By Lee Kofman
By nature, I am a confessional writer. The more difficult, dramatic, my life is – the better I actually fare. Artistically that is. And yet, it has taken me twenty years to dare to tell one of my most transformative stories, the one which prompted me to move from Israel to Australia.
A brief version of the story, or rather a personal essay, ‘Bruised’, appears in my latest book Split. In it, two passionate love affairs of mine – with a man and a city – end simultaneously. When it begins, I haven’t met the man-in-question yet, but my relationship with the city is already seven years old and is reaching a crisis.
When I first moved to Tel Aviv – nicknamed The City That Never Stops – I was a timid provincial starved for intellect and intensity. I lapped up everything the city offered: poetry readings, European fashion, cinematheque, hard house parties, latest theatre plays. The entire world opened to me in Tel Aviv. Yet there comes a time when exciting cities no longer enlarge but exhaust you.
Seven years later, this was where I was at. I lived a vivid yet complicated life. I was a writer, and a social work student. To survive financially in that wildly expensive city, I was organising dance parties. I had an on-and-off boyfriend I liked, but didn’t love. I was restless. It was always difficult to relax in Tel Aviv, a city so densely woven with beautiful bodies and high art, so competitive and full of promise that nothing there was ever enough. But now Tel Aviv could no longer give me the things I was hungry for: adventure, love and, above all, literary inspiration. The more I partied, the more I worried about men and money, the less I slept and the more I drank, the harder it became to write beneath the surfaces, to see nuances in the light, cracks in the darkness.
I dreamed of leaving. Of touring Europe, smoking in Luxemburg Gardens while pretending I was Fitzgerald reincarnate. But instead I enrolled in yet another university semester. The truth is, I’d always overstayed my romances, and this affair with the city was the most powerful I’d experienced so far.
Then the man appeared. He was a social worker, I met him at my student placement, but he looked dangerous enough to turn me breathless with desire – a dark leather jacket, a golden earring, enormous eyes expressive like a classical symphony. I thought, if he wants me, I can finally let go of my boyfriend. I thought, what if he can turn Tel Aviv into poetry again? For a while, he did.
The man, like the city, was on fire.
He was everywhere I turned. In my flat. On the university grounds. At my parties. For him, our dyad was all that mattered; no one else was welcome. Occasionally, alarm bells sounded. Yet I also liked how he wanted everything I could, or couldn’t, give him. He gripped me like he really needed me. With him I felt alive, the way I hadn’t felt for a long time. In a university assignment I wrote, ‘Typically, abusive men isolate their partners to keep them under their control’. I got a high distinction. I was good at theory.
Soon, though, I began forgetting who I was outside of this love story. As my leash got shorter and shorter, I finally realised that I was in trouble. The man’s need wasn’t intensifying, but merely revealing itself; it existed long before we met. The man was exhausting me just like the city was. All I wanted now was to spread my arms and feel emptiness around me. But a future with no man and no city to anchor me terrified me. I felt incapable of living an open-ended life.
Despite my inability to end things, take a risk, summon courage, the story soon resolved itself. I finally managed to tell the man our relationship was over. But then, the next day, after I got a quote for an around-the-world ticket with a first stop in Australia, once the sun went down and the city grew dark and promising again, I was already contemplating going back to the man. A future with no man and no city to anchor me terrified me. At the time, I seemed incapable of living an open-ended life.
That same night, when on my way home I thought of calling him, he was already there, waiting for me on the street.
For the next few hours, before I managed to escape, I had no idea whether I’d live or die. And some days later, after the police had put in place an intervention order against the man, I paid for my ticket. My plane took off. Up and forward I went.
By now it may seem obvious why it took me so long to write this story. Surely, I needed time to pass before revisiting my trauma. I felt uncomfortable to admit that it took fear, a feral fear, for me to exorcise a mellower, but persistent, fear of the unknown. All true. But not the full truth.
In the life writing classes I teach, my students often tell me they want to write their stories, because they want to inspire. They want to describe their difficult experiences as neatly rounded recoveries – from substance abuse, cancer, devilish boyfriends. Who can blame them? Today, a common assessment criterion to determine a book’s publishability, particularly if it’s a memoir, is whether there is some lesson for the reader to learn at the end, some recipe for self-improvement. Confusion, ambivalence and other murky feelings aren’t good selling points in our hyper-therapeutic era where the prevailing assumption is that every personal problem can be resolved. I doubt Hamlet would have been published today. And if it was, would it sell?
The conclusion to the story I wrote belongs to Hamlet camp. Not where bloodshed is concerned, but in the uncertainty of my ending. The ‘right’ thing to say would have been that what happened to me had benefits, made me wiser. Indeed, I’ve made some wiser choices since. I chose to settle in Melbourne, a city which suits me, where I’m writing again and don’t drink as much. I married a man who makes me happy.
And yet, when I contemplate that story, the feelings I re-experience – the terror, frustration, confusion, anger, disbelief – are mixed with a peculiar, erotic pleasure. The electricity of that relationship still hits me like the words Tel Aviv sometimes do. I feel their shock and know that my younger self, that hungry self, the self waiting to be swept up by the darkness in whatever shape it might come – a man, a place, yet another Johnny Walker – is still in me, awaiting her moment.
It isn’t terribly inspiring, but I like the authenticity of my ending. And I like to think that, as readers, we’re better off being exposed to a plethora of narratives with all their shades and shadows; better off seeing real life unfold in our stories, even if this means sometimes there is no redemption to be had. A society where redemptive tales predominate has no room for other expressions of human experience – doubt, setbacks, failures. All the stuff that needs to be named in order for those of us, not utterly ‘recovered’, to not feel like failures whose lives aren’t worth living.
Dr Lee Kofman is a Russian-born Israeli-Australian author of five books and editor of two anthologies, writing teacher and mentor based in Melbourne. Lee’s books in English include two memoirs: Imperfect: How our bodies shape the people we become (Affirm Press, 2019), which was shortlisted for Nib Literary Award 2019, and The Dangerous Bride (Melbourne University Press, 2014). She has also edited two anthologies of personal essays, Rebellious Daughters (Ventura Press, 2016) and Split (Ventura Press, 2019) that feature prominent Australian writers.