The weight of her camera bag pulled the strap tight against Norah’s chest as she lumbered without direction through the alleys of the Old City. She had made it. She was there. She found a way to go back and she was fulfilling her dream. She was in Jerusalem. And she felt like a fool. Tears welled up in her eyes and her throat tightened. She was in the Holy City, wondrous sights and sounds around her, people speaking languages she didn’t recognize or understand. Jews, Christians and Muslims walking past her in their sacred space. It was her first day and her senses were overwhelmed. But all she could think about was him.
She never stopped hoping that he would come back. He had asked her to forget about him but she couldn’t. She thought about him everyday. Knowing he was facing a miserable situation with impossible choices, she worried about him in between sparse communications that revealed little. It was a drastic change from the hour long texting sessions they used to have and the late nights, staying up, baking cookies, drinking wine, flirting and staring at each other.
Norah sat down on a curb and let the tears come out as people flooded past her, ignoring the obvious tourist crying in the street. She was tired and hot. She felt ridiculous, sitting there ruining the fruition of her goal by crying over a boy.
She remembered their first kiss. It was so tender and surprising. His lips were soft and beautiful. Norah could place herself back there at any moment. Sitting on the couch in her little apartment. He kept getting closer to her. He held her hand and put his hand in her hair. “Your hair is so soft,” he said. He put his forehead on hers and she lifted her chin and their lips touched in slow motion. It was a lovely moment.
“You told me to tell you when I was happy,” he wrote her one day. “I arrived home yesterday. I saw my nieces and nephews today. I gave them the gifts. My nephew was excited when I gave him the presidential M&Ms and the baseball. Thank you again. You have been such a good friend to me.” Norah had smiled at that message. She was relieved that he was finally with his family. But that was the last such message she received. His communications became more sparse as the weeks went by.
She tried to forget about him, to see others. But he wouldn’t leave her heart. He was the first man she had met since the long recovery from her disastrous marriage, that she could imagine a future with. She wanted him. She wanted him to come back to her. She fantasized about his return. How he might walk into her apartment, take her face in his hands and ask, “Do you still love me?” And Norah would say, “Yes.” And he would kiss her and they would make love and be together and travel and work and help each other be their best.
The truth had been so much worse. He did come back, reluctantly. He returned a sad, defeated man.
He had not been able to gain the freedom he wanted. He tried to end it, but they insisted. Divorce was not something their families would allow. He couldn’t go against his mother’s wishes and she refused to consider the formal separation. So after months of negotiation, he gave in. He would remain her husband, on paper, as he put it.
So, he ran away again and returned to the states to finish his doctorate. Norah remembered the look on his face when he told her. He had stepped into her apartment and she greeted him with a big smile walking up to him and holding him close, not wanting to let go. He had relaxed in her embrace like it was the first time he could let go, like he was coming home. She knew nothing of his situation. She invited him to sit down and tell her all about the past three months. He nervously joked with her, but his eyes betrayed defeat. He talked about being home and seeing his family, avoiding the verdict he knew he had to deliver. Finally, he told her. “I’m still married. I can’t get a divorce.”
“Have you reconciled with her?” Norah asked. “Have you repaired your relationship?”
“No,” he said with a scoff. “It’s worse than ever. We fought badly the whole time I was there. She doesn’t care about me at all.”
“It doesn’t matter what they say. I know what my heart feels. It’s just on paper now.”
“It matters to me,” Norah said after a moment’s pause.
“I know.” he said. They talked for a while and Norah listened as she allowed the idea to settle in her mind. She would have to stop seeing him.
Finally she got up the courage to look to tell him. “I know I’ve said this to you before. But it has to be different this time. We can’t see each other any more.”
“I was afraid you would say that.” he said.
“I’m in love with you. I can’t be your friend. I won’t be your mistress,” she said, surprised at the strength and resolve in her voice.
“I know.” he said. “I knew it when I read your story.”
They held each other again at the door. Norah buried her face in his neck, breathing in his smell, her hands around the frame that fit so well into hers. “Goodbye,” she said and kissed him on the cheek.
“Goodbye my Peachy.” he said and kissed her back. Norah leaned against the frame of her door and watched walk away, back to the university, just a few blocks away.
He texted her occasionally. They made small talk. She saw him at the places they both frequented. She wanted to be with him so badly, seeing him in public was excruciating. They would inevitably stand or sit next to each other and talk. It was torture.
That’s when she decided to go. She took the money from a recent freelance gig and instead of saving it like she should have, she bought the tickets. She would return to Israel. Hopefully, this time she would make it past border control. Maybe an adventure would clear her head. She would forget him when she lost herself in a the strange place she had dreamt of for so long.
Norah stewed in the heat, the scarf around her neck choking her. She tugged at it in frustration and freed it from the camera strap cutting into her chest. She got up and decided to try again. She had been looking for pictures all day but it wasn’t happening. She knew she had just been creating the same, usual, touristy photos that thousands had created before her. She got up and walked down the alley. Suddenly, a large group of little girls, all dressed in white from head to toe, rushed in front of her and scurried down the alley, under the direction of two women in all black. They were giggling and running, their headscarves flowing around, catching up with their darts and spurts. Norah followed them. They took a sharp right turn and Norah quickened her pace, afraid of losing them. She didn’t pick up her camera yet. She didn’t want to get fussed at by the chaperones.
She turned the corner and there it was. Her eye was immediately drawn up while her pupils adjusted to the drastic contrast of the scene before her. A row of high, narrow arches, perfected aligned were before her. The stone was plain and clean except at the very top of the arch, where a simple decorative element hung gently, casting shadows on the arch behind it. The girls were running in and out of the arches, laughing and screaming at each other in what she could only assume was Arabic. The sun stabbed through the openings brilliantly illuminating the spaces in between the dark, cold shadows. The heads of the little girls glowed like light bulbs as they darted in and out of light and shade.
Norah picked up her camera and started shooting frantically. The sound of her rapid fire shutter echoed in the closed space, a sound those arches had no doubt absorbed thousands of times. She leaned against a stone wall and let the scene play in front of her as she kept clicking. She made eye contact with one of the women in black. Her knowing smile gave Norah the permission she needed. She moved around for different angles. She bent down, lowering herself to the eye level of the girls. The clouds above teased her, covering the sun and giving the scene a diffused glow before returning to the harsh contrast of the streaking beams.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably only 20 minutes or so, Norah took a breath and let the camera fall to her side. She was so uncomfortable. Sweat collected under the camera strap. Her feet were killing her after days of walking in the thin converse she insisted on wearing. She was tired and drained. She watched the little girls and some of them looked at her and smiled. One whispered in the ear of her friend and looking at Norah, laughed. She laughed back. They were probably making fun of her.
And then, at the sound of their guardian’s voice, they disappeared, walking away in an ordered row of white heads. Norah sat down and switched her lens to a dedicated 50mm. She put the camera to her eye again. She took deep breaths and let the images come to her. She was kneeling down taking just a section of the scene when one of the girls ran back under an arch, looked around and picked something up. She looked up at Norah and smiled, her black hair rebelling from its constraints and flying onto her little face. Her big, brown eyes were deep pools of mystery. They seemed to be saying to Norah, “I know what you know. I know this is magic. I know that neither one of us will have a moment like this again. I know that I’ve become a part of your life now.”
Norah picked her camera, the 50mm not quite wide enough to encompass the whole scene. She regretted not having the wide angle on. But there was no time to change lenses. This moment would be gone in a millisecond. She composed the little girl’s face, the streaks of hair running across it, like a painter’s strokes, a hint of her brilliant white head scarf on either side and the arches, falling out of focus behind her. The little girl, knowing she was being photographed, changed the look on her face ever so slightly, a hint of mischievousness sneaking through and Norah clicked.
A woman’s voice yelled and the little girl darted off, yelling something back in a tiny, squeaky voice making those wonderful guttural sounds from her throat.
That was it. That was the image. That was what she came here for. That was the miracle. The rest of the trip was just extra.
She sat down and stayed in the company of those arches, letting the moment fill her heart until fatigue and hunger forced her back up.
She walked back to the hostel, not bothering to pick the camera up again. It would have greedy. She just watched and looked and smiled, knowing she had a treasure on her memory card. Back in her room, she looked over the images on her laptop. Just as she was opening the best one, the last one of the little girl, she heard the sound that told her she had a message.
It was him. It still took her breath away to see that it was him, contacting her. It was an e-mail asking about her trip. “I can’t wait to show him this photograph. He’s going to love it. Of all the people in her life, Norah knew he would be the most proud of her.
She scanned the message without full attention until she saw the end.
“Anyway. Have fun peachy. I love you.”
He had never said that before.
Shit! Norah said to herself.
As she opened the photograph and began to adjust the levels, to see how it looked in black and white, to painstakingly go over every shadow and highlight, tears fell down her cheek again. And she felt like a fool. She was in Jerusalem, crying over a boy.