TEL AVIV – YAFO, Israel
32.08° N, 34.78° E
Cool tentacles of vapor, stirred by the sea, seep through the winding passages of Tel Aviv. Midnight tastes of salt. The streets, dimly lit, appear passive. Bodies gather & drink & smoke & meander, but go nowhere quickly. Voices are hurried, perturbed, guttural, excited. The fire-lit cherries of hand-rolled cigarettes dance like drunk bugs in the dark. The clamor of conversation rises above music broadcasted from each rival dive bar.
My dive is the Uganda.
The close-quartered interior of the bar is lined with independent records and avant-garde art. The exterior is a confluence of alleyways; Neve Tzedek streets flow as streams do, seeking less resistance, trickling into dead-ends, pouring into boulevards. Where three alleys converge, Uganda Bar has placed folding tables and chairs for the overflow of patrons. This is where I make my last stand. By morning, I’ll be gone.
Sasha takes the chair opposite from me. He is a passionate Israeli, ornery, maybe constipated. He’s kind. Kind of. When he is not scolding my sense of direction, he is mostly kind. My glass of beer quietens the nagging of my twisted ankles, but nothing calms Sasha’s matronly scorn. He insists I suspend my westward retreat. He says I should continue my stay in the Holy Land. Jerusalem is only a cigarette away, he says. He continues with a question, how many generations of mothers, mothers of mothers of mothers, whose blood has led to your birth, have prayed for Jerusalem?, How many of your mothers have dreamt of Jerusalem, have lived their lives never coming as close to Jerusalem as you, this son of a daughter of a mother? How many generations of your mothers are with you now? With you here in Israel? Looking upon you as you drink Negronis in Tel Aviv bars, smiling at Israeli women? And you dare say to your mothers, “no, I shall not go to Jerusalem”? You will say this to all of the mothers who have bled through the centuries leading to you?
Don’t talk about my mama, I say.
Besides, I tell Sasha, King Richard the Lionheart only made it this far. He stormed these beaches to defend Jaffa against the armies of Saladin. In the crashing of nearby surf, you can imagine the clashing of swords. King Richard may have been in this very alley, seven hundred years ago, sitting in this chair, sipping arak served to him by a Jewish hipster bartender, just as I am doing now.
I am not thinking this is plausible, Sasha says.
I shrug, maybe, maybe not. Richard had his coming-to-Jesus reckoning after the Battle of Jaffa. He realized how fucked & far from home he was. Maybe he missed the warmth of his mother of Aquitaine, missed her famous frog-leg casserole, missed his ex-boyfriend, the King of France, missed his Premier League. A big Chelsea fan, he was. And so King Richard the Lionheart decided it was time to go home. Time to cash in his chips, fuck it, exit stage left, see you next summer. Maybe a 4th crusade would be the charm? Of course, the 4th Crusade was a complete shit show, “The Clusterfuck at Constantinople”, they called it…
Your words are being nonsensical!, Sasha interrupts. Richard required an army to enter Jerusalem, he says. You require a few shekels. I will give you the shekels if this is what you are needing.
Thanks dude, but I miss mum’s frog-leg casserole.
Yes, well… Sasha searches for inspiration. Come melech, Sasha says with a table slap, rising from his chair. You are drinking Israeli arak. It is shit. Let me buy you a drink of Palestinian arak, he says. Sighing, I look at my wrist. There is no watch there, but I can tell the hour is late. Okay, I say to Sasha. One last drink.
Returning to the confines of Uganda, I spy Avishag for the first time. The bar is crowded; she stands apart. Avishag gives off her own light. Preternatural. Like an apparition. The ghost of drowned Ophelia. If I were a Christian shepherd boy from some peasant village, I would think she was a vision of the virgin mother. A very blonde virgin mother. A virgin mother smoking hand-rolled cigarettes. Avishag recognizes Sasha, they exchange terse pleasantries in Hebrew, neither especially amused by the presence of the other. Sasha takes a seat beside Avishag. I sit a barstool further down. Sasha asks the bartender for the bottle of Palestinian arak. The good shit. This arak is made in Bethlehem, he says. Palestine. I cannot go there, Sasha says, but you can go there. He jabs my chest with a decisive index finger. You can go there, he repeats. I ask Sasha, why? Am I allowed to go to Bethlehem because I am a fucking gentile? He clarifies, you may go to Bethlehem because you are a fucking gentile American. L’Chaim!, he cheers and we drink arak. Ah. The anise liquor tastes of death, but a good death. An honorable death.
Sasha’s attention is turned towards the blonde on his other side. Avishag. Sasha turns back towards me, annoyed. He says, she is wanting to meet you. He leans away from the bar to reveal Avishag beyond.
Avishag introduces herself. I ask her to repeat her name. Twice. I still don’t know what to call her. She’s carrying a copy of Tolkien’s Simarillion, so I call her Galadriel. Avishag is pleased with this. Sasha, still leaning back, tells her, Vic must be leaving soon. Vic must be eating his mother’s frog, Sasha says. Ehh, uh, I stammer, checking my wrist, mentally adjusting timelines. I have time for one beer, I say to the Israelis. I am a thirsty pilgrim, after all. Sasha becomes irritated and excuses himself to the bathroom. I assume the void, taking his barstool, sliding closer to Avishag.
Avishag speaks with careful intent. Victor Neverman, she repeats my name before asking, you are Jewish? I do not think so, I say. Maybe a lost tribe, I offer. She says, I know you are not Israeli. You are too fat for Israeli. Hey!, I say with a laugh. I will have you know, I am considered appropriately non-fat in America. Yes, Avishag nods acceptance, I know this. Americans are fat. You are appropriate.
Tough crowd. Make it a light beer, I tell the bartender.
You are a traveler, she says. You should be growing the beard, she says. Like a traveler. Like a sorcerer. You have traveled to New Zealand?, she asks me. I tell Avishag I have indeed. Her eyes flicker and she seizes my arm. It is her dream to climb Mount Doom. Of course, there is no such place, I politely mention. Yes, I know this, Avishag says. Chai b’seret, yes it is fantastical. Are you never desiring the fantastic?, she asks. On occasion, I admit. Avishag closes her eyes and affirms, I wish to climb Mt Doom.
What do you do?, I ask Avishag, when you are not dreaming of Doom? She says she makes art. Art about death. Art about cats. Ahh, I ahh. There is an American saying, I say, “nothing is certain but death and cats-ses”. Avishag is silent and still, as if waiting for the punchline. Eventually, she blinks and says, I do not understand this. I smirk at the failed attempt at humor. It is a bad joke, I admit. I know this, Avishag says confidently, adding, you are not funny. Ha!, I laugh, saying, in America, people think I am very funny. Avishag says, yes, I know this. In America, they are also thinking you are not fat.
Shit!, this chick.
Sasha returns from the bathroom with wild eyes and flaring nostrils. Vic, my brother, he says, embracing me. Do not forget, many, many, many years ago Jaffa is also being called Joppa. This is the port Jonah declined his destiny and was trying to flee the will of God. He was swallowed by a whale, Vic, and vomited back onto the beach. Yeah, I say to Sasha, patting him on the back. I know the story. I saw Pinnocchio. And if I fall out of my plane and get swallowed by a whale, you’ll be the first person I call, Sasha. This pleases him. With a smile and a nod, Sasha raises his arak glass to the idea of my inevitable return. May the will of God be done, L’Chaim!
I have to leave. I have to pack and call a cab to the airport. I ask Avishag one last time about her name. How is your name spelled in romanized letters?, I ask. Her hands busy rolling tobacco into papers, Avishag looks up to me, inquiring, you mean how I am spelling my name in English? Or how my name is being spelled in romantic letters? Avishag’s smile is coy. I take the bait and ask how her name is spelled in romantic letters. This, I do not know, Avishag says to me. I do not write romantic letters to myself. How would you spell my name in romantic letters?
With deep regret, I say with a laugh.
Fuck, I say while contemplating. How bad could airport security be in the middle of the night during a mini-skirmish between Israel and Hezbollah? Y’know what?, what the hell! I order another round of arak with a whirlwind twirl of my finger. Fucking sorcerer I am.
One more for the road…
Where will Vic turn up next??/////!