MET ILAN IN THE WINTER OF 2001. I was twenty-two and had just moved into a retirement home in Tel Aviv, as part of a volunteer fellowship. The city was expensive, my program coordinators explained, and living in the home offered me and the other fellows direct access to the senior community. Plus, they said, a few rooms had opened up and, since it was a state-assisted facility, rent was cheap.
And so I, along with nine other American volunteers, walked through the doors of the concrete retirement home early one January afternoon. The lobby was large and bright, with stained linoleum floors. On one side, two men hunched over a metal foldout table, playing backgammon. Behind them was a montage of photos of the Baba Sali, famed Moroccan rabbi. To the left sat a cluster of women around a television, watching a Mexican telenovela dubbed into Hebrew. They all looked up and smiled: Ruti, with long sparkly nails and cropped, dyed-brown hair; Shoshana, the smallest and oldest-looking, whose hands were knotted and whose face was wrapped tightly like a potato in a babushka; and Tzippy, who stood up, introduced herself in Hebrew as our go-to person and led us to our rooms. The smells of meals being cooked, soups and sauces, wafted out beneath people’s doors, though it was only four-thirty. Tzippy looked spryer than a senior citizen, and I asked if she lived here.
“In the basement,” she said. “Next to the boiler room. I started a business here, selling people’s clothes after they die, so they let me live rent-free.”
Tzippy escorted us to the second floor and unlocked the small studio I’d be sharing with two friends, Anna and Claire. There were a kitchenette and a bathroom, three narrow twin beds, and a window overlooking an apartment complex, where a black dog was barking on the roof. Our room had primered white walls and the same linoleum floors as in the lobby, and on the kitchen table was a set of dentures. “Oops,” Tzippy said, pocketing them. “Guess the cleaning crew didn’t finish up.”
It was suddenly apparent just how recently our room had become available.
After Tzippy left, the three of us unpacked. The rest of the studio was clean—the refrigerator scrubbed and empty, the cabinets bare—but there was a red coat in the closet and, in the medicine cabinet, a litter of orange prescription bottles all addressed to Rivka Zahavi. We started laughing. We couldn’t help ourselves. I laughed so hard I fell on the bed. That’s when we heard a knock. We froze. Was it Rivka’s husband, or her bereft children? Had they heard our insensitive cackles through the thin walls? Was it Tzippy, here to claim the red coat for her basement bargain sale?
When I opened the door, I came face-to-face with a young man, thirtyish and suntanned and handsome in a broad and obvious way, dressed like a camp counselor in flip-flops and cargo pants, with a fanny pack slung over one shoulder as if it were a purse.
“Haallo,” he said, smiling. “So you’re the Americans.” He peered down the hall at a man shuffling to the elevator. A woman yelled after him, “Remember the yogurt!” then swung her door shut.
“I think it’s time someone showed you the real Tel Aviv,” he said, and that’s when Ilan walked into our lives. But first he walked into our studio to use the bathroom.
THE REAL TEL AVIV, it turned out, was a heavily touristed string of restaurants along the Jaffa promenade. I followed the group down the wide stone walkway, watching a European couple take a handheld photo, knowing they were just getting the tops of their heads and a tall strip of the Mediterranean behind them. The air was salty and warm, and I wasn’t sad to have a few hours away from the retirement home. Over fish and beers, Ilan told us his story. He’d spent the past decade, since being discharged from the army, as a conflict resolution specialist. He’d worked with high school students, youth groups, and the Israeli army, and now could add to his resume American fellowships like ours.
“Why Americans?” I said.
“Well, first of all, my English is excellent,” he said, in English.
“But we need to practice our Hebrew,” Anna said, in Hebrew.
“And two,” Ilan said, “your program is worried about you. All day it’s rockets, bombs, Don’t take buses, Stay away from dance clubs. You need someone to show you a good time here,” he said, spearing a cucumber, “and to help you solve the problems that are bound to come up in a group this big. So they hired me to be your friend.”
“They’re paying you to be our friend?” asked Dina, another volunteer.
“You must be so lonely here,” Ilan said.
Most of us had lived here before, and all of us had friends and family in the country. “Not really,” I said.
“I’ll bet you’re driving each other crazy, then,” he ventured. “Together all the time.”
“We get along surprisingly well,” I said, and it did surprise me.
Ilan blinked. “Well”—and here he seemed to be working especially hard—“you must be so angry about where they’re housing you.”
“It’s not that bad,” Dina said, and we all echoed. “Yeah, it’s not that bad.” The cheery, can-do attitude was part of our M.O. that year. We were fresh from college, and I think we all secretly believed that “roughing it” made us stronger, more effective workers. We’d spent the fall in an absorption center in Sederot, a tiney Negev town bordering Gaza, living and working with teenage immigrants from Russia and Chechnya. We were supposed to be “building community,” but the problem was that none of us spoke Russian, none of them spoke Hebrew, and only a few understood English. Finally, we Americans had decided on an open-mic night—music and literature, we hoped, could be the universal bridge—but that was right when the second Intifada started, and rockets and shells were coming in from Gaza, so we’d had to spend the evening in the bomb shelter, which doubled as the computer center, and the Russian boys, who had only recently been given access to the World Wide Web, quickly logged on to Internet porn, and suddenly, no one wanted to sit around and hear my unpublished flash fiction.
“It has to be hard, living in that home,” Ilan continued. “I wouldn’t put my worst enemy’s grandmother there.”
Then he looked at us, as if really noticing the entire group for the first time. “What are you all doing here anyway?”
“We start our jobs tomorrow,” I said. “Anna’s at an environmental group, Dina at a drop-in center, Claire at a soup kitchen.” Ilan nodded, but when I told him about the nonprofit I’d be working for, he laughed. I didn’t know how to respond, so as always, I just kept talking, telling him about the initiative I’d be working on, which trained Palestinian and Israeli teenagers in teambuilding, hoping they’d be the next generation of politicians, and then he laughed again.
“Ah,” he said. “So the solution to this age-old conflict is education,” and when my “yes” came out as a weak and shy apology, he drained his beer and signaled for another. “Why hasn’t anyone else thought of that, during Oslo and Camp David? Thank God you’re here to fix things,” he continued, eyeing me. “Let me guess. You’re from a family of liberal do-gooders, probably an only child, and you’re so excited to be here, you feel like you’re right on the front lines, though if things get too tough, if suddenly it’s too scary”—here he made wiggly movements with his fingers—“you can hop on the next flight back home. I’ve got to tell you, as a person who spent three years in Lebanon, and the past decade as a conflict resolution specialist, I feel quite safe putting my country’s diplomacy in your hands.”
“Ha,” I said, to say something, wondering how a person I had just met could hurt me so quickly, like poking a Q-tip too far into my ear and feeling the pain from there to my throat. More than that, though, I wondered if Ilan was a genius; he’d pegged me so accurately. Even now, eleven and a half years later, it feels corny and embarrassing trying to explain why I wanted so much to be in Israel. I have a feeling I’m not the only American Jew who, after spending her junior semester in Jerusalem, wondered how she had ever lived anywhere else. There had to be an organization that would benefit from my liberal arts degree from a state school that didn’t offer grades and let you design your own major, I thought, and I spent my entire senior year in Santa Cruz determined to move back to Israel. That last year of college felt like a cakewalk, sitting through interminable Sunday night meetings led by Zen and Mindy and the Zami Co-op House, listening to people complain about the slacker who kept forgetting to turn the compost (that was me), the thief who dipped into the private peanut butter stash (again, I’m sorry), the ingrate who contracted scabies during his or her Spirit Walk through the Yucatan and then tried on all the clothes in the free bin. As I sat cross-legged in the circle, I wanted to say, wanted to stand up and shout, that I was sick of hearing everyone’s gripes when all I wanted was to get back to my room, go over my beginning Hebrew flashcards, and obsessively check the Israeli newspapers online, only I could never get a word out, could never say anything at all, because during those meetings, someone else was always holding the talking stick.
And now, here I was, back in Israel and at my dream job. Only my dream job was falling apart. I found out my first day, the morning after our group date with Ilan, that the initiative I’d been assigned to had lost its funding. So many people had been killed over the past few months, since the fighting had started up again, that the donors wanted to help in ways they said were more immediate, like ambulances and medical supplies—and anyway, the Palestinians and Israeli kids in the group had lost siblings on both sides and weren’t talking anymore. Some people in the organization said we had to focus on fundraising to revive the initiative. Others sand that with the election looming—and with the hawkish Ariel Sharon clearly in the lead—we needed to put our energy behind the more liberal Ehud Barak. Others said Barak was no better than Sharon, and they started campaigning for another candidate, Shimon Peres, right out of our office. That pissed off both the Barak supporters and the youth initiative people, and every day, I seemed to have a different boss with a different agenda who assigned me to a different project with which I had even less experience—and every day, I agreed with Ilan a little more, wondering what right I had to get involved in the politics of a country that wasn’t my own. Everyone I met had been so personally affected by the conflict: the bodega owner, the bus driver, all the ladies at the retirement home who thought Barak was a schmuck and Sharon a war hero—except for Shoshana, who said they were both crooks she didn’t trust any more than she did Fernando José, the wily lead in the Mexican telenovela Rosalinda, which had quickly become not only my favorite program but my refuge from the realities of the outside world.
By the end of my first workweek, I was exhausted. Everyone was. The environmental organization Anna was working for had as many budgetary problems as we did, and they’d put her in charge of dealing with the crazy settler lady who called every day from the West Bank, threatening to set fire to the olive groves in nearby Qibya if the country didn’t give it back to the Jews. Claire said all the guys at the soup kitchen were sleazy, and two of the kids at Dina’s drop-in center had drawn on their faces with indelible ink, and now their parents were mad. I had never been so grateful for the weekend. Shoshana was making her famous kibbeh, Ruti had taped the latest Rosalinda, and all I wanted was to pull on my sweatpants, curl up in the lobby beneath the Baba Sali, and find out what happened to Rosalinda’s mother, Soledad, who had been given a twenty-year prison sentence for a murder I was convinced she had not committed, when the door opened behind me and I heard that unmistakable “Haallo."
THIS TIME, ILAN TOOK US TO A FILM. He’d seen it a few days before, he said, but it was so good he wanted to share it with us, and anyway, it would give us a chance to see the city’s new mall. On the taxi ride, Ilan seemed disappointed: he’d engaged the driver in a rousing debate over the election, but Anna was on the phone with her boyfriend, and Claire was on hold with the bus station, trying to get on the last one to Jerusalem before Shabbat. Ilan pointed to a café outside the window and suggested we stop there after the film, but we said we were too tired or already had plans—when the truth was that after our first date with him, we had pretty much agreed that Ilan was an egomaniac and possibly insane. Ilan must have sense that none of us wanted to be there, and I felt for him a little, knowing he was just trying to do his job.
The film was set on a tropical island, in which a stranded Tom Hanks befriends a volleyball, and I could tell—even in the dark, even though he was seeing it a second time—that Ilan was moved. Right then, I really wanted to like him. Then he leaned close to me. I thought he was offering his popcorn when he whispered, “Claire’s a beautiful girl, isn’t she?”
I peered down the aisle. Claire was beautiful. She had a long, creamy neck and high cheekbones, and at that moment, she looked especially pretty, the screen colors flickering across her skin.
“It must be hard on you,” Ilan whispered, “having such a good-looking friend.”
“You’re such a drama king,” I snapped, but something in his tone made me want to run home and iron all my clothes.
Still, I chalked the comment up to the language barrier, or maybe the brutal honesty for which Israelis were so notorious. But the following week, on our third group date—which no one could escape because Ilan arrived to pick us up an hour early and which, for some reason, was back on the Jaffa promenade—I saw Ilan whispering to Anna in a corner, then to Claire at our table. After dinner, he fell into step with me. “Everything okay with you and Dina?”
“Of course.” I didn’t know anyone who had a problem with Dina. “Why?”
“Between you and me, she’s having a hard time watching you laze around on your weekends when everyone else is working extra hard, repainting the retirement home, volunteering at the community center.”
“But that’s crazy!” I said, though anyone could see that on my days off, I slept until eleven, then had lunch with Shoshana and Tzippy and Ruti. Then it was time for Rosalinda, then ceramics class, and then Claire and Anna would go outside to paint the building, prime time for me to be alone in the studio, taking one of my marathon naps.
“I can’t believe she talked behind my back,” I said. The sky was darkening, and the twinkle lights outside the restaurants were blinking on. Sailboats dotted the sea, and in the distance, I could hear Arabic pop music blasting from a passing car. Everything seemed beautiful and a little fake, as if we were in a movie. I marched over to Dina, poked her shoulder, and said, “We need to talk.”
BY THE END OF THE WEEK, everyone was fighting. I was mad at Dina, Dina was mad at me for being mad at her, Anna was mad at Claire because Ilan had told her that Claire couldn’t sleep with Anna texting her boyfriend all night in our studio, Claire was mad at Anna for waiting this long to bring it up, and so on.
By the time Ilan arrived for our date, I was actually relieved to see him. “How’s it going?” he asked innocently, and all at once, we started yelling. I thought I saw him smile. “Let’s sit down,” he said, “and explore what this is about.”
We were in our room, and everyone piled onto the three twin beds, except Ilan, who sat cross-legged on the floor and faced us all. He put his palms on his knees, as if in yoga class, and exhaled slowly. “Now you try,” he said. “Take a deep breath, and then tell me, one by one, what’s happening.”
We inhaled, we exhaled, then all at once, we started talking. It was impossible to hear what anyone was saying. I walked into the bathroom and came out with my hairbrush. “Let’s try something,” I said. “Only the person holding this talking stick can speak.”
Ilan put up his hands, the international sign for everything’s under control. “I’ve got it covered, Molly. Would you sit down and let me do my job?”
IT TURNED OUT THAT ILAN was a master of conflict resolution. He had us all figured out. My problem, he told me, in addition to being an only child, was that I believed I lacked integrity if I didn’t speak my mind, but that I was so intensely afraid of hurting peoples’ feelings that I apologized for anything I said that might offend, thereby negating what I had thought was so important to voice in the first place. “Which means,” Ilan said, “that the rest of the group gets to be chronic conflict avoiders by funneling their opinions through you, and I’m wondering,” he said, crossing his suntanned arms in satisfaction, “how that makes you feel.”
“Angry!” I sputtered. “Used!” How, in less than a minute, had Ilan nailed every mess I’d gotten into in my twenty-two years? Sure, I was aware that he was trying to break down our group morale so he could be the one who built it back up, but he was so good at his job, his analysis so apt, so in-depth—and so free!—that I didn’t want to protest. Those mediation sessions quickly became another party of my life that winter that I simply began to accept—the same way I stopped wondering if Rivka had died in the bed I was sleeping in, or how the clothes in Tzippy’s basement seemed, when I was browsing the rack with my ninety-year-old friends, more and more chic—and it was only a few days later, on a boat headed to Egypt, that I realized something about Ilan the rest of the world had probably known all along.
The election was only two weeks away, and it was clear that Ariel Sharon was going to win. But no one at my organization would accept it—and when one of my co-workers heard that the Sharon campaign had hired a boat to sail toward Egypt, where Barak and Arafat were summiting at a Taba hotel, my organization decided, in a list-ditch effort, to rent an even bigger boat for the Barak campaign. The plan was to follow the Sharon boat down the Red Sea and steal their media coverage outside the summit, and it was terribly conceived. The election was essentially sealed; it had been a hectic week in the country, and there was no way we’d make headlines; and, most foolish of all, though we had no money, we were going to blow thousands of shekels on a luxury liner.
But the air of desperation was so high—or maybe the morale so low—that we all piled onto the boat that late January morning. As we pulled away from the dock, I watched the glitzy resorts in Eilat grow smaller, looking both miniature and grand. I was underdressed, the wind smacking my bare arms, my hair flying into my face. All around me, people were shouting into their cell phones, trying to reach every media outlet before we lost reception. Someone handed me a megaphone and a banner, but it was in Arabic. I only knew about ten phrases and couldn’t read a word of it, let alone what the sign said.
“I shouldn’t be holding this,” I said. But the motor was loud, and everyone was on the phone, and no one turned around, and I was struck by how inconsequential not only my job but also my presence was right then. It’s a feeling I’ve had countless times over the years, sitting in cubicles or hunched over copy machines or slouched in front of a classroom, trying fruitlessly to explain the gerund to my bleary-eyed ESL students. But that day in Israel was the first time I felt it, and that’s when I thought about Ilan. I knew then that he wasn’t crazy, or an egomaniac. He simply wanted to feel needed, and I had a moment of recognition, and maybe even camaraderie, as I sailed toward the border on that enormous, shiny boat, yelling words in a language I was only still learning, holding a sign in another language I couldn’t read at all, hoping for the off-chance that one of those politicians would look outside his hotel window and understand what I was trying to say.
MOLLY ANTOPOL'S debut story collection, The UnAmericans, was published in February 2014 by W.W. Norton, and in six other countries. The book is a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and an Indies Introduce Debut Authors and Indie Next pick. She teaches creative writing at Stanford University, where she was a Wallace Stegner Fellow. The recipient of a 5 Under 35 award from the National Book Foundation, her writing has appeared or is forthcoming on NPR’s This American Life and All Things Considered, online at The New Yorker, and in many periodicals, including The New Republic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, Elle, Oxford American, One Story, Ecotone and elsewhere. She lives in San Francisco and is at work on a novel.
THIS ESSAY IS LISTED AS A NOTABLE ESSAY IN BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 2015