motorcycle cartoon 88 248.
(photo credit: Illustration by Pepe Fainberg)
My first night in Florida, I wake in the middle of the night to bright flashes. Is it a cop car? It couldn't be, my room is on the back side of the house, away from the street. Is it a deranged stalker taking pictures outside my window? Unlikely. I lie in bed trying to make sense of the pulsing glow that fills the windows. Finally, there's a clap of thunder and I realize - it's lightning. The summer rains come rushing back to me as they hit the roof and I fall back asleep wondering how I could have so quickly forgotten the rhythms of the land I was born in.
I've been here a few weeks and I continue to find that the beat of America has changed. I am listening to something now that is at once deeply familiar and equally alien. I drive by the Circuit City that sits abandoned - a dead corporate giant. Storefront after storefront sits empty, the windows collecting dust. Deep in the country of north-central Florida, in a one-stop-light town between Gainesville and Saint Augustine, a family sit by their pick-up truck, selling their household possessions. A car whizzes by me with a handmade paper sign that reads "Odd jobs" and a telephone number taped into the rear window. I pass a small clapboard house with an overgrown yard, a simple cardboard proclamation "Will work" jutting from the grass.
The land I once moved around with ease now seems too large, too open, frightening. America feels overwhelming now, like I could take a wrong turn on a highway and get lost, never find my way back. I hold a picture of tiny Israel in my mind, where the sky seems to be a blanket over me, where it meets the horizon and makes neat edges, where I always know where I'm going.
I find myself panicking that my delicate Hebrew will break while I'm here. I need to practice. So one afternoon I decide to head to a local clothing store that was Israeli-owned and operated, as of two years ago. I'm nervous, sure that my accent has quickly deteriorated. I park my car and smooth my jeans. I straighten the red satin dress, patterned with white fleur-de-lis, that I'm wearing as a tunic. I walk down the sidewalk, looking for the store's bright display.
I arrive, but the store is dark and empty. "For rent," the window says. When even the Israelis are jumping ship, you know things must be bad.
I see my reflection in the black window. I am standing alone. Suddenly, I want to cling to America. My family is here. I speak the language. If things got too bad, I would never be homeless. I would always have somewhere to go.
I walk to a coffee shop and order a coffee, nothing fancy. I notice the brimming tip jar. I imagine myself moving back in with my parents, permanently, slinging coffee grinds for a living. There are worse fates.
The waitress is pleasant and the place is empty, so I strike up a conversation, making an offhand remark about the mood of the server influencing tips. She tells me that her tips are commensurate with her smile. As we talk I think that maybe Americans - and Southerners - aren't as fake as so many people say they are. That Americans can be warm and genuine. I imagine myself raising my kids Jewish here in Florida. I could extend my citizenship to them, teach them Hebrew at home, raise them with a love for Israel, maybe even send them to the army when they turn 18. My mom would make her potato latkes during Hanukka. No, it's not the windows filled with sufganiot we see in Israel, but it's something.
And then, during what I thought was a conversation, the waitress lurches off.
In that unexpected way summer rains come, the sky opens. I watch the water streak down the window. I think of the trip I took to Thailand over a year ago. Desperate to escape my British travel mates - who, unbelievably, guzzled two buckets of liquor each a night - for just a day or two, I'd struck off on my own to find a room at a flophouse. But I was on Ko Phi Phi and I hadn't planned for the Full Moon Party. I went from place after place only to find that everything was booked.
I stopped to buy a bottle of water and the man in line before me left before he got his change. I called to him, holding the money out for him to take. He thanked me, turned to leave, but did a double-take.
"Are you Israeli?" he asked me, in Hebrew.
"Yes, no. Not really. Sort of," I answered.
He gave me that confused look people give me when I talk like that and I explained that I was an olah hadasha, that I lived and worked in Tel Aviv, but that my Hebrew wasn't good. I also mentioned that I couldn't find anywhere to stay.
I can't remember his name now, but what I remember is that he put me on the back of his motor scooter and drove me all over that little island until I found a place to stay. He bought me lunch. And then he drove off reminding me, "We Israelis take care of each other."
Sitting in the coffee shop, I realize that the Israeli store owner hadn't jumped ship. He'd headed home to tuck himself into a tight country, where the people bind themselves together.