Snir bit glumly into his eggplant-and-tahini sandwich and squinted at the sun hanging over the line of mountains to the east. He sat atop a train-car-sized gray-green granite rock that a primeval upheaval had cast on top of another just like it on the peak of Monsanto, the sacred mountain where the Knights Templar had built a massive fortress to hold the line against the Moors. From his perch, Snir could take in the entire ruined castle and a score of selfie-taking tourists wandering its grounds.
He had gotten to this perch by emulating his twenty-five-year-old daughter Merav, who had scrambled up the two boulders as if they were a step ladder, calling on him to follow. He had not wanted to climb, not wanted to revisit the top of that rock, but Merav had given no quarter and he followed. He accepted, but did not like, the fact that it took him five times as long to get up as it had taken her. He was trim, in excellent shape for his age. But he was not as limber as he had once been, so he couldn’t contort his body to grasp all the handholds and footholds he had availed himself of thirty years previously. By the time he reached the top, Merav had clambered down. She stood below him and to the right, on the path leading from the ruined stronghold, talking to a dark-hued young man. Snir glowered at them, unseen. All he needed was for Merav to fall in love with a Portuguese hiker and leave him alone in Israel.
He felt a presence behind him and swiveled fast into a defensive crouch. That he could still do, just as had learned in the paratroop reconnaissance unit so long ago, and it felt good. He reached for the weapon at his side but, of course, it wasn’t there.
They faced each other, barely a pace apart, stiff from both age and discomfort, their eyes half-blinded by the sunshine reflecting every which way off the fine-grained granite
“Snir?” The voice was incredulous. Snir focused on the face above him and saw that it belonged to Meron. He had avoided Meron ever since their post-army trek through Europe and certainly did not need him here right now.
But he reluctantly took the outstretched hand. Not doing so would have required an explanation he did not want to give. Meron pulled him up and they faced each other, barely a pace apart, stiff from both age and discomfort, their eyes half-blinded by the sunshine reflecting every which way off the fine-grained granite. It made Snir feel good at first to see that Meron was largely bald and had developed a bit of a pot belly, but it was followed by an empty feeling, when he tried to imagine how Devorah might look now.
“Father-son trip with Tavor,” Meron explained. “My eldest son.” His gaze turned to the young man who was so fascinating Merav. “Just did his bar exam. Hit the books fifteen hours a day for the last three months and I figured he deserved a vacation. I’m lucky that my kid agreed to travel with me, even if it’s only because his girlfriend left him when she started feeling neglected. Tavor’s the kind who not only needs to pass, he needs to get the top score in the country.”
“Here with Merav, my daughter.” Snir looked down at Merav, relieved and remorseful. “She’s in Portugal for the summer.” In response to a questioning look from Meron, he added: “Doing this thing the kids do now, working at organic farms, different one every week or two. She suggested that I come for a few days. Nice of her.”
“Sounds great.” Snir felt Meron surveying him critically, top to bottom. He always did that. “Nice of her mother to let you come alone.”
Snir said nothing at first, avoiding Meron’s searching gaze, but in the end he could not avoid looking him in the eye. “No mother.”
In the army, Meron’s compassion for him had been like fuel. In the unit, he’d felt like a zero, a nothing, a kid from a broken home in both senses of the term, a dark-haired, dark-eyed, dark-minded south Tel Aviv street kid who had somehow been placed by mistake into a select group of blue-eyed north Tel Aviv rich kids and kibbutznikim. Meron had taken him under his wing, been his protector and his tribune, parsing for him the subtle signals of his tribe and teaching him how to talk their talk. Later, once he stood on his own two feet, it had become an annoyance that he accepted as the price of the unexpected friendship. Now it grated. Especially here.
“What, you split?”
“Breast cancer,” Snir muttered. He had wanted to remain silent but felt compelled to speak. “Fifteen years ago, when Merav was still a kid. She’s our one and only.”
Snir tried to remain stiff on principle as he felt Meron’s arms encircling him, but he could not. Tears came to his eyes and he embraced in return. When they separated, he was astonished to see that Meron’s eyes were moist as well.
“You never had any luck, did you?” Meron shook his head. The boy and girl were still deep in conversation below. “Can we sit down?”
They sat, facing the vast valley stretching toward Spain, their legs dangling over the rock.
Meron finally broke the silence. “Don’t you almost want to jump?”
Snir eyed him.
Meron leaned back on his elbows, his gaze still on the valley below. His brows went down, his eyes narrowed.
“You know, you never gave yourself credit. You never realized that you were the better-looking one, the quiet enigma that the girls all wanted to solve. You didn’t see it because you didn’t believe in yourself. But that’s the truth. Being your friend was to be in a constant state of envy.”
Snir emitted an exasperated hiss. “Oh, really.”
Meron looked at him. “When we stood on this rock back then, I came really close to pushing you.”
“And why didn’t you?”
“I figured, why do it, with all the complications it would bring on, when it would be so easy to get you to do it yourself?”
Snir turned slowly to look at him.
“Look,” Meron said, bringing his knees up below his chin and enfolding his arms around them. “I have a confession to make. I’m really lucky that you didn’t cooperate. But jealously can drive a man mad. Imagine having to live with that your whole life, even if no one ever found out. That you made your best friend kill himself.”
He looked at Snir. There was a long silence. “Aren’t you going to say anything?”
“You received a note from Devorah. Slipped into the pocket of your shorts while you slept, for you to find in the morning.”
Snir opened his eyes wide, keeping them on the valley.
“Just one sentence. Telling you to meet her on the top of this very rock at midnight, under the full moon.”
Snir raised his eyebrows.
“My luck was that you were such a wuss that you didn’t take up the invitation to the tryst. Because even though you were madly in love with her—don’t stare at me like that, don’t think I didn’t know—you’d never do that to a friend, would you? Because you know what my plan was? That you’d come here, and wait for her, and she wouldn’t come. And you know how I knew she wouldn’t come?”
Snir opened his mouth to speak, but no words came out.
“Because Devorah didn’t write the note. I wrote it.”
“Because I knew you, Snir, or I thought I did. I knew you hurt. I knew it was no fun for you sleeping alone when I was sleeping with Devorah after we met her on the trail. But I knew what you refused to see, that I was a surrogate, and that she was ready to hop from my bed into yours the minute you gave the signal. So I needed to close off that option. Don’t look at me like that, I’m telling you the truth.”
Snir opened his mouth, thought the better of it, then thought the better of that, and spoke.
“But I did climb the rock that night. I was here, under the full moon.”
Meron laughed bitterly. “Then I was luckier than I thought. And you were stronger than I believed. Because I was sure that you would wait, and wait, and then in despair leap off the granite above and smash into the granite below and roll down the mountainside and leave Devorah to me.”
Snir looked down and saw that the young couple was climbing the path toward them.
“I probably would have.”
Meron looked straight into his eyes.
“And why didn’t you? Why was I so lucky?”
“Because I wasn’t alone.”
Meron went stiff.
“What do you mean, not alone?”
“She was here. Devorah. With a bottle of wine and two glasses and a quilt spread out right there.” Snir pointed to the flat spot behind them. Meron swiveled to see.
Snir shrugged. “You were right. I couldn’t do that to a friend. That’s what I told her eventually. Later, on our way down. I felt awful. I’m the only guy in the world who could feel so awful after a night like that.”
“Fuck.” Meron looked at the spot where he had been betrayed. “No way. She didn’t know.”
“Well, I mean, I answered. I mean, I didn’t answer. Just took the note and pressed it into her palm that morning.”
“She never said …”
“She wouldn’t, of course.”
“That’s why I couldn’t go to your wedding. I just couldn’t.”
Meron followed his gaze to Merav and Tavor, who had reached the base of the bottom boulder. He looked from his son to Snir and back again. Snir followed his gaze and shook his head violently.
“No. No way,” he insisted, even as he knew he was wrong.
“I mean, I was sure she was being careful. I didn’t have anything myself. Never thought I’d need.”
“So was I,” Meron laughed bitterly. “So was I. I mean, I was madly in love with her, but I didn’t think the wedding would be so soon. He smiled wistfully. “She was a beautiful bride, though. Women are most beautiful when they’re pregnant.”
“Abba, you’ll never believe this!” Merav shouted from below.
Snir watched them climb.
“I guess we should tell them.”
Meron sighed. “I guess we should.”
Snir glanced at his friend. He hesitated, then spoke. “You won’t jump, will you?”
Meron peered over the edge. His voice was as hard as the granite. “It’s tempting. But no. After all, I got Devorah in the end, didn’t I?”
Snir blinked back tears. “Yeah. You did.”
Haim Watzman’s Necessary Stories appear in The Times of Israel every four weeks. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and a collection of his stories, Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com.