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from the January 2012 issue


I met her on the day that I divorced the sow. She came up to me and asked if I wanted a hug. She was wearing a black T-shirt with the words “International Hug Day” emblazoned on it. Behind her trailed a flock of smiling huggers. On any other day I would have yelled at them to go get a real job, since I knew they were the type who turn the celebration of “international days”—days like “No-Smoking Day,” “Family Day,” “Accident-Free Day”—into a vocation, 365 days a year, but on that particular day, I really did need a hug. A whole chapter of my life had just come to an end, and I had no idea where I was headed. I knew that a hug wouldn't solve anything, and yet I chose to remain there on that bustling sidewalk, not far from the old Town Hall. I didn't let anyone hug me, except for her. She hugged me for a long moment and when we separated, she smiled at me almost as if she really meant it. I smiled back at her and continued on my way, stopping to ask a young guy in a hugger shirt how long they would be there, and he grinned, excruciatingly pleased with himself, and declared, “Until the last person . . .” His outstretched arms beckoned, but I murmured, “I'm good,” and proceeded to the café at the bend in the road. An hour later, I returned to the scene, straight into the arms of my favorite hugger. She didn't remember me. Until the third time, when she scrutinized me with a smile, but didn't utter a word. From then on, every hour on the hour, I “bumped” into her and demanded the hug that would help me to forget my porcine ex-wife. For her part, she saw nothing strange in my behavior, and just before midnight she whispered in my ear, “See you.” Two days later, I saw her on the opposite side of the crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. I think I recognized her by the way her shoulders moved backward slightly with every step she took, as if she were hostage to the wind that blew against her, impeding her progress. She walked with her head down and as I approached her, right in the center of the crosswalk, I wondered how she would react if she saw me. Unfortunately she was deep in thought, and I felt I had no choice but to do the undoable. I spread my arms wide and enfolded her in a brave hug. She lifted her head in alarm, surveyed my face in horror, and shouted, “Are you nuts?” An hour later we were sharing a cigarette, lying on our backs and staring at my damp-stained bedroom ceiling. “I love this city,” she said all of a sudden. “Why?” I asked, and she giggled and wiped away a tear that was trickling from the corner of her eye. “Everything happens so fast here. But not too fast. This city… shortens processes. And maybe processes are meant to be short in the first place. I don't know. The city I come from is different. There, everything takes time. Too much time. And don't think it's because everyone there is so deep. It's just the way they are. They don't understand that's it's all a waste of time.'' “So what are you actually saying?” I asked, slightly anxious. She caressed the stubble on my chin. “I don't know. I have this dream that the other cities will catch up with this city. Imagine. If we had met in my hometown, we'd be sitting in a café now, talking and talking and talking, and afterward we'd go home, totally frustrated. I bet months would pass before . . .” “So what now?” I asked, the worry creeping into my voice again. “Now?” She chuckled and touched her lips to my forehead. “Now I love you.” A year later, experts from New York were invited to our city to measure its pace, and announced, to the delight of the locals, that it had doubled its speed in the previous year. This was manifested not only in interpersonal interactions, but even in the length of time it took to complete roadwork or in the output of those among us whose job it was to make things happen (they were few, relative to the general population—the talkers talked double and the doers overdid). The results were no surprise to me, or to my new wife. Just before the end of her ninth month of pregnancy, she had conceived again, carrying in her womb our second, as-yet-undeveloped child. When she gave birth to our firstborn, the midwives laughed and said that the baby's little brother was already itching to emerge, but for the time being he'd have to wait patiently. When we went out walking through the streets of our city, gently pushing the stroller bought for our darling daughter, who had learned to walk at six months, two months after the birth of her brother, and had learned to read and write within a year, so that she could read bedtime stories to him, we marveled at the transformations our beloved metropolis was undergoing on a daily basis. My wife said that pretty soon we wouldn't recognize our own city, and I said she was exaggerating. Two months later, when I wanted to celebrate her twenty-sixth birthday, my wife was dead set against it, using as her excuse a midlife crisis, and screaming from the bathroom that she had just discovered her first white hair. I tried to soothe her, and suggested that we have a picnic in the municipal park, where we liked to take the kids to play, before they started to rebel against us (the little one, at six, was addicted to post-punk music and had announced that from now on he was only going to smoke dope). On the verge of refusing, she surprised me by accepting my offer. But when we arrived at the park, we were confronted by an unexpected obstacle. Instead of the familiar trees and grass, the Levantine Mall skyscraper greeted us there, forcing us to seek a better place to unwind, and we were compelled to set off for our favorite cinema in the heart of the city. The film, a family saga of vast proportions, lasted seventeen minutes, and we rounded off our outing with a visit to the synopsis shop. I bought her a set of the collected works of Dostoevsky and with the money left over I purchased some sugar-coated condoms for the kids. A week later, my wife complained to me that on the third page of Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikov is done with tormenting himself and murders the old landlady, a paragraph was missing. I went to replace her copy, but to my dismay the store had given over to one of those tiresomely familiar institutes, this one dedicated to progressive spirituality, of the type that implores hard-core criminals specifically, and ordinary citizens with criminal tendencies in general, to save themselves time and trouble and see the light before doing time and discovering God in prison. I left the place in anger, hailed a cab, gave the driver my address and told him to take me home. He answered that the street I had asked for didn't exist anymore. “Those people… with the old-fashioned names . . . who has the energy for them?” he sneered, adding that he was pretty sure that yesterday's Hasmonean Street was today's Britney Boulevard. “And that won't last too long either.” He was right. In the accelerated city, where street names changed at the whim of clerks who were pop music fans, I couldn't find my apartment. I had thought that I could trust my own eyes, but familiar details seemed foreign, and every beloved reference point was wiped from my field of vision and banished to the dungeon of memory. I told myself that if I wandered the streets for long enough I would find my missing home, but once again I was proven wrong. I saw hundreds of people like me, and on the following day, thousands. They were lost, confused, unable to fathom what had happened to the city's speedometer. On my first homeless night I still hadn't accepted my fate and I grew hoarse shouting out the names of my wife and children. The next night I sat under an abandoned tree near the Postal Museum on Beyoncé Street, formerly Zamenhoff, sobbing bitterly. When I awoke, drenched in sweat, I raised my head and saw the tree was gone. And gone with it, I was shocked to realize, were the names of my nearest and dearest. I could hardly believe it, although I was familiar with the terrifying phenomenon. In the breakneck city people experience life at top speed, and what used to be the core of your existence just a year ago, in what seems like the blink of an eye, becomes something so insignificant as to hardly be worthy of your attention, whether you like it or not. But I did not like it. I wanted to be in the bosom of my disappearing family that had been wrenched from me against my will. I wanted the woman who demanded that we eat supper while she was cooking it, to save time. I wanted the daughter who quit doing drugs cold turkey, at age ten. I wanted the son who came out of the closet just to see what it felt like. And more than anything, I wanted to know that the three of them were searching for me in the accursed city. For seven days I wandered like a tourist through the streets of the metropolis that were ceaselessly shifting, where I was witness to acts of hideous violence perpetrated by homeless people like myself attempting to evict tenants from their transient homes. I considered abandoning the city, simply crossing over into the neighboring one, whose rhythm was a source of derision in our district, but I feared that my loved ones would never find me, and, frankly, I had no idea at all where my city ended and the next one began. There were moments when I took comfort in the thought that the unbearable sorrow couldn't last long, because in this city it couldn't be any other way. But another week passed, and I still couldn't stop thinking about them. Once I stole a drawing pad from a shop that had reinvented itself as a Japanese restaurant, and a pen from a wandering waitress, thinking I could console myself with drawings of the faces of my dear ones. I sat facing Murder Square, gazing at the hundreds of other lost souls, my hand hovering in circles above the blank page, as a new horror pulsed within me. No. No matter how hard I tried, I could not visualize the faces of my wife and children. The city of fluctuating features had wiped their features from my memory. But the lacerating pain endured. I remembered that I had forgotten, and I no longer cried. The speeding city killed them, eliminated them in one fell swoop. I could walk right past them, and never know it. Unable to recognize them I might even wish them ill, if circumstances so conspired. Every face I passed reminded me of a thousand others, absorbed in the madding crowd. Exhausted, alien, and apathetic. That's how I saw myself reflected in the plate glass window of a clothing store. That's also how I saw him. Perhaps a month had passed since my errand to exchange the synopsis, perhaps two months, or maybe two days, in the manic metropolis. On my way back from dinner with two complete strangers who had mistaken me for a brother who was killed in a war, I was in search of a pleasant place to spend the night. Two old ladies were playing hopscotch on the faces of dictators and invited me to join the game. I shook my head “no” and continued on my way. Several ten-year-old children pursued a seven-year-old boy screaming “Pedophile! Stinking pedophile!” A woman in a veil clutched a sign that read I HAVE THE RIGHT TO PROTEST EVEN IN A PERFECT WORLD. A young man walked, head inclined, like a woman from a prehistoric age, in a random crosswalk, and when my shadow fell upon him he raised his head, fixing me with empty eyes. I didn't know what was happening. Something stirred in me and suddenly I burst out laughing. I couldn't restrain my erupting laughter, and certainly not the tremendous joy that flooded me without warning. The man wrinkled his brow and before I knew what I was doing I heard myself asking “How long will you be here?” He answered automatically, “Until the last person . . .” “So may I?” I asked hesitantly. “Of course,” He approached me. We embraced. Like brothers. Like friends. Like lovers. And at that very moment, we knew we weren't mistaken. He was one of the huggers. I was the stubborn one. Velocity had brought us together again. From that moment we were never apart. We told ourselves and each other that we had found what we were looking for, although we didn't really enjoy making love and used our crocodile tears as a lubricant. We were a couple, in a city of singles, and from time to time, when we became aware of the envious glances of the others, trapped in their seclusion, we promised them that anything is possible, murmuring “redemption” and stifling obnoxious laughter. In time, we even created a piece of street theater to entertain passersby that was three minutes long, in the course of which we met, groped, fell in love, argued, grew to hate one another, parted, murdered, rose from the dead, and evolved once again into a pair of actors. The crowds loved us, less for the quality of our performance than for our willingness to give of ourselves. Unfortunately, within just a few days we tired of our act, but we did our best to pretend, for the sake of our public. We did everything in our power to hide the intense dislike that we had developed for each other and swore that we would not let the city beat us down. Of course we had known from the start that it would do its best to come between us, as it had with everything else. Following an unknown period of time, old age crept upon us. Sorry. It didn't creep. It pounced. And not just on us. The cracks appeared all over the city, its buildings covered in wrinkles, its streets creased in a patchwork of fissures, while the stench of incontinence hung in the air. In more optimistic moments we searched for beauty in the ancient visage that the passage of time had etched on the hundred-year-old municipality, laughing that it appeared to be at least a thousand years old. Most of the time we longed to disappear. We stopped performing our act, and vowed to stay together, supporting each other through secret alleyways, seeking refuge from ghastly bearded babies who leered at us from rusty carriages pushed to and fro by pairs of hands with protruding veins belonging to varicose-faced parents. We pitied the infants whose lives were over before they even began, and gave up all hope. On the final day that the city granted its residents, we hurtled forward toward the end, like everyone else. It was an onslaught like nothing we had ever seen before; from every nook and cranny the aging masses poured forth, and we two strode among them, the hugger and me, arm in arm with wide grimaces stretching our lips. For hours we walked together, intent on the sounds of the city as it disintegrated around us, occasionally shielding our heads from sudden plaster showers. We had no idea how long the journey to the dead end would continue, when one of the children, at the head of the procession, pulled out his dentures with a flourish and cried, “We're here!” The hugger cast me a worried glance from the corner of his eye and I grinned for him. The cemetery stood silent before us, and each of us in turn lay down on the ground, closed our eyes and waited.

© Ofir Touche Gafla. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©2012 by Gilah Kahn-Hoffman. All rights reserved.

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