It was the necklace she was wearing that makes me stop breathing on the train on the way to Jerusalem. Three sapphire blue charms on a silver chain, hanging still, in the web of sunspots just below her collarbone.
And I know that necklace.
Three blue charms for her three sons. The oldest, surely married (and divorced?) by now to the sweet-faced girl he would talk about all the time when he visited us that summer in Berkeley nearly 13 years ago. The youngest, long out of the army, probably done with school, too, and back from India or Thailand or South America, the dreadlocks he would surely grow shorn long ago, and the Om tattoo he’d surely get forever stuck in the dip between his shoulder-blades.
And then the middle one. A quick Google search could reveal that he’s working in hi-tech in the Silicon Valley like he was the last time I saw him. Or maybe he’s building a startup in Tel Aviv. Or maybe he’s dead.
The middle one, who would make schnitzel from scratch on Sunday nights, who would tear up when Five for Fighting’s Superman would come on the radio, who would give me his glasses to take to Anthro lecture, because we shared the exact same Rx, and I had lost mine.
The middle one, the one I still dream about when I pulverize my night with Jameson and three chasers of absinthe, or when I’m feverish and tossing and turning against burning sheets. The middle one, who shows up in dreams where I’m rooted to the ground and I know something terrible is about to happen — because it DID happen.
The middle one, who grabbed my chai necklace carved from Eilat stone, pulled hard until the chain bit into my neck, tugged until the charm fell off in his hand, glinting in the center of his palm between the lifeline and heartline. “You will never wear anything that I didn’t give you. Do you understand?”
The middle one, who made my two cats “disappear,” in the middle of a stormy November night, who would squeeze the soft skin on my upper arm until bruises bloomed like bluebonnets. The middle one, who said he would kill himself if I ever left him.
The middle one, who was fine until that morning when the memory of that necklace was seared into me, like the funny scar on my arm from a spider bite, like the stretch marks on my hips from the babies I carried.
The middle one, who I hardly think about, except with a gasp and a prickle of sweat under my arms. Or…except when I see that necklace on a train after so much life has passed between us. .
I would know that necklace anywhere. The morning she burst into the bedroom, when I was naked except for a pair of underwear, one sock, and my chai necklace, stark and white in a pool of sunlight. I remember, when she came in screaming, and hit her middle son across the face, shoved him back on the pillow, I couldn’t look at her eyes. I didn’t want to see myself reflected back, trembling. So I looked at her necklace.
I would know it anywhere. Three charms, one for each son.
The first, her favorite, the last, her baby. And the middle, her “failure,” her “mistake,” her “worst disappointment ever.” The middle, the son she spat and cursed. “You’re just like your father, damn him to hell,” she railed that morning in the light, while we cowered against each other, and I stared at her necklace, glowing like three gas flames.
The middle, the man I loved.
“You’re just like you father, damn YOU to hell,” her hands whooshed through the air toward him.
She was visiting for his graduation. She was supposed to stay for ten days. She and her favorite and the baby.
We wrote a itinerary: China Town for dim sum. Pier 39 for clam chowder in sourdough bowls. A boat ride to Alcatraz. A hike in Muir Woods. Dinner at Thai House, after her middle son walked across the stage, accepted his diploma and threw his hat in the air.
We had vacuumed and dusted, and bought a futon from Ikea. We went to Whole Foods for cucumbers and tomatoes and salmon filets, and green lentils. We hung a silver mezuzah on the door. This was when I worked in a flower shop on Durant Avenue, a little place that paid me in petals when we didn’t make enough in sales ,so I brought home Gerber daisies (white), Peruvian Lilies (pink), and three purple irises.
Their father was supposed to come, too. His name is (was?!?)… I don’t remember. I never met him, but he would break his teeth in English on the phone when we would talk long distance, and he had a big laugh with soft edges. He spoke with the same inflections as his middle son, a pause, a lilt, and then a race to the finish. He drove a taxi, and wore a mustache (for when he would drive through East Jerusalem, or Kfar Kassam, or the Galilee) and a yarmulke (for when he would drive through West Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, or Modiin.)
He used to be a pilot.
Each week, he would take his middle son, HIS favorite son, who he loved, to the army, dropping him off with a hug and a kiss and a blessing on his head. And on Shabbat, despite birth order, his middle son would receive the first blessing: “May the lord make you like Ephraim and Menashe.”
But when we picked them up at the airport, he wasn’t there.
“Where’s Aba?” his middle son asked.
“He can’t come.”
We arrived back at the apartment in a van we rented from Hertz. We each kissed the mezuzah as we walked in.
“Nice apartment,” his mother said. “Pretty flowers.”
We chopped salad from the cucumbers and tomatoes. We grilled the salmon and cooked the green lentils.
Two days after they arrived — Tuesday — the four of them drove to the Berkeley marina to talk about his father. I stayed home, and waited, my stomach felt like a washing machine with only a stone inside. Oh that dread: The sky was blue when they drove off — “a perfect day for banana” fish, I thought. But which one of us is Seymour Glass. Me? Him?
I watched the Maury Show.
Then Jerry Springer.
I went outside and walked around the block.
The fog leaked in from the bay.
A perfect day for banana fish.
By the time I was pacing in front of our apartment, the sky had turned the color of spoiled clams.
They drove up, the four of them in the van. The mother and the favorite and the baby wouldn’t look at me when they walked up the steps to the apartment. And the middle one, the man I loved, staggered out of the drivers seat, his face the color of the fog, and his eyes just as opaque.
The truth seeped out like sewage: his father was in jail for raping a neighbor. Or so the neighbor said. But really, they were having an affair, and she was angry that he wouldn’t leave his wife, so she made up this lie, or so his father said.
His father who taught him how to fly a kite and then an airplane. His father, with the exact same profile, they’d line up side by side like those funny vintage cutout portraits, match match. His father who bought him his first pack of gum when he turned 6, and his first pack of condoms when he turned 16.
He went into the bathroom and threw up.
He graduated the next day. He walked across the stage. He accepted his diploma. But he didn’t bother to throw his hat.
We went to dinner at Thai House. We used chopsticks, the plastic clinking against our plates the only sound as we picked up pieces of chicken, tofu, and steamed cabbage. No one spoke until…
…midway through, his mother shoved the plate away, and said “I hate this place,” and lurched from the table. Her favorite chased her down the street, while the the middle and the baby stared at their plates.
The days passed sullenly. We did what we were supposed to. We slept and woke and brushed our teeth and showered and dressed and ate and got in the car and did the things we had planned — the trip to Pier 39, the boat ride to Alcatraz, the hike in Muir Woods. His mother didn’t speak to him, and the more he tried to speak to her, the angrier she got.
“You look like your father,” she hissed while we drove back over the Bay Bridge. “You have his nose.”
He clung to me that night, when all was quiet.
“He loved me best,” he spoke in low tones. “So she can’t anymore.”
He touched his nose. “She’s right. I hate my nose.”
We fell asleep curled toward each other.
That was the last night he was still okay.
We had met nearly 23 months before, on a golden day in August, just before my first year at Cal began. I remember the exact spot where I saw him — in a sunny strip just outside the door to the I-House cafe, he was sitting between the door and the shadow from the building across the street. He glowed.
He started talking to me because of my chai necklace. I had bought it in Israel. chai means “life,” and I wore it every single day.
“I like your chai,” he said. “it suits you.”
He was right. It did suit me.
The chai was my talisman. I bought it the first time I was in Jerusalem the summer I fell head over heels in love with Israel.
That was a surprise, actually: I didn’t expect to fall in love with Israel that summer I turned 16. In fact, I didn’t even want to meet Israel. I wanted to spend the space between 10th and 11th grade strolling the 3rd Street Promenade with Aimee and Emily. I wanted to sit by the phone and wait for Matt Rodriguez to (OMG please!) realize he still wanted me and CALL. I wanted to make out in the Century City AMC theater, and buy clothes at Forever 21, and paint my nails black, and hit Mar Vista swimming pool with a bottle of Sun-In and a bathing suit my parents would never allow carefully hidden under the Nirvana t-shirt I’d wear as a cover-up when I left the house.
In other words, I wanted to be, like, 16 and super original.
But my parents had other plans. (They actually wanted me to be original.)
“Oh, you’re going to Israel,” my mom told me, while she sat in her little home office in a cloud of blue smoke from her GPC 100 Ultra Lights. “Besides,” she added, “you’ll meet some nice guys.”
I didn’t want to meet nice guys.
I was still heartbroken over my first guy — Matt — with the maroon billabong shirts and the skateboard, with the shiny brown hair and shinier smile, who made hash pipes out of tinfoil with little Green Day, Soundgarden and Nirvana stickers on the bowl.
I didn’t smoke, not then at least. It would be years before I would draw smoke deep into my lungs, sucking the memory of the Spring before that first summer deep into my lungs… But I would watch Matt’s fingers separate the blossoms from the leaves, with more dexterity than he ever showed while unhooking my bra; he would roll and fold, pack, and light, and I would watch his eyes deepen to opacity.
Then we’d kiss and kiss and kiss, and rub each other blue and pink.
But young love lasts about as long as a 12 track CD — remember those? — and he broke up with me, and I was crushed.
My parents were those parents — curfew was 9:00 pm, and my dad would copy down the license plate numbers of anyone I went out with. “Seatbelts!” he would bellow after us as we’d pull out of the driveway. But for some reason, my parents trusted Israel — didn’t matter that I would be gone for nearly two months — a whole lot of nights without curfews or parents to write down license plate numbers. But as visions of all of us singing Hava Nagilla around a campfire floated through my mother’s head, the meta-message wasn’t lost on me: Israel was safe. Why? Because it was a country full of Jewish people who would take care of one another.
It all started on a road off the main highway you take from the airport, heat-stricken, parched and yellow, while the bus with the “LA ULPAN” sign in the window kicked up dust, as it chugged up the hill and through the gates of the kibbutz where we would be living.
That bus that held 120 of us with our heavy Jansport backpacks and heavier jet lag, I was the only one on that bus who didn’t have a seat, and probably the only person on that bus who didn’t want to be there — I sat on the top step by the driver, my legs tucked up, my arms around them, and my eyes wide open
But then it happened.
I fell in a mad rush with Israel — in a tumble, like my first kiss behind the air vents at Century City Mall when our braces got stuck together. This was like that, sudden and shocking and out of control, and it happened, near the fields of Kibbutz Gezer. Get your mind out of the gutter. It was during Havdalah services, when we welcome the new week, after one of the counselors lit the braided candle that symbolizes the wholeness of the new week, and all of us were gathered in a giant circle, singing and swaying side to side. With my two roommates on either side of me, I felt engulfed in a sense of belonging that I had never known before.
This was the first time I didn’t have to explain why I didn’t eat pepperoni pizza or shrimp tempura, or why my family stayed home on Friday nights and I couldn’t go ice skating like everyone else, or why we faced east when we prayed. Everyone here already knew because I was home.
Later that night, all of us, freshly showered and smelling the entire perfume section at Walgreens had blown up on us, took a bus and rode through the dusky hills into Jerusalem for the first time, to Ben Yehuda Street.
And that’s when I found the chai necklace in a little shop lit brightly in the middle of the street.
You couldn’t miss it, this shop. Lit from within, the light spilled onto the sidewalk. We had learned a few basic words and phrases the week before, and I said one over to myself again and again and again: “Kama zeh oleh?” (How much is it?) “Kama zeh oleh kama zeh oleh kama zeh oleh.” It was the first time I would speak Hebrew to a real Israeli and I had to get it right.
I saw what I wanted immediately: A “chai” pendant — cobalt blue and emerald green with tiny flecks of gold running through, Chai means “life” in Hebrew, and the colors reminded me of the way the world looks from way up high. God’s eye.
“Kama zeh olah?” I said pointing
“You mean ‘kama zeh oleh.’”
“It’s okay. You get a discount for trying.”
His eyes matched the charm, and our fingers brushed while I reached for it. “You should wear it now,” he said, as he stood up from behind the counter. Turn around.”
He lifted my hair. I could barely tell the difference between his breath and the brush of his fingers on the nape of my neck.
“Write this down,” he said. And he said 10 numbers slow with a twist, zero, five, two… five five nine… in his mouth the numbers were perfect, and I remember them by heart, still.
I had never felt more alive, with “life” around my neck.
That was the summer I wore cut-off shorts and scarred my knees rappelling down a mountain. That was the summer right after my braces came off. That was the summer I kissed a man who had stubble, who wasn’t worried about his AP Calculus test, who tasted like Goldstar and Noblese cigarettes, and who would go to Gaza the morning after I slept curled up like a cat beside him.
The chai pendant he put around my neck fell just below my collarbone. I would wear it until the man I loved and lived with tore it off me.
* * *
How funny. It was the same necklace that made him speak to me that first time, and made us fall in love in the first place.
“Are you Israeli?” the man I would love asked pointing to the chai.
“No, but I love it there, and I want to live there some day.”
“Cool. I’m from there.”
That night, when we kissed, he tasted like that first summer in Israel.
So, how could I not fall in love with him?
* * *
And I loved him, I loved him hard, and it was good for nearly 23 months. We had our apartment and late night chicken sausage with sauerkraut at Top Dog, and we’d watch The Simpsons, and listen to Natasha Atlas and Eviyatar Banai and The Shins, and he’d pound Jack and I would sip Smirnoff Ice — but never again. If there’s anything I’ve learned from that time, along with “never let a man tell you he will kill you” is never drink Smirnoff Ice. That shit is nasty.
I don’t remember much about that time except the apartment and the windows and the flowers on the table and the mezuzah we hung on the door, and the poster of Gustav Klimpt’s The Kiss, and the way the chain bit into my neck when he tore it off me.
I don’t remember much about that time except for the sound of blood through my face, and collapsing in a heap inside the closet because the world seemed too big, too vast, too empty.
But I DO remember that if I stood on the arm of the couch, I could see the Bay Bridge and the twinkling lights of San Francisco. I DO remember that I thought about jumping. I DO remember that I put my feet on the ground instead.
I will never blame myself for staying and loving him even after that morning and all the other terrible mornings that followed. Those terrible, horrible mornings that began terrible, horrible days, when my world shrunk so little that it could be measured in coffees and minimum wage and waiting for the train.
I will never blame myself for wanting to jump in front of the BART every night at 9:50 pm, when I would hear the howl of the train through the tunnel, cutting a hole in the night.
I will never blame myself for staying until that very last second when I took my own life in my hands and ran.
Because I was there that morning when his own mother lurched at him and clawed his face. I was there with him, half-naked in the white light of the sun, when her eyes went blank and her face twisted and she lunged. I was there and screaming, “Don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him, don’t hurt him,” while she clawed and bit and scratched and chanted, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,” over and over and over again to her middle son, the man I loved, the man who would nearly destroy me with him.
But he didn’t destroy me. Because I’m still here, and on the way to Jerusalem, staring at that woman with her necklace with the three charms, the necklace I would know anywhere, even if I didn’t remember her face.
She looks up, and I want to say something. I want to tell her how she broke him, and how he tried to break me, I want to tell her about the baby we didn’t have, and the cats that “disappeared,” and the time I couldn’t breathe, and the morning I clawed a sewer grate because I had dropped the only $20 I had in the world down it.
But her face looks tired. Her eyes woven in a web of wrinkles and sun spots.
And I’m a mother now.
And I can’t imagine a world where I would be able to hate my son or my daughter, and not hate myself, too.
She looks at me, her head tilted to the side.
Even if she remembers that girl, it isn’t the woman in front of her — although she’s in there, still half-naked with that sock… but she isn’t the only me anymore.
I’ve changed enough to smile at her — but I’ve also changed enough to know I don’t need to smile if I don’t want to.
The train doors open out into Jerusalem.
“Pretty necklace,” I say as I get up and never look back.
I know this was a long read — and for those of you who know me in real life, maybe it was hard to read it.
I want to clarify that the man I’m writing about here is NOT the father of my children.
Now: Many of you have asked me why I write about this — it happened a long time ago, and it’s upsetting, and, no matter what, there will always be someone who says, “You should have left sooner, so you deserved it.”
It’s that reason — precisely that reason — why I write about this publicly.
Abuse happens a lot — more than we can imagine. It can happen to all women — and it can also happen to men, too. It doesn’t matter if you’re smart or strong or beautiful or brave; it can happen.
The more we talk about it, the less stigma there is — and the less stigma there is, the more power we have to walk away… or reach out to someone we think may be in danger.
So please — if this story sounds like yours, if you’re frightened, if you’re hurting, get help. You can message me, too, if you want — I’ve been there and just as I’m willing to share this story with you, I’m willing to listen to yours.