Aunt Rina came on the line, her voice breaking. "Give everybody our regards. And tell your uncle Mordechai we are sorry to hear the terrible news. You want to come here maybe for supper before you go?" I had forgotten this was the night of the second Seder. Aunt Rina didn't say whether I could bring Jenny. The last time I had brought her along it was not a success.
"No," I said. "Thank you. Im flying tonight, I'll eat on the plane. I'll call you when I return."
After I hung up I saw that Jenny had begun to peel off her skirt. "Come," she whispered, "one last time before you go...so you remember...
Dont worry, I snapped. Ill be back in a week.
I had met Jenny Sowa at a reading at the Harbourfront Authors Festival. She was a thin blonde with dark luminous eyes who had just won the Governor General's prize for a book describing in percussive rhymes the travails of runaway girls in a massage parlor on Yonge Street where she had conducted clandestine research. I had come to hear an old Hebrew poet passing through Toronto read his work in English translation. But that reading was cancelled (the man passed away the night before), and so I stayed to hear whomever was next. It was Jenny. The hall filled with overly made-up young girls who cheered every stanza, but there were also some sullen men in tight pants, probably the parlor owners. Two marched up to the podium and began to berate her, snarling in her face. One raised his hand as if to slap her and it was then I heard her voice, clear and vibrant as in the reading, saying that theyd better be careful, because her boyfriend was watching.
A whore like you -- boyfriend? one man snarled. Where?
To my astonishment she pointed to me. I had no idea why she chose me; or perhaps I had begun to rise already.
I stood up fully, half in surprise, half not. Yes, I said.
And thats how we met
She was a Polish Canadian Shiksa and my Aunt Rina was aghast when she heard from a friend about us living together.
"Once or twice, nu," she said, rolling her fingers in anguish. "But to live together? Like husband and wife?"
"So?" I said.
"Your grandfather would roll in his grave," she wept. "And a Polack, too!"
What did being Polish have to do with it? "Let him roll! I love her."
I was amazed to hear myself, speaking of love, just like that.
"You know what the Polacks did to your grandfather?" Uncle Yitz'chak asked. "How they helped Hitler? I can give you books, so you can see for yourself. With pictures."
"She was born here," I shouted. "Right here in Canada. In Ottawa."
"A Polack is a Polack," Uncle Yitz'chak said. "Let me tell you--"
But I didn't let him finish. I told him she was talented, and good, that she loved me, and I loved her too-- most of which was true. I also said that if they wanted to see me again, I didn't want to hear one word-- not a single word, against the woman I loved.
What else could I say? That love was the last thing I wanted? That in the place I had run away from, love had to be paid for with killings?
I said a few other things Ive forgotten by now. Somehow we reconciled; then we had tea, with almond cookies. They rarely mentioned her again.
Jenny was in the literary activism business. She appeared on Cable TV on the community channel, debating Canadian Unity. She led a didactic-poetry workshop in the George Brown Community College. Every now and then she published a book of rhythmic poems which she then read out loud in the University, or at the Harborfront festival, before a crowd of fans who seemed to know her from her days of research.
I don't know why I went to these things. I myself never wrote anything. That is, every now and then I scribbled something very late at night, but in the morning I tore it into tiny pieces and flushed it down the toilet: detailed nightmares of takedowns I had done-- in some the dead now evaded me; in others they didnt. I had plenty of these dreams after I had left Israel, almost every night. I didn't want to write them down, but when my defenses were weak, I couldn't resist. After a while it turned into a real problem, because I often had to scribble for more than two hours to get the thing completely out, so I was always late for work and couldnt keep a job. Finally Uncle Yitz'chak took me in, in his small bakery on College Street. I helped unload the sacks of flour, load the unbaked loaves into the roaring oven, then pull the steaming bread out and range it on the floury shelves. I didn't mind the heat. This was the best part: afterwards I slept like a corpse myself and hardly dreamt at all. But Uncle Yitzchak couldnt pay me much, so after seven years in Canada I still had no money. I was really lucky I found Jenny. She had a job; she loved me. She tolerated my migraines, she even helped me fight my compulsion.
Excerpted from The Debba by Avner Mandelman. Copyright © 2010 by Avner Mandelman. Excerpted by permission of Other Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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