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The pale of settlement, p.18

The Pale of Settlement, page 18

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  Now Susan reads so she can fall asleep. She folds two pillows behind her head, props her book against her knees. The bed is broad and billowy with down. Steam rises in the radiators, swirls up from the subway grates on the street below. The alarm clock ticks.

  In the novel she is reading: Tel Aviv in the first fall rain. Wet leaves littering the pavement, a low-slung sky, the scudding sea. She’s been to Israel many times, but never in the fall. In the story, a young woman flirts with her boyfriend’s father. The father is an accountant who can’t sleep. The boyfriend, whose mother has recently died, is off trekking in Tibet. The young woman sleeps with his best friend instead. The narrator shows up in his own story, gives his characters advice. Everyone is sad.

  Out her bedroom window, Susan can see into the top-floor apartment of a brownstone two blocks away. Every once in a while, late at night, the man who lives there will open the blinds and shine a floodlight on himself. She can’t see well so far away, but his movements are clear enough. He unbuttons his shirt, steps out of his pants, takes his penis in his hand. He casts an elongated shadow against the wall. Sometimes she forgets that if her lights are on, he can see her, too.

  It’s not long before he hunches forward, hurries from the room. She squints, makes out a bookcase, an armchair, a potted palm or fern. An orange poster on the wall. She wonders if she would recognize the exhibitionist if she passed him on the street. It’s not unlikely that they’ve brushed shoulders many times. Then the light across the way snaps off and everything is dark.

  It was James’s stories that seduced her, the way he made her feel as though he could see beyond the limits of the tangible, straight into her heart. That first night, when he brought her back to his apartment and undressed her and made her come but wouldn’t yet have sex, he told her about the Aborigines. They were sitting next to each other on the couch, still behaving as if talking were something other than a precursor to making love.

  There was a time, James said, before the world was fully awake, when the ancestors emerged from their underground sleep and began to sing their way across the land. They crossed the continent with song lines, inscribing stories on the landscape, on the rocks and creek beds, rainforests and hills. Alcheringa, he said, with his long flat vowels and intense gaze that made her believe everything he said. Dreamtime. It still exists, he said, just below the surface of consciousness. He picked up a coffee table book of Aboriginal art, flipped through the pages, reading out the names. Emu Woman. Dreaming Wallaby Man. Susan pictured the ancestors, vaporous as djinns, their bodies cracking through the earth. James pointed to a picture of a hide traced with constellations of tiny dots, red and green and blue and gray. This is the Lizard Ancestor, he said. See, there’s his tail. The story goes like this: Once upon a time, the Fringed Lizard and his beautiful young wife walked all the way from northern Australia to the Southern Sea. There a southerner stole the wife and sent him home with a substitute instead.

  Susan didn’t know then that the book was, in fact, Nicole’s. Nicole who imported Aboriginal art for a SoHo gallery. Nicole whose naked body was right there, in black and white, in the photograph hanging on James’s bathroom wall.

  In those days, James spoke in the singular: I, my, mine. Because he didn’t talk about Nicole, she didn’t yet exist.

  We lived in the quarter of Sanhedria when I was a little girl, Susan’s mother said. It wasn’t a religious neighborhood back then. Behind the house was a garden with some olive trees. My brothers used to climb the trees, pretend that they were spies. All you could really see, though, was into the bedroom window of the house next door. If you were lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the fat Hungarian lady who lived there taking off her clothes.

  Susan tried to imagine this part of Jerusalem where she had never been. There were no photographs of her mother’s childhood home, so she had to make it up. The bald hilltops, cracked concrete, chalky stones. Dusty plots littered with bits of scrap iron and curls of rusty wire. The wail of a muezzin in a minaret. The smells of cooking cabbage, garbage, diesel fumes. Quilts flapping over terrace rails. The piercing desert light.

  The roof of our building was flat, her mother said, painted white against the heat. From there you could see the yeshiva at the corner, the tin-roofed makolet where we bought our milk and bread, the old Arab house across the street. The house was made of stone, with a red-tiled roof and windows covered with iron grilles. The family who lived there ran away to Egypt in ’48. Al-Rashidi—that was their name. They had a daughter around my age. After they left, the house stood empty for many years. Sometimes my brothers said you could see a strange flickering in the windows, late at night, as if someone were moving around upstairs. Later, they put an army barracks there.

  Her mother reached forward, pulled her close. Susan pressed her face against the softness of her breasts. Layla tov. The shadows deepened in the corners of the room. Passing traffic cast rectangles of light along the wall.

  Once, years later, Susan asked her mother if what she’d said about the old Arab house across the street was true. What did I say? her mother said, wiping her hands on a dishtowel. How it was haunted, Susan said. How you sometimes saw a light. Her mother made a face, pushed back her hair. Don’t be ridiculous, she said. I never said anything of the kind.

  Once Susan invited James to her parents’ place in Riverdale for dinner on a Friday night. It was still the early days when they weren’t really sleeping together yet. She was excited to show him the place she came from, a part of the city he’d never been to before, a place you couldn’t get to easily by subway or on foot. She drove and he sat beside her, slightly hunched in the front seat of the Honda, eager as a boy. She took a detour along the Hudson, stopping at Wave Hill. They parked and walked across the sloping lawn and flowerbeds to look out across the river at the view—the flaring red and orange of the autumn leaves along the Palisades; to the south, the George Washington Bridge, strung with lights. A wedding was going on inside the mansion. The bride stepped out onto the stone terrace, surrounded by her bridesmaids, their hair and dresses fluttering like birds. Toscanini lived here, Susan told James, during the war. The wind riffled the hair back from his forehead. In the sharp light, with his wind-reddened cheeks and faint spray of freckles across his skin, he reminded her of her cousin Gavi. A Scotch-Irish version, with reddish hair instead of black, blue eyes instead of brown. God I love this place, James said, shielding his eyes from the setting sun with one hand.

  But bringing James to meet her parents had been a mistake. How alien he’d looked, standing there in the doorway with its brass mezuzah, the print of Chagall’s green lovers floating on the facing wall. She could feel her parents taking in his ruddy solidity, his height. James O’Reilly? her father repeated as he shook his hand, and Susan felt ashamed. He might as well have had a crucifix around his neck. They followed her parents into the living room and sat stiffly on the couch as if they were foreign guests. You know I spent a month in Israel, James told her parents, when I was seventeen, on an exchange program organized by the Australian government. Ani medaber k’tzat ivrit, he said proudly, in an accent that made Susan cringe, but her father exclaimed yoffi! and her mother touched his shoulder and said she’d teach him more Hebrew any time he liked. It’s a deal, James said as if he meant it, unaware of how they condescended to him, an Israel-loving goy. Susan remembered looking down at the familiar pattern of the Persian carpet distorted by the coffee table glass, trying to decide if her parents thought James was her boyfriend. (They were being so very friendly; surely not.) She remembers noticing James’s shoes, flimsy leather slip-ons no American guy would dream of putting on.

  After dinner, her parents accompanied them down to the street. They stood with their arms folded across their chests against the wind and kissed Susan on both cheeks and shook James’s hand. Layla tov, they said. Az yalla. Bye. And then Susan and James were back in the Honda, driving south along the Harlem River Drive, back in Manhattan, heading home. She felt, as she alwa
ys did, a guilty sense of relief at her escape. She glanced over at James, at the line of his forehead and jaw silhouetted in the glare of the oncoming lights, and suddenly it was her parents, not he, who seemed foreign and awkward and out of place. You’re lucky, he said. Your parents are great. She remembers the way he reached out across the gearshift then and took her hand.

  The suicide bombing in Haifa on October 4, 2003, is the first to strike a place Susan actually knows well. The Maxim restaurant is down by the beach, adjacent to a Delek station—not a fancy place, but with good falafel and a nice view of the sea. She’s been there many times. It’s a popular spot, owned jointly by an Arab and a Jew.

  The bomber is a twenty-nine-year-old woman, an unmarried lawyer from Jenin. She walks up to the security guard in the glass-walled foyer of the restaurant and detonates her explosive belt. Twenty-one people are killed, including four Arab workers, three children, and a baby girl. Two families lose five members each.

  Susan rushes to call her relatives in Haifa when she hears the news to make sure they’re all okay. She has to repeat her name three times over the static of the cell phone before her aunt understands who it is. Ah Suzi, she says. She shifts to English. Thank God, everybody’s fine. Only the son of upstairs neighbors, a boy Susan and her cousins used to play with when they were young, was there at the restaurant with his wife and kids. They were thrown out of the windows by the blast, but, thank God, survived. If the parents had been there, too, as they’d planned, before the mother got a migraine and decided to stay home, they would surely have been sitting at one of the larger tables near the front. Then they’d all be dead.

  After every terrorist attack, cell phones begin to ring. On the charred and bloody ground, in the bags and pockets of the dead, they ring and ring, bleeps and jingles and bits of broken song.

  My brother Avi and I didn’t get along so well when we were young, her mother said. Turn over, I’ll rub your back. Susan rolled onto her stomach, pulled up her pajama top, waited for the touch of her mother’s fingers, the reassuring pressure of her palms. My parents favored him and Zalman, her mother said, because they were the boys.

  Avraham was an uncle Susan did not know very well. She pictured him as a stolid child with curly hair and hands clenched into fists. She didn’t have much to go on, so she superimposed the image of her own brother Jonathan instead.

  Her mother ran her nails along Susan’s skin, sending a tingle along her spine. Go on, Susan said. Her mother sighed. He ripped up my precious paper dolls. But what did my parents do? Nothing. What did you leave them lying about for? they yelled. Now you’ll learn to put your things away.

  The curly-haired boy tears the doll, severing head from limbs. He throws the crumpled paper to the floor, stamps it beneath the tire-tread sandals on his feet. He stands defiant, legs apart, fists against his waist.

  Her mother withdrew her hand, pulled the covers up over Susan’s back. Okay Suzi, now it’s late, it’s time to sleep. Again that heavy sigh. That weight upon her chest. My brothers didn’t have it so easy either, her mother said. My father beat them with a belt, the old-fashioned way. My mother cried, but like everything she did, it had no effect.

  The boy’s bare bottom is lifted over his father’s knee. His pants are puddled at his ankles, his shirt pulled up to expose a sharp white ridge of spine. Thwack! The boy cries out. The father’s jaw is set. In the shadows, the mother presses her fingers to her mouth.

  It was their mutual friend Patrick who said, You know James really has a thing for you. James? she said. Me? That euphemism: a thing—as if something that could not be named could not be completely real. It said something, she thinks now, that Patrick had to say it out loud before she knew. Were there signs she hadn’t seen? She knew James from parties, various press events; he was on the business side of the Murdoch empire, a rising star. It wasn’t true that she hadn’t noticed his eagerness, the way he locked his eyes on hers. He was all forward motion, like a laser beam. She’d just assumed he wasn’t aimed at her.

  But not long after her exchange with Patrick, James called. Even though she was going out with someone else, she let him take her out for dinner and back to his Hell’s Kitchen penthouse. She let him tell her stories about the Aborigines. She waited on the couch, flipping through the glossy pages of the book, while he went and ran a bath. He lit candles along the edges of the sink and dimmed the lights. She let him undress her like a child, lead her by the hand. The bathtub wasn’t really big enough for two. He leaned forward in the water, wrapped his legs around her waist, and pulled her close. You are very powerful, he whispered, his lips against her ear. It was an odd thing to say—she didn’t think of herself as powerful at all. He leaned back and slid slowly down until his head was underwater, his bent knees lifted high. Bubbles streamed from his mouth and nose. When he sat up, he hit his forehead on the spout, and drops of blood rolled down his face like tears.

  It was only later that she took a close look at the photograph hanging on the bathroom wall. There was Nicole, naked as a virgin, lying on her back on windblown sand. Her eyes closed as if she were asleep, or dead. Her hair fanned out along the ridges of the dunes, sea grass arched across her legs. Her skin almost translucent, pale as sun-bleached bone.

  Everything looks different in the snow. The city feels muffled, as if it were holding its breath. Susan’s own breath condenses before her face. In the park, the paths and rocks and branches are shades of white and gray, the light luminous and blue. It is days like this that remind Susan that Manhattan is an island, a space carved out by rivers opening to the sea. Her boots squeak along the snow-packed path. Her bag, slung like a messenger’s over one shoulder and across her chest, swings against her hip with every stride. There are no runners out today. Along the borders of the park, cars are completely buried beneath the banks thrown up by the plows. Funny how on days like these, she feels most at home. Usually she has the feeling that she could live anywhere in the world, even though New York is the place she’s always been. When she first started working as a reporter, she’d assumed that she would be living somewhere else by now, a foreign correspondent in some exotic place. She’d be willing to move yet, she thinks, if she only had a reason—even to a place as far away as Australia, though she has only the vaguest idea of what it is like. Dusty ranches and crocodile-wrestling men and strange animals like wombats or bandicoots. And probably not too many Jews, although there did seem to be Jews in the most unlikely places, like Utah or Shanghai.

  The Sheep Meadow is a billowy sea of snow. She’d walked with James along this very path, one drizzly afternoon in fall, not long after they first met. Wet leaves littered the pavement; the low-slung sky was gray with scudding clouds. He told her about his father, whom he hadn’t seen in years. His father was always making money on some harebrained scheme and losing it all. He’d show up without warning, and then abandon them again. The last time he turned up, James said, he wanted me to invest in some real estate venture up in the north. This one’s for real, his father said. James loaned him five thousand dollars, which, of course, he never saw again. He told Susan the story without a trace of anger or resentment in his voice. That’s the way he is, he said. He can make you believe that anything he says is true.

  Later, Susan made a comment about how his childhood had been tough. Tough? James said. What gave you that idea?

  My father, Susan’s mother said, was a terrible man.

  This isn’t the same story Susan has heard from other relatives. They talked about how he saved his family from the Holocaust. How as a physician, he was adored.

  He was abusive, Susan’s mother said, to everyone except his patients, who worshipped him as if he were a god. He lacerated us with words.

  Her mother showed her photographs, flipping through the pages of her grandmother’s album. Its black pages were interleaved with translucent onionskin stamped in a pattern of a spider’s web. It contained photographs of Susan’s grandfather from his medical school days in Germany, in
the twenties, leaning like a dandy against a tree, one leg crossed before the other, a cigarette tipped between the fingers of one hand. He had wedge-shaped eyebrows, narrow eyes, a square forehead and jaw. A few of the photographs had holes cut in them: an absence like a silhouette, a body marked by empty space.

  My mother did that, I think, Susan’s mother said. It must have been the girlfriend he had before he married her.

  So she must have loved him, Susan thinks now. In the beginning anyway. Enough to sit there with a scissors in her hand and cut the woman she had replaced out of every photograph. Enough to change the story, excise memory. Susan pictures sewing scissors, the kind with a silver swan’s head wrapped around the finger holes. Or was jealousy different than love?

  My father kept a row of glass jars in his surgery, Susan’s mother said, filled with colored pills. They were sugar pills, although, of course, the patients didn’t know that. Placebos. In those days, of course, there wasn’t much you could do for people’s pain. He measured the pills out carefully, placed them into folded newspaper cones. People took them and were cured.

  But how, if they didn’t really work? Susan asked.

  Her mother’s mouth twisted into a smile. Does it matter? People believed they did.

  A few months after the Maxim restaurant attack, another woman blows herself up. This time it’s a twenty-two-year-old mother of a three-year-old boy and baby girl. She tells the guards at the Gaza checkpoint that the metal detector went off because of an implant from surgery to repair her broken leg. As they approach, she sets off her bomb.

  Susan scrolls through clips from the videotape released after the blast. The woman is wearing combat fatigues and a headscarf, a green Hamas sash draped like a beauty pageant banner across her chest. I wanted to be a shahid from the time I was thirteen, she is saying on the tape. It was always my wish to turn my body into deadly shrapnel against the Zionists, to knock on the doors of heaven with their skulls. The rhetoric throws Susan off. Is this a tale the woman was forced to tell, or what she actually believed? Susan studies an image of a crowd of men thronging the streets of Gaza City, their fists raised in the air. It looks almost like an outdoor concert, until you notice the green headbands covered in Arabic script, the placards with the blown-up photograph of the martyr’s face. A mother carries a toddler dressed as a suicide bomber, a fake explosive belt strapped around his waist, a toy Kalashnikov clutched in his pudgy hand.

 
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