Nobody Smiles — “Necessary Stories” column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

Is there a dictionary of smiles? I need one. I know what my own smiles mean. I think of my face as a simple platform. It exhibits a range of smiles that clearly convey a certain range of messages, from “that’s nice” to “go away.” The male face has evolved so many layers of meaning that you need to be a master linguist to comprehend them all. That I am not.

One example is the smile on this boy sitting in the seat across from me on Atlanta’s MARTA train. We both got on at the airport. I wheeled in the small carry-on that I’d taken on a two-day business trip, a matter regarding software validation that I won’t bore you with. I have a meeting at the office at eleven and I should get in just in time to run to the bathroom beforehand. In a rush, and with this annoying and ugly eye patch, I am unsteady on my feet and stumbled as I board the train. Someone catches my elbow from behind, and I mutter an automatic but not very nice thank you.

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

     illustration by Pepe Fainberg

I take the aisle facing seat by the door, stowing the wheelie bag underneath. Extracting my Kindle from my purse, I intend to get back into my book club’s latest selection, Homer’s Odyssey. It’s one of those books that must have become a classic simply because back then there was nothing else around to read.

It’s only then that I glace at the seat across from me and see the guy who, apparently, is the one who steadied me. Dressed in a dirty ski jacket with a wool hat sticking out of one pocket, he’s unshouldering a large backpack. He has tousled light brown hair and a beard maybe a week old of a slightly lighter color. He peers at the map behind the side-facing seat next to the door, sits down, and smiles at me.

It’s a bashful smile, for no apparent reason. He’s pretty good-looking.

I return to my book.

He giggles. A guy’s giggle, really something like a guffaw, but more restrained. Definitely not a chuckle.

“Can you tell me where to get off for the Akvarioom?” he asks. Then he giggles again, and smiles. His English is correct, but accented.

Akvarioom? It takes me a few seconds to figure this out.

“Israeli?” I conjecture. We have an office in Herzliyya and sometimes some of them come and spend a week or two working with us on a project. The guys—it’s usually guys. It’s usually guys. Nobody smiles much. Even when they come on to you.

He giggles again. “Is that ok?”

This is the point where I need to decide whether to continue the conversation or go back to my book. I glance at my Kindle and at the guy. I’m not sure.

He half-rises from his seat and extends a hand. “I’m called Ploni,” he says.

If I don’t shake his hand he’ll remain suspended there in that awkward position, which is uncomfortable and looks pretty stupid. So I do.

“I’m called—Valerie,” I say.

He giggles. “Name is. My name is Ploni. Sorry. I keep forgetting.”

“It’s ok.”

“Interesting,” he says. He giggles, or guffaws, or whatever it is. “In Hebrew, we tell you what other people call us. In English, you say the name you call yourself. Maybe it’s not the same. You are called Valerie or your name is Valerie?”

I am not sure where this is going. “Well, um, I guess both.”

“Like,” he says, “its name is Akvarioom, but it is called ….”


“Akwarioom,” he says carefully, rolling the word around in his mouth.

“Aquarium. Don’t you have one in Israel?”

“Oh yes.”

I raise my eyebrow.

“Wherever I go I like to watch fish,” he says, almost apologetically. Then: “Why do you have this bandage on your eye?”

“Corneal abrasion,” I say. “The doctor says this is the cure. The hotel in Boston had sandpaper pillowcases.”

“You see ok?”

“Well enough.”

“Well enough to read, right? Tell me, this book you are reading. What is its name, and what is it called?”

I feel like I need to get around this. “The title,” I say, “is the Odyssey.”

He laughs. “A funny name. And who wrote it?”

I can answer that without getting into the linguistic issue. “Homer,” I say.

“Homer?” His eyes roll up, as if they are scanning his brain. “Homer like in baseball?”

I laughed at that. “No, he’s an ancient Greek poet.”

Ploni’s eyes widen and he smiles again. “Ah!” he says. “I know this poet. This is the one we call I think Omerus.”

“His name’s Homer,” I say firmly.

“You are reading the Odyssiyya, which is about this lonely man’s travels all over the Middle Sea.”

“The Mediterranean,” I say.

“We call it the Middle Sea,” he says. “In the Bible, the Great Sea.”

“It’s kind of boring,” I say. “I thought it was going to be about his adventures with monsters and nymphs, but so far it’s just about trying to get home.”

“It sounds not boring to me.” He holds out his hand. “Can I look?”

“You may.” I sound like a schoolteacher. “You can.” I give him the Kindle. He looks intently, then up at me. I show him how to flip pages.

“‘Then the … the.…” He points at a word.

“Haughty,” I say.

“It means?”
“Stuck up.”

“Ah. ‘Then the haughty suitors …’ And what is a suitor?”

“A suitor is a guy who’s trying to get a girl.”

He frowns for the first time. “So why didn’t Omerus write ‘stuck-up suitors?’ I would sound better. And easier to understand.”

“Omerus,” I correct him, “didn’t write ‘haughty.’ He wrote in Greek. This is a translation, of course.”

“Sometimes I write poems,” he says. “In Hebrew. I would not ever use a word like ‘haughty.’ It’s too …” he laughs. “Too stuck-up, this word.”

He flips forward a couple pages and reads intently. He points. “This is a good line: ‘My mother says I indeed I am his. I for my part do not know. Nobody really knows his own father.’”

I think about that. “You don’t?”

“Don’t what?” he says, staring out the window.

“Know your own father?”

He looks back at me and smiles again, but it looks to me that, unlike the previous ones, this is deliberate, one he is forcing himself into.

“The Akvarioom?” he asks. “Is it the next stop?”

“No,” I say. “Three more. Peachtree. One stop after I get off .”

He looks at me intently. I feel uncomfortable. Maybe I should go back to Odysseus.

Finally he says: “Maybe I’ll get lost.”

“You can’t miss it,” I say.

He rubs his hands through his hair. “I always do.”

I can’t help smiling. “You’re different from the other Israeli guys I’ve met. They always make out that they know everything, that they never make mistakes.”

“I am always going the wrong way,” he laugh. “In the army, too. They call me Barbara.”

“Barbara?” I asked. “In the army?”

“This means a person who gets lost,” he says. “I am very good at shooting, I can carry lots of things on my back, but I don’t find my way. I just follow the sergeant.”

We pull into the next station.

“There are signs all over to the Aquarium,” I say. “You can’t miss it. Ask anyone.”

He leans back in his chair. The smile is a sad one now. Could there be a tear in his eye?

“Maybe,” he says, “I will get off at the next stop.”

I’m confused. “The next stop is Five Points. That’s my stop. You need to get off at Peachtree, one after me.”

He giggles softly. He speaks softly, almost to himself. “What will happen if I get off at the next stop?”

“You mean my stop?” I say. “But you wanted the Aquarium.”

He sighs. “I have been travelling many weeks now,” he says. “I have seen lots of things. Maybe not this Akvarioom, but many things. Maybe enough things.”

It dawns on me that I may not have understood all his smiles. I go wrong on this so often. I need a lexicon of male grins.

He looks me in my unpatched eye. “This man who translated Omerus’s Odyssiya to English,” he says. “Do you think he really understood this man? Omerus yes, but the man who wrote him in English? I think if he uses a word like ‘haughty’ he doesn’t understand, I think.”

“I don’t know,” I say, confused. “He’s a translator. He knows Greek. He must have had a reason.”

“I think,” Ploni says softly, “that he doesn’t understand.”

I look at my watch. “I have a meeting at eleven,” I says. “I’ll just make it.” I pull out my wheelie bag. Ploni heaves up his backpack.

“The next stop,” I remind him.

“I will get off here,” he says. He giggles. “Maybe I will have an adventure.”

The train stops. I smile politely and head for the door. He follows.

“Where are you going?” I ask him.

“To find a monster, or a nymph.”

“So,” I say as we reach the foot of the escalator,

“Or perhaps,” he says, “I will get lost.”

“It’s been really nice talking to you,” I say. “Sorry I’m in a rush. Have a great visit in Atlanta.”

I take the handle of my wheelie bag and step onto the escalator, staring firmly in the direction of my motion. But halfway up I cannot help looking back. He stands at the foot of the moving stares. He smiles. And he calls out: “My name is not Ploni. It is Ami. Ploni means nobody. I am not nobody.”

He giggles. But I don’t know what it means.


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