We turned back to Broadway and headed south this time, from Twenty-eighth toward Tenth Street. We walked briskly, purposefully, alert to every metallic glimmer on the sidewalk. Down to Union Square, right, then left, and down Sixth Avenue, Hilmi taking large, energetic strides, paving a path for us through the crowds, and me behind him. As we searched among all the moving feet in case the keys had fallen on the way, we passed the same window displays and brightly lit alleys we’d seen before, the same doorways of shops and giant department stores, the same lines of trees and shady treetops and office buildings, now on our left, dark and locked.
The repeated sights brought a replay of our chatter, everything we had said an hour earlier going up Broadway, but the conversation also proceeded in reverse order, from end to beginning. Like playing a record backward and imagining subliminal messages emerging from the garbled sounds, or rewinding a cassette tape with its squeaky distorted playback, so my sense of guilt accelerated and grew sharper, and my heart pounded faster, matching the beat of our hurried steps. In retrospect, I noticed all the things I’d missed before, when I’d talked longingly about the sea in Tel Aviv and raved about my diving adventures in Sinai. I recalled how he’d kept quiet here, or hadn’t responded there, and I remembered a serious look he’d given me at this intersection, and how right here, when we stopped to gaze at the moon, he’d sighed deeply.
I was now attuned to every tone of voice and every expression. I thought twice before speaking, phrased things carefully to prevent any misinterpretations that might arise from my English. I nodded vigorously whenever he spoke, and laughed too loudly at his jokes. I scanned every inch of the sidewalk, throwing myself into the search for the keys in an attempt to compensate, to repair, to restore what had been lost—a spontaneity, a lightheartedness that was no longer there.
Kosher-Kosher-Kosher-Kosher. All the delis in downtown Manhattan seemed to have become kosher, and I spotted more and more menorahs lit up among the Christmas trees in the shop windows. Two ultra-Orthodox men with streimels and bobbing sidelocks came toward us, and farther down the street we could hear thunderous darbuka drumming from a tattoo and piercing den. Another branch of “Hummus Place,” another corner store selling newspapers and magazines in foreign languages, including Maariv and Yediot America alongside papers with Arabic headlines.
We entered the desolate darkness of a pub and asked to use the bathroom. While I stood outside the single stall in the women’s restroom waiting for someone to emerge, I wondered whether Hilmi, in the men’s room on the other side of the wall, was also reading the word in the little door lock—Occupied—and thinking about the occupation.
My series of knocks on the stall door produced a muffled voice from inside: “Just a minute.”
Alone now, I replayed what had almost happened back when we’d stood at a crosswalk and he’d suddenly looked at me, bathed in a reddish glow from the light. His eyes had lingered on my face, focused on my lips, and I was struck by a certainty that he was about to lean over and kiss me. I remembered the wave of air that had hung between us, and the trembling, almost-happened second that ended abruptly when the light changed to green and everyone around us stepped onto the street. I didn’t even realize I was banging on the door again.
“Just a minute!”
I stifled not only the urge to pee but also the pleading voice that burst into my head as though it had just been waiting for its chance to get me alone: What do you think you’re doing? You’re playing with fire. Tempting fate. Don’t you have enough problems? What do you need this for? I suddenly felt a need to see what I looked like, how I’d looked to him at that crossing. There was no mirror above the sink or on the paper towel dispenser, but I caught myself in the dark glass on the emergency supply cabinet, and my face looked cloudy and tormented.
When was it? Five or six years ago. I was on a jitney bus in Tel Aviv. I got on at the old Central Bus Station, and we hadn’t even made it around the bend to Allenby Street before we got stuck in a huge traffic jam. It was midday and the jitney was almost empty. Two passengers sat in the back, and one woman in front of me. At some point the driver got sick of the music on the radio and started flipping through fragments of verbiage and snatches of melodies until he tuned in to a religious station, Arutz Sheva or something like that. He paused there, and actually turned up the volume when an announcer yelled, “Dozens of young girls, Jewish women, every single year!”
It was the deep, warm voice of an older Mizrahi man with impressively enunciated glottal sounds. “Daughters of Israel! Lost souls!” he kept shouting. “Seduced to convert to Islam, God have mercy! Married off to Arab men who kidnap them and take them to their villages, drugged and beaten, where they are held in conditions of hunger and slavery, with their children! In central Israel, in the north, in the south . . .”
Through the dusty window I could see a trail of blue buses crawling toward Allenby in the summer light. The voice went on: “Sister’s Hand, an organization founded by Rabbi Arieh Shatz, helps rescue these girls and their children and bring them back to Judaism, into the warm embrace of the Jewish people. For donations or to reach the emergency hotline, call now—” Then I heard the passenger in front of me talking to the driver. I remember her telling him about her sister-in-law’s daughter, who was one of those women who’d fallen in with an Arab: “Some guy working construction near where they live in Lod. He’s from Nablus. . . .” “Oy, oy, oy,” I remember the driver responding with a gasp. Then he clucked: “God help us.”
“And he doesn’t look Arab at all!” the astonished woman added. The driver clucked again: “Those are the ones you really have to watch out for.”
She told him how the man had pursued the girl, spent lots of money on her at first, showered her with gifts. Her poor sister-in-law had begged the girl not to go with him. She’d cried her heart out. But nothing helped. She dated him for a few months and was already pregnant when they got married. “Now she’s rotting away there in Nablus, you can’t imagine. . . .”
“Dear God . . .”
“Two kids and pregnant again.”
“God curse them all.”
“She hardly has any teeth left, he beats her so badly.”
“Those animals! For them to nail a Jewish woman is a big deal.”
Someone flushes the toilet loudly in the stall. When the door finally opens, a long-legged blonde emerges. She mumbles something and gestures back at the floor. “Watch out,” she says loudly, pointing to a puddle at the foot of the toilet, “it’s slippery in there.”
I tiptoe in. As I squat on the seat, the loud hum of the tank refilling from the pipes in the wall mingles with the girl’s voice in my ears: watchoutitsslipperyinthere, watchoutitsslippery . . . I wonder if it’s a sign: her warning, the light changing at the critical moment, the keys. Yes, the lost keys: that’s a sign that I shouldn’t go to Brooklyn. It was divine intervention that knocked those keys out of his pocket, the hand of God protecting me from what might happen, reaching out to put an end to this story before it begins. A bad feeling flickers inside me again, that alternating glow between push and pull, between attraction and fear.
I walk out and wash my hands, resolving to help him find his keys and then go home. When we get to Café Aquarium I’ll say goodbye warmly, maybe we’ll exchange phone numbers, a peck on the cheek, and I’ll head straight home. But even as I wipe my hands on a paper towel and tell myself these things, I know they will not happen. I know they are hollow words meant to calm me. I walk out of the pub and he is waiting for me. A serious smile shudders between us, and I cannot help noticing his eyes locked on my lips. His curls glow like flames in the red light at the crosswalk.
From the Book, ALL THE RIVERS by Dorit Rabinyan. Originally published in Hebrew in Israel as Borderlife by Am Oved, Tel Aviv, in 2014, copyright © 2014 by Dorit Rabinyan. Translation copyright © 2017 by Jessica Cohen. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.