e tu Brutus
by Lesley Mellor
The man sat on the floor looking at a solitary goldfish swimming in a round glass bowl. The bowl and the goldfish were the only objects in an enormous living-room of a harbour side Point Piper apartment. The man's name is Reuben and the goldfish, Marty. Actually, it could have been a Mitzi but Reuben didn't know how to define the sex of a goldfish. Morning light began to break through the autumn rain clouds. Reuben realised he had been sitting in front of the bloody goldfish bowl for hours. He thought of phrases in novels like, 'his world crumbled infront of his eyes', or, 'life as he'd known it would never be the same again'. Reuben wanted to cry out in his pain, but suddenly a rage began to erupt like a volcano from the centre of the earth. The force of it surged up through the floorboards, continued through his joggers, the top of his head and finally blasted through the roof of the building. With difficulty he stood up and rushed headlong at the nearest wall and started to thump it yelling, 'you bitch, you fucking, cold-hearted money-hungry bitch. And as for you Fiedelstein, fuck you too.You back-stabbing, four foot balding little prick.You, you' - Reuben ran out of energy and expletives. A loud thumping noise began on the ceiling accompanied by a voice screaming 'shut the fuck up down there!' And shut the fuck up to you too.' Silence.
Rueben lent against the wall, half choking, half laughing - crying. What a cliche, probably the cliche of all cliches - 'wife runs off with husband's best friend'. How blind, or stupid was he, that he hadn't had the slightest inkling that something was going on between the two of them? He slid down the wall and sat hunched up on the floor with his arms around his legs. He remembered reading an article in a magazine in his dentist's waiting room. It said that one sign that your spouse or partner was having an affair was when they stopped greeting each other affectionately. Well, his wife Deborah had become so distanced that for her to actually show warmth would be a sign of the opposite. Sol, on the other hand, was the most gregarious and affectionately demonstrative person he'd ever known, and it would have been an impossibility for him to reign in his natural ebullience. So for Reuben, that piece of information and warning was a useless crock of shit. A thought like burning fire shot through his befuddled mind. Oh - my - God (sorry God!), how on earth was he going to tell his mother? He knew that eventually he would have to break the news to his family, but until then he'd rather not think about it. He also knew that when the time came, he would have to pluck up every ounce of courage. Then it would be the full catastrophe, a guilt trip to end all guilt trips. When it came to guilt trips, very little could compare to that of a Jewish mother. It would be all her fault. She hadn't fed him enough chicken soup when he was ill, she'd paid more attention to his elder brother Leo or indulged his young sister Sophie too much. The list could, and would be, endless. His Bar Mitzvah! Yes, that would be it. She would lay the blame for Reuben's domestic catastrophe on what had happened at his Bar Mitzvah.
Reuben's aunt Miriam had got pissed drunk on vintage champagne and had insisted on helping Reuben cut the first slice of the celebration cake. Miriam had then become somewhat dizzy and had fallen headlong into it.Reuben had never seen anything so funny in his life, his aunt upside down in his cake but with champagne glass still firmly clenched in her hand. He had had to turn away and smother his laughter. When he looked again he saw the look of utter horror on his mother's face, her mouth wide open, unable to speak. A second cousin twice-removed on his father Ephraim's side, who nobody except his father had met, came to the rescue. He said that he had 'connections in high places' and could get another cake delivered within half an hour. A quick telephone call and the cake would be on its way. Cousin Al, who had also imbibed more than his fair share of the bubbly, cleaned the cream and chocolate from one of Miriam's eyes and then the other. Then Reuben saw them put their faces close together until their noses were almost touching. They stayed in that position, not moving an eye or a muscle, for what seemed to Reuben a very long time. He'd seen scenes in movies on television which looked very similar to the one he was now watching. Reuben believed that what he was seeing was two people falling in love. He tingled with the palpable human electricity being emitted by Miriam and Al. This had been Miriam's first social event since her husband had run off with Charlene, a waitress at a local bar. Not only was she very buxom and very peroxided, she was also a three times divorcee. But worse, far, far worse - she was a goy. Miriam had then taken to her bed like a character in a Jane Austen novel, minus the smelling salts, in her sister Rachel's home. She refused to see anyone except her sister and would sip only small bowls of broth. Days turned into weeks and but she was in the depths of such grief that she was unable to emerge from the womb of the doona. Then suddenly one morning she arose like Lazarus. Miriam knew that it would be unforgiveable if she didn't attend her nephew's imminent Bar Mitzvah. She entered the kitchen where the family was having breakfast and with a sheepish look said, 'sorry, I know I've had you worried.
Rachel jumped up, hugged and kissed her sister then grabbed one of Miriam's hands and dragged her off to the bathroom. She tore off her nightdress which could have stood up of its own accord after weeks of non-washing except for oceans of tears. She turned on the shower, shepherded Miriam into it, and told her to wash her hair and scrub up. Rachel then tried to find something for Miriam to wear but none of her own clothes fitted her. During her self-imposed exile, devoid of her preferred diet of chocolates, struedels, tortes and all varieties of cakes, Miriam had lost a great deal of weight. Rachel chose a dress that could be pulled in tightly, and with her soulful dark eyes, thick curly hair and svelte new figure, Miriam looked as she had as a young girl. Grabbing her handbag and with Miriam in tow, they went back to the kitchen. Rachel waved her Gold Amex card at Ephraim and told him they were going to hit the Double Bay shops and the beauty salon. They returned laden down with shopping bags and a transformed Miriam. A few weeks later it was Reuben's Bar Mitzvah where Miriam and Al fell in love. They were married within weeks and then Al whisked her off to live in Noosa. Miriam was a splendid cook, they enjoyed a splendid sex life, infinitely more exciting than the one she had had with her runaway husband, her first orgasm no less, on their first night together - the night of Bar Mitzvah. Al worshipped Miriam and she doted on Al. Neither had been happier. Reuben knew, however, that his mother would not look on his Bar Mitzvah as the occasion which brought married bliss to her sister. Rather, on hearing Reuben's news, she would think only of the humiliating episode with Miriam and the cake.
Reuben did his best to push all thoughts of his mother out of his mind. Practical. First of all he had to be practical. Make a list. Of what? Or what to do first? Kill himself? No, she wasn't worth it. Go overseas? A possibility. Find himself an analyst? It seemed that an analyst was what a lot of people had, except they told him that they did all talking whilst their analyst didn't say anything except 'see you next week,' for which he,or she, received an exhorbitant amount of money. He talked to himself enough as it was, so why pay money to someone who didn't react, when he could listen to his own monologues for free? A list Reuben, focus, slow breathing and make a list of 'things to do when your wife runs off with your best friend'. Blank, not a single thought or idea. BANG!!! This time thunder and lightning struck Reuben. Bernie! Dear God, rain down plagues but please don't let anything have happened to Bernie. Life without Deborah, yes, Bernie, never! Reuben then remembered the brief note he had found on the kitchen bench but had read only the first line. He went into the kitchen and picked it up. 'Reuben, gone off with Sol. You can have the apartment. Sol has bought a penthouse. Bernie at the kennels.' Stupid, stupid me, of course she wouldn't want to keep the dog. She was always complaining about the hairs he left on her Louis Quartoize furniture, Qum Silk carpets and the mess he made in the kitchen around his food bowl. There were many times over the last couple of years when Reuben knew that buried deep in his innermost being and which he desperately tried to supress, was the realization that he felt more affection for Bernie than he did for his wife. To tell the truth he didn't much like his two sons either. Cold fish both of them, as were their wives. For Reuben they were like people from an alien world with money bags where their hearts should be. Both sons were obscenely over-paid corporate lawyers. They had very little to do with their father and probably saw him as just a boring, unworldly academic. Party animals like their mother, they attended social functions usually with a view to ferret out more lucrative business, even if their friends suffered as a consequence of their dirty dealings. No, not very nice people.
Reuben went into his study and returned with a bottle and a glass with ice in it. He sat down beside Marty and poured himself a stiff whiskey which he downed in one go, then poured himself another. He slowly swirled the whiskey around and watched the ice cubes bob up and down. For the first time Reuben allowed himself to think of what had happened. Sol and Deborah would have had to have planned all this very carefully. He had only been away on a lecture trip for two days which meant that from the time Reuben had told her that he would be going away and his return home, Deborah had been making plans to vamoosh with his best friend. Reuben felt physically ill at the thought. He finished his drink and poured his third. He thought back over all the years he had known Sol. They had grown up in the same street, both grandchildren of Jewish families who had lived in a small village in Lithuania and who had emigrated to Australia to escape the genocide of the Stalinist pograms. When the two families arrived in Sydney, they had been advised by imigration officials to contact a refugee organization who found them a small flat in Redfern. In the early years the two men had taken any work they could find. In their village they had been able to turn their hand, literally, to anything. Reuben;s grandfather, after whom Reuben was named, could repair and make boots and shoes, whilst Lokel was able to cut and make a suit or a lady's dress out of practically anything. If the two families had been close friends in the old country, in their adopted one they became even closer, helping each other when times were really tough and always ready to give help when needed. They shared the ritual Friday night Shabbat meal together and during the year gathered with other Jewish families they had got to know, to celebrate the Pesah and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. They tried to keep Sundays free for their children and would take them on ferry rides to Manly or other outings which did not cost much money. Hard work brought a degree of prosperity and they were able to buy homes in a better suburb. They established a business in an area which was becoming popular and before too long their reputation for quality and craftsmanship in tailor-made clothes and hand-made footwear spread beyond their own world to the world of the goyim. Soon they had a very high class of clientel and a very healthy bank balance. For the first time they were able to afford to go to the theatre, concerts, and dine out whenever they felt like it. Using collateral on their homes and the business, they bought a holiday home in the Blue Mountains where many happy times had been shared. This home was now being used for weekends and holidays by a fourth generation of Rosenblums and Fiedelsteins.
Reuben and Sol's fathers had joined the family business after they left school, but when they married and had children of their own, they were determined that they would have the best education possible. It was obvious from the beginning that Reuben was extremely bright. He worked diligently, not out of a sense of duty or obligation to his parents, but because of a thirst and a passion for knowledge. Even opening a book he hadn't read before and seeing the printed word brought untold joy. Sol? Different story. Many times Sol would arrive at Reuben's home after dinner asking for help with his homework, which Reuben usually ended up doing for him, or a cram session for an examination the next morning. Reuben had provided alibis for him and even told downright lies to protect Sol when he was in really serious strife. Sol was a source of despair to his parents and teachers, and even the gentle mashpia of the college would put his head in his hands and tried very hard to keep his faith in the boy. On the one hand in awe of Sol's spontaneous, generous-hearted nature, and on the other, concern that he would end up 'no good.' Although very different in personality, Reuben and Sol were inseperable. Rather like a comedy duo with Reuben the straight guy. Sol was boisterous and extroverted with an ability to attract people easily, also an ability to con anyone when he was in trouble, which was most of the time. Trouble and Sol seemed to go hand in hand, but he had only to give one of his ingenuous smiles and people forgave him anything. Reuben on the other hand, was shy and self-effacing. At an early age he had had to wear glasses and when the other kids made fun of him calling him 'four-eyes' or 'goggle eyes', Sol would not only taunt them back but would lay into them with his fists. Eventually they stopped making fun of Reuben and left him alone. They were soul mates, blood brothers, even cutting their fingers and mixing their blood as an affirmation of ever-lasting friendship. Then came their first encounters with the opposite sex. Sol was very much at ease with the young girls who were attracted to his flirtatious manner and sexual bravado and repartee. They fluttered around him like delicate butterflies, grateful for just a smile or acknowledgement of their existence. Reuben tried to make conversation with them but their interest was obviously directed at Sol and as soon as they could politely disengage they drifted away. In the end, Reuben decided that as much as he enjoyed female company, the anxiety caused by actually going on a date simply wasn’t worth it. He put his sexual initiation on hold until it happened of its own accord, hoping that he would not be past performing before ‘it’ happened.
Despite the pessimistic forecast for his future by his parents and teachers, Sol did not end up on the scrap-heap of life, in fact he did very well. With Reuben always pushing him along, Sol achieved marks which gained him entrance to Sydney University where he studied Law, and Reuben, Arts. The legal world fascinated and intrigued Sol and eventually he became an eminent barrister. Being a person in need of an audience, the law court provided him with a perfect theatre. Like his old mashpia, many a judge was driven to exasperated frustration because of Sol's antics and wise-cracking jokes which delighted and entertained the court room, but were not considered appropriate for a member of the legal fraternity. So, in their chosen professions both men were extremely successful. Sol was also successful with his love life. One evening Sol arranged a blind-date for Reuben. Sol deliberately didn't tell him knowing full well that he would head for the hills. Elaborate arrangements were made so that Reuben didn't realise what was being planned. The blind date was Deborah.
Deborah was vivacious, intelligent and with a dusky, exotic beauty which drew attention from women as well as men. There was also a certain air of detachment and unavailability which, Reuben observed, made people want to engage with her. From their first meeting, Reuben, for what ever reason, felt completely at ease with her and not at all shy. She brought out the best in him and he was totally infatuated with her. Their courtship lasted about six months and then they married. Deborah worked for a publishing company and at the weekend they spent happy times browsing in second-hand book shops and generally enjoying the simple things of life. Then their two sons were born within eighteen months of each other and because they could afford a nanny and all the home help that Deborah wanted, she was free to have an active social life.When the children were old enough to go to school and became more and more independent, Deborah could have gone back to her old job but she chose not to. Her circle of friends had expanded and her days were filled with going out for lunch with a friend or a group of women. Some of these women belonged to a very exclusive country-club and she had only to ask Reuben if she could join than she became a member. This brought her into a status world she had not known before. Reuben gradually became aware that Deborah was changing. She no longer read books, mainly fashion and home-beautiful magazines, and spent a lot of time at the hairdresser and beautician. She went out several times a week without him and when he asked if she'd like to go and see a play that had just opened or an exhibition, she wasn't interested. He tried really hard to fit into her social life-style and went along to some of her parties but it was agony for him. Removed from his familiar world he felt like a beached whale. If one looked hard for him, he could be found pressed up against a wall behind a large pot plant or some sculpture or object d'art, exposing only an arm to grab a drink from a passing waiter's tray. And that was the way things had been between them for a long time. They had no physical relationship and if he accidentally touched her in bed he felt her recoil in distaste.They lead virtually separate lives with Deborah barely tolerating his presence.
Reuben then broke down and sobbed his heart out. Not because of Deborah, but because of Sol. He'd lost his best friend. Life without Sol would be like living without an arm or a leg. He just loved him, simple as that. But then everyone loved Sol. He would walk into a room and it would come alight as if a magic button had been pressed. Sol was so short that at a party he could not be seen over the crowd but where there was laughter, there was Sol. He had never married and had told Reuben once that he could not take on the responsibility of marriage and certainly not the responsibility of bringing children into a world where people were capable of commiting crimes of such unbelievable cruelty and suffering as told by his grand-parents. And then later, the inconceivable. The Holocaust. Noone is ever completely what they appear to be and Sol was no exception. There was a blackness in Sol which only Reuben had ever been privy to. It was if Sol carried within him the weight of centuries of suffering of his race. When he became overwhelmed by these feelings, there was a saying Reuben would use to try and shake him out of the depths - ' come on Sol, it's just that old Masada complex biting at your heels again.' Reuben believed, however, that there was another reason why Sol had never married. Deep down Sol must have known that his love of women and his roving eye did not exactly make him the most suitable candidate for a monogomous relationship. Reuben had heard rumours that Sol often had affairs with married women but he chose to turn a deaf ear. Sol was Sol, and that was that. And now Deborah. But why Deborah? God only knew and he certainly wasn't sharing the knowledge with Reuben. He remembered a joke about Jews, 'what is a Jewish promise?' 'Trust me' He would have trusted Sol with his life but obviously not with his wife. He also remembered the joke about 'why is a Jewish divorce so expensive?' 'Because it's worth it.' Reuben didn't really get this joke, but if ever a Jewish version of the film 'The War of the Roses' was produced, Sol would make a perfect Danny de Vito, and Deborah would be fine as a physically darker version Kathleen Turner. He knew, however, that apart from his very obvious 'Jewishness', he was in no way a candidate for the Michael Douglas role. It could be called, 'The War of the Rosenblums'. At least in the case of Deborah and himself and a possible divorce, if this time Sol was serious, then there would be no fight to the death over the apartment. Oh no! Could that have been what Sol meant? A few weeks ago they were having a meal and Sol was in a really black mood. He turned to Reuben and said, 'I'm sorry Reuben, I'm truly sorry.' Reuben thought he was apologizing for spoiling the evening, and just put his arm around him and said 'it's okay Sol, just one of those days.' But then Sol had become extremely agitated and looked at him with an expression, and a look in his eyes, that Reuben and never seen before. Sol looked straight at him and said, 'no Reuben, you don't understand, I'm so sorry.' He was right, Reuben didn't understand but he didn't say any more. Sol got well and truly plastered that night and Reuben had had to pour him into a taxi and send him home. Reuben now wondered if Sol was really saying 'sorry', not for the sins of generations past, but for the sin which he was soon to commit on his best friend.
First thing on the list. Retrieve Bernie. Second, sell the apartment. He'd never liked it. Too big, too Deborah. Apart from his study, everything else had Deborah's name written all over it. He wanted a home, not a display showroom. A place where people walked in and immediately felt comfortable and at ease. For some time he had been thinking of living in the country but he knew that it would not have suited Deborah's life-style. If he did move, he would still need a small place in the city to be close to the University and also to his ageing parents. He loved the mountains so why not enlarge the holiday home? There was plenty of room to build an extension, and the families could still use it for holidays. Reuben believed it would be a great sadness if a rift developed after all these years because of what had happened between Deborah and Sol. He thought it best to write and reassure them that the home was still theirs’to share. Reuben and his brother and sister had always been very close and although they all lived in different states, Reuben knew they would visit him whenever they could and bring their grandchildren whom he loved and spoilt unashamedly. Well that was that, at least he'd made a start.
The whiskey had soothed his racing mind and relaxed his body. He felt so very, very tired. He lay down on the floor and rested his head on his arms. He watched Marty swim slowly slowly around the bowl. How simple life would be if you were a dog or a goldfish. Reuben tried to think in a positive way despite the heaviness inside. He had a loving family, his health and work that brought immense satisfaction. He was on friendly terms with his collegues, some of whom lived abroad, and quite a few of his former students kept in touch with him. He also had Bernie. Dear faithful old Bernie. Reuben's eyes looked straight at the goldfish who seemed to blink back at him. Yes Marty, I know I’ve got you too. Reuben laid his head on the floor and curled up in a foetal position. A blackness enveloped him and he could hardly breathe. Slow, slow, just take slow deep breaths. Tears came to his eyes and rolled down his face. He was all sobbed out but the tears flowed relentlessly. Oh Sol, how could you? How could you do this? Greater love hath no man than he lay down, no that’s not right. Greater love hath no man than he taketh away his best friend’s wife. Finally Rueben’s eyes closed and he fell into the sleep of the dead. A faint shaft of light filtered through the window onto the man lying on the floor, and Marty just kept swimming round and round his little glass world.
C Sydney 2003