PinkPlayMags (Toronto) – excerpt from Jerusalem Ablaze on page 31 of the Autumn Issue
Ortega-Medina’s characters are flawed, broken individuals, trying their best to make sense of their lives as they struggle with sexuality, death, obsession, and religion. Sometimes bleak, occasionally violent, and often possessed of a dark humour, this major debut explores the imperfections of life and the unpredictability of death.
“What are you doing here?” Marc said, narrowing his eyes.
Ken flashed a sheepish smile and covered his mouth with one hand to hide his braces.
“Come on,” Marc said, taking the shy young man gently by the arm and drawing him out of the shadows, “out with it.”
“It was all Barry’s idea,” Ken said, softly. “He thought you should have a witness or something, just in case.”
“In case what?”
Ken shrugged his shoulders. “That was you in the kitchen earlier?” Marc said, letting go of his arm. Ken smiled and nodded. “That guy, Simon, he almost caught me but I was able to roll under the sink in the nick of time.”
Marc blinked at Ken. “How long were you in there?” “I’m not sure,” he said. “But I heard everything you guys said, if that’s what you want to know.” Marc stared wide-eyed at Ken and felt as if an intense pressure were being applied to his solar plexus. He forgot to breathe for a few seconds and began to feel light-headed. The secret he had guarded for so long from everybody had been finally discovered by a virtual stranger. Thrusting out a hand to steady himself against the wall, he gasped for breath. Ken stretched out his hand to touch his shoulder, but Marc shook it off and backed away from him.
“Don’t worry,” Ken said, “I won’t tell anyone.”
Marc forced himself to take slow and steady breaths. He told himself that somehow he had to take charge of the situation. With each deep breath that he drew, he felt his panic subsiding; in its place, a smouldering anger began to take over: anger at Ken for eavesdropping on his conversation and anger at Simon for having created the situation in the first place. But angry as he was, he wanted to avoid making an enemy out of Ken for fear he might spread the details of the conversation he had overheard. He stared long and hard at Ken.
“Please, Ken,” he said, his voice hoarse with emotion, “you must promise me that you’ll never repeat any of what you heard to anyone.”
Ken nodded vigorously. “I promise.” A grin spread on his face, and his hand automatically came up and hovered in front of his mouth. “This will be our secret.”
Marc looked away from Ken. He slowly raked his fingers through his hair, pulling off his kipa in the process and stuffing it into his pocket. He stumbled to the sofa, slipped on his backpack and walked zombie-like toward the door.
Ken glided up behind Marc as he stepped outside and stood on the porch of the meeting hall, which was perched on a hill overlooking the rest of the kibbutz. They stood blinking in the glare of the bright sunlight of the late afternoon. After a moment, Ken tapped Marc on the shoulder.
“What is it, Ken?” Marc said.
“Do you want to talk about it? About what I heard in there?”
Marc stared at him. There was an odd look of anxiety on Ken’s face that belied his ever-present smile, and it made Marc feel uneasy. He pushed it out of his mind for the moment.
“I’d rather not,” Marc said finally. “At least not now.”
He looked down at the kibbutz grounds with a shake of his head. From where they were standing, they had a clear westward view of an orange grove that had been planted down the side of one of the hillsides. The sweet scent of orange blossom was borne to them on a warm breeze. Marc pulled off his pack and took in a deep breath. The smell of orange blossom reminded him of a warm spring afternoon in Southern California. He sat on a low retaining wall made of concrete blocks and closed his eyes. Ken looked at him curiously for a moment and sat next to him.
A few minutes later, Julia appeared at the bottom of the main path and bounded up the hill in their direction, taking two steps at a time without breaking a sweat. As she drew closer, Ken waved her down. Julia slowed her pace, approached them, and opened her mouth to speak. But Ken placed his index finger against his lips and pointed at Marc. Julia nodded, then crept forward and lowered herself on to the retaining wall to Marc’s left. Sensing her presence, Marc opened one eye and looked at her.
“Were you and Simon able to sort things out?” she said.
Marc opened both eyes and drew himself up a bit. “Sure, we talked. Don’t worry, you won’t get any problems from me.”
Ken leaned forward and stared at Julia from across Marc’s chest. She nodded at him and forced a smile. “Do you mind showing us to our accommodations?” he said.
Julia looked thoughtfully at Ken and then at Marc. After a moment, she stood and slapped off the dirt and twigs that had adhered to the back of her slacks. “Tell me,” she said to Ken, “how is it you missed the tour? I don’t recall seeing you with the rest of the group.”
“He stayed behind to wait for me,” said Marc, standing up abruptly. He tottered on the edge of the wall. Ken held out a hand to steady his legs. “I asked him to stay,” he continued.
Ken nodded. “So, do you think we could get going, Miss? I’m exhausted.”
“Yes, please,” Marc chimed in, “I’d like to get out of these travelling clothes and shower before dinner.”
“Certainly,” said Julia, “I’ll find someone to show you the way. Wait here.” She moved toward the meeting hall, halted and turned back toward them. “Oh, by the way, Mr Sadot,” she said, “Lisa Katz is in bunkhouse number eight … in case you were wondering.”
Marc nodded. “Thank you,” he said, as Julia disappeared into the meeting hall. Marc stared at the door for a moment.
“So you and Lisa are broken up now, aren’t you?” Ken said.
“I don’t know,” Marc said quietly, turning back to the view. “I guess we’ll know soon enough.”
A second steam whistle screamed in the distance, setting into motion another exodus of workers from the various buildings. The young people marched down both hills toward the narrow valley below. Ken smiled to see them scurrying down the various paths in the reddening light of the late afternoon. Shielding his eyes with one hand, Marc squinted as the rays of the sun, now almost perpendicular to where they were standing, cast long black shadows behind them against the meeting hall.
It took only a few minutes more for the sun to drop below the horizon. A heavy mist began to rise from the wheat fields below and a bank of low rolling clouds crept in over the hills. Within a few short minutes, thick roiling fog obscured their view of the kibbutz.
Orlando Ortega-Medina has a very diverse background as Judeo-Spanish via Cuba, and incorporates his heritage and life experiences into this collection of 13 eclectic tales from Los Angeles to the eastern townships of Quebec, and from Tokyo to Jerusalem, all places where Ortega-Medina once lived. In real life, he expatriated to Canada in 1999 with his life partner in protest to the US same-sex marriage rights. He moved his law practice from Los Angeles/San Francisco and established it in Toronto and Quebec. His debut short story novel is available from Cloud Lodge Books.