Exile from Israel, or the Story of a Friendship
With many of my friends, I often forget the exact moment I met them. But with Eve, I could never forget. After a horrible ordeal trying to get my 17-year-old ass to the terminal at JFK that would take me to my Israel program, I was tired and stressed. But there she was, running towards me, her brown curls bounding around her head and extending her hand with a big bright smile across her face. “Hi!” she beamed. “I’m Eve!”
And here I thought I had boundless energy. I was from California, where people like this didn’t exist and I was reduced to a freak. Eve was from St. Louis, where Midwestern hospitality reigned supreme. And as I shook her hand, I had no idea that this girl was about to become a part of my life forever.
Over the next 10 days, we traveled halfway across the world and found ourselves in a cooky state of friendship while I was falling in love with Israel. We hiked through the desert, holding hands so we wouldn’t fall. We fell anyway, with the Israeli army guard behind us laughing and us yelling at him to stop. We amused ourselves by quoted Monty Python and Austin Powers. We sang funny songs and she slept using my shoulder as a pillow. It was too sweet to be real, too good to be true. So the universe kicked in to prove it.
The Friday before that day, our program was thrown into a state of turmoil. A boy that Eve was interested in got kicked out of our program, followed by another girl that was my roommate. The night before it happened, Eve’s head was on my shoulder as the program director tried to explain away what had happened, as if it was nothing. During this meeting, I called him out on it. He was trying to pretend like it was nothing and wanted us to walk along the line of status quo. In this way, was a rebel. And the way he saw it was that rebels were to be punished.
That Sunday morning was strange. I sensed there was trouble before I walked into the tiny office. My mother was on the phone, her voice wavering with the news that the people in the room were too cowardly to throw out of their mouths. I remembered my bloodcurdling scream of utmost despair, where all of a sudden my heart was shot through with a bullet and my body was left shaking. All I could think was, as I begged and pleaded my case despite the futility of it all, This must what it be like to die. I’m dying, right now.
The program director told me to suck it up or else I would never have the chance to say goodbye to all these people I came to know and love. I had to stay strong through it all, not being given the luxury to just lose it. I stood in front of the group the middle of the grassy lawn of the kibbutz we were staying at, having to explain the reason why I was leaving — or rather, the fact there wasn’t one at all that was given to me.
Then, by some little miracle, I wasn’t alone. It turned out Eve was leaving that day too. Her departure was voluntary. Mine was torture, from being given a notepad to write a prayer for the Western Wall (which I had no idea I would be going to later that day for only 15 minutes) to watching one of my friends run off the bus through the courtyard of the kibbutz to try to find me, her tear-stained red face matching her flaming locks of hair.
The bus disappeared, leaving Eve and me with our faux Buddhist counselor who was put in charge of us. He was a cold and unfeeling person, which was probably the reason why he was selected for the job of escorting these two girls, both of whom did nothing wrong yet paid the price.
As everyone else seemed to fall away from us, Eve and I wandered through the kibbutz and talked all afternoon, standing underneath the fruit trees as the counselor was meditating. She read my poetry. We discussed the people and events of the day while eating graham crackers with chocolate, making jokes and singing songs. We were trying to forget what was happening to us.
As later we arrived in Jerusalem, Eve held my hand as my tears couldn’t stop flowing down my face. We walked through the Old City towards her uncle’s house, where she would stay before returning to her home. I hugged her goodbye there, not knowing that in a few short years, I’d hug her again halfway around the world. And at the wall, I was reborn.
I returned home, jetlagged and unable to process the feelings of what had just occurred due to the people and the prescribed pills that were supposed to help keep me under control in trauma. They didn’t help, but rather kept me in a cloudy slumber where nothing could be felt. But as I awoke from the fog, there was a phone call from St. Louis.
I laid on the gray couch as I heard her voice, clear as when I left it in Jerusalem. We talked about her grandmother who had passed before she could get home and my dealing with the horror of what happened. We would talk several times a week. And every time she was about to get off the phone, she would tell me she loved me.
Her saying that phrase to me regularly was almost an insane thing to me, something I couldn’t really comprehend. My family barely said it each other. But deep down, Eve understood that I needed to hear that. It took me a while to say it back. After what had happened in Israel, my ability to trust was shot to hell (to be fair, I still have a difficult time trusting people). But as my heart was trying to close to prevent anyone from getting in close and to stop from hurting, she was determined to keep it open.
We shared silly gifts. She sent me a bottle of fake PMS pills that were actually candy. I made her a funny picture book telling the story of our friendship with magazine clippings, casting myself as Catharine Zeta-Jones and her as Sandra Bullock. We would make each other laugh, sing to one another and read to each other over the phone. And every conversation ended with an “I love you.”
We rarely actually saw each other. In the past almost 15 years, we have seen each other four times since Israel: One summer when she came to Los Angeles, her wedding, my wedding (although her marriage is the only one still intact) and then on a random Tuesday night when I showed up on her doorstep in her St. Louis suburban neighborhood after driving for two days, running up the stairs excitedly, banging on the door and holding her tight. We haven’t been close 100 percent of the time, either: In fact, two weeks before I ended up on her doorstep that fateful night, my ex-husband complained that I never called her anymore. It was possibly one of the only times he was ever right.
The Sunday night before I left for Israel, I decided to call her. Originally, I wanted her voice to be the last thing I heard before I got on the plane from New York to Tel Aviv. But as I stood in my Los Angeles apartment, thinking about the notes I was collecting from all my friends to put in the wall, I wanted to give her the chance to put one in, and I really didn’t want to wait. So I called to ask her to mail me a note.
“The last time I put a note in the wall was the day my grandmother died,” she said sadly.
“It’s all right, then,” I said to her. “Not a requirement. I just wanted to make sure you had the chance.”
As we continued to talk and update each other on our lives, we had the most intimate conversation that we had in years, speaking about our recent struggles, asking the deepest questions of one another. We spoke to each other honestly as two people who, despite the distance, seemed to know how one another operated. And finally, after a few minutes, she told me what to put in her note. Unlike the others, I actually know her deepest prayer. And in turn, she knows mine because I shared it with her that night.
As I was leaving the phone call so she could go to bed, I couldn’t say “I love you “ to her enough. After all, as I was about to claim my redemption, I knew who was my constant companion along the way. As she was there at the beginning of my exile, I wanted her there for the return. And although the day I left Israel is still engrained as a horrible time, the tradeoff was her love. And I couldn’t think of a better gift.