BY KIM FARLEIGH
Copyright is held by the author.
OREN WAS living in the student residence across the road from my flat; he regularly visited to escape from the residence’s “claustrophobia.” Sometimes he played tennis in semi-professional tournaments, this funny for me and my flatmate, Hubert, because Oren was the laziest, most unfocussed person we had ever met.
“I went out in the first round,” he usually said, always smiling.
His parents were rich, his grandfather an ex-member of the Knesset, winning not a necessity for those without concerns about expenditure.
“My coach,” he said, one night, “is a little mad at me.”
“Because of your attitude?” I asked.
“Yes and because last Saturday I got disqualified from a tournament for showing up late.”
Hubert shuddered with laughter. Hubert found things so funny that he often woke up at night laughing, imagining situations involving the people he knew.
Oren’s teeth glowed in the light. Hubert rocked back and forth on an armchair, thrilled by Oren’s carefree incompetence.
“I got the news,” Oren added, “as I was getting out of my car.”
Unrestrained titillation was now making it difficult for Hubert to breath.
“An official said: ‘Get back into that thing you’re driving — you’re already out.'”
Hubert’s eyes watered with joy.
“I actually did get past a first round once, however,” Oren continued, “because the other guy didn’t show up. I got 200 bucks for that as well; so now I know what victory tastes like. It tastes like cash.”
“Victory,” Hubert muttered, shooting up and then falling forward, rocked by spasm laughter. “Victory!”
Our stomach muscles quivered with hilarity because of Oren’s casualness. His vision of victory almost asphyxiated Hubert.
I had run into Oren a few days before that night on the street. He had been with a pretty woman who had produced one of those shy, sweet smiles that young women produce when they first start going out with an idealized version of the man they think they’re going out with. She had curly, straw-coloured hair, her blue eyes sloping upwards with Asian exoticism. Her white blouse had been decorated with white-lace flowers, her sky-blue-coloured skirt clinging to her round hips above beautiful, light-brown legs. Her reddish cheeks, with the white and the blue, and her light-brown fluorescent freshness, created the impression of the All-American girl that suited her New England accent perfectly. As she and Oren had walked off, I saw the circles of her buttocks crashing with sensuous fury into the tight, blue fabric of her skirt, like pistons driving the unconscious mechanism of her sensuality, my insides a chorus producing the groan of all groans that echoed like a Viking blowing a fog-horn above frequencies undetectable by the human ear. My frustration was a silent torment shared by all men not happy in a relationship. The Great Silent Groan drove developments and created breakthroughs in all fields, eclipsing the inertia caused by the bedrock, dead-weight indolence that grounded my character, and probably the characters of many others.
A fortnight later, Oren came round to visit.
“How’s Claudia?” I asked.
Hubert was on an armchair reading Romeo And Juliet. Claudia could make you sing up to a stone balcony from a cobblestone square. Her crystalline hair resembled a description I’d read in The Merchant Of Venice about the jewelled sparkles in a woman’s follicles, follicles like chandeliers of attraction.
“Just fine,” Oren replied.
Although I was possibly supposed to reverse the order of those words and put a comma between them, Oren produced his typically hearty smile. His face was almond shaped, front teeth visible, so when he smiled he resembled a naughty beaver. He never exhibited loss. Nothing for him seemed irretrievable. He lacked the fear caused by recognizing value. An easy life had smothered his sense of appreciation with the superficial lacquer of a glowing present.
“Where is she?” Hubert asked.
I was thinking likewise. Why would he have been with us when he could have been with her?
Hubert and I valued Claudia much more than Oren did. Like Hubert, she was studying international relations. She wanted to work for major NGOs in conflict zones. Hubert and I had met working as volunteers for an NGO in Iraq. Although we appreciated her ambitions much more than Oren, it was he who was benefitting from that wonderful smile, that delicate face of perfectly-shaped features, those piston buttocks of firm, circular flesh, and that heart and that brain, difficult to know if Oren actually knew what an ambition was.
“She’s at the residence,” he said.
“Doing what?” I asked.
“Waiting,” Oren replied.
Claudia didn’t live in the residence.
“For what?” I asked.
“Me,” he replied.
Hubert and I expunged involuntary laughter. Oren created surprises that most people avoided creating.
“Then why are you here?” I asked.
“It’s good to make them wait,” Oren replied. “It sharpens up their interest.”
“No it doesn’t,” I said.
“If you show too much interest,” he said, “they lose interest.”
“They definitely lose interest if you make them wait,” I said.
Hubert grinned from the armchair. Only Oren could have taken a standard theory and distorted it so impractically. Yes, displaying aloofness can work, but keeping them waiting after you’ve agreed to meet them represents a serious misapplication of a well-known technique for arousing interest.
“Get over there now,” I said.
“In a minute,” Oren replied.
His tone had the self-assurance of control. He was splayed out on the sofa, legs apart. Every guy I knew would not have risked losing a woman like Claudia by making such a pointless mistake; but Oren’s wayward casualness probably even still shocked his family. Hubert believed that Oren’s family wanted Oren out of Israel to keep him out of the army where his “sheer incompetence could have led to the deaths of thousands just by stepping onto a battlefield. And he’d be the only one who’d survive as well.”
“Do you have an optimum time,” Hubert inquired, “for keeping them waiting? Or does it vary from woman to woman, depending upon cultural, sociological and psychological factors? And do you think that the study you’re clearly conducting, because that can be the only explanation for your behaviour from a logical standpoint, will interest the world’s leading sociologists?”
Claudia probably heard my laughter in the residence across the road.
“I’d love to see you present your findings to the school of sociology at Harvard,” I said. “I can imagine you saying: ‘My findings indicate, after extensive research, that keeping a woman of normal psychology waiting leads to multifaceted responses such as: Where the fuck have you been? to a profound silence sometimes accompanied by flying fists, especially if the question previously raised has been responded to with: I’ve been having drinks with friends. Why?’”
The following day, while listening to music in a record shop, I saw Claudia with a tall, strong, blonde guy whose reddish cheeks matched hers. Sudden, sharp curiosity, born from the unexpected, enhances daily life. The guy was a perfect example of Ivy League cultivation. He was wearing a long-sleeved, Ralph Lauren shirt, the sleeves folded above the wrists, blue shorts, sunglasses placed in the shirt’s neck, his snowy hair like satin. The inside of his sky-blue-and-white, striped shirt was dark blue, that inside as much of a reference to financial power as the exterior.
When Oren came around again I asked him if he was going to see Claudia the following weekend.
“I won’t be able to,” he said. “Her grandmother’s coming to town.”
After Oren left, I told Hubert: “She must be one hell of a grandmother. The entire weekend? We’re obviously talking about Grandmother Mach Five here.”
Recognition of the improbability of spending an entire weekend with the grandmother took the form of a sudden glint in Hubert’s eyes. It was the first time he’d heard of the grandmother excuse.
“Maybe the grandmother is a great dancer who mixes fantastic cocktails?” I suggested.
“Imagine if she did have to spend all weekend with the grandmother.”
“She’d even rather spend all weekend with Oren.”
“Maybe the grandmother decided to come to town after the last time he kept her waiting?”
“I know who the grandmother is.”
Hubert had been looking at some guitar music. My comment caused his head to shoot up with one of those sudden, unexpected blasts of curiosity that give daily life drama. He had thick, puffy, pouting lips that fascination broke apart.
“Who?” he asked.
“I thought you’d ask,” I said.
The lips remained jammed open in expectation of a breakthrough in knowledge.
“Yesterday, I saw her with a tall, handsome guy who looked like a perfect Ivy League gentleman. I’m prepared to bet a fortune that punctuality is one of his many fortes.”
“Punctuality becomes a forte after having arranged to meet Oren.”
“The Grandmother also looked as if he had a shocking propensity for listening.”
“Oh, dear. Now that really must seem like one of the great virtues after speaking to Oren.”
One night Oren had said: “I can’t remember what they say. They say so many irrelevant things. And then you’re supposed to remember what they say. And when you don’t remember, which, in my case, is normal, they say things like: ‘I told you that yesterday! You never listen!’ The last time that happened to me I said: ‘I listen, but I just can’t remember. And what’s the point of listening anyway if you can’t remember?'”
Hubert’s face had disintegrated from hilarity. Oren was one of the great unconscious comedians. Who could argue with such outstanding logic?
When Oren produced his theory on listening and forgetting, his smile heightened the whites of his eyes and the creaminess of his teeth in their brown, beaver surrounds. His hair was so black that it had that bluish tinge that ebony follicles get in hard light. Tennis had kept him in reasonable shape. But after the grandmother weekend he deteriorated rapidly. He started eating regularly in MacDonald’s. Sweet drinks with lurid colours became a staple. His jowls began to wobble. His previously constant smile, often at himself, became a distant frown. His diet was an attempt to get short-term pleasure. Satisfaction had disappeared. Yearning now gave his life a different tone. It looked so unnatural seeing him that way, as if something vital had rotted somewhere in the universe.
“I must admit,” he said, one night, “I shouldn’t have kept her waiting.”
He stared at the floor; then out the window. Hubert stared at Oren with a look of soft, worried wonderment, his puffy lips united in a face sensitized by sentient observation, that look at opposite poles to his superior smile when he so often criticized the people he knew, someone continually convinced of the profundity of his perceptions. He often reached negative conclusions about people from limited information while not understanding that these easy conclusions actually left him open to manipulation at the hands of the people he underestimated, who often surprised him when he discovered what they really thought; but there was nothing superior in his attitude now. He was facing something too real for that, something that could get us all just like that.
The patient silence waited quietly to become filled with sound. The window behind Hubert offered a rectangle of featureless blue light. Oren faced that window. There was nothing there but blue. Being able to lay hands on Claudia’s gorgeous sensuality had gone, ripped away by the casualness of taking things for granted. Most men would have been so amazed by their luck in being able to go out with Claudia that they would have become reincarnations of Jesus Christ; but Oren had been dangerously underwhelmed by a failure to recognize value.
“And I’ve got to learn to listen,” he said, “even if it means keeping notebooks.”
Being conscious of being responsible for your own downfall is usually the last step the victim takes. For the truly egotistical that step is a step too far; Oren, bereft of arrogance, had gone straight to the final destination on an express that had left its passenger in no doubt of the price of the ticket.
“Get back into shape,” I said. “There are plenty more aardvarks on the tundra.”
“I agree,” Hubert said. “Learn from this and you’ll be fine.”
We knew that few of those “aardvarks” matched Claudia; but something had to be said. But it didn’t come from Oren who stared out the window at that blue, his moist eyes gleaming, Hubert and I beginning to worry. It was the first time that Oren had ever felt defeat and we knew it was going to take him a long time to recover.