She imagined herself in the dogs’ eyes, rising up from under the ground as she climbed the stairs from the street into the wide garden. They had been lazing under the shade of wooden benches on the porch, and when she appeared they pushed their heads up into the afternoon heat and snarled. One was small and black, with tufts of white hair in his ears and feet. He stood first, unsteadily, and barked without real ferocity. The other dog, a brown and gray mutt with slender legs and nimble, harelike movements, shook his head nervously and bared his teeth, letting out a single, threatening bark. But when the woman approached the door, both dogs quieted down and only advertised the blunted whiteness of their teeth in slackening growls devolving into whimpers.
Inside, she encountered the solitude of a high, vaulted ceiling and a man’s voice echoing in the many curved hollows far above: “Mutti and Benni, they did not bark?” He spoke English with a halting German accent, and introduced himself as the hotel’s manager. A wisp of beard on his chin made his face look unwashed.
She pushed her passport across the counter, face down. “Yeah, they did. The small one barked and then stopped, but not the other. Not much, you know.”
The manager read her name aloud, pronouncing it slowly: “Sonia? Then you’re not Arab?”
“Does it matter?”
He shrugged, “Nothing matters, not really.”
“Half Indian,” she explained.
“My dad’s side. Mom’s Dutch-Irish.”
“Farid!” the man shouted. “Farid!”
A thin-limbed, sallow man appeared, perhaps only a teenager, wiping his hands on a blue and white kitchen towel.
“Is this woman an Arab?” the manager demanded.
Farid examined the new guest with wide, drowsy eyes. He shook his head, “No, of course not,” he said without conviction one way or the other. He turned to walk away when the manager called him back.
The manager said, “They didn’t bark at her. Mutti and Benni. They didn’t think she was an Arab. I thought she was an Arab, but the dogs didn’t bark, so I thought, maybe she’s a Jew.”
Farid took a second look at the woman, though this time only a glance. He threw the towel over his shoulder. “So,” he said, gesturing with his hands. “She cannot be an Arab. Why ask me?”Saying this he walked back across the polished tile floor with an uncertain, limping gait, and disappeared, submerging below the top level of stairs leading down.
The manager smiled. “It’s just that Mutti and Benni, well, we didn’t know when we got them. They were dogs owned by a settler in Ariel. They were trained to hate Arabs. They bark at any Arabs they see, or even smell. Poor Farid’s life is a misery here when the dogs are out.”
“Back where my father come from,”Sonia said impatiently, “They’d kill any dogs that barked like that.”
The manager shifted his eyes to the door leading to where the dogs waited in the shade.
“Yes,” he said, almost harshly, “We’ve thought of that. We’ve lost many of our best distributors. They won’t come, not with Mutti and Benni out there. But what can a man do. Mutti is old now, and Benni, you know I’m hoping we can change him. What happened with you was, how you say, wonderful. They didn’t bark at you. Not much. With Arabs they almost attack them. But you give me hope. Maybe we can train Benni.”
“Don’t forget I’m a woman.”
“But they bark at any Arabs.”
“I’m not an Arab.”
The large covered porch rose from a disarrayed garden. Sonia sat on a bench watching Farid. The dogs were nowhere to be seen. What she had guessed as a limp was in reality an ungainliness in Farid’s movements. He walked with quick nervous motions, always looking around himself or at the pavement by his feet.
He leaned against one of the iron poles supporting the wooden cover for the porch, his eyes abstracted by the expanse of sky and horizon spiked with television aerials, kites and houses built on houses faltering up the city’s swaggering relief of hills and valleys. A cigarette played on his lip and thin spools of smoke escaped from his mouth in impatient breaths.
She said, “Hi,” and garbled the only word of Arabic she knew, “Assalam.”
Farid answered in German, “Tchuss,” and smiled. He had a thin, drawn face that was not without elegance. When his eyes stopped moving, they looked clear, almost handsome. “You are Indian, yes?” he asked.
“No. I’m from America. From California.”
“Ah, California.” He stretched out each syllable. “Very nice. Very, very nice. I too would like to be from California.” His teeth reappeared with a faint, inviting smile. “You just come?”
“This is my first time in Israel.”
“Beautiful here, yes? Old City is beautiful.”
“I haven’t seen much of it yet. I only got in yesterday.”
“Trust me. You will like it very much.” Farid looked away; smoke curled over his face, shrouding his nose and eyes. “You Muslim?” he asked finally.
She looked up into Farid’s eyes, at his almost tubercular frame. He wore an Oakland A’s tee-shirt, and a small, silver crucifix hung from his neck. On his feet were beat up Nike Airs. His new, crisply blue Levi’s were large for him, as though he were a child who would grow into them.
To say something, she asked, “How old is that?” pointing to a massive cactus shrouding one half of the porch with the shade cast by warped and braided arms.
Farid shrugged. “A hundred years, maybe more. I think as old as this.” His gesture included the hotel, perhaps the whole city.
Then he said, “I’m waiting.” The hand holding the cigarette gave a terse gesture towards the door. “I have to go back to work soon. So I wait.” She nodded, unsure of what else to say.
Then Farid again, his voice loud, a fist lightly thumping his chest: “I,” a pause, “I am an Israeli citizen.” And he smiled. She was attracted by the smile and by the confidence of the statement. She sensed that he was confiding in her, that he was telling her something he would not tell just any guest. The trust gave her a sense of privilege.
It was already warm and a thin sheen of perspiration formed over Farid’s face and neck. Sonia studied the side of his neck, the smooth line it made as it arrived, the stark veins carrying it, at his jaw. His mouth, no longer face on, the lips drawing in occasionally, pulling in, pushing out the smoke which hovered in the air a brief moment and was gone, trembling, perhaps nervously — was he afraid the dogs might appear? — and the uneven profile of his nose.
“You’re handsome,” she told him, pushing the words out of herself the same way she imagined him exhaling the cigarette smoke, letting it run over his tongue and teeth and lips.
“Only someone very American would say that.” He dropped the cigarette down at his feet and slowly crushed the butt with the tip of his foot, moving his heel slowly back and forth in a precise arc.
She felt stung by the comment. Of course she was very American, but his words made her deny it. “I wasn’t born there,” she lied. “I’ve only lived there a few years. That’s all.”
Farid nodded. He said he had to go back in to work. She watched him mount the steps up to the porch and pull open the wide, wooden door. A group of young men pressed out as Farid stepped inside. All were divinity students, she had learned, from Estonia. Several smiled as they passed her and walked into the gardens and disappeared. She stood and then she sat down. She could hear car horns and voices shouting and somewhere the air trembled to the cutting blades of a helicopter.
When she walked alone through the city’s crowded alleys and covered markets she would invent pasts for herself, losing herself in the crowds and noise and smells. “Hello. Welcome. Come into my shop. Indian, no?” And she would say, “No, from Sri Lanka.”“Sri Lanka, also Ceylon. So beautiful. I have a friend who ...” Or she might answer, a confused expression betraying an unfamiliarity with English, “I am from the Gambia.” And once, “My parents are diplomats in Turkmenestan, but I was born in Malaysia.” She had lived in a village in Oman where the peasants brought her dates every day, only the ripest; she had been educated in Italy; she was a strange and rare reverse albino from Sweden where government doctors had spent fifteen years studying her condition and three separate scholars had published their PhDs on the relationship between the disease and lycanthropy in the historical folk imagination. With everyone she met she was new person, inventing stories and names and countries and lineages all her own and all false.
She pushed through hot, crowded streets, searching for the cooler passages of the covered markets, a place where the sun only broke through in vents, and where the top of the street suggested another world, where footsteps clattered on the roofs. Around her voices clamored for her eyes, shouting, “Indian! Hindi! Italian! Amreekan!” The voices demanded that she enter their shop, the best shop, where everything was only one sheqal, yes, all just one sheqal. And others that shouted “Indian and Arab, brother and sister,” fading behind her. She watched the tourists, sweating in their tee-shirts, scattered in groups, blocking the thin passageways of the Via Dolorosa, dragging massive wooden crosses like unsteady rudders, chanting, singing: This is where He fell, this is where He was flagellated, this is where ... When she would walk into a shop she would bargain for an hour, sometimes two, all the while knowing she would not buy what she was dealing over. When she left the shopkeeper’s curses followed her down alleys. She cherished the sound of their curses, noting the tone and the words and the vehemence which she would repeat, she felt sure, over long drinks back home.
In crowds men pushed up against her, pressing a hand against her breast or thigh, and she would let them linger there, as though oblivious, enjoying the illicit sensation of a stranger’s desire, until the moment she felt the hand emboldened, becoming proprietary, and then she would lash out with a fist and a series of violent abuses, as though she had just felt the man’s hand for the first time.
She ate breakfast in the main hall, which was entered through two large oak doors to one side of the reception. On its walls hung portraits from the turn of the century, all men sporting pompous moustaches and ridiculous looking domed and peaked helmets. Farid served the drinks. His wiry form buzzed from table to table, asking what was wanted, smiling, pouring coffee or tea, quickly moving on. She scrutinised him constantly, noticing how at certain tables he stopped, his lips moving quickly, bantering, though she couldn’t hear what was said over the general noise. She regarded these other tables with envy, and when Farid moved on from them, she examined the faces of the people he had stopped to chat with, to laugh with, for some clue, some hint of commonality with herself that might be exploited to stop Farid for more than the time it took the coffee to pour.
In truth, she wanted Farid to fill her mornings by simply standing at her table, not moving at all, waiting on her and only her. She wanted him to lean in close when he poured coffee, so that she would smell the busy odour of his movements. But most of all she wanted more than just the simple, “More coffee?” said slyly, perhaps mockingly. At the other tables, his tongue enlarged, and sometimes she heard faint echoes of Hebrew, or German, or Arabic, all spoken with equal fluency. She drank the coffee quickly, cup after cup, every morning, so that she would bisect Farid’s scattered orbit as many times as possible. She imagined kissing him, testing his lips, and in this growing passion, she began to tell herself that she did not know if she could control herself; she thought of Farid casting a spell, or as an influence, almost meteorological that acted upon her; his reticence was like a storm waiting at sea, and in it she knew that she would lose herself.
At night she said to the mirror in her room: “I will lose myself. I will lose who I am.” Her voice suggested fear, her lips trembled. “I will lose myself in a strange and foreign passion and I will never be the same,” and added with a hint of drama,“And I may never return home.”
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