Un-Returning as Talisman: On Letting Go

7 Train Stop: 52nd Street-Lincoln AvenueLast August, in the early evening, I’d often cross path with a very tall, pale man in loose, white clothing. He was in the middle of transitioning; as a woman, she was statuesque, imposing, melancholic. A white turban covered all traces of hair. Two small Papillons would accompany her, zigzagging and entwining their leashes; she’d stop, raise a high, penciled eyebrow and wait for them to untangle themselves. Sometimes this took a while so she’d stand there, one hand on the small of her back. I couldn’t imagine her ever stooping down, to clean up after them, to set them apart again. Other than the dogs, she was always alone.
One day I was coming home from a writing workshop and the dogs decided to zigzag around me. My bag was heavy, full of students’ poems I had to read the next day. At the beginning of each week, I’d give them an optional prompt in case they couldn’t think of anything to write about, but this time I’d asked for suggestions from the class. Among the “Worst First Date” and “First Sexual Experience” offerings, one student suggested writing about a place to which one couldn’t return. Suddenly the room buzzed with expulsions from schools, restaurants, game stores, a former friend’s corner on the street. Nicolas, the student who’d made the suggestion, remained quiet as the class decided his idea was the best; after everyone cleared out, he approached my desk and smiled.
“What about you, Professor?” Nicolas asked me. He’s in his 20s, but his eyes seemed much older.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Where can’t you return to?” He opened the door for me; the hallway was empty as fewer classes at the college run in the summer. I didn’t answer him as we walked toward the subway station; the sun blazed down on us. I thought, how nice to linger with someone, in silence on such a hot day, when he knows he’s not going to get an answer.
“Are you taking this train?”
“No,” he said. “I have to take the bus and go back to helping out my father at his store. He thinks this is a Calculus class.” He laughed.
“Well, that was a great suggestion,” I said. “What made you think of it?”
“My mother is sad lately,” he said, “and it affects my father, my sisters, me. It brings us all down.”
“She’s depressed that she can’t go back somewhere?”
“No,” he said. “It’s not that. She’s sad for me. I can never go there, and even if I could, it wouldn’t be the same place she’d known. My sisters and I were born in Brooklyn; so was my father. I thought we all came from the same place, but we don’t. We come from it only in name. And we don’t know what any of it means, and never will. Not like she does.”
“What do you think brought on her sadness?” I asked.
“There’s a war there. Her family is still there.”
“Do you think it will end?”
“No,” he said. “It started a few years before she left; she realized just a while ago that it’s not only never going to end, but it’s just a way of life there now. It’s part of the culture.”

As the little dogs whined in confusion and I fell forward into cascading white, I was thinking of this woman, a mother of a gifted student who did not want to go into business like his father but take a gamble on becoming a writer, a daughter who carries her country, her culture, her past, all of that so that it’s not quite a memory but a crescendoing phantom that pursues her, a kind of possession that won’t fully possess her, that seemingly comes closer and clearer in time, but is always three steps away from her, how vivid that once was, but also far, far away from her here.
She can’t return to her homeland for her homeland has become a war. Not a battleground, but the culture, a way of war— suddenly, as my collarbone brushed against a soft cushion that gives way to a desperate fanning of bone, I was flooded with memories of Jerusalem: early one Shabbat morning, a slowly dying parakeet in an overcrowded cage on Shamai street, her neck bent. I remembered how this little bird half-stood, half-lied on the ground, as her mate reached her foot, the blood oddly contained and neat. I remembered standing there helpless, looking through the window on that Day of Rest, at those strangely, partially-eaten toes, the ringed eye of the male flashing greedily at mine and without contempt. I remembered running down the deserted midrahov, and feeling guilty that I could not help that sick bird. I remembered buying Palmolive shampoo the next day and explaining to an Israeli relative that it’s dishsoap in the States. I remembered my late uncle predicting that Israel was born in war, of war, and would live in it eternally, not by choice, but because there would be no other way. I remembered the road blocks where every night the bulldozers and roadwork on Jaffa Road sat undisturbed and teenagers who were too young for the clubs dressed in punk-rocker clothes with the requisite piercings and slick hair. I remembered their over-guttural Hebrew and their girlfriends, whose stomachs stuck out just slightly, in an attractive way that made you never want to hurt anyone again, shared cigarettes with one hand tucked into the back pocket of their low-rise jeans, never smiling, forever glowering at whoever came down Ben-Yehuda street.

I zigzagged down a delicate space, which pushed back against me, to stop my fall. I felt large, soft hands rise as if to catch me, which they did, without touching me. Beneath the gossamer, the layers of filmy slightness, was a figure less solid once up-close.
Before I could look up, I felt her tugging on the leashes. I turned, still against her, to see the Papillons untangling, then retangling, themselves. One whined and sat down in defeat; the other barked rapid-fire protests at a fire hydrant. The leashes wavered again, like we were all about to jump rope. She shook them until, through a series of oblong figure 8s, the dogs finally untangled themselves. Retreating from one another, they form a very large V, so that a woman coming toward us picked up her small child to cross the street.
I pushed off and found my balance. She handed over my bag which had slipped off my shoulder. Her hand was very cold though it was a sweltering day, that coldness like a metallic gem adorned so many times it’s become a part of her, a real part of her, something she can hand over to someone not a stranger nor a friend, a feeling that any other might mistake for an embellishment of a true feeling. What we hold here while we are also far, far away from here.
Once in my building, I trudged up the four flights of stairs. I could’ve taken the elevator, but I didn’t want to be alone in a small space, not like that, not having exchanged a word with someone I’ve seen so many times I should know her name, not even looking her in the face.
I don’t remember parting; I just remember her gone.

*

In the corner of the building and to the left of my bedroom window, a boy is practicing the Kiddush for his Bar Mitzvah. I listen through the glass, unable to see him, wondering why he’s left his window open, a torn, blue curtain blowing in the wind, on such a cold December night. I’ve seen the boy before, fumbling with the lock to open the door, loaded down with shopping bags, a backpack, a coat that he might never grow into; he’s thin and small and he stammers when he greets me in the hall, his head down to his chin. But, unseen, chanting, the voice is baritone. I don’t think he’s practicing so much as he’s fallen in love with the prayer. When I was Bat Mitzvah age, practicing those chants always made me feel sad. Perhaps it’s the somberness of such an angular, bare-boned language that makes us seek out others without having to seek them out. Or perhaps at that age it’s only way for one to leap without looking.
Perhaps he just wants to feel less lonely.

*

I’ve had a lot of blood drawn since June while battling an illness; the treatment itself sometimes gives me “brain fog”. Though one doctor promised it will pass, I’ve felt light-headed for a better part of the year. I force myself to focus, as if I were a student again cramming in all-nighters, sharpening the eye to complex puzzles like the poem of Ponge. On the eve of Rosh Hashannah, instead of going to temple, I sat in bed with my prayer book open to the wrong pages, ruminating over the words of a passage from the Talmud-Berakhot, Eternity means Jerusalem.
As the end of the summer, Nicolas had turned in a stunning portfolio of work. On Rosh Hashanah, the college was closed and we met up at diner for lunch; I encouraged him to submit his work out, to take more creative writing courses, but he said this would be only a hobby; he knew he’d have to pursue a business degree. That he’d always known and he was too old now to waste time on unlikely dreams. That this country was stable, and that’s all that mattered to his parents. And that his success would mean his mother had not deserted her country in vain, that his achievements would fill the void.
He sat back in the booth and said, “You never answered my question, Professor.”
I stirred my coffee. “You should try to visit one day, you know.”
“Where?”
“Your mother’s home.”
“Her village is gone. The country, maybe,” he pondered. “But the situation won’t improve there. Not for a while, if ever. It’s too risky. My life is here. This is what I know. I want to travel. But not to go there.”
“You’re still young,” I said. “You have time to think about that.”
He smiled. “So do you. Tell me about Jerusalem.”
I smiled back and said coolly, “How did you know I lived there?”
Instead he asked, “Do you think about going back?”
I shook my head. “Nicolas, last time I had decided to return to Jerusalem, my very first day back, there was a bombing at my university. I went there to do post-graduate work. July 31st, 2002.”
He looked me for a while. “So it’s been 10 years.”
“Yes.”
“What happened after the bombing?”
“I tried to make it work.”
“And then?”
“I couldn’t. You see, the woman who got me the fellowship, who really pulled for me to get funding—she died. In the bombing. I never even sent her family flowers. I never did anything. I was just angry. I wasn’t okay for a long time.”
When the waitress came with the bill, he took the check and insisted.
“Please,” I said. “It’s my treat.”
He shook his head and said, “next time.” He said this knowing full well that we both knew that there was not a next time. He’d chosen a very competitive, rigorous curriculum, and in addition to an internship, he’d still work for his father. I knew this then, just as I still know it, sitting here writing this on the last day of 2012.
Nicolas told her to keep the change, and we walked out to the street. It was September but still warm. Suddenly I said, “You know, for three months, there’s absolutely no rain in Jerusalem. I remember the first summer I went, I brought an umbrella, and my uncle couldn’t stop laughing. This small child appears at the airport in Tel Aviv, alone and scared, clutching the hand of a security guard who carries her bag. In the other is a brand new umbrella. I don’t know why I didn’t think to pack it. I wonder why I’d carry it onto the plane like that. I don’t remember an of this, but my uncle did. He loved to tell that story.”
And suddenly Nicolas and I were walking all over lower Manhattan while I told him about living in that city, and the recent years I’d lived in an Israeli enclave surrounded by Arab East Jerusalem, that mountainous and sprawling idolatry of space, a contumacious labyrinth full of dead-ends, the broken-down roads, the beautiful, tree-lined streets of the German Colony lined with cafes where I’d met friends with whom I’ve now fallen out of touch, Nili, Sheli, Marina too, the Russian girl pretending to be Jewish so she could make aliyah, beautiful, sneaky Marina who took me to the clubs in industrial Talpiot and told me every one in Israel is an imposter whether a sabra or olah, and how close I was telling her that every day I felt more like a foreigner among people who were supposedly my people, was that eternity, is that similar to his mother’s feelings about the people she left behind?
He shook his head and didn’t answer me; we reached a 6 Train stop. He’s going Downtown, back to Brooklyn. I was headed Uptown. We shook hands, and then broke into a loose, awkward hug.
On the crowded train, my brain sank again into a fog. The harder I tried to force focus, the more difficult it became to think of anything but the tall woman in layers of white. I hadn’t seen her since that summer day, and wondered if anything had happened to her, a woman for whom transition has become a way of life, and would the becoming itself as an end ever be truly felt—would it any more than entering into remission as an end to an illness, a war that one can ever “win” in either case…
Eternity means Jerusalem.
The 6 arrived at Grand Central; I transferred to the 7. I thought of my father and that quote meant Jerusalem and eternity less as physical space, and more the promises one makes to another, to those we love as much as to those we must live with, and that we must uphold that promise through a collective consciousness, even if it’s just between two people who have nothing else in common. I thought of the boy almost Bar Mitzvah who must be praying in the synagogue with the men in front of the bima while the women watch from the upstairs gallery, partially obscured by a cut-out screen. When I first moved into the building, an elderly neighbor took pains to explain that the boy’s family is Modern Orthodox, and practices shomer negiah, which means they try not to touch those of the opposite sex unrelated to them, so I shouldn’t take any offense. She patted my hand, and I remember getting lost in West Jerusalem, and walking into a religious neighborhood while I was wearing a tank top and jeans, and young Orthodox men, rushing into a synagogue for evening prayers, slowing down to gawk at me, one even raising his hand into the air, stupid girl, he called out, do you not know where you are?
Suddenly the train reached 52nd street, and I got off. I stopped under the elevated tracks on Roosevelt Avenue, confused for a moment. I drowned under the sound of the 7 Express rushing past both directions while the Locals screeched to sudden stops, and suddenly I saw Brian coming down the stairs, and I called to him over the rumbling of the departing train, and even in the fog, I knew he’d seen me before I saw him.

*
The week of Christmas, Brian and I are coming home from the hospital, and we stop in front of the firehouse next to our building. I’m surprised to see a Golden Retriever, tied to a patio chair, standing stock-still. A lone fireman motions us over into the garage, asking me if I want to pet her. I do. She doesn’t move. Her eyes are glassy, unreachable, and she doesn’t blink. Her leash remains tight and tense. A quiet and quick feeling of defeat falls over me; why won’t she react?
She’s a real cold one, the fireman says.
I look over at Brian, who shakes his head.
She’s a little out of it, Brian says.
At first I think he’s talking about the dog, which I continue to pet, until I realize that this beauty has a tag from FAO Schwartz attached to one ear.

*

Later, we meet Robin and E at The Kettle. We settle down in the wooden booth near a large window, and closest to the door. We keep our coats on, and over the noise of locals yelling at the Brooklyn Nets to hustle. We chat with the waitress from Portland whom I constantly run into on the street. I keep forgetting to ask her name. She brings us drinks and we talk about the things we are letting go over for 2013.
This morning, I head straight to the Aubergine, a nearby café, to finish this post on the last day of 2012, and realize I’ve forgotten the entire previous evening’s conversation. I don’t remember what everyone said they wanted to let go, not even what I said myself. Just as I’m about to message my boyfriend to ask him, I look to see the woman in white in front of me. The turban, the eye makeup, the delicate rouge, all the same. Only now she’s in a structured, immaculate white coat with a cape attached to the back. She’s already ordered his coffee at the counter, and without a word, raises her cup to me. Having not ordered yet, I look around the table and then raise a salt shaker. She laughs quietly and blows me a kiss, and then turns so her cape swoops out as I’m still trying to decipher that laugh, just where the high drops into the low, all the tones of that evolving pitch, leaving me a halo of breath to escape the fog of half-possessions and un-returnings, to carve the simple, the temporary, on a window.


A former Rackham Merit Scholar and Leopold Schepp Scholar, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a playwright at New Perspectives Theater, and at work on a new play about the U.S.-Mexican Border. Her work appears in Arts & Letters, B O D Y, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review and Puerto del Sol. Recently her short story “A Way out of the Colonia” won the Editor’s Prize in Camera Obscura, and was nominated for a Pushcart. Her first book of poems SOLECISM is forthcoming from Virtual Artists’ Collective in 2013. She’s co-editor of HER KIND, the official blog of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her influences come from spaces that demand constant adaptation: U.S.-Mexican border town culture, both East and West Jerusalem and what she calls “7 Train Culture” of New York City. Find out more about her at 7TrainLove.org.

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