Short Story: The anonymous woman

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

an anonymous woman cartoon 311 (photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
an anonymous woman cartoon 311
(photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
It happens when he stands in line to buy a ticket to the movies. Fromthe corner of his eye, he notices her. She is conspicuous in herred-dotted white dress topped by a nondescript jacket – a fur-collaredjacket in Tel Aviv’s muggy evening heat. She is a youngish woman in her30s, much younger than his 75. He immediately notices her. Her furcollar 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 asplit second and casts a bizarre glance at him. Her stare is unusual: aglare of sudden recognition combined with a pained look of longing.Before he has time to respond to her scan, to avoid it or stare herdown, she is gone.
Does he know this woman? Before he manages to think about her, hereaches the box office and buys a single ticket. In the cinema, heforgets all about the strange woman peering into his eyes, but once heis again outside, walking to his widower’s apartment, he begins tosearch in the recesses of his failing memory. The woman looked faintlyfamiliar and she did stare at him very intently. Where has he met herbefore? Where could he have come across a woman dressed in clothes soincompatible with Tel Aviv’s climate?
He begins cataloging possible female acquaintances. She is not one ofhis students in the university, where all women – students, staff andprofessors – are dressed according to the latest dictates of localfashion. She is not a member of the health club where he knows all thewomen who frequent it to keep their figures in shape. She certainlydoes not belong to the group of friends who meet every Thursday nightin 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 furcollar. Where on earth did she materialize from? Perhaps he onlyimagines that he knows this woman from somewhere? Perhaps he onlythinks he has met this woman with the polka-dot dress, and actually thewoman is one of these semi-demented characters who roam the streets ofTel Aviv after dark, and she stared at him just as she beams at otherpeople she does not know. Yes, yes. He is sure of that now. He nevermet that woman.
But the next day, while he is skimming magazine headlines in theuniversity library, the memory of that woman becomes an obsession. Hedefinitely knows that he has seen this woman before. Not only has heseen her, he has a dim but definitive recollection of the way shespeaks and acts. Yes, he knows her from somewhere. When she stared athim, it was a familiar sight. No, no. She was no stranger. In fact, heknows this woman quite well. But who is she?
His failure to identify her buzzes inside his head like a familiar tunewhich refuses to pipe down. While probing his memory, his mind wandersto distant places and to random meetings he’s had in his long life. Butperhaps this is one of the hundreds of female students of past years –before he left his tenured position and attached “retired” to hisprofessorship? But her gaze was not that of a former student suddenlymeeting her former professor. The eyes transmitted pain and hope: Therewas something in that look which was reminiscent of a deep personalrelationship. And the eyes also emitted another thing: joy at seeinghim.
Perhaps she was his niece, the daughter of Tante Brunia, who emigratedto America years ago and who has now returned for a visit? No, no.Impossible. The woman was much younger than the age Brunia’s daughtermust be by now. But something else has awakened in his troubledsubconsciousness: The mere memory of Brunia – his mother’s sister – hassparked the memory of his mother. Could it be that it was his motherwho looked at him yesterday? The mother who disappeared and whosememory faded with the years until it vanished into oblivion?
He leaves his permanent place in the library and rushes to hisapartment. He digs into the bottom drawer, and spreads the old photoson the table: These are yellowing, faded, partially-tattered photos. Onsome of them, there is no recognizable image, but others clearly showpast scenes: Here he is – a baby cuddled by his mother with her Garbohairdo. Here is his mother in the ski resort of Zakopane. And in anold-fashioned one-piece bathing suit in a sea resort. And with otheryoung men and women under the sign of “Maccabi Warsaw.” And here is aphoto of mother and father before the latter immigrated to Palestine,leaving his wife behind to take care of final arrangements before shejoined him.
And here – he cringes – is his mother in her polka-dot dress with thefur-collared jacket. Can it be? Can it be that the woman he saw lastnight was his mother? The mother who got stranded there anddisappeared, never to be heard of again? He dismisses the thought.Impossible. Even if she managed to survive, she would now have beenover 90. No, no, he says to himself. But as he is glued to the oldphoto, he realizes: Yes, yes, the woman he saw was his mother as sheappears in the photo – somewhere on the streets of Warsaw. This was hismother as she was then and there. His mother, as his father rememberedher.
Waves of strange, forgotten sights engulf him – the feel of hismother’s hand pressing against his forehead, her Yiddish speakingvoice, the softness of her always-warm skin. And suddenly he evenrecalls the feel of the fur-trimmed collar, smooth and reassuring.Aromas from down there rise up, waft into his brain and surround himwith 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; hispensioner friends, his partners of Thursday night sing-alongs will mockhim; his university colleagues will send him to a psychiatrist; thelibrarians will think him senile. They may be right. This may be thebeginning of the much-dreaded dementia.
He decides to walk over to the cinema where he saw his mother or herapparition. He stands in line, exactly where the evening before thewoman appeared. As he reaches the box office, he recedes to the back ofthe line. He repeats this a number of times, all the while obsessivelylooking in vain for another appearance of his youthful mother among thepassersby. The people standing in line look with growing resentment atthis 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 areyou 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 theline, searching all the time for the familiar face. Now the line is nomore. The performance has begun. The man in the box-office addresseshim: “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 hisold apartment and looks again at the photo with the woman in thepolka-dotted dress and the fur-collared jacket. He feels that he isbeing drained of all clear and present memories and filled by waves ofdistant, opaque scenes. He sits at the table staring intently at thefaded photo with a mixture of pain and longing. He cries with a crackedvoice into his hands: “Mama, mama.”