Come to dinner, my neighbor across the hall calls, tonight. A storm has arrived. From my window I see the bursts of snow sailing across the courtyards below, singing and whipping the bare branches of the trees that line the streets. I hear, not the proverbial howling of the elements, but a sharp stinging sound that reminds me of a broken electrical cord sending out sparks from the toaster I should have replaced but didn’t. Is the universe in need of replacing?
I can’t see all the way to West End Avenue. I can’t see the high glass buildings downtown. If I were an Eskimo in my igloo I couldn’t be more surrounded by blinding whiteness. Yes, I’ll come to dinner. She has a guest from out of town, a man who has just arrived from somewhere in the Middle East, an Israeli. My neighbor met him when she and her husband went to Lebanon on a wine-tasting tour. He is a young man with sad eyes, she says, a journalist like me. I am an old woman with fading vision, so we should get along well.
Forgive me. I am listening to Louis Armstrong on the radio.
The man’s name is Jonah. He looks like a graduate student. His jacket has seen better days. His sweater has patches on the elbows. He seems to be growing a beard, or perhaps he lost his razor. But his eyes are glowing and very black and his hair is long, not hippy long but shaggy. He smells of pine soap. He is a political columnist for a paper in Jerusalem. We grieved and groaned about the news we couldn’t stop watching. It wasn’t until dessert that he told this story:
I had taken a plane from Ben-Gurion Airport a month ago to go to London where I would be teaching a two-month course at the London School of Economics. It was an El Al flight. Eighteen-year-old soldiers with Uzis unpacked my suitcase and asked me the name of my mother’s sister and how long I had lived in Jerusalem and where I did my army service. I was sitting in the middle of the plane by the exit door. Yes I was capable of opening the door in an emergency. I was grateful for the inches of extra leg room. It was a night flight.
Soon enough the sun sank over the horizon and the sky turned black and the stars were floating past. The sliver of a moon seemed to be leading the plane forward as if it were tethered to the wing outside my window.
The Milky Way rose higher and higher into the darkness. The clouds rose and fell. And then as sleep approached I heard a grinding sound, followed by an unmistakable shaking in the cabin and a wailing of metal panels.
Suddenly, there was darkness everywhere. The cabin lights were out. The captain’s voice came over the intercom. We are experiencing some technical problems. We will land the plane as soon as possible.
There was a terrible silence in the cabin and then some prayers. A husband yelled at his wife because she had wanted to see her parents in Flushing. A baby screamed. A babble of prayers, all special pleading, caused me to read the instructions on the escape door, as the plane drifted slowly down below the clouds.
We were over an ocean, a starlit ocean. We sank under the waves and slowly rose to float on the water. The cabin lights on the floor, little flecks of indifferent white, pointed the way as the flight attendants in both cabins repeated the instructions on how to inflate our life jackets. I put on mine and helped the woman sitting next to me to adjust hers. I have a baby at home, she whispered over and over again, as if that fact would lift the plane back into the air.
So this is how I’ll die, I thought. It could be worse. I’d seen worse. People were fixing their life jackets, tugging and swearing and praying. The tall flight attendant asked me to open the door. It was stiff. I pulled hard on the handle. The door opened. The real air, cold accompanied by the smell of salt and brine came rushing in, cool and hopeful. The plane bobbed gently on the waves. “We have contacted the nearest tower for help. Our position is known. We will be all right,” said the stewardess into the mic. Her Hebrew was better than her English but she calmed everyone down, except one child who was inconsolable because his mother couldn’t find his blanket.
Were there sharks in the water? In my imagination the ocean is filled with sharks. So is the land.
No one wanted to exit the plane and go into the water. No one wanted to be the first. No one would have wanted to be the last either. But the stewardess said to me: You have to go first. Others will follow. Just do it.
I did. I slid out the portal into the cold water and inflated my vest. My head was above the water. The water was cold and my legs were soon numb. Come on, I called out in English and then in Hebrew. And just then the captain’s voice boomed from the loudspeaker. A ship is almost here. It will arrive in less than 90 minutes. As soon as the ship is in sight I will notify everyone. For now the plane is not damaged. It should stay afloat for at least another three hours. If you prefer to stand on the wings, they are stable.
I floated calmly in the gentle waves. A large lumbering dark shadow passed beneath me and I stayed as still as I could. How much is one life worth? I thought. At least I tried to help others. Maybe I’ll be given a posthumous medal. That would surprise my father, the rabbi, who never thought I would bring credit to his name.
For the past six months, even before my girlfriend decided I wasn’t her beshert, I kept thinking I needed to be in New York, not in London. I kept checking the weather in New York on my iPhone. And now I was in the water and the stewardess had closed the door to the plane. Many passengers in their vests were standing or sitting on the wings. I was floating and holding on to a wing flap so I wouldn’t be the only one pulled away in the tide. I thought of my laptop on the floor under my seat. It was backed up. It was nestled in the cloud. Or so Bernie, the tech guy in the office, had said.
We all saw the approaching lights of a ship. I wasn’t going to thank God for saving me from an emergency he surely had the power to abort. I knew that destiny is no one’s friend, I had served in the army as an Arab translator for a secret department that was well known to everyone within and without the Green Line, which was itself erased on our maps.
It was a not a big ship, not a cruise ship with boutiques and swimming pools. It was a cargo ship with boxes piled one on top of the other, all headed to New York.
Rope ladders were lowered. We sent the women and children up in lifeboats that came down to the water and rose to the ship’s deck. I felt a sharp blow on my right leg. I saw blood in the water. I took the next harness lift up to the deck. My wet pant leg was torn and blood flowed about my ankle.
I would arrive in New York without my cellphone. I would not have my laptop. I would be a journalist with a very wet passport and no extra shirt or underwear. The ship’s doctor did disinfect my wound and showed me the teeth marks of what he called an adolescent shark. I swallowed antibiotics four times a day and worried about my 3-year-old daughter in Haifa. How could I tell her I was fine, not exactly fine but not digested by a sea monster, either?
Why was I going to New York? I had taught at Columbia University five years ago so I knew how to take the subway and where to get the best Chinese food and which pizza spot would deliver pizza that wouldn’t taste like the cardboard box it arrived in. But I had no great love for New York. It lacks the light of Jerusalem or the cafés of Tel Aviv or the pulse of danger that makes the heart beat fast and the TV news so compelling. In Israel there was pride everywhere. In New York it seemed that shame was the companion of the moment. Why had I wanted to come to New York? I had no idea.
And here I am at this dinner table. Such a good dinner. Excellent wine. I have been here four days. I think I might cancel my flight home. I don’t want to fly again. I don’t want to go home just yet.
Why not? I asked him.
He just shrugged.
Israelis are almost like us. But not. They all know how to shoot someone. They all belong to some faction of the country or other. They are better than we are because they are there and we are here. But we stand a better chance of being here in the long run when history again reveals what we have been chosen for. Also they all speak Hebrew. I don’t mean pray in Hebrew. They actually ask for a kiss, another glass of wine, the way to the bathroom, the phone number of the girl at the next table, all in Hebrew. It makes me jealous, the certainty of their certainty and the wispy neurotic uncertainty of my uncertainty.
My passport is drying out, said Jonah. But while I am here I need a story to write. How about a good news story about America? one guest asked. Everyone laughed. Why did you laugh? Jonah asked. Because there is no good news, I said. Maybe I could interview your president, he said. Don’t, said a man who was a professor of Chinese history. He lies, said the professor’s wife. I know, said Jonah, but it could still be a good story. In Israel, many people admire him.
Someone at the table groaned. I am going to write a story about American Jews and how they don’t like their president, Jonah said. Not all Jews, I said. Of course not, said Jonah.
The next day as I was reading The New York Times my doorbell rang. It was Jonah. Can I come in? he says. I get him coffee and a croissant and some strawberry jam. Then I get him milk for his coffee and a yogurt, and I sit down opposite him. What are you really doing here? I say. Are you on some assignment from the Mossad? He sighs. I don’t know what I am doing here, he almost whispers and I see some tears falling down into his black beard. I’m sorry, I say. I am embarrassed at having been so clumsy. He is young and hurt and I am not helping.
Are you married? I ask. Divorced, one child, he says. That was not the right conversational path to take. I want to see the World Trade Center tower, he says, the new one. Will you come with me? Yes, I say. I can go tomorrow. Not today? he asks. And I agree, today. He is a stranger and I am a local.
In Israel friends of friends have taken me to museums, to moshavim, to Bedouin towns, to places where there are rocks and canyons to admire. Someone’s cousin took me to Rachel’s tomb. I can go to the World Trade Center with Jonah. I put on my snow boots and my wool hat.
On the subway downtown Jonah says to me, New Yorkers need to atone, to beg forgiveness from the heavens. I think he is joking. I say Kansas City needs to atone. Waco, Texas, needs to atone. Montgomery, Alabama, needs to atone. Phoenix, Arizona, needs to get down on its knees. New York is just fine. But Jonah doesn’t smile.
No, says Jonah, New York is where the money sits and New York is where the people should have done something but didn’t. His tone is somber. I nod. It is better to nod than to argue with a person you are about to accompany on a pilgrimage to the top of the world.
You must be a religious man, I say to Jonah as the subway rumbles and grinds its wheels on tracks that need replacing. No, he says. I am a journalist. I am free of conclusions. So what is this about atoning? I ask him. I don’t know, he says. It just jumped into my mind that I should say those words.
I know, I say very gently, that in Jerusalem some visitors become convinced that they are prophets or even the Messiah himself. Something in the air in Jerusalem infects the vulnerable mind. But in New York, no one goes mad with God fever.
I look at him and worry. What will I do with him if he starts ranting about God at the restored World Trade Center? Of course it is a fitting place for the modern prophet to make his pitch, so near to Wall Street, so symbolic of irrational hubris and a lure for haters around the globe. It has an underground garage filled with cars that can sense when a cat is crossing their path and brake. If only people had that sense.
Awe comes over me. Insignificance is my lot.
We take an elevator to the top. We stand on a terrace and see the city laid out before us. Jonah is pale and his hand is shaking as he holds the rail. There is an iron screen in front of us. Jumpers are out of luck. The sun bites into the sky reflected off of one glass wall after another, off of the bridges and the blue water and the outer boroughs and I hear languages all around me, languages of places I have never been, and will never be. The snow that has gathered at the base of the fence, the patches of ice that have almost melted under the feet of visitors, are spotted now with flecks of dirt, with an abandoned candy bar wrapper, a child’s pacifier.
Awe comes over me. Insignificance is my lot. Tiny as the tiniest of bacteria. I stand there hardly mattering, passing through, on my way to not being here.
We go down to the plaza below. I plan to take Jonah to the reflecting pool, let him read the names engraved on the walls. Suddenly he sits down. Not on a bench, but on the ground. “Your democracy,” he shouts loudly, “your democracy is falling down. Your country will be captured by those who will make slaves of all of your people. Freedom will be an empty word. Equality will be canceled by the courts. Hunger and ignorance will surround the coliseums, and no one will go to the museums.”
He likes that sentence. It rhymes. He shouts it out several times more.
Repent, repent New Yorkers, visitors too. You have no love for each other. You have made your souls into ATMs. He waves his arms and points at the sky. A few passers-by stop to look at him.
Crazy. The city is filled with them, howling at invisible moons, accusing ex-wives of betrayal, spitting on the steps of churches, weeping in the park, huddled against the cold on the steps of shelters they will not enter. There are no brothers to keep them, no mothers to rock them to sleep. Alone they call out to the sky, betrayal, betrayal, betrayal. Doctors don’t cure them, medication lets them hide from themselves as it leaves them empty eyed and unrescued. Their plastic pill bottles will lie unopened behind shrubs and benches, behind the wheels of parked cars and dropped between the subway tracks.
Repent or your city will be destroyed, Jonah calls out.
Jonah, I say, let me take you back uptown. He ignores me. I bend down so my face is inches from his. Do you believe in God? He looks at me coldly. There is no God, he says. So stop shouting, I say.
There are sinners everywhere, he says. Let’s go, I say. I wonder how much a cab to Bellevue will cost. I should take him to a hospital.
This city is going to be destroyed, he shouts. Not today, I say.
I give you my word, he says. It will be destroyed.
In time, centuries, I say, maybe eons, but not today.
Yes, today, he says. The people of this city are wicked.
You could say that about every city, I say.
I do say that about every city, he says. I am silent. I try to pull him to his feet. You need a doctor, I say. I keep calm. I am trying to sound as if I am in charge. I am a native of this city and I am very sure it is not going to be destroyed today.
Jonah, I say, maybe you hit your head when the plane went down in the water. Let me take you to a doctor who can check you out.
For a second he looks confused. Then he rises to his feet and straightens his shirt. I am forsaken, he says.
We are all forsaken. Jonah do you have anyone in Israel I can call?
No, he says, and suddenly runs into the crowd, crosses the street, and before I can even call his name I lose sight of him.
I feel guilty. This along with everything else is God’s fault.
America is dying he yells. Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Lincoln, they are like flies on the wall of history, soon no one will remember them at all. Fools, he yells. Your president is the Pied Piper, he will lock you all up in a cave and no one will emerge. The crowd is nodding. They are not angry at him. I finally make my way to his side. Let’s go get a hot chocolate, I say. Your city will be obliterated, he shouts at the crowd. Another civilization that will be remembered only by the dust it leaves behind. Jonah’s lips are blue. He starts to limp off the bridge. When I catch up to him he is quiet. Jonah, I say, taking his arm, let’s go get that hot chocolate.
It is over.
Later in my apartment I urge him to call his ex-wife. I am not myself, he says. Who, I wonder, can be themselves in such a world? Am I losing my mind? he asks me. Maybe you’re just tired from your trip. Your plane did fall out of the sky. Or was pushed, he adds. Mechanical failure, I say. He looks at me and for a moment I see the eager boy, the one with his hand always raised, he must have been. Are you Orthodox? I ask. No, he says, why would you say that? I shrug.
So I turn on the television so he can watch the news and I go into the bedroom to call my doctor friend. He isn’t answering his phone. He is with a patient. So am I.
Jonah, I say, who is your best friend?
You are, he says.
God is going to destroy America for its sins, Jonah shouts at me. I ignore him. I am trying to read my New York Times. I call my psychiatrist friend again. He is not picking up his phone. I am my brother’s keeper, but how and where do I keep him?
Jonah, I say, God won’t destroy New York. We have people here from all over the world. The United Nations is here. We are not responsible for the president of the United States.
So who is? shouts Jonah. Who made him millions? Who wrote about his wives and his marble palaces? Who told him he could do anything he wanted? No Israelis did that.
Repent, says Jonah, repent while you can before the Hudson River swells and drowns you all.
Oh, Jonah, I say, you’ve seen too many bad movies. Nothing is going to happen here. I am going to get you some medicine. I’ll be back soon.
I am thinking about going to the police station. I am thinking about calling my son-in-law at his law firm. I am considering calling a rabbi but I am unaffiliated and I don’t know any rabbis. I walk down my street and see a young mother pushing a stroller with a little boy hugging his worn stuffed elephant. Tufts of cotton spill out of its seams. I don’t know why.
I don’t know how it happens but I say to the mother: Repent, the world is ending.
Maybe it is.
Anne Roiphe is a novelist and a journalist.