A Jerusalem of Sorts
Updated: Feb 14, 2020
Rebecca looked at Justin, and saw the rain pelting down on him, like bits of paper shooting out of a toy gun in the sky. She was surprised that it was raining. She felt nothing.
“Rebecca,” he began. “I feel like I’ve cheated on my girlfriend a thousand times.”
Did he really say that? Rebecca looked around, shocked at the words that came out of his mouth. This isn’t a movie, she thought. What’s my line?
“Justin, what are you talking about?” Rebecca finally felt the wet on her face from the paper gun up above and shivered in her seat. She looked up at the stringing lights across the open-air market, then at the beers on their table for two: hers half-full, drinken more for the social benefit than the taste, and his finished, with only a thin layer of foam left at the bottom of the dulled glass. She picked her hand up as if to take another sip and put it back down. She didn’t know where else to look.
Two weeks ago, Rebecca and Justin met, both studying abroad at the same university in Israel. Immediately, they hit it off. Justin liked Rebecca’s short, curly hair, and Rebecca liked the attention. They shared life stories like sticks of chewing gum, and argued philosophy like they knew what they were talking about.
This was Rebecca’s first time away from home. Twenty years old and finally free. Or, at least, she wanted to feel that way. Instead, she felt the familiar dread of trying new things, a swirling in her stomach that left her feeling hungry and nauseous at the same time. She scanned what was to be her new room for the next five months. Okay, Rebecca. This is good, she told herself. This will be great.
On the first night in the international student dorms, Justin invited Rebecca over for dinner at his apartment. Closing her empty fridge door in relief, she rushed over and sat down as he cooked her quinoa. She surveyed the scene- this was the first time a boy was cooking for her. But, we’re just friends, I know. Besides, he has a girlfriend. Maybe this is something some girls and guys just do. It’s just dinner, she reassured herself. Rebecca was too polite to not eat the onions, even though she hated the taste.
After dinner, over which they probably laughed about some shared hobby they both enjoyed, Rebecca returned to her room and lay on her thin mattress, creating a Rebecca-shaped dent that would remain through its centre. She flung her arms over her head and looked up at the ceiling, as if she could see through the third, fourth and fifth floors to what she hoped was a starry sky. She wondered at the tingling in her stomach and the smile she just couldn’t seem to shake off of her face every time she thought of him. Especially his eyelashes.
So this is what Jerusalem feels like. Rebecca fell asleep to that thought.
“I love my girlfriend,” Justin declared. “But I feel drawn emotionally to you. I can’t help feeling what I’m feeling and it is a lot of guilt.” He stared at Rebecca, his eyes welling up, or was it just the rain?
Rebecca scrambled to put a sentence together. “Justin, the only reason you’re feeling this is because I am here, and Lilah is in L.A. You are using me for the emotional support she gave you. You don’t like me. I’m just filling the void.”
It felt strange to Rebecca that she had to make a boy she had just met feel better because of the pain liking her brought him. Am I really just filling the void? A small part of her hoped not, as she said the words out loud. The reflections from the twinkly lights above them distorted Justin’s eyes through his scratched round glasses. Rebecca couldn’t see what he was thinking,
“Maybe,” he said. “But, I think, even if I wasn’t dating someone, that I’d still think you were cute.”
The moment Rebecca had been waiting for hit her in the face as a twenty-year old who had never been told by a boy that she was cute. This definitely wasn’t the way she expected it to happen. She quieted the flurry of movement in the pit of her stomach, and continued to allay the fears of a boy who liked her.
“You don’t like me,” she continued saying, repeatedly. “You have nothing to feel guilty about. I won’t come between you and Lilah.”
Rebecca realized this wasn’t all she had to say. Before they got up to leave, when the rain finally became impossible to ignore, she spoke to the beat of the pounding in her chest. “But, Justin, I have no interest in being a ‘mystery girl’, ,or the other woman’, or whatever you call it. That is not who I am. I will not be put in comparison to another girl. I just won’t.”
Justin nodded. “I know. I don’t want that, either. Of course not.”
They walked in silence down a back graffitied alley, the noise of the night’s beginning quieting in the background as they advanced towards the bus stop. “Hey, Rebecca? I don’t want things to be weird between us, though. I really hope tomorrow it can all go back to normal, now that I’ve gotten this off my chest.” Justin smiled at her, hopeful. Rebecca walked on, tired of the night of consoling a boy for liking her.
But back to normal it went. The next few months was a time where Rebecca finally felt alive. It was like she was finally getting to know the version of herself she always wanted to meet. She heard music, everywhere. She lived for the sounds of the light rail pronouncing the upcoming stops in Hebrew, Arabic and heavily-accented English. She watched in wonder as the women with head-coverings held small engraved prayer books close to their face and swayed to a song she couldn’t quite make out. She played the violin for the first time out of a desire to become closer to the music- to become the music. Rebecca worked on her cooking skills, showing off by throwing dinner parties for her new friends with vegetable soup as the main course and Ben and Jerry’s for dessert.
Her friendship with Justin grew strong, even through the awkward moments Like when Rebecca caught him looking at her, or when she fell asleep on his shoulder on the bus ride home. They got to know each other until Rebecca didn’t think there was anyone in the world who knew her better. When they went grocery shopping at the nearby supermarket, Justin knew to look for the rock-hard nectarines, and Rebecca remembered to always buy the green olives.
Justin confided in Rebecca when he had relationship troubles, and, despite having no relationship experience, she guided him through his feelings. Each time they concluded that even though Lilah was so far away, Justin’s love for her was strong enough to manage the difficulties of the distance. Until one day, over a bowl of teriyaki chicken submerged in oily, brown rice, after shooing away the bartender who offered them a free first shot of tequila, Justin told Rebecca that Lilah had broken up with him earlier in the day.
“She just said that she wasn’t excited to take my call anymore,” he said, shrugging into his bowl. Rebecca felt for Justin, could imagine his pain. His usually exuberant-personality shrunk down to the size of a grain of rice. She asked if he wanted to talk. “There’s nothing really to say,” he said. “That’s it.” Rebecca pressed further, but she could tell he didn’t want to talk. She went on to distract him with pictures of the cats roaming the cobblestone streets and complaints about the teacher in the class they were taking together.
The next day, as they waited for her second-hand lime green kettle to boil, Justin started to speak. “So…” he said. “Yes?” Rebecca answered, her back to him. “Remember that night, the first week we were here, in the market?” She felt her shoulders tighten, and hoped he didn’t see anything. Without turning around, she released a quiet “yes” from under her breath. “Well, I just want you to know that that is in the past. I’ve moved on.” As the kettle began to squeal, Rebecca, grateful for the distraction, didn’t say anything. Justin was used to her silences, though, and didn’t think anything of it.
“So, I think I’m going to go for Mira.” Justin said.
Rebecca’s eyes widened. What? She thought. He just got out of a relationship, and now he’s going to make a move on another girl? And Mira? I guess he really has moved on.
“Really?” Rebecca spluttered out.
The next few weeks Rebecca watched, shocked as the things they used to do just the two of them now made room for a third. Justin’s arm, which usually hung awkwardly by his side, now slung itself over another girl’s shoulder. Their late-night movies in the lounge had room for only two on the couch, so Rebecca sat with her knees tucked in on the floor and her back to the couple. She closed her eyes and held the insides of her fist, feeling the sharp bite of her nails on her palm lines, as she heard rustles from the couch. Sometimes Rebecca would cancel on movie night because of a sore stomach. The thought of Justin and Mira together really did make her a little queasy.
Rebecca tried to focus on everything else moving in her life, but suddenly the rain just gave her shivers and nothing really sparkled at night. Her music came out flat, and her radiant smile dimmed under the Mediterranean sky. Wherever I go, Rebecca realized, I take me with. She decided to get used to spending time with herself again.
In the loud hallway of the international school, Justin sent a fist towards Rebecca who met his with hers in return. “Hey, Rebecca, a question for you.” “What’s up?” she said, as Justin led her to a quieter spot. “How do you feel about weddings?” Rebecca wasn’t sure where this was going. “I mean, I love a good party,” she started. “So, my cousin’s getting married tonight, and I thought maybe you’d want to come with me? We probably won’t stay the whole time, I just feel like I need to show my face and I don’t really want to go alone.” Without thinking, Rebecca said yes. “You know this means dressing up, right? Like, putting on a nice dress, and doing your hair,” Justin said, looking at her unwashed jeans and disheveled curls. “I know how weddings go,” she replied, bouncing off to class as she planned what she would wear.
Later that day, Rebecca’s thoughts began to swirl. He invited me, but what about Mira? What does a wedding invitation mean? Should I have said yes? Should I take it back, fake a sore stomach?
She pulled out her phone and sent an honest text- “Justin, don’t you think maybe you should have asked Mira to this wedding?” He replied instantly. Rebecca’s stomach dropped and she looked around, nervous for a moment that someone could see what she read. “Should I have asked her? Okay, I will.” Stunned, Rebecca sunk lower in her chair and pulled her hood up over her head, feeling a heat flush her freckled cheeks in embarrassment and shame. She tried focusing on the lecture but at the break halfway through she threw her stuff in her bag and walked back to the dorms. Once in the privacy of her own room, she flopped onto her familiar bed and put on some quiet music. She pulled her duvet over her eyes and soon fell into a late-afternoon nap.
A few hours later, Rebecca woke up to the gentle music playing its umpteenth loop, most of it lost to her ears during her slumber. She rolled over to reach her phone and saw a text and two missed calls from Justin. “Can I come over?” She checked the time, confused. Shouldn’t he be standing by the chuppah now, watching the happy couple exchange vows? She replied- “Okay,” and closed her eyes for another moment. Then she got out of bed and the ping of her phone made her glance at the lit screen telling her that Justin was on his way.
Rebecca put on the kettle and pulled out her two cups, and one mint tea bag to share. She heard footsteps outside and turned in time to meet Justin’s tired eyes as he walked in the door. “Hey,” he said. She didn’t reply. “Can we go to your room?” he asked. She assented, leading the way.
“So how was the wedding?” she asked. “I didn’t go.” She waited for him to go on.
“Rebecca,” he said, putting his mug down. “I know I handled this whole situation wrong.”
“Oh, so you mean you realized that asking a girl to a wedding, then taking back the invitation, and then not going at all is a socially weird thing to do?” She waited, only sort of expecting an answer.
“Yeah,” he said. “I did. The truth is… the truth is that when I thought about who I wanted to take to the wedding it was you. Every time.”
Rebecca felt a sharp sting in the corner of her eyes.
“And then you suggested I take Mira, and I realized that maybe I should, but when I asked her I immediately knew I had made a mistake. I just wanted to be there with you.”
Was she meant to respond to this? Um, okay, Justin, then why are you seeing another girl who you don’t want to be with?
As if he could hear the thoughts in her head, he looked at his hands and said “When Lilah and I broke up,I needed something. I couldn’t take the loneliness. But I knew that what I wanted wasn’t what you deserved. So I tried to put you to the side and I went for Mira. And she’s been great, and I feel close to her. But I guess I realized that I couldn’t just push you to the side anymore.”
He exhaled. Rebecca couldn’t meet his eye. Should I tell him I get butterflies too? I can’t, she thought. Another situation where it’s Justin and another girl and me in the middle.
“So that’s everything,” he said. They chatted for a bit, and Rebecca put her hand to her stomach to stop the beating of wings in her stomach.
After a while, Justin got up to leave. Rebecca let him.
Over the next few days, their friendship resumed, and they laughed over laffas on green grass and window shopped on Yafo Street for junk they didn’t need. On Wednesday, Justin asked her to go to a concert with him, and even though Rebecca knew it was probably a bad idea, she also really wanted to go.
“Okay, I’ll come get you in an hour.” Rebecca nodded, and rushed home to shower, deciding to wear her ripped jean skirt and a black t-shirt, half tucked in. An hour later, Justin came in as she was just finishing her makeup. He watched her look in the mirror, mouth agape as she swiped black on her light eyelashes. “Okay, ready,” she said. “Let’s go.”
They took the 68 bus to the town centre and walked to the concert venue from there.They tried to get seats but the guard wouldn’t let them in until the concert officially started. We should go for a walk, Rebecca thought. “Should we go for a walk?” Justin suggested.
Rebecca gently took Justin’s arm and felt his happy surprise. “I brought weed,” he said. “We don’t have to smoke it, but I just thought, if you wanted to, it might be fun.” Rebecca thought for a moment. She had wanted him to bring some, thought it would help ease the tension. And, if her high were anything like the last one, then she definitely wanted to try it again. “Yeah, okay. Let’s find somewhere to sit.”
The pair stumbled across a parkette and got comfortable under a lone tree, leaning in to each other against the unusually-chilly May air. He lit the hand-rolled piece of paper, took a deep breath and passed it to Rebecca. She breathed in the smoke, three, four times, and they passed it back and forth.
Soon, Rebecca realized she had taken too much, and she felt the overwhelming sense that people were watching her, that she was losing consciousness, that everything was spinning. She tried desperately to will herself back into reality. Rebecca, you are going to get up and sit through this concert, she told herself. Okay, get up on three. One, two, and on three she just stood there, stupefied and afraid. She regretted the extra puffs, kicked herself for thinking she could handle it. You messed up, Rebecca.
Justin saw her panic and held her. “Let’s try standing up. Sometimes reorientation helps.” Rebecca stood on shaky legs and nearly fell. Justin supported her and they walked a few steps forward. “Can we please sit back down?” she said, feeling the tears behind her eyes. Rebecca felt like hours had passed when they got back to the tree. She reached out to check her phone and wallet, which she had put just beside her. She felt for the smooth leather and struggled to feel anything but sparse grass. She sat up and searched desperately. “Where is my purse? And my phone?” Justin jumped up. “Where did you last have it? Did you see anyone come by here?”
As Rebecca thought back to this moment she shuddered, remembering the desperate call to her sister back in Toronto, the cancelling all of her credit cards, sitting in a taxi and Justin there, the whole time. He spent the night with Rebecca in her room. Neither one slept. She felt grateful and repulsed, wanting at once to be with him and to never see him again.
Rebecca laughed to herself in her unmade bed the next day, remembering that very first moment, strolling through the back alleyway of the night market, so early on in what was to become the tumultuous story of Justin and Rebecca that never should have been to begin with.
She looked down at the wrinkled sheets and slid her hand through her knotted hair. You can’t always get what you want, she thought. I’ve become the girl I said I wouldn’t. In an instant, she was out of bed, ripping the covers off of the duvet and the sheets from the Rebecca-shaped bed. The smell of it was everywhere. She felt like she needed to throw herself in the washing machine and go round in circles to make everything clean again, to restart the cycle and go back five months to that sparkly night in the rain.
Through bleary eyes, Rebecca watched her pinky sheets swirling in the soapy water of an old machine that shook with the weight of the washing. She felt unsteady, and was scared that she couldn’t see straight. She pushed aside the persistent recollections of the night before and walked back to her room, trying not to lose her balance.
Back in her room, she sat on the plaid mattress, bared from all remnants of the night before. She hoped the open window would bring in fresh air to erase any trace of her mistake. Even the May humidity would be better than the lingering smell of last night’s memories. She sat erect, afraid to close her eyes for fear of what she might see, and waited for the moments to pass.
So this is what Jerusalem feels like, she thought.