Appearances

By Karen Levy


Fall 2010 Nonfiction

Israel, 1985

The hospital room looks out towards Haifa, and from my position on the bed I can see lights twinkle as evening lowers itself onto the mountain. I imagine families as they gather for dinner, mothers in fragrant kitchens, fathers reading the paper, the evening news reporting the latest casualties. Normal lives taking place outside my window. I’ve been left alone, waiting for the saline to do its work. My mother is away, attending my brother’s violin concert. Not appearing would lead to questions and keeping this disgrace secret is of utmost importance. After all, appearances are everything and we have a name to uphold. The doctor, his face kinder than I expected, had seemed surprised when he first bent over me. You’re not the kind of girl I usually see, he said, and I wondered who had preceded me on that cold examination table and whether he had been kind to her, too. I usually restrain the girls before I inject them, but if you promise not to move, I’d rather not do that to you. Another kindness and I wonder what I’ve done to deserve it. A sudden thought occurs to me, more frightening than the needle he is preparing. What if he’s being nice because he knows who my grandmother is? The doctor merely doing a favor for a colleague? But my mother would never admit to such failure, her perfect daughter behaving like a common whore.

I am jerked out of my thoughts by the doctor who is again at my side, explaining what he is about to do. Is he deliberately slow? Or is it my imagination tricking me into believing that he’s hoping I will change my mind? Downstairs, earlier that morning, a woman in an army uniform had already tried to sway me from my decision. There are other ways to do this. Does the father of the baby know? But I was well rehearsed, my mother’s instructions in my mouth. No need to tell him. Why make another person suffer? I say my lines, earning a compliment I do not deserve. How very thoughtful of you to protect his feelings. Another lie since I would like nothing more than to run across the train tracks and up to the eighth-floor apartment where he lives and be saved. But my mother, standing in the corridor behind the closed door, has warned that if I defy her I will no longer be her daughter, and I am still under her spell.

Now upstairs, I look away from the needle in the doctor’s hand, my face to the whitewashed wall his signal to proceed. You’ll feel a small pinch, then a burning sensation, he explains, inserting the solution low into my abdomen. His hand is dry and fatherly as he helps me off the table and out the door, back to the room upstairs where I am to wait for this shame to be gone. Hours later when the pain begins, it is the kind doctor I scream for, and the efficient nurse who earlier answered all the questions my mother would not, assures me that this will be over soon, and did I have any other questions? Between waves of pain I thank her for her kindness, treasuring the frankness with which she had explained what my body already knew to do. If only my mother could have spoken to me this way. Instead, the only answer she had supplied to my naïve How will it come out? was a thin-lipped The same way it went in, the rest of the bus ride to the hospital made in silence. The nurse has appeared again, tight-faced and silent as she whisks away what I am straining to see. By the time my mother enters the room, she has already been told that my commanding officer has been to visit me, and she is searching for the nurse who disobeyed the clear orders she had left not to let anyone know I am here. But I am glad he had cared enough to find me, an important man like him taking time out of his busy day for a soldier from his unit. It was the first time I had seen him looking awkward, standing in the doorway with his hat between his hands, asking if I was all right. I had lied to him too, my knees pulled up to hide the mound of my stomach, mother’s instructions if anyone were to come in, and promised I’d be back at the base soon.

In my mother’s absence the morning sun has lit a dozen fires in the windows of the buildings on mount Haifa, where children are being sent off to school, soldiers are waiting for the bus, and a daughter doesn’t have to lie to keep her mother’s good name clean.

* * *

My mother’s solution to my immediate and overwhelming depression is the acquisition of a dog. And as much as I love animals, I can’t help but feel resentment at the idea that being given a puppy will in any way make up for the loss of a child as well as a boy friend I am now forbidden to see. Even my interactions with girlfriends are monitored, Limor’s visit to my bedside the day after my return from the hospital cut short when my mother overhears her commenting about my paleness.

She’s been sick, nothing serious. She’ll be better in a few days, my mother hurries to say while Limor and I exchange knowing looks, amazed that my mother is naïve enough to believe I haven’t told my friend everything. Amazed that after years of living in this neighborhood, she does not know that I am the topic of dinner conversations in most of the surrounding apartments. For the few moments we get to visit, I almost feel normal again, Limor’s hand on mine as she sits beside me on the bed, calming and sincere. I would have liked her to stay, my need to talk about the past two days welling in my throat. But I am also in disgrace, and so have lost the right to complain.

On a gray fall morning my mother and I drive out of town towards the industrial stretch of factories and refineries where the local animal shelter is kept. Shaky tin roofs and makeshift walls enclose a row of cages in which raggedy creatures are waiting for adoption, some despondent, having given up all hope, while others throw themselves at the chain link fence as we walk past. My eyes fall on a cage in which a handful of dark pups are scampering over each other, and I ask the attendant to unlock the enclosure so I can make my selection. A black shaggy runt attracts my attention, and within minutes the transaction is complete and the small warm body is on my lap as my mother points the car towards home.

By the time evening falls, the happy puppy I had selected is refusing water and food, its body nearly lifeless. A rushed visit to the vet confirms distemper, a disease from which the vet explains few, if any, dogs survive. This turn of events only deepens my depression, convincing me that I am not meant to handle life in any form. For my mother this is just another challenge she must overcome to prove her nursing skills. For days she injects the pup with the nutrients it needs, efficient and practical in her handling of all things weak. And to everyone’s surprise but her own, the dog recovers, now capable of carrying out its intended task of cheering me up. Instead, while I will grow attached to the animal and insist on traveling with it to America, my mother will forever remind anyone willing to listen how she saved the dog when it was beyond saving. Just like the daughter who strayed and was almost lost until her mother came to the rescue saving her from everything she loved.

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