Sunlight bent and twisted in the sweltering heat above the desert city street. A cadence of voices coursed through the Bedouin market, punctuated by street vendors hawking their goods, buses, cars — but mostly the rattling of mopeds. An American man stopped in front of a small falafel stand. He looked at the man behind the counter, and to the walls inside; script in middle-east languages, charts, and certificates filled the empty spaces. The American gestured, pointing incomprehensibly at the menu, his words fumbling as he looked through the short glass partitions over each entrée. He kept one hand low in front of his waist, holding a single red rose.

“Lo bakbouka,” the man behind the stand corrected. He may have been a Negev Bedouin, Arab, or Hebrew; the American had no way of knowing for sure. The man hoped that the American had some idea of what he wanted to eat. The American mumbled something in English and then something in what may have been Hebrew. Holding a stainless steel spoon, the man shook his head again, and a bubbling stream of Hebrew followed. After seeing the blank look on the American’s face, he tried Arabic — both languages sounding the same to the American.

“Shakshouka,” the girl behind him helped. Her voice rang in his heart, and he turned towards her, impulsively hiding the rose as though she hadn’t already seen it. The man with the spoon nodded and turned to fill the order, relieved to be over with the frustration; he wondered if the American knew how to count shekels.

Her dark hair fluttered across her face in the desert breeze, and she smiled — playfully leaning to see what was behind his back. Her dark eyes were ageless; harsh sculpted cheekbones, her eyes–her lips–her smile were in perfect harmony, an oasis of trial, sorrow, and a fullness of life. Her eyes shattered everything she noticed–searching; her beauty raged against the perspicacity held in her gaze, her soul ensnared within brambles of passion and loss. The American wanted to see everything–to know everything about her.

He had first seen her a month before, in another awkward moment; she helped him pick the right bus when he realized he had been going in circles. He had never spoken to her with any ease, and couldn’t hope to. And so he had found what he knew she would understand; he offered her the rose, her lips reflecting the delicate silk held captive within its petals. Wide eyed hope–then a piercing fear–flashed in her eyes. She looked away from the American and to the man behind the stand — the street vendor had seen everything.

She turned and ran into the chaos of the Bedouin market, knowing the American couldn’t follow in the crowds; she ran past the grocer stands, the cacophony of little shops, through a small parking lot, and then she stopped — breathing heavily against a wall of an electronics shop. A tear nearly fell from her eye before she caught it with the back of her hand. She looked back into the market; her fingers tracing the crumbling stucco of the faded white wall.

Her home in Morocco was much like the homes there in Israel: light stuccoed walls, flat roofs, and painted in a sandy mud colored plaster. The inside floor was concrete covered with shiny white, lightly patterned linoleum, making it easy to sweep out the dirt and sand that got tracked in. On Fridays, before Shabbat, she would follow her mother around the house with a blue mop bucket; she always laughed when she got to throw water onto the floor — without getting into trouble. Her mother’s hair would be pulled back showing her face, her eyes, her laughter. And when all of the cooking and cleaning were over, they would light the candles and sing her favorite song.

She didn’t remember her baby sister or when she had died, only that her father stopped coming home for Shabbat dinner; he had been shattered. Then her mother left. For ten years, she had sung their song alone. Eventually, associates of her father paid her way to Israel — she was fourteen.

She looked back to the Bedouin market, and then to the voices coming down the street. She wondered if her father had even asked for money, he certainly hadn’t needed money; he could could have paid to have her passport returned whenever he wanted. She wiped her eyes, and stood straight — a desert cactus whose limbs were full of life, protected by hardened and forbidding leaves. She started towards a group of men coming down the street; she smiled towards a girl walking with them. She returned the smile, familiarly, holding onto the upper arm of one of the men — evidently the wealthier of the group. Reaching each other, they shared a deep embrace, and kissed each other on the cheek.

The vendor handed the American his order, a pita filled with two poached eggs and tomato sauce, chips, a drink. To his surprise, the American correctly handed over twelve shekels without question. The American started walking towards the market, trying to stare through the clutter of shops, into the knots of clothing racks where the girl had disappeared.

The man set down his spoon and came out to the American, rubbing his thumb and forefinger with a wink; he wanted to sell something else. At first, the American couldn’t make sense of it. The man mentioned two numbers, the first the American knew— three hundred shekels. He took the rose from the American, threw it in the street, and then mentioned the number again and smiled — that lurid smile that leaves no room for interpretation. The man looked at the American, and considered again. He proposed a different number, but the American had no idea. The vendor pulled a slip of paper from his pocket, and wrote the number — twenty-five thousand shekels: the price for the girl’s passport, the American inferred. Sure he was American, but he didn’t have that kind of money — she would never understand.

“Very good deal,” the man said in broken English, pointing to the rose. The American smiled politely, pointed to his wrist, at a watch that wasn’t there, and walked away as though he hadn’t caught on to the actual offer.

Laughing with her friend, the girl chose the man who looked to be kinder than the rest. At first, he had wrapped his arm around her shoulders; she winced as he inadvertently pulled where she had been bruised. With a reassuring smile, she moved his hand down to the middle of her back.

As the two girls and the men turned off the busy road away from the market, she looked back and saw the American again, walking aimlessly with his head down. She knew she couldn’t try to leave with him; there was no telling what would happen to her friends left behind — he would never understand.

e.s. kohen
ed.20180101.02 (Draft IV)

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