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Authors: Evan Fallenberg

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BOOK: Light Fell
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He got his wish, but the result was a shock, something he would never forget. The moment their eyes met, Joseph could feel them lock together. His vision blurred, and all he could see were these two eyes, cannonballs hurtling through the murkiness of his mind. It was the first time Joseph knew for a fact that he had a soul, because these eyes had reached it, surrounding and assessing it. He at once sensed his own soul’s shape and depth and density. He could hear nothing but the roar of the cannonballs, and his legs seemed to grow roots below the marble floor. At the same time, Joseph could sense movement within his body, the flow of blood through his veins. He felt like an hourglass, filled with quickly sifting sands, and imagined his life in the measured time that was dripping always downward. He knew in a flash that this moment in his life was the narrowest strait of the hour-glass, the point to which all the sands had been flowing from the time he was born, the point from which they would continue to be shaped until there was not a single grain left to pass through.

Joseph blinked and recovered himself slowly. “I am truly grateful for the lesson,” he said in a voice just loud enough for the rabbi to hear. He was still puzzling at what he had felt a moment before, hoping to reconnect with that soul whose existence he no longer doubted. “It was my first time.” The rabbi nodded a thank-you and acknowledgment, as if he knew Joseph had never been in his audience before. “I am nearly finished writing a book,
Poet and Prophet
, and I have a few questions. Perhaps I could impose . . .”

Just then a short, burly man pushed his way through to the rabbi and grabbed his arm. “You’ll be late for the radio, Rabbi. Radio doesn’t wait.”

The rabbi nodded to the man, then turned to Joseph. “Please come by later this evening, at around eleven o’clock. The address is on this card.” He pulled a small rectangle of thick paper from his pocket, pressed it into Joseph’s palm, and fell in line behind the burly man without another word. The groups of people left in the synagogue parted to let them pass and they hurried out the door. Joseph noticed the other men in the inner circle staring at him, quiet and brooding. They looked like jilted lovers, and suddenly Joseph realized the value of the invitation in his hand. He made his way to the dark street and at the first streetlight stopped to inspect the card. He gasped at what he saw: above the embossed address, in very small print, were his own initials, JL.

In the crevice of time between his first meeting with Rabbi Yoel in a crowd of one thousand fans—secular, traditional, Orthodox, male and female, young and old, all come to lick, savor, and swallow every honeyed word the young Torah genius had to offer—and the promise of a more intimate acquaintance later that night in the rabbi’s own home, Joseph decided to pass the time in Independence Park, where he could enjoy the sandwich Rebecca had packed for him and the second apple bought earlier that day at the farmers’ market.

Jerusalem that evening, like most evenings in the sleepy capital, was quiet. Joseph saw few cars and no pedestrians in the streets, so he was surprised to bump into four or five men milling around the paths of the park itself. The park was darker than he had hoped, the only lamp a bulb at the entrance to a shabby public restroom, and the meandering presence of these ghostly souls gave Joseph an inexplicable feeling of malaise. He decided to cut through the park to the opposite side, toward an exit that would lead him into the bright lights of the city center. He followed one unkempt lane after another, scraped several times by long branches that grew like accusing fingers into his path. Nervous, he quickened his pace, dashing around blind curves. He blundered into the neglected Muslim cemetery at the edge of the park, tripping over a trampled section of fence he mistook for a tree root. Here, with taller trees and thick foliage, there was even less light. In his increasing panic, Joseph caught his foot on what felt like a step and fell flat, sprawled across the tumbled, nameless grave of some long-forgotten sheikh.

For a second Joseph lay still, the wind knocked out of him. Before he felt the hands, he smelled the cigarette. “You don’t know your way around here,” said a low voice above the arms that were snaking around him, lifting him from underneath. At first Joseph could only hear the voice and feel the hands, and he wondered for a second if this were the sheikh himself, angry at being roused so artlessly. After all, this was Jerusalem, an ancient city with ancient secrets and countless spirits.

The hands, it turned out, extended from a flesh-and-blood human being, who, it seemed, was a bit shorter than Joseph but nearly twice his girth. As Joseph lay face-down, winded, the man bent down between Joseph’s parted legs, sliding one arm well below his belly while hoisting him up with the other in one quick motion. Joseph found himself standing straight, his back pressed up against the stranger, the man’s arms still folded around him. The smell of tobacco was stronger now, and Joseph thought he could feel the wisps of a mustache on his neck. He was afraid to move.

“Once you come here for the second time you won’t trip and fall anymore,” said the man, moving a hand down Joseph’s body. Until the hand stopped at his groin, Joseph thought he was being robbed. All at once he understood, and a violent shudder shook him from head to toe. He thought about the lesson he had just attended, given by a genius of Torah unparalleled in his generation. What a sacrilege it was that the men in this park were determined to bring upon themselves the wrath of God within the shadow of the Yeshurun Synagogue, disobeying his law within earshot of hearing it. How this people never changed—the same Jews who witnessed the miracle of the exodus and the parting of the Red Sea only to wail about the marrows and melons they had left behind as slaves in Egypt. Emboldened by the young rabbi who seemed to have all the answers, Joseph broke away from the hands and the body, running back through the breach in the fence along the paths once again, passing curious idlers who flashed him knowing glances as he hurried by. He reached the street exit at the far side of the park breathless and trembling.

All at once a memory accosted him, unbidden, from his years at Harvard. A late afternoon in his first winter there, just as he was becoming accustomed to the tension and terror that would characterize his Cambridge years.
Is my
English good enough? Am I clever enough? Do I really understand
what this lecturer/administrator/colleague/cafeteria worker is saying?
And at home, with five boys under the age of seven:
Why
is this place always such a mess? Why are the kids so noisy? Quiet!
I’ve got to have some quiet to read this article/write this paper/consider
this issue.
He had just emerged from a dizzying meeting with a professor of Bible studies recommended by his own adviser, in a part of the campus to which he had never before ventured. A Christian, he thought throughout the meeting. A Christian who knows so much about
our
Bible, but who does not live it the way we do. Joseph the scholar could not erase his many years of yeshiva study, and this professor’s expertise,
authorship
of the Bible—as if anyone but God could have penned the Holy Torah!—shocked him.

For the last twenty minutes of the meeting it had been clear to Joseph from the churnings and rumblings of his stomach that he would need to find a bathroom quickly. He had had a weak stomach ever since coming to Harvard and had limited his diet to only the simplest and healthiest foods, but to no avail. Worse, he had drunk several cups of coffee that day and knew he would soon pay the price.

After a hasty goodbye he had bolted to the end of the hall and down a flight of stairs in the unfamiliar building, darting from side to side of the second-story corridor until crashing through the door of the men’s room. Darkness had bloomed early and no one had yet turned on the lights in the restroom. He was pleased to find it unoccupied, so that he was free to relieve himself without inhibition. Joseph reveled in the calm and quiet as he allowed his body to reach an equilibrium of sorts. Here in the toilet stall he was free to think. Snippets of the divinity professor’s words came back to him and he was no longer appalled, just pensive.

Suddenly the bathroom door creaked open and a man walked to the urinals straight ahead of Joseph’s stall. Joseph leaned sideways toward the space between his stall door and the door frame—instinctively, he would think later. Between two large hinges, the narrow space allowed only a knee-to-chest view in profile, the sole identifying feature a large brass belt buckle. The bathroom door swung open again. It was a large bathroom with a dozen urinals, so it puzzled Joseph that the new man, in dark trousers and a plaid shirt, would select a spot so close to the brass buckle.

From his perch on the edge of the toilet seat, Joseph then witnessed a coupling of the sort he had never thought of, never dared imagine. Dope smokers, male and female students living together, divinity professors discussing authorship of the Bible; all these had jarred him since he had arrived at Harvard, but the gyrations of these two men—two men!— in a public restroom were too much for Joseph. He could see their erections, the groping hands of these two strangers in a lavatory, and this made him fear the end of days, for God would certainly have seen too much of our species to allow us to continue polluting his world much longer. Sodom and Gomorrah revisited, the curse of Leviticus, God’s unremitting fury unleashed upon humankind.

When the two men moved to the stall next to Joseph’s he was afraid to shift on the seat, afraid to breathe. They were noisy, these daring lovemakers, each pant and groan a small stab at Joseph’s propriety. More than anything he was offended by the deep pleasure implied in their throaty grunts, like those of contented animals. When they threw their weight against the partition between their stall and Joseph’s, he feared they would crash through and taint him with their perversion.

They climaxed nearly simultaneously, one in a high-pitched whine and the other in a series of gasps and spurts that Joseph at first mistook for a heart attack. He never heard either utter a single word, from their initial encounter at the urinals through the tearing off of wads of toilet paper and the final zipping up. One darted out quickly but the other remained in the stall, deathly quiet. Joseph wondered how long he would have to balance there at the edge of the toilet seat, motionless, until his neighbor finally left. His exposed rear was cold and numb, his neck stiff, and he was expected home for supper. Finally, after several minutes, the man opened the door to his stall, emerged, and headed toward the hallway. But as he passed Joseph’s stall he pounded once, very hard, on the door, causing Joseph’s heart to leap: “Enjoy that?” the stranger asked in a low, sarcastic growl.

He had tried to calm himself before calling home from an outdoor pay phone. “Tell Mother everything is fine, I am running late, no time for a meal now.” Rebecca was busy cleaning up after bath time while the boys took turns pulling the phone from one another, testing the novelty of hearing their father’s voice far down the line. It was that hour when the boys needed a last whoop for the day, when the splash of bathwater and the sweet scents of soap and shampoo gave them a late burst of energy, and they ran from room to room, tallest to smallest or smallest to tallest, shouting and laughing and pushing and tripping in a wild frenzy, until one fell or slammed into a piece of furniture or stubbed a toe. He and Rebecca had long since given up trying to shepherd the boys to bed or even calm them down when they were like this, and it was at these times they felt the enormity of the world they had created.

When Joseph put the phone down he tried to breathe deeply, aware of the open space in the darkened center of the campus that spread out around him. For once he found him-self missing the boys’ outrageous antics, the same ones that on other days provoked him to raving outbursts.

He was still shaky as he neared his office. He needed time alone to digest what he had just experienced. His dazed reflection greeted him from a window in the stairwell, all but the space around his eyes, where two deep hollows appeared, as though someone had taken scissors and cut blackened oval holes in his face. He wondered if he could continue working in this hell. Rebecca would be ready to move back to Israel tomorrow if he would only give her the word.

When he was safe and alone behind a bolted door, Joseph had sat at his office desk in a stupor, head in hands. Again he considered returning his family to the moshav—he could finish at Tel Aviv University or perhaps in Haifa—but even as he forced up scenes from his disturbing afternoon, he already knew this was an option he would not take. This was Harvard; this was America. He was building a brilliant future for himself exactly where he wanted to be. Besides, he reasoned, this behavior must be universal; there were probably also restrooms at Israeli universities where men met to mate. No, he would stay in Cambridge.

Calmer now, relaxed, Joseph had let his mind drift. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. He pictured the men, their blunt erections like exclamation points in a silent dialogue. He saw their pelvises tilt toward one another, their eager fingers grabbing, massaging, exploring. And then, through his fear and disgust and confusion, he became aware of what had been there all along: the tingle and swell of arousal, the first inklings of an instinct as basic as theirs, and as complex.

Still shaken by the incident in the park and the memory it provoked, and out of breath from fear and anticipation, Joseph arrived ten minutes before eleven o’clock at Elharizi Street, too early to knock on Rabbi Yoel’s door. He sat on a bench at the corner, checking his watch every minute or so until, at three minutes before the hour, he could allow himself to find the house.

Elharizi Street was one of the most elegant addresses in Jerusalem, really a shaded country lane of fine stone mansions in the heart of the capital. Still, Joseph was amazed at the enormity of the building in front of him, and fished the card out of his pocket to make sure that he was indeed at the right address. It was a three-story home with a large garden, several balconies, and a tall, sloping roof, in contrast to the flat-topped buildings on either side. Joseph stood at the gate, contemplating ringing the buzzer, when the front door of the house opened. “Come on, come on,” said the rabbi in a loud whisper, motioning for Joseph to lift the latch and come through. Joseph was glad at once and smiled to himself as he gently pushed the gate and replaced the latch carefully behind him. “I’m so pleased you came,” said the rabbi when Joseph reached the door. He leaned his face close to the other man’s, grasping Joseph’s shoulders and pulling him across the threshold. Joseph sought out Rabbi Yoel’s eyes, but the strange pull he had felt earlier that evening was gone.

BOOK: Light Fell
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