I had a day off last week. The weather was sunny and warm for the end of December, and so I decided to make the most of it by going to one of my favorite places: the flea markets in Old Jaffa. In a happy frame of mind (I’d use the word gay if it hadn’t been hijacked to a whole new meaning) I got on a local bus that would take me straight to Jerusalem’s Central Bus Station. I didn’t take anything with me to read, so I looked out the window and studied my fellow bus passengers as they boarded. There was a woman I vaguely knew years ago, when her son and mine were in kindergarten together (my son is a strapping nineteen year-old). I wondered if she’d sit next to me, feeling a slight discomfort.
For what, after the first two sentences of pleasantries and updates, would we have to talk to each other about for the next half hour?
She didn’t. And, in fact, no one else did either, it being a non-rush hour time of day when serious people with jobs were busy working seriously instead of traipsing around on public buses. The front seats, reserved for older people, actually had older people in them. The one sitting directly behind the driver, who was wearing the kind of cap-beret favored by veterans of Israel’s War of Independence, those no-nonsense Palmach-types that had wrenched a country from the sand, the British imperialists, and the hostile Arabs. Or, I thought uncharitably, like a fierce defender of queue-lines and an intrepid debater with supermarket check-out girls over coupons and discounts; the kind that inevitably winds up in front of you when you are in a hurry to get home with your two bagels, milk and coffee.
A young woman, modestly dressed, sat reciting Psalms, her smooth forehead wrinkled with concentration as she silently mouthed the words. She was wearing no hat, I noticed, and this was surprising, as she was of the age that religious young women in Jerusalem were married, lugging a toddler and balancing a carriage and packages.
Just such a woman stood behind me, preferring to stand where she had a good grip on the handle of her baby carriage rather than wake up the sleeping child to hold him in her lap as she sat. Her hair completely tucked into a pretty, winter hat, her face unmade-up, she looked efficient and pleasant and kind. I thought how lucky that baby was.
These thoughts filling my mind, I hardly noticed the bus’s progress.
Then, suddenly it seems to me now, as I look back, the bus stopped again. And the last passengers got on before the bus turned into Begin Road, the spanking new highway with its tunnels and overpasses that is the pride of Jerusalem, crowning its entrance and leading visitors with ease to every part of the Capital and beyond to the Dead Sea and Jericho. It was the road that would take me – nonstop – to the Central Bus Station is less than ten minutes.
Young yeshiva students boarded, their faces pale against their dark suits and beards, holding heaving books as they headed for another day of intense study.
And then he got on. The Arab, dragging behind him a large, covered shopping cart. I looked at his face, searching for some sign of tension, trying to guess if his basket was filled with 10 kilo of plastic explosives filled with nails and screws; looking for a twitching of hands, a certain set to the mouth which would tell me if he was on his way to meet 72 virgins beside a sea of honey and an emerald palace at the foot of Mohammed. But he was expressionless as he paid his five and a half shekel and took his printed ticket. The driver! I thought.
How can he let him board, without checking? How could it be that every time I went to the post office or pharmacy or supermarket someone wanded me, but that here, on a public bus an Arab can get on with a whole, covered shopping cart and no one would ask him to open it?
The driver, equally expressionless, took the money from the person in who was next in line. I saw the man and his shopping cart move to the back of the bus.
Mentally, without breathing, I measured the distance between the cart and the back of my head. Too close. Way too close. I thought about changing seats.
But to my surprise, the seats further up were taken, and those further back would mean I would have to brush past the man, the cart.
I looked around to see if I was the only one gripped by fear. I saw my friend in the beret turned around in his seat and look back at the cart: “Someone should check it. What is this? To let someone like that on with a cart, and no one even checks!?” The driver, expressionless, turned up the radio. The man in the beret stood up, addressing the bus passengers, calling for sanity.
No one looked at him. Even I, who secretly blessed him. For the man and his cart were already on the bus. They were with us, part of us, the two of them. If someone got up to check, all the man had to do was press the detonator, and the bus and all of us would lay scattered. Honestly, I did not think of the bus, the other passengers. I thought of myself. How to get off.
I am not the only one in Jerusalem who gets off a bus and forfeits their fare when someone gets on that seems to hold the promise of disaster. People do it all the time. I once remember watching an Arab in a large, quilted ski jacket get on a bus. I continued riding for two stops, watching him intently, trying to balance my fear with my loss of my fare when suddenly, I saw his hand shoot up.
Just at that moment, the bus pulled into a stop and opened its doors. I jumped off, still miles from home, my heart beating with terror. Outside, I watched as the Arab unzipped his coat, laying it neatly in his lap. And then the doors snapped shut, leaving me behind to wait for the next bus.
I looked at the exit doors, considering such a move, but then it dawned on me.
We had already made the turn-off to Begin road. It would be a ten minute, non-stop ride until we reached the next stop, which was across the road from the Central Bus Station. There was no way out, unless I made a spectacle of myself, demanding the driver let me off in the middle of a highway.
I sat there, paralyzed, thinking: Where would he blow himself up? Would he do it now, or would he wait until we entered the tunnels, which would then collapse on passing cars? Or was it the Central Bus Station that he was after, with its hundreds of soldiers returning to base?
I thought of the headlines in the newspapers, the black, thick letters, the horrible photos. I thought of my family. And then I thought: I have had a very good life. I’ve done what I planned to do, and so much more. It was a life filled with so many blessings. I don’t think it could have been better.
Had I done all I wanted to do? Had I seen all the places I’d wanted to visit?
No. But I thought of all I had done, all I had enjoyed. I wondered, if it happened, if it would hurt. I wondered if I’d survive and be disfigured, and I wondered which I’d prefer, knowing that I wasn’t going to get a chance to choose.
It was up to God now, I thought. If He had sliced me a larger piece of life, I would live. And if not, by His Grace, I would cease to live. The piece I’d had, I thought gratefully, and without complaint, was already larger than many got, and for the most part, wonderful.
I remember leaning back, suddenly calm. I said the prayer one says before dying, the Hear Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. And then I took a deep breath, and looked at my watch. In ten minutes, I’d know.
“Hello, hello?” the man in the beret shouted into his cell-phone. “I tell you, he has a shopping cart. He has to be checked, I tell you. What kind of a policewoman are you!”
The woman saying Psalms continued to mouth the words. Oblivious, I thought? Or simply reacting appropriately? The woman with the baby carriage stood still, her hands tensing white around the knuckles. Of all the passengers on the bus, it seemed to me, only the Arab with the cart sat calmly, relaxed, betraying no sign of what was going on inside him.
Except for the man in the beret, there was total silence on the bus save for the low hum of the motor and the tires hissing along the strangely endless road. As we entered the last tunnel, I inhaled, wondering if I was fated to hear that sound once more – the sound I’d heard in the Park Hotel Seder night. A statement, a curse, emphatic and deadly in its bottomless hostility.
Then the tunnel was suddenly behind us. The bus stop was moments away. Was that what he was waiting for, I wondered? Would he do it just as the bus pulled in? Or would he wait until the doors opened? And how long would it take me to get to the doors? Front door, or back door? Which would be safer, faster? I thought, and then again, the deep breath, the sense of living one’s destiny with resignation and faith when the answer was beyond comprehension, unknowable.
The bus stopped. The man in the beret continued to shout into his phone. I wanted to thank him, but I didn’t. I stood on line, and jumped down the last step to the pavement as quickly as I could. The man with the cart sat calmly, unmoving. He was probably going to Ben Yehuda Market, I thought. To fill his cart with sweet tangerines, and white potatoes, and freshly baked pita bread.
I crossed the road. “Charity saves from death,” a beggar chanted, bored, his hand extended. I looked at him, wondering if it could be retroactive. Then I hurried to catch my bus to Old Jaffa. I had a lovely time looking at old brass Menorahs, wooden vanities from France, antique dolls. Then I walked along the beach and sat on a bench in the bright, summery light, basking in the warmth and joy of being alive one more day.