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Princess

by Atar Hadari

Did you see her? With the hair up like that and buttons down her chest? Walla. For a girl like that… What do you mean, I’m not religious? For a girl like that, wouldn’t it be worth it? Married, nice religious family, what the hell, little hat on my head, the whole thing. Look at her.

What was I saying? Yeah, listen – I’m outta here. I go eat around now. You’ll get the hang of it. Most people in this dining room don’t show up till past one, they gotta chew the fat with at least two people, they got to wonder what they’ll do this afternoon, by then I’ll be back and you’ll be fine. Just try and keep up, ok? Put the glasses over here, in the big trays. The machine washes, but it’s not so fast. You get used to it.

Hey, here she comes again. Man. What is she doing here? She should be – I don’t know, in Jerusalem, with all those other rich, long-sleeved national service girls that never come near the army. What’s she doing out here with me? You see a girl that sweet staying here? Two months, six, religious class for girls on kibbutz, then back to the noise, back to her real life.

You know older girls? Ones that come back after the army? They’ve been around. Even if they’re religious, they teach boys. Stand in front o’ eighteen year old boys from the projects, trying to teach them math, they learn or they go under. They come back old. Or if not old, the shine’s gone off of them. But that one…..she’s tender. Like you could still tell her something. I gotta go eat…

*****

You seen her again? I found out about her. From Tel Aviv. Religious family, but rich. She’s not going into no army. She’ll be national service, all the way. And you know what….she’s got a boyfriend.

How do I know? I know, how do I know. Are we on kibbutz? Do the cows have eyes? How many streets are there here – one avenue, where do you hide? And I been watching. I see when she comes and goes in the dining room, her little sleeves all down below her elbow. Nobody comes and nobody goes here without I see what’s under their armpits, even if I am in the kitchen. I wash her tray. Personally. I see her put it on the conveyor belt- and you don’t never take it off. I wash her knife and fork.

He’s a kibbutznik, her boyfriend. Itzik. Son of a dairy guy. Got knuckles like he’s born walking on all fours on the ground and he’s all made of fat and muscle, not like me. I’m tenderloin. Kids like him, they’re all potatoes. I could just sizzle if you touch me. But she don’t know that.

Kibbutzniks, you know, I got no problem with them. But I wouldn’t live here if you paid me. Y’know why? We live in the town, they live out here. And they got no respect, I mean, c’mon – I worked here two years. I bust my ass. Six in the morning to ten at night, when there’s a wedding. Do I ever get a birthday present? From the janitor, sure, he lives across the street from me, but from somebody who lives under these trees? Sure they care but they don’t know how to respect a working man. Kibbutz is kibbutz, you live here you’re closed. You live in town, you’re like – involved – with everybody. I wouldn’t live here even if they begged me, begged me on their knees, to marry one of their daughters. Nice water though, sometimes, to go and swim. And the fishes they cook, out of their pools, they’re something. Tender.

This Itzik she’s with, won’t ever go away. He’s like one of the trees. Got shadows round him, where he stands. But these kibbutzniks, thing is, they’re innocent. They been living out here, religious place, family place, they don’t know what the score is. Like in town, where I live? My sister got herself a kid, she was sixteen years old. Still draws her cheque every month, from the post office. You learn what not to do, if you want to find a place, a little privacy. You know all that when you’re five, you live in town. How do I know Itzik don’t know? Because I asked him. Matter of fact. Itzik is a friend of mine. You believe that? I lend him CDs, he gets my mother fish from the fish ponds. I get him all kinds of things. He comes to me,. ‘cause I know the world and how you move through it so you don’t get your clothes caught on the pins.

*****

You wanna bring some of your own music in here sometime? Why listen to that garbage they play over the speakers? Tell me you don’t like that noise. Hey, you see that, what she did with her hair? I saw her with him again. Last night. Talking. I told him not to rush it but does he listen? Outside the dining room, holding her mail. She gets letters from Daddy. She’s two hours away from Tel Aviv, never goes anywhere without her cell phone. You would think there’d be nothing to say. But no, she gets letters. That girl is loved. That girl ain’t marrying some nobody. I told Itzik I’d make arrangements for him. Get his package. So he don’t have to buy in the kibbutz store what his Daddy don’t buy, let alone some little kid. Not that they have such things. You think they want you to not have babies? They like children here, it’s more bodies to pick the fruit off the trees.

I said he’d have it for her Friday night. Can’t you keep it in your pants till Friday night? C’mon Itzik. Isn’t she worth a little wait? Wouldn’t you give up the world for her? If she asked you to, or even looked your way?

Only kids who want to leave here don’t want kids. They want a big wedding – Jaffa maybe, big hotel with a pool, like they don’t have a bigger pool here – a rabbi to say the right things, a band, six to seven hundred plates, hors d’oeuvres, gefilte fish, the meat, the wine, dessert. They want all that.

Her mother and father. I know them, even though I’ve never seen them. I know how they smell. They smell like good clothes. You know, clothes that haven’t knocked around a kitchen for a couple of thousand hours.

*****

Itzik’s going to take her to the palm groves tonight. He told me. He don’t make a move without I say it’s cool. Don’t want to ruin her great future. I mean, he wants to ruin her, but he don’t want to ruin everybody - her rich father, mother with the diamonds down her ears, grandmother dribbling hot sauce on her kube – from Yemen, Morocco, who the hell knows – she’s got eyes, y’know, like she’s got blood with chilli peppers mixed inside of it.

So, tonight, you wanna go some time, look in the pools? They’re just down there. You can see right in the bottom of the pool and the fish push each other aside like children. You wouldn’t dream what they pay for them fish if you don’t have a sideline going like my mother.

*****

Where you been? Did you get sick? Listen. Did you see her? Man, for an engaged girl, she looks terrible. I mean, these are the happiest days of your life, right? It’s gonna be a kibbutz wedding. Itzik’s family wouldn’t hear of it – going to Tel Aviv for a wedding? Nobody’s going outside this fence for a wedding. The dress will be from the kibbutz down the road - apparently her Daddy isn’t too pleased to spend anything now, not even a veil. Not such a man of the world as you’d expect, living there in the big smoke. Well, kibbutz weddings can be nice. And I’ll wash dishes for them. I’m invited. Until ten.

What do you mean, do they love each other? She went out in the palm groves a girl and came back a kibbutznik. It does something to you, this view, even if you don’t want it. And the precautions... don’t always work. Just like the gas masks the government gives you, in case of chemical attack, they all have a sell-by date. Can’t be too careful who you buy from. I mean, would you buy a gas mask from that Prime Minister? Well, why would you buy from a guy who works in the kitchen? Some guy who’s always been looking at that girl, if you only had eyes outside your ass to see somebody, rather than look down on him just ‘cause he washes your dishes. That’s the terrible thing about this country now. No faith in anybody. Anything could have a hole in it. Whether it’s a car or a little rubber coat you wear to make sure you don’t have fifty kids before you’re twenty.

I went out there, that Friday night. To the fish pools. It was a full moon. You could see the fishes rubbing up against each other, like silver knives in the moonlight. Princess of the Nile they call those fishes. Jumping up and down, they’re so close, one on top of the other. I could see him moving with her, two more shadows in the palm leaves. Then I saw it, or maybe just imagined it, him stop to take what I gave him out of his pocket, and tear it open and just for a minute it shone in the moonlight, before they melted back into the shadows.

It’s a funny thing, kibbutz light. You can see it sweep over the fence, going out every way, looking out for things. But the lights of town, the blue and yellow police lights and the streetlamps, always seem so deep when you look at them from out here. From the town, we hardly ever look at the kibbutz. If you’re out here at night though, there’s nothing to do but look at town. You could get lost if you went out there. I mean, what is there out there? Just hills and the dark and maybe a girl, if she’s willing. A girl who doesn’t care what God can see. A girl who grew up so loved she doesn’t know her Daddy can’t buy her out of maternity wear.

Do I think she’s nice? She’s something else. But after a few years here – she’ll be the same. A wreck, slung low, moving against the ground like a baby machine that’s made to pick dates down off the trees. I’m crazy about her. But I don’t think she’ll be special so long. And now she’ll stay here, with me. She doesn’t want to stay, but she’ll stay. We’ll be married, her and me, to this place. Walla, you want to know from beautiful? Forget about it. She was born to be the girl I watched one night taking a swim. She was born to jump right out of the warm water and fall back down. She was born to say, “You want my tray? Then wash it.” And I will. She’ll be my reason to leave. When I don’t love her anymore, I’m outta here.