Noah watched as his girlfriend, Einat, ran to retrieve the third tennis ball she’d missed. Her swing was off—it had been off ever since they’d left the States, and now there was none of the relaxing activity Noah had come to associate with their games. After ten days in Israel, it was getting harder to remember that thoughtful, intellectual, polite woman who had agreed to move in with him, the one who didn’t drive, who didn’t care if someone cut her in line. He got back into position and waited for Einat to serve.
“I’m so tired!” she called to him.
“We’re almost done,” he said.
“I said we’re almost done!”
She tried to serve, but the ball flopped a few feet short of the net. Noah held back giving her pointers—she’d made it clear that he was to treat her as an equal on the court now that he was no longer her instructor. They were on her turf, so any light suggestions or critical comments would have to be swallowed for now, along with his pride. In New York, he made the decisions like which magazine they’d subscribe to, which restaurant they’d eat at, which friends they’d see. She seemed to like how it made her more feminine that he was the one in control. Here, the decisions were mostly about transportation and drink orders, both of which necessitated Einat’s knowledge of the language. She’d taken the opportunity to make him drink beer, rather than what she deemed his effeminate martinis.
She bounced the ball twice and brought the racket behind her head just as her phone began to ring, blasting Loving You from the bench where they’d left their bags. Noah looked around, embarrassed, but none of the other players in the room seemed to notice.
Einat trotted over, glad for the distraction, her little tennis skirt flaring out around her tanned legs. Like many Israeli women, she had small breasts and a thin waist, supported by round hips. Noah loved her hips. When she answered the phone, her body languge and tone changed as she started speaking rapidly in Hebrew. Noah couldn’t understand anything past Hey honey, how you doing but from the way she was talking you’d think she was on the right end of an interrogation room.
By the time Einat hung up, it was time to vacate the court.
“That was Ofra,” she said, rolling the r. Whenever she switched back from Hebrew, her accent became as pronounced as it had been when Noah first met her. “She said she’s excited to meet you. And she’s going to be late for Shabbat dinner.”
“Deener?” Noah teased.
She shoved him lightly.
“You should tell your parents we’ll be late too,” he said, pocketing his wallet and phone before slinging the rackets over his shoulder.
“Because I don’t want to go early if we’re just going to be sitting around waiting for your sister to show up. How late will she be?”
“Why?” she said again. “Are you scared of my parents?”
They headed toward the exit of the building. “No. It’s just that every time we’ve spent time with them so far, all they do is look at me weird and ask when we’re getting married.”
Einat smirked at him. They had only been together four months when she suggested they visit her home for a couple of weeks in the summer. Noah had assumed that if they were still together, it would warrant a gesture. Turned out that nine months together felt a lot like four months together in ways he hadn’t anticipated.
As they approached the doors leading outside, Noah put out a hand to stop her.
“Hold on,” he said. “I’m not ready yet.”
“Don’t be such a baby.”
She moved to open the door but he grabbed her hand and used it to pull her against his body. Einat laughed, almost losing her balance.
“Let go of me or I’ll scream,” she said, reaching back her head to look up at him.
“Like anyone would believe I could make you do anything,” he said.
As he pressed a hand against the small of her back and pulled her closer, two women came out into the hall in black long-sleeved shirts and ankle-length skirts, their white sneakers blinding in contrast. Noah started to let go of Einat out of respect for their more religious sensibilities, but Einat noticed them looking at her mini skirt and bare arms. Before Noah could step away, she hissed under her breath “Dossim” and pulled him back.
“Ignore them,” she said into his ear before she bit it lightly.
One of the women averted her eyes as she passed, but the other glared at Einat and said something in Hebrew. Einat’s face changed and she replied in loud, clipped tones, her body whipping toward them like she was ready for combat.
“What did they say?” Noah asked once the women had gone out.
“Nothing,” Einat said. “They’re just being Haredim. Thinking they can make everyone obey their pointless rules.”
After a couple moments she shoved the door open and jogged out of the building. Noah slithered after her into the heavy heat. At least he wasn’t dressed in head-to-toe black. That was a plus.
“This is not worse than New York in the summer,” Einat said, a false smile plastered on her face, pretending nothing had happened.
“It’s hot as hell,” he said.
“There’s no heat like the heat in Jerusalem. You don’t even sweat here.”
“Get in the car.”
Einat laughed, genuinely, and kept jogging. Probably to spite him. They reached their little Fiat rental and Noah lowered himself into it, feeling like he was swimming through the air. He refused to close the door until Einat had started the engine and turned on the air conditioner. They pulled out of the parking lot while she was still adjusting her mirrors. At the highway, no one let them in so Einat shoved her way into the line, nearly colliding with another driver.
“Get your head out of your ass!” she shouted out the window.
“Hey, can we please go somewhere before we go back to your parents?”
“Now? I’m all sweaty and gross from tennis.”
“Please? I can’t go back to that house yet. Please?”
She sighed. “No. You were the one complaining that it’s so hot, right? I want a shower.”
“It’s been ten days, baby.” He ran his fingers up and down her arm. “I’ve got cabin fever.”
“Oh, and I’m guessing if we were in our tiny apartment in Manhattan you wouldn’t feel cramped?”
“That tiny apartment is on Columbus Circle, babe. To me, that’s worth a mansion on this side of the earth.”
“Could you stop comparing everything? Just try to get along with my family, okay? It’s hard enough without you making it difficult.”
Noah kept quiet while Einat listened to the news. Sometimes she translated the important facts, but normally not. Noah pretended to check his temporary cell phone, studying the brick background of the ancient Nokia, the likes of which he hadn’t seen in over a decade. While Israel as a country had been steadily progressing toward modernity (at least according to one of Einat’s political rants), some places had moved quicker than others. He had grown more frustrated by the day that Einat’s parents lived in Jerusalem, one of the most religious cities, and not the more mainstreamed Haifa or the gay-friendly Tel Aviv. Look at him—he even preferred the gays to the ultra-Orthodox Haredim.
As they neared Ramot, the Parness’ neighborhood and Einat’s childhood home, the incline of the highway became more noticeable. At first there were views of Arab villages miles away on the walls of a deep valley. The sun beat through the windshield as an accordion bus trundled past, cutting between the cars like it was a motorcycle. Then trees started to pop up along the sides of the highway, blocking off the view. By the time red roofs appeared, the traffic had begun to slow, cars hedging them in and slowing down their progress. Rock formations of Jerusalem stone began low on the sides of the hills and built up until they were full-fledged walls. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, hadn’t been since they’d landed. Summer was summer over here.
“Einat, I’m only going to say this once,” Noah said as she turned left at a big intersection into Ramot. “Tonight, if anyone mentions marriage or how inappropriate it is for us to be sleeping in the same room, we are packing our bags and finding a hotel in Galilee.”
Einat pursed her lips and didn’t say anything for once.
There were long, winding roads leading off the main street up to another level of the hills or down to a forest at the bottom, where the Parnesses lived. It was really just a cluster of trees since fires and construction got to them. Though everyone in Einat’s family complained it was bad for the environment, Noah could tell they actually enjoyed the new view of mountains and valleys from their backyard. He had been on a few excursions into town with Einat by that point, excursions that had included the Arab market and the main bus station and the Wailing Wall—all noisy, claustrophobic, ethnic places—and he knew that the solitude and peacefulness of this neighborhood on the very edge of Jerusalem was an anomaly in this city.
Einat drove them down her road, nearly to the end, and parked next to her parents’ Mitsubishi van. Noah hefted himself out of the car and followed her slowly into the house.
The Parnesses considered themselves hiloni—a word Noah had learned meant “irreligious”—but they had ideas about propriety that couldn’t come from anywhere but a belief in Hell. Along with the unwed-couple-sleeping-in-the-same-room issue, they kept harping on Einat to stay in on Friday nights because of the Sabbath. Noah understood. He, too, had grown up with parents who had a link to Judaism that they considered intrinsic rather than religious. But his parents at least had an ironic, cynical view of the reasons behind their actions—they thought it delusional to be Jewish without recognizing that the traditions were sentimental rather than rational.
As he entered the house, Noah could hear Mrs. Parness chattering at her daughter in the kitchen. He considered going to say hello, he really should say hello, but he was exhausted.
The place they’d been allotted as a couple wasn’t a room so much as an attic, years of accumulated Parness possessions being shoved off to one end of the room and taking up three-quarters of the space. The room itself was yellowed and old, if clean, along with the trissim—another word Noah had learned here, referring to the blackout shades installed everywhere during the Six Day War, or something, some time when there were other people trying to bomb the country who weren’t suicide bombers. In this forgotten, stale-aired space of the house, the trissim were all rusted into place, cracked-open, letting light leak intermittently in dotted patterns but refusing to open or close beyond that.
There were other rooms in the house—rooms that Noah passed every time he went up to the attic, full of children’s memorabilia and turned-down duvet covers. The excuse the Parnesses used for relegating them to the attic was that the only queen-sized bed was up there. Noah liked to amuse himself with the image of them hauling beds around before he arrived, trying to fit the story to punish the sinners. At least the bed was comfortable.
He fell onto it facedown, feeling his cell phone dig into his thigh as he lay without moving—no, feeling his pelephone, a cutesy relic name from when they were first invented and it was a wonder, a pele, there were no wires. A few minutes later he could hear Einat’s light, rapid footsteps. There was a pause, during which he imagined she had stopped when she saw him planking, before he felt the bed sink and spring as she threw herself onto it next to him.
“Hi,” she said, poking his shoulder.
Noah grunted in response.
“My mother asked where you went.”
“Tell her I came upstairs to die. In our non-marriage bed.”
She laughed and poked him again. “I told her we’re waiting to start until Ofra gets here. Okay? Are you happy now?”
“Come on,” she said. “Make room.”
He rolled onto his side and watched as she lay down and scooted backward into him so they were spooning. When he didn’t do it on his own, she reached around and found his arm to pull it around and rest on her stomach.
“Harah,” Einat hissed. “Wake up! I hear Ofra downstairs! I’m going to the shower. Get dressed! Quickly!”
Rubbing his eyes, Noah sat up. His skin was deceptively cool and dry after all the sweat from tennis, so he supposed some splashes of deodorant and cologne should suffice for the time being. It must have been long past sundown; there was no light coming through the shades’ slats. He jiggled them a little so he could at least look out the window, but they wouldn’t budge.
After changing into respectable clothing, suitable for sitting at a Shabbat table—khakis and a button-down shirt seemed to be enough around here; at his parents’, there had always been ties and suit jackets, and he’d never have skipped a shower—Noah wavered between waiting for Einat and going down on his own. Ofra had already called up a few minutes earlier and he assured her they’d be down shortly. He waited.
By the time Einat was ready, Noah had started to sweat a little. Punctuality was imporant to him, on the courts or off. Einat didn’t turn the lights on in the staircases leading down, so Noah followed the sounds of her footsteps as they descended, running his fingers along the wall for balance. They reached some light in the open space of the ground floor, where bulbs seemed to be shining in every corner. In a sunken dining room in the center, four heads whipped around to watch Noah and Einat arrive. Her parents were at either end of the table, Ofra and her husband on one side, two empty chairs on the other. There was already a mess of dips laid out on the table for the challah, along with a platter of fish. In Noah’s house, the food was never put out before they blessed the bread.
“Azhichlatemlaredetsofsof?” Ofra said. She had a scarf wrapped around her head, a large, frizzy bun popping out the back, and her clothes were loose and flowing. Her husband, a short, pale man, was in a shirt and pants that looked like they could have been pajamas.
Einat’s parents started talking in Hebrew as well. There was a mix of scolding and instruction to hurry up. Her father abruptly blessed the bread and started spooning hummus and matbucha onto his plate, asking her mother a question.
“Everybody, please talk English so Noah can understand,” Einat said, speaking slowly.
Her mother rolled her eyes at the imposition and Ofra’s husband didn’t look like he understood her at all. Ofra, though, smiled at Noah.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said to her.
“What your name?” Ofra said.
He could barely understand her through the accent so he turned to Einat for guidance. She told Ofra his name.
“Noa?” Ofra’s husband said with a slight smirk.
Einat paused before explaining something to him, ending with the name Noach.
“What did you say?” Noah asked.
“I explained your name,” Einat said. Her face had gone red.
“You said something else.”
“Noa is a girl’s name here. I told him the Hebrew version of your name.”
Noah turned to Ofra. “My name is Noah. Not whatever she just said.”
Ofra smiled nervously and looked back to Einat.
“You’re being silly,” Einat said quietly.
“I’m not being silly—I just don’t appreciate you telling people my name is something I can’t even pronounce.”
“Can you please let it go?” she whispered. He could see she was eyeing her mother, who was staring daggers and tsking at the boyfriend who wouldn’t stop whining.
After that, the women brought out the main course and Noah tried not to mind when Einat launched into a full conversation in Hebrew, never once looking him. He wished she could have at least had the decency to pretend she was talking about him.
Once the meal was over, Noah grabbed Einat’s arm and pulled her aside, away from the kitchen where her family had gathered.
“We are leaving,” he said.
She glanced down to where he was holding her. Noah followed her eyes as they traced his fingers one by one, watching them press into her skin. Against her tan they almost looked white. Though Einat’s breathing intensified, she focused back on his face and said, “You know, Ofra was just offering to show us around her kibbutz. They’re here until tomorrow night, of course, but she said on Sunday we can drive over there.”
“Now. We’re getting in the car and driving.”
Einat pulled her arm away without looking down again. “I always hated going to kibbutzim. But if you can’t sit still for more than an hour, we can go. It’s the least I can do when you’ve been so polite to my family.”
“Is there even any nightlife in this whole city?”
“I could take you to the beach tomorrow if you want. I think it’s not right if all you see of Tel Aviv is from an airplane.”
Noah, finally succumbing to his exasperation, turned to go upstairs.
“Okay, okay,” Einat said. She was laughing to herself. “Come back. As soon as they go to bed we’ll get on a bus and go to Yaffo.”
“We’re not taking a bus. We have a car.”
“Come on! We’re going to where all the restaurants and the bars are. Okay? There’s no parking. We can take the bus. I took the bus until I was twenty-three. We can take the bus.”
Noah came close to her again, whispering near her face. “I did not come to this country to get killed by a suicide bomber.”
Einat’s face changed and Noah saw that she had taken the remark personally, taking responsibility for the politics of an entire country. He never understood the way she got defensive whenever they discussed the peace process or a one-state solution. It was almost as though the rational being inside her, the one that had opinions on Metropolitan exhibits and could say to him things like “American boys are so easy!” completely unironically, was systematically being swallowed up by the product of a socialist society every time the words “occupied territory” came up in conversation.
“Fine,” she said. “But we wait until they sleep.”
The drive to town was uncomfortable. He got the impression that Einat was trying to be cavalier, to act like she had gotten what she wanted. But at the same time she had withdrawn into herself, talking casually but refusing to engage.
“Did Ofra do that national service thing you told me about?” he asked, trying to distract her.
“No,” Einat said. “She was in the army, like me.”
“Didn’t you say girls like her don’t do the army? If they’re religious?”
“She was chozeret b’teshuva after the army.”
She sighed. “Ofra became dati, she become religious, after she was in the army.”
He tried to concentrate on the image of Einat back in New York, caring more about obliterating her accent than how she would pay her half of the rent. It was getting near impossible to reconcile her with the woman sitting next to him.
They did take a long time to find parking, circling the edges of their destination because the main road had been gutted for the new light rail and cars weren’t allowed there anymore. Finally, after a good twenty minutes, they found a small spot and Einat practically thrust the car in. Then it took them another thirty minutes of wandering the streets, looking for a bar or a club that wasn’t populated by teenagers or tourists. They walked with space separating them, eyes elsewhere, until they heard music coming from one of the buildings. Down a short stone hallway they found a small bar, a live band visible through the windows.
Inside, the place was L-shaped, people cramped around small tables, all aimed toward the back where a stage took up the entire wall and the band took up the entire stage. Some of the patrons were of the Eurotrash variety, some obviously students; there was even an ultra-Orthodox threesome, defiantly at home—two men in white shirts and black pants with velvet yarmulkes and bushy beards, sitting with a woman in a wig, whose only visible areas of skin were on her face and hands. But they were all, without exception, focused on the loud music. The sweat in the room was borne on the air itself—people breathed it in with gusto.
Noah and Einat went to the bar and ordered beers, also watching the band. After a little while, Noah recognized they were playing “Hotel California,” except the words were in Hebrew. Always, everything in Hebrew. Noah leaned in to Einat’s ear to speak over the music.
“Are they singing the right words?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know this song.”
They stood and sipped their drinks, watching the people and the band in the dark, murky place. Most of the smokers went outside but some of them had given up pretense and were openly holding cigarettes at their tables. No one seemed to mind as the smoke curled up into the air and made it even thicker. The band started a new song, “Down in Mexico”—again in Hebrew—which Noah only knew because it had been in a flimsy Tarantino movie he’d seen once.
Excited that he not only remembered the song but could also identify it in a different language, he grabbed Einat by the waist and started dancing. Without even turning to acknowledge him, she moved with him, her hips pushing back into his in a steady rhythm. Slowly her arms rose up above her head and came down behind them, stroking his hair and encircling his neck, her head leaning back on his shoulder with her eyes closed.
They didn’t go out often, so Noah was impressed each time they danced together. For the first time since they’d gotten to this strange land with all the idiosyncrasies it insisted on, he felt the way he had imagined he would the entire time, back when they were planning the trip from their tiny apartment, where they sat on the bed—which took up half the place on its own—and looked up tickets in their underwear. Their mind and body joined, gelled, singular in their wishes and goals. For a few moments, their bodies moved in synchronicity, feeling the same sensations together. Then the song ended and Einat let go of him, reached for her beer, and sat down in a chair nearby.
Noah, after a moment of internal turmoil, looked for a chair to sit next to her. Suddenly there was a loud crash, loud enough to echo over the sounds of the bar. He blinked and the next thing he knew he was on top of Einat, who was sent sprawling off her seat and onto the floor. She yelled, trying to push him off, but he stayed down, hands over her head. How apt for them to die here, among puddles of liquor and no one but Israelis for miles. How appropriate for him to die in the very way he had predicted.
When he realized that there wasn’t any additional heat from the explosion, or any shrapnel lodging in his skin, Noah looked up and saw people staring down at him, asking garbled questions.
Reluctantly, he rolled off Einat and stood. He was shaking. By the time he turned to help her, she was already on her feet and pissed.
“What is your problem!” she said.
“I… I heard something,” he said. “I was worried.”
“So you shove me into the floor? You hurt my arm!”
Noah looked up. The bartender was gathering shards from the floor where a tower of glasses had fallen and broken. “It could have been a gun, or…”
“Or what?” she said. “A bomb? You’re such an idiot!”
Smug laughter coursed through the bar as the people who understood English explained what happened to the rest of them, their gestures recreating the scene again and again. Noah saw both amusement and pity. He hated both. Let them laugh, he thought. Any one of them could be blown up in the time it takes me to fly back to New York.
“Come on,” he said, trying to regain some control. “Let’s go.”
“No,” she said. “I’m staying to hear the band.”
She was challenging him, waiting to see how he would react. But he was too tired, or maybe he didn’t care enough anymore. Because he knew that in a matter of days, that apartment on Columbus Circle would no longer be their dreamy haven. He didn’t know how long he had known that for, but the fact was crystallized now, a fact that had grown solid over the course of ten miserable days. Never again would he wake up and look at her face beside him and think how cute it is that she cares so much. That she’s so passionate. He should have known not to believe that someone could care about things for him.
Front page image by Nina Matthews.