I had been in New York for a month when it started. I came from Israel—a finite place, its meaning already set. It’s done. Israel is like a piece of luggage too heavy to open and investigate. You just lug it onto the conveyor belt and good riddance. Even Tel Aviv, a big city, is so small in every possible way. Everyone doing and thinking exactly the same thing. On the day after Leonard Cohen’s concert in Tel Aviv everybody’s Facebook status read something along the lines of “Sincerely, L. Cohen.” If you quoted last night’s TV show they all knew what you were talking about. I couldn’t find that here. Nothing was clear to me.
New York City was a blank. It could have been anything. I would wake up and looked out my window, and it was too clean, too new. All of last night’s mistakes washed away, nothing dotting the sidewalk but autumn leaves and the occasional cigarette butt.
I couldn’t accept this. It was too easy. Nothing sticks, nothing lasts. No permanent record, no memory of indiscretions. If the city offered me a clean slate, then by god, I’d just have to dirty it myself. For every impression I left on Tel Aviv I’d have to make one for New York. Whatever anybody did in Tel Aviv made a mark, and I always tried my best to be good, spotless. Now I was making a conscious effort to the contrary. I began going on excursions, trying to make mistakes that would last.
I thought something heroic would do the trick. I roamed Central Park, that lush green expanse almost dripping with moisture. I walked for hours, looking for a wounded squirrel to rescue. The squirrels seemed so dignified to me, so much more beautiful than the stray cats of my old city. They were woodland creatures gracing our urban existence.
It was that enchanting moment between summer and fall, the treetops still fresh while people’s steps were already making a crunching sound. There were no wounded squirrels to be found. I watched them jump effortlessly from branch to branch above my head. Not one was faltering or slipping or breaking a tooth on a hard nut. I finally compromised on one that was perfectly intact, but seemed rather thin. I offered him my chocolate chip cookie, but he grabbed it and left so quickly that no one could see my act of generosity. That wouldn’t do.
Central Park wasn’t working for me. All the people there were busy with cathartic activities such as running and skating and playing with their children. They had no need for my heroism; they were already the heroes of their own lives.
I moved on, heading southwest. The buildings of the Meatpacking District reminded me of big old train sheds—too gigantic to wrap my mind around. Brutal. Aggressive. The whole neighborhood made me think of loud noises and hasty goodbyes. On my way down I gave quarters to every homeless person I saw on the street and in the subway station, and nobody gave a damn. I thought of the trendy portside neighborhood of Tel Aviv, of how one time I didn’t have enough change to properly tip my waiter and could never walk by that restaurant again without him giving me a dirty look through the glass doors. Maybe something mean or spiteful would work better, I thought.
Reassured by this spark of originality, I walked into the Alexander McQueen store. It was beautiful like a palace, shiny and untouched. I took a wraparound blouse into the dressing room and stuffed it under my sweater. I left the dressing room looking a little fuller, feeling pools of sweat forming under my arms. I had never stolen anything before, and was sure that it was written all over my face.
I slipped quietly out of the store. The anti-theft device beeped hysterically and a stir developed inside. I ran like hell and disappeared into the muggy subway station, panting. I was all flushed and very pleased. No doubt they would never let me back in there again. A small burst of laughter escaped me.
I went to sleep happy, but the next day I walked back into the store and nobody so much as glanced at me. I walked around for a long time, opening and closing my bag, touching every item on the racks. I’d made a point of wearing the same sweater as the day before—a simple and tattered old thing that suggested I couldn’t afford to shop there in the first place. I was the elephant in the room, and nobody wanted to talk about me.
I left the store and walked home. “Fuck you, lady!” I yelled at a woman who softly bumped into me. She didn’t turn around. It was as if someone had hit the mute button on everything I said or did. The mission I had, in my mind, dubbed Getting an Impression and Making an Impression was failing miserably. No one was impressed.
At school everything was fine. People chatted with me and made nice, but when I saw them again and asked to exchange phone numbers they couldn’t remember my name. Job interviewers forgot to call me back. Nobody ever carded me when I went out drinking and no one stopped me when I entered the subway platform through the emergency exit, without swiping my card.
Everyone just kept staring straight ahead.
I was getting wilder. The purpose of my actions was still clear to me, but I became so used to failure that sometimes I didn’t even stick around to make sure I’d actually failed.
A month later I was shoplifting all of my groceries and regularly leaving bars without paying. All the money I saved I offered to people on the street—not only to the homeless, but to passersby. The homeless took my money without looking at me and the passersby evaded my touch. I grew impatient and would harass the people who ignored me, shouting at them and getting in their faces, but they wouldn’t so much as push me away.
I let go of all the inhibitions that held me back in Tel Aviv. That sense of people always watching, keeping records of my appearance and behavior, was gone. So was the knowledge that I could run into someone familiar at any moment, someone who carried a mental file on me, fully detailed and complete with embarrassment and humiliation.
Now that I was desperately working on making someone notice, I made my appearance stand out as well. I gave up the natural tones of my clothing and clear unmade-up skin for heavy eye shadow, crazy frizz and a mottled mixture of colors and patterns. When this wasn’t unusual enough, I added hair colors like fuchsia and baby blue, massive hoop-earrings and mismatched socks. At first, it felt like a costume, but I gradually grew accustomed to it, and allowed myself to indulge in fashion fantasies: bold combinations and daring ensembles.
I slept around with strangers among the quiet and inviting miniature buildings of Williamsburg. In that magical and optimistic neighborhood, I felt like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road. People thought I was an artist and were curious about me. I mingled, scattering the right kinds of lies: that I liked girls as well as boys; that I was a firm believer in love at first sight. I spoke to their hungry souls.
I took them all to bed. Some of them even cried out their promises of love, reaching out with their unending devotion. But the next time I saw them at the cafe they didn’t even glance in my direction, let alone exhibit any of the symptoms of a broken heart.
I’d never let myself have one-night stands in Israel, knowing full well that they would come back to bite me on the ass. People would remember, tell their friends, make it into a joke, or an insult, or a sob story. The thought of meeting a one-nighter on the street—the sun exposing them in full, the clothes clinging perversely to their skin… it was horrifying. It took all my courage to do it here, to willingly walk into the trap. When I finally did, my electrifying presence seemed to leave no impression at all.
Could it be me who was unmemorable, not the city un-remembering? I could give it all up, play the invisible game. Why push it? I thought. Did I really want something to stick?
Yes, I did. This needed to be real.
Tired and depressed, I walked into a bar on 13th Street. It was karaoke night and people were pretty drunk. On stage was a skinny guy, about my age, with short brown hair and dark eyes. He wore jeans and a t-shirt, and was singing Loving You. He was remarkably unremarkable. As he sang his voice grew louder and higher, reaching a broken glass kind of pitch. It was obvious he was doing it on purpose. His face turned red and his knuckles were white around the mic. When he reached the high note of the “La la la la la” part, he threw his beer glass crashing to the floor. The guy operating the karaoke machine brushed the flecks of glass off his pants without looking up from his song list. The singer went even louder and his face looked ready to explode. When the song was over and nobody clapped he shouted into the mic, “Go to hell, motherfuckers!!!”
The happy chatter of the drinkers went unbroken. I looked around at them, content in their oblivion. “Yeah!” I yelled out and clapped my hands maniacally. “You rock!”
The singer lifted his slumped head and looked at me, incredulous. “Thank you,” he said quietly into the mic. A hint of a smile appeared in the corner of his mouth. “Thank you.”
We walked out of the bar without paying for our drinks. We had a tacit understanding that we were the same. His name was Tomas, and he’d moved to the city from Zurich a couple of months ago. He was conducting experiments similar to mine, and getting the same unlucky results I’d had.
“I started out with simple things like yelling profanities at strangers, and feeding police horses,” he told me.
“Oh my God, I tried to feed a squirrel! What about actual crimes?”
“Well,” Tomas said, “for a while I was drinking alcohol on the street. I also started a few fires. I did it real slow, you know. I didn’t run away. Cool outfit”
We were sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the wall of a building. Our legs were sprawled out in front of us, in the way of passersby. They skipped over our legs. He offered me a cigarette and called me by my name.
“Here’s a crazy thought,” Tomas said after we had finished sharing the specifics of our studies. “Maybe together we could generate a stronger effect.”
I agreed to it before he finished the sentence. How good it felt to be a part of something! “Yes, but it should be something extreme. To tell you the truth, I’m getting sort of tired of all this,” I said. “So, yeah, something wild. Like a drug deal or something.”
“Yes!” Tomas’s eyes sparkled. “A drug deal! But we need to have both of us equally involved, otherwise only one of us gets in trouble.”
“Oh, oh, how about if one of us is the user and the other is the dealer? That way we’re both in deep shit!” I couldn’t contain my excitement.
It was agreed. We walked down to the eastern end of Alphabet City, ready to perform.
At around midnight we reached Avenue D. We had to get something that we could later sell to each other. I decided we should go for heroin, since it’s the meanest sounding drug, and it had always fascinated me. Besides, I got the feeling that it was now or never, so why not go for broke?
We paced the streets, looking around and trying to tell who was a dealer and who just enjoyed skulking in corners. Tomas didn’t have my flamboyant appearance, and we made quite the odd couple to anyone looking at us. Of course – nobody looked.
I finally decided that I was fed up with acting all coy and went up to a guy in a hoodie and a black jacket who was smoking a joint behind the East Drive Pharmacy. “Are you selling?” I asked him quietly. The guy just ignored me and took another puff off his spliff. “Hey,” I said, a little louder. “ARE YOU SELLING?”
He made an effort to look away, and I could feel Tomas tugging on my arm, trying to pull me away from there. But I had had enough. I was sure that he was, in fact, a drug dealer, and at any rate I wasn’t going anywhere until I got a response. “Drugs! We want to buy drugs!!” I shouted at him. With one quick motion I snatched the joint from his hand.
I think he was about to say something when red flashes of light illuminated his face. “Stop right there,” I heard a thick voice say through a megaphone behind me. “Put your hands where I can see them!” the voice ordered.
The drug dealer guy raised his hands immediately, while mine remained in their pockets.
“You, with the hair, put your hands up!” the voice cried again.
“Me?” I asked quietly, turning around towards the stunned faces of the police officers. “Okay,” I said. I raised my hands, the right one still holding the joint, while a small smile inched its way across my lips.
The cell at the police station wasn’t bad. The bench was cold, but it was a fairly clean room. On the wall were hasty engravings made by people who’d sat here before me. Some of them were really old. “JAY MURDER AND Q-BALL, 1978,” read one of them. I guessed that this wall never got painted.
They arrested me for smoking a joint on the street. This was so good. It was so much easier than I thought it would be. The only problem was, Tomas wasn’t a part of it, and so this victory was entirely mine.
I put my head in my hands. I should have found a way to take him down with me. My mission was complete—they’d let me go but my name would remain in their records. He was still working at it.
I didn’t have his address or phone number. I didn’t even have his last name. How would I ever be able to repay him?
Suddenly I knew what I had to do. I pulled a nail out of the cell wall and started scratching it across the plaster. The sound the nail made gave me shivers and my fingers went white from pressing against the wall. I tried to work quietly, although I doubted the officers really minded it. When I was finally finished, I stepped back to admire my work:
TOMAS WAS HERE
I was done. I sat down on the bench and rested my head against the wall, dozing off.
Yardenne Greenspan has an MFA in Fiction and Translation from Columbia University.In 2011 she received the American Literary Translators’ Association Fellowship, and in2014 she was a resident writer and translator at Ledig House’s Writers Omi program. Her translation of Some Day, by Shemi Zarhin (New Vessel Press), was chosen for WorldLiterature Today’s 2013 list of notable translations. Her full-length translations also include Tel Aviv Noir, Edited by Etgar Keret and Assaf Gavron (Akashic Books), Alexandrian Summer by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren (New Vessel Press), and The Secret Book of Kings by Yochi Brandes (forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press). Yardenne is Asymptote Journals’ editor-at- large of Israeli literature, and a blogger at Ploughshares. Her writing and translations can be found in The New Yorker, Haaretz, Guernica, Asymptote, The Massachusetts Review, and Words Without Borders, among other publications.