KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEthicsRemembrancesWriting

The Silence of Syrian Rue

Love is not the last room.

There are others along

the long corridor that has no end.

 

—“On the Wall of a House,”

Yehuda Amichai

 

Yael lived in Rehavia, on a particular stretch of street heavy with trees and the impression of not wanting to be disturbed. She lived with her grandmother who’d bought their apartment on the cheap months before the Six Day War, when people were afraid to live in that part of Jerusalem. Yael’s grandmother and her young daughter (Yael’s mother) weathered the 1967 war alone while her grandfather went off to fight in the Golan Heights. He never returned, and Yael told me she admired him for that.

When I asked her why, she told me it’s easier to love those who never return.

I should have listened more carefully to what she was saying.

 

 

* * *

 

The Rehavia apartment was on the first floor of a two-story house; Yael’s room had a sliding door that led to a small garden in the back. Or rather, it once had been a garden. Since her grandmother’s stroke, no one looked after it. Yael had no interest in saving what was left of the dried-up, leafless stems, now overtaken by weeds, countless cigarette butts and other refuse brought by the wind from the cafes further up the street. The Kleins, an elderly couple who lived upstairs, complained incessantly to her about this eyesore, but Yael always shrugged them off.

Mr. and Mrs. Klein were observant American Jews who’d retired and made aliyah, the husband donning a kippah with his dark suits, his wife always in three-quarter sleeve blouses and seamed stockings. They didn’t like the rundown garden anymore than the dried Syrian rue which hung over the front door, which Yael’s grandmother had always kept to protect them; she had learned this from her husband, the man Yael so loved because he’d never returned home. It was a type of shrub with spiky leaves and tiny white flowers; it was used in incense, and once was even considered sacred. Yael told me the seeds were used as a psychedelic drug and an aphrodisiac.

Have you ever tried it? I asked.

No, she admitted, but the Kleins definitely should.

When we left the apartment together, the couple would eye us warily from their balcony as Yael stopped to kiss me passionately, winking up at them. The Kleins never spoke to me directly. If I passed them on their nightly walk, they’d shuffle by, averting their eyes, shaking their heads. I learned later they were renting the apartment, and had attempted to buy it from the owner who’d lived in Givat Masuah, a relatively new neighborhood on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem proper. Yael told me he made good money off the rent he collected from them, but that he’d never sell to Americans, no matter how much they offered.

Why? I’d asked.

Because Rehavia is special, she said.

Meaning?

It’s special to us.

Who is us?

Israelis.

But the Kleins became Israeli citizens, I said.

Yael laughed.

Sure, she said. Right.

 

* * *

 

One early spring morning, we awoke to see the shape of a person hunched in the garden. Yael got up and pushed the thin curtain back. A man, startled, rose to his feet quickly.

What the hell are you doing? Yael yelled through the glass.

The man stammered in Hebrew and Russian that a Mr. and Mrs. Klein had paid him to rip out the dead roots and weeds, lay down fresh soil, and replant the garden. He waved a piece of yellow paper, and then pointed to two dozen thick-stemmed plants behind him.

Yael went outside, barefoot and in her pajamas, and inspected the paper and then one of the plants. Then she brought the plant inside. It wasn’t especially striking, although it did have lovely, large cream-colored leaves spotted and bordered by a rich green.

What are they? I asked.

She shrugged.

Don’t you want to ask him?

Why? She asked me, annoyed.

She returned the plant, and gave him the go ahead. Then she looked up at the balcony, presumably at the Kleins who’d gathered to watch the spectacle, and spread her arms out with a huge smile before hugging herself.

I never did find out the name of the plants. It wasn’t my place to ask. It was not my home, after all, but hers; it was her inheritance, her legacy. Yael didn’t like to talk about her family, but she did tell me once that she could trace her maternal grandfather’s roots back to when Palestine was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Jerusalem was her home, and had been her home long before she was born. I was an outsider, with a Mexican mother who’d converted from Catholicism; only a few months before, I’d broken up with my Arab Israeli girlfriend and had broken the lease on my Givat Tsarfatit apartment because I couldn’t live there without her. I didn’t know where I belonged in Yael’s life anymore than where I belonged in Jerusalem.

In her essay “The New Nomads,” Eva Hoffman writes:
 

The Jews have had the most prolonged historical experience of

collective exile; but they survived their Diaspora— in the sense

of preserving and maintaining their identity— by nurturing a

powerful idea of home. That home existed on two levels; they

were the real communities that Jews inhabited in various

countries; but on the symbolic and perhaps the more important

plane, home consisted of the entity “Israel” which increasingly

became less a geographic and more a spiritual territory,

with Jerusalem as its heart. While living in dispersion, Jews

oriented themselves toward this imaginative center of the

world, from which they derived their essential identity.

 
So away, Eretz Israel, it’s the dream: the Jews of the world are brought together. They are equal and united in a common goal of preserving Jewish legacies. They are brought home. But in Israel, the secular country, it’s high taxes, inflation, security issues, low productivity, a lack of natural resources, factory worker strikes, social protests, social, racial and religious feuds. Walking through the streets of Rehavia, I felt far away from all of these problems, even when I met Israeli and ex-pat friends in its very cafes to discuss the quality of life in Jerusalem. Yael never had much to say to my friends, all of whom were university students. She’d smile when they expressed envy at her good fortune of having an apartment in the area. It was only after we were home that she’d contribute to the earlier conversations, how she disliked the mandatory army service, that she wished she’d had the motivation to go into the tech industry, that the slow wage growth greatly concerned her. But then she’d shake her head and laugh it off, saying it didn’t matter anyway.

But it does matter, I’d say.

What do you know, she’d say.

What did I know? Rehavia seemed exclusive, unknowable and even unreal: an unattainable dream in façade of lush green and quintessential Jerusalem stone. It would never be mine; rather, it was a place where time had stopped until I came to my senses and went back to somewhere else, anywhere else. Like the Kleins, it didn’t matter how longer I lived there; I would never be of it. And Yael, who in spite of her own criticism of the Israeli state, had a bitter passion and obsessive fascination with her own national pride; she loved her country the most in the face of those who couldn’t completely have it.

And yet I stayed. I wanted us to be real together. I became an interim caretaker of the garden, tending to the plants from an old-fashioned watering can. Yael was amused by this, and would lie in bed, her head propped up with one hand, as I slipped inside to refill the can in the kitchen sink and then closed the sliding door behind me. Back and forth I went.

Such a waste of time, she’d call from the bed.

A couple of weeks later, I noticed that plants attracted the neighborhood stray cats. At first it was a battle keeping them out of the garden. Seeing those lovely leaves half-chewed made me feel sad. But then I came home one evening to find a cat heaving from its distended belly and mewling softly, pawing the ground, its tongue swollen and dark.

What should we do, I asked.

Nothing, Yael said.

Nothing.

We wait.

For what.

To see if they will learn to leave it alone.

 

* * *

 

One morning I woke up alone in bed and saw the shape of two people bent down in the garden. I got up and pushed the curtain back. There in the garden was a tall, pale woman examining the plants with Yael by her side. The woman had a guitar case on her back, and she was smoking. They were both bending over, and touching the same plant. Yael held a bottle of juice in one hand; I saw another one, empty, on the ground. When I opened the creaking gate, they looked up with raised brows.

The hunger of those cats, the woman said in Hebrew.

I looked at Yael who would not return my gaze.

Hi, the woman said to me. I just moved in upstairs yesterday.

I didn’t see you yesterday, I said.

You were at the university, Yael said without looking at me.

For some reason, the woman laughed at that. She was in her late thirties, very tan and wore her jeans low on her narrow hips. Before her cigarette went out completely, the woman took another out and lit it with the burning end of the first. She inhaled deeply until her new one was lit, and then looked around. Yael smiled, and took the snub of the cigarette from her and put it in her juice bottle. There was still liquid inside. I was annoyed that she didn’t just use the empty one.

What happened to the Kleins? I asked.

This is Nili, Yael said.

But when did they move out—

Who cares? Yael asked.

Newly-introduced Nili blew out smoke and smiled widely.

These plants are awful, she said.

A parting gift from the Kleins, Yael said.

A parting gift they didn’t know was parting, Nili said.

They both laughed. I stared at the empty bottle as Nili went on to say that the cats would continue to chew on the plants, even after their intestine tracks were ruined for good. That it was their nature. The best thing to do would be to uproot them and give them to someone else; in fact, she volunteered to do it herself.

Why would you do that, I asked her.

Nili didn’t respond. The two spoke to each other in a quick, low-toned Hebrew that I couldn’t follow, that seemed to be a secret language belonging to them alone.
 

 

* * *

 
Yael spoke a number of languages. She worked at the post office at my university; her line was always the longest. She was fluent in Russian, French, and English. I liked how she raised her thick eyebrows when I approached her counter, the slight smile on her face. I liked the efficient way she handled my requests. I liked how her Hebrew sounded soft and rounded, unlike her brusque mannerisms. She was pretty and tall, and her dark eyes lingered in a way that felt familiar.

One day, after I bought some stamps that I didn’t need, she slipped me a small piece of paper with a phone number and a time to call. I waited a few days; I’d never been picked up like this before by a woman in Jerusalem—so blatantly, and out in the open. We had dinner and drinks in the German Colony. I liked her right away. She was laid-back and unpretentious; she told me she didn’t care for the expensive cafes and restaurants in her own neighborhood much less those in the Germany Colony, but didn’t want to turn my suggestion down. I was flattered by that, and by all the questions she asked about me. I didn’t notice how she withheld information about herself, how she didn’t talk about her family at all. I would never meet anyone she was close to, besides her grandmother.

How did you know anyway? I asked her as we sipped the last of our wine.

Know what?

That I was interested in women.

I didn’t.

But—what if I’d taken it the wrong way? What if I’d reported you?

If you did, so what? I’d find another job.

I’ve never met anyone like you before, I said.

How old are you? She asked.

I’m twenty-five.

You’re a baby, she said. When you get older, you’ll get it. Maybe.

How old are you? I asked her.

She laughed. Older than twenty-five. Let’s go back to your place.

I shook my head.

Why not? Are you in the closet? She asked.

It’s not that, I said.

Are you gay?

I’m bi.

Oooh, I see.

You see what?

I see you’re not sure.

No, no, no, I said. I told her that I was renting an apartment in Talpiot. I’d originally chosen the industrial neighborhood because it seemed quiet during the day, and the place was cheap and clean. I didn’t know then the club scene from Haoman 17 had since spread out across the neighborhood. My first night I woke up to the sounds of heavy bass and shouting; it continued well past 5 AM. By morning, in my exhaustion, I realized I was living above a bar.

Yael burst out laughing. She reached over and muzzled my hair.

You really don’t know how to do things, she told me. Let’s go to my place instead, but there’s just one thing: I don’t live alone.

She negotiated a taxi, no meter, a flat 20 NIS to take us to her quiet stretch of Rehavia. In the morning she told me she’d help me break my lease, and that I could stay with her until I found a new place. Not that she felt responsible for me, she’d said, but that she couldn’t believe I’d been swindled like that.

You don’t have to feel bad for me, I said.

I don’t, she said.
 

* * *

So I broke yet another lease, this time with her help. I paid her rent, as much as my grant and paltry student teaching salary would allow, although she took it as an insult.

I don’t want to feel like a kept woman, I said.

What does that mean? She asked.

I tried to explain the phrase.

That’s the stupidest thing I ever heard, she said.

I’m not a freeloader, I said.

If I didn’t want you here, you’d know, she said.

But I made her take the money anyway. In the seven months we lived together, I realized Yael was quite smart. She could have done a lot more for herself; after her army service, she’d bounced from job to job, uninterested in college, before ending up at the post office. I tried to encourage her, that she should pursue a degree in International Relations, or least work as a professional translator. But she had no interest in any of that. She didn’t like to deal with people for long stretches of time, and preferred quick, purpose-driven interactions that had clear answers.

You can’t go forever like that, I said.

Why not? she asked.

Don’t you want something more?

Like what?

Like… why don’t you have any friends?

I do, she said.

When can I meet them?

They’re all married now. They have families. And I live with my sick grandmother.

So?

So it’s different. They’re busy.

But don’t you miss them?

No, not really.

Yael, what is it that you want?

I don’t want anything, she said.

You have to want something.

You want me to want something.

But don’t you? Like a better job?

I like my job, she argued. It’s simple.

But it can’t pay well.

Now you sound like my parents, she said.

Do you ever see them? I asked.

Yael didn’t answer. Instead she took out a crumpled carton of cigarettes from her pocket.

We were sitting outside, across from each other at Café Aroma in central Jerusalem. It was a warm day, and the thought of smoke made my eyes water.

You don’t smoke, I said, nearly shouting.

Don’t be like that, she said quietly.

Like what?

Like that.

I held my tongue.

Look, she said. Nili’s got a boyfriend. He’s the one who owns the apartment.

He’s her boyfriend? You told me he was in his sixties.

So?

So he’s—

So leave it alone.

What’s there to leave alone? All I know is you don’t smoke.

What the hell do you know, she said, looking around the café for someone else with a light.
 

* * *

Yael’s grandmother rarely left her bed; she was very old and very sick, unable to speak. She had a caregiver that came around in the morning to bathe her and stay with her while Yael was at work. Sometimes when she was feeling better, the old woman would meet me at the door in a tattered housecoat, her slip peeking out at the bodice, as she leaned heavily on her cane. She’d throw her arms around me, and then touch my face. As she leaned against me, it seemed that she was made of feathers and air, her pale skin covered in a light down, soft bones jutting out of her shoulders and torso. I’d hold her, and then help her back to bed.

The last time I saw her, she led me to a cabinet in the living room and banged her fist against the wood. The sound was very loud, and Yael and Nili came out from the kitchen, smelling strongly of spices and cooking. They had been making dinner. Nili walked right past me as I stood in the doorway. Nili was over at our place every day now, helping Yael move furniture, dusting, letting down the heavy, old drapes, putting up blinds, watching the garden for anything that might harm a wandering stray animal. I’d come home to them sitting together in front of an open window as votives of elecampane burned to keep away the insects. But I didn’t know what to make of it. I didn’t say a thing. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t see it then, how Yael had already said shiva for her grandmother, how she was replacing more than just furniture and curtains, that either she or Nili or perhaps both of them had taken down the Syrian rue that once had protected that home. That a break was being made from a past I did not know, that I would never know.

I stood in the doorway as Nili reached for the grandmother’s hand, but the old woman did not respond, kept pulling at its brass rings of the cabinet, as if wanting to force open the locked drawers which no longer had their keys.

Or so Yael once told me.

A few days later her grandmother suffered another stroke, became completely unresponsive, and Yael had no choice but to put her in the hospital. I wanted to visit, but by that time, Nili had replaced the last of the cat-killing plants with tulips and lilies and other flowers and plants I could not name, and Yael sat me down to discuss things.

You’ve been looking around for a place, right? she asked.

I nodded, although I hadn’t.

You have money, right? she asked.

I did, but at the time I did not want to lose her. I still don’t know why. I’d had much more serious relationships, and ones much more meaningful.

We can still see each other, she said.

Don’t lie, I said.

I’m not.

I know how you are.

I’m willing to try for you, she said.

Why?

She didn’t answer me, and looked away.

At that I got up and started cleaning. Yael looked down at the floor as I picked up used tissues and old newspapers, and dumped out the cigarette butts from coffee mugs into a waste bin. I stacked together piles of old letters and faded photos that had overtaken the coffee table, its spiraling legs now chipped and discolored. I had not seen these photos and letters before; they had not been brought out for me.

Enough, she said.

No, I said.

Enough, she said

She stopped me, and made me sit down.

You’ll find a place, she said, sitting down in an opposite chair, her fingers drumming on the dull, brass finials lining the front of the peeling leather seat.

I didn’t reply; it was only then I noticed just how old everything was in this apartment, the amount of black dust that had gathered on the furniture over the years, years in which I was not present for.

Maybe you want to be homeless, Yael said suddenly.

I remained silent.

Am I supposed to feel sorry for you?

I still remained silent.

A wandering Jew in Eretz Yisrael, she sneered.

I thought you weren’t religious, I finally said.

I’m not, she said.

What’s in the cabinet?

What’s in the what?

The cabinet, I said. Your grandmother was banging on it before she—

Stop, Yael said.

Stop what?

What’s she to you? You barely knew her.

You’re terrible, I said.

She’s my family, not yours. How I am terrible?

I couldn’t answer her. I wept suddenly, loudly, messily, miserably, inside that beautiful house that was always settling, as Yael, put it, creaking and groaning and shifting, as if any moment the entire structure would collapse into itself and sink into the ground. I wept because I lost her. I wept because I never had her. I wept for all the time lost, wasted. I wept because she had saved me and because she hadn’t, and because I knew she’d never lied to me once. I wept because after seven months, I had no idea who she was.

Yael sighed and put her arms around me. Then she looked into my eyes, and stroking my head, she told me that she should feel sad about all of this, but she didn’t.