Foreign Correspondence by Royee Zvi Atadgy

She used to be in good spirits when the red mail truck pulled in. After the army, the post office job was the only work left except for the fishponds and she decided she would never go back to that, especially because of how cold the valley got in the winter. The post office wasn’t demanding, nor hectic, and it certainly didn’t make her sweat and feel like committing suicide—which was the feeling she got about Bukowski after she had read the Hebrew translation of his book. Besides, she thought, he was handling the mail of all of Los Angeles it seemed, and she only handled the mail for roughly 70 people in a small kibbutz that was easy to miss from the highway if you didn’t look carefully enough at the signs.

As she watched the mail truck shaking on the dirt road through the double row of cypress trees, she began to feel sick at the thing she lost and what she was doing about it now all these years later. Every letter that was addressed to Tal Barak was set aside, knifed open, read, and replaced inside of a new envelope that Mel painstakingly recreated. She transferred his exact, beautiful, swinging script onto the new envelope with tracing paper and a black gel pen. She had her cousin in California ship a book of updated postage stamps every month and won a bid at 30 NIS for a red-inked ‘AIRMAIL’ stamp. When she read his words, it was as if he were there reading them over her shoulder. But none of them were meant for her. And when she was finished reading the letters, she got angry and started to talk to herself so that the people walking by on their way to breakfast stopped and stared in the window—

‘what the hell do they need to send letters for? We’re a third of the way through the goddamn century, haven’t they heard of e-mail? It takes two weeks to send a letter from the States to here, doesn’t anybody realize how much can change in two weeks time? That bastard, that bastard, that bastard who ruined everything and now spends his time in New York writing letters to her. Who does he think he is? He knows I work at the post office now. It’s torture. Who would do such a thing? Who still writes letters anymore?’ And then her inner self would override the hysteria and calmly express that only people in love send letters to each other these days. The letter crinkled in her hands as she read it a second time.


The snow is falling in New York. You have that painting in your room of Central Park in the springtime, now just imagine it all white and bare. I took your father out to dinner in Hell’s Kitchen on Thursday. I’m really trying to show him a good time, but you know how he is—he doesn’t like to have set plans or have to be anywhere so he sits in the living room and reads the paper from the deli in Queens and spits sunflower seeds into the fireplace. I hooked up dish network last week so he can get the Israeli programming, too. He sends his love and wishes you were here like I do. Well, maybe not like I do, because he’ll get to see you in the airport when he flies back on Sunday and I don’t get to see you and might not for a long time. I have dreams about airports all the time and of you waiting for me in the atrium with the sun on your shoulders and the palm trees swaying behind your hair. Although it’s a silly thing to say, I wish that Pangaea had never broken up.

How’s work going? Are the children still the same brats as when I was there sweeping the dining room? They used to make such a mess and it’s the only thing I don’t miss about that place. It’s really like Dan used to say—that it’s paradise. Here in New York, a clock can drive you insane but over there it just reminded you that you’ve been on break for five minutes past the half hour they give you, but not to worry—take it easy and finish that chapter before you go.

I’ll write you something longer and in more detail next time. I’ve been rushing between meetings with the publishing houses. They think I’ve really got something and my agent is brutal like a junkyard dog when it comes to negotiating advances for writers. She’s really something. She thinks I can get a two-part deal where I publish the short story collection first and follow it up with the novel I was working on while I was on the kibbutz with you. Can you see if you have any connections to a translator? I want the first foreign language printing to be in Hebrew.

If all goes well I’ll use some of the advance money to fly out there and see you. It’s dangerous when a man starts to forget the face of the woman he loves.



Mel tossed the ripped open envelope into the trash and neatly re-folded the letter, creased it, and slipped it into the forged one and placed it in the narrow cubby marked Tal Barak. Then she went home. In the morning during breakfast, she saw Tal in the dining room reading the letter over a café au lait. Avi introduced both of them to café au lait and Mel also drank one as she watched Tal smooth the letter out on the table. Mel remembered the contents almost to complete recitation and saw Tal smile at the appropriate parts, saw her laugh openly at the description of her father, frowned in the best way with her eyes lighting up—like you do when you’re proud of someone—after reading that the only two men in her life were getting along. And just like Mel did, but with different feelings behind it, she cried a little at the line about Pangaea breaking up.

Mel sat up on the roof of her apartment complex at the top of the hill facing the cowshed and watched the lights from the town across the valley vibrating in the dust. They used to get high up there after everyone had gone to sleep and they would be silent except for the sound of bad hash crackling in the pipe. She used to fill up space with so many words before, and then he arrived one October and was the first to speak to her without having to say anything. When he did speak, it was only to say things that had weight behind them. He never even said he loved her because he didn’t believe it was necessary to say. Now, she wished he had said it out loud up there on the rooftop. That way, he couldn’t ever take it back or claim he never said it. Who would argue against the ears of the universe? she thought. It became so dark finally that she couldn’t see her hands—just the cherry glowing and the town vibrating—and instead of smoking the pipe one time, she smoked it twice to hear two crackling sounds.

Over the next few weeks, the letters started to come at infrequent intervals. He’s probably been busy with all that new publicity, Mel thought as she watched the back of the mail truck shaking back toward the highway. There was a package from California, however. In it were commemorative postage stamps that featured Miles Davis in kinetic performance pose and Edith Piaf with her hands out, a few interior decorating magazines, and the print version of The Paris Review she had asked for. Avi’s novel had been serialized in four installments—the first serialization in that magazine since Roberto Bolaño’s lost novel—and she flipped through the glossy pages to reach the first of the four installments entitled ‘Dust in the Village’. It started this way:

‘I remember how it felt. Feeling nothing at all. And how alright it was for us to feel nothing together.’

Mel got hot all over as she read about him and her on the rooftop. It felt like the old times again. There was no mention of Tal or a character that resembled her in all those pages. She had something for herself and it was being reviewed to critical acclaim. When she got home, Mel rearranged her room just like it was when he had spent nights there. Put the lamp faraway from her bed and took down the books that were on the shelf above it and stacked them in piles around the mattress because everything fell when they were fucking. She moved the mirror opposite the bed and put it in the bathroom. She hated to look at herself while they did it, but afterwards in the shower feeling that good emptiness, she loved to see herself all naked-foggy and illusion-like. She took the paintings out from the closet and hung them where the nails were still in the walls. One of them was something he had painted and given her. It was a painting of Hermosa Beach that she used to staple to the ceiling so she could look up at it and daydream while they lay there—him drinking the wine carelessly so it spilled down his neck, and her carefully saving it, sipping it out of his abnormal collarbones. She remembered how perfect their curves seemed to fit together like Latin America and Africa as they slept like that. She put on Working With the Miles Davis Quintet.

In the foreground of the painting was the sand, in the background was a plain blue ocean, and sandwiched on top were lighter layers of blue with white seagulls trailing off toward a pier that stuck out. In the sand were three palm trees, the middle one crooked and wilted, and you could only see the shadows of the two straight and bright ones. She didn’t remember having ever seen the middle one before. She had always been obsessed with the two vibrant ones and the meaning she thought he had put in them. She opened the Review, read the installment again—closely this time—looking for hints. And then Mel fell asleep sad again, not knowing whether she was bright or crooked.

Tal was in the playground with the kids in the morning, reading a new letter. The post office faced the playground and Mel lipped the words in the cold air while she stared at Tal. Avi’s book was selling well, even in Europe, and Keter Sfarim had just put out the Hebrew translation to mixed reviews. Everything was mixed in that country. The narrative, Avi said, was designed to challenge this notion of things being mixed in the Israeli psyche. He had tried to put the story down as honestly as he could, without getting trapped into the politics of what was going on.

But still, you can’t please everybody. Some people are let down and most of them are too far-gone in their opinions to bring them back, and those are usually of the older generation. I wrote it for the soldiers mostly, because they’re being conditioned into rulers at such a young age. Where they move around with guns. And talk about Palestinians as one talks about a strange dog that pees on their lawn. I don’t know—I’m just glad that you’re proud of me. Amy is getting a book tour together in two weeks that goes through Europe and then to Israel, so I hope you’ll be at one of them. If not, I don’t mind. I’m not in my element there.

But let’s make a pact right now. If we see each other and everything is the same, let’s get married. And then we can move anywhere we want to. Do you still prefer Barcelona? Or I’ll stay with you on the kibbutz and pick apples and write novels and get you really good with English like you wanted. I’m getting ahead of myself but I know you do it also and that’s why it’s so easy to say.



The week of the book tour, Mel took a vacation to Eilat and burned herself very badly. This was as far south as she could go, like she was crawling into a corner to avoid him. But if she was being truthful, it was mostly to avoid them. When she got back, the man who brought the mail told her that there had been a big event, a reading by a famous writer who used to volunteer there. They had done it in the garden square of the art museum with photographers and journalists. Who had set it up? Tal did, he said. She introduced him with a short speech at the podium.

But when she looked at Tal sitting on the bench with the kids running around, it didn’t seem like everything had gone well. She stared into the double row of cypress trees like a solider remembering war. A small, red-haired boy was crying hysterically and went up to her for a bandage and stuck his bleeding thumb out. And she tried to calm him down and set him up on her thigh while she smiled for him. But Mel noticed that it was a forced smile that barely broke her lips apart. Like a thick film of pain was coated onto her teeth that made it difficult to smile genuinely. Tal had a sad face like that and her mouth was an instrument for the broken things to play through. You could usually see emotions in a person’s eyes but with Tal, it was around her mouth and this is probably why Avi was so attracted to her in the first place—he was terrible at looking people in the eyes.

Mel shut down the post office at 1 p.m. She placed a stack of the forged envelopes in the drawer and locked it away with the stamps. On her way out, she ran into Tal who was waiting by the door of the little market with bags.

‘Tal, what’s new?’

‘Oh, not a lot. Doing some shopping before the market closes.’

‘Who are you waiting for?’ Mel asked, suddenly nervous that he might still be around.

‘Noga. We’re making a big meal. Comfort food.’

Tal held up the bags. There was salmon and bread, a small mason jar of paprika, and a bundle of coriander.

‘You need comforting? What for?’

Tal’s eyes narrowed on Mel’s burnt and peeling face.

‘Stop it Mel. I’m sure you know by now that Avi was here last week. It’s all anybody’s been talking about.’

‘And that’s a bad thing?’

‘He proposed and I said no.’

Mel’s throat was scratchy and dry and she took a drink from her water bottle. A normalcy and smoothness returned to her mouth when she finished. She looked at Tal’s mouth. There was zero chance of anything but pursed lips now. Mel got angry then, and continued talking as if they were sisters.

‘Well, what the hell would you do a thing like that for?’

Noga came from around the corner as Tal began to say something she would regret. Mel was left there alone feeling very satisfied and also very glad that Tal hadn’t said what she knew she was going to say. It was that feeling that was really cowardice in disguise—of getting the last word, of avoiding a razor of words that nearly grazed her, of something she was trying hard not to admit to herself.

The next week a letter arrived from New York. Very hastily scribbled on and pinched up on the back where he had licked the envelope negligently and spread it down. Mel opened it, anticipating the end of them.


I guess it’s time to tell you what I couldn’t say before. We have a tendency as people to know all the right things to say after the fact, and while you were sitting there trying to tell me all the reasons why we shouldn’t get married, I was only thinking of you and said some things that were incomplete or spilled out before I could put them back in my mouth and sort them out like I will now.

The first night we met, you told me something that I’ve never heard anyone else say before or since. You led me up to your house, tempting me with that dangling bottle of shitty shitty wine, and when I tried to be all tough and pretend I had better places to be, you said you knew I wanted to just sit there and drink with you. How do you know what I want? I asked you. You replied that it was because you were a woman and you knew things that I didn’t. Still, I had said, that doesn’t prove much. And then you asked if I really wanted to do anything but sit with you and drink in front of the fire, and transfixed or possessed (I don’t know which fits better), I answered with the most true ‘yes’ I’ve ever uttered.

But you knew something I didn’t last week, continuing your tremendous track record on these sorts of miracles of intuition. I was trying to deny it also—that someone new was creeping in—and that I was trying in vain to deaden it by asking you to marry me.

I was reminded of when, all those years ago, you tested Levi by asking him over for sex because you thought that’s all he wanted with you and then he refused to do it, even though you gave him all the signs. I said it turned out that he was a good guy and he passed your test. But you felt horrible about it and said that you shouldn’t have tested him at all. You really despised yourself for it. How could you start a relationship based off of something like a test? I wish I was thinking about that story before I said anything last week.

I’m sorry I’m sorry a thousand times over.  


Mel stared at his name for awhile and then was struck in place by the fact that she didn’t have him and Tal didn’t have him and that maybe, for now, that Amy had him at least until the snow and the winter hibernation was over and even maybe until his book slid off the bestseller list after awhile. Who could know? In two weeks time, everything could change again. Mel took her golf cart down to the fishponds. In the gray water, a brief shock of orange slipped around there and again. They were raising the last of the fish for the season to be sold. They weren’t food fish, they were aquarium fish for people who could afford aquariums in their homes. Mel stuffed the letter through an algae-covered gate on top of a well. The old woman in the shack nearby turned off her radio and pointed at her.

‘Your face, it’s peeling very badly,’ she said. ‘You shouldn’t be out in this cold wind. It’ll only make things worse.’

Mel didn’t hear her at first. It took awhile to hear what the old woman had said. She was too absorbed in the quiet. In the thing she knew wasn’t lost at all, only gone away like everything goes away eventually. Just as cigarettes burn down and fires are smothered out in the nighttime. Even the dust that covered the villages settled down finally and with it the vibration of the lights. Mel turned to the old woman.

‘I actually feel good. I haven’t felt so good in a long long time.’