Enter the world of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0, where the characters are as intelligent and charming as they are lonely. A couple discovers the ability to stop time together; another couple lives with a constant loud beeping in their apartment, though only one of them can hear it. A father leaves his daughter in Israel to pursue a painting career in New York; a sex worker falls in love with the Israeli photographer who studies her.
Together these stories explore the tension between an anonymous, globalized world and an irrepressible lust for connectionthey form an intimate document of niche moments between characters who are so brilliantly, subtly, and magically rendered by Shelly Oria's capable hands.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
|Product dimensions:||7.40(w) x 5.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Shelly Oria was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Israel. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney's, TriQuarterly, and Quarterly West, among other places, and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. She curates the series Sweet! Actors Reading Writers in the East Village and teaches fiction at Pratt Institute, where she also codirects the Writers' Forum.
Read an Excerpt
NEW YORK 1, TEL AVIV 0
Saturday comes, and Zoë and I go to see Keith Buckley read in Soho. It is April and Manhattan and this is what I think about the air: it is crisp. I keep thinking: Crisp. I fantasize about taking a big bite and chewing the air, making obscenely loud noises as if the air on this island were a gum, or worse: sunflower seeds. While I’m thinking this, Zoë is being beautiful. She says, I’m so happy it’s not cold anymore. She’s wearing the purple halter top that Ron bought her for our one-year anniversary; I got The Secrets of Mediterranean Cooking because Ron thinks that I should open my own restaurant instead of wasting my talent in somebody else’s kitchen. Zoë’s halter top ties behind her neck, except every few minutes it gets loose, and I need to tie it again for her. It’s too tight, she says every time, tugging on the knot.
At the bookstore, Zoë leads the way to her favorite spot, third row center. Keith isn’t here yet, she tells me without even looking around. How do you know? I ask, and she says, I need you to tie me up again, her eyes smiling, teasing. Then she asks, Has he ever read here before? I don’t think so, I say, but I get confused between all the stores sometimes. Zoë says, I’m having the worst déjà vu; I feel like this moment already happened. I want to say, maybe it did; I’ve always felt that the present is just one way of looking at things. But these are thoughts I keep to myself, because I can’t afford to lose Zoë. If I lose Zoë, Ron might go with her, and then I’d be completely alone in this city.
* * *
Zoë is the kind of person you lose easily: this has happened to many people. She’s also the kind of person who will freak out when someone suggests there is more than one reality, then blame that someone for her freak-out. Once, after a Keith Buckley reading in Midtown, we sat on a bench, our backs to Central Park. I had moved from Tel Aviv only a few months earlier; Zoë was explaining how the park had been created in the 1850s. The idea of having a designated area for greenery struck me as odd; Tel Aviv isn’t carefully planned like that—trees often choose their own location, and most streets stretch in unpredictable directions, creating a pattern of impulse.
We were waiting for Ron, and it was getting dark. Looking up and down, I noticed how this city, spreading to the sky, makes people smaller and faster. I was having one of my funny moods, when everything feels like a dream. I turned to Zoë and said, What if we’re not real? What if we’re just imagining this scene, right now, on this bench? Or what if somebody else is imagining us, and we are characters in this person’s hallucination? I didn’t know Zoë very well yet. I expected her to say I was crazy, or ask what the hell I was talking about. But she started shaking: first her knees, then her arms, then her entire body. She said, Don’t fuck with my mind like that. I didn’t know what to do. I put my hand on her knee and said, I’m here. Then I said, I’m real. She calmed down, but for the rest of the evening she kept saying, Don’t ever fuck with me like that.
So, if you want Zoë to like you, you need to: (1) be a flexible, spontaneous person, because Zoë hates to wait but also hates to plan in advance; (2) love all literary events where Keith Buckley is reading; and (3) learn never to fuck with her mind.
* * *
In Israel, this is what you do when you enter a bar, a movie theater, a mall: you open your bag. You let the security guard look through your personal belongings, until he decides you’re probably not carrying a bomb. The security guard is almost always a man. Sometimes he’ll be thorough, like he knows something you don’t; he might even use a metal detector that beeps if the interior of your jacket is explosive. But usually he’ll just tap the bottom of the bag and signal with his eyes Go in. If you’re a beautiful woman, you’re likely to hear some kind of comment that acknowledges your beauty. Then you’re free to roam whatever space it is, calm and confident, because in Tel Aviv, if you drink or eat or party enough, even the worst kind of war feels like peace.
When I first moved to New York, I kept opening my purse every time I entered a building, before realizing that there was no security guard. And every time I felt relieved, and every time I felt orphaned, and every time I felt surprised at both; there is a sense of comfort that you get when someone else is in charge of your safety, and I didn’t yet know that in America danger is something you can choose to ignore.
Back then, I was subletting a tiny studio in Hell’s Kitchen that had only one window. The building had a live-in super with a thick Romanian accent who treated me like his protégée because he was the Veteran Immigrant. My first day in the building, he said, Twelve years I live here now; it is like home. His accent was so thick that it took a few seconds of tossing the sounds in my brain to decipher their message, but I felt comforted. Then, three weeks later, he came over and said, New mall only few blocks from here; very expensive but you should go, look in the windows. I said I would, and I did. At the new Time Warner Center, I was going in as Ron was coming out. I reached to open my purse, and saw him smile, his Israeli radar letting me know I was busted. He seemed familiar, and happy; I stopped. We spent ten minutes trying to figure out where we knew each other from. The army? No, he left before he was eighteen, never served; the Peace Now rally in D.C.? No, I knew nothing about it; after a while, we gave up.
* * *
Zoë wants to step outside to smoke. We leave our coats and grab our bags. There is intimacy between us and a wide-shouldered guy with dreadlocks as we are squeezing our way out. Dreadlocks looks up at Zoë’s shirt and Zoë says, Keep an eye on our stuff, okay? as if this is our friend and that’s the least he can do. Dreadlocks nods; I can see inside his mind, very briefly, and it is full of one word: boobs.
Outside on Crosby Street, optimistic people believe that seats for this event are in abundance, so they just stand there, smoking or chatting. Zoë bums a cigarette from a pale baby-faced guy who looks familiar. I hear her say, No you don’t get my number in return, and then a second later, You get … my gratitude, and then laughter. They are equidistant from me, but she is louder and I hear only her. Zoë never has cigarettes because she’s quit smoking, so she always has to bum from people who haven’t quit smoking yet. These people are usually around, though, and always into helping Zoë, so there’s no reason to change the MO. Unless you count Ron as a reason; every time he smells cigarettes on Zoë’s breath he squints and says, You need to commit to your health, Zoë, not just talk about it.
* * *
In Tel Aviv, walking into a bar is like stepping into a cloud. If you spend more than an hour inside the cloud, scent molecules get under your hair and skin, and they often take their time getting out. When you get back from the bar, if you don’t want to inhale smoke from the pillow in your sleep, you head straight to the shower and turn the faucet all the way to red until the small room fills with steam. When I’m in Tel Aviv, I usually think, No big deal; then I get back to New York and feel indebted to the non-yellow walls, the guarantee of nicotine-free air once you walk into a room. It is true that in New York when you wash your clothes the water turns gray; you scrub, and inside the bubbles you see soot. But I don’t mind it; I know that this urban dirt is the side effect of speed and productivity. I think: New York 1, Tel Aviv 0. It’s an ongoing competition, a game that Ron and I invented, but I forget to keep track, so I have to start counting all over again every time.
* * *
Zoë is standing across from me smoking fast like she has to go somewhere and the cigarette is holding her back. I say, There’s still plenty of time, you know. Zoë says, I might go with this guy for a drink. I give her a look. She says, Nothing serious, and looks away. I say, I think he used to work at the restaurant. Zoë pretends not to hear me, or maybe she really doesn’t. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time for Keith, she says; he’s reading last. I think: As if that’s the problem.
Zoë believes that no one understands Keith Buckley’s work like she does, and that referring to him by his first name makes this fact clear. The truth is that no one understands Keith Buckley’s work, not even Keith Buckley, if you ask me. But if I said that to Zoë—if I said, People laugh and shout and do the voices and download the ringtones because they want to belong; if I said, Zoë, think about it, Keith Buckley the phenomenon has very little to do with Keith Buckley the man—Zoë wouldn’t think about it, not even just to pretend. Instead, she’d say, You don’t have to go with me to these things, you know, and I would feel like our life is a reality show and I’ve just been voted off.
Don’t tell Ron, Zoë says, putting out her cigarette, her eyes canvassing the sidewalk in search of pale guy. She steps on the butt and pulls me close; I hate the smell of smoking, but mixed with Zoë’s breath it’s all right. Love you, she says, and then kisses me, her tongue a tiny butterfly tapping mine; then she’s gone.
I go back inside and think: What if I went home and took her jacket with me? By the time she came back, our seats would be taken and she’d have to watch Keith standing up, pushed against strangers who were too late. In Zoë’s world, that’s not an option. Or what if I did tell Ron? Would he confront her? Would things between the three of us change? I put my coat on my lap and tap my fleece-covered knee, because I feel like people can see my thoughts, and my thoughts are horrible. Since I can sometimes see people’s thoughts a little bit, it’s hard to remember that this is not the norm. Often, when thinking something new in a public place, I feel exposed.
When the reading starts, Dreadlocks turns to me and says, Where’s your friend? She’ll be back for Keith Buckley, I say. He nods slowly and seems to be saying, I’m glad we had this talk. He raises his right hand, which is holding a plastic cup. You want some coffee? he asks. No thanks, I say. He nods again. Let me know if you change your mind, he says, like there’s something very important at stake.
When I see Zoë pushing through backs and arms to reach me, I regret not being invisible. I would pay a lot to see the look in her eyes if she returned and I weren’t here, because I can’t possibly imagine it. I have a good imagination, but with Zoë, the only way to know things is to see them. A man hisses Bitch as her elbow meets his abdomen, but she doesn’t notice. When she sits down she is all excited, and smells of weed. Dreadlocks leans over and whispers, Your friend was very lonely without you. Zoë ignores him. Did you have a good time with the busboy? I ask. He’s a bartender now, she says. A few seconds later, she puts her head on my shoulder. This is what I think: Greedy. A woman who can’t stay faithful to two people will never know true satisfaction. Greedy, greedy, greedy. But this thought doesn’t make me feel better.
* * *
Of course, to know Zoë is to know that she can never stay faithful to two people, or twelve, or twenty. But this is what I’ve learned today: there’s knowing, and then there’s knowing, and after the second kind comes seeing. The first kind of knowing is where Ron is: he knows that there must be other people, but he still chooses not to know. This is what you do when you don’t want to know what you know: (1) You don’t ask too many questions. (2) When you hear the two women you love giggle or whisper, you go to a different room and you tell yourself it’s a choice, your choice, to give them privacy; you tell yourself that women often whisper, and it doesn’t mean one of them is having sex with people you don’t know. (3) When you smell another man on one of the women you love, you suggest we all hop in the shower; you say you feel sticky. When the same woman says, But I don’t feel sticky, you say, Do it for me, then—in a way that tells her a shower is easier than a conversation.
The second kind of knowing happens when someone you love actually tells you what you already know. Often, for Zoë and me, this happens around evening time. In the bedroom that the three of us share, Zoë and I will be lying on top of our blanket—me, in my baggy Basic Training T-shirt that I use as pajamas; she, still all dressed up and smelling like the outside world, because she is always waiting for one of us to undress her. Zoë’s hand under my T-shirt, up and down and tickling a little, she’ll suddenly get a playful look in her eyes, stretching herself so that her lips face my ear. I fucked Randy the produce guy, she’ll whisper to me and giggle, and then, Your skin is the softest I’ve ever touched—like Randy the produce guy has nothing to do with us.
So the second kind of knowing happens when you hear the woman you love whisper tales of other lovers in your ear, and sadness feels like something you swallowed without chewing, but the next morning it feels more like a bedtime story you listened to half asleep, something unworthy of your daytime attention.
And then there’s seeing. Seeing happens when there’s a pale guy who looks harmless but he’s not, and Zoë leaves you alone in a bookstore and comes back smelling of him. Seeing happens when you realize that you will never again be able to excite her like that, because the glow of her skin is about one thing: touching a new body.
* * *
Keith Buckley has a different voice for each character, as always; his stories are all dialogue, like a play, and very hard to follow (unless you’ve memorized them, and some of his fans have). Every time Keith Buckley says a character’s name, the crowd shouts it back at him. Pinkers, Dire, Level. On the website you can download popular one-liners for your cell phone, even send a message to a friend using a character’s voice. With every roar, Keith Buckley pauses, gives a slow blink that tries to look like gratitude. He clearly wants to appear humble, like he can’t help but think, How fortunate am I, how very, very fortunate. But there’s something about him that’s plastic—fake and temporary. Every time he blinks, I think he might dissolve suddenly, but he never does.
Zoë laughs in all the right places, her laughter like a marble rolling down a slope. I can see her mind for about three seconds: she wants to mesmerize Keith Buckley with the sound of her laughter, the glitter of her bright green eyes. When the reading ends, Zoë turns around to look at the audience cheering; that’s what she always does. Through the clatter of clapping hands, I hear her voice: He’s such a … performer, you know? I know. I also know that all of a sudden she’s sad. It doesn’t take much with her. Well, do you want to buy the book again and have him sign it? I ask. Zoë has three signed copies of Meadows of Fortitude, Buckley’s latest WebBook. She seems hesitant, and while waiting for her decision, this is what I think: We look like two friends at a lit event, not like two-thirds of a three-way couple. I think: It’s fucked up; it’s all fucked up. I try to smile at Zoë anyway, but my lips feel stiff.
Zoë shakes her head no, slowly. She says, I think we should just go. This is an important step for her; every time she approaches Keith Buckley, she thinks he must remember her by now, and the next thing that happens is disappointment. I say, Okay, let’s go, and I can see so much air leaving her body at once, as if she were a pop-up doll deflating. Then it takes us almost ten minutes to get to the door because of all the people. Behind us someone says, Only in New York fucking City this many people show up to hear some bearded old dude make funny voices. A disgruntled snort follows, and I see Zoë wanting to turn around and respond, defend her Keith, but she just shrugs and looks at me with sad eyes that say, The things I want the most are the things I’ll never have. This is what I feel like: a consolation prize.
We’re practically out when Zoë says, I need to go to the bathroom. It’s okay, I tell her. It’s not okay, though, because bathroom of course means Keith Buckley. It’s also not okay that whenever Ron isn’t around, something shifts between us and she says things like I need to go to the bathroom when she means I can’t leave without trying to talk to Keith. I want to say, I’ll wait outside then, but instead I say, Want me to go with you?
* * *
This is why I moved to New York: I didn’t want to go to India. Or South America, or Australia. In Israel, this is what you do when the IDF gives you your freedom back: you work and save money for about a year, and then go backpacking in a place cheap enough to host you for a long time. I was on that track just like everyone else, but when it was time to go, I realized that I never cared much for India and that the friend I was supposed to travel with, a gay guy named Yoni, was actually not completely gay and possibly in love with me. I was not in love with Yoni and not in love with India, but staying in Tel Aviv meant starting my life, or at least going to school. It’s a scary thing, starting your life. So I signed up for cooking classes and flew to Manhattan, because that’s where they were.
* * *
Keith Buckley is signing his WebBook and looking at Zoë like he can’t quite place her. He seems troubled. Zoë is oddly quiet, standing still and waiting. Then Keith Buckley stops moving his pen, looks up once again, stares at Zoë. Something is happening, but I don’t know what. I look at Zoë; if she has any answers, she’s keeping them to herself. Keith Buckley says, I’m sorry, I have to ask; are you…? Is that you? Zoë’s voice is flat when she says, Am I who? I can see that Keith Buckley needs to take a deep breath, but he doesn’t. Have you been stalking me? he asks. No, Zoë says quietly. Keith Buckley doesn’t know what to do with her answer. She looks him straight in the eye and repeats, No. Inside my left ear, someone is scratching a chalkboard with long nails. Finally, Keith Buckley stops staring at Zoë, adds “uck” to his “Best of L,” and she grabs the book, turns around. I follow Zoë’s back out of the store, and it doesn’t take as long this time. Her shoulder blades are sharp like they have some protecting to do. I feel an urge to touch them, as if they will soften when I do, and we will leave the store transformed, having learned something together.
* * *
When we step outside, we see Ron waiting for us. Zoë isn’t happy to see him, and her upper lip tightens. My favorite girls, he says, and hugs us both, a three-way, end-of-the-week hug. He smells like he’s already been home and taken a shower, and his scent calms me down. I cling to him and kiss his neck. For a few seconds, I feel hopeful, like maybe now we can double-click and delete, start the evening over. Zoë finds her way out of our hug and says, I’m not going home now. She sounds like a rebellious teenager. Daddy Ron says, Who said anything about going home? I thought we’d go out. Zoë says, Well I’m meeting someone. Then she quietly adds, A friend. She looks at me for help, but I look away, I look down. I see a cigarette butt on the concrete and wonder if it’s Zoë’s butt from before. Ron says, Zo, we said something about Saturday nights, remember?
Three weeks ago, we went out and saw a movie about a strikingly short ten-year-old boy who wants to make it to the NBA. He doesn’t, but by the end of the film he’s living on a farm, growing tomatoes and looking content. It was a bad movie that put us in a good mood. On the way home, I had my left hand in Zoë’s back pocket while Ron held my right one, and I felt like I do on steamy days when I step into the big refrigerator at the restaurant. An hour later, we were sitting on cushions in our living room, playing poker and drinking wine, and Ron started mimicking the short boy’s voice at thirteen, squeaky and whiny with basketball heartbreak. Zoë did the mother, opening every sentence with a dramatic “My child…” and I kept giving them more and more lines from the movie—I’m the one with the good memory. That night, before we fell asleep, Ron hugged his pillow and said, I think we should do this every week. I said: Great idea, and: Saturdays could work, they never give me this shift at the restaurant anyway. Zoë nodded a lot and looked stern.
Now Zoë says, Well, we haven’t done anything about it, so I sort of thought it was off. Ron is disappointed; he stares at nothing without blinking. He doesn’t want to pick a fight, though; he never does. Then he strokes my hair absentmindedly. Ron and I hardly ever have sex without Zoë anymore, and something in the way he strokes my hair explains why. Looks like it’s just the two of us then, he tells me, but he’s looking at Zoë.
* * *
After I slept with Ron the first time, on the floor of my old apartment in Hell’s Kitchen (not because it was sexy but because the mattress was too small and smelled of the people who used to own it), we talked about Identity. Ron’s family immigrated to the United States when he was in high school, after his father, an importer/exporter, couldn’t make good on a deal he’d made with the Israeli Air Force. Ron said, I’ve always felt Israeli in America, but if I went back today I’m sure I’d be the American in Israel. You never know, I said, maybe you should try. I can’t, he said, because of my dad. I didn’t know how to answer that, so I didn’t. Then he said, There’s something I need to tell you. It’s generally not what you want to hear when you can still feel the cold floor against your naked back, but I didn’t mind it too much; his tone suggested potential, not threat. He said, I have a girlfriend, but it’s not like that, we have an open relationship. I said, There’s something I need to tell you, too: I’ve been mostly into women for the longest time; you’re the first man I’ve been with in maybe five years. Really? I would never have thought that, he said. He stretched back until his head touched the book stand behind him; he looked at me like he was seeing something new, like he was disappointed in himself for having missed it before. I think you and Zoë might really like each other, he said; we should all go out sometime.
* * *
In my fantasy, our love is a visible thing. We don’t even have to be together for people to see it. When I’m with Zoë, when I’m with Ron, when the two of them are without me, maybe even when one of us is walking down some street alone, people can tell that what they are seeing is part of something else, that a piece is missing. And when the three of us are together, people get it; they smile at us and suddenly they think, Why not?
Maybe there’s something about our love they find inspiring. Maybe they look at us and forget what it is they are supposed to find strange. And maybe they, too, have more than one person they love, more than one person they call to trash Deli Guy who gave the wrong change again, more than one person whose morning breath they love waking up to.
* * *
But reality is often quite different. At a bar two blocks from the bookstore, Ron and I sit on barstools, looking something like a brother and sister who’ve just learned of a death in the family. I look at Ron’s beer and realize it will take some time for him to get happy at this rate. I push my White Russian in his direction, but I know he’ll say it’s too sweet. He makes a face. I don’t know how you drink this shit, he says. He’s cranky, and I want to say something that would change that, but I’m thinking: Stalking, problem, greedy; my words are all wrong. It’s not a friend, is it, he says, and there’s no question mark at the end of his words. I shake my head. I mean, we know all her friends, he says, if it was really a friend she’d say his name. I wait a few seconds before I say in Hebrew, Ron, we don’t know all of her friends.
* * *
Hebrew feels weird, like some secret code; Ron and I got used to speaking English between us because of Zoë, and gradually Hebrew started to feel like an intimate space we shouldn’t be sharing. Occasionally a word would slip, but mostly we honor this unspoken agreement. I miss Hebrew sometimes; other times I try to imagine how the words might sound if I didn’t understand their meaning, and I wish that I could listen to them from the outside and choose whether or not to get back in.
Ron learned at an early age how you can hide behind a new language, how you can wear a new identity so tight on your skin that you forget it’s only a costume. This is what he taught me: (1) To conquer a language that’s not your native tongue, you need to prioritize reading over sleeping. (2) Fighting your accent is not a good idea. Let it slide off when it feels ready, and until then embrace it, tell yourself it’s cute. (3) When you’re in a relationship, and two people share an understanding that the third one doesn’t, language is a tricky business.
* * *
At the bar on Prince Street, I see Ron’s hesitation as clearly as I see his eyes. He’s too tired to fight it, he answers in Hebrew. Az ma, ani stam idyot? he asks. I touch the soft spot on the back of his hand, just below his wristwatch. You’re not an idiot, I say, Ata lo idyot; you just need to believe in certain things to keep going, you know?
We drink quietly after that, my fingers still stroking his hand. I had a whole thing planned for tonight, he says suddenly, and we’re back to English; I wanted to go to the Ferris wheel on Coney Island. Can you do that at night? I ask, and Ron’s voice is shaky when he says, I don’t know, I haven’t checked. Or we could go hang out in Central Park, I say—it’s become a joke between the three of us because we’ve been meaning to do it for so long. Ron smiles, and I close my eyes and open my mouth to say, I think Zoë’s been stalking Keith Buckley, but the words sting the bottom of my throat and stay there. I’m not sure what scares me more—that I’ll say it and everything will change, that I’ll say it and nothing will. So I just keep stroking Ron’s hand, drawing small flowers and triangles with my finger.
* * *
When we walk home from the bar, the air is no longer crisp, and I try to think of the right word but I can’t find it. All the words are in Hebrew now, and none of them describe the air accurately. Ron hands a dollar bill to every person on the street who asks for money, and also to a few who don’t, because he believes in karma. I haven’t been to a peace rally in five months, he says, it’s the least I can do. I want to say that I don’t see the connection, but I know it will only upset him. How do you have so many singles? I ask. I broke a twenty when you went to the bathroom, Ron says, but his mind is somewhere else. I see a guy across the street from us, and for a second I think it’s Dreadlocks from the bookstore, but he disappears before I can be sure.
The apartment is all lit, and I realize Zoë and I forgot to turn off the lights, but Ron shouts, Zo? Zoë?—and then one more time, Zoë. Now he’s doubly pissed off—that Zoë’s not here, that he let himself hope she was. He says, Jesus fucking Christ, are you girls physically incapable of turning the light off? Is it really so hard to remember? Or is it that you just don’t give a flying fuck that we’re throwing our money at Con Edison like they are some fucking charity organization? I say, Don’t take it out on me, Ron, it’s not fair. He says, You left the house together, didn’t you? I say, I’m not talking about the lights. Ron takes a deep breath, and for a second he looks taller and more buff than he is. I’m sorry, he says.
I go to the kitchen and put water in the pot. Ron, do you want some tea? I shout, because I think he’s in the bedroom. I’m right here, you don’t need to shout, he says, standing by the island that separates the kitchen from the living room.
* * *
At two a.m., we are sleepy in front of the television, fighting our eyes, two parents whose daughter is out clubbing on a school night. I say what we’ve both been thinking for some time: Ron, she might not be coming home tonight. Do you think we should call her? he asks. Her cell phone is in the bedroom, I say. Zoë often forgets to take her cell phone; when she remembers, it’s because I put it in her bag myself. Ron snorts and says, Of course. Well, do you want to go to sleep, then? he asks me. I guess we should, I say, but we keep sitting there for a few more minutes while Will and Grace are going to see a therapist together. Then Ron asks, Did she take her keys? And I say, I’m pretty sure she did. A few minutes later, I’m brushing my teeth and Ron is turning off all the lights.
The apartment is too quiet, our huge king-sized bed feels empty, and this is the word I think about: Ra’av. It means hunger, which is not what I’m feeling, and yet for a while it’s the only word I have. Ra’av is not something that makes falling asleep easy. Ron hugs me and then grabs my ass, a butt cheek in each hand. He’s hard now, and his thumb finds its favorite spot and starts to rub it, my thong a small sailboat with the help of his hand. Tiny waves are sending the promise of pleasure in a code my body reads well, but it feels wrong without Zoë; we have “rules,” and according to them if one of us is absent or uninterested the other two can always go ahead, but what happens in love is that reality will begin to set its own rules.
I stop him, and his entire body stiffens instantly. Then he says, We’ll have to figure something out, you know, if she’s not coming back. His voice is cold, distant. Of course she’s coming back, I say, and then I add, At some point. I always knew this would happen, Ron says, and I feel like he’s talking to somebody else, somebody I can’t see. Always, he says again, even before we met you. In a way, that’s why, you know, he says, and now he looks me straight in the eyes, and it reminds me of the look he had that day on the floor, after our first time. That’s why what? I ask, though I know the answer. I thought maybe this way, with you, we could give this thing a fair shot, he says, and then adds, You know, “monogamy.” I’ve never seen him looking so lost. She was more into women back then, he says. I run my finger up and down the bridge of his nose. I want him to look at me but he won’t, and for a second I think maybe I should go sleep in the living room, though I know it’s a childish thought. If he cries, I think, then I’ll hug him, and maybe a different conversation will start. But Ron doesn’t cry. He is a lost man with no tears. I turn away.
I’m almost asleep when I hear Ron whispering something, and at first I think I’m already dreaming. What? I whisper back, and he sighs and waits, but then whispers again. I don’t know how to be that guy, he says, I don’t know how to be the guy who’s okay with this. I think: Maybe you’re not, and I’m afraid to say it, but eventually I do. Maybe you’re not. I want to be, Ron says, and he sounds like he needs to clear his throat; I want to be the guy who makes both of you happy. I want to be the guy who helps you open your own restaurant, and I want to be the guy who looks at Zoë and sees only what’s important, who doesn’t care about the rest.
Ron, I say, I don’t want to open my own restaurant.
* * *
This is my metaphor for how people in Israel treat suicide bombings and bombings in general: the flu. Some bombings are like a mild flu that doesn’t even make you skip work. These are the bombings in a city other than your own, not too many casualties, nobody you know. Others are worse, the kind of flu that makes you vow you will from now on be grateful for your health every hour of every day. When the location is a café you used to frequent, or when some girl who went to school with you and moved up north in third grade loses an arm, it feels real. For a short while, death feels close.
Still, this is what you do: you call a friend who used to go to that café, a friend who knows that girl. You spend a few minutes talking about how horrible it is, how your idea of normal life is actually insane. You sigh, and your friend sighs as well, but at the end of that sigh there’s already a new thought. Then you say the word “so” like that: So … And you ask your friend about the guy she was supposed to go out with last night. Your friend jumps at the opportunity like you knew she would; the guy she went out with last night was a weirdo who wouldn’t stop talking about owls, but she fucked him anyway. Then, for thirty, thirty-five minutes, this is what you do: analyze. You analyze your friend’s taste for men with odd obsessions, or you analyze your own need to occasionally stare at the sun until you cry, or you analyze a mutual friend’s secret affair with a married man who once was your teacher.
You analyze, and slowly you notice how words like “tragedy” and “death” hold nothing more than their own sound. Tragedy, in that sense, becomes something like “chocolate” or “bicycle.”
* * *
When I wake up, Ron and I are on different sides of the bed, facing up, and Zoë is lying on top of us, facedown and arms stretched to her sides, like some kind of collapsed Jesus. I stay still and breathe deeply. I feel happy, though I want to feel other things. This is what I’m thinking: Central Park.
I gently raise Zoë’s arm and fold myself out of bed underneath it, then gently put her arm back on the mattress. I’m thinking: breakfast in bed. I’m thinking: something fancy. Ron and Zoë are always trying to get me to cook for them, and I always refuse, because who wants to bring their work home? But now I feel not only the wish but the need to cook; I want to chop, stir-fry, bake. I’m walking quietly out of the room, so as not to wake them, and I’m trying to remember what vegetables we have, whether or not we’re out of eggs. I’m almost touching the bedroom door when something registers with me, something I must have seen right when I opened my eyes, but chose not to. I turn around, though I already know the answer: Ron, on top of the sheet that’s supposed to be covering him, is wearing his blue Superman underwear. Last night, when I fell asleep, he was in his gray plaid boxers.
In an instant, I feel sick. The thought of the two of them having sex without me—no, next to me—and choosing not to wake me up, makes me feel as if I already made breakfast for three people and then ate it by myself. I run to the bathroom; I want to throw up all the pastries, the omelet, the coffee I never had. I make gagging sounds, and I no longer care about waking them up; I sound like an animal. But nothing comes out, and as far as I can tell, Ron and Zoë are still sound asleep.
Then there are two Mes.
Me No. 1 is the Israeli who was taught that being tough and being strong are the same thing. She was a soldier once, for two long years, so she believes she can survive anything. She says: You’re chasing after something that doesn’t exist. She says: You’ll be just fine on your own. This is what she believes I should do: pack my stuff. She’s thinking about the blue suitcase, about taking it out of the bedroom closet without knocking down Ron’s old speakers. She’s thinking about how much she could fit in the suitcase, how many back-and-forths it would take. She’s thinking about where she could go.
Me No. 2 is a woman who successfully impersonates an American. She is soft-spoken, and once a week she gets lost in the city on purpose, then walks—no maps, no questions—until she finds her way home. She has a lot to prove. She says: This isn’t the end.
* * *
Sometimes, when the three of us are together, my body feels like marshmallow, calm and weightless. That Saturday three weeks ago is a good example, and I see it now: we are rolling off our cushions in laughter, holding our stomachs like footballs. I think, Who is this person? That me who isn’t Israeli and isn’t American, isn’t gay and isn’t straight—who is she?
For a while I just listen to the Sunday-morning quiet, interrupted every few seconds by Ron’s snoring. But all of a sudden I think: What if this isn’t the first time? I feel Ron hugging me from behind in the bathroom one morning, and I hear his voice: You’re totally dead to the world when you’re asleep, you know that? I start gagging again, and I can’t stop.
Zoë’s voice comes to me through the gagging sound, through the bathroom door: You okay, babe? Can I come in? I throw up now, finally, but I’m vomiting water and air, and I feel like I’m suffocating. I hold the door with my left hand to keep Zoë from coming in, because our bathroom doesn’t have a lock. As a result, I have to let go of my hair, and when I throw up again it gets splashed.
When I get up to brush my teeth, Zoë opens the door. I’m fine, I say before she has a chance to ask. Are you sick or something? she asks. I’m fine, I say again, tasting toothpaste. I’m sorry about yesterday, she says, it wasn’t cool of me to leave you and go with that guy. She clings to my back now, hugs my shoulders, and looks at both of us in the bathroom mirror. Besides, he kind of smelled like burnt rubber, she says in an attempt to make me smile. I don’t. You know it’s not you, Pie, she whispers in my ear, and then kisses it; it’s just my fucking daddy issues, it has nothing to do with you. But I’ll work on it, she adds when I don’t respond, I will. I try to ignore her and focus on brushing my teeth; she reaches for my toothbrush with her right hand, and I stop brushing and look in the mirror. We look stupid; I have white toothpaste foam coming out of my mouth, and Zoë’s eyes are still sticky with sleep. I look sad; she looks relaxed. She kisses my cheek, her eyes still on the mirror. Ron and I had a really good talk when I got home, she says softly; everything will be okay, you’ll see. Her voice is all promise, and I feel a sharp pain at the bottom of my stomach, my need to believe her.
* * *
I spit and say slowly, What about Keith Buckley? Zoë’s eyes go from the mirror to the sink. She says, I don’t want to talk about it; and then, It’s not important. I say, Maybe it is. Zoë lets her head fall gently to one side, and her fingers circle the zipper of her sweatshirt. When they settle on it, they pull it down a bit, then up, again and again. She says, I just … I got it in my head that if Keith doesn’t notice me, then it’s a sign that I’ll never succeed in anything, you know? She looks at me now. But I’m done, Pie, I swear, she says and shakes her head. Done. I put my hand over hers, quieting her zipper. Zo, it’s impossible not to notice you, I say. Zoë gives a short laugh, and we stand there like that for a few seconds. Then she says, Remember that guy with the dreadlocks from the bookstore? The weirdest thing happened. I saw him again when I was on my way back, and he just walked up to me, in the middle of the street at like four a.m., and said, Go home. Maybe it wasn’t him, I say, maybe it was some crazy guy. It was him, Zoë says, I recognized him, and I’m sure he recognized me, too. What did you do? I ask her. I don’t know, she says, it was this moment from a dream; I think I said, That’s what I’m doing, I’m going home.
Almost out the door, she turns around and says, But listen, Pie, the Keith stuff, that’s just between us, okay? I wait, then ask, Why? She’s already on her way to the kitchen, her arm stretching in front of her to open the freezer door. She giggles and says, You’re the best, Pie, because she thinks my question is a clever way of saying “of course.” This is what I think: Nothing’s changed.
I am alone in the bathroom now. I look at myself in the mirror, foam-free. I hear Zoë in the kitchen fixing us all a Saturday-morning breakfast. I’m no longer nauseated, and the idea of breakfast is tempting. The only thing Zoë knows how to make is French toast, but it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. I think: This is what there is, this is my life. I think: Do I want it or not?
Zoë turns on the stereo to wake Ron up. Radiohead or Coldplay? she shouts, but doesn’t wait for an answer. Then she’s in the bathroom again, holding a bottle of maple syrup. I think she’s about to ask what’s taking me so long, but this is what she says: Ron thinks I should go to Israel with you in the summer; he says we’d have a blast and that we shouldn’t miss out just because of him. What do you say?
* * *
I see us on the plane, right before landing, and I hear people clapping as the wheels hit the ground. Zoë laughs. I’ve told her about this silly Israeli tradition, the way I’ve told her so many other Israel stories, the way I’ve been telling her about Tel Aviv since the day we met. I say, It’s stupid, you know; this culture treats pilots as heroes. Zoë says, It’s not stupid, and then: It’s exciting. She tugs on my earlobe the way she sometimes does, and peeks out the tiny airplane window. Then she says, We need to call Ron right when we land; we promised. I say, We will, but I don’t think he’s worried.
Ron ducks under Zoë’s arm to get into the bathroom. He starts to pee, but then his face twitches. It smells like puke in here, he says. Then he looks at me, still peeing. You all right?
Copyright © 2014 by Shelly Oria
Table of Contents
New York 1, Tel Aviv 0,
Victor, Changed Man,
The Disneyland of Albany,
This Way I Don't Have to Be,
The Thing About Sophia,
None the Wiser,
We, the Women,
The Beginning of a Plan,
Maybe in a Different Time,
My Wife in Converse,
Phonetic Masterpieces of Absurdity,
A Note About the Author,