The Prince of Wales
In the bubble of safety between the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War, Riva graduated from college and got engaged. But instead of looking for a job or planning her wedding, she went to Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish homeland, the place God chose for the people He (reportedly) chose.
To Riva’s closest friends it seemed out of character. Her parents were Jewish but complacently, casually, untroubled by God and anti-Semitism. They attended services only during the High Holy Days and an occasional yahrzeit. They sent the girls to Sunday school with quarters to plant trees in Israel, and over the kitchen sink was a blue and white slotted box into which money went for keren ami—which meant “the land of my people” but which Riva thought of as “Karen and me,” Karen, in her imagination, a slender Israeli cousin with sad prominent eyes. For Riva as a child, Israel meant desert (turning green with trees) and leanly muscled men and women in snug khaki uniforms. Jewish meant her mother’s parents, who spoke to each other in Yiddish and lived in Pittsburgh, and when they did visit, seemed uninterested in her and Ari except for changes in their heights. It meant not eating certain combinations of foods at their house, and the yearly three-hour Seder, the meal delayed and delayed by the grandfather’s droning Hebrew, in which she understood only adonai eloheinu (the Lord our God); to relieve her boredom she’d lay in wait for the sound of the words. If she went out mostly with Jewish guys, it was because they were the ones who asked. She was Jewish unreflectingly, the way she brushed her teeth in the morning or spent her allowance on Nancy Drew mysteries or walked the safe streets of suburban Cleveland. She didn’t need Judaism or Israel. She had America, where they were free to practice the faith of their choice, or not. Where her father made enough money so that, filling out her college applications (in 1968), she could not ask for financial aid.
But in the spring of 1972 Riva was sick of America in the dregs of Vietnam, winding down but refusing to end despite all the protests. About to graduate from Ohio State, she felt stuck (though she hadn’t acknowledged it yet) in her two-year relationship with a law student named Elliot Wiseman that seemed to be moving inexorably toward marriage. He even bought her a ring. Then her sister dropped out of Reed where she had an academic scholarship, Ariel and her boyfriend bought a van and drove down to Mexico to find magic mushrooms, and suddenly Riva’s newly acquired degree in psychology was a mark of her stodginess. Unready to take a drug stronger than marijuana, with no desire to go underground and bomb buildings, or to abandon an upwardly mobile man who was loyal and reasonable and even loving (What do you want, said her mother, the Prince of Wales?), she used the money that was her college graduation present to buy an open-ended ticket to Israel. She was a cautious person, the act was probably deemed out of character for her, but she was sick of the character she had been burdened with. She would probably return but she didn’t know when. When she had absorbed from the Israelis the habit she imagined in them of courage and sacrifice. When she had become fearless of people’s opinions, capable of the wholehearted, passionate relish of the moment that she observed in her sister and some of her college friends. The kibbutzim, she had heard, welcomed volunteers who would work in return for food and a place to live. Prone to pudginess, she pictured herself growing lean, strong, tan and captivating in the fields under the Mediterranean sun.
The kibbutz to which she was assigned, Magan Olam, on the Mediterranean coast, was large and wealthy by Israeli standards. There were grapefruit (escholim), orange (tapoozim) and banana groves (bananot), a factory and a hotel, as a result of which each of the nine hundred-plus kibbutznik domiciles had its own TV. The fact bothered her but not the other volunteers, whose annoyances ranged from bugs in their dorm rooms to the dearth of places in Tel Aviv that played American music. Most of them were younger than she, in Israel to get laid or to please their parents the summer before college. Her roommate, a pretty girl from Westchester with long straight black hair, had been lured to Israel with the promise of a car, which she would take with her in the fall to Sarah Lawrence. This girl, Deborah Blumenthal, walked around like she knew everything she needed to know, while Riva, despite four years in college with good if not excellent grades, felt she knew almost nothing. She was unequipped to face the world and simultaneously too old to feel like that, with no assurance that a master’s degree would make her more substantial.
After a week at Magan Olam she was so unhappy she called the airline to schedule her return—cancelling it the next day only because she couldn’t admit to her parents and Elliot that her venture had failed. Though she felt it failing. She was part of a program called ulpan, in which she learned Hebrew in the morning and worked in the afternoon. But in her Hebrew class she was no more adept than the eighteen-year-olds and much more hesitant, shamed by her mistakes. The first few days all she could recall was ah-nee po (I am here) from lesson one; she’d leave the class muttering ah-nee po, aggrieved by the uselessness of the assertion. Where else would she be besides here, she would be here till she was elsewhere, which would be only another here, all of which was neither here nor there (sham), and what was the point of saying so? She was further aggrieved by her work assignment, ha mitbach (kitchen), where she placed carrot after carrot in a large machine that rubbed off the skin, then carried the flayed product to another machine that shredded the flesh. The only kitchen task she didn’t hate was washing the cement floor, which sloped down to a central drain. She had only to turn on a hose to send the scraps of food and dirt cascading toward an easily removed grate and eventual disposal, as she’d have liked to send her extra pounds and the darkish, spoiled parts of her soul.
She had been trained to accommodate, however, and put effort into rising above her alienation. The ulpanim were urged to practice their Hebrew with the kibbutzniks, and after learning ah-nee rotzah (I want) and a list of basic nouns, one evening at dinner she said clearly (she hoped), ah-nee rotzah halechem. The breadbasket arrived promptly, but with words so rapid and loud she felt scolded. Which she deserved, she supposed, for omitting the please, but how did you say I would like some bread, please? She smiled her Thank You, then remembered todah, its hard, sharp beat like Fuck You. Todah! Fuck you! Go to hell! Besides, hard as she listened, not one Israeli ever said todah. At least to her. In the mitbach if she responded appropriately to a request she got the same stern, irritated remoteness as when she said ah-nee lo m’vinah (I don’t understand). Would they be friendlier if she learned to say I’m sorry?
Things might improve, she thought, if she worked outdoors like the boys in the tapoozim or bananot. She didn’t want to ask, though, for the same reason she couldn’t break off with Elliot—to repudiate the label that Ariel bore with comic gusto, that of prima donna (what do you want, the Prince of Wales?). Besides, the woman in charge of work assignments was a holocaust survivor. It was only when volunteer jobs were reassigned at the end of the month that she stated her wishes. The change was made easily. From now on after class and a quick lunch, she’d truck out to the groves to cut the lower leaves from the fat stalks of the banana trees.
The afternoons in the fresh air were almost enjoyable at first, swiping upward with the machete-like knife to sever with a juicy rasp the yellowing banana leaves, long and flexible like headscarves. She imagined them the arms of her enemies, although she had no enemies. When she was stronger she would have enemies.
She noticed, also, that her asthma was gone. Generally, in fields or woods she couldn’t move a step without her inhaler. Overnight camp was a disaster. She went to college in a city, and planned to live in one the rest of her life; her lungs liked exhaust a lot better than pollen. In Israel, however, breathing was a pleasure. She inhaled the smell of the flowers and the sea, as if swallowing delicious food. She hadn’t thought it possible to breathe so deeply.
Another pleasure was the fruit itself. The bunches grew from stalks, maybe thirty bunches to a stalk, and the stalks were encased in protective black bags to keep the fruit green and hard, but sometimes where the bags were torn she’d find a ripe but not over-ripe banana gleaming unblemished yellow. Amazing to find one so perfect. And to peel and eat it.
She became friendly with one of her fellow ulpanim, a guy from Brooklyn, Larry Goodman, called Goodie. Goodie was thinking of spending his life in Israel (making aliyah), to screw his father, who had ambitions for him. He hadn’t finished high school, he was only eighteen, but he had long hair like her college friends, he played the guitar, he had an unabashed, blue-eyed gaze, and sometimes he kidded her. His job was to carry the huge multi-bunched stalks from the grove to the truck and sometimes, passing close to where she was working, he’d pretend to stumble. He’d lurch toward her, threatening to drop the stalk. “Riva babe, give me a hand?”
“Sure,” she’d say, and brandish her machete at him. And spend the next hour planning a better retort. She imagined him in bed, vigorous but insufficiently sensitive. The next time he asked her for help she’d grab his stalk. Now what do I do, she’d say, with your lil old stalk?
When the opportunity arose and she performed her so-called improvisation, he laughed but she felt like an idiot. She ate one banana after another till she got dizzy. Although Goodie continued to kid her at times, it felt impersonal, and the other guys seemed to have decided she was not of their ilk. Not that she craved contact with them. Their jokes about the girls they’d laid or wished to lay made her jaw ache. Bananot was no better than the mitbach, worse in some ways because here people spoke English; they ought to be her friends.
Eventually she decided to fake it as she had in junior high, where she learned to talk the sly, giddy talk of early adolescence the way she’d learned Spanish, from study and practice. It felt atavistic, a descent instead of an advance, the opposite of maturation, individuation—words from her college textbooks she had believed she would fully understand one day. It was a little shameful to be mimicking the behavior of younger kids. But she felt so lonely that when work was over she hung out with Deborah and the other members of the ulpan, listening to their music, using their idioms, which were blatant, simplified versions of how kids talked in college (which, she had learned at college, mimicked, or tried to, the speech of the ghetto). She smoked grass with her fellow volunteers on a dune over the Mediterranean, listened to the accessible chitchat, spoke when an appropriate thought came to mind. She liked the crash of waves on the faraway beach, raising her sometimes above petty human affairs with their wild, harsh indifference. But back in the room while Deborah slept (or was out sleeping with another ulpaner) she would remember herself smiling and talking to people like an actress and not a good one. She’d lie in bed awake, exhausted, trying not to cry.
Perhaps the problem was that she missed Elliot. She wrote him letters hinting at her malaise, with a tenderness (toward his tranquil, steady movement toward estimable goals) that she hadn’t felt since their first year together. The alien place had humbled her. She wasn’t Ariel; what had she been thinking? She wasn’t extraordinary, not a leader; she could not transcend her limitations. And if she needed Elliot to get rid of the ever-present lump in her throat, so what? It was a weakness like her allergy to cats and pollen dust. There was no shame. When the six-month ulpan ended in November she would move back to Columbus and live with Elliot or maybe find her own apartment. She’d get a job, see him at night. Before she’d gone away, he had mentioned marriage. She called long distance to ask if he had changed his mind, discovered he had not, and that night they decided. They would marry in June, in Cleveland, right after he graduated, and go to live where he got a job.
She was so relieved it felt like happiness. As an engaged woman, someone a man loves enough to want to marry, she could hold out at Magan Olam, finish the ulpan’s last four more months. In the meantime she jogged alone or with Deborah, and swam alone or with the other members of the ulpan, and laughed when jokes and funny stories were told, or tried to laugh, bearing her fakery as something temporary. Her real life was going on in Columbus, Ohio where Elliot had one more year of law school.
By mid-July she had made one other ulpan friend, Gwen, from Australia. Gwen was in her late twenties, on the heavy side, and mildly alienated like Riva from the “youngsters,” as Gwen called them. Riva was, said Gwen, the only member of the ulpan who wasn’t “dim.” They spent most of their non-work time together, talking about how kibbutz life suppressed the sabra imagination and what they’d eaten that day. Gwen was on an all fruit diet. Riva followed suit, with the addition of yogurt; to their mutual surprise and pleasure their waistbands were loosening. Attempting to expand their twosome, they went to Tel Aviv with Goodie and sat on either side of him at the movie theatre, but he ate multiple boxes of Israeli candy and critiqued the film in the lulls between action scenes. In the washroom afterward Gwen said, “You don’t fancy him, do you?”
“He’s cute,” Riva said, “but I’m in love with Elliot.” She made a stab at honesty. “I better be, since we’re getting married!” giggling then clapping her hand to her mouth as she had in junior high when she said something daring and mean.
Then a new volunteer came to Magan Olam. Volunteers were always coming and going on the kibbutz, not just Americans but Mexicans, English kids, Canadians, French, Danish, even Australians. Till now, though, although some of them were her age or older, no one had appealed to her. Or maybe no one found her appealing. But for no apparent reason she was moved by Michael Savitz, emotionally riveted to this skinny boy, who seemed to prefer talking to eating. He had a narrow face, high cheekbones, thick-lashed dark eyes, a mouth ready to laugh or talk. He looked like a waif, a monk, and Huckleberry Finn all in one, with the nervous laugh of someone who wanted people to like him. She could give him what he needed. She wanted to.
From Chicago originally, he’d spent six months with a guru in Ganeshpuri, India, trying to attain full and perfect enlightenment. Failing which (he said with wry-faced pride, to a small group that included her), he came to Israel to clean up and get healthy. He gave his high giggle that said, unabashedly, Love me; she wanted to put her arms around him. In group of which he was part she felt soothed and almost transported, as if whether she spoke or were silent or started singing a camp song, it was all right and maybe better.
She didn’t tell Gwen about her fascination at first, in part because Gwen believed in her and Elliot. She had rooted for the engagement, planned to come to their wedding. Besides, although Michael continued to confess to her what seemed to be highly personal information, he did so with others as well. At lunch he often sat with the woman who taught the ulpan Hebrew class, Elena, who had a daughter and was at least thirty years old. He also spent time with Deborah, Riva’s roommate. Her throat seized when, entering the dining room in a new pair of smaller-sized jeans, she saw Michael and Deborah at the same table with their heads inclined toward each other. And afterward they walked side by side in the usual group that headed out to the dune.
A few weeks later when Riva and Michael were discussing whether or not to become lovers, he would tell her he had never been attracted to Deborah. Deborah didn’t know how to laugh, had Riva noticed that? How she smiled but didn’t laugh? And Riva would feel sorry for Deborah. By then everything was funny. Unlike poor Deborah, she laughed giddily.
But that evening in order to be with Michael she had to march with the group to the dune, bearing the sight of Michael and Deborah stretched out on the cool sand while Goodie played his guitar and people sang. Afterward she went with Goodie for a midnight swim. The sky was black, the stars thick and bright; the warm steady breeze from the sea caressed your skin like a hand. But Riva was aware only of Michael and Deborah who, in the dark, it seemed to her, were holding hands.
Gwen hadn’t come that night, and, back in the dorm she stopped in at Gwen’s room to tell her she hadn’t missed anything. The usual jokes. Except Deborah and Michael, she said, hiding her bitterness, seemed to be a number. Then, before she could confess her pain, she was planning to, in order to relieve it somewhat, Gwen came out with a zinger. Michael Savitz, she said, as if she and he were very different—you know, I don’t find that chap all that substantial?
Riva shrugged and left quickly, away from this criticism that Gwen had leveled at a lot of other kids on the ulpan. Still she was hurt and a little angry, as if her husband or her child had been defamed. It didn’t seem to matter that Michael hadn’t pledged himself to her and would probably never do so.
In her own room Riva lay in bed awaiting Deborah’s return, and only when it occurred, exactly two hours later, could she begin to try to sleep, telling herself that Gwen was right. Michael was inane, superficial, unable to love an individual person because of his need for love from everyone (there was a term from Psych 338 but she couldn’t remember it), unlike Elliot, who was strong enough to choose an individual woman—her!—and continue to love her, for better, for worse, and if she didn’t appreciate Elliot it was just (she chided herself) her own narcissism (was that the word?), a weakness she would outgrow in Columbus, Ohio, as she and Elliot raised their children and took their place in the larger community.
She had resolved to avoid groups that included Michael—which wouldn’t be hard since he was working in tapuzim when he showed up two days later in bananot. The bunches were ripening even under the plastic. Michael was to be part of the crew that carried the stalks to the truck.
He was friendly to her as usual, and to everyone, as usual. She’d have liked to respond with just a shade under her usual warmth in order not to suggest what she couldn’t stand for him to know, but found herself barely able to speak. When, in the heat of the workday, he took off his shirt, balled it up and wiped the sweat off his face, she turned away with a jerk and almost cut her leg. It wasn’t his physique. He was thin despite the abundant kibbutz food, and as for height, he was average or below. But he half-jigged to the truck under the weight of the heavy stalks. From his chest to his belt was a trail of half-curled soft-looking hairs she couldn’t get her mind off of, no matter where her eyes were.
Every so often a person does something that’s completely unlike anything they’ve ever done before. As a shy child on a camp bus full of children she didn’t know, Riva once volunteered to stand in the aisle and lead a song. A spirit of audacity had settled upon her for a moment, was trying her out maybe as a new vehicle. She stood between the rows of children her age singing at first loud and clear, then the words stopped coming. Ceased; jammed up. Stoically, crazily, she stood there mouthing whatever came into her head, then gradually she fell silent and so did the other children, who looked at her curiously and then with a giggle or two as she sat down. She pushed past her seatmate, who was eating something from her lunchbox, and pressed her hot forehead to the window, not quite crying, wondering what devil had made her expose herself. And now the same devil was running her. She took her machete over to Svi, looked him straight in the eye, and said in English, “I want a better job.”
“Eh? You want to sit down,” he responded in Hebrew, although she was sure he understood what she’d said. His English was fine. That was why he led the volunteers.
“Ani rotza l’avod im ha’adamim,” she said loud and clear (I want to work with the men) although she had wanted to say I want to work like the men. Trying to remember the Hebrew for “like,” she hardened her gaze of a sabra; she would not be deterred. “I’m sick of pruning,” she went on in English, “I’m tired of giving haircuts to the banana trees. I want to carry the stalks.” She pointed to Michael stumbling under a large burden. He heaved it clumsily onto the truck bed, wiped his face, smiling his wryly gleeful embarrassment. She said to Svi, deadpan, “I could maybe do better than that.”
“These stalks, they weigh what, fifty pounds? Seventy-five?” Svi looked down at her through half-closed eyes, as if he had to squint to see someone that small and short. “And you? You have big girl muscles?” He spoke louder than he had to, since the only background noise was the hum of insects and the occasional chatter of the volunteers. He poked at her bicep, which looked weak and loose even to her eyes, her arm narrow as a pole.
“Halev sheli gadol!” she said as loud as he, she didn’t care who heard. My heart is big. Unexpectedly, involuntarily, passionately earnest. Where did that come from?
Heads cocked. Work slowed. Several people drew near. She screened them out, Michael too, whether or not he was listening. With her back to him and everyone but Svi, she restated her wish to be a part of the squad that carried the stalks to the truck, the only argument against which was outmoded custom. As an oppressed minority, surely Jews could see the injustice of false hierarchies? The poison that was spread, the minds numbed by distinctions that had no validity or usefulness. She spoke quietly but with assurance, careful not to say “please.” If she couldn’t handle the heavy stalks, she’d go back to pruning; she didn’t want to slow things down. But there was no reason she couldn’t try. She was too shaky to attempt Hebrew, but for the first time in Israel, in either language, her voice had some heft. “Throughout history women have been servants or pets for men, in most countries we still have secondary status, in America we’re finally starting to fight it; let me try just once! Put it on my shoulder and see if I make it to the truck. If not, I’m back with the chicks.” The Hebrew word came to her: “Yeldot!”
“Shee-it,” said Svi, but now others were on her side.
“Give her a chance.”
“Don’t be a prick, man.”
Svi wasn’t eager. “If she falls down and makes rotten our bananas? What if her papa doesn’t like she has hurt her back and makes for us trouble?”
“He’ll say it’s my fault, he’s a prick like you,” she said. People laughed. Svi scowled but she was allowed to try.
Even today she remembers standing under the banana tree as the cut stalk, a yard long and wider around than the space between her arms, fell with all its weight on her bare shoulder. She staggered, then found her balance. She’d never been an athlete, perhaps because of her asthma, which in high school had sometimes excused her from gym, but mostly because, for whatever reason, her body felt ungainly; she’d rather walk than run, sit than walk (these days she tried to run three times a week but it wasn’t fun). But that afternoon, seething with eros and adrenaline, she couldn’t fail—she wouldn’t allow herself—and strode, one solid foot after another, from the grove to the truck and back again. Svi didn’t make it easy for her. In fact, that day he was out to get her. As soon as she had settled her bundle in its place on the truck bed, he yelled, “Riva, boee!” at the next tree impatiently swinging his machete, “Lazy girl. Like an old camel,” and when she arrived in position under the next stalk, instead of lowering it gently as he did for the men, he’d drop it onto her shoulder so that she almost fell under weight and had to stumble into movement, and before she had unloaded there was his voice again, and soon she was running from the truck to the tree and back again, the stalks cutting into the tender meat of her shoulder.
At the end of the four hours heading back to the dormitory building with the rest of the banana workforce, she was sweaty and didn’t care, didn’t care that her shoulder burned and even bled slightly, didn’t care who Michael paid attention to. She half lay between two guys in the back of the pick-up, loving the smell of her sweat and the seeping of her blood and her shoulder’s steady strong throbbing.
At dinner that night she and Michael chose the same table. Eventually the others left, the cleaning crew started in. They walked toward the bluff past where the ulpan usually went, talking in ardent bursts. When they reached territory neither had traversed before they started playing like children, sliding down the dune to the beach and clambering up again. Riva breathed easily, as if asthma had never been a problem. She set her body parallel to the slope of the hill and let gravity take over, rolling her down faster and faster. When she came to a stop on the beach the world was spinning. As a kid she had hated the sensation, afraid it would never stop, but now she savored it, and the sand itching at the roots of her hair. Under the almost full moon, the night was transparent, the sand glowing palely. The air was damp and warm and seemed to be the exact temperature of her body, as if there was no difference between outside and inside, the world and herself. She was open to everything, as she had felt at times in early childhood, a vessel to be filled, fearless of what might fill it in a world that meant her well.
She lay on the sand, arms spread, tracking stars on the darker edges of the sky, and when Michael lay down beside her, her breath quickened only slightly. “You have a will of iron. Do you know that?” he said. She laughed. In the past she had been mush, easily led. But now? “It’s unusual,” he said.
“Unusual for a woman?” She meant, Is it unattractive?
“For anyone,” he said.
She raised herself on an elbow, bravely, prepared for his verdict. “Does it put you off?”
“I wish it did.”
She laughed giddily. She was climbing a ladder whose top was hidden in clouds. “Beware. I have untapped powers!”
They could have made love then, but did not. In part because Riva was engaged to be married. It felt wrong, and neither wanted to do anything wrong. Not from moral compunction or even guilt, but from fear of bad luck. As if misbehavior would activate forces against them. Alert the malign universe. They had to protect each other and themselves and what was happening between them.
Much later, after she broke with Elliot, after she and Michael married, had children, and then divorced, Riva would think of these not quite chaste weeks with Michael, in which they talked and tried not to touch, as their time of greatest passion. Standing in for sex was conversation, imbued with an exalted sort of terror, a frightened exhilaration at the thought everything that loomed. She confessed the almost uncontrollable pull she felt when she first saw him, her knees barely holding her legs straight. Confession was sexy, a fearful, brave opening. She felt enlarged by her frankness.
That first revelatory evening she laughed longer than she was supposed to. But she couldn’t help it. Her bluster seemed genuine; she could destroy or succor at will. She trembled for this moment that might never come again, for the smell of orange trees and dead fish, and his sweat and hers, and his breath mixing with hers in this time and place after which neither of them would ever be so beautiful.