Her Name Was Tamar

Fiction / EIisa Subin

:: Her Name Was Tamar ::

I only recent­ly learned to enjoy silan, a date syrup that could be poured into near­ly any­thing. It wasn’t just the taste that I enjoyed. I loved the way silan’s thick­ness demand­ed absolute patience. Pour­ing silan into a sim­ple cup of tea was a com­mit­ment of time that felt to me just a bit luxurious. 

Ben­ny and I final­ly had an after­noon free. Exhaust­ing days spent unpack­ing box after box had left them both tense, but eager to stretch our legs and explore. It was Ben­ny who’d said it first.

Let’s get out of here. Let’s just go some­where, anywhere.”

For lunch, you mean?” I asked, smil­ing, sit­ting on the floor of the new apart­ment sur­round­ed by crushed box­es and pack­ing peanuts, my fin­gers red and rid­dled with paper cuts. 

Sure,” he answered casu­al­ly, “for lunch. You pick the place.” I knew there was a rea­son I loved Benny.

I wasn’t sur­prised Ben­ny didn’t want to decide. He relied on me for deci­sions. I’d pick the place, check for the direc­tions on my phone, and Ben­ny wouldn’t even ask for details. He’d just drive. 

You tell me where to go,” he’d always say. 

Once we got the Hon­da out of the city, and reached High­way 4, we drove north along­side the train tracks. We opened the win­dows and turned up the radio. Stand by Me was play­ing on Gal­galatz. Laugh­ing and singing along, I pon­dered the uni­verse and the chances of an Israeli radio sta­tion play­ing my favorite song at just the moment I didn’t know I need­ed it.

With the win­dows down and the music turned up, every­thing felt so famil­iar. Dri­ving on open roads is like that. We could be every­where, nowhere, and any­where all at the same time. As we con­tin­ued north, the rhythm of the road helped mefor­get the stack of box­es still wait­ing to be unpacked, while Ben­ny smiled and half raced the train com­ing up beside us. 

Just a bit fur­ther north on 4 and then a left onto 57,” I said. 

You got it,” replied Benny.

We would dri­ve into the city through the old indus­tri­al zone. Then, a few lefts and rights to find a park­ing spot. That part was a bit more com­pli­cat­ed than we’d antic­i­pat­ed. But Ben­ny was in a good mood and up to the chal­lenge. After only a few min­utes, he’d rid­den the waves of traf­fic into a good spot. “Not quite per­fect,” he said, maneu­ver­ing the car in, “but I’d count it as a suc­cess.” He gave a sat­is­fied smile, and we exchanged high fives before get­ting out of the car.

By now, I real­ized just how hun­gry I was, and I guessed Ben­ny must have been fam­ished too.  Now was prob­a­bly as good a time as any to con­fess to Ben­ny that I didn’t know pre­cise­ly where we were head­ed. The restau­rant – a Geor­gian hole in the wall – didn’t actu­al­ly have an address. But the rec­om­men­da­tion had come from a local friend, and she’d assured me that I’d find it no problem.

Its in the shuk,” her friend had said. “No name, but you can’t miss it. Best katchipurri in the city. The woman who owns it is a fab­u­lous cook.”

We walked the short dis­tance from the park­ing spot to the shuk.

The shuk itself was not the kind of place a tourist would think to vis­it. Of course, Ben­ny and I weren’t tourists. But the trans­for­ma­tion from vis­i­tor to local hadn’t tak­en hold, at least not yet. We strolled thru the shuk, Ben­ny soak­ing in the atmos­phere while I tried to locate the restau­rant. The shops, tin-roofed and ram­shackle at best, were teem­ing with ven­dors hawk­ing per­sim­mons, turmer­ic, col­or­ful scarves, and every house­hold good imaginable. 

Ben­ny was trans­fixed by the scene, and I had to take him by the hand and pull him along.

As we wan­dered fur­ther into the shuk look­ing for the restau­rant, I tried my best to bal­ance hunger with a now press­ing need to find a bath­room. Sens­ing that we’d lost track of time and unsure how far we’d walked, I knew Ben­ny had a short fuse when he was hun­gry. I was actu­al­ly sur­prised that Ben­ny wasn’t vis­i­bly frus­trat­ed at this point. But when he motioned toward a sign indi­cat­ing a pub­lic bath­room with an arrow point­ing down an alley­way, I smiled and  knew that I’d mar­ried the right man. 

Yes,” I said. “I’m dying for the bathroom.”

Me too,” Ben­ny said. “Let’s hit the bath­room, and then we’ll just find some­place to eat even if it’s not the Geor­gian restaurant.” 

It’s a hind­sight kind of thing. Walk­ing by a table of old men play­ing backgam­mon in an alley­way can be unre­mark­able. In fact, it should be unre­mark­able. Oth­er times, though, it can be some­thing else — but only in hind­sight. And hind­sight is born only after some­thing – a par­a­digm shift of sorts — occurs. Obvi­ous­ly. For now, though, nei­ther Ben­ny nor I paid the old men sit­ting around the backgam­mon board any mind.

At the end of the alley­way, past the backgam­mon game, the bath­rooms were what one would expect of bath­rooms in a shuk. That is, if you are using the bath­room in a shuk then you are just hap­py that there is a bath­room in the shuk. Ben­ny went into the men’s room, and I turned right into the women’s room.

It looked as if no one had been in the woman’s room for weeks. There were two stalls. The first one closed and locked, as if it was used as stor­age. The door to the sec­ond stall was ajar. Absent­ly, I pushed on the door, but it took only an instant for me to sense that it was blocked. Peek­ing in, I drew a breath, closed my eyes tight, and opened them again, as if that car­toon-like action might some­how remove the dead woman from my sight. 

I was sur­prised that I didn’t scream. Instead, I care­ful­ly – why care­ful­ly, I nev­er knew – stepped out of the women’s bath­room and leaned in to the men’s room. I spoke in a voice that I didn’t rec­og­nize and asked Ben­ny to come out. Delib­er­ate­ly vague, I told him to go in to the women’s room and take a look inside the sec­ond stall.

You want me to…what?” Ben­ny asked, incredulous. 

Just do it. Please. Go in there and tell me what you see.”

Ben­ny was in and out quick­ly, and from the look on his face, there was no doubt what he had seen. I went back in, again care­ful­ly. I wasn’t sure why. Habit had me close and lock the stall door. I half chuck­led at the futil­i­ty of my actions and mum­bled baruch dayan emet. Blessed is the true judge. I wasn’t cer­tain that there was a true judge, and if there was, why then was a name­less woman lying dead in front of me on the floor of a bath­room stall.  But I said it any­way, more out of habit than belief. 

I remem­bered peo­ple I’d loved who’d died. Grand­par­ents and elder­ly aunts and uncles, most­ly. They’d died in hos­pi­tals, sur­round­ed by fam­i­ly. Their bod­ies care­ful­ly pre­pared in accor­dance with tra­di­tion. Funer­als well attend­ed. Shi­va hous­es over­flow­ing with food and guests. After the mourn­ing peri­od, well mean­ing fam­i­ly and friends care­ful to men­tion the deceased’s name at every oppor­tu­ni­ty, believ­ing that each men­tion ele­vat­ed the dead’s soul to a high­er lev­el. Yet some­one had died right here, alone in the woman’s bathroom. 

Who was she?” I won­dered aloud. “How did she end up here?” A name would help me under­stand that emp­ty feel­ing grow­ing in my chest. I was aware of my breath­ing and was look­ing for some­thing I could grab on to, both real and metaphor­ic. As I leaned back on the stall door, I noticed that my shirt was now snagged on the latch. Try­ing to free it, the fab­ric tore. The sound of rip­ping fab­ric star­tled me, and I real­ized that time had some­how shifted.

The stall was start­ing to feel tight and I had no rea­son to be in there. Star­ing over a dead woman’s body in a pub­lic bath­room is nei­ther nec­es­sary nor a good look. I opened the stall door and saw Ben­ny, trem­bling and pale. “What do we do now,” he asked. “If we were back home, I’d call the police, but here? I just don’t know. Please can you just tell me what to do,” he asked, and I was sud­den­ly aware of how des­per­ate­ly frag­ile he was. This morn­ing poor Ben­ny didn’t even want to pick a restau­rant. And now? 

I didn’t know where the thought came from. Some part of my brain that hadn’t been called upon until now, but I again took Ben­ny by the hand, and togeth­er we walked out of the bath­room, leav­ing the name­less dead woman behind. 

Are we going to the police?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “We are going over there,” I said, point­ing to the men play­ing backgammon. 

As I approached the men, I could see they’d been sit­ting around that table for hours and for years. Time required patience in this alley­way, and I was caught in its cur­rent. That tired bowl of sun­flower seeds next to the backgam­mon board, it was always full. Their tea was always hot, and the game of backgam­mon, it nev­er end­ed. The smoke from their hookah hung as a cloud just above, shield­ing them from both the day’s sun and the night’s cool­er tem­per­a­tures. I stood to the side unsure of how to begin. But in a moment, one of the men caught my eye and asked if I was okay. I said that yes, I was okay, but the hes­i­tan­cy in my voice was hard to over­look. The man who spoke sensed some­thing was amiss and brought me a chair. 

My hus­band and I,” I began. “Wait, where did he go?” I asked, as I turned my head to each side in con­fu­sion. “He’ll get lost here with­out me. Where did he go?” I must have been a bit of a sight, torn shirt and all. 

The man intro­duced him­self. He said his name was Yaakov, and he brought me a cup of tea. I told him my name. The oth­er men remained silent, but I was odd­ly com­fort­ed to have learned Yaakov’s name. 

Yaakov asked if I want­ed silan in my tea, but I sus­pect­ed he already knew the answer. I told Yaakov my sto­ry. It all came out too fast and jum­bled, like a child recount­ing a sto­ry in every painful dis­or­ga­nized detail. Yaakov lis­tened, yet he didn’t seem sur­prised at all. He even smiled as I told him of look­ing for the Geor­gian restau­rant. He said he knew where the restau­rant was, but that it had closed ear­ly that day. That’s prob­a­bly why I couldn’t find it. Some­thing about the own­er feel­ing dizzy. When I told him about the woman’s body in the bath­room, he spoke sooth­ing­ly, reas­sur­ing me that he’d see to every­thing. The oth­ers paid no atten­tion at all as they sat spit­ting sun­flower seeds and drink­ing their silan spiked tea, argu­ing backgam­mon tactics. 

Lis­ten­ing to the men debate the fin­er points of backgam­mon strat­e­gy helped me focus on my still hot tea, and filled the silence after I’d fin­ished telling Ya’akov my sto­ry. But the sun was set­ting as the backgam­mon strat­e­gy debate neared an end, with agree­ment that a com­bi­na­tion blitz and prim­ing strat­e­gy – “the essen­tial, two-pronged win­ning strat­e­gy” — was far supe­ri­or to a run­ning game – “non­sense, based only on luck.” Yaakov smiled as he tried to explain away the friend­ly debate with a know­ing nod about rolls of the dice, life, and the like. But the day had caught up with me, and I began to feel that Ben­ny and I were the dice. 

I even­tu­al­ly found the right moment to extract myself from my new friends. As I made my way toward the bath­room I thought I saw Ben­ny in the distance. 

Let me just go to the bath­room quick,” I said to myself, “and then I’ll catch up with Ben­ny and we’ll make our way home.” I entered the women’s room and found the door to the sec­ond stall easy to open. Yet, the dizzi­ness caught up with me, and the floor tiles rose to hit me in the head. 

From the writer


:: Account ::

My hus­band and I had recent­ly moved over­seas. Long days spent unpack­ing an end­less sea of box­es were punc­tu­at­ed by lunch time trips to any num­ber of hole in the wall restau­rants in search of some authen­tic cui­sine. The events in this sto­ry hap­pened dur­ing one such lunch-time foray.

I remem­ber being struck not just by how help­less I felt as the events unfold­ed, but also by the very fact that I was shar­ing an inti­mate moment with some­one whose sto­ry I would nev­er know. In my mind I named her Tamar, the Hebrew word for date. But I won­dered who would mourn this woman? Who would say kad­dish for her? Was some­one wait­ing for her to come home that evening? I stopped think­ing of these ques­tions because the answers were just so painful­ly sad.

It was all I could do to write her sto­ry in the hope that peo­ple will read it and pause for a moment to think of the stranger who pass­es through their lives if only briefly. Even if it is too late to save them.

EIisa Subin is a poet whose work has appeared or is forth­com­ing in the Inflec­tion­ist Review, Not One of Us, 34 Orchard Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, CCAR Jour­nal: The Reform Jew­ish Quar­ter­ly, Thim­ble Mag­a­zine, Jam & Sand and Nebo: A Lit­er­ary Jour­nal, among oth­ers. She won an Hon­or­able Men­tion in the Reuben Rose Poet­ry Com­pe­ti­tion and was longlist­ed for the Geminga Prize.