Illustration by Denis Shifrin
“Yossi, it’s been years since we really had a chance to talk,” said Bob.
They were partners in the same international law firm, Bob in New York and Yossi in Tel Aviv. Since their meeting at a conference in Orlando, where they struck up a friendship that continued through emails and phone calls, their communication focused on legal issues, not the personal problems and coincidences they shared after drinking a bit too much wine at their initial meeting.
Each had married young, raised two children and had developed the same specialization that gave them visibility in the firm. Each had divorced when they reached their mid 40s, by the time their kids entered university. Their working lives were so demanding that their social lives were limited, even though their good looks, income and humor were appealing.
Bob’s trip to Tel Aviv generated four hectic days of meetings, but they finished Thursday at five. That gave them a chance to share some thoughts before Bob’s flight home Friday morning. They agreed on late afternoon drinks and dinner at Manta Ray on the coast where Jaffa borders Tel Aviv. The porch would give them a box seat on the sun’s sinking into the Mediterranean and this would produce a magic effect on the port at Jaffa, just to the south.
They met at Bob’s hotel, the Sheraton on the coast, and walked south along the tayelet, the cement version of a boardwalk. What was still missing was the type of connection they had felt in Orlando. There had been no time for that with all their energies focused on their work.
“These girls are incredible,” said Bob as an icebreaker as he looked at the laughing girls half their ages or less. “How can you stay focused?”
Yossi tried hard to focus on everything else. The eighty-year-old men and women, some Holocaust survivors, who viewed their daily trip to the beach as a necessity and this gave him a chance to muse on his parents, the same age, but not addicted to year round swimming, the muscular post-army guys, with bodies sometimes scarred by wounds who paraded along the beach, the middle-aged women whose ambition seemed to be to imitate the latest styles of the slender 22 year olds while their bodies, starting to sag, should have cried out, “You look more the fool than the model. Cover me!”.
They walked south, passing the last large complex of buildings along the Tel Aviv coast and the site of a nightclub bombing in 2001, the Dolphinarium. They digressed into a political discussion. They walked through a park filled with Jews and Arabs at play, separately. The young Moslim women, their heads covered in colorful cloth scarves that hid their hair, yet wearing tight slacks and blouses, outlining their thin bodies. The neat girls contrasted with the usually scantily dressed others on the beach.
Bob, who had developed a taste for oxymorons, reminded Yossi of a recent find: “A woman is closest to being naked when she is well dressed.”
“Who said that?” Bob thought aloud and answered his query, “Chanel. What was her first name? Coco, as in perfume and fashion”.
They continued their casual conversation until they were sitting at a table on the veranda at Manta Ray, with the smell of the sea and even a few drops from the occasional large wave. They ordered Ouzo to compliment aubergine with cheese, sardines, tahini, salmon tartar and homemade Balkan bread. The sunset was starting its pastel show. The small port of Jaffa reminded them both that the Mediterranean has a charming south coast and that Jonah’s encounter with a whale started here. The sea’s soothing sound and scent, combined with the Ouzo, lulled them into the same introspection that they had experienced in Orlando.
“What’s up Yossi?” Two men who spent four days working hard needed an hour and a few drinks to discard their self-imposed rules that prevented even a hint of discussion about the complexity of their personal lives. “We American men do well with the facts and try never to let emotions get in the way. Are Israelis like us Americans?”
“What’s down is the last few years,” Yossi replied with an audible sigh that could have been his grandmother’s.
Bob knew of his friend’s fluctuating emotions as well as he knew his own. Middle age divorce creates a paradise for some men, but for others a hell of self-doubt, with their sensuality sublimated by work.
“About six years ago I went for my monthly haircut — less to cut these days. Yves is the neighborhood hairdresser, and most of his customers are women. He owns one of those unisex salons that caters much more to women than men. It gives Yves a break not to have women as his only customers – one demanding curls straightened and the next straight hair curled. That gray should become blond. Blond red. Talking about running and travel with a few men each day gives him a break from the list of complaints about other women and their loves or husbands’ affairs and bragging about their children and grandchildren that are his normal conversations with those who view him as a hairdresser, not a barber.”
“I see that in New York also. But cut to the chase,” Bob pleaded.
“As I waited I was attracted by the hair of one of the women there. It was long, black and silky. It came down 15 centimeters below her shoulders. It hid her face. All I could focus on was its straightness as Yves combed it out. Because of the smock she was wearing I couldn’t see her clothes. Even when Yves’ assistant offered me some espresso, my concentration was as if I were engrossed in a legal problem, so I waved him away as I would some coffee server in the office.”
Bob interjected: “That’s the fantasy stage of flirtation, but nothing typically ever comes of it.”
Yossi agreed: “Typically, but not always. Then, after the front of her hair was dry and combed to the side, our eyes met in the mirror. Seeing her face was like a drape’s opening to reveal a magnificent landscape. Our eyes met but we simultaneously looked away. Every fifteen seconds or so one of us would catch the other looking. Like two kids. The game didn’t stop until we both smiled, face to face and not through the mirror, as she was leaving. Not the fake smile of a waitress or stewardess, but the smile of two adults who were a bit embarrassed by their actions, but charmed too.”
“Come on,” Bob said cynically, “eyes meet, but nothing more happens. Nothing can be as intimate as eye contact with strangers and as innocent as what follows.”
“Who said that?” Yossi inquired.
“Me!” Bob replied.
“She left, but as she walked out of the salon, in a beautiful loose fitting dark blue skirt, white silk blouse and the type of medium height dark blue heels that showed off her legs to perfection, she smiled one more time. That smile that says ‘It might have been’. I was too correct to say anything to Yves, but frankly could not forget the experience. A few days later, I called him and asked if he remembered my being there along with his long black haired customer. I dared not say anything more. My pride was too important.”
“Yossi, you’ll never meet anyone that way. Take it from me!”
“Bob, I’ll tell you what happened. Yves said that she had called him a few days later to make another appointment and as women might do with a hairdresser, described our brief visual romance – eyes meeting, caressing and allowing our fantasies to percolate. She told Yves that if I ever asked, she would like to hear from me. But she also told him to be silent unless I showed some interest. I was surprised. Delighted. I guessed she was in her early forties, very attractive and I noticed when she left Yves’ shop that there were no rings on her fingers which made me feel more comfortable.
“We met a few evenings later at Aroma in north Tel Aviv — an Israeli version of Starbucks, but much better. In fact, you should know that Starbucks failed in Israel.”
“Yossi, I go to Aroma’s espresso bar in SoHo!” Bob injected.
Yossi continued: “What started as a cup of coffee went on for three hours. Galit was a successful attorney. Our interests were similar. She was an amazing conversationalist. She loved biking, as I do. We shared traditional views of Judaism —but not the rigidity of orthodoxy. Her clothes were fashionable but not childish. We knew English and French. We started to play with words in three languages.”
Galit’s name puzzled Bob. “Yossi, does that name have any meaning? I only know two or three words of Hebrew.”
“A small wave or a fountain,” Yossi replied softly.
Typically American, Bob wanted action: “Yossi, you found someone?”
“Not that easy,” Yossi replied. “We met several times for coffee and then ate at a great Hungarian restaurant, Judith’s, near where Rabin was slain. We split some palachsinta and langoush and finished with a great dessert that people in shape can share without guilt – apple strudel with a crust thinner than rice paper. We were very busy at work but always found time. We were both divorced and waiting casually for something, no, someone to happen. And we discovered the first problem. This may be too complicated for you, but because I am of a special caste within Judaism, a priestly caste, I cannot marry a divorcee in Israel. We were both traditional and agreed that we would let our relationship develop as it might, and made it a close friendship and shared as much as we could.”
“One night we would hold hands as we walked on the beach or sat with our arms around one another. Another time it was a warm hug. Sometimes, she let me comb her wonderful black hair, almost as a child would. And sometimes she held my arm tightly. Clearly,” Yossi added, “we were moving closer and closer. We knew that the status quo worked – but only for the time being.”
“Listen Yossi, if it works for you, then it is fine,” the ever-pragmatic American added. He was more understanding than Yossi’s friends in Israel who were a bit puzzled as they heard details and speculated on a wedding date.
“You know Bob, not every story has a happy ending. In Israel, there are a thousand ‘might have beens’ ” Yossi was becoming introspective. There was an awkward pause before he continued:
“We decided to go to Santorini for a long weekend. That’s a marvelous island high above an extinct volcano, now its port. I found a beautiful hotel, the Astra, and off we went. Walking the streets and looking down at the sea with the extraordinary blue sky and white houses and cobblestone streets and holding hands in restaurants and gazing into each other’s eyes, we knew we had found love.” Yossi paused, “And permanence.” There was something else he wanted to say, but he held his words back for enough time to down some more Ouzo.
“We returned to Israel. We each knew that our patience had been rewarded – that our lives would now be one, that any problems with rabbinical courts could be solved or bypassed, that those first glances in Yves’s shop were not the beginning of a casual flirtation. Some might say you can’t see into a person through their eyes. Eyes convey all emotions!”
Now envious, Bob insisted, “I hope that your plan is for Galit to walk in now and join us.”
Then Yossi said softly, “Dreams become real and reality can become a nightmare. And that was Tel Aviv in 2003. A week later, Galit scheduled a meeting at a patent attorney’s office in downtown Tel Aviv. At the last minute, a secretary called to change the time from one in the afternoon to 12 noon. Because of the one-way streets, the cab driver let her out on Allenby Street. The cab stopped at the curb. A bus behind it dropped off passengers. Galit took a few steps, walking past the bus so she could safely cross the street at the corner. We continued talking by cell phone to finalize the details for a party we were going to give our friends to announce our wedding plans. We decided that Yves, the shadchan — the matchmaker, should be the guest of honor.”
Yossi paused and Bob sensed that an interruption would be obscene.
The small waves lapping against the stone breakwater no longer seemed to soothe him as he continued, barely audible: “The phone died. The bus died. Seven died. Galit died. My soul died.”