He placed his notepad on his knee and wrote: Cloudy. The smell of gasoline and garbage bins. Then he looked out the window again to verify that there was nothing he had failed to note. The bus pulled away from the station with a vaporous breath and headed to the highway, toward Jerusalem. The Doors are playing on the radio, he wrote, then crossed out the words and immediately changed his mind and wrote them again.
The bus raced ahead, straining to catch up to an identical bus moving forward in the left lane, making it hard for him to keep the notepad steady on his knee. The other bus was full of dozens of soldiers sitting in twos, unconscious in sleep, their faces melting down the windows. He remembered from Cadet Corps workshops in high school that it was possible to identify which branch of the military each soldier belonged to by the color of the beret on his shoulder. This, too, was written in his notepad. He sheltered his eyes in order to avoid his own reflection in the window of the other bus. Red berets – paratroops. He suddenly thought that if there were a terrorist attack on that bus, the terrorist would become a legend of sorts. A hero in his lifetime. Or, rather, in death. Legions of masked men would appear on the news shouting Allahu Akbar while waving banners with the man’s picture in one hand and brandishing guns in their other. “And these are the pictures from Gaza in the aftermath of this morning’s terrorist attack,” they would say on the news, running continuously the photos of black-clad figures, only their eyes exposed, as they approach the camera again and again as if instructed by some hidden director, and on every channel the words, “These are the pictures from Gaza” and “These are the pictures from Jenin” and “These are the pictures from Beirut” or Baghdad or East Jerusalem or Jaffa will be repeated. No one will remember, precisely. Later, the different organizations will claim responsibility for the attack; the more soldiers that die, the more organizations will sprout up to argue that the terrorist was dispatched from their ranks and it will be impossible to know whom to hate and whom to love. Only when the video tapes of the terrorist are discovered will it be possible to breathe a sigh of relief; filmed a day or two before, the attacker will say something about the right of return or the Nakba or the Koran and in the next photo he will be pictured kneeling in prayer on a rectangular prayer rug and calling out Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar. He imagined himself riveted to the television, his mother clucking her tongue in the background and saying, “Another brainwashed idiot.”
The bus on the left slowed down and exited the highway. His gaze followed it until it had become a distant dash on the horizon, then disappeared, and he pressed his ear to the window in order to hear better, but there was no sound of an explosion. He turned back to his notepad only to discover that his pencil had run amok and left deep scratches up and down the length of the page that crisscrossed the words and pinned them to the square of paper, closing them off as if putting them behind bars.
He gazed at the people around him and wondered if one of them had read from the expression on his face the things he had been thinking about. The seat next to him was empty, but two older women wearing colorful plastic beads around their necks, were sitting across the aisle from him. They were staring ahead at the seats in front of them, occasionally exchanging words without looking at one another. He concluded that he had no reason to worry about them and noted in his notepad that they were speaking a language he could not identify.
As he sat writing, the terrorist of his imagination moved to his own bus. Now it was he and the two old ladies who were in mortal danger. He envisioned them blasted forward like two bullets, their arms and legs disconnecting from their bodies and hurtling in arcs to the sides like fireworks. He wondered what would happen to the plastic beads in the hell that would follow the explosion. The bearded Zaka volunteers responsible for collecting the attack victims’ remains would find them on the street somewhere, whole but charred, or stuck like wax drippings to the dead women’s necks and breasts. Cold sweat trickled down his back; he was overcome with emotion by the blinding colors of the scenes of death taking shape in his imagination. Where were these two women headed? It seemed too predictable to write The Western Wall. His hand wavered uncomfortably over the page: Hadassah Hospital? The Khan Theater?
He removed his mobile phone from the pocket of his trousers and glanced at the numbers on the screen. It was ten minutes before nine o’clock. His class would be starting in forty minutes. He thought about phoning his mother and considered the potential for a good headline: MOMENTS BEFORE EXPLOSION VICTIM PHONED MOTHER. In his mind he could picture his face framed in red beneath the black lettering of the headline. A quote from grieving Samaher would hover over the top of the article. Which photograph would they put in the newspaper? Anything but that awful school picture; he had to remember to get rid of it the next time he was home. Now he glanced sideways to make sure that the two old ladies across the aisle were still in one piece. The face of the one closest to him looked exhausted, pale in the muted brightness coming in from the window. He decided they were en route to the Mount Scopus military cemetery. He had never seen anyone there even though he passed the sloping burial site weekly and he supposed that the crisscrossing stones planted in the earth would be happy for the company he had planned for them. He flipped back in his notepad in search of anonymous characters from the past whom he could wed to these two women about to visit the cemetery. He found fewer than he expected, but still the renewed encounter with them managed to awaken in him the pride of a person who understands for the first time the significance of his toil. It surprised him to discover that among the residents of his notepad there was not a single male. Without realizing it, he had documented only women. At that very moment, one of them was triggering a disturbing feeling of regret and pity.
That day he had been waiting in line at a malabi stand in Jaffa to order something to drink. According to the date scribbled in the margin of the pages it was ‘the middle of August.’ He and Samaher were on their way home (from where? There was no mention of that in his notepad) when they discovered a puncture in one of the back tires of their car. They had managed to reach the garage of one of their uncles, and while Samaher stayed behind to keep track of what was being done to the car, he set out to find something to drink in one of the nearby shops. He was standing in line, waiting to order, when he caught sight of an overweight, gray-haired woman making her way slowly in his direction, struggling to climb the stairs to the stand. Her face was contorted and darkened with exertion, and she stopped beneath one of the colorful cloth parasols that swayed back and forth and groaned in agony. She removed the kerchief that covered her head and used it to wipe the sweat away. He was certain he had never seen her before in town. She looked around with a look of despair. He lay his notepad down on the low cement wall next to the stand and wrote. Where is she going? She seems to be far from home. She pulled out a small round container from which she extricated a pill with her fingers. She tried to read the label on the container but was unable. She tilted her head back and tossed the pill into her mouth. He made an effort to write quickly; when he lifted his face to look at her again, their eyes met, hers seeking his out like two arrows. Had she caught him in the act? He lowered his gaze back to the notepad and pretended to be busy reading. From the corner of his eye he could see her descending to the sidewalk, on her way again. He watched her as she moved off into the distance and recalled for the first time in years the shame he felt at being caught stealing a handful of gummy candies from the kiosk across the street from his school, on the last day of second grade. The saliva in his mouth turned rubbery and bitter and he felt relieved when he was handed the drink he had been waiting for.
The bus came to a stop and the passengers spilled out of it, only to join the queues of people waiting to enter the station. He looked around for the two women who had sat across the aisle from him, but to no avail. The backs of all the people ahead of him looked like all the others in the customary synthetic darkness of Jerusalem’s central bus station. A faraway voice called out, “Driver, can’t you see it’s red?” and he recalled that he had not noted the color of the plastic beads hanging from the necks of the old women.
Outside the station, four men stood in a circle and looked about with curiosity. He noticed a police van with two wheels on the curb and supposed that until just a short while earlier there had been a large crowd gathered there. “Did they find anything?” asked one of the four men as he tossed the burning butt of a cigarette into the road.
“Nothing. A false alarm.”
Just as he was about to cross toward Jaffa Road his telephone rang. It was his mother. “Are you already in Jerusalem?” she asked. He could not hear his own voice over the din of traffic, but according to his mother’s responses she could hear him clearly. “Did you take a jacket with you?” “Are you coming home on Thursday as usual?” He told her about the things he had been thinking on the bus trip, about the soldiers. She listened silently. He could hear himself say, “Quite a story, eh?”
She said, “What’s this terror attack you’ve got in your head?”
He returned the phone to his pocket and looked up at the traffic light. Green. At that moment it dawned on him that this could be a wonderful title for a story: Terror Attack in Your Head. Excited, he thrust his hand into his right pocket to pull out his notepad. A young woman pushing an empty baby carriage ran into him from behind and muttered, “Where’s your head?” before skirting him and moving quickly past. He tumbled into the street. While hurrying to the opposite curb he imagined his pencil forming the letters on a block of paper – Terror Attack in Your Head – and he felt his steps to be lighter than those of the people around him. His feet moved along the asphalt without touching it and he proceeded, weightless, to his destination, carried aloft by the world described in the long lines of ink and graphite in his notepad. For a moment, the feeling was pleasant, then he put his hands in his pockets and balled his fists in fear that he might suddenly lose his grip on the earth and float above it, above the astonished looks of the people around him.