Commentary Magazine


The Brawl

“What a pig, what a, I mean, what a pig, what a”—smack, Libbie claps down the phone and it gives off a jingly metallic recoil. She can’t stomach any more of Jackie’s berating Steven, not just now, though Jackie is right to be yelling at her because Libbie is guilty and knows it, guilty of bringing Jackie and Steven together for a meeting, of throwing (in effect) a plugged-in toaster into the bathtub with, of course, the best of intentions. The meeting got under way an hour and a half ago, lasted (oh, maybe) four minutes and left Jackie writhing like a whip and Steven suicidal: good job, moron. Wretched rash intruding fool. But she had to do it because Jackie is about to humiliate herself and her whole family by announcing her engagement not merely to a non-Jew but to a big chuckling German.

It’s 1978—Jews are intermarrying like crazy. Jackie is Libbie’s cousin and best friend and Libbie’s pain is acute because it is the pain of failure. Years of companionship that made ho difference. Jackie’s parents are crushed, but as usual have no plans to do anything—God forbid they should act—so Libbie has to step in, although she doesn’t get why Jackie is doing this. Jackie’s parents have asked her repeatedly, but she can’t explain. Striking back at her parents for giving her everything? Hitting Libbie for being less glamorous and having a tenth as many boyfriends? There must be a plan here, some kind of message, but Libbie can’t read it. A million men to choose from, plenty of presentable Jewish ones, and there is nothing special about Klaus except that he is German and therefore lethal.

She dials Steven again. Busy again. She’s got to talk to Steven. The meeting lasted five minutes, not even. She frets at the center of her web, forgotten Kleenex crumpled in her right hand: Jackie at the far end of one strand, Steven another, and now they hate each other and hate her, but she had to try something. So she summoned Steven to rescue Jackie. Steven, whose brilliance pins you like a prison searchlight, slight, neat, modestly handsome, with transparent skin showing stubble, with tumultuous eager eyes. Steven who hates the whole idea of Jackie, being (after all) a young Orthodox rabbi—although as a teenager he slept with her. She seduced him. Or maybe she didn’t. Libbie can’t say, they won’t tell her, but it doesn’t matter, Jackie has a thing for Steven; respects him, perversely admires him. And Steven felt something for Jackie. He denies it but that proves nothing, he would. Cold vibrant Jackie, sizzling like disintegrating ice cubes, the gorgeous demure eyes, the little-girl bangs, the sculpted hollows of the cheeks where darkness pools (she’s too thin, you could even say gaunt), the short black hair prickling with light, the high-watt flirting. Jackie and Steven—toaster plus bathtub. She must speak to Steven, who now hates her.

_____________

 

She sweeps her left arm over her hair back to front and clamps down. The hair falls forward, curtaining off her face. She crosses her bare legs and hooks one ankle behind the other and pulls tight as if she is ratcheting a slip knot. She dials Steven again and it’s busy again and she hangs up again. A minute later, her father’s voice behind the closed door: “Yes? Dad?” (She’s between apartments, living guilty and safe with her parents, sitting on her childhood bed, pale yellow light of the bedside lamp with the flowered wallpaper pressing in on her, 2,000 dusk-pink smudges listening intently.) She notices the Kleenex in her hand and flings it at the corner wastebasket.

“It’s Steven Eskanazzi on the other line. Shall I tell him you’re busy?”

“No!—I’m coming. I’ll pick up in the other room.”

Pulling off her blouse, getting into a bathrobe, rushing down the hall to her father’s study, where a phone is connected to both lines. On the bed in her old room she had been beautiful (the thought was running through her mind), in her bare legs and flipped-over hair and desperation, but as usual at her best moments there was no one to see her. Does Steven in the Orthodox purity of his mind undress girls with his eyes the way normal men do? Either possibility seems untenable. She whacks the light switch on, closes the door, sits at the desk. Cold fluorescent light, humming.

Steven thought the whole plan idiotic, thought Jackie beyond saving, but agreed for Libbie’s sake. (Her heart bumping as she contemplates the telephone and its lit-up button.) Agreed to sit down with Libbie and Jackie and Klaus—Jackie had refused to come without Klaus—to sit down at a restaurant and talk. Libbie figured he would ignore Klaus. That he would bear down on Jackie. Jackie would be shaken. Jackie would want to see Steven again. It didn’t work. She punches (hand trembling) the button for Steven’s line (a round satisfying clunk) and picks up: “Steven?”

“Libbie? I called to apologize.” Pause. Breathless silence. Her mental clock stops, waiting. “Look. I don’t know what to say, except I’m a total screw-up. Total screw-up. I let you down, I’m sorry, I’m very sorry.” Even when his voice is lifeless and one inch from muttering, the words come fast. “I don’t know what to say.” Flooding her with warmth to the point of dizziness. “Lord in heaven,” he says. “I never knew shame was so painful. Anyone there? Am I talking to a wall?—it figures.”

“I’m here,” she says, “I’m here. You have no cause to be ashamed,” softly, “no cause. No cause. You were fine, fine, it’s all right, you were fine.”

In seventeen years she has never once heard his voice like this, the shuddering roughness—scraping bottom. “You were wonderful,” she says, “you were very wonderful.”

Comes in a flash the memory of a basement scene, the two of them eleven years old maybe or twelve, with a bunch of other kids and a ping-pong table—why and where, she can’t say, they went to different schools in the same neighborhood. In his jeans and high-tops and knitted yarmulke he is the smartest, most abrasive, most obnoxiously boyish of boys (pumping spitballs through the barrel of a nineteen-cent Bic ballpoint, snowballing girls). And another boy shouts at him across the basement, became you hurt his feelings, jerk. A child’s officious singsong. And Steven’s face as he grasps suddenly, out of the blue, that he has hurt someone—seriously hurt, that seems to be the implication. And Steven sinking (with a look so odd he might have been sick) to the rough bench next to the table, saying nothing, she too scared of him to consider approaching but her eleven-year-old heart going out to him.

She can’t remember whose feelings got hurt or how, or who leveled the accusation. But the pocking balls, the sandpaper paddles, the darting shadows, the stricken look on his face are all fresh.

“I made a fool of myself.”

“You didn’t,” she says. “No.”

“What she said in the parking lot must be right I guess. I’m a pig, okay? I’m a pig. Course I have to believe she’s one too. She could turn anyone into an infant. In my case, not that it takes much. We’re two of a kind, and there’s poor you—right in the middle of the pigyard, listening to the oinks. Or whatever pigs do. Oink, right? I’m terribly sorry, what I put you through. I’m terribly, really terrifically sorry. I’m a pain in the butt. I’m sorry.”

She has waited a lifetime for this conversation. For the chance to comfort Steven—so brilliantly commanding, so walled-off inside Orthodoxy. Forget Jackie, the hell with Jackie. Jackie will marry Klaus. Jackie and Klaus will be a stab of pain forever. And their children—pain and humiliation multiplying in a tired world. A steel knife in your back, reproducing itself. But on the other hand, there’s Steven: she has so much love and reassurance welling up it could drown him. She needs to play it out gradually. “It’s okay. You were fine. It’s okay.” The tear breaks and runs down her cheek. But she no longer knows precisely why she is crying. Shaking her head, “You were fine. I should never have done this to you. You ought to be mad at me. At me.” The tears getting hold of her.

“Don’t cry. C’mon. Don’t.”

“Don’t mind me”—bitter at herself and her gross emotions. “I’m just a hysterical nitwit. Ignore me”.

He sighs. “Some honey of a day.”

_____________

 

It turned decisively bad for Steven by mid-afternoon, this particular Thursday the thirteenth of April 1978. He can’t concentrate and he needs to: he’s supposed to give a talk in synagogue this Saturday. He has a Hebrew book open on the table in a corner, and next to it a spiral notebook and a yellow pad and a book in French about Celtic art. People have been calling all day to ask whether it’s true that Rabbi Eskanazzi will be speaking. “Yeah, it’s true,” he says to one of them, “and if everyone would stop phoning me, I’d just maybe conceivably have time to figure out what to say. Yes. Sure. Yes. Upstairs. Sure. Zay gezunt.” Smacks the phone down.

By mid-afternoon the phone and his nerves have brought progress to a halt. He writes a few lines, awkward stand-up handwriting, paces to the futon and sits; scoops up mail from a laundry basket, sorts through a few envelopes, ripping unopened junk mail in half; goes to the window to look out at West End Avenue. He and Rafi had jointly leased the apartment, but then he left the country—and continued to send Rafi checks for his share of rent, though Rafi refused to cash them. So he feels half at home and half like a guest.

It’s a big tall white-walled underfurnished room with a bristling radiator like an armed guard by the window. He is delighted when Rafi walks in. “Finally,” he says. “Sholem aleichem. I’m going crazy. How could I possibly have agreed to do this? Am I totally warped in the head?”

“What’re we talking about?” Heading into the bedroom. “The shabbes talk or Libbie’s cousin? The cousin, right?” Getting out of his jacket and tie. “Yes, I think it probably means you are warped in the head.” Eventually Rafi settles with a newspaper in the living room (“Vance Off to Africa and Soviet,” “HEW Orders Steps to Control Rise in Medical Costs”). He is tall and (folded-up with his knees too high) looks awkward on the low-to-the-floor futon. Fleecy brown hair with an orange yarmulke pinned in the center. His long triangle face is a smiling ice-cream cone. “Actually I’m very impressed,” he says, “that you’d do something like this. Undertaking to rescue this girl from the Hun. It sounds like, y’know, futile, but. . . .” Elaborate paper-cracklings as he turns a page (“Carter Takes Stroll Among Cherry Trees, Accompanied by Wife Rosalynn and Daughter Amy”). “Sit down, why don’t you.”

Steven is pacing. “No compromise on pikuah ne fesh!” To save a life is a crucial religious obligation. “I’ve never seen Libbie so devastated.”

“She’s a nice girl.”

“Sweet, yeah. She takes things too hard. This cousin’s main joy in life is torturing her. Someone ought to wring her neck.”

“Sit down, you’re making me nervous.”

He stops still, gazing at a pile of newspapers and magazines on the floor. With a swoop he grabs a Playboy from near the bottom. “Ha! Now I know what Rabbi Melman has been doing with himself in my absence. I leave the country, boom, the latest issue of Naked Shiksas materializes instantaneously.” Flipping through it—“naked Jewish girls aren’t good enough for him. Not Rabbi Melman.” Rafi grinning, embarrassed, jumps up and grabs it. Steven grabs it back and walks off toward the kitchen. Then he turns and flips it to Rafi who snags it with a lunge. “Take it, take it. ‘If not for the evil urge’ ”—rattling off in Hebrew a quotation from the Midrash—“ ‘no one would build a house, marry, have children, do business.’ I should worry. Did I ever tell you,” shouting from the kitchen, “that Mister Coffee is the stupidest name for an appliance I ever heard?” (“Eskanazzi talks so fast,” a teacher once said, “it’s like he’s talking French.”)

“Only ten or twenty times.”

“I’m out of the country five months and everything, everything goes to hell and they don’t even know how to make coffee any more. A plastic box with holes. Is it okay if I get a soda out of Mister Refrigerator?”

“Why are you making such a production? Calm down. You’re acting like a high-school boy with a big date.”

“What’s all this stuff, all these newspapers on Mister Floor? Any more issues of Naked Shiksas?”

“I bought one magazine, sue me.”

In Hebrew Steven says, “I don’t say one word.” The phone on the kitchen wall rings. “Not I am saying one word.” He picks up. The female voice is surprised to hear his hello. “Is Mister—Rabbi—Melman there?” it asks tentatively.

“Yeah.” Steven shouts into the living room: “It’s for you! It’s a girl!”

“Please, a little louder? I’m coming.”

“He’s coming,” says Steven into the phone. “Miss? You are a girl, right?” The female voice doesn’t know what to say. “It’s Miss July!” Steven shouts. “She—” Rafi strides in and grabs the phone. “She wants to talk to Mister Coffee.”

_____________

 

Around eight that evening Libbie pulls up in her Dodge Dart at curbside near the subway station at 188th Street in Queens. Steven is at the corner, hands in pockets, staring at the sidewalk ten feet ahead of him, conspicuous by virtue of being motionless. She leans over and pushes open the passenger door—“Steve! Steven!”—but on an inspiration shuts off the engine, slips her key out and dangles it. “Want to drive?”

He does. They head for Nassau County and a restaurant called the Afterglow. She is so tactful and kind, people don’t notice her; she is beginning to admire this about herself from afar, as if she were a gallant ship going down. She takes pains to spare other people’s feelings but no one (except her father) takes any pains to spare hers.

A few weeks before he left for Israel she had praised to Steven with eager innocence her new discovery, Simone Weil, a self-sacrificing heroine and martyr in whom she could see, maybe, a little bit of herself. Whereupon he had screamed at her and hurt her feelings—but the sharpness of his denunciation made an impression. “Simone Weil, right, the professional saint, who loves people so much she could plotz but hates every person in particular except for a handful of goyish intellectuals, hates her own family, hates Jews on principle, hates her own pathetic self.”

Simone Weil wasn’t fit to tie your shoes, he told her later. “You’re a strong girl, self-respecting girl, self-respecting Jewish girl, beautiful girl, fighter girl, soldier-of-truth girl.” Making a muscle: “Eishes hayil!” Soldier Woman!—key phrase of the biblical poem with which Orthodox men serenade their wives on Sabbath eve, praising their moral heroism. They were walking down a quiet suburban sidewalk at dusk.

“No I’m not.”

“Not what?—not any of it? I got every single one wrong?”

She stuck her tongue out at him. (She was still half-angry because he had yelled at her.) Whereupon she became aware that he had a powerful urge to bop her on the bottom—she read the whole plot in his face. And felt a neutral anticipatory prickling where the smack would land. But of course he didn’t do it. He turned from her, brimful of his raucous little-boy smile, and let the crest break while he looked away, and then turned back and barked out, “We don’t need no Simone Weiyul! This lady is an eishes hai-yul!” So she had to smile. And she has felt guilty ever since for admiring the sweet suffering face of Simone Weil, but admires it anyway.

_____________

 

“This Klaus,” she tells him. . . .

“Time for my mission briefing?”

She smiles at him, nervous. “Klaus Hemdorf, or something like that, was sent over here by his father to get a chemical-engineering degree, which he did, a Master’s, at Columbia, and then he was supposed to stay in Manhattan for a year and work, but he decided partway through that he wanted to be a photographer, and hooked up somehow with a group who have a studio in the Village, and he’s learning the trade, but I gather in a very. . . .” Tails off. “His folks are rich. You’re all keyed-up, aren’t you?”

He shrugs. Then says, “Yes.” And adds, “Your engine’s kind of noisy.”

She tells him more about Klaus and Jackie, and he is listening and taking it in but disengaged, his mind three-quarters elsewhere. She knows the mood. The words you speak to him are admitted to the waiting room and a secretary takes them down but the mind of Steven Eskanazzi is in conference in the back room, and when you talk to him you get an unsynchronized feeling, an automatic transmission that shifts at not quite the right points. They are slipping out of Queens into Nassau County down an arcade of jungle colors—lit-up signs and storefronts along Route 25. The unseasonably warm darkness feels transparent.

He says nothing. She says nothing. She pictures them gliding through silver water leaving a lapping ripple of disturbed color to spread out silently behind them, gorgeous Hess green and McDonald’s yellow and Dunkin’ Donuts orange and the aqua and pink of the Jericho Pet Emporium. “Brakes pull to the left,” he says. “A little. No big deal.” And is silent again, and his face (lit in flashes by opposing headlights) is frowning and you can see it thinking. Libbie is a plain ordinary Jew and not Orthodox, and he therefore wouldn’t marry her in a million years, and he therefore hardly sees her as a woman at all; nonetheless, he’s her faithful friend.

_____________

 

She points out the place and they pull into the parking lot. They walk to the sunken front door, down a half-flight of concrete stairs. The Afterglow occupies several rooms in a semi-basement. Noisy chatter hits them, and the smell of beer, and heavy electric-guitar chords from the next room. In the coppery orange light they sit on adjacent sides of a square table. Pipes snake over the ceiling. They wait for Jackie and Klaus. Steven is rigidly still. Libbie looks (quick nervous glances) at Steven, then the door, then Steven. The air is full of cigarette smoke and smell.

Jackie walks up behind and taps Steven on the shoulder and he jumps, looks behind, but she’s slipped around in front. He rises in slow motion, frowning at her intently, then swivels to take in Klaus. “Hell-o,” Jackie says in her bright-shiniest voice, her arm twined around the arm of the large man beside her; she leans her head on him, rubs her black hair up and down like a cat at a scratching post. “This is my Klaus.” “Hello,” says Klaus. “Pleased to meet you,” to Libbie. “Pleased to meet you, Rabbi,” to Steven.

She’s wearing tight jeans and a red sash instead of a belt, and a plain white blouse. Klaus with a handsome flat face and chin wide, skin pink, unfashionably slick shortish neatly-combed hair and graceful movements. Steven shakes his hand without a word, his eyes lock on Jackie; and then without a word he looks past her and they all sit down, Klaus opposite and Jackie on his right. He hasn’t seen Jackie for several years. Had forgotten the screaming laughter in her Roman-candle eyes.

Libbie says something vaguely friendly to Klaus. “In American places,” he answers, “ze moozic, ze rock moozic, you hear constantly. It’s an absolutely remarkable thing.” Vowels like long dark tunnels. For a moment his smile is overeager. A diagnosis of homosexuality crosses Steven’s mind. Three heavy repeating guitar chords, VRUM-VRUM-VRUM. They feel the beat through the floor but the words are inaudible. “Ziss little girl, she really likes it, zough.” Jackie smiles up at him, wiggles her face in time to the beat, VRUM-VRUM-VRUM, kisses him on the lips, looks at Steven.

“Stevie,” she says, “how have you been? Don’t glare at me, Stevie.” Reaches a hand toward his face and he pulls away abruptly, a startled fish. She pouts, teasing. “Don’t glare.” Her little-girl voice. “Stevie’s unhappy about something. . . . Lighten up, Stevie. Please? For me?” With painstaking Marilyn Monroe precision she pushes her lips into a kiss and blows it to him.

“So, Rabbi—how iss business?” Jackie cuddling against Klaus; he throws an arm around her shoulders and smiles fondly, proud owner, gratefully aware of the honor, savoring it, feeling (even) a little unworthy and defensive. Jackie reaches her face around and kisses him. VRUM-VRUM-VRUM. “I don’t think we’re going to see a waitress anytime soon,” says Libbie.

“I don’t know why Steven’s always angry at the world,” Jackie says sweetly. “Steven’s always angry. He is always angry. Especially at me. And I don’t know why. I’m crazy about him. I’m crazy about you, Stevie.” The Roman candles mocking, flaring. “Teach me that in German. ‘I don’t know why. . .’ Klausie is teaching me German.” Prompting, with her lips inches from his—“I don’t know why.”

Ich weiss nicht warum”—taking her neck in his big left hand and positioning her forehead where he can kiss it.

VRUM-VRUM-VRUM. “So an affectionate girl,” Klaus says contentedly.

“What do you do, Klaus,” Steven’s voice, startling in its hardness—they all look at him—“What do you do for a living? When you’re not fondling girls in public. Or is that the whole deal?”

Klaus snorts and looks at Libbie.

“Your friend,” grinding the r like an engine starting, “he’s not so polite, iss he?” A pause and then a big forgiving, open-mouthed laugh as Libbie looks at the table—“Steven”—a low pleading sound, while Klaus laughs. She advances her hand toward his but doesn’t quite touch.

_____________

 

Ninety minutes later she is talking to him on the phone—after further taunts, and Klaus leaping to his feet (palms outward at shoulder level as if he were pushing a wall, disclaiming any intention to fight) and Steven leaping up too, in such a way as to shove the table into Klaus’s thighs. The sounds keep replaying in her head, the shrieking rattle of the table hitching across the floor, the glassware sliding, a tumbling glass shattering as both girls scream, the thick dizzy buzz, Steven stumbling with his shirt tails hanging out and visible behind them the knotted fringes in white string of his tallit katan, Jackie shrieking in the parking lot. Now she’s talking to Steven with her eyes closed and taking deep, careful breaths to steady herself as she listens. It’s going well, here in unknown territory, and everything will be okay if she just has the nerve to keep steady and just go forward and keep steady, keep calm, keep steady. “I disgraced myself,” he is saying. Muttering. “I acted like a bully boy. Junior storm-trooper.”

“You were provoked.”

“No.” He quotes in Hebrew a sentence from the Mishnah and then translates: “ ‘In a place where there are no men, you strive to be a man.’ ” His voice breaking, a thing she has never heard before. “I’m like an old man, I never before understood the meaning of that sentence.”

“No, you were fine, no, it’s okay”—and then she conceives the stupid idea of transferring the conversation into her bedroom. “Stay put,” she says, “I’m going to hang up and call you back in two seconds.” She dashes down the hall and dials. But already his voice is different. The self-scorn is gone. The new sound is hard and dry. “I let her humiliate me, okay. I let her humiliate you. I shouldn’t have. I let her humiliate Jewishness. I shouldn’t have.” The soft distinct syllables menacing. “I have to go see her again. She lives in the West 60′s, right? I’ll do something after shabbes”—meaning the evening after next. The voice starting to convey that the man is standing, moving, maybe pacing.

“No, no.” Catastrophe. “You can’t, never, you can’t ever see her again, don’t you see”—though she herself just sees it now, right now—“that the whole point was to bait you, it’s her, not him, the whole entire game was for you to go crazy. No, you can’t possibly see her again—it’s finished, good-bye, good riddance, you have to walk away.”

“What game,” bitterly—she hears the shoulders shifting, the rapid-fire bite coming back. “I’m not talking ‘game,’ I’m talking Yiddishkeit, there’s an obligation here—a strong, strong obligation. For a Jewish woman to act like this,” the restless, confined tones of angry pacing coming into play, “a Jewish woman to carry on in public with a German, like a, I don’t have to tell you, you know like what, this is disgusting, a profanation, a hillul ha’Shem, and I have a strong, strong obligation to tell her straight out that she is disgracing the Jewish people, someone has to tell her, I have to tell her, I’m elected, I have to do it. I will do it.”

Libbie teaches Hebrew at a liberal Jewish day school; knows enough to recognize that word, obligation, as a word too big to bulldoze, a spiritual boulder you would need dynamite even to budge, referring to the gravity that keeps the Orthodox world together, making it a forbidding strange place to the likes of her and making her world look to Steven like a zero-gravity circus (floating toothpaste tubes, parades on the ceiling) where, in the absence of moral gravity, up and down are polite conventions at first, then matters of opinion, then obsolete terms of art. But she can’t let him do it.

“Don’t you see,” impatiently, “the whole thing was just to bait you, she’s a scheming—a scheming, she’s playing with you, don’t you see?” She’s standing now too. Sucking her lower lip.

“Oh please, she dug this guy up for me? I’m the reason she fell in love with a big leering German sheygetz?”

Pause of horror. Is it possible? Running it through her mind, “No, no, no—it’s just—you can’t see her again, the whole deal is to torment you as much as possible, to make you care, then walk away with Klaus, don’t you see, it’s so clear, that’s the whole idea, the whole plan. It’s exactly what she wants because she cares for you, I’m telling you, you don’t understand, she still cares for you.”

“Libbie. Please.” The whole revelation, swiped away with one word.

“I’m just so sorry I ever dragged you into this, just so sorry—drop it, please please, I beg of you, drop it please.” Her desperation, the hoarse syllables squeezed flat and gasping to get out, brings him up short. He’s puzzled. By the end of the conversation she is pretty sure she’s convinced him to drop it, has battered him into agreement. A delicately-balanced tower of blocks that will probably not collapse.

But she’s uneasy.

_____________

 

Ten minutes later she dials him again and the phone is busy. Five minutes after that, Rafi picks up. “Libbie? He’s gone out. Honestly, I’m not enthusiastic about this whole deal. I think you should lay off him, this business about your cousin. I’ve never seen this before, how he looked just now. He was like, wild. Jumping around. I tried to get him not to go. I don’t like this.”

Where is he going?”

“Where do you think? To your cousin’s. I shouldn’t have let him.”

Three raps on the closed door: “Libbie?” No earnest conversations with her father just now. Not possible. She cups a hand over the mouthpiece and screams in pantomime at the man beyond the door, mouthing the words, making not a sound, God in heaven, go away. Go away. Go away! Then she calls out, “I’m on the phone, Dad.”

To Rafi in a near whisper she says, “Oh I see. Oh I see.”

“He said to her, I’m gonna come over and we are gonna have a little talk.”

“Oh my God. Oh I see. And what did she say?”

How should I know? I gather she said okay.”

“Oh I see.”

Actually she had told him, “You know what they say: be careful what you wish for, bucko, cause what if you get it?” By now he has nearly covered the twenty blocks between his apartment and hers.

_____________

About the Author

David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale.




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