Read The Best Place on Earth Online

Authors: Ayelet Tsabari

The Best Place on Earth (5 page)

“How can you tell if someone looks suspicious?”

“Well, he has to look like an Arab.”

“But how can you tell?”

“What do you mean?”

“In Canada people sometimes thought my mom was an Arab.”

“Was she?”

“Well, no, but my grandparents came from Yemen, so we are Arabs in a way, Arab Jews.”

Lana laughs. “No, that’s impossible. You’re either an Arab or a Jew.”

“Yeah, but you’re a Belarusian Jew. Why can’t there be Arab Jews?”

“I’m Israeli now,” Lana says. “And so are you.”

The bus drops them on the side of a busy road, near a cream-coloured mall. They walk across a large parking lot full of cars, past a man pushing a snake of shopping carts. At the entrance people line up to get their bags checked. Lily flings her backpack forward and unzips it. “Don’t bother,” Lana says. There is something cold and hard in her voice.

“But …”

Lana grabs Lily’s hand and leads her through. The security guard doesn’t stop them. “Just keep walking,” she orders.

Once inside the mall, Lily looks back and sees the security guard staring after them. His eyes look sad.

“What was that?”

“Nothing,” Lana says.

“You know him?”

“That’s my dad.”

“You don’t say hello to him?”

“I’m mad at him,” she says. “Can we go into the jewellery store? I want to get some earrings.”

They spend a couple of hours wandering through the concourses, up and down the escalators, and Lily’s skin dries and cools, freshened by the artificial draft. They meander into stores: Lana holds earrings to her ear, poses in front of the mirror wearing different hats, Lily tries on sunglasses, browses through magazines. They stop for frozen yogurt and eat it leaning against the railing, looking over a busy food court surrounding a small fountain.

When they step outside the mall, squinting against the sun, Lana turns to Lily and says, “Close your eyes.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

She lifts Lily’s hair and Lily’s skin breaks into goosebumps. She feels something cool dangling against her chest and Lana’s hands fiddling at the back of her neck. “Okay,” she says.

Lily opens her eyes and touches her chest. A silver pendant of a hand with a blue eye in its centre is hanging from a leather string. Lily remembers seeing the necklace in the jewellery store. But they left without buying anything.

“It’s a hamsa,” Lana says. “It protects you against the evil eye. Do you like it?”

Lily looks at herself in a store window.

“It’s not too girly, is it?” Lana frowns.

“It’s perfect,” Lily says. “I love it.”

Lana pushes down Lily’s baseball hat and laughs. She glances at the entrance to the mall, scans the parking lot and says, “Go ahead, kiss me.”

“Here? People can see us.”

“Fuck them.” Lana smirks.

Lily leans forward; she has to angle her head so her cap won’t get in the way. She touches her lips to Lana’s, feels Lana’s tongue pushing into her mouth. It tastes like strawberry frozen yogurt. When they part, Lana says, “That was good. You’re getting better at it.” She walks toward the bus stop, swinging her ponytail from side to side. Lily feels her feet carried up by a wave, but this time she stays suspended, rocking on the surface of the water. She can’t believe she just kissed that girl, in the blue dress and the high ponytail, in the middle of this parking lot.

For the next couple of days Lily tastes strawberry frozen yogurt in everything. “Lily and Lana,” she mouths to the orange striped sheets at night. “Lana and Lily,” she whispers to the bugs crashing against her walls. But after three days of not seeing Lana, her feet hit the ground with a thump. Lily starts to wonder why Lana never comes to the window, why she never invites her over. Why she acts as if nothing has happened.

One afternoon, when Lily goes for a walk with her camera, she sees Lana sitting on a street bench in the park with Igor. They’re laughing. Lily is about to wave, but then Igor leans forward and kisses Lana, and Lana wraps her hand around his neck. Lily freezes; she stands and watches them. She wants her feet to move, to take her away, but they’re stuck.

At night Lily wakes up
to yelling outside her window, a bottle smashing. She slides the shutters open. A man is standing in the ring cast by a street light, wobbling, yelling in Russian toward entrance C. Shards of glass glitter on the asphalt around him. Talia comes
to the balcony to look, sits on Lily’s bed and leans on the bars. “Not again.” She yawns. Lily squints and recognizes the man from the mall. Lana’s dad. A few windows rattle open, lights turn on in buildings across the street. A woman’s head pokes out of a window above entrance C. She yells back.

Lana steps out in shorts and a T-shirt. Her hair is down. She talks to her dad quietly, tries to touch his hand, but he flings it away from her. Her mom calls to her, but Lana ignores her. Her father continues yelling at the window, and then he swipes his hand across Lana’s face. She falls to the ground, palms down. Lily gasps. “Lana,” her mother cries. From a balcony across the street a man shouts, “Leave the girl alone!” Lana looks at her hands, bleeding from the shattered glass, and then up at the spectators. She sees Lily and Talia. They both duck.

When Lily looks out again, Lana is gone. A neighbour is talking to her father, a police siren in the background.

The next day Lily calls Lana from downstairs, but Lana doesn’t come to the window. In the evening, she sees her from the balcony and quickly opens the shutters and calls her name. Lana hurries inside.

It’s the last Friday of August
and school is just about to start. Earlier in the day Ruthie took Lily to see her new school and walked her through the empty hallways. There were no lockers; students carry their books from home, stay in the same classroom for the entire day.

Ruthie and Lily walk back from the bus stop, carrying bags of books and school supplies, when they see Lana leaning on a car across the street, chewing gum. She’s wearing her blue strapless
dress and silvery sandals. She looks like she may be going to the beach, without Lily. Lily pauses at the entrance. “Go.” Ruthie waves her on, taking the bags from Lily’s hands, and disappears into the dark stairwell. Lily crosses the street. Lana’s mom heaves suitcases into the trunk of a car. “Where are you going?” Lily says.

“To stay with my aunt in Rishon for a while,” Lana says. She doesn’t look Lily in the eye.

“For how long?”

“I don’t know.”

“What about school?”

Lana shrugs.

“Are you okay?” Lily says. “I’ve been worried about you.”

For the first time, Lana looks up at her.

Lana’s mom turns and says something in Russian, and Lana answers without looking at her, sounding annoyed. Her mom sighs and walks across the street and into the building. Lily pushes her hands into the pockets of her jeans and kicks the curb. “I saw you,” she says. “The other day. With Igor in the park.”

“So?” Lana says.

Lily looks down at her shoes. “So nothing.”

“Oh my God,” Lana says slowly. “You’re jealous.” She starts laughing. “That’s so cute.”

Lily doesn’t remember walking away. She has to move fast because her tears are coming. She bumps into Lana’s mom on the way, mumbles sorry in English, runs up the stairs but doesn’t enter the apartment. She sits on a cool tiled stair in the dim stairwell and cries. The door opens and the sensor light above her turns on. “Lily,” Ruthie says. “There you are. I was just going to get milk.”

Lily nods at the floor, wiping her tears with her forearm.

Ruthie sits down beside her and searches her face. “Are you okay?”

Despite herself, Lily bursts into tears again.

“Oh, sweetie.” Ruthie pulls Lily to her and pats her head, rocking her lightly. “She’s no good,” she says. “That girl.”

Lily says nothing. She’s heard it all from Talia. She doesn’t need to hear it again.

“You can do a lot better,” Ruthie says quietly, and this time Lily looks up. In her aunt’s eyes she sees warmth, recognition. Blood rushes to her cheeks. She buries her face in Ruthie’s shirt, breathing in the scent of coffee and spices.

They sit on the step for a while without talking. Sometimes the light turns on and then clicks off, leaving them in darkness. Sometimes people squeeze past them, going up or down the stairs. They hear muffled laughter behind closed doors, a scooter speeding off down the street. Evening shadows sneak into the stairway, the smells of dinners and cigarette smoke. Lily doesn’t move.

“It’s okay,” Ruthie says. “It’s okay.”

BRIT MILAH

At the passport check,
Reuma Hamami pulled out a folded piece of paper from her purse and handed it to the woman behind the counter. The woman was young, with narrow eyes, Chinese perhaps, and her black, shiny hair was rolled into a neat bun. Her face was caked with dusty powder and her eyebrows were pencilled on. She looked up and eyed Reuma. “English?”

“Little,” Reuma said. She reached and pointed at the paper. “My daughter.”

“Your daughter lives in Toronto?”

“Yes.” Reuma nodded.

The woman flipped through the pages in Reuma’s passport, filled with stamps from the organized trips Reuma had been taking over the past three years with a group of women from her neighbourhood of Sha’ariya, many of them widowed like her, all of them Yemeni.

“First time in Canada?”

Reuma nodded again. Ofra had been living here for seven years, but she had been visiting Israel regularly. There had never been a reason for Reuma to come before. In fact, Ofra had been home just a few months ago, in her second trimester, and Reuma proudly showed her off around the neighbourhood, walked with her down Petah Tikva’s main street. In the evenings they had sat in the yard and drunk tea, and Reuma finally got a chance to pass on some of her knowledge. She had raised four children after all. When her daughters-in-law had given birth, Reuma had learned to be quiet, keep her advice to herself, especially after Rami, her eldest, accused her of being overbearing. They had their own mothers to consult. But Ofra listened to her, didn’t dismiss her advice as she had in the past, seemed softened by the pregnancy, more forgiving toward her mother.

“Born in Yemen?” The woman looked at Reuma. Reuma noticed a small golden cross dangling against her chest.

“Yes.”

The woman’s lips tightened, she tilted her head to read some of the stamps. She thinks I’m an Arab, Reuma thought and hurried to add, “Jewish.” She looked around for something that would help her explain. “Me … baby.” She lowered her hand to indicate her height. “Go to Israel with Mother and Father.”

The woman flipped another page.

Reuma wanted to make conversation, to tell her that she rented the shed in the back to people from China, but she didn’t know the words. Growing up she’d never seen Chinese or blacks in Israel, but now they were everywhere, migrant workers who were filling positions Israelis were too lazy for, jobs Palestinians used to have before the intifada, and Yemenis before them, in Israel’s early
days, when she and her parents first arrived in Sha’ariya: cleaning homes, washing dishes, picking oranges.

The woman stamped her passport, and Reuma thanked her and continued through tunnels and up escalators to the conveyor belt.

As Reuma waited for her suitcase, she imagined meeting Yonatan, her new grandson. For years she had waited anxiously for Ofra to get pregnant, but had been careful not to pressure her, since any attempt at broaching the subject had led to arguments. Speaking with Ofra had never been easy for Reuma; she used to envy Shaul: with her father Ofra was loving, warm, receptive.

But things had been better between the two of them since Ofra had gotten married, and better still with her pregnancy. Reuma remembered how much closer she had become with her own mother after she had Rami. She was thrilled when Ofra and Matthew asked her if she would come and stay with them for the first little while after the baby was born, glad to be of help, to be needed. She could picture it: once it was time for Reuma to leave, Ofra would realize just how much she needed her mother, and she would beg Matthew to move back to Israel. Reuma had seen it happen. Recently her niece—her sister, Shoshi’s daughter—moved back from Miami following childbirth, giving up a good-paying job and a big house, just so that she could be near her mother. Reuma had it all planned: Ofra and Matthew could have the house, the three-bedroom bungalow where she and Shaul had raised Ofra and her three brothers, and which recently had been repainted, the fifties-style tiles in the bathroom replaced with new cream-coloured ones, and Reuma would move to the rental unit in the back, where the Chinese workers now lived. She could help babysit, cook and clean. Matthew was a naturopath; Reuma knew there was a demand for his line of work in high places in
Tel Aviv, where people might not even mind him speaking English.

Finally, she recognized her suitcase, the pink ribbon she had fastened on its handle, and she dragged it onto a cart and followed the exit signs. When she made it out of the arrivals gate, she was disappointed to see Matthew standing alone, his coat open to reveal a plaid shirt, his beard now grown, but his hair starting to recede. In his arm he held a puffy coat he handed Reuma. “Ofra was busy,” he said, rocking an imaginary baby in front of his chest. She beamed and nodded. Matthew leaned over and kissed her on both cheeks, his glasses colliding with hers. “Good to have you,” he said, and Reuma smiled, unsure of the meaning of this phrase. She was frustrated by her inability to speak to Matthew, whom she liked from the moment Ofra had first brought him home for Rosh Hashanah three years ago. From the way he looked at her daughter, tended to her, Reuma could tell that he was a good man, and strong enough to deal with Ofra’s temperament. She had always worried for her daughter: she was an opinionated woman, too smart for her own good and a complete failure in the kitchen. Reuma had tried to teach her how to make her spicy schug, bake jichnoon for Shabbat, cook Yemeni soup, but Ofra wasn’t interested. Reuma envied her sister, Shoshi, whose daughters borrowed recipes from their mother and even confided in her about their marital problems. Ofra never spoke to her about such things, had waited until she was thirty-eight to have a child, and had finally married Matthew at city hall a few months ago, already visibly pregnant in a white, shapeless dress, her hair loose and curly and her lips carelessly drawn in red, matching a pair of red high-heeled shoes. “At least they’re married.” Shoshi threw her hand up in dismissal when Reuma showed her the photo and sighed. “Today, some young people don’t even bother. Look at Tsila’s daughter. Even had children. God help us.”

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