He left the hotel at 2:50 p.m., got exact change at the liquor store across Collins Avenue, and arrived at the bus stop just in time for the 3 p.m. bus to Aventura. There were a few people on line, a crooked one, and he positioned himself, politely, at the end of it. As was always the case when he traveled, he assumed a visitor’s demeanor, deferential to and respectful of the locals. Here, in Miami Beach, he found himself surrounded by Cubans, and was more deferential than usual, as if to let them know that even though he was white, in his Jewish heart he was a minority sympathizer.
His Jewish heart. Only a few moments before, he had been lying on his bed, fully clothed, trying to decide what to do and where to go. As he felt himself half drifting to sleep, the thought came to him that, were he to die here, in his hotel room, the only thing he would regret would be having disappointed his mother. It was a calm thought, curiously painless, neutral even, which allowed another thought to follow – Aventura! He jumped out of bed, grabbed his jacket, and was out the door.
Now, oddly stimulated, and pleased that he had managed a decision and its execution in a short ten minutes, he tapped the shoulder of the man next to him, before allowing himself time to reconsider. The man turned, surprising Bruno with a broad, open-mouthed smile. Bruno hesitated; the man, still young, was toothless, which gave him a somewhat roguish look. Why did I do that? the question flashed in his mind, but he couldn’t back out, he had to address the man. “The bus to Aventura?” he inquired, and the man, still smiling, said, “Oh, any minute now.”
Poor, and probably Cuban, Bruno guessed. “How long is the ride?” he asked further to mask his discomfort, which, he sensed, the man had noticed. “It’s a long ride, maybe an hour,” the man said, pointing to the road, to where the bus would be coming from.
Bruno nodded, suppressing an urge to rub his palms together as a show of friendliness and goodwill toward the man. It was absurd, but all at once he wished for contact, for some confirmation that he existed, that he could still communicate with a fellow human being. He wanted to say more, but found no words to safely express his emotions. The moment passed, and he fished in his jacket pocket for his sunglasses, to protect against the bright, but cold December Floridian sun. The bus arrived, and people – mostly elderly women laden with plastic bags – rose from the bench, and he let them push ahead of him.
The longer the ride, the better, he thought as he sat himself near a window in the front of the bus. He was some kind of tourist and had to do something with his time. The day had been too chilly for swimming, and the early-morning walk on the boardwalk, which usually absorbed his thoughts and even got him to hum a favorite childhood song, had given him little pleasure. He didn’t see the one-legged woman he saw every morning, but the Hasid ladies were there, as usual, some young, some old, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups of two or three; quite a few pushed strollers with the fierce, preoccupied determination of new mothers. Some even carried small weights in their hands, which surprised him: he hadn’t known Hasids to be fitness-conscious. More so than the Hasids he occasionally saw on the streets of Manhattan, these Miami Beach Hasids, especially the women, looked as though they had been airlifted from a Polish, or Russian, turn-of-the-century shtetl. Their loud and rapid Yiddish annoyed him, sounding particularly foreign in his ears.
Today’s Ostjuden, Bruno reflected. He liked Yiddish, it brought back memories, he liked the idea that Yiddish was kept alive; still, he thought it rude and alienating that they chose to speak Yiddish rather than English, at least in public. He tried not to stare at them, at their long, shapeless skirts, their long-sleeved shirts, their thick, dark stockings, their colorful, yet painfully tight, headscarves. Some of the women had no head covering, and those, he knew, were presumably virgins, namely unmarried, and therefore not required to cover their hair.
It was a pity, he thought with a mixture of anger and contempt. A pity that they covered themselves from head to toe. Many of them would be quite attractive if they put their minds to it. In their strange outfits, they seemed out of place among the semi-nude joggers, and yet, the occasional and sudden appearance of these exotic turbans and headscarves did make him think of tropical flowers, very much in tune with the dark-green bushes and the old and massive palm trees. When he first arrived here, a little over a week ago, he looked at them askance, but as the days passed, he found himself offering an open face, hoping to exchange a friendly smile, which he managed once, with a young mother, who had bent over the stroller, cooing to her infant, and, as he approached, she looked up, giving him a quick, hesitant smile, similar to the one he had given her.
Interesting that he had to come all the way to Florida to see Hasids on a daily basis, and to realize that the general fitness mania had reached them, too. Even the men, not famous for physical activity, took advantage of the boardwalk and, earlier this morning, Bruno had watched one of them with particular affinity, an old, stooped man, possibly a Holocaust survivor, supporting himself with a cane. Large, black earphones covered his ears, and Bruno wondered what kind of music the man was listening to, and then decided it was probably a rabbi’s sermon, decoding the Torah or the Talmud.
When the old man left the boardwalk through one of the side exits, Bruno leaned against the railing and looked at the ocean. He, too, was a Jew, but a different kind, an indeterminate, conflicted one, and he looked upon his orthodox brethren with distant and pitying eyes. He couldn’t fathom their belief, and how they stuck to it in face of all the ridicule and difficulties. And yet, a part of him couldn’t help but admire, perhaps envy, their faith and their seeming equanimity. Was he so much better off than they? They followed the edicts of their faith, he followed nothing, or, if he followed anything, he followed the ghosts of reason, namely, doubts. Personal freedom was sacred to him and his colleagues and friends, but freedom from what?
Idly, he watched the few wet-suited surfers, black and sleek in the waist-deep water, trying to catch a wave in the calm, Caribbean-green ocean. The horizon was clear, except for the three military-looking ships Bruno noticed nearly every morning, concluding they must be Coast-Guard ships on the lookout for smugglers and illegal immigrants. It was a well-known secret that Miami Beach prospered thanks to money laundering and drug trafficking, so said Thomas, the guide on the Everglades tour Bruno had taken the day before. “You wouldn’t believe the assortment of characters in this area,” Thomas had said. Thomas himself was a character, and Bruno took a liking to him, in spite of Thomas’s beer belly and his thinning, dirty-blond hair. “I’m a transplant many times over,” he told Bruno. Born in Brazil to American parents, he was raised in Germany, and, after a twenty-year-long stint as a sailor, ended up in N. Hollywood where he had come to reclaim his American roots.
As he contemplated the ocean, Bruno’s stomach made a sound, and he consulted his watch – it was time to eat. He wondered if Mary would still be in the hotel, or if she had left for the airport. She never joined him on his morning walk, preferring instead to linger in bed and have breakfast with him when he returned. Not this morning, though. This morning she would be boarding a plane, going back to New York. He watched the surfers a while longer, then turned back toward the hotel. The Everglades tour had been a disaster, but he did get a kick out of Thomas, who had raged against Bush and Big Business throughout the trip, while also regaling them with the usual jokes and anecdotes, and, not least, enlightening them about the origin of names – which Bruno found most useful – as, for instance, Carib, a variation of cannibal and referring to a man-eating tribe that inhabited the Southwest Indies and the north coast of South America.
So, here he was, the tourist again, heading north on a bus to Aventura. A tiny, nearly invisible bug kept flying near his nose, and he kept waving his hand in the air to shoo it away, at first calmly, and then with mounting irritation. He looked different from the others on the bus – he was white, and no longer considered “young” – and he worried that those around him observed with amusement as he fought the tiny – perhaps imaginary – bug. Finally, the bug left him, and he was free to study the pimply faces of the youngsters next to him, boys and girls on their way home from school. He looked at them with a mild curiosity, then looked out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean, hidden behind the tall hotels and condos. Side by side, these stone structures rose into the sky in jarring, sharp angles, and seemed angry somehow. Relentless verticality – the phrase repeated in Bruno’s head. He had come across it recently – in a book? a magazine? – but couldn’t remember the context.
A woman sitting across from him stared at him shamelessly. He tried to ignore her, pretending he was unaware of her staring, but, every so often, his curiosity to see if she was still watching him, made him shift in his seat, or scratch his head, while he sneaked a glance in her direction. She had short brown hair and bulging brown eyes, and her bottom lip protruded in a permanent, child-like pout. Like him, she was white, no longer young, although younger than him, and maybe that’s why she watched him. Possibly Jewish, possibly a tourist as well; a large bag sat on her lap. Her expression, he thought, was bitter and tense. For all he knew, his expression was bitter and tense, too. It was a war of attrition, age and the stress of years did this to your face, your eyes lost their youthful, open gaze, they seemed tired even when you were not tired, they reflected disillusionment even if you didn’t feel disillusioned. The faces of the schoolkids seemed fresh and smile-ready. Their voices rang out melodiously, and their sentences usually began with pero, with a few claro’s thrown in; he knew some Spanish, and liked the sound of pero and claro, especially against the dusty, pale blue sky.
Why does the Yiddish bother me, and the Spanish doesn’t? He didn’t need to mull this over. The overt Jewishness of others embarrassed him, as if all Jews were implicated, collectively guilty and ashamed of something they tried to hide. The killing of Christ? The Jewish community – he had read in The New York Times – was buzzing with outrage over Mel Gibson’s new movie. Leave it alone, he wanted to shout, it’s only a movie, don’t play into his hands. Every time he heard right-wingers refer to the “Hollywood and New York Times elite” he heard “Jew” and shrank a little. In this cowering attitude, perhaps he, the emancipated, freethinking liberal, was the classic Jew, more so than the Hasids, more so than the Jews who did open their mouths. The Jews who protested the plans to build a convent in Auschwitz. The Jews who monitored the media for anti-Semitic/anti-Israel bias. Mary, his wonderful Mary, a gentile, liked this about him, appreciated it that he wasn’t a “Jew.” But, did she know that in his heart of hearts he thought of her, at times with tenderness, at times with bitterness, as his shiksa? It was ironic, he once told Mary, that Jesus’s famous injunction to “turn the other cheek,” had come, over the centuries, to epitomize the Jew’s de-facto status, persecuted in the name of the two giant siblings Judaism had spawned. “Call the Pope,” Mary said, and they laughed.
They crossed a long and gray cement bridge, and, for the whole stretch of the bridge, he could see the water without obstruction. A few white sailboats littered the horizon. On the floor of the bus, an empty plastic bottle rolled and stopped under his feet, and he kicked it, trying not to think of the shiksa, now landing in JFK. He was on his way to Aventura, not because he had heard it was an exciting place to visit, but because it was easy to reach and got him out of the hotel with a plan in his head and a resolute step. He and Mary had come this way a few days before when they drove to Ft. Lauderdale to explore the area. When they arrived in Miami Beach, they had rented a car, and then gave it up – the drivers here, Mary had complained, were reckless; she and Bruno were better off, and safer, paying for a cab to get around, or taking advantage of the cheap and convenient public transportation. This way, she said, we can see what the locals are like. He had to agree, not least because Mary was in charge of the driving. He still kept his license in his wallet, but had lost the habit, having sworn off driving years ago after a crash that nearly killed him. They had come here with the idea of looking into buying or renting a two-bedroom condo, for periodic escapes from New York, but Mary quickly changed her mind once it became apparent they’d be limited without a car. This was the true face of America, Mary had sneered. Cars, drivers, anonymity. We’re all on speed, no wonder we’re so irritable. I don’t think I could live here. At least in New York I can jaywalk.
True, he said, but still felt he could live here during semester breaks, with or without Mary. He thought he would treasure the isolation, he would establish a routine, find a favorite café for breakfast, preferably facing the sun, a place for lunch and dinner, and a bar where he would sip his after-dinner liquor and engage in small talk with a stranger. That was all he needed, take care of the small, essential details of his daily existence, and so establish a routine which would ground him in his new, temporary home. The boardwalk, he felt sure, would rescue him every morning and set his mind straight.
He wanted to resent Mary for shrouding his fantasy in negativity – she had been negative and snippy almost from the start – but now that she had left, it all looked even more unreal to him. People on the street seemed more disconnected from one another than they seemed to be in New York, or, he reasoned, the disconnectedness in New York was more familiar to him. With time, he thought, he would adjust; wasn’t man, after all, the most adaptable animal of all?
At this moment, the more pressing issue was the issue of love. If Mary left him for good, which now seemed likely, would he ever again meet someone who would love him? Was he still loveable? He was good-looking, if in an old-fashioned, intellectual sort of way, in a Marcello Mastroiani sort of way, or so he had been told. At Mary’s insistence, he joined a gym where he worked out with a trainer twice a week, and did thirty laps three times a week, but his stubborn, middle-age belly still protruded a little. He also was aware that his spirit, his soul, had gone soft, too resigned and forbearing, and too many mornings, upon waking, he felt he had to rekindle the flame that kept him going, like one putting a match to a stove’s pilot light. And yet, at times, when he caught himself running after a bus, or, when late for class, zigzagging in the crowded, Midtown streets of New York, he did marvel, with a touch of humor, at his own stamina and vitality, at the fact that here he was, a man of fifty-five, a quite respectable professor of Romance Languages, still in the race and animated like any twenty-year-old. And although he envied men his age, and older, who, without compunction, dated young girls who could be their daughters, even granddaughters, he himself did not go for young girls, they didn’t interest him, he couldn’t help but look at them with bemused, perhaps condescending/forgiving, eyes.
But, the women he did date, women in their late 40’s, tended to be cranky and cynical. Mary, for example, and others he had sampled once he and Ellen divorced after a fifteen-year-long marriage. Women, it seemed, hardened with age, something in them shut down and made them mistrustful. But men, too, hardened – he felt it in himself, as he became less open, less tolerant, and more impatient and irritable. It was possible that Ellen had been the best, and he let her slip from between his fingers. Ellen, remarried for the third time and “blissfully happy,” she made sure to tell him every time they spoke on the telephone. But the fact that she always repeated the same “blissfully happy” made him uneasy, and he began to doubt it, even as he wished her all the best. She had moved to Florida with her new husband, a rotund, corporate lawyer, and lived in Tallahassee, and maybe that’s why she was in his mind again, ever since he and Mary had landed in Miami.
It was the last stop. Aventura Mall, the driver announced, and Bruno dismounted, a bit uncertain, now that he had reached his destination. The woman with the large bag inquired something of the impatient driver, and then hurried toward another bus, taking her farther north, Bruno supposed. He stood on the sidewalk for a moment, trying to see beyond the tall buildings and find the way to the beach. Aventura, he soon realized, was all cement, massive and gray, with residential towers and huge parking lots, and roads and overpasses going every which bewildering way. There were no people on the street, and he felt as though he had entered a de Chirico painting. Here, as in Miami Beach, the drivers were brutes and wouldn’t stop to let him pass. He tried to make reproachful eye contact with them, but they ignored him, or, more likely, didn’t even notice him.
So he cursed them under his breath, wishing them a swift crash, then took it back as too severe a punishment. He tried to keep his spirits up, but felt himself retreating deeper and deeper into himself, and, as if the child again, walking hand in hand with his mom, he found himself deciphering and murmuring the letters of street signs and license plates. He crossed streets and walked from one parking lot to another, getting nowhere. A FedEx van was pulling from the curb, and Bruno waved his arms and ran over to the driver’s window to ask the way to the ocean.
The man, youngish, with red hair and red eyelashes, observed him through pale rheumy eyes. He took his time answering this very simple question, and Bruno wondered if he seemed wild, perhaps demented. It was windy – he could feel each individual hair at the top of his head pulling at the roots.
“Are you driving?” the man finally asked.
“You can’t walk there, it’s too far.”
“You can’t walk there, you need to take the highway, and you can’t walk on the highway.”
So much for Aventura, Bruno thought. He turned and walked back to the mall. The sight of an old woman behind the wheel of her car cheered him somewhat. She was a tough-looking blonde, with a cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth, and he thought, All power to you, lady. He pulled the heavy entrance door to the mall and walked inside. The ground floor, it seemed, was devoted to food, and people, young and old, sat at tables and ate from plastic plates. They seemed haphazard to him, and the place hummed with the noise of shoddy living. He didn’t like his thoughts, he didn’t consider himself a snob, and yet, at times, as if against his will, he felt superior those around him. If Mary were next to him, strolling through this vast pastiche of fast and cheap, she would find just the right – and cutting – word to describe the place and her reaction to it. And he, as if compelled, would play devil’s advocate, and she would complain that he always contradicted her, he would deny it, and they would fight, or not say another word for a few hours.
Why did he contradict her? Because, if he wanted to be absolutely honest with himself, he would have to admit that he didn’t like her, he craved her company, but he didn’t like her, he didn’t like himself when with her. She was sharp and intelligent and mesmerizing – at least in his skewed perception – but he was tense around her. Maybe he had come here to clean his heart, maybe it was God’s doing, maybe it was good that she’d packed her things and left, he could use the quiet and the respite.
Or maybe not. Maybe he had already begun to miss her. Could one ever be a hundred percent sure of one’s feelings? She was mean to him, yes, but he missed her – was he a masochist? Men often were, he mused, when succumbing, resignedly, to women and their judging ways, if only to keep the peace. Most women, he thought, were mini-tyrants, and more than once, during their seven months together, he had concluded, once and for all, that Mary had an ugly streak she couldn’t control, nasty and manipulative. She was the type who forgave herself, but not others, she had no self-doubt, and he, like a boy, had to rebel, he couldn’t resist it, especially when she declared herself generous with “service people,” a term he winced at, almost involuntarily, every time he heard it come out of her mouth.
But, she was also a charmer, and even as he had these thoughts about her, that she was manipulative and unforgiving, downright abusive at times, he also knew that she meant every word she said at the moment she said it, and if she meant what she said, where was the manipulation, or the intent to manipulate? And when she laced her arm through his, or put her hand in his and squeezed it, saying: “Let’s have some fun,” his heart opened and he was willing to take her in and love her, wholly and fully committed. Yes, she was shrewd and seductive, and, in all probability, did manipulate his feelings, good or bad; he had let himself be like putty in her hands. She had a dark spot on her lower lip, and he always found himself watching it while she spoke, remembering Miss Lukasic, his first grade teacher with whom he had been madly in love. During class, he would fixate on her lower lip where, he knew, a drop of spittle would soon appear. Then he would watch it grow and become thick and white, like a pearl, and then wait for her to lick it off, at which time a new one would begin to form.
He took the escalator up one flight and walked through one department store after another. They all looked alike and offered the same merchandise – aisles upon aisles of shirts and pants, and more shirts, and more skirts, all crowding together on racks and hangers. Who would ever buy all these schmatas? he wondered. Was there a graveyard for schmatas nobody wanted? Rose, his mother, had told him that she now thought twice before buying a shirt, or a kitchen utensil, asking herself if she really needed it, or could do without. Last time he’d visited her, she showed him her closets. “See?” she said, her voice quavering with strange pride. “I cleared them of extraneous things, just in case I die tomorrow, or am struck with Altzheimer’s, like Molly.” Molly, her sister. “I don’t want you and Alexie to be burdened with going through the stale debris of a lifetime.”
“But what about memories? Things you’re attached to?” he’d asked, and Rose smiled. Living with his father, she said, she had learned that getting attached to possessions was a bad habit. “But you’re not father,” he had said, and Rose said, “Yes, I am, and you are, too.”
Of course, he knew as much, and when he said, You’re not father, it was his mouth speaking, not his heart. His mouth, and his desire to comfort her, to take her mind off death and Altzheimer’s, but she was too clever, a cold realist thinking ahead.
One more floor and then I’m out of here, he decided and took the escalator, climbing the steps as they bore him upward. Here, it was all accessories, sunglasses and umbrellas, hats and shiny gold jewelry. He touched a leather belt, thinking maybe he should buy it, but was unable to muster the necessary focus to engage in commerce. In spite of his aimlessness, he was satisfied to note that he didn’t feel dejected or sad. He was where he was because he had come here, and with no great expectations. In a way, the vacuity of the mall fused nicely with the vacuity of his mind. Normally, he would never walk into a store without a definite aim in mind, but today, as a vacationer and tourist, he was allowed to go blank and waste time. Time, in fact, did not count at all, it sort of dissolved, abolishing itself. He didn’t have to think of work, his computer had been wisely left behind in New York; he was unreachable and free to do nothing, think of nothing, and just amble along.
Yes. Here he was, a man in his fifties, of solid bearing, alone in a place that meant nothing to him, a place he knew nothing about. Maybe he should have done some research before coming, but he never planned in advance, he always let others – Mary, in this instance – busy themselves with the details, if only to avoid arguments and disagreements. But even this, what he considered to be his affable side, got him in trouble with Mary. He was lazy and selfish, she claimed, never offering to help, always leaving the legwork to others. Any way he looked at it, he had only himself to blame. Maybe he was selfish, like Mary said. But, isn’t everybody? he ventured once, and she rolled her eyes, then cast a mocking glance at him that told him he was hopeless. So why do you stick with me? he thought of saying, but, of course, didn’t. He wasn’t selfish, not more so than his friends and colleagues. As a matter of precise fact, he did think about others, he did take their feelings to heart, depriving himself, quite often, of voicing a grievance, or delivering a clever, but cruel, repartee.
Waiting for the bus to take him back to Miami Beach, he stationed himself next to a smallish, elderly lady, who greedily licked her ice cream. Chocolate chip and vanilla – he swallowed the saliva gathering in his mouth. He watched her tongue, remembering that the greed of old people made him uneasy – it seemed lewd somehow – but he soon reminded himself that in a few years he would be just as “old.” She, too, was a blonde (all the old ladies in Florida are blondes, he noted. His mother, on the other hand, dyed her hair black and lived in New Orleans), and a tiny shopping bag was looped around her arm; unlike him, she had found something to buy. I could have gotten some ice cream, he thought, all at once craving a cone. Strawberry and peaches, perhaps, and pistachio. They stood a bit away from the bus-stop sign, catching a last ray of sun.
“Useless calories.” She smiled up at him. “I don’t do this very often, but I felt like it. Sometimes, you just have to obey your body.”
Bruno smiled and nodded. “Absolutely,” he said.
They stood a while, waiting. It was 5 o’clock, and the bus, he thought, should be here momentarily. A cold wind was still blowing, but standing in the sun warmed him a bit.
“Do you live here?” he asked in a gentle voice.
“I used to come here with my husband,” she said.
“Ah,” Bruno said. “You don’t live here, then?”
“Only in the winter,” she replied. “I used to come here with my husband,” she said again, perhaps inviting him to inquire about how and when her husband had died, which normally he would, but at this moment his mind was set on practicalities.
“Did you buy a place here?”
“No, I’m renting,” she said between licks. “I live in New Jersey.”
“Hmm,” he said. “How much do you pay, if I may ask? I’m looking to rent a place myself.”
She turned away from him, and for a moment he worried that he had been too forward. “Here comes our bus,” she said, beginning to walk toward the bus stop, and he, the dutiful son, followed behind. “Eighteen hundred,” she said to him over her shoulder. “It’s a nice condo. I always rent in the same building.”
She mounted the bus and took the front seat, right behind the driver. Hesitating a moment, thinking she might invite him to sit down next to her, he then nodded in her direction and continued farther into the bus, taking a seat by the window. Now the canal was on his right. The sun, he noticed, had cracked open, spilling gold and orange across the sky. It seemed painful, like a birthing, and just as bloody – there was something gory about its overblown splendor. Birds chirped in the trees at each bus stop. They were small and black, and he saw them everywhere: on the boardwalk, on the beach, at the edge of the pool in the hotel where they dipped their long beaks and drank. There were also mourning doves everywhere, delicate in their brown-beige coloring and the white collar around their necks, clean and intelligent-looking, inviting his sympathy.
The orange-gold light spread further and lower in the sky, losing definition and turning pink. Where clouds had been only moments before, remnants of gray were still visible right below the pink, layering the firmament and giving it the texture of feathered, biblical wings. He became aware that he was composing a description in his mind, as if he were to tell it later to Mary – but Mary had left – so to someone else he might meet while having dinner or a drink at the bar. A man, or a woman, it didn’t matter. He recalled Tolstoy’s admonition that if you looked at something with the aim to describe it, you ended up not seeing it at all, but he was seeing it, with watchful admiring eyes, wishing to share it, even with a stranger who might think him lonely and a bit dotty.
Bruno breathed deeply. The woman from New Jersey was conversing with another old blond lady. They could have been sisters: sitting side by side, they looked alike in their hairdos and profiles. Observing it all, he began to feel alive, even hopeful. I feel mellow, he told himself, melting, like the dying sun. He thought about what he might have for dinner, maybe Italian, maybe Cuban – something garlicky and spicy, something that would please his nostrils and tongue and calm his mind.