In the Presence of Strangers: An Unpleasant Surprise (Chapter V)

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“Engaged! Doda Sara, isn’t it exciting?”

It was nearly seven-thirty in the morning, but Miriam had long since lain awake in bed, eager to begin spreading the news about Shlomie Shachar’s proposal to friends and distant relatives alike. At 7:00, she considered it late enough in the day to begin the onslaught. Ariel, Orli, and cousin Tamuz had all been informed. Now it was Sara’s turn to learn the happy tidings.

“No, Sara, you can’t speak with her just now. She’s still asleep. She marched straight into the house last night without saying a word, but I knew by her smile that something was up. Well, when I followed her into the bathroom and told her to spill the beans, she said that Shlomie had proposed! We both started laughing, and after a good, long, chuckle, she asked to go to bed, and said that there were important arrangements to be worked out in the morning. Can you imagine it, Sara? My oldest daughter is marrying the son of Abraham Morgan!”

After a final little delighted yelp for good measure, Miriam composed herself and began to run her fingers through her hair. Weddings were costly affairs, and the Gutmans were not Rothschilds. The Shachars would undoubtedly try to dominate the arrangements, and Nachum and she could hardly be expected to finance their extravagant plans. Of course, it was only fair that Shlomie’s family should bear the brunt of the cost. But if the Gutmans refused to pay for the wedding, they would probably relinquish all say in the subsequent preparations, which seemed equally unjust.

By this time, Miriam was no longer listening to the chipper banter of Doda Sara. There were more important things on her mind. She wouldn’t allow her daughter’s wedding plans to be commandeered by strangers. She wished that they had the money to pay for everything themselves, with no thought to the meddling of Abraham and Tziporah. But it was not to be. The Gutmans were shamefully middle class. She looked regretfully in the direction of the master bedroom. Her husband was asleep. Even behind closed doors, she could hear his snoring. She felt a dull pain in her stomach, and wondered what disease this might have been a symptom of.

As she made her way to the medicine cabinet in search of Tums, Yonatan shuffled sleepily into the living room. He curled himself up into a little ball in front of the television. Nightmares had interrupted what little sleep he finally had, and he’d spent the final part of the night in Raz’s room, where his older brother always let him stay. There was little space for him in the bed, though, so he hadn’t gotten much rest.

When she saw Yonatan, Miriam excused herself from the telephone and handed him a slice of Nutella covered bread. She’d been expecting an unhappy welcome from him that morning and hoped that this special breakfast would placate him. Unfortunately, her attempt at reconciliation was rewarded by an ungrateful groan.

“Just eat your breakfast and be quiet,” said Miriam, returning to the kitchen. “It’s good for you. It’s made from real hazel nuts.”

“I don’t want it,” said Yonatan, searching for the Children’s Channel on television.

“What do you mean you don’t want it? It’s delicious.”

“Then why don’t you eat it?”

“Eat that pita bread, Yonatan.”

“No. Nutella covered pita bread is for babies. I hate it. It makes me want to puke.”

“You never complained about it before.”

“That just shows you never listen to me. I’ve been your son for nine years, and you still don’t know my tastes?”

Miriam flapped her lips. Her sons were impossible to manage. Thank God for Yael. Her obedience was a reminder that she continued to possess at least some modicum of authority in the house, however slight. Then, suddenly, it dawned on her that her daughter would leave Kefar Sava once she was married and then she would be left alone, condemned to serve a pack of thankless males forever with no reprieve in sight. Overwhelmed by this unhappy revelation, she complained loudly and suddenly of arthritic pains over the telephone, thoroughly startling Doda Sara.

Yonatan threw down his breakfast plate.

“Why couldn’t I have gone to Yael’s party, Ima? It isn’t fair! And why couldn’t I have had a piece of-”

“Eat your breakfast and shut the hell up!”

He trudged back into the living room without another word. His mother resumed her telephone conversation and he found a cartoon on television. The noise of gossip and anthropomorphic robots soon inundated the house and the battle was momentarily forgotten.

Awakened by these early morning screams, Nachum now entered the living room.

“Nachum, your son is out of control, and I don’t have the patience for his games today. Explain to him that it wasn’t easy for me to make him breakfast. I was awake all last night with the most horrible pains in my stomach.”

Ima has a disease called indigestion,” said Nachum from the couch.

Ima has a disease called everything,” said Yonatan.

Miriam swore under her breath and turned away from them. Nachum took the opportunity to wink at his son and seize the bread, gobbling it down before his wife could notice what he’d done. He cringed at the taste and pretended to retch. Yonatan pounced on his father’s back. Nachum cried out disapprovingly, but the sincerity of his smile was at odds with his pleas for mercy. Despite a fair amount of panting, the two seemed to be enjoying themselves until Miriam hung up the telephone and said,

“Two peas in a pod! And after you hurt your back so badly last month too. Get out of here, Yonatan. Go play in your room.”

Yonatan released himself from his father’s grasp and scurried away, sticking out his tongue as he left.

“I don’t know why you let him climb all over you, Nachum. You know what Doctor Shatz told you about lifting heavy things.”

“The boy has had a hard month, Miriam.”

“So everyone keeps telling me. But he has to get over it. It’s all very sad, but it’s not like a blood relative died. And anyway, a tragedy is no excuse for him to act like an ungrateful brat all the time. The psychiatrist agrees with me.”

Nachum said something unintelligible and returned to the couch, reaching for the newspaper. Miriam returned to the kitchen.

“Your coffee won’t be all that appetizing this morning because there was nothing but dirty old grinds of Nescafe left in the cupboard. You should have bought a new can when you went to the store yesterday. I can’t be expected to do everything around this house by myself, you know.”

Nachum nodded half-heartedly.

“I hope you’re not expecting an elaborate breakfast,” she said, preparing his scrambled eggs. “I have more important work to do this morning.”

“Oh.”

“I have seven more people to call about Yael’s engagement! Can you believe that our daughter is engaged?”

“No.”

“You don’t seem to be very enthusiastic.”

“I’m not the one getting married.”

“Well, I’m just in shock. I thought that she would never stop breast feeding, and now she’s… engaged! It’s one of the biggest steps in life. Birth, marriage-”

“And death. Two down, and one to go.”

Miriam presented him with his breakfast tray.

“I don’t understand why you can’t just be happy for Yael. She’s marrying a Morgan.”

“I hope this doesn’t mean that we have to dine with them every week.”

“Why are you being so cynical about all of this, Nachum?”

For a moment, he said nothing. Then, deciding on the effort of explication against his better judgment, he folded the newspaper and said,

“I’m not sure that it’s healthy for a girl to marry her first boyfriend. And I don’t think that Yael’s old enough to know what she wants. She’s only twenty-one.”

Miriam could barely hear him from the kitchen.

“Whatever she wants, the Shachars will have to pay for it! We certainly can’t afford the kind of ceremony that they probably have in mind.”

“I said that she’s too young to get married!” he yelled over the sound of running water.

“Actually, she’s exactly the age we were when we got married!”

Nachum wrinkled his brow and resumed his morning reading.

“Can you believe that Shas is in the news again, Miriam? It’s just disgusting. Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Middle Ages.”

“I’m worried about the menu for the wedding. I wonder what kinds of delicacies the Shachars are expecting us to feed their rich friends.”

“Never mind the Shachars. The wedding will be paid for… Do you think that Israel has always been like this?”

Miriam reentered the living room, drying her hands on her sleeves.

“What do you mean?”

“Was this damned country always so… I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on the word.”

“Leave politics to the politicians. There’s no use dwelling on what you can’t change.”

“We didn’t think so when we were younger.”

“No, I guess we didn’t.”

“I thought that I would take this country by storm— be a great musician whose opinion mattered…”

“Oh, please!”

“Don’t laugh at me! I was so ambitious back then, so opinionated. I had confidence. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind.”

“Back then?”

“I meant it more back then, before I realized that no one was very interested in what I had to say… you know, I probably couldn’t find my old guitar in the attic even if I tried.”

“Never mind all that. Are you ready for work?”

Nachum smiled bitterly at Miriam’s response. With a wife, three children, a steady job in a factory, and a house in the suburbs, sometimes his only comforts in life were little confirmations of his jadedness. He spoke only to be contradicted, and by and by, even the novelty of shocking his audience was blunted by their unwillingness to hear him out. Caught up in such thoughts, he paid little attention to the activity of his right elbow, and inadvertently spilled his drink over the coffee table.

“Oh, Nachum… Never mind, don’t touch it! Look what you did to my mother’s table. Your head is in the clouds this morning.”

Nachum looked at her closely as she began to clean the mess. She was hunched over the table and wildly scrubbing it, crouched on all fours and heaving back and forth. He thought to himself that she looked less like a woman than some ungainly beast of burden.

Yael now entered into the living room dressed in a cotton pink bathrobe. Accustomed to being ignored, she walked to the kitchen table with a look of imperial contempt on her face, but was surprised by the unexpected image of her mother rushing forward to welcome her.

Boker tov, Yael!” said Miriam, putting away her coffee-soaked towel and presenting her daughter with a bowl of Turkish salad.

Boker tov yourself,” she answered, affecting nonchalance but taken off-guard.

“You’re up early today. I was hoping that you would be. I made you your favorite breakfast. Eat it quickly! There’s a lot to do today.”

“Is there?”

“From now on nothing will be the same. You won’t have a minute to yourself anymore. We have to start thinking about the arrangements. You said so yourself last night!”

Yael looked at her mother warily.

“I always thought that you were against my leaving home.”

“Don’t be so naïve, Yael. I’m thrilled for you.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Of course not! This is a wonderful opportunity for you. Now tell me, are you planning on doing anything special with Shlomie today?”

“Why? Has he called here already?”

“No, not yet.”

“Don’t worry,” laughed Yael between bites of her salad, “He’ll call soon enough. He can’t go a day without talking to me.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so excited for you, Yael!”

“What’s wrong with you, Ima?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re talking so strangely. You really don’t mind my leaving home?”

“Darling, you can’t stay home forever. Oh, I admit that I was a little bit sad about it this morning, but everything will turn out for the best. Your father and I are so proud of you. Aren’t we, Nachum?”

“Err,” he replied.

“Really, Ima?”

“Yes, really, Yael.”

“I didn’t expect you to be so supportive!”

“We are, honey. We are.”

“And you’ll be willing to help me pay for it?”

“Well,” said Miriam, her voice somewhat less enthusiastic, “your father and I will be happy to help in part, but I think it’s only right that the Shachars fit most of the bill. They’re much better off than we are, you know, and these sorts of things are expensive.”

Yael rose from the table.

“I knew that you were being facetious with me. Well, I don’t care what you say, Ima. I’m twenty-one years old now and can do whatever I want. It’s my life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If you don’t want to pay for my nursing school, I’ll find another way to enroll without your help. I’ll use what’s left of the money that Safta set aside for me.”

“Nursing school?”

“I’ll start training at Tel Ha Shomer whether you like it or not!”

“What are you talking about? There are more important things to think about right now than nursing school.”

“Like what, I wonder?”

“Like what? Like Shlomie Shachar’s proposal! Could you believe it when he asked you to marry him?”

“No.”

“It was a real birthday surprise, then.”

“I told him again and again that I didn’t want to marry him, but he just wouldn’t listen to me.”

“There’s persistence for you!”

“More like idiot stubbornness.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s like nothing gets through that thick head of his.”

“That’s no way to speak about your future husband, Yael. Trust me, wait until after you’re married to insult him.”

Yael shuddered.

Ima, did you think that I accepted Shlomie’s proposal?”

“Of course.”

“But I didn’t!”

“Very funny.”

“I’m not joking. I told him hundreds of times that I didn’t even want to consider getting married before I became a professional nurse, but he refused to listen to me. And it was such an awful proposal too. He did nothing but insult me after I said no to him.”

“What are you trying to tell me, Yael?”

“Oh Ima!”

For a moment, Miriam stood absolutely silent and motionless. That soon changed.

“This is terrible! I called everybody in the family to say you that were engaged!”

“Well, who told you to do that?”

“How could you be so stupid?”

“Stupid?”

“The Shachars are so rich!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You have no idea how the world works, do you? Money is the single most important thing on Earth!”

“That’s a wonderful thing to say, Ima. How profound.”

“Never mind about being profound. What are we, philosophers? Be real Yael. Do you know what it would have been like to live without worrying about bills and debts and… oh Yael, you’re an idiot!”

Ima!”

“Never, never, never, will have another chance like this! Never! How could you reject Abraham Morgan’s son? Who do you think you are? Oh, it feels like the world is ending.”

“Stop being ridiculous and overdramatic. I want to go to nursing school.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I wouldn’t have gone if I’d married him. I want to make my own way in the world without being dependent on a man. The marriage would have always felt unequal, and like I was secretly in his debt. And besides, I’m not in love with Shlomie.”

“What sort of fairy tale world are you living in? You can learn to love somebody if you live with him for long enough!”

“I want to live alone.”

“But you have all of your life to live alone! Now is the time to get married!”

“I don’t want to get married!”

“Do you want to die an old maid like your aunt Marianna? Is that it?”

“Come on, Ima!”

“Can I be blunt with you?”

“Go ahead.”

“You aren’t particularly pretty or particularly smart or particularly interesting as a human being, and that boy was about the only thing that you had going for you. His infatuation was like a blessing. You’ve just ruined your best chance at happiness in life. And after I called everyone to tell them that you were engaged…”

Yael closed her eyes, brought her hands to her temples, and howled.

“Be quiet! You’ll wake up your brothers.”

“Enough is enough, Ima! I don’t want to hear another word from you! I’m going to nursing school now! Not in September, but now. I’ll take summer courses at Ramat Aviv and live at Safta’s until then. I swear to God that I’ll never spend another night in this house of hell ever again.”

Yael raised her plate of salad and, after a moment of hesitation, dashed it to the floor. Then she ran out of the kitchen.

“You didn’t have to be so cruel to her,” said Nachum.

“I was telling her the truth.”

“No, Miriam. Not that way. Not like that. Poor girl.”

Awakened by the noise, Raz and Yonatan rushed out of their bedrooms and found their mother standing in a puddle of broken glass and vegetables. She began to quietly clear away the mess. Nachum shook his head and rose from the couch. He knocked on Yael’s door, but she wouldn’t answer. After a while, he gave up. He collected his car keys and drove to the factory.

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