Saturday comes, and Zoë and I go to see Keith Buckley read in Soho. It is April and Manhattan and this is what I think about the air: it is crisp. I keep thinking: Crisp. I fantasize about taking a big bite and chewing the air, making obscenely loud noises as if the air on this island were a gum, or worse: sunflower seeds. While I’m thinking this, Zoë is being beautiful. She says, I’m so happy it’s not cold anymore. She’s wearing the purple halter top that Ron bought her for our one-year anniversary; I got The Secrets of Mediterranean Cooking because Ron thinks that I should open my own restaurant instead of wasting my talent in somebody else’s kitchen. Zoë’s halter top ties behind her neck, except every few minutes it gets loose, and I need to tie it again for her. It’s too tight, she says every time, tugging on the knot.
At the bookstore, Zoë leads the way to her favorite spot, third row center. Keith isn’t here yet, she tells me without even looking around. How do you know? I ask, and she says, I need you to tie me up again, her eyes smiling, teasing. Then she asks, Has he ever read here before? I don’t think so, I say, but I get confused between all the stores sometimes. Zoë says, I’m having the worst déjà vu; I feel like this moment already happened. I want to say, maybe it did; I’ve always felt that the present is just one way of looking at things. But these are thoughts I keep to myself, because I can’t afford to lose Zoë. If I lose Zoë, Ron might go with her, and then I’d be completely alone in this city.
Zoë is the kind of person you lose easily: this has happened to many people. She’s also the kind of person who will freak out when someone suggests there is more than one reality, then blame that someone for her freak- out. Once, after a Keith Buckley reading in Midtown, we sat on a bench, our backs to Central Park. I had moved from Tel Aviv only a few months earlier; Zoë was explaining how the park had been created in the 1850s. The idea of having a designated area for greenery struck me as odd; Tel Aviv isn’t carefully planned like that—trees often choose their own location, and most streets stretch in unpredictable directions, creating a pattern of impulse.
We were waiting for Ron, and it was getting dark. Looking up and down, I noticed how this city, spreading to the sky, makes people smaller and faster. I was having one of my funny moods, when everything feels like a dream. I turned to Zoë and said, What if we’re not real? What if we’re just imagining this scene, right now, on this bench? Or what if somebody else is imagining us, and we are characters in this person’s hallucination? I didn’t know Zoë very well yet. I expected her to say I was crazy, or ask what the hell I was talking about. But she started shaking: first her knees, then her arms, then her entire body. She said, Don’t fuck with my mind like that. I didn’t know what to do. I put my hand on her knee and said, I’m here. Then I said, I’m real. She calmed down, but for the rest of the evening she kept saying, Don’t ever fuck with me like that.
So, if you want Zoë to like you, you need to: (1) be a flexible, spontaneous person, because Zoë hates to wait but also hates to plan in advance; (2) love all literary events where Keith Buckley is reading; and (3) learn never to fuck with her mind.
In Israel, this is what you do when you enter a bar, a movie theater, a mall: you open your bag. You let the security guard look through your personal belongings, until he decides you’re probably not carrying a bomb. The security guard is almost always a man. Sometimes he’ll be thorough, like he knows something you don’t; he might even use a metal detector that beeps if the interior of your jacket is explosive. But usually he’ll just tap the bottom of the bag and signal with his eyes Go in. If you’re a beautiful woman, you’re likely to hear some kind of comment that acknowledges your beauty. Then you’re free to roam what ever space it is, calm and confident, because in Tel Aviv, if you drink or eat or party enough, even the worst kind of war feels like peace.
When I first moved to New York, I kept opening my purse every time I entered a building, before realizing that there was no security guard. And every time I felt relieved, and every time I felt orphaned, and every time I felt surprised at both; there is a sense of comfort that you get when someone else is in charge of your safety, and I didn’t yet know that in America danger is something you can choose to ignore.
Back then, I was subletting a tiny studio in Hell’s Kitchen that had only one window. The building had a live-in super with a thick Romanian accent who treated me like his protégée because he was the Veteran Immigrant. My first day in the building, he said, Twelve years I live here now; it is like home. His accent was so thick that it took a few seconds of tossing the sounds in my brain to decipher their message, but I felt comforted. Then, three weeks later, he came over and said, New mall only few blocks from here; very expensive but you should go, look in the windows. I said I would, and I did. At the new Time Warner Center, I was going in as Ron was coming out. I reached to open my purse, and saw him smile, his Israeli radar letting me know I was busted. He seemed familiar, and happy; I stopped. We spent ten minutes trying to figure out where we knew each other from. The army? No, he left before he was eighteen, never served; the Peace Now rally in D.C.? No, I knew nothing about it; after a while, we gave up.
Zoë wants to step outside to smoke. We leave our coats and grab our bags. There is intimacy between us and a wide-shouldered guy with dreadlocks as we are squeezing our way out. Dreadlocks looks up at Zoë’s shirt and Zoë says, Keep an eye on our stuff, okay? as if this is our friend and that’s the least he can do. Dreadlocks nods; I can see inside his mind, very briefly, and it is full of one word: boobs.
Outside on Crosby Street, optimistic people believe that seats for this event are in abundance, so they just stand there, smoking or chatting. Zoë bums a cigarette from a pale baby- faced guy who looks familiar. I hear her say, No you don’t get my number in return, and then a second later, You get . . . my gratitude, and then laughter. They are equidistant from me, but she is louder and I hear only her. Zoë never has cigarettes because she’s quit smoking, so she always has to bum from people who haven’t quit smoking yet. These people are usually around, though, and always into helping Zoë, so there’s no reason to change the MO. Unless you count Ron as a reason; every time he smells cigarettes on Zoë’s breath he squints and says, You need to commit to your health, Zoë, not just talk about it.
In Tel Aviv, walking into a bar is like stepping into a cloud. If you spend more than an hour inside the cloud, scent molecules get under your hair and skin, and they often take their time getting out. When you get back from the bar, if you don’t want to inhale smoke from the pillow in your sleep, you head straight to the shower and turn the faucet all the way to red until the small room fills with steam. When I’m in Tel Aviv, I usually think, No big deal; then I get back to New York and feel indebted to the non-yellow walls, the guarantee of nicotine- free air once you walk into a room. It is true that in New York when you wash your clothes the water turns gray; you scrub, and inside the bubbles you see soot. But I don’t mind it; I know that this urban dirt is the side effect of speed and productivity. I think: New York 1, Tel Aviv 0. It’s an ongoing competition, a game that Ron and I invented, but I forget to keep track, so I have to start counting all over again every time.
Zoë is standing across from me smoking fast like she has to go somewhere and the cigarette is holding her back. I say, There’s still plenty of time, you know. Zoë says, I might go with this guy for a drink. I give her a look. She says, Nothing serious, and looks away. I say, I think he used to work at the restaurant. Zoë pretends not to hear me, or maybe she really doesn’t. Don’t worry, I’ll be back in time for Keith, she says; he’s reading last. I think: As if that’s the problem.
Zoë believes that no one understands Keith Buckley’s work like she does, and that referring to him by his first name makes this fact clear. The truth is that no one understands Keith Buckley’s work, not even Keith Buckley, if you ask me. But if I said that to Zoë—if I said, People laugh and shout and do the voices and download the ringtones because they want to belong; if I said, Zoë, think about it, Keith Buckley the phenomenon has very little to do with Keith Buckley the man— Zoë wouldn’t think about it, not even just to pretend. Instead, she’d say, You don’t have to go with me to these things, you know, and I would feel like our life is a reality show and I’ve just been voted off.
Don’t tell Ron, Zoë says, putting out her cigarette, her eyes canvassing the sidewalk in search of pale guy. She steps on the butt and pulls me close; I hate the smell of smoking, but mixed with Zoë’s breath it’s all right. Love you, she says, and then kisses me, her tongue a tiny butterfly tapping mine; then she’s gone.
I go back inside and think: What if I went home and took her jacket with me? By the time she came back, our seats would be taken and she’d have to watch Keith standing up, pushed against strangers who were too late. In Zoë’s world, that’s not an option. Or what if I did tell Ron? Would he confront her? Would things between the three of us change? I put my coat on my lap and tap my fleece-covered knee, because I feel like people can see my thoughts, and my thoughts are horrible. Since I can sometimes see people’s thoughts a little bit, it’s hard to remember that this is not the norm. Often, when thinking something new in a public place, I feel exposed.
When the reading starts, Dreadlocks turns to me and says, Where’s your friend? She’ll be back for Keith Buckley, I say. He nods slowly and seems to be saying, I’m glad we had this talk. He raises his right hand, which is holding a plastic cup. You want some coffee? he asks. No thanks, I say. He nods again. Let me know if you change your mind, he says, like there’s something very important at stake.
When I see Zoë pushing through backs and arms to reach me, I regret not being invisible. I would pay a lot to see the look in her eyes if she returned and I weren’t here, because I can’t possibly imagine it. I have a good imagination, but with Zoë, the only way to know things is to see them. A man hisses Bitch as her elbow meets his abdomen, but she doesn’t notice. When she sits down she is all excited, and smells of weed. Dreadlocks leans over and whispers, Your friend was very lonely without you. Zoë ignores him. Did you have a good time with the busboy? I ask. He’s a bartender now, she says. A few seconds later, she puts her head on my shoulder. This is what I think: Greedy. A woman who can’t stay faithful to two people will never know true satisfaction. Greedy, greedy, greedy. But this thought doesn’t make me feel better.
Of course, to know Zoë is to know that she can never stay faithful to two people, or twelve, or twenty. But this is what I’ve learned today: there’s knowing, and then there’s knowing, and after the second kind comes seeing. The first kind of knowing is where Ron is: he knows that there must be other people, but he still chooses not to know. This is what you do when you don’t want to know what you know: (1) You don’t ask too many questions. (2) When you hear the two women you love giggle or whisper, you go to a different room and you tell yourself it’s a choice, your choice, to give them privacy; you tell yourself that women often whisper, and it doesn’t mean one of them is having sex with people you don’t know. (3) When you smell another man on one of the women you love, you suggest we all hop in the shower; you say you feel sticky. When the same woman says, But I don’t feel sticky, you say, Do it for me, then—in a way that tells her a shower is easier than a conversation.
The second kind of knowing happens when someone you love actually tells you what you already know. Often, for Zoë and me, this happens around evening time. In the bedroom that the three of us share, Zoë and I will be lying on top of our blanket—me, in my baggy Basic Training T-shirt that I use as pajamas; she, still all dressed up and smelling like the outside world, because she is always waiting for one of us to undress her. Zoë’s hand under my T-shirt, up and down and tickling a little, she’ll suddenly get a playful look in her eyes, stretching herself so that her lips face my ear. I fucked Randy the produce guy, she’ll whisper to me and giggle, and then, Your skin is the softest I’ve ever touched—like Randy the produce guy has nothing to do with us.
So the second kind of knowing happens when you hear the woman you love whisper tales of other lovers in your ear, and sadness feels like something you swallowed without chewing, but the next morning it feels more like a bedtime story you listened to half asleep, something unworthy of your daytime attention.
And then there’s seeing. Seeing happens when there’s a pale guy who looks harmless but he’s not, and Zoë leaves you alone in a bookstore and comes back smelling of him. Seeing happens when you realize that you will never again be able to excite her like that, because the glow of her skin is about one thing: touching a new body.