© Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
© Alec Soth/Magnum Photos


Israeli fiction from Iowa, for Valentine’s Day

Galit Dahan Carlibach
February 12, 2021
© Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
© Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
This article is part of Love.
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I recognize Dustin’s parents among the other farmers. My future in-laws look like they come from an Israeli agricultural village. I walk among radishes, peppers, and obscene amounts of corn, wondering how come the hotel breakfast buffet only includes one type of cereal.

They look content, as if just returning from Sunday prayer or a good anti-abortion talk. I approach them, Dustin in my veins. They’re selling corn. Pork jerky. Jams. I wait for the other customers to leave. I check out the jams. I smile and ask for explanations about each and every kind. They seem pleased. My future father-in-law offers information about the corn and describes how ethanol is produced by fermenting sugar.

I listen, wide-eyed, searching his face for hints of Dustin. Of the lovemaking that conceived Dustin 37 years ago. He refers me to his wife for details about the jams.

“I’d like to buy them all, but I’m a student,” I laugh.

Dustin’s parents are interested. Do they take such an interest in every customer? The answer is clear. They still can’t see the handiwork of destiny, the connection binding me to their son. But in a matter of years, their grandchild, our child, will frolic in their lovely meadow. They’ll have to warn him not to fall in the lake. He’ll walk around wearing sweet little overalls from Goodwill, mimicking Dustin. He’ll be a handyman. People who grow up on ranches always have bolts in their pockets. Kathleen says if I buy a few jams they’d be glad to give me a discount, then asks if I’m from Spain.

I’ve prepared for this moment. I know it’s OK to cheat a little for the sake of a greater truth, just as it’s allowed to conceal one large spot with a smaller one. I say, “Si, soy española.” Then I offer a few more lines I spent half the night memorizing, praying with all my heart that they aren’t Spanish speakers.

They aren’t.

I tell them about my religious studies, and Kathleen invites me to their Methodist church next Sunday. “It’s very non-Catholic,” she smiles.

I leave carrying a treasure trove. Jams. Enough corn to feed an army (along with microwaving instructions. I entertained them with my story of exploding corn) and a path to Dustin’s heart. A small link in a long, brave, strong chain about to connect us.

From the moment Dustin entered my life, I can’t stop noticing musicians. In writer-heavy Iowa, hordes of musicians stride, guitars in hand. Their guitars double and procreate new guitars.

In the middle of the night, I write Dustin about how I admire Bob Dylan, who still hasn’t answered her highness the royal prize committee. Dustin replies with a picture of his buttonless concert shirt.

I count the hours till morning.

The receptionist prints out a map for me. I cross enormous hangars, Magda’s voice in my ears, “There’s a corpse behind every hangar.”

I buy myriad buttons in different colors and sizes for $20 and find a nice box to go with them. At George’s, I talk to the tattooed bartender. Of course she knows Dustin. Iowa City is a small place, and besides, she winks, Dustin is not someone you forget. She’d be happy to pass on the box. I drink a gin and tonic standing up. On my way back to the hotel I spot a Hebrew sign on one of the buildings. The Beit Hillel Synagogue announces that the Yom Kippur prayer will be taking place in the main hall.

I meet Romania at her reading. Afterwards, she tells me that her grandmother was a quarter Jewish. The eighth-of-a-Jew in her would love to join the prayer. Besides, she says, Mexico is giving her a hard time.

I go to the God of Jews to beg for my soul.

Beit Hillel. The wretchedness of the wandering Jew hits me. Barely eight people, including women. They pray in American, a language without antiquity or sanctity. Between one prayer and the next, they talk about Rabbi Akiva. It takes me a while to understand their pronunciation of the name. Romania closes her eyes with devotion. She wants to find a husband in America. There’s a shortage of men in Romania, she whispers, as if men were rye bread or milk.

When I return from synagogue I light one cigarette after another until the pack is empty. The Jewish God leaves me hanging. Well, He shouldn’t say I didn’t warn Him. I send Dustin an equivocal greeting, something about a day in which fates are sealed. He doesn’t write back.

I head out to the Methodist church and meet a new side of Jesus. The congregation sings “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.”

In another fabulous hymn, they sing about Jesus’ blood, which can purify the worst villain. I sing, not too far from Dustin’s mother, and watch her movements. Thirty-seven years and one month ago she gave birth to Dustin. He says we’re sinners, but does the blood of Jesus not purify even the worst villain? My soul was stored in formaldehyde until now. The straight, square lines waiting for me at home. No stepping on the crack. No mixing brain and soul. No going overboard. No meat. Stay within the boundaries.

Yes, I know Jesus can purify even the worst villain. I sing quietly. On stage, someone strums a guitar, his tears dripping on the strings. His crying is contagious. I’m part of the flock too, now. We don’t have to stay inside the lines. We need to know how to read between the lines.

There is no subtext in the city of literature, but the text is very simple. Jesus withstood temptation, and so must we. Our temptation, Dustin, is not to be together. How many things are getting in our way? An ocean. Two languages. Two religions. Two nationalities. A marriage.

I say hello to my in-laws. They greet me, and I promise to come back to the farmers’ market because their jam was a hit in our cafeteria.

On my way back to the hotel I stop at George’s. The bartender isn’t as friendly this time. Yes, she says, Dustin got the package. No, he didn’t say anything. In fact, he didn’t even buy a drink. It feels like she’s accusing me, as if it’s my fault she lost money. I fight against the urge to toss some cash on the counter.

I’ve always liked puzzles. Now I quickly and expertly collect pieces of the Dustin puzzle. I visit my mother-in-law’s Facebook page. Dustin is there in all his glory. His beard. The vest. The jeans. His ears. His mouth is open in song, but his eyes are unaffected by the position of his mouth. They descend in that merciful way that makes my blood boil and causes me to recount our kissing over and over. Our carnality on the carpet. The long hours I avoided peeing, to keep him inside of me. “This is my talented son,” my mother-in-law boasts over on the computer. Now, imbued by this power, I search for the choir on Google and email the director, saying I’m a student interested in joining.

I’m sure my wish will be granted. My hands are filled with magic and my ears are still stoppered with Jesus. The Jewish God has something to learn from Jesus.

I leave for the talk, not before I invite Dustin to join. A panel about the boundaries of literature and imagination. I write to him that I’ll be speaking about imagination giving birth to reality. “Shake the Dustin off of your wings,” I write.

When I get back, I go to reception and ask to photocopy my notes. “You’re always making copies,” the receptionist, a student with ears so pointy they seem to have been made with a protractor, groans. I tell him I don’t use the cleaning services a lot, so it evens out.

“That’s true,” he looks at his computer screen. “The last time your room was cleaned was three weeks ago. The staff is complaining that you never take off the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.”

I promise to remove it right away, but don’t. I get an email from Luke, the conductor of the Iowa City Choir. According to Wikipedia, Luke was one of the evangelists. Before Jesus there was John the Baptist. In general, a false messiah always precedes a true one. Luke expresses an interest. Can I come in, in two days? He assumes I can read sheet music. I say yes and resist the urge to hint at the fact that he’s part of a grander plan.

Translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan. Adapted from the novella ‘It’s Me, Iowa,’ published in Israel in 2018.

Galit Dahan Carlibach is the author of several novels, including The Locked Garden, On The Edge, and, recently, Alices Storm. She won the Prime Minister’s Prize for Hebrew writers.