I was leaned up against the glass door of the Coffee Bean on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem. It was a Saturday night. The sun had disappeared and the street was coming back to life. Kippa clad men were lining up at the pizza place; the first train of the night was puffing its way towards Damascus Gate.
He tapped my shoulder and in Arabic said, “cinnamon tea, right?” We had often traded smiles of recognition from separate tables but we’d never spoken. “Espresso and a laptop?” I grinned.
He was Palestinian and had spent half of his life in New York. I was Egyptian and had spent half of MY life in New York. He worked for an international NGO. I worked for a co-existence project. He told me I was charming. I poked fun at his dialect. He told me about a love he’d lost that nearly crippled him. I listened and my heart glowed. And then one day, he mentioned that he was married, to a local woman in a traditional marriage; the kind where you don’t date the person you marry and don’t love them before you marry them but believe (or hope) that the love will come. He was lucky, for them it had. I asked lots of questions. Wasn’t it a really hard transition? To live an American lifestyle for so long and then a traditional one? “No,” he said. He had learned something about love. “You pick someone attractive enough, kind enough and then you just love them.” “But connection?” I argued. “The unique bond between two magically fitted humans?” “Fairytales,” he said.
We spoke half in Arabic, half in English. Using the Arabic words when the English ones were too narrow. Here, my parts were no longer disjointed fragments. Here, I could be this other kind of human. Not half this and half something else. Fully something that made sense in the space between us.
On my last Saturday in Jerusalem we shook hands farewell. “I’ll Facebook you,” he promised. Soon innocent messages became something else. Subtle flirtations twisted around our language. A hint of a double entendre, words infused with sass. I was attached to my smart phone; living in Jerusalem time as if the Eastern Standard Time zone didn’t apply to me anymore. I added weight to his words and let myself forget that they were combinations of electronic letters sent through cyberspace arriving to a plastic destination. To me, they were handwritten on scented stationary, whispered promises in the moonlight. And every time photos of his real life appeared on Facebook I felt like I was the one being betrayed.
By the time I returned to Jerusalem the following summer, my self-esteem was in shreds. And within two days of my arrival he disappeared. I pleaded for a conversation but he refused me. I imagined all the different possibilities. That the intimacy I’d felt had never reached him. That I was one of a handful of extracurricular women. Most of all, I thought he’d taken one look at the real life me and hated what he’d seen. Maybe he saw through the layers of skin and blood and knew that in real life I’m not enough.
I spent the summer unraveling all the ugly stories I had about myself and love. I wrote and I sobbed and I wrote some more. And then the summer ended and unbelievably, so did the intensity of the pain. I started toying with the thought that the stories of my ugliness were mine, not his. And I remembered little things that were good. I remembered how he’d carefully weighed my career options with me. How he’d shared parts of his life; how he asked me if I believed in him; how he shared successes with me. I acknowledged that there had been care. Maybe not the way I wanted, but in cyberspace, we lived something out that we had missed the chance on in reality. And maybe that was ok. Maybe some people cross your path to light some fire you didn’t know had gone cold. Maybe they aren’t meant to be the person you live out everyday love with but maybe they catapult your awareness so that you’ll be ready when you DO meet your everyday love person.
I’ve since returned to Jerusalem. The city has a pull on me that I don’t completely understand. I am devastatingly in love with her. It’s winter now and she’s covered in a sheet of snow. It’s blisteringly cold and my little home is poorly equipped for these temperatures. But Coffee Bean is open. I walk up to the register and the young man looks at me like he might remember me. In Arabic I say, “cinnamon tea, please.”