After martial arts and gymnastics, we have nature hiking with the botanist. The botanist is usually a graduate student from Santa Cruz or Davis, who reiterates, with each brittle leaf, desiccated seedpod, and severed insect leg or wing, that she isn’t a certified expert. A wall of silence immediately encases her. We’re a kibbutz and we don’t indulge neurosis. We asked about bugs, not her existential crisis. We walk ahead, fanning out from our mandatory single line, and leave her behind, alone. She made herself a peripheral.
I am mute in the Main Hall at lunch. Horseback riding and swimming are next. My horseback privileges are suspended due to my undiagnosed limp and I’ve stopped swimming. Chlorine inflames my mosquito and spider bites. My thighs are yellow with scabs like colossal cellulite deposits that should be drained and I have no declared foreign language.
Chelsea Horowitz and the Goldberg twins occupy 3 of the 3 chaise lounges. They’ve been there for hours, painting their toenails fungus green. Chelsea Horowitz removes her gold-framed Prada sunglasses to stare at me.
“Can you say ‘contagious’ in Canadian?” she asks, voice loud and abrasive. The twins laugh on cue.
I avoid the swimming pool and spend afternoons in the crafts room. It’s in the Rec Center basement and there are no windows. The ambience is discouraging. A sullen senior counselor on punishment detail rations art supplies. It’s a bunker for the shunned and disfigured and campers with weight issues.
I sit near Lauren Silverberg. She has cerebral palsy and a portable flesh-colored oxygen tank protrudes from her spine like an extra appendage. Obviously she’s a mutant. Lauren Silverberg shouldn’t even be in Camp Hillel, but her father donated Citrus Hill. It used to be a mound with 2 hunched lemon trees. It was a conceptual homage to the Israeli citrus industry. Then Dr. Silverberg made it rise in tiers of trucked-in citrus trees and threatened a civil rights lawsuit.
Lauren Silverberg has trapped dozens of lizards in a plastic bag. They’re still alive. She removes one at random and skins it with an art blade. Then she glues the band-aid sized scales onto a rock.
I decide to sit alone. I make papier-mâché masks of girls who removed their faces and hid them in airports. I’ve made 9 so far.
I sit with my bunkmates in the Main Hall. The chicken is passing my table as Dr. White appears. He’s the cameo no one wants. Silverware stops moving and everyone sits up straighter. We remember our posture, our manners, and the value of small paper napkins.
Dr. White informs us that it’s a thinking cap lunch. He pantomimes a triangular hat with a chin string that ties. Today, after lunch, we’ll have Spiritual Discussion.
Spiritual Discussion is an unplanned activity, a back-up in case of rain or a heat wave with malpractice implications. Spiritual Discussion is the only time we see the rabbi, who is also still a student. The practice rabbis are stupefied by the weight of their responsibilities. The magnitude of post-historical interpretation and synthesis stuns and numbs them. They avoid Sex Gully. They swim but do not tan.
Dr. White assembles us into a co-ed group with four bunks. I’m in Golda Meir with a mattress filled with landmines and 11 linguistically pre-approved 13-year-olds who no longer share cigarettes or photographs with me. Chelsea Horowitz accused me of taking Canadian for my foreign language and I didn’t refute her. I’m exposed, vulnerable, and deficient. I’ve made myself a peripheral.
Scotty is in Bunk 8, Shimon Peres. He comes to Camp Hillel every year, too, but he’s been an undifferentiated part of the mosaic—the thin green medicated air above the stables, the partial shade of Eucalyptus leaking their chalky medicinal smell, and the chlorine lingering like a toxic eye pollutant.
We march single file to the foot of the terraced grove of lemon and orange trees that Dr. Silverstein’s vision made manifest. The oranges and lemons look stapled onto scaly branches. We are told to sit there. We sit.
Our topic is the philosophy of the 10 Commandments and how they might be reinterpreted based on our unprecedented historical circumstances, which are global, technological and post-modern. We were given a typed copy of the 10 Commandments at Orientation, but I keep confusing them with the 12 steps of AA.
“Chelsea Horowitz accused me of taking Canadian for my foreign language and I didn’t refute her. I’m exposed, vulnerable, and deficient.”
My mother and Madeleine are both in AA, but only part of the time. I wonder if the 10 Commandments are subject to relapsing. If you fail in a Commandment, if you’ve been intimate with farm animals or purchased false idols, if you’ve sacrificed your children to the wrong gods, if you’ve mortgaged your Beverly Hills house and jet time share to throw it all on the line for a 7 and crap out, can you go to rehab and return to meetings again? Can you go back to Sinai Temple?
I read the 10 Commandments during Study Time. I curl on my side on my cot and twisted iron springs dig into my thighs. Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt have no graven images. Thou shalt promptly make amends. Do not covet your neighbor. Thou shalt admit you are powerless over alcohol and narcotics. Thou shalt honor thy mother and father, even if they’re divorced, you’re their only child, and they’re trying to claw you apart.
Every summer my mother and Marty take me to a circus on the Santa Monica Pier. It’s an annual family ritual. I’m afraid the Ferris wheel will leave me stranded at the top while Marty rocks the seat back and forth with his elongated arms. My mother and Marty hold hands as they walk. They eat French fries, despite the calories and saturated fat. I stagger behind them.
My parents laugh as a woman in feathers and gold stilettos is sawed in half. Don’t they see she has the feet of a child, toes the size of grown-up teeth? Then the spinning cups promising the loss of limbs, and the miniature cars like metal coffins. Finally, a drum roll while a girl in pink sequins sinks into a spotlight. She smiles, wide and invitational. A man with pouches of blades takes her cape and tosses it aside. Then he straps her ankles and wrists. The wheel slowly spins. She’s the object of knives and hatchets, and flaming darts like miniature spears. Everyone applauds when she survives.
“Remove the contrived pain from your face,” my mother whispers.
Marty leans in, hearty. “It’s show biz.” His teeth are like glaciers. “Strings and mirrors, honey.”
“Not like your home village,” my mother points out. “You’ve got a real pillory.”
“When is witch dunking season?” Marty asks.
“May through October,” my mother tells him. “There’s a hiatus for bow and arrow deer butchery.”
“If they don’t drown, they get barbequed.” Marty shrugs. Drowned and barbequed women must be peripherals to begin with. They’re born that way. The 10 Commandments don’t specifically mention circuses, but they’re a subtext. I can’t separate the 10 Commandments from the 12 rules of AA. Thou shalt carry the message to all suffering drunks and drug addicts. Thou shalt not do things to animals, particularly sheep, or sniff cocaine, one day at a time.
Then I’m back at O’Hare again, where, depending on conditions, regional aircraft fly me to Pittsburgh, Buffalo or Erie. I’m pretending I’m on route to Hong Kong or London. But my flight is delayed, departures are changing gates and TV monitors offer sequences of shifting instructions. Somewhere tornados blow roofs off houses and flood highways in small cities in regions of no consequence.
My father and Madeleine are waiting in the Pittsburgh airport. We’ll have hours of two-lane roads with stretches of gravel and no light back to our farmhouse. I smell earth and shoots of what will be
From my bedroom window, in my room of wood where nothing is painted, I study the Maple forest. It stretches for hundreds of miles in all directions like a secret undiscovered inland sea. Wind pushes through leaves like currents. There are fluctuating hieroglyphics in how Maple limbs swing and twist, purposeful and suggestive. This is also a language I will eventually comprehend.
Madeleine takes me on a morning tour of the farm. An apple tree has fallen in a snowstorm and lies on the ground as if sleeping. She shows me patches of strawberries she planted the season I missed, and where Dad repaired the gate and water pump. Then we bake pies in the old kitchen that has its own fireplace. We drive to Blue Heaven and pick buckets of blueberries. We can tomatoes, and peal and boil apples one wicker basket at a time. Madeline pours white and brown sugar, vanilla and cinnamon into the simmering pot. It’s barely autumn and we’re already preparing our winter larder. My father is in the main barn with his marijuana plants and magic mushrooms, his drying screens, plastic bags and scales. Then my yellow bus arrives on cue and I’m back in Alleghany Hills Middle School.
I don’t wear my clothes from Beverly Hills. I leave them in my Gucci pink closet. I don’t describe my bedroom with French doors opening onto a private terrace. I don’t mention eating Italian cakes with Paul Simon or Madonna giving me a bouquet of yellow Orchids from her dressing room. They felt like lamps pulsing in my hands and I understood illumination then and how it’s possible to see in the dark. I don’t mention this either. It’s just another detail that accrues to someone with a red passport and a parasol with hand painted Peonies and cranes on it.
I ride the school bus down Maple Ridge Road, but I’m really still in O’Hare, alone, watching passengers board airplanes bound for India and New Zealand. If I leave enough of myself in O’Hare, I’ll continue traveling, watching islands rise and gathering phenomena without names or explanations. I won’t become a teenager after all. I’ll put my life on pause and remain a preadolescent for centuries.
We wait for Spiritual Discussion with our best posture and T-shirts tucked into our shorts. There’s an intense heat wave, and Nurse Kaufman wanders gravel and pine needle trails with a canteen of Shabbat grape juice. The senior counselors are equipped with army issue binoculars. They’re on fainting-watch. When the Santa Anas blow and it’s 103 degrees, malpractice and reckless endangerment law suits take precedence. What if a camper passed out and received a head trauma with IQ implications? Or a fracture with dental involvement? What about a visible facial impairment resistant to corrective plastic surgery?
We form a circle beside a plaque indicating Citrus Hill with an arrow. Our practice rabbi, Just-call-me-Jeff, asks for opening comments. His forehead and cheeks are stained reddish, as if he’s dotted with birthmarks or branded. It’s iodine from the Health Center.
I begin counting pebbles and clumps of unnaturally rusty pine needles that remind me of old nails in a barn after a rainy season. Or the bellies of green snakes my dad finds under rocks in our creek. But these pine needles seem to be crawling.
“I feel like I’m back in O’Hare where seasons do not exist and all rules are suspended . . . I press the pause button on my life and everything stops.”
Jeff leans into a Eucalyptus trunk. He has 3 band-aids on his wrist and iodine stains on his hand. I’m sure it’s the residue of a suicide attempt. No one makes eye contact. No one responds. Then Scotty Stoloff, who is lounging on the cement hard pine needle throttled grass as if he’s really comfortable says, “I have a problem with the commandments thing.”
“A problem?” Jeff repeats.
“Yeah. If you look up the word ‘commandment’ as I have,” Scotty produces a sheet of notebook paper from his pocket, “you’ll notice words attached to ‘commandment’ include to tyrannize, oppress, dominant, inhibit and restrain. That’s unconstitutional.”
Scotty Stoloff’s black hair is streaked with green and copper dye. His eyes are green, too. I stop counting pebbles and consider South Pacific lagoons, angel and clown fish, groupers, and lemon sharks. And swarms of miniature blue and yellow fish I snorkeled through in Bora Bora, parting schools of darting filaments with my fingers.
I feel like I’m back in O’Hare where seasons do not exist and all rules are suspended. I’m back in a region where codified laws, black ice and tornadoes don’t exit. I press the pause button on my life and everything stops.
“Also the thou shalt not steal part. The dude in Les Miserables? 20 years in jail for stealing bread?” Scotty offers from his deceptive lounging position. His body is tense and alert.
“I see,” Jeff says. He rubs his eyeglasses on his shirt, presumably to clarify his perspective. “Interesting point, Scott.”
Our next round of Spiritual Discussion will be improvisational, Rabbi-just-call-me-Jeff says. He’ll ask a specific question and we’ll answer, one by one, going around the circle. Everyone will be called upon and, yes, a response is mandatory.
I’m sitting in the accidental middle with my ribs and shoulders bruised, and my thighs sacs of yellowing scabs. Scotty is in his one-elbow faux meditation position on the far left. If Rabbi Jeff proceeds clockwise, Scotty will have the last word. “Imagine you’re going to another planet,” Jeff begins. “And you can only take three things with you. What would these three things be?”
Tiffany Gottlieb, who is slated to appreciate Italian opera and not get lost in Milan, says she’ll take her family, her cat and her Walkman. Tiffany hates her older brother, Max. He has brain cancer. His head is shaved and black magic marker arrows indicate radiation sites. He is the city being bombed. And Tiffany Gottlieb wouldn’t take him, with his bandages, catheter, IV tubes, monitoring devices and emergency oxygen tanks anywhere. He’s terminal, a condition even worse than peripheral.
Brooke Bernstein’s right hand fingernails are garnet; her left are iridescent blue. I assume this refers to her double language choices of Greek and Japanese. Her unmatched hands spread out like a fan on the thighs of her denim shorts. She’s taking both her families since her parents are divorced, her dog Justice, and her diabetes medications.
Brooke Bernstein doesn’t have diabetes and she doesn’t have a dog. She loathes her new stepfather. He’s in the Russian mafia and slaps her mother on the face and pushes her against walls. Brooke keeps missing soccer practice and may be dropped from the team.
“The desperation of old women,” Brooke revealed, summarizing her family catastrophe during a flashlight share and bond session. Obviously, it’s her mother’s fault.
Bruce Tuckerman, in Moshe Dayan, says he’ll take the family Benz, in case there are roads on the other planet. He notes the importance of transportation historically, particularly the Erie Canal linking New York and Chicago, making Buffalo the 3rd largest city in the country. Barges are underrated, Bruce reminds us, reciting highlights from his history-of-taming America final report. We’ve all written this report, of course, and share his affection for barges. Then Bruce says he’ll take a suitcase of seeds to start agriculture, and the family videos, so they can remember how things should be. Agriculture and personal history can fit in the trunk.
Everyone is taking their families, pets and Torah. Chelsea Horowitz is packing the classic pre-war Oxford dictionary, and the collected works of Freud in the original German. She has a duty to preserve their ambiguities and contradictions. She’s also taking a sub-zero down sleeping bag and flashlight. That’s at least 5 items, rather than 3, but no one notices. Then it’s my turn.
“I’ll take O’Hare Airport,” I hear myself say. Each of its four separate syllables sounds strange and hangs in the hot-chalk lemony air. I offer only 1 item instead of 3. I can justify my 1 by the monumental amount of cement and engineering involved. By pounds alone, O’Hare should count for 3. Then I realize no one is listening. The Goldberg twins are asleep. Nurse Kaufman passes with a basket of damp hand towels. She takes pulses and gives out band-aids. Then we come to Scotty.
Scotty Stoloff’s had nearly an hour to prepare his improvisational response. I hold my breath and my mouth fills with yellow air that’s thick and vaguely citrus sweet. I can’t see his green eyes because he wears aviator sunglasses. He has a gold hoop earring in his left earlobe and his nose is pierced with a gold stud shaped like a miniature bullet.
In the flickering sunlight between Eucalyptus trees, his hair is streaked with bronze and red feathers. On a vision quest, he would find his guide as a hawk or golden eagle.
“I’d take a kilo of cocaine, a Tec-9 with a sling of clips, and a Cray super computer.” Scotty informs us, removing his sunglasses. He glances at the circle of half-asleep liars with generous indifference. There’s no calculation in his green eyes or strain at the edges, no contempt or hostility.
Scotty inhabits an alternative region. We’re remote and marginal to him. It’s a kibbutz, not a four-star hotel. Nobody gets life support here.
I’m a 13-year-old without a declared foreign language and 37 infected mosquito bites who lost her face in O’Hare. It occurs to me that Scotty Stoloff may not come back to Camp Hillel next summer.
The dinner bell rings and Spiritual Discussion is over. Rabbi just-call-me-Jeff and Dr. White have to rethink the format. During dinner, there’s a rumor bunks Golda Meir and Shimon Peres are not participating effectively.
From A Good Day for Seppuku. Used with permission of City Lights. Copyright © 2018 by Kate Braverman.