“Nissim, you hardly touched your food. Take some couscous, it’s your favourite.”
“Not that hungry, Mom.”
“But Grandma Yvonne stood on her feet all day yesterday to make it.”
“People who buy that flavourless readymade couscous in the supermarket have no idea what they’re doing,” said Nissim’s father, moving his callused hands through his thinning hair; a habit kept from hairier days. “Eat something, eat,” he urged his son. “You’re skin and bones as it is.”
“Is the heat,” croaked Grandma Yvonne, her head sinking deeper between her shoulders. “It kill us all.”
“And every year summer is worse,” added Uncle Hemo, spooning rice in almonds and raisins into his plate.
“Is good thing your father not here anymore,” said Grandma, looking at Hemo. “The heat kill him if his heart don’t.”
“Your poor grandfather would have wanted his namesake to make something of himself,” said Aunt Mazal, turning to Nissim. “You’re already twenty-seven, you should find a wife, start a family.”
“You never married,” grumbled Nissim.
“It’s different for women,” she replied with a wounded expression.
“How?” he asked, this time with a genuine curiosity.
“Enough!” Nissim’s father said. “You’re upsetting your aunt. God knows she wanted to marry, but she had nothing but bad luck with men.”
“Sorry,” mumbled Nissim, glancing at his aunt.
She furnished a faint smile, her face flushed. “That’s all right.”
“Even if he had a girlfriend, where would he take her?” asked Hemo laughingly. “To that little apartment I rent him for just a few shekels?”
You call that shithole an apartment? Nissim thought.
“Don’t torment the boy,” said his mother, putting a soft hand on her son’s arm. Nissim noticed her chipped nail polish, glanced at Aunt Mazal’s nails, bright red and perfect looking as always, and with a mixture of sadness and guilt wondered why his mom couldn’t be as presentable as her sister.
“Simha, you spoil your son rotten,” said Uncle Hemo to Nissim’s mom. “No wonder he can’t find his place in the world. Look at my Avi and Shmulik; I raised them to be tough, and now they’re both making lots of money in America.” He turned to Nissim. “You should join them,” he said, and Nissim was surprised by the tenderness in his uncle’s voice. “You could help Shmulik sell clothes in Miami, or Avi could set you up in that moving company he works for.“
“He belongs here with us,” said Simha firmly. “Not among strangers.”
“Those gentiles have no God,” remarked Mazal.
“There are plenty of Israelis and Jews in New York,” said Nissim.
“People abroad anti-Semite,” muttered Grandma in disdain.
“That’s not true!” Nissim said.
“Show respect for your elders,” his father chided him. “Grandma Yvonne is your only remaining grandparent.”
“More arrack?” Hemo lifted the bottle, looking at Yaakov, Nissim’s father, who took his empty glass to meet the bottle midair with a clang. Hemo carefully poured the transparent liquid, sending a wave of anise into the air.
“That’s good,” said Yaakov with a nod. Hemo refilled his own glass and replaced the bottle on the table.
“Yes, yes,” he sniggered at Mazal’s curled lips. “We know you don’t like the smell. Maybe you’re Ashkenazi, no?” Mazal’s expression turned offended again.
“I have your sister in my belly nine month,” said Grandma, giving him a look of reproach.
“Just kidding,” Hemo said, lifting both arms halfway in mock-surrender.