2012 Lilith fiction contest: 2nd place winner

It had begun innocently enough, over a jar of Baco-Bits in among the canned soup and vermicelli collected in a box that the synagogue had placed in the church lobby it rented for a food drive during the high holidays. She had been dropping off macaroni and cheese made from organic semolina and Vermont cheddar, a brand which had given her pause in the supermarket as she decided which was ethically worse, giving away a brand she would never feed her own children or appearing elitist by donating the organic variety when the regular would do. In the end she decided that either way she would be keeping herself awash in liberal guilt, so she opted to spend the extra money and know that she actively cared about some poor child’s diet. The Baco-Bits had attracted her attention and were still in her hand when the man with the rumpled shirt, salt and pepper curls, and a scholar’s beard, a man whose head and neck she had acquired detailed knowledge of during the service the evening before, leaned over the donation box, took her hand as if gesturing for the time, and turned her naked wrist to read the jar’s label.

They had had a good laugh over that later, the story of Baco-Bits appearing in the synagogue food drive bin. They debated it for weeks after they had started seeing one another, the salad toppers popping up out of nowhere as a topic of scrutiny, as stand-in for whatever else not discussed. But that was at the beginning when there were no taboo subjects. He would emerge from the shower, a towel half-wrapped around himself to ask her, damp curls dripping, and reaching for the glasses on her dresser, his accent drawing out the open vowels, “But how is it that Baco-Bits are even kosher?”

The question would linger and she would answer him, hours or weeks later as he knelt to repair his bicycle, or while ordering dessert, or mulling over the movie section on a Saturday afternoon, “What is amazing is that they have managed to convince the devout that they crave the taste of bacon made from dehydrated vegetable protein.”

Sometimes a related question would emerge from one or another to hang in the air, essentially unanswerable. “Given the century we are in, is it the pork flavor that is most forbidden, the animal itself, or the mere idea?” Or, “How do you think it would be interpreted if congregants started showing up with tinned hams?”

They were both well into their forties, and without realizing it he had rather vainly assumed that he would not be attracted to a woman his age. He had been single for three years, not because he was permanently wounded from the quiet divorce he and his wife had inevitably come to once the twins began high school, but because he didn’t imagine being interested in love again. Work had taken him across the ocean and his girls were back home, growing up without him there to watch. He regularly heard their voices trans-Atlantic and exchanged emails several times a week but that kind of contact could not provide him with what he longed to witness again, the slow crawl and knit of their lengthening bones, their silences and teenage rages, straggly hair pushed out of their eyes, elusive smiles and clever, biting commentary about life among the barbarians. And although he had always considered the move temporary, he knew well enough the draw of a steady economy, geopolitical stability, and the appealing anonymity of life in a large American city.

And then he had met a woman over a jar of Baco-Bits. One morning he woke and sat alternately reading a novel and taking breaks from it to stare at her sleeping form and the morning sun painting her face, illuminating her. He said aloud, in English, knowing that she wouldn’t hear it, “It has been so long since I have even liked anyone, and here you are. And you, I love.” She opened her eyes and seemed to be looking at him, but he knew she had simply entered another state of waking and was still essentially asleep. She had all her life woken that way, in a hard place; he could imagine a dense, difficult childhood. “It’s only me,” he had said, and brought her back to earth.

She teased him about his inability to admit to love. “It’s not a disease,” she would say calmly, pouring coffee. “It’s not a curse, something to be ashamed of.” But he would flap his newspaper or lean forward to touch her cheek and explain that he had grown up in the face of war and death. What he remembered most vividly was the adults in states of constant agitation, that when they weren’t on edge and shouting at the children (this was a kibbutz, you remember, he would say with gravity, and so we slept apart from the parents, in separate houses) they were plying them with sweets and trinkets. And when that happened he knew that the situation was truly terrible.

“When the milk and cookies were brought out?”

“When my father’s hand came down on my bottom for crying from fear,” he would answer patiently. “We just didn’t speak of love. We loved but lived differently, in separate places.”
When he spoke that way she often had the feeling he was exaggerating. But she knew that everything he told her was true in some regard, and that he was not asking for sympathy. No sad story of his could make her pity him; he was not the type to inspire such emotion.

He was born in Austria but his parents had immigrated to Palestine when he was three, and he had spent his childhood at a settlement in a valley near Nazareth. At night with the stars at his window he went to sleep, motionless beneath a thin blanket, listening for the sounds of church bells and the muezzin across the valley, the mews of sheep filling the spaces between hills. He described secret places where he took girls to make love, places hidden between the pines, little makeshift forts that they would fill with wildflowers. They carried bread and cheese and olives, a canteen of water; once they found an abandoned beehive and broke it open to taste the dripping honeycomb. Black snakes darted out from between rocks in the hot midday sun. One afternoon before he went into the army a young Arab boy discovered him and a girlfriend sleeping naked like Adam and Eve on a bed of pine needles. He woke them with his laughter, then went running back to his village.

“You are the snake,” she teased him when she heard that tale. “You knew nothing of women then, and even less now.” She pulled his hair for emphasis. He had taken to wearing it long in back, out of style past his ears, but somehow it didn’t look silly.

“Did you know,” she asked him one afternoon, peering at the clock — her son due in from college, her daughter returning from orchestra practice — “that I once visited your kibbutz?”

He sat up on an elbow to face her. His reminiscing had led him down a winding path of words until he had felt on the verge of sleep. They had been together for six months and spoke of many things. And yet there was always a familiar silence between them, as if they knew each other well even when they really didn’t. They had moved quickly from lovers to feeling, in addition, like family. They often mused that what was between them felt comfortably incestuous.

“My kibbutz?” They had breathed the same air, in a different time? Her shoes had kicked up the same dust? She had seen his childhood world through her eyes, many years past?
“Of course. It’s not far from where I worked on the moshav on the other side of the valley. I thought I had told you.” She drew her fingers across his back, noting his age-freckled skin, the shape of his torso. “I drove there with my cousins to visit friends. Up through Wadi Ara, in between the villages with their white stone houses and laundry hanging outside. Donkeys beneath trees, dozing.” Her voice grew soft.

He liked it that she knew something about his country, more than the flavor of the cities or where to find the cleanest beaches and best hummus. She had been in ugly places, dusty towns heavy with grief, and knew the dirt of the region. She feigned indifference towards politics, refusing to toe any party line or become embroiled in casual discussions. When asked she would shrug and say her views were private and that in any case, history would have nothing to do with what she believed. For her it was all about the senses, and what she treasured about her time there provided him with stories that fit neatly into his own memory, ready to be taken out and recalled bits at a time.

He fell silent and didn’t ask for the name of the family in whose house she had visited or what she had thought of his childhood surroundings. He didn’t ask, and did you walk near the stream that edged out from the kibbutz border, and did you follow it to my parent’s house, the last cottage before the forest begins? Of course she wouldn’t have known about any of that; that was years before she met him. He listened as she told him how at the entrance to the kibbutz a huge black bull had leaned across the gate to lick the windshield of their car. How in the home of her cousins’ friends they made crêpes and salad and she listened to the different strands of conversation. How it felt like rain drizzling down softly, and she knew that if she chose to she could pay attention to any piece of it or ignore it. That the sounds of the afternoon with its multi-layered conversations had become a touchstone for her in her memory of those years. At some point the door had opened and children came pouring in. A dark eyed boy sat drawing pictures with her and jumped into her arms when it was time to go, begging her not to leave. She promised him that she would visit again, although she knew she would never manage to.

“Don’t you want to ask me their names?” she mused. “You must know the family. Let’s see if I can remember; the boy, I believe, was named Razi…” But he shook his head; it was enough for him to be witness to her remembrance of the car ride through the valley towards his childhood home from years before.

At first she enjoyed his appreciation of her memories, but in time she found that feeding him that way made her hungry for the other life she had for a time inhabited. She had spent two years picking oranges and milking cows, crossing borders to observe and capture the world she saw around her. She was going to become a photographer, a journalist, an artist. After she left, the years away became smaller, a blip in time, a mere something else she had lived before abruptly turning around to go back to New Jersey.

What was it, she found herself thinking, working back to it in her mind after meeting him. What was the catalyst that had made her return to her hometown? Her father had fallen ill, and her mother begged her back home for a visit. She left reluctantly, leaving books and clothing in a friend’s closet. She went assuming that she would return, yet knowing on some level that she couldn’t pick oranges and wander around forever. Within a year her father died, and then her mother, from nerves and heartbreak.

She knew her mother would have liked him. His sharp intellect and quiet manner, his old world grace and business skills, the gentle voice in which he addressed the girl. Her mother had been a simple woman, deeply superstitious and from an Orthodox family, but after arriving in America she had blossomed, discarding what did not suit her and following only the tenets of the religion that made her happy. She had an intuitive sense of the network of emotions beneath the ordinary surfaces of people. She was subtle but called a spade a spade and did not mince words when confronting something she didn’t understand, or understood too well. Her mother possessed a knowledge that she would never have, a way through the winding dark forest of emotions. She had the gift of seeing the way things were between people long before the people themselves did.

“Look at that,” her mother would murmur as if deciphering the vestiges of some remote language. “Not kosher. The way they’re acting, something’s not right.” She would overhear her mother at a family gathering, a wedding or bar mitzvah, watch her observing the hidden hieroglyphs imperceptible to everyone else that would occur months before the news of an impending divorce, bankruptcy, or conflict erupted. But she saw the flip side just as often, pronouncing sound the situations and relationships that seemed to others off-kilter. Healthy, kosher, she would state. Aboveboard and bound for success. And her mother was right so often that it became a family in-joke.

So she had left, abandoned the newly formed moshav, returned to her parents, and begun college. Then she met her husband. Graduate school and a few years of teaching before the babies arrived. She stayed home for years, swathed in a yellow-tinged haze of chubby knees and diapers, milk-stained visions, lack of sleep. She tutored and stole moments in between her tasks to take her camera out on weekends, scouring the city for stories, looking into people’s faces to read their joys and griefs, walking the streets of her childhood. She had felt mostly satisfied. Even the marriage had ended rather undramatically, a decision arrived at mutually. The years closed around her, swiftly. And then opened.

Once the summer ended, all at once there was the question of where to sleep. Suddenly each decision felt weighty, freighted with meaning. He would go to work and return to his apartment to collect mail, arriving at her place in time to sit with her daughter at the kitchen table as she did her homework. Once he pressed his palm to the girl’s shoulder, imagining his own daughters asleep in the space of time they inhabited across the ocean. Now and then when he telephoned he would close his eyes, trying to recall the quality and timbre of their voices when they were very young. Then his ex-wife would get on the line and in the exchange of small talk, he sometimes forgot that they had separated.

In November he visited the girls and slept on the sofa while his ex-wife and lover slept in the next room. He cooked dinner, concocted elaborate spreads from items brought from New York, kept them up into the wee hours, accompanied the girls to films and parties.

Each night he found himself awake, and he wasn’t sure whether it was the silence arriving like an incurable disease in the middle of the night, or the patter of the lover’s footsteps crossing the bedroom floor, or the distance between his memories and what now composed his life that so disturbed his sleep.

He returned to New York. They settled in for the winter and watched snow falling outside her window. They spoke of escaping to an island, fantasized about warm waters and clean sand, but in the end they decided to shelve the idea until next year. Even saying the words “next year” made him freeze with a sort of wonder and terror he had not recognized since childhood, and for days he kept his silence. One evening she asked if there was anything to discuss, and he hesitated but said no and began preparing dinner. He was slippery. But her daughter had grudgingly begun to admit him into her private world, and as he cooked, she wandered into the kitchen and let slip a detail about a boy she liked, which thrilled him.

They passed the frozen season, working steadily and waiting for the ice to break on the pond at the park down the street where young people congregated to skate in the approaching dark. Her daughter joined them some days, and they watched as she slung a pair of battered skates across her shoulders and snuck matches from a box on the stove on the way out the door so she could smoke as she walked home in the dark with the crowd.

Then slowly the ground began to thaw and buds formed on the trees lining their street. They sipped their coffee and read the newspapers that spring, silently wondering at the strangeness of their having even met. But sensing there were no answers to the questions that lingered — how is it that people connect, anyway? and can love last? — they broached them less frequently, satisfied with what was. In May his lease was up, and he moved into her place without fanfare or discussion. They arranged household chores, divided the bills, and created schedules for shopping and cooking. Within weeks the sunporch was converted to a shared office, desks posted beneath windows at opposite ends of the tiny space, and rows of books between. They rode bicycles together and decided to take up Indian cooking, her daughter chopping vegetables as they studied the cookbooks they had found at the library.

One midsummer evening while cleaning out the front closet, she found her camera, dusty with age. It was an ancient model adopted from the collection in her father’s dresser, a note still scotch-taped to the back with shutter speeds and f-stops for various films and light conditions written in his own terse hand. The night before she had left for the moshav instead of college, to his great disappointment, he grudgingly chose a camera for her from his collection. Now as she held it in her hands, the years unraveled and she recalled her travels. She turned the camera over and absently cranked the film advance lever to find there were frames left on the roll. They had to be decades old, and she wondered what she would find when she had the film developed. She looked around the living room to see her daughter curled up on the sofa lost in a book, while he stood watching a game of catch outside the window, the hint of a smile on his serious face. She put the viewfinder to her eye to capture what was there.

Susan Dickman received Illinois Arts Council Awards for fiction and poetry, had a Pushcart Prize-nominated poem in 2003’s Best American Poetry, and has published memoir and poetry in Intellectual Refuge, LiterBug, and Zocalo Public Square. She recently completed a young adult novel and works as a teacher in Chicago.