It doesn’t escape my attention that the first person to run a marathon died at the end of it. But that is, literally, ancient history. One Greek messenger’s heart failure, trampled under the heels of thousands of triumph-of-the-human-spirit stories since then. So while the irony is not lost on me, it doesn’t deter me from signing up for a marathon two days after my thirty-ninth birthday. Exiting the decade with an uncommon display of fortitude. If I live.
“Oh Lord, what am I doing? What have I done?” I mutter hysterically, perched on a stool in my Jerusalem apartment, as I fill out the registration for a winter marathon in Tiberias, routed around the Sea of Galilee. The race isn’t a totally reckless whim. In the few years of calling myself a runner (definition: one foot always off the ground, even if the pace was the same as walking) the idea of doing a marathon eventually shaped into a plan.
Still, the question came to me then at my laptop, as it did six months later. Thirty-five windy and plodding kilometers into my first (and, let’s face it, only) marathon how the hell did I get here?
What events stacked up to bring me to this point of no return? Another one of my life’s strange detours, like being relegated each morning to the women’s section at the back of a dirty bus on my way to work in an ultra-Orthodox boys school; teaching English to formerly imprisoned members of the Palestinian Fatah party; a frightening date with a Hasidic kung fu master who boasted, with a snap of his fingers, “I can break anyone’s neck. I could break yours like this.”
This time, it was signing up for a race composed of thousands of sinewy Israeli ex-soldiers.
My decision to run a marathon wasn’t only about proving I was steelier than I seemed; it had something to do with capping heartbreak.
“When’s the last time your heart was broken?” Yaron asks me one night at Carousela, the neighbourhood café where I often spend my evenings. He’s an Israeli writer, petite and handsome, known for his bluntness and for his irritating habit of constant finger tapping while he thinks.
Yaron steps outside for smoking breaks, always offering me a cigarette so I can keep him company. I enjoy Yaron, though I sometimes feel he uses what he thinks is scathing honesty as a substitute for depth. Still, there’s something probing about our exchanges. Confined to Carousela’s terrace on the corner of Gaza Street, they’re kind of satisfying.
“About two years ago. But it wasn’t a romantic relationship. He was my friend,” I answer. “Moshe.”
“No, the friendship died.”
“And you never had anything with each other?” Yaron eyes me.
“Yes, we had things,” I bristle. “But not romance. That was the most recent. And maybe my biggest heartbreak. My friendship breakup.”
“That doesn’t count.” He flicks ashes to the ground.
Yaron, I think, you know nothing.
Moshe. He’s Dutch, now Israeli, soft-spoken but fiercely opinionated. After about ten years of being friends, he’s gotten really tired of listening to me whine incessantly about my weight. I’m in my early thirties, he’s a few years older. We’re both still single, at least most of the time.
“Why don’t you start running?” he asks in his clipped, formal accent, flipping through an old “O” magazine I’ve left on my coffee table.
“Moshe, I told you to stop smoking crack for breakfast. And that’s for art projects,” I add, sheepish.
He holds up a photo shoot of Oprah Winfrey at the gym and grins.
Moshe is tall and muscular, fit-looking for someone whose physical exertion consists of furrowing his brow over an academic treatise, studying ancient languages in the library. He’s stooped as a Yeshiva boy, perpetually trying to shrink himself as some large men do. His Indo grandmother left her traces in his blonde features: wide cheekbones and blue eyes set under epicanthic lids have Russian tourists approaching him in the street for directions. They’re confused when he tells them he doesn’t speak the language. But his looks are unique in this city, magnetic. He fascinates people, when I know he’d gladly choose to be invisible.
“Okay, so let me give you the other reading material you asked for.” He pulls out a notebook from his backpack, along with about ten books I’d taken out for him from the university’s library when his card was filled. “And these, yes. I’m finished with them, but I have another few I’d like, if you wouldn’t mind.”
I look at his list. “How many languages do you know again, Moshe? Right, weren’t these in Oprah’s Book Club—the Syriac and Coptic bestsellers you don’t want to miss this summer?”
Though I glory in teasing, I attribute wisdom in all things to Moshe. Smart and educated, yes, but to me he seems to possess a faultless sensibility. I basically feel he’s never wrong. So when he leaves, I look over the books he suggested I’d like, and then I fumble under my bed to search for my sneakers.
I met Moshe when I was twenty, in the ‘90s, on a study program I’d done after arriving from Canada to Jerusalem. He was one of the tour guides and though he was just a few years older than me, his foreignness—he had converted to Judaism and immigrated as a teenager—paired with his knowledge of languages and subjects I then knew nothing about, made a slight age gap feel like we were of different generations.
But even so, we spent a lot of time laughing, sharing winks of complicity across the crowd of young students. That early giddiness soon swelled into an avid affinity, one that was cultivated outside the realm of flirtation and moved pretty directly into the realm of family. I won’t lie, there’d been an early flicker of attraction on my part when I’d first seen him—but without saying it directly, Moshe was clear about not being interested. Closeness solidified in a different shape.
Like the many expats here, we were without relatives in Jerusalem, though with Moshe, this lack felt more pronounced. The conversion, the way he stood out as a lone soul in the city. Like so many immigrants do, we made foster sibling arrangements with each other, and in a short span we somehow learned each others’ childhood memories, adopted them into shared history.
Moshe tossed out my grandmother’s Yiddish inflected phrases with uncanny comic timing: “You’re going out? I prepare you shouldn’t vear that,” noting my clunky shoes, mismatched socks. “Nu, goot luck to you,” rolling his eyes and lifting his palms like Bubbe would, as though pushing me to my chosen fashion demise.
And like an older brother, Moshe was inclined to falling into a tone of patient instruction with me, making our interactions at times a bit pedagogic for my taste. “Is-a-BEL,” the last syllable of my name breathed as an exasperated sigh, tsking over my poor judgment.
In turn, like a little sister, I poked back, from his perpetual crushes on café waitresses—“Yes, I think the heart-shape she made in the froth of your café hafuch was intentional”—to the papers he asked me to look over, a clumsy native English speaker to his third language mastery. Intimidated, I’d mock. “I understand exactly nothing of this intro you’re writing, Moshe, except that you’re trying to meet a word count.”
I was often irreverent to the point of rudeness, that’s true. But my admiration for him was unflagging.
I’m bleary and full of doubt when I meet Moshe in our scrubby local park in the morning, wearing a pyjama shirt over never-worn sweatpants. I like to dance, maybe do yoga, but my temperament veers to the phlegmatic. And running: so linear. All those intent, smug joggers I scorn as they trot past Jerusalem’s outdoor patios where I drink coffee and smoke.
“I want to be having a coffee over the paper right now, Moshe.”
“That’s what you do all the time. Now we’re doing this. Let’s stretch,” Moshe says, rising on his toes while we make a concerted attempt to suspend all cynical remarks. “And down.” He bends over and touches the ground with the tips of his long fingers. “You too, Isabel,” he adds without glancing up.
Moshe begins to run a few steps ahead of me, while I shuffle at a slower pace.
Looking over his shoulder he calls out, “You go girl!” and I laugh, puffing self-consciously behind him—and everyone else—through the tiny park.
It takes me seven minutes to make it around. Moshe waits for me with a high-five in the air, and I lean over my shaking legs, trying to catch my breath.
“I’m leading a school tour in Jordan next week. But when I get back, I want to see you do it twice.”
I laugh. “You’re still high? This just brought me ten years closer to death.” I wipe my sweaty face on a sleeve. “I’m going to splay myself across floor tiles for the rest of the week.”
“You have two weeks. One is for lying on your floor, and one is for running. You did well!”
I’m secretly pleased, even awed by my newfound ability, but I just shrug. “Balalot, balatot, balatot…” Floor tiles, floor tiles, floor tiles, I whisper, crawling home.
I do go back to the park while Moshe is away, and soon I’m able to tramp around it so many times that I spin out to larger green spaces, and eventually, take to the roads. Little by little I add minutes and city blocks to my course, until I realize—not without a jolt of surprise—that running is something I’m doing, not something I just joke about.
A few months later, Moshe comes to meet me at the end of my first half-marathon. Twenty-one hilly kilometers that take me close to three hours to complete. I really wasn’t properly prepared for that challenge. I’d had too much confidence; a novice who hadn’t imagined the demand of Jerusalem’s punishing inclines, or how lonely it would be to run in the heat for hours. Or even how to pace myself properly. I’d all but walked the last five kilometers, having spent my resources early on.
When I see Moshe waiting at the finish line I start sobbing, a soldier back from war. He thumps me on the back like a comrade. I would have liked a hug, but he’s always stingy with them.
“It was so hard!” I whimper. “You don’t know what it’s like out there!” Even in my weariness, I recover my sense of sarcasm after my earnest outburst and smirk. “Reminded me of ‘Nam!”
Moshe meets me for celebratory falafel lunches around the neighbourhood after my next couple of races, which became easier once I understand that fervent, breathless prayer only works when partnered with practice runs.
What I like about running, but what’s also the challenge, is that it doesn’t feel intuitive to my body type. I’m not wiry, not especially strong, I carry extra weight. I teeter between being curvy and plain heft. Strangers are inclined to cheer me with “Kol hakavod!” as I pass, somehow acknowledging the effort it takes to drag myself up a hill. In Israel at least, where until recently exercise was for soldiers or athletes, I don’t look like a “real runner.”
But I find I like having a sport, and the element of immediate gratification, despite the repetitiveness. Putting up with blue or lost toenails, strained muscles, exhaustion and lingering low-grade colds from overexertion; unpleasant, but not without some humble satisfaction: the mark of an athlete. Which I seem to be becoming, though I do still harbour an internal sneer about the whole thing.
After my third half-marathon, Moshe and I get our traditional post-run pitas and sit down for my recap.
“Okay,” he said, opening his hands wide. “Let’s hear your Stories From The Front.”
“Okay. I was fine until the tenth kilometer, but then the incline was so steep in the forest, I didn’t think my heart could take it and I was out of water. V’ Pitom..!”
Moshe laughs. “And suddenly..!” always features when Israeli guys reminisce about the army.
“…this woman running near me shared her bottle with me, which really saved me.” Moshe blinks encouragingly.
“Also, I took a pee-break in the forest, and readjusted my sports bra which was cutting into me and felt way better, though I’m still chafed.”
“Isa-BEL.” Moshe gives me his “Please spare me” look. He can also be squeamish and private, which I very often ignore.
“Life on the battlefield, my friend. If you can’t stomach it, don’t ask.” I gulp my customary post-run bottle of Nesher malt, pretending to be brassy instead
Moshe shifts topics. “I saw Anouk this morning.”
“Your old Amsterdam flame?” My eyes widen.
“Yes. She’s here with her family, with her three children. They’re staying in the Old City. It’s her first time in Israel.”
“Wow, how was it to see her?”
“At first it was nice. You know, bittersweet of course. Where life goes and all this. But I liked her husband and her kids.” Moshe shakes his head from side to side, dislodging an image.
“Anouk, she’s great. But I saw a flash of pity in her eyes, Isabel. That I’m alone here still.” Moshe clears his throat, pauses, then steadies himself with his hand
flat on the table. “Just a flash.” He smiles sadly.
I watch Moshe, not knowing what to say. Some sort of longing and remorse had crept into him over the years that I couldn’t find a way to comfort or tease away. I know that “You’re not alone, you have me!” was not the reassurance he was wanting.
“You’re staring again,” Moshe chides. “Anyway, no need to say anything.”
Then this: sometime after that day, when I had been running for a couple of years and was nearing thirty-six—Moshe must have been in his early forties by then—he left to lead a youth group on a six-week trip to the States. While there he didn’t respond to any of my emails, and then never got in touch when he
returned, or ever again.
Our mutual friend Rebecca and I were having soup in her apartment one evening in the early fall. I hadn’t mentioned Moshe’s silence, still holding on
to the thinning hope that our lack of communication wasn’t intentional on his part, that he was harried and overworked herding students around America, that I had misunderstood his itinerary and his return date.
“Hey, did Moshe tell you what happened when we went to fix my laptop last week? You know, that new computer repair shop on Bezalel?”
I didn’t hear the rest of Rebecca’s story. Her lentil soup was hot ash in my mouth.
People’s casual references to Moshe took on a sinister tone for me over the coming few weeks. They came from the acquaintances who had seen us day after day walking on Emek Refaim or sniggering in a café together. People who had finally come to accept us as an unsurprising set unit: “Oh, I just saw Moshe reading in Lechem shel Tomer. Is that his new spot now?” they asked me. Or later, “Pretty exciting that Moshe and Orit are dating, right? Do you think this is it?”
My heart clenched every time his name was uttered, but I just nodded knowingly. And in fact, part of me did know. I knew that although I didn’t take the same place as Orit or any other romantic figure in Moshe’s life, I now had been pushed out of the way to make more room, that there was no longer space for me. I didn’t admit to anyone that Moshe and I never spoke anymore, and I had no idea what was going on in his life. Or when I did, it was only through paltry recycled information. Or that now my greatest fear was to bump into him.
“Do you like Orit?” I’d asked the year before, walking home after having a Shabbat meal at Rebecca’s house. Orit had been one of the guests, and she had immediately rubbed me the wrong way, even though I recognized her underlying shyness in the shrill, unregulated voice she used. She was in graduate school and had described a recent research trip to Berkeley in a tirade overtaking the Shabbat table.
“There is no normal food there. Someone asked me if I was part of the ‘vegetarian community’ and another time if I was a ‘herbivore.’ A Herbivore. Nu, b’emet. Everything is vegan this, free-range that. A tomato is treated like it was someone’s pet. Let’s not even talk about meat, you’re treated like a criminal. It’s absurd. I made schnitzel my first day back in Jerusalem.”
Moshe smiled, and I felt myself prickling, adopting an alien preachy tone. “I think it’s admirable that people are mindful of the ethical implications of their food choices.”
Moshe turned to look at me, mouthing, “Mindful?” I grinned and reached for more ice cream across the table.
“So do you like her?” I gently punched Moshe’s upper arm and I saw him flinch and move away from me ever so slightly as we walked. I felt a shard of fear enter my chest, in and out, like a glass needle.
“She’s a very interesting person.”
I wanted to blurt out, “I hate her!” Instead I said, “Are you going to ask her out?”
Moshe shrugged, noncommittal. “How’s the running going, Isabel?”
Like with that first half-marathon, I hadn’t been prepared for Moshe’s withdrawal from my life, and I spent months in a bewildered, embarrassed misery. Groping to understand his abrupt termination of our friendship, his disappearance, I manufactured an unending loop of various explanations which all boiled down to one: He needed to free himself of me.
“We’re family” Moshe had always been firm, making a whole production of dropping the “like.” “Isabel is my sister,” he told others, unshakeable in this loyalty, so that no matter how needy and annoying I became by repeatedly asking him for reassurance, I was secure in my position as family. And I loved him like family.
More, in fact. I esteemed him; his intellect, his integrity: he was my moral compass. I valued his opinions beyond anyone else’s and sought them out before my own; from literature, philosophy and politics, to my date outfits and my dates. (“You look nice, but you should wear your boots with that” and “goot luck to him.”) I worried over him, prayed for his happiness, so fervent was my protective instinct. And maybe I was, in essence and everywhere, just too much to take. Just too much after a while.
Already agile at creating a dark logic where all arrows point to failure, with the loss of Moshe’s presence, I came crashing down around myself.
And so, I ran a lot. I ran and I ran, ticking off kilometers and trying to pound out pain as I trained across the city, looking for an escape. My routes were an elaborate interlace of ancient walls and religious quarters: synagogues, arches, churches, minarets; unfinished construction sites, newly set train tracks, quiet paths and greenery, roads full of rubble, thick traffic, layers of dirt, debris, and history, as is Jerusalem.
I test the limits of where I can run, who I can meet, expand my familiarity and sense of the city by widening my radius and crossing into territory I don’t really know, had never allowed myself to enter. I become alert to quickly shifting atmospheres as I plod steadily through the streets, ears open to changing languages. “Sabah el kheir,” I call to snickering children as I pass, waving and hopeful (“Don’t reject me!”).
Although the city’s invisible borders have become more porous lately—in part, because of the mesila, the new biking and walking path cutting through both Jewish and Arab neighbourhoods—most areas feel hermetically sealed from one another, their residents never meeting. And while I’ve begun travelling the dividing lines in my daily work, I’m aware of myself as an out-of-place character along certain roads, slowly jogging by stern, shawled ladies and small shops filled with old men who look like they’d been smoking together for a hundred years.
I tell Rayna, my Palestinian colleague that I sometimes run on the edge of Shuafat, her neighbourhood. “I’m sure everyone thinks you’re weird” she says bluntly. “Now we’re a bit more used to it, but when I was younger and would see someone on a bike I’d think, ‘Please, health? Foreigners.’”
I mainly hang close to the seam sewing up east and west, veering around various pockets of town—religious Jewish and religious Muslim, where my short sleeves are equally unwelcome—over tedious soggy hours of determined training. I’m fueled by what seems a bottomless supply of sadness. I like to think that I let go of Moshe as I run through a Jerusalem I haven’t known before. In this city where all questions of possession are contested and newsworthy, I abandon my illusions of owning anything, even my perceptions.
And, eventually the pain becomes less acute.
A year goes by like this, maybe two. But Moshe does invite me to his wedding. He leaves the invitation in my mailbox, perhaps out of a sense of nostalgia, or obligation. How could he not? And how could I not go? By then we’d run into each other a few times in the street or at mutual friends, meetings where stiffness and false bravado reverberate in my mind for days afterward.
“Hi!” I ring out, waving wildly at him, or at him and Orit, when we bump into each other. Encounters profuse with smiles, with fakery. “Getting ready? So exciting!” I wonder if they can see the tears looming, threatening.
“Hi Isabel,” Moshe nods, quiet. Orit clings to his arm, smiling weakly. “We’re so glad you’re coming to the wedding.”
“Thank you for having me.”
“Of course, you have to be there.” His voice is a bit flat, but the words are adamant. Moshe’s gaze finally drills into me and I fill in the unsaid: “You’re family.” Orit keeps looking at me; I know she can tell I’m about to cry and I wonder if she’s trying to pinpoint exactly what kind of menace I am.
And I wonder if she’s really so terrible, why I’d been so unkind to her in my thoughts. I didn’t even know her, had met her when she was nervous and I was defensive. All reports say she’s smart and giving, wonderful for Moshe. But what does it matter, anyway?
I fall into a short-lived relationship with an acquaintance, Simon, soon after I learn of Moshe’s return. I’m in a state of grief, and Simon, older, sensitive and smitten, cares for me almost as though I’m an invalid. He lives nearby, and I walk over for simple meals in his apartment most evenings. We talk about the novels we’re reading and then he holds me on the couch while I try to untangle my confusion over my friendship with Moshe.
“I think I led myself to believe we were closer than we were,” I say.
“No, you were close. That was clear to anyone who ever saw you together.” Simon pauses. “Isabel, I know you’re in love with him, and you always have been. That’s clear.”
I look at him. His thin lips are trembling, his cheeks drawn. He’s jealous, I think, surprised, and whatever I say now won’t help.
“Simon, I’m not in love with Moshe. And I’m not in denial either, if that’s what you’re thinking.” I give his hand a conciliatory pat, probably only worsening the effect. “It was never that.”
I don’t say it was not ‘that’, but much more than that. That he, for whatever it was worth, had been the man in my life, and I had become so used to him in it that I wasn’t sure how to live without him.
So that’s what it is, this shattered feeling. I’ve finally identified it, sitting on Simon’s couch.
I lean over and kiss Simon, stroke his cheek.
“I wasn’t in love with Moshe. But you’re right. I am heartbroken. This is heartbreak.”
Simon doesn’t look convinced. “You just can’t admit it.”
I wonder, am I lying to myself? That’s what everyone seems to think with their knowing nods, and in a way it would be a relief for them and probably for me if
I would just classify the pain in a recognizable way. Am I in love? Am I? I’d certainly felt a sense of gratitude for having Moshe in my life. I had many moments of looking over at him and thinking simply, “I love him.”
But I don’t think it had been with a craving for something we didn’t have. Trying to colour in those memories with missing lust or yearning now, after we’d been friends for so long, gone through so much, felt unseemly and unfair. But really, I think, does everyone know something about us that I don’t?
“I think I’ve confessed all the feelings I can find.”
Their wedding is a month before the marathon. The afternoon of, I sedate myself by running twenty-five kilometers, up to and through the Jerusalem Forest, and along the tracks of the new light rail to the outlying neighbourhood of Pisgat Ze’ev, where I wait for the train to take me back home, red-faced, parched, and feeling a light frost of foreboding.
I go to the wedding alone and meet my running buddy, Saul, at the entrance to the wedding hall. He’s also an old acquaintance of Orit’s, but I suspect he’s been invited to keep me company. We don’t often run together—he’s much younger and faster than I am—but we had both signed up for the marathon in Tiberias, and support each other by keeping ongoing tabs on our progress, often over coffee or beers.
I give him a high-five when I see him. “Saul, you’re looking so sharp! How’d you do today?”
“Yikes! Good for you. I just ran twenty-five.”
“Not bad! We both deserve a drink.” I take a deep breath and press a hand into my forehead. Saul squeezes my shoulder as we walk in. “You look lovely, Isabel.”
I’m holding a glass of wine—not my first—when I make my way to the front of the chuppah that Moshe and Orit are standing under, becoming married. A struggle of emotions rises in me: the image of Moshe in his white wedding kittel, his spine unfurled to his full unabashed height, is one I had imagined, made entreaties for innumerable times, and I am moved to witness it. Moshe has no relatives present, but all of Orit’s siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are flocked under and around the wedding canopy with them, embracing Moshe into their midst. “Yes. Now my friend, you’ve found a real family.” I retreat to the back of the crowd.
Later, Saul and I sit at the outdoor meal, tipsy but refilling our glasses, planning our marathon getaway to the north. I haven’t had a chance to say hello or even wish Moshe mazal tov throughout the evening, nor do I make an effort to seek him out among the throng of guests.
“We’ll get a hostel room in Tiberias and go up the night before. Maybe we’ll convince Rebecca to come up as our cheerleader?”
“Great idea—that’ll make the room cheaper too. Maybe she’ll prepare snacks for us,” Saul adds with a grin. I look at his intelligent, engaging face: he’s become an unexpectedly good friend over the years. Our relationship has always been uncomplicated and generous, but the bonding had crept up on me through these months of preparation.
I think of that tired question people liked to haul out: “Can men and women be ‘just friends’?” What did ‘just friends’ mean anyway, for God’s sake? I’ve lived alone like an orphan in Jerusalem for twenty years. It’s friends who give this place the shape of home.
At the marathon, Rebecca meets me at the thirty-fourth kilometer with a chocolate bar I can’t swallow, and moves silently by my side for the last few miles of the course. Until that moment, I’d had a pretty victorious lope around a blustery Kinneret, but Rebecca’s appearance came at exactly the moment—or had possibly been the trigger—for an intense drop in my energy and rise in my anxiety. I was a bit out of mind by then, frenzied feelings expanding in my airless chest while I tried to keep a breakdown at bay. “Keep it together, woman. Please, God, keep me sane and moving till the end.”
Of course I’d heard of ‘the wall’ that marathon runners hit when their nutritional storages run out. I just hadn’t expected it to affect me emotionally, where my body stayed in sluggish, robotic motion while my mind threatened to do me in with its uncontrollable panic.
Rebecca puts up with my silence, punctuated by my out-of-place remarks at every mile or so, and responds with her usual even tone.
“Rebecca, do you know I once weighed over two hundred pounds?” I sob asthmatically.
“No, Isabel, I didn’t know that. That must have been a long time ago, before we met.”
I fall silent again, praying that my body doesn’t decide to give out and lie on the pavement two kilometers from the finish line.
I barely knew why I said that; I hadn’t been thinking it for the last four hours, how I looked or felt about my body twenty years ago. Rather, gratitude powered me through each kilometer of the course: thanks for my wondrous health and strength, my friends’ massive outpouring of support, that the rain had stopped after ferocious sheets of it had pelted the windows of the hostel all night. It was a glorious morning of pride and grace. That’s truly what I felt as I ran.
But then there was the image. What a strange fall of feelings, to know that that girl was coming through a marathon with me.
I was that young woman when I’d met Moshe, and I thought he was better than me in every way, disastrous for both of us as we both grew up and out of our roles. Perhaps that’s what he admitted before I could. I wouldn’t give him the credit for good timing, though. His wordless departure was unkind, even cowardly. But it had forced me to recalculate my assessment of him; he’d lost some of my reverence now, and that was for the best. I learned that his judgment was not perfect. I could see that I was stronger than Moshe in some ways, so that finally things could find their proper proportions.
In the ongoing montage of my life that assails me in the final kilometers of the marathon, I flash on the scene of Moshe taking me to the city’s only real mall to help me find my BA graduation outfit. I’d been funneling all my anxiety into the question of “What should I wear?” until he finally sighs deeply, and puts down his book.
“Shall we go shopping, Isabel?” I nod tearfully, aware that my rocky emotions are not about finding a dress but about finally completing my degree. Moshe knows it too, patient while he pulls out and hands me various outfits in the fluorescent lit store, and then hides in his text while I try them on in the changing room. I come out in one, and he says,
“No to pants, but top not bad.”
“Really, this top? I think it fits strangely.” I pull at the burgundy neckline.
Moshe leans over to me and stage whispers, “Honey, it’s the bra” as though he were a brash American personal shopper, or Oprah herself, and not a reserved Dutch academic. He’s surprised me—I’m usually the one who makes overly-intimate references—and I burst out laughing.
At my graduation ceremony (where I wear a different outfit, in the end) there are tears in Moshe’s eyes: my accomplishment is his pride.
Now I wish I could at least tell him about when I went to pick up my running number the night before the marathon. The teenage boy handing them out behind the counter asked me, “Who are you getting this for?”
“For myself! Why, don’t I look like I could run a marathon?” I ask with a tight smile from within my bulky winter coat. I’m offended, my morale punctured for a moment as ‘not a real runner’ echoes through me. But looking behind me in line, I see that I’m the only woman there amidst a crowd of lean men. “Betach, slicha!” The boy retreats uncomfortably. “Sorry, there’s only a small percentage of women running the race. B’hatzlacha!”
I take my number and turn away, glowing.
The first thing I wheeze at the finish line, falling into Rebecca’s arms, is “It took me longer than five hours! I’m so ashamed! Over five hours!”
Rebecca embraces me, startled: “Isa-BEL! You just finished a marathon, woman!” She pulls away. Her face is pink and she looks like she wants to shake me.
“I KNOW!” I wail.
Saul finished forty minutes before me and is sitting near the finish line, already snacked and showered. He sees us and hobbles over.
“Isabel!” He puts his arms around me. “We are never fucking doing that again!” Saul opens up to let in Rebecca and the three of us drop our heads onto each other’s shoulders, moaning and laughing. Not one mocking or disparaging comment enters my mind at that moment.
A week later I go to Carousela. Yaron had been the first to text me right after I finished the race:
“I did it!”
“KOL HA KAVOD!!!!”
I see him on the terrace standing and drinking a coffee. “Isabel!! Amazing. Inspiring. I stopped smoking because of you!” He puts out his palm for me to slap mine into, and squeezes it when I do.
“Oy, really? I was going to ask you for a cigarette. I don’t need to be so healthy anymore.”
“I can’t believe you did it.”
“I know, neither can I.”
“Ein alayich Isabel! Did you tell your beloved friend? The one who taught you to run?”
I shake my head. “No, we really don’t talk anymore. Though I’m sure he’s already heard.”
“You should tell him! You don’t even know what happened with him. Don’t be stubborn, Isabel. He’s not an ex like you say, and even if he were…now he’s married, right? Call him already. You ran a marathon! You can do anything.” Yaron drums his fingers on the ledge and looks at me with his bright eyes.
Maybe once in a while Yaron knows something, I think.
It’s months after the Tiberias marathon, in the summer, when I invite Moshe to meet me at Carousela. He responds immediately, as though he’d been waiting for any sign from me, and we make a plan to meet the next day.
I wait at an outside table, and I see his figure approaching, hunched over and taking long strides with the lope I’ve always recognized from a distance. My heart leaps a bit, but when Moshe sits down across from me I see that he’s far more nervous than I am. I note that his voice is catching and that he stops frequently to take a big breath or a gulp of water, and I can’t say I’m sorry.
We do the requisite catching up: Orit is pregnant; they’re moving apartments; he’s applying for a position at the university. All things I knew, but nice to hear Moshe tell me about them. Finally the conversation lulls and we look at each other.
‘I got in touch because I want to know what happened, Moshe.”
He takes another breath and presses his hands down on the table. After a pause he says,
“I needed more air.”
Of course I knew this. But what a relief to have it confirmed.
“I should have spoken to you, I suppose, but I don’t think at the time, it would have worked. It was all I could do.”
I knew this was true too, but I still wanted to say, “I felt betrayed, Moshe.”
“I’m sorry. I’m very sorry, Isabel.” Moshe looks at me, and I know that he is. I know he has been all this time, and I was ready to forgive him, because what more did I need? I’d finally told him how I felt and he apologized. I still cared for him, and he was just a man who had mis-stepped, who felt bad about it. And I had held onto the hurt, had caused myself so much more suffering than he would have ever allowed me to do had we remained friends. There was nothing else I wanted from him except to be back in touch from time to time. I didn’t need him anymore. What a liberating feeling, full of loss.
“Moshe, it’s really good to see you again.”
“You too Isabel. I missed you.”
We both nod, mirroring each other in the way that’s caused Simon and others to say, “You have the same expressions. And the same tone when you speak.”
Moshe lets out a sigh, as though he also feels a great relief.
“So, how did the marathon go, Isabel? ‘Stories from the front?’”
He adds this for me I know. He’s trying, so I smile. I almost want to say, “Moshe, you’re staring” the way he did every time he caught me searching him in my intent way. Or launch into the tale of the young volunteer asking me who my race bib was for, or my disappointing race time, my hysteria, or of everyone else’s rallying. But maybe no war stories, rife with detail, for now. Honestly, what did any of it matter?
“Moshe, it was a triumph.”