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The pale of settlement, p.7

The Pale of Settlement, page 7

 

The Pale of Settlement
 


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  Dubi ached for home all week but once he got there everything felt wrong. He’d pull off his uniform, take a shower, but it made no difference at all. He couldn’t bear his mother’s anecdotes about her job at the insurance agency, couldn’t care less about what was up with her boyfriend’s snot-nosed kids. In the background, the baritone TV newscaster pronounced the word Gaza as if it were an outpost on the moon. But Gaza stuck to Dubi, got inside the creases of his skin like sand.

  On summer Saturdays, Dubi went with his girlfriend, Maya, to the beach. They spread their towels on the sand. Maya was in the army, too. Her job was showing schoolchildren how to use gas masks. She was a skinny, large-boned girl with a halo of frizzy blondish hair, and she wore a too-short army skirt that gave Dubi a hard-on when he saw her in it, every time. But when she leaned her head against his shoulder, Dubi retracted like a snail. All along the beach, people laughed and played. They whacked racquet balls back and forth, dove into the waves, rubbed suntan lotion on their skin. Gaza was barely seventy kilometers away.

  Susan spotted him again just past the crest of the steep hill along the trail to Namche, where the first glimpse of Everest hovered through the trees. He was sitting on a rock, playing a wooden flute. A small crowd of trekkers had gathered there to rest, snap photographs, buy cups of kala chia and bottles of Coke from the tea tent set up near the scenic overlook. He hopped down to the ground and picked up his pack as she drew near, fell into step alongside her on the trail. He had on the Bedouin pants again, a baseball cap, cheap Chinese sneakers on his feet. The muscle twitched beneath his eye as his jaw tensed. Not a wink.

  Maybe I know you from someplace? he said.

  Where are you from? she said, even though she knew.

  He told her he was from Tel Aviv, that everybody called him Dubi although his real name was Dov, and that Dov meant “bear.” He’d gotten out of the army just before coming to Nepal. He spoke in such a low tone that she had to strain to hear. She couldn’t have said what it was, but there was something about him—that nervous energy, or that guttural accent, so like her cousin Gavi’s, or the nakedness of the pale skin around his eyes that showed when he pushed his sunglasses up on his head—that kept her walking with him all that afternoon.

  The sun was already fading when they rounded the bend to Namche Bazaar, with its terraced fields and red-roofed Sherpa houses built along the curved slope of the cirque. Dubi stopped to light a cigarette, cupping the flame between his hands. Strings of prayer flags fluttered along the houses’ eaves, the words of the Buddhist mantra shaking loose and flying out onto the wind. Om Mani Padme Hum. Up the hillside, in a stone-walled field next to a whitewashed house, Susan could see the Sherpas setting up their tents. She could hear the sound of singing, women’s voices, high and clear. They were praying to Yama Raj, god of the underworld, for the long life of their brothers. It was the last night of Tihar.

  Susan’s parents’ founding myth was this: that her father had caught one glimpse of her mother—then an NYU coed with long dark hair— and followed her around for the next year or two—back to Israel, around New York—until she finally gave in and agreed to go out with him. They were a sexy couple; there was no denying that. You could see it in the photographs—in the way her father folded his arm around her mother’s waist, in the heavy-lidded, postcoital look in her mother’s eyes. Within three months, they were married; seven months later, Susan was born. Not premature.

  This myth—that Susan’s mother was a flighty spirit whose feet needed to be held to the ground, that with a single glance, her father knew that they were meant to be—persisted, as such myths do, despite the transformations of the years, despite her father’s infidelities, her mother’s capacity to forgive, their tugs of war and fights. The myth provided roles for them to play: the skittish maiden, the dogged suitor; the one who pulled away, the one who reeled the other back again. It was possible that they stayed together because of the myth—so her mother could believe that she was free to leave, so her father could believe that he was, in fact, the constant one.

  Susan sat in the Namche trekkers’ lodge, trying to write a letter to her parents that she couldn’t mail until she got back to Kathmandu, meaning she’d already be back in New York when it arrived. Their group leader was sitting across the table, flipping through a two-week-old copy of the International Herald Tribune, the headphones of Joyce’s Discman on his head. Making love is a mental disease! he exclaimed suddenly. For a moment, Susan thought he was talking to her, until she realized those were the lyrics to the song.

  Clouds were rolling into the cirque and a fine snow had begun to fall. Susan touched the cornrows she’d let Ross braid in her hair since she wouldn’t be able to wash it for the next two weeks. Her scalp felt strangely tight. Already it was hard to remember the smell of the subway, the feeling of high heels, the cursor blinking on her computer screen. She’d stopped feeling that she should check her voicemail or listen to the news. It was good to be away.

  At first, Dubi and the others—the plodding Assaf, the kibbutznik Ofer, the Russian Sergei with the missing eyetooth—took the checkpoint seriously. They set their jaws beneath their sunglasses, squared their shoulders, shouted commands into their megaphones, fired warning shots into the air. But it wasn’t long before the whole thing began to drive Dubi mad.

  Little by little, it became a game, to see what he could make the Arabs do.

  Hey, you.

  Hand over those cigarettes.

  Go on, sing us a song.

  Get down on your hands and knees and bray like the ass you are.

  No one stopped him. The commander of the unit leaned back in his chair and chewed on a matchstick and laughed, and everyone else laughed, too.

  You’re meshuga! they said, tapping a finger to their temples. Dubi took it as the compliment it was meant to be.

  Gaza was a landscape made of borders: an IDF patrol line, rolls of electrified barbed wire, concrete blocks, a sandbag barricade, a bulldozed field, a concrete post, a road, a trench. Settlers here, Arabs there, the army in between. There, in the borderland, he discovered you could cross the line.

  Over the next six days, along the ascending trail to Khunde, Tengpoche, Pangboche, Dingboche, and into the moraine of Everest itself, Dubi kept showing up. He’d appear midmorning along the trail, or at night inside the trekkers’ lodge in the hamlet where they’d camped. He slept in the lodge bunkrooms, ate the teahouse fare, drank the arrack raksi and the moonshine chang. He gave Susan a hard time about her cushy tent and catered meals. He said, How can you stand being waited on by the fucking Sherpas? They smile too much.

  He made her laugh.

  Each morning he said, So tell me something new, Suzy Q.

  So she told him about the characters in her group: the truck driver’s adventures trying to retrieve his glove that fell into a fetid charpi pit; the skull (human? monkey? yeti?) that the retired shrink bought from an old woman outside a village gompa; how one of the single girls developed acute mountain sickness at twelve thousand feet and had to be carried back to Lukla in a basket on their sardar’s back. She told him about her family in Israel, about her cousin Gavi and how close they once had been. She answered his blunt questions (So why don’t you come to live in Israel? Why aren’t you married? Don’t you want to have any kids?) and gave him daily plot updates from Anna Karenina, the one book she’d brought along on the trip. She never would have guessed that he’d take an interest in a literary Russian novel, but he was always eager to find out what had happened in the chapters she’d read the night before, as if they were episodes of a soap opera he’d missed. He couldn’t get over that Karenin wouldn’t give Anna a divorce, or that Vronsky would try to kill himself for love. Russians, he said dismissively. Such people he could not understand.

  He told her about his girlfriend, about his mother and her latest man, about his dead father (the tank hero from the Sinai war). He told her he’d like to be a graphic designer, or a film director, or a high-tech ent
repreneur. Sometimes he said he’d like to live in California for a while, learn to surf. Other times he said he’d never leave Israel, that all those Israelis living in the States, the yoredim, were copping out. She found his twitchy intensity compelling in a way she couldn’t quite explain. Mostly, he struck her as being very young.

  He’s got a major crush on you, Joyce said.

  They were arranging themselves for the night, tucking water bottles and contact lens cases deep into their sleeping bags so they wouldn’t freeze, pulling on extra long underwear and their nighttime hats. It had been days since they’d taken off all their clothes.

  Oh come on, Susan said. She checked the clasp on her watch, then snapped off her headlamp and pulled her mummy bag up around her face. She said, He’s just a typical Israeli guy.

  Well, Joyce said, he’s cute.

  Just that day, Susan and Dubi had been the first to arrive at a field where the Sherpas were setting out their lunch. They lay down on a tarp in the hot sun. A milk-green river flowed nearby, a string of spinning prayer wheels suspended in the stream. Out flowed the mantra, burbling on the rushing water: Om Mani Padme Hum. There were the sinuous muscles of his arms. There was the smooth skin along the side of his neck. The sun pulsed red behind her eyelids. The edges of their fingers touched. In the roiling green water, the prayer wheels whirled.

  Souvenirs. That was the joke—they were collecting souvenirs. A watch. A pack of cigarettes. A photograph.

  Ofer had the Polaroid. He took the picture of Dubi with the bloody Arab. The image was overexposed, so that even then, watching his own ghostly body emerge out of the Gaza haze, it already looked like a memory.

  Right off, Dubi hadn’t liked the look of him—those obsequious cow eyes, those cheeks all graying stubble topped with greasy hair. Put your arms up, Dubi said, and when the Arab did, Dubi hit him, hard. He felt his fist connect with bone, pain radiating through his knuckles, up his arm. The Arab stumbled backward and collapsed onto the road. Dubi cuffed his hands behind his back. Blood was running from the Arab’s nose and he was making a low, whimpering sort of sound. When Dubi pulled the Arab up, the blue cloth of the man’s jacket clenched in his throbbing hand, Ofer had the camera out and was pointing it at him.

  Smile, he said.

  When they got back to the post, everyone said what crazy fuckers they were. The truth was he felt happy then. He felt strong.

  At Dingboche, 15,200 feet above sea level, Susan lay on her stomach inside her sleeping bag and tried to read. Anna had just told Vronsky that she was pregnant with his child. Levin was droning on about the beauties of a simple life on the land. Susan couldn’t concentrate. She had a pounding altitude headache, the communal cough and runny nose. Even with her Russian soldier’s fleece pants and the down jacket on over all her other clothes, she was cold. They were above tree level now, on a rubble-strewn plateau left by the glacier’s retreating path. Ama Dablam was behind them and Everest dead ahead, a wisp of cloud snagged across its windy peak. Somewhere up there, people were inching their way across the ridge. Susan would never survive an expedition like that. She’d give anything for a shower, a real bed.

  It was too dark to read. Susan crawled out of her sleeping bag and pushed back her tent flap to the cold. She could hear the others coughing, the barking of a dog. Suddenly, Lhotse appeared from behind a snake of cloud, its snowy flank gleaming golden-pink as if lit from within. Then in a swirl of wind, the vision disappeared. She could see why people invested mountains with mystical belief.

  In the thangka paintings inside every village gompa, the Sakyamuni Buddha pointed to the ground, calling the earth to witness. The monks blew horns carved from human femurs. Here we are. See.

  The light was almost gone. In front of the tents, Ross stood juggling limes borrowed from the cook. A group of dirty-faced children had gathered around to watch. In down overalls and a multipocket vest, his curly hair sticking out from under a knit cap pulled low over his brows, Ross looked like a ragged jester holding court. The limes flew up in a circle, over his head and around. The children laughed. Ooooh, dai! they cheered.

  Inside the teahouse, a Sherpa girl was cooking rice and dal, while an old woman rocked an infant in a cradle on the floor. The yak-dung fire threw off a choking smoke into the chimneyless room, but at least it was fairly warm. The old woman rocked the cradle with her foot, rapidly back and forth, back and forth, in time to her muttered mantra. Om Mani Padme Hum. The grandmother looked ancient, hunched and lined, but the girl was surely no more than twenty and the baby just a few weeks old. How could anyone give birth in such a place, a six-day walk from anywhere? They were light-years from the sun, on a rocky, ice-bound moon.

  He wasn’t the only one.

  When the Arab dropped his identity card, Sergei made him crawl after it in the dirt and then kicked him in the head.

  Ofer posed two men naked in front of their wives and kids and took their photograph while the rest of the soldiers stood around and jeered.

  Assaf let the one-armed merchant cross, but without his donkey cart. Today only one asshole gets through, he said.

  They found ways to close the road and keep them waiting at the checkpoint for hours so they’d miss a day of work. They let through the old man who said he needed dialysis, but turned away the pregnant girl. They shot at the little boys who hurled stones at them from behind the concrete barricades. They said, That’s the only way they’ll learn.

  They were average soldiers, average kids. They did the things they did because they could.

  Now, here in Nepal, Dubi watched the trekkers—the young Americans and Australians and Japanese and Brits—partying in the teahouses late at night. On his way outside, he stepped over the Sherpa guides and porters who lay sleeping, curled up with the dogs, like dogs themselves, outside on the ground.

  He watched them posing together along the trail, in front of tilted mani stones and snowy mountain backdrops, the trekkers and their Sherpa guides, arm in arm. He willed his body not to tense up as he watched them smile.

  It came on in the middle of the night: stomach cramps, nausea, the runs. Susan stumbled to the latrine, clutching her jacket closed against the wind. Inside, her headlamp illuminated clumps of soiled toilet paper littered around the feces-smeared hole. She retched. Somewhere, not far away, a dogfight erupted into snarls. Back in the tent, Joyce slept, her breathing ragged in the oxygen-poor air, her mummy bag cinched around her face. Susan fought the urge to wake Joyce up. She lay feverish and shivering in the dark, listening to the rattle of the tent zippers in the wind.

  At dawn, the group leader stuck his fur-covered head under the flap and touched her leg. Are you coming? he said. They were getting an alpine start on the climb to Kala Pattar, the black peak overlooking Everest, the Khumbu icefall and base camp. Today was the high point of the trip.

  She could hear the others outside the tent, the sounds of Velcro and people spitting and stomping their feet on the frozen ground.

  No, go on, she said, I’ll just wait here for you all to get back.

  She sipped some water from her Nalgene bottle, dizzy, and lay down again. The world had shrunk to the confines of this triangular burrow, this ripstop nylon sky.

  Once, as a little girl, she’d gotten lost. They were in the transit lounge at Heathrow Airport, en route to Tel Aviv. Susan remembered waiting in a shop by a revolving rack of books. Her mother stood off to one side. She wore a light blue thigh-length coat. Susan followed the coat around the rack and across the lounge. She reached for the light blue hem—a pinwale corduroy—and held on. But when she looked up, there was a strange woman peering down at her, her eyes empty and surprised. Susan let go and the room tipped, the air squeezed from her lungs. There was an ocean of orange and blue carpet, a forest of bucket seats bolted to the floor. Outside the enormous plate glass windows, jets lifted off into the glare. Susan didn’t remember the voice over the loudspeaker calling her name. There must have been shouting and tears, the smother of an embrace, but
she didn’t remember any of that. She didn’t remember being found.

  Here on the black shale crest of Kala Pattar, looking out onto the white sea of peaks that marked the border with Tibet, Dubi felt the energy rising like a snake. It rose through his chakras, from the root of his perineum to his head, with a burst of color and a receding rush of heat, like the Kabbalist Sefirot emanating from the void. Each chakra was a spinning lotus blossom wheel. The vibration quickened, his body aligning to true pitch. He was trembling, his tongue thick inside his mouth, a cracking sound inside his head. He was disintegrating into particles of light.

  When he opened his eyes again, everything was clear.

  When Dubi entered the Lobuche trekker’s hut at midday, Susan’s first thought was that he looked stoned—his pupils dilated, his eyes a little strange—but it could have just been the effect of coming indoors from the glare. She felt a rush at the sight of him. He was the first familiar face, other than their Sherpa cook, that she’d seen since dawn. When he sat down on the bench beside her, she held out her arms. He reached forward, pulling her against him so close that she could feel the thumping of his heart. He held her that way for so long that she had to disengage to breathe. She pushed back, but hung onto his arms. She felt that she would float away without him there to keep her on the ground. Despite her queasiness, despite the cold, she longed to feel his skin on hers. The weakness in her knees wasn’t only from the stomach bug.

  He was looking at her hard, the suntan lines around his eyes amplifying his stare. For a split second she had the strange impression that he was about to cry. But then his left eye twitched, his jaw contracted, and he looked away, patting down his pockets for his pack of cigarettes.

  She knew then that Joyce was right. Here she was in three layers of unwashed clothes, a bandanna tied around her greasy cornrowed hair, her legs as hairy as a guy’s, and he was looking at her that way. It wasn’t a familiar sensation. Usually she was the one knocked off balance by romance.

 
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