Vintage postcard via Flickr
Vintage postcard via Flickr

The First Day I Was Happy in America

Tablet Original Fiction: An immigrant’s tale

Julia Fermentto
December 10, 2019
Vintage postcard via Flickr
Vintage postcard via Flickr

At first we weren’t aware of the fact that we were poor, but since coming to America we had become poor. Not that in Tel Aviv we had been rich, but here our money slipped through our fingers in no time. From Israel we had brought $10,000 in hundred-dollar bills in a pouch strapped to my diaphragm. It was our immigration money that we planned to use to buy a car, pay rent, and for basic expenses. But what ended up happening was that we reached into the diaphragm pocket every single day.

We spent weeks in motels and diners until we settled into our new lives. We were already exhausted from sleeping on sinking mattresses, from taking moldy showers, and from eating junk food. I dissolved into fits of crying, thinking we’d never manage. But Gershi didn’t lose it a single time, it was clear that all the roaming and rambling didn’t affect him. He said we’d manage, and that even if we didn’t, failure was always an option.

“We can always go back to Tel Aviv,” he would say whenever I despaired.

“We’re never going back to Tel Aviv!” I shouted as a prelude to an argument.

But Gershi wouldn’t bite, he retreated into himself and ignored me, continuing to drive calmly or watch TV. A moment later I would extend my hand, and we would kiss and make up, happy again like two goldfish with no memory.

After we bought the golden 2003 Toyota Solara convertible we set our sights on finding a home. The apartment we saw on Dove Street was a dream, with hardwood floors and windows wherever you looked. We both instantly fell in love with it. And because we wanted to be done with the motels we decided to rent above our means, at the asking price.

“Yes, we’ll take it,” we told the realtor.

We may have miscalculated, or were simply too dazzled by the property, but in hindsight that’s definitely what finished us. Ninety percent of our money went toward rent and the rest we planned to put into food and gas. We furnished the apartment for next to nothing with things we found on the street or bought at yard sales. Every dollar we spent was like pulling a tooth. Just when the cash was getting comfortable at the bottom of the pocket, our sticky fingers would yank it out and give it to its next guardian.

We stopped eating out, no lattes touched our lips. We did our food shopping in La Tiendita, a Mexican supermarket downtown, a 40-minute drive from our house, which sold food in bulk, and cheap. It was a giant inferno of chicken wings in packs of a hundred, and mayo in buckets. We took a shopping cart at the entrance and walked hand-in-hand down the aisles, mesmerized by all the imported goodness of the great continent; but no item was tossed into our cart before its absolute necessity was discussed. After choosing a giant plastic jar of instant coffee and a 20-pound sack of rice, we kissed by the produce display.

“This isn’t Paris,” Gershi said.

“It’s better than Paris,” I replied.

We paid $92.80 at the register and left with overflowing bags and gleaming eyes. We planned on eating everything together, we planned on becoming full.

“This is our sustenance,” Gershi said, pointing to the giant sack of rice.

School had already started and I spent most of my days at the university. Gershi still hadn’t found a job and in the meantime wasn’t looking for one either; these were his vacation months. He spent his days languidly, the California sun less scorching by now, and walked around with a book under his arm and a cup of instant coffee within reach. He cooked us dinner every evening, making use of every product in the pantry down to the last crumb. We didn’t go out at all, not to restaurants, not to bars; we didn’t go to the movies even once. We also decided to terminate our internet connection at home, at least for the time being. Since we were still new to the continent we had no friends. It was only me and Gershi, no money, no internet connection. We went on long walks, we read books in bed, we baked ourselves cakes. We had date nights at the supermarket. In the Vons supermarket up the street, which was too expensive for our new status, there was a clearance display, all kinds of products whose packaging was damaged: dented cans, slightly torn packs of flour. Every night we rummaged through the display, the bargains falling into our laps one after the other: white wine, coconut chocolate, a six-pack of beer, and vanilla pudding. Every night we returned home with a different deal, feasting on decadent meals for a few cents.

But on the day we curled up on the couch, checked our bank account and saw we had only $380 left—we realized we were truly finished, what you would call totally broke.

I was in a complete panic, scared that my previous life was over, that I would never dine out again, never wear pretty clothes, that I’d only think about money, about pennies. Gershi was moderate in his response, he kept reminding me that however we looked at it, we were actually rich. It’s just the liquid cash that wasn’t so liquid right now. But my body and brain went into survival mode and I couldn’t control it. I envied Gershi’s composure, his assured presence in the world. He was the real survivor here. Nothing threatened him, neither natural disasters nor financial crises.

“Go with the flow, trust Gershi,” I told myself, repeating it like a mantra. I clung to him and tried to absorb his calm, but the fear flowed through my veins. Suddenly I wanted to burn bills, to buy leather boots, to drink mocha lattes and gorge on Gruyere. After a while my unsettled state seemed to rub off on Gershi too, who no longer read with pleasure but paced the house in circles, only stopping to scrub the kitchen burners.

“What’s happening to me?” I asked Gershi with tears in my eyes. “All I think about is money, I just want to buy more and more things. I’ve never been like this in my entire life,” I confessed, hoping he wouldn’t judge me.

“It’s just because we don’t have money right now. It’s the forbidden fruit, you don’t actually want these things, it’s an illusion,” he said.

“I know. But the illusion is so strong that I believe it.”

“Let’s see if there’s anything new in the clearance display,” he said, smiling.

“No, I don’t feel like it. You go.”

I got into bed early in PJs and a bad mood, while Gershi went to Vons to scour for a few evening delights. He returned with the bags and I asked him to show me the loot: a bottle of red wine and an avocado. Then he took three five-dollar bills out of his wallet.

“What’s that?”

“I won it,” he said. “I bought a scratch ticket for a buck and won $15!” With bright eyes, he handed me the bills. I looked at these beautiful bills, which I wanted to press between the pages of my journal like dried petals.

Half the semester had already gone by and the days I spent working at the studio grew longer. Some days I didn’t eat anything but an apple or a tangerine Gershi had thrown into my bag, or a slice of pizza handed out for free on campus. One night I came home completely starving, Gershi said he was really hungry too. I went to the kitchen to look for leftovers for dinner. When I returned with two sunny side ups and a tomato, I found Gershi in the living room making all sorts of calculations on his phone. Even from that angle he was one of the most beautiful people I’d ever met.

“I went to Vons this morning, the one up the road. I asked them about work. I filled out a form for a shelf-stocker position,” he said, and I gave him a rib-crushing hug.

Two days later, Gershi started working at the supermarket. He underwent a quick training and was given a red apron and tag with his name on it—GERSHON. He worked night shifts that started at 6 and ended at midnight. I came to visit him every night, pretending to be a customer with a shopping cart while he stacked wine bottles on the shelves, or dairy products in the fridge. He got a 30-minute break and a free coffee. He’d bring me one, too, and we’d sit on the bench outside, eating sandwiches from home and talking about the stacking techniques he was experimenting with.

The job paid $12.02 an hour and we made endless calculations to figure out what his paycheck would be at the end of the month. The final figure we reached was $1,370.28, and the fantasies about the check kept igniting our imagination. We wouldn’t buy a thing with the money, but continue living like this until our bank account exploded, we joked. Gershi returned to his shift, and I went back home.

One night, as I was reading a book in bed, he texted me to come to the supermarket with our reusable tote bag and meet him down at the parking lot. I found him standing there with a cartful of boxes.

“Come on, walk with me to the dumpster.” He grabbed my hand.

I stood beside him while he removed blocks of yellow cheese from the boxes. “It expires tomorrow. They told me to throw it away. It’s provolone,” he said.

“Why are they getting rid of it?” I asked.

“They’re not allowed to sell it after today. So I’m throwing these away, and you can take one.” He looked at me with big eyes, making sure he had a partner in crime.

“I can also take two, make a quiche,” I suggested. Gershi smiled and continued throwing away cheese. I placed two blocks of provolone in the tote bag and strolled out of the parking lot.

When I got home I immediately went to work on the quiche. When Gershi returned at midnight we stuffed our faces.

“What else do you throw away over there?” I asked.

“All sorts of expired things. I saw chocolate chip cookies, once they threw away chicken thighs. It’s good stuff, fresh. The expiration date isn’t accurate, it’s a safety date. You can eat those things for weeks after,” he said.

“Yeah?” I squinted.

“Sure, they just don’t want to risk it. The cheese we took? We’ll eat it next week too. You’ll see, I’ll make a lasagna, nothing will happen to us.” He smiled and continued to wolf down the quiche.

I trusted him, after all he was a biologist and understood a thing or two about bacteria. Over the next few days I stopped visiting Gershi while he stacked shelves. Instead we met by the dumpster, me with the tote bag and him with a cartful of expired products: salamis, chickens, cheese, blackened bananas, soft sweet potatoes, everything you could imagine and more. I would load the bag and go home to cook; dinners became full-fat midnight feasts.

One evening, Gershi was about to throw out trays of dough; he texted to ask if I was interested. I turned on the oven and made it to the Vons in three minutes. I had always dreamt about baking my own bread. When I got home I discovered we were out of eggs, and I wanted the bread to be shiny so I returned to the Vons, this time to buy a carton of eggs.

Gershi was stacking milk cartons, and he walked me to the egg section, because he wanted to defrost after standing so long next to the refrigerators.

“Put it in the bag,” he said when I picked up the eggs. “What, here?” I asked.

He nodded confidently.

“I’ll walk you out,” he said and straightened a few wayward cartons.

“Then wait, I need sesame seeds too. And oil,” I said, and switched the regular eggs for organic free range eggs.

Gershi’s diamond pupils dilated, his eyebrows arched. I went to get the items. That first time I was still afraid, and had to make do with organic free range eggs, sesame seeds, oil, and black olives. My heart was racing at the exit but Gershi walked with me and gave me such a smooch before I left that no one suspected, no one even looked at me.

From that day on, I stopped meeting Gershi by the dumpster in the parking lot; instead I’d come visit him by the shelves around 10. There weren’t many customers by then and the deli and bakery employees were already gone. The tote bag would fill up with the most expensive organic products I could find: La Tourangelle almond oil, Amarena cherries, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint soap, Alter Eco organic dark chocolate. Once I even lifted an electric toothbrush. I never crammed the tote with more than what a normal woman’s bag could hold.

Before Gershi returned home I’d arrange the stolen goods on the table, and we’d calculate the prices together. How we laughed, Lübeck marzipan for $24.99! Pure almond oil, $23.33! Brie de Meaux, $21.42!

The day Gershi was fired, our loot totaled $1,323.15. They agreed not to go to the police, but wouldn’t give him his last paycheck. I can’t say we were sad; I don’t even think we were afraid. He went back to hand in his red apron and his nametag; I waited for him down the road. He even returned with two cups of coffee.

“A souvenir,” he said.

We walked home holding hands, sipping the hot coffee. We didn’t talk during that walk, but not because we were busy soul-searching or anything; quiet had descended upon us. At home we opened all the kitchen cupboards; there were coffee beans from Sumatra, black and red lentils, a large assortment of De Cecco curly pasta. The best French cheeses and Italian cold cuts rested in the fridge. Our beloved Talenti sorbet stood in the freezer; mango, passion fruit, and Sicilian pistachio. The space under the sink was crowded with natural cleaning supplies for the bathroom, kitchen, for polishing the wooden floor. We were happy, we were rich.

Translated from Hebrew by Daniella Zamir.

Julia Fermentto-Tzaisler is a writer. Her debut novel, Safari, was published in 2011 and became a Bestseller. Her second novel By the Orange Orchard won the Minister of Culture Award for Young Writers and has been chosen as the 2018 “One Book, One City” contest by the Tel Aviv municipality and Timeout magazine. Her work has been published in German, Polish and English. She is also the artistic director of the Jerusalem International Writers Festival and director of PEN Israel.