by Ruth Knafo Setton

Street of Whores

I was a child again, feeling insulated from the world outside by the wall of laughter, by the globe in the window, by the music in the kitchen, by the smells and sounds of Morocco. I was 14, returning home from the library, books piled high against my chest, going to my room and opening The Royal Road to Romance, poring over the photo of Richard Halliburton, the traveller, turbanned and bronzed, arms akimbo, laughing with white teeth, the Taj Mahal behind him. That’s me, I’d thought, that’s going to be me. I’m going to go everywhere and do everything and die exhausted but satisfied that I’ve never said no to an experience, never refused a challenge.

Hours later, my eyes burning from reading under the weak yellow bulb, I’d come down and see my father sitting at the living-room window, looking out. He’d never even notice me if I didn’t speak. I’d go over to him and hug him and he’d smile faintly but keep staring outside. “What is it, Daddy?” I’d ask. “What are you doing?”

He’d turn and look at me with an odd light in his green-brown eyes, almost coldly, as if I were a stranger. I always expected him to say next: Who are you? What are you to me? Why are you touching me?

I felt no claim on my father. Ever. I’d retreat invisibly, shrinking in myself, but too proud to move back. I’d stand my ground, refusing to budge until the man returned from wherever he’d fled, until he acknowledged me as blood of his blood.

Finally, after an eternity of waiting, he’d return and soften slightly and say, “Bring the globe.”

Together we’d sit near the window, moonlight shining in, illuminating his expressionless face, and he’d say, “You first.”

I’d shut my eyes hard and spin the globe and let my finger choose a place to stop. And wait for judgment.

“Wisconsin?” he’d say, disappointed. “Ah, ma fille, so little sense of adventure. What are they known for, their cheese?” “I’ll try again! Let me try again. I wasn’t ready.”

He’d pretend to consider, then hold the globe out to me once more. “This time don’t be afraid,” he’d tell me. “The world is yours. You have only to choose.”

I’d take a deep breath—thinking, did you choose. Daddy?—and I’d spin it violently, with everything inside me, a matter of life and death—and my finger would shoot out, independent of me. And wait.

“Japan. A good choice, ma fille. There we could have many adventures. A country unlike ours, a place where we could disguise ourselves and wander forever. We would have to learn their rituals, you’d paint your face white and serve me tea, I would let my hair grow perhaps and pin it up—so—with bamboo sticks pointing through it. We would live by the sea and eat seaweed and swim. The water is different there, even a different color. And it’s so buoyant, you can’t sink no matter how hard you throw yourself into the waves. It crashes you back against the cliffs. A fine choice.” He’d smile at me.

And I’d wilt in relief. “Now your turn. Daddy.”

“I am sleepy now. Next time.”

“Then will you tell me again how you skated on the mountain lake of Ifrane with the Sultan? How when he fell, his two bodyguards had to fall, too?” Trying to hold him near me. Him already elusive, slipping away. The invisible barricade erected around him.

“Not now. Bonne nuit, cherie.” He’d kiss me lightly and go up to his room where my mother waited for him, also restless in her sleep.

I’d follow quickly, afraid to stay alone downstairs in the dark. Seeing men with rolls of black hair pinned up with long sticks and women with white faces screaming in a sea of roaring waves. He should have been buried with a globe, I thought after the funeral. Because until the end, he was seeking, seeking, and I didn’t think he’d ever found it. Every land was a promise to him. But what was the promise? Death. The ultimate promise, the one that never lies. The dark wind blowing from the future, Camus had called it. And now I watched my father being buried on a windy day in Jerusalem. My mother and my brother Ben and me. The mourners. For Joseph Lek, a wandering Jew, a businessman whom no one had ever known. Daddy’s legs blown off, his face exploded, his body shattered, the Israelis used to dealing with bodies that are in pieces, gluing them back together as if they were a jigsaw puzzle. Daddy lovingly, professionally, reconstructed. A puzzle in little pieces, to be put together again. A hopeless, terrible puzzle in which the pieces never fit and for which I can’t cry.

At the hotel we sat in our room. The fan whirring until Ben, with a curse, rose on a chair and turned it off But he couldn’t figure out how to keep the light on without the fan, so we sat on the chairs and the bed in the dark. Mom crying helplessly, ceaselessly. Startled, I saw how gray her hair was, the reddish henna only towards the ends. She looked dumpy, a round little old woman. “Everyone is gone now,” she said. “My parents, my husband. I’m alone.”

“You have us,” I said, from the corner near the window, where I sat huddled in a chair.

She didn’t seem to hear me. “I’d always hoped we’d get back together somehow,” she said. “I kept waiting for him to call or write from Israel and tell me, Sheba, I made a mistake. Can I come home?”

Ben sighed from the edge of the bed. “Don’t, Mom,” he said. “Please don’t.”

“He never called,” she said, surprised. “I waited and waited and he never called or wrote. I gave him my life. He was the only man I’d ever known. And he left me alone. I loved him. I thought he loved me.”

“He did love you,” Ben said. “Sometimes it just isn’t enough.”

“No,” she said. “I wasn’t enough. Your father always wanted the green grass. Nothing was ever enough. ‘It’s gray here,’ he told me once.” Her voice broke. “‘It’s gray and you’re gray and I’m gray when I’m with you.’”

“Mom.” I went over to her, kneeled by her chair, put my head on her lap. But what could I say? Suddenly, there was absolutely nothing to say. It was all lies. For five years she’d stayed in the cocoon of her apartment in Horsens, Pennsylvania, and cooked twenty-course Moroccan feasts for Ben and me. It was pathetic for all of us, not just her. I looked up at her face and saw the twitch, deeper and more pronounced than ever, moving with a life of its own. Giving a jarring, odd look to her face. A mechanical doll. Her name is Bathsheba. And she twitches. The gray-red hair, straggly now and uncombed. Her brown eyes, always expressive, always volatile. But her face spotted, strange, white dots and brown dots, as if she were moldy, left unused for too long. Her father had sold her in marriage to the first bidder. She had given everything she had to her husband and her children. Now she had nothing. Even the dream of my father returning was gone—and she didn’t know what to do.

Israel. The land of milk and honey. I hadn’t allowed myself to look around yet, to see my surroundings, but now I was here. Tel Aviv was new, white, unlike Jerusalem where I seemed to hear screams under every cobblestone, feel hands grasping, clawing at me, from every crevice. Early this morning Mom, Ben and I had prayed at the Western Wall—in rain and wind—and had added our prayers written on scraps of paper to the notes stuffed in every opening. “May we all be free,” I’d written, and backed off quickly, looking at the Orthodox men in black, separated from the women by a partition. Swaying and moaning, their voices rising above the wind, they frightened me. There was something ancient, disturbing, terribly sad and futile about being a Jew standing and praying before a wall of gray rocks. I wanted to feel inspired; instead I felt crushed by thousands of years of persecution and bloodshed.

“There’s so much I still have to tell you,” my mother had said afterwards at the airport, clutching my hand in hers. “Are you sure you want to stay in Israel all by yourself? What if I never see you again?”

“You will. Mom, you will,” and suddenly, unbidden, the tears fell from my eyes. I cried for my mother, for my father, for Benny, for the Jews, for Israel, for the Arabs, for me. I stood and wept, Benny and my mother holding me, and I thought, it’s true what my mother said: even if I see them again, it will never be the same, nothing I do or say will ever be the same.

Two weeks since my father’s funeral. I’d received a letter from my boss at Bowden Press. He’d been furious at me, but was giving me a month to reconsider my resignation, during which time my assistant editor would take care of my Breathless erotic line.

No, I thought, I’m never going back.

An old couple, the man in a clerical collar, stumbled on the rocks past me as I sat on the beach. “I can’t believe it,” the man said to the woman. “I still can’t believe it. Prostitutes in the Holy Land. What is this world coming to?”

I looked at them in disbelief, and for the first time in days, roused myself from my stupor and walked the few steps to them. I knew I looked wild, my hair uncombed. I hadn’t washed or changed out of my black sweatsuit in days. “This is a real land,” I told the man, my voice rusty. I cleared my throat.

The old woman put a hand to her heart as if to ward me off I saw the pink powder cracking on her cheeks. “Bert,” she said feebly.

“Now see here,” Bert said.

“Now see here,” I said. “This is a country like any other country. What did you expect? That people don’t live and eat and die here? It’s not still in the Bible. So what if there are prostitutes here? You’ve got them back in Iowa, or wherever you’re from. And there are thieves here and gamblers and liars, too, goddamn it. Israel doesn’t just exist in your dreams.” I stared at their amazed faces for a second, then walked away, my heart pounding. What had I done that for? What’s it to me if Reverend Bert sees a whore? What do I care? I laughed suddenly and started running. Bitch, I told myself. You’re still alive.

The next day I bought the Jerusalem Post and sat at a sidewalk cafe on Dizengoff and read the news for the first time in weeks. It felt like years. April 12, 1975. Everything seemed new, yet unchanged. The same problems, the same shit — now Lebanon, now Syria, now Iran, now the West Bank—but here on Dizengoff — where, the manager of my building had told me, if you sit at a cafe long enough, you’ll see everyone in Israel—the sun was shining and women flirted, soldiers stared, children laughed on their way home from school, tourists snapped photos. I had washed and put on a green sweater and jeans. Drinking black coffee as thick as mud, I told myself, okay, you’re back, Lek. Maybe not in top form, but you’re back. Now. . . to find a job, make aliyah. To learn Hebrew at an ulpan. To meet people, maybe make friends . . . I felt excited, ready to begin life.

There were no jobs in the Post, so I checked the bulletin board at the American consulate: English teachers needed, no experience necessary. Makhon leSafot Tzion, Zion Language Institute.

I walked lightly down the street, past the cafes and exclusive boutiques, towards the more residential area. Here it was: Zion Language Institute. I went inside, climbed a flight of dark stairs and entered a large airy room, filled with people at students’ desks, scribbling. A thin, freckled young woman gave me an application form. “English teacher?” she asked me.

“Yes.”

“Fill it out and bring it back to me. Then wait your turn. You’ll meet with the director and he’ll let you know if you’re in.” The application form was ridiculously simple Name, address, birthdate, place. Education and experience. I wondered if it would be to my advantage to mention that I had been a senior editor of female romances for the past five years. I decided it couldn’t hurt.

“How long will it be?” I asked the freckled woman.

“At least two hours,” she said. “Go and eat. Take your time.”

I went outside and bought a falafel, then explored the area. The houses here were lovely, shady and secluded, with courtyards and inner gardens. Maybe if I found a roommate, I could afford to rent a room here. But I vetoed that instantly. I didn’t want anybody — woman or man — peering into my existence, witnessing my unsteady return to life. Staring at a lush pink flower, I tore it from the branch. Almost intoxicatingly sweet, it dizzied me, reminded me of Central Park in the spring.

Back upstairs, a handful of us remained. We sat on the narrow balcony outside the classroom and talked about Israel. They were all American and all younger than I. Jim had come to play on a basketball team, but had found himself in need of money so his coach had advised him to try for a job here.

“Do you know anything about teaching English?” I asked him.

“Nah.” He grinned. “I’m nineteen. I just got out of high school.”

Meggie was twenty two, a college student who’d dropped out and was drifting through the world, taking odd jobs everywhere she went.

“Do you feel free?” I asked her.

She looked at me uncomprehendingly. “I guess.”

Tom and Gina had met on a kibbutz in the south and had decided to try life in the city. They were old-timers, already in Israel for a year. “It’s intense,” Tom said. “I mean the mood here is really intense. You feel like you’re on the edge of an explosion any second.” I shuddered, turned away. A man, buried in pieces.

“Besides,” Gina added, “now that they’ve got a McDavid’s here — you know like McDonald’s — there’s no reason to go back, right?”

It was after four when Jim was finally called in. He came out ten minutes later, slinging his backpack. “No problem,” he said, “as long as you can talk English.” Tom and Gina went in next. They came out, grinning with relief. “This’ ll keep us going till we decide what to do,” they told Meggie and me. “Good luck!”

I was next. I went down a narrow hallway to an office where a bald, stocky man sat, impatiently ruffling papers. He glanced at me for a moment, then indicated a chair. He studied my application. “Oh, you’re Anne Lek.”

“Yes?” I didn’t understand his tone. An air of subtle disapproval.

“You’re thirty six.”

“Yes.” Was it my age? I knew I was older than the others, but —

“I see your received your master’s degree in English from Columbia University in New York. A good school.”

“Yes,” I said again.

“Anne Lek.” He studied me uncomfortably. “I’m sorry. We have no openings. Thank you for coining.”

“Wait a minute.” I felt a slow rumbling deep inside me, almost like a train roaring through my body. “I was under the impression that you had quite a few openings —”

“Miss Lek,” he said, emphasizing the ‘miss.’ “Your qualifications are not what we’re seeking. Good-bye.”

I sat stubbornly. “My qualifications are not sufficient? But a high-school graduate’s are? What exactly are you looking for here? What is this all about?”

He sighed, toyed with his pencil. “Miss Lek, shall I be honest?”

“Please.”

“I see here that you were born in Morocco.”

“Yes?” I was in a tunnel. I still couldn’t see the light. “So?”

“So I know Moroccans.”

I stared at him blankly.

“Don’t get the wrong idea. Some of my best friends are Moroccans. You’re warm people. Fun-loving people. Religious. But not reliable. Not good workers.”

“Not good workers?” I echoed his words. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Miss Lek.” He stood up. “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

“Just a minute, Mr. — Mr. — “

“Mr. Levy.”

“Mr. Levy. I left Morocco when I was four years old. I was raised in America. But what does that matter anyway? I deal with the English language as an editor every day. I’m afraid I still don’t understand.”

“Then let me spell it out for you, Miss Lek.” He leaned over his desk, a twisted smile on his face. “I don’t hire Moroccans. Is that clear enough for you? Now, shalom. I have work to do. And please, send in the last girl,”

I was so angry I wanted to take his smiling red face and smash it against the wall like a fruit. And scream at him: that’s your Moroccan, here’s your Moroccan for you. You son of a bitch. But I was civilized, so I walked out silently, gesturing to Meggie to go in, seeing her out of the comers of my eyes staring at me, but incapable of stopping to say a word. I went down the stairs and walked nonstop to the beach, my familiar stretch with the rocks and the dunes, and I stood at the very edge, the waves rushing in and trickling over my shoes, and I bent over and dipped my hands in the cold, salty water, splashing it on my face, over and over, until I was dripping and shivering. But I still didn’t feel clean.

My days, ever since the Moroccan incident (the way I termed it in my mind), consisted of a long stroll along the beach during which I felt open, raw, as if I were drawing strength from the water, and the walk up the winding Street of the Whores. I fell in love with the name first. In Hebrew or English, it rolled on the tongue. And the women fascinated me. These were not the prime whores—those were gathered off of Allenby, also near the beach, but closer to downtown, near the port area and cafes and shady characters. I walked there sometimes, too; it reminded me of New York. The whores who sat on the rocks of this abandoned, twisting road were fewer, older, even wizened, a few leathery-skinned from the sun. But they were not sad or beaten. As they got used to me, carrying a sketchbook I’d bought on Allenby to pretend I was an artist, they’d cackle and wave at me. I wondered how Reverend Bert would react if he saw them. Women the same age as his wife pursuing man’s oldest profession. I knew I should be looking for another job. My one-month lease on the apartment would run out in a week. I couldn’t live on my savings forever.

I knew Mr. Levy was probably an aberration. The Civil Liberties Union in America could have had a field day with him. I knew — I knew — I knew — there was so much I should do. Life decisions, major, major, looming over me. I should look seriously for a job, for friends. There were many support groups for American immigrants, even special ones for single women. My experience of Israel was so hazy, so dreamlike. Something was preventing me from sinking roots here, as if I were afraid of my life becoming real.

I love Israel, but it’s not a promised land. I said the words to myself, stopping on the side of the road, near the oldest whore, the one who fascinated me most. My sentiments to Reverend Bert boomeranging and coming back to hit me between the eyes. Of course, there are whores here, and prejudice, too. What a strain to put on a land, to call it promised. There are no promised lands, no promised endings. Oh God, Lek, I thought, pretending to stare at the rocks behind the old woman, are you finally going to open your eyes and face the void?

The woman stared back at me from under her coquettishly tilted, large straw hat, her face in shade, mysterious. She never smiled like the others. She waited, straddling her rock as if she were on a horse, her bare legs falling over the sides, the coarse grass and sand of the small hill between her red toenails. Her stomach was flat under a white and red embroidered peasant blouse, her skirt flounced up around her thighs. A man in a black car, driving down towards the beach, stopped in front of her. I slowed down, too, across the street, slowly moving sideways, like a crab, back towards the car to see her remove her hat. Her face, exposed at last, naked to the daylight and the man and me. She was talking and laughing. She didn’t move from her rock, but made him lean out his window to talk to her. Closer, closer I came, so slyly, so silently, like a spy, like a cat on soundless feet when she noticed me, so close I could touch the black car.

She took off her hat and spit. Staring at her face, I was suddenly afraid — not of the network of lines crisscrossing her brown face, but of the startling hunger in her eyes. It doesn’t die, does it, grandmother? It stays and grows until it eats you alive. A low spark, nearly forgotten, bursts into life.

I forced myself to walk past her and the man watching me from his car, to push on, past the hunger in her face that I knew mirrored my own. Hunger — not for a man, nor even for money — but for oneself. Hunger that will never die, not until it’s fed.

I stopped at the top of the hill and looked back down — at the women like spiders, legs and toes spread out and crawling over their rocks, at the sea sparkling and foaming — and I saw that it was desire that had led my father here to Israel, and desire — for myself — that would lead me away now, far from the Street of the Whores and back to the world, not as I knew it, but as I would re-learn it, perhaps recreate it.

Ruth Knafo Setton is working on a novel about a Moroccan-Jewish woman. She’s received fellowships from three writer’s colonies, and has published widely.