03 May 2006

Happy Independence Day!

In Honor of Yom Haatzmaut, I give you my contribution to Daled Amos's Israel Meme:

Picture it: you're seventeen, a bit of a nerd, and awkward as all get-out. Shy by nature, no one really knows it because you're the class clown who can make anyone laugh. Even though you aren't too sure of it, everyone really likes you because you're good at pretending that you don't give a damn.

Most girls your age live on: boys, makeup, and celebrities, in that order. You live on: television, fiction, and imagination, in that order. Their wardrobe: tight jeans, skimpy top, more product in their hair than clothes on their bodies. Your wardrobe: loose-fitting jean jacket, loose-fitting tie-dye t-shirt, not-so-loose fitting jeans. You didn't think you were the cutest thing on the block, but who cared? You had brains and you knew it and you loved yourself for it.

Sitting in the airport, minding my own business and waiting to board the plane, I was occasionally interrupted by a member of my tour group, who was not so casually handing me loads of random objects (perfume, clothes, a five pound bag of M&Ms) in order to lighten their suitcase enough to get it on board. In the midst of the chaos I notice Israel's own version of John Lennon has parked himself a seat away from mine. Why would a guy who spends his time buried in his Gameboy select a seat right next to someone in a near-empty room full of totally empty chairs? Boys are strange creatures.

I would spend the hours before the flight grabbing careful glances out of my peripheral vision at this somewhat lanky, long-haired geek and wonder what he was all about. To my right was my mother waiting not so patiently in that toe-tapping style she's made famous; I resisted my urge to cling to her in fear. I bet he's a psychokiller. My penchant for mysteries was getting the better of me when, finally, my mother broke the ice.

"Hi, are you Israeli?" It was something like that, anyway. My mother has this amazing gift of approaching complete strangers and engaging them in conversation. For me, this is a learned skill (learned well under her tutelage-- yes, mummy, I'll stay humble and say Baruch HaShem) that remains in my back pocket under glass to be used in extreme emergencies. For mom, it's a required way to introduce yourself to the world and make new friends.

The young man proceeded to engage her in conversation, informing her that he was, indeed, returning to Israel after spending nearly a year in America working as an intern at a technology firm in Pittsburgh. He was on a tight deadline and hoped the plane would follow the schedule; he had to be back in Israel within 24 hours because he was due to report for basic training with the IDF. I studied this guy with the long blonde hair and granny glasses and tried to picture John Lennon in fatigues.

Listening quietly, I contributed an "oh" or "uh-huh" here and there to be polite, but mama didn't raise no fool; he was talking to my mother, but he was looking at me. I felt myself avoiding eye contact as I twisted and bit the corner of my lip in awkward shyness. G-d, I am dreadful at this, this-- "meeting people" thing. If only he didn't look at me like that, if only he didn't insist on staring at me I could hold a wonderfully rational conversation, you know! I could think of a million things to ask, to talk about. G-d, stop it! Stop... staring at me! I'm not that friggin' amazing!

The conversation ended when the plane boarded. After we had settled into our sardine cans-- I mean, seats-- my mother looked about the plane and saw him seated by the exit door, receiving instructions on how to guide passengers out safely in case of an emergency. "I want to go ask him about Jerusalem. He'll know the good shops. Think I should go ask him?" (Never get between a Jewish mother and her shopping.) I reluctantly agreed, and she asked if I wanted to join her. "NOOOOO," I replied in a firm whisper, feeling myself turn red at the thought.

A while later and we were in the air. A while later, and mother was getting the low-down on Ben Yehuda Street. Still, a while after that, my mother returned to inform me that the exchange of information hadn't been totally one-sided: "He was asking me a lot of questions about my daughter."

"Eww. That's not his business."

"Isn't it? He wanted to know how old you were, what you were doing..."

"Why?"

She gave me the look that said you know-- and I did.

"He's too old."

"He's only a couple of years older than you."

"Hmph." Weird. I called up the mental image of myself that I kept in my back pocket for such times as these. Dusting it off, I verbalized what I saw: silly; red-faced; too big; too loud; too shy; too, too-- too much of everything and not enough of anything worth noticing. Boys at school never noticed me, so what made me different to this guy? Did Israelis need their vision checked or something? "Well, I *am* an exotic American," I brushed it off with a gag to which my mother laughed.

The plane landed on time. We scooted to get our luggage and as I stood in front of the carousel fighting the crowd of rather loud, obnoxious Middle Eastern men who obviously didn't understand that as the lady, I had the right of way, I felt someone shove his way next to me without exactly shoving into me.

"So, you're touring Israel." The Israeli accent is a strange one. Not overly enunciated or gutteral like a British accent, the Israeli take on English is soft, rounded-- less obnoxious than the French, less self-important than the Italian. This, from a country where a syllable can be hacked from the back of the throat.

"Yep. I'm looking forward to it."

"How long are you here for?"

"About ten days."

"I'm going to be staying with friends near Haifa on and off for the next few days. Will you be near there?"

"Uhm, I don't know. I think so." I tried to mentally place Haifa with my brain that was slowly turning to mush.

"If you are, and you want to hang out, here's my number. You can use the card, too. I'll pay for the call." His tone was hopeful as he thumbed out a prepaid international phone card that had been carefully written on in blue pen.

Wow, Israeli phone numbers are obscenely long. "Uhm, okay, thanks. I don't really know if we'll even be there or not, but we'll see." I saw my bag and grabbed it. Turning to him I finished with, "Hey, have fun out there," or some such nonsense.

"Maybe I'll see you around."

"Maybe, you never know. Shalom." I turned back to the group and one guy, my friend's dad, gave me google-eyes. I pursed my lips into a half-grin, knowing my face was beet-red.

I never did work up the courage to give the guy a call. You see, girls just.. don't do things like that. My mother offered to go with me into Haifa to meet him. (Never get between a Jewish mother and a possible shidduch.)

"No," I said, packing up my suitcase in the hotel room, "it just wouldn't be right. I don't know him from Adam, and you just don't do things like that in foreign countries."

"He seemed like a really nice guy." My mother, the romantic.

"Yes, I'm sure he is. But we can't even speak the language; you never leave the group." I studied myself in the room's full-length mirror. "I guess I'm not so bad looking after all."

"Of course you aren't! You're perfect! Just lose a few pounds around the middle, and you'd be a supermodel!" (I know, mom, you say these things for my benefit, out of love.)

As I look down at that phone card now, with the blue numbers scratched in wax with ball-point ink, I think of how little things have changed. Of how my mother still says hello to strangers, of how she thinks the best when anyone else (including me) would think the worst, of how I still need to "lose a few pounds around the middle," and how I still turn beet-red at the mere thought of grabbing a guy's attention. And then I think of all the loves lost; American boys with beautiful eyes and heartbreaking smiles who could make me laugh but left me feeling so imperfect, so lost and alone and yearning for the security of that oversized denim jacket and my mother's warm, strong arms, and the love of the G-d I've known forever, Who is forever, Whose land is forever, Whose people-- my people are forever, and I think here, here I may be nothing, as I study that well-worn phone card that has claimed a permanent home in the fold of my wallet, here I may be nothing, but there I am a Queen.

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