The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari
Book PrefaceThe Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari
OR MY TENTH BIRTHDAY, my father promised he would publish my writing in a book.
“A real book?”
“A real book. Put together your best stuff.”
I had been writing ever since I learned the alphabet. By the end of first grade, I was crafting books from school notebooks, complete with illustrated cover images and blurbs on the back. I had even started a library of my writings that was frequented by neighbors and cousins. I attached a pocket for a library card to the back of each notebook and fashioned a library stamp by carving letters on an eraser.
My father used to write too; I had seen the scribbling in his bedside drawer—parts of poems, unsent letters, his handwriting artfully drawn and rounded with long strokes, always in black ink. At the bottom of the drawer, I found a yellowing magazine titled Afikim, in which one of his poems was featured, his only publication.
That day, after my father made his promise, I locked myself in my room and wrote until dinnertime. After dinner I wrote some more. By the next day, I’d filled a notebook with the tale of a young girl adjusting to a new school. Earlier that year, my family had moved, so I drew the story from my own experience. When I finished, I proudly presented my father with my work. He was resting in bed, leaning against a pile of pillows, recently out of the hospital.
“What’s this?” he said.
“A book, like you asked.”
He laughed, flipped through the pages. “You wrote all this yesterday?”
“Yes.” I puffed out my chest.
He put the notebook aside. “Writing a book should take longer than a day. There’s still time before your birthday.”
“But you didn’t read it!” I protested. “How do you know it’s not good?”
He promised he’d read it.
A few days later, as I was walking back from the library, two books clutched to my chest, I saw an ambulance parked on the curb outside our house, its orange flicker lighting up the rosebushes in timed, urgent intervals—a busy signal.
∙ ∙ ∙
AFTER SCHOOL, NURIT and I mostly go to her place, because hers is always empty and mine never is. Nurit’s house key hangs like a pendant around her neck, and she has pay phone tokens threaded on her shoelaces for emergencies. In my house, unless my mom is visiting my dad at the hospital, she is at home with the baby, and my older sister and three older brothers are in their rooms or in the kitchen or in the living room or downstairs playing Ping-Pong with their friends. Every day my aunts and uncles and cousins come to visit too, for lunch or for an afternoon coffee and cake, or just to chat. “This house is like a train station,” my mother often sighs, but she sounds secretly pleased.
On days when Nurit does come over, mostly in the afternoons when my mom is napping, we go up to the roof. From there you can see rain-streaked buildings with protruding balconies, their flat white roofs crowded with crooked antennas, water tanks, and gleaming solar panels. Kids sit on window ledges and dangle legs through metal bars, and strings of colorful laundry smile under windows. Looking east, you can see the end of Petah Tikva, the trees that line the highway leading to the airport, and the hills of Rosh HaAyin in a squiggly line on the horizon. On our west, down the eternally jammed Jabotinsky Road, is Tel Aviv, the big city with its narrow streets and white sand beaches and the promise of the world beyond its shores. Airplanes circle above us like hungry seagulls before landing, and sometimes warplanes zoom by on their way north of the border. The war is far away, but we can see it written on the grown-ups’ faces: the tension in their cheeks, the groove between the eyebrows. We can hear it in the music played on the radio, beautiful songs in minor keys about death and the land that fill us with sweet sadness.
Our new house is in Mahane Yehuda, a Petah Tikva neighborhood that was founded by Yemeni immigrants at the beginning of the twentieth century. The main street—a short strip with stumpy buildings propped against each other like a train that has stalled in its tracks—is hidden behind a row of cypress trees, spiky palms with leaves like fountains, and a scary abandoned house with a broken staircase suspended in midair, leading to a nonexistent second floor.
Nurit and I play in my attic, a small triangular alcove under the slanted roof that you have to access through a hole in the wall. Other times, my brother who is three years older than me invites his friends to play music there, which isn’t fair because he has his own room and I have to share mine with a baby.
Nurit and I tell each other everything. I’m the only one of her friends who knows her mom had an accident when she was young: her dark, beautiful hair was caught in an industrial fan in the factory where she worked and that is why she now wears a wig. I’ve never told anyone about that, but every time I walk by a large fan, I imagine my hair being ripped out of my skull. Nurit is also the first person I called after my dad had the heart attack.
Aba’s heart attack happened on the first Shabbat of September in 1982, two days after I started fourth grade. I was playing at Keren’s, my neighbor who lives a few houses down from us, even though her family isn’t Yemeni. There are a few families like hers on our street, lured by the cheap prices and the proximity to downtown. Keren’s two brothers are in the air force, so she knows things about the war in Lebanon that started in the summer, when the Israeli troops made it as far as Beirut. In the spring, when we saw Israeli kids kicking and fighting and crying on TV as the army evacuated them from their homes, Keren was the one who explained to me why we were withdrawing from Yamit, which was in the Sinai Peninsula, and how it was a good thing we were returning it to Egypt because now we could finally have peace and go see the pyramids. Once, she lent me a top secret air force book that teaches soldiers how to identify warplanes, and I’ve studied it carefully in case I see enemy planes in the sky.
We were in Keren’s room when my sister came to get me. My sister is sixteen. She wears shapeless embroidered galabiyas she buys from Arab shopkeepers in Jaffa and walks barefoot. She has a poster of Janis Joplin over her bed, screaming into a mic, hair fanning out like an octopus. Her bedroom smells like smoke and incense. In our old apartment, we shared a room, and I would fall asleep to the sound of her turning pages. Now she never lets me into her room. When she’s out, I sneak in and search for secret notebooks and letters. I open her wardrobe drawers and try on her makeup and perfume, hoping to rub some of her coolness onto me.
“You have to come home,” my sister said.
“But why? Ima doesn’t mind.”
My sister stared at the floor for a bit and finally sat down on Keren’s bed. I sat beside her. “Aba had a heart attack while playing soccer,” she said. “He’s in the hospital.”
Keren placed her hand on my arm and told me her father had a heart attack too, a few years ago. He was airlifted by a helicopter to a hospital. “He’s fine now,” she said. “Yours will be fine too.”
Over the next few weeks, as my father goes in and out of the hospital, looking thinner and weaker each time, I keep thinking of Keren’s words. I wonder how long it took before her father was fine, but I never ask.
Part I: Home
In My Dreams We Hug Like Grown-Ups Do
A Simple Girl
You and What Army
A Sleepless Beast
Part II: Leaving
My American Dream
Missing in Action
The Marrying Kind
Kerosene: A Love Story
Not for the Faint-Hearted
Part III: Return
Yemeni Soup and Other Recipes
If I Forget You
Unravel the Tangle
The Art of Staying
By Ayelet Tsabari
About the Author
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|EPub||March 5, 2019|
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