by Moshe Dann (December 2013)
Sitting at the check-out counter, Doreen saw him the moment he walked into the pharmacy. She watched him hand in his prescription, his ponytail dangling, his tight-fitting jeans and wondered if he was gay, or had a girlfriend, or too many of them.
Sunlight gushed through the store’s windows, splashing across shelves, over gleaming counter tops that she'd polished. Hot dry winds of a hamsin swirled clouds of diesel smoke and dust as packed buses disgorged passengers in downtown Jerusalem along King George Street. The light rail train hummed on Jaffa Road; Mizrachi-music blared from the taxi stand on the corner. The air filled with pungent smells of falafel and shawarma, she felt hungry.
Wearing a loose-fitting, low cut emerald-colored dress, she'd set a yellow ribbon in her hair, a sign, she hoped, that this day would be different. In her mid-forties, divorced for a few years, Doreen felt like a dam ready to burst. A bulge on her hips reminded her about dieting, but she knew it wouldn't work. Her body resisted losing weight and exercises. Her Ex had nagged; she winced.
“Ponytail” got his medication and on the way out picked out a bottle of expensive aftershave lotion. Waiting for him at the register, she imagined his smooth skin against her cheeks and handed him his receipt. With this slip of paper, I thee… she sighed.
“Thanks and have a nice day,” she smiled. “It’s so hot,” she licked her upper lip, wishing he would say something, a chance to hold on. For a moment their eyes met.
“Yeah,” he answered.
“Nice cologne,” she tried to entice him. “My favorite. Would you like me to gift wrap it?”
He mumbled and shrugged as she put the bottle in a special silver colored bag.
“Anything else I can help you with?” she hoped he would show some interest; instead, he walked quickly out without looking back. Rushing to the prescription counter, she waited for Nissim, the pharmacist, to turn away. Sweet Nissim, she thought, Yemenite, a small kippah on his bald head, bent over boxes of medicines, unaware of her covert mission. Finding “Ponytail's” slip, she copied his name and phone number and stuffed it into her pocket.
“Can I help you?” Nissim turned suddenly. Flustered, Doreen took a step backward and squinted, afraid she'd been discovered.
“A headache. Maybe I'll take something…if you have…” she put her fingertips to her head, trying to sound confused. He pushed his glasses back and smiled. When she first came to work he'd asked her to go out, but she'd made excuses. Nissim, sweet Nissim, she thought. No excitement.
“Here, try this,” he said picking out a tiny box of pills. “It's probably tension.” She wished he wasn't so kind to her. “Under the tongue,” he said. “How are things at home? The kids?”
“Adi and Rina? Typical 10 and 12 year olds. Not enough friends. Lousy teachers. One eats everything in sight; the other hardly touches what I make. Then they switch, just so I don't get it right. At least I don't have to kiss my Ex's ass.”
Nissim nodded. His plump hands, the hair on his neck
“Abba's not doing so well. Ever since Ema died a couple of years ago, he's had a hard time. And then my brother was almost killed in the terrorist attack in Rishon Letzion last year; I visit him when I can. My sister's living near Haifa. Thank God she's okay. A Katusha hit the street in front of their house during the war in Lebanon; they were shaken up; no real damage, except inside. Life!” he shrugged.
“Well, thanks for these,” she said dropping the pills into her pocket.
“A lo davar, princess,” he said softly. “For nothing.”
“Princess?” Doreen smiled and blushed.
“Well, you are a princess,” he said, “sort of,” and winked.
Yes, she thought, spraying herself from a perfume tester, “princess” could work.
On her lunch break she bought two cheese bourekas and called “Ponytail.”
“Hi,” she took a deep breath and sipped from her water bottle, “it's me, Doreen, from the pharmacy.” She listened for background noises, wondering what he was doing and if he was alone. “Catching you at a bad time?” she asked. “I just wanted to let you know that I may have overcharged you. There was a 20% discount on the cologne I should have noticed.” A good excuse, she decided and worth it for her to pay the difference.
“Oh,” he seemed uninterested, or distracted. “But I can't talk now. Call me later.”
She could barely make it through the rest of the day. That evening, after getting her kids in bed, she redialed “Ponytail.”
“Hi,” she tried to sound casual, “you probably don't remember me. Doreen, from the pharmacy.”
“Oh yeah, the discount.”
“If you'll be in the store…or,” she held the moment, “if your around, or…” she hesitated, “ if you’d like to meet at the coffee shop next door …” Possibilities.
“Meet?” he seemed confused.
“Well, I thought we might … I mean …” she struggled. “I thought, if you're free, maybe we can meet…” Words hung in silence. Pain in her legs, she leaned against the sink filled with dishes.
“What's your situation?” he asked.
“Oh, divorced, two kids, 10 and 12, at home. I like to dance, be outdoors, stay in shape, hiking, stay young, ya know,” she tried to sound upbeat and open. “And you?”
“Well, I don't know. I've been seeing someone … eh, off and on …” Doreen listened for ambivalence, a hint of interest.
“Whatever,” she threw out, as if it didn't matter.
“But if you'd like to meet…” he added, catching her mid-breath.
Doreen calculated her chances with another woman involved. “Up to you,” she said, sensing the risk and her vulnerability.
“By the way, how did you get my name and number?” he asked.
A logical question. She had prepared, feeling guilty, but determined, someone to be reckoned with. “From your prescription,” she answered flatly, wishing she'd taken a drink before. Her mouth was dry. She tapped her polished nails on the table.
“Well,” he cleared his throat, “um…I suppose…”
“So here's my number; give me a call when you'd like. We can meet…whenever…” She took a deep breath.
“Do you ever go to Savta's?” he asked.
“Sure,” she'd heard about the disco across town.
“Maybe tomorrow, about ten?” She calculated: time to get home, get the kids in bed, a shower, and drive back across town.
“Sounds okay.” she agreed. Settled and more easily than anticipated. She felt a sudden thrill. “Seeya then.”
The phone clicked, but she didn't want their connection to end; she didn't want to wait. If he'd offered, she would have rushed over to him. I did it! She clenched her fist. Yes! she said pushing it over her head. Her hands trembled as she poured juice into a glass of vodka and ice, shuddering as the first sip slammed down to her toes. Tomorrow, tomorrow, I'll love you… she hummed the tune.
The house was quiet. The kids were upstairs in bed. She turned on the radio, soft rock music surrounding her as she danced alone in the darkened room, between scattered books and toys, piles of newspapers and magazines, swaying back and forth like a pendulum.
Her neighbor, Sandy, had cheered her on when Doreen told her about the impending divorce. “You'll find someone better, someone who'll love you the way you want.” But Doreen knew it wouldn't be easy. Being alone. The kids 24/7. And there was, of course, the settlement. She'd made lists. “Everything,” she'd said to herself. “I want it all. He'll pay for this.” And he did. She got the apartment, a new car, and a fat monthly check.
“It was a good balance,” she thought, “his guilt and my revenge.”
Feeling suddenly ravenous, she opened the refrigerator, finishing off left-over chicken and rice, devouring a piece of cake, and the remnants of a chocolate bar left by one of the kids. Everything, she craved; I want everything.
Some people eat to live, she drank from a half-filled bottle of wine. I live to eat!
The sharp light over the kitchen table scrawled shadows beneath her hands, her reflection in the mirrored cabinet, fancy goblets waited for champagne, celebrations… and PonyTail.
She remembered a young man who'd come to fix her washing machine, muscles filling his blue work shirt. Brushing against him, she hoped he would show an interest; he grabbed a wrench and when he left, she mopped up the puddles.
Finishing off the wine, she felt drained, life flowing out of her like water through a sieve, one day piled on the next, cleaning, cooking, shopping, getting the kids off to school and herself to work. She remembered the morning her Ex had moved out. Hardly able to wait, she felt like a prisoner about to be released from jail. Nothing to say, no “goodbyes,” just a closed door and a tantrum of silence
The phone rang. Nissim wanted to know if she would go to a movie with him. She told him that she was tired. Thick, she thought; not for me.
Grabbing her car keys, she checked to make sure the kids were asleep and dashed out of the house. Ponytail might be at Savta’s. I'll surprise him. She imagined dancing with him and then inviting him to come back home with her; he would carry her in his arms, like a princess.
A line of young people at the entrance pushed into the hall. ‘Well, I’m not that much older,’ she told herself, feeling their bodies against hers. The dance floor was crowded; the heavy disco beat pounded through her. Sweat dripped down her back, her arms and legs whirling in a centrifuge of herself. “Yeah,” she screamed to the song. “Dance it out, honey! You can do it. Just do it.” Swirling with the music, bodies caught in flashes of light, her skin wet and burning, she looked around for Ponytail.
“Come on down,” she shouted with the song, caught in its rhythm.”Give it to me baby, hold me tight. Give it to meee!”
Shaking her head wildly, her yellow ribbon fell. Her dress began to tear when she picked up the ribbon.
“Oh, let me beee, let me be freee…” Feeling a hand on her back, she spun around, but was pushed into a corner by two young men. They pressed against her, groping her body. She tried to push them away and looked around for help, but no one seemed to notice. She screamed as they tried to rip her dress.
Suddenly someone smacked the boys from behind, knocking them down. They tried to fight back, but floored again and bleeding, they disappeared into the crowd.
“Nissim,” Doreen shouted. “What are you doing here?”
“You seemed to be in trouble. No problem.” He pulled her towards the door.
“And where did you learn to fight like that?”
“The army. Five years in the paratroopers and then an undercover unit. Let's get out of here,” he said, taking Doreen's hand and rushing out. Nissim followed her to her car. “Sit with me,” she opened the door. “I'm still shaky from what happened. And tell me,” she asked as they sat next to each other, “how did you know I was here?”
“I didn't. I just felt like … well, doing something crazy.” He stopped. “No, that's not true. When I called you this evening I was at a friend's; he lives nearby. As I was driving home, I saw you get into your car and I decided to follow you. I don't know why. And, hey, you drive fast!” They laughed. “I've never been here before.”
“Me neither. It was impulsive, something crazy.” She smiled and touched his arm. “I'm glad you were here.”
“A lo davar,” he said quietly.
“The army. Is that why you didn't get married?”
“I got engaged when I finished the army. But before the marriage they discovered I had cancer. I went through treatments, but it left me without the ability to have children. When the woman I was supposed to marry found out, she called it off.”
“And the treatments? The cancer?”
“I decided to go to school in the meantime, and I became a health nut. I worked out and was strong as a bull. I could flip a car by myself. A friend of mine was in a special unit. They needed someone who knew Arabic. We spoke it at home, along with Hebrew. It's my second language. At first they didn't want to take me because of the cancer, but when they saw what I could do, they were quite satisfied. Until my little 'accident,' a bullet in the back during one of our operations. And you? War stories?”
His eyes, she noticed; no hunger. “I tried hard to be a good wife and mother. It just wasn't enough, didn't work and never would. I was angry with myself for not being honest when he told me that he'd filed for divorce. But I wasn't surprised; we were miserable together. He just didn't care, about me, or the kids; only himself. I feel like I never had a chance.”
“Chances,” he said, gently putting his hand on hers. “You take what you can get; the rest you make.” The softness in his voice. A yellow ribbon in her hand.
Thick, she thought. Thick is good too.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
To comment on this story, please click here.
To help New English Review continue to publish original and interesting stories such as this one, please click here.
If you enjoyed this essay and want to read more by Moshe Dann, please click here.