Joyland

New York |

Trinkets

by Ian MacAllen

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

I never suspected myself one of those people to marry because of an unexpected baby, but three days after Stefanie peed on a stick, I proposed. She planned the wedding with a compulsion, even though we agreed to wait until well after the baby’s birth. No sense paying for two hundred of our closest relatives to pack a reception hall with an open bar if only I could drink. She picked out invitations and a color scheme and the flowers from thick magazines stacked around our apartment. She asked my opinion only after knowing hers, wanting for validation and confirmation of our compatibility as spouses, parents.

Stef confirmed the venue the week we notified our parents of the baby. I had just started a new job—a new career, actually—and had not even seen the place, but I knew by her emoji-heavy text messages and exclamation marks she wanted a wedding there. It wasn’t my childhood fantasy we were chasing.

Stef promised I could choose the invitation’s font. “Choose one soon!!!!!” she wrote in the email with the printer’s samples. The email lingered in my inbox while I contemplated our options, our future. “Let’s get these ordered this week!!!! :) :)!!” she wrote again. I wavered between two I liked, one modern with thin, narrow letters and the other more traditional, a formal cursive. And then like that, Stef was not pregnant anymore. We spent the night in the hospital, her bleeding, me holding her hand except when the nurse made me wait in the hallway. She cried in the morning confessing she had already ordered the invitations. We both knew we would never send them now. She had chosen Neue Modern 200.

* * *

Nadav enjoyed telling me stories from his past while we worked. I assume he often exaggerated or simply lied, but the stories entertained me. Sometimes his stories were short like jokes. Sometimes he recalled his freelance assignments to distant places like Sudan, Antarctica, East Hempstead. But mostly he spoke about Israel and his time in the IDF and war and sex.

His favorite stories involved women. He thought himself an expert on the subject. We were in the studio shooting products for my agency: “One time, I met this beautiful girl. She was remarkable, blonde and light skinned. Israel is not a place with many blonde girls. But she was, and natural too. I like the way she looked and she thought I was funny. I told good jokes then. So we had a nice weekend together at the beach. She was a Lieutenant. She outranked me.”

I happened on this new career by accident. I had wasted my youth pretending to write poetry and screenplays, and after a long period of low employment, I decided to apply for real jobs. The recession began in earnest six weeks after I decided to grow up. The only agency willing to hire me focused on what they described as specialty markets. The best thing I can say is we didn’t do pornography. Most often we shot knockoff jewelry and plastic party favors. Nadav worked freelance. I hired him when I could because he entertained me and he accepted the offer because we paid better than newspapers and magazines.

“Between her rank and the blonde hair, we had a very sexy night. But afterward, we are sent back to our posts, and that is it. I think: we had a nice time, but goodbye. So life goes. But then, ah, then a few years later I am driving my motorcycle along the highway and something goes wrong. It sputters. I don’t know. So I pull off the highway into this settlement. It is a small village. At the garage there is this blonde woman. And I think, this cannot be. And I say to her, Ayelet? And she says, ‘no, but Ayelet is my sister.’ And so I tell her how I had such a nice time with her sister at the Dead Sea, on a long weekend. So Efrat, that is her name, the sister, she insists I stay for dinner with her. So the two of us eat dinner, and then, you know—she happens too.”

“I don’t believe it,” I say, kind of as a challenge to get more details from him, but also because I don’t believe him.

“Yes, why would I lie to you? I do not need to lie.”

I felt he was always sincere. I could never tell when he was lying. I think that’s why people liked him so much; they never knew if he was telling them the truth or not, and in their confusion, they implicitly trusted him.

“But that is not the end,” he said. He stood with his face in the lens aligning the camera. “I think I like this angle better,” he said.

“That’s not what they want.”

“I shoot digital images. It costs us nothing. I will shoot it both ways, and then they will have two angles. And then they will use what I am saying here. The angle is better. Anyway, that was not the end. You see, I was in Tel Aviv some years later, just before Bush invaded Iraq the second time. Everyone knows the war is coming. We’re all thinking Saddam will shoot missiles again or the Lebanese will fire artillery or someone will set off bombs on the bus. We are all on the brink of dying, all of the time. And then I see Efrat at a club. She is with Ayelet.”

“Oh, that sounds like trouble. You finally getting your comeuppance,” I say to him before adding, “your karma,” because he does not recognize the word comeuppance.

“You think it will be bad, but it is not. They share a flat together now, and so we got back there and smoke some pot and then I have them both, together.”

“Bullshit.”

“I shit you not.”

“That’s fairy tale stuff,” I said.

“No, that’s what happens when you face death every day. You learn to live.”

I cannot tell if he believes his bullshit or not.

* * *

I met Nadav almost a decade ago when I still worked in journalism. Then I wrote for pennies on the word. He had been assigned to shoot photos to run alongside my articles. One of our early assignments together involved the two of us traveling out to Long Island. That summer, locals found some kind of creature had washed up on the beach. It looked just like a dead dog carcass bloated from the sun and salt water. But Nadav, he told me he believed it was something else. “You know they have a government facility out here? Animal testing. Maybe it is some kind of monster—how you say, a mutation.”

I laughed slightly, thinking he had been joking. On that trip, I had only met him once or twice before and still I wasn’t sure what to do with the things he said.

“You don’t believe me. But I know. I’ve seen worse things, scary things. I was part of the army intelligence.”

I decided not to laugh a second time.

“This one time we were doing a joint operation with the Americans, this was before the war, but we still spied on the Arabs together because we are good friends and nobody trusts the Arabs. And the American commander says he will show us a Top Secret tool that will help us. He said it was a dog they controlled with computers like a video game. Crazy, right? But you could make him run and jump and follow you and do all the spying.”

“Wow,” I said, beginning maybe to believe him. “Are you serious?”

“No, I am joking. And of course this monster is a dog. There are not monsters in the ocean.”

And then we laughed together.

* * *

I wanted to earn more money than journalism or poetry could ever pay. Nadav warned me. He told me a creative person should never give up on his art. Later, when we needed a photographer at the last minute, I called him offering twice his usual day rate. Now we both made a lot more money selling cheap trinkets than we ever earned selling stories.

The agency I worked for was small, without expectations to grow or prospects to advance. But we had a steady line of customers and a paycheck every month. Today we were shooting bracelets and necklaces for a fine jewelry wholesaler. It was cheap plastic shit assembled in China, but the design studios were still located here and so we shot merchandise every quarter. By the time the container ship of bracelets arrived, we’d be shooting the following quarter’s spread. We worked in the future.

We didn’t just deal in trinkets, of course. We advertised going out of business sales and standup comedy shows and strip clubs introducing new girls or the same girls with new hairstyles. The best I can say of my work is that it often ends up in the hands of men wearing very fine suits. Nadav doesn’t give a shit what we shoot anymore just as long as everyone pays. We always pay him. He uses the money to offset the costs of his journalism.

We are shooting jewelry at two in the morning because in six hours he boards a plane to São Paulo. He is going to shoot prostitutes for a story about the impact of the World Cup on the sex trade. I need to deliver the jewelry catalogue in four days.

“I’m smoking a cigarette,” he says.

He smokes these harsh French cigarettes that are illegal in the United States. He buys them at airports. He walks across the studio toward the window.

“You can’t smoke in here,” I call over to him, but he already has it lit with his head half out the window. He strikes an odd pose because the windows are big industrial structures that only open along the bottom and bend outward at a forty-five degree angle.

“At two in the morning, who gives a shit,” he said. “You sound like Sophia.”

Nadav lives with Sophia now in an expensive loft, but they met in Iraq while covering American troop movements for competing news agencies. She wrote articles for magazines. He shot photos. They fell in love—some version of love. She is half-Lebanese and hates that he smokes French cigarettes.

* * *

Sophia’s mother was Lebanese, her father a French diplomat until the socialists took power and recalled him. Afterward, they moved to Boston, where her father taught government at Harvard and her mother kept house. Claude, her father, had family money. It always seemed to Sophia like an odd thing to say, but half of her bloodline, like all good French nobles, could trace its ancestry back to Charlemagne. Her other half came from Beirut, a capital city that could barely keep the electricity on.

Sophia spoke fluent French with a Parisian accent and drew a stipend from a trust arranged by her grandfather. At dinner parties, she insisted that she hated the French colonial system. Her first act of defiance had been to attend Yale instead of Harvard. Her second had been to run off to a war zone. She floated between the Far East and Africa volunteering for non-profit organizations as recompense for the French Empire. To stick it to her French ancestors, she taught English. Eventually, frustrated with global capitalism, she volunteered at medical clinics. She exhausted her career opportunities falling into journalism by accident with her primary qualification the family money to pay her rent.

She and Nadav met on the frontlines of one of those Middle Eastern conflicts the papers were always going on about. They were embedded with troops, Israeli or French or American or somebody, though back then nobody actually said “embedded” because the word had not yet been invented. But they bedded down together because Nadav is a charming motherfucker and Sophia could disarm hardened war criminals with her mother’s delicate elegance. Nadav is helped by his own rugged choirboy appearance. He is, I think, a little bit older than he lets on.

Two weeks after they starting sharing a bed, the war ended. Or at least the war ended for the American consumer. Ratings evaporated and their agencies reassigned them. Print was dying. Sophia was sent to Russia to cover protests and Nadav sent on an assignment he describes as “safe and boring,” because it didn’t involve getting shot at daily. But then the two of them decided they couldn’t live without each other and after a month they agreed to relocate to New York because she was a citizen and he could acquire a visa. Seven years later he and I are shooting jewelry together in the studio at two in the morning.

* * *

I proposed to Stefanie for the second time shortly after the U.S. began withdrawing from Iraq. She wore the same ring, but we found a new apartment. We moved in on the day that would have been our wedding. I found mixed among Stef’s things the box of old invitations.

Stef flashed the ring when necessary, I adjusted pronouns substituting “we” for “I,” and sometimes, when she was drunk, Stef would talk about Larchmont or South Orange in a wistful way that frightened me. But we kept delaying the wedding.

Looking back I see we had confused comfort for happiness. Momentum is a powerful force and New York City rent isn’t getting cheaper. We tolerated each other in exchange for luxuries like Sunday brunch and bespoke lattes. Together, we earned enough to live in a comfortable apartment in a comfortable neighborhood. Alone we’d be just two people struggling to pay our rent.

Stefanie traveled for work every other week and I kept late hours at the agency and so neither of us noticed how much the other had changed. I loved who Stefanie had been, the geeky bio-chem major who played Magic cards. She in turn loved the poet I once thought I could be. But now she sold pharmaceuticals and I wrote ad copy. The secret of our longevity was that we never saw each other.

I raised my concerns with Nadav. He thinks my anxieties are amusing. “You don’t have problems. You have a very nice marriage.”

“We aren’t married yet.”

“But you live together. And you’re going to get married. And you get along. And she has nice breasts. What is the problem?”

“We don’t have anything in common. Literally, nothing. How can our marriage work? We don’t even share a favorite ketchup brand. We keep both Hunt’s and Heinz in the refrigerator.”

“Does she like having sex with you?”

“I guess. But there is more to marriage than sex.”

“You know what a problem is? A problem would be a mother-in-law who has been a member of a government that insists you do not have the right to exist. A problem is a father-in-law who may have been Nazi sympathizer. A problem is a wife who cannot give you a Jewish child. These are problems. What you have? What you have is a sitcom.”

“That’s not exactly true.”

“Yes, sitcoms are funnier.”

* * *

Sophia wants to marry Nadav. She wants them to live off her trust and travel the world and have two children and live on the Upper East Side and join the board of a non-profit hospital. Problem: Nadav won’t marry her. He has lots of reason to offer as to why they can’t get married. He says he doesn’t have enough money. He says he wants a child who will be a Jew. He keeps postponing. Her friends are married, having babies, attending socially responsible fundraising dinners, hosting children’s birthday parties at the zoo.

“How can I marry her now when I don’t make enough money to pay our rent?” Nadav asks me one night while we wait for the subway. He pretends Sophia doesn’t have family money. He pretends I don’t know how much his loft rents for or that I know he could never afford to pay for half of it. For Nadav, he is restless. He knows marrying her means he cannot run off to the frontline and shoot pictures of soldiers shooting children. He cannot spend two months in the Balkans photographing warlords and dodging border patrols and Russian tanks. He cannot make portraits of South American political officials showing off the wealth earned from their part in the war on drugs. He feels restless because he’s only been shooting beads and trinkets and shiny things for catalogues. His last assignment for a magazine involved the scandals of a beauty queen pageant.

* * *

The other times that Stef and I have broken up, she won all of our mutual friends. If we were to break up now, three months before our wedding, for the second time, none of our friends would choose me. Even Nadav might stop talking to me and I write his paychecks.

But then one night Stef and I are eating dinner at the restaurant by our apartment. It’s a perfectly satisfactory restaurant, just comfortable enough to eat at every night without the exhausting feeling of eating out. She picks at the chicken on her plate before finally she says, “I don’t think we should get married.”

I want a cinematic moment where I sigh in relief and we both laugh about how neither of us wanted to marry the other anyway, and we go on to be the best of friends. But the first thing I say is, “we’ll lose the deposit this time.”

“Yes.”

“I’m going to find it very difficult to explain this to my mother. Again.” I allowed the “again” to dangle over our dinner. I wanted to hurt her despite also wanting to break off the wedding. Now that she is the one mentioning breaking up for the third time, I want to hang on, seek couples therapy, talk out our feelings with sock puppets, make it work.

“I was talking to my mother this afternoon—” Every conversation that has ended with us breaking up begins with Stef talking to her mother. “—and it occurred to me that, well, my parents, have been together for almost forty years, and they kind of can’t stand each other. They are never alone together in the same room. My mother was talking about calling a cab to get to the airport to come out here because my father wanted to drive across country. I mean, they are literally traveling eighteen hundred miles by different modes of transportation just so they don’t have to spend three hours on an airplane together.”

“You know Nadav would say that we don’t have real problems. He and Sophia, they have real problems because he is a Jewish Israeli, his would be mother-in-law served in the Lebanese government. Now that’s a problem. She literally doesn’t believe in his right to exist. That’s incompatibility.”

“Nadav would marry her anyway. If he really loved her.”

And then I realize we are actually ending things. “What are we going to do?”

“I can pack a bag and stay at the hotel at the airport. I’m leaving early tomorrow anyway for Tucson. I can worry about finding a new place when I get back.”

“Okay,” I say.

I sip my wine and then call over the waiter to order a beer. She chews and swallows. And after what seems a natural pause in conversation although still an eternity, “so, chicken cacciatore—do you remember that joke about the colonials and the British and the chicken that catches a Tory?”

* * *

“This one time I was at the airport and I end up switching airplane seats with this man. He really wants to sit next to the woman I am sitting next to. I don’t care so much because I just want to sleep and she isn’t that pretty anyway. So I say, ‘sure, take my seat.’ He sits next to her on the whole flight chatting her up and then later after we arrive he waves at me and I see he is taking the woman away with him in this shiny sports car. Anyway, I am on the assignment for a magazine, because the war has just ended here. So I’m driving through the mountains along the border of Hungary and Croatia. We’re in U.N. Humvees, the big white ones. I have all this camera equipment with me, like maybe thirty thousand U.S. dollars worth. This is before digital too.”

Nadav is telling me this while we sit outside in a park a block from the studio. He wanted a cigarette and now the landlord had installed these large signs about smoking within fifty feet of the entrance, and sometimes the security guard comes along and yells at him. So now our day is punctuated by his smoking breaks once an hour.

“So at some point they stop our convoy. They are gangsters, and so they do not care that we are with the U.N. or that we are with the press. They make us get out and steal the two trucks. Lucky, the gangsters just want the trucks and they don’t shoot us. It is never good to shoot press. But they make us walk back to town. And they have taken my cameras and my film, and now I have nothing. So later that night I see my friend from the airplane. He is at the hotel bar. He is very pleased. He tells me that the woman was his friend from school who he had not seen her in a long time and he wanted to talk without her knowing it was him to see if she still was how he remembered her. She was! He tells me he is going to marry her. Anyway, I explain to him what happened. He says, ‘Nadav, don’t worry. Everything will work out by morning.’”

Nadav stomps out the cigarette and we start walking back to the studio.

“The next day, as I am getting ready to leave, the woman at the front desk of the hotel says, you have a delivery. She hands me my bag of cameras and the film and everything is there.”

“How did that happen?”

“It turns out my friend from the airplane, he was the mafia man. He was the boss. So he got his men to return my camera. The television crew, the TV people, they had nothing. The tour trucks—stolen, repainted. But my bag, it comes back to me.”

“Wow,” I say.

“I know, crazy, right?”

But I stopped listening to him because I see Stef across the street. She is just walking along carefree. She seems so happy and I feel like a voyeur watching her joy. I have not seen her since she moved out of the apartment six months earlier and I don’t know if should say anything.

“That is her,” Nadav points out, just in case I didn’t see.

“Yes, thank you.”

“You don’t need to say hello. But you will feel better if you do,” he offers.

Before I have a chance to decide, Stef spots us. She waves to confirm to us that she has seen us and now if I ignore her, I will be the rude one.

* * *

Sophia is pregnant with Nadav’s baby. She told him after it was too late to do anything about it. She told him she would raise the child by herself. It didn’t really matter to her what he did because she wanted a baby, but he should probably be in his child’s life. For a whole week he is bitter and pissed off at her. She told him about the baby on a Tuesday night during what would have been my honeymoon. The whole week he is complaining, “How could she do this to me? I can’t believe she got pregnant.” I am preoccupied with my own crisis and I simply do not hear him.

Stef informed me when to not be in the apartment because she wanted to move her things out. Finally, I say to Nadav: “you are having a baby. It is not about what Sophia did to you or what you want with her or don’t want with her or her mother or the Lebanese. You are having a fucking baby.”

I think he was surprised by my outburst. I was surprised. He said, “Good, you have a lot of anger. I’m glad you can take it out on me. Stef, she is a nice girl, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t allowed to be mad.”

* * *

Nadav waits by the building entrance while Stef and I speak. He is smoking another cigarette under the sign that says no smoking within fifty feet of the building entrance.

“So you look good,” I say to her.

“Yeah, thanks. So do you.” She is still smiling but nervous now as she twists her hair around her finger.

“Is this an accident, coming by the studio, like this?”

“Yes, totally, but I’m glad, because I wanted to see you. I mean, honestly, I kind of forgot you work over here.”

“Thanks.”

“Its not that, I mean, really, I guess I never thought about it before. Its not like we ever did business together.”

“No that’s true,” I say. “You seem like you are doing alright.”

“Yes, I know you heard I started seeing Josh.”

“Yeah, Kimmy told me.”

“And you and Lara, I mean, duh. The two of you—perfect match.”

“We’re taking things slow.”

“Why were you with me when you could have been with her?”

“I didn’t know that I could be with her—” I realize my error, “I’m sorry, I just meant, well, you and I were together, how could I have thought about dating other people?”

“No, you’re right. Really. But isn’t that the point? You and me, unhappily ever after, or you and Lara and me and Josh, maybe, actually, happy.”

“So you are happy then?”

“Yes. Yes. I can’t—I don’t want to make you sad by saying, unbelievably so. But more happy than I was, definitely.”

“That’s good, I’m glad.” And I mean it. We talk for a few more minutes about silly things. Then we hug. It’s the kind of congenial hug signifying nothing except the vastness of time and space between us.

* * *

The night Sophia goes into labor we have a deadline. We don’t have a choice but to keep shooting. If we don’t finish, Nadav, me, and the agency will be fired. She takes a cab to the hospital alone while we shoot photos of plastic beaded earrings. We are faster than we have ever been. Nadav stops taking smoke breaks. We only shoot the angles the client asks for. We finish just after ten. Sophia has been at the hospital for an hour, alone, but we have plenty of time. The contractions have slowed. The doctor says it will likely be late into tomorrow before a baby is born.

I decide to stay, because I know Nadav would do the same. Besides, Sophia’s parents finally arrive and now he has to be both father-to-be and the son-in-law-not-by-law. At two in the morning, he and I go across the street to a twenty-four hour Starbucks to buy everyone a round of lattes.

“I never thought this would happen, you know, that I would be doing this.”

“Becoming a father?”

“Living here in the United States with an Arab woman.”

“Life is unexpected that way.”

“And having a baby. That surprises me too. I didn’t think that. I have had—you know, other times where I thought maybe—other accidents. Have you ever had that happen? Have you ever had an accident?”

I thought about the first time Stef and I were engaged, when we were picking out cribs from the IKEA catalogue. I thought about how much I didn’t give a fuck about wedding venues and wedding invitations, but we were having a baby so there was that to worry about. And then we weren’t having a baby anymore and Stef kept looking at wedding invitations and flowers and bridesmaids’ dresses. She kept planning. I think maybe it was her way of filling the emptiness to busy herself with cakes and bands and periwinkle cardstock with lavender flowers and a New Modern font.

She knew we shouldn’t. Maybe we only got engaged the second time to prove to each other we were doing it for real, not just because of a defective condom. But Stef was right. I could tell Nadav all of this, about why Stef and I broke up, why we got together, about the dead baby.

“No, I don’t think I’ve ever had that happen,” I say to Nadav, thinking that telling a new father about the almost-baby is not the most auspicious way to start parenthood. The cellular phone rings. It’s time. Sophia is pushing the baby out.

“Could you bring the coffees to her parents?” Nadav asks. “I want to buy the baby some flowers.” He says this nodding to the bodega across the street. I am in the elevator riding up to the maternity ward before I realize I don’t know if he is telling me the truth.