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from the December 2006 issue

The Eternal Invalid and the Beloved


A young man, an eternal invalid, loved a girl, but she was merely fond of him. They met for a while and even kissed. How did this come about? As far as the invalid was concerned, it was clear: he loved her passionately. As for the beloved girl, one should explain that she met the young man during a transition period between one lover and the next, and the eternal invalid took advantage of this brief pause in her life to enter it as a lover without any protest from the beloved. The invalid crept further and further into the beloved girl's life, first one finger, then a hand, a shoulder and a head, poised to insert his entire self, while the beloved looked on with some affection and some astonishment, and laughed a gentle laugh that the eternal invalid interpreted as good-humored enjoyment at the sight of his curious yearning.

The beloved allowed the eternal invalid to circle around her for almost two months. He never gathered much of her sweet pollen and, moreover, asked for none. He liked to watch her, to think of her—especially to think of her, because when he could not see her and he thought of her, his heart would contract with such stifling pangs of longing. The bliss implied by her absence was so vast and wonderful that he felt that this anticipation was itself the essence of life, and he would sit and anticipate and anticipate. Of course, he could not have anticipated had she not occasionally quenched the thirst of his anticipation and given it some concrete basis. And so she would come to him once or twice a week, laugh a little, softly caress his head; he would kiss her hands, reach up to her neck. Then she would comb her hair and leave. As soon as she stood to comb her hair, even before she left, the anticipation of her next visit would begin again.

Two months passed this way. The eternal invalid spun dreams of divine happiness, and the beloved came and went, came and went, until she tired of it. The eternal invalid bored her. A man who does nothing in her presence but sit and gaze at her and secretly smile to himself with delight may fascinate himself, but he surely bores those around him, particularly those from whom he demands his happiness in a slow, draining sort of way, those who know it is not in their power to give this happiness, and those who simply have no patience for him. And it was not just that he bored her. Let us suppose he had not bored her, would she then have been his? The answer is no. Such a peculiar idea never entered her mind. But why not, in fact? That is the question the eternal invalid wished to ask her afterwards, when it was all over, but he did not dare. The question, however, persists: Why not? Why with someone else but not with him? Why must his kisses stop at her neck? Why does she always laugh? Why is he not beloved, but only liked? And why did she suddenly lose interest? What had he done to her? "He did not do anything to me," the beloved would probably have answered, had she been asked. "He just didn't seem connected to love." She would laugh-her teeth exposed-a laugh that would be extremely painful for the invalid, were he there, an insulting laugh (and even so, how beautiful!), a laugh she would begin with a small burst of joy at the thought of being desired, which she would hasten to end upon realizing it was shared by no one, and would replace with an expression of discomfort and annoyance over the fact that something she found pleasurable could cause grief to another—you can't even laugh with a clear conscience in this world—and besides, she was altogether sick of him, of this eternal invalid.

After two months, the pause in the beloved's life came to an end, she met a young man who loved her and whom she loved. For a week or so she did not come to visit the eternal invalid (she used to visit him, rather than allow him to visit her, because it was improper to allow young men of his sort into one's home). The eternal invalid waited a week. He was afraid something had happened to the beloved, although the prolonged waves of cold that enveloped him indicated that deep inside he knew the real reason. He agonized for a whole week before rushing to the beloved's home. He went in the evening. From downstairs, on the street, the apartment was dark except for one window, her bedroom window. He went up the stairs inside the building. Near the door he heard music and a young man's voice. He went downstairs and waited outside on the sidewalk, gazing at the lit window. He waited for three hours, during which time the light went off for an hour, candlelight flickered, and then the light came back on. After three hours a young man came out of the building, opened a car door, got in and drove away. The eternal invalid climbed the stairs again and stood listening outside the door. The music had stopped, the man's voice could no longer be heard-it had been him, the owner of the car—the sound of running water came from within: she was running herself a bath, a nice warm bath. The invalid did not dare knock on the door; he went home and continued to wait. "She must come," he thought, "she said she would come a week ago, she is late, she is not punctual, but she will come." Another week went by and she did not come. The eternal invalid was stunned. His mouth was dry, the insult caused his throat to make perpetual swallowing motions. In the mornings he would gather up all his strength just to command his body out of bed.

Another month went by. She did not come. For the eternal invalid, reality gradually lost all tangibility, slowly emptying out of every object and all matter until finally only one fact remained, a fact that filled the space of the universe with its paralyzing terror: the beloved was not coming. He escaped into sleep. He restricted his interaction with the world to the bare essentials, and even these were executed with great effort—oh, how hard it is to stretch one's lips into a smile upon hearing a joke when shame and fear contract them so forcefully!—and the rest of his time was spent under the icy oppression of the insult and humiliation in his gut, with pangs of remorse for all the errors he must surely have made in his relations with the beloved and which had caused her to abandon him, and in hallucinations of bliss shared with the beloved, hallucinations he attempted, unsuccessfully, to smuggle into his dreams at night, and by means of which he also attempted to blur a few of his terrible waking hours. But, all things considered, the situation was not yet utterly hopeless, since she still had not told him anything explicit, either positive or negative: she simply had not come, and if we were to analyze this fact according to bare logic we would not find a single indication that the affair with the beloved was over. She simply had not come, there could be many reasons for this, and so as far as he was concerned, the love affair went on as before, she continued to be the beloved, she was his, she would arrive at any moment, she was just late.

Three months go by. Astonishment usually lasts a few seconds; a big surprise might prolong it for a moment or two—even, let us say, so as to satisfy the insistent among us, for half an hour. But the eternal invalid has been existing in a state of astonishment for three months. He still cannot believe it. His astonishment is not one that proceeds linearly through time: it comes in waves, separated by brief intervals of forgetting, making each new wave as painful as the first. To illustrate: the eternal invalid gets up in the morning and is astonished. The paralyzing astonishment lasts while washing and shaving, and continues as he gets out of the bath tub. Now he is faced with preparing breakfast, and being that he is fond of this meal and tends to concentrate on it, the first astonishment ends upon entering the kitchen. His mind is occupied with food. He eats a slice of bread with margarine and pickled herring. In the middle of taking a bite out of the second slice, once the initial taste of breakfast has passed and he is half-full, a new wave of astonishment suddenly floods him. His jaw pauses, his throat stops, and the food in his mouth loses its taste as he is entirely overcome with astonishment: "I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand!" An odd sort of astonishment, indeed. Because what is so complicated here, what is there to understand? A young woman left a young man-is that so hard to comprehend? Well, a young woman leaving a young man in general—this he is capable of comprehending, it is easily understood, but that the beloved should leave him? No, no, here we have something ungraspable, beyond his comprehension, a wonder, an enigma, and his mind continues to rock continuously to the beat of one rhythm: "I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand!" Until this wave of astonishment passes too. Over the course of the day, some thirty or forty astonishments, and another four or five in the middle of the night, wash over the eternal invalid with an icy chill and exhaust him.

One day the eternal invalid happens to learn that the beloved has gone to Switzerland. For what purpose? To study, to expand her horizons, to have fun. The date of her return? Undetermined. The eternal invalid turns pale, abandons all unessential acts and shifts to automatic mode, like machines that, at some point, stop being operated and continue to run on their own. The eternal invalid also begins to feel a pressure in his head.

Six months later, in the summer, when the streets and beaches are filled with half-naked women and the loneliness becomes intolerable, the eternal invalid is forced to rally a little, to recuperate from his paleness and to once again amuse himself with a familiar logical analysis: what's the panic, he has not yet been told a single explicit thing to this day, either positive or negative, she simply has not come, she has gone away, gone to study—to study, not to get married, and if we analyze the situation logically we will not find a single indication of the end of the affair, and so on and so forth. The eternal invalid obtains her address in Switzerland and writes her a letter. He asks why she did not come on the day they had arranged to meet nine months ago, what happened to her and why she did not bother to inform him of her journey or at least send a postcard. The beloved takes two months to reply because, so she writes, it was difficult for her, his letter caught her by surprise, she was confused, she wrote letter after letter and kept tearing them up.

"Aha!" An inner joyfulness breaks through the layer of ice inside the eternal invalid, "I am still capable of confusing her! I have some influence over her! She is still mine, I must simply make an effort!"

And besides, she continues, she did not come that day because she thought he did not want to see her, that was the impression he had given her during their previous meetings, and if he had really wanted to see her that much, why did he not come to her after the meeting that did not occur? Why didn't he find out what had happened to her—she might have been run over, she might have been dead! Why did he wait so long, why did he abandon her? Now she is confused. And finally: she will probably come to Israel next summer for a visit.

A cry of victory from within the eternal invalid. She thought he did not love her, it was he who was the cause of the separation, he, he—she had loved him and still loves him as she did at first, as evidenced by the confusion caused by his letter. This sort of confusion would not have been stirred in someone who was not in love. See how far his power reaches: a few lines of his on a piece of paper produced a storm in the soul of a young girl in Switzerland. And further evidence of her love: she recalls the meeting to which she did not come. Nine months have passed and yet she remembers. That meeting was critical not only for him, but for her too. For who, besides someone in love, would retain for nine months the memory of a meeting that did not even occur? And who else, besides someone in love, would repeatedly start letters and tear them up? And who, besides someone in love, would quickly come in summer, as soon as the school year was over, to clear up the matter and restore their love to its proper state? Yes, all he needs to do is explain himself to her next summer, tell her she was wrong, that he loved her all along, that although he seemed restrained, he loved her passionately, that his love is not stilted, but rather that he himself is a somewhat inhibited man and it is not his fault, he will tell her, he will explain, and she will return to him. A most beautiful reunion will occur here next summer as they fall into each others' arms, he tells himself with a satisfied smile, stretches his back, and immediately runs out to sit in a café and watch passers-by with the look of a man who has it all.

Upon the demise of the first wave of joy, it is replaced with remorse over all the needlessly wasted time. He regrets not having knocked on the door of her apartment that evening. Suddenly he remembers the young man who had been with her, the electric light that turned to candlelight, and pain rips open his heart. That young man had not waited and suffered like him, had not needlessly tormented his soul for many nights, and yet he was given the ultimate pleasure, he was allowed to hold the beloved, to kiss her beyond her neck, to undress her . . . . It seems there are some who deserve it and some who do not. But how does one purchase this prerogative? And with how much suffering? He stops being pained by the victorious young man and returns to his remorse. Because even if she had spent the night with that man—and there still is no proof of that, he might have been a student who came to advise her on choosing a major, and the candle was lit merely for ambience—but even if so, well then what of it? These are modern times, it happens that a woman sleeps with someone, caught up in modernity, and what of it? What of it? Now he does not grasp at all why he did not knock on the door. And why did he not go to her the next day? Why did he wait? Didn't he know the universal rule, whereby a man who desires something goes to the desired thing and tries to take it? Why did he wait? What had held him back? Pride? Shame? Fear of failure? Would not all of these losses have been made up for by the radiating joy he would have gained? What had been wrong with him, then, what was the source of the paralysis that had taken hold of him and not let go for several weeks, now lost forever? The eternal invalid chuckled in self-ridicule and tried to do away with any analysis of the question. He did not enjoy carrying out scientific investigations into the depths of his soul. He saw his soul as being made like a beast's firm intestines, and rather than analyze and inspect it, he preferred stuffing it with the crude nutrition to which it was accustomed. A handful of unrefined insult mixed with a pinch of dry sorrow, drizzled with some greenish-yellow tough remorse, and his soul-intestines would be happy.

And so the eternal invalid concentrates on remorse. Indeed, he should have knocked on the door, should have knocked on the door, and having failed to do so, he should have returned the next day, should have returned the next day. He replays the entire period of time during which he could have gone to the beloved and fallen into her arms and won the happiness she was saving for him, and in his mind's eye he sees this thread of wasted time day after day, hour after hour, in precise detail, accompanied by a secret, rhythmic, inner murmuring: "Tuesday, August Eighth, I could have gone to her in the morning, I could have gone to her before noon, I could have gone to her at noon, I could have gone to her in the afternoon, I could have gone to her at dusk, I could have gone to her in the evening, I could have gone to her at night, I could have gone to her at dawn. Wednesday, August Ninth, I could have gone to her in the morning, I could have gone to her . . . " And as he imagines every single section of the day in precise detail, each with its own particular lighting and atmosphere, he plants himself in each scene again and again, never tiring, in one repetitive picture: walking into the beloved's apartment building. When he has completed this process, this chain, this cycle of the past year, his heart sours within him at every fraction of time in which he could have gone and did not, he returns to the beginning and starts anew, this time hour by hour: "Tuesday, August Eighth, I could have gone to her at eight in the morning, I could have gone to her at eight-thirty, I could have gone to her . . . " And now he also envisions the scene that could have occurred at each one of these times, and even the probable continuation of the meeting: "At noon they would lunch together, at dusk they would walk along the beach, in the evening they would sit in her room, his head on her lap, at night they would turn off the light . . . " In torture-games such as these, time trickled by for the eternal invalid, seeped through on a vast plane drop by drop, never flowing, never rushing, as if to allow him the possibility of utterly exhausting every drop of pain, all the nausea and the burden in each tiny moment.

Nor does the pressure in his head stop. Something inside keeps beating. The eternal invalid is afraid to be ill now, of all times, when the beloved is finally back within his reach. He tries to relieve the pressure in his head. He goes to the beach, where he runs around in the sun a little, gets a tan—which is also a good idea for his appearance. There is, after all, a tender heart to be captured soon, and it is most desirable that when the beloved visits she find him supple and shining and smooth and full of life like a young beast of prey. However, he must not go too far with the physical exertion, he feels weak, he must protect his heart from excessive effort and preserve his energies for the nights of love awaiting him next summer, because at least on the first nights of their reunion he must appear to be an exuberant, tireless lover who wants no sleep, who doesn't even know what sleep is, who has only one desire, to insert into his beloved a stiff cylindrical organ and thrust it inside her with great expertise for half the night until she screams that she can bear it no longer, that she is rent all the way up to her throat, that she is dying, she has never before had such pleasure, and then he must stop for two moments, moisten her neck softly with his tongue, stroke her gently like a saddened tiger with an excess of power and a need to consume, then assault her again until the morning light. There is no question: difficult, draining, even hazardous work lies ahead. But what is to be done about the pressure in his head? The pressure is emotional, undoubtedly; a great sadness has accumulated in his soul and has found no outlet, he must let it loose, allow it to break free. He must burst into a great sob. He once read in a magazine that people often hold in stifled sobs from childhood, contained for many years, and their diaphragms constrict, tighten up, their breathing canals compress under an oppressive armor of muscles and they lose the ability to breathe. As a result, the brain receives a limited supply of oxygen, becomes tired, blurred, and develops symptoms such as constant beating and pressure. The diaphragm, therefore, must

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