How to Make It to the Promised Land
A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry
I am looking out the window to see if I can spot Rafi but I see only Bunk Machon. A couple of girls are sitting back to back, their chins upturned to the sun. Some guys are playing tic-tac-toe with sticks in the dirt. Nobody looks anxious. Nobody looks Polish. Nobody cares about anyone but themselves.
I hear footsteps behind me. “Kron?” I say.
“Whatsa matter, Lizzie?” a voice says. “You afraid of being a Jew?”
I turn around. Orna Lewis taps her fingers against the clipboard she clutches to her chest and flicks a strand of stringy blond hair behind her ear. “Game over,” she says. “Let’s go.”
“The game’s over?” I say slowly. She could send us to the soccer field for deportation if she wanted to. “We can go back to the bunk now?”
She bangs her clipboard against the counter. “You have to get your papers and get out of Poland. Now! Let’s go! Both of you!”
I start to move, but Kron doesn’t. She’s sprawled out, lying prostrate on the dirty linoleum, her pale birdlike arms at her sides, her hair spreading around her. Orna nudges her foot against Kron’s butt. “Karen! I’m serious!” she says, but Kron doesn’t respond. Her eyes flutter open. She looks at Orna; she looks at me; she smiles, and out flies pale vomit from her mouth. Elegantly, in an arc, it flies up and shoots down on Orna’s woven open-toed sandals.
“Oh,” Kron says.
Orna shrieks and stomps around, light brown drops of vomit flinging around like wet paint.
I freeze. I live in fear of throwing up. The last time I did I was in fifth grade. It happened one rainy May night, after dinner with my father at an empty Italian restaurant. I remember twirling great masses of spaghetti and clams around my fork, my eyes fixed on the Dodger game on the TV set above the bar. He talked about his new office, the great view he had of the Hudson.
“You mean, New Jersey,” I remember saying.
His eyes crinkled blue. “How did you know that?”
“Geography,” and my voice filled with exasperation. “We learned that in fourth grade.”
On the way back to my mother’s, not knowing when I would see him again, I thought of the clams sliding like snot down my throat and I smelled the chemical plush of the rental car’s upholstery and I couldn’t take it any longer; I threw up into my cupped hands. I am remembering my father’s “Jesus! Jesus!” when I hear Orna yell, “She needs to go to the infirmary!”
“Orna,” I moan, clutching my stomach, thinking I too can take advantage, “the chicken, I think it was—” But I am two beats too late.
“Don’t even try it!” she says. “You’re going to Machon. Now.”
Orna stomps across the linoleum. Kron turns around, raises her sharp eyebrows. “Canteen at three,” she mouths to me.
The sun is on full blast. We pass the empty basketball court, its black asphalt glittering in the heat, and a ring of campers standing around with clipboards like Orna’s. They watch as she deposits me at the back of the line outside Machon. I stare right back at them and wave, just to let them know that I’m still around, but I’m feeling wobbly and a little nervous with Kron gone. The rumors are flying: “You don’t even need a visa.” “No one is getting across.” “Kids are disappearing; no one’s seen Leslie Epstein for hours.” “Bobby Z. is standing at the gates, making you pay real money; it’s all a front so he can make a little extra cash.” But they don’t stray from the line.
I am not here, I tell myself. I am not here at all. If I concentrate hard enough, I can put myself behind the counter at Häagen-Dazs on 17th Street, where I should be, scooping out shivery happiness for anyone with $1.49.
Jill Simon, the premier girlie girl of my bunk, saunters up to the line with her boyfriend Jesse, a short guy with curly hair who acts inches taller than he is.
“We could be at Zuma right now,” Jesse says. “Out there, in the water.” He traces the line of skin between Jill’s shorts and her top.
“You can’t go surfing,” Jill says. “We have visas to worry about.” She guides his hand to her navel, laughs lightly, as if no one were around for miles.
I cough, loudly.
“What?” she says, as if interested in my response, but there is a hitch to her tone that tells me everything. “What are you looking at?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing at all.”
“Let her watch all she wants,” Jesse says. “If that’s how she gets her kicks.” He flings an arm over Jill’s shoulders.
“Yeah, you’re splendid entertainment.”
“You don’t think I could entertain you?” Jesse says in a voice knitted with sweetness. I feel his eyes travel up my body. I know what he’s looking at. Earlier this year, my body took off without me, and my mother and I spent too many hours at Bullock’s shopping for bras. Last week, Jesse came up behind me in the dining hall and watched with this lewd little grin as I held a glass under the soda machine and a stream of Coke sputtered out. “Go bother your Barbie doll of a girlfriend,” I had said, but that did nothing to wipe his smirk off. Now his lips curve into a smile.
I cross my arms. “In your dreams,” I said.
But it is as if I’ve said nothing at all. And I do what I’ve been doing all summer, I concentrate so hard that a hum starts up in my ears and light wavers in front of my eyes. I pull my ID out of my back pocket, and I stare again at Anya’s face. Thick eyebrows set far apart, a narrow bridge of a nose, dark hair that hangs down heavy over her cheeks. It’s a strange look, but not unattractive. I wonder what her life was like. Did she really have four kids? What happened to them? What happened to her? Was she one of the people they were talking about last night? I think of those train tracks, skin stretched thin over bones. And I tell myself: I won’t let that happen to me.
It takes close to an hour, but when I finally get inside the bunk is cool and dark. The fans click. As my eyes adjust and the shadowy shapes sharpen, my heart does a dance. I should’ve come here hours ago.
Someone has pushed all the bunk beds against the far wall, their metal legs peeking out beneath the mint-green sheets they’re using as curtains. In front, sitting, resplendent, as if on some kind of stage, is Rafi, beautiful Rafi. He is in charge of passports. He is in control.
A rectangle of butcher paper is covered with a grid of names, Xs and Os marching down in columns. In front of me, a fat girl in orange hightops is arguing with a sallow-skinned boy whose name I also don’t know. “I’m not selling the painting just to get across,” she hisses.
Rafi waves them over. They hand their papers to him. Rafi’s fingers fly. They waltz across the keys of the adding machine, they flip through the IDs. They are long and limber with a life of their own. They could be anywhere, those hands—tapping on a glass-topped table in Paris, unbuttoning an Israeli army jacket, caught in the tangle of my hair. I can’t say if it is minutes or seconds later—time is a slippery, iridescent glaze—but soon Rafi stamps their cards and is calling to me.