How Many Points Is Pablo Neruda?

 


Photo: Iris Nesher

How Many Points Is Pablo Neruda?

By Hannah Brown

 

Koby the truck driver has had a good week and we’re all happy for him.
 
“One kilo less,” Michal announces, and people cheer. Koby takes a bow.
 
“Tips?” Michal prompts him.
 
He shrugs theatrically, milking this moment.
 
“You must have done something different,” Michal says. She is good at generating these positive group dynamics and she knows Koby is popular. He always makes people laugh with his honesty about how he can’t resist cookies and potato chips. Other than Koby, the only two men who come regularly are modern Orthodox husbands of women who are in the group, who let their wives do the talking and take care of the babies while their wives participate.
 
I am in the back row of this community center classroom, sitting with the other English speakers, and I run my hands along the books on the shelves behind us. We stay quiet most of the time. I would like to read The New York Times on my phone right now but I won’t risk getting a death-ray stare from Michal. These meetings are one of the few places in Israel where it is frowned upon to be absorbed in a screen. Michal, who looks lovely as she always does in a belted black dress, runs a very tight ship. But, like so many successful benevolent dictators, she wields love as much as scorn. With her messy brown hair, tasteful makeup, and guileless eyes, she is very happy when we lose weight and so disappointed when we gain.
 
“When I was with my friends watching soccer, I just went ahead and took out my container of vegetables. Okay, okay, I’m human, I ate one handful of nuts, a big one – I know, Michal, three points – and then I ate the vegetables,” Koby says, his belly poking out just a little from his new T-shirt, one which he bought three weeks ago, he told us, when he went from XXXL to XXL.
 
“That’s great, Koby,” Michal says, beaming as if she just heard a relative was cured of cancer. “And they didn’t make fun of you?”
 
“They did,” he says. “But I made fun of the terrible bets they made on the game.”
 
“Nice,” she says. “Anything else?”
 
“This week, when I was on the road, I made sandwiches in advance, so when I stopped at gas stations, I didn’t eat any of the junk.”
 
Cheers, even a whistle from one of the usually silent husbands. Junk food at gas stations has been Koby’s downfall in the past. Barbara, an Orthodox American engineer sitting on my left, calls out in correct but heavily accented Hebrew: “What kind of sandwiches?”
 
“I took a pita with slices of chicken, fresh vegetables and mustard. You’re right, Michal, with spicy mustard, I don’t need the mayonnaise.”
 
“Wonderful, that’s just six points. Way to go, Koby,” Michal says. Koby takes his seat and she hands out a glossy new book of approved recipes.
 
I wasn’t wonderful this week, gaining two hundred grams. Can they really measure two hundred grams on those scales? I have always thought, although I wouldn’t say this, not even to Barbara, that Michal messes with us sometimes, adjusting the total this way and that, depending on how we strike her that day.
 
This is my third go-round with this weight-loss group, and I have settled comfortably into my pattern: Huge loss the first week after I diligently follow the program (water weight), followed by a couple of weeks of smaller losses, some weeks of maintenance where Michal still encourages me, and then, after problems start up at home with Oren, my autistic son, creeping gains, like the one today. Soon Michal will ask me what happened and I’ll tell her. She will be sympathetic but soon will stop making eye contact as she whispers my weekly total. After a couple of weeks of gains, I will quit. And feel disappointed in myself.
 
Michal moves on to Yael, who always sits in the front row, and is now basking in the glow of a significant loss of baby weight, her child asleep next to her in his stroller. I have actually brought Oren here when he was a bit better behaved, before adolescence hit full blast, and weighed myself while he sat in the corridor, then hurried to take him out for ice cream – which I didn’t eat myself, of course. Not then. But now that things are tougher with him, they’re tougher with me, too, and the points and plans and weigh-ins are just another arena where my life isn’t where I want it to be.
 
Barbara’s daughter, Moriah, has also had a good week, and Barbara leans closer to listen as Michal speaks to her. Moriah is a glum girl in a wide denim skirt.
 
Moriah describes how she ate some kind of low-cal chocolate cracker that no one else has ever heard of, while her roommates in her National Service Program apartment for religious girls were making French fries at midnight, which, as we all know by now, they do a lot. There is intense discussion of where to buy this cracker, and my mind wanders off to Oren, who managed to get out of bed and get ready for school this morning without a tantrum for the first time in a while.
 
My fingers close on a book behind me that has an intact spine and I pull it out, putting the new glossy recipe booklet on top of it, so if Michal glances my way, she’ll think I’m reading a recipe for carrot-tomato slaw or sugarless granola. The book is in English: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda. I know Neruda only as the old, fat guy in that schmaltzy movie, The Postman. The cover is purple, making an interesting contrast with the yellowed pages that are like the complexion of a deathly ill patient. I rarely read anymore, except for online newspapers and Oren’s storybooks.
 
But poems are short and there is lots of white space, or, in this case, yellow space, on the page. I should read poetry. I open the book. Halfway through the first page, these lines stop me:
 
Well, now,
if little by little you stop loving me
I shall stop loving you little by little.
 
 
This seems more like something I would find in a “You go, girl!” kind of article in O Magazine than in a book of poems by a Nobel Prize winning poet, but it’s undeniably catchy.
 
Wanting to avoid the rabbit hole that immediately opens before me as I read these lines – my marriage, my divorce – I try listening to Michal as she talks about the topic of the week: how to substitute labor-intensive vegetable dishes for starches. Women around me sparkle with the intensity of their desire to share their recipes. I turn back to Pablo.
 
If suddenly
You forget me
do not look for me,
for I shall already have forgotten you.
 
 
There, that’s it. I should have forgotten my ex by now, right? Why have I gone through all that therapy, and this weight-loss group, which is of course a legitimate attempt at self-improvement, but still is motivated by the desire to go back to being the person he once loved?  Thanks, Pablo, for the epiphany. I turn to the next page, “Ode to an Apple,” thinking for a moment that an apple is zero points, since it is a fruit, unless you eat three in one day, and then the fourth one would be one point:
 
Always
You are like nothing
and no one
always
freshly fallen
from Paradise
 
 
I know there must be a dozen metaphorical interpretations, but one thing autism has robbed me of is all sense of nuance and metaphor. So I think of apples, how good they taste when they are not slimy and sour. Like everyone in the room, I haven’t had breakfast and I am hungry. My mind wanders to the last time I picked apples.  It was with my ex and Oren when Oren was a toddler, and it was just beginning to dawn on me that something was not quite right with him. Oren ran to the edge of the field, furiously, not looking back and we had to chase him. The internal movie that runs on a loop in my brain all too often switches to a time when, early in my marriage, before Oren was born, my ex and I were traveling by car and stopped off at one of these apple-picking places. I can’t remember why we were in upstate New York that day. After we filled a basket, we snuck to a deserted corner of the field and had sex on the ground, even though it was November and freezing out.
 
I flip through the poems, wondering when the last time was that someone held it, read it. Barbara looks over quizzically and I show her the cover. She nods, impressed. She teaches chemical engineering at a college and is always reading. Weight loss, like autism, is a great equalizer. It brings people together who would never be in the same room otherwise: Koby, the truck driver, who has lost about ten kilos since he started, and Barbara the engineer, who hasn’t lost anything in months.
 
Michal promises that next week she will give us strategies for coping with Chanukah, one of the holiday-related dietary minefields. Glancing around to see if anyone is watching, I slip the book into my bag.
 
The latecomers shuffle over to get weighed and I leave with Barbara. Outside the community center, she wanders over to examine the organic produce being sold in the pricy farmer’s market outside. Almost all the people buying the produce are graying, frizzy-haired, middle-aged women in loose-fitting, caftan-like clothes, like the people in those Edward Koren New Yorker cartoons. Mostly male farmer types in baggy jeans and baldness-concealing caps do the selling, while lean young Africans – the foreign workers who pick the vegetables, I imagine – roll in on trolleys more boxes of appetizing-looking tomatoes and arugula.
 
“This reminds me of Berkeley,” says Barbara, and I remember that she left what sounds to me like an idyllic life in California to live here with her husband, Arnie, also an engineering professor. “People are crazy there, and people are crazy here.”
 
“You think?”
 
“Definitely.”
 
Moriah comes over and, with a look as if Barbara is the last person in the world she wants to be seen in public with, says she is going to meet a friend. As she walks away, Barbara and I head for the parking lot.
 
“I was just talking to Arnie about this. He said that the reason Jews are so crazy – I mean here or in Berkeley, we’re all crazy, right? – he said it’s because when something bad happens, some people take it easy and say, ‘Relax, it will be fine,’ and other people freak out and go, ‘We’re all going to get killed.’”
 
“So?” I like Barbara because I can’t always guess where she’s heading.
 
“So in the Holocaust, all the crazy alarmist people got out and survived. And the normal people died. See? It makes sense.”
 
It sure does. She has just explained Israel to me, and a lot of other things. I feel an unexpected rush of affection for Barbara, her dowdy clothes, her angry daughter, her sweet-sounding husband, and her awful green Orthodox-lady hat that reminds me of the lunchroom walls at the my public school when I was a kid in New York. In the equation she has described, I am one of the normal people. When Oren was diagnosed over a decade ago, I thought it would all be fine, even though his father insisted it wouldn’t be. I pushed away all my own doubts. We would get Oren all the right therapy and he would be one of those who would respond well. I would look into Oren’s eyes and feel waves of love as he would look back at me and start talking like any other kid. He wouldn’t ignore us or repeat whole pages from Dr. Seuss books. And the tantrums would stop. I imagined his father and I would cry and worry, but we would get through it together because the bond we had was so deep.
 
That particular rug was yanked out from under me years ago. I watched as Oren moved through various schools and programs. Some helped and some didn’t, but the autism is still here. But even though I have a Google alert for “autism breakthrough,” I know he isn’t suddenly going to be able to live on his own when he finishes school in a few years or become a quirky Rain Man-style genius. Oren is just Oren, in all the ways that are good and bad and neutral. His father blamed me for the autism, leaving and returning a few times before he was gone for good, always insisting that Oren was a lost cause. And through it all, I’ve held fast to those ten to – okay, more like fifteen – pounds that have brought me here to the weight-loss group, because without the weight that drove my ex away, I would have to confront the possibility that he never loved me to begin with. I would have to admit that I just played the part of the first wife, a supporting role that didn’t turn out to be very memorable. I wasn’t deluded enough to think that he would come back to me now if I lost this weight, and every conscious, functioning part of my brain told me that I shouldn’t want him back. But it seemed possible that if I were slimmer, he might feel a pang when he looked at me as I dropped Oren off, instead of the usual disgust and relief at not having to be with me anymore. And if he could be wrong about me – if I could be thin again – he could be wrong about Oren, too.
 
“So I’ll see you next week?” Barbara says as we reach our cars.
 
I grip the Pablo Neruda book in my bag and say, “Sure.”
 
After she drives away, I wonder if I should call her for a cup of coffee (with low-fat milk – one point) sometime, but know that when she isn’t teaching, she will be busy running errands, cooking for insightful Arnie, mean Moriah, and Barbara’s five (!) other kids.
 
I lean on the car and open Pablo Neruda to a poem called “Walking Around”:
 
I stroll unabashed, in my eyes and my shoes
and my rage and oblivion.
I go on, crossing offices, retail orthopedics,
courtyards with laundry hung out on a wire:
the blouses and towels and drawers newly washed,
slowly dribbling a slovenly tear.
 
 
In the street, mostly Orthodox people are schlepping bags of food, typical Jerusalem on a Friday morning. Most of the women could be Barbara’s twin. I like to think that I am different, but really I am merely another pudgy Jerusalemite.
 
Once when Oren was four, I was reading him a story before bed, and I told him, “Oren, I know it’s hard for you to say what you’re feeling. You want to say things and you can’t. But I will always be here for you, and I will always be listening.” He threw his arms around my neck and hugged me, something he didn’t usually do, even though he was often affectionate. Holding me close, he said what I often said to him when he wasn’t feeling well: “I know.” I hugged him back and repeated these words. His hair was still wet from the bath, and his brother Ben was already asleep in the next bed. When Oren lay down, I saw that the moon hung low and full in the inky darkness of the village where we lived then, and I said softly, “I know.” Telling his father about the scene a few moments later, I could see he didn’t believe me, or didn’t think that it mattered. It was during that year that I started putting on the weight which I came to this group to lose.
 
I open Pablo again and find this:
 
I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where,
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don’t know any other way to love
 
           
For a moment it all comes pressing back on me: my love for Oren and all the hopes and disappointments. And the triumphs, like the “I know” moment, and this morning without a tantrum. I crouch for a moment on the concrete next to my car, crying.

 

A truck rumbles by and I see Koby is driving. I hope he remembers to cut up vegetables (0 points) and take them to the Chanukah parties he goes to, but I won’t be hearing about it. I have to get home now before the van drops off Oren. I close the book and put it back in my bag, but before I get in the car, I toss the lo-cal recipe booklet in the trash.      
 
Copyright © Hannah Brown 2021

Hannah Brown’s short stories have been published in Commentary, JMWW, the Jerusalem Post, and Short Story Quarterly as well as in the anthologies, Israel Short Stories, Love in Israel and Tel Aviv Stories 2 (a collaboration between Ang.-Lit Press and Jewish Quarterly). Her novel, If I Could Tell You, is about mothers raising children with autism. Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Next Tribe, Hadassah, The Daily Beast and other publications. She is the movie and television critic for the Jerusalem Post and she used to be a movie critic at the New York Post.


 

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