Sharon immediately recognized Omri’s voice on the phone, even after 15 years.
“You must be surprised to hear from me,” he began.
He was right. Sharon stopped chopping the cucumber.
“I bet you’re wondering how I got your number.”
Right again, damn it. She continued to chop, then nudged the diced vegetables into a salad bowl as Omri told her that he had run into her Uncle Ed during a fund-raising tour in Canada. Noticing the last name on Ed’s name tag, he asked if there was a family connection. Uncle Ed gave him Sharon’s phone number and an update on her life: married plus two and living in Israel, traveled the world for a software company until she was diagnosed with cancer, in remission now.
Uncle Ed couldn’t know that Sharon had no interest in speaking to Omri. Even if she were feeling better. As it was, she was raw after the surgery, the chemo and the radiation. Although she was regaining physical strength, picking up the reins of life interruptus, she was struggling to steer life with more deliberate consideration to what mattered. Omri did not.
“I understand you’ve had a bit of a hard time,” he said.
“Yes.” She squeezed the juice from a lemon onto the salad. She had no desire to talk about her cancer with a man whose parting gift the last time they spoke had been a curse. Although she didn’t ask him any questions, he chatted on about a national arts program for special needs children he was directing. Exciting stuff. Too complicated to explain over the phone, but no doubt about it, the world was going to recognize the brilliance of his new technique with teachers.
“Come visit me some time,” he said.
“Sure. Maybe. I’ve got to go.” She hung up, stuck the salad in the fridge. Why hadn’t she told him to go to hell?
Sharon first met Omri and his wife Einat when he was a shaliach, a Jewish youth educator, sent from Israel to Cleveland’s Jewish Community Center in those years, just after the Six Day War, when Israelis were besotted with victory. His smile telegraphed delight at the world and his brown eyes, magnified behind too big, plastic-rimmed glasses, radiated curiosity. Omri was in his mid-twenties, light on his feet and a good folk dancer at a time when boys Sharon’s age had limbs they seemed clueless to control. It wasn’t just that Sharon, 17 at the time, had a crush on him, which she did. He opened the window of her life, and urged her to fly out.
At the JCC, Omri ran the afterschool program and taught beginner’s Hebrew; Sharon became his star pupil. He drew her into what he dubbed “meaning-of-life-and-all-that-jazz talks.” What would you do if you had $1000? If you had to leave Cleveland for the rest of your life and never see it again, or if you had to stay in Cleveland for the rest of your life and never leave it, which would you choose? If you could spend a day with any famous person in the world, who would it be? When he liked her answer, he’d cuff her on the head.
Sharon poured out her heart to him, over teachers, parents, and particularly her older sister Becky, who was more beautiful, more popular and seemed determined to convince Sharon that she would never be anything but odd and klutzy.
“Your sister says green doesn’t suit you because of your blue eyes? Nonsense. Green suits you fine. So does yellow, orange, purple — any color, because you have eyes that are alive – and that means they go with every color. Remember that.” He cuffed her on the head.
Omri didn’t seem to think Sharon’s gothic teenage thoughts were weird. He didn’t laugh when she said the world would surely blow itself up in a nuclear cloud the day AFTER she took her last final exam. He listened when she divulged that she had some suggestions for God on how to improve the human body: by giving us a milder version of a skunk smell when someone like Becky annoyed us, and adding an ability to purr so we would know when someone was happy and we wouldn’t have to ask. He seemed to think all this was normal. He considered her trustworthy enough to give her a job as theater counselor at the JCC day camp. Most of the time, Sharon wished she had a skunk’s smell, but in Omri’s company, she wished she could purr.
He soared to the rank of super-hero when he convinced her parents to let her spend a gap year in Israel. “It will do her good. She’ll love it there,” he pressed her parents.
Omri was right, 100 percent. She came back from Israel only because she had promised her parents she’d go to college in the United States, then worked to make money and screw up the courage to make aliya. When she finally moved back to Israel ten years after her gap year and settled in Tel Aviv, Omri was living in Jerusalem. She earned a modest living as a programmer in a high-tech company, sharing an apartment with two roommates. She’d gone on some weekend hiking trips with the Nature Protection Society. Everyone had been pleasant; no one had become a friend. With men, there had been too many I-thought-you-thought-I-thought misunderstandings that masticated the relationships to oblivion. She had shed some of the moroseness of her teen years, but she did not have a sense that the report card of her life was one she could proudly present to Omri. His cameo role in her past was so treasured she was reluctant to disturb it, so she didn’t look him up.
When Sharon took a day off to visit Jerusalem, they passed each other on Jaffa Street, simultaneously whirled back in a flash of recognition, gushing into what-a-surprise, imagine-this, how-great-to-see-you’s.
He still had a contagious smile and warm eyes, and the same black-framed glasses someone should have told him were way beyond unfashionable. His hair, always unkempt, had thinned and needed a trim; his belt had given up on keeping up his pants, and burrowed under a belly it could not contain.
He invited her to his office, just a few yards away. “You’ve just got to see what I’m doing these days, see the kids, meet my staff. Come on, it won’t take long.”
He introduced her to his three secretaries as his most promising protégé. “The only person I met in Cleveland good enough for Israel,” he laughed. He grabbed a brochure off the reception counter. “Here,” he said, “read about us.” She glanced at the leaflet which explained that Ayeka was dedicated to the artistic development of the hearing-impaired.
His office had nothing in it but two wooden chairs and a desk piled with stacks of papers. She recognized a faded photograph of the Cleveland JCC summer staff, including herself, standing on the far left; her long hair covered most of her face. Her attempt to obscure her figure with an oversize t-shirt was a total failure; it only made her stand out. She had thought herself fat and ugly back then. Now, she realized, she had been passably pretty. Newer photos showed children dancing, playing music, or mustachioed and high-heeled in theater productions. Closest to his desk, where his eyes would fall on it first, was a photograph of three girls with his doe eyes and Einat’s thin nose.
“Yours?” Sharon asked, pointing to the picture.
“Yes,” he smiled.
She noticed a part had been cut off. “And Einat?”
“No Einat. We’re divorced. The kids are great though; they’re eight, seven and five. We have joint custody. How about you? A boyfriend? Thoughts of babies?” he asked with the probing interest she remembered so well.
Nothing serious, she answered. As for children, she didn’t know how people had enough faith in the future to have them. “Just the thought of raising them, tires me,” she started to explain.
He tried to listen but a kid from his program, speaking in the atonal voice of the born-deaf, came in to say the clay the class needed for a project had dried out. A flash of envy seized her when Omri cuffed the child on the head and said he’d be there in a minute.
“Look, I’ve got to get back to work,” he said turning back to her. “You and I have a lot to catch up on. Come have supper with me and the girls. You’ll love them.”
They set a time for dinner on Friday night in a week.
“Remember, every color looks good on you, you’ve got eyes that are alive,” she murmured as she trolled through her closet, preparing for dinner at Omri’s. Her roommates had already gone off to their various relatives’ for dinner. She was glad that tonight she, too, had somewhere to be. Friday nights were tough sometimes. There was nowhere she was regularly expected. Not that she minded a quiet evening, but the apartment was dingy. The speckled tile floor emanated cold in winter; the living room was furnished with sofas and chairs from the 1950s, which their landlord refused to remove and forbade them from discarding.
In front of the mirror in the dimly lit hall, she tried on half a dozen outfits, before settling on a demure black scoop neck top and khaki pants, a gold chain choker and matching earrings. She applied mascara and eye shadow, decided she looked like a raccoon and wiped it off.
When she got to Omri’s apartment in the outlying Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem, there were no kids. He forgot it was their turn to be at their mom’s for the weekend. He gave her the grand tour of his apartment, furnished in modern Danish, all beige, rust and mustard tones. Shag rugs in muted tones, immune to the rain pelting the windows, added to the sense of casual comfort. A lava lamp she remembered from his office in Cleveland undulated in chartreuse waves on the coffee table. To her amusement, the lamp totally threw off the color scheme of the living room. He saw her gazing at it. “I know. I should be past lava lamps. But it reminds me of a good period of my life. Do you miss home?”
“Not really. Sometimes it’s weird, living in a place where I have so little personal history. But Cleveland’s hard to miss. I have no regrets,” she said.
He showed her a new dictionary he had bought, leafing through it and stopping at words whose derivation he had just learned. He pointed to the word for “guest”, which had the same root as the word “caravan,” or’cha because, for the ancient Hebrews, guests came in caravans that traveled through the desert.
Sharon smiled. There were words she used every day that she still associated with his lessons back at the JCC. Like the word “kesher.” Connection, relationship, a knot. The root for calling someone up on the phone the same as to tie them up with a rope.
She kept him company in the kitchen while he cooked dinner, stir-fried Chinese, her favorite. He’d remembered.
“Is your sister still as catty as she used to be?” he asked as he mixed in the mushrooms and the bean sprouts. “Always wanted to marry a doctor. Did she catch one?”
Sharon laughed. No need to pretend affection for Becky around Omri. “Just about. She’s engaged to Benjy Roth. Remember him? He’s in med school, of course. The wedding’s in Spring,” she said as she set the cutlery by the dinner plates. “My parents would love me to follow suit.”
“No home town boy for you. Certainly not a doctor. Something more interesting, surely.” He slid the stirred fried vegetables from the wok into a serving bowl with a flourish.
Over dinner and after, they talked about books, movies, her parents, his work. During a lull in the conversation, she looked up from her food and found him staring at her so intensely, she stopped eating mid-bite. This broke his stare and jerked him from his reverie. “You’re still so sweet,” he said, and laughed.
Later, he brought mint tea and some chocolate-filled rugelach to the living room and she moved aside a copy of A.B. Yehoshua’s recent best seller, A Late Divorce, on the coffee table to make room for the tray.
“I loved this book,” she said.
“I’m not surprised,” Omri responded. “You’re a sucker for complex situations, you like good writing, and you’re always looking for greater meaning in the most everyday things.” They hadn’t been in touch for a decade. How could he presume to know all this about her?
“What’s the matter?” he asked, noticing her frown as he plunked down beside her on the sofa.
It was annoying to be so neatly summed up, so ostensibly predictable to him. “Nothing,” she said. “I’m fine.”
He put his arm around her. “You’ve forgotten how well I know you. Always have, always will. Better even than you know yourself,” he said. “I’m awfully fond of you. It just wasn’t right to show you how much when you were younger.”
Sharon was surprised, but why should she be? After all, she had changed clothes six times before deciding what to wear for the evening. He began to kiss her; she hesitated. He pressed on. “You know you want this. You’ve always wanted me. You just never wanted to admit it.”
Yes, she had fantasized about him then. Now, the soft brown eyes that had so attracted her just looked hungry. His mouth pushed down on her. His hands reached for her bra hooks.
“Wait, this is fast for me.”
“I’ve waited too long already,” he said. “It’s time.”
Her stomach lurched, but it wasn’t the surge she was used to with men, the kind she might even have imagined feeling for Omri when she chose her clothes for dinner. It was a grinding, unexpected changing of gears, like a science fiction movie when a character turns into a monster-alien when least expected. As a teen, she had dreamed of what it would be like to kiss Omri. But his non-stop tongue, pushing its way into her mouth, her ears and her neck, was insistent, slobbering. She wanted to leave.
She managed a glance at her watch. Midnight. How would she extract herself from under Omri’s weight, which was pressing her into the sofa? If she left in a huff now, she would have to stand on the cold, deserted street, try to catch a taxi to the center of town. She hadn’t dressed for a Jerusalem winter, or for rain. There would be the long, wait for a sherut group taxi back to Tel Aviv, the creepiness of the Tel Aviv bus station at this time of night, then finding another taxi to her dingy apartment. This was Omri. He knew her better than anyone ever had, remembered so much about her, sensed that she had dreamed of his kissing her. In a way, it was flattering to know he had harbored the same feelings. She felt like a spoilsport at a party who claims the fireworks aren’t going to work and tries to leave before they go off so as not to be proven wrong. Maybe he was right; time for this fantasy to play itself out.
He moaned, repositioning himself, his hands grabbing her crotch, kneading as if it were dough that could be coaxed to rise. She tried to surrender to the Omri she had adored, to merge the image with the overweight man lowering her onto the living room rug. But she couldn’t. She focused away from what her body wasn’t feeling and reran an endless loop of the false pretense under which he had invited her: to meet his daughters for a family dinner. As he grunted into her, Sharon wondered if he had planned this already in his office. When he was done, he flopped onto his back, closed his eyes. Sharon rolled on her side, away from him. She looked at the dust balls under the sofa, her mind empty. They were silent for a few minutes.
“I’d give you a six,” he said.
“What?” Sharon turned towards him. His eyes were still closed. He hadn’t moved.
“That was about a six – on the sex.”
No one had ever graded her, at least not to her face. “Out of 10?”
“No, six out of 100,” he said, glancing at her for a moment, before closing his eyes again.
His crudeness surprised her. But she wasn’t offended. It was a fair grade for what had transpired. She knew herself as an enthusiastic lover, easily satisfied. She didn’t consider sex complicated: Her body knew what it wanted. And what it didn’t.
“I’m going to sleep in your daughters’ room.”
“Sure,” he said drowsily. As she moved to get up, he gave her a post-coital cuff on the shoulder. “Tomorrow we’ll have a nice day together. We can go for a ride, head for the hills.”
“You take people who only rate a six on day trips?”
He opened one eye. “Hey, kid. Take it easy. We’ll be fine. Sex isn’t everything.” He smiled, closed his eyes.
Lying in the narrow bed of one of the daughters, Sharon tried on the idea of Omri as a lover, but it didn’t fit. The more she reran the evening’s dinner and conversation, the more it seemed a calculated prelude to the predictable climax. Her eyes roamed the room. There were photos of Omri with his girls at a zoo, rowing on a lake, in front of the Eiffel Tower.
Unable to sleep, she rose, wrapped the bed sheet around herself and walked through the apartment. In Omri’s study, she noticed a yellowed article from The Forward in a frame, about the opening of Ayeka, two years earlier. Hugging her breasts against the night chill, she read about the work he had done to integrate special needs kids into Jewish day schools in America, which inspired him to create an art programs for deaf and other special needs kids in Israel. She stared at the accompanying photograph of Omri, cutting the ribbon for the center. She continued her tour, rummaged for a towel in the linen closet and took a shower. The warm water felt great, but she couldn’t get rid of the feel of Omri’s touch. She returned to the girls’ room and curled up under the covers.
When she awoke, the desire to re-establish the Omri she once knew matched her revulsion at the Omri of the previous night. None of it added up. Maybe last night had just been a big misunderstanding that she was judging too harshly. As for the rating of a six, she clearly hadn’t lived up to his fantasies of her any more than he had lived up to hers. By staying, maybe she could salvage what had once been.
As she walked into the kitchen, Omri looked up and smiled up from the eggs he was frying. Coffee percolated.
“Sleep well?” he asked.
“I slept great.” He slipped two sunny side eggs on her plate. “I thought we could drive out to the Soreq Caves.”
“Sure, why not?” She hadn’t been to the stalactite caves in years.
Omri kept up a constant chatter through breakfast and as they drove through the Jerusalem hills. As if the previous night never happened. The Soreq Caves were closed for maintenance, so they hiked in the surrounding park instead. She was too numb to murmur more than an occasional “mmm” to Omri’s riffing as they followed the trail. His incessant cheerfulness, once so comforting, was nerve wracking.
They stopped in Abu Gosh for lunch at a restaurant with an enclosed terrace overlooking the Arab village.
“What happened with you and Einat?” she asked, wiping her pita into the humus appetizer while they waited for their main course.
“Irreconcilable differences, you know, the usual,” he said.
Sharon didn’t know, but she didn’t question him further. There was no such thing as a no-fault break-up and she’d never met a man who’d ever blamed himself for the end of a marriage. So she nodded, wondering who had left whom. Omri would surely say he had left Einat. Maybe he had. Sharon remembered Einat, with a long braid down her back, and a face perpetually perplexed, trying to understand those peculiar creatures – Americans – among whom she, an eighth generation Jerusalemite, had been thrust when she moved with Omri to Cleveland. Sharon wondered now whether her assessment of Einat back then as tediously earnest might have been unfair. There was so much to reconsider.
Omri took a swig of his beer. “The kids are great, though,” he added. “They’ve been fine with the divorce. I took them to Paris last year.” He took her hand. “And now it’s time for me to think about me,” he smiled.
“I’m sure it is.” She withdrew her hand.
He took it back, this time holding it between both his hands so she could not easily withdraw it. “Look at those flowers curling through the trellis. Gorgeous,” he said. The light filtered through the leaves of the purple and white clematis vines like a stage set.
“And there’s a salamander watching us,” he noted, holding her hand fast and nodding in the direction of the trellis post.
“It’s a gecko.”
“How do you know?”
“They interest me,” she shrugged. “When a predator catches them by the tail, they shed their tail and escape. The discarded tail actually twitches, so the predator thinks he has them, but he doesn’t.”
“Yeah. Cool, uh?”
“You were always interested in animals,” said Omri. “Remember when you told me you wished people could purr like cats?”
“Yeah, well, I identify more with the gecko.” She looked down at her hand in Omri’s and withdrew it. They were grateful when the main course arrived.
Omri dug into his kebabs with enthusiasm. Sharon picked at her food. He offered to eat her kebabs. They skipped coffee and dessert, headed back to the car and continued their drive through back roads of hair-pin curves and dusty pines, careening via the John Kennedy Memorial Forest back to Jerusalem.
“I know you think this is strange, but you will get used to it,” he said, for the first time acknowledging that the previous night had tilted their relation out of kilter. He shoved the gear into second up a hill. “You will see that we really are right for each other.”
“Why do you keep thinking you know what is going on in my head?”
“Because I read you like a book. I always have and I always will. I know this is freaking you out. But I know you love me. You just have to open yourself to it. And you’ll see, when you do, we’ll be a great couple – the sex too.”
“Really. It was meant to be. You’ll see.”
She was relieved when Omri dropped her off at the Central Bus Station at the end of Shabbat. He leaned forward for a kiss but Sharon leapt from his car to catch her bus.
He called a few days later to suggest they meet.
“There’s no point. I just don’t want to see you again,” she told Omri.
“It’s a pity. We could be wonderful together, happy. But you won’t let yourself be happy.” And then came his parting shot: “You are a person who will never be happy. It’s just the way you are.”
The words felt like a punch in the stomach. If he hadn’t once known her so well, she would have shrugged off his declaration, this curse. But she couldn’t dismiss what he’d said. Maybe he could no longer read her heart, but he did know her. She constantly felt she was teetering on the edge of a dark abyss that was waiting to swallow her up. Omri’s judgment felt like a life-long sentence.
For years, she felt its weight. On weekends, when she buried herself in books to forget she was lonely, Omri whispered “I told you so” in her ear. When she cried all night after Becky’s wedding, he hovered over her and told her she couldn’t be happy for anyone until she could be happy for herself. When she woke up in the middle of the night and the ogre of all her expectations of herself pressed on her until she could barely breathe, he murmured to her that she would never stop berating herself, would she? When she felt she couldn’t face another load of laundry or another phone call to the refrigerator repair man and was overcome with a lethargy she couldn’t explain, Omri whispered “Doesn’t take much to defeat you” in her ear. When she could barely rouse herself to go out with friends, and was bored when she did, she had to admit to herself that he was right. His curse gnawed even in the months after she met David on a camel trip in the Sinai.
An oboe player, David taught her to believe in a life filled with children, clutching their picture books when they crowded into the parental bed on Saturday mornings for a family read in, followed, courtesy of David, by the best homemade pancakes in the world. David hated fireworks, but was the sort of guy who stayed after the party and helped until the last plastic chair was back in place. She appreciated this about him, but discovered its depth during the cancer, a territory they groped through together, two cave explorers lost in the dark, the children trailing behind them.
For years, Omri’s parting curse agitated, like a speck of dust in the eye that you think your tears have squeezed out, only to discover it still there, annoying you from a different point.
And then, there he was again. The chutzpa, calling her, after so many years, his notions of her still intact, his cavalier assumption of intimate knowledge and his selective amnesia. He was not easily put off. He called a second time, pressing her to come and visit him.
“I’m not really up to it,” she finally admitted.
“Well, okay. I was sorry to hear about your illness. And sorry for what happened between us that time in Jerusalem. It was a strange period in my life, after the divorce and all.”
“Yeah, well, it’s hard for me to forget about it,” Sharon answered. She knew he didn’t get it. He thought it was all about the shabby sex 15 years ago. No recall, she was sure, of damning her to inevitable unhappiness, no sense of the power of his curse. Her revenge was not to let him know, not to let him in. “If I want to, I’ll be in touch.”
“Don’t wait too long,” he replied and hung up.
Three months later, she saw his smiling face in the newspaper, an old photograph from his younger days with those too big glasses, accompanying a long obituary of his many accomplishments. He was dead of cancer at 52.
He must have known he had cancer that last time he called. He could have let her know then that they were members in the same lethal club when he asked to see her, when he apologized over the phone for what he would rather have done in person. But he hadn’t let on. Rereading the obituary she wondered what she would she have done if he had. Would she have told him how much his curse had haunted her? Would they have found a way to be kind to each other?
It has been years since Omri died. His curse no longer has a hold on her. She has escaped unhappiness like a gecko. When she sits with David and the boys around the table on Friday night, when her sister calls for a chat, when she rides her bike, contentment sneaks up on her like a shy cat. At first it was a stray. Now it has taken up permanent residence, wandering away only rarely.
Sometimes, when she drives through the Jerusalem hills on her way home from work, she takes a detour to catch the sunset on a bluff near the Soreq Caves. She cuts the engine, lets the breeze flow over her. She thinks about the stalactite formations, the newer dripstone covering the under layers, the present smothering the past. Serenity has dripped into her life, a force of nature she cannot explain, piling up on itself so slowly it has taken her time to notice.
The memory of Omri floats into her mind, like the white plume left by the plane crossing the crimson sky. She is sure that even he would agree. When it came to knowing her, he never deserved more than six out of 100.