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They enter in pairs and climb stools. Two by two they embark, like refugees escaping late-afternoon boredom and evening loneliness. Noah effortlessly glides from one duo to the other, taking orders and serving drinks with barely a word and even less of an expression - providing the patrons the illusion of privacy and himself the opportunity to eavesdrop undetected.
On a normal day, Noah would be alternating between conversations, tuning in to one and then another, as though changing channels.
On a normal day, he would be focusing on fragments of the banter between the middle-aged woman and somewhat older man engaging in the rituals of a first date - best-behavior spiced with slightly forced flirtation.
On a normal day, he would be sizing up the emotional negotiations taking place between a girl and her boyfriend on the verge of a break-up - accusations flung back and forth, accompanied by morose silences.
On a normal day, he would be tuned in to the earnest discussion the lesbian couple is having on whether to move to a bigger apartment to accommodate the baby they are planning - rattling off square meter and mortgage calculations, then writing them on cocktail napkins.
On a normal day, he would be observing the eye contact being made between two cologne-drenched studs at one end of the bar and two bleached blondes at the other - glances darting to and fro, as though accidental.
On a normal day, he would notice the two tourists (black man, white woman) going over the day's sightseeing - holding glasses of scotch and clutching one another's hands as though for dear life.
BUT TODAY is not a normal one as far as Noah is concerned. Which is why he is oblivious to what he would otherwise find intriguing. And why, instead, he is utterly absorbed in another arena, just beyond the bar but a universe away.
It is not every day that Noah's father has dinner here, after all. Certainly not with a woman Noah has never met, but about whom he has heard more than a fair share. One Noah assumed - or at least hoped - would be replaced before he got the chance to make her acquaintance. As, thankfully, has been the case with all his father's post-divorce flings.
The good thing about regular turnover, Noah has always thought, is that it enables disengagement. That's what he likes about bartending: the fact that no one is ever ensconced across the barrier that separates his little fiefdom from the rest of the restaurant long enough to invade the safe haven he's created for himself. This, too, is what he has considered the main - if not only - advantage to his father's string of interchangeable ladies: their anonymity and his own ability to ignore their existence.
The current one, he fears, is turning into an exception. Judging by the frequency with which her name has been bandied about, that is. Casually. With the word "we" slipped in as though it's the most natural thing in the world.
When his father had said, "We spent the weekend at the Carmel Forest Spa," sirens went off. When the statement had been followed by, "We like the North," Noah's gut went into high alert, and Noah himself went into hiding. Hibernation would have been his preferred course of action. But he couldn't afford to lose his job - especially not this one. A job that actually gives him a sense of security.
NOW, SUDDENLY, his father and what's-her-name have crossed his border.
"If the mountain doesn't come to Muhammed..." his father quips over the shoulder of one of the lesbians, while being escorted to his reserved table-for-two in what the waitresses call the "lovers' corner."
What's-her-name smiles and flutters a finger-wave at whom she fancies will soon be her step-son.
Noah keeps his outward cool by continuing to mix a margarita. But he is struck with the painful realization that his short-term strategy of averting the enemy by avoiding confrontation with her does not contain the makings of a long-term solution.
He wishes he could wrap himself in his immediate surroundings and take comfort in them, the way he usually does. The way he feels when reading a book. He can get to know the most intimate secrets of the protagonists without having to reciprocate. He can hitch a free ride on their spiritual journey - one that ends for him, if not for them, on the last page. Or at last call.
Today's story, however, is as dull to Noah as its cast of characters, all of whom appear at this moment to be no more than mere mortals imagining they are seeking something, rather than running away from it. What - Noah wonders - do they matter to him, anyway?
"What do they matter, anyway?" Noah hears his father's voice booming from the lovers' corner. "They're just a bunch of ostriches with their heads in the sand."
"They are what keeps this country going through hell and high water," Noah hears what's-her-name's pitch rise.
Quarreling couples are nothing new to Noah, but this pair is not just any couple. Nor is theirs standard canon-fodder in this setting. To Noah's great surprise, his father and what's-her-name are arguing over the state of the nation. To his even greater shock, what's-her-name is articulating Noah's own position: that the more Israeli society insulates itself from external threat, the better able it is to thrive.
Noah watches his father pay the check, his body language indicating that what's-her-name is not long for this world.
Helping her on with her coat for what may be the last time, his father looks around the room and makes a statement clearly aimed at Noah, as well: "Jews living it up like there's no tomorrow is what Germany looked like right before the Holocaust," he says, starting to leave the premises.
"But don't let that put a damper on happy hour."
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