Ido and I are starting on our second beer on a Monday night at Carousela on Mitudela, just off Gaza, when this old guy comes off the crosswalk, sits down at the table next to us, and begins to cry.
Ido turns and stares. It’s the second weird thing that’s happened since we took our regular spot on the patio to shoot bull and brainstorm our latest project, which is still in the cloudy stage but has, we’re sure of it, incredible potential to turn two part-time art students who met last year on their post-army South American trek into the Next Big Thing.
“Gavriel, he’s crying,” Ido says, too loudly.
Ido’s got talent, but he can be a pain. Says whatever’s on his mind, no filters. I put my hand up in a vertical salute, just by my left eye, to indicate blinders. “What do you think about putting up a strobe light under Ubinas and a mirror under Lake Salinas?” I suggest, referring to our multimedia sculpture, in which we will abstractly portray this newly awakened Peruvian volcano and adjacent salt lake with compostable materials as a metaphor for the bitterness and ecstasy of life and love. We’re not sure whether the volcano represents life and the salt lake love, or the other way around, but that will come, that will come.
Ido doesn’t take the hint. His first beer always gives him a double buzz. So he leans over, puts his arm around the old guy’s shoulder, and asks him what’s wrong. I don’t have time for this.
The guy is old, but how old? Sixty? Seventy? More? He’s got a fringe of white and brown hair surrounding a bald pate and a face that looks weathered and tired. But he straightens his gaunt torso as Lily, the waitress, complaining that she’s been literally run off her feet
the whole day, uncorks a bottle of red, pours him a glass, and puts the rest of the bottle on the table. I raise my eyes to question her.
She shrugs her bare shoulders in the coolish breeze of the Jerusalem evening. “Michael,” she says in her usual blunt way. “He pays cash. A Monday night regular. You two are Tuesday nighters. What happened?”
“Gavriel got a tzav shmoneh yesterday and he’s off to the Gaza perimeter tomorrow early,” Ido explains. “That’s two, maybe three weeks of reserve duty, who knows, depends how long the Arabs keep lobbing rockets and flaming kites over the border. So we want to make some progress before he leaves.”
“Hope Monday’s your lucky night,” Lily says as she walks toward the kitchen. “You don’t get much done on Tuesdays.”
Michael downs his glass of wine in one gulp, wipes his mouth and eyes politely on his napkin, and pours himself another glass, all this before turning his gaze to Ido with what looks like warm appreciation. A flurry of rose petals flutters down over our heads, which is the first weird thing that has been happening this evening.
Michael downs a second glass of wine and pours a third. I sip my beer, and Ido takes a mouthful. Michael sighs and waves an arm at the pizza place next to Carousela, right on the corner.
“You are young,” he says wistfully. “Your hearts have not yet broken.”
“Oh, his has,” Ido says, removing his arm from Michael’s shoulder and flapping it at me. “He’s always falling in love and getting put down.”
“Thanks.” My teeth are clenched and I feel like I’m falling into the pit in my stomach. I went to Peru alone, and had no one to come back to. Now I’m going back to the army and have no one to come back to. Ido always has someone to come back to, and several on the way.
“It used to be a flower shop,” Michael says, and a tear rolls down a cheek.
I bat away a rose petal that is about to settle on my nose.
“Maybe that explains the flower cascade?” I grimace.
Ido looks confused. “The what?”
“Look, can we get some work done? We’ve got to submit our concept by the first of the month.”
Ido signals Lily for another round of beers. “Let the guy tell his story,” he suggests.
I’m losing patience.
“Gavriel’s problem,” Ido tells Michael, “is that his mind is never on the girl he’s with. Instead, it’s on the one before, what might have been. Who wants to be with a guy who’s obsessed with his ex?”
Michael turns to look Ido earnestly in the eye. I wonder if that’s how I’ll end up, drinking alone in my old age. A rose petal falls in my beer and I fish it out.
“Her name was Gita.” Michael bows his head and wipes away another tear. “I met her on the number 9 bus late on a Monday afternoon. I had three days of leave from reserve duty in Lebanon and was hoping to get some studying done, if I could stay awake. I was doing earth science at Givat Ram and had an apartment with two other guys a little way down Gaza from here.”
“What did she look like?”
Michael leans back in his chair and smiles. “She was dark, about this high.” He raised his hand to about a meter and a half off the flagstone patio. “Slate-black hair, perfect curves, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know,” Ido says, turning to me. “Like whatshername you went out with a couple months ago and then you told her that you wanted to go back to your real love, the one who had just gotten married.”
“Knock it off, Ido.” Like this was the last thing I needed to be reminded of before having to face the guys in my unit. Two rose petals, one red, one yellow, flutter into Ido’s hair, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
“And we got into this really interesting conversation about how she grew up in Ashkelon in a housing project with eleven brothers and sisters. When the bus approached this corner, she said she had to get off because she was going to her job in the flower shop on the corner. I mentioned that I was getting off at the next stop, where my apartment was. When I got home, the apartment was empty. I took a shower, and I realized that I wouldn’t get any studying done until I had some sleep, and there was a knock on the door.”
Michael empties what’s left in the bottle into his glass, filling it almost to the brim. A ring of rose petals descends slowly over his glass and forms a circle around its base. Lily, passing by the table, takes the bottle, asking with her eyes whether he wants another. He waves her away.
Ido chortles and slaps Michael on the back. “It was Gita!”
“It was,” he acknowledges. “I stand there in the doorway, so tired I can barely focus. She smiles at me and I stand aside and she walks in. I make us coffee and we sit in the apartment’s tiny kitchen and talk and talk. At some point the flatmates return, glance, and go discreetly to their rooms.”
He’s crying again, but this time.
“It was like a dream. I led her into my room. And …” His tears overcome him.
Ido’s mouth is wide open. But it’s like I know exactly what Michael is going to say. The petals are falling faster now.
Michael gets hold of himself. “And I can’t. I mean, we just lay there, and I can’t do it. It doesn’t work. But she isn’t upset. She stays.”
Ido shakes his head.
“In the morning,” he continues, “I wake up and see her next to me. She smiles and reaches out to stroke my cheek and I push her hand away.”
Ido’s shocked. “Why?”
The tears are now of sorrow. “Why, indeed? How could I have done that?”
The petals are falling so fast now that I can barely see Ido and Michael. I catch the passing Lily by the arm and whisper to her to do something, to stop it. Stop what? she says, going to a table beyond.
“I say to her, in these words which I have never forgotten, I said: ‘Gita, I don’t love you. I can’t love you. See, I just can’t. Nothing good can come of this and I have a test to study for and a unit to go back to and who knows if I’ll survive. Please go.’”
Suddenly the petals stop falling.
It takes a minute for Ido to absorb this. “And she does?”
“And that’s it?”
“No, there’s more.” Michael takes a gulp of wine. “I live through Lebanon. Two weeks later I’m home and get right back to my studies. I’m so happy to return to my real life that I barely give Gita a thought. But then, the Monday afterward, I head out to the bus stop and instead of stopping there, I find myself walking up and up Gaza until I get to the corner of Mitudela, right here. I look into the flower shop and there’s Gita, busy with a customer. I stand there, frozen in place, and she lifts her head and sees me. I avert my head quickly, as if I’ve been slapped in the face. When I turn back, she’s just standing there and gazing at me. And then I look up and I see petals, rose petals, a rain of rose petals falling around me.”
Which is what I keep seeing, but no one else does.
“Wow,” Ido says. “Wow.” He considers his beer, drinks it down. “And that was it?”
“Oh,” Michael says sadly. “I saw the number 9 approaching and I sprinted to the bus stop. I finished my degree, got a job. I met a woman there, and we got married, and had a couple kids who grew up and moved away. We had a good enough life, and then she died, and here I am alone. And I’m not even ashamed to say that I never think about her, the woman I marred, the mother of my children. Instead, every Monday night, I come to Carousela, and gaze at the flower shop that once was, and imagine those rose petals falling around me, and think of what might have been.”
The petals have begun to fall again. I watch them as they flutter obliquely through the light of the street lamp above us. They are falling all over Jerusalem, maybe all over Israel, mountain and plain, maybe to the perimeter of the Gaza Strip. And as I watch them fall, I know, as certainly as I have ever known anything before, that the sculpture will never be, but that Urbinas will erupt, that a great wave will cross Salinas. Soon, on the perimeter, I will halt the rain of flowers. I will not live to drink off Gaza and mourn what might have been.
“Off Gaza” is the first of a trilogy of Gaza stories that continues with:
Fiction: The Land of no miracles.
Back to Gaza
Fiction: Driving from Gaza to Jerusalem with a nun, a little girl with cancer, a reservist, and a protester.
Necessary Stories, a collection of twenty-four of the best of Haim Watzman’s short fiction, is available as an e-book, paperback, and hardback on Amazon, and on all other on-line stores and select brick-and-mortar establishments. More information on South Jerusalem
To read more Necessary Stories on-line, go to theNecessary Stories archive