Pendulum: Four Voices

1. New Life

His asthma had been getting worse and worse throughout the year, so when the doctor said the strain had weakened his heart, he believed it.  The doctor went on, seeming to decipher the scrap of EKG paper before him as if it were one of the Dead Sea Scrolls:  “You’ll make it through the winter, and probably next winter too.  After that, who knows?”

Jonathan told no one.  Not his family, not his friends, not the man whose bed he’d been sharing the past ten months (who called himself Jonathan’s ‘roommate’).   He’d dropped out of grad school the year before to become involved “in the world,” but other than some marches against the Vietnam War, had been doing little.  If he was going to do anything at all, he had to start doing it right away.

One of the things he dropped after the news was his activism.  There was little enough time, so he was going to make the most of it.  Peace politics – and sex politics, or sex itself – were no longer on the agenda.  So he was back to being Jewish instead of gay.

Jonathan’s Aunt Natalie had once said, “If you ever want to go to Israel, I’ll give you money.”  And Jonathan thought, “If not now, when?”  He already had a passport, and little to tie him to Las Cruces (other than The Roommate, whose name he would never again utter), so he booked the shuttle to El Paso, and a chain of flights to Chicago, London, Tel Aviv with a two-day layover, ending up in Eilat, warm and dry even in the winter.  The chain to Tel Aviv would take twenty hours, something he had never done before, maybe too much for him in his shape, and two days in rainy Tel Aviv might be even worse, but Hillel’s saying came back again.

Almost as soon as he left on the shuttle, his asthma began to clear up.  On the endless flights, he nodded on and off.  At one half-asleep moment, he realized the irony of his situation:  Only a few years previously, New Mexico was liberation for him.  It was the first place he lived where people didn’t automatically classify him as Jewish, by his face, gestures, speech.  He experimented, hiked the mountains, long-distance bicycled, got drunk, ate bacon, slept with men.  The fact that the small-town Jewish community distanced themselves from his anti-war activism only helped push him.  (He remembered the day the religious school principal walked into his house to tell him that parents wouldn’t send their kids to a school where a peacenik taught.)  One old-timer, a Holocaust survivor put it this way:  “In a town like this, the Jews want to be pareveh, not milk or meat.  They don’t want to stand out.”  He didn’t know how many of the congregation knew he was gay; there was one old guy who’d said, “I wouldn’t be caught dead on the bimah with that faggot!”

What he should have realized – as it came to him on the plane – was that small-town gays were even more closeted than Jews.  Once he came out of the closet, gay friends would cross the street in order not to be seen with him.  The Roommate was only too happy to engage in just about any kind of sex with him, and pretty often, too, but on the street pretended they were distant acquaintances, shaking hands as if at first meeting.  That bastard also constantly carped at how “nelly” other gay men were, although often Jonathan couldn’t see it.  Jonathan eventually realized that he, too, was nelly in The Roommate’s eyes, as he began to hear stories from others of what had been said about him.

Tel Aviv was indeed cold and rainy but was no problem for his health.  So wherever the asthma had come from,, it had probably been in the house, maybe The Roommate’s four cats.  He laughed at himself.  He used the puddle-jumper flight to Eilat as an aerial tour of the country, but it was clouded over till he reached the Negev.  Eilat was not sunny, either, but was warm and dry.  He found a pension, unpacked, and set out to tour the still new port city.  He felt a new freedom in a new place, and the fact that he was breathing certainly helped.

Eilat was raw, intended to be a future tourist destination, but so far still in the planning.  One afternoon he began to notice the men there, generally burly types, muscular, with their sleeves rolled up their arms, shirts open to the waist, and their shorts cut very short.  They had a swagger to them, so that even when, say, two men were pushing baby carriages up the hill at sunset gossiping loudly to each other, they still maintained a macho aura.

Jonathan found it unbearable, though he could hardly say why.  After all, they were not aggressive against him, were not ugly – in fact were quite handsome.

He took the Èggèd bus to Jerusalem.  There he could see whether Dr. Dyer’s EKG readings were on target.  There had been no asthma since he left ‘Cruces, so maybe the prognosis was not as bad as claimed.  On the bus he really saw the countryside – the trip took several hours.  The first leg went through the Aravá valley, total desert, even more so than New Mexico, with only scattered shrubs near the watercourses.  Mountains brooded on the Jordanian side, to the right as the bus moved north, but the Israeli side was mostly small hills and oases.  Occasionally, signs by the road noted the altitude, and he watched as the numbers turned negative as the bus approached the Dead Sea.

In Jerusalem, he got a room at the youth hostel at the western edge of the city.  He spent hours touring the city on foot, having only sporadic interaction with people.  Finally, three days later, he took the short bus trip to Ein Kárem.  It was surprisingly easy to have an EKG done, and for only a few dollars.  The doctors told him, “There’s nothing wrong with your heart; it’s perfectly normal.”  He showed them the scrap of EKG paper, and they laughed.  They asked him what kind of machine it was, how it compared with the one he had just experienced.  He had to admit that Dyer’s contraption was practically medieval by comparison.  They clapped him on the back.  “Have a good long life, young man.”

What now?  Jonathan sat in the hostel bedroom back in Jerusalem, watching the rain fall outside.  If before he needed to make something of his life, now that was true even more.  Here he was, a Jew in Israel.  He had no need to go back to Las Cruces, certainly not to That One and his cats.  In fact, there was nothing waiting for him anywhere else, and he was in Israel.  Israel!

He asked around.  One of the hostel managers suggested an ulpán, a place where one could learn Hebrew intensively.  There was one targeting young college grads down in the desert, in Arád.  He should investigate.

So he did.  A bus to Be’ér Shèva, then on to Arad.  A small town, smaller than ‘Cruces, with one hotel.  He interviewed the ulpan management.  For $250, he would have room and board for five months, six days a week of Hebrew, plus tours of the country.  In return, he had to promise to stay in Israel a year.  The ulpan would help find him a job.  Another detail, too; he had to get an א-1 visa.

Jonathan signed on.  He could move in on New Year’s, and the training would start about a week later.  This time on the bus, he was unable to gawk at the scenery because he was so happy.  Occasionally he would notice all the eucalyptus trees along the roadside, or the fact that the road signs were in Arabic and English as well as Hebrew, or the burnt out ancient tanks on the climb to Jerusalem.

Once back in his room at the hostel, he sat himself down, to be sure of what he was doing.   He essentially had a new life; he could begin all over again.  No more ‘roommates,’ at least not right now.  Later on, he could figure out whether he wanted to do that again, or take up with women again, or whatever.  Now, he was going to concentrate on himself, his own new life.

2. The Big Tiyyul

Diary, Friday, February 25, 1972:

Today marks 8 weeks since the ulpan started.  I can’t believe how much Hebrew I’ve learned!  I’m using my Hebrew name now, Yonatán.  Israel radio puts out an “easy Hebrew” broadcast of the news every night, and I can almost understand it totally.  Our teacher says we will start the “regular Hebrew” version after the tiyyúl is over.  We started the tiyyul today, the “big” tiyyul.  We went on the “little” one – the little trip – right after classes started, an afternoon walk down to the Dead Sea.  This one, which we just set out on today, tours the whole country.  I am pretty excited.  I am also trying to figure out where I’m going to fit in here.

It is really, really COLD.  Four weeks ago, we planted trees on a sunny afternoon for Tu Bi-Shvat, Arbor Day, and now this morning it was sleeting in Arad, a great day to go for a tour(?).  Everyone got into the bus and we took off.  It’s a law that you HAVE to sing songs if you are travelling in a group in Israel, but we didn’t know enough Hebrew yet, so it degenerated into a bunch of British music-hall songs, led by two English guys in the ulpan, including Harry, a nice guy whom I shared a room with.  The tour guides were some of the ulpan teachers, and they pointed out EVERYthing that might be even remotely important, where the agaves are planted and why, what the eucalyptus was brought in for, where the Bedouin encampments are, where the “green line” is that separates Israel proper from the West Bank.

Right after we crossed the line, on the way to Hebron, the sleet turned into snow, and by the time we got to the town outskirts the snow was falling thick and fast.  It’s all uphill, too – Hebron is the highest place in the area – so the bus began to struggle and eventually stopped.  We were all loaded off, and the driver asked us to help push.  “Are you kidding?” I thought.  I am not going to get in back of and downhill from a bus that’s sliding on the snow.  But a lot of the ulpan-niks are from warm places: South Africa, Rhodesia, Australia, or New Zealand, and they didn’t know any better, so they tried to get the bus started.

It didn’t work, of course, so the driver had to radio in to call in another bus.  While we waited, the former helpers enjoyed their first snow.  They made snowballs and even tried to make a snowman.  Even the guy from Australia, Roland, got into it; he was throwing snowballs and making snow-angels and having a tremendous time.  The thing is, he just HATES the cold.  No one has ever seen him without his long tan coat on, even the other Australians; apparently, he’s from a different town than the rest of them.  Anyway, he seemed to get into the spirit and forget how cold he was.  It was truly uplifting to see him jumping around and enjoying himself.

I didn’t participate.  Actually, not too many of the Americans, French, or Brits did.  It was fun to watch, but I kept having a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach about it all.  After a while, I realized that the road we were on went through a residential neighborhood, although it wasn’t as densely packed as the city itself.  It looked a lot like a hilly rural area in New Mexico during a snowstorm, with maybe a dozen or so houses on either side of the road.

Here’s the thing:  It was like we were cavorting around in their neighborhood, and it felt strange.  Now, I’m not interested in being political like some of the ulpan-niks are, and I know our side of the question.  We didn’t start the war with Jordan, we asked them to stay out, when they didn’t we won the West Bank fair and square.  And I know that the Arabs had killed off all the Jewish residents of Hebron back in the 30’s, and destroyed four of the area’s kibbutzim during the ’48 war.  And, heaven knows, we certainly had been there long before there were any Arabs anywhere in the area.  Hebron, especially:  That’s where Abraham bought land to bury Sarah, 3800 years ago.

And I sure as hell know what the Arabs want to do with us.  They’ve made it pretty clear that they intend to wipe this Jewish scar off the face of Islam.  They don’t make any bones about killing us whenever they get the chance. “Itbaħ al yahud!”  Slaughter the Jews.

I get what our teachers have been saying; it’s all true.  You don’t need to rely on any religious stuff to come to that conclusion.  But looking at those houses all around us, not knowing how many of the people were looking back at us, I didn’t like it.

None of this means I have any doubts about wanting to stay here.  I really want to make aliyáh and become a citizen.  But this morning’s events are making it difficult for me to toe the line totally.  I just don’t know where I fit in.  I’ve never felt more Jewish in my life – even the Shabbát songs I don’t know I get quickly, and the language comes easily.  But I’ve also never felt more American:  Little things like the shape of doorknobs or light bulbs.  Also the way there’s no central heating; we each have a heater in our room that burns some kind of petroleum product (neft) in an upturned gallon-sized glass bottle.  We have to take it down to the main office to get them refilled.  It’s a hassle for some people; for me it’s not, but it does reinforce the feeling that this is not the place I grew up in.

We got to Jerusalem (they want us to say Yerushaláyim) barely in time for Shabbat.  We got the usual great dinner complete with singing songs and the Grace After Meals that I’m beginning to learn.  On the other hand, here I am writing this on Shabbat!  Most Israelis are pretty secular, and dislike the Rabbis telling us how to live, so I guess I’m in synch with that.

3.  To Fix or to Take Out?

I can remember cutting class to go to the dentist.  My tooth broke shortly after my December arrival in Israel and, by February there was pain.  Our ulpan – the intensive language school – was located way out in the desert, without a resident dentist, so we made do with a circuit rider who came by once every two weeks.

Roland, the guy from Perth, was already at the office when I came, but he asked me to go first because he was afraid.  What a mistake!

Roland was tall and gangly with a head of curly black hair.  You could tell him a long way off because of that long brown coat of his.  While we waited for the dentist to show up, we talked about the ulpan.  We were at different Hebrew levels, but the classes were pretty much the same; my class having the advantage of being able to read actual literature, while he had arrived knowing only the aleph-bet and the prayers.

“I’m actually learning something,” he said, that lovely accent dropping the “r” – luhning.  In fact, he was enthusiastic about everything in Israel except for the cold.  It was an “advencha,” though his transition had been only from a remote city to a remote village.  He waved his arms around while talking about the snow we had encountered on the Big Tiyyul.  When I mentioned how cold he was, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “True, but.”  The only thing he didn’t like, it seemed to me, was the dentist, but that was enough to keep him manic while we waited.

She – the Russian immigrant dentist finally showed – used a single office in the local clinic; we had to share the room.  She knew less Hebrew than I did, and no English at all.

“Le-tapél o le-hotzí?” To fix or to take out?

“Le-tapél!  Le-tapél!” I said.  To fix!

She started working, giving me only the shot of Novocain I was familiar with.  I had never had a root canal done then, so I was not surprised that I got no more anesthetic than that.  Everyone but me knew that Russian dentists skimped on painkillers.   When she pulled the nerve out, it was an unexpected violent pain that made my vision black out for a second.  Then the pain simply died away, completely.

She finished up the tooth.  Roland was badly shaken, and could barely keep himself in the office.   He told me right there that, though I had managed to hold my upper body still, my legs had flown up during that one violent moment and almost knocked over the tray of implements.  He asked me to stay with him, and then canceled that.  “Aw hell, mate, you’re in bad shape yourself.  Forget it!”

But I stuck around.  His was nothing more than a filling.  He put up with the usual annoyance of drilling and filling, docile still in spite of his fear.  By the time we got out, lunch was almost over at ĥadár ha-ókhel, the dining room, and we got the last two meals served.  It surprised both of us that we had any appetite at all; besides, our mouths were still clumsy from the Novocain.  In any case, we were at table long past the bell for afternoon classes.   Rolly was still agitated, and wanted to talk.

“Do you think we’ll make it?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think we’ll ever be proper Israelis, Yoni?  What they want us to be?”

I laughed.  “I don’t know.  Are you worried about it?”

“Well, yes!  They go on about how we have to adjust to not having all the modern conveniences, but that isn’t the problem at all, is it?  Yeah, there’s some who complain about the tannurím,” the neft stoves that heated our apartments.  Many of the “ulpan-niks” hated carrying the glass containers up and down five flights of steps just to refill them every other day.

“But that’s just shit; there’s heaps more adjusting than that to do.”

I nodded.  “Like what?”

“Like making sure you’re no kévves tam, no simple lamb, for one.  You have to be strong, strong, strong.  Hell, if I wanted that I could have stayed in Australia!”

“So, you don’t think we have a chance?”

“Oh, some of us do,” he said.  “For instance, the ones from Southern Africa: they really don’t have a choice, do they?  And the Russians,” he added, jerking his head towards the clinic.  “I mean, they can’t go back.  And maybe a few of us, too, like maybe that Steve of yours?”

“Of mine?”

“Well, he is American, isn’t he?”

“Oh.  True.”  Steve, from Brooklyn, had gotten a reputation for swaggering bravado.  He was constantly trying to get a basketball game going, only succeeding with the Israeli troops who occasionally stopped by.

After that, Rolly sought me out, sitting down at my table for lunch or dinner, even coming by my apartment occasionally.  The apartments were two-bedroom, four-person arrangements, so usually it was something of a circus at our place when he showed up.  He was friendly with all of us; in fact, that’s what most characterized him (other than the coat), a geniality that others found inviting.

I can hardly remember what we talked about – whether Rolly was there or not – but there was a lot of superficial talk about our national customs, how they differed from each other, and how Israel was so different from any of them.  As time went on and some of the ulpan-niks dropped out, we might remark about this one or that, where they had gone, back to America (or France, or…)?  Or we’d mention Wahid, the lonely Arab guy from Nazareth who worked in Arad and hardly ever got to see his family.  Wahid was as friendly as the local Bedouins, sometimes disarmingly so.  We had to get used to the physicality in their greetings.  The wealthy ulpan-nik from England had become one of their favorites; when he was forced to go back home for family reasons, they gave him a going-away party and each of them kissed him on the lips.  Boy, did we laugh at that!

Some days I would find the ulpan’s adopted dog and go for a walk in the desert that surrounded our little town.  One time, Rolly invited himself along, and I couldn’t see any way to refuse him.  His attention was surprising to me because all I had done in the dentist’s office was just sit there with him. Nonetheless, he seemed to like me, and I, like everyone else, liked him.

That afternoon we walked away from the town on its high point down a náĥal (or arroyo or wadi) to where it met another coming from a different direction.  At the join, there was a cistern, a cemented catchment well that filled up every winter with rain.

“Crikey!” Rolly said, “It’s just like the one in Jericho we saw on the Tiyyul.”  He pointed out the grooves worn into the cement by the ropes used to pull up water over the years.  “We know how old that one is – nine thousand years.  So how long do you think this one has been around?  And it looks like they’re still using it!”

I shrugged, and suggested that the path, too, that we had been following must also been in use for a really long time.  “I wonder, I mean, pick up any stone,” I did, “and you have to figure that someone has picked it up before you.”

We were quiet a while, and then Rolly said, “You really like this place, don’t you?  Israel, I mean.  Like it’s not just the propaganda they feed us; the history here goes back a lot farther than Jews or Arabs.”

I nodded, and then we were silent again, walking farther down the náĥal to where it widened out and became flatter.  At some point, Rolly started talking again, though I was too lost in my own thoughts to hear him at first.  Eventually, I realized that he was again worrying about not being strong enough for Israel.

I looked over at him.  He had taken off his coat in the afternoon sun, and he wasn’t nearly as skinny as he looked in that long, long coat.  I touched his arm and made sure to look him over deliberately.

“What makes you think you’re not strong enough?” I asked.

“Why don’t you kiss me, and I’ll tell you.”

It had been a long time since I had kissed a man, but it turned out to be easy.  His breath smelled good, and it was wonderful to feel some intimacy again.  I had thought I was going to leave my sexuality back in the States, but apparently not.

“That’s why, mate,” he said.  “You know what they think of that here.  It’s what the Arabs do, isn’t it?  Asúr.” Forbidden.

We couldn’t do much more, but we did make out for awhile, till Keffie, the dog, whined to get us on our way home.  Rolly suggested we might be able to share a room, but I had already made one request like this to get the English guy, Harry, into my room, and I didn’t think I could do that again.  He came by more often, but I was rarely alone.  My flatmates began to notice.

“Hey, Roland, are you in love?” Harry asked one time, in jest.

“Yeah, right, mate, I’m in love with your lovely roommate here,” he answered.  He made it sound as if he was joking.

Harry just shut up at that point, and I thought that maybe Rolly was in fact strong enough for anywhere.  But it was still a difficult arrangement.  It wasn’t just that we had no place other than outdoors to be alone together.  It was also that I was still unsure that I wanted to push the relationship further.  Not that I didn’t enjoy escaping from life at the ulpan; any touch we had – kisses, occasional massages, just holding each other – was thrilling.  But I really did want to become an Israeli, and I couldn’t see how I could be both things at once.

One day, Steve – the arrogant Brooklyn guy – was gone.  Just gone.  The only thing we heard from the ulpan was that he needed to go back to the States.  Rolly was upset, which I found surprising, since I had thought that he didn’t like Steve’s brashness.

“You don’t get it.  If even Steve can’t make it here, how can either of us?”

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t see the connection.”  Rolly just shrugged his shoulders.

A week later, Rolly was gone as well. The only way I knew was that he didn’t come by the flat two days in a row.  I wasn’t able to find out whether he went back to Australia or somewhere else.  I asked for and got his home address, but in the end I didn’t write.  What could I have said?   He was sweet, but what I wanted was to be an Israeli.

4. Archaeology

Yonatan is awake at dawn.  The plan is to take the first bus to Be’er Sheva, wait one hour for the Jerusalem bus, and be in the Jewish Agency paqíd’s office by noon.  He has promised the paqid to take two days to “think it over,” after which Yoni can get his pèteq stamped, be released from his agreement, and go home, back to New Mexico.  He figures he’s done all the thinking he needs to.

Yesterday in the office, the paqid kept asking why Yonatan wanted so much to go home; he had done such a good job at ulpan, knew Hebrew so well.  Was it just a craving for the luxuries of the States?  No, it wasn’t, Yonatan kept insisting.  Finally, unable to say why he wanted so badly to get out of Israel, he burst into tears.  He hated appearing so unmanly in front of an Israeli, but the official surrendered, asking only the two-day delay.  So now he has been through all the emotion he can stand.  If everything works out, he can be out in a few days more, by the end of August, done.

But immediately the plan goes awry.  Noticing the brightening sky, he goes out to the east-facing balcony to capture the view.  Below his sixth-story vantage point, the ground-hugging fog stretches as far as he can see, down the incline.  A question occurs to him:  Does this odd desert fog reach all the way down the slope to the Dead Sea?   The shoreline is so low as to be out of view.  On the horizon, the sky is demarcated by the dark mountains on the other side, in Jordan.

He decides to walk out to a knoll just east of town one last time.  At this hour, it is quiet, and his mind recalls the many times he and his friends from ulpan went there on Shabbat afternoons to gaze across the abyss; he could see the other side, but not the bottom.  Friends like Ora from South Africa and Roland, from Perth.  Sometimes, too, Steve would tag along.  He remembers, in spite of himself, the four of them going in to Be’er Sheva to give blood for another ulpan-nik who had been in an accident.  Ora had practically fainted afterward.  This recollection moves him so deeply; that was not in the plan.

All the ulpan-nikim had adopted their Hebrew names.  Yonatan, for example, was Jonathan back in the States.  What he will call himself in the U.S. now he doesn’t yet know..

Yonatan remains for a minute or two on the balcony, then walks the short distance into the center of Arad.  The town was founded just a few years ago as a desert outpost.  On a map it lies directly east of Be’er Sheva and directly south of Jerusalem, though the roads are not so direct.

At one point, on the northern edge of this town, he remembers back to an evening a week before.  He was walking then with an Israeli and a few members of the incoming session at the ulpan. It was night, and they could see a glow on the northern horizon.  In fact, Polaris was visible directly above the glow.

“I wonder what that is,” said the Israeli.  “Maybe it’s Ein Gedi, or Be’er Sheva?”

“It’s Jerusalem,” Yoni said.

“No!  It can’t be Jerusalem, that’s too far.  It must be something else.”

“Really, it’s Jerusalem.”

But the Israeli repeated that it was impossible, so Yonatan found himself saying, “Look, maybe you are right, and me and the maps are wrong.”  It stopped conversation completely.

Yonatan smirks recalling the incident.  So, one thing he certainly has learned – quite apart from the Hebrew taught in the ulpan – is how to talk like an Israeli.

He wants to take yet another detour, to the north of town, where the desert wadis come together, where he came upon a cistern still in use, not much different from the cisterns at ancient sites.  It’s another place he often went to on his hikes with the ulpan’s mascot dog, and once with Rolly.   But he remembers what he’s supposed to be doing and hurries back to town.  He passes the open plaza where he often met Wahid, an Arab construction worker.  Wahid would complain of loneliness, and would sometimes – apparently unconsciously – stroke Yoni’s stomach while they talked.  It made Yoni uneasy, but he tried never to embarrass the man.

At the ulpan office, he convinces the secretary to allow him to call the Jewish Agency office.  After all, it makes no sense to rush like mad to make it there if the paqid decides to leave early today.  And, in fact, the paqid turns out not to be there at all, so Yoni makes an appointment for the next day.

He climbs the six flights back to his apartment and packs.  He has an extra day to spend, but not a lot of money.  He decides to take one last tiyyul, back to Masada.  Then he’ll come back, sleep, and be in Jerusalem tomorrow.

He does not get started till well past noon.  In his backpack are water, dates, and some dry pellets of soy that are supposed to taste like chicken.  It’s a new industry in Arad, this soy product, and Yonatan wants to try it.

There is no bus station in Arad; he has to flag it down at the town’s edge.  The bus heads precipitously down to the Dead Sea, from Arad’s 2000 feet above sea level to a negative 1400 feet at the shoreline.

As it begins the slide, Yoni sees the jeep track running parallel to the road.  The path winds along the steep hill on the side of the road, but stays level rather than descending.  When he took the dog, Keffie, for a walk there one afternoon, they heard a roaring sound, but were unable to identify what it was or where it was coming from.  It got louder and louder, the dog cowering in fear, until a Phantom jet passed by at eye level, following the road.  Yonatan smiles now at the recollection; he had even been able to make out the red circle on the nose of the plane, it was that close.

The bus quickly descends.  Very few people are on it this August afternoon.  One of the passengers is chatting up the driver.  Yoni’s Hebrew is good enough to pick up that they are talking about the swimmer, Mark Spitz, who is winning gold medals at the Olympics.  The driver says he couldn’t imagine going to Munich, close as it is to the Dachau camp.

Yonatan gets off at Masada, and walks to the beginning of the Snake Path.  It is steep and full of switchbacks, but the only way to get to the top from the east side.  The top is just above sea level, so Yonatan thinks that climbing it is something like leaving an archaeological dig, climbing from the past into the “sea level” of the present.  It is in the nineties (Fahrenheit! still the way he thinks), but dry, and the afternoon sun is hidden by the Judean mountains beyond Masada.  On the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, the Jordanian mountains are in bright sunshine.

The path is tough but simple:  Put one foot in front of the other.  Yonatan’s thoughts wander.  He will have completed just about nine months when he leaves Israel.  He had come because a doctor back in New Mexico had diagnosed him with a heart problem and given him only a year or two to live.  If you’re ever gonna do it, you’d better do it now, he had thought.  But the doctors at Hadassah took a new EKG and found in fact nothing at all wrong with his heart.

So it seemed he could start all over again.  He happened upon this five-month intensive ulpan workout in Hebrew, room, board, and tours of the country, and the price was low.  The only catch was that you had to promise to stay a whole year.  Well, he thinks now, he’s done seventy-five percent; that’s at least a C.  And it’s not that he hasn’t tried getting a job.  He has hitchhiked and bussed all over the Negev looking for math-teacher positions, to Yeruham and Dimona, to Sde Boqer and even Mitzpeh Ramon deep, deep in the Negev, but no luck.

Yonatan stops at one switchback to drink some water. He knows from his own desert experience not to drink too much all at once.

There had been one offer, from a school at the southern end of the country, in Eilat.  But he turned it down.  He used the usual excuse that people gave – the town’s remoteness from everything else in the country.  But that wasn’t the reason.  Yoni was somehow intimidated by Eilat, by the brawny men who walked their baby carriages in twos in the cool of the evening.  With their shirts rolled up high over their impossibly huge arms, and the legs of their shorts rolled up just as high over thighs just as impossible, they were strangely disconcerting.

Wahid, too, was disconcerting.  And, for that matter, Steve, who sometimes made gentle fun with him.  The weird part was that no one had ever been nasty to him.  In fact, almost everyone was welcoming, praising his rudimentary Hebrew.  Israelis usually responded in English to ragged tourist attempts at their language, but if he kept on speaking Hebrew they would, too.  Even the various peqidím, the civil servants who actually ran the country, treated him with at least the small modicum of respect that they meted out to citizens.

Yonatan recalls the moment when he finally got his visa renewed, almost two months after it had run out.  Thursday mornings were free time at the ulpan, and he used the opportunity to bus in to Be’er Sheva and jump the many bureaucratic hurdles towards the visa.  He was standing in line at the Interior Ministry, having earlier stood in the same line to get a peteq that he had to have stamped across town at the Health Ministry.  It was stamped and now here he was again, waiting to get it counter-stamped.  But it was almost noon, and the last bus back to Arad would be leaving soon.

“I’ve already stood in this line today!” he shouted, in his newly mastered Hebrew.  “Do I have to stand here again?”

And the paqid opened the door and ushered him in to the office, stamped the peteq, and gave him a temporary visa.  It was another month before the permanent one arrived in the mail.

Yonatan smiles at this.  Again, he sees that he has learned how to be an Israeli.  So the question hits him like a smack in the face:  Why does he want to get out of here so badly?

But he has arrived at the top of the mountain.  A glance at the suddenly red mountains across the Dead Sea tells him that the sun is about to set.  Right now he has a different decision to make.  It would be too dangerous to climb back down in the dark, so he has to find some place to stay overnight, here on top of Masada.

The mountaintop is full of ruins and easy holes to fall into in the dark.  Masada is slated to be developed as a tourist attraction, but now there are no lights, handrails, or steps.  The flip side is that there are no regulations or closing times.  A small number of souls, Israelis by the look of them, are also on the mountain, scattered apart from each other, each apparently with questions of his or her own to answer.  Again Yonatan sees that his actions are not so far from the norm.

Two Phantoms race just above the water level below.  Idly he wonders what their altimeters must be reading, and smiles.

Most of the others have found a spot, set up camp, and are eating.  Yonatan does likewise, selecting a level slab of stone only a foot high or so, with no sharp ruins around it.  If he falls off, it won’t be a problem.  He gets the food and water out of his pack and eats what he can.  The soy has only the slightest taste of chicken, but he is too hungry to care.  The dates are a good dessert.

Now it is almost dark.  Yonatan is still sitting on his stone, looking out over Yam ha-Mèlaħ, literally the Salt Sea.  At the beginning of the ulpan, they trekked down here on foot from Arad – it was winter then – to float on it, and then shower off the accumulated salt.  Above him, the stars are as sharp as he’s ever seen them, with the Milky Way clearly visible.  Jupiter – it must be Jupiter, too bright for anything else – stands high in the east, and he can actually see its reflection in the water below.

It can’t be more than nine o’clock, so he wonders how he’s going to get to sleep.  But he is actually very tired, and soon he slides into a horizontal position.  It’s not the smoothest bed he’s ever slept on, but not the worst, either.  He remembers camping out in his own desert, in New Mexico, Wyoming, and Arizona.  Just as hard, just as hot, and dry.  Maybe not as old.

His mind drifts.  Why does he need to leave?  Something scares him about Israel, but what is it?  He’s actually made friends here, and easily at that.  But he still feels a distance.  More puzzling still, he himself is reluctant to close that distance.

In the dream, he is giving Roland a backrub.  But Roland turns into Wahid, who is naked on his back, propped up on his elbow.  Yonatan may not touch; he can use his mouth but not his hands.  That’s the rule.  Any place on Wahid’s body is fair game, his arms, legs, face.  And now Wahid is Steve, the basketball guy from Brooklyn, who winks at him with the laugh Yoni knows well.  He’s laughing because Yoni has crossed the line, is not only kissing but touching him as well.  Rolly, now it’s Rolly again, makes no move to stop him, and Yonatan doesn’t stop.  It is as if he can feel all of Roland’s body at once, and for the briefest moment he is happy.

Yoni wakes up.  Someone is shouting at him.  “Are you okay?” he hears in an Israeli accent.  He has fallen off the slab, but doesn’t seem to be hurt.  His shorts are wet.

“Be-sèder!” he shouts back.  I’m okay!

“You were shouting something,” the Israeli says.

“I was dreaming!  I’m okay.  Nothing hurts.”

The Israeli mumbles something, and then they are quiet.

In the dream, he had not played by the rule, he had crossed over the line.  And he has wet himself.  He had hoped that Israel would be a truly new beginning, that he could have left the gay part of him behind.  He knows now that he will continue to cross the line, at apparently random moments beyond his control.  He tried to be gay in New Mexico and has tried to be Jewish in Israel.  He sees no way to be both, but he now knows that’s just what he is.  He doesn’t yet know how he is going to work it out.

Jupiter has set.  There is just the hint of color over the Jordanian horizon.  Yoni notices that there is no fog down here.  When it’s light enough, he will walk back down the Snake Path and take the bus to Arad, then Jerusalem, then fly back to the States. In the lingering darkness he kisses the stone on which he has slept.   It will be many years before he returns.


About In a Former Time

This blog is meant as a vehicle to publish my literary work.
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