Avner had woken up too late. Only when he walked over to get the coffee going, his electric toothbrush humming along—how Netta used to hate that—and caught a glimpse of the clock on the kitchen counter did he realize he’d miscalculated. How had that happened? He’d set two different alarms to two-fifteen, was half awake the whole night, but by two-fifteen, he now realized, he should have already been on his way. He felt terror at the thought of his little girl waiting for him alone at JFK in the middle of the night. She wouldn’t be alone, would she? There would be a flight attendant taking care of her, there always was, but he’d never been late, and so who knew how that worked. He started moving fast, throwing last things into his suitcase, bumping into everything in his speed. What a bad idea it all was, this trip to Albany.
From a distance it looked like they were laughing, Maya and this stranger in uniform, but perhaps he was wrong, because by the time he got closer they both seemed annoyed. Maymay, he said a bit too loud and hugged his daughter. It always took her some time to warm up to him, and he could understand that, no reason to take it personally. Photo ID, please, the flight attendant said in Hebrew, looking at Maya but obviously meaning him. So sorry I’m late, Avner said, and handed her his passport. It was the normal procedure, and her rudeness was normal, too, for an Israeli, and yet he couldn’t help but feel . . . criticized. Was this only about his lateness, or did Netta perhaps say something about him when she dropped Maya off? Sorry, Avner said again, although the woman had clearly heard him the first time; I’m really sorry.
Now it was five a.m., and Avner and Maya were making their way through the Penn Station crowd. Where were all these people rushing to so early in the morning? Avner was anxious that he would lose Maya. He tried again. Come on, why not give me your hand? But she’d said it earlier— his hand was sweaty. She made her cheek and shoulder meet, indicating her no-thank-you. Avner wished to find himself in a world where grown men could do that, too, make their cheek and shoulder meet.
He could see she was looking at his beret. Or was she? He might be imagining it, which would be Netta’s fault. When Netta called to announce that ‘the package has been shipped,’ right before they hung up she said, Avner, one more thing. Don’t wear that silly hat, okay? It embarrasses her. What an awful word, embarrass. This isn’t Israel, Netta, he said; in New York, people wear what ever they want. People wear what ever they want in Tel Aviv, too, Netta replied, only here when you look ridiculous they tell you to your face. And then— she’s a little girl, Avner, and she’s getting to that age. Just don’t wear the hat. Avner exhaled into the phone. Netta, he said slowly, if my daughter wants to ask me something, she can ask me herself. Occasionally, since moving to New York, he was able to stand up to Netta in these small ways. You’re such a teenager, Avner, Netta said.
Maya was carrying a purple backpack, and he was carrying her Time Magazine duffel bag and his own suitcase. It was incredible, how long Netta managed to hang on to things like crappy duff el bags they’d gotten for free years ago. The weight of it made him twist as he walked, and he wanted to call Netta and ask if she was ever going to buy a trolley suitcase like a normal person. But he didn’t, of course, and what was new about that? They’d always been experts at not saying things to each other.
Maya seemed to be looking at the drops of sweat trickling down his forehead. It was genetic, this sweating; his father had sweated just this way before him— fast, face-first. You’ve been spared, little girl, he wanted to say, be grateful. But suddenly she wasn’t next to him. A split second of horror, as if he’d inhaled ice instead of air, and then he spotted her, three steps behind. Her pigtails were messed up from the plane, and she had stopped to undo them. His chest felt like it was a couple seconds ahead, already on its way to reach her. He quickly closed the gap between them. Need help with that? He asked. She raised her eyes as if seeing him for the first time, and pulled out the second hair band, her face slightly twitching from the effort. She put both hair bands in her pocket, and he said, Maya, let me know when you need to stop, okay? I don’t want to lose you. She nodded.
They kept walking, but where? The signs all looked the same. Numbers, arrows, words. Signs in this country always confused him, and transportation hubs of all kinds were enormous; in Israel he’d have easily found his way by now. He turned his head to his side every few seconds, trying to keep his daughter in sight. It occurred to him how trusting she was, never doubting that he was leading them to the right place. He wanted to be worthy of that trust, but he also had the urge to teach her never to trust anyone unless she knew what to do if that person fucked up. He wanted to teach her that people very often fucked up.
Looking ahead, he saw the information booth. He stopped, and she immediately stopped as well. That way, he said, pointing and trying to sound authoritative. Maya followed him, but suddenly seemed suspicious. Two people were in line, and Avner and Maya stood behind them. That’s where the train’s supposed to be? Maya asked. How quick, these shifts, how sharp. Up until just now, at least he was the dad who knew how to get to the train. We’re very close, Avner said.
On the train, the Netta in his head was berating him for his bad judgment, the needlessness of this trip. Poor Maya, she was saying, being dragged like that after such a long flight. (In reality, when he told Netta about the plan for this visit she only said, Sounds nice, and he appreciated that.) An art collector calls, you go, he said to imaginary Netta now; that’s just how it is for artists in New York. He would look her straight in the eyes, too; what did she know about his life in New York? She hardly asked him anything anymore. You could have pushed her visit back a few days, he heard Netta say. With few words, she was winning the argument; Netta was incapable of losing. Because, yes, wouldn’t it have been better? Easier for Maya, easier for him. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. It would have meant a shorter visit, three days lost. And he was seeing so little of her, it seemed criminal.
Maya was sleeping in the seat next to him now, hugging her backpack, and her hands looked so small that for a moment he thought perhaps he should talk to Netta about it, perhaps Maya’s hands weren’t developing properly. He leaned over and whispered, We’re going to have fun, Maymay. You’ll see.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket, and he knew it was Gillian before he looked. Maybe he should have had said yes, let her come. He almost never met a collector without Gillian; she was the one finding these buyers for him, affluent Jewish people, for the most part, who loved art or wanted to love art, or who Gillian thought might confuse supporting Avner with supporting Israel. And she’d have known her way around once they got to Albany— she’d lived there at some point, if he wasn’t mistaken— and maybe that would have allowed Avner to be less tense, more attentive to Maya. He assumed she understood, when he mentioned his daughter’s visit, that he’d take this one alone, and was surprised when she still asked. Should I tag along? She wasn’t even his gallerist, not yet— he needed to get more recognition for her to take him on— and while they worked together toward that, and while she was someone who seemed to believe in him as an artist, which meant a whole lot, wouldn’t they be crossing some line if she were coming on this trip with him, meeting his daughter? And he could see it, that was the truth, as if watching a film: Maya in the kitchen back in Tel Aviv; Netta with her back to her, chopping a salad. This woman was also there with me and Daddy, she speaks Hebrew but kind of funny. And Netta says, Really? How nice— in a tone that doesn’t give a thing away to the girl— but deep down she now thinks even less of him, if that’s possible, and she starts chopping just a bit faster. Would Netta have confronted him then? Are you seeing someone? Probably not. It’s been over two years now, and they’ve learned to— what, exactly?— not ask questions.
Ma kore, Gillian was asking, atem al rakevet? They spoke Hebrew sometimes— Gillian’s Hebrew was surprisingly decent, considering she’d only lived in Israel a short time, years ago— and the truth was he found it sexy, her American accent rounding the rough edges, making the throaty sound of Hebrew softer, more accepting. He didn’t want to feel that now, not with Maya there. Yup, on the train, he answered in English; what’s up? We can talk later if it’s a bad time, Gillian said. How different she was from Netta, how easily hurt. No, no, Avner said, I’m just quiet because Maya is sleeping, go ahead. I talked to Abe, Gillian said. Apparently, the art would be for a new office space he has up there— not for his home, like I thought— so keep that in mind. Avner wasn’t sure how exactly to keep that information in mind. Gillian had a special talent— she knew who would buy and who wouldn’t, who would like what. His brain didn’t work that way, but he often felt he had to pretend. That’s how artists were in New York, they knew how to play the game. Got it, he said. And, Gillian said and paused, he sounds very . . . pro- Israel, which is good for us. Right, Avner said.
So once again only his “Israeli work” would be considered, and again after the meeting Gillian would probably push him to produce more of it. Maybe he should simply give up on the rest, on his actual work— he was doing conceptual, surreal self-portraits these days, and it was going well— and accept that these silly drawings he made off of old stills of various places in Israel were the only thing that sold, the only thing people in New York liked. He wanted to ask if she’d gotten a better idea why this trip was necessary, why he and Abe couldn’t meet in New York, but what difference did it make now? He was already on his way, and it would only annoy her if he brought that up again. Gillian got impatient whenever he sounded unappreciative. I don’t know, Avner, she would say; I thought you really needed the money right now. Money seemed to be the end of so many conversations in New York. He needed it, they had it. So anything they wanted him to do— say, travel to Albany with his daughter, probably for no other reason than to establish a power dynamic— he did. I’m pretty sure this trip will be worth your while, Gillian said now. That’s exactly why she was successful— she easily intuited other people’s concerns. I wasn’t complaining, Avner said, though they both knew, of course, that wasn’t exactly right. Oh, I’m sorry, Maymay, he said, though his daughter was still sleeping beside him, did I wake you up? Maya opened her eyes then, which startled him. She used to sleep through anything when she was little. She looked at him without speaking— Netta’s daughter, no doubt— and Gillian said, Okay, you have to go, just one more thing, he particularly liked the Nuweirba series, so play that up. Sure thing, he said. Don’t be like that, Avner, Gillian said. Be like what, he said, I’m saying I got it, no problem. Gillian sighed. Call me after the meeting if we don’t talk before then, she said.
Maya’s eyes were still on him when he got off the phone. What could he say that wouldn’t be a lie? I didn’t mean to wake you, he told her. Who were you talking to? she asked. He was probably imagining the judgment in her voice. In English he could say, A friend who’s helping me sell paintings, a business acquaintance, but Hebrew doesn’t ever allow you to avoid gender. And he had nothing to hide, did he? It’s just work, he said, and Maya squinted, a small replica of Netta letting him know without words that she didn’t believe him. But was he lying? Often it seemed the only thing about him that interested Gillian was his Israeliness. Couldn’t she see he wasn’t that guy— the typical Israeli macho, the man who lived eleven months of every year waiting for his chance to leave his family and reunite with his army buddies and M16 on reserve duty, the man with Middle Eastern temper and eyes that followed every skirt? When they first met Gillian visited the studios at the residency he got, the residency that was his excuse for leaving Israel— he tried to bring it up several times, but everything he said sounded wrong somehow, a man unaware of his core. He gave up eventually, figured that, if they worked together, over time she’d see him for who he truly was, and if they didn’t end up working together, well, what difference did it make then what she thought. But perhaps that was a mistake, and a familiar one, too— Avner was never good at telling people what he needed from them, and time and again he realized that once you’ve known someone awhile, the dynamic between you was set, plaster that had hardened in its mold.
The hotel room was hoary and mildewed, as he’d suspected it would be for the price he was paying, but Maya didn’t seem to mind. She laid her purple backpack on the bed that was closer to the window. When is your meeting? she asked, a tiny businesswoman. She often seemed so much older to him than she really was. Not until tomorrow, Avner said. He pulled out the map the hotel receptionist had given them to find a picture of President Bush in that same paper bag, the words In God We Turst written across it and Welcome to New York State on the bottom. Was this put in there by accident, or was this a gift the hotel was offering new guests? And did no one ever tell them it had a typo? That’s the President of the United States, Maya said. Avner nodded. Probably not for long now, he said. Mom calls him President War, Maya said. Avner chuckled. Of course she does, he said. Netta lived and breathed politics, had always wished she could be a full-time activist. She had been taking Maya to protests with her since very early on, which Avner never appreciated but never said anything about. It’s not a bad thing, having an American president who’s got Israel’s back, Avner said. Maya seemed confused. This may have been the first time he addressed anything political with her, and who was he fooling? He didn’t care about any of it; one of the best things about leaving Tel Aviv was getting away from those constant and pointless arguments everyone was having. But something was pushing him now to say more. You know, Maymay, he said, Mom and I don’t always agree on these things, and I just think you should keep an open mind until you’re grown up enough to form your own opinions. I am grown up, Maya said, and he wasn’t sure if she was being funny or serious.
A little while later they went out. I thought we could go see the Empire State Plaza, Avner said. He expected Maya to ask what that was, but she just said Okay. Do you know about the plaza? Avner asked. A tiny nod, and another one. Maya always nodded twice. It’s a place with a bunch of buildings and you can see all of Albany from there, she said. Mom and I read about Albany together before I left.
Avner could see them sitting on the living- room couch, Netta entirely absorbed in the girl, as she got whenever she was teaching Maya anything— a siren could go off and she wouldn’t hear it— determined to make sure something good came out of this needless journey. He did miss Netta, underneath his mess of other feelings, and when Maya was visiting he always missed her more. It was a specific feeling— not the kind that made him reach for the phone, but the kind more based in fantasy: a happy family living in Tel Aviv, a father, mother, and their eight-year-old daughter. Maybe he’s with them on that couch, reading a book. Or perhaps he’s in the kitchen, watching them with one eye and a smile, mixing lemon with tahini. Will they ever be that family? Then he realized, of course, what it meant, this prepping that Netta did. She didn’t trust him. He wasn’t the kind of dad who’d sit down to read with his daughter, who’d think to look up kids’ activities. The only way for Maya to benefit from this trip was for Netta to take care of it herself.
When they reached the plaza, Maya kept looking around with an expression he hadn’t quite seen before. Nice, huh? Avner said, and she nodded her two tiny nods. The complex was indeed impressive, and Avner was debating whether he should try to explain what was so special about its architecture.
Did you notice that you can almost see the entire city from here? he asked. Look over there, for example, he said, pointing east. Maya followed his finger with her eyes. You see how these buildings look a little similar to what’s around us? This complex relates to the city, rather than impose itself on it. Fits in like a piece in a puzzle, even though it’s only been around maybe thirty or forty years. See how nothing is blocking the view? It’s really quite incredible. Maya nodded, but Avner felt he wasn’t being clear. He was never very good at explaining things. Maya kept looking around, and Avner wondered if he should just shut up for a bit, leave her to her thoughts. As with Netta, leaving her alone so often seemed like the right thing to do. But was it? He waited a minute, and another. What are you thinking, Maymay? he asked finally. She wrinkled her nose the way she did when she was embarrassed. It looks like Disneyland, she said, pointing at the other side of the complex, which really did look a lot like the entrance to the Magic Kingdom. This made Avner laugh— the childish simplicity of it, the sweetness, so far from the pompousness of his failed architecture speech— and Maya raised her eyes to look at him, as if asking if he was laughing at her. He wanted to reassure her and was about to say that she was right, it truly did look a lot like Disneyland, when it occurred to him that she’d never been. You’re right, Maymay, he said, but how do you know that? I was there a few months ago, Maya said. You were in Disneyland? Avner asked, his voice louder than he meant. His daughter had been in Disneyland and he didn’t know. His daughter had been in the United States and didn’t visit him. It was a gift from Noa’s dad for our birthdays, Maya said quietly. Avner felt a familiar tightening in his head, inside his ears. Kleiman took his daughter to Disneyland. And how come Netta didn’t mention it, and Maya hasn’t, either, until now? Did Netta figure he wouldn’t be thrilled and instruct the child to avoid the subject? Would she do that? And didn’t she think he needed to be advised before someone—anyone, even if it was his close friend— took their daughter on a trip abroad? But he couldn’t ask his daughter about any of this, it wouldn’t be right, so what he asked was why she kept saying “Noa’s dad.” Didn’t she know Kleiman was one of his closest friends? Maya looked at him with wide eyes and said nothing. Perhaps he’d scared her. Never mind, Avner said, and tried to smile, it doesn’t matter.
The last time he had talked to Kleiman— it must have been a birthday or some holiday— when the subject of their daughters came up, as it always did, Kleiman talked about how transparent Noa was to him. That’s the word he used, transparent, as if he could see through her skin. Isn’t it freaky? Kleiman was saying. Seeing their little minds figure things out, seeing an idea occur to them for the first time, seeing when they’re trying to bluff or pull one over on you . . .
So freaky, Avner said, because he didn’t want to tell Kleiman—Kleiman of all people— how far his own experience was from that. His daughter was a mystery.
When Maya was about a year old and Noa a newborn, Kleiman came knocking on Avner’s door late one muggy summer night. He was loud in the hallway, angry about the heat. Your fucking AC better be on, Kleiman was shouting at the door as Avner was opening it. This was a barking, sweating man facing Avner— quite different from the usual Kleiman, the man nicknamed Buddha in their unit years ago for his calm nature. He stormed in, looking for a button to push. Where is it, where do I turn it on? I need air! The word “air” he shouted even louder. Please be quiet, Avner said; Netta and the baby are asleep. But seconds later Netta was at the end of the hall— blue robe, arms crossed. She stood there, saying nothing; Netta always treated words as if they were on limited supply. He just showed up, Avner started apologizing as if Kleiman weren’t in the room, but Netta ignored him and turned to Kleiman. Can I make you some coffee? I think we’re done with beer for the night. Kleiman thanked her as if that’d been the point of everything all along, for someone to offer him coffee. This was a special talent of Netta’s: people usually wanted what she offered. Netta signaled with her hand, and Kleiman followed her to the kitchen. No one said anything to him, but Avner assumed he should stay in the living room. He’d been struggling for some time to find words that would help his friend, who got a call one day from a woman he barely remembered, telling him she’d just had his baby.
They came out of the kitchen two hours later. Avner was half asleep in his recliner. Help him with the couch, would you? Netta said to Avner, and turned toward the hall that led to their bedroom. Avner and Kleiman opened the sofa bed in silence, as if Netta had pushed both Play and Mute before leaving the room.
The following morning, Netta took Kleiman to the travel agency on Dizengoff Street where she’d worked part-time years before, and where she still had connections. The next day, Kleiman was on a flight to India— back to where he’d spent long months after his military service, an Israeli tradition Avner had always been critical of, believing it only kept people from facing their lives. That evening, Avner overheard Netta on the phone with Noa’s mother, offering her help. It was the sort of thing Netta did; she often went out of her way for people she hardly knew. Noa’s mother must have mentioned that Netta had a baby of her own to take care of, because Avner heard Netta say, Well, but I’ve got Avner here. Was Netta only saying what the moment required, or was it possible she actually relied on him in some way? In that first year of Maya’s life, he’d only stayed alone with her twice, and for less than two hours each time. He had this horrible fear back then that Maya would somehow die while Netta was gone. He’d mentioned it to Netta once, very early on, and they joked about it, but there was something in their laughter, a plea made and heard.
Nine weeks later, Kleiman returned. He seemed to have shed all his angst and anger, left it in India; he was Buddha once again. She’s a smart one, your wife, he told Avner.
In the months that followed, something strange happened: Kleiman kept reaching out to Avner for parenting advice. The first time he changed Noa’s diaper, the first time he took her to the doctor, the first time she stayed with him overnight. Avner found, amazed, that he knew the answers to most of Kleiman’s questions. Since no live demonstrations were ever needed, and since he could always use generic language— not outright lying, simply describing what he’d seen Netta do and letting Kleiman infer, perhaps, that it was his own actions he was describing— he was able, it seemed, to be helpful. He had been a father a year longer than Kleiman, after all, and to Kleiman, who seemed oblivious to Avner’s own troubles with his little family, that was enough to consider Avner an authority. There was a quality to these talks— a lie repeated until you started believing it— that made them so dear to Avner, and he hid them from Netta, sneaking out to talk or meet with Kleiman as if having an affair. And the affair lasted quite a while, Avner always being one year of fatherhood ahead. But everything changed, of course, when Avner decided to move to New York, a decision the new Kleiman simply couldn’t understand. You have a five-year-old here, he whispered to Avner then, on the balcony of the Tel Aviv apartment, as if reminding his friend of a crucial detail he must have forgotten about, as if forgetting his own history. It may only be for a few weeks, Avner said then.
These days it was Kleiman offering the advice— advice Avner never asked for— and always, it seemed, wanting Avner to confess something. His guilt? How little he knew his daughter? How true that had always been, even before he left? It’s freaky, isn’t it, how transparent they are.
Would you like me to take your picture with Disneyland in the background? Avner asked now. When Maya nodded he remembered he’d left the camera back at the hotel, but his daughter was taking off her backpack, then squatting down and hunting for something. A few seconds later, she was holding a small camera in the shape of a butterfly, stretching her arm up so he could reach. She’d always loved to be photographed. Even back when she was a toddler, Avner remembered, she used to smile and make giggly sounds whenever someone was taking a picture of her. She has a sense of her own beauty, Netta used to say, and then in a lower voice, I hope that never changes. You have your own camera? How great, he said, taking it from her extended hand, looking for the viewfinder. I know what I can do, Maya said suddenly, her voice high with excitement, I can put this in one of those double frames, right next to a real Disneyland one! It will be so funny. I even have a pretty one that Mom took when I was wearing this shirt! Avner pushed the button without meaning to. Mom was in Disneyland, too? he asked. Maya nodded, but her excitement was immediately gone. Was it, like, a group? he asked. Were other people there? Maya shook her head no, her eyes on him. He must be misunderstanding. So it was just Kleiman and Mom, with you and Noa, he said very slowly. Maya nodded. Noa’s dad said maybe next time you’ll come, too, she said.
Something in Avner was pulling him down now, his body asking to sit or lie for just a moment or two, but it would be so dramatic to do so in the middle of the plaza, and Maya would surely be startled. No, all he needed to do was take her picture; it was a simple task, and he could do it. He held up the camera again. You’re not smiling, Maymay, he said in a voice that sounded foreign, the voice of a man he’d never met, and Maya said, Sometimes I like the regular pictures better. What was it about that simple statement? It made him want to close the small distance between them and hug her. But instead he took her picture then, tiny and serious, the Disneyland of Albany behind her.
Once they were walking again, there was no pushing the thoughts aside. He wanted to call Netta, ask her point-blank. For once in his life he’d be direct, clear. Would she admit it, assuming there was something to admit? And if she denied it, and he said that, even still, they shouldn’t have gone on a trip like that, like a family without him, would she understand? Or would she say that they couldn’t have afforded it otherwise, which was true of course, that Kleiman’s inviting them was the only way for Maya to go, and didn’t he want that for her? Or would she take it even further and finally say what she never had, that he was a bad father for leaving?
He could never— not in all the years they lived together, not since— predict how she’d react to anything. When he started thinking about leaving— when it stopped being a fantasy so secret he seemed to be keeping it even from himself and became something else, hours spent drafting inquiry letters of various kinds— he planned for long months what to say, how to say it. Time and again, he went over different things Netta might say, accuse him of, and he spent days thinking how he’d respond to each. I just need a few months, he was going to say, hoping some part deep down in her that loved him would find compassion for that, because if she could do that for Kleiman, as she had a few years back, why not for him? And maybe that’s all it would be— a few months away. He’d focus on his art, get some recognition, figure things out.
When he got the acceptance from the Artists Awake Association, he stared at it for long minutes, frozen. It was a small thing— a studio space he’d share with other artists probably much younger than himself, a stipend that would buy him a couple dinners a week at best— but it was a nod, someone in New York thinking his work was good. He’d accepted and bought the plane ticket before he talked to Netta, feeling the pull so strong in him and afraid, as he always was, of her effect on him.
He woke up in an empty bed the next morning. That happened often—Netta was an early riser—but he usually knew, even in his sleep, if she was next to him or not. That morning he reached for her to find her gone. And there was something in that moment that gave him the courage he’d been waiting for. He got out of bed and didn’t wash his face. He came into the kitchen and didn’t say good morning. Any minute, he could lose his nerve. He sat down and said Netta we need to talk I think I need to move to New York for a while I got this residency it’s not a lot but it’s something I bought a plane ticket. Nothing changed in her face. She kept sitting there looking serene, drinking her coffee and reading the paper. When they first met, Avner was fascinated by how long Netta managed to make one cup of coffee last. She loved her morning ritual and didn’t seem to mind her coffee getting cold. Now she took another sip. He hadn’t been clear enough. I’m thinking it will be a few months, he said. Maybe some time apart will be good for us. And if I get some people in New York to notice me— maybe get in on some group shows, maybe even find a gallery—well, it might make all the difference. Right, she said, still reading. He might as well have said, I think we’re out of yogurt.
He stayed there a few minutes, sitting across the table and looking at her. This is a woman you can’t know, he thought. In the days to come, these words played themselves on repeat in his head, and for reasons he didn’t quite understand, they provided comfort. Later, in the New York apartment— his first apartment was a tiny studio in Washington Heights, with hospital-green walls and almost no furniture— he would whisper these words to himself. In the New York winter that awaited him with cold winds that burned his ears and that, being so used to Mediterranean weather, he couldn’t help but take personally, he would whisper these words to himself. In New York’s long avenue blocks that seemed to be asking out loud when he was going back, when he’d admit he’d made a mistake— he would whisper these words to himself. This is a woman you can’t know.
No, he wouldn’t call Netta. What would be the point? If she was having an affair with Kleiman, there was nothing he could do about it. Confronting her would only make matters worse. She’d talk to him when she was ready. If there was even anything to talk about, which there might not be. He might be reading too much into it. Things always appeared worse from a distance.
At night, back at the hotel (We’re home, he’d announced when they came in; he always called wherever he slept home), he was going over his portfolio and Maya seemed engrossed in the Northeast Travel Guide— Hebrew edition— that he’d brought with him. Gillian had mentioned the Nuweiba series, but you never knew with these people; he might suddenly want to talk about other works entirely. And since none of it came easily to Avner in English, he’d gotten into the habit of looking at his portfolio before any type of meeting, for each work whispering to himself words he might need if he was asked about his intention, or process, or politics. These people often wanted to talk politics.
Did you know people used to live there? Maya was asking suddenly, her voice angry. Where? he asked. Where we went today, that plaza place, she said. It says here— she said, pointing at the book— that people were forced out of their homes to build that place. People used to live there! He leaned toward her, and she handed him the book, marking the relevant section with her finger. He read: “Above the waterline, rising like a spearhead into downtown Albany, stands Nelson Rockefeller’s Empire State Plaza, which was built during the 1960’s and 1970’s, replacing roughly one hundred acres of nineteenth- century buildings (while forcing hundreds of families out of their homes) with a complex including underground parking lots, and decorated with impressive modern art. The view from the observation deck,” Avner went on, “looks as if it were specifically designed to make one feel like a triumphant conqueror, looking over the Hudson winding toward the Adirondacks . . .” He realized he’d gone past the relevant part. This was many years ago, he said to Maya, but her eyes were furious, and he knew his words were wrong. But which words were right? She had always had Netta’s uncompromising sense of justice. Or perhaps all children were like that, assuming the world can and should always be good. So what if it was a long time ago? Maya asked. They forced people out of their homes! She was looking at him as if he himself had escorted each family out, and her eyes were tearing up. He didn’t think she cried anymore. It seemed she stopped doing that years ago, when she learned to talk. Did they use tanks? she asked. How slow he could be sometimes. How had that not occurred to him. Oh, Maymay, he said, it’s not the same as back home. It’s not what you think. Of course they didn’t use tanks. And they probably paid these people, too, for their old houses. It’s different in America. Maya looked at him suspiciously. He sighed. Remember what I said earlier, about keeping an open mind with this stuff ? That’s kind of what I meant. I don’t want to go back to that plaza place, Maya said. There’s no reason to, Avner said, except we might just have to walk by there tomorrow on our way to my meeting. I don’t want to, Maya said. Avner was surprised by her insistence. It was unlike her, to be . . . difficult like that. Okay, he said. I’ll figure something out.
Later that night Maya was asleep— on her back, one arm on her stomach and the other on her forehead, her breath loud— and Avner watched her for a while. Every few minutes she’d murmur something and he would try to catch it. It mostly sounded like words in English. He knew she’d been taking classes; Netta had mentioned it a few times, always emphasizing it, as if he was supposed to say something back—thank you?— but still, why would she murmur in English in her sleep? He was probably wrong.
At some point, Avner grabbed his cell phone and sneaked to the bathroom. He sat in an empty bathtub and stared at the small screen. It was early morning in Tel Aviv. Netta might still be asleep. And what would he say? He called Gillian. Maya’s practically ready to march into Gaza and throw herself in front of tanks, he told her; I think Netta’s been overdoing it with the political zealousness. Gillian laughed. I’m sure you’re exaggerating, she said. Maybe, Avner said. They were quiet for a few seconds, until Gillian said, It’s late, and her words sounded like a question. I’m sorry, Avner said, should I not have called? No, no, Gillian said, it’s totally fine, I’m just surprised. Was that even really what was troubling him, Maya’s . . . politics? He wasn’t sure. But Gillian was always easy to complain to. She never hinted at the fact that he’d abandoned his child, never even seemed to think it. He wondered about that sometimes— her absolute empathy, or perhaps it was merely indifference to anything that didn’t serve her interest, the art she could sell. I just need to talk to Netta about it, ask her to take it down a notch with the politics, Avner said, though he knew, of course, that he wouldn’t. Maya will find her own truth eventually, Gillian said. Gillian didn’t understand children, the open-endedness of their minds, how easily they could be manipulated. It’s not that simple, Avner said, and they were quiet again for a bit. He wanted to talk to her about Kleiman, about his suspicions. He’d never shared anything real about his marriage. There are many influences in her life, Avner said. Sure, Gillian said. Was she impatient, or was he imagining it? He didn’t know what to say next, and Gillian said, You have a big meeting tomorrow, Avner, better try to get some sleep. Had he imagined this whole time that Gillian was . . . open to some other connection between them, that if he ever became available she might be interested? She certainly didn’t sound interested now. Yeah, that’s really why I called, Avner said. I’ve been meaning to ask you— can I try to interest this Abe guy in some of my real paintings? I mean, they’re never going to sell if no one ever sees them or knows about them. There was a short pause before Gillian said, It’s all your real work, Avner, and if anything’s holding you back it’s this kind of thinking. Avner took a deep breath. I know you don’t believe they can sell, he said, but, please, tell me the truth: do you think they’re good?
Avner . . . was all Gillian said, and then nothing.
The hotel dining room consisted of two small tables, each covered with an oversized plastic tablecloth. Maya and Avner sat there alone, nibbling on stale Danishes. I’m sorry, Avner said; we’ll get something better later. It’s tasty, Maya said, and took another small bite. He smiled. Better than my French toast? he asked. Avner was no cook, but he made a better French toast than most— vanilla extract was the secret, and choosing the right bread— and he knew Maya loved it. She giggled. You should teach them how to make it, she said, and maybe then more people would come here! Avner laughed. No way, he said; then I’d have competition! But I will make it for you when we’re back home. Maya looked at him with serious eyes suddenly, and he wasn’t sure why. Home home? She asked. I meant my apartment, he said. Surely she knew that. But when are you coming home? Maya asked, her voice soft and quiet. Netta had explained it all to her, he knew; what did she need to hear?
Maymay, my decision to be here for a while has nothing to do with how much I love you, you know that, right? Maya nodded, but he could tell that wasn’t enough. Mom talked to you about it, remember? Maya nodded. But you never did, she said. She was right, of course. That just wasn’t how they did things. Netta was so much better at knowing how to manage it all, so much less likely to choose the wrong words, to end up harming Maya even more. Well, he said, what do you want to know? That was probably wrong, he probably wasn’t supposed to ask her. I just want to know if it’s forever, Maya said.
Did all kids have this skill, this ability to get to the heart of the matter immediately and with few words? I don’t know, Maymay, he said. Why not? she asked. He wasn’t getting away without giving her some real answers, that much was clear, and perhaps she was truly grown up, as she’d said the day before— at least more than he gave her credit for, and enough for some truth. I was very sad in Tel Aviv, Avner said. He paused for a few seconds. You know that feeling, Maymay, when you do a good job with your homework and the teacher praises you in front of the class? Maya smiled a tiny smile; she did well in school, and he remembered Netta’s mentioning her being praised last week. Well, it’s a good feeling because praise is important, it’s what keeps us going, and I never had that good feeling in Tel Aviv. The galleries and museums over there just didn’t like my paintings very much, he said, and shrugged, his shoulders asking her not to feel too bad for him. And in New York they do? Maya asked. Everything is bigger in New York, Avner said, so it takes time, but they do like them more here, yes. He was about to explain that’s what the meeting was, too, that he was basically trying to find as many people as he could who would like his paintings, but he paused when he heard the words in his head. It all sounded so . . . pathetic, and surely it wasn’t good for a little girl to see her father as pathetic. I like your paintings, Maya said. He put his hand over hers and noticed it was shaking. Thank you, Maymay, he said.
In the waiting room of Abe Chapman’s office, everything was large. The brown leather sofas were large, the wooden coffee table was large, the windows—overlooking Madison Avenue, which was nothing like its New York counterpart—were large. Maya had brought a book to keep herself busy, but when Abe’s assistant asked if she wanted crayons—holding them up so Maya would understand, asking, How do you say crayons in Hebrew but clearly not waiting for Avner to respond—Maya sheepishly nodded. Avner was surprised. He’d always wanted her to draw, wanted to teach her, but she’d had no interest. Such a cutie-pie, the assistant said. She’s all right, Avner said, and smiled. He wanted to sit by Maya and watch her draw but had a feeling that would make her self-conscious, so he just stood by the window, awkward and waiting. Shouldn’t be long now, the assistant said, and Avner nodded. But twenty minutes later there was still no sign of Abe. Was he in his office with someone, or running late? Avner tended to keep questions to a minimum in such situations. These people were unpredictable. Some wanted to be your best friends, some wanted to humiliate you, so it was hard to know how to be, especially when Gillian wasn’t around. He’d gotten pretty good at following her lead, but when he took a meeting without her it was up to him to figure out what the eyes looking at him wanted to see. Except now there were no eyes at all, not yet, and there was Maya, patiently drawing and looking up every few minutes. Didn’t he owe it to her, to be more than a forgotten-about appointment in some rich man’s waiting room? He took a deep breath. I can’t wait much longer, he told the assistant, and his voice sounded hoarse. Oh, I’m sorry, she said, and then in a lower voice, Abe can be so bad with time. I came all the way from New York, Avner said, as if the distance he’d traveled could make Abe materialize. Let me try him again, the assistant said.
She was holding the phone when a heavyset man walked through the front door, his voice immediately filling the space. You must be Avner, he was saying, so sorry to keep you! Oh that’s okay, Avner said, and reached his hand out. We were having a nice time.
Avner had assumed Maya would stay in the waiting room with the assistant, but she picked up her crayons when Abe gestured with his arm toward his office and was by Avner’s side in seconds. Little one wants to sit in on the meeting? Abe asked, looking at Maya. She doesn’t speak a whole lot of English, Avner said, and Abe hit his own forehead with an open hand. Of course! Ata rotze le yoshev bepgisha? Maya let out a small giggle. Abe’s American Hebrew made her into a boy. There was no way, it seemed, to suggest Maya should wait outside. And maybe that was okay. Maybe it was good for her to see him sell his work, maybe it would give a bit of balance to everything he’d said earlier.
Unlike the waiting room, the office itself was rather naked, a big empty space with only a desk and a couple of chairs. We just moved here a few weeks ago, Abe apologized in his broken Hebrew, we’re still waiting on a shipment of furniture from Japan. You don’t have to speak Hebrew, Avner tried, but Abe waved his hand. Please, he said, I love it, it’s good practice. Maya kept giggling at almost everything he said, which made Avner nervous. Didn’t she know it wasn’t polite?
So I’m going to be honest with you, Abe said, and tell you I don’t know much about art. But the lovely Miss Gillian tells me that’s what this office needs, and I trust that woman. She’s the best, Avner said, and smiled. There was a short pause now, the two men looking at each other. Was Avner supposed to say something?
What I do know quite a bit about, Abe said, leaning forward, and care about— deeply—is Eretz Israel. Is that something we have in common, Avner?
Avner had met people like Abe before, staunch supporters of Israel who considered it their job to make everyone else support Israel right along with them. Yes, Avner said, of course. Oh, it’s not of course, Abe said, not these days, sadly. And not when talking to an Israeli who’s no longer living in Israel. Abe smiled a wide smile. Was this man seriously judging him? This man who at best volunteered at some kibbutz for a year, who certainly never served in the army? This was unusual. Avner was used to questions about Israel, about his politics, about his politics in relation to his art. And to a degree, he’d always rationalized, that was fair. They wanted to know what they were buying, and often these were not people who knew what they were looking at when they looked at a painting. But he’d never been criticized or shamed in any way for leaving Israel. Most of the time, all he needed to do was talk about his military days and their eyes would light up.
I left Israel for personal reasons, Avner said, glancing in Maya’s direction. She was sitting on the floor and seemed engrossed in her drawing, but she could be misleading in this way. None of my business of course, Abe said, switching back to English and still smiling, but seems to me personal reasons should have kept you from leaving, if anything.
Avner shifted in his chair. What the fuck was going on today? Maybe Abe, too, would like to know if he was staying in New York forever. Avner’s face must have been showing his discontent, because after a few seconds Abe said, I apologize if that was too blunt, Avner— I truly don’t mean to off end. Only to see if we have a good . . . rapport, so to speak. If we see eye to eye on things. I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, Avner said, but why does it matter? If you like my paintings, you like my paintings. It was the sort of thing you weren’t supposed to say, of course, the sort of thing Gillian would never let him ask if she were here. But Abe didn’t seem surprised. That’s a fair question, he said, and then paused— perhaps to think, perhaps for effect; Avner couldn’t tell. Let me first say, Abe finally said, that I’m looking at getting about twelve pieces. Two for each office, three for the conference room, three for the foyer. Okay, Avner said, doing his best to keep his voice steady. Gillian never mentioned twelve anything. Usually they looked at a few and chose one if he was lucky. Selling twelve works— he could never do the math in his head while talking, but it meant he’d be okay, more than okay, for a good while. He’d be able to see Maya much more often. He’d be able to take her to Disneyland.
So to be honest, Abe said, that’s part of the answer to your question— it’s a considerable investment, and I’d like to know who’s benefitting from it. Avner nodded. Perhaps that was all he needed to do, perhaps he could nod his way to the end of the meeting. But also, Abe said, shaking his head lightly and pursing his lips as if not quite sure how to put it— I’m always . . . on the lookout. For the right kind of people. For people who I may collaborate with on different projects. Avner had no idea what Abe was talking about, but suddenly felt like he was being vetted for something. What kind of projects? Avner asked. In a minute, Abe said, but let me ask you this first, Avner: what’s your competitive edge? My competitive edge? Avner repeated, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Abe said, Sorry, I’m used to thinking in business terms; if you think of yourself as a one-man venture, if this is a value proposition— what’s your edge? You mean as an artist? Avner asked. Sure, Abe said. And Avner started to explain about his real work then, how it captured the relationship between man and urban space, but Abe stopped him. I must have not explained myself very well, he said, his hand raised in the air between them. And he went on then to answer his own question. Avner’s competitive edge was that he was Israeli. Or, more specifically, that he was an Israeli and an artist and relatively young. He could appeal to some people, important people, who were afraid of the word Zionism.
I’m not only a Zionist, Avner, Abe said, I’m an active Zionist. Being Jewish and being Zionist should be synonymous. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? And yet in some circles it’s a become a word people hesitate to use. Do you know why that is, Abe asked, but didn’t wait for Avner to respond. Self-hate, he announced, if you ask me. Self- hate is what’s keeping so many Jews, so many Israelis, from supporting Israel. It’s so sad, when you think about it, Abe said, bringing one hand to his chest in a gesture so preposterous Avner struggled not to look away. So much hatred has been directed at the Jewish people over the years, and Israel was supposed to be the answer to that. Instead, Abe said, it’s become the main excuse for many people to hate Jews, and for many Jews to hate themselves. Don’t you agree?
This was a familiar feeling, his arm being pulled on in this way. It was the same with Netta— the convictions were different, but the pull the same. People who believed they had the answers were like paparazzi— so focused on getting the shot they wanted, so narrow in their aim.
Of course, Avner said, self-hate never leads anywhere good. If this idiot wanted to buy his affirmation for thousands and thousands of dollars, Avner would sell it. There, I agree with you. Now pay up. Terrific, Abe said, terrific, but his expression seemed troubled, and he paused before he continued. Because the thing is, now more than ever, it is crucial for Jews to stand together, be united. Avner wasn’t sure why “now more than ever,” but he knew Abe believed what he was saying, believed, probably, that any moment now Israel might cease to exist. That was a fundamental difference between Israelis and American Jews: Israelis, at least those born after ’48, born into the reality of Israel as a state, could never imagine any other reality. And whether they were right or wrong, what Avner had come to recognize through his time in New York was the comfort that belief provided. American Jews didn’t seem to share that comfort; most of them, at least the ones Avner met, seemed to believe every time they opened the paper there might be an ad announcing the demise of the Jewish State. And Avner often felt guilty in these conversations, because what a luxury it was, taking the existence of anything for granted.
He glanced in his daughter’s direction. I agree, Avner said to Abe, and smiled; Jews should support one another. But again, what . . . projects are we talking about? Abe laughed. See, that’s why I love Israelis, he said— never let you get away with anything. But I truly wasn’t talking about anything in particular, Avner, not yet at least. Generally speaking, I’d love to invite you to some events, some galas. You can sell your pictures, talk to some people. How does that sound? Paintings, Avner said, although he knew that was petty, not the thing to say right now, but he couldn’t help it—I’m not a photographer. Of course, of course, Abe said, as I told you, I’m no big mavin when it comes to this stuff. Avner nodded, tried to smile. One more thing, though, Abe said. If we’re going to do all this, I’d like to make sure the . . . paintings carry that message. It seems to me it’s all a bit . . . open to interpretation, don’t you think? I mean, I look at those gorgeous pictures of Sinai, but all it says is Nuweiba, 1980. What does that mean?
It means it’s a painting of what Nuweiba looked like in 1980, Avner said. Yes, yes, Abe said. But you know what I’m saying, Avner. This was Israeli territory back then, but months later it was given to Egypt. Given back to Egypt, Avner said. For peace, Abe said slowly, looking straight into Avner’s eyes. Because that’s all Israel’s ever wanted.
Maya wasn’t drawing anymore. She was looking up now, looking serious. What was she able to pick up on from the Hebrew and English mix they were speaking? All I’m proposing is that the subtitle be a bit more accurate, Abe said. Something like Neviot in Sinai, Israel, 1980. A gentle reminder of Israel’s many sacrifices.
Avner felt Maya’s eyes on him. She probably didn’t understand what Abe was saying, what he was asking. And even if she did, Avner could explain it later. He’d say something like, This man loved my paintings so much he wanted to be part of them. He should be able to avoid the politics of it altogether, that wasn’t the point.
Abe was still talking. With some of the other pictures, he was saying now, changes might have to go a bit further, but I’m sure we can figure it out. He paused and looked at Avner. Avner knew what he was talking about— some of the older paintings had racier text, for sure, and he’d be lying if he didn’t admit they were inspired by Netta’s politics more than his own. And yet the paintings were what they were, the text part of the work. Could he really . . . change them? This was only a test, that much was clear. This man didn’t care about Avner’s art any more than he cared about Palestinians dying in Gaza. Neither was real to him in the full sense of the word. But if Avner was willing to “edit” his paintings, that would prove he was the kind of man Abe and his friends wanted to . . . bring into the fold.
Avner felt the sweat on his face. Was it visible? He didn’t have it in him to stand up to this man, say no to all that money, the connections, everything that might befall him if he went along. You never knew where things might go if you befriended these types of people, people who sat on boards, who had halls of libraries named after them. Maybe he’d just start this way, as this puppet Abe wants to make of him, but once he met some people who did care about art, he’d explain that these paintings of Israel were a different phase and he was doing new things now. He’d show them his real work. And who knew what could happen then. That’s how people made it in New York. It’s not a problem, Avner said. Abe smiled. All right, then, he said. I’m sure you’ll need some time to do that, so how about we meet again in a couple months and go from there? For a few seconds, the two men looked at each other. So that was that.
Abe got up and shook Avner’s hand. Then he turned to Maya. Your daddy’s a smart man, he said, and Avner felt his muscles tighten. He turned to Avner again. Don’t be . . . shy about your views, Avner, all right? Can you teach your daddy to be less shy? Abe asked Maya. My dad isn’t shy, Maya said. Abe laughed. She’s feisty, the little one, he said, and Israeli, no doubt. Avner tried to chuckle, but what came out of him sounded more like a cough.
They left the building in silence, walked slowly. He needed to call Gillian to give her the update, but he couldn’t. She’d make him feel better, but somehow he wasn’t sure that’s what he wanted.
I didn’t like that man, Maya said. How come? Avner asked; he tried to sound casual but was bracing himself for a difficult conversation. He was fat, Maya said. This caught Avner unprepared, and he chuckled. Maymay, he said, that’s not very nice. But it was too late; she was giggling and blowing air into her cheeks, marking a fat stomach with her arms. I am Abe, she was saying, trying to imitate the walk of a heavy man, I am so fat I can hardly move. She was trying to keep a straight face as Fat Abe, but she kept giggling, and Avner couldn’t help but laugh. He’d never seen this side of her. Was his daughter playful? Was Netta’s daughter playful? Now Avner was walking funny, too. I am Fat Abe, he said. I am always late because I walk so slow.
Surely he’d heard her laugh that way before? There was something so pure in that sound, water trickling down a pond. A little while later, he felt a tickle in his left palm. It took him a few seconds to realize it was Maya’s hand trying to make its way into his. He opened his palm, took his daughter’s hand. Soon, they’d arrive.
From New York 1, Tel Aviv 0. Forthcoming 2014 from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. By permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.