Authors: Meir Shalev
That's it. That's how I found myself making that eye contact. I knew the guy was called Eitan and that Dovik had met him at his secret pond and that he was crazy about him and wanted to fix me up with him, so I did as I was told. In other words, I made what at age sixteen and a half I thought was eye contact: I stared at him with calf's eyes. Funny. When I see my girl students today, with their craning necks and push-up bras and mascaraed eyes and glam makeup, mincing around the schoolyard, I remember that at their age I was basically a boy. But Dovik ordered me not merely to look at Eitan but to be sure that he noticed that I was looking.
Dovik is my older brother, and we are very close, and when he asks something of me I comply. I was, admittedly, always the more intelligent of us two, and because I am more intelligent I also know that I am and he sometimes forgets, but on the plus side, he is a good and concerned brother and top-notch businessman and manages the nursery with great success, and unlike me he also makes the most of what he has, and I, who am much more capable than he is, am satisfied with what I am and not with what I could have been.
Whatever. We were in the middle of eye contact, so let's go back there. At Dalia and Dovik's wedding I wore a white dress in order to annoy the bride, I put on flat shoes so as not to be taller than the groom, I did my hair in a thick braid with a red band at the endâand I picked two sweet-smelling flowers from our plumeria tree and pinned them to my headâand looked in the mirror and said to myself, One day, when you stop being a wild tomboy and become a pretty woman, you'll be a very pretty woman. At sixteen and a half I didn't give myself stage directions as I do today, but I already had the brain in my belly, and I talked to myself quite a lot. Too bad I couldn't also prophesy the future.
By the way, you can still see that plumeria, here by the sidewalk. It's not at the same level of family importance as the carob in the wadi or the acacia in the desert or the mulberry tree in the yard, but it's mine. Grandpa Ze'ev planted it a few days after he brought Dovik and me here, and said, “This tree is called plumeria, Ruta. From now on, you are responsible for it and it will be your tree.” And he told us, “When I was a boy in our moshava in the Galilee and my father would sometimes take me to Tiberias, I saw two plumeria trees there with flowers that smelled like perfume. Water it, take care of it, it will grow, and you will grow, and the two of you will be much more beautiful together than either one of you alone.”
He stuck three poles around the sapling and tied its slender trunk to them with strips he tore from an old sheet.
“A sheet is better than a rope, it doesn't scratch the trunk,” he explained, “and don't pull it too tight, so that the trunk will sway a little in the wind and develop muscles.”
And Eitan? Eitan came to the wedding in a crisply ironed white shirtâSomeone is ironing for him? He can iron that well himself? asked the pretty woman inside the wild boyâand golden skin, which took my breath away and filled me with a desperate urge to touch it and feel if it was warm and smooth to the hand as well as the eye, and gold-greenish eyes and brownish hair and khaki pants and sandals; I can't deny it, I liked what I saw. Really liked him. Not just as a guy but as a partner for playing ball and hide-and-seek. I immediately noticed that he was exactly my height, and that pleased me, because I knew he had already stopped growing and I hadn't, and given my inclination to asymmetry I like couples where the woman is slightly taller, and what I like even more is that the man likes it, and I even toyed with the notion that just as he decided to come to our first meeting in clothes and skin that I would find attractive, he also wore the height that I would love.
In short, it all looked very promising, but nothing happened. In other words, I made the eye contact that Dovik demanded I make, and Eitan looked back at me and even asked me if I was the groom's younger sister he had heard so much about and also smiled an undeniably nice smile, but I didn't smile back quickly or broadly enough or answer him in some unforgettable way. Basically, except for mazal tov wishes and another little smile he flashed at me half an hour later across the tableâDovik insisted that his new friend sit with us at the head tableâwe didn't get around to actual talking. Everything was potential, in an embryonic stage. The butterfly had not yet emerged from the cocoon.
We sat there, Dovik and Eitan and I and our mother and Grandpa Ze'ev and Dalia and her mother, who was called Alice. And you won't believe what happened. She also made eye contact with Eitan, a look that lasted half a second in all but was effective enough to take him home with her. The mother of the bride! You understand? Dalia rode off for a honeymoon with Dovik, and his friend rode off to Tel Aviv, to the bed of her mother.
The family was in an uproar. The whole moshava was talking. “Only in the Tavori family do such things happen, and now they are intermarrying with their own species.” Good that for a change it was just a crazy story and not another horror from their cellar of horrors. But to me it was amusing, even exciting in a strange way, and I was also a little jealous, I must admit. Not that I entertained hopes of taking him to my bedâI was after all a boy without boobs, as I told youâbut beneath the jealousy and beyond the inexperience and limited understanding was clear, sharp knowledge: Dovik would achieve his goal. One day Eitan and I would marry, and he would join the family.
And apart from that, it was all worth it just for the look on Dalia's face. I was Ruta-
happy as a clam, when I saw her expression. Because her mother, this Alice, not only was much prettier and more elegant than she was but also stole her show. Walked out of there with a guy nearly thirty years her junior, more accomplished and better-looking than the bridegroomâand I say this as someone who loves them both and knows them quite wellâwent off with him in front of the whole crowd, before the wedding was over: “Bye-bye everyone, I'm going home with my new toy. Ciao. Open the presents yourselves and say goodbye to the guests for me.”
Write it down, write it. You're always writing names anyway. Alice. She was English. She also spoke English more than Hebrew. I think she came from Manchester. Write that down too. Part of the history of the Yishuv is where the Jews came to Israel from. What a character. With style. The real thing. Sexy the way only a woman of fifty-one can be, the way I will be in another few years, if I'll know what to do with the brakes that stop me and the pain that contorts me and the weights that sit upon my soul.
A lively divorcÃ©e, egocentric, well put together, savvy, took good care of herself. She simply took Eitan by the handâthe hen that caught the fox by the tail, like in the children's story by Bialik, which I read to Neta, but not to his fatherâand waved goodbye to everyone with her other hand, and I think she shot me a special look right then, as if she understood she was taking Eitan away not only from her daughter's wedding but also from his first meeting with his future wife, and led him to her car.
I remember: A few years later, when Eitan was already my husband and I asked him why in fact he went with her, he said to me, “Because of the car, Ruta. You didn't see what kind of car she had?”
“I didn't notice,” I said.
“An old Mini Cooper,” he said. “A woman with a Mini Cooper like that has got to be something special herself. And besides going around the block with her, I wanted to go around the block in that car.”
“ââAround the block'? You're disgusting.”
And in the parking lotâpay attention, Varda, and learn!âshe opened his door and held it open the way a man opens a door for a woman, and Eitan picked up on it and immediately got into the role. He pressed his legs together, tucked an imaginary skirt under his butt, and sat down like a female, and I understood what kind of party was about to happen for both him and her.
She closed the door like a hunter on his quarry, walked around her very special Mini Cooperâjust a jalopy, if you ask meâto the driver's door, and got in and started the engine and drove off, and everyone knew where and what for. And after they were gone, and people began whispering, it was clear how silent it had become when she took him and walked out.
And what did Dalia say about all this?
If that's what concerns you, Varda, if that's what is most important for you to know, then on that evening she said nothing at all. It began only after she recovered: “She ruined my wedding, she took all the attention away from me to herself, on my night, at my wedding. She's treated me that way ever since I was I little girlâ¦” Until this day she hasn't forgiven her, and “until this day” means even after Alice died. You know those women who keep complaining about their mothers their whole lives? What she did to me, what she didn't do, at age three she forced me, at age ten she told me, at age fourteen she didn't let meâ¦Grow up already, girls. You're big now. It's your life. Take responsibility. Our mother, mine and Dovik's, was worse. She left us when we were children, left us with her father-in-law and went off to America, so do I weep over it? The opposite. I look at it in a positive way: You have a shitty mother? Learn from her how not to be.
Okay, let's stop here. I have a lot to say about my mother and I've had it up to here with Dalia too. But it was Eitan, after I really mouthed off about her one time, who asked me to stop. He said it was unhelpful and unacceptable. It was hard to grow up with an Alice like that for a mother, sparkling, polished, an ambassador of classy Europe in the screwed-up Middle East.
And what did you feel when Eitan rode away with her?
I already told you, I was a little jealous. More precisely, I told myself that what I felt was what's commonly called jealousy. But my diaphragm brain kept deriving lessons and conclusions. I said it wasn't so bad. Not so bad, Dovik's friend Eitan or whatever your name is, I'm just the little sister who hasn't yet got the goods, but I'm a winner and getting better all the time, and I have time and patience. In the meantime she will pamper you with cakes and ale and teach you everything that later on will make me feel good.
So it was that the first worthwhile words of courtship that I uttered to my lover I spoke to myself and not to him. He, with her in the stupid Mini Cooper that turned him on, didn't hear and didn't feel and didn't answer, but I, when I told him all this in my heart, felt hot all over my body. Good thing that back then I already had that dopey quality that protects me. I said to myself, Calm down, Ruta, wait, what is meant to be will be. And I did wait, and several years later, when he was mine, a few days before our wedding, when I was already pregnant with Neta, a first pregnancy that sweetened my whole body, he was like candy in my womb, I demanded that Eitan finally tell me what happened after they made their getaway from the wedding.
He asked if I really wanted to hear it, and we both laughed, because my first husband Eitan was the retro-jealous type. He doesn't agonize over what might happen and isn't bothered by what's likely to happen but gets irritated over what happened in the past. Even men who had walked past me on the sidewalk on my way to kindergarten irritated him.
“I really want to hear,” I told him.
“Okay, for a month and a half we were â
the two of us
in bed naked.' Those were her words.”
Now it was my turn to be annoyed, because till then I thought that the English phrase âthe two of us naked' was something he had invented for us, and only the two of us said it about ourselves, he and I about each other. And suddenly it turns out that this was her invention. But it was okay, I restrained myself, because this wasn't the only good lesson he got from her.
A month and a half he was with her, and she barely let him go out. Not only out of her apartment, but out of her. She held him close with her arms and legs, and when they got hungry, she said, We'll crawl to the kitchen attached to each other; I'll show you how.
To make a long story shortâshe fed him delicacies to his heart's content, and just as a few years later I would read him poetry, she played him music, requiems and “Stabat Mater” hymns, Rossini and Hasse and FaurÃ©.
“I also heard Egyptian and Turkish music at her place,” he told me.
“Just like Ramona played for Saul Bellow's Herzog,” I said.
He, of course, had no idea what I was talking about, but no problem. I see you don't either. She was also the one who taught him what and how to drink, and that's why besides Dovik's
I also like to drink Pimm's and gin and tonic, sometimes I even treat myself to Hendrick's gin, like she didâwho would believe it, the granddaughter of Grandpa Ze'evâand a kir in the afternoon and Calvados at bedtime. Don't worry, I'm not getting drunk, just disconnecting a few synapses in my head. It's good.
So I see, Varda, that you are beginning to understand who benefited from all this in the end? I, Ruta. Thank you very much. He served all the customers and friends the
he cooked under the mulberry tree, and to me he served in bed the delicacies he learned from his sister-in-law's mother. The whole deal about the
is that whatever you throw in, everything but the kitchen sink, is considered a success. Eitan himself told me: a
is a compost barbecue. That's planters' humor, a nursery joke. So all the putrid
were eaten by friends and customers, and to me he served the meals she made for him: dinners where he and I were the first course, and suppers where he and I were the dessert. She only permitted him to cook one thing, the eggs at breakfast, because Eitan really knows how to fry an egg sunny-side up, with a soft yolk and crispy white. He always made two of those for me and him in the same pan and always gave me the one that turned out better, the one he would call the seeing eye, because alwaysâand this is a principle of culinary history, Varda, and the history of mankind, and maybe even your history of the Yishuvâevery time you fry two eggs in the same pan, one is always better than the other, and you give it to the one you delighteth to honor.