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Facts on the Ground
Lisa Cohen

We all have stories that we tell about our friends (Heís always so... Remember how she...) but for a long time I believed that I had no right to describe anyone -- even myself -- let alone to tell this story which is not a story. About Mark, for a long time, I would just say: My friend -- you know. I would say: We met in Jerusalem, on a bus. As if that clarified something. I would try to explain that he had lectured me, and always listened, and that these were not contradictory. Of course in the end there may be nothing unusual or noteworthy to say about him. Just this: He was my witness; I was his.

But here: He was tall, and graceful, and didactic, and he couldnít stand for anyone to tell him what to do. He was also indecisive, and always asked me what I thought. His eyes were dark brown, and his eyelashes were extravagant, like something on a doll, long and perfectly curled, to the point that I once asked him whether he used mascara. He fluttered them at me when he was happy and relaxed. However, this was not how he found men; with men he was tough -- graceful but harsh, fastidious but male. He had a long face, on which everything was visible, emotion was visible. That was what I loved. He had incongruously short, strong hands. Short hair; clean shaven. Physically perfect in the way that men can seem, all of a piece with his body. Color: his skin was pale and smooth -- though it changed later, was often flushed or spotty -- and he wore colors like they were paint, not shades that were bright or startling but things with which he said: Look, in a radically gray and dreary time I will wear a particular, beautiful gray; remember hue, remember texture, remember there is nuance in the world.

It was Jerusalem, 1979, a hot mid-summer day. I know exactly what itís like: the smells of pine and eucalyptus trees, of rosemary and jasmine, of stone baking in the sun -- all of this mixed with diesel fuel exhaust from buses. I was there for three months, studying Hebrew, trying to shed some of my ignorance about Judaism and about this part of the world. Riding a crowded bus from the university into town one day, a month after I arrived, I saw a boy, a man, who did not look Israeli and who did not look like one of the many young Americans who had costumed themselves as Israelis. I saw a boy, a young man, who looked as though he might like men. I pushed closer to his seat. He was sitting up very straight, with his legs crossed and his head tilted a bit to one side; he was reading Sense and Sensibility. I watched the way he turned a page. And I felt triumphant, as though now I had a secret that would help me to go on. Then he looked up and saw me staring, and he smiled. That summer I turned twenty, and Mark was twenty-two. Later he told friends that I had picked him up. She was the one who found me, he said.

The truth was that we courted each other. I invited him to ride with me on the old train from Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv, something I had already done once alone. You could see things on that train that there was no other way for people like us to see. The bus was faster, the bus was more efficient and direct -- in fact when we got to the end of the line we took the bus back to Jerusalem -- but riding the train we could imagine that we were traveling through pre-State Palestine, traveling during the British Mandate or even during Ottoman rule when the tracks had been laid. Past terraced vineyards and perfectly tended olive and almond trees, through a stillness so peaceful it was almost startling, it seemed as though we were the only people on the train, certainly we were the only ones in our car, no one came to collect our tickets, and we saw few people in the country we rode through. Somewhere past Beit Jalla, we saw an old man sitting on the ground, high up and far away.

Mark said: This terracing is fantastic. And itís not a desert at all.

What? I said. I had barely heard him. I had been looking not just out the window but also, for some reason, at the wood-framed window itself. I was in shock -- familial, linguistic, and political. My grandmother, with whom I had grown up, was suddenly fragile; I felt I had left her behind, and in the streets of the neighborhood where I had rented a room I watched old Eastern European Jewish women and men who reminded me of her and of my grandfather. I had brought her camera with me -- a small, almost obsolete, gray plastic Brownie that took square-format black and white snapshots that looked archaic as soon as they were printed -- and in the late afternoons, after my class, I walked around half-following these old people, taking pictures of them, of their backs, bent and frail, bent and resilient.

Facts on the ground -- that was how I thought of them. The phrase was actually the translation of a military term I had been taught in my introductory language class, which meant something like fait accompli and was used to refer to the countryís attempts to create unalterable territorial statements: the demolition of houses; the uprooting of trees; the building of settlements on disputed land (and what land was not); the construction of a fence; even the act of planting something lovely, an orchard. On the news the night before our train ride I had seen a series of Palestinian homes destroyed by Israeli bulldozers. The houses crumbled, women wailed at the edge of the television screen, then the camera swished past them and focused on an Army representative. Behind him a bulldozer uprooted a hundred-year-old olive tree. Even in all of my ignorance I could understand that this spokesman, and to a great extent the newscast itself, were presenting this destruction as a rational, necessary step. I wanted to know what else was happening off-screen. I started crying myself.

This accelerated destruction and creation of physical facts was of course happening all over Jerusalem as well. Sometime after our train ride I took Mark to a street called Mamila, next to the Old City. I had walked through the neighborhood, which led into the Jaffa Gate, during my first few weeks in Jerusalem, and I wanted him to see it too -- because it was beautiful, and because I had learned that it was on its way to being destroyed (the city wanted to create a new traffic pattern, some kind of modern mall, or new housing -- I donít know). In the first part of the century, it had been a thriving area -- the commercial center of the city, in fact. Now most of the businesses that had lined the street were shut down. Tall, rusted, padlocked metal doors and shutters covered every storefront except one, an extraordinary old curiosity shop. Metal display cases were affixed uneasily to the outside of the shop, on either side of the entrance; they were painted light blue and held a tangle of jewelry, copper plates and pots, pitchers, a menorah. Inside, the place was dim, cluttered, filled with archival toiletries and more: dust-covered boxes of toothpaste, a home perm set, old packages of panty hose. A faded cardboard advertisement for an electric razor was propped on a back counter, and boxes of candy-covered almonds and religious knick-knacks were jumbled together inside display cases whose glass was so scored and opaque that it was sepia-colored. It looked like no commercial transaction had taken place there in years. Do we buy something, or do we leave it all intact? Mark whispered to me, as our eyes adjusted to the light.

To me the most interesting merchandise was a collection of old postcards, many of them photos of Jewish settlement before 1948. Printed in Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Palestine, they were idealized images of Jewish immigrants in the early 1930ís, or aerial landscapes of tilled and planted earth; there were also a series of portraits of Palestinians, in the Old City and in the mountains outside the city, that equated them with biblical characters. I bought 20 of these cards, then gave Mark the one of a muscular Jewish man carrying a huge branch of bananas on his shoulder and titled: ďA Pioneer Carrying Home the Fruit.Ē What was most interesting to the owners, who were engaged in a protracted argument with the city and were refusing to close and vacate their shop, was the fact that in a back room behind the counters they had preserved a kind of George Washington-slept-here tribute to the early Zionist Theodore Herzl. They brought us back there and showed us a table laid out as it had been for a lunch served in 1898, when Herzl stopped there on his one visit to Palestine. Mark asked if he could photograph them next to the table but they refused. I wanted to know how many years after 1898 this display had been created, the places at the table re-set, but I didnít know how to ask.

Mamila Street itself was also fantastic. It seemed extremely wide, possibly because there was almost no traffic on it, and it felt like a deserted film set. At intervals on either side, broad stone stairways intersected the buildings, leading up to a road above Mamila and down to another; doors into the buildings were situated along these flights of steps. It was a perfect place for our histrionics. Crouched on the sidewalk at the bottom of the stairs, or kneeling at the top, I photographed Mark, using my grandmotherís camera. I took a series of blurry and clear pictures of him running up and down the steps, away from me and toward me, and of the architecture around him -- and I took one in which he lay spread-eagled on his stomach on the stairs, as though he had fallen and was slipping down them, or as though he was part of the built landscape.

We were facing each other on the train to Tel-Aviv; Mark was riding backwards. I said: Those trees -- youíre right, the terracing is beautiful.

Where did the Israelis get their fantasy that this was an uninhabited wilderness? he said.

Where did you come from? I asked, slouching back in my seat, beaming at him.

I donít know, he said. Sometimes I feel completely desperate, but then I love everything. This is amazing, and I also canít wait to get home. Iím going to move to San Francisco. What do you think? Do you think thatís a Mark thing to do? Or should I stay on the East coast?

I was flattered that he would consult me. He had been in North Africa and Italy for three months before Jerusalem. His trip had nothing to do with the Jewish state, it had more to do with some other history, but that was not altogether clear to me yet. At night and sometimes during the day, he told me -- we were comparing -- he went to a park near the center of Jerusalem to find, to have, sex. It was actually called Independence Park. Of course there was nothing like that, nothing anonymous and social and tawdry for a woman looking for another woman, there never was, and I was jealous of his freedom -- his independence -- of the fact that he could get what he wanted. How do you manage? he asked me. Oh, I donít, I said; I just donít.

He took me to churches; he had seen almost every one of them in the city, no small feat. In East Jerusalem, we sat in the garden of an English Protestant church -- it was supposed to be the place where Jesus was interred and moved the rock. We walked from the old YMCA, where he was staying, to St. Andrewís, a Scottish church nearby that looks toward the Old City and has a wall of brilliant turquoise tiles on part of its facade. We took pictures of each other with his camera in front of these tiles, supersaturated color photographs. In the Old City, in the basement of a French convent, we saw where Roman soldiers had sported while they guarded Jesus. Apparently. Their game board is carved into the stone floor. We went to the Russian Orthodox church you pass on the way out of town, and to St. Georgeís, Anglican, in East Jerusalem. One morning he came by and woke me up and took me to the Monastery of the Cross, a church in a beautiful valley, where somehow he charmed a monk (or so he liked to think; I think they did have vague visiting hours) so that we were allowed up onto the roof. We stood up there in the blistering sun and looked out at the valley and the city, its stillness. We felt foreign, and separate, and close, and chosen. It was a fine romance.

There is a Greek Orthodox monastery built into the side of a mountain outside Jericho (built on the spot where the devil tempted Jesus: All this could be yoursÖ), and we made plans to go there as well, three days before we left the country. Neither of us had a phone, so we arranged to meet at a certain corner and go on to the bus from there. I wasnít surprised when he was late, and it didnít matter; I sat on a bench and read. When I looked up almost an hour later, however, I got worried, then angry. I walked around for another hour, then went back to my apartment, where I found him sitting at the bottom of the stairs in the entrance. He said he had met someone the night before, had gone to the manís house, somewhere outside the city, had had no way to get back on his own or in time. I shrugged. I was hurt and jealous but did not want to be.

His companionship was what mattered to me. By the end I skipped classes and we took daylong walks up and down the Mount of Olives, through shuttered mid-day streets in East and West Jerusalem, through the relentless and clarifying heat, ending sometimes in a little alley in the Old City where we sat and ate hummus and foul. He had woken me up with exercises in synesthesia (Do you see the way the stone smells? he asked) and in history (I know itís all unbearably old, he said, but I still canít get over whatís happened here in the twentieth century -- ), and with his stories about sex in the park at night and in the afternoon (short, strong men in sandals and shorts, also one Ultra-Orthodox man: That was too weird, Iíll never do that again, he said). He was completely absorbed in the place and completely attentive to me. I thought, at first: He doesnít need me. That was what I understood. Oh, I was just thinking of you, he said emphatically, when I stopped by his room one day on the chance he would be there. I was bowled over; at the time I could not imagine someone doing that, thinking of me in my absence. I thought: What if we had never met? I was already spinning stories of lost connections. In the end I changed my plans so we could fly home together.

Is this what you came here for? I asked the night after our failed trip, as we walked toward the Lutheran church in the Old City to hear a concert of Bach organ music. Have you even been to a synagogue?

Have you? I thought youíd like this more.

And he was right.

Look again. Some of this I only learned later. He is angular and strong but still delicate; he has intensely dark eyes. His hair is unfashionably short for the late 1970ís. He has one outfit that is all white, or rather off-white, and one that is indigo, including one pair each of white and blue Italian tennis sneakers, very clean. He is watching his money, saved from working as a waiter for over a year. He is in motion and not. Sometimes, during long afternoons lying alone in his cheap, cool hotel room, he looks at a book about Giorgio Morandi, which he has brought from home. The book is a kind of guy-wire, a form of attachment. It is also -- since when he is lying alone in his room he often places it flat and unopened on his chest -- a weight to hold him down. When he does look at those reproductions he always feels a little frisson of disorientation, nausea, and pleasure: at the way Morandi makes absolutely solid objects melt into one another, and at the fact of painting itself. He was out of the country once three years before this, the best part of art school. He still believes in painting, clings to it as a way to understand -- to get to -- abstraction and the quotidian, but he is scared, he has no idea what he will do when he goes back to the United States. He feels completely cut off -- but that is also the point. He cannot imagine his family in this place, and that thought makes it possible to sleep, and some days to sleep almost all the time. He has not spoken to his parents, who live in Florida, in almost two years. Well they canít see me or my life, but thatís not exactly an unusual story, he said to me as we walked around Jerusalem. Ten years later we were sitting in a restaurant in New York. He was sick; I was in a state of panic so violent that I was almost numb. God, he said, putting his fork down and lowering his voice, squinting at me, and obviously in pain, almost hissing at me: God, all of these stories about people being diagnosed and then taken home to the Midwest, back into the bosom of their families. I canít stand it; what are they trying to prove?

He did not leave New York and go to his family. He moved back to San Francisco, to live with a former lover; to make a beautiful terraced garden in what had been an abandoned lot across from his house; and, nine months later, to kill himself in the most spectacular and evanescent way possible, by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, one thin grey autumn afternoon.

Today Mamila Street no longer exists, or it exists only as a kind of palimpsest. During the winter of 1990 the street and all the beautiful buildings on it were demolished; a number of years later I returned to the city for a week and one day left my hotel and walked toward the center of town with a mission -- with an almost archaeological purpose in mind. But before I reached what I had thought would be my destination, I found myself standing on a concrete island in the middle of traffic, stunned. I was there, but I was lost. I had wanted to go to the spot, however indefinite, however changed, and to gesture to it in my mind, memorially -- to say to myself: We were there, we were once right there. Though I knew the entire area had been razed and rebuilt, I still thought that once I reached a certain point I would see something I would recognize. Standing on that island I realized the reconfiguration had been so thorough that not only the old map I was carrying but my entire sense of space were now wildly wrong. Cars sped by and I stood there looking around stupidly, or looking around like a bewildered child. A man waited next to me for a minute -- he was caught there between traffic lights -- and I turned to him. Do you know where Mamila Street was? I asked. I felt like I was saying: Are you my mother? But he must have been a relatively recent immigrant; he had no idea what I was talking about. I also wanted to know what had happened to the shop that had held out for so long, resisted because the owners had thought of it and themselves as a piece of history. Some people said: I know the place you mean, yes itís gone. But others told me: No, it was preserved -- taken down, but carefully, stone by stone. They said: Itís all sitting in storage in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city -- waiting to be reassembled somewhere else, erected as a monument.

We were walking up to the Dormition Abbey (Mary slept there), just outside the walls of the Old City. Standing next to the enormous door leading into the church, I whispered to him: The sign says itís closed between 1 and 4. But he put his finger over his mouth to hush me and pushed the door partway open, and I heard the steady sighing of the monks chanting their service. Franciscan, he whispered in my ear, as though that explained the mystery. The day before we had intruded on part of the service at the Armenian church, where the somber, bearded men in black robes and caps, or the gorgeous young boys in their robes, or maybe the clouds of frankincense, had made Mark start to faint. The floor was covered with faded rugs; the men and boys moved in and out of the room to cues we did not understand; there were no pews. We walked outside, as quietly as we could, into the sun and heat, looking for a shadow in which to stand. Well I guess thatís enough for one day, he said. He leaned on my shoulder and laughed a little, embarrassed at having been overcome.



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