Read The Best Place on Earth Online

Authors: Ayelet Tsabari

The Best Place on Earth (2 page)

Then, on my way back from my parents’ place I ran over a kitten. I was driving south on the right lane of Ayalon Highway, under bridges and overpasses, when I saw the little bugger—its eyes like tiny headlights—coming out of nowhere into my lane, as if on a suicide mission. I came to a screeching stop, turned my distress lights on and stepped outside. The kitten was splayed on the asphalt, not much bigger than my palm, mouth open in mid-scream, the blood still red and warm underneath it, its insides purple and pink and brown. He probably belonged to no one, another stray that would eat from garbage cans and one day impregnate another cat and make a litter of redundant kitties no one would ever give a shit about. But seeing it there, its blood soaking into the asphalt, something broke in me.

I drove home sobbing; the city’s skyline loomed ahead, giant ads with skinny models draped on the sides of buildings. The radio
played sad songs because there had been two attacks that day. I was sniffling and howling, snot and tears running down my chin. When I walked through the door, eyes red, face wet and wrinkled, Efrat jumped off the couch, a hand over her mouth. “Oh my God. What happened?”

“I ran over a kitten,” I said, and saying it aloud made me burst into another series of ugly, unmanly sobs.

“A kitten?” She stared at me, confused, then she tried touching me, saying, “I’m so sorry, baby,” but I shook her off, shuffled into my office, played video games till two in the morning and smoked all of our grass.

I spent the following week in my sweatpants. I smoked too much pot, watched TV, slept into the afternoon. Outside our apartment, life went on, the city carried on its incessant buzzing, while I was frozen inside. Something was wrong. I realized that every step in our relationship had been initiated by Efrat, as if she was holding the road map and I was just tagging along. She asked to be monogamous; she suggested we move in together. I started to wonder: Now what? Was I supposed to be an adult? To know what I wanted? To marry Efrat? Have children? And some nights—I don’t tell Natalie this part—I thought of her. Over the years, in her absence, she had become mythical. Every woman I’d ever dated was required to fill her enormous shoes, and failed.

A friend was going away to India and needed someone to watch his house in Ein Kerem, a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem—more like a village, really—where artists lived in old Arabic stone houses covered with vines. It was the end of summer, and Tel Aviv was steeped in its own juices, smelling of ripe garbage and swathed in dust and sand. Even the nights were sticky, offering no reprieve. I had been dreaming about getting away,
wishing I could afford a flight somewhere. Anywhere. Jerusalem, with its dry air and cooler nights, was the closest thing to Europe.

Natalie is listening to everything without saying a word, nodding in the right places. She’s no longer fidgeting, as if listening to my problems makes her forget about hers.

“Do you love her?” she says.

“Well, yeah,” I say. “I think. I want to.”

“You want to?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “They’re not new, these doubts. They’ve just been getting worse. I’ve been asking myself these questions pretty much from the beginning. How do you know when someone is right? How do you know when it’s over? Is a mediocre relationship better than being alone? Do I love her enough? What’s enough?”

“That’s the problem with you seculars,” Natalie says. “You ask too many questions.”

“I always thought I’d know more at thirty-five. I’m not where I thought I’d be.”

“Clearly, neither am I,” Natalie says. She empties a sugar packet onto a saucer and draws in it with a toothpick. A flower. A heart.

“I’m sorry,” I say. I still can’t get my head around it. I got Natalie pregnant twice. The first time was in the alley behind Haminzar, her unshaven legs wrapped around me, scratching my bum. We were wasted on arak and lemonade, and she wasn’t on the pill and I guess I pulled out too late. Natalie was very businesslike about the abortion: there were no tears, no talk about options; she wanted it done.

It was different the second time around. We were on her parents’ bed in the kibbutz when we discovered that if I did a little motion, a little in and up, I hit her G spot and it drove her wild. We didn’t
use anything because she was on the last day of her period. The night we found out she was pregnant again, we sat on the dingy couch that took up most of our balcony, bare feet against the rusty railing, and for about an hour or two we entertained thoughts of keeping it: talking names, buying a minivan, renting a little house by the water with a porch and a hammock. But we were twenty-four and had bodies full of drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, and we had no money and still hadn’t gone to university. We sat on that couch until morning, drank red wine straight from the bottle and cried for what would never be.

“There must be a way,” I say.

“Trust me, at this point I’d do anything.” She looks into her cup, swirls what’s left of her coffee. “It’s complicated. We’ve been trying for six years. Gadi is waiting for a miracle. Our relationship is …” She trails off, stiffens. “I shouldn’t be talking to you about this.”

“Come on. You’re talking to a friend about your problems. I just talked about mine for like, an hour, and they don’t seem quite as important as yours.”

“What about you?” she says.

“What, children?” I snort. “You’re kidding, right? Look around you. Why would anybody want to raise children in this country?”

She looks at the street, fingers the silver chain around her neck—its pendant buried under her collar—and says quietly, “God has a plan.”

Natalie had always had some sort of faith. When we were travelling in India, it was the holy cities where she wanted to stay the longest. In Varanasi she started meditating; in Pushkar she went on a silent retreat. All I wanted to do in India was get high, preferably on a tropical beach. Natalie found solace in yoga, meditation, a bit of Buddhism, a dash of Kabbalah. She
believed in a supportive universe, in things like manifestation, karma and tikkun: the kabbalistic idea of repairing or correcting past mistakes in order to achieve balance in the world. A part of me admired her for that; I loved that it was her own thing, that it wasn’t rooted in religion. Another part of me thought it was a hippie mishmash of spiritual nonsense, with holes large enough to drive a truck through.

“Maybe I don’t have the believer chip,” I tell Natalie. “I’m just not wired that way, I’m too cynical. Don’t know if I can change it.”

“You can’t force it,” she says.

“Can I get you guys anything else?” Shelly saunters over, a whiff of cocoa butter and coffee beans. “A halvah Danish?” She winks at me.

“Not today.” I smile.

“Just the bill,” Natalie says.

We watch Shelly walking away and Natalie says, “She likes you.”

I shrug it off, examine the hardened remains of my coffee, finding patterns in the muddy grounds. An ambulance speeds through the street, and everyone on the patio turns to look. Natalie’s neck lengthens, revealing a Star of David pendant hanging on her silver chain.

“Do you ever think about our time together?” I say.

Natalie turns her head quickly, giving me an alarmed look. “Don’t do that, Lior.”

“I’m just curious,” I say.

She holds her cup in both hands, choosing words. “To be honest, I don’t think about it much. Sometimes I remember things, but it’s like remembering a dream, something that happened in a movie. To a different woman.”

I swallow; my mouth is dry. I feel like such an idiot.

She glances at her phone and says she must go. “It was good to see you, Lior. Take care of yourself, will you?”

I stand up, raise my hand to touch her and then tuck it into my pocket instead. “Good luck.”

“Be’ezrat Hashem,” she says. God willing.

I watch her disappear into the crowd, and my heart crumples in my chest. Shelly strides over, piles our plates and coffee mugs on a tray. “What was that about?” she asks.

“What?”

“You and this … dossit.” She raises one eyebrow.

“Long story.” I smile tightly.

“So … I’m almost done.” She shifts on one hip, the tray perched on her arm. “Want to grab a drink?”

“At this hour?” I laugh.

“I thought you were from Tel Aviv.” She stares at me without blinking.

I eye her, contemplate the possibility. She has warm hazelnut eyes, and she’s wearing a vintage blue dress with a gold belt and gold ballerina shoes. She’s probably twenty-two, in her experimental slutty phase. I try to pretend I’m single; slip it on like a new shirt. I’m curious if I still have it, if I can do it without feeling guilty, if I’d think about Efrat at all.

“Here.” She grabs my wrist, pulls a pen from the pocket of her apron and scrawls a number. “If you change your mind.”

The bus is full of passengers with their grocery bags.
It smells like cilantro and fish. I stand by the back door, a quick escape route, and watch through the smeared glass as the city lets up, gives way to valleys and hills. It’s hard to believe Jerusalem is only forty minutes away
from Tel Aviv because it feels like another world. Efrat hates it, says it’s too busy and dirty and rundown, the streets too crowded, the people too intense. She gets migraines whenever she’s here.

The bus is almost empty by the time it drops me at Ein Kerem, the rush and chaos of Jerusalem left behind. Ein Kerem, tucked up in the city’s sleeve, is bathed in warm afternoon light. I walk to my new home, sit on the couch outside and watch the valley, spread open like the palm of one’s hand. I turn on my cell, glancing at Shelly’s number on my wrist when the phone rings.

“Thank God,” Efrat says. “I was going crazy. Your phone was off.”

“Sorry,” I say.

“You can’t do that. There was a pigua in Jerusalem. And your mom was looking for you. She didn’t even know you were in Jerusalem.”

“Shit,” I say. “I forgot to tell her.”

“Well, it’s irresponsible, Lior. The least you can do is leave your cell on.”

“I said I’m sorry.”

She’s quiet. I can hear her sucking cigarette smoke. “I miss you,” she says.

“Efrat, we talked about this. I just need time to figure shit out.”

“I just said I missed you. Why do you have to be such a jerk?”

I sigh, suddenly exhausted. “I came here to take a break. Please.”

“Fine,” she says. “Whatever.”

It’s almost evening by the time
I drag myself off the couch and decide to go for a walk, be a tourist, anything to distract me from my head. I climb up the path to Hama’ayan Street, where three narrow roads
meet at Mary’s Spring. It’s quiet before sunset, the pilgrims and tourists and idling buses all gone. A mosque towers over the spring, with a crescent and a star perched on its spire. I follow the trickling sound of water under a stone archway, disturbing a nun who’s bent over the shallow pool, washing her face in the stream from the rock-hewn tunnel. It’s musty and cool underneath the curved, low ceilings. On the wall, a sign advises visitors against drinking the water many of them consider holy. I have seen pilgrims fill plastic bottles with this stuff. I wait until the nun leaves and lean over, let a few icy drops into my mouth. It tastes like rain: earthy and fresh.

I hike up the wide, stone-paved stairs to the Church of the Visitation. The road is empty, except for a young souvenir vendor leaning against his modest stall: wooden crosses and rosaries dangling from hooks, fluttering scarves tied over a pole, postcards stacked on a rotating stand. He nods at me and continues to play on his phone. The valley yawns to my right, lush with olive and cypress trees, and the hillside is terraced and capped with clusters of stone houses. The setting sun is bouncing off distant car mirrors and water heaters on roofs.

I’m breathless by the time I make it all the way to the top of the stairs, where a large wrought-iron gate leads to a stone courtyard, a church and a bell tower with a spiky tip. A huge mosaic covers the front wall, rimmed with gold: three flying angels, a woman riding a horse, her arms crossed against her chest. The place is breezy and graveyard-quiet, the kind of quiet that hums, that clings to you the way humidity does in the city. I think I’m alone but then I notice a monk—his face warmly lit by the setting sun—sitting on a bench in what I realize is an actual cemetery: a few graves laid between trees and bushes. He’s looking over the valley; doesn’t move, doesn’t see me, like a statue.

I walk up a few more stairs, drawn to the sound of voices singing in some language I can’t make out. The visitors spill out just as I reach the door to the chapel and I lower my gaze, afraid they can see through me, know I don’t belong. Once they are gone I peer in. The high ceilings are covered in murals, depicting scenes I don’t recognize from stories I don’t know. The setting sun tints the paintings a rich orange, drawing long shadows on the tiled floor. I sit in a pew and try to feel something that isn’t discomfort. I shift in my seat and the wood creaks, then echoes, amplified. Maybe God is here. Maybe I’ve never felt him because I’ve looked in all the wrong places. I close my eyes and try to concentrate, breathe, meditate. I try. I really fucking try. I feel nothing.

My phone rings. A priest I haven’t noticed before glares at me. I apologize and hurry outside to answer, surprised to hear Natalie on the other end.

“Lior.” Her voice is choked. “Have you heard?”

The pigua. “Where?”

“Café Rimon. Seven dead.”

“Oh my God.” I skitter down the stairs to the courtyard, past the cemetery, through the gate. “When?”

“About twenty minutes after we left. I just found out.”

Shelly. I glance at her handwriting on my wrist. Did she make it out in time?

“There are no names yet,” Natalie says as if she can read my mind.

“I can’t believe it. Twenty minutes?”

“I’m in Ein Kerem,” she says. “I got in the car and drove here, then I realized I don’t even know where you’re staying.”

“Park by the spring,” I say. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

I race down the path. The sky over the valley has grown darker,
bruised blue, red and purple. The setting sun has sucked the warmth out of the air, and the mountain breeze feels cool on my skin, billowing out the back of my T-shirt as I run down the stairs to Hama’ayan Street.

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