The pale of settlement, p.19
The Pale of Settlement, page 19
The Koran, Susan knows, says that when you become a shahid, you go to paradise, where seventy-two sloe-eyed virgins in long white gowns await. A popular music video on Palestine TV shows a young man joining his virgins after being shot in the back by Israeli troops. The maidens dance in flowing water. They are nearly translucent, white and pure. They wear their black hair long and loose. According to a recent poll, more than a quarter of the children in Gaza aspire to shahada, to die for the jihad. Even the girls. Susan wonders what the appeal of the seventy-two virgins would be for a little girl. She should write a story about that. Maybe, she thinks, if all you have to look forward to is becoming a Muslim wife, an afterlife among the virgins wouldn’t seem so bad.
James believed in soul mates and telepathy, psychic emanations and powerful flows of energy that you couldn’t rationally understand. He used words like intention and bliss. They sounded odd coming from such a big man, plumped and filled with promise by his Australian vowels. Susan didn’t generally put much stock in New Age philosophies, but with James she found herself going along, trying to convince herself that the things he said were true. She lay back and closed her eyes as he recited aphorisms from Rumi, platitudes by Richard Bach. He kept a paperback copy of the Tao Te Ching in his briefcase, among the pads of graph paper and manila files. The tao that can be told, he read aloud, is not the eternal Tao. Coming from him, even the flakiest things seemed wise.
Eventually, he told her about Nicole. He’d met her on a flight from New York to Sydney; at the last minute, he switched seats and wound up sitting next to her. He didn’t believe in coincidence; there was no such thing as a lucky stroke of chance. You choose what happens to you in life, he said, knowingly or not. Nicole had dazzled him by telling him things he didn’t even know about himself that turned out to be true. Like the Aboriginal women who knew how to tap the power of the Dreaming Track, she had the uncanny ability to read the language of desire. Our souls go back a long, long way together, James explained. We need each other, though we can’t stand being with each other half the time.
So what about me? Susan wanted to say. What about me?
But like Scheherezade, she was just a visitor to his Bedouin’s tent. She knew he meant it when he said he’d soon be going back to Oz. She gathered up her clothes and left in the flat gray light of dawn.
Her mother sat on the edge of her bed. Tell me a story, Susan said. It’s late, her mother said. You need to get your sleep. Susan touched the veins that ran blue as map lines along the back of her mother’s hands. Strips of yellow light moved along the bedroom walls. Just a short one, Susan said. Tell about the time when you got sick.
Her mother let out a breath and pushed back her hair. When I was five years old, she said, I got an ear infection. This was before penicillin, the wonder drug. They had to operate to scrape the infection off the mastoid bone. I remember the awful smell of ether, the salty taste of the huge red sulfa pills they ground up in a spoon. They said I nearly died. I was in the hospital for seven weeks. My parents left me there alone. My father—the doctor—was busy working, and my mother was occupied with taking care of him and the boys. I don’t remember them visiting me at all, although I suppose that can’t be true.
Feel, her mother said, taking Susan’s fingers and placing them behind her ear. The ridge of bone felt thin and flat, the skin a little puckered, although Susan couldn’t make out a scar. The whole time that I was in the hospital, her mother said, no one ever combed or washed my hair. When I got out, my hair was so snarled and matted that my mother had to cut it off. My father screamed at her that I was ugly now. It was a long time before my hair grew back.
Susan leaned forward, stretched her arms out for a hug. She pressed her face against her mother’s chest. She wanted to hug the little girl buried inside her mother now. She wanted to say, Don’t leave.
Layla tov, my sweet, her mother said. Go to sleep.
If James hadn’t gotten sick, Susan thinks now, probably she never would have seen him again. She lies back against her pillows and stares into the dark. She has finished her book but still can’t fall asleep. She’s sorry the story is over; she had wanted to read slowly, but found herself rushing, in spite of her intention, to the end. The blinds are open to the glow of the night sky. Her own reflection wavers, like a phantom, in the glass.
It was in 1995, a couple of years after James and Nicole had moved back to Australia, that she ran into Patrick at the airport, getting off the shuttle from D.C. Haven’t you heard? he said. They stopped along the ramp by the racks of free magazines. Travelers hurried past as he shouted over the noise of the flight announcements crackling overhead. James had been diagnosed several months before. Some form of cancer; Patrick didn’t know the details. The doctors had given him a 40 percent chance to live. He was in chemotherapy now. Yes, he was only thirty-three.
When she got back to the newsroom, she sat down right away and wrote James a note. How could she not have gotten back in touch? He was dying, for all she knew.
Two blocks away, the top-floor brownstone light snaps on. Susan squints, but the exhibitionist is nowhere to be seen. There is just the empty armchair, the bookshelf, the potted palm or fern. A yellow rectangle floating in the dark.
They all had lunch together a few months later, Susan and James and Nicole. He was in New York on business; Nicole was tagging along. It was the first and only time she met Nicole face-to-face. Up close, she was not as beautiful as Susan had supposed, although her eyes were a clearer blue and more intelligent than she’d wanted to believe. She had the kind of changeable face that could be made up to look elegant as a model’s or scrubbed until all you noticed were the bare rims of her eyes, pink as a rabbit’s. Good bones, Susan’s mother would have said. Nicole was sitting at a table by herself, wearing an azure coat. James was late. She greeted Susan warmly and they clinked glasses of wine. She had the confident air, Susan thought, of a woman who had got her man. Despite the circumstances, she radiated calm.
Susan had readied herself for the worst, but James hadn’t changed at all. He still had his energy and even all his hair. The latest test results were very good. The tumors were completely gone. If you had to get cancer, he joked, this was the one to get. Nicole smiled and reached out to take his hand. James kept his eyes on Susan as she did. But as usual, she misread the signs.
The light in the brownstone is still on, but the exhibitionist has not appeared. Could this be a signal of some kind? Susan reaches to turn off the bedside lamp, then changes her mind and dims it instead. She pulls off her own nightgown, leans back, slides her hand between her thighs.
It was a day or two after that lunch that she ran into James in the lobby of her building, as if by chance. That night he took her to a restaurant downtown. Over a bottle of wine, he told her the whole story of his illness—the meditation techniques he’d used to harness the healing energy of his mind; how, on what he’d imagined was his deathbed, a vision of her had suddenly appeared.
Me? Susan said.
Tears slid down his cheeks as he leaned forward across the table to take her hands. He clutched them so tightly she could feel her bones shift against his. Yes you, he said. His eyes were bright and blue. I had to see you again, he said, to let you know the way I felt. I couldn’t believe that you might never know how much you meant to me. When I got your letter, I knew it was a sign.
My mother was only thirty-seven when she died, Susan’s mother said. My father tried to save her. It drove him crazy that when it mattered most, he failed.
Susan has a disjointed memory of her own mother standing at a window, circling a hand over her breast. Sunlight shone through the thin cotton of her nightgown, revealing the outline of her belly and thighs. I am already older than she was when she died, her mother said. Susan’s father said, Come on, Leah! You’re strong as an ox! Her mother made a face, but it was obvious she felt relieved.
Susan never knows quite what to put on those doctor’s forms that ask for your family history.
Now Susan follows doctor’s orders, inspects her skin for changes, taps her fingertips in concentric circles around her breasts. She, too, is already older than her grandmother was then.
Susan’s father calls her on her cell phone. Her cousin Gavi, he says, was four cars behind the bus that blew up in Jerusalem today. He’d gone there for work and was heading back to Haifa when it happened, right in front of him. Too close, her father says, this time.
Susan thinks about calling Gavi but can’t decide what she would say. She sends him an e-mail instead, but he does not reply. At a distance, it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Perhaps the language barrier is too great. Or perhaps he simply doesn’t want to correspond.
She hasn’t seen much of Gavi in the years since his breakdown and divorce, since Sharona got the flat and custody of their kid. He was living with his parents again, she’d heard. He’d been in and out of work and couldn’t afford an apartment of his own. He’d left the “group,” her father said, but now he said he had no friends.
Susan has a fantasy in which she rescues Gavi from what she thinks of as his house arrest, restores him to his life. She flies to Israel, sets him up in a new flat, restores him to happiness with her love. He’s perfectly fine! she declares.
But what does she really know?
Here is what I see, James said. They were in bed together and it was late. They met at Susan’s apartment in those last days, on James’s periodic business trips to New York, or in out-of-town hotels. We’re at your parents’ place, out on the balcony. It’s a lovely summer night, very dark and still. We’re looking out at the Hudson, just like that time when you took me to—what was that place called?—the place where Toscanini lived. Yes. Wave Hill. So we’re looking out at the Hudson in the dark and then I turn and lift you up and we start making love. Yes, right there. Of course you could! I lift up your skirt and you wrap your legs around my waist. Like that. Very slow. Only what you can’t see, because you’re turned the other way, is that your parents have come home. No, just listen. They see us but they don’t turn on the light. They just stand there in the dark, watching us. It’s not disgusting! They’re happy. They’re happy for your happiness. Why can’t you accept that? Well, maybe that’s what you want to believe. Maybe you’re the one who can’t let go of being their little girl.
He rescued me, Susan’s mother said. She turned and smiled down at Susan, her hair swinging forward around her face. She was sitting on the edge of the bed, the mattress tilting slightly beneath her weight. Susan pressed her toes against her mother’s back. By the time I married your father my parents were both dead. The first time we met, he stared at me and said, You are the girl I’m going to marry. What a line! I fell for it anyway.
Susan loved this story of her parents falling in love at first sight. It was the only happy one her mother told.
Even so, her mother went on, I kept hearing my father’s voice inside my head. Does he come from a good family? Is there a history of mental illness or disease? My father had crazy, old-world ideas. They’re not like us, I heard him say. Those assimilated German Jews are practically goys. I hadn’t met your father’s parents yet—in those days one didn’t just zip around the world like we do now. How did I know he was really who he claimed to be? my roommate warned. He could be making it all up.
Susan’s mother sighed and looked away, out of the bedroom, toward the hallway light. But he wasn’t making it up, Susan said. No, her mother said. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t met him. He saved my life.
Still, Susan wasn’t sure her parents ever really got along. You wouldn’t have called them soul mates, anyway. All her life, Susan worried that one of them would leave, but, for whatever reason, neither one of them ever did.
I always knew I wouldn’t die, James said. It was early in the morning and they had just finished having sex. The smell of their bodies rose from the rumpled sheets. James liked to start making love to her while she was still asleep. She would wake to his lips against her ear, his hands circling her breasts, his insistent hard-on against her thighs. Nicole won’t let me touch her like that, James said resentfully. She has everything she wants. The kids, the house in Paddington, backrubs every night.
Through the window, Susan could see that the exhibitionist’s blinds were drawn. His apartment seemed farther away in daylight than lit up in the dark. Susan thought of that photograph of Nicole lying prone on windblown sand. The ridgeline of her pelvic bones, the round curve of her breasts. Now Nicole had an unfaithful husband, two small kids. Susan thought she understood that withholding was a form of power, too. She wouldn’t trade places with Nicole. No.
James reached for the alarm clock, then swung his feet out of bed and ran his fingers through his hair. I have to go, he said, it’s late. She looked up at the spray of freckles across his shoulders, the broad line of his back. He wasn’t really her type at all. Probably that was what made them so well matched. Because she didn’t try to keep him, he kept coming back.
She listened to the sound of the shower turning on. She waited for James to come back to the bedroom, freshly showered, his hair still wet, dressed in his suit and tie, for him to bend and kiss her on the forehead like a child while she pretended to have fallen back to sleep. You are very loved, he’d whisper, his lips against her ear, as if love were something that could envelop you like air, as if the one who loved her might be someone other than himself. She reached to the night table for her book, but she wasn’t in the mood to read. She thought about how Hebrew had no word for fiction. A novel was simply a sippur, a story. A form of narrative. The closest term for fiction was bidayon, from the word b’daya, a falsehood or a lie. You never could tell which parts of stories people had made up, Susan knew. People told you what they needed to believe.
A NOTE ON SOURCES
In this work of fiction, I have drawn on and transformed a range of factual materials in an effort to render the historical, political, and intellectual context of these stories as accurately as possible. For the history of the founding of the state of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict, I relied on many sources, notably The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 by Benny Morris and Arab and Jew by David Shipler. For information on biblical archeology, I depended on The Bible Unearthed by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, Hazor by Yigael Yadin, articles about the Hazor excavations by Amnon Ben-Tor and Maria-Teresa Rubiato in the Biblical Archaeology Review, and the series of excavation reports on Hazor by Yigael Yadin, Amnon Ben-Tor, and others. Also essential was coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Ha’aretz, Commentary, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and elsewhere.
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