Translated from Hebrew by Josh Friedlander
December 12, 2017
Tel Aviv, Israel
I woke up in a sun-soaked bedroom, and wandered into the living room and complained to Toony, my partner, that she had let me oversleep. She told me that she tried to wake me several times. But when I finally woke up I explained to her in a very convincing voice that my meeting had been cancelled and that it was better that I sleep in, since I’d stayed up late, reading. I have no recollection of such a conversation, of falling asleep late or of a meeting planned (or cancelled) that day. I brushed my teeth, still grouchy, and turned down her offer to prepare an omelette. While I was dressing and packing, Toony fried three eggs anyway, and I sat and ate them.
I walked down Salame Street to get to Jaffa Port. Salame is a very boring street, mostly full of mechanics and industrial warehouses. But it’s a good street for planning what I am going to write about. I did this for a while, then drifted into thinking about clothes I’d like to buy—a grayish cricket sweater from Brooks Brothers, a white and purple dress shirt from Kamakura Shirts, an eggplant-coloured polo short from Sunspel, a papillon tie from Pellens & Loick, turquoise sports socks from Falke, black and royal-blue orthopedic sneakers from Lunge. At the port gate, I decided to pass on the Brooks Brothers cricket sweater. It’s hot here, even in winter. I don’t need it.
In the cafe, I ordered a short espresso and soda. The tables are on the quay, ten metres away from the docks. The harbor itself is very narrow and small, and has room for only two dozen fisherman boats and yachts or so. On a windy day like today, high waves go easily above the breakwater, and into the empty docks. I really love the off-season atmosphere of the Jaffa Port. The large hangar containing the cafe currently has just three active businesses, and while I was sitting there only one small group of Filipino pilgrims on their way down from the old city, dropped by. I grew up a few streets away from here and find it comfortable to work in a place where I spent many afternoons as a kid. It’s also nice to write so close to a powerful force of nature.
The cafe has self-service, and when I got the soda from the fridge, I discovered that a new Italian brand had been added—for an additional three shekels. The expensive soda was labeled “natural sparkling water,” and it’s unclear if the text meant natural spring water made sparkling, or a naturally sparkling spring. If the latter exists I really don’t understand how we’re not talking about it more. I asked the seller if the bottle referred to a naturally sparkling body of water, but he didn’t know. I got the cheap soda.
I sent an email to Julia, a writer friend I ran into in the street three days ago. During our short conversation it was revealed that I still hadn’t read the novel she published four months ago. In the email I informed her that I bought her book, though I actually just borrowed it from the public library.
I uploaded a post on a professional website I edit, checked out the Brooks Brothers cricket sweater and decided to leave it on the list for trips abroad—and then g-chatted a little with Shachar, my friend. He was in the staff room of the college he teaches in, and updated me on something that happened in his last class: a few students left in a rage after he used the word coccinelle in class, the equivalent of the English word “tranny.” Coccinelle was the stage name of Jacques Charles Dufresnoy, a transgender French singer, who performed here in 1964, the first transgender individual seen in Israel. She left such a strong impression on the public that her name entered Hebrew as a slur for an effeminate man. Anyway, Shachar had just found out that the angry students had gone to the dean to complain about the offensive language, and the fact that he had refused to apologise. I asked him why he wouldn’t apologise and why, come to think of it, did he call a student a coccinelle in the middle of a lecture. He explained that he didn’t call anyone a coccinelle, but merely referred to a conversation he’d partaken in, in which someone had referred to someone else as a coccinelle. The idea that classes are supposed to be sterile seemed risible to him, seeing as they were meant to prepare the student for real life, in which people call other people coccinelle. I was reminded of an interview with Werner Herzog in which he explained that in the ideal film school, the first year would consist purely of boxing classes, and suggested to Shachar that he apply this idea to the field of coding education. He promised to look into it. After this conversation, I closed Gmail, opened a Word document, and wrote 734 more words of a novel.
When I got home, I called Toony’s name. There was no answer, but I heard a weak echo of music through the thick walls of the safe room—a space designed to protect us in case of a missile strike—that she uses as studio. I knocked on the heavy steel door, and Toony answered “Yes?” formally, like she’s in the office and not in a room in the middle of our house. Inside, the music was very loud, and Toony was sitting on the floor drawing a large abstract drawing. Next to her on a pillow sat Gerry, our cat, watching her as if he were a boss. We ate some hummus I brought from Jaffa, and then Toony went back to work and I went onto the balcony, lay on an exercise mat and reread S.Y. Agnon’s Only Yesterday.
Only Yesterday is about a passive, naïve and confused Russian Jewish pioneer called Isaac Kumer who immigrated to Palestine during the time of the Second Aliya. I’m always surprised at how fresh this book (published in 1945) still is, with its depiction of Second Aliya pioneers as narcissistic teenagers. But what really astonished me in this second reading is the disproportionate space Agnon gives in the plot to a not that fantastic joke about a dog who is extremely literate in the Jewish canon. Kumer, the protagonist, meets the stray dog and daubs the word “mad” on him (he works as a painter). The dog moves on, and then for nine or ten chapters wanders around, causing panic in the streets of Jerusalem, where he is assumed to be rabid. The device of the dog’s stream-of-Jewish-consciousness, as he wonders why everyone is acting strangely around him, quickly becomes monotonous and it’s nice to be reminded that even in the mature work of such a great writer there are some weak parts, and the texture of the prose is not consistent. I read the remaining dog chapters quickly, almost skimming, satisfied that it enabled me to swallow almost 200 pages in less than three hours and make up for waking up so late.
The bus to karate class was crammed with people coming home from work. I stood between the door and a fifty-something woman with orange hair and leather pants. Behind her, on the raised bench, sat a bony man with sunken cheekbones like a heroin addict. Every few seconds he drew close to the back of her neck, like he wanted to say something to her, then chuckled to himself and retreated. She saw me noticing, and when the man got off, turned to me and said, “It’s OK, he’s an idiot, I know him from Bat Yam, I beat him up once”.
This was my fourth class, and at the beginning the trainer Aviram gave me the suit and belt I’d ordered. I put it on, wrapped the white belt around me, and marched to the parquet past a group of kids between six and ten who had just finished their training, and all have higher belts than me.
The adult class has two black belts, four brown, one blue, two green, and me.
I started doing karate after coming to the conclusion that being an harmless and nice person shouldn’t be my default setting so much as a decision I can make. But also because I gained some weight.
After a long warm-up, we split into pairs, and Aviram assigned me to a thirteen-year-old girl with a brown belt. We were supposed to block each other, and Aviram asked her to teach me the movements. She did so with clean, exact demonstrations. She’s been training since age ten, and her strikes were completely natural, effortless, like someone speaking their native tongue. After the blocks we bowed to each other, and did the first kata together a few times, as she patiently corrected my movements. Then, still in pairs, we practiced Japanese arm wrestling. I won.
Back at home, I showered and then ate two portions of pasta al pomodoro in succession. Toony and I started watching an episode of First Date, a reality show where several couples meet for parallel blind dates in a restaurant wired with cameras. Exhausted from the training, I nevertheless tried to follow a date between a man who owns two ice cream stands and a woman who manages a service hotline. What’s interesting to me in this show is the contestants’ will to distill themselves into a flat type, with two or three fixed traits, like sitcom characters. At the outset of the date they all try to define themselves, to tell their date what they’re like as if this will make it so, but this description never holds up, and the psychological complexity always bubbles up in the course of the conversation. Shortly after the service hotline manager tells the ice-cream stand owner that it’s funny, her dream was always to own an ice-cream truck, I fell asleep.