Read The Best Place on Earth Online

Authors: Ayelet Tsabari

The Best Place on Earth (19 page)

They spend the afternoon sightseeing in Jaipur. It’s a city Maya knows well, where she buys most of the silver jewellery she sells. In the evening, they walk into a restaurant Ian selects from the travel guide. It has dimmed lighting, an ancient air conditioning unit dripping into a plastic bowl at the entrance, a CD player playing old movie tunes. There is only one other couple in the restaurant, older and white, with sparse grey hair, wearing matching Bermuda shorts and pale buttoned-up shirts.

“Expensive,” Maya whispers to Ian as the waiter leads them to a table covered with a maroon tablecloth and hands them laminated menus in padded folders.

He waves his hand. “I’m from London.” He sits back in his chair, legs spread, flipping quickly through the menu. “I’m having tandoori chicken.” He snaps the menu shut.

Maya raises her eyebrows. “I thought you didn’t trust the meat in India.”

“Fuck it.” He grins. “You only live once.”

He orders too much food: samosas, pakoras, a basket of naan, an assortment of chutneys. When the large Kingfisher beer arrives, he pours some into each of their glasses, sips from it, licks froth off his lip and sighs. “Starting to feel human again,” he says, stretching his arm across the table and grabbing her hand. In this restaurant, at this moment, he looks like the man she remembers from London. After three beers he slips his foot out from his flip-flop, reaches under her skirt and strokes the side of her thigh with his toes. She stiffens. The older couple are busy eating. The waiter is nowhere to be seen. She swallows and moistens her lips. He hasn’t been that bold since the first night. In fact, they haven’t been having as much sex as she thought, or hoped, they would.

“You’re bad.” She lowers her chin, shuffles down in her seat so that his foot is resting on the crotch of her underwear.

He wiggles his toes.

“Screw dessert,” she says. “Let’s go back to the room.”

“Holy shit.” He straightens in his seat, his foot sliding down. “Did you see that? I just saw the hugest rat. Right there, across the beam.”

She sighs and sips her beer.

“Did you see it?” His eyes are focused up, his jaw slightly dropped. “I swear it was the size of my forearm.”

She shrugs. “They’re everywhere. They’re like cows.”

“Let’s get out of here,” he says. When the bill comes he slips a credit card to the waiter, and Maya adds the bill up in her head and thinks of how many days she could have lived in India on that amount of money.

She flags a rickshaw outside the restaurant. “Raj Hotel.”

“Forty rupees.” The driver doesn’t look at her. His oily hair is hennaed red and brushed over to one side. He sucks on his bidi.

She scoffs. “Fifteen.”

The driver flicks his bidi onto the gravel and stares straight ahead.

“It’s fine,” Ian says. “Let’s just get out of here.”

“Twenty,” she says.

“Forty.”

“Pagal.” She twirls her index finger at her temple and begins to walk away. Ian climbs in.

She stops and turns to him. “I can’t bargain if you’re already sitting there.”

He sighs. “God, just let it go.”

She puffs out her cheeks, letting out a deep breath. She climbs into the rickshaw and sits perched at the edge of her seat, looking out and smoking.

In the hotel room Ian lies on the bed and watches her as she undresses, his head propped against the headboard. “You realize you were bargaining for the equivalent of less than a pound.”

“It’s not about that.” She takes off her shirt. “It’s how it works here. They expect you to bargain. Didn’t you read about it in your guidebook?”

“Well, you didn’t have to talk to him like that.”

“Like how? It’s called negotiating.”

“I don’t know. You seemed a little harsh.”

“I’m Israeli, this is how we talk.” She takes off her small hoop earrings and places them on the shelf.

He shakes his head, picks up his guidebook from the bedside table.

“What?” she says. “You guys are just as patronizing as Israelis. We’re just more direct about it.”

“I’m Indian,” Ian says.

“I’m more Indian than you are,” she says and immediately regrets it.

“Wow.” He raises his hands.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t mean that.”

He puts on his headphones and turns his back to her. She watches him shutting down, pulling the blinds over.

The courtyard is lit with lanterns,
swarming with dark clouds of bugs. She crosses the street to pick up another pack of Gold Flakes and, as she pays the clerk, hears laughter and talking from the back of the store. Without thinking, she follows the sounds to a small garden restaurant with backpackers sitting around candlelit tables. She orders a Kingfisher, unwraps the plastic off her package of Gold Flakes and glances at the table next to her. The Israeli group from this afternoon.

“Achi,” the guy with the short army cut tells the curly-haired man. Achi.
Brother.
“If you’re in Manali, you should go to Kullu and Parvati Valley. The best charas you’ll ever taste.”

“It’s true. I was there in the spring,” she offers in Hebrew. The language feels new and clunky in her mouth. When was the last time she used it?

“You were?” Curly hair eyes her; he’s wearing faded Thai pants and a sleeveless shirt, a large woven necklace with a turquoise stone around his neck. “Second time in India?” he says, passing her a joint.

She sucks in the sweet, smooth smoke. “Fourth actually.”

He whistles, slides into the chair opposite hers. “Omer,” he says.

“Maya.”

A waiter carrying a tray with four lassis stops by their table. The three guys each take one. The girl says, “No fucking way. After last time?” She blows a large bubble with her gum and sucks it back in.

The waiter hovers.

“Maybe Maya wants it?” Omer says. “Bhang lassi?”

She looks at the tray. She’s already stoned, still holding the joint Omer passed her. “Why not.” She takes a long sip. Banana, yogurt and hash. Omer watches her. She’d forgotten how intense Israeli men can be. “You stay at our hotel,” he says. “That guy, he’s your boyfriend?” Or how direct.

“Yes,” she says.

“Oh, you’re one of those.”

“One of what?”

“What is he, British?”

“He’s half Indian.”

“British guys, they’re like refrigerators,” the girl volunteers and the guys howl with laughter. “I dated one in Israel. No passion. They’re not like our boys. Now I could never date a guy who isn’t Israeli.”

“You mean, not arrogant and obnoxious?” Maya says.

The girl stares at her, her mouth slightly open. Omer laughs. “Well, maybe Maya loves him. Right?”

“Right,” she says.

“That’s what’s important. Love.”

The courtyard is covered in soft Cellophane. The lights turn dimmer, but the sounds crystallize, spoons hitting glass, a man’s laughter, cars honking from the main road. She sinks into her chair, comfortable, content, resigned to staying awhile. Maybe she should bring Ian here tomorrow evening for a bhang lassi. It would loosen him up a bit. The guys and the girl get into a heated argument. Something about Palestinians. Or Lebanon. Or maybe some Israeli reality show Maya doesn’t know. The girl keeps yelling, “No, no, no,” half-rising from her chair and leaning over the
table. They are the loudest table in the restaurant. People at other tables keep glancing at them. Omer lights a Winston and holds the package open in front of Maya. She takes one and he strikes a match. She leans over. Too close. Her cigarette hits his hand. His face is long and oval, his features sharp, like a fox.

“So how long have you been travelling?”

“About three years.” She leans back and inhales deeply. She’s missed American cigarettes. She’s missed cigarettes that don’t taste like sand.

“Ahhh, that explains it.” Omer blows out smoke.

“Explains what?”

“It fucks you up, not having a home for that long.”

Maya smiles with her mouth closed.

“You travelled all this time with your boyfriend?”

“No, he just got here.” She peels the label off her beer bottle and eyes him, considering how much to share. “He hates it.”

“I thought you said he was Indian.”

For some reason this makes her laugh, and then she can’t stop. Omer joins in. They laugh for a long time, and her eyes are tearing up.

“Well, guess he doesn’t belong here any more than we do,” Omer finally says. “It’s like you going back to … what are you, Yemeni?”

She nods and shuffles in her chair, annoyed that he places her in the same category as him, with all of them, as if she’s just another one of those backpackers who come here for a few months after army service and then return to their real homes, start university, rent an apartment in Tel Aviv, hang a series of stylized photographs of barefoot Indian children on their living room walls, cover their mattresses with Rajasthani mirror-studded bedspreads.
When the waiter walks by, Maya waves at him and orders another Kingfisher in Hindi.

Omer takes a swig from his beer and stares at her in a new way. “You speak Hindi.”

“A little bit.”

“Do people think you’re Indian?”

“Sometimes.”

“Bet you love it.”

She shrugs, takes a long sip from her beer.

“So what’s your story? What are you running away from?”

She frowns. “Isn’t it what we’re all doing? Running away from everything back home?”

“Yeah, but that’s a long time to be running away,” he says. “I’m going back next month.”

She looks around and realizes the restaurant is almost empty. The lights are off. The candle on their table is flickering, dying out. When did everyone else leave? She feels a pang of fear and exhilaration, a thrilling sense of dread, like her first day in the army, her first day in New Delhi. She swallows. “I’m really stoned,” she says. She realizes she’s been staring at his lips; they’re full and dark purple, as if bruised.

“You okay?” Omer leans over the table and gives her a warm, caring look. She thinks of her mother, of the last time she saw her, the day before she flew to India. It was Saturday morning, her father was at the synagogue, they ate kubaneh her mother had baked overnight with spicy, lemony hilbe; dipped a brown, hard-boiled egg in grated tomatoes mixed with green schug, speckled with red chilies. The sweet smell of kubaneh stayed in Maya’s hair, the oil in her fingers, the tang of fenugreek oozing from her sweat throughout the next day, on her flight here.

“Hello. Earth to Maya,” Omer says. “You okay? Do you want me to get you coffee? Water? Anything?”

“I’m fine.” She looks at her hand and sees that she’s holding a filter with perfectly formed cigarette-shaped ash. She jerks and the ash crumbles and falls off.

Omer leans forward, offers her his hand, palm up, across the table. He examines her, eyes narrowed.

“No, really,” she says, and she places her hand on his. “I’m okay.”

He looks down at their hands; they lay on top of each other cupped, as though holding something fragile. He swallows, his Adam’s apple retreating and bulging.

“So …” he says. “I bought an Enfield in New Delhi and rode it here.”

“Oh yeah?”

“You should come with me. To the Himalayas.”

She laughs.

“I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”

“Very funny.”

“You know you want to.”

A sudden alarm goes off inside her head. She glances at the clock. It’s past 2:00 a.m. “I have to go.” She pulls her hand away, palm moist, stands up too quickly, dropping her smokes. She tries putting money on the table, but Omer puts his hand on hers and says, “It’s on me.” She doesn’t argue. She crosses the street, half running, slows down as she reaches the gate. The hotel is dark, the courtyard empty. She hears steps behind her and her heart begins to pound. Omer catches up to her in the corridor. He pushes her gently against a wall. His breath is hot, sweet from charas, banana, Kingfisher beer. “Hey,” he says.

“This is a bad idea.” She puts her hand on his shoulder as if she’s
about to push him away but then kisses him instead. His tongue tastes good swirling in her mouth. He grabs her hand, leads it down to the bulge in his pants. He lifts her skirt with his other hand, moves her underwear aside with quick fingers.

She hears shuffling footsteps, lets out a gasp and pushes Omer away. A flashlight turns on, its beam skittering across the courtyard. Maya arranges her skirt and, when the light finds them, puts her hands together in Namaste and greets it in Hindi. The night guard lowers the flashlight to his feet and squints at Maya and Omer as if trying to read the situation he’s walked into. Omer nods at him. “Everything okay, Miss?” the guard asks Maya in Hindi.

“Everything’s fine.” She wobbles her head. He lingers, studying Omer, then says, “Good night,” and walks away. They’re silent until he disappears behind a corner.

“Aren’t you handy to have around.” Omer grabs her by the waist, pulls her to him. “You’re really good at this whole Indian thing.”

She removes his hands. “Indian thing?”

“You know, your whole … act. Must be good for bargaining.”

“Look, Omer …” She crosses her arms on her chest. “I can’t do this. I have a boyfriend.”

He nods with a thin smile. “Right.”

“I should really go.”

She rounds a corner and leans against the brick, catching her breath. Through the window of their room she sees Ian sleeping. He’s stretched out on his back, his face turned to the window, the sheet pulled down to reveal his chest, a few curly hairs sprouting in a clump like a wilted flower. She’s taken by how handsome he is, like a Bollywood actor. He could be a local, especially now, undressed, stripped of his accent, his guidebook, his backpack. He
looks the part, just like she does; both wear the right skin colour, the right features, yet neither of them belongs here, not really. She wonders if this is all they ever had in common. Ian shifts in his sleep; in this light the harsh lines of his features are softened, boyish, like the child he must have been. She’s filled with sadness. She lowers herself to the floor, pulls a pack of cigarettes from her pocket and realizes she took Omer’s Winstons by mistake. She smokes one, two, three cigarettes before she goes in.

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