Closing the curtain


In March, I had the privilege of co-starring in the Jerusalem premiere of Neil LaBute’s play “Some Girl(s)” at the Center Stage Theater at Merkaz Hamagshimim
Hadassah. The play follows Guy, an about-to-be-married 33-year-old American writer, as he tracks down his ex-flames to “right some wrongs” so he can begin his new life with a clean slate … or so it seems.

I was cast as Reggie, a character LaBute added between the London and New York performances but who had her debut in Israel. Reggie is the sister of Guy’s childhood best friend. She and Guy meet 15 years after Guy kissed Reggie in a not-so-appropriate way at her 12th birthday party. Understandably, the incident profoundly affected Reggie into adulthood. My scene captured her quest for closure.

To get into character, I decided to draw from my own life. The question was: Could a relationship I’d had with an Israeli serve as a model for a play that dissects the relationship habits of a “jerky” American? I asked LaBute by e-mail if Guy’s behavior is categorically American, to which he replied: “I don’t think American men corner the market on being jerks, but we certainly know how to make the market work for us. American men are usually better at ‘smoothing over’ their jerky side ….”

Indeed, looking back at my relationship with one Israeli man, there had been no “smoothing over” of anything. The closure was raw and real, just like the life-altering experience that had troubled me for so long.

Reggie “never spoke to anybody about it,” and I, too, had kept silent. While our encounters were very different, both had aroused hurt, shame and confusion. By writing now about the experience, I’m acting out one of Reggie’s fantasies. Also a journalist, Reggie comments: “This would make a hell of an article.”

I met Israel, not his real name, at a karaoke bar in Tel Aviv. At the time, I was questioning my modern Orthodox lifestyle — and I was vulnerable, curious, and, yes, hormonal. Israel was handsome, charming, muscular — the picture-perfect, macho Israeli. He even worked as a manual laborer — how sexy.

I invited him to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv for our second date, and I kept telling him I couldn’t understand why I liked him — he wasn’t this great intellect I had imagined I’d fall for. Needless to say, he was offended, and he began to toy with me, to tease me about being a virgin, to tell me about the wonders of sex. Talk about torture.

After a long, demented courtship, we did it. The act wasn’t so tender or loving. He didn’t stay the night. I didn’t really care — I was too physically relieved. I called him a few days later to see “what was up,” and he just made crude jokes. Immediately, my self-assured satisfaction turned into upset and confusion — and I balled him out for being so insensitive. I didn’t see him again after that, and I decided to process this loss of innocence on my own, just like Reggie.

She held onto the memory of her first adolescent kiss and let it influence who she became. I can sympathize with her description of how she turned out: “smart, cute, hardworking … sexually appropriate at a pretty early age, just making it some days, and other times off-the-charts and laser sharp.”

As a reaction to sexual encounters we experience before we are truly ripe we often become more self-aware and more sexually active as a means to take back control of our identity and sexuality.

Back in Israel, four years later, I called Israel to, as Reggie put it, “clear the slate … see if we could, I dunno, sort it out somehow.”

We met at a coffee shop in Tel Aviv. I wore black slacks and an elegant, burgundy angora V-neck (a top I tried on as a costume) to assert my new, sophisticated, wiser self. Israel was still handsome, but shorter than I remembered, less muscular.

He told me he’d become a Scientologist. No matter what people say of Scientology, his new religion had definitely made him a better person. Sitting across from me was an emotionally intelligent, highly communicative and honest man.

The pace of our conversation perfectly mimicked that of the Reggie scene. I didn’t bring up the looming “subject” right away, getting through small talk and memories before the conversation turned intense and tearful. Israel listened deeply and admitted to taking advantage of me, to avenging my snobbery and to fulfilling his thrill of “popping a cherry.”

He eventually said “I’m sorry,” which are also among Guy’s last words to Reggie. Yet Israel was more forthright than Guy, and since I had been an adult at the time of our earlier encounter, he was able to press me to recognize my own failings in my dealings with him — and with myself.

I left feeling exhilarated and gratified, almost as if I’d gotten my virginity back. Two-sided closure is wonderful.

Our reunion took place about six years ago, and while I am now completely at peace with what happened, and Israel and I are friends, I didn’t stop making some bad relationship choices. There are still some men with whom I wouldn’t mind having a long chat, but I doubt they could achieve Israel’s level of sincerity. There are times when that notorious Israeli bluntness is a blessing. Ultimately, however, as Reggie suggests toward the end of the play, closure begins with taking responsibility for our own choices.

For now, I’ll take my performance and the reflection it triggered as my vicarious, catch-all closure, and I’ll be satisfied with that.

Orit Arfa is a writer living in Tel Aviv. She can be reached at arfa@netvision.net.il.

The Candy Man Can



If you’ve ever tried to split a Big Hunk candy bar — the kind made out of brittle white nougat and peanuts — then you understand a typical breakup. It’s usually not
neat, like a Kit Kat, two for you, two for me, let’s go our separate ways and we’ll run into each other in three years at the Whole Foods with a good-natured hug in front of a platter of cubed cheese.

No, it’s usually more of a messy and twisted divide, with a few peanuts falling on the floor and someone always getting less than his or her fair share.
While everyone knows the “clean break” is the way to go, it’s rarely possible. Two people who were once in love are just not a Twix.

In fact, I will postulate that if you have ever succeeded in a truly clean break on the first try, you are most likely a sociopath. Not to be judgmental, but you’re not capable of real love.

To be honest, I would assume the “clean break” was an urban myth, if I hadn’t experienced one, against my will, at the cruel hand of an episodic television writer who had a lingerie model on the back burner.

He had no interest in my desperate plea to “just be friends while we figure things out.” In fact, he never wanted to speak to me again, and he never did. In fact, he once ducked out of a coffee shop after noticing me inside — with a theatrical sprint toward his BMW, years after we broke up. I would like to say I admire his sanitary approach to people-leaving, but I would like even more to point out that his mode is out of reach for all but the most disciplined or emotionally crippled among us.

Instead, the majority of us face a few agonizing days alone before launching into a despair-fueled effort to shove the pieces back together again. In my experience, there is usually the mini-reconciliation, the second break up, the third mini-reconciliation and the final coup de grace when one or both of you inevitably remembers why you broke it off in the first place.

Alternatively, if you are gifted at conning yourself, you may set up a series of spectacularly delusional relationship “experiments” to be played out before the final curtain comes down.

These experiments may include any of the following: Let’s try seeing other people, but only sleeping with each other. Let’s go back to “dating” and recapture the “honeymoon phase.” Let’s only see each other once a week. Let’s move into separate rooms of the house. Let’s take some “time off.” Let’s avoid ever mentioning: that girl from the office you cheated with, your mother who insulted me at your nephew’s bar mitzvah, the job you quit because it was “boring,” or any other topic that always leads to a blow-up. Let’s up the couples counseling to twice a day. Let’s only communicate via e-mail or sonic vibration and echolocation. Let’s come up with a cute code word for every time you do that thing that drives me nuts, maybe “Octopus.”

You know how it goes. For a couple of weeks, you’re both on your best behavior. You say “Octopus” and giggle at the relationship’s former infirmity. Those few tear — or bourbon — soaked nights of being apart are still so fresh in your memory, you will give any farkakta plan a try just to avoid being alone and truly accepting that a thing which was once viable is now on the slag heap.

I am now six weeks past a second faux break-up and mini-reconciliation and into the real Break Up. The talking, texting and doomed plans are all behind me.
It’s over, and I knew it would be, but I loved the guy, and after almost three years we were intertwined (think Nestle 100 Grand Bar), so I did the human thing and sunk my teeth into a few squares of denial and pain postponement. I don’t have a new boyfriend or any new addictions, I’m just feeling sad now like I’m supposed to, and that’s the best idea, as far as I know.

My friend Cammy says if you don’t feel ripped up after a break up, if you don’t try some idiotic plan to make it work again, you didn’t do the relationship right. If you don’t hurt, your heart wasn’t in it and that’s why you can walk away neatly with your half of the Almond Joy, leaving nary a crumb on the floor.
All these candy bar metaphors, while hopefully evocative, have made me hungry. And break ups make me hungry. So while I couldn’t manage it in “real life,” I can now pay a buck for two great tastes that taste great together. And a confection that’s easy to split.

Teresa Strasser in an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She can be heard weekday mornings on the syndicated Adam Carolla morning radio show and is on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

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