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The pale of settlement, p.2

The Pale of Settlement, page 2


The Pale of Settlement

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  Susan said nothing to anyone about Gavi’s trip to Greece, but by the time she got home to her apartment in New York, the light on her answering machine was already blinking with the news.

  Susan called her parents back. Out the window, the afternoon sun glinted off a helicopter flying south along the Hudson’s New Jersey shore.

  It’s a terrible thing, her father said. I don’t know what meshugas has got into that boy’s head.

  Just because he’s going to Crete for a couple of days, he’s crazy? Susan said.

  Everyone is terribly upset! her father said. Sharona has given him an ultimatum—the group or her, he has to choose. He promised her he wouldn’t go, and then he sneaks away behind everybody’s back.

  What group? Susan said, wondering why Gavi hadn’t told her anything about this. She pictured waves folding over on Aegean sand, the sound of a guitar, a black sky cupped with stars.

  When we were young, her father said, things were different in Israel. Life had meaning then. It’s not the same anymore.

  It’s the pressure, Susan’s mother said, joining in from an extension in the other room. It’s too much, really, for anyone to bear.

  Her father made the tsk-tsk sound with his tongue. He said, The boy’s got his head stuck in the clouds.

  A few days later, when Susan got her film developed from the trip, she found the photograph her uncle had taken of the whole family, that last evening after dinner, before she left for the airport. She was sitting on her grandparents’ couch, leaning in toward Sharona and her younger cousins, smiling wide. Gavi was standing next to her, his hands pushed into the pockets of his jeans. What she noticed now was his eyes, which were puffy and a little blurred, as if you were looking up at them through the bottom of a glass.

  A few weeks later, Susan got a call from an Israeli named Tal who was living in New York. He said Gavi had given him her phone number, and he asked her out. Gavi hadn’t mentioned anyone named Tal to her, and Susan wondered why Gavi, who knew she had a serious boyfriend, would want to fix her up with someone else. Perhaps her aunt had put him up to it. Her aunt was determined to find her a suitable Jewish man. Susan didn’t tell her boyfriend, but called Tal back and said, Okay.

  Tal picked her up in his car, a rusty convertible lacking seatbelts and inside door handles, and took her to an Ethiopian restaurant up on 121st and Amsterdam, a part of the city Susan considered to be unsafe. They were the only white people in the place. Susan perched at the drumlike table, feeling tense and ill at ease, as Tal instructed her to touch her food only with her right hand and kept her glass filled with the cheap red wine he’d brought along in a paper bag. He had a thick ponytail and pale blue eyes like a husky’s. He asked her constant questions as he mopped up the unidentifiable food, one-handed, with bits of spongy bread. How could she stand living in New York? Why wasn’t she religious—didn’t she consider herself a Jew? How could she want to be a journalist when they were all such parasites? Didn’t she ever do anything sinful, just for fun?

  This is what she didn’t like about Israelis, Susan thought. She was not one of them at all. Her boyfriend would never antagonize her this way. She pictured the furrow that would appear between his eyes if he knew she was on a date with someone else and wished she hadn’t come.

  So do you know anything about this “group” that Gavi’s joined? she asked Tal. What is it, some kind of a cult?

  Already you have a negative attitude! he said. Do you think there is some difference between what you call “religion” and a cult?

  Are you in it, too?

  Tal took a swallow of wine and shrugged dismissively. He said, There are many things in this universe of ours that we cannot rationally understand.

  After dinner, driving back downtown, Tal slowed and turned abruptly off the Harlem River Drive. He switched off the headlights and drove slowly, in darkness, along the riverfront path.

  You do realize this is totally illegal, Susan said. Her heart was thumping high inside her throat. What was she doing here? What if Tal was, in fact, insane?

  You worry too much, he said. Relax.

  He stopped the car near the abutment of the George Washington Bridge, then came around to open her door. I’m going to show you something special, he said, peering in at her, as if she were the visitor in his city, not the other way around. He held out his hand and said, Come on.

  Susan stepped out of the car and looked over the metal rail. The Hudson flowed below them black as asphalt in the dark. And then she saw it: the little lighthouse, perched on the stony embankment underneath the bridge, just like in the storybook she’d read as a child. She’d always known it was there but had never seen it up this close before. High above, the lights along the bridge span blinked like stars.

  You can see it only from here, Tal said. Then he turned to Susan and pulled her to him. He pressed his tongue, warm and insistent, against hers. After a moment, she put her arms around his neck and wrapped her fingers in his thick rope of hair.

  Looking back, Susan wondered how she could have missed the signs. Still, on the surface at least, everything seemed fine. She continued to take a week’s vacation, most years, to visit her grandparents, who—there was no denying it—were slowly beginning to fail. Despite the flap over the trip to Crete, Gavi married Sharona, and Susan’s younger cousins quickly followed suit. But rather than marrying her boyfriend, Susan broke up with him. Her grandparents sighed and gave their wedding rings to Gavi and Sharona instead. Her aunt redoubled her efforts to fix Susan up.

  When Susan’s grandfather died, one month after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Susan could not get off work in time to go to his funeral. Her parents phoned from Haifa afterward. Susan sat on her bed and watched the helicopters buzzing low along the Hudson as her parents described how the trees were already wrapped with death notices when they arrived, the Hebrew letters of her grandfather’s name in black and white against the trunks of the Carmel pines. Then they told her how Sharona was there in the hospital as well, on the floor above the one Susan’s grandfather was on, in labor with her first child. The baby was born within the hour of her grandfather’s death. His eyes were a deep and radiant blue, just like his great-grandfather’s. Everyone was saying that Susan’s grandfather’s soul had flown out of his body and into the baby boy’s.

  Then her parents began complaining, as they always did, about how much things had changed. There were Russians playing violins on every street corner; even supermarket signs were in Cyrillic now. There were three new high-rises on the merkaz; the view of the bay from Panorama Street was ruined. Everyone still smoked like chimneys. They drove like maniacs as well. There were more deaths from traffic accidents every year than in all the wars combined. Things can’t go on like this, they said, the way they always did.

  Susan turned on the news and watched the reports on Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, the experts’ speculation about the likelihood of war. It didn’t seem possible that so soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall and perestroika there should be such a threat to peace. This was nothing like the 1982 invasion of Lebanon; this time the Iraqi SCUDS were aimed directly at Haifa and Tel Aviv. She thought back to the Peace Now rally she’d gone to in a Tel Aviv park that summer of the Lebanon campaign, eight years before. The grounds were filled with tanks and mortars and other armaments captured from the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. Those are the guns they want to kill us with, Gavi said as they wandered around the grim display, but none of it felt real. What she remembered best was afterward, sitting in an open-air café by the sea in Jaffa with Gavi and his friends—the balmy darkness, the chalky stone, the sound of the waves lapping at the shore. In the dark, she couldn’t see Andromeda’s rock, to which, according to the myth, the girl was lashed and left to drown. They’d smoked cigarettes and sipped small cups of Arabic coffee laced with cardamom and talked about the shelling of the Palestinian refugee camps in southern Lebanon, about Ariel Sharon, the Hezbollah, a friend who’d nearly lost an eye
, the confusion of it all.

  Would you ever come to live here? one of Gavi’s friends had asked.

  Here. Ha’aretz. The land.

  Sure, maybe, someday, Susan said. She’d envied their purposefulness, the sense of meaning she felt their lives must have. Looking back, she wondered how she could have been so naive.

  You have to be crazy to live here, one of them had said, tapping his finger on his temple. Meshuga! I’m getting the hell out of this nuthouse as soon as I can.

  They’d all laughed, except Gavi.

  I could never live anyplace else, he said.

  When Susan went to Israel the next spring, her grandmother was alone. They sat together on the couch in the living room, sipping coffee and looking out onto the hazy vista of the bay. There were no helicopters today, only the long gray battleships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. Susan had brought a tape recorder along, hoping to capture some of the stories of her grandparents’ lives before it was too late, but now that she was there she wasn’t sure she had the courage to take the machine out of her bag. It seemed, somehow, too much of an admission that her grandmother, too, would soon be dead. She studied the photographs lined up along the mantelpiece, portraits of her parents as newlyweds, of her grandfather in his officer’s uniform from World War I, of herself and Gavi as babies playing at Khayat Beach, round and naked on the sand.

  Her grandmother was telling her about the Iraqi SCUDS. One night, when the alarm sounded, she said, I was at your aunt and uncle’s flat. We had to go into the bathroom, which was their sealed room. Imagine! There we were, sitting together on the edge of the bathtub, drinking champagne.

  Champagne? Susan said. Weren’t you supposed to have your gas masks on?

  Yes, well, her grandmother said. There didn’t seem much point.

  Gavi came to visit their grandmother nearly every day. He pushed open the front door without bothering to ring the bell. He had filled out a bit since Susan had seen him last, and he’d let his hair grow out from its army buzz cut, but otherwise he seemed unchanged. Oh, my wonderful boy, their grandmother said, reaching her bent, arthritic arms around his neck and kissing him repeatedly on the cheek.

  Gavi took Susan out for lunch to an overly bright health food restaurant with white plastic chairs and tables and bushy potted ferns. She didn’t even try to speak Hebrew anymore, and his English was rusty from disuse. She watched him struggle to find the words and tried to keep her own vocabulary simple, her enunciation clear. He told her about the construction company he was working for, about a recent trip to Eilat. She told him about the series of stories she was writing about the homeless in New York and joked about the bad blind dates she’d recently been on. He didn’t mention anything about his “group,” and although she wondered if he was still involved with it, she didn’t ask.

  They were back in the car when Gavi turned to her and said, Would you come someplace with me?

  It was a breezy day, too cool for the beach, the sky hung with banks of blurred gray clouds. Susan had nothing else to do, so she said, Sure.

  Gavi drove to a neighborhood Susan had never been to before, down on the Hadar, near the Arab part of town. He parked in front of a concrete building Susan took at first to be a block of flats. Then she saw the sign and realized that it was a hotel. She tried to speak, but Gavi had already stepped around the car and was opening her door. She followed him into the building, and across the empty lobby, and then she watched as he exchanged some words with the clerk at the front desk and took his wallet out of his back pocket and pulled out several bills. The clerk unhooked a key from a pegboard on the wall and pointed to the elevator. Susan followed Gavi into the narrow space, fixed her eyes on the numbers lighting up overhead. The unsaid words dropped inside her as the elevator rose.

  The room smelled of cigarette smoke and ammonia; it was dim and cold but clean. Gavi went to open the blinds and Susan sat on the edge of the bed and wondered who had been there before them, in this room rented out to men like Gavi by the hour or the day. And what kind of woman was she? There was a black telephone on the bedside table and a blinking digital clock. Here she was. Gavi sat down next to her. He laced his fingers together, examining his palms. Then he looked up and said, There’s always been a special connection between us, don’t you think?

  Yes, Susan whispered, the word snagging in her throat. She thought of that evening on the beach in Gaza, the belated light of stars.

  Then Gavi turned and put his arms around her and pulled her to him. She felt him release his breath, his body slackening against hers. He stayed there, holding her, his head against her shoulder, her cheek against his shirt, her hands resting on the broad slope of his back. He smelled unfamiliar in this sudden proximity, a strange sweet smell like apricots. His lips moved against her neck. The blood was rushing in her ears. He slid his hands beneath her shirt, tentatively touched her breasts. The image came to her, unbidden, of Sharona and her plump white hands, so different from her own. She let him pull her shirt off over her head, lifting her arms like a child, and waited while he unbuttoned his. He pushed her backward onto the bed, pressing his lips and tongue to hers, urgent, awkward, her nipples hard against his chest, his weight pressing her down. It was only after he had unzipped her jeans and was pushing his fingers inside that she grasped his arm and said, Gavi, no.

  He rolled off her onto his back, covering his eyes with his arm.

  I’m sorry, she said.

  She sat up and swung her feet to the floor, her upper body bare and cold, her jeans flapped open at the waist. She wanted to say something, but there were no words. She felt his need radiating toward her like a star. She reached back and rested her hand on his thigh. He turned his head and gave her a glancing look like a stone skipping across water and shifted his leg away.

  I’m so sorry, she said again.

  He said, It’s okay.

  They pulled their shirts back on in silence, the afternoon light watery and gray behind the blinds. He went into the bathroom and she heard the pull-chain toilet flush, water running in the sink. Their grandmother would be waiting. How much time had passed?

  When he came out, she said, We’d better go.

  Out on the street, it had begun to rain, a spring rain that splattered in plump drops onto the sidewalk, leaving round wet stains. The air was sweet with the smell of ozone.

  Susan told herself, Eleanor Roosevelt married her cousin. Even first cousins got married all the time. No one was talking about marriage anyhow.

  The fact was nothing happened. Still, she was left with a wretched, guilty aftertaste and a shattered feeling inside, like the aftermath of an explosion.

  She didn’t tell anyone about it, and she and Gavi didn’t speak of it again. But the secret fact of it hovered between them like an aura. From time to time, she thought of the two of them as children, mugging for the camera. Once she’d told him that she was a witch and that if they crossed their eyes and held sticks between their teeth the picture wouldn’t come out. But, of course, it did.

  It was just a few months later that Susan’s mother called her with the news. Susan took the call in the newsroom from her desk, pressing a finger against one ear.

  He’s been sleeping outside in the garden, her mother said. He won’t eat anything Sharona cooks. He hasn’t gone in to work for weeks.

  Susan pressed her arm against the space beneath her ribs. She should have known.

  It’s taken everybody by surprise, her mother said. What do you think? Did anything ever seem strange to you?

  Susan said, Not really, no.

  Your uncle says Gavi won’t acknowledge that anything is wrong, her mother said, and that isn’t a good sign. Apparently, he’s gone back to this “group” of his, but won’t talk about it at all. Sharona has moved out. Who can blame her? It’s a terrible thing.

  Susan logged on to the computer and found an article that described a group whose followers believed in the mystical meaning of numbers and colors, in the connection between all thi
ngs. They believed in astrology, astral travel, tarot, reincarnation. They didn’t live in communes, but held secret meetings in which they meditated to cleanse their auras. They thought the world was evil and bound to destroy itself. They believed there was no such thing as coincidence or chance.

  They believed that everything had meaning. Every shape, number, word. The phenomenal world was no more or less than a vast labyrinth of messages waiting to be decoded, understood. The idea was not unfamiliar to Susan; didn’t the Kabbalist mystics think in this same way? A teacup might denote nurturing or creation, containment—or emptiness, if you considered the “zero” of its rim. And what about the handle, so like a human ear?

  There was a certain paranoia, surely, to viewing the world as a network of signification encoded in cryptic signs.

  Susan found the photograph of Gavi with strange eyes taken on the night of their coincidental encounter at the airport six years before and pinned it to the bulletin board above her desk. Susan’s parents reported that Sharona had filed for divorce. Gavi had moved back into his parents’ flat. All he does is sit on the couch all day and watch TV, Susan’s father said.

  Susan didn’t call Gavi, even though she wanted to. She was afraid there wasn’t anything to say. She looked up at the photograph instead. She didn’t think he was crazy, but it was impossible to tell. People had breakdowns, didn’t they? She wondered when she’d see him again. Her grandmother was moving to a nursing home on the merkaz; the flat would soon be sold. Before long, her grandmother, too, would probably be dead. What reason would she have to go to Israel then?

  In her memory, Susan is standing at the Panorama Street railing, looking down the Carmel onto the golden dome of the Baha’i Temple, the elaborate sloping gardens lined with cypresses, the red roofs of the German Colony, the cluster of tall buildings on the Hadar. The long arc of Haifa bay curves north past the oil refineries and white storage drums, up to the faint gleam of the chalk cliffs at Rosh Hanikra, the border of southern Lebanon. The sea is blue and flat as glass. She misses it, and without her realizing it the longing has shattered inside her, leaving small invisible cuts like thorns. It is spring. Jays chatter in the pines above her head. Anemones push through the swaying grass. Far off, there is the murmur of a radio, the clink of cutlery, a barking dog.

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