Here But Not Here by Jennifer S. Brown

view of haifa israel from the sea at dusk

We sit in the harbor and I stare out, regretting my departure before I’ve even left. Haifa spreads out in front of me, teasing me. I think of him, the boy I left behind, mentally charting his movements. Work in the fields. Lunch. Probably a nap. All I can see is Haifa, endlessly Haifa. I want to run off, I want to cry out, I want to stay, but it’s too late. He’s so close, but it’s the beginning of Shabbat, the day of rest, and my passport’s been stamped, so there’s nothing I can do.

The boat is Greek but the country is Jewish so we go through customs at noon and simply sit on the boat in port until our 8 p.m. departure. The customs officials, the security people, the travel agents have all retreated to their Israeli homes to enjoy their Shabbat, and I’m forced to be here without actually being here.

I tell myself that I’ll be fine once we’re moving, I’ll be fine once Israel is no longer in sight. I tell myself I love traveling alone, I’ve always traveled alone. But two months on a kibbutz somehow became four months and then today, when I finally did leave, the pleas of family to return home beating out my longing to be away, it’s been six months. Life on a kibbutz makes you soft, makes you long for the ever-present company, makes you yearn for the labor in the fields where you carefully tend the trees and the fruit, and nothing blocks the strong Israeli sun except for the military planes that fly, fly north above your head although you never question to where or why, because living in Israel isn’t always easy.

Before I left his room this morning I took his shaving cream and rubbed it on my wrist. An adolescent gesture, but nonetheless I lift my arm to my face to smell him.

The sun is low. A man with graying hair watches me, so I seclude myself in the bathroom. The stalls are narrow and each has a shower nozzle next to the toilet, and I can’t imagine showering in such a tiny space.

Eventually, I sit on the deck, a sweater around my shoulders. I know I should eat dinner, but I’m simply not hungry. I look in my food bag anyway, the one the kibbutz cook so carefully stocked for me: tomatoes and cucumbers, challah bread, apples, oranges, bananas from our fields, or rather, I suppose I should now say, the kibbutz’s fields. I pick out an orange. I peel it unenthusiastically, but when I put one slice in my mouth, it’s achingly sweet, and I devour the rest.

It’s finally eight o’clock and the deck is bustling with men grabbing ropes and fiddling with machinery. The graying man is watching me again, but I don’t care because the sky is now dark and I’m mesmerized by the lights of Israel, beckoning to me. The lights glisten like millions of Shabbat candles and the prayer runs through my mind, the greeting of the Sabbath, the welcoming of peace. I say it under my breath, barely moving my lips. Baruch atah Adonai…

We pull away. The deck is crowded with passengers, mostly the rich ones with furry jackets and expensive video cameras, the ones who can afford cabins, not those like me who will sleep on the floor of the lounge. I tell myself again I’ll be alright once Haifa has faded. I focus on Greece, focus on the new places I’ll visit as I make my way home. I’ll try to ignore the images of Jerusalem, of Tel Aviv, of Akko crowding my mind. To say nothing of the kibbutz. To say nothing of him.

I stand on the deck even after the rain has chased everyone else away and it’s just me and the graying man, and I could be crying but who can tell with all this rain. The man is leaning against the wall and he tries to make small talk, how beautiful Athens will be, how three days on a boat can seem like a long time.

I refuse to look at him. I want to stare until I can’t see a single glow, not the smallest haze from Israel. I want to stand here alone, in silence, but he keeps talking and he invites me in, asks if he can buy me a drink. I lift my wrist to my nose and inhale, but all I smell is the orange I ate three hours earlier. I say yes. I follow him inside.

Jenny Brown, June 9, 2015.Jennifer S. Brown has published fiction and creative nonfiction in Fiction Southeast, The Best Women’s Travel Writing, The Southeast Review, and Bellevue Literary Review, among other places. Her essay “The Codeine of Jordan” was selected as a notable essay in The Best American Travel Writing in 2012. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington. Her debut novel, Modern Girls (NAL/Penguin, April 2016), set in 1935 in New York City, is about a mother and daughter who must face the consequences of unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. Connect with her at www.jennifersbrown.com and on Twitter: @j_s_brown.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Paolo Di Tommaso

  4 comments for “Here But Not Here by Jennifer S. Brown

  1. Reminds me of when I had to leave Israel and return to Australia – albeit unwillingly. Left my boyfriend behind, my friends on the kibbutz and the memories of my time alone, free to be me without criticism.

  2. Wow, what a poignant moment in time you’ve captured here. It makes me feel again what it was like to be 25.

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