The First Time That He Died
By Susan Dickman
The first time that he died, he had been sitting in a café on the Street of the Prophets in Jerusalem pondering the name of his wife’s lover—Daniel? David? How could he forget when he himself had brothers with those names?—and trying to work out when it was that he had discovered the lover’s existence. It was August, the month of heat and mourning, white light at daybreak, a scant few weeks until back to work. Construction and destruction, jackhammers breaking up the rock that stood in the way of new roads yet to come, foundations planted in the red-brown sand that passed as earth. He sipped his iced coffee, stroked the beaded water on the outside of the glass, and tried on each name. Daniel. David. Perhaps a nicknamed variation of one or the other. The backup warning beeps of backhoes streamed through the atmosphere. Spoons against ceramic stirring cream into tea, rolls breaking open, throat-clearing coughs that were preludes to unwelcomed pronouncements, a radio as sound swerved through the air and disappeared. And tires, of course; for the rest of his life he’d be aware of the distant screeching of tires.
He could not recall when he had first heard his wife’s hushed tones thrust into her cellular phone. His wife with a cellular phone; that brought a smile to his lips as he imagined her hand, nails flashing red (when had she begun painting her nails? or did someone else do it for her? was she now paying for manicures?) as she uneasily held the awkward piece of plastic she’d felt unnecessary but was compelled to use once he bought them a matching pair. Was it during the winter rains of December, or two months later, around his forty-second birthday?
His table faced the traffic, on the east side of the street, magenta bougainvillea snaking up a whitewashed outer kitchen wall where he was privy to the flush and roar of water. Stainless steel pots banged deep into stainless steel sinks already stacked early in the day with dirty plates, the clang of cups hitting saucers, the shouts and curses of cooks and servers, and wings of helicopters above, while steam hissed and wheels rolled beneath the buzz of café chatter.
The car, a nondescript white Volvo, had arrived from the farthest reaches of that proverbial nowhere, province of fairytale, ancient myth, raw magic—to lose control and loose itself on the crooked street and café, plowing into three wrought-iron chairs, one café table, a waiter carrying a tray of ice cream sundaes in celebration of a grandfather’s arrival from Russia, and a baby carriage, complete with sleeping infant. The baby was whisked out of her sleep and into the smoke-filled air. The mother survived but was never to regain herself. The grandfather dreamed, in that flash of insight that passes as prescience, of the tales of his grandfather’s pogroms.
“Daniel,” the man finally decided as the glass he was lifting to his lips shattered and his spirit rocked hard against his body.
The second time he died was seven years later with a girl who had taken him into the desert. In a self-imposed exile from his life, he had impulsively driven to the bottom of the country where the heat stung him and the view of red mountains of another country across the skinny strip of water filled him with intrigue, though he had witnessed the entire scene many times before as a child. He arrived by the dinner hour, then sat on the beach until after dark and rented a room at a swank hotel where Europeans played year round but especially in winter, crawling over the sunlit reefs in snorkeling gear in search of the elusive sun-tailed fish and rainbow coral and the searing heat that belonged to the meeting of the mountains and the sea, and the fabled red caverns far inside the desert that secreted water in hidden springs.
“I am entering into my own mythology, don’t you see?” he had mused to his travel companion, who was exactly half his age, as their bus trundled out of town and along the desolate road, quieting its inhabitants, who needed to stop speaking in order to fully take in the duplicate sets of jagged red mountains surrounding them.
The girl, a banker from Helsinki, nodded and told him about her grandmother’s tales of the north witch, who lived beneath the ice and blew frost on the windowpanes, icing the glass. “Like this,” she gestured dramatically, depicting wild hair, pointed teeth and narrow darting eyes. “Everyone believes in her, even the intellectuals.” She puffed moodily on her cigarette.
“That is exactly how I’ve imagined the god of the desert,” he answered, knowing that she had no clue what he was talking about. He had met her the night before as he sat at the hotel’s bar wondering what to do, now that he had fled his life. The beer at his lips tasted like cardboard; he was entirely unused to alcohol. Behind him the glitter of the dance floor filled and waned, and somewhere in between watching a bout of pro wrestling and the ending of Mad Max, he spotted the girl from Helsinki at the end of the bar reading The Scarlet Letter.
“I never finished it in high school,” she had confessed mournfully. “I lied to my teacher and cheated on the exam.”
“Is it any more palatable now?” he had asked, and when she shook her head no, he instantly felt empathy for the girl. He also knew from the beginning that empathy and loneliness was the extent of what they would share.
She was small-boned and dark with luminous eyes and a serious expression on her face even when she smiled. She seemed years older than she was and explained that she had always been overly grave, especially as a child. “The world has always worried me,” she told him without guile as they packed their bags and hailed a taxi to the bus station. “Its speed, its complexity.” She rubbed her forehead as if to erase a crease that began at the hairline and disappeared at the bridge of her nose. “Too many varieties of sound.” They sat in silence watching the landscape waver in the heat, the date palms fluttering.
She shrugged when he asked her why she had come; he had assumed it was the draw of the heat, the snorkeling, the red rock landscape. “I had wanted to see the point on the beach where two countries meet,” she had explained. “But it was really nothing special.” They had left the bar together the night they met to hole up in her room where, once she closed the door, she undressed and slipped into bed, still a tight grimace of concern on her face. All night they lay wrapped up in one another, he still in his clothes, a business suit he had foolishly decided on the previous morning when, on the way to work, he had turned left instead of right and entered the highway traffic leading south, bypassing the city, his turnoff, and his job.
The next morning they rose early and took a taxi to the station where they caught a bus that dropped them at an oasis near the beach. Their backpacks filled to bursting with bottles of water, bread, cheese and tinned vegetables, they turned away from the sea’s direction and itinerant hippies bathing naked in the sun, and began trudging a worn path that snaked through an outcropping of rocks and beyond that, the stretch of desert he had traversed as a child during Tsofim, Israeli Scouts. Half a day’s walk from the bus stop or the beach, they would monitor their water supply and sleep beneath a pool of stars where the sky was clear at night, and he would show her a cave in the side of a mountain where he had, as a child, heard the voice of God.
“Like Abraham,” he had said, brushing his lips against her shoulder as they walked in the silence of the afternoon. “The voice in the desert.” And she suddenly remembered the old story from the one year she had been sent, on the advice of her stern Protestant grandmother, to Bible school on Sundays.
The winter sun was warm during the day but at night the wind came down with a vengeance. They found his childhood cave, but of course it was far smaller than he had remembered and filled with rubbish, so they slept outside near the fire and he made love to her with an abandon that he had not felt since he was twenty. But when he heard her cry out, he could not recall her name. Hours later, he thought of calling his wife, whose name he did remember, but when he fished his cell phone out of his pack he realized it had gone dead. He watched the planets in their perambulations circling and circling like hawks. A shooting star entered the tilting sky from his left visual field, falling like a swathe of fire. His body went suddenly alive and then dead as he recognized the vast silence that surrounded him.
The last time that he died he was visiting his ancient Aunt Ruth, who had immigrated to Israel from Vienna at the turn of the century. They sat in the old age home’s garden of broken tiles and creeping vines, cypress trees that normally grew in cemeteries. An orphan by the age of ten, she still spoke sniffingly of the fine linens in her mother’s closet, the quality of their featherbeds. He hardly had to speak when he made his monthly visit; a box of chocolates opened the tarnished gates of her memories and she picked away at them like they were a collection of wounds, lingering lovingly over the happiest and wrestling with the darkest, shouting into the hot autumn winds the old injustices she had endured at the hands of her family. He nodded occasionally in her direction and watched the old-timers being wheeled from one spot of sun to another; a demented man absorbed in the play of light on his fingertips; Filipino nurses attached to inmates trading cigarettes and stories on the stone benches near a decrepit stone fountain. Old people in an old land, it occurred to him, old souls with broken backs. At once lines from a Natan Alterman poem memorized in high school ambushed him from nowhere:
--Silently the two approach
Are they of the quick or of the dead?
He glanced up, half-expecting to see two figures standing in the slant of late afternoon light that filtered through his fingers. Hot like ice, his mother liked to say about the relentless heat, the Middle Eastern light. Her eyes fierce, she compared it always to the gold light of her childhood, stained as it was with nostalgia.
Aunt Ruth had ceased her chatter, pausing to gather the strength and breath to continue her tirade at a later time. She pulled at the cigarette he had handed her and closed her eyes, the autumn sun weakening steadily as the winds gathered substance and crept towards the end of the day. They were coming into their season, moving in from the south where the desert began, scattering dried leaves across the tiles and into the dormant flower beds of spring. The scent of rosemary growing wild along the walkways reached him, and he saw that his aunt had fallen asleep, her head tipped back, mouth slightly open. His gaze lingered on her several moments longer, studying her features as he imagined how death would one day creep into her face. She was the very last of the aunts, a leftover relic tethering him to a frayed cord that reached back across a map of Europe that was a mystery to him, the stuff of storybooks. A dark forested landscape of fairytale castles and cities atop rolling hills turned brutal, spitting out leftover bits of humanity like his aunt and mother, sending them east into the desert to begin anew.
He finished his cigarette and briefly put a hand to his aunt's hair, dyed the past forty years the color of straw. The wind was picking up, a signal for the Filipino nurses in their starched uniforms to begin wheeling patients down the stone path towards the common room for afternoon tea and bread and jam. They took no notice of the old woman lingering near the rosemary or the puzzled man sitting awkwardly beside her, staring into her somnolent face. He leaned over, pressed an ear to his aunt’s lips, and rose, retrieving the cigarette from her yellowed fingers. Then he crushed it beneath a stone and continued walking, his shadow trailing after him into the late autumn light, neither quick nor quite dead.