Rubin's Response VI
By Simon Barget
“I just wanted to know what you’re doing here,” was what he said after all the posturing and smart verbal ripostes had run their course.
How had they come to be revising unnoticed at his sister’s Bat Chayil amongst all these books, pens, files and A4 notepads? And what made them consider this an appropriate place to do so? There was something familiar in these faces so there was likely to have been some tenuous link between one of them and a bona fide invitee, someone who’d probably just made the mistake of telling them about the venue, assuring them offhandedly that they could come along if they liked, someone who probably hadn’t meant it or wasn’t quite sure that they didn’t have the authority to hand out an assurance like that, and perhaps the responsible person was even an extended member of the Rubin family which made it even worse, and this claim to legitimacy they’d surely throw out at him as soon as he opened his mouth. But to revise as well? What was the idea behind this?
It wasn’t a cellar because the entrance was at ground level; still it looked like one with their table set right at the back of the room although it wasn’t in a nook or niche since it was still in the centre of this narrowed part of the room and it had two further tables on either side. Here was also the lowest ceiling clearance, not only where it curved downwards, but also by the flat part, and you had to stoop whilst standing to ensure that you didn’t hit your head. The surface of the stone walls was mottled but smooth, and, at irregular intervals, the ceiling curved all the way down to the ground to form one continuous parabola. This configuration lent the place a strong atmosphere of foreboding, still it retained a uterine warmth. There were fewer guests here; most were congregated in front of them by the bar area which was closer to the door and which lined the left side of the room as you came in. A smattering of people loitered in front of the table but none behind. There were probably single tealight candles at each table floating on tiny water features but Rubin was not paying enough attention to notice details.
Had Rubin been the one to tell them and simply forgotten? And he took a good look to make sure he hadn’t overlooked this fact. It was a huge chunky oak table with sturdy legs with the two guys away from the door nearer the back wall and the two girls opposite. Rubin noticed that they had the types of faces that he could easily associate with and had seen so many times before, so he could understand in a way why they thought it might be ok for them to be here. They fitted in. The guy nearest Rubin seemed to want to be the porte-parole and kept on interrupting whenever anyone spoke. As he carried on talking, Rubin suddenly realised who it was, strangely he wasn’t really as surprised as he should have been, almost as if a small part of his psyche had allowed for the possibility of him being there. It was that joker Jonny Bar-Nathan from summer camp, the guy who’d pushed Shirley Ducassis in the artificial lake chipping her front tooth and who’d just stood there laughing and Rubin hadn’t been able to understand how someone could have been so callous over something like knocking someone’s tooth out. Bar-Nathan had been in the year above and he’d never have deigned to address a Palomino -- he was a Mohawk -- besides Rubin hadn’t really wanted anything to do with him. But they’d never spoken then or since so god knows what he was doing here. Rubin noticed that he hadn’t really changed, bearing that same juvenile-defiant-obsequious glaze, and Rubin was reminded of it and the only difference now was a few wrinkles, and when Rubin looked, he really didn’t know if he should acknowledge that he knew who he was and Rubin had this dilemma that he always had with people, which was whether to let them know or not that he knew who they were, because people always got a rise out of it, and they’d always say ‘oh, I’m so sorry, I don’t remember you’ and Rubin would have to condone the apology, so in the end he sort of squirmed and wasn’t sure whether Bar-Nathan took this to be a signalling of recognition or not. Jonny Bar-Nathan. And though they weren’t really audible, Rubin knew that some of them were Israeli -- Bar-Nathan certainly wasn’t even though he was trying his best to act like one -- as every time he went out of earshot, he caught snippets of those guttural consonants, even though Rubin had only the slenderest of grasps on the language himself.
When Rubin had initially approached, he hadn’t decided there and then that he was going to evict them by the application of flawless logic which went something like: this was his sister’s Bat Chayil, they were gatecrashers, they were nauseatingly nonchalant, he had every right to ask them to leave as a close person to the party-subject -- who could be closer than a brother -- no, despite the moral rectitude he deserved to serve upon them, he hadn’t approached them with this firm resolve that they’d be leaving after his request, however the conversation proceeded. Everything very much depended on the interaction and you couldn’t say what would happen just by calling on ideas of right and wrong, argument, and actions based upon those ideas, and Rubin was well aware of this framework.
Nor was it that Rubin couldn’t have predicted that they’d demur, argue, squirm, question his resolve to a point where it fell apart, make him feel like he was wrong, it wasn’t that he couldn’t have foreseen this -- he wasn’t stupid -- it was just that he hadn’t really expected that when he approached, he wouldn’t be able to deal with a few moderate dissensions. And when they didn’t concede to what was something so simple -- you’re not supposed to be here -- and when he found it slipping from his grasp, he swelled up with a forceful and righteous anger. This was the sort of anger that comes in starts, the sort that idles at latency, waiting to be set into motion by some seemingly innocuous stimulus. The stimulus was the cacophony of excuses and the girl opposite Bar Nathan was equally animated, picking up on Bar Nathan’s energy and reflecting it in a ‘yeah, see’ fashion and this was probably the last straw for Rubin. The other two were quieter but showed their accord for whatever the first two said by just nodding their head in unison. The argument was essentially: we’re not doing anyone any harm, but Rubin wasn’t thinking about harm at all and was trying to convey that it wasn’t simply a matter of not doing harm, he said, these were not the parameters, this was a party, his family had paid good money to rent this place but for certain chosen guests only, anyone else was not meant to be here, that was how it worked at all functions, and unless they could demonstrate their right to be there, then they had to leave by default. Who just turns up to a Bat Mitzvah with no invite? But they made Rubin feel like his whole judging mechanism was askew, and they repeated what they said the first time, as if they’d not understood him: is any harm being done by our presence here, since we’re already here, and leaving means that we have to exert effort and leaving creates difficulty for us, why create difficulty for us when no one else is bothered? And as Rubin was a fully reasonable person, he couldn’t just pretend he hadn’t understood the argument, and on top of that, he couldn’t deny that it didn’t have some sense to it. Now they were here, they might as well stay. Yes, it made perfect sense. The two positions seemed to coexist happily together and Rubin couldn’t make sense of it because they were conflicting, conflicting inside him and turning his stomach. One entailed staying and the other entailed going and they were both as right as each other. It was all so murky, but what he hadn’t realised was that it all came down to a battle of wills. And that’s when he said weakly: “I just wanted to know what you’re doing here.”
As he walked off from the table, he looked for someone that he might know, someone in whom he might confide and to whom he could relate his indignation, and they’d surely apply that soothing balm of unfettered corroboration. There were all kinds of people he didn’t know all dressed in cocktail wear, black dresses and shprauncy velvet suits, lots of chokers and miniature dressy handbags with heavy metal handles – everyone was dressed up to the nines – and though he didn’t recognise individuals, he could still see that they were all guests, somehow he knew: friends of his parents or sisters, his father’s business colleagues. And he went past them trying to put a good face on things and show his happy side just in case someone stopped him for whatever reason. It was not convincing and he looked ill-at-ease if anyone had looked at him, but hardly anyone acknowledged his presence. Some cast a momentary glance in his direction and then looked away before he had a chance to meet it, and most just carried on oblivious interacting in that mock-jolly way that overtakes party attenders. Perhaps the cavernous nature of the room had got people drinking more than usual, as champagne flutes circulated constantly. Yes, as much as Rubin tried to get hold of someone he knew, he could not; because as soon as he caught sight of a familiar face, and he approached, they’d simply walk off and blend into the crowd by which time it was too late, so that the effect was that he constantly caught glimpses of aunties or uncles or cousins, but never communicated or had conversations, never even exchanged a word. He was simply wandering about on his own, and that was just not right at his own sister’s Bat Chayil.
The more it went on, the more lost and alone he became, and eventually he could stand it no longer, the endless and aimless circling round parts of the room which he’d already seen umpteen times. He also had to keep an eye out for Bar-Nathan to make sure that he didn’t err into his domain. That was another blow. Instead of saying something to someone in a measured and reasonable way, something like: listen, no one is talking to me, am I completely irrelevant to this family, to these people, am I just a joke, to be treated according to whatever fancy happens to overtake people in the moment, what is it that’s going on that I must be ignored in such a way, please tell me, because I don’t understand. And since people were reasonable and Rubin was not so paranoid as to believe that people had it in for him, maybe if he’d plucked up the courage to ask quietly and confidently and perhaps with love for the other person and himself, than maybe just, maybe they could have told him what the underlying issue was here, and this whole balloon of indignation and pain and alienation could fall away and he could move on with his life.
But no, he was an angry excluded being, and his remedy was to flee. Some of the other guests were also walking out of the door by this point -- but not to go, they were huddling together and communing -- some were smoking pipes and cigars -- and deciding to go somewhere else, one of them was his sister, and, not that he made any effort to make himself seen, she did not notice him, or if she did, she didn’t say anything. And that familiar feeling came across Rubin of cutting himself off from something, like cutting the umbilical cord, straying from a faint hope of communion with something, to sheer bare loneliness, and he walked off to the left, down the cobbled street then turned quickly right down the narrow alleyway which eventually made its way to the north of the town, going up towards the fields area, climbed on top of the wall by the Commission, knowing no one even knew or cared that he was gone, and he nursed his wounds, and he stepped on the wall of the Commission’s garden and walked along it in defiance, hoping to be caught and reprimanded, nursing wounds, and again, he had taken a step backward, a step away from life.