You will be sitting in your grandmother’s living room in Jerusalem, on one of those weekends following a week you chased, the type of week when all you want at the end of it is for someone to pick up after you. Your cups, your socks, the hairs you shed on the tiles. Your cousin, a few years wiser, will be having the same type of week. She will be there, and throw orange peels on the floor of the balcony. On that afternoon your grandmother will be taking care of one other baby, aside from you and your cousin, a one-year-old Romanian girl living two apartments above her. The kid’s parents will be away for their second anniversary. Since your grandfather died, your grandmother has been taking care of a lot of other people’s children. “What do I care,” your grandmother once explained. The people who had the children paid her money. “What, you think it is a problem to take care of children?” she asked you.
But the kid there that afternoon will be a problem. She will be all crumpled and bitter and dead. She will have a fruity yellow bow on the plum of her head, and a puffy matching dress. Also a cheap apron of rainbows, and a diaper. She will be in a stroller, and let me tell you, she will not be approving of any of this.
The only thing that will keep her from screaming will be the cartoon in front of her, a toaster in the shape of a man who will be trying to teach her the names of colours through his singing in magical woods. On the sofa, you and your older cousin will numbly watch the pixels of the screen as well.
Your grandmother, she will be sitting on that old stool by the stroller, trying to stuff mashed carrots and smashed chicken into the kid’s mouth with a spoon. The kid will wrinkle her brow, will purse her lips and turn her head away from your grandmother’s hand, grunting in her weariness of this worldly existence.
“God! My hand! My back! It always takes forever with this kid,” your grandmother will say and try to bring the spoon to the kid’s mouth again.
You and your cousin, the one who spent two years fixing radiators in a nuclear facility located in a forgotten welfare town, a place that does not really exist, will have the joke grow in your heads at the same time. It was always like that with you and your cousin, the one who is now studying how to engineer the electricity.
“Grandma,” your cousin will say. “I don’t think this food is this kid’s thing.”
“Why do you say such a horrible thing? I always make the kids the best food. This is real chicken,” your grandma will reply, honestly hurt.
“But grandma,” you’ll say. “That is exactly the point. She is not a kid.”
Your cousin’s eyes and yours will be shooting empathy at each other.
“She’s a divorcee,” your cousin will say.
“Divorced plus five,” you’ll say. “No alimony, not from her worthless excuse of an ex-husband.”
“Sitting on the bar at the LimaLima club, the oldest woman there, blue eye shadow and dangling skin on the neck,” she’ll say.
“Waiting, waiting, waiting,” you’ll say.
“‘And for what?’ she thinks, bitterly. She orders another shot of arak,” your cousin will say.
“No, no ice. Dumb waiter. Clean. She needs it clean,” you’ll say.
“In the mornings she needs the coffee to be black. Black, black, black. No milk. No sugar!” your cousin will say.
“She cannot open her eyes without it,” you’ll say. “She’s sour, sour. Where was my youth?”
“She also needs, hmm, can you go get some Marlboro Reds for the kid?” your cousin will ask.
This will be the line that will do you over. Marlboro Reds for the kid. You will look around for a second, stunned, at the yellow carpet, the old fan, the fancy chinaware in the cupboard. Your grandmother’s hand mid-air, the spoon, and carrot and chicken.
The joke was funny because it said: This kid thinks she is in another time, but now is not that time, it is the now.
And you will laugh and laugh and laugh so hard your hiccups will sting behind your knees, and then you’ll laugh more, ripping your throat with relief. You will know that in your life you caused more than pain.
That joke – it will be the same one, the only one that ever did and ever could make you laugh like that. That joke, it was always the same joke, nothing more than the playful colour of time.
The kid will scream, her brow wrinkling like that of an aunt, but you will laugh and laugh more, you will not let her scream over you. Your cousin will fail to laugh for as long as you will. Your grandmother will shout your name. Waving her finger, expecting more, more for the sake of the kid in the stroller. Some consideration.
Marlboro Reds for the kid.
For each person, there is only one joke in the world that he can truly laugh at. When they realize which one it always was, they know they must exist. They feel their pulses in their teeth.
“Silly little girls,” your grandmother will say to the laughing hearts of your cousin and you.
Marlboro Reds for the kid. One afternoon, very soon, you will look at a baby with sour eyes, and you will laugh at that same joke, and your laughter will no longer be mad. You will feel the warmth of life of your cousin’s body sitting near you on the sofa; breathe in the bleach and onion of your grandmother’s apartment and her own scent of all of your history that extends even beyond the borders of this country you love.
And then. In the holes inside your ears you will hear the slightest sound of a thing becoming undone. And that pitiful sadness, all that sadness of things that are your littleness, will dash and land elsewhere, and with the grace of your permission. The sadness of sands and beeping watches and gunpowder and chemical toilets. The sadness of things you have done wrong and lives that were not yours to interrupt and the dead who you could have loved better.
That sadness that was a snake made of metal rods clenching and welded around your lungs, it will patiently melt, becoming a lukewarm airy pond of the silver that is the calm of longing. There, there, but for you to breathe in. You will laugh your new-born laugh, the laughter no longer mad, you’ll laugh it one last time that afternoon not long from now, and you’ll kiss that old baby on her scalp. And you will know that things you have done you cannot undo. You will live among the panic of words not found, no longer sad in that very way you were before. And then what will happen is, the thing that will happen to you, is that, you’ll, well, you’ll, we will – I will become afraid.
Shani Boianjiu is the author of the novel The People of Forever are Not Afraid.