True Stories

Random memories mesh together to create a character. This one happens to be real; a 26-year-old Israeli boy studying film in NYC. (As with anything, it's best to start at the beginning. Go to the archives...) Copyright 2006

Sunday, August 27, 2006

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.
He laughed.

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.


  • At 2:25 PM, Blogger itinerant_tee said…

    hey, where did you go? i miss reading your true stories.

    formally known as Cali_t
    (the here and now)

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