Handle With Care
About the Author
We always fuck on the floor, on an inflatable mattress, because we both live with our parents. At exactly six p.m., he takes the balloons and the sandwich board (“Compramos Oro!”) back inside from the street. He removes the thousands of dollars of gold and silver, bracelets and chains and pendants and rings, from the front window display. He draws the heavy red curtains and locks the door of his shop. He drags the deflated air mattress out from the back room and begins to blow it up.
The effort leaves him out of breath. Panting, he doubles over, rests for a minute, repeats. Puffing, hacking, wheezing, silence. I watch the voyage of a bead of sweat across his face, from receding hairline, to the deep canyon of a wrinkle between his eyebrows. It hangs for a second at the tip of his nose before dropping into a nest of chest hair. He’s turning thirty in a month, but he looks much older. He always wears an undershirt and a belt.
“Well,” he says, hands on his knees and gasping, “What are you waiting for? Take off your clothes already.”
I like him because he reminds me of my father. They have the same hands that smell like paper – books and money. My father is a lawyer and he is a jeweler. Their hands are manly, thick black hair sprouting from the knuckles. Raised blue veins that stretch from fingers to wrists. Their hands caress my hair and untangle curls. Their hands find themselves around my neck and are very sorry afterwards.
“Behind the curtain,” says his employee, pointing the way with her chin. Her name is Silvia and she has two gold front teeth. I make my way to the back room. In the corner, facing Jerusalem, he is praying. One hand holds Tehilim. His other hand is on his face, thumb to lips. The Tfilin is wrapped too tightly on his forearm, the black ribbon cutting into his flesh.
He opens his eyes slowly, but he is facing the wall and doesn’t see me at first.
When he turns around, he is startled and drops the Tehilim. “Kuss rabak,” he says. “You scared the shit out of me.” We bend down to pick up the Tehilim at the same time and his forehead collides with my teeth. “I’m sorry,” he says as blood fills my mouth. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He says it was an accident and I say I know. He kisses the Tehilim as an apology for dropping it.
I stand outside, pressing a paper towel to my lip, watching the street. Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, and there is a lot to watch. There are the tragic spillovers from Skid Row a few blocks away – amputees in wheelchairs crowned by Vietnam War Veteran hats, addicts curled up in the fetal position. My boyfriend has to shoo them away from the entrance of his shop when he opens in the morning.
Remnants from more glamorous days abound: gargoyles perched on rooftops, Art Deco green tile accents. All the grand old movie palaces are here, with their names in cursive: The Regent, The Mayan, The Million Dollar. Instead of the latest releases, their signs bear Bible verses in big black letters. Inside, fire-and-brimstone preachers give Spanish language sermons about the impending Apocalypse.
Sometimes groups of teen girls in long skirts and rimless eyeglasses stand in front of the churches, handing out pamphlets with cartoons depicting the end of days, encouraging us to attend services so we can be saved. My father and boyfriend brush the pamphlets away, but I always take them because I enjoy the illustrations.
“Lena!” yells my boyfriend from inside.
“What?” I yell back. I am facing Debbie Bridal across the street, looking at a wedding dress that could double as a six-tiered wedding cake.
“Just come here already!”
From behind the curtain his hand emerges and puts a twenty in Silvia’s palm. She walks over and passes it to me. “You’re hungry” - it’s not a question -“me too. Can you go get us food?” I nod. “Get whatever you’re in the mood for,” he says.
I order two burritos – beef and beans and lettuce only, no pork, no cheese, no sour cream. Nowhere close to Kosher but it eases the guilt. The woman at the register takes the money from my hand and looks at my busted lip. She probably thinks I’m a battered woman, and I fight the urge to tell her This isn’t what it looks like, but in a way, it is.
It happened two weeks ago. We were parked on a quiet street in Culver City somewhere, sitting in his BMW.
“I feel ripped off,” he said. His forehead rested on the top of the steering wheel. “That you weren’t a virgin when we met. I know it sounds bad, but honestly…” he looked up at me, his eyes dark and distant. “I guess I was expecting better from you.”
He stared out the driver’s side window and I stared straight ahead at the palm trees gently swaying in the night breeze. Electrical wires buzzed overhead and the rhythm of the cars on the freeway overpass a block away almost sounded like the ocean.
I can’t remember what I said exactly, but it wasn’t anything impressive. Real life has a way of knocking the textbook theories out of you. I didn’t give him a fiery speech about how having or not having an intact hymen had nothing to do my worth.
Instead, I mumbled something like: I didn’t mislead you, and if you’re so upset about me not being a virgin, then we should probably break up.
It happened fast. He squeezed my neck between his palms. I lost my breath and the end of my sentence.
“Don’t,” he said. “Don’t ever talk about us breaking up.” He tightened his grip and I felt my heart beating in my throat, pulsating and ringing in my ears. His lips kept moving but I couldn’t hear. I put my hands around his wrists but it was no use. He squeezed my neck twice, hard, then stopped.
Tears spilled down my cheeks but I didn’t make a sound.
“I’m sorry,” he said. His eyelashes were so long that they nearly touched his eyebrows when he blinked. “It’s not going to happen again.”
I crossed my arms and tried to look offended. But we both knew the truth: I was damaged goods.
“It’s Friday and it’s almost night,” he slurs, and looks at my boyfriend meaningfully. “Ain’t y’all supposed to be closed?” The man reeks of liquor and his eyes are bloodshot, his crimson nose bearing the telltale burst capillaries, but he’s right. He drums his dirty fingernails against the counter.
I’m impressed by his knowledge of Jewish law but my boyfriend is less appreciative.
They stare at each other for what feels like forever.
“So,” the man starts again. “Why you doin’ business on Friday night? Ain’t that a sin for y’all?”
“I’m Armenian,” my boyfriend lies.
The answer satisfies the man and he leaves.
At first, I barely feel it. I figure it’s the rumble of some car’s stereo system turned up too high, or the bass rumbling from one of the clubs a few blocks away. “Earthquake!” my boyfriend yells.
Me, him, and Silvia duck into the back room and lie on our bellies under the small folding table. We hear a symphony of car alarms and dogs barking and then, after a few seconds, the shaking stops. We survive and go back into the main part of the shop.
Silvia announces that she wants to go home.
“Have a good weekend,” my boyfriend says.
We start to inspect the damage. This was a mild one, definitely under a 6.0.
Our cellphones chirp with messages from our parents, checking if we are still alive. I don’t answer but he does, leaning against the crooked counter and taking his time to carefully reply.
The damage isn’t that bad, except for one thing. The most prominent display case has fallen to the floor.
The cabinet’s glass door is completely shattered. Gold and silver chains are braided into each other, crowned by big chunks of glass. Tiny shards of glass glitter under the florescent light, shining from the Jesuses and Virgin Marys.
I take a garbage bag from under the counter and put a few of the bigger pieces of glass inside.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” he says, bent at the waist, bracelets in his clenched fist. He looks at me sideways. “You can go home if you want.”
I think about it. I could go home and listen to my father say Kiddush. It doesn’t feel like much of a choice, but in the end, I make my decision.
I stay and start to pick up the pieces.
Lauren S. Marcus is a Tel Aviv-based writer. Her work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post and The Forward, among other publications.