CHAPTER FOUR: An Unlikely Match
To say that Diane and I were an unlikely match would be an understatement. No less of an understatement would be to say we were a match made in heaven.
I was born in Jerusalem to an orthodox Jewish family. My father was named Yitzhak, after the biblical son of Abraham. His parents, Ovadya Batat and his wife Rachel, were refugees; they left a good life in Iraq due to the growing violence against Jews and ventured to the newly born Israel with its establishment in 1948. They were allowed to bring one suitcase each. My father was approximately three years old at the time; he has no idea when his birthday is, as birth certificates were not issued in Iraq. The young family arrived at a refugee camp in the middle of Jerusalem. My father spent the first seven years of his life in a hut with no running water, until it was his family’s turn to receive a small apartment from the recently established government. In his memoir he describes the joy and amazement he felt when he entered the tiny apartment, immediately trying the faucet in excitement to ensure that water actually came out.
My mother’s name is Tzviah. She almost lost her life in the fight to get this name. Born in the hot desert of Yemen, she became desperately ill when she was one month old. Nothing helped. With no doctors around, the poor desert people referred to the holy books. The conclusion was that her originally chosen name was the cause. They changed it to Tzviah, which means female deer, and she healed instantly. Her parents, Levi and Sarah Alsheich, brought her to Jerusalem a few months later during the winter of 1949. They had nothing. Levi was a gentle, quiet religious scholar who was orphaned at a young age. Barefoot, he walked the unpaved streets of the expanding city to look for various jobs. They lived inside a tent in a less fortunate refugee camp, with no central faucet but featured an open sewer. My grandmother often repeats the story of the woman who held her baby above the open pit to do his business — since no diapers were available — when he slipped from her soiled hands into the darkness below. Her screams, my grandmother told me, were heard in the entire camp.
Levi became a stone cobbler, cutting marble tiles for floors. Sarah cleaned offices. They, too, eventually got an apartment from the government in which my grandmother still lives to this day. Two decades later my parents raised their five children in a small apartment just a few streets away. They struggled but managed. My father worked during the day as a dedicated, trusted government accountant. In addition to raising five children, my mother worked a few evenings and nights every week as an emergency room receptionist.
The later proved to be convenient due to my frequent hospitalizations. I was a healthy kid, but only in spirit. My body constantly struggled to survive, as if rejected by the world which seemed incompatible to my sensitivities. Most of all, I struggled to breath. I grew up soaking up the streets of Jerusalem, and she, in return, etched her love in my heart forever. This gift I only discovered decades later. The poverty consciousness in which we were raised has fueled my determination to make money, and I immigrated to America at the age of twenty-three without a hint of remorse. I’ve been here half of my life, which makes me an Israeli-American Arab-Jew. I am fluent in Hebrew, English, and can mostly understand Aramaic.
I ache to learn Arabic.
For the first 38 years of my life, I have grossly neglected my body. Like a traditional autistic, I treated it as a nuisance and simply ignored it for as long as I could. I over-ate, over-slept, and over-medicated myself with sugary substances in a desperate attempt to energize my increasingly failing body. I suffered from intense allergies to common ingredients such as eggs that continuously tortured my skin, as well as from a severe form of asthma that eliminated any desire to exercise.
The sensory overload from the constant physical inflammation, coupled with the ongoing shortness of breath, increasingly fed my chronic anxiety. In turn, the anxiety fueled my autistic tendencies to detach myself from my body by self-medicating with a wide array of compulsive pleasures, namely candy. The fiery sugars gave me temporary energetic spikes that were naturally followed by weariness, and the weariness was treated with more candy. The vicious cycle strangely rewarded the pattern of self-pity that I wrapped myself with.
I thought I was, and therefore was, an ugly kid.
Over the years, my continuous lack of care for my physical vessel caused my health to spiral down further, and by the time I was in my early thirties my body was in complete shambles. My life-long psychological dependency on the inhaler was a part of my DNA. The allergies caused me to constantly itch until I bled, and they seemed to flare up more and more frequently. My obsession with carbohydrates – which were my main source of energy – caused me chronic constipation, which caused me to bleed when I eliminated the vast amounts of food I consumed but inefficiently digested. I also suffered from severe sleep apnea, which exacerbated my increasingly chronic fatigue, causing me to consume even more sugars. This went on for years, slowly materializing into a real crisis. I kept doing what I did best, which was to escape into the safe refuge of my analytical mind.
My reality grew darker. On its face, all was well – I was in my early thirties, single, free, and well paid as an entry-level executive in an international software company. But my troubling health, coupled with the ever-growing void of purposeless living, was a wet blanket on the flame of my spirit. I could no longer ignore the fact that I was miserable. I was dying, physically and emotionally — and deep down inside, I knew it.
That was when I met Diane.
Diane Juliette Sherman was born in Los Angeles, California. Her birth father, Eugene Franklin Sherman, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covered the Pacific War, eye-witnessed the first tests of the atomic bomb, and sat with world leaders such as President Truman. Mr. Sherman died suddenly at an airport at the age of fifty-four. His heart, which withstood the horrors of war, gave in to years of alcohol consumption, cigarette smoking, and spikey adrenaline rushes. This was Diane’s second loss of her beloved father; the first took place two years earlier, when her parents divorced. None of these details mattered. In Diane’s mind, he was a knight in shining armor who at the time of his death was heading to see her for her seventh birthday party. He never showed up, and after the funeral – which Diane was shielded from attending – her party went on as planned. She remembered sitting at the table with her eyes glazing at the presents, trying to make sense of the dark reality that engulfed her existence.
Due to the dynamic profession of her birth father, Diane was moved around continuously as a child. The trend did not stop when her mother re-married, this time to a physicist; the three continued to move as was dictated by professional opportunities. By the time they finally landed in Oakland, California, Diane was thirteen years old, and had already lived in Los Angeles, London, Washington DC, and Denver, Colorado. The challenges of being an only child were exacerbated by the repeating moves and constantly contributed to her sense of continuous loss. For the entire drive from Denver to Oakland, she tormented her parents by singing — out load — “Yesterday”, “Memories” and “The Way We Were”.
She spent the next thirty years in Oakland, to which she called home, until we met.
Our meeting was a miracle that only the mysterious hands of fate could muster. I was working for an American technology company but positioned in London. One day I learned that the company I worked for was being acquired by a technology giant. To me, this was bad news. A Green Card process is like a pregnancy — you must go all the way or the whole thing goes down the drain. Knowing my position was at risk of elimination, I flew myself to San Francisco in an attempt to solve my immigration issue once and for all. This was not the first time I faced this type of crisis; after almost 10 years of butting heads with the corroded, deficient, and unjust bureaucracy of the American immigration system, I was ready to take desperate measures. I called my friend, an Israeli-immigrant lesbian who was well connected in the bustling city, and asked for her help.
“I can't do this anymore, Tali,” I concluded after describing my situation. “I need a solution.”
“Didn’t your girlfriend suggested to marry you — what was her name — “
“Liz. Yes, she did. Isabelle offered to get married, too.”
Tali looked at me, puzzled. “So…?”
“Marrying your girlfriend so you can get a Green Card is like buying an investment property but living in it. By the time it is time to get out, you are losing something you call home. I told them I want to marry once and once only, and for the right reasons.”
“Ooh,” Tali nodded in disapproval. “I bet they didn’t take it well.”
It took me a few seconds to grasp her meaning. “Huh. No, they didn’t. I see how it would be hurtful for them to hear. But I meant it. I want the magical story. I know she is out there, Tali. I am willing to wait.”
“A romantic,” she chuckled. “Your kind are far and few between. I still don’t get how you didn’t manage to get your Green Card after ten years of living here.”
I sighed. “It’s complicated. I won’t bore you with the details. But remember that my first job was with a diplomatic passport, and I couldn’t apply. The first Green Card process tanked when I switched to this job, and this one will tank if I lose it.”
“So what now?”
“I need a permanent solution."
Tali looked at me sympathetically. “How can I help?"
"Find me a wife. I will pay $10,000. It should take about 6 to 12 months. I want her to be a lesbian – this way there will be no risk of any emotional complications.”
Her jaw dropped. “I thought you wanted to marry for love, and only once.”
“It won’t be a real marriage. I have no choice, Tali. It’s either this or going back to Israel. My life is here. I played by the rules and that has not served me well. Time to take action.”
Tali couldn’t think of anyone, and I could tell she was a bit reluctant to support my compulsive plan. She did, however, invite me to her house that weekend for a networking gathering. “Maybe you’ll meet someone who can help you find a new job,” she speculated.
I sighed. I knew my visa could no longer be extended. It was as if the universe had conspired against me. Alas, what was I to do? Despite my dismissive attitude, I graciously accepted her invitation and ended up at the gathering. Maybe I’ll meet an older woman I can dazzle with my charm, I thought. I almost turned back midway but pushed myself forward. “You never know,” I mumbled to myself while driving to her house.
After being greeted by Tali, I continued straight towards the food to medicate my social anxiety, only to find a short haired, blue eyed, effulgent woman standing by the cheese and vegetable trays.
I felt a strange, pleasant vibration spreading throughout my body. It was nothing like I have seen or felt before. My heart felt like it was expanding in a warm, blissful manner. Once our eyes met, I knew it was mutual; it was as if we were connected somehow.
“What… Who… Who are you…?” I heard myself asking, my eyes fixed on shy smile.
“I’m Diane… Who are you?”
“I’m Aerez. How do you know Tali?”
“I just met her last week at this dance thing, and she invited me here. Truth is, I don’t know anyone here, and I feel a bit shy – “
“I’ll be your friend,” I seized the moment, reaching my hands forward.
She was instantly hooked. Two days later we sat together for our first date, recapping the serendipitous manner with which we met. When I told her I came to the gather to “find a wife”, she burst out laughing.
“I have a confession, too.”
“I was attracted to Tali… that’s why I came to the gathering.”
We both laughed and continued to interview each other, asking questions such as “where do you want to live” and “how many kids do you want.” I was horrified when she said “none,” but dismissed my own concern. People change their minds, I thought. I told her about my family. When I mentioned that my brother was only twenty-five, she was suddenly alarmed.
“Wait, what? How old are YOU?”
“Thirty-two. Why, how old are you?”
She did not look her age. Nor did I, and for opposite reasons. We both looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. The attraction was simply too powerful to ignore. We managed to have one more date before I had to go back to London. Two weeks later, I offered that she would accompany me to Israel, for a friend’s wedding. “You have to meet my parents,” I said.
We were engaged three months later. Interestingly enough, I also got to keep my job, which survived the acquisition.
Diane expressed her disdain for my eating choices — and taste in furniture — right from the get go. I terminated the rental contract on my San Jose apartment and moved into her Oakland condo while leaving most of my belongings behind. I moved in with 2 suitcases, my stereo receiver, a few pillows and my beloved books – all fitting spaciously in my Ford Bronco. As a health nut and a yoga teacher, it did not take Diane long to discover the extent of my physical mess. Not only she was fearful I would die on her, like her father did, but in her mind my state of health translated directly into a potential future financial liability. She wasted no time in trying to heal it. “I married a dud,” she would joke bitterly, frustrated that I was rarely able to engage in sensual or physical play. Physical activities were a necessity for her fiery disposition, and when we spent too much time chatting endlessly indoors – a favorite activity for a mental head such as myself — she grew irritated and annoyed. It was me she wanted to go hiking and ride bikes with; what's the point of having a partner if he is unable to do things with? She attempted to steer her mounting energetic frustration towards healing me, but I dismissed her altogether.
“Many have tried,” I said with a hint of pride, taking a huge bite from the thick crust of a greasy slice of pizza. “They all failed. Just let it go.”
She didn’t, and continued to give me the evil-eye until I dumped the entire tray in the garbage, annoyed. I was sent to an Ayurvedic doctor, an Indian woman name Yash, who promised to be mindful of my abnormally allergic disposition. “Don’t use any essential oils – or anything that smells, for that matter,” I warned her. “My skin will react.” She nodded in reassurance and rubbed my entire body in unscented herb-infused milk, as Diane took notes with satisfaction. The next morning my skin flared into a carpet of swelled heat, and for four days I moaned in misery as my body burned, itched, and ached.
Diane was horrified.
“I told you,” I said, my face deformed in anguish as she rubbed my skin with a cooling cilantro paste. “I wasn’t exaggerating. My body is super sensitive… Just let it go.”
She didn’t. Determination is both Diane’s superpower and Achilles’ heel. She kept nudging me, this time soliciting a digestive cleanse. “Let’s just see how you feel if you clean your body for a few days,” she pushed, convinced the experiment would help me feel better. “Besides, you might as well give up the fight – my mom says I am like a Chinese faucet used for torture – drip, drip, drip – I never stop until I get what I want.”
She got what she wanted, which in my opinion, was to torture me. Oblivious to the depth of my psychological obsession with food, I agreed to eat nothing but a cup of rice for three days. Anything to get her off my back, I thought. Diane watched with hopeful anticipation as I launched into the challenging feat. By the third day, my anxiety mounted so high that I was pacing around obsessively, endlessly vocalizing the prospects of my post-fast food choices. Diane finally gave up. She witnessed in horror as I rewarded my suffering with a giant burger and crispy fries, and since that evening she deserted her conspicuous crusade to heal me and limited her contribution to gentle nudges, healthy cooking, and the occasional bolster-stretch in an attempt to open my hunched shoulders. She would find stashes of candy everywhere – in the car, by the bed, and in the cupboards – but knew there was nothing she could do. My participation in her experiments were mere attempts to humor her, nothing more; my identity was entwined with my belief that my failing body was here to stay, a crucial ingredient for the making of my neurotic personality and the uniqueness that had defined who I was.
The attachment I had to my suffering was mirrored by Diane’s adherence to her grief. She wholeheartedly believed that her heartache would never let go of its paralyzing hold. I first encountered the depth of her open wound when I accidentally ran over a raccoon in our sketchy Oakland neighborhood. Diane’s wailing was so authentically-intense, I decided right there and then that I would not rest until she was healed from her life-long emotional suffering.
It was in that moment when I shifted the focus of my obsessive mind towards the chaotic realm of the psyche. As a high functioning autistic, I never experienced any emotional pain I couldn’t rationally disperse. I grew up in an environment where no one expressed vulnerability. Therapists, was the notion, existed only for crazy people. Lacking any conscious emotional intelligence of my own — other than my intuitive fatherly love towards all that was feminine — I simply did not comprehend Diane’s swinging moods. I was convinced that her broken heart would mend instantly if only she would pay close attention to the rational arguments I abundantly showered her with.
To my surprise, it didn’t work.
I wasn’t quite ready to give up. I came up with various ideas on how to provide her closure. She dismissed my efforts, much like I dismissed her attempts to heal my body.
“I have been to therapy for years,” she said. “Just let it go.”
“How old were you when you visited your father’s grave for the first time?” I pressed, determined to continue my logical course of inquiry.
“I’ve never been to the grave,” she replied. “What’s the point? I am not even sure where he is buried. You have to understand — for all intents and purposes, my step-dad is, and always was, my dad. I remember very little of Gene. Remember, my parents got divorced when I was five. I barely remember him. You are barking up the wrong tree.”
I wasn’t convinced. She was obviously still wounded. She would burst into tears with any mention of her biological father, or when the topic of premature death would come up somehow — even when watching a movie.
Our move out of Oakland was fueled by a mutual eagerness to escape the San Francisco Bay Area. Diane was afraid that once her aging parents reached the final phase of their lives, she would never have the opportunity to live anywhere else. I, on the other hand, was simply overwhelmed by the bustling urban vibe as well as Diane’s intense social lifestyle, and was desperate to provide my assaulted senses with some relief. We started our search; first casually, then with the relentlessness that trademarked Diane’s determined attitude. One spring I took her on a surprise trip to see Nelson, a small hippy town in British Colombia. We flew into Spokane, a small city located on the eastern side of Washington state. Located in the high desert, Spokane featured four full seasons, which was a mandatory requirement on Diane’s list of living destinations. The small town was blooming in its glory, saturating Diane with natural beauty she simply couldn’t resist. We decided to come back a few months later and meet a real estate agent just for the fun of it. When Diane saw a charming, majestic-looking old colonial house in one of Spokane’s more quiet neighborhoods, she concluded the search was over.
“That’s the house,” she announced. “That’s the one I want.”
“I am not buying a 105-year-old home,” I replied, alarmed. “I learned my lesson after three years in Oakland. I will be working endlessly to maintain it – “
“That’s the one,” she repeated, this time in a firm voice. “Or I am not moving.”
“Then we are not moving,” I concluded. “We can’t move because of a house. That’s lunacy.”
We moved a couple of months later.
Shortly after we moved, I took her on another surprise trip. To prevent her from knowing the destination, she covered her eyes as we approached the gate, and I sang in her ears every time the ground crew announced the boarding. There was something romantic about not knowing where she was going, and Diane did not resist. Once we were in the air, however, she was determined to figure out the destination. She looked outside the window, searching for clues.
“We’re obviously going south. But I guess I knew that already, since you told me to pack for light weather.”
I didn’t answer.
“Well, we won’t be going to the bay area… it’s too boring. It looks like we are going down there, though. I don’t get it. You said no connection, right?”
“No, no connection.”
“Well, it must be Los Angeles… but why on earth would you — Oh my god!” She exclaimed. “You are taking me to see my dad’s grave!”
The cat was out of the bag. I was surprised she’d figured it out so quickly, but then again this is Diane, the most intuitive person I have ever met. I nodded and pulled out a folder I had prepared in advanced. Diane started crying, and I handed her a tissue — also prepped in advanced. I had learned a thing or two about her in the three years we were married.
“We don’t have to go see it, of course,” I reassured her. “It is completely your choice. I have a backup plan. We’ll make it a weekend of fun, I have a few places lined up. Shopping, maybe dancing. But if you feel that you are ready… all the information is here.”
“It’s time, you are right,” she sniffled. “Thank you so much. You are such a sweet man. How did you figure out where he was buried?”
“Easy. I asked your mom for the high level details, and called the cemetery for the rest.”
Crying, she looked through the folder which containing the cemetery information, the whereabouts of the grave, and other information I was able to recover. I sat next to her, silent.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. When it came to Diane, such an adventure was quite a gamble. Her emotional swings seemed to have no pattern, a fact that baffled my autistic mind. As to visiting the grave, the point was obvious to me. Closure is key; she never had a chance to say goodbye. Having a tangible object — like a grave — which serves as a medium to communicate with the departed, could make all the difference. Still, I was worried. What if I’d over-stepped my boundaries? I could hear her mother’s resistance when I asked for the information. She warned me not to wake up sleeping beasts. “It’s been forty years,” she said. “Diane is a sensitive woman. What’s the point?”
Now that we were on the plane, however, I could tell that I made the right choice.
We landed around eleven in the morning, but by the time we got our luggage, ate lunch and made our way through the busy Friday traffic towards the cemetery, it was almost closing time. We had one hour. I was not worried; I called ahead and had the cemetery personnel clean the grave from weeds, grass and dirt; I also had a bouquet of flowers waiting for us at the office. “An hour should be plenty,” I told Diane. We grabbed the flowers and a cryptic map of the premises and went to search for the grave.
Alas, finding a 40-year-old tombstone hiding amongst colossal fields of grass proved to be a harder task than I thought. The plots seemed to have been numbered inconsistently, and every time we thought we were getting close, we lost our way again. After almost 40 minutes of driving around, walking the trails and searching intensely amongst the faded tombstones, I could tell Diane was getting stressed. Visiting the grave had suddenly become the most important task in the world.
“We’ll never find it!” She mumbled, her eyes moist. “It’s impossible. They all look alike. This place is huge.”
“I am going to the office to get help,” I assured her. “Just stay around here so I can find you. I’ll be right back!”
I ran to the car, overflowing with the dramatic importance of my mission. In my haste, I did not notice that Diane had placed the bouquet of flowers right in front of the car. I was so absorbed in what I was doing, I heard none of her yelling and drove right over it, flattening the bouquet completely. I then drove towards the office, unaware of the drama I left behind.
The comical yet symbolic destruction of the bouquet had uncorked something in my poor wife’s soul, and she started wailing in despair. She ran towards the grizzly scene, horrified to discover a leveled corpse of mushed leaves, pedals, and stems. She picked up what was left from the beautiful arrangement of white flowers, and started to walk aimlessly amongst the graves, crying uncontrollably. Yet again, fate demonstrated its power; by the time I got back from the already-closed office, she was sitting silently by her father’s grave, writing him a letter. I waited patiently at a distance, giving her space. She eventually signaled for me to join her.
“Check this out,” she pointed at the clean tombstone. “All it says is - ‘Eugene Sherman, -30-‘.
“Why -30-?” I wondered.
“It’s how journalists in his time ended articles. It means end-of-story.”
She looked at me, her eyes full of love, and opened her arms. “Thank you so much,” she teared up with joy. “This was exactly what I needed.”
I nodded, relieved, and hugged her. “How did you find the grave?” I wondered.
She shrugged her shoulders and told me about the flowers. “I just started sobbing,” She recalled. “I started walking around aimlessly with the deformed flowers in my hands, crying uncontrollably. I was sure I’d never find it, but then suddenly found myself standing in front of the grave.”
“Really?” I muttered in disbelief. How was that possible?! My heart still aching from the image of her walking amongst the graves, crying, looking for her lost father.
“So…” she looked at me. “You said you had a fun weekend planned?”
I looked at her, surprised. “Really? You’re OK? We’re done here?”
She looked at the grave, then at me, then smiled. “I am,” she answered. “I wrote him a letter. I think was searching for an idea of a father all those years, a knight on a white horse of sorts. I now realize that I have my knight right here,” she concluded and wrapped her arms around my neck.
I was elated.
As we left the cemetery and went to grab some food, something was apparent to me: the woman who walked with me into the cemetery was not the same as the one who walked out. The change was so dramatic that it almost freaked me out. She appeared more grounded, more centered. Compared to the emotional woman I was married to, this new version of Diane seemed a bit aloof, somewhat detached. We sat at a cafe, laughing and recounting the events of the day, playfully joking about her new emotional demeanor.
“Your father died when you were young,” I tried to evoke emotion, scanning for tears.
“No,” she chuckled. “Nothing.”
“Nothing. Not a tingle. I mean, I’m not happy about it, but it doesn’t hurt like it did before. I feel lighter. The heaviness is gone.”
“Wow,” I looked at her, mesmerized.
Although I hoped my plan would work, I was genuinely surprised by the extent of its success. Was it really possible to stitch closed an open emotional wound in such an instant, after so many years of suffering? I was even more surprised by Diane’s nonchalant attitude about the miraculous chain of events that took place that day. How did she find the grave?
The experience left a deep mark in me. I was hooked. What else was possible when it comes to the psyche? What other wounds, maybe less apparent, await their act of closure?
The question did not leave me in the days, weeks and months following that weekend. My natural tendency to search for patterns was now pointed at the emotional realm. Something told me that there was a system to the madness. For everything to function there must be a mechanism; why not the psyche?
My growing exploration of marijuana could not have been more timely.
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