“Have you ever lied to me?”
They were walking without speaking before he asked the question. He had absent-mindedly got ahead of her on the cement path, so he slowed and turned, walking backward until she caught up. Her blue eyes looked up at him
“Careful,” she pointed.
He turned again, side-stepping the break in the cement where the muddy earth had escaped. It was March and the ground was freshly thawed after a chilly winter in Israel. It was a Saturday, about three months since they had arrived—he from the United States and she from Canada—to volunteer temporarily on this kibbutz.
Saturday was their day off and they had slept in. When she had finally opened her eyes that morning, he was already awake, sitting up in bed beside her, peeling a grapefruit. A pale thread of the inner rind fell to his chest, into the dark curls.
Lynn stopped blinking and, puffy with sleep, smiled up at his silhouette, the familiar shape of hair and beard lit at the edges by the window behind him. She pushed the hair off her face with one hand, stretching and turning on her side. A hint of damp soil breezed through the window, mingling with the scent of the fruit.
Andy held a segment in front of her mouth and as she took it between her lips, she tasted his fingers and remembered them inside her the night before.
“It’s so quiet. Is it early?” she asked, sitting up and picking the stray piece of rind from his chest. She was naked and sat straight so her stomach wouldn’t fold.
“It’s late,” he said, still chewing. “Everyone’s at lunch. Let’s go for a walk.”
They washed at the sink and pulled on their heavy cotton shirts, khaki pants, and work boots. Three steps off the porch took them out of the shade, then they walked across the grass to the volleyball court and climbed the bleachers. From the highest bench they could sec the huge green field stretching out to the citrus groves. The crop was bending toward them; the few clouds moved in the same direction. The sky looked exactly Peacock Blue to her—number seven in the Laurentian pencil crayon set she had used as a kid, not really so long ago.
“God, it’s pretty,” she said. “What’s growing in the Field?”
“I think it’s wheat,” he said. “A guy I work with in the chicken house told me—Are you doing that on purpose with your eyes?”
“What?” she asked, then realized. “Oh.” She looked away.
“No, I don’t do it on purpose. I had an operation but they still go off sometimes. Kids in school used to call me names.” She sighed. “And they never let me play in any reindeer games.”
A breeze came up, the corner of his collar lifting, green wedge on brown beard, then dropping again when he turned to look at her. They were straddling the bench, facing each other.
“They made fun of me loo,” he said.
“What’s to make fun of?”
“The way I talk,” he said. “1 sounded funny. Nike niss. I nalk nike niss.”
He looked away and she stopped laughing.
“You really talked like that? Did they give you speech therapy?”
“I had an operation too,” he said. “On my mouth.” He looked down from the bleachers, watching the other volunteers straggle back from lunch.
She slid forward on the bench, draping her legs over his and, reaching behind him, fit her open palms to his back. She rubbed her nose through his beard along the curve of his chin and kissed his neck below his left ear.
“Let’s get something to eat,” she whispered.
He cupped her jaw in his hand, thumb on one cheek, fingers on the other, squeezing just enough to collapse her lips in an exaggerated pucker. He kissed her contorted mouth, then stood up and they started for the dining hall.
After walking awhile without speaking he asked, “Have you ever lied to me?”
“Careful,” she pointed to the mud. “Not that I’m aware of. What did you think I lied about?”
“Nothing,” he said. “God, I’m hungry. Did I tell you Howard’s story? The one about his uncle in the tuxedo business? This is priceless. His uncle puts in a cummerbund order —”
“Have you ever lied to me?” she asked.
“Yes. So he orders the cummerbunds and -“
“Cut it out, Andy. What did you lie to me about?”
“You Canadians are so adorable, the way you say out and about. You have to guess.”
“You’re a bright person, Andy—bright enough, I think, to realize what an asshole you are. Am I right?”
“Okay, I’m an asshole. But you still have to guess. Hasn’t there been anything that made y°” wonder about me’.'”
“Oh, I know. Last night— you were faking it.” She gave a wide-eyed, open-mouthed smile, which he ignored. “It’s not personal like that,” he said. “This is something I’ve lied about to everybody. The whole kibbutz.”
“You don’t have to guess right away. Think about it.” He held the glass door open and she walked into the empty dining hall.
The food had already been removed from the serving area, but one of the women in the kitchen, smiling shyly from under her plucked eyebrows, told them to wait and came back with two plates of food. She nodded at their thanks, adjusting her hair net.
He must have lied to her. Lynn thought, if he lied to everybody on the kibbutz. But he’s never said more than two words to this woman. He’s never spoken at all to some people here. How do you lie to people without speaking to them?
“Thanks.” She took the coffee from him and they chose a table in the middle of the large sunny room. It was quiet except for the occasional clatter of aluminum pots, spraying water, and the muffled voices of the kitchen crew.
He was talking about Howard again. Lynn stirred her coffee and smiled when he did. She wondered why he was making her guess. To make her think about him? To make himself seem mysterious? To make it seem like a game instead of a lie?
“What?” he said, drawing back as she reached for his face.
“You’ve got food in your beard.” She brushed something from his chin and asked, “Does your mother make matzo brei?”
“Matzo brei,” Lynn smiled. “You know, the stuff you’re shoveling in your mouth right now?”
He took a long time swallowing.
“No,” he finally answered. “She doesn’t like to cook.” He looked at his plate and stabbed a wedge of cantaloupe with his fork.
“That can’t be true,” Lynn said, her face expressionless. He put his fork down.
“You were obviously raised on a steady diet of homemade chicken soup.” She smirked. “How else could you explain that hairy chest?”
He smiled thinly and asked, “More coffee?”
She watched him walk away between the tables, holding the empty cups in front of him. Nike niss, she remembered. I nalk nike niss. Was that the lie? There had really never been anything wrong with his mouth. He’d just made it up to get sympathy. No, it was something he lied about to everyone. It would have to be something about the general impression they had of him. But what impression do they have that isn’t true? How do they see Andy?
The door at the north end of the building opened and one of the older kibbutzniks stepped in. He walked slowly to the mail boxes, taking off his sun hat and rubbing the bald spot at the back of his head. After scanning the envelopes, he pushed them into his hip pocket and, returning to the door, glanced at Andy, who was now walking back to the table with two full cups.
Lynn wondered what this old man saw when he looked at Andy. The old man looks and he sees one of the volunteers. Lynn rubbed the back of her head and turned to look at Andy. A nice boy. A nice, Jewish, American boy. So where’s the lie? He’s not really a boy? He’s not really American?”
As Andy sat down Lynn said, “You’re not Jewish.”
“Why do you say that?” He looked up at,her while he mopped at the spilled coffee with a paper napkin.
She studied his face and smiled. “I’m right, aren’t I? Thai’s the lie. You’re not really Jewish.”
He was looking over his shoulder. “Keep your voice down. No,” he said, turning back to look at her, “I’m not Jewish. But what made you think that? What is it about me that made you think I wasn’t Jewish? The way I talk?”
“No, actually, it’s the way you walk.”
She was surprised when he asked, “Really?”
“Of course not. I don’t think I ever would have suspected it if you hadn’t told me there was something you had lied about to the whole kibbutz.”
“But why did you think it was that in particular? It could have been something else.”
“Not really. I knew it had to be something about the general impression you give—a nice, Jewish, American boy.
Well, given last night, I’m sure you’re a boy. And I know you’re really American because that obnoxious sense of superiority is too hard to put on. And—”
“I shouldn’t have given you such a big clue. Wasn’t there anything before that made you wonder about me? If I wasn’t Jewish?”
“I don’t think so.” She monitored herself as they stared at each other. Yes, her impression of him was shifting. Without thinking about it, she had assumed things—that he had grown up with certain foods and certain words in his house; that he had watched a freshly ironed white tablecloth billowing out to cover the table on Friday nights; that he knew what it felt like to be taunted. Well, he did know that. Maybe not for being a Jew, but for being different. For talking funny. She watched the napkin twisting in his callused hands.
“Are you angry at me?” he asked. “Do you feel the same about me?” He closed his eyes and whispered, “Say something.”
She had never seen him look worried like this. Did he really think it would make such a difference? He was the same person now as he was before; he had the same feelings and ideas; he was still Andy, Did he really think it would make such a difference to her?
“Of course I feel the same about you, Andy. I still think you’re an asshole.”
The coffee cup blocked most of his smile. His shoulders lowered. “No, really. It must make a difference to you,” he said.
“Well, it does sort of change the way 1 see you—No, listen. Certain impressions about how you grew up, like maybe that you hunted for eggs instead of for matzo. These
things make a difference—but not an important difference.”
He looked doubtful.
“Andy, anything I like or don’t like about you has nothing to do with whether you’re Jewish or not,” she said. “Really. I can’t detect anything in me that’s troubled by this news.”
“You’re not angry?”
“No, just confused. Why did you lie about it?”
He put his cup down. “I heard that Jewish volunteers are given preferential treatment and I didn’t want to spend time here—learning the language and getting my knuckles pecked off by stupid chickens—if I wasn’t going to be taken seriously.”
“They treat everybody the same here, don’t they?”
“I don’t think so. Just little things, like when they had one spot left on the bus last week for that trip and a few people wanted to go, remember? Peter wanted to go, but they picked Jeff.”
“But that doesn’t—”
“I know it doesn’t prove anything, but a bunch of little things like that seem to add up. Not just the kibbutz—the volunteers too, The other day, I’m sitting around with Howard and Peter, and Howard starts in with this teasing. You know, making Jewish references and sort of implying that Peter just wouldn’t understand certain things.”
“Good old Howard,” she shook her head.
“What? Anyway, I didn’t want to be an outsider.”
“Well then why did you come to Israel in the first place?”
“I like it.” He shrugged. “It’s an interesting place and—I think it’s an interesting place. Let’s walk.”
The wind had died down; the sun was shining from the west.
“Hide-and-seek time,” she said, tucking her hair behind her ears.
He raised his eyebrows, waiting for an explanation. “We used to play hide-and-seek on my street. This is the perfect weather and time of day because the long shadows make it harder. You have to find something big enough to hide you and your own shadow.”
She couldn’t tell if he was smiling at her or just squinting from the sun, so she put her hand up to block the light from shining in his eyes. He kept smiling.
“Unless Danny Meyer was it,” she continued. “Danny was the worst seeker You could stand right behind him and he wouldn’t catch on. Don’t laugh, it was sad. Was that our last grapefruit this morning?”
“Yeah. Maybe the crates are still out.”
They walked to the back of the building where a meterhigh crate of grapefruits and another of oranges were left for people to help themselves. Both were almost empty. Andy took a few grapefruits and Lynn picked out some oranges, then they headed back along the path to the volunteers’ area.
“And what?” she asked. “You said you came to Israel because it was interesting and something else you didn’t finish saying.”
He examined a grapefruit. “You know the lie I told you?”
“It’s not exactly a lie.”
“What do you mean’.’ And don’t you dare tell me I have to guess.”
“It’s not exactly a lie because I really do feel Jewish.”
“What does this mean? In what way do you feel Jewish?”
“I relate to Jews, to Jewish attitudes. I grew up with mostly Jewish friends. I gravitate to Jews.”
“I don’t know, Lynn. I just do. I feel more comfortable with Jews than with non-Jews.”
She gave a short laugh. “You mean if I told you I wasn’t Jewish, you’d dump me?”
“But you are Jewish,” he said.
Her eyebrows lifted.
“What do you mean, ‘But you are Jewish’? I just spent half an hour assuring you it doesn’t matter that you aren’t. You’re joking, right? You wouldn’t really consider dumping me for not being Jewish, would you?”
“Well, it makes a difference. You are who you are partly because you are Jewish.”
She returned his smile and said, “What makes you think I’m Jewish, Andy? I never said I was, did I?” They were walking through the children’s playground, past reclining teeter-totters and empty swings. He stopped in front of the slide that looked like a stone castle and adjusted his armload of fruit, looking at her.
“Are you Jewish or not?” The next time, he yelled. “Are you Jewish?”
Lynn stared at him a few seconds, then she turned and walked on without answering. She saw the grapefruit just before it smacked into her shoulder. Oranges thudded on the gravel as she swung toward him, tightly grabbing her right arm.
“That hurt, you jackass.” So what if he looks sorry, she thought. The goddamn jackass thinks he’s so cool, so likable, so unique to feel like a Jew. He’s not anti-Semitic like some other people. No, no, no. “You’re not anti-Semitic like some other people, Andy. No siree. In fact, you’re so anti anti- Semitic, you feel just like one of the gang, don’t you?”
He was beside her now, helping her pick up the fruit she had dropped.
“In fact, you want to be one of the gang so much, I just bet when Howard was making those stupid comments at Peter’s expense, you were laughing right along with him, just like—”
“Lower your voice. Look, I’m sorry I threw the grapefruit. It was dumb. I’m sorry, but, Jesus, what are you going so crazy about?”
Her pulse filled her ears as she walked the rest of the way to their room.
After they dropped the fruit on the desk, she picked up the one with the split skin and started peeling it, staring out the window with her lips together and the heat spreading up to her eyes. Andy sat on the bed.
“Come here, Lynn, Come here and talk to me,” he said, guiding her by the wrist to sit on his lap.
She pulled away gently but he held her in place, so she pulled harder, breaking his grip. She sat sideways on the chair by the desk, facing him, still peeling the grapefruit.
“You’re not religious,” she finally said. “It’s not the religion you’re attracted to. So why is it so important to you whether I’m Jewish or not?”
“It’s hard to explain, Lynn. It’s a cultural thing—cultural values, attitudes about family, education—”
“Lots of people have good values, Andy. Who I am has little to do with the fact that I’m a Jew. Half the other young Jewish women you meet will be different from me in —”
Andy slapped his leg. “I knew you were Jewish,” he said, grinning at her.
“Oh, please,” she closed her eyes for a second, then grabbed a tissue from the box beside the bed and folded it on the desk, setting down the skinned fruit. She dropped the peel in the trash.
“Look,” she said. “This is like some twisted form of racism. It’s —”
“Oh, come on, Lynn. You are really blowing this thing out of proportion. The fact that I enjoy being with Jewish people does not make me a racist.”
“You’re right; it doesn’t. But the fact that you would consider dumping me when you thought I wasn’t Jewish—even though I was the same person, with the same feelings and ideas, standing in front of you—”
He shook his head, laughing, as he walked over and put his arms around her.
“I was not going to dump you, Lynn. I have no intention of dumping you, so stop worrying. Okay?”
She turned her face away from him, touching her cheek to his shoulder. “That’s not what I’m worried about. Tell me the truth. If it had turned out I wasn’t a Jew, would your arms be around me right now? Am I getting preferential treatment? Tell me the truth.”
“Look, we’re just going in circles now. Can’t we drop this?” He held her chin up and lightly kissed her lips.
“Come on. There isn’t much sun left. Let’s go out.”
“I’ll be there soon,” she said. “I want to brush my hair and put on a sweater.”
Lynn stood, kneeling one leg on the bed, watching him through the window. He walked down the three steps off the porch and headed across the courtyard to the group of volunteers sitting on the lawn by the wall of the opposite building. Some were writing letters. Others were talking or playing backgammon, soaking up the last strong rays of the day.
As Andy got closer to the group, his shadow, preceding him, reached the edge of the grass and angled up the wall. It stayed there a few seconds, the familiar shape of hair and beard and rolled sleeves, until he sat down, pulling his shadow onto the grass with the others.
Shani Sohn is a copy editor, desktop publisher, and website designer in Toronto. “Peels” is her first short story.