I wake up facing a wall of my dormitory room. A moving light casts a nearby shadow. Half awake, I grope for my glasses on the nightstand, put them on.
Abner sits by the window. It’s fall, 1964. Outside, the Judean hills hover, grey sentinels beyond layered fog, a moonless sky. Rusting skeletons of armored cars dot the horizon.
Abner wears an undershirt and shorts, his hair wild, a bald spot in back. He holds a lit wooden match, his face in shadow. It’s fall. His hand flutters, a wounded bird, as the match goes out.
He lights another one, moves it right to left, his breathing rhythmic. Another; another.
“The fuck!” I say. Abner turns, eyes bright, cupped hand moving.
“Beautiful, huh? God’s light? It’s sacred, you know,” he says and blows it out.
I pull up my blanket, roll toward the wall and fall back asleep.
Abner and I have roomed together for two weeks. Building 8, room 19, Shekun Hastudentim, Hebrew University, Jerusalem. I’m nineteen years old, Abner twenty. Pimples dot his face and shoulders. He’s heavy, stands five nine, should shower more.
Abner’s from Cincinnati, son of an accountant. His mother wants him to be a cantor like his cousin. He sings off-key, does vocal exercises each morning in the mirror.
My dad’s a pediatrician. He wants me to be a doctor, holds small hope for it. Mom suggests I consider politics.
I’m inordinately ordinary, chunky, five-foot-five, convinced there is no god.
Abner and I eat breakfast in the cafeteria: coffee, bread too wide for the toaster. I hate tomatoes, cukecumbers and yogurt, would kill for three thick slabs of French toast, powdered sugar dusted, agleam with butter, floating on a maple syrup sea, a mug of Folger’s laced with half-and-half, six bacon strips, three eggs over easy. I don’t do kosher.
Why did I come to Jerusalem?
Dina’s in my Ulpan class: chesty, from Philadelphia. We study Hebrew four hours a day, Bible As Literature, Jewish History, Introduction To Talmud. Abner eyes Dina over breakfast.
Everyone else in Ulpan speaks fluent Hebrew. Peter, a Catholic guy studying to be a priest, reads Torah in its original Aramaic.
After breakfast Abner leaves for Advanced Talmud, Cantorial Chant, then Kabala. After my Ulpan classes I head to the secular side of campus.
It’s chilly. Wind swirls across the flat rock table on which the college rests, tugs my sweatshirt hood, hints of smoke. My sweatshirt’s the blue of the Israeli flag, “Hebrew University” written in front, the first letter flame-shaped like the Statue of Liberty torch. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Emma Lazarus wrote that.
Twentieth Century English Literature convenes in Binyan Lauterman. Today we’re going to study D.H. Lawrence: “Sons And Lovers.” I got multiple hard-ons reading the sex scenes. Who knew Englishmen get erect in moonlight, describe it in books? D.H. was some fuckin perv.
A hundred students fill the lecture hall, mostly American. The professor’s English; tally-ho and all that rot, but he can teach. Did you know that Joseph Conrad’s native language, his mama loshen, was Polish? That he tried to off himself? That “Heart of Darkness” forms the plot for “Apocalypse Now?”
Miri sits at the end of a row, one hand to her eyes as if shielding them from sun. She wears a shapeless sweater, baggy pants, no make-up, her hair clustered about a small, pale face. It looks like she’s hearing sounds beyond the human auditory range, an ashram collie.
I slide in beside her, lean over, see doodles: stars, ankhs, swastikas, an enormous lizard, Miss Piggy roasting on a spit, asking “Moi?” Miri sees me peek, shields her paper with a forearm. “Sons And Lovers,” our professor calls.
I don’t speak to her. The truth? I’m a virgin, much too shy to chat with a living female entity, a doodler. Much less one doodling Miss Piggy on a spit.
Before Abner I roomed with Benny, an Israeli from Yemen: dark-skinned, married. His family lives in Shaharayim south of Tel Aviv. We argued over Vietnam, over how he locked me out of the room to screw a nurse from Hadassah Hospital, also Yemenite, very sweet. I ended up sleeping in a laundry room under a borrowed blanket, no pillow.
Benny served in the Irgun before the war in 1948. At thirteen he executed a Jewish woman living with a British soldier; shot her in the kitchen behind the ear. He says it calmly.
Benny uses me to fool his wife when we visit Shaharayim, has me say we rode together on the bus from Jerusalem when he actually was sleeping with his honey at the U. We meet at a bus stop, rehearse his lies walking to the house.
His wife is Ashkenazi. They have two kids. She believes us, asks if Benny’s eating well, keeping warm. “He’s fine,” I say and can’t believe she doesn’t see straight through me. Her trust forms phlegm that coats my throat.
Why stay married to someone you no longer love? For the kids? Their lives are shattered anyway.
When I return from English Lit Abner’s praying in his tallis and tefillin facing Jerusalem, five miles west of here. He sways, eyes shut, acne shiny on his cheeks.
I go to the lounge. Students pass by holding grocery bags, briefcases, basketballs, punch each other’s arms, hoot at jokes, scope me out.
Abner’s droning ends. I return, flop onto my bed. Abner folds his prayer shawl, kisses the hem, unwinds the leather straps on his arms and head and puts them in a box.
“How was Lit?”
“OK. There’s this girl: Miri. She doodles swastikas and Miss Piggy in her notebook.”
“Don’t know her.”
“How was Talmud?”
“My head spins.”
“Over rabbis debating some arcane text a thousand years ago?”
“Their genius echoes across time.”
“Better you should study accounting, like dDad.”
“Why demean them, Leo?”
“I loath legalese: nit picking ad nauseum.”
“Have you ever read Rashi?”
“I prefer reality.”
“Hmm. Meet Leo, the realist, age nineteen.”
“Jewish? What does ‘Jewish’ mean?”
“Sandy Koufax. Leon Uris. Buddy Hackett. Rashi’s for zealots.”
“I’m a zealot?”
“Worse: a tsadik. You might even be a mystic.”
“Toi. What you did the other night with matches?”
“Mere research. Let’s eat, Leo. Mystic burgers.”
Dinner? Embalmed green beans, schnitzel, farfel, apple juice. Abner pays the tab.
Next day is Erev Shabbos. I take a bus to town, buy weekend groceries: cheese, crackers, instant Nescafe, oatmeal. I eat falafel, browse windows, return to the bus.
Miri’s sitting at the bus stop in another homemade sweater, baggy pants, reading a book.
She spots me.
I nod, point at my bag.
I nod. At nodding, I excel.
She waits to see if I’ve acquired speech.
I have: “Would you like some coffee?”
“How a‘bout tea?”
We drink tea and eat baklava.
Miri’s from Omaha, the Jewish part, maybe twenty families, has two brothers, attends Iowa State, peers at me through lush brown eyes. She’s majoring in art.
I say I’m the youngest of three, that I got lousy high school grades, buckled down, got into college, screwed around my freshman year, buckled down again. I say I talked a lot in class, nearly botched my SATs, spent many happy afternoons in detention, major in history.
Miri says she’s pretty much a drone, gets all As, the oldest kid. Neither of us know exactly why we came to Israel. She never takes her eyes off me.
“Why do you stare?” I ask.
“I just look.”
She bites into her sweet, brushes crumbs from her fingers. Also cute.
“I study faces.”
She shrugs. “Art? You do it, too, you know.”
“Because you’re pretty.”
Miri frowns. “What do you see when you look at me?”
I see your eyes I think. I see my own refracted lust.
“Why do you doodle?”
“No; answer me. What do you see?”
“I see you.”
She smiles. “You stay in the dorms?”
“Building 8, Room 19.”
We shake hands. “Leo. Nice to meet you, 22.”
We ride back, look at stone hills. On campus we schlep our groceries to the dorm. Miri won’t let me touch hers.
“I’m good,” she says.
“First-born,” I say.
How do I describe my having sex with Miri?
It doesn’t happen that night, or the next, or the next. We share meals, hear music, sip tea, munch cookies, talk. Miri describes her siblings, I my cousins. I crack a joke she doesn’t get. She’s allergic to cat fur. I play the clarinet badly. Scintillating repartee.
Her hands are cool. She nibbles at her lower lip when being earnest. I admit I don’t keep kosher. She admits she does; it’s how she grew up.
We eat at Abner’s restaurant. I describe him praying, his burning matches. She lives alone, pays extra for the privacy. I make a pun. She laughs. She laughs! Meet fucking Bozo tThe Clown. I got tons of ‘um.
Is this how people discover one another, see things in themselves they otherwise are blinded to? Does love consist of changing in another person’s eyes? Is love a subdural recognition? A psychic synapse?
Miri makes me tingle.
She invites me to her room. We kiss. Miri whispers “turn off the light” and when I do she undresses and crawls into bed. I glimpse a smooth right shoulder.
I strip down to underpants, slide in, notice a charming dent on the bridge of her nose, caress her small, firm breasts. We kiss deeply; longer. I farm dinner spices from her lips: garlic, cumin. Does she farm mine?
Miri asks if I’ve made love before. I haven’t. She did; last year, with Jonathan, a senior from Ohio. He taught her stuff. When I rush she slows it down, initiates a measured pace; combat in wet trenches.
I grow fierce; we resuscitate a rhythm. Things proceed until Miri’s crescendo cries, my gasps, encapsulate the room. I am too enmeshed in wonder to reconstruct the details, just remember feeling unfocused, muddy, non-terrestrial.
We sleep, awake, sleep more. At two a.m. I detect breathing; is it hers or mine?
At daylight Miri rises, turns away, slips into her things. How strange, such daylight post-coital modesty.
We don’t meet for several days. I ponder how I feel about Miri, about sex, what it’s done to me. I sit at a table, hands roaming ripples in the wood.
Abner’s off touring: Megiddo, Tsfat, Har Sinai. I invite Miri to my room but she’s busy with exams. I concentrate better. My feelings ease, an anchor re-attached. I light a match one night, gaze at gold shimmering in one cupped hand. God’s light?
Do I feel love or just gratitude for sex, for the recognition sex implies, for being transported to a portal otherwise too remote to contemplate. Sex? For me? Stupid, unappealing, short, pathetic me?
Abner returns exhausted from riding in an antique bus on bumpy roads along the fringes of the Negev, students singing “Artsa Alenu,” returning from Mount Sinai. He falls into bed and sleeps.
Watching, hearing him snore, I want to shake him, scream ‘Abner, wake up! I’ve had sex; strange, uncalculated sex and, dare I say it, mystic. Mystic sex, Abner, lying in the warmth of my fecundity, watching Miri as I watch you now. Wake up!’
He wakes, showers, eats a sandwich, sleeps more.
In English Lit Miri and I take a mid-term test, snack in a nearby building. I touch her arm, ask how she’s doing. She smiles. We go to her room, make love and all is rendered whole again.
Later she puts on her bra and underpants, stands beside the bed.
“I have something to say.”
“I love having sex with you, Leo: your gentleness, your body smell, how you feel inside me.”
“So come to bed.”
“But loving sex is not the same as love.”
Something shifts inside my chest.
She leans down to stroke my cheek.
“It’s finished, Leo. It’s over; now.”
I rise, ridiculous in underwear.
“I’m your first, Leo. You have no one to compare me with. And, simply said, I just don’t love you.”
“But I love you.”
“Why destroy something so beautiful?”
“Because I want the best for you.”
That evening I wander through an abyss of my own making, empty and afar. Am I worthless after all? A fool?
I stand by my dormitory building outside the door, enter, walk down the hallway leading to my room, the lounge, see couches, lamps, a distorted radio.
I sit; I remember that, remember waking in the morning in bed wearing rumpled clothes, voices calling from a window.
Abner and I sit on a lawn while the sun slides sideways, shadows gathering among the hills.
“So how was Sinai?”
Abner’s hand makes clockwise circles on the grass.
“I’m still assessing.”
He switches to counter clockwise rubs.
“It’s different, reading Torah, then seeing places mentioned there up close, their smell, scrambling up and down sharp rocks. Bible stories excise blisters, sweat, torn sandals, dust.”
I pull a yellow dandelion, tickle my chin with it.
“Took my Lit midterm.”
“Yeah. How’s Miri?”
“How’d you know about us?”
“Well, we’re done.”
“I came, I saw, she conquered.”
“Miri dumped you?”
“You could say.”
“You guys seemed great.”
“Turns out she was just another piece of ass.”
“I want to talk to you about something.”
“I hung out with Dina on my trip.”
“Dina Big Tits?”
“Leo, I see you’re hurting. I’m sorry, but you’re my friend. I need for you to hear me out.”
“You hung with her.”
He starts to rise.
“I’m sorry, Abner. Please, go on.”
“She prays five times a day, fasts on Wednesday, wears a tallis, has five sisters. She’s from Milwaukee.”
“Home of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer.”
“I experienced intense feelings for her, Leo. Degrading ones.”
He heaves a sacrilegious sigh.
“Two, three times I dreamt that she and I were doing it. There, under the stars, people around us listening to our sounds. I dreamt that we got loud, woke up sweaty. Such images: Dina, a priestess of Baal adorned in copper, jewels, perfume. Astarte.”
“I got up, walked to some rocks. Dina came up behind me. We sat and listened to the wind. She wore a t-shirt and walking shorts; flip flops. I described my dreams to her, the female demons, my erotic filth.”
“I told her she starred in all of it.”
“And then you did it. You and Dina, in Sinai, splayed beneath god’s eternal sky.”
“I moved us to the sand, went and got my sleeping bag. I was quite considerate.”
“Was Dina revolted by your pagan photographs, your nuclear testosterone, your filth?”
“De yiddisher meydeleh was fine with it.”
He nods sadly. “More than fine. But now it feel like I’ve committed psychic rape.”
I shake my head.
“Don’t you see? It’s forbidden, what we did. Repeatedly. Two unwed Jews, rutting like mongrelsgoyim in the sand?”
“Forbidden that you rutted, or that you utterly enjoyed it?”
I rise, look down at him.
“I’m no Rashi, but if I recall correctly Abraham experienced nocturnal visions on the self-same turf, dreamt about a smoking furnace, glowing torches?”
“Genesis, Chapter 15, verse 17.”
“Furnaces? Torches? Obvious erectile metaphors. Your encounter with Dina validates an eternal, god-endorsed tradition: Jews shtooping on sand. If you really believe in god, blame him. He gave you your genitals.”
“Leo, Abraham was married at the time.”
“So? You despoiled Dina without first a chupah? I envy you, you turd. You’ve found someone that you clearly love. Screw guilt. Pray on it, then propose to her before she loses interest. Envelop Dina in a white silk wedding gown replete with pearls, a diaphanous veil and an eight- foot train. Render her pure again. I shall not reveal your venal crimes.”
“God does work in wondrous ways…”
“Ways, shmays. I’m kicked to the curb, you’re getting laid. I hereby renounce women permanently, so go screw yourself my self-deluded friend; then screw Dina.
“Oh,; and what exactly does god have to do with all this sex stuff anyway? What’s so holy about humping?”
“Not humping Leo; making love. And I feel distinctly holy doing it.”
“So, alas, did I.”
The Ulpan group, Miri included, traveled home through Europe at the end of school. I’ve heard nothing from her since.
I do value my adventures in Room 12-22, value how I felt communing with Miri in the City on the Hill, at least until The Great Kiss Off. Jews get hooked on memory, properly pasteurized. It’s congenital. Check out Genesis.
I applaud Jonathan oOf Iowa for teaching Miri some lovely secrets that she passed along to me. I share those with my own beloved. Yes, I eventually repented from renouncing women after my pain subsided over time. Like years.
I forgive her now.
I puzzle still about whether sex is sacred or profane, lusty or divine, a slowly moving match at night or simple lust.
I still question god, spell it with a lower ‘g’.
But last month I started reading Rashi, just to see what Abner’s fuss is all about.
Editor’s Note: This piece was the winner of the 2017 Iowa Sweet Corn Prize in Fiction.
Author Bio: Barry Herzog has published a number of poems, short stories and memoir pieces in print and on-line literary journals. He is retired and lives in California.