“I was wondering … do you believe in God?”
“Do you believe in God?”
“Jacob – we’re about to eat.”
“Well, if that’s a problem … ”
I ignore his last comment; my gaze concentrated at the menu. Jacob seems confused for a sec, then looks straight through me, into some kind of world in the empty restaurant behind me that only he can see.
He’s an okay guy, though. We got to sit next to each other on the bus from Puno in Peru to Copacabana here in Bolivia. By the time we were ready to stand in line like cows at the cramped border-station to get out tourist visas, we just sort of drifted together once more.
Preemptive insanity protection, you know; if I hadn’t had someone to talk to during that hour, I’d have gone positively loco, as they say here. Because Bolivians apparently seem to think that efficiency rhymes with multiplicity. So if you need three stamps in your passport, for example, it is obvious that you also need three persons for the job – one to give each stamp – and one long line to get each stamp.
“What’ll you have?” I ask him again.
“Hmm … ”
Jacob scans the menu as if it was a secret map. At least he finally picked it up.
The small, round restaurant owner hovers over in some imaginary corner of his small, round restaurant and waits patiently for us damn gringos to make the decision that will secure him a few hard-earned bits of another day’s pay.
It’s a touristy place, I’m sure – but not now. Except for us. Because we’re very late – because the bus from Puno was very late and because the Kafka-esque stamp circus at the boarder was, well, what it was. I make a supreme effort to concentrate on the choice of fish and the funny English spelling errors in the menu.
“They don’t have Diet Coke here?” Jacob suddenly exclaims to no one but himself.
“I don’t think they know what that means.”
“Diet or Coke?”
“Funneee … Hey, you aren’t diabetic or something?”
“No, just never liked all that sugar. So what about it?”
He closes the menu.
“What about what?”
“If you believe in – oh, I didn’t offend you? By asking, I mean?”
“No – I mean, no – no, you didn’t! – Of course, you didn’t.”
Oh, brother. Didn’t think Israelis were that obsessed with religion and everything, especially the younger generation. Despite what you see in the news reports they always seemed more, well, modern I guess – to me, anyway. (Okay, okay – I’m prejudiced, so what?)
By the way, there seems to be a lot of Israelis at the Lake Titicaca, this time of year. Canadians and Israelis, in fact – but everyone passing through here more or less for the same reason: Sabbatical year or vacation or both.
And I’m not saying that Jacob should have stayed at home. Okay, he’s definitely not remotely like that cutie sporty type who Siobhan and I gawked at in that Puno bar. He’s more like your stereo-typical student-type; a bit thin, big glasses, don’t-care-too-much-about-my-hair-hardo, and generally too introspective and silent to be much attracted to a dance floor.
It probably looks like a minefield to him.
“I just read somewhere – ” Jacob continues “ – that despite what everyone thinks about the United States – with your Christian Right, Bible belt and all – Americans are in actuality quite secular minded.”
He puts the menu away, like he’s already forgotten about it. The owner seems to frown.
“Meaning that you say that you believe in God – but most of you don’t.”
“I’d like to show that little research to my uncle from Louisiana.”
“Is he very religious?”
“He practically lives in church. I think he’s a Baptist or something, though, but I don’t know much about the different strands of … Have you decided?”
“Food, Jacob – I almost haven’t had anything since we left Puno. Do you want to be responsible for me dying of starvation? If you don’t make up your mind soon, our amigo over there is going to have a fit and kick us out.”
“I hardly think so. We seem to be the only ones in his restaurant.”
“Okay, I’ll have the trucha. Am I saying it right? – And a normal Coke.”
I lean back and try not to sigh from relief. The owner’s smile widens again and he comes over, greasy, curled notepad in hand. I try again not to think too much about Siobhan back in Puno, that I could have been sitting here with her instead of just leaving in the morning without a word. Is she disappointed that I left without saying good-bye?
No. She seemed so carefree, so up-beat … She probably already forgot me. I really think that she has.
Yes, I really think she has.