IN THE PRESENCE OF STRANGERS: The Hill of Spring (CHAPTER VI)

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Despite his mother’s incessant pleas to the contrary, Raz refused to a wear wrist watch. They rubbed against his skin, felt like shackles, and plucked the hair from his arm whenever he took them off. Worse yet, they inhibited his social graces. Whenever he found himself alone in public, he would approach interesting looking passersby in an attempt to discover the sound of their voices. Asking for the time led to friendly little chats on everything from sports to the weather, discussions just honest enough to energize him and just brief enough to avoid the tedium of longer conversations. But he knew that he would only seem ridiculous if he asked for the time while wearing a watch of his own, and consequently considered pragmatic necessity yet another reason to disappoint his mother.

But although he enjoyed this little victory over the trappings of adulthood, his triumph was only a limited one. There were other accessories of everyday life to haunt him. He particularly suffered under the tyranny of house keys and wallets. He could never stop checking to see that they remained safe in his pocket whenever he left the house. Eventually, he became so unnerved that he would jump in horror whenever he wore a new pair of pants and discovered an empty compartment. But he was anxious for good reason— he was terribly scatterbrained. In fact, he was thinking about how forgetful he was when he realized that he had forgotten the flowers he’d bought for Yasmine at home on the kitchen counter.

He could hardly believe his bad luck. Nobody brought flowers on dates anymore, but he didn’t care; the opening line that he had in mind for Yasmine wouldn’t work without a bouquet. He knew that he’d forgotten something the moment he stepped out of the house, but had left all the same in his eagerness to beat the evening traffic. Although he was a long way from home and already running out of gas, he was so overcome with disgust that he felt a strong desire to return to Kefar Sava to correct his mistake. He had meant for that night to see the initiation of his new suave persona, and he wasn’t about to become a sloppy strategist and arrive on a first date unarmed.

He was momentarily awakened from his torments by the realization that traffic had ground to a halt, caught up in a line of cars beside a cemetery. A funeral party was passing by, and taking its sweet time. The other drivers restrained themselves from sounding their horns out of a vague sense of common courtesy. But Raz was too exhausted to be polite and pounded down on the horn with all his might. Somebody was dead, but did that mean the living should be boiled alive in their cars? It was an unusually hot evening, and he thanked God for the car’s air conditioning. How had the older generation of Israelis survived rush hour traffic without it? He groaned in exhaustion as he positioned his brow beside the ventilator. Its soft hum proved temporarily soothing, and though its stale smell was far from pleasant, it was offset by the scent of a vanilla air freshener hanging over the dashboard. But he couldn’t remain calm for long and thoughts of Yasmine’s bouquet sitting neglected on the kitchen counter soon infuriated him all over again.

He was unsure what to do. Would his mother drive the bouquet over to him? That was unlikely. She was completely self-absorbed ever since his sister had enrolled in summer courses at Ramat Aviv and moved in with their grandmother. Would his father bring it to him? He was probably asleep. He cracked his knuckles violently and mumbled about how much he hated himself sometimes.

But then, he caught sight of a solitary grave tucked behind a sandy incline. On the headstone, a bouquet of flowers larger and more expensive than the one he had bought for Yasmine seemed to lie in wait, taunting him. Before he could stop himself, he left the car in the middle of the road and hurried over the hill. Taking care not to look at the name of the grave’s owner (he considered that doing so would have been unethical), he snatched up the roses and dashed back to the car, twice falling down the incline before leaping back into the driver’s seat. The funeral procession had since passed on and the way forward was open. Driving away to the sound of car horns and curses, he congratulated himself on finally being equipped for battle.

Following a tediously lengthy drive made a little bit shorter by the thrill of what he had done, he reached the maze of streets before Dizengoff Center and began to look for a parking space. After a long and unsuccessful search, he became all the more eager to abandon his car in the middle of the road when he caught sight of Yasmine waiting for him by a roadside kiosk. She was wearing a short red skirt that clung to the top of her legs and a loose fitting blouse to match it. Her eyes seemed even rounder and darker than he remembered. Despite the inadequacies of the bridge of her nose, he assured himself that she was a strikingly beautiful girl well worth the effort of subduing. If he could conquer her, he told himself, then he could conquer anyone.

At last, after a Hassidic Jew rolled out of a choice parking space beside a Eucalyptus tree, Raz positioned the car by the side of the road, double-checked that his wallet was safe in his pocket, and walked gallantly toward Yasmine, bouquet in hand.

“Roses for a rose,” he proclaimed in English, handing her the bouquet with a dramatic bow.

“More like thorns from a prick,” she declared with greater fluency.

He choked for a moment on his own saliva.

“I see that you speak English well enough to make jokes in it, but you might have at least thanked me for the flowers before you insulted me.”

“I’m sorry, Raz,” she said, accepting the flowers. “I couldn’t resist my opening line. It seemed so… appropriate.” Before he could speak, she added, “Thank you for the bouquet. Roses on a date—how… uh, American of you. I feel like the heroine in a black and white movie or something. They’re very nice, if impractical.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what am I supposed do with them now?”

“Put them in water. I don’t know.”

“I forgot my koom-koom at home.”

Yasmine pronounced the word koom-koom with such a hilariously sarcastic lilt in her voice that Raz had to smile. She pressed her advantage.

“Well, I think that even you’ll admit that lugging these flowers around Tel Aviv is a ridiculous thing to do. Will you take them back to your car before we head out, or throw them out, please?”

She curtsied as she presented the flowers to him, mimicking his earlier efforts at gallantry with all the accuracy of a little mirror. Raz felt a twinge of excited curiosity as he headed back in the direction of the Ford. But as he reached the car and placed the bouquet in the back seat, a sense of melancholy suddenly came over him. Her flippant reaction to his bait had failed to justify his crime in stealing it, and he found himself unexpectedly regretting his escapades at the cemetery. But his crisis of conscience was short lived. He decided that it was too warm that night to brood. The air itself seemed to sway as if it were distorted by hidden flames.

When he crossed the street to meet Yasmine again, he saw that she was looking through her handbag. She produced a pocket mirror and checked her mascara. Then they walked together toward a roadside art exhibit. He noticed how supple the skin of her neck seemed to be. He felt a strong urge to reach over and brush it with his hand, but he would hardly know what to do with his arm once he positioned it over her shoulder, and since he didn’t want her to think that he was trying to strangle her, he set aside his little temptation.

Eventually, they reached a long line of people waiting to enter the exhibition. A blonde child holding a baby in one hand and a sign pleading for alms in the other sat beside the ticket counter. Raz was happy to see him, since propriety seemed to demand that he perform an act of charity in recompense for his earlier antics at the cemetery. So after a deliberately lengthy sigh meant to illustrate the depths of his compassion, he prepared to drop a shekel into the boy’s hat. But just when he stepped forward to do so, Yasmine said,

“Do you ever get the urge to kick or otherwise attack panhandlers?”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t stare at me like I just pushed your mother in front of a bus! Answer my question honestly.”

“Well, the answer to your question is no. Other people’s misfortunes don’t give me the urge to kick them.”

“So beggars really don’t irritate you at all?”

“No, Yasmine… I mean, not unless they’re too aggressive.”

“But they make their livings as parasites. Why don’t they get real jobs?”

Although Raz sensed a playful cadence in Yasmine’s voice, he was unsure about her motivation in questioning him like this. Until that moment, he had never encountered anyone who seemed to take as much pleasure in testing other people’s limits as he did. He continued to err on the side of caution.

“It’s not so easy. Some of them are profoundly damaged or addicted or mentally ill. Besides, that boy can’t be more than twelve years old. Have some compassion.”

“Twelve my ass— he’s fifteen at least by the look of his pimples, and probably older too. And that filthy baby he’s holding couldn’t possibly be his brother. It looks like he’s from Thailand. I wonder where he picked him up. Is it really compassionate to help kidnappers?”

“Are you completely heartless? Those two kids might be starving, for all we know. Hypothetically, would you at least consider giving them food?”

“I don’t typically carry breadcrumbs around in my purse.” She clapped her hands, ready to change the topic. “You have a stain on your collar, you know. But it’s alright— it suits you, somehow. It’s a nice shirt. You have good taste. You look great tonight.”

He nodded proudly. His grandmother had bought him the shirt only a week before and he’d picked it out himself to wear that night.

“Thank you, Yasmine. You look very nice yourself.”

“Could we go for a walk in Dizengoff Center after we finish with this exhibit of yours? It feels like we’ve been standing in this line forever. Are you sure that this place is worth the wait?”

“Yes,” he said, suppressing a smile as he mimicked the words he had once spoken to Ilana on a similar occasion, “the boundless limitations of modern art are endlessly interesting to me.”

“I’m not sure I know what that means, but is that toilet seat really on display?”

“It must have a point. Maybe it represents the vanity of modern values or something.”

She grimaced. Gradually, they moved toward the front of the line. Before they reached it, though, she dropped a mountain of shekels into the young beggar’s hat. Raz looked at her inquisitively. She laughed.

“Of course, I didn’t mean anything that I said before. I only wanted to see what kind of a person you were. Personally, I’m always generous to strangers. My father used to tell me, beggars come from God. There was an old woman who lived down the street from me when I was a girl. I’d hold her hand and help her walk down the street sometimes—she always liked to ask strangers to hold her hand. It was probably her only form of human contact. I’ll never forget that she told me once, ‘I wish that God would take me. Nobody loves me, and I’m no use to anyone. I’m always in pain, and I don’t deserve to feel like this all the time. I wish that God would take me.’”

“Wow, that’s intense. What did you say to her?”

“That maybe she should contemplate suicide.”

“That’s not very funny.”

“I didn’t say anything, of course. But I gave her some money, and it brought a smile to her face for a little while. Everyone is waiting for you to move forward, you know. We’re at the front of the line.”

By now, Raz was eager to show her that he was equally as clever and interesting as she was. But wit can never be summoned up on command, and the best that he could do on such short notice was to ask the woman at the counter for tickets for two children. The cashier was confused by the request and asked where the children might be, but Yasmine understood the intent of his meager joke and did her best to counterfeit amusement. Raz appreciated this. Most girls would have struggled to show their disdain for his pitiful attempt at humor, but this one seemed so self-confident that she had no need for contempt.

They collected their tickets and wandered into the sea of broken beer bottles and bathroom accoutrements that made up the exhibition. When they passed beside an enormous pyramid of toilet paper, Raz whispered,

“Do you kind of have an urge to push it over?”

“No. This place is full of trash, and I’d be afraid of catching the plague if I touched anything here.”

“Well, at least we can both recognize garbage for what it is.”

“You mean to say you don’t like this sort of art?” He shook his head. “Then why did you take me here tonight?”

“To see your reaction.”

“My reaction?”

“I think that these exhibits are ridiculous, but most people are so eager to seem sophisticated that they pretend to love them and it gives me a chance to laugh at them when I-” He stopped himself mid-sentence. Yasmine was so artful that she had tricked him into a measure of honesty.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Raz. To be honest, the only reason that I agreed to come here tonight was to laugh at your pretentiousness, so I see that I’m in good company. Evidently, we both get off on underestimating each other.”

He decided to shift the topic of conversation along safer and more academic lines.

“Do you think there should be some sort of objective criteria for judging art?”

“Absolutely not.”

“Really?”

“Of course. I guess that historically, some eloquent types have tried to construct formulas defining what constitutes good and bad kinds of expression. But all of those theories are just based on different kinds of bias, and they mean absolutely nothing to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, most people call sculpture a high art, but not basket weaving. But it has nothing to do with the forms themselves—one just has the misfortune of being practiced by minority groups and women who live far away from big cities, where the critics lurk.”

“That’s a very interesting theory.”

“Anyway, artists can do as they please for all I care. I’m no critic. There’s a thin line between art and pornography, and it’s all the same to me.”

“That’s an awfully cynical thing to say.”

“But it’s true. Critics think that they know everything, but their opinions are no better than anyone else’s. I think that in the end, taste is based on what we’re used to and what triggers pleasant memories. But we all have different life stories, so there’s no objectivity when it comes to preferences. That’s why no one has the last word when it comes to art, and it drives intellectual bigots up the wall.”

“But sometimes it’s almost impossible not to be judgmental about art to some degree. I mean, with no standards at all, the only thing determining what’s worthy of display or not is hype, and artists just try to one up each other in shock value all the time to attract cheap publicity.”

“You have a point there.”

“It used to be that artists tried to convey beauty. Now they say they’ve after truth, which isn’t always beautiful. Well, that’s fine. But along the way, I feel like something fundamental has been lost. What will future generations think when they look at the pompous trash filling our museums? I mean, it must say something depressing about the state of world culture that one time period produced the Sistine Chapel and ours can only produce this sort of…”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is shit,” offered an old woman who’d overheard their conversation.

Raz and Yasmine began to laugh so loudly that they inadvertently attracted the angry glances of the people around them. But their scowls only fanned their amusement, and Yasmine cried,

“Let’s get out of here! Raz. These people are so full of hot air that one of them might burst open and stain our clothes.”

He continued to laugh hysterically.

“Hot air doesn’t stain, it burns!”

“Who cares? Let’s go!”

“But why? There are so many things here to laugh at.”

“A walk through the city is more interesting to me than this dump. Tel Aviv is like my drug. Let’s go to Dizengoff Center.”

Before he could say another word, she rushed out of the gallery and he dutifully followed her. His thriftier side would have resented paying thirty shekels for tickets and leaving so abruptly, but it was so exciting to be around Yasmine that he hardly noticed the loss. At length, they reached Dizengoff Center and its fountain of concentric circles, a notorious contraption resembling a three layered wedding cake that vomits up flames every hour on the hour. They found a comfortable perch on the marble lining of the fountain and looked down at the coins lining its bottom, the relics of strangers’ forgotten wishes.

“Tel Aviv is one of my favorite places on earth,” said Yasmine, rolling a ringlet of hair with her forefinger. “There are so many places to visit and so many things to buy!”

“I love the houses we passed by on the way over here,” said Raz.

“Really? But most of them were just grimy apartments.”

“No, Yasmine. Think about it this way. Every window represents another life, and every one of those lives is caught up in its own dynamic— a boy coming home from school, a mother cooking dinner, a father driving to work… a thousand secret stories. I think it’s wonderful.”

“Well, those secret stories sound awfully uninteresting to me.”

“In my eyes, there’s nothing more interesting than the little details of everyday life.”

“Why?”

“Good question. I don’t know. I guess I think that nothing reveals human character more. Sometimes, even the way that someone does something like peel an apple can be graceful and beautiful and significant. Know what I mean?”

Yasmine looked closely at him for a moment. Then she shrugged and stretched her legs out on the fountain. The bustle of the city seemed to calm her. Raz, however, swung his arms around nervously. Although he barely knew Yasmine, her immunity to his charms only increased his determination to win her over. But how could he faze her? At last, he decided to challenge her wit with silly, empty queries. He believed that the truth of personality lay hidden within the tangential, and quick responses to extemporaneous questions might reveal an Achilles’ heel. But before he could begin questioning her, Yasmine said,

“If you could give up two of your five senses, which would they be? If you had to choose, I mean.”

“That’s easy,” he answered. “Smell and taste.”

“Choosing smell and taste is clearly cheating. Which of your real senses would you give up?”

“Aren’t smell and taste real senses?”

“They’re not the important ones. Sight, hearing, or…”

“Speaking?”

“But speaking isn’t really one of the five senses either, is it?”

“Touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing. No, I guess you’re right, Yasmine.”

“That old woman sitting next to us certainly smells, doesn’t she?”

“She’ll hear you!”

“I don’t think so,” she said, producing a joint from her pocketbook and lighting it. “She’s probably deaf. Is that man sitting next to her a grandson or a gigolo, I wonder?”

The man in question leaned over and inserted his tongue into the woman’s mouth.

“An overly affectionate grandson,” laughed Raz. “Greed enslaves some people, I guess.”

“No, Raz. Not some people. All people. We’re all slaves to our own self-interest, aren’t we?”

“Well, I guess so. Some people even say that love is a sort of slavery. What do you love most of all, Yasmine?”

“Myself.”

“Very funny.”

“But it’s true.”

“Then I suppose by that logic, you’re a slave to yourself.”

“But then I’m not a slave at all, right?”

“Maybe that proves only selfish people are free.”

She offered him a puff, and he accepted. He began to cough violently, which amused her. Then, without warning, she spun around and clutched his hands as if charged by a sudden inspiration. His face went white.

“What’s the difference between a gigolo and a prostitute?”

“Excuse me?”

She frowned and let go of his wrists.

“I was expecting a witty answer from you, Raz, and not another question as a response. But I suppose that the difference between a gigolo and a prostitute is that one drives a fancy car, and the other gets into the back seat of one. I’m sorry if that wasn’t especially clever, but it was the best that I could do on short notice.”

He frowned.

“There’s really not too much difference between them at all when it comes down to it. They’re the same in that they both throw away their lives. God only knows why people make the mistakes that they do.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so judgmental about the choices that other people make.”

“Are you some sort of moral relativist?”

“Well, not entirely. Some things are true in all times and places. For example, I think that for the most part, people’s stupidity, laziness, and cowardice are pretty universal.”

“How horrible.”

“I’m only being realistic. People everywhere are always second-guessing themselves. They’re never content.”

“Do you really think that contentment is such a virtue?”

“It can be, as long as it doesn’t turn into complacency.”

“I think you’re playing at semantics. The words are synonyms.”

“I don’t think so. To me, complacency seems negative, but contentment is related to self-confidence, which is probably the single most important aspect of a strong character.”

“What do you mean?”

“People should learn to be confident enough to be content with what they can’t change and proactive about what they can. That’s the very opposite of complacency. And I’ve found that with enough self-confidence, you don’t have to go around excluding other people to feel important…”

“I’ve lost you, Yasmine.”

“Well, never mind. I’m giving myself a headache with all this philosophy! Who knows what I’m saying. It just goes to show, don’t try to justify your good ideas, because you’ll only end up complicating them. What do you think the most important attribute of a strong character is, if not self-confidence?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve heard that smart people learn from their mistakes and smarter people learn from the mistakes of others. But I think that the very smartest people of all learn from their own dreams.”

“What do you dream about?”

“I dreamt last week that I was drowning in a sea of toothpaste. What do you think it means?”

“A secret fear of bad breath?” They both laughed. “There’s no need to interpret dreams if you want to know yourself, Raz.”

“But I do know myself.”

“Oh?”

“I’m a Jew.”

She smirked. He arched his back.

“You have bad posture,” she said. “I mean, really atrocious. You should see yourself on camera. You walk around like the hunchback of Notre Dame.”

“I thought that you didn’t read books.”

“I saw the Disney movie.”

“Well, thanks for the compliment, I guess”

“But your eyes are soulful, so that makes up for it. I wonder, what do you think my best attribute is?”

“Your eyes, also.”

“And my worst?”

“You have a big nose.”

He cringed at his daring, but he was desperate to faze her, and nothing seemed to shock or upset the girl.

“Do you really think I have a big nose?” she laughed, speaking with the same speed and vivacity that had characterized her earlier conversation. “I’ve never really had a problem with it. I think that it gives my face character.”

“If character is a synonym for imperfection,” countered Raz, still eager to elicit an emotional response from her and not another confident retort.

“Well, imperfection is in the eye of the beholder,” she answered casually. “But if I’m really such a hag, I don’t understand why you’d agree to be seen with me. I can’t help the way I look, but you control your own company.”

“Would you ever consider getting your nose fixed? You wear enough makeup, so appearances must be important to you on at least some level.”

“I think that my nose makes my face interesting. You’ve been fixated on it for the past five minutes, haven’t you? If it were any smaller, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

“Fine, Yasmine. Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about yourself.”

“What you see is what you get.”

He smiled in anticipation of her evasive response. She clapped her hands.

“Oh, the gigolo has gone away, our entertainment for the evening has walked off! What do you say, Raz? Do you want to go for a walk?”

“You’re not even remotely insulted by me?”

“No, I appreciate your honesty. It’s wonderful that you can be so open with somebody you hardly know. But your unibrow is fair game for ridicule now. By the way, will you be burying a thank-you note for the roses?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just this— if you’re going to steal bouquets from a graveyard, at least remember to take the condolence card out from under them.”

His heart began to race. He attempted to improvise an explanation, but she stopped him with a wink.

“Don’t worry about coming up with an excuse. I think that the situation is hilarious. And besides, if I can guarantee one thing, it’s that no one will miss those flowers. Now, come with me.”

Before he could fully process the odd turn of events that had just transpired between them, she took his hand and led him off into the shadows surrounding Dizengoff Center. She was the first to act, but then he took control, and she loved it. He didn’t kiss her like she thought that he would. His style was unexpectedly self-assured and hungry. Though his playful assertiveness provided the illusion that he cared most of all for his own pleasure, he was almost intuitively attentive to her slightest response to his body. He stroked her face gently with the tips of his fingers and whispered thrilling profanities into her ear. For a moment, she felt such melting happiness that she was sure that such pleasure must have been a sin. Experience itself had never taught her that anything so satisfying was bound to come with a great cost because she seldom felt much satisfaction in life at all. Still, her intuition warned her that this kind of ecstasy was dangerous. But all she could do was try to ignore the sense of the dread and let the moment overpower her before it was over.

There were no human voices now, no artificial lights, no bright corners in which to hide. Colors were gone and dim grays veiled the scene. Forms were barely recognizable and there was no distinction between the eye and the imagination. There was nothing but silence and soft skin. The energy of conversation melted into an effortless intensity of a different sort, nearly overpowering in its unexpectedness. The moon disappeared and the air went black. There was nothing left but touch and smell.

Then, without warning, flames shot out from the marble fountain. They leapt into the air and fumbled for the sky before plunging back again into the water beneath them. They waver at the tips and weave their way into each other’s bodies, dancing as a single fire. They will disappear forever after their little moment of display is done. But before they do, they will give rise to new flames that will leap and mingle in turn. And so it goes on into eternity, so long as water is wet and fire is hot and the two mixed together make steam.

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