Read The Best Place on Earth Online

Authors: Ayelet Tsabari

The Best Place on Earth (4 page)

At 3:00 p.m. Lily turns on the TV
and flips channels, fighting tears of frustration. She ignores the honking in the street below, and when it persists, goes to the balcony-turned-bedroom and tilts the slats down to look out. On the parched asphalt Lana stands next to a dusty Fiat, wearing a sheer white dress and a wide-brimmed hat. She’s waving.

Lily slides the shutters open along their tracks. “It’s late,” she yells.

Lana cups her hand over her large sunglasses. “Oh, you haven’t been waiting, have you? It’s too hot in the day. We always go after four, stay for sunset.”

Lily closes the shutters and jogs downstairs. Lana introduces her to Tzion and Igor. Tzion is dark-skinned, Yemeni, with a shaved head and a chunky gold necklace. Igor has longish blond hair and his gangly legs are stuffed into the small space behind the passenger seat. They both smile. Lily hesitates. They seem old, much older than her. “They don’t bite,” Lana says, pushing the front seat forward.

Lily wiggles into the back seat next to Igor, who cocks his head
and ogles her. Lily jerks her head so that her long bangs fall over her eyes. “So how do you like Israel?” Igor says, his Russian accent heavy.

“It’s okay.” Lily wipes her clammy hands on her swimming trunks and pulls her camera out of her bag. She starts taking photos through the window even though the sun is in the middle of the sky. Rows of buildings with eyes shut, grey, brown and yellow, streaked with black lines like runny ink. The sky is white. Everything is faded by sunlight. Even the trees and the pink bougainvillea seem tired at this time of the day. In Vancouver, the colours were so much brighter, everything cleaner, freshly rained upon.

The beach is crowded and speckled
with blue and red umbrellas. Lana pulls her dress over her head, revealing a purple bikini, four triangles tied by strings on her hips and her back. Her hips and collarbones stick out, but her breasts and belly are softly curved. Her skin is white and freckled. She hands Tzion a tube of sunblock and he begins rubbing it on her back in long strokes.

Lily takes off her T-shirt, flings it on the sand and heads toward the water. The white sand is burning her feet, so she starts to run. The beach has always been her favourite thing about Israel. She used to spend long afternoons here with her mother, eating watermelon slices out of a Tupperware container, building elaborate sandcastles with moats and tunnels, decorating them with shells and seaweed. “Wait, I’ll come with you,” Lana calls after her. They run into large waves that slap their bellies and spray their faces with salt, the white foam hissing as it settles. They turn around and walk backwards, against the waves, until they are past the break. Around them a few couples are kissing, their bodies
shiny, their limbs entangled. The water rises with the waves, gently lifting Lily off her feet and setting her back down, the sea floor spiralling around her feet. Lily loves the waves; Vancouver beaches were always so calm. She loves feeling weightless, carried away, tossed around.

“So Igor likes you.” Lana rearranges her bikini top.

“He doesn’t even know me,” Lily says. “Besides, he’s too old.”

“He’s sixteen,” Lana says. “I invited him here for you.”

“I just wanted to come to the beach,” Lily says.

Lana looks at Lily intently, beads of water hanging on her eyelashes. “What, you don’t like boys?”

“I didn’t say that.” Lily starts swimming toward the wave breakers. She feels a current pulling her south, toward Jaffa. She hears the lifeguard’s megaphone, instructing bathers to move north, and starts swimming diagonally to compensate for the pull. “Don’t go too far,” Lana says, trying to catch up.

“I’m going to swim to the wave breakers,” Lily says. “You want to come?”

Lana eyes the string of rocks. “Okay,” she says. “But if something happens, you’ll have to save me.”

When they make it to the wave breakers, Lily climbs up first and gives Lana a hand. “Wow, cool,” Lana says. “I’ve never been here before.” They stand and watch the Tel Aviv shoreline: the scalloped bays, the row of palm trees along the seawall, the beach cafés with their clumps of blue and green umbrellas, hotels with mirrored windows winking sunlight, and skyscrapers dipped in haze. Then the city descends into the smaller, amber houses of old Jaffa—easily concealed by a thumb—with a spire marking the city’s southern edge. To the north, a line of boats clings to the marina. The sounds of the beach—paddle balls hitting rackets,
children squealing, the ice cream men yelling—are muffled by the waves and the breeze. On the other side of the wave breakers, the sea is choppy and dark blue, and silhouettes of tiny boats are poised on the thin line between water and sky.

“I can’t wait to be old enough to move here,” Lana says. “Petah Tikva is a shithole. Wait till you start school.”

Lily looks at Lana. “You go to Brenner?”

Lana nods. “The girls were so snobby when I first moved here.” She bends down, digging out a handful of seashells and wet sand from between the rocks. “Now I just don’t care anymore. Fuck them.”

“Yeah,” Lily says. “Fuck them.” Their eyes meet and both girls smile.

“It’s hard, starting in a new place.” Lana throws a shell far into the sea, then another. “In Belarus my mother used to be a pharmacist. My father was an engineer. Now he works in security and my mom cleans houses. It’s pretty bad here. It’s hard to find jobs.”

Lily looks down at the glistening rocks, the salt stinging her eyes.

Lana stretches her arm back, then she hurls the remaining shells toward the beach. “What about your parents?”

Lily feels a wet stone sliding down her throat. “My mom is dead,” she says. She’ll never get used to saying that. “She died six months ago.”

Lana puts her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God, I’m sorry. And your dad?”

“He has a new family,” Lily says. “I live with my aunt.”

Lana stares at Lily, then she leans over and hugs her. Wet skin on wet skin. Lily almost loses her balance.

When they get back to shore, Igor and Tzion are playing paddle ball. “We thought you drowned,” Tzion chortles.

“So you just went on playing?” Lana rolls her eyes at Lily. Tzion picks Lana up from behind and threatens to throw her back in the water. She squeals and laughs, kicking her legs in the air. When he puts her down they kiss. Lily notices Igor is watching them too.

Lana wrings out her hair and sits on her towel. She pulls the sunscreen out of her bag, but this time hands it to Lily. Lily coats Lana’s warm back with it, mimicking Tzion’s motions. When she’s done, she grabs her camera and snaps a shot: Lana’s back, studded with golden sand, her eyes closed, her blonde hair wet and glued to her cheek. The sun hovers like a red Chinese lantern over the wave breakers. She titles it in her head: “My first Israeli friend.”

Lily lets Lana cut her jeans at the knees,
but not her hair. In return, she takes photos of Lana one evening before sunset; it’s the best time for portraits, she tells her, a time photographers call “sweet light.” They hike to the end of Sha’ariya, where the streets abruptly end and yellow fields unfurl until the highway. Lana is comfortable in front of the lens. And she’s beautiful. But Lily thinks her poses are too flat, not artsy enough. Lana always looks down at the camera, eyelids heavy, lips moist and slightly open. Still, Lily enjoys playing fashion photographer, enjoys watching Lana through the lens. Sometimes she pretends the flirty gaze is intended for her and she feels a quick, hot, confusing rush.

They hang out at Lily’s place because it’s always empty. Most days they just watch TV. When they watch American shows, Lana asks Lily to repeat some of the lines in English and then laughs. “You sound just like them.”

“Actually,” Lily says, “our accents are different.”

But Lana just says, “Say it again, say something else.”

One afternoon Lana asks to see Talia’s room, and Lily opens the door and lets her in. The room is painted lavender and smells vaguely of stale perfume. Posters of Israeli TV stars hang on the walls. Lily cracks the slats open, letting in air and light. Lana passes her hand over Talia’s clothes, pulls a green minidress off the rack, holds it to her body in front of the mirror. She picks lipsticks from a wicker basket, testing them on the back of her hand. “What does she do in the army?” she asks.

“She’s an instructor in the armoured corps.”

Lana looks at Lily through the mirror, eyes lit up. “Does she have a gun?”

Lily nods.

“Cool.” Lana applies pink lipstick to her lips, smacking them together.

“Check this out.” Lily digs out a shoebox full of photos from the closet, hidden under some winter clothes. Lily found them in her first week while snooping in her cousin’s room. Most of the pictures were from childhood, class shots, family vacations, but in the bottom of the box she found a few photos in an unmarked envelope: Talia in lacy red lingerie, holding a rifle between her breasts, looking at the camera seductively. In one of them, she’s wearing her cap and saluting. In another, her eyes are closed and she’s sending a kiss to the camera, her lips blood-red.

Lana sits on the double bed, which bounces under her weight. She snatches the photos from Lily’s hand and flips through them, eyes wide. “Wow, hot.”

“You think so?” Lily reaches for the photos but Lana lifts her arm up and away from her.

“You don’t think it’s sexy?” Lana says. “Not even a little bit?”

“I hate guns,” Lily says.

“So what are you going to do if they give you one in the army?”

“I’m not going to go to the army. I’m going to go back to Canada before then.” She knows better than to tell Lana that she’s a pacifist, or that she doesn’t support the Israeli army, or that her mom promised her she’d never have to join. When she first arrived she had said these things to Talia and Talia had stared at her in shock. She’s been calling her “Little Arafat” ever since.

“When I first moved here I wanted to go back so badly,” Lana says. “I cried every day. But you get used to it. Then you start to love it and you don’t want to leave.”

But I don’t want to get used to it, Lily wants to say. “Whatever,” she says instead, stretching her arm to grab the photos, but Lana moves her hand again. She waves the photos over her head, while Lily watches her, waiting. Finally, Lily gets hold of Lana’s wrists and pins her down to the bed, kneeling, hovering over Lana’s body. “Gotcha,” she says.

Lana laughs, letting her hand unclench, and the photos scatter on the bed. Lily releases Lana’s wrists, and Lana reaches over and moves Lily’s hair from her face. “You’re like a boy,” she says. “With this hair.”

Lily laughs shortly. “No, I’m not.”

Lana tucks a strand of Lily’s hair behind an ear. “A pretty boy,” she says.

Lily doesn’t know where she’s supposed to look. In her search she meets Lana’s eyes briefly and sees in them something like curiosity.

“Have you ever even kissed someone?” Lana says.

“No.”

It all happens fast. Lana perches herself on her elbows and plants a kiss on Lily’s lips. Lily feels like a wave has just lifted her
off her feet and dropped her back to the ground. Lana leans back on the mattress. “Well, now you have.”

Lily collects the photos, jumps off the bed and puts them back in the box, hides the box back in the closet. Her fingers are shaking. Her lips taste like lipstick: cherry gum and wax.

“Don’t look so shocked.” Lana laughs. “It’s no big deal.”

Lily doesn’t see Lana for the next few days,
and she wonders if something has changed. She tries calling Lana from downstairs but Lana doesn’t answer. Lana has never invited her in.

The days are getting hotter, stickier. Lily didn’t think it was possible. She starts taking two or three short cold showers a day, grateful for the tile floors, which Ruthie washes with a bucket of ice water twice a week. Ruthie has bought her a standing fan that she sleeps with now; its whooshing sound reminds Lily of rain. Every evening when Lily sits with her aunt after dinner and watches the tail end of the evening news, the weather forecast is the same. The long country, shaped like a wonky ice cream cone—blue dots like beads on a string on its east side—is littered with smiley suns. Her favourite part of the weather forecast is when the newscaster lists the height of the waves.

On the weekend, Lily sees Lana talking to Tzion on the sidewalk. Tzion has one flip-flopped foot against the barricade. Lily walks over and says hi, and Lana looks up tiredly. She’s smoking a cigarette.

“I didn’t know you smoked,” Lily says.

“So what?” Lana hands Tzion the cigarette.

“Lana,” he says, pleading. “Wait.”

“Can we go to your place?” Lana says to Lily, sliding her arm through Lily’s. “Watch a movie or something?”

“You shouldn’t be hanging out with that girl so much,”
Talia says to Lily later that day as the two of them share watermelon slices in the kitchen. “Her family is fucked.”

Lily looks up. “What do you mean?”

“They’re messed up.” Talia spits a seed onto the plate. “Her dad is a drunk and her mom … People saw her walking around with Eli from the grocery store.”

“So?”

“These Russian chicks, they come here and take all the men. Israeli men love blondes. The couple next door divorced and two weeks later he moves in with some Natasha.”

“She’s a pharmacist,” Lily says. “And they’re not Russians, they’re from Belarus.”

“What?”

“She’s a pharmacist and he’s an engineer. It’s hard in this country. They can’t find jobs. And the language.”

Talia stares at Lily for a while and breaks into a grin. “You looove her. Little Arafat is in love.”

“No, I’m not.” Lily blushes. She gets up and puts her plate in the sink, her face tingling.

The next day,
a heat wave travels from Libya and Sudan, draping the city like a down blanket, painting the streets a desert yellow, the houses like sandcastles in the haze. Lana tells Lily that this is the time to hang out in the mall; you can die if you stay outside for too long. Neither of their homes is air-conditioned. While they wait for the bus, standing in the small square of shade behind the bus shelter, Lana says, “If you see someone looking
suspicious, even if it seems silly or you’re not sure, just tell me and we’ll get off the bus. Better to be safe, you know?”

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