I learn by going where I have to go—Theodore Roethke

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The Secret

I'm on a train stopping at station after station. Towns along the way
are hidden by patches of eucalyptus that once drained the swamps
but now have a calmer role. Across from me - two soldiers –
one with a weapon slung over the right shoulder. Bullets, tipped red
are visible from where I sit. He laughs, taps the end of the table
between us, asks the other in a uniform, pale as sand:
Kobi still in India? Shmuel back from Brazil?
Your sister – did she have a baby in that prison?
Was it Thailand?

The brother reddens: She's in New York now.
No child. That's just what they said.
His voice drops.
We haven't heard from her since Passover. Almost a year.
The one in khaki runs his hand over the bullet case. The brother
bends over his pack, pulls out a napkin wrapped round a pita
thick with chocolate spread, offers half.
The other continues asking about the sister, his voice
stretches over the sister's secret as he moves his hand
down the rifle barrel.

The train wheezes out of West Hadera. The brother crumples the napkin.
Got another promotion, he says, touching a badge on his pocket.
The other talks about stupid commanders, calls them by name.
The train slides into Herzylia, he mentions Gadi, smacks the table:
He tore us apart. He was the real enemy! The brother pulls at his chin
as though trying to remember.
The one in khaki twists himself and his rifle: Is your sister still a beauty?
The brother admits: She's not the same, but in New York she's happier
at least that's what she told us.
The other shakes his head.
It's important for her to stay in one place, says the brother.

The train is sucked into Tel Aviv. The soldier in khaki
pushes ahead of me toward the exit, shouts back at his buddy
Tell your sister I asked about her -
He moves through the open door before the answer reaches him:
I don't think she cares.

Waiting is brutal

Sirens seared the air.
Soldiers made no announcements, just darted nervously –
and the line of cars behind us stiffened.
The officer near us removed his cap, wiped his face
didn't look our way.
Traffic lights continued green to red to green - a monotonous roll
I tried to count, tallying my fear, but couldn't turn it
into meditation.

Trapped in our cars, we gaped at soldiers swiveling guns.
Tension stretched round us. We repeated empty phrases
not remembering when we arrived, how long we'd been there.
Time hung, crumbled into another hour. Vague and confused
we craved diversion, dazzled by the panic of what might happen.
Night fastened a shadow to every form.

At the dinner party

The hostess spoke about sending Fed Ex packages with gas masks to her
daughters in New York. Also sent them to my friends there, she added.
Her anxiety ricocheted off the goblets, deepened the Merlot glow.
As she seated us, she inquired: Who doesn't eat pork? I raised my hand meekly.
My plate was immediately swept clear of strips curled neat as fresh snails
to the right of the open fig. I didn't know you kept kosher, said the hostess warmly.
I used to wear it as a shield, then it didn't let go of me, still hasn't
in one way or another, I admitted. She nodded, the others too
even the German Press Rep who declared it had been some time
since he'd dined with someone who 'minded' kosher rules.
That's who I used to be, I told him shyly, I don't keep kosher now. But
eating pork is something I just can't do. The host smiled at me from the head
of the table, announced: you can have anything you like now. Much less than
I'd ever taken for myself - but I couldn't admit that openly.

By that time it was dessert and the hostess cut into a massive cake. The scent
of chocolate and cream somewhat absorbed the memory of the pork. Conversation
turned back to the war and the hostess' advice to her daughters to get
Cipro tablets and store water. I got lost in the details as though I was dragging
a net of air, as though I'd drunk too much, yet reached for wine again
when the woman with heavy rings to my right smacked the rim of my glass
with the water jug, cracked it neatly, didn't spill a drop.