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The pale of settlement, p.6

The Pale of Settlement, page 6


The Pale of Settlement

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  The Book of Life

  The married man once wrote me a note that said, Please love me even though you can’t have all of me, love me with equanimity. We were in a hotel room, late at night; it was right before the end. I remember seeing my own dilated pupils reflected, huge and black, in the bathroom’s mirrored wall; I remember the way my heart felt, beating just a little bit too fast. It isn’t true I didn’t love him then. When I came back to bed, he took my hands in his and said, Don’t believe that I’m the only one. He said, I’m here to show you that men like me exist. He held a mirror up to us and made me look. We were beautiful together, magnificent and grand. Of course, it was nothing but a dream. We made each other up.

  My grandmother died a few weeks after that night in the hotel, in the fall, just before Yom Kippur. The Book of Life was open but there was a blank space where her name should have been. I couldn’t get to Israel in time for the funeral, which in the Jewish tradition happened the next day. Now, on my last day in Haifa, my uncle takes me down to the cemetery with him. It’s at the foot of the Carmel, near the railroad tracks that run along the sea, a dusty narrow space flanked with cypresses. My grandparents are buried beside each other near the end of a long row. I can hear the hum of traffic on the nearby highway to Tel Aviv, the clatter of a passing train, the faint thrum of the sea. Under my grandmother’s flat headstone, among decomposing coffin boards and the shredded linen of a shroud, her bones remain. Only a pile of small stones adorns the grave. I bend and place a pebble on the heap to show that I was there.


  Susan could spot an Israeli anywhere. Among the tourists in the Thamel Backpacker’s Café—the familiar crowd of Germans and Australians, rangy kids and rugged types who looked ready to head up Everest at a sprint—he stood out right away: the ropy muscles, the jiggling knee, the ashtray full of cigarettes smoked down to the filter or stubbed out half-done. He had broad sideburns, an Adam’s apple as sharp as a stone. He was wearing a Nirvana T-shirt and baggy Bedouin pants. He was writing in a notebook. Not left to right.

  Two tables over, he looked up. His left eye twitched, then widened—a tic, not a wink. She could walk over and say Shalom, but then she’d be stuck explaining that she didn’t really speak Hebrew after all. She could ask him for a cigarette, but she didn’t smoke. She could say, My parents are Israeli, too.

  From here in the center of town, you couldn’t see the mountains, just the white disk of the sun burning through the morning haze. There was a musky scent of incense and donkey dung, a chaos of passing motorbikes and rickshaws, bicycles and beat-up cars, bells and horns and shouts. Across the road, a little girl peeked around the doorway of a child-sized shrine. A dog lay panting in the shade of a stand stacked with bins of mangoes, persimmons, apples, packages of crackers, chocolate bars, wooden flutes, garlands of orange marigolds, bright pink sweets. An old woman squatted by the shop, spat on the dusty ground.

  Susan touched the face of her grandmother’s watch and counted back. It was nine hours and forty-five minutes earlier back home— still the day before: October 19, 1998. The extra fifteen minutes off New Delhi time were Nepal’s little hat-tip of independence from its big neighbors to the north and south—an interval intended, Susan supposed, solely to annoy, or to make you stop and think. She fingered the watch’s gold bracelet, its delicate safety chain. She should have left it at home.

  In Gaza, the Arabs lined up at dawn. They waited at the checkpoint in taxis, crammed four across the back, in cars and trucks. The heat swirled in a yellow haze. Everywhere, there was sand. The soldiers—Dubi, Ofer, Sergei, Assaf, and the rest of the unit—stood by the concrete barriers and sandbags and razor wire and checked identity cards and waved a metal detector wand. The Arabs were laborers, field hands, merchants, factory workers, students, fishermen. They were on their way to Khan Yunis or Gaza City or across the border to Israel. They carried their belongings in plastic sacks. The women wore loose dresses, scarves wrapped around their heads. They smelled of sweat and cigarettes; their speech tumbled from their throats—glottal ayins, rolling rs. The sea was less than half a mile away. At night, you could hear it breathe.

  Go take a hike, Susan’s brothers used to say. After a while, her mother started saying it, too, although coming from her, like many English idioms, it never sounded right. She had a way of making everything seem literal. Go take a hike, she’d say, as if she really expected you to jump up, grab your rucksack and alpenstock and march down eight flights of stairs, out into Van Cortlandt Park and across the Bronx.

  Susan’s grandparents had been the hikers, the lovers of Alpine forests, wildflower glades. Her own parents preferred the beach. What Susan remembered, though, about their summers in Haifa or at the Jersey shore, was that the beach was the place her parents fought. They fought at night, after Susan and her brothers were in bed. They argued in Hebrew, an escalation of harsh whispers breaking through to shouts. Then the screen door would rasp and slam, and Susan would lie awake, anxiety fluttering in her chest, waiting for whoever had gone out to return, but all she ever heard, before she fell asleep, was the hissing of the waves along the shore.

  In the morning, of course, she’d find her mother in the kitchen making breakfast as usual, a kibbutznik’s bucket cap atop her head, her father drinking his coffee, rustling the newspaper, as he always did, as if nothing at all had happened between them the night before.

  It’s good to have a short memory, her mother always said, flicking her hands.

  But Susan didn’t have a short memory. She had a fickle, sticky memory, an inability to let go. She accumulated arguments, misunderstandings, fallings-out and fights, storing them away like the stacks of old letters and photographs she kept in shoe boxes underneath her bed, like her closets full of poorly fitting clothes. Her mother couldn’t understand why Susan wouldn’t throw things out. Leah was always shedding her own belongings, passing them along—here, take this Suzi, this is for you. As a result, nothing got thrown away at all, but piled up at Susan’s place instead.

  Susan’s mother would have liked it here in Kathmandu. She had an enthusiasm for spicy food, exotic scenery, the romance of the East. She loved bargaining for trinkets, the whole charade of feigning outrage and pretending to walk away over the equivalent of fifty cents. She would have made a pilgrimage to every temple, drank the yak butter tea. Susan had actually considered inviting her mother to come along. But when she’d mentioned the trek, Leah had tapped her temple with one finger and said: At meshuga? Are you insane? For what do you want to sleep on the ground in the freezing cold? To see some mountains? Go to Switzerland if you want mountains! There at least you can sleep in a bed like a civilized person!

  Civilization had its limits, in her mother’s mind.

  Gaza was a cesspool, and Dubi was the operator of the valve. He turned the spigot on and off. Green light on. Red light off. When the light turned red, the Arabs in their trucks and cars and yellow taxis stopped and sat and waited for the road to open again. They rolled down their windows and fanned themselves with sheets of cardboard or a scarf. They stepped out into the sun or squatted in the shade of the trucks and smoked. Pallets of dahlias wilted in the heat. There was a smell of rotting fish. Cell phones bleeped, babies wailed, chickens clucked, arguments broke out. Khalas! the Arabs yelled, waving their fists. Enough.

  In the heat of the day, Dubi draped a shirt over the back of his helmet to shade his neck. His M16 rocked against his side like an extra limb, his flak vest heavy and far too hot. He scanned exit permits and searched the trunks of cars. From time to time, he’d pull aside a suspicious man or boy, force him to the ground, and hold him there beneath his pointed gun until a jeep arrived to take him off to jail. But the mid-1990s were not a time of war; from Rabin’s assassination in 1995 until the second intifada began, things were relatively quiet there. Quietly, the shit flowed out at dawn, and at dusk it flowed back in again.

  The group that Susan had signed up with for the Everest Base Camp trek include
d a truck driver, a retired shrink, a mining engineer from the Yukon, a neurosurgeon and his wife, a hairdresser from Redondo Beach, and four other single women, all from New York. They stood around the lobby of their hotel, looking, with their baseball caps and fanny packs and camera gear, just like the American tourists that they were. They shook hands and said, Hey, how’s it going. Susan wished she had the nerve to travel on her own.

  Susan was assigned to share a tent with one of the other single women, who, it turned out, lived only three blocks away from her on the Upper West Side. Joyce was a talkative woman in her mid-thirties with ash-blond hair and a pale, moist face. She’d come on the trip, she told Susan, in hopes of meeting a man, but had already ruled out the immediate possibilities: the truck driver, the hairdresser, the mining engineer. She should have been born a Hindu, she said. An arranged marriage wouldn’t be so bad.

  Clipboard in hand, the group leader circled around, inspecting their duffel bags and gear. He checked off the essential items, fingered their mummy bags, their water bottles, their stashes of granola bars. When it was Susan’s turn, he shook his head. He told her to go rent some fleece pants and a warmer jacket in the Kathmandu bazaar.

  Susan skipped the bus tour of Patan and Bhaktapur and headed out to Durbar Square alone. She felt sealed inside her body, her limbs unnaturally light. It might have been the jet lag, although she’d never felt more wide-awake. It was festival time, and the city streets were hung with strings of flowers and prayer flags and tiny lights. Groups of children passed playing flutes and drums, chanting Tihar songs. A girl who could be no more than eleven or twelve carried an infant in a sling across her back, her eyes rimmed in black, her mouth and cheeks smeared red with rouge. Shop windows were stacked with Nikes and Nintendo cartridges, bootleg Chinese CDS and videotapes. In front of the Kathmandu Tours and Travel Agency stood a ribby, sway-backed cow.

  In the maze of stalls in the bazaar, Susan found a pair of Russian army-issue fleece pants and a puffy blue down parka that looked as if it had survived its share of Everest expeditions. Feathers flew out of the seams when she pressed on it; it would certainly be warm. She hoped she’d have time to wash the pants before they left for the mountains in the morning. She didn’t even want to think about some soldier’s unwashed groin.

  She was on her way back to the hotel when she noticed him, crouching in the shadow of a courtyard, pointing a video camera at a balcony above. There could be no mistaking those Bedouin pants, that close-cropped hair. Three young monks were leaning over the rail, shiny-headed and bare-shouldered in their saffron robes, jostling each other and waving down to passersby. Susan wondered if this was the Temple of the Living Goddess, the Kumari Devi, the little girl selected by augury, whose feet must never touch the ground. She’d read that the girl sometimes came out onto her balcony, but if this was in fact her home, there was no sign of her now. Susan watched the monks, wondering if they knew they were being videotaped. Didn’t they care? She turned around, but the Israeli guy had disappeared.

  The army was what everybody did. After high school, you went to the army, and when you got out you did your miluim for a couple of weeks a year until you got too old. The army was the melting pot. The army was where you made your closest friends. The army was there for you, for life.

  As a child, the only thing Dubi could really imagine about being a soldier was the uniform. He pictured himself in the lace-up boots, the olive-green fatigues, an Uzi underneath his arm. He saw himself hitchhiking at the bus stops, his arm held out, his index finger pointing down. Later, he imagined himself carrying out daring raids on the arms-smuggling tunnels in Rafah, or Syrian positions in the Golan. He’d leap through the gun turret of a tank, crawl on his belly through the burning Negev sand. The army made you strong.

  Dubi wasn’t even born until the mid-1970s, was just a kid during the Lebanon campaign. He remembered the Gulf War, though. He’d never forget waiting with his mother in their apartment building’s basement shelter, their gas masks on. They sat on the edge of a cot, listening for the whistle of an approaching SCUD, the tremor of explosion, the wail of ambulances speeding to the scene. He remembered the metallic taste of adrenaline, the expansion inside his chest as he put his arm around his mother, cupped her shoulder in his hand.

  Dubi’s father had slipped in his military service—a desk job in Tel Aviv, on account of his bad back—between ’68 and ’71, when everything was quiet. He was killed in a car accident in Hadera when Dubi was five years old. Dubi often told people that his father had died in a burning tank in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. He told the lie so often that it seemed that it was true.

  The nineteen-seat Royal Nepal Airways Twin Otter took off at 7:28 a.m., banked sharply to the northwest, and rose out over the terraced fields and knobby green hills of the Terai. Susan pressed her forehead to the window, feeling the vibration of the engines inside her head. In the seat next to her, the truck driver was droning on about the engineering qualities of short-landing-strip aircraft, the high standards of the Nepalese Air Force, the good fortune of a cloudless sky, but Susan wasn’t listening. She was watching the shadow of their plane flitting across the valley floor. It was ridiculously small, as insubstantial as a fleck of ash.

  A murmur ran through the cabin as the Himalayas appeared in the cockpit windscreen, beyond the pilots’ upraised hands. The 26,000-foot snowcapped peaks floated across the horizon, looking just like any other mountains, the Rockies or the Alps, until you remembered that the ground they rested on was over 15,000 feet above sea level to begin with, and that they went up from there. Everything was out of scale.

  And then they rounded a crenellated ridge, green and steep, and they were there, the Lukla landing strip rising suddenly in front of them, an uphill dirt runway cut into the mountainside. The plane roared, bounced twice, and skidded to a stop just short of a stone wall. They climbed down underneath the wing, ducking their heads, taking deep breaths of the sun-warmed air that smelled of smoke and mud and ice and pine, 9,200 feet high.

  Transported, Susan thought, as they pointed out their duffel bags to the Sherpa porters who had gathered to meet them there. Transported, carried off. It was glorious to be plucked up and carried off like Thumbelina on a swallow’s wings. To be raised into the air, like the Kumari Devi back in Kathmandu. What a comedown for her, at puberty, to be sent back to the ground.

  The trail to Phakding, their first stop, wound past lowland fields of beans, potatoes, radishes and peas, smoky teahouses, children playing in the sun. The dirt path was broad and flat, more a road than a mountain trail. Susan walked alongside Joyce, her daypack bouncing against her shoulders, her hiking boots rubbing a little on her heel. A Nepali girl passed them, whistling, barefoot, two gigantic duffel bags tied onto her back with a rope looped across her forehead. Outside a teahouse, a sign read COKES $1.50, HOT APPLE PAE. A man passed herding a procession of dzokyos and yaks. The air rang with the sound of tumbling water. The sun turned red, lost heat, fell behind the ridge. Susan looked up, light-headed, and wondered if it was possible to get motion sickness solely from the spinning of the earth. A vulture wheeled across the sky.

  After dark, they sat inside the Phakding trekkers’ lodge and Susan played gin rummy in the light of an oil lamp with Ross, the hairdresser from Redondo Beach. A group of children trouped through the smoke-filled room, giggling and tapping on a Tihar drum, passing around a plate for coins. Is Hindu dharma, the tallest one said. Good luck give. Out the window, a translucent moon ducked behind a hidden peak. Shadows fell across the stubble field, studded with blue and orange tents. There was a peal of laughter, a muffled shout. Hebrew? Here? Susan squinted through the fogged-up glass. Yes, Hebrew, she was almost sure. A shadow passed, the low voice of a man.

  Yo Susan, Ross said, waving a hand in front of her face. Gin.

  Most Fridays, Dubi went home to Tel Aviv for Shabbat. He hitchhiked from the border or took the Egged bus. He carried a duffel bag stuffed with dirty laundry and his gun. When he
could, he sat on the left side of the bus so he could watch the sun set into the sea. He’d count the seconds it took for it to slide behind the band of haze, flattening as if it were being squeezed beneath an enormous weight of sky. Faster than it seemed possible the earth could turn, the orange sphere would extrude itself into a liquid line, and then the sky and sea would turn dull and flat and it would be gone.

  Dubi came home from his week in Gaza like a worker coming home from the factory or fields. He’d climb the steps of his apartment building, ring the doorbell as he fished in his pocket for his key. The bell chirped like a manic bird. Inside, he’d drop his bag, prop his M16 next to the door, call out that he was home. Usually his mother’s boyfriend would be there, watching TV, drinking a Maccabi beer out of a can. He was a peacenik, a grizzled hippy type. Oh ho, here comes the big hero, he liked to say.

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