the short story project


Tamar Merin | from:Hebrew

What You Looking at?

Translated by : Ari Lieberman

Introduction by Our Editors

It often seems as though America penetrates our lives to the point that everything becomes one and the same — the foreign language seeps in, the cultural world trickles, the images shape actions and perception, you barely even notice the seams. A mother and son go for ice-cream together. They do this in cities all over the world. But here, in this beautiful and captivating story by Tamar Merin, the disruptive anxiety of immigration emerges from this familiar and symbolic act, revealing the cracks that open when a person is separated from his native land, the shock and detachment that manifest simply when you move to a different state. In a kind of explosion that is almost grotesque and at the same time heart-rending, in a move that reminds us of “The Emperor's New Clothes,” a child’s delicate consciousness, that which absorbs and discharges without restrains—reminds us with wisdom and sensitivity how very fragile this whole formation still is.
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The light has turned green and my son shows no sign that he wants to cross the street. He won’t budge from the traffic island, his eyes squinting against the lashing sun, his hands on his hips as if to say, Who can make me move? I yank him away and a wail of indignation leaps out of his mouth. He mutters in English: Don’t pull me like a donkey. I answer him, also in English: So don’t act like one.

People turn to look at us. Their eyes cleave to us and the boy switches immediately to Hebrew. He did that in America too, forbade me to speak to him in Hebrew when I came to pick him up from the schoolyard, after I got tired of chatting with the full-time mothers, the stay-at-home moms, Jane or Kendra or Patience, with their eyes wide open with admiration. How many mothers like me did they get a chance to meet, the kind that drag their entire family to the ends of the earth for the sake of their career, or what’s left of it now as we trudge down King George Street in the dead heat of August and my son won’t budge from the traffic island? The English rolling from his lips gives way to broken Hebrew as he lashes out at me: What you looking at?

When he gives in finally, placing a limp hand in mine, the light has turned back to red again and I mutter, Fuck.

You said the F-word! he screeches in English, but calms down right away. He frowns self-importantly, adding in a self-contained voice, in Hebrew: You said the word F.

And you decided to piss me off today, I roar, taking my eyes from his face now red from the sun. I forgot to put on sun-tan lotion again. How quickly I’ve forgotten the merciless Tel Aviv sun, how quickly I’ve forgotten how to spend a whole day with a child, without the work in the morning and the play-dates in the afternoon, without Jane or Kendra or Patience, pale-haired and muscular from all their working out, placing a soft, fluttering hand on my forehead: Oh, poor thing, you look exhausted, you’ve been working too hard.

Never mind. Comforting hand on forehead or no, we’ll still cross the street, my son and I, and continue our trek in the heat. The boy has already gotten over his indignation and now he’s showering me with questions: When will we get to The Ice Cream Place and who will be his best friend forever right now? I don’t give in. The words ooze out of me cold and inflexible: Don’t know when we’ll get there, don’t know if we’ll even find that old place, maybe it closed, and as for a BFF, that’s something you’ll have to find for yourself. My son stops in his tracks again and covers his face with his hands. Stop it! he shrieks in English. Stop saying those things! But how can I stop when there’s no BFF in sight, only droves of people coming and going, marching on and on hectically, glancing sideways to take a peek at me and my son, who trudge after them like a badly stretched spring. What urgent duties await them at the end of their march, so pressing that they can’t stop for even one second, except for this girl, a drug addict who was once a singer, who comes up to us with hesitant steps.

I look at the filthy clothes hanging from her skeletal body and at her pockmarked face shining pleasantly as she says: Good afternoon, ma’am, do you have a few shekels to spare? Her tone is polite, almost assertive, as if she were making me an attractive business offer. But the boy tugs forcefully at my sleeve, and when I turn to him his face is pale with horror: Who is this woman, Mommy? he says in English. She looks like a zombie. The drug addict who used to be a singer stares at my son, her lips scrunched with indignation. For a second she looks just like him with her wild hair, with her hands stretched out defiantly against her small figure. I feel like taking out a wipe from my purse and cleaning her pockmarked face. When you’re clean you feel better, I always tell my son when he falls or hurts himself, and in truth, he now looks as if he would like to be cleansed of all his sins as he buries his sweaty face in my sleeve and stands there, bowing his head.

A few seconds later he lifts up his head, and with eyes purified he peeks at the drug addict who used to be a singer, but the drug addict’s face suddenly clams up, her eyes glaze over and she turns her back to us and hurries away. Like the rest of the people around us, she is also marching hectically, her slight body swallowing the street in an instant till she finds another potential benefactor, and the boy tugs my shirt again, his voice piping with desperation as he asks: Where is The Ice Cream Place at? I burst out: I Don’t know, I don’t know where The Ice Cream Place is, maybe they tore it down after we left, let’s go back home already. In my mind I can already hear the wail of indignation and the screams that follow, but a surprising silence ensues, and I notice that my son has stopped in his tracks again and is looking straight ahead, saying: Mom, here it is.

The little ice cream parlor is painted in pastel colors that spill upon the filthy sidewalk. It looks like whipped cream that was dumped on a stale cake, to salvage its taste. I follow my son, who is striding into the parlor, thrilled to the core, as if he just entered the wardrobe that leads to the Kingdom of Narnia. And in fact, a wintery world awaits us, with the AC blowing icy air and the glass cases full of little cakes and sweets, and the buckets brimming with ice cream of every color. The boy lets out a gasp of fascination and turns his head around, for my permission to proceed, for the kingdom is desolate, and I nod without a word and continue to follow him. Then I ask in a loud voice: Is there anybody here? And my son echoes after me: Iss there anybbodyy heeere? Immediately we notice a little arm, after which a girl with a mournful face appears and asks in a frightened voice: What will you have? I put a bill in the boy’s hand and signal him to approach. Order whatever you want, I say and retreat to the bowels of the parlor.

Maybe I can rest here a while, on one of those little pastel-colored chairs in the corner, sit there and listen to the sound of the AC. Mechanically I take up one of the newspapers lying on the rosy tabletop, placed there to help parents pass the time when they’re not wiping off ice cream off their children’s faces and clothes. The job listings jump out at me: now hiring HR director, HR associate, medical secretary, legal secretary, kindergarten assistant, food services supervisor. Maybe I’ll find a job right in this ice cream parlor, and get paid as I wipe the ice cream dripping from my son’s mouth. A column of job listings in small print is awaiting my perusal, but I’ve already lifted up my eyes expectantly, ready to help him again if he needs my help: he might mispronounce his order, not know what to do with the change. But in fact my son is on top of things: standing on a footstool, he carefully examines the ice cream in the buckets, his eyes trailing from one to the other, in search of his favorite flavors. Then his lips move hesitantly and the girl at the counter heaps mounds of colorful ice cream on his cone. When he returns to me with the enormous purchase he looks a bit embarrassed. It seems he got more ice cream that had bargained for, and he says with a guilty look, Do you want to eat with me, Mommy? And then in English: Do you want to share? Why not, I answer, if I perish I perish. And his face brightens up. You are the best mama, he blurts out in English. It’s so easy pleasing a child, sometimes it feels as if disappointing him takes more effort.

We sit there, like two kids playing hooky, meticulously licking off those mounds of ice cream. It’s not a particularly difficult job. The ice cream is delicious, lighter, airier than the kind we’ve been having these last few years, and yet, after looking this way and that to make sure there’s nobody else in the store, he says: Let’s pretend we’re in America. His eyes light up as he begins to list the names of the streets where we used to live, and I join him on his stroll: here we are, crossing Sheridan Road, and now we’re turning left onto Davis and right onto Clark, and here we are at Andy’s Ice Cream. Let’s get vanilla! he shrieks, the colorful ice cream he just ordered still melting in his mouth. And now, chatting in English with the vendor at Andy’s: How are you today? It’s a nice day today, isn’t it? He twists his face, speaking in an affectedly polite nasal voice, and we laugh, but suddenly he falls silent, his smile freezing, as a boy his age bursts into the parlor with his mother, or grandmother perhaps, a stocky woman with dyed hair graying at the roots and a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth, yearning for the moment they’ll get out of this place so she can light it.

Her son, however, is not in a hurry. His entire body, which is draped in a soccer uniform several sizes too large, tightens up like a tiger that spotted his prey. He casts a penetrating glance at my son as he asks, Hey, kid, what flavor you got? My son’s gaze gravitates with curiosity toward the other boy. It’s been weeks since he’s been around other children. Now he rolls his eyes upward, concentrating in an attempt to formulate a Hebrew answer. I try to whisper it in his ear, but he turns away from me and darts off toward the other boy, one hand holding the cone, the other pointing at the melting ice cream. His lips begin to move, about to speak, but the words are stuck in his throat, and the boy in the soccer uniform sticks out his lips and says to him: What is it, kid? You dumb? And his mother or grandmother takes the cigarette out of her mouth and says, Don’t talk that way, Ofer, it’s not nice. But she is also staring inquisitively at my son, the cigarette rolling between her fingers as she adds: You don’t know that boy. Her eyes are now shifting suspiciously from him to me, sprawling as I am on this pink chair like some discarded thing.

Exhaustion permeates my limbs as I slouch down into the chair. I’m not here, I’m in Kendra Johnson’s white kitchen, the kids playing in the other room, their sweet sweat still hanging in the hallway and their soft, muddled voices like pastel colors echoing in our ears. Kendra pours coffee into our cups and lays out cookies in a dish for the kids, her blue eyes enveloping me with complete understanding, so complete that I know there is nothing I need to do, nothing to worry about, not her, not me, not my son and his little face, growing red now as he faces the boy in the soccer uniform, that boy with the belligerent smile, waiting for my son to fall down into this chair with me and into the great, all-consuming river awaiting us underneath.

But my son refuses to fall. He stands facing the boy in the soccer uniform. The hand holding the ice cream stretches out toward the boy, clutching the cone like a gun. His eyes squint forward in concentration. The ice cream is dripping on his hand but he doesn’t budge. Like the guy in that movie we watched a year ago one night when it was running again and again on the cable channels, when my son couldn’t sleep because of the snow heaping up outside and I forgot to tell him in time that it wasn’t a movie for children: that pale thin guy with the muscles tangled over his prominent ribs as he points his gun at his reflection in the mirror, shutting one eye and hurling that question over and over at his antagonist. Thus stands my son facing the boy in the soccer uniform, one eye shut as if pressed against a gun’s sight, his skin glowing, his body slim and erect. He looks as if he has grown ten centimeters taller in an instant, as he points the dripping ice cream cone toward the boy in the soccer uniform, that question now also rolling off his lips: What you looking at? Huh? You looking at me? Because I no see nobody else here but me.


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