A woman with a cigarette sitting on the threshold, Avichay Kadosh
Mention Energheia Israel Award 2023
That was the exact hour that she would sit by the entrance of the building at the beginning of the street. Summer, winter, spring or fall, she would be there. Always the same clothes, always unfazed by the weather. I was never a good judge of age, but I think she must have been around fifty years old. The first times I saw her sitting there, it coincided with the sunset. I assumed that was the reason she was sitting there at that hour – to watch the sunset and smoke a cigarette. Time passed, the sun set later and then earlier, and she was still there, sometimes when it was cold and dark, sometimes with the sun still high up in the sky.
The same hour. 17:55.
She smoked the kind of cigarettes that you just didn’t see anymore. The kind of cigarettes packed with nicotine that old men with yellowing mustaches would enjoy. Cigarettes that cowboys used to advertise that have since faded from glory. Even before I ever reached the building that she sits by, before I ever even saw her, I could smell the cigarette smoke from afar. It was a particularly stinky, musty smell, like all her cigarettes were produced in the 80’s and had been left in a forgotten cellar for forty years.
She never made eye contact with me. If she wasn’t speaking on the phone, she would be silently staring at an undisclosed spot on the street. She was like a riddle waiting for me solve, but also a source of sympathy. No matter my comings or goings, I could always rely on her being there at that exact hour. For years, her cigarette stench, like an uncontrollable Pavlovian instinct, would always remind me of home. She wasn’t just a neighborhood extra; she was an influential supporting character. Even though we never exchanged a word, she was always one of the people I would see the most.
During that time, I lived a life of slow serenity. I finished my studies at the University, started working at the place of my choice, met someone at work and started dating. Life happened slowly and I walked at its pace. I was doing exactly what I always wanted to do, or at least what I thought I wanted to do.
While work wasn’t particularly exciting, it also wasn’t particularly distressing.
Even though I had always dreamed of working there, I discovered that feelings can shift when migrating from expectation to reality. I found that I mostly just enjoyed the hallway conversations and in-between moments. I drank a great deal of coffee at the time, it was not surprisingly due to a fierce reliance on caffeine – it simply allowed me to observe everyone on route to the coffee machine and enjoy the peacefully boring fifteen seconds it took for the coffee machine to produce my beverage.
My newfound relationship progressed alongside my work. My partner lived a convenient fifteen-minute bus ride away me. We would usually meet for dinner after work several times a week and one of us would sleep at the others. On occasion, we would leave the city for a weekend, but most of our time was dedicated to doing nothing either on the couch or on a patch of grass located halfway between our houses.
Throughout all that routine routineness, she was always there. Mrs. Fifty-Something years old, with a cigarette, at 17:55. Like a timeless guardian angel or a vigilant soldier, she sat there every day and smoked her darn cigarette, on the phone or in complete silence. Sometimes when I was coming to or from my partners house, I would overhear Mrs. Fifty-Something talking on the phone and I would try to listen-in as I walked, searching for more details in that singular afternoon moment, propelled by pure unbridled curiosity to discern her nature. I never did hear what she said or even what language she spoke in. She always muttered in a way that I could never particularly understand, in a way that made me want to know everything.
A little less than a year ago I stopped seeing the cigarette smoking Mrs. Fifty-Something. She disappeared in a flash. That first afternoon when I came from work and didn’t see her on her regular stoop smoking a cigarette, I wondered if she was sick or perhaps on vacation. The entire following week I imagined her sitting either on the sofa muttering to her phone companion that she was sick or sitting on a beach in the midst of a vacation, smoking her stinky cigarettes while starting into the sunset, not noticing anyone else.
After two weeks of not seeing her, I started having the intrusive thought that there is a chance I may never see her again. I didn’t know who she was, what she does or where she lives, but at this point it was clear that something had happened.
After a month, my partner received a job offer in a different city, while I was promoted to a better position. I had my own office and a paycheck that allowed me to take out a loan for a car, but I only ended up spending more time at work, becoming more anxious and tired. My partner and I barely saw each other anymore. She had to leave for work early and would come back late, where she continued to work from home, answering emails and such. Meanwhile, I was left without her at work, leaving later and later until eventually, when I finally did leave, I didn’t have the energy for anything anymore.
That was a strange time. I barely saw my partner and barely did anything remotely enjoyable. Even though I had bought a car, I never drove it anywhere. On the rare occasion where I would finish work early, on my way home I would always look at the stoop at the beginning of the street, the same place where cigarette lady would sit. Without the smoke, the scent of surrounding flowers managed to reach my noise, but it was strange, I preferred the foul stench of her cigarettes.
She wasn’t there anymore, and something was missing. It was like I lost my appendix, an organ I was completely unaware of before it was gone.
My partner eventually moved out of the city to be closer to her new job. Since we barely saw each other as it was, our separation was inevitable. Like most of the events in my life at the time, it felt like the breakup was destined to be, like life itself was calling the shots, leaving me no choice but to conform to the decisions being made for me.
While I never really enjoyed work, it had suddenly become unbearably tiring. Although I was by no means a veteran employee, all my familiar co-workers left, leaving me as the most senior employee of my department.
I sold my car and decided to dedicate the money I made off the sale to making a difference. I started by looking for a job that I might actually like. Or at least a job that would be slightly less tiring.
I suddenly had a lot of free time on my hands and no idea how to use it. I would be washing dishes and time would simply slip through my fingers. Time would pass me by as I aimlessly wandered or woke up late after a night in front of the TV. The search for a new job turned into a fumbled process of spending way too much time in cafes sifting through job listings. In all that nothingness I couldn’t even bring myself to look for a new partner.
One very average afternoon, I stopped for a few moments by the spot on the street where Mrs. Fifty-Something would smoke her crusty cigarettes. I missed the smell; I missed her presence.
Day after day, I kept developing this feeling that there was a connection between her disappearance and the changes happening in my life. That there was a chance that her very presence had been protecting me and allowed my life to move in a normal course, not a life course that is by any means auspicious but also not one that crashes in slow and wobbly motion.
Every passing afternoon that feeling heightened.
I stopped looking for job listings. To cut back on expenses, I bought cheap produce and discounted items at the supermarket and only purchased bread at night when the price would go down. At the café’s I would buy one drink that would let me get by for several hours. I stopped returning the few gazes to notice me at the cafes that I frequented.
I was fed up.
I hated that reality and that futile shuffling. I wanted to regain control of my life or at least change my luck for the better. I knew I had to act, to do something. It was evident where I had to start.
I needed to find Mrs. Fifty-Something, who would smoke cigarettes at the beginning of the street.
It probably wasn’t the logical thing to do, and it might have seemed a little crazy from the outside, but I felt in my whole body that her disappearance had a significant impact on my life.
One afternoon, at the exact hour that she was supposed to smoke a cigarette, I entered the building she would sit next to and rang the doorbell of the first door I saw. Most of the neighbors didn’t know who she was or what her name was, most of them didn’t even know of her existence. Only on the third floor could one of the neighbors tell me who she was.
She was a fifty-three-year-old woman, who worked upstairs as a cleaner. The apartment she cleaned belonged to an old man who had not left his house for several years. Six months ago, he passed away and his children decided to sell the apartment and let her go. That’s why she no longer sits downstairs and smokes her cigarettes.
I asked the neighbor if she knew where she went and where she works now and she told me that she heard from one of the old man’s kids that she might work for a different apartment not too far north from here.
I thanked her and went downstairs. As I exited the building I stopped to sit at the exact spot where Mrs. Fifty-Three-Year-Old would sit.
After several minutes of sitting, I started to regret what I was doing. I didn’t know if I was acting out of desperation or if it was the right thing to do, but I felt like I couldn’t go on with my life without completely closing this circle.
The next day at five o’clock in the afternoon, I left for the northern neighborhood where she was supposedly working. I was hoping to run into her, but I didn’t actually know what to do in the event that it happened.
After half an hour of wandering, just when I was about to give up and go home, a stinking smell of old cigarettes wafted to my nose. Like a hound that smells a rabbit from a mile away, I knew immediately which direction the smell was coming from.
I continued walking for another minute until I saw her.
Here she is now, sitting in the exact same way she sat on my street, but now on a completely foreign one.
I stopped and didn’t know how to respond.
I felt betrayed, even though I had no reason to feel that way. I wanted to approach her, tell her something. To tell her that ever since she left everything has gone wrong. That as soon as she left, the cosmic balance changed, that she needed to return, even though her employer passed away six months ago. I saw her as responsible for everything that had happened to me since she left. I was angry with her. When I saw her, it was as if I saw my own life, sitting idly by, denying my existence while allowing me to stare it in the face without once glancing in my direction.
I don’t know how long I stood there staring at her, but in that moment, time felt like it stopped. I felt myself floating through my body, looking at me looking at her, while she was looking at the sunset, while the smell of old cigarettes found a new home in the bougainvillea bushes that surrounded the building in the entrance plaza.
I suddenly returned to my body and coughed from the cigarette smoke. Before she could look my way, I turned in the opposite direction and started walking.
I knew I would never see her again, that she had become a figure in someone else’s life. I also knew that I had no idea what my life would look like from here on out. A strange foreign feeling began to fill my body as I walked towards an unknown direction.
I knew I would never see her again, but it was surprisingly OK. The uncertainty that used to paralyze me had now freed me from all worry.
I looked at the sunset and as always, it was that time.