A Real Sephardic Beauty
By Olivia Kate Cerrone
Dov itched to rip her away from the protestors. There Liat stood, demonstrating on Even-Sinna Street with the rest of the lunatics. No sooner had the small vigil for the Sudanese boy, Ahmad Sakis been observed in Jaffa, than a small group of Israeli activists organized to protest his murder. Liat should know better than this; it wouldn’t take much to spark a riot in these streets, not with how tense things had become since Israel began deporting the South Sudanese refugees in June. Furthermore, she’d been with Dov when he was shot. He’d already sacrificed one eye over the cause and wasn’t about to part with the other, but Liat’s presence drew him closer to the crowd.
He called out to her, though the name made his tongue lead. The thrill of seeing her again pinched his guts together. Liat turned and gaped at him for a moment, overcome with awe, before a kind of fury brought the color back into her cheeks. Dark, kohl-rimmed eyes nailed him to the ground. She rushed forward, her mouth firing off in his mother’s old Moroccan tongue, a language he failed to grasp in its entirety. She smacked him hard across the face, her nails piercing his skin. Dov pushed his sunglasses back against his head and stared at her with his lone eye, his mouth wide and trembling.
The sight of his empty socket, the indented flesh a permanent bruise of scar tissue, punctured her anger. She gazed at his mangled features, her own eyes becoming wet. A few men gathered around and taunted her, hoping to further provoke the fight. And what right did she have to attack him, when she’d abandoned him, just like everyone else he’d known, outside of his father? In Dov’s bewildered rage, it took everything just to keep his own fist from knocking her to the ground. Instead, he watched, unable to follow as she turned away from him and disappeared into the crowd, the prospect of stepping among the protestors too daunting. Dov pressed his fingers to the dull ache in his cheek. There was nothing he could do now. He was already late.
An intense smell of body odor greeted Dov as he entered the Ajami yeshiva. Musty tomes of Talmudic study stuffed the glass-encased shelves that lined the walls of the study hall. The men sat in their stiff black suits at dozens of long tables littered with books, reading with intense concentration. Some stood bowing near the windows, their lips intoning prayers. A hundred or so Orthodox Jews gathered here each day, save for the Sabbath and High Holy Days. Dov crept inside a few paces from the doorway, unwilling to enter any further than necessary.
Twice a week throughout his childhood, on Sunday and Wednesday evenings, he’d sat in a classroom memorizing texts, reciting each nigun, the mindless repetition of each verse lending itself to thinking in terms of an us, a we. Always the pressure to perform well. To succeed above all else. Even then, Dov didn’t feel a part of it. He daydreamed during class, scribbling obscenities in the margins of his machberet, workbook, and one day he paid the price for it. His teacher was an old troll with an intensity ill-suited to the teaching of children. Once on Sukkot, Dov got sick eating his holiday snack of stale yellow raisins, but the troll wouldn’t allow him to use the bathroom until he’d erased every doodled pair of breasts from his workbook. He did as he was told, but not before soiling himself, much to the perverse enjoyment of his peers.
Dov’s father approached, his gait slow and lazy, which never failed to aggravate Dov. The elder Levi’s heavy white beard and long sidelocks covered most of his face and neck. It was a look he’d adopted in the three years since his wife died, so estranged from the clean-cut, spiritually detached father Dov knew growing up—the one who spent the majority of his waking hours managing the lone kosher pizzeria in Jaffa. Like Dov, he’d also transitioned into another existence.
His father squinted hard. “What happened to you?” he asked.
Dov couldn’t ignore the undertone of accusation in his father’s voice, as if the old man blamed his son for what had happened at that protest, the stray bullet that had found its way through his skull. A peaceful demonstration until some maniac began firing into the crowd. Dov would always be suspect in his father’s esteem, the unending political chasm between them having existed long before his injury. But the past year had kept Dov more or less under his father’s thumb. Recovery was a slow education—the long months spent in rehab, his limbs relearning their capacity for movement, his mouth its ability to speak, his mind acceptance.
“Liat has a funny way of saying hello after so long,” he said.
“That woman,” his father said with particular disgust. Though he’d only met her on a handful of occasions, Dov knew that she represented everything his father detested about modern Jewish women: they were too smart, too independent and dressed far too provocatively. Mr. Levi pursed his lips to further remark, but was interrupted by the large, bespectacled Rabbi Kolman who aimed a strange, knowing smile at them both.
“Dov,” he said, slow and affectionate, as if relishing the name with his generous lips. “It’s such a pleasure to see you here. Your father always tells me you’re interested in joining. We would be delighted for you to come study here with us.”
There it was again—the assertive we, the ever inclusive us. Dov forced a polite smile. It wasn’t like he hadn’t tried restarting his own life. His condition had cost him his programming job at Euclid Technologies. Finding work in Israel was no easy feat. The best he’d been able to find after rehab was working part time at a telemarketing agency selling life insurance. His manager praised him for being the fastest caller in the room, despite his occasional, undisclosed tendency to hang up on difficult customers. And yet, how could he blame his father for wanting to integrate his only son back into the community after everything that had happened? In Jaffa, sooner or later, everyone knew your business. Dov’s former political work did not sit well with the more conservative of their friends and family. Both father and son were aware of the subtle ostracizing that had followed—the end of holiday invites from extended family members, the silence from friends remembered from youth. Liat. During the entire time he’d spent in the hospital and rehabilitation center, she’d never contacted him once. Even if their relationship had only lasted a few months, the intensity of their time together inspired a childish degree of brooding resentment that Dov couldn’t shake. When he returned home to rebuild his life, he’d felt too overwhelmed to challenge her silence. Perhaps he should’ve tried harder, but then he couldn’t help but fear that his condition asked too much of any relationship.
“My doctor says it might be a while before I can put strain on my eye,” Dov said.
Rabbi Kolman nodded and lowered his gaze, unwilling to cross into that unsavory territory. The elder Levi grunted something about already being late for dinner, and after a chorus of goodbyes, Dov and his father were out on the street. Thick heat squeezed around their lungs. Among the tall, clay-faced buildings, date palms and cypresses dotted the space high above their heads. They took an alternate route to avoid the protestors. Dov’s father hated walking home alone because of the daily terrorist threats. The Arabs who lived nearby resented the yeshiva, claiming that its presence served as part of a larger Zionist agenda to further Judaize the Ajami neighborhood and drive them out. Despite whatever resentment his father felt against him, Dov knew that the old man appreciated his company. Still, Mr. Levi walked a few impatient steps ahead of his son. Dov followed at his own pace; the antidepressants made him fat and lethargic. The realization that Liat lived here, not far from where they walked, settled over him with strange comfort.
At home his father cooked a pot of leftover shakshuka, and hunched bearlike over his steaming bowl. Dov wore his tinted glasses as he ate. His father refused to be in his presence otherwise. A small portable television sat upon the kitchen countertop, facing them. The local news aired some of the day’s Ajami protests. Dov gazed hard at the screen, waiting for an image of Liat to appear. The heavy taste of spiced red sauce and eggs pinched his stomach.
“I don’t understand what those idiots think they’ll accomplish,” Mr. Levi said.
“A kid was murdered. That’s wrong to some people,” Dov said. Thoughts of Liat, having seen her after so long, her inexplicable violence, made him hungry for a fight.
Mr. Levi blew steam through his small, yellow teeth. “Perhaps you should be out there then, protesting for the rights of that filth?”
“Filth? What filth?” Dov said. “They’re people.”
His father bristled. “Baruch HaShem that those people are being sent back to Africa where they belong. Do you really think that we can afford to become a minority in our own country, when the rest of the world wants to blow us up?”
“What about Beta Israel? Do you hate the Ethiopians, too?” Dov asked.
“That’s different! They’re Jews!”
Spittle ejected from the old man’s quivering lips, and his eyes became wet as if he might cry. Nothing got him more fired up than the issue of non-Jews. To be chosen in the first place. required a degree of exclusivity, one that demanded regular upkeep to maintain. That was why goyim existed in the first place—the chaff that is meant to be sorted from the wheat.
“Why should anyone else come here and deplete our already limited resources?” his father said. “Let them go back to Africa or the Philippines or whatever Third World cesspool they crawled out from. They are a cancer to our home, our God-given land.”
Dov shook his head. “You do realize that Hitler used that same comparison about us once, right?”
His father trembled with rage. “Are you blind to all of the crimes the Sudanese commit in Tel Aviv alone? They are violent people. Animals. Look at all the good it got you trying to help them.”
Dov massaged the spot where the pain began. Their arguing triggered another migraine. During the long, slow period of his recovery, he’d been subjected to relentless pain that resisted most of the prescribed painkillers.
“I can’t have this conversation anymore,” he said, rising from the table.
“No, of course not,” his father said. “Because you know you’re wrong. You’re almost forty years old, Dov. Grow up already.”
Dov pressed a hand against his brow, despair blooming from his tender skull. He retreated into his bedroom to smoke hashish. A herbalist touted the medicinal effects of the drug to help Dov with his memory and “further stimulate his brain patterns,” in whatever gray matter he had left. It had been a clean shot, a through-and-through, the bullet cutting into his right temple and out the left, tearing through the optic nerves. How they managed to save the sight in one of his eyes still astounded him. He took several greedy hits off his doobie and got stoned fast, his lone source of comfort. The pain subsided, receded as Liat had done, when she disappeared into the crowd.
Like Ahmad Sakis, Dov’s assailant remained unknown. He took his iPhone from the nightstand and Googled the boy’s name, hoping to find a picture, but there was only a news article describing the boy’s murder in a neighborhood park, how the bullets had torn into his chest and stomach. Another Sudanese man had been stabbed nearby just last week. Murderer at large. Dov sighed. A rush of sadness threatened to puncture his high as he settled back against the bed and tried in vain to jog his memory. He knew the facts as if they’d happened to someone else: how he’d stood in protest against the treatment of Sudanese in Israel, until some maniac began firing at random into the crowd. But he only remembered waking up in a hospital room, unable to move, reborn into a life of constant tension. His first life beckoned dreamlike from memory, a time of relative ease. Dov killed the rest of his doobie between his lips.
She’d been there with him that day. The image of Liat from that morning looped around in his thoughts. She stood before him in a thin, sleeveless dress with a cloud of black hair pinned up around her gaunt features. Her arms, angular and pale, were raised; her hands squeezed into fists. The citric smell of candied etrog fruit wafted from her skin. Though her tone had been harsh, a certain sweetness blossomed in his mind as he replayed the memory of her voice. Somewhere between the despair of his mother’s passing and the obsessive fury with which he’d given himself over to activism, there was Liat.
Fragments of their past flashed through his mind, each splinter coated in a gloss of comfort and excitement enough to arouse him. Sensations transmitted from a reptilian part of his brain that operated on desire alone. The nights they’d spent together ended with him pressed against her as she spoke his mother’s tongue into his neck. He’d never had the chance to understand the language; his mother had used it as a kind of code among relatives when she didn’t want Dov to understand. But hearing it was a constant comfort. He longed to see Liat again.
There lived a deep compassion in her that he’d recognized, even in the early stages of their dating, when his mother got sick and spent the last few months of her life at the Sheba Medical Center. The lymphoma hit her hard. Dov never thought he’d be so devastated. He’d always been at odds with his mother. She was the first to criticize every choice he made, and any good deed he did was answered with cold indifference. He resented her self-indulgence, her flagrant sense of vanity. Even in the hospital, his mother asked for her old photo albums, so she could gaze at her former youth and infallible body.
“Look at me,” she’d say. “Didn’t I look exactly like Ronit Elkabetz? You know what they used to call me? I was a bent zwina, a real Sephardic beauty.”
But Liat encouraged him to visit his mother’s private room each day after work, and sometimes he even slept on a cot by her bed, if his father wasn’t doing so himself. Liat kept her distance out of respect for the family’s privacy, but made it her business to track down every Ronit Elkabetz film on DVD, so Dov could watch them with his mother on the little TV the hospital supplied. It was the only time the woman smiled, watching Ronit Elkabetz swan across the screen with a cigarette in hand and an argument streaming from her lips. Together they drank in every movement of the actress’s long, supple limbs, the sleek, black hair framing her sharp, regal features. The expression proud, tinged with a great sorrow—a woman betrayed.
Mr. Levi shut the door to the master bedroom across the hall. The old man was in for the night. Once more, Dov turned his attention to the iPhone. It had been a gift from his father, and the contacts revealed only the information of family members. But the internet made everyone accessible, and he soon found Liat through the same human rights organization that had brought them together. Then he checked himself out in the dresser mirror. His glasses made him look like an Israeli Roy Orbison, though they beat wearing some Moshe Dayan-inspired eye patch. Walking around without them raised too many questions, even at night.
The walk to Ajami was twenty minutes by foot, but Dov was no longer allowed to drive. His chest tightened with each step. He was still shocked that she’d responded. Liat lived at the edge of the district, in an apartment complex made of gray stucco walls. A row of cycas stood like sentinels along the pathway leading to the front door. Dov buzzed the number for Liat’s apartment. He looked up and met the eye of a security camera aimed directly at him. He removed his glasses.
The door buzzed open and he entered a large, clean lobby with a bronze pair of elevator doors. Dov sat on a cushioned bench, following the blinking lights that tracked one elevator’s descent. A resolute ding and the doors parted. Liat wore her black hair pinned up in a cloud around her features, and paired her thin dress with a gray, oversized cardigan that added bulk and menace to her arms.
“I don’t know what you expect us to talk about,” she said, her voice seething with the same explosive promise of violence. She stared at his disfigurement, as if the sight of it disarmed her anger in some way.
“That’s not the impression you gave this morning,” Dov said.
The other elevator opened, and a man in a motorcycle jacket walked past, casting a long, curious gaze at them. He nodded to Liat. She pulled the sweater closer around her neck, as if to conceal some obscenity.
“Yalla,” she said. “Let’s go. This is no place for us,” she said.
Her apartment was one large room, a clean, wide space devoid of anything extraneous, a few staple sticks of furniture and a pile of books on the nightstand by the queen-sized bed that faced the small kitchenette. Liat told him she was studying nursing at Tel Aviv University and worked as a technical assistant in a medical office nearby. She poured them glasses of l’eau de vie, the drink his mother used to enjoy on the Sabbath. Dov sat at the table and studied Liat’s careful movements, absorbing in her presence a soothing balm of delight. The drink loosened his tongue, made it easy for him to convey to her the extent of his condition. He placed his dark glasses on the table, and not once did she ask him to put them back on. She listened, her gaze fraught with questions. She could not tear her eyes away from his disfigurement.
“But what I don’t understand is why you never attempted to contact me during the entire period of my recovery,” Dov said.
Liat frowned, as if struggling to comprehend his words. “Your father threatened to have me arrested. I visited the hospital every day, but they wouldn’t let me near your room. I called, I texted, and your father threatened to have me arrested for harassment. I thought that sooner or later you’d come around, but you never did. Then one day I saw you with your father walking down my street like nothing ever happened between us. Then I saw you at the protest. You have to understand,” she said.
“No, I don’t understand,” Dov said, his voice spiking in volume. He rose from the table and hurled his phone to the floor. It bounced before landing, the screen scrambled gray. “That old bastard has been lying to me from the moment I came home,” he said.
Liat finished her drink and moved against him, combed her fingers through his hair. A piece of understanding floated through his consciousness at her touch. That was the great difference between Liat and his mother, how the former always seemed ready to caress him with such willing hands. She grazed her lips across his brow, then his eyes. They traded soft, anise-flavored kisses. He reached his arms around her petite frame and squeezed until she whimpered, like he might break her. Minutes or hours stretched between them in bed, each lulled by the strange, intense heat of the other. Afterward, he asked her to speak in their old Moroccan tongue. She pressed her face into his neck and asked if he would join her in the protests the next day. Dov thought of his father, and the old man inspired an immediate sense of resentment. An image of forests swept through his mind.
“Do you remember that place we’d go sometimes? Away from Jaffa?” he said.
Liat wrapped her arms across his back and strengthened her hold on him. “Yes,” she said. After a moment, she rose and gathered her dress from where it was strewn at the edge of the mattress.
They drove to the Malta forest outside of Jerusalem. It took them about an hour along Route One, but by the time they reached the new terrain, dawn was already pressing in from all sides, diluting the ink-filled spaces between trees and stretching their branches finger-like across the sky. Liat sat beside him, awash in weak blue and gray light. A dry wind rushed through the passenger windows of her small Jeep, stroking Dov’s face and neck. He’d not been outside of Tel Aviv since the incident. Driving up through the limestone hills, the road climbing in hairpin curves, Dov felt a great expanse of space open up inside of his chest. Everything seemed possible again. Somehow she was leading him back to his first life.
Liat turned off the main road and followed a dirt path that climbed atop a long stretch of hill. Then she drew her messenger bag over her shoulder and exited the car. He followed her without question. They faced a valley of dawn-kissed heads of oak and terebinth that stood against the sloping patchwork of rock and shrubbery. Liat directed his attention to a Eurasian lark flying low overhead. Then she withdrew a small handgun from her bag and handled it with enough knowing ease that Dov found disturbing. She aimed the weapon at the distant trunks of carob trees and fired a round of shots. Each blast made Dov jump a little more out of his skin.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked.
“You gave this to me. How could you not remember?” She gestured with the gun, as if to hand it off to him, and Dov leapt away from the nozzle’s direction. One wrong move and she’d cost him the rest of his sight.
“You were always the better shot,” she said, pointing the pistol at the coarse yellow grass. “I never go into a protest without it.”
Hearing this made Dov’s chest ache. “Those are supposed to be peaceful demonstrations,” he said.
“You of all people should be the first one to understand. Isn’t this why you wanted to come out here in the first place?” She handed the gun to him. “Your turn,” she said.
He held the small pistol, surprised by its weight. Once he’d been like other Israelis he knew—a computer geek with a working knowledge of assault rifles, thanks to his IDF training—and again was reminded of how much his condition cut him down to size. Then he thought of the righteous, smirking face of his father. Dov placed his arms in the appropriate positions and fired.
In Jaffa, they walked together from her apartment, bringing with them water bottles and picket signs advertising equality to the street where the protestors gathered. The crowd was larger than before. Dov placed himself among them before the street traffic, knowing that his father would soon discover where he stood. The first few hours passed without incident. An old Sudanese grocer with Israeli citizenship spoke into a microphone, detailing the extent of harassment his business faced. Then the heckling began; someone from the crowd’s periphery suggested that the speaker go fuck himself back to Africa where he belonged. Dov turned and saw that a counter-protest had begun to take shape, muscling in around the activists’ pincer-attack style. Bodies pushed against one another in a way that made Dov’s heart race. The air became too thin. He tried to ignore the shattered bits of memory that emerged from the shadows of his consciousness—sounds like firecrackers exploding above their heads. Sweat broke out along his temples. The counter-protestors seemed to double in size. They pressed in close against the activists, chanting “Niggers go home.”
Dov spotted a trio of Orthodox men watching from the edge of the crowd, behind the counter-protestors. His father stood among them, shaking his head. A heavy, enfeebled look caught somewhere between disbelief and betrayal hung in his eyes. Dov couldn’t help but disentangle himself from the people and approach him.
“I don’t know who you are,” his father said and, pushing past him, continued homeward.
Dov stood, watching the shrinking back of his father until Liat drew him again into the crowd, the fighting already underway.
Copyright © Olivia Kate Cerrone 2013
Olivia Kate Cerrone’s fiction has appeared in various literary journals, including New South, the Berkeley Fiction Review, War, Literature and the Arts, and Italian Americana, where she won first place in the journal’s 2012 fiction contest. Her story “The Rabbi’s Son” won the 2012 Mason’s Road Literary Award from Fairfield University’s MFA program. She was recently awarded fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Ragdale Foundation, the Jentel Foundation, and the Vermont Studio Center, among others. Cerrone has completed work on The Hunger Saint, a novel set in contemporary Sicily. Contact her at Olivia.Cerrone@gmail.com.