For the Relief of Unbearable Urges

For the Relief of Unbearable Urges


In This Way We Are Wise

Three blasts. Like birds. They come through the window, wild and lost. They are trapped under the high-domed ceiling of the cafe, darting round between us, striking walls and glass, knocking the dishes from the shelves. And we know, until they stop their terrible motion, until they cease swooping and darting and banging into the walls, until they alight, come to rest, exhausted, spent, there is nothing at all to do.

Plates in halves and triangles on the floor. A group of ceramic mugs, fat and split, like overripe fruit. The chandelier, a pendulum, still swings.
The owner, the waitress, the other few customers, sit. I am up at the windows. I am watching the people pour around the corner, watching them run toward us, mouths unhinged, pulling at hair, scratching at faces. They collapse and puff up, hop about undirected.
Like wild birds frightened.
Like people possessed, tearing at their forms trying to set something free.

Jerusalemites do not spook like horses. They do not fly like moths into the fire.
They have come to abide their climate. Terror as second winter, as part of their weather. Something that comes and then is gone.

Watching plumes of smoke, the low clouds of smoke that follow the people down the street, I suddenly need to be near the fire, to be where the ash still settles and cafe umbrellas burn.
I make for the door and the waitress stops me. The owner puts a hand on my shoulder.
"Calm down, Natan."
"Sit down, Natan."
"Have a coffee, Natan." The waitress is already on her way to the machine.
I feel an urgency the others dismiss. I can run with a child to a braking ambulance. Can help the barefooted find their shoes. The time, 8:16, my girlfriend late to meet me. I should be turning over bodies searching for her face.

In a chair drinking coffee holding the owner's hand. "There is nothing to do outside. No one to rescue. Who is already there is who's helping, Natan. If you are not in the eye when it happens, it's already too late to put yourself in."
I trade a picture of my girlfriend dead for one of her badly wounded.
Inbar with her face burned off, hands blown off, a leg severed near through. I will play the part of supportive one. I will bunch up and hold the sheet by her arm, smile and tell her how lucky she is to be alive and in a position where, having discussed it in a happy bed, in a lovers' bed, we had both sworn we'd rather die.

The phones are back. The streets secured. Soldiers everywhere, taking up posts and positions. Fingers curled by triggers.
An Arab worker comes out of the kitchen with a broom.

I'm the first to reach the phone, but I can't remember numbers. One woman slams a portable against the table, as if this will release the satellite from the army's grip.
I dial nonsense and hang up, unable to recollect even the code to my machine.
"Natan will be OK," I promise before leaving. "Natan is a grown man. He can find his way home."

On the street I am all animal. I am all sense, all smell and taste and touch. I can read every stranger's intentions from scent, from the flex of a muscle, the length of the passing of our eyes.
I'm on the corner and can turn up the block, take a few strides into the closest of kill zones. I can tour the stretch of wounded weeping and dead unmoving, walk past the blackened and burned, still smoldering ghosts.
The Hasidim will soon come to collect scattered bits, partial Christs. Parts of victims nailed up, screwed in, driven to stone and metal.
Hand pierced with rusted nail and hung on the base of a tree.

It is with true force, with the bit of higher thought I can muster, that I spare myself a lifetime of dreams.
I follow a street around and then back on trail to Inbar's apartment.

She is there. We kiss and hug. She holds me in the doorway while I pass through the whole of evolution. The millions of years of animal knowing, of understanding without thought, subside.
We exchange stories of almosts, of near deaths, theories on fate and algorithm, probability and God. Inbar late, on a bus, distant thunder and then traffic. She got off with a few others and walked the rest of the way home.
She makes tea and we sit and watch our world on television.
There is the corner. There is a man reporting in front of my café. And then the long shot of the stretch I avoided. The street I walk on a dozen times a day. There is my cash machine, its awning shattered, its frame streaked with blood. There is the bazaar where I buy pens and pencils. The camera lingers over spilled notebooks, school supplies scattered, the implied contrast of death and a new school year. They will seek out distraught classmates, packs of crying girls, clutching girls, crawling-all-over-each-other-suckling-at-grief girls. They will get the boyfriends to talk, the parents to talk; they will have for us the complete drama, the house-to-house echo of all three blasts, before the week is through.
We watch our life on every channel. We turn to CNN for a top-of-the-hour translation of our world. Maybe English will make it more real.
It does not help. There is my café. There is my cash machine. There is the tree I wait by when there is waiting to be done.
"Would you recognize your own bedroom," I say, "if you saw it on TV?"
Inbar makes phone calls, receives phone calls, while I sit and watch the news. A constant cycle of the same story, little bits added each time.

The phone calls remind me of America. The news, of America. Like snow days. Hovering around the radio in the morning. A chain list of calls. "Good morning, Mrs. Gold. It's Nathan, speaking. Please tell Beth that school is closed because the buses can't come." The absurdity of the change. Years and miles. A different sort of weather. "Yes, hello Udi. It's Inbar. Another attack. Natan and I are fine."

Inbar tells me Israeli things, shares maxims on fate and luck. "We cannot live in fear," she says. "Of course you're terrified, it's terror after all." She has nonsensical statistics as well. "Five times more likely to be run over. Ten times more likely to die in a car. But you still cross the street don't you?"
She rubs my neck. Slips a hand under my shirt and rubs my back.
"Maybe I shouldn't," I say. A kiss on my ear. A switch of the channel. "Maybe it's time the street crossing stopped."

A biblical Israel, crowded with warriors and prophets, fallen kings and common men conscripted to do God's will. An American boy's Israel. A child raised up on causality and symbol.
Holocaust as wrath of God.
Israel the Phoenix rising up from the ashes.

The reporters trot out the odd survivors, the death defiers and nine lived. A girl with a small scratch on her cheek who stood two feet from the bomber, everyone around her dead. An old man with shrapnel buried in the hardcover book he was reading who survived the exact same way when the street blew up fifty years before. A clipping. He searches his wallet for a clipping he always takes with. They make themselves known after every tragedy. Serial survivors. People who find themselves on exploding buses but never seem to die.
"Augurs," I say, "Harbingers of doom. They are demons. Dybbuks. We should march to their houses. Drag them to the squares and burn them in front of cheering crowds."
"You are stupid with nerves," Inbar says. "They are the unluckiest lucky people in the world. These are hopeful stories from hopeless times. Without them the grief of this nation would tip it into the sea."

I'm swollen with heroism. The sad fact of it. Curled up on the bathroom floor woozy with the makings for a bold rescue, overdosed on my own life-or-death acumen. My body exorcises its charger of burning buildings, its icy-waters diver. The unused hero driven out while I wait patiently inside.
The chandelier, like a pendulum; the day, like a pendulum, swings.
Inbar will turn the corner in her apartment and find her American boyfriend pinned to the floor, immobile, sweating a malarial sweat.
She will discover him suffering the bystander's disease. She'll want to wrap him in a blanket, put him in a cab, and take him to the hospital where all the uninjured victims, the unhurt, uninvolved victims, trickle in for the empty beds, to be placed on the cots in the halls.
I do not want the hospital. Do not want treatment for having sat down after, for having sipped coffee after, and held on to the owner's hand.

A call home. Inbar dials the moment she thinks I can pull off a passable calm. My mother's secretary answers. Rita, who never says more than hello and "I'll get your mother." My phone calls precious because of the distance. As if I'm calling from the moon.
Today she is talking. Today Rita has something to share.
"Your mother is in her office crying. She don't say nothing to you, but that woman is miserable with you out in a war. Think about where you live, child. Think about your mom."

There is an element of struggle. Sex that night a matter of life and death. There is much scrambling for leverage and footing. Displays of body language that I've never known. We cling and dig in, as if striving for permanence, laboring for a union that won't come undone.
We laugh after. We cackle and roll around, reviewing technique and execution. Hysterical. Absurd. Perfect in its desperation. We make jokes at the expense of ourselves.
"No sex like near-death sex."
We light up a cigarette, naked, twisted up in the sheets. Again we would not recognize ourselves on TV

Inbar has gone to work and invited Lynn over to make sure that I stay out of bed, that I go into town for coffee and sit at my café. Same time, same table, same cup, if I can manage it.
Nothing can be allowed to interrupt routine.
"Part of life here," Lynn says.
This is why Inbar invited her. She respects Lynn as an American with Israeli sensibilities. The hard-news photographer, moving in after every tragedy to shoot up what's left.
The peeper's peep, we call her. The voyeur's eye. Our Lynn, feeding the grumbling image-hungy bellies of America's commuter trains and breakfast nooks.
"A ghost," Lynn says. She is gloomy, but with a sportsman's muted excitement. "Peak invisibility. People moving right through me. I think I even went weightless at some point, pulled off impossible angles. Floated above the pack. My stuff is all over the wire this morning." She pops the top on a used film canister, tips its contents into her palm. "You've got to come out with me one day just for the experience. You can stand in the middle of a goddamn riot, people going down left and right. Arab kids tossing rocks, Molotov cocktails, Israelis firing back tear gas and rubber bullets. Chaos. And you move, you just slide right through it all like a fucking ghost, snatching up souls, freezing time. A boy in the air, his body arched, his face to the sky. He's lobbing back a gas canister, the smoke caught in a long snaking trail. Poetry. Yesterday, though. Yesterday was bad."
"I'm not made for this," I tell her. "I grew up in the suburbs. I own a hot-air popcorn popper. A selection of Mylec Air-Flo street-hockey sticks."
"Two of these," she says, and drops two orange capsules in my tea. "Drink up." And I do. "Two before I shoot and two right after I dump the film. An image comes back to haunt me, I take another. The trapdoor in my system. If it gets to be too much, I'll just stay asleep. So to show my utter thankfulness upon waking, I make a pass of the Old City the next day. I stop in every quarter, pray at every place of worship I find. That's my secret, a flittingness. I favor no gods. Establish again and again my lack of allegiance."
"That's what keeps me invisible. That's how I get to walk through the heart of a, conflict, to watch everything, to see and see and see, then pack up my images and walk away. In return, nothing. A ghost. Sensed but not seen. That's the whole trick."
"Staying alive," she says, "means never blinking and never taking sides."
"I didn't look, didn't want the dreams. I went the long way around so not to see."

"Unimportant. Not how you see, but the distance that counts. The simple fact of exposure to death. Same principle as radiation or chemotherapy. Exposure to all that death is what keeps you alive."
"I feel old from this," I say.
"Good," she says. "World-weary is good, just what you should be trying for. Go play the expatriate at your café. Go be the witty war-watching raconteur. Cock an eyebrow and have them spike your coffee. Ignore the weather and put on a big, heavy sweater. Pinch the waitress on her behind."

I was raised on tradition. Pictures of a hallowed Jerusalem nestled away like Eden. A Jerusalem so precious God spared it when he flooded the world.
I can guide you to the valley where David slew Goliath. Recite by heart the love songs written by Solomon, his son. There have been thirteen sieges and twenty downfalls. And I can lead you through the alleys of the Old City, tell you a story about each one.
This is my knowing. Dusty-book knowing. I thought I'd learned everything about Jerusalem only to discover my information was very very old.

I move through town, down the street of empty windows and blackened walls. The cobblestones are polished. Even the branches and rooftops have been picked clean. Every spot where a corpse lay is marked by candles. Fifty here, a hundred there. Temporary markers before monuments to come.
I make my way into the café. I nod at the owner, look at all the people out to display for the cameras, for each other, an ability to pass an afternoon at ease.

I sit at my table and order coffee. The waitress goes off to her machine. Cradling my chin, I wrestle images: unhinged mouths and clouds of smoke. Blasts like wild birds.
Today is a day to find religion. To decide that one god is more right than another, to uncover in this sad reality a covenant-some promise of coming good. There are signs if one looks. If one is willing to turn again to his old knowing, to salt over shoulders, prayers before journeys, wrists bound with holy red thread.
Witchery and superstition.

A boom that pushes air, that bears down and sweeps the room. My hair goes loose at the roots.
The others talk and eat. One lone woman stares off, page of a magazine held midturn.
"Fighter," the waitress says, watching, smiling, leaning up against the bar.
She's world-weary. Wise. The air force, obviously. The sound barrier broken.
I want to smile back at her. In fact, I want to be her. I concentrate, taking deep breaths, studying her style. Noting: How to lean against a bar all full of knowing. Must master loud noises, sudden moves.
I reach for my coffee and rattle the cup, burn my fingers, pull my hand away.
The terrible shake trapped in my hands. Yesterday's sounds caught up in my head. I tap an ear, like a swimmer. A minor frequency problem, I'm sure. I've picked up on the congenital ringing in Jerusalem's ears.

The waitress deals with me in a waitress's way. She serves me a big round-headed muffin, poppy seeds trapped in the glaze. The on-the-house offer, a bartering of sorts. Here's a little kindness; now don't lose your mind.
Anchors. Symbols. The owner appears next to me, rubbing my arm. "Round foods are good for mourning," I say. "They symbolize eternity and the unbreakable cycles of life." I point with my free hand. "Cracks in the windows are good too. Each one means another demon has gone."
He smiles, as if to say, That's the spirit, and adds one of his own.
"A chip in your mug," he says. "In my family it means good things to come. And from the looks of my kitchen, this place will soon be overflowing with luck."
The waitress pushes the muffin toward me, as if I'd forgotten it was served.
But it's not a day for accepting kindness. Inbar has warned me, Stick with routine. Lynn has warned me, Don't blink your eyes.
And even this place has its own history of warnings. One set accompanying its every destruction and another tied to each rise. The balance that keeps the land from tipping. The traps that cost paradise and freedom, that turn second sons to firstborn. A litany of unburning bushes and smote rocks.
A legion of covenants sealed by food and by fire. Sacrifice after sacrifice. I free myself from the owner's hand and run through the biblical models.
Never take a bite out of curiosity.
Never trade your good name out of hunger.
And even if a public bombing strikes you in a private way, hide that from everyone lest you be called out to lead them.

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Excerpted from For the Relief of Unbearable Urges by Nathan Englander Copyright 2001 by Nathan Englander. Excerpted by permission of Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.