The Seven Good Years
Suddenly, the Same Thing
I just hate terrorist attacks,” the thin nurse says to the older one. “Want some gum?”
The older nurse takes a piece and nods. “What can you do?” she says. “I also hate emergencies.”
“It’s not the emergencies,” the thin one insists. “I have no problem with accidents and things. It’s the terrorist attacks, I’m telling you. They put a damper on everything.”
Sitting on the bench outside the maternity ward, I think to myself, She’s got a point. I got here just an hour ago, all excited, with my wife and a neat-freak taxi driver who, when my wife’s water broke, was afraid it would ruin his upholstery. And now I’m sitting in the hallway, feeling glum, waiting for the staff to come back from the ER. Everyone but the two nurses has gone to help treat the people injured in the attack. My wife’s contractions have slowed down, too. Probably even the baby feels this whole getting-born thing isn’t that urgent anymore. As I’m on my way to the cafeteria, a few of the injured roll past on squeaking gurneys. In the taxi on the way to the hospital, my wife was screaming like a madwoman, but all these people are quiet.
“Are you Etgar Keret?” a guy wearing a checked shirt asks me. “The writer?” I nod reluctantly. “Well, what do you know?” he says, pulling a tiny tape recorder out of his bag. “Where were you when it happened?” he asks. When I hesitate for a second, he says in a show of empathy: “Take your time. Don’t feel pressured. You’ve been through a trauma.”
“I wasn’t in the attack,” I explain. “I just happen to be here today. My wife’s giving birth.”
“Oh,” he says, not trying to hide his disappointment, and presses the stop button on his tape recorder. “Mazal tov.” Now he sits down next to me and lights himself a cigarette.
“Maybe you should try talking to someone else,” I suggest as an attempt to get the Lucky Strike smoke out of my face. “A minute ago, I saw them take two people into neurology.”
“Russians,” he says with a sigh, “don’t know a word of Hebrew. Besides, they don’t let you into neurology anyway. This is my seventh attack in this hospital, and I know all their shtick by now.” We sit there a minute without talking. He’s about ten years younger than I am but starting to go bald. When he catches me looking at him, he smiles and says, “Too bad you weren’t there. A reaction from a writer would’ve been good for my article. Someone original, someone with a little vision. After every attack, I always get the same reactions: ‘Suddenly I heard a boom,’ ‘I don’t know what happened,’ ‘Everything was covered in blood.’ How much of that can you take?”
“It’s not their fault,” I say. “It’s just that the attacks are always the same. What kind of original thing can you say about an explosion and senseless death?”
“Beats me,” he says with a shrug. “You’re the writer.”
Some people in white jackets are starting to come back from the ER on their way to the maternity ward. “You’re from Tel Aviv,” the reporter says to me, “so why’d you come all the way to this dump to give birth?”
“We wanted a natural birth. Their department here—”
“Natural?” he interrupts, sniggering. “What’s natural about a midget with a cable hanging from his belly button popping out of your wife’s vagina?” I don’t even try to respond. “I told my wife,” he continues, “‘If you ever give birth, only by Caesarean section, like in America. I don’t want some baby stretching you out of shape for me.’ Nowadays, it’s only in primitive countries like this that women give birth like animals. Yallah, I’m going to work.” Starting to get up, he tries one more time. “Maybe you have something to say about the attack anyway?” he asks. “Did it change anything for you? Like what you’re going to name the baby or something, I don’t know.” I smile apologetically. “Never mind,” he says with a wink. “I hope it goes easy, man.”
Six hours later, a midget with a cable hanging from his belly button comes popping out of my wife’s vagina and immediately starts to cry. I try to calm him down, to convince him that there’s nothing to worry about. That by the time he grows up, everything here in the Middle East will be settled: peace will come, there won’t be any more terrorist attacks, and even if once in a blue moon there is one, there will always be someone original, someone with a little vision, around to describe it perfectly. He quiets down and then considers his next move. He’s supposed to be naive—seeing as how he’s a newborn—but even he doesn’t buy it, and after a second’s hesitation and a small hiccup, he goes back to crying.
When I was a kid, my parents took me to Europe. The high point of the trip wasn’t Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower but the flight from Israel to London—specifically, the meal. There on the tray were a tiny can of Coca-Cola and, next to it, a box of cornflakes not much bigger than a pack of cigarettes.
My surprise at the miniature packages didn’t turn into genuine excitement until I opened them and discovered that the Coke tasted like the Coke in regular-size cans and the cornflakes were real, too. It’s hard to explain where that excitement actually came from. All we’re talking about is a soft drink and a breakfast cereal in much smaller packages, but when I was seven, I was sure I was witnessing a miracle.
Today, thirty years later, sitting in my living room in Tel Aviv and looking at my two-week-old son, I have exactly the same feeling: Here’s a man who weighs no more than ten pounds—but inside he’s angry, bored, frightened, and serene, just like any other man on this planet. Put a three-piece suit and a Rolex on him, stick a tiny attaché case in his hand, and send him out into the world, and he’ll negotiate, do battle, and close deals without even blinking. He doesn’t talk, that’s true. And he soils himself as if there were no tomorrow. I’m the first to admit he has a thing or two to learn before he can be shot into space or allowed to fly an F-16. But in principle, he’s a complete person wrapped in a nineteen-inch package, and not just any person, but one who’s very extreme, an eccentric, a character. The kind you respect but may not completely understand. Because, like all complex people, regardless of their height or weight, he has many sides.
My son, the enlightened one: As someone who has read a lot about Buddhism and has listened to two or three lectures given by gurus and even once had diarrhea in India, I have to say that my baby son is the first enlightened person I have ever met. He truly lives in the present: He never bears a grudge, never fears the future. He’s totally ego-free. He never tries to defend his honor or take credit. His grandparents, by the way, have already opened a savings account for him, and every time they rock him in his cradle, Grandpa tells him about the excellent interest rate he managed to get for him and how much money, at an anticipated single-digit average inflation rate, he’ll have in twenty-one years, when the account comes due. The little one makes no reply. But then Grandpa calculates the percentages against the prime interest rate, and I notice a few wrinkles appearing on my son’s forehead—the first cracks in the wall of his nirvana.
My son, the junkie: I’d like to apologize to all the addicts and reformed addicts reading this, but with all due respect to them and their suffering, nobody’s jones can touch my son’s. Like every true addict, he doesn’t have the same options others do when it comes to spending leisure time—those familiar choices of a good book, an evening stroll, or the NBA play-offs. For him, there are only two possibilities: a breast or hell. “Soon you’ll discover the world—girls, alcohol, illegal online gambling,” I say, trying to soothe him. But until that happens, we both know that only the breast will exist. Lucky for him, and for us, he has a mother equipped with two. In the worst-case scenario, if one breaks down, there’s always a spare.
My son, the psychopath: Sometimes when I wake up at night and see his little figure shaking next to me in the bed like a toy burning through its batteries, producing strange guttural noises, I can’t help comparing him in my imagination to Chucky in the horror movie Child’s Play. They’re the same height, they have the same temperament, and neither holds anything sacred. That’s the truly unnerving thing about my two-week-old son: he doesn’t have a drop of morality, not an ounce. Racism, inequality, insensitivity, globalization—he couldn’t care less. He has no interest in anything beyond his immediate drives and desires. As far as he’s concerned, other people can go to hell or join Greenpeace. All he wants now is some fresh milk or relief for his diaper rash, and if the world has to be destroyed for him to get it, just show him the button. He’ll press it without a second thought.
My son, the self-hating Jew . . .
“Don’t you think that’s enough?” my wife says, cutting in. “Instead of dreaming up hysterical accusations against your adorable son, maybe you could do something useful and change him?”
“OK,” I tell her. “OK, I was just finishing up.”
Call and Response
I really admire considerate telemarketers who listen and try to sense your mood without immediately forcing a dialogue on you when they call. That’s why, when Devora from YES, the satellite TV company, calls and asks if it’s a good time for me to talk, the first thing I do is thank her for her thoughtfulness. Then I tell her politely that no, it isn’t.
“The thing is, just a minute ago I fell into a hole and injured my forehead and foot, so this really isn’t the ideal time,” I explain.
“I understand,” Devora says. “So when do you think it’ll be a good time to talk? An hour?”
“I’m not sure,” I say. “My ankle must have broken when I fell, and the hole is pretty deep. I don’t think I’ll be able to climb out without help. So it pretty much depends on how quickly the rescue team gets here and whether they have to put my foot in a cast or not.”
“So, maybe I should call tomorrow?” she suggests, unruffled.
“Yes,” I groan. “Tomorrow sounds great.”
“What’s all that business with the hole?” my wife, next to me in a taxi, rebukes after hearing my evasive tactics. This is the first time we have gone out and left our son, Lev, with my mother, so she is a little edgy. “Why can’t you just say, ‘Thanks, but I’m not interested in buying, renting, or borrowing whatever it is you’re selling, so please don’t call me again, not in this life, and if possible, not in the next one, either.’ Then pause briefly and say, ‘Have a nice day.’ And hang up, like everyone else.”
I don’t think everyone else is as firm and nasty to Devora and her ilk as my wife is, but I must admit she has a point. In the Middle East, people feel their mortality more than anywhere else on the planet, which causes most of the population to develop aggressive tendencies toward strangers who try to waste the little time they have left on earth. And though I guard my time just as jealously, I have a real problem saying no to strangers on the phone. I have no trouble shaking off vendors in the outdoor market or saying no to a friend who offers me something on the phone. But the unholy combination of a phone request plus a stranger paralyzes me, and in less than a second, I’m imagining the scarred face of the person on the other end who has led a life of suffering and humiliation. I picture him standing on the window ledge of his forty-second-floor office talking to me on a cordless phone in a calm voice, but he’s already made up his mind: “One more asshole hangs up on me and I jump!” And when it comes down to deciding between a person’s life and getting hooked up to the “Balloon Sculpture: Endless Fun for the Whole Family” channel for only 9.99 shekels a month, I choose life, or at least I did until my wife and financial adviser politely asked me to stop.
That’s when I began to develop the “poor Grandma strategy,” which invokes a woman for whom I’ve arranged dozens of virtual burials in order to get out of futile conversations. But since I’d already dug myself a hole and fallen into it for Devora of the satellite TV concern, I could actually let Grandma Shoshana rest in peace this time.
“Good morning, Mr. Keret,” Devora says the next day. “I hope this is a better time for you.”
“The truth is, there were a few complications with my foot,” I mumble. “I don’t know how, but gangrene developed. And you’ve caught me right before the amputation.”
“It’ll just take a minute,” she gamely tries.
“I’m sorry,” I insist. “They already gave me a sedative and the doctor is signaling for me to close my cell phone. He says it isn’t sterilized.”
“So I’ll try tomorrow, then,” Devora says. “Good luck with the amputation.”
Most telemarketers give up after one call. Phone pollsters and Internet-surfing-package sellers may call back for another round. But Devora from the satellite TV company is different.
“Hello, Mr. Keret,” she says when I answer the next call, unprepared. “How are you?” Before I can reply, she goes on: “Since your new medical condition will probably keep you at home, I thought I’d offer you our Extreme Sports package. Four channels that include various extreme sports from all around the world, from the dwarf-hurling world championship games to the Australian glass-eating matches.”
“Do you want Etgar?” I whisper.
“Yes,” Devora says.
“He died,” I say, and pause before continuing to whisper. “Such a tragedy. An intern finished him off on the operating table. We’re thinking about suing.”
“So who am I talking to?” Devora asks.
“Michael, his younger brother,” I improvise. “But I can’t talk now, I’m at the funeral.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” Devora says in a shaky voice. “I didn’t get to speak with him a lot, but he sounded like a lovely person.”
“Thank you,” I keep whispering. “I have to hang up. I have to say Kaddish now.”
“Of course,” Devora says. “I’ll call later. I have a consolation deal that’s just perfect for you.”
The Way We War
Yesterday I called the cell phone company people to yell at them. The day before, my best friend, Uzi, told me he’d called and yelled at them a little, threatened to switch to another provider. And they immediately lowered their price by fifty shekels a month. “Can you believe it?” my friend said excitedly. “One angry five-minute call and you save six hundred shekels a year.”
The customer-service representative was named Tali. She listened silently to all my complaints and threats, and when I finished, she said in a low, deep voice: “Tell me, sir, aren’t you ashamed of yourself? We’re at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Haifa and Tiberias, and all you can think about is your fifty shekels?”
There was something to that, something that made me slightly uncomfortable. I apologized immediately, and the noble Tali quickly forgave me. After all, war is not exactly the right time to bear a grudge against one of your own.
That afternoon I decided to test the effectiveness of the Tali argument on a stubborn taxi driver who refused to take me and my baby son in his cab because I didn’t have a car seat with me.
“Tell me, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” I said, trying to quote Tali as precisely as I could. “We’re at war. People are getting killed. Missiles are falling on Tiberias, and all you can think about is a damn car seat?”
The argument worked here like magic, and the embarrassed driver quickly apologized and told me to hop in. When we got on the highway, he said partly to me, partly to himself, “It’s a real war, eh?” And after taking a long breath, he added nostalgically, “Just like in the old days.”