Whenever I feel I'm drowning, I go to the mall. I'll buy something completely frivolous - a bright top, a delicate silver ring. Or I let an old Yemenite woman tell my fortune in one of the small cafes.
Leah stopped writing. It was late. She was expected at her cousins' Friday nights, even though she'd moved out months before and lived in a small apartment with a friend. Occasionally, she brought Karen as a buffer, a small piece of her own particular landscape. But Karen had gone out. She preferred the fleshpots of Tel Aviv to outdated rituals.
Every Friday, Leah ate at a long table with a row of blood-connected strangers who spoke gibberish. Occasionally, she snagged a word she knew in the stream of rapid Hebrew. Perhaps this was how dogs lived, mostly bewildered, gleefully wagging their tails when they heard their names, a fragment of meaning in a sea of noise.
The family was proud of providing her with a real Israeli home and samples of fluent Hebrew to absorb. Maybe the system was working. She was the undisputed star of her Hebrew class. Lily, their teacher, beamed when Leah answered. She'd tap her head and say solid concrete. By which she meant the precious words stayed put, didn't seep out like water stored in sand.
Sand. Sand was everywhere. It bulged out of gaping holes in sidewalks. It mingled with rain, leaving brown blotches on her skirt. A city built on sand instead of rock.
"You'll sleep over," said cousin Rivka after dinner. Leah submitted. Getting home Friday nights was a problem. Besides, Karen was spending the weekend at her boyfriend's, and Leah wasn't in the mood for an empty sweltering apartment that smelled of mold.
Several of Leah's relatives lived in one building. This time, they ate downstairs at cousin Miri's. After dinner, Leah climbed up to Rivka's apartment, where a corner had been designated hers. Once, Rivka's son, Aaron, had used it for his computer and compact discs. But since his marriage, the equipment was gone, along with his colorful posters and teenage disorder. A small, neat cot was pushed against the wall.
As Leah opened the door, she heard voices whispering in the lounge. Rivka's daughter-in-law, Netta, and her baby were living there while Aaron was in the reserves. From the counterpoint of high and low, sweet and harsh, Leah realized that Aaron had gotten a last-minute furlough. There was a frantic rustling of covers and then silence. The walls of Israeli apartments were made of paper. Someone should have told her to stay downstairs.
Guiltily aware of every movement, Leah showered quickly and brushed her teeth. Secure and quiet at last in her cubbyhole, she threw the window open. A damp sea breeze puffed just beyond the sill, refusing to come in. Wrong direction, Leah sighed, wrong direction.
In the morning, Netta looked tired and resentful as she smeared cheese on her roll.
"Aaron was here... for nothing," she said in a sulky voice.
Netta was speaking English, a bad sign. When she felt indifferently friendly, she spoke Hebrew. English was for instructions or reproaches.
"Can you take Shooshoo for a walk?" she said, unsmiling, "I need some time to myself." Shooshoo was two years old, with Netta's blond curls and Aaron's toughness.
"Sure," said Leah, accepting her punishment.
"Don't let her boss you around."
"No. I won't." Netta nodded. But she looked as if she was having second thoughts. Anglo-Saxons were known to be hopeless wimps. Considering that Shooshoo climbed on the tables, tortured the dog and ate from everyone's plate, Leah didn't believe that an hour or so of too-delicate handling would ruin her.
"Don't worry about a thing. We'll be fine."
A short time later, Leah and Shooshoo were back. Shooshoo was gushing tears, kicking and screaming.
Netta hurried to the door. "What happened?"
"She stopped," Leah gasped, "like a little mule. I couldn't move her. When I ran toward home, hoping she'd get worried and follow me, she ran the other way. I almost lost her."
Netta nodded proudly. "She's fearless."
Breathing hard, Leah handed the problem over.
Inside, Rivka was baking. When her youngest, Leor, arrived from the army, his favorite chocolate cake would be waiting. Leah couldn't complain. She wasn't risking her life for the homeland. Still, she felt jealous. No one made anything for her. Wherever she put herself, she was underfoot. Aaron had left at first light, unfulfilled. She'd been a complete failure at managing Shooshoo. Even a two-year-old knew she was useless.
One of Shooshoo's frantic kicks had landed squarely on Leah's little finger. It was hard and swollen and painful when she moved it. Leah stared at the bluish stain, feeling fragile.
Then Eli dropped by to show them his new stripes. He was just a kid, an army buddy of Leor's. His eyes were green, his sandy lashes curly.
"What are you hiding?" He grinned flirtatiously.
Leah brought her hand out. She held up her battered finger and Eli kissed it.
"Come to the beach," he said.
She laughed shyly. "I thought I'd go to the mall."
He pulled a face. "Malls are for cold climates, little girl. You're living on the Israeli Riviera."
She smiled at that. "Okay, the beach," she said.