LOVE'S OTHER FACE
Dina's anxious face appeared at the open door of the ward of the Sheba Hospital, brows knit, lips drawn tight. She saw no one; heard nothing. The centre of her being was the man on the bed at the extreme end of the eight-bed ward, his plastered leg slightly raised. A khaki uniform blocked her view and she rushed in only to find Assaf, her husband, propped up and smiling, chatting with the tall soldier by the bed.
"Assaf!" she cried.
"Dina! Here you are."
She burst into tears.
The tall soldier, taking her gently by the shoulders, sat her down in a chair by the bed. "I think I had better go," he said.
"No," said Assaf. "Wait." He turned his dark eyes to his wife. "I'm fine, Dina, I'm fine. The bullet hit the bone. They removed the bullet, set the bone and plastered my leg as you can see. They want to wait a few days to be sure there'll be no infection. I'm fine. Please don't cry." He reached for her hand. She took it, rising from her chair to embrace him."
"I was so frightened," she sniffled. "I didn't know what to think."
"Didn't they tell you I was in no danger?"
"Who believes them? I had to see for myself. Are you sure you're all right."
"I'm sure. I'm sure. But I wouldn't be, if it weren't for Michael." He turned to the tall soldier who was extraordinarily good-looking. "Michael, meet my wife, Dina."
"Very pleased," said Michael, using the Hebrew phrase but his accent identified him as a North American. He held out his hand and Dina, somewhat flustered, gingerly took it responding with a whispered "Shalom." As he clasped her hand in his, she shivered, as she had when his hands had touched her shoulders earlier.
"He's my commanding officer," continued Assaf. "He risked his life to get me out of the line of fire. I couldn't move. I lay on the street. Everyone had taken cover. He came out and pulled me behind the building wall. I could hear the bullets pinging around us. How we weren't hit, I'll never know. Bless the Arabs for their lack of precision firing. I owe him my life, Dina."
Dina wiped the tears from her face and looked up with defiant pride into the clear blue eyes of the tall American whose touch and presence unsettled her.
"Thank you for giving my husband back to me," she said. "I'm sure Assaf would have done no less for you."
"Undoubtedly," responded the American, with a broad smile. It softened the firm line of his jaw under the tanned skin but the gaze from his large pupils remained unflinching. Blushing, she lowered her eyes but almost immediately raised them again.
"If you imagine we will be grateful to you for the rest of our lives…"
"Dina!" Assaf broke in. "What's wrong with you?"
"It's okay, Assaf," said Michael. "In any case, I have to go. See you later. Nice to have met you," he said to Dina and strode out of the ward without turning back.
"Why, Dina?" Assaf's hurt look made her feel guilty. "Why so rude?"
"I don't know. I suppose I wanted to make it clear we wouldn't bow and scrape to him for the rest of our lives. After all, he was just doing his job. And I know you would have done the same for him."
"Well, you know more than I do. I have no idea how I would have reacted in those circumstances."
"Oh, Assaf, you are the bravest, kindest, sweetest person I know."
"I wish I could say the same for you."
"Don't be angry. He's … he's … I don't know. He makes me…."
"You mean he has a powerful aura." Dina looked at him, surprised at his insight. "Yes, we know it. We discussed it many times at the base. It may unnerve you but it's what makes him a leader."
"I'll make it up to him. You'll see. The important thing is to get well and come home to me and the children."
She invited Michael to dinner the Friday after Assaf came home from the hospital. "Bring your girl," she told him over the telephone.
"I'll come alone," he answered.
He arrived with a huge bunch of flowers which he presented to Dina with a smile that radiated warmth and creased his face charmingly.
"How lovely you look in that dress," he said.
"There was no need for these beautiful flowers." Dina was again uncomfortable under his gaze. "It must have cost you a lot."
"It's a peace offering."
"In that case, I should give you something. I had no right to be so rude at the hospital."
"Aren't you giving me a Sabbath meal that smells delicious?" His blue eyes twinkled.
"Please accept my apology?" said Dina, arranging the flowers in a vase.
"No. You were right to remind me I was just doing my job. I was beginning to think myself too much of a hero."
"Come off it, you two," said Assaf. "Stop this banter. And Michael, quit flirting with my wife and tell me what you want to drink? I have half a bottle of whiskey left and some brandy. That's all. Unless you would prefer wine; we've plenty of that, white or red."
"I'll have the brandy, thanks. Where are the children? Assaf can't stop talking about them. You have a boy and a girl, right?"
"Yes," said Dina. "They're watching TV in their room. They've had their dinner. So, if it's all right with you, let's eat. The food's hot and the children are quiet. You can take your drink to the table."
"Fine with me," said Michael. "Bring on the feast."
Michael became a regular visitor to their home. The children found him irresistible. He never arrived without gifts for them. He listened to their experiences at school and at home and he helped them with their schoolwork. He complimented Dina on every small accomplishment and his kindness to the children finally broke down barriers. "You both belong to me now," he would say, "and I belong to you." Dina observed the obvious affection between her husband and Michael and felt stabs of jealousy. It was not that Michael neglected her, for he talked to her about his hopes of going to university through the army. He had left his parents and sister back in the USA. The army was family now. He loved cooking he told her. "It's the one creative thing I do." He brought special dishes he had cooked to share with his friends. Whenever he left, he and Assaf would embrace without awkwardness. He hugged and kissed her and the children too and she had to admit she took pleasure in the feel of his arms about her.
"I'm so glad you like him, Dina," said Assaf as he manoeuvred a flexible ruler into his plaster cast trying to scratch his outstretched leg. "He is the dearest friend I've ever had and I owe him my life. Ahhh! That's absolutely great!"
"Tomorrow it's coming off so you'll be able to scratch all you want," said Dina as she laid the table for supper.
"Let's hope it's mended well."
Michael's acceptance into the family grew more profound. The children favoured him over their parents, for he would take them out on the town, buy them pizzas and ice cream, escort them to the latest Walt Disney movies and to that most magical of places, the zoo. It gave Assaf and Dina the extra quality time their aged parents could not give. Assaf did not mind if Michael took Dina shopping once in a while, and Dina did not begrudge the young men their occasional beach outings on a Saturday morning with their other army comrades for some horseplay and fun. Assaf's leg had mended well and the exercise and sun did him good.
One Saturday, while running on the sand, Assaf pulled a muscle at the back of his thigh. No matter how much his friends pounded, the muscle remained tight and painful. "Come with me," said Michael, picking up their bags. "Hop on my back." He carried him piggyback across the sand to the shower under the promenade, where they cleaned themselves off. He helped Assaf up the steps to the walkway and hailed a taxi.
"Where are we going?"
"To my place," said Michael. "I have a professional massage table at home. What you need is a gentle massage with oils to relieve the pressure."
"You don't have to do that."
Michael had never invited Dina or him to his flat before.
"Take me home. Dina will get me to a doctor."
"Doctors!" laughed Michael. "What do they know?"
Assaf was surprised to see the taxi make its way north to one of the most affluent suburbs of Tel Aviv. They stopped at a modern apartment building, 12 stories high, overlooking the sea.
"Is this where you live?"
"Yes. One of the advantages of having rich parents is that you can live in Ramat Aviv. Can you walk if you lean on me? Just to the elevator."
Once inside the flat, Assaf was even more astounded, for the lounge itself would have encompassed the whole of his flat and left plenty of room.
"How many bedrooms?" he asked.
"Four," said Michael.
"If you have all this, what keeps you coming to my small flat?"
"This serves its purpose," replied Michael enigmatically. "Besides, what I find at your place, I can't get here. Now, hop this way into my bedroom - (wall-to-wall royal blue carpet) – here's a towel, now let's get into the bathroom – there, that door - now into the shower - good – now give me your trunks - (Michael flung it with his own on the tiles in a corner) - let the water run over you to get rid of the salt, especially in your crotch. Good. Now lean on me and let's get out of here. Ok. Sit on this stool while I dry myself. Do the best you can until I finish. You won’t be able to bend over to towel your legs. Leave that to me. Did you clean behind your ears, kid?"
He stood completely at ease in his nakedness, his highly toned body exuding the energy which had so discomfited Dina when she met him that first day in the hospital.
"Come on, now. Lean on me. And let's go to the next room where I keep all my equipment."
Assaf was shepherded into a room filled with weights and barbells and treadmill, neatly placed in the four corners. He was soon on his stomach on the table in the centre of the room.
"Lie still for a moment, while I get what I need from the cupboard here," said Michael.
Assaf lay quietly, his heart pounding, wondering at his nervousness. Suddenly he felt Michael's hand on this thigh, exactly where the muscle had tightened. He felt a warmth, not of heat, but of joy when skin meets skin tenderly, healingly and, following almost immediately, the relief of ebbing pain as the muscle relaxed. He could feel Michael's pleasure as the hands traveled slowly over his thigh. Then Michael began long strokes from thigh to heel, caressing the calves and hams with his fingers. He concentrated on the one leg for ten minutes then moved round the table and began to massage the other leg. Assaf's head tingled from the sheer pleasure of it. When Michael started working on his back and buttocks, Assaf's breathed a long sigh of delight.
"You like that?" said Michael in a throaty whisper.
Assaf had no wish to talk, only to feel, and he simply sighed his bliss once more.
"Turn over," said Michael.
"I don't think I can," said Assaf.
"Let me help you,"
"No. No. You don't understand."
"You idiot, don't you realise it's the same with me?"
Assaf felt Michael's strong arms around him, turning him over. Michael's face was above his. Before he could protest, Michael kissed him full on the lips. Assaf was shocked at himself for liking it but he pushed him away. "I am not a homo, Michael," he said.
"Oh, God! – not another one who labels everything!" Michael let his hand rove down the side of Assaf's body to the rump while he nuzzled the hair on his chest. He felt Assaf quiver. "I love you and I know how you feel about me. Mature people don't love a sex, but a person, a personality. I love you and I want to please you. And do you know a better way to express love?"
Assaf gasped for, at that moment, Michael took him to a place he had never been before. Later, when he was able to think about it, he realised that, with Dina, their fierce love made them impatient to fuse their bodies together and they needed little to stoke their passions. This, however, was like a piece of music by Mozart, starting softly, sweetly, gently, and rising, stage by stage, to a thundering climax.
"Michael, come here," said Assaf and Michael climbed on to the narrow massage table and the two clung together, enjoying the sweetness of their proximity.
Later, Assaf had another thought.
"You love Dina too."
"Yes, I do."
The unexpressed question floated in the air.
Michael turned slowly.
Assaf paled as Michael's blue eyes twinkled. His smile permitted no doubts.