Another spring blooms in Israel. And everyone is getting ready for Pesach. Everyone except me.
I’m in a holding zone–waiting for my ex to decide what he’s doing with the kids and whether or not I can come. (If I hold my breath, I might pass out.)
Last year, I swore “next year in LA.” But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.
This isn’t the first time I broke a promise about coming home for Pesach. And being here–ten time zones away from my family, I remember the first Pesach I stayed away. Only then, it was by choice.
In a painfully obvious way of asserting my independence, I had accidentally-on-purpose missed my flight home eleven years ago, and stayed in the dorms over Spring Break my freshman year of college.
My mom had cried.
“But you were going to help me flower the cukes!” she said, referring to the pre-Pesach ritual we established since I was old enough to reach the kitchen counter. Every year, before driving over to Aunt Judy’s apartment in Santa Monica, my mom and I would wash and peel half a dozen cucumbers. Then we would drag a fork length-wise over the cucumbers until the entire thing was ridged, spraying a mist of mush on the counter. With the knife Great Gramma Celia used to cut her veggies, we would slice the cucumbers, eating the pieces that were too thick or too thin. And, inevitably, we’d end up washing and peeling an extra cucumber to make up for the amount we had eaten.
We would stand side-by-side, our fingers busy with the peeling, forking, and slicing, while we’d listen to Glenn Gould’s take on Bach’s Goldberg variations. Working together this way, our conversation punctuated by the chop chop chop of our knives against the firm flesh of the cucumber, we could speak more freely than if we were facing each other across the dinner table.
But not that year.
“Whatever.” I told her. “They’re just cucumbers.”
Instead of finding another flight and getting my ass home to be with my family, I sat at a coffeeshop, drank a latte, and smoked a vanilla cigarette.
This coffeeshop, Wall Berlin, personified the Berkeley Bohemian underbelly. It smelled like piss, puke and pot, and the barista who worked in the afternoons would glare at whoever deigned to order. Sighing, he would put down the dog-eared copy of the Communist Manifesto he was always reading:
“What.” He’d ask without a question mark.
“Uh, I’m not sure yet…”
He would sigh again, the burden of the proletariat on his shoulders, and Bourgeois Bitch coffee novice that I was, I would quickly pick something at random.
“Uh, can I try an Americano?”
“Do you even know what that is?”
After a month or so of trial and error, I had figured out that I liked lattes. A lot. And, every afternoon, I would head to Wall Berlin with my box of vanilla cigarettes, and I would smoke and drink with itchy enthusiasm. Sometimes, I would bring a book. Other times, I would find myself lost in the twisted tendrils of conversations that would transport me to different dimensions.
The Passover I ditched my family, I sat next to a man with so many piercings on his face that he was more silver than flesh. We were at adjacent tables outside, facing Durant Avenue, and I felt his eyes boring into my right cheek.
“I’m concerned that the Mossad knows where I hid the money. If you see someone carrying a khaki colored satchel, please tell them that the package is in Kensington. That’ll throw them off,” he said to me, eyes darting.
He was holding a copy of my favorite book: Jerzy Kosinski’s The Painted Bird, and this made him seem more credible. So, I asked him what happened. With words and gestures, he took me on a trip from the mountains of Santa Cruz to the Gulf of Aqaba. And back.
Somewhere between his description of a camel that could speak Arabic and Hebrew (“like totally fluently!”) that he was supposed to sell to the Mossad for a variety of reasons which he “was not at liberty to disclose” and his penchant for spitting while he spoke–not at all unlike a camel, actually–it dawned on me that not everyone with a good book was to be believed or trusted.
And this was the closest I got to a retelling of the Exodus story that year.
While I walked home from Wall Berlin that early evening in the spring, I thought about my mom forking the cucumbers alone in the kitchen, a headscarf over her chemotherapy hairdo, her hands gnarled like the roots of a begonia plant, slicing the cucumbers into round daisies. Or maybe she bought a ready-made veggie platter from Albertsons. I wanted to know, but I didn’t want to know.
And now, half a world away and so many years past that moment, I wish I hadn’t missed it. And I wonder how much I will regret this Pesach eleven years from now.