Stephen

When I approached the Triboro toll on the way to Queens I noticed the red sign warning: CALL EZ-PASS. Oh, no, not another one, I thought, I did not enjoy communicating with inhuman devices. Familiar mechanical female voice from the GPS announced the oncoming exit. I realized that I could speak to these devices, but not to him. He is done with his intellectual curiosity, right to vote and with pursuit of happiness.

His father was a rabbi. Not an orthodox in a contemporary American sense. He was a man from the old country, from big city though. His roots were of the urban Jewry, many friends adapted to a gentile life; some went to a German school and were wearing black uniforms with long sleeves. Their own children might have gone to a secular school, usually after a few years of Jewish education. He certainly was intimately familiar with the vivid, hot stream of the Hassidic spirit born in the clear mountains of Bukovina just a day of travel away from the big city, but his family’s life was different. That is why Stephen eventually found his way to the University, and not incidentally his passion, his scholarly ambition, his shtick were movies.

Those were relatively happy years, ones of escape from the neighborly suffocating hug of the Big Brother, of shortsighted self-indulgence of idiotic naïve happy neighbors on the Western side of the fence. So, Stephen’s dissertation and his first book was on Tarkovsky, a genius Russian director, as strange, unpredictable, murky, slow and enveloping as his zona in the Stalker. Stephen made it brilliant, a combination of the spirit of the books on dark and musty father’s bookshelves and a free spirit of the times, – sixties, whose very edge touched even this last outpost before the mysterious, vast territory in the East. That vastness that had devoured frozen Panzer divisions and, before them, victorious Great Army. It was an interface of Europe and Asia, never mind geography.

Very few of these books Stephen managed to take with him to Tel-Aviv, when he and Sonya were ready. Their son was just born; his own father was entrenched in his apartment with the multitude of memorable, meaningful Jewish artifacts.

In those times the line of such Jewfish family would stop its historical flow abruptly, turn into an unknown direction. All those things – menorahs, goblets, textiles, plates, – would become, as they used to say in the emigration circle, unabroadable. As if things were telling the departing people: we are too tired to leave, too old, too rooted in this defiant foreign land. Leave us alone, and after the owner departs we will continue our journey into some obscure antique shop, where one day bored balding tourist from Schleswig-Holstein would wander in, hold some of them for a while and then proceed to his monstrous bus trembling with anticipation of the road.

The transition to a new life in Israel was not that hard. Sonya got a job as a dental assistant with a Romanian Jewish dentist from Craiova. They’ve known him from the vacations at the Black sea resort Neptune during university years. After work, before Stephen would come home, Sonya liked her cup of coffee with petite Napoleon at the Voile Vue, soon to be blown up by the Hamas.  He was busy working (writing, editing) at one of the bustling newspapers. Besides, he got the grant from Ministry of Absorption and started the first serious film magazine in Hebrew in Tel-Aviv.

The Lebanon war broke out. Sonya actually liked him coming back home every other week from the not so distant front: unimaginable situation for their European parents’ generation. He was emerging from the bunker, from dust, smoke and desert sun – thin, tanned, but not hungry. When he was staying for couple of days friends would still get together for coffee and Carmel wines, for hummus and cheese and talk perennial dead end topics of Israeli politics and of imminent threat of the Soviet Union getting involved with the war and of catastrophic conclusion it might lead to. The only hope was recently started “Soviet Vietnam” – Afghan war.

In his infantry unit Stephen met an American, Eric, a Vietnam vet, who used to be a volunteer, not a common case. Eric did not get along with a noisy pushy female sergeant Lora, 19 years of age, who came from Belarus as a two years old girl. She would make them, family men with professions, crawl, do unimaginable leg stretches, and handle the Uzi with incredible speed. It was insulting, but that was Lora’s point. Amazingly, at the same time she liked to chat and giggle with her girlfriends from other units, chain smoking and holding the machine gun between her plump hips. She would carefully wash her curly dark hair with special shampoo from the Dead Sea weed. When she was coming back from the furlough she looked more relaxed after spending a Shabbat with some mysterious hero, stationed in the West Bank.

Eric turned out to be a former Green Beret, at least for a while. He criticized the training and did offer himself to put others into shape. He showed the techniques of approaching an enemy silently, – in this case a Palestinian gunman, – and cutting the throat with a knife in a special way – one smooth move – so there would be no sound. Eventually, some Sabra captain, a veteran of the Yom Kippur, took him away him. Eric went with the commandos to Beirut, and Stephen never heard of the American from Waltham, Mass. ever since.

Stephen returned, and Sonya had to cook full Romanian dinners again, and life was getting back on track with the subsidized apartment almost paid off.  But he also felt a limit, some confinement in his life, the way it was shaping up. There was no more room where to go. No political career, he was neither a doctor nor an engineer. To be a part of the closed self-promoting circle in Israel called the “Romanian mafia” did not interest him. He was too much of a cosmopolitan persona. Besides, his older brother Mark, who managed to get to the US earlier, was writing and calling and hinting in a pretty transparent way that the real estate market in New York was going through the roof and it was a good time to get in. Provided you had some money or at least had an idea how to start selling, then buying, then reselling.

Stephen decided to move on and frankly, after they settled in Queens, life was not entirely different from Tel-Aviv – multilingual, multicultural, a lot of acquaintances from the old country. Stephen had a great common sense, got his license. Sonya found a similar job with another Romanian dentist three blocks away, where mainly Bukharian Jews lived; their son got into CUNY, and things moved in the right direction. She started bringing home after work the stuff from the small food store in that neighborhood: kebab and kosher salami and even real pilaf, fatty and gluey, tasting great even after being reheated in a microwave, – apparently a carnal sin, by the strict standards.

There were two huge problems though, somehow interconnected. Stalker, zona and dark underpinnings of Tarkovsky art would not let go. That was one. Stephen was also gaining weight, in a serious way. He realized that his compulsive eating was related to the frustration about the art, but also his stale relations with Sonya. The time of mutually agreeable, easy, fun relations with each other wives in their social circle back home passed long ago. She was becoming a tired middle age woman, set in her ways, habitually sexually dormant. In her special way, seen some time in Jewish women, actually inferior to their husbands, – she was domineering and authoritarian. Stephen, like many others, who had gone through what he had, could not deal with the stress of leaving her, breaking the family, defending himself, falling in love, building another family, finding new frustrations. In other words, exploring that dark zona – terra incognita, called a second or even a third life.

Escape into reading, which he always did anyway, – philosophy, Judaica, history, – would not help and only kept confirming his natural pessimistic belief about the world’s and culture’s imminent, albeit slow, direction. Creating a tremendous worldwide vodka collection helped for while. He felt this residual pleasant inkling showing to the guests his treasure downstairs in their home in Queens, that impressive battery of rockets – bottles from Russia, Poland, Sweden, Finland and France. Soon afterwards the bottles were collecting dust, but these were not old wines. Vodka bottles, instead of looking increasingly dignified, somehow appeared dilapidated and not purposefully well kept – but sadly forgotten.

What Sonya could not understand was the fact that he started writing again, not articles about the movies or a dissertation, but something like a memoir prose. He let her read a couple of chapters, but she could not take that self ironic, somewhat gloomy style, giving away his frustration and despair.

As expected, he was quite successful in the real estate field and managed to handle a few smart projects in Manhattan; later he moved from the real estate job to managing upscale coop-buildings with one of the monstrous managing companies on Lexington. He hated the pager and a constant control of the mobile phone over his internal life, but the job made them comfortable. He was close to his son somehow, but as many kids in the new land, the son was living his life, different from the more family and closed clannish circle oriented life in the old country.

There was nothing to talk about at the dinner table with Sonya, but her cooking was excellent and copious. Besides, Stephen liked to prepare some things himself, especially meats, Romanian steak, grilles, sometimes paprika and special soup with beef stomach. Friends were coming by and there were a lot of parties with people from their old city and the new ones too. Stephen was especially keen on talking with some new Russian friends, doctors and writers. His Russian was sketch, but years of his interest in the Big brother and Russian movie making created a lot of common topics, and Stephen was always getting livelier, more talkative, even tender, since it somehow related to his youth.

He tried hypnosis to harness his eating disorder, tried diet, Atkins too, all in vain. At that point, his belly was voluminous, his frustration so profound, sexuality met its dead end, bearing a woman’s name Sonya; although, his soul continued searching for some light, inside itself. He knew it was there, he knew that distractions of life, this job, stalemate with his wife, and insufficient degree of craziness, necessary condition for a poet, an artist, clouded his path to purpose.

It’s not that he never thought of the end. Not in the sense he did in Lebanon. There it was scary, real, it smelled of death, dried blood on the hot stone. He attended the services and visited military section of cemeteries in Israel more than once. But that was different. Now it was some milky, nebulous threat, a combination of occasional palpitation, catching his breath, carrying the belly, sometimes at the JFK when they were late for the overseas flight. It was especially bad after the heavy meals of mamaliga with the family friends, less so after American stand up parties, even though there he would manage to wolf down enough cheese with crackers with the pedestrian Merlot before real dinner at home. But the main thing was an unreachable point of knowing who he really was, and if that was possible at all.

His brother died a few years earlier from a stroke, as did his father back home. He flew for the funeral and was just sitting there in that empty old apartment, not really knowing what to do with all those items, whatever was left after the relatives picked up a lions’ share. Times were different and he could have transported some of them, but he was an American now, so there was no time for any detailed, time consuming project, just a long weekend off work. So, he just left the rest to a remote relative.

While flying over the Atlantic he realized that he would never forgive himself for not taking four items, which belong to his father. Stephen thought he would like him to have them: an old book, presented to his father at the graduation from the rabbinical school, a Thales, an old tablecloth and the goblet he remembered from his grandfather times. It was too late, so something was left there undisturbed and untouched. In a way, things sometimes have their own destiny and strange lives. And by now, after so many moves and after closing so many doors behind him, he knew that one has to detach oneself – from the walls, textures of life, make clean exit. Nothing really matters, you simply being lost on the way to yourself.

So, he thought about the end now in more real terms, sort of how it was written in a short story of one of his recently met writer friends, who was also a pathologist. It started with the protocol of an autopsy. And somehow the matter-of-factness, cold details of the procedure made it less horrible and unimaginable. The words about the appearance of the subcutaneous fat particularly stuck in his mind.

That happened, clinically speaking, in a proverbial way: heavy meal at the Thanksgiving dinner at the friends’ house in a nice bedroom community on the side street by Northern Boulevard. He lied down on the couch to catch a breath, maybe get a quick nap before the dessert. When Sonya, who was chatting with her girlfriend about the family of their son’s fiancée, walked in, he was not breathing. Although his posture on the couch was the same as if he was napping, she knew right away that it was that.

The funeral home occupied half a dark, non-residential block on the Queens Boulevard, completely desolate on a windy evening of the weeknight. Even the rare cars were speeding away as if trying to escape wind battered area, somehow reminiscent of the open seas, with their unexplainable whirlwind non-life.

As I walked in, I recognized several familiar faces, nodded, shook hands, embraced a few people, bowed in front of Sonya, who was sitting on the official cold leather sofa, surrounded by other wives, each nursing her own fear, unsureness, grudge, dark premonition, wet sorrow.

I paid my silent dues to the body in the other end of the hall, found my coat and walked out into the open sea of the Boulevard. My car felt like the only oasis there. Habitually I found again my feeling of home inside the vehicle. I pressed the button and cranky voice of an older man came on, reading the Exit Ghost. Now, I remembered how much Stephen liked the author, did not care for the Dying Animal though: “too blunt and forward, but he is such a good writer, he could write a restaurant menu, and that still would be a quality prose.”

I was heading towards the Bridge, that blinking arch above and between two worlds; Queens at this time of night was reminiscent of a shipwreck: frozen, the souls already deported still not departed elsewhere. As I was passing the toll the red sign warned me the second time: CALL EZ-PASS.

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