Translation: Jessica Cohen
“That scarf is ridiculous,” Katia said. “It’s boiling outside.”
“It’s a light summer scarf – it’s silk.”
“You look like a poet, not an author.”
“Oh god, I am so not in the mood to go there.”
“We can leave after you do your reading.”
‘White Night’ was the latest Tel-Aviv contrivance. There were no drawn bridges and no aurora borealis, but they did have people strolling down the boulevard, jazz until dawn, galleries open late, films on the beach, lighted bike paths, little bowls of malabi with pistachios, and chilled white wine. This year was the city’s centenary, and there were masses of people on the streets. I suggested to Katia that we climb on board one of the nautical Bauhaus buildings and sail away wherever the wind took us, but she licked her finger, stuck it up in the air and announced: There’s no wind tonight.
“There’s nothing like Tel-Aviv,” said the former resident.
“Can’t wait to get out of this country,” said the soldier.
“I’m starving,” I grumbled.
“Because you don’t eat,” she answered.
Tel-Aviv grinned like a little girl with cavities. And sucked on a pipe in the corner of her mouth. Cars honked, ice-cream dribbled, dogs peed on sycamore trees. City flags flew atop balconies. Fireworks were launched into the sky from the beach, lighting up air-conditioners, antennas and solar water heaters clinging to the buildings like leeches.
“Stop it! Enough sighing! In the end we’ll miss this city,” said my wandering princess, who was still not done missing her hometown.
“When is the end?” I asked.
“After the war.” She winked.
“Dead people don’t miss things.”
“I won’t die. I’ll live in the Diaspora and sell all kinds of shmates, souvenirs from the secular Zion, remnants of the city that came from sand and to sand returned. Oh, how good it will be to dive into nostalgia for this place! After they obliterate it, Tel-Aviv will be the most beautiful, free place on earth.”
“Spoken like a true patriot.”
“I’ll trade everything: bus tickets from the No. 5, moldy issues of City Mouse, seashells, Peace Now leaflets, Breslov Hasidic pamphlets, bags of Turkish coffee, packs of Noblesse cigarettes… Chai pendants will take on a whole new sentimental meaning. The big hit will be flip-flops, which the exiles will wear, and they’ll hold their feet out like they do under the faucetswhen you come off the beach. People will pay a fortune for personal letters, Bazooka comics, even slats from broken window blinds.”
“You are so goddamn right for me, with your verbal gushes.”
“Then marry me already, you idiot.”
“I’m afraid of drowning.”
“You’re full of shit,” she said.
We walked down the bustling street.
“Look, that couple over there.” She pointed and I knew what she meant.
“Rami and Noa.”
“She looks more like a Hadass to me. From a liberal traditional family.”
“And he’s secular with born-again leanings.”
“Exactly. Rami and Hadass.” I launched into a curriculum vitae of the couple strolling in front of us. “They met at the alternative Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, and that night they talked until dawn and had an out-of-body experience. Half-way through prayers on the Shavuot study night at the Kabbalah Center, she told him she was pregnant.”
“Did Rami cry?”
“All night long. Hadass thought it was from excitement, but he was thinking about the girl from New Zealand he met in Varanasi on his post-army trip.”
“The next day he sent Hadass flowers.”
“Sunflowers. And googled ‘underwater birth with dolphins.’”
“What do they like to read?”
“Poetry. Mostly their own.”
“What about prose?”
“Not even short stories?”
Rami and Hadass faded into the distance when we turned onto the café-bookstore lane. Familiar noses emerged on the faces of black-clad ruminators.
“What’s up, La Fontaine! In the mood for a Caipirinha?” the organizer called out.
“I’m in the mood to drop dead.” I smiled.
“Don’t start,” Katia said.
I sat down under the Yiddish bookshelf.
“This is where you sit? You Ashkenazi wannabe!” chided a poet who was considered promising until he failed to deliver. “When are you going to understand that white poetry belongs to the blacks? We Mizrahis must not cloak ourselves in the mantle of European rhyme and meter.”
“I’m not a poet,” I said.
“Then what are you?”
“Trying to be an author.”
“Truly good prose is always poetry,” he responded, and I was instantly exhausted.
A young poet stood up: “Hello… Attention… I’m going to poetise the hell out of you!” It was his debut performance, and I remembered my favorite Moroccan saying: The first time he wore the trousers—he shat in them.
They got up to read one after the other.
“I actually like her,” whispered Katia in the middle of a poem by a woman who rhymed bloodier with bloody her.
“Then make a baby with her,” I said.
“What’s the matter with you? You’re as white as a coconut.”
“I feel sick.”
“Because you won’t eat. They’re giving out free malabi and sodas over there.”
All this urban buzz and festive sludge was getting under my fingernails. Verse after verse they recited. A well-known editor stopped at our table on his way to the bathroom and skewered me with a look that said: You know, your girlfriend looks like a muse, so how come you don’t look like a writer? On his way back he put his damp hand on my shoulder and opined: “I’m telling you, even if they paid me—only Tel-Aviv. Not New York, not Amsterdam, not Paris…”
“What about Petersburg, Warsaw, Casablanca?” I asked.
When the readings were over we all sat around a table. My summer scarf was drenched in sweat and my glasses misted over. Katia puffed up her almost translucent cheeks and blew on me, then spread my lips into a smile with her fingers. Everyone gossiped, grumbled andinterrupted each other, no one flirted with the waitress, people pulled books off the shelves and corroborated claims, they chain-smoked, and asked to change the music to anything that didn’t have words—their ears were fried from all the texts. Katia held her Martini Bianco up to my nose. The organizer attacked me: Why didn’t you get up to read?
Didn’t I? Apparently not. I missed my turn.
They talked about psychological realism in Hebrew literature.
“I tried to read Dostoyevsky—it’s irrelevant to me,” someone explained.
“That’s okay, you’re irrelevant to him to,” came the response, “he doesn’t read blogs.”
“I want literature where the characters talk like real people.”
“And I want them to talk like bats,” I said. Katia put her hand on my fidgeting knee.
“I know you a little bit, my friend, and I’m here to say that the days of Gogol, Bashevis Singer and all the Gentile and Jewish demons are over.”
“I’m not getting angry,” I answered, “because I know that a dim-witted dybbuk is speaking through your lips.”
“Our problem is that someone like you”—a literary supplement editor pointed at me—“writes well, but it’s all made up. It’s not me. I mean, where am I in all this?”
“You’re not there,” I said.
“Exactly,” he exclaimed triumphantly. “And what’s with the mosquito story? I mean, I understand the moral—“
“There is no moral.”
“Don’t play dumb. The mosquito is supposedly a writer who sucks out plots from the people around him…”
“Not necessarily.” I raised my voice. “And anyway, male mosquitos live on nectar. It’s the female ones who suck blood.”
“Scientific evasion,” said a dubious translator in square-framed glasses.
A woman at a side table was talking into her phone monosyllabically. Someone pulled out a piece of paper and decided we should all write a poem together, choosing the rhymes first. A bald young man suggested relocating to a different café where, he was told, everything was happening. A young actor turned up late and said he’d been out looking for a bus displaying the advert he appeared in. A drunk poetess threw up malabi and soda.
“Gross, move away!”
“No, not on the books!”
“Never mind, it’s the classics shelf.”
“Excuse me,” I said, but no one except Katia heard.
“Don’t do it,” she hissed.
“You’re overreacting,” I said.
“I’ll be right back,” I lied, and plucked her hand off me.
I walked quickly past a rack of postcards dripping with self-satisfied advertisers’ nectar and stepped into a bathroom stall with pale orange light and a syrupy smell of citrus air freshener. The black night was visible through the window bars—a person could not fit through them. But the noise outside grew louder. Someone knocked feebly, then banged like only Katia can. I covered my ears with my hands. It took me some time to find the right note: zzzzz… Eventually the noise stopped, leaving only my own hum echoing through my head. I turned into a mosquito.