In the Presence of Strangers: The Gutman Family (Chapter II)

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Nachum Gutman, his wife, and three children lived in a one story cement box in the town of Kefar Sava crowned with a small attic that served as a storage room. Mundane at best and Spartan at worst, these accommodations were in fact something of a unique blessing for the Gutman family. The Holy Land is small and its holy dirt is accordingly expensive. In the wake of exorbitant market prices, the majority of Israelis live atop one another in crowded apartment complexes. But the nearer the West Bank one ventures, the cheaper land becomes, and Kefar Sava is just inconveniently situated enough to render back yards affordable to a few lucky members of the middle class. The town is a teeming place, and in 2001 boasted the distinction of housing what was then the largest Kentucky Fried Chicken in the entire Middle East.

But the comforts of Kefar Sava weren’t always accessible to the Gutman family. When they first married, Nachum and his wife lived in an inexpensive apartment in Qiryat Ono. Although their flat was far from luxurious, it was quite comfortable for two people. After the birth of Yael, they called it cozy. After the birth of Raz, they called it crowded. After the birth of Yonatan, they called it quits. Although Nachum was only an under-manager at the ELCO Factory, twenty years of thrift and two mortgages allowed the Gutmans tenure of their own concrete and linoleum Xanadu. But even though their house was humble, it boasted some degree of local notoriety. Thanks to a managerial fluke, its back yard was a full two meters wider on either side than it should have been.

From the day that his family first moved to Kefar Sava, Nachum took pathetic pride in the slightly inflated size of his back yard. When he could no longer endure the critiques of his mother (who lived thankfully far away back in Qiryat Ono), the complaints of his wife, or the selfishness of his children, he would find an excuse to grow a new plant. Consequently, by the summer of 2001, not so much as a single window was visible behind a veritable jungle of laurel trees and rose bushes. But if one were to cast aside the foliage on the twenty-third day of June and peek inside the little bunker’s lavatory, the snoop would catch sight of an entertaining spectacle. An eighteen year old boy was primping in front of the bathroom mirror with all of the flamboyance of a peacock in heat.

Raz hummed unmelodically as he smeared his neck with lather and fumbled to retrieve a razor from his leather bag of toiletries. A pile of clothing soaked in a puddle of bathwater lay beside him. It hardly mattered. He was confident that his mother would clean up after him. He rubbed a circle of steam from the mirror and examined his reflection. He considered to himself that though he was lankier than he might have preferred, he had the face of the muse of a Renaissance artist. But despite the generous amounts of acne cream he had applied the night before, his forehead remained distressingly oily. He attempted to shave the elusive space between his chin and Adam’s apple. His efforts met with little success, but he told himself that he had done a fine job. He shaved his upper lip, creating a fleeting little Hitler moustache as he did so. He made a scary face at himself in the mirror. Then he shaved it off. He tried to whistle the national anthem. He examined his hairline apprehensively. He wondered if he would go bald like his father.

Raz was born with wisps of light blonde hair and iridescent blue eyes, but his head in general darkened after the age of three. For a time, his mother attempted to rub lemon juice into his scalp in an effort to bleach it back to its former splendor. Unfortunately, the resulting color was little better than a riot of brown streaks. Eventually, Miriam was compelled to resign herself to a swarthy son. But though Raz grew darker and coarser with age, a flicker of gold would occasionally shimmer in his hair, and he would seem to regain something of his former appearance. Now, however, was not one of those occasions. He was so tan that in bad lighting, he could almost pass for an Arab.

At eighteen, he was through with school and did not regret its passing. Although keenly intelligent, he was bored by the ambience of the classroom and had made no real friends there. He spent most of his time dreaming about America. He perfected his English by imitating the accents of the casts of Seinfeld and Friends. One of his greatest accomplishments in life was getting through every word of an old copy of Gone with the Wind with his grandfather and double checking that they understood each sentence with the help of a published translation. He’d had a lot of spare time on his hands once.

As for the army, it was still months away and, despite the shadow that it cast across the youths of all Israelis, still remained intangible to him. All that mattered was that he was finally old enough to open the bank account that Safta Gisela has started for him when he was born; for now, ten thousand dollars was more money than he could even dream of spending. Sandwiched between the inaccessibility of the past and the uncertainty of the future, he had made a conscious decision to dispense altogether with his yesterdays and tomorrows. He looked uncertainly at his reflection and began to gargle mouthwash. He hoped that he would be ready in time.

He’d been preparing for the past half hour for a date with Ilana, the girl that his mother called his chavera. If it were up to him, he would have preferred to call her his nothing. She’d been his acquaintance for years, and just another faceless face he encountered every day between a smile and a yawn. But one day his senior year, she smiled at him in the hallway. Then some insane impulse impelled him to ask her to the movies. That was the beginning of the end.

He’d never even been on a date before. Until that year, he had been disfigured by acne all over his face. The repugnance with which he was sure everyone encountered him had imprisoned him in an involuntary state of asexuality throughout his adolescence, stunting the development of his social graces. To justify the world’s lack of interest in him, he’d learned to delude himself into believing that he was similarly indifferent. He’d taught himself to fear both the intimacy of a relationship and the emotional horror of a breakup. And he had long since made it a habit to hunt for the imperfections of his classmates in search of excuses to disregard the effort of initiating a romance with any of them. Better to do that, he thought, than to risk the humiliation of his awkward advances being rejected, or the suffocation that would inevitably follow as the attendant consequences of their acceptance. And so he spent the majority of his high school years masturbating in the dark to the thought of rich and popular girls who were out of his league.

For some reason, though, he’d decided to take a chance with Ilana. Maybe he wanted to see what he’d been missing all those years. She enjoyed the particular recommendation of his mother, who was an old family friend of her parents. Miriam was always warning him that the over-critical die alone, morose advice though it might have been to give to a teenage son. To his surprise, Ilana accepted him, pustules and all. At first, the magic of a fumbling physical relationship blinded him to reason, and for a long time, he did his best to enjoy her company. But it wasn’t easy. She was always second guessing his intentions and pointing out his flaws. Worse yet, she persisted in forcing him to spend time with her friends, a group of people he found almost unbearably irritating. Eventually, he grew to dislike almost everything about Ilana. But somehow, without his even knowing it, she’d become his chavera.

Then, one day, as if by magic, his acne cleared up. Girls suddenly began to notice him. Of course, to leave the woman who’d chosen him before his metamorphosis in exchange for the superficial harpies who’d always spurned him would have been disgusting. Besides, he was too chivalrous to abandon Ilana after all they’d done together. But his patience was beginning to wear thin.

He chafed his head with a towel and gazed longingly at himself in the mirror. He was almost unusually handsome, he thought, although he often claimed to deny it. But Ilana’s face was the shape of a watermelon and her jaw jutted out like a witch’s chin. He was never really at ease with her. She seemed to see him as a piece of shapeless marble to be refined and transformed by her persistence. But Raz wanted to be his own sculptor.

He clawed at his face for a final time and, after burnishing the dry skin on his nose with a paper towel, decided to take a second shower. His first had been too short, and anyway, he found the feeling of the hot water to be calming. But when he approached the tub, he toppled over his ball of laundry, landing squarely on his stomach. For a moment, he lay paralyzed in a sea of soap and dirty clothes. But then, he laughed at his clumsiness, got up, and turned the shower handle, staring at the tiles of the bathroom wall as he waited for the water to grow warm again.

Their dark blue pattern reminded him of the beach. As a child, he’d fantasized about being a deep sea diver, although he’d long since learned that there was little more than filth and jelly fish to be discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean. But still, he remembered the ambition fondly. It reminded him that for as long as he could remember, he was always curious to discover what lay beneath the surface. For all of his faults, he told himself that he was a deep person, and as such enjoyed a certain diplomatic immunity in all his of dealings with other people. Whatever anyone thought of him, he would always have his profundity of character, and for the time being at least, that was more than enough to justify his self-absorption.

He congratulated himself on his powers of introspection and checked the water temperature. Finding it to his liking, he stepped into the tub. Just then, the bathroom door flung open and a little voice cried out at him from across the room.

“Get out of here, Yael! You don’t own the place, you know!”

Yonatan had pounded on the bathroom door so violently that he accidentally pushed it open. Raz moved the shower curtain aside and poked out his head.

“Get out of here yourself, Yonatan!”

“I’m sorry Raz,” he stammered, scrambling out of the bathroom. “I didn’t know that it was you.”

Yonatan closed the door and hunched miserably over the threshold. He hoped that Raz wasn’t angry with him. He loved his older brother blindly. Raz was never too busy to do things like tell him stories at night before he went to bed, or help him build Lego sets, or watch American cartoons together, or play Pokemon on Gameboy. This sort of kindness stood in marked opposition to the frigidity of their sister Yael, who was always ignoring him. Granted, she’d been friendly to him for about a week earlier that month when the news about Irina’s murder first broke, but she’d since reverted back to her usual callousness. Raz, though, was absolutely magnificent, swept up in some enigmatic sense of purpose that somehow lay beyond the comprehension of a nine year old mind. For all of his reverence, though, Yonatan could think of nothing at the moment but his need to use the bathroom. He prayed to God that his body would prove physically capable of waiting out a second shower.

After what seemed like an eternity, Raz opened the door clad in red, white, and blue striped boxers.

“You shouldn’t go barging into bathrooms without knocking,” said Raz all-knowingly. “Remember, we only have one shower, and there are five people in this house.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” answered Yonatan, shuffling in place. “I wouldn’t have pounded on the door so hard if I knew that it was you in there and not Yael.”

Raz smiled.

“Do you want to help me pick out clothes to wear tonight? I’ll let you into my room again. Your daytime exile will be officially called off.”

Yonatan forced himself to be still.

“Really, Raz?”

“Why not? I admire your fashion sense.”

Really, Raz?”

“Yeah, now hurry up.”

“I’ll be there in a minute!”

“My door will be locked in a minute,” called Raz, already making his way to the house’s bomb shelter that doubled as his bedroom. “If you want to come, you’ll have to come now.”

“Can’t you wait?” pleaded Yonatan, scrambling after him despite himself. “You haven’t let me into your room during the day since I spilled Fanta on your Gameboy last week. I’ll only be a minute!”

“Never mind, Yonatan. Forget about it. Maybe you can make a visit with Ima when she comes in here to vacuum someday.”

“But-”

“Just be quiet and help me find my socks.”

Raz ruffled Yonatan’s hair and then began to rummage through his dresser. Yonatan stared at his brother in mute awe.

“Do you really admire my fashion sense?”

“Sure. I bet that your plastic sandals are the hottest things on the playground.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“I’m impressed you know that word.”

“Are you kidding? Ima screams it at me all the time.”

“Anyway, what do you think I should wear tonight?”

“I think you should wear your zebra shirt, the one with the black and white stripes.”

“Wow. That’s a pajama top, Yonatan.”

“Really? It looks cool though. To go with it, why don’t you borrow Aba’s work boots, and-”

Before Yonatan could finish his sentence, Raz’s cell-phone rang in his back pocket. After a couple of rounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he discovered the telephone buried beneath a petrified ball of tissue paper and brought it to his ear, involuntarily cringing for fear of cranial cancer.

“Hello? Oh, shalom, Ilana. Speak up, I can’t hear you. I hate holding these things too close to my head. I’ll be ready in a few minutes…”

Yonatan began to pace around the room. At last, he considered making a break for it when the sudden sight of Raz’s flaring nostrils stopped him in his tracks.

“What do you mean Ofir and Nathan are coming with us to the beach? Why did you invite them? You know how much I hate it when you… yes, yes, yes, I still want to go out! It’s too late to change plans now… No, Ilana, I don’t think that I’m overreacting…Oh, I promise you that I won’t antagonize Ofir! Has it ever occurred to you that he might be the one who’s always insulting me?”

By now Yonatan was reduced to hopping miserably in place. Unable to bear the wait any longer, he finally rushed out of the room and into the hallway. The moment he reached the bathroom, though, Yael swept into his path and said,

“Get out of my way, kid.”

He prepared to protest, but his sister slammed the door in his face before he could say a word. Yael ignored her brother’s squeals and looked for her reflection in the bathroom mirror. There was nothing there. Raz had done a fine job of clouding up the room. She noticed his pile of dirty laundry on the floor. Her mother would expect her to pick up after him, no doubt, despite the fact that it was her birthday. She cursed under her breath and wiped away a circle of steam from the mirror. She examined her face. She was not beautiful and she knew it. Eyes, nose, mouth, all in their proper places, but all terribly unremarkable. Her nostrils were set too widely apart, and her forehead was too high. She was her mother’s daughter.

Since her best friend Avital had moved away to Haifa, Yael’s life was like a never-ending one act play with an eternity of the same monologues, the same scenery, and the same bad actors. One day, she thought, the curtain would rise unexpectedly on a new act, complete with fresh scenery and new players. But for the time being, she was confined to the longsuffering servant’s role in the most boring drawing room comedy in world history, imprisoned in the doldrums of polite domesticity with all of the inevitability of an Israeli Cinderella. She bit her lip at the thought of it and then began to brush her teeth.

In the meantime, Yonatan ran into the kitchen, his face scarlet. His mother was standing at the counter drying tears from her eyes. The entire house reeked of onion and garlic.

Ima, Yael won’t let me-”

“Oh Yonatan, don’t shout!” shouted Miriam.

“But Ima-

“I’m busy right now. Can’t you do anything on your own? You’re ten years old!”

“I’m nine.”

“That’s funny. When you wanted to stay up until midnight yesterday, you said that you were ten. It’s a talent to change your age at will like that.”

“You should know. You’ve turned thirty-nine for five years in a row now.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic! For God’s sake, where’s your father? He left to buy drinks like an hour ago. How long do we have to wait for him?”

Yonatan left the kitchen and hobbled toward a bean bag chair in the living room. He grimaced at his mother, but Miriam took no notice. She was busy running from microwave to oven and from pot to pan with more energy than her rudimentary recipes seemed to demand. Her hair clung to her forehead in thick black strands, but she would not take the time to rearrange it— her husband would see her unkempt state and realize how hard she’d been working preparing for the party without him.

She considered that she’d once been an attractive woman. But when she approached the sink and caught sight of her reflection in a metal pan, it seemed to her that her distorted image was more like a heap of crumples than a face. She felt a sharp pain in her right arm. Maybe she was coming down with arthritis. In fact, she knew that she was coming down with it. She felt it creeping into her joints day by day, and her great aunt Margot had had it besides. But she didn’t have time for personal concerns right now. There was work to be done, and her toil would probably never end until she was in the grave and at least granted the poetic justice of leaving her family helpless. She placed the lid on a pot of chicken broth and moved to slice a loaf of bread.

Yael now trudged into the kitchen. Yonatan leapt from the couch and ran into the newly vacant bathroom, knocking over an end-table as he did so.

“I wish that the psychiatrist would have listened to me and prescribed Ritalin for him,” said Miriam, whispering the word psychiatrist.

“It’s been a hard month for him.”

“It’s been a hard month for all of us. But it seems like Yonatan can’t focus on anything for more than ten minutes at a time anymore. It’s becoming a headache. Really, I don’t understand why summer vacations have to last the whole summer. Don’t schools have any pity on parents? He has nothing to do but sit around the house all day and think about things that he can’t help. No wonder the boy has nightmares. And all of his friends are away at camp. There’s nothing to help take his mind off things.”

She turned to Yael. “By the way, I want you to clean the bathroom floor before Safta gets here, but you can sit here for now, to rest. Just don’t look in the refrigerator. I’m making something special for your birthday and I want it to be a surprise. Is that a new dress?”

“You bought it for me three years ago for my graduation. It was on sale.”

“Well, it looks good as new and is really very flattering on you. It almost gives the impression you have a chest.”

Ima!”

“I was only saying that it was a smart choice to wear tonight! It’s very adult. You know, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that you’re turning twenty-one today. Can you believe that I was twenty-one when your father proposed to me?”

“Well times have changed,” said Yael, flipping to a documentary on the Learning Channel. “You’re not being very subtle with your hints. But I want you to know that there’s more to life than marriage, especially at my age. Now that I’ve finished with the army, I should be off seeing the world. I should be in India or Thailand or some exotic place like that. But instead, I’m trapped here in this kitchen with you.”

She scanned her mother’s face for a reaction. Miriam laughed.

“You can fly to any third world country you like when you have something in your pocket to send you there.”

Yael clicked her tongue against her teeth and focused her attention on the television. A woman in a white lab coat was speaking in an authoritative voice about genetics.

In light of groundbreaking research, genes have proven more than relevant to the field of modern biology. They may well hold significant clues to our understanding of life itself at the dawn of the new millennium.

“I’ll have something to send me there soon enough,” said Yael, looking raptly at the screen, “and I won’t need anyone’s favors after I go to nursing school… I still want to go to nursing school, you know.”

“You and Avital would talk about enrolling all the time when you were in high school.”

“But I was more sincere about it than she was, evidently.”

“I imagined that the dream died for both of you after she got engaged to that corporal she met in the army.”

“Dreams never die.”

“That’s what you think. Anyway, I’m sure that Shlomie’s going to love that new dress.”

“Stop repeating yourself. I told you that it wasn’t new. Besides, Shlomie wouldn’t notice it even if it was. He’s a pretty oblivious person.”

“You’re awfully cranky tonight. Has something changed between you two?”

“Of course not. That’s the problem. Our relationship is totally boring. Nothing ever changes between us.”

“Spontaneity is overrated, Yael. There’s something to be said for consistency.”

Miriam wiped her hands on her apron and returned to the oven. Whatever Yael’s many shortcomings, her taste in men at least was impeccable. Her boyfriend came from one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the country. When his parents first immigrated from Czechoslovakia, they were known as the Morgans, but after their beachside restaurant grew into a chain of popular cafes, they eventually adopted the name Shachar, setting aside memories of the Second World War and accentuating their Israeli heritage instead. Granted, Shlomie was not exactly a witty or personable or clever young man, and he had somehow doubled in weight since joining the army. But did these kinds of details really matter, considering that he was an aristocrat? Yael had met him two years ago at a distant cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, and they’d been dating ever since. They would undoubtedly marry someday. Miriam was sure of it. In fact, Shlomie’s mother Tziporah had confided that the engagement was coming any day now. She saw herself in her daughter’s eyes and beamed, pushing a plate of dry biscuits in the direction of her face.

“Eat those crackers.”

“I don’t want them.”

“Eat them.”

“I said no.”

“You look like a skeleton, Yael! Eat the crackers!”

Yael ate the crackers.

A car honked in the parking lot. Miriam hurried to the window hoping to find Nachum, but only saw Ilana Fischer opening the door of an unfamiliar minivan. She nodded her head in grudging approval. She was pleased that Ilana was Raz’s girlfriend despite the fact that her parents were a pair of stingy ingrates. She could not forget that they had arrived empty-handed at Rosh Ha Shana after she’d spent eighty shekels on a stainless steel frying pan for their anniversary party. Oddly enough, Ilana didn’t appear to be carrying anything with her, and Miriam wondered just where she was hiding her daughter’s birthday present. She wouldn’t have dared to show her face without a gift after the scandal of the frying pan. Still, Miriam realized that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, she might be bringing a check. She answered the door before the girl could find the time to knock on it.

“Hello, Miriam,” gasped Ilana. “You startled me! Is Raz ready to go?”

“I wasn’t expecting you tonight! How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”

“Under the weather, to be honest. As usual.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Do you have a bag or an envelope or something that I can help you with?”

“Excuse me?”

“Aren’t you here for my daughter’s party?”

Raz now appeared in the hallway. His head shimmered with mousse, and a single strand of hair lay carefully positioned on his forehead for a show of spontaneity. Ilana tried to embrace him, but he did not return the gesture. He began to follow her outside, but Miriam stopped him.

“What’s going on, Raz?”

“I’m going out.”

“But it’s your sister’s birthday party tonight.”

“Well, happy birthday to her. Did I shave the bottom of my neck right? I can never tell.”

“It’s your sister’s twenty-first birthday, and you’re going out?”

“Right.”

“But we’ve been getting ready for this party all day. Don’t you have any consideration for her feelings?”

“Only about as much as she has for mine.”

“You used to be so close.”

“That was a long time ago, Ima.”

Miriam began to protest, but just then, Nachum and Gisela entered the house bearing a cargo of assorted groceries.

“Where have you been?” growled Miriam. “I thought that something terrible happened to you and we’d have no drinks for the party!”

“Well, that would have been a heavy loss,” said Nachum, positioning his bag of groceries on the table and making his way into the living room.

“You said that you would only be gone for ten minutes! How could you leave me by myself to…look at me, Nachum! I feel like a slave in my own house sometimes.”

“Sorry,” he said, opening the newspaper.

Gisela stared coldly at her daughter-in-law.

“Hello, Miriam.”

“Oh, shalom, Gisela,” said Miriam hurriedly but in a deferential voice. “Yael is in the kitchen and Yonatan is upstairs. They’ll be happy to see you. Raz is going out.”

She kissed her mother-in-law’s cheek and rushed out of sight, mumbling objections to herself as she went. Gisela winked at her grandson.

“Wherever you’re going, you’d better leave now, before your mother gets back,” she said, slipping him a hundred shekel bill whose absence she would feel in her weekly budget, although not too acutely. “Have a good time.”

Raz embraced his grandmother and kissed her on both cheeks. Then he left the house, slamming the door behind him. Gisela watched him leave intently. He would be a soldier soon.

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