Bad Karma

Bad Karma

From the Summer 2010 issue


‘Fifteen shekels a month can guarantee your daughter one hundred thousand in the event of your death. Do you know what a difference one hundred thousand can make to a young orphan? It’s exactly the difference between life as a lawyer and as a receptionist in a dentist’s office.’


Since the accident, Oshri had been selling policies like crazy. It wasn't clear whether this had to do with his slight limp or with the paralysis in his right arm, but people who'd sit through an appointment with him would take it all in, and buy everything he had to offer: life insurance, loss of earning power, complementary health insurance, you name it. At first Oshri kept recycling the one about the Yemenite who was run over by an ice cream truck the very day he bought his policy, on his way to pick up his daughter from kindergarten, or the one about the guy from the suburbs who'd laughed when Oshri had offered him health insurance and one month later called in tears, having just received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. But very soon he realised that his own personal story did the trick better than any of the others. There he was, Oshri Sivan, insurance agent, in the middle of a meeting with a potential client at a café near the Downtown Shopping Arcade, when all of a sudden, right in the middle of their conversation, a young man who'd decided to end his life jumps out of an eleventh-floor window in the building next to them, and wham! falls right on Oshri’s head. The fall kills the young man, and our Oshri, who has just finished telling his Yemenite-and-ice-cream-truck story to another reluctant client, loses consciousness on the spot. He doesn’t come to when they splash water over his face, or in the ambulance, or in the emergency room, and not even in the ICU. He's in a coma. The doctors say it’s touch and go. His wife sits at his bed and cries and cries, so does his little girl. Nothing changes for six weeks until, all of a sudden, a great miracle occurs: Oshri comes out of his coma, as if nothing had happened. He simply opens his eyes and gets up. And along with this miracle comes a bitter truth: our Oshri, who was so admirable in the things he preached, could kick himself for the way he practised them, and since he'd never had a single insurance policy himself, he couldn’t keep up with his mortgage, and had to sell his apartment and move into a rental. ‘Look at me,’ Oshri would end his sad story, with a lame attempt to move his right arm. ‘Look at me, sitting here with you at this café, spitting blood to sell you a policy. If only I'd put aside thirty shekels a month. Thirty shekels, which is nothing really, — barely a matinee ticket without the popcorn — and I'd be lying back like a king, with two hundred grand in my account. Me, I had my chance and I blew it, but you — aren’t you going to learn from my mistake, Motti? Sign on the dotted line and get it over with. Who knows what could land on your head five minutes from now.’ And this Motti or Yigal or Mickey sitting across from him would stare for a minute and then take the pen he held out to them with his good arm and sign. Every single one of them. No ifs, ands or buts. And Oshri would wink goodbye, because when your right arm is paralyzed there’s no shaking hands, and on his way out he'd be sure to blurt out something about how they'd done the right thing. And so, without much effort, Oshri Sivan’s battered bank account quickly began to recover, and within six months he and his wife had bought a new apartment with a much smaller mortgage than the one they'd had before. And with all the physiotherapy he got at the clinic, even his arm started getting better, though when clients held out their hand to him, he'd still pretend he couldn’t move it at all.


‘There’s blue and yellow and white and a soft sweet taste in my mouth. There’s something hovering high above me. Something good, and I'm heading toward it. Heading toward it.’


At night he went on dreaming about it — not about the accident. About the coma. It was strange, but even though a long time had passed since then, he could still remember, down to the last detail, everything he'd felt during those six weeks. He remembered the colours and the taste and the fresh air chilling his face. He remembered the absence of memory, the sense of existing without a name and without a history, in the present. Six whole weeks of present. During which the only thing he felt within him that wasn’t the present was this little hint of a future, in the form of an unaccountable optimism attached to a strange sense of being. He didn’t know what his own name was during those six weeks, or that he was married or that he had a little girl. He didn’t know he’d had an accident or that he was in the hospital now; fighting for his life. He didn’t know anything except that he was alive. And this fact alone filled him with enormous happiness. All in all, the experience of thinking and feeling within that nothingness was more intense than anything that had ever happened to him before. As if all the background noises had disappeared and the only sound left was true and pure and beautiful to the point of tears. He didn’t discuss it with his wife or any other human being. You're not supposed to get that much joy out of being close to death. You're not supposed to get a thrill from your coma while your wife and daughter are crying their hearts out at your bedside. So when they asked whether he remembered anything about it, he said he didn’t, he didn’t remember a thing. When he woke up, his wife asked if, when he'd been in the coma, he'd been able to hear her and Meital, their daughter, talking to him, and he told her that even if he couldn’t remember hearing them he was sure it had fortified him, and given him strength, on the unconscious level, and a desire to live. That was what he told her but it wasn’t true because when he was in a coma he really did hear voices on the outside sometimes. Strange, sharp, yet at the same time unclear, like sounds you hear when you're under water. And he didn’t like it at all. Those voices sounded menacing to him, they hinted at something beyond the pleasant, colourful now in which he was living.


‘May you never know sadness again.’


Oshri couldn’t make it during the shiva week to pay a condolence call on the family of the guy who'd dropped on his head. He couldn’t make it to the unveiling of the headstone either. But when the first anniversary rolled around, he did go, with flowers and everything. At the cemetery there were only the guy’s parents and his sister and some fat high school friend who looked to Oshri a little gay. They didn’t know who he was. The mother thought he was her son's boss. His name was Oshri too. The sister and the fat guy thought he was a friend of the parents. But after everyone had finished placing little stones on the grave and the mother started asking around, he explained that he was the one that Nattie (that was the guy's name) had landed on when he jumped out the window. As soon as the mother heard this, she started saying how sorry she was, and couldn’t stop crying. The father tried to calm her down, and kept giving Oshri suspicious looks. After five minutes of her hysterical sobbing, the father told Oshri stiffly how sorry he was for everything that had happened to him and that he was sure that Nattie too, if he were still alive, would be sorry, but that now it would be better for everyone if Oshri left. Oshri agreed at once and quickly added that he was almost fine by now and that when all was said and done it hadn’t been so terrible — certainly not when you compared it to what Nattie’s parents had been through. The father cut him short in mid-sentence: ‘Are you planning to sue us? Because if you are, you're wasting your time. Ziva and I haven’t got a penny to our names, you hear me? Not a penny.’ The words only made the mother cry harder, and Oshri mumbled something that was supposed to reassure them, about how he had no hard feelings against anyone, and after that, he left. As he was putting the cardboard yarmulke back in the wooden box at the entrance to the cemetery, Nattie’s sister caught up with him and apologised for her father. She didn’t exactly apologise, actually, just said that he was an idiot and that Nattie had always hated him. This father, it turned out, had always been sure everyone was out to get him and in the end that was what had really happened, when his partner ran off with his money. ‘If Nattie could see how things here turned out, he'd be happy,’ the sister said and introduced herself by name. Her name was Maayan. Out of habit, Oshri didn’t take the hand she held out to him. After so many times of pretending with clients that his arm was utterly paralysed, it reached the point where even when he was home alone he sometimes forgot to use it. When Maayan saw that he wasn't taking her outstretched hand, she shifted the handshake ever so naturally and touched him on his shoulder — a touch which, it turned out, made both of them a little uneasy. ‘It’s strange having you here,’ she said after they had both been silent for a moment. ‘What is Nattie to you? You didn’t even know him, after all.’ ‘It’s a shame,’ Oshri mumbled. “That I didn’t know him, I mean. He sounds like somebody who was definitely worth knowing.’ Oshri wanted to tell her that his coming there wasn’t strange at all. That he and her brother had some unfinished business between them. There had been so many people at the café that day and of all the people there, he was the one that Nattie had dropped on. And that was why he'd come today, to try and understand why. But even before he had a chance to say it, he realised it would sound stupid, so he asked her instead why Nattie had killed himself — so young and all. Maayan shrugged dryly. He wasn't the first person to ask her that, he guessed, and she didn’t really have an answer for the others either. Before they went their separate ways, he gave her his business card and said that if she needed any help, no matter what it was, she should call. And she smiled and thanked him but said she was an independent person and managed very well on her own. After taking another look at the card, she said: ‘You're an insurance agent? That's really strange. Nattie always hated insurance, said it was bad karma. That taking out a policy was like the opposite of believing things would go well.’ Oshri got defensive. Lots of young people think that way, he said, but once you have children you look at things differently. And even if you want to believe things will go well, you can never be too careful. ‘Still, if you need anything,’ he told her before she left, ‘do call. I promise not to try to sell you insurance.’ And she smiled and nodded. They both knew she wouldn't be calling.


While Oshri was on his way home from the cemetery, his wife phoned. She wanted him to pick up Meital from the class she took after school, and Oshri agreed right away. When she asked him where he was, he lied and said he'd had an appointment with a client in Netanya. He couldn't explain to himself just why he'd lied. It wasn’t because of the touch that he could still feel on his shoulder, and it wasn’t because he'd gone to the memorial service for no good reason. If anything, it was because he was afraid she'd get a sense of how grateful he was to that guy, Nattie, who must have been just as smart, as successful and as loved as Oshri was, and had still decided to put an end to it all and jump out the window. When he picked Meital up, she proudly showed him a model airplane she'd built. He admired it and asked her when she was planning to fly it in the sky. ‘Never,’ Meital gave him a derisive look. ‘It’s just a model.’ And Oshri nodded, embarrassed, and said she was such a smart little girl.


‘Pleasant dreams’


Ever since the accident, he and his wife made love a lot less often. They never talked about it, but he had the feeling she thought it was okay too. As if after the accident and everything she was so glad to have him back that she wasn’t planning to keep score. Whenever they did make love it was nice, just as nice as it had been before, except that now his life had taken on another perspective, one that had to do with that world, a world you can only reach when something falls on you from a high floor, a perspective that seemed to have dwarfed everything else. Not just the sex, but his love for her too, and his love for his daughter, everything.


When he was awake he couldn’t remember exactly what that world of the coma had felt like, and he probably couldn’t have described it if he'd tried. Only once had he made the effort, with this blind woman whom he'd been trying to sell life insurance to. He wasn’t sure why he'd expected her, of all people, to understand, but after three sentences he realised he was only scaring her, so he stopped. In his dreams though, he really could go back there. And ever since that day in the cemetery, his coma dreams recurred more often. Sometimes more than once a night. And ever so slowly he felt himself becoming addicted to them. So much so that in the evenings, long before he got into bed, he would begin to tremble with excitement, like someone who after many years in exile was getting on the flight that would take him home. It’s funny, but sometimes he was so excited that he couldn't fall asleep either. And then he'd find himself lying in bed, frozen, next to his sleeping wife, trying to lull himself to sleep in all sorts of ways. One of them was masturbation. And ever since that memorial service, whenever he masturbated, he'd think of Maayan, and how she'd touched him on his shoulder. It wasn’t because she was beautiful. And it wasn’t that she wasn’t beautiful, though her beauty was the fragile kind that comes with youth. The kind whose expiry date was coming up very very soon. As it happened, his wife had once had that same kind of beauty, many years ago, when they first met. But that wasn’t the reason he would think of Maayan. It was because of the connection between her and the man who had helped him reach that world of colours and quiet, and when he’d masturbate over Maayan, it was as if he was masturbating over a world that suddenly, thanks to her, had taken on a woman's shape.


Meanwhile, he was churning out policies at a dizzying pace. Without even meaning to, he got better and better. Now, when he tried to sell them, he'd often find himself in tears. It wasn’t a manipulation. It was real crying that came out of nowhere. And it would shorten the meetings. Oshri would cry and then he'd apologise, and right away the clients would say it was okay and sign. It made him feel a little like a swindler, the crying, though it was as genuine as could be. Because of this, he could also work fewer hours. And he could afford to sleep later too. On weekends he could spend sixteen or twenty hours sleeping, until it reached the point where his wife asked him to go to the doctor for a checkup. And Oshri went, because he didn’t want his wife to suspect anything, and when he told the doctor about all the hours he spent sleeping he tried to seem unhappy about it. The tests showed nothing. The doctor recommended more sports and all kinds of changes in his diet. And Oshri promised he'd try, and later gave his wife some half-false version that said that sleeping a lot was part of the recovery process.


‘Congestion on the coastal road’


One weekend when they were returning with their daughter from a visit to his wife's parents on a kibbutz, they passed an ambulance and a two-car collision. The drivers ahead of them slowed down to rubberneck, and his wife said it was disgusting, and that only in Israel did people behave that way. Their daughter, who'd been asleep in the back, woke up because of the sirens. She put her face up to the window and looked out at one man, who was unconscious, covered in blood, being carried away on a stretcher. She asked them where they were taking the man and Oshri told her they were taking him to a good place. A place filled with colours and tastes and smells that you couldn’t even imagine. He told her about that place, about how your body becomes weightless there, and how even though you don’t want anything, everything there comes true. How there’s no fear there, so that even if something is going to hurt, when it happens it turns into just another kind of feeling, a feeling that you're grateful to be able to have. He went on and on talking until he noticed his wife's chiding look. On the radio they reported heavy traffic on the highway, and when he looked in the rearview mirror again he could see Meital smiling and waving bye-bye at the man on the stretcher.