Read The Best Place on Earth Online

Authors: Ayelet Tsabari

The Best Place on Earth (3 page)

Natalie is washing her hands in the drizzle of the spring, and then turns and sees me. “Oh, Lior.” She grabs my hand—touches me—squeezes it with wet, cold fingers. Her eyes are pink. “We were just there.”

“I know.”

“I keep thinking, what if we’d stayed a bit longer?”

Street lights click on along the street, their warm beams offsetting the fading daylight’s bluish tones. I look around. The neighbourhood appears new, sharper and clearer somehow, as if it had just rained.

“It was weird, like I suddenly felt I had to go,” she says. “I just felt like it was time.”

“I wanted to stay,” I say. “I wanted to talk more.”

“It was weird,” she repeats.

“You saved me,” I say, the words strange in my mouth, my hand—still in hers—breaking into a sweat.

“I didn’t do anything,” she says.

A car drives down the hill, its headlights blinding us, and Natalie squints and pulls her hand away. She has that swimming look in her eyes, before tears. I cross the street, stop and turn to Natalie. She hesitates but then follows. We walk down the path to the house, where we are hidden from the road, lower than the asphalt. We stand by the pomegranate tree. I don’t invite her in.

“I’m sorry I came here.” Her voice shakes; her shoulders quiver. “I didn’t know where else to go.”

“I’m glad you did,” I say. I picture the patio in my head; summon
up the faces I memorized. “Remember the couple that was sitting next to us?”

“They spoke French,” she says. “I was admiring her head scarf. I remember thinking it looked expensive. And there was that old guy …”

“With the fedora. By the door. He was writing.”

“Oh no.” She puts her hand over her mouth. “The mother with the stroller.”

“She left right after you did.”

“Thank God.” Her eyes fill with tears. “It was so close today. One more coffee and we’d be dead. And instead of thinking how dangerous it would be to have a child in this place, like you said, it just makes me want one more.” She cups her face with her palms and breaks into sobs.

I watch Natalie with my hands tightly curled inside my pockets, going against my instincts, which tell me to hold her, touch her, console her. But then she bows forward, as though she may fall, so I open my arms and catch her, and she buries her face in my chest, her tears soaking through my shirt. I stand there, stiff, my hands like slabs of dough on her shoulder blades, my head pulled back, looking up at the stars blinking between the clouds, at the valley, now dotted with flickering lights, and I’m not breathing her in, not wiping away her tears, not saying a word, just being a rock she can lean against. After a long while, her trembles subside and she sniffles into my chest, and we remain still, breathing. Her body hardens against me, so slowly that at first I think I must be imagining it, then her arms tighten around me, and she’s clinging to me as though we’re suspended over a cliff and I’m the one at the end of the rope. I can feel her breasts through her shirt, the heat from her body. My heart starts going double time;
my erection presses against the fabric of my jeans. “Natalie,” I breathe out.

She pulls me down onto her and we fall, knees buckling, onto the earth, which smells sharp, warm, moist, like blood. She has a determined, focused look in her eyes as she scrambles to open the zipper of my pants, lifts her skirt and leads me inside her, her wetness and warmth, and it’s like our bodies have memory, like they have never been apart. I try to kiss her but she moves her face and I kiss her neck, drink in her scent—body lotion and coffee and milk—and I remember: this is how love feels. So many times over the years I’ve pictured this, fantasized about it: her body beneath mine, her breath tangled in my breath. She clutches my shirt with her fists, whispers, “Deeper, deeper,” and I move up and in, the way I know she likes, and she arches her back, and cries out when she comes, a quick sharp yelp, and I come too, collapsing onto her in tremors, and she’s closing on me, holding me in, and it’s a moment without doubt or question. There’s a reason we didn’t die in the pigua. Natalie is smiling, her cheeks glistening with tears. “Don’t pull out yet,” she whispers. “Stay.” She squeezes me in. I feel her heartbeat against my chest, soft and fast like a fluttering bird.

When I finally pull out, I roll over and stretch out on the ground next to her. Through the pomegranate tree branches, the moon swims in and out of clouds. Natalie tilts her hips up and raises her legs, folds her knees into her arms like a fist. I turn on my side, lean on my palm and take all of her in, the curve of her hips, the line of her neck disappearing into her blouse. I’m feeling greedy. I want to follow that line; I want to touch her hair, those black ringlets starting to break free from her head scarf. I want to feel the skin of her breasts, take them in my mouth one last time. I want to
at least glimpse them. I slide my hand under her shirt, stroke her warm belly.

She puts a firm hand on mine and shakes her head no.

“I love you,” I say.

She smiles like she’s sad. “Aw, Lillosh,” she says, using the nickname she’d given me. She gets up, buttons the top of her shirt, glides a hand over her skirt, tucks in strands of hair into her head scarf. I memorize her, etching her image into my brain. I know it’s the last time I will see her. She bends down beside me and caresses the stubble on my cheek, tipping her head to look at me. “Thank you,” she says.

I stay on the ground after she leaves,
listening to the roar of her car fading away. I don’t remember when the last time was that I lay on the earth, felt its pulse, the heat of the day emanating into my core. I dig into the soil with my nails, let the gritty roughness sift between my fingers. The night air is crisp and still, but my body is vibrating: warm, alive, as if I’ve been turned inside out. A long time passes and I feel I am becoming a part of this earth, this tree, this night. It feels a little bit like prayer.

SAY IT AGAIN, SAY SOMETHING ELSE

The day Lily meets Lana is her two-week anniversary in Israel.
She’s lying on her belly in the dried grass outside the apartment building she now calls home, watching insects through her macro lens. She’s sweating in her faded blue jeans and Converse high-tops. Then a shadow eclipses her sun.

“You’re new here,” the girl says. “Where did you come from?”

Lily squints up. Ripped black stockings underneath an acid-washed jean miniskirt. A white sleeveless tank top. Blonde hair in a high ponytail. “Canada,” Lily says.

“Cool. We moved here from Belarus two years ago. I’m Lana.”

Lily looks up again, this time intrigued. She doesn’t know where Belarus is.

“I live at entrance C. You live at B?”

Lily nods. She wonders if the girl is her age. If she’ll be starting grade nine in the fall too, if she goes to the same school.

“Aren’t you hot in those jeans?” Lana says. Lily shrugs.

“You should cut them. Make them into shorts.”

“I don’t wear shorts.” Lily presses her eye against the viewfinder. A ladybug navigates her way through giant leaves.

“Can you take photos of me?” Lana says. “I need some portfolio shots, for this modelling agency in Tel Aviv.”

Lily clicks the shutter. “I’m not that kind of photographer.”

“We can barter,” Lana says. “I can cut your hair for you. I’m good at it.”

“Why do I need to cut my hair?”

“You can’t even see your face like that.” She watches Lily. “Do you have a boyfriend in Canada?”

Lily shakes her head.

Lana shifts her balance from one foot to the other. Silvery strappy sandals. Chipped blue nail polish. “Hey, a bunch of us are going to the beach tomorrow. Do you want to come?”

Lily raises herself onto her elbows. “Really? I mean, sure.”

“Cool.” Lana turns and walks away, into the dark stairway that leads to entrance C.

Up the stairwell to entrance B,
Lily lives in a small apartment with her aunt Ruthie and her cousin Talia, who is a soldier in the army and only comes home on weekends. The apartment building—a long, tawny three-storey with three entrances and rows of laundry strung between windows—is opposite a falafel stand that reeks of oil and chickpeas and garlic and cigarette smoke. At night, when the air is juicy and the street lamps paint everything a warm, forgiving colour, men with beer bellies and women with hennaed
hair sit on their small balconies, cracking sunflower seeds and spitting the shells into the hibiscus bushes with their red trumpet flowers. Through the open windows of the buildings on the block, Lily can hear TVs blaring and dishes clanking, kids crying and couples fighting and having sex. Teenagers hang out on the metal barricades in front of the building, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Some evenings they bring down narghile pipes and set them on the sidewalk, and the smell of apple tobacco sweetens the night air.

At the end of the street, on the edge of Petah Tikva, a narrow highway leads to Ben Gurion airport. Teardrop-shaped cypress trees line both sides of the road, their tips piercing the sky. All day long, Lily watches planes circle over the neighbourhood of Sha’ariya before landing and wonders if they carry newcomers like her, immigrants like her grandparents once were, having been airlifted from Yemen on a secret operation when Israel was founded. It was the first time they had ever seen an aircraft. Lily imagines them—her grandmother Saida, whom she remembers from previous visits, and her grandfather Salim, whom she’s only seen in pictures—holding hands and mouthing prayers as the plane descends toward the Holy Land.

Back when her grandparents arrived, her mom told her, the whole neighbourhood was Yemeni, and even now, with all the new immigrants—Russians and Ethiopians—when Lily walks down certain streets, she still sees old Yemeni ladies just like her grandma sitting on their front porches in large dresses and flowery head scarves. These streets are fragrant with fenugreek and turmeric and coriander, and from the synagogue she can hear men singing prayers in an undulating Yemeni accent she doesn’t understand. This is where her mother was born, where she grew up and
lived before she moved to Canada. Lily even looks the part. But she feels like a stranger, a tourist.

The next day, Lily wakes up disoriented again,
thinking she’s still in Vancouver, then is jolted into remembering as her eyes adjust to the white light that floods through the plastic shutters.

She wriggles into a sports bra and steps into her swimming trunks. Ruthie is at work, Talia is back at the base. Lily prepares pita sandwiches with hummus and pickles, washes grapes and stuffs them into a Tupperware container, grabs a water bottle she placed in the freezer the night before. She waits in her room—a small converted balcony with sliding doors that lead to the living room, the glass covered with sheets for privacy. It’s small, but Lily likes having three walls of shutters. When she first arrived, she opened the shutters during the day until Ruthie pointed out that the heat is better left outside. Then in the evenings, cockroaches swarmed in and mosquitoes swirled around the lone bulb hanging from the ceiling. She couldn’t sleep, hearing them crashing into the walls, buzzing in her ears. Outside, late-night buses growled, crickets chirped, people huddled by the falafel stand, talking and laughing, and the light of the street lamp streamed in, drawing lines of orange on her sheets.

She cried every night for the first week. Missing Vancouver. Missing her life. Missing her mom. It almost felt as if Ima was still alive, just back home in Vancouver. It reminded her of the only time she had been apart from her mother for an extended period, the one time she had visited her dad in Montreal. She only cries when she’s alone in bed because she has promised herself she won’t cry in front of people. If she’s going to make friends in a new
school, then she can’t be known as the crybaby, the sad girl. In her first year of junior high in Vancouver, she’d been picked on for her boyish clothing and her hair, for hiding behind a camera. She doesn’t want to give bullies more reasons to torment her.

By noon Lily thinks: Lana isn’t coming. Of course. It was too good to be true. She hooks her camera to her laptop and starts uploading images to her photography blog. She titles them as she goes along. “Splattered oil. Falafel stand.” “Friday night. Men on way to synagogue.” “Baby chicks behind chain-link fence.” “Lemons under tree.” “Old Yemeni women on park bench.” She scrolls down and looks at older photos. There is a four-month gap where she took no photos at all. After Ima died. And then from the two weeks before she left for Israel there is a flurry of photos, things she wanted to remember from her East Vancouver neighbourhood. “Mountain view from back deck.” “Dreadlocked drummers outside Co-op.” “My Vancouver aunties”—Ima’s four best friends, who took Lily in, rented out the house, arranged her trip to Israel. Lily scrolls back to seven, eight months ago. There’s Ima with a shaved head, smiling, hands around a cup of tea, covered in a colourful blanket on their back deck. And even farther back. Biking on Salt Spring Island. The peace rally on Granville Street, Ima holding a big sign that says “Jews for Peace!” The last Thanksgiving at their house. A few years back, Ima had wanted to cook a turkey but didn’t know how. “I didn’t grow up making it,” she cried, and in the end she drove to Hastings Street and donated the uncooked bird to an outreach place, and made enchiladas instead, which had since become tradition. The photo was titled “Thanking the Mexicans.”

Lily thinks of the photos she didn’t post from that evening. The ones her mother took of her in an A-line, knee-length black skirt
she had bought for Lily on a previous visit to Israel. They had gotten into a huge fight in the store. “Just this once,” Ima had pleaded with her. “When do I ever ask you for anything?” They had been invited to a Rosh Hashanah dinner with all their relatives; she wanted to make a good impression. When Lily emerged from the change room, her mother beamed. “You look so beautiful,” she said and asked Lily to twirl, ignoring her sulking. It was Lily’s idea to wear the skirt for Thanksgiving. She knew how happy it would make her mom. A small price to pay.

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