Moti the Mafioso

By day, I slouched in the second-to-last row of AP Government and tried to make myself invisible. At night, I changed selves with a pair of black (p)leather pants that squeaked when I sat down. I smeared makeup all over my face, and if I avoided direct light, I was Monet pretty. A fog of hairspray, a flash flood of drugstore perfume and sticky lip gloss completed my disguise for Thursday night out at Tempo in Encino.

I heard Moti (not his real name) before I saw him — the throb of trance music smashed the quiet evening, and as the headlights of his BMW ripped through the curtains, his brakes squealed like piglets. He honked three times.

In the hallway, I heard my mom’s scurry-shuffle as she threw open my bedroom door: “Don’t go out there just because he honks! Let him come to the door like a person! And don’t you think that lip gloss is a bit much?”

“I look good baby, no?” Moti asked as soon as I opened the car door. “Of course you look good,” I answered, wishing he’d say the same of me. He didn’t.

Instead, Moti smiled and draped his arm across my bare shoulders, and that was just fine. I could smell his thick after-work smell — part Benson & Hedges, part Dolce & Gabbana and part something else that I couldn’t quite name. Smelling him made my mouth water.

“Did you miss me, baby?” he asked as we screeched out of the driveway, his right hand kneading my thigh. I nodded.

“Baby, do you love me?” he asked, without a question mark.

“Uhhh …”

Moti and I had been on a grand total of four and a half dates since we first met a few weeks earlier. I knew he liked Jack Daniel’s and falafel with harif. But I didn’t know his favorite book. Or if he even liked to read. I had never even seen him in daylight. 

But the thing was, I kind of did love him. He was addictive – and everyone loved Moti.

This was the first time we were alone together outside of his bedroom. There was always someone around – a cousin, a friend, a friend’s cousin, a cousin’s friend, riding shotgun while I would sit in the back pretending to follow the rapid-fire conversation in Hebrew. 

I thought about asking Moti if he loved me, but the words stuck in my throat, because I knew the answer already. I had watched the way my parents were together – the easy give-and-take, sometimes shouting, mostly laughing. They stood on common ground. And my mom always rode in the front seat.

But still, it was exhilarating to pretend. 

“Baby, you want to marry with me?” Moti asked, again more of a statement. I bit my lip hard. “Will I marry you?” I responded. “We just met …”

“Yeah, I know, but you’re going away to Berkeley and I think we should get married … besides, I’ll have to leave the country unless I get a green card …”

I just sat there and perhaps he understood my silence as acquiescence because he grabbed my head and pulled me into a rough kiss. I felt my kishkas collapse. 

“Stay with me tonight,” he whispered. “We can go to City Hall tomorrow.”

I thought about my mom, watching the clock, wondering when I’d be home. I never broke curfew, never broke trust, really.

But everyone broke rules for Moti – from the bartender who looked the other way when Moti would pour his friends free drinks, to the guy at the falafel stand just off Ventura Boulevard who would reach below the cash register and hand Moti a dank-smelling plastic bag in exchange for the promise, “I’ll pay you later, achi.”

All I had to do was pretend I hadn’t seen anything. He had never asked me to break the law. Until now.

We pulled into the parking lot at Tempo, the Israeli restaurant/bar in the Valley, where the air was swampy with cologne, cigarette smoke and the scent of shish kabob. As soon as we were inside, we were engulfed by a gaggle of Moti’s entourage.

Everyone knew Moti.

Even people you wouldn’t expect to know him knew him: The last time we had gone out, Moti had taken me to an apartment on the fringes of the Valley where a bunch of guys were sitting drinking cerveza in a heavy fog of weed. They had the number “18” tattooed up and down their arms, and at first I thought this was a nod to gematria.

But when Jose said that his car was shot up the night before, and someone had tagged “Hombre Muerto” in red across his windshield, it dawned on me that the parade of 18s had a different meaning: I was sitting in the den of the 18th Street Gang. 

And when Moti patted Jose’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll hook you up with a Semi,” it occurred to me that I was a long way from AP Government.

In the teeming fray of Tempo, Moti pulled me against him and we danced. He looked at me intently, and under his gaze, I glowed. For a moment, I wondered if maybe he could love me, maybe I could sit in the front seat forever and ever. The song ended and he touched my cheek and said, “You should cover your pimples better.”

A sob clogged my throat, and I ran to the bathroom.

My mom was right: The lip gloss was a little much. Pulling my stiff hair back into a scrunchy, I bent down over the cool water spray. I only meant to wash off the lip gloss, but once I felt the warm water touch my skin, I couldn’t stop, and I watched the makeup run in rivulets down the drain.

The light caught the sheen on the delicate gold chai necklace I had worn since my mom clasped it around my neck just before I went on the bimah for my bat mitzvah. 

“I’m so proud of you,” she had whispered. “You are the most wonderful daughter I could ever ask for.”

No one looked at me when I walked out of the bathroom. I passed Moti, who was standing near the door. And as I walked out alone into the night, I was invisible again.