The only time I ate an entire cheesecake onstage at a literary event | Non-fiction | Canned Soup
When someone asks me to choose my favorite story of all the ones I’ve written, I always stammer. Somehow it seems as if the stories are listening, and whichever one I pick will hurt the feelings of the others. But as a habitual anecdote-teller, if I had to choose my favorite anecdote, I wouldn’t hesitate to name the one about my first paid reading, which was the most surreal evening I’ve ever had in my life as an author. For years, I used to tell this anecdote at dinner parties, on car rides, and to various other captive audiences. The person who cured me of my compulsive need to keep retelling it was the gifted editor John Freeman. John asked me to write the story for an issue of his journal, Freeman’s, and as soon as it appeared in writing, the anecdote was exorcised from my literary body onto the written page and I no longer felt compelled to tell it. Thank you, John!
Ten minutes before the scheduled time, I was already waiting downstairs with my small bag. It held a fresh copy of my recently published first book, two pens for autograph signing and a pack of Kleenex for whatever emergencies might arise. I was excited. This wouldn’t be my first time giving a reading in front of an audience, but it was the first time I’d be getting paid for it, and outside of Tel Aviv to boot, in Rosh Pina, with a van to pick me up and take me back, like I was a real professional. The van that pulled up was shiny and new, and the smiley, curly-haired driver said his name was Aviram. After five minutes on the road, he asked me, “So how’s my driving?” I said it was great. And it really was. A few traffic lights later, he asked me about his driving again, saying I should be honest with him. “Fantastic,” I replied, “really. I wish I knew how to drive so well.”
“And how about the way I merge into traffic,” he asked. “Calm? Cool? Or do I project a little bit of stress?”
“Calm, very calm,” I said, “but also very alert.”
That answer made Aviram happy. “I’m asking,” he said, “because this is my first day on the job and I don’t want to screw up.”
“It’s my first day on the job too,” I admitted, “the first time I’m being paid for a reading, and I don’t want to screw up either.”
“Wow,” Aviram said, honking at a van that cut us off. “I hope it works out for both of us,” and after a brief pause, took a round tin box out of his shirt pocket and added, “I have an idea. How about I roll us a joint to calm us down? I mean, it’s our first time and everything.” I told him I’d rather not. I didn’t want to be stoned when I got to the event.
“Don’t worry,” Aviram persisted, “I’ll make us a mild one so we don’t get wasted. Something that’ll relax us enough to maximize our performance.” I explained that grass had a really strong effect on me, and that what was mild for him might completely waste me. “But you can smoke,” I added, “that’s totally okay with me.”
Aviram sighed. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “If I smoke alone, I’ll start having these thoughts about you ratting me out. You know, paranoia and stuff. But if you smoke with me, I’ll be okay because if you rat me out, then you’re in trouble too.” I shrugged, and we kept driving in silence. When he got onto the highway, he asked me about his driving again, and I complimented him again. “Listen,” Aviram said, “maybe you could just take a drag or two? Not really smoke, you know. Just inhale enough so I don’t get stressed.” I nodded. It would take at least another two hours to get to Rosh Pina, and Aviram did not look relaxed at all.
He rolled the joint with one hand as he drove. “I’ll make us a skinny one,” he told me twice while he was rolling, “so we don’t zone out. We need to be sharp.” It was already dark when he lit the joint and handed it to me. I took a puff; it was delicious. I took another two or three puffs. Maybe more. Then I handed the joint back to him. He took a few puffs too. “The truth is,” he said, “that it’s a lot safer to drive when you’re stoned. It mellows you out.” I told him he drove really well even before the joint. “Thanks,” he said and took another long drag, “but now I’m driving even better.” And he really did do a nice job of passing two tourist buses and one van full of goats. “This is good grass,” he said, “I grow it myself.” It really was good grass, the kind that bubbles in your brain but also drips into your muscles. After a few minutes, I couldn’t move. I tried to turn my head towards him, but couldn’t. I tried to tell him that, but talking was hard too. “Great,” Aviram said, and tossed the roach out the van window, “Now we’re all set.”
By the time we reached Rosh Pina, the paralysis had weakened slightly. I could already move my body and speak, but still felt very stoned. “I’ll wait for you here,” Aviram pointed to the parking lot outside the hall where I was supposed to read. “How long will the whole thing take? An hour and a half? Two hours?”
“Two at the most,” I mumbled, and as I dragged myself out of the van, I also managed to say, “Probably less.” I began to walk towards the hall. It wasn’t easy. There was a huge flight of stairs at the entrance. The audience had already begun to arrive, and the people walking up the stairs seemed to be doing it without effort or fear, but to me, it seemed a little scary. The last thing I wanted to do at my first reading was fall down the stairs and make a fool of myself, so I decided not to take the chance and climbed up on all fours. It went fairly well and felt safe enough. Half-way up, I met a tall, thin woman named Rina who introduced herself as the event organizer. I nodded hello because in my current position, there was no way I could extend a hand without falling. Rina asked how the drive was and if everything was okay. I told her that the drive was great and that I felt terrific. She accompanied me to the top of the stairs, where I felt safe enough to straighten up, and showed me the hall. She said that in her opinion, there were more than a hundred people in the audience, and that was a wonderful turnout for a town as small as Rosh Pina. She asked me whether I needed anything before I started the reading, and when I said no, she glanced at her watch and at the audience in the hall and said, “Good, so let’s get started.”
After Rina gave me a brief introduction, I walked onto the stage and sat on the barstool next to the microphone. I opened the book to the first page and stared at it for a few seconds. It looked like a collection of oil globs floating on water, constantly changing shape in a fairly mesmerizing way. I stared at them a little longer. It was beautiful. I couldn’t read anything, but it was really beautiful. Someone in the audience coughed, reminding me that I shouldn’t keep staring at that hypnotic display. I was supposed to read; that was the unwritten agreement between me and that Galilee audience. But I couldn’t. I recalled that my brother once told me that if you’re too stoned, the best thing is to eat something sweet because sugar neutralizes the effects of the drug, and thinking about eating something sweet turned me on. I really felt like eating something sweet because it might help me finally start reading. But not only. Regardless of anything else, something sweet sounded like a great idea now. I moved the microphone closer to my mouth and looked at the audience. I said good evening, told them how glad I was to be there and that I felt a little weak, probably because my blood sugar levels had dropped. Then I asked whether anyone in the audience who happened to live close to the hall might have an extra piece of cake at home, because if I ate some cake, I’d feel better. An elderly woman with flowing white hair who was sitting in one of the last rows stood up and said that she lived really close by and that she’d finished baking a cheesecake right before coming here. She said she’d be happy to go home and bring it for me if it would help me feel better. I thanked her and asked the rest of the audience if they were willing to wait until she came back. The murmuring in the hall sounded to me like “yes,” and the lady with the white hair set out on her way. I waited for her on the stage. The audience was quiet, and so was I. Time moved slowly, but that woman really did live close by because after what felt like an eternity but was actually, according to the hands on the clock, only 12 minutes, she returned to the hall with a tray of cheese-and-crumb cake. She handed me the tray, along with a knife and a few paper napkins, and after thanking her, I spoke into the microphone, asking if anyone wanted a taste. This time, the audience murmur sounded like a “no.” I sliced a piece of cake. The thought of walking off the illuminated stage and eating somewhere else never entered my mind, so I sat there and ate it. It was fantastic. Just soft and sweet enough, and the crumbs were the perfect crunchy contrast to the smooth, fluffy cake. I complimented the lady on her baking skills and again asked if anyone had changed their mind and wanted a taste of that miracle cake. When no requests came from the audience, I just cut myself another slice.
Seven minutes on the clock, that’s how long it took me to eat that whole cake. When I finished, I felt much better. I opened to the first page of the book again. The letters continued to swirl like oil globs on water, but now I had the taste of that fantastic cake in my mouth. “True,” the soothing sweetness on my tongue said, “you can’t read, but who said you have to read at a reading? You can just give a talk.” Cheered by that refreshing thought, I tossed the book over my shoulder, stood up from the barstool and began speaking. I don’t really remember about what, I only remember that my words blended well with the taste of the cake and the quiet, patient audience. When I’d spoken enough, I thanked the audience and walked off the stage. A few people came up to me and asked for autographs. They looked very pleased. Aviram, who was waiting for me in the van, less so. “Thank God,” he said, “I was beginning to think you weren’t coming back.” Apparently the event had gone on for more than three hours.
I slept all the way back, and when we arrived, Aviram woke me up and said, “See? I told you it’d work out for both of us today.” When I got out of the van, still a little shaky, he said, “Yallah, see you at the next event.” I shook his hand goodbye and he insisted on a hug.
I woke up at 11 the next morning with a stomachache. The first thing I did, even before drinking my coffee, was to call the car company and tell them that the driver I’d had the day before was excellent, very careful and courteous. When it’s someone’s first day on the job, it’s really important to put in a good word. The hoarse voice on the other end of the line thanked me and said that Aviram had quit that morning and was going back to agricultural work.
“Why?” I asked
“I don’t exactly know,” the hoarse guy admitted. “All I know is that he picked up a children’s writer at 9 o’clock and they argued on the way. Fifteen minutes ago, he came to the office and returned the car keys to me. He said he dropped the writer off at some interchange. I didn’t really understand why, he just said something about the guy not being as nice as the writer from last night.”
Six years after the cheesecake reading, I went back to Rosh Pina. I was afraid they’d never invite me again, and when the invitation arrived, I decided that this time, I’d come prepared with a well-organized lecture, informative but light, profound yet loaded with jokes. I was a little stressed before the event, but when I got onto the stage, the fear vanished and the lecture and the reading went really well. Afterwards, some people came over and asked me to sign their books, and the elderly woman with the long white hair, now even a little longer, was among them. “It was interesting,” she said as she handed me her book to sign, “not as special as the last time, but still, interesting.”