One of my earliest memories is from third grade. We are at the playground. Dana and I are skipping rope. Her red pigtails bounce as she jumps up and down. We take turns with the rope. She is so small and skinny that when it is her turn, she has to bunch up the rope so that she doesn’t trip all over it. Mattie and Josh are waiting impatiently for us to finish jumping. We have promised that in the second half of recess, we will play catch with them. Seven and a half precious minutes of running all over the playground.
“Hey ginger mouse.” Two kids march up to Dana, and intercept the rope. “Hey Dana mouse.” They grab the rope and rip it away from her. Dana has a look of fear on her face. This is not her first encounter with these kids.
I indignantly march up to the bigger of the two boys: he is a tall blonde boy with flashing brown eyes. “If she is a mouse, you and your friend are both mouse shit,” I say to the kids, right in their face, not caring that I am not considerably bigger than Dana, and that I am certainly outnumbered by the two formidable boys. “Is she your body guard, Dana mouse?” asks the other boy, and he shakes his skinny long fingers at my quivering friend. “Grab her,” he says to his friend. The other one grabs me by the arms. “Let me go, you bully,” I say. “Run
Dana, run . . .”
“You can’t get away, Tamara” says the one locking my hands behind my back, “not this time.”
“You don’t have to hit me,” I tell him defiantly. “I will faint because you stink so badly.”
“You little bitch,” he says and grabs me even harder. “Hit her,” he calls to his friend. It is only a matter of time before some part of me will be bruised or bleeding. But I don’t care. I continue to struggle to resist and to get free. I close my eyes tightly and brace myself for the blow, but it doesn’t come. I hear shouting and sounds of struggle, some of them my own, some from the others around me. I can hear scuffling and movement. But I can’t hear Dana. I hope she has run away to get a teacher. I am still struggling to break free, until suddenly, I can feel that no one is gripping me anymore. “Tamara, it’s OK. You can open your eyes now. They are gone.” I slowly open them. Josh and Dana are standing next to me. Dana puts her hand on my shoulder. She stands on her tiptoes and whispers in my ear, “Thanks, Tamara.” The two bullies are running off towards the other end of the playground. Mattie shouts after them: “Pick on someone your own size.” He turns to me. His pants have a rip in them and his arm is grazed. He grins. “Well, what are you waiting for?” he asks. “Catch me if you can . . .” and he turns to run. Josh, Dana and I laugh and go off in hot pursuit.
I don’t care how old you are, where you are from, or what your profession is, I think humans have one thing in common: the need to belong. I am no different. It’s not so much a dependency; it’s more like an instinct. Despite human evolution over the past million years, we still remain pretty tribal. With me, the need to belong conflicts with the fact that – as my friends say – I am “all angles and edges.” I don’t fit in anywhere very easily. I don’t try to be this way; I just am. I think this was what David initially found so attractive. He was so trapped in making people like him, being acceptable and acquiescent, that for him, I was a breath of fresh air. I was someone who could tell the electrician not to bother to come inside since he was late, or someone who was not scared to tell his parents that no thank you very much, but we will not be coming to dinner. In many ways, I was able to say and do things that he couldn’t. He allowed me to become his mouthpiece, at first in situations of conflict and then in uncomfortable places, and then more or less all the time. Suddenly he realized that he had lost his voice all together. I guess that over time, my directness became less and less charming for him and more of a burden – a reminder that his own voice was sublimated. Until one day, it wasn’t anymore.
So at the age of twenty-eight, I found myself newly divorced and wondering what to do next.
I don’t know if there is a code book for the newly divorced, but the gravitation to the tribe was stronger than anything that I can remember. To not be alone. To be out on the market. Single again is like having the scarlet letter “A” branded on your forehead: Alone, Anguished, Awkward . . . not belonging to the tribe, on the outskirts of civilization. So I grew out my pixie short hair, bought a few new pairs of jeans and tops to herald in a new era, and went to live in that infamous city of singles: Tel Aviv.
It is the usual crowd at Josh and Karina’s. They are of my original tribe, sometimes more family than my own. My angles and edges fit perfectly within our intimate little circle. Josh, Mattie, Dana and I go back all the way to elementary school. Then we all went and grew up and life just happened, as it is wont to do. Josh met Karina in the army and they got married and already have a couple of kids. Mattie was almost married, but didn’t go through with it. His fiancé was part of the group for a while, as was my David. David and I divorced around the time that Mattie didn’t tie the knot.
David and I met at the university, in the first lesson of the first
semester. We became inseparable from that moment. Mostly it
was just the two of us, but sometimes, we made a formidable triple with Iris, another fellow student with whom we bonded. She was at least ten years older than we were. Already divorced once, with a young child and husband number two in tow, who looked like he was about to become history. She was totally badass and cool. She was more sophisticated and experienced than either of us. David and I were wowed and somewhat in awe of her. She spoke about sex like she knew what she was talking about and had a way of making people shift a bit uncomfortably in their seats.
David was the Boy Scout, the golden boy whom everyone loved. I was the mirror, the one who reflected what she saw without filters and without sugar coating, the one whom you kind of wanted to avoid. Iris was the beast, with no inhibitions and no concerns about improprieties. We called ourselves “the Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” in that exact order: David – the Good, me – the Bad, and Iris – the Ugly. When David and I divorced, it was clear that he wanted to relieve himself of being quiet and acquiescent and good. He felt that the only way he could do that was to shed himself of our threesome and of the extended group of friends that he had inherited when he married me. He needed to find a new crowd, people who would not know him as David the good. Iris and I have remained close all these years, and I brought her into my little intimate circle of friends. She hit it off with everyone,
including my best friend since forever: Dana.
Tonight, Dana has come alone, just like me. She is technically not married, but that is only because gay marriage isn’t legal in the state of Israel. Dana has been with Aviva for longer than any of us can remember. They met in the scouts. Aviva was Dana’s scout troop leader and what began as a beautiful friendship developed quite a few years later into a serious relationship with kids, a home in the suburbs of North Tel Aviv, one dog and three cats. Aviva is an honorary member of the group, but she is way too busy for our social gatherings. She is a hi-tech executive who travels all over the world selling something to do with bio-med, not sure what, just that it is likely to save mankind from some type of global medical catastrophe. She visits customers in medical facilities, labs and hospitals all over the world, and when she comes back, she always brings us weird, wonderful and exotic treats: chocolate-covered wasabi from Japan, cheese with worms growing inside of it from Italy, alcohol made from beets from Slovakia – the stranger, the better.
It is Friday night. We are sitting around the table. Karina and Josh are up and down all the time, between the kids’ room and the kitchen, but the rest of us are used to this and are enjoying ourselves. Iris is entertaining us with her latest
adventure. “So I was sitting in this meeting with a colleague of a colleague. He’s a new guy in the office. I was supposed to be giving him training, explaining to him all the ins and outs of our infrastructure, so that he could be given his first assignment. And, as I was standing at the white board, sketching him an architectural diagram, all I could think about was what it would be like to sit on his lap. He looked so strapping, like he could bench press me,” says Iris.
“Tell me that you didn’t act on that,” laughs Mattie.
“OK, that is what I will tell you,” says Iris, “but to the others, I will say something completely different.”
“No,” says Dana.
“No way,” I gasp. “You sat on his lap? Iris, you are a monster.”
“My dear child, since when do I only sit on someone’s lap?” retorts Iris with a snort.
“Where do you find these people?” asks Dana with a shudder.
“What are you talking about, Dana? Iris is ‘these people’,” laughs Josh.
“You are incorrigible!” I say.
“Not incorrigible, not at all. And take a lesson from me: it’s time that you started to sit on a few laps as well,” she tells me. I shrink lower in my chair. Here it comes. The usual diatribe about not being alone. Even from within my intimate group of friends.
I know Iris is talking about a hook-up and not a long-term relationship, but still, I roll my eyes and glare at her. “She isn’t ready,” says Mattie. “She will do it when she’s ready.” He is sitting next to me and he squeezes my shoulder. “Who are you to talk?” Iris says with a laugh. “When is the last time we heard something from your neck of the woods? Are you even dating?”
“I date,” says Mattie defensively, “I just don’t spill my guts to everyone like you all do.”
“All of us? Nothing to spill here.” says Dana. Josh calls out from the passageway, “Nothing to report.”
“Zero from me,” says Karina, from the kitchen.
“No lap sitting with the baby?” says Iris to Josh and Karina.
“Yeah, I remember those days.” Dana nods nostalgically.
“That’s not what we said!” says Karina stepping out of the kitchen. There’s plenty of that and then some,” and she blows a kiss to Josh.
“All of you are hopeless,” says Iris, gesturing to Dana, Josh and Karina. “You are all suffering from a terminal case of chronic fidelity. Makes me sick. You, on the other hand, my babies,” she says, gesturing to me and Matt, “I can still save the both of you. I can help you find what you are looking for.” Mattie and I look at each other, eyes open wide. “Yikes,” I say, “the monster has awakened.”
“Oh boy,” he says with a laugh.
“Don’t worry,” I say, “I will protect you.” Mattie puts his hand on my leg and squeezes hard.
I am about to leave. I give Josh and Karina a big hug and say thanks. The others are still lounging about lazily and chatting, but I have had my dose of company for the evening.
“Bye guys, I got to go,” I call out to the others.
“What’s your hurry?” asks Dana. “Tomorrow’s Saturday. Don’t tell me that you’re working.”
“No way. No work. I just need a break from you lot. That’s all.” I say.
“Aaaah, always so delicate and refined, our Tamara,” says Iris.
“That’s me. Too much socializing. Must. Go. Sit. In. The. Dark.”
“But I haven’t given you a lap to sit on yet,” says Iris. “My little black book is full.”
“Next time,” I say and slip out. I need to get out. I need some air. Even if it is the stifling air of a hot Tel Aviv evening.
I start to walk down the street. The air is so muggy that my clothes stick to me. I can’t wait for this heat to let up. “Tamara, wait up.” I turn around. It is Dana.
“I know you would like some alone time, but I need to get some stuff from that market next to you anyway, before I head
home. Are you OK that we be alone together?” She gives me a shy smile.
“Sure,” I say and I mean it. Dana and I go way back to kindergarten. She is someone that I can be quiet with. We walk three blocks down the boulevard from Josh and Karina’s place towards the edge of the city, where I live. The streets are by no means quiet. They are choc-a-bloc action and activity. But we just walk quietly, each with her own thoughts. “What do you need at the market?” I ask her as we approach the entrance.
“Well, Aviva wants some of those dried mangoes and kiwi that you brought her the last time you came to us.”
“I could have bought that for you, silly.” I said.
“I know. I just wanted an excuse to hang out a bit. It’s not like I have anything specific to say or anything, but well, you know, I just wanted to check in and see if you are OK. It has been a while since David, and I know you are OK. But, maybe Iris hit a chord tonight. It has been a while, since, well…”
“Well, you are enjoying watching me squirm, way too much.”
“I just want to make sure that you are not lonely.”
“Me lonely? That’s funny. All I need to do is snap my fingers and I can have men swarming around me.”
“Sounds delightful,” says Dana. “You must teach me if I ever
decide to switch camps.” We laugh. “Listen, I am OK. I just need…” I pause.
“I know, I know, space, time and continuum. Whatever.”
“Well yes, but actually, I guess what I was going to say is that I am lacking direction. I don’t really know what I am doing. I mean, I already had a nice guy and I lost him. And you know me…”
“Yes, all angles and edges. Listen, you did have a nice guy, but he wasn’t the right nice guy for you. Maybe you should take Iris up on her offer?”
“Iris was not offering to find me a nice guy. She was offering to find me a nice—”
“Well good night then,” Dana cuts me off abruptly. I laugh. We hug, and part at the door of the supermarket.
The next morning, I am woken up by the sound of my smartphone ringing. I try to ignore it by putting the duvet over my head. Quiet, quiet, quiet, please be quiet, I will the ringing noise to stop. But the ringing becomes more and more incessant. I pick up the phone. It is Iris. “What do you want?” I croak. “It is the crack of dawn. Leave me alone, you evil woman.”
“Good morning sunshine.”
“Not morning, and no sunshine. I need my beauty sleep.”
“Nonsense, you are especially gorgeous when you haven’t slept and are all grumpy. Now get out of bed, shower, and meet me for brunch at the port. There’s this new place that I heard about that makes a brunch like every other place in the area.”
“So if it is nothing special, why are we going there?”
“So that you can insult the people there my dear. I know how much you like to pick a fight.”
“I do not.”
“Oh forget it. Whatever. Wait, why are we going there?”
“The owner is a friend of a friend, and I want to introduce myself.”
“At least now I have the truth.”
“You can learn a thing or two from me. I’ll send you the address. Now move it. See you there in an hour.” She hangs up. “Wait—” I say, but the line is already dead.
I stumble out of bed and start getting myself ready. Quick shower. Pull on some leggings and a t-shirt and sandals. I stand at my window overlooking Rothschild Boulevard and take a few minutes to drink some tea with lemon, ginger and honey. All the regulars are already outside: the early birds who have been up for hours cycling or running or swimming, or doing all three. They are sitting on benches drinking some freshly-squeezed fruit of the season: oranges, pomegranate or some ghastly mixture with kale or spinach. The Goth teenagers are in the kiddy corner, hanging over the sides of the jungle gym, comparing tattoos and piercings. The young kids play among them, darting in and out, not caring a bit if they have to climb over them to get to the top of the monkey bars. There are some elderly folk, in wheelchairs and walkers, with Filipino caregivers talking among themselves in Tagalog. I stare out the window, taking it all in. This has been my morning ritual ever since I moved to the city. I am not yet used to Tel Aviv. I can’t say that I love the noise and the pace and the density. But, what I do love is that there is no judgement here. Everyone has a place. Everyone can belong.
I am at the Tel Aviv Port. Iris is already seated at a table. An attractive man is looking over her shoulder at the menu. He is smartly dressed with a button-down shirt and neatly pressed pants and good leather shoes. He is smiling at Iris. He has great teeth. “Hey babe,” Iris says to me, as I seat myself. “This is Mike. He is new in town, all the way from the States.”
“Hi Mike.” I say, “Welcome to the country, I guess.” I look away. I am not big on small talk. He says hi and thanks. “Mike is friendly with Dmitry; you know my ex-…” I can see her looking for a word. You can hardly describe Dmitry as an ex-anything. His phone number is still used frequently on Iris’ speed dial. I nod discreetly. “Mike, Tamara here is into saving humanity from itself. Despite that, she is single and a lot of fun.”
“Iris,” I say gasping, “what are you doing? I am sorry; I think that Iris is a bit confused,” I say to Mike. “I am not on the menu.” My voice is stern and raised. Mike laughs. “It’s OK.” He directs the comment to me. “Dmitry warned me about her.”
“What’s going on?” says a familiar voice behind me. It’s Mattie. “Absolutely nothing, except Iris,” I say.
“Iris, what have you done now?” asks Mattie with a smile. He pulls his wallet and keys out of his back pocket and puts them on the table and then sits himself down between Iris and me.
“Well, enjoy yourselves this morning,” says Mike graciously.
“And,” he continues, turning to me, “incidentally, just in case you are ever on the menu, please do let me know.” He walks off towards the kitchen. My face goes hot and red. For once I am speechless.
“What was that about?” asks Mattie, pulling a face in Mike’s direction. “Wow, babe,” says Iris to me, “look at that; even with your pathetic attitude and dressed like a vagrant, he is still interested in you.” I look down at what I am wearing, confused for a second.
“Iris, that was unacceptable. You will not do that to me again.”
“Or what?” says Iris. “What will you do? I have decided to make it my mission to help you.”
“No thanks,” I tell her emphatically.
“Iris, leave her alone already,” says Mattie with a mixture of amusement and annoyance.
“Both of you, my dears,” Iris says looking directly at Mattie.
“What? Me too?” asks Mattie.
“Yes, my dears. Like I said last night, it’s time for Auntie Iris to help you both get out of this rut that you have found yourselves in. You two are clearly too dense to get yourselves out by yourselves. So, consider this an intervention.” Mattie and I look at each other.
“You hold her down and I will hit her,” I say to him.
“That sounds good to me,” he says. Naturally, we don’t really mean it. Or maybe we do – just a bit. Iris laughs. “Come now. It will be fun. I will be your disciple, your guru. You will call me master.”
“Listen, Iris,” says Mattie, “as tempting as that sounds, I think I am out.”
“Lesson number one:” Iris declares, “is never say no.”
“Never say no. Iris, that’s horrible, terrible, awful advice,” I say.
“I’m listening,” says Mattie. “Let her finish.”
“No you are not,” I say to him. “Come on Mattie, we are storming out of here indignantly.”
“Really? Indignantly. I don’t think I know how to do that,” he says.
“I’ll show you how. I stand up, letting my chair scratch the floor and screech, as I push it back. I throw my napkin down on the table. Mattie dramatically does the same.
I walk around the table in the direction of the exit. Mattie follows me. “See you around, bitch,” I say to Iris. I throw back my hair as if it were a long flowing mane, and I walk out. Mattie copies me, action for action, including a full-on falsetto and an imaginary hair fling, and follows me towards the door. Iris just laughs and waves, “Arrivederci and adieu – see you my dears.”
On our way to the car park, we grab some food to go. I get a muffin and freshly-squeezed orange juice, and Mattie gets an espresso and a brownie. The promenade is teeming with activities of all sorts. Rollerblades and skateboards speed past families, couples and dog walkers. A thousand photographs are being taken every second. We walk along the sea for as long as we can, until we need to turn off towards the car park where Mattie is parked.
“Never say no,” Mattie chortles. “Classic Iris. That sort of advice can get us into a lot of trouble.”
“It sure can,” I say. He stops in his tracks and turns towards me.
“You know you shouldn’t feel bullied by anyone to start going out. You always do things in your own good time. That’s just your style.”
“That’s true, I say. “Thanks for your understanding. Maybe I am not ready yet.”
“And you shouldn’t be in a great rush. I almost rushed into a marriage and that would have been a huge mistake.”
“Yes, what a pair we make,” I say.
Mattie reaches into his pocket for his car keys. “Oh hell,” he says, “I must have left my keys at the restaurant. Now I have to go back to the lion’s den. Coming with me?”
“No way,” I say. “Sorry, buddy, but you are on your own.”
“Thanks a lot,” grins Mattie, “I thought you vowed to protect me.”
“Not this time,” I say and head off towards home.
It’s Wednesday and I am at the Nest. I am there almost every day, including weekends and holidays. The Nest is a safe haven for teenagers from broken or economically down-trodden families. The program offered by the Nest guides these kids – or Nesters, as we call them – through their high school years: exactly at that critical turning point between getting lured into life on the street or sticking to the straight and narrow. The former option offers a spiraling web of vandalism, crime, drugs, alcohol and destitution. The latter guides them towards gaining support within their family unit – no matter what their personal and familial circumstances may be. The Nest focuses on enabling essentially good and smart kids to overcome their circumstances. It encourages and expects the Nesters to become productive members of the Israeli society and all that that entails: getting a high school diploma, getting called up for military service, continuing studies and/or finding gainful and legitimate employment.
The pressure on these kids is tremendous, and the Nest does its best to fill the gap, where parents and teachers cannot. To enter the program, these teenagers must have good grades, recommendations from their schools and approval from their parents. For some children, these conditions are
insurmountable obstacles in themselves. Once the children are accepted, they have a place to come to after school. They eat a hot meal, even two if they stay late. They have volunteers to help them with their homework. They have a buddy whom they can talk to, bookshelves overflowing with books, a quiet corner for downtime and even a pair of slippers that they can slip into as soon as they step in the front door. I have been at the Nest for three years now. I basically run the place. It is my job to ensure the smooth flow of all operations: suppliers, permanent staff, volunteers, donors. I am also there for the kids, the Nesters.
The Nest and I are a good fit. I studied sociology and criminology in college, so the concept of easing kids into finding their way in the world just makes sense to me. Fitting into society – or not fitting in – are essentially two opposite sides of the same coin: one’s sense of belonging and worth inherently influences the side of the coin that will face up. With my natural tendency to isolate myself, to keep my circle of friends small and my communication style direct, I feel like an interloper between the two sides. I know which side of the coin I need to root for, but I have pangs of sympathy for those kids who are teetering on the edge. Up till now, the Nest has felt more like an academic pursuit or a spiritual vocation than a job. To a great extent, it is about socialization – in the best
possible way – not in a creepy “Big Brother” way. If society can be reverse-engineered and the Nesters can be socialized to stick to the right path, perhaps I might figure out how to fit myself in.
During the course of my studies, I was required to do some volunteer work. At first, I had a hard time settling down and I wandered from place to place. I started volunteering with the elderly, and moved rapidly from there to a center for the blind. Then I did a stint in a correctional facility. From there I worked in an animal shelter, and finally, finally, just as my supervisor was about to give up on me, she sent me to an organization that picks up runaways from the street. Some of these kids are doped out, others have emotional or mental issues and all of them are victims of society in one way or another: abused, misused, discarded and spat out, by family, friends or strangers. I stayed with the organization until college graduation and, frankly, would have continued, but the owner of the organization, Adam Stern, an investment banker and philanthropist, called me into his office and asked me to manage a new project of his – the Nest. It was my first proper job – my first paying job – and the transition was absolutely seamless and natural. Besides which, I absolutely love it, at least I used to. The hours aren’t standard. The kids are complicated. Even the staff members and volunteers are
not your run-of-the-mill folk; you need to be hard core to work here. There is no question that despite my normative family with its relative warmth and economic stability, I feel a certain empathy and kinship with these kids. And here, my distance and my sharp tongue are imperative. You cannot mollycoddle and mother this group. They earn my respect and I earn theirs. They know that I am tough, but fair.
I have a little office. It is tiny and has a bookshelf, a desk, a printer and a chair. When people meet me in my room for a serious conversation, I produce a collapsible three-legged stool from under my desk. When a kid just pops in to say hi or to ask a question, I have a few throw pillows that I lay on the old tiles and we sit cross-legged like Buddhas on the floor. I try to give each child some time alone with me, at least once every two weeks. For instance, just yesterday I sat here with Noa, a lovely kid with a lot of potential and even ambition, even though – like most of the other Nesters – nothing is simple for her. Noa is finishing school at the end of this year. She is a good kid with steady grades and a positive attitude. Like all the kids here, this was not always the case. Noa used to be the queen of truancy. She would wander and roam the streets of Tel Aviv, not wanting to be stuck with her younger siblings in their little apartment – both parents worked long and hard hours – and not wanting to be at school, which
frankly bored her. She never acted out. She was never rude or obnoxious or abrasive. She just didn’t do homework, and came to school only when she had to take a test. Incidentally, she had consistently good grades. The Nest gave her the framework that has allowed her to keep up with the school work required by the system, and it has even enabled her to tutor others, so that she has remained challenged.
When I think again about the conversation, I can almost feel Noa’s frustration and confusion: “I don’t know what to do,” she says. “I am doing really well at school. No issues there. I will graduate and I will probably get really high marks.” I nod and wait for her to continue.
“The problem is with the army. I have gone through all the required tests and interviews, and I have already been assigned to a unit. I have a call-up date and I feel like I am all ready.” She sighs and continues, “The thing is, well, the thing is that my parents have other ideas. My father says that seeing as I am about to leave school, I should get a full-time job and do my bit to help the family. My mother is apologetic, but she says that they can’t afford for me to be away from home and not contributing financially to the household in any way. I understand them. I really do. And I want to help out and take responsibility.” She sighs an even bigger sigh and then pauses for a few seconds. “But on the other hand,” she continues,
“what about the army and the training that I will get there – surely that will enable me to get an even better job than anything I can get now? What about higher studies? If I find a job working in a shop or a restaurant now, I will not be able to aim for something bigger. What about the fact that you and the Nest also have expectations from me? I am expected to go to the army. So I either disappoint my parents, or I disappoint you. I know I am rambling on here, but there is one more thing I want to add. I know it is selfish to even think this way, but what about me? What about what I want?”
I nod my head thoughtfully, waiting to see if she is done talking. I think to myself what an amazing metamorphosis this child has gone through. When she began in the Nest two years ago, her grades were good, but she was all over the place. Apart from the truancy, she ran away from home a couple of times. She was frustrated, angry and lost. Look at this amazing kid, I think. Look at her confidence, her ambition, her desire to learn and grow, and to do something significant with her life. Noa has come a long way and her dilemma is real. I need to consider her situation from two main angles: should she place the needs of her family before her own personal desires? Should she choose basic employment now to supplement the income of the household, or study in order to achieve long-term employability?