Good Girl

Gail Hareven

Artwork by Miko Yu

Today is the first day of September and for a lot of people this means the beginning of a new school year. I want to experience a new beginning too, so I've decided to buy this notebook in which, from now on, I'll write about everything that happens to me along with my thoughts about it. One day, when I open and read it, I'll be able to remember how things really were—and I'm sure this will be meaningful. And, until then, I'll have this diary, and it will be my best friend on lonely days.

So—hello, diary! My name is May Nathanson, which is short for Maya Nathanson. Daddy thinks "May" sounds better. In October I'll be seventeen, and here's the surprising part...I don't go to high school anymore.

In order to explain to you, my new friend, how I grew up so quickly, and why it is that a girl like me doesn't go to school, I need to go back a few months, to what happened in June. So be patient. (I'm sure you don't lack patience.)

It all started when crazy Linda locked herself in the bedroom. In case you don't know (how would you know if I haven't told you yet?), Linda's my mom, and please don't think badly of me for calling her crazy. I'm not the only one who thinks so.

That evening some guests were supposed to come over: two important professors from Germany who came especially to see Daddy's ward at the hospital, and a couple of doctor friends of his, and all of their wives, too. My dad likes to entertain, and he's the most charming host in the world. (Okay, okay, maybe not the most charming, but pretty close to it.) If Linda wasn't the way she is, I'm sure we'd have had guests much more often.

So this is what happened: Ofir and I were sitting upstairs in my room getting ready for the next day's matriculation exams in government—separation of authority into legislative and judicial branches, stuff like that. At our school we can take two matriculation exams as early as eleventh grade—in language and in government—and we did language a little after Passover. (I don't mean to brag, but I know I'll get at least a B+.) Anyway, Ofir and I are sitting and cramming, and suddenly we hear a big metal boom from the kitchen downstairs, and then Linda's footsteps as she runs up the stairs, and the bedroom door being slammed shut. Ofir looks at me, obviously embarrassed, asking me whether I want to go and see what's going on, but scenes like this are pretty common with Linda, and I had no intention of encouraging her and her silliness. And guess what? Two minutes later, just as I expected, she started playing one of her stupid records—Leonard Cohen—melancholy trash that always depresses me.

Okay: So when Ofir saw that I wasn't going to leave the room, we went back to studying. And he didn't ask anything because he saw that I didn't want to talk about it, and also because we're friends and he knows a thing or two about my family. Anyway, what's going on with Linda is not exactly a secret.

*   *   *   *

I suddenly realize that I haven't told you anything yet about Ofir, who used to go by "Effi," but now no one calls him that, because "Effi" can also be short for Efraim. So: Ofir has been a good friend of mine for a long time. I say "friend" so that you don't get the wrong idea. He's smart and really nice. And he has a band, and he's part of a backpacking club, even though hiking and being in a band don't usually go together. His big brother is an officer in a commando unit and Ofir plans to join the same unit, so that's why he's in the backpacking club. Now you're going to ask me why we're just friends, and I'm going answer you honestly: Ofir just doesn't do it for me. Even though I'm young—and I know I'm young—I have very clear expectations about who my boyfriend will be. And Ofir isn't mature enough for me, and he's also not hot enough.

You have to understand: in our family there's a strong emphasis on aesthetics, and I have standards, so pimples and ears like his aren't something I can accept. Daddy, who sometimes likes to make little jokes, has a special way of glancing at Ofir's ears. And on the side, so that no one sees, he makes a little gesture as if with a surgical knife. But don't think he's like that. Ofir never sees his gesture, and during one of our conversations Daddy even told me that Effi wasn't to blame for his ears. It's his parents who are to blame for not paying for his plastic surgery. Anyway, despite what Daddy thinks, Ofir is my best friend, and we do most of our homework together—or we used to do it together.

So where was I? Right. Ofir and I are sitting and asking each other questions from last year's exam, and it's almost evening, and I'm starting to get nervous. Instead of Leonard Cohen, my mom starts listening to The Beach Boys, and it's clear that she has no intention of stopping all this and getting out of her room. And even though there are two closed doors between us I can smell that she has lit her stinky incense yet again.

*   *   *   *

Usually, when I hear Daddy's car, I at least make an effort to go out and say hello to him. But this time, because I was under so much pressure, I stayed where I was. Ofir heard him come in too, and we both went quiet and pretended to go over our notes as we listened to him enter the kitchen, walk up the stairs, and knock on Linda's door. Linda opened the door for him and because of the music it was hard to hear what they were saying. But you almost never hear Daddy when they argue anyway, and her hysterics say enough without even hearing the words.

Many times, dear diary, many times I've asked myself how it happened that Daddy married this woman. And after he married her, how it was that they didn't divorce. Let's even say that, at the beginning, they were in love or something. And Linda, with her stupid tent-dresses, and her wild hair, somehow managed to reel him in. Let's also say that she even had a more or less pretty face...don't you agree that this still doesn't really explain it? I know what kind of women Daddy looks at, and those women are really different from Linda. You could die just from how messy she is. Did you know that she only washes her hair once a week? On top of which, she keeps it long.

I think the truth is that Daddy couldn't handle the scene she'd make if he even dared mention divorce. He needs his peace and quiet, and she—with her screams that you can hear throughout the whole neighborhood—would finish him. So maybe it's weakness on his part, but that's how it is. Nobody's perfect. Over the years he managed to educate her a little, I think, because she kept the house clean, and most of the time she didn't embarrass him when we had guests.

And now I'll tell you about one of my wonderful deeds. When I heard Daddy slowly going downstairs, I told Ofir that we were done studying (we really had very little left), and I joined Daddy in the kitchen. You won't believe what kind of mess it was in. That stupid Linda dropped a tray with a thousand pieces of fish and small onions, which had scattered in every direction, and my poor Daddy who was still in his work clothes stands in the middle of this mess and looks and simply doesn't know what to do. How efficient I was. Within ten minutes I cleaned everything, tossed it in the trash, and then Daddy and I flipped through the yellow pages and ordered a huge tray of appetizers from a restaurant in the city. But don't think this was all I did. Not at all. Someone still had to tidy up the living room for the guests, spread out the tablecloth, arrange silverware and napkins, slice the lamb roast (Daddy did this), prepare the fruit salad...I even managed to cut a few rose stems from the garden and arrange them in a vase before I went to take a shower and change my clothes.

And what do you think? Did Linda leave her room when the guests came? Of course not. And I hosted them all. No one else.

You'll have to hear my English one day. My English is really great, no worse than that of the German professors' wives. Daddy apologized on Linda's behalf, saying she was sick or something, and then introduced me to everyone, and they were really nice. No one was condescending to me and they acted as if I was one of them.

I can't tell you that I really enjoyed myself, because in the meantime, even though Linda turned down her music, and Daddy put on a Chopin record, I was constantly afraid the madwoman would suddenly appear at the top of the staircase—possibly even in her nightgown. I'm sure that Daddy was afraid of the same thing, but you couldn't see it on him. Because you can never see it on Daddy. Even after ten hours in the surgery room. No wonder all the patients worship him like a god and everyone wants him to be their private doctor.

After our guests left (and I was invited to visit Germany!), Daddy took off his jacket, and I started washing the dishes, which he dried. This is one of the things that I appreciate so much about him. No matter how tired he is, he will never neglect small details. And if you simply leave knives, forks, and glasses out to dry, they end up with water stains.

It was pretty late, we didn't say much, but it felt good—there was this warmth that he transmitted—he really didn't have to say much. It was nice just to stand next to him with my hands in the water, and to breathe in that wonderful aftershave, so subtle, which only Daddy uses and which Linda supposedly can't stand. Liar. She's just being cheap about the price, as if she's the one who makes the money.

Just before we finished, Daddy asked me about the exam, I told him I was ready, and only asked him to wake me up in the morning, because Linda obviously couldn't be trusted. Then he kissed me twice on the forehead—first saying, "This is for getting an A tomorrow," and then saying, "Thank you, May, for everything." And that's it. I went up to my room to take a last look at my notes and get some sleep, and Daddy took out some sheets and blankets and went into his study.

*   *   *   *

Now, dear diary, comes the difficult part, so prepare yourself. It was a really hard experience for me. The sound of the phone woke me up in the morning. It rang and rang and no one picked it up. I was still completely groggy and I was hot. The light of the sun reached my bed and my pajamas were a little sweaty. And all at once I realized that the sun should not be on my bed. Not at this time, not so early. I jumped into the bathroom and looked at my watch. Nine. It was nine. And that's when the exam started. Somehow I hoped my watch had stopped yesterday night at nine. But this was today's nine and no other day's.

What happened in the next few hours is something that I'll never be able to fully express because it was the worst nightmare that could ever happen to me. You want to know what I did? First I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling. There was an insufferable silence because in our neighborhood, at this time, everyone has already left the house and you can only hear the sprinklers. I could hardly move or get dressed and I had the worst, most horrible thoughts...I'm sure you can guess. Until, out of self-pity over what had happened to me, I started crying. Not quietly into my pillow but out loud. Wailing. The kind of wails that could be heard from a far distance. Until my throat started hurting.

I don't exactly know what happened after that. It seems like I fell asleep because the time disappeared. And when I picked up the watch, which was next to me, it was close to noon. I lay for a while longer until the phone rang downstairs again and I dragged myself like an old woman to pick it up. It was none other than Ofir: "Is that you? Where are you? What's going on?"

Now: you want to know what I said? I told him I wasn't prepared enough for the exam, and that anyway I'd want to retake it and improve my grade, so why take it twice? I'll take it on my own next year.

The answer just came all by itself. Just like that. But after I uttered it my voice improved, and I started feeling a tiny bit better. Ofir insisted that I was completely crazy, and that the exam wasn't hard at all, and that I was completely prepared. So why did I suddenly lose confidence in myself? And what else did he tell me? That just before the exam began, he ran out and called me on the school telephone. Ofir, that sweetie. I wonder what things might have been like between us if his parents had paid for his plastic surgery. Anyway, he promised to ride over on his bike in the afternoon and take me out for pizza. I told him that was fine, though pizza is the last thing he needs with all his pimples.

*   *   *   *

When I put the phone down, I went over to the fridge to get a soda, because only then did I feel how thirsty I was. I hadn't drunk anything since yesterday. And suddenly I saw crazy Linda standing at the doorway. I have no idea how long she had been standing there spying on me. Probably a long time. She focused her crazy eyes on me, looking completely crooked and wrinkled as if she had slept in her dress, and she also stank from her incense.

"So you didn't take the exam," she said when I turned my back to her. Can you believe this? Can you? This mother didn't forget, God forbid, that her daughter had a matriculation exam. She remembered it very well and still didn't bother to wake me up! Has anyone ever heard of such a thing? I never thought she would stoop to such a low level!

Believe me when I say that even as a small child I never, ever felt I belonged to her. From the youngest age I realized I belonged to a different kind. But this didn't change much in terms of all the different ways she embarrassed me. Do you understand what it means for a girl that her mom doesn't have even an ounce of style? That she always makes the wrong movements, and says the wrong things, and absolutely everything about her isn't right? Okay, maybe I'm being extreme. Maybe with a different family she would somehow manage better, but we're not the right kind of family for her, we simply don't suit her. And it drives me crazy—simply drives me nuts—that she pretends that we are.

When we built our house, Daddy drew all the plans himself and oversaw the contractor. But even after that, as if he didn't have enough things to do, he had to instruct her even on the slightest details. Which upholstery to order, what to tell the electrician, what to plant in the garden and when, and where to put every little thing...I'm afraid to imagine what the place would look like if we had let her organize the house.

So where was I? Right. Just as I turned my back to her, someone else called, and Linda reached the phone first. "Yes, she's home." And then she pulls the receiver away from her ear, looks at it with a strange expression, and instead of giving it to me, the madwoman hangs up. I was almost sure it was Daddy. But I had no intention of asking. And, anyway, it was obvious to me that, from this moment, as far as I was concerned, this woman no longer existed. Not that this attitude made her leave the kitchen. Not at all. Because what did she care that her daughter missed her matriculation exam because of her negligence? She needs to fill her bowl with corn flakes, pour herself some orange juice...what can I tell you, I drew a breath of relief when she finally took her tray and went to her bedroom. And two minutes later she started in with the Leonard Cohen again. Really loud.

*   *   *   *

As I said, dear diary, it was a terrible day. But this is the day that matured me and forced me to make some important decisions. And because of this, I don't see it as a completely bad day.

Right after Linda left, I got a handle on myself, and just because of how she looked, I took a serious shower, brushed my teeth, and put on my new tube skirt. I even put on a little bit of makeup. My face and body, thank goodness, I inherited from Daddy, and when Linda and I still walked together down the street, no one could imagine that I was her daughter. Our hair was perhaps a little similar, but since I cut mine into a bob, the whole effect is different.

And now a few good things. If I've made you sad up until now, rest assured that not everything is bleak in the world, and there are flowers too. Want to hear? Okay. When Ofir brought me back from having pizza, there was a surprise waiting for me—a messenger with a huge bouquet of white lilies stood at the gate, and my name was on the envelope! And inside there was a note that said, "Sorry, May," and signed, "Daddy"! Linda hadn't left her room all day so I didn't have to hear any nasty remarks when I took the lilies and arranged them in a vase on my dresser.

But that was just the start of it! Because that same evening he came home early and we had the most wonderful conversation. We sat in his study, which he won't even let Linda clean and which he cleans himself, and he talked...the most I ever heard him talk, and he told me a lot of things. Even you don't get to hear everything because these are Daddy's secrets...I'll just tell you that he was close to getting a divorce lots of times, and twice had already packed a suitcase and booked a hotel room. In complete secrecy, I can even whisper to you that during one of those times he had a real love story with a very serious woman that I'm sure I would have liked, but I was still small, and at the very last minute, he felt he couldn't leave me with Linda. His lawyer friend explained to him that there was no chance that they would let me go live with him, because that's the law, which doesn't consider what little girls want, and they almost always have to live with their mothers. (You want to hear a joke? At the exact same time, Linda thought about going to study to become a secretary. A secretary! And that loser even went to discuss it with Daddy's lawyer friend. If he didn't know Daddy, he'd have thought she was some kind of poor person. It was so embarrassing...)

Daddy said that he won't let me marry anyone until I'm very grown up, so that I don't repeat his mistake of marrying too young. Young people don't understand much, and he himself was innocent enough to believe that he could guide Linda, and that she'd develop along with him. But there are certain people who are incapable of development—they just don't have the potential. I'm lucky that I don't remember the women that Linda used to hang out with—she had such disgusting girlfriends. At least a thousand times he apologized for not bringing the alarm clock into my room. At six in the morning he was called to the hospital and the surgery went long. They had flown a female soldier in by helicopter. Her condition was improving. If I wanted, he'd take me to meet her. Maybe seeing her would improve my sour mood about missing my exam. But he wanted to make sure I knew he was really, really sorry. By the way, a little before nine, he took a break and left the surgery room to call me, but I didn't pick up, and he had to go back, because no one else knew what to do with the soldier. Later, when we talked about the future, Daddy got really sad, and a few times he hid his face in his hands so that I wouldn't see it, but I did. After all the sacrifices he'd made over all these years—this is how he explained it—it was important for him to know that he had a home, some corner of his own in the world, a place where he could rest his head. But now he understood that he'd have to give up even this. Why? It's obvious. Because I'm almost in twelfth grade, busy with my matriculation exams and friends, and very soon going to the army, even if at the moment this looks very far, and Linda...with Linda everything has only gotten worse. Yesterday he understood once and for all that she couldn't even be trusted with simple matters. And today, what? Did someone clean the house? Did someone do the shopping? There wasn't even a slice of bread when he came home from work. But Daddy said that this seemed to be his own fault for not organizing his life correctly. And he said that, after all, he also felt sorry for Linda, because she couldn't be blamed for being what she was. I have to keep in mind that she's my mother, and of course I have the right to be angry with her, and to do things my own way and worry about my own life, but at the same time I'm mature enough to understand that every person has his defects. And, after all, Linda never meant me any harm.

Well, about this question—whether or not Linda meant me any harm—I have a different opinion, and it's completely obvious to me that from the beginning she was against me—from the first moment that she realized there was a chance I'd be different from her. And this was clear more or less as soon as I was born. But I didn't say this to Daddy because, I mean, why make him any sadder?

When it was my turn to speak, the idea came to me as I said it. And it was an idea that completely changed my life and propelled me forward several years.

I told Daddy not to worry. And that if I can take the government exam on my own, then I can surely do the same with the rest of the exams. He himself always said that for someone like me school is just a waste of time. And why should I waste my time if I can prepare for the exams at home just as well? All I need is to have the books.

At first Daddy didn't understand and of course he was against it. He didn't understand how much I'd matured that day, and maybe he didn't really believe I could do it. But I had already solidified my stance—"Professor Nathanson, you'll have to learn to live with this," I told him—and afterwards things played out all on their own.

Summer vacation had started, Linda almost never left her room, and someone had to take care of the house. Early on, I still had to ask him for money to do the shopping. But later he simply started leaving it for me on the table in the living room. And in the middle of July, when we had guests again, Daddy and I already sat planning the evening together. The truth is that I was a little stressed out, but in the end the evening was amazingly fabulous.

Not everything was wonderful. I don't want to make things seem better than they were, and obviously to you I'm telling the whole truth. There were a lot of things at the beginning that I didn't know how to do. But Daddy was very patient with me and never got upset with me or anything. I don't have a driver's license yet, so it was difficult to take care of some of the errands, until I learned to use the delivery service and then everything became easier. Sitting with the catalogues, making lists, and ordering whatever I felt like over the telephone...that was cool! And anyway, it's nice that I can plan out my own day and decide what I want to do first, what later, and what I put off until tomorrow. This morning, for example, I washed all the pillowcases in the living room, and now they're hanging outside in a long, colorful, great-smelling line. No one told me to do this today, or really at all, and that's why it's so satisfying.

What ruins things a little is Linda's meandering back and forth. Not that she comes downstairs a lot, but enough to ruin things. And she always stands in place, with this kind of sick look in her eyes, as if she doesn't see anything, with just her fat cheek twitching. Hours pass before she finally moves her feet. And she always leaves dirty dishes on the counter, and forgets to put the milk back in the fridge. Daddy says that when I get my license, I get her car, because she obviously can't drive in this state. (I suspect that she's on drugs, and Daddy thinks so too, but we don't talk about it.) In the meantime, I don't go out a lot, because I'm stuck with her, and sometimes I get extremely scared when she sneaks into the kitchen that way and stands behind my back. Just imagine—I turn around and suddenly I see this woman behind me!

Who knows what she's capable of doing to us...all kinds of things that it's better not to think about. Even burning the house down at night. I'm so scared of her that every time there's a horror movie on television I turn it off. And one evening, after I saw her looking through the kitchen drawers, I took all the steak knives and hid them upstairs. But I don't tell Daddy anything so that he doesn't think there's anything I can't deal with.

The best thing would be if Daddy would do something to get her out of the house—would find some kind of solution. But it's just a fantasy because Daddy wouldn't do such a thing. He pities her too much. So now, every time she turns on one of her records, I calm down just a bit because I know I'll have about an hour of quiet from her. And recently I also decided that maybe it'd help if I acted nicely toward her. So when I cook, I put food for her on the tray and leave it on the side so that she can take it whenever she wants. This way she also makes less of a mess. And it's not as if she always remembers to bring the dirty dishes down to the kitchen. Sometimes I find them in the sink with mould all nauseates me just to think about the state her room is in, so I try not to think about it too much.

There were also problems with my friends from school. No one really understands me. How can they? Daddy says that they're all too immature for me. And I think he's right. What happened was that I matured very quickly, and they stayed behind, and we don't really have anything to talk about anymore. To you I can even admit that I was a little sorry about the dance class that I had to give up (anyway, the mothers used to take turns driving us, so that's obviously out of the question), but this is a price I was willing to pay, and that's how it is. That's it. There's no point crying over spilt milk.

*   *   *   *

Last Saturday night, Daddy surprised me by taking me out to eat at a real French restaurant where the most important and famous people eat. A really quiet restaurant with really fancy dishes and waiters that know how to properly behave and after the main course they bring you a bowl of perfumed water in which to dip your fingers. We sat this way, across from each other, we didn't rush anywhere, we even drank wine, and he told me a lot about his work, and I was proud that he was my Daddy, and that he does all these important things. And I was also proud that people looked at us, because we were both dressed up, and we really looked hot.

*   *   *   *

On our way back home, in the car, I looked at his hands on the wheel. These long, strong hands that perform the most complicated and subtle surgeries. He has the hands of a musician. And you know what I thought? I thought that I don't care if people think I became weird. They have their life, and I have mine, and it's my right to have ideals. Young people generally think only about themselves. And these days, Daddy says, people are nothing but big egoists. And no one thinks seriously about what it means to be a good person. So I, dear diary, do think about it very seriously, and this is my decision, and no one is going to change it. I, May Nathanson, almost seventeen, am going to be a good person.

translated from the Hebrew by David Stromberg