My oldest friend Molly gave the pot a good, deep stir when she came to visit this time. There we were, the three of us in my family, plodding along in our usual way, occasionally sad and more often than not boring, the way most people are in their lives, when Molly with a week’s notice came flying in as she does every two or three years from somewhere out in the world.
My anticipation was high. Life picks up when she’s around. I remember what I went to college for. With her, my brain gets buzzing again. I had been saving up all the garbage of my life for her to hear so I could get it sorted out. It’s worth talking to her because she always pays attention; she really responds, unlike most people I know who just listen and go stiff and panicky for fear they may be required to give an opinion. By hearing myself talk, I find the gruesome details taking on a definite if unlovely shape, like a well-formed turd, so at least I know what I’m dealing with. For example, I wanted to tell her how I get the creeps when my own kid sidles up to me and gives me sexy little kisses on the cheek, and whether that’s connected to the fact that my pragmatic husband never thinks to give me little kisses on the cheek.
Three visits ago, Molly’s thing was the environment. You’ve got to understand that I’m pretty good about my compost, and I avoid eating too high off the food chain, but there she was washing out plastic bags from the supermarket as if she were my own penny-pinching mother, except not to save the pennies but to keep non-biodegradable materials out of the dumps. The time after that she arrived with a shopping bag full of spices. It was her Indian-cooking visit: hours of violent chopping in my kitchen, and the frying of spices. She turned all the good, fresh foods into strange shapes with strong flavors alien to themselves. She said with that absolute conviction of hers about anything she happens to be involved in at the time, “No other cuisine moves me like Indian cooking.” She did acknowledge — regretfully, for she is also a feminist — that the cuisine oppresses Indian women. It forces them to spend hours in the kitchen, boiling, coating, frying, and then steaming the same chunk of cauliflower, until it’s unrecognizable.
Then there was the drama period. She turned the memoirs of a Russian political prisoner into a play about oppression and injustice. Watching that play, which portrayed a woman’s twenty ghastly years in Siberian prison camps, I experienced two of the most harrowing hours I had ever spent. There was also the Zen Buddhist period which climaxed in her taking her precepts — which, as I understand it, is a beautiful ceremony to inaugurate a person as a Buddhist. You can do this even if you’re Jewish.
Now I don’t want to give the impression that when she takes on each new stage of life she sheds the old one like a snakeskin. She still cooks Indian, she still conspicuously non-consumes, she is still a feminist and still sits Zen for hours. And in recent years, her involvement with oppressed peoples has grown, slowly at first, until it has reached monumental proportions. So that by now, she is all of those things, a big incandescent snowball come rolling in, an avalanche, dragging with enormous momentum all her lives, all her skins, into the haven of our house.
I also have to tell you that a good two-thirds of her projects stem from romantic involvements with men, one who can cook or has enough of a brain that he’s not afraid of hers, or who is involved in some political crusade. There are men — she is eclectic — she chooses purely for the sex. But it’s the cerebral ones that get her into — I was going to say trouble, but it’s trouble she seeks out; to her, trouble is just life. Don’t for a moment think a libidinous woman like Molly can sit across from a smart man over coffee and leave it at that. They eventually go to bed. After a suitable interval, it’s out of the bed and into the political fires.
One more thing about her. She says things like, “I’m feeling sorry I will never have Greek in my life,” (this was back in college) and then goes ahead and learns Greek. Or, “Do you remember Michael Mazursky from school? He’s just back from Lebanon working with war-injured children. He’s the kind who goes out and does political action while I just play at it.” And a year later she’s outperforming her own political action, putting herself as much in the thick of it as Michael Mazursky.
And that’s the problem. She’d gotten herself involved in the Palestinian situation in the West Bank and Gaza. She came rolling in for this visit in December of 1987, during the most violent period of unrest the territories had known since the ’67 war. She took her vacation because she expected things to be quiet back there; when they weren’t, she wanted to go right back. As she didn’t have the money to change her air ticket, Molly decided to get involved in political action locally — speaking engagements, rallies, the whole thing. Using our house as a staging ground.
We’re all Jews. Her old friends don’t know what to make of her, and her family hates her, not that they ever wasted much love on her — which goes a long way toward explaining her frenzied activity. When Molly was four, she nearly drowned in a back-yard lily pond. When she came in, her mother looked at her and said, “Don’t drip on the rug.” You’d want to make something out of yourself, too. Either that or become suicidal, but that’s not Molly’s style. And “making something of herself” never involved money, either. Molly has always been voluntarily, obstinately poor, and always will be, on principle. She creates herself by rescuing the oppressed and unloved. She lives on the edge. Once she bought a used Toyota with money left to her by a relative, but sold it almost immediately to buy a plane ticket so she could fly in from overseas to rescue someone she believed in. Now she was broke again, no assets, nothing, only her wits between her and an old age on the streets. I say this because for the first time, seeing her, I realized with astonishment that all of us are suddenly middle-aged.
As I was saying, we’re all Jewish, at least by birth. Although I don’t have much interest in Judaic practice, going along with the others in my family for harmony’s sake, my husband’s been experiencing a resurgence of religious feeling. Having just lost his father, he draws comfort from the nine or more other men and women of his minyan as they recite prayers together every night. He gives money to the Jewish Federation and reads the biased little Jewish tabloid that comes every week to donors. But he’s no dummy; he knows that Israeli soldiers throwing fourteen-year-olds in jail and beating them is an evil thing. He knows, but he never volunteers to talk about it, because he’s not much of a talker.
So what happened? I had this dinner party for a friend’s birthday and invited Suzanne, whom Molly had gotten to know last visit. Suzanne came with Barry, her ex, with whom she was still friendly. Molly started in over the Chanukah potato latkes about the torture, and the oppression, and the families living twenty to a room in the camps and even in the towns, and how for them having a lot of kids is in itself a political act, and how the situation is parallel to apartheid, only worse, because it’s undeclared. And Barry bugged his round black eyes at Molly, going into his usual flirt routine, and larding it a bit, asking a lot of intelligent questions and making a lot of interested comments.
By now, my husband was in the kitchen, having washed all the dishes twice. When I told him he should stop and come out and join the rest, he said in a hoarse whisper, “I don’t want to come out.” When the dishes couldn’t be washed any more he retreated deeper and deeper into the corners of the house, clutching his ashtray, his face getting red with fury and misery and asking me, his voice breaking, “How can she be in this house? She hates Jews! She hates Israelis! Listen to her!” He’s known her longer than I have, yet he stood there desperate, a cigarette shaking between his fingers. Feeling panicky myself, I said, “What should I do?”
“Make her stop,” he said, his voice choked.
I did what was necessary: told her he was upset, brought out the birthday cake with flaming candles. We sang, and the tide turned, but not without leaving a horrible, silent residue.
There were endless phone calls, the cord disappearing for an hour at a time under the closed door of the guest room. She tapped into the local Palestinian community. I could hear her voice, call after call, faintly through the door, once even in halting Arabic. Some nights, she drove fifty miles each way to speak on radio programs or participate in rallies or demonstrations. We lent her a car, included her in meals; she avoided talking politics in my husband’s presence. Still, my husband went to bed every night with a headache.
The time Molly spent in the house, she slept. My daughter wanted to play the games she usually played with her honorary aunt — Scrabble and checkers and tickling — but Molly was too exhausted. I pressed up against my husband, taking sides; the corners of the house never knew such heavy use. It was as if we had been invaded. My husband, who suffers all and says nothing, squared his shoulders outside the front door before coming into the house every night. One morning I sat on the edge of the bed, paralyzed, unable to stand and walk out where breakfast was happening and my daughter was toasting herself, turning round slowly, in front of the heater. But at last I squared my shoulders and came out.
Once I asked Molly, “Why work from the Palestinian side instead of working from inside Israel?” She said she would have been too privileged, too cushioned there; you always learn more living among the oppressed. I shut up. You don’t argue with Molly unless you want to be beaten down.
It should have been my job to set all this right, but I didn’t have the guts. If I had said, “I admire you for what you’re doing, but I don’t agree with all of it,” she’d simply try to argue me into agreement. I wanted to live and let live, except I had this husband with headaches. Not to mention the guilt of my own special variety: a kid who has a ghetto-blaster and a Walkman and a five-and-one-half-inch TV she won in a contest and thirty-nine pairs of pierced earrings and her own room. In the West Bank they live twenty to a room unless someone’s in jail.
It’s like the compost. I take out the kitchen peels, I talk to the kid about materialism and set limits as best I can, but there’s always that last plastic bag with the rotted spinach slime, and I give up and toss it instead of washing it out. My computer, my couch, my two cars, all this thinginess of my life that has accumulated because I am prudent and married to a prudent man — or because I’m a coward, take your pick — embarrass me in the face of Molly’s ostentatious poverty.
The bastard. My oldest friend, her cheeks going jowly like Betty Friedan’s, a middle-aged Jewish woman after all, who won’t provide for her old age because, as she puts it, no one she lives among can so provide; the children who would have provided for them are being killed off.
I sensed now how she disapproved of my kind of world, if not of my world itself. But I was also angry. One lived where one lived, one made one’s compromises, did what one could. My day was made up of thousands of little mosaic tiles that I tried to fit together, and not her blazing arrow rushing to its mark.
That is what has always been the difference between Molly and me: I, the piecemeal one, not fiery, but still, paying some attention; she, millennial and grand, not noticing the tiles she dislodges in her wake. Well, no. That’s unfair. We’ve always romanticized each other for our opposite qualities, only this wasn’t the first time that war and religion had ripped apart family and friends.
But then, along came the New Year and there was a subtle change in the house. Not that my husband stopped raiding the aspirin bottle, but between Molly and me, talk of personal life — of trivia like clothing and books and difficult parents and how one exercises in the West Bank versus here in California — was once again permitted without those little judgmental stiffenings, the murmured beginnings of arguments. We’d all gone to the house of a friend for a New Year’s Eve party, and the whole crowd was there. Molly spent a lot of time talking with Barry. My husband and I left early because of the baby sitter, but Molly stayed on. Afterward I found out there had been dancing, something I haven’t done for years, and I kicked myself for not staying longer. The baby sitter wouldn’t have minded, but my husband and I tend to shut ourselves into these little boxes of worry and propriety and responsibility, and miss out on the fun.
The next day Molly, to my surprise, reported that she had actually danced. Later that afternoon, she went over to Barry’s to hash out further, as she put it, the problems of the Middle East. That flatterer, Barry. When she didn’t show up at 6, I considered calling his house to ask if she was coming home for dinner. They were both grown-ups: would I be invading their privacy? Barry answered after five rings and, embarrassed, I talked too much. I’ve neglected Barry in recent years — when a couple breaks up, it’s usually the woman who gets my loyalty — but now I remembered that Barry has fire and wit in a conversation, and is a generous soul, even though sometimes he can’t keep his hands to himself. Molly got on the phone then and said they hadn’t solved the problems of the world yet, and that she’d be home in an hour or two.
In the last day or two of her stay, she spent a lot of time out of the house. Then she headed to the city to camp out on the living room couch of a Palestinian expatriate (if there can be such a thing as an expatriated Palestinian) to be closer to the action.
As I drove her to the bus station, I made up my mind to talk to her. While we drove, she told me she’d been having an affair with Barry. Her gleeful announcement annoyed rather than surprised me. For her, flaming arrows and free living; for me, being stuck in the suburbs, where after twenty years even a good couple has rung all the changes on the intimate positions. I didn’t want to hear about it. The news felt obscurely like another kind of invasion.
I parked in front of the bus station, and mustered up the courage to start talking. Bus after bus went by. I used up all my tissues, wadding them up and throwing them on the floor of the car. I told her how split I felt; she told me how lonely she felt because everyone saw her as a traitor to her people. And that she had to keep doing what she’s doing in spite of her parents hating her for it, in spite of her friends dropping by the wayside and hating her, too. She said it would help to know if I, if any of her friends, still loved her, not hated her. I told her I did, that I loved her and did not hate her and when her face crumpled I leaned forward and hugged her.
Then she explained that what interested her in Barry was that he didn’t disapprove of her work; in fact, her work was what initially interested him in her. It was easy for Barry not to disapprove. He had no stake in the issues. But I had a husband and twenty-five years of friendship and the threat of losing one or the other or both. She was still my oldest friend and once again there was the promise of questions and answers and talk between us. She took the last bus up to the city.
I went home and on the next two nights spent many sleepless hours imagining her in bed with Barry, their breasts and lips and limbs. The imaginings were oddly flat and bloodless, entirely unerotic, but they were disturbing; and I’m still not sure why. All I know is that my mind was filled with them and there was no one I could tell, not my husband, not my friend Suzanne, to get rid of them.
Molly lives her life in the occupied territories, I live mine in my territory, which she occupied briefly. Here together we wrestled with resentment and confusion and love. Like Israel and the Palestinians, we have yet to reach a solution. At this point, I don’t see how there can be one. But at least we made ourselves look at each other.