After college, in the ’80s, Cecile remained in West Philly and Saul leased a studio in Center City, and they walked back and forth all night on the Walnut Street Bridge, comparing their sex lives. Saul was in the closet then—not to her, of course, but to the world—and his trysts were laden with shame and squalor: quick gropes in alleys and stairwells with men who were missing teeth, or with married commuters, or with UPS drivers, because who can resist those little brown shorts? No matter how down and dirty Cecile would feel, creeping home at dawn in a borrowed Springsteen T-shirt, Saul would sink lower. All the white lights shined on the brown Schuylkill as the two of them laughed and laughed until it was morning and they went for omelets at the Commissary, a fancy cafeteria that has since been shut down.
Cecile moved only once since then, in her late twenties, from West Philly to Center City. She took a rent-controlled flat on Delancey, the ground floor of an old row home, sparse pin oaks on the curb and boot scrapers from colonial days. Saul, on the other hand, couldn’t stay put: from Spruce Street to the Art Museum area, then to a house he bought in South Philly right after 9/11 when Philly was poised for a real estate boom (that never happened), and finally out to Media. Cecile was not happy with his move to the suburbs beyond the reach of city transit. “You can get here on SEPTA,” Saul reminded her reasonably, but Cecile snapped that SEPTA was expensive and ran on timetables. A train ride is a thing you plan—early on a Saturday morning, visiting distant relatives, hat on the overhead rack, a box of Italian pastry on your lap.
Yet the Media house was lovely, with a yard and porch, leaf-raking neighbors, three bedrooms (one for her!). They were fifty now: as close to wretched eighty as they were to ripe and rambunctious twenty. Cecile felt she was much the same woman as she was that day she handed him an anti-nuke flier on Locust Walk. Now they began the long slide into the dignified old age she envisioned: concerts at the Kimmel Center and clever friends. His job was to find the clever friends. She could hear him say: You must meet Cecile. She is indomitable.
There was between them a tacit economy. Saul had done well as a civil engineer. She had done less well as a copy editor, especially since she was reduced to freelancing. He picked up checks. She bought him gifts, silly things—light-switch covers in the styles of various artists (Picasso, Mondrian), dried flowers in a blue vase, a first-edition Baldwin. But when they traveled together they split expenses, a habit they acquired when they were young and both broke. He should treat, for all the nights she soothed his anxieties, his phobias: the painted-shut window, the squamous bruise. But whenever the hotel receipt came, he would get tetchy and hand her the total divided by two. Good old Saul.
So when he told her, a couple of years ago, that he was planning a vacation in Israel, Cecile said, “Israel? I can’t afford it.”
They were walking down Market Street, past a porn house dating back to the Rizzo administration, vacant storefronts on either side. Men erected scaffolding across the street. The Schuylkill lay before them, and the magnificent iron bridges, one teal, one copper, and the flat, Fascist-era friezes of Thirtieth Street Station. She waited for him to elaborate.
“However, I’ve always wanted to go,” he said.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“No. Jerusalem, maybe. The West Bank. But I want to see Tel Aviv.”
“Hum.” Fresh air braced them as they crossed the river. “The thing about Tel Aviv,” Cecile said, “is it’s a construct of a city. No history. Like Dubai: completely artificial.”
“Not at all,” Saul said. “It’s the kind of place I’ve always imagined myself. Artists, writers. Tea in the morning, beer in the afternoon, a film festival at night.”
Cecile laughed. “You mean it’s gay.”
“Well, there is that.”
She put her hand on his bicep. He worked out. In his teens Saul was soft—not fat, never fat—just blurry. He’d grown like a coloring-book drawing in reverse: he started out as a pastel smudge, and now he had a bold, sharp outline. “That’s fine. I think you should go to Israel to get laid. Nice Jewish boys, for once. Maybe an Arab or two. You will feel freer without me.”
He returned, freshened by the salt breeze, reading Amos Oz in Hebrew, keen on political debate. Israel awakened something in him, and it wasn’t spiritual. It wasn’t sexual, either. He reeled off so many new friends’ names Cecile could not keep them straight. One a professor of mathematics. One a social worker who worked with Ethiopian Jews and Ukrainian prostitutes. One sold electronics and wrote Arabic poetry. Saul had acquired new hobbies like Iranian films and Bikram yoga. The day for him was never too long. Several times Cecile would ring him up for Sunday brunch, but he was off to run a 10K or to bring a kale salad to a potluck of Israeli expats, friends of friends.
. . .
Read the rest of this story in the Kenyon Review Mar/Apr 2016 issue, on sale now!