It takes five months for him to kiss her.
They are sitting across from each other at the small table inside Dina’s kitchen. A wine bottle sits between them, one glass half-full and another drained altogether, though Dina does not move to refill it. The lights are dimmed, or perhaps one of the light bulbs has simply gone out and no one has tried to change it.
It is night, and he is just veering on tipsy, and he is going to kiss Dina.
The thought and its subsequent image are not foreign to him at all. It has been five months since he met her and four since he realized exactly how beautiful she is: there, they had been sitting parallel at her café, drinking coffee at sunrise. The light caught her face just so, making her appear golden and heavenly with her hair perfectly framing the picture. She would then jab her elbow into his stomach, ask him what he was looking at, and take another sip while raising her eyebrow in a tease, as though she knew exactly what he was looking at and why. She had him almost entirely figured out.
Three months ago he imagined himself kissing her, and two he had the distinct thought that he wished she could’ve met his son. From the very first moment she asked him about his wife, he had wished Dina would’ve gotten to meet her, but the image itself still feels like an improper collage of two photographs with different lighting. The notion, though unfathomable, is not undesirable.
Tonight, he has decided that he is going to kiss her, even though he is not a man of action. It has been far too long like this, his heart fluttering in his chest at the very thought of her. He wonders how many men she has done this to. Whether he is the first man to fall under her trap.
But it is not a trap, because she is Dina, so brilliant and bold and therefore unaware that she is overwhelming his every move and thought. She would not notice if someone were in love with her, but on the other hand, she would be all to aware. She is oxymoronic in such a way, poetic and contrasted within herself.
He cannot imagine painting a picture of her: the colors seem impossible to mix.
They are discussing the weather, as it were. Dina describes the past few weeks of Beit Hatikvah, as the band has been in Alexandria for a month. It is trickier to make excuses for visiting a tiny town in Israel than one would imagine, with his position and the relative success of the band. Funding is still tight. A wire stretched thin. He tries to stretch it even thinner, but today it is just himself and Haled and Simon here. They are supposed to be talking with local officials about the prospect of planned visitations and performances. They are supposed to be doing many things. Instead, they are all split and sprinkled in various spots, warm places made during their first visit and far too easy to return to. Houses of familiars. Haled in an apartment, in a roller rink, in a bowling alley. Simon at a dinner table.
Tewfiq is here because this is the hole he has dug himself into, and he would not rather be anywhere else.
The weather, she says, has been colder than it was. Winter has settled into itself, a comfortable cold blanket. He thinks of his coat thrown over his chair, the scarf in the living room, the gloves tossed onto the countertop. Shedding himself in bits and pieces. They went out to get food, the same dingy restaurant of their first evening. She claimed it was out of nostalgia, which is a foreign word in English to him that she explained to him through hand gestures and fumbled adjectives. Old, warm, missed, she says. He nods and knows the feeling.
Haled came here in a light jacket. He thinks of Haled in his windbreaker and his own voice, stern and easy in Arabic. Dress warmer, it will be cold, he had said, to which Haled had smiled and shaken his head. I need to impress the people of Peit Hatikva, eh? he had replied, rolling his shoulders. The conversation filled him with that feeling again. Nostalgia. Remembrance. An echo.
Haled had ignored him and taken the steps onto the bus two at a time. Grinning with his teeth. He sat across from him on the ride over, keeping his distance but close enough to speak to. He comments on the world passing by, the sights, the people they are about to see. He pretends to be annoyed by it, brow furrowed, mouth pulled into a firm line. It is all an act.
He should not be thinking of Haled, here, in Dina’s apartment. The lamp coats the whole kitchen in orange and the linoleum of the floor and counter reflects the light in a yellowish wash. The effect is slightly sickening yet entirely comforting, a paradox which he assigns to it being Dina’s apartment rather than anything else.
When she speaks with her hands, fingers dancing, she creates shadows. It is the point of night wherein motions are trailed in static. She moves all too quickly and he will never be fast enough to keep up.
He wonders if the movement of leaning across the table would be fuzzy in the glow of the evening. He hopes it would not be: the gesture must be something firm, contrasting against the vagueness of the night. A calculated action. A thought-out thought.
Dina has stopped speaking. In fact, she has stopped moving altogether. Her head is cocked to the side just so which makes her hair cascade over her shoulders at a tilted angle. A waterfall of waves. She looks at him, carefully, like she is expecting something, but she does not want to push for it.
“I am sorry,” he begins in cautious English. His voice feels gravelly and unused in his throat. “I was not…”
“I know,” Dina says. With the time, her tone has gotten lower, scratchier, more familiar and rough, a sensation which sends a tickling feeling up his spine. He should be used to it by now, but he is not and never will be. “It is fine.”
She continues examining him like he is an unfathomable creature to her. The opposite is true: it is she who will never cease to confound him. He can be picked apart, laid out, and put back together again like a clock of many pieces set on its routine until disassembled. She, however, is made up of far too many details. Many of them are metaphorical. He could not describe her with words if he tried.
He is shrinking beneath the scrutiny. He should not: he is the conductor, the leader, the man who stands before others. Yet Dina is not the prying eyes of an audience; she is Dina, which makes her eyes boring into him far more overwhelming than the thousands for him at concerts. They see him as a machine, she sees him as a man. One is far more frightening than another.
“Nothing,” she says, quickly but lazily, which contradicts the stretching silence. He feels very suddenly that his lungs are constricting, though the tightening is psychological and he is old enough to know the difference. Still, butterflies in the stomach, narrowing of the throat, all physical reactions to simply the feeling in the air.
He knows better. He is not a young man anymore.
“What is it you were saying?” he asks. He pauses in the median, What is it, beat, you were saying?, like he can only manage the words if broken in the middle. The distinct sound of noises getting swallowed is not something he missed. Neither did she, of course, and the inquiry is something of mutually-aware irrelevance, but many of their conversations begin this way and end elsewhere.
“The band,” she replies, in that way that makes it sound like all the air is coming from her chest and she is on her way to sneering but there is no malice in it. With it, she leans back in her chair, throwing an arm around its back. “Hoping you would play tomorrow.”
“We are only three. We would be missing too many instruments–,”
“Still,” Dina says, with leisure. “You know how to play something, hm? They did not just give you the stick and hope you wave it?”
He replays the phrase a moment in his head to process it, the translation of a thought with an uneasy middleman. “Yes. I play the violin, but that is not–,”
“Tamborine, clarinet, violin. Almost a full set, eh?” she says, mocking in a way that may seem mean but is far from it. A little tease. He desperately wants to lean over and cradle her cheek in his hand, trace the smile with his fingertips. It pulls at one side more than the other, which is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
He has imagined what it is to kiss her for three months, has wished for and not done it in two. Placing numbers on it makes it seem like short periods, but the past stretches behind him, empty and jittering just as his hands do from beneath the table, pressed to his thighs. Pressure of an object. Weight of a time.
Dina is most charming when she smirks, half-wicked, half-gentle. A contradiction of a woman, he had thought, and still does think. He wishes he could find the proper words to describe her air, her eyes, the curve of her lips, but there is no such thing, no proper words. Nothing proper in it at all. She simply is, never to be written, captured, remade in photographs or artwork: ephemeral yet somehow endless.
He is too old for poetry at midnight, for chronicling the color of her eyes (chocolate, honey, black of night, brown of earth). He has outgrown longing, and pining, and wishing. He is older, wiser, and should be much better at all of this.
She is watching him again, grinning, softly, eyes upturned at the corners. He feels like a deer caught in headlights or something of the sort: startled, captured in an internal thought, thrust out of it and scared by the reality around him.
“What are you looking at?”
Dina does not move from her position, legs stretching forward and head lolled to the side and hands folded loosely at her stomach like there is no effort in any of it at all. “You.”
“Why?” he asks, carefully, like in itself asking is playing into a rhetorical game which he should not get involved in. The feeling is heavy, as is the atmosphere, his tongue in his mouth, the weight of his hands atop his thighs. A slowing of time when everything else is going all the faster.
He knows what the answer is, knows what it means, knows that something is ending and something is starting all at once.
“You are funny,” she says. It is slow, careful, indulgent. Sweet and full of longing. Gaze raking, examining; he can be itemized when she cannot. Mouth: thin, stern. Eyes: wide, frightened. His heart seizes in his chest, stops beating for a beat and continues again in a frantic rhythm. He wonders if she can hear it and if she would want to. He wonders what the pressure of her fingertips against his chest, just above his heart, would feel like. He might forget to breathe. He might forget to live. He swallows, and tries to compose himself, and fails, and leans across the table so he can kiss her.
He is not aware enough to catalog the moment, but he is of the moment just before it and the moment that will follow. There is the feeling of his fingers splayed out on the table to keep his balance, then her lips beneath his, then her palm pressing against the line of his arm as if to hold him steady, just at the elbow. At once he is jerking away like he forgot what he was doing and stands before her, digging his nails into the table, a man to be judged, a creature before the jury.
She is the judge, and jury, and God, and everyone in between: she always was destined for such an overpowered role.
They watch each other for a second too long, like they are waiting for the other one to speak, but the string is pulled too tight, the energy too loud. Dina opens her mouth, but all he can hear is himself. “I am sorry. I should not have…”
“No,” Dina says, and he can still smell her perfume, which reminds him of walking through a garden, freshly-snipped weeds, water and air and something associated with morning dew. Her lips beneath his were warm and chapped and sensitive to the touch.
She is not smiling or frowning. She is watching, neutral and careful. Hesitant, almost. Not quite, never quite. “No,” she says again, “It was… good.”
He raises his eyebrows in a gesture which feels lighthearted while it is his pulse he can hear buzzing in his ears and the distinct sound of the silence outdoors. Ringing is the right word to describe the whole of it.
He manages, “You… have wanted to?”
She hums and nods like it is obvious. Neither of them clarify what the object of the question is, what the thing that hangs so heavily yet weightlessly between them is. It, like the rest of it, is changeable. He feels like a bird, hovering, waiting for the right moment.
He watches Dina as she watches him. The ending of something, the beginning of another. Who will break the glass. He already has, technically, pressing his lips to hers, not thinking or imagining or hoping for it. He has not acted on an impulse in a long time. He has not had anyone that he has wanted to act on impulse for.
She says, “I like you,” like it is simple, which on one hand it is, and on one hand it isn’t. Both of them know this. Both of them have wedding rings, hers in a bucket beneath the sink along with the other jewelry he had given her, his wrapped in cloth in the smallest pocket of a suitcase. At this moment, his thumb twitches and he rubs the spot at the base of his finger where it used to be. Both of them have rings and she has divorce papers and he has an empty home, an empty bed, an empty thought to show for it. He thinks of his son, thinks of how Dina would like him, see his quiet and push against it but never too hard. He has learned to stop feeling guilty for it, stop feeling his chest tighten at the thought. He imagines Dina and his wife and his son and himself, imagines just Dina and him, imagines his blue uniform hanging up in Dina’s closet. Progression of a notion. Past to present to future.
His home is empty, and too large, and cold. He is not sure if he is fit for warmth again, even if he wants to be. “I am not a young man anymore.”
Dina rolls her eyes. It, like most things, is beautiful in a singular way.
“Good. If you were, you would not be you,” says Dina, smile spreading from her lips to her cheeks to the edges of her eyes, then she raises to her feet, cradles the side of his face with one hand, and kisses him again. The world does not stop, nothing stops: everything continues and roars. He smiles, brings his hands to press against her hip, her shoulder. She is firm beneath him, alive.
She pulls away first. His mind short-circuits in trying to find the adjectives to describe the tug of her lips. She is the most charming woman he has ever seen. “Hello,” she says, half-whispered, like it is a secret and a joke. It is not what he imagined; it is better, it is more perfect than perfection.
He breathes in, then out, then feels the way his breath wavers. He says, “Hello,” and smiles: the next moment, whatever it may be, endless and soft and orange-yellow from the light of Dina’s lamp, is to begin.
For once, he doesn’t hesitate. Dina smiles, radiant and crooked and unparalleled, and lets herself be kissed.