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 Im thinking this, Zoë is being beautiful. She says, Im so happy its not cold anymore. Shes 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 elses kitchen. Zoës halter top ties behind her neck, except every few minutes it gets loose, and I need to tie it again for her. Its 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 isnt 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 dont think so, I say, but I get confused between all the stores sometimes. Zoë says, Im having the worst déjà vu; I feel like this moment already happened. I want to say, maybe it did; Ive always felt that the present is just one way of looking at things. But these are thoughts I keep to myself, because I cant afford to lose Zoë. If I lose Zoë, Ron might go with her, and then Id be completely alone in this city.
* * *
Zoë is the kind of person you lose easily: this has happened to many people. Shes 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 isnt 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 were not real? What if were just imagining this scene, right now, on this bench? Or what if somebody else is imagining us, and we are characters in this persons hallucination? I didnt 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, Dont fuck with my mind like that. I didnt know what to do. I put my hand on her knee and said, Im here. Then I said, Im real. She calmed down, but for the rest of the evening she kept saying, Dont 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 youre probably not carrying a bomb. The security guard is almost always a man. Sometimes hell be thorough, like he knows something you dont; he might even use a metal detector that beeps if the interior of your jacket is explosive. But usually hell just tap the bottom of the bag and signal with his eyes Go in. If youre a beautiful woman, youre likely to hear some kind of comment that acknowledges your beauty. Then youre 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 didnt yet know that in America danger is something you can choose to ignore.
Back then, I was subletting a tiny studio in Hells 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 Zoës shirt and Zoë says, Keep an eye on our stuff, okay? as if this is our friend and thats 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 dont 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 shes quit smoking, so she always has to bum from people who havent quit smoking yet. These people are usually around, though, and always into helping Zoë, so theres no reason to change the MO. Unless you count Ron as a reason; every time he smells cigarettes on Zoës 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 dont 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 Im 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 dont mind it; I know that this urban dirt is the side effect of speed and productivity. I think: New York 1, Tel Aviv 0. Its 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, Theres 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 doesnt. Dont worry, Ill be back in time for Keith, she says; hes reading last. I think: As if thats the problem.
Zoë believes that no one understands Keith Buckleys 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 Buckleys 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 wouldnt think about it, not even just to pretend. Instead, shed say, You dont have to go with me to these things, you know, and I would feel like our life is a reality show and Ive just been voted off.
Dont 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 Zoës breath its all right. Love you, she says, and then kisses me, her tongue a tiny butterfly tapping mine; then shes 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 shed have to watch Keith standing up, pushed against strangers who were too late. In Zoës world, thats 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 peoples thoughts a little bit, its 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, Wheres your friend? Shell be back for Keith Buckley, I say. He nods slowly and seems to be saying, Im 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 theres 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 werent here, because I cant 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 doesnt 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. Hes 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 cant stay faithful to two people will never know true satisfaction. Greedy, greedy, greedy. But this thought doesnt 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 Ive learned today: theres knowing, and then theres 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 dont want to know what you know: (1) You dont 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 its a choice, your choice, to give them privacy; you tell yourself that women often whisper, and it doesnt mean one of them is having sex with people you dont 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 dont 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. Zoës hand under my T-shirt, up and down and tickling a little, shell suddenly get a playful look in her eyes, stretching herself so that her lips face my ear. I fucked Randy the produce guy, shell whisper to me and giggle, and then, Your skin is the softest Ive 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 theres seeing. Seeing happens when theres a pale guy who looks harmless but hes 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 youve memorized them, and some of his fans have). Every time Keith Buckley says a characters 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 characters 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 cant help but think, How fortunate am I, how very, very fortunate. But theres something about him thats 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; thats what she always does. Through the clatter of clapping hands, I hear her voice: Hes such a … performer, you know? I know. I also know that all of a sudden shes sad. It doesnt 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, Buckleys 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: Its fucked up; its 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, lets 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 Ill never have. This is what I feel like: a consolation prize.
Were practically out when Zoë says, I need to go to the bathroom. Its okay, I tell her. Its not okay, though, because bathroom of course means Keith Buckley. Its also not okay that whenever Ron isnt around, something shifts between us and she says things like I need to go to the bathroom when she means I cant leave without trying to talk to Keith. I want to say, Ill wait outside then, but instead I say, Want me to go with you?
* * *
This is why I moved to New York: I didnt 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. Its a scary thing, starting your life. So I signed up for cooking classes and flew to Manhattan, because thats where they were.
* * *
Keith Buckley is signing his WebBook and looking at Zoë like he cant 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 dont know what. I look at Zoë; if she has any answers, shes keeping them to herself. Keith Buckley says, Im sorry, I have to ask; are you…? Is that you? Zoës voice is flat when she says, Am I who? I can see that Keith Buckley needs to take a deep breath, but he doesnt. Have you been stalking me? he asks. No, Zoë says quietly. Keith Buckley doesnt 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 Zoës back out of the store, and it doesnt 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 isnt 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 hes 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, Im not going home now. She sounds like a rebellious teenager. Daddy Ron says, Who said anything about going home? I thought wed go out. Zoë says, Well Im 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 its Zoës 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 doesnt, but by the end of the film hes 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 Zoës 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 boys 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—Im 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 havent done anything about it, so I sort of thought it was off. Ron is disappointed; he stares at nothing without blinking. He doesnt 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 its just the two of us then, he tells me, but hes looking at Zoë.
* * *
After I slept with Ron the first time, on the floor of my old apartment in Hells 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. Rons family immigrated to the United States when he was in high school, after his father, an importer/exporter, couldnt make good on a deal hed made with the Israeli Air Force. Ron said, Ive always felt Israeli in America, but if I went back today Im sure Id be the American in Israel. You never know, I said, maybe you should try. I cant, he said, because of my dad. I didnt know how to answer that, so I didnt. Then he said, Theres something I need to tell you. Its generally not what you want to hear when you can still feel the cold floor against your naked back, but I didnt mind it too much; his tone suggested potential, not threat. He said, I have a girlfriend, but its not like that, we have an open relationship. I said, Theres something I need to tell you, too: Ive been mostly into women for the longest time; youre the first man Ive 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 dont even have to be together for people to see it. When Im with Zoë, when Im 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 theres 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 whove just learned of a death in the family. I look at Rons 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 hell say its too sweet. He makes a face. I dont know how you drink this shit, he says. Hes cranky, and I want to say something that would change that, but Im thinking: Stalking, problem, greedy; my words are all wrong. Its not a friend, is it, he says, and theres 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 shed say his name. I wait a few seconds before I say in Hebrew, Ron, we dont 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 shouldnt 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 didnt 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 its only a costume. This is what he taught me: (1) To conquer a language thats 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 its cute. (3) When youre in a relationship, and two people share an understanding that the third one doesnt, language is a tricky business.
* * *
At the bar on Prince Street, I see Rons hesitation as clearly as I see his eyes. Hes 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. Youre 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 were back to English; I wanted to go to the Ferris wheel on Coney Island. Can you do that at night? I ask, and Rons voice is shaky when he says, I dont know, I havent checked. Or we could go hang out in Central Park, I say—its become a joke between the three of us because weve been meaning to do it for so long. Ron smiles, and I close my eyes and open my mouth to say, I think Zoës been stalking Keith Buckley, but the words sting the bottom of my throat and stay there. Im not sure what scares me more—that Ill say it and everything will change, that Ill say it and nothing will. So I just keep stroking Rons 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 cant 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 dont, because he believes in karma. I havent been to a peace rally in five months, he says, its the least I can do. I want to say that I dont 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 its 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 hes doubly pissed off—that Zoës 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 dont give a flying fuck that were throwing our money at Con Edison like they are some fucking charity organization? I say, Dont take it out on me, Ron, its not fair. He says, You left the house together, didnt you? I say, Im not talking about the lights. Ron takes a deep breath, and for a second he looks taller and more buff than he is. Im 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 hes in the bedroom. Im right here, you dont 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 weve 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, its 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, Im pretty sure she did. A few minutes later, Im 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: Raav. It means hunger, which is not what Im feeling, and yet for a while its the only word I have. Raav is not something that makes falling asleep easy. Ron hugs me and then grabs my ass, a butt cheek in each hand. Hes 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, Well have to figure something out, you know, if shes not coming back. His voice is cold, distant. Of course shes coming back, I say, and then I add, At some point. I always knew this would happen, Ron says, and I feel like hes talking to somebody else, somebody I cant see. Always, he says again, even before we met you. In a way, thats 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. Thats 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.” Ive 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 wont, and for a second I think maybe I should go sleep in the living room, though I know its a childish thought. If he cries, I think, then Ill hug him, and maybe a different conversation will start. But Ron doesnt cry. He is a lost man with no tears. I turn away.
Im almost asleep when I hear Ron whispering something, and at first I think Im already dreaming. What? I whisper back, and he sighs and waits, but then whispers again. I dont know how to be that guy, he says, I dont know how to be the guy whos okay with this. I think: Maybe youre not, and Im afraid to say it, but eventually I do. Maybe youre 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 whats important, who doesnt care about the rest.
Ron, I say, I dont 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 doesnt 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 theres 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 wouldnt stop talking about owls, but she fucked him anyway. Then, for thirty, thirty-five minutes, this is what you do: analyze. You analyze your friends 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 friends 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 Im thinking: Central Park.
I gently raise Zoës arm and fold myself out of bed underneath it, then gently put her arm back on the mattress. Im thinking: breakfast in bed. Im 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. Im walking quietly out of the room, so as not to wake them, and Im trying to remember what vegetables we have, whether or not were out of eggs. Im 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 thats 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: Youre chasing after something that doesnt exist. She says: Youll be just fine on your own. This is what she believes I should do: pack my stuff. Shes thinking about the blue suitcase, about taking it out of the bedroom closet without knocking down Rons old speakers. Shes thinking about how much she could fit in the suitcase, how many back-and-forths it would take. Shes 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 isnt 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 isnt Israeli and isnt American, isnt gay and isnt straight—who is she?
For a while I just listen to the Sunday-morning quiet, interrupted every few seconds by Rons snoring. But all of a sudden I think: What if this isnt the first time? I feel Ron hugging me from behind in the bathroom one morning, and I hear his voice: Youre totally dead to the world when youre asleep, you know that? I start gagging again, and I cant stop.
Zoës 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 Im vomiting water and air, and I feel like Im suffocating. I hold the door with my left hand to keep Zoë from coming in, because our bathroom doesnt 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. Im fine, I say before she has a chance to ask. Are you sick or something? she asks. Im fine, I say again, tasting toothpaste. Im sorry about yesterday, she says, it wasnt 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 dont. You know its not you, Pie, she whispers in my ear, and then kisses it; its just my fucking daddy issues, it has nothing to do with you. But Ill work on it, she adds when I dont 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 Zoës 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, youll 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? Zoës eyes go from the mirror to the sink. She says, I dont want to talk about it; and then, Its 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 doesnt notice me, then its a sign that Ill never succeed in anything, you know? She looks at me now. But Im done, Pie, I swear, she says and shakes her head. Done. I put my hand over hers, quieting her zipper. Zo, its 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 wasnt him, I say, maybe it was some crazy guy. It was him, Zoë says, I recognized him, and Im sure he recognized me, too. What did you do? I ask her. I dont know, she says, it was this moment from a dream; I think I said, Thats what Im doing, Im going home.
Almost out the door, she turns around and says, But listen, Pie, the Keith stuff, thats just between us, okay? I wait, then ask, Why? Shes already on her way to the kitchen, her arm stretching in front of her to open the freezer door. She giggles and says, Youre the best, Pie, because she thinks my question is a clever way of saying “of course.” This is what I think: Nothings 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. Im no longer nauseated, and the idea of breakfast is tempting. The only thing Zoë knows how to make is French toast, but its the best Ive 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 doesnt wait for an answer. Then shes in the bathroom again, holding a bottle of maple syrup. I think shes about to ask whats taking me so long, but this is what she says: Ron thinks I should go to Israel with you in the summer; he says wed have a blast and that we shouldnt 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. Ive told her about this silly Israeli tradition, the way Ive told her so many other Israel stories, the way Ive been telling her about Tel Aviv since the day we met. I say, Its stupid, you know; this culture treats pilots as heroes. Zoë says, Its not stupid, and then: Its 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 dont think hes worried.
Ron ducks under Zoës 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