In the Presence of Strangers: Party Embers (Chapter IV)

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It was eleven-thirty in Kefar Sava. Although not yet midnight, the town’s energies were depleted, and the place seemed little better than a maze of abandoned parks and alleyways. The portly blue and white balloons floating over the gate of 10 Anna Frank Street had begun to sag. But the party progressing inside wasn’t over just yet.

Much to his chagrin, Yonatan had been packed off to bed. He was busily eavesdropping with his ear to the door by the time that Miriam finished serving her guests Bavarian cream birthday cake. Tziporah, Abraham and Shlomie Shachar had all arrived fashionably late, considerably delaying the evening’s festivities. But by that hour, gifts had been unwrapped, dinners eaten, and tongues loosened by the sweetness of supermarket wine.

Tziporah held her breath for a moment in a show of refined indignation. She was relating a grievous story about how El Al had seated her apart from her husband on their recent trip to Thailand. What did she care if the plane was overbooked and they’d only arrived one hour before the flight instead of the customary three? Their tickets were for business class seats!

“I’m telling you, Miriam,” she said decisively, “that we will never, never fly El Al again. Their stewardesses are so unhelpful. I don’t know where they find them these days. They used to be so gracious and polite, but interacting with them now is like torture.”

“Where did they end up seating you?”

“Next to some Russians who got an upgrade. The whole plane was full of them. And the cow sitting next to me refused to switch seats with Abraham.”

“How do you tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Russian?” asked Shlomie excitedly.

“I don’t know, how?” said Yael after an uncomfortable pause, preemptively rolling her eyes.

“One has yellow skin, and the other has yellow teeth! Get it?”

Everyone forced themselves to laugh.

“In my day,” chimed Gisela from her seat beside the television, “when a Jew came to Israel he was an Israeli, and that was that. But times have changed. I think that the Russians are ruining this country.”

“Oh Ima, enough!”

“I mean what I say, Nachum. They aren’t conforming to the culture here. In fact, they’re actively changing it for the worse. Drunk driving, prostitution, the mafia… Did you know that I found a burglar in my apartment last month?”

“No!”

“It’s true, Tziporah. I found him in the kitchen when I came home from the theater. He darted straight out the door when I screamed for help. The rat stole every bit of jewelry in the house. He even took my wedding ring. Damned Cossack.”

“Russians have been in Israel since the foundation of the country, Safta,” said Yael.

“Yes, my dear. But they were a totally different breed of Russians,” said Tziporah.

“Trust me, most of these newcomers aren’t even Jewish,” said Gisela, “Leftists have ruined this country, letting the Goy invade us. My stomach turns every time I walk through Tel Aviv these days.”

“Please, Ima! You don’t know how hateful and close-minded you sound. It makes me sick.”

“Insult me all you want, but Israel is meant to be the homeland of the Jews, and not the unemployment office of East Asia and the Balkans. We don’t need diversity here. Leave that to America, where everyone is a mongrel.”

“Well, I’m sure that El Al’s rudeness just ruined your flight,” said Miriam. “Personally, I haven’t been overseas myself in years.”

“If you don’t count Tel Aviv,” interjected Shlomie. “Get it? Tel Aviv has so many Russians in it these days, it seems like a foreign country!”

“To be honest, I’ve never really enjoyed traveling very much,” continued Miriam after a courteous nod. “I have a pretty sensitive stomach, and I’m claustrophobic too. A crowded airplane cabin is hardly my ideal place to take a seat.”

“Why don’t you take motion-sickness pills?” said Tziporah. “You shouldn’t trap yourself in this house. You’ll regret it when you’re older. Right, Abraham?”

“Yes.”

Abraham Shachar spoke little and only with great difficulty. Any spark of liveliness or humor that he once possessed vanished long ago when he lost his entire family in the Second World War. Thanks to the shadow that Terezin cast upon his existence, he enjoyed nothing better than being left alone, and dreaded nothing more than polite conversation.

“I could never swallow pills,” protested Miriam, stroking her own head. “I was just telling my doctor the other day that the only way I can take medicine is in liquid form. If I took motion sickness pills, I would have to break up the tablets and mix them with water, and I’m sure that the taste would make me sick to my stomach.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Tziporah. “Motion sickness pills would not nauseate you! There are so many wonderful places to visit. Eastern Europe is all the rage these days. In fact, we’ll be visiting Prague this February. You should join us.”

“Well isn’t that a kind offer. Isn’t that a generous offer, Nachum?”

“Are they offering to pay for us?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Well, it’s a nice thought, Tziporah, but we will have to pass. I couldn’t stand the flight. I get so nervous in large crowds and closed spaces that I just want to crawl out of my skin. It horrifies me to give up control over my life to a captain I’ve never even met. I mean, how do I know that he’s not drunk or asleep at the wheel? Man wasn’t designed by evolution to be hurled through the sky in metal boxes. Granted, Nachum and I almost took a flight to Eilat a couple of years ago for a wedding, but we had to back out at the last minute. My doctor, Dr. Shatz… Dr. Shatz is a very sympathetic man, you know… he actually recommended that I take Valium to calm myself down. But I explained to him that just the idea of gagging on pills makes me-”

“Are you enjoying your birthday party, Yael?” asked Tziporah.

“Yes, thank you.”

“I see that my son didn’t bring you a present.”

“That will come later,” said Shlomie, slapping her back.

“You know, Yael,” said Tziporah, “the time has really come for you to visit our summer house in the Galilee by the Mount of Beatitudes. I can’t believe that you’ve been dating Shlomie for two years now and have never made the trip. We have a movie theater and a bowling alley and two swimming pools there and…well, everything that you could possibly dream of in a house! I personally prefer our comfortable little apartment in Savyon, but it’s nice to have a retreat from the real world once in a while. When Abraham retires I’m sure that we’ll be spending more time up north.”

“I’m not planning on retiring any time soon,” said Abraham.

“Oh no, not yet of course,” said Tziporah. “But the time will come when Shlomie will inherit the family business and the older generation will have to step aside.”

“So we’re the older generation now, are we?” laughed Nachum. He had found it expedient to ignore the bulk of the evening’s conversation, but couldn’t resist commenting on this latest revelation.

“Watch what you say,” said Gisela with mock indignation. “If you’re, old, then what am I? A fossil?”

Everyone smiled.

“You know, the younger generation of Israel faces new challenges every day,” began Yael hopefully. She had seen a special segment of the evening news focusing on the challenges of Israeli youth and was eager to repeat its observations as her own. But before she could continue, Abraham said,

“The younger generation of Israel doesn’t even know what challenges are,” and the room fell into an awkward silence again.

“Well, that was certainly true a year or two ago,” said Tziporah at last, “but this country isn’t such a naïve place anymore. I’m afraid that this next generation of Israelis has some very hard lessons to learn.”

“They should be grateful for those lessons,” said Gisela. “My generation didn’t create the Jewish state by surrendering to our enemies at every turn whenever they attacked us without provocation. Maybe an awakening to our neighbor’s hatred of us is exactly what this complacent generation needs. We Jews have nothing to preserve us but each other.”

“And American money,” added Nachum under his breath.

“Don’t even mention America to me,” said Gisela. “There is anti-Semitism everywhere. Everyone seems to be against us these days, though I don’t understand why. Does the world expect us to sit back and let the Palestinians massacre us? These suicide bombings are like a nightmare. How is it anyone’s business what we do to defend ourselves?”

“It’s terrible to hear you carry on that way,” said Nachum. “We were close to peace once, but the idiots in our government botched it up for everyone. And now we all talk as if-”

“It wasn’t the idiots in our government who botched it up,” said Shlomie. “It was that damned Arafat. It’s all his fault. He refused to make peace.”

“But what difference does it make whose fault it was? You don’t think that most of the Arabs want it to end as much as we do?”

“No,” said Abraham suddenly and with great conviction. “Most of them detest us with a kind of intensity that you’ll never understand. And there are fanatics among them who would kill every one of us without a thought. We must fight to survive. And so we will.”

“You can leave that to me!” interjected Shlomie happily. “As long as we have a strong army, Israel will be just fine.”

“But the Palestinians aren’t necessarily all against us,” said Yael. “It’s only the extremists who are causing all the trouble.”

“That’s not true,” said Gisela. “They are all against us. And I don’t just mean the Palestinians, but the Arabs who live in Israel too.”

“That kind of attitude is ridiculous, Ima, and will only alienate the Israeli Arabs.”

“It’s gotten so late!” said Miriam above the cacophony. “More coffee, anybody? I can’t touch it after seven o’clock myself, or I’ll lie tossing in bed until the sun comes up. And when I’ve gone without sleep, my head-”

“You are absolutely wrong, Nachum,” said Gisela. “And frankly, I’m ashamed of your unpatriotic attitude. Jerusalem belongs to us, us. It’s in the Bible, for God’s sake. The city isn’t even mentioned in the Koran! All this trouble began when Sharon visited the Temple Mount and the Arabs started blowing themselves up over it— and even after we offered them practically every speck of land that they demanded at Camp David, I might add. Men like you and that fool Barak tried to give them peace. Well, they showed us exactly what they thought about that alternative when they began to riot in the streets and contrive the murder of innocent civilians. And while our men were scrambling to defend the country, the Israeli Arabs proved their loyalty by protesting against us and giving the terrorists secret aid. They at least have national solidarity, and would destroy us with it.”

“Well, that may be going a bit too far,” said Tziporah, turning to her husband. “The rotten apples ruin it for all of them, but the Palestinians aren’t all bad. In fact, we once had a house maid from Qalqilya who was a very charming girl. Do you remember her, Abraham? She was so intelligent. Too young to be a maid!”

“You don’t still keep her, do you?” asked Gisela.

“Of course not. We let her go before Sharon was even elected. But she had a hard life. Her mother was dead and her father wanted her to marry her own cousin. At least, I think that’s how the story went. Anyway, the girl refused, so he slammed a door on her arm and broke it as punishment for disobeying him. She had no one in the world to help her, poor thing. God only knows what happened to her after we fired her. We gave her a lifetime’s worth of free coupons to eat at our restaurants the last time we saw her.”

“How generous,” muttered Nachum.

“At any rate,” continued Tziporah, “There’s no use complaining. You can’t help your birth. But we Jews are lucky enough to have good blood and should stick together in dangerous times.”

“How true that is,” said Gisela, eyeing her son accusingly. “But I tell you, until we build a wall separating us from the Arabs, and the Arabs from each other, these murders will never end and there will be no final solution to the troubles of this country.”

“The movement to build one is gaining steam,” said Tziporah.

“The sooner the better. Nothing else will put a stop to these suicide bombings, unless we do something like start executing the families of the terrorists. That’d fix the problem quickly enough.”

“That is a shameful thought, Gisela,” said Miriam. “But really, I don’t like to dwell on politics. Let’s talk about something else.”

“When I think about all of those children blown up earlier this month in cold blood at the Dolphinarium, it makes me want to cry.”

“Let’s not discuss it, Ima,” said Nachum. “It’s a very painful subject in this house.”

Everyone was silent.

“Well Abraham,” said Tziporah, “Yala! It’s getting late. It’s time to go home. You have work tomorrow.”

Ima, wait!” cried Shlomie, rising suddenly from the couch. “Don’t leave just yet. I wanted to talk to Yael outside for a minute, if I could. I won’t be very long. I’ll follow you home in the jeep.”

Miriam and Tziporah shared a knowing glance.

“Well,” said Tziporah, “I guess one more cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt. But hurry up, you two. It’s getting late. Your father is getting tired.”

“I won’t take too long!” said Shlomie, seizing Yael’s hand and practically dragging her onto the porch.

In the meanwhile, Raz was just returning from Netanya. His journey back to Kefar Sava had not been an easy one. He’d been forced to hitchhike with two different drivers and trek three kilometers before returning home. Nevertheless, although his T-shirt was damp and his feet were blistered, the night had turned out unexpectedly well. Yasmine had agreed to go with him on a date to Tel Aviv, and he could hardly wait. He promised himself that he wouldn’t make the same mistake with her as he had with Ilana. His plan was to discover and harp subconsciously on Yasmine’s imperfections before he was tied down to her. Then he would sleep with her and move on to another girl, and then to another one after that. He was determined to teach himself that women were expendable, and that it was possible to date casually without getting imprisoned in a relationship. The thought of it thrilled him. But his smile soon withered at the sight of Shlomie and his sister standing on the front porch. There was no way to avoid meeting them.

“Raz, habibi, how’s it going?” called Shlomie. “You missed your sister’s birthday party!” He slapped Raz’s back with such playful violence that he nearly pushed him over.

“Hello Shlomie,” said Raz quietly. “Still in the army?”

“Same old, same old. Where’d you go, to the beach?”

“Yes. To one of your father’s restaurants, actually.”

“Great. The girls down there have great taste in clothes, don’t they?”

“It’s hard to tell in the middle of the night, but I guess so.”

“There are two things that I look for in a woman and they’re easy to find at the beach. Know what they are?”

“Not really.”

“Her tits! Get it?”

“Very funny,” snapped Yael.

“I could have come with you in my jeep,” Shlomie continued enthusiastically. “There’s plenty of room in the back seat, if you know what I mean.”

Raz chuckled very awkwardly and then turned to his sister.

“Did you have a nice party?”

“You look like you swam here from Netanya.”

“It’s just sweat. I had some bad luck getting home. Nothing serious. Well, OK! Have a good night!”

He escaped.

Yael was sorry to see him go. She didn’t particularly enjoy her brother’s company, but preferred it to being left alone with Shlomie that night. Considering her sense of dread, she might have insisted that they return indoors. But it was a beautiful night, and the breeze was pregnant with the scent of honeysuckle. Not to be outdone by nature, Shlomie lit a cigarette and supplied the air with the perfume of tar. He snorted contentedly as he placed his right hand on Yael’s shoulder, nearly elbowing her nose every time he crossed her face to take a new puff.

“Well, Yael, happy birthday. Another year’s gone by! And by the way, in case you were wondering, I really didn’t forget about your present.”

“Really, Shlomie?”

“When should we tell your parents about the wedding?”

“Whose wedding?”

“Ours! Happy birthday!”

Yael looked to the ground.

“Just keep in mind that once our mothers know about this, we won’t hear the end of it until we set a date. Personally, I wouldn’t care if we said to hell with it and sailed off to Cyprus, but you know how old fashioned our parents can be.”

He laughed nervously. Yael lifted his arm from her shoulder.

“That’s very sweet of you, Shlomie, but you know that I can’t accept this proposal.”

The color drained from his face.

“I’m doing this all wrong. I’m sorry. Are you angry that I don’t have a ring? I figured it would be better for you to help me pick one out instead of buying one that you didn’t really want.”

“What possessed you to propose to me?”

“I… I figured that it was time to take the plunge. There’s only so long that you can wait to do this sort of thing, and besides, you’ve earned it.”

“Excuse me? What a moron you are, Shlomie.”

“Why are you being so mean to me?” He began to pant and lick his lips uncontrollably, as always when he felt threatened.

“What do you mean I’ve earned it?”

“Well, you’ve stuck by me for two years. That shows commitment. You can’t say that this surprised you. Don’t you want to marry me?”

“No, I don’t want to marry you. You know that I don’t want to marry anybody. We’ve talked about this before.”

“What are you, then? A lesbian?”

“For God’s sake, I’m only twenty-one years old! I told you that I want to go to nursing school. Marriage is the last thing that I need holding me back right now. I don’t want to be a sellout and a hypocrite like my friend Avital, who gave up on all her aspirations to become the slave of some chauvinist asshole. Besides, this isn’t even a proper proposal. Like you said, you don’t even have a ring.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve never seen my house in the Galilee.”

“You mean your parents’ house in the Galilee. If memory serves, you live in a little army bunker.”

“That house will be mine soon enough. We could go there whenever we wanted. And my mother said she’d let us live in their extra apartment in Herzliya once we got married.”

“How romantic. Do you think that she might let us celebrate our honeymoon in the pantry?”

“Look who’s talking. You live with your parents now.”

“That’s only temporary. I’ll be on my own soon enough. Once I go to nursing school-”

“Nobody’s stopping you from going to nursing school! That has nothing to do with anything!”

“Leave me alone. If you only knew how to treat a woman properly-”

“I’ve treated you too well!” snarled Shlomie. “If I decided that I wanted to marry you, I should have left you. You’d have come crawling to me on your knees, begging and pleading for me to take you back again. But maybe I wouldn’t be available anymore.”

“Have you ever known me to be the jealous type? If you want to be with somebody else because I won’t marry you, be my guest.”

“You say those kinds of things now, but I know you better than you know yourself. Trust me, you’re just like any other woman.”

“It looks like you’re the only one who’s begging and pleading tonight, Shlomie. Shalom. I’m going inside.”

Conscious of the fact that he was about to break down in tears, Shlomie heaved his cigarette into the rose bushes and scrambled toward his car. Yael moved to follow him from force of habit, but stopped herself. Soon, except for the snaps of mosquitoes being electrocuted by the neighbor’s insect repeller and the distant chorus of crickets, the night was totally silent. Yael didn’t plan on being so hard on Shlomie, but his obstinacy had left her with little choice. Still, what did it matter what she said to him that night? He would recover from her rejection soon enough and come back to her, but would think twice in the future about proposing to her and taking it for granted that she would accept. She was twenty-one years old and at the prime of her life. She had the right to be selective.

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