By Elena Lappin
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
November 1999; 0-374-15758-8; 176 pages
Noa's decision to stop buying kosher meat, without letting her husband Noah know, was, on the face of it, a sudden impulse. One afternoon, on her way home from the park, she passed the butcher shop near her house, as she did almost every day. She had been thinking of the effort involved in making a special trip to her annoyingly talkative, nosy, and rude kosher butcher, the time it would take, the people she would have to "bump into" while "choosing" her usual cuts of lamb, chicken, and turkey (beef was no longer on the menu). The thought of it made her sick. Here, on the other hand, was a rosy-cheeked, clean shaven JOE McELLIGOTT (as the red-and-white lettering above the shop's awning cheerfully announced) who displayed various pink sections of dead pigs in his window with such pride and delight that it almost made Noa's mouth water. So, she thought, what if I just went in there, pretending to be one of them, what if I just asked for a couple of broilers and some minced turkey - it looks the same, Noah will never know the difference. And if he doesn't know, he's not sinning. I am, but fuck that.
Not only did Noah not notice the difference - he was terribly pleased with that Friday-night meal. He actually loved the chicken, and asked Noa if she was finally using his mother's recipe. This was Noah's highest praise - he considered Noa's Israeli cooking unrefined. It used to upset her when he berated her culinary skills as if she were a kitchen apprentice trying to qualify for tenure as wife. But now she thought, what can I expect from a debt collector?
When they first met, almost six years ago in Israel, Noah made Noa laugh by constantly referring to the similarity of their names. It didn't help that Noa pointed out the difference in the Hebrew spelling, and the fact that their names certainly didn't sound the same in Hebrew. His ended in a hard, guttural "ch," which he liked to ignore; in his native north Londoner's English, "Noah" dissolved in a nice soft vowel, and so did "Noa," and therefore - he argued - they were meant for each other. It had been a funny joke until one night this redhaired British cousin of her best friend's stepsister took her to a decadent Tel Aviv disco, danced in a slightly drunken way, and then insisted on making love to her in his parents' empty summer penthouse.
Noa was intimidated by the chrome and glass everywhere. Her own parents' apartment in Ramat Gan contained mostly decrepit dark wood furniture, covered with dusty lace and musty-smelling polyester. Noah seemed sleek and intriguing to Noa. He talked incessantly in bed, which she found impressive; her Israeli boyfriends hardly ever uttered anything verbal except an occasional ze tov? She didn't understand half of what he was saying but it all sounded sweet, sexy, and somehow mysterious.
A few months later, she was starring in her own wedding video, though she didn't exactly remember signing the contract. His parents took over, there was a breeze of London in it all, her poor old Polish parents almost disappeared under the weight of so much chrome and glass and gold and diamonds. Finchley Gothic versus Ramat Gan Post-Holocaust Modern. Masses of dewy pale veiny legs on stiletto heels versus sun-devoured parched feet in sandals. Her friends didn't understand what she was up to, and neither did Noa - but it felt good. So she was giving up her life as she knew it marrying a kippa-wearing accountant moving to London. So what. She was twenty and he made her feel all grown up. And he sure didn't wear his kippa in bed.
The first two years were almost a success. Noa's English was so basic that she continued to be seduced by her image of Noah as a glamorous young businessman. Their home in East Finchley, a family-owned property, seemed like a palace to Noa - though she felt uncomfortable with the decor, which was an almost exact replica of the Tel Aviv penthouse. To Noah's surprise, his brand-new wife was spending more time in the bathroom than in any other part of the house; for there, she could close her eyes in the blue-green bathwater and picture herself on the Tel Aviv beach. She felt like a trapped mermaid, escaping to her natural habitat.
Then one day she noticed that her English had improved so dramatically that she could enter into arguments with Gerda, her mother-in-law, and, although she didn't exactly win them, she didn't lose them either. Even better, Noa's ear suddenly started picking up occasional slip-ups in Noah's mother's accent; no matter how hard Gerda tried, her East End vowels kept showing in her unnaturally clipped speech, like the dark roots in her bleached hair. Noa, who had wanted with all her heart to feel close to her new family, was puzzled by so much unnecessary artifice, and now thought of her parents' home as refreshingly warm and unpretentious.
By the time she realized that Noah was actually employed in his father's business as a junior debt collector, and that his life's aspiration was to one day run the small Finchley office and become a senior debt collector, Noa was already pregnant with Noah's child. She had also by now finally deciphered and demystified her husband's sexy mumblings which invariably accompanied their lovemaking: the words Arsenal and Tottenham came up a lot, with very unsexy adjectives describing various players and plaintive remarks about their technique. When she had first grasped this incredible fact, Noa simply asked Noah why he had to think and talk about football during sex. He had answered, without the slightest hint of embarrassment, that he thought about football all the time, and saying his thouhts out loud during sex helped him slow down. Noa was so flabbergasted she forgot to ask which team he supported - though she had a strong feeling it was Tottenham.
And what did Noa think about in bed? Initially, close to nothing. She tried to slowly get to know Noah, whose way of life she had accepted so blindly, without worrying about the fact that he was a total stranger to her. So she did what she had done from the day they met: watched him, watched his every movement, listened to his every word. As long as Noah remained an enigma, he was worth every boring minute of her boring life with him. He was safe. But the minute she cracked his code, he was finished and didn't even know it.
"Noah," she said one evening after putting their son to bed. They were lounging around in front of the TV, without really watching anything. "What does a debt collector actually do?"
Her husband of five years looked up from the sports page of the evening paper and stared at Noa. She repeated the question. "We ... we make people pay their debts," he said slowly and gave her a hard look she knew well. It meant: shut up and leave me alone. Not this time; Noa was on a roll. "But how? Are you some kind of police or something?"
Noah sighed. "Course not. We just write letters and tell people what will happen if they don't pay up." He was dying to go back to his paper. Noa's inquisitive mood was beginning to annoy him. And she was exposing her ignorance about things everyone knew and no one questioned. Thank God his parents weren't there to hear.
© 1999 Elena Lappin
In Foreign Brides, Elena Lappin's startling and seductive debut collection of short stories, women (and men) cope with marriage across cultures in London, New York, and a constellation of European and Israeli cities. Transplanted from one country to another and ensconced in strange houses where appliances malfunction and husbands are not what they seem, women like Israeli Noa, Russian Vera, and German Paula settle into lives of persistently unfamiliar routine stirred up from time to time with a very crooked stick. In "Noa and Noah," Noa has been married for two years before her English improves and she realizes that her British husband, Noah, is not a glamorous young businessman but a dull junior debt collector. In revenge she begins to frequent a sexy unkosher butcher-and that's just the beginning. Vera, married to an unsuccessful British butler, takes to cab driving and extortion in "Peacocks"; Paula, married to her dead best friend's husband, writes stories and snorts cocaine in "Bad Writing." Displaced though they may be, Noa and her compatriots forge heedlessly ahead-and backwards and sideways-into the unknown or into the mundane.
With perfect pitch and a poker face, Lappin writes insidiously funny tales about love and survival in an international no-man's-land of marriage.
"These stylish, cheeky, slyly humorous stories, enriched by surprising twists and turns, are a pleasure to read."--MORDECAI RICHLER
"Elena Lappin's stories are crisp and colorful as autumn leaves, and as likely to rustle the soul with whispers of love and longing, the need for warmth and the chill persistence of exile."--JONATHAN ROSEN
"A wonderful story collection set between one place and another and shaped by a fearless sense of comedy."--W.G. SEBALD
Elena Lappin was born in Moscow and grew up in Prague and Hamburg. She has lived in Israel, Canada, and the United States, and now lives in London. From 1994 to 1997 she was editor of The Jewish Quarterly.