharged just before us, and whom we’d vaguely known. She threw up once in the bathroom of the thin girl’s apartment. I still didn’t tell them I’d met someone. Didn’t tell them that something I had never before known now filled my world. Didn’t tell them he was about to leave the country, that a decision was required, and that a power stronger than me was making me say no, despite my whole being shouting yes.
The man with the hammock got up. Now I saw the family had a little dog that was running around them, a leash no one was holding onto trailing behind. The man grabbed the leash and started walking with the dog in the direction of the movement. I realized the dog was an excuse for something that did not really require checking, or perhaps the dog gave the man a sense of security despite its small size. A few moments later, I heard shouting coming from the direction the man and the dog had gone, and several people ran over. The whole event was a brief, thick whirlwind. I got up, too, the tall girl and the thin girl following. I hurried into the forest without waiting for them. When I got there, I saw the man with the dog standing on a plastic chair. Another man was lying on the ground, with someone trying to resuscitate him. A woman ran in the direction I had come from, possibly to call an ambulance. The man on the ground was alive. A rope was dangling from a tree.
Word travelled like the whisper of mushrooms growing: Someone has tried to kill himself.
The forest became a murmur of curiosity, combined with respect for a person’s privacy in a moment both embarrassing and intimate. An ambulance siren rent the air. By the time the young paramedics rushed over, the man on the ground was looking completely healthy. We all moved away politely, and he was evacuated on a stretcher. We went back to our picnic blanket to resume our day, but the mood had changed. Not long after, we folded the blanket and made our way home. On the surface, I ranked below the two other girls that day. Both of them had a defined set of skills and a known, open path into the future. Certainly they were a cut above the man whose life had been officially declared, that day, as not worth much. But he also had certain things I did not possess. Among them, certainty and courage concerning what was right.
And now, a turning point.
I was in the third year of my degree when the child was born. The man I’d met had since long gone away, when I was unable to confess my feelings. He’d changed from being a tangible presence to a fairly frequent flow of postcards from the country to which he’d permanently relocated. It had been my first breakup, yet I still knew nothing about breakups. Like, for example, that there are different kinds and intensities. There are breakups in which a cutting is torn from the body. These carry the same genetic constitution and continue to independently develop. Then there are breakups that are a bursting volcano. A body trapped in boiling lava. Years later, an image would be unearthed, mummified beneath volcanic ash, mouth gaping in terror.
I was studying literature and art history, and had a new partner, and we lived in the central part of a northern city, which had a large urban area and a moshav, both bordering on a forest. The moshav and the city had been united a few years earlier, a governmental decision that went against the wishes of both sides. No one truly saw the two entities as a single city. The differences were clear. The city housed young families and students like ourselves, while the moshav housed well-established, wealthier families. I had worked for my living at the local newspaper, covering the demonstrations against the union until they died out. Now everyone paid taxes to the same municipality, but the city and the moshav still maintained their separate existences.
The newspaper made sure it dedicated its “One-on-One with a City Resident” in rotation, alternating between people from the city and the moshav. It aimed to give residents a chance to tell their story in the way they wanted their neighbors to read it. That was how I learned the child had been born. I was sent to interview the mother when it was the moshav’s turn. The official reason for the interview was a scientific breakthrough she had made as a researcher in the field of proteins, as well as her volunteer work as part of the summer vacation’s “parent-patrol”. During the interview, she told me she and her husband were about to “get” a child. After having two daughters, they decided their next child would be adopted. They travelled to an orphanage in a poor country where they fell in love with a baby girl. This came as a surprise to me, and it made writing the article easier. The interview included an exaggeration of the importance of the scientific breakthrough, and a description of the two daughters who were excitedly anticipating the new baby.
The story genuinely moved me. When I got home, I told my partner about the mother and child. He said, “But what do they need that for?” When I told him they had gone to an orphanage in a country where many parents had abandoned their babies, he said, “Well, let’s talk about happier things.” He had a tendency to build fences around conversations involving subjects he considered difficult, silencing them, and I did not feel I had a sufficient argument to object with, because, really, why talk about unpleasant things? Secretly, though, I thought his desire not to discuss awkward subjects tended to castrate all our conversations in advance. I loved all stories, and the ones on the fringes often offered explanations of other things. In the future, being able to speak about everything without flinching would become a main metric I would use in assessing a relationship.
I told a friend from school about the mother, and she was just as impressed. Together, we praised these kind people, a couple that already had children but still decided to offer a better life to a needy child. My future was still rife with options and possibilities, and there were stories that were scratching at the thin layer that had already started settling on my inner intuition. The relationship between my partner and me gradually became ever more entangled without either of us having the understanding or courage to break it up. We confused attachment and sorrow with love. We received bad advice from people who had been raised on even worse advice. I developed a hatred of the city and everything it represented, despite feeling a kind of ownership of the forest. Eventually, we blamed our separation on changing circumstances, and we learned on our own about guilt and relief.
When I finished my degree, I left both the newspaper and the city.
After my studies and the breakup, I relocated to the other end of the country, to a city on the edge of the desert, and I lived there for ten years. The relocation was seemingly inevitable, and came about because of a life-changing job offer I could not refuse. It was a position at a small museum with potential for a quick promotion. Actually, I’d sent my resumé only to one other museum and a teaching position in an ecological moshav, all in the same area. I felt I needed quiet, distance, time for self-discovery, but dared not claim them just for myself, so I sought a framing narrative. I moved into a housing unit with a woman who was afraid to live on her own. At first I missed the forest, but it took only a few weeks for the empty, treeless road to feel like a homecoming. But it was a homecoming I began to suspect was somewhat slippery.
The museum housed more history than art, and the owners defined my first period of working there as an internship, after which I would be able to advance to being a regular employee. The money I made wasn’t enough to live on, but I easily acquired another job as a culture journalist. I reviewed exhibitions, movies, and local theater shows, and soon moved in with the editor-in-chief.
The story of our falling in love included an article gone wrong, a rescue ride, and a confession of love. The story gradually swelled to epic proportions, but still could not make either of us forget that this small, secluded city offered few possibilities. The editor-in-chief was very freckled and had thick lips. The first time I saw him, I thought him excessively ugly. Given time, that thought transformed into intense attraction, mainly to things I had not imagined I could be attracted to. Body temperature, words unwittingly spoken. But we argued quite a lot, especially about the thin line that separated deprivation from the boundaries of freedom. After each fight, he would retreat into an appearance of routine that would last several days, at the end of which he would call me for an I’m-not-sure-this-is-working conversation. I would answer that I wasn’t sure either, and that maybe we should think it over. It was only after a second conversation, a variation of the first, that we would get back to ourselves, and then, relieved, would rediscover our mutual joy, bringing the fight to an end.
When, after six months, my official position at the museum was confirmed, I left my second job at the newspaper. I initiated the creation of a website for the museum and a computerized archive. In a few short years, I was appointed manager. From time to time, the editor and I talked about children, about buying a house. But we steered our way through such conversations cautiously, not ready, perhaps, to see our future selves as parents. I loved the routine of our days, and I also loved the splitting paths of futures suspended, the waiting for some kind of decision we were not prepared, then, to take. Somehow I think I assumed I would get to live through all the possibilities.
That assumption suffered a harsh blow when a routine checkup revealed I was carrying the gene of a life-threatening condition. The discovery was a complete surprise. There had been a few cases of life-ending illnesses in our family but I had always dismissed them with youthful complacency. I would say something like, “Getting sick and dying at a young age runs in our family,” but never, for a second, believed it was true. That changed when a doctor took a glance at my routine blood test results, pulled a pensive face, and sent me for some more tests, after which I got a phone call and an appointment.
People informed that their time on this earth is limited might start saying their goodbyes, confess denied loves, or embark on journeys. The news I received, though, was too amorphous to spur me into motion or action. I left the clinic with a list of tasks, each demanding its own battle—in time, transportation, or patience. I planned to go out into the desert or, when the weather warmed, drive all the way to the forest, to think there, and pray, and plan. But that spiritual plan turned into a chore repeatedly postponed, until the decision to let it go brought relief.
Gradually, I also abandoned most of the tasks I had been burdened with at the clinic. But the simple act of being alive now presented me with choices, involving implications that required me to take responsibility. Those implications not only concerned my current lifeline, but all the possible futures that might lead from it – paths whose potential loss felt tangible.
I felt the loss of one possible future more deeply than the others. Not a day passed when I didn’t think about the man who had moved to another country. Considering all the years that had passed, the fact that I thought of him so often was astounding, but his presence in my life seemed only natural. I began to think of it as just one more mutation I had to carry. It didn’t stop me from falling in love or falling apart, or being jealous, and experiencing the full range of possible emotions. It was simply a constant presence, background music assimilated into the mind. Now the thought that at some time, at the end of all things, we would get a second chance, stirred in me and settled back into place. Then there was the matter of a child. In one of the possible futures, a random encounter with the man from the past was supposed to end in a surprise pregnancy, transforming from shock and distress into the profoundest happiness. That particular imagined future now gradually evaporated. Of all things, it was the loss of that future that was more tragic than anything else.
That year, I met the father.
I had been invited to attend a conference in a not-too-distant city that was used to hosting professional conferences complemented by the sparse, pastoral, view-focused entertainment it offered. The conference lasted for three days, and I lived close enough to sleep at home and only attend the lectures, but doing that never even crossed my mind. I slept fitfully on both nights I spent at the hotel, every accidental touch on the door startling me awake. But the days were enjoyable. I joined the small group that had come from the Tel Aviv area. We sat together for breakfasts and lectures. And then, during one lecture, I recognized him. The lecture was about combining personal challenges in management positions, and the lecturer was telling us how he had been appointed director of a large government organization at the same time his family was going through the slow discovery that his daughter was suffering from a cureless behavioral syndrome. I’d never seen him before and his appearance did not resonate with me. But when he said the daughter had been adopted, which was why they had had no knowledge about the circumstances of her birth, something clicked.
The adoption story, the last name, and the city he had come from gelled into a cohesive whole to form a fact. I whispered to one of the women, who all looked the same to me, that I knew him. And I added what I had known about the family. After a brief discussion of this fact, we turned our attention back to the man on the stage. He was handsome and charismatic, and he turned the sad story into one of strength and perseverance. He drew parallels between charting a professional course at work and caring for a girl with a syndrome that defied any correlation between investment and results. He described the event that had first caused them to suspect something was not right. The girl had broken a night lamp in her parents’ bedroom. Then she hid the shards in her sister’s bed and denied doing this. This was not without a certain degree of cuteness, a clumsy attempt to conceal a crime. Nevertheless, the man on stage said, they had already raised two daughters, and this was different. A relative, a kindergarten teacher who eventually heard the broken shards story, told them about a little-known syndrome, an accumulation of cureless variables that occurred when the baby was still in the womb. They then approached professionals who helped them manage the chaotic crisis side by side with the husband’s professional advancement. It was all very touching, and impressive from a literary perspective. I considered approaching him after the lecture, but he was almost instantly surrounded by a circle of people. Besides, other than “I interviewed your wife once,” I had nothing significant to say.
I did not feel lonely during the conference, and was sorry when it ended. I knew myself well enough to think this fact alone echoed my relationship, and on the way home, the changing view I observed etched itself into me as hard as a childhood memory. I stayed in the city for two more years. When the editor and I separated, I quit my museum job under the pretext of personal exhaustion, and relocated to the central district.
The Central District
The choice I made to live in the big city surprised everyone who knew me, myself included. For years I had maintained that a person must live near at least one force of nature. A saying I had heard from someone somewhere and adopted for my own. I had regularly refused any job offer that included relocation to a densely populated area. Now I chose first the area and the city, and only then started looking for a job. I' had an explanation for this internal upheaval. Like many people my age, I’d begun to look for behavioral insights and interpretations rooted in my childhood. Things like deaths in the family, financial difficulties, and illnesses were carefully concealed from us children in my home. Twisted variations of them, though, constantly glowed in darkness from the walls, and impending disaster loomed in the air. I thought perhaps I had been feeling at home only when faced with nature, which offered the constant potential of eruption. Now, though, I’d matured enough to wean myself off that belief. And perhaps it was age itself that played a part. Once I had taken comfort in nature and silence; now I felt at ease among tall buildings and streets that offered life in constant change and flux. The city was a living creature. It offered assimilation in its beating heart, and the promise of never having to feel lonely. I found a job easily enough, establishing a new wing in a small museum far from the main museum boulevard. When I began to see a man I had met at a party thrown by one of the other employees, we chose each other out of all the possibilities.
The museum was open only four days a week and I was able to spend the rest of my days roaming the streets aimlessly, occasionally sitting in a random café. When I chanced to think about the people I had left in the city by the forest, and then in the city by the desert, they seemed rooted in the past, leading an obsolete, even simple lifestyle. In the city, the rustle of possibility reigned. During a Shabbat dinner I connected with someone who worked at the main museum on the boulevard. She told me the elderly manager was talking about retirement and promised to pass on my resumé the moment the position became vacant. Come fall, my partner started talking wedding. Nothing was explicitly decided upon, but new shoots of tenderness sprouted between us.
The city still provided a surprising reminder of my life in the forest. So many times, I had imagined the man I used to love writing me a letter to confess his love. Or some random encounter between us turning into a conversation that would lead to the rest of our lives. I did that until the imagining that had once been expectation took on a life of its own. I was genuinely surprised when I actually received an email from him. He wrote to say that he was in the country for a few days, a friend of his was hosting an exhibition he thought I might be interested in, and he would love to get together. The tone was warm and boundary-melting. Mainly it implied that despite our ties having been so nebulous over the years, he still knew where I was and what I was doing with my life. A bird in my soul fluttered. The exhibition was being held in a gallery that closed early in the evenings. We arranged to meet there the next day and go for a drink together afterwards.
The next day, my preparations were meticulous. I wore the dress I trusted most and gold earrings. Looking at my reflection in the mirror, I tried to guess how much he’d think I had changed. When I walked down the street and saw him waiting, my heart began to pound. The exhibition itself proved surprisingly interesting and included a few powerful self-portraits, each precisely capturinginner moods like melancholy, mundane boredom, and compassion. The artist recognized me and was excited I had come, while I was happy to be welcomed that way with “him” watching. When the artist drifted away, I scrutinized a green-black self-portrait of her against a background of abstract trees. He said, “When she was young, she took a walk in a forest with her family. There was a man there who tried to kill himself.” A quick matching of details confirmed that this was the suicide-attempter of my youth. Nothing more than a coincidence, the sort that becomes more frequent with the passing years. But the fact that all three of us, the artist, he, and I, were at that moment sharing the same space, seemed fateful. A coincidence rich with meaning, or perhaps bearing a hidden message, promising some truth to be soon revealed.
“Does she know who it was and where he is now?” I asked.
“I don’t think she had any way of finding out. And I’m not sure she wanted to. We can ask her.”
But the artist was busily engaged in a conversation that was rich with gesticulations. We let her be and continued to explore a little. It was summer and the evening still held traces of light when we left the gallery for a nearby bar.
We sat close to one another at the bar and ordered two glasses of wine. That thing that had been in the air between us the first time now filled it once again. We exchanged news about the decades that had passed, allowing wine and conversation to melt us into the realms of intimate conversation. I felt, with some primal intuition, that my first refusal, years ago, had shifted the pendulum back in my direction. That it had been lying dormant all those years, and that now I was the one who had something to confess. But I was afraid to look a fool, and the thought that he would be embarrassed by the need to disappoint me was paralyzing. Evening became night, the darkness somehow tangible despite the bar being windowless. We spoke about the few mutual friends we had. He told of a sickly aunt he had cared for. I talked about the potential opening at the big museum, about my partner, and the days I occupied roaming the city streets.
He said, “Looks like you’ve built the life you wanted.” There was appreciation in his voice.
I said, “Yes, no complaints overall.”
“Do you plan to apply for the museum job?”
“If there’s a job for me to apply for, that’s the plan.”
“I hope it works out for you.”
I told him of my life. I had a partner I loved, and a future, parts of which I was just waiting to fall into place. He had an aunt to care for in the country where he lived. There was no room left to speak about the love that lay beneath the surface of the conversation.
We parted that night and we both returned to our own lives, and despite having anticipated frustration, I found myself delighting for many weeks over the memory of this meeting. Quickly I returned to imagining the coming time when we would truly be united, allowing both of us to live to a ripe old age, undying and forever young.
The option of a position at the big museum did not materialize in the end, and I went on working for the small museum. My partner and I kept talking wedding, but procrastination always got in the way. There were weighty dilemmas to ponder, concerning genetics and the future. I went to consult a new doctor. As we reviewed my medical history together, she heard I had spent a decade in a desert city, and a meteor of a distressed expression crossed her face. She immediately erased it and said cheerily, “Well, that’s in the past now, nothing to do about it now.” It transpired that direct sunlight had the potential to aggravate my condition. The years I had considered to be the healers of my life might actually turn out to be the years that sealed my fate. A mutual understanding now hovered over my partner and I. If I decided to leave it all and do something drastic – travel the world, or join a Hindu monastery – it would be justified, even called for. However, for the moment, life in our relationship continued as usual.
One morning I received a message from my mother’s partner, asking if I had seen the news. It was one of my days off and I was sitting in a café with my laptop. On the news website, I saw the main headline, Young Woman Shot to Death in Forest. I understood why this news had captured my mother’s partner’s attention. We had planned to have an extended family party there on the weekend to celebrate my nephew’s forthcoming recruitment into the army. I did not immediately think about the family in the forest because the child had always stayed a little girl in my memory. It was only the following morning, when the young woman’s adoptive mother was taken in by the police to be interrogated that what had not even seemed possible became a fact.
The story attracted much attention and was constantly in the news for several days. I learned that as the child grew up, the difficulties she had suffered persisted. She became a young woman, wild and unrestrained. There were stories of thefts and harassments, of partnering with dangerous adults and threats against one of her sisters. On the day in question, she had gone for a walk in the forest with her mother. There, she waved a gun stolen from her father at her mother. The panicked mother snatched the gun and a bullet was fired. Part of the forest was subsequently closed off to visitors for several days. It was fully reopened by the time we planned to have our party, but in the end we called it off. We suggested having the party at our place, on the balcony, and our offer was happily accepted.
Public opinion did not favour the mother. At first, the balance of power left no room for doubt. Later, new evidence and indications were revealed. Those who had known the child said they weren’t surprised. They said she had always been a tragedy waiting to happen and that she was incorrigible. Nothing they said convinced most other people, who said the parents were so rich they had probably neglected the child. Surely they could have done something when they had discovered what the child was suffering from – if only they had cared enough. That if it had been one of their biological daughters, the same event would have had a different ending. The internet was filled with hindsight advice saying what the parents should have done when the problems first began. Later it would be revealed that there was more than one bullet in the body. The self-defense theory was thus even further undermined. What had first seemed like a tragedy was now being portrayed as an execution.
Attempting to unearth more details, I accessed the website of the local newspaper I’d worked for when I lived in the city by the forest. Some of the names of neighborhoods and people were familiar to me. I discovered that the editor had married a councilwoman and she had taken his name. Another article gave her maiden name. There were, of course, articles about the family. Some quoted my interview with the mother. I learned that the mother had been ill in recent years. It was hinted that her cognitive abilities had been impaired. In the readers’ comments section, a man identifying himself as, “I know these people,” wrote: The family has hired a PR manager and is trying to get the murderer released. Another woman wrote: Exactly. They pour money into excuses trying to convince us. We can’t let them.
There were images of the child, who now was a dead woman. The father still looked handsome and impressive. The mother showed her age. She had not dyed her graying hair, and her body, drained of all youthful fat, was now scrawny. I remembered them as I had seen them that first time: a young, beautiful mother with excited girls. Now they reminded me of the people living in the foothills of Mount Vesuvius. I imagined them simply living their lives, with all their joys and private dramas, even as a fissure had already cracked and was wending its fatal way towards them – and one could never know if, or when, the mountain would erupt.