Photo: Vica Miller
Suspended As They Are
By Zeeva Bukai
Something in the pull of the train leading them to Coney Island made Tamar uneasy.
“Are we going backwards?” she asked Salim in Hebrew.
“What are you talking about?” The newspaper twitched between his fingers as he read the front page.
Tamar skimmed the headline in Ma’ariv: Two Dead in Sinai Skirmish. “Don’t you feel it?” She tugged at the neckline of her dress, catching her nail on a forgotten baste stitch.
“I feel it,” Ari shouted in English.
“Shha.” Salim straightened the paper with a flick of his hand, the muscle in his jaw working like a pump.
She inhaled the Ivory soap he had used that morning to shave. She had watched him through the crack in the bathroom door, his reflection in the mirror as he lathered his face, and then ran the blade in long swipes from cheekbone to jaw, worrying he’d cut himself. He rarely did.
Ari sat on the bench opposite her. She sent him a warning glance. He knew to show decorum in public, especially around his father. The boy sank further into his seat, lips pursed like he’d eaten something sour. Rachel took his hand and he shot her a grateful smile. They were so close in age they might have been twins, except they looked nothing alike. Rachel could have been the poster child for the kibbutz movement with her waist-length hair, dark eyes, and dancer’s build. Salim favored her because of it. Ari, to his father’s dismay and hers too if she were honest, was fat. His face as pudgy as an overstuffed doll. The boy was ten and towered over Rachel, was nearly his teenage sister Ruby’s height, and surpassed her in weight. When he walked his thighs clapped and his belly jiggled. Tamar had never imagined having a fat child.
She turned to Ruby who stood near an open window, bleary-eyed and yawning, to find that her eldest daughter’s shorts were too short and her tee shirt too long. She appeared to have nothing on underneath it, nothing to take the eye off her bare legs, no longer coltish in their musculature, but firm and sleek. As if her near nakedness wasn’t enough, the child slouched. Her shoulders and back a sickle moon, a body that marched inward. How many times had she told her to stand straight, had to drill a finger into her spine as a reminder?
Tamar looked down at her clasped hands, at the book with its lurid cover, Never Love a Stranger. She wasn’t sure she liked the novel and yet could not stop reading it, could not help thinking how easy it was for a girl to slip into the murk disgraced. All it took was one moment of weakness, of loneliness, and there she was, left to give birth among strangers, while men lost their souls to money. Men and money – she drew a ragged breath and felt the sting in her eyes. She tugged at the neckline of her sundress again. The fabric, a yellow seersucker, had been on sale at Woolworth’s for $1.69 a yard. Even with the slight gape in the bodice, there was no impropriety, and after all, they were going to the beach and she did have a bathing suit on. Besides, it was Sunday morning and the passenger car was empty. A ceiling fan cranked and beat the sluggish air. Ari yawned. The smell of rust and grease crept up from the tracks.
“Cover your mouth,” she said, and he did, but not before she caught sight of his bottom molars already filled with silver and the deep red of his throat, the uvula bobbing and flexing like a punching bag, his tongue coated white. She hoped he wasn’t coming down with anything. That was all she needed, a sick child on her hands, the heat of a fever in the swelter of summer. It would be cooling baths and crushed Johnson’s baby aspirins every four hours. She pushed at the stray hairs escaping the bun at the base of her neck, and wrinkled her nose at the odor of her perspiration mixed with the talcum powder she’d applied to her underarms. She could have, probably should have, used deodorant, but even after all these years in America it was strange to her – wasteful, perhaps even unnatural – to hide her secretions under a spray. No good would come of all this camouflage.
Ari yawned again, this time with his palm covering his mouth. Poor child, she couldn’t blame him for being tired. They all were. Salim had woken them at six-thirty when the sun was a pink smear across the sky. He had wanted to get an early start on his day off. By seven-twenty they were on their way to the beach, carrying a Styrofoam cooler packed with their lunch, a straw bag with towels and suntan lotion, a plastic mesh crammed with pails, shovels, and Dixie cups for making turrets in the sand. In the rush of it all, she and Salim had argued over watermelon. She had begun slicing a thick wedge, an old ice cream container standing at the ready, and he’d asked her what the hell she was doing, and just like that, the joy she’d felt at spending the day with her family, with him, drained out of her.
“What’s wrong now?” She had put the blade down so that the sharp edge faced the wall, no chance then of getting cut, no giving into the dark fantasy. There were mornings when she stood at the open window, three floors up, to hang laundry on the line and saw her body plunging through the air, skimming the clotheslines, landing on the concrete. Everywhere she turned, there was the possibility of endings, deliberate and menacing.
“No room for it in the cooler,” Salim had said.
Of course he was right. Chagrined, she put the watermelon away, straightened her shoulders, and placed the breakfast dishes in the sink – the heat of him coming at her, crowding her. An hour before it had been everything she’d wanted from him.
The train rumbled above the street. At that hour McDonald Avenue was steeped in shadow, pierced with thin shafts of light. From the elevated train she could see the patchwork of black tar roofs where silver exhaust fans twirled like pinwheels. The shops were shut behind security gates. Pavements were stained with soot and Saturday night refuse was heaped along the curb: beer bottles, empty cans, and food wrappers. She saw a woman in her nightgown leaning an elbow on the windowsill of a three-storey apartment. The woman looked up at the passing train, unperturbed when the wind mussed her hair, her face as aloof as a stamp on an old coin. The television was on in her living room. Tamar twisted round to catch a glimpse of the “Davey and Goliath” cartoon playing on the screen. Something about all that Christian goodness made her heart ache.
She opened the paperback and tried to read, but her eyes kept shifting to Salim. She saw them as they’d been that morning before sun-up: her arms wrapped around him, her face pressed into the hollow between his shoulder blades, breathing in the musk of sleep, the faint sourness of decay. This is how I want to die, the thought rose unbidden.
They were getting closer. She could smell the ocean, the briny wetness that came to rest on her skin. The train stopped in Brighton Beach. A seagull flew past, its white body flush against a pale sky, its beak hanging onto a half-eaten burger. Even before the train rolled out, she had the vertiginous sense of moving backwards again.
The landscape became a blur of apartment houses, local commerce, cloth awnings, the humped shapes of pedestrians plodding down the avenue, fruit stands stacked with burlap-colored cantaloupes and shiny black cherries that appeared to writhe like a thousand beetles. Beyond the buildings was a strip of beach, mirage-like and shimmering. She put a hand on the windowpane as if to stop it from slipping away.
A warren of dead end streets came into view and she understood then the unease, the queasy pull backwards, as they passed Brighton 8 Street, where the first apartment stood that they had rented in America.
The November sky had been banked with nickel-hued clouds. Salim had brought them from JFK airport to that basement apartment. Welcome to America, he’d said. They were jet-lagged: the flight from Tel Aviv endless with three children in tow, and they were all hungry. The cold bit through their wool coats. A flock of seagulls circled above like vultures. Tamar had shuddered. Ari and Rachel, toddlers then, cried, and Ruby retreated into an accusing silence. Tamar had no idea that winter had yet to begin, or that the cold would crack her open in ways she had never imagined.
The basement was one room with an alcove where the landlord had installed a bathroom with a chain-pull toilet and a shower stall. Tamar didn’t know how she would bathe her babies, and had looked at Salim, bewildered. In winter the walls iced over and in summer the humidity was dense. Mosquitoes feasted on them at night and the children woke swollen-eyed and blinded until the antihistamine took effect.
The train came to another stop. She saw the Wonder Wheel and the Cyclone and remembered riding the roller coaster with Salim that first year, how they had sat in the front car, the steep climb and the heart-stopping pause at the top before they descended and careened, wheels lifting off the tracks, landing with such force she felt the xylophonic beat of her bones smack together. Her teeth had rattled in her head and when the car swung sharply, her body flung into Salim’s, bruising her ribs. He pulled her close, his laughter in her ear. Shaking with terror, she laughed up at him, too. It was one of the few times they’d been carefree here. Now she looked at the lunch cooler at his feet. Every so often he rubbed his leg against the Styrofoam to make sure it was still there.
The ocean came into view. The Atlantic appeared as blue as the Mediterranean Sea, though that was a trick of light, she reminded herself, because its true color was somewhere between green or brown in summer, leaden in winter. Sometimes it smelled of fish or tar, or an oily machine.
She wasn’t a strong swimmer and rarely went deeper than her hips. Instead, she’d lie on a blanket and remain so still that her pulse slowed to match the ebb and flow of the waves. Seagulls called to one another or stood like guards on the sand. Though Coney Island was nothing like Tel Aviv, there were things that reminded her of home: the sun on her back, the scent of suntan lotion, the murmur of voices carried along the shore, and the tireless rhythm of the surf. Time and memory slowed, distorted, layered between her first home and this one. Some days it was hard to tell what was true about the past and what was imagined. She had thought they were happier there. Lately, she wasn’t so sure. It was long ago and easy to confuse the sense of belonging with the vagaries of youth. She thought of something her mother had said before they left for America: Only the young know with certainty where home is.
Salim chose a spot near the water, and put the cooler down with a thump as if laying claim to a parcel of land. At heart the man was a pioneer. He wanted to sink roots, and yet there was a restlessness in him, a contagion of wanderlust that kept him on the move.
Tamar spread the bedsheet and told the kids to put their shoes on the corners to keep it in place. Ari tossed his sandals into the air. Like small missiles they landed and sent eddies of sand onto the blanket. Rachel shouted for him to stop, and wiped the sheet clean before Salim noticed anything amiss. But he wasn’t looking at them. He was staring at the ocean, the horizon line in the distance partially erased by the haze and at the boat anchored far from shore, sails tacked into perfect right angles. She saw in his face the desire to escape and, unable to help herself from spoiling his moment, said, “Time to unpack.”
The kids took their beach toys and Ruby distributed the towels while Salim slipped out of his sandals. The early morning sun had turned the ocean into liquid silver. She instructed the kids to strip out of their clothes, and as she placed them into the straw bag, she watched Salim remove his shirt and shorts with the deliberate care he gave to everything he did. Toes splayed, his long feet hugged the sand, his chest still bronzed from their last excursion: the picnic grounds in Prospect Park, where they had lit a fire in a barbecue pit and roasted hot dogs and marshmallows.
“It didn’t take long,” he’d said then. Black smoke rose from the coals.
“For what?” she’d asked.
“To become American.” His smile had been smug.
Something swift and violent had coursed through her, and she’d had to pack her fists into her pockets to stop from lashing out at him.
Armed with a bottle of Coppertone, she spread lotion over Rachel’s and Ari’s backs and shoulders. Ari fretted and dodged away before she could finish smearing it on his face. Only Rachel stood motionless, eyes shut. Tamar reached the juncture between neck and jaw and Rachel leaned into the touch. Tamar kissed her and tasted lotion and the supple bounce of youthful flesh. Ruby looked at them with a resignation that made Tamar’s heart constrict.
“You’re all right,” she told the kids, and they ran in the direction of the surf.
Rachel dived into the water. Ari hung back, a million pulverized shells under his feet. He returned to the sheet for a pail and shovel. After her swim, Rachel joined him, and they dug a wide hole that filled with seawater.
Tamar stripped out of her sundress. “Want me to do your back?” she asked Ruby, offering up the Coppertone.
“No, thanks.” Ruby took off her shorts and left the long tee shirt on. She lay on the blanket and closed her eyes.
“Put some on your legs,” Tamar advised.
Ruby pretended not to hear.
Tamar squinted up at the sun, wishing she’d brought a straw hat to hide under.
Salim read a newspaper article out loud and everything seemed to recede: the ocean, the gulls, the umbrellas flapping in the mild breeze, everything but Salim’s voice as he read to them in Hebrew the newspaper story about the two dead soldiers recovered by a Bedouin shepherd. The soldiers were lost for three days in the desert before their bodies were found. The photos on the front page of Ma’ariv told the story of their lives. It began with the funeral and the families weeping, the women on their knees, the men bowed above them, then head shots of the boys at their high school graduations. In one picture, there was a set of tall date palms that formed an X like a spot on a treasure map. The last photograph was a play of light and shadow over rippling sand (the dry bed of an ancient sea), out of which came four black boot tips arranged like pieces of coal ready to be ignited.
Afterwards Tamar tried to read her book, but her mind wouldn’t stay on the page. She closed her eyes and remembered the afternoons she’d gone to Gordon beach in Tel Aviv with her father when she was a young girl. On the way they would pass David Ben Gurion’s house and if the jalousies were open they would look inside and see the prime minister, a short man sitting at a huge desk in his shirtsleeves, tufts of white hair swirling above his ears. At the beach, her father erected a teepee made of sticks and a sheet, a shelter that protected her from a punishing sun.
“We should build a tent for the kids,” she said, but Salim had fallen asleep.
The sun felt too hot. Tinny music from transistor radios, children shouting, and the muttering voices of sunbathers washed over her. She opened her eyes to see a child run past, kicking up clouds of sand, and she knew a moment’s panic when she didn’t see her own children. Her eyes charged across the beach and the water and then she sighed, relieved. Rachel and Ari stood in the hole.
We adapt, she thought. Ari was frightened of the ocean, and yet there he stood, thigh high in a pool of saltwater. Beside her, Ruby had her arms thrown over her eyes to block out the sun. Tamar turned on her side and found Salim watching her. In an instant they were in a world of their own, intimate and close. He brushed the hair from her face. She thought he was going to kiss her.
“I’m hungry.” He nuzzled her neck, nibbling her skin.
Desire bloomed in the pit of her stomach. “Me, too,” she said.
She called the kids, hoping they couldn’t hear the disappointment in her voice, and told them to wash up. She set out a container of olives, cheese sandwiches, and tomatoes that they bit into like apples. Salim grinned as he munched, waggling his eyebrows at them and rubbing his belly. The children laughed, even Ruby. After the meal, Tamar asked if anyone wanted to take a walk, but the kids said they wanted to fish in their pool. When she looked at Ruby, the girl waved a book in the air. Salim sent her a lazy grin and said it was time for another nap.
Long rows of sunbathers filled Coney Island in a kaleidoscope of color and sound. Gulls cawed and dipped their beaks into the waves, snatching up tiny fish. The smell of franks, sauerkraut, and steamed corn wafted in from Nathan’s on the boardwalk. She strolled along the shore and enjoyed the feel of wet sand on the soles of her feet. When she reached a bay where the crowd thinned, she waded into the ocean and looked with envy at the tropical-patterned bikinis the teenage girls wore. Her suit was old, white with tiny blue cornflowers. She’d bought it in a lingerie shop on King George Street in Tel Aviv the year she and Salim were married. A wave struck her at the knees and she faltered as her feet sank into the silt. Just ahead, she caught sight of a black terrier in the water valiantly trying to swim to shore, its legs no match for the strong current. She searched for its owner. “Is that your dog?” she asked. People shook their heads. The terrier, it seemed, was alone.
She moved forward, trying to forget how deep the water could get, how the bottom could slip out from under her without warning. The ocean lapped at her waist, but she was no closer to the dog. If she didn’t reach it soon, the terrier would go under. “Excuse me,” she called to a woman swimming past, but to no avail. The woman either hadn’t heard or didn’t care to stop. Tamar tried getting the attention of a group of young college boys who wore snorkel masks, their bodies lean and tanned. They would be able to save the dog better than she could, but every time a wave came, they dove underwater, sending up a spray with their flippers. She grew angry at the dog’s owner for being so reckless.
The sea was a glass bowl reflecting the sun, blinding her, making her wonder if the dog was real or imagined. She shielded her eyes and there it was, its head up, paddling toward the shore. She waved her arms in the air, hoping to catch the attention of the lifeguard. The ocean lapped at her chest, her breath came quick. On she went, first tiptoeing and then swimming with uneven strokes. The dog was getting tired and was being dragged farther out. Its eyes were wide with terror. Gripped in her own fear, she shouted for help, hoping someone would hear her. But in the vastness, her voice was small, and no matter how loud she screamed, the sound was swept away.
Every time she thought she was getter closer to the dog, the current grew stronger and separated them more. The terrier yelped as if to give her encouragement. Hang on, she thought. To her dismay, a wave swelled and rose into a wall of water. The dog clung to the cusp of it. Frantic now, she tried to swim back to shore before it collapsed, but it was too late. The wave crashed, sucking them both into the undertow. She was in the heart of it, her body somersaulting, her eyes squeezed shut against billows of sand and debris; her lungs were near bursting. Shards of shells from clams and blue oysters cut her skin.
A long time passed before she landed on her knees and crawled out of the water, hair plastered across her face. She gulped at the air. Her ribs couldn’t expand far enough for her to catch a full breath. She stood up on shaking limbs and swiped at the blood on her arms and legs, then pushed the hair off her face and found a bruise over her left eye. Wincing, her gaze took in one side of the beach and then the other, hunting for the black terrier. All she saw were clusters of adults, indifferent, unknowing, and children building and destroying castles, digging holes so deep it was like they were trying to reach the center of the earth. She began to run in search of the dog, whispering to him under her breath, “Please, please be alive,” wondering how far it had been thrown and in what direction. Miles later, miles in which she had barely covered any ground and found herself in the same spot she’d started in, Tamar came to a stop. Her ribs ached. She faced the ocean and saw the empty sky curve into the horizon and knew the dog was gone.
She reached the blanket where Ruby lay reading the Israeli paper.
“Where’s your father?” Tamar asked.
Ruby pointed at the water and then looked at her. “What happened to you?”
“I went for a swim.”
“There was a wave.” Tamar felt her chin wobble and pressed her lips together.
“Fine.” Tamar used a towel to dab at the scratches, then lay down. She felt Ruby’s eyes on her and shut her own. Behind her lids she saw the terrier’s head bobbing on the surface of the water, its fur slick as a seal’s, swallowed in the wave that had spit her onto the sand like driftwood.
Salim returned from his swim. “Bit rough out there,” he said and shook his head, laughing. Droplets scattered along on her back.
“Where’d you go?” he asked.
“A walk, then a swim,” she said.
“You? In there?”
“There was a dog.”
Salim lay beside her. “Oh?” His voice was drowsy.
These outings rarely ended well. The kids began to tussle. They begged and whined for ice cream and candy and, as if a switch had been turned off, Salim was done. He’d had enough, and hauled them off the beach. Tamar and Ruby gathered everything up: blanket, towels, clothes, shoes, all of it sandy and slipping out of their arms. The soles of their feet were aflame as they trudged across the long stretch of beach to the boardwalk where Ari and Rachel stood and blinked back tears. Salim stared at the tankards and sailboats out at sea, the corners of his mouth pulled down. Frustration rose off him like an odorous pall.
Was it worth it, Tamar wondered, their journey across an ocean, the jobs (two, three at a time and still they barely scraped by), and their children becoming strangers, becoming American? Rachel and Ari hardly understood a word of Hebrew, and Ruby no longer spoke it except when Salim demanded it. Perhaps, like Tamar, Salim asked himself who these children were who couldn’t speak their mother tongue and cried over an idiotic pail, shell, or ice cream, or whatever had set them off this time, while back home boys only a few years older than them disappeared into the desert.
They packed up their belongings and dusted themselves free of sand. On the boardwalk a group of women in tiny shorts, their hair teased high, walked toward them. One had a black dog on a silver chain leash. He was bedraggled, his hair matted, tail between his legs.
“Excuse me.” Tamar asked the owner. “Was your dog in the water today?”
“He’s a feisty swimmer,” the woman said.
Tamar noticed a gap between the woman’s front teeth. “I thought he drowned,” she said.
“Henry? Nah.” The woman walked away laughing as the dog ran beside them trying to keep up.
The train was full of beach-goers: children with sandy feet, tired parents, bored teenagers, all sporting different shades of sunburn. There were no seats left by the time they entered the car. Tamar rested against the doors and watched the streets and alleys streak past. Salim stood beside her, the Styrofoam cooler between his feet. Rachel and Ari, subdued now, held onto a pole and were careful not to jostle into other passengers. Ruby was on the other side of the car. Tamar fought a twinge of panic as she imagined her daughter missing their stop, imagined losing her, losing all of them. She cupped her hands over her ears and heard the ocean inside her, its waves lapping at the shore. They were safe, she told herself – even the dog. Salim had the newspaper tucked under his arm. The picture of the young soldiers stared up at her.
She felt the words tumble out of her before she could stop them. “I think we should go home. To Israel.” She wiped the sweat off her neck, regretting that she had spoken. The fan wasn’t working and, though the windows were open, the air blasted in hot, smelling of burnt paper.
The train rolled into another station. Salim placed his chin on top of her head.
“I’m not going back,” he said.
The words howled past her. With a jerk, the train gathered speed and barreled down the tracks.