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.