Pea

At nights, Gilad would usually place a small stone under the bed, dead in the center of the mattress. This way, toss and turn as he might, he was unable to find a comfortable position. It he tried to settle for just one side of the bed, his entire body would flinch and cramp from the thought of the limitation; it he would still, absentmindedly, roll over to the other side somehow, the stone would poke at his back, unrelenting.

This has been his habit for years.

Long ago, when he was single — truly single, on the inside as well — he was an excellent sleeper. Usually he’d sleep on his back in the middle of the mattress, his head sunk into the pillow and his body sprawled. Back then, he was comfortable. Back then he was still fond of comfort. These days, he loathed it.

Sometimes he would find himself sinking into it despite himself. This is humanity’s greatest tragedy — adaptation. He’d awake from a deep slumber, startled, to find that the stone had dug an angry red notch into his back. He saw the pain as insufficient punishment, as he learned that once this happened, the matter would repeat itself over the following nights as well. Then he was forced to replace the stone. A differently-shaped one would usually suffice, and if not, then a different size, and perhaps jagged edges. Anything to keep him from sleeping comfortably.

He would also battle the everyday, with everything he had. Every morning its onslaught began anew, landing hard dry blows of routine”. And, as is known, the routine is a recipe for comfort — and even discomfort can grow into routine, once it becomes habit. He was, therefore, extremely diligent in his struggle.

In one of his shoes he always placed a small gravel stone to drive him mad during the day. Between his index and middle finger he would make a tiny papercut which stung incessantly. Between his central incisor and his left canine he placed, with surgical precision, a bit of chopped parsley. Whenever he wished to smile, he was forced to heavily consider and accurately execute the smile, lest he accidentally reveal too much of his teeth.

These were Gilad’s methods. Sometimes they would vary, if he discovered that he’d grown used to walking in such a way that the gravel didn’t bother him, or smile without first mulling it over, or if the smarting between his fingers grew tolerable.

When he visited friends they would sigh heavily upon noticing a new limp he’d developed, or a cramped sitting position he was forced into in order to avoid some thorny flower he’d placed in his pocket. Sometimes they’d try to convince him that it was unnecessary. He loved those critiques, too, as they annoyed him greatly.

Growing up, Gilad was the type of person to check the second crosswalk traffic light while still crossing the first. Not because he was easily confused, but because he was fond of planning ahead, lest the future sneak up on him. Of course, this often led him to lose sight of the present — but if he planned appropriately, he’d assumed, there was no reason for it not to occur in a satisfactory manner.

While ignoring the randomness of existence may seem like an impossible task, Gilad planned himself well. And if life insisted, nonetheless, to inflict some unexpected blow upon him — he would easily brush it off.

For example, he was always prepared for any financial snag: whether it’s car trouble, a broken pipe in his apartment or a friend’s wedding, he always had savings prepared for the cause.

He treated illness as a financial issue, as well. If it couldn’t be prevented by frequent visits to the doctor, he would at least find out the expected amount of time it would take him to recover, and plan his future accordingly. For operations and complications he maintained a special reserve, which so far he hadn’t dipped into.

Death could potentially pose a problem. Others’, not his — as his own death would in fact rid him of the need to think. There was always a certain risk that an uncle, a grandparent or a friend would fall victim to age, illness or some kind of accident. It was statistically inevitable. But he accumulated sick days for this exact reason, and to the great joy of his grandparents, he would take a daily interest in their health.

He was prepared. That was the important part. He felt strongly that the element of surprise was always more painful than the event itself.

Gilad’s favorite mantra was “well-informed, well-planned”. Every morning he reported to the first floor of the building he worked in, by the stock exchange in Ramat-Gan, in a dark suit and a buttoned-down shirt, white and pressed. He would push the button to summon the elevator and allow one minute to pass in quiet patience before walking into the elevator once the doors opened, and exiting it on the fifth floor. In his office, he would politely bid his colleague good morning, exchange some pleasantries, and get to work. He would finish at precisely five-thirty, half an hour after everyone else, so he wouldn’t have to share the elevator with the rest of them. He exited the building at five-thirty-five, on the dot. At the age of twenty-six, he already knew exactly how the rest of his life would be. He had a clear path to march, and he began it on the right foot.

All this came to an abrupt end the moment the woman in grey came into his life.

One winter morning she appeared at the elevator doors, donning a suit the color of the clouded skies. Her skin was very pale, her hair smooth, the color of dark walnut, and her eyes sharp black. Under the suit she seemed to have a very slight frame, he thought. Her feet were in high, black, clearly uncomfortable stilettoes. She must have been exceedingly short without them, as wearing them brought her only up to about his shoulders, and he was at the most six feet tall. The only sign of color she wore was red nail polish.

Gilad would have ignored her, as he ignored everything outside of his daily routine, but her first action was to examine the elevator button which he’d already pressed before her eyes, and then to press it again. She did not take this action matter-of-factly. It seemed that she simply did not trust the force exerted by his finger. She even pressed it for a second longer, pushing intently as if to clarify the proper way to go about this.

He said nothing, of course. But it annoyed him. Annoyance was an unexpected occurrence in his life, therefore he breathed deeply, and exhaled to rid himself of it with the same abruptness in which it appeared. The only thing that remained was a quiet lavender scent that she possibly — and possibly not — brought in with her. He exited the elevator on the fifth floor without awarding her a second glance. By the end of the day, he’d forgotten about it.

At five-thirty he walked back into the elevator. The woman in grey was there, as well. This annoyed him, mostly because it surprised him. When he went to press the ground floor button, he saw that the buttons for every floor were already pressed. The doors slid shut before he could exit.

Gilad peeked at the woman in grey. The two of them were the elevator’s only occupants, and he doubted anyone else pressed all the buttons before leaving. Still, he could not bring himself to ask, or to blame. They were forced to wait as the elevator stopped at every floor on the way down. In the harsh white light, he thought he could see the slightest of color bloom in her white cheeks.

That day, for the first time, he left the building at five-thirty-eight. It was a small matter, a trifle. But the annoyance lingered with him all the way home. He got to his apartment five minutes late, ate his dinner ten minutes late, and missed the opening of his favorite TV show.

That might have been the end of it — a single annoying day in a continuum of comfortable ones, which stood out in memory merely because it was different.

But it was not.

The following day, again he found himself waiting for the elevator in the company of the woman in grey. They both wore the same clothes as they did when they first saw each other, as if yesterday had leaked, undisturbed, into today. Only the red nail polish on her fingernails had changed its color to blue. Upon seeing her, Gilad ground his teeth and gave the elevator button an extremely long, hard push.

He glanced at the woman in grey to make sure that she was watching. For a moment, their eyes met. She raised her eyebrows, as if bewildered by his odd behavior, and then nodded in approval. He realized then that she now believed he learned from her the appropriate way to push the button. The idea drew an exasperated huff from his lungs.

And yet, after he removed his finger, she still snuck in a small push of her own. As if to test him. Gilad attempted to shake away the anger that arose in him, but for some reason it would not be shook. The anger was like a thorny flower that clung to his clothes, and every attempt to sweep it away had merely served to frustrate him further. It vexed him throughout the entire day, a feeling of irritation that accompanied everything he did. It had no place in his ordered universe. It distracted him from the future. Twice he was forced to examine his work to check that he’d done it well. He even found himself, at some point, staring at the computer monitor, trying to remember what he was about to do. It was terrible, as his work, once he’d stopped to think about it, was truly dull.

He dreaded the elevator at the end of the day. Still, owing to the force of habit, or perhaps morbid curiosity, he left the office at five-thirty, same as always. The woman in grey was waiting for him inside the elevator, a small, neat, dark brown purse on her shoulder, her gaze stubbornly lodged into the floor. The buttons on the elevator were all pressed. At this stage, Gilad could have withdrawn. There was nothing forcing him to step into the elevator against his will. And, in truth, he intended to retreat and take the stairs — but, against his wishes, his legs decided to carry him inside. He stared at them in befuddlement. Perhaps his body was still following his original daily plans, perhaps his feet were aware of something of which he was not.

Whatever the reason, the two of them waited as the elevator descended one floor after another. This time the woman in grey did not blush when he looked at her. Instead, she seemed to be sporting a small smile. His mouth fell slightly open. On the way home, his mind was occupied with the attempt to unravel this predicament. Again his dinner was delayed, again he was late for the TV.

Three more days passed in this manner. Try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to say anything to her. Instead, he choked inside. Her slightly smiling lips haunted him nightly, threatening to shatter the projected future he constructed for himself.

On the fourth day, as he lay to sleep, he decided: No more. Tomorrow I shall prevail.

He planned himself meticulously, and already things seemed to look up. He reported to work the next morning as usual. The woman in grey was there as well, her nails glistening pinkly. She narrowed her eyes when she noticed he was not pressing the button. When she realized he was waiting on her, she squeezed the button at length, and stared at him reproachfully. Gilad ignored her, pretending not to notice. The elevator ascended and they parted in silence. He could feel her scrutinizing eyes upon him. Only when the doors closed behind him, he permitted himself a thin smile.

The day elapsed in ease. All he must do, he realized, is to adapt to the odd habits of the woman in grey. If he budgets his time differently, he can continue with his life normally. He would leave work at five-thirty-eight, prepare his dinner while watching the first minutes of his favorite show. A simple matter.

Come evening, as he entered the elevator, the woman in grey waited for him as usual. He avoided meeting her glance. Only after the elevator started moving, he noticed it was moving upward.

He stared, agape, at the buttons. They all glowed, as always, to show that they have been pushed. But for the elevator to move up, someone had to travel to a lower floor, and press them by order. Meaning, the woman in grey had to finish slightly earlier, go one floor down, and press all the buttons once he called the elevator.

It seemed like an absurd notion. If she did accomplish this, it would mean she was intentionally working against him. But why would she? They’ve never talked, and he was as polite to her as he was toward anyone else. He couldn’t have somehow offended her.

The seconds slowly expired, floor after floor. Gilad considered that perhaps someone else had called the elevator after the woman in grey had pressed the buttons. At each floor he waited, holding his breath, hoping that the smoothly sliding doors would reveal a new passenger. But this false hope dissipated at the topmost floor of the building. This was not the doing of strangers.

The time was five-thirty-seven. Once more, she’d obliterated his schedule. He will surely leave the building no earlier than five-forty-two. When he mustered the courage to look at her, he saw the woman in grey staring intently at her shoes, smiling faintly.

“Why?” he blurted out. He hadn’t intended to — the question was mentioned nowhere in his meticulously planned future — but once that future evaporated, his mouth hurried to fill the vacuum.

The woman in grey raised her eyebrows in surprise, along with her gaze. Her thin lips thinned further. When she eventually spoke, her voice was soft and amiable.

“You never tell me good morning.”

He opened his mouth to yell that that makes no sense, and then closed it.

“You never tell me good morning, either,” he replied, defensively.

“You haven’t complimented me on my nail polish.” He could now see that when she directed her gaze, her eyes wore an alarming acuity. Small wonder she tended to aim it at her feet — she could likely slice someone clean in half by looking too closely.

“Why in the world…?” Gilad began, then regained his composure. “Your nail polish is very pretty. Happy?”

“No, you didn’t ask my name.”

“Fine. What’s your name?”

“Now you’re just trying to please me.” She said. The elevator began its descent to the ground floor.

“No, I really would like to know your name.” Gilad said. “Maybe then I could report you to someone for being crazy.”

His words came as a surprise to both of them. Seconds transpired while neither one spoke. He was about to apologize, to ask for her forgiveness, but her smile suddenly broadened, revealing small, white teeth.

“My name’s Lital, what’s yours?”

“Gilad,” said Gilad. He was silent for a moment. “Was that really why you’ve been on my case, Lital?”

A small ding rung as the elevator hit bottom. They both took a moment too long to begin moving.

“Don’t know, maybe. You’re also kind of annoying. But maybe I just like you. See you tomorrow, Gilad.”

“Yeah, tomorrow,” he falteringly followed suit. He watched her walk away. Her thin hips drew lines in the air behind her. Behind her hung a thin trail of lavender, tickling his nose in the midwinter chill.

He was late to arrive home. He didn’t watch TV, today. He absentmindedly ate the dinner he’d prepared. At eleven pm it suddenly occurred to him to go to sleep.

The following morning, he was not sure how to plan his day. On his way to work he hoped that today all will be solved, and finally he’ll manage to leave according to his usual schedule. Yet, even as he hoped, he wondered what that idea brought such unease to his heart.

“Good morning, Lital,” he said, smiling hesitantly, upon seeing her there. She reached the elevator before him, the familiar grey dress softly enveloping her body. Her nails were painted in a light green. She did not look at him.

“Good morning, Gilad.”

“I like your nails,” he said.

“Why, thank you.”

“Umm.” He hummed. They waited for the elevator for a while. He peeked at his watch when it was late in arriving. Then he peeked at Lital. The tips of her ears were poking out of her hair, creating the impression of vulnerability and childishness.

“You haven’t called the elevator.” It was a declaration, more than a question.

“Nope.”

“Umm,” he hummed again. He was a minute late now, and his heart was pounding fiercely for some reason. He reached out a finger and pushed the button, a long push. He kept his finger on it until the elevator arrived. Lital tossed him a disapproving glance as they walked inside.

He stealthily sniffed the air, trying not to do so unnoticed. As he hoped, the scent of lavender rose in his nostrils, so faint that he might have imagined it.

“Have a nice day,” he said eventually, before exiting the elevator. He shot her a final glance, and saw that she was donning her minute smile.

“You, too.”

He abandoned his plans for the day. Each action required the utmost concentration of him, as otherwise his mind would wander back to the elevator, leaving his body staring into space. Once he caught himself approaching the closed doors in a furtive attempt to capture some sliver of lingering lavender. He was disappointed to find that it had long since dissipated.

By evening, he was a nervous wreck. The day trudged on much slower than he was used to, each task actually requiring his concentration. His shirt was soaked with the mental effort of it. He breathed a sigh of relief when it was time to leave, tidying himself somewhat before summoning the elevator.

His breath caught when it arrived. Lital was nowhere to be seen.

He walked inside on slightly shaky legs. He had no reason for surprise. Come to think of, no reason for disappointment, either. After all, he was finally rid of her. Now he could carry on with his life as planned. She’d proven herself a true hassle, during this brief period.

He thought he could smell her scent as he descended past the floors. Perhaps, a mere short while ago, she stood here, at her usual spot. He sighed.

When he walked outside, he found her waiting for him.

Her back was to the wall, her pale arms crossed, eyes boring into one of the floor tiles. Gilad screeched to a halt.

“You’re here.” he stated. It was hardly the best thing he could have said.

“You noticed.”

“Why?”

She narrowed her eyes when she looked at him. Her gaze was a long needle, inciting in him a second of something close to pain.

“I forgot to ask for your phone number,” he answered his own question.

Her eyes returned to the floor. Her lips stretched in her thin smile.

The following night they went on their first date. She insisted that he pick the venue, and so he planned a romantic evening in a small restaurant he heard about from friends. He hasn’t dated for years, ever since he decided to marry at 31. But he remembered, vaguely, what he was supposed to do.

His plan, of course, fell utterly through. For starters, instead of picking her up on time, Lital showed up on his doorstep thirty minutes early. Her dress was a dark, deep blue, akin to the evening sky. It was short, ending at her thighs and exposing her shoulders, a fact he only discovered later when she removed her long gray coat. Her fingernails were painted in black nail polish, her lips in a delicate red lipstick. The heels she wore were quite high, bringing her forehead up to his nose. Fortunately, he was already ready when he opened the door for her.

She decided they would leave early to scope the place out. He nodded, for lack of any kind of choice in the matter, shoved his wallet into his pocket, grabbed his keys and off they were.

When they arrived, she gave a single glance at the dim lighting, the small tables covered in embroidered tablecloths, and the expensive menu.

“Third date and onward kind of place,” she muttered, and took his hand in hers, leading him away. He barely managed to inform the hostess that they would have to cancel their reservation due to a family emergency.

Her hand was cool against his. He failed to ignore the pleasant feeling it shot through him. It helped distract it from his complete lack of knowledge about where she was taking him.

Eventually she stopped in front of some indiscriminate bar in a small side street. She seemed to have chosen it at random, or maybe she just felt they’d walked enough. She ambled inside, released his hand and sat on one of the barstools. When she walked, her bottom swayed in a way that made him question his previous decision to spend his youth without experiencing this vision.

He sat beside her. She ordered a martini, he opted for whiskey. Not for any particular fondness he held for whiskey, but because he suspected she would approve of his choice. She did.

They talked. For the first time, really. Her voice was quiet, as was her laughter. It was soft and prolonged, and he found it had a tempering effect on her sharp eyes, which became very gentle when it erupted out of her. Most of the time she was laughing at things he hadn’t intended as funny.

After one drink she started placing her hand on his arm whenever she spoke. After three, he dared to sneak his own hand to rest on her knee. She examined the hand at length, refusing to allow the move to appear unintentional, before nodding approvingly and smiling.

Four hours later, he took her back to her apartment. They held hands all the way back, and Lital snuck glances at him every few minutes. He failed completely in interpreting those glances, but he was extremely pleased with the look on her face.

He breathed deeply as they entered her building. Though he was quite inebriated at this point, the excitement proved annoyingly sobering. He doubted whether he’d be able to kiss her.

“I had…” he attempted, “I had a wonderful night.”

“Yeah, nice,” she agreed, with far less enthusiasm. She didn’t look into his eyes, a gesture which would have served him as a kind of signal. Without it, he dared not lean forward.

“I hope we can do this again sometime?”

“Uh-huh. Good.”

He bit his lip in disappointment and leaned over to hug her. She raised her sharp gaze and he froze to avoid getting pierced.

“What are you doing?”

“Saying goodbye?

She sighed and rolled her eyes at him before taking his hand and leading him into her apartment.

Her body turned out to be slender and lithe, gleamingly white. Her breasts were small, perky, her nipples pink. Her bottom was the only part of her that possessed any girth, vivaciously curved to highlight her femininity. Her gaze, Gilad discovered, became fragile, almost vulnerable, when she made love.

He tried to be gentle and considerate, his every touch cautious. That ended when she slapped him, hard, and her eyes darkened when she smiled at him. She whispered in his ear that he’d have to leave marks on her if he wanted to see her again and, wide-eyed and eager, he certainly tried.

They did not sleep that night. Come morning he left, exhausted, his back covered in scratches. His touch was imprinted in blue upon her white wrists.

That was the beginning.

What came after was difficult for him, nearly impossible. At first he attempted a business-as-usual approach at work. However, she’d ignore him in the mornings when they’d arrive — even if they’d just come the same apartment — and he didn’t understand why. At noon, she would usually arrive at his floor, seeking his help on some professional matter, and then lead him to an empty office or storage room where she’d joyfully unload his frustrations. When they’d leave after everyone at the end of the work day, she’d coyly take his hand in hers and ask whether they’re spending the night at his place or hers.

Sharing a bed was a chore. He hated sleeping together. Even If he’d manage to avoid getting one of his arms trapped under her body, he found she exuded an implausible amount of heat considering her small size. And if, perchance, he happened to enjoy the heat, because the air was cooler than usual, then her hair would tickle his nose, or the scratches she left in his flesh would itch incessantly.

He suffered for months, never voicing his chagrin. He had noticed her faint smile several times, as he shifted uncomfortably, and knew that she knew. Then she’d press her head against his chest, trace the side of his belly with painted fingernails, and breathe deeply. And he, despite his suffering, would embrace her with a tenderness reserved for the calm moments after the storm of their lovemaking.

Over time, he grew accustomed to her presence in bed. No, even more so — he enjoyed it, as he enjoyed her strange ways, her quiet voice, and her at times soft, at times aggressive touch. She would either decide things for him, seemingly at random, or wait with infinite patience for him to decide for the both of them. She insisted for an entire month that they’d only eat out, and then insisted to cook for him for another three. She waited for him to decide if he wanted to move in with her, and when he brought it up one day, immediately informed him where they would move into, and when.

The future remained a mystery, and Gilad, who would always plan years ahead, found his vision clouded by a screen of everyday fragments. The uncertainty drove him mad, excited him, infuriated him. He couldn’t say when he’d actually realized that he was happy. Perhaps six months after they’d met, perhaps more. And when he came to the realization, he wondered what came before that. He didn’t remember suffering. He remembered almost nothing from the time before Lital. She divided his life into periods, the one preceding her, and the one spent with her. The present was a never ending golden era.

Until one day, about a year after they moved in together, the veil lifted from his eyes.

He couldn’t point to the exact cause. Perhaps it was because he’d resolved to marry her. Once he’d managed to achieve a single clear choice regarding the future, he began planning the rest of the details as he was prone to do before. It wasn’t so much intentional — merely the way his mind worked.

His attitude toward her changed almost instantly. Suddenly he was not so readily confused by her various quirks and whims. He’d input them into his calculations as unpredicted elements. Financially, he calculated, they’d soon be able to afford an apartment. He prepared several forecasts, in case she wanted children and in case she didn’t, in case she wanted a dog, a cat, or both. A house in the suburbs or an apartment in the city. He spread the future out in front of him and prepared a contingency plan for every scenario. When the outline for the following years was complete, he began outlining the days.

Lital wouldn’t surrender without a struggle. She’d narrow her eyes at him on their way to the office and insist they stop for coffee on the way. If she saw he was not rattled by this, she’d drag him in the opposite direction, declaring she knows where to find the best coffee in town. Gilad would merely smile. He’d already included the lost work hours in his monetary estimations, and he’d make up for the time some other day.

Still, she would not yield. She would wake him up in the middle of the night to make love, and they’d arrive at the office red-eyed and unkempt. For a while, she managed to shake him from his daily routine. But Gilad learned to hide a comb in his desk drawer and take brief naps during his short breaks, thus managing to make it through those days. The lack of sleep seemed only to strengthen Lital’s resolve.

She tried to take him on a spontaneous trip to Paris, but he’s finished meticulously planning their daily agendas even before they got off the plane. She destroyed this meticulous effort utterly, with last minute changes and erratic decisions, but of course, this was fine, and expected — he’d only constructed the schedule knowing the pleasure she derived from ruining it.

Upon returning she informed him that they were moving abroad. He simply asked where to, and drew out his calculator. She cleaved him in half with her eyes and left the room, slamming the door behind her.

The skirmish escalated. Small everyday obstacles and momentous declarations. Sudden trips to the desert and suggestions for spicing up their love lives. She would change her mind time and again, trying to rattle his ordered thought. She fought with him, picking on every small slipup, every time arbitrarily deciding what a slipup was. At times the clarity of his vision would waver, but it soon returned once he’d managed to arrange his thought around the chaos she incited. Slowly, he’d learned to contain her mood swings, her attempts to obscure what the future held. Slowly, the determination in her eyes waned into acceptance. Over time she stopped trying to ruin his plans. When he proposed, she simply nodded wearily and quietly accepted. Gilad smiled and kissed her to the applause of the onlookers in the small restaurant he’d taken her to.

She left the following day. No one knew where she went. She was never close to her family, and her friends could only tell him that she’d left the country. He searched for her, employing all of his time and money. But Lital hadn’t left the slightest hint as to her whereabouts. Every trace of her vanished. If she hadn’t packed a suitcase, he could have thought she’d been kidnapped.

Her absence tortured him, scraped away at his very being, peeling it from the inside, grinding him to crumbs. He no longer knew what would remain of him. The days blurred into a hazy amalgam of sorrow. Every day he hoped to hear from her, hoped for some sign. But she never returned to his life.

The pain was unbearable, a gaping wound that would not heal. But the pain was better than emptiness. The pain kept her memory near, kept him from complete loneliness. It cast the fog screen back over his eyes, the one he knew well during the best of days, taking away his ability to see what comes next.

But time dulled his feeling in its wake, blunted the painful sting inside of him. One day he found that he could, once again, see the future. His brain returned to its well-beaten tracks. Following these tracks he could see, with perfect clarity, that she was gone. His thoughts first planned out his years for him, then his days. Long days of fastidiously-planned routine, leading him on the course that Lital diverted him from. A future she was gone from as abruptly as she appeared in it.

That day, he quit his job. He used his entire life savings to open a small café, where he could spend most of his time. The place wasn’t wildly profitable, but allowed him to make a living. Sometimes he was forced to find various odd jobs to help him get through the month, and there was something good about this, about how it prevented him to settle too deeply into his daily routine. But the future always returned to haunt him, taunting him with empty tomorrows.

That was when he’d began developing his little routine-retardant methods. An unending, seemingly unwinnable battle, but every morning that found him uncertain was, to him, a victory.

The years passed. He wore down many stones in his bed, exchanging them whenever he’d grown used to them. His hair grayed somewhat, his eyes grew tired from constant lack of sleep. He disliked the change. It informed him of the passage of time.

The few friends he had left would occasionally ask: “Gilad, don’t you think it’s time you accept that she isn’t coming back?”

“You don’t know that,” he’d reply, and smile carefully, so as not to reveal too much of his teeth.

And they’d look at each other and sigh, and Gilad would become annoyed, and extremely thankful for that annoyance.

Until that one evening when he forgot to place the stone in his bed. This could be attributed to a moment of distraction, or to how extremely tired he was that day. Or perhaps these circumstances joined forces against him. But, really, it was always just a matter of time. Because here, too, routine had worked its slow, abrasive magic.

When he lay on the empty mattress he noticed almost instantly the he stone that wasn’t pressed against his back. At most, only several seconds had passed, awarding him with a measure of relief originating in the anticipation for the pain. But during those several seconds Gilad’s eyes closed, and sleep engulfed him in a heavy blanket,dragging him into the rest he’d needed for years.

In his dream he was young, sitting beside Lital in a dimly-lit bar. It was winter, he realized. She wore her grey suit of which he grew so fond, and her dark eyes, which sliced through his heart, remained lowered as she sipped a martini from a tall glass. Her fingernails, painted in a deep red nail polish, hypnotized him.

“When are you going to drop this?” she asked him. Her voice pulled on strings of pain in his heart.

“When you come back to me,” he whispered. He wanted to touch her, but worried she would vanish if he did. Perhaps she would burst, like a soap bubble.

“We both know that’s not going to happen.”

“You can never know, as long as tomorrow is uncertain,” Gilad insisted.

“Gilad, Gilad. You need to stop suffering so much.”

“I don’t want to be comfortable.”

“I didn’t tell you to settle for comfort — you need to be happy,” Said Lital, and placed her cool hand on his. Her nail polish was blue, now. “Why do you always have to be so set in your ways? You could have loved again. You still can. There are more than just two ways, more than just one possible future.”

He looked at her hand. Her fingernails had turned green. He tried to figure out how, but she finally raised her eyes from her drink and pointed them at his. They were sharp as ever, and suddenly his heart broke all over again. Shrapnel spread throughout his body, tormenting him. The pain he felt when she left came to life with a vengeance.

“Won’t you be happy for me, Gilad?”

He woke from the dream in tears, quiet ones that soon transformed into wracking sobs. His hands shook as he turned the lights on. His breathing took an hour to stabilize. He got up to wash his face in the bathroom and looked into the mirror.

Be happy. If he could let her go, it just might be possible. But what would happen to Lital then? Deep in his heart, he knew it wasn’t comfort that terrified him; it was forgetting, it was living without her. He loved all the ways she overturned his life, the ways she rattled and unsettled him, how she kept him from taking the everyday for granted.

Maybe there really was someone else who could fill that role. Maybe he could get on with his life, stop grieving. He’d never tried.

He remembered Lital, pushing the elevator button at length and glaring at him annoyingly. There, that’s how you do it, her eyes told him. Just like that.

Gilad turned away from the mirror and turned off the lights, stopping again to wipe his eyes. Two can play this game, he said to her in his mind. He rummaged through one of the drawers until he found a jagged-edged stone, and placed it carefully at the center of the bed. There, that’s how you do it.

He then lay back to sleep, his body shuffling against the discomfort, his lips stretched in a smile.