I came across Tamar Levit’s story when I was a guest at a creative writing workshop in Tel Aviv. The first thing I said when she finished reading was: “You read a lot of young American literature, don’t you?” and then I waved the names of Tao Lin, Miranda July etc. Tamar had no idea what I was talking about. I think that for her, like for most Israeli readers, young American literature got stuck somewhere between Safran Foyer and Franzen. I was very surprised by this matter and, at the same time, excited and happy. Of course, I liked the story very much, a rare experience when visiting a workshop, but, moreover, this story was proof that our contemporary culture can genuinely cross boundaries. Tamar’s writing can be very much alike the writing of some young writers in New York whom she has never heard of only because they are both part of the same social and cultural world and, in this case, suffer from the same emotional lack or excess – both sides of the same coin – that characterize their writing. A kind of writing that has something sparing, ironic and faltering about it, that got tired of the failures of great ideas but still manages to make a strong statement about the excesses and manipulations that flood this up-to-date, sophisticated generation, so much so that it does all it can to rid itself of them and remain with nothing but the most basic emotions. This sentiment is beautifully and accurately expressed in its Israeli version in the story about the sad vacation: Most things cause anxiety, genuine communication with others is virtually impossible, culture is easily codded into familiar routes; even the most personal of gestures and aspirations are ultimately common, taken from a cultural context that has already been codded. But nevertheless, and this is where the beauty of the story reveals itself - you can observe all this with love, laugh, identify without hating yourself (this is not modernism, there is no rage or self-hatred) and feel a sort of subtle acceptance and small victory over the culture industry, through a writing that speaks the sense of defeat. I think it was always like that.
She picked her nose with pleasant tranquility and gazed out the car window, watching the Sharon plains pass by. The radio stations toppled over each other as he searched for a decent one they could listen to. They were heading north for a semi-compulsory vacation in honor of their 500, which was the number of days they had been together. She used to celebrate like that with all of her boyfriends, counting by the hundreds; she considered it a good way to maintain a sense of individuality in a highly ritualistic arena.
It could’ve been a wonderful vacation under different circumstances, but this time it was burdensome. He preferred to spend the weekend relaxing on the couch, rewarding himself for the long hours at the lab, where he researched all sorts of things that had to do with proteins and Alzheimer’s. He didn’t feel like packing a lunch and putting on sunscreen and being in places that had unfamiliar smells to them. What’s more, Reuven II, their fat old cat, was suffering from an extreme allergic reaction again, he got it whenever the seasons changed, and he had scratched his cheek so hard it almost tore off.
The vet instructed them to inject Reuven with morphine every few hours and to change his bandage at least once a day, so they were forced to take him along on their vacation. That had been an issue too, because he didn’t think that they should continue supporting Reuven, he was already very old and sick, and his care was eating away at whatever money they managed to save, from the expense of removing the tumor from his liver, to the cataract operations and the special food for senior cats. But she refused to agree that the theory of natural selection applied for house pets and continued supporting Reuven, who managed to lankily evade the feline angel of death.
As they sped up north on Highway No. 2, he stopped the dial on a good 80’s song, and as the song played she started lightly drumming on the dashboard and thought to herself that she’s actually not a bad drummer and wondered why she never took up drumming seriously. They both sang the few lines they could remember and for a moment, everything seemed right between them.
At noon, they arrived at the “Mountain Top” holiday resort. It was located on completely flat terrain north of Nahariya. An angry looking old man greeted them at the entrance. “Welcome to “Mountain Top” he said dryly, almost mockingly and threw a suspicious look at poor Reuven who was passed out, lying limply in his cage. Behind the old man there stood three low, wide pale pink houses, huddled together like a gang surrounding a thin, helpless strip of beach. The mid-day sun that pounded upon them left no doubt as to the resort’s advanced age. The old man led them to their room and showed them the pool, the ping pong tables and the rest of the facilities. It was near the end of summer and the place was withered and in disarray, as if it were merely waiting for winter in order to curl up in silence and grow old peacefully without being subjected to the critical eyes of visitors. They walked past the deflated mattresses left behind by recalcitrant families and the dusty nylon slipcovers protecting defunct equipment, and he was grumbling inside, regretting the fact that he took her father’s recommendation of the resort. How could he have possibly considered the opinion of a man who hides wine lists in restaurants? On the other hand, she wanted to believe that there was some sort of charm to the clumsy, neglected place, whether due to a sense of loyalty to her father, or the Quixotic faith she usually kept to herself regarding the subversive power of disintegration.
They spent the rest of the day in the room. He read newspapers and she and Reuven sat on the large balcony, watching the small figures of people as they splashed in the ocean and fought the waves. She felt that the view and the twilight surrounding her required deep thought and soul searching about her current situation and the university degree that she had quit three months ago. But serious thoughts refused to surface and she merely gazed at the people who were vigorously fighting the waves that attempted to engulf them, threatening to swallow them back into the vast ocean.
In the evening a shy young man arrived to fix the toilet, which had clogged up. Despite the astonished reaction they got when they phoned the reception, it seemed that the boy had had his fair share of experience unclogging toilets. He left the plunger for them, “just in case” and it remained in the corner of the bathroom for the entire duration of the vacation, a silent reminder of the fragility of the place.
And at night, they made love. Not with great passion, but rather with resignation to the rule applicable in every culture ‒ a young couple on vacation should be having sex, at least at night if not during daytime too. They couldn’t afford to break that rule, lest it be another indication of the crisis that was developing in their relationship.
He woke up early. He had planned on going back to sleep but then he discovered traces of blood all over the room. Reuven’s condition was getting worse and his cheek was about to fall off again. He cleaned up the blood, changed Reuven’s bandage and gave him another shot of morphine. Afterwards, he fixed himself a cup of coffee and went out to the balcony to look at the beach. He tried to spot fractals in the view and listened to the heavy breathing that was coming from the bedroom ‒ a cross between breathing and snoring, and he could already see himself calmly informing her that she snored so loudly that even Reuven was frightened and the paint peeled off the ceiling. He knew that she would adamantly deny it and swear that she never snored in her life, and the thought of it brought a tiny, unintentional smile to his lips.
At breakfast, they finally had a chance to meet the other guests. There were lots of people that looked like her father, retirees with greying, thinning hair, wearing polo shirts and armed with cell phones that hung on their belts like weapons to be drawn at any given moment. And their wives. Smiling types with cropped hair, moving between the buffet tables with the busyness of a beehive during high season. The young man that had fixed their toilet last night now manned the omelet station, and he greeted them warmly. In the background, there was a minor commotion over the fact that the avocado and cheese plate had been removed without being refilled.
At that point it became clear to them that the vacation was a mistake and he was saddened by it. He always expected life to be a bit more beautiful than the way it actually was, and he was always proven wrong.
But they didn’t want to despair and they were still too young to give up and they decided that they would go try their luck at the pool. Maybe the chlorine would clear the air. The pink main building blocked the sun and the water in the pool was cold, therefore no one was swimming, except for an elderly woman in a purple bathing cap who looked pleased to have the entire pool to herself.
They sat on the yellow plastic chairs, waiting for the water to warm up. It was late morning and the place was still quiet. They didn’t really manage to talk and there were long silences between them, which fluctuated between being pleasantly intimate and slightly embarrassing, until they reached the point where they almost hoped that noisy children would appear with their yelling mothers, but not a sound could be heard aside from the woman in the purple bathing cap, who was slowly crossing the length of the pool and it was unclear whether she was swimming or walking.
As soon as they realized that the pool could offer no solace, they wanted to go home. To admit out loud that they were wrong and salvage whatever was left of the weekend and rest at home. She was already prepared to look into his eyes and say, come on worm, let’s go back, but then she saw his glum face and she realized how much he didn’t want to admit the failure that was evident all around them. He stared at the floor and nervously played with his beard the way he always did when he was thinking about a serious issue, and she embraced him. For a moment, they were together, united in their defeat in the face of “Top Mountain”, which was closing in on them from all sides.
He suddenly got up and asked if she wanted to go to the beach. The beach. How simple. They grabbed the beach blanket and headed down. The beach was nearly empty. A good wind soon appeared, the sun was fantastic and the water was clear and pleasant. It was exactly what they needed. In between dips she told him that she was considering studying acupuncture for animals and explained that it was really a rapidly developing field. And he, already schooled in her grandiose ideas that would disappear as quickly as they popped up, was sensitive enough to answer her seriously and said that it sounded like an interesting idea, and that maybe she could practice on Reuven. And they had watermelon and napped a little and dreamed up all sorts of silly inventions that would make them rich, the way he liked to do and she not so much. And just before the sun began to set, he went up to the room to get more sunscreen. She protested, said that it was really unnecessary at that hour, but he insisted, the way he always insisted when he realized that his willpower was at stake.
She was already asleep when he returned to the beach. She felt a large shadow cast over her and slowly opened her eyes. He was standing above her, looking different. The way he looked the time he ran over a pigeon with his bike and didn’t know how to tell her.
“Ruthie,” he said. “Something bad happened.” Instantly, she leapt up to a seated position.
Reuven, who was in the room the entire time, somehow managed, despite his advanced age and ailing health, to climb out and walk over to the neighbor’s, and from there he went off to some tree and then God knows where.
He continued, telling her that he searched the entire place several times and that he had actually been looking everywhere for him for almost an hour. She got pretty angry over the fact that he didn’t tell her the minute he discovered Reuven’s disappearance, they both knew what kind of hell he must’ve been going through. In her heart, she believed that Reuven would’ve returned immediately had he only heard her voice, and without even comprehending it, she already began to resent him as if he were to blame for the cat’s disappearance. In a flash, they packed up their happy moments on the beach and shoved them deep inside the bag, walking briskly towards the pink fortress.
They searched for him all night. Knocking on doors, checking and rechecking the room on the off chance that he may have returned. It turned out that on that night there were at least three other people named Reuven staying at the resort, and they didn’t understand what all of the fuss was about.
They woke up early the next morning and Reuven still hadn’t returned. She remembered that one day, when Reuven was already well past the average lifespan for cats of his breed, she began to believe that perhaps her Reuven was no ordinary cat and that he would never die. The nearly blind cat, who walked with a limp and underwent every kind of surgery modern medicine had to offer, would be around long after everyone else, and certainly after her death, was what she told everyone. And even though she knew it didn’t make sense, she still refused to believe that someday Reuven would really be gone forever.
They sat on the balcony, drinking their coffee bleary-eyed and gazing out at the ocean. He remembered that he yelled at her the night before, Reuven went off to die, he had said, because he’s had enough of living for so long and she needed to learn to let go and she cried a lot and said that Reuven wouldn’t have gone off like that without saying goodbye.
Around noon they were forced to leave because they had promised his aunt they’d return her car on time. They gave their phone numbers to the young man with the plunger and the omelet and also hung up makeshift signs that promised a reward for Reuven’s finder. When they got on the highway she was still crying a little, mostly because she realized that she probably wouldn’t ever see Reuven again and also because of the horrible vacation.
As they passed by Hedera’s power plant chimneys, he tried to find a decent radio station and promised to bring her Reuven III and that everything was going to be fine.
*Featured image: Marinos Tsagkarakis via Fubiz