Short Story: The anonymous woman

‘Where could he have come across a woman dressed in clothes so incompatible with Tel Aviv’s climate?’

February 8, 2010 22:22
Who was the anonymous woman?

an anonymous woman cartoon 311. (photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)


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It happens when he stands in line to buy a ticket to the movies. From the corner of his eye, he notices her. She is conspicuous in her red-dotted white dress topped by a nondescript jacket – a fur-collared jacket in Tel Aviv’s muggy evening heat. She is a youngish woman in her 30s, much younger than his 75. He immediately notices her. Her fur collar is a jarring, out-of-place adornment. Her hairdo is also odd, reminiscent of Hollywood stars of the 1930s.

She walks along the line, but when she is opposite him, she stops for a split second and casts a bizarre glance at him. Her stare is unusual: a glare of sudden recognition combined with a pained look of longing. Before he has time to respond to her scan, to avoid it or stare her down, she is gone.

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Does he know this woman? Before he manages to think about her, he reaches the box office and buys a single ticket. In the cinema, he forgets all about the strange woman peering into his eyes, but once he is again outside, walking to his widower’s apartment, he begins to search in the recesses of his failing memory. The woman looked faintly familiar and she did stare at him very intently. Where has he met her before? Where could he have come across a woman dressed in clothes so incompatible with Tel Aviv’s climate?

He begins cataloging possible female acquaintances. She is not one of his students in the university, where all women – students, staff and professors – are dressed according to the latest dictates of local fashion. She is not a member of the health club where he knows all the women who frequent it to keep their figures in shape. She certainly does not belong to the group of friends who meet every Thursday night in a restaurant to sing old Zionist songs.

His thoughts roam, searching every female member of his family – including distant cousins. None of them fits the woman with the fur collar. Where on earth did she materialize from? Perhaps he only imagines that he knows this woman from somewhere? Perhaps he only thinks he has met this woman with the polka-dot dress, and actually the woman is one of these semi-demented characters who roam the streets of Tel Aviv after dark, and she stared at him just as she beams at other people she does not know. Yes, yes. He is sure of that now. He never met that woman.

But the next day, while he is skimming magazine headlines in the university library, the memory of that woman becomes an obsession. He definitely knows that he has seen this woman before. Not only has he seen her, he has a dim but definitive recollection of the way she speaks and acts. Yes, he knows her from somewhere. When she stared at him, it was a familiar sight. No, no. She was no stranger. In fact, he knows this woman quite well. But who is she?

His failure to identify her buzzes inside his head like a familiar tune which refuses to pipe down. While probing his memory, his mind wanders to distant places and to random meetings he’s had in his long life. But perhaps this is one of the hundreds of female students of past years – before he left his tenured position and attached “retired” to his professorship? But her gaze was not that of a former student suddenly meeting her former professor. The eyes transmitted pain and hope: There was something in that look which was reminiscent of a deep personal relationship. And the eyes also emitted another thing: joy at seeing him.

Perhaps she was his niece, the daughter of Tante Brunia, who emigrated to America years ago and who has now returned for a visit? No, no. Impossible. The woman was much younger than the age Brunia’s daughter must be by now. But something else has awakened in his troubled subconsciousness: The mere memory of Brunia – his mother’s sister – has sparked the memory of his mother. Could it be that it was his mother who looked at him yesterday? The mother who disappeared and whose memory faded with the years until it vanished into oblivion?

He leaves his permanent place in the library and rushes to his apartment. He digs into the bottom drawer, and spreads the old photos on the table: These are yellowing, faded, partially-tattered photos. On some of them, there is no recognizable image, but others clearly show past scenes: Here he is – a baby cuddled by his mother with her Garbo hairdo. Here is his mother in the ski resort of Zakopane. And in an old-fashioned one-piece bathing suit in a sea resort. And with other young men and women under the sign of “Maccabi Warsaw.” And here is a photo of mother and father before the latter immigrated to Palestine, leaving his wife behind to take care of final arrangements before she joined him.

And here – he cringes – is his mother in her polka-dot dress with the fur-collared jacket. Can it be? Can it be that the woman he saw last night was his mother? The mother who got stranded there and disappeared, never to be heard of again? He dismisses the thought. Impossible. Even if she managed to survive, she would now have been over 90. No, no, he says to himself. But as he is glued to the old photo, he realizes: Yes, yes, the woman he saw was his mother as she appears in the photo – somewhere on the streets of Warsaw. This was his mother as she was then and there. His mother, as his father remembered her.

Waves of strange, forgotten sights engulf him – the feel of his mother’s hand pressing against his forehead, her Yiddish speaking voice, the softness of her always-warm skin. And suddenly he even recalls the feel of the fur-trimmed collar, smooth and reassuring. Aromas from down there rise up, waft into his brain and surround him with soft, airy perfumes. No. No. Impossible. Could not be his mother. But yes. This is it. This was her.

In whom can he confide? Tante Brunia passed away a long time ago; his pensioner friends, his partners of Thursday night sing-alongs will mock him; his university colleagues will send him to a psychiatrist; the librarians will think him senile. They may be right. This may be the beginning of the much-dreaded dementia.

He decides to walk over to the cinema where he saw his mother or her apparition. He stands in line, exactly where the evening before the woman appeared. As he reaches the box office, he recedes to the back of the line. He repeats this a number of times, all the while obsessively looking in vain for another appearance of his youthful mother among the passersby. The people standing in line look with growing resentment at this strange old man who never reaches the box office.

One of them, his muscles bulging from his open short-sleeved shirt, shouts at him: “Hey you, I’ve had enough of you. What dirty trick are you up to? I know your kind. I know you dirty old men. Be careful, before I land my knuckles on your murky face.”

He is not scared by the bully, and keeps hopping to the end of the line, searching all the time for the familiar face. Now the line is no more. The performance has begun. The man in the box-office addresses him: “Mister. Make up your mind. Do you want a ticket or don’t you? I’ve no time for the likes of you.”

The box office is closed. No woman. No apparition. He returns to his old apartment and looks again at the photo with the woman in the polka-dotted dress and the fur-collared jacket. He feels that he is being drained of all clear and present memories and filled by waves of distant, opaque scenes. He sits at the table staring intently at the faded photo with a mixture of pain and longing. He cries with a cracked voice into his hands: “Mama, mama.”

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