Monday, July 13, 2009

Oxford University Blues: A tale of madness, molotov cocktails, and Hugh Laurie

STRIP! Commanded the former captain of the Israeli Defense Force.
NO! said the composed red-headed female whose head came up to the captain’s underarm.
A scene from The Unforgettable Lightness of Being. No. This is the second floor bedroom in the rented 2-floor apartment of my Oxford University tutor.


"What part of “no” don’t you understand!"

I am standing on his bed wearing the robes that we have to wear when we meet with our tutors. It’s hot and I’m not wearing a whole lot underneath. But in my left hand, where in the past baseballs used to nestle before I threw them at the plate in junior high, and where the in future my pink taped hockey stick would rest, poised to be thrown at the head of this former captain of the Israeli Defense Force was a glass Coke bottle with a gasoline-soaked rag stuffed halfway through. In my right hand a match.


FUCKING ISRAELI PIG!!! And I hurled the bottle.

“Nice catch.” I said.

“Nice throw.” He looked impressed.

“Thanks. I’m not sure I got the rag in properly. It kind of slipped out as I let the bottle go.”

“Yes. I noticed. More work. Come, let’s go back to the kitchen and make again. Damn. No more Coke. Ok. Next week, I go to the store and we get more bottles. Go now. It is almost the Sabbath. Good Shabbes. And next week, you wear a t-shirt and short pants under your robe. Today, it opened a bit and I can’t teach you properly when I can see your boobies. You understand, yes?”

Nachon. I gotcha. See ya, Zevvy”
“Shalom, my little red firecracker.”

I had decided to do my third year abroad at Oxford University because my academic advisor at Sarah Lawrence College told me that having Oxford on my resume would give me an advantage in life. Zev Levi was the tutor assigned to teach me Middle East politics at renowned St. Antony’s College where, it was rumoured, Salmon Rushdie stayed in secret. Actually, and I’m sorry if I’m about to relate a top-notch security secret, but we all knew when he was there because the road leading out from St. Antony’s was totally blocked and access to the only decent pizza restaurant in the whole city denied.

After my tutorial, I met my roommates, the Christines, at the King’s Arms pub.
“Your hands stink,” said Christine.
“Yeah, Nat. They are really bad today. How many did he make you prepare,” said the other Christine.
“Not many. But I kept spilling the gasoline all over myself and then the whole rag got soaked and you can’t have it all soaked because then it burns too quickly and the bottle will blow up in your face. Or so he tells me.”
“Aren’t you worried about your grades? I mean, what’s he going to evaluate you on? Throwing ability?”
“He said not to worry about studying. He’s giving me firsts for the year and told his buddy at Princeton to give me a scholarship for graduate school.”
“Wow, said the Christines in unison. “That’s insane. Didn’tcha think you were going to work this year, being at Oxford at all.”
“One would have thought. Anyway, next week, he is taking me behind Magdalen College to practice shooting.”
“That’s Maudlin you fucking Yankee arseholes,” said the greasy PPE students in unison at the next table.
“Listen Commander Fucknuts, first of all, I’m Canadian, eh. And where I come from: M A G D A L E N E is pronounced Magdelen, like Jesus’ fucking mother, you feel me?

I’ve had 8 Pimms and Lemonade and need to go home to sleep it off.

“Time to go play dodge the barf.” sighed Christine.
We walk outside the pub and start the 30 minute walk home in the rain and wind. Puddles of vomit from the evening’s afternoon slosh around the gutters. I can’t even count the times I’ve stepped in it and had to air my shoes out for days after. Zevvy told me that such problems would be alleviated if I stopped going to bars. At these times, I would pretend to go spontaneously deaf.
“You know what collagen is?”
“You’re a nice rich Jewish girl from New York City and you don’t know what collagen is?”
“I’m a nice middle class Jewish girl from suburban Toronto and I don’t know what collagen is.”
“Collagen is this shit that when the doctor puts it into your boobies they don’t move like you were 16 again. “
“My boobies moved when I was 16. They have never not moved. This is the cross I must bear.”
“OK. Fingerhut. I am going to put collagen in your fingers so that they will stop shaking like a little baby girl.”
“ I just had too much coffee, Zevvy. Just a coffee high.”
“You can’t be high and be in the IDF, Fingerhut.”
“I’m not going into the IDF. I’m just here for a year because my academic advisor thought having Oxford on my resume would give me an advantage in life.”
“I know, I know this. You keep saying. But you have much to learn, much much to learn. And so little time. It’s MIchaelmas already, we only have Trinity term and then you leave my tutelage.”
I start doing rapid finger exercises to try and excise the caffeine. At no point do I question Zevvy’s sanity nor my own.
“OK. Pass me the rifle.” He holds it out in front of him. 20 years later, my very cute hockey coach would do the same thing with a hockey stick.
I grab the long part with my left hand and put my right hand on the trigger.” “Fingerhut! Get your fucking hands off the fucking trigger!”
“Why? Is this thing loaded?” I drop it on the muddy ground.
“Of course it’s loaded. All guns are loaded. What is the purpose of a gun if it is not loaded. You see, Fingerhut, this is why I asked for a male exchange student but your advisor in New York said you were the closest thing they had. Now pick up the rifle and clean it off. Show it the same respect as your boyfriend’s shlong.”
Only now do I realize the absurdity of the moment. But then the moment passes. I gingerly pick up the rifle and wipe it down with my sleeve.
“Good. Now. You hold it like so and aim at something moving. Then you will wait until it stops moving and that is when you push on the trigger.”
“Wait a second. If it’s moving, that means it is living. If I shoot , I’ll kill it.”
Zevvy sat down. He put his greying head in his hands. “Rachmunis, Ha-Shem, give me mercy”
I sat down next to him. “I’m sorry Zevvy. I’m just not cut out for this kind of work.”
“Ok Fingerhut. I guess this is the time when I explain you what I need.” He took a deep breath.
“Before I came to Oxford to be your tutor, I was student Zevvy at Cambridge? You’ve heard of it yes all the way in New York? And I wanted to row for the university team. I was quite good, you know. I have big hands, big something else too, but that is not for you to know. Anyways, I rowed nicely for my college but I had this bigger aspiration and so I tried out for the big team. I did very good that day. My team—it won every race, but it came down to me and this silly English funny boy named Hugh and his last name was like a girl I slept with last week.
“HUGH LAURIE!!! Like A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Hugh Laurie. Like Bertie Wooster, Hugh Laurie. I FUCKING LOVE HUGH LAURIE.”
Zevvy grabbed the gun and pointed it between my eyes. “You never say that again.” Ever. I hear it, I blow your head off.”
You know what was really strange about those few seconds. I didn’t defecate all over myself. I had often read that this was something people did when they had a gun pointed at them.
“OK Zevvy. I’ll keep that to myself.”
“Anyways, the Hugh had a father who was an Olympic rower and so they picked the son over me. Over me. Captain Zev Levi of the Israeli Defense Forces. Unbelievable." Zevvi was reliving the moment. I let it wash over him yet again.
“OK, Fingerhut. So I want you to make the Cambridge boat team lose at the big race at the end of term.”
“You want me to shoot the Cambridge rowing team?”
Zevvi paused for a minute. He was living that possible moment. I let it wash over him.
“No. I don’t think they need to die. But they do need to lose. They need humiliation.”
Well thank God for that. Humiliation I could do.
“So what’s the plan, Zevvi.”
“I want you to throw a Moly into the river while the race is on.”
“You want me to stand on the bank of the river, make a Molotov Cocktail on the spot, and throw it into the Thames in the middle of the Oxford/Cambridge regatta?”
Nachon. I knew you were a smart girl.” He patted my head.
“Zevvi. Forgive me. This does not sound like the sound plan of a former Captain in the IDF.”
“Never former, always still a Captain. Till death, I will be Captain Zev Levi.”
“Zevvy. I can barely make the cocktail in your kitchen, let alone behind some trees near the river.”
“Not behind the trees. They will see your fiery head. You must be in the trees. That is where you make the Moly.”
I need to meet the Christines in 5 minutes and have no time to argue.
“OK, Zevvy. OK. If it makes you happy, it can’t be that bad.”
“Good. Now we must practice.”
“No, now I must drink. Good bye, Zevvy. Shalom. Next week, we practice.”

Do you remember the training sequence in Rocky One? When Rocky runs all around Philly and then punches raw meat. This I did for Zev Levi. The children of Oxford followed me and people lined the main roads cheering me on. We told them that I was going to run across Britain like Terry Fox ran across Canada to raise money for cancer. “Whose Terry Fox?”, they would ask. “A hero.” I would respond, and that was good enough for them. After my run and meat punching, we would go back to Zev’s kitchen. There were 18 bottles lined up, with 18 rags, and a medium size jug of gasoline. Zevvy would stand behind me with a stop watch as I prepared Molotov Cocktail after Molotov Cocktail. Within weeks, I had 10 cocktails prepared in under 3 minutes. The Christines were ready to call the Guiness Book of World Records but I didn’t think that would be good PR for my career.

After I had nailed down the prep, I spent an entire week throwing. And when I say an entire week, I mean we didn’t stop. The Christines came by three times a day to feed chips into my mouth and to spoon Knorrs Chicken Noodle soup down my throat. By Thursday, Zevvy needed an IV which he did by himself without missing a catch. The week before I had decided I was Shomer Shabbes, so we did stop on Friday evening at sundown.

Full of pride and accomplishment, I slept soundly the night before the big boatrace, probably more soundly that the nervous rowers who had no idea what was in store for them.

I rose late on that Sunday morning, had my usual breakfast of McVitties chocolate biscuits and waited for Zevvy. We walked toward the Oxford Rowing Team’s clubhouse. As we neared, I saw the pasty white complexions of the rowers who despite all logical to the contrary remained pasty despite spending so many hours outside. The Cambridge men’s team was stretching nearby. They were also pasty and equally unattractive. I harboured no sympathy toward any of them which was a necessary precondition to deliver successfully on the task before me.

“OK. Fingerhut. You see that tree. The one with lots and lots of brown leaves. Yes, you go up there. It will camouflage your ginger top. Maher, Maher. Go quickly. You’ll see the steps that others have carved before you.”

“You’ve tried this before?”
Zevvy sighed. “You are the 13th to try this. 12 others before you have fallen. Some to their deaths, some burned beyond recognition. Perhaps you shall succeed. Perhaps my pain will be sated at long last.”
“Failure is not an option.” I declared.
“You will look nice in a Princeton cap and gown.” Zevvy looked at me for a minute. “I’m going home. If you succeed, I’ll know. Good luck.” And with that, he was gone.

I scampered up the tree in the time it takes to make an Americano and nestled into a previously used nook. There, I assembled the cocktail in the time it takes to make another Americano. Zevvy and I thought having a back-up in case something happened to the first was a good plan and so within minutes and I had two Israeli Army grade Molotov Cocktails.

If my mother could see me now, she’d be damn proud.

The rowers took their positions in their boats.
“Up at the catch," yelped the coxens. “And row.”
As soon as the Cambridge eight passed the bridge about 100 metres away from my tree, I picked up one of the cocktails, lit it, counted to 10 and tossed.
A beautiful flaming Coke bottle flew through the air, hit the rock where the front oarsman had just passed and exploded perfectly.
They kept rowing-a half a boat length ahead of Oxford.
I threw the second one. Again, it arced expertly through the soggy grey of English spring and exploded off the bridge where the middle of the boat was passing.
They kept rowing-a full boat length ahead of Oxford.
The finish line was in sight. I had seconds to defend the honour of Captain Zev Levi. And I did, not by kitchen-made Molotov cocktails, not by AK-47s, but by the one sure thing that will stop any male in his tracks: a white, wet, t-shirt.
This I sustained by nailing a beautiful forward dive in the pike position out of the tree and into the Thames landing just before the finish line. The Cambridge coxen screamed: “let it run” which makes no intuitive sense since it translates to Stop. The stern beckoned me to grab onto his oar and even though I could beat Michael Phelps on any given day in any given week as long as its not the week where I am menstruating, I flailed helplessly in the river. As the Cambridge team debated what to do with me, the Oxford team rowed into the finish line. A huge cheer went up on both sides of the river. I decided I had better make myself scarce. I pulled a Denis Pankratov and swam 25m underwater surfacing past the crowds. I jumped out of the river and into the Christines who had been watching the whole spectacle.

“You better tell him that you would look better in Harvard Crimson.” said Christine patting my hair dry with a towel.
“Yeah, said Christine. That might have even deserved full scholarship to Yale Law School.”

That evening as I sat down to my regular dinner of Knorr Chicken Soup, Zevvy stopped by.

“Very impressive, Fingerhut. Not exactly the way of the IDF, but effective. I give you almost top marks. He patted my head. “I can finally sleep knowing my honour was defended by a pair of New York Knockers. Like the basketball team, nachon.”
Nachon, Zevvy, Nachon.”
Layla Tov,Good night, my little wet t-shirt with red hair.” He chuckled.
“Night, Zevvy.”

A few weeks later, I received a full scholarship to Princeton and a welcome note from the head of their international security studies program. I clutched this in my hand as I got on the plane back to Toronto and contemplated my future.