In the Presence of Strangers: First Impressions (Chapter III)

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No film or snapshot can capture the full effect of an Eastern Mediterranean sunset. The sun does not drift so much as plunge into the sea, hurdling like an overripe fruit into the arms of the wilting horizon. Daylight is harsh in the Middle East, and twilight is a voraciously awaited hour when travelers wary of the midday sun flock to the sea in droves and set up camp along the shoreline. Lifeguards bellow out warnings as they desert their posts for the night. Once they leave, little children leap into the waves with their parents looking on from distant seaside cafes, blissfully unaware that a sudden undercurrent might make their little ones a headline in the morning newspaper.

Off the coast of Netanya, there is a long section of the shoreline crowded with an assortment of green umbrellas, plastic seats, and picnic tables. The area belongs to the Good Morgan Restaurant, a popular beachside cafe famous for the quality of its greased falafel balls. On the evening of June 23rd, Raz was sitting at one of its tables rocking his seat back and forth in an effort to discover how far he could push the chair without falling over. He was paying little attention to Ofir Sasover, who was pontificating at the head of the table. Ilana sat next to Raz feigning interest in her friend’s conversation with an admirable number of sympathetic grunts. At the other end of the table, Nathan Sela was hunched over an ashtray with his mouth half open.

“I don’t understand why Gutman insisted on coming to this restaurant,” said Ofir. “The beach is pretty gross these days. And there are too many kids here. Honestly, this place is giving me a headache.”

“It’s all good,” mumbled Nathan before breaking off into peals of laughter.

“You’re right, Ofir,” said Ilana. “The summer is no time to come to the beach. It’s too hectic here this time of year.”

“That’s to say the least of it. This place is so noisy and unhygienic and sandy. Being here is like a punishment.”

“Of course it’s sandy— it’s the beach for God’s sake! I thought that it would be fun to eat here with Ilana. My sister is dating the owner’s son, and he promised that he’d fix the bill for us. I didn’t know that you’d be coming with us. But anyway, it’s a beautiful night and it doesn’t hurt to be outside for a little while, right?”

“I’m not surprised that you disagree with me, Gutman. It seems like you always disagree with everyone about everything. You’re a natural contrarian.”

“What can I say? I can’t help myself. I like being the center of attention. Maybe I have an inferiority complex.”

“You know,” said Ilana, “when you laugh at your own jokes, it probably means that they’re not very funny.”

“Actually, I’m only trying to stay awake, and it isn’t always so easy in this company.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir. I promise, Raz doesn’t mean anything that he says. Not really.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” said Ofir. “That’s why it’s impossible to get seriously offended by him. I only wish that you would be less touchy, Gutman. There’s a difference between being witty and being insulting.”

Raz opened his mouth to respond, but Ilana lurched forward and whispered into his ear.

“Please don’t embarrass me in front of Ofir tonight. You know how much I hate it when you get into arguments with him. Just let him talk.”

“But he’s done nothing but complain about the restaurant all night!”

“Leave him alone.”

Raz scowled. When he was alone with Ilana, she would at least provide him free rein to voice his opinions without unwelcome interruption. But in the presence of strangers, her silence would become oppressive, and every glance in his direction seemed quietly censorious. Above all things, he hated to be reproached, and even the most trivial criticism would have to come across as slightly qualified praise if it was to have any effect on him beyond inducing anger. Criticism implied condescension, and who was Ilana Fischer to look down on him? As for Ofir, he was so pompous that whenever he talked, Raz harbored a secret urge to heave the nearest available beverage into his face.

“Why don’t you tell us a joke, Raz?” suggested Ilana as Ofir paused speaking to cough into a napkin. “Didn’t you know a funny story about a little old woman who couldn’t cook?”

“Are you talking about your mother?”

“I told you, don’t try to be funny. Now, tell us that joke.”

“Isn’t that a contradiction?”

“You know what I mean. You’re not the best improviser. But you’re better when you’re rehearsed. Well?”

“I don’t remember how it goes.”

She stroked his chin with quasi-maternal affection.

“Don’t be such a grouch. Of course you remember it. One night, an old man was sitting with his wife in the kitchen, when-”

“That’s not right. You’re ruining the punch line. This is how it goes. One night, an old man was lying in bed with his wife. She told him, ‘You never bring me anywhere. Take me someplace that I’ve never been.’ So he said to her-”

“Excuse me,” said Ofir. “I can’t hear a word. My head is pounding. I don’t understand why there are kids in the water so late at night! It’s very annoying, and it’s dangerous too.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana gravely. “Is there anything that I can do?”

“No. It’s not your fault. Their parents are to blame. This water isn’t even fit for swimming. I may not be a marine biologist, but I think that the number of jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea has tripled over the past three years.”

Raz inhaled and exhaled deeply as Ofir began to make lyrical assertions about the breeding patterns of cnidarians. He hadn’t always been so impatient with Ilana’s friends. But their passive aggressive tactics infuriated him to the point of madness, and Ilana seemed to relish playing the martyr whenever he worked up the energy to confront her about the problem.

“Of course,” continued Ofir obliviously, “jellyfish, children and polluted sea foam are only the least of the Mediterranean’s problems. I could go on and on about the impact of climate change and El Nino.

“As I have no doubt you will,” said Raz. Ilana twisted her face into a grimace, but Raz couldn’t care less. If she insisted on subjecting him to her friends’ company and insulting him in front of them, then he would insist on punishing her for the effort. He began to twiddle his thumbs in an effort to broadcast his boredom. He wanted to go home.

A woman who moved like a dancer presently emerged from the restaurant. She was dressed in faded but tasteful clothing and carried a Louis Vuitton handbag that had seen better days. Although it was dark, her features were clear enough in the moonlight. Her face was charismatic rather than beautiful. Her complexion was very dark. She was obviously Sephardic, Moroccan perhaps, and shorter than she might have been. Her eyes were enormous, round and lively as a newborn’s and crowned with a forest of jet lashes. Raz couldn’t stop himself from staring at her. Unfortunately, when she reached the table, he noticed that the bridge of her nose was a millimeter too wide, and the perfection of his first impression was shattered. Somehow, though, the effect only made him want to study her face more closely.

“You there!” called Ofir. “Hello? We’ve been waiting to order for over fifteen minutes now. Will you get on with it, please? What are you waiting for?”

The girl wrinkled her brow and, after a pause, said in a voice more reminiscent of song than speech,

“I apologize for my gross incompetence.”

Although Ofir had originally hoped to frighten her by threatening not to leave a tip, he decided to put aside his complaints for the moment.

“I’ll have a helping of Turkish salad,” he said, “but hold the onions. I’ll also order your bolognaise, but tell the chef not to use too much meat. And bring me a bottle of Golani, and some pita bread with hummus. Well, that’s all!”

Ofir would have dispatched her to the kitchen then and there had not an angry glance from Raz reminded him that there were others at the table waiting to eat. Once they had all ordered their meals, the girl accurately repeated their requests without even having written them down, then walked back toward the restaurant. She seemed to shoot Raz a wink as she left, or perhaps had gotten sand in her eye.

“What was I just saying before we ordered… I was talking about sea pollution, wasn’t I? But Israel has bigger problems than dirty beaches. And I’m not just talking about the intifada. I may not know much about economics, but I’m sure that I don’t agree with what’s going on now in this country at all. Politicians need to consider Marxism more seriously when they formulate national policy.”

“Check out the patterns on this tablecloth,” said Nathan suddenly. “They’re sort of trippy, aren’t they?”

Ofir nodded his head as if someone had agreed with him and began to speak with even greater conviction than before.

“Yes, crackpots have certainly ruined modern economics. The days of pioneers and kibbutzim are history. There’s no appreciation anymore for the importance of getting rid of private property in the long term. And private property is the source of all evil.”

“Are you sure about that, Ofir? I actually think that private property helps human progress. I mean, the hope of getting rich motivates inventors. I think that Marx-”

“Oh boy, another argument,” said Ofir. “Here we go! Redn is zilber, sfaigen is gold.”[1]

“What does that mean?”

“It’s an example of Jewish wit, and you should take it to heart.”

“Please, please,” whispered Ilana. “Why don’t you listen to Ofir instead of arguing with him? You might learn something. He was at the top of our class, you know. What kind of grades did you make senior year?”

“I don’t mean to argue just for the sake of arguing,” said Raz quietly. “Look, to be honest with you Ilana, maybe I’ve been a little bit unfriendly tonight. I have the maturity to understand that, and I’m sorry. It’s just that this constant criticism is overpowering me. Whenever I express an independent thought, it seems like all of you-”

“I really need an Acamol,” interrupted Ofir. “I mean, my head is killing me. Please don’t talk right now.”

“I’m sorry,” squeaked Ilana. “Is there anything that I can do for you?”

“I don’t think so. When is that waitress going to be back with our food?”

“Excuse me,” snapped Raz. “But I was in the middle of saying something.”

“Relax, habibi,” said Nathan. “You don’t need to shout.”

“Don’t be rude, Raz,” said Ilana, patting his chin.

“But you’re the ones being rude! And stop infantilizing me, for God’s sake! Stop touching my face!”

“You’re making a fool out of yourself, Raz.”

With that, Raz threw down his napkin and prepared to cause a scene. But the sight of tears in Ilana’s eyes induced him to stop himself. He crossed his arms, dripping with angst. Encountering no further opposition, Ofir launched into a speech about why it would be better to replace Arabic language classes with additional classes in biblical studies in all schools. Although he was an atheist, he explained, these kinds of courses would enhance Israeli nationalism. The monologue lasted for ten minutes, and he kept repeating the phrase “ardent nationalist” as a verbal crutch. Raz counted it six times.

They noticed the woman with the beautiful eyes coming toward their table again carrying a tray of food. To Ofir’s dismay, she walked right past him.

“You there, waitress! Excuse me! You forgot our food.”

She brought her hand to her hair without turning her head.

“Excuse me?”

“I said that you forgot our food. We’ve been waiting for over a half hour for it now. And from what I can see on your tray, you’ve gotten our orders all wrong. I didn’t even order falafel! Leave the pita bread here, but take the rest away.”

“Have you really been waiting all this time for your food? No wonder your friend has fallen asleep.”

“That’s right,” said Ofir, glancing at Nathan. “This place might not be the Ritz, but there’s a certain lowest common denominator of professionalism to be expected anywhere. I swear, when I see this sort of incompetence, it almost makes me regret being such an ardent socialist.”

“You’re an ardent socialist, huh?”

“Yes, I’m an ardent socialist,” he answered, still eyeing the food, “Just as much as I’m an ardent nationalist.”

“Then you’re the first Nazi I’ve ever met.”

“Very funny! Just give me my food.”

“But I’m not your waitress. In fact, I’m not a waitress at all. You’re supposed to order at the counter, fool. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think that my falafel balls are getting cold. Good night.”

She shook a ringlet of ebony hair from her brow and disappeared into the crowd. Raz roared with laugher.

“What do you think about that? We’ve all been waiting for nothing! All of Ofir’s commands were wasted on a stranger.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana. “That girl was rude to lead us on the way she did about who she was. Raz, would you please stop rocking your chair back and forth like that? You’re like a child.”

By this time, Raz was through festering silently.

“You’re right, Ilana. That girl was very rude. But do you know what else is rude? Bitching at someone in public all the time. It’s a terrible thing to do. It’s almost as bad as talking on and on without end.”

“I can’t believe how immature you are,” said Ilana. “When are you going to grow up?”

“You can go to hell! God knows you’ve done nothing but critique me since we left Kefar Sava.”

“You’re causing a scene,” she said in a voice that wavered between being pleading and menacing. “Why are you always overreacting to everything?”

The lamp light again reflected tears on her cheeks. Raz did his best to ignore them, but his surge of self-confidence once more gave way to guilt. Arguments were usually secretly a little bit entertaining to him so long as they were going on, but tended to disgust him when they were concluded. After an awkward pause, he decided on one last attempt to heal the table’s wounds.

“Well, everyone seems to be very quiet all of a sudden! If the beach is so terrible, why don’t we all go to Tira instead? I know a nice little restaurant there. What do you say?”

“Under no circumstances,” said Ofir. “You of all people would think of eating in an Arab town these days. Let’s just go back to Kefar Sava. I’m exhausted.”

“What’s wrong, Ofir? Do you have a problem with Arabs?”

“Don’t play games with me. Some things aren’t worth debating about.”

“But the people in Tira are Israeli Arabs.”

“It makes no difference. We’re at war, Raz.”

“I think that I’m going to be sick,” moaned Nathan.

Raz rose from the table, and the others followed him. They reached the minivan. Ofir lurched into the driver’s seat, and Ilana climbed into the seat beside him and opened the back door for Raz and Nathan. It was then that Raz turned his back on the company.

“I’d rather walk home, if you don’t mind!”

“What’s wrong now? Kefar Sava is forty minutes away! Why are you being so unreasonable all the time lately?”

“Never mind, Ilana. Don’t worry about it. Sit next to Ofir and drive home. I have no desire to see any more of you tonight, or ever again in my life, really.”

Ilana began to protest, but suddenly and uncharacteristically stopped herself. She was covered with sand, hungry, and humiliated. Humoring Raz would only encourage him. Maybe leaving him alone at the beach would teach him a lesson for making a fool out of her in front of her friends. Ofir began to drive away, and she didn’t stop him. No one in the car said a word. Eventually, she turned the radio to the most beautiful song that she could find and settled on an American ballad she couldn’t understand, except for a single line about heaven being overrated.

Secretly, though, she was not overly concerned. It was hardly the first time she had fought with Raz, and things always seemed to iron themselves out in a day or two. He was always ready to start an argument, but he never held grudges. Besides, making up with him was her favorite part of their relationship. Comforted by these considerations, she drove back toward Kefar Sava, engrossed in her own thoughts as Ofir offered comforting platitudes and Nathan clutched his stomach.

In the meantime, Raz jogged back to the beach. Although he was furious with Ilana for actually leaving without him and told himself that he would never forgive her, her absence made him euphoric. After some thought, he found himself wandering back into the restaurant and pretending to look for a misplaced credit card until he found the woman with the beautiful eyes sitting alone at a far table. The night had taken on a dreamlike quality, and he was in the mood for an adventure.

“Do you have a cigarette?” he asked in the most suave voice that he could muster up.

She answered without turning her head.

“I don’t smoke. Not cigarettes, anyway.”

“Neither do I.”

“I remember you,” she said very rapidly. “You were the boy who was sitting next to the windbag and the opiate addict. What’s your name?”

“Raz.”

“And mine’s Yasmine. You’re not shy, are you, to come chasing after me with a ridiculous pickup line when I know you’re dating that girl with the whining voice?”

“What makes you think that it was a pickup line?”

“You asked me for a cigarette, but you said you’re not a smoker. It doesn’t take a Shylock to figure out what you want.”

“Excuse me?”

“Isn’t that the name of the English detective who smokes a pipe in all the old movies?”

Raz smiled and (having taken another look at the bridge of her nose and decided that its size was an annoyance to be endured) said,

“It’s Sherlock. And he’s not just a movie character. There are books about him too. Shylock is someone totally different. He’s the Jew from The Merchant of Venice.

“Well, I wouldn’t know. To be honest, I’ve never been very interested in books.”

“Really?”

“I have no patience for them, and I’m not embarrassed to say so. I haven’t read a book in years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever honestly read one from cover to cover in my whole life. Well, I take that back. There are two exceptions, both in English. I once read this old children’s book about a rabbit who says goodnight to everything in his bedroom before he falls asleep. I wore it out when I was a kid. I wonder where it is now.”

“I think Goodnight Moon doesn’t exactly count as real literature.”

“Was that the name of the book? Do you know it?”

“Everybody knows it.”

“I never knew the title—the cover was ripped off of my copy. Anyway, I thought that it was brilliant.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“What a snob you are! For your information, I thought that it perfectly captured the feeling of what it’s like to be a little kid trying to fall asleep, staring at everything in the room until consciousness… evaporates.”

“Interesting choice of words there. Very poetic.”

“Thanks! I do my best. Anyway, the book used simple language, but it was unforgettable. And there was something comforting about reading the simple sentence patterns again and again. It was like a lullaby.”

“What was the other book that you read?”

Moby Dick. It was alright too in its own way, I guess. But it was endless.”

“Wow. I was expecting you to say Goldilocks and the Three Bears or something like that.”

“I mean, Moby Dick wasn’t my choice. My father would read me a chapter a night when I was very young. He used it to teach me English. There wasn’t a single interesting female character in it, so it suited his tastes perfectly.”

“I also read long books to learn better English. My grandfather and I read Gone with the Wind together. A chapter a day, whenever I would visit him.”

“I didn’t even realize it was a book. It’s my favorite movie.”

“Mine too!”

“Really?”

“Yes! Leigh and Gable are incredible. But the book is even better.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It’s a close race. Anyway, your father and my grandfather both sound like patient men. We probably owe them a lot. More than we realize, I bet.”

She laughed bitterly in response to that. Then she said, “Well anyway, like I said, I’m no great reader. I guess that I enjoy happiness and pleasure too much. I might as well watch television or shop in my free time.”

“To tell you the truth, some of the most incredible moments in my life were spent reading books. There’s no better way to escape from the world for a while, or from yourself. Would you mind if I sat down?”

“What about your friends?”

“They’re not really my friends. And anyway, they’re gone now. I’m alone.”

“You can sit here if you want to, but I was really just about to leave.”

She pushed back her chair, but he stopped her gently with his hand and spoke in a voice that he hardly recognized as his own.

“Maybe I can buy you a coffee or something?”

“You’re out of luck, because I don’t drink coffee.”

“And neither do I! God, Yasmine, who would have thought that two strangers would have so much in common?”

There was an awkward silence. Then, spontaneously, they both produced an identical sigh at exactly the same moment. They laughed, and Raz took this as an invitation to join her. Eventually, he would have to find a way back to Kefar Sava, but for the moment, he didn’t want to think about the details. Maybe the evening wouldn’t turn out so badly after all.

[1] Speech is silver, silence is gold.

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