By Sharon Hart-Green
Time will be mine if I hold onto it long enough. Appreciate. Appreciate what you have. But will there ever be a sign that my time has arrived?
These were the kinds of thoughts that swirled through the mind of Sara Levita as she pressed her forehead against the full-length window of the fish store known as Walt’s. Whenever she walked down Harvard Street, she always stopped to gaze at the fish in the window. These fish look content, she mused. And why not? They were scraped and scrubbed and luxuriously displayed. Even the ice crystals upon which they lay their briny fins sparkled like tiny jewels.
But it wasn’t just the fish that drew Sara to the shop window. Walt’s seemed more real to her than any other place in Brookline, or all of Boston for that matter. Part of it was that she loved to watch the antics of the boisterous men who worked there. They didn’t seem to mind that their fingers were mired in fish-flesh and their aprons were spattered with fish-blood. And this for ten hours every day of the week. They were always in good humor. Even their shouting and cursing--a particular spicy brew--was done in jest. They even burst into song once in a while, and if you were lucky enough to catch it, you would hear bits of opera mixed with raunchy plays on fish that would make your earlobes burn.
Sara would often enter the store and buy two pieces of fish--one for herself and the other one to conceal the fact that she lived alone. Whenever she ordered, she would get the same response (or a variation on it): “Perfect choice. A pinch of salt and a squeeze of lemon, and you’re in heaven.” Her thoughts immediately flitted to Fred and Ginger singing rapturously in her favorite old movie: “Heaven, I'm in heaven . . . When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.”
Although her tiny apartment in the basement of a Brookline brownstone was a far cry from heaven, it suited the needs of a 27 year old single woman with few friends and limited resources. Every day, Sara would take the Green Line to her job at a publishing company that specialized in books for the blind. She was in charge of assessing manuscripts that were geared to children under the age of twelve. She liked her job, as it made her feel as though she was doing something good for humanity. Because her office was close to Boston University, she would take a bagged lunch along with her to work and walk over to one of the college cafeterias where she would eat her sandwich and buy a cup of Fair Trade coffee. In warm weather, she would carry her coffee outside and eat her lunch on a bench outside the Mugar Library. That is where she met Yoav.
At first she didn’t notice the stocky young man who sat down beside her on the concrete bench. Even when he tried to strike up a conversation with her by commenting on the weather, she was so immersed in her own thoughts that she didn’t register his words. After a few moments of silence, he hung his head between his knees, curled his neck sideways until he was staring her straight in the face and boomed, “What’s wrong--am I so ugly that you won’t even answer me?”
Shocked out of her daydreams, Sara struggled to respond. She was not accustomed to being accused of anything, much less being a snob or a person who harbors prejudices. In fact, she took pride in the fact that she celebrated diversity in all its forms. She began to mumble, “No, no… you’re not ugly at all. Why would you say such a thing?”
The young man lifted his left hand and brought it up close to her face. Even Sara was shocked by its gross deformity. Two middle fingers were completely missing. And those that remained were so shriveled that they barely resembled fingers anymore. They were more like bony black lizards.
“I don’t know what to say,” she mumbled, trying not to stare at his hand any more than she had to.
“There is nothing to say. But you can ask. Everyone who sees it wants to know: Was I born like this? Did I put my hand through a shredder? Sometimes I’m tempted to make up something really juicy, just to entertain people. It could be a great conversation piece.”
“Now I don’t know if you’ll tell me the truth even if I do ask,” she countered.
“Wait a minute. I said I was tempted to make up stories, not that I do make them up.”
Sara thought about this for a moment and then quietly taunted, “Yes, but sometimes secret desires are what people are all about.”
“They are? What are you, a psychologist?”
This made Sara laugh out loud. “Me? A psychologist? I can’t figure out my own life, not to mention anyone else’s.”
“Hmmm. So let me see if I can figure you out” The young man pulled back his chin, squinted his eyes, and studied her from head to toe. “Let me see . . . You are approximately 25 years old, no . . . probably a bit more, but your long straight hair makes you look a little younger than you are. Single. Jewish. You have a father who spoiled you as a child, but then ignored you when you got older. A mother who’s a do-gooder. Always tops in volunteer organizations. PTA, Brandeis Book Club, the Democratic Party. How am I doing so far?”
“Not bad. But you got one thing wrong. My father died when I was ten.”
“No, I was right. If he went ahead and died, that’s really ignoring you.”
“Ha--I guess you can say that.”
Sara suddenly grew pensive. “So what about you? How did you lose the fingers?”
The young man started to make a joke but stopped himself and looked away as he spoke. “Listen. I was on a patrol at the Lebanese border when Hezbollah attacked. I got caught in the cross-fire. Nothing romantic. Just a typical casualty of war.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Nine years ago. I was twenty at the time.”
“Is that why you left Israel? To get away from the war?”
“No--are you kidding? I would go back in a second. I was sent here on a fellowship to study at MIT. As soon as my studies are finished, I’m going back.”
Sara was confused. How could he return to a country that inflicted such pain on him? But she decided it was better not to ask, so she switched to a safer subject. “So what brings you to BU? I thought MIT students never venture out of their labs.”
“The girls are more interesting over here. Take you for instance. I would never meet a girl like you at MIT.”
“And how do you define ‘a girl like me’?”
“Well, for one thing—you’re a girl who’s not trying to be a man. You sit and daydream. I like that.”
“Doesn’t everyone daydream?”
“Not the girls I meet. They’re too busy trying to get ahead to have time for any sort of dreaming.”
“And Israeli girls? What are they like?”
“They’re more like you.”
Sara was stunned. “Like me? I can’t imagine having anything in common with girls over there. I’m not tough at all. If I had to deal with any kind of violence, I would run and hide.
"You’d be surprised.”
“If you have to be strong, you just do it. That’s the secret to how we Israelis live. Underneath we’re as scared as anyone else.”
Sara had never heard anyone put it this way before. She tended to think that Israelis were a different breed of Jew. That they had evolved into a kind of über-Jew in one or two generations.
The young man then touched her arm lightly. At that moment Sara noticed the curve of his soft chestnut eyes, and how his lashes half covered them when he smiled. “Listen, I don’t even know your name. I’m Yoav. Yoav Muchnik.”
“Ahhh--Levita. That’s a distinguished name.”
“In elementary school, every Israeli child learns about Eliyahu Levita. He lived in the Middle Ages and wrote some of the first Jewish love stories. His most famous work was the Bovo-Buch. In fact, that’s where you get the expression ‘bobe-mayse.’ Most people think it means ‘an old-wives tale.’ But it actually goes back to Levita’s book.”
“I can’t believe I never knew any of this. Are you sure you’re not just making up your own bobe-mayse?”
“I told you before. I don’t make up stories. You’ll see that once you get to know me better.”
Know him better? Sara thought that she should be surprised by that remark. But somehow it didn’t seem presumptuous at all. It seemed fitting and natural.
Yet Sara was still bothered by something and had to speak her mind. “There’s one thing I must tell you, in case you have the wrong impression of me.”
“And that is?”
“I’m not a student at BU. In fact I’m not a student at all. I work in the area and come here for lunch. I guess . . . well . . . it makes me feel young. Does that make sense to you?”
“Sure. I feel it all the time. Here in America, guys my age are already set up in their careers. But in Israel, we don’t even start college until we finish our three years in the army. In my case, I was delayed even further because of my injury. I sometimes feel like an old man compared to the kids I’m studying with.”
Sara nodded. “It’s funny--when I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get out. Now that I’m out, I regret that I’m not still there.”
“Well, I know all about regret. I tortured myself for years about what I could have done differently to prevent what happened to me in the war. I finally had to realize that there was nothing I could have done. It’s how you react to your circumstance that’s important. Now I just live the way I want. If I see something I like, I go for it.”
“I wish that I could be more that way,” Sara disclosed with a hint of wistfulness in her voice.
“Why not try? What is the one thing you would like to do most that you are afraid to do?. . . Think.”
“I don’t know.
“I really don’t know . . . Well . . . OK. I do. You’ll laugh, though.”
“I want to go ballroom dancing.”
“So let’s do it.”
“Right now? I have to get back to work.”
“We’ll go tonight. What time shall I pick you up?”
That evening after work, Sara paced up and down Harvard Street before going back to her apartment. She was in a state of agitation. Why am I going out with this perfect stranger? Am I crazy? And, as much as she hated to admit it, she wasn’t sure that she could overcome her feelings of revulsion toward his deformed hand. It threw her off-kilter. It made her suspect that she wasn’t the kind of caring person that she thought she was. Yet, at the same time, she couldn’t stop thinking about Yoav and his soft chestnut eyes. Most of all, she was so at ease with him, despite the fact that he was completely unlike her. And she completely unlike him.
Approaching Walt’s fish store, Sara stopped and looked at the fish in the window. Each of them looked exactly alike with their glassy eyes and vacant expressions. She then peered into the store and saw two of the employees joking and gesturing to one another as they chopped the heads off some giant carp. One of the men was tall and broad with small tufts of grey atop a shiny skull. The other was considerably shorter with thick lips and protruding ears. The two of them were laughing so loud that their voices carried out onto the street. The fish in the window lay there completely mute.
Now I see it, exclaimed Sara to herself. Why is it that all these fish look alike? Because they’re dead. It doesn’t matter how nicely they’re displayed. Perfection is only in death. . . .But people: they have weaknesses, imperfections, flaws. And that’s the way it must be. Yes, yes, she uttered. A flaw is a sign . . . It’s a sign of life.
Sara walked briskly to her apartment. She still found it hard to dispel the image of Yoav’s lizard-like fingers from her mind. Nevertheless, she changed into a colorful dress and even more colorful dancing shoes. She had no idea what one wore to go ballroom dancing, but she didn’t care. Yoav would be arriving at any moment and she was ready to whirl. And be whirled.
Copyright © Sharon Hart-Green 2010
Sharon Hart-Green is an Associate Professor at the University of Toronto, where she has been teaching Hebrew and Yiddish literature since 1988. She is the author of a book on the Hebrew writer S.Y. Agnon entitled Not a Simple Story: Love and Politics in a Modern Hebrew Novel, which was nominated in 2002 for The Koret Jewish Book Award, The National Jewish Book Award, and the Salo Baron Prize of the American Academy of Jewish Research. She recently completed her first novel Tenacity which is the story of a Holocaust survivor who goes to Palestine after the war in an attempt to rebuild his shattered life. She is presently working on a second novel.