December 13, 1999

Jenny Halper


Tel Aviv at night is dark palm trees and a glow from the beaches, sidewalk graffiti invisible when it doesn’t glitter. I leave the hospital at three in the morning and wait on the curb that was cobblestone until five years ago. Rafer, whose bus went out of service at two, drives me across town, towards Yaffa, the apartment Ephraim picked when we were younger, above the worst pizza parlor in the city. Again he wants to know why we are not having an affair.

“Why will you not let me kiss you, Leah?” he asks.

“Because I’m taken and because you’re too old for me, that’s why.”

Rafer is not that much older than I am, fifty to my forty, but when I first met him I thought he was my father’s age. He attributes this to long nights behind the wheel of a fig truck and an orange truck and a falafel cart and now this bus he heaves un-elegantly around street corners. He wears a yarmulke above his grey hair, he has a beard that bristles over the steering wheel.

“We could run away tonight, Leah,” he says. “Or we could just get drunk.”

“Rafer, just so you know where I’m coming from, tonight I sewed a woman’s heart into her chest, so I’m a little tired, if you know what I mean.” This isn’t true. Once I was a medic but now I’m just a nurse. Tonight was bedpans and blood tests and a few minutes with Danya, but this ride is my half-hour weekly with a receptive audience and I’ll damn anyone who doesn’t let me take advantage.

“Next week,” he says.

“Sure,” I say, though next week the conversation will not change – I’ll still sew hearts and he’ll still want drinks - and I kiss near his cheek as he screeches in front of YItaliano’s where Frederico, the owner’s sixteen year old son, is already rolling out dough and poking his arm into the oven. I haven’t spent enough time with Danya to need to talk to him tonight.

The steps up to the apartment are wood and beginning to rot, and they sag slightly, like Ephraim’s muscles. In the ten years since he left active duty he seems to have deflated, resigned himself to a desk and several medals. Still, he’s in better shape than the Asian kid in the postcards David sends me from Massachusetts, though it is not really nice to think like this: his adopted son. I keep the postcards in my locker at work, with the scrubs I change into in the morning and hairbrush I only occasionally remember to use. Ephraim likes to say the last time I wore lip gloss was 1985.

Ephraim. He sleeps in grey wife-beaters and boxers that are either backwards or inside out. He sleeps curled in an awkward ball, arm tossed over the left side of the mattress, always forgetting I prefer the right. If I get into bed now he’ll roll over me, correct his mistake without opening his eyes. Instead I pull back the curtains, refurbished bed sheets Frederico’s father Raphael was throwing in the trash. He doesn’t understand why I’m allergic to throwing away perfectly good things. Ephraim doesn’t either. I look out at the ocean, boats drifting across it, specks of light. The best view here. I’m not religious, not even close, so it’s hard sometimes to get used to the notion that, anytime I want, I can walk to the Wailing Wall and pretend to speak to God.

***


“Your mother called,” Ephraim says, and for a moment I think he said, your brother, but I know that isn’t right. His boxers are inside out this morning and I tug the threadbare tag as I pass him to make toast. He leans in as though to kiss me. I ignore it.

“We don’t have eggs,” I say, leaning into the fridge, which smells of moldy citrus and is oddly warm.

“No more meat,” Ephraim says, “I told you already, no?”

“Eggs aren’t meat,” I say, “I’ll go see if Frederico has anything other than dough. Or are you off cheese, too?”

“You don’t hear me,” Ephraim says. “Your mother called.”

“I heard you,” I say.

Ten years ago I would have cared but now I’m over it. Now I’ve learned to nod and agree, even if I don’t know what I’m agreeing to. My mother calls more and more now, she invents holiday dinners and birthday parties I’m sure are for two, and I always tell her stop. I’ve learned to forget things like the past, because what really matters is what’s in front of you, solid minutes rather than dissipating memories. I don’t take pictures or write journals, and I never have.

“I’ll call her,” I say, but I wait till later, when Ephraim has left and I’m alone in the loft-like space, gliding barefoot through the one large room that comprises our apartment. As if there are no walls, or secrets either. My mother lives in New York, seven hours ahead, and if I wait long enough she will be napping, or eating dinner, or out on a walk with the man who lives next door, who gives her roses every Sunday and bakes her cheesecake when she gets too thin.

I call at two. The phone rings four times, and I am more than happy to leave a message.

 

December 14, 1999
 

It is afternoon and I am crossing to the beach with Frederico, tearing at one of the breadsticks I’ve sworn off. This is the time of day when the teenagers take over the beach – volleyball nets strung up and girls with rolled-up skirts wading into water that has gotten too cold. The Mediterranean is black and my sneaker crushes an empty soda can.

“Don’t you want to play?” I ask Frederico. “The geriatric ward is probably getting dull.”

“What do you mean, geriatric?” Frederico asks, and I lean down to pick up the soda can. There must be recycling around here somewhere, but I always forget where it is. I can no longer squat easily and the backs of my legs ache.

“I mean,” I say, staying low to the ground for a minute, “that I am old.”

“My father is old,” Frederico say, “you are not.” I look up at him, squinting through the sun that, this time of year, doesn’t keep me warm. He is a thin boy in a long black t-shirt that makes him look like empty space, perhaps his choice. He has a habit of chewing un-edible things like erasers and drinking straws. According to his father he gets top marks in school, but I’ve never seen him bring friends home.

“Don’t you want to play volleyball? La exercise?”

“Esercizio,” he corrects me. This is a joke between us – after twenty years in this country my Hebrew is poor and learning Italian isn’t any easier.

“Esercizio, you know what I mean.”

“I’m not feeling like it,” Frederico says.

“That’s what you said yesterday.”

“I say it on Tuesday.”

“Mr. Contrarian. When will you feel like it? When I’m a hundred? It’s farther away than you think.”

Frederico shrugs, a quick gesture, almost a flutter. He has a scar that runs from his collarbone down to his hip, and since he was six he has refused to take off his shirt. He sits next to me on the sand, rubbing his grubby fingers through it.

“You can play with this on,” I say, taking the fabric of his t-shirt between my fingers and tugging at it. Frederico turns away from me and digs into the sand, pulling up a seashell, a wire that won’t come up from under the ground. Or maybe not a wire, it’s thicker than that, round little links, like the start of a chain-link fence.

“Where do you think this goes?” Frederico asks, and we spend the next hour digging down the beach, following the buried fence past teenagers attempting to hide a bong that puffs its maple-sweet scent unmistakably, past a boy leaning over a girl, sheltered by an umbrella, sleek lines of human beings that remind me of something but don’t quite seem real. The fence takes us to the cold edge of the water, and we wade in to our ankles.

“Where do you think it goes?” Frederico asks, his voice hushed and bright, like when he was a little boy. We take turns, the two of us: Egypt, Morocco, Hawaii. I have forgotten all about the soda can.

***
 

In a year and six months Frederico will leave me. Not leave in the typical sense – I have Ephraim for that, if he ever gets the nerve – but I have an irrational fantasy of making Danya and Frederico fall in love with each other, when she is walking again and he has grown into some sort of confidence. So maybe the army will be good for that.

I am back at the hospital now, clocking into the florescent lights, steering from room to room, heavy doors and plastic curtains and faces I am always trying to forget. There are two types of patients, the ones who watch you draw their blood and the ones who look anywhere else: the ceiling, my neck, their other fist as they tense and let go. Tonight Patient #5 is a tourist who has fainted in the Arab quarter and her mother, who calls her Vivien, has grey hair that puffs around her head like feathers. She is tiny like my own mother and anxious even though her daughter doesn’t seem interested in anything other than the TV she can’t believe doesn’t have MTV…and why isn’t it on the ceiling, she asks.

“What is this, a prison?”

“A hospital,” I tell her. She is the type that looks right at me as I stick the needle in, waiting for me to do something wrong. She gives a little yelp, catlike.

“A mental hospital?”

I don’t answer the question. The room stinks of Vivien’s perfume, overripe vanilla, which is probably what made her faint in the first place. The mother wants to know when they can leave, and I want to say, “soon.”

Why can’t more girls be like Danya? 

Tonight Danya is sleeping curled on her side. She has pale, high cheekbones like a heroine who never makes it to the end of a movie. Her hair is horribly tangled and I brush it without waking her up, something I have gotten very good at. I braid it and kiss her on the forehead and as I am leaving she reaches her hand out to me.

“So today,” I whisper, “Frederico and I found a chain link fence in the sand. It was buried like that, under the sand. Where do you think it leads?”

“Home,” she says, but I can tell she isn’t listening. I hope she is dreaming. Last year, when she was caught on the edge of a blast that killed twelve and injured twenty, she was only eighteen, the age I was when I came here and thought for the first time I might stay.

***

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