The Shape of Love

A chance encounter on a Jerusalem bench. Short story by Haim Watzman.

Natalie chose the right side of the bench in the Train Track Park. The sun wasn’t blocked there by the jacaranda tree in the corner of the small outdoor gym, just past the spot where the asphalt walkway coming up from Ben Zakkai Street intersected with the two parallel park paths. The tree’s branches swayed lazily in the breeze of an unusually warm December day in Jerusalem, casting a netted and quivering shade over the bench’s far side.

A young man of about her age, in army fatigues, appeared at her right just as she slipped off her surgical mask. A reservist, she noted to herself—unshaven face, long hair, untucked shirt, scuffed red boots. Natalie peeled back the moist brown wrapping of the falafel she’d bought at Hashamen, the stand in the short strip of stores on Ben Zakkai below. He stood uncertainly at the intersection, exactly where she herself had stood and hesitated a moment ago. His right hand drifted to his side, checking that his M-16 was still there; in his left he clutched a small bag identical to Natalie’s. A large mud-stained and faded red backpack hung low on his back.

He looked to the right. An elderly man with a round belly and large headphones over little hair was grunting in the middle of a vigorous workout. His gaze followed the progress of a broad-shouldered and black-bearded runner in a blue track suit coming up the asphalt bike path from the direction of Beit Safafa. To avoid a pair of women in long skirts pushing strollers in the opposite direction, the runner sprang from the bike path up to the walking path, ran a few steps on the concrete slats made to look like wooden sleepers, and bounded down again. Nimbly dodging a careening kid on a bike, he sped away. The reservist then turned his attention to the bench and to Natalie. She had in the meantime drawn a book from her bag and was endeavoring the nearly impossible task of reading while keeping the pita’s tahini dressing from dripping onto the pages.

His shadow fell across the book. Then he took his rifle from his shoulder, heaved his backpack off and let it fall to the ground. Placing the gun in his lap, he sat down on the other end of the bench. He pulled his mask over his head and shoved it into the side pocket of his pants.

Before looking up she waited a beat, to show that she was immersed in her book, even though actually none of the words in the single sentence she’d read had registered in her mind. She could now see the breach in the boundary of the acceptable and even endearing scruffiness that was the badge of reservists. This guy was positively slovenly. His face was gritty, as if he hadn’t washed it in days. Below his rolled-up sleeves, his hands and forearms were stained with grease. The odor coming from his half-unbuttoned shirt indicated that he had slept in it and not showered since. She really didn’t want anyone else on this bench, definitely not a man, and certainly not one like this. It would ruin everything.

“I don’t think it’s two meters,” she objected. “And I have my mask off because I’m eating.”

He glared at her. “So I’ll face the other way,” he growled. He turned his body and looked toward the gas station above and to the left and the traffic light beyond it. He took a bite out of his falafel, chewing on it in the slow, doleful manner of a dog gnawing on a bone after a spanking. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and glanced back at her.

“I just received my first vaccination shot,” she said sharply. “I don’t want to get sick before the second one.”

He averted his face. After another bite he made a declaration to the gas station. “I hope I get the virus and die.”

Natalie took a clean napkin from her bag and wiped away a small mound of chopped vegetable salad that had fallen on her book. She considered the reservist out of the corner of her eye. His gross disregard for basic grooming, it occurred to her, could be a sign of mourning.

“It’s not a good way to die,” she advised. “Suffocating, hooked up to machines, all alone.” Then, with alarm, she realized that she’d said this to a man with a gun.

Turning back to her, he took a big bite, chewed slowly, and swallowed. “The more slow and painful the better.” Then, peering at her book, he asked: “Is that a romance?”

“Oh no,” she said quickly. She showed him the cover. “It’s a love story.”

“Same thing.”

“Well, yes, but not with books. Romance novels are cheap and simplistic. Love stories are complex and …” She stopped short without completing the sentence. The sun was in her eyes.

“And what?” he snapped. He seemed agitated. “Don’t they both turn out the same?” He spit onto the ground. “Happy endings.”

“How would I know if you don’t let me finish?” she retorted.

He turned away from her again and muttered. “Books have happy endings. Real life, no.”

She looked around for help, convinced that the reservist was going to shoot himself then and there, right on the park bench next to her. But the old man exercising was off in another world and would not hear if she shouted. Caught up in his music, he counted off his reps. His eyes were wide-open and trained in her direction, but it looked like he didn’t see her. No one else was in sight.

The reservist stood up and loomed over her. “Women are cruel.” His voice was loud and angry now. It was not a suicide she was about to witness, she thought, but her own murder. She held up her hands, book in one and falafel in the other.

“She sent me a WhatsApp voice message,” he keened. “A WhatsApp voice message! Is that how you end a relationship? Nearly two years? And I can hear the other guy in the background, whispering in her ear and telling her to put down the phone and be with him.”

On this very day, the fifteenth of Tevet just four years ago, she had also sat on this bench at around this noon hour. She was eighteen then, waiting for a boy to come. The sun was in and out that day. The clouds raced by above, and the wind was chilly. She was wearing a parka with imitation fur edging on the hood, but her legs were cold under her knee-length pleated skirt, despite her stockings. She would have preferred pants but was pretty sure that they would not be acceptable for the boy. He was in the middle of his first year at the yeshiva at Eli, in Samaria, a pretty conservative place. Her family was pretty conservative, too, but her mother had actually recommended pants. “You don’t catch a cold for a boy until you know he’s worth it,” she had said. Natalie had spoken with Netanel on the phone three times and seen a photo of his bearded, serious face, and she knew the signs. Better safe than sorry.

He turned out not to be so serious when he sauntered up to the bench with two overstuffed pitas from Hashamen. He had a big smile and started talking almost immediately. She found herself laughing at a kind of humor quite unlike anything she had encountered in any other boy, including her two older brothers. It was full-hearted but complex, branching off on one tangent after another. He did imitations of his rabbis, but in an appreciative rather than a mean way. And he wasn’t narrow at all—he told her about movies he had seen, warbled songs that he liked, even quoted a Yonatan Berg poem by heart. He apologized when, by the time they turned their attention to the falafel, the fried balls had gone cold. When an hour and a half had passed and it was time to part, his face turned more like that in the photograph she’d seen. No doubt approved by his rabbis, it did not reflect his real personality.

“I really like you. We had fun, didn’t we? When can I see you again?”

He only came home from the yeshiva every other weekend, so they had to wait two more weeks. They met again in a public place, as the rules demanded, this time for a walk the length of the Train Track Park, from the First Station near the Old City all the way down to the zoo and back. Two weeks later he got out a day early, and took her out to dinner on Thursday night. Being with him was like going to a show. It was easy. The conversation was his job. All she had to do was smile and laugh. When she told her mother about Netanel, she frowned in a way that indicated that there was something she didn’t like but preferred not to say. It was a typical Ema thing and she ignored it.

“I didn’t mean to scare you,” the soldier said. “I’m sorry.” He sat back down as if reclaiming the bench as his own. He put the falafel next to him and held his face in his hands. A falafel ball rolled out of his pita and onto the ground.

“I’m sorry, too.” She felt as if it were her fault. “You were on reserve duty?”

“In the f …” He glanced at her skirt and didn’t let the word out. “In Samaria. For a whole month. Arabs throwing stones, Jews throwing stones. Everyone throwing stones and cursing us. And a whole month without any time home because of Corona.”

“A month is a long time.”

“She couldn’t wait a month? Wouldn’t I wait a month for her? If she had to travel somewhere? If she was in quarantine? I would have. That’s what love’s about.”

She wasn’t sure what to say. So she asked the only question that she could think of. “Where did you meet?”

“Where did we meet?” He shut his eyes tight and seemed to be unable to get his words out. “Why do you think I came here?”

“You mean here? In the Train Track Park?”

“Here, on this bench. She was sitting just where you are now.”

The weather grew warmer, and she and Netanel started walking at night. He was home for all of Pesach and late one moonlit night they climbed Tanakh Hill together, above the First Station, overlooking the Old City. It was a steep ascent. After he reached down to give her a hand to help her up, their hands stayed together. They circuited the hill’s perimeter, taking in the view, and then they climbed down and sat close together in a little hollow where large stones hid them from onlookers. She brought his head to hers and they kissed. They kissed and they laughed, because it was perfect and seditious and absurd given who they were or claimed to be.

“She was sitting here with a book on her lap, just like you, but a bigger book. I was running and stopped here to do some chin-ups on the bar over there and I put my head down and my hands on my knees to catch my breath. And I just looked at her, because she was nice to look at and somehow the way she was sitting, so intent and focused, made me wonder what was in the book. I thought it was some story she was totally caught up in.”

The bearded runner in the track suit returned from the upper reaches of the park, heading back toward Beit Safafa. As he passed, he looked over at the couple on the bench and gave them a fist pump.

Natalie looked at her own book. “And was it?”

He let out half a laugh and shook his head. “As far as you can get from it. Computer science. And when she told me that I said, how can you be sitting here in the sun, with spring in the air and flowers blooming, and have your nose in a book about computers?”

“And what did she say?”

“She told me to shove off.”

“I guess that didn’t work.”

“I’m not the type who gives up. I walked down to Hashamen and I bought two falafel and brought them back here and handed her one and sat on the bench, there in my sweaty running shirt and shorts, and said: Tell me about computer science. And at first she tried to ignore me but I really was interested and she started to explain. Not that I understood much, but I liked the way she said it.”

“I’m studying mathematics. At the university.”

“Like computer math?”

“I’m more interested in topology. But it’s connected.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s like geometry. About shapes. And how you can deform them, twist them up and turn them inside out but they remain the same basic shape.”

“Sounds messy,” he said, looking down at his falafel.

“Take that jacaranda tree.” She directed his gaze with hers, feeling suddenly elated. “What’s its basic shape?”

“It’s shaped like a tree.”

“But what’s a tree shaped like?”

“I don’t know. It’s got a trunk, branches, leaves.”

“But it doesn’t just have branches every which way. There’s a pattern.”

He shrugged and took another bite of falafel.

“The farther up you go the shorter the branches are. And if you go along any of the branches it’s the same. Larger boughs first, then increasingly smaller ones. And again and again.”

“So?”

“But you only see half the tree.”

He didn’t seem to believe her.

“Underground. The whole root system. Roots that branch off just like the limbs of the tree above.”

“Okay. So what.”

“Think about it. If you were to take the tree and turn it upside-down, what would you see?”

“An ugly mess of muddy roots with no leaves. Like a tree in hell.”

“I mean the shape. The basic shape. Don’t you see that it would be just the same? That’s called ‘homology.’ That’s one of the things topology is interested in.”

“Tzur, my name’s Tzur, I said.” Natalie thought he was introducing himself to her, but then realized that he was back in his story. “And she said her name was Alva. Which I said was a really nice name, I’d never heard it before. And I said, that’s all very interesting, that computer stuff, but what’s your story?”

The kid on the bicycle raced up the path. Just opposite them he halted suddenly, watched them for a moment, and continued on his way.

“And she said, ‘What story?’ and I said, ‘The story of why you are on this bench studying computer science.’ And she said ‘Because I was lonely and felt like seeing people.’ I let that hang in the air for a minute, you know what I mean? And I said ‘That’s all?’ And she laughed and said that her mother liked to tell the story of how she and her father met, her mother was sitting at a bus stop and her father came along and asked whether the 9 bus had come yet she said the 9 bus was eternal, it had come since the beginning of time and would come to the end of time and he just needed to be patient. And he thought that was funny and they started talking and six months later they got married.”

“So you fell in love on this bench?” Natalie closed her book and put it back in her bag. And she told him the story about her and Netanel.

Tzur listened closely but his smile was scornful. “And you got married and lived happily ever after?”

She shook her head.

“I mean, with you people if you kiss you have to get married, don’t you? With me and Alva, you know, we went back to her place and spent the afternoon in bed. A month later we found an apartment and moved in together.”

“You’ll hate me,” she said. And it looked as if he was ready to.

The two women with the strollers returned. They glanced at Natalie and Tzur and then smiled knowingly to each other before moving on.

“The day before Lag B’Omer I broke it off. We were going to go camping together, make our own little campfire with whatever dry branches we found lying around.”

“Why?”

“I realized that he was always talking but he never listened. He never asked much about me. Being with him was like going to a performance. It was fun, but I realized that it wasn’t symmetrical.”

Tzur shut his eyes and leaned back, as if he were in pain.

“He was crushed. He kept calling me after that, for weeks. Almost every day. First pleading, then angry. It was awful. Friends of his sent me messages that I was killing him. His rabbi called my mother and told her it was a matter of life or death. Of course, all that just made me all the more sure that I’d done the right thing.”

Tzur sighed and looked at her. “And you?”

“I felt awful. Then it got worse.”

Tzur tensed and touched his rifle. Natalie nodded.

“He went into the army. He was in for a month …” She shivered and heard her voice fade away.

Tzur stared at her intently, waiting for her to go on. She saw understanding well up in him, from the ground up. He went limp, as if all his energy had drained out of him. They sat there silently for a long moment. The old man, his headphones now around his neck, approached.

“You must think I’m an awful woman.”

“I guess there’s a happy ending, isn’t there? Another rabbi sent another nice yeshiva boy came along and you got married and you have two-three kids by now?”

She shook her head. “Not yet.” She looked at him. “There are times I despair. But then I tell myself that the story isn’t over yet. And I buy a falafel and come sit on this bench and read.”

“Excuse me,” the old man said. His breathing was deep and even and his eyes bright. “I hope you don’t mind. I just wanted to say mazal tov to you. Almost every morning, since they shut down the gym because of the virus and I started exercising here, I see a couple sitting on this bench and it inspires me. I don’t think I’ll go back to the gym even when it reopens. There’s nothing like seeing young people in love. It reminds me of when I was your age and the girl I sat with on the banks of the Tigris. You know what’s great about love? Every story’s the same, but every story’s different. Sorry to disturb you. You should just know you made an old man happy.” And he strode off down the path at a vigorous pace.

Tzur laughed. “Look at us. We must be the most mismatched couple the whole length of the train track park. How can he think that we’re lovers?”

He looked up at the tree and watched the branches waving in the wind. “All twisted up and turned over.” He rose to his feet and pulled his mask out of his pocket and pulled it over his face, uploaded his backpack, and swung the rifle over his shoulder. “Thanks for talking to me. It helped.”

She smiled. “It helped me, too.”

“I guess there’s something about this bench.”

“I hope the next time you sit here you fall in love.”

“The same for you,” he said. He took a step and then turned back to her. “I guess that’s homology.” Natalie nodded and watched him descend the path to the bus stop on the street below. She took her novel out of her bag and opened up to where she’d left off.

 

Illustration by Avi Katz

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