In her 2020 memoir, OTHER GIRLS LIKE ME (Bedazzled Ink) Stephanie Davies tells of her coming of age in a small village in England, her anti-apartheid activism as a teenager, and her growing awareness of feminism and her queerness at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. This women-only activist space was set up in front of a United States military base in the south of England to protest the siting of American cruise missiles on British soil. September 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of the peace camp, which lasted for several years and attracted thousands of women. It served not only to protest nuclear war but provided a safe space for women, and particularly queer women, in a women-only community freed from patriarchal norms. As Stephanie writes:
The feminism I read about in magazines when I was at university— the sexual revolution of women in the 1960s wearing mini-skirts and popping the pill, of 1970s braless hippie feminists in their flowing, flowered skirts—was nothing compared to the androgynous tribal freedom of Greenham. Whether we were lesbian, straight, or bisexual, we shocked wherever we went because we did nothing to conform, please, or titillate. England had never seen anything like us. We didn’t shave our legs, our armpits, or our pubic hair. We didn’t pluck our eyebrows or wear nail varnish. We wore men’s clothes if we liked, and we often went topless at the camp, or at least some of us did. We were altogether natural, except, of course, for our multi-coloured hair, which we wore as though we were our own tribe of Amazonian women. The freedom we felt in our own company was matched in intensity only by that of the looks, taunts, and rage directed at us whenever we stepped out into the “real” world.
In the following excerpt, Stephanie is living full-time at Blue Gate, one of the encampments set up at the entrances to the military base, which the women have named after the colors of the rainbow. She tells of her first encounter with Al, a punk rock singer in a girl band, a meeting that will change her life.
I WAS SITTING alone at Blue Gate drinking tea and gazing into the fire one sunny afternoon, when a tough-looking woman with a stiff red Mohican, Doc Marten boots, a black army surplus jacket, black jeans, a red armband, and a mischievous laugh, set herself down next to me, put out her hand to shake mine, and said, “Hi, I’m Al. Who are you?”
I already knew who she was. Rumours had been circulating around the camp for days that Al, a bass player in a two-girl anarcho-punk band called On the Rag, was coming to stay for a few days—and she fitted the description perfectly. Friends at Blue Gate had swooned a little just at the mention of her name, so of course, I was curious. I learned that On the Rag played at all the anarcho-punk venues around the country, supporting such legends as The Poison Girls and The Nightingales, espousing causes like the Miners’ Strike and Workers Against Racism, and sending their primarily female audiences into fits of pogo-ing as the two of them raced maniacally around the stage, spitting savage feminist lyrics and freedom songs into each other’s faces. They had two records out. My heart pounded as I told Al my name. She took my hand in hers, and instead of shaking it, she put it to her lips and looked gallantly up into my eyes.
“Wonderful to meet you, beautiful Steph,” she said, in her gravelly voice, tinged with a slight Midlands accent.
I was hooked. “Do you want to go for a walk?” she asked. “Yes, of course, why not?” I stuttered. “You can show me around.” She jumped up, took my hand in hers, and pulled me to my feet. She was so strong I almost fell into her. She laughed as she steadied me, though I was tempted to keep falling so she could catch me.
“I was at Yellow Gate when I lived here,” she said. That figures, I thought. That is where the cool women go. “I never made it over to Blue. So I don’t know the neighbourhood at all.” She didn’t let go of my hand as we walked through the bluebells in the spring woods bursting with new life, and told me about her band, her life in Birmingham, her time at Greenham getting arrested and singing at the campfire. She told me how she met the other half of her band, Zephyr, at a WONT (Women Opposed to Nuclear Threat) meeting in the Midlands. They came to Greenham together, Al all in black, Zephyr with her dyed black and white hair teased into a lion’s mane. At the fire, the women sang one of their famous peace songs, and Al and Zephyr began to harmonize, their voices blending above the chorus. They became lovers, wrote songs together in the woods, and plotted to form a band when they got home to their native Birmingham.
“We both loved the Poison Girls and one day we hitched to see them play in Nottingham,” Al said. “A minivan pulled up and we got inside and it was Ranking Roger from the Beat.”
“Oh my God,” I cried. “I love the Beat.”
“‘Stand Down Margaret, Stand Down Please. Stand Down Margaret,’” Al sang in a deep strong voice, and I soon joined in, and then she was pogo-ing and so was I. We sang the whole song together, from start to finish, collapsing in a laughing heap on the damp grass when we were done.
Al turned to me, brushing some stray hairs back from my face. “Then at the concert we went backstage and we met Vi Subversa, the lead singer of the Poison Girls, and she said, ‘How many songs have you got?’ We said ‘Three,’ and she said, ‘You’re opening for me tonight.’”
“That’s so amazing,” I said, also amazed that I was lying on the grass next to her and that her face was so close to mine. I tried not to smile too much, afraid it would make my feelings too obvious.
“Zephyr and I are not together anymore,” Al continued, looking crestfallen, and moved away from me to lie on her back, her hands behind her head. I rolled over onto my back, too, and watched white clouds puff across a blue sky filled with promise. “At least, not as lovers. We are still partners in music. She’s my best friend. And I am still in love with her. But she’s not in love with me. She’s decided she’s more into men.”
“Crazy,” I said, because that was the closest I could come to expressing what I really wanted to say. Is Zephyr nuts? She wants a man when she can have you? I felt disappointed that Al was in love with Zephyr.
Al jumped up, turned to offer me her hand, and pulled me to my feet. We stopped for a split second and looked into each other’s eyes, then she smiled and turned, and offered me her hand. As we walked back toward Blue Gate hand-in-hand, I noticed how Al walked like a bloke, and even looked like a bloke, with the androgynous appearance I was starting to find so compelling in women, the excitement of knowing what was really under her unisex black T-shirt and tight black jeans. She stopped, reached into her pocket, and pulled out a pair of headphones. She placed them on my ears so that I could listen to her singing “Strange Fruit” on her Walkman, the first time I ever heard this sad and moving song about lynchings in the deep south of the United States. Then she played her favourite On the Rag song, “Other Girls Like Me,” where she and Zephyr pelted out lyrics about freedom and women’s rights, Zephyr’s saxophone dancing with Al’s pounding, rhythmic bass: Don’t wanna wear your heels/Don’t wanna cook your meals/Don’t wanna sit on the sidelines/Just want to run, run, run like the boys/Just stop playing with your war toys/Other girls like me/I’m looking for other girls, other girls like me/I’m all right now cos other girls, other girls like me . . .
When the song was done, we continued walking. I told Al that I had just arrived at the camp, that I had studied French and Russian at Bath University, that I cared about apartheid, that I’d had a possessive boyfriend for six years, and that now I was a lesbian. I told her that my family lived a few miles away and that we were not talking, really, and that this part of the world was home to me. I told her that my parents were disappointed with me for choosing to live at the camp, despite their support for Greenham, that they were afraid I was a bad influence on my younger sister, Sarah, who admired me so much she wanted to change her name to mine. I wondered as I told Al this whether Sarah still did.
By the time we made it back to camp, Al’s arm was around my waist, and mine rested on her strong shoulders. When her eyes caught mine as we talked, I was overcome with the desire to throw her to the ground and make crazy love. Instead, I flirted. I found it hard to believe that she was actually interested in me. But she was, and I was alarmed and delighted at the effect she was having on me. We laughed, we told stories, we shared indignation at the horrors of war, the stupidity of nuclear weapons, the all-encompassing damage done by the patriarchy, the cruelty inflicted on animals, and how much better things would be if women were in power, ignoring, for a moment, that Margaret Thatcher was our leader. I learned that Al had the same Scorpio birthday as the first Alison, and I realized, as we crawled into my tent in the middle of the afternoon, that I was about to drop sweet Alison for tough and complicated Al.
We squeezed into the tent, then turned to take off our Doc Martens. You can’t really rip off someone’s Doc Martens in the heat of passion. You can always keep them on . . . but we didn’t, not this time, and instead we struggled with the laces for what felt like an eternity, laughing hysterically and conspiratorially, because we knew what was about to happen and we could barely stand the tension. Finally, they were off, and we closed the tent zip behind us. I turned to face her. She brought her face close to mine and stared into my eyes, then at my lips, then back into my eyes. She placed a finger on my lips and gently traced their contours, humming quietly and deeply to herself. Then she abruptly took my face in her hands and kissed me with more passion than I had ever been kissed before. We undressed each other slowly and playfully, and something woke up in me that I was determined to keep awake.
“Are you sure I’m only your second female lover?” she purred as we lay in each other’s arms two hours later, the tent flap open, our eyes gazing up at the swaying branches with their fresh green leaves and the blue sky above. I felt insanely proud—and I immediately wanted more and pulled her back into the tent, zipping up the flap. Where Alison was gentle, Al was strong. Where Alison was sweet, Al was feisty. She liked to play games and roles and I played along, our imaginations tangling with the leaves above the tent, or the gauze curtains that hung around the bed in her small flat in the Moseley neighbourhood of Birmingham, where she told me, often, that I was beautiful. Martin had never said this to me, and I liked it. I even began to think it might be true. She liked my eyes, my lips, my smile, my body. She liked every part of me, and every part of me liked her back in gratitude. She made sure I enjoyed myself in bed, which to her was a playground, not a battleground, where words were sweet, sexy, and witty, not cruel, unkind, and hurtful.
But Al was busy. While she was mine as often as I could make it to Birmingham, for three nights a week she entertained her other female lover from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and for two nights, her boyfriend, Rick, an anarcho-punk fan of On the Rag, and a former lover of Zephyr’s. Al managed to keep her three lovers neatly apart for the most part, and it helped that I was busy, too, at the peace camp, too busy to notice, really, that I was far more in love with her than she was with me, and that when she told me that I should never rely on her, I should have taken notice.
About the author:
Stephanie Davies is a writer who worked for many years in communications for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the United States. A UK native, Stephanie moved to New York in 1991, where she taught English Composition at Long Island University in Brooklyn and led research trips to Cuba. Before moving to New York, she co-edited a grassroots LGBTQ magazine in Brighton called A Queer Tribe. Stephanie earned a French and ESL teaching degree from Aberystwyth University in Wales, and a BA in European Studies from Bath University, England. She grew up in a small rural village in Hampshire, where much of her first book, Other Girls Like Me, takes place. At the age of 22, Stephanie joined a women’s peace camp outside a US military base at Greenham Common in Newbury, a life-changing experience that is at the heart of Other Girls Like Me. Today, Stephanie divides her time between Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley, New York where she lives with her wife, Bea, and rescue dog, Pongo. (Photo features her former beloved dog, Emma Peel.)
Convinced and conquered, wet and eager, I watch you sleep after walking through the door of this room in a house owned by a mutual friend who refuses to take sides in the civil war. You and I are in different camps—that’s why we split up a year ago. There is a truce and I’m supposed to write an article about this border between void and oblivion, but really I’m here because I still love you. You must be so tired—you didn’t even turn off the dim yellow lamp on the bedside table. Your military uniform lies wrinkled on the chair: a chemist turned warrior. It’s cold but you sleep safe wrapped in thick covers that reveal only the curve of your calf, the fine muscles of your arm, your neck. I take in your profile, the blunt, straight line of your nose coming down from your brow. I walk in, close the door, take off my leather jacket, leave it on the only chair in the room. I lean over you tenderly and adjust the blankets on your body. I want to be them and touch all of your skin in a single caress. I lie down next to you. You accept my presence, you are asleep. Are you awake? Barely touching, I brush my nose along the back of your neck to your ear; the scent is yours alone. I feel you stir and I wrap my left arm around you. You lean closer, you know it’s me holding you. My breasts test their firmness against your back. My other hand props up my head. You open your eyes but don’t look at me right away. My fingers caress your belly and start moving up. You shift away shyly; I don’t insist, I kiss your neck, I’ve never stopped loving you, not even for a day, I whisper. I want to enjoy your left breast, feel it fill my hand once again, coax forth the hardness of your nipple. You wriggle impatiently; we’ve been lying on our side and you turn to face me. You meet my waiting mouth, I keep it pressed against yours; I tilt my head ever so slightly, my right arm cradling your shoulders and neck. At the slightest movement of my lips, yours part shyly. I envelop your lips with mine. I am the one driving the kiss, its intensity, duration, the right amount of moisture, the exact movement of my tongue: just the tip. It’s a long kiss, a recognition, a reuniting. I am here to give in, I know that. You try to stop me. I watch your dark eyes say yes and your lips say no. You sit up. I pull you towards me. Now I am the one offering you my mouth, wrapping myself around your neck, the one waiting to be possessed in an embrace, whispering in your ear make me yours, do whatever you want with me, I’ll give you anything you ask for, you hold me. I am still half dressed, which bothers you, humiliates you a little. My being clothed highlights your nakedness. You’ve always slept naked, but it’s too cold tonight. Did you know I’d come see you? I pull away for a moment, look at you, I see fragility, hold you, rock you, say what I came here to tell you: I surrender. You say nothing. Minutes pass between embraces, kisses of varying intensity, caressing one another’s backs and hair. I face you and take off my t-shirt. You caress my breasts slowly, then harder; my neck arches back (I missed you so much) my eyebrows meet (I wanted you so badly) my mouth opens, I moan. The precision, the swiftness of your tongue, the way you open your mouth and envelop my nipple—I’ve always loved it. We change positions, you let me take over, laying you back and working my way down to your breasts. I’m gentle, running my closed mouth over the tips before tasting them, I kiss them patiently, squeeze the nipples between two fingers, stroke them with the tip of one. You start to arch your back, to moan, to lose control. You spread your thighs, wanting me to get between them. I do, taking care to put only the right amount of weight on top of you. We move to a slow beat, at exactly the same rhythm, touching each other’s faces, hair, a caress that envelopes the entire body, focused, at times gazing at each other, burying my face in your neck, clinging to each other with hot tenderness because in the midst of this danger we are the life we have left. A long kiss heralds the brewing storm; I return to your breasts their master, unleashed, I taste them, take them in my mouth. My hand caresses your vulva, you open up languorously, I hold back, barely touch your clitoris. Your hand on mine says you want more. My middle finger rubs lightly up and down and back again. I rise to your mouth and while I kiss you I bring my fingers down to the opening of your vagina and hold them there. You stop me, lay me back on the bed, strip off what’s left of my clothes, and our bodies emulsify into a dance that lasts minutes; you are on top of me, you ride me patient and knowing, taming my restlessness while I hold on to your shoulders and ask you to keep going. My body accepts your rhythm, your weight, the way you nibble on my ears, your haughty kiss of lip against lip, your conquering tongue, then a precise bite to give the slightest pain, a pain soothed by the tenderness of your next kiss. The rhythm changes, our kisses sweeter, our movement more measured. Fuck me, I beg, you cradle me in your arms for an instant. You search between my thighs, put just the right pressure on my clitoris, then enter me with two cautious fingers. You go slow to drive me mad. I asked for a truce, hold on love, I said with such tenderness that you let me go without complaint. In an instant my face was between your legs. Your pearl peeked through, round and full. The tip of my tongue ran from the opening of your vagina to your erect clitoris, and stopped: first a light touch… shudder… again. Pressing down, I lick lightly at first and, hearing your moans, your “faster,” I lick furiously, wrap my lips around your pearl and suck, breathe in your vanilla scent, your carefully shaved and manicured hair. Your vulva is beautiful, its flesh pink, outer lips as perfectly contoured as the inner. My tongue is precise on your clitoris, pleasure draws out your moans. Then you say, “Like that, fuck me.” My fingers enter your vagina and your anus and a minute later your spasms begin: I feel the first tremor on my tongue and contractions around my fingers, rhythmic, harder at first, then softer. Your moans are irregular, then longer and more sustained. You come. You push me away, exhausted, sweet, moaning, quivering. You feel my face next to yours and caress it without opening your eyes.
You don’t forgive me for your submission. You take your time turning me over, I know what you want, my knees and elbows meet the bed. I arch my back and moan, does it hurt, no, maybe a little, you thrust, you go deeper, yes, it hurts a little, I gasp for air as an orgasm shakes me deep inside. I bury my face in the bed, utterly invaded. Mild orgasms are followed by deeper tremors. Your fingers pull a deep, visceral groan out of me, an orgasm full of spasms. We are tired but a few minutes later you are in front of me, I grab the back of your neck, kiss you, my finger caressing your most secret opening forgiving and tender, your thighs wide open, your right middle finger touching your clit. I want to see your face while you have another orgasm. I lay you back on the bed, enter you with my right hand and press my fingers up towards your belly. My left hand behind your neck is pulling you down, your dark eyes are glistening, you flush all the way to your throat, accept the pleasure I’m giving you, out of loneliness? out of need? for the past? for love? The wetness that allows my hand to slip inside you is your gift to me. I stroke your clit with my thumb: your dark eyes open even wider, your pupils dilate, you blink, furrow your brow; an expression of slight pain and extreme pleasure, I can see your teeth, your pink tongue. You look at me almost startled, with secret defiance, scream under your breath, climax. Then your sharp, swift tongue draws out my last orgasm almost at the edge of fainting. In the morning I wake up in your arms, your forehead against the back of my neck. I ask you: what’s going to happen with us now? You say nothing. Are you really asleep?
Salimos del amor
como de una catástrofe aérea
Convencida y vencida, húmeda y anhelante, te contemplo dormida luego de abrir la puerta del cuarto en el que duermes en la casa de una amiga común que se niega a tomar partido en la guerra civil. Tú y yo estamos en bandos distintos y por eso nos separamos hace un año. Hay una tregua y debo hacer un reportaje sobre esta frontera entre la nada y el olvido, pero en realidad estoy aquí porque te sigo amando. Qué cansada debes estar pues ni siquiera apagaste una débil luz amarillenta que tienes en la mesa cerca de tu cama. Tu uniforme militar está arrugado en una silla: una química trocada en guerrera. Hace frío pero tú duermes confiada entre cobijas gruesas que te envuelven y que solo dejan ver una pantorrilla torneada, un brazo finamente musculoso, el cuello. Disfruto tu perfil, la nariz que surge del entrecejo con un trazo contundente y recto. Entro, cierro, me quito la chaqueta de cuero, la dejo en la única silla. Con ternura me inclino sobre ti, arreglo las cobijas sobre tu cuerpo. Quiero ser esas cobijas para tocar toda tu piel en una sola caricia. Me acuesto a tu lado. Aceptas mi presencia, estás dormida, ¿estás despierta? Recorro apenas rozándote con mi nariz tu cuello desde la nuca hasta tu oreja; el olor es solo tuyo. Siento tu estremecimiento y te envuelvo con el brazo izquierdo, te acomodas, sabes que soy yo quien te abraza. Mis pechos prueban su dureza en tu espalda. Mi otra mano sostiene mi cabeza. Abres los ojos pero no me miras de inmediato. Con los dedos comienzo a recorrer tu vientre y empiezo a subir. Haces un gesto tímido intentando evitarlo; no insisto, beso tu cuello, no he dejado de amarte nunca, ni un día, murmuro. Quisiera disfrutar tu pecho izquierdo, volver a sentir de nuevo que me llena la mano, tentar el endurecimiento de tu pezón. Haces un gesto de inquietud; hemos estado de costado y te das la vuelta para enfrentarme. Tropiezas con mi boca que te espera, la mantengo sobre la tuya; apenas ladeo la cabeza, mi brazo derecho se acomoda en tu nuca y hombros, mis labios hacen apenas un movimiento sobre los tuyos que se entreabren con un gesto tímido. Envuelvo tus labios con los míos, soy yo la que conduce el beso, la intensidad, el tiempo que durará, el punto justo de humedad, el movimiento exacto de la lengua: apenas la punta. Es un beso largo, de reconocimiento, de reencuentro. Aquí vine a claudicar, lo sé. Tratas de detenerme, observo tus ojos negros que dicen que sí y tus labios que dicen que no. Te sientas, te atraigo hacia mí. Soy yo quien te ofrece la boca, la que rodea tu cuello, la que espera el abrazo que posee, la que te murmura a tu oído hazme tuya, haz lo que quieras conmigo, te daré lo que pidas, me abrazas. Todavía estoy a medio vestir, eso te molesta, te humilla un poco. El que yo esté con ropa enfatiza tu desnudez. Siempre has dormido desnuda, pero hace demasiado frío. ¿O sabías que vendría a verte? Te separo un momento de mí, te miro, veo fragilidad, te abrazo, te acuno, te digo lo que vine a decirte: me rindo. No contestas, pasan minutos entre abrazos, besos de variada intensidad, caricias en la espalda, en el cabello. Frente a tu rostro me quito la franela, me acaricias los pechos lentamente y luego de un modo más intenso; mi cuello se arquea (te extrañaba tanto) mi entrecejo se une (te deseaba tanto) mi boca se abre, gimo. La precisión, la rapidez de tu lengua, la forma de abrir la boca y cubrir el pezón siempre me han gustado. Vamos cambiando de posición, me dejas hacer cuando te recuesto y bajo a tus pechos. Los trato con gentileza, mi boca cerrada los recorre antes de probarlos, te los beso con paciencia, presiono tus pezones entre dos dedos, los acaricio con la yema del índice, empiezas a arquearte, a gemir, a perder el control. Abres tus muslos, quieres que me acomode entre ellos. Lo hago, cuidando no exceder el peso justo sobre tu cuerpo. Nos movemos llevando un compás suave, exactamente al mismo ritmo, tocándonos las caras, el cabello, en una caricia que incluye todo el cuerpo, concentradas, mirándonos a veces, escondiendo mi cara en tu cuello, aferrándonos con ternura de alta temperatura la una a la otra porque en medio de este peligro somos la vida que nos queda.Un beso largo indica la tempestad en ciernes; regreso a tus pechos dueña y sin freno, los pruebo, los envuelvo con mi boca. Mi mano acaricia tu vulva, te abres sin apuro, me contengo, apenas rozo tu clítoris. Tu mano en la mía indica que quieres más. Mi dedo medio presiona suavemente de arriba hacia abajo y viceversa. Subo a tu boca y mientras te beso bajo a la entrada de tu vagina y dejo los dedos justo en la entrada. Me detienes, me recuestas, me quitas lo que me queda de ropa y nuestros cuerpos se emulsionan en una danza que dura minutos; estás sobre mí, me jineteas paciente y sabia, me amansas la inquietud mientras te sujeto por los hombros y te pido que sigas. Mi cuerpo acepta tu ritmo, tu peso, tu forma de mordisquear mis orejas, tu beso altanero de labio contra labio, tu lengua vencedora, un mordisco preciso que da un levísimo dolor, dolor curado por la ternura de tu beso siguiente. El ritmo es otro, los besos más dulces, el movimiento más acompasado. Penétrame, te pido, me acunas por un instante en tu regazo. Buscas entre mis muslos, me tocas el clítoris con la frotación exacta, al rato introduces dos dedos, cuidadosa. Eres lenta para enloquecerme. Te pedí una tregua, ya va amor, te dije con tanta ternura que me soltaste sin chistar. En un instante tenía mi rostro en tu bajo vientre. Tu perla asomaba redonda y plena. La punta de la lengua recorrió desde la entrada de tu vagina hasta el clítoris erecto y se detuvo: primeo un toque …estremecimiento…Otro. Presionar, lamer con levedad primero y ante tus gemidos, tu “más rápido”, lamer velozmente, envolver tu perla con los labios y chuparla, sentir tu olor a vainilla, los vellos cuidadosamente afeitados y puestos en su lugar. Tu vulva es hermosa, su carne es rosada, los labios mayores están tan bien modelados como los menores. Mi lengua es precisa con tu clítoris, el placer te arranca gemidos. Luego me dices “Así, cógeme”. Te penetro con mis dedos por la vagina y el ano y al minuto los espasmos comienzan: siento el primer sismo en mi lengua y las contracciones en mis dedos, rítmicas, primero más fuertes, luego más leves. Los gemidos son irregulares hasta hacerse cada vez más largos y sostenidos. Terminas. Me apartas, agotada, dulce, gimiente, temblorosa. Luego cuando sientes mi rostro cerca del tuyo, lo acaricias sin abrir los ojos.No me perdonas tu entrega. Me volteas sin apuro, sé lo que quieres, mis rodillas y mis codos van a la cama. Me arqueo y gimo, te duele, no, quizás duela un poco, te hincas, te afincas, sí, duele un poco, jadeo mientras el orgasmo tiembla en el vientre. Recuesto la cara de la cama, completamente invadida. A los orgasmos leves ya ocurridos sucederían las sacudidas mayores. Tus dedos me sacan un gemido profundo y visceral, un orgasmo pleno de espasmos. Estamos cansadas pero unos minutos después estás delante de mí, te sujeto por la nuca, te beso, mi dedo te acaricia tu orificio más secreto de modo clemente y tierno, tus muslos estás abiertos, tocas tu clítoris con tu dedo medio derecho. Quiero ver tus gestos mientras tienes otro orgasmo. Te recuesto en la cama, te penetro con la mano derecha y sigo la ruta hacia el vientre, muevo los dedos hacia arriba, presionando. Mi mano izquierda en tu nuca está jalándote hacia abajo, los ojos negros te brillan, enrojeces hasta el cuello, aceptas el placer que te doy ¿por soledad, por necesidad, por el pasado, por amor? Esa humedad que facilita el deslizarse de mi mano dentro de ti es un regalo que me haces. Acaricio tu clítoris con el pulgar: tus ojos negros se abren todavía más, las pupilas dilatan, parpadeas, frunces levemente el entrecejo; es la cara de dolor leve del placer extremo, veo tus dientes, tu lengua rosada. Me miras como extrañada, con secreta rebeldía, gritas ahogadamente, culminas. Luego tu lengua afilada y rápida extrae mi último orgasmo casi al borde del desmayo. En la mañana me despierto abrazada por ti, tu frente está en mi nuca. Te pregunto: ¿y ahora qué pasará con nosotras? No contestas. ¿De verdad estarás dormida?
Texto perteneciente a En rojo.Narración coral. Caracas, Alfa, 2011.
Gisela Kozak-Rovero is a Venezuelan writer. Bachelor’s Degree in Literature (Central University of Venezuela); Master´s Degree in Latin American Literature and PhD in Literature (Simón Bolívar University). Full Professor at the Central University of Venezuela, where she worked for 25 years. Eleven books published (academic research, essay, short story, novel). Dozens of papers in academic journals. Letras Libres and Literal Magazine columnist. Op-Ed, short story and chronicles in Les Temps Modernes, Latin American Literature Today, Gaceta del Fondo de Cultura Económica, La Razón (Mexico), El Malpensante, Diálogo Político, Vogue, Altaïr, The New York Times.Part of her academic and literary work has been translated into French, Portuguese, English and Slovenian. Sylvia Molloy Award for the best paper on Gender and Sexuality (LASA, 2009). She currently lives in Mexico City.
María José Giménez is a poet, translator, and editor whose work has received support from the NEA, the Studios at MASS MoCA, the Breadloaf Translators’ Conference, Canada Council for the Arts, and the Banff International Literary Translation Centre. María José is the 2019–2021 Poet Laureate of Easthampton, Massachusetts, author of CHELATED (Belladonna*), and winner of the American Academy of Poets Ambroggio Prize (Mara Pastor’s DEUDA NATAL/NATAL DEBT, with Anna Rosenwong).
Anna Rosenwong is a translator and developmental editor. Her work has been honored with the Best Translated Book Award, the American Academy of Poets Ambroggio Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, and the American Literary Translators Association. Her publications include Rocío Cerón’s Diorama and here the sun’s for real, selected translations of José Eugenio Sánchez. Her scholarly and creative work has been featured in such venues as World Literature Today, The Kenyon Review, and Modern Poetry Today.
Hila Amit Translated from Hebrew by Daniella Zamir
We stood in the kitchen, two women facing pile upon pile of dirty dishes. I assumed we were going to leave the washing up for the morning, but Yehudit wouldn’t hear of it. We started at midnight. Yehudit soaped and rinsed, and I dried and returned everything to the kitchen cupboards. I couldn’t keep up with her. We stood there for nearly three hours, until her knees started to tremble. When we reached the cutlery, I took over her post at the sink, and she sat down on a little stool beside me. My lower back was aching, a sharp, shooting pain. Either the sink was the wrong height, or I was. Finally, when only some pieces of vegetables and chicken remained, and the water wouldn’t drain, I stuck my hand in. With five fingers I collected the goop and threw it into the garbage bag under the sink. My mom never used gloves. Scooping up slime didn’t disgust her. Other things did. When we finished, Yehudit insisted I spend the night. To this day I don’t have a driver’s license, and a taxi in the middle of the night would have cost over a hundred shekels. She rushed to make Grace’s bed for me, thwarting any thoughts of escape. It was the first stage in her process of moving me into her house, so I’d be close by, a surrogate.
Yehudit coped with her grief while cooking, eating and cleaning. It served as a kind of catharsis, prying chickens open with her fingers, stuffing them with onions, honey, tomatoes, washing dishes and putting them back in their place. During the shiva they hadn’t let her cook—everyone was doting on her, no one let her out of their sight.
“They followed me to the bathroom!” she groused after the shiva was over. “It was all they could do not to stand next to me when I was taking a dump, just to make sure I wasn’t drowning myself in the toilet.” It was mostly her sisters she was talking about, since by then her mother could barely walk.
“By the last day I had it up to here,” she said, and held a flat hand under her chin. “By the end I really wanted to die, but not because of Grace. Because they wouldn’t let me breathe.”
They took over her house. Her older brothers arrived before the funeral and assumed command over the operation, rearranging the furniture. The buffet and dining table were moved into Grace’s room. Mattresses were brought over and spread across the floor. The two small sofas were taken out into the yard and covered with plastic sheets. They attached a note: Property of the Marciano family, sitting shiva on the third floor.
Her brothers called the shots, relegating Netanel to the sidelines. But even before, it hadn’t felt like his home for some time. For forty years he’d been coming and going, bumming around, sometimes sleeping next to Yehudit and other times on the living room sofa. He’d often disappear for long periods, staying at his mother’s in Holon or somewhere else. He’d get clean and then relapse, and you couldn’t trace any patterns, find any causation. Like a stray cat who has been taken in and tamed but sometimes gets the inexplicable urge to go back and roll around in torn garbage bags, gnaw on chicken bones, stay outside for days on end.
When I was little I thought he looked like Zohar Argov’s twin brother. There was something masculine about him, rugged, ugly and handsome at the same time, and Grace’s feelings for him—she told me so herself—oscillated between love and hate, depending on his most recent actions: how much money he had gambled away, how big a bouquet he had brought her mother, how far he had taken her when she asked for a ride to Tel Aviv. I got to know him the way I had gotten to know Grace—both were standouts in the neighborhood. I’d see him driving her around, making a big show of it, windows rolled down, music blaring, cassettes of Filfel Al-Masri, The Sounds of the Kerem, and Zohar Argov. He’d trill along with the songs, but quietly, to himself.
At the shiva Netanel kept quiet, didn’t complain, not even about the prayers. He let Yehudit’s brothers run the show, and with a kind of aching inertia, settled on the farthest mattress, the one pushed against the wall. Indulging in this renewed attachment to his home, to a sense of family, he once again felt comfortable in his living room, whose furniture had been twice repossessed due to his debts.
Everyone shook his hand, kissed him. Even Yehudit’s brothers. Only her sisters ignored him: didn’t offer him coffee even once, never served him a plate at mealtime. Yehudit was caught in the middle—wouldn’t sit on the mattress with him, refused to acknowledge his pain, but at night she didn’t have the heart to tell him: you can’t sleep here, there’s no place for you here anymore
Everybody together, that’s how they, or we, did shivas: relatives were supposed to sleep in the same room, inches from the floor, regardless of age or slipped disks. They were a small family, Yehudit, Netanel and Grace, but Yehudit’s siblings also stayed for the seven days of mourning. Netanel’s family, his brothers and sisters, only showed up for brief visits. They had never been close, would only see Yehudit and Grace once a year. They almost never celebrated holidays together.
The rules were clear: mirrors were to be covered with sheets, showers were forbidden, as was changing clothes. Sometimes I felt as though smiling wasn’t allowed either. Only the prayers weren’t restricted, they prayed like there was no tomorrow.
On the third day, Yehudit asked me to cover for her. They were all napping, and she got up from her mattress and went to the kitchen, tiptoeing between the men. I followed her to the bathroom and stood guard. We agreed that if someone showed up in the hallway, I’d come in and yell “busy!” She wanted to take a shower, felt smelly and gross, was tiring of all the rules. I snuck her a clean bra, a pair of panties, and a fresh undershirt from her closet. She wore her torn black blouse and her skirt over the clean undergarments, quickly blow-dried her hair and tousled it, blurring any evidence of the shower. We barely had an hour, and we pulled it off without a hitch. After she came out of the bathroom, she returned to the living room and settled on the mattress next to her brothers, who were starting to wake up. Holding her belly, she said: “My stomach’s acting up.”
For the unveiling of the tombstone we prepared a big meal. I rode in on the first bus from Bat Yam. She wouldn’t let anyone else help her. Only me. I did everything she asked, except for handling the meat—I wouldn’t touch the chickens, or the minced meat she piled into the plastic bowl. Pinching it between her fingers, she fashioned small balls, flattened them onto a pan and drowned them in oil.
“These were Grace’s favorite meatballs, in tomato sauce, she used to wolf them down.”
I was handed some potatoes to slice paper-thin and press against the bottom of the rice pots. I agreed to roll and cook the gondi balls if Yehudit first stuffed them with the meat. After filling the kibbeh with pine nuts and onion, I inserted the meat with a spoon, careful not to touch. I was appointed guardian of the fire, making sure the mauda would cook properly and that the rice wouldn’t burn.
At noon we drove to the Yarkon cemetery. The car crept cautiously along the narrow trails. I thought Yehudit must have studied the route before we left, but then I learned that she had been making daily trips to the cemetery all week, driving up there each morning with a small stool on which she sat in front of the mound of dirt, cleaning the white plastic sign with a damp rag around the name written in black marker. Careful not to erase any letters.
There was something liberating about that meal. When everyone left Yehudit felt it was finally over, that from now on they’d let her get back to her life, experience the mourning the way she wanted to. Alone. With me.
She insisted that no one help her clean and sent everyone home, standing at the door, smiling. The pictures were hung back on the walls and the large mirror next to the door restored to its rightful place. I noticed her gaze as she stood in the doorway, saying goodbye to everyone. Leave already, her eyes pleaded beneath their feigned expression. Leave, I want my house back.
For the shiva meal they had brought over a folding table from the neighbors to join the one in the dining room, and they still had the plastic chairs from the synagogue. It was cramped. The women didn’t sit, they ate standing, presiding over the meal from the kitchen, making sure there was food on everyone’s plate. Yehudit wouldn’t sit down either, despite everyone’s attempts, despite the blatant breach of tradition, despite her brothers. They all tried, and failed. She had had enough of sitting, enough of the way they all looked at her. She preferred to bustle about, keeping at bay the thoughts that might assail her if she took a seat and let them loose.
“This is Grace’s best friend,” she introduced me to anyone who didn’t already know. Except for Netanel I hadn’t met any of them up close until then, only saw them around the neighborhood when they came by for a visit. Yehudit wasn’t especially close to them, they began growing apart back when they told her not to marry Netanel and she wouldn’t listen. She was nineteen at the time, a soldier approaching the end of her service. She had met him in the army, he would drive her every weekend from the female instructors’ apartment in Dimona all the way to her house in Azor. Her father summoned her for a serious talk, but she wouldn’t relent. It was a small wedding.
There was only one photo of the chuppah. Her parents to the couple’s right and Netanel’s mother to their left. His father had passed away years earlier. They got married in a small synagogue on Ben Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv, without a photographer. A friend of Netanel’s came, took a few pictures, got drunk and ended up in the back seat of the groom’s car, snoring. The following day someone found the camera under one of the chairs in the synagogue. Netanel went to pick it up, had the film developed, bought a photo album. There were fewer than thirty photos. All of them yellowing, faded.
She soon got pregnant, and they had to find a house. Netanel had grown up in Bat Yam and Yehudit in Azor, where they found a cheap apartment in a public housing project. When Grace was born, Yehudit’s mother forgave her for everything and came over three times a day, morning, noon and night, to help with the baby.
Yehudit wasn’t ashamed, didn’t try to hide it. If someone asked her, she’d reply bluntly, openly. Grace was the one who suggested she not talk about it. It wasn’t easy in the neighborhood we grew up in. We had to learn very carefully who we could tell, and what repercussions it would have. We had been together on and off for almost nine years, and Yehudit knew right from the start. Grace didn’t even have to tell her, they were so close, and Yehudit supported her fully. “Don’t be afraid to be you,” she always used to tell Grace.
That’s also what tied Yehudit and me together: not only our shared close- ness to Grace, but her unequivocal support of what we had grown up to be, her unreserved show of love, so different from what my mother demonstrated, only a block away.
Yehudit tried talking to her once, but my mother told her to get lost. She was nearly a decade older than Yehudit and wasn’t about to be schooled by her, certainly not on the subject of child rearing. Grace and I waited at the bottom of the stairwell and heard Yehudit descending the three flights. She didn’t say anything when she joined us, but you could see the disappointment in her eyes.
“Come, girls, I’ll make you something to eat.”
Grace was thirty-one years old by then, and I was twenty-two, and those nine years stretched between us like half a century. Grace took me by the hand, led me to their home the way one leads a child. I’d never felt like such a little girl before. That was the breaking point, I gave up on my mother. Only it wasn’t clear who was doing the walking away, me or her.
Yehudit once told me the entire story, the one I never got to hear from my own mother. At the time, Grace was travelling to the States for four months, and before she left she made me promise I’d visit Yehudit once a week. I kept my promise. It wasn’t as if I had anywhere else to go. Shabbat dinners at Yehudit’s were the highlight of my week during all those Graceless months.
Yehudit told me that one night her family and others were driven from the absorption center to a moshav down south. They took one crowded bus after another, until the last bus came to a halt. They were housed in shacks, each family allotted a small piece of land. Her mother worked in the sewing workshop and continued to birth more and more children. Her father, who had been a fabric merchant back in Iran, was placed in a textile factory. My mother’s family arrived during the same wave of immigration, but my mother was the eldest child, born over there, while Yehudit was the youngest in her family. I always wondered whether that was what made them so different, whether a ten-year gap and different place of birth could determine what kind of mother you’d be.
Yehudit was told that her older sisters had carried her in a sling on their backs while they raked leaves, hoed, dug furrows and planted seeds. When she was a little older she too contributed to the family effort. On Fridays, all the families would pick vegetables from their gardens and trade with each other, cooking whatever was in season.
She remembered the moshav only vaguely. She was six when they were moved to the more centrally located town of Azor and put up in an abandoned Arab house whose front door had been ripped off its hinges during the war. She remembered her older brothers’ friends standing in the doorway and whistling, since there was nothing to knock on. It took a few years until the tenements were built and Azor evolved into the enclave it is to this day, forty streets trapped between Holon and the highways, with nowhere to expand.
“You’ve never wondered whose house it was?” I asked Yehudit the first time she told me the story.
“The way we grew up,” she replied, “we didn’t ask questions.”
I have no idea how I got the nerve to go up to Grace like that, to offer myself to her, to undress, press up against her, without waiting to see how she’d react, to draw my lips to hers before she’d have the chance to start thinking, analyzing, objecting, evading. I learned how to approach her from the dozens of books and films that sparked my imagination in the cramped apartment or at the small, boring school, which offered hours upon hours of classes but not one moment of creativity. What I took from all the female and male characters I had studied and merged into a single being that was me, from all those heroines but also a few of the men—was the boldness; I knew what needed to be done, but until the moment of truth I didn’t really know how I’d go about it. And mostly I didn’t know how Grace would react.
I didn’t mind that she was so much older than me. On the contrary, every white hair I’d find on her, every thin wrinkle that hid behind her smile, only made me love her more, crave her more, until this craving became my entire world. That I might scare her off didn’t terrify me half as much as the thought of losing my chance to make her mine, by which I mean, mine in every possible way.
For two or three years she had been with this guy who hung around the neighborhood, I remember his Mazda, his look, how he used to dress. I remember them walking hand in hand from the building to the car, and from the car to the building. I remember them making out at the entrance to the building at night, for the whole neighborhood to see from their windows, peeking from behind the shutters, everyone but Yehudit, who didn’t mind one way or another.
Grace told me everything about him, how she loved him, how she thought she’d marry him. And later about her pregnancy, and how the guy disappeared, just walked out on her, and about her dilemma over whether to keep the baby or not. Eventually the decision was made for her—the fetus developed outside the womb, almost crushing her internal organs. She told me how Yehudit took her to the emergency room, that they gave her a shot and waited for her body to discharge the fetus. For three weeks she didn’t stop bleeding, an incessant menstruation, rivers of blood bringing her to the brink of passing out every night.
And there were other men after him, all of them uninteresting. Brief attachments, sad nights, unrelenting thoughts about how to live alone in this world and what would become of her.
And at the same time, girls. It had always been there. A little yes, a little no. Coming and going, this thing that scared her more than anything. She always made fun of herself, how she hadn’t dared try it until she was twenty-nine. “I needed a girl who was virtually a teenager to make me step outside my comfort zone,” she’d say afterwards.
And even then she wouldn’t define it, refused to label it. As far as she was concerned it was simply being with me, as if it didn’t say anything about her. I was the only one she loved. But during our breakups, bouncing back and forth like a yoyo, it was always other women she found, never men. And yet she insisted till the end that she liked both, insisted until she ran out of time to make up her mind.
After we broke up the first time, there was a long period during which we had agreed we shouldn’t talk, mustn’t meet. One Saturday evening during that dismal stretch, Yehudit called to invite me over for dinner. She said Grace was out with friends and she didn’t feel like eating alone. I no longer had anyone to eat with. My already loose ties to my family had become even looser, almost entirely severed. I hesitated but went. We sat at the small table on the balcony. I had brought a scraggly bouquet, like a stranger, and we spent the entire evening talking about Grace.
“She’s not the woman for you,” she said, trying to encourage me. I got defensive.
“And Netanel wasn’t the man for you, but you still got married.”
She didn’t bat an eyelash. A moment passed, and she said: “I was young and stupid, you’re older and smarter.”
That whole year in which Grace and I stayed away from each other, Yehudit continued to invite me to monthly Saturday night dinners. I’d exit my building at the end of the block, walking slowly, trying not to seem eager.
A few years later, when we were once again inseparable, we got stranded in a small town in the south of Spain. There were no trains, the buses were stuck at the station, and it was a long, hot afternoon. We sat on the grass opposite the small central bus station, spread Yehudit’s scarf on the ground and had an impromptu picnic. We laughed, talked, and time stood still. We brought up all kinds of things even from the periods we had spent apart, which was when I learned that they had planned it all, every one of those dinners. Grace would go out just so I wouldn’t be alone on a Saturday night.
She relinquished her mother to me. Once a month, she lent me her mother.
Our relationship stretched between the streets of Azor and our vacations, which began to take on a new familial structure, with Yehudit’s photo albums arranging and framing us, 4×6 photos in loaded albums, the place and date scribbled on the back of each photo.
The first time I joined them on a family vacation was to Sinai. Sinai was my post-military discharge trip, and Grace and Yehudit had organized it. Grace and I were in the early stages of our love story, and the future seemed bright and sweet, if also incredibly empty—I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. All I wanted was to move out of my parents’ house, leave Azor, get away.
Every moment of that vacation was full of contradictions. It was my second time abroad, and the first without my family. I was no longer a soldier; the world was seemingly my oyster, brimming with possibility. But I spent every moment, even behind my smiles, counting the nights, the hours, the time that remained until I’d have to go home and acknowledge that my adult life was about to begin, and ask myself what I was planning to do with it. This abstract sense of freedom alongside the vague commitment to do something—namely, not be like my mother, not settle for getting married and being a teacher—left me paralyzed.
Grace and Yehudit would go to Sinai every year, and weren’t as excited to be there as I was. They just watched me, the way I observed everything, the smile plastered across my face, my awe at every new discovery: the sun setting behind the mountains, rising over the sea, the possibility of getting so far away from the shore, of letting the deep blue of the ocean engulf me, the possibility of floating among the fish. The discovery of rest: the possibility of a true respite, lying on the mattress with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and not doing a thing, not knowing what time it was, unwinding. Until then I hadn’t even known what a vacation was, what resting was. My body was still stiff, a tightly-wound coil, and it was only on the fourth day that it dawned on me: I was allowed to loaf, no one was looking at me, there was no mother here to tsk-tsk disapprovingly, to remind me that idle hands are the devil’s workshop.
When I try to remember and manage to concentrate, I can’t explain how we allowed ourselves to behave like that in front of Yehudit. We hid it from the Bedouins, but not from her. The closeness between Yehudit and Grace was deep, clear, unshakable. “Were you like this with the others too?” I once asked her, “kissing, touching like this, right in front of your mother?”
“She’d find out anyway. And who do I have to be embarrassed of, my own mother?”
But during those long months in which she skipped out on us in America, Yehudit told me that she had never brought a boy home, not even him—never invited him to join them on family vacations.
And I clung to that, to the uniqueness Yehudit’s words granted me. I clung and held on to it tightly, as if that was all I had in this world.
Istanbul was our second destination. I relished the flight like a child, beaming with excitement as if it were my first time on a plane. I had already rid myself of the memory of the flight to Paris for my brother’s bar mitzvah. It was as if that trip, even its good moments, had never happened. I was still angry at them and struggling to come to terms with the rift between us. But in Istanbul, on the bustling, ever-shifting Turkish soil, it became apparent that there were cracks between Grace and me too.
We loved Istanbul. We came with love, and returned hollowed. Without a single photo. The camera conked out two days before our return flight, deleting every image. We returned home without any documentation of the moments in which, for the first time, we started sensing how it would be to live apart.
We entered the Hagia Sophia in silence. It was morning, and we had walked the entire way from the small hotel without speaking. Every now and then Yehudit would shoot us an uneasy look, shifting her weight from one leg to the other, wiping the condensation off her glasses, mopping her brow with a handkerchief. We parted ways on the second floor. I leaned against the marble railing and looked down at the main hall, staring into space. Yehudit and Grace went off on their own, first taking a right, then retracing their steps and wending toward the left wing. Finally they gestured with their eyes for me to join them.
We argued. It was a silly fight, I don’t even remember what it was about. We were both stubborn, and we had spent the previous night in anger, each burrowing into our own blanket, our backs to each other. It was a heated, stupid argument. Neither of us cried. Or at least I didn’t cry. In my house crying was a sign of defeat. Any shed tears would have hung high in the air like a foreign breeze. I was burdened with this affliction, but I wasn’t the only one; Yehudit suffered from it as well, just as my mother had, as if it was coded into our Persian blood, this notion that crying was weak and futile. It was as if someone on our block, in our neighborhood, had cast a spell, a curse: Cry, and you’ll never be able to stop. The horrors will haunt you, so you better not start. And really, what good would it do?
No, that’s not how this story should be told. Because I do remember, all too well, why we weren’t speaking. What triggered the anger—it was the looks, her flirting with the pretty British girl who had joined our table. The lively Beyoglu district, with so many places we could barely decide where to sit; Istanbul at night: cool, inviting, marvelous. A vegetarian restaurant on a street parallel to İstiklal Avenue had caught my attention when we spotted a pride flag at the end of the alley.
And the blue-eyed, freckled Brit was the kind of girl I’d never be able to get. Grace knew how angry it would make me. And she laughed. Placed her fingers on the girl’s arm, enjoying herself, savoring it.
Busy eating, Yehudit wasn’t paying attention. She didn’t even notice when Grace marveled at the girl’s pendant, resting so casually between her breasts. I can’t remember her name, only the adoring gaze. And the sweat suddenly drenching me, between my fingers, on the back of my neck, and the food, which suddenly tasted bland.
Afterwards, we didn’t speak for an entire day. Not that I thought she’d actually be able to do something like that, be with someone else. It took her months after we broke up. Somehow I was always the first in everything, as I had been the first to initiate things between us, despite the age difference, despite my inexperience with women, my inexperience in general.
After the Hagia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern, feet aching and still neither of us uttering a word, we boarded the tram, grouchy, tired, thirsty. On the dock Yehudit said: “I’m going for a stroll, I’ll meet you girls back at the hotel. When I return I expect to find you two talking, otherwise I’m getting us an early flight back.”
Only forty-eight hours remained of our trip, but we had no doubt Yehudit was capable of carrying out her threat. She stood on the dock waiting for us to board and took the next tram back to Taksim Square. We squeezed in, standing on both sides of a pole in the middle of the car. I smiled. If it hadn’t been for Yehudit, I doubt anything would have changed between us. Grace offered me her free hand. I grabbed it. Tightly. The tram came to a screeching halt. We held onto the pole, held onto each other. We weren’t afraid to kiss anywhere expect in Azor. Not even in the middle of Istanbul, in the summer, a city of sixteen million Muslims.
Our acquaintance might have seemed coincidental to the outside eye. A relationship between neighbors that happened to evolve into a close friendship. But that wasn’t the case. Coincidence had nothing to do with our story until the final chord, until the accident—being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
After all, I had grown up a stone’s throw from her. And everything I knew about her I gleaned from watching her from the third-floor window. And everything that came before our acquaintance, crossing paths on the street, in the grocery store, every such moment is bathed in the faint glow of memory, in the dim whispers of the neighborhood.
She picked me up from the entrance to my building on the rainiest day in the history of Azor. I had gotten back from school drenched, wading through the puddles that formed inside my sneakers and socks. No one was home. The door was locked. I had forgotten my key, and had no idea when my parents or brother would be home. I stood at the bottom of the stairwell, freezing, still clutching my backpack so as not to contaminate it with the mud and muck of the entire block.
Grace passed by me on her way home and yelled: “What happened? Locked out?” I nodded. I didn’t want her to see me like that, but I smiled under my soaked, disheveled hair.
“Come, you can wait at our place. You don’t want to catch a cold.”
I followed her in silence. I didn’t know what to say, couldn’t find the words.
“When are your parents getting home?” she asked. I didn’t know. “Usually at six,” I answered, “but my brother might be back earlier.”
She turned on the water heater, and also the electric heater in the bathroom. I was still waiting by the front door, where I took off my shoes, peeled off my socks and waited for her to throw a towel onto the floor so I wouldn’t drip all over the house.
While we were waiting for the water to get hot, she made us both tea. Afterwards we sat on the edge of the bathtub, where it didn’t matter anymore if I was still dripping. We talked. I instantly made her laugh, roar with laughter. I don’t remember what I said, but the conversation flowed. We had nothing in common, she hadn’t even gone to the same school in Holon as everyone else, and yet we connected.
Beneath the hot water, behind the floral shower curtain, I heard her laying out a towel and dry clothes for me. Her clothes fit perfectly. I could tell from her smile how pleased she was.
The afternoon was filled with loud noises that shook the furniture in the small apartment. As night approached, we opened a window and watched the hail, giant white balls that covered the small parking space in front of the house, covered the road, the world.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted time to stand still. I knew no one would worry at home, that they’d express the same indifference whether I was there when they returned or arrived only at night in clothes that weren’t mine. I didn’t know what I could do to drag out my visit, until I came up with an idea—I offered to cook. That way, I told her, I could return the favor.
I cooked. The one thing I knew how to do back then. I didn’t like it, but I was good at it. My mom had forced me to learn, be her right hand, help out. But with Grace it was different—I enjoyed it. I told her what to do, took control of the kitchen, and she listened. Followed orders, tasted, smiled.
When Yehudit returned in the evening, Grace introduced me. The table was set, and Yehudit sat down. She was thrilled with the food, with me, showered me with compliments. From that evening on, I never left them, and Yehudit never left me.
It was only in brief, blurry moments that one could tell we weren’t a family, a mother and two daughters. The resemblance was overwhelming: our skin tone, our black curls, the narrow eyes Grace and I shared; and Yehudit standing next to us, an older mirror image, a mother. Our interlocked hands and gentle caresses could easily have been mistaken for the affectionate gestures between two sisters, born nine years apart. But she always looked younger, Grace, even at thirty she still used her high school bus pass all over Greater Tel Aviv.
It was the number twenty-six bus from Bat Yam to the Lewinsky Seminar. A bus I’d never taken, and doubt I ever will.
At the intersection where Ibn Gvirol Street becomes Yehuda HaLevi, it ran a red light. Grace was crossing the intersection, moving at a slight diagonal, trying to reach the zebra stripes, when she was sent flying almost thirty feet. Only the passenger at the front of the bus was taken to the hospital, in mild shock. There was no point taking Grace. Her time of death was announced on the spot, moments after the paramedics’ arrival. 5:43 p.m.
The passenger, with whom I spoke over the following days, said the driver had been speeding like a madman from the moment she boarded the bus, one stop before the Gan Ha’ir mall. She also testified against him at the trial. Not that we asked her to. If it had been up to Yehudit, the driver would have gotten away scot-free. She didn’t want to hear anything about the accident, thought it pointless. I went alone to the courthouse to watch the proceedings. She didn’t even want to know the verdict.
The paramedics left it to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute to determine whether Grace had died right away, from the impact of the bus, or only later, when she landed and hit her head against the asphalt. But Yehudit wouldn’t agree to an autopsy. She didn’t want to hear about that either.
“My daughter’s dead and that’s that. What difference does it make knowing the exact moment, or what organ gave in first?”
She didn’t want the details, the gist was enough. I was the only one who gathered every piece of information I could find. Eyewitnesses said they hadn’t seen any blood, or visibly broken bones. Said she had landed out of nowhere, the sound of the thud swallowed by the clamor of the street.
Yehudit was right. The details were pointless. The loss was everything.
No. That’s not true. The bits of information accumulated and bore their way into my nightmares. They lent color and sound and movement to the horrifying images that haunted me day and night.
A day after the shiva ended, we went looking for Yehudit’s car. Grace had parked not far from the site of the accident, on her way to deliver food to the three Tel Aviv families that employed Yehudit as a personal cook. We didn’t know where the car was. We had the keys and a radius of a few blocks to canvas. Yehudit hadn’t been doing the deliveries herself for quite some time, and she had no idea where Grace could have parked.
We rode in from Azor on two buses. I wanted to take a taxi, but Yehudit insisted: “It’s not like we’re in a hurry.” She was right. We weren’t doing anything at the time, neither she nor I. She had taken two weeks off from the families that employed her, and I had gotten fired from the ridiculous job I had at the time. My boss didn’t understand why I had to be absent for an entire week when the deceased wasn’t a close family member. She also wasn’t my partner. It was too complicated to explain, and I preferred to land back on the street as with every other odd job I’d had. The concept of money was barely in the back of my mind, tingling a little like a wayward ant crawling up my thigh.
We couldn’t find the car on Marmorek Street, or on Bilu, and we knew there was no point searching Rothschild Boulevard or Hashmonaim. On this unguided tour of Tel Aviv I discovered streets such as Kiryat Sefer and Toscanini, which I hadn’t even known existed.
We tried Carlebach Street. We even searched along HaShoftim and HaNevi’im, expanding our radius. It was hot. In the middle of the day we sat down at a café opposite the Cinematheque, “Metuka,” and called the Tel Aviv municipality and the towing center near the Carmelit bus terminal. Around two o’clock we decided to try our luck with the parking lots.
We must have made for an absurd sight, laughable, even, as if we were looking for a car that had been left behind for no reason. Yehudit and I staggered on, holding the keyless remote in front of us like a divining rod dowsing for ground- water. Time and again we pressed the alarm button, waiting for the sound that would deliver us from the agony of the search.
It eventually came, a bleak note, from the first in a row of cars in the parking lot on HaArba’a Street. When we got there and saw the small gray Toyota, Yehudit turned pale, almost white, speechless. As if she had expected the car never to be found. That things would remain shrouded in mystery, a loose end.
She opened the driver’s door and sat down behind the wheel. I opened the passenger door but continued to stand outside, my eyes welling up with all the tears I had kept inside for seven days, all through the shiva, all the tears I had choked back nearly my entire life. I cried over the orphaned Toyota, over myself, now orphaned as well. I wept over her scent that still lingered inside, despite the sun, despite all the time that had passed.
And I felt ashamed. I cried, and felt ashamed. Because that’s how I was raised, to be ashamed of my tears. And all I wanted was to let it all out, every last bit of it, to cry on Yehudit’s shoulder. She sat there inside the car, hands on the steering wheel, befuddled, unable to reconcile her former perception of me, tough as nails, with this meltdown of mine. She’d never seen me this shaken before.
And it was in the midst of this meltdown that Yehudit started the car. To this day I don’t know how she kept her calm like that. Every morning I rifled through her bedroom, trying to find tear stains on her pillow, scrunched up tissues under her bed, in the trash can. There was nothing. It passed her right by. Even weeks after the funeral she withstood her grief like a fortified wall. And yet she begged me to stay. Only then did the weakness, the neediness, become apparent.
I couldn’t say no. To this day, I think, there was nothing more right and natural than that move. Than the resettling into Grace’s room, alone this time. A little like going back home, but returning crippled, missing half a brain. Like moving back into your childhood room without half of yourself, of the person you used to be.
Here is the sea: I eagerly take in stretches of beach that never belonged to you and me.
Here is the sea: the waves that neither you nor I swam through on peaceful August nights. Here is the boardwalk we never cycled along on the tourist rental bicycles, or on the old ones lying around our parents’ houses. Here’s the sunset we never gazed at, were never blinded by, the beach on which we never ate watermelon out of Tupperware, cut into large cubes, spitting out the shiny black seeds into the palms of our hands.
Here I am: rearranging the topography, the world, reality without you. I feel I don’t belong to it, I have no desire to move on. There’s nothing waiting for me. You’re already far removed from us, and all the people around me look sallow, blurry, as in an old film shot with a home camera through a smudged lens, everyone familiar and foreign at the same time. Only the sun that sets and disappears, making way for the night, still signals something palpable that once upon a time I could have experienced with you.
My skin is pale, as if it’s not summer outside. My pigments altered, my body refusing to brown like it always does when summer rolls around. I spend all day closed behind four walls, running circles around Yehudit, around myself. Soon one of us will go crazy. Or both of us.
I so want to be with you again.
And there are many more places that aren’t ours. I secretly fantasize about roaming a world that has nothing to do with you, that won’t remind me of you at all. I’m willing to be stripped of everything I have and start anew, from scratch. But we’ve even been to the desert and up north together, and Israel, Israel, it’s so small, there’s no getting away here. And anyway I couldn’t exist anywhere without you. Not really.
I’m torn between the sense of security I’m guaranteed at your mother’s, my mother, and all the futile hassle of searching for a new room, moving in, living among boxes, a mattress on the floor, dust, until I run out of money again, until I have to hit the road again, to emigrate, to live in even dingier places. Or worst of all: to go back to my real mother, to return defeated and withered, to give up on myself.
I’m torn because your mother offers memory that is life itself, without forgetting. I’m torn because I don’t know what’s worse, can’t imagine what’s more wretched between the two: forgetting entirely, or remembering all the time.
Here is the sea: I turn my back to it and promise to return with Yehudit or alone, to choose life. To choose to oscillate between these two options, neither of which guarantees redemption. The way home is slow, the bus to the Holon intersection barely moving, the roads are congested, traffic is at a standstill. My nose is glued to the windowpane and I’m surrounded by the industrial blue of the seats, the incessant traffic between Tel Aviv and Azor, between past and present, stretching from me to you, from you to the sky, from you to me, from now to tomorrow, from my grace and onward, moving on from Grace.
Dr. Hila Amit is an award-winning author. She was born in Israel in 1985 to a Jewish family with Iranian-Syrian ethnic origins. She studied creative writing at the Tel -Aviv University and holds a PhD in the field of Gender Studies from SOAS, University of London. Hila Amit’s fiction appeared in Lilith, Jalta, Emrys Journal & The Washington Square Review. Her short stories collection, Moving On From Bliss (Tel-Aviv: Am Oved, 2016), was awarded the Israeli Ministry of Culture Prize for Debut Authors, and was recently selected as one of the 10 best literary works in Hebrew for the years 2010-2020. Her non-fiction book, A Queer Way Out – The Politics of Queer Emigration from Israel (Albany: SUNY, 2018) was awarded the AMEWS (Association of Middle East Women’s Studies) Book Award. In 2014 she established the International Hebrew School, through which she aims to advance Hebrew learning using a queer, feministic and pluralistic method. She is the co-founder of “Anu אנו نحن: Jews and Arabs Writing in Berlin”, and is curating literary events which bring together Jews and non-Jews with a Middle Eastern heritage together.