Two women in their early forties, Ilana and Einat, are seated at a small table in an upscale Tel Aviv cafe. It is dim inside the café and this cool dimness is in sharp contrast with the glare of the sunlight, and the heat, shimmering on the pavement outside. All around are the twitter of voices and the clinking of silverware, and infusing the air, the scents of baking and fresh coffee.
Ilana and Einat have been friends since high school, the high school, the highly prestigious School of Music and the Arts in North Tel Aviv. Although their lives have turned out very differently there was a time, back then, when the two were intense ambitious young musicians. A time, however brief, when both were full of passion, prepared for a life of inevitable toil and self-denial. Einat, the darker of the two, has elegant, carefully shaped eyebrows and lustrous black hair, pulled back from her high cheekboned face. Ilana wears a pair of brand new diamond earrings. She has blue eyes and a scattering of tiny freckles across her pale cheeks. Now she is twisting around in her seat trying to catch a glimpse of the entrance. She is searching for Norah, whom they’ve also known since their teens, and for whom they’ve been waiting, becoming increasingly hungry and impatient.
Norah tends to be late. She is disorganized. Forgetful. Often loses track of time. But Ilana and Einat forgive her, being an old dear friend, and in a way they feel sympathy for her, for her lack of style, her never ending financial woes, her unmarried state. After all, Norah has held tenaciously to her dreams and her music only seems to improve with maturity. But securely wed, never having had to make a living themselves, Ilana and Einat have forgotten about the struggle to survive as a musician. They see themselves as youthful, vibrant, living exciting enviable lives. Every year they renew their subscriptions to the opera, the ballet and the Philharmonic. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that they maintain their tradition of luncheon dates with Norah, between trips abroad and other engagements. Out of nostalgia, perhaps. Resurrecting memories from a less encumbered, simpler past.
By the time Norah finally arrives, flushed and moist from the heat, slightly breathless from hurrying, and sits heavily down at the empty place waiting for her, Einat and Ilana have become engrossed in a sad conversation about the recent death of another of their old classmates, Susan, who had lived abroad with her husband Danny and their two adorable children for nearly ten years before finally returning to Israel. They glance over at Norah nodding to her in smiling welcome, recite a few words of greeting and continue their conversation.
“She died at home, you know.” Einat leans across the table toward Ilana.
“Oh.” A pause. “Was it peaceful?”
“How should I know?”
Ilana flinches at the impatience in Einat’s voice. “It is a blessing, though.”
“You know how Danny is. He wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Yes. Hospitals are so depressing.”
“Utterly. Of course everyone knows how much Susan abhorred them.” Einat, narrow-eyed, looks intently at her two companions, solemn in their bright summer dresses, pursing her lips in that way she has.
“Doctors too.” Ilana offers, then pauses. “She couldn’t bear them.” Another pause. “But did Danny really take care of her till the end?”
With that decisive remark Einat takes up the menu, distancing it from her mauve shadowed eyes, squinting slightly. Her smoothly tipped nails gleam opalescent in the dim light. Norah hears the music of their voices, a contrapuntal duet in a minor key. She has paid little attention to the words.
Ilana eyes her from across the table. “You’re being very quiet, Norah.”
“I was thinking about Susan’s children.”
“Yes, of course. The children.”
Norah’s salad arrives, a verdant spring garden in a plate, and she slowly lifts her fork, glancing sideways to see what Ilana and Einat are eating. They’ve ordered soup. It arrived at the table in brown pottery bowls and is thick and pale, the color of Ilana’s face, with bits of mushroom peeking out through the cream. They are spooning it up delicately, busy with their conversation, full glossy lips opening and closing over their words.
It is chilly in the restaurant, a welcome relief from the Tel Aviv noontime heat. Norah is thankful for the coolness, and for her friends. They were good friends really, still remembering to phone her, to invite her to join them for lunch when they happened to be free and nearby. She regrets that these calls have become so rare lately. Still, it’s hardly surprising, after all this time. They’ve known each other since high school. Nearly twenty-five years. My god, where has all that time gone?
“Norah, you’re not eating your salad. Are you feeling okay?”
The young waitress, curly ginger hair gathered into a thick pony tail, picks her way through the sea of diners to their table. “Is everything all right, ladies? Can I bring you anything?”
“No thank you,” says Ilana. “We’ll have coffee later.” She turns back to Norah, waiting.
“I guess I was thinking about Susan.”
“Of course.” Ilana looks across at Einat. “When was it, the last time we saw her?”
“Don’t you remember? It was at that birthday party she made for her little girl. Yael. Their farewell party.”
“Then it must have been twelve years ago.”
“It feels like yesterday. And their little boy, Shai, that little sweetheart, he must have been… How old was he, Norah?”
“He was nearly one.”
“That’s right, one. And Yael must have been four.”
“I remember,” said Ilana. “She cried the whole time.”
“Screamed was more like it,” remarked Einat. “They finally had to carry her upstairs.”
“Poor Norah. Spent the whole party trying to calm her down.”
“She obviously knew they were leaving. It was the day before Danny flew them away to Boston.”
The two women turn to Norah, expectant. Waiting for more recollections. Forgotten details about that long-ago party. The screaming child. The bemused, exhausted parents. Norah breaks off a piece of bread, wondering whether to spread it with butter. Maybe the taste of the butter, filling her mouth, would relieve the memory of separation that was seeping back, cramping her stomach into a tight knot. She refrains from looking up.
“So Shai would be thirteen now. And Yael? She must be sixteen.”
“I heard it was really difficult for her at the beginning, coming back after almost ten years in the States.”
“It was her mother’s cancer that was difficult.” Einat’s eyes were narrowed like a cat. “Knowing Susan had come home to die.”
“But she didn’t know. No one knew. Everyone was convinced she was going to live.”
“By the way, I saw her. About six months ago.”
“Who, Yael? Where?”
“At her recital at the Conservatory. I was there with Galia.”
“You never told me that. Did you talk to her?”
“It was impossible to get near her. Too much of a crowd. And Galia was in a hurry to get home.”
“How did she look?”
“Stunning. Just like her mother.”
“What? Was Susan there?”
“No, she’d just been hospitalized. Danny and Shai were there of course. And I heard her parents were there too.”
“How are they, her parents?”
“Holding up, I imagine. I haven’t seen them.”
“Don’t you think we should? Go see them, I mean.”
“Do you think they’d remember us?”
“Of course they would. We really ought to.”
“I suppose.” Einat sounded doubtful.
“Maybe the three of us should go. Visit Danny, I mean.”
There is a pause. Einat lays her soup spoon in its bowl. She is frowning, sending Ilana a silent message across the table. “It could be awkward, you know what I mean? It’s been over two years since they got back.”
Ilana nods. “You’re right, we’ve completely lost touch. It is a shame, though.”
Together they turn to face Norah. “It’s a shame,” they say in unison.
“But the children,” says Norah.
Norah is glad it’s dark in the cafe. Had her friends noted the expression on her face, rueful, creased with the pain of missing them, she would not have found the words to explain it. Of course, the children. What could be more natural? More expected? Yet, beneath the silence, undeniably present in all her thoughts, is the image of Danny’s face. The lines around his mouth, recreated in the children’s smiles. His eyes, in the shape and color of theirs. What would they be like now, those two? And their father, left woefully alone?
Einat and Ilana have gone back to scanning the menu. Selecting dessert. Ignoring her. It is out of consideration of friendship, Norah hopes, their not wishing to intrude upon her memories. And they had lost touch. There was no denying it.
In high school, by their third year, Danny’s unabashed and unrequited love for Susan had become so obvious that her friends found it laughable, to be whispered about behind their hands, rolling their eyes, making faces. It was only Susan who appeared unaware, denying its possibility whenever confronted. Danny Hoffman? The star musician of the senior class, whose true and only love was his music? The brilliant violinist who poured all his passion into his playing? Don’t be absurd, she would insist, laughing and tossing back her wavy hair. In fact, all the boys were in love with Susan. How could they not have been? But she remained aloof, cool and unobtainable, like some prestigious prize. So it was Norah to whom they would turn for comfort. Warm, empathic Norah, whose wry sense of humor could always be counted on to make them smile. Wise, understanding Norah, who might easily have taken advantage of their vulnerability, their frustrated longings. The trouble was, it was never those she wanted, the rejects, the adolescent boys. For the truth of the matter was that Norah was in love with Danny Hoffman. Only for a short while, not more than a couple of months really, it was crazy of course, the very idea of it, hopeless. She soon learned how to pour out her ardor into her music, while throwing herself into the arms of older, more worldly men. It was common knowledge that Danny was taken, waiting, with patience and fortitude, for Susan. Poor Danny, Einat used to remark with a sigh while Norah and Ilana would nod in agreement.
They’d often wondered whether Susan would make a good wife for Danny. Temperamental, ambitious, the spoiled daughter of two doting American-born parents, would she ever be able to put Danny’s needs above her own? How would she know how to care for him, this brilliant sensitive musician, who required so much caring? Norah had worried about this more than the others. More than any other thing she wanted their happiness. She did believe that. Really and truly. Still, it would happen sometimes, while walking alone on the beach, or listening to a string quartet, or even sitting in a noisy pub, squeezed in among her friends, that there would come into her mind those images of Danny that had made her love him. The line of his jaw when he tilted back his head, eyes half closed, listening to music. The way his light colored hair stood up, as if paying attention too. She loved his mouth, listening to his voice, watching his lips move as he silently counted out the beats of a phrase. She loved his tallness, his slimness, the way he walked, always in a hurry. But never, of course, could she reveal this obsession of hers. Not to her closest friends. Not to anyone. How could she even hint at it, this madness? Ilana’s blue eyes would widen in surprise and dismay, while Einat, peering at her through narrowed eyes, would purse her lips in that way she had, frowning ominously. It was only after the marriage with all its noisy joyous celebration had taken place, when the glow of first intimacies and the excitement of discovery had worn off, after Susan’s two wearying pregnancies and the absorption of the two brand new beings into the Hoffman family, that Norah began to notice the lines of loneliness in Danny’s face. She saw them deepen as Susan became more and more immersed in her career, and on bringing Yael and Shai home from the playground to a Susanless house, Norah saw the vulnerability in their father’s eyes as the children reached out their arms to him.
Norah notices that a bowl of pink grapefruit sorbet has been placed in front of her on the table. She tastes it and finds it cold and tangy, hardly sweet at all. She is thankful for Ilana and Einat, for their being there, for their tactfully knowing how to order for her. She smiles into the syrupy bowl and dabs at her lips with her napkin. But looking up at them, at their closed, ageing faces, it seems to her as if they have already forgotten her presence. As if a great distance has opened up between them. It is a feeling that can not be pushed aside. It remains lodged in her chest as the three of them finish their dessert and while they are paying and tipping the pretty waitress, splitting the bill as they always do. It is only as they are making their way toward the exit and the glaring sun beyond, their high heels clicking on the black tiled floor, that the feeling moves downward to her stomach, gripping it suddenly with a wrenching sense of loss.
* * * *
It wasn’t until Norah was at home in her disordered kitchen, standing face to face with her noisily laboring refrigerator, that her hunger began to kick in. She felt ravenous. A lunch of green salad and grapefruit sorbet. Really! As if that would make a difference. She jerked open the freezer compartment and peered inside.
Carefully she slid a frozen double cheese pepperoni pizza into the oven and stood fussing with the cork on a bottle of Chianti while she waited for the mozzarella to melt and the spicy disks of sausage, flecked with fat, to curl up at the edges. It had been their favorite meal, hers and Susan’s special treat, together with a dessert of creamy chocolate ice cream which they ate with tablespoons, directly from the carton. American Food, they’d called it, splitting their sides with laughter, and therefore exotic and delicious. Susan, always game, never gaining an ounce, feasting her life away with Danny at her side on New England clam chowder, oysters on the half shell. The girls played duets, Norah on the piano, Susan on her violin, they gave recitals, they joked about men, joked about Danny, they stuffed themselves with their favorite foods until they could hardly move, and their friendship continued to flourish, through their two interminable years of army service, the four demanding, exhilarating years at the Music Academy. It survived Norah’s brief love affairs, a series of misguided, unfortunate adventures, and then the whirlwind excitement of Susan’s marriage to the man who had loved and desired her since high school. Danny Hoffman, the rising star, had won her hand at last while Norah, on retreat at the ashram in Rishikesh, lost to the world in closed-eyed meditation, was recovering from a painful and ill-advised relationship with a married conductor of international repute. Following the wedding festivities, Susan’s two pregnancies and the arrival of her and her fair haired violinist husband’s greatly adored offspring, the two women’s relationship settled naturally into its new incarnation.
Norah, I’m desperate. Do you think you can help me out this afternoon? Our new cellist has finally arrived but we need simply hours to rehearse and ….
Norah, the babysitter’s just cancelled on me, I don’t know how I’m going to manage! Could you possibly come over this evening? I know it’s not fair to ask but I’m simply at my wits’ end and …
Norah, the most wonderful news! Danny’s just come back from his concert tour and we’ve been invited to ….
Norah, my love, you can’t imagine what a help you are to me. I don’t know how I could live without you.
Walking through the playground, Shai in his stroller, grinning dimpled invitations to the grannies lined up on the bench who can not resist reaching out their hands to stroke his soft baby cheeks, his silky curls. Yael, racing on ahead, broad jumping into the sandbox with a whoop, shedding sandals as she goes. Later, bringing them back to the apartment, sunburned and sandy, giving them their baths. When Danny is home, cooking a meal in the kitchen, then laying Shai, asleep, in his crib, cradling Yael on her lap, singing softly to her. And waiting for Susan’s return from rehearsal. She would listen to Danny’s step as he moved about the house, unrestful, missing his wife’s presence. Until Susan came bursting through the door, the music still echoing in her head. Norah, you’re a lifesaver. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate… Why don’t you stay for dinner? I’ll just throw something in the oven…
No, please don’t bother. We’ve already…
But as the days and hours and minutes of their lives ticked rhythmically by Norah, ever present, always ready to perform what was asked of her, began to feel as if, in some strange way, she, Susan and Danny were all moving together, arm in arm, toward some moment of inevitability, a moment that would change their lives forever. Susan had begun spending longer and longer hours away from home, giving concerts and attending to her anxiety-ridden students, preparing for their final exams and recitals. Danny too was away more, often at rehearsal, late into the night. Norah, her heart heavy, filled with concern for the abandoned children, was dropping by nearly every day, just to be with them. Often she would bring treats for Yael, chocolate eggs with surprises inside. Little bags of Bamba for Shai. Then, one dismal Saturday afternoon, Norah found Danny in the apartment alone. Susan, in a sudden burst of filial piety and love, had bundled the babies into the car and taken them off for a long-awaited visit to her parents, some forty minutes away. Danny was sprawled in an armchair in the living room, half dreaming, half inebriated, the recently drained whisky glass on the floor by his side. Norah had let herself in with her key. Realizing that Susan and the children were gone, breathing in the quiet, she stood by the piano, tense, waiting. Danny’s legs were stretched out on the carpet, his arms limp on the arms of the chair. His head was thrown back and Norah could see the underside of his chin, the dark pressure mark made by countless hours of practice. He was unshaven, she could feel the roughness of his cheek against her lips, the sandpaper scratching of his face on her skin. For some time neither of them moved, neither spoke. There was only the awareness of one another’s presence which she could feel, like an almost inaudible, long drawn out note from Danny’s violin, reverberating in the space of the room. Then came a sudden silence. Danny pulled himself upright and shook his head slightly as if shaking off a dream. “Norah,” he’d said, gathering himself together and reaching out his hand, “how thoughtful of you to come by.”
And, as if from one day to the next, their lives were changed forever and they were gone. The invitation had arrived, surely an opportunity not to be missed, everyone agreed. Following a short deliberation, exchanges of faxes and phone calls, all the arrangements had been made. The school term ended and the Hoffman family was off to Boston where they would be greeted and welcomed with open arms, where their place in the musical world was all but assured, and where they would live and raise their children in the shadow of nothing more ominous than that cast by the green leafy branches of regal New England trees.
Norah took the pizza from the oven and cut it in large slices. She poured out a full glass of Chianti and stood gazing at the light blue of the evening sky. She turned her thoughts to the children. Teens now, taller than she was, surely. Tall like their father. Children she’d only glimpsed and hadn’t spoken to for over twelve years. Twelve years that had simply disappeared. Sucked up and vaporized in the shimmering air. Would they even remember her? As the color slowly drained from the sky she remained standing by the window, leaning her forehead against the pane.
None of their friends had known about the funeral, none had attended. The hurried arrangements for the burial were made furtively; it was a private affair. That was what Susan wanted. What she had always wanted. No public display of grief. No orchestration. She couldn’t bear the thought of others viewing her indecent descent into the ground. Years back, both in the peak of health, still unconvinced of their mortality, she and Norah had joked about the way they intended to be interred. In those days everything, even life itself, was an abstraction, sacrifice, commitment, love, death, all to be talked over and debated with the same degree of youthful certainty.
Norah remembered the last time she had been to see her. It was a hot sun- drenched day, like this one, toward the end of summer. She had found Susan alone, makeupless, her skin moist with perspiration, hair brushed back from her face and gathered in a barrette. A whole year ago it had been, though it felt like yesterday. They had walked through the cool living room to sit on the terrace and Norah had admired once again the elegant simplicity of the rooms, the vibrant colors of the garden. Yes, Susan had agreed, her house was beautiful. Designed by an architect friend of Danny’s from Jerusalem, Danny had had it built for her, a house of her own, to bring her home to. But Susan had never really felt at home in this white villa by the sea. After the shaded leafy streets of Newton the light hurt her eyes. The air was too heavy and thick. Danny had said the view of the sea, the lovely garden, would make her well. It was his project, like so many of his other projects. Still, Susan was not unhappy. She was glad to be home, she’d said. Glad that her children could know at last what it was like to have their family around them. The grandparents. The numerous cousins. And the teachers at the Conservatory here were in no way inferior to those in Newton. As they parted that final afternoon Norah had felt a small twinge of foreboding, of anxiety, in the pit of her stomach. She remembered that twinge now, thinking back, and the look of sadness, of resignation, on Susan’s face, just barely discernable beneath the wide brim of her sun hat. It was an expression so candid and unexpected that Norah had had to turn away to conceal the tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. Before she left she’d held Susan in a long embrace, not wanting to let her go. She was shocked by the way she could feel her bones through the soft material of Susan’s white summer dress.
Norah took a large bite of the pizza. A sip of the wine. The body and blood of Susan, she thought to herself.
* * * *
The months went by and the summer ended. Everyone was busy. Booked up. Stressed out. It was the beginning of the concert season. Everyone was under pressure. But he would be alone now. Early mornings, in the empty house, after the children had gone off to school. Later, in the music room upstairs, with no one to sit, curled up in the corner of the sofa, listening while he practiced. In the nighttime, when the only sound to be heard was that of the waves, tumbling and dissolving on the beach. Norah had seen him occasionally since the family’s return, but always briefly, in public, always in the midst of a throng of well-wishers and admirers. Danny, a bit softer now around the waist, bits of pink scalp already visible through the fair longish hair, but with the same intelligent gray eyes, the same lines of sensitivity around the mouth. The few times she’d visited the villa, with chocolates or armfuls of flowers, to spend the afternoon with Susan, to loll with her on the terrace recalling old times and old friends, he’d been away. And when, at student recitals or during the intermissions at concerts, in crowded lobbies, she’d managed to catch his eye, intensifying her gaze while reaching for the memory of some forgotten time, he’d only nodded to her in formal greeting before turning back to those around him. How painful it must have been for him, she realized, the memory of that distant time. How difficult to acknowledge. The children too were absent during her afternoons with Susan. They always seemed to be busy, with their lessons and their new friends, Susan said, intent on creating lives of their own. She’d lowered her tone when she said this, looking questions into Norah’s eyes.
Over two years it had been since they’d come back and she had hardly seen the children at all. Of course there was their need to create new lives in a country they could hardly have remembered. Together with the walls, the barriers, constructed around their mother’s unspeakable illness. But at the beginning no one had suspected that their mother was dying. Except, surely, her doctors who had, by their reticence, encouraged hope. Later there had been the hospitalizations, the treatments. Punishing. Disfiguring. Aside from Danny, Susan had permitted no visitors.
Norah, who had always tended toward introspection, couldn’t understand what it was that was preventing her from picking up the phone to call Danny. Something about that luncheon in the restaurant with Einat and Ilana had confused her. Was it their exchanged looks across the table, removing her from the conversation? Or could it have been the way she herself had created the distance between them? It could be awkward, they had said. It’s a shame, they had both said.
Days and weeks were going by, Norah in her state of inertia. But what was phoning after all? A series of small, simple acts. Lifting the receiver, dialing his number, responding to his hesitant, distant hello. Hi Danny, it’s Norah.
There would have to be the condolences, the expressions of grief shared, for which there were no words at all. But if she could get beyond that part, find the words somehow, forcing them out despite the choking, the rest of the conversation would flow without impediment. Of course he remembered her. Goodness Norah, what kind of question is that? And of course he’d like having some company, a warm casserole brought over to the house to eat together with the children, around the table in the kitchen, like once. Maybe she’d make a chicken pot pie, American Food the children would surely like. Or a quiche, with a bottle of wine for Danny. Maybe she shouldn’t phone at all. Maybe just drop by, the way she used to when they were still living in their rented walk-up in Tel Aviv. How glad they always were to see her. How glad she, to see them. Something was stopping her. The longer she hesitated the harder it became.
She began to dream. Sometimes she dreamed about Danny. These dreams were so sensual, so vivid, she awoke moist and breathless, almost expecting to find him in the bed next to her when she opened her eyes. At first these dreams frightened her. Is this the kind of friend I’ve turned out to be? she asked herself. One night she dreamed about Susan. The two were sitting on a sandy shore, watching the waves as they rolled in and out along the beach. Susan didn’t look at her. Her eyes were focused on some distant spot, maybe a seagull, swooping down out of the sky, and she shaded them with her slender hand. The tide was coming in. If they stayed much longer their clothing, their shoes, would be ruined. Norah let go of her breath. Do you hate me? she heard herself asking. With the words came the whispered answer. Soft as the sound of water. She was able to breathe again. The threatening waters were receding toward the western horizon.
* * * *
Norah decided to pay a visit to Danny and the children on a Saturday morning, when they were sure to be home. Saturday morning had always been their staying-in time, his and Susan’s, and later, when the children came along. It was the family’s one day for not having to listen to the jarring ring of the alarm clock, for being able to laze about the living room with the weekend paper and mugs of instant coffee, the children’s bowls of sugary cereal, floating and becoming soggy in milk, making puddles on the coffee table. Susan had written that in Newton they’d switched their lazy stay-in mornings to Sunday and that sometimes friends, other families with kids, would join them for brunch, a meal that only in the U.S. had they fully come to appreciate. Now, of course, with Sunday a working day, if there was to be a brunch at all it would have to be on Saturday.
In keeping with what she assumed had been their custom Norah had bought for the occasion a box of bagels, a bar of Philadelphia Cream Cheese and 400 grams of smoked Nova Scotia salmon. But she’d also picked out a variety of local cheeses and olives and a loaf of fresh bread from the bakery. In a kitchen closet she’d found a jar of honey from a farmers’ market she’d been to so she decided to take that along too. It was only while trying to fit everything neatly into her green cloth shopping bag that she noticed her hands were trembling. Shai. Yael. Would they remember her? What would she have to say, to do, to make them remember?
Of course there were no such questions concerning Danny but it made her heart flutter, imagining the expression that might cross his face as he opened the door. He would be pleased, surely, and would certainly want to show it, by the well remembered lines of gladness in his smile, the words he would use to greet her. But would the gladness become something more, something personal, approaching joy? How many seconds would it take to get past the initial surprise, the unexpectedness of seeing her there, gift laden, on his doorstep? She recalled with a touch of anxiety the one or two occasions they’d bumped into each other since his return from America, when she had not sensed the wished for glimmer of delight. But his glimpses of her had been only momentary, she told herself, her image hardly having time to register. She recalled the slowness of his reactions, his caution when it came to exposing feelings. He had been caused such a great deal of pain. Of course it would take time.
It would not be productive to think too much. Excessive thinking leads to a paralysis of the will. This was a conclusion arrived at by Susan in their former life and for a while their small group had adopted this as a sort of motto. The result, of course, was that Susan had made the blind leap into marriage while Norah had gone from one wild affair to the next, from one unsuitable lover to another, taking the time to consider only in retrospect. It wasn’t as though she was sorry. There had been much excitement in her life. Foreign travel. Musical performances in splendid concert halls followed by waves of applause. It had almost seemed as if music could be made to be everything. Yet it had never been. Norah still felt alone and adrift. And Danny too was alone. With two teen-aged children to raise. With no one to provide the support, the inspiration he needed. As she moved about her little kitchen, shutting the window against possible rain, Norah at last allowed her imagination to soar. She could feel the bond, the connection that, given time, would develop into something real and true. The sense of fulfillment resulting from the blossoming of their intertwining careers. Delight in one another’s success. The pure joy of being together. Locking her front door behind her she stepped carefully, hurriedly, along the uneven sidewalk to her parked car, balancing the bulky shopping bag, her leather shoulder bag and a bottle of wine she’d decided to include at the last minute.
Driving there was easy, there was little traffic at this hour on a Saturday. And who would want to come out on a day like this anyway? Soon she was maneuvering along Danny’s winding street. Low heavy clouds in the winter sky. The biting chill of the wind, blowing in from the sea. Blowing away the images of before until nothing was left but emptiness.
Norah stood facing the massive wooden door, the lumpy shopping bag hanging from her hand. Other cars were parked along the curb. Visitors, like herself? She twisted around, looking up and down the street for cars that were familiar. Einat’s new blue Renault. Ilana’s little red one. What if they were there, those two, snuggled together on the sofa, with Shai between them, encircled by them, leafing through old photo albums? Or busy preparing lunch, in a kitchen they had already taken over, while speaking of old times in lowered voices. And Yael, perched on a high stool, watching them work, listening. What if others were there, filling the house? The grandparents, or people she didn’t remember, musicians, the young composers Danny always liked having around him? What would she say? How could she find the words to explain why at last she had come? It was a relief not to recognize any of the cars, to have a moment to herself to inhale the cold salty air and sense the stillness, before pressing the doorbell.
The sound of the bell was still echoing in her ears when the door was swept open revealing a tall young woman in a pair of black tights and a long flowing tunic of Indian cotton. On her face was a look of friendly surprise. Thick eyebrows arched above a pair of dark brown eyes, a wide smiling mouth. “Hi,” she said after a second’s pause.
Norah eyed her steadily, hiding her bewilderment as best she could.
“I’m sorry I looked so surprised when I saw you,” the stranger broke the silence. “Somehow I expected you to be much older.”
“The way Yael talks about you. Forgive me, I must have misunderstood. Oh, sorry. I’m Noa.” She stuck out her hand, laughing.
“I’m Norah.” She had no choice but to set down the shopping bag and take the hand offered. It felt strong and confident.
“Norah? Oh, I am sorry. I thought you were Yael’s violin teacher. She told me she was coming this morning to give her a lesson.”
Noa looked about twenty-five, maybe thirty at most. She could not, in any way, be called beautiful but had an open, smiling face and lovely wide eyes. She wore no makeup.
“Please come in,” she said. “You must be a friend of Danny’s. I’ll call him. He’s in the shower, I think.” She laughed again. “Why don’t I help you with some of this stuff?”
“No thanks, I can manage.” They walked together through the foyer. Norah, looking down, noted that Noa was barefoot. Her toes were long and straight. “I’ll just put these things in the kitchen.”
When she came out into the empty living room Noa was gone. To call Danny, she supposed. An au pair? Was that the word for it? Surely the children didn’t need a nanny? Maybe just a friend. Or one of his students. Certainly not a maid. Norah walked over to the window facing the street. It had begun to rain, large gray drops plopping onto the driveway. From one of the rooms upstairs came the sound of a violin being tuned.
“Norah.” It was Danny’s voice, the way she’d imagined it. He was there. Barefoot too, dressed in an old pair of slacks, hair still damp from the shower. He held out his hand. “How nice of you to drop by.”
Norah took the hand in hers, pressing it gently. “Danny.”
“It’s so good to see you. Please stay for lunch, we’d love to have you. Some people are coming who you probably know. And a couple of old friends from school.”
Noa had glided up to stand beside him. They were nearly the same height. He encircled her waist with his arm. “You’ve met Noa, I see.”
“Yes, we’ve met.” It was Noa who answered, moving a bit closer, smiling into his eyes. He brushed her forehead with his lips. “Do stay, Norah. The kids would love it.”
She turned back to the window to watch the raindrops, like tears, dripping from the branches of the trees. How could she leave, having just come? How could she possibly walk out the door, to drive away in her car to the shelter of her home? She would have to stay. To talk, to laugh, to show an interest in what they all were doing. And she’d have to tell them about herself, sipping wine, with her friends looking on. With Ilana and Einat. Knowing that they knew. She would have to do it. She spun around. “I’d love to.” She made her face into a grin. “Where are they anyway, the children?”