The knock on the door is followed by the appearance of John, one of my new bunkmates, who opens it and sticks his head in, his short, extremely curly hair still wet from the shower.
“Yo, Mike, Dylan,” he barks, loud enough I’m startled. “Let’s head into town.”
I look up. I’m laying on my bunk in the Tel Aviv Youth Hostel, splayed out and resting. My bag, which finally caught up with me this morning, is open on the floor next to me. We spent the day on a tour bus, going from a museum in the morning to a school in the afternoon, followed by a brief bus tour of the Old City of Jaffa. I was disappointed we couldn’t get off the bus then, because it looked fascinating, and far more ancient than modern Tel Aviv.
Unfortunately, we were whisked back to the hostel for dinner. But now, we’ve been released to our own devices. I sit up. “What are your plans?”
John shrugs. “Walk down the street and see what we see.”
“Let’s go,” says Mike, who currently sits across the room from me, his arms and legs stretched out comically on the one chair in the room.
“I’m in,” I reply. “Who else is going along?”
“You know Elle?”
I shake my head.
John waggles his eyebrows and makes a scrunching motion with his hands that leaves little room for mistake about what he thinks of her appearance. “That Elle. She’s from New York. Her roommates are coming too. Not sure who they are.”
John is crude. But I have to admit, it doesn’t hurt my eyes when I look at Elle. A few minutes later I’ve changed, we’ve gathered our things and we’re on our way out the door.
In the lobby, we meet up with the girls. I nod toward Alex and casually say, “Hey.” I don’t trust myself to say much more than that. Seeing her fills me with desire and anxiety and attraction and more than a little bit of lust. I barely know her, and she barely knows me, and even if we did know each other, we’re only here for a few weeks.
So I keep my distance. Instead, I walk along next to John, who I only met as we were getting situated in our rooms last night.
John Modesta is from Long Island, New York. He’s brash, quick with words, a little loud, a little obnoxious. I’ve never spent so much time around people from cities up north. But he’s not rude. In fact just the opposite—he’s been one of the friendlier people I’ve met thus far on this trip. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not the most outgoing person on earth—I like people all right, but I’ve never gone out of my way to make friends. And my background is very different from most of them.
I keep pace with him while he launches into a lengthy monologue. He starts by talking about the differences between New York and Tel Aviv (at least the half a dozen square blocks of Tel Aviv which we’ve seen so far). New York is dirtier, more crowded, busier. But it’s also more interesting, livelier and more artsy. He then moves on to the comparative smells (New York smells much worse, he claims, describing the smell as “dead bodies” versus the smell of rotting garbage in Tel Aviv).
The street we walk on—Dizengoff Street—is lined with sidewalk cafes, open restaurants and stores and far more. But it doesn’t have the look and feel of a tourist area like some of the part of New York I saw during our brief stay there. Just the opposite, really. The cafes are lined with people, out in large numbers with friends and family. I hear laughter and see a lot of people of all ages.
Along both sides of the street are signs, primarily in English and Hebrew, but a smattering in other languages—French, some Arabic, other European languages I would guess might be German and Spanish. The signs are colorful and modern looking.
Alex Thompson walks along talking with Elle LaDuke, a girl from the New York delegation. Elle, the object of John’s crude affection, is petite, with shoulder length black hair, all black clothes and very pale face. The only spot of color on her is her eyes (blue) and her lips (painted bright red). I can hear her questioning Alex—where does she go to school? What did she think of New York? Elle’s voice has a world-weary weight to it, like a jaded, experienced traveller coaching along a much younger friend. I keep an ear open to their conversation as Elle begins to talk about the week she spent in Paris her freshman year in high school.
“It was really duller than I thought it would be,” she says. “And the hotel accommodations were disappointing. But really, nothing helps one become more—cultured—than travel. I’m sure you’ll feel much the same after this trip.”
Alex’s eyes cut over to me. I can almost hear her screaming inside. I chime in, “Alex told me she felt the same about Moscow, that it was much less interesting than when she lived in China.”
“Only because of the snow,” Alex says. “Moscow is really cold in the winter time.”
“Oh,” Elle says. “You’ve been to Moscow?”
“Yes, but our stay was cut short, we were only there for a year.”
“Three years in Beijing. I was pretty young, though; I don’t remember as much as I would like.”
Elle swallows. Her face is actually flushed red. I say, “Alex’s father was a U.S. Ambassador, so she travelled a lot.”
That silences Elle. Actually, it silences the whole group.
So I say, “I, on the other hand, have never been anywhere, except one week in Destin, Florida. Outside of that, this is my first trip out of Georgia.” I don’t know why I said it. Except it was an uncomfortable moment for everyone, and guess I felt like I needed to rescue the situation.
“Really?” John says. “I wouldn’t have guessed. I assumed a Georgia native might be a little more… backward.”
“Oh yeah?” I say. Maybe I’m too sensitive, but Elle and John both … I really want them to shut up. I half-expected this—let’s be honest, sometimes people are idiots. Just a little. But what the hell? In for a penny, in for a pound. “Was it the Klan hood that threw you off, or maybe the lack of shoes?”
John stops in his tracks. “I didn’t mean to say—”
I reply, “You didn’t mean to say… what?”
He shakes his head. “Sorry man. I didn’t mean to be an asshole.”
“Yeah,” Elle says. “Me neither.”
“It’s okay,” I say almost at the exact same time Alex says, “Don’t worry about it.”
“What do you say we stop and grab a drink?” John says. “I feel bad now.”
“We should just get wasted,” Mike from Chicago finally chimes in, his first contribution to the night’s conversation. He’s so gangly I bet it only takes half a beer to get him drunk.
“I’m all for some coffee,” I say, “but I don’t drink. Don’t let me stop you, though.”
They all look at me like I just said that I live on Mars. Then they move on, as if I hadn’t even said it. “I heard there’s no problem getting served here,” John says.
“Getting drunk is probably ill-advised,” Elle says. “I don’t think the program would like it.”
“Whatever.” John shrugs.
“Wait, what’s that?” Alex asks. She’s pointing down the side street. In the distance, the street just comes to an end… the beach, apparently. Off to one side, a lighthouse.
“Jaffa,” Alex says. Unlike modern Tel Aviv, Jaffa has buildings which are hundreds, some of them thousands, of years old. Without anyone saying a word, we all turn toward the side street and the buildings ahead. A hush falls over the group—for a few seconds—but that is broken when John cracks a joke and the girls laugh. I don’t catch the joke, whatever it was, but not knowing the content makes me feel uncomfortable. Like they’re laughing at me.
Realistically, I know they aren’t. It doesn’t make any sense. They don’t know anything about me. But every time I see their expensive sweaters and boots, their phones and gadgets, I know I am different. After all, it hadn’t been that long since I’d been a dropout living on the streets.
We are getting close to the water now. I can smell it, a strange smell, salt and something else I can’t quite pin down. I’d never been to the ocean before my week in Destin last year. This is all unfamiliar territory for me.
Especially the girl who approaches me as we reached the water.
She has her arms crossed over her chest, and I ask her, automatically, “Are you cold? Can I give you my jacket?” I don’t have much of a jacket on me, just a lightweight windbreaker, but it’s better than nothing.
“No, thanks,” she says. “I’m okay.”
“Look at this!” John shouts, gesturing at the surf. He let out a “whoop!” as he runs for the pier that leads far out into the Mediterranean. Mike and Elle and the other girl, who hasn’t been introduced, follow.
Alex sits down on the stone wall and looks out. I drop onto the wall next to her.
She speaks in a steady, inquisitive tone, “I’d pay a million dollars to know what you’ve been thinking about the last few minutes,” she says.
Heck, she probably could. I try not to think about that. “My thoughts the last few minutes haven’t been worth a million dollars. Wait a while, and I’ll let you know when I can make that worth your while.”
She lets out a low laugh. “Two shekels, then.”
“Well, in that case,” I say, after I finish calculating the exchange rate, “I was thinking that I’m not like everyone here. That I don’t belong here.”
“Why not? Because you used to be homeless?”
I nod, once. “That, as much as anything.”
She shrugs. “I think that makes you better qualified than most of us on this trip.”
I grunt, because I have nothing to say to that.
“Tell me your favorite color,” she says.
“Green,” I reply.
“Any particular shade?”
I say, “Let me see your eyes.”
Even though it’s dark, I can still see her skin flush in the street light. See, I can do some things right. I feel a little light-headed as I say the next words: “That color.”
She shakes her head and looks out toward the water. There is an awkward pause. “What about politics? You a Democrat? Republican?”
I shrug. “It’s all bullshit if you’re poor. Both sides want you to vote for them, but poor people are too tired and stressed to learn about politics.”
“You sound like you know something about it.”
I smile grimly. “I generally like the way the Democrats treat people and the way the Republicans treat defense.”
“You think invading Iraq was right?”
I shrug. “Given the information we had at the time, sure.”
“What about… gay people? Do you think they should marry?”
I chuckle. “I could care less if they marry or not. I’m not gay, it don’t mean a hill of beans to me.”
She nods. “What about here? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
“Well, it seems like most of our friends here are committed Zionists.”
Her mouth twists up on one side. “See—you keep saying you don’t belong here, like you aren’t as smart as these people. I bet most of them don’t even know what a Zionist is.”
“It’s a damn shame,” I say, “since most of them will go on to be the kinds of people who decide what our country does. Don’t you think that’s sad?”
She smiles. “I do. Though I know a lot of people involved with our foreign policy. People like my dad. He knows his stuff—he works hard, and he cares about doing the right thing.”
I shrug. “My dad’s probably in jail.”
She slaps me on the shoulder. “So what do you think about this place?”
I shake my head. “Hell, I don’t know. It’s too early. I’ve read a few books—fiction. Leon Uris and Amos Oz. Susan Abulhawa. Just because I was curious what I was getting into.”
“I know about Leon Uris,” she says. “Who are the others?”
I raise an eyebrow. “Amos Oz is Israel’s leading novelist. He’s really good. Abulhawa wrote Mornings in Jenin. It’s brilliant… follows a refugee family through four generations.”
She smiles. “I’d bet you’re the only student on this trip who has read this much.”
I shrug. “Maybe. There’s no point in coming all this way if I’m not ready to learn something. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’m not gonna waste it. Plus … I want to be a writer. You don’t get to be good at that without paying attention.”
She arches an eyebrow. “Your reading doesn’t give you any conclusions?”
“Not yet. What about you?”
“Well, my father would say that Israel has a right to defend itself. That it’s a tiny state surrounded by enemies.”
“That’s pretty much what everyone’s been saying since we got here.”
“What do you like to do in your free time, Dylan?”
“Write stories. And the occasional poem. What about you?”
“I play violin some. Not as well as my sister Julia, though. She’s really good. And… I like to think about the future. I read about interesting things. I want to do interesting things.”
“What sort of things?”
“I’m planning to go to law school. I want to work for the ACLU or Amnesty International. I want to help people who need it.”
Now I smile at her. “What does your father think of that goal? Didn’t you say he was a bigwig with the Republicans?”
“Not really. He’s big with the government, and got himself involved in McCain’s campaign. But really, he doesn’t get into electoral politics that much. Though he is super conservative.”
“It’s good to have a little rebellion,” I say.
“Do you rebel against your parents—I mean, your mom?”
I quickly shake my head. “That’s all over with for me. Mom’s my biggest cheerleader and ally.”
She take a deep, shuddering breath. “I envy you for that.”
“What about you?”
She shrugs. “My mother’s a little crazy, if you want to know the truth. The only thing that makes her tolerable is the meds she takes to keep her anxiety and emotional fuckery under control.”
Emotional fuckery. There’s a term. I want to write that down somewhere. She continues, unaware that I’m admiring her phrasing. “That’s basically it. Dad’s gone all the time—I haven’t seen him in months. Mom’s a basket case. With my older sisters gone, that leaves me to fend for myself and protect the twins.”
I do some math in my head. She’s mentioned two older sisters, and two younger twins. “Didn’t you say you had three younger sisters?”
She nods. “Yes. Andrea—she’s the youngest—lives with our grandmother, in Spain.”
She shakes her head sadly. “That’s the million dollar question. None of us know. I guess Mom and Dad do, but they aren’t telling anybody.”
“Weird,” I say.
“Yeah,” she responds glumly.
Time for a change of subject. “Have you heard any details about your host family?”
She shakes her head. “Just a name. Ariel Jabarin.”
“Same here. Nothing but a name. Dari Peretz.”
“We’ll find out soon enough,” she says.
I nod. In the morning, we meet our host families for the first third of the exchange program. I’m not really looking forward to that. See, when I was in between homes, I spent a lot of time couchsurfing. I’d stay with one friend for a few days, then another. I’d crash in a basement, or on a sofa. The one thing I never had during that period was my own place. Even if it’s only for a few weeks, the idea of going back to being a guest all the time is difficult to get my mind around. But I don’t really have any choice.
She says, “Will you let me know how it goes?”
“Of course,” I say. “I don’t know how…” I trail off.
“Is that kind of like MySpace?”
She nods, but sort of winces at the same time. “Yes, but not as obnoxious.”
“Oh, perfect. I don’t have an account, on MySpace or Facebook. But I guess I can set one up if I can get to a computer.”
“How about you set one up when we get back to the hostel.”
“Okay….” My voice trails off again. She says it casually. I know there are a couple of computers in the common room. But I’ve never done social networking of any kind.
A cynical thought passes through my head. I wonder if Spot has a MySpace account. I bet she does, and I bet if I had one, I’d know where she is today. More enthusiastically, I say, “Yeah. I’ll set it up tonight.”
“And I get to be your first friend,” she says. The smile on her face shows a row of broad, white teeth. It’s hard for me to pull my eyes away from her.
Hours pass before we decide to head back to the hostel. At one point Elle says, “Well, you two sure are getting along.” But she says little else.
Technically our curfew was ten p.m.—it’s almost that late now. But as we walk back up the street, along the outskirts of the Old City, I see what looks like an ancient stone building. It’s dark, with nothing but holes where the window and doors should be. I stop, trying to see in. Most of the building doesn’t even have a roof.
“Let’s check it out,” I say.
“No way, man,” John says. “Place looks like it would collapse around you.”
Mike shakes his head.
I frown. “Come on, it’s just a building. It looks ancient.”
They look at me like I’m crazy. I shrug. Then Alex says, “I’ll come with you.”
Instantly I feel a rush of emotion. Because after the others refused, I was hoping she would say that. I grin and invite her in.
I step forward, and through the arched opening. It’s dark in here, but I can see light from the moon, and a little from the streetlamp, flooding through a hole in the roof. Alex steps in beside me. I can feel her presence in the dark next to me.
“What are we doing?” she whispers.
“I don’t know… exploring?” I respond in the same whisper. I don’t know why. But I take a slow step forward, and she stays beside me. Beyond the front room, there’s a small hallway. Everything is dusty stone, undoubtedly tan.
“This place is really old,” she whispers.
From the door, John or Mike slowly makes a mournful wolf-howl.
“Asshole,” Alex calls back to them. Then she grabs my hand. I suck in a quick breath. Her hand touching mine has a weight all its own. We keep walking forward.
“Watch your step,” I say. It looks like steps leading down, not far. Then we pass through another archway, and we’re in a courtyard.
The courtyard is lit only by the moon, but it’s lit well enough to tell that it was once a garden. Now, it’s overgrown with vines and bushes, flowers everywhere. The fragrance is overwhelming.
“Oh my God, it’s beautiful,” she whispers.
“Yeah,” I say. I squeeze her hand, then both of us let our hands drop, like we’d been stung by bees.
We only stay for two or three minutes. From the street, Elle calls, “Alex? You okay?”
“Yes!” Alex responds. “Be right out.”
She sighs after a minute. “I don’t want to leave,” she says. “It’s magical.”
I smile at her, though she probably can’t see that well. Five minutes later, we get back out to the street. John says, “What was in there?”
“Nothing,” Alex says, apparently wanting the same thing I so, to keep the courtyard a secret. “Just dust.”
Our eyes meet, and she gives me a faint smile, and we continue on our way.
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