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My Journey

p.

My Journey

Amalie Coles

Published by Amalie Coles, 2016.

This is a work of fiction. Similarities to real people, places, or events are entirely coincidental.

MY JOURNEY

First edition. October 15, 2016.

Copyright © 2016 Amalie Coles.

ISBN: 978-1534623873

Written by Amalie Coles.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

About the Author

 

To all those who are still searching for themselves.

Acknowledgements

Special thanks to my family and friends who put up with me while I spent nights and days working on this novel. Apologies for all the missed calls and unanswered emails. Special thanks to Margaret Diehl, Rosa Sophia, and Cathy Morgan, my wonderful editors, who provided me with their guidance and feedback. Finally, special thanks to my husband, Nick, and our beautiful daughter, Maria, for continuing to fill up my days with light and joy. To all the readers, if you’ve enjoyed reading my novel, I’ll be happy to hear from you.

Chapter 1

I told myself not to fret. After all, it was just a misplaced invoice and nothing more. It will probably turn up at someone’s desk on Monday, I kept repeating to myself like a mantra while going through the filing cabinet for the hundredth time.

“Did you find it?” Dave, my manager, asked.

“Not yet. I’m sure it’s somewhere.” I started going through the files faster.  

“Rebecca, you need to stop being reckless,” he muttered. “It was a very important order for a client in Vancouver.”

I’m not being reckless, you idiot! I wanted to yell. There was at least one other person responsible for filing, so it could’ve been her.

“Rebecca, can I see you for a moment?” Rosa asked.

“Coming…”

“So, yesterday, I asked you to bring my docket to the shipping department,” she began.

“Yes, I remember that.” I vaguely recalled carrying a large envelope with files on the latest client order.

“Why did it end up in the embroidery department?”

“What?” My memory must’ve been betraying me, for I clearly remembered handing it to Diego, the manager of the shipping and receiving department.

Sensing my shock, Rosa softened. “All right, next time, please remember to put it in the right place.”

“Sure. No problem.”

I started packing for the day as soon as I returned to my desk. Since it was already four twenty-five, there was no point in staying longer. Surely this Friday didn’t end the way I had imagined it. However, I was still feeling excited. Tonight, Jason and I would go out and possibly discuss our summer plans. I smiled at the thought of escaping together to some tropical resort. Before anyone could catch me, I quickly grabbed my purse and left the building.

On the subway, I took out my iPod and drowned in my favourite music, which was mostly made of the latest Israeli hits. I closed my eyes and tried imagining what it would be like to return to the land of our honeymoon. The desert, the sea, and a myriad of unexplored places came into my mind.

I reached home in less than fifty minutes. Except for the times I was taking night classes, I usually came home earlier than Jason. His work hours ran until five, while mine were until four-thirty. It was amazing that even after four years of marriage and nearly five years of being together, I was still thrilled to see him every day after work. I ran to the door as soon as I heard the key in the lock.

“Hi, honey! How was your day?” he asked.

“Not too bad, thanks,” I replied. “How was yours?”

“Well, I’ve got some exciting news you might like.”

“Bring it on.” I wrapped my arms around him.

“Our company is expanding, which means that new servers will be built. I will be working more hours and making a better salary.”

“That’s great,” I said, secretly feeling a bit upset. Jason always looked for opportunities to work more, even if it meant compromising our time for each other.

“But don’t worry. I promise not to work on nights or weekends.”

“I hope not. Well, I’m really happy for you.” And I truly was.

“At last, we can afford to take a vacation we’ve always dreamed about.”

“True, Jason.”

We both loved travelling. We had never been to Europe but believed there was still enough time. Nevertheless, we had visited a lot of places in the United States and stopped by a few Caribbean resorts. Throughout the year, however, we were so busy with our jobs that vacations felt more like a necessity rather than a luxury.

“So, shall we get going?” he asked.

“Do you mind if I change first?”

“Sure! I’ll wait for you here.”

He plopped on a couch and took out his new Blackberry, while I went to our bedroom and opened the closet doors. Feeling weary of the boring office clothes, which were mostly black and gray, I quickly found a pair of blue jeans and a pink denim shirt. Although I wasn’t a high maintenance type, I loved wearing bright colors. Having fixed my makeup, I emerged from the bedroom ready to go.

“What do you think?” I asked, making a twirl.

“You look great as always.” He got up from the couch and quickly retrieved jackets from our closet.   “Here you go.” He offered me mine.

Soon we were walking towards the Firkin Pub, inhaling the smell of grill mixed with odors of spicy food. The weather was quite cold for early May, and most trees were still bare of new growth. That year, we had had the longest winter in history, and everyone was fed up with ruthless wind, rain, and snow. Just a few weeks ago, there was the worst spring storm I could ever remember. (An exception would probably be one ice rain that had happened in April when I was still in high school.) Weary of the endless winter, many already started ditching winter coats for shorts and sandals.

Two years ago, Jason and I had finally moved out from our ragged one-bedroom apartment on Jane and Finch and bought a two-bedroom condo on Yonge Street. Our place was not as upscale as other condos in the area, but we still loved our new place and the sense of freedom that came from living in uptown Toronto. In spite of our busy schedules, we would always find time to go out for a walk on a Friday night, watch a new 3D movie at Cineplex, or check out a new Chinese restaurant. It was our way of keeping romance alive.

We quickly reached the pub, where a waitress escorted us to a table for two and asked if we would like something to drink. Jason ordered two light beers. As soon as the lady reappeared with our drinks, I requested a shepherd’s pie, while Jason asked for smoked salmon with baked potatoes. Soon we were left alone with nothing to do but to sip our beers and stare at each other.

“So, where do you want to go this summer?” I asked after prolonged silence.

“Hmm, I was thinking about California.”

“Sounds nice. I’d love to see Sequoia National Park.”

“Me too.”

“We could drive there from San Francisco and stay in a lodge overnight.”

“We could also try parasailing over the ocean.”

“No way, Jason! Just thinking about it gives me chills.” I playfully slapped his hand.

“That comes from someone who wanted to go to Syria.” He gave me a wicked grin.

“Why are you using past tense? I still want to go there.” 

“Here is your order,” a waitress said, passing two sizable plates. Judging from the look on her face, she overheard parts of our conversation.

“Thank you,” Jason said, taking the plates from her.

“I mean, someday,” I added.

“Yeah, of course!” He rolled his eyes.

“I just want to be sure I’m not going to Israel this summer,” I said halfway through our meal.

“When will you get an answer?”

“I don’t know yet. But even if I win the scholarship, I still can’t be gone for three weeks. I only booked off one this year.”

Earlier that spring, I had applied for a scholarship through my favorite magazine (BAR short for Biblical Archaeology Review). I had also sent an application to the Leon Levy Expedition to volunteer for a dig in Ashkelon, positive that both applications would be turned down. Seriously, what chance did an average university graduate like me have at winning an international competition? Students from across the North American continent routinely applied for such programs and scholarships in hopes of winning a summer adventure.

“But if for some reason, you end up going,” he added, “I’m thinking about spending a week together in Tel Aviv after the dig is over.”

“Ah, that would be so nice.” I sighed. “I miss that city so much!”

“Then we should go for it.” He smiled.

“I’m sure my boss will fire me if he finds out.”

“Well, I’m just making a suggestion.”

We spent the rest of the evening fantasizing about other places we could visit this summer. I suggested visiting Crow Canyon Archaeological Center in Colorado or Canyonlands National Park in Utah as alternatives to California. Jason, in turn, told me he really wanted to visit Florida, which wasn’t very surprising to me considering how much he loved beaches and swimming. Soon enough, the dinner was over, and we were headed back home. With the night approaching, the temperature was getting close to zero.

“I’m so done with this stupid winter!” I exclaimed, my hands shivering from cold.

“I’m sure the summer will be nice,” Jason said while trying to warm up my hands with his.

When we got home, something prompted me to check my email, even though I wasn’t expecting anything on a Friday night. When I discovered the letter, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to feel thrilled or terrified.

Dear Rebecca O’Connor-Smith,

[_Congratulations! You have been selected for the Annual Archaeological Dig Scholarship by the Biblical Archaeological Society. We will fund your proposed project with a grant of $1,500. In order to receive funds for this fellowship, we require you to fill out the attached acceptance form and liability waiver, and return both to our office as soon as possible. _]

By accepting this award, you are agreeing to submit a report by the end of the season.  The report should be 250–350 words in length and include an appropriate photo that illustrates your participation in the project for which you received funding.

Best,

[_Biblical Archaeology Review Team  _]

“Jason, I won it!” I burst out of our mini office.

“What?” he asked.

“I won the scholarship. I’m going to Israel this summer.”

He moved towards me. “Does it mean we get to spend a week in Tel Aviv?”

“Well, I still have to talk to my boss.”

“I’m sure he’ll be cool about that. Haven’t you accumulated four weeks already?”

“Yes, but we were booking off vacations a long time ago. I don’t think he’ll be happy to hear about our summer plans.”

“Let’s not think about the bad stuff. I think we need to celebrate.” With these words, he strode to the kitchen and opened a bottle of champagne.

“If only we could go there this year!” I exclaimed. “Then we could revisit all the sites again.”

“Or just lie on the beach. We hadn’t done too much of it last time.”

“OK, let’s deal with one thing at a time. I’m going to try getting clearance at work.”

“Please do so as soon as you can. I really want to find a good flight and a hotel.”

“I’ll try.”

“In the meantime, I want to spend some quality time with my wife.” He smirked.

“Let’s do that!” We put down our glasses of wine and went straight to our bedroom.

I loved being close to him, especially after such a busy week. Even after so many years, he could still ignite passion in me like no one else.

“I’ve missed you so much!” I whispered between the kisses.

“Me too, Becky.”

Afterward, we took a long, lazy shower, allowing water to wash away all the stress and uncertainties of daily life. Once we were dressed in comfortable clothes meant to be worn only at home, he looked at me and smiled.

“What?” I asked, brushing my hair in front of the mirror.

“Becky, I’m not sure about you, but I’m tired.”

“Do you mind if I read a little bit?” I was feeling too jittery from the news to sleep.

“Sure. I’m going to bed then.”

“Goodnight. I’ll join you soon.”

I walked back to the living room, where I sat on a couch, sipping my glass of wine and browsing through the latest issue of the [_BAR _]magazine. It featured a long article about the true location of the Mt. Sinai. Some claim the actual site is located in Saudi Arabia, which seems a bit hard to believe. Unable to concentrate on the text, I flipped through the pages, which contained lists of newly released books, images of antique jewellery, and ads of products for elderly people. Then I tiptoed to our bedroom and lay beside Jason, who was already soundly asleep.

Chapter 2

Jason and I had met at the beginning of my third year of university. I was standing in a long line at the Robarts Library cafeteria, waiting for a microwave. I felt something special as soon as I saw him, the one who was standing in front of me. When his turn came, he looked at me with deep brown eyes and told me to go ahead.

Somehow, we ended sitting together and striking up a conversation. I learned that he had already finished his bachelor’s degree in computer science and was working at the library providing IT support. I was a bit uneasy about mentioning my major, anthropology, because too many people made comments about its lack of value in the real world. Jason, however, expressed strong admiration for my choice. 

“Not too many people have courage to be who they want to be,” he said. “It’s so amazing that you chose to study something you truly enjoy.” 

“Do you like working with computers?” I asked in hopes that my question would catch him off guard. I already knew that most people got IT training simply because it promised a decent salary and job security.

“To some extent, I do,” he replied. “But it takes a lot of hard work and energy, just like everything else.”

After our lunch, we exchanged emails and phone numbers. We met in the cafeteria the following day and the day after. Then we started seeing each other regularly. When the weather was nice, we would take a walk around campus and explore the King’s College Circle.

Soon, I discovered I had feelings for him. Everyone at home began noticing subtle changes, like my constant singing or frequent distraction. Erin, my older sister, even asked me if I was in love. Eventually, I told her everything.

“Don’t get too attached,” she often advised me. “We are still too young to be tied down.” Her words sounded a bit harsh. Although I wasn’t thinking of marriage yet (Who does at university?), I was tired of dating just for the sake of dating.

I’d had a few boyfriends before, but they’d never lasted longer than two months. One of them was Matan, an Israeli guy who majored in life sciences and took a Mesopotamian archaeology course as an elective. We went to movies a few times, worked on a project together, and then he disappeared. Another one was Miguel, a Spanish exchange student who came to Toronto to study engineering but decided to switch to anthropology. We went out on a couple of dates and even shared a French kiss. That was probably the most serious thing I’d had before meeting Jason.

Erin kept telling me to ditch my comfy Eccos and cozy hoodies for more elegant outfits to attract guys, and I did try putting more effort into my appearance. One time, I even managed to make it through a whole day of running from one class to another across the campus wearing three-inch pumps. At the end of the day, my feet were in so much pain that I accidentally tripped and spilled an overpriced latte on my new Kensie dress. Mind you, I didn’t attract anyone. Next day, I went back to my usual wardrobe.

I often wondered if my weirdness was part of the problem. I wasn’t like a typical Canadian, for I hardly cared about the Maple Leafs or the Blue Jays. Instead, I was obsessed with Biblical archaeology and ethnic music. Whenever I revealed something about myself to a guy, he would feign enthusiasm and walk out of my life.

With Jason, I could be completely honest about myself. During those afternoon walks, we talked about everything, from our favourite artists and pastimes to our future plans. Back then, I didn’t have a concrete plan figured out, except that I really hoped to find a job in a museum after graduating.

During the Christmas break, Jason invited me to a movie. On our way to the cinema, his car broke down. When we got outside, it started snowing so heavily that we could barely see anything.

“Are you cold?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied, trying to warm my hands. He moved closer and hugged me. Then we shared our first kiss, which became one of the most magical moments of my life.

A few days later, he invited me to his apartment to show me his stamp collection. I was roaming through his tiny bachelor suite when he came from behind and wrapped his hands around me. I turned around and let him kiss me deeply and passionately. I don’t remember how we ended in his bedroom tearing at each other’s clothes, only that it was wonderful.

We made our relationship official on New Year’s Eve, when he showed up at our house with a bouquet of roses. A couple of days later, he invited me to meet his parents, who owned a small farm in the north. After an hour-long drive, I was welcomed by Chantal and Brian Smith, the loveliest couple on the planet.

The following summer, I found a job as a counsellor at one of the residential camps supported by the U of T. I was fortunate enough to get a room on the first floor, making it easy for Jason to crawl in through a window at night. After a long, exhausting day of chasing after kids, I would go back to my little room and wait for my secret lover. He would knock lightly on my window, and I would help him to get inside. Then we would spend the night together doing unspeakable things to each other.

Nobody knew about our encounters, except for my sister, who thought I was completely out of my mind. Not because I was finally involved with someone. In fact, she often encouraged me to let go of my inhibitions and be more adventurous. Erin was more concerned about the possibility of me losing my job.

“Like, what if they find out?” she would scold me. “Your reputation could go down the drain.” 

Deep inside, I was a bit afraid of being discovered. Yet I reassured her that Jason and I were safe. For once, I was right or perhaps simply lucky.

The proposal came in October. We were walking at Queen’s Park, kicking leaves, when he took out a small box from a pocket and bent on a knee. I held my breath. Inside was a princess-cut diamond ring.

I knew we were too young to tie the knot. I had just turned twenty-two, while he was twenty-seven. I knew we were supposed to date for a few years before even thinking about commitment. However, I could not say no. I was madly in love with him and could not wait to begin our life together. 

We could have just moved in together like most couples, but it didn’t feel right for us. Not for religious reasons. We were both raised in secular families that had a very faint connection to Irish Catholicism. In fact, we hardly ever went to church. We just wanted to make our life together special, and we both believed it could be accomplished only through marriage.

We set our wedding date for the twentieth of June, which coincided with the official start of the next summer, and immediately started planning. Everyone believed we were way too young. Erin even warned me the whole fairytale romance could turn into a big mistake. 

“You have a long life ahead of you,” she would tell me. “What if you meet someone else in future?”

“No, Jason is the one,” I would reply, unable to imagine anyone in his place. In the rare moments of doubt, I would remind myself that our parents had also married young and were still happy together. My mother was only eighteen, and my father, twenty. They did have a few issues along the way, but who doesn’t? 

Thus I went straight from being my parents’ daughter to Jason Smith’s wife. There was no stage of self-discovery, independence, or random hook-ups. Not that I was interested in experiencing any of these things.

***

I phoned my sister as soon as I got a chance next morning. Erin and I were very close and called each other almost every day. Our parents even joked that we looked more like school friends rather than sisters.

“That’s so exciting!” she exclaimed as soon as I relayed the news. “Now you get to have a summer adventure plus a second honeymoon.” 

“I can’t wait already. I just have one more issue to take care of.”

“What issue?” She sounded a bit annoyed.

“I still haven’t booked my vacation at work, and I’m not sure if I have enough time before July.”

“Wow, what a great planner you are!” As the younger sister, I was often perceived as the least organized one. Although it wasn’t completely true, Erin liked perpetuating this misconception about me.

“Come on, I didn’t even know if I was going in the first place!”

“Well, they’ll have to let you go,” she tried reassuring me. “They’ve got no choice.”

“I really hope they will.”

“By the way, can you please bring me one of those Dead Sea products? I absolutely loved that Ahava lotion you brought me from your last trip.”

“Definitely! Maybe your company should order some as well.”

“We’d love to, but their products are so expensive.” As an aesthetician, Erin got to work with some of the best beauty products, but she had never managed to use anything from the Dead Sea collections.

“So, how did your date go?” I finally asked. Last night, she had gone on a date with a guy she had met online. The entire week, she was feeling terribly excited and couldn’t talk about anything else. Never mind it was probably her tenth date in the month.

“Alex is all right, and he seems to like me a lot,” she began. “But honestly, I think we are too different from each other.”

“How so?”

“I feel intimidated by him. He’s finishing business school while I’m a college graduate.”

“So what?”

“He looks so refined, Becky. When I’m with him, I feel out of place.”

“Yesterday, you sounded quite optimistic.”

“I was until he started talking about politics and global warming, and I didn’t even know what to say.”

“I bet you would rather talk to him about the latest fashion trends.”

“Becky, don’t laugh at me! You know how I feel about those heavy topics.” 

“Maybe you should give it some time. I mean, Jason and I are different in so many ways, but we get along very well.”

“I’m so afraid of failing again! I know I’m only twenty-eight, but I’m so exhausted from searching for Mr. Right. I often wish I had your life.”

I hated to hear my girl sound so pessimistic. On the outside, she always looked strong, almost invincible. However, I knew her better. Erin had a lot of insecurities others knew nothing about.

“Don’t worry, Erin. You still have plenty of time. All I’m saying is you shouldn’t jump to any conclusions just yet. Also, you shouldn’t be ashamed of your education. Career-wise, you’ve achieved much more than I have.”

The latter statement was completely true. While I held a boring nine-to-five office job I hated, Erin worked at a glamorous spa centre in downtown and loved every minute of it. On the relationship front, however, I was the lucky one. At twenty-six, I had been already married for nearly four years. Erin, although two years older than me, was still single and going on random dates in hopes of finding her man.

“Well, thanks for the reassurance,” she said. “I’ll see how it goes. It might work, or it might not. Anyway, I’m happy for you.”

“We should go shopping someday,” I suggested.

“Let’s do that!” Her voice lightened up immediately. 

“How about meeting sometime after my vacation days are sorted out?”

“Well, I hope it will happen soon.”

“Me too.”

After our conversation, I grabbed my jacket and stepped on the balcony to get some fresh air. I couldn’t stop marvelling at the ways Erin and I were different from each other.

***

We grew up in the quiet town of Oakville, located only thirty minutes away from Toronto. Our father, Anthony O’Connor, owned a restaurant, and our mother, Isabel, ran an antique bookstore.

I became infatuated with ancient Israel at the age of twelve. It happened when I was walking home from school and decided to stop at my mother’s bookstore. As soon as I entered the shop, my attention got caught by a large vintage book titled Encyclopaedia of the Ancient Civilizations. I picked it up and quickly skimmed through the table of contents. The book had chapters on Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Biblical land of Canaan. The latter immediately captivated me. Since we had already studied the first two at school, I was a bit familiar with these civilizations. However, I knew very little about ancient Israel.

“Becky, what are you doing here?” I heard my mother ask. I jerked my head and saw her standing next to me. 

“Hi, Mom,” I said casually. “I was in your area and decided to drop by.”

“I’m almost done. Want to walk home together?”

“Sure.” Although I enjoyed walking alone (I had just turned twelve, so the freedom of going to places on my own was still a big deal), I didn’t mind a little company.

We went to my favourite coffee shop, which served the best hot chocolate and cookies in town, and discussed my day at school. I filled her in about my upcoming choir concert and my volleyball match. She promised to come for both and reassured me that Dad would be there as well.

Next day, I went back to the store, found the book resting on its shelf, and sat with it for two hours straight. The pattern continued for the next few months. I read about the origins of the ancient Israelites, King David’s reign, and the temple built by King Solomon. Then I moved on to other chapters. My mother noted my interest in the book but didn’t say anything. The following winter, I was thrilled to discover the book under the Christmas tree.

During the times I wasn’t reading, I was a normal teenager, who had a few good friends and enjoyed playing sports. I also loved singing and was a soloist at our school’s choir. However, next to my sister, I was a complete nerd and a weirdo.

Like most girls our age, Erin was following avidly on everything related to Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, whose romance was a hot topic at the time. She kept a stack of [_People _]magazines under her bed, and her walls were plastered with posters of pop artists and movie stars. I, on the contrary, didn’t care about that stuff and preferred encyclopaedias to celebrity gossip. Amazingly, our differences almost never interfered with our friendship. We hardly ever experienced sibling rivalry and always had each other’s backs during difficult times.

We left Oakville when I was fourteen, which was the time of some unpleasant changes. First, my mother’s bookstore—and my afternoon respite from school—went bankrupt. I knew something wasn’t quite right when I noticed fewer customers coming in. I began eavesdropping on my parents’ conversations and found out about increasing expenses and declining profits. Eventually, my mother was forced to close down the store.

A few weeks later, another calamity arrived. It turned out that my father’s restaurant, no matter how great the cooking, was having issues with local authorities. I didn’t know what happened exactly, but he too was forced to close his restaurant. I was in shock from learning the news because, in my mind, my father could do no wrong. In an instant, my parents were left jobless and with an endless number of bills.

They tried shielding us from the troubles, but it was pointless. We were old enough to understand what was happening. One day, I noticed a large “For Sale” sign placed in front of our house. Next to it was a picture of some man in a suit with big letters saying “Real Estate Agent.” I couldn’t remember his name, for I didn’t care. I was about to lose my little room, which I had cherished for ages.

“We are moving to Toronto next week,” my father announced during dinner.

My mother and Erin nodded. I wanted to slam my fork on the table and run to my room. I wanted to make a scene. However, I knew better. I understood perfectly well that moving was difficult for everyone. So I swallowed the urge to throw a tantrum and continued acting as if nothing happened.

Things didn’t get any better in Toronto. For the first few months, our reserve money was running out fast, and we were scrambling for every penny while trying to survive. Once a restaurant owner, my father was now flipping burgers at McDonald’s. It took him several attempts and a few night courses on business management to find a better job. My mother became a cashier at Chapters Indigo. Although she was later promoted to a floor supervisor, this job was not the same as ownership of a bookstore.

As for myself, I did not like this big, gray city at all and absolutely hated our new school. We attended Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, which was one of the best schools in the city. The level of education there was far higher than in most schools across Ontario, and in the beginning, my grades were terrible. While all my classmates were putting forth minimal effort to get As and Bs, I was barely passing my courses.

On the friendship front, the situation was even worse. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t fit into the high school culture that was characterised by gray sweatpants, UGGs, and classic rock. I was way too different from everyone else, for I preferred Zohar Argov over Elvis Presley. So I would spend most of the breaks standing by a wall, headphones plugged in my ears, trying to obliterate all the stress and disappointment that was happening in my life by cranking up Putumayo series on my iPod. 

I knew I was supposed to be more involved with the school’s social life, and I tried, at least in the beginning. I attended the Jewish Culture Club a couple of times, hoping to meet people who shared my fascination with ancient Israel. I quickly learned that the club had little to do with Judaism or Israel and that most kids simply joined it because of free pizza. So I left after two sessions. I also quit all sports and lost interest in singing.

Erin, by contrast, fell in love with Toronto and became the popular girl right from the start. Her grades weren’t high either, but it didn’t seem to bother her. She already had her mind set on the college for aestheticians and was doing well enough to get accepted. Besides, she was always the life of the party, and everyone adored her. During her high school years, she became a glamorous cheerleader, built a circle of girlfriends with similar pursuits, and attended countless house parties, where she met her first boyfriend, Jake. Together, they became the hottest couple in the entire school.

For the next year and a half, our yearbooks were filled with their photos from various events. Their relationship, however, didn’t last beyond the prom date. The summer after their graduation, he moved to Montreal to study at McGill, and Erin never saw him again. She was a bit sad, but there were other exciting things happening in her life. She got accepted to Seneca College for the aesthetician program and was incredibly happy about having achieved her dream.

For the last two years of high school, I studied hard for history tests, wrote long English essays, and did everything to make it to a university. Slowly, my grades picked up, and by the end of the twelfth grade, I was getting high seventies and low eighties. Those grades weren’t high enough for, say, Harvard or McGill, but they were sufficient for the U of T’s Bachelor of Arts program. One day, I found an admission letter in our mailbox and became overwhelmed with pride. My efforts finally paid off.

To some extent, winning this scholarship reminded me of the day I had learned about my acceptance to the U of T. After being let down at work so many times, I began to yearn for a small accomplishment that would remind me of my capabilities.

***

Having stepped from the balcony, I went to the kitchen and made a cup of coffee. Jason came in carrying handfuls of grocery bags. This morning, he decided to go to a gym and stopped at Loblaws on his way home.

“Want to go shopping?” he asked. “We could check out gardening gloves at Rona or Home Depot for your trip.”

“We have more than enough time,” I replied. I had to be hundred percent sure I was going in the first place, so I suggested going for a walk instead.

My mother called in the evening and asked if there was anything new with us.

“Nothing much,” I replied, feeling my stomach tighten. I had to disclose the truth to my parents, too, and I wasn’t sure how they would react. My parents read the news too much to think of Israel as anything more than a danger zone.

“I hope you didn’t forget Dad’s birthday is this weekend,” she reminded me.

“Of course not! How could I?” I made a mental note to search for a present this week.

“Then you and Jason are invited to our dinner on Saturday. Will you come?”

“For sure! What time should we arrive?”

“Around six o’clock, I think.”

“See you then.”

For the rest of the weekend, I couldn’t stop stressing out over the possibility of not getting the time off or even losing my job. I tried working on an assignment for my copywriting course but couldn’t concentrate. Every time I sat down and opened the Blackboard, my mind would trail off to something else. In a few minutes, I would be checking Facebook, getting up for a cup of coffee, and doing everything else besides studying. 

At the university, I had majored in anthropology with a special focus on Near Eastern archaeology. I had taken survey courses in ancient ceramics along with Hebrew and Aramaic. Since I also listened to Israeli music, I could speak the language of the Bible almost fluently. Most people assumed I was Jewish or had lived in Israel in the past, but neither of the two was true about me. I was simply a geek with unusual interests.

After graduating with a GPA of 3.7, I hoped to secure a job at the Archaeological Services of Canada or the Royal Ontario Museum. Instead, I ended up at an ordinary office job dealing with angry customers and constantly scoring warnings from my insanely stressed-out supervisor.

I only enrolled in the copywriting program because I was sick of working in customer service and wanted to do something better with my life. What I truly wanted was to continue with archeology. I even browsed for graduate programs on the Internet occasionally and fantasized about becoming a full-time student again. With our mortgage bills and responsibilities, however, this option didn’t seem feasible. Career-wise, it would probably lead nowhere. So I had to keep on learning about advertising and hope it would lead me to a better professional life.

After a gazillion futile attempts at studying, I finally gave up. The stubborn jitters refused to leave me alone. I had to know if the trip to Ashkelon was happening.

Chapter 3

Asking for four weeks off less than two months before my trip wouldn’t be easy. Yet I had to stay positive to remain sane. So I woke up the following Monday feeling as cheerful as ever. Having put on my favourite fluffy robe over a nightgown, I went to the kitchen and turned on the coffee machine. Then I went straight to the washroom and began rehearsing my speech in front of a mirror. I would tell my supervisor about my unexpected trip and apologize for the late notice. Quite possibly, his reaction would not be so bad, and he would grant me my time off right away. Jason came in and greeted me with a warm embrace.

“May I use the sink?” he asked.

“No,” I replied jokingly.

By the time we got out of the bathroom, the coffee was already boiling. If we came out a minute later, it would’ve already made a huge mess on our countertop. After a quick breakfast, we slipped into our jackets, packed our lunch bags, and walked out. 

“See you later, honey,” I told Jason downstairs while exiting the elevator.

“Have a great day and take it easy.” 

“I’ll try.” Once again, I wanted to be optimistic.

Our condo was located right on the subway line, making it very easy to commute. Every morning, I had around forty minutes of free time before starting work. Unless the train was extremely crowded or there were delays, riding on the subway was quite enjoyable. I spent this ride fantasizing about Ashkelon and its hidden treasures. One of my former university classmates at the U of T had discovered a three-thousand-year-old statue while excavating in Turkey, and I hoped something similar would turn up in Ashkelon. My daydreaming was over as soon as the train operator announced my station, which was Warden. I quickly got out of the train and ran to the bus platform. Two stops later, I was already at my workplace.

“Good morning,” I said to Dave, my supervisor. “How was your weekend?”

“Good morning.” He seemed a little bit annoyed.

Probably the traffic, I thought to myself.

Dave commuted from Oshawa to Scarborough every day. Sometimes, he would get stuck on the highway and arrive thirty minutes late because of some stupid accident or construction. For this exact reason, Jason and I agreed to never buy a house in the suburbs. Well, he kind of thought about Brampton and Richmond Hill in the beginning, but I successfully convinced him to change his mind. In the end, we agreed that even after children entered the picture, we would stay within Toronto.

I sat down in my cubicle peering at the Outlook screen. I had three customer complaints to resolve and forty orders to enter into the system. One of the complaints involved an order for a client from British Columbia, and judging from the email, the lady was very unhappy. She had planned to use the order as a gift for her employees during an annual end-of-the-year party, but a wrong package arrived a few days before the event.

“Rebecca, did you find the invoice?” Dave asked me out of nowhere as I was going through the emails.

“Oh, right, yes! Thanks for reminding me. I’m going to look for it now.” 

Marianne, the receptionist, walked in holding a piece of paper. “Hey, were you looking for this one?” she asked.

“Let me see.” I took a closer look at the sheet. “Yes! That’s the invoice. How did you find it?” It was probably resting on her desk the entire time.

“I was going through the archive boxes and found it by accident.”

“Hmm, I’m surprised it ended up there.” I tried playing along.

“Well, no one else does archives besides you,” Dave said in a low voice.

All right, maybe it was my fault, but seriously, anyone could’ve made this mistake. I had three piles of different documents to sort through in less than two hours. Why were my boss and my coworker looking at me as if I had committed a murder?

I decided to hold off the conversation until after lunch, when everyone normally became more relaxed. However, I couldn’t concentrate on anything except for those four weeks I had to request. The situation did not improve in the afternoon when Dave announced he was going to an important meeting. In the meantime, I had my nose tucked into countless orders that had to be processed, invoiced, and taken to the shipping and receiving department. Then I spent my last hour arranging documents in a numeric order and filing them away. Suddenly, I saw my supervisor walking with his keys and realized he was already leaving for the day.

“Dave, I have something important to tell you,” I began.

“Can it wait until tomorrow? I really have to go now.”

“OK, see you tomorrow then.”

So he left without finding out about my unexpected vacation, while I still had fifty more documents to file.

I was frustrated beyond words. How could I’ve missed my chance to talk? What if all the tickets were sold by the time the vacation was officially scheduled? There was an endless list of possibilities of something going wrong.

***

“You worry too much,” Jason told me while I was preparing the dinner.

“No, I don’t!” I cried.

“Mondays are always crap days. Trust me; it will get better by Wednesday.”

“I hope so.” 

At night, I tossed and turned and even got up several times. I fell asleep shortly before the sunrise only to wake up an hour and a half later. I tried hard to mask my lack of sleep under a few layers of makeup but still looked terrible. When it comes to stress, hair can be a woman’s worst enemy, and mine looked like dry straw flying all over the place.

“You look unwell,” Jason said during breakfast. “Maybe you should call in sick.”

“Are you kidding me? I can’t postpone the news any longer.”

“OK, just be careful on the streets.”

“I’ll try.”

I was too stressed to appreciate Jason’s attentiveness. Nor could I enjoy the time on the subway, for I kept imagining the worst. Either I would be denied my time off or lose my job.

“Hi, Rebecca,” Dave said while passing by my cubicle. “Did you have something to say yesterday?”

“Yes. I was wondering if I could schedule some vacation time,” I said, my heart thumping.

“For which dates?”

“From June thirtieth until July twenty-fifth.” 

“Four weeks?” He looked surprised. “That’s quite a long time to be gone during one of our busiest times.”

“I believe I have accrued enough days over the past few years.”

“Why didn’t you schedule these weeks ahead of time?”

For a split second, I wondered if disclosing the truth about my scholarship and the excavation dig was a good idea. People at my work knew almost nothing about my interests. However, lying about some made-up emergency was out of question. So I chose to go with the truth.

“I won a scholarship that will allow me to participate in an excavation dig,” I said. “It will take place in Israel. I only found out this weekend.”

He listened quietly, making me feel even tenser.

“If those dates are a problem for the company, I will cancel the trip and stay here,” I added, trying to salvage the situation. “I just wanted to check if there was a slightest chance I could still go.”

“I’m afraid I’ll have to speak to our senior manager.” 

“When can I expect the answer?”

“By the end of this week. I’m sure we’ll find a solution.” He gave me a faint smile.

“Thanks, Dave.”

Although I felt a bit relieved, my ordeal didn’t stop. Around ten o’clock, I decided to take a short break and went to the bathroom, where I met Ashley, the most annoying coworker.

“You don’t look like yourself,” she noted poignantly.

“I just had a bad sleep last night,” I replied while fixing my hair in the mirror.

“Are you pregnant?” she asked boldly.

“Nope.”

“Maybe you just don’t know yet.”

“I’m positive I’m not.”

“Ha! Never say never.”

I fought an urge to threaten her with a lawsuit. If this wasn’t an invasion of privacy, then I didn’t know what it was. Instead of confronting her, I quietly returned to my desk and continued working. More orders were piled up on my desk, waiting to be entered, and more emails had to be answered.

In the afternoon, the database broke, and I got stuck in the middle of an important order. The moment I tried switching to filing, the system went back to normal. Then Diego phoned my extension and asked me something about an item from forty orders ago. As soon I got to the current order, my phone rang again. This time, it was the angry customer from British Columbia asking about the two hundred notebooks and pens she had ordered for the party. The mayhem continued for the entire day, and by the end of it, I was completely wiped out.

I left the office unable to think about anything except for a cup of warm latte and some good sleep. Even my vacation didn’t matter anymore. I decided that if they didn’t allow me to take the time off, I would just quit. When I got home, the first thing I did was log into my Gmail account. Having looked at the scholarship letter, I typed up a short reply, specifying my acceptance of the funding. Then I filled out the waiver, downloaded a void cheque from my bank’s web page, and scanned everything into the computer. The only thing left was a medical assessment form, which I would have to take to my doctor.

I was about to hit the “send” button when I heard Jason walk in.

“Hey, how was your day?” he asked, tossing the keys on the work desk.

I immediately poured out everything that was on my mind, including my plan to quit.

“Come on, Becky, you just had a bad day. Don’t make any drastic decisions.”

“So you want me to be tied to that job?” I flared up.

“Of course not! I’m all up for you to find something better. You just need to hang in there for a little longer.”

“How much longer? A month? A year? A lifetime?”

“Fine, if you want to quit, go ahead.” He looked frustrated, too.

“Maybe you are right.” I sighed. “I had a terrible day, and I’m tired like crazy.”

In the end, we both decided it would be best to wait for the answer before sending any forms. Feeling completely drained, I went straight to bed after dinner.

***

“Hey, Becky. We need to talk,” Dave said as soon as he saw me next day. He didn’t look upset, which I took as a good sign.

“Sure,” I said, feeling a bit nervous.

“I spoke with the senior manager.” Chills went down my spine. Maybe that was it, and I was going to be fired.

“She said those four weeks shouldn’t be a problem.” The moment these words came out, I became overwhelmed with relief.

“Thank you!” I exclaimed, unable to hide my excitement.

“But next time, please let us know ahead of time,” he added.

“Definitely.” At this moment, I was ready to promise almost anything.

“And by the way, congratulations on your scholarship!”

“Thanks.”

As soon as Dave left, I sent text messages to Jason and Erin. Both replied with smiles. I later received a message from Erin who suggested meeting at the Eaton Centre for shopping. We still had to find a present for our father. I agreed wholeheartedly, and we arranged to meet at five-thirty.

“Rebecca, did you finish the orders from yesterday?” someone asked me. I bolted up and quickly hid my cell phone. Diego was standing next to my desk, looking angry. For a split second, I wondered how long he’d been standing there and whether he saw me texting.

“Ah, almost done. Just a few left.” I tried to hide my nervousness.

“I need to have them by lunch,” he commanded. “Otherwise, our clients won’t get their products in time.”

“They’ll be ready very soon,” I lied. There was no way I would finish one hundred orders in three hours, so I had to keep it cool and pretend to be in control.

As soon as he left, I started typing feverishly. With a clear mind and a lightened heart, I worked fast and was able to finish everything thirty minutes past the lunch hour. As soon as I put the order dockets on Diego’s desk, I felt a huge load fall off my shoulders.

At three-thirty, I started getting restless. The day was almost over, and in a few hours, I would be having fun with my sister. At last, it was a quarter after four, so there were only fifteen minutes left. At four twenty-five, my phone rang.

It was Glenn, one of the sales representatives, with whom I had never managed to get along. The moment I picked up the phone, she started accusing me of entering an invoice incorrectly, which meant she wouldn’t get her commission. It was frustrating that no matter how hard I tried to avoid those mistakes, they would still turn up and always at the very last minute. Instead of running to the door at four-thirty, I had to stay a few minutes late and redo the invoice.

“Why aren’t you going home?” Ashley asked me while passing my cubicle.

“Something urgent came up,” I replied while nervously retyping the invoice. “Have to stay.”

“Just go. We aren’t even getting paid for the extra time.”

“I will go in a few minutes,” I mumbled, trying to concentrate.

Suddenly, the system froze. “Dammit!” I screamed.

“What?” She turned around.

“The system isn’t working.”

“It only means you should go home.”

I looked at my watch and noticed it was already quarter to five. “Maybe you are right. I’ll just go home,” I said in frustration. The invoice could surely wait until the next day. Thus, I left feeling dissatisfied with my day again. The feeling of accomplishment simply didn’t exist at my job.

Forty minutes later, I was at the Eaton Center, waiting for Erin to arrive. Soon I spotted her walking towards me with a huge Starbucks cup in her hand. She was wearing a short Danier jacket over a cashmere sweater and a pair of skinny jeans. Her five-inch pumps, however, were replaced with running shoes. She always kept a spare pair in her car just in case she decided to go on a spontaneous shopping spree.

“Hello, stranger!” I said.

“Hi, Becky.” She gave me a hug.

We decided to check out the latest products at Future Shop and to look for summer clothes. Since the electronic store was open till later, we agreed to hit the mall first. Erin went straight to designer stores hunting for sales. Somehow, she always managed to find Armani tops and Gucci bags for half price. I opted for Gap and Old Navy, as I didn’t need anything fancy. So I picked a few pairs of shorts, cargo pants, and a bunch of long-sleeved shirts that would protect me from the sun.

“You should try this.” She showed me a leopard-print shirt by Marciano. “You want to look good for your man.”

“Are you kidding me? It’s two hundred dollars!”

“It’s seventy percent off, and it will look great on you.”

“Where am I going to wear it? To the field?” I laughed.

“Think of what you’ll wear when your hubby arrives.”

“I’m sure after three weeks, he’ll be happy to see me in almost anything.”

“Then you might want to wear nothing at all.”

We giggled.

“We’ll probably go shopping in Tel Aviv,” I added.

“Eh, lucky you! I wish I were in the faculty of archaeology.”

“I’m no longer a part of any faculty. I’m just an ordinary office worker trying to take off some time.”

“I’m still jealous.”

After our first round of purchases, Erin suggested going to Bikini Village, where we tried on a dozen bathing suits. She picked two pink bikinis, while I landed on a traditional one-piece bathing suit, which she deemed “old fashioned.”

“I don’t need too much attention in a foreign place.”

“Well, I guess you are right,” she said. “We don’t want you to get abducted by the Bedouins.”

“Stop it, Erin! Israel is the safest place in the Middle East, and the Bedouins are friendly.” I recalled a few stories from my ex-classmates from school about their Birthright trips, which often included spending a night in a Bedouin tent, smoking shisha, and sleeping under the stars. 

“As you say, Becky.” At least Erin used her TV only for Netflix and Popcorn Time, so I didn’t have to try hard to convince her.

After shopping, we stopped at the food court and ordered chicken souvlaki from Jimmy the Greek. We talked about the impending dinner with our parents, and for the first time, I began to wonder how they would feel about my trip.

“Mom will probably be unhappy,” I admitted. “She wasn’t thrilled the last time we went.” 

“Ah, don’t worry. It will pass. If you are too nervous, I can always help you.”

“But how?”

“I can call her and tell her everything myself.”

“Oh, please don’t do that!” I didn’t want my parents to learn the news from someone else.

“OK, I won’t. I just wanted to offer my help.”

“Thanks, Erin. I’ll sort it out by myself.”

“Anyway, let’s hurry up. We still have to buy a present for Dad.”

After a careful inventory of the newest products at Future Shop, we decided to buy a new GPS, which our parents could use on their next road trip. Then we went straight to Erin’s car. I was willing to take the subway home, but she insisted on giving me a ride.

“You are not going on the subway with all those bags,” she said in her bossy tone.

When we arrived at my place, Jason was already at home, idling on the couch. 

“Hey, Erin! Good to see you.” He offered my sister a friendly hug.

“Hey, how was your day?” I asked my husband.

“It was great, thanks. Look what I got for you!” He showed me a brimmed hat and pair of gardening gloves. “You will need these on your dig.”

“Oh, how nice!” Erin exclaimed. “You’ve got such a great husband.” 

“I know.” I couldn’t help but smile. I could bet she no longer thought I had made a mistake.

“Want some tea?” Jason asked.

“Sure,” Erin and I replied in unison.

The three of us spent a few minutes in the living room chatting about random stuff. After Erin left, I tried reading my BAR magazine in our bedroom, but Jason took it away from me.

“What are you doing?” I asked, pretending to be angry.

“You will have ten hours on a plane to read your magazines,” he said while unbuttoning my shirt. “We need to use our time more constructively.”

I couldn’t agree with him more.

Chapter 4

On Saturday morning, I woke up feeling happy. Our flight tickets were finally booked, and my doctor’s appointment was scheduled for the following Monday. To me, it was more of a formality because I already knew my health was good enough to endure several hours under the sun.

“Hungry?” I asked Jason, as he came out of the shower.

“Yes, as always,” he replied, lying down beside me and pulling me to his side.

A few minutes later, he offered to fix us some breakfast, to which I gladly agreed. I was really tired after a long week and didn’t mind a little downtime. He made coffee and served it with a cup of strawberries and Greek yogurt.

“I’m a bit nervous about tonight,” I admitted while loading the dishwasher. Tonight, I was planning to tell my parents about the upcoming trip.

“Don’t worry about anything,” he said. 

“I’ll try. After all, we are adults now.”

“Exactly!”

I tried doing my homework after breakfast. Since I hadn’t done much during the work week, I had more catching up to do. Readings and exercises about writing for the web were downright boring, but I managed to finish all of them in less than an hour. My next assignment required me to write compelling copy for an imaginary website selling computers. The deadline was only a few days away. Normally, I didn’t have any problems with getting work done on time, especially for my continuing education courses. This time, however, my mind simply refused to come up with any ideas.

“How is everything?” Jason asked me after an hour had passed. The entire time, he was sitting beside me and browsing the Internet.

“Not so good,” I replied candidly.

“Any progress at all?”

“Jason, I don’t even know what I’m doing!”

“OK, let me see.” He moved closer and started reading off the screen. “Our store is the best…Good quality for low price…Look no further. Jeez, is it all you wrote in the last hour?” 

“I know! This is horrible! I’ll never become a good copywriter.” I put my hands over my face.

“It’s OK, Becky.” He gave me a hug. “Maybe we should take a break and go for a walk.”

“Oh, that would be nice. I’m dying for some fresh air.”

“Let’s go then.”

We walked slowly on the busy street, savouring the spring air mixed with smells from restaurants and coffee shops. Even at thirteen degrees Celsius, the spring weather felt like a respite after the fierce winter. At the end of the walk, we decided to stop at Second Cup and grab two hot chocolates. Once we returned home, I tried working on my assignment but got stuck again. Finally, I gave it up for good. 

***

“Becky, I think it’s time to go now,” Jason said, pointing at the clock hanging in the living room. He was flipping through TV channels, while I was reading Ashkelon 4: the Iron Age Figurines of Ashkelon and Philistia. I had ordered this book on Amazon three days ago, and it arrived almost immediately. Every time I picked it up, I became overwhelmed with excitement.

“Yeah, you are right,” I said, my eyes still fixed on the images platter showcasing the top artefacts from the site.

“Don’t worry about your assignment,” he added. “I’m pretty sure you’ll come up with great ideas later.”

I quickly signed the card and packed the GPS into a gift bag I had bought at Hallmark on our way home. Then we started getting dressed. I chose to wear a simple Gap T-shirt, jeans, and a hoodie, while Jason put on a shirt I had given him last Christmas.

“That navy blue really suits you,” I told him while checking myself in the mirror.

“Thanks, darling! You look great, too.”

A few minutes later, we were parked on my parents’ driveway. Ever since our family had gotten out of debt, my parents had been living in a small house in the Annex area. It had also been my home until Jason and I had gotten married.

By the time we reached their house, my mother was already waiting for us at the door. While we were exchanging our “hellos,” I eyed Erin standing next to the kitchen and winking at me.

“It’ll be all right,” she whispered to me as we were giving our present to Dad.

My mother served a fine selection of Japanese dishes that she had learned to make from cookbooks she had gotten from Chapters on discount. I had a bowl of rice with shrimps and scallops, while Jason had teriyaki chicken and pasta. The main course was followed by a homemade cake with strawberries and cream.

As the dinner progressed, we talked about different topics, including our holiday plans. My parents were planning on travelling to the United States on the Queen Victoria weekend, which was only a week away, and were also considering flying to Europe at the end of August.

When it was our turn to talk about summer plans, I couldn’t muster the courage to tell my parents the truth. I knew they wouldn’t take the news very well. So I kept on steering our conversation in other directions to avoid the topic as much as possible until it was almost time to go home.

“Becky, can I have a word with you in private?” Erin asked me as we were getting ready to take off.

“Sure,” I replied reluctantly. She took my hand and led me to what used to be my room.

“When are you going to tell them?” she whispered.

“I don’t know. I’m afraid they won’t be thrilled about the news.”

“Come on, Becky! Grow up at last!”

“I am a grown-up. Stop bossing me!”

“Then why don’t you just tell them?” Her whispering was now louder than any normal speaking.

“It’s not easy, Erin.”

“What isn’t easy?” My mother appeared at the doorway.

“Eh, nothing much.” I shrugged.

“Come on, just tell her.” Erin nudged me. “OK, I will, then.”

“What! No! You can’t do this!” For a second, I became oblivious to whoever was watching us.

“What’s going on in here?” our father asked, walking in. Jason followed him.

“Do you want to tell?” Jason asked, winking at me.

“Fine, I will.” I sighed. Everyone looked at me.

“I’m going to Israel this summer. I won a scholarship through an archaeological magazine. I’ll be excavating in Ashkelon, and my trip will be partially funded. Jason will join me at the end of the dig, and we’ll be staying in Tel Aviv for a week.” My sudden announcement was followed by silence.

“Wait, you are flying to another country alone?” My mother looked baffled.

“Yes, but I’ll be with a group most of the time.”  I tried acting as if it wasn’t a big deal, but deep inside, I was feeling tense.

“Well, have a safe drive home, kids,” my mother said matter-of-factly. 

“Goodnight, Mom! Thanks for the dinner.” 

***

“You didn’t have to act like you’ve done something wrong,” Jason told me on our way home.

“I know. I should’ve told them right away.”

“Even if you didn’t, it would be OK. It’s our life now, our plans.”

“You are right. At least it’s over now.”

Just as I was about to go to bed, Erin phoned me.

“Hey, Becky! Are you all right?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m fine. Thanks for calling.”

“I’m sorry for pushing you into telling them.”

“It’s all right, Erin. They would’ve found out anyway.”

“Do you want to go out for a coffee tomorrow?”

“No, thanks. I’ll be too busy.”

“I could drive to your area if you want.”

“Distance is not the issue. You’re pretty close to me by the subway. It’s Davisville, I believe.”

“Yes, I’m still in my old apartment.” She laughed.

“I have too much work to do for my copywriting course. I hadn’t accomplished much today.”

“Ah, I see. Well, best of luck with that.”

“Thanks.”

“And by the way, you aren’t doing anything wrong by going on this dig alone. You have every right to pursue your hobbies.”

“I know. I just feel bad about Mom and Dad worrying about me.”

“They’ll get used to it after a while.”

“Well, goodnight, and thanks for calling.”

“Anytime.” 

Naturally, I was a bit angry at my sister for putting me into this situation. However, it still felt good to talk to her and end this evening on a friendly note.

For most of Sunday, I worked fiercely on my copywriting project. I finally managed to come up with a few ideas. Studying always helped me to put my mind at ease.  

Chapter 5

Following my father’s birthday, I kept in touch my parents regularly. Although we appeared to be on friendly terms, I could tell they weren’t happy about the trip. In the meantime, I was still very busy with monotonous order entries, invoices, and customer calls. Half the time, our clients’ misfortunes had nothing to do with me, but I was always held responsible. I also kept studying for my copywriting course, which I often found mind-numbing.

“So, are you planning to go back to archaeology?” my grandmother asked me as I was helping her set the table. It was a Saturday after the Victoria Day weekend, and she was hosting a small family dinner.

“I’d love to, but I’m not sure.” I sighed.

“Why not?”

“It would be tough now that I’m married.”

“Ah, I know how you feel, sweetheart.” She smiled.

“Really?” What could my grandmother possibly know about my daily struggles?

“I had the same issue when I was around your age.”

“You should tell me.” I became curious.

“I wanted to study at a university to get better education. The problem was, your mom was already two years old, and I had to work in a shoe store to support our family. Your grandfather wasn’t much help, as he was constantly away.” She looked a bit sad.

“Well, thanks for sharing, Granny.” Somehow, her revelation made me feel a bit better.

“Whatever you decide, honey, I can only wish you the best.” She smiled again.

***

“Is everything OK?” Jason asked me, as we were driving quietly through the streets of Mississauga, Crystal Shawanda playing from our stereo. It was ironic that when I was growing up, turning up a country disk in my parents’ house was considered the worst possible offense, and now that Jason and I were married, all we were playing lately was country and top forties.

“I’m all right,” I lied.

“I know you’re not!”

“Sometimes, I’m not even sure why I’m going on this dig,” I found myself admitting.

“You are going because you always wanted to.”

“I don’t know where it will take me in terms of my career,” I explained further. 

“Look, it doesn’t have to be linked to a career. You’ll go and have fun digging for the ancient stuff. Then you’ll come home all recharged, ready to look for a new job.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

When it came to conversations about my future, Jason always reassured me that my continuing studies program would help me get out of the rut. I wanted to believe him, but at the back of my mind, I already knew that the copywriting career would never provide me with the satisfaction I needed on the professional front.

***

June arrived pretty fast, and everyone became obsessed with the FIFA World Cup. My coworkers couldn’t talk about anything besides which team defeated whom and who had the best chance at winning the game. One day, everyone, including the managers, decided to gather in a boardroom during lunch and watch a match between Brazil and Mexico. It was one of the rare times when there was virtually no tension in the atmosphere. Everyone kept yelling, “Go! Go!” just to discover an hour later that no one had won.

Once the initial wave of excitement settled down, everything went back to normal. Our company was about to acquire a new client, so more work needed to be done. Yet the final arrival of summer-like weather made everyone happier and a bit friendlier. Some of my coworkers even started taking interest in my upcoming trip.

“So, tell us where you are going,” Rosa said one day as we were sitting in the lunchroom.

“I’m going to Israel,” I announced cheerfully.

“Are you serious?” Ashley asked.

Both of them looked very surprised. For a moment, I wondered if they were simply jealous. I smiled, feeling even more excited.

“Wait, isn’t that the place where those poor kids got killed?” Diego asked, referring to a terrible event in the West Bank that had resulted in loss of innocent lives. I didn’t want to think about it now that I was planning my vacation. Beside, crime was present everywhere, including the United States.

“Yes,” I said confidently. “I’m flying to Israel in a few weeks.”

“Yo, you gotta be kidding!” Kenyon, our Jamaican shipping assistant, exclaimed.

“I know. Ain’t I lucky?”

“Well, if you choose to go, you better buy life insurance,” Ashley advised.

“Or better yet, get a bulletproof vest,” Rosa added.

The rest laughed.

“Come on, people. I’ll be fine.”

“What if you get killed?” Kenyon protested. “That place is sick!”

“Well, we all hope you stay safe, girl.” Marianne joined in. “We’ll need you here in August.”

Quite honestly, I wanted to tell everyone to shut up and stop watching TV too much. Instead, I reassured them that everything would be all right, and I would be back from my vacation in no time. Deep inside, however, I was feeling a bit uneasy about everything that was happening in the news. I could only hope that the situation would improve by the end of June.

That day, I’d agreed to meet Dalia, my friend from the university, at Second Cup. We had met at Tim Hortons by accident during my first year at the university. I was carrying a chicken noodle soup combo and looking for a place to sit. It was around twelve o’clock, and the coffee shop was completely packed. To make things worse, my introductory archaeology class would start in twenty minutes. Believe it or not, this time frame is nothing when you have to get from one side of the campus to another, especially when it’s raining or snowing outside.

“You can sit here,” a girl in a U of T hoodie said. She looked a bit older than me and was crouched over a textbook called Programming with Data.

“Thank you so much!” I said to her.

“No problem,” she replied. “Finding a seat is tough during this time of the day.”

“I’m Rebecca, by the way.” I offered a handshake.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Dalia. Are you a U of T student?”

“Yes.”

“So am I. What are you majoring in?”

“Anthropology and Near Eastern Studies. How about you?”

“I’m studying informatics.”

“Where are you from?” I noticed she had a bit of an accent.

“I was born in Ukraine but raised in Israel.”

“Really? I just finished my Hebrew test two days ago.”

“You speak Hebrew?” She became animated.

“I do.”

“Have you ever lived in Israel?”

“No, but I plan to visit someday, probably after graduation.”

“I’m going there this summer. My best friend is getting married.”

“How exciting!”

We talked for bit longer and exchanged emails. Although I ended up being late to my class, getting to know Dalia was definitely worth it.

Afterward, we met almost every week and even went to a couple of events together. One of them was a concert by David Broza, an Israeli singer who used to tour North America around Christmas time. I remember sitting with her in the front row and listening to his song about Haifa, the town where she grew up. If she truly thought I was a bit weird, she never showed it.

“So, how is your thesis going?” I asked her once we got our cappuccinos. She was now working as a software engineer for the Princess Margaret Hospital and was also doing her master’s degree part-time.

“Very slowly.” Dalia looked a bit discouraged. “My work is driving me crazy. I have a few weeks left to learn new software, and I don’t even know where to start. Anyway, what’s new with you?”

“Well, I’m leaving for Israel in a few weeks. I’ll be excavating in Ashkelon.”

“Wow, that’s exciting! I have friends living there.”

“After I’m done with the excavation project, Jason and I will spend another week in Tel Aviv. We are planning to rent a car and to drive around. I hope we’ll have enough time to visit Jerusalem.”

“Sounds nice. I visited the Old City only once when I was only eight years old. I don’t remember too much.”

“You should go back. It’s totally worth seeing.”

What surprised me about this girl was the fact that her parents had lived in Israel for several years but had never taken interest in any of the tourist sites. Sure, they did a fair amount of travel each summer, but most of their trips were limited to beach trips and picnics with friends. Most people I knew didn’t realize how many sites Israel has, from prehistoric caves and megaliths to Greco-Roman ruins and earliest churches. If I ever got a chance to live there, I would probably go crazy with sightseeing.

We chatted a little bit about politics and ongoing protests in Jerusalem.

“Dalia, do you think I should be worried?” I asked her at some point.

“No, Becky. You’ll be perfectly fine.” 

This was the exact answer I needed to hear.

Chapter 6

On the last day before my departure, I had to stay late at work and fix a last-minute issue that could not be postponed. By the time I got home, it was already seven-thirty, and I had only a few hours to pack. I spent my evening running around the house and looking for all the necessities. Eventually, everything was ready except for the medical kit. Having rummaged through all the medications, I realized we had run out of Tylenol.

“Do you think it could wait until tomorrow?” Jason asked me after I explained him my problem. The nearest pharmacy was closing in a few minutes.

“Sure it can. But I’d rather have it now so that I can put the kit away and not think about it.”

“I can buy it for you.”

“Oh, that would be awesome.”

“All right, I’m going to Shoppers then.”

“Thanks, love.” 

Jason disappeared for at least forty minutes. After a while, I began to wonder why it was taking him so long. Shoppers Drug Mart was located right across the street, so going there for a last-minute run would probably take ten minutes or less. At some point, I even began to get nervous and called his cell phone only to discover that he’d left it at home. Finally, I heard a knock on the door.

“Surprise!” he exclaimed.

The moment the door opened, I gasped. My husband walked in holding a large box of pizza. I had completely forgotten about dinner and, needless to say, was very hungry.

“Remember I promised you a going-away party?”

“Yes.”

A few weeks ago, we thought about inviting our family and friends over and hosting a small party. Luckily, I changed my mind before telling anyone. Even if I had packed ahead of time, I would still end up cramming in something at the very last minute.

“Do you mean a party for two?” I asked, taking the box from Jason.

“Yes!”

We sat in the dining room eating our pizza wedges and chatting about my trip. We promised each other to keep in touch during my stay in Ashkelon and discussed my plan to buy a local phone card. Then we talked about the places we were hoping to visit. The Old Cities of Jerusalem and Jaffa were definitely on the list.

We made love several times through the night. Since we wouldn’t be seeing each other for three weeks, we had to make the best of our last moments together. Exhausted and happy all at once, we finally fell asleep.

Next day, I was standing at Pearson Airport, saying last-minute goodbyes to my husband and my family.

“Have a safe trip and don’t forget to send us emails and text messages,” my mother said.

“And bring me some Israeli wine,” my father joked.

“Best of luck,” Erin said, hugging me. 

Soon I was standing alone on my way to the security check. I looked back one more time and waved to everyone. For a moment, I felt a bit sad. I would certainly miss Jason, and I knew he would miss me. However, three weeks were probably nothing in the grand scheme of things.

The feeling of sadness evaporated as soon as I reached the duty free. Having looked around, I decided to check out the bookstore first. I looked at the new titles lined up nicely on a display shelf and considered buying a few. However, I didn’t spot anything that interested me, so I moved forward to the clothing store. Ironically, it had all the things I needed for the dig, including simple shirts and brimmed hats, but the prices were ridiculously high. Then I went to the store that sold makeup, where I checked out a few samples of expensive perfume just for fun. At the end of my window-shopping spree, I stopped at Tim Hortons and grabbed a cup of coffee with a doughnut.

My boarding gate was located in a separate room, at the very end of the duty free. As soon as I approached it, a stern-looking officer asked me to present my passport and the boarding pass. I obliged. Then he demanded I open my backpack.

“You have a very long name, ma’am,” he mumbled, going through my things.

“Can I go now?” I asked.

He nodded without saying a word.

I often wondered what it was about my last name that made people frown. I chose to be O’Connor-Smith because I wanted both to preserve my identity and to carry my husband’s name. Many women did the same. Besides, many people from other cultures had multiple and oftentimes far more complicated names.

The room was full of passengers waiting for their departures. I caught a glimpse of families with kids reading travel guides. I also saw a girl who strongly reminded me of a U of T student. She was around my age and wore jeans, running shoes, a polo T-shirt, and a pair of black-rimmed glasses. The girl was reading something on her laptop.

As soon as the boarding time was announced, I wanted to jump from excitement. This was really happening! I was going to Israel on an archaeological dig. I joined the lineup, anticipation rising with every second.

I slept through most of the flight, waking up only for meals and drinks. As one can imagine, I was very tired from the last night but also happy. I had a lot of dreams. I dreamed about small towns on hills with flat-roofed houses and winding roads. I dreamed about the blue sea and yellow caves storing ancient scrolls. I dreamed about the glorious city that had been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times.

I woke up dazzled by the bright light. Outside my tiny window, I saw the outline of the Mediterranean coast along with the aerial view of Tel Aviv. I felt a surge of excitement again. My long-awaited adventure was about to begin.

“Passengers, please return to your seats and fasten your seatbelts,” the captain announced. “We kindly ask you to turn off all your electronic devices during the landing.”

Thirty minutes later, I was standing in the waiting zone, the same place Jason and I had been welcomed by our tour guide four years ago. Having looked around, I saw representatives from various touring agencies holding signs. There were also a lot of people who looked like family members and friends waiting for their loved ones to arrive. Many signs were written in the Cyrillic alphabet I could recognize as Russian. The outside part of the airport was filled with tourist buses and taxis. A few Arab-looking taxi drivers tried to offer me a ride, but I politely declined by saying, “Lan, shukran kathiran,” which meant “no, thank you.” It was one of the few Arabic phrases I knew, and in situations like this, it was a real lifesaver.

Since the Ashkelon team was getting picked up a bit later, I had some free time. First, I bought a local phone card from a booth that located right across from the arrival zone and let everyone in Toronto know I’d arrived safely. Then I roamed around the airport’s area for a while until I decided to find something to eat. Following the signs, I headed upstairs to the food court. Right at the top of the escalators was a journalist interviewing a passerby.

What if I get on the local TV? I thought to myself while walking past them and inadvertently appearing in front of the camera.

After passing a chain of boutiques and convenience stores, I finally spotted a small food court. To my disappointment, it only offered American-style fast foods, like burgers and fries. Feeling hungry and jetlagged, I had no choice but to grab a hamburger and Pepsi from the closest counter. Quite honestly, the spongy bread and soft fries garnished with old ketchup tasted horrible, and I would rather have had a tasty falafel wrap with a plate of hummus. I definitely had to catch up with local food later.

Having finished my not-so-great meal, I headed downstairs, where the Ashkelon group was already waiting for the bus. Among them, I saw a middle-aged black lady wearing a T-shirt saying “Leon Levy Expedition” over a long dress and holding a notepad. She asked me whether I was here for the Ashkelon dig. After I said “yes,” she asked my name and marked me off the list.

“Nice to meet you! My name is Gloria.”

I proceeded to join the rest of the group and meet other volunteers. Among them was the girl I had seen back in Toronto’s airport. Her name was Claire, and she had flown all the way from Missouri to participate in the dig. When I told her she looked like a typical U of T student, she laughed and said it was probably because of the glasses. I also got to know Jocelyn, a retired teacher from Billings, Montana. In spite of her loud voice and stern demeanour, I could tell she was very friendly. I learned that it was her fifth time in Ashkelon, and she was hoping to return next year. I also met Carol, a fifty-something-year-old social worker from Florida. Both of them already had adult children in college. At some point, a group of young people in Leon Levy T-shirts joined us. These were the students from Harvard University taking a summer abroad course.

As soon as everyone was marked off the list, we were headed to the bus. The moment I breathed in the humid air filled with scents of exotic plants, memories of our honeymoon flooded back. I briefly recalled the first night when Jason and I went for a walk along HaYarkon Street and ended up listening to the sound of the Mediterranean Sea lapping against the shore. We sang, laughed, and talked about our future. We even made a few jokes about retiring in central Tel Aviv.

The drive took no longer than forty minutes, equal to a commute from Toronto to Oakville. After a transcontinental flight, however, it seemed endless. All I wanted was to get to our hotel in Ashkelon and collapse on a bed. Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the trip. The desert scenery outside was very charming, and the familiar music playing from the radio made it easier for me to cope with my fatigue.

When our team arrived at the hotel, it was already close to the evening. After sorting through paperwork, we got our keys and were directed to our rooms. I was supposed to share mine with three other girls, which was a typical living arrangement for an archaeological dig.

“Hi, I’m Madeline,” one of my roommates said while hauling her baggage to the room.

“Hi, I’m Janice,” another girl said. Both of them were wearing shorts and T-shirts with University of Harvard insignia. 

“I’m Rachel,” the third girl said. She was wearing a graphic T-shirt over yoga pants and a pair of flats.

“Nice to meet you all! I’m Rebecca.”

We all lined up at the bathroom door to take a shower. Although my turn came last, I didn’t mind because I wanted to spend some time by myself.

“See you downstairs,” Janice told me, as I was unpacking my shampoo and a change of clothes.

I couldn’t find the cafeteria. I checked out all the rooms, but to no avail. I began to worry I would stay dinner-less for the night. Then I spotted Rachel talking to some tall, dark guy. She was giggling like a schoolgirl, probably in an attempt to get his attention.

“Sorry, do you know where the cafeteria is?” I asked, desperate for some good food. 

“Oh yes. Let me show you,” the guy replied. “See you later.” He said to Rachel.

“Is it your first time in Ashkelon?” he asked me as we were walking.

“Yes.”

“I’ve been here before, so I know the place quite well.”

“Nice.”

“Here it is.” He pointed at the entrance to a large buffet room.

“Thank you so much!”

“No problem.” 

“By the way, my name is Rebecca.”

“I’m George.” 

***

The food did not betray my expectations. As soon as we entered the buffet, all I could see was a countless number of salads, fruits and vegetables, as well as several hot meals. There was also a huge counter with desserts.

I got to sit with Jocelyn and Carol, both of whom were very excited about the dig. 

“So, your husband is staying home and working, right?” Jocelyn asked jokingly. “Like a good husband,” she added before I had a chance to reply.

“He’ll be flying over by the end of the dig.”

“That’s nice,” Carol commented. “Where do you plan to stay?”

“Mostly in Tel Aviv. But we plan on going to Jerusalem, too.”

Our conversation continued through dinner. The two ladies told me they were planning to return home right after the dig, but they would use the two weekends for travel and sightseeing.

“Make sure you get to see the Rockefeller Museum,” Jocelyn said. “It’s totally worth it.”

“Israel Museum is better,” Carol interjected.

“We might run out of time since we only have one week,” I admitted. “However, we’ll definitely visit the Old City.”

After dinner, one of the field directors made an announcement about a meeting that would take place the next morning at the site. It would give us a chance to get to know each other better and to become familiar with the program’s routine. 

Before going to bed, I decided to take a brief walk around the hotel and explore. My natural curiosity made me forget all about the fatigue I was experiencing half an hour earlier. The hotel had a large flower garden and a swimming pool. Halfway through my walk, I decided to call Jason and to see how he was doing. With my new and amazing phone plan I had bought at the airport, I no longer had to worry about roaming rates.

“How are you, Rebecca?” he asked.

“I’m great. Walking around the hotel and thinking about you.”

“Nice. I’ve been thinking about you, too. What time is it over there?”

“Close to nine o’clock. I should probably go to bed soon. I’m so tired after the flight!”

“You bet. I’d be tired, too.”

We talked about my flight and my ride to Ashkelon. I told him how getting out of Ben Gurion reminded me of our honeymoon. At the end of the call, I wished him a great week, and he wished me the same.

The darkness arrived very fast. In southern countries, twilight is almost non-existent. That’s just the beauty of the Mediterranean region.

When I returned to the hotel, the room was empty. Having changed into comfortable pyjamas, I dropped down on my bed and immediately fell asleep. 

I woke up around midnight when I heard my roommates walk in.

“Do you think I have a chance?” one of them asked in a whispering voice.

“Well, you’ll have to try extra hard. Like, show him how much you love archaeology and stuff.”

“I’m trying, but he doesn’t seem to notice.”

“Give it some time, Rach,” the third voice replied.

“Anyway, what do you think about our new roommate?” the second voice asked. 

“Oh, I hate her already,” Rachel said. “You should’ve seen how she charged at me when I was talking to him. I bet she came here to steal guys and have fun with them.”

“Hey, are you sure she won’t hear?” the third voice whispered.

“No, she’s asleep.”

I had an urge to get up and let everyone know that I’d heard everything. Instead, I lay with my eyes closed, pretending to be asleep. I couldn’t believe I was already having issues with people on the dig.

I had encountered many difficult people in the past. One of them was Sandra from work. She constantly picked on me and occasionally drove me to tears. One time, she noticed a tiny mistake in my order entry and sent an email to the entire department, cc’ing everyone, including my boss. I bet she felt like a hero, while I felt like a total loser. Sandra didn’t stop at one incident. She began spreading rumours about me and my supervisor, and within a month, my coworkers lost all respect for me. Fortunately, she was now on a maternity leave, thus making my life much easier. Ashley was no better. She was constantly up in my business, making tactless jokes whenever possible.

If Rachel wanted to spread false rumours and make my life miserable, I had to move away. The last thing I needed was an enemy on a vacation. So I came up with a plan to talk to the receptionist next day and to ask for a different room. 

Chapter 7

Next morning, we all hopped on a big bus that took us straight to the ruins. The moment we got out, I was welcomed by the morning sun and a lovely sea breeze. As we proceeded to the site, I found granite and marble capitals standing together with Roman statues. However, this part of the site wasn’t the one I wanted to explore. I was more curious about areas from the Bronze and Iron Ages.

“Good morning, everyone.” Daniel Master, one of the directors, started the orientation. “Thank you all for participating in the Leon Levy Expedition. Before we begin, I would like to introduce our team and give you a chance to introduce each other.”

Daniel Master worked at the Wheaton College, while Lawrence Stager, the other director, taught at Harvard. There were also a few other staff members, including Tracy Hoffman, from the University of Chicago and John Marston, from Boston University.

During the volunteers’ introductions, I heard almost every major mentioned. Janice and Madeline were studying psychology at Harvard, while Rachel had recently graduated from New York University with a major in English. Ironically, there were only two archaeology majors on the dig. One was me and the other was George, a Ph.D. student from the Wheaton College. There was also a girl named Karen, who had studied marine archaeology at the University of California but decided to switch to medicine. She was now a registered nurse.

“Do you know Tim Harrison?” Lawrence Stager asked me after I finished my introduction.

“Of course,” I replied, feeling cheerful. “He was one of my university instructors.”

“Well, nice to meet you, Rebecca. Maybe you’ll help us to identify some of the finds.”

As introductions continued, I learned more about the older volunteers. Barry was a pastor, and together with his wife, Theresa, they were organizing Holy Land tours. Gloria, who had taken our attendance last night, turned out to be a teacher from Kansas, not a staff member as I had initially thought. She had been part of the Ashkelon team for many years and was willing to take on more responsibilities. She took care of the attendance, drew site plans, and recorded levels.

I was surprised to learn that many participants came from well-respected fields, and some were even capable of saving a life. Among them was Andrew, a family doctor from Texas. 

“Well, we have a doctor, a nurse, and a social worker in the field. We should survive,” Daniel joked. The rest of the group laughed.

After the introductions, the directors briefly touched upon safety at the site. The top tips included drinking plenty of water to avoid dehydration, wearing hats for sun protection, and not sticking hands under stones, which could conceal crabs and vipers. They also reassured us that animal-related accidents were extremely rare. Not a word was said about the political tensions. However, we already knew the site had a bomb shelter in case anything bad was to happen. 

At some point, I saw a bus park next to ours and a group of tourists exit. The guide took them straight to the site. For a second, I wondered if I could become a tour guide someday. I would take tourists through archaeological parks and entertain them with stories. At the back of my mind, I already knew it was just a dream.

The meeting was concluded with a brief tour of the site. We were taken around the classical and medieval areas, as well as the part of the site dating to the Iron Age. We got to see the famous marketplace, the mud brick towers mentioned in the Bible, and what was presumably the world’s earliest arch, which dated to the nineteenth century BC. I could already tell the season would be exciting. Once the meeting was over, we were free until the next morning when the dig would officially start.

I spotted Rachel several times during the meeting and lunchtime but tried to avoid her as much as possible. If I wanted a drama-free stay, I had to get my act together. So I went to the lobby immediately after lunch and asked a receptionist to put me in a different room. I hoped the process would be quick and painless. The lady was quite surprised by my request.

“Why do you want to change your room?” she asked me in a strong Israeli accent.

“Um, personal reasons,” I quickly replied, not knowing what else to say. 

“Well, we would need to get the other person’s consent. We can’t just move people around. It’s against our hotel policy.” She sounded a bit angry.

“No chance at all?” I still wanted to believe there was a slight possibility. 

“Sorry, motek.” She smiled a second after raising her voice. 

I walked back to the room feeling disappointed. My best choice was to ignore the situation altogether and to enjoy my stay as much as possible. So I decided to check out the beach.

“Hey, where are you going?” Madeline asked me as I was exiting the room, carrying a bag stuffed with towels and a sunscreen. She and Janice were returning from a short meeting with their instructor.

“To the beach.”

“Really? Janice and I are also going to the beach!”

“Then maybe we should all go together,” Janice suggested.

“Sure.” Although I wanted to spend time at the sea by myself, I couldn’t exclude them. I had to get along at least with someone.

“Let’s do that,” Madeline said, beaming.

“Let’s wait for Rachel,” Janice insisted. “She’ll be back in a second.”

“By the way, don’t pay attention to her,” Madeline noted. “She’s been grumpy since her arrival.”

“Do you, by chance, know why?” I asked. 

“I heard she had a hard time at the airport yesterday. You know how tough the customs can be.”

“Oh yes! Last time, my husband and I travelled to Israel, someone at the airport flatly asked us if we were carrying a bomb.”

“Wait! Are you married?” Madeline asked, looking surprised.

“Four years,” I replied, smiling.

“Cool.” Janice shrugged.

Every time someone noticed my ring, I would receive comments like, “Oh, you are so young!” or “That’s so great!” or “When is the baby coming?” With time, I became immune to these remarks.

The waiting was a drag, especially since I was feeling so jumpy. At last, Rachel entered the room.

“We are heading to the beach,” I announced, unable to contain my excitement.

She didn’t say a word.

“Let’s hurry up,” Madeline said. “You don’t want to miss out on the afternoon sunshine!”

“Are you kidding me? It’s blazing hot outside!” Rachel exclaimed.

“Well, you don’t have to go if you don’t feel like it,” I said.

“OK, I’m going.” She sounded more annoyed than ever.

It took around twenty minutes for everyone to get ready. When we finally exited the hotel, Janice realized that she forgot her water bottle.

“I’m sure you can buy one at the beach,” Madeline said.

“No! I can’t. It’s expensive.”

“Maybe we could keep on walking to save time,” I suggested. “You could catch up with us.”

“Please wait for me. I promise to be quick.” She disappeared for another ten minutes.

As much as I wanted to be friends with everyone, I was feeling beyond annoyed. Living with three other people for the entire three weeks would definitely be a big challenge.

***

“I heard there’s a cool party happening tonight,” Madeline told us while laying her towel down on the sand.

“We should all go out and meet cool boys!” Janice exclaimed while applying her sunscreen. “Oh, look at that guy! He’s so hot!” She pointed at a tall, muscular guy walking out from the sea.

“Go talk to him.” Madeline nudged her. “Maybe he’ll be at the party.”

“I’m going for a swim,” I announced, unable hold off my simultaneous irritation and excitement for any longer. I couldn’t care less about the boys or their damn party.

As I entered the sea, warm, salty waves enveloped me and carried me back to four years ago. Last time we were in Israel, Jason and I got to swim in the Mediterranean only once. We arrived in Tel Aviv for an overnight stay and were taken to a kibbutz in the north the very next morning. It was already close to evening, so we didn’t have much time. Oblivious to sleep deprivation and jetlag, we grabbed our towels and ran to the beach and later went for a walk as well.

Although I wasn’t a very good swimmer, I could float in the water quite well. With the sun shining brightly on my face, I swam around, feeling happy and carefree. The entire time I was swimming, the girls were on the beach, talking to a group of guys they met shortly after I left. For them, this trip was probably an opportunity to escape home and meet new people. I could bet that some of the participants would meet new partners by the end of the dig. I was sure it wouldn’t happen to me as I was completely happy with Jason and was already missing him.

***

During dinnertime, I sat with a random group of young people. Luke, one of the Harvard students, was sharing stories about his early university years with the rest.

“So one time, I handed in my paper and went straight to the bar,” he began. “Then I got so drunk that I fell asleep on the floor. They had to kick me out next morning. This was some crazy shit.”

The rest of us laughed.

“You bet,” Karen noted.

I tried to come up with a similar story but couldn’t think of anything impressive. I was a good girl through my high school and university years, and I hardly ever got into trouble. The only time something similar happened to me was when Jason and I went to a dance party, and I decided to try my first shot. I fell asleep on a couch reserved for bottle service, and Jason had to carry me on our way home.

“I had even worse incidents,” Vincent, another summer abroad student, said. “I’m not sure you want to hear my story.”

“Tell them.” Luke nudged him.

“OK. One time, me and my buddy decided to go for a drink after an exam. We were still new to the city, so we went to the first club we found.”

“So what?” Karen asked.

“It turned out to be a gay club.”

We laughed again, and this time even louder. More crazy stories were passed around the table. This group was definitely fun to talk to. With them, I could loosen up and laugh a little, even if I had nothing to say.

After dinner, I spent a few hours browsing the Internet on my laptop in the lobby. Then I went back to the room, ready to fall asleep. I couldn’t imagine anyone going out after such a long and exhausting day.

“Hey, are you coming along?” Madeline asked. She was wearing a bathrobe and drying her long hair with a towel.

“You don’t have to go with us,” Rachel said, while flattening her black dress with an iron.

I gave it a thought. Perhaps I could go just to annoy this chick and teach her a lesson. I could even practice my Hebrew with bartenders and enjoy music. After all, I was the only one familiar with the local entertainment scene. But then I remembered we would have to be ready by five o’clock tomorrow morning and decided against going. I would still have plenty of chances to go out on Friday and Saturday nights.

“It’s OK. I’ll probably just go to sleep. You all have fun.”

“Hey, girl! You don’t have to be single to have a great time here!” Janice protested.

“It’s not that,” I tried to explain. “I’m still tired after the flight, and we have to be up early tomorrow.”

“Have a good night then,” Madeline said.

“Don’t forget to put your alarm on for four o’clock,” Rachel commanded. “I don’t want to wake you up.”

We’ll see who will wake up whom, I thought to myself, wondering how they were planning to survive through the dig tomorrow.

After the girls had left, I took out my pyjamas and went straight to the shower. Then I arranged my clothes for the next day, filled my water bottle, and plopped on the bed, ready for some good sleep. This time, I didn’t wake up when they returned. I decided that as long as I didn’t hear any gossip about me, I would be fine.

Chapter 8

When I rose at four-thirty sharp, my roommates were still asleep, and I couldn’t blame them. Had I gone out last night, I would be sleeping, too. Having looked around, I saw evening dresses and shoes scattered all over the room. I tiptoed to the bathroom, tripping on a stiletto, and splashed cold water on my face. My eyes felt crusty, but my mind was sharp. Then I quickly got ready for a new day, double-checking I had water and a sun hat—the two essentials.

“Good morning,” I said.

The girls moved a little.

“What time is it?” Madeline asked, stretching.

“Almost five,” I replied.

“Shoot, we are late for the first breakfast!” Janice bolted up.

“Should I wait for you downstairs?” I asked, unable to hide my smile.

“Wow, you are ready!” Madeline exclaimed, staring at my backpack in disbelief.

“Yes, I am,” I said, hoping that Rachel heard me too.

“OK, we’ll meet at the cafeteria. Tell the bus driver not to leave without us.”

“Twenty-five cents,” I joked while leaving the room. 

To be honest, I wasn’t hungry at all. I never ate at such an early hour, except for a few times when I absolutely needed a cup of coffee while crunching in some last-minute paper. In Ashkelon, however, I had no choice but to follow everyone’s schedule. The breakfast was quick and quiet, as many volunteers were still too sleepy. To my surprise, I wasn’t feeling tired in the least. Having finished my bowl of cereal, I went straight to the bus.

At the site, we were directed towards the storage room to fetch our tools. After loading our wheelbarrows with shovels and axes, we proceeded to the inner parts of the site. All volunteers were asked to choose from different excavation grids, each of which was loosely connected to a particular historical period. Grid 51 was mostly a Persian area; Grid 20, Islamic and Crusader; Grid 47, Hellenistic; and Grid 38, Philistine. I chose the latter.

My best memory of university all-nighters was linked to the Sea Peoples. I was studying for the archaeology final, trying to memorize all the names. The Philistines weren’t the only group I had to remember. Weshesh, Djekker, Sherden, Pelest, my mind went on.  It was in the middle of spring, and the sun had just started rising earlier. Just as I finished preparing for the exam, birds started singing outside, and the sun came up. The morning sun that was shining above our tent reminded me of this final.

We were asked to fill up our buckets with as much earth as possible, to carry them to the sifter, and then slowly empty them out. Anything that resembled an artefact had to be collected into a bucket labeled with the name of the grid. Having emptied my first bucket, I slowly began to sift through the sand in hopes of finding something extraordinary. However, all I could see for the first three hours was plain rocks and shards of undecorated pottery that looked like pure rubbish. I began to feel frustrated. My constant kneeling and crouching weren’t producing the results I expected.

Around nine o’clock, we had our second breakfast, and by that time, I was definitely hungry. Some volunteers helped to set up the table and lay out different foods, which included traditional pita, labaneh cheese, some cold cuts, cereals, and fruits.

I sat with Claire and a few Harvard girls, with whom I hadn’t talked earlier. We chatted for a while about our studies and our plans for the future. I was surprised to discover that most of them still had no idea what they were planning to do after graduation. You’d think that Harvard students would have it all figured out.

“May I join you?” George asked, carrying a huge sandwich and a cup of coffee. From the corner of my eye, I saw Rachel standing by the buffet table, staring at him.

“Sure, come in.” Claire offered him an empty seat next to her.

“How do you like it so far?” he asked us.

“Well, it’s not too bad at all,” I replied. “Except for the fact that I haven’t found any gold yet.”

We all laughed. No one really expected to find anything tremendously exciting on the first day. However, I was hoping for at least a Byzantine coin or an Egyptian scarab seal.

“Don’t expect to find any, or you’ll set yourself up for a major disappointment,” George said.

“What are you studying?” I asked. Although I already knew he was in archaeology, I wanted to learn more about his field. 

“I’m working with Dr. Master, researching about the Philistine houses during the Late Bronze Age and Iron I.”

“Wow, that’s interesting!” I exclaimed, secretly wishing I could do something that fascinating in my life.

“I’m also teaching a course on ancient Israel this year,” he added. “How about yourself? What do you do?”

“I finished the University of Toronto a few years ago.”

“What did you study?” He looked genuinely interested.

“I majored in anthropology with a special focus on the Ancient Near East.”

“Oh, nice! We’re in the same field.” He smirked.

Whenever I talked about my major to strangers, I would be bombarded with questions on what I was planning to do with my degree. At some point in time, I decided to avoid the topic altogether, and it saved me a lot of hassle during interviews. It was nice to talk to my fellow humanities majors without worrying what they would think.

After breakfast, came the time to do the lab work, which mostly involved organizing pottery and labelling it according to different archaeological periods. I must admit that making chronological distinctions between different sets of shards is a daunting task. It takes time and skill to learn how to differentiate between different shapes, clay composition, and color. However, I had some background in the subject and could easily tell the difference between, say, Cypriot Monochrome and Bichrome Wares. I enjoyed every single minute of this activity, and whenever a familiar term came up, I couldn’t stop myself from smiling.

Time went by fast, and by eleven, we had our fruit break. As we were munching our strawberries, grapes, and pieces of watermelon, I heard a heavy sound coming from above.

“I’ll be back in a second,” I told the rest of the group and ran outside. Two menacing-looking airplanes were circling around the site.

What is it? I asked myself, trying to remember anything similar from my last trip to Israel. Suddenly, I recalled our tour guide telling us about special planes that patrol the country to make sure nothing bad is happening. I took a deep breath and stepped back into the lab.

“Is everything OK?” Gloria asked.

“Yeah, I just saw a scary plane. That’s all.”

“Get used to it. You’ll see them very often here. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong.”

“I know. I was told about those planes during our last visit. It’s just unusual to hear such loud noises.”

“Believe me, it’s normal in Ashkelon.”

We worked in the lab for a few more hours after the break, and at one o’clock, we headed back to the hotel. On my way to the room, I met Janice and Madeline, who were talking about boys.

“Vince is really cute,” Janice said.

“I like Luke better. He’s so darn funny,” Madeline argued.

“I liked the one we met at the beach yesterday. I think he’s from New Jersey.”

“The one who’s studying MBA?”

“Yep. He’s gorgeous. I mean, look at those biceps!”

Rachel was standing next to them looking sulky. I began to wonder if she was having some personal issues and needed help. Well, I was not the one to talk to, especially after everything she had said about me.

***

“Hamas is firing rockets again,” I heard someone say in the cafeteria.

“They might start a war in Gaza,” another voice said.

I looked around and saw an elderly couple sitting at one of the tables. What they were talking about was scary. However, from what I had heard, the Iron Dome was highly effective in protecting cities, and half the time, the rockets fell into open areas. Perhaps there was a chance we wouldn’t even notice the conflict.

I chose to sit with Karen, Madeline, and another girl named Lara. We chatted about our first impressions of the digging session.

“I excavated before,” Karen declared.

“Where?” I asked, feeling my curiosity rise.

“Many places. Costa Rica, for example. I even swam underwater.”

“What made you switch into nursing?” Lara asked.

“Better money,” Karen admitted. “I don’t regret my decision in the least because I like being a nurse.”

“That’s great. I wish I could say the same thing about my job,” I confessed.

“You don’t like your job?” Lara asked.

“Not really.” I sighed.

“Why?”

“Well, I get to work long hours, do monotonous stuff, and my pay is crap.” I was surprised by my own sincerity. Although I normally didn’t talk about my problems to strangers, the environment around me was so friendly that I felt free to speak my mind.

After lunch, we were free till four-thirty, the pottery washing time. My roommates and I crept back to our hotel room and collapsed on our beds. For the first time in the day, I felt tired.

Unable to fall asleep right away, I took out my cell phone and checked messages. I was happy to discover a few from Jason, who was showing interest in my whereabouts and telling me how much he was missing me. In spite of the great time I was having in Ashkelon, I was missing him, too.

I also got a few messages from my parents and Erin probing me about details about my first dig session. I told everyone that I was doing great and that the first morning in the field was quite enjoyable. I also attached a few photos I had snapped during the dig, including a photo of me in a U of T T-shirt and white gloves holding a shovel. For a moment, I considered sending it to the Summer of the Selfie contest that was being constantly advertised on the Virgin Radio in Toronto. No one probably expected an entry from an amateur archaeologist.

I dozed off for about twenty minutes. When I woke up, everyone was still asleep. I could imagine their level of fatigue after the whole night of partying and several hours of toiling under the sun. Since there was another free hour, I decided to check out the swimming pool. I quickly prepared my beach bag, put on my bathing suit, slipped into flip-flops, and crept downstairs, hoping none of my roommates would wake up and follow me. Otherwise, we would not make it to the pottery washing session on time.

It was very quiet downstairs. I saw a few tourists check in at the reception desk and a young couple lounging in the lobby. As for the swimming area, I could see only one person lying on a sun bed and drinking beer. It was George.

“Hey, what’s up?” he asked. 

For the first time, I noticed that he was very good looking. He was quite tall and muscular, and everything about him exuded confidence. I wondered if he was a self-absorbed type. I placed my beach bag on the farthest sun bed, removed my dress, and started applying the tanning lotion.

“Nice legs!” I heard him say.

“Excuse me?” I turned around and met his penetrating gaze.

“What?”

“Would you please leave me alone?”

“OK, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it that way! May I join you in swimming?” He got up and walked towards the pool.

“Whatever,” I replied in disdain. I couldn’t believe we had such a nice conversation this morning. He was, indeed, self-absorbed.

After five laps, I decided to get something to drink, so I wrapped a towel around my waist and walked to the bar.

Shalom, mitz tapuchim bevakasha,” I said, ordering a cup of apple juice.

Beseder,” the waiter replied.

I loved giving food and drink orders in Hebrew. Sometimes, waiters would answer back in English, but I always tried my best not to give in. Never mind I could forget a word or two and get stuck for a few seconds. I was confident enough to take the risk, and showcasing language skills always paid off. During our last visit, a few Israelis even asked us where we were living, mistaking us for locals. I found such a mistake quite flattering.

George joined me a few seconds later and ordered another beer.

“Why don’t you use Hebrew?” I asked him, hoping to score at least one point over this snob.

“I only know Biblical and Phoenician. I don’t think they would be useful here.”

“That’s true.” I laughed. “I studied both Biblical and Modern, but I like the Modern one more,” I added.

“Do you plan on moving here?”

“I don’t think so. My husband wouldn’t be very fond of the idea.”

“Wait! You’re married?” He looked shocked.

“Yes, I am.” I couldn’t help but smile. A small part of me wondered if he was fancying me in one way or another. 

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that.” George looked a bit embarrassed.

“That’s OK.”

“I just assumed everyone here was single.”

“Some may be in committed relationships.”

“True.”

“How about yourself? Are you seeing someone?” I found myself asking.

“I just broke up with my girlfriend.”

“Oh, what happened?”

“She thought I spent too much time at school,” he replied candidly. “We hardly ever had any time for each other with my crazy schedule.”

“That’s why I’m never doing a Ph.D,” I declared. Deep inside, I knew my steady job and the mortgage were the true culprits.

“Well, it has many other rewards. It’s not just sleep-deprived nights and cold pizza, you know.”

“I think it’s almost time to get going,” I said, realizing the pottery reading session would begin in less than ten minutes.

“See you later, Becky.”

Even after I took a shower and changed, the girls were still sleeping. I took a few steps towards their beds and told them that it was almost time to go. There was no answer. I repeated myself.  

Madeline opened her eyes, looked around, and asked, “What happened?”

“Sorry to disturb you, but it’s time for the lab work,” I affirmed.

“I’m so tired,” she said, yawning. “Can’t we just skip it?”

“I’m not skipping the lab work!” Janice exclaimed, jumping out of the bed.

They all crawled out of their beds and stumbled to the bathroom. 

“I’ll wait for you downstairs.” I felt content to be ahead of everyone else again.

“See you, Rebecca,” Madeline replied.

The pottery wash lasted for two hours. At times, it was monotonous and even boring. Just like any other work, archaeology involves some not-so-glamorous tasks, and scrubbing dirt from colorless shards is one of them. Half the finds were so small that they could be tossed away immediately, for they were impossible to identify.

I began to worry I would never find anything worthy. I still had a report to write upon my return, so I absolutely had to find something fascinating. It didn’t have to be a three-thousand-year-old statue or a Byzantine mosaic. Neither did it have to be made of gold. A coin or a figurine, however, would certainly do.

At dinner, I heard more rumours about the looming conflict in Gaza. I decided not to panic and to check the facts myself. So I Googled “Israel” on my cell phone and discovered some unpleasant news. A rocket had been fired at Jerusalem, and a few more were coming towards Tel Aviv.

“What are you reading?” Madeline asked, putting a bowl of humus in front of her.

“Look what happened!” I showed her my phone screen. She took it from me and started reading the article quietly.

“Oh, jeez! That doesn’t look good.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“Don’t worry. We’re safe,” Janice reassured me. “Otherwise, this program wouldn’t be happening.”

“I hope so,” I said, wanting to believe her.

The last thing I needed was for this dig to become interrupted. Then I would fly back to Toronto before having a long-awaited vacation with Jason. Such a possibility was out of question.

In spite of the worrying news, I slept very well through the night. I heard a few planes above but couldn’t care less what they were. All that mattered to me was discovering a treasure.

Chapter 9

I had more luck on the second day. As I was sifting through rocks and dirt, I came across a few small shards with faded lines. It was hard to tell whether or not they represented the famous Red Slip Ware, as the color was barely visible to the naked eye. Yet it was definitely a possibility.

After several rounds of emptying dirt buckets, I noticed a small object of an irregular shape. Having examined it closely, I realized it remotely resembled a woman. Just as I was about to put it together with the rest of the findings, I saw Lawrence Stager approach our area.

“Hey, Rebecca! Ma nishma?” He waved at me.

“Hi, Dr. Stager.”

“You can call me Lawrence.”

“I think I found something.”

“Can I see it?”

“Here it is. It looks like a woman to me.”

He looked closely at the object. “You’re right; it is indeed a woman. In fact, it’s a figurine of the Canaanite goddess Asherah. Everyone, please pay attention for a moment.” He lifted up my find. “Rebecca just discovered something unique. It’s a goddess figurine very typical for the Iron II.” As soon as his words came out, I became consumed with pride.

Everyone gazed at us in awe, and some even gave applause. We just had our first significant find of the season, and I finally had something to put on my report.

The rest of the morning went by easily. The burning sun and several hours of hard labor had little effect on my energy levels. I learned how to use my tools with more efficiency and with less physical effort. I also learned that taking small breaks every now and then made a huge difference. I could even imagine going out with my roommates in a few days from now. Quite possibly, it would happen earlier.

As soon as the second breakfast came, I took out my cell phone, which I was carrying everywhere, and texted the news to everyone in Toronto. “Hey, I just found a Canaanite figurine,” I wrote. I received four “wows” in response. I also uploaded the photo of the find on Facebook and earned a dozen likes. I was becoming popular—something that had never happened to me before. Although I wasn’t an extrovert, being at the center of attention felt great, especially now that I was part of Harvard’s research team.

During our lunch at the hotel, I met Madeline, who had been working at Grid 47 through the morning. “Hey, I heard you found something special today,” she said.

“Really? I wonder who told you that.”

“News spreads here very quickly.”

“Hmm, that appears to be true.”

“Was it gold?” she asked, eyes blazing.

“Not yet,” I laughed. “It was a female figurine from the Iron II.”

“Wow, I can’t believe you know all of that stuff.”

“Me too,” said Jocelyn, who was sitting at the next table. “And I also heard you speak Hebrew.”

“That’s true.” I smiled.

“You must have a natural talent for languages.”

“Thanks.” I felt proud of myself in spite of her patronizing tone. I didn’t hear such comments very often. In Toronto, I was simply a recent graduate with a useless major and a crap job. Here, everything was different.

Having finishing my lunch, I returned to our room. Janice and Madeline decided to stay at the lobby to catch up with readings, while Rachel was nowhere in sight. So I decided to go to the beach alone like I always wanted.

I walked down an alley surrounded by palm and cypress trees. Under one of them were three stray cats idling in the shade. A few bicycle riders passed me by. As I approached the beach, I became overwhelmed with a feeling of freedom. I was completely alone in a foreign city, and this aloneness was empowering. It was then I realized that I was in charge of my own destiny. I could turn my life in any direction I wanted. All I needed was a little courage.

At the same moment, I also realized how lucky I was to have so many wonderful people in my life. I had loving parents, who were wishing the best for me, a sister who was also my best friend, and a wonderful husband. Even though he was miles away from me, we were still together. And finally, I was in the most beautiful place on the planet—a place so exotic and yet so familiar.

I quickly removed my upper clothes, lay my bag on the sand, and ran straight to the sea. I made a couple of attempts to swim, and then a huge wave splashed right across my face. Having regained my balance, I tried swimming again, but waves started carrying me in the wrong direction. Being an average swimmer, I decided to wait until another day, when the sea would be calmer.

I heard a Hebrew song coming from a lifeguard’s booth. It had a nice melody and a good beat, but most importantly, its lyrics were appealing to me on a personal level. The song was about a woman living in a big city and trying to fulfill her dreams.

[_She feels out of place. This city is difficult, but she always smiles…. She is confident that one day she’ll succeed. _]

As soon as I managed to discern the words, I wanted to cry. The song was about my first years in Toronto, when I was struggling like crazy and yet always staying optimistic that someday, things would change for the better.

On my way to Dan Gardens, I found a booth where I could buy a freshly made juice.

“Hi, can I please have some orange juice?” I asked a waiter in Hebrew.

“No problem.” He picked a handful of oranges and squeezed them in a blender.

“I’m Rebecca, by the way.” Something made me want to introduce myself by name.

“I’m Shlomo.” He smiled. “How long have you been here?”

“Three days.”

“So you just arrived.”

“I guess so. I’m staying at the Dan Gardens Hotel.”

“Nice. Do you plan on living at a kibbutz or an apartment?”

“What do you mean? I’ll be at the same hotel for the entire time.”

“I thought you just moved here.”

“No, I’m only visiting.”

“Do you have a family here?”

“No, I’m a tourist.”

“Oh, sorry!”

We laughed. Once again, I’d been mistaken for a local.

“How come your Hebrew is so good?” he asked. “Have you lived here before?”

“Maybe in another life,” I replied. “As for my Hebrew, I took courses at my university.”

“Wow, I’m impressed. So, what brings you to Ashkelon?”

“I’m with the Leon Levy Expedition.”

“Oh, I see. I have many customers from this dig.”

Our conversation lasted for almost an hour. We talked about the places in Israel we liked the most. He said he truly loved visiting the Golan Heights because of their lush greenery and cooler temperatures. I told him about our last visit to the Banias Springs and the Druze villages. Then we talked about our favorite artists, and I admitted my dream of attending a concert in Caesarea. The conversation had to stop when another customer came.

By the time I returned to the room, it was already four-thirty, and everyone was gone to the pottery washing session. Realizing that I had completely lost my track of time, I ran downstairs in the same clothes I had worn to the beach and quietly sneaked into the room. Daniel Master was making an announcement. I tiptoed to the closest spot available and sat down, trying to make as little noise as possible. The chair made a loud, squeaking sound, causing several people look in my direction.

“Sorry,” I said, trying to look nonchalant. Inside I was burning from embarrassment.

I decided not to ask about the announcements until later. Instead, I grabbed a few findings and began cleaning them. It turned out that the Harvard group was planning a tour to the southern sites, and everyone else was welcome to join for a small fee. The stops would include the Ramon Crater, the Timna Valley Park, and ultimately Eilat.

“Please don’t forget about the lecture tonight,” Daniel said before we dispersed.

“What lecture?” I asked Lara, who was sitting next to me.

“Something about the Palestinians.” She shrugged.

“No, silly,” George interjected. “It’s about the Philistines, the Sea People.”

I suppressed a laugh.

***

The lecture was incredibly engaging. The presenting scholars briefly provided an overview of the group’s Aegean origins (Most scholars believe they came from the Greek islands), their migration patterns at the end of the Bronze Age, and their settlements in the Southern Levant at the beginning of the Iron Age. They also went over the Philistine Pentapolis, which consisted of Gaza, Ashdod, Ekron, Gath, and Ashkelon. Most of the information was not new to me. Nevertheless, I couldn’t imagine anyone not being fascinated by this lecture.

Over the course of my time at the U of T, I came to realize the Philistines were not as bad as the Bible portrayed them. It is true that they settled in the land of the Israelites, and their kingdom posed some form of external threat. However, in the Near East, both ancient and modern, settlements simply existed on a first come, first serve basis. Everyone was eager to settle in the narrow passage that existed between Egypt and Mesopotamia and to take advantage of its valuable trade resources. The Bible simply portrayed the story from the Israelites’ point of view. If Philistine texts existed, they would probably depict everything differently. As for me, I was equally drawn to all the civilizations that had existed in the Holy Land. 

Halfway through this lecture, we got to hold a piece of a Philistine stirrup jar, which got passed around the table. I took time to trace the shape, the clay texture, and the artistic pattern with my hands. 

“Can I have it, please?” I heard George say.

“Oh, yes, sure.” I passed the jar to him.

“Do you know it was inspired by the Mycenaean tradition?”

“No, I thought it resembled the Cypriot style.”

“Well, the Cypriot and Mycenaean are fundamentally different.”

“I’m sorry.” I felt my face become hot. I couldn’t believe I’d mixed up something that obvious.

“It’s OK. A lot of people confuse them. If you are interested, we could meet up afterward, and I could tell you more about their differences.”

“Well, thanks for the invitation, but I would rather go sleep after the lecture.” For some reason, going out with this guy, even for an innocent talk, felt wrong.

“Are you sure? We are planning to go to the bar. You could join us.”

“Everyone, please be quiet,” one of the lecturers said.

“Oh, we are sorry,” I said, my face getting hot again. “We were talking about the pottery styles,” I added. I probably sounded like a grade nine student who got caught chatting about some new, hot movie.

“OK, let’s wrap up today’s lecture.” He went on and on talking about different samples of the Philistine material culture, passing more artefacts around the table.

***

“You should join us,” Janice urged me as I was unpacking my pyjamas. “You can’t stay in the room all the time.”

“I’m worried we’ll be late for the dig tomorrow.”

“We won’t be out for too long. We all need to be up early,” Madeline insisted. “Come on, you should come.”

“OK, I’ll go with you.” I gave in.

I was lucky not to have Rachel with us in the room. She would surely say something about my lateness to the pottery washing session or my decision to go to the pub. I later spotted her sitting in the lobby talking to George.

“Becky, you are going!” he exclaimed as soon as he eyed me.

“Yep! I decided to get a drink in the end.”

“OK, let’s go.” He rose up. “See you tomorrow, Rach.”

“Are you coming, too?” I asked her casually.

“Nah, you go.” She sounded defeated. According to my theory, she was trying to get George’s attention but was perpetually unsuccessful. 

Among the goers were also Luke, Vince, and Karen. As we were walking down the street, enjoying the fresh air, we talked about everything and nothing. The topics included our favourite movies, late nights at university, and drunken sorority parties. Although I normally didn’t enjoy a small talk, I was having a good time. After passing by a few bars and coffee shops, we finally stopped at a small pub where Kiesza’s “Hideaway” was playing.

“Hey, folks, can I get you something to drink?” a bartender asked as soon as he saw us.  

“Sure, I’ll take a glass of beer,” I replied in Hebrew.

The bartender looked puzzled. “At medaberet ivrit! Eize yofi!” he exclaimed.

Everyone else looked at me in awe. They couldn’t believe an average Canadian with zero ties to Israel could speak Hebrew so well. Part of me even wished Rachel was here to see me shine.

“I wish my Hebrew was that good,” George said, as we were waiting for our drinks. “It would help me to find a post doc opportunity here.”

“You are already thinking about post docs?”

“Well, I have to plan ahead. Have you considered going to a grad school yet?”

“Not really.” I sighed. 

“You seem to know a lot about ancient Israel.”

“It’s probably nothing compared to how much you know. Plus, I know neither French nor German.”

“I thought French was mandatory in Canada.”

“Yes, but I forgot it after grade ten. In fact, French was the least of my favourite subjects at school.” I briefly recalled how much I dreaded those tests that involved memorizing all the er and ir verbs.

“Well, I doubt it will be a problem because you seem to have a knack for languages.”

“That’s what everyone says.” I smiled, recalling Jocelyn’s remark. 

“By the way, I’ll be presenting a paper on Beit Shean next week. I thought you might be interested.”

“That must be exciting for you!”

“Well, I’ve presented at conferences before. You get used to it after a while.”

“May I ask which part of the site will you be focusing on?”

“The one dating to the Late Bronze Age.”

“The Egyptian one?”

“Yes.”

“Are you going to mention the Mekal Stele?”

“Only briefly. I’ll be mainly talking about the pottery. Hey, why don’t you wait and see?”

“OK, no more questions then. But you promised to enlighten me about the Cypriot and Mycenaean styles.”

“Oh, yes. I nearly forgot.” 

We had a long conversation about Cypriot imports during the Late Bronze Age. George talked about different types of pottery and scholarly articles that had been published on that topic. I couldn’t help but admire this guy—at least his intellectual abilities. He was so refined and educated, and he looked downright gorgeous in his polo T-shirt and gridded shorts. I told myself there was no attraction involved. We were just random people talking about something that interested us.

Halfway through the conversation, I realized how much I’d been missing challenging talks. While Jason was smart, his intelligence was rooted in a totally different field. Most of the time, we didn’t talk about anything remotely intellectual, except for the latest news about economic crises and global warming. Our mundane conversations usually revolved around problems at work, plans for weekends, and food choices for dinners. It didn’t really dawn on me until that evening.

“Should we wrap up and get going?” Madeline asked, looking pensively at her watch. For the whole time, she and the rest of the group were discussing indie music.

“Oh yes, definitely.” I immediately jumped from my chair, spilling a few drops from my glass of beer.

“Let’s go,” Karen said.

Once we reached the rooms, I checked my cell phone. To my surprise, it had no messages. I wondered what Jason was doing. Was he happy at work? Was he at home or working overtime? Then George came into my mind. I recalled our conversation and the satisfaction I got from talking about something that truly fascinated me.

The rest of the week was just as exciting as the beginning. I relentlessly dug in the mornings, enjoyed the sea and the sun after lunches, and diligently washed pottery in the afternoons. Never again did I show up late. I have to admit that not all days were terribly successful in terms of findings. Sometimes, I would spend several hours filling up buckets with dirt and carrying them over to the sifter just to find a bunch of pebbles. Nevertheless, the work was incredibly enjoyable.

During meal times, I became friends with Jocelyn, Carol, and Gloria. Our discussions involved many topics, including mortgages, furniture, and family life. They told me about their children, what they were studying, and some of the typical struggles associated with parenthood. To my surprise, I often found myself siding with them despite the fact that I was around the same age as their kids.

We also discussed our past trips and favourite places in the world. As real travel veterans, they all had visited Europe at least once and had seen most of the key places in the States. Although I had never been to Europe, I had done my fair share of travel on the American continent. The most memorable spot for me was probably the Grand Canyon, which I had visited with my parents as a child and later with Jason.

Chapter 10

“Are we ready yet?” Madeline asked while double-checking the contents of her bag. It was a Saturday morning, and we were packing for the trip. Since I had prepared my backpack the night before, I didn’t have to worry too much about making it to the lobby on time.

“Most definitely,” Janice replied while applying her sunscreen. “Did you guys remember to bring your cameras? They promised the scenery will be awesome.”

“Oops, did I?” I immediately started double-checking everything in my backpack. The camera was missing. It was strange because I remembered putting it together with my water bottle and a sunscreen. For some reason, it was lying on my dresser.

“Thanks for reminding me!” I exclaimed with relief. “I can’t believe I almost forgot the most important item!”

“Don’t worry,” Madeline said. “We will share pictures regardless. Besides, the most important thing you’ll need is your water. It’s supposed to be freaking hot outside.”

“That’s true,” Rachel noted with a smirk on her face. For a second, I wondered if she had sneaked into my bag and taken out the camera.

“All right, let’s go!” Janice declared.

A minute later, we were standing at the hotel lobby, waiting for the fun to begin. It would be our first daytrip, and I was sure there were more to come. At last, I saw a large vehicle with two horn-like mirrors approach in our direction. There was no mistaking it was our bus. I immediately felt a surge of excitement. I was going to see the south of Israel for the very first time!

As soon as we took off, I plugged in my earphones and closed my eyes. The music slowly faded in the background as I dozed off. I couldn’t tell how much time passed before I was woken up by the deadly sound of a siren.

Someone must have forgotten to turn off an iron, I thought while rubbing my eyes. I expected our bus to pull over to the right side and to wait for the emergency car to pass. However, there was no fire truck or an ambulance car in sight.

“Everyone, get out of the bus and lie face down,” Kobi, the tour guide, commanded. “Go, now!”

“[_Ma pitom!” _]I exclaimed. 

Our group quickly got up and moved towards the closest exit. What I saw next was unbelievable. The rest of the cars stopped on the open highway, and all the people ran outside to lay face down. Suddenly, I realized that whatever was happening was far more serious than a fire alarm. As I was lying on the ground, hands covering my head, I heard a strong booming sound. A child from some other car started crying.

“You can go back to the bus,” Kobi announced three minutes later.  

Our trip resumed as usual, and the cars around us began to move as well. From my window, I caught a glimpse of the child, who was crying inconsolably just a few minutes ago, playing with his toys. His mother continued driving as if nothing had happened. In the meantime, everyone on the bus, including myself, was confused.

“What happened?” Madeline asked halfway through the ride.

“We had a rocket threat from Gaza,” Luke said. His announcement was followed by the humming of different voices. 

“Are you freaking kidding me?” someone asked loudly.

“Guys, please be quiet!” Kobi commanded.

“Can we go home?” one of the girls asked in a shrieking voice.

“Silence please.”

Everyone obliged.

“What happened is we had a missile threat,” he began. “Ninety-nine percent of the time they are nothing to worry about. But when you hear a siren, it means you have to either run to a bomb shelter or lie face down.”

Expressions of shock and disbelief appeared on people’s faces. I recalled all the news and rumours about the war. The threat was real. I wondered if this event would appear on the world news. If it would, I would have to come up with something to say to Jason and my parents next time we spoke on the phone.

Although the trip continued, the mood was spoiled. Students looked gloomy, and some girls even approached the tour guide asking to be sent back to the hotel. He did everything in his power to convince them they were safe, but they were relentless. As soon as we stopped for the first break at a small town, they demanded to be put on a taxi and taken back to Ashkelon. I couldn’t blame them. If I weren’t so adamant about seeing the Timna Park and Eilat, I would’ve returned to the hotel, too.

***

“Were you scared this morning?” George asked me as we were sitting in a cafeteria and eating our falafel wraps.

“Of course I was!”

“You shouldn’t worry. I’ve been here several times, and nothing serious ever happened.”

“How many times?”

“Hmm, four or five? I can’t remember.”

“Wow! This is only my second time.” This boy never ceased to amaze me. 

“That’s all right. You can always come back.”

“So what were you doing here? Visiting or working?”

“A bit of both.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, that’s my second season in Ashkelon. Before joining this team, I had excavated in Tell es-Safi.”

“The Biblical Gath?”

Yes. We spent around four weeks working at the site, and one day, a siren went off. Everyone got scared shitless, and it was a false alarm.”

“What do you mean by a false alarm?”

“Do you remember the Arab Spring?”

“Oh, yes.”

“They were conducting a military drill across the country just to make sure people were prepared for the worst-case scenario.”

“I see.”

“The thing is, Rebecca, this conflict has been around for a while, and so most Israelis have become used to it. The media likes to blow everything out of proportion.”

“That’s what I tell everybody in Toronto, but people don’t believe me. They think Israel is some kind of a warzone. When we came here last time, the place seemed so peaceful. I couldn’t believe we were in one of the world’s most troubled countries.”

“You see? I wouldn’t be too concerned.”

I sincerely hoped this siren would be just a one-time event everyone would remember as an adventure.

In the meantime, I couldn’t keep my eyes off George. While we were riding on the bus, he was sitting next to Rachel across from me and Karen. Rachel was wearing a pair of ripped mini-shorts and a T-shirt with a plunging v-neck. It was obvious to everyone including me that she was trying too hard to get his attention. I wondered how much time would pass before she would finally give up.

As soon as the bus stopped at our next destination, George turned to me and said, “OK, Becky, let’s go.”

“Let’s go.” I smiled.

“Hey, are you enjoying some freedom from your husband?” Rachel asked poignantly as we were exiting.

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, don’t act so innocent! I saw you with George during the break.”

“Ah, we were just talking about what happened this morning.” I wasn’t in the mood for a confrontation.

“Look how beautiful it is!” Karen exclaimed, as if trying to diffuse the rising tension. “I’m glad we didn’t go back today.”

“Me too,” I replied, feeling heat on my skin. The weather was undeniably hot, and I knew well that we wouldn’t be able to stay in one spot for too long.

What we saw was truly unforgettable. Before our eyes were brownish yellow plains and a chasm known as the Ramon Crater. According to the sources, it had been formed millions of years ago, when the desert was still covered by the ocean.

“Look! What is this?” I exclaimed, eyeing a small creature standing nearby.

“It’s an ibex, a special type of goat!” George explained.

“Let’s take a photo. Quick!” I couldn’t let the chance slip away.

My gaiety became contagious, and soon the entire group was excited about seeing the exotic animal. I managed to snap a few photos before the goat ran away.

“Boy, those horns look scary,” Janice commented.

“Well, after what happened this morning, nothing seems scary anymore,” Madeline said, rolling her eyes.

The Timna Valley Park was even more memorable than the Ramon Crater. I had never seen anything similar, except for maybe one time, when I went to the Valley of Fire State Park with Jason. It was also the time I nearly passed out after trying to hike in forty-five degrees Celsius. This time, I became so engaged in photographing pillars with the Egyptian hieroglyphs that I almost forgot how hot it was outside. Needless to say, my skin was glistening with perspiration, and my feet were burning inside my running shoes. I had to remind myself to take a few gulps of water to save myself from a heatstroke.

The sightseeing bliss came to a halt when my phone rang. For a split second, I considered ignoring it because the call could easily be a spam. Last time we were in Israel, I got a courtesy call from Rogers and was stupid enough to pick up the phone. As a result, our phone bill skyrocketed by the end of the trip. This happened way before I figured to buy a local card instead of the Fido plan. Although I was unlikely to get into the same issue this time around, I wasn’t in the mood to hear about some rip-off promotion. After a second ring, I gave in, realizing it could also be someone from my family. 

“Hey, Rebecca! Is everything all right with you?” I heard Jason ask in an alarmed tone.

“Yes, baby, I’m fine. What happened?”

“The Hamas rocket fire is in the news!”

I was busted. Our morning incident did indeed reach the media, which meant my parents would be worried, too.

“What rocket fire?” I asked, pretending to be oblivious to what he was saying.

“They fired missiles at Eilat today, and from what I remember, you were supposed to go there with your group. Am I correct?”

“Yes, you are. In fact, I’m having the best time of my life here. I’m going to send you the photos as soon I can.”

“You should text or call your parents,” he said, ignoring my happy babbling. “Your mom is really worried.”

“OK, sure. But tell her not to worry. We are taking all the precautions.”

“Please be careful, Becky. You don’t know how scared I am.”

“I promise to stay safe. Jason, I’m really sorry, but I have to keep up with my group. Talk to you later.”

After hanging up, I noticed more unread messages. They were from Erin, Mom and Dad, and even my in-laws. Everyone was asking me if I was safe, and my mother was even urging me to come back to Toronto. Feeling uneasy, I dialled my parents’ number but was directed to their voicemail. So I sent them a few text messages along with my photos from the Ramon Crater.

By the time we reached Eilat, the memory of the morning siren was long forgotten. Some students even took the initiative to start singing. In Eilat, we had a bit of downtime to cool off in the Red Sea. While attempting a few laps, I eyed George watching me from the beach. I looked back at him, and he winked at me. Then I turned away and continued swimming.

After the beach time, we were escorted to the underwater observatory, from which we could see a myriad of colorful fish swimming around coral reefs. I made a mental note to come back here someday with kids. Eilat would make a great destination for a Christmas or a March Break getaway. A big part of me hoped that Jason and I would be able afford it in years to come.

The day trip was concluded by a stopover at a local restaurant, where we got to enjoy the best selections of Israeli food. At some point, I excused myself to the washroom just to be interrupted by a ringing cell phone. 

“Hello?” I tried to sound composed.

“Hey, Rebecca, you should come back as soon as possible!” My mother exclaimed. “Dad’s been looking for a return flight for you.”

“What? I’m not coming back after one week!” There was no way I would return without finishing my work in Ashkelon.

“The Gaza conflict is in the news! They fired several rockets today, including a few to the south. It doesn’t look good.”

“Mom, I’m sorry, but I’m not going anywhere,” I repeated. “The security is very tough here, and we are well-protected by the Iron Dome. If anything serious happens, we’ll be evacuated.”

“Do you really need to be evacuated? And what if the Iron Dome fails?” I could clearly sense panic in her voice.

“It won’t.” I tried to sound as persuasive as possible. 

“OK, but please be careful. And don’t go anywhere alone. Remember those kids who got kidnapped?”

“Mom, that was in the West Bank, and we are in Ashkelon. But fine, I won’t walk alone anymore.” My statement was partly untrue because I still hoped to continue my solo walks to the beach. However, I was willing to say anything to prevent my parents from buying me a ticket to Toronto. 

“I’m so worried about you, Becky. If only you knew!”

“I understand, Mom. I’m sorry.”

“Becky, love, please be careful.”

“Love you, Mom.”

I hung up the phone and walked back to the table feeling a bit sad. If the stupid missiles hadn’t been fired, this day would have been perfect.

“Is everything OK?” Karen asked, sensing my worry.

“The news on the missiles reached my parents,” I replied, staring blankly at my spicy fish.

“Don’t worry. It’s been like this for many years,” Janice said. “If it were that bad, none of us would be here. I mean, we are taking a credit course. What university would send its students to a place that isn’t safe?”

“Tell that to my Mom.”

“Hey, I heard Eilat has a great party scene,” she added later, when we were already finishing our main courses. “Maybe we should come back here during our next weekend.”

“Unless they plan some other tour,” Madeline remarked.

The idea sounded quite appealing. We could all hop into one big car we would rent at a local dealership and drive to Eilat at sunset. Then we would spend a night grooving to “Az Yalla” by Lior Narkis and other Oriental hits.

“We should also go to Beit Guvrin,” Karen suggested. “It’s only a few minutes’ drive from Ashkelon, and I heard it’s impressive.”

“What is it?” Madeline asked curiously.

“It’s a Roman site famous for its colourful mosaics and tunnels. I’m sure you all will love it.”

“Are you referring to the Maresha caves?” I asked, recalling an article from the [_BAR _]magazine.

“I think so.”

“Excuse me. Did I hear something about the Maresha caves?” George asked as he approached our table. Up until now, he was sitting with Luke and Vincent, completely oblivious to our conversation.

“Yes, you did,” I said, staring directly into his eyes.

“We should do it during one of the breaks,” Karen said. “Just rent a car and drive there.”

“Hmm, it sounds like a cool idea,” he said pensively.

“How about Eilat?” Janice chimed in. “We were also thinking about driving to Eilat next weekend or the one after.”

“And party till sunrise,” I added. 

“Hmm, I’ll have to think about that,” George replied.

“Cheers.” Janice raised a glass of wine.

***

On our way back, I ended up sitting with George, and I couldn’t deny he was a good company. We chatted about his studies and his previous trips to Israel. It turned out that at Tell es-Safi, he even supervised a small group of students.

“Have a great night,” he told me at the hotel entrance.

“You too,” I replied and walked away, feeling butterflies flutter in my stomach. In the room, I ran into Rachel, who gave me a dirty look.

“Want to use the shower first?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything but simply grabbed a towel and went to the bathroom. Janice and Madeline entered the room a few minutes later. They were discussing some report they had to submit on Monday.

“We should try completing it tomorrow afternoon,” Madeline suggested.

“That’s a good idea,” Janice said. “We could finish it after lunch and hand it in right away. Maybe we’ll even have time for the beach.” The thought of the Mediterranean Sea made me smile.

“Lucky you! You don’t have to study for this dig,” Madeline said to me.

I wanted to tell them how lucky they were not to have my job. Unless they were working somewhere part-time, they weren’t dealing with angry customers on a regular basis. Nor were they overwhelmed with boring orders and invoices.

Soon Rachel stepped out of the shower, and I was allowed to go next. As I was standing under a warm stream of water, I thought about the events of the day. I thought about the unexpected siren and the fear, which were followed by memorable stops at colourful sites and mind-provoking conversations with George. I wondered what it would feel like to attend the dig for two or three consecutive years. People like George were truly committed to the field, while I and most other volunteers were spending less than a month helping out with the dirty work.

I also wondered about the future of my own expedition. It was highly unlikely that I would come back the following summer. Instead, I was destined to finish the dig and to go back to my ordinary life. I definitely had to enjoy this opportunity while it lasted.   Next day, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about him. I hoped to run into him at the site or during meal times, but he was nowhere to be seen. I hoped to bump into him at the hotel or on a street. Even my solo walk to the beach in the afternoon failed to provide me with the sense of calm I had enjoyed a few days earlier.

My jitters were mixed with feelings of guilt and confusion. I knew it was wrong to have this feeling, and yet here it was—the feeling I hadn’t experienced in a long time—the thrill of meeting someone new. For the first time in my life, I began to wonder if getting married at twenty-two was the right choice. I tried not to dwell on this thought.

During dinner, I sat with Jocelyn and Carol, as I often did. In spite of our age difference, I really enjoyed talking to them. One thing led to another, and we started discussing our personal lives. Carol had been married for thirty-five years; Jocelyn, for twenty. At the back of my mind, I wondered if they had ever encountered the same issue. Had they ever had a crush at some point? If so, how did they handle it? Of course, I wouldn’t dare to ask such a question.

“My first marriage failed after ten years, and I was single through my thirties,” Jocelyn began. “Then I met my current husband and couldn’t be happier.”

“What happened?” I asked.

“I was too young when I got married the first time,” she replied. “Only twenty-two.”

I felt chills run down my spine. I had been exactly the same age as her, and to top it off, everyone had been warning me against making a potential mistake.

“Did you grow apart with time?”

“Yes. We were too different from each other.”

“But how?” I knew it was none of my business, but I couldn’t stop myself from asking.

“He was an engineer who worked long hours and preferred staying home most of the time, and I am a teacher and a very outgoing person, as you’ve probably already noticed.”

Jason and I also came from different occupations. Although it never bothered me before, I started to worry that it could create issues down the road. I was already craving conversations he couldn’t provide and was getting them on the side.

“Did you notice differences right away?” I asked, hoping that she would, at least, say yes. It would give me some peace of mind, knowing that Jason and I hadn’t noticed any issues yet.

“No, it wasn’t until our fifth anniversary when we started having problems.”

“I also married young, and your story makes me feel worried,” I admitted.

I had never been that open with anyone, not even with Dalia or Erin. Yet I was confessing my fears to someone I’d known for a little longer than a week.

“Does your husband allow you to have friends and a life outside of home?” Jocelyn asked.

“Of course!” I exclaimed. “In fact, this whole trip is proof of how much independence I get to have.”

“My first husband wasn’t like that at all,” she said. “He was too jealous. I could have never gone on this trip if he were still around.”

“Do you come from the same background?” Carol continued.

“More or less,” I replied. “My family is Irish, and my husband is a mix of British, French, and Native. We both grew up in the suburbs.”

“Are you from the same faith?” Jocelyn asked.

“We are not religious. We celebrate Christmas and Easter, and we believe in the Higher Power, but that’s pretty much it.”

“Look, I think you’ve got a strong marriage,” Jocelyn reassured me. 

I felt relieved. Maybe I was just obsessing over the whole thing. Sure, George and I had a few interests in common, and I liked him on the outside. However, it didn’t have to mean anything. Besides, who said that having friends outside of marriage was a crime?

My self-convincing only worked until the night when I saw him in a dream. We were walking on a beach and discussing something related to archaeology, when he suddenly started kissing me. As I felt his body pressed against mine, I became overwhelmed with desire. Suddenly, the earth started shaking under us, and I began to fall. Then I found myself standing alone in some dark, foreign place feeling frightened and lonely. I woke up breathing hard.

“What happened?” Janice asked, stretching. “You just screamed.”

“Did I?” I hoped I didn’t give them any other clues about my dream.

“Yes.”

“Nothing. Just a bad dream,” I replied briskly.

“Can we have some quiet sleep, please?” Rachel grumbled.

“I didn’t sleep well either.” Madeline came to my defence. “And it’s time to go.” I turned my head towards the window and saw the first rays of sun shining at us.

During the first part of the morning, I was plagued by different thoughts. Did I truly have feelings for George? If so, would they go away in time? I exchanged a few text messages with Jason during breakfast just to feel better. The heavy thoughts disappeared during the second part of the fieldwork, when sorting through pottery shards and trying to discern bases from handles made me forget all about the world outside. My fascination with the lab work was stronger than any worry on earth. 

Chapter 11

The following week, the excavation project continued as usual. We had digging and lab work in the early mornings, free time and pottery washing in the afternoons, and occasional trips to the bar in the evenings. I became so involved in archaeology and the social life of the dig that I completely forgot about my doubts. My fears about the war were also gone. I caught the news about the Operation Protective Edge on the TV at one of the city’s cafés, but everyone around me seemed aloof.

I met Shlomo a few times on my walks from the beach, and we exchanged a few words in Hebrew. He asked me about my archaeological work and whether I was enjoying my stay in Ashkelon. I told him about our trip to Eilat and even showed him the photos of the ibex I’d taken at the Ramon Crater. No missiles were mentioned, not even once. People were simply going about their businesses as if nothing wrong was happening.

I kept receiving messages from Jason, who wanted to know everything about my whereabouts. He was constantly telling me how worried he was, and sometimes, I even found his attention smothering—something that never happened in our marriage. I kept reassuring him that I was perfectly safe, and if anything were to happen, we had bomb shelters and the Iron Dome. After all, the atmosphere around the town was so relaxed, and half the TV channels were broadcasting local concerts and soap operas. Everything changed on the night of George’s lecture.

“Good evening, everyone,” he began. “Tonight, I’m going to talk about one of the most important sites from the Late Bronze Age. Has anyone heard about Beit Shean?”

I raised my hand.

“Good. Rebecca, can you please tell us a bit about it?”

“Well, it was occupied by the Egyptians for nearly five hundred years. As a result, some Egyptian-style buildings and small artifacts were unearthed at the site.”

“Thank you!” He smiled at me. “Among those artifacts were beer jars and flower pots, which I’m going to talk about tonight.” George pointed at images of plain vase-like objects.

“It’s commonly believed they were used as part of an Egyptian food ritual that involved bread and beer. By the way, did you know the Egyptians were big drinkers?”

Ripples of laughter passed through the room. Jokes like this one were not uncommon in the academic world. In fact, lecturers with the greatest number of jokes always received highest ranks on RateMyProfessors.Com. As a future course instructor, George was definitely showing a lot of promise in that area.

“The question is whether the Egyptian-style pottery was produced by the local population or if it was imported from Egypt,” he continued. “I am planning to discuss the two theories: the emulation model and the direct rule.”

Bzzzz! The siren rang, interrupting the flow of the lecture. Everyone got up from their seats and started running towards the bomb shelter. For a few seconds, I sat in my chair motionless. I felt scared, of course, but a huge part of me was also disappointed about the interruption. George ran to me, grabbed my arm, and screamed, “Run!”

“But your presentation!” I protested a few seconds later, when we were already inside.

“Don’t you realize that staying alive is the most important thing right now?” he nearly screamed.

“Well, I hope the rocket doesn’t hit your computer, ’cause those images are priceless.”

“Thanks, Becky.” He laughed. “I hope it doesn’t even reach the town.”

We stayed inside the shelter for a while. By the time the situation was cleared, it was already quarter to eleven, time to go to sleep.

“Unfortunately, due to unforeseeable circumstances, the lecture has been cancelled,” Lawrence Stager announced as soon as we returned to the conference room. “We hope to resume it another time.”  

It was then the reality of the conflict hit me hard. We were in the midst of a war. Any one of us could be gone or get seriously injured at any moment.

Before going to bed, I stepped outside into the pool area, hoping fresh air would help me calm my nerves. Without thinking twice, I took out my cell phone and dialled Erin’s number.

“Hey, girl! How are you?” she asked, cheerful as usual.

“I’m great. Love it here. Yourself?”

“Eh, nothing much. Except that Alex and I broke up.”

“Oh, sorry to hear about that.”

“It’s OK. It’s for the best.”

“What happened?”

“It’s been three months now, and I still haven’t felt anything,” Erin confessed. “No butterflies, no nothing.”

“Really? Maybe you could give it some time.”

“How much more time, Becky? It’s clear we are not meant to be. I know that giddy in-love feeling isn’t everything, but it must mean something, right?”

“Definitely!” I recalled how much in love I was when I first met Jason.

“And since I don’t feel anything, I decided to call it quits.”

“You’ve made the right choice, Erin. I wouldn’t want to go out with someone just for the sake of having a boyfriend.”

“Exactly! So, yesterday, I told him exactly how I feel.”

“What did he say?”

“He asked me for another chance, but I already know it has nothing to do with him. It’s me, Becky.”

“Well, I hope it all works out well in the end.”

“Me too. I’m so exhausted from the dating scene. I’m ready to take a break.” She sighed profoundly.

“Maybe it’s a good idea. Just focus on yourself. Take a solo vacation or something.”

“Maybe. Anyway, why are we talking about my problems? How’s everything with you?”

“Well, as I said, I’ve been enjoying the dig. But I have an issue, and I need your advice.”

“What is it?”

I took a deep breath, thinking about everything that happened in the past few days.

“Do you think I should stay here till the end of our excavation season?”

“What do you mean? Aren’t you supposed to be there for two more weeks or so?”

“Yes, but I’m starting to worry about the situation here. It looks like Israel is going into a war with Gaza. Mom is constantly worried about me, and so is Jason.”

“Oh, yeah, I can see that. Becky, we are all worried about you. But I personally think you should stay.”

“Really?” Her opinion made me feel a bit relieved.

“The truth is, I’ve never heard you sound so happy. Not even on your wedding day! Every time you call or leave a text message, I can almost see your sweet smile.”

“Wow, I didn’t know that!”

“I know Mom will try to persuade you to come back and stuff, but if this place makes you happy, then you should stay.” 

“Thanks, Erin. I’m glad you said so.”

I looked around and made sure no one was nearby to hear me. The pool area was completely empty. Then I climbed on a sun bed and looked up at the sky. The missiles could appear at any moment, but so far, all I could see was the stars and the moon.

“There is another thing I need to tell you,” I started. “But you must promise not to judge me and not to tell anyone.”

“What is it? Please don’t tell me you’ve met someone new on your dig.”

I took a deep breath. “Well, sort of. His name is George, and he is studying at the Wheaton College in the States. He’s really good looking. We started out as friends, but now I’m finding myself attracted to him, and I can’t help it. We seem to have so much in common! I know it all sounds terrible, but….”

“Oh my God! I definitely saw it coming!” she exclaimed without letting me finish.

“What do you mean?” I asked in fear. Maybe she was judging me.

“Remember when you were getting married, and I kept telling you to wait?”

“Erin, please! That’s the most annoying thing anyone can say to me in my situation.”

“I’m not saying anything, Becky. All I want to say is this attraction was almost inevitable.”

“I try not to dwell on this feeling too much, but it always haunts me. Besides, he’s so nice. He helped me to get to the bomb shelter today when the siren went off.”

“Wait, what bomb shelter? What siren?” I could sense a bit of shock in her voice.

“Didn’t you know? I thought you heard the news.”

“I hardly ever watch TV. You have to tell me.”

“We had several rockets coming towards our city, and—”

“Holy shit! I had no idea it was that bad! No wonder Mom has been so worried lately. I visited our parents yesterday, and they both looked distressed. I thought maybe it was just the middle of the week or something.”

I was overcome with a feeling of sadness. Why did this war have to start when I was living my dream? Now everyone I cared about was worried about me.

“OK, tell them I’m really sorry. I don’t know what to do. I can’t just leave.”

“Well, I hope your group comes up with some plan before the situation gets worse.”

“Me too. So do you still think I should stay?”

“It’s up to you, Becky. I’m in no position to tell you.” At this moment, I really wanted her to tell me to stay, but she was right; I would have to decide for myself.

“I’m so sorry for causing all the distress!”

“Just remember to keep us posted if you choose to stay.” 

“Bye, honey.”

“Stay safe, Becky. Best of luck with finding gold.”

“Thanks. I need it.”

I hung up the phone and let my thoughts unravel. Finding a reasonable solution, which would allow us to stay without being in any danger, would be amazing. However, I couldn’t see anything viable on the horizon except for interrupting the dig and sending everyone home. 

By the time I returned to the room, everyone was already asleep. I tiptoed to my bed and lay down without even changing my clothes.

***

The following morning, I tried my best not to think about the events of the last night. In the meantime, I became paranoid of the airplanes that continued circling around our site. At some point, I became so scared that I dropped my bucket right next to the sifter and began to run. 

“Where are you going?” George asked me as I was trying to find the bomb shelter.

“To the shelter.”

“Why? There isn’t any threat at the moment.”

“Look, there’s a plane!” I pointed to the sky.

He looked up quietly and laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I asked, getting angry.

“It’s the United Airlines.”

Then we both laughed out loud. He probably thought I was being silly.

After lunch, I considered my options of what I could do during my spare time. I no longer felt safe enough to walk to the beach, so I decided to check out the pool instead. At the lobby, I run into Karen, who was wearing a floral sundress and a pair of flip-flops.

“Hey, Rebecca. Want to join us at the pool?”

“Oh, I’m actually heading in that direction.”

When we reached the area, Janice and Madeline were already relaxing on the sun beds, drinking cocktails. I decided to order one as well.

“I heard they are going to move us to the north,” Janice said, running fingers through her hair.

“Really?” I asked, unsure if that was good or bad news.

“It’s totally true,” Madeline said. “It’s becoming unsafe in Ashkelon. To be honest, I’m getting sick of these alarms constantly going off.”

“Me too,” Janice said, nodding.

“What about Eilat and Beit Guvrin?” Karen asked. “Weren’t we supposed to check out car rentals tomorrow?”

“Do you honestly think we would want to do that after yesterday?” Madeline sounded slightly annoyed. If there was anyone in greater denial than I, it was Karen.

“Well, I was hoping for a safe window perhaps,” Karen replied.

“No way!” Madeline protested. “I no longer want to leave our hotel, let alone drive somewhere. Like, what if we get lost and end up in Gaza?”

“Hey, ladies, may we join you?” I heard someone ask. I looked to the side and saw George and Luke standing with cans of beer in their hands.

“Go ahead,” Karen replied.

The guys took two adjacent sun beds.

“We were just talking about the possibility of our dig being moved,” Janice began.

Suddenly, the alarm went off.

“What the fuck!” Luke screamed, bolting up and spilling his beer.

Everything happened in less than a minute. Everyone started running towards the shelter. I dropped my drink and ran after the rest. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse all the hotel personnel, from receptionists to bartenders, drop their work and run for their lives.

As soon as we reached the shelter, I heard the sound of an explosion. Everyone gasped. Some began crying and shaking. Relieved to still be alive, I hugged the closest person standing next to me, who happened to be George. He held me tight in response. Perhaps he, too, was experiencing this rare moment of gratitude and was eager to come into a contact with another human being. It was during this moment of despair that I realized we were all in this together.

***

The rumours about the evacuation were confirmed during the pottery washing session, when nobody could concentrate on anything other than the last alarm. Most of us were fiddling with shards and discussing news. Many volunteers were still trying to recuperate from the aftershock of the afternoon siren. Before the session ended, the directors declared they had an important announcement to make.

“Recent events have forced us to reconsider the Leon Levy program,” Lawrence Stager began.

Whispers passed around the room. I heard someone say something about getting a university credit.

“Ashkelon is under direct fire from Gaza,” he continued.

Everyone, including myself, gasped. We all knew the truth, but hearing it from someone else had a stronger impact.

“However, our team is still committed to teaching its student volunteers about the archaeology of Israel. Therefore, we are moving our dig to the north.”

Madeline and Janice breathed with relief. I could imagine what this course meant for them, especially since I’d heard that tuition fees for American universities were insanely high. I was relieved, too. Moving to a different location would be the solution I needed to keep my parents’ and Jason’s worries at bay.

“We are leaving tomorrow at seven sharp. Please be ready,” he declared.

“What are we going to do?” Carol asked.

“We will take a mini tour in the Galilean region and excavate in Megiddo. By the way, those who are not getting a course credit are welcome to stay but aren’t obliged to.”

“Does it mean we can return home?” Jocelyn asked.

“If you wish,” Lawrence replied. “The rest of you are staying in Megiddo.” He looked directly at the Harvard students. “Does anyone know anything about the site?”

“I do!” I instinctively raised my hand.

“Can you please tell us what you know?”

I cleared my throat and began speaking: “Megiddo was a very important site in the ancient times, as it was a trade route connecting Egypt and Assyria. Several historic battles happened there.”

Everyone looked at me in amazement, making me feel proud of my spiel.

“Thank you, Rebecca. Do you remember which battles?”

“No, sorry.” I lowered my eyes in an attempt to hide my embarrassment. After all, I wasn’t as educated as I wanted to be. 

“That’s all right. No need to apologize. Before you go, are there any questions?”

“What are some other sites we are going to visit?” I asked, unable to hide my curiosity. 

“You will get more information about the itinerary tomorrow. For now, all I can say is there will be some interesting stops along the way.”

“All right, thanks.”

As soon as the pottery washing was over, I decided to share the exciting news with my family. First, I dialled Jason’s number.

“Hi, Rebecca! I’m so happy to hear from you,” he said as soon as he heard my voice.

“How is everything?”

“Busy as always. Only a week and a half left before our vacation. Can’t wait.”

“How do you feel about coming here after everything that’s been happening recently?”

A few days ago, a rocket landed near Ben Gurion Airport, causing all flights to get cancelled. Even though they resumed twenty-four hours later, I started doubting our vacation plans.

“It’s too late for me to do anything. Besides, I can’t wait to see you, Becky!”

“Aren’t you worried about the news?”

“Of course I am. But like I said, it’s way too late to cancel the tickets.”

“So far, most of the rockets have been repelled by the Iron Dome, but it’s still so scary when the alarm goes off.”

“Tell me about it. I don’t even want to watch TV anymore, knowing that the love of my life is in a warzone.”

“Guess what? I’m calling you to let you know that I won’t be living in a warzone anymore.”

“What do you mean?” He sounded a bit dazed.

“Our team is departing north tomorrow. We will be working on a different site for the last week.”

“Really? What site?”

“Megiddo. Do you remember it?”

“Of course I do! Wasn’t it the one with a long staircase leading to a dark tunnel?”

“Yes, it was.”

“It was also where you regretted wearing flip-flops.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Then we went to Haifa to see the Baha’i Gardens, and they wouldn’t let us in because of your sleeveless T-shirt.”

“Come on, Jason. We were on our honeymoon! What was I supposed to wear? An old lady’s gown?”

“You are funny.” He laughed.

“Anyway, I’ll text you tomorrow as soon as we arrive in Megiddo.”

“Have a safe ride, Becky.”

“And you have a nice last week of work.”

“Goodnight.”

I wanted to dial my mother’s number but decided to send a brief email explaining our change of plans. I also cc’ed my father and Erin to keep them posted about our group’s whereabouts. Then I proceeded with packing my suitcase. Rachel walked in and started packing her stuff without saying a word to me. Janice and Madeline joined us a few minutes later.

“I hope there won’t be any alarms tonight.” Janice finally broke the silence. “I’m getting sick of constantly running to the bomb shelter. What if I’m washing my hair at the moment?”

“I agree. Soon we will be away from all this craziness,” Rachel said. It was the first time in the longest while that I heard her speak.

“Maybe we should sleep with our clothes and makeup on,” Janice suggested, “just in case an alarm goes off.”

“No need to be crazy,” Madeline said. “If it goes off, everyone will be wearing pyjamas, and no one will care.”

“I agree,” I said, trying to imagine George in his boxers. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

I grabbed my towel and my pyjamas and proceeded to the bathroom. As I was removing my black mascara and eye shadow, all I could hope was that I wouldn’t have to run for my life at this precise moment. Perhaps running in pyjamas in the middle of a night was acceptable. Having mascara smudged all over one’s face mixed up with makeup remover would be a bit too extreme.

“I’m not going to the shower,” Janice protested after I stepped out. “I don’t want everyone to see me in a bathrobe.”

“Come on, just do it!” Madeline nudged her.

“Nope, I’m scared.”

“Come on. It won’t ring this time,” I found myself saying.

We ended up laughing and pushing each other under the cold shower. Rachel slowly joined us, for our gaiety was contagious. We fooled around with the shampoo and the toothpaste, challenging each other to take the risk. At last, we were too exhausted to continue on and were soon sleeping soundly, oblivious to all the danger that was surrounding us.

Chapter 12

Staying in bed past four-thirty began to feel like a sleep-in. When I woke up around six the next morning, I was feeling better than ever. I quietly proceeded to the bathroom, where I splashed cold water on my face. In the mirror, I saw a girl in her middle twenties with shiny chestnut hair and glowing skin kissed by the Mediterranean sun. I put on the first thing I found in the suitcase, which was a bright orange dress decorated with funky beads. Then I slipped into my sandals and quietly walked out the door.

I knew that going outside alone wasn’t the wisest thing to do in light of the recent threat, but I had to walk the streets of Ashkelon for the very last time. The moment I stepped into my favourite alley, I saw the outlines of flowers and trees basking in the rays of the morning sun. The air was still chilly from the night, and the morning breeze from the sea felt welcoming.

As I walked down the street, I felt both happy and sad. I was sad about being forced to leave Ashkelon so early but also happy because the journey wasn’t over yet. The evacuation turned our project in a new direction, and I had a strange feeling that something good would come out of it.

Having removed my sandals, I entered the sandy area and walked straight to the sea. The waves were still strong after the night. As I stepped into the salty water, a sense of calmness and peace overcame me. Who could tell I stood all alone in a city threatened by rocket fire? 

Suddenly, I realized I didn’t need anyone to find happiness. Surely, I loved my soul mate, Jason, and looked forward to seeing him after the dig. I had a loving family who cared about me. Yet I felt perfectly complete on my own. This realization was frightening and yet empowering.

I walked back to the hotel slowly, hoping to stop at Shlomo’s booth and order the last drink. However, it wasn’t open yet. I said a quick prayer wishing him safety. Over the last week and a half, I became so attached to the city and its people that I couldn’t imagine anything bad happening to anyone. I could only hope the Iron Dome would continue repelling rockets until the conflict was over.

By the time I returned to the hotel, my roommates were already up and getting ready for breakfast. Madeline and Janice were discussing their final course project while Rachel was quietly applying her makeup in the bathroom.

“Good morning,” I said, walking into the room.

“Hey, Becky. Where have you have you been?” Madeline asked.

“Just walked outside to get some fresh air,” I replied. “Cannot sleep past six anymore.”

Janice laughed. “I’m starting to have the same issue,” she said. “Maybe I’ll finally transform into an early bird.”

“Well, there isn’t much of a choice when you are in archaeology,” I commented. “Anyway, should we get going?”

“Definitely,” Madeline replied.

During breakfast, I learned that Gloria, Jocelyn, and Carol were planning to return to the States. Because of all the threats, they could no longer enjoy the program. I asked them if they regretted the turn of the events, but all of them told me the evacuation was for the best.

“I can’t wait to see my husband and my kids,” Jocelyn admitted.

“Me too,” Carol added. “Better to go home before it gets worse.”

“I agree,” Gloria said.

“Well, I’m going to miss you all,” I said. 

By the time we finished our coffees, the airport shuttle was already waiting for them outside. We shared our last group hug in the lobby and wished each other the best.

“Goodbye and have a safe stay in Megiddo,” Carol said.

“And remember that you’ve got a brilliant future,” Jocelyn added.

“Thanks, Jocelyn. I’m flattered.”

“No kidding. We all heard you speak about Megiddo last night.”

“I wish my boss would appreciate it,” I said, thinking about how little my knowledge meant in the real world.

“If you are not happy with your job, then change it,” Gloria advised, making me wonder if she’d overheard my conversation with Karen the other day.

“Easier said than done.” I sighed. 

It didn’t take long for our bus to arrive. As we were taking off, I looked outside the window and said my silent goodbye to Ashkelon. Soon the city faded in the distance.

I hoped that the rest of my adventure would be free from sirens and evacuations. Fortunately, the bus ride went uninterrupted except for one bathroom break in the middle of the journey, during which we had ten minutes to roam around a gas station and buy snacks. I decided to get a pack of Bissli.

“How was your night?” George asked me as I was paying the cashier.

“It was OK. Thanks for asking.”

“I could barely sleep.”

“Fear of the missile threat?” I asked while opening the pack.

“Yep. Too much adrenaline rush every day. The war is sick.”

“Want some?” I offered him a few Bissli.

“Sure. I think we should get going.”

We walked back into the half-empty bus talking about the dig. I told him about my hopes to come back to Ashkelon another year and to finish the fieldwork I had started earlier. He, in turn, told me more about his research project with Daniel Master.

Soon enough, we arrived at our kibbutz near the new site. As I stepped outside, the air felt quite hot but much milder than in Ashkelon. Having looked around, I saw a nice, cozy village surrounded by small houses. While we were registering for our rooms at the reception, I was pleased to learn that I no longer had to share a room with Rachel. Instead, I would be placed with two local volunteers, whom I had yet to meet.

“Hi, I’m Michelle,” one of the girls said as we were trying to open our door.

“Nice to meet you. I’m Rebecca. You can call me Becky.”

“I’m Katie.” Another girl joined us.

Not unlike at the Dan Gardens Hotel, the lunch at this kibbutz was organized in a buffet style and had an excellent selection of Mediterranean salads, hot plates, and desserts.

We had a brief orientation after lunch. I learned that the kibbutz was housing at least two more groups from different excavation digs. One was from Jaffa, and similarly to the Leon Levy team, it had to be moved away from the conflict zone. Another group was from Megiddo proper, and my new roommates were part of it. I got to meet Israel Finkelstein and Eric Cline, the two prominent scholars who were directing the Megiddo Excavations. The Jaffa Project was directed by Aaron Burke and Martin Peilstöcker. Our own directors told us more about the upcoming tour, which was to take place next day in the Golan Heights. They also informed us they would be leaving the kibbutz for Jerusalem in a couple of days.

After the orientation, I briefly checked out the pool and spent some time at the lobby texting Jason and my parents. Everyone urged me to be careful and to stay safe. In reality, I was only an hour and a half away from Ashkelon. Yet somehow, I felt secluded from the danger.

*****

“Do you want to go out tonight?” Katie suggested after dinner. “This place has got a great bar.”

“Sure,” I replied. Since I didn’t have to wake up with the sunrise for at least two more days, I decided to give it a try.

“Then we’ll see you at the lobby,” Michelle said excitedly. “We are walking there together.”

“I’ll be ready in a few.” 

At the bar, I met Karen, Janice, Madeline, and some other volunteers from Ashkelon. Quite surprisingly, George was not among them. We chose the biggest table available and quickly ordered drinks. One of the volunteers laid cards on the table and suggested playing them for a while. I was never good at card games, so I followed blindly whatever everyone was doing. To my surprise, I won a couple of times. Then we played another game, during which each person had to say, “Never ever did I…” and make a statement. The rest had to listen and fold their fingers if the opposite applied to them.

“Never ever had I lived in Canada,” Karen started. I folded one finger.

“Never ever did I smoke pot,” Madeline continued. Two thirds of the group folded their fingers.

The statements went on. The drunker we got, the funnier our statements became.

“Never ever did I have a penis,” Claire declared.

“Never ever did I have testicles,” Karen continued.

“Never ever did I go to a jail,” Luke said. 

When my turn came, I quickly thought of what I could say and decided to go with something simple. So I said that I’d never lived in the United States.

In the meantime, I thought about all the things I had never done in my life. I had never skipped a class, smoked a cigarette, or had a one-night stand. The list could go on forever. At the back of my mind, I began to wonder if I had missed out on all the fun people often had in their early twenties. I chucked this thought and went on with the game.

A few games and drinks later, we all dispersed to our rooms. Although no one was terribly drunk, we were collectively worried about missing the morning alarm.

“I hope we can wake up on time tomorrow,” I said, entering our room.

“Are you going away?” Michelle asked.

“Yes. We’re going on a tour for two days.”

“Nice.”

“I think we had a great time,” Katie said cheerfully, taking out her blanket. 

“I agree.” I smiled.

*****

I ran into George at the lobby in the morning and immediately asked him why he had missed our outing at the bar. He always came off as an outgoing person.

“I had an important meeting with Daniel,” he said, looking serious. “By the time we were done, I was too pooped to go out.”

“I see.”

“By the way, I’m leaving tomorrow.”

“Really?” I asked, feeling a mixture of sadness and relief. Although I enjoyed George’s company, his leaving would certainly be for the best. 

“Yes. We are going to work at the Albright Institute. You know where it is, right?”

Of course, I knew everything about the Albright Institute, the oldest research center for archaeology in the Middle East. Throughout my undergraduate years, I’d been dreaming about visiting it someday. I even tried to go there during our stay in Jerusalem four years ago, but the tour schedule got in the way and we never made it.

“What are you planning to do?”

“Lots of things. We’ve got tons of findings to enter into the system, reports to write, articles to publish. It will be a busy week.”

“I wish I could be part of it.” I sighed.

“Let’s go,” one of the tour guides urged us. “The bus is waiting.”

Thus we embarked on our journey to the Golan Heights.

Chapter 13

Our first stop was at Gamla, the ancient Jewish site famous for its role in the Great Revolt. During the first century CE, the town’s dwellers rebelled against the Romans and fought against Vespasian’s legions. In spite of an initial victory, Gamla eventually lost the final battle. As sad as the history can be, Gamla is a great site to visit.

The moment we received our maps, I became alarmed from seeing an area marked with mines.

“What is it?” I asked, pointing at the map segment that looked menacing.

“Don’t worry; we won’t be there,” George tried to reassure me.

“How do you know?” I was still unconvinced.

“Look, this is where we are now, and this is the mined area. We won’t even have time to reach it. Even if we did, we’d recognize the signs.”

“All right, kids, you should get going,” the bus driver told us. “Please be back in forty minutes.”

Having looked around, we realized we were the only people still standing at the entrance. Everyone else was already making a way through the site.

“Have you been to Golan Heights before?” I asked, while entering the hiking area.

“Only once, when I was still working at Tell es-Safi.”

“I see. So which places have you seen?”

“This one, Banias, Katzrin, and a couple of more. Anyway, let’s get going. We only have forty minutes to reach the Hasmonean quarter and come back.”

The hike through the site was a bit strenuous but totally worth it. We passed through a narrow trail that lay between lush, green hills. From afar, I could hear a faint sound of a waterfall hidden between the hills. The scenery hardly looked like Israel as you’d imagine from tourist commercials that always show desert and camels. It was so green, so peaceful, and almost surreal.

“Boy, it looks more like Scotland,” I noted, looking at the hills.

“Except in Scotland you hardly ever wear shorts,” George commented.

We laughed and continued walking. By the time we reached the ruins, I was close to fainting. Even excavating in Ashkelon was easier. After all, the hike was mostly climbing up under the scorching sun, while the archaeological work was done under a tent. I was glad I didn’t forget water, for without it, I wouldn’t survive.

“Sometimes I wonder why no one had written a paper about life in the antiquity without air conditioners,” I joked. That question had been bugging me since our trip to Eilat.

“Well, maybe it will be the topic for your paper.” George looked dead serious.

“I’ve been done with school for quite a while.”

“Never say never.”

A few photos and another trail later, we were back to the bus. On our way out of the park, I saw a few prehistoric structures known as megaliths, which looked like miniature versions of Stonehenge.

Our next stop was at the Nimrod Fortress, which was built in the thirteenth century by the nephew of Saladin. Historians believe it played a strategic role during the Sixth Crusade. Although this site also involved a lot of walking, the walk was much easier because the road was paved. Besides, the narrow stairs and corridors of the fortress provided everyone with a good respite from the afternoon heat.

As we were emerging from the fortress, I saw my three former roommates walking together with Luke and Karen.

“Hey, George! Where have you been?” Rachel exclaimed, running towards him.

“Hi!” he replied briskly.

“What’s wrong with you, honey?” To be honest, her constant hovering over him was a bit annoying.

“Want to take a group picture?” I suggested.

“Sure,” Janice replied.

We all gathered in front of a small fence with a castle in the background and looked at each other. My eyes met George’s, and I immediately felt those stubborn butterflies again. At least he would be gone tomorrow.

“You stand here,” Rachel commanded, pushing me aside.

“I can take the photos,” Madeline said. “Give me your cameras.”

“Oh, that’s so nice of you!” Karen exclaimed.

“Here, you can take mine.” The rest of us passed her our cameras. 

“Let me take a photo of you with the rest of the group,” I suggested after she finished.

“Thanks!”

“We should friend each other on Facebook,” Janice said after I finished taking the last photo. 

After the Nimrod Fortress, we stopped at the Banias Springs Park, an archaeological site, also known as Caesarea Philippi, located at the foot of Mount Hermon. According to the Christian tradition, it was the site where St. Peter received his ordination to lead the Church. It’s also famous for a pagan shrine dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Today, one can still find small grottos carved out of rock that used to be mini altars. The actual park consists of small waterfalls and springs, one of which happens to be the source for the Jordan River. As soon as the grottos came into sight, I felt a twinge of excitement, for it was one of the places Jason and I had visited during our honeymoon.

Right next to the park entrance was a small picnic area, where we had our lunch. It wasn’t until I saw rows of salads and pita wraps that I realized how hungry I felt. Sometimes, sightseeing could make me forget about everything in the world, including food.

A group of Muslim women with kids was sitting at a table nearby and chatting happily in Arabic. One of them smiled at us and said, “Hello.” I replied with “Ahlan,” another word I knew in their language. The scene reminded me of summer picnics in Toronto parks, where political conflicts existed only in newspapers.

At last, we proceeded to the park to explore the ruins and enjoy the natural wonders of the Banias Springs. Tired of my old sticky running shoes, I took them off and slipped on the flip-flops, which I had shoved into my backpack last night. It felt quite refreshing not to heave those boots on my feet. After taking a few photos of the shrines, I followed the road leading to the springs. For a few minutes, I was completely alone in a dark tunnel of trees. Then I saw a group of girls from our team walking together with Luke and George.

“Look, this is the starting point of the Jordan River,” I announced. “We should all take a photo in it!”

“Let’s do that!” George jumped in.

In front of us was a place that could be easily mistaken for a cave. A small area of water was surrounded by low-hanging branches that cast a shadow on anyone who entered it. Having removed his shoes, George walked into the water, and I followed him. The water felt pleasantly cold against my skin. So here I was, flip-flops off my feet, walking into the source of the Jordan River, holding onto the branches, and trying my best to maintain balance. All of a sudden, I lost my grip and fell into the water.

For a split second, everything went dark. Then I opened my eyes and saw George, who was splashing in the water, trying to help me out. My first thought was about the camera, which I had luckily entrusted to Karen before entering the stream.

“Are you OK?” George asked.

“Better than in Ashkelon’s bomb shelters,” I replied, trying to shake off streams of water flowing down my clothes.

Suddenly, a hysterical laughter took over. Nothing could be more ridiculous than this incident. Karen, Madeline, and the rest picked up on my gaiety and also started to laugh. George tried to hold it in, but the laughter was contagious. We ended up fumbling towards the bus all wet and giggly.

The bus driver quietly drove us to Majdal al-Shams, a Druze town, and stopped by a small market.

“You have twenty minutes to find a change of clothes,” he commanded.

“What are we going to buy here?” I asked, eyeing a row of abayas and hijabs.

“Whatever will prevent us from ruining the bus seats,” George said.

“Now he’s trying to be funny.” I playfully poked him.

Having looked around, I saw nothing that would fit. All the modern-looking clothes were either too big or too small. Only one dress was of my size, and it was a black abaya accessorized by a white scarf. There were more options for George, who ultimately bought a pair of sports pants and a T-shirt. Not having much of a  choice, I bought the dress and immediately started looking for a bathroom to change in. Sensing my concern, the seller asked me if I needed help. After I told him I was looking for a ladies’ room, he explained how to get to the closest coffee shop. George and I parted at the entrance, agreeing to meet in a minute.

“Please don’t let the bus leave without me,” I pleaded. “I have no idea how to get back to Megiddo alone.”

“Of course I won’t leave you, Becky.” The way he pronounced my name made my insides melt.

The entire time I was changing, my mind was focused on one thing—not to drop anything into the dirty toilet, which probably hadn’t been cleaned for ages. I still had a backpack full of things, such as running shoes, water, and, most importantly, the camera. If only I had packed extra clothes! 

When I came out, George was waiting faithfully at the entrance, looking even better in his new clothes. 

“You don’t look that bad,” he said, smiling.

“No comments. Let’s go.”

As soon as we boarded the bus, everyone clapped. I probably looked ridiculous in my long dress, but what choice did I have? So I tried to laugh with everyone else.

Our very last stop for the day was at Tel Dan, the site I’d been looking forward to seeing for the entire day. Despite feeling uncomfortable in my new, exotic clothes and having a few bruises from stones, I still enjoyed exploring the Israelite temple. I wondered what Jason and my Facebook friends would say about the clothes I was forced to wear during the last photo session. I would probably have to write a note explaining what had happened earlier.

In the meantime, George and I chatted about the structure of the temple and the Aramaic stela, which had been discovered in the area. It was one of the few documents that mentioned King David’s name.

“Do you think the stela gives enough evidence about King David’s existence?” I asked.

“I don’t think so,” George answered frankly. “While I don’t deny the possibility, I don’t see enough evidence here.”

“But the stela clearly mentions the House of David.”

“So what? It could be anyone’s name, not necessarily King David’s.”

“True.”

“I think the archaeologists are often too eager to find something related to the Bible. As a result, they get excited too quickly and start ignoring the facts.”

To be honest, I always had a hard time accepting the fact that most of the Biblical narrative didn’t match with the actual evidence from the sites. With time, I learned to accept the facts and to acknowledge how little we knew about the past.

“However, absence of evidence doesn’t always mean nonexistence of a certain person or an event,” I suddenly added.

“Like I said, I’m not denying anything. I’m just being critical.”

I felt his gaze and wanted to move closer. Instead, I moved away and pretended to be photographing the sacrificial area. I could no longer deny my attraction to him. Somehow, the incident at the Banias Springs brought us closer. We couldn’t stop talking to each other on our way to the kibbutz.

“So, where do you think the Israelites came from?” he asked at some point.

“Well, I’m not sure, but there are many theories about their origins,” I replied, trying to recall what I had learned at the Biblical archaeology course back at the U of T.

“They were obviously the Canaanites!”

“You think they were the same group that existed in the Late Bronze Age?”

“Of course! The same language, material culture, and even the same religion.”

“Well, I vaguely remember those theories, but, like you, I’m also being critical. You can’t believe in everything the books say.”

There was a moment of silence. Then he dropped a bomb. “I think you should seriously consider going to a grad school,” he said.

“Maybe one day.” I shrugged.

“You should consider it now before you have kids.”

“Maybe you are right,” I blurted out. “To be honest, I’d love to spend my life working with artefacts.”

“Then what is stopping you?”

“I don’t know.” 

He later took out his music and offered me one headphone. At the moment, “Zombie” by Cranberries was playing. It was followed by a few songs from the Beatles, Queen, and Alanis Morissette. I suspected my taste in music wasn’t as refined as his, but I felt like sharing a few of my favourite songs anyway. So I offered him my iPod and put on “Yafa Sheli” by Eyal Golan. We later listed to “Kmo Sinderela” by Sarit Hadad and “Halom Matok” by Moshik Afia.

“Wow, you know Hebrew music,” he commented. “That’s amazing!”

“That’s all I’ve been listening to lately.”

Jason had known my music preferences for a long time and was already used to them. We even went to a few Israeli concerts in Toronto. To new people, my playlist still appeared a bit exotic. I hardly ever talked about my music to anyone, except for a few people I could trust. The moment I showed George my playlist, I felt like I had revealed a hidden part of me.

“Will I see you tomorrow?” I asked him as the bus was approaching the kibbutz.

“I believe so,” he replied. “And maybe even after tomorrow.”

“Aren’t you going to the Albright Institute?” I asked, confused.

“Yep.”

“So how will I see you then?”

“I said ‘maybe.’” He gave me a wicked grin.

I wondered what he could mean by his words, but decided to drop the subject. I was certain that his leaving would help me to put my mind back on track.

As soon as we reached the room, all I wanted was to remove that dress and to take a lengthy shower. Being sticky for several hours straight was no fun. When I walked inside, all my roommates were still away. So I grabbed one of the new towels our cleaners had left for us, fished out some fresh clothes, and went straight to the bathroom.

I heard the door open a few minutes later when I was lying on my bed, relaxing. Katie and Michelle were chatting happily. I considered telling them about the incident, but decided against it. It was enough that the entire Leon Levy team saw me drenched in the waters of the Jordan River.

“Hey, how was your day?” Katie asked me.

“It was great,” I replied while getting up. “You won’t believe how many sites we saw today.”

“Did you go the Golan Heights?” Michelle asked.

“Yes.”

“Our group went there last week.”

“There is one place where you can actually set your foot on Lebanon,” Katie added.

“No kidding!” I exclaimed. “I want to know where it is.”

“Hmm, do you remember the name?” Katie turned to Michelle.

“Is it Tel Dan?”

“What? We just came from there! How come nobody told us?” I exclaimed furiously. I could have set my foot on the lands of Phoenicia and Aram without getting caught.

“We don’t know if it’s true,” Michelle said. “I doubt the border between the two countries at war would be left unsupervised.”

“I agree. It’s probably a rumour,” I said, trying to console myself.

“Let’s go eat something,” Katie suggested. “I’m hungry.”

We quickly left the room and walked towards the cafeteria, where everything was already set up. The three of us dispersed, and I found myself sitting with two of my former roommates.

“So, do you like him?” Janice asked at some point.

“Who?” I said, pretending to be oblivious to her question.

“George, of course! I’ve noticed it from the very first day.”

“I think he likes you, too,” Madeline added.

“Look, I’m married! Just because we talk doesn’t mean something is going on between us.”

“Not when you are spending every minute together,” Janice commented. “Besides, we all saw what happened at the Banias Springs today.”

“It was just a crazy mishap. I felt so embarrassed later!”

“No need to be. It happened to almost all of us at some point.”

“I know. We’ve all been in funny situations.”

I was happy our conversation was steering in a different direction. If I felt anything for George, I didn’t want to admit it to anyone, especially to Janice and Madeline.

“Now I’ve got a souvenir from Majdal al-Shams,” I joked. “I doubt I’ll ever wear it again unless I decide to visit Egypt or Jordan someday.”

We had one more day of travelling before starting the Megiddo excavation. Although I would rather spend the next day relaxing at the kibbutz, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to hike the Arbel cliffs and see Beit Alfa along with Beit Shean. I had to go, even if it meant putting forth extra effort. So I decided to head straight to the room after dinner and get ready for the day two of sightseeing. This time, I was planning to throw in an extra T-shirt just to be on the safe side.

“Where are you going?” George asked me as I left the cafeteria.

“To my room. I need to prepare for tomorrow’s tour.”

“I’ve got a surprise you might like.” He winked at me.

“What do you mean?” I was truly confused.

“Would you like to join our team at the Albright?”

“Say that again?”

“We want you to join us at the Albright Institute in Jerusalem,” he repeated. 

I couldn’t believe my ears. “Isn’t it the type of work meant only for qualified people?” I asked.

“Yes, it is. However, knowing how much you’d love to work in a lab, I convinced them to let you participate. Besides, your Hebrew could help us. We need some work translated into English, and everyone is overwhelmed right now.”

“OK,” I said quietly, still trying to digest the news.

“Do you want to participate?” he pressed on. “You don’t have to. It’s only a suggestion.”

“Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand anything?” There was no way I was being invited to work at the research center of my dreams.

“Yes, I’m sure. If you really want to be part of our team, you are more than welcome to join us.”

“I do!” I tried hard not to jump from excitement.

“Then you should get ready for tomorrow morning. We are leaving at seven-thirty.”

“I will.”

Suddenly, it all made sense. Before leaving Ashkelon, I knew something good would happen in the next few days, but I wasn’t sure what it would be. When we first arrived at Megiddo, I had a strange feeling that I shouldn’t completely unpack my suitcase. Now I knew where the feeling was coming from. No wonder George was so ambiguous when I asked if I would see him again.

I couldn’t resist texting my entire family about the news and telling everyone about the new plan. Nor could I resist updating my status on Facebook. The opportunity at the Albright Institute felt like a small victory after a chain of failures.

In my second year at university, I tried to get a campus job as an archaeology lab assistant. My application was rejected because, according to the lab director, I lacked proper experience. I later learned that the role was given to a graduate student and felt devastated. How was I supposed to get any experience without getting a chance? After graduation, I wanted to work with artefacts at a museum, but it never happened either. Fast forward several years and many more miles, I was an inch away from living my dream. Never mind I wasn’t getting paid for the work. Never mind the opportunity would last for one week only. The thought of working side by side with scholars, handling ancient artefacts, could bring me nothing but a big smile.

Chapter 14

“You don’t understand! This bitch is winning!” I heard Rachel scream into her cell phone while walking to the cafeteria next morning. “She’s married, and she’s trying hard to snatch him away. Oops, I think she heard me. Bye now.” She put down her phone and started walking along. 

“Good morning,” I said casually.

She didn’t say anything but looked at me with her red, puffy eyes. For a moment, I wondered if I should confront her about the situation. Perhaps I needed to tell her I was sorry about the way everything had turned out. However, I couldn’t come up with anything that wouldn’t sound awkward. So we continued walking side by side without exchanging a single word.

During breakfast, I bid farewell to everyone, including Lara, Claire, Luke, Karen, Janice, Madeline, and my new roommates, Katie and Michelle. I caught a glimpse of Rachel, who was sitting at a distant table by herself, looking defeated. I still couldn’t believe we were practically competing against each other.

“Best of luck to everyone,” I said while going around the circle and offering hugs.

“Let’s keep in touch online.” Katie handed me a paper with her Facebook email written on it.

“We’ll see you at the reunion,” Madeline added, referring to the final dinner the group was planning to have in Tel Aviv.

Over time, I had become attached to our group, and by now, I was able to imagine what living on a campus would be like. I would probably make tons of friends, and some friendships would go way past university years.

Having said my goodbyes, I grabbed my suitcase and boarded the bus. The most exciting part of the journey was about to begin.

The road to Jerusalem was quick and yet marvellous. At the beginning of the ride, I could only see plain, yellow fields and small towns. Then, all of a sudden, our bus became surrounded by valleys and hills covered with lush, green trees. No wonder this part of Israel is called the Hill Country, the original place of the Biblical Israelites. Who could imagine that the other side of the city was surrounded by desert? I tried taking as many photos as possible, but the angle would always shift, leaving me with a bunch of blurry images that failed to convey the beauty of the scenery.

As soon as we entered the city, I began looking for familiar places and spotted the tower of the Park Hotel, where Jason and I had stayed last time. The bus drove through a few busy streets and finally arrived at our destination, the Albright Institute. I was shocked to find it was located in East Jerusalem, which was easily recognizable by shops and houses with Arabic letters and hanging cords. Having opened the bus window, I smelled spices wafting through the air and heard sounds of darbuka coming from a shop nearby.

In theory, I had nothing against this part of the city. However, I somehow had to explain to my family where I was staying. My mother had asked me to send the address the night before, and I did so, assuming the Institute was located somewhere in the west end. I could only hope that no one would check it on the map.

As we stepped out, I saw a gate leading to a beautiful two-storey building surrounded by a small garden. Having picked up our belongings, we proceeded to the Institute’s guest hostel.

“Here is your key,” the hotel owner said.

Toda rabbah,” I replied.

Bevaksha.” He looked a bit surprised. My language skills had a strange effect on the locals.

My room was small but clean and cozy. Although there were two beds, no roommates were in sight. The idea of having personal space was a welcoming change. After taking a quick shower, I proceeded to the basement where our group was supposed to meet.

“Do you know where we are going?” George asked me as we were walking down the stairs.

“No, I don’t.”

“Let me show you.” He grabbed my hand and led me to a small room with dozens of boxes lying around and waiting to be opened. Some staff members were bringing in more.

“So, what do I do?” I asked, immediately regretting my question. The best tactic would be to follow everyone else’s lead.

“We’ll have to make drawings and input data into the system,” I heard someone reply. “For now, we just need to set up the basement.” A lady in her late forties or early fifties was standing next to me. Her name badge read, “Helen Campbell, the University of Chicago.”

“Let’s get those boxes moving.” George gave me a light nudge.

We worked for a few hours, setting up the work area, checking computers and other equipment, and organizing artefacts from oldest to newest. Although the work was relatively easy, I still had no idea how I managed to survive the afternoon without embarrassing myself. I had a tendency to be clumsy when doing something for the first time.

“See you all tomorrow at seven,” Helen Campbell announced in the end. I was about to leave when I heard my name called. “Rebecca, can I see you for a moment?” she asked.

“Sure, Dr. Campbell,” I said.

“Call me Helen.” She smiled. “Is it true that you speak Hebrew?”

“I do.” I wondered if she would ask me to put Hebrew labels on the shards.

“We have an article that needs to be translated into English. Would you be comfortable doing that?”

For a second, I fell silent. The task she was offering wouldn’t be an easy one. However, I had always wanted to work with a Hebrew text. Back at the U of T, I had even considered taking an independent study course that would involve translating a Hebrew novel into English. Now I had the opportunity to fulfill my wish.

“Sure,” I said, without even thinking twice. 

“Can you start on it tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“Perfect! See you at dinner then.”

The moment she walked away, the reality hit me hard. OK, perhaps my Hebrew was good enough to ask for directions or order falafel. I could definitely maintain a decent conversation about music and politics. However, I wasn’t sure about my ability to understand, let alone translate a scholarly article. Besides, I only had one week to get it done.

I weighed my options. I could still run after Helen and let her know I’d rather work with the rest of the team on the artefacts. Surely, there would be nothing hard about keying dates and numbers into the system. Or I could give it a shot and decide later if I wanted to continue. I chose the second option.

The best thing to do was to relax for the rest of the day and not dwell on the situation. So I chose to take a short walk around the garden and enjoy the sight of cypress and palm trees surrounding the building. The courtyard had a set of tables and a small pond at the centre. After roaming through the garden for a while, I decided to check out the library.

For some odd reason, it reminded me of the Pontifical Institute, a U of T library, which housed a rare collection of books on medieval studies. Although visitors usually weren’t allowed inside, I had managed to get in once by claiming I needed to consult a book for an essay. I could still remember the excitement I had felt from holding an oversized two-hundred-year-old book in my hands.

Having browsed through different documents, I found a publication on Ekron, another Philistine site. I was casually flipping through the pages when I heard a familiar voice. When I turned around, George was standing next to me and peering into my book.

“I passed this site a few times when I was working in Tell es-Safi,” he said. “I was also part of the team that worked on the famous inscription, but only briefly.” 

“Cool!” By now, nothing he said would surprise me.

“How do you like it so far?”

“It’s all right, but I’m a bit nervous about tomorrow.” 

“I hear you, Becky. This week won’t be an easy one. I’ve just talked to Daniel, and it looks like we’ll be slaving for a while. Well, the thing is, you’ll get used to it.”

“At least you won’t be translating a Hebrew article into English.”

“Did they give you the article?” He looked excited.

“Yes. Wait, was it you?”

“I simply mentioned you know the language when trying to convince them to take you on board. The rest was up to them to decide.”

Now I recalled George mentioning the translations yesterday after dinner. Never could I imagine that I would be actually asked to translate something.

“Well, thank you, George,” I said, sarcasm being palpable in my voice. 

“What’s the matter, Becky? I thought it would be a good way for you to build your CV.”

“And what makes you think I’m applying anywhere?”

“Just in case you decide to apply to a grad school, I mean. Plus, you can always count on me for help.”

“How are you planning to help?”

“Well, I cannot do the actual translation, but I can always help you to put the words together. I’ve edited articles before.”

“I can put those sentences together myself, thanks.” I turned away and continued browsing books.

“Of course you can! I only wanted to offer my help in case you needed it.”

“Excuse me. Can you please keep the volume down?” the librarian asked.

“Sorry! We are leaving now.” I put the books back on the shelf and walked towards the exit. George ran after me.

“Becky, wait,” he yelled as I was walking through the corridor.

“What?” I turned around. Our eyes met. For a few seconds, we stood there motionless.

“You can totally do it,” he finally said. “I believe in you.”

“I hope you are right.” I sighed. Suddenly, I realized that I had enough strength to overcome my fear.

***

During the evening, the staff decided to dine in the courtyard, as it was still bright and warm outside. Having grabbed my plate of couscous, I followed George and the rest of the team to a small marble table that had a box of beers waiting for everyone.

I got to meet Caitlin and Megan, two Ph.D. students who were working at the Albright Institute during the summer. Both of them were in their early thirties and had an air of confidence about them. I also exchanged a few words with Matthew J. Adams, the new director of the Institute.

Throughout the evening, no one had raised the topic of archaeology, not even once. Instead, people talked about their favourite music bands, most of which were unfamiliar to me, shared concert memories, and discussed their past trips to Europe. Since I didn’t have much to contribute, I sat quietly drinking my bottle of Goldstar and listening to everyone else. I doubted my trips to the United States or infatuation with ethnic music would impress anyone. In fact, I had a small fear of not being sophisticated enough for this group.

After dinner, I went to the common room to relax on a couch and watch TV.

“Do you need some help?” a young man asked me as I was flipping through channels. According to his badge, his name was “Avi Elias,” and he was a graduate student at the Hebrew University.

“Sure,” I replied casually.

“You are probably looking for an English channel, right?”

“Not true,” I said, thinking about all the bad news it was probably broadcasting at the moment. I was in no mood to hear about the Gaza conflict or the crisis in Ukraine.

“OK, so what are you looking for?” he asked, pressing buttons on the remote control.

“Some entertainment channel in Hebrew.”

“All right.” Avi looked slightly surprised. He played with the remote control for a while until he finally found a music channel with English and Israeli music videos. At the moment, a clip of Aviv Geffen’s “Mistovev” was playing. Recognizing the words, I started singing along.

“Do you know him?” Avi asked, eyes blazing with wonder.

“Yes.”

“I’m close friends with his family.”

“Oh, how nice!” I exclaimed. “Does it mean you get to have free concert tickets?”

“I’m not a big fan of his music. But he’s cool.”

“I thought you must be into rock.” That was my assumption about all the guys beside my husband, who was a country boy at a heart.

“Not really.”

“So which artists do you like?”

“I prefer Sarit Hadad and Zehava Ben.”

“Really? I love them, too!” I nearly jumped on the couch. 

“Shhh, don’t tell anyone.” Avi looked serious.

“Why not?”

“Mizrahi music isn’t well received in academic circles.”

“Really? What’s wrong with it?” I began to feel indignant.

“It’s considered a bit primitive, but I like it anyway.”

“Well, I’m offended now.”

Avi smiled. “No need to be because I’m just the same.”

“Fine! So, who’s considered refined then?”

“Arik Einstein, Matti Caspi, Chava Alberstein…”

“Oh.”

I had tried listening to their music back in high school, but all of their songs sounded the same. Some were a bit too Eastern European for my taste. I liked the Ashkenazi culture in general, but when it came to music, I preferred Middle Eastern melodies with a lively beat and simple lyrics celebrating love.

“Your secret is safe with me, Avi. Otherwise, we’ll collectively get into trouble with snobs.”

He laughed. “You are so funny. May I ask you what’s your name?”

“Rebecca. You can call me Becky.” I offered a handshake.

“Nice to meet you, Becky. I assume you’re part of the Leon Levy team.”

“Yes. The Gaza conflict forced us to move here, but I don’t regret it in the least,” I announced jubilantly.

“I know. My brother is fighting in Gaza now. I’m praying for his safe return.” Avi looked sad. 

“Oh, I’m sorry.” I lowered my eyes.

“It’s not your fault. I totally understand why you are happy about the way everything had turned out. The Albright Institute is an amazing place to work. Great people, great atmosphere.”

“In the meantime, what do you do here?”

“I’m working as a lab assistant for the summer. Hey, I heard you’ll be translating an article. Am I correct?”

“Yes. Why?”

“I’m usually the one in charge of the translations.”

“I see.” 

“But this year, everyone is so busy that any help will be great.”

“I’ll do my best then.”

“I hope you enjoy it, too.” He smiled. “Gotta go. See you, Becky.”

“Bye.”

After he left, I watched TV for a little longer. There were a few songs by the Idan Raichel Project and some other singer I didn’t know. At some point, I accidentally hit the wrong button on the remote control and was immediately redirected to the English news channel. I wanted to turn it off, but something urged me to keep it on for a few minutes. Just as I expected, nothing good was being shown.

Ashkelon came under fire several times, and one time, a missile hit an empty house. Although its owners were lucky to be away at the moment, the destruction to the property itself was quite severe. I hoped this house didn’t belong to Shlomo or someone I knew from the hotel.

In my room, I checked Facebook and found several photos from the Golan Heights tour. I noticed that Janice was online and decided to say hi to her. She immediately responded with questions about the trip to the Institute and about George.

“No need to ask,” I typed back. “We are only friends.”

“The rest of us think otherwise,” she typed back.

“I don’t know where you are getting this idea from. Anyway, how is Megiddo treating you?”

“Oh, I’m loving it,” she replied. “Better weather, better work conditions. But I’m definitely not going into archaeology. I had enough of slaving under the sun.”

“Cool,” I typed. At least you won’t be torn between your family life and your expeditions, I thought.

I exchanged a few words with Karen and Lara, who were also online. Unlike Janice, they didn’t bug me about George but simply went on about their final day trip and the following day at the dig. I wanted to stay online a little longer, but it was almost midnight, and I had to be fresh next morning. So I said goodnight to everyone and logged off. When I was already in bed, my phone rang.

“Hello,” I said, feeling a bit frustrated about being forced to get up.

“Hi, Becky! How are you?” Jason asked.

“I’m good. Yourself?”

“Not so bad. Just wanted to make sure you got to Jerusalem OK.”

“I thought I sent you the message earlier,” I replied, feeling annoyed. After all, he was stealing time from my sleep.

“Yeah, I got it, but I wanted to check on you regardless. I just read about the missiles in Ashkelon and everything, so I felt like talking to you.”

“No need to worry.” I hoped my quick reply would satisfy him. 

“So how was your day?” he asked just as I was about to hang up.

“It was fine.”

“Anything new?”

“Jason, I’m sorry, but I really need to sleep right now. Can we talk tomorrow?” My patience was running thin.

“OK, I understand.”

“Bye now.”

“Goodnight, love.”

I could tell he wanted to talk a little longer. Under different circumstances, I would’ve told him more about my day and the impending project. Maybe he would’ve reassured me about my ability to do the job well. Maybe we would’ve even laughed about it. Yet I simply hung up the phone and collapsed onto my bed.

Chapter 15

I couldn’t believe I had gotten myself into this mess. In the morning, all I wanted to do was climb back to my bed and hide under a thick blanket for the entire day. There was no way I would succeed at this task.

“Are you ready?” George asked me as we were finishing our coffees at the cafeteria. The breakfast was simple and yet very filling.

“Not really,” I admitted.

“You will be by the end of today.”

“I don’t even know what I’m doing,” I complained, secretly hoping for one last encouragement.

“I think we should get going,” he said instead and got up from his chair.   

“Let’s go then.”

Most people were already downstairs waiting for the work day to begin. Some were still unpacking boxes from yesterday, while others were sitting at the computers and trying to set up the database.

“Good morning,” Helen said, eyeing me and George. “Are you ready?”

“Yes.” I tried to sound as confident as possible.

“Let’s get you started. You probably prefer to work somewhere else, right?”

“Yes, I’d rather find a quieter place.” I was glad she asked me this question. Working in a busy lab was another thing I had been dreading since early morning. 

“That’s what I thought. How about the library?”

“Oh, that would be awesome!”

We quietly proceeded to the library, where I spotted Avi sitting in front of a laptop.

“Avi, can you please show her what needs to be done?” Helen asked.

“Sure,” he replied.

“Thank you. Let me know if you need any help. I’ll be downstairs.”

“Have a great day,” I said.

“You too.” Helen quickly left the library.

“Here you go.” Avi got up and pointed at the laptop.

“Oh, thanks. What do I do?” I asked, peering at the desktop with a photo of the Shrine of the Book set as its background. At the very left side of it rested a folder named “Articles.”

Avi clicked on the folder and opened the top document. “Here is your article,” he said. “Don’t forget to leave it connected to the power.” He pointed at the cord hanging from the desk.

“Thanks.”

“I’m going to the lab now. I need to finish digitizing some finds from Sha’ar HaGolan. Let me know if you need any help.”

“Definitely! When do you need it done?”

“Well, it would be great if you could finish the article by the end of this week, but you don’t have to. Just do as much as you can.”

“No worries. I’ll have it done by Friday.”

After he left, I put my head down and sat motionless until I finally mustered courage to look at the document. What I saw next was not for the faint-hearted. The article was thirty pages long, single-spaced, and every single word looked unfamiliar.

“Is there, um, a dictionary I could use?” I asked the librarian, a middle-aged lady named Rania.

“Yes, of course!” She disappeared into the stacks and came out holding a large book. “Here it is.”

Shukran kathiran!”

For a few seconds, I sat at the table peering into the computer. Agreeing to translate this article was clearly a big mistake. I considered browsing the Internet for a few minutes just to calm myself down. However, half the sites were blocked, and the ones available were directly linked to academic research.

Whenever I got stuck with some difficult project, I would find a million ways to distract myself. From Facebook to text messages and even Google news, anything would do. Here, however, there was no room for distractions. I left my phone upstairs and even warned everyone ahead of time that I would be busy during the day. The only choice I had was to focus on my work and do the best I could.

I looked closer at the title and recognized a few words. I sighed with a relief. The rest of them I could look up. Word by word, I managed to get through the title and the first two sentences of the abstract. The article was about the Palaeolithic settlements in the upper Galilee, particularly the Manot Cave. Although I was starting to feel a little bit better, the idea of translating the entire article in five days was still daunting. It would take me ages to get through at least half of it.

I spent the first few hours looking up the words I didn’t know and figuring out how to make the English sentences sound coherent. My progress was ridiculously slow, and by noon, I barely managed to get through half of the abstract, which was only one paragraph long. Then suddenly, my speed picked up.

It turned out the article wasn’t that difficult. There were only a few words I didn’t know, and those I soon learned. Moreover, the content, which dealt with the identity of humans occupying Palaeolithic sites, was fascinating. Apparently, there was quite a lot of speculation on whether or not those people were the Neanderthals. If scholars could establish their identity, it would be a big achievement in archaeology. By the afternoon, I became so wrapped up in my work that I almost forgot it was time to eat.

Since our lunch wasn’t included in our meal plans, I could either use the Institute’s kitchen for cooking or find a place to eat nearby. The second option was more appealing, especially since cooking would take more time, and I would still have to go out to get the groceries first.

I quickly saved my work, grabbed my wallet, and proceeded to the lobby. I was about to leave the building when I saw George talking to Caitlin and Megan. The trio looked happy and relaxed.

“Hey, Becky, where are you going?” he asked.

“For lunch.”

“Wanna join us? We know one cool falafel place nearby.”

“Sure.”

We strolled through a busy street until we spotted a small eatery. The entire time, the three of them were chatting. I heard a few jokes from their favourite shows, which I had never seen. In the last few years, I hardly ever watched TV for lack of time. I was amazed that those Ph.D. students, who were probably ten times busier than me, were finding ways to have a life outside of academia. 

As we were walking through the vibrant Middle Eastern neighbourhood, I started to wonder if staying inside one building all the time was a good idea. Although the area had a shady reputation in the media, it looked like a good place to explore. I wanted to check out the stores and maybe sniff a few spices from the grocery shops. Also, here most people were unlikely to speak English, which would be a big bonus for me.

I ordered chicken shawarma while George asked for rice and meatballs, and the girls ordered falafel wraps. I considered getting one as well but decided to try something different.

“How is your day going so far?” George finally asked. He probably sensed my uneasiness over being left out of their conversation.

“Oh, it’s going great. Better than what I expected.”

“You see? I told you it wouldn’t be hard.”

“What are you working on?” Caitlin asked.

“I’m translating a Hebrew article into English.”

“Wow, you speak that language!” Megan joined in.

“Yep!” For me it was not a big deal, especially since no one really cared about my language skills back in Toronto.

We finally found a place to sit and put our food on the table. I took out my hand sanitizer—a routine practice in North America—and passed it around. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a few glances in our direction. Most locals weren’t used to carrying bottles of sterile gel around. Half the time, sandwich makers didn’t even bother putting on gloves after handling cash.

“So, where are you from?” Megan asked.

“Toronto, Canada.”

“Nice,” she replied.

“What do you do in your life?” Caitlin asked.

I thought about a few possible answers, but none seemed appealing. Bragging to this Ph.D. group about my dead-end job would make me look like a loser. Lying wouldn’t be a great idea either because George already knew most of my story. So I told them I had graduated from the U of T a few years ago and was taking a “break” from school.

“Do you think about going to a grad school?” Megan asked.

“Yeah. Maybe someday.”

“Tel Aviv University is offering a great program in archaeology. You can even apply for a grant,” George said.

“Oh, yeah! That’s where I did my master’s!” Megan exclaimed. “The program was awesome.”

“Did you excavate in Azekah?” I asked, recalling the site I had looked up back in the winter when looking for an excavation dig.

“Yes, I did. It was a very busy season.”

“I’d love to visit it someday and maybe even join the dig,” I admitted.

“Then you should go for it,” George said, smiling.

I already knew I would never choose to do a master’s in Tel Aviv. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I had no right to uproot Jason from his current job or give my parents a heart attack.

During our walk to the Institute, I mostly kept quiet, for the feeling of sadness was back. Sure, I had had a great time in Ashkelon, Megiddo, and was slowly managing through the most difficult task I had ever received in my life. Soon everything would be over, and I would come back to my old life in Toronto. 

To squelch my melancholy, I threw myself at work during the afternoon. No matter what the outcome of this trip would be, I had to do a good job at the translation. Thus I perused the Hebrew dictionary, solved puzzles from new words, and put my rough translations into neat sentences.

By dinner time, I was completely exhausted. My head was spinning from all the time spent at the computer, and my eyes were red and dry. I absolutely had to get some fresh air.

I had convinced myself and others a hundred times that I would never go anywhere in a foreign city alone. Had Caitlin and Megan been around, I would’ve asked them to join me. However, the duo quickly disappeared from the cafeteria, and George was nowhere in sight either. In the end, I decided that taking a few steps around the Albright Institute solo wouldn’t harm me.

The streets outside were bustling with life. The air was hot and spicy, and most shops were still open. Noisy cars were everywhere, and gigantic tour buses were lined up in a queue. After a while, my ears started hurting from all the honking. I kept walking straight until I saw a small, narrow street and decided to make a turn. That street led me to another one, which, in turn, led to a third one.

All of a sudden, I had no idea where I was. Having looked around, I noticed a few low-rise buildings clustered together. I took a few more steps forward and saw a parking lot filled with old, rusting cars. Next to the lot was a half-broken fence with heavy graffiti drawn all over the surface. The fence was surrounded by garbage bags and rubble.

As soon as I checked the time on my watch, I became overwhelmed with panic. It was close to nine o’clock, which meant that sunset wasn’t far away. I had no clue how I got to this place. Neither did I know how to find my way home. I should’ve asked for a map at the hostel lobby, but thought it was unnecessary. I didn’t plan to go this far. Somehow, I lost track of time and ended up in this creepy area.

I tried using the navigator feature on my cell phone, but the satellites refused to work. It took the system forever to recognize the street and to come up with directions. As soon as the system started working, the battery went dead. I considered getting a map at the closest shop, but most of them were already closed. Moreover, it would hardly be useful since I couldn’t read Arabic.

Think hard, Becky, I told myself while trying to recall the last street name I saw. There must be a way back.

However, my memory wasn’t much help because all streets looked the same. Gripped by fear, I started running fast from one narrow, crooked street to another until it became completely dark and quiet. At last, the feeling of frustration took over. I sat down on the pavement and began to cry. It was the first time during the trip that I felt utterly helpless.

“Rebecca! What are you doing here?” I heard someone ask angrily. I lifted up my head and saw George walking towards me.

“George! How did you find me?” I was beyond relieved to see him.

“I asked you a question first!”

“What’s wrong?” I hadn’t seen him that angry before.

“And you have a nerve to ask? The entire Institute has been looking for you since dinner. We were even thinking about calling the police. Do you know what type of neighbourhood this is?”

“Of course I know! I just went for a quick walk to unwind after a long day and took a wrong turn.”

“You should’ve asked me or someone else to join you! Do you understand what could’ve happened? Jeez, Rebecca! I always knew you’re a bit dreamy but not to this point!”

“You know nothing about me!” I snapped. “Look, I’m lost and tired. And instead of showing me a way home, you keep on grilling me for leaving alone. Just for your information, I’m over eighteen and have every right to do whatever the hell I want!”

I knew that every argument I brought up was lame, and perhaps he was right about my dreamy quality. I could be easily swayed and often in the wrong direction. But my sense of pride wouldn’t give way. So we stood there arguing back and forth until I finally broke into loud sobs.

Startled by what he had done, he tried to console me. “Becky, I’m sorry for screaming at you,” he said. “I got scared and overreacted. Please don’t cry.”

“Piss off, George!” I started walking again.

“Where are you going now?”

“Ah, I don’t know.”

He ran after me and grabbed my hand. Even during such a stressful time, his touch felt electrifying. I looked at him, tears running in streams.

“Hold on, let me get you a tissue.” He fished out a Kleenex from his pocket and passed it to me.

Up until now, I couldn’t stop crying and probably looked like a big mess. He came closer and touched my face, gently wiping away a tear. 

“How about we go home and forget about everything that happened?” he suggested.

“I’m sorry,” I said after having calmed down for a bit.

“It’ll be all right. Let’s go find a cab.”

Much to our luck, a taxi car was passing by, and a driver asked if we needed help. George quickly instructed him to take us to the Albright Institute, and we got inside.

The ride wasn’t very long. Feeling embarrassed by the scene I had caused, I kept quiet. I had never expected myself to have a meltdown right in the middle of a street. I worked in customer service, for goodness’ sake! OK, maybe I cried at work once or twice, but I was in a bathroom, so that doesn’t count. In the meantime, George sat very close to me and tried to provide as much comfort as possible. Somehow, I felt protected with him.

***

“Do you want some tea?” George asked me. I was sitting cross-legged on his bed still trying to recuperate from everything.

“Sure,” I replied. “Earl Grey would be great.”

“I’ll be back in a minute.”

After he left, I looked around the room, which was a copy of my own. It had two bunk beds across from a small table, a chair filled with clothes, and a sink. Two contemporary paintings were decorating the walls. While looking around, I noticed a few drawings lying on the table. I walked closer and took a better look. These were images of the pottery finds and hand-drawn maps of Ashkelon. As I was leafing casually through the papers, I realized how much more I still had to learn about archaeology. Even after all the time I’d spent with the Leon Levy Expedition, my hands-on experience was still lacking.

“Here you are.” George reappeared with a tray of two cups and a plate of halva.

“Oh, thank you.” I took one bite and moved back to the bed.

He put the tray down and sat next to me. For a moment, we sat quietly drinking our tea and munching on the halva treats.

“By the way, thank you for finding me,” I said at last. 

“You’re welcome.”

“I just wanted some fresh air. I had no idea how easy it is to get lost in Jerusalem. I should’ve taken a map or something.”

“You bet. Please don’t ever scare me like this again.” He shook his index finger at me.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that he truly cared about me. First he helped me to get into the Albright Institute and then saved me from getting lost.

“George, why are you helping me?” I asked.

“What do you mean, Becky? I had to come after you. What would you do if I weren’t around?”

“I have no clue.”

Our eyes met again, and our lips came close. I felt passion stir inside me. I was completely alone with a man who had rescued me from danger.

“You are right,” I said. “I do have my head up in the clouds sometimes, but not always.” I trailed my fingers down through the collar of his shirt.

“At least you’re admitting the truth, Rebecca.” He smirked.

For a second, I considered having that last, long-overdue fling. Those eyes were telling me that he was more than willing.

“I have to go now.” I pulled myself away from him. “I have to be up early tomorrow.”

“See you then.” Traces of disappointment showed up on his face.

“Goodnight, George.”

“Sweet dreams, Becky.”

That night, I tossed and turned, unable to stop thinking about George. No longer could I lie to myself about us being friends. I wanted all of him, and thinking about that rescue scene from a few hours ago only intensified my desire. There was something sexy about the way he came after me and took charge of the whole situation. Even the way he got angry about my carelessness made me drawn to him more.

The intellectual side of our budding relationship was just as fascinating as the physical. All the time we had spent together was amazing, and the conversations we had had were incredibly fulfilling. I recalled the reassuring words he said to me when I was feeling nervous about my project. I even wondered if, under different circumstances, he and I would stand a chance. “I believe in you” resonated in my ears.

Chapter 16

Next morning, I walked into the cafeteria half-expecting everyone to turn my way. I was glad when no one showed the slightest interest in my crazy story from the last night.

“How are you finding the translation?” Avi asked me while making a toast. 

“A bit tough, but it’s fine,” I replied, pouring my coffee.

“Yesterday, we were cataloguing the artefacts, and they mentioned the one you had found.”

“Oh really? That’s great!” I was already feeling ten times better.

“Yes. They are thinking about publishing an article about the figurine.”

“That’s amazing! I hope it makes to the BAR.”

“I’m not a big fan of it.” I took my tray and moved towards a table. Avi followed me.

“Really? How come?” I couldn’t imagine anyone from the scholarly world not enjoying this magazine.

“It’s mostly for lay readers, not scholars. I mean, it’s cool and everything, but I prefer ASOR’s journals.”

“Makes sense. I tried their subscription once but found the articles a bit too dry.” In truth, I still had my last issue lying around unfinished. 

“So, what’s your area of focus, Rebecca?” he asked, taking a bite from his toast.

“I don’t have one. I only did an undergrad in anthropology and Near Eastern Studies.”

“Really? I assumed you were a grad student.”

“Taking one step at a time.” I smiled. “By the way, you still haven’t told me your area of focus.”

“I’m focusing on the Upper Palaeolithic era. My thesis is on the Cave of Kebara at Mount Carmel.”

“Not my strongest side,” I admitted, recalling one time I had completely flunked a test on the prehistoric Levant. Luckily, I made up for the low mark later when we moved on to the Bronze and Iron Ages.

“Lots of people in the field say that. Nevertheless, the Palaeolithic and Neolithic are my favorite periods.”

“Why?” Although the breakfast was coming to an end, I didn’t feel like leaving yet. I wanted to know what made Avi drawn to such a daunting area. I mean, just look at those tools. They hardly look different from rocks or from each other.

“People underestimate the importance of the earlier periods,” he replied. “In reality, those were the times when the human civilizations started forming.”

“I see.”

“Becky, if you are having any troubles with the translation, please let me know,” he suddenly added. “I’ll come over and help you.”

“It’s all right, thanks. I’ll manage.”

Through the morning, I completely dedicated myself to the article. As I became more efficient with the dictionary and online translation programs, the work became easier. No longer was I spending an hour on a single sentence, and by eleven o’clock, I was already halfway through the translation. Suddenly, my computer shut down. I tried restarting it, but the button refused to work. 

“Shoot!” I screamed. 

“Do you need some help?” the librarian asked politely. This time, it was a young man named Ehud.

“Yes, I think my computer is down.”

“Wait a minute.” He quickly walked to his desk and phoned someone.

“The tech support is coming over.” 

A few minutes later, a group of young men showed up. They examined the laptop and tried restarting it a few times.

“I’m sorry, but it looks like the disk has crashed,” one of them told me.

“What?” I exclaimed in horror. “I’ve got my paper on it!”

“We’ll try our best to fix it, but we can’t promise anything. It has to go to the computer shop.”

“When can I expect it to be fixed?” I asked, trying to hide my panic.

“The waiting time is usually very long. It could be anytime between tomorrow and the next few weeks.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I had less than three days to finish the translation, and I still hadn’t gotten to the footnotes and bibliography, which would take quite a lot of time. If the data wasn’t salvaged by the next day, my entire effort would go waste.

“All right, thanks.” I walked away without letting anyone see my tears. Having reached my room, I sat down on the bed and spent the next hour or so staring at the ceiling and wondering how much of my work was lost. Surely, I saved it shortly before the system went down, and perhaps some parts of it were saved automatically. Still, I had no idea if the technicians would be able to retrieve my document at all.

***

“Rebecca, are you OK?” Megan asked me while we were making our lunch in the kitchen. “You look like you’ve been crying.”

“I’m fine,” I said, tears rising in my eyes.

“Look, you are crying!” Caitlin exclaimed. “Let me get you a tissue.” She fished out one from her pocket.

“Thank you.” I looked away.

“What’s wrong, honey?” she asked.

“Well, the laptop I was working on crashed,” I mumbled. “My article is lost now.” I began sobbing.

“Oh, no!” Caitlin exclaimed.

“It’s OK, honey. Don’t cry.” Megan came to my side and hugged me. 

“And I promised to finish it by Friday.” I couldn’t stop crying.  

“Wait, did you save it?” Caitlin asked.

“Does it matter now?” I shrugged. “The technicians said it might take several weeks to fix the hard drive.”

“How far did you get?”

“Only through half of it.”

“Which means the staff can still use it after you are gone,” Megan noted.

“If they manage to recover the disk at all.”

“They will.”

“I wanted to finish everything by Friday.” I put my hands over my face.

“I’m pretty sure everyone will understand.” Megan tried reassuring me. “Besides, you are not even getting a credit or anything, as far as we know.”

She was right. The whole expedition wasn’t meant to be anything more than a summer adventure. So why was I even here, at the Albright Institute, sweating over some scholarly article on the Neanderthals when I was supposed to be in Ashkelon or Megiddo enjoying the sunshine?

“Maybe you are right.” I sighed. 

“Don’t be so discouraged,” Megan said, patting me on the shoulder. “If you want, we’ll take you out tonight so that you feel a bit better.”

“No, thanks. I’m not going anywhere again.” First, I got lost in a foreign city, and then my article disappeared. What else could I expect to happen?

“We’ll go together this time. We’ll take a cab and ride to the western side of the city. What do you think?”

“I don’t know yet. But thanks for offering.” I faked a smile.

“No problem. We all need a little outing. So think about it.”

After lunch, we proceeded to the basement, where I was supposed to help the rest of the team with the lab work. I suddenly remembered how I initially preferred it over the article. Now I was getting my wish but at a high price.

I spent the afternoon entering information about the findings into the database. Countless artefacts had to be documented, and the amount of paperwork linked to the finds was unbelievable. I carefully filled up all the documents and keyed in the numbers. Although the work wasn’t as challenging as the translation, it was still quite interesting. Maybe if I wasn’t having such a terrible day, I would be enjoying it.

“Don’t worry about the project,” Avi told me at the end of the work day. “If you don’t get to finish the article, I’ll take over after you leave.”

“Thanks, Avi, but I still can’t believe it happened. 

“It happens to almost everyone.” He smiled.

Throughout the university years, I had always backed up my work on USBs and Google Drive. Sometimes, I went a bit overboard with saving work. Not once had my computer crashed. The moment I decided to skip multiple saves, I got into trouble.

During dinner, I was still in a bad mood. For the first time during my stay in Israel, I had zero appetite for food. So I sat quietly by myself moving kabob around the plate with my fork and trying to fight back my tears. As soon as the dinner ended, I wanted to leave.

“Hey, Becky! Wait!” Avi yelled.

“What?” Was he going to tell me not to worry again and make me feel even worse?

“I brought something to cheer you up.” He lifted a bunch of disks in the air. “Want to listen to the music together? I’ve got a CD player and everything.”

“I’m not in the mood today. Sorry.”

“That’s why I brought the disks in the first place. I want you to feel better, Becky.”

“Wait! You brought them?” Somehow, this piece of information had slipped away from my ears. 

“Yes! I drove all the way to Ein Kerem to my apartment to get the disks especially for you.”

“Oh, my goodness! I feel so bad now.”

“It’s not a big deal at all. If you don’t feel like listening to the music, I’ll just go home, and we’ll meet tomorrow at the lab. I was thinking about taking a little break from the academic stuff and just relaxing.”

“All right, you win.” I couldn’t let him down after all the effort he had made.

Initially, we wanted to go to the Common Room, but someone else was watching the TV, so we ended up in my room instead.

“So tell me, Rebecca. What draws you to Israeli music?” he asked while putting a disk into the player.

“Hmm, good question, Avi. Maybe I just like the beat.”

“I could see that. But why did you choose to learn Hebrew in the first place?”

I thought for a bit. “Well, my field is obviously one thing,” I began. “I had majored in Near Eastern archaeology and studied Hebrew and Aramaic as the primary source languages.”

“That would make sense. I’ve taken Aramaic, too.”

“You see? I’m not that weird,” I joked, hoping he wouldn’t continue asking.

“But how did you find out about all the artists?” he pressed on. “You aren’t Jewish, are you?”

“No, I’m not. That’s a long story.”

“So tell me.”

I took a deep breath. “I was in high school going through a tough stage,” I started slowly. “I had no friends and was on the brink of failing all my classes.”

“Sorry to hear about that.” He looked at me with sympathy.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to pour my heart to Avi. Technically, he was my boss. Moreover, he belonged to the culture that prized achievement above everything else. Yet I kept talking.

“When it came to music, I wanted something different, something that would take me away from the everyday reality. One day, I went to a library and stumbled upon a collection of disks in a foreign language. It was the language of the people I’ve been fascinated with since the age of twelve. I tried out one recording, and it made me forget all my troubles. Then it kind of meshed up together, and I ended up majoring in Biblical archaeology, learning Hebrew, and going crazy about Sarit Hadad.”

Avi kept quiet. He probably didn’t expect his fellow worker at the Albright Institute to have such a challenging past.

“I’m glad it all ended well for you,” he remarked. 

“I think it all comes down to going after something that’s hard to get,” I suddenly said.

“What do you mean, Becky?” He looked perplexed.

“Well, it would be much easier for me to like music from my country or to choose a major with more job prospects. My sister and I are exact opposites in that respect. She’d chosen a very practical program, and she’s using her degree at work, while I’m using mine on a vacation.”

Avi laughed. “I wouldn’t call what you’re doing here ‘a vacation.’”

“As for the music, she’ll like anything that’s in trend. As a kid, she was a fan of the Spice Girls and Britney. When we moved to a new school, where most of the kids were rock lovers, she suddenly started cranking up Rush and Queen. I bet if she ever moved to Israel, she would either start admiring Arik Einstein or Omer Adam, depending on a circle she was in. I often wish I could be like her.” 

“No offense to your sister, Becky, but why do you want to follow the crowd?” 

“Then I wouldn’t have to lie about my playlist or answer annoying questions on how I plan to use the anthropology degree in my real life. But this is who I am, and I’m happy about it.” 

As I was saying these words, I was finally admitting the truth to myself. All the struggles and all the challenges I’d endured were only part of my life because I wanted them on one level or another. 

At ben adam miuhad. Bli gvulot,” Avi said, smiling.

“Really? You mean I’ve got no boundaries?” I smiled back.

“You are special, Rebecca.” He gently pressed his palm against mine. “As for the real life part, you and I are real. The Albright Institute is real. What we do here is real.”

“Hmm, I’ve never thought about it this way.”

“I get annoying questions about my field, too, but I don’t pay much attention to them. So please don’t let anyone make you think you’re living in some fantasy world simply because you care about learning.” 

“I’m hungry,” I suddenly said. 

“No wonder, Becky. From what I remember, you hadn’t touched your dinner at all.”

“I was upset over the computer crash, but you made me feel better.”

“You see? That was my goal for the evening.”

“And you did a great job cheering me up with the music.”

“So, what should we do food-wise?”

“No idea. I think most of the restaurants are closed already.”

“And the ones that are open are far away.”

“I don’t feel like leaving the building at this hour, especially after everything that had happened yesterday.”

“I see. It must’ve been hard for you to get lost in a place like this.”

“It’s all right. You don’t have to feel sorry for me, Avi.”

“Well, we can order a takeout because I’m hungry, too.”

“Is it possible?” The prospect of eating quietly in my room looked good.

“Wait a second.” Avi fished out an iPhone and started typing something on a screen. “What would you like?”

“It doesn’t really matter. Whatever is available will do.” My stomach was rumbling.

“Then I’m ordering two burgers with fries.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

He quickly dialled the restaurant’s number and placed an order. I offered paying for my portion, but he flat out refused. “That’s my treat for you,” he said. “I hope it’s the last time you skip a meal.” 

After the food arrived, we ate in silence with Kobi Aflalo crooning in the background. By the time we finished our meals, I was feeling cheerful again.

“Thank you for everything, Avi,” I said in the end. “You shouldn’t have gone for all this trouble.”

“Anytime, Becky. I’m glad it worked for you.”

“I think you should get going.” I glanced at my watch, which was showing ten-thirty.

“Yes! I’ll see you tomorrow at the lab. Have a great night.”

Avi grabbed the CD player and walked out of the door. As soon as he left, I realized he had forgotten his CDs. I tried calling after him, but he was already gone. I plopped on my bed and opened the booklet of “Eliko’s Golden Collection.” I ran my fingers through the lyrics and sniffed the glossy paper. The other disks were hit collections from the Israeli mainstream.

That evening was amazing. We talked like good friends. I learned a few things about myself. There was nothing to be unhappy about. As for the computer incident, I decided not to dwell on it. If the laptop wouldn’t be fixed on time, I would make the best from the lab work.

Chapter 17

“You forgot the CDs yesterday,” I told Avi during breakfast.

“Oh, those are for you,” he replied. 

“What? No! I can’t take them.”

“It’s OK. No biggie.” 

Before I could say anything else in protest, someone called my name. One of the computer technicians from yesterday was standing by the entrance and looking for me. I immediately braced myself for the worst. He was likely to tell me the disk was irreparable, or the information had been lost, or the waitlist in the computer shop was much longer than expected.

“I have some good news for you,” he said instead.

Part of me felt relieved. Yet I didn’t want to place my hopes too high.

“I found a place where they were able to fix the laptop immediately,” he continued.

I sighed deeply. “Did they retrieve the data?”

“Yes, they did.”

“So, when can I have it back?”

“It’s in the library.”

“Yay!” I screamed, unable to contain my excitement. Everyone turned in my direction. “My laptop has been repaired!”

“Congratulations!” Megan and Caitlin exclaimed in unison. I walked to their table and hugged each of them. 

“Now I’ll finish your translation on time.” I turned to Avi.

“Just do as much as you can, Becky.”

“You don’t know me well.” I smirked.

***

“Hey, we should go out like we’ve planned,” Megan announced during dinner.

“I thought the whole thing was meant to make me feel better.”

“And now we can do this to celebrate,” Caitlin added. “I mean, it’s Wednesday, which is almost Friday.”

“Exactly! So let’s do this!” Megan exclaimed.

“Fine,” I said. “Maybe we should go. We all need a break sometimes.”

“I’m still recovering from your last one,” George noted.

“Haven’t we agreed to forget the incident?” I asked, annoyed by the unpleasant reminder.

“Oh, sorry!” He smiled. “Just don’t go crazy this time.”

“Hey, why don’t you join us?” Caitlin suggested.

“Nah, I have to finish my pottery drawings.”

“Here is another workaholic,” Megan joked.

“Who else is a workaholic?” I asked, feeling curious.

“You, of course!” She pointed at me.

“Me? A workaholic? I’ve always considered myself a lazy type.”

“We all become workaholics after staying at the Albright for a while,” Caitlin noted.

“It’s all right. Maybe another time,” George said. “Have fun without me.”

We agreed to meet in the lobby in twenty minutes. For the night, I chose to wear a pair of dark blue capris and a silky top. I also applied extra mascara and lip gloss to look good and let my hair, which I usually wore in a ponytail, hang down past my shoulders. Since I didn’t bring any heels on the trip, I had to go with my regular sandals.

I met Megan and Caitlin in the lobby as planned. Both of them were wearing skinny jeans, tube tank tops, and stilettos. Megan also had long dangly earrings. We complimented each other on our outfits and got on the first available taxi.

“Where should we go?” Caitlin asked, looking at the city map.

“There are quite a few bars along the Jaffa Street,” Megan replied. “We could go there and walk around.”

“Sure, let’s do that,” I said.

We drove past the walls secluding the Old City, enjoying the view from the window.

“Isn’t it Amr Diab?” I asked the driver, referring to the music that was playing on his stereo.

Ken,” he replied.

I went to see Amr Diab, the star of Egyptian pop music, when I was in grade twelve. Since I had no one to accompany me, I dragged Erin along. Although the show was amazing, Erin absolutely hated it because 1) she wasn’t accustomed to such music, and 2) we were the only non-Arabs in the entire hall.

“How do you know him?” the driver asked.

“Great research skills come in handy.”

Caitlin and Megan listened to our conversation without uttering a single word.

“You’re lucky to live here,” I told the girls later.

“Oh, we love this place. Maybe you could join us someday,” Megan said.

“Maybe,” I said, trying to imagine what would it be like to live in Jerusalem.

Jaffa Street turned out to be pretty busy. Couples and families were walking everywhere. Streetcars filled with passengers kept coming from both directions. Some shops were still open, blasting the latest hits from Iggy Azalea and Katy Perry.

The taxi dropped us off in front of a building called “Jerusalem Hostel,” which I assumed was a motel for tourists. The three of us walked a few blocks before turning into another street with a long chain of bars and restaurants. The girls asked me if I had any preferences as to where we should stop, and I said that any place they chose would be fine with me. In the end, we all agreed to stop at the bar with the least expensive menu.

“That’s the major downside of being in the academia.” Caitlin sighed. “You’ll always be poor.”

Megan laughed, and I said nothing. If only I could have all the opportunities they had. Then nothing else would matter.

A waitress quickly escorted us to a table for three and asked what we wanted to drink. We ended up ordering three glasses of red wine and a plate of cookies with soft cheese.

“Are you married?” Megan asked, eyeing my ring.

“Four years now.”

“Wow, you look so young!” Caitlin commented. I definitely saw it coming. 

“Well, I’m twenty-six,” I replied, taking a sip from my glass.

“I’m thirty-two,” Caitlin said, passing around the plate. “Quite honestly, I don’t think I’m getting married anytime soon.”

“Me neither,” Megan said. “Right now, I’m too busy with my dissertation and fieldwork.”

“Do you want kids someday?” I asked.

“I’d love to, but I’m afraid of running out of time,” she admitted.

“Well, I want to finish my program first, then get a post-doc, and only then will I think about having a baby,” Megan said. “Right now, I can’t afford having a child anyway. Besides, with that crazy lifestyle of ours, I doubt we’ll be good moms.”

“That’s true.” Caitlin laughed. “I’d have to hire a full-time nanny, as my parents are too old to look after a baby.”

“Same here,” Megan added. “Mine are in their sixties already. They’ll be around seventy by then.”

Having finished with our baby talk, we moved on to other topics. We discussed life in Israel, particularly in the academic circles. The girls shared their stories about all-nighters, piles of essays they had to mark for undergraduates, and a few computer-related incidents they had encountered along the way. After a second round of drinks, we loosened up so much that we even managed to laugh at my story about getting lost in East Jerusalem.

“You should’ve seen George’s face when he finally found me!” I exclaimed, half-laughing. “He was so mad!”

“Really?” Megan asked. “He was mad at you for being lost? That’s outrageous!”

“Well, it was kind of my fault.”

“No, it wasn’t!” Caitlin protested. “It happens to the best of us.”

“Did he say anything mean?” Megan added.

“He said that I’m a dreamer with my head up in the clouds. I mean, he didn’t say these words exactly, but it was pretty much implied.”

“He had no right to act like that!” Megan exclaimed indignantly.

“He later apologized.” I tried defending him without even knowing why.  

“But still. It was wrong on his part,” she insisted.

“Did he tell you about his story in Jericho?” Caitlin asked.

“No! What story?”

“The epic one,” Megan replied.

“You should tell me.”

The girls exchanged a look, and then Caitlin began, “A few years ago, his group was staying in Jerusalem at the end of the dig in Tell es-Safi. Apparently, he decided to drive to Jericho by himself.”

“OK, this is getting interesting,” I said. “I mean, Jericho is in the West Bank.”

“On his way back, he stopped at some Arab town to get gas and snacks, and his GPS broke.”

“Really? So, what happened in the end?”

“The IDF had to rescue him because he drove in the opposite direction,” Megan said. “And he’s definitely not a dreamer.”

“All right, I’m going to confront him tomorrow.” 

“No need to,” Caitlin said. “Just don’t let anyone bring you down next time you’re in trouble.”

“Well, hopefully, it was the last time I’ll have gotten into something that serious.”

“You never know,” Megan said. “Shit happens all the time. Something similar happened to me when I was in my second year MA program.”

I probed her for more details, and she told the entire story. Some girls from her class decided to take a day trip to Ein Gedi to celebrate the end of the school year. They agreed to stick to together, but Megan got distracted by an ibex and decided to take a few photos of the creature. After she finished posting them on Instagram (she had portable wireless Internet like me), she turned around and found everyone gone. Worst of all, one of the students had her bag, so the poor girl didn’t even have water, and we’re talking about forty-five degrees Celsius.

“When I finally found my group, they were so happy I didn’t get attacked by a caracal!”

“What’s a caracal?” I asked.

“A wild cat with tufted ears,” Caitlin relied. “You’ll see them from time to time in Israeli deserts.”

I immediately Googled the animal on my phone and found a few pretty pictures.

“Oh, it looks so cute!” I exclaimed, pointing at an angry cat face.

“Yeah, it’s cute until you meet one.” Megan rolled her eyes. “The point is, nobody got mad at me for getting distracted. In these situations, you’ll be happy to see the other person alive and well.”

“Why would they be mad at you?” I noted.

“Exactly! Anyway, we just laugh about it now.”

“That’s your favourite story,” Caitlin said, taking a few sips of her martini. “You always bring it up when we get together.”

“It was also one of the best memories from grad school,” Megan admitted. “Ein Gedi is totally worth visiting.” She turned to me. “Just make sure you stick with your group in case an ibex or a caracal shows up.”

“I’ll remember your advice.” I smiled at the memory of the Ramon Crater. Apparently, Megan and I shared fascination with ibexes.

“By the way, George is a really nice guy, but he is a bit obnoxious,” Caitlin said later. 

“How do you know him?” I finally asked, realizing they must’ve known him for quite a while.

“We took the same class as undergrads,” Megan replied.

“Where did you study?”

“We went to New York University. Then we kind of lost touch until we ran into each other here a year ago and became friends again.”

“Some say his ex-girlfriend is trying to get him back,” Caitlin added. “According to the rumors, she’s somewhere in Israel right now.”

“Have you seen her?” I asked, imagining some skinny Harvard graduate with a trowel in her hands. I could bet she was an archaeology whiz.

“No. We aren’t even sure she exists. George hardly ever mentions her.”

“Hmm, that’s interesting. Anyway, he’s fun to talk to.”

“But don’t let him be mean to you again,” Megan warned me.

“Don’t worry, I won’t.”

Three guys walked into the bar. As they came closer to the order stand, I recognized one of them. It was Avi, and he looked completely different from the one who worked at the Institute. Normally, he wore plain, casual clothes that made him look nice and professional. This time, he was wearing trendy jeans, a Hawaiian shirt, and some jewelry. Apparently, he had an ear piercing like Kobi Peretz, but I hadn’t noticed it before. The moment he saw us, his eyes lit up.

“Becky, ma inyanim?”

Hakol beseder, mami.” I smiled. 

“Hey, motek! How did you find us?” Caitlin exclaimed. 

“It was easy. You always go to this bar, don’t you?”

“Kind of. But this time we did consider going somewhere else.”

“Anyway, I just didn’t feel like sleeping yet, so I decided to go for a drink. By the way, let me introduce you to my buddies, Eitan and Aron.”

“Nice to meet you,” I replied, exchanging glances with Caitlin and Megan, who were smiling at the two guys. 

“Do you mind if I buy you a drink?” Avi asked me.

“Sure. I’ll have another margarita.” 

“Way to go, girl!” Megan gave me a nudge.

Someone turned the music on. The moment I heard the Oriental groove, I felt like getting up and dancing.

“Shall we dance?” I asked, unable to sit still on my chair.

“Sure, let’s go for it!” Megan exclaimed.

The six of us moved from the table and began swinging our hips to the music. The rest of the bar followed our lead and started moving.

“Look how you can lighten up the crowd,” Avi told me while dancing along. He had one of the warmest smiles I’d ever seen.

“It isn’t me; it’s the music,” I replied.

“Would you mind sharing a dance?” he asked, moving closer.

At first, I considered declining the offer but went along with it in the end. After all, it was just a dance. So I grooved together with Avi, while Caitlin and Megan ended up dancing with his friends.

Long before we knew it, it was already past the midnight. Normally, my tolerance for alcohol was very low, and I could pass out after anything heavier than light beer. Tonight, I was feeling better than ever.

“Should we get going?” I suggested at one-thirty.

“Definitely,” Avi replied. “We’ve got a busy day tomorrow.”

His friends, however, decided to stay longer. By the time we were ready to head out, they were already checking out some other girls. The four of us went outside to look for a cab.

“I’m cold,” I admitted, as the air was a bit chilly. The desert climate made afternoons unbearably hot, while nights were often colder than expected.

“Let me warm you up,” Avi said and started rubbing my hands.

“Are we going to Ein Kerem first?”

“By all means no! I’ll wait for the driver to drop you off first.”

“Why don’t you stay at the Institute for the summer?” I found myself asking. “Wouldn’t it make things much easier for you?”

“Trust me, I’d thought about it in the past but decided that staying at the hostel while renting wasn’t going to make sense financially.”

“Ah, I see.”

When we got back, I considered calling Jason and sharing my story about the broken hard drive with him but felt too exhausted to talk. Instead, I typed a quick message and fell asleep almost immediately.

Chapter 18

I hurried to the computer as soon as I finished my breakfast next morning. I typed relentlessly until four in the afternoon, completely forgetting to take lunch. The longer I worked the easier and more interesting my project became.

Suddenly, I noticed my stomach was churning with hunger. I went to the kitchen in hopes of finding leftovers. Megan was standing by the countertop and making a cup of coffee.

“Hey, Rebecca! How are you feeling today?” she asked.

“I’m great, thanks,” I replied. “Although I do wish we didn’t drink so much last night.”

“It was totally worth it. We had lots of fun.” She poured coffee into a big cup.

“Is there anything to eat here?” I asked, opening the fridge. To my disappointment, it was completely empty.

“Where have you been today? You should’ve gone with us. We went to that falafel place we had visited a few days ago.”

“I became so wrapped up in my work that I forgot to take lunch.”

“Ah, I see. Very typical for grad students.”

“And I’m not even one of you guys.”

“Well, you act like you are. You seem so committed to your work.”

“I’ll take it as a compliment.”

“So, what are you up to?”

“I have no idea. I’m so hungry now. I kind of want to go to the falafel place.”

“Do you remember where it is? Cause if you don’t, I could walk with you.”

“No, it’s OK. You probably have your own work to do.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I promise not to get lost this time.”

“All right, see you at dinner then. And please don’t skip it. Most cafés close early, and you don’t want to be out after sunset.”

“I’ll try.”

I walked out of the kitchen and proceeded to the lobby. This time, I took a map with me to be on the safe side. Then I ran straight to the eatery, where I ordered a small plate of hummus. Since dinner was only a few hours away, I didn’t want to get stuffed. After finishing my snack, I ran straight to the Albright Institute without even looking back. Then I threw myself at work for another hour and a half.

“Do you want to take a walk?” Caitlin asked me during dinner, which we spent eating shawarmas and discussing lab work.

“No, thanks.”

“We could go out together,” Megan suggested. “I’m sure it would be fine.”

“I’ve got too much work to do.”

“I thought the day was over!” she exclaimed. “I can’t believe they make you work after regular hours!”

“No one forces me to stay late. I just have to finish the article by Friday, and I lost too much time after the laptop crashed.”

“Well, don’t overstrain yourself.”

“I’ll try not to. Anyway, thanks for offering the walk. See you all tomorrow.”

On my way to the library, I wondered how I had managed to make friends at least three times in less than three weeks. Ever since we had left Oakville, I had never had a proper social life. I was lonely through my high school years and never befriended anyone besides Dalia at the U of T. Most of my current friends were from Jason’s side. Lack of girlfriends never bothered me that much since I truly enjoyed my own company. Besides, having Erin in my life always compensated for the lack of female friendships. Nevertheless, the ability to sit with a group of girls and chat about random topics, like we did last night, felt good.

Needless to say, nothing ever felt better than working on a challenging project for several hours and days. The rest of the week was dedicated solely to finishing the translation. I stopped caring about regular hours and just sat at the library most of the time, except for the short breaks I allowed myself every now and then.

I never forgot to stay in touch with Jason and my parents, calling and texting them almost every night and sharing a few insights into my life at the Albright Institute. I obviously chose to forego the story about getting lost in East Jerusalem, although I did plan on sharing it with Jason at some point.

***

“Thank you so much for your help,” Helen said after I showed her the finalized copy, which had footnotes and bibliography formatted nicely in the SAA style.

“It was my pleasure,” I replied. “I learned a lot by working on this article,” I added, recalling all the information I had gained about the prehistoric settlements. The Manot Cave was definitely on my travel list.

“Rebecca, I was truly impressed by your level of commitment,” she added. “I never met a volunteer who worked so hard on a task.”

“It’s just the way I am. Once I’m on to something, I just cannot stop until it’s done.”

“I’m sure you’ll make a great scholar some day.”

“Thanks, I’m flattered.”

“If you ever need a recommendation letter, you can count on me.”

Having looked around, I saw our field directors walk into the library. 

“Hi, Rebecca! How did you find this week?” Daniel asked.

“It was tough but also rewarding.”

“Well, we are glad to hear that.”

“I have an idea you may like,” Lawrence said.

“What is it?” I hoped he wasn’t going to ask me to translate another article. 

“Each year, we have a speaker at the final dinner, and we were wondering if you could become one tomorrow.”

“What do I need to do?”

“You’ll talk about your experience in the field and in the lab,” he explained.

“Would I have to prepare anything?”

“Just a brief speech. We can provide you with the background info about the sites and the Institute.”

Before I could stop myself, I said, “Yes.”

“Here you go.” He passed me a USB stick. “You’ll find all the information about Ashkelon and the Albright Institute here. Please remember that we want you to focus more on your experience other than the factual information.”

“OK, thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

On my way to the room, I bumped into Avi.

“Hey, Becky! I heard you are leaving tomorrow,” he began.

“That’s right. I’m going to Tel Aviv.”

“Well, we’ll miss you over here. So what are your plans for the next week?”

“I’m meeting my husband and—”

“Wait, you didn’t tell me you’re married.” He looked shocked. I considered mentioning my status that other evening when we were in my room, but it felt irrelevant then.

“I was too busy translating your article, Avi.” That was the best excuse I could come up with.

“I see. I just…”

“What?”

“I was going to ask you out.”

“Shut up!” I laughed. “How could we possibly date if we are miles apart?”

“You would come back to Israel to get your master’s degree, and we would end up working in the same lab.”

“And you would take me to Caesarea to see Moshe Peretz, right?”

“We could run off to Eilat to party with Eliko.” Avi looked amused.

“Or we could be more cultured and see the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.”

“Or go to Arik Einstein’s concert if he were still alive.”

“Sorry to disappoint you, motek, but it ain’t gonna happen.” 

Avi looked a bit sad. “Can we be friends though?”

“Aren’t we friends already?” I smiled.

“You helped me so much during this week, Becky. I don’t know how I would’ve pulled it through if it weren’t for all your hard work.”

“And you helped me to survive the laptop crash.”

“It was no biggie for me.”

“I still have your CDs in my room.”

“I told you they were a gift.”

“Come on, Avi. I’ll bring them over. Wait a second.” I was about to walk away but he grabbed my hand.

“Rebecca, I want those recordings to be the token of our friendship.” He looked directly into my eyes. “Next time you are going through a rough patch, whatever it may be, you’ll put on one my CDs and feel happier.”

“I don’t even know what to say.” I began feel uncomfortable. No one had ever done something that nice for me.

“Don’t say anything. Just enjoy the melody and the beat.”

“I will miss you, Avi.”

“Me too.”

As soon as I reached my room, I phoned Jason and told him all about the reunion. I should’ve mentioned it way back in Megiddo, but the busy week had made me completely forget about it. 

“That’s great!” he exclaimed. “Now you can arrive at our hotel one night earlier.”

I had initially planned to stay at the Albright Institute for an extra night. Jason would drive over to pick me up at the hostel, and we would go back to Tel Aviv together. The reunion only meant that we could avoid all the driving back and forth and meet right at our hotel apartment.

“Do you think they’ll let me stay earlier?” I asked, referring to the hotel we’d booked.

“Of course they will. I’m going to call the office right now.”

“That will be awesome because the restaurant is only a few blocks away.”

“How do you know?”

“I’ve just checked it on the Google Maps. It’s very close. So I’ll head there right after the reunion.”

“My bag is almost packed, and I can’t wait to see you again.” He sounded excited.

“Don’t forget swimwear. I can’t wait to hit the beach.”

“Glad to hear that.”

“You won’t believe how much I’ve been working these past few days. But it was a great week.”

“I know, and I’m proud of you, Becky.”

“Thank you, darling. Those words mean a lot to me.”

I hung up the phone and dropped on my bed. Eyes transfixed on the ceiling, I thought about Helen’s proposition. What seemed like a dream less than a month ago was close to becoming real. Maybe applying to a grad school wouldn’t be a bad idea. I could either apply to the U of T or one of the American universities. With my experience at Ashkelon and the Albright Institute, I had a good chance of getting in.

But what would happen after I graduated? Would I be able to find a stable job? Judging from the unemployment rates, chances of getting an academic role were slim. Would Jason even want to move elsewhere if I chose to pursue a degree abroad? How would our families, who were eager to hold a grandchild, feel about all of this? The questions lingered in my head. What I couldn’t deny was that the article had made me proud of myself for the first time in the longest while.

I heard a knock on the door. “Who is there?” I yelled, feeling too lazy to get up.

“It’s me, George. Can I come in?”

“All right, coming.” I got up immediately.

“Hello. May I walk in?”

“Sure. How did you find me?”

“Very easy. The concierge told me your room number.”

“Hmm, I thought they weren’t supposed to.”

“Anyway, I just came by to ask if you would be interested in going to the Old City tomorrow.”

“With everyone?”

“No, just you and me.”

“What is everyone else doing?”

“Caitlin and Megan will be going back to their residences, and the professors will be working for most of the day.”

“How about Avi? Will he come, too?”

“I have no clue what he’s doing.”

“I have to work on my speech for tomorrow. I’ll be speaking at the reunion.”

“Come on, Becky. I’ve seen those speeches before. It’s only a five minute talk. There’s hardly anything to prepare.”

“Will we make it on time?” I asked, trying to find one last excuse to back out.

“Look, we’ll have the entire morning and the afternoon free. It would be lame to waste it by staying inside.”

“Hmm, I’ll think about it.” The idea looked too tempting to ignore. 

“See you at seven-thirty.”

Chapter 19

It’s hard to describe how I was feeling on my last morning at the Albright Institute. I was feeling happy, sad, excited, and a bit teary. The three amazing weeks would end tonight, and I would probably never see anyone from the expedition again. I would miss Ashkelon with its sun and dirt. I would miss the greenery of the Golan Heights. Above all, I would miss spending long hours working on a puzzle made up of foreign words. I decided not to dwell on these complex feelings and to make the best of my last outing with George.

I chose to wear a knee-length skirt and a blouse I had packed specifically for religious sites. I also took the white scarf that came with my purchase at Majdal al-Shams and put it into my purse. I would wear it to the Western Wall.

When I entered the cafeteria, I was quite surprised to discover that George wasn’t there. It was highly unlikely that he had forgotten about our plans for the day, as we had spoken right before going to sleep. I eyed Caitlin and Megan, who were carrying trays with coffee and muffins, and quickly joined them.

“We are leaving today,” Megan announced, putting her tray on the table. “We are going back to our residences on campus.”

“And tomorrow, we are flying back to the States to see our families,” Caitlin added.

“How nice!” I exclaimed, feeling a bit saddened by our parting. “Are you both from the same city?”

“No. Megan is from Boston, and my parents live in Portland, which is only an hour’s drive from Boston,” Caitlin explained. “But since we are going in the same direction, we decided to fly together.”

“Well, have a safe trip home, and I hope to see you again,” I said, already knowing that meeting them again was highly unlikely.

“You should come to Boston someday,” Megan said. “We’ll show you around.”

“Well, the Semitic Museum at Harvard is on my list.” I thought about the rich collection of artefacts from Ashkelon it housed.

“We’ll visit that one as well,” Caitlin promised.

I walked with them to the lobby, where we said our goodbyes. After they hopped in a cab and disappeared, I returned to the cafeteria, where I allowed myself another cup of coffee. Since George was still nowhere in sight, I began to feel annoyed.

“Everything all right?” one of the waiters asked me. I noticed he had a strong Arab accent. According to a name badge, he was called “Ibrahim.”

Ha kolbeseder, toda,” I replied, meaning that everything was fine.

Eich at mozaat at haohel?” he asked, wanting to know how was the food.

Sababa!”

“You student?”

“Not anymore. I’m spending a month here learning about archaeology.”

“Nice. What you do?”

“Well, I initially came to Ashkelon to dig for artefacts but ended up here.” I tried speaking as slowly as possible. Then I decided to switch into Hebrew because it was much easier for both of us.

Ibrahim was a middle-aged man with an unforgettable aura of friendliness. I told him all about my plans to stay in Tel Aviv with Jason. For some reason, I mentioned my fascination with Zohar Argov.

“My youngest daughter loves his disks,” he said, suddenly switching back to English. “Her name is Zeinab.” 

“Really? How old is she?”

Ibrahim stumbled.

Bat cama he?” I repeated the question in Hebrew.

He told me she was seventeen.

“I’d love to meet her.” I tried picturing a young girl, perhaps in hijab or perhaps not, cranking “Elinor” and “Kmo Shikor” while going about her day. Maybe she listened to “Yam Shel Dmaot” when she was feeling sad the same way I did back in high school.

“Then you come to our house,” he said, looking earnest.

“Where do you live?”

“Nablus.”

Nablus. Or better yet Neapolis, the city founded by Vespasian in 72 AD, the home of the Samaritan community. It was also the hometown to someone who liked my favorite music. For a moment, I pictured myself and Zeinab climbing together to Mount Gerizim and singing along.

“Do you commute?” I asked Ibrahim.

“What is commute?” He looked confused.

“Going from one town to another for work,” I explained.

Ken. Kol yom.

“I see. It must be tough.” For some reason, my mind trailed back to my work supervisor who drove to our office from Oshawa every day.

“Will you come to our house?”

“Thanks, but we might not have enough time.” I tried to sound as polite as possible. “We are only here for one week.”

“No let news fool you,” he said, sensing my slight uneasiness. “Nablus is safe.”

“That’s not the issue.” I tried reassuring him, wondering if he had just read my mind. “We might simply run out of time.”

At last, I saw George dash into the cafeteria, looking all dishevelled and distressed. 

“I have to go now,” I said. “It was nice talking to you, Ibrahim.”

“Have good day,” he replied and retreated back to the food stand.

“Hey, is everything OK?” I asked George as he poured his coffee.

“Sorry, I got delayed at the lab,” he muttered. “There was a glitch in the system, and we had to reboot everything.”

“I thought it’s a weekend for everyone.”

“Yeah, but we were having issues with the database, so I had to come downstairs and help. Anyway, I’m sorry for keeping you waiting.”

“No worries. I had a good time here while waiting for you.”

“Yeah, I see.”

George quickly finished his breakfast and suggested to get going.

“Where should we go first?” I asked after we exited the building.

“Since I messed up the morning, you get to decide,” he replied teasingly.

“Rockefeller is the closest, but I’m not sure you want to go there.”

“It sounds like a plan to me.”

We walked through the streets of East Jerusalem, taking time to enjoy the morning sunshine. Even with all the delays in our plan, it was still barely eight-thirty. Life around the city was going on as usual. All the shops and cafés were already open, and a few security officers were idling casually by one of the stores. A group of women in hijabs passed us. Luckily, no one was hurling stones or burning cars like you’d see in the news.

A few blocks later, we were standing in front of a grand limestone edifice known as the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum. It houses one of the finest collections of Holy Land artefacts, most of which had been unearthed during the British Mandate.

The line wasn’t very long, and we quickly made our way to the first gallery, which contained findings from the prehistoric times. A small group of children dressed in identical uniforms passed by with their group leader. One boy started jumping around and singing, and the rest began to misbehave. A museum staff member, who was guarding the gallery, politely asked them to be quiet. The kids obliged, but only for a few seconds. Soon they were laughing and horsing around again.

“And this is exactly why I’m never having kids,” George commented.

“Really?” I was taken aback. Technically, I had nothing against people who chose to stay childfree. Sometimes, I even wondered if motherhood was right for me. However, I didn’t expect to hear these words from George.

“What if you change your mind later?” I asked, thinking about his future partner who would have to accept his decision.

“That’s what everybody says, but you can be certain I won’t change my mind.”

“All right, that’s your choice.”

“Let’s get moving.” 

The next galleries were arranged chronologically, starting with the Bronze Age and ending with the Ottoman Period. Among some of the most-prized artefacts were wooden panels from the Al Aqsa mosque, marble lintels from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Byzantine mosaic floor from Ein Gedi. There were also a few Dead Sea Scrolls on display. George and I were thrilled to spot a few artefacts from Ashkelon. Participation in this dig had given us a sense of belonging to something bigger.

“Maybe my figurine will be on display as well,” I said, recalling my sensational find from the second day of the dig.

“Maybe.” George smiled at me. 

After the museum, we decided to stop at a shawarma place nearby. Since the time was already close to the noon, both of us started to feel hungry.

“I still can’t believe how much we saw this month,” I exclaimed, while getting seated at a small table.

“I know,” George said, while taking a bite from his shawarma wrap. “Shame that we didn’t get to see Beit Guvrin.”

“At least we are in a safer place now.” I took a gulp from my soda can.

“I agree.”

Both of us turned our heads to the TV that was hanging on the wall, broadcasting the latest world news.

“By the way, have you been following the news lately?” he asked half through the meal.

“Not really.”

Ever since my first encounter with Avi, I hadn’t visited the Common Room. I wanted to avoid the English channels like the plague, and I was too busy with my work to care about anything else.

“I’ve been watching the news closely,” George continued. “It turned out they’ve discovered several terrorist tunnels. Can you believe it?”

“Does that mean Hamas militants can sneak into Israeli territory?” I asked, shocked.

“Of course they can! Luckily, IDF is working on destroying them.”

“I still can’t believe the number of casualties in Gaza. I heard it’s over a thousand now.” Even though I strongly supported Israel, I couldn’t help but sympathize with those innocent children whose homes were being destroyed and lives, taken away.

“That’s because Hamas uses its own people as human shields!” Suddenly, he was fuming. “They store weapons in schools and hospitals and then blame this shit on Israel. It’s a smart propaganda move.”

“That’s so horrible! I really wish it would be over by tonight. I mean, I still have a week to spend here, and I want to be safe.” 

“Nothing can happen to us. We are protected by the Iron Dome.”

“What about the tunnels? What if someone manages to use them for kidnappings? It sounds so scary.”

“The Israelis won’t let them. Besides, the tunnels are almost destroyed.”

“Well, I hope so.”

“Want to continue to the Old City?” George asked, taking the trays to the garbage bin.

“Most definitely!”

Damascus Gate was only a few steps away from the eatery. The moment I saw the glorious walled structure, I wanted to pull out my camera and take as many photos as possible. George offered to snap a few picture of me in front of the entrance, and I returned the favour by taking a picture of him on his camera.

Behind the gate was a colourful souk inviting for more photos. We stopped by a few stores, including a jewellery shop, where George bought a pair of Bedouin earrings for his sister.

“I had no idea you have a sister,” I said while he was paying. It occurred to me that he rarely mentioned his family.

“Yes, I do. She’ll be starting university this year.”

“Which one?”

“University of Chicago. She’ll be studying communications.”

“How nice! I have a sister too. An older one. She’s working as an aesthetician in a fancy spa center.”

“What is she like?”

“Beautiful, confident, and successful.” I sighed.

“You sound like you’re a bit jealous,” George remarked.

“Maybe a teeny bit,” I admitted. “But not that much. We’re actually best friends.”

“Becky, do you ever regret choosing archaeology as your major?” he asked as we passed a rug shop.

“Not at all.” I turned to examine one of the rugs that were hanging from the shop’s door. “I love the path I’d chosen even with all its challenges and drawbacks.”

“Why so?”

“Because it had brought me here, to this day, to this place.” I smiled.

He smiled back. “I can say the same.”

We proceeded to a food shop, where I bought some halva candies for my coworkers. Although my return to work was still far away, getting ahead with souvenir shopping wasn’t a bad idea. I also bought small souvenirs for everyone in my family, including a few fridge magnets for Mom and Dad and a colourful plate for Grandma. I kept Erin’s request in mind but hadn’t spotted any stores carrying Dead Sea products yet.

In the meantime, I was seizing the moment and enjoying the Oriental market, which looked much friendlier than East Jerusalem. There were no graffiti walls, no rubble, and no fast cars racing around, just a chain of boutiques with colourful beads and Oriental rugs hanging everywhere. I couldn’t remember how many turns we took through the small streets until we found ourselves in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“Want to go inside?” George asked.

“Definitely!” I replied. There was no way I would miss out on this beautiful and also powerful place.

“I’ll wait for you here.”

“Why don’t you come in as well?”

“I don’t go to churches.”

“Neither do I, but this one is an exception.”

“Nah, I’ll pass.”

“OK, then I’ll go on my own.” I proceeded inside.

Having bought several candles at the entrance, I joined the line leading to the sacred vault. Tourist groups thronged the building. Most women had their heads covered with headscarves, while almost all the men were wearing long pants. I wondered if George refused to come in because of his shorts. If I were in his shoes, I would still try sneaking in.

After the line, I lit a few candles and said a quick prayer for the well-being of everyone in my family and for peace in the Middle East. Then I snapped a few pictures of the dome, the altars, and the Byzantine mosaics. A few minutes later, I was back on the streets walking with George.

“Tell me, why didn’t you go to this church?” I finally asked.

“I don’t like religion as a social institution,” he told me. “It’s meant to manipulate the masses, and I don’t want to be brainwashed.”

“Really?” I was a bit shocked by George’s revelation. Jason never showed any animosity towards religion. During our last visit, he willingly joined me at all the churches and even bought a [_kippah _]as a souvenir. “Are you going to skip the Western Wall as well?”

“Maybe I’ll go there for the sake of pictures.”

“So, are you an atheist?”

“More of an agnostic, I’d say.”

On the Shabbat afternoon, the energy around the Western Wall was special. Dozens of Orthodox Jews in black were flocking to the site. Some were holding holy books while others were simply carrying their notes. I joined the women’s section, where I wrote a small note of gratitude for the last three weeks. I took time to touch the sacred stones and feel their energy.

“Do you think the City of David is open now?” I asked after rejoining George. I was eager to visit this site because it was thought to be the birthplace of Biblical Jerusalem.

“I believe so,” he said, eying his watch, which was showing two-thirty. “We still have some time left, so let’s just go and check.”

What I really liked about Jerusalem was the proximity of all the sites to each other. Even if the City of David was closed, we could still benefit from a nice walk. Fortunately, the site was open.

“By the way, the Hezekiah’s tunnel is very close,” George noted, referring to the strategic tunnel built in the eight century BC by King Hezekiah to defend Jerusalem from the Assyrians.

“Then we should check if it’s open. Although I’ve never there been there, I heard it’s worth visiting.” 

“It definitely is, but you might need water shoes.” He looked down at my sandals. “It can get very wet over there.”

“Oops! I don’t want to trip and fall again.”

“This time, no one will see us.”

“Or force us to wear abayas.” I giggled.

Much to our dismay, the tunnel was closed. However, we still had the entire City of David to ourselves. A small underground entrance led us to the site. From the corner of my eye, I noticed a few black birds flying in the dark and immediately recognized them as bats.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed, feeling a shiver travel down my spine. I’d never seen a real bat before.

“Is everything OK, Becky?” George asked.

“I just don’t like the bats,” I said, pointing at the tunnel behind us. 

“Don’t worry,” George said. “After everything that had happened already, they are just harmless creatures.”

“You are right. The missile alarm on our first field trip gave me real creeps.”

“And so did the solo walk in East Jerusalem, right?” He smirked.

“Says who?” I laughed. On the morning after my outing with Caitlin and Megan, I had truly planned to confront him about his Jericho incident but somehow had forgotten all about it.

“What do you mean, Rebecca?” He was clearly clueless about my knowledge of his escapade.

“Whoever got lost in the West Bank a few years ago is definitely not a clueless dreamer.”

“Oh, you know the story.” George smiled.

“Megan and Caitlin told me when we went out for a drink.”

“What did they say?”

“They said you had no right to be angry at me.”

“I wasn’t angry at you, Rebecca! OK, maybe I overreacted a bit, and I admit it. But the real reason why I acted that way is because I’ve been in your shoes and I know how scary it can be.”

“You made me feel like some misbehaving kid. You said I’m a dreamer living in denial.”

“I’m sorry if I made you feel that way.” He put his arms around my waist.

“I forgive you,” I said playfully.

We were now standing in front of the famous stepped-stone structure, allegedly built way before King David’s rule. Next to the ruins was a small garden with flowers and trees. Sacks and shovels lay on the ground hinting at some sort of an archaeological activity. Classical music was playing from the ground speakers. From afar, I heard a muezzin call up for an afternoon prayer and immediately became mesmerized by the sound of his voice.

I drew myself closer to George. His hands started moving upward, sending chills through the spine. He gently touched my shoulders and moved his hands to the nape of my neck. I, in turn, wrapped my hands around him. I felt his lips on mine and was immediately overtaken by some uncontrollable force. It was nothing I’d experienced before, not even with Jason. I mean, my husband and I had a great chemistry, but with George, everything was different in ways I couldn’t describe.

At matrifa oti,” he said, pulling me to the ground.

“Since when did you start using Hebrew?” I asked, pebbles pressing into my skin.

“I learned it from the song you showed me the other day.”

“I thought you are too cool for love songs.”

“Who told you that?”

“I just assumed. Anyway, it doesn’t matter.”

We were panting while speaking, ready to take each other in. Forget we were out in a tourist site in the broad daylight. Forget an Orthodox Jewish family could walk in any moment and see us. As I felt his lips on mine, his tongue invading my mouth, I wanted time to stop.

“Rebecca, is it you?” I heard someone ask and immediately bolted up. The moment I saw that face, I nearly fainted.

Chapter 20

Honestly, I would rather prefer it were Erin or some other close friend in whom I could confide my darkest secrets and deepest confusions. Or it would be better if none of this had happened at all. So when my university friend, whom I used to see twice a year, caught me lying with a stranger in the broad daylight, I wanted to disappear. To make things worse, she was with some stern-looking lady who reminded me of Miss Andrew from Mary Poppins.

“Hey, Dalia! Good to see you,” I said, trying to look calm.

“Hi, this is my aunt, Sarah,” she replied.

“That’s my husband, Jason.” I pointed at George. “We were doing sightseeing and got lost in the moment.”

Although I could tell Dalia was shocked, she faked a smile. George didn’t say anything either, making me feel relieved. 

“So, what brings you to the City of David?” I asked after a prolonged pause.

“I had a last-minute interview at the Hebrew University. They have an opening for a software engineer.”

“Nice! Are you planning to move here?”

“Well, if I get the job, of course.”

“So you are doing sightseeing, aren’t you?”

“I have a few days left, so I decided why not? Besides, my aunt lives here, and she knows the place very well.”

“So, have you seen the Old City yet?”

“Of course, Rebecca! We just came from there. I think we saw you at the souk.”

For a moment, I wondered how much of us had they seen already. What if they had followed us all the way to the City of David? What if Dalia already told her aunt that her married friend was hanging around with a new guy?

“You should take a bus to Qumran,” I suggested. “It’s very close to here. We’ve been there last time, and it was amazing. Just make sure to pack plenty of water and beware of caracals and…um…ibexes…” I continued rambling in attempt to cover up for my embarrassment.

“Rebecca, don’t you realize I have family here who can take me around?” Dalia snapped.

“Um…Sorry.”

“About what?”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“What are you sorry about, Rebecca?”

“I think we need to go,” I announced before she could say anything else. 

We charged away from the City of David without looking back. I was beyond relieved that no one had exposed me any further during our brief encounter.

“Becky, what the fuck just happened?” George asked, running after me. “Why am I suddenly being someone else?”

“What was I supposed to do? Tell them you’re my coworker? Did you see the stern expression her aunt had? She looked like she was about to trample on me!” I continued walking fast.

“Look, I think we need to talk.”

“There is nothing to talk about. We made a mistake or almost made a mistake and got caught right on time.” I was unsure whether I was angry at or grateful to Dalia for having ruined the moment.

“Can we stop for a sec? I can’t walk that fast and talk.”

“Sure,” I said, my heart pounding from walking so fast. “Although we might want to continue walking,” I added, glancing at my watch.

“Fine, we’ll walk and talk.”

“So, what do you want to talk about?”

He fell silent. “Becky, I know that you are married and everything, and I fully respect that,” he finally said.

“OK.”

“Although I do think you were a bit young to do that.”

“And?”

“The truth is, I really like you, Rebecca.” He sounded sincere.

“Why?” 

“I’ve never met a girl that passionate about archaeology.”

“Not even in grad school?” I was flattered by his confession.

“Never! I like everything about you, from the way you brighten up when you see an artefact to the way you get scared so easily. You are both vulnerable and strong.”

“What do you mean, George?” I was discovering something new about myself.

“You’re not afraid of challenges. I mean, the Albright Institute is a tough place to be, but you don’t seem to be intimidated in the least.”

“I was a bit intimidated in the beginning, but then I found out that everyone is so nice and friendly and—”

“Don’t be fooled by appearances, Rebecca. The level of commitment required there is unbelievable. They’ll make you sweat like crazy.”

“I know, George. But I loved living here. Thank you for bringing me to this place.”

“You are most welcome.” He smiled.

I glanced at the panorama to my right and at the wall to my left. For a moment, I felt happy again. Each of us would move on. This afternoon’s incident would be forgotten. The memories, however, would remain. That feeling of joy didn’t last any longer than a few seconds.

“You know that it wouldn’t work out,” I said at last.

“Maybe it would, if you wanted to,” he insisted.

“It just wouldn’t. We are two different people coming from two different worlds. You have your views on religion, and you don’t want kids. Which is totally fine.”

“Maybe we could learn to respect our differences.”

“Not when we have different goals. I mean, I want kids someday, and you obviously don’t.”

“Ah, I should’ve never said that at the museum.” He waved his hand like it was no big deal.

“Even if you didn’t, it wouldn’t change anything. Whoever you’ll end up with will find it out eventually. So I’m kind of happy you told me the truth from the start.”

“Maybe you would realize that you don’t want kids either, and we would pursue archaeology together.”

The idea of giving up my hopes for a family in favor of archaeology sounded utterly cruel and unfair. 

“I’m not leaving Jason,” I said decisively. “Not in a million years.”

“I know, and I respect you even more for that.” 

Tears rose in my eyes. “I appreciate that, George.”

He turned to me and took my face into his hands. “Please don’t cry, Becky. You must promise to think about your future.”

“Yes, I will,” I said, after recomposing myself. “In fact, I’m thinking about going back to school.”

“Good for you.”

“It won’t be easy now that I’ve got so many other responsibilities, but maybe taking a plunge will be worth it.”

“That’s why I think you should’ve held off on the whole marriage thing. But I’m not going to pressure you into anything. In fact, I promise to never touch you again if that’s what you want. However, you must promise me to seriously reconsider your priorities. A brilliant girl like you shouldn’t feel trapped.”

“I’m not trapped by anything!” I retorted.

“Whatever you choose, I only wish you the best. So if you decide that grad school isn’t for you, it’s all right.”

“I know. I know.”

By the time we reached the Albright Institute, all the staff people were already gathered in the lobby, and the bus was waiting to be boarded. I quickly ran upstairs and grabbed the suitcase I had packed last night. Just as I was about to leave the room, my phone rang. I wanted to ignore it, but something urged me to pick it up. 

“Hello.”

“Hi, Becky,” Dalia began. “Listen, we need to talk.”

“Dalia, I’m sorry, but I’m running late.” I instantly regretted giving her my Israeli cell phone number one night when we were chatting on Facebook.

Before I could disconnect, she said, “Becky, I don’t know what’s going between you and that guy, but I must warn you against your biggest mistake.”

“I’m really sorry for what happened today. Thanks for covering me up.”

“Is that everything you care about?”

“No! It was just so awkward. You, your aunt! Can you please not tell anything to anyone else? Please!” I probably sounded pathetic.

“Fine, I won’t.” She sighed.

“Dalia, I am actually running late. We are going to Tel Aviv to have a reunion with the rest of the team. The bus is waiting for me downstairs.”

“Wait, before you hang up on me, I must tell you that good men are hard to find and to keep.”

“Why are you so concerned about me?” I dropped the suitcase and sat on a bed. Running away from this phone conversation was pointless.

“Look at me. I’m almost thirty and still single.”

“Dalia, don’t be ridiculous! Twenty-nine is still considered young.”

“Maybe in your culture it’s not a big deal, but in mine, being over twenty-five and unmarried is considered a failure. You can’t imagine what it feels like to be constantly bugged about your status.”

“Ah-ha, so you are also worried about what others think.” Now it was me turning tables.

“Becky, you and Jason have such a good thing going. Many would kill to have that life of yours. Don’t ruin it with some random guy.”

“Thanks for the advice, but I do need to run.” According to my watch, I was already ten minutes late. [_What if everyone had already left without me? _]I thought.

“Have a great night, Rebecca.”

I hung up the phone impatiently and ran to the lobby. Just as I predicted, everyone was already on the bus ready to depart.

“Sorry, I had an important call to take,” I told the driver. He didn’t reply, but gave me an angry look. I couldn’t blame him.

Chapter 21

I tried rehearsing my speech on the bus. Last night, I had quickly skimmed through the Power Point presentations on Ashkelon and the Albright Institute and discovered that most of the information wasn’t new to me. So I fell asleep shortly afterwards. Now I was sitting quietly by myself, watching the green Hill Country transform into yellow plains, and clutching the USB in my pocket.

Soon I saw skyscrapers on the horizon and realized we were approaching Tel Aviv. We drove through busy suburbs and finally stopped in front of a chain of restaurants located close to the beach area.

“Do you need some help?” George asked me as I was trying to haul my suitcase out of the bus.

“Sure.” I felt a bit awkward about everything that had transpired between us.

He quickly grabbed the suitcase and placed it in front of me. Then he took out his and proceeded to the restaurant. The staff followed us.

“What do I do with my baggage?” I asked one of the waiters in Hebrew.

“You can leave it here.” He pointed at a corner that was already piled with suitcases and duffel bags. “We’ll watch it for you.”

The waiter quickly led us to the restaurant room, which had full-length windows that showcased a garden located behind the building. Some of the volunteers from Ashkelon were already seated at wooden tables that had been pushed together to make one long table. I recognized my three former roommates, who were chatting together, and quickly joined them.

“Oh, hi, Becky!” Madeline exclaimed. I moved closer, choosing an empty seat next to her.

“How was your stay at the Albright?” Janice asked.

“It was amazing. I learned so much during one week.”

“I bet you had lots of fun with that hot guy from Wheaton College,” she added.

“I worked on translating a Hebrew article about prehistoric settlements,” I explained, ignoring her comment.

“Wow! We had no idea your Hebrew is that good!” Madeline exclaimed.

“Me neither. In fact, I was pretty sure I’d bomb the task, but I made it in the end!” From the corner of my eye, I noticed Helen sitting one table away from us. I wondered if she could hear me.

“Anyway, I’m speaking tonight.” So far, I still had no clue what my speech would sound like.

“I’m pretty sure you’ll do a great job, Rebecca,” Madeline said calmly.

A waitress arrived with four menus and asked if we’d like something to drink. We ordered four glasses of beer.

“How was Megiddo?” I finally asked.

“Not bad,” Janice replied. “We found a few interesting pottery pieces. But like I said, I’m not doing archaeology again. It’s too much slaving under the sun.”

“I agree,” Madeline added. “It was just an elective we decided to take for fun.”

“At least we managed to make it through the program,” Janice commented. “I was getting worried the whole thing would get cancelled.”

“I know,” I said, sympathizing. “I’d be worried too if I paid my tuition fee and got nothing in return.”

“Why do we have to talk about school now?” Rachel protested. “Let’s just choose our meals.”

We made our choices quickly. Feeling a bit weary of the local food, we all chose typical American dishes, such as poutine, hamburger, and chicken pot pie. It wasn’t until this moment that I realized I was starting to miss American food.

As we were eating, I thought about what I would say when my name got called. Even now, I had a very faint idea about my speech.

“What are your plans for the summer?” Madeline asked halfway through the meal.

“Huh?”

“I plan to kick off during August,” she said, ignoring my silence.

“Say it again?”

“Good evening, everyone,” Daniel Master announced. “Thank you for staying with us until the end of the term. Before we begin our evening, I would like to introduce a special speaker. Everyone, please welcome Rebecca O’Connor-Smith.”

Everyone clapped. As soon as I got up from the chair, my knees started shaking. For a few seconds, it felt like I had forgotten everything.

“Here you go.” Daniel passed me a microphone.

“Good evening everyone!” I feigned confidence. “It’s a pleasure for me to be here tonight…”

I stumbled for a bit. Then, after a few seconds, my speech started flowing. I talked about the sites of Ashkelon and Megiddo, the history of the Albright Institute, and life on a dig versus life in a lab. I even shared some of the insights into the article I had translated and some of the struggles I had encountered along the way. I concluded my talk by emphasizing the role of persistence in academic success. The moment I finished speaking, I was greeted by a big applause.

“Congratulations!” Janice exclaimed after I rejoined the table. “You were amazing!”

Soon, all the volunteers started coming to our table one-by-one and congratulating me on the speech. I received hugs from Karen, Claire, Luke, and a few others whom I had gotten to know on the dig. When George’s turn came, he held me tightly and whispered in my ear that I was a talented speaker.

At some point, I became wary of the attention and excused myself to the bathroom to get some quiet time. To my dismay, Rachel followed me.

“So you are being the star of the Orient,” she told me while we were fixing our makeup. For the first time, I noticed how beautiful she looked in her silky red dress, and how elaborate her hair up-do was. Although I had a speaker role, I hadn’t even bothered to change and was still wearing the same clothes I had worn to the Old City.

“Is it wrong?” I tried ignoring her tone.

“You always get what you want, Rebecca.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you think that someone else might have wanted to speak tonight?”

“Well, I found out I would be speaking in the very last minute. I didn’t even want the speech.”

“Ha! You think I’ll believe you.” She pointed at me with her comb. “It was probably a well-calculated plan to get everyone’s attention. You wanted to shine, didn’t you?”

“Rachel, what’s going on?” I was getting tired of her constant bugging.

“What’s going on? I’ll tell you.” She tossed the comb into the sink. “I was supposed to be the speaker. I volunteered to speak a long time ago. I had a presentation prepared and everything, and in the last minute, they told me not to bother. Can you imagine how I felt?”

“Oh, I’m really sorry. I swear it wasn’t planned by me.”

“Why did you have to steal George from me?” she continued on. “Aren’t you married?”

“When did I steal him? We just ended up becoming friends. Well, we kind of took it a bit too far, but I would’ve never stolen anyone. He just wasn’t interested in you. Sorry, nothing I could do.”

“You are such a vixen, Rebecca.”

I wasn’t sure if I supposed to laugh or cry. Me? A quiet girl from Oakville? I couldn’t even stand up for myself at work. How did I turn into a vixen in one day? 

“By the way, your outfit looks horrible, and your skirt is soiled.”

I looked down and saw a small black stain at the bottom of my skirt. Clearly, fashion wasn’t my strongest suit.

“So what?” I asked in an attempt at self-defense. “Everyone still liked my presentation.”

“You don’t deserve any of the attention everyone gives you.”

“Whatever. I’m going back to our table. You are more than welcome to move if you don’t like my company.”

I stormed out of the bathroom and quickly reached my seat. Janice and Madeline were talking animatedly among themselves. As soon as I sat down, they stopped.

“Is everything all right?” Madeline asked. “Did you two have a fight in a bathroom?”

“Well, Rachel is mad at me for stealing her speech. She planned to be the speaker.”

“That’s so funny!” Janice exclaimed.

“I kind of feel bad for her because she had her speech and stuff.”

“Don’t feel bad,” Madeline protested. “Look, you did a great job, and she’s being jealous. Plain and simple.” 

“Exactly,” Janice said. “So don’t worry about it.”

From the way the two girls were exchanging looks and sharing muffled laughs, I could tell that something wasn’t quite right. As for Rachel, she was gone since our argument and hadn’t come back. Feeling slightly uneasy with myself, I decided to step outside and get some fresh air. I opened the restaurant door, took a few steps, and froze. The scene that was unfolding before my eyes looked surreal.

“Why did you do this to me?” Rachel screamed. “I came all the way over here to show you how much I care. I sweated for three whole weeks to prove that I’ve changed. I put my life in danger. And you left me for this bitch!”

“Chill out, Rach. We were over long before this trip.” George tried acting cool. “And no one asked you to come to Ashkelon.”

“Don’t you realize she’s using you? I bet she coerced you to find her a place at… What’s that called again? Ambright?”

“Look, Becky and I are not even together. Fine, maybe we shared one afternoon, but she’s going back to her husband. And she would never use anyone, for that matter.” He was spitting out his words.

“Excuse me?” I finally said. Both looked in my direction.

“Becky, I can explain,” George began.

“What’s there to explain?” I felt like crying.

“Why don’t you tell her the frigging truth?” she yelled.

“What truth?” I felt lost.

“That we’ve been together for five whole years before you decided to call it quits.”

“I thought it was mutual.” 

“Wait! Are you…?”

“She’s my ex-girlfriend, Becky.” George looked guilty.

“The one who broke up with you because of your work commitments?” My mind traced back to the conversation we had had by the pool.

“Well, it was more complicated than that.”

“I can’t believe you shared our problems with her.” Rachel looked hurt. Suddenly, I realized that underneath this iciness was simply a girl with broken hopes. Still, I couldn’t empathize with her, at least, not until she learned to respect me. 

“Rach, I’m sorry,” George said.

“She’s using you to get famous, and you’re using her to prove that you’ve moved on. Both of you deserve each other.”

“Rachel, I’m really sorry for the way everything had turned out,” I said. “I’m sure you’ll find your happiness with someone else.”

“I hope you get in a car accident!” She looked at me with eyes full of hate.

“Please don’t say those things.” I’ve always believed that words have special power.

“You deserve to die, Becky. Or at least, get severely injured.” With these words, she stormed off.

For a moment, George and I just looked at each other, my shock being palpable.

“Becky, I’m sorry,” he finally said. “I should’ve warned you ahead of time. I didn’t expect her to flare up.”

“You don’t need to apologize,” I muttered and went back inside.

Everyone in the room was eating and talking avidly. Janice and Madeline were laughing hysterically. As soon as I showed up at our table, they stopped.

“What’s going on?” I asked. “Something funny?”

“We should ask you the same question,” Janice said, clearly trying to suppress the giggles.

“Wait, did you know?”

“You mean Rachel and George?”

“Yes, them.”

“Well, most volunteers know the story,” Madeline admitted. “She’s trying to win him back.”

“Then why didn’t you tell me?” I was beyond angry.

“Wasn’t it you who said George and you were just friends?” Janice shrugged.

“You could’ve warned me at least!”

“It was entertaining to see you two interact while she was seething quietly by herself.”

“What? No!” I put my hands over my head.

I’d been let down many times, but not by people I’d considered my friends. I came to this dinner hoping that we would sit together, discuss our best impressions of the expedition, and perhaps share a few good laughs.  Instead, I discovered that everyone had been conspiring against me.

“Goodnight, everyone.” I got up from the table and paced to the front. 

“Wait, Becky! Where are you going?” Madeline yelled after me. “Please come back.”

I quickly paid my bill and was about to leave when I realized it would be a good idea to say goodbye to Helen and to the rest of the field team. After all, they had given me an amazing opportunity to work at the Albright Institute and to give this talk. As horrible as it may sound, a tiny part of me felt flattered about being chosen over Rachel. So I turned around and walked to the staff’s table. Helen, Daniel, Lawrence, and a few others were sitting together, talking.

“Hi, I just came over to say goodbye,” I began.

“Oh, hi, Rebecca! Good to see you!” Helen exclaimed. “You did an amazing job tonight!”

“Thank you for the opportunity to work with your team.” I turned to Daniel and Lawrence.

“You are most welcome,” Lawrence replied. “We hope to see you again next year. Let me know if you ever need a recommendation letter.”

“You can also count on me,” Daniel added.

“And me,” Helen said.

“Well, it was a big honor for me to work with everyone of you.”

“Thank you, Rebecca. You’ve been tremendous help to our team.”

After saying goodbye to everyone, I grabbed the suitcase and left the building. Maybe if I got away from this place fast, Rachel’s curse wouldn’t have any effect on me.

“Hey, Becky, where are you going?” George yelled after me when I was already outside.

“To my hotel,” I replied, wheeling the suitcase behind me.

“I’m about to leave, too. Want to share a taxi?”

“No thanks.” I continued walking.

“Rebecca, I’m sorry for not telling you earlier. I should’ve…”

“George, I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Fine. Look, there’s a taxi. Let’s hurry up.” With my baggage weighing more than a ton, I had no choice but to comply.

The ride to the hotel was very quick. After passing a few busy streets, the cab turned to a quiet residential area and stopped in front of a medium-rise building. I quickly paid my share and was about to leave when George stopped me.

“Wait, I’ll walk you to the entrance.”

“Don’t you need to go?” 

“For the money we’ve paid, the taxi will wait. Where’s your hotel.”

“Here.” I showed him the printout of the hotel’s map.

“Are you sure we are in the right place?” George asked, staring at one of the residential buildings.

“I’m positive it is. It’s supposed to be a hotel apartment.” I looked at the sheet again.

“Ah, I see.”

“I’ll figure it out, George.”

“Well, I guess it’s time to say goodbye.” He smiled. “I hope you’ll end up with good memories of this trip.”

“I will.”

He came closer and embraced me. His touch was still sizzling, but I was ready to put the feeling behind.

“You should go. Your cab is waiting,” I repeated myself.

“I hope to see you again, and I really hope you continue with archaeology.”

“Goodbye, George.”

Chapter 22

As soon as the taxi disappeared from the view, I picked my suitcase and walked towards the building, which truly didn’t look like a hotel. I looked at the paper again. I was indeed in the right place. I just had to find a reception desk and register for my room. I opened the door and walked inside, hoping to find at least a sign leading to the lobby. Inside was a staircase leading to different storeys and a small floor flanked by a door on one side. The door had a metal lock with numbers.

Could I’ve made a mistake? I thought for a minute. However, the door next to me had the same unit number as the one indicated on the sheet. At the top right corner of the printout was a phone number, which I hadn’t noticed before. I quickly took out my cell phone and keyed it in. I was immediately directed to a voice mail, which repeated the same message in Hebrew, English, and some other language, probably Russian.

[_Hello! You’ve reached Holiday Rentals. Our office hours are nine to five Monday to Friday. If you are calling within these hours, we are either away or on the phone with another client. Please leave your name, your phone number, and a brief message, and we will get back to you as soon as possible. We _]

hope you have a great vacation. Thank you for choosing Holiday Rentals.

The beeping sound followed after the third repeat of the message. I was in a big trouble. Apparently the office, the location of which I hadn’t even found, was closed. I was alone inside some strange apartment building without any clue how to get into my unit. I left a message explaining my situation and urging someone to call me back as soon as possible. Maybe someone was staying in the office during afterhours and could help me.

I sat on a stair peering at my cell and waiting for a call back. However, no one called. I let out a gasp of frustration. Hadn’t Jason told them I was coming? My only option was to sleep on the stairs and call again next morning. The moment he arrived, we would demand a refund.

I zipped the suitcase open and took out the beach towel I’d been using way back in Ashkelon. It was long enough to accommodate me from the knees up to my head. I lay it on the floor next to my door and sat down. Falling asleep was next to impossible, but I didn’t have a better choice. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Still, I could not stop thinking about events of the day. 

In the morning, I was still a good person, and by the evening I became a cheater and a liar. Worst of all, my friend found out and was probably thinking horrible things about me. Plus that dinner and Rachel’s insults threw me off track. Having nothing else to do, I took out my cell phone, clicked on the top number in my call history, and composed a message: “Hi Dalia! You were absolutely right. I’ve made a mistake, but I’m going to make amends. Best of luck with your interview.” 

I heard the door downstairs open and bolted up. It was a lady with grayish hair and a pale complexion. I was beyond relieved it wasn’t a group of big guys in gagster attire. Not that I expected any in central Tel Aviv.

“Hi, can I help you?” she asked me with a strong Slavic accent. I immediately explained my situation in Hebrew.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that! You can stay at our place for the night,” she told me.

“It’s so kind of you, but I’ll be fine.” Spending a night on apartment stairs would be scary and painful and even humiliating. However, staying over at a stranger’s place would be even worse.

Nu, metuka! What are you going to do here at night? Let’s go!” She urged me to get up.

I quickly shoved my towel back into the suitcase and followed her to the second floor.

“I’m Svetlana, by the way,” she introduced herself while keying in the code. I figured that my unit probably had a similar one, but I still had to find out the exact number.

“I’m Rebecca.”

Someone opened the door from the other side. It was a man around her age. He had gray hair and was wearing Adidas pants and a simple T-shirt. The two exchanged words in an unfamiliar language. For a second, I felt scared that she would change her mind, and I would have to spend the night on the stairs. Then I realized they could still help me to find another place to stay overnight.

“This is my husband, Roman,” Svetlana said, smiling at me.

“Hi.” I offered a handshake.

“Come in,” he replied.

I obliged. To my left was a kitchen built according to the open concept. Pots and pans were hanging everywhere, and a sizable number of [_matryoshkas _]were lined up on top of the fridge. Next to the kitchen was a living room with a huge carpet with a floral pattern adorning one of its walls. The TV was playing some black and white movie.

“Thank you so much. I’m really sorry for all of this,” I said, feeling truly uncomfortable about everything. I couldn’t imagine taking in a total stranger myself.

“No, don’t worry. It’s not your fault,” Svetlana said. “She was supposed to get a hotel room downstairs, but they won’t let her,” she explained to her husband in Hebrew.

Nu i kozli!” Roman exclaimed.

“What does it mean?” I asked.

“A Russian word for idiots,” Svetlana replied. 

We laughed.

“By the way, you can use Hebrew with me,” I finally said.

Svetlana asked me if I was hungry, and I politely declined by telling her about the dinner I’d had an hour ago. So she offered me a cup of tea instead, which I gladly accepted. Tea had always helped me to calm my nerves. She served it to me in a small china cup accompanied by a plate of biscuits.

The three of us sat on the couch and talked for a while. Since we all spoke Hebrew quite well, there was virtually no language barrier. Except for a few words I had to clarify, I understood them perfectly well.

They told me they were originally from the Ural region of Russia, but I couldn’t memorize the name of their hometown. They also told me about their immigration to Israel in the early nineties, when the Gulf War was raging through the Middle East. Apparently, it wasn’t easy for them to leave the old life behind and move to a new country with a completely different language and culture. Bringing two children, a ten-year-old and a baby, made the whole aliyah even harder for the family. 

“Misha, our son, was a miracle baby,” Svetlana explained. “Although we already had a daughter, we were hoping for another child. For years and years, we’d been trying, but to no avail.”

“Then she got pregnant soon after we filed our immigration paperwork,” Roman continued. “When we landed in Israel, Misha was only four months old.”

“That must have been very challenging for all of you,” I commented, thinking about all the immigrant families who came to Canada in hopes of a better life.

“It would have been easier if there were no war going on.” Svetlana sighed. “The Gulf War was a total nightmare!”

“Worse than this year?” I couldn’t stifle my curiosity.

“Much worse!” Roman gave me a serious look. “But we also have some funny memories from that time. Should we tell her?” He turned to Svetlana.

“Go ahead, honey, tell her our story.”

“Well, one day on our first week of the arrival, the four of us decided to go for a walk. We were on Disenhof when the siren rang.”

“Sounds familiar.” I recalled the morning of our group trip to Eilat.

“Since we didn’t know the language, we had no idea what was going on. So we kept walking until we realized we’d gotten lost. We tried finding our way back to the hotel but had no luck. In the end, we knocked on someone’s door to ask for directions, and when he saw us, he was shocked. ‘What are you doing outside without a gas mask?’ he asked us. We had no idea the siren meant leaving the streets and putting on a gas mask immediately.”

“Wow!” I was shocked by their story, for it was far crazier than all of my adventures combined. 

“We ended up staying overnight at his place. Since he didn’t have four spare masks, we had to apply wet clothes for protection. We found the way back next morning, but, boy, I was so scared for my children, especially for the little one!”

“Now it’s something to laugh about.” Roman concluded the story with a throaty laugh.

For a moment, I wondered if such an approach to life could help me become a better person—if I could move on from my mistakes and learn how to laugh at them. In this world, danger could easily become a normal part of life. If it weren’t for a sense of humor, most of us would be living in a perpetual fear. 

“What do your kids do?” I finally asked.

“Well, Sonia lives in New York with her husband,” Svetlana replied. “They recently had their second baby.”

“You are grandparents! How nice!” I felt sincerely happy for them.

“Yes, we are!” Roman brimmed with pride.

“Misha is studying engineering at the University of Haifa,” Svetlana added. “He’s a great boy.”

“What made you stay here for all these years?” I found myself asking. For me, it would be lack of harsh winters and endless sightseeing opportunities. For them, it was probably something else.

“Israel is our home,” Svetlana said, smiling. “You don’t leave your true home the moment troubles arise.”

Having thought about her words, I asked myself if Toronto had ever been my true home. I decided that it probably wasn’t. In fact, it was mainly the place of struggles, disappointments, and ultimately growth. My experience with living in Toronto wasn’t all bad. After all, it was the city where I had finished university and met my love. Yet I wouldn’t call it my true home. If I had a chance to leave it for something better, I would definitely do so.

“How about yourself, Rebecca?” Roman asked at last. “What brings you to Tel Aviv?”

“Yes, tell us your story,” Svetlana pressed on.

I told them everything about my expedition to Ashkelon and Megiddo, the trips to Eilat and the Golan Heights, and my final stop at the Albright Institute. I didn’t spare any details about East Jerusalem.

“Be careful,” Roman warned me.

“You won’t believe how dangerous it can be in some parts of the region,” Svetlana added.

Roman and Svetlana were very surprised by my profound knowledge of the country they had been living in for almost twenty years. It turned out they’ve hardly ever left Tel Aviv, except for occasional trips to Jerusalem during holidays.

“Maybe we should travel more,” Svetlana admitted after I described the megalith I had seen in the Golan Heights.

“That’s exactly what I’ve been telling you!” Roman exclaimed. “Instead, you prefer to spend every weekend at home cooking.”

“Excuse me? I can stop cooking if you like. Then you’ll complain about lack of food.”

Even when they started arguing, I could tell they weren’t truly angry. Roman and Svetlana belonged to those couples who had gone through a lot, fought every now and then, but still loved each other deeply. 

After we finished our talk, Svetlana prepared a room for me to sleep in. It was amazing how neither she or her husband was bothered by the fact that I was a complete stranger from another country staying in their guest room.

I lay down with my eyes open. My phone buzzed. I immediately reached for it in my pocket, hoping to find a message from Dalia. ”Message not sent,” the phone informed me. I sighed and immediately dialled the number. I really wanted to talk to my friend and apologize to her for everything.

Shalom,” a female voice said.

“Oh, hi,” I replied timidly. “Can I please talk to Dalia?”

“Dalia is sleeping already,” she said, pronouncing every syllable. “Who is calling?”

“It’s her friend.”

I heard Dalia whisper in Russian.

Horosho,” the lady mumbled, passing the telephone.

“Hi, Dalia! It’s Rebecca. I’m sorry for being rude to you this afternoon. You were right. George was a mistake.”

“Oh…” I heard Dalia yawn. “Wait, I think the speaker’s on.” 

For a moment, I heard mumbling and clicking sounds on the other line.

“OK, now it’s off. So, what were you saying?”

“Dalia, I’ve made a huge mistake. I should’ve never gotten involved with George, let alone lie about him to your aunt. I’m sorry. I hope you haven’t said anything.”

“Becky, I’m really tired now. I had a very long day. We can talk tomorrow, OK?”

“No problem.”

“I tried reaching you earlier, but you were busy.”

“Fine, Dalia. Goodnight.”

By this point, my face was burning hot, and tears were welling up in my eyes. I was not going to call her the next day or ever. In fact, I would probably avoid her for the rest of our days.

Chapter 23

Before leaving next morning, I thanked Roman and Svetlana for the millionth time and even offered to pay for their hospitality. They, however, flat out refused to hear anything about payment.  

“You can rely on us anytime,” Svetlana said. “You should come by with your husband.”

“I’m sure we’ll run into each other at some point,” I replied, thinking about the week ahead.

“Best of luck in resolving that hotel problem,” Roman said.

“Thanks, I’ll need it.”

The moment I tried to bring my baggage downstairs, Roman ran after me and offered his help.

“It’s OK. I can manage.”

They refused to leave me alone downstairs until I got hold of the hotel office. Roman even offered to talk to them for me, but I insisted on doing the job myself. 

As soon as I reached the hotel reception and explained what had happened earlier, I received a wave of apologies and promises for a refund. The representative was at the apartment building in no time.

“Hi, my name is Omer. How can I help you?” he said with an Israeli accent.

“I need to open the door,” I replied in Hebrew.

Oh, at medaberet Ivrit.”

“I also need to get my refund for last night,” I continued. “I had a reservation booked, but no one came over to help me.”

“I see. The check-in was at five last night, so technically, you were late. But we’ll try to sort it out.”

Toda,” I replied curtly.

Omer quickly showed me how to open the door, and I tried the code myself a few times to make sure I got it right. He gave me a quick tour of the apartment unit, which looked more like a luxury condo than a hotel. I realized Jason and I were extremely lucky with our choice. 

At the time Jason was booking the trip, this apartment unit was available for a reduced price, so we went for it. Now we would have a large living room, a fully equipped kitchenette, a spacious bedroom, and another room with a spare bed, all to ourselves.

“If you two have a fight, there is an extra bedroom here,” Omer joked, pointing at the two-levelled bed, most likely intended for kids.

“No jokes like this, please.” At this time, I couldn’t even imagine it was a possibility. 

“No problem.”

Omer tested the stove and showed how to regulate the water temperature in the shower. He also promised to get back to me about the refund. As soon as he left the unit, I plopped down on a leather couch and closed my eyes.

I still couldn’t believe I had allowed all the drama to happen to me. Falling for someone’s ex, becoming a cheater, getting caught by a friend, and being ridiculed by former roommates was too much for me to handle at once. I had to talk to someone and to let everything out. So I took out my phone and dialled Erin’s number.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Erin. How are you?”

“I’m OK. Yourself?”

“I’m fine. Anything new?” I didn’t want to jump into my story without first asking my sister about her life.

“Well, I’m taking a vacation next week,” she announced.

I was a bit surprised by the news. Erin always planned her time off in advance.

“Where are you going?”

“I don’t know yet. All I know is that I need a break from all this bullshit.” She sounded frustrated.

“What happened?” I became alarmed. Maybe her problems were worse than mine. 

“Nothing. I’m just tired, and I need a break.”

“Busy?”

“Yeah. Plus all the dating crap. I need to get away, Becky. I can’t stand it here anymore.”

“Another bad date?”

“Long story. Don’t want to talk about it now. Just tell me about yourself. How was your last week in Jerusalem? Did you have a good time last night?”

“Erin, I need to talk to you about something.”

“So tell me.” There was an undeniable sense of worry in her voice.

I took a deep breath before starting my story. “Yesterday, George and I went out for a walk. One thing led to another, and we kissed.” I spoke as fast as I could.

There was a moment of silence. Was Erin shocked by my confession? Maybe I shouldn’t have told her. At the back of my mind, I was already regretting my decision to call her.

“One of my former roommates turned out to be his ex-girlfriend, and now she thinks I stole him from her.”

“What? You stealing someone’s boyfriend?” She laughed.

“She also thinks I’m a goal-oriented bitch who is capable cutting throats and stepping on others’ heads.”

Erin laughed again. “Becky, as far as I know, you hadn’t even caught a fly in your life. All right, maybe once, you tried to catch a bee when you were seven, but it stung you.”

“To be honest, I feel like crap right now. Worst of all, Dalia and her aunt caught us in action. She’s in Jerusalem now. Erin, it was so horrible! I wanted to disappear.”

“So what if she saw you? First of all, your life is none of Dalia’s or anyone else’s business.”

“You think so?

“For sure! She’s not even your best friend. She’s got no right to meddle with your choices.”

“Well, we do have some concert memories together.”

“That’s because she tolerates your crap music.” I could almost see Erin rolling her eyes.

My favorite music was probably the only thing Erin and I never discussed, especially after that Arabic concert we had gone to many years ago. She thought my preference for the exotic sound was whacky, weird, and uncool.

“We all slip sometimes,” she continued. “I had a similar incident a long time ago. I’m pretty sure she slipped, too, at some point in time.”

“What happened to you?”

“I cheated on my college boyfriend. And by that, I mean full-blown action, not just a kiss.”

“Wow, you never told me.” The news sent me into a mild shock. 

“It was probably the only secret I ever had from you, Becky. Mind you, I did feel terrible after.”

“The two of you broke up, anyway, and I want to stay together with Jason.”

“Oh, Becky, don’t even go there. We broke up for a totally different reason. Our careers took us into different directions. As for you and Jason, it doesn’t seem very likely to happen.”

“Actually, the career might be a problem.”

“How so?”  

“You know how unhappy I am at my current job.”

“We’ve all known that for quite a while.”

“Erin, I’m thinking about grad school.”

“Well, if you believe it’s right for you, then you should go for it.”

“I just can’t imagine how it can happen now that Jason and I are married and planning to have kids.”

“You know what, Becky? No offense to Jason, ’cause he’s definitely a good catch, but I do think you were a bit hot-headed four years ago.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think you should’ve hung in there for a few more years and figured out what you truly wanted in your life. Instead, you jumped at the first chance to tie the knot. It wasn’t the wisest thing to do in your situation.”

“Erin, are you telling me my marriage was a mistake?” I asked in horror.

“Well, I have no idea what happened between you and the other guy, so I can’t tell.”

“I developed a small crush on him; that’s all.”

“You have to be honest with yourself, Becky. Are you in love with George? If so, how far are you willing to go to be happy?”

“I don’t think I’m that in love. It was more of the newness thing. Being with him felt fresh and exciting, but I don’t think it would’ve worked out in the real life.”

“Well, if you want to keep your marriage as it is, you don’t have to say anything to Jason. Just keep on being your usual self, and with time, things will get back to normal.”

“But what if I want to be truthful from now on?”

“Then the decision is up to you.”

“Well, you’re not helping me here,” I wailed. I was hoping for quick advice but ended up becoming even more confused than before.

“That’s because you need to grow up and start making your own choices, Becky.”

“I am a grown-up!” I shrieked.

“Look, I need to go now. I’m late for work.”

“Have a great day, Erin.” 

Having put down the phone, I got up from the couch and walked towards the bathroom. What I saw in the mirror wasn’t a pretty sight. My mascara was smudged, my hair was all over the place, and my face was covered in red blotches. It was not the best way to look for one’s spouse after three weeks of separation.

I took a warm shower and slipped on a white, fluffy bathrobe that was hanging on the door. The feel of fresh fabric against my skin made me feel all cozy and warm. Then I turned on the TV and was immediately directed to an English channel, which was showing the Gaza conflict. More casualties were being reported. The two sides were considering a ceasefire, but the peace talks weren’t going anywhere. I switched to a Hebrew channel, which was showing a concert by Maor Edri. I watched it for a while until I fell asleep on the couch.

A sudden knock on the door woke me up. I stumbled towards the entrance and asked who it was.

“Becky, it’s me!” I heard Jason exclaim.

I knew I was supposed to jump with joy and wrap my arms around him, but something was stopping me. I simply said, “Come in,” and took his suitcase from him.

“What’s wrong, love? You don’t look happy,” he noted.

“Er, nothing’s wrong. Just a bit tired from the last night.”

“Ah, I see. Too much partying, right?”

“Not really. I left early. I just couldn’t get into the unit and had to stay over at our neighbour’s place.”

“What? I’m going to phone the idiots and demand for a refund right now!”

“No need to. I’ve already spoken with the representative, and he promised to get back to me.”

He calmed down for a bit. “Anyway, don’t you want to greet your husband properly? I’ve been ten hours on the plane, and all I get is a sad face.”

“Oh yes, definitely. Sorry for not being in my best mood.” I came closer to him, and we embraced each other. His familiar scent felt comforting. After all, I still loved him. I simply needed time to get past my massive confusion. We walked into the bedroom.

“Are you hungry?” I asked, helping him remove his sweaty T-shirt.

“A little bit. But first, I want to spend some time with you.” He pulled me closer to him.

“Then you should go to the shower,” I commanded, trying to sound playful.

“Most definitely,” he replied. “Would you like to join me?”

“I’m not dirty,” I said jokingly. “I’ll wait for you here.”

“Well, as you wish.” He grabbed a towel and disappeared.

A few minutes later, he reappeared completely naked except for a towel draped around his waist. He grabbed me by the nape of the neck and started kissing me. I tried to relax and enjoy our time together, but my mind kept going back to the City of David.

“Jason, I’m not in the mood right now.” I pulled away from him.

“Becky, what’s wrong?” He looked mildly disappointed.

“I’m really sorry, but I’m starving at the moment. Can we do it a bit later?”

“All right, let’s just go and find something to eat then.” 

We walked down Ben Yehuda Street until we spotted a small eatery. A woman in a long skirt with a scarf around her head welcomed us. My attention was caught by her dark eye shadow and long earrings. It always amazed me how some Jewish observant women could beat Carrie Bradshaw and Rachel Green with their sense of style. Having looked at the menu, we quickly decided to go with two falafel plates.

During our first stay in Israel, it was virtually impossible to convince Jason to try this dish, for he could not believe that anything that wasn’t meat could taste good. One time, I offered him some of my falafel, and he reluctantly took it from me. Then he completely fell in love with the dish. He even tried to coax me into making it at home, but our first and also last attempt turned into a complete disaster. After the fire alarm went off from the foul smell of burnt chickpeas, we resolved to keep relying on Shawarma King.

“So, tell me more about your excavation adventure,” Jason asked.

“Oh, it was amazing!” I replied. “I learned so much during the last three weeks, especially at the Albright Institute.” I was getting into a better mood.

“I was so worried about you when you were in Ashkelon. I was happy to find out they’d evacuated you.”

I recalled the times I found his constant calls and messages annoying, and the overbearing feeling of guilt returned.

“I was worried, too, but everything turned in our favor. We got to visit many sites in the Golan Heights, including the Banias Springs. Remember that place?”

“Of course I do!”

“I had a funny incident there.”

“You tripped and fell in the Jordan River, right? I remember you sending me a message.”

“And I had to wear an abaya with a scarf for the rest of the day trip because my clothes were wet, and the driver didn’t want me to ruin the seat.” I omitted the part about George tripping with me. 

We laughed. Jason raised his arm and ran his fingers through my hair.

“So, what are we doing tomorrow?” I asked.

“How about driving to Jerusalem? I really want to see it again.”

“Really? I thought you would be keener on hitting the beach.” I was a bit surprised by his unexpected suggestion.

“Yes, but I also want to see the Old City. I kind of miss it.”

“I see. Well, we’ll visit it then.”

We spent the rest of the day lying in our hotel room and watching TV channels that weren’t broadcasting news. I told him all about the week at the Albright, including how I had gotten lost in the east end and how my computer had crashed the very next day. I also mentioned the Russian-Jewish couple who offered me to stay over when I couldn’t get into the hotel room. He gently patted my head and called me “crazy.” Jason, in turn, told me a little bit about his last week at work, including a few mishaps with servers, which had to be fixed before he left.

“You won’t believe how many friends I’ve made while being here,” I told him at some point.

“I hope you didn’t befriend anyone from the West Bank. Knowing you, I can expect almost anything.”

“Actually, I did. And we are invited to Nablus to meet his family.”

“You gotta be kidding me,” Jason laughed.

“He was our waiter at the Institute, and he’s really nice.” I felt the urge to defend Ibrahim, especially because of his daughter.

“I believe you. I just don’t want you to be in danger anymore.”

“Well, the worst is over.” I smiled.

On the outside, everything looked good. We were reunited and happy to see each other. However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that our perfect world could crash at any moment.

At one point, I pulled myself away from him and went to grab my laptop to check Facebook. There were a few friend requests, including those from Janice, Madeline, Caitlin, and Megan. I considered rejecting the first two, as I was still angry at them. However, I was eager to see the photos they had taken during our sightseeing tours. So I accepted everyone. I also discovered a few messages in my mailbox.

Hi, Becky,

[_I’m sorry about our last phone conversation. I didn’t mean it when I said your marriage was a mistake. I’m just stressed out and tired at the moment, and I need a break. Have a great vacation with your husband and don’t worry about anything. Remember we all make mistakes. _]

Erin

Having scrolled down, I also discovered a message from George.

Hi, Becky,

_I just arrived safely in Chicago. I hope you enjoyed our excavation season with all of its twists and turns. Best of luck with your life, and I hope to see you again someday. _

George

I was glad he didn’t mention our kiss or his crazy ex. The faster we both forgot about everything, the better it would be for everyone.

“Hey, what are you looking at?” Jason asked, moving next to me.

“Um, nothing.” I quickly closed the laptop. I knew it wasn’t the best thing to do when you wanted someone’s trust, but the move came almost reflexively.

“Are you hiding something from me?” He didn’t look terribly suspicious of me, and his question sounded more like a joke rather than an accusation.

“Nope. I was just catching up with my former roommates. You can have it if you like.” I passed the laptop to him.

“Thanks, Becky. I want to check my emails.” He opened the browser and went straight to his Gmail account, while I got up and went to the kitchen to reheat the leftovers we had brought from the food place we had visited earlier.

***

At night, I had a dream of falling, gravity pulling me inexorably to the ground. Such dreams happened to me occasionally, and I hardly gave them a thought. This one, however, was somehow different and perhaps more terrifying. I woke up panting in cold sweat.

“Is everything OK?” Jason asked, hearing me get up.

“I had a bad dream about falling into an abyss,” I admitted, shaking.

“Don’t worry. It was just a dream.” He pulled me closer.

“I have a strange feeling that something bad is going to happen.” I started shaking even harder.

He moved closer to my side and hugged me. “Look, you had three intense weeks, as far as I know. It’s normal for you to be a bit apprehensive right now. But remember, as long as we are together, nothing can happen to us.”

“And what if we aren’t?” A huge lump rose in my throat.

“What are you talking about, Becky?”

“Nothing really.”

“Let’s go back to sleep. I’m sure everything will be better in the morning.”

He was right. When we woke up at seven, I was feeling rested and refreshed. Part of me even felt embarrassed about what had happened earlier.

“I’m sorry for that nightmare scene,” I told my husband as he stepped out of the shower.

“No worries, babe. I hope you’re feeling better now.” He smiled.

After browsing through my clothes, I was disappointed to find out that I didn’t have anything appropriate for the Old City except for that long skirt and the blouse I had worn a day ago.

“Look, you’ve got a stain on your skirt,” Jason noted, while searching for his trousers.

“Oh, maybe I should choose something else,” I said, blushing. Not about the stain of course.

“It’s all right, Becky. No one knows us here.”

“Well, Dalia is in Jerusalem right now.”

“Really? Did you meet her?”

“Yes, we ran into each other in the City of David.”

“Hmm, interesting. You’ve never told me you went to the City of David.”

“We did a small sightseeing tour on our last day at the Albright Institute.”

“I see. Was it a group tour?”

“No. Just me and a few people from our dig.” I felt my face turn hot. I really hated lying, especially now that everything seemed so perfect. 

“Anyway, we should hurry up. We still need to find a place to have our breakfast.”

“Actually, I’m going to wear something else.” I quickly removed my outfit and tossed it away. “Do you think they’ll let me wear pants to the Western Wall? All my dresses are too short for the occasion.”

“I don’t think it should be a problem.”

In the end, I chose to wear green cargo pants and the Leon Levy Expedition T-shirt, which I had bought shortly before leaving Ashkelon.

We found a small coffee shop a few blocks from our hotel, where we ordered two cappuccinos with muffins. Although we had chosen the hotel apartment with a kitchen on purpose, neither of us was in the mood for cooking yet. I promised Jason and myself that I would make something extra special tonight.

The drive to Jerusalem lasted no longer than an hour. The hardest part of the journey was navigating through busy streets all the way to the Old City and finding parking at a decent price. As it was still morning, everyone was rushing to work, and drivers kept honking for no particular reason. At last, we found a spot near the Mamilla Mall and began searching for Jaffa Gate.

“Remember this place?” Jason asked as we were climbing up the stairs.

“Of course I do!”

We walked through the Armenian and Arab Quarters all the way to the Western Wall. I must admit that my second walk through the Old City was far from enjoyable. Throughout the entire time we were there, I couldn’t shake off memories of me and George strolling through the same streets, checking out the same sites, and even taking photos in the same spots.

Besides, being in the Old City with my husband was less exciting than being with someone from the dig. Whereas my talk with George was full of mind-provoking conversations, the talk with Jason mostly consisted of map reading and figuring out where to go. Sometimes, I would mention a fact or two about the Old City, but Jason would just nod and smile. The intellectual challenge just wasn’t there.

“Jason, do you ever feel bored with me?” I asked while checking out a Bedouin necklace. What if he was feeling the same way about my lack of interest in his hobbies? Perhaps he too longed to discuss computers or business affairs with someone.

“What do you mean, Becky?” He looked surprised.

“We are so different! You are into business and informatics, and I’m into archaeology. Does it ever bother you?”

“Of course not!” he exclaimed. “No two people can be the same.”

“So you don’t think I’m boring?”

“Becky, I think you are fascinating! With you, I get to learn something new every day.” He looked directly into my eyes, making me feel a bit relieved. “Please don’t have these thoughts. You are the best thing I have in my life.”

Once again, I became plagued by guilt. I tried my best to push the feeling aside and to enjoy the sunny walk through Jerusalem, but that nagging sensation in my chest refused to leave me alone. I felt like a total hypocrite at the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. I couldn’t pray or think about anything spiritual. So I kept walking around and snapping photos of lamps and Byzantine mosaics for the hundredth time.

Just as we were about to enter the sacred vault, the security officers appeared out of nowhere and urged everyone to leave the church. Apparently, someone had left a bag inside, which meant that the entire building had to be evacuated. As we walked away, I could only hope that the bag didn’t have a bomb, and if it did, the security would have enough time to disarm it. I couldn’t imagine this beautiful place sharing its fate with St. Jonah’s Tomb.

“Want to check out the Jewish Quarter?” I suggested later. It was the only place George and I didn’t get to see.

“Sure,” Jason replied.

The Cardo had a chain of jewellery shops and small boutiques selling artwork. As soon as I walked inside an art shop, my mood improved. Even though I had never owned a professional painting, I loved window shopping for art. As we were checking out the paintings, I became particularly drawn to one of a tuxedo cat, the live version of which was idling around. A few pictures of Jerusalem’s panorama also caught my eye. We later found a few shops selling Dead Sea products, where I finally bought a present for Erin.

“I haven’t had pizza for ages,” I declared at the end of the walk through the Cardo.

“I wouldn’t mind pizza either, especially if it has some pepperoni and mushrooms.”

We found a small pizzeria in the Jewish Quarter, but, to our disappointment, there was no pepperoni option available. I had completely forgotten that kosher food precluded mixing dairy and meat. It was the main reason why all my Israeli breakfasts had been strictly vegetarian. We decided go for pizza regardless, and to our pleasant surprise, it tasted good.

“Do you want to go home afterwards?” Jason asked, looking at his watch. It was already three-thirty, and in a few hours, the traffic would become impossibly heavy.

“Sure. I kind of feel tired.”

Having left a sizable tip to the owner, we went back to the Mamilla Mall, where our car was waiting for us. 

The journey home wasn’t a smooth one. In spite our attempt to leave and arrive earlier, we still got stuck in a huge traffic jam. Halfway through the traffic, we saw a group of soldiers stop cars and interrogate drivers. One of them fired a gun into the air, making me feel a bit uneasy. Although these kids in uniforms were unlikely to harm us, I could tell something wasn’t quite right.

We turned on the radio in hopes of finding more information, but all we could hear was a few announcements about upcoming shows in Caesarea and Eilat. The announcement was followed by a lengthy chain of Middle Eastern songs and later by the news hour. I was beyond relieved to learn that nothing bad happened to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Two hours later, the traffic finally cleared up, and we were able to reach Tel Aviv. We ran into Svetlana and Roman at the entrance to our apartment. 

Hey, neshama, ma kapara!” Roman offered me a friendly hug. They were really pleased to meet Jason and to hear about our journey to Jerusalem.

“Did you know there was a siren in Tel Aviv today?” Svetlana asked in her semi-broken English.

“What?” I couldn’t believe I had missed it during the news hour.

“Yes, the siren went off again,” Roman repeated after his wife. “We had to run to the basement.” Jason’s expression changed from relaxed to grim.

“Do you mind showing us the bomb shelter?” I asked.

“Definitely!” Svetlana pointed at a small door leading downstairs. I was surprised I didn’t notice it before.

“Maybe we’ll see you tonight,” Jason said. 

“Would you like to come over to our place?” she asked me in Hebrew. “I have borscht.”

“Oh, no, thanks. I’m making a meal myself.”

“What is it?” Jason asked, trying to understand our conversation.

“Nothing,” I explained. “They just wanted to invite us over, but I’m planning to make dinner tonight. Maybe another time.”

“What a lucky man you are!” Roman told Jason.

“I know,” Jason said with a smile.

“Well, I’ll see you another time,” Svetlana said.

“Have a good night,” I told them, and they quickly disappeared from our view.

“What a lovely couple!” I exclaimed as soon as we were inside the unit.

“Yeah, they are nice, but I found them a bit intrusive.”

“I disagree. In fact, it was I who intruded into their space.”

Jason laughed.

“And they cook amazing dishes,” I added. “That breakfast they served was truly awesome.”

“Anyway, tomorrow is a beach day,” Jason announced. “I need a break from all the sightseeing.”

“Really? Wasn’t it you who suggested visiting the Old City?” I said, half laughing.

“So what?”

“We only spent half a day doing it.”

“That was more than enough. The heat is just ridiculous!”

“You won’t believe how hot it was in Eilat, or how much walking we did during our mini tour in the Golan Heights.”

“Then you might need a little rest as well. You can’t be constantly up and running.”

“I agree. Nevertheless, I did enjoy all our day trips.”

“Now, you’ll enjoy some beach time.”

“Want to get some groceries?” I suggested, determined to make something extra special for dinner.

“Definitely.”

“Let’s go then.”

At the grocery store, we stocked our bags with fruits, vegetables, dairies, and meat. We also stopped by the liquor section and picked a bottle of wine and a few beer cans.

“Next time, we are driving here,” I declared halfway through our walk home. Both of us were carrying heavy loads in our hands.

“We’ll be home very soon,” Jason reassured me. “But if you are tired, I can bring the car over here.”

“That’s fine. We’ll just walk.” I picked up my pace.

“You don’t have to cook today if you don’t feel like it,” he said when we were already at the door. “We can go out today. We have an entire week left.”

“I want to make you happy.”

“Rebecca, you are amazing!” he exclaimed. “I missed your meals so much!”

“That’s why I’m cooking tonight.” I winked.

Having unpacked the groceries, I immediately put on an apron and started working. I was planning to make a steak that Jason loved. So I seasoned a piece of raw meat with salt, pepper, and mushrooms, and added some vinegar. While it was grilling, I carefully peeled potatoes and placed them in a large saucepan. An hour later, we were having mashed potatoes with a steak and a Greek salad.

“Cheers.” Jason raised a glass of wine.

“To us!” I said in return.

Chapter 24

“Becky, is everything all right?” Jason asked me as we walked back from the beach the next day. Although I kept pretending to be happy, I couldn’t let go of the heaviness that was weighing down on my chest.

“Yes, I’m OK,” I replied, fighting back my tears. Last night, we had finally managed to become intimate, but the whole experience was terrible. The more he tried to get closer to me, the more distant I felt. Ever since he had gotten here, I kept wondering if an invisible wall had been planted between us.

“You haven’t been acting yourself lately. I can tell something is wrong.”

“Maybe I’m just wary of the war threat,” I lied.

“I can imagine. It’s a bit hard to relax when your favourite vacation spot is in the headlines every day.”

I would have broken down right at this moment if it weren’t for Shlomo, the guy from Ashkelon, standing at a small booth and selling fresh juice.

“Shlomo! Good to see you!” I was a bit surprised to find him there.

“Rebecca! Ma nishma?”

Ani beseder, toda. This is Jason, my husband. This is Shlomo. We met in Ashkelon.”

“Nice to meet you.” Jason offered him a handshake.

“So what brings you to Tel Aviv?” I asked.

“Well, with the war, it became impossible for me to run my business in the south. Plus, our house came under direct fire, and we had to be evacuated. That’s why I’m here now.”

I gasped. Indeed, it was his house I’d seen in the news way back at the Albright Institute. He must’ve been exiled from his home for quite a while.

“How are you coping?” It occurred to me that all my problems were trivial compared to his.

“It hasn’t been easy. Our house was renovated just before the war started, and now we’ll have to redo everything when we come back. My wife’s really upset over the whole thing. Our kids want to go home. But what can I do? C’est la vie!”

“Where are you staying now?”

“At a friend’s place. It’s a bit small for two families, but it’ll be all right.” 

“Well, I really hope it ends soon.”

“Me too.”

“It was nice seeing you again.”

“Would you like something?”

I looked at Jason, who just threw away his finished cup of apple juice.

“Let’s go for it,” he said.

“I’ll have an orange juice,” I said. “How about you, Jason?”

“The same,” he replied.

At the end of the day, I made a decision to talk to my husband. The sooner I let the words out, the better it would be for both of us. I wasn’t sure how much I would tell him, but at least, I would try explaining the confusion about my career. Jason would surely understand. He had known about my fascination with archaeology for quite a while. 

For dinner, I heated the leftover steak and the purée from last night and cut some fresh tomatoes. I also poured us two glasses of wine.

“Jason, there is something I need to tell you,” I began after we sat down for a meal.

“Sure,” he replied, completely oblivious to what I was going to confess.

“I…I don’t know where to start.” My nerves started giving way.

“Just tell me what it is.” He looked up from his plate, smiling.

“My stay in Israel made me realize how unhappy I am with my current job.”

“I’ve known that for a while. It’s very hard not to notice.”

“You know that, right?”

“Of course I do. After all, you’d spent four years studying something you’re not using. Anyone would be unhappy in your shoes.”

“Right.” I gulped.

“But you don’t have to stay in your job forever,” he continued. “I’m sure something great will turn up after you finish your copywriting program.”

“The problem is, I don’t want to hold a nine-to-five job anymore. It’s just not for me. I need something bigger.”

“What is it that you want?”

“I want to go to a grad school.”

“OK.” He looked a bit baffled.

“It could involve moving around.”

“Like where?”

“The States, Israel, wherever new opportunities arise.”

“Hmm, that would be a bit challenging.”

“I know. That’s why it bothers me so much. I also know how much you want us to have kids.”

He got up and walked towards me. “Look, we can come up with something. We can hold off having kids for a while, and you can apply to schools in Canada. It’s not the end of the world, Rebecca.”

“We can try.” I sighed. So now he was accepting my new plan as long as it didn’t involve moving around. That was some progress.

“Is it why you were a bit sad today?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t worry. We can make it happen. First, you need to send applications. The rest we’ll figure out.” He took my face in his hands—the gesture I’ve always loved getting from him.

“There is another thing I need to tell you. I know you’ll be mad.” I gently moved his right hand away.

“Nothing can make me mad, love.”

For a second, I considered salvaging the situation by changing the topic or turning on the TV. Perhaps I could even suggest going out for another drink or hitting a dance club. And yet I knew there was no backing out.

“There is this guy named George. I met him back in Ashkelon.”

“OK.”

“He is a Ph.D. student from Wheaton College. We first started as friends who had a lot in common. We talked about archeology and academic life. We rode buses and ran to bomb shelters together. Then we both ended up working at the Albright Institute. It was completely unplanned.”

By the time I finished my speech, I was hyperventilating. I looked up at Jason, trying to find traces of jealousy on his face. His expression was blank.

“When I said we went for a walk to the Old City as a group, I lied. It was only me and George.”

“Why did you do that? Why would you lie to me?”

“I didn’t want you to get mad. I…I kissed him during that walk. It was a terrible mistake, and I promise it will never happen again.”

Jason kept quiet. He probably didn’t see it coming.

“Please say something!” I exclaimed in panic.

“And you brought me all the way here to tell me this?” He stared at me with that blank expression that showed both sadness and a bit of anger.

“Look, I’m really sorry. It’s not what you think. I…I’m just confused about my life…and about us.”

He stayed silent. Maybe Erin was right, and I shouldn’t have said anything to him.

“Is there anything else I need to know?” he asked coldly.

“I often feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of things in my early twenties. You know I always wanted to travel and to live somewhere else besides Canada. I don’t want you to think that I wasn’t happy with you. I just…I just…I’m so confused. I don’t even know if I can handle it anymore.” I started crying.

Looking utterly defeated, Jason moved to the couch. I sat next to him and took his hand.

“I still love you, though, and I really want us to work it out.”

“Goodnight, Rebecca.” He bolted up and hurried towards the small room. I heard the door slam behind him. Tears rising in my eyes, I went back to the dining table and quietly cleared our plates of unfinished food.

I wanted to talk longer. I would’ve preferred that we have a proper fight, throw things around, and call each other names. At least I would know what was going through his mind. I wondered if there was a tiny chance he would forgive me, but I wouldn’t know until we spoke again. For the rest of the evening, I lay down on a large, empty bed and stared into space unable to believe our marriage had arrived at this point.

I recalled all the happy moments Jason and I had shared together, from our first walk in a park to our first renovation project. I recalled the morning before our wedding, when I was standing in front of a mirror in a beautiful white dress, full of hopes, while Mom and Erin were fixing my hair and makeup.

I couldn’t say I had no reservations about marrying so early in my life. The spring of that year, our archaeology team from the U of T was planning a trip to Syria, and I was invited along. Since the excavation was to happen in April and my wedding was in June, I could have easily gone. Caught up with the romance and the wedding preparations, I refused.

Half into the excavation season, I began to doubt my decision to stay in Toronto. Then I started doubting my decision to commit so fast. The doubts weren’t too strong, considering how happy I was feeling, but they were still present. A year later, I learned this opportunity was gone forever along with many others. Maybe if I’d listened to those pesky voices in my head, Jason and I would be in a happier place.

Chapter 25

By midnight, it became clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep. Although I was no longer crying, the adrenaline was still pumping in my veins. I tiptoed to Jason’s room and peeked in. He was lying quietly on the first level of the double bed, eyes closed.

“Go away,” he mumbled, without even looking at me.

I put on the first thing I found in the closet, which was the same beaded orange dress I had worn to the beach the morning before leaving Ashkelon. Back then, I was still happy and carefree, even with the missile threat looming. I grabbed the car keys from the living room table and left.

Our Ford was parked outside in a reserved spot. I quickly unlocked it and got behind the wheel. As soon as I started the ignition, the GPS turned itself on and asked me where I wanted to go. Without even thinking twice, I typed “Dan Gardens Hotel, Ashkelon.”

The streets were still buzzing with nightlife, but the traffic was relatively light. I drove around the city for a bit until I finally exited into the highway. I had never driven in a foreign country alone. In fact, I hardly ever drove in Toronto. Doing something different for the very first time felt strangely liberating. Moreover, reaching my destination was unbelievably easy. I simply followed the directions and let the highway signs take me to the place. If only everything else in life was that simple!

First I headed to see my favorite alley leading to the beach. I loved being on the familiar path, embraced by a light breeze. The waves were strong enough to carry me all the way to Cyprus, but I dared to step into the sea and take a couple of steps.

Then I walked to the bar our group used to visit during the first week and a half. It was the same happy place I’d known earlier. Couples and groups of young people were everywhere enjoying late hours, while bartenders were going around and serving everyone.

“Would you like something to drink?” a waiter asked me in Hebrew. I wondered if he remembered me from my previous walk-ins.

I asked if he had any tea, and he quickly disappeared behind the rack. A minute later, he showed up with a box of different tea bags and asked me to choose one. I chose green tea. 

“Driving?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes.”

“So, what are you doing here at such a late hour?”

“I had a fight with my husband and needed to get away,” I blurted.

“Ah, I see.”

I half expected him to start making all the stupid comments about me looking young and so forth. Instead, he wished me all the best and disappeared.  Before I had a chance to thank him, he was already on to another customer. He probably had tons of visitors like me coming to shake off their problems. As soon as I finished my drink, I went back to my car. I already knew what my next stop would be.

The Ashkelon National Park looked even more beautiful at night, as the moonlight glow was making the Roman pillars shine. I walked around for a bit, inhaling the summer air of the night and taking time to explore each and every grid. During the brief excavations season, I was mostly confined to one area and never bothered exploring other parts of the site, believing there was still plenty of time left. Having reached the Grid 38, I leaned down and gently touched the ground. This was the earth from which I had pulled out my first treasure—the Canaanite goddess figurine. I let the earth slip through my fingers like water.

Why did I have to choose between my calling and my marriage? If I sacrificed my dreams for the sake of our relationship, would we be happy twenty years from now? Did I even have to make this sacrifice? Was there any chance that Jason could become part of the world that was so dear to me? Would he even want to take me back after everything I had done to him?

As the time was now way past midnight, I decided to return to the hotel. In the morning, everything would become clearer. I was pretty sure Jason would talk to me by then, for he wasn’t the type to hold grudges. Just as I was driving away, my phone rang. I tried ignoring it, but it rang again, this time louder. I had no choice but to pull over and reply.

“Becky, where on earth are you?” my husband yelled on the other line.

“I’m in Ashkelon.”

“What the hell are you doing there during this hour?”

“You told me to leave, so I went for a quick ride.” I rolled my eyes.

“OK, I’m sorry, Becky. I overreacted.”

“Overreacted? I was convinced you wouldn’t want to see me again.”

“Can you tell me where you are, for goodness’ sake?” He sounded exasperated.

“I’m at the Ashkelon ruins.”

“Just a second…thank you…” I heard him mumble to someone else.

“Hey, where are you? I’m going back to the hotel.”

“No! Stay where you are. I’m coming to get you…I’ll take this car. Thanks.” 

“Jason, I’m coming back! Do you hear me?” The phone went silent.

As soon as I started the car, the voice on the GPS asked me about the directions. Feeling certain that I knew my way back well, I turned off the system and turned on the radio instead. I cruised through the highway, Radio Noshmim Mizrahit blasting sad songs from the speakers. It wasn’t until I saw signs leading to Sderot that I realized I was in a wrong place. I quickly pulled over to the side and pressed the “start” button on the GPS. My phone rang again.

“Jason, I’m driving back!” I yelled without even bothering to ask who was calling.

“Becky, are you all right? I’m almost in Ashkelon.”

“No, I’m not. I don’t know where I am at the moment. I think I’m close to Sderot.”

“You should’ve stayed at the park.”

“Fine! I should’ve done many things differently.” I couldn’t believe we were arguing at such a wrong time.

The siren rang on the other line. “Oh, my God! Get out of the car and lay face down on the ground. Now!” I commanded. Then I heard a loud explosion. The line went dead.

I had to get to him fast. However, I had no idea where I was going. I failed to set up the GPS because it began to glitch, and I had zero patience with technology, especially during critical times. So I continued driving, my hands shaking more with every second. The highway was almost empty. Who would be driving at three in the morning, especially when shelling was happening nearby?

Out of nowhere, some animal jumped on the road. Although it was hard to see in the dark, the creature looked like a goat. I slammed on the breaks with the greatest force possible, but it was too late. The car was a few inches away from what was definitely an ibex and still going forward. In the last attempt to salvage the situation, I sharply turned my wheel to the side of the road. My car hit something. Suddenly, I felt immense pain and saw blood splatter on the dashboard. Then everything went blank. 

Chapter 26

Every part of me was in pain. My neck was surrounded by a hideous collar, preventing me from moving, and my entire body was connected to some strange tubes.

“Did I lose a limb?” I asked in horror. “Am I disabled?”

“No.” The nurse laughed. “Just some minor injuries. You’ll be fine.”

I tried wriggling my two legs and felt relieved to find them in place. My right arm was normal; my left one, bandaged.

“Wait.” My memory started returning to me.

Jason and I had a row, which turned nasty. He told me to leave, so I went to drive around the town to calm my nerves. Somehow, I ended up on a nearly empty highway. What I couldn’t remember was how I ended up in the hospital.

Then I remembered everything. Driving in the wrong direction. Getting phone calls from my husband urging me to wait for him. Hearing explosions on the other line. The feeling of panic I couldn’t control.

“Is he alive? Please tell me,” I begged the nurse.

“Who?”

“Jason, my husband! I remember what happened. Please tell me he’s alive!”

“The guy with black hair? I think he’s outside right now.”

“That must be him!” I felt relieved. 

The nurse left the room. The few minutes of being alone felt like eternity. At last, I heard muffled voices behind the door. It was the nurse talking to a man, presumably my husband. Although the man’s voice was familiar, it didn’t sound like Jason’s. Yet I desperately wanted to believe it was him. As soon as they walked in, my heart nearly stopped.

“Avi?” I asked, feeling both surprised and disappointed.

“Rebecca! I’m so glad you’re alive!” he exclaimed.

“Alive? Was my life threatened?”

“Oh, yeah.” 

“I’ll leave you alone for a while,” the nurse said. “By the way, my name is Orit. Let me know if you need anything.”

“Sure.”

“What are you doing here?” I asked as soon as she left.

“I was visiting my brother and decided to check on you as well.”

“Wait…. Give me a second.” I tried to remember more. Avi…. He had a brother fighting in Gaza. Right. How could I’ve forgotten?

“What happened to him?”

“He got wounded during an attack, but he’s doing fine now. They might release him in a few days.”

I was obviously happy to hear Avi’s brother was alive and well, but I still had to find out what happened to Jason. Maybe he was in another room fighting for his life or, worse, already dead. Just the thought of losing him drove me into cold sweat.

“How did you find out about me?” I asked, trying to distract myself from the negative thoughts.

“You must be kidding me, Becky. The story about your accident has been all over the news. CNN, Haaretz,[_ Jerusalem Post_], you just name it.”

“Really? Did the news say anything about my husband?”

“I have no idea, Becky.”

“Was there any information on a guy named Jason?” I repeated myself.

“Not that I remember.”

“Oh, no! How will I forgive myself now?” 

“Look, you must be under a great shock, Becky.”

“You don’t understand. We had a fight. Then I got so frustrated that I drove away to Ashkelon. He came to get me. If something bad happened to him, it was my fault.” At this point, I was completely oblivious to the fact that Avi probably wasn’t interested in my personal life.

“Becky, calm down.” He gently touched my upper left arm.

“I can’t.”

“If something happened to him, the news would have mentioned it. I’m sure he’s all right.”

“Easy for you to say, Avi.”

“You think it’s easy, Becky? When I learned my younger brother was in danger, I was beside myself. I immediately dropped all my work at the Institute and drove here to see him. Never mind it was in the middle of the night. Never mind I had an important deadline next morning. Nothing mattered to me at this point. I was beyond relieved when they declared his life was out of danger.”

“You must understand how I feel then.” I sighed.

“Of course, Becky! I know how scary it feels when someone you care about might be gone.”  

“I’m sorry, Avi.” Tears rolled down my cheeks.

“It’s not your fault.” He gently wiped off my tears.

“Please leave me alone.”

“I will, and I hope everything turns out well for both of you.”

“Me too. I hope your brother recovers soon.” 

As he left the room, I scooted down in my bed, crying silently. Now that I didn’t know where my husband was, I felt more lost than ever. Slowly the fatigue took over, and I fell asleep.

***

“Becky! Baby, are you awake?” I heard someone say. I opened my eyes and saw my mother standing next to me.

“Mom!” I exclaimed. “How did you get here?”

“We grabbed the first tickets as soon as we learned the news.” She leaned down and planted a kiss on my forehead.

“I’m happy to see you, but—”

“Dad and Erin are waiting outside. Do you want to see them?” she asked without letting me finish the sentence.

“Of course!” I replied. “I can’t believe you all flew here to see me.”

“And I can’t believe you are surprised!” My father walked into the room. “The moment we saw your story on the TV, there was no time to delay.”

“Well, I’m glad to see everyone, and I’m sorry for causing all this distress.”

“Becky, what are you talking about?” my mother exclaimed. “It wasn’t your fault.”

“I think she needs some quiet time,” Orit said. She was standing at a corner taking down notes. 

“Definitely,” Erin replied. “She needs to get plenty of rest.”

“We will leave you alone for now,” my mother said, leading my father and Erin away.

“Wait!” I exclaimed. “Did you see Jason?” Unfortunately, everyone, including Orit, was already gone.

I had to stay positive. Maybe he was alive. Maybe his injuries weren’t severe, and he was just getting clearance from a doctor. Maybe he would enter the room at this moment. Then something registered in my mind.

My parents hadn’t mentioned him. When I tried to ask, they left immediately. They knew the truth but didn’t want to upset me. Then it hit me. Jason was probably gone forever. As I pictured him lying on the ground covered with blood, a huge lump rose in my throat.

We had such a wonderful future together, and I had ruined it. First I had wrecked our marriage. Then I had taken his life. I began crying louder and louder until I was shaking from wild sobs.

Orit ran into the room with two other nurses, exchanging words in Hebrew. One of them fished out a syringe and started filling it with some medication. Another touched a spot on my upper hand and started applying rubbing alcohol.

“What are you doing?” I managed to ask.

“Honey, you are having a panic attack,” Orit replied calmly. “This is normal.”

“No! Stop it! I’m not having any attack!”

It was too late. The needle was already in my skin.

“Please, don’t do this to me!” I tried to jerk my hand away.

“It’s all right. You’ll feel better,” one of the nurses tried to reassure me.

“You don’t understand anything!” I wailed.

“Sweetie, we have hundreds of patients every day,” Orit said, pulling my hand back. “We understand what you are going through.”

“Your medication won’t help me. Nothing will help me anymore. Please just leave me alone!” It was too late. Suddenly, I began to feel lightheaded, and everything became blurry.

I closed my eyes and opened them again. I wanted to wake up at home and find Jason lying beside me. I wanted him to reassure me that everything was simply a nightmare. I wanted to walk to our kitchen and make coffee with a toast. I wanted us to sit on the couch, to cuddle, and to laugh like in the good, old times. Yet I was still at the hospital surrounded by three nurses hovering over my bed. Suddenly, I no longer felt anything. No pain, no despair, no realization I’d lost the man I loved. My eyelids became heavy, and I passed out again.

***

“Rebecca, your case is special,” Orit told me after I woke up. She was standing alone next to my bed looking perfectly serene. I often wondered how medical professionals managed to look so calm when they saw crying patients every day. If I were her, I would’ve quit after my first medical practice.

“My husband is gone,” I mumbled, taking a gulp from a glass of water that was standing on a nightstand. “He’s dead. Or wounded. Or dying right at this moment! They won’t tell me because they don’t want me to know.” My words sounded surreal even to me.

“I thought you saw him already. Didn’t you?” Orit looked surprised.

“It was someone else. A friend of mine.”

“Ah, I see.”

“That’s Avi. He’s visiting his brother here.”

“I believe there was also someone else.”

“Those were my parents and my sister.”

“There is another guy who keeps waiting next to your room and constantly asking about you.” 

Orit’s words couldn’t be true. I spent the last hours agonizing over his disappearance, and he was standing right outside my room. But again, it could be someone else, from Shlomo to one of the people from the Albright Institute wanting to visit me. I just couldn’t understand why this person had to be so dramatic.

“Let him in,” I commanded, feeling ready to put an end to all my hopes. When he walked in, I felt the greatest relief in my entire life. “Jason! I can’t believe you are alive.”

Orit laughed. “You should’ve seen her a few moments ago.”

“Becky, of course I’m alive!”

I took a closer look at my husband. His eyes were bloodshot, and his hair, matted. He looked like he hadn’t slept or eaten in days.

“Please call me if you need help,” Orit said, walking out the door.

“Thank you.” I nodded in her direction. 

“Why didn’t you come earlier?” I asked him as soon as we were left alone. “You won’t believe everything that went through my head in the last hour.”

“I wanted to, but the doctors advised me not to disturb you. I kind of told them it was my fault you are here.”

“Looks like I’m going to sue the hospital.”

“Becky, you never stop being funny.” He smiled.

“It’s not funny. I nearly had a heart attack.”

“Me too. Please don’t disappear like this again.”

“Jason, I’m sorry!”

“No, Becky, it was my fault.” He looked down at the floor and up in my eyes again. “I shouldn’t have flipped out the other night.”

“I understand, and I want to forget everything that went wrong.”

“So do I, Becky. I understand you now.” He came closer and took my hand in his. I felt the familiar spark, the spark that had kept us together for all these years. What he said next, however, made me wish I had died in that accident. “From now on, you won’t see me again.”

“What?” My chest tightened.

“I came here to help you as a friend,” he explained.

“Please tell me this isn’t true.”

“I’m going to let you go, so that you may be free to choose how to live.”

“Are you telling me we are over?”

“We don’t have to cut each other off completely. We can still be friends. And if you want, I’ll stay with you here until you feel better.”

I was speechless. I’d never imagined he would ask for a divorce. I did have doubts before, but I had sincerely hoped we would work everything out.

“I promise to make it as painless as possible,” he continued. “I won’t ask anything from you. You can have our condo if you like.”

I wanted to beg him to stay. I wanted to say “sorry” a million times and ask to start over. I wanted to break down in tears and cry until there was nothing left. Instead, I composed myself and said, “Fine, Jason. We’ll sort everything out in Toronto.”

A nurse entered the room with a tray of food. “This is for Rebecca O’Connor-Smith,” she said.

“Rebecca O’Connor,” I corrected her. From a corner of my eye, I noticed that Jason looked very sad.

“Have some food,” he told me. “You need all the resources to recover.” 

“Well, thanks for caring about my well-being.” I tried to sound sarcastic.

“I’ll always care about you.”

“You don’t have to feel sorry for me.” I cocked my head up to prevent tears from coming.

“I’m going to miss you a lot, but maybe it’s time for us to move on.” A tear rolled from his eye. I had never seen a man cry before, and the sight was a pitiful one.

“Please go and don’t come back again.”

He got up and walked out the door without saying anything further. I lay down reeling from all the pain, both physical and emotional.

***

“Becky, are you all right?” my mother asked next time my family saw me. “You look so pale!”

“Jason and I are separating,” I announced matter-of-factly. “He wants a divorce.”

“What? Is it what he told you when he was here?”

“It’s OK, Mom. It was mutual,” I lied. I didn’t want my parents or my sister to think badly about him.

“You went through the most traumatizing experience one could ever imagine. You had a surgery, for goodness’ sake. And he had a nerve to break your heart!” Erin seethed with rage.

“We had a big fight, after which we realized we both want different things from life.”

“What do you mean ‘you want different things?’” She was indignant.

“He wants a house and kids, and I want to become an archaeologist.”

“I see,” my mother said.

I half expected my parents to get angry by my announcement and to start rambling about how this trip was a terrible idea.

“Are you sure it’s what you want?” my father asked. “I mean, it was surely fun to play Indiana Jones and everything, but to give up your marriage—isn’t that too much?

“It was more than just fun, Dad. I love the scholarly world. It’s where I belong.”

“Well, if that’s what you want to do, there is no point in stopping you,” my mother said. I was surprised she was so calm. Wasn’t she realizing that from now on, her daughter would be spending every summer digging in the Middle East?

“Maybe next time, I’ll excavate in Cyprus to keep your worries at bay.”

“It doesn’t matter where you excavate, Becky. We all want you to be happy. I obviously wanted a grandchild, but it’s OK.”

I couldn’t bear this anymore. Why were my ambitions causing so much pain to everyone? After Jason announced he was leaving me, I decided to never have children. Firstly, I wouldn’t want to have a baby with someone else, especially with George. Secondly, I couldn’t imagine watching my child going through the same pain I was experiencing at the moment.

“Please don’t be angry with Jason,” I pleaded.

“We aren’t angry with him,” my mother said. Which I knew was a lie.

“Good night, everyone,” I said.

“Good night, love,” my mother and Erin said in unison.

Be strong, Becky, I commanded myself after everyone left. Time will heal all the wounds.

At least he was alive and well, and it was more than I could ask for. As long as I knew he was living somewhere in this world and was happy, I could learn to cope.

Chapter 27

When woke up, it was still dark outside. I was happy to discover that the collar and most of the tubes were gone. Having looked around, I found my laptop resting on a dresser. Next to it was my bag with all my belongings inside. Gathering all the strength that was left in my right hand, I turned to the dresser and picked up the laptop. I was dying to get in touch with the rest of the world.

First, I decided to check my Facebook. I found several friend requests and notifications about photos I was tagged in. One was a photo of me, George, Janice, and Madeline standing in front of the Ramon Crater. Another one was the photo of us at the Nimrod Fortress. I noticed that my inbox had at least one hundred unread letters.

Hi, Becky,

I’ve read your story in the news. I wish I were still in Jerusalem so that I could visit you. Unfortunately, I’m back to Toronto, and it looks like I didn’t get the job. Anyway, I hope you recover soon. Maybe we’ll catch up when you come back.

Dalia

I sighed with profound relief. Considering everything she knew, I didn’t want her to see me in my current condition. I typed a quick reply and went on to another letter.

Hi, Rebecca,

_There are no words to describe how relieved I am that you survived the accident. I hope you recover fast. _

George

I moved my cursor further down and saw a letter from Rachel begging for an apology.

Hi, Rebecca

[_I’m so sorry for being so mean to you during our dig. I was simply trying to get my life on track. I’ll never forgive myself for what I said to you at our reunion. I didn’t mean any of it. Seeing you in the news made me realize how stupid I’ve been. I won’t ask you to forgive me, for it was my fault you’ve gotten into an accident. If only I could take those words back! Please feel better. _]

Rachel

The letter was so sincere that it almost made me cry. Guilt was the worst feeling in the world, far worse than the feeling of hurt or betrayal. So I typed a reply.

Hi, Rachel,

[_Thank you for the letter. I’m just letting you know that I’m fine and I’m at a hospital. The accident wasn’t your fault at all. You were simply angry and blurted out those words. They have nothing to do with what happened to me. Let’s forget about everything that transpired between us. _]

Rebecca

A minute later, she wrote me back.

Hi, Rebecca,

I’m so happy you’re safe and sound! Please tell me you’re not disabled! I won’t be able to sleep until I get your reply.

Rachel

Although I still wasn’t sure if I would be able to walk again or use my left hand, I reassured her that, to my best knowledge, I wasn’t disabled. She, in turn, wished me a speedy recovery.

Having finished our conversation, I continued scrolling down. I saw letters from other dig members, including Janice, Madeline, Michelle, and Katie. I also got emails from Caitlin and Megan, who were horrified by my story but also relieved I had survived. I took time to respond to each of them, reassuring everyone I was all right. I finally got a chance to talk to Janice and Madeline and to reconcile with them.

My inbox also had letters from my soon-to-be ex-in-laws, former classmates, teachers, professors, and guys I had dated back at the university. The longer I kept scrolling down, the more letters I saw. There was no way I would be able to reply to everyone. So I decided to post a public thank you message on my page instead. 

I also checked the Leon Levy Expedition page and found my photo with a brief story about me.

Rebecca O’Connor-Smith, one of our volunteers, has been injured in a car accident. She miraculously survived the crash and is currently at the Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon. Please keep her and her family in your thoughts and prayers.

The posting was marked by two hundred likes. I found similar postings on the pages of the Biblical Archaeology Society and the Archaeological Institute of America. I took time to post on each page, thanking everyone for their love and support.

On the page of the Leon Levy Expedition, I also noticed a link to a newspaper article with my story. I followed it and was redirected to a page of the Jerusalem Post, where I discovered several articles with my photos, including a photo of myself at the dig and a horrifying photo of me in a smashed car.

Feeling weary of the news, I decided to move on to my Gmail account. It turned out that my mailbox was also full of new letters, many of which came from members of the Leon Levy Expedition and the Albright Institute. I saw letters from Jocelyn and Carol, both of whom were happy to learn about my survival. Everyone was wishing me well. 

After going through a trail of emails, I found one from Dave, my supervisor. I was pretty sure it was a letter of termination, which I wouldn’t mind in the least.

Hi, Rebecca,

_We all heard your story in the news, and we are all worried about you. I hope you recover soon and are able to come back to work. In the meantime, please be advised that Catherine, a new temp, will be filling in for you. _

Sincerely,

Dave

I was really too tired to move my hand, let alone type. However, I had to answer this letter immediately, for my future depended on it.

Hi, Dave,

[_Thank you for your email. Please be advised that I won’t be returning to my job as a customer service assistant. Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your team. _]

Sincerely,

Rebecca O’Connor

I took care to include the word “resignation” in my subject line. The moment I hit the “send” button, I felt profound relief. The birds started chirping outside, and soon the first rays of sun entered my room. The morning was here.

A man in his early sixties walked in. He was wearing a lab coat and had a stethoscope around his neck. “Hi, I am Dr. Greenberg, your surgeon,” he said. I was taken aback by his perfect English.

“Hi, I’m sure you know my name already.” I smiled.

“Wait, what are you doing?” He noticed the laptop resting on my knees. “You should’ve asked for help first!”

“I’m sorry. Did I do something wrong?”

“You didn’t do any damage this time,” he replied after examining my bandage. “But please be careful with your left arm. It’s still healing. Let me take your computer.” I passed him the laptop using my right hand.

“Doctor, how bad is it?”

“Well, you were very lucky considering that you’d hit a sign pole and got too many cuts from the shattered glass.” 

“What happened to my left arm?”

“One of the veins was lacerated by a huge piece of glass that got stuck inside it. We had to surgically remove the object.”

I gasped. My situation was far worse than I had imagined.

“Will I use my left arm again?” I asked in horror.

“The object came very close to a vital nerve.”

My stomach dropped. I was indeed disabled.

“But you were lucky the nerve went untouched.” I sighed with relief. “So, yes, you will be able to use your left arm after it heals. But I strongly advise you to avoid putting too much strain on it.”

“Thank you for telling me this!”

“The other issue is that you’ve lost a lot of blood, Rebecca. Luckily, we found someone with your blood type.” 

“How long have I been here?” I asked, startled.

“You’ve been here for three days.”

“Wow!” I couldn’t believe how much time had passed already. 

“If you take care of yourself well, we’ll let you go very soon. So please be careful from now on.”

“Can I walk, though?”

“Absolutely! We encourage our patients to resume normal life as soon as possible.”

“Thank you, Doctor.”

“No problem, Rebecca. You’re very strong woman indeed.”

“Thanks.” I laughed. I always considered myself a bit weak. Now I knew it wasn’t the case.

“By the way, you have visitors coming soon.”

“Who is it?”

“A psychological counsellor.”

“What?” Did Dr. Greenberg and the rest think I was mentally unstable?

“Everyone who has experienced trauma is strongly encouraged to get counselling.”

“But, Doctor, I do feel normal.” In truth, I was feeling far better than yesterday. I was still trying to digest the fact that Jason and I were no longer together, but at least I was slowly learning to accept the reality.

“Do you want to know who the other visitor will be?” Dr. Greenberg smiled.

“What?” Multiple visits were the last thing I needed at this moment.

“Yes, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.”

“Who is it?”

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”

“What? Ma pitom!” It was the first time since my recovery that I used any Hebrew.

Ken! Ze amiti. At mefursememt bekol haaretz.” Was he actually telling me that I was becoming popular?

A few hours and a hearty breakfast later, the door opened. The doctor walked in together with a thirty-something-year-old woman.

“Rebecca, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Ilana Woodbaum, who’ll be assessing your psychological condition,” Dr. Greenberg said before leaving the room.

“Hi,” I said timidly.

“So, shall we get started?” Dr. Woodbaum pulled up a small chair next to my bed.

“Sure,” I replied.

“This is how it will work,” she began. “I’ll ask you a few questions, and you’ll have to give me the most honest answers.”

“Go ahead.”

“How did you end up near Sderot?”

I wasn’t sure how this question was related to my psychological well-being, but I had to answer it regardless. I told her the story of my brief confrontation with Jason and how I ended up driving south that night.

“Maybe you should consider marital counselling,” she suggested. “I know several good counsellors who could help you resolve your issues.”

“Thank you, Doctor, but I don’t think it will be necessary. My husband and I decided to separate.”

“What? Is he leaving you during such a difficult time? What a pig!” Her comment made me angry. The last thing I wanted to hear was some stranger’s opinion on my soon-to-be ex-husband.

“It was mutual,” I said calmly.

“Are you sure?” She patted me on the hand as if to show her sympathy.

“Yes.”

She asked me a few more questions about the accident and the aftermath, and I gave her honest responses. We also had a brief chat about those three weeks that had preceded the incident, and she even managed to feign interest in my work in Ashkelon and at the Albright Institute. I considered telling her about my confusion about the lack of a proper career but decided against it. I already had my answer and didn’t need any advice in that area. In the end, my mental condition was deemed normal.

“You can still expect some panic attacks,” Dr. Woodbaum said. “They are perfectly normal. I can prescribe you some pills to deal with anxiety.”

“I won’t need them,” I affirmed.

“Are you sure? I’ll write the prescription regardless.” She fished a pen and a paper out of her purse.

“I’ll be leaving the country anyway.”

“Then you should mention it to your family doctor when you get home.”

We exchanged civil goodbyes, and then she left. I exhaled. All right, I was officially an emotionally unstable person. The situation couldn’t possibly get any worse.

After a few moments of quiet time, the door opened again, and I was dazzled by a myriad of cameras and microphones. Prime Minister Netanyahu walked in. I suppressed the urge to exclaim “ma pitom” and said “shalom” instead. He tried speaking to me in English, but I explained that Hebrew was fine with me. The journalists, who were a bit surprised by my knowledge of Hebrew, asked me a few questions about the story, and I answered all of them dutifully, omitting details about the fight with Jason.

“What do you think about the terrorist threat?” a young man in black-rimmed glasses asked me. He looked more like a student rather than a professional paparazzo.

I wasn’t sure how his question was related to anything, but I still gave him the most honest response. “I think it’s over exaggerated by the media,” I said. The rest of them looked at me as if I just fell from the moon. Perhaps I should’ve told them what they wanted to hear, which was, “Oh, it’s such a real danger,” and so on.

Maybe there was a time when I enjoyed some popularity among the Harvard team, but that was a long time ago. Now all I wanted was to be left alone in peace and quiet. Thirty minutes later, the paparazzi and the Prime Minister left, granting me my wish for solitude.

What was wrong with the world? I had simply gotten into a car accident, and now the story was in every single newspaper. Didn’t the Prime Minister and the paparazzi have more important things to do than to show up in my hospital room?

An hour later, I decided to take a walk through the hospital corridor. Some recognized me and even waved in my direction. I saw Avi walking together with a middle-aged couple and boy who looked no older than nineteen.

“Hi, Rebecca!” he yelled jubilantly. “This is my brother, Shye, and my parents, Itay and Shula.”

Naim meod.” I offered handshakes.

“Hey, bro! That’s her!” Shye exclaimed.

“Yes, it’s me, Rebecca from the news.”

“You’re that chick who needed a blood transfusion.”

“How do you know?” I was genuinely surprised he knew details of my surgery. Was I becoming that famous?

“’Cause he donated it.” Shye pointed at Avi. 

“What? Ani beshock!” Ever since the doctor had told me about the mysterious donor, I was wondering who this person was. Not in a million years could I imagine that it was Avi.

“I asked you to keep it a secret!” Avi snapped.

“Sorry, I forgot.” The boy looked down guiltily. He was clearly not ready to face the challenges that life was already throwing at him. What was the local government thinking when sending kids like him to danger zones? I should’ve asked the Prime Minister this question when I still had the chance.

“Avi, can I have a word with you in private?”

“Sure, Becky. Where do you want to go?”

“Take me outside. I want some fresh air.” 

Beseder, mami.” 

We walked silently, passing people in medical uniforms and hospital gowns along the way. Eventually, we managed to exit the building and were now standing outside. 

“Why did you do this for me?” I asked at last. I knew I was supposed to feel grateful. Instead, I was feeling furious.

“Because I have the same blood type as you.” Avi shrugged.

“You didn’t have to do this. They would’ve found someone else.”

“They wouldn’t. Time was running out, Becky. You were extremely lucky to have me in the area.”

“Why do you care so much?”

There was a prolonged pause. “Do you really want to know the truth?”

“Yes, I do. Tell me.”

“Because I love you.” He looked directly at me.

“What? OK, please tell me it’s not true.” This was more than I could possibly handle.

“You said you wanted to know the truth.” 

“I don’t believe you, Avi. I mean, we’ve only known each other for a week.”

“Rebecca, how long do you need to know someone to realize you love them?”

“I don’t know. A few dates maybe? Anyway, what you’re telling me isn’t true. You can’t—”

Before I could continue, Avi cut me off. “It’s true, Rebecca. I’ve been feeling this way since we met in the Common Room.”

I was in shock. I’d never imagined Avi as more than a friend. Neither did I expect that he would be serious about asking me out the other day. Yet he loved me enough to save my life.

“There’s another thing I don’t understand,” I continued. “Why all the commotion around me? The headlines, the visit from the Prime Minister! I mean, I simply had a car accident. Hundreds of people get into accidents every day. None of them become famous overnight.”

“Not everyone becomes a target of a terrorist group,” Avi replied.

“What are you talking about?” I felt puzzled and horrified at once.

“Didn’t you know?”

“Is there something else I don’t know?”

“Looks like it’s the case.”

“You have to tell me.”

“Let’s sit down first. You must be tired by now.” He took my hand and led me towards a bench that was located under a tall, green tree.

“The night you got into a crash, they caught a terrorist group from Gaza. It’s an independent group loosely linked to Hamas. It’s small now, but it’s slowly attracting followers.”

“Scary.”

“Rebecca, ‘scary’ isn’t even the right word. We’re talking about some of the world’s most dangerous people. They sneaked into Israeli territory through one of the tunnels Hamas had been building over the past few years. During a court hearing, one of them confessed a planned kidnapping.”

“I still don’t understand how all of this is related to my accident.”

“Don’t you realize it could’ve been you? You were driving very close to the place where they were planning their operation. I hate to say this, but if your car hadn’t been stopped where it did, you would’ve probably become their target.”

Now I was remembering a few links to articles about a native of Toronto, who had escaped a terrorist plot. I didn’t pay too much attention to them, because I couldn’t fathom these articles were about me. I wasn’t even born in Toronto, for goodness’ sake.

“But they could’ve kidnapped anyone else.” I was still unconvinced.

“Well, when the investigators and the media people did the math, they figured that, out of all people, you had the highest chance of becoming the victim. I mean, who else would have been roaming around the south during such hour?”

“My husband was looking for me at the time. It could’ve been him as well.”

“Where was he when you last talked?”

“He was in Ashkelon.”

“He was too far away to become the target. The terrorists were hanging around the highway entrance to Sderot, waiting for their target to show up. Thanks to the ambulance and the police that arrived at your scene, the gang got caught on time.”

I listened carefully, my mouth gaping. The information was too much for me to process. Avi was in love with me. I had nearly become a victim of a terrorist plot. I wouldn’t be surprised if snow suddenly started falling from the sky.

“By the way, all tunnels officially have been destroyed,” Avi added. “We have nothing to worry about now.”

“Good to know.”

He moved closer and put one hand over my shoulder. “Becky, I know you’re overwhelmed and—”

“Please go away,” I said, without letting him finish.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t want you to find out about the transfusion, but my brother blabbed.”

“Go away!” I snarled. “I don’t want to see you again.” 

Avi got up and walked back to the building, while I continued sitting on the bench, crying, oblivious to the afternoon heat and the life happening around me.

A group of children passed me by. Among them was a pretty girl walking with her mother. Seeing her innocent face flanked by curly hair made me feel sad about the fact that I would never have a child of my own. However, I was now determined not to bring another life into this world more than ever.

“Look, this is Rebecca from the TV,” she exclaimed in Hebrew.

Ken, Rivkush,” her mother replied. “Want to say ‘hi’ to her?”

“Yes! I could practice my English with her.” The girl’s eyes sparkled with excitement.

Before they had a chance to approach me, I got up from my bench and ran back to the hospital building. Any conversations would have to wait till later.

I spent the rest of the day mulling over everything that was happening in my life. I tried imagining all the possibilities of what could’ve happened to me if that ibex hadn’t appeared on the road. Political tortures, humiliations, a failed ransom deal with the Canadian government, and ultimately a very painful death—all of this could’ve easily become my reality. Not only was I alive and relatively well, but I also had a myriad of opportunities ahead of me. However, nothing felt right anymore.

I still missed Jason. Out of all the men I had known, he was the only one who was making me feel at home. If I could’ve gone back in time, I would’ve never let George or Avi come near me. I needed to talk to him and let him know how I was feeling. If he decided to go separate ways, so be it. A tiny part of me hoped that we would get back together.

Chapter 28

“Do you know where Jason is?” I asked my parents next day.

“You want to see him after everything he put you through?” Erin asked angrily.

“I agree,” my father said. “He’s lucky I don’t have a gun with me.”

“Dad!”

“Wait,” my mother interjected. “I think they should have a talk.”

“See?” I turned to Erin.

“Everything turned out this way because of their fight,” my sister added. “I bet he said a lot of mean things to you, Becky.”

“Erin, we didn’t even have a chance to fight. I have to talk to my husband, and you better tell me how I can find him.”

“All right, we’ll tell you,” my father said. “Up until yesterday, he was here waiting for the news. He was mostly walking around the corridor looking like a zombie.”

“Which only tells me that he cares.”

“From now on, he’s staying in a hotel,” he continued.

“We can call him if you wish,” my mother suggested.

“Please do so. I really need to see him.”

After I waited for what seemed like forever, nobody showed up. Although it was already getting a bit late, I kept hoping that Jason was on his way. Tired of staying in bed, I got up and walked around the room. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in a bathroom mirror and realized how terrible I looked. I was wearing the same hospital gown since waking up. My tan had already evaporated, and my hair was no longer shiny. I couldn’t believe I had allowed the media people see me in this condition. 

When I returned to my room, I found Mom sitting on my bed.

“Did you see him?” I asked, my heart jumping with hope.

“He’s not coming back.” She shook her head.

“Did you talk to him?”

“I think he flew back to Toronto.”

“What makes you think so?” I wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

“We tried getting hold of him at the hotel but couldn’t find any trace of him. When we asked for Jason Smith, the concierge said he had been gone since yesterday.”

“Are you sure he’s in Toronto? What if he simply decided to switch to another hotel?”

“When the concierge got distracted by a newly arrived couple, we took a peek into his request book for airport shuttles and found Jason’s name there. He flew back, Becky.” 

I was crushed. Anything I would say to him from now on wouldn’t matter. Jason had already moved on. He was probably already at our old home looking for a divorce lawyer.

“Becky, I really hoped you two would get back together, but there is little we can do.”

“That’s all right, Mom.” I sighed. “I’ve made mistakes, too.”

“Erin told me about George.”

“Did she?” I felt myself blush.

“I wish you had spoken to me before.”

“I couldn’t. You would’ve judged me.” I started blinking fast to prevent tears from falling down. 

“Maybe you don’t know me well.” She smiled. “Those things happen. It’s just in the laws of nature.”

“The weirdest thing is that even after I fell for George, I’ve never stopped loving Jason. I thought true love was about forsaking all others in the name of one person.”

“All of us think this way when we are young. Life can become more complicated than you wish.”

“Mom, I’m sorry for causing you and Dad all this anguish. I never intended my trip to end this way. I just had to come here. It’s where I belong. You won’t understand.”

“No, Becky! You are wrong again. I do understand.” She hugged me.

“Is it true?” I looked directly into those warm eyes.

“Yes. I went through something similar when I was younger.”

“Really? Please tell me.”

“When I was little, your grandfather used to travel a lot. Sometimes, he would bring small boxes of rocks and minerals from his expeditions.”

I had faint memories my grandfather, Brandon Cadwell, a famous geologist. He used to spend months in Alberta doing research. Unfortunately, he died when I was still a preschooler, so I didn’t remember much about him. 

“At some point, I became obsessed with rocks. I wanted to know more about them, from their composition to opacity. I started asking my father a lot of questions. My parents freaked out, thinking that I would grow up to become a geologist and never get married or have kids. Anything remotely related to this field became forbidden. ‘Geology is not for girls,’ your grandma would tell me.”

“How awful!” I exclaimed. I couldn’t imagine archaeology becoming banned in our house. It was hard enough that I had to listen to Eyal Golan in headphones or else my sister would barge into my room and demand that I “turn this shit down.”

“I continued sneaking into my father’s room and playing with rocks whenever he wasn’t around. As I grew older, I started going into my school’s library and reading books about mountains and volcanoes. It was a secret I kept during my teen years.”

“Did your classmates ever think you were weird?”

“I didn’t tell anyone. They would’ve made fun of me.”

“I see.”

“Then I met your father and fell in love for the first time. He knew all about my quirky passion and even promised to take me to the Rockies some day. Since we were very young—I was only seventeen and he was nineteen—we wanted to wait a few years before getting married. We had plans to finish universities and travel the world first. Anthony was already in a culinary school, commuting hundreds of kilometers every day, while I was planning to major in environmental sciences either at Western or York. He and I were thinking about having a long-distance relationship.”

“So what made you change your mind?”

“I learned that my father had a terminal illness and was unlikely to live past a year, two maximum.”

“That’s horrible!”

“No one ever told me in person. I overheard my parents’ conversation by accident and learned about his desire to see me married with kids before he would die. He told my mother how much he was yearning to hold a baby for the last time. I ran away before they saw me crying. That day, I found Anthony in a park and told him everything. He immediately proposed, and we got married shortly after my eighteenth birthday.”

I gasped. I had always romanticized my parents’ young marriage and believed it would become a blueprint for mine. Never could I imagine that it had been founded on broken dreams and shattered hopes.

“Erin was our honeymoon baby,” my mother continued. “The day she was born, my parents were overjoyed. It was then when my father had told me about his fatal disease in person and thanked me for granting him the very last wish. I smiled and said, ‘Dad, I already know.’ He lived way longer than the doctors had expected and was even lucky enough to see you turn five.”

I smiled recalling snippets of that usually-warm day in late September, with sun shining brightly on our backyard and him showing up at the kids’ party, looking usually thin and sad. I even remembered his words he told me in person: “Be happy.” 

“He died on the next Christmas Eve in his sleep. Nobody knows what happened to him.”

“It was such a sad holiday season!” My memory trailed back to the ickiest December ever.

The rain kept falling for the entire month, and many even began to give up their hopes for a proper white Christmas. Nevertheless, our family was determined to make the best of this time. My parents made the best roasted turkey I could ever remember. The apple cider and the Yule log were even better.

Erin and I were opening our presents when the phone rang. Then our father announced that we had to get ready and leave. When Erin asked what was happening, he didn’t say anything. Our mother quickly helped us dress up, and we were soon off to the emergency room. There I saw my grandfather for the last time. He was lying on a bed, motionless, pale, but with a very peaceful smile on his face. The doctors tried to revive his heart but were unsuccessful. In a few hours, he was pronounced dead.

Needless to say, the holidays came to a halt. My mother spent most of the season together with my grandmother arranging for the funeral. When she wasn’t busy, she was mostly by herself, most likely crying, although we never knew for sure.

“So you were forced to put dreams on hold for us,” I remarked grimly.

“Please don’t get me wrong, Becky. You and your sister are the best thing in my life. I wouldn’t have done anything differently if I could go back. But sometimes, when I was too caught up with housework, I felt that something was missing from my life. So I began to look for opportunities to read. Whenever I was nursing or one of you was napping, I would pick a random book and start reading. Then I began to collect books. Friends and relatives would donate me books on everything, from fantasy to romance. I just had to keep on reading to prevent my mind from going stale.”

“At some point, our house had so many books that we had to do something about them. Anthony and I decided to organize a garage sale. The event was very successful, and by the end of the day, I came up with an idea to open a bookstore. Your father was initially unsure about it, but we decided to give it a try. Soon enough, I had a full-blown business that was providing us with food and a roof over our heads.”

“And you felt happier then, right?”

“Much happier, darling. Although I had to close it down eventually, this business lasted for more than a decade, providing me with a sense of satisfaction every day. I think the real reason why your father and I made it this far was because both of us had something we enjoyed doing. He owned a restaurant, while I ran a bookstore.”

“I still don’t know why he was forced to close it,” I admitted.

“Me neither. It was such a great place to be.”

I kept quiet.

“Anyway, let’s not dwell on the past. The reason I told you all of this was to let you know that I’d been in your shoes. So I do understand how you feel about archaeology.”

“You were fascinated with volcanoes, right?”

“Yes, I was. When you declared you were going to Ashkelon, I recognized my younger self in you.”

“I guess the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.”

“Rebecca, I’m all up for you and Jason to stay together. But no matter what happens, you have to put yourself first. I don’t want you to have the same regrets that I had. That’s why I always encouraged you and Erin to get your degrees first and to settle down later.” 

“So you do support my choice to go to a grad school?”

“Completely.”

“Thank you, Mom. It means so much to me!” We shared a heartfelt embrace. 

“Goodnight, darling.”

After she left, I lay down my bed staring into the wall, my mind trailing back to the conversation I had had with my grandmother in her kitchen. She too never had her hopes materialized. Did broken dreams run in my family? If so, I had to find the means to break this cycle.

Someone knocked on the door.

“Please come in,” I said, yawning.

Erin walked inside. In her sweatpants and a baggy T-shirt, she looked totally different from the Erin I knew. Just like my mother, she was pale and wore almost no makeup.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“I came to ask you the same question.”

“I’m a bit better now,” I admitted.

“Did you talk to Mom?”

“Yes, and we had a very meaningful conversation.”

“Did she tell why she and Dad got married so young?”

“You know the truth?” I couldn’t believe my sister knew something about my parents that I didn’t.

“Of course I do! She told me the story many years ago. I’m surprised she held it off from you for so long.”

“How did you feel about the revelation?”

“I was angry. With everyone. With Mom for sacrificing everything to have us. With Grandpa for forcing her to give up her dreams and have babies.”

“Erin, you can’t be angry with a dying man! Besides, our grandparents would have never pressured her into anything. She simply overheard their conversation and made her decision.”

“I couldn’t help myself, Becky. I just hated the whole situation. Most of all, I was angry at myself.”

“But why? It wasn’t your fault.”

“I felt that our parents were forced into having me. I’d rather be the product of a drunken one-night stand than be born out of an obligation. It took me a long time to learn how to forgive.”

“How come no one ever told me until today?”

“We didn’t want to upset you, Becky. You always thought of us as a happy family.”

“I still do, Erin.”

“Good for you. I always believed we were a bit dysfunctional.”

“No way! I don’t think you even know what that word means.”

“Do you remember the amount of fighting we did after moving to Toronto? It was a nightmare!”

“We were going through tough times, Erin. Well, you weren’t, of course, but everyone else, including myself, was walking on eggshells.”

“What makes you think I wasn’t going through tough times as well?”

“You were always so happy and cheerful. You loved our new school and your new friends. I couldn’t blame you for that.”

“Me loving Forest Hill? You gotta be kidding me!”  She laughed.

“Wait, is there something else I need to know?”

“I probably hated high school more than you did. That mandatory English class and those Science courses I had to take were killing me. I still don’t know how I pulled it through in the end.”

“I hear you, Erin. I struggled with classes, too. But at least you had friends and a boyfriend.”

“My friends were all fake, and my boyfriend…I don’t even want to talk about him.”

“Why? I thought you were happy together.”

“We had a lot of problems since the first day we’d met. Trust me, I tried hard to make it work, but we were simply not meant to be.”

“Why?”

“He thought I wasn’t sophisticated enough for his family.”

I gazed at my sister with a mouth agape. Erin, the social butterfly, the fashionista! The girl everyone admired. How could she possibly not be sophisticated?

“Remember I brought him home once?” she continued.

“Yes.”

“Next day, I asked him why he wouldn’t do the same for me. I felt I deserved to know his family. He told me his parents wouldn’t approve of me since I wasn’t Jewish.”

“What?”

“We had a terrible fight but made up a few days later when he took me to see Green Day. But even after that, we continued having our problems.”

“And you decided to break up with him.” 

“It wasn’t me, Becky. I was so naive that I believed he loved me in spite of everything. At the heart of it all was the fact that he wanted to study at McGill and to become a lawyer, which was totally cool with me. I wouldn’t mind continuing long-distance. When I caught him making out with another girl at the prom, he announced we were over. Worst of all, that chick flat out told me that Jake would never feel serious about a college-bound girl like me. I was way out of his league.”

Now it made sense why Erin always stayed away from guys that belonged to higher circles. Every time she met someone from a medical or a law school, she would run for the hills without even giving the poor guy a chance.

“Although I was devastated, I tried my best to hold it together for the rest of the night.”

“You’re so strong, Erin.” I would never stop admiring my sister’s ability to conceal her emotions.

“I’m simply good at hiding my feelings when I need to.”

“I need to practice on that.” I recalled all the tears I’d shed openly.

“Anyway, men complicate our lives. That’s why I decided that I don’t need one anymore.”

“Well, it’s good to take a break from dating and revaluate things.”

“No, I’m not on a break, Becky. I’m done with relationships. Done for good!” She looked dead serious.

“Really? What made you decide?”

“Shortly before we came here, I saw Jake walking down the street with some high-profile chick. They looked like a celebrity couple. When I casually said ‘hi,’ he ignored me. It was the final straw for me.”

“Was it the day I called you?”

“Yes, Becky. I’m sorry for being so insensitive on that day.”

“It’s OK. I understand.”

“I’m just sick of wasting my time on assholes.”

“I’m sure you’ll find someone worthwhile in time.”

“No more waiting for me, Becky. From now on, I’ll focus only on myself.”

“That’s a pretty drastic decision to make.” I felt a bit shocked by her announcement. Was she ready to put off dating for good?

“No, it’s not.” She sounded determined. “I just woke up the next day, looked in the mirror, and realized that I’m perfectly complete on my own. I know it may sound like a cliché, but it’s true. I have you, Mom, Dad, and my friends. We hang out sometimes. I’ve got a great career I enjoy. I hope you’ll also find one someday.”

“Me too.”

“And I’m glad my younger sister is alive.” Erin hugged me close.

“And she’s about to embark on a new journey.” I smiled.

Chapter 29

“Do you think we could stay for a few days longer?” Erin suggested. It was my last day at the hospital, and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I was getting weary of constant visits from doctors and nurses, who were always in and out administering medications and doing tests. I lost track of time and was grateful to the Leon Levy Expedition for having forced me to buy insurance before the dig. Otherwise, we would be broke by now.

“It sounds like a good idea,” I replied. Even though I had clearance from doctors to fly, I was still feeling too weak for a ten-hour long trip. Moreover, I really wanted to show Israel to my family now that they were here.

“Maybe we should go and look for a hotel,” my father suggested.

“What do you think, Mom?” I looked at her pleadingly.

“Well, I was keen on bringing my baby home as soon as possible, but the majority wants to stay.”

“Come on, Mom. We all need a vacation. Besides, I’ve already missed my flight, and I believe you had a one-way ticket, so you can return anytime you like.”

“So, I guess, it’s all decided,” my father announced. “Tonight, you stay here and we go look for a hotel.”

“Call us if you need any help,” my mother said. “Here is our phone number.” She passed me a piece of paper.

“Oh, by the way, I completely forgot,” Erin added. Having fumbled through her purse, she produced a cell phone and a charger. “I believe it’s yours.”

“Let me have a look. Yes, it’s mine.”

“It was the first thing they gave me when we got here. I was planning to return it to you, but it somehow slipped out of my mind.”

“No worries, Erin. Thank you.” I took the phone from her.

“You can use my charger. I have a spare one at the hotel.”

“I believe mine’s in the suitcase. By the way, do you know how my things reached the hospital?”

“Jason drove back to Tel Aviv and brought them over shortly before you woke up,” my mother said.

The mere mentioning of his name made me feel as if someone had stabbed me in the chest with a sharp knife.

“Becky, are you OK?” Erin asked.

“I’m all right. Just a little bit of pain over here.” I pointed at where I believed my heart was located.

“Don’t worry. You’ll get over him by the end of this trip.”

“I can try.”

“We’ll spend some time together, go to beaches, and maybe even do a few day trips if you like.”

“It’s so kind of you all.”

“We’ll do anything to see you smile again.”

“What would I do without my family?” I exclaimed.

We all came closer and shared a group hug.

***

He was nowhere in sight. I’ve been going around the hospital for nearly an hour but couldn’t find him. I got lost a couple of times but later figured out how to get back to the wing where I was staying. What if I left without seeing him for the last time? He had saved my life, and I had let him down.

“Do you need any help?” a man in a hospital uniform asked me.

“I’m visiting Shye Elias,” I lied. This morning, I had finally changed into a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Before embarking on my search, I slipped on a pair of black glasses so that people wouldn’t recognize me easily.

“You must be his cousin, right?”

“No, I’m just a friend of his.” Quite honestly, I was terrible at lying and would rather let it be over already.

“All right, I’ll show you where he is. Follow me.”

When I entered the room, Shye was sitting together with Avi and a girl in her late teens. The three of them were talking animatedly in Hebrew.

“Rebecca, motek!” Avi’s face lightened up as soon as he saw me.

“Hi! I came to apologize for being so mean to you.”

“Ah, forget about it. Come join us.”

I took a few steps towards the bed on which they were sitting.

“There is someone I’d like you to meet,” he said. “This is my cousin Sigal, and she’s a rising star in the Israeli music scene.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“She knows everyone,” Avi told her. “And she’s a fan of Sarit Hadad.”

“Really?” Sigal was definitely surprised. “Where are you from?”

“I’m from Toronto, Canada.”

“I’ve been there during my senior high school year. I did an English summer camp.”

“Oh really? May I ask you which one was it?”

“CISS, I believe. We lived at the U of T campus.”

“Oh my God! I worked there six years ago.”

“Well, I was there three years ago. We wouldn’t have met.”

“Did you like it?”

“Oh, it was amazing! I loved all the sightseeing that came with the package.”

“I was in a similar camp in New York during my junior high school years,” Shye said. “I stopped in Toronto on my way back.”

“Nice.”

“Anyway, I came here to entertain soldiers who were injured in the war,” Sigal declared.

“Including him.” Avi gave his brother a mild nudge.

“Yo, shut up, man!” the boy exclaimed.

“So, should we get the party started?” Avi asked. It’d been a while since he looked so happy and relaxed.

Out of nowhere, Sigal pulled out a guitar and began to sing “Tachzor Tachzor” by Mashina. I slowly joined her, and so did the boys. The four of us sat together for several hours, talking, laughing, and singing. We had sung all the songs we knew, from Ethnix’ rock ballads to the latest hits of Keren Peles and Miri Messika. Some of them we improvised. Halfway through our singing session, a nurse came in with a plate of food.

“What are you all doing here?” she asked sternly.

“We’re having a party,” Shye replied.

“Have fun, but remember you cannot drink yet.” The lady put down the tray.

“Why so?” I asked out of curiosity.

“The medications might interact badly with the alcohol. It applies to you as well.” She pointed at me.

“I’ll be off painkillers soon,” I explained. 

“Good. But now, don’t even think about drinking.” Without saying anything further, she left.

“You’re all welcome to have my falafel,” Shye announced, passing the tray with pita wraps and [_shakshuka _]salads.

“Thank you,” we all said in unison.

“So, how did you end up in music?” I asked Sigal as we were munching on the wraps.

“I always knew I wanted to sing,” the girl replied, her eyes sparkling.

“That’s nice when you know what you want to do in your life.” I gave off a profound sigh.

“Looks like you’re one of those people who take longer to figure it out,” she said with a smile. “But don’t worry. He doesn’t know what he wants to be either.” She pointed at Shye.

“What? I know what I want be!” Shye said defensively. “I want to be a Prime Minister.”

“See? He’s got his head up in the clouds.” Sigal giggled.

“Like, you’re the only one allowed to dream big!” Shye looked offended.

“Guys, stop!” Avi intervened.

“All right, how long did it take you to figure out that you wanted to become a prof?” Sigal asked Avi.

“Who told you I want to be prof?”

“I, um, just assumed.”

“Well, I hope to get a job after I finish my dissertation, but I’m not sure if I’ll be lecturing or doing research.”

“You didn’t answer my question, Avi.”

I held my breath. I wanted to know the answer, too.

“I’ll tell you then. When we were kids, our family went on a camping trip to the north.”

“Are you talking about the time when you accidentally found a prehistoric tool in our campground?” Shye asked.

“Yes! I found a Neolithic spear.” His eyes sparkled with the same excitement I’d seen back at the Albright Institute when he told me about his field. “You wanted to throw it away, thinking it was rubbish. But I knew better. On our way back, we contacted the authorities to report the find. As a result, a new archaeological site was discovered under that campground.”

“Then you turned into this geek obsessed with archaeology,” Sigal noted. 

“Ha ha, that sounds much like me.” I recalled late afternoons spent with the encyclopaedia at my mother’s bookstore.

“Here you go. You have your answer,” Sigal said. “You just have to believe in yourself.”

“I wish it was that easy.” I sighed.

“Rebecca, I know how you feel.”

“Do you?”

“Are you familiar with Kokhav Nolad?”

“Oh, yes.”

“She wants to run for it next summer,” Avi explained. “She’s been driving all of us crazy lately.”

“Shut up, you geek!” Sigal playfully slapped him on an elbow.

“It’s the same as me getting a chance to present at the ASOR Annual Meeting,” Avi added.

“Kokhav Nolad is very competitive. If I end up as a runner-up, I might even sing at the Eurovision. You know what it is, right?”

“Yes, I know what it is.” I rolled my eyes. Sometimes, it seemed to me that I knew more about Israeli entertainment than I did about Canadian Idol or the Blue Jays. Never mind that I’ve been living in Toronto for more than a decade. 

“Want another song?” Sigal asked.

“I’m definitely up for it,” I replied.

We spent another thirty minutes singing together and cracking jokes. Being surrounded by people with positive energy definitely made me feel better. I already knew that in time, I would get through this rough patch.

“I think it’s getting a bit late,” Avi said in the end. “I’m afraid they might kick us out soon.”

“Don’t worry. I’m leaving in a few,” Sigal replied, packing her guitar away.

“Goodnight, everyone,” I said, walking out the door. “Thank you for such a great company.”

“Wait, I’ll walk you to your room.” Avi ran after me. “You wait here. I’m giving you a ride.” He looked directly at Sigal.

We walked quietly through the corridor, my heart racing.

“Avi, I’m really sorry for acting so meanly the other day,” I said when we were already standing by my room.

“Becky, I told you already it’s nothing.”

“So, you aren’t angry at me?”

“Of course not! You were still weak after the surgery and in shock from the news. I totally understand. In fact, it was I who should’ve kept my mouth shut.”

“It’s OK. I deserve to know.”

“So, I heard you’re going home soon. You must be missing it a lot.”

“Yes, but I plan to stay in Israel for a few more days and to spend some time with my family.”

“That’s what I’m planning to do as well. I’ve been thinking about taking a break from my studies and travelling the world with Shye. He’ll be finishing with the army this fall.”

“Don’t you have work to do at the university?” I was a bit surprised by his sudden change of plans.

“Work can wait. After all, family is more important, right? I mean, I won’t be gone forever. A couple of months won’t make much difference.” 

“Well, all the best to both of you. I hope the war will end soon.”

“Thank you, Becky. I hope so, too.”

“By the way, I’m planning to apply to a grad school.”

“Well, I guess that means I made the right choice when I decided to become your blood donor.” He smiled. “I didn’t want the world to lose such a great scholar.”

“I hope it’s not the only reason you’d do that.”

“Of course not, Becky! My feelings for you will always be the same regardless of what you choose to do in your life.”

“I also broke up with Jason.” I decided to tell him everything.

“Does it mean you are free?” His eyes sparkled with hope.

“I’m not ready for a relationship.” The last thing I wanted was to drag Avi into something that would end badly, for I would never be able to make him happy. More than enough damage had been already done.

“I understand, Becky. But if you ever feel ready, please let me know.”

“I’m afraid it will be a while.”

“That’s all right.”

“Thank you so much for everything, Avi.” I held his hand. “You’ll always be my friend.”

“You’re welcome, Rebecca.” He gave me a long, heartfelt hug.

After he left, I entered my room feeling lighthearted. Now that we’d talked, I was truly free.

Tomorrow, my family and I would leave the hospital and drive to Tel Aviv. My parents had already taken care of the details. We would stay in a small hotel by the sea. Our room would have two beds, one for Mom and Dad and one for me and Erin. It wasn’t an ideal arrangement, but it was definitely better than my current place. Although the Barzilai Hospital was very good in terms of the staff and service, I was getting tired of being confined to one room when so much was happening outside. Plus being a patient felt downright depressing.

Having pulled out my pyjamas and a towel from the suitcase, I went to the shower room. Today, my bandages were finally removed, and I no longer had to worry about doing any damage to my left arm. I quietly stepped into a shower cabin and let water ran over me. Feeling all fresh and clean, I slipped into my pyjamas and went back to the room, where I pulled out my BAR magazine and plopped on the bed. I was slowly becoming my old, normal self.

My phone rang. Up until this moment, it was charging quietly in a corner.

“Hello?”

“Hey, Becky! How are you feeling?”

“Jason, where are you? Why are you calling me?”

“I’m in Toronto for now. I just wanted to let you know that the Holiday Rentals contacted me about the refund.”

“Oh, that.” I completely forgot about the entire incident with the night almost spent on the stairs.

“They’re offering a complimentary stay for ten days.”

“All right.”

“I wanted to let you know in case you might be interested.”

“Thanks for calling. Bye.” Before he could say anything else, I disconnected.

I was beyond angry at Jason. I’d made so much progress in trying to forget him, and he ruined everything with one call. Now every single wound I’d managed to heal had been reopened. But the hotel was too nice to refuse, and I would definitely mention the deal to my parents next morning.

Chapter 30

“All the best to you,” Orit said, while signing me out from the hospital. “I hope you’ll want to visit Israel again, even after everything that happened to you.”

“I will definitely come back. I’ve got some unfinished work to get done.”

My family was standing to the side, marvelling at my Hebrew skills. Although they knew I was fluent in this language, they’d never heard me speak it.

“Can we stop by the ruins?” I asked when we were already walking to the parking lot.

“Honey, I don’t think it’s the best idea,” Erin replied candidly.

“Why not?” I pouted. “Don’t we have the entire day ahead of us?”

“That’s not the point, Becky. You’re forgetting where we are.”

“We’re in Ashkelon.” I shrugged.

“I agree with Erin.” My mother joined in. “Technically, we are still in the middle of the conflict.”

“You’re right. Maybe we should go.”

For the last few days, it had been so quiet that I almost forgot about those hectic times when our team had to be evacuated. Even if we weren’t stopping by the ruins this time, I would come back to them another time.

***

“We’re finally here!” My father wiped sweat from his temple. We were now parked next to the Deborah hotel, ready to get out.

“Come on, Dad. It was an easy drive,” I protested.  We did have a couple of traffic jams at the entrance to the city, and a few motor bikers did try cutting us off, but by local standards, the road was very easy. 

“Is it OK if I check the hotel’s office?” I asked while taking my baggage out.

This morning, I suggested that everyone stay at the Holiday Rentals apartment for no charge, but unfortunately, the hotel they had booked last night could not be cancelled.

Erin shook her head. “This place will only remind you of him,” she said. “Which will defeat the entire purpose of our stay.”

“Don’t worry. I’ve moved on already.”

“Well, it’s up to you, but I wouldn’t go there.” 

“No worries! I’ll be back in a few.” I grabbed my purse and was ready to walk to the office when my mother stopped me.

“Wait, we’ll walk together,” she said. 

Having dropped our bags at the hotel room, we walked to the Holiday Rentals office, which was only a few blocks away from the Deborah Hotel. Omer, who was working inside, immediately recognized me.

“Rebecca! How are you feeling?” He offered me a friendly hug.

“I’m better. Thanks for asking.”

“The entire country had been worried for you.”

“Really?” I still couldn’t digest the fact that my simple accident had made into the national headlines.

“Just look.” He grabbed a remote control and turned on a TV that was hanging from the wall.

“What?” I gasped.

The channel was broadcasting Netanyahu’s visit to the Barzilai Hospital. I was shown lying down in my hospital gown surrounded by a myriad of microphones and dictaphones. I was not in my best shape, but here I was on the national TV speaking to the Prime Minister in Hebrew. I was relieved to discover that the question about the terrorist threat had been edited out of the broadcast. If only I had known about my would-be fate at that moment!

The TV then showed various people from the Albright Institute, including the librarians, the IT team, and Ibrahim, all of whom wished me a speedy recovery. Minutes later, the channel also showed some local school at which a group of children were discussing my narrow escape from the terrorist plot and singing a song for me. Hearing their sweet voices nearly melted my heart.

Although my family didn’t understand the language, it was obvious to everyone that people here truly cared about me. It was equally obvious that this country desperately needed a national hero, and I happened to become one by a coincidence.

“Here is your new code.” Omer passed me a piece of paper with numbers.

“Wait, are you actually going to stay there?” Erin looked at me in disbelief.

“Why not?” my mother asked. “If she wants to stay at that hotel, that’s her choice.”

“Mom, you don’t understand. That’s the hotel where she and Jason were supposed to stay for their vacation. It will only remind her of him.”

“She’s a grown up woman now,” my father protested.

“Honey, we are here to support you, but if you don’t help yourself, no one else will.” Erin turned to me.

“Erin, I’ve already told you a million times that I’m over him. I simply want some space. Besides, that other hotel room might be a bit small for four people. Don’t you think so?”

She didn’t reply, but simply shook her head.

***

“This building doesn’t look like a hotel,” my mother noted once we got there.

“That’s what I had initially thought.” I recalled the night I had first set my foot on this tiny street. “Trust me, we are in the right place.” 

“Well, as you say.” Erin shrugged.

Having looked ahead, I saw Roman and Svetlana walking together with Sarah, the scary aunt, and some man, presumably her husband.

“Wait! I need to hide. Please, wait for me here.” I quickly ran to the closest tree and hid behind it. I saw Svetlana approach my mother and ask her something, probably whether she needed help with directions, as my family definitely looked like a bunch of foreigners. My mother shook her head, and the two couples continued walking. I knew that hiding from people who had once helped me was a cowardly thing to do. However, I wasn’t ready to face the world just yet, especially when Dalia’s aunt was in the picture. 

“What happened?” Erin asked as soon as I came out.

“Long story. I’ll tell you another time.”

I picked up my bags and started walking towards the building entrance. My family followed me.

“Wow, it’s a beautiful place!” my mother exclaimed, eyeing the kitchen and the living room. She couldn’t stop marvelling at its granite countertops and the large flat screen standing in the living room.

“That’s why I didn’t want to miss out on the deal.”

“You deserve a free stay after everything that had happened to you,” my father said.

“Becky, are you sure you’ll be all right on your own?” Erin asked. She was still concerned about my ability to stay in this unit without becoming maniacally depressed.

“Yes, Erin, I’ll be fine.”

I could stay with you overnight and keep you company.”

“Thanks a lot, but I need some quiet time.”

“Let’s leave her alone,” my father suggested. “But let us know if you need any help with cooking. I still remember a few dishes from the restaurant days.”

“You’ve been always amazing, Dad.”

“Just please don’t be hard on yourself,” my mother added. “If you want, we can bring you groceries and cook together.”

“Let’s save it for another day. Tonight, I’ll just order a takeout.”

“No problem. We’ll leave you then.” 

Soon, everyone left, and I was alone in the same place Jason and I had started our vacation. Those were the same walls, the same furniture, and the same trees outside. It felt as if I had somehow stepped back in time. Except for the fact that I was now alone. I tried to push the sad thought away.

On the living room table was a brochure with all the places in Tel Aviv from which I could order a delivery dinner. Having leafed through a few pages, I picked up my phone and ordered pizza with wings. Then I took out my laptop from the suitcase and went into a small terrace connecting the living room with the other bedroom.

Many friend requests were still waiting for me on Facebook. I decided to reject all of them, as they were mostly from random people who had read or heard about me from the news. As I was going through the list, I saw a familiar face. The girl strongly reminded me of someone I had met at the Albright Institute.   Without any doubt, Zeinab Assaf was Ibrahim’s daughter, for she had the same eyes as her father, greenish-brown, sad, but also kind. She was online, and according to her music app, she was listening to “Ruah Yam,” by Ofer Levi.

“Hi,” I messaged her. “How did you find me?”

“Rebecca! I’m so happy to hear from you! My father has been talking a lot about you lately. Are you feeling better?”

“As a matter of fact, yes. Thanks for asking.”

“I hope we can be friends.”

“Me too.”

“I’m staying on the continent for another week.  

“Wonderful! I think we should meet up for a coffee.”

“Sure. Would you be able to come to Tel Aviv?” I hoped this question wouldn’t sound ridiculous to her.

“I could, but it’s a bit of a hassle for me. You know, I hate checkpoints. Maybe you could come to Nablus instead.”

“Sure. Why not?” I typed back before even thinking. I knew my family would think I was insane when they found out. However, I wasn’t going to let fear stand in my way. What could happen to me now that the worst had already happened?

“Let’s meet sometime during this week.”

“Let’s do it,” I typed back and searched for Nablus on Google Maps.

“All right, I’d better go now. We’ll talk again.”

After disconnecting from Facebook, I went on Google and spent the next few minutes researching graduate programs in Near Eastern archaeology.

What have I done? I asked myself in panic while reading admission requirements for one of the international universities. Every single university I was interested in required an expensive fee to apply plus GRE tests, which I knew nothing of. The tuition fees and the living costs for all the universities looked astronomical. To top it off, there were virtually no guarantees that I would get a job after graduating from a master’s or Ph.D.

The reality hit me. I had traded a good marriage and a stable job for a path of uncertainty. Maybe it was for the best that Jason had walked away.

The door buzzed. 

“Coming,” I yelled, feeling excited about the pizza delivery. I quickly got off my chair and ran to the entrance. “Please come in.” I opened the door. 

“Rebecca…”

Time stopped when I looked into his eyes. He looked tall as usual and better rested this time.

“Jason, what are you doing here?” I asked.

“I came to see you.”

“All the way from Toronto?”

“Yes! Look what I brought you.” He pulled out a necklace with a turquoise stone and a silver bear claw. “Remember?”

Of course I did. How could I forget that day? Driving to the Grand Canyon from Las Vegas. Leaving at six in the morning after a night of dancing in hopes of arriving by the afternoon, but spending the entire day on the road simply because we took a wrong highway. Six hundred miles, to be exact.

Ironically, it was the Carmel Junction at the Zion National Park where we missed our turn. Talk about name coincidence. When we finally got to the destination, it was getting late, and the canyon’s lodge was overbooked. So we had to spend the night in our car. It was the first time I realized how unpredictable life can be.

On our way back from the canyon, we stopped at a shop selling the most beautiful Native jewelry I’d ever seen. The masterpieces included dangling earrings, bracelets, anklets, and pendants with petroglyphs of Kokopeli tricksters. The necklace we chose was supposedly an amulet to be worn for protection against evil spirits.

“Thank you.” I took the souvenir from him and lifted it up in the air. To me, it always symbolized nature, freedom, and unpredictability. The latter of the three recently became the culprit for my misfortunes.

“You’re most welcome,” he said. “I brought it to remind you of the happy days.” 

From a corner of my eye, I saw a pizza man walking up the stairs. “Shalom,” I said to him. “Let me get my wallet.”

“That’s OK. I’ll pay.” Jason pulled out a plastic card from his pocket.

“You must be hungry, too. Come in.”

We ate our pizzas quietly until he finally spoke. “Becky, I know you’re young, and you’ve got the entire life ahead of you. If you want to leave, I’m not going to hold you back.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but he stopped me.

“Before you can say anything else, I want you to know that your confession about that other guy obviously devastated me.”

“I know, Jason.”

“But having you gone from my life devastated me even more. I’m so sorry for leaving you at the hospital. I only did it because I believed that’s what you wanted.”

“What? Why?” I felt lost for words.

“I thought you needed space, Becky. I was convinced you hated me for causing this accident. But the entire time, I didn’t want to leave you.”

“Look, the accident wasn’t your fault at all. In fact, it saved me from something far more serious.”

“I know. But I still felt like a piece of shit for having shut you down that night.”

“It was my fault, too. It was I who betrayed your trust.”

“If only I’d listened to you, nothing would’ve happened.” He put his hands over his face.

I came closer and hugged him. “Please don’t be sad. Look, we had five wonderful years together. No matter what happens from now on, we can still stay friends.” Maybe we did need to have one last talk before each one of us could move on. 

“I want us back together,” he declared. “I really do, Becky.”

Back at the hospital, I was eager to win him back. Now that I had all the hard facts about my future plans laid in front of me, I wasn’t sure if taking him back would be the right choice.

“I doubt you’ll want the life I can offer.” I sighed.

“Why so?”

“Look, I have no job. I’m planning to start something that entails a lot of risks and little guarantees. I’ll probably never have children. I doubt you’ll want to be part of this craziness.”

“What makes you think that I don’t want to be part of your new journey? Haven’t we always dreamed about a better life for us?”

“Yes, but I’m so scared.”

“What are you scared of?”

“I’m scared that someday, you’ll wake up and realize that you don’t want to be with a woman who’s into her early thirties and still in school, a woman who’s away for conferences all the time, and who’s gone every summer for a month or more. Will you want such a life?”

“It certainly won’t be easy. It will be challenging. But the challenge part is what makes life so exciting.”

“Are you sure you won’t be disappointed later when the reality of my grad school hits us hard?”

“No, I won’t be. I’ll be more disappointed if we miss out on a second chance to be together.” He gently wrapped his hands around my waist. I, in return, wrapped mine against his. Then we stood there, holding each other tight for the longest time I could remember.

Chapter 31

Two Years Later

“Yes, we’ll see you all in May,” I tell my mother over the phone. “How are the wedding preparations going?” I add.

“Wonderful,” she replies. “Erin is glowing. You should’ve seen them yesterday. They kept chirping about the venue they’ve just found.”

“How nice!” I can’t believe my sister is finally getting married.

“How is your program, by the way?” she asks.

“Oh, I’ve just met with my supervisor. He wants me to focus on the Philistine burial customs and material culture dating to the Iron II for my research.” As I’m holding the phone with one hand, my other one moves the cursor across the article about the Philistine cemetery discovered in Ashkelon this year.

“Well, it doesn’t tell me too much.” My mother laughs. “How is Julia?”

“She’s great. We’ve just learned a few new words.” I hear my daughter’s laughter in the other room.

“Oh, that’s wonderful! I can’t wait to see her.”

“I know, Mom. I’m sure time will fly fast.” When Julia was a baby, my parents would visit us every so often. It must be hard for them now that we’re miles away.

“Well, Becky, have a great year and keep us posted.”

“Thanks, Mom. Say hi to Dad and to Erin. I love you all.”

“Bye, sweetheart.”

As much as I love Chicago, I can’t wait to go back to Toronto and see my entire family. Everyone, in turn, misses Julia, who will be two years old by the end of this spring. For the past few months, my mother has been extremely excited about Erin’s wedding. After all the anguish my family had gone through, we all deserve a little bit of joy in our lives. 

***

Ironically, my sister met her true love on her way home from Tel Aviv. She later told me how she was roaming through the duty free at Ben Gurion and saw a handsome stranger approach her.

“Excuse me, do you know where the food court is?” he asked.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to ask my sister,” she replied jokingly. “She knows this place better than I do. I’m new here.”

I wasn’t around to help because our flight was booked for the next day. Instead, they asked one of the staff members for help.

“Where are you from?” he asked her later.

“I’m from Toronto.”

“Me too. I’m Paul, by the way.”

Coincidentally, the two ended up sitting together on the plane and talking for ten hours straight, discussing each other’s trips. It turned out that Paul was also from Oakville and was visiting his high school friend from Haifa. Erin, in turn, told him about my story and how we all ended up having an unplanned family vacation.

After the plane landed, Paul and Erin exchanged phone numbers and agreed to stay in touch. Back then, Erin was convinced she was done with dating. Never did my sister suspect she would end up taking a transcontinental flight with her future husband.

***

I put down the phone and walk towards the nursery room, where I eye Irene, our babysitter, playing with little Julia. She’s been such a wonderful company for our sixteen-month-old daughter.

“Thank you for all your help,” I say while handing her the last paycheck.

“Anytime,” she replies. “Let me know if you need any help in the future.”

“Most definitely!”

Tomorrow, Julia is starting her daycare. I feel nervous, excited, and dreadful, all at once. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe how fast children grow. Yesterday, she was a little baby cooing at me all the time. Today, she’s a curious toddler running and jumping around. 

As soon as Irene leaves, I start getting my daughter ready for a walk. It takes a while to get her dressed and strapped into the stroller, for she is constantly restless. In the end, we are out, walking down the street and enjoying a nice September day. 

As we stroll through tiny alleys, exploring old buildings, I see a familiar woman walk in our direction.

“Aunt Rachel!” Julia exclaims, kicking her arms and legs inside the stroller.

“Honey, do you want out?” I ask her.

Julia doesn’t reply but starts kicking harder. So I let her out of the stroller. She immediately runs towards the woman.

“Julia, Rebecca! I’m so happy to see you,” she exclaims.

“Hi, Rachel. How are you doing?”

“I’m great, thanks. Yourself?”

“Oh, I’m great too. Just met my supervisor this morning. Can’t wait for the program to start.”

“I’m on lunch right now. Want to grab a coffee?”

“Sure.”

It’s the same Rachel I lived with on the dig. Except that she’s no longer the same person she used to be, but neither am I. A month ago, we ran into each other at a coffee shop by accident and ended up getting two lattes together. I learned that she moved to the city this summer because she was offered a job at the University of Chicago Press. A few days later, she met Greg, who is currently her boyfriend. Rachel and I are best friends now. Whenever I need a break from the busy family life, I call her, and we go out for a short walk. We often laugh at our hostilities from the past.

Two years ago, Rachel was trying hard to fix something that was beyond any repair. Her relationship with George had been stalled for quite a while, but she kept hoping for another chance. Not unlike me, she was a recent graduate who had no idea about her future. She enrolled in the course with the Leon Levy Expedition in hopes of winning her ex-boyfriend back just to discover that he had already moved on. Rachel already apologized a hundred times for everything she had said to me during our reunion in Tel Aviv. I forgave her a long time ago, for she is the person who helps me stay sane.

I also ran into George one time when he was walking through the campus with his new girlfriend, Jessica. He spent this summer working at the Oriental Institute and is back at Wheaton College, finalizing his dissertation. I might have developed feelings for him during our stay in Israel. After all, we had so many adventures together that our short friendship started to resemble a summer romance. Yet those feelings weren’t strong enough to last. When I saw him the last time, he looked like a total stranger. What’s important is that he helped me to believe in myself, and I’ll always be grateful to him for that. 

I still keep in touch with most of the people I met on the trip. I don’t talk to Janice and Madeline a lot, but I’ve forgiven them for their prank. I later learned that the reason they decided to play this nasty joke on me was because they were both feeling old and wanted to be irresponsible for the very last time. Well, I can understand the sentiment, because that’s how I often feel when I’m cleaning Julia’s high chair for the fifth time in a day.

Avi got married a year after I left and moved to California, where he currently teaches prehistoric archaeology. I sincerely hope he is happy wherever he is. Shye has just finished travelling the world and is now applying to various universities across Israel. Sigal didn’t win Kokhav Nolad. Neither did her new album become a huge success. However, I already know she will accomplish a lot in time. I still remember the drive and the passion she had on the night we all sat together and sang songs.

Dalia and I still talk via Skype and email, but our conversations are usually short and civil. We both take care not to mention the incident at the City of David. From what I know, she is seeing someone, but I have yet to meet him.

As Rachel and I sip our lattes and talk, Julia keeps tugging at my leg, saying, “Mama, mama, ma.” Like a typical toddler, she’s full of energy, always ready for some mischief. The moment I look away, she tries climbing up a stand with mugs and ground coffees.

“Julia! No!” I scream. “Sorry,” I later tell the café staff. They reassure me everything is all right.

“So, how was your first meeting?” Rachel asks me. “Did you decide what you’ll be focusing on?”

“I plan researching about the Philistine material culture from the Iron II. I’ll be using the evidence from the burial sites as the backup for my research.”

“You sound like my ex.” She laughs. “No wonder you two almost ended up together.”

“No, we wouldn’t have. We might be from the same field, but we are two different people.”

“Now I can’t even believe I used to think we had a future.” She sighs. “Sometimes, when I look back, I wish I’d focused more on enjoying myself during that trip. Instead, I spent those three weeks obsessing over him and wondering what he was doing.”

“Maybe you should come with me this summer,” I suggest. “We could go for a girls’ night out in Eilat.”

“Are you sure you won’t stray this time around?” she half jokes.

“No. My mind and my heart are in the right place.” 

Just as I say these words, my phone buzzes. It’s a message from Jason, who is asking me about my day. Last week, he started a new job at an IT firm in the downtown Chicago. After being out of work for three months, we began worrying he would stay unemployed forever. However, things actually turned in our favor, and he’s now earning more than he did back in Toronto. It’s not that my husband’s salary matters to me. It has more to do with the feeling of achievement, and I can tell Jason is feeling like he has accomplished something by landing this job. 

***

We had a lovely week in Tel Aviv. Even though he had to work remotely, we still had a lot of time for each other. During the days when he was busy, I would take my parents and Erin around the city and show them beaches, restaurants, and shops. In the evenings, my husband and I would take a short walk around Sderot Ben Gurion or drive to the Old City of Jaffa. We didn’t travel too much because I was still weak from the accident. However, as the end of the vacation was approaching, we both agreed it would be lame to leave such an amazing country without having one last sightseeing trip. Thus, we decided to travel to the Galilee.

We drove around all the sites I had missed when I had chosen to move from Megiddo to the Albright Institute. We saw everything, from the Arbel Cliffs to Beit Shean and Capernaum. Some places we had visited before; others were completely new. Together we were happy and carefree, just like in the good, old days. Ever since our conversation at the hotel, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders and could enjoy my husband’s company again. So we laughed and joked and smeared each other’s faces with hummus and tahini.

At last, we were too tired and ready to return to the hotel. Just as we were about to drive back, I noticed a sign leading to Bethsaida, another ancient site. I absolutely had to see this place, for it was the site where a rare coin had been discovered earlier that summer. The finding was even featured on CNN! So I pleaded with Jason to make one last stop, and he reluctantly agreed.

We spent a few more hours exploring what used to be the Biblical town of Geshur, where King David had allegedly married Maacah. The site was later renamed Julias after Roman Empress Julia. As we were trekking down the ancient path and exploring the Iron Age defence wall, the bit hilani complex, and the Greco-Roman pillars, the atmosphere felt magical, especially with the sunset flaming on the horizon. I still have the photo of us in front a large cactus tree that adorns the entrance to the site resting on my desk.

By the time we finished sightseeing, it was too late to drive to Tel Aviv, so we agreed to stay somewhere closer. The first hotel we found was a hotel at the kibbutz Ginosar, a cozy little village by the Sea of Galilee. I believe it was the night I became pregnant with my daughter, whom we decided to name after that beautiful ancient town.

I truly thought I would never want a child after everything I’d gone through. Later, I realized that life is all about taking chances, and bringing another human being into this world is one of them. There are always a million things that can possibly go wrong, and all you can really do is hope for the best.

Following our return to Toronto, I quit my copywriting program and enrolled in classes on French and German to prepare myself for a Ph.D. I must admit that with morning sickness and swollen ankles, taking courses wasn’t easy. One time, I fell asleep during a test. When the examiner came over to check on me, I had to excuse myself to the bathroom, where I spent the next fifteen minutes hugging a toilet. Many people didn’t believe I would make it to a grad school with a baby in tow. To tell the truth, I sometimes didn’t believe it either.

All I did the next year was managed through sleepless nights, endless feedings, and countless diaper changes. Sometimes, I barely even had time to shower or eat. Nevertheless, it was the most amazing year of our lives. The first smile, the first crawl, and ultimately the first walk brought so much joy to us that we would gladly do it all over again. Someday, we might.

When Julia turned six months, I started sending applications to graduate schools across Canada and the United States. I obviously used my experience from the Albright Institute and Ashkelon as part of the application, and everyone I worked with was more than happy to provide me with references. The day I learned about my acceptance to the University of Chicago was also the day my daughter stood up for the first time, so it was double excitement.

I still don’t know whether I got accepted to such a competitive program due to my then-popularity or my hard work. Nor do I know if I’ll ever succeed in academia. I plan to specialize in the archaeology of Syria-Palestine, which is a very narrow field with few job prospects.

My program will require me to gain more fieldwork experience, which means I’ll be gone for most of the summers. After Erin’s wedding, I’m heading to Ashdod Yam to work for two weeks as an area supervisor. It will also be the time when my parents will travel to Canada’s Rockies to fulfil my mother’s life-long dream. I feel a bit guilty about leaving my daughter, who’ll be travelling with them, for so long. However, I remind myself that someday, she’ll grow up to develop her own dreams, and I can only be a better parent by following mine. 

***

After a brief chat with Rachel, I return to our apartment, where I make a meal for Julia. She plays with her toys until I call her for lunchtime. Recently, she started talking in small sentences, delighting us along the way.

“I love Mommy!” she exclaims, putting her little hands around my neck.

“Love you, too, my little pumpkin.” I kiss her on the forehead.

After a long, messy meal, she is exhausted and ready for her afternoon nap. I wash her face, dress her in sleepwear, and gently tuck her in bed. As soon as she is asleep, I retreat to my desk and go over my files. This year, I’ll be a teaching assistant for an introductory undergraduate course on ancient Near East. As I go through the list of students’ names, my jaw drops. Zeinab Assaf is in my class!

I knew that she had moved to the States for studies, but not in a million years could I imagine that our paths would cross again. Although I had never made it to Nablus, we’ve been talking regularly on social media. In the process, I’ve learned that we have a lot in common, and it’s not just the music we enjoy. We are two small-town girls with big dreams. Zeinab wants to work for the UNESCO, while I hope to become a tenured professor. Well, we both have a lot of obstacles along the way, but we’ll surely overcome them. I hope that someday, we’ll be able to celebrate our successes by climbing Mt. Gerizim and touring Jericho.

In the meantime, I look at the books I have just bought for my courses. Those are the books written by the top scholars in my field—Israel Finkelstein, James Charlesworth, Amihai Mazar, Gabriel Barkay—you name it. Among the books rests Encyclopaedia of the Ancient Civilizations I had gotten as a Christmas gift when I was a little girl. As soon as I open it, I am flooded with happy memories from Oakville mixed with memories of Ashkelon and the Albright Institute. As I flip through its pages, I realize that my long-awaited journey is about to begin.

About the Author

Amalie Coles graduated from the University of Toronto with M.A. in Near Eastern Civilizations and B.A. in History. Prior to embarking on her writing journey, she worked in a variety of industries, including marketing, publishing, and educational administration. She currently freelances from home, providing editing and indexing services, while raising a family. An avid archaeology enthusiast, Amalie loves writing contemporary romance with a twist of adventure. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her husband and a daughter. She can be reached at [email protected]


My Journey

A young happily-married woman who is stuck with a boring job travels to Israel to participate in an archaeological dig. As time passes by, she learns more about the world around her, develops a new crush, and discovers her true calling while toiling for hours under the sun, organizing shards of ancient pottery, and translating an article on the Neanderthals. Soon enough, tensions in her marriage rise, and she must decide if she’s ready to sacrifice the comfortable and familiar path for the sake of her dream. Set in different parts of Israel and full of colorful sceneries, My Journey will find place in the hearts of world travelers, archaeology lovers, and young people who are figuring out their futures.

  • ISBN: 9781534623873
  • Author: Amalie Coles
  • Published: 2017-01-13 16:20:25
  • Words: 83804
My Journey My Journey