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On the Doorways to Paradise

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The first question Ashraf asked in Heaven was: "Did I kill anyone?"

Noam wasn't certain that this was the first question Ashraf had asked, since he was pretty sure Ashraf had died a split second before he had, so he'd probably spent more time in Heaven than Noam had. Who knows, time might flow differently here, and Noam thought he might have read too much Narnia as a kid. He wasn't even sure he was in Heaven.

Noam didn't know where he was, but he could hear the fear in Ashraf's voice, and so he didn't even think before answering, "No," with a confidence that reminded him of his boot camp commander. Unquestionably right.

He felt a tap on his hand, and something inside Noam unknotted when he recognized the touch as Ashraf's; not just a disembodied voice floating in space, but concrete, warm, here. Wherever here was.

"How do you know?" Ashraf asked.

Because it was what Ashraf wanted to hear. Because it was what Noam needed to be true. "Because the street was empty," Noam replied. "And we're alone here, aren't we?"

Noam's vision cleared, clouds parting before him like the intro to The Simpsons, revealing blue skies and carpets of grass. There were low, rocky hills sprinkled with purple irises and red anemones and in the air, the smell of rain. And finally, beside him, Ashraf. He was wearing jeans and a white shirt, and his hand clasped Noam's with something between anxiety and relief. Noam lifted Ashraf's hand to his lips and said, against his fingers, "You didn't kill anyone. I promise."

Not that it would matter if Ashraf had. Noam had killed before. One confirmed ("This morning, an armed Palestinian was killed by our forces in a crossfire near Ramalla. No IDF soldiers were wounded."), two conjectured ("The Palestinian National Authority claimed that five more Palestinians were wounded in the third day of fighting in Jenin. The IDF will be conducting an internal investigation as to the accusations."), and one that had never made it to the Israeli media. If Ashraf had, after all, killed... well, it would have just made them equal.

"You idiot," Ashraf said beside him. "I killed you."

Noam looked into his eyes. "Don't even try," he said, and kissed Ashraf's lips. Ashraf closed his eyes for a moment, breathed in, and when he opened them it was like he'd only just noticed their surroundings for the first time. "Yalla," Noam said, smiling, "let's see what's hiding over the rainbow. Seventy virgins, isn't it?"

Ashraf rolled his eyes affectionately. "Don't even try."

*

They both agreed that Heaven looked like the Golan Heights. If it was even Heaven at all, but they reached the conclusion pretty early on that there was a 99% chance that this was, indeed, Heaven, what with the perfect weather and the fruit trees and the decided lack of politics. What religion this Heaven belonged to was still uncertain, and they thought it best to call it the Elysian Fields, which hey, might be true. The Greeks had gotten at least part of it right; they might have gotten it all.

They spent their days in a state of ridiculous hedonism. They took long hikes and made love on mountaintops, their bodies bathed in pink light from the setting sun. They went swimming in rivers and pools, slid down waterfalls and dived between brightly colored fish in coral reefs -- red and yellow and purple and blue, better even than the ones in Sinai. They fed each other fresh-picked strawberries and mangoes, apples and oranges and kiwis and dates. It was almost sickeningly kitsch, but, well, they couldn't complain.

Sometimes Noam would wish for a warm jachnun, like the ones Lulu used to make on Saturday mornings, and when he woke up in the morning it would just be there, on a small plate with tomato sauce and a hard boiled egg. And when Ashraf wished for a bowl of masabacha -- not the kind the Jews made with preservatives and sold in labeled containers for family picnics, but the good kind, with fresh chickpeas and just the right amount of tehini and olive oil, like the one in Lima's on the Via Dolorosa, or Abu Shukri's -- it appeared, placed carefully on a wooden table, with two spoons and a jar of hot sauce and a stack of steaming pitas. And when they wanted to listen to music, it would float gently from the sky: Beethoven's 6th in F major providing a soundtrack to the sunrise, and Dylan in the evenings with a peppering of Lennon and Meir Ariel and Umm Kulthum. There was reggae when they wanted to relax, and fast-beating techno when they wanted to dance, and a string of Eurovision classics for when they wanted to get high with no drugs or alcohol around.

They'd never talked about politics when they were alive. They didn't start now.

*

One day, Ashraf asked Noam, "Do you think my sister is here, somewhere?"

They were lying on a swing, on a high cliff overlooking the ocean, and Noam tightened his arms around Ashraf's chest. "Who, Rana?"

"No, my other sister who--"

"--Forget I asked that," Noam said, feeling like an idiot. "I'm not an expert on the metaphysics of our current -- arrangement? -- but it seems, so far, like we're alone here."

Ashraf was silent for a moment. "Don't you wonder about your mother?"

"A little." The breeze ruffled Ashraf's hair, and it tickled Noam's chin. He shifted. "She never knew I was gay. I wish she could meet you."

"Maybe she can."

"No, I don't think so."

Ashraf untangled himself from Noam and sat up, one leg swinging in the air. "I'd love to meet my sister again."

"Do you think she'd change her mind about you?"

"Maybe." He paused. "No."

Noam tried to think of something comforting to say, and came up blank. "I think she's somewhere like this," he said finally. "Like us. In a parallel world, with people she loves."

A small smile appeared on Ashraf's face. "You're so full of bullshit."

"What? It's true!" Noam laughed. "Look, I sell -- I sold music for a living, I wasn't a philosophy major."

"I thought those were the same thing."

Noam grinned. "You clearly overestimate me."

Ashraf matched his smile, and then grabbed Noam's hands, stilling them. "Okay, but seriously, now. Don't you miss anyone?"

Noam pretended to consider it. "I don't miss not being able to be as loud as I want to when you're fucking me."

"That's not what I asked, ya nudnik."

Noam rolled his eyes. "I like being here alone. With you."

"Still not answering the question," Ashraf said firmly.

Noam sighed.

Sometimes, he missed the beach in Tel Aviv. Friday mornings, when all the old men who'd been living there since the `40s sat on plastic chairs and played backgammon in their bathing suits. He and Yahli would fake revulsion at their flabby, wrinkled chests while hiding their silent envy. The ice-cream man would march on the sand, shouting "Chocholate-Banana! Chocolate! Lemon!", a treasure of popsicles in his Styrofoam cooler. The ping-pong sounds of hordes of people playing matkot, tiny balls bouncing from paddle to paddle, and the sound of the French tourists, and Lulu quoting Uri Zohar's dumb movies from the `70s ("Tell me please, what did you say your name was?" "I didn't say." "Ah, that's why I didn't hear.")

Sometimes he missed Rothschild Avenue, with its coffee bars and steakhouses, and even the dog-walkers who left poop all over the grass, and at the end of the avenue, Habima Teater, where he had watched Bent with Ashraf, where Lulu had met Sharon only one month earlier.

And he missed Shaul's enthusiasm, and Orna and Ella's sweet potato latkes, and watching fake news satires on Friday night TV with Lulu and Yahli, and God, he missed Lulu and Yahli, who were his limbs. But Ashraf was... his heart.

"There are things I miss," he finally said. "And... there are more things I'm glad to get rid of."

"Like?"

"Reserve duty. The news. Everything that got us where we are today."

Ashraf snorted.

"What?" Noam asked defensively.

"Nothing. You're just... still living in that Tel Avivian bubble of yours. Disconnected."

"It's the only way we get to have our happily ever after."

"I thought Shakespearean tragedies didn't get happily ever afters."

"Hey," Noam smirked, and leant closer, hoping to get Ashraf to blush, "are you complaining?"

Ashraf reached out with one hand, caressing Noam's cheek a little wistfully. Noam leaned into the touch. "I miss my family. You love love Tel Aviv."

Noam smiled, remembering the T-shirt he was wearing the first -- technically, the second -- time they met.

"Well, I love love love you," he said, and kissed him.

"Shwieh, shwieh," Ashraf murmured, behind a smile. Slowly. We're not going anywhere.

*

There was a Greek myth, Noam remembered, about two brothers who were doomed to spend eternity apart, alternating between Heaven and Hell, never meeting in the middle. Maybe he and Ashraf could only exist in complete isolation; but they had breathtaking sunsets, and divine music, and heavenly, pardon the pun, food.

Death was good.