The Book of J (Part IV of V)

Joel was in all ways manipulative, and he played the kitten card with exquisite skill. He’d managed to hear little Emmet’s mews exactly when they served to interrupt us on a slide into old argument. He had left me and my weary exasperation, for just a moment, and he hunted out the striped gray bundle of warm mammal that he later named Emmet (Truth). I fell in love with the kitten the moment I held him, and after we took the cab to the shelter, learned it was not a no-kill place, took another taxi to a vet, and paid a fair amount to have Emmet debugged and vaccinated, by the time we got back to Joel’s place that evening, I’d been lured into continuing with him, for a little more, just to co-parent the kitten.

I would have told Joel to turn around and go back to Jerusalem when he showed up without notice at the kibbutz, except that I was so pleased to see Emmet. Joel got to stay the night.

(You’re wondering if we were still having sex. I’m a little ashamed to say yes. I didn’t intend for it to continue, but we usually got to talking and arguing and then agreeing, and he was a very compelling kisser. But I made it clear to him that he wasn’t the only one. I had a week-long affair with an Israeli soldier on the kibbutz, partly to emphasize to Joel and to me that I wasn’t committed to Joel (and also just to do it with someone whose language I didn’t share, which was a strange trip)).

Our kibbutz was a poor place. Kibbutzim are affiliated with political parties and we had applied to the most radical. We wanted to try socialism. We were assigned to a small place inland from Hadera, which is about midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Our kibbutz only had about 200 residents and a few dozen soldiers and studentim (us), and none of the gardens or swimming pools or language classes that the larger and more moderate kibbutzim offered. We raised cotton, avocados, and apples, cows for milk, and chickens for market. Our common dining room served as our meeting hall and theater. The residents lived in stucco duplexes and we young folk had uninsulated plank barracks. Kids lived apart from parents.

We didn’t have a camera with us, so my memories are more like dreams than photographs. I recollect a water tower at the top of a slope, with a small athletic field near it, the ranks of poor barracks terracing that slight slope, the trees from which bats flew at sunset. I remember the cinderblock shower house near the kitchen. There were always frogs squatting in the far dark corners, and the acoustics were so satisfying that Laura and Mary and I sang Motown there while we shampooed. Just outside the shower house was a big kerosene tank, where we filled our cans to cart to our rooms to fuel our little space heaters (everyone assumes it’s always hot in Israel, but Jerusalem’s a mile-high city that gets snow every few years, and the kibbutz weather was like Southern California’s – definitely chilly in the winter). I remember how impossible it was not to spill some kerosene near the end of the fill, and how that spilled stuff wrecked the gum soles of our sensible shoes.

Over on the other side of the kibbutz, beyond the kitchen and the chickens and near the big circular drive at the entrance, was a grove of eucalyptus trees, the cow barn, and the hay loft. The loft was actually just a roof on big posts, seeming about three stories high and stacked with bales of hay dried from peanut plants. Laura and I liked to climb up the bales on rainy afternoons when our work shifts were over. We made nests for ourselves at the top of the loft, talked and smoked cigarettes while we poked through the hay for unharvested peanuts.

(Yes, we smoked in the hayloft! We heated our rooms with open kerosene fires. We snorted strange white powders and smoked hash with unknown Arabs. Once I rode from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem on the back of Joel’s scooter, and even though he informed me that we were only able to proceed as long as he held two bare wires together, circumventing some short but continually shocking himself, I was by then so blase about the perils of Joel that I managed to fall asleep, actually nap, while riding behind him. We were Disney-generation kids, raised in a culture that told us if we stayed in line and followed the rules, we’d be okay – life is a ride on tracks – and we’d landed in a perfunctory hazardous place, yet we were somehow protected, like morons or teenagers.)

(to be concluded tomorrow)

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