Ephraim is on his last set of push-ups when I get home. I kiss him and try to like it but his sweat slides onto my forehead and he tastes like too much fruit. I throw him a towel which he holds, confused, like he’s forgotten that he has to take a shower.
“Your mother called again,” he says. He’s glaring now, eyes hard and black, and I can’t help but feel that he is blaming me for the things that haven’t gone wrong in my life.
“Oh yeah?” I get into bed without taking off my clothes. He doesn’t notice. “Did she tell you about Arthur and his never ending cheesecakes?”
“Why won’t you call her, Leah?” Ephraim has finally realized he is sweating and wipes her forehead, his shoulders, then sits on the edge of the bed so I can wipe his back.
“I did call her.” It’s nice, for once, not to lie. “I called her this morning. I left a message on the machine.”
“Why not call her now?”
“Why don’t you take a shower?”
Ephraim is already up, and turning on the water. His boxers are crumpled on the floor next to the door of the bathroom, and I get up to gather them and hang the towel in the bathroom. The water is cold but Ephraim is under it anyway. He says,
“She promises not to talk too long if you call her back.”
When I think about seeing my brother I think of cars. Cars and houses. I don’t know why this is. I have a memory, or maybe a dream, of moving too quickly and wanting to stop, of a highway disappearing into a black blur and the back of my brother’s head motionless. He couldn’t be bothered to care. I have an image of houses and cars underneath us – are we in a tree? Are we in an airplane? –And they seem to be shrinking, dollhouse size, then Lego size. I think of the gift our father gave my brother when we first moved to New Jersey, a construction set, shiny red plastic and manufactured metal screws. Too young for him, all wrong. Cole was eight and I was four. We sat down for dinner and our father was late and when he finally came in, coat wet from the fog, buttons uneven, my brother took the gift from its unwrapped box and stomped it, crushed it, jumped on it. This is the first memory I have of him.
“I would never leave you,” Ephraim says now. Or maybe he doesn’t say it. The one hour our sleeping schedules overlap it’s hard to identify what’s real and what’s the fringe of a dream. At first I was able to make the distinction based on whether or not I smelled bread (Frederico, downstairs) but now I see rolls and pie crust in my sleep, so that’s gone too. Ephraim pulls me closer, his arm still damp from the shower, the strong smell of aftershave, almost too clean.
He is happy with me tonight. Happy because I have called my mother, happy because my mother and I have had a conversation, a real one – not just happy birthday thank you bye – he is happy because he is oblivious to the tone of my mother’s voice, which is too cheerful to mean anything good. She has asked, she has insisted, a ticket has already been bought and a room has been rented at a motel in Massachusetts. An art show of some kind. My brother’s.
“What kind of opening?”
There isn’t an answer to that either. The art show is in three days and should have been planned for months, at least. There isn’t a reason for late notice, no explanation, but in any case my ticket has been bought, and I have many reasons not to trust this. For one, my brother has never invited me to an opening before, though my mother has tried a number of things: anniversaries, Thanksgiving dinners, birthday parties, a Passover Seder.
“I’m forty years old,” I’d said, hanging up. “Can’t I say no?”
Forty years is four hundred eighty months, but how many days? When my father left home for the first time I was nine and I counted and a week felt endless. Now I can blink away entire decades.
“You cannot say no,” Ephraim said. He thought this was a joke. “When your family calls it is your duty to answer.”
“We’re not in the army anymore.”
“I am still, Leah.”
“We’re not in the army anymore, and your work is clerical and we live over a pizza place because that’s all we can afford. Lineage isn’t everything.”
“What do you mean, Leah?”
“Don’t be a moron!” And this begins an hour of screaming, and usually our fights are like blank walls: I yell, he eventually agrees. Not this time. This time Ephraim tells me I am being a bitch; he uses this word, spits it. He looks like he is going to cry. He pulls an unwashed sweatshirt over his head and marches, literally marches, out of the apartment, stomping loudly, and I call out: “You know those steps aren’t very secure!”
I feel bad about this, I do. When I left America my brother was married to one woman, now, supposedly, he is married to someone else. Once I was waiting in a dentist’s office and there was a reproduction of one of his paintings, which looked to me like random splattering, the type of thing my mother used to make him paint over on the basement walls. I tried to help him hide it from her.
Before I know it I am packing a suitcase. Ephraim is back.
“You are nicer than you pretend to be,” Ephraim says. He opens the closet, holds out another dress, red and cheerful, and I shake my head.
“I’m not nice. I’m not nice to you.”
“You are nice to all your patients and they love you.” I want to tell him that it’s easy to be nice to people you know you’ll never see again. My brother was always nice to strangers, even when he was in art school and broke he couldn’t pass a homeless man without giving him a five dollar bill. Ephraim puts his hand on my stomach and his skin is cold.
“I can come with you,” he says. “We can afford it.”
“No we can’t,” I say, but I really mean, please don’t.
December 15, 1999
I go to work first. Clean out my locker, disinfect it. I can’t leave things in such a mess. I’ve packed a small suitcase and folded three outfits as neatly as possible to prevent wrinkling, one of the few good habits I picked up from my mother.
During the day the hospital looks too bright. I miss yellow fluorescents, the loud hum of the refrigerators, doctors whispering loudly, importantly, the purpose in their walk.
“You are glad to get away from me?” Ephraim asks, half joking, and I give my locker one final spray, one final sweep, click it closed. I’m embarrassed for him to see how messy I am. He wears a leather coat that always comes out on days he feels unsure of himself. He means for it to make him look tough but the shoulders are stiff and the leather seems fake.
“You have a reason to be glad. You get the apartment to yourself for a week and I get to freeze to death.”
“If you let me come with you, you wouldn’t freeze.”
He puts his arm around my waist and I squeeze his wrist, because I feel bad and because of the leather jacket. He still smells like oranges and his stubble pricks my cheek even though he is inches away. A nurse comes in and leaves just as quickly when she sees us, as though stumbling on something private. I call for her to come back but Ephraim puts his palm over my mouth and whispers in my ear, “I wish you would let me come.”
I squeeze away from him. Sometimes it feels like he is pushing me into corners. He is handsome and I know it but this is a fact that feels irrelevant.
“It just feels more comfortable this way,” I say. “They’d bore you, anyway.” Ephraim pulls the jacket tighter around him.
“Do you want me to wait in the car?”
It turns out there is not much to do because Danya is sleeping and someone else has brushed her hair and braided it and she is breathing evenly. The air smells off, like powder trying to mask sickness. I sit on the side of the bed and scribble a card – I know you will be well – and for the first time I believe it. It is the middle of the day and light is stronger than the curtains, and I can see a stronger version of her walking on the beaching, having a life I am not a part of. I know I should be happy. I kiss her on the cheek. Her scabs have started to fall away.
I drive. At stoplights I hold Ephraim’s hand. I want to. I am surprised all over again by the size of Ben Gurian Airport, the high glass ceilings and the palm trees. Tour buses like the one I first came on are in the back lot, the ugly lot, so visitors will be temporarily disgusted then overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. That’s what happened to me.
“I’ll park and meet you in customs,” Ephraim says.
“Not necessary,” I say. “I have a book,” and I do, one David gave me the last time I saw him. It is called Company Five and it is about a soldier who returned to America after the Yom Kippur War. David gave it to me ten years ago, his last visit, in a café in Tel Aviv that I pass on the ride back from work. I’ve read the jacket cover, the copyright, the author’s thanks, but I’ve never gotten past the first sentence of Chapter One.
“Philip Roth,” I say, putting my hand on Ephraim’s cheek and leaning in to kiss him.
“You know who Philip Roth is,”
“Yes,” Ephraim says, “But I can’t think about that now.” Ephraim’s lips are dry and he presses too hard against me, like he’s begging for something.
“American Pastoral,” I say, getting out of the car.
“A good book for going to America.”
“I can take my bags myself.”
He lets me. The lines are long today, and the attendant seems grateful for my small suitcase, my lack of electronics. Then there are the kids with eight types of devices, ear plugs hanging out of their ears and rings hiding the skin on their fingers. Blue hair, a statement of something. There’s a small girl in front of me, maybe five or six, spinning around in circles with her arms wrapped tightly around her chest. When she topples over, a blur of pink sweater and brown hair, she blinks upward, bewildered, then smiles, as though she’s been willing the fall to happen all along.
Jenny Halper’s fiction has appeared in journals including Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Stories 2009, Smokelong Quarterly, Frigg, and New England Fiction Meetinghouse, and is forthcoming in an anthology from Persea Books. She is a 2009 Graduate of Emerson’s MFA Program and is the Junior Development Executive at Mandalay Vision where she worked on films including this year's The Kids Are All Right.
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