Daphne lies in bed, the acceptance letter on her stomach, staring at the ceiling, thinking. Thinking about what she would wear on the first day of school. Thinking about who would be her new friends. Thinking about all the kids from middle school, those idiots who gave her hell and were now going to the regular grades. She imagines black Adidas sneakers with orange stripes and a printed T-shirt to match. She imagines her inky hair pulled into a ponytail, and how it swings from side to side as she enters the school on the first day and walks toward film class.
The teachers at Rabin High School think the film concentration is the epitome. The epitome of style, the epitome of sophistication, the epitome of intelligence, the epitome of Rabin High School. The smartest and most talented kids, the ones we’ll see featured on TV news stories one day, paying good money to watch one of their movies on the big screen. The film teachers are also top-notch. There are two renowned directors that made feature films that were screened in theaters and on television. And there are two film students who teach here. Black, wide-rimmed glasses rest on their oily noises. One of them is a student at the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem, the other at Tel Aviv University. In their canvas bags they carry art and the great big world.
Daphne is excited, truly excited. And she looks so cute when she’s excited. She’s that little girl again, with that alarmed blush on her cheeks. Seeing her this way, it’s easy to picture her as a baby, born 16 years ago at the Meir Birthing Center in Kfar Saba. She was her parents’ first and the first grandchild on both sides. The first baby of two families who look—how should we put this—more or less happy. And she was a pretty baby with shining brown eyes, and in accordance she was flooded with torrents of attention. She would giggle, her hair glistening in the sun, her white skin covered with layers of sunscreen. “A noble of the Versailles Palace,” her mother whispered in her ear before the baby could even understand any language.
When Daphne lies on her single bed, staring at the ceiling, she pictures her face printed on a million copies of Vogue. Sometimes she is the winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry, astronomy, or literature. Today she’s an uncompromising director. She imagines what she’d wear to the award ceremony.
At the same time, about a kilometer away. David Alter is lying on his own single bed. His parents’ apartment is what people refer to as “fully furnished.” It was bought with all its furniture straight from the contractor. The apartment complex above the Arim Mall, the Olympus of the mall, the temple of Kfar Saba, is called City Heights. Tomorrow morning is his entry exam for the film concentration.
David Alter is ascetic and skinny. His parents have no idea he’s a heavy smoker, in spite of the stench of cigarettes that surrounds him. Sometimes he even smokes in this fully furnished room, even though his parents forbid it and do not smoke themselves. He draws the curtain, pushes his torso out the window, and rolls smoke rings down toward the mall’s atrium. He watches the desirable view outside his window—the atrium filled with stores, and at the center dozens of children riding in circles on skateboards. One skateboard bangs against the stairs. “Come on, get up!” a redheaded kid yells.
David rolls down another distant smoke ring, watching them for hours on end. Though Rachel, his mother, reading a newspaper in the kitchen, can smell the smoke, she says nothing. On good days, David Alter smokes two packs of Winston Reds a day.
He goes to the kitchen to get a Coke. Rachel looks at him. Red cheeks and soft curls, just like when he was a little boy, when she was still allowed to rub his head whenever she wanted. Not anymore. David is a good kid, quiet, never talks back, never slams doors. But he only goes to school when he feels like it, which is rarely. “He just can’t get up in the morning, that’s all,” she says. And he really can’t. While she and his father wake up at 7 and have breakfast together at 7:30, David is still fast asleep. They don’t wake him. They don’t dare. Well, his father used to try. He would say in his most assertive voice, “David, David, wake up.” But not a rustle came from behind David’s door, not even a sigh. And Rachel said, “Come on, leave him alone.”
And so, David Alter more or less stopped going to school. But other than that he really is a good boy. Never making a scene at family dinners, never stealing money from her wallet, his entire room covered with books. Books upon books. “With all these books he’s definitely learning more than the kids who do go to school,” she says, and for once she’s right. David Alter is one of the smartest kids in Kfar Saba, especially for his age. More than that, he’s smarter than the kids from the towns of Hod Hasharon, Ramat Hasharon, and definitely Ra’anana.
What’s he doing there in his bedroom? Sleeping. Sleeping for hours. When he wakes up he drinks a glass of Coke, smokes two cigarettes out the window, watches the kids on skateboards, and goes back to bed. He reads for hours. Everything by Stephen King and Philip K. Dick, The Odyssey, The Iliad, Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Raven. He reads Yona Wallach’s poetry the way some people read the Bible, and also Poppy Z. Brite, who nobody else knows. Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, he knows and loves all of the Dadaists. He also likes Balzac, Flaubert, and Stendhal. He even started Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but he couldn’t stand it. At noon, when Rachel gets home from work to fry some cauliflower and drop a frozen veggie schnitzel in the toaster, he leaves his room for the first time and the two of them have lunch alone. His father only comes home in the evening, when they all have dinner together.
“Why don’t you go out, get some air?” she says now, and for once David takes her advice. He texts Daphne, and 30 minutes later they meet downstairs in the mall, at the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf. They order drinks and sit outside at their regular table under the palm tree.
“Joe, my love, how I’ve missed you.”
“Gorgeous! I’ve missed you too.”
Daphne and David are so glad to see each other and hug tighter than usual. They haven’t seen each other all week. Daphne was busy with her audition and David was occupied reading Madame Bovary.
“So, guess what! I got in!” she announces, her eyes glittering with pride.
David smiles, happy for her.
“What about you? When’s your entry exam?”
“Tomorrow morning. Man, I’ve got to get in. Otherwise I’ll be stuck with all the idiots.”
They laugh. They both know he has to get in. They can’t be in different classes. They can’t take on all those imbeciles alone.
Unlike Daphne, David truly doesn’t like other people. He isn’t curious about them, he doesn’t need them to like him. He isn’t even interested in basic attention. He just wants them to not look at him. To him, most of them really are dumb as dirt and as empty-minded as the fountain at the mall. He already knows more than any of them, and this knowledge of his is like a rock in his stomach, a rock he swallowed that he can’t puke out or shatter. Just a big rock in his stomach and that’s it. Only Daphne can see it. She sees the rock and she admires it. She wants to caress the rock in his stomach.
Daphne Angel is the only person on earth that David respects. And conversely, David Alter is the only person on earth that Daphne respects and loves. They spend hours at the Coffee Bean, talking. Daphne tells him about the story she wrote for her exam.
They laugh so hard, holding their stomachs. The smoke from their Winstons escapes through their nostrils. “Incurable literary obsession. Like a serial killer’s profile,” David says. “Do you really think there’s any chance you don’t get in? And I’ll bet the writing is as sharp as a knife to the gut.”
“I hope so.” Daphne puts the straw to her lips, and the sound of her slurping the last drops irritates the woman at the next table. The woman rolls her eyes at the noisy girl, but Daphne doesn’t notice. David is just telling her about how Emma Bovary couldn’t stand her boring husband and was always fantasizing about a new, thrilling life with Rodolphe. Daphne chews on ice cubes, drinking in his every word, imagining herself loving someone that way one day, maybe even having a boyfriend.
David’s phone rings. It’s his father. He’s home early from work and wants them to eat lunch together. David, who never comes home this early, agrees and hangs up. He tells Daphne he has to go.
“Please, Joe, please, please pass the exam tomorrow.”
They say goodbye next to McDonalds. David takes the mall elevator, the same elevator that leads up to his apartment. To reach the apartment floor he uses a small electronic key.
David’s mother is pulling a quiche out of the oven. His father is chopping vegetables for a salad. “Have a seat,” he says.
David sits down and watches as his mother sets the table.
But all things move toward their end.
“What are you planning on doing with your life, David?” The spoon hits the plate, the sound hits David between the eyes. “You’re 16 years old and have no plans for the future. Nothing. You think anyone cares about these zombie books you’re reading? I want to understand how you, you—” he reaches over and pinches his youngest son’s collarbone with his thumb and middle finger—“becomes a person who contributes to society.” Now he pokes him deep in the shoulder.
Within a fraction of a second, David gets a terrible migraine. He won’t be able to open his eyes tomorrow. He’ll have to bury his head in his pillow all day.
Rachel sees it, and a pain of her own fills her ribcage, threatening to erupt in the form of tears. She wants to grab her husband’s arm and press hard, signaling to him to stop.
“Mom and I don’t know what to do with you anymore.”
David puts the spoon in his mouth. Maybe chewing will relieve his gag reflex. His eyes sink into the plate. This will never pass.
“You don’t go to school. Don’t work. All day long you’re locked in your room. We don’t know what’s going to happen to you. What’s high school going to be like?”
Rachel wants to cry. She can barely hold back tears. “Leave my child alone!” she screams inside her head. “What do you even know about my family?”
Once again she’s hit by the awful memory of birth. She’s got so many terrible memories of that moment. Most of them have evaporated, but this one won’t let go. She’s all alone at the birthing center, while her husband is on one of his military tours. She’s so tired that she almost falls asleep from so much fatigue and hair-pulling. They keep saying, “Push! Push! Fight, damn it!” but she has no power left, and her body just won’t cooperate. Her muscles let her down and her tears flow freely. “Can you just leave him inside?” she asks the midwife with a face wet with sweat and snot. And then a tiny, helpless baby emerges into this world, red and curled. The nurse hands him to her, wrapped in white fabric, like a miserable bride handing out pieces of wedding cake.
She holds him in her arms until he calms down and asks for more painkillers. One arm holding the sleepy baby, the other arm getting an injection, and the two of them fall asleep together for hours. When she wakes up, the baby won’t be in her arms, and she’ll let out a little, panicked yelp. She’ll need a second to get it together, but then she’ll remember where she is and everything will go back to normal. She’ll rest her head on the hospital pillow, her tattered curly hair dampening the pillowcase, and she’ll fall asleep with that prick in her heart, that prick of knowing that she just had another child without even wanting one. In repentance of this thought she’ll vow to love him more than anything, and close her eyes.
“I’m trying out for the film concentration at Rabin High School tomorrow. I hope to pass. Daphne did,” says David.
“Film? What’s film? Like, movies?” his father asks.
“Yes, exactly,” he answers meekly.
“Well, even that’s something in your situation,” his father says, giving up.
“My child,” Rachel says, her eyes moist and her heart fluttering with pride. “Good job, David. Dad and I support you.”
David gets up. He isn’t like his brother. He doesn’t lose his cool, shattering things. He smiles with restraint and keeps his mouth shut. He runs the plate under water and inserts it into the bottom rack of the dishwasher. Then he pours himself a Coke and flees back to his room. Okay, he’s managed to evade them again. Just a few more times and he’ll be free like his older brother, who went to London and swore never to come back. If only he’d been born to a different family. If only he were a completely different person. He leans his torso out the window, lights a cigarette, and watches the kids and their skateboards.
There’s that kid again.
A sixth or seventh grader trying to do a somersault with his black skateboard. His fair hair twinkles under the white light. A lock of hair flutters in the wind and then clings to his forehead. He tries again and falls. His skin has grown tan over the summer. He might have gained a few more freckles, but it’s difficult for David to tell from here.
David flicks down the cigarette he’d sucked clean. The butt falls on the green ice cream parlor awning and rolls down to the pink floor tiles. He draws the curtain and lies down on the bed.
The next day he wakes up at 6:30; so early that even his parents are still asleep. He pours milk into a bowl and eats two bowls of Coco Pops in silence. The apartment is so quiet, the mall is so quiet, even Weizmann Street is empty of buses and honking cars. Only the Coco Pops popping in his mouth threaten to shatter the entire world. He swings his bag onto his back and heads out to the high school on foot. Outside, the world is still covered in morning fog, and drops of dew speckle the manicured lawns of the Kiryat Sapir neighborhood. He has Nick Cave playing inside his ears. He thinks about Cave’s black, shoulder-length hair, that greasy hair stinking with tons of cigarettes and alcohol, and all those idiot Goth girls dying to smear him all over their black eyeliner face.
The gate to Rabin High School is locked with a thick metal chain. Not even a tank could break through.
David waits at the bus stop for the guard to come open the gate. His black All Stars are on the sidewalk, his back is hunched, and the cigarettes keep going in and out of his mouth. He waits patiently, no rush, no fear, no worries. It doesn’t really matter either way.
He sees someone coming closer. The guy looks exactly like Daphne described him: those jeans, that conformist walk. That’s the teacher, Ido Dar, crossing the street. He’s got dark circles under his eyes, probably from waking up so early to get here from Jerusalem.
David crushes the butt of his cigarette under the sole of his All Stars.
And the bells from the chapel went jingle-jangle.
David walks into the classroom without knocking. Ido gives him a vinegary look. Here comes another nobody who wants to make movies. Another one who’ll write long scripts that’ll gather dust in hidden computer folders. Mediocre scripts that’ll never get any funding, just a list of producers to slam the phone at him.
Ido takes a loud slurp of his coffee. “David, describe surrealism to me,” he says, sliding over a blank, white piece of paper.
“Do you happen to have a pen?”
David sits at the desk by the window and thinks. He doesn’t write a word for two long minutes, only thinks hard, chewing the tip of his pen.
Ido watches him, thinking, Bastard rich kids. The ride on the 947 bus from Jerusalem at 6 a.m. had worn down his nerves. The bus was crowded with overzealous male soldiers and fat female soldiers, and he had to sit on the steps to the backdoor with his head on his knees and his eyes heavy with exhaustion. He had to get up for them at each stop as they rolled out onto some base, 20 other soldiers getting on in their wake to stuff the bus further. And now this kid is chewing on his pen.
There’s no future.
David pulls the pen out of his mouth, turns the page over, and begins to write:
Surrealism is a way of seeing the world as it is the way it begins with a wide circle and grows smaller and smaller and smaller until only a single word is left
He leaves the page on Ido’s desk and leaves without a word. Ido Dar looks at the piece of paper and has no clue why the kid drew a circle. He turns the page over and begins to read, then turns it over again and again, and finally puts it down on the desk. He takes off his glasses and rubs his poor eyes.
He did not expect this. It shocks him almost as much as that Daphne Angel kid’s essay about the copied books.
“Accepted,” he writes with the pen still drenched with that bastard kid’s saliva.
Hey, I finished my exam. Coming to the mall?
Cool. Meet you in an hour at the atrium. Got the cards?
When David leaves the school he gets that migraine prick between his eyes again. He has chills down his spine. Skodas drive through the roundabout, but he can’t hear a thing; neither the edgy honking nor the screeching of rushing tires. He tries to focus on the pain between his brows. His entire face twists, and his stomach turns. He leans against the mason wall of one of the villas to settle his stomach. He hears a woman pouring milk into a bowl, the cornflakes landing inside the white liquid, drops spraying, absorbed in her T-shirt, dripping down her chin. The smell of sweet milk fills his nostrils, kids running into the kitchen, dying to slide that cold spoon down their throat. Crumbs fly on the marble floor, between the sofa cushion, onto the television screen.
The thought of the sugared milk exacerbates his nausea, and for a moment he’s convinced he’s actually going to throw up. He sits down on a nearby bench and lights a cigarette. He inhales deeply, as deeply as he can. Only cigarettes can calm him. Just seeing the red of the Winston pack soothes him. Cigarettes are important to him. Smoking’s important to him. It’s the only thing he does just for himself, the only thing that makes him feel good.
He keeps walking toward the mall, fantasizing about something interesting happening. Maybe time will pass and the ringing in his ears will stop and Daphne will have good stories to tell.
The ficus trees on Herzl Street offer their dark shade. The buildings are tall, surrounded by impressive concrete walls. At the end of the street, the Arim Mall appears. The floor tiles are pink as pearls, the balconies open like oysters. The escalator goes up and up, the fountains spray water the color of the Mediterranean, and idiot kids drop ice cream scoops between their fingers. Those who gobbled up bowls of cornflakes for breakfast are now rushing to the mall with their skateboards like a pack of ants. These are the days of summer vacation, days that are theirs exclusively, and which they choose to spend at the mall. First at the mall, then at the pool. He grabs his stomach. It hurts.
Where are you, Joe? Meet me at the drugstore. I’m putting on makeup
On my way. Massive headache
David finds Daphne spraying Dior perfume on her wrists. She puts them together and rubs, absorbing the dream liquid into her white skin, hoping it enters her blood stream.
She looks at the bottle. It’s called Remember Me. She brings it closer to her bag. It’s either too cheap or too expensive. David’s eyes turn into warning signs, but Daphne can’t see them. “Do you want anything?” she asks. “Just say the word.”
David knows Daphne will steal whatever he wants. She’ll pull anything off the shelf, cheap or expensive, small or large, anything he asks her for. She’ll do that solid for him if he does this solid for her—asking her to shoplift. Deep inside David is a good boy. Theft just isn’t his thing. All he wants to do is smoke and read to his heart’s desire. She walks along the rows of shelves, rolling mascara over her lashes, painting a black line along her eyelids, finishing up with blood-red lipstick.
“Do you think Nick Cave would fall in love with me?” she asks, blowing a kiss.
A Clinique saleswoman stares at her. She knows this girl; all she ever does is finish up their samples. She never buys a thing.
“You’re too smart for him,” he says.
Daphne’s red smile stretches to its limit. Her sunken cheeks turn red. “Well, sir, what’ll you have? We have Advil, Tylenol, we also have aspirin and Excedrin. Do you have a preference?” She winks.
“Whatever you want. I’ll be outside, smoking,” he says and leaves.
Daphne slips two packs of Tylenol and one bottle of Advil into her bag. She goes to the fridge and grabs water for herself and a Coke for him. With an overflowing bag and blood lipstick she walks out toward him like a baroness, the first patron of the drugstore. Her thin nose up in the air and the scent of Dior accompanying her like a loyal posse. This isn’t the first time she shoplifts, or the first time David waits for her by the fountain. Still, whenever she pushes in the gate and walks outside with her stuffed bag, both their hearts skip a beat.
David is eager to see her loot, delighted at the victorious smile on her face, yearning to hear her rolling laughter, excited to hear her say, “God damn, I can’t believe I pulled it off again! Fucking Dior! Do you have any idea how expensive that is?”
He immediately takes two Tylenols and washes them down with the Coke. “My angel,” he says, blowing her a kiss. She serves him the Coke like a mother. Like a stepmother, Cinderella’s evil, loving stepmother. Like the mother he never had. Like the mother she is to him. His mistress of Coke and Tylenol muse.
“Will you read my cards now?” she asks.
“You’ve got lipstick on your teeth.”
“Would you look at that—from a queen to a pauper.” They laugh and continue together to the Kiryat Sapir lawn, where the elementary and middle school kids haven’t taken over yet. That’s where they can sit quietly, smoking and talking about the worst things in the world, reading tarot cards without anyone watching.
Daphne lies on her stomach, her feet swinging in the air, the moist grass sticking to her shirt. David lights cigarettes for both of them as she shuffles.
“Take only three. I’m doing the three reading for you today.” He hands her a lit cigarette. Saliva touches saliva above the tarot cards. She loves it.
The first card she picks is the moon, the tower in the middle, the hanging man on the left. “Fuck, I always get that hanging man!”
David smiles. The hanging man is her card. He looks at her cards, takes a slow drag, a sip of his stolen Coke, and it’s back to the images.
“So, what do you say?” Daphne asks, eager. She wants to know the future. That’s the only thing she cares about—the future. What’s going to happen, what’s it going to look like, what’s she going to look like, and most importantly—does that idea truly exist? Or are things always going to be more or less like this? David is the only person in the world who can answer that question. Only he knows what’s beyond the horizon of the mall, beyond the eucalyptus gardens, and the highway to Tel Aviv.
“You’re seeking enlightenment. You’re searching for something from your past.” He points to the hanging man and turns it toward her. “Look at the way he’s hanging. You can see it’s a choice. No one hanged him. He’s got his legs crossed, hands behind his head. He almost looks comfortable.”
Daphne’s eyes widened, her large pupils fixed on him. “He’s got a halo around his head. That means he understands something,” she says.
“So do you.”
“There’s nothing to understand, Joe. How can you not see it? We’ve already understood everything. That’s why I keep getting the hanging man. It’s out of desperation. I’m willing to hang myself, I’m so desperate to understand something. Tomorrow morning I’m going to hang myself off of this very tree.” She points to the thick ficus above them.
David is used to her over-the-top declarations, but this one frightens him. He pictures Daphne hanging, her body dripping downward, a cloud of Dior enveloping it. A police car arrives and detectives file out. With them, her mother, Ronit Boshinsky, runs out too, wailing. And he’s the one they keep asking, Why? Why? Why did she do it? And he explains. He does his best to explain, but they don’t understand anything, and never will. Just because, he keeps saying. And just like that, Daphne dies on him, and he’s got no one in the whole world.
This is an excerpt from the author’s novel By the Orange Orchard.
Julia Fermentto-Tzaisler is an Israeli writer.