It takes him a few seconds to recognize her. And even then, he isn’t sure she recognizes him. Whether she recognized him earlier from his name or only when he came into the room. Or maybe she’s embarrassed. You can’t tell anything from looking at her. She doesn’t blush. Doesn’t stammer. She continues asking him questions and typing as he replies.

She had been one of his soldiers. He was an officer, a first lieutenant. A small unit in the Intelligence Corps. Four huts. A tile path connecting them. A broken drink machine, long lunch breaks, long nights of work during operations.

On one of those nights, he thought he saw a flash of invitation in her eyes. Or maybe there really had been a flash of invitation in her eyes. What difference does it make—

Now the look in her eyes is all business.

She asks: It says here that you’re studying for your master’s. You haven’t completed it yet?

He replies: I’ve already submitted my thesis. Now I’m only waiting for official approval.

Where do you live? she asks. What’s that zero four area code?

Binyamina. It’s less than half an hour away from here by train, he replies.

She nods slowly. As if his answers are unsatisfactory.

He began to drive her home on Fridays, to Beit Hanan. Told her it was on his way, but both of them knew it wasn’t. On the drive, they spoke in a totally different tone from the one they used the rest of the week on the base. She told him that she wrote poems and short stories, but she didn’t think she wanted to be a writer. It was such an egotistical profession. He told her that since his mother died, they no longer had Friday-night dinners at home, and his father had become addicted, really addicted, to Coca-Cola. The time in the car passed quickly, too quickly, and when they arrived at her house, she would linger in the car another few seconds, as if she were waiting for something to happen, and then she touched his arm lightly and said, Wait a minute, and disappeared. When she came back, she held a bag of blood oranges from their orchard. Food for the road.

She still has long hair, even if some of it is silver now. But she no longer winds the strands around her finger when she stops to think.

Your age, she says, are you aware that it’s a disadvantage? Most of the marketing staff is in their thirties. And I should prepare you for the fact that we almost never take on people over fifty. It hardly ever happens.

Her inflection – he thinks – is almost the same.

There are also advantages to my age, he tries.

She touches the bridge of her glasses, pushes them back into place, and doesn’t ask him to list them.

Besides, I’m young at heart, he says.

She doesn’t smile.

She was nineteen and he was twenty-one. A two-year difference, that was all. But he was the chief officer of the section and she was just an ordinary soldier. There were no roll calls in their unit, she didn’t have to salute him, but the hierarchy was most definitely there, in small things. Who ate in the officers’ canteen and who didn’t. Who had his own computer and who didn’t. Who participated in pre-operation discussions and who only prepared the documents, made appointments, and swept the office floor at the end of the day, moving as if she were dancing.

She’s typing something on her computer now. Apparently filling out a standard form. Does it make sense that she doesn’t recognize him? Yes, he’s bald. And has a potbelly. And started wearing glasses a year ago. And his name isn’t exactly uncommon. When he and Nirit got married, they decided to blend their surnames, so from Gonter, his name, and Oren, hers, they created Goren. But even so, how is it possible that she doesn’t remember anything, while he watches her type with those long fingers of hers and remembers everything. The entire scene appears before his eyes.

Make yourself at home, he said, and touched her for the first time, placing a hand on her shoulder and leading her toward the blue couch, thinking: Exactly the way I pictured it, it’s happening exactly the way I pictured it.”

One Friday, when they started their drive, he told her that they had to stop off in the apartment he and his roommates shared in Tel Aviv. He had forgotten to take his bag of laundry, he said. And he would be happy if she would help him carry it because there was a ton of it. They went into the apartment and he immediately asked her how many sugars he should put in her coffee. She said, No thanks. He asked if the no thanks was about the sugar or about the coffee. Both, she said, and remained standing. Why are you standing, make yourself at home, he said, and touched her for the first time, placing a hand on her shoulder and leading her toward the blue couch, thinking: Exactly the way I pictured it, it’s happening exactly the way I pictured it. Then he went into the kitchen and made himself coffee, twice, because he was so excited, he put two spoonfuls of salt in the first cup.

When he returned, he sat down very close to her, his leg almost touching hers, sipped his coffee, and asked: Are you sure you don’t want any? She shook her head, and he leaned over to put his cup on the small table. Then, with a pounding heart, he leaned his elbow on the back of the couch, stretched out his arm and trapped a strand of hair with two of his fingers.

What’s your family situation? she suddenly says. I forgot to ask.

Happily married plus three fantastic girls, he says.

How old are your daughters? she asks.

Twelve, fourteen, and eighteen. The oldest is starting the army on Sunday.

Where will she serve? A spark of interest ignites in her voice. Or is he just imagining it?

Intelligence, he says with a smile. He’s thinking that if even the tiniest muscle in her face moves now, it’s a sign.

But her face is frozen. Her body is frozen. Only her fingers continue to type. How much can she possibly have to type?

Then, too, she froze. But he continued to twist a strand of hair around his fingers, finding it difficult to part from the fantasy he had spun for so many months. Then he moved his fingers down her neck, as he had in the fantasy, to her beautiful collarbone, slightly lowering the Dacron collar so he could move along her collarbone to her shoulder, and a long moment later, he stopped. He asked her if it felt good. She moved her head slowly but clearly. To the right and then to the left. He touched her hair one last time and returned his hand to his lap. And that was that. He didn’t press up against her. Didn’t kiss her on the mouth. Didn’t tear off her uniform. On the contrary, he moved back and drank his now cool coffee as she rearranged her collar, and they sat beside each other in silence for another few moments. Along with the bitter disappointment and the desire to get on his knees and ask her forgiveness, anger began to grow inside him. All those light, seemingly random touches throughout the week in the office. All the times she leaned over his desk to show him documents, her long hair whipping his face, and the small dance of her sweeping the floor at the end of the day that seemed meant to emphasize her narrow waist. And the brief lingering a moment before she got out of his car in Beit Hanan, the lingering he was convinced meant: Kiss me.

All the way to Beit Hanan, they didn’t exchange a word. She sat pressed up against the window and he clutched the wheel as if it were a lifesaver.”

Now he says: Excuse me – can I add something?

She straightens her glasses on her nose and says: I’m listening.

I’ll be as straight as I can with you, he says.

When I left my last job, I never imagined it would be so hard to find work in this field. You saw my CV. You will agree with me that it’s not… sparse. Nevertheless, I’ve been going from interview to interview for six months now, and they give me the feeling that, because of my age, I’m not… current enough. Which is ridiculous. In marketing, it’s not age that counts, it’s hunger. Only hunger counts. Don’t you think so, Rotem?

Her lips tremble slightly when he says her name, and for the first time, he suspects that her behavior at this meeting is one big sham. But she quickly overcomes the trembling, goes back to typing, and says impassively, It doesn’t really matter what I think. There is an entire staff here that will make the decision.

But you have some influence, right? he persists.

Yes, I have some influence, she confirms.

So maybe you could pass on the message – he asks, his voice sounding too high in his ears, too pleading – that I am prepared to work hard. That if you give me the green light, I’ll get results.

I promise to pass on the message, she says with a small smile, a tiny smile, which he thought was more like a smirk. Then she looks at her watch. More accurately, she lifts her arm with the watch on it so he can see that she’s looking at her watch.

He gets the hint and asks, So what now, don’t call us, we’ll call you?

You’ll receive an email, she explains as she stands up. Within a week, two weeks at the most.

He stands up, too, and she accompanies him to the door. A moment before he leaves, he considers saying something about what happened back then. But he still isn’t sure that she has made the connection and is afraid to hurt his chances – small as they might be – he needs the job. So, behind his glasses, his eyes look straight into her eyes behind her glasses and he says, Thank you for… your time.

What could he actually have said to her? He justifies himself in the elevator. That he’s sorry? That he apologizes? After all, what really happened there? Confusion. That’s all. Misinterpreted signs. He was only twenty-one at the time. He’d barely had a girlfriend before then, and it hadn’t been serious. He didn’t understand anything about anything. Even now, if God forbid Nirit were to leave him and he had to start all over again, he’d be just as lost. Clueless and clumsy.

When he leaves the parking lot, he thinks about his last drive to Beit Hanan.

Back at the base on Sunday, they both acted as if nothing had happened. He didn’t take it out on her after the incident… Just the opposite, he was careful around her.”

After some silence, she asked, in a barely audible voice, if he could drive her home. Is it okay if I finish my coffee first? he asked. She nodded and eased her body away from him, a few centimeters to the left. He deliberately sipped his coffee slowly, and thought, What a mistake. She can file a complaint about me.

All the way to Beit Hanan, they didn’t exchange a word. She sat pressed up against the window and he clutched the wheel as if it were a lifesaver. There was a stop-and-go traffic jam on the coastal highway, and his leg hurt from so much pressing on and releasing of the clutch. On the radio, someone was translating love songs from English: ‘Mary Jane’, ‘Woe Is Me’, ‘Better Off Dead’, ‘Oh Carol’, ‘My Destiny’, ‘You Are My Happiness’. A bit before Netanya, he thought she was crying, but when he turned his head, he saw that she was only blowing her nose. There are more tissues in the glove compartment if you need them, he said, and she said, No thanks.

When they finally reached Beit Hanan, she opened the door quickly, pulled her backpack out of the backseat in a single movement, making do with one strap instead of two, walked to her parents’ house, and didn’t come back with blood oranges from the orchard.

Target practice for a female recruit during Field Training Week, July 2000. Israel Defense Forces/Wikimedia Commons

Back at the base on Sunday, they both acted as if nothing had happened. He didn’t take it out on her after the incident. Didn’t order her to do meaningless tasks, didn’t make her wait to go on leave after the others had already gone, didn’t toss sarcastic remarks at her in the presence of other soldiers. Just the opposite, he was careful around her. Thought twice before asking her to do something for him, careful to sound as if he were making a request, not issuing an order. But the rides to Beit Hanan stopped. He didn’t offer anymore and she didn’t ask. And when they passed each other on the tiled paths connecting the huts, he would avert his eyes. So did she. Sometimes he really wanted to say something to her, but he didn’t know what.

After a few weeks, to his amazement, she asked for a transfer to a different section. He had no idea what reason she gave the unit commander. No one said a word to him, neither good nor bad. No one summoned him for a talk, put him on trial, or asked to hear their separate versions of the incident. One morning, she simply wasn’t there anymore.

He comes to the late conclusion that there was no way she didn’t recognize him. She recognized me, all right, but didn’t want to show me that she did. Bottom line, even though I’m right for the job, better than anyone else, there’s no way I’ll get an email from the company within a week, two at the most. There’s no chance I’ll receive an email as long as she’s their human resources manager.

Late Saturday night, an email lands in his inbox. From her private address. The domain name wasn’t the company’s.

The subject: To Eli from Rotem – personal.

Right after he reads the first words, “Of course I recognized you,” he closes his laptop and makes his ‘shoe rounds’. Picks up all the scattered shoes and returns each pair to its owner’s room. His eldest daughter is still on the phone with a friend, and he reminds her that tomorrow’s a big day, so she shouldn’t go to sleep too late. Okay, Daddy, she says, and goes back to her phone conversation. Then he takes a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his wife’s bag, returns to the study, and opens his laptop.

The next morning they take their daughter to the army recruiting office, the words from Rotem’s email still echoing in his mind. Her side of the story was so different from the way he had imagined it.

They’re five in the car now, and it’s very noisy. In honor of the event, the new recruit is given the right to choose the soundtrack for the drive and she plays Enrique Iglesias songs on her phone. Nirit sheds a tear and the girls laugh at her for getting so emotional about every little thing. When they reach the recruiting office, it turns out that the younger girls had filled a bag with presents that will help their older sister get through her first night, and now they give it to her. The three of them cry and hug, and he and Nirit glow with pleasure as they watch from the sidelines. A moment before their daughter boards the bus, he finally manages to catch her alone for a few seconds. Take care of yourself, he says, putting a hand on her shoulder. Dad, I’m going into the Signal Corps, she says and laughs, what can possibly happen to me? An Arabic–Hebrew dictionary will fall on my head? No, really – he hugs her suddenly, too hard – take care of yourself, little girl. Okay, Daddy, she says, barely able to move out of his embrace, then adds with a smile, on the condition that you do too!

A week later, the official letter arrives. From her official email address.

To Mr. Eli Goren,
We would like to thank you for applying to our company.
Unfortunately, after a careful evaluation of your CV and the information provided during your personal interview, we believe your profile does not suit our needs.
We wish you success in your future undertakings.
Sincerely,
Rotem Ashkenazi
Human Resources Manager

From The Last Interview, translated by Sondra Silverston (Other Press)

 

Eshkol Nevo, born in Jerusalem in 1971, co-runs the largest creative writing school in Israel. He lives in Ra’anana, Israel, with his wife and three daughters. His novels have been translated into twelve languages, sold a million copies around the world, and won numerous literary prizes. He is the author of Homesick (2004), World Cup Wishes (2007), Neuland (2011) and Three Floors Up (2015; Other Press, 2017), which has been adapted for film by the acclaimed Italian director Nanni Moretti and will be screened at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. The Last Interview, published in Hebrew in 2018, uses the format of an extended website Q&A with a well-known Israeli writer to explore the contradictory facets of an author and a country at odds with themselves, and spent 30 weeks at the top of the bestseller list. The English-language edition is now published in paperback and eBook by Other Press.
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Author portrait © Moti Kikayon

Sondra Silverston has translated the work of Israeli fiction writers including Etgar Keret, Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Zeruya Shalev and Savyon Liebrecht. Her translation of Amos Oz’s Between Friends won the National Jewish Book Award for fiction in 2013. Born in the United States, she has lived in Israel since 1970.

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