Lately, whenever our hour is up and I say to Fania – the 92-year-old Holocaust survivor I visit on Thursdays – “I need to go now,” she says: “You always say that. Stay.” And, because my boundaries aren’t nearly as good as Ronit’s, I do. Only for another five or ten minutes, but still, I wouldn’t make a very good therapist. I do make a very good patient, however. An excellent one. Sometimes I even leave my therapy sessions a minute or two before the allotted time is up, that’s how good I am. I wonder what it would be like to be someone who could say, “Stay.” Maybe if you’ve seen your father and brothers hauled off to the gas chambers, or served as a partisan in the forests of Yugoslavia, you don’t worry about things like being an imposition. I always worry about it.
One Monday night I was walking home from a folk-dancing class with a friend, and there rounding the bend was Ronit. I won’t say I didn’t know she lived in the area, but I will say that this happened at a time when I still thought “few” was synonymous with two, meaning: I thought she had already moved to Tel Aviv. Also, my friend lived in this same area. Was that my fault? What was I supposed to do about that? But at our next session Ronit wondered if I had purposely put myself there. Not long before this incident, I had told her about a nice memory I had. Sometimes as a child in the evening I would go down to the kitchen – where my mother was invariably wiping down the counters to the accompaniment of Cleveland’s classical music station WCLV – to tell her that something was bothering me. She would respond by saying in her calm and optimistic way, “Well let’s think about what it could be,” and that was what we would do. I usually felt better after pinpointing the problem, even if no solution arose.
“I think,” Ronit said, “that maybe you were trying to do with me what you used to do with your mother. I think you wanted to see me before bedtime.”
“That is so not true,” I said, my heart suddenly pounding. “That is actually the opposite of true.”
“You once told me how you’d seen me on the street through a restaurant window on a Monday night,” she said. “You know my schedule.”
“You are so wrong about all of this,” I said, my whole body trembling now. “You can’t even imagine how wrong you are. In fact, I was so sure you didn’t live in Jerusalem anymore that I even chanced it and stood there on that sidewalk for ten minutes talking to my friend. I would never have done that if I’d thought you were still around. I did not think I’d run into you.” Then, since I could see from her facial expression that she was skeptical, I stopped and said, “At least not on a conscious level.”
“Well,” she said, “some things we do on an unconscious level.”
No. Those words did not sit right with me; not on this occasion. I had not wanted to cross paths with her. But I could see that she didn’t believe my defense and that I therefore had to justify my being in a place that I’d had every right to be.
“I felt accused,” I said to her at our next session. “I felt you were telling me that I was trying to take more of you than I’m entitled to take.”
“There was no accusation in my tone,” she said.
“Now I have to worry that when I meet my aunt for lunch in Tel Aviv next week, it’ll be one of your Tel Aviv days, and you’ll say I purposely sought you out.”
I’m pretty sure Ronit rolled her eyes when I said that, as un-therapist-ish as that seems. I guess even therapists are human and can get annoyed with their patients when their patients are being annoying. But I had to express how much this whole thing bothered me.
“The truth?” I said. “The truth is that if I had thought there was even the slightest possibility of my seeing you that night, I would have gone home a different way, a longer way, a way that would have made no sense. All in order to avoid you.”
Ronit quickly snapped out of annoyed mode and went into analytical mode. “Okay,” she said, “so then let’s talk about that. Why avoid?”
“Because it’s awkward,” I said. “You know what it’s like. It’s like when you’re in third grade and you run into your English teacher at the grocery store. Wow, my English teacher buys jarred apple sauce! I don’t want to see you buying jarred apple sauce.”
“Because then you would have to take me down from that pedestal you have me on?”
“I’m just saying that I try so hard to give you your space, your privacy. The worst thing for me was being there on your turf, after hours, and being caught doing exactly what I didn’t want to be doing. I try so hard to be good.”
Being good meant not being a burden. Being good meant not putting myself where I wasn’t wanted. When I met my aunt in Tel Aviv the following week I tried to keep my eyes focused down, on the ground, as if in some magical way my not being able to see Ronit would mean Ronit couldn’t see me either: my assumption being that once again I’d find myself invading her space.
My aunt and I ate lunch at a hip Asian fusion restaurant peopled by cool Tel Avivians with fashionable clothing and top-of-the-line baby carriages. I hated Tel Aviv. I loved Tel Aviv. I was furious with Ronit for moving there. I was jealous of Ronit for moving there. I didn’t want her to move there. I wanted to move there too.
I couldn’t wait to get out of Tel Aviv that day: never was I so happy to board the 480 bus and chug our way back up that final hill into Jerusalem. Never was I so comforted by the sight of the black beards, black pants, black hats that greeted me at the entrance to the city. I’d had enough of Tel Aviv’s light sea-breezy whiteness. At our next session I accused Ronit of liking her Tel Aviv patients in all their coolness better than us dowdily-dressed Jerusalemites.
“What?” Ronit said. “Suddenly I’m one of the beautiful people?”
Fania had once shown me a picture of herself when she was beautiful – and young. It was from her partisan days, days she recalled with satisfaction, days when she’d had a purpose, days when she’d felt she belonged. Now she was alone and old and practically deaf; when I arrived on her floor I could hear her TV blasting the bad news from down the hall. To be heard, I had to shout – and shout in Hebrew – since that was our common language. It was exhausting, and I sometimes found myself wondering whether Ronit felt similarly exhausted after our sessions, because she too had to speak in a language that was not her own.
“I’m scared,” Fania told me and lit up a cigarette.
“Why?” I said. “What’s scaring you?”
“All of it,” she said, which I took to mean the Jewish boys who had been shot to death, the Arab boy who had been burned to death, the rioting, the revenge calls, the rockets, the Gaza operation, the escalating hate.
“But after everything you’ve been through in your life,” I said, “you’re scared now?”
I felt compelled to confirm. “What you see now is worse than what you saw then?”
She nodded again. Fania’s family had been outed to the Nazis by a neighbor who had borrowed money from them and then realized he’d never have to pay them back if they were dead. Later, when people asked her where she had slept during her partisan year, she said, “Who slept?” When people asked her what she had eaten, she said, “Who ate?” Then she came to Israel and endured hardship, alienation and war.
But she was scared now.
“Stay,” she said, and I did.