Wish You Were Here by Susan Olding
Aaron has borrowed an apartment for Anna and Sam during their stay. He fiddles with the key, shoulders the sticky door. Tall casements open onto a courtyard. The floors are made of tile; the walls are stone, thick and whitewashed. A vase of sweet-scented freesia stands on a table along with a bowl of fruit. Aaron leads them through the back courtyard to the tiny kitchen and bathroom. He draws them a map of the neighbourhood and gives them the keys. After he leaves, Sam fiddles with a space heater. It ticks, belching a smell
of grease and dust. Anna unfolds a blue blanket and they huddle together on the couch, feeding each other grapefruit and tangelo.
Tall casements open onto a courtyard.
You have to walk through the courtyard to get to the bathroom, which in this wet weather is dank and freezing. Twenty hours of travel have left me tired and woozy from the diesel fumes. I skid over the stones, holding a hand over my eyes to shield my glasses, but it’s windy, so they end up spotted and foggy anyway. The door clicks behind me.
My period is late. I count the days, once, twice. Yes, late. I suck in cold air and tell myself not to hope, but I can’t help it. Two years we’ve been trying, two years, and the doctors say only: Keep trying, there is nothing wrong. Could this be it at last? How I hope, how I wish. If I were a believer, I would pray. I plunge my hands into icy tap water, dry them quickly on the rough towel next to the sink, eager to get back to the warmth of Sam’s body. But I won’t tell him; not yet. I will keep it a beautiful secret until I feel sure.
Creeping back to the main room through the darkening garden, I happen to look up. An old woman wearing a brown robe stares down at me from the floor above, her white hair escaping its chignon in cirrus wisps. Later, I will wake to the clack-clack of her mules across the tiles, be kept awake by the scraping of furniture and the swish and clunk of a broom. “She is deaf,” Aaron will explain. “And not altogether in her right mind. Every night she dreams that she hasn’t cleaned the house yet for Passover.”
On the third day the rain stops. “Winter’s over,” Aaron says to Anna and Sam, and it seems he is right. Within hours, red and purple and yellow flowers unfurl in every window box and the scent of rosemary and thyme permeate the warm air. In the cafés, waiters unstack chairs and set them out on the patios, open umbrellas to protect people from the noonday heat.
An ancient city — so much to see, so much to do — and suddenly in the sharp sunlight it all seems possible. Years of Canadian compromise and careful negotiation culminate now in the ease the family unexpectedly enjoys together in this place. Ursula and Anna confer agreeably about gifts for the newlyweds. Ben divides his time between his parents with no worries about arousing jealousy or spite. Grandparents and cousins arrive from Germany and France. Jessica’s parents fly in from the United States. Both sets of parents toast each other’s good fortune in a candlelit restaurant. By day, Sam and Anna drink strong Turkish coffee and mint tea. They stare at Chagall’s stained glass, trace their fingers across ancient stones, walk through dusty olive groves, listening to the hum of hundreds of bees. At night, they make love. Afterwards, drifting toward sleep, Anna unlocks an alphabet of baby names, Aviva to Zed.
By day, they walk through dusty olive groves, listening to the hum of hundreds of bees.
The hum of bees, and the roar of planes, shattering the sound barrier. The year is 1996 and Clinton is coming, to see what he can salvage of the so-called “peace process.” The planes signal nothing more and nothing less than the military, gearing up to add yet another layer of security for his visit. But the first time we felt the rumble of those jets and heard the tremendous bang, we shielded our faces with our hands and instinctively ducked. We thought we were being bombed. All around us, others were doing the same. The city — as a rule so noisy, clamorous with honking horns, clanging bells, wailing sirens, cheeping cell phones, calls to prayer, trucks thundering over its wretched streets, and boisterous argument — the city fell utterly still. Even the birds stopped chirping. I grabbed Sam’s hand and we stared at each other in panic. Not until we saw the traffic begin to move again in the distance did we continue our walk up the crooked path towards the Knesset.
In the shuk this morning, we bought bright tomatoes and fragrant spices — cumin, oregano, anise. Aaron guided us through the narrow alleyway to his favourite stalls, pointing out the ripest peppers, the most interesting cheeses. But his lips were drawn in a tight line and his eyes darted in every direction. “It is dangerous in here,” he said. “I don’t want to shop for too long. The shuk before Shabbat; it is only a matter of time until they target it.” At every corner, at every bus stop, soldiers leaned in groups of two or three. Young men, younger than Aaron, as young as Ben, with beautiful skin and white teeth. Girls, too, wearing fuchsia lipstick and thick mascara, their hair tied back in ponytails. All of them so handsome, so healthy. When they think no one will notice, they flirt with each other. Their guns, so real, look like plastic toys.
Later, when the construction crews stopped work and businesses started to close for the night, I watched a line of Arabs with metal lunch pails filing back to the eastern part of the city. Aaron watched them, too. “There are still a few, living here, on the west side,” he told me. “They are citizens. But realistically, they don’t enjoy the same status. In Hebrew, we have an expression. Absent presences.”
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