Hear Me Ask
(Photo credit: Michael Gitlin)
A flower in a small vase was on the night table at La Clarita, as always. My bed had recently been made, and my grandmother was waiting for me with a warm meal. She would spoil me. I was twenty-one and looking for something to do with my days in Israel when I wasn’t seeing my grandmothers. I’d considered working at an absorption center and trying to put my minimal Russian skills to good use, but chose waiting tables instead.
A few days after I landed, wearing ankle-length thin olive pants and a t-shirt, I went to the beach ten minutes away to ask for a job. The man who ran the restaurant knew my older cousin Noam, and he told me I should talk to a woman named Li. He pointed in her direction. She was farther away from the bar, closer to the ocean, standing barefoot on the wooden platform of the restaurant, her long, curly blonde hair crisp against her sun-soaked skin. That afternoon and every other time I saw her she was wearing a string bikini whose top part would miraculously stay just so. The space between her breasts was freckled and flawless and, from what I gathered, she was a surfer. She told me to come back in the evening to train with one of the waitresses, and advised me to wear less clothing. It got hot on the sand.
I would wake up early in the morning, grab my keys and my pouch, and walk to the sea. I took as many long shifts as they would give me and lost ten pounds walking up and down the stairs that linked the tables on the sand to the kitchen area. I’d never been useful in Israel. In the mornings I would set up the yellow plastic chairs around the green plastic tables. Three chairs to a table, all facing the ocean. I learned how to write basic foods in Hebrew on the checkpad that I carried around in a fannypack, and not to get too upset whenever I forgot that some customer had asked for extra ketchup. The first busy night I had, I closed out in tears, but the manager was proud because I’d cleared more customers than anyone else. The work got easier and I started ending my day shifts with a dip in the water at dusk, right after the lifeguards had announced that they were leaving for the night. Walking just feet away from the yellow chairs, I entered a world that took my limbs in with a cool warmth.
It was the summer of 2006, and Hezbollah was holding two Israeli soldiers hostage. Israel started dropping bombs over Beirut. After Hezbollah launched missiles into northern Israel, we were told on the beach that we had one minute from the time we heard the sirens to take cover. There was no bomb shelter, and running into the water wasn’t recommended, so the best option seemed to be to stand against a stone wall with your back to the north and wait. Hezbollah claimed they had the kind of rockets they needed to hit Tel Aviv, less than a hundred miles south of the border with Lebanon, but no one really knew with any certainty, maybe they were bluffing. Several times on my walk to work I peered into quiet homes and wondered how I would go about asking to share their fallout shelter in a pinch. I gathered from everyone around me that the idea was to keep living as normally as possible and to assume that the fighting would work itself out, as it always did.
A small TV with bad reception was kept on a national news channel in the walkway between the beach bar and the kitchen, right by the sugars and the silverware. I’d be balancing a tray with bottles of beer in one hand and holding a plate of fries in the other while listening for which regions had been hit, not recognizing the names of most of them and not understanding whatever else the broadcasters were saying because news vocabulary is difficult for me. I kept being reminded that this wasn’t really my country. Helicopters would occasionally pass over the sea, always in pairs, looking out for each other.
For the first few days I would look up at them as if to acknowledge that yes, this was happening, but then I stopped. The nonchalance of people around me seemed to say that it was enough to hear the staccato engines to know the helicopters were there; no need to waste any time gazing at them in some kind of false shock.
People began to leave the northern city of Haifa, and one of the waitresses had her family come down to Tel Aviv to stay with her. I met a few tourists on the beach who changed their tickets home, and then I wondered for a moment what I was doing there waiting tables when a rocket could fly overhead any day. I’d graduated from college feeling worn out, and I’d gained a kind of strength from the solemnity of rearranging the yellow plastic chairs on the sand in the early morning before the sun began to blaze. The horizon and the anonymity gave me quiet. Leaving would have felt like running away, abandoning Israel in its most difficult hour after it had given me some peace. I’m sure I was also under the illusion that they needed me there on the beach—no one could wait tables like I could. And I felt stronger and more attractive now than I had before I arrived. I wore my bikini top on the hotter days, until the day the manager told me to cover up because it was a family establishment, and then I felt ashamed. On another day towards the end of my time there, I watched one of my fellow waitresses get slapped in the face by a customer. I can still see her holding her right cheek with her palm, she on the left and the man on the right. She hadn’t brought him what he and his friends had ordered. I stood paralyzed for a moment, then went to her and yelled at the man, a raging heat surging to my face, which had certainly turned red. He yelled back at me in an Arabic-accented Hebrew before I hustled back to the bar to tell the manager what had happened. The man and his friends were halfway down the beach by the time the manager and the men from the restaurant went running after them en masse. All I could see was the backs of their bodies in motion, rushing fiercely like a provoked herd.
Daniella Gitlin is a writer, translator, and educator, who lives in New York. Her translation of Rodolfo Walsh’s classic Operation Massacre was published by Seven Stories Press in 2013.