It was raining, and The Party of God was lobbing rockets at settlements from across the Lebanese border. The bus driver pulled over to the side of the road only inches from a narrow precipice, shut off the engine and turned up the radio. The English-language broadcast gave way to a gutteral barrage of facts in Hebrew. Lori sat looking out the window with her brave face on. Gabriel took her hand and pointed to a sleeping baby two seats across the aisle. Without saying it, he wanted to assure her that people didn’t kill sleeping babies, that buses carrying sleeping babies didn’t get hit by rockets and roll over precipices. The driver revved the engine and pulled the lumbering bus back onto the road.
Gabriel tried imagining what he’d do if, perched high on a mountain in the Galilee, his wife became hysterical. Lori had been given to public outbursts since her miscarriage. One, an uncontrolled bout of sobbing at the sight of a legless boy, had taken place in the Old City of Jerusalem, another on the windswept Masada plateau. Yet, despite the renewed spate of suicide bombings—it was she who’d insisted on adding Israel to their trip to Italy. It had been Lori, too, who’d pressured Gabriel into taking the bus to Safed, something to do, she said, with her research into the history of old synagogue art.
“If I ever graduate from this program with my head on straight, I’ll write a really long, distinguished monograph on art and mysticism,” she’d said, turning her pointed little face up at him in a gloomy corridor in the Uffizi.
“Why not a dissertation?” Not wanting to renew their old argument, Gabriel had spoken in the indulgent voice he reserved for such occasions.
“Because you’re the academic in the family, my sweet, not me. Besides, you know I don’t have a head for footnotes,” she’d laughed and briskly pulled him along.
Lori had the bluest eyes, and such finely-shaped legs that it made Gabriel’s heart ache to watch her prancing ahead of him in her red leather micro-skirt. Before they were married, she’d laughed a lot—a silvery laugh that had made him want to run up to her and taste it by sticking his tongue in her mouth. Gabriel had been too wildly in love with Lori to worry about her mood swings and her indolence. But after five years of marriage, he’d gathered the courage to take her on.
“What are you planning to do?” he challenged her one late spring afternoon as they shared a box-lunch on the steps of the Arts Building.
“Hadn’t given it a thought, love,” Lori shrugged, biting into a tempe square. “Maybe I’ll switch into zoology and become a vet.”
She’d never mentioned zoology before. Gabriel no longer knew when his wife was joking and when she was being serious.
The bus sped downhill, its windshield blurred with dust and rain; the ragged rubber wipers swept a thick, scummy brew across the glass. Every so often, the driver would remove a balled-up kitchen towel from under his seat and wipe down the window from the inside—which did nothing to clear up the mess on the outside.
Lori turned her blue eyes on Gabriel. “Do you think we’ll be killed here?”
“Don’t be silly. The shelling’s nowhere near here,” Gabriel lied. He was feeling slightly nauseated now from the bouncing and rocking of the bus.
“Yesterday, that old woman at the baths told me she heard shooting outside her hotel window…and you remember those low-flying planes at breakfast, don’t you?”
“Look, Lori, it was you who wanted to come here in the first place—”
“Please, Gabe…” She squeezed his hand. It always amazed him how strong her hands were; they were so little, yet she could crush your knuckles really hard when she wanted to. The road, now a slick, narrow cut between lush green fields, had flattened considerably; a thick, smoky sky billowed over the countryside. Gabriel was sure they’d stayed on the bus too long and missed their stop. He turned to the passenger behind him, a distinguished-looking older woman in a tweed suit. She had to be British, or Swiss, maybe. Whatever she was, the woman would surely speak English.
“Pardon me, but—”
“Ivrit! Rak Ivrit! Ainglass, no!” shrieked the woman, cutting him off.
“What’s the matter?” Lori brushed against him and caught a clump of hair on the buckle of his raincoat.
“We’ve gone too far, I think.”
“We missed our stop. We should’ve gotten off at that last major junction.”
Gabriel’s nostrils flared, the way they always did when he got angry. And he’d hurt her as he’d freed her hair from the buckle of his raincoat. Lori wondered why he was blaming her for missing their stop.
“I knew this scenery didn’t match the Safed photos in the brochure,” she said. Her eyelid twitched as she turned away from him to wipe the steamy window with her fingertips.
A bald man in a blue turtleneck sweater and fisherman’s boots trudged up from the rear of the bus and tapped Gabriel on the shoulder. “Excuse, mistair…you lost?”
“We were…yes, yes. Can you help us, please?”
The driver turned up the radio full blast. Now instead of the gutteral reports, there was a wild clashing of cymbals and a mad screeching of fiddles.
“Louder, mistair. No hear so gutt.” The man in the fisherman’s boots cupped his ear with his hand.
“We want to go back to Tiberius,” Gabriel shouted. “We took the wrong—”
“Tveriah? Ach…Tveriah?” the man repeated solemnly. He wet his lips and stared back at the passengers behind him. They, too, were calling out “Tveriah,” tossing the word back and forth like a chorus commenting on the action in an opera.
“You go too far,” the fisherman bent over and shouted into Gabriel’s ear. “You wait to Quryat Shmonah…and…” He’d lost a word and was searching the other passengers in the bus for help.
“Next bus…chenge,” cried the driver into the rearview mirror.
The passengers suddenly left off singing and erupted into quarrelling. One old woman was gesturing frantically at the fisherman, trying to get his attention, but he was ignoring her.
“Tveriah?” sighed a keffiyah-clad Druze with a basket of mustard greens in his lap.
“Ken, Ken,” the woman in the seat next to him shouted impatiently.
“Next sta-tion!” Jabbing the air with the horny finger of one hand and steering a curve in the road with the other, the driver pulled the bus into a massive tin-roofed shed.
Gabriel looked up Quryat Shmonah in the guidebook and was informed that it was “the central terminal for the kibbutzim of the Northern Galilee.” It consisted of a long, elevated platform, a cafe teeming with farmers, skiers, truckers, and kibbutz members, and ten bus stalls marked by yellow signs in Hebrew and phonetic English. What the guidebook did not say, was that the “central terminal for the kibbutzim of the Northern Galilee” stood only two miles from the Lebanese border and was subject to constant shelling. Yet, no one seemed to care about this last fact. The bus passengers were more disturbed about the slow pace with which they were retrieving their baggage. They’d all pushed their way out of the bus the minute it had come to a stop, leaving Lori and Gabriel to fend for themselves.
“Well, at least there’s a sign that says ‘Tiberius,’”said Gabriel, pointing to a thoroughly desolate corner of the depot where, he was willing to bet, no bus was scheduled to appear.
Lori shivered. “Let’s go into the cafe. I’m hungry.”
A rosy-cheeked group of German skiers burst into the depot. Their guide, a frizzy blond woman in thick green knickers, detached herself from the group and asked Gabriel in perfect English if he and the lady were lost and if she could be of any help. Gabriel told her they were, and, in punctual German fashion, the woman said, “You have exactly one hour before the Tiberius bus arrives. And that is the last one—four o’clock—then they stop running. So you had better make sure you get on it.”
Gabriel thanked the knowledgeable German woman, and followed Lori into the cafe. He was hungry, too. Between them, they finished off two bowls of spicy lima bean soup and four oversized pockets of pita bread, followed by coffee and two chunks of pistachio-filled halvah each. On a full stomach, being lost and in the proximity of the Lebanese border didn’t seem to matter as much as it had on the bus. In the steamy warmth of the cafe, safely folded into the crowd of rosy-cheeked German skiers, Gabriel was almost glad they’d missed their stop.
But then another bus arrived, and the cafe emptied, leaving only the sizzle of the portable heater and the rattle of coffee cups as the counterman cleaned and stored them. Lori pointed out the blue concentration camp number on the counterman’s arm, and Gabriel’s brief moment of security dissolved. The rain tapped monotonously on the tin roof, and the owner of the cafe, a barrel-chested Turk with a handlebar moustache, was hovering over their table with a dishcloth in his hand, clearly impatient for Gabriel to pay the bill.
Gabriel looked beyond Lori’s ear at the clock on the wall. Quarter past three.Would they have stopped shooting by now? Was there a time schedule for lobbing rockets over the border? Or was that sort of thing done at random? Born in 1970, Gabriel hadn’t had to worry about the army. His one visit to the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington had left him feeling like a visitor in another country. It was so dark with all that rain…how could they see out there? Would Lori break down if they were stuck here for the night? Who would have figured the carefree girl with the silver laugh would go depressive on him? Well, his mother might have. She’d protested the marriage from the first. “You’re only twenty…there’s time enough after graduate school.” His mother’d had a point there.
“Yes, I’ll have regular coffee this time.”
“No regular…only Toorkish,” said the owner, furiously swabbing the tabletop with the dishtowel.
“You still have some regular left in the kitchen, Aron.” A woman behind Gabriel chided the Turk in sweetly-accented British-English.
The Turk mumbled something in Hebrew and went to the kitchen.
“May I sit with you? I heard you speaking English and got homesick.”
Gabriel turned around in his chair to where a young woman in a camel-hair coat trailing a long brown woolen scarf was standing without baggage or backpack. “It’s been so long since I’ve had a real English conversation.”
“Of course,” Lori beckoned the young woman to the table. “Pull up a chair.”
Gabriel noted that the young woman’s scarf smelled of wet trees. She had long fingers, calf-brown eyes, and spindly legs. She looked like what Gabriel imagined a biblical shepherdess would look like. Except for the liver-colored birthmark on her forehead, she was beautiful.
“Americans, aren’t you?”
Gabriel had to strain to hear over the rain and the dishclatter.
“Yes,” Lori answered defensively. How many times had she been asked that question in that condescending tone? And how many times had she answered as if she were a sinner begging pardon? But this woman hadn’t meant to insult her. Lori could tell from the way she was unwinding her scarf and leaving her coat unbuttoned, that the woman wasn’t being condescending at all. It was just the opposite, in fact; she was shy and on the defensive herself. Lori felt sorry for the woman with the ugly birthmark staining her otherwise pretty face.
“I’m Martha Dreyer.” The young woman brushed her long, dark bangs aside, but they fell back again. Letting the bangs fall over her eyes, she poured five heaping spoonfuls of sugar into her coffee.
“Are you English?” Lori asked.
Gabriel suddenly wished Martha Dreyer hadn’t sat down with them. Bad enough to be lost, sitting just over the border from the boys in the Party of God, with Lori on the verge of hysterics. The last thing he wanted to do was make small talk with a stranger.
“No, I’m from South Africa.”
“You know this place, though.” Gabriel managed to look Martha Dreyer in the face while averting his eyes from her birthmark.
“Ah…could you pass the cream? Thank you, yes…I’ve been staying at a kibbutz near here. But I’m leaving for London in a month.”
“South Africa,” Lori mused, folding a paper napkin and leaning back in her chair. Are you emigrating, then?”
“No, just visiting relatives.”
“And how long have you been in Israel?” Lori asked.
Martha Dreyer took a sip of coffee and paused before answering. “A year and a half. I’ve been giving art lessons—speaking Hebrew since I got here…and now…” she stretched and yawned, “I just can’t wait to get to London and speak English again. I’ve been granted a fellowship to art school there.”
“A painter? You’re a painter?” Lori scraped her chair, riding it up against the table.
“No, a sculptor, actually,” Martha Dreyer said absent-mindedly; then, as if talking to herself, she added: “But it’s been very nice here, skiing up on Mount Hermon, meeting all sorts of people. I’ve just come back from visiting with friends in Kfar Blum.”
Gabriel and Lori let the young woman ramble on about her life in Israel, and then about how she’d broken with her family back in South Africa over politics. Aimed at no one in particular, the words tumbled out of her mouth: her father was a merchant, her brother, a secret anarchist away at boarding school in England. Martha Dreyer talked and talked. Without stopping for breath or a nod from her listeners, she described her plans for an exhibition, the prudery of Salisbury, her hometown, told them she wasn’t able to wear a bikini on the beach and that the people there hadn’t even come to terms with the Impressionists yet, much less with modern art of the kind she was making. Finally, she confided to her anonymous listeners (for she’d never asked them their names), that she’d come to Israel as a last resort because her parents wouldn’t hear of a girl her age living alone anywhere else, and she, already twenty-two! She only stopped talking when the Turk returned and rudely slapped the bill down on the table in front of Gabriel.
“I’ll take it.” Martha Dreyer pulled the bill out of Gabriel’s hands. “Let it be my treat. You two were so kind to let me sit with you. Honestly, it’s been such a pleasure,” she finished breathlessly.
In pulling the bill out of his hands, Martha had grazed Gabriel’s palm and given him an electric shock. Gabriel suppressed the urge to kiss her birthmark. Martha jumped up. “My bus, it’s about to take off! Hate to rush away like this, it’s been so cathartic…thanks again for lending me your ears…I’d love to get to know you both better, but the bus won’t wait, you see.” Dropping a handful of coins in her wake, she whizzed past the astonished counterman. Giving them a final wave from the doorway, she ran off into the rain.
“There’s a nut,” Lori said, boring a hole in Gabriel’s chest with her ice-blue stare.
“There’s the kind of woman who could steal a man from his wife in a minute,” Gabriel said.
“Do you really think so? With that blemish in the middle of her face? You’d think she’d have gotten it surgically removed.” Lori shifted in her chair. “Tell me, what is it you find so sexy about her?”
“I’m not talking about sex, I’m talking about—” Noting that Lori’s eyelid was twitching, and recalling that the same twitching eyelid had signaled her two recent public outbursts, Gabriel trailed off.
“Speak up, Gabe, I can’t hear you.” Lori’s voice broke as she lowered her face into the empty coffee cup and slurped air.
Gabriel knew he’d hurt her, yet he couldn’t get himself to feel sorry about it. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t work up the reflexive spasm of guilt that, at the sight of that twitching eyelid, had hit him of late. He was thinking about Martha Dreyer boarding the bus that had pulled up and stopped in the middle of the road beyond the rainswept windows of the cafe. He was imagining what it would be like to ski down Mount Hermon alongside her. In a month, Martha Dreyer would be living in London, wearing a pair of blue overalls, her fingers sticky with clay, her unruly bangs all sweaty and pasted flaton her forehead, the brazen birthmark compelling someone other than Gabriel to kiss it.
“Nothing. I was only kidding,” Gabriel said. “This place is really starting to get to me.”
Glancing out the window, he saw Martha Dreyer’s bus drive away. It’s three-thirty, it’s still raining, and we’re still lost, he thought.
Lori got up. “I’m going to the toilet.”
“The longer we sit here, the better our chances for being blown to bits,” Gabriel said.
Lori walked away from the table.
Gripped by the sudden urge to figure out the odds of a direct hit on the depot, Gabriel removed his pocket calculator and got busy on the problem.
Perle Besserman is the author of three novels—Pilgrimage, Kabuki Boy, and Widow Zion—and a linked story collection, Yeshiva Girl. Her forthcoming book, Grassroots Zen: Community and Practice in the Twenty-First Century, co-authored with Manfred Steger, will be published in 2017. She has received the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and is a past writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artist’s Colony in Jerusalem. Her stories have appeared in The Southern Humanities Review, The Nebraska Review, Hurricane Alice, AGNI, Other Voices, and elsewhere. (updated 10/2016)