Zygmunt Frankel



I got back to the dark and deserted Sinbad, switched on the light in the galley, and made myself a cup of coffee. Then I remembered the letters and took them out of my pocket. The one with the German stamp was from Helga.

"Dearest Cobi" she wrote. "You will be surprised that I have gone back without getting in touch with you first, or, better still, seeing you again. I have done so with a heavy heart but perhaps, in the long run, it is best for both of us. You see, after what happened and because of what I felt might still happen, I toured Israel with new eyes and tried to see more than a simple tourist usually does. I had a feeling that if we met again, our relationship might develop into something permanent; and when that happens, it depends not only on the two people involved but also on the environment, which, if positive, can smooth out some troubles, and, if negative, spoil relations badly. In short, I was looking at Israel as a possible future home; and while I admired many of the things I saw and many of the people I met, I must admit that I have also run into things and people I did not like very much. The trouble with human nature is that one quickly gets used to the good things and stops noticing them, while the bad ones keep chafing more and more as time goes by. To start with the smaller things: schedules, promises, and appointments are not always kept; many streets are dirty; people push in front of you in the bus queue and are loud and rude; there is not only a lot of tar on the Mediterranean beaches, which perhaps can't be helped, but, worse still, broken glass; and the reckless driving on the roads; and, in a country which makes fighter planes and guided missiles and even, as a rumour has it, atom bombs, traffic lights go out of order all the time and it takes seven years to have a telephone installed. And then, the bureaucracy seems to choke everything, and, perhaps even worse, there is the resignation of the people, a shrug of the shoulders and "Well, that's the way things are, what can you do about it?" And then there are those wars every few years, and the warlike atmosphere in-between, and soldiers everywhere, always with their guns, as if half your army was continuously on leave, hitching rides home or back to the base. And then the Arabs from the occupied territories, who seem to be everywhere, working at every unskilled job, and yet they don't belong and don't mix. I am sorry I am grumbling so much; even if I am right on every point, such criticism is one thing coming from an Israeli and quite another from a tourist, especially a German. The thing is, right now I am afraid that I couldn't feel at home here, not even with you, Cobi. Perhaps it is not final yet; perhaps, in that brief month in Israel I have forgotten the bad things about Europe and, upon rediscovering them, will change my mind; perhaps people fall in love not only to sleep together and have children and quarrel from time to time and make up again, but also to face the world together and perhaps even change it for the better, to some small extent. But I'll have to work it out for myself, slowly and thoroughly, here at home.

I love and miss you very much, and, whatever happens, my two weeks with you will always remain among my most precious and cherished memories. I have a feeling that we shall meet again, sometime, somewhere.

With all my love,



I folded the letter and put it back in my pocket. Then I took my cup of coffee to the dining room, walking the once again moonlit deck with a heavy heart, or at least a very lonely one. I remembered Helga as a happier and more carefree young woman than the one who wrote this letter. Was it possible that she scraped together all this criticism of Israel to make our parting easier for me? I sat down on the threshold of the unlit dining room with my back against the door frame, and a girl's voice said softly from a dark corner:

"Hello, Cobi."

* * *

I turned around. Sitting in the corner of the sofa with her feet tucked under her was Maria, with a shy, almost apologetic smile on her face. Her suitcase was on the floor, unopened. She must have been sitting like this, in the dark, for a long time, perhaps hours.

Sometimes, after a long cold dive, one leaves the water so miserably frozen and shivering that it is difficult to believe one can ever get warm again. The fastest cure is to get under a hot shower or into a hot bath. The first moments are purely mindless; one's body soaks up the warmth as if literally coming back to life, and there is nothing in the world quite like it. This was how I felt now seeing Maria there in the corner. I hadn't realized how mentally freezing Werner's death, Max's disappearance, and then Helga's (or I thought it was Helga's) departure and absence must have been for me. But now I was able to compare the jump my heart gave an hour ago when I thought Helga was back with this warmth that was now flooding me, and there was no comparison and no doubt.

"Welcome home, Maria," I said quietly after a while. "I have just made you a cup of coffee. The boat has been awfully lonely without you."

There must have been more in my voice than in my words because Maria suddenly smiled happily and threw herself into my arms, spilling the coffee all over the floor, and we stood there kissing and holding each other tight for a long time, and then finally settled down on the sofa and Maria kicked off her shoes and nestled in my arms. We had the whole night to ourselves again and it was a wonderful feeling.

"And your mother, Maria?"
"I am awfully sorry to tell you, Cobi. She died on the operating table without regaining consciousness, and the doctor said it was better that way; she had very advanced cancer and, had she survived the operation, it would have been for a short and a very painful period only."
"I am dreadfully sorry to hear it, Maria, and you have all my sympathy. Did you have any suspicion it was as bad as that?"
"You will think me very superstitious and primitive, Cobi, but my Tarot cards told me it was going to happen, first about Werner, that evening at the Dolphin, and then, repeatedly, about my mother and Max when I spent half the night before the operation with my pack. I have never seen anything coming up in the cards so persistently and clearly."
"What was that you said your cards told you about Max?"
"That we shall never meet again, although we had arranged to. It was not quite clear in the cards why; something to do with some death - it was not clear whether his own or someone else's, possibly Werner's or my mother's - and also, afterwards, something about water, but definitely not death by water, not drowning, rather something like water burial; I don't quite know what to make of it."
"You had arranged to meet again?"
"Yes; you see, that night at the airport Max asked me to marry him. He did not insist on an answer right away, said he would get in touch with me in Frankfurt as soon as he got there the next day, and of course the first thing was for my mother to get well again. I went to meet him at the airport because my mother's operation was not scheduled till the morning after, and for a moment I even thought that I did see him at the passport control desk, but I must have been mistaken because he did not come out with other passengers. There was something a little puzzling about it. I was sure I recognized Max's blond hair and his blue jacket, at the far end of the enclosure, where the passengers were lining up for passport control, but he seemed to have got lost in the crowd afterwards and did not reappear. I even asked a young woman who must have been one of the last to disembark whether she saw anyone like that among the passengers and she said yes, there was someone like that; she thought she had seen him step into the men's lavatory in the arrivals area. I thought Max may have caught some dysentery down here at the last moment, and I waited another half an hour, but he did not show up and it was time for me to go to the hospital. The next day, even though confused and shocked by my mother's death, I called his home and his mother answered the phone; he hadn't showed up and she was very worried and we talked for a while, with her asking me about the cruise and what could have happened to him, but of course I couldn't help her."
"She's at the Caravan right now. She saw me just before I got here, but of course I couldn't help her either."
"What, Max's mother? At the Caravan? Come all this way just to see you?"
"Yes. I do hope he will surface one of these days with a good explanation of all this anxiety he has caused you and her."

I winced at my use of "to surface" in this connection - it just slipped out - and wondered whether the heavy object Abdullah's cousin saw being taken out to sea was really Max, and if so whether the Israeli Secret Service also engaged in such stuff as dressing its agents up as someone else, complete with a blond wig and the owner's original blue jacket, perhaps even make-up which would explain why they didn't want me near him when he left. The agent could then step into a public lavatory, like Superman into a telephone booth, come out as someone else, and disappear in the crowd.

"If he did show up, would you have married him, Maria?"

"You know, Cobi, I probably would have. Not for love - there happens to be someone else and you might know who it is - but I liked him well enough and it might have turned out to be a successful marriage. He said at the airport, after he proposed to me, that he was tired of the life he was leading and would like to change it and have a good wife and a nice home instead. I didn't quite understand what he meant by the life he was leading - he made it sound more mysterious and strenuous than just being a bachelor and an insurance agent - but it does something to a girl to hear such things. And then, you know, in Germany, especially after one's mother's funeral, everything is very cold, grey, and reasonable. I was standing there at the cemetery over my mother's grave, under an umbrella because it was drizzling, and there was a cold wind blowing, and it was more than just a wind because until then my mother had been standing there in front of me, sheltering me from it, and now, however long it took, it was my turn. And when your mother dies there are very serious and reasonable and well- meaning people around you, aunts and uncles and cousins, trying to help you to decide about the future and telling you that your real home and your real life are right there, and that you're pushing thirty and it's time for a home and children of your own, and that a girl could do worse than a handsome young agent of a solid insurance company. There was also something else; my period was late, and if a baby was on the way, I couldn't be sure whether it was yours or Max's. And, do you know, I more or less decided to have it, whoever's it was and whether Max would marry me or not. All of a sudden I wanted that baby more than anything else in the world, and it was a sort of disappointment when my period finally did come, delayed, it seemed, by the trip and my mother's death, because I've always been very regular."

I saw again Raffi Glickstein's little brown boy in the water, with his father instructing him in the art of snorkelling, and felt a nasty tug at my heart, something like envy.

"And then I attended a couple of interviews about office jobs, and one of them was very tempting. I was to give an answer in a couple of days, and then it started raining again, a sort of cold grey drizzle which looked like it would go on forever, and I felt that if I accepted that job and stayed in Frankfurt I would slowly rot and die, and I got so lonely for this coast and the sunshine and the reefs - I even started missing Hebrew, believe it or not - that I packed my things and took the first plane to Eilat, and... well, here I am. But you must be perfectly honest with me, Cobi; do you really still have a place for me? Because if not, you know, I can always find something at one of the diving clubs or restaurants or hotels around here, and I really won't be angry with you."
"Maria, it's not just a place for you, but I was also thinking about a sort of partnership in the boat, with a percentage of the profits and everything; we could find another cook and train her, while the two of us run the boat, organize things, and so on."
"Cobi, it sounds wonderful; do you really think I could do it?"
"I am sure you could."
"All right, then; it's a deal, and I'll do my best. Now let me just put my things in my bunk and clear up this mess and then I'll make us some fresh coffee, shall I?"
"No, I'll clear up this mess because it was I who dropped the cup. Would you like to put your things in my cabin, Maria?"
"Until the boys come back?"
"No, for good."

She stopped in the doorway and looked at me for a long time, and then said

"All right", very softly and quietly.

"And another thing," I told her later that night, in bed. "If you ever miss your period again, please don't decide anything without me, all right? I have a feeling that a little boy, quarter German and quarter Russian and half Jewish, looking a little like you and a little like me, could have a lot of fun growing up on this boat. And if it's a girl you could also plait her hair into pigtails and dress her in ponchos in winter. But you're half asleep and don't hear what I am saying. Good night and sweet dreams, Maria."

" I've heard every word you said. Good night and sweet dreams to you too, Cobi.


# # #

1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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