Below is my translation of an excerpt from the debut novel Nevada by Maytal Zohar, recently published by Hakibbutz — about a daughter’s complicated relationship with her father in the wake of her mother’s death. The novel is written as a series of short numbered passages which unfold (mostly) in order.
In August 1978 he crashed into a ditch on the western border of Nevada. When he went down he took two friends with him – one lost an arm, the second lost both legs. He injured his back and his head, a horizontal gash across his forehead. The nose of the plane was crushed like a can. He crawled out the window, crossed Highway 50 on his belly, ran to call for help. Two days later they found him sprawled out beside the telephone booth with a token in his hand. The plane had no black box.
I was not yet born when it happened, and no one ever told me about it.
Between 1 and 2.
There was a black box: The crash was caused by human error. The pilot miscalculated the altitude. He survived, but he broke several vertebrae and lost a few centimeters of his height. You might say that life shrunk him.
We were told to invite parents who had interesting jobs. The week before we had an architect, and the week before that it was an architect as well—the teacher didn’t feel comfortable saying no. A pilot was a whole other story. Two kids came to school to hear him after being home sick all week.
He began with a few general remarks about mechanics, and then he went on to explain aerodynamics: weight, lift, thrust, drag. He spent longer than he meant to on lift and went into too much detail about pressure differentials, and even mentioned Bernoulli’s principle (we were in second grade). He ended by asking everyone to take out a piece of paper. He showed us how to build wings and told us to blow.
Nothing happened. At least not anything we could detect. Sasha Spivack crumpled her paper into a ball and tried to shoot it into the garbage bin. Ophir Friedman asked how much time was left until recess. The teacher, Tammy, got up from her chair and said that the session was shorter than planned. But my father didn’t move. He stood there hunched over beside the blackboard, grinning like an idiot.
I kept sitting there holding my wings, even during recess, blowing and blowing, nearly hyperventilating, in the hope that something would happen. I was, after all, his daughter.
No, that’s not what happened. I also got up. I went out for recess with everyone else. He continued standing there until the ground swallowed him up. A pilot without a plane crashed in Class 2C, the assistant principal announced over the loudspeaker. He made noises like a trapped animal, muffled noises from deep inside, I didn’t turn around to look (my father is falling, a great cloud covering the sky).
Once the ground swallowed him up. I was a little girl, standing in line at the supermarket. I hugged him. Suddenly he pushed me away with both hands, hard. When I lifted my head I realized that it was not him, that it was someone else who resembled him. I began to run down the aisles. I didn’t find him, I still don’t find him.
A few years ago he came to visit me in the apartment I’d just rented in Tel Aviv. (I bought sugar-free cookies – his insulin levels were through the roof.) We sat in the hallways connecting the bedroom to the bathroom, among all the cartons, on two new stools from Ikea. He looked enormous, like an elephant perched on a tree stump, uncomfortable. I didn’t offer to move to my room – I had just finished cleaning it.
I asked him, for the first time, about “that accident” (we never referred to it as a crash, just like we never referred to her illness as cancer – only at the last minute did she die of cancer and not of a terrible illness). He looked at me with small, murky eyes, and said: What could I do, what could I do, there was nothing I could do, was there anything I could have done?
For as long as I can remember the official version—his, the home’s—was that there was a problem with the motor. From a young age I understood what makes a good lie: blame, a focus on detail. For instance, two legs and an arm.
In the end her terrible illness reached her neck. After she died I kept dreaming the same dream: She was walking along the main road of the city (to the grocery store, to the bakery, to the bank, away from me), when suddenly a plane came out of nowhere and rammed into her like a kamikaze. The sharp nose hit at a 45 degree angle straight into her C2 vertebra.
That morning we got into the car and drove to the hospital as fast as possible. My brother and sister were already there – they’d stayed with her overnight. When we entered the room, they were standing next to the bed and she was already dead. Without thinking twice he took a sheet and covered her face. My sister yelled at him (he thinks he’s in a Hollywood film, he told my brother when we walked out of there). I lowered the sheet and folded it at her waist, but the truth is that I think she would have preferred the sheet covering her face (she was not at her best).
When I used to wake up with earaches, I would get out of bed and walk to their room. She always slept on the side closer to the door, with her back to the door, and he slept at the farther side of the room, near the window. It was forbidden to wake her: If she accidentally woke up, she would lift up her head and say, in a sharp, clear voice, “Go back to bed immediately” (she had knives underneath her pillow). Then she would roll over, once again turning her back to the door, and fall asleep instantly.
In order not to wake her I had to bypass their bed and arrive at the other side, where he was. It was not easy: Because of his bad back, they slept in a huge waterbed that filled most of the room, a special import from the US (until a relatively late age I thought there were fish inside). I would hold my breath, walk on my tiptoes, clutching the windowsill at the end.
I didn’t even need to rest my arm on him. He sensed my presence immediately and woke up, as if he were on-call for me all night, my maternal father. We would creep out of the room quietly and return to my bed. He would rest a cold compress on my forehead (even when it was my shoulder that hurt) and sit beside me until I fell back to sleep, falling asleep next to me.
After she died, no one slept in her bed, not even him. It was just the two of us left, bumping into each other in the hallway, not knowing what to say. We were like two strangers without any connective tissue, missing that vertebra, waiting for her to come back to introduce us to one another (in my dreams she was always still around, sitting on a comfortable chair beside a pool that led into an ocean, in a straw hat and big sunglasses, full of life and laughter, unable to recognize my voice on the telephone – Natalie? Which Natalie? I don’t know any Natalie’s – before hanging up.
Shortly after I was discharged from the army I left home. I moved to Jerusalem, which was as far away as Australia. Everything seemed open, possible, I felt almost like a god, as if I were the first orphan in history, still not understanding that I was all alone. Even when the dog was dying, before he put him to sleep, I didn’t return to say goodbye. He called me on the way back from the veterinarian, crying.
I returned home only once after I left. It was shortly after I moved, on a Friday, my brother invited me for dinner. I remember that I was reading Dylan Thomas and I had drunk too much. I also remember that the three of us had argued with him over the phone, I don’t really remember what about. I decided to drive there, to settle things, to take a few things I had left behind, like the photo albums. My brother wanted the crockpot he used to use, and my sister wanted her jewelry. We arranged that my brother would wait for me in the car while I went up.
I don’t think I knocked before I entered, and even so, I remember that he was standing in the entryway. She was watching television in the living room. I remember that I cursed when I passed her on the way to my room.
My things were not there. My room had been converted into her son’s bedroom. The room next door, my brother’s room, which had become a computer lab, looked like a storage closet, and on the rug, between a million boxes and papers, stood the crockpot with a brush and shoe polish inside. I don’t remember what I said, only that I left the room and walked to their bedroom—her bedroom, it was always her bedroom—and went straight to the closets, to the top shelf where she kept the jewelry. He followed me, yelling at me to leave, trying to pull me with his nails. I punched him.
In the meantime my brother had come up. He entered his room, his former room, and saw the crockpot on the rug. I remember the cry bursting forth from him as if from a pit, a crying rising and falling, sharp and strangled, a cry that could never be consoled. I grabbed him by the hand and we got out of there, I don’t think we took anything. That same week he changed the locks.
We didn’t speak for a few years after I punched him (I heard that he remarried). He said that I broke four of his teeth, and I knew that he was exaggerating, but I retold that story, proud, like an idiot. I thought that I was totally justified, that he got his just desserts, but as the years went by, that punch, like Dylan Thomas and becoming an orphan, lost its glory. Sometimes, at bedtime, I used to strike the wall and wake up in fright with bloody knuckles, even though in my dream, his face would always fade away at the last minute and the beating went on forever.
I am standing in the center of town, I have no idea what town. The names of the streets have been erased from the signs, and the buildings are not numbered. I want to go home, but I can’t figure out where I am, right or left, everything looks the same. I start running back and forth, bouncing back and forth from door to door like a ping pong ball.
At age twenty five I’m like a kid who lost her mother and father in a huge mall on a Friday afternoon. Australia slides off the table, falls away.
He paid for the psychologist, the psychiatrists, the rent. He would call every week or two, remark that it was cold in Jerusalem, and ask, even at the height of summer, if I had warm socks.
Throughout those years, when I went crazy, he never once told me to come home, that it was OK to come home until I felt better. The truth is that I don’t blame him, because I also can’t imagine that it’s what I would have wanted.
Do you remember Rosenberg, the neighbor from Aviva’s building? Pancreatic cancer. He died in two weeks.
Are you wearing socks? So you don’t get cold.
Take care, Natalie, take care.
(Dad, can you bring me a cold compress?)
If her name came up in conversation—and it would, she was the only thing we had in common—he would refer to her as “your mother.” Suddenly she went from being “mom” to “your mother,” a specific mother, one of many, no longer just “mom,” no longer belonging to us all, just like that, language and love dismantling it all.
It wasn’t like he had other kids beside the three of us. He didn’t need this additional “your” because he spoke to other kids about their mothers. He needed it in order to distinguish her from his own mother, as if her death—the death of my mother—finally exposed the truth that had damaged us from the beginning: that he was still a child, that she was the only thing that made him a father, and now that she was dead we were all on the same level plane.
Once, during one of the times he visited me, my brother happened to call. We sat at the table when my brother’s full name appeared on the screen. He had only one son, a son who bore his name, but he bore “his son” like someone walking around with his shirt on backwards.
53 (Half dream, half reality).
She and I are at the gym, going up the stairs that lead to the weight room. Suddenly she stops, turns around to face me, and tells me she has no energy. I tell her that if she has no energy for it, she doesn’t have to. She rests her bag on the stairs and sits down. I sit down next to her. People pass us on both sides, going up to the weight room. She says that she’s tired, and I tell her that’s fine, she can rest. She lays her head on my knees. I smooth her hair, her face. She closes her eyes and dies.
In the meantime he comes down the stairs with his gym bag. I wait for him to stop when he reaches us, but he doesn’t stop. I call out to him, but he keeps walking. I get up and start running after him, but I don’t make it, he’s already disappeared into the men’s locker room.
I am still standing there in the hallway, outside the locker room, waiting for him to emerge.
A month after she died, I got a two-week furlough from the army and we traveled—just the two of us—to America. We spent a few days in New York, a few days in California, and then went to Vegas. Or maybe we went to Vegas first and then to California, I don’t remember anymore. The truth is that I remember almost nothing from those two weeks – just the cheap motel that he found in New Jersey, with its neon sign flickering and the parking lot out front, just like in the movies.
A photo from that trip, the Venetian hotel in Vegas. I am standing there facing him, in the new sweater he bought me, the one with the yellow and green stripes. I am not smiling, I’m looking straight at the camera, my face frozen, and he is standing far off, too far off – it takes me a moment to realize that I am the subject of the photo. I am almost swallowed up by the people around me, and beside me, in one of the canals, two large empty gondolas float like whales broken free.
After they nearly got divorced, after she died, and even a few years later, when he retired, he always went back there, making an entire country his home. He thought of himself as an American and took pride in America – he never felt Israeli. He would pine for American highways, American cars, American road signs, everything he called culture. Hebrew didn’t suffice for him – he was always adding in English words. Not high diction, but words nonetheless: dryer, cream rinse, glove compartment, Q-tips. Sometimes he even tried to apply English grammar to Hebrew. Nothing serious, just little things like “try some avocadoes” or “have a Bureka.” But it seemed like for him these were significant words, major issues, as if right there, in the tension between the singular and the plural, he refused to be broken – a little boy who kept insisting that he could fly just because he could spread his arms wide.
I do remember that we drove to Lake Tahoe and he showed me the site of the accident. That day I discovered Pisces, and the whole way there, for hours and hours, the CD was on repeat. I remember that day I wandered around New York City alone – we had arranged to meet in the evening in the center of Times Square, but when the time came we could not find one another – as if we had set a time to both get lost. And that drive, from San Francisco south, over the mountains, along the ocean, the radio playing a local station and the whole world resting at the edge of a blue pool. The whole world so terrifying, and so lovely.
After he retired he bought one-way tickets for the two of them. He needed only one more year of work before he could qualify for social security. My brother suggested that we stop by the apartment every so often to check that everything was OK, that the roof had not collapsed, that no pipes had burst, but he said it wasn’t necessary: He had closed all the windows, turned off the water and electricity, removed the battery from the car. From now on the apartment would exist outside the world, on its own.
Before he went there that time, we asked him to transfer ownership of the apartment to us. We sat with his lawyer, surrounded by all the paperwork, when suddenly he changed his mind. He said that he felt like we were stealing what was rightfully his. I was reminded of the white pyrex, how at dinner on Friday nights when there was one piece of schnitzel left, he would rush to transfer it to his plate. It was the first time, around the age of ten, when I understood that he was fighting for his life.
The lawyer pursed her lips. We also didn’t know what to say. I mean, if we didn’t take into account that he was our father – and every so often we did take it into account – then he was in the right, we really had stolen from him. We stole the schnitzels, the apartment, those precious hours in front of the computer, the hot water. We stole ice cream—Dad, I promise, there was hardly anything left in the carton—the mileage on the Alpha, his neat way of arranging the books on the shelves. We stole an entire life from him, a life that got messed up, a life he could never get back again.
In the end he added a clause stating that he could live there for as long as he remained alive. The ownership of the apartment was transferred to us. But that night I could not fall asleep. I was embarrassed for him, and embarrassed for us – who ever heard of such a thing, a father who was afraid that his own children would throw him out of the house? I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, asking for his forgiveness. I have no idea how we got to this place – after all, he’s a good man, I know that, and we’re not bad children.
When I was a little girl, I used to run away from home every few months. I would slam the door behind me, declaring that I was never coming back. I would go down to the bomb shelter and try to plan out the coming years of my life. There were two couches that they’d brought there during the war, and they had also fixed the water in the bathroom. At first the time would just pass, but inevitably after an hour or two I would think of something important I had left behind: a notebook I needed for school, my Gameboy, my new skateboard. I knew that she would never call me back up, and I was too proud to return on my own, so I would wait until he’d come down to walk the dog, and when he’d come back from the park and I heard his key turning in the door, I would cough until he was standing there at the entry, and then we’d go up the stairs together.
At night I run along the big street where there are no cars, in the middle of nowhere. Off in the distance, where the road turns upward, I catch sight of him leaning against a tree. I decide to run all the way to him, to circle around him, and then to run back home. But when I get closer, I see that he and the tree are in fact on the other side of a ditch – there’s no way to make it there. Instead of encircling him, I can encircle only his shadow. I return.