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Forest Dark
Author:Nicole Krauss

After they went to sleep, I called the Hilton to see whether a room was available. If I was going to write a novel about the Hilton, or modeled on the Hilton, or even razing the Hilton to the ground, then it made sense, I reasoned, that the obvious place to finally begin writing was at the actual Hilton itself.

The El Al flight was oversold as usual, ensuring that even before takeoff the atmosphere was tense and hostile; the mixing of the orthodox and the secular in such cramped quarters only aggravated things, as did the mounting tension of the situation. In recent weeks, the shooting of a young Palestinian by the IDF had been followed by brutal killings of both Israeli and Palestinian youth, lengthening the long chain of savage revenge. Houses were demolished in the West Bank, and rockets were fired from Gaza, a few reaching as far as the sky above Tel Aviv, where they were exploded by Israel’s interceptor missiles. I heard no one around me speak of this; it was an all too familiar script. But less than an hour into the flight, the edginess erupted in an argument between a woman in a drab headscarf and a college student who had reclined her seat. “Get out of my lap!” the Orthodox woman shrieked, pounding the back of the girl’s chair with both fists. An American passenger in his forties put his hand on the woman’s arm in an effort to calm her, but this new affront—an Orthodox woman may not be touched by any man other than her husband—nearly sent her into an apoplectic fit. In the end, only the purser, trained to deal with sociological friction just as he is trained to deal with a loss of cabin pressure or a hijacking, was able to calm the woman by finding someone willing to switch seats with her. While all of this was happening, an elderly couple seated across the aisle from me went steadily at each other’s throats, as they must have been doing for the last half century (“Why the hell would I know? Leave me alone. Don’t talk to me,” the man spat, but the wife, immune to his insults, went on talking to him all the same). Some of us are touched too much, and some too little: it is the balance that seems impossible to get right, and the lack of which unravels most relationships in the end. In front of the married couple, a woman balanced a wig on her fist, calmly brushing out the coppery tresses while gazing transfixed at the small screen on the seatback in front of her where Russell Crowe was traipsing around in his metal gladiator skirt. When she’d finished with the hair, the woman retrieved a Styrofoam head mold from under her feet, popped the sheitel onto it, and, with a carelessness that belied all the brushing, tossed the whole thing into the overhead compartment next to the bulging carry-on of the loquacious wife, which had been squeezed into its tight spot only thanks to the strength of three teenage boys from Birthright.

Twelve hours later, Meir, the taxi driver who’d been retrieving my family from Ben Gurion Airport for thirty years, met me outside of the baggage claim. After I spent a summer during college living with a family in Barcelona, Meir had gotten into the habit of addressing me in Spanish, since he had spoken Ladino to his parents growing up, and his Spanish was better than both his English and my Hebrew. Over the years I had forgotten what little Spanish I’d once had, so that where once I understood him somewhat, now I understood him hardly at all. As soon as we pulled away from the curb, he began to speak excitedly and at great length about the missiles and the success of the Iron Dome, and I pretended to understand what he was saying because it was far too late to explain that I didn’t.

It was winter in Tel Aviv, and as such the city didn’t make sense, being based around the sun and the sea, a Mediterranean city up at all hours that got more frenetic the later it became. Dirty leaves and pages of old newspapers blew down the streets, and sometimes people plucked them out of the air and put them over their heads to protect themselves from the occasional rain. The apartments were all cold because they had stone floors, and during the hot months, which felt interminable, it seemed absurd to imagine it could ever be cold again, so no one bothered to install central heating. I opened the window of Meir’s taxi, and in the sea air mixed with the rain I could almost smell the metallic scent of electric heaters, their brilliant orange coils aglow in people’s apartments like artificial hearts, forever threatening to explode or, at the very least, to short-circuit the city.

As we made our way through the streets, I saw again the familiar set of everything Israeli—jaws, postures, buildings, trees—as if the strange conditions of enduring in that small corner of the Levant produced a uniform shape; the hard, determined form of that which lives and grows in opposition.