The UnAmericans: 2015 Ribalow Prize Winner
Here begins one of Molly Antopol’s stories from The UnAmericans, a masterful collection of short fiction filled with flawed but sympathetic characters, all looking for something, trying to fit in—or find satisfaction while not fitting in. Antopol’s ability to create personalities, paint evocative scenes and fit them in locales that span boundaries of culture and time has won her widespread acclaim. The newest recognition is the 2015 Harold U. Ribalow Prize, Hadassah Magazine’s annual literary award.
A DIFFICULT PHASE
Talia was in line at Café Noah when she noticed a man watching her. He was at the group table by the window, hand-some in a nerdy, chaotic way, wearing a rumpled orange T-shirt and metallic glasses a shade lighter than his hair. He smiled. She smiled back. He smiled again, and Talia, interested more in the light buzz of flirtation than an actual conversation, gave him one last look, then tossed her change in the tip jar.
Out on Ahad Ha’am Street, people were clustered around little tables lining the sidewalk, sipping coffee and smoking leisurely though it was noon on a Wednesday. The sun was out after an entire April of rain, and as Talia rounded the corner, she wondered if she was the only person in all of Tel Aviv rushing back to eat at her desk, the only person who would have left the café so quickly when one day, she knew, these situations could stop presenting themselves. So she turned back—and saw the man in the orange T-shirt barreling toward her.
“Did I forget something?” she asked him.
“In the café.”
“No,” he said. “You look familiar—Hebrew University?” and when she shook her head he said, “Maybe from the neighborhood?” Before Talia could think of an answer, before she could tilt her head and say “possibly” in an alluring and noncommittal way, rather than the truth, which was that, at twenty-nine, her career was shot, she’d moved back home with her parents in Rehovot, a half-hour south of the city, and the only reason she was even in the neighborhood was because she’d picked up fact-checking work nearby at the local paper they left out for free on trains and in Laundromats, Mr. Orange T-shirt blinked a couple times, then said, “Oh, fuck it. You were flirting with me in there, right?”
She had been flirting, and the realization made her feel better—at least it was interesting. Better than going back to her office, where a deadline and a morning’s worth of unopened emails loomed. The man looked about forty, with large blue eyes and pale, stubbled skin. Though they were standing still, he was out of breath, and his sense of personal space was off by a centimeter or two. She did a quick ring check and pegged him as recently divorced, the type who patrolled cafés for love during his lunch hour.
“It’s hard to tell,” he continued. “Maybe you were just being nice.”
“No,” Talia conceded, “I was flirting.” She’d said a lot of bold things in her life but never something so direct to a person she didn’t know, and it threw her so off-balance that when he started to walk, Talia fell into step with him. She was aware they were heading away from the paper, but she could feel the day breaking open. She liked that neither of them seemed to have a particular destination, that they were just ambling around, something she only did on vacation. They turned down a narrow street, and she watched two girls, quick and earnest, chase each other through a courtyard while an older man, several stories above, watered his plants. Everything felt squintingly bright and a little too in focus, as if she’d just stumbled into the daylight after a heavy night of drinking: the cloudless sky, the sparkly asphalt road, the squares of silver foil covering a woman’s hair in a salon window. At the corner Talia and the man made a right, then crossed a boulevard and walked up another road until they were standing in front of a junior high school. “I have to go,” he said, and Talia realized that on her supposedly aimless, carefree walk she’d actually followed this man back to work.
“You’re a teacher?” She felt so exposed. What had she expected—to run off to some hotel room together; that an hour with a stranger, something she only right then realized she’d even been contemplating, was going to fix everything?
“I have a meeting with the principal. My daughter’s been cutting class.”
“I was terrible in school,” Talia said, to say something. “I cheated on all my tests.”
“I’m late,” he said, “but can I call you?”
Talia hesitated. But she liked his messy hair and light eyes and the open and slightly injured way he stared at her, so she gave him her work number. “Thanks,” he said, buoyant with approval.
He waved and sprinted across the street. At the sidewalk he turned around. “I’m Tomer,” he yelled.
“Talia,” she called back.
“Ah,” he yelled. “Dahlia. What a beautiful name,” and then dashed up the steps of the school, disappearing into the crowd of teenagers being beckoned inside.
She was surprised to discover how giddy she felt when Tomer didn’t wait the requisite three days to phone but did so that afternoon, when she was still at her desk, waiting for a callback on a story.
“Do you like food?” he said when she picked up.
“Only when I’m hungry.”
“Indian food,” he said, as if it were her problem for not inferring that in his question. “There’s a new place on Rothschild that has the best curry, made by guys from Goa. They cook it different there.”
“I know,” she said. “I’ve been.”
“What are the chances?”
“I’d say they’re pretty high,” she said. Asking a Tel Avivian if they’d been to Goa was like asking if they’d been to Jerusalem, and in fact the main reason Talia lasted only a month in India was that it had felt like an extension of college, the army, her old neighborhood in Rehovot. She’d left Israel to meet new people, not to run into her neighbor on a trek through Netravali or her father’s cousin Rivka at a full-moon beach party. And so, when a job finally opened in Kiev, Talia had taken off immediately. When are you coming back? her parents would ask during their weekly calls—they thought she was insane for wanting to report on the very city her grandparents had worked so hard to leave. The moment Talia heard their voices, she felt as if she’d been yanked across the Mediterranean and transported back home, her father on the porch listening to the radio, her mother always beside him, shelling fava beans or peeling beets, her two sisters chasing after their toddlers while their husbands relaxed on the lawn.
“Things are working out here,” Talia would tell them, wondering how just having them on the end of the line could make her feel as defensive as she’d been at sixteen. Though they never said it outright, she could hear the question that always lurked beneath: when was she going to get this silly rebelliousness out of her system and move home to start a family? But the truth was that things had been working out. Talia had wanted to be a reporter since she could remember, and it had stunned her, sitting in her cubicle in Kiev, that her life was actually unfolding the way she had fantasized. She’d started at the Jerusalem bureau of an American paper right out of college, doing whatever grunt work was needed: filing, fact-checking, going on coffee runs when the intern was busy. But her English was near-fluent, and after years of begging and badgering the bureau chief, he finally started giving her work, as if the very behavior that had gotten her sent to the corner as a child was the thing that garnered his respect.
It was true, he had said, that she was living in one of the hardest countries to find staff jobs: no one ever left their positions at the Israeli papers, and reporters from all over the world competed for work at the foreign ones. But with her language skills—probably the one time her Slavic literature degree made her more employable—he’d lobby the higher-ups in Chicago to send her to Kiev if things got bad enough to need someone on the ground. That was four years ago, in the fall of 2004, and Talia remembered sitting in the flickering, fluorescent-lit conference room of the Jerusalem bureau, watching it all unfold on TV—the election fraud allegations, Yushchenko’s terrifying, ever-changing face—and holding on to a shameful, selfish hope for things to keep spiraling.
She’d always felt so envious of the other reporters at her paper in Jerusalem, none of them Israeli, all of them cabbing over to the bar at the American Colony Hotel every night after work, as if living out some vintage fantasy. They were all smart, they all spoke the language, many had relatives there and knew the country even before they were hired. But there was something so romantic about the way they saw their jobs, sinking into chairs in the garden bar, press passes still dangling from their necks, immediately launching into thrilling tales of how they were this close to danger that day, before pausing and taking a handful of the free cashews on the table. Even her bureau chief, whom Talia genuinely admired, still acted as though he was playing the part of the daredevil reporter, always driving himself into the territories, traveling with a separate passport through Lebanon and Syria, as if relentlessly performing for a rapt, imaginary audience back home in Chicago. It had always bothered Talia, listening to them debate her country’s politics, when it was implicitly understood that the moment their brushes with danger went from being this close to way too fucking close, they could leave. But then she was given the same opportunity, to be lifted from her life and plunked down in a place to which she had an even flimsier connection than many of her coworkers had to Israel, and she’d found herself guilty of that same excitement. Anyone would have felt it covering the demonstrations, of course. But she’d been just as amped in the months that followed, sitting in the stuffy, windowless media room in the district courthouse, or transcribing at her desk for hours, eating meal after meal of crackers with chocolate spread, as if everything took on a significance she’d never felt back home.
Even the things in Kiev that should have frustrated her—the weather, the drunks who catcalled her, the horrible bureaucracy that made even cashing her paycheck feel like that nightmare where she was walking down a long hallway and every door led to yet another endless hallway of doors—seemed funny and removed. Her office building in Kiev housed foreign correspondents from all over the world, and she loved how easily they buffered the loneliness of living in a new place, heading down to Baraban, which had quickly become their default bar, every evening after work. Those nights, squeezed into a booth with her office mates and a roving crew of aid workers and NGO groupies, even her life in Israel seemed a little lighter, a little more entertaining, than it had actually been—as if she weren’t even describing her own neighborhood, her own family, but a cast of pushy and lovable characters on some wacky sitcom.
Then came the financial crash and her bureau chief called from Jerusalem with the news that the Chicago paper was closing some of its foreign desks, Kiev among them. It had nothing to do with her work, he said—they just couldn’t afford to keep her when they could get copy from the AP. “Try not to panic,” he said. “What’s that saying about things going to shit right before they’re good again?” He laughed, but it came out as more of a hiccup. Then he cleared his throat and suggested she go freelance. Which Talia did, though soon even that became difficult and she had to cut her rates by half, and one night she walked over to Baraban for a much-needed drink and found the place full of twentysomething American bloggers. A few months before she’d had a bad and wholly forgettable night with one of them—Ethan from Michigan—and had prayed he’d gone back to the States once jobs became scarce. But instead it appeared he’d invited all his friends from college to set up shop there, a cluster of them laughing and yelling in English, the other patrons forced to weave around their power cords, as if the Americans and their laptops had become as essential to the bar as its wobbly chairs and shelves of bottles that lined the wall.
“You’re lucky,” one of her old office mates said. He seemed to have implanted himself at the bar since his own layoff, and had the sallow pallor of a man who’d spent too many consecutive days drinking indoors. “You can go home and some war will start up again.” He was Danish, and Talia detected a spark of envy in his gaze. “Go back and wait,” he said. So Talia wrote to every contact she had in Israel, including her former boss at the American paper, who said he’d gotten word that they were now closing all the foreign desks and reshuffling the staff back home, and that he could tell her exactly what the job market was like, because after thirty-three years he was back in it, groveling for positions at wires he’d been overqualified for two decades ago. The one place where he could put in a call for her, he said, was at Boker Yisraeli. It was the free city paper the two of them used to mock. But Talia knew she had no choice but to gratefully accept the offer. And though it was even worse than the first job she’d taken out of college, and though the pay was so low she’d had to move back in with her parents, back into her childhood bedroom, which was no longer her bedroom but her mother’s extended storage closet, the key, she told Tomer later that week at the Indian place, was to view her time home as a disappointing but brief blip in her real life abroad. “I’ve been home two months and I’ll stay through the summer,” she said. “The only way to get back into reporting is to be a one-man band, and the second I’ve saved enough for a video camera, editing software and sound equipment, I’m leaving again. But for now I’m here, fact-checking the features.”
“I know,” Tomer said, spearing a chickpea. “I Googled you.”
Talia frowned. “You’re not supposed to say that.”
“I found a couple stories you wrote on Yushchenko.”
“Oh,” she said, trying to sound offended, though the idea of him searching for her online was oddly flattering: she couldn’t even get her own family to feign interest. Tomer had seemed so nervous and overeager outside Café Noah, but here, signaling the waiter for another order of naan, he was surprisingly at ease. Or, rather, at ease with his overeagerness, as if he knew it afforded him an accessible charm. He was more attractive than she remembered, a large, hairy man with the harmless and comforting quality of a stuffed bear. The entire time she’d been talking he’d sat there smiling, as if experiencing a certain delight just being across the table from her. There was something so reassuring in that—for all the stress and disappointment she’d been feeling the past few months, all she had to do was share a meal with this man to get him to light up.
“And that piece on Gongadze,” he said. “Do you have a boyfriend back in Kiev?”
“We broke up. When did you get divorced?”
“How do you know I’m divorced?”
“You have that look about you,” Talia said. “Like you just ran out of a burning building.”
“Well,” he said, “we’re not divorced. She died.”
Talia twisted the napkin in her lap. Tomer picked up his fork, as if all he could focus on was his curry, and she wished the waiter would appear with a water refill or a dessert menu, anything to break the silence. “When?” she said, finally. “That’s horrible.”
“Yes,” Talia said, more quickly than she intended. Then she said, “It’s okay. You should talk about it,” but when he started to, his gaze shifted right past her, as if he were staring at some indeterminate spot on the wall. He’d met Efrat after the army, he said, through a friend of a friend here in Tel Aviv. They’d spent their twenties breaking up and getting back together, filling their lives with the unnecessary drama kids always do, Tomer said, as if he’d forgotten, or hadn’t noticed to begin with, that Talia was still muddling through the tail end of that decade, the graduating senior showing up at all the high school parties. “We married at thirty and had our daughter Gali a year later. We kept telling ourselves we wanted to wait until we had everything figured out,” Tomer said. “First we had no money, then Efrat was getting her catering business off the ground, and then my job started taking over—I’m a contractor, mostly vacation homes in Herzliya,” he said, almost as an afterthought, as if he’d only now remembered he was on a first date. Talia already knew that (she’d Googled him, too), so she said, “And then?”
And then we went skiing in France. Our splurge every couple years. I was with Gali in the lodge and Efrat went on one more run. She came back looking dazed and said she’d fallen and hit her head. She said it hurt but that it wasn’t a big deal. But that’s what Efrat said about everything. So I took her to our room to rest. And she seemed fine. The next morning she still had a headache and wanted to stay in and nap. She told Gali and me not to waste a day hanging around inside when we could be skiing. So we left. While we were gone she went out for some air, and on her way back into the lodge she dropped to her knees and started vomiting. And then she just tipped over. Right on the deck and everyone ran out, and when Gali and I got the news we were on top of a mountain. No one knew it was a brain injury, at first they thought she was drunk. And everyone kept saying how lucky we were that Gali was with me, that she didn’t see it. They kept saying we were lucky.” Tomer was speaking quickly, his eyes darting around the restaurant as if he couldn’t quite believe what he was saying was actually real, let alone that he was divulging it to a near stranger, and he kept lifting his glass and setting it down, as if he could no longer remember its use.
He pushed his plate away and stared at his lap. His hands were wrapped so tightly Talia could see the crescents his nails made in his skin, and she had never, in her entire life, felt so bad for another person. She’d interviewed people who had lost loved ones in fires, bus accidents, a massive train wreck outside Kharkiv that killed forty-three people, but this—being alone with a man so openly grieving—was even harder to watch. A waiter cleared their dishes, and as Tomer continued to talk, about his therapy sessions and his daughter who, he said, was essentially a good girl but, at fourteen, going through what one of her teachers called a “very understandably difficult phase,” something strange happened, something Talia wouldn’t want to admit to anyone: She realized she was enjoying herself. That she hadn’t, if she was going to be completely honest, had such a good time in months. Getting Tomer to sidestep the terrible first-date small talk and move straight to the core of things was making Talia feel, for the first time since she’d lost her job, like a journalist. This was what she was good at: being the blank, understanding face across the table; putting people so at ease they revealed the things they didn’t want to share with anyone, the things they wished didn’t exist at all.
“I’m sorry,” Tomer said, reaching for the check. “You’re the first person I’ve been to dinner with and I probably shouldn’t be let out of the house.”
And though Talia knew he was right, and though she knew there probably wasn’t a man less ready to date in all of Tel Aviv, possibly the entire Middle East, somehow that was making him all the more appealing. Since coming home she’d felt it impossible to hold on to the spontaneity she’d embraced so effortlessly in Kiev, as if it had been confiscated with her liquids when she passed through airport security. The past couple weeks she’d found herself waking in the middle of the night, startled and breathless, the top and bottom sheets untucked and twisted around her, her feet hanging off the edge of her narrow bed. It occurred to her now that she might as well enjoy herself while she was stuck back here, and that if there was one person even less equipped for anything substantial, it was the man across from her. And so as she watched him sift through his wallet for his credit card, such a jumbled mess of shekels and receipts it more resembled her mother’s kitchen junk drawer than something he could actually slip back into the pocket of his jeans, Talia said, “I’m not looking for anything serious, but I’m guessing you haven’t had sex in a while—”
“Sixteen months,” Tomer seemed to shout. He stood up and sat beside her, and then he pounced on her, like a squirrel spotting a nut in the distance. He smelled more boyish than she would have imagined, and he was a desperate, handsy kisser who used his tongue right away. There was something about being pushed against the leather booth right there in the restaurant that made her feel as if she were shrinking in a weirdly pleasurable way, as if she were becoming half a woman, no longer the Talia with her name in print, who always needed to be working, traveling, writing—all of that was gone now and there she was, a pared-down version of herself, perfectly balanced beneath this man.
“I livesixblocksaway,” Tomer said all in one breath.
“But your daughter.”
“She’s staying at a friend’s,” he said, taking her hand and leading her out. He lived in Neve Tzedek, one of the prettiest parts of the city, with its cracked brick roads and squat stucco houses, orange and white and pink as the bougainvillea that snaked through fences and blanketed the roofs. Tucked between the beach and the high-rises that blinked and hovered overhead, the neighborhood always made Talia wish she’d been an adult here in the nineties, before all the wine bars and gelato shops and French millionaires moved in—a time when, Tomer said, unlatching his gate, he and Efrat had been smart enough to buy. A rusty bicycle was parked outside and all the plants in the terra-cotta pots hissed dryly in the wind. He unlocked the door and ushered her inside, where the lights were on and the stereo was up at full blast, some bass-heavy electronica that Talia didn’t recognize.
“Gali!” Tomer yelled, and when his daughter emerged from her bedroom, the telltale sign of too much air freshener wafted out with her. “Seriously?” he said, flicking off the music.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Gali said.
“I thought you were sleeping at Dana’s.”
“I thought you were on a date.”
“So you threw a party?”
“It wasn’t a party. No one’s here.”
Tomer looked at Talia—for alliance, support, she didn’t know what. Gali, for her part, seemed to have had the foresight to use eyedrops before they came home, but the way she kept tugging on her ponytail let Talia know she was high. She was pretty, Talia thought, with full cheeks and brown eyes and thick blond curls, but obviously still learning to apply makeup: her concealer a shade off, her black eyeliner heavy and frightening. Plus she had on so many plastic necklaces and bangles that the whole effect was dizzying and distracting, and Talia wondered why no one had told her she was overdoing it. Certainly not her father, whose idea of fashion seemed to be to pull the top shirt and pair of pants from his dresser, which meant that one day Tomer could look haphazardly artsy, like that first time in Café Noah, and another, like tonight, as if he’d gotten dressed in the dark.
“Yes?” Gali said then, and Talia realized she’d been staring.
“I’m Talia,” she stammered. Gali nodded, then put her hands on her hips and shot a look that sent her straight back to junior high, and Talia wondered why she was still standing there. She took a step back and Tomer whispered, “Please don’t leave,” so she slipped into what looked like his room and closed the door behind her. It was tidy and small, with turquoise walls and furniture Tomer and Efrat must have hauled in off the street and stripped and repainted themselves. This was exactly the kind of place Talia would have picked out—not just the apartment but the way they’d decorated it, everything mismatched but so carefully chosen. Tucked into the dresser mirror were photos of the three of them through the years: on the tiled apartment steps Talia had just walked up; in a restaurant; in a park at what looked like Gali’s first birthday, sitting on Efrat’s lap. Efrat was attractive in the sort of way women noticed as much as men: laughing at whoever was holding the camera, her long blond hair in a frazzled knot, holding her daughter by the shoulders as if they were both about to tip over. Tomer was squatted beside them, his mouth open and eyes wide, as though he were making silly faces to get baby Gali to coo.
Talia sat on the bed and listened. She knew she should leave—it seemed only sensible—but couldn’t find the will. Gali’s story was growing increasingly elaborate and Tomer was caving, and Talia could see when he walked in now, wearing the tired and gentle look of defeat, that his daughter had won this round.
“Didn’t she know you’d be back tonight?” Talia said.
Tomer took off his glasses and nodded. “And now,” he said, lowering his voice, as if Gali could hear anything above the music she’d flung back on, “I look like a pushover.”
“True.” Talia regretted the word even before it had left her mouth—it couldn’t be fun bringing a date home to witness this. But Tomer just flopped beside her on his stomach and said, “I can’t believe I got caught with a woman. I guess we’ll have to get married now.”
He had to be joking. But something in his voice, low and tender, made Talia wonder if a nugget of truth existed within those words—if he just might not be wired for a one-night thing. She stood up.
“I was kidding,” Tomer said. He reached for her, but she intercepted his hand. “I’m sorry,” she said.
He looked hurt, in a puppyish and confused way, as if he didn’t completely get it. He rolled onto his back. “Okay,” he said, sighing. “I’ll call you.”
On her way out, she passed his daughter’s door, cracked halfway open. “Nice to meet you too,” Gali called out, as if Talia were the rude one, so she poked her head in. Papers and makeup littered the carpet in messy but distinct piles, as if a complex order existed that only Gali understood, and the entire room smelled of burnt hair and nail polish. She was lying on her unmade bed with her hands behind her head. “You’re leaving?” she said.
“It’s late,” Talia said, though she had no idea what time it was. “I work early.”
Gali squinted at her suspiciously. “What do you do?”
“I’m a reporter,” Talia said, and when Gali said, “That’s cool,” Talia felt as if she were letting them both down when she admitted, “I’m actually between jobs. Right now I’m fact-checking for Boker Yisraeli, the free paper? I kind of hate it.”
“It does suck.” The music was so loud that Talia’s cheeks throbbed, but at least she felt a little hipper for recognizing the song that came on. “I love Kaveret,” she said. “They were my first concert.”
“My dad likes them, too,” Gali said. “My mom was kind of a music snob and this was one of the things we could all agree on, in the car and stuff.” She said it so matter-of-factly, and Talia wondered if this was casual conversation or if Gali, for whatever reason—the pot, perhaps?—was opening up.
“I’ve got a bunch of Yitzhak Klepter’s solo stuff on vinyl you can borrow. Come over sometime,” Talia said, immediately wishing she could retract it. She had a habit of over-offering when she was nervous and wanted people to like her, but why did it matter what this fourteen-year-old thought?
“Thanks.” Then Gali lay against her pillows and looked up at the ceiling, and Talia stood there, not knowing whether the girl wanted her to leave or stay, or why she even cared. “See you,” Gali said finally, and when Talia backed into the hall, Gali lifted her leg, and with one bare, red toenailed foot, kicked the door shut.
Excerpted from The UnAmericans: Stories by Molly Antopol. Copyright © 2014 by Molly Antopol. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.