It’s Always Better When We’re Together

Maya Klein

The night they hosted the dinner, he came home early with his arms full. It was an act of good faith, and she knew it, yet it soon came to ruin. They had been together, she and Avner, for almost four years but seldom entertained at home. She had started preparations the day before: buying fresh greens for the salad, tidying the newspapers in a neat pile on the coffee table, making sure the toilet was clean. Now with their friends expected to arrive in less than two hours, she fluttered with excitement.
        “Hi.” Avner’s keys hit the counter.
        “Hey, how’s it going?” Her back was to him in the kitchen.
        “All right. How about you?”
        “Busy! Nothing’s ready and I still need to shower.” Turning on her heel, she wiped her hands on the damp dishtowel and gave him his kiss.
        They were in a crumbling overpriced Tel Aviv rental, complete with a dog. Though very late in their twenties, they were considered a young couple, children really. They had met just as Avner was completing his military service; he was on leave and by then almost entirely bald. She had been discharged for a year and was waitressing to save up for “The Big Trip”. “The Big Trip” wound up being six months of backpacking in South America. They got their vaccinations and bought expensive camping equipment, and though they would never admit it, and you couldn’t discern from the cleverly titled online photo albums, both of them were relieved when it ended.
        She glanced at the plastic shopping bag in Avner’s hands.
        “I brought garlic and napkins.”
         He placed the offering on the counter. She had, of course, sized up the contents of the bag as soon as he entered the room, so the triumph was lost on her.
        “Great, can you take them out please?” Her upper back, especially the shoulder region, held something more: He couldn’t think of anything else? Even wine or flowers, which would once have been subject to sarcasm, seemed in place right now. Anything extra, apart from what was necessary, or predetermined by her explicit request. The creeping suspicion, tied securely in her supraspinatus, was that he was there, yes, but didn’t really want to be there. Avner hovered close to danger.
        “Do you need any help?”
        “What do you mean, of course I need help!”
        Wishing that she had kept her tone in check but at the same time, and for the millionth time, that he wouldn’t ask her to tell him what to do, she broke off a piece of French bread to chew. The crust was tough and scraped the roof of her mouth, but she soon got to the good doughy part. It was worth the expense and the detour to the Artisan bakery, La Coquette, modeled to evoke Paris but chilled stone cold in the face of the city’s merciless humidity.
        “Well, then tell me what to do”.
         She swallowed the chunk of baguette. A docile man, thick and reconciled, wasn’t the role she had in mind for him. Avner’s father certainly wasn’t like that; he was a maverick among fathers, with no falafel belly hanging over a cell phone pouch and no inclination for sandals, even in summer. Avner was raised in the cloud of his father’s cologne: a former general turned business entrepreneur, with hair slicked silver, a posse of overweight friends and the air about him exuding women, younger women. She knew that Avner longed for that kind of ease in combat, commerce and, as his father would say, affairs of the heart. But as he grew older, and the dust on his military service began to settle, it was becoming clear that such effortlessness was innate, and Avner, the respectful computer programmer, hadn’t been born with it.
        “Can you peel the vegetables?” She turned to him, her voice prickly. She felt old. If they were really to get married, which is where they were headed, she was almost sure of it, was this how it went? Would the past four years be a waste if they didn’t? Before she could stop him, Avner stuffed a larger-than-necessary piece of the bread into his mouth. She shoved the remaining baguette into the protective wing of its white paper bag. Avner selected a carrot from the squeaky white cart and fumbled around in the drawer for a peeler.
        Besides working with her acting group, she had been taking a few classes in feminist theory at the university, which had done well for her consciousness. But even in the Humanities cafeteria, over espresso and limp lettuce, she could spot the married girls. They had a smugness about them indicating, yes, we do have it both ways. And they bothered her; oh, they bothered her, much more than the homely ladies getting their teacher’s certificates, whom she pitied, with their laminated photos of shiny-chinned babies dangling from their key chains like dog tags. At least the future teachers had integrity, however reconciled to reproduction and serving others they might be, but as for the others, she was firmly convinced that they couldn’t possibly be telling the truth.
        Avner’s slow scraping of the carrot filled the silence between them with a steady rhythm. She went over what was left: garlic for the fish, which she should chop after she tosses the greens, otherwise the entire salad will taste of it; Avner should walk Shira so she won’t bug them when the guests arrive. And dessert, just strawberries in heavy cream, but the tops need to be taken off and the cream should be whipped. The living room—all those shoes everywhere—a ceramic bowl of saltwater taffy would be perfect, there’s a bag of lychee-flavored, with their pale pink wrappers they’ll be just right for the beautiful brown bowl—no, the bowl is too big, there isn’t enough taffy to fill it— without abundance, without having it almost overflowing, and all the candies spilling over, there’s really no point at all.
        She let go of the lychee.
        Avner felt her move about in the kitchen, but his eyes stayed with the carrot and the orange mound of shavings he was making on the counter. His movements seemed particularly slow against hers, as if he could subsume her flutter by staying absolutely still. Hunched slightly over the fake marble counter, Avner’s t-shirt parted with his jeans, revealing a crack and soft folds of skin. Their dog, Shira, drew near, plunging her wet nose into his crotch. He was not looking forward to this evening. He leaned in towards Shira, kissing the furry space between her eyes and patting the bridge of her nose.
         They had found her two summers ago, walking home from the sea. Their faces were drawn tight by the sun and semicircles of sand still stuck to their calves. Every few steps she would hug his waist with a long brown arm. They stopped in front of Café Amis, where a bomber had killed two and injured one, sharing a salty kiss. She was the one who spotted the puppy rummaging between two plastic green trashcans and convinced him that it wouldn’t grow too big, or be much work. She was wrong on both counts, and he knew it but didn’t care. She immediately named it Shira, the Hebrew word for poetry; because she had said, poetry is when you stop for a moment and let something in.
        She looked at Avner. He was getting a bit thick, but still, her friends all said that she was lucky. Was this how lucky felt? She reached back to a well-processed memory of herself years ago with another man, smashed against that wall, her feet propped on the toilet seat, desperate sex that left bruises on her lower back. She had dated him for a short month before Avner; now she could barely remember his face or anything apart from the blissful sensation of limpness from her knees downwards.
        He stood before her with their medium-sized dog. There was still so much to do. She tightened.
        “Can you p-lease help set the table?” It just came out that way.
“Yes,” he muttered. Avner placed each fork carefully on the right hand side and each knife on the left. She knew the mistake had to be deliberate, yet the sight of Shira placated her. The dog was loyally tracing Avner’s every move, scuttling her massive body in between the folding chairs just to be close, to follow.
        “I can’t wait until we have a really nice set of dishes. You know, matching ones”. She could already see their future dishes; the heavy ceramic ware, each unique, blazing radiant color. Avner’s reply was a brief nod. And so she turned from the salad, brushing each dead gray-pink fish in olive oil and delicately rubbing their backs in garlic.
        It was almost time. The fish went in the toaster oven and she went in the shower. Ignoring her instruction to walk Shira, Avner sank down on the second-hand couch.
        “Didn’t you hear me calling you?”
        “What d’you mean, yes?”
        “I mean, yes.”
        “You mean yes but you don’t even answer when I’m talking to you?”
        Now it was her turn to remain silent.
        “What did you need?” He backtracked.
        Hatred rose in her, swift and fierce.
        “Nothing. Nothing, forget it.” The fat fuck.
        “No, tell me.”
        “What is it? What’s with you?”
        If only Avner had eased himself off the couch and treaded the six paces to her, turning the corner where their hands had browned the wall. If only he had slid aside the mint-green shower curtain and plunged his head into the steam to look at her. If only she could see his wide moon-shaped face, she would smile and open wide the curtain; she would allow the drops of water to spray onto the floor, uniting to form small puddles; then she would invite him in and get on her knees and they would emerge fresh and laughing from the water and both dry off using the same towel.
        “I’m going to walk Shira.” Avner directed his remark to the general direction of the bathroom as he unhooked Shira’s leash from its peg on the wall.
        She proceeded to wash as usual, squirting a line of liquid soap on the loofah, doing the right thigh first, then knee cap, shin, foot, big toe, and gently scrubbing the four webs between each of her toes; turning to repeat the process on the left thigh; and from the left pinky, she straightened up and rinsed out the loofah, replenishing it with more soap. She washed from her stomach to her chest, lifting each breast high and lathering the crease underneath it; then under the arms—which were slightly stubbly— folding at the elbow, she reached far back between her shoulder blades, kneading and working the tough muscle cord like a practiced string musician. It was doomed.
        Suddenly drained, she eased herself down in the large rust-stained tub. She went over the list again. The two major household appliances were hers—no question—her parents had bought them together, so generous of them to get that fridge and the washing machine, even paying for the delivery, not that they weren’t financially set, but still, she hadn’t even asked; she would stay in the apartment, definitely. It was only fair, since she was the one who’d found it; he could have the furniture, which she didn’t really like anyhow, except for the antique chair and the TV, they got that together—did he pay? That could be worked out, how much does a TV cost, nothing really, it’s not even a flat screen; and CDs would be a pain in the ass to sort out, but once single she wouldn’t need them, she would finally have time to properly learn to download. Books were mostly hers, not that she reread the novels, at least not for years, but still, books are things to have; the apartment, a roommate would have to cover his share of rent, a stranger walking barefoot and opening the fridge? It must be a wiser emotional choice to get a new apartment, why should he be the one to move on so easily? And bringing someone over to the apartment, how would that work? Does that mean new sheets too? It has to be awkward using the same sheets, but sheets are expensive, especially the good ones—and sleeping is not the same on polyester, even 50%; his parents, that would be a shame, genuinely nice people, well, maybe the dad is a bit of a perv, the way he looks at waitresses and hugs too long, and too close; but his mother is fine; the cookware?
        She stood up and rinsed off for the final time. Wrapping herself tight in a towel, she went to check on the fish. They were lying dutifully on the silver tin-foil, still browning. Closing the toaster oven door, she raised her head to glance out of the narrow rectangular window overhead. The adjacent building was so close—they were almost touching, the blue TV light in the window facing hers was on. And for the first time since she and Avner had moved in, she faced the window and took a good look inside. A middle-aged woman with a familiar face , whom she had probably bumped into around their neighborhood, was lying in her bedroom with her eyes closed. She could see her well. There was no one else in the room and the television near the woman’s bed was tuned to the lifestyle channel. The small night table held pills and a bottle of mineral water with a bright spout cap. The woman’s high ceilings were water-stained, like their own, and the woman’s calico curtains did not match, yet the antique armoire and vanity set had faded to the exact kind of beauty sought by flea market experts.
        She refocused her eyes the way her acting teacher had taught them to do. She still had the oven mitt covering her right hand, and the warmth from the toaster radiated to her chest. She was able to clearly perceive that under the woman’s itchy bedspread lay a wombless body, wracked by disease. The woman was in a great deal of pain. And she saw the woman’s invisible enemy as well; it was traveling gold-black through the woman’s blood-stream and had long-ago colored the lymph nodes, now reaching the lungs. The woman’s entire thin frame was enlisted in fighting pain; pain that twisted the woman’s brow and drew strange noises out of her. At first she was put off by the woman’s noises as they traveled from one open window to another. But she soon realized that the woman’s body was a marvel. Freed from reason, the woman’s body somehow perceived that someone was there to hear her. She stood watching, her hair dripping down her back; it seemed to be her job now. She watched as a big pain wave shocked the woman’s eyes open, arching her back and “o”-ing her mouth to the ceiling. She saw the woman’s gaping mouth and she was able to look straight to where the woman’s exclamation was directed, right to the roof where that morning the construction workers had taken their break, drinking coca cola and spitting open sunflower seeds on the hot black tar. The woman re-closed her eyes, exhausted.

She turned away from the window and removed the oven mitt, placing it on the counter like an empty puppet.
        When Avner returned with Shira, she was kneeling Japanese-style on the floor, facing the mirror propped against their bedroom wall and applying makeup. He sat down on the couch. The candles were glowing in their compact Ikea containers, and the place smelled of her shampoo mixed with the sweetness of baked garlic. They both were getting hungry.
        “Hey,” she offered softly, coming out of the room to face him.
        “Hi.” Their hug was gentle, tender, tired.
        Then their friends arrived, and after they struggled a bit with the cork they drank the wine and ate. The salad was crisp, and the fish was perfectly baked and seasoned, and they all shared a joint on the porch, which made Avner tell stories that she had already heard. There was strong Turkish coffee and they left the dishes for the morning and they kissed—Avner kissed the woman and she the man—goodnight. They lay down in their bed and turned out the reading light and embraced with their noses touching and turned their backs to each other and fell asleep fast in the scent of honeysuckle beneath their Tel Aviv rooftop adorned with the scattered shells of sunflower seeds.

Maya Klein is an Israeli-American writer. She currently lives in London.

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