I walked through the arrival doors of Newark Liberty International Airport and searched the crowd.
“There you are, little brother,” I heard, and I saw the crowd part like the Red Sea and Daniel emerge, a typical Moses in a sheepskin coat and aviator hat trimmed with fur. As fit as ever, or, maybe even fitter than before, he looked at ease and spoke English without an accent.
“I am finally here,” I said and hugged him. “You don’t stand out from the crowd. Even with your tan never going away.”
He grabbed my suitcase and propelled me toward the door leading to the parking lot. I was used to English spoken in Israel, but now, I felt an outsider.
“I’m glad you came, Gabi,” Daniel’s arm still around my shoulder. “What exactly are you here to do?”
“Assist our Professor Levi, I guess.” I didn’t feel like going into details about my thesis, not yet.
“Okay, I get it, you don’t want to talk about it. Later then.” Daniel stopped next to a gray Volvo and stuffed my suitcase in the trunk. “Do you have a coat? Don’t you know it’s winter here in February? I can’t believe Mom let you go without a coat.”
“It slipped my mind, actually. And our parents didn’t see me off.” Only now I realized how freezing it was outside. I got inside the car and quickly slammed the door shut.
“Never mind, you can wear mine, I have another one at the apartment.” Daniel took off his sheepskin, threw it to me, and sat in the driver’s seat.
“But you will freeze. Can’t I buy a coat here?”
“Sure you can, but it’s Sunday night, and stores close early on Sunday. Believe me, I know what I am talking about.” Driving through a maze of streets with signs overhead, Daniel got us to a wide highway.
“Let’s drop your stuff at the apartment and then we can grab dinner.” Daniel tossed a cigarette butt out his window and turned on a radio. He listened to a newscast for a minute and turned it off. “So, how are you? And how are Mom and Dad?”
“They are great. Better than ever. Busy enough to complain about you being here and neither one of us providing them with grandchildren any time soon.” I told the truth. Almost.
“Do you ever wonder how you and I wound up born twins? Look at us! We are so different. Nobody in their right mind would spot us for brothers, let alone identical twins.” He was right. Not only did we look totally different, his muscles bulging, mine non-existent, our personalities always seemed to lean in the opposite directions. Daniel, born to be a soldier, remained in the army a year longer than necessary. I, born to be a pacifist, refused to serve and struggled through years of national service fighting for my right not to bear arms.
“Nah, I think we’re very much alike. Only we’re not there yet. You end your private security shtick here, and, I bet, you’ll become a scientist in your old age.” I laughed. “I, on the other hand, will learn to swim and go for senior Olympics, or something.” Suddenly, I couldn’t stop laughing. We couldn’t stop laughing.
“Let’s get a drink first.” Daniel said, still laughing and lighting another cigarette.
We reached Princeton after dark. It looked exactly how I imagined it would: streets full of youngsters, outlines of old dignified Gothic buildings, cafes and restaurants warmly lit and as if celebrating the neverending holidays. We breezed through the center and Daniel found a parking spot.
“Gabi,” Daniel’s voice surprised me out of my reverie. “They have the best beer here,” he said turning off the engine.
I stepped on the snow-covered sidewalk and shuddered at the cold. Living in warm and sunny Israel, I’ve forgotten how cold it could be elsewhere. Quickly pushing my arms through the sleeves of my brother’s coat, I resolved to give it up right before my flight home. He locked the car and led me to a huge door with a simple sign “Red.”
“The music is also good, but the food is ordinary.” Wearing a jacket over a sweater, Daniel didn’t even acknowledge how cold it was. “I was here several times before.”
“With whom?” I managed to say, my teeth chattering. “My boss comes to visit his son here now and then.” Daniel opened another door and we found ourselves in a dimly lit bar with red tables. We sat at an empty table and looked at the small stage where a band was tuning its instruments.
“Looks like we’re just in time. These guys’re great.” Daniel motioned to a waiter and asked me: “Do you want to take off the coat?”
“No, I am too cold.” My hands still in the pockets, I felt a cold metal something in the left one. Tracing it with my fingers, I knew it was a gun. My left hand flew out of the pocket in alarm and I almost screamed at Daniel, but caught myself and switching to Hebrew whispered: “You have a gun in your pocket!”
“Oh? I always have one on me, it’s my job, I’m a bodyguard, you know,” Daniel answered reading the menu, unperturbed as always.
“You know how I feel about guns.” Getting a bit calmer, I decided to keep the coat on for a little longer. It was warmer than outside, but far from comfortable.
“I know how you feel about guns, and, frankly, I don’t get it.” Daniel said after ordering. “You know what I thought about your escapades with the army and almost going to jail for refusing to serve.”
We sat in silence for a moment until the waiter brought our drinks. Daniel remembered not to order me beer, but dry red wine instead.
“So, tell me what you’ll be doing here.” Daniel polished off half his mug and waited.
Unsettled by the gun’s presence near my body, I sipped my wine and gathered my thoughts.
“You remember Professor Levi, my thesis advisor and mentor? He is teaching a course on the Modern Hebrew Novel at Princeton. There was a family emergency back home, so he had to leave for a while. I’m here to substitute on a very short notice.”
“Wow, my little brother will lecture at Princeton! I’m proud of you, notwithstanding your aversion to guns.” Daniel lifted his beer. “Cheers! Whose novels are you covering?”
“Agnon, Grossman, Oz, Yehoshua, and some younger ones, not so well known,” I said.
“The usual lefties.” Daniel laughed. “Are the younger ones any good? Any I should read?”
“You read?” Surprised and pleased I felt warmth seeping through me.
“Why, are you surprised? I can hold a book in one hand and a gun in another. Of course, I read. I read even more since I came here. When you come to my place, you’ll be shocked to find stacks of books, mostly in Hebrew.”
As our food arrived, a guy on stage came forward and wished everyone a fun evening. A bunch of college students to our right shouted their approval, but loud music muffled their shouts. We ate and talked, pausing at times, then going back to our conversation. It felt like old times, before years of our disagreements about the army, when we twin brothers and best friends could talk about anything and everything.
“What about girls? Seeing anyone you could bring home to Mom and Dad?” Daniel asked after we finished the last of our food and he ordered a second round of drinks.
“Yes, about that,” I stalled for a bit, “I’m thinking of marrying Lucy. You don’t know her yet, but I do want you to meet her next time you come home.”
“Marry? Really?” Astonished, Daniel couldn’t hide his curiosity. “Why so sudden? You never mentioned her before, and now marriage?” He drank and waited for my answer.
“Not so sudden, we’ve known each other since September. I plan to introduce her to Mom and Dad as soon as I get back. What about you?” Now it was my turn to wait for an answer, but the answer was interrupted by a loud voice from the right.
“Hey, you two, what is this language you are talking?” A tall visibly drunk youth with nearly shaved blond hair stood next to our table.
Sitting and not moving a muscle, Daniel smiled at the guy and said in his perfect English: “What business is it of yours, young man?”
All of a sudden, half a dozen guys backed their friend, all looking like his brothers. “Billy, leave the men alone,” said one of them, contradicting his friend’s desire to learn a life’s lesson or two.
“Hold on, Tom. What business is it of mine?” Billy seemed like he couldn’t resist, — “I’ll tell you, go back to your medieval f-ing country and speak your f-ing language there. This is America and we speak English here, old man!”
“Are you gonna make me?” Daniel slowly rose to face Billy.
Dumbfounded by the speed with which the fight was approaching, I looked at my brother outnumbered by the drunken students and panicked. Music booming in the background, the waiter serving other tables with his back to us, no one paid any attention to what was happening. Without thinking I stood, stuck a hand in my left pocket and immediately felt Daniel grabbing and holding my left shoulder, keeping my hand where it stayed. Suddenly, I didn’t feel cold anymore, but burning hot. Why did I reach for it? Would I have used it to defend myself and my brother? I had no idea.
“No need, Gabi, no need.” Daniel said calmly and squeezed my shoulder. “These young men will remember that they live in a free country of many nationalities. And if not, I will show them how well we were trained in the Israeli army.”
Hearing this, Billy and his friends broke rank and stepped backward. Tom pushed his friends to their table, then turned to us and said: “Thanks, man.”
Daniel let go of me, took some bills from his wallet and dropped them on the table.
“Let’s go, little brother.” He said in Hebrew. Passing the table of our almost assailants he stopped briefly to say: “Shalom, young men,” and waved.
Back on the street I realized I could breathe again.
“And to think all these years you, Gabi, pretended to hate guns!” Daniel laughed at me.
“And you, Dani, are in the wrong field!” I joined him. “You were born to be a diplomat, big brother!”
Born on Sakhalin Island in the Far East of Russia, Zismanova grew up in northern Russia beyond the Arctic Circle. She moved to the U.S. in 1980 and now lives in Highland Park with her husband and four daughters.