How to Make It to the Promised Land
A short story explores what happens when a camp game goes horribly awry
Here is the game they want us to play. Bobby Z., the camp director, explains it to us the night before. First, he reads us the names: Treblinka, Birkenau, Terezin, Auschwitz. “This is what happened to so many of the Jews of Europe,” he says, as if we didn’t know. “But what about the ones who got away?” He asks this, and then he splits us up. We are no longer the three dozen 15-year-olds attending Camp Shalom in the summer of 1991.
Tomorrow will be November 1, 1940, and we will be in the city of Lodz, which was invaded by the Nazis last September. Two-thirds of us are Polish Jews, living in the ghetto. The remaining third are Polish “officials” or German SS guards. The challenge, for the Jews, is to escape deportation.
We are handed yellow stars and strands of plastic beads that will double as currency. We are given purple, ink-smudged maps of camp on which everything has been renamed. All the Hebrew names are gone: My bunk, formerly called Machon, is the Polish Passport Agency. Bunk Alonim is the bank. The kitchen is the town’s desecrated synagogue and is entirely off limits. The old canyon fire road is the Polish border.
My name is gone too. We are handed ID cards, and I am no longer Lizzie Lenthem, 15, of Topanga, California, but Anya Ossevsheva, 28, of Lodz. I have four kids. I have a long aquiline nose and a hard unsmiling mouth. I look nothing like me.
We are told: “You will have to make it across the Polish border by sundown.” We are advised to try the official routes first. We will try to trade our pathetic beads, acquire visas, masquerade as goyim, charm guards into letting us stow away on a train to Zurich or a boat to Buenos Aires. How will we do this? Who among us has money? Who doesn’t? Bobby Z. won’t say. “Go to the bank. Try the passport office,” he says. “You will see.”
We are told: “The wood between the girls’ and boys’ camps is Central Europe; the goal is to move beyond it, past the fire road, to the old tennis courts, to America.” The guards will try to prevent this—the soccer field will be used for round-ups—but if you have the proper papers, there is nothing they can do. Bobby Z. says: “Do not enter the synagogue; do not try to trade real goods or real money; and do not, I repeat, do not try any funny business, or you’ll never leave this camp, let alone Poland, again.” Any of these rules can change at any time, we are warned. We are told all this, and the next morning we are sent on our way.
Except I don’t go on my way. What do I know? I am the newcomer. When I was a kid, I once asked an old woman on a Santa Monica beach if the numbers tattooed on her arm were her phone number. I spent last Yom Kippur with my Filipino boyfriend, making out in the parking lot of the Wendy’s on Pico, eating bacon double cheeseburgers. The only reason I’m here is that my mother (Israeli, atheist) wants to piss off my father (Bostonian, Presbyterian), who is six months behind on child support. She sent me here so she could “rejuvenate,” she said. Where’s the rejuvenation in steaming off wallpaper and installing new bathroom tiles? That’s all she seems to do these days, ever since she got the house in a settlement from Richard (her “soon-to-be-ex,” as she now calls him). I haven’t answered a single one of her letters since I’ve been here. But one thing I do know is this: Malibu in 1991 just isn’t Lodz during the war. And I’m not going to pretend otherwise.
We are forced up and out of our bunks before the summer sun has warmed the air or dried the dew on the clumps of yellowing grass, and the basketball court we assemble in is buzzing in the bluish morning light. A small group settles down on the blacktop, just inches away from Bobby Z., all anxious and excited. They’re kids like Leslie Epstein and David Margolis, who are always offering to lead one of the million prayers that I still don’t know, sending those stupid Shabbat-o-grams back and forth to one another, or saying, “You haven’t been bat mitzvahed?” as if I’m some kind of alien. They cup their IDs in their hands. They have already pinned on their stars.
Then there are the boys in loose flannels throwing mock layups into the sagging basketball net, and a knot of languid lip-glossed girls in little white shorts and tanks, who don’t seem to notice the cold, stretching out their legs, exchanging looks. A girl with a great smear of purple eyeshadow is braiding Jill Simon’s long lush hair; Jill is drawing a bunch of daisies on her knee. In front of them, in a bright pile of shifting colors, are their IDs and stars. There’s no way they’re going to put them on until they have to.
This is the difference between cool and not cool here: who wears the stars and who doesn’t. And this is just one of many reasons I can’t stand this Jew-camp hell, which everyone else has been coming to since they were fetuses, practically. I am sitting behind the basketball net, away from everyone else, just as I’ve been doing all summer. In order not to look for Rafi, whom I look for far too often, I am staring at the distant, hay-colored hills. Rafi is a madreich, a counselor for the little kids, a guitar-playing junior from Santa Cruz, with sleepy silvery eyes and a mass of jet-black curls. You’d think everyone else would be after him too, that all those lip-glossed girls would try to sidle up to him during meals, but they don’t, and it just proves all that they don’t know.
“You’ll have an hour here in the ‘town square,’” Bobby Z. tells us, slicing his fingers through the air to form quotation marks. “You can trade items with one another, you can look for family members—it will be easier to get across as a unit than alone.” His wide bearded face breaks into a grin; nothing in his look lets on that his camp is in decline, that parents now prefer Ramah or Wilshire Boulevard camps to Shalom. “You must wear your star and ID at all times. Failure to do so will jeopardize your chances of obtaining a visa.”
“Fascist,” I hear a low voice say. It is Kron, with her crazy red hair and dozens of black rubber bracelets wallpapering her pale wrists, the closest thing I have to a friend in this place.
“You’re lucky to be here in America. All of us are. For just one day we’d like you to pretend otherwise,” Bobby Z. concludes.
Names are being called out: “Rosie Glass, Wolfe Gootman, Lev Levy.” People are milling about, searching for family, grabbing their friends. I am doing none of this. I am not interested in finding Anya’s husband. In my family (my real family, my only family, that is), marriage is a burden not a boon, and one that the women of every generation have worked hard to shake off.
A boy with a moon face comes by. “Have you seen Helen Markowitz?” he asks. I study him for a moment. He should be at the other end of the basketball court, where people really care about this stupid game, where counselors are pointing out wives and distributing extra safety pins and tips on how to make it to the promised land.
“Helen is dead,” I say.
His face shifts colors, from pink to purplish red—I see it happen.
For a second, I feel bad—I mean, I don’t even know him—but I continue. “Of course, she’s dead. You’re dead, she’s dead, Anya Ossevsheva is dead too,” I say, thrusting my ID in his face. “It’s only a game.”
He looks at me and scowls. “Thanks a lot.”
I smile. “You’re welcome.”
He leaves. I look at the ID in my hand. I stare until the photograph of Anya no longer looks like a face. It becomes something else: a fingerprint, maybe, or a scattering of sand. It looks like everything and nothing at the same time. I fold it up and stick it in my back pocket.
“The bank and Passport Control are opening up,” Bobby Z. says, getting excited. “Get moving.”
The weak sun is now casting a pale glare. The basketball court clears out. Clutching their plastic beads, kids file past the red-painted iron sculpture that everyone calls “the dueling tampons.” I see them line up in front of Bunk Machon, then circle back to Alonim.
Bobby Z. and the couple of counselors who didn’t take the younger kids to the waterslides in San Marino are walking around, sweeping the place. “Time to get going,” Orna Lewis says. “No dilly-dallying in Poland.”
“If this is Poland, how come we’re not speaking Polish?”
She just scowls at me. “Let’s go,” she says. “There’s KP duty in Poland, too.”
I head down the slope toward the dining hall, acting as if I know where I’m going. Kron appears by my side. Her red hair is wild, each curl going off in its own direction, disobeying the laws of gravity. She looks at me and says, serious, “How are we supposed to remember what we never knew in the first place?”
It’s a good question. Kron occupies the only single bed in our bunk; no other girl wanted to be near the black netting she draped over her bed, the weird atonal music she plays. She and I started hanging out a couple of weeks ago, eating at those empty tables in the back of the dining hall; still, I don’t know much about her. The counselors call her Karen, but she insists that her name is Kron, that she was born on the planet of Lamu. She moves her bracelets up and down her wrist, following my eyes.
I don’t know what makes me say it: her bracelets, her sad serious face—or mine? “Let’s get out of here,” I say.
I lead the way through a raggedy stand of pines and up a back path that I like to take to the dining hall. If you climb far enough up this hill, you can sometimes spot a glint of metal—cars streaming up and down the black strip of the Pacific Coast Highway, heading north to Santa Barbara or south to L.A.. Somehow we manage to reach the kitchen without running into any guards. You’d think there’d be someone here to acknowledge the building’s transformation into a desecrated synagogue, but in a way I’m not surprised. My mother has told me stories about her uncle Avi, a fat, black-hatted father of eight with pale blue eyes and a sour-pickle smell; he refused to join the army, railing against the godless Israeli state and his heathen relatives, even while he ripped off his business partner and cheated on his wife. “The more pious they look, the more hypocritical they are,” she’d say. She thinks this and yet still she sent me here?
I rattle the screen door and call Yarden’s name. Yarden is from Honduras and has skin the color of milky tea. Sometimes when I’m supposed to be at swimming or crafts I sneak in here and plant myself on the counter, helping him to peel potatoes until they form a pyramid. He tells me about the importance of breathing through the diaphragm, his long fingers resting on his ribs, or he tells me about the mangroves back home. I am beautiful and smart, he says, but I shouldn’t be so down on makeup. “A girl should never be afraid to wear a little color,” he says firmly as he chops onions, the tip of his knife gleaming.
“Yarden?” I hiss again. No answer. Kron stays several feet back, on patrol.
“It’s better that he’s not around. We’ll just pop off the screen window; you’ll crawl in.”
I give her a leg up, guide her to the loose part of the screen. She is as light as a bird. I am loving this. We are misfits, we are outlaws. We won’t be around for deportation. If we were in Poland, we would be the ones to survive.
“This is a bad idea,” Kron whispers.
I boost her up even higher. “It’s the best idea I’ve had all summer,” I say.
She twists around. “I don’t think—”
“That’s right,” I say. “Don’t think at all.” That had been my policy all summer: not thinking, trying to forget, trying to imagine that the person stuck here with a freak as her only friend is someone else, that it’s someone else standing under the weak shower spray, tears mixing with the lukewarm water, wondering, why me?
Finally, Kron gets the screen off and slips through the window. A minute later, she is at the back door, opening it for me.
“I bet you they’re all inbred,” I say, inside the dark kitchen with its cracked linoleum. “They probably all have those weird diseases, like the Amish or the English royal family.”
We are discussing the girls in our bunk, or rather, I’m discussing them. Kron isn’t nearly as interested as I am in Jill Simon’s breeding. There’s only the scratch-scratch of her pencil as she sits on the floor, drawing.
I lean over. On the yellow cardboard face of her star, she’s sketching a disk with radiating spokes. It’s creepy, but kind of cool too. I’m wondering what it’s supposed to represent, when Kron, in her small, flat voice, says, “It’s not so bad in here.”
“No, it’s not,” I say, thinking that we could stay here for days, weeks even. Yarden would come back and the two of us could help him in the kitchen, hanging out in this sanctuary of warmth, away from the onslaught of activity after activity performed in the name of “camp spirit” and “Jewish community.” “If they wanted to make sure the Holocaust never happens again,” I say, “they’d be teaching us stuff so we don’t end up like them.”
Kron snorts. “What kind of stuff?”
I hesitate, because it’s sounding pretty dumb to me too, but I’m thinking of my mother’s two years in the army and I finally say, “Stuff so we could kick ass, so no one could push us around.”
Kron doesn’t say anything but she doesn’t laugh either. A minute or two pass with the sound of her scratchings. Then she says, “If we get caught—”
“We’re not going to get caught.”
“If we do,” Kron says again, flatly, “we meet at the canteen at three. No one will bother us there.”
“Okay.” I sit back, surprised but grateful that she’s taking charge. “Tell me about Lamu,” I say. Kron gives me a look. I shrug. “What’s the weather like? Who lives there?”
“Some things are better left unsaid,” she says beneath the curtain of her hair. “You know, Anne Frank survived years in an attic, barely talking above a whisper.”
“Good for Anne Frank,” I say. I pluck a pan off a hook above the industrial chrome stove and stare into it. The surface is all scratched up, but I can just make out my face. An old-looking face, I’ve been told (“classic,” my mother says); the hard jaw, the formerly blond hair that has settled into a harmless and unexciting shade of brown, the tiny nose and light blue eyes that I’m told are dead ringers for my father’s. Not that I see him often enough to know. It’s an okay face, not great, not terrible. “I’m surprised they didn’t make me a guard or a Nazi or something,” I say.
Kron looks up.
“Are there Jews on Lamu?” I try. “Jews who look like me?”
“Lamu does not host organized religions,” she says after a pause. “We don’t believe in them.”
“That’s good,” I say, softly.
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.
“Hey,” he says, folding his hands in front of him. “Look who we have here.” He is smiling. Tiny holes ring the neck of his worn T-shirt, which reads “Once Is Never Enough.”
I breathe. “Hey,” I say and smile back.
He brushes hair out of his eyes, clears his throat. He asks for my papers.
“You’re married,” he says, “with four kids.” He tells me this like he’s telling me, You can stay out all night.
I bite my lip. “I’ve been busy,” I say.
He laughs. “Clearly,” he says. And I laugh, too.
He swivels around, checking names on the paper behind him. I stare at the curve of his tanned neck, the point at which his curls stop and the knob of his spine appears. There is a dime-sized patch of peeling skin, and I resist the urge to reach out and tear it off. Maybe he’ll give me a train pass for later this afternoon; maybe I’ll get to wait here for hours with him.
Rafi turns back around, places his hands flat on the table. Can he tell that I’ve been with older guys before? That I’m not just some silly 15-year-old who doesn’t know anything?
“I can’t let you through.”
“What?” Stupidly, I smile some more.
He leans closer; his lips are a little chapped. His skin smells like clean laundry. “I can’t give you a stamp.”
“What do you mean?” I say, and I need to swallow, badly. “You can let me through. I know you can.”
He shrugs. “Sorry.”
I hate myself for what happens next. I know it’s just a game, but it doesn’t feel that way anymore, and the tears well up. “I don’t understand,” I say, and my voice is a pathetic whisper. “Please.”
“You’ll be fine.” He tips his chair back on its hind legs, gives me what I’m sure he thinks is an encouraging nod. “See you on the other side.”
The sky is too blue, hard with color and cleared of any clouds. The basketball court is a ghost town. The back door to the kitchen is padlocked shut; the window Kron and I crawled through is now covered with yellow caution tape. There is the soft hum of a generator, and an oceany rush that I know is the flow of cars on the PCH.
I peek through the back window of the infirmary, but all the beds are empty. Where is Kron? Why didn’t she warn me she was going to throw up? I would have told her that I couldn’t do it. Maybe she knew that; maybe she wanted to get rid of me and go over to the other side. Maybe everyone will make it but me.
I lean against the stuccoed wall. I’ll do what I should have done in the first place, what I should have done that first week of camp. I’ll hike down to the cars careering up and down the highway, and I’ll hitch a ride north to Santa Barbara or Los Ojos. I’ll learn to waitress, to balance plates on my arm and know what people want before they ask. I unlace my sneakers, easing my sticky heels out of the canvas. The smell is so strong, so deep and purely rank that for a second I breathe it in, opening my lungs, impressed. I close my eyes and daydream about Topanga and my mother; her hard freckled shoulders and her cigarettes and the orangy-brown lipstick she’s been wearing since I was four. She’d probably hate this game, even more than I do, and I’m thinking about how the summer will be over in three weeks and maybe I should write her back when I feel something brush against my foot. I slit my eyes open.
Standing above me is a boy I recognize from volleyball. He has a wide, sun-dusted face, and the stiffest hair I’ve ever seen, sand-colored hair that must add two inches to his height. Larry, Gary? Whoever he is, he is cooing “who, who” at me.
“Hey.” I blink.
“Hello, Jew,” he said. He toes his right sneaker in the dirt, pointing it into the ground and making a hole. “Jew, let’s see your papers.”
I can’t even speak. His eyes are dark, water-slicked rocks. “Jew, where’s your star?”
Jew? “Bullshit,” I feel like spitting. I want to say, “No, I’m not. Not in real life.” But I am and I know it and I just stare. None of this can be happening. None of it at all.
“Get out of here.” He taps the words out against my bare leg with his dirt-encrusted toe. “You should be long gone.”
He could haul me in; he could march me down to the soccer field and collect whatever stupid reward they’re handing out. This should keep me quiet, but it doesn’t. “Why don’t you go bother a midget your own size?”
He kicks my ankle. “Because I can bother you, Jew.”
Tears spring to my eyes. “Fuck you,” I say, and grab his left leg with both my hands. I throw him off balance, and he spins around, hopping. I give it a furious yank, and he falls. “You’re a Jew, too.”
“Not now I’m not.” We’re both in the dirt, and he’s grabbing me, clutching my mouth, my throat. He pins my arms back so far; I swear something inside of me crests and breaks. All I want in this world is to be gone.
“Okay, okay!” I start laughing. “Please, stop, please.”
He moves his mouth to my ear. “Why should I?”
“Because I’m asking you nicely. Please.”
His fingers are still around my collarbone. He speaks in almost a pleasant tone. “Okay. Get the fuck out of here.”
And I do.
He has my shoes. The bastard has my sneakers. I run hard anyway, wincing as I step on sharp rocks, twigs that scrape against the softness of my soles. I try to tell myself that I don’t care, that it’s good for me. My feet need to toughen up anyway. But I do care, I do.
I head up the incline, fast. There is the shallow rhythm of my breathing, the sound of leaves and twigs cracking beneath my feet. My forehead is covered in a fine, light mist. This fucked-up game isn’t funny anymore. I’m almost at the top of the hill when I hear a tangle of noises. I reach the stone arches that lead into the amphitheater. The noise is now a steady hum. An orange banner hangs limply at the entrance, a remnant of the color wars held last week. I was picked second to last for green and spent most of the time on the sidelines, cheering for blue.
My feet hurt. I am hot and tired and I can’t imagine the noises being anything good. Why should I go inside? I wonder this and it’s as if the wondering is my answer. Stepping gingerly on the balls of my sore feet, I pass under the orange flag.
The amphitheater is ours. Hot damp bodies crowd the stage. They throng the makeshift aisles, stepping over piles of clothing, pools of brightly colored plastic beads, bins of sneakers and flip-flops, pyramids of baseball caps. There are Walkmans and headless Barbies and Gameboys galore. There are dozens of voices braiding together, high- and low-pitched throbs that vibrate long past the words. All are clamoring for attention. Nothing is not for sale.
“A pass for a dozen beads. Get your passage here!”
“Exit for exchanges!”
“Music for cash!”
It is a quick business. People don’t linger. They file out like a steady stream. They want to get to the other side.
I hang back, stunned. Has this been going on all day? Has everyone known about it but me? I notice that Jill and Jesse have beat me here, and I watch as they hand over a fistful of beads and a Lakers cap for sweat-stained visas.
Everyone is going to the other side. Why can’t I?
“What do you have?”
I turn. “Excuse me?”
He is pale and rail-thin. Sam, if I remember right. A really good tennis player who practices all day long. You can hear the thwack, catch the gleam of the moving ball, as you leave the dining hall in the falling darkness. Secretly I like him for that, for the way he avoids everyone and everything for the only thing he cares about.
“Hi,” I say, smiling at him now.
“Hello.” His amber eyes slide over the surface of my face. His oxford shirt, the kind everyone else saves for Shabbat, is tucked neatly into his khakis, and his topsiders are polished bright. He reaches out, brushes his hand against my cheek.
“Hey!” My hands fly up.
“What do you want for the earrings?”
“Nothing,” I say, touching the small braided hoops that I’d forgotten I was wearing. They were my grandmother’s—my father’s mother’s—and except for a dark blue fraternity tie that my mother used to hang on our refrigerator door as a joke, the earrings are the only things I have from my father’s side of the family. I step back, almost trip over a wicker basket.
He grabs my elbow. “Watch yourself,” he says.
“I’m just fine,” I say.
Behind him, a girl with legs like a stork hands over a box of Jujubes; a freckled boy readjusts his Dodgers cap and screams, “Two hours! We’ve got two hours to get out of here!”
“I could get you to America in no time with those,” he says, his eyes on my ears.
“We are in America,” I say.
“Right,” he says, smiling. “Right.” And then, “Do we have a trade or not?”
“I can’t sell the earrings,” I explain.
“Fine,” he says, annoyed, and begins scanning the crowd for the next prospect.
“Sam—” I blurt out his name and touch his sleeve; I’m that desperate. “There’s got to be something else you’d want.”
“From you?” He raises his eyebrows, looking me up and down.
I flush, embarrassed. Who is he to do this to me? Who are any of these people? I look down at his diver’s watch; the digits glow 2:38 p.m. I want out so badly. I feel as if I’m peering over the edge of a cliff when I say, “What if I have information on a fugitive?”
“Look around you,” he says, looking bored. “They’re everywhere.”
“It’s Kron.” I say it and wind whistles in my ears. “I know where you can find her.”
“Kron from Lamu?” He says it quickly, almost laughing. “Now that’s a different story.”
I nod, tired.
“Where is she?”
“Visa first,” I say.
This time, when I cut through no-man’s-land, through the stand of eucalyptus trees where the ground is freckled by shadows, I walk more slowly. I feel a little sick, but I tell myself that Kron is fine, that she never showed up to the canteen, that she is worlds away.
“We’ve made it,” I say to Anya, and I’m surprised to hear my voice out loud. I pass the creek, which is little more than a trickle. The rocks lie gleaming: dry, white, and smooth as calcified bones. A lizard skitters from one to another. Its head is enormous and ugly, weighted down by a spiky, prehistoric-looking crown. I stop as it leaps closer to me, its tail wiping the rock. It is more graceful than anything I’ve ever seen. I lean over, holding my finger out. The lizard’s body goes rigid. Except for the slight quiver of skin hanging beneath its chin, you wouldn’t know it’s alive. I think: I could hurt it, if I wanted to. I could.
“Hello, Mr. Lizard,” I say, softly. “I won’t hurt you.”
I jump, and the lizard darts off. Jesse is behind me. He is perched on a rock, his tanned legs dangling down, bare soles of his feet flashing.
For a moment, neither of us says a word. Finally, he speaks. “You crossing?”
I take a step back. “Where’s Jill?”
He jerks his head around. “Around. Somewhere.” He hops off the rock, takes a step toward me. The air shifts—it becomes heavier somehow—but I don’t look away. “I haven’t seen her in a while. Everyone seems to be disappearing. Where’s your freaky double Kron?”
“Around,” I say carefully.
He nods, moves even closer. “What about your papers?” He asks this easily, smiling. But before I can stop him, he reaches around me and pulls my ID and visa out of my back pocket.
He backs away, laughing and shaking his head. He lets out a low whistle. “This is funny, you know. You and I.”
“Just—well, you are my wife.”
I stare. “Your wife?”
He pulls a green square out of his back pocket. “Moishe,” he reads. “I’m Moishe Ossevsheva. You’re Anya.”
He’s not asking me. He’s telling. He can’t do that. I don’t care if it’s just a game. I feel a force pressing down against my temples. He has no right to me. He has no right to Anya.
“I heard we got a divorce.”
“Really?” He folds his arms and looks down at my chest with a little smile as if my body is telling him something else. “Why would we want that? If we’re married, I can help you get across. I hear you’ll do lots of things to get across.” Still smiling, he puts my visa and ID in his back pocket. “Why are you shaking, Anya?” He moves his mouth close to mine.
“Don’t touch me,” I hear myself say. “Don’t you dare.”
“Oh, please,” he says. “As if this isn’t what you’ve wanted all along.”
And his lips are on mine and he’s right but oh so wrong and I feel both small and large, beautiful and grotesque, so unlike myself that I’m not sure I’m even there. He pulls me down to the rocky ground and wraps his legs around mine. And I don’t want to think about Kron and Anya, but they’re all I see. I’m horrible and I’ll do anything and his elbow is digging into my ribs and his hands are everywhere and mine are too. It’s probably only seconds but it feels like centuries later when we both hear it—a sharp noise, a crackling somewhere in the distance.
“Shit,” he says. He twists around fast and scrambles to his feet. “Where did that come from?”
I get up too, pulling my shirt back down. “Jill?” He scans the wall of trees, brushing his fingers through his hair.
“It’s not her,” I say. Somehow, I manage to reach over, grab the papers fanning out of his pocket.
“What are you doing?” Jesse twists around, blinking—his eyes are strangely lidded, thin and opaque—just like the lizard’s.
“You don’t even have a visa, Jew. This isn’t going to get you far.” My voice trembles. I feel an unbearable urge to pee. “You thought you were going to touch me? You and your dirty Jewish ways?”
I’m shivering as I rip up his ID, letting the pieces fall through my fingers like glitter. “Jew,” I practically coo. “Now why would I ever have married a Jew like you?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Jesse gives me a withering look and turns and lumbers away.
Now I’m shivering even more. I feel my way over to a boulder still warm with sun and I flatten my hands against it. I look at my own ID one last time, at that face, those eyes, so familiar, staring back at me, and I am dizzy with recognition. Carefully, I tear the green slip of paper apart. Anya’s face becomes speckles on the rocks in the drying creek. I stand there for what feels like an eternity, but as much as I wish it were otherwise, the speckles remain; there isn’t enough of the stream to carry them away.
Ellen Umansky is a senior editor at Tablet. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including the anthologies Sleepaway, and Lost Tribe, in which this story was originally published.
Illustration by Sam Weber.