Jerusalem, early February. Michael and I walk from West to East, past the Rolex store, down the old road to the Arab bus station. There are sparrows flying in circles above us, frozen avian bones alighting through the sunlight. Calling to each other. I try to imagine the business of it: gladness for the sun-warmth, insufficient as it is.
Michael is visiting for three weeks. The first night, sitting happily in my apartment on the roof, our glasses fogged from the chardonnay, he looked at me, his head tilted slightly to the side. This is the worst I’ve ever seen you, he said. I gave a bitter smile, lifting my glass to him. It’s nice to see you, too, I said.
He takes my hand to pull me toward the bus then, its door open, the driver waiting for seven shekels for the passage to Bethlehem. My head in the clouds, so to speak.
At the Wall, the taxi driver tells his bottled stories. I haven’t eaten in more than a day. Michael points to a watchtower, the dark pillar like a concrete ballast against a worrying tide. It’s okay, the driver says, there’s no one in there. We look at the copper windows, reflections of the sky. My heart pulses like an intermittent warning. Once, he says, they shot many children from that tower. We’re silent. Come now, he says. Come and I’ll take your picture in front of it.
Across from the Wall, on the other side of the narrow patch of grass we walk on, is another wall. Much older. I marvel at the pattern, a thousand stones, a slate-colored quilting. We take pictures with our phones. This is the wrong wall to photograph and yet it is, at least, beautiful. The driver seems confused by our interest but he humors us just the same. That wall is very old, he tells us. They built it to keep out goats. I turn to the new Wall, covered by a sea of graffiti. Make love not walls, it reads in one corner.
The driver takes us further into Bethlehem. Here is the famous graffiti by Banksy, he tells us. Here is a good view for your photographs. We take pictures again, duly ordered. The image, now pedestrian: a bandana-wearing man, angry, protesting, hurls a bouquet of flowers. Only the flowers are in color. This work is on the side of an auto shop, sprayed onto its enormous wall, beside a gas station. A small bus drives by and the children on it watch us, here to document their walls.
Michael is one of my oldest friends. I fell in love with him in middle school and stayed that way for many years. Fifteen years later, we’ve seen much of the world together. We’ve stayed very close. He lives in England with his boyfriend and I’m living in Jerusalem for the year.
He stands in the Western plaza, looking up in confusion at the Wall. You’re supposed to write a prayer, I tell him. Then put the paper in one of the cracks. He takes the paper and writes something secret, walks toward the Wall, places it high above him. His hand grazes the stones that remain unwashed; three feet above him the color of it changes, the last space where anyone can reach. Only three feet makes all the difference: there it shines like the morning. Small outcroppings in the uneven stones make a home for white poppies. I imagine what he’s written. Maybe that verse from Malachi, the one they blessed us with long ago: The sun will rise with healing in its wings.
We walk the ramparts. All across the distance is the city of the Great King. Look that way, I say, pointing to the south. There’s Zion. He looks at the far mountain, indistinguishable among the many hills from where we stand. Which one is it? he asks. I’ll show you, I say.
We keep walking, farther to the east, farther toward the hills dotted with apartments and monuments. We come to Damascus Gate. Ten stairs to climb and we can overlook the bustling Arab market, the street vendors who sell pomegranates and lemons, the women seated on small mats, calling out the prices of cabbage and tomatoes. I climb slowly, my eyes unfocusing, growing dizzy from the exertion. Michael, already at the top of the stairs, waits quietly.
From there we move farther along the walls. All around the ramparts there are metal railings to keep us from falling down into Jerusalem. Soon we come across an almond tree, the first blossoming of the year. Its white flowers transfix him. He kneels to smell the low branches and I remember how I loved him when the azaleas would bloom in March. We were teenagers and didn’t know that life could change. But there are white flowers every spring.
I live on the roof. Outside my front door is a wall. Its white paint chips off a little more each day, revealing the tan undercoat. A small awning provides shade in the afternoons. I come back from running, weak and exhausted. My legs are shaking because I’ve eaten so little. This happens every day now. I stagger up the stairs and reach for the key, then put my hand against the wall. I’m dizzy, catching myself before I fall. I’m starving myself and I don’t know how to stop.
In the morning, I get out of bed and feel myself tumble even as I rise. I’m stumbling into the door. All the walls in my house are white. I’m falling and I can’t distinguish one from another: I’m hurtling toward them all, my hands outstretched. I’m standing and walking to the bathroom. I take off my clothes, dark blue sweatpants and a shirt. I read the label on my sweatpants: For ages 11-12. I weigh myself, keeping my balance on the scale carefully. It’s lower than yesterday. I put my clothes back on and go for water, slowly, triumphant. My goal this year: For ages 9-10.
When we were teenagers, our church was a house of prophecy, our preacher a man who could name our sins and lay them out before the congregation for our own protection. We had services five nights a week.
The prophecies came unexpected. They poured from him in long, incantatory exclamations. Sometimes they were recitations from Isaiah, sometimes they were bleak exhortations against specific sinners in our midst. But his warnings for Michael and me stayed muted, at least, until the end. There are others in this room, he’d say, struggling with a demon so dark I won’t name him.
There’s a great deal I can’t remember from that time, but one thing remains: the knowledge that the body, its insistent and polluted desires, must, above everything, be battled. The body, that site of transgression and damnation. The body, that valley of the shadow of death. The body. The body. The body.
Sometimes, he says, I wish that you’d just eat like a normal person. I’ve heard this before, though not from him. I love eating, I say with a smile. I do it almost every day.
We go to Ramallah. At Arafat’s grave there are three soldiers standing guard, so close that their knees touch the granite headstone. We wait in the silence, a bright mausoleum with dried-flower wreaths laid against the floor-length windows. The limestone walls reflect the yellow topaz of the uncovered sun. There is no music, no martial triumph in their eyes. Michael takes pictures after we ask permission. Soon they are very proud. They raise their heads, postures up, guns glinting.
From there we walk back to town, past the just-opened Kentucky Fried Chicken. You should try our new restaurant, a man tells us. It’s American food. You’ll like it. Families line up through the door, waiting to order. I smell the vats of oil through the breeze when the door opens. Now an alarming chill of hunger. It’s in my blood. Michael is hungry, too, but he won’t suggest this, not to me. Now there’s the smell of baking, of bread in the air. We need to hurry, I say to him. We start to walk away. We need to hurry.
We walk back to the center of town and take a taxi to the checkpoint. The watchtowers there are manned.
Our preacher was obsessed with many things. But my favorite was always Zion. One Wednesday night he began our prayer service, as he always did. In your eyes, he said, you see a mountain. Our eyes were closed. Snow-covered peak, great cliffs, blue sky surrounding. Small clouds hanging quietly in the distance. In your eyes, he said, you see the throne of God. Great golden throne, rubies in the headrest. For out of Zion, he said, the perfection of beauty, God has shone forth. He leaned forward, speaking to us loudly, with great intention: For the Lord says: This is my rest forever, here will I dwell, for I have desired it. The throne became a mountain, the mountain became a throne. Zion, he said, the joy of all the earth, the city of the great King.
I take Michael, on his third day, to Zion. We walk across the city and go out the gate toward the hill, climbing past the Russian tour groups and the clusters of American families. Everyone is taking pictures, speaking quietly.
He’s surprised, maybe disappointed. Zion is not a mountain, after all. It’s a small hill, speckled with old buildings and younger trees. There’s even a parking lot. I watch him look out toward the olive groves, the walls of Jerusalem behind us. He looks to the north: valleys and hills and a wind rising out of Judea. I say it, the phrase he also remembers: Here is the joy of all the earth.
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