By Dalia Rosenfeld
I cannot recite the street names of Tel Aviv by heart because I have not lived there. And when Amnon stuck his head out the window to ask me to run to the makolet for a lemon, it was not the street sign that I was looking at, but Amnon. The absence of window screens in the city allowed me to take him in all at once, unobscured, with nothing between us but the urgency of completing a salad. The cucumbers and tomatoes were already chopped and waiting in the bowl.
I did not know where the makolet was, but I followed my instincts and got lost after a single turn. The roads were potholed and sandy, congested with cars and pedestrians all moving in different directions but at the same frenetic pace. At Rothschild Boulevard I slowed down to consider a canopy of trees and two old women sitting on a bench. I wanted them to be speaking Yiddish and they were, so I put the trees aside and considered them instead, getting close enough to smell their face powder and peek into a canvas bag sitting by their feet. More tomatoes and cucumbers.
It was late when I found my way back to Amnon’s. In the courtyard of his apartment building stood a small grove of lemon trees, all bearing fruit.
Amnon regarded the lemon in my hand before he regarded me, particularly the white flower and stem attached to it from pulling too hard. “You didn’t find the makolet?” he asked, glancing at the same window from which he had called down his request, an hour before.
“I took the scenic route,” I explained. I did not explain more but instead reached out for Amnon, to see if we could still manage to complete each other after all this time apart. “It was a long trip getting here.” I meant crossing the ocean as well as having to wrest myself from that bench on Rothschild Boulevard. It is always hard to see Yiddish die, even in the first Hebrew city of Tel Aviv.
Amnon accepted my embrace for exactly three seconds. “I’ll get a proper lemon,” he said, placing my offering on the table and preparing to run away. “The ones in front” —he shook his head as if I should have known better. “No good.”
I should have known him better, Amnon; for three months we had tilled the same land together, fed the same cows, sewed the same red identification threads onto our work shirts. But without a kibbutz to keep us in concert, one of us was always straying from the other, if not for minutes, then for years. This was the fate we shared, and I had exactly forty-eight hours to fashion a new one.
“Hurry back,” I said.
While he took the stairs down two at a time, I tried to bridge the distance between us by setting the table, and when that was done, by standing before the walls of Amnon's apartment and willing them to speak. A reproduction of a Picasso, in cheap poster form, took up the eastern wall but remained mute, as did an oversized calendar on the western side, depicting scenes from old American movies. Neither said a word.
A quiet energy pulled me into the bedroom, first to Amnon's closet, empty but for a few shirts of foreign extraction, and then to a small bookshelf next to his bed with more than a dozen books offering me a way in. When Amnon returned with the lemon, I was still struggling with the first title.
We ate on the balcony overlooking another couple eating on their balcony. For most of the first course Amnon conversed with his neighbors, shouting over the traffic and our chewing, the seagulls squawking overhead and live music delivered from Rabin Square in a spirited attempt to avenge his death. It would not be easy to convince Amnon to leave.
“You know why I'm here,” I finally said, as a salty breeze blew through our hair and settled over us.
“Yes,” Amnon replied. “To take me back with you to America. But now is not a good time.”
There were moments when I felt I could have lived on the kibbutz forever, and they all occurred before I arrived, usually in the morning and in the shower, where I often gave voice to the Zionist folk songs I had learned at summer camp, another place I would have dedicated the rest of my life to if only I had been allowed to forgo the whole experience and stay home.
With every new experience on the kibbutz, I threw up. And it was all new to me: the desert, the date trees, the ancient wells from which we drew our water to funnel into jerry cans and drink in the fields. Even the sun, forcing us to rise before its rays touched down and finish our work by midday; I had not known it as the foe that it was, there in the Arava.
The nurse told me to drink water and to wear a hat. She warned me to steer clear of the date thorns and to hold my breath when a diesel tractor drove by. She did not ask how I felt being penned in with twenty-five other volunteers all from the same country, day and night, in the fields and around the campfires. She did not ask how I felt the first time I saw Amnon.
I had been waiting my whole life to love someone, and the kibbutz was a natural place to fall in love, a fertile crescent crafted out of sand. But it was along hard asphalt, and not sand, that I walked one evening down to the entrance of the kibbutz, outside whose gates Amnon sat guard. When I came within a few feet of him, a bright light snapped on between us, and I stopped.
“Something happened?” he asked me in English, his eyes traveling up the road toward the kibbutz.
It seemed a world away suddenly. “Nothing happened,” I assured him, squinting into the light and stepping closer. “I'm just going for a walk.”
Instead of offering me his chair, Amnon laid his gun across it and stood up. A whiff of strong soap accompanied him, quickly evaporating into the acacia trees above us. He did not smell like a soldier at all.
“It's a strange place to walk, on a paved road,” Amnon observed. “What's your name?”
“Nava?” He looked surprised. “Nava is an Israeli name.”
“My parents want part of me to be here,” I explained. “When I'm back home.”
“And when will that be?”
“In three months.”
I was eighteen years old then, and waking up at dawn every morning. To me, three months sounded like a very long time.
Amnon was eighteen, too. “Some volunteers stay for a year,” he said, visibly disappointed. “But never mind. I'm Amnon. Come, I'll take you for a real walk.”
Slinging the gun across his shoulder, he removed a key from his pocket, and a few seconds later the gates of the kibbutz fell open, revealing a massive expanse of sand that mirrored the state of my young, swelling heart.
For the next three months I did not throw up again.
After dinner on the balcony, I repeated my offer to Amnon over wine that I had brought expressly for the occasion. “You're unemployed,” I reminded him. “You're paying a fortune in rent for an apartment the size of my closet in Virginia. Just come for the summer, until the situation here improves. My father said he can give you some computer work, and on the weekends we can travel.”
I heard the words distinctly as they came out of my mouth, but from Amnon's response it appeared as if I had not spoken at all. “I'm getting a dog,” he announced, as scales from a poorly-tuned piano suddenly swept through the open window and into the room. “Something small and easy, whatever they have at the pound. There's a park nearby.”
The disconnect did not deter me. On the contrary, it set me up to state the obvious. “A dog will not protect you, Amnon.” I tried to speak above the music without shouting, even when the music stopped and was replaced by shouting. “A dog may not even smell it coming.”
Amnon set down his wine glass, took his two hands, and threaded them through his hair. Then he stood up. “Come, I'll take you to the park,” he said. “You should have passed it on your way to the makolet.”
Outside, Amnon's steps were slow and heavy, as if a resistant wind had risen from the sea to push against his feet and force me to make sense of my surroundings.
“Look at all these For Sale signs.” We passed one building and then another with people waiting to move out. “Everyone can feel it but you.”
Amnon picked up his pace a little. Pebbles flew from his sandals and into my shoes. “If the prices were lower, these flats would sell in one day,” he said. “They'll probably sell anyway. This is Tel Aviv.”
We walked some more, not long, but long enough to feel the weight of my thirty years touching down, and of Amnon's close behind. It was a stark contrast to the lightness that lifted me up when I thought of him back home.
At the entrance to the park, Amnon stopped. “Here we are.” He held out his hands like a magician performing a trick. “Now you'll understand why I want a dog.”
I looked around for some traditional signs of a park, for grass or trees or flowers planted in straight, discriminate rows. But my vision was blurred by quick bursts of movement, small streaks of activity flashing by and unwilling to slow down even for a second and announce themselves.
“Dogs,” I observed.
With the next step Amnon and I were separated, as the script of our lives demanded. Dodging frisbees and balls, I watched my first love rush headlong into the canine traffic, seeking camaraderie through collision, escape through entanglement, all in various hues of brown. By the time I caught up with him he was fully transformed, his face licked clean and luminous, his clothing muddied and covered with hair. And he was ready to introduce me.
“Nava, meet Aviram and Hadar. And over there is Rafaela and Paili, and look, here comes Yarkona, always the center of attention. Shalom, Yarkona!”
The dogs were mostly small, reflecting the size of the country they lived in. Small and suffused with an unquenchable spirit, like the Zionist forebears of their owners, and of Amnon. I thought that maybe if I smiled, he would realize how serious the situation was.
“Yarkona?” I smiled, shielding my face from an inquisitive snout. “Isn't that the name of a park?”
Amnon returned my smile, happy to see me so engaged. Or more likely, it was Yarkona. “The Yarkon park, yes, it's on the other side of the city. 'Yarkona' comes from 'yarok,' which as you know means green. I can take you there tomorrow.”
Tomorrow was fine, but we were still in the throes of today. “Where are all the people?” I wanted to know. I tried to look up, but Yarkona kept matching my movements with spastic ones of her own, as if trying to convey an important tiding, a message that, unlike the park that bore her name, could not wait until tomorrow.
“Nava, meet Ayelet, a person.”
With his magician's hands, Amnon conjured up a woman standing before us, black-eyed and beautiful, an unclaimed leash latched to her wrist.
“Nava?” she repeated my name. “You are Israeli?”
She asked this question as if we were back on the kibbutz again, as if this were the beginning, and not the end.
“I'm just here to see Amnon,” I explained. “Just for a few days.”
Ayelet shrugged and began to separate the thick cords of her hair into three parts. “Vat-ever,” she said, the 'r' rising directly from her throat. She began to braid.
This calmness amidst the chaos, I could not accept it. It made me want to scream and run rabidly around in circles. It made me want to fall to the ground and stir more dirt into the park stew.
Yarkona saw the saliva form at the corners of my mouth and took it as a cue to nip at my heels. I shook her off. “Your dog wants to play,” I lied to Ayelet, still braiding away.
“She likes you,” Ayelet lied back to me, or maybe it was the truth. It didn't matter.
“She's a sweet dog,” I said.
I shook her off again.
The sky was darkening now, the streetlights snapping to attention and restoring a semblance of order to a city that eschewed all rules. “Where are all the other people?” I tugged at Amnon's sleeve to try to break the spell that he had cast upon himself. Perhaps they were already gone, and the beasts had taken over.
Extending his arm into the air, Amnon caught a frisbee, then flung it back in the direction from which it had come. “Relax,” he said, slightly out of breath. “You’re in Israel now.”
On the way home we walked side by side, our steps synchronized but set into motion by thoughts that had nothing in common. As if to compensate for the trauma freshly imposed on me, colors cropped up as we walked: pink bougainvillea cascading along stone ledges, yellow cornflowers emerging from the cracks of the sidewalk, potted marigolds perched outside high windows. And the street signs: Bialik, Trumpeldor, Tchernichovsky, all swathed in the green I missed most.
At Rothschild Boulevard I left the ground behind and stretched my body toward the trees, lone oaks planted a century ago in the sand. Then I steered Amnon to the bench and sat him down. “If they kill Hebrew like they killed Yiddish, I'll still have my name,” I reasoned, trying to sort things out while there was still time. “Maybe that's why my parents gave it to me.”
There was room for four people on the bench, and Amnon filled every inch of it, shifting his body impatiently with each word that I directed his way. I knew it was a challenge for him to listen to me, just as it would be hard for me later, back at his apartment, to dream about our kibbutz days and not try to recreate them. It was always hard to get a good night's sleep when I visited Amnon.
“Amnon, did you hear what I just said?”
Amnon squirmed again, like a caterpillar emerging from his cocoon, ready to be reborn and take wing. At least, that was how I saw it.
And then, gradually, everything fell deathly silent: the vehicles in the streets and the drivers trying to force them through; the open-windowed conversations between neighbors, the broken piano, the piano teacher, the music sending out its supplications from Rabin Square. Even the dogs —a moment before I could still hear them, or if not them, others like them, being led on a leash down the sidewalk and barking at will. A moment ago I thought they would echo in my ears forever.
“Amnon, what's happening?”
At this question, Amnon stopped squirming and turned completely around on the bench to face the back with his arms folded in front of him. “It looks like we're the only ones left,” he said, staring into the darkness. “Maybe you were right, after all.”
For several more minutes the city remained frozen in time, a held breath, an idea interrupted. I had never been so frightened in my life.
And then, suddenly, a few streets over, the sea parted and the people came pouring out, first only a trickle, and then a stream, and then a wave of people welling up and washing over the city in search of dry land. And I found myself leaning against Amnon.
“What happened, Amnon?”
Amnon laughed, and cradled my head in the crook of his arm, where it had positioned itself during the parting. “It's the middle of the night in America,” he said, pointing to his watch. “Nothing happened, you fell asleep, took a little shluf. Sorry, but that's the only Yiddish I know.”
And then, without warning, Amnon reached for my hand, as if anticipating the old age that would come to us if he agreed to leave the country. “I know you want to stay,” he said, meeting my eyes for the first time since my arrival. It was a bad time to have chosen to cry. “I knew it then, and I know it now. It's all right, Nava, you don't have to be afraid.”
We sat there for a long time like that, holding hands in a half-sleep, under the trees.
Copyright © Dalia Rosenfeld 2012
Dalia Rosenfeld is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Atlantic Monthly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Missississippi Review, Shenandoah, Zeek, and Moment Magazine. She is currently living in Israel with her husband and three children.