“Let’s start with the sins of Israel,” Mira suggested to her son. “What were they?”
“How should I know?”
“You’re right, you shouldn’t. Because you’re such a good boy. But homework is homework. Let’s just assume there was infighting, and some idol worship. Did you talk about those things in class?”
“We talked about the Africans in south Tel Aviv, and what Israel should do with them.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think they should stay, and that we should go back to Virginia,” said Leo. “When is Papa coming?”
“Well, luckily, there’s room here for all of us,” said Mira. And then, because Leo was still looking at her: “After he finishes fixing the front porch.”
Leo’s brothers entered the kitchen, glanced at the Moroccan stew on the stove, and announced as one voice that they had already eaten.
Mira felt good about the conversation, as if she had taken a brave stand on an important issue and now could rest for a while, maybe even sit out the next election, since her vote had already been cast. Becoming a citizen of Israel had been so easy—a matter of picking up a yellow phone at the end of the moving walkway at Ben-Gurion, taking an elevator to be met by a woman from Siberia in house slippers, eating a sandwich, answering some questions, lifting their feet for Yitzhak as he dragged a mop underneath them, waiting for the laminating machine to spit out four identity cards, and accepting several hundred shekels in cash for their efforts before being spirited to Tel Aviv in a taxi, fare and tip prepaid by the Ministry of Absorption, and with the blessing of the entire People of Israel.
Too easy, really. As if being a citizen didn’t also come with responsibilities.
She was afraid she could get used to a life like that fairly quickly.
After lunch, the four of them went out for a special treat which Mira had intended to be a small dish of malabi sweetened with rose water and garnished with crushed coconut and peanuts, but which ended up being three orders of stuffed peppers, because she had convinced herself that it was thanks to the stew she had prepared, and the smells it elicited, that the kids suddenly craved the equally healthy peppers from the cafe; and that as a consequence she would not need to cook anything at all the next day, for the stew would remain where it sat on the stove, and this time her boys would fight over it, down to the last bite.
While they were at the café, surrounded by bulldozers making way for a new building and a table of young mothers with their beautiful babies, a man approached them selling electric razors and a plastic singing bird in a cage. “Please,” he turned to Mira and, holding out a box with the shaving kit, said in a heavily accented Hebrew, “for the children.”
Mira was dumbfounded. “Maybe in two years,” she said, taking hold of Leo’s hairless chin and hoping the seller understood. “I’m sorry,” she shrugged. She could not begin to explain the situation with Jonah and Avner—why their faces were scarred from fingernail scissors, when the razor she used to shave her legs was available for the asking.
“Mom, he means for his children,” Avner rasped.
“Obviously,” added Jonah.
“I should buy a razor for his children?”
“You should buy something from him, because he has children at home. Jesus, what don’t you understand?”
“Oh,” Mira said. “That was not at all clear to me.”
But the man had moved on to the next table, where the tiny fingers of a beautiful baby had inserted themselves into the bird cage, either to animate the creature into even greater action, or to still his vibrating body and shut him up. Almost immediately, a 20-shekel bill was procured, thrust into the seller’s range of vision, and the birdcage extricated from the child to be placed in the center of the table for the other little people to admire.
“Are you watching?” Mira encouraged her own little people, two of whom already towered above her, and the third only inches away.
“Watching what?” they said.
“The whole interaction. It’s so bizarre.”
“It’s bizarre that you’re watching it,” Avner said.
“At least it’s not a real bird,” said Leo.
“Good point,” said Mira. “But what if this paves the way for the baby to one day buy a real bird, and put it in a cage? That’s what I’m wondering.”
“A gateway toy,” laughed Jonah.
“Exactly,” said Mira.
And her heart started to pound then, not because of the bird or the baby, or the 20 shekels that someone else had spent to clear her conscience, but because her middle son, who had fallen mute since his 16th birthday, had just uttered three words in succession and let a laugh escape afterwards, showing her that she had been right to move to Tel Aviv, and that from now on her family would be more similar to—rather than different from—the other families around them, at least by the standards of this strange city.
The four walked home then, with full stomachs and a feeling of well-being. Jonah and Avner charged ahead, stopping by benches to pick through piles of clothing, while Mira and Leo took their time, chatting about a special move in parkour, which Leo had seen demonstrated by a man scaling a high wall and then deftly leaping from it to the very spot where Leo stood, ready to sign up for a complimentary class. Leo chatted and his mother listened, struck by how much her youngest son had to say, as if he had just learned to speak and was eager to try out his new skill; or as if he had not found an audience until now, because back home in Virginia everyone was so freaking unhappy, his entire family a flock of birds confined to a cage.
Mira smiled at this unoriginal image, prompting Leo to look at her in an odd way, as he had just finished describing the twisting spinning corkscrew flip, ranked highest in popularity and injury potential, and his mother was taking it all in as if she were eager to try out the move herself. Back in Virginia, just because of some harmless train tracks and a small ABC store at the top of the street, she wouldn’t allow Leo or his brothers to walk two minutes to the bakery to buy bread, let alone two minutes further to the CVS for a box of Nerds, which Israel was making a big mistake by not selling. Here, she was different, paying attention to different things, noticing people in new ways and trying to get him and his brothers to notice them too. But then not mentioning the things that other parents would point out, like the fact that the man with the bird was an Arab. Leo had seen that right away.
Leo slipped his hand into his mother’s as they turned the corner onto Bloch Street, where the Russian accordionist sat in front of the Super Yuda grocery store, playing his usual waltz. They stopped for a few measures, Leo to rummage through his mother’s purse for a shekel, and Mira to let the music settle in her son’s ears so that he would wake up the next morning and ask to be taken to the philharmonic. Back on Modigliani Street, Jonah was working his arms into a leather jacket while Avner measured his feet against a pair of size 12 Nike Zooms. Mira caught their reflections in the mirror first, but instead of letting her gaze linger, she quickly looked away, as if by doing so her presence in the room would not be registered, and she could scurry off into her bedroom and close the door without anyone asking what was for dinner. But before she could look away, Jonah’s eyes accidentally locked with her own, exposing the lie that had accompanied Mira since her arrival to Israel, and that now she would have no choice but to turn into the truth, before it became unwieldy and eventually too big to bury.
The porch is fixed, but Papa isn’t coming.
Those were the words she had prepared to say, but they weren’t technically true. Gordon would come, come and then return, come and return, until the intervals between his visits felt just right for everyone, and everyone could love each other in their own way, with no questions asked and no answers given.
Because there is something beautiful in not knowing what the next chapter will bring.
Standing in place, Mira turned her attention to the mountain of things that had accumulated in her absence, including a gilt-framed needlepoint of the “Mona Lisa” hanging above Jonah’s bed, lending a legitimacy to the bare mattress on the living room floor, which Mira had been hoping Jonah would abandon in favor of the couch. She was fairly sure the kids’ new hobby of hoarding was all in good fun, and that it didn’t point to some attendant issue in need of addressing. She knew the mountain wouldn’t stay a mountain for long, that the wheat would soon be separated from the chaff to make smaller mountains, hills to step over in the middle of the night on the way to the bathroom, and then to be flattened in the morning, to allow for the door to open and the kids to make it to school on time.
The conversation could wait for another day, or perhaps not even need to take place at all, what with the new year approaching and everyone’s slates about to be wiped clean. Rosh Hashanah as a time for reckoning—isn’t that what she had been taught? That by listening to the blowing of the shofar, one’s past misdeeds could be atoned for, and a new life begin?
“How do Rahav’s good deeds contrast with the sins of Israel?” Mira didn’t have the slightest idea who Rahav was, or the spies she set out to save. Leo’s homework had been so much easier back in Virginia, often requiring no more than a box of markers or bottle of glue. Maybe that was the way to get things done, by seeing the world in color and staying between the lines.
I’m going to Israel, with or without you.
How grateful Mira was to Gordon for abiding such an ill-chosen expression, for letting her put a place above a person and then move to that place, as though such things actually happened in real life, and were not merely the stuff of dreams.
How quickly she could have taken back what she said, and said something else. But she knew the decision had already been made years earlier, perhaps as far back as their first conversation, when she confided in him her love for this land, without looking him in the eye.
It was complicated; the conversation could wait for another day. In the meantime, Gordon had his work cut out for him. Violent storms were sweeping through Virginia and would soon return the porch to its former state of disrepair, thanks to his insistence on using pine, when the whole world had switched over to PVC.
This is the second of three fictions this week. Read more Tablet Original Fiction here.