The Best Place on Earth (9 page)

Now, with Yasmin back, rugs were shaken and windows were flung open, allowing in skies, suns and moons, flickering stars
and distant city lights. The deep-fried stench that had clung to the kitchen cabinets was overtaken by the aroma of Indian spices, brewed chai and incense. In the washroom, Yasmin arranged candles with an earthy scent around the tub and lined little jars of coconut and lavender oil on the shelves, the foreign labels darkened with oil and smeared with fingerprints. A poster now hung on one wall of her bedroom: an old man who reminded Uri of his Yemeni grandfather, with brown skin, a long white beard and smiling eyes that followed Uri everywhere. His name was Osho, Yasmin said without elaborating. Even the soundtrack to their lives had been replaced. Before it was the hum of the fridge, the fake laughter on TV, the lonely echo of a phone ringing in an empty apartment. Now there was music and singing, the clinking bangles on Yasmin’s wrists, the bells on her anklets, which accompanied her footsteps as though she were a lost sheep.

Uri noticed that his father had changed too. He seemed lighter with Yasmin around, the crease on his forehead smoothed, relaxed. Uri knew that he was pleased to be relieved of kitchen duty as well; his father approached cooking as if it were a battle where he was bound to be defeated—by ants on the kitchen counter, the smoke of burning lasagna, the piles of unwashed dishes, the memories of better meals.

One afternoon,
after missiles had fallen not far from their home the night before, Yasmin rapped on Uri’s door. “Want to go see where the missiles hit?” His father was visiting their mother at the hospital. Uri hopped off the bed and grabbed a sweatshirt.

Ramat Gan was quiet, sedated, washed with the warm, sticky light of an early Shabbat morning. They walked to Monkey Park,
the highest part of town, from where they could see the entire city unfold, brightly coloured after a rainy night, and even a blue hint of the sea, seeping into the sky. The park was abandoned, people still afraid to leave their homes for long periods, the swing set swaying in the breeze. They walked down the stone stairs and then a few more blocks until they reached Aba Hillel Street.

They could see the spot from afar; it had been one of the worst hits so far, many injured and two dead. The road was blocked and emergency teams were picking through the rubble, their vehicles blinking red. All along the street, apartment windows yawned, shutters were scattered on the ground, car windows were smashed and doors ripped open. They walked all the way to the cordons. Two burnt cars were parked in front and a plucked tree lay blackened, its roots pointing up like fingers. Yasmin and Uri stood and watched without speaking. The missile had destroyed an aging apartment building, now a pile of concrete next to a deep crater. The front wall of another building had collapsed, offering the interior views of the three front suites like a dollhouse: a corduroy couch facing the street, a skewed frame on the wall. The sun shone into the houses, illuminating the dust that rose from the wreckage. Uri felt like an intruder, staring into these people’s homes. He looked at the debris at his feet, things people had once owned, written notes and coins and shattered china and broken glass, legs of furniture, a computer keyboard, a pizza box. The smell of gas and bonfire smoke stung his nostrils. “Can you imagine if it was our apartment? On the seventh floor?” Yasmin said. “We’d be toast.” Uri pictured the missile hitting their building, the impact, in slow motion, the blinding cloud of dust, the walls of their safe room bursting like they were made of Styrofoam.

That day the family decided to forgo the safe room in favour of
the bleak concrete bomb shelter in the basement of their building. They weren’t the only ones. The issue was debated in the papers, discussed at length on TV and on the radio, military experts invited to weigh in. Saddam may have threatened to use chemical warfare, but so far the missile heads were all conventional, people argued, so while being in the sealed room was safer against chemical attack, it clearly didn’t protect those whose homes were reduced to rubble. Now, whenever the siren wailed, the family ran down seven floors to the shelter, where many other tenants had already gathered, more joining them every day. For an hour or two they sat in their pyjamas and gas masks (just in case, the IDF spokesman advised), speaking in soft voices, listening to the sound of falling missiles and sirens, and the announcements on someone’s transistor radio.

As time passed,
Uri grew accustomed to the war, his initial fear giving way to uneasiness. Ramat Gan had been hit the hardest, making people joke that Saddam was targeting the city because it was where most Iraqi Jews lived, that the missiles must have been drawn to the pungent smell of amba, that tangy mango pickle condiment Iraqis were so fond of. The war had settled into a rhythm, the sirens becoming an inconvenience, hijacking their dreams. People gradually began going back to work, getting on with their lives. Patriot missiles were imported from the States to intercept the Scuds; American soldiers in funny-looking camouflage uniforms smiled next to them in newspaper photos. At night, when the sirens woke them up, Uri had to shake Yasmin from her sleep, get her to shuffle to the shelter, where she would often fall asleep again, sprawled on a blanket in the corner, not bothering to
put on her mask. She already seemed bored by the war. Uri started to wonder why his sister had really come home, if she was there for the experience, seeking thrills, the same way she had travelled from country to country, jumped out of airplanes and went scuba diving, as though she was checking off a list. From her restless energy and dimmed eyes, he could sense that she was ready to leave again.

One evening the phone rang
and a polite man on the other end asked to speak to Tanmayo. “Tanmayo?” Uri repeated in wonder, marvelling at the exotic blend of syllables in his mouth, and Yasmin burst out of her room and grabbed the phone, dragging the cord and closing the door behind her. Uri could hear shreds of conversation, sweet words whispered like a song, I miss you. When Yasmin came out, her face was glowing.

“Who was that?” he asked.

“Tatagat,” she said. It sounded like a stutter, but lovely in her mouth.

“Why does he call you Tanmayo?”

“It’s my sannyasi name,” she said, clarifying nothing.

A few days later Yasmin disappeared for two days to visit the mysterious Tatagat. When she returned she announced she’d found a job as a waitress in a bar on Sheinkin Street. “People in Tel Aviv are partying like it’s the end of the world,” she said. “You should come visit me at work,” she told Uri. “You must be bored to death.”

And he was. His father was back at work; his only real friend, Nadav, was out of town. Nadav’s parents had packed up on the very first day and moved to a hotel in Jerusalem, away from Tel Aviv and its suburbs—Saddam’s primary targets. Theirs was just one
of many vacant apartments in the city, the lit buildings checkered with dark holes. He was sick of the shelter, too: most people were old and his father was busy talking to a widow from the fifth floor, who would bring down sweet rogalach in Tupperware to share with them. Under her housecoat she wore a short, silky nightgown, trimmed with lace, and whenever she crossed her legs Uri could see a bit of her thigh, vanilla-white and smooth and young looking. Uri was embarrassed by the swelling in his pyjama pants. He didn’t even find her pretty, thought it was odd that she always came down already made-up, her face encrusted with powder, her lips pink, as if she had fallen asleep with her makeup on.

While his father was out late at a business meeting
one evening, Uri found Yasmin in the kitchen, pulling a tray of sesame cookies—his mother’s recipe—out of the oven. The house was immaculate, the tiles freshly washed, and wild flowers stood in a vase on the counter. Tatagat was coming over. “He’d like to meet my little brother, who I’ve been talking about so much,” Yasmin said. She boiled water in a kettle and made them both Nescafé, brought over a plate of warm cookies, and the two of them sat by the kitchen window, which framed a rectangle of the city. The heavy blanket of clouds lifted to allow the last rays of sunlight to shine through, flooding the room, painting Yasmin’s face a ripe peach. In the west, feathery clouds in gelato colours travelled across the narrow strip of clear sky.

“Tell me stuff,” Yasmin said, rolling a cigarette. “You never talk to me anymore. Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Nah,” he said.

“Come on, you used to tell me everything.”

“Nothing to tell.” Nadav, like almost all the other boys in his class, was into Avital Ginsberg, who was tall and blonde and looked like a Barbie or someone on American TV, and had family in America who sent her new Reeboks and Nikes before they came to Israel. Uri used to like her too, until he overheard her telling her friends that she would never date anybody Mizrahi.

“How’s your writing?” Yasmin licked the side of the cigarette. “How’s school?”

“It’s okay.” He didn’t want to talk about his poetry, and there wasn’t much he could say about school. He was bullied less now than he had been in elementary school, but he still didn’t have many friends.

“I can’t wait to read your new poetry.”

He took a sip of his milky Nescafé. “Actually, I’m not doing that anymore.”

“What? Why?”

He shrugged. “It’s not like there’s a future in poetry. Especially not for someone like me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Mizrahi,” he said.

Yasmin coughed out smoke. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Uri placed his mug on the table and crossed his arms. “Name one Mizrahi poet.”

Yasmin took a long drag from her cigarette, wrinkled her forehead in concentration.

“See.”

“Maybe that’s exactly why you should write. Ever think about that?”

“I guess,” Uri said, hoping to end the conversation. Outside, a pregnant rain cloud sagged over the neighbourhood.

Yasmin leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes and sniffed the air deeply. “Do you smell it?” she asked. Uri inhaled the rich scent of baking emanating from a neighbour’s kitchen. Apples and cinnamon. “It smells like …” Yasmin squinted, staring into the sky. “An old lover who has come back to mess with your head.”

“I don’t feel like playing,” Uri said.

“Sure you do,” Yasmin said. “It’s your favourite.”

He sighed. “Fine. Like a … disease.”

“A disease?”

“Yeah, contagious, infectious,” Uri said. “Or … how about chemical weapons?”

Yasmin narrowed her eyes. “And the sun?”

Uri looked at the sunset for only a moment. That was easy. He had some lined up. “An open wound bleeding onto the skyscrapers. An egg yolk stabbed with a fork leaking into the sea. Planes cutting through the clouds like sharp blades slashing through flesh.”

“Whoa. Fantastic.” Yasmin stubbed out her cigarette in the glass ashtray, examining him. “Kind of dark.” Uri picked up a newspaper from the end of the table and stared blankly at a half-filled crossword puzzle.

“You’ve changed,” she said.

“You’ve been gone for like two years.”

She looked at him. “Are you mad that I wasn’t here?”

“No,” he said.

“Because I couldn’t help her,” she said. “No one can. Besides, she hates me.”

“She doesn’t hate you.”

“Actually, she kind of does.” Yasmin’s voice hardened. “You don’t know. You were too young to understand. Do you have any idea how it feels to know that your own mother doesn’t love you?
I’ve spent the last two years trying to come to terms with … all of this. To heal from this.”

Uri drew moustaches on the faces of a young couple on the back page of the newspaper, both blond and wearing flared jeans. The sun had sunk between the buildings and the room turned instantly darker. Rain tapped hesitantly on the roofs. He wanted to tell Yasmin that she too didn’t know how bad it had become after she left. She wasn’t there when their grandmother—their mother’s mother—died (she was honouring her spirit in a meditation retreat in northern Thailand, she said, grieving in a more holistic way). And she wasn’t there when their mother lost her job soon after, spending days on the couch watching TV in her sweatpants, swallowing pills, drinking cough syrup even though she didn’t have a cough. Some days she cried loudly in her bedroom, the door locked, and neither Uri nor his dad could get her to open it. His father became a ghost, slowly shrinking until he disappeared, like a coin tossed into a gaping void.

After their mother was admitted, his dad began looking for Yasmin, sitting by the kitchen table stained with crescent shapes left by endless coffee mugs, dialing long numbers with nervous fingers, stuttering impossible sentences in English. When Yasmin finally called, and Uri told her what had happened, she took a deep breath before saying, “I’m so glad she’s getting help. She’s in my heart and I’ll be praying for her every day. But I’m doing a lot of work on myself right now. I can’t come home.” For the first time, Uri had felt anger rising up in him toward his sister, who up until then had been his favourite person. He wanted to slap her, shake her by the shoulders.

Yasmin looked at him, searching for his eyes. “Sorry I got upset.” She smiled. “You hungry?”

Uri took the elevator down
to the falafel stand on the corner, the twenty-shekel bill Yasmin had given him clutched in his palm. Brief rain had come and gone, and the city was washed clean, suffused in the pink glow after sunset, traffic lights bouncing off the shiny asphalt like a strobe on a club floor. He got three orders of falafel, including one for Tatagat, and had just finished filling each pita pocket with pickles and salad and fries and amba when he heard the music on the radio abruptly stop, followed by a high-pitched sound and the familiar military code, nachas tsefa—
viper
—which preceded the siren. His heart leapt. He froze, tahini ladle in hand. The siren followed seconds later, the announcement on the radio: “Due to a missile attack on Israel, Israeli residents are requested to put on their gas masks …”

“There’s a community shelter across the street.” The falafel guy nodded toward it while grabbing his gas mask, shooing Uri out so that he could pull down the metal shutters. Uri dropped the ladle, spraying himself with tahini, stuffed the last pita pocket in the plastic bag and sprinted, his heart beating faster than his footsteps, the plastic bag banging against his thigh. He’d never been outside when the siren sounded, without a gas mask, alone. Why did he leave the kit behind? He always took it everywhere with him. On the roads a few cars were abandoned in a hurry, double-parked, their passengers scrambling to seek shelter. When he made it to their building, he dashed upstairs and stormed into the apartment to find Yasmin sitting at the kitchen table with a man he didn’t know, playing cards. Indian music poured from the tape recorder. Uri panted. “The siren,” he said between gasps. “Didn’t you guys hear?”

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