When the world's second-best-looking woman wanted to kiss him, he stepped back, projecting indignation with the mastery of a B-movie actor. As the husband of the world's best-looking woman, Josh could afford to be choosy.
"I'm not looking for romance outside of marriage," he said.
The world's second-best-looking woman pouted. She was younger than Josh's wife by nine months and only a tad plainer. Her eyes were less sparkly and the waist-to-hip ratio a bit higher.
She had been following him around for the last two weeks, relentlessly, like a female mosquito. He guessed he either smelled good or had a rare blood type.
"Women like me," he thought. "It's used to be a blessing, but now it's a curse."
He didn't remember if he came up with this line by himself, or if he found it in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations.
He blew her a kiss. She flipped him the bird. That was when he decided to visit Israel because he also felt under siege, and because his father was born again, and his mother was half Jewish, and Josh thought that Israel got unfair treatment and needed his support, moral and financial, and that his life sucked, and his boss stunk and he had to get away from it all.
Josh took off from work, told his wife that he had a business trip, told the second-best-looking woman that he would be unavailable, not now, not ever, and bought a ticket on Delta because he always bought American and because Delta was the cheapest direct connection.
"What holiday will you be celebrating soon, Mr. St. John?" the security girl asked him before the boarding. He guessed that was profiling.
He was kidding. He didn't plan any divorce because his wife was beyond reproach, but the second-best woman wasn't. Why bother?
On the plane, Josh sat between a man who knew everything about planes and was bent on sharing his knowledge with him and another man who was about 50% wider than Josh and kept invading his space with his shoulders and sour breath.
The wide man awoke just before the landing and said, "in Jerusalem, three religions observe a cold peace."
He actually said Jew-rusalem. What holiday would he be celebrating? The International Ice Cream for Breakfast day?
Josh took a shuttle from Ben Gurion airport. The shuttle was sherut in Hebrew. The plural form of sherut in translation meant bathroom. Was it a hidden message?
In Jerusalem, everything was brown stone and gold except the blue-and-white decorations of the Israeli flag. Kids and men in black released balloons and danced. Soldiers, Palestinians and tourists looked on. At least they looked Palestinian to Josh. They could have been Sicilians from Brooklyn.
Many women were surprisingly blonde. Many batted their eyelashes at Josh. He guessed he looked exotic.
The news said that the Arabs wanted to break through the border with Syria. No one in the crowd seemed to care. Josh's understanding of siege mentality was itself under siege.
He prayed at the Wailing Wall. Since it was divided in two sections, his was women-free.
The sun melted his brain and it poured through the pores of his skin, one IQ point a second. He slipped on Via Dolorosa and scraped his hand. Stigmata, he thought, washing off the blood with Jewish spring water. Can one get infected from stigmata?
He checked his e-mail at the hotel. The second-best-looking woman sent him a missive.
"Screw you," she wrote. "You can't get away from life until you're dead."
His wife also wrote, advising him to stick to familiar dishes and spring water.
He replied to both. "In your dreams" to the first and "yes, dear," to the second. Then he slept tucked in by an Ethiopian maid who may or may not have looked like Queen of Sheba, and dreamed that he was one of three balloons, white-and-blue, rising in an equilateral formation toward the overheated sun, away from it all.
But then a missile hit and he popped, spilling his rare blood all over the skies.
Note: Originally published in January 2011, Sonora Review.
I've been fascinated with the fate of the people who unbeknownst to them made a discovery of something that had already been discovered. Call them the second best inventors, the geniuses of the inferior rank. Same goes for the looks. Many newly weds consider their spouses the best-looking people in the world. But what about the second best? Who would love them? They can't stay unloved only because they are a tad plainer. Worse yet, what if they both love you? If you are fascinated with the question like that, where do you go for an answer? To a guru on a high mountain? To the Wailing Wall? Or maybe you just try googling? Someone who is a bit more proactive, might not like the third answer.
Mark Budman was born in the former Soviet Union. His fiction and non-fiction writing has appeared or is about to appear in such magazines as American Scholar, Huffington Post, World Literature Today, Daily Science Fiction, Mississippi Review, Virginia Quarterly, The London Magazine (UK), McSweeney's, Sonora Review, Another Chicago, Sou'wester, Southeast Review, Mid-American Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, the W.W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, Short Fiction (UK), and elsewhere. He is the publisher of the flash fiction magazine Vestal Review. His novel My Life at First Try was published by Counterpoint Press to wide critical acclaim. He has co-edited flash fiction anthologies from Ooligan Press and Persea Books/Norton. He is at work on a novel about Lenin running for president of the United States.
FF.Net Editor Commentary (Randall Brown)
It begins with a kiss that leads to where kisses can sometimes lead: a display of fireworks. Actually it begins with equilateral triangle, a triangle with three equal sides: Josh and the two women, the three religions, father-mother-son, the three men on the plane. The story moves quickly from word-to-word, idea-to-idea, place to place, continually turning, from Josh-as-a-balloon to his popping and spilling his rare blood all over the skies. It continually surprises. What to make of it? There's this:
"The meaning of the Equilateral Triangle is distinct from the Triangle of Pythagoras, which is discussed elsewhere. The Equilateral Triangle is often closely associated, with the City of Jerusalem, which holds a prominent place in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The Equilateral Triangle is especially associated with this location because the form of the 60° angle can be derived from the specific latitude of Jerusalem. When the sunrise is observed on the Summer Solstice and Winter Solstice, the resulting angle is of exactly 60°. This is a very ancient way of identifying a place by the behavior of the Sun and can be traced at least back to Paleolithic Britain, and perhaps further. This property gives the Equilateral Triangle special meaning to the traditions to which Jerusalem is important, including Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In this way, both the Equilateral Triangle and the Six Pointed Star are integrally related to Jerusalem, and any place with that latitude, by celestial geometry. It might interest the reader to know that the name Jerusalem is an ancient name meaning literally 'City of Venus'." (from William Stephen Jackson's Lectures on the Esoteric Symbology). Now do you understand?