Saturday, November 12, 2022

Africans, White City, and a Pint of Guinness (the original version appeared in Canyon Voices Spring 2016)

A pub in Tel Aviv, I type into the document that has been staring at me like a pristine canvas stretched in its wooden frame. It is a Thursday night, a popular outing evening for the locals, but it’s only six o’clock and the place is empty save for a handful of customers. An occasional wave of voices reaches my corner of the pub like a whiff of summer breeze. The air is heavy with the common blend of hops and wood, a reassuring smell. Yet there is something different in this neighborhood pub. I look around, trying to pinpoint the reasons for my notion. It might be the hodgepodge of modern and vintage furniture, and the unassuming bar where the bottle display is not crammed full. As if the booze is just an excuse for a social gathering, a backdrop.
    Yes, that and the casual atmosphere. Take, for example, the young man with dreadlocks raining down from his head like the supple branches of a willow. Straddled on his stool as if horse riding, he nonchalantly angles himself toward an older gentleman two stools away. Now the older man places down his beer, turns toward his new mate, and a chat ensues. 
    My eyes wander to the door through which a young man walks in, holding hands with a long-limbed woman whose short hair is wrapped in a floral headscarf. The two stop by the dreadlocks guy and greet him in a ritual of arms and palms. Dreadlocks introduces the newcomers to the older gentleman, and all four move to a table on the other end of the pub. 
    “Nice computer,” a young woman says, awakening me from my ruminations. She plants herself in the chair beside me, eying my laptop. A bright smile illuminates her face from within, and her ebony curls fall onto her shoulders in long strands, emanating flowery perfume. The white summer dress shines against her dark skin. No jewelry or makeup and none are needed; she wears her youth and effervescent demeanor like diamonds. I push away my envy. 
    “I want to get one just like yours, but they’re crazy expensive,” she says. “Wait, your keyboard has English letters, you got it abroad?” 
    “Yes, I live in Boston.” 
    “Wow, lucky you,” she exclaims. “I wish I could go to America, New York, work in mall carts like all Israelis, clean houses, I don’t care, just get out of here for a bit, get some air.” She breaks for a breath and adds, “I’m Maya.” 
      I introduce myself as well. 
    “I really like your laptop,” she whispers with gleaming eyes and leans in to take a closer look. “Oh, wait, you’re writing our chat, translating it from Hebrew to English.” 
    “Is that okay?” I ask. 
    She leans back in her chair, a thin crease forms on her brow. “Sure … but why?” 
    “It’s a writing exercise,” I say. “To record observations and conversations in a public space.” 
    “Oh, cool,” she says with a nod but still seems baffled. 
    “I’m a writing student,” I explain. 
    “Oh, okay, I get it.” She glances around. “What’s to write about here? Not very interesting.” 
    “I would love to write about you,” I say in the soft tone of invitation. “If you don’t mind, of course.”
    “Really?” A spark is lit in her dark brown eyes, and her curls bounce a little. “Let me get us some drinks, and I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” She then hesitates. “Well, almost anything,” she adds with a blush. 
    She points at my empty glass, asking, “What are you having?” 
    “That was soda water,” I say, sensing she might not approve of my virgin beverage. 
    “How about some beer?” she asks, I nod, and she adds with a wink: “On the house, the barman is my boyfriend.” 
    I follow Maya with my eyes. The bartender’s face shines when he notices her at the counter. He’s a tall man, a few years older than her, with a light brown ponytail brushing his nape and a slightly receding hairline. His turquoise tank top reveals a medium size tattoo adorning his right shoulder; it’s either a flower or a butterfly, I can’t tell from this distance. 
    He operates the taps with smooth and flowing motions, and hands Maya two froth-dripping pints, beaming at her the way boyfriends beam at their girlfriends. She sends him an air kiss and turns away.
    “Guinness,” Maya announces when she reaches me and places the pints on the table. “I like my beer dark and strong,” she adds with a giggle. “Just like my men.” 
    I smile as if it’s the first time I’ve heard this quip. 
    She takes a swig from her beet, wipes the foamy mustache off her upper lip with the back of her hand, and says, “So, what do you want to know?” 
    “Anything,” I answer, eyeing my beer. The last time I had a Guinness I woke up with a throbbing brain the next morning. 
    “Well,” she says and pulls herself up in the chair. “My army service is done in a week, I’m actually on my discharge vacation now.” 
    “Congratulations,” I say. “What do you … what did you do in the army?” 
    “I served in the Air Force.” 
    “Ah, me too,” I remark. “I was an operations-room sergeant in a squadron.” 
    “How cool,” she says with glistening eyes, then adds in a quieter voice: “yeah, I did something similar.”
    “What a coincidence, which squadron?” 
    She hugs her beer with both hands, eyes lowered. “Well, I guess not exactly similar, but …” She looks up at me. “I’m sorry … you seem … so interested, I wanted to impress you, nobody’s ever interested in me.” 
    I glance at the bar. “That good-looking guy is.” 
    “We’ve been dating for only a month,” she says with a shrug. “They’re always excited in the beginning, aren’t they?” 
    “Mmm,” I murmur in sympathy. 
    “And just for the record,” she says with an index finger pointing up, “I did serve in the Air Force, but I was a clerk in some boring office, nothing special.” 
    “Okay,” I say. “And for the record, my army job wasn’t as glorious as you might imagine, and the pilots were outright annoying.” 
    She chuckles at that, and I quickly add, “Why won’t you tell me something else, like where you grew up?” 
    A tentative smile spreads on her lips, then shifts into a playful smirk. “Can I tell you where I want to live?” 
    “Sure, fantasies are always interesting.” 
    With her head tilted sideways, her eyes half-closed, she says: “North Tel Aviv, a penthouse at the top of a fancy tower building, opening the windows every morning to look at the sea from way up and breathe its beautiful smell, then catch some sunshine on my huge porch, and feel super happy.” 
    “Sounds dreamy,” I say smiling. “But why won’t you tell me where you’re actually from? I bet it’s also interesting.” 
    Maya gives a quick shrug, looking a tad deflated again. “I bet it isn’t … South Tel Aviv, with all the Africans.” 
    Her resentful pronunciation of ‘Africans’ makes me cringe. Now I dread where this conversation might lead, but her reply also piques my curiosity. 
    “I heard a lot about the situation,” I say in the lightest tone I can find. “I’d be happy to learn about it from a local.” 
    “It’s awful,” she moans. Her shoulders droop, her face turns somber. “The neighborhood wasn’t great before they came, and now it’s even worse, much worse.” She draws a deep breath, takes a swill of beer, and lets out a long exhale, forgetting to clear the froth off her upper lip. 
    “You know,” she carries on, “most of us live in shitty apartments, lots of unemployment, we just don’t need them, they’re not our problem even if they had it bad wherever they came from.” She shakes her head. “No, they should go back to their own countries, Israel is home of the Jews.” 
    Oh my, I think but say nothing. 
    Maya gulps the rest of her beer, then signals to her boyfriend, who appears at our table with a fresh pint of Guinness for Maya, and a friendly nod for me. His arm tattoo turns out to be a greenish-blue swallowtail butterfly. 
    I take a mouthful from my glass, surprised to find the bittersweet flavor with a hint of coffee quite delicious. 
    Maya sinks into thought, and I give my fingers a break from the keyboard, stretching them loose.
    “Sorry,” she finally says, still staring into space. “I was … I was thinking about Baby Kako.” 
    “Yes, I know about her,” I sigh. “Are you familiar with the family?”
    “Well, that’s the thing. They live just a few streets from us, but I never noticed them until … how terrible … what kind of monster stabs a baby in the head with scissors, and only because she’s black? Thank goodness she didn’t die, but she’ll never be …” 
    Her eyes glisten with tears and she falls silent again. She then snatches a long lock of her hair, coils it around her finger, and just as absentmindedly uncoils the curl and sets it free. She hasn’t touched her second beer yet; the thick milky froth at the crown of her glass is firm—the white and the dark holding each other in balance. 
    Maya gives her curtain of curls a gentle shake and her face regains focus. “They say the man who did it is crazy, but I don’t know, it happened after people from the government came to the neighborhood and said terrible things about them.” 
    Surprised by this U-turn, I ask: “Would you consider getting to know your African neighbors a little better?” 
    “Oh, I don’t know, probably not,” she says and picks up her glass. “My family won’t approve of it, anyway.” 
    I say I understand, she swills down her Guinness as if it was lemonade and places the empty glass on the table with a thump. 
    “Well,” she says and gets to her feet, “I gotta go meet some friends, but it was nice talking to you, and good luck with your writing.” 
    I wish her the best of luck with civilian life, she thanks me with an animated mock salute that sends her ringlets frolicking and slips into the darkening street. 
    After she leaves, I drink some more of my beer, hoping I won’t regret it tomorrow, and notice how the pub, now teeming with chattering folks, has turned a little stuffy. I tuck a tip under my glass, pack my laptop, and walk into the evening air. The sky stretches with soft layers of blues and magentas and a swoosh of traffic rises from a nearby street. I round a corner, enter Rothschild Boulevard, and amble along its sandy central strip lined with shikma trees. Ropey vines pipe up and around the trunks, and the long branches hold up crowns of green bouquets, the curly canopy offering a fresh breath in this dense urban-scape. Farther along, I find clusters of concrete picnic-tables with no diners, and a fenced pond rich with exotic greenery and chubby goldfish. Crickets serenade in the bushes. Elegant Bauhaus buildings paraded along either side of the boulevard, reminding me of Tel Aviv’s nickname: The White City. 

I see him slumped on a bench under a yellow streetlamp with his legs extended forward. He hasn’t noticed me yet. I glance around the empty street. Rotten luck, I think. Turn back … or maybe cut into a side street … no, that might raise his attention. Well, I’ll just put on my tough demeanor and keep a steady pace. 
    As I pass him, I realize he is looking at me, and my eyes can’t help but meet his. I issue a tiny smile and keep walking, hoping my steps look self-assured. 
    “You Israelis think we African bad people,” I hear him grumble behind me. 
    I stop, turn around slowly, and say: “Excuse me?” 
    “You hear me,” he replies and turns away his face. 
    “Well, I don’t know you, but I don’t think you’re a bad person.” 
    He nods with an exaggerated gesture. “You do, you do, all of you.” 
    I take a step in his direction. “No, really, I don’t, your people deserve to be treated much better.” 
    “If you care, you tell government,” he says in disdain, looking at me again. 
    “Right, the government,” I sneer, and now I see a glint of amusement in the corners of his mouth. 
    “It’s not an easy country,” I mutter. “Even for Israelis.” 
    “Better than my country,” he grumbles, then asks, “You not like it here?” 
    I suppose for him Israel is a version of the Promised Land, I think. “Well, I don’t really live here, I’m just visiting.” 
     His brow springs up. “Where you live?”
    “America.” 
    His face softens as he gets up from the bench. “I have cousin in Canada, want go live there, good country, America also good.” He glances at my left hand. “No husband,” he says with a simper. His eyes glimmer with warmth, then narrow when he inquires: “boyfriend?” 
    Caught off guard, I say nothing. 
    ”We marry and you take me to America?” he asks and takes a confident step forward. 
    I observe him more closely. Not a bad-looking guy … pleasant face, strong shoulders, his blue T-shirt tight on a lean and brawny torso … and that smooth chocolate complexion … 
    He takes another step toward me, and I catch a whiff of his masculine aftershave. I flinch, take a quick step back, and hear myself declare: “I’m a lesbian.” 
    His face freezes for a moment, then twists in revolt. 
    “I no marry you,” he spits the words. “You be shame to yourself!” 
    Feeling obliged to defend my statement for the sake of those it represents, I say: “There’s nothing wrong with being gay.” 
    “No, is bad,” he snaps, shaking his head. “God not allow.” 
    With that, he turns around, slumps into the bench again enveloped in an air of despondency. Realizing the exchange is over, I resume my walk and after a few steps halt to admire a particularly curious shikma. As my fingers explore the ropy veins that wrap up and around the tree, I hear a woman asking: “You’re hungry? I can give you some money for food.” 
    Peeking from behind the thick trunk, I see a small woman in her early sixties with short hair and wired spectacles standing beside the man on the bench. 
    “I no beggar,” his voice rings with indignation. 
    “I just want to help,” the woman mumbles. 
    He shrugs. “We want job, no donations.” 
    “I know,” she says in a gloomy tone. “I’ve been supporting the asylum seekers for years now and I’m sorry things aren’t working out as well as we hoped.”
    “Is okay.” His voice is softer now. “You are good woman, is okay.” 
    “I wish you the best of luck,” she says. “Really.” 
    “Thank you,” he replies with a deep nod, and then asks, “you live in America?” 
    “No, I live here in Tel Aviv,” she replies, sounding surprised. 
    “Ah,” he utters in disappointment, then adds, “but you no lesbian, right?” 
    What?!” 
    I stifle a chortle and scuttle away, freeing a laugh when I reach the bottom of the leafy avenue, leaving behind this city of million faces, full of tricks and impossibilities, shadows and lightness.