“Djuk!” I shrieked and jumped up, waking up my brother.
“Ma kara?” What’s happened, he asked. We were speaking in Hebrew.
“Djuk!” I repeated angrily, as if it were somehow his fault, turning on the lights and pointing at the pair of cockroaches perching on the wall above my bed.
Djuk was the first word we learnt in Hebrew upon our arrival in Lod, two years before. It was the first to greet us in the morning, turned onto its back on the kitchen floor, flapping its white legs frantically. My brother and I stood above it, riveted, watching its every move. We had never seen anything like it. A shiny, dark brown thing, with a small head, flat body and long, flexible antennae. It was disgusting, sure, but there was something admirable, if not loveable about it: the way it seemed content to bathe in the light, unperturbed.
“Fasza,” Cool, my brother remarked. We were speaking in Hungarian. We still believed that we were on our ‘Easter vacation.’ We were “going to see some palm trees,” my mother had promised, and then return home. But things rarely turn out the way adults promise, we were soon to discover. The place mum called a ‘hotel’ was in fact a Maon Olim, a dwelling for immigrants, for Jews wishing to exercise their ‘right of return’ to the holy land and become full-fledged Israeli citizens. We were supposed to be Jewish too, except we were not. But that is something we learned years later. I was nine when we landed in Lod, and my brother, seven.
“DJUK,” we heard a man’s booming voice from behind us. He introduced himself as Avi. He was our mother’s Hebrew tutor – the man with the dandruff, or nits (we could never tell which) as we renamed him later. He pushed us aside, and without further ado, squashed the djuk with his hiking sandals. The crushing sound of our first Israeli buddy meeting its death mortified us. Avi roared with laughter. “Dead djuk,” he declared in a blend of English and Hebrew, languages as foreign to us as the djuk itself.
“Koos emek,” my brother swore at them in Hebrew. They deserved to die. We had seen enough of them by now to know better. They were pests, of the ugliest kind, and this was our home (even if mum frequently reminded us that “it was an office first, home second”). This “twenty-three square meters ground floor office/home” in central Tel Aviv was all we had when we were not at school, or climbing trees.
“I’ll get the spray!” said my brother as he sprung out of bed.
“No! Mum said it stank too much. She said to use a shoe.”
“Why don’t you go and get one then?” He had a point.
I stepped off the bed hesitantly, as if about to dip my toe into some dangerous waters where ravenous sharks were waiting to chomp bits of my body. It was only fair that the shoe should be hers. I chose her favourite black pair and handed it to my brother. He raised the shoe in the air and was about to strike when I noticed another roach running across mum’s drafting table, snaking its way between the pencils. “There’s another!” I cried out, startling my brother, who had, thanks to me, missed his shot.
“Quick!” I bossed him around as usual. “You have to act quick, or they’ll escape!”
“Why don’t you try then? You’re older.”
“Yes, but you are the one with the Judo black belt,” I countered.
“Yellow,” he said.
“Doesn’t matter. You are better at this,” I said.
It was the right thing to say because my brother’s second attempt was an astounding success. Not only was the djuk completely flattened, but it happened to meet its death right on Barbra Streisand’s nose. Mum loved Barbra. Her picture was the first to go up on our wall; the Israeli flag was second. Serves her right, I thought, for all the bloody memory -s I had to endure. On the rare occasion my mother was at home, Barbra was there too, singing in the background “let the memory live again,” as if there were any memories worth reliving. “Isn’t she beautiful?” my mother would say, but I don’t think she cared much for my opinion. If I didn’t like the rules of her house, she reminded me, I was welcome to leave and find me another mother. Or ask my father to raise me.
Everything my mother liked I hated: Barbra Streisand, The Beatles, Kate Bush, Leonard Cohen, Woody Allen, Shimon Peres, Feminism, Zvi Hecker, Bauhaus, Chagall, Oriana Fallaci (whoever she was), tuna, olives, honey, Camembert cheese, avocadoes (especially avocado soup), Shabbat, Passover, matzo, and Rosh Hashanah.
My sense of triumph, however, was short lived. I spotted another roach darting across the floor towards the bathroom, and another happy pair dallying on the kitchen window.
“There are just too many of them!” I burst into tears.
“Let’s go get mum.”
My brother shrugged. “At the restaurant?”
“I don’t think she’s working tonight.”
“It’s worth a shot.” He put down the shoe.
Shoshanna’s Real Hungarian Blintzes was one of the hottest restaurants in Tel Aviv. Shoshanna was a Hungarian immigrant like us, who believed that blintzes were a Hungarian invention and not a French one. She liked to debate this point, always politely, with her French customers. We loved Shoshanna. She was our Hungarian safta, grandma. But our mother was not at the restaurant and Shoshanna didn’t know where she was.
“Would you like me to take you home?” she offered. “We’re closing in just a few minutes.”
I glanced at my blue Benetton watch. It was already one thirty in the morning. “No, it’s okay. We will manage.”
“Anyone you would like me to call?”
Call who? I thought. Who was mum’s boyfriend of the moment? Was it the hairy, fat one, or the skinny curly haired guy who forgot to bring her flowers? Besides, we didn’t have their phone numbers. We were home alone fighting an army of cockroaches with a shoe, while she was with God-only-knows-who doing disgusting things. My eyes welled with tears. I blinked them away before Shoshanna would notice. I shook my head ‘no’ and took my brother’s hand.
“Would you like some blintzes?”
I was salivating at the thought of warm, sweet blintzes, but mum had taught us that it was ‘good manners’ to decline food no matter how hungry you were. “No, thank you. I’m not hungry.”
“For later then? We can have it packed.” Shoshanna smiled. “Chestnut, was it? Your favourite?”
“Hers is chestnut, mine is walnut!” my brother interjected.
“One chestnut blintzes, and one walnut,” she ordered the waiter and winked. “I hear cockroaches are afraid of loud music.”
“What kind of loud music?” I was intrigued.
“Any kind. As long as it’s loud.”
It sounded simple enough. Armed with Shoshanna’s ingenious advice and the best Hungarian blintzes in our belly, we were ready for round two. Those manyaks, they were gonna get it good.
“Our neighbours will kill us. It’s two o’clock in the morning,” I hesitated as my brother loaded the cassette into the tape recorder. “Who cares? They wouldn’t even let you use the roof for your birthday party on, remember?” He pressed ‘play’ and after the dramatic drumming, Samantha Fox began to moan: ‘Ooh, Touch me, Touch me, I want to feel your body…’ ‘This is the night,’ she cheered us on. ‘This is the time,’ It was our time. ‘We’ve got to get it right.’ We had to get it right. No djuk was going to take over our home. We ran out quick and locked the door behind us, leaving Samantha Fox the exterminator to take care of our problem.
“Flying?” my brother put his arm around my shoulder, and I was happy to comply. What adults would belittle as ‘skipping,’ my brother and I called flying. Arm in arm we could reach unimaginable heights. And we had Tel Aviv’s busiest streets all to ourselves! We flew down Natan haHaham street to Ben Yehuda, then Gordon, all the way to HaYarkon and Gordon beach.
The beach at this opportune hour was deserted, and the comfy beach chairs that we had always envied from those rich manyaks were now ours for the taking. We collapsed onto the damp sand in convulsive giggles, laughing about something we had already forgotten. Life was good. We dragged two of the beach chairs to the edge of the sea and sprawled out, pretending to be important people. My brother was Moshe Dayan and I was Golda Meir. We were miming smoking like true experts, though we had never gone near a real cigarette.
We watched the coal black sea in front of us in self-important recompense. It belonged to us, and us only. I loved this sea, even if “it wasn’t the most beautiful sea in the world,” as my father had pointed out on his fleeting visit. I loved it dearly despite being stung numerous times by mean-spirited jellyfish. And I loved even more what lay beyond its pitch-dark horizon: a promise of something new and better, waiting to be explored – by me.
“Sorella,” sister, my brother called me by my Italian nickname, knowing how much I hated the Hebrew name that mum had given me.
“Si, fratello,” I replied in my flamboyant Italian accent, though ‘yes’ and ‘brother’ were two of the dozen words I knew in my favourite language.
“You must admit it’s pretty awesome.”
“Si. Si. It’s not bad. Molto bene.” I attempted to gesticulate like a true Italian. “I just wish…”
“Wouldn’t you love to be able to fly, or walk on water, or at least own a magic carpet that could take you anywhere in the world?”
“So are you! We come from the same parents!” I took another exaggerated inhale of my pretended cigarette.
“Where would you go?”
“Anywhere. Italy maybe.”
“Why not? It’s sunny, it has the most beautiful language in the world, and you don’t have to join any army.”
“What about the Mafia?”
“What about it?”
“I hear they do some crazy shit.”
“Crazier shit than what goes on here? I don’t hear about people blowing up on buses in Italy, or soldiers dying.”
“I’m sure people die there too.”
“Not like here, they don’t. I mean, have you thought about it? You could actually die, fighting for this stupid country.” My brother was silent. The army was in the cards, we both knew it, but it was nine years away for my brother, and seven years away for me. “Well, let me tell you, if anything happens to you… as much as a teeny-weeny scratch, I’ll be using my Uzi on mum.”
“Really?? Would you do that for me?”
“Of course I would. It’s her fault that we’re here. I never asked to see any palm trees.”
“Big time.” I took another drag of my mimed cigarette.
“I’m sorry for pulling your hair.”
His sincerity made me uncomfortable. We had been sworn enemies until now, pulling whatever we could grab: Him – my hair, I – his ears.
“That’s okay. It has grown back.” I wasn’t quite ready to apologize for being mean to him in my own creative ways.
“Do you think they are dead by now?”
“Dead, I doubt it. Gone, I hope.”
“Should we go home and spray the hell out of them then?”
“No. Let mum worry.”
We smiled and burst into giggles, the crushing waves of the Mediterranean slowly lulling us to sleep on the beach chairs.