A true story about houses and vacations
My seventeenth summer was shaping out to be my happiest ever. It didn’t take much, just the sun and a bit of promise, and though perhaps it was only a temporary settling down of the chemicals in my veins I was still resolved to make the most of it.
My friend Tomi was off to a family vacation abroad and I set out to meet him and his mother hours before their flight. I masked my excitement as I pocketed their house keys, entrusted to me so that I could water their plants and feed their dog. Tomi didn’t want to leave, he felt kidnapped by his family and stolen away from a special summer of creation. I understood his feelings exactly. I wouldn't have wanted to be away.
I was only supposed to drop by once or twice a day but I made Tomi’s home my own solitary apartment. It was really all I ever wanted, to end my nights alone in peace. In the evening I entertained friends, we carelessly threw darts at the wall and left it riddled with holes, and at night I sat utterly naked on their living room couch, muscles clenched, and watched movies. I was on the best vacation I’d ever had.
A few days into my escape my father’s father went into surgery. I was asked to stay at home that day. The operation went on for hours, longer than expected. My mother called with reports. “It’s not looking good.” She said. I allowed nothing to penetrate my rare tranquility. I had never been truly content before that summer. Late at night she called and said “Saba’s dead.” She asked me to put my little brother on the phone. She broke it to him using gentler words, “Saba didn’t make it.” We waited for the family to return from the hospital to my aunt’s house, which was four or five buildings down the block. I felt mild surprise and a stoic sense of beauty. I was swept up by something warm, my eyes sparked and my upper lip curled.
My brother and I walked down the street to my aunt’s home. I craved the solidarity and human embrace I believed I would find there. Entering the house of grief was a shock so horrible I was tempted to turn and run. There was no beauty there, only loud, painful wailing, spit-soaked snotty choking red bloated tears with no dignity to them at all. We were greeted with shrieking cries of “Kids, you have no grandfather!” followed by out-of-tune bellows. The faces of my cousins had been shrunken into raisins. My father and his sister were nearly singing, endlessly repeating “Dad, dad, why did you leave me, why, why, why so soon… dad… why… why have you left me…why…” My grandmother didn’t want to cry, but surrounded by the contagious flood she joined in against her will. The struggle showed in her glistening features. Her mantra was “I’m begging you, have mercy, don’t kill me...I’m begging you, be strong for me…”
My mother was the only one without tears in her eyes. She took me aside with business-like proficiency and said “Your dad’s going to need some help now, otherwise he’s going to fall apart.” He left to another room and I followed. He sat on a bed and kept crying. He was still wearing the blue hospital smocks and his crotch was dotted with a pee stain. I said “Don’t sink in this. You’re dictating the atmosphere out there.” He said “You’ve got a sensitive father. I’m afraid I’m going to break down.” I looked around at all the crying people. I envied them and pitied them. I could never feel anything with such immediacy. I wondered where their stamina came from. I could never cry for more than fifteen minutes without causing myself a bursting headache.
My aunt’s house was chosen to be the house of the Shiva. My father stayed there for seven days. My strength was a weakness in this place of tears, and so I snuck out and back home as often as I could. My father and his sister changed their mantras, and the wails dulled down to mumbles. His was “I took my dad to the operating room, and I kissed him goodbye…I took him to the operating room and I kissed him goodbye…” She had taken my grandfather’s watch off his dead hand and put it on her own. She tapped his watch and repeated her grief poem, “My dad’s watch isn’t running anymore…My dad’s watch isn’t running anymore…”
My friend Roi took over my duties at Tomi’s abandoned house. Alone at my empty home I played my guitar, despite the fact that music wasn’t allowed for thirty days after the death. To absolve myself I wrote a song in honor of my grandfather. I also edited together a rudimentary movie of all the footage I had of my grandfather from family holidays and vacations. I felt justified in breaking the rules of the Shiva for these purposes. I kept slinking back and forth between houses, up and down our street like a sinner.
I sat with my weeping family and pursed my lips. I went home and called the girl I’d loved from afar throughout all of highschool. She was about to leave on vacation with her boyfriend, his family had a summer house in the North of Israel where they could have uninterrupted sex for days on end. I said “I just wanted to tell you that I love you very much.”
She said “You’re so cute.” “I didn’t mean to be cute.”
“You have no idea, that’s really not what I expected to hear.” She said.
I asked my friend Oren what ‘cute’ meant. “Cute is good.” He said.
“I know it’s good, but what kind of good?”
“I don’t know.” He said. “No one knows what ‘cute’ is.”
Life was a mystery, and so was death. I asked Oren when he and my friends were planning on coming over to the Shiva to shake my father’s hand. My brother's friends and my cousins' friends had all made their appearances already.
“Hmmm. I guess we’ll have to come today. A bunch of us are going down to Eilat for a few days tomorrow.”
My stomach clenched. “You’re going on vacation? No one talked to me about Eilat.”
“We didn’t think you could come. You’re sitting Shiva, aren’t you?”
“You know what, I don’t want you guys to come.” I hung up.
They came to the house later that day. It made my father happy. He told them “You guys should all stick together like this, the way I stuck together with my highschool friends.” I grimaced a fake smile. I knew that our house of death was just a stop on their way to their hotel room on the beachside of Israel’s southern summer town. They hugged me with dramatic severity, shook my father’s hand, sat outside with me, smiled, laughed and had a bite to eat.
The Shiva house was full of food. Everybody was either eating, arranging food or making sure someone else was being fed. It was as if the fear that we would all forget to eat in our grief and die of starvation was so powerful that it demanded this constant, vigilant overcompensation. The food arrangements grew in beauty and complexity every day until they resembled a fancy buffet at a joyous event. I counted off the days. Things got better, easier. The crying was sporadic, no longer a wall. A telegram from the operating room offering condolences set off another attack of weeping on the fourth day, but that too died down after a few hours. Laughter was heard in the house.
On the last day of the Shiva I crept home for a break and happened to answer the ringing phone. I was surprised to hear Tomi's voice. I believed for a moment that he was calling from abroad since his family wasn’t due back for another week, but he explained that they’d had to cut their trip short because of his grandfather’s unexpected death. “I’m so sorry.” I said. I meant it in a way that I couldn’t have a week earlier. I wasn’t sorry for his loss, I was sorry for what I believed Tomi was about to endure, but he sounded just fine. His family’s grief was muted and the grandchildren were spared its sights and sounds.
“What did you do here?” He asked. “Did you have a party in our house? My dad thought we were robbed when we came in.”
“I actually haven’t been there in a week.” I said. “My grandfather died too. I’ve been sitting Shiva at my aunt’s.”
“Man, it’s like a plague.” He said.
At the funeral my dad had cried shamelessly. He looked like a sweating tomato. I was uncomfortable on his behalf. He shrugged and said to family and friends “He’s gone.” in the voice of a broken man. Those nights I dreamt that the death house was full of happy people. Everybody who cried during the day laughed at night in my dream. The harder they’d cried – the harder they laughed. My dad told me that his dad had hated nighttime. “He hated the night, he was afraid of it. He wanted it to always be daytime. He told me it was a disaster for him every time the night fell.” I thought, ‘he’d lived with a daily, dependable disaster in his life. No shocks’.
After the Shiva was over I found my father and his sister sitting out on her porch in the dark. They’d finally been allowed to change out of their mourning clothes, with the small ceremonial rips and the stench of a week’s worth of wetness. I was afraid of shining light on them. I asked “Why are you sitting in the dark?” They said, “Our lives are in the dark.” It took them years to heal, but they did. And I went home and counted off the days till senior year began.
The true story of “Defenders of the Convoy” – The Days of No Shame
At sixteen I drafted every single one of my friends to act in my new movie, dramatically titled “Defenders of the Convoy”. My teenage productions were never inspired by emotions, messages, themes or content; they were merely the products of the practical resources at hand. That summer I’d received a small video camera which could shoot in sepia. I’d also spotted a particularly large and barren sandy lot from the window of a bus, which upon inspection proved convincing enough as an endless desert if shot carefully from the right angles. A random collection of cowboy music, Purim cowboy hats, younger brothers’ toy guns and grunge-era plaid shirts sealed the deal: we were making a western.
It was my biggest production yet, involving transportation, catering and make-up for the first time, and it took up every day of my vacation. The hardest scenes called for the presence of the entire cast of twelve, none of whom were as devoted to the movie as I was. I spent as much time wrangling in my wandering friends and quieting everyone down before a take as I did actually making the movie. At times they became bitter, especially when the thick, long sleeved shirts and the fake facial hair became unbearable under the beating sun. For the most part they all had fun and were laughing throughout the day.
I shot and directed my friends from a skeletal script I’d written that contained scene summaries of no more than a sentence or two. There were no real action descriptions and absolutely no text was written for any of the characters; all dialogue was dictated on the spot or improvised heavy with private jokes, and some of the action was accidental as well. It was a bold exercise in experimental filmmaking, and I grew more excited about it with every passing day. I’d close my eyes and see it all on a big screen, exploding onto an avid audience and elevating me out of my unpopular highschool existence.
The production itself broke down to fourteen shooting days. By the thirteenth day, which was the final one featuring the entire cast, exhaustion had set in and the takes dragged on. I decided to allow a break for water and rest in the shade. As the convoy of actors trekked towards the only tree on the lot, one of them wondered aloud who was going to see this movie when it was done. Another one worried, “I think he wants to show it to the entire school”. This stopped them in their tracks.
My friends turned to me, shocked and concerned, and exclaimed “You can’t show this to anyone!” Though I was usually prone to opening my big mouth and leaping blindly into any argument, at that moment I stood still and remained silent; awkward and surprised. They argued around me as I scrambled to understand what was going on. What had they thought? What had made them assume we were making a movie that was meant to be seen by no one? Meanwhile the cast was quitting on me. Fake beards were ripped off, cowboy hats and toy guns discarded.
“This is ridiculous,” one said.
Another said “It’s embarrassing.”
“I never would have done this if I thought someone was going to see it.”
“I only came ‘cause I was bored and everybody else was here.”
“There are no girls in this movie. It’s humiliating.”
“We can’t show this to people at school, everybody will laugh at us.”
It never turned into an argument or a fight because I never said a word. They were sixteen years old, they had girls and sex and popularity on their minds and they were painfully ashamed to be seen running around a vacant lot dressed as cowboys. They’d grown up faster than I had and had learned to be embarrassed years before I had. They picked up the props and left. I stayed put. They felt bad for me, and on their way down the hill turned and said “You should find some other actors. Reshoot your movie.” I bit my lips. There were no other actors. There was no movie.
I left the site of my betrayal twenty minutes after my cast abandoned me there. We were all headed in the same direction but I couldn’t bear to face them. I found the bus stop empty and rode alone in the back of the bus. I’d been careless and had gotten sunburned, my face had a heartbeat of its own in each cheek and my eyes stung. All I wanted was to sleep.
When I got home one of my friends called me. He asked, what are you going to do now? I said, nothing. He said, you have to go on with your movie. You have to finish it. “How can I?” My voice wavered. I hadn’t learned yet to be embarrassed by my amateur endeavors, but I knew well enough to feel scared and ashamed of crying. He said “If you give up on this movie now, it will be the stupidest thing you’ve ever done in your life.” I said nothing, afraid of opening my mouth to a whiny, tear choked response.
I lived alone with my failure for a few days. The limbo was good to me. My friends forgot all about the movie. They had only been along for the ride, and now that the ride was over and done with it freed up their days so they could make the most out of the remainder of their vacation. I maintained my silence until I was sure my voice had steadied. I swallowed my pride, called them up, timidly asked them to come back and agreed upfront to all their demands. They returned to the location happily and never rubbed my nose in it. We resumed shooting and completed the movie under that one condition: that no one would ever see it.
I spent two months editing the footage together into an incoherent jumble which we all found highly entertaining as nostalgia, as friends looking back on silly old times. I loved every minute of it. I never critiqued my own movies at that age; I was proud of my creations. Embarrassingly proud. My chest ached because I could not show the movie to anyone.
The tape was shelved. Later it was lost, inadvertently assuring that I would stay true to my word indefinitely and never allow it to be seen. It was the only movie of mine that I’d ever lost. I still had a tape with scattered scenes from my first project, shot when I was eleven years old, but “Defenders of the Convoy” was gone, along with the days of no shame. It was a matter of a couple of years before shame would suck all the joy and pride out of any exposure on my part. During those years before all was lost I wore that tape down with countless repeated viewings. Towards the end it got so bad at certain points that I could barely see a thing.
A true story lifted from the pages of a thick hardcover faded yellow notebook (excerpts from the lost year)
I wanted to do something extreme so I asked Hadas Karni to pick me up on her way to Yoni’s. “Why’d you sound so surprised when I said I’d pick you up?” Hadas asked. She was barefoot and beautiful, and her car’s crappy cassette-player distorted some already-distorted heavy metal guitar riffs as I told her about the sickness of my days and she understood more than anyone else could, because sometimes she ran away but other times she cut away to make way for the healing. She knew some things about life that I was yet to discover, I hadn’t thought much of her and I’d been wrong, and I realized exactly that when she spoke to me and occasionally turned her face towards mine as she drove us towards Yoni’s house. I was wrong and I wanted to do her right.
Hadas Karni, who fascinated every man around her by dancing and spitting words, who was eaten alive during every silent moment of her life, who plowed the country north and south up and down haunted by her own thoughts, she had the perfect amount of flesh on her and that alone made everything all right. “You all do such great things, you write and play and record and make movies and draw and paint and I do nothing.” She complained.
“You’re a muse.” Yoni smiled to her.
I was sitting on Yoni’s cramped jail-cell balcony with her and with Gil and with one other girl I’d never seen before who’d shown up with seven kilos of marijuana stuffed in her purse and with one other kid with glasses who had randomly slept beside me during basic training almost three years ago and was now a pothead officer who smoked obscenely when away from the base, and I couldn’t even remember whether I’d smoked or not or done something more or done something less but I must have done something because the words rolled on effortlessly and the commas made my friends laugh. I walked alongside Gil on our way to a pizzeria and he told me his stories and I said “I think I’m going to write. I think I’m going to be a writer, I think it’s a crazy way of life.” and Gil said “That’s great, that’s great, being a writer is great.” His voice was very supportive, so supportive that I felt I was already crouched in some back seat of a car with a notebook slamming against my knees and I thought out loud “I’m going to need a backpack.”
We were sitting on the wet grass of a green hill at night overlooking a main road with its swooping bright lights and Yoni said “I’ll make you a backpack.” He added “Nothing we’re going to do is going to be anything like nothing we’ve done.” and we spent some time wrapping our minds around that one but were never surprised when a glance at our watches revealed that the time was twenty seven o’clock at night or thirty eight o’clock in the morning and that morning had arrived without demanding we push any buttons.
Every day brought us closer to strange times; we all had so little faith and so much hunger, we suffered from prison desperation but were also terrifyingly housebroken, sworn lazy people who only knew how to be alone. People disappeared one by one like soap bubbles and my soldier begged of me “Stop it. You’re depressing me.” Cars swished by underneath my guard tower and proved to me that time was not standing still. I talked to Oren and he said “I don’t know… it sounds strange. It sounds strange to me.” I argued, “No, it’s not strange, it’s right.” I called Gil and asked him “What are you doing?” and he laughed and said “Come on… what are we doing…come on…” Then an older friend told us with red solemnity “It doesn’t matter what you plan and how you plan it, reality turns out completely different.”
So we raised potential problems and discussed them and dismissed them, agreeing that everything would be alright. I’d learned to envision sex in a daydream more clearly than ever before, it could happen again for me at any time. So many things were meant to be behind me. Finally the hate was dissipating.
I told Gil “I don’t think this situation will ever change.” He said “I think this situation will change.” I was driving and I pressed the pedal harder and I brought the music up to us with physical presence like a scratchy rug and he said “You’re angry, huh?” I was fighting tears. I wanted to bring Hadas Karni into them but couldn’t, she gently said “Can’t you be a little more specific?” but understood that I couldn’t and said “Okay” and said no more about it. It was very perceptive of her.
I thought ‘the many words chosen to describe the few will only mislead’. With time I could lose sight of me just as poorly. I wanted to say journey or even change, I came up with barely a glance. Tal was in India and missed us all so much. At first it was hard to find my way into his homesickness because all I wanted to do was leave until I realized that it was exactly the reason I craved out. The secret was to be alone amongst others. I imagined myself happy and lost the need for any more pages in the thick old yellow notebook that I had no recollection of buying. Had I lied when I planned it all out? I couldn’t remember the planning either or the lying or whether or not there had been any lies. I’d seen a chance and the pages had rationed out just right.
It lasted for about two days.
A true story about people and god
One of the few rewards that accompanied the rank of sergeant was a slightly lighter load of guard duties and an upgrade to the gate post. Unlike many army rules and regulations this one actually made sense both for the base and its weary sergeants; two years into their service they were preferred over youngsters for manning the gate since their time on the base had rendered most faces familiar, and by then they were usually sick of the extended isolation of guard towers and enjoyed the way human interaction helped pass the time.
Two soldiers were needed to man the electric gates leading in and out of the base. When incoming and outgoing traffic died down to a slow hum the two soldiers would meet midway and talk; conversation was a luxury when it came to guard duty. During the days when I was at the gate my bored soldier would come out and spend time with me and whomever I’d been paired up with. He wasn't officially allowed to hang out at the gate but he couldn't really be caught either, since he could always claim he'd just been passing through. As his commander I could always corroborate his story and say he'd been sent out of the base on some mission or other. And so my guard duties were often shared by him, even on the hottest of days.
On one of these scorching hot summer days, as sweat-spiders crawled down my back under my battle-vest and dripped into a pool in my underwear, I complained to my soldier about the long painful stretch of last days. I was closer than ever to freedom, but angrier and more miserable than I’d ever been before. The sergeant I was paired up with for the shift was a religious fellow, and he hopped up and ran over when he heard my ranting. "What choices do we have?" I spat. "We can either let go and lose years of our lives, or open our eyes and mouths and wade through the shit and let it fill our stomachs. What is this? This isn’t life." My soldier laughed.
The religious sergeant questioned me about the quality of my faith. My soldier grinned, expecting to hear my cynical response. I let him down with a shrug; it was just too hot to argue any point except for misery. The religious sergeant would not let go. He pulled out his cellphone in broad daylight during our shift and dialed his brother, who was an ultra orthodox Yeshiva student.
After a few discreet words with his brother he handed me the phone and I could not say no. My soldier smiled at me.
“So.” A deep voice spoke to me over the phone. “You don’t believe in god?”
“I don’t know.” I said, apologetically. I was strangely void of any fear of being caught breaking the rules with a phone in my hand.
“Where did you come from?” He asked.
“I don’t know.” I admitted. “I don’t have the answer to that one. I’m just a twenty year old kid, that question’s too big for me.”
“Ah.” He said. “But you’re searching for the answer?”
“I don’t believe anybody has the answer.”
“So you’re not searching for it?”
“No, I’m not searching for it.”
“Ah.” He said. “Alright. Well, when you start searching for the answer, you’ll understand.”
“Okay. Here, here’s your brother.”
I handed the phone back to the religious sergeant, whose face glowed in childlike anticipation. “So, what did he say to you?”
“He convinced me.” I nodded solemnly.
The religious sergeant reciprocated my nod, and my soldier laughed. The religious sergeant, who was obviously dimwitted, laughed along with him. I'd spent enough hours in guard towers, alone except for that possible presence of god, to appreciate the sound of other people. It was all so meaningless that it made me perfectly cool and happy.