(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Jonathan Wilson
Secular, tolerant, sun-soaked Tel Aviv was one of the world’s favored destinations for gay travellers, and the Hilton beach was its epicenter. But this majority gay stretch of sand was home to all, and most days it was crowded with a happy mix, individuals of all inclinations and ages, splashing, tanning, showering off the salt, flirting, digging, kicking soccer balls. Everything and everyone worked free and loose made its way to the Tel Aviv coast, as if someone had lifted the little country and tipped it sideways so all that was unattached rolled there.
Ben Corrin was unattached. His ex-wife, Laura, had long ago abandoned their apartment in Carroll Gardens and last year, while following a New York Times travel section “36 hours in…” itinerary with a friend, she had met a guy from London. She had stayed seventy-two hours: now she was living there. They remained in touch, nothing much had gone wrong with the marriage, except that in the early years Corrin had been absent for weeks on end. At first his job had seemed glamorous to Laura, later she said it was like being married to a sailor. By the time he was back on domestic duty they were too deep into isolation and their own lives. One night in the Cobble Hill movie theatre they tried to hold hands, but both somehow realized that all they wanted to do was let go. There were no kids, so that made it easier.
They exchanged emails from time to time. Laura had opened an antique store on the Fulham Road not far from her new home in Chelsea. At intervals she scoured French flea markets, returning with a van full of furniture to flip. Her new guy, Giovanni, an exile from Milan, and her junior by a decade, was the community manager on a social networking site. He made a lot of money. He stayed put.
Corrin looked around. A thin sliver of moon, the gleaming edge of a tin can, weakly silvered the night and three stars blinked in the encroaching darkness. He was alone on the beach except for two young men playing paddleball on the stained apron of sand where the surf rolled in. They volleyed with extraordinary ferocity, until one of them missed his shot and dove into the sea to retrieve the ball.
It was Friday evening; observant or not, most of the city’s inhabitants were at home enjoying their Sabbath dinners. Corrin had arrived fifteen minutes early for his appointment. While he was waiting a helicopter churned overhead and a navy patrol boat moved fast up the coast. That morning the Israeli air force had shot down a drone launched from Lebanon on what might have been a reconnaissance mission. Sheikh Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, had promised more and similar forays into enemy territory. Corrin had briefly contemplated pitching the story to Sonia Faleiro, his producer in New York, but the event would, he knew, barely register on the American seismograph. A new Hezbollah formula and treatment for erectile dysfunction might catch someone’s attention. Otherwise, nothing less than Armageddon would do.
He spotted her, still wearing the same black outfit, as she emerged from the rear door of the hotel and took the steps, then a pathway down to the beach.
“Seems a strange place to meet,” Corrin said as she drew close.
“It’s the scene of the crime,” she replied, “I thought you might want to get acquainted with the place.
Corrin looked around, the waves lapped softly on the beach; in the hotel, yellow rectangles blinked on and off as residents moved in and out of their rooms, the moon dipped behind a cloud, as if it had failed to find what it came to shine on.
“I’ve made no commitments,” he said.
The woman’s name was Janine. She had been waiting for him when he exited the elevator into the lobby on the morning after he had seen her in the square. She didn’t have long to talk; she worked as a liaison for cultural events and she had to escort the visiting Russian baritone from the Mariinsky over to the opera house for a rehearsal. Her brief was short and to the point. Eighty years ago her grandfather had been implicated in the murder of Marek Perloff, an esteemed Jewish political figure in the Yishuv, the Jewish-state-in-waiting: he had been arrested and later released, but a pall still hung over his name. In 1983 a government investigation had re-examined the case, found no new evidence, and left things as inconclusive as before. Corrin was a well-known American journalist, she understood from a friend at the Beach Club that he had more or less nothing to do and spent his days boozing and ogling girls (she had smiled). Would he help her?
It hadn’t hurt, of course, that she was pretty. She was petite, thin but not too thin, her dark hair, parted slightly off-center, reached to her shoulders, and fell in a fringe across her forehead. She had large brown eyes, a small nose, and lips with too much red on them. She looked young, but Corrin guessed she was in her early to mid thirties. Corrin didn’t exactly specialize in damsels in distress (if that’s what she was); emotional distance, a reporter’s objectivity, or at least its appearance, was more his style. Still, he was susceptible. The Russian singer emerged from the elevator. “I’ll fill you in,” Janine had said, and quickly suggested the Hilton beach rendezvous. Then she was gone.
They stood now together on the beach, Janine removed her sandals. She traced a line with her toes in the sand.
“Perhaps here,” she said. “Perhaps right here,” and then she began to describe the events of that night eighty years ago with the kind of detail that was either the result of her own meticulous research or a fecund imagination. Through her, Corrin felt the warm air of a balmy spring night in 1933, saw thirty-four-year-old Perloff in his dark trousers and short-sleeved powder blue shirt, and Perloff’s wife, Hannah, standing beside him in a white summer dress. Corrin saw Perloff’s body, angular, tall, with round tortoise shell glasses perched on a long thin nose, and plump Hannah, a year younger than her husband, the sea breeze blowing though her soft brown hair. Corrin lost himself in the story.
This is their second outing of the evening; on their short walk before dinner two men had passed them. Now it is dark, and here again are two men. One of them shines a flashlight in their faces and asks Perloff, in Hebrew, for the time. It is the night of a new moon, like tonight, and the stars are dim under invisible clouds. Before Perloff can answer, the other man shoots him twice in the chest at close range. Hannah screams. The men run south down the beach. “Towards Jaffa?” the police will ask her later, but Jaffa is four miles away. Hannah cries for help. She kneels over Perloff, presses her face into his neck and shoulder, begs him not to die. A crowd gathers. The sand absorbs the dying’s man’s blood before police or medical help can arrive, and then the tides come to wash and salt the shore. Afterwards she remembers the two men who passed them earlier in the evening. Were they the same men? She can’t be sure.
“He died here?” Corrin asked.
“No,” Janine said, “He bled to death in hospital two and half hours later.”
“And the killers?”
“They ran away.”
Corrin looked around. The paddleball players had packed it in for the night. Now there was only the surf lapping on the sand and the inevitable thud of helicopter rotors as the night patrol made its way along the coast. What did this distant murder have to do with him? What did she want?
Janine continued with her story, but Corrin was only half listening now: political splits, false accusations, false confessions, a trial, a second trial, a judgment, acquittals, a residue of bitterness up to this day. In his distracted state it was too much for Corrin to take in. He wasn’t even sure which character in the story was Janine’s grandfather.
“Listen,” he finally said, “can we meet again, somewhere else, a bar, maybe a restaurant or something? I don’t want to make you repeat yourself but I’m just not getting everything. I’m sorry. I’m tired.”
“From what?” Janine said.
“From…from the day.”
“How about tomorrow?”
“Sunday would be better.”
Janine didn’t immediately respond.
“I mean this isn’t a matter of great urgency, is it?” Corrin said.
“Isn’t it?” Janine replied. “I think the truth is always a matter of great urgency.” She named a coffee place on Dizengoff near his hotel.
“I know it,” Corrin said. “One o’clock?”
The lacerating sun fell through the blinds in dark stripes across Corrin’s back. He lay face down in bed next to Keitlin who was sitting up checking her Facebook page on Corrin’s laptop. For the third time that week at the close of the hotel’s Happy Hour he and the Hungarian waitress had lingered on the rooftop bar. There, they took in the panorama: three skyscrapers in the distance, a cube, a rectangle and a square, and closer, low buildings crouched in near darkness as if waiting to move stealthily towards the grey line where the sky met the sea. As the sun set they finished off half empty bottles of wine and a plate of crumbling cheese and crackers before heading for the elevator. When they reached Corrin’s floor he’d said, “See you Tuesday,” but this time Keitlin had got out of it with him and now here they were. Keitlin was an energetic lover. “You are one violent Magyar,” Corrin had said as she pinned him to the bed and bounced up and down on his cock, “Don’t break my hands.”
Corrin had his face in the pillows but he could hear Keitlin laughing to herself from time to time as she scrolled through her Timeline. After a while she closed the laptop.
“Why did the Russian give you the ticket?” she asked. “You told me you didn’t give a shit about opera. He should have given it to me.”
“It’s for a rehearsal.”
“So. I’d like to go. Ask him for another one. Take me.”
Corrin got out of bed and turned on CNN. Things were heating up on the Syrian border. For a fleeting moment he regretted that he was away from the action. Perhaps he would get the call? Run up to the Golan. Pick a spot by the fence—next to a tank would be good. Plumes of smoke in the distance as Assad slaughtered his own population with air and missile strikes. But Wolf Blitzer had already moved on to something else. It wasn’t like Tahrir Square. Nobody could get into Syria, and if the journalists couldn’t get in, and there were no visuals, then it wasn’t really news.
“They’re all fucked,” Keitlin said, “the whole lot of them, turn it off.” She got up and headed for the bathroom. “I’m going to have a shower,” she said.
Corrin heard the squeaky turn of the faucet and then the rush of water. He set himself against the pillows and took up his laptop. He googled Marek Perloff: there were pages of entries. He figured he’d start with Wikipedia but another heading caught his attention. Zionist Noir - When Marek Perloff Pulled a Gun on His Lover Who Dated Goebbels. Its author had added the following: Here’s a post about the fact—is it a fact?—that Maya Friedlander, who married Joseph Goebbels, had dated Zionist leader Marek Perloff, that Perloff fell into a rage when he found out she was also seeing a Nazi official and pulled a gun and fired at her, not hitting her. Corrin scrolled down gingerly. For some weeks the back of his hand had felt inflamed from too much time on the keyboard.
The post about a post had raised a rash of responses. There were challenges, dates, a tart back and forth on whether Myra’s Jewish stepfather had or had not died in Buchenwald. How old was he when he died? The record said eighteen, but that was impossible, he was either forty-eight or fifty-eight. As for Perloff, some said there had been no affair with Magda at all, only a friendship. As for his a shooting at her, pure fiction, she was his sister’s high school friend. Perloff had a crush on her. There was no evidence beyond that. Then there were posts in Polish, German and Russian, and one in Hebrew. Corrin was about to click on “Translate” when Keitlin stepped out of the shower. She had wrapped one thin white towel around her body and another was piled in a turban on her head.
“This fucking hotel,” she said. “These towels are like napkins.”
She moved to the bed and sat up next to Corrin. “What are you looking at?”
“Jewish history,” Corrin said.
“Give me a break.”
Outside in the corridor someone was running a vacuum cleaner over the carpet.
“I can’t leave until they do,” Keitlin said. “No one can see me.”
Soon it was dark. The open window revealed nothing. They sat on the bed and listened to the building cacophony of rush hour traffic. The local drivers were impatient, punitive; a small hesitation at the lights triggered an immediate blast on the horn. Keitlin unwrapped the towel from her hair and pushed her hand through its short blonde spikes.
“When’s the Boris Godunov rehearsal?”
“Tomorrow at five.”
“If you want to fuck me again you’d better give me that ticket.”
“Oh, that’s how it is,” Corrin said. “But what if it’s not good enuv?”
“Never mind,” Corrin said. “I was making a joke. Godunov. Good enough.”
“What are you talking about? Don’t make any more jokes.”
Corrin watched Keitlin struggle into her black tights and pull her waitress dress over her head. And then, as if to dispel any thoughts he might have had that deep down she was anything other than a softie, she came to the bed and kissed him gently on the forehead.
“You’re not a bad man,” she said.
“How would you know?” Corrin asked.
As soon as she had left Corrin returned to the Perloff websites. He was hooked now. To judge by what he was reading, Mandatory Palestine had been riven by the murder and its aftermath, and the chasm had only widened as the years passed. The entire political structure of contemporary Israel had its foundation in animosities between Labor Zionists and Revisionists cemented in place by the killing of Perloff. The Left was convinced that the Revisionists had been responsible, while the Right preferred a narrative in which Perloff was not even the target, but simply a husband who got in the way of two Arab men intent upon sexually assaulting his wife.
Corrin read until his hand hurt so much from scrolling down that he had to stop. The inquiry in the 1980’s into the case had been precipitated by the publication of an investigative book by an Israeli journalist: tension simmering for sixty years had come to a boil. The prime minister, Begin, a Revisionist himself, had ordered up the commission of investigation. The results, as Janine had said, were as inconclusive as the trials. Blame could not, with any certainty, be laid anywhere.
Corrin fell asleep. In Jaffa the waves broke gently in the bay and smoothed Andromeda’s rock. Corrin was ten, walking with his father, who had never set foot in Israel, on the beach. The sun appeared fixed, unmoving in the sky. His father reached his hand out to cover Corrin’s head, then bent down and kissed his cheek. Corrin felt the stubble on his father’s cheeks harsh against his skin, and on his breath, onion and cheese from his lunch. In the port city the walls bled flowers from their crevices. Corrin’s father led him up a stone stairway to a hostel, pretending to stop and admire the view — a cloudless sky, heads of palm trees bent by the wind — when in reality he was catching his breath. The hallway was cool. Corrin touched his lips to the stone wall. Then they were back on the beach. Corrin’s father wore a straw trilby with a black band and a thin blue seersucker suit. In Chicago, where he worked as lawyer in the Loop, he had never dressed like this; he looked like every other conative man on his way to the office. But here they were immigrants, new arrivals, out of place. They walked north in the shadow of red cliffs. “Look up,” Corrin’s father said. There was an old Arab cemetery at the top of the sea wall that rain and the salt air had eroded. Stone graves poked out of the clay. His father pointed and Corrin saw the bones of the dead, ivory in the sunlight, stuck in the mud of the wall, one skeleton with its head and shoulders half out of its tomb, like a man trying to push himself up. The authorities had covered the area with a net to prevent the bones from littering the beach. The waves crashed on the rocks in the harbor, and the air, which Corrin’s father had promised would be fragrant with orange blossom, smelt like dead fish.
When Corrin woke up, the dream was there; then, in a moment, all that remained of it was a memory of loss, unmoored to any object or person. He rose and stood at the window. Down below on the street a few small boys rode bicycles, skidded, stopped, executed a variety of spin moves, yelled at one another. The evening was warm and the air heavy.
Copyright © Jonathan Wilson 2014
Jonathan Wilson’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, The New York Times Magazine and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. In 1994 he received a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship. His fiction has been translated into many languages including Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese and Uyghur. Wilson is the author of eight books: the novels The Hiding Room (Viking 1994), runner up for the JQ Wingate Prize, and A Palestine Affair (Pantheon 2003), a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Barnes and Noble Discovery finalist and runner up for the 2004 National Jewish Book Award; two collections of short stories, Schoom (Penguin 1993) and An Ambulance is on the Way: Stories of Men in Trouble (Pantheon 2004); two critical works on the fiction of Saul Bellow; a biography, Marc Chagall (Nextbook/Schocken 2007), runner-up for the 2007 National Jewish Book Award and Kick and Run, a memoir. Wilson lives in Newton, Massachusetts. He is Fletcher Professor of Rhetoric and Debate, Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University.