I turned the pages gently. Avner had a lot of talent. And a lot of pain
I spotted Avner as I approached the coffee shop – he was standing outside and scrolling through his phone. He looked like something out of Edgar Allen Poe: baggy black clothes, ratty messenger bag slung low. His hair, dyed blue at the tips, hung in front of his face. When he looked up at my greeting, I saw that he was wearing eyeliner.
We went inside and got in line to order. I tried making small talk as we waited, but Avner had obviously decided he wasn’t going to say a word. I can handle that, but it gets a little awkward when you’re in a public place and people see you talking to yourself. I was relieved when it was our turn to order.
“I’ll have a large black coffee please, and a…” I looked at Avner. He just stared back at me.
Fine. “I just met him,” I told the girl behind the counter, “but I think he looks like a vanilla milkshake type of guy.”
“I don’t want anything,” he snapped – his first words so far.
No, you don’t, I thought. But you need it. I like meeting people like Avner in coffee houses – new clients, who are wary or uncooperative. Stonewalling is impossible with a milkshake in front of you. It’s a rule.
“I’m jealous,” I said, as we sat down on one of the outdoor tables. “I love the coffee here, but I would kill for a milkshake today.”
He looked at me, looked at the milkshake, looked back at me.
“Not yet,” I said.
“If you’re not going to talk, I’m going to have to guess what you’re thinking,” I explained.
“And what do you think I was thinking?” he said tightly.
“You were thinking about whether or not you should trust me.”
A slight smile escaped. Avner shrugged and took a small sip of his milkshake. “You saying I shouldn’t trust you?”
“Nope, I’m saying not yet. I have coffee and it’s a sunny day, I’m not in a rush. Take your time. I’m sure you’ve been burnt before.”
At that his face closed, so I switched gears. “Your uncle said you like to draw.”
“Yeah. A little. I’m not good, though.”
“Aw, man!” I said with disappointment. “With the whole getup I thought you might be the real deal.”
“What do you mean, the real deal?”
“A real artist draws for himself. He can’t help it.”
“How do you know I’m not like that?” he asked defensively.
“Because you said you’re not good,” I reminded him. “A real artist doesn’t judge himself by good or bad, he judges himself by true or false. Are you true to yourself or not?”
Avner opened his mouth to respond, then caught himself. We were in a conversation even though he was determined not to be. I wasn’t worried though. I had just insulted the one thing he openly cared about. He wasn’t going to take that without a fight.
“My art is different,” he said.
“Now you sound like an artist,” I said, smiling. “I draw a little. Could’ve been better at it but I didn’t put in the time. My brothers are very good.”
“Well I guess you’re not a real artist either if you’re saying you’re not good,” he said, rolling his eyes.
“Ha! True, you got me,” I said. “I guess I’m more of the art-appreciation type, as opposed to an actual artist. But I like seeing what other people can create.”
He slid back in his chair. “Well, I don’t think you would like my art.”
He didn’t move.
I try not to push, but this was important. “Are you proud of your work?” I asked.
“Then you have nothing to lose,” I said.
He reached into the torn messenger bag and produced a sketch pad. He held it like a newborn baby. For a moment he just looked at me.
“I’ll be careful,” I said.
He handed it over.
I turned the pages gently. Avner had a lot of talent. And a lot of pain.
I stopped at one picture. A boy of five or six stared at me through a window. One solitary tear pooled at the corner of his left eye. But it was his expression that arrested me. It wasn’t anger or fear, but an exquisite suffering. The kind of pain that doesn’t just go away. It was haunting and beautiful.
I looked up at Avner and cleared my throat. “How much?”
“It’s not for sale,” he said.
We were quiet again. I stared into the eyes of the boy behind the window.
“Why that one?” Avner asked. I could see in his eyes that it was his favorite too. He was testing me.
“You know why,” I said.
I chatted with Avner for a little longer. We talked about art and our favorite comic books, and we made up to meet at a bookstore next week to go through the different graphic novels we were arguing over.
“He came back in a great mood,” Avner’s uncle reported later that night. “What did you talk about?”
“Milkshakes, art, comic books,” I replied. “The usual.”
“What?! Rabbi, he can talk to his crazy friends about that stuff! Did you talk about the accident? His parents? His self-harm? The drugs?”
“No,” I said, “but I’m sure we will.”
Identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of patients, their families, and all other parties.
Rabbi Yossi Bensoussan serves as mashgiach ruchani at Yeshiva High School of Cleveland. He is a Certified Alcohol and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) who currently maintains a private practice and does motivational speaking and community education on addiction all over the US and Israel.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 811)
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