In progress - New chapter Every Wednesday
reading time
AA Share

Part one

“Israel,” my father said. He was an oral surgeon. It was December and I was getting a Hanukkah present. “Two whole weeks!” my mother added. She was a mother. She packed my bags: a two-month supply of tampons stashed in Ziplocs and tucked into my shoes, yards upon yards of floss, a pepper-spray key chain, and a family-pack of Dove soap, which, she always said, was pH-balanced for my vagina. I was sixteen. I knew by this time in my life that she did not mean my vagina, but a whole community of vaginas in need of balanced cleansing, to which, by virtue of my own parts, I apparently belonged. It was 1986. It was New Jersey. I had Madonna posters on my bedroom walls, though I distrusted Madonna; she was loud and crass and seemed, well, fake. I was embarrassed by the particular way she put her hands on herself in her videos. But I’d needed something to replace the Kristy McNichol posters I’d had on my walls since the seventies. Kristy McNichol had always struck me as trustworthy: she skateboarded and had played someone named Buddy on TV, and her pain struck me as the real deal. Once, when I was in elementary school, I’d sent her a letter telling her to be careful, since I’d seen some of the kids who had to have dental work done in my dad’s office after they fell off their skateboards, and she sent me a 3-D poster of herself on a skateboard and cellophane glasses I could use to look at her from my bed. But Kristy McNichol was old news. And though 40_Stories_Final.indd 71 6/18/12 5:38 PM 72 Eliezra Schaffzin I was without doubt a weird kid, I wasn’t stupid or developmentally out of whack or anything. I knew how to masturbate, hypothetically, and even had a name for my vagina. My friend Sarah and I had come up with it in middle school, when we realized that the three girls in our grade named Jodi with an “i” (there were none with a “y”) were totally alike: they all wore frilly clothes, they were all dog-faced, and all the boys liked them and chased them around at bar mitzvah parties. “Just like a vagina,” I’d said, and so Sarah said “Like your vagina,” which is how mine got the name. Jodi. I’d always liked nicknames. Madonna was not a nickname, but Buddy was—and I thought it was a pretty good nickname, as long as it was attached to a girl. While this is not necessarily true now, at the time, whenever I thought about nicknames, I thought about vaginas. Maybe it was Sarah’s fault, though Sarah had stopped hanging out with me sometime around the start of eighth grade. By then I’d learned the difference between a vagina and the other parts, so I also named my other part: Heidi Clitowitz. I’d chosen a nickname for myself, too. It was Misha. Misha was a Russian bear from the Moscow Olympics, an exclusive bit of knowledge I’d picked up from a girl in the neighborhood who’d been to Tel Aviv when American televisions had banned the games, but they’d been broadcast in Israel over the Jordanian station. I’d never seen Misha; I just liked the sound of it. The problem with nicknames, at least as far as I understood them at the time, was that someone else had to make them up for you—you couldn’t give one to yourself. So, as with the bear, no one knew about my nickname. Everyone called me Michelle. It was 1986, almost 1987, and I was going on a two-week winterbreak trip to Israel with a whole bunch of other Jewish kids from the Tri-State Region. Somebody was bound to know somebody, though when I waited in line to check my bags at the El Al counter, I didn’t recognize anyone. I found my parents in the waiting area, where they were sitting side by side in a row of those airport chairs that had coinoperated televisions on the armrests. My mom and dad still had their puffy coats on, and they were wedged into their seats so tightly they were more or less immobile from the necks down. Once my parents snagged their seats, they really liked to keep them. When I got closer I saw they were both nodding at a woman in a fur coat who sat across from them on a regular old plastic bench. She needed the space: she was big, and the coat made her bigger. “Michelle, this is Rhonda Seligson,” my mother said, gesturing with her head towards the fur-coat lady. “No, Carol, it’s Lowenthal now,” the woman corrected. She lifted her hand and wiggled a few fingers in my direction. “To us you’ll always be a Seligson,” my mother insisted. To me she said, “Your father and I know Rhonda from camp. Her brother Danny was my wonderful swim instructor for five summers.” My father’s eyes had wandered to the newsstand just beyond the woman formerly known as Seligson, where a skinny blond girl my age walked her fingers along a row of glossy magazines. She wore a tiedyed tank top stretched over a chest that wasn’t so skinny, and jeans that were more hole than denim, billowing out from her bare legs as if a big wind were blowing through them, somehow, in that airless terminal. Rhonda née Seligson looked over her shoulder and then stood up suddenly, excusing herself. “That’s Rhonda’s girl, Jodi,” my mother said. “She’s going on the teen tour too.” Rhonda yanked a magazine out of Jodi’s hands and stuck it in the wrong place on the rack. I didn’t know for sure then, but I pretty much figured this Jodi came with an “i.” What I imagined saying at that moment was, Jodi’s going on the teen tour too. I imagined jutting my crotch out a bit when I said it, a move that was more Elvis than Madonna. Or maybe I thought of all that later. Regardless, I wasn’t going to do anything of the sort. What I actually said was, “Jodi’s a babe.” “Michelle!” my mother scolded, freeing one arm to point at me over the mini-television. “Women don’t say things like that.” Like most of my mother’s pronouncements at the time, this struck me as both very true and oddly unimportant. But the real truth was that even before she’d complained, I’d felt myself backing down, as if I needed to offer an explanation. “I mean, she’s lucky, she’s really thin.” “But her mother turned out zaftig,” my father contributed. “I see Shlomo!” my mother exclaimed, struggling out of her seat. 

Shlomo was our guide, a fact I’d learned from the literature my parents had handed me in a blue-and-white envelope, the tangible evidence of my Hanukkah present. My mother had known someone related to Shlomo, an aunt or something, at her synagogue when she was growing up. I hadn’t met him yet. He was in his twenties, scruffy in his short beard and hiking boots. A pair of girlish leather sandals dangled from the straps of his carry-on—the footwear he would don when we got off the plane in Tel Aviv and would continue to wear until he saw us back to JFK again. He introduced himself and instructed us to say our good-byes; we had to get through security. I got a window seat, jammed in next to an Orthodox rabbi and his wife who didn’t seem to want anything to do with me. I don’t know why I was surprised to hear the usual announcements not just in English, but in Hebrew as well—maybe because this Hebrew sounded nothing like the slow, methodical language recited by the American teachers at my school. I didn’t understand one word of it. It wasn’t until after takeoff that I realized there were two kids from the tour seated right behind me: Jodi and some boy who had a crocheted Yankees yarmulke attached to his head with a bobby pin. I didn’t see much of them; I just heard them talking. Their conversation primarily concerned Shlomo, who’d started circulating in the aisles as soon as the seat-belt sign was off, just sort of nodding hello to his charges where they were scattered about the aircraft. He was apparently in transitional footwear mode; he’d unlaced his boots and was padding around in socks. “What’s with his name? Shlomo?” This was Jodi. “It sounds like a clown or a pet ferret or something. Or a word my grandparents would use for penis.” It did sound like a dirty Yiddish word, though I knew it was Hebrew for Solomon, and I figured the boy with the yarmulke knew it too, but he wasn’t sharing that particular insight. He just giggled at the word “penis.” It occurred to me, then, that there was an amazing coincidence going on, what with Shlomo and Jodi and all—and I felt a sudden urge to get up on my knees in my seat, lean over the headrest, and tell Jodi Lowenthal all about it. But as I’ve said, I wasn’t totally stupid. I didn’t do anything. I put my headphones on—they were sort of tubular back then, the kind that just brought the sound up in rubber tunnels, one for each ear. If you wanted, you could skip the earphones, sit on the floor, and put your ear to the armrest, and you’d hear the same thing you’d hear with the contraption on. The music on the El Al channels was definitely not Madonna. I pretty much slept through the entire flight, and for most of the bus ride from Ben Gurion to Jerusalem, which was our home base. The brochure called it our “birthright city.” It said going there would feel like coming home. We’d been on the road for nearly an hour when Shlomo woke everyone up with the bus’s built-in P.A. system and made us pile out at a misty overlook. The wind was strong and there was a light horizontal rain, though everything in the distance still looked parched. Shlomo led the group to a cluster of stone benches, shouting “Keep up the end, keep up the end!”—a suggestion clearly intended for Jodi, who lagged slightly behind everyone else, her ripped jeans ballooning when she turned into the wind. She shuffled up and immediately sat down, hugging her bare shoulders. I could hear her muttering. “Fuck, it’s cold. Isn’t Israel supposed to be a desert?” Shlomo introduced us to Jerusalem: the new city with its glossy, modern white buildings to the west, the Old City with its greasylooking white walls to the east. Even the hills were different shades of dusty white. Shlomo’s arm jumped around as he talked about one mount and then another. He taught us an Israeli army trick: when you want to point out a faraway spot to your buddies, you determine its relative distance from other faraway spots with a unit of measure called “fingers.” He demonstrated this with a small Arab village that squatted in a dry valley, holding up his hand and counting three fingers to the village from the Old City’s sealed Messiah Gate. I held up three fingers of my own, but when I set them against my view of the gate, my hand didn’t reach the village, ending instead at a small Arab girl riding a clumsy donkey down a winding path. The animal was a whitish gray, the girl covered in dust, and I hadn’t noticed the two until I focused on my hand. I inched my arm over to the right so I could reach the village Shlomo wanted us to see. The girl was obliterated behind my fingers.

Feb. 14, 2017, 2:30 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
Read next chapter Part two

Comment something

No comments yet. Be the first to say something!

Are you enjoying the reading?

Hey! There are still 4 chapters left on this story.
To continue reading, please sign up or log in. For free!

Log In with Facebook Log In with Twitter

or use the regular login form