The cashier scanned Limor’s purchases – chocolate, trashy tabloids, a tub of Chunky Monkey – without taking her eyes off the TV. A Christmas tree stood unplugged behind her. They didn’t exchange holiday greetings. What was the point? Neither of them had anywhere to go tonight. No turkey, no presents. Limor counted coins. Twenty cents short. The cashier blinked. Limor sighed and replaced a magazine.
Outside, flurries swirled, dissolving into mist before reaching the ground. Trees flickered behind foggy windows, silhouettes holding wine glasses. Limor tightened her jacket. She spent her first few Christmases in Vancouver with Peter’s family. It was like an American sitcom she’d watched as a kid in Israel: a tree laden with ornaments, stockings tacked to the mantel, children squealing as they tore open gifts.
This was her first year alone. Before their fight last week, she’d hoped Max would invite her home with him. She was embarrassed to admit it even to herself.
When Limor met Max, she had just turned 31. The age of second chances. Whatever she hadn’t accomplished by 30 washed away, insignificant. She had been single for two years and loved it. “We are essentially alone in this world,” she told anybody who’d listen. “Once you accept it, life becomes easier.”
Max sat outside Café Napoli; a tall man, his boots caked with mud. A man who worked with his hands. He frowned at his crossword puzzle and studied Limor for a moment before asking for her help. She leaned forward to read the clue, her breasts half-spilling from her bra. She caught a whiff of his scent, clean and masculine and with a touch of salt.
She ran into him the following week. He remembered her name, which she found extraordinary, and even pronounced it right. They sat on a sunlit patio and shared a pitcher of sangria. He let her have all the strawberries. He worked on tugboats – two weeks on, two weeks off. She always had a soft spot for sailors. If they could deal with something as temperamental as the sea, then they must know something about women. By sunset, their knees were engaged in a subtle play of accidental touches.
He lived on Commercial Drive, above an Indian deli that filled his apartment with the smell of roasted spices. She came over after work. They chatted over scotch, cooked dinner, watched a movie. Finally, they were drunk enough to shed their clothes. They always had great sex.
By fall, things began changing between them, as if the impending holidays made them needier. Before he left for work she slipped a note into his luggage. It was the first time she did a girlfriend type thing. His cabbie waited while they kissed passionately on the sidewalk.
Then, a few nights before his return, her furnace broke. Limor called the landlord, her breath like smoke. It may take a day, he said. Max had given her his keys to hand over to a friend who needed to borrow his guitar. She tried calling but he was out of range. She figured he wouldn’t mind. He’d probably encourage her to stay.
His bed smelled of sex, a mix of their scents she found comforting. In the morning she washed dishes, scrubbed his tub, and took the sheets to the laundromat. When she returned, her key turned too easily, like a car coasting on wet pavement. She froze. He can’t be early. Her things were still there. She inhaled and turned the knob.
“Laundry delivery!” she announced, a tad too cheerful. Max rose to hug her, his smile tight, his eyes tired.
“You’re home early.”
“Boat broke down. Long story.”
“I slept here last night…” Her words came out fast. “My furnace broke.” She giggled. “Don’t worry. I’m not moving in.”
He laughed, off-key.
He made coffee while she showered. She sipped hers while trying to tame her hair with his gel. Max watched her. “So… when are you getting your stuff out of here?”
She eyed him in the mirror. “Tonight? Why?”
“And I need my keys back.”
“Seriously?” She turned to him, her curl shooting up like a tentacle. She stormed past him, grabbed her purse, dug out the keys and planted them in his palm.
He softened. “I didn’t mean to rush you.”
Her temples tingled. She wished she hadn’t cleaned his tub. She stuffed her clothes into her knapsack and slipped into her sneakers.
“I have a shift.” She gave him a brief smile. Fighting called for passion, for intimacy. She didn’t care enough for a real fight.
She spent the next few days ignoring his calls. Then it was Christmas and cold and Max was with his family in Chilliwack and she was alone.
Outside her window, the snow thickened, the streets terribly beautiful and clean. She felt lonely. How cliched. She was Jewish. An atheist. It was a Hallmark holiday. She pulled the blanket over her head. When she jerked awake, her phone was blinking.
She straightened, energised. In her neighbours’ yard, an inflatable Santa had toppled over, face buried in snow. “Not much, you?”
“Want to come over?”
“Aren’t you in Chilliwack?”
Sigh. “My mom got sh*tfaced. My dad threw the tree across the room.” He’d never talked about his family. She’d never asked.
She was quiet. “Sorry.”
“I saved you some turkey.”
She held back a smile. “I’ve got ice cream.”
Later that night he took her out on the fire escape and up the ladder to a gravel rooftop overlooking Commercial Drive. They walked to the edge, traced by tiny bulbs, and watched the street, the snow coating tree branches like whipped cream, streetlights bouncing on the shiny asphalt. People stumbled home from parties, hollered, “Merry f*cking Christmas!” The air smelled of cardamom and cinnamon. They hugged to keep warm and waited for someone to look up and see them, drinking wine from a bottle on a city rooftop on Christmas Eve – but nobody did.
The Best Place On Earth by Ayelet Tsabari (HarperCollins, £6.99) is out now on ebook