the short story project


Aviv Peretz

You Only Have One Skin

She spots him from afar: a stylish black man, several masculine rings on his fingers, and a little stud glistening in his lobe. From her perch at the kiosk she has a direct view of the escalator, and her gaze follows him as he slowly descends towards her. A metrosexual, the certainty flickers in her mind just as he takes the first step onto her level. While still out of his view, she takes a few seconds to puff her chest and fluff up her withered curls before approaching him. “Excuse me, may I ask you a quick question? Ten seconds of your time”, she pleads with her  thick Israeli accent, smiles and flashes him a benign look, “What’s your name?”, “Chris!”, she echoes, “Nice to meet you, I’m Adina”.

This is Adina’s seventh week in California. She works as a kiosk saleswoman in an austere mall in East Oakland – six days a week, eleven hours a day. Her sales spiel along with its accompanying mannerisms skillfully flow out of her body by now. Chris rubs his hands with sand scrub as Adina explains, “See, what you’re doing right now, that’s you exfoliating your skin”. She continues to tell him in a knowing tone, that the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth and that, in case he had not known, people from all over the world go there to cure their skin diseases. Adina keeps the words flowing, not letting a single moment of silence to emerge. She knows that if Chris has even a second to stop and think, he might as well as change his mind and walk away.

“I know how to sell”, she answered succinctly when asked why she would be suitable for the job. Although she’s twice the age of the other sales girls and is easily vanquished by their lush hair, taut skin and slender appearances, Adina is capable of something that the vast majority of those youngsters around her simply are not able to do: she knows how to create intimacy with a stranger out of thin air. Her fingertips have already, as though absentmindedly, fluttered on Chris’ palms when she sprinkled them with sea sand. Years as a salesperson taught her that casual physical touch helps build customer rapport and trust. She grabs a towel, wrapping Chris’ hands while gently massaging them, her eyes meet his gaze. “Ready to be amazed? Are you sure? Promise you won’t scream?”, she strings her quick questions together, turning her cheek towards him, gently flirting, “Promise you won’t give me a kiss?”

Adina is not naive, she knows full well that her colleagues raise eyebrows at her and even speak ill of her behind her back. She imagines them sneering “What’s her story?”, “She’s so pathetic, isn’t she?” In those lonely moments, which have been plaguing her more and more lately, Adina herself begins to wonder what her story is and whether she is indeed pathetic. At her age, a middle aged woman, with her marital status, a divorcée with a child, what exactly went through her mind when she replied to that ad in the newspaper? It was an ad clearly not addressed to people like her. An unexpected inkling seethed in her, she was desperate for an adventure. It didn’t matter to her what kind, so long as it challenged her mundane routine: waking up in the morning, spending the day as a mall clothing shop saleswoman, having dinner with little Yanivi while he iterates his day, making him sandwiches for the next school day, staring at a random TV show as she dozes off on the sofa, and just before sinking into sleep, dragging herself to the bedroom. Her routine ruled her, and just once she wanted to dictate the pattern of her life herself.

Every so often men passing by her kiosk make a move on Adina. Although she doesn’t look young – and is well aware of it – the right makeup does her well. Moreover, she glows with youthfulness and exudes openness that gets strangers to not shy away from turning to her. And besides – Adina would probably add were she to be asked – it’s not like these men have too high standards, they are not particularly choosy. In recent years she realized that more than anything, they only look for that precious resource called human warmth. When Adina does consent to someone who hits on her, they go out for a drink. She then lets her guard down, giggles carelessly, and sometimes even takes it to a no-strings-attached makeout session, mining herself a pinch of that resource too. Then those men usually suggest that they go to their place, but she always resists that. What’s the point, she keeps repeating to herself, nothing serious is ever going to come out of it, I’ll never have a relationship with someone who isn’t Jewish. Meanwhile, things are moving in another direction with Chris. Quite early into the conversation, Adina finds out that he has a steady girlfriend, hence her line of action is simple and straightforward: ​​she talks Chris into indulging his girl with gifts, obviously products from her kiosk. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t attempt to persuade Chris to purchase a product for himself as well, “Tell me, how many shirts do you have? And how many pants do you have? Now tell me, how many skins do you have? Only one, right? This is the time to take care of your skin”. Her solicitation ends with a great success as she punches $149.99 on her register. She grins from ear to ear while ceremoniously handing Chris the rustling paper bags.

By the time Saturday – Adina’s only day off – finally rolls around, she is completely spent, so she usually spends it unwinding. She and her roommate Natalie would lie in their beds, each engrossed in their own business. This week she decided that enough is enough and she has to go out to air her soul a bit. She saw on Facebook that there’s a Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Center in San Francisco, and promptly decided that she would go. Early on that week she was able to find someone who would cover for her in the last two hours of her Friday shift. She even tried to talk Natalie into joining her, to no avail. Natalie prefers to spend her evenings curled up in her comforter, mouthing verses from her gold embossed booklet of Psalms.

Adina dawdles around and misses her subway stop in downtown San Francisco. When she finally gets off at the right stop, she goes up to the street level and orders an Uber to take her north-west. She shows up late to the Shabbat dinner. The candles are already lit on the table in the hallway, and people are seated at two elongated tables chewing challah and fish in an oily sauce with chickpeas. Adina hastens to find an empty seat, to introduce herself and to join in the ongoing chatter. She does her best to come off as likeable, a well rehearsed skill for her. She engages in conversation, contributes of her own, listens intently, and even makes a few jokes that entertain her new fellow diners. Nevertheless, her plan doesn’t pan out. She keeps on waiting for one of her new acquaintances to reach out to her with with some goodwill, it’s not as if she expects a grandiose gesture, she would be content with just an informal invitation for dinner or a meet up, anything for that matter. However, it seems to her that people sense her desperation, which makes them shy away from her, rather than reciprocate. She contemplates this lack of social breakthrough, and chalks it up it to the fact that the local Jewish community is not small enough for its members to feel compelled to personally embrace a newcomer. If she came across Israelis in some secluded, god-forsaken village in India, no doubt they would take her under their wing.

When dinner is finished Adina finds a young couple with a car, who agrees to give her a ride downtown, to her subway station. Another rider joins them, an introverted young man. Adina gets the sense that he joined the dinner with a reluctance of a school boy: Not out of desire, but because that is what’s expected of him. When they get out of the car and the guy turns to leave, Adina asks him if he wants to hang out with her. He hesitates, it’s obvious to her that he wasn’t planning on staying out and that all he wants is to go back home. Nevertheless he agrees to walk Adina to the subway station. Adina knows he does it out of pity for her, but she doesn’t mind.

They walk down the downtown main street, Adina talks and the guy listens attentively, occasionally asking her questions. Adina’s mood starts to improve. At first she doesn’t quite understand why, all she is doing is speaking with a stranger. As she continues talking, it gradually becomes clear to her: Someone listens to her, really listens to her, which has not happened for so long, certainly since she came here. She tells the guy how she got to working as a kiosk saleswoman. He politely asks her about her family, and she tells him about her son, who is in Israel. He’s already grown up, in the eleventh grade, so he knows how to take care of himself and does not really need her. She calls him once a day just to check in on him. The guy shows interest at her job, asking her how hard it is to sell the products, what her selling techniques are and how she chooses her victims, that’s how he calls them and she doesn’t even protest against it. Rather, she responds with elaborate answers. At some point she finds herself telling him about her loneliness, and is not at all embarrassed or ashamed of herself when she confesses to him. “What is it about his presence that makes me open up to him and share so much personal information”, she wonders, “I barely know him!” When they near the subway station, she tries her luck once again pointing at the adjacent pub. The guy politely declines, saying he is tired. She tries to beseech him once again, but his mind seems to be fortified and she gives up. They say goodbye and Adina lines up to get into the pub.

Adina sits at the bar nursing her cocktail. She is struck with an unexpected longing for Yanivi, so she pulls out her phone to call him, and then realizes that it’s Saturday morning in Israel so he is probably still asleep. Before she puts the phone back in her purse, she glances at the last message she sent him a few hours back, a message that he has not yet read, “Shabbat Shalom my beloved mom”, with no punctuation and appended by a smiling cat face with heart-eyes emojis. At the sound of a dull thump behind her, Adina turns around. A family sits at the round table next to her, and her eyes immediately latch on the father, twitching and gasping, as his children beside him try to grab his arms and steady him. The mother screams for someone to call 911, a number that Adina easily recognizes from the American TV shows she likes to watch. At first it seems that the man has only passed out, either due to the wine he had, as evidenced by the half-empty glass beside him, or because of another momentary weakness. However, as the minutes go by it becomes clear to her that the situation is far worse, and that things are getting complicated. The paramedics, who meanwhile rush into the pub, begin to resuscitate him. Gradually they strip him of his clothes, and it seems to Adina that for every piece of clothing removed from his body, another medical device appears.

She watches the scene that unfolds before her for long minutes. At one point she looks away and suddenly realizes that the commotion in front of her has not spread to the rest of the pub. She notices people at other tables, less than thirty feet from her, carries on with their plans  unfazed. This scene is incomprehensible to her. “How could it be”, she converses with herself, “There’s a body lying in the middle of the pub being resuscitated, while at the same time the diners are minding their own business while the waiters circle around them, anxiously checking if everything is to their liking, as though there isn’t a more pressing question to be asked”. Adina is now parched and turns back to take a sip from her drink. As she draws the rim of the glass to her lips, she freezes. Suddenly it dawns on her: “It’s been seven weeks that I’ve been as invisible as that corpse behind me”. Her chest tightens. Her dinner tosses and turns in her stomach.

Adina gestures to the bartender for the check but doesn’t wait to get it. She fishes out a few bills from her purse, places them on the counter, then grabs her things and hastens towards the exit. Almost throwing herself out the door, she breathes deeply, in and out… one… two… three to regain her composure. She looks around. Through the enveloping darkness, the lights of the city sparkle in front of her. She heads to the subway station to go back to Oakland. The PA system announces the next stops as the train cars begin to move. The train ride is completely silent and her tears, as if obeying that silence, paving their ways between the sunspots on her cheeks. Adina feels drained. “What exactly did you think would happen to you”, she lambastes herself. “Who’s ever heard of a woman your age working at those mall kiosks?! It’s not your place and it certainly isn’t your time. You’re a strange bird. You’re a walking anomaly. And tomorrow”, Adina firmly tells herself, “You’re going to book a flight and get the hell out of here”.

The train stops, and passengers trickle into her car. One of them, an old man in a shabby suit, sits down next to her. After a few moments he turns to her, and under his unkempt beard a voice materializes, “Are you alright, ma’am?”

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