From WTP Vol. V #7
The Woman at the Window
By Sari Friedman
Black silhouette of the woman at my window. There whether my eyes are open or closed. Her emotional imprint, the hunched shoulder shape of her longing. She stares out toward the kibbutz’s cows. Waiting for someone or something. You know when you’re not alone. I don’t know how I know, but I know.
Same way I know I’m still American, though I’ve lived in Israel for shonah vah hetzi, a year and a half, writing my newest novel. It’s not just that I can’t help but smile at everyone, even when I’m afraid he or she might be a terrorist. It’s not just that I can’t stop jones-ing for Whole Foods’s organic vegetable aisle. You know what you fucking know. Bedrock.
Before this, I lived in a Northern California rental with someone I loved. Those moments still have a Disney sparkle. I wrote novels back then too. I baked pies. I thought he and I were making love. He said being with me made him happier than he’d ever been before in his life. Until he told me being with the Other Woman made him happier than he’d ever been before in his life.
I considered moving to another Northern California rental, but the only places I could afford alone were a leaky boat or an ex-meth lab. I researched moving to the East Coast, but in Manhattan and Brooklyn I could only afford a hallway or closet. In Georgia I found a rental that turned out to be a Chevron employee’s personal toxic dump from the mold remediation chemicals he’d used, and he’d be moving back in himself when the place was safe.
So I chose the wild card, Israel. I went even further into the ideological wilderness by renting on a kibbutz, where people share. And further into my own wilderness because some of my matrilineal DNA is Druze—the Druze are an ancient indigenous tribe scattered in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, basically the region I’m in now. I’m not a kibbutz member, but I’m here. Kind of like saying I’m a novelist although my novels aren’t yet published. Like feeling you’re in love even though you’re not getting love back. Like running when you’re all out of breath.
The ghost continues to stare. She does not move. Same as forever. She’s like Shakespeare’s definition of love, An ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken. I’m not thrilled about sharing my one room with a ghost, but she doesn’t interact much and the rent is great.
And, after all, it was only one ghost.
I transform another half-page from first draft to second, from arid desert to seedlings poking up through black loam. I allow myself a short break. It’s the cocktail hour and I’ve been wanting my friend, drunken oblivion. I fill a wine glass with Emerald Riesling, a sweet girly-girl wine my ex would totally hate. I pass the ghost on my way to the front stoop. She’s still waiting for her man or her dream or perhaps the messiah.
I go into my garden, a square of sand-dirt baked hard as concrete, where I’ve placed hopeful little pots of herbs: sultry-dark Spanish mint and the slender yellow-green Moroccan mint that’s called spearmint. There’s also oregano, thyme, parsley, and zatar, a.k.a. the biblical hyssop that’s very popular here. In a larger pot some nerdy kale is being devoured by cabbage worms, every day the poor thing has fewer leaves. I’ve also planted tomatoes, onion, and garlic. Along the railing of my concrete steps are red, white, and black beans and some black-eyed pea vines. The kibbutzniks have warned me that the temperature here will soon reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. They describe going outdoors into a huff of superheated air that’s like when you open the door of an oven. Sunlight so intense it scorches leaves. Nothing unprotected will be able to grow. But I can’t stop sowing seeds.
I breathe in deeply of the eau de cow manure. Listen to the warblers and something that gives out a hoarse who-who-whoooo night and day. I take alcoholic-sized gulps of wine. I admire the baby fig tree a neighbor planted. I hope the tree survives. I groove to the indigo-lavender haze that fills much of North Israel and is a fitting backdrop to the pink orchid trees in gorgeous bloom. On the other side of some nearby hills is Judah and Samaria a.k.a. the West Bank depending on your politics. On the other side of other nearby hills is Jordan a.k.a. the Palestinian state depending on your politics.
I glance back toward my window so that I’m looking in from outside. There she still is, steadfast or stubborn depending on your politics. Her lightless silhouette is framed by the graying wood—metaphysicians claim that spirits can exist within wood. The room visible beyond is utilitarian but surprisingly comfortable with high ceilings, an aesthetically pleasing arrangement of windows, and built-in storage. Everything’s positioned so the occasional breeze can pass through. I wonder who designed this room—a woman? A man? A Socialist collective? The building is basically a long line of these rooms covered by crumbling stucco. Israel threw together thousands of kibbutz buildings like this and they all look the same.
My neighbor Eli saunters by. A shy smile for me though I’m older and American and drinking wine even though it’s not Shabbos. Instant I met him I knew he was ex-combat from an elite Special Forces unit like Shayetet 13, which is the Israeli equivalent of the US Navy Seals. It was obvious from his sensitive, wary gaze and the way sheaths of muscle shifted under his skin when he moved. He still has the languid grace of a jaguar. Israeli soldiers generally aren’t GI Joes. The body type’s smaller, shorter, more slight. There are women ex-soldiers here too. They tend to smile more easily but otherwise they look the same: aglow with adrenaline and seemingly slight, moving with astonishing grace.
My neighbors are Eli; Francois who is a Christian Arab born in Nazareth; Raoul whose family has German Holocaust ancestry like mine; Fuad who is a Bedouin tracker; Ukrainian Piotr, whose skin white as the polar ice caps is getting badly sunburned; and Neguse who’s from Ethiopia so he’s got those shining high cheekbones and that King Solomon bearing. Yes, I somehow ended up in the Handsome Young Male Israeli Ex-Soldier District.
After my dinner of smoked roast almonds, olive-studded cottage cheese, vegan cornbread, and more wine, I struggle to transform another page. It’s past midnight when I stop work for the night. I pour some Argentinean beans into some water to soak so there’ll be protein tomorrow. I take a hot shower in my bathroom that doesn’t have anything like a shower door, just a showerhead and a toilet and sink. Then I binge-watch Netflix to three a.m. Because I fucking deserve it.
The next morning I’m surprised as usual to wake up in Israel. I haven’t quite caught up to myself. I still remember too much from the past. Frankly I expected more from the Geographic Cure.
“Want a cup of Turkish coffee with cardamom?” I offer the ghost. She doesn’t reply.
I take my own coffee outside and I sit on the stoop. Blaze of sunlight. It’s hotter than yesterday. Tomorrow’s heat will be worse. A stunning quiet. I sip my brew that is the very definition of “bitter” although it has been properly boiled with a spoonful of sugar and is embellished with foam. Since my ex-soldier neighbors are bona fide residents of the kibbutz they’re off on some communal enterprise—tending the fishponds or cows, irrigating the eggplants or turning the fragrant dried grass into hay bales. Or maybe working at the kibbutz’s factory that makes plastic. They’re all part of the collective and ensconced in lifelong comraderie.
My loneliness like the sound of one hand clapping.
I go back inside and make a breakfast of hummus drizzled with tehina and served upon breadsticks. I transfer yesterday’s soaked beans into a pot with new water and then place the pot on my hot plate that serves as a stove. I peel garlic cloves. Crush them to bring out the resonant oils. Toss in the broken but still-plump and pungent curls. I add chopped yellow onions and tomatoes. The water boils. I reduce the heat to a simmer and the room is saturated in a warm veggie fog.
I spend the next eight hours in search of le mot juste, the exact right word—a perfectionism I learned from one of my favorite writers, Gustave Flaubert. I rewrite one page. My legs are stiff when I stand. I flavor the now-softened beans with sage, thyme, zatar, and oregano from my garden, black pepper, smoked paprika, and salt. I add Thai sriraja sauce. There’s still liquid in the pot, but now it tastes like spicy vegan minestrone soup so I decide that that’s what this is.
Maybe Ife, my vegan neighbor a few buildings away, would like some soup. She’s always giving me food. Her name, in Syrian, is “woman of love.” Many Syrian Jews took refuge in Israel to escape being ethnically “cleansed” (weird word for death)—there’re also many here from Morocco, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and beyond. I pack up some soup. Carry this past the baby fig tree and then under a stand of tall date palms topped by umbrella leaf fronds. I go to and from Ife’s a lot. As always, the kibbutz dog that lives halfway tries to bark me into submission. After I tame him, if that ever happens, I will only have about three hundred more ferocious kibbutz dogs to go.
I get to Ife’s garden, composed of sensible cacti and a tumble of rocks. “Yalla!” she says, motioning me into her home, which has a couple more rooms than mine and is filled with Arabic music and kids. She makes us lavender tea. We sit. We sip. She seems happy to have gotten the soup. But she laughs when I conscientiously return her plastic containers. “Now I can sleep nights,” she says.
As I take the path back I try not to feel longing for my big American kitchen. All those apple, cherry, blueberry, strawberry rhubarb and pumpkin pies made from scratch. I roasted an organic chicken each week. There was so much food in the stores in America. Not like here. There were so many things. Now my clothes dryer is a piece of string. Now instead of a Stairmaster I climb the stone stairs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“How ya’ doin’?” I greet the ghost when I’m back. As usual, she doesn’t reply. Is she shy? Maybe she doesn’t speak English? I try Hebrew. “Ayn biya,” I say to her, which means no problem. Fortunately it’s the cocktail hour again. I open another bottle of Emerald Reisling. “Let me know if you want wine too,” I say to the ghost. I add “blee la-hetz,” which means no pressure.
Later tonight, I’m supposed to go on a date with maybe the only single man left in North Israel. I will shower. I will put on makeup and a dress. Fool that I am, I will continue to believe that a person can make a place or a situation holy with love. Whether it’s romantic, platonic, agape, or the ideal of loving intention that in Hebrew is called kavanah. Even though this didn’t work with my ex. And it didn’t work with Mohammed, the taxi driver who picked me up at Ben Gurion Airport on my first day and took the opportunity to steal my suitcase. And it didn’t work with Boaz, the refrigerator delivery guy who returned afterwards with a condom and the assumption that I was down to fuck.
If history was any kind of guide, it wouldn’t work with my date. Maybe he’d cancel at the last minute, leaving me to wander through Afula in search of hummus-and-tahini-in-pita-bread therapy. If so, I’d just catch a bus back to the ghost.
What was she waiting for? Was she waiting for her husband who’d left to defend Israel? Maybe he’d never come back. Did she know he was dead? Did she know she was dead? Did a ghost know when it was a ghost? Waiting for someone or something that would never return? Maybe she was waiting for world peace. Perhaps she was like Israel: the Holocaust had killed one-third of the world’s Jews; and even now Israel was surrounded by countries vying for gold in the Intolerance Olympics. Yet Israel’s national anthem continued to be Hatikva, The Hope.
Maybe, like Flaubert, she longed for perfection. Despite reality that insisted on being wabi-sabi, the Japanese conception of beauty as a worn and empty bowl.
In the half-hour walk from where the bus would leave me off, I would focus, try to gather together all my broken little pieces, which were like the ancient pottery shards I collected when I wandered in the fields. I would move through the darkness to the place where I live. To the woman at the window. Who waits.
Note: This is a work of fiction.
Sari Friedman, a writer living in Israel, earned her MFA in fiction from Columbia University, NY. She and has won several awards including an “Exceptional Talent” grant from the Israeli Ministry of Culture.