Issue Twenty - Summer 2012

A Tenuous State

By Gretchen Wing

Sunlight dripped through the liquidambar trees caged in large planters around the cafe patio, etching star-shaped leaf-shadows on the white tabletops. The small expanse of red brick formed an island of old-world security lapped by suburban concrete, the trees softening the borders between privilege and ugliness. It was a beautiful day.

“So what I’m saying, now you know how it is with this people,” Tamar waved her bagel across the table at Jeff. She pronounced it “pipple,” but Jeff and Leslie didn’t laugh any more. This pipple–their own pipple, and Tamar’s–had been blending and swirling about them like a murky incoming tide for the past three days of Tamar’s visit. “Now you understand why we feel.”

Jeff sighed. He was so tired of arguing, and yet to say so to his cousin would yield no more than a blank look and a return to the question of the moment. In her mind, he knew, Tamar was not arguing; she was simply breathing in, breathing out the topical air that all Israelis breathe. He understood, but he found it no less exhausting to hurl himself against battlements that she did not acknowledge.

“I never said I didn’t understand. Granted, Israel’s a tenuous state, you have been since the beginning.” His cousin had been born into Israel the same year Israel was born; she was proud of this. “But we’re not you. Here in America, if we’re surrounded by enemies, it’s because we’ve created them, not because we happened to move into the neighborhood. We have the luxury of dealing with them the American way: buying them off.”

“But that only–”

“Is that supposed to include Coke and Pepsi and American porn?” his wife interrupted. Leslie’s voice would have pleased the heck out of old King Lear, Jeff always thought, low and sweet but with a wonderful twenty-first century don’t-mess-with-me ironic twist. Leslie stroked her lemonade, the sun igniting the diamond on her left hand. “Or do you just mean good old Government Channels? Because if you’re talking about our diplomatic efforts, I have to agree with Tamar: I don’t think they’re working.”

Jeff felt the castle drawbridge descend, offering a wide avenue of escape into marital safety from his cousin’s buffeting. Leslie and he agreed on politics; that had been one of their solid rocks from the beginning, along with a love of leisurely Saturday brunches after temple.

“But that’s just it,” he said, clutching the diamond hand on the table. “Our diplomacy failed when we went to war; that’s what war is. These horrible prison photographs just prove how far away our soldiers have moved from the idea of liberating the Iraqis. But that’s why we’re different from Israel,” Jeff insisted, as Tamar’s mouth twisted in rebuttal. “We don’t accept this. We’re better than this. We will never allow ourselves to get used to this kind of brutality.”

“At least we sure hope we won’t,” Leslie murmured. But Tamar was off.

“Don’t you read the paper these morning?” Down went the bagel with a small lipstick smear in its cream cheese. “More and more Americans say torture is the only way to get the information, the only way to protect this soldiers who try to protect you. They are right! Do you think we Israelis are more horrible than you? No! It is because we are fighting for so long, you for such a little.”

It was heartbreaking, no, it was ludicrous to talk of torture on a morning like this. The air was perfect–proto-air, as if designed for the maximum benefit of all the body’s delicate organs: not a single Seattleite was desiccating, freezing, burning, or saturating this morning. Every body that strolled or biked or skated by the bagel cafe was a relaxed body, well-fed, free of care, and looking forward to more of the same. Two tables over, a toddler sat up in a luxurious, sunroofed pram, squeezing pieces of bagel fed to it by its mom. We are all just like that, Jeff thought, pampered and comfortable and holding on to our bits whether we plan to eat them or not. We are not like the Israelis, red in tooth and claw. It’s not a moral thing, it’s just an accident of resources. No matter the heights of our excesses–slavery, internment–we always have the net of our Constitution and our plenty to fall into and spring back from. Even Lieutenant Calley was eventually prosecuted for the My Lai Massacre. But try to explain that to a sabrah.

Jeff chose to chew his pesto bagel hard rather than responding, and Leslie knew to take over. “God, it’s bright out here. Honey, can you dig my sunglasses out of my bag?”

“I look,” Tamar said immediately, diving for the big jute bag before Jeff could finish wiping his hands. “I don’t see it.” Tamar’s voice slid from under the table in the same tone she had used earlier with the girl who had dared to assert that they were out of garlic bagels.

“Want mine?” Jeff pulled off his Walgreen specials. Sunglasses, the comfy car, toothbrush, shoes, every scrap of food on his plate–it was all hers, if she wanted it. Jeff knew his solicitousness annoyed his wife, but he couldn’t help it. The sight of her belly, in its evolution from gentle grade to bulging volcano, reduced him to a state of tenderness that had to be hormonal.

Leslie waved the glasses off. “No, thanks, I want to be able to see.” Hers were prescription. “You know, I must’ve left ’em in the car. Don’t,” she frowned as Jeff leaped to his feet. “I can walk over to the street and back. I’ll be fine.” But at least she was laughing as she maneuvered her body out of the white metal chair.

“I know, you’re a big girl,” Jeff added. “A little too big, if you ask me,” he confided to Tamar as Leslie waddled off. “They say it’s not twins, but God help us if they’re wrong. We’ve already had the shower; we only have one of everything.”

His cousin rubbed off her lipstick, leaving a flake on her upper lip. “One of everything.” She smiled in a way that made Jeff fear she was about to storm the castle. “We should all be so lucky.” But then, thank goodness, she went back to her bagel.

Tamar’s first visit since the death of her husband was going… interestingly; that was the word Jeff was planning to use when he spoke to his mother on the phone. David had been the buffer, the one to laugh at his wife in that crazy cackle until she was laughing too, until she laid down her arms and left the field for another day. David understood how Americans worked, he had gone to college here, the same college where Jeff and Leslie had met, in fact, though a generation earlier. Another bond between them, stronger than the blood ties Jeff shared with Tamar.

But now David was gone, and Tamar showed no inclination to disrupt the pattern of biannual visits she had set with her scattered American cousins. With the forthcoming baby to discuss Jeff had succeeded, to his awe, in keeping the topic off politics for the first day. But then those Abu Ghraib prison photographs had hit the news, so foul they kept him staring even as they made him cringe, and Tamar had leapt with fierce joy into her crusade to prove that Israel had been savagely misunderstood. Jeff missed David very much.

The cousins chewed in silence. Jeff was not going to let Tamar’s needling get to him, and he forced his mind to focus on the sounds of contentment harmonizing around their little red-brick picnic. The traffic over on Wallingford was no more than a purr, not a single honking horn such as he remembered hearing in a constant chorus on his pre-college trip to the holy land. The nearby toddler babbled in descending notes, then laughed and did it again. Birds of some kind–happy, city birds at home in faux gardens–imitated the child, invisibly, from inside the liquidambars.

Somewhere behind the cafe came the clack of skateboards, kids enjoying the first day of real summer, freed from essays and exams and bubble sheets, just as he was since turning his grades in to the registrar on Thursday. It was time for summer, time for reading mysteries, walking slowly in the Arboretum, falling asleep in front of the comedy channel with his hand on Leslie’s promising belly. An oasis, that’s what summer in Seattle was to a young history professor, and an Israeli of all people should be able to understand oases.

From the air behind him Leslie’s hand settled pigeonlike on his shoulder. That was the daily bread of marriage, to absorb your spouse’s unexpected touch and fold it into your body. Only this pigeon’s claws were digging into his shoulder bone. Jeff covered the hand with his own, finding it cold, and then Tamar said, “My God. What happens?”

His bulky wife was sagging, one hand on Jeff, one on the iron table, her head lowering like a precious package she was setting down.

“Honey. My God, are you okay? Is it the baby?” From beneath the tent of her, Jeff reached to cradle any part he could support, and felt the wetness of her face. “Leslie, are you hurting?”

Leslie hung a moment longer, and Jeff saw a thick hank of glossy hair had come free of her French braid. “I’m okay,” she said finally in a crumpled voice. “I just–” Her tears interrupted her. Tamar managed to lever a chair beneath Leslie before she sank to the brickwork. Jeff shared a short, terrified glance with his cousin over his wife’s back as they both rubbed and soothed with frantic calming motions, but broke it off to lay his cheek on Leslie’s damp arm. To connect with Tamar before connecting with his own wife felt like betrayal. They waited for her sobs to subside.

“A guy,” Leslie choked, snorted, breathed, tried again, “a guy took the car. Just now.”

“What?” Jeff and Tamar cried together, both half-rising as if pulled by the same string. Leslie raised a blotchy face, her dear, warm, hazel eyes swimming in a murk of tears.

“I had just opened the door and I was leaning over the seat to find my glasses,” she said, voice still flat, “and somebody shoved me from behind, just–just hard, you know, like a hockey player. He knocked me right down…”

“My God,” Jeff and Tamar said again.

“…and the keys went flying, and I guess he grabbed them, and he just got in and took off. I was just sitting there on the sidewalk like an idiot.” Her voice was coming back to life.

“Oh, honey, we have to get you to a hospital. He knocked you down? How did you land? Did you land on your stomach?” Her arms looked fine; Jeff wanted to flip her summer dress up over her head to check the rest of her.

“No, no, I told you, he hip-checked me, I landed on my butt and I just sat there. I’m fine! I just couldn’t believe it was happening, I couldn’t move. I could’ve grabbed his leg, I could’ve bitten his ankle, I just couldn’t fucking move.”

Leslie’s shock had clearly given way to fury, not at the punk who just stole their only decent car and threatened their unborn child, but with herself for allowing it to happen. No, that was not hers to feel. Jeff felt the morning shrink to a bubble the size of their table. He wanted to burst out of it and take off running down the street. He wanted to take his bruised wife in his arms with his teeth bared in a snarl. Over and over his hands made the trip down her shoulder where the sun-roughened cotton gave way to skin so vulnerable he wanted to throw himself over it like a shawl. How had he let this happen?

Tamar had dived for the jute bag again; now she thrust their cell phone into Jeff’s face.

“Call that 9-number,” Tamar said firmly. “Get police. I will talk to them. Jeff, you must drive her to the hospital.”

“Is everything all right?” The toddler’s mom was standing by the pram as if to offer Tamar a ride.

“We’re fine,” Jeff said automatically. Tamar glared at him. He realized he was meant to seize the phone, so he did.

“Do you folks need some help?” Now it was the bagel-girl from inside the cafe, hovering on the edge of their bubble. “Do you need me to call an ambulance or something?”

“No, it’s okay, I’m going to drive her–”

“I’m telling you, he took the car! No one’s driving me anywhere. Jesus Christ,” said Leslie. She shrugged Jeff’s hands away. The bagel-girl hesitated for a moment at their perimeter, then went back inside.

Jeff half-stood again with the phone in his hand. Inside the bubble all was still. “But it was so quiet,” he said, needing to understand his failure. “We were sitting right here, we never heard a thing. Why didn’t you yell? We were right here.” Jeff had never felt so shaken. What kind of a father was he going to make if his wife was attacked around the corner while he sat listening to birds and babies? What kind of a man was he now to stand here talking while some thief drove snickering away in his almost-new car?

“Mmm, too fast it happens,” Tamar affirmed, pooching her lips sympathetically. Leslie allowed her to stroke the loose hair back behind an ear. Great, even his concern was worthless currency to his wife.

“Well, where the hell are the police then?” Jeff demanded. “Someone must’ve seen it happen. Didn’t someone use their cell phone? People love stuff like this.” Then he remembered the phone in his own hand. 911. His trembling fingers fumbled for the tiny buttons.

“These country,” muttered Tamar.

“No, don’t.” Leslie clutched Jeff’s arm, but the passion was leeching from her voice. “Don’t bother. I’m fine. I don’t care. Goddamnit. I can’t believe I let that happen. I just want to go home.”

Jeff nodded. Of course, she had to lie down. She had to have tea and pillows and probably she needed to call her mom. “Right, right. I’ll call a cab, okay? Not an ambulance. Then I’ll call the police and tell them–”

“Call the police first.” Tamar waved at the phone as if to activate it by remote control. “Then a cab. We take you to the hospital.”

“Home!” It came out as a wail. Leslie never wailed. Jeff expected it in childbirth, but here, in this sunny patio, it shook him harder. Maybe we aren’t strong, he thought. Maybe we just assumed. We thought our uncracked mortar meant storms successfully weathered. Maybe it just means no storms at all.

“Okay. Okay. I’ll–I’ll find a phone book for the cab company. There’s that public phone around the corner–” Jeff dumped the phone onto his plate and popped out of the bubble, sucking in his bagel-filled gut to sprint around the side of the cafe with Tamar behind him calling, “Why you don’t use the phone book in there?”

But three steps from the public phone Jeff stopped short: a cop was standing on the sidewalk next to his double-parked cruiser, its strobe-lights dazzling, looking around with his hands on his hips. Sunglasses hid the cop’s expression, but to Jeff he looked mutedly powerful, an African American Obi-wan Kenobe in Seattle. This was what the world needed. Jeff trotted over.

“Officer, are you looking for us? Did someone call about a car-jacking?”

The head turned slowly, movie-magnificent. “Did you just see one?”

“Yes. No.” Slow down, man, don’t rile the cavalry now they’re here. “It happened to my wife. Five-ten minutes ago. I didn’t see it, we were sitting around the corner at the cafe,” Jeff gestured, “but she’s still over there, he knocked her down. Somebody must’ve called it in, huh? I knew they would. She’s right over here, can you come? She’s really pregnant, he could’ve killed her.”

“He?” the cop said. He wasn’t moving. “Did you get a good look at him?”

Jeff took a deep breath. “No,” he said patiently, politely. “I did not witness the attack, I was over there having brunch with my cousin. My wife came back to the car to get her glasses, and that’s when she was attacked.”

“Show me,” the cop said, striding away in a fluid movement. Jeff scooted after him.

Tamar was still stroking Leslie when they returned; the bagel-girl had brought a glass of ice water and the toddler and mom had disappeared, but otherwise their little table oasis was the same. We were just having brunch, Jeff marveled, when the world changed. That this thought should take his breath away was infuriating. He knew better; he taught history.

“Honey,” Jeff announced. Leslie and Tamar both looked up from the table, and Tamar slapped it.

“Ah, now the police,” she frowned. “These woman needs to go to bed, she does not need to talk to–”

“I know that, but he was right there, and we have to do this anyway, it’ll only take a minute,” Jeff snapped. How dare she challenge him like that. “I told you someone would call the police for us. This is America,” he added.

“Yes, and in my country no one need to call because you have a police or a soldier right there on every corner. In my country you do not lose your car–”

“No, that’s right, you just lose your life because you get on the wrong bus one day when some crazy fanatic decides he’s going to heaven and he’s taking you with him!”

“And these is why we know we must protect us! My God, you cannot talk with this pipple, you cannot think they will just drive away if you sit down and let them take your car!”

The policeman had removed his sunglasses and stood staring at them. Not Obi-wan after all, just a kind, sad-eyed family man waiting to see what he had walked into. Jeff found he could not control his breathing. How could she bring politics up now? This had nothing to do with it, nothing; this was their first married crisis and he only wanted some help for his wife.

“Ah,” said the cop, sending his eyes to each in turn, “may I ask who is the injured party here?”

Leslie raised her hand like a schoolgirl. She looked resigned, but she would not meet Jeff’s eye.

“Ma’am, are you hurt? Do you need an ambulance?” His voice was a perfect chord of comfort and challenge.

“She needs–” Tamar began, but Jeff interrupted.

“Officer, look. Could you just take her statement real quick so I can take my wife home? Or–or would it be better to wait? We could come in later, if you want. We could give you a description of our car so you could do an alert on it, or whatever. Would that be better?”

The cop had transferred his gaze to Jeff and held it steadily as he babbled. How could the man be so still? A crime had been committed. Innocence had lost again. We are not barbarians; we don’t stand for such things.

“Sir, I’m ready to proceed with the injured party as soon as she’s ready to talk to me. Are you ready, ma’am?” The cop’s body leaned toward Leslie with the same gentle sadness as his eyes.

“But he’s getting away!” Jeff burst out. “One way or another, let’s help my wife or let’s catch this asshole, but let’s do something, can’t we?”

The sun was unbearably bright and everything was slowing down, the morning seemed to stretch into an infinity of uselessness. Useless–himself, the cop, all their careful preparations for parenthood–it was useless to try to protect anything at this ponderous, civilized pace. His wife had been hurt. His car was stolen. How could this cop be standing there like Gentle Ben in the face of this outrage? Jeff wanted to grab the man and shake him till his shiny hat fell onto the bricks.

“Jeff, you called the police. Here he is,” Tamar put in. She sounded just like his mother. “It is silly, but these is what happens in these country, and we must talk to him to make it right.”

“Goddamnit, it’s not silly. My wife’s been hurt, okay? It has nothing to do with this country. We know how to deal with stuff, okay? We’re pretty good at it.”

“Ma’am,” said the policeman.

“Stop it.” Leslie’s head came up and her eyes were amber sparks. “Just shut up, you two. I got carjacked, that’s all. It happens all the time, it just happened to be our turn today. Why shouldn’t it be our turn? It’s not a judgment on our system, it’s not some kind of test. We didn’t win, we didn’t fail. It just happened. So let me talk to this nice policeman and then take me home, would you please?”

But the power of his wife’s plea was subsumed by a gasp, her body abruptly clenched around the desperate fist of her stomach. Down went Leslie’s head again as the new pain grabbed and held her.

“Ma’am,” said the policeman again, and knelt beside her while Jeff stood behind them, helpless as a shadow. No textbook pages draped his mind, no logic-rich pot of American history bestirred itself to coat more shellac on his faith in the supremacy of goodness. He threw Tamar a desperate look, and seeing in his cousin’s eyes a novel sympathy, Jeff sagged with the sudden understanding that their lives had been one long summer morning, that the real storms were only beginning to cloud the horizon.

Copyright Wing 2012