Fear Of Red Tomatoes — Chapter 14
Human lives, re imagined
Read “Chapter 13” at
Chapter 14 — Afternoon Dawn
Part A — A Rainy Yesterday
Winter was unusually harsh and rainy in central Israel that year. The wind was so strong that palm branches broke off and windows shattered. Debris and mud covered the streets. Trash containers flipped over, there was garbage everywhere. The neighborhood looked repulsive, just like the mood that Joe was in. He hated rainy days, his whole being screamed against them. He felt that they were cruel and senseless. If one asked him why, he would have said that on those days lovers abandoned each other, buses crashed, people died. On days like that he listened to Judas Priest, dreamt about diamonds, rust and sodomizing Joan Baez. It was not widely known among his friends but his grandfather died on a gloomy day. In these darker moments Joe wrote Gothic poetry about demise and depression that come with the rain.
He was sixteen, one of the undisputed leaders of the 11th graders, along with his “nemesis-friend” Jim, plus a few “jockstrap hero” characters like Alon who wanted to be the next Arik Sharon when he got to the army… Everyone looked up to Joe admiringly. Nobody more than Sylvia who was officially still his girlfriend. Unofficially Joe was brooding, bored with their relationship. He told her several times that as far as he was concerned she was free. She refused to accept this and kept hanging on. Joe had mixed feelings about the whole thing. At some point he tried to hook her up with Jake, but that went nowhere. Sylvia was his best friend and occasional lover but she didn’t really turn him on the way she did just a year ago. They still spent a lot of time together. Once in a while things happened, but they were mostly going through the motions. The thrill was gone… Yet, she understood him like no one else and even now they always made each other smile. In fact, even though Joe made everybody else laugh with his sarcasm, he rarely laughed himself, unless he was with his mother or Sylvia. That’s when he could drop his mask of confident cynicism and be himself. His relationship with Sylvia was rare and precious, but Joe, despite all his vast knowledge was young and inexperienced. He could not comprehend that throwing it away was not just sinful but also dumb.
He had everything that a person like him could possibly expect. His friends and classmates came from well off, or at least significantly better off families than him, yet he was “the dude” in their class. Not Sharon R. whose dad had a factory, a three story villa and two Volvos. Not Eithan L. whose dad was deputy mayor of the city. No, it was him, Joe Marjesua from Memshalti neighborhood who was admired for his brain and sometimes also for his sincere smile, when he felt like smiling. He was a quasi hippie kid who loved very strange music and bizarre literature. He had a mind that tended to wander in many directions simultaneously. He hated authority, couldn’t stay in one place for more than an hour, skipping class whenever he felt like it. Despite his very spotty attendance record he had the best grades. He was despised by the terrifying Ms. Moskowitz, the chief priestess of mathematics in their school. She was afraid of him and always gave him excellent grades. On occasion she could even be overheard mumbling grudgingly about Joe’s “original, mature mathematical way of thinking”.
And while Moskowitz barely tolerated him, he was adored by both his physics and history teachers, a feeling that Joe reciprocated happily. The physics teacher was a nationally renowned scientist from the Weizmann Institute. He got him deep into quantum theory. They spent many happy hours talking about it while strolling around school grounds. Then there was history… History was more than just an interest, it was an addiction, an obsession for him. A way to stay connected with his beloved and sorely missed grandfather, Abe. As he read Caesar’s Commentaries or Machiavelli's Prince, Abe’s voice spoke to him from every page. When he managed to get his hands on a few very rare pre-war books about Riga’s Jewish community, he immediately felt the connection to the stories that Abe told him about Liebe and Julius Edelweiss, and to the house on Matisa Str. where he grew up. The house they had to leave less than ten years ago.
That fall, during several consecutive rainy days when he felt sufficiently gloomy, Joe wrote an essay about the ideological origins of Latvian antisemitism and the roots of the Holocaust in Latvia. He sent it for review to the historiographical society at Tel-Aviv University. His history teacher, who was a member of the society, soon told him excitedly that it was accepted as a candidate for spring 1987 publication in their journal. Joe was ecstatic and bragged to anybody who cared to listen. This meant a lot more to him than school or grades. His mother just shook her head in disbelief.
Yes, he had everything that somebody like him could possibly want. He wrote beautiful poetry that touched people. He spent hours with kids who needed help with their homework and enjoyed the feeling of selfless giving. He started playing with computers and loved the creative freedom that came with programming. And yet he had a hole in his heart… Through that hole happiness leaked away from him. He never spoke about the hole with anybody; not even Sylvia or his mother. Especially not with his mother. He remembered the famous quote about happiness by Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician and philosopher of the early enlightenment:
“All men seek happiness. And yet after such a great number of years, no one without faith has reached the point to which all continually look. All complain, princes and subjects, noblemen and commoners, old and young, strong and weak, learned and ignorant, healthy and sick, of all countries, all the time, all ages, and all conditions.
A trial so long, so continuous, and so uniform should certainly convince us of our inability to reach the good by our own means. These are all inadequate, because the infinite abyss can only be filled by an infinite and immutable Object, that is to say, only by God Himself.”
God meant nothing to Joe back then. He did not feel that he needed or wanted God in his life, and the only infinite immutable thing he knew was human stupidity. But he certainly felt unhappy despite all his knowledge and achievements. He thought that he knew what could plug that hole, but that was something he could never have; he secretly yearned for a little brother or a sister. A little Joe or Jane he would help raise. In his fantasies he would bring them toys and games. Make cheese toast and oatmeal for every morning. Teach them how to read and write. Watch cartoons with them. If it was a girl he would dress her up as a princess. If a boy, he would show him how to spit from the side of his mouth and duel with car antennas. He would take them for walks in the neighborhood and brag about them to his old ‘hood buddies. He could even take them to school so they could meet all his friends.
When they got older he would introduce them to math and history, just like Abe did with him. They would talk about sciences and read philosophy and poetry together. He would make them listen to his favorite music — Black Sabbath and AC/DC. They would be a copy of him — a little Joe or Jane. And then he finally wouldn’t have to be alone! Because despite having everything, he felt like he had very little and it bothered him a lot. Every day since Abe was no longer in his life, he felt sad and alone. Neither his old ‘hood pals, nor all his new Ramleh Lud friends were sufficient to kill that dull ache inside. For a while Sylvia could, but now she was woefully inadequate and frankly more of a burden than a relief.
His relationship with his mother was tainted by his constant fear for her health, and the crazy ups and downs between her and Misha. Every time she had a crisis with her kidneys and went to the hospital he was terrified and felt responsible as if it was his fault somehow. He regretted introducing her to Misha because of everything that has been happening since then; he worried about her crazy workload; the tears he heard her cry sometimes cut through him like a knife. He loved his mother and every moment they spent together was precious, but sometimes he felt guilty for being alive and healthy when he thought of her.
In his worst nightmares, he saw himself and her spinning in a scary endless vortex. He dreaded her death and felt that it was imminent. Perhaps it was another reason for his desire for a little Joe or Jane, to have a piece of her around in case she died. Or “when she died” he corrected himself and shook his head in resignation. He remembered a promise he made to Abe shortly before his death, to always take care of mother and be her protector. But could he? He was not a superhero who could defeat disease and misfortune. There were no superpowers in his backpack. He hardly had dominion over his own life, let alone hers. In that nightmarish vortex of his slumber Joe always saw his mother dead and Abe’s reproachful eyes. It made him wake up sweaty and terrified.
He knew that his desire for a sibling was completely unrealistic. Ever since he was old enough to listen and understand, his mother repeatedly told him the crazy tale of his birth and her near death as a result of it. Joe could recite it word for word, syllable by syllable, ad nauseam. That story made him feel lucky being alive and guilty for it at the same time… He didn’t want mother to take any risks like that anymore. And yet, his longing for a little Joe or Jane was as strong as ever.
The infamous story went like this: “Grandmother Sima did not tell anyone that she had weak kidneys. Then she died. Then mother got pregnant. She did not get checked up and had no idea about her own weak kidneys. The pregnancy appeared to be progressing quite normally… Then, two weeks before the due date she got very dizzy going down the stairs. She tumbled down a whole flight and landed on her belly. When she awoke she was terrified that little Joe died as the result of the fall, but Joe was tough and started kicking almost right away. Everything was good and she soon forgot about the fainting episode. When she was finally due to deliver she went into the hospital not suspecting or expecting anything ominous.
Almost immediately after she started having contractions her kidneys gave out. She screamed and cried from the combined pain of the contractions and the sharp stabs coming from her kidneys, all the while bleeding from her uterus and bladder simultaneously. But it was too late to do anything to help her because the water broke and it was time to push. Her blood pressure, which caused her fall earlier, now peaked at a crazy 260 systolic. She was almost comatose; only the sharp pains prevented her from fainting.
To make things worse, unbeknownst to anyone, Joe was lying in the wrong position for delivery with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. As he started sliding into the birth canal, the cord tightened and started choking him. It was also twisting his neck with every contraction. He was in serious fetal distress, and the only thing keeping him alive for the time being was the fact that mother could not really push.
As Joe was suffocating, rapidly losing heartbeat, his mother screamed in agony, all the while bleeding relentlessly and convulsing. Then the doctors finally realized what was going on. The attending was a very experienced general surgeon who has seen it all. She knew what to do; without flinching she performed an emergency Cesarean right at the bedside and pulled little Joe out seconds before it was too late. He was born with a crooked neck, but very much alive and screaming.
As for mother, her kidney disease kicked in full force because of the stress of the delivery. It was very severe; there were very few antibiotics in 1970s Soviet Union and hence the doctors could not help much. She almost died. A terrible pyelonephritis ravaged her body for half a year; she could barely move or bend. The doctors that came to see her said that the successful delivery was a medical miracle and she should be grateful for being alive and having a healthy baby. They shook their heads and swore that if they knew about her disease they would have told her to abort Joe, who would have never been born.
Mother felt a terrible guilt about almost killing him during the delivery. Tiny Joe wore a brace for months to straighten his neck. However, other than that he was just fine. Except for some upset stomach episodes at the age of five, he grew up completely healthy and normal. Yet he was always under a microscope. He also knew that another adventure in the delivery room that would provide him a brother or a sister was out of the question.
Part B — Uh Oh, Love Comes to Town
Back in tenth grade, in the spring of 1986, a new student has joined their class. It was March, and Joe happened to be attending the literature lesson when “O” first walked into everyone’s collective life. The door opened and the principal entered, followed by a creature that could not possibly be local. Joe wondered if she was Israeli or even human for that matter. She looked like a nymph that descended to earth from some celestial sphere where heavenly creatures such as angels and princesses resided. Everyone was shocked and speechless, staring at her. Things like that happened in teeny bopper movies made in Hollywood. Not in Ramleh Lud!
“O” looked like a sophisticated European model. That was because she was a sophisticated European model (as they found out later). She was on the cover of a Spanish teen journal last winter, and was about to shoot a chewing gum commercial when her ambassador father was recalled back from Madrid to Tel-Aviv. She was bummed out about it to no end. Joe heard these rumors indirectly from a few girls a few weeks later. “O” herself did not say much and kept her distance from all the guys and most of the girls, sitting at the very back of the class reading French fashion journals.
She wasn’t friendly or “Miss Personality”, not was she the scholarly type. Studies were the last thing on her mind. “O” was present in class physically but everything about her pose, the tone of her beautiful angelic voice when she spoke, the contemptuous smirk at the corner of her mouth; everything conveyed the same message: “I am here by accident and I am not one of you people. Stay away! I am too good for You…”. That message was directed towards both teachers and classmates.
Everyone in their class were teens. They still looked and behaved like teens. Some girls were pretty, others like Sylvia had endearing features and a character that made them attractive. But they were clearly teens from Lud and the vicinity. That was visible in the clumsy way they dressed, the amateurish way they used makeup and how they walked and talked.
“O” on the other hand was not a teen anymore, despite her age. She was a naturally gorgeous strawberry blonde with an angelic smile and big captivating blue eyes. She was chique. She wore the bland school uniform with so much class it could have been a Chanel outfit for all practical purposes. She moved like a graceful gazelle. Her lunch consisted of exotic tapas finger sandwiches and fancy Mideterranian salads, while almost everyone else packed turkey bologna with tomato and mayo on slabs of cheapo white bread they bought in the neighborhood grocery. “O” was more of a cultural phenomenon rather than an actual human being.
Joe was mostly indifferent to the “O” hysteria. He was still in his “mad about Sylvia” phase. While he was somewhat interested in her extensive travel experiences, there was no strong attraction or cravings in his mind. When they started 11th grade, the girls spread a rumor about “O” dating a big manly looking paratrooper from Kfar Shmuel where she lived. All the coolest dudes in Ramleh Lud who tried to get her attention and failed miserably were heartbroken. She was still untouchable and mostly unapproachable. Having spent the summer in Europe she returned with many fashionable outfits that made the boys drool and the girls green with envy. Joe, who was also in Europe that summer, returned with a suitcase full of records and another one full of books. He considered fashion an anathema. He owned five worn out T-shirts, one non uniform dress shirt, two pairs of scruffy jeans, one pair of Adidas high tops and an old Bill Blass leather jacket. His fashion score was an “F”. The common interest level between “O” and him was zero. At least that’s what he thought at the time.
One day in January, as he climbed over the fence to get into Ramleh Lud, he bumped into “O” who just parked her cute little Renault 5. To his great surprise she noticed him. Still, very much uninterested but somewhat intrigued, Joe smiled and struck up a brave conversation about Picasso and the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. She did not dismiss him immediately, and to his continued amazement, actually worked hard to maintain the intellectual level of the chat. He suspected that the warm conversation and her interest level were genuinely fake, but strangely enough, he did not care. This was fun! They carried on as they walked into class together. Joe was amused to see Alon’s dangling jaw as that testosterone gushing male god watched “O” look at Joe with interest as she chatted with him. Then they politely said goodbye and sat in their respective places.
They kept a distance from each other for another month. Then, one day during bible class, their teacher Ofra Pinchuk, had a meltdown. The topic of her meltdown was Josiah 53 and it’s unfortunate victim was poor “O”. A few days earlier Pinchuk assigned an essay to the class about this most obscure and complex chapter in the book of Josiah. The chapter describes God’s servant who is falsely accused and suffers for the sins of others. It was perhaps one of the most deeply discussed and heatedly debated chapters in the Bible, and she expected a wide range of interesting views from them.
The essay was not due for another few days but Ofra wanted to review the main concepts with the class. As she asked a few questions to get the conversation flowing, it became immediately clear to her that nobody bothered to read the chapter. Furthermore, nobody was in the mood to pay attention. Jake was doing physics homework; Sylvia was working in her latest poem; Alon was daydreaming; And Joe was on page 475 of the latest Heinlein novel he got his hands on in Tel-Aviv just a few days ago.
Ofra Pinchuk walked the room in a slow deliberate stride, staring into the empty eyes of the students, boiling from within. She was looking for a single face that would show her some sympathy and understanding and say something meaningful about God’s servant. She approached “O” who was in the back as usual, chewing gum and reading some fashion mag. She was so focused on the latest spring fashions that she did not notice Pinchuk walk up to her desk. Suddenly, she grabbed the magazine out of surprised “O”’s hand and looking straight into her eyes asked:
“So, dear… I know this class is boring and you and your friends have more important things you care about, but unless you tell me who is the Suffering Servant Of God, you will get an F in the class and I will personally recommend keeping you back one year”.
Poor “O” looked like a deer in headlights. Everyone was staring. Suddenly her proud visage melted and she started sobbing. Then she mumbled in a choked up emotional voice:
“I have no idea who God’s servant is, maybe Jesus?”, and everyone in the class laughed hysterically except Joe. Pinchuk turned white.
“O” looked around helplessly in all directions in a vain hope for salvation. Most of the students looked tense because they knew that once she gets her “F”, Pinchuk would move to another hapless victim. Still sobbing, “O” whispered: “And one more thing, nobody here is my friend!” and buried her head in her hands.
This whole charade distracted Joe from his Heinlein novel. He put the book down and glanced at Jake and then at Sylvia. He saw nothing in their eyes except emptiness and disinterest. Joe wondered why unlike everyone else he actually cared. As “O” started sobbing he felt a strange kinship with her. The loneliness of the outsider perhaps? He didn’t know what it was but his heart went out to her suddenly. It wasn’t anything sexual, even though “O” looked beautiful even when her face was a mess. It was more like a big brother, little sister kinship. A need to protect the weak.
Joe smiled a big smile and jumped in the ring:
“Ms. Pinchuk, I think what our friend O was trying to say is that she is Jewish but she lived in Europe a big portion of her life. As someone who received her education in a deeply Catholic country it is natural that any reference to God’s servant would be associated with Jesus. She must have been hearing about Jesus ever since she went to first grade.”
“O” raised her head and smiled a weak smile: “Since I came to Spain and went to kindergarten actually” she said.
Joe took a deep breath and continued: “Ms. Pinchuk, I know that we have all done a sloppy job answering your questions. You wanted us to read the Josiah chapter and major commentators and be ready for the discussion. And we all goofed up. But taking it out on O is almost as bad the nations of the world taking out their transgressions on the servant of God, who is the nation of Israel of course as we all know.”
Pinchuk’s angry countenance became softer. Joe looked deeply into her stupid brown eyes and concluded: “Let us then be full of the knowledge of God, like the nations of the world. Let us come to the servant of God and ask him to teach us the ways of God. Let us show kindness and compassion! Please forgive O, she meant no disrespect. I will personally make sure that she reads the chapter and writes a good essay by herself. I give you my word.”
Joe finished and looked around. He was not a great speaker, his preferred expression medium was the written word. Pinchuk was back at her desk, staring at him in amazement. Sylvia looked at him with disgust. Jake was confused by the scene and looked at Joe with a genuine bovine misunderstanding. “O”’s big and beautiful adoring eyes were focused directly on Joe. Her smile shone like the sun. Flickers of light reflected in her deep blue eyes. Suddenly Joe felt dizzy. He turned away and saw murder in Alon’s eyes as the big “He-man” stared at him. He shook his head and went back to the Heinlein novel.
After class, “O” walked up to him, in front of everyone, and offered him a ride home in her Renault. Joe calmly accepted. Then he got up to talk to Sylvia but she left the class abruptly. Jake who saw the scene, shook his head and started a conversation with Joe about the new Deep Purple record.
In the car, on their way back, Joe saw “O” laugh for the first time since she came to their class. She turned her head and smiled at him with those glorious eyes. Joe asked her why she was laughing and she told him that he was very gallant, defending her honor from Pinchuk. Joe started saying something about wanting to stand up for the weak, and despising that stupid arrogant teacher who did not really understand the Bible the way, he, Joe Marjesua did. She cut him off in mid sentence and said:
“Well, all the boys in this school want to sleep with me. I get that. I am pretty and everyone I meet wants to fuck me. But for some reason I thought that you are different. I guess you are not. But how about your story with Sylvia?”
Joe’s jaw dropped. There wasn’t much to say. He could have launched a tirade about his altruistic motives. Or asked her about her soldier boyfriend. Instead, he returned her gaze and made a sheepish grin. After a moment of silence they both laughed as if on cue. It was a new experience for him, to laugh with somebody else but Sylvia and his mother. He shrugged his shoulders and said:
“Sylvia and I are not really an item anymore. I have to say though that you are indeed very beautiful. I wouldn’t quite put things in such vulgar terms as you did just now, but yes, the thought of making love to you did cross my mind. And it would not be completely unpleasant I imagine. We do need to write that damned essay first though before any further discussions on that matter. So I suggest we head to your home, where we can get started.”
“O” laughed and turned the car towards Kfar Shmuel. As she drove, Joe started telling her about the book of Josiah and the period of the Babylonian exile…
Read “Chapter 15” at
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