Here it is, back again, and although she’s been expecting it for years, she is surprised. Back again as if it never let go, as if she didn’t live a day without it, a month without it, a year; after all, exactly ten years have passed since then. Mickey had asked, “Remember today’s date?” as if it were a birthday or an anniversary, and she wracked her memory—they were married in winter, met the winter before that, the children were born in winter, nothing noteworthy occurred in their lives in the summer despite its length, which seems to call for countless events—and Mickey looked down, his gaze on her hips, which have thickened since then, and all at once the pain was back and she remembered.
Or did she remember first, and then the pain came back? Because she has never forgotten, so it wasn’t actually remembering, but rather existing totally in that burning moment, in the dawning recognition of the cataclysm, in the ghostly storm of panic, the solemn inertness of the silence: no bird sang, no hawk soared, no bull roared, no ministering angels spoke holy words, the sea did not roil, people did not speak—the world was utterly still.
In time, she realized that silence was the one thing that hadn’t been there, but nonetheless, only the silence was burned into her memory: mute angels came and bandaged her wounds silently, amputated limbs burned noiselessly and their owners observed them with sealed mouths, white ambulances sailed soundlessly along the streets, a narrow, winged gurney floated toward her and she was lifted up and placed on it, and the moment she was detached from the blazing asphalt was the moment the pain was born.
She had given birth to two children, and yet didn’t recognize it when she experienced it for the first time in all its power, drilling into the core of her body, sawing her bones, pulverizing them into thin powder, trampling muscles, ripping out tendons, crushing tissue, tearing nerves, brutalizing the internal pulp she had never paid attention to, the stuff a person is made of. Only the organs above the neck had interested her, the skull and the brain inside it, consciousness and intelligence, knowledge and judgment, choice, identity, memory, and now she had nothing but that pulp, nothing but the pain.
“What happened?” he asks, and is immediately mortified. “What an idiot I am, I shouldn’t have reminded you.” And she leans on the wall near the door—they are on their way out of the house, each to his place of work—trying to point to the kitchen chairs with her eyes, and he hurries to the kitchen and returns with a glass of water, which she can’t hold because her hand is sliding down the wall.
“Chair,” she gasps, and he drags one toward her. But to her surprise, he sits down on it heavily, as if he is the one now suddenly seized by the pain, as if he is the one who had been there that morning exactly ten years ago when the powerful shockwaves of the explosion on the nearby bus hurled her out of her car onto the asphalt. And in fact, if it weren’t for a last-minute change, he would have been there instead of her, floating in the fiery air like a huge asteroid, landing with a bang among the burning bodies.
And really, why wasn’t he the one to take the children to school as he did every morning? She remembers an urgent call from the office, a glitch in a program, a system that crashed. He intended to drive them anyway, but Omer still wasn’t dressed, jumping in his pajamas on their double bed, and she wanted to avoid tears and reprimands. “Never mind, I’ll take them,” she said, which of course did not prevent the regular morning argument with Omer, who locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out, or Alma’s crying about being late because of him. When, completely exhausted, she left them at the school gate and sped up the busy street, passing a bus that was standing at the stop, the most horrendous sound she ever heard smashed into her ears, followed by absolute silence.
Yet it wasn’t the intensity of the explosion—that almost volcanic eruption of explosives, nails, screws, and nuts mixed with rat poison to increase the bleeding—that deafened her, but rather another sound, deeper and more horrendous, the sound of the dozens of bus passengers suddenly taking leave of their lives, the keening of mothers leaving behind their children, the cries of young girls who would never grow up, the lamentation of crushed organs, the scorched skin, the legs that would never walk again, the arms that would never embrace, the beauty that would wither into ashes. That is the lamentation she hears again now, and she puts her hands over her ears as she drops heavily onto his lap.
“Oh Iris,” he says, wrapping his arms around her, “I thought that nightmare was already behind us.”
And she tries to wriggle out of his embrace, saying, “It’ll pass in a minute. Maybe I moved in a way I shouldn’t have, I’ll take a pill and go to work.”
But here it is again, every movement breaking down into a dozen tiny movements, each more painful than its predecessor, until even she, so meticulously restrained, known to be the strongest, most authoritative school principal, groans deeply. But from behind her back, from behind the groan that surprises even her, comes a loud burst of laughter, and they both turn their heads to the end of the hallway where their son stands at the door of his room, tall and slender, tossing his mane of hair, which is bordered by shaved temples. Snorting like a horse, he says, “Hey, what’s with you, Momdad? Why are you sitting one on top of the other? Thinking of making
me a baby brother?”
“It really isn’t funny, Omer,” she grumbles, even though she also thinks they must look ridiculous. “The old injury started to hurt me and I had to sit down.” Clad only in polkadot boxers, he approaches them with slow, almost dancelike steps, carrying his beautiful body gracefully—how did their mating produce such a perfect body?
“Great, so feel free to sit,” he laughs. “But why on Dad?
And why does Dad have to sit? Does it hurt him too?” “When you love someone, you feel their pain,” Mickey replies in the didactic tone that Omer hates more than anything—so, in fact, did she—the tone that already contained the affront he will feel when his son ridicules him.
“Bring me a pill, Omer,” she says. “No, make it two. They’re in the kitchen drawer.” As she gulps down the pain-killers, it seems to her that the force of her will alone would defeat the pain forever, it will disappear and never return. Pain doesn’t return for no reason and with such intensity, it makes no sense. Everything was treated, joined together, sewn, screwed, and implanted in three different surgeries during a year of hospitalizations. Ten years have passed, she has grown used to living with pain at the change of seasons or after strenuous activity, and though she never returned to her pre-injury physical comfort, she didn’t expect such a new wave, as if this morning, everything is happening again from the beginning.
“Help me up, Omer,” she says, and still amused, he goes over to her, extends a strong, thin arm, and she’s on her feet. She has to lean on the wall, but she won’t give up. She’ll go out of the house, walk to her car, and drive to school. She’ll run the meetings efficiently, keep her appointments, interview new teachers, meet with the supervisor, stay to check on what was happening in the after-school classes, reply to the emails and messages that had accumulated. Only on the way home, in the afternoon, driving with her lips clenched in pain, will she turn her mind to the fact that Mickey remained sitting on the kitchen chair near the door, his head in his hands, even after she had already gone—escaped, to be more precise—as if he felt the pain with her, as if he was the one whose pelvis had been crushed that morning exactly ten years ago and it was his life that had been brought to a halt.
Trapped among dozens of cars in the crawling traffic on the way home, he had arrived, out of breath, at her bedside in the trauma room, his expression inscrutable. He wasn’t the first to arrive—partial strangers had preceded him as the rumor spread quickly. The visitors and consolers came in reverse order, from distant acquaintances to the people closest to her, seven-year-old Omer and eleven-year-old Alma. Her friend Dafna had brought them there a moment before she was taken into the operating room, and when she saw them walking toward her, she remembered in horror that they were the only ones she’d forgotten to call. She had managed to leave a message on Mickey’s cell phone and on her mother’s home phone, punching in the numbers with bleeding fingers, wiping the blood on her shirt. The only place she’d forgotten to call was the kids’ school, and the honest truth was that in all the hours that had passed before she saw them approaching her bed apprehensively, holding hands, she had completely forgotten their existence, forgotten that the woman who had floated momentarily over the flaming street until she crashed onto it was the mother of children.
She even found it difficult to recognize them at first, an odd pair walking toward her, a large boy and a tiny girl, he fair, she dark, he upset, she silent, two opposites walking together slowly and somberly, as if they intended to place an invisible wreath on her grave. She wanted to run away from them, but she was confined to the bed, so she closed her eyes until she heard them bleat in harmony, “Mommy!” and was forced to pull herself together. “I was lucky,” she prattled at them, “it could have been much worse.”
“You’re allowed to show them that it’s hard for you,” one of the doctors told her later, “there’s no need to pretend. Let them help you. That way you’re teaching them to deal with their own difficulties as well.” But she couldn’t expose her weakness to them, and that’s why she couldn’t bear their presence during the long months of her recovery. “It’s all Omer’s fault,” she recalls Alma saying coldly, almost indifferently, as if pointing out an obvious fact. “If he didn’t hide in the bathroom, we would have left earlier and you never would have been there when the bus exploded.” And Omer began to kick his sister, screaming, “No it’s not! It’s all your fault! Because you wanted Mommy to make you a half-ponytail!” When Mickey tried to restrain him, the boy pointed at him and said, with the same defensiveness that always existed between them, “It’s all your fault!”
They might have continued to blame each other, as if they were talking about an event that had occurred in their closed family circle and not a suicide bombing carried out by terrorists who didn’t even know their small family, but she was whisked off to the terrible distraction of the long hours of the surgery and the surgery that followed it, of the months of rehabilitation and recovery and the new school appointment that awaited her at the end of the road as if it were a prize. She knew that some people said that were it not for her injury, she would not have been appointed principal at such a young age, and even she herself wondered about it now and then. But the enormous workload left her no time for futile thoughts. She hasn’t had any futile thoughts for ten whole years, and as she parks her car and walks unsteadily to her home, it seems to her that she has only just awakened from an operation that lasted ten years, and only now can she think about the issue her children raised then. That’s why she has accumulated so much experience, so she can decide once and for all who was actually at fault.