Batya is jolted awake by the alley cat’s frantic cry. She opens an eye and sees her Princess Jasmine digital clock glowing 3:23 a.m., faintly illuminating her sister Hannie’s cheek. Hugging her legs to her chest, Batya wonders what is making the cat wail so violently in the middle of the night. She tries to go back to sleep, but the yowling won’t quit.
Three stray cats make their home in the narrow walkway alongside the Pico-Robertson apartment building where Batya lives with her mother and sister. The cats hunt for bugs in the bushes and curl up on the back stairs on hot or rainy days. Batya and Hannie leave food for them, and the cats seem content with their lazy life. So why this miserable, insistent crying?
Of course, Hannie is sleeping through the noise. When the ambulance siren blared into the apartment garage a few weeks ago after someone found the homeless lady collapsed in a pool of motor oil, Hannie slept through the whole thing. Batya thinks about going out to check on the suffering cat, but the meowing suddenly stops.
She closes her eyes again and tries to go back to her dream, remembering only a general feeling--of anticipation and danger--and the bristling sound of the wind. Batya can hear the neighbor’s wind chimes now, but the tinkling is faint so there must be only a slight breeze, not the menacing wind of her dream. Last week when the Santa Anas started up, the Israeli guy across the way, who calls his wife a stupid bitch, knocked on the wind chime owners’ door and yelled at them to take it down--but Batya likes hearing the clinking strips of glass.
Now the cry is back, its voice more pitiful, as if the cat could be on the brink of crying human tears. Batya sits up and feels in the dark for her sweatshirt at the foot of the bed. The “aoow, aoow” grows louder as she slips the shirt over her head and gets up to check on her adopted pet. What could be causing it such distress?
But then she realizes.
It’s not a cat.
The catch in its voice, the half-laugh, the whimper that Batya feels in her own chest, tell her that it’s a woman.
Batya has never heard this sound before. She knows what it is, but at the same time she doesn’t know. Blurry shapes of a naked woman and man coming together flare in her mind. But imagining them makes her ashamed. Against her will, she is drawn into their room, embarrassed by the tingling between her legs. As if the woman’s shattered voice is penetrating her own body. Batya forces herself to let out the shallow breath trapped in her lungs.
At 14, Batya has no experience with boys. She is unsure exactly what they do to make a girl cry out like this. Her mother has given her only generalizations. It will be sweet when you are with the right man and you are married, Bati, she has said. Until then, enjoy your childhood--and pay attention to your studies. Her mother mentioned nothing about a woman crying out in the middle of the night like a wounded animal. And, of course, Batya has heard nothing about this from her teachers or the girls at her Jewish school.
Batya has become more religious since moving to the U.S. Living in Israel, she was Jewish without thinking about it. Here, you have to stick to your own kind or you’ll be swallowed up by all the other races and religions. Like the Persian Jewish guy with his high-heeled Japanese girlfriend. That’s why Batya’s mother insisted that she and Hannie go to an Orthodox school instead of a public one.
The cries are coming now in jabs of sound. Closer together, with more in-taking of breath. Batya pulls the pillow over her head and closes her eyes, but she can still hear. “Aoow, aoow!"--and then “aah, aah!”
She gets up and goes to the half-opened window overlooking the walkway and tries to pinpoint where the cries are coming from. Whose apartment could it be? The “aah, aah"--sometimes a breathy “huh, huh"--echoes in the space between her building and the one next door so that Batya can’t determine where it starts. She listens to the voice and rolls through the possibilities in her mind.
It could be coming from the Persian guy’s apartment downstairs. Batya has noticed that every weekend after Shabbat, he brings home that tall, thin Japanese woman with sparkling green eye shadow. She could easily be the voice. Her high heels and tight skirts say that crying out like this with a boy you’re not going to marry is perfectly fine. In fact, it’s something you desperately want--and even tell your girlfriends about afterward. The Persian guy graduated from UCLA and sells real estate. He’s as handsome as an American movie star and wears silky gray suits for Shabbat. The way he saunters to his silver sports car, his long legs agile and deliberate, makes Batya think of a panther. He never notices her even when she’s walking in his direction. Batya has stared at the Japanese woman’s outlined red lips and made-up eyes and tried to imagine what she might have looked like at Batya’s age.
Now the cries are more like moans, almost like when Hannie, who’s three years younger than Batya, tries to get their mother to give in, to let her have something that’s not good for her--like candy or a second piece of cake.
Riveted by the high-pitched moaning, Batya has the uncomfortable feeling that the voice could be T.J.'s mother. T.J. and his parents live upstairs in the front of the building and the sound would have to travel two apartments down, but his parents’ bedroom faces the walkway, so it’s possible. Batya has seen T.J.'s parents kiss in public, like other grown-ups born in this country. Would his mother dare to make noises like this--with T.J. sleeping in the next room? Before Batya’s father died and her family still lived in Netanya, her parents’ bedroom was close to her’s and Hannie’s. But she was too young then to think about her parents making love. Now, Batya tries to erase the mental image of T.J.'s mother’s face uttering such fierce sounds.
The moaning stops and all Batya hears is the distant whoosh of a bus speeding down Pico Boulevard. How lonely to be a bus driver in the middle of the night when everyone is asleep.
The “aah, aah!” sound is back, louder and more pleading. Batya wonders if it could be the red-haired lady rabbi next door. She and her too-friendly husband are reform Jews in their 20s. The rabbi mostly wears jeans, and her husband always stops to chat with Batya and Hannie, asks how they’re doing in school, what they’re learning in Torah class. Batya doesn’t like the rabbi’s husband. Maybe it’s the way his rude eyes dart down to Batya’s breasts, which embarrass her because they’ve grown so large, or maybe it’s the wiry black chest hair poking out of his tank top. He makes her cringe. She doesn’t want to, but now she can’t help picturing him rocking up and down on top of his wife, pawing her breasts and making her scream like this. But the rabbi seems too shy to cry out so publicly.
The woman’s voice has grown softer, the “oh, oh” more tender--almost like the soothing tone Batya’s mom uses when she comforts Batya or Hannie. What is the man doing to the woman now to make her cries more gentle? And why can’t Batya hear the man’s voice? Maybe men are supposed to stay silent through the whole thing. And maybe women are the ones who lose control. Batya again feels a wave of sensation between her legs, which shames and baffles her. She doesn’t understand why her body should respond to what’s happening in a neighbor’s bedroom. It has nothing to do with her.
She tries again to identify the voice. She knows it can’t be that of the sad-eyed Israeli woman directly across the walkway, the wife of the guy who hates the wind chimes. Batya feels sorry for her. She has heard the husband yelling at his wife in Hebrew, calling her an idiot so the whole neighborhood hears. He could never be gentle to anyone. Batya is sure the two of them hate each other too much to ever kiss or have sex. She has noticed how the woman puts all her love into her tiny garden on the edge of the walkway. Planting, watering, trimming. Batya has even heard her talking to the mint and fennel plants. “How are you today, my sweet ones, growing so fast!” If Batya were married to such a horrible husband, she’d go crazy and talk to the herbs too.
An “Oh, oh! No, no!” pierces the almost silent night.
Batya gets back into bed. The voice is deeper now, as if it’s coming from the woman’s chest, not her mouth. Batya can’t picture such a gruff, raw sound coming out of her own mouth. It’s barely human. And what do the crude noises have to do with love? With the queasy feeling Batya gets when she walks home from shul with Daniel?
She is embarrassed to be thinking of Daniel now as she listens to the woman’s cries becoming more ferocious, more insistent. She sticks her fingers in her ears and tries not to listen, but still hears. After shul on Saturday, Batya and Daniel walked together for a few blocks on the way to his family’s apartment for lunch. Daniel is two years older and someone Batya would love to kiss. His lips are full and serious. His eyes intensely study her face, instead of darting around at whoever else is passing by, like most boys’. During lunch she felt his eyes on her, and she couldn’t eat. She loved the fluttering feeling of being looked at as a woman instead of a girl.
The crying out escalates into a near scream. Batya can’t believe that the howling woman doesn’t feel utterly humiliated. Is this the first time this has happened, or just the first time Batya has heard it? How could she not have heard such wild, embarrassing screams before?
A neighbor yells out, “Keep it down!” and Hannie turns over in her bed, moaning in her sleep.
Batya looks at the clock. It’s 3:48. How long does sex last? Another question she could never ask her mother. The screams get louder, more rhythmic and unrelenting--like the shameless neighborhood crows that caw as they fly back and forth from one stretch of phone wires to another. Someone bangs a window shut.
Then the screams turn into one long, pleading moan--"aaaaaaaaaah!”
And it’s over.
The only sound left in the walkway is that of the fallen ficus leaves blowing down the pavement as a faint wind picks up.
Batya is aware that her heart is pounding and that her hand has slipped between her legs. She leaves it there, then looks over at Hannie tossing in her sleep and quickly moves her hand away. She hears her own breath, like a silent version of the unknown neighbor’s cries.
How long before she will go through the same thing? Some girls her age are already having sex, girls who go to public school and let their bellybuttons show, like the models on MTV. Batya’s mother doesn’t like her to watch MTV, but she does sometimes when her mom is at work. Girls not much older than Batya are almost having sex right there in the videos, their hips and breasts shaking, their glossy lips parted as if they’re crying out like Batya’s neighbor.
But Batya has to wait until she’s married. Orthodox girls must wait, but they’re encouraged to get married young--and have babies right away to fulfill God’s wishes.
What do a woman’s cries have to do with God? Is it what He wants women to feel? Batya listens to the plinking of the wind chimes and finally falls back to sleep.
At 7:02 Batya is startled awake with the droning noise of the leaf blower. Closing her eyes again, she is aware of other sounds beneath the leaf blower’s whirring. The blender in the kitchen, where her mother is making a smoothie for Hannie; the Pico buses; the helicopters that report on the traffic; the crows cawing; her alarm clock. She turns it off and goes to the window overlooking the walkway.
Maybe the voice was just a dream. Maybe it really was a cat, and Batya’s dreaming self made up the rest. She watches the gardener blowing a handful of leaves down the walkway with his heavy machine. It’s strapped on his back while he points the hose-like blower at the stray leaves. All the gardeners in Pico-Robertson are from Mexico, and Batya wonders if they’re glad to be living in L.A. Or do they miss their home, like she misses Netanya? In Netanya, she was still a little girl, the sweet pleasures in her life unquestioned and uncomplicated.
Batya turns from the window and puts on her bathrobe. When the leaf blower turns off his machine, she hears the Israeli guy yell at his wife in Hebrew as he heads down the walkway to work. “Idiot! Get the hell inside and put on some clothes!” Batya is about to go into the kitchen when she thinks she hears the voice from last night. At the window she listens for it amid the morning noises.
She’s not sure. First she hears the clicking of high heels, then the high-pitched laughter of the Japanese girlfriend. The laugh is in the same range as the cries from last night. The girl yells “Ciao!” and blows a kiss through the Persian guy’s window. Then Batya notices the Israeli’s wife kneeling by her garden in her nightgown. She’s weeping as she waters the mint, her cries barely distinguishable from the brazen girl’s laugh.
The cry or the laugh--which is it? Which got tangled up in her own body so that she can’t forget? Batya listens for another moment, then leaves her bedroom window and goes to bring breakfast to the homeless cats.