Our small room in Motel 6 smells like depressing sex that someone tried to scrub off with lots bleach. Gershon and I sit on the bed and start scribbling calculations on a napkin. We jot down all the odd sums of money in our possession, including money we’re supposed to get throughout the year; scholarships, gifts from our parents and emergency savings. Then we calculate how much life in America is going to cost us in 2016. The white napkin fills with numbers and we reach the conclusion that we have five thousand dollars to spend on a car, not a penny more. We moved to LA two days ago and immediately realized there was no other way to get around.
“If we’re already buying one it has to be a convertible. Please, Gershi! A convertible is so cool, and we’re in California now.” Gershi immediately agrees.
“Even if we don’t have a lot of money, we can’t compromise on style,” I say, making sure it’s a done deal.
Gershi looks at me with his diamond blue eyes and signals let’s get to it. We log onto Motel 6’s Wi-Fi ($3.99, prepaid), and start looking for used cars. I instantly find an old BMW convertible for $4,599.
“Man, now that’s what I call beginner’s luck,” Gershi says, brushes his lips against mine and calls to make an appointment with the seller.
“We’re going to buy a car!” I slam the door of our dinky rental car, trying to imagine how it would feel to own such a large and expensive object.
We drive to the lot downtown. At every turn, we’re chased by orange signs with the word Sale.
Gershi struts like a prince through the lot, snaking his way between the cars, peeking through a window, under a wheel. He’s a biologist by training but also an engineer, so he understands mechanics and engines. I don’t know the first thing about cars, but I spotted our BMW and the wheels in my head immediately started spinning with visions of the convertible resting in the parking lot of the arts department, or below my studio, my new friends looking at me with envy, thinking: that one, she has style.
The salesman emerges from his booth, a receiver pressed against his ear; he signals to us that it will take a few more minutes.
In the meantime the sun is blazing above us as if it has never blazed before. Even in the hottest days in Israel it doesn’t blaze like this. Did we actually travel half way across the world to get pummeled by the same sun? I don’t say a word to Gershi, he likes summer. I call him to come check out the BMW, and he approaches in confident strides. He knows he can’t be duped, not even by a seasoned American car salesman, and the Americans do like their seasoning.
After a few long moments the salesman appears with a wide smile, his teeth a cream cheese white. His tailored pants have been washed too many times, and the soles of his shoes are worn. I see how his skin is scorched from the sun and immediately determine he’s broke.
“We came to see the BMW, the 2000 model?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” He opens the car door and stares at me with brown, marshy eyes.
“Not too shabby, and in general, no one makes cars like the Germans,” he says, smiling directly at Gershi.
“Can you lift the hood?” Gershi asks.
“Sure, of course.” The hood pops open and the rod is latched into place.
Gershi brushes his fingers through his chestnut hair and sticks his beautiful head into the BMW’s intestines. I see him checking the oil tube, opening all sorts of lids and sniffing around. I look at him with pride, which to an outsider might even verge on worship. The salesman realizes it’s a no-go, Gershi knows too much.
“Where are you guys from?” he asks and lights a cigarette. What is it to him?
“Israel,” I answer.
“Him, too?” He points at Gershi’s lower back.
“Uh-huh.” I nod, swallowing a tsk.
“We’re neighbors,” he says and almost pats me on the shoulder, but pulls away at the last moment. We’re in America now, after all.
“Where are you from?” I ask out of politeness.
“Ramallah, twenty-two years in America.”
“No way, what a coincidence,” I reply with a small smile at the corner of my mouth. Deep down I’m bummed out – did I actually come all the way to America to associate with car salesmen from Ramallah under the blazing sun?
We pass on the BMW without thinking twice, without even taking it for a test drive. Gershi says there’s a problem with the battery, that there’s no point.
“Let’s go to a different lot. There are tons of car dealers in this area.” He points at the garages in the distance, all crammed together, targeting innocent buyers like me and even tough ones like Gershi, the dealers trying to pocket their commission, to justify their existence in the universe of used engines.
$$$, USED CARZ FOR SALE, YOUR NEXT CAR IS WAITING HERE
“Wait, look at this,” I say, pulling Gershi towards an old, shiny red car.
“What exactly are you looking for?” the salesman asks. He looks at me just a little longer than appropriate, I can feel it on my skin. He doesn’t stare at Gershi; maybe his diamond eyes intimidate him.
“We just moved here, I’m starting a master’s in visual arts. We want a cheap car, but it has to be a convertible.” I smile at him for the first time, trying to see how he reacts to ‘convertible’.
“I’m Azi, by the way, nice to meet you,” he says, and pats the hood of a Toyota Solara.
The red convertible has a black top, beige leather seats bursting at the shoulder pads and long horizontal scratches on the doors. Gershi’s eyes light up. Azi doesn’t say a word, he lets us take it all in, waiting patiently until we finish our meticulous evaluation. Gershi lifts the hood again, peering at the entrails, rummaging through the gut, then squeezes under the wheels, sprawling out on the asphalt in his white T-shirt.
Azi leans against the car and throws me a polished Cheshire-cat smile.
“Can I take it for a spin?” Gershi asks. Azi nods and the three of us hop into the car. Gershi is driving, Azi by his side and me in the back seat. Azi slides the top down, the sky unfolds above us, the palm trees whistle in our ears as we bathe in the blue air.
Azi cranes his neck and says, “You know, this is the second time I’ve been in a car with someone from Israel. The first time was with an Israeli soldier in Jenin. He was alone in a jeep, got lost. God, that was one scared man.” He laughs. “I guided him back to the checkpoint.”
I crack a small smile. Luckily the dark lenses of my sunglasses shield my feelings. Gershi doesn’t say anything. “How much does it cost?”
“Six grand, final offer. And I’m telling you it’s a bargain.”
Gershi makes a show of pursing his lips and I follow suit; we don’t say a single word the whole ride back.
In the lot, Gershi pulls me aside and whispers in my ear that he needs my cooperation.
“Why are you whispering? They don’t understand Hebrew.”
“Just listen for a moment. I read online about this negotiation method for buying a used car.” He looks at me like a Mossad agent.
“Sounds suspicious, Gershi.” My eyes start to roll, but at the last moment I manage to restrain myself.
“There’s this thing called rack and pinion, it has to do with the car’s steering mechanics. It’s always difficult to assess its condition. You understand? It could bring down the price even by a thousand dollars.” He winks at me, trying to melt my heart.
“Gershi, I don’t – ” Out of the corner of my eye I see Azi approaching us. He walks tall, but his eagerness to sell us the Toyota is oozing onto the asphalt.
“Just follow my lead, okay?” Gershi shoots me the look of a drill sergeant in boot camp. And I, probably because I’ve never served a day in my life, agree without asking questions.
“Gershon, nice to meet you.” We’ve been with him for half an hour and only now he remembers to introduce himself. “I’m named after my grandfather, may he rest in peace. It’s an ancient biblical name,” he explains to Azi, and once again my eyes start to roll. This time I can’t stop it so I lower my head, pretending to look for something in the dark abyss of my bag.
“Listen, we want the red Solara. My girlfriend really wants it. She’s been dreaming about a convertible. I’m willing to go along with it.” He laughs. Azi looks at him without saying a word, as do I.
“But there’s a problem with the rack and pinion, it’s just that I studied engineering. So, this is what I’m suggesting, you knock a thousand off the price and we have a deal.”
“No, no. No chance,” Azi replies. He explains to us that he checked the Solara himself, that it was a gem, that anyone who wouldn’t take it for that price was an idiot who was only interested in appearances. Gershi gets himself all riled up, it only makes him want the Solara even more, but he has to defeat him, he has to get the better price, if he doesn’t, the transaction won’t happen.
They continue to dance around hinges and wheels and all in English terms that my virginal ears hear for the first time. Gershi insists that the rack and pinion is either leaking or broken. Azi explains to him that he’s wrong, that it’s nothing, that it’s simply how a ten-year-old rack and pinion looks.
“Look, Azi, we’re new in America, we got here two days ago and we have no idea how things work here. We want something we can drive to the university every day. Now listen, we have a rental until tomorrow morning and five thousand dollars in my pocket. If you agree, I’ll give you the whole thing in cash and we’ll drive out of here with your Solara.” Azi looks at me, and I try to understand why he’s seeking my approval.
“No need for a receipt,” Gershi adds and pats him on the shoulder.
And I, all I’m thinking about is the sun and the palm trees, about Ramallah, about America. And about the fantasies that always play out so differently in real life, and how it shocks me each time anew.
“What do you say?” Gershi asks in his gentlest voice.
“I say okay, but – ” Gershi doesn’t wait to catch the rest of the sentence, he shakes Azi’s hand and turns to me. “Well, what do think? I just got us a convertible, what my grandmother would call a vilde metziah!”
“But wait,” Azi says, “let me talk to my boss.” He walks away, disappearing into the staircase above the garage and leaving us with our new car.
When we’re alone I can’t hold back any longer, and break into a graceful little dance around the red Toyota.
“I can’t believe it worked.” Gershi grabs me and kisses me on both cheeks. “It said in the forum that the method only worked 78 percent of the time.”
We sit down on the curb and Gershi lights a cigarette.
“Do you realize that gorgeous car is going to be waiting for me outside my studio every day?”
“Just you wait, I’m going to pick you up with the top rolled down. You’ll jump in, throw your bag on the back seat,” Gershi says and smiles his beautiful smile at me, his eyes stretching, hiding the diamond. I kiss his pink cheeks, the soft lips that made this deal happen.
“What’s taking him so long?” With a half cigarette dangling between his lips, he stretches his legs on the asphalt and takes out his phone from the pocket of his jeans. “It’s already been ten minutes.”
“Maybe we should go up there?” I suggest, and we both stand up, All Stars to All Stars, heading towards the office like a bride and groom on their way to the chuppah.
I knock softly on the open door and peek inside.
“Where did you dig up these people?” Azi’s boss bangs his fists on the table. The swing of anger sends a wave through his long black hair.
“These are the clients you bring me? This is what I’m paying you for?” The boss gets up and approaches Azi, and even though he’s at least a head shorter than him he seems infinitely more threatening.
Azi stands with his legs crossed. His arms are folded behind his back, brushing up against the cold wall. His gaze is glued to the floor.
“I’m here to sell cars, not to fuck around. You knocked a thousand dollars off the price? I’ll knock off your head!” he yells and swings his hand in his direction. Azi ducks on instinct. For a moment my eyes catch his, brown mixing with brown.
“Hi, may we come in please?” I ask, apparently having acquired American manners.
“It’s about the red Toyota Solara, we want to close.”
Azi stands there long-faced like a dog that’s been tied to its house with a metal chain, every inch of him betraying surrender and servility.
The boss sits in an elegant office chair several sizes too big for him. The chair is the most expensive item in the room; the rest of the office is falling apart. The boss projects unequivocal ownership of the territory; his shiny hair reaches his shoulders. I determine he has Indian blood.
Azi approaches him, and I see the fear spreading to his knees. The boss isn’t moving. He’s staring at an indistinct point in space, his hand latching onto a plastic box with blue Post-its perched on the edge of the table. I fear that in a second he’ll hurl it towards Azi’s forehead, and Azi, slow in body and mind, will stand there, blood dripping down his forehead and humiliation soaking his shirt. I look at Azi and can barely hold back the tears of pity, seeing him stand so near to him just to close the deal, to get rid of the miserable car.
“Idiot, you really are an idiot.” He lifts the plastic box into the air.
“Leave him alone!” I shout, and all the blue Post-its scatter on the floor, creating an office mosaic.
“Listen, it’s not his fault. We pressured him,” I say, getting an ice-cold glare from Gershi in return.
“Business is just business, people are more important. I don’t want Azi, just because he agreed to give us a discount, to lose his job. So let’s simply forget about it, okay?”
“Who the hell do you people think you are?” He walks towards me, the spit cascading from his shout and landing on my lips. And then Gershi interferes, pushes him away from me and knocks him back into his chair.
Get the fuck out!
We run out, trying not to trip down the stairs, my heart racing like in the movies. Gershi pulls me towards our rental as I cry and cry, sobbing like a rag doll. At the very last moment, a second before we’re out of there, I glance towards the office above the garage and see two black silhouettes swimming in a square of yellow light.
* * *
Professor Michael Wright enters the classroom, places his leather briefcase on the chair beside him, slams his black Ray-Bans on the desk and laughs. “Art students are always scared shitless in their first philosophy seminar,” he says, looking at us and bursting into laughter. “By the fourth week you’ll realize it’s all bullshit and stop shaking like kindergarteners.”
Mikey is sixty years old and looks both good and bad for his age. On the one hand he has a big potbelly and is missing a lower tooth, and his gray shock of hair is thinning. On the other hand, you instantly realize this was once a truly beautiful man. It’s easy to imagine how even a year ago he still had the features of a boy. But in hindsight, I suppose it was his charisma that was so attractive. As well as the New York accent, the smell of alcohol on his breath, his endless criticism of America and the way he spoke German.
I just happened to enroll in his seminar on the Frankfurt School. We were advised to take one philosophy and one literature course during our freshman year and I decided to get it over with my first semester.
Mikey spoke of Horkheimer, Adorno and Marcuse as if they were his buddies. Other than that, all that interested him was fascism in America. In every phenomenon, object and man he saw nothing but the embodiment of fascism in America.
He walked around LA like a refugee who had washed up on the shores of the Pacific, never from here, always slouched and surly in his black wool coat and a cigarette in his mouth. Mikey always struck me as someone who could only be in New York; surrounded by the foreign, the poor, the ill-tempered. Releasing his breath into the frozen air. But here he was destined to wander among gym-manufactured muscles, whitened teeth and infinite smiles. He called it “California’s happy consciousness,” and couldn’t bear it. I pictured him returning home each night and sitting in front of his computer with a bottle of wine, tearing through half a pack of Marlboro Reds while browsing at photos of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
The thing I liked most about Mikey’s seminar (apart from how he showered me with attention, constantly praised my observations and smiled gushingly when I confused subconscious with unconscious) was the way he read us Adorno. The group of arrogant artists was instantly transformed into a circle of mesmerized babies during story-time, drooling over the pages. We didn’t know what to do with ourselves on our breaks, suddenly the mental activity died down, the world seemed so despairing that we could barely bite into a sandwich. And only Mikey would be sitting under the eucalyptus tree happily puffing away, the only person at UCLA who was allowed to smoke on campus. They let him because of his charisma but also because he was finished, because he had become an alcoholic after his kid died in a car crash.
The rumor around the art department was that he liked fat women, that he actually had said as much to his students in one of his seminars on Marx, and they joked that despite being an ardent Marxist, in the communist food lines he would have had no one to fuck. At first I thought I wanted to sleep with Mikey, I thought I wanted him to fuck me in his office, in a restaurant bathroom, in a bed. In the beginning I thought I wanted to sleep with Mikey badly, and I also believed that as a student and artist it was my full right to sleep with the philosophy professor.
The day he appeared in class in pointed toe shoes like a shady Italian, like a Puerto Rican with hair gel, like a philosophy professor, I knew Mikey and I had to go away to Mexico together. I said: we’ll take your BMW and cross the border to Tijuana, it’s just a two-and-a-half hour drive. You’ll pack a bag at your house, I’ll pack one at mine and we’ll set out after class. I think Mikey hesitated at first; he was scared of losing his job, and rightfully so. Gone were the days when you could sleep with a student with peace of mind. I promised him that if there was one student in the entire universe he could feel safe with, that student was me. And that I actually had no interest in him apart from the desire for a good story about the brief affair I had with my philosophy professor in Mexico. Mikey found my answer hilarious, and then popped a mint into his mouth and agreed. His smile was so beautiful, his eyes sparkled like marbles. When he smiled I saw his missing tooth again and was gripped by a terrible fear, but in his infinite wisdom he immediately closed his mouth and said that class was about to begin. We left his office together and returned to the classroom.
He continued to read us sections from Adorno’s Minima Moralia for half an hour after class had ended; it was so good that no one dared to get up, not even those who had another class to go to, not even those who were supposed to be off for Mexico.
After all the students had dispersed, Mikey and I went down to the parking lot and got into his BMW, which gave off the smell of bourbon. Settling behind the wheel, Mikey took out a mint from the tin and turned up the radio:
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
He let out his deep, grainy laugh and looked at me.
“I don’t know, I don’t believe in coincidences,” I said and shrugged.
He gave me that gushing subconscious-unconscious smile and immediately my cheeks got hot and my entire body didn’t know what to do, how to sit or buckle my seatbelt, and Mikey by my side pouted and stared at me. He didn’t know what to do either, how to start the engine or put the car into reverse. Finally he managed and we left the parking lot, and then the campus.
I thought about things I could tell Mikey, exotic things, funny things, things that people from the other side of the world say. But to me Mikey himself was a person from the other side of the world, so exotic that I could barely consider him a human being. We spent the entire ride in strange silence, not awkward, but not comfortable, either. An existing silence. For a few fleeting moments I felt I was about to cry, but then I looked at Mikey and swallowed my tears back to where they belonged.
Mikey lit a cigarette and offered me one. Even though I have asthma and a single cigarette can ruin an entire trip, I couldn’t resist.
“I could die, I have asthma, pretty severe. We might not make it to the border.” I took a deep drag of the Marlboro into my feeble lungs.
“It’s still worth it.” He winked at me.
I stuck my head out the window, letting the wind wash over me and releasing the cigarette onto the freeway. Mikey didn’t notice, he was going too fast, desperate to cross the border to Mexico. Where there were no wars and no rules.
“You must have noticed by now that in California people wear their cars,” he said, and mercilessly cut off a Honda station wagon. I thought about the red Toyota Solara that had almost been ours, feeling totally sad and then embarrassed that we ended up settling for a 2006 Mazda 6.
Mikey asked me to tell him about my family, and I told him about my parents and my brother. I made sure to include the most boring and mundane details and he still seemed utterly riveted, fed me more and more questions and repeated the ends of my sentences. Later I asked him to tell me about his family and he told me about the high school his parents ran in the Bronx, his father was the principal and his mother an English teacher. And about his brother who they could tell even from a young age would become a steadfast conservative, and about his older sister who rented her own flat in Manhattan when she was eighteen, and this was in the fifties, yes? He sought my admiration and readily received it.
“What would you have for dinner?” I asked.
“Hotdogs, potatoes, green beans, and steamed carrots, which I hated,” he replied.
We carried on with the mundane and boring details until we reached the San Diego-Tijuana border, the most crowded border crossing in the world.
Mikey left his BMW in a parking lot on the American side and we crossed the border by foot; the Mexican officials didn’t ask us a thing. We hailed a taxi.
“The Lucerna Hotel, please,” he told the driver.
“What, you know the area?” I asked.
“I’ve been here a few times, I like that hotel,” he said while staring out the window of the front seat through his black Ray-Bans.
“Same generic shit like all the other hotels that don’t cost a thousand bucks a night, and those are just as generic.” He turned his head to me for a moment and then went back to staring out the window, not saying a word, not to the driver and not to me. I wondered whether to say anything but my head was empty of thoughts and my mouth empty of words. Only my eyes darted after the colors around me, I didn’t dare tell Mikey it was my first time in Mexico.
The Lucerna truly was a generic hotel. Every room in the building was decorated with a round balcony fenced in by golden iron. Mikey booked us a room for the night, they gave us the Superior. Everything was done quietly and officially. I had imagined Mikey would talk and joke around with everyone, that everyone would love him and laugh at his jokes. But he didn’t speak to anyone; not to the guard at the border crossing, not to the taxi driver, not to the hotel receptionists, barely to me.
The room’s interior was also generic, but big and clean and therefore to my liking. Mikey had gone to take a shower and I lay on the bed and turned on the TV; all kinds of people were shouting in Spanish, others clapped enthusiastically, a pretty woman smiled. Suddenly I remembered that Mikey hated TV: “Television is the messenger of totalitarianism,” he had told us in one of the classes. “Everything is agitprop, even what you think is critical, is agitprop.” I turned off the TV and went out to the round balcony with the gilded cage to gaze at a Tijuana afternoon. The air was gray, as were the shops and people’s complexions.
Mikey emerged from the shower clean and shaven in a pair of jeans, a dress shirt and a black velvet jacket. He even had his pointed shoes already on. He said he was going down to the bar to get a drink and that I should join him after I got ready myself.
When he closed the door behind him I wondered who this stranger was that I was sharing a hotel room with in Tijuana, but I had no answer. All I knew was that he wasn’t the Professor Michael Wright that I had wanted to go to Mexico with.
After a shower, I found Mikey downstairs at the hotel bar. He had had two drinks and by now was looking a lot more like the Professor Michael Wright I had wanted to go to Mexico with. He was flirting with the bartender and seemed very happy to see me. I felt that everything was natural and non-sexual, and at the same time foreign and fantasy-like, as if I was spending the weekend with Ernest Hemingway.
“How was the shower?” he asked as I took a seat beside him at the bar.
“Magnificent, really,” I answered, peeking into his empty glass. He laughed.
“What was so magnificent about it?”
“I don’t know, boiling water and the smell of bleach? Oh, and I didn’t feel bad one bit about wasting water.”
“A good enough reason to vacation in Mexico,” he said, this time making himself laugh.
I ordered a frozen margarita and was served an alcoholic slushy with a yellow umbrella. I asked Mikey if he thought it was embarrassing to order a margarita in Mexico, if it was, like, a total tourist cliché. He barely responded but then said no, not at all, but I think he didn’t understand my question.
We went to dinner at a fish restaurant he knew and slurped down oysters with great relish. Mikey didn’t expose his missing tooth during the meal even once. We downed more and more glasses of white wine with the food, and got – to put it delicately – pretty hammered. With the drunkenness came interesting conversations, gossip about professors in the department, illicit sex with students, LSD experiences and more stories about sex, not illicit, but just as thrilling. For instance, in the back seat of a car, in the university bathroom stalls, outdoors, etc. I was happy that Mikey was talking and this time I fed him questions and repeated the ends of his sentences.
After two glasses of Bénédictine, Mikey asked for the check. He barely looked at our waiter, a skinny fifteen or sixteen-year-old Mexican, but I did, trying to give him a sympathetic smile, to project solidarity. I couldn’t catch his eye.
I suggested we go for a short walk, to digest the food, but Mikey said he wasn’t feeling well and we took a taxi straight back to the hotel. As the taxi approached the hotel, waves of fear and dread rippled through me. What was going to happen in the room? What were we going to do in the room? What’s going on with Mikey? Who is Mikey? When we reached the entrance of the Lucerna, I knew I couldn’t keep down all the oysters crowding my stomach. The driver pulled over and we got out of the taxi. I don’t know what Mikey was doing while I was puking in the bathroom, but when I came out I found him lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. The room, which had felt so large when I first entered it, was now shrunk to the size of a raisin. I sat down in the armchair by the TV and looked at him. I had nothing to say, and I guess he didn’t either. He smoked and smoked until the whole room was one big cloud. After an hour of staring and sitting in the armchair I gave up and moved to the bed, to lie next to him.
Everything okay? Yes, everything okay.
Unable to bear the silence any longer, or the stillness on the bed, I suddenly got up the courage to ask him how his son died. Mikey turned to me, his stomach rolling in my direction.
“Car accident. He was seventeen and driving drunk with his girlfriend, Taylor. Their car flipped on Intersection 5. She came out of it alive but with her legs shot. She’s in a wheelchair today. I call her sometimes but I can hear in her voice that she doesn’t like it. She had long blond hair, blue eyes, the face of an American angel, you know. She always wore military jackets. Linda and I loved her, they used to hang out at our house all the time. And then Joel got drunk one night, and that was it.”
Mikey turned around and curled up like a fetus. Suddenly his body weighed heavy on the bed, and he lay there like a two ton rock. I was scared he was going to sink through the mattress and get stuck in the wooden beams and I wouldn’t be able to get him out. I think I heard him crying, but maybe he was just wheezing from all those cigarettes. I carefully lay my head on his shoulder and promised him I wouldn’t tell anyone.
* * *
Gershi and the First Day I Was Happy in America
At first we weren’t aware of the fact that we were poor, but since coming to America we had become poor. Not that in Tel Aviv we had been rich, but here our money slipped through our fingers in no time. From Israel we had brought ten thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills in a pouch strapped to my diaphragm. It was our immigration money that we planned to use to buy a car, pay rent, and for basic expenses. But what ended up happening was that we reached into the diaphragm pocket every single day.
We spent weeks in motels and diners until we settled into our new lives. We were already exhausted from sleeping on sinking mattresses, moldy showers and junk food. I dissolved into fits of crying, thinking we’d never manage. But Gershi didn’t lose it a single time, it was clear that all the roaming and rambling didn’t affect him. He said we’d manage, and that even if we didn’t, failure was always an option.
“We can always go back to Tel Aviv,” he would say whenever I despaired.
“We’re never going back to Tel Aviv!” I shouted as a prelude to an argument.
But Gershi wouldn’t bite, he retreated into himself and ignored me, continuing to drive calmly or watch TV. A moment later I would extend my hand, and we would kiss and make up, happy again like two goldfish with no memory.
After we bought the Mazda 6 we set our sights on finding a home. The apartment we saw on Dove Street was a dream, with hardwood floors and windows wherever you looked. We both instantly fell in love with it. And because we wanted to be done with the motels we decided to rent above our means, at the asking price.
“Yes, we’ll take it,” we told the realtor.
We may have miscalculated, or were simply too dazzled by the property, but in hindsight that’s definitely what finished us. Ninety percent of our money went toward rent and the rest we planned to put into food and gas. We furnished the apartment for next to nothing with things we found on the street or bought at yard sales. Every dollar we spent was like pulling a tooth. Just when the cash was getting comfortable at the bottom of the pocket, our sticky fingers would yank it out and give it to its next guardian.
We stopped eating out, no cappuccino touched our lips. We did our food shopping in a Mexican supermarket downtown, a forty-minute drive from our house, which sold food in bulk, and cheap. It was a giant inferno of chicken wings in packs of a hundred, and mayo in buckets. We took a shopping cart at the entrance and walked hand-in-hand down the aisles, mesmerized by all the imported goodness of the great continent; but no item was tossed into our cart before its absolute necessity was discussed. After choosing a giant plastic jar of instant coffee and a twenty-pound sack of rice, we kissed by the produce display.
“This isn’t Paris,” Gershi said.
“It’s better than Paris,” I replied.
We paid $92.80 at the register and left with overflowing bags and gleaming eyes. We planned on eating everything together, we planned on becoming full.
“This is our sustenance,” Gershi said, pointing to the giant sack of rice.
School had already started and I spent most of my days at the university. Gershi still hadn’t found a job and in the meantime wasn’t looking for one either, these were his vacation months. He spent his days languidly, the sun less scorching by now, and walked around with a book under his arm and a cup of instant coffee within reach. He cooked us dinner every evening, making use of every product in the pantry down to the last crumb. We didn’t go out at all, not to restaurants, not to bars; we didn’t go to the movies even once. We also decided to terminate our internet connection at home, at least for the time being. Since we were still new to the continent we had no friends. It was only me and Gershi, no money, no internet. We went on long walks, we read books in bed, we baked ourselves cakes. We had date nights at the supermarket. In the supermarket up the street, which was too expensive for our new status, there was a clearance display, all kinds of products whose packaging was damaged: dented cans, slightly torn packs of flour. Every night we rummaged through the display, the bargains falling into our laps one after the other: white wine, coconut chocolate, a six-pack of beer and vanilla pudding. Every night we returned home with a different deal, feasting on decadent meals for a few cents.
But on the day we curled up on the couch, checked our bank account and saw we had only $380 left – we realized we were truly finished, what you would call totally broke.
I was in a complete panic, scared that my previous life was over, that I would never dine out again, never wear pretty clothes, that I’d only think about money, about pennies. Gershi was moderate in his response, he kept reminding me that however we looked at it, we were actually rich. It’s just the liquid cash that wasn’t so liquid right now. But my body and brain went into survival mode and I couldn’t control it. I envied Gershi’s composure, his assured presence in the world. He was the real survivor here. Nothing threatened him, neither natural disasters nor financial crises.
“Go with the flow, trust Gershi,” I told myself, repeating it like a mantra. I clung to him and tried to absorb his calm, but the fear flowed through my veins. Suddenly I wanted to burn bills, to buy leather boots, to drink mocha lattes and gorge on gruyere. After a while my unsettled state seemed to rub off on Gershi too, who no longer read with pleasure but paced the house in circles, only stopping to scrub the kitchen burners.
“What’s happening to me?” I asked Gershi with tears in my eyes. “All I think about is money, I just want to buy more and more things. I’ve never been like this in my entire life,” I confessed, hoping he wouldn’t judge me.
“It’s just because we don’t have money right now. It’s the forbidden fruit, you don’t actually want these things, it’s an illusion,” he said.
“I know. But the illusion is so strong that I believe it.”
“Let’s see if there’s anything new in the clearance display,” he said, smiling.
“No, I don’t feel like it. You go,” I said.
I got into bed early in PJs and a bad mood, while Gershi went to the supermarket to scour for a few evening delights. He returned with the bags and I asked him to show me the loot: a bottle of red wine and an avocado. Then he took three five-dollar bills out of his wallet.
“I won it,” he said. “I bought a scratch ticket for a buck and won fifteen dollars!” With bright eyes, he handed me the bills.
I looked at these beautiful bills, which I would have wanted to press between the pages of my journal like dried petals.
Half the semester had already gone by and the days I spent working at the studio grew longer. Some days I didn’t eat anything but an apple or a tangerine Gershi had thrown into my bag, or a slice of pizza handed out for free on campus. One night I came home completely starving, Gershi said he was really hungry too. I went to the kitchen to look for leftovers for dinner. When I returned with two sunny-side-ups and a tomato, I found Gershi in the living room making all sorts of calculations on his phone. Even from that angle he was one of the most beautiful people I’d ever met.
“I went to the supermarket this morning, the one up the road. I asked them about work. I filled out a form for a shelf-stocker position,” he said, and I gave him a rib-crushing hug.
Two days later, Gershi started working at the supermarket. He underwent a quick training and was given a red apron and tag with his name on it – GERSHON. He worked nightshifts that started at six and ended at midnight. I came to visit him every night, pretending to be a customer with a shopping cart while he stacked wine bottles on the shelves, or dairy products in the fridge. He got a thirty-minute break and a free coffee. He’d bring me one too and we’d sit on the bench outside, eating sandwiches from home and talking about the stacking techniques he was experimenting with.
The job paid $12.02 an hour and we made endless calculations to figure out what his paycheck would be at the end of the month. The final figure we reached was $1,370.28, and the fantasies about the check kept igniting our imagination. We wouldn’t buy a thing with the money, but continue living like this until our bank account exploded, we joked. Gershi returned to his shift, and I went back home.
One night, as I was reading a book in bed, he texted me to come to the supermarket with our reusable tote bag and meet him down at the parking lot. I found him standing there with a cartful of boxes.
“Come on, walk with me to the dumpster.” He grabbed my hand.
I stood beside him while he removed blocks of yellow cheese from the boxes. “It expires tomorrow. They told me to throw it away. It’s provolone,” he said.
“Why are they getting rid of it?” I asked.
“They’re not allowed to sell it after today. So I’m throwing these away, and you can take one.” He looked at me with big eyes, making sure he had a partner in crime.
“I can also take two, and make a quiche,” I suggested. Gershi smiled and continued throwing away cheese. I placed two blocks of provolone in the tote bag and strolled out of the parking lot.
When I got home I immediately went to work on the quiche. When Gershi returned at midnight we stuffed our faces.
“What else do you throw away over there?” I asked.
“All sorts of expired things. I saw chocolate chip cookies, once they threw away chicken thighs. It’s good stuff, fresh. The expiration date isn’t accurate, it’s a safety date. You can eat those things for weeks after,” he said.
“Yeah?” I squinted.
“Sure, they just don’t want to risk it. The cheese we took? We’ll eat it next week too. You’ll see, I’ll make a lasagna, nothing will happen to us.” He smiled and continued to wolf down the quiche.
I trusted him, after all he was a biologist and understood a thing or two about bacteria. Over the next few days I stopped visiting Gershi while he stacked shelves. Instead we met by the dumpster, me with the tote bag and him with a cartful of expired products: salamis, chickens, cheese, blackened bananas, soft sweet potatoes, everything you could imagine and more. I would load the bag and go home to cook; dinners became full-fat midnight feasts.
One evening, Gershi was about to throw out trays of dough; he texted to ask if I was interested. I turned on the oven and made it to the supermarket in three minutes. I had always dreamt about baking my own bread. When I got home I discovered we were out of eggs, and I wanted the bread to be shiny so I returned to the supermarket, this time to buy a carton of eggs.
Gershi was stacking milk cartons, and he walked me to the egg section, because he wanted to defrost after standing next to the refrigerators.
“Put it in the bag,” he said when I picked up the eggs.
“What, here?” I asked.
He nodded confidently.
“I’ll walk you out,” he said and straightened a few wayward cartons.
“Then wait, I need sesame seeds too. And oil,” I said, and switched the regular eggs for organic.
Gershi’s diamond pupils dilated, his eyebrows arched. I went to get the items. That first time I was still afraid, and had to make do with organic eggs, sesame seeds, oil and black olives. My heart was racing at the exit but Gershi walked with me and gave me such a smooch before I left that no one suspected, no one even looked at me.
From that day on, I stopped meeting Gershi by the dumpster in the parking lot; instead I’d come visit him by the shelves around ten. There weren’t many customers by then and the deli and bakery employees were already gone. The tote bag would fill up with the most expensive organic products I could find: almond oil, Amarena cherries, Parmigiano Reggiano, Dr. Bronner’s soap, Lindt chocolate. Once I even lifted an electric toothbrush. I never crammed the tote with more than what a normal woman’s bag could hold.
Before Gershi returned home I’d arrange the stolen goods on the table, and we’d calculate the prices together. How we laughed, Lübeck marzipan for $24.99! Pure almond oil, $23.33! Brie de Meaux, $21.42!
The day Gershi was fired, our loot totaled $1,323.15. They agreed not to go to the police, but wouldn’t give him his last paycheck. I can’t say we were sad; I don’t even think we were afraid. He went back to hand in his red apron and his nametag; I waited for him down the road. He even returned with two cups of coffee.
“A souvenir,” he said.
We walked home holding hands, sipping the hot coffee. We didn’t talk during that walk, but not because we were busy soul searching or anything; quiet had descended upon us. At home we opened all the kitchen cupboards; there were coffee beans from Sumatra, black and red lentils, a large assortment of curly pasta. The best French cheeses and Italian cold cuts rested in the fridge. Our beloved sorbet stood in the freezer; mango, passion fruit and Sicilian lemon. The space under the sink was crowded with natural cleaning supplies for the bathroom, kitchen, for polishing the wooden floor. We were happy, we were rich.