The Best Place on Earth (10 page)

Yasmin looked up at him. “Uri, this is Tatagat.” Her face had that glow again. Tatagat smiled. “Nice to meet you, Uri.” His voice was deep.

“Why didn’t you go to the shelter?” Uri said, barely glancing at Tatagat. He placed the plastic bag on the table and fumbled with his gas mask with numb fingers.

Yasmin waved her hand in dismissal. “It will be over in a minute.”

Uri removed the cap and tightened the straps, then folded his knees and lowered himself to the ground, where he sat, leaning against the door, staring at Yasmin and Tatagat through the two holes in the mask. Tatagat got up to fetch plates. He was much older than Yasmin, Uri observed, with deep lines carved into his cheeks and around his eyes. He was dressed in white, the crotch of his pants hanging low, like a diaper, and Uri could see the traces of him dangling freely. His head was bald but he had a long, pointy black beard, embroidered with silver.

The echoes of the fallen missiles sounded far away this time. After each one fell, the sky above the kitchen table flared up. “Done,” Yasmin said. “Now, can we eat?”

“You go ahead,” Uri said. “I’m going to wait for the announcement.”

Yasmin shut off the tape recorder and turned on the radio for him. She raised the clear plastic bag to eye level and examined it, laughing. Tahini pooled in the corner of the bag and some vegetables had fallen out. She gingerly pulled out the pitas, wiping them off with a napkin before placing them on a plate. Tatagat’s pager beeped and he picked it up, looked at the screen and asked to use the phone. Uri watched him, surprised to hear him speaking Arabic. When Tatagat hung up he said, “My mother making sure I’m still alive.”

“You speak Arabic with your mom?” Uri frowned.

“Sure.” Tatagat shoved the fallen vegetables back into his pita.

Uri studied Tatagat. He wondered what his real name was. He
had never really met an Arab before, except for the construction workers in the new building on the corner, who listened to loud Arabic music while they worked, but Uri always quickened his pace when he walked by them.

Yasmin took a bite of falafel and gave Uri an oblique glance. “Mom and Dad spoke Arabic with their parents.”

“That’s different.”

“How?”

Uri wasn’t sure why it was different but he knew that it was. And he didn’t want to talk about it in front of Tatagat, who was smiling at him with such warmth that Uri had to look away. He was relieved to be wearing a mask.

“So is Tatagat Christian or Muslim?”
Uri asked later. They were watching TV on the couch, the cold light illuminating the dark apartment. Their father had come back and gone to sleep. The night was warm so they had left the doors to the balcony open, and every now and then a cool gust would slither in, brush over their faces, ruffle their hair.

Yasmin sighed loudly. “Why are you so fixated on that?”

Uri hunched his shoulders. “I just think it’s weird.”

At school, everybody said Sima Landau fucked Arabs, which Uri supposed was another way of saying she was a whore who’d sleep with anybody. Uri laughed along with everyone else but felt awful afterwards because she was the only girl who had ever kissed him. It was at a house party at the beginning of the year. They were playing Seven Minutes in Paradise, and as soon as he and Sima were inside the closet, she had leaned over and kissed him on the mouth, her tongue poking between his lips. Then she said, “You can touch
my tits if you want,” and he placed an awkward hand on her shirt, feeling the rough material of her bra underneath, a lacy tablecloth. Now Uri placed a cushion on his lap, mortified by the hint of an erection that the memory brought him. He closed his eyes, imagining his mother in the psych ward, her oily hair, her saggy arms.

“Not that it matters,” Yasmin said, fiddling with the ring on her lip. “But he did go to the army.”

“He did?”

“You know what, it doesn’t even matter, because he wouldn’t go now and neither would I.”

“Why not?”

“Because we don’t believe in the occupation, and we don’t believe in war.”

“But the war is happening. Like right now.”

“You can choose to be a part of war or a part of peace. I want to spread positive stuff in the world. I want to do good.”

“I can’t wait to go to the army,” he said.

“Why? So you can ‘defend our country from the enemies who want to throw us into the sea’?” she mocked.

He stared at her. “What, you don’t think we need defending?”

“From what?”

“From this.” He pointed at the sky outside.

“You think this is a threat?” She snorted. “This is nothing. People in Iraq are dying.”

“Then why did you come back? If it’s nothing?”

“Because I worried about you. I didn’t want you to be alone.

With Dad.”

“I’m fine. You don’t have to worry about me.”

“I know you’re fine,” Yasmin said. “You’re the bravest kid I’ve ever known.”

Uri looked away, down at the darkened trees swaying in the wind, their branches blindly grasping, the foggy beams of the street lamps, the silhouettes of people in faraway windows, turning off lights in children’s bedrooms, the erratic flickers of TVs in other living rooms.

“Listen, I was going to talk to you about something,” Yasmin said. “Tatagat and I are thinking of opening a shop and staying here.”

“A shop?” he said.

“Yeah, we want to import things from India.”

“Oh.” Uri looked at the TV. “Cool.”

“I thought you’d be more enthusiastic.” Yasmin searched his eyes. “We’ll hang out more. You can be my little helper. You can sit at the store and write as much poetry as you like.”

“Once school starts I’ll be busy. Junior high is harder than elementary.”

“There are more important things than school,” Yasmin said.

Uri squeezed his hands into fists. “Just because you didn’t like school …”

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“Nothing.” He stood up and forced a yawn. “I’m going to bed. I’m tired.”

He saw less of Yasmin
over the next few days. Nadav was back from Jerusalem with a new girlfriend—he had met her in the hotel shelter—and Uri spent his days skateboarding with him and listening to his stories. He showed Uri pictures of a curly-haired girl with lip gloss and hoop earrings, a shirt with a Madonna print, a bandana wrapped around her wrist and her hair tied in a side ponytail.
He told Uri they’d had sex, and although Uri didn’t believe him, he enjoyed his detailed descriptions all the same. “It’s the war,” Nadav said. “It drives chicks crazy. Why do you think there were so many babies born after the Yom Kippur or Six Day War? It’s genetic programming. People want to procreate when their survival is threatened, so they start having sex and shit. It’s the best time to get laid.”

Uri thought of his father and how he seemed to be in a better mood these past couple of weeks. Twice the widow had dropped by with cookies and lasagna, dressed in revealing blouses, her hair blow-dried in waves, her pink lips puckered like a closed tulip.

One evening, he came home to find a book of poetry from the library on his desk. A poet by the name of Roni Someck. Uri flipped through it: the pages were worn out and dog-eared, some darkened with oily stains. That night, he lay in bed, mouthing the poems to himself. He had never read poetry like that, hadn’t known it existed: the verse written in an easy, fluid language, sometimes even slang, and often about everyday things. Yet it was beautiful, haunting, filled with such passion that Uri felt seized by it himself, unable to put the book down, too wired to fall asleep. The back of the book said that Someck was born in Baghdad—an Iraqi poet!—and lived in Ramat Gan, which both pleased and stunned Uri, the idea that a real poet lived and walked and found inspiration in these dull suburban streets. He studied his picture on the back, a young man with a broad forehead and dark olive-pit eyes, and wondered if maybe he’d seen him somewhere, in the supermarket, on the number 61 bus, if his house was visible from Uri’s apartment, if his was one of the windows that stayed lit late at night.

At first, Uri only wrote in the shelter, sitting in the corner with a school notebook, filling pages upon pages with new poems while
Yasmin slept, snoring lightly, and his dad and the widow laughed inside their gas masks, her hand on his knee. Then he bought a small spiral-bound notebook that fit in his back pocket for when he went skateboarding in the afternoons, and when poems tugged at him—sometimes just fleeting images, other times words, full sentences—he pulled the notebook from his pocket, sat down on a park bench, a curb, a stone fence, and wrote.

On Purim morning,
six weeks after the war had started, Uri’s father woke him up to tell him it was over. Saddam had withdrawn from Kuwait; a ceasefire was being negotiated. Just in time for the holiday. His dad took photos as Uri and Yasmin ripped the duct tape off the glass, flung the plastic sheets into a heap on the floor, slid open the windows to clear the room of its stale air of anxiety.

Outside, the sky was the rich, promising blue of spring. The streets were teeming with children in costumes, hundreds of Saddam Husseins competing with the usual cowboys and Supermen, Queen Esthers and Disney princesses. Uri and Nadav skateboarded through town, feeling free without their gas masks. They checked out the girls parading by in their costumes, some wearing sandals and short skirts, revealing secret winter skin. The wind tasted sweet on Uri’s tongue, and as he skated down the steep, windy Arlozorov Street, he opened his mouth and drank it in, feeling invincible, more mature somehow.

When he came home that evening—legs achy from skating, eyes and throat irritated from the wind, dust and car exhaust—he found Yasmin bundled in a blanket by the kitchen window, a dark silhouette against the silvery moonlit sky, smoking into an overflowing ashtray. Her eyes were swollen and her face drawn. She
kept biting her lip ring, rolling it forward and backward. “Tatagat left,” she said. “He went back to India.”

Uri joined her by the window. His father was working late again. The city was abuzz with party preparations. The smell of meals rose from apartments below, mixing with the sharp, fresh scent of night. Yasmin shuffled to the fridge and grabbed a bottle of beer. She threw herself back on the chair, folded her knees up, tightened the blanket over her shoulders. “Every time I think I know where I’m going and what I’m doing, something shitty happens that makes me question everything.” She glanced at him. “I’m such a bad sister. I’m so sorry.”

“You’re not.”

“I exhaust people. I exhaust you. An energy sucker, that’s what Tatagat says. No wonder Mom couldn’t stand me.”

“That’s not true.”

“I’m just like her,” Yasmin said. “I’m going to end up in the psych ward.” She hesitated, tilting her head to wind a short curl around her finger. “You know, I went to see her.”

He swallowed. “When?”

“Well, I’ve been a few times actually.” She looked at him. “Don’t be mad. I wanted to tell you, but Dad thought maybe we shouldn’t.”

He could taste the tears at the back of his throat. He looked out; the city lay flat and grey, the roofs bejewelled with sparkling solar panels. He drew invisible arcs from one roof to another, all the way to the sea.

“She asked about you,” Yasmin said. “You know she misses you, right? She just doesn’t want you to see her like this.”

“Yeah, I know.” Uri fixed his gaze on a woman who was taking laundry down outside her window. The laundry line screeched as she pulled it toward her, the clothes bouncing along.

“It was strange.” Yasmin sipped from her beer. “She was … calm. Too calm. Like she wasn’t mad at me at all.” Tears leapt out of her eyes. “Which was worse. And I looked at her, and I kept thinking: this is where you’re going to end up.”

“You’re not,” Uri said. “And Tatagat is an asshole. A good boyfriend would have stayed and helped you, if you needed help.”

“Oh, sweetie.” For some reason this made Yasmin burst out sobbing. Uri placed a hand on her bony shoulder and rubbed it, then pulled away. Yasmin quickly composed herself, shaking her head as if to dry off the tears. She looked up at him, then out with a distant gaze. “Sometimes people have to help themselves before they can help others,” she said.

It was then that Uri knew that his sister was leaving. Panic dug its fingernails into his heart; he had to stop her. Maybe she’d stay if he thanked her for the book, if he told her that he’d been writing again, that he understood now that poetry was everywhere, even outside their kitchen window, that it was more than just a game. He had always thought real poetry had to be about grand and important things, like the land and the people who died for it. He never knew he could write about the number 61 bus to Tel Aviv, the toddlers’ fingerprints on the windows, the whiff of sea salt and cigarette smoke it had brought from the big city. He wrote about Sima Landau, the taste of mint and chocolate on her lips, the warmth of her breath, the pink smell in her hair. He wrote about skateboarding: on the board he was the captain of a ship, a pilot, a fierce explorer of sleepy suburban streets.

But he knew there was nothing he, or anybody, could do to make her stay. Trying to keep her was as futile as trying to hold water in a tight fist. His sister was going to leave and come back and then leave again. She would become a handwritten note on postcards,
a distant voice on the phone, a line in a poem. All he’d have is a series of recycled moments, like this moment in the kitchen, and he could feel it slipping away, seeping into memory, fading into the past, already tinged with nostalgia and longing. Already gone.

He looked at Yasmin, curled into a ball with her knees against her chest, and then at the darkening patch of sky outside the window, the clouds that swirled and eddied, filling up the spaces between the stars, and he said, “The sky looks liquid today.” And Yasmin gazed up at him, her eyes red and brimming, and a smile skirted across her lips. “Like a stirred dirty martini,” she said.

“The moon is drunk,” Uri said. “A lemon wedge floating on top.”

Yasmin’s smile grew. Uri placed his hand over hers and gave it a light squeeze. Neither of them moved or talked for a while.

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