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The Aerial Courtyard
With its flight of worn limestone steps, its slender columns and iron banisters, rising at intervals into delicate archways, the house called to mind a host of mismatched objects and structures, the entire assortment of which might suggest, together, something of its quirky elegance, but none of which alone does justice to the building's eccentric proportions. It had the multiple, zigzagging decks of a luxury liner, the intricate balconies and catwalks of a stage set, the busy grid of a crossword puzzle, and
The tall, spindly struts of an oversized canopy bed. All and none. Whatever else it resembled (as it turned out, some other thing or form almost every time I mounted the stairs), we both felt the mysterious lure of the place in excited silence the first time we ascended. It was nighttime and December. The bite of the air made the stars appear sharper with each step upward.
E., the young architect who had just bought the apartment perched at the uppermost back corner of the building, had decided to travel from Jerusalem to Rome for nine months. He'd been offered work at an Italian firm and meant to rent his new place for a reasonable fee. Sleepy-lidded and skinny-hipped, he greeted us at the door and waved us casually inside the cavernous front room--which looked, in the glare of the fluorescent lights that night, too wide and lofty and tiled a space to ever be adequately heated, or even thinly warmed. This prediction proved accurate. When the temperature there was ours to control, we discovered that it didn't matter if we placed both our on-loan space heaters in the room and cranked them high enough to singe the links of the feeble electrical system: We would never manage to take the edge off that chill. But in the end, the cold didn't really matter. If anything, it came to seem a necessary, albeit uncomfortable, aspect of the apartment's obstinate charm. Life there would be as raw as that at the summit of a wind-blasted cliff, I imagined then, and again was more or less right in my estimation.
After glancing at the rest of the apartment to be sure that our first charged impression had been correct--we agreed that we would take it. There were two large rooms, a hallway of a kitchen, and a basic bathroom with a ragged piece of broken mirror propped on the primitive sink. The place had some furniture (a boxy Formica-topped desk, a stuffed couch, several rigid chairs, and a drafting table from whose weak back we would soon learn to eat our meals, taking extra care not to set pots down suddenly and upset its nervous balance), but still it echoed, hollow as an airplane hangar. Even after we scattered the floors with the candy-striped rag rugs we'd toted back under our arms from the Old City, the front room talked back when we whispered. A child's desk and rickety trundle bed took up most of the back room, whose most magical feature was a wood-and-glass-fronted cabinet, set back into an arch. When we visited that first night, its papered shelves served as a resting place for what looked like most of E.'s belongings: a few rolled floor plans, a sweater tangled in its own tattered sleeves, some notebooks, several pairs of worn tube socks. A plastic-framed poster of a David Hockney swimming pool leaned against one wall, its electric new blues and yellows at once worlds away from this turn-of-the-last-century Arab house and, in a blockier, more abstract sense, a perfect extension of the building's deepest shapes.
E. seemed reluctant to make the place his. As we sat and discussed the lease and security deposit, we sipped the tea he served us from what appeared to be his only two cups. He coiled his arms around his legs meanwhile and squeezed himself into a tight knot on the couch, unwilling, it looked, even to let his feet touch the floor. I had never owned property, but I thought I understood E.'s impulse to flee town just as soon as the apartment was officially his. It wasn't that he didn't love the place; as he showed us the views from the bedroom windows and the faint scar on the floor where he'd knocked down an extraneous wall, it was clear that he did. He just needed to leave and come back, I supposed, to prove that this was home.
We ourselves had, in a way, set out on a similar probative trek. By packing all our books, plates, lamps, rugs, and paintings into a San Francisco storage locker and flying with the key to Jerusalem for ten months, we were testing the bonds and limits of our American home. Peter had a fellowship to translate medieval Hebrew poetry from Muslim Spain. His stipend would pay our expenses that first married year in the city where he had spent the better part of his adult life and where I'd lived briefly as a student. He would finish his book; I looked forward to improving my Hebrew and, just as important, to not being in San Francisco, where I had moved, fresh and confident, straight out of college, and found myself almost instantly at loose ends.
While I couldn't blame my newfound confusion on anyone but myself, I sensed there was something in the slack rhythms, the soft air, and famous fog of that city that encouraged aimlessness. Was it something in the water? Almost everyone I knew there was caught--if that's not too active a word to describe this floaty way of drifting through life--between careers or lovers or coasts. Nothing stuck. Or perhaps I should say, nothing stuck to me. There were others, obviously, who were quite content to pass the time there, and though I took an active dislike to the local cult of the good life and its literary equivalent, I tried for a while to adapt myself by searching out and soaking up the more grounded sides of the city: I'd stroll past the herbalists, fish stores, and stationery shops of Chinatown or buy my fruit, cheap and in Spanish, from the outdoor stands in the Mission District. There was an Iranian grocer named Muhammad from whom I often purchased salted white cheese, pickled vegetables, and powdery cardamom cookies. ("Your husband is Persian?" he asked skeptically once, as I loaded my goods on the counter.) But these (mainly commercial) wanderings of mine had a haphazard quality. The neighborhoods were not my own, and my own wasn't quite mine either: We lived, at the time, in a liminal area that Peter called the Tendernob, at the peculiar, anonymous midpoint between the seamy, druggy Tenderloin and upscale, patrician Nob Hill.
My occupation also seemed, for the first time in my life, fuzzy, even pointless. When I'd first arrived in California, I worked at a magazine where I wrote rejection letters by the stack and learned to proofread--both inherently depressing tasks, as they make one fixate on all that is wrong with a given paragraph or poem. Later, I assembled indexes, edited textbooks, taught Hebrew school, and worked for a while as a receptionist in an imposing Victorian mansion where illegal immigrants would come for help in getting their green cards. Surrounded by the heavy, plush drapes and mahogany paneling, I sat at a huge desk and answered the phone, then tried to decide, on the basis of a few nervous words mumbled in one of twelve or fifteen languages I didn't understand, where to transfer the call. To the Cantonese-speaking social worker or the Mandarin one? Vietnamese? Thai? Polish? Serbo-Croatian? When the phone wasn't ringing I would read. Once, in the midst of a biography of the poet Mandelstam, I looked up to find a gaunt young man inspecting me and my book scornfully from the bench where he slumped, waiting to talk to Ella, the sweet, pudgy Russian counselor whose bright pink lipstick only emphasized her full mouth of gold teeth. Finally, he spoke: "You are not Russian." No, I said. "You have interest in this poet?" Yes. "But you do not know Russian language." No--which prompted an exasperated shake of the head and a lengthy lecture, in broken English, on the superiority to all others of his native tongue. This literary-jingoistic diatribe--from a person who had, in fact, come to wait opposite me in the hope that he might someday win American citizenship--veered now to the subject of Shakespeare and culminated in the conversation-killing pronouncement, "Is much better in Russian." Who was I to disagree? My internal sense of continental drift had become so pronounced by then, I could hardly defend Shakespeare's language, let alone my own.
Throughout all this, no matter what my paying work, I spent several hours a day forcing myself to sit still in a claustrophobic little lean-to I'd rented, attempting to grind out my fictions. Few of these efforts took: My subject matter felt random, my narrative gaze blurred. (Was the Novel dead, or was it me? I honestly had to wonder.) Chekhov, I'd heard, had once written a story a day for one hundred days. I too would write a story a day, and I did so, for a few weeks, that is, till my ideas dried up, and I began to sense the words evaporating even as I scribbled. At one point, as if to rub in my own sudden loss of nerve and focus, I taught a correspondence course in expository writing to precocious seventh- and eighth-graders. I never once laid eyes upon my students, yet their strong personalities asserted themselves through the loopy, pinched, or jagged script that covered and spilled from their envelopes, and through their often hilariously self-assured prose, which, in a rather frightening way, reminded me of myself at a certain, cocky age. "My first novel was a derivative affair, a minor historical trifle," one thirteen-year-old aspiring romance writer explained for me in her swirly purple hand. "But my second is, I feel, a much more mature attempt. Might I interest you in a copy?" As jobs went, it was entertaining, though the epistolary nature of my relationship with these kids only added to my out-of-body sense of myself in San Francisco. For all they knew or cared, I might as well live in a Nebraska log cabin. This pleasant, mild, defiantly nonchalant city was getting to me, I announced to Peter. (As soon as I said it, I felt relieved, as if I'd been running a low-grade fever for months on end and had only noticed it now.) Perhaps we should leave for a year. He agreed readily, relieved in his own way, as he'd made it clear to me and to others that while the streets he walked were San Francisco's, the map he followed in his mind still belonged to Jerusalem.
And while we told ourselves--and told E. that evening, as we wrapped our cold hands around the hot cups and contemplated the ceilings' impressive height--that we would return to California come summertime, the words sounded tinny and a little far fetched when uttered inside that cavelike Middle Eastern room. San Francisco seemed farther from me now than almost anyplace on earth, whereas (for reasons I could not fathom then, and only begin to understand now, much later) after just a few minutes, this place--that is, E.'s faded couch, with its ill-fitting blanket for a cover and several tattered throw pillows--was already oddly familiar.
The floors of the apartment were covered with an almost invisible layer of dust that had landed when E. razed that extra wall and, despite my various attempts to sweep it and scrub it away, the particles remained, pale and stubborn, until the end of our stay there. The dust was just one of the house's defiant elements--the cold was another--signs that we mere renters would never conquer the oldness and vastness and slightly archaic grandeur of the building, which seemed to have been constructed with obedient servants in mind. I felt weak, short, and mutely humble as I struggled with the broom.
But I felt tall and absurdly omniscient when I stared from our windows. There were seven, all told, six of which had rounded tops and long, graceful sides, sunken into the walls like the colored openings in the sides of a church; one was square and no bigger than a fishing boat's porthole. The windows possessed ghostly, calming properties: Standing still and looking out, I had a peculiar feeling of privilege at being able to peer at the world from above, as though I truly had come to rest at the earth's epicenter, the Jerusalem of the medieval maps. This was, I like to think, not snobbery but the flush of refreshed perspective, since what I could see from my perch was not really a view, in the obvious tourist-snapshot sense of the word, but an average landscape made breathtaking by my enchanted angle. True, the apartment did sometimes offer a few more predictably stunning landscapes. On a clear day it was possible to drag a chair close to the second window in the front room, stand delicately on it, pitch to the left, and catch a corner of the chocolate-wrapper gold that glittered from the Dome of the Rock. And one needed no chair at all to see how the trim, obelisk-shaped tower of the German-built Augusta Victoria hospital cast down a haughty colonial sneer at the spilling Middle Eastern city below.
One of the bedroom windows faced directly out onto the noblest, gentlest, airiest, most softly shushing eucalyptus tree that I have ever known. Sometimes a few menacing crows would circle her branches, cawing and smacking their wings as if preparing to rumble. But when they took refuge on opposite sides of the tree's abundantly delicate leafage, they grew quiet and suddenly mild, chastened almost, by the huge poise of the eucalyptus, the way she whispered and dipped, shivered and laughed in the breeze.
The other bedroom window watched over a sturdy, gingerbread-styled church whose roof was rimmed with ornate curls of ironwork and dainty carved scallops. Three perpendiculars poked out from the baked tiles, providing a kind of raised tripartite agora where the pigeons perched in clusters: a skinny metal tv antenna, a chunky cross, and a short bell tower capped by a rusting weather vane. It was a compact building, a solid, rectangular box whose stones exuded a steady lemon light, set back from the street on a neatly tended patch of greenery and flagstone, and partially hidden on our side by a crumbling old wall and a cluster of weedy trees of heaven, which looked to me--with their awkward trunks and bursts of pointed leaves--pubescent, like date palms in training. We rarely saw people coming or going from the church but, on Saturday afternoons, when most of our neighbors had retreated indoors for their post-big-meal nap, an ecstatic chorus of vigorous voices would pour through our windows for hours on end, accompanied by an amateur accordion and a thump-thumping upright piano. They were Finnish evangelicals who sounded tipsy, like grinning revelers on a merry-go-round; theirs was a fine, full, simple song in the most major key imaginable, as far north as the ear could possibly travel from the haunted, mounting, elemental drone of the half-dozen or so muezzin calls that would wail from nearby East Jerusalem, overlapping, intersecting, piercing our sleep just before dawn each morning, then buzz four more times to the tops of our heads every day.