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

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A true story about some nights

Some nights were better than others, and others were so bad they had to be forgotten; any attempt at capturing their numb desperation would crumple overnight and reveal nothing but words the next morning. I’d been suffering through more and more of those nights during my last months in the army, kept up by nocturnal, slow-motion panic attacks that felt artificial even as they took over my vision like tainted contact lenses shoved into my eyes. When I finally got to shut my stinging eyes I was subjected to dreams that could weigh entire days down.

I dreamt about Gil, and the fact that I had yet to meet his new girlfriend Keren didn’t stop her from joining us there, flesh and blood, slick black hair tied back in a mischievous ponytail, clever narrow eyes and thin lips, so real, so flawed and beautiful. I understood immediately why he loved her. I told Gil I’d dreamt about her and he laughed and wanted to hear it. He was especially curious to hear what she’d looked like since I’d never seen her, and he smiled and said “She doesn’t look like that at all.”, but he wasn’t angry, he was gentle.

In the dream I had done the impossible and outlived the army. I was a free man once again and down on my luck. Gil was well established in this dream world, and since I had inexplicably found myself without a place to sleep I was crashing at the grungy apartment he shared with Keren. And yet it didn’t feel like a young couple’s apartment, more like the stuffy home of grandparents. It was furnished in rich mahogany and had couches upholstered in a foggy green that matched the wall to wall carpeting. The air stood still in this dark place, and walking through it I constantly felt the tickle of disturbed cobwebs on my face.

I imagined we were about to do something wonderful, an act that would be clean and pure within this cloud of flith, anything that would keep us alive. I had a glimpse of eroticism; one of Keren’s hands stroking me and the other stroking Gil. I sat with them in their old living room and time passed by, shadows moved on the wall and I understood the sun had set. They led me to my room, which felt like it had never been used. It was no bigger than a bathroom, with barely enough space for a grey cot with an army blanket neatly folded on top of it. I lay myself down in mild disappointment and after two hours of dreamless sleep within my dream I was awoken by the gentle brush of Keren’s hand against my cheek.

“Come.” She said, and I felt happiness.
She led me to the kitchen, where Gil sat nervously smoking a cigarette that he hadn’t ashed once. The sight of him was suddenly shocking; his fingers and throat were freakishly skinny, his face worn out and old with liver spots, his eyes sunken in black, his full head of hair nearly gone and his beard caked in white dust. He flashed an apologetic smile, his eyes brimming with embarrassment.

Keren ignored him. She picked a small brown bottle the size of her thumb off the spice rack, pulled me by the arm back into the living room and pressed my head to the couch. The bottle’s cap was an eyedropper. She pulled my eyelids back and dangled the eyedropper over me. Thick brown drops floated down and covered my vision until Keren’s image smiling wisely down at me was obscured by a curtain of brown.

Gil laughed at the dream. I felt he was happy I’d dreamt about Keren. He told me he was happy with her, even though she sometimes brought on horrible depressions. “Two days ago she gave me the worst depression I’ve had in a long long time.” He said. “I was just walking around at night going nowhere for hours. I called you, but I bet you don’t remember. I think you were sleeping.”
“When did you call me?”
“At night.”
My friend had been lost late at night and he’d called me, but I had no memory of it. I’d slept through his pain. The fact that I’d answered my phone, spoken to him and said goodbye without even nearing consciousness was a scary thought.

A few nights later he asked “So, do you want to meet Keren?” I drove to pick the both of them up from the center of Tel Aviv. I’d devoted time to deciding what I should wear, made sure my hair was relatively glued to my scalp and carefully picked out the right music for the ride. Keren looked nothing like she had in my dream. I liked her very much; it was all in her eyes and in her smile, and in her short curly hair. They couldn’t part and both climbed into the back of my cab. I smiled and winked at them through the rearview mirror.

Keren said “Buy me a lollypop.”
Gil said “No.”
Keren said “Pllleeeeeaasseee?”
Gil said “No.”
We stopped for frozen yogurt, my treat. I felt I owed them that much, since I knew I would be leaning on them plenty in our futures. I handed out small plastic spoons. Keren chewed on hers. Gil took it out of her mouth and pried it out of her hand. My smile wavered. I drove her home. They hugged outside my car window, two headless bodies, their shirts lifted above their belly buttons as they stretched around each other and I saw his hairy stomach and her smooth skin.

Back in the car Gil said “Man, I cried last night. Do you know how long it’s been since I cried?” He sounded strangely happy. When I stopped the car under his grandmother’s house he said “If you feel empty… really empty, indifferent to life… that’s the worst. That’s the most dangerous, it’s worse than depression.”
“You know,” I quietly tasted what I was about to say. “I used to live my life thinking that something amazing was going to happen to me. I think now I just live my life because I’m not dead.”
Gil said nothing. I felt horrible. He was finally happy, and I had to leave my dirty thumbprints all over it. Why was I was dragging him down with me? He’d done nothing wrong.
“I’m sorry.” I laughed stiffly.
“You should be.” He said jokingly. “Anyways, thanks for the ride.”
“Are you kidding? Riding in the same car with you is a rare pleasure in this shitty, shitty, shitty life.”

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The true gummy worm tales

At the risk of letting all tension go slack, I’ve always begun the following stories by giving away their endings. I am lucky enough to be able to claim that gummy worms have led me into serious trouble not once but twice in my life. These twin tales are the kind you stay tuned to for their absurd details, not for their thematically linked conclusions. They are self-admittedly stupid stories, the kind that have to be punctuated by a “true story” promise, the kind I wished my life had more of, even if I did have to pay for their existence by spending a week in army jail or by losing a comfortable job. What better reason to sit in jail or lose a job over than gummy worms?

My first run in with gummy worms was as a young soldier. I spent my first few months on the base filling in the role of unit bitch, which meant that in addition to my full roster of guard duties and kitchen duties I was first to be called on for any ‘unexpected duties’. These ‘unexpected duties’, a title comfortably squished into a slick army acronym in Hebrew, were usually quite expected and anticipated months in advance, but they retained their ‘unexpected’ heading because that allowed them to be dumped unexpectedly upon any soldier without him being able to argue against them.

I was rewarded with my fare share of ‘unexpecteds’, which were usually chilly mornings spent guarding bus stations and parking lots where massive soldier pick-ups took place. All of these soldiers I was protecting were armed to the teeth and, unlike myself, trained in combat, but officially I was there to guard them as they got on their buses to their bases. Also dubbed ‘unexpected’ were the grueling Passover cleaning duties at the base kitchen, where we mopped the ceilings with soapy brooms and actually blow-torched every corner to assure the base Rabbi that no microscopic morsel of leavened bread was left behind. That the army habitually considered this annual holiday to be an ‘unexpected’ event was, quite ironically, not even close to being the most ironic example of military distortion that I came across during my service.

Another perfectly expected event that lent itself to an ‘unexpected’ duty was the occasional overnight visit by the Israeli version of “Air Force One”. Army laws required that a guard be posted outside of the empty aircraft at all times, but specifically prohibited the guard from being armed. This guard wasn’t there to stop the enemy; that was the duty of the guards placed on the base borders. The plane’s guard was given a chair which he was allowed to sit on for ten minutes every hour on the hour, a walkie-talkie and brief orders to stop any other soldier from touching or boarding the plane. As if anybody ever came anywhere near the airstrips at three in the morning, and, more importantly, as if anybody cared. There was no glamour to the Israeli “Air Force One”, and there was no glamour to being the plane’s personal guard on a freezing winter night.

So there I was, walking circles around a grade-school chair perched under a Boeing aircraft and trying to keep what was left of my body heat from slipping away. I was bored senseless. The officer that had hand picked me for this special assignment had known about it for weeks but had conveniently sprung it on me hours before, so I hadn’t even had the opportunity to sneak an illegal book or walkman up to my post. I was bored, I was cold, I was tired and I was miserable. Three hours into my four hour shift my walkie came alive and nearly gave me a heart attack. An indifferent soldier from the war room informed me I would have to fill in for my replacement, at least three hours longer until six o’clock in the morning.

The last paragraph isn’t a description of that moment so much as it is a list of excuses I’ve compiled for myself, just as I did that night. The truth is that a part of me had already made the decision to do something stupid and it was only a matter of time before I gave in to myself. It was a clarity that set me at ease, as if somebody else had cast the die on my behalf. I would peacefully resign myself to playing along with what had to happen, whether it was cutting an entire day of classes at highschool or, as a soldier, boarding the very plane I was commanded to keep anyone away from. I had no choice in the matter.

I had only intended to take a short break snuggled in one of the comfortable first class seats and wait until my teeth stopped chattering. I had no interest in a tour of the plane; I’d seen it many times before and was as bored with it as I was with anything that had to do with the army. I dove into the first seat to the right of the door and closed my eyes. Ten seconds later I opened them so as not to fall asleep. It was then that I noticed them. They were in a thick, black, industrial-strength trash bag that was placed inside a black milk crate seated beside me. I don’t remember what made me peek inside the bag, its exterior hinted at nothing special, but once I had seen them there was no going back. The bag was packed with gummy worms, the most I had ever seen in my life.

I didn’t question the finding. I quickly figured there were way too many gummy worms in that enormous bag for one, two or even fifty of them to be missed, and before I had enough time for the next thought, I was already wrist deep in them. That skipped thought might have been about how bizarre the existence of this treasure trash-bag was in the first place, or maybe about whose gummy worms they actually were, the Prime Minister’s perhaps? I wasn’t thinking at all. I wasn’t hungry, but I was ravenous for those semi transparent rubbery candies.

Luckily for me, I somehow managed to detect the sounds of the nearing patrol jeep over the rattling of chewing between my ears just in time to run out of the plane and around it. As I ran I unbuttoned my pants and made sure I was seen scrambling through buttoning back up as I came around towards the jeep. I did this to support my story, which was that I hadn’t wanted to waste everybody’s time by hailing the patrol jeep and a reserve soldier just so I could pee, so I’d relieved myself behind the plane’s wheel. According to my story, I’d only been gone for a few seconds.

I never learned just how severe the punishment for sneaking on to the Prime Minister’s plane and gorging on the pilots’ favored snack would have been. I was too scared to find out. For abandoning post, even if the wheel was only a few feet away from the chair, I was found guilty and sentenced to a week in jail on my base. The judge was especially lenient, he happened to be one of the officer’s I’d buttered up the most in that short time with precious favors and favoritism. What followed was the most tolerable week from hell I could ever have had. I knew it was a small price to pay for a perfect moment.

It was even better the second time around, because unlike landing in jail this time I was fulfilling that familiar subconscious wish, the wish to be fired. A year into my empty post-military existence I’d given up all hope of finding a good job. It was a hard time for our state’s economy, and a harder time for my state of mind. I’d sent my resume out to every single editing house within the greater Tel Aviv area and landed nothing more than a couple of unpaid internships that never turned into paying jobs or the sporadic wedding and bar-mitzvah editing gig that had me listening to Jennifer Lopez’s “Waiting for Tonight” till me ears bled. A year after I’d sent out hundreds of copies of my resume one studio called me back. It was a television studio located in an ideal walking distance from my house, but they had no need for an editor, they wanted a part time security guard. “But you’ve got my resume,” I said on the phone. “you’ve had it for a year. You can tell I’m an editor, right? It’s what I did in the army.”
“Yeah, but things are bad in the industry these days and there are no jobs, so I thought at least this way I’d be doing you a favor.” The lady said. “Anyway, didn’t you also have guard duty in the army?”
“Well… yeah. I did.”

So there I was, manning the twelve hour graveyard shifts at “Roll studios” with my buttoned down guard’s uniform, my little satellite TV and my little kitchenette for coffee, tea and soup in a cup. There were only two studios at “Roll”, a bigger one for live or live-on-tape shows, either game-shows or talk-shows, and a smaller one for low budget productions with no audience. From eight PM to midnight I had to convey some sense of vigilance while the bad talk-show was being aired; I stood at the door and oversaw the entrance of crew and guests and chatted away with hilarious groupies that would huddle outside the door but always remain respectful of that border. I became familiar with two competing die-hard fans who were not fans of any celebrity in particular but fans of fandom itself. They each had photo albums of themselves posing with any kind of celebrity they could find, and they’d find them all by stalking them outside television studios. They said I was the nicest guard they ever knew, and they hoped I’d stay for a while.

I shared that hope, since after those few hours of activity I got to lock up the doors behind everybody and stay in wonderful solitude in an abandoned building for eight hours straight. I could write, I could read, I could watch satellite TV, I could play my guitar, I could entertain friends, I could do practice SAT tests, I could sleep, I could do it all with the warming knowledge that I was getting paid for every minute of it. Of course I was expected to do none of the above, to remain alert and to patrol the studios and hallways every hour, but I rarely did so. So while in the past boredom had led me to abandon my job and discover the gummy worms, the second time around boredom led me to actually do my job, thereby discovering the gummy worms.

I was bored and tired and had decided to stretch my legs and do one of those patrols that I was required to do but never did. I couldn’t even remember the route I had been instructed to take along the maze of corridors covered in posters for films that had nothing to do with this struggling television studio except create an atmosphere of importance. I enjoyed walking through the two studios; I loved discovering time and time again how differently the sets looked in reality than on the screen, how cheaply painted and poorly constructed they were, how ugly to the naked eye. That night I walked into the smaller studio, which was usually empty, and found a new world had been erected there.

It was the set for a new children’s television show called “Benny’s Attic”, and unlike the larger studio’s shoddy game-show-talk-show sets this one actually looked like an attic. There was an A-shaped slanting rooftop, a nice wooden wall with a small window revealing a blue backdrop of sky hung behind it, a round carpet with the image of the globe on it covered in furniture and beanbags, three or four bookshelves stacked with all the Israeli children’s books I’d read as a kid, and, on the final shelf, three huge jars of gummy worms.

The decision had been made. My reasoning was that I was merely picking the jar off the shelf to pacify a nagging filmmaker’s curiosity; I wanted to know whether those were prop gummy worms or the real thing. They were real. I was like a kid on the set of a candy store. Now it was only a matter of eating enough to cause a stomach ache and then rearranging those that were left in such a way that they would still reach the same height they had before on the side of the jar that faced the camera. It was as I was doing that, with three or four gummy worms hanging out of my mouth, that I was caught by Igor, the stage manager. I have no idea what he was doing in the studio at two thirty in the morning. He’d let himself in through the back door and was staring at me with a cigarette in his hand. I had nothing left to do but say “Want a gummy worm?” to which he replied “No.” in his thick Russian accent.

Three weeks later I was
fired. My boss hadn't even bothered to tell me I'd lost my job. I suppose he thought I already knew as much. I showed up for my shift in uniform and found another uniformed guard sitting behind the desk. I called my boss from the studio’s phone and he said in his cigarette voice “Oh, yes, our relationship has reached its end.” I wasn’t angry; it was with that final act that the gummy worm stories came together.

I’d lost a week and a job but I’d gained two stories. I couldn’t wait to see what price gummy worms would claim on their third visit. I knew I’d be willing to pay more than ever before, because I had learned my lesson: You get what you pay for. Especially when it comes to those slippery chewy yummy conniving snakes I call true stories.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The true story of he, him and I

At fourteen I witnessed the complete mental disintegration of a friend of mine. That he was the most likely candidate for such a breakdown did nothing to make it any less fantastic when it happened right before our eyes. Before his mind collapsed he’d been the classic nerd, as exaggerated as a cartoon character with his gangly features, his bloated lips, his speech impediment that turned his ‘ch’s into sprinklers, his thick framed glasses and his porcupine hair, the way he stuffed his shirts into his shorts and his crooked, curvy posture; ass and belly sticking out and away from each other.

I’d never had a bully growing up. He had many bullies, and I was one of them. I never hit him, but I abused him in every other way possible. I remember why I did it, though I can’t excuse it. I pestered him and picked at him because the sight of him put me to shame. His ineptness at life offended me. I was afraid of becoming him and I was afraid I already was him. Years later my friend Roi told me “You really impressed me with your cruelty.” I was his bully and his friend, which probably made it worse because I felt I had the right to poke fingers into his wounds; I only wanted to make him better.

It happened during the summer between the eight and ninth grade. I was the first one to hear from him, and he was already far gone when he called me. He’d phoned to ask about a Stephen King book I’d described to friends a few days earlier. “I want you to tell me what happens in that book again.” He requested in a mysterious voice that should have had me worried but merely annoyed me. The Stephen King story had to do with an old man who stopped sleeping and began to see auras enveloping people. Later on he could make out evil creatures that severed the auras, resulting in their owners’ deaths. I rushed through the plot impatiently and then asked, “Why did you want to know that?”, fully expecting an outburst of geeky awkwardness for an answer.

Instead he replied “Because it’s happening to me.” in a chilling voice. “What? What do you mean?” I frowned.
“I have to go.” He blurted and hung up. When I tried to call back the line was busy, most likely he’d left the phone off the hook.

I was too perplexed to let it go. I called my friends one by one and asked if they’d noticed anything strange about him lately. The first friend said no, the second said no as well. My third call was to Roi. He answered “Yes!” emphatically. “I just talked to him and he sounded so weird!” I was filled with gratitude; I hadn’t imagined it after all. “What’s going on with him?” Roi asked in fascination. “Let’s call him up and invite him to your house.” I told Roi his phone had been busy for the last twenty minutes. “Yeah, ‘cause he was talking to me.” Roi said.
“What did he say?”
“It was so weird… I’m going to call him up now and tell him to come to your place.”

Roi and I sat in anticipation for half an hour until he showed up. He walked in and decidedly crouched down in the middle of the room in front of us, pressing his ass to his heels. He intertwined his fingers and put them to his lips. “You can have a seat on the couch.” I said, but he shook his head. Roi and I exchanged wide eyed glances. We waited in silence for a few moments. I felt terrified and excited.

“So what’s going on?” Roi broke the silence.
“Hold on.” He spoke slowly. “I think he’s listening.”
“Who’s ‘he’?”
He looked at us and said “He. Him. He.”
“Who’s he?” Roi asked again.
“He can hear and see everything; he’s got an eye in a pyramid and an ear in a cone, but he can’t get me because I know about him now.”
Roi and I exchanged glances again. It was actually happening, and I felt guilty for wanting it to keep going and never stop.
“What are you talking about? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine. I can control my cat without any problems and I think I can control my grandpa too. I have the skills.”
“What do you mean, control your cat?” I asked.
“I can control animals.”
“Do it then.” Roi challenged him. He demanded that he show us his “animal control” over my dog.
“Ok.” He rose to the challenge with utter confidence.

We stepped outside to my street. I let our family’s big German Shepard out and he began idly sniffing away at the neighbor’s hedge and peeing on it in select spots. Our friend walked to the middle of the road and put his pointer fingers to his temples. He closed his eyes and began to shake; it was freakish and creepy. It wasn’t fun any longer. My dog paid no attention to him. Meanwhile his shaking grew more and more violent until it stopped with a start. His eyes popped open, he looked up at the sky and shouted “He’s there! You can’t stop me!”

My heart had skipped a beat. Roi gently laid an arm on his shoulder, and I grabbed my dog by the collar. We stepped back inside. As we walked I heard him say to Roi in a low voice that he couldn’t successfully do these things around me, that I had a “black aura.”
“I heard that.” I said.
“You have a black aura.” He said it again to my face.
“Ok, ok, we’ll go to my place.” Roi said. “He won’t come with us.”
Roi looked at me, he was scared. I had been sufficiently scared myself and was glad to see him go.

A few hours later Roi called me. “What happened at your place?” I asked.
“It was so fucked up… he said he could control the stray cats that hang around in our back yard, so he did the whole thing again, with the shaking, but this time it was way worse, he looked like he was having a seizure, I thought he was going to die. He kept talking about this ‘he’ person or thing. And when some of the cats walked around he started jumping up and down and saying that he just ordered them to do that.”
“Yeah. And he said some weird shit about you, about how your aura was a sickness and how you contaminated everybody in your way.”
“No, I think he’s really lost it. Like really lost it. He’s gone.”
“You think he’s gone?”
“Right now I think he’s gone, yeah.”
“Is he still at your place?”
“No. I probably should have gone with him but he was creeping me out.”
“He’s gone.”

The next day my curiosity once again outweighed my fear and I called his house. His mother answered the phone and said “He’s away for the summer, he’s visiting his cousins in Jerusalem.”
“When is he going to be back?” I asked.
“He’s spending the entire summer there.”
“Wow, he didn’t say anything about that. When did he leave?”
“Two weeks ago.”
“I just saw him yesterday.”
“He’s spending the whole summer there.” His mother ignored me. “You’ll see him in September.”

He hadn’t gone to Jerusalem, he’d been admitted to a mental hospital. He didn’t spend the whole summer there either, only three weeks and then he returned. Roi had aggressively rescued the truth from his younger brother; he’d been diagnosed with a chemical imbalance and prescribed powerful drugs. At first it seemed he was his same old self again, socially inept but not insane. He sheepishly admitted he’d not been to see his cousins but let words such as “mental ward” or “psychiatric drugs” remain unspoken. Roi said “Let’s just not talk about it ever again.” He and I were the only ones to have witnessed the summer episode first hand, and neither of us mentioned it again. It was forgotten.

We grew older and all went to the same highschool. I was no longer his bully; I’d grown too old and had become too self centered to pick on anybody but myself. He never lapsed into insanity again, but as the smoke cleared it was apparent that he was a changed person. Before his breakdown he was a true nerd; he’d dedicate weeks to studying for a test and would proclaim “Knowledge is power!”. Afterwards he rarely showed up for classes. His house was on my morning route and occasionally I’d see him standing at the corner before the last bend in the road up to our highschool, his backpack cracking his posture, his body still as a statue. I’d stop by him and say “You on your way to school?” He’d nod. “Come on, I’ll walk with you.”
He’d say “No, it’s ok, you go. I’ll come soon.” And he never showed. Once he proclaimed that he was going to wake up and salvage his education. He asked if he could borrow my history textbook. I never saw the book again.

He rarely came out with us, only once every two or three months provided we were out to a movie or any such activity that wouldn’t require much human interaction. On one of these nights I walked home with him from the bus station and he started scaring me. His words still made sense but the conversation was precarious. He was deeply distressed over the upcoming “beer crisis”, in which a shortage of wheat would cause all the alcoholics of Asia and Africa to invade Europe and the Americas with a fervor that would spare no one. In the quiet stillness of the night his bleak predictions made my skin crawl. We’d reached his house but he was reluctant to go in. I stood and he walked circles around me.
I asked “Do you really think we’re going to have world war three because of beer?”
“It will probably happen by 1999.”
“Shit. You’re depressing me. Don’t talk about this stuff so late at night.”
“I’m sorry. I forget that I’m stronger than most people.”
We’d been talking around it for two years but it was the middle of the night and nothing felt real anymore so I said “Don’t get offended or anything, but are you going to go crazy again?”
I’d tested the waters with that insensitive blurt and he was fine with it, in fact he expected it from me. I owed it to him to go on. “What was it like?” I asked.
“It was horrible. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” He said. “It was like having someone shove a cold knife into my back and twist it.” That line stuck to my mind, it was far more poetic than our teenage-speak ever got. He briefly touched the small of my back as if escorting a date to make his point about the knife.
“That’s crazy.” I said.
“It won’t happen again.”
I was on the cusp of my long fascination with drugs and its accompanying discontent with sobriety, and I said “You know, people take drugs to go where you went, and you take drugs to come back here and stay here.”
“People shouldn’t do that.” He said.
“Yeah.” I said. “Well, you know, the grass is always greener. I want to go places too, but it’s kind of scary.”
“It’s very scary.”
“But so is staying here, isn’t that what you’re saying?”
“Yes. But it’s scarier there.”
“I’ll take your word for it.” I smiled. He didn’t. I knew I should feel lucky, but knowing it and feeling it were two separate entities, and I never was more acutely aware of how far apart the two were than at that very moment in time.
“So who was ‘he’?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” He said. “I was insane.”
I laughed, and this time he did too.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The truth about missing missiles

I slept through the first cry of the gulf war of 1991, an odd achievement since my room’s window practically faced the siren. It was obscured only by the water tower, which could block its sight but not its sound. Both were planted next to each other in the sandy back lot of my elementary school five minutes or so away from our house, and both stood out plainly against the sky, high above any other building in our low roof suburban neighborhood.

I might have slept through the war’s first explosion as well if my mother hadn’t shaken me awake. There are very few moments I remember as exactly as I remember her hands on my body and the panic in her breath, and then, as she yanked me out of bed, the explosion, which took terrifying form in my mind. I saw a fat and stubby water tower of a missile pummel bright clouds of hell’s fire through blackness as it headed towards me.

The world shook around us. My mother pushed me and my younger brother into the study, which had been our designated sealed room. The room’s window was duct-taped shut and a wet towel was placed under the crack of the door as instructed by the military spokesperson; this was our protection against chemical warfare, my Israeli generation’s belated version of the 1950’s “Duck and Cover”, except for the fact that this was real, it was really happening. My mother forced the gas mask onto my face and painfully pulled at its rubber chords. Then came the silence and the waiting.

I remember the room through the mask, the jerky head movements unconsciously brought about by the narrowed field of vision, the pungent hospital smell of the black rubber, the grossly amplified sounds of our breathing, and the quiet. We were waiting for our deaths, for our invisible killer to seep in through the cracks in the walls, then through the unavoidable gaps between the mask and our skin and from there into our lungs, and the pain wouldn’t be far behind. I was ten years old and I thought “I don’t want to die”. It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about death, but it was the first time I found myself in the same room with it.

I kept checking my mask’s vacuum by covering its filter and sucking in the air until my mother slapped my hand away from it. Her voice was frighteningly muted through her mask. My nose was itchy and runny but I couldn’t get to it. I felt like crying but beat the sensations away; my father was gone on reserve duty and my mother needed us to be strong. We sat and waited for an eternity. I grew impatient with the fear, I didn’t care about missiles or deadly gasses any more, I wanted to blow my nose and eat some of the dried bananas we had on the desk. I was driving myself crazy with conversations in my mind, torn between simple, immediate urges and the overshadowing fear of death. I exhausted myself to sleep that way, leaning against the wall with snot running down my lips and the clammy skin inside my mask.

When I woke up it was over. I had slept through the second siren, the one that let us know the missile had not been a chemical one. My mother didn’t want to bother my sleep; I had curled up on the floor and seemed peaceful. She’d been able to remove my gas mask and wipe my face without waking me. I was furious at her. I had missed both of the war’s sirens; the one that went up and down to alert us of the missile in the air and the long and steady one that told us we were safe. I had gone through it without going through it. I was still in the dark.

Of course I had heard the siren before. Israel had three sirens a year during the week that preceded the Israeli Independence Day; one for Holocaust Day and two for Memorial Day, during which we stood and paid tribute to the dead, a minute of silence accompanied by a nationwide wail. But up until the war I had always heard these sirens from up close, too close in fact. I had always been at school, counting the seconds in class till the siren went off right outside our windows, its slow, moaning beginnings scaring the breath out of our lungs every time. One of those times we’d engaged in a game of marbles in the sand underneath the siren during recess, and when we returned to the game afterwards we found that several of the marbles that had been left behind had exploded from the siren’s force. It was a scare and a thrill.

The morning after the first scud missile hit Israel was a morning of panic for me. I’d never heard the siren from the distance of our house and I had no idea how loud it would be. Would I be able to hear it? Would it startle me half to death, or would it be more like a faint humming, barely louder than the buzz of the refrigerator? Every little sound made me jump; the bending of a motorcycle’s engine as it zipped by the house or the chirping of a far away bird, they all sounded like a siren for a split second.

Since I had no idea what volume to expect from the siren, I fought for silence throughout the entire day. We had all the radios in the house tuned to the special war station which was dubbed “The Silent Wave”, a station that played absolutely nothing until the event of an attack, so that the radios could be turned up without interfering with our soundscape. I refrained from watching TV but caught a glimpse of the remains of the scud missile on the news. It was not as I’d imagined it; it was skinnier and longer, much longer than it had sounded. A couple of police officers lifted the bent missile and I almost laughed. It looked ridiculous.

The second missile was not as memorable as the first was. In all honesty, I can’t remember it or distinguish it from the attacks that followed over the next month or so. I remember becoming easily adjusted to our new life, enjoying the month-long break from school, nonchalantly expecting a missile every evening and laughing a lot, especially with friends or in front of the television. It was common amongst kids to sneak up behind each other, cover our mouth with our hands and imitate the steady rise of a siren. We also enjoyed imitating the radio’s war codes; which were “Viper Snake, Viper Snake” for an incoming missile, and “Heavy Heatwave, Heavy Heatwave” for the confirmation that the missile head was not chemical.

Israeli comedy shows created memorable gems during the war, a pinnacle of dark Jewish humor. Comedians acted out skits about the incompetent Iraqis and their rickety mobile missile launchers. Another comedian created a recurring fictional character of the Iraqi ambassador to Israel, who offered silly explanations for his country’s aggressions. In these skits the Iraqi soldiers weren’t the enemy, they were lovable buffoons. Saddam, however, remained evil. He was absent from the comedy shows and his face was plastered on toys that were meant to be broken or smashed against a wall. The fortunate fact that his name rhymed with the Hebrew word for ‘stupid’ lent itself to many taunting songs we sang joyfully.

A few weeks into the war my father returned home from reserve duty. He was not acquainted with our new routine, and as a result of his melodramatic reaction to his first missile with us at home I remember one more attack clearly. After the first day of the attacks we’d traded the study for the shelter and we’d become accustomed to a slow and sometimes begrudging march towards it when the siren was heard, but on my father’s first night home he ran and grabbed me and my brother with violence I’d never seen in him before and rushed us to the shelter like inanimate luggage. He practically threw us in there. Before his return we’d been sitting inside the shelter in our gas masks feeling stupid until the word came that all was clear. With our father we had to sit through his rocking back and forth and mumbling “I thought my kids would never see another war.”

As if that was war. Once I’d gotten over my initial brush with death I’d started craving war, real war, not this nightly joke that was going on around us. The fear was gone. The subsequent explosions were not as loud or as frightening as the first had been, they felt distant and remote. The siren wasn’t too loud and it wasn’t too low, it was no more exciting or terrifying than a car alarm down the street was. The threat of chemical warheads on the missiles was potent for the first week, but was lost on a child’s erratic attention span by the second week.

My parents were scared. My mother rarely showed it, but my father had a flare for drama and always let his emotions lead him. He was a large man who cried and laughed with the same lack of shame. We were living in the most dangerous area in Israel during the war, where the majority of missiles fell. We never thought of leaving before my father had come home, but once he was back we were packed and off to the relative safety of friends of the family in Jerusalem within a couple of days. During our second night there a missile fell less than thirty feet away from our home and claimed the single life that was lost due to a direct hit. The war knew many second hand deaths, heart attacks and gas mask malfunctions, but only one man was crushed to death by his shelter’s steel door when the missile hit his house.

I could not believe that I had missed it. The whole war had been for that moment, yet I hadn’t even heard a siren. It was exactly why my father had taken us away from there, and I felt I would never forgive him. I begged to come along the next day to inspect the damage to our house. I was allowed there only after my father had cleaned up all the glass, and so I never got to see any of that either. When I got there all I saw was that most of our roof tiles had been blown away, that none of our windows had any glass in them and that every single window frame was bent up as if it had an erection. Our dog was crying. I overheard my father telling his sister that the dog was covered in glass when he found him and shivering in a panic.

My dog was irreparably traumatized by the war. I stared at him in envy. He’d gotten to be there and witness it all, he’d felt the ground shake and the glass against his fur. I already knew that I wanted to be a storyteller, and as one war was the best thing that could ever happen to me. I would use the expending of other’s ammunition as my own ammunition. All I was left with now was the pale story of missing the missile. Of course, I could always lie, but that wasn’t it. I’d wanted more than a story; I wanted the presence of death, up close and yet still at bay, liked a caged predator at the zoo. I’d felt the fear, now I wanted its rewards.

And it must have been even more than that, because other than the frustration I felt faced with the minor destruction of our windows and doors and the heart wrenching whimpers of our poor dog, I was choking on guilt. I not only deserved to be there as a reward, I deserved it as punishment as well. I was guilty and I was ashamed. Missing a war is a strange and sick weight to carry around, and I would feel it again and again, especially when the missiles returned to Israel’s skies. The horrid headlines fired up a homesickness in me that I could never explain to others. I couldn’t even explain it to myself.

Monday, July 17, 2006

True Lisa stories (part 2 of 4)

I’d been stopping by her office every day. At first I’d invented excuses for the visits, but soon enough the visits themselves became the excuse. I was there to put a smile on her face. On one of those days she greeted me by saying “I dreamt about you.”
“Oh, really?” I said, and took a piece of candy from the little basket she had on her counter. “So how was I?”
“Well, actually, in the dream I was asking you how I was.”
I smiled, and my lungs popped into my throat. “Oh, really? Cool.”
“Yeah, we were on another trip with our unit, but this time you and I parked this red car away from everybody else. And the car was surrounded by ropes, here, let me show you.” She slowly peeled a post-it note and taped in onto the counter. She drew a crude car from a bird’s-eye view and a pole on each corner with four ropes strung between them tightly, closing the car off like a crime scene. I saw all that in a rectangle within a rectangle. “See, it kind of reminded me of a stable or something.” She went on. “And there was also a horse there. And I asked you how I was, if I’d been alright. I mean, we’d just had sex, yeah?”
I stared into her eyes as she said “had sex”, and my legs froze. I couldn’t have left even if I’d wanted to.
“And you were kind of apathetic, you said ‘yeah, you were alright’ in that voice,” She’d mimicked my tone from her dream. “And I asked you how you preferred it, me on top, me on the bottom, whatever…” She laughed. “It took me so long to get you to actually say I’d been alright.”
She looked at me, expecting me to say something.
I said “That’s not a very realistic dream.” She waited for more. “I mean, I’m not that kind of guy in real life.”
“What do you mean ‘that kind of guy’? A guy who has sex?” She asked.
Of course I hadn’t meant that at all, I’d meant a guy who could be apathetic to a woman who’d just slept with him and was now asking him what he preferred, I was the kind of guy who would tell her she was wonderful if I had the chance and the reason, but I hadn’t and she’d asked that question and it seemed the easiest thing to do at that moment was to answer. “Yeah, exactly, the kind of guy who has sex. I’m not the kind of guy who has sex.”
“Are you a virgin?” She asked with trepidation.
I nodded. I couldn’t believe this was happening, that I was confirming those words within my world of military role play and confiding in Lisa of all people.
“And hold on, you’ve never had a girlfriend?” She asked.
“Nope. I’ve barely even been friends with a girl.”
“You’re going to be twenty years old!” She cried.
“Hey, don’t kill me, ok?” I chuckled nervously.
“But why?” She asked in surprising desperation.
“I don’t know. I’m bad with women.”
“How about a change?” She said. “It’s ok, I like virgins.”
“You like virgins.”
At that moment a couple of soldiers entered her office to exchange their bus tokens, and I practically ran away with barely a smile and a wave of my hand.

I called the one person I knew would answer, my friend Gil, my only friend who had not been drafted to the army. He was sitting at a restaurant on his lunch break when I called, I could hear the chatter and the clinking of forks and knives against plates in the background. I retold Lisa’s dream, careful not to omit any detail, and he said “Are you serious?! A red car? A red car, man?! In dreams red means sex, man!”
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure that the part about us having sex means sex too.” I said.
“I’m not so sure about that. Dreams are strange, they don’t always mean what you think they mean. But man, a red car. That means sex.”
“I’m depressed.” I said.
“You’re depressed ‘cause you’re afraid. You’ve got to strive for it. Strive to fuck.” He made me smile. I was happy I’d called him. He took another bite and said “But listen, you gotta remember that it might be nothing. Girls like to flirt, they like to tease, they like to talk. It inflates their egos. So don’t be sure of anything.”

She had dreamt of the two of us having sex, and she had been worried about her pleasing me. We’d been in a red car, and around us there had been horses. On some level, I thought, whether she knew it or not, whether she’d wanted to or not, Lisa was attracted to me. I paced around my room impatiently, and decided to go to sleep. Surely I would dream about her. It was much too early for sleep but I climbed into bed anyway and waited with open eyes. I composed a witty and erotic dialogue for the two of us, Lisa and I. She’d be the teacher and I’d be the student.

For a while there was nothing, and then my phone rang. I didn’t catch the name at first, so the voice repeated itself. I thought it was a wrong number, but no, they were definitely looking for me. It was a young man, a researcher for one of the nation wide Israeli radio stations. He’d gotten my name and number from the Screenwriting School of Tel Aviv, where I had recently started studying. I was the youngest student to ever study there, and a soldier at that. He wanted to know if I’d be willing to be interviewed live over the phone on the radio within the hour. I mumbled uncertainties. He caught on to my apprehension and asked me to stay on the line. A moment later he was replaced by a woman’s voice dipped in honey who said “Come on, what’s the big deal? It’ll be a phone conversation just like the one you and I are having now.”
“This good, huh?” I said bitterly, and she laughed and laughed, just like Lisa.
I agreed.

My interview was set for forty minutes into the future. I was out of bed once again, pacing around my room. I felt like an ice cube slowly melting on a counter in anticipation. Panic fumes blackened the insides of my lungs. Moments ago I had been pleasurably losing myself in a scripted conversation with Lisa and now I was anxiously writing my own lines for the stage I was about to step onto. I turned on my radio.

The show started. The first two interviewees spoke in rich, secure voices. Between interviews the station played bad music, and it was over one of these poor songs that my phone rang. I was instructed to count out loud to five. I was afraid I’d lost my voice in the pacing.

Then she was there. Her voice was the strongest of them all, and mine was squeaky and weak in comparison. She mispronounced my last name multiple times but I was helpless, unable to correct her. I would be named whatever she’d name me. She asked me simple questions and I choked my way through them. A couple of times I apologized and said, “I don’t have the words”. She laughed and said “It’s alright!”, but I could almost see her reprimanding someone after the show. I wished for it to be over, and hoped I wouldn’t vomit on my phone beforehand.

The weekend came. Tal ate a sloppy falafel in front of me and I had no appetite. He heard the stories of my week, Lisa’s dream and the radio interview, and asked “Why’d you do that? The girl comes to you with a dream where she’s asking you how she was, she’s the insecure one, you’ve got the upper hand and you go and lose it.”
“Man, I kind of hoped you’d calm me down.”
“I’m not good at that kind of shit, calming people down.”
“Yeah, well… I’m never going to let anybody interview me ever again.”
“Who wants to interview you?”
“I don’t know. No one.”
“So what are you worried about?”

Sunday, July 16, 2006

A true story of shit, blood and cum

My army buddy Daniel is a tightly wound man with perfect fangs that prick on every grin, short stiff hair that would grow into surprisingly brittle curls once he was let out of the army, and a crudely sharpened sense of humor that got me through that time. Daniel was a chauvinist, a racist, a sadist, a misanthropic bastard with a heart of gold.

We’d met as young and battered soldiers, fresh targets for torture, and we ate shit together. Two months my senior on the base, he never allowed me to forget his supposed superiority. As I slowly gained his confidence those two months were kindly overlooked and I became an ally. He printed out his manifesto for me to read; a hilarious piece of evil titled “Danielism” which had, amongst many rules and laws, a separate and mandatory public education system for women on how to please men sexually and socially (starting at the age of six, I believe, since Daniel felt it was better to get ‘em while they were young), government regulated sex quotas for each man to be filled by the women as a matter of the law, free drugs for all, ghettos for old people, ghettos for fat people and social classes determined by beauty, the criteria for which was to be decided by Daniel himself. He had put some serious effort into compiling his manifesto; other than the long list of rules and regulations there were numerous essays on the nature of the ideology itself and one particularly brilliant step-by-step description of a young man’s typical day living under the peaceful “Danielism” regime.

When our guard duties coincided I would find all four walls of my guard booth scribbled with a mantra pointing me out by name and calling me a “semen guzzler” or a “warm semen suckler”, the product of his four hours of boredom beforehand. It was rainy and gray, I was wet and miserable in my winter uniform and laughing in the cold. I occasionally gave him a ride home, and when my car stood at a stoplight he’d say “You know what my fantasy is? To be riding like this in the passenger seat, like right now, to stop at an intersection and stare at the driver in the car to the right, and when the driver looks at me – ‘cause he’s got to look you know – I blow his brains out with a shotgun. I’m just dying to see the expression on his face when he sees the shotgun.”

Another memorable conversation on the drive home started as always with his carnivorous grin. “For fuck’s sake, what’s wrong with you?!” He’d been complaining about a girlfriend who wouldn’t swallow. “Are you fucked up or something? You’ve got a job to do!”
“So you dumped her?” I asked.
“Yeah, we split up after like four months.”
“Just ‘cause she wouldn’t let you cum in her mouth.”
“Nah, we split up ‘cause she had a boyfriend.”

On his last day on the base, two months before my goodbye, I took him out to eat and he said “I can’t do it, I can’t eat. I’ve got butterflies in my stomach.” He looked at me with shimmering eyes and said “I’m getting out.” He cast an incredible force of pain and bewilderment into that one short sentence. “Hey, I’m going to miss our friendship, warm semen.” He said, genuinely.

We remained friends after the army, but Daniel had changed. He never talked about killing strangers or cumming on faces again, those vital cruelties wilted into sepia nostalgia, and Daniel laughed whenever I mentioned his manifesto and ended it with an old man’s sigh. He had a job and a car and worked hard and slow at getting a degree from the Israeli Open University over the course of six years.

He wouldn’t humiliate me when I'd awkwardly attempt to recreate our old passion of shared hatred. He’d become too much of a nice guy to do that.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The true story of "Plan B"

For the majority of my life I shied away from debates. Everybody feels the burden of knowing oneself, and amongst the few certainties I had whitened my knuckles holding onto was the realization that I was beyond my worst at debating. I knew that if I stayed on the field for too long I would lose my identity to it. Real debating awoke a petulant yet savage version of me that filled me with shame. I was a writer, not by virtue of having been published or recognized but because I could do nothing else, and as a writer words were supposed to be my home, books my friends and the language my tool. But the words spilled over each other, inhaling books never granted me the desired ability to summon the relevant facts and statistics to support my beliefs and the language remained cold and impartial to my needs. I could never win a debate; I could only lose my pride, my confidence and the right to show my face again.

I was safe in the realm of lightweight opinions, where I could argue the merits of a film, a band or a book and later agree to disagree as easily as scratching my nose. Anything that pertained to life outside of artistic creation was off bounds for me. Yet as hard as I tried to steer clear from it, there was one topic that consistently bullied me into the debating ring, and that was any claim made against Zionism, the state of Israel or the IDF. I’d never understood why that was.

I had never been a Zionist. Having been born into Israel as a reality that enveloped me wherever I turned, the term Zionist was a historical relic to me. Zionism was the great ideological project of creating the Jewish state, and now that the state had been born there was no reason for those of us who’d never known a world without it to deliberate whether we were Zionists or not. It was a moot point.

I had never been much of a patriot either; nothing about it appealed to me. I was Israeli because I’d been born Israeli, and the concept of having pride in that was irrelevant, especially as long as everyone around me was just as Israeli as I was.

Finally, I had never had any love for the army. The IDF robbed me of three years of my life by making me hate myself and my existence throughout every single day I wore its uniform and every other day the uniform wore me from within its hiding place in my closet. The army was a brute and evil machine, a soulless hell. I had no doubts about my harsh feelings towards the army, but it was only a good week or so after I’d found myself in a cruel and emotional argument with my good friend Tal that I looked back in confusion and saw that I'd been shouting passionately in this army’s favor. I had to stop and make sense of myself.

We had all been discharged from the army and were floating around aimlessly along with the majority of our Israeli generation. During most of that first year of civilian life I wrote comic scripts for an underground Israeli comic book by the name of “Plan B” that friends of mine had established. It was a small operation that began with the meager initial investment of three hundred shekels, which had allowed them one hundred zeroxed copies of the first issue. By the third issue they were printing six hundred copies and selling them for ten shekels each, and the money was poured back into the next issue.

It was a time of radiant emptiness for me, and I was ready to romantically embrace any endeavor. We spent a couple of days each week selling our comic magazine at science fiction or comic book conventions, at special events or on the streets of Tel Aviv. “Israeli comic book, in Hebrew!” We cried out. “Come and get your funny comics in the holy language!” We devised many attention grabbing techniques, partly to attract buyers and partly to amuse ourselves. We’d call people out by their clothing, shouting “An Israeli comic book in Hebrew for girls wearing white jeans and a pink shirt with sunglasses and a nose ring!” just as that girl walked by, and we’d be sure not to look at her as we did it. Some would laugh, others would laugh hard enough to buy an issue.

I enjoyed those days on the streets more than any other aspect of “Plan B”. The process of creating the comic anthology was not as romantic as it had promised to be. The idea of comics in Hebrew had pulled me in deep, and I’d written out enough scripts to fill five issues. The artists, on the other hand, preferred to work on their own material despite the fact that none of them were writers or put much thought into their words. When they did bring one of my scripts to life they would do so on their own, without collaborating with me, leaving me displeased with the outcome. They were slowly backing away from everything I’d held dear about our little dream; the stories lost their narrative thread and their language as well, they became surrealistic sequences void of words. I’d imagined short stories drawn out as serious, funny and endearing comics and was willing to live with them being collected under the English title, “Plan B” as long as the content was exclusively Hebrew, but I was losing the fight and making everyone else miserable along the way. My friend Gil, one of the founders of “Plan B”, told me “You’re too aggressive. You’re pushing people too hard.”

Though I was close to giving up on ever changing “Plan B”, I was still as active as I could be. I came out for sales every day during the Israeli annual “Book Week”, which consisted of dozens of bookstands from every publishing house in the country set up in a park for people to browse through. We set up our little table-less stand and sold magazines on the periphery of the event, shouting our lungs out with the same absurd slogans about Hebrew comics for people who hated books, Hebrew comics for people who had just bought books, Hebrew comics for people who liked weeks, Hebrew comics for people with beards and Hebrew comics for pregnant ladies and Hebrew comics for just about everyone.

On the second or third day of the “book week” the creators of another underground comic magazine approached us with an offer: since they had a stand of their own on the other side of the park we could swap some of our issues for theirs and sell issues of both magazines. It was a good idea and I would have agreed to it were it not for the content of their anthology, which was blatantly anti-IDF. While our comic stories were bittersweet tales about the dissuading nothingness of life, theirs were distinctly political and featured bloody panels of Israeli soldiers eating Palestinian body parts with a smile on their face. They were all glee and gore, with plenty of sarcastic, cynical politics at the core. They sickened me.

I told my friends I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t stand and scream my lungs out for a magazine filled with the propaganda of teenage ingrates, who shamelessly mocked fallen Israeli soldiers with their drawings and filled their pages with the call to selfishly avoid the draft. Within moments I was caught up in a highly personal debate with my friend Tal. It was exactly the kind of debate I knew to run away from, but I couldn’t help myself.

We were good friends and we loved each other, and we were at each other’s throats. I was yelling “This isn’t Vietnam and we aren’t in “Hair”, we’re a tiny country surrounded by enemies that want us dead! To ideologically refuse to serve in the army is to believe that none of us should serve in the army, it’s advocating the destruction of the army and the destruction of our lives here!” Tal was having his own debate with me, it had nothing to do with ideology, only with the pain the army had inflicted upon him. He kept violently cutting me off and fabricating my side of the argument. We wound up repeating our sentences to each other; me saying “Do you agree that we need an army? Do you!?” and him saying “If you’re talking this way about the army that means you were able to handle it. But some of us weren’t.” In a way he was saying that I was strong, and yet I felt deeply insulted.

Our shouting match faded away and gave way to a hangover of shame. I apologized, he apologized, we forgot about it. As time went by I had to admit to myself and to my friends that there was no place for me in “Plan B”. It was a gentle departure, and I wasn’t the only one to leave. “The Plan”, as they affectionately called it, had gone through puberty and emerged as something else. It was no longer the Hebrew comic book, probably since it never had been.

I struggled with myself and those awkward tendencies to defend “my country” and “my army” with alarming zealotry. I drifted away from Israel, first to Los Angeles and finally to New York. The move stilted my writing for nearly a year; my American characters were fake, they lacked convincing histories and the English in their mouths was synthetic, the product of watching a language on a screen and reading it in books but never living it. I’d never wanted to write in English but I decided that since I was living out a few years of my life there I might as well cultivate my English language skills. It wouldn’t hurt to have a secondary language to fall back on, a “plan b”.

And that’s when it truly sank in, the real reason that I had been unable to stop myself from jumping into regrettable debates about Israel: I was afraid for my language. I was a writer in search of immortality through words and yet the language I was writing in was a perishable mutation, a language that had been dormant for hundreds of years and would most likely become extinct again once the Israeli experiment succumbed to wars, hate and plain old demographics. I was a dead man walking, writing in a dead man’s tongue.

Whether this apocalyptic vision was accurate or not had no effect on the fear it instilled me with; arguing its probability was about as effective as spouting safety statistics to a man afraid of flying. It scared me, much more than the shame of a failed debate ever could. My personal “plan b” grew stronger the more time I spent in NY and the more English words I made my own, but it would always be just that; Plan B from Israel. I was sad in Hebrew and wrote about it in English. After all the debates were over with, gone and forgotten, I thought: I should have known better.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

A true story about salty tea

I was lost; there is no other, fancier way of putting it. That’s not to say that I haven’t been lost since or couldn’t find myself lost again, but it is as clear to me as anything about my past is clear, that I was ejected from the army after three years like a stray bullet, without a target and without a mind of my own, lost and nothing else. That ‘nothing else’ was as significant as being lost was, and the two elements fed off each other. I only knew one thing; I had to write. And so I wrote every single day. Other than drugs, it was the only thing I did.

My friend Yoni was out of the army as well. One day he bought a plane ticket to India, and that was that. He lay down on one of the boulders on drummer’s shore in Tel Aviv, spread his body out to invite the afternoon sun and said “This is what I’m going to be doing for the next six months.” He looked up and asked “Will you all be in a crisis when I leave?”
“Do you want us to be in a crisis?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “But I want to be missed.”
“There’s no way of knowing if that’ll happen. We might just forget about you. And as for a crisis, well, I’ve been in a crisis for a long long time now.” I was lost, and even though I kept up my habit of daily writing, it could take me nowhere because I already was nowhere.

On our last night with Yoni we asked him, “What do you want to do tonight? You are the prince of the evening.” He said “I never ever want to be the prince of the evening ever.”, and so we sat in his attic and played the last game of chess he’d be playing with any of us for months to come. Our prince’s throat hurt, and since Gil had never been more than a bored observer of our chess games, he volunteered to make him a cup of tea. “I really appreciate this.” Yoni said solemnly when Gil handed him the steaming mug. A few turns later he laughed and said “Gil, you’re the man. You made me tea with salt.”

“What?” Gil asked, surprised. I tasted Yoni’s tea and had to laugh myself. It was so disgusting that I needed a sugary tea to follow it and heal my taste buds, but at the same time I’d loved it. It was salty tea, so exact and preposterous that for a brief moment it woke me from my lull. In my sick state of mind I raced to fit it into a metaphor or force it to give birth to an idea, but of course nothing came.

The next day Yoni was gone, he’d turned from flesh and blood to the occasional email. Two months later his mother called me up to ask for a favor; the family was leaving on a vacation for the holidays and she wondered if Gil and I wouldn’t mind staying in their house to take care of the dog.

Living in Yoni’s empty house for ten days in his absence was a strange experience that required that we maintain a constant state of drug abuse, so constant that by the end of the week our supplies had run dry. We rifled through the kitchen cupboards until we came across some alcohol. We’d been building a resistance to other drugs but the liquor hit us like fourteen-year-olds. Soon enough we were violently smacking our feet against the sidewalks of Yoni's neighborhood in the late hours of the night on our way to the twenty-four-hour store to buy more.
“We’re walking really fast!” We laughed, and pushed on.
Gil said “I wish I had a pen and paper. I’d write some poetry right now.”
“Write it out loud, I’ll remember.” I huffed and puffed. It was hard to speak while drunkenly speed-walking.
“Ok… a leaf on the sidewalk…” he began. “No, wait, cross that out.”
He started ten different poems that way and had me cross them all out in my mind.

Finally he said “It’s a good thing I don’t have a pen and paper here.”

That night, despite being drunk and despite the fact that I was on a strange bed in a stuffy attic that had no air conditioning, I slept like a baby. It was all right for me to stop writing and do nothing at all.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

My only true story about Rona

Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen I was an overactive observer of my own life, constantly alert and waiting to soak up a profound moment or conversation, rush home while repeating it to myself to save it from being forgotten or maligned and then, in the privacy of my room, jot it down in sloppy handwriting on the blank pages of a hardcover sketchbook. My ears were always perked and I did my best to mold the mundane events of my teenage life into taciturn prose that all but plagiarized Raymond Carver. As my short story collection grew so did my far fetched fantasies of publication and the whiz-kid fame my early success would bring. In between bouts of shame and self doubt I actually enjoyed plenty of moments of pride in my writing and a belief in myself that I would never feel again, even though I knew my skills had only improved since. I’d named my collection “eighteen short stories” in false modesty; I was ready to become the next Salinger twice over.

For over a year I’d kept my words to myself. When I was seventeen I slowly began to expose them to my friends, one carefully chosen friend at a time. My first reader was borne out of necessity; I’d typed up all of my stories onto my family’s computer and was itching to hold the printout in my hands, but my house didn’t have a printer. The first few friends who read my stories did so in complete silence. They were not surprised to learn that I’d been writing, and it seemed that everything about my stories was to be expected. I got no reviews, no critiques and no words of praise. If I pressed they’d say it was “cool” that I was writing, and that the stories were “good”.

Those days my oldest friend Roi was deep into his first romantic relationship with a beautiful and serious girl named Rona. We were walking down the street one night when he introduced the idea of her into my life. He said “I met someone. She’s smart. Smarter than I am.” He’d said the latter in great reverence. It was what he’d always looked for; a girl who would humble him.

Rona was a short girl with a monkey mouth and long wavy hair who would think through every sentence twice and speak in formal, schoolteacher Hebrew that was either endearing or infuriating but undeniably unique. Their new relationship had swallowed my friend whole in the way that first loves tended to, but a few months later Rona had turned from the reason Roi was gone to the only thing linking the two of us together. She would call me up for long, random phone conversations about writing and depression and emotional intelligence, sometimes doing so from Roi’s house with sounds of him in the background trying for her attention and pulling at her shirt, which would earn him a motherly scolding from her and a gracious departure on my end.

She said “You’re Roi’s most emotionally intelligent friend.”, but there was such frost in her voice when she said it that I couldn’t take it as a compliment, she’d made it so that I wasn’t free to enjoy it. She said “You came up many times in my conversations with Roi before I met you. I still find myself comparing you to his descriptions.”
“So? Am I living up to your expectation?” I asked.
“Well, yes, of course, you are who you are. But there are discrepancies. You and Roi have a very complex relationship, though, so he might be right about everything only I can’t see it.”
At times when he was running late for a date with her Roi would ask me to pick her up in my mother’s car and entertain her at my house until he’d get there. He didn’t bother telling her it would be me picking her up and not him, and it was all the same to her. “I guess he doesn’t perceive you as a foreign element that would call for an early warning.” She said to me. Those were the kind of sentences she’d construct at sixteen.

I wanted Rona to read my stories; in fact I felt that I needed that of her. I knew better than to go around Roi’s back, I knew that for Rona to read the stories Roi would have to get them first. Were it not for Rona I probably wouldn’t have had him read my writing; it just wasn’t the kind of friendship I had with him. We’d survived for years and would continue to survive because that wasn’t the kind of friendship we had. But I’d met her through him, and in this way she had brought us even closer together. I decided to invite them over and hand the stories to both of them as a couple, as a unit. I would be showing Roi no disrespect that way, and he would probably appreciate my treating the two of them as one.

They never showed up. Roi called me up and apologized in a whisper; Rona had fallen asleep, he’d thought she’d wake up but apparently she was very tired and was out cold… He spoke with extreme caution that almost made me laugh. I said don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal, but he still sounded wet from sadness. “I just know that she really wanted to come over too.” He said.
“It’s ok,” I repeated. “Listen, are you still up?”
“Yeah, but I can’t leave, you know, in case she wakes up…”
“That’s ok, I’ll just drop by for a minute and give you a copy of my stories.”
“Your what?”
“My stories. My short stories.”
“You wrote short stories?” He was the first one who’d expressed any surprise at this news, and by now this was surprising to me.
“You didn’t know?”
“You never said anything, how the hell was I supposed to know? Was I supposed to guess?”
“No, I just thought maybe someone told you.”
“No one said anything about any stories to me.”
“Well. Anyway.”
“Just don’t ring the doorbell. I’ll hear you parking your car.”

Roi’s house was dark as ink when I walked in, and he wouldn’t turn on any lights. He wanted me to leave. He started reading the stories by the crack of light that emanated from his room the moment I handed the stapled booklet over to him, and I chuckled in embarrassment and said “Don’t read them right in front of my face!” He skimmed through the pages and mumbled something about how I had used everybody’s names. I said goodbye, he barely looked up at me from my words.

The next day I had a few friends over for a cookout in my back yard; my parents were away and we had my house to ourselves to play with. We had just started on the steaks when Roi made his way through the thicket of plants covering the path to the back and said “Man, what’s up with those stories of yours? Are you fucked up?”

A nervous tick of a smile froze on my face.
“What? Why?” I asked.
“What’s up with all that depression? You need a fucking shrink, man!”
And with those few words, delivered as a meaningless, offhanded joke, I imploded. All the fantasies I’d woven around my stories were instantaneously replaced by nightmarish, fisheye lens images of ridiculing laughter and pointing fingers. I was stripped naked in my own back yard. I hid it well; no one seemed to notice how I’d fallen silent for the rest of the day.

Roi said “Hey, man, I was only joking, yeah? Don’t pay any attention to me.”, and that was all he had to say about my stories. Another friend asked him about his six month anniversary with Rona, and Roi gladly told them the story. He had had flowers delivered to her mother’s apartment. The flowers had arrived early, and were waiting for them when they got back to her place. “She was sure that I’d forgotten, and she was so emotional, I swear, she nearly cried. She had tears in her eyes.” I was afraid that I had tears in my eyes as well. Roi had poisoned me.

I drove him to Rona’s that evening and then just kept driving until I couldn’t hold it in any longer. I parked the car wherever I was and called him.
I said “You know, you’re a son of a bitch.”
He asked “Why?”, but it wasn’t a surprised question, it was a worried one.
We had a terrible conversation in broken voices. He apologized to no end, he had never meant to say what he’d said and he'd known that the moment he'd said it. He didn’t really think I was fucked up, he promised with a passion. I was in no place to forgive him, if I hadn’t been fucked up before then I had become fucked up then and there. None of it made any sense, but our conversation progressed as if it did, and we spoke as if we understood everything we were saying. I said I’d rather not talk to him for a while, but in fact the moment I said that was the moment I lost all of my anger, towards him and towards myself.

Rona called me to try and bridge the gap in her most perfunctory way. She stated dryly “I don’t know what happened between you two. He won’t tell me and he won’t let me read your stories.” I was too tired to deal with her. Instead, I said “It’s complicated.”
“You’re making it complicated.” She said.
“Didn’t you just say you don’t know what happened?”
“You can’t stuff me and Roi into one body and shut me out with him.”
“You can read the stories if you want to.” I said.
“He won’t let me.”
“Look, I gotta go.”

Roi and I met a few days later, though it felt like years had passed. We had a mutual and unspoken agreement to allow our breakdown conversation to be the end of that story. At some point during the day, Roi said “You know, your stories are good. It was Rona who gave me the key to understanding it. She said I should think about them in relation to the blank page, and to how I would fill that page if I had to. And I realized that what you write is pretty good.”
“Thanks.” I said.
“You guys talk a lot, right?” He asked. “You and Rona.”
“Does that bother you?” I asked.
“What can I do, I can’t tell you not to talk to her.”
“You can tell me if it bothers you.”
“No what?”
“No, it doesn’t bother me.”
“So why wouldn’t you let her read my stories?”
“Man, do you know what she’d do to you if she read those stories?” He said. “You don’t even want to know.”
“Yeah I do. What would she do? Why would she even do anything?”
“She’d make you miserable. She’d bug you about it for the rest of your life.”
“Does she bug you about things?”
“Yeah, she says I’m not in control of my life. And that my relationship with my parents is cold and distant.”
“You’re kidding.”
“She says really harsh things, you know? Really harsh things. Like that I don’t know how to be a friend, that I’m going to lose all of my friends. And I never even expect her to apologize, you know? Anything she says is fine, and if she feels like ignoring whatever she just said then that’s the way it is. If I try to tell her that what she says hurts, she starts yelling at me about how I’m trying to censor her and make her watch her mouth around me, and she ties it in to chauvinism…”
“And she keeps threatening to leave me. She says she’ll leave me because she doesn’t like the fact that I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. And because she doesn’t approve of my relationship with my parents. She’s crazy.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“And she keeps talking about how depressed you are.”
“She does?”
“Yeah.” He said. “Anybody else would have dumped her by now, believe me.”

Eventually my short story collection faded away, and so did Rona. After a miserable breakup, Roi strayed clear of long term relationships and of smart women. “Smart is not as important as you think.” He said. He started smiling a lot, and laughing his contagious laughter more often. He said “I’m collecting stories now.”, and by that he meant that he had become a player, and an extremely romantic one at that. As a soldier he’d picked up many women on the train from Tel Aviv to Haifa. I enjoyed his stories and never said much about them other than the fact that they sounded "cool", and that I was glad he was having a "good time".

I never saw Rona again. Of all the girls and women that have passed through my life, she might be the only one who could pass me by on the street nowadays and go unrecognized. I can’t truly remember what she looked like. It’s a strange thought to admit to, since I’m pretty sure I loved her.

Monday, July 03, 2006

A true story about bees

The first time I ever laid eyes on a girl’s breasts was during the summer between second and third grade. A year earlier my father had uprooted us from our home in Israel and displaced our lives to Richmond, Virginia, where he took part in a doctor exchange program that one of the local hospitals had initiated with the hospital he’d worked for in Tel Aviv.

Considering that I spent two years of my life in the suburban oval neighborhood of King’s Crossing, I hardly remember a thing about it. My memory retains fragments of fragments, mostly images and spatial relations; the feel of our house, that had more wood and carpeting than I’d ever seen before in Israel, and especially the softness of our carpeted staircase under my bare feet, the maze of pathways between classrooms at Mayberry elementary school, which was dominated by the color red, and the way each classroom shared a coat rack and a bathroom behind the blackboard with the adjacent classroom, the exact rows of identical A-shaped houses with their bushes trimmed into perfect globes, and, for the first time in my life, snow.

Only three memories from those two years of my childhood contain hints of a narrative, and two of them had survived in my mind by aid of physical links to my present; an old audio cassette and a scar across my little brother’s chin. The third memory was of Idit. She was the first friend of the opposite sex that I’d ever had, the daughter of another Israeli doctor who’d come to America as part of the same program, and it was only natural that our families would form a friendship and that she and I, being of the same age, would become inseparable. I can’t remember a time in my life when being in the presence of a female was casual, but with Idit I got as comfortable as I ever would.

She was a beautiful girl, I knew that much instantly. Her eyes were huge and semi transparent, and I’d always been attracted to big eyes. She had a gap between her front teeth that was endearing, and long hair that was always braided like a chala. She had two older brothers and I had one younger brother so at times we ran around as a gang, but mostly it was just me and her, never bored and always finding new projects to fill our time with. The innocence of our friendship was never tainted from the outside; no one ridiculed me for having a girl for a best friend, no one teased us or called her my girlfriend – not even once, and she and I never gave our genders a second thought. We were two seven-year-old kids.

Only that I had given it thought after all. Not a whole lot of thought, nothing resembling the exhaustive, obsessive nature of my adolescent infatuations, no. It wasn’t much more than the simple knowledge that I loved her and that she was mine, but that was enough to elevate her above any other childhood friends I'd had before her. It was a concept that was at peace with itself. It did nothing to change the time we spent together, with one exception.

One hot summer day we were playing with a ball in a back yard, maybe it was my back yard, maybe it was hers, I can’t be sure. I remember a slab of Israeli concrete in the background, an impossible distortion of my memory, since I do know with certainty that this minor event took place during the summer I spent in Richmond, Virginia, a time filled with wood and brick and trees but without any gray concrete. A bee started to buzz around Idit and she yelped in horror. She shut her eyes closed as tightly as she could and screamed. The bee flew away. She opened her eyes, terrified, and asked “Where’d it go? Where’d it go?!” I saw my opportunity and seized it. “It went down your shirt.” I said. "You should take your shirt off."

I stood transfixed as my quickly devised plan worked itself out perfectly. Idit scrambled out of her purple T-shirt and threw it on the ground. She made no attempt to hide her body, she was no more aware of it than I was of mine. I felt no sexual excitement; I had no idea what sexual excitement was, and Idit’s body at that age didn’t have any more breasts than mine did. I stared because I knew I had to, because I had grown to appreciate the preciousness of female nudity long before I’d understood why. It was a sobering moment that lasted no more than five seconds; I knew I was supposed to be feeling something but all I could find within myself was confusion. Idit pleaded, “Where’d it go? Is it still on me? Where’d it go!” Her voice betrayed the strong possibility of tears, and I snapped out of it and said “It’s gone. It flew away.” She opened her eyes, put her shirt back on and said “Thanks.” I was surprised at how much her thanking me stung. I can still feel that sting today.

Coincidentally, that summer I was stung by a bee for the second time in my life, and for the first time it hurt me a lot. My first bee sting had happened at the age of five, on the slide in kindergarten. A friend of mine told me “Hey, you’ve got a bee on your foot.” I’d been stung smack in the middle of the ball of my ankle, right on the bone, and I hadn't even known it. The poor bee was dead and I hadn’t felt a thing. I felt heroic and lost all fear of bees; apparently a bee sting was nothing to worry about. A couple of years later I was stung on the palm of my hand as I tried to grab a bee and squish it to death. I could not believe the pain, it tore me apart, but more than anything I felt cheated. I missed the days of painless bee stings. My fear of bees was renewed and was now more paralyzing than ever before.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

The truth about discipline

My first real attempt at writing a feature length screenplay at the age of twenty one spiraled out of control. I suffered from the flipside of writer’s block; writer’s diarrhea. Following the screenwriting calculation equating a page to a minute of screen time, feature film screenplays commonly vary in length from eighty to one hundred and twenty pages, and mine had reached its one hundred and thirtieth page before the story I was telling had barely even begun. I split my time between churning out more pages and complaining about my tower of Babel project in my journal. I wrote “The description of this screenplay’s writing here in my journal is starting to resemble an unconscious tale of slipping into insanity.”

I was working on the screenplay within the loose framework of a screenwriting workshop offered to alumni of the screenwriting school of Tel Aviv. The official meetings were behind us and we’d all retired to our homes for three months of writing. We kept in touch through hilariously desperate group emails, and on one or two occasions got together without our instructor for the sheer purpose of finding moral support in each other’s writing horror stories. Some people hadn’t made it beyond page fifteen; I was already on page one hundred and fifty. I thought to myself, yes, I am living the dream! The dream is living me and I am living it, I’m writing every day, isolated and excluded from the game of life! An email invitation to another night of screenwriter’s commiseration read “You should come, you’ll probably reach your two hundredth page with no end in sight by tonight and need our encouragement.”

The story’s end snuck up on me during one of those mornings, leaving me at a loss for the rest of the day. My script clocked in at a ridiculous and unwarranted one hundred and ninety two pages. We’d walked each other through the writing process in the workshop, but never really read more than a few pages of each other’s scripts. I never even bothered printing my script out; it was too many pages long, a waste of wood and ink. I tinkered with it for a while, on and off. A year later I even put in the effort of translating the script to English, just to see whether alienating it from myself would provide me with insight or an epiphany. It didn’t. On a hot Saturday afternoon at his sticky Tel Aviv apartment my friend Tal asked me “How did you write one hundred and ninety pages?”
I said, “Time.”