Those Left Behind

Alon checked his bank account again. Things have not looked up since the last time he’d done so. He sighed loudly. He really could not afford buying that redhead a drink last night. Let alone three drinks. He was well aware of this before he even drew out his wallet, and still could not resist. What was she, again? Australian, he thought she’d said? He was bad with accents.

He had just under 5,000 Shekels, now. The cheapest plane ticket back to Israel will leave him nearly broke. He doubted he could afford another week in Tokyo.

Tokyo, of all places. Idiot. Were he stuck in Thailand or India, he could have easily stayed for another month or two. A month in Thailand, maybe even a month and a half, was financially equivalent to a week in Japan. Soon he’d be forced to return home.

He couldn’t remember the Aussie’s name. She wasn’t particularly beautiful, but her eyes were familiar. A light blue which reminded him of Na’ama. He couldn’t look away. But she kissed differently, touched differently. It was a good thing he was plastered — sober, he might not have been able to sleep with her.

His breath caught momentarily. He closed his eyes and forced himself to calm down. It has been over eighteen months, now. It couldn’t still hurt this much. There have been so many women since, so many new countries and experiences. Surely they have painted over the old memories by now.

The sharp pain, while neither dulled nor faded, had eventually released him. Despite his efforts, he still thought of her — but things have gotten somewhat better. At first he would think of her constantly, and by now the dosage diminished to once a day. Memories floating up into a single sting of a moment, dredging the emotions up along with them.

Another week. Two, perhaps, if he is particularly frugal. He knew a hostel where he could find a bed for no more than 60 Shekels per night. Who knows — If he eats cheap and avoids buying women drinks, perhaps even three weeks.

She was dating someone new. At least, that’s what their friends told him before he left. To be precise — they told him, and then he decided to leave. Though, as far as he was concerned, the news merely expedited a decision he’d been considering for quite a while.

Once they broke up, he stopped following her on Facebook. He dared not think what would be revealed by going over her photos. The mere thought of her kissing someone else made him recoil into himself.

Alon closed the browser tab. His balance wasn’t about to grow of its own accord — he had no other choice but to look for a plane ticket. He knew some other Israelis who made their living selling from carts and market stalls, but he was a terrible salesmen, and didn’t feel like risking it. Most people he knew ended up getting caught.

Maybe she’d broken up with the new guy by now. Not that it mattered either way.

She hadn’t been in a relationship in years. She wouldn’t even define what they had as one. No, he was always her good friend — a role he was happy to fill — and after that, her secret lover. She never wanted their friends to know. And he got it, but mainly because it was the only way to get her.

Then, six months after they’d broken up (if she would even agree to call it that), suddenly she’s got a boyfriend? Any anger he felt was surely justified.

The tickets, he found upon checking, were pricier than he’d expected. Best case scenario, he had two more weeks left. Two more weeks before he’s back in Tel Aviv. Less, if he isn’t careful.

She didn’t text him when he’d left. Technically, she wasn’t supposed to know he was going. But he was certain that she did. Same happened on his birthday, nothing. As far as she was concerned, he didn’t exist anymore. She’d forgotten him already.

This riled him, infuriated him. He’d been there for years. The boyfriend substitute, the flirt, the friend, the lover. When he’d left, she just stopped thinking about him, hadn’t even noticed. Instead of trying to get him back, she went and replaced him. No one can convince him otherwise.

He still remembered the moment he finally kissed her. They had ice cream that day. It was no big deal, they’d often meet just the two of them. He’d always enjoyed her company. But this time, she placed her hand on him when he bent down to hug her. The contact made him look at her.

He’d have liked to say that he didn’t hesitate, but nothing was farther from the truth. Inside he was shaking like a leaf. Never, not even back when he was a virgin, had he felt such a deep longing, tinted with so much fear. He literally had to force himself to lean in toward her. A part of him was certain that he was making a terrible mistake — that she would look away and giggle, embarrassed. Only once his tongue touched entered the warmth of her mouth, he lost all inhibition, because he could feel her kissing back. He remembered how he pressed her against the door of her apartment, how he stroked her body, the object of so many of his fantasies. She led them to her room, slowly, and he avidly followed suit, still struggling with the fear that something will sabotage the gradually crystallizing dream.

It was the best sex he even had. His heart still pounded when he thought about those first moments when she revealed her body to him. When she touched him. He remembered her eagerness when she stroked his chest, how her arms encircled his back. She was so petite, especially compared to him, and he tried to be gentle, but he was aflame with desire. The memory of her moans was all he needed, during particularly lonely nights.

Her flirting had never been as straightforward as his. So subtle that he was never really certain it was even there. Only her eyes told him that his compliments pleased her, and he never put too much stock into those faint hints. But her touch revealed how attracted to him she really was. He was overjoyed to find out for sure.

He didn’t expect her to call after the fight.

Alon shook his head. He was wasting time. Decisions had to be made. A small overdraft wasn’t so terrible, but he still preferred to have some cash left when he got back. He should book a flight and a hotel room in advance, so there would be no surprises.

Actually, he suddenly remembered, she had called. The memory insisted on hindering his planning. A week later, she called and left a message. He was still too furious to reply. He also thought that it was about time that she chased him around, for a change. But she called. Why hadn’t he answered? Stupid pride.

Maybe he’ll take a peek at her Facebook page after all. He struggled internally for several minutes. Pain and anger fought against curiosity and longing, but for the first time, the tremendous anger stored within him was no longer enough. For the first time since he’d left, he gave in, clicked open the browser and logged into Facebook. His hand was shaking.

I’m over her, he insisted as he typed her name into the search box. This can’t hurt me anymore, he lied.

Her light brown hair accented her blue eyes, and her body had driven him crazy for years. An astonishingly curved ass for a girl so small, mesmerizing in its plumpness. “It was one thing if you had some color in you, but you’re so blindingly white!” he would sometimes jab at her, smiling wickedly. It was a regular part or their flirtatious, pre-coital banter. He flirted with others during their time together, of course, but surely she knew it meant nothing. She would date, as well, he thought defensively — and though he was jealous at times, he was never sincerely worried. She had nothing to worry about, either. Once she was in the room, he only had eyes for her. It was as if every other color faded, leaving only hers sharp enough to carve every feature into his mind.

*click*. Profile picture. Bright, quiet eyes looking into the camera, filled with emotion left unexpressed. His breath caught. Had she grown more beautiful while he was away?

Some would say she was never beautiful, but for the life of him he could not see why. He liked her from the start, although, admittedly, he never imagined he would fall in love with her. He’d describe her to his friends as, at most, “cute, with a fantastic ass”. Intelligent, but overly reticent. The object of friendly flirtation that wasn’t meant to go any further. Why, of all women, was she the one to make him feel that way? Because he hadn’t slept with her? Because they’d talk every day? There were other women in his life who shared all that. Not many of them, frankly, but some. Why her? What was the secret ingredient that set her apart?

The sexual tension with Na’ama was different, impossible. His hunger for her company was insatiable. She never gave him enough of her time. Even when they were secretly dating. It took him a long while to convince her to sleep over at his place. Her initial resistance to the idea was avid. But eventually she conceded, and he even felt as if, at times, she invited him over just so they could sleep in the same bed. He was certain that if he kept it up, she would eventually agree to tell their friends about them.

Out of sheer masochism, he began scrolling through her photos. He loathed the man standing beside her with every fiber of his being. His name was Ronny. He was several years older than her. What could this man possibly have to offer that he didn’t? He wasn’t better looking, he noticed, clenching his jaw. On the contrary. He seemed boring, stable. Is that what she wanted? Stability? Some mediocre banker that’ll take her to a restaurant once a week?

They were never particularly stable, even when they were dating (he insisted on phrasing it that way in his head, and to hell with her likely objections). Perhaps that was part of the excitement. It was impossible to tell how many nights they would spend in bed, and whether they would manage to hide their desire for one another when they were in public. He enjoyed it too, at first. The secrecy of it. It made flirting with her in public a kind of torture, because she never permitted him to touch her in the company of others. The things she would do to frustrate him bordered on artful. She loved the way he would relieve that pent-up frustration when he managed to get her alone. Sometimes he felt like an idiot for telling her that he loved her.

Ronny. That was the name of the man in the photos. Suddenly he realized that back when she told him she was in relationship, it was with someone else. A guy named Elad, he remembered. As much as he longed to forget that name, he couldn’t get away from picturing them together. He’d constructed an entire loathsome face for him in his mind, a smug, annoying expression. So who was this Ronny? Has she burned through several other boyfriends since? How many men had passed between her sheets since he left?

His musings caught in his brain when he ran into a photo of the two of the kissing. He wanted to throw uppuke. His bowels clenched and expanded, as if trying to recoil from the sight. He moused away quickly to close the image, and accidentally tumbled into her personal information. Engaged, read her relationship status. The word cleaved through him like a sharp knife through a ripe avocado. Engaged. The pain grew unbearably potent. He reflexively closed the browser, as a hand pulls away from boiling water long before the mind realizes what had happened.

For several seconds, perhaps minutes, he sat frozen in front of the screen, his hand pressed against his chest, his eyes tightly shut. Why was he surprised, when he was the one who left her behind. Why does it hurt. Because he’d thought she would take it back, change her mind? Because he’d hoped they could try again when he returned?

No matter how many times he told her that he loved her, she could never say it back. At first he was patient, despite the pain. He assumed that, like with everything else that happened between them, she was simply slower than him. But the months elapsed, and he grew more frustrated, impatient. Why couldn’t she say the words? It was slowly destroying him, eating away at his insides. He became prone to outbursts, became stubborn. He knew that he was ruining everything, but by this point had become convinced that only through persistence could anything ever happen. It wasn’t until now, in hindsight, that he realized that by pushing her he had driven her further and further away. Anger ripened into guilt. If he’d done things differently, he wondered, would she be his? Or did he never have a chance to begin with?

Nothing changed. In two weeks he would be back in Israel. All of those women, all of those countries and bars, the drinks, the sights he’d seen and experiences he’d gone through. No matter how far he thought he’d traveled, how much he tried. It wouldn’t go away. One of them left, the other stayed behind. And still, nothing helped.

Alon dropped his face into his hands, allowing himself to cry for the first time in eighteen months. He’d only just now accepted the fact that she was never truly his, and most likely never will be. Nothing he does can change that. Life moved on, taking everything they had together with them. Her life, at least. Because inside of him still beat every single moment they shared, every year spent in waiting, in secret hope. He still relived them daily, still hoping that one day things will change.

One of them moved on, the other was left behind.

All this time, he simply hadn’t realized which is which.