Lisa Okon comes from a family of writers and editors and has been writing short stories since the age of ten. Most recently she completed her first novel. Lisa came to live in Israel in 1966 where she has established a private practice in marriage therapy and family mediation. She divides her time between Kfar Saba and Jerusalem (the source of her inspiration).
He disappeared from her life as casually as he had entered it. One day he was there, the next he was gone. Just like that. We move in and out of each others lives like the dancing leaves of autumn, she thought, but the image didn’t help dispel the heavy cloud of her loss. It was the thought of never hearing his voice again.
They met at Marty’s, their local hangout, a downtown bar not far from campus, on a chilly Friday evening in late April. Sitting around the beer-puddled wooden table, everyone already a bit sloshed, glad the week was finally over, glad the semester was nearly over, he was squeezed in next to her, his glass of beer half empty in front of him. He was quieter than the others, somewhat worn, watching them all from a distance and smiling to himself as if at his own private joke. Probably one of those behavioral scientists, she thought, catching his smile. A teaching fellow maybe, working on his doctorate. But he seemed a bit old for that. Possibly a researcher, in social psychology. It was curious that she had never seen him before and she wondered about that, only half paying attention to the voices rising and falling around her like the waves of Lake Michigan, or the ocean she had never seen. She signaled a question to her friend Ingrid, seated opposite. Ingrid whispered back from behind her cupped hand. Sam. His name was Sam.
Jim Coker, whom she often met on a Sunday morning on their way to church, a boy with a face as clear and open as the corn fields he came from but impossible to figure out, with his strange moods and dark silences, had begun telling the group a story. As usual whenever Jim showed a readiness to speak, in that slowed-down way of his, with his intensity and his rural mispronunciations, everyone put aside their little conversations, leaning forward slightly so as to catch every word. This time he was telling them about his tour in Vietnam. Not the kind of story one might have expected, Jim’s stories never were, he was telling how young Vietnamese soldiers, for entertainment, for a bit of excitement, would lock a sex crazed monkey in a bamboo cage together with a chicken. Here he sat among them, in the dimness of the bar, this Nebraska boy, describing where he had been, almost as though he were back there still, in that Asian jungle. How the squawking chicken would dash in frantic circles as the monkey, leaping after her, tried to mount her from behind, grabbing and pulling out tail feathers in his horniness and frustration. And here, in the murkiness and closeness of the bar, with Jim pausing now and then for effect, holding his listeners with his eyes, it was almost as if they too were there, crouched in that sweltering jungle clearing, waiting. Holding their collective breath in anticipation. Together they exhaled as the monkey finally got her, releasing tension into the beer perfumed air.
She discovered that being drawn in she had followed the story, in silence, with the rest of them. But did they realize the horror of it? The outrage? No one had spoken a word. No one had jumped to his feet in protest. She wished she could do that. Raise her voice above the clatter around her and demand their attention. Make them see how cruel and inhuman it was. But weren’t worse things done to animals every day? And right here, at this very university? In labs, for example? She shuddered, thinking about it. In her distress she turned her head away and meeting the eye of the man next to her blushed deeply. She must already have had too much to drink for she tipped dangerously to the left, bumping against him. He placed a protective arm around her shoulder, holding her up.
The discussion, predictably enough, turned to the question of Vietnam, and to U.S. policy in South East Asia. There were several at the table, liberals mostly, from cities like New York, who believed that America’s intervention had been a dire mistake from the beginning. There were some, one or two, who disagreed. It was a debate they’d had before, the same reasoning, the same arguments. Basically, the group opposed the U.S.’s involvement so the whole discussion seemed to her to be pointless and unnecessary. But tonight Kitty O’Brien, her old friend from high school, was sporting a new button that read ‘You don’t have to be Jewish to be against the war.’ Someone asked where she’d gotten it. Then one of the more outspoken supporters of President Johnson, someone, whose name for the moment eluded her but who was clearly pissed, raised his voice accusingly. “You Jews are all a bunch of hypocrites.” His voice was slurred and belligerent. “You want Johnson to keep on supporting Israel against the Arab guerillas, to give the Israelis everything he’s goddamn got, but the minute it comes to the Vietcong, our enemy, the enemy of our own goddamn country, you yell for him to back off. To run away. Like a yellow coward with his tail between his legs.” He took a long swallow of his drink and hiccoughed.
No one responded. It would have been a waste of everyone’s energy, she thought, and besides, hadn’t they come to Marty’s to enjoy being together, to have a couple of drinks, a few laughs? The others must have felt this way too because after a short uncomfortable silence the conversation swung around to the topic of baseball, the season that had just begun, and the Tigers’ hopes for winning this year’s pennant.
His arm was still around her and she’d snuggled into it experiencing a comfortable weightlessness. There had been a tension in it when they were talking politics but it was relaxed now and she would not have minded staying encircled in that arm all night. But though it was still early the group was breaking up, waving their good byes. Everyone was already on their feet and they wound their way to the door, between the crowded and noisy tables, out onto the street. There had been a light shower and the little puddles on the sidewalk reflected the reds and blues of the bar’s neon lights. To her it all seemed indescribably lovely. But she saw, as she nearly tripped, having to be caught at the last minute and steadied, that she had allowed herself to become more tipsy than she had realized. God she was embarrassed. Still, she would have liked him to come home with her and was sorry when he helped her into a taxi, closing the door carefully behind her. He stood by the curb until she and the driver were out of sight, the paper napkin scribbled with her phone number folded in the pocket of his shirt.
Ordinarily the next morning she would have phoned Ingrid, to ask about him. This time she didn’t. Ingrid, as ambitious in her private life as in her research, had lately become assistant to the chairman of her department, a position entailing a well-publicized lewd and lascivious relationship with her philandering mentor, as well as access to some very private files. Ingrid knew just about everything there was to know about everybody in the social sciences and of course she’d been there last night, in the shadows, observing them all as she sat sipping her rum and coke. But that was the problem. For even through the distractions, the cigarette smoke and the noise, Ingrid would have taken note. If she asked about him, even the most innocuous of questions, even in the most offhanded manner, Ingrid would guess. Ingrid was always able to guess what was in her mind and it disconcerted her, especially this time when she thought about it. She knew exactly how their conversation would go.
I don’t think you should get too serious about him, Diane
Who said anything about serious?
Well, it’s just a suggestion. That you not get too serious. You know what your track record’s been like.
I’m only thinking about your welfare, sweetie. What I’m suggesting is simply that you get to know him first. That you don’t rush headlong into a new relationship. It’ll only end in more misery for you.
I’m not even in a relationship and you’re already telling me how it’s going to end.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Diane.
Maybe this was where she made her first mistake, not ringing her up. At least she might have been prepared.
Sam phoned her several days later and asked her out. It seemed he was mad about Fellini and there was a double feature at the Carlton. He’d seen both films before but was eager to see them again, he said. She was thrilled. Thrilled that he hadn’t thrown away her phone number, that he wanted to see her again. And she loved Fellini, she really did. And Antonioni. And Luis Bunuel. They’d have such a lot to talk about.
Afterwards he took her to a coffee house where they found a small table at the back. From there they could see the long-haired undergrads coming in and out and they sat there silently for a while watching, he with that same amused, slightly condescending expression that he’d worn at the bar. She noticed that when he spoke he sounded different, it was his accent, not exactly foreign but certainly not Midwestern. Not from the East Coast either. Certainly not Boston, she knew that accent by heart.
“Where are you from?” she asked, interested.
“I came here from Ann Arbor,” he answered, still with the accent, which appeared slightly heavier now.
“I mean before that. Where did you grow up?”
“Grow up?” he laughed. “Who said I grew up?” He smiled. “How about you? Where did you grow up?”
‘Oh, I come from right here. I’ve lived in Detroit all my life.”
“And you attended Mumford High School, I suppose?”
She didn’t know what it was about this exchange that made her feel uncomfortable and was thinking about that when the waiter came over. They both ordered coffee and cinnamon rolls.
A couple of weeks later, after a few more movies and private, unshared fantasies in the darkened theater, and a few more warm cinnamon rolls, sliced in half and spread thickly with butter, they slept together for the first time. He was gentle in bed, whispered sweet sexy things in her ear and touched her all over. By the second time the sex was already beginning to feel familiar, and wonderful, but after a while it became strained. It was as if something were missing for him, something he needed, and she couldn’t figure out what it was. She wished she could ask him, but how does one ask these things without spoiling everything? Because by that time she had an uneasy sense that she was falling in love with him.
Still (and always there was a still) there were so very many things she didn’t know about him. Once it crossed her mind that he might be Israeli. It could explain the accent, and that dark intensity that seemed, somehow, Jewish. But if he were Israeli, surely he would have said so. Maybe it had something to do with his past. Sometimes, though, he didn’t seem to be Jewish at all. She wondered whether he might possibly be Polish. A Catholic. Not that any of this really mattered of course, though Ingrid would surely know.
She’d begun cooking dinner for him in the evening after returning from the library, where she struggled with her research, often despairing. He would come straight to her apartment from a meeting, or a student seminar he’d led. Bit by bit she teased out of him the fact that he was heading up a team of high-powered academics, a group involved in the setting up of an institute for applied social research. When at last she got him to tell her about the project, intended to help create and fund programs in poor underdeveloped countries, he spoke with a skepticism that surprised her. He’d been recruited for the position, he told her with a thin depreciating smile, though he had no affection for Detroit. He would much have preferred Berkeley, he said. He shared with her his interest in New Wave cinema, in certain kinds of erotic poetry, but aside from that she still knew very little about him. He’d lived for a good part of his life in Switzerland where he’d spoken fluent Italian and French. He also knew German.
One evening she was peeling carrots by the sink, listening to the news broadcast on the radio. That morning, searching through her cookbooks, she’d found a recipe for a velvety carrot soup and had imagined serving it to him with croutons, thick and creamy, in a cream colored ceramic bowl. It would be the first course of a special dinner she was planning; she’d already arranged flowers on the table and set out the candles with the little box of wooden matches beside them. Everything was going to be perfect. In the soft candlelight, feeling the effects of the wine, carefully chosen for the occasion, their talk would be open and intimate as it had never been before. She would find the words and Sam would give her his full attention as she told him of her tentative growing up in that silent house, always fearful of breaking through the thin icy surface of her parents’ love. Of their cruel separation. Her father’s distance. And the way her mother, with her ruined life, had never ceased longing for him. She would tell him the whole sad story of her childhood, he would tell her his, and then they would discuss other matters, world events, ideas, like two adults who already knew each other by heart.
As she cut the carrots into cubes she heard him walk through the door of the apartment and the sound of his approaching footsteps on the wooden floor coming through to the kitchen. Diane hadn’t expected him until at least an hour or two later and she wasn’t ready. Nothing was ready. She stood there, frozen, unable to think what to say, as the footsteps came to a stop. Then, before she could turn to face him, Sam grabbed her from behind. He pressed himself, hard, into her, his arms locked tightly around her waist. She tried to pull away but he tightened his grip, releasing one hand to hitch up her skirt and tug at the elastic waistband of her panties.
“Don’t,” she croaked, her whole body stiffening in resistance.
“My little chicken,” he breathed, the words hot on her neck.
It might have been different. Maybe, if she’d already had a few drinks, some time to prepare, she might have gotten into it. If that was what he wanted. Flapping her arms, skipping around the kitchen. It could have been playful. You big hairy monkey, she might have giggled, leading into the bedroom. To be tumbled on, overpowered, taken from behind.
She had become as rigid and unyielding as the wooden spoon resting by the side of the range. “Please, not now, sweetheart (when had she ever called him sweetheart?). Can’t we wait till later?”
And then his hands were off her and he had moved away into the living room. She heard the creak of the springs as he sat down heavily in the arm chair.
She wanted to believe that those kinds of desires in a man were normal. Nothing pathological or deviant, nothing to feel guilty about in the fulfilling of them. But even more than that, she wanted to see herself as having left behind the timidity and caution of childhood, to be perceived as a joyful, spontaneous woman. Uninhibited and free, like Catherine Deneuve. But didn’t he realize how it had upset her, that horrible story in the bar? How she had thought about it in her bed before falling asleep, the heartless grinning soldiers in the jungle, relishing the humiliation of those two poor creatures in their charge? How it had invaded her dreams?
But something else was happening to frighten and upset her, something she’d heard them talking about on the radio as she prepared the dinner. It was related and it wasn’t related, but it was about a war, and all wars are related. She’d tried but found she couldn’t push it away. It was one of the things she wanted to talk to him about, in their intimate conversation in the candlelight. To ask him what he thought, so as to hear his reassuring voice telling her that there was no need for concern, that everything would turn out all right. A terrible war was about to break out in the Middle East. This was what the commentator had said. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian general, with all the might of his armies and his paranoia, was poised to wipe little Israel off the face of the earth. She wished she could call out to him but she waited, dicing the carrots.
Some minutes later he walked back into the kitchen. She turned to face him, hoping for a smile of reconciliation but his face was closed. “I have to go out” he said. “A meeting’s been scheduled.”
“But why didn’t you tell me before? I was planning a special meal for us.” He didn’t answer. “Will you be back later?”
“Later,” he said.
That whole evening she remained at home, alone with her regrets and her self-pity, and a half empty bottle of Scotch that she discovered, after much searching, at the back of a kitchen cabinet. She regretted now that she hadn’t confided in Ingrid, who could certainly have helped steer her in the right direction in this bewildering relationship. Gazing ruefully at the silent telephone, she regretted that she had allowed herself so easily and so completely to lose touch with her friends during these past weeks. And with a deep sense of longing she missed Jim Coker, their solemn Sunday walks to church. By midnight she was totally plastered. It was then that she lamented her character, and that flaw in it that she could never quite grasp. That frightful imperfection, that defect, that always managed to trip her up and lead her back to that place of loneliness and isolation.
On a gray humid morning in the first week of June he did show up. Diane had been listening to a current affairs program on the radio as she drank her morning coffee and she almost didn’t hear him as he walked softly into the kitchen.
“How are you?” he asked casually, as if nothing had happened.
“I’m terribly worried,” she said. It seemed to her that at this point the best thing to do was to try and make things normal between them, normal and smooth, and to avoid at all costs opening the door to a heavy emotional discussion of their relationship, with its accusations, justifications and recriminations.
“What is it that’s worrying you this morning?” he asked, his voice showing the same amusement that it had in the past.
“Israel,” she said, looking at her hands. “I’m very frightened. There’s going to be a war there. A massacre.”
He made no response and she hesitated, trying to find the words, the feelings she could share with him. “I think I need to pray for them.” She paused, taking courage from his silence. “Sam. We must all pray for them.” She looked up to meet his eyes but his face had clouded over. She could see he was holding himself in, that he wanted to say something to her but, more than that, he wanted not to say it. He turned, and in that same casual, unhurried way in which he had come in, he walked out.
It was over. The terrible amazing war in the Middle East was over. Israel had triumphed once more over the Arab armies, but this time in a way no one had dreamed possible. There was relief. Even glee. The Jewish members of the faculty, teaching fellows, students, were exultant. Some had hoped to go over as volunteers but before they could get a seat on a plane the war was history. Over in six short days. It was a miracle.
The man she had known, and not known, no longer came into Marty’s. At first no one seemed to notice. One evening, however, for a brief moment, his absence became the topic of discussion.
“You think he’ll stay?” one of the doctoral students wondered.
“No reason why he shouldn’t. What does all that have to do with him?”
“They say they’re very proud, the Arabs. This must be a very humiliating time for him.”
“Arabs? Who said he’s an Arab?”
“He’s Egyptian, isn’t he? Aren’t the Egyptians Arabs? Sort of?” Someone was giggling.
“Sort of?” Bottles were popping open. “Who knows.”
And together, over the noise around them, they raised their glasses in a toast to the triumph of the underdog in this harsh world of cruelty and injustice.