(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Michael Lavigne
Perhaps I did not mention that, because of being in a terrorist attack, I was on pretty heavy painkillers, Demerol in fact, though at some point I believe I was taking OxyContin. I can’t remember, which is the one happy outcome of opiates. But by now, my doctors were strict with me. They pulled me off the medication long before I wanted them to, and I ended up, basically, with a handful of aspirin. Probably that explains what happened.
I had bussed into Tel Aviv to have my dressings changed at the clinic. I hadn’t been out on my own in some time, and the idea of sharing some fresh air with the rest of humanity seemed especially pleasing, so I went for a walk. It was a busy time of day, and the streets were crowded. I noticed immediately people were staring at me – it was the bandages, of course, and, I guess, the dragging lower lip and the purple neck. One could see in their faces the usual mixture of horror and pity. This was entirely normal, I told myself. I would have stared, too – anyone would.
At the crosswalk, the light changed. I took a step off the curb, and there right in front of me, stepping off the curb opposite, was a young Arab. Modern. Secular. Jeans. Striped polo. Running shoes. Shiny watch. He looked straight at me. He neither grimaced nor raised his eyebrows in sympathy, no acknowledgement at all; he just moved toward me, his gaze fixed. I found myself also staring at him, locking onto his eyes: dull eyes, lacking in all inquisitiveness. He was passing to my left, he in his flow of pedestrians, I in mine. So slowly did this unfold, that I saw a bird flap its wings, one, two, three, as it passed just above us; I saw a woman pull at her ear, watched the skin stretch like taffy; in the middle of all this stood a policeman, and in his whistle I could clearly see the sounding-ball bounce up and down, up and down, almost glacially, though I could not yet even hear the sound. Then the Arab blinked, and I smashed him in the face with my fist.
Suddenly there was a huge commotion. Someone grabbed me from behind, and some other fellow, I had no idea who, was on the ground in front of me, screaming, Help, Help, Help!
“Stop it!” someone shouted in my ear.
I looked over my shoulder. It was the cop.
The man on the ground was still screaming, “You maniac! You crazy person!”
“Calm down!” the policeman said to me.
I was confused, though, because the man on the ground was screaming in such excellent Hebrew.
Some hours later I was given the police report. According to Mordecai Kashani, a Sabra of Iranian-Jewish descent, he had been crossing Ibn Gvirol Street thinking of what to get his son for his graduation from the third grade, which was happening in less than a week, so he was not paying attention to anyone, when out of the blue this “lunatic hit me on the chin and began to pummel me mercilessly and calling me a stinking Arab, a goddamned murderer, a mother fucking Hezbollah rag head baby killer, I’m going to shove a fucking pipe bomb up your ass, how would you like that, you Hamas piece of shit garbage?” Mr. Kashani went on to write, “This is word for word, exactly as I recall it. I never saw the man before. I never saw the man when I was crossing the street. In fact, I never noticed him until he hit me. But never will I forget him. Even when all those bandages come off, I will recognize him.”
I laughed. “I never said any of that,” I told the officer.
“Of course not. I’m an educated person. As a matter of fact, I belong to Peace Now. I would never say such things. Here. I’ll show you my card.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened?” he said. My policeman was about fifty, with a full head of hair and tanned, well-furrowed skin. When he lit a cigarette I noticed he had the same thick, fat fingers as the Minister of Blown-Up People. His nails were dirty, too, probably also from gardening. Another ex-kibutznik. Could never quite tear themselves away from the soil. On the other hand he had a couple of tennis rackets tucked in the corner. He assumed a very casual pose with me, just two guys having a chat. It was being made clear to me that this was not an interrogation, which is why I knew that that is exactly what it was.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I was crossing the street and the next thing I knew this guy was … well, actually, I don’t know. He did something. Came at me or something.”
“But you hit him?”
“I think I did. But just once. I wasn’t ‘pummeling’ him, for God’s sake. That’s nuts. Why would I do that?”
“So you hit him the one time?”
“I think so.”
“Do you think that was the right thing to do?”
“Of course not, no. I’m sorry I did it.”
“Then why did you?”
“I—actually, I can’t remember. He must have done something. Pushed me or something.”
“That’s it? He pushed you and you slugged him? Does that sound like something you would do? He must have done something worse.”
“I suppose I must have thought he had a bomb.”
“Any reason for that?”
“Don’t be stupid,” I said, suddenly tired of the game.
He stood up, came round, and placed his hand on my shoulder. “You’ve been through a lot.”
“Not so much.”
Immediately the face of Dasha Cohen, the girl in the coma, flashed before me.
“Guttman,” he said, “you’ve had a trauma. You are a victim of terrorism. We all know that. We all appreciate your sacrifice.”
“Except for Mr. Kashani,” I said.
“Well,” said the lieutenant, “perhaps he has his reasons.” He placed two photos on the desk, and slid them over to me. They were of the same man, first from the front, then from the side. His face was a patchwork of black and blue, his left eye a swollen orange, his chin mottled with dried blood, his nose like a squashed soda can.
“Who is that?” I said.
The lieutenant held out several typed sheets. These were statements of witnesses, he told me. “Read a little,” he suggested.
They described a gruesome scene. A madman in blood-stained bandages screaming obscenities and racial epithets and beating an innocent pedestrian. No provocation. No reason. Onlookers taken by surprise. Policeman and three others pull him off.
“He wants to press charges.”
I looked up at the lieutenant. “I did this?”
“Maybe you should lock me up, then.”
Instead he motioned to someone behind me. An older woman, a grandmother, really, in a simple floral dress. She looked vaguely familiar. But it wasn’t possible. It could not have been Golda Meir. I thought she was dead – of course she was dead! But there she was. I knew I had been seeing things, heads, angels, but it was definitely Golda! And now she, Golda, beckoned to me, raising one formidable eyebrow. Even for such an old woman, she was overflowing with – what can I say? – erotic energy – the energy of the all-night dream that you’d rather not have had at all.
She led me to a small room down the corridor. I looked around. No one-way mirror, so I decided the interrogation was over. A long Formica table, a number of plastic chairs all orange and green, the lunchroom. Golda took a chair from the far side of the table and dragged it all the way to the other, so she could sit down beside me. So I got up, went back around to the other side of the table and sat down facing her. Above me I was certain a blood stain was forming on the ceiling, and emerging from it a pair of eyes, and then, perhaps, the outline of a head – his head.
“Look,” she said to me, “I’m here to help you.”
“Perhaps you are having hallucinations,” she began, “You’ve been looking at the ceiling and calling me Golda. Do you think I’m Golda Meir?”
“Of course not, “ I said. “You’re the shrink from the hospital.”
“And you think I resemble Golda Meir?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“I don’t think I resemble her.”
“No,” I said.
“Only insofar as all old Jewish women resemble her.”
“Not at all,” I said.
“So you are not hallucinating.”
“What about the incident with – what was his name?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Kashani. His name is Kashani.”
“It’s hard to remember.”
“You find it hard to remember his name?” she said.
“Yes I do.”
“So tell me, have you gone back to work?” She waited a while for me to answer. “Have you asked what will happen when your bandages are removed? I understand that will be in just a few days. Maybe you wonder if you are disfigured?” She fiddled with her eyeglasses. “No doubt you want to forget the whole thing. But I’m guessing it’s just about the only thing you ever think about.”
“How could you possibly know what I’m thinking about?”
“I really don’t. Why don’t you tell me?”
“Of course I want to go back to work. You have no idea what I’ve lost.”
“Lost in what sense?”
“Lost in the sense of money. I had several important projects. Now, I don’t know.”
“Your clients have abandoned you?”
“Well, no. Well, I don’t know.”
“You haven’t called them?”
“It’s all up in the air.”
“Tell me about your employees.”
I closed my eyes. “Just two. Both are architects. And also we have someone come in to do the books. But she wasn’t there.”
“Were they hurt?”
I kept thinking I saw something on the ceiling. It definitely looked like a bloodstain. But flying heads don’t come inside, do they? The next thing I heard her say was, “What wasn’t?”
“You said it wasn’t your fault. We know that. That’s why we’re trying to help you.”
“No, I didn’t say that. You misunderstood.”
“What were you saying then?”
“I thought you were asking about my employees.”
“Are you concerned about them?”
“No, not really. I don’t know.”
“You want to go back to work, but you haven’t called anyone. You’re desperate about your projects, but you haven’t gone in. You don’t even inquire about your staff. Are they working? Are they well?”
“What do you want of me?”
“I just want you to see for yourself that you are not at your best right now. You need help. I think I can help you.”
“Well, for one thing, I can probably get the charges against you dropped.”
“But what if I don’t want them dropped?”
Instead of replying, she took out her cigarettes. Carefully, as if she were contemplating a great philosophical question, she struck a match. From my little plastic chair, I watched her every move. In the old days, in Russia, I had been invited to the Ministry of the Interior, and also to the Committee on Government Security—the KGB; I had undergone similar cross examinations at the Office of Visas and Registration, even at the local police station; I had been in a courtroom, too, and I had been in a prison – in the visitors’ section, I mean – where they stole all the food I had brought, but strangely allowed me to deliver the book I’d thought would surely be confiscated. Of course that was a long time ago. Another universe, really. So there was no reason to distrust – I realized I couldn’t remember her name; I’d been thinking of her as Golda. She peered at me over the smoke that slithered around her eyes.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” I demanded.
“I don’t know.”
“You think I’m looking at you in some specific way?”
I sighed. “I hate the shrink thing, so please stop doing it,” I said.
“It must be hard,” she went on, “to come all this way from the Soviet Union only to have this happen to you. In Russia it wasn’t so easy to be a Jew.”
“Here it’s suicide,” I said.
She smiled. “Look, try telling me how it felt.”
“How can I possibly explain it?”
“Why don’t you start with how you are feeling right now?”
“You know,” I said, “there was this lady in our building. Actually, our first building, when we still lived in the communal apartment. Do you know what that is?”
“I don’t think you really do,” I said, “but anyway, there was this neighbor, Raya Cherbuka. I liked to go near her because she had this scent – it was dark and lush and I found it unnerving, exciting – I can still remember the shiver that went up my legs whenever I was near her – and when she spoke it was with a creamy Ukrainian accent that somehow reminded me of the caramel candies my grandfather kept in his vest pocket. I don’t know, I was probably four years old, it’s one of my earliest memories. She would be standing at the one stove – we all shared the stove, you know – and I would come up to her as close as I could, and she would bend down and pinch my cheek, or my thigh, or my tummy, and say, ‘You play with your sausage, don’t you? It’s all right, you can’t help it, you’re a Jew. You love doing that, right? Almost as much as you love money, that’s your fate, poor thing. You’re a Jew. What can you do about it? You know how you will die? We’ll hang you from a tree by your little penis until you bleed to death.’ I swear to God, that’s what she said. I never told anyone, especially since my mother forbade me to go near any of the neighbors, but I couldn’t help myself, so I ran back to our two rooms, and there was my grandmother who was always so kind and loving. ‘Babushka! Babushka!’ I cried, ‘Am I a Jew? It’s not true is it?’ I swear to God. And she said, ‘Well of course, my sunshine.’ That’s how she talked. And I said, ‘But I don’t want to be!’ And she asked me, why not? And I screamed at her, ‘Jews stink!’ I don’t know, maybe she saw the shadow of that neighbor, Raya Cherbuka, or just heard the slam of her door. Anyway she grabbed me up and hugged me. And she said to me, ‘Didn’t you know that I’m Jewish, too? Am I stinky? I hope not.’ I remember her laughing. ‘Papa is Jewish, did you know that? Mama is Jewish. Yes! Dyedushka is Jewish, too. And Uncle Max and Aunt Rita. Everyone!’ ‘What about the baby?’ I asked, because my sister Katya was at that moment asleep in her stroller. ‘Baby, too,’ my grandmother said. And she even said, ‘We’re all very proud of being Jewish.’ But it was just at that moment my mother sat up on the couch upon which she had been sleeping. She called me over. I remember her voice was angry. I went to her very slowly because it was so dark in that corner. And then she just laid it out for me, as only my mother could do. One, keep away from the Cherbukas, and two, just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish. I told her I didn’t tell anyone. But she grabbed me and shook me, I mean really hard, and with this voice of stone said, ‘What’s the matter with you, Roman? Just don’t tell anyone.’ And then she turned around on her couch, presented me with her back, and closed her eyes and went back to sleep.
“I now understood being Jewish was a miserable fate. I thought about it constantly, day after day, months on end. I could no longer enjoy anything – a stroll in the park, an excursion to the toy store – what was the point? Everyone knew. You didn’t have to tell them. Finally, some years later – I must have been in school by then – I was walking down the street by myself – it was an autumn day and I was kicking the leaves, thinking how much, in spite of everything, I loved to kick leaves, how deeply satisfying it was to bury my foot deep in the muck and send a great cloud of color wafting into the air in all directions – and I said to myself – Well! Being a Jew, it’s terrible, really terrible, a real disability. But it could be so much worse. I could lose my foot! I could lose my whole leg! I sent another pile of leaves flying. How much worse, I told myself, if I lost my leg! And that, Doc, is how I see being Jewish.”
Golda took a drag on her cigarette and smiled. “Do you think this is such a unique experience?”
I was so fucked up, “ I said, “I was on the side of the Arabs in the six day war.”
“I remember coming home from school and the whole family was crowded around the radio trying to figure out what the news was, and my grandmother was crying and my father was white as a ghost, and I put my arms around them and said, ‘Oh don’t worry. We’ll beat the Zionists. They’re just pawns of the Americans. America can’t even beat a little country like Vietnam! Socialism is stronger! Don’t worry!’”
“It was confusing for you,” Golda said after a long pause.
“My grandmother gave me this crazy look, and I told her – I swear to God – ‘Don’t be afraid, Babushka. Really. We will beat back the Jews.’ You know what she said?”
“What did she say?” said my Golda.
“She said, ‘What’s the matter with this child?’”
After a moment, I took a deep breath and slid down in my chair, and sighed, “I realize I didn’t answer your question.”
“What question was that?”
“How I’m feeling. You asked me to tell you how I am feeling. I don’t know how I got into all of this. I don’t know why all these memories are gushing out of me.”
My eyes wandered to a few posters on the wall – about safety, about watchfulness, and one about CPR.
“I know you’re not Golda Meir,” I said.
“Well, that’s a start,” she replied.
“Listen,” I said, “there is something you can do for me.”
She lowered the cigarette. “Okay.”
“In your rounds of us victims – you probably met this person. Her name is Dasha Cohen. She’s in a coma.”
“She’s young. Not much older than my daughter.”
“I don’t know what she was doing on that corner or anything, but I was wondering if maybe you could tell me how to get in touch with her.”
“You can’t get in touch with her. She’s in a coma.”
“What I mean is, where is she? I want to visit her.”
She waved off the smoke, rested her chin on one fist, took another drag, and blew it out of the side of her mouth. “All right,” she said. She fetched her ballpoint and wrote something down on the back of a card. “On this side is me. This is my cell number. I expect you to call and set up an appointment. And when the time is right, on the other side I’ll write down the information on the Cohen girl. But you have to see me first, you understand?”
“I’m going to recommend they drop the charges against you.”
“Even though I want them to charge me?”
I examined the card. Only now I saw her name was Sepha Katsir, not Golda Meir, just as it was when she’d introduced herself in the hospital. Katsir, Meir. Anyone could make that mistake.
“Don’t you want to know why I want to see her?” I asked.
“Do you want to tell me why?”
“I don’t know why.”
“Then perhaps we should find out.”
And with that, she crushed her cigarette in the ashtray and waved me out of the room.
I wasn’t going to even write about what happened the other day, but it happened, and therefore it’s history, and you don’t hide history or try to change it, unless you’re Stalin or something. I know that history is supposed to be written by the winners, but it seems to me that is not a good approach. Take the Bible. It’s the first history, but it’s actually told by the losers, since in the end the Israelites are expelled from their own land and they have to go to Babylon, as in, by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept (psalm whatever), and I think it’s because they’re so weepy that the writing is so good. Take the story of David. The way poor King Saul gets written about, it’s like he’s an idiot and a maniac, because you think, well, it was written by David’s guys. But by the end, David looks more like the idiot and maniac, even though he’s supposed to be the hero. Point: there comes a time in everyone’s life when only the truth will do, and you have to look reality square in the eyes. This is one of those times. Also, when you look into the past, you see the future. This is physics.
So this is what happened. As per usual, Pop was lying on the couch with a bowl of prostokvasha on his lap (translation: disgusting homemade clabbered milk that Babushka still makes), and his sweat suit stunk like the Carmel fish market, and his socks were absolutely despicable on the bottom because he insists on walking into the garden with them on, and here it was two in the afternoon, and I was already back from school because it was Friday, and I said to him, Pop come on, let’s DO something, even though to be honest, I don’t usually want to do that much stuff with him. I’m fine, he said, go have fun, I’m working. But of course he wasn’t working. He acts like he’s working but he hasn’t done anything for weeks. So I said, Let’s go see Ramat Ginsberg. Ramat Ginsberg is the new neighborhood where he is supposed to be building this amazing house for the guy who invented Kree, the moronic video game, and I know he was very focused on it before the bombing, but of course he hasn’t mentioned it since. So I said, “I bet it’s already built by now, and wouldn’t it be great to see it?” “They built it? What the fuck? Who told them to? Bladt! Bladt! Bladt!” (Sorry, but I’m going for historical accuracy.) And I said, “I don’t know, maybe we should check it out?” But Pop’s driving the car is not a great idea, at least not yet, as you will see when I finish telling everything. So I told him I was going to call Yehudah. Yehudah is our driver. Not like our driver like we’re rich, but just when Pop is away, Yehudah is the one who drives me, and also he takes Pop to the airport or whatever. Basically, he owns his own cab. I also suggested Pop take a shower or at least wash off the effluvium from the corners of his mouth - It’s Latin, I explained. However, about fifteen minutes later he emerged in actual clothing. He had on his khakis and a pressed, hunter green short-sleeve shirt, the kind of thing he wears only when he wants to look very official, and his hair was combed, and his teeth appeared to be brushed. Then he pointed to his pants and shirt and said, “Is this okay?” I couldn’t answer, and he said, “That bad?” But it wasn’t bad. It was beautiful. The way flowers that open up suddenly are beautiful. I thought it would be best if I just went ahead and called Yehudah.
When he showed up at the door, Pop naturally said, “I don’t know why you’re here. I can drive myself.”
“I don’t know either,” Yehudah said, “but I’m here, so get in.”
And off we went. Ramat Ginsburg is north of us, not exactly on the coast, but it’s ritzy, or at least it’s going to be. It’s not skyscrapers, it’s mansions, which is the new thing. They named it after the poet Allen Ginsberg, which is quite ironic if you ask me, because A) he was a Buddhist, and B) mansions? But he once visited the moshav that used to be there and so when the moshavniks decided to become developers instead of farmers they insisted on “Ramat Ginsberg.” That is Israel in a nutshell.
Anyway, it used to be orange groves, but now it’s just dirt and junk in various states of construction.
“I thought you said they finished it,” Pop said.
“I guess I was wrong,” I replied.
In fact, all they’d done was put in the foundation and then left it, and it was like a dried up river bed down there, cracked earth and broken concrete.
Pop began his walk around the property – the architect walk, I call it – and as usual I went with him. We strolled to where the back of the house will be, and Pop knelt down and I knelt down with him, and he touched the earth with his fingers and I touched the earth with mine. Pool goes here, he said. Gazebo there. I saved some of the orange trees, he said, and we’ll replant them here. The client likes his juice.
He actually smiled at the thought of this rich Jew and his fresh orange juice, and I thought… but then he stood up and said, Okay, let’s go home. Suddenly I got the idea that I was incredibly hungry, so I cried, “Let’s get ice cream!” To which, of course, he replied, “No.” “Okay,” I said, “but what if Yehudah drops us at the movies? We can always take a cab home.” Pop said he was tired and there was nothing good playing anyway. “But I’m so bored,” I said. “Aren’t you just bored to death?” “No,” he said, “I’m not bored. I’m tired.”
But then something happened. Something I cannot explain to this day. He yelled, “What was that?”
“What was what?” I said.
“In the sky.”
“There – what the fucking hell was that?”
“What?” I said.
“Don’t you see it?”
“It’s clouds,” I explained.
“It’s not clouds! For God’s sake, it’s not clouds - he won’t stop looking at me!”
And then – wham! – he fell down. He just slipped off the edge of the concrete and fell into the open foundation. I didn’t know what to do. It was like my voice got lost somewhere in my throat. He was lying there in that hole, and I wanted to say something, but I just couldn’t. I should have said something. I should have done something. But. I don’t know, all I could think was: he fell. And he was so, I don’t know, fallen.
I think I started to sweat because I was a little dizzy, but then just like that he stood up, brushed himself off, and reached his hand up to me. He was shaking, I think, and his eyes were red, and there was mud on his face. Come on, he said, help me up and let’s get the hell out of here. Finally I could do something. I put my arm around him and I think I was actually holding him up, because he was so heavy, but my own legs were shaking like crazy, too.
Finally I said to him, Abba, what were you looking at? What were you yelling about? I wasn’t looking at anything, he said.
But he was looking at something. And he fell.
That’s how it happened. That is history. And it is not so easy to write this kind of thing.
Copyright © Michael Lavigne 2013
Excerpted from the forthcoming book, The Wanting, to be published in February 2013 by Pantheon Books, an imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. This book may be purchased through Barnes and Noble.
Michael Lavigne was educated at Millersville State College and the University of Chicago, where he did graduate work on the Committee on Social Thought. His first novel, Not Me, was the recipient of the Sami Rohr Choice Award for emerging Jewish writers, and was an American Library Association Sophie Brody Honor Book. He lives in San Francisco with his wife.