I get on the packed bus, toward the back. It's rush hour and crowded. Briefly, I wonder if my bus will explode in a ball of white hot heat and shrapnel. That happens here. I brush aside the thought quickly not because it's irrational but because there is a certain nihilism required to live in this place.
I put in my ear buds and ready for the long ride home. I listen to some Italian pop music that makes me happy even though I understand little of it. Nearby, a soldier adjusts his AK-47 and his young brown eyes meet mine just for a moment. The bus goes over a bump and we all sway with it.
The bus grinds by concrete buildings uniformly shuttered against the heat. Architectural beauty is not a thing here. This country was built hastily. We pass a row of tall, shiny metallic skyscrapers that look distinctly out of place. Dusty palm and date trees line the streets, and unkempt crimson bougainvillea clambers over balconies. The late afternoon sky is golden, the way it always is here unless it's raining, which is almost never. Everything is covered in a thick layer of dust under a sheltering sky. This country isn't supposed to be here, and yet it is.
We pass fruit sellers with rows and rows of pomegranates, pears, peaches, apples and bananas for sale. Fennel, asparagus, rosemary and parsley too, alongside towering heaps of lemons. Juice stands selling huge plastic cups of fresh orange, pineapple and carrot juices have long lines. It's only about 15 shekel for a cup. That's about four dollars. It's worth it. The pomegranate is my favorite, tart and alkaline. A junk seller goes by in his rickety horse-drawn cart, announcing his presence over and over on a staticky megaphone, his voice distorted.
It's hot, over 100 degrees Fahrenheit today. The bus slows, then stops, and more soldiers board. They are young. We move past more dust-covered buildings and cars parked at odd angles. Order isn't really a priority in this country and rules are subject to mercurial change. Signs I can read only partially advertise shoes, buildings for lease, sunglasses. More bougainvillea, but this time a soft coral color, suffuse with afternoon sunlight.
It is strange that I live here. I know that. The beaches are infested with swarms of jellyfish in the summer and the heat is withering. Feral cats wander the streets in alarming numbers. Air raid sirens are not unusual; I have come to know the difference between a drill and an alarm.
Three years ago I lived in Los Angeles and my life was undone. The kind of undone that you read about and have a quick intake of breath. The kind of undone that makes you feel lucky it's not you and then immediately guilty for thinking that. Ooohhh. How awful. How brave.
After a prolonged battle with depression and anxiety, my brother Peter had taken his life. He shot himself, if you are curious. Everybody always asks. Four weeks before that, one of my closest friends succumbed to breast cancer that had metasticized throughout her body. I watched her die. Six weeks later, the sketchy but charming British business partner I had taken into my business with little or no scrutiny (hindsight) proved my conveniently-ignored gut feelings correct and spiraled into a psychotic episode, taking my business and reputation down with him. It all happened so fast, and numb with grief, I had both arms tied behind my back while I watched it happen.
The bus slows and turns onto a large boulevard. We pass a large army base surrounded by a formidable fence festooned with razor wire. Many of the soldiers get off and more board. We pass schwarma shops, the stacked, fragrant meat visible through the window, with a lump of fat atop it, drizzling it with flavor. The workers are sweaty as they shave pieces off with electric knives and argue loudly with someone unseen. People argue here vociferously and with regularity. At first it's mildly alarming, but then you get used to it.
Falafel joints pepper our route in improbable numbers. Workers scoop hummus, chopped cucumbers, tahini and crusty warm falafel balls into warm pita bread. Falafel is good because it's cheap and filling. It used to be slightly exotic to me; now, it's a staple. As the light begins to fade into dusk, I see women, their heads covered, lean out their windows into the roasting air and begin to take in the laundry. In this heat, the wet clothing only takes a couple of hours to dry. After that it just gathers dust.
I think of my brother and wonder what he would think about the fact that I live here, in the Middle East. I think he would be incredulous. He never traveled much. I don't think he would have visited me without an epic arm-twisting that might not have been worth it. This place is not for everyone.
I have swum in the Mediterranean, warm as bathwater, late at night, swooshing away jellyfish. I have been in the chalk grottos on the border of Lebanon. I have eaten nutty, rich hummus drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with zatar. I have snapped my computer shut and run down three flights of stairs to reach the bomb shelter and I have heard missiles exploding overhead. They sound a lot like thunder, but it's not thunder, it's missiles, the kind you see on television, and your mind can't quite reconcile it.
You'd think a person in grief and crisis would move somewhere comfortable, like home with my parents or to some easy, friendly small town where I could adopt cats and take up volunteer work. You know, reinvent myself, lick my wounds, regain perspective in a friendly, convenient environment. That would have been the sensible thing to do.
Maybe the heat, the danger, the tension here is in some way life-affirming. Maybe I wanted to live on the razor's edge as a way of giving death the finger.
You can't outrun grief, I'll tell you that for sure. It is an inconvenient truth if ever there was one. Is it better today than it was three years ago when I got that nightmarish, surreal phone call? Julie, the sheriff is here... I remember the rest of the call perfectly. No, put Dad on the phone. There's been a mistake. No, it's not better. It's different. It's beginning to sink in.
The bus slows, and I turn off the music on my iPhone, gather my bag and, after many excuse mes in my strange new language, clamber out of my seat. The doors open and let in a hot gust of wind.
For more by Julie Gray, click here.
For more on death and dying, click here.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.