Leora Skolkin-Smith: The Body is my Land

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Leora SkolkinIn the Cabala it says that we are all points at first, tiny dots isolated from the larger world. We grow into lines and start to connect with other dots, and then we are lines thickening into planes, expanding out, enlarging our form and starting point.

I remember Jerusalem. One summer afternoon of 1963, when I was eleven years old. Wet hosiery and underwear hanging in the descending sun outside on the porch and the bedroom window opened, the raised thick metal blinds still with bullet holes from the 1947 War of Independence against the British.

The lawns by the swimming pool at the King David Hotel will be green and sweet in the closing of the day, and there soon will be dishes of sherbet with sugar wafer cookies curled into icy scoops, served to the American and European tourists.

But the borders of Israel are raw: settlements of  coarse land and citrus growths, artillery and rust. The air in the room is prickly with the presence of  dry pine and bush that blow in from the dusty streets. The chomaseem, very bad weather, is on its way, unbearable heat waves that sweep the country.

It is the end of July  and my mother has taken my older sister, Iris, and me back to Israel to visit  my Aunt Nehama and my grandmother. I have been here four weeks.

My mother lies in her white slip in our shared bedroom with a yellow marble floor and a plain wood closet. Inside the closet’s wobbly door is tacked a long mirror with handles held together by bolts that look like broken old teeth. I sleep in this room with my mother and Iris, who is already up and taking one of her endless showers in a bathroom down the hall.

I have spent a long time this siesta wondering about that closet mirror. There are blotches on its glass and streaks and finger marks which alter the images reflected back. If I look into the mirror too hard, I sometimes think I’ll see all the places that have populated my boyish body, like colonies of different flesh, like Israel itself and the boundary-less villages of disharmony: two breasts growing; my nose, which was small and shaped like the end of a spoon, is suddenly thicker. It is inside my body that  my center, my starting point, awaits, but I am still too young to understand what my afternoon dreams mean, or to identify the soft ripple of sexual chords that my dreams sometimes arouse inside my flesh.

I pull off the bed sheets, preparing to get ready for the evening’s Friday night meal. The siesta light dims into a cool gray. I have to concentrate, shake my head and ankles. My mother is sitting on the edge of the bed, buttoning a cashmere sweater she has taken from her night table. The closet door has not yet been opened .

My aunt bursts into the room, clapping her hands as a beating order. “It’s time to get dressed. Leora, get up! Iris is already in the shower. We are having the Friday night supper early and guests are coming to eat with us!” She goes over to the closet and turns the rusted key. “Leora can wear my son’s old  shorts,” she says to my mother as she tries to tighten her bathrobe belt around her muscular waist.

Outside, strays cats are running from the cactus bushes onto the street, where there are sounds of automobiles and motorbikes. The early moon will soon begin to travel between the invisible world, which contains my starting point, and the illuminated limestone homes.

“Love…is…a…many-splendored thing” the transistor radio in the bathroom suddenly blares. My sister is singing in the shower.

“Oy, Iris with this music,” my mother says.

“Really, Rachel,” Nehama responds. “This isn’t funny. Your daughters always play rock music.”

I know that Iris is smoking the cigarettes I got from Mr. Haggittee’s grocery store. I also know that if only cold water is coming out of the shower spout, she will scream, like she did when she saw one of our uncle’s wooden legs hanging with the towels.

“You will tell Iris and Leora to dress nicely for tonight,” Dota Nehama says. “They are to come to the table in their good clothes.” I watch the two women, blinking so I will not fall asleep again. I don’t want to be like my Aunt Nehama when I am her age, my body like this house, scorched and crusty on the outside because the sun has shone too much on its face and worn it out.

On the night table, I had left a chewed wad of pink Israeli gum. I push it loose because I have not found any fresh packages under my cot.

Dota Nehama turns her back on me. She reaches into the wooden closet and takes out some army shorts and heavy leather sandals for me to wear, putting them on a chair near my cot. She begins to search the back shelves for some sunhats. Old dresses on wire hangers block her hands. She throws the dresses to the floor and cricket balls tumble out from behind hatboxes, and Dr. Doolittle storybooks fall with the balls. My aunt’s arms are strong and bulging with tough muscle. A sagging pocket of underarm skin makes the bursting strength in her upper arms seem even firmer than it is.

I rouse myself off the cot, standing in my night gown and bare feet and chewing the gum that has begun to soften against my teeth.

“I will take the girls to Masada on Sunday,” my aunt is saying. “They will learn to be Israelis.”

“Oy, Nehama. Don’t tell me how to raise my children. You are worse than the army,” my mother quips.

Their voices are so loud, I wish I could cover my ears.  I open a packet of wash-and-dri and run the perfume-scented cloth over my face. The window is open and the blinds are up, letting in the heat from outside. The stronger evening breezes have not come yet.

I think sometimes the stone house is an ossuary for the dead. It is shaped like a rambling, boundary-less space with tulips on its three porches that make it smell sweet; the sediment inside the limestone bricks is worn and hard. Inside ossuaries are the bones of the departed, but at One Palmach Street, there are no bones, only framed photos on the mantle, including a picture of the lost brother no one talks about and photographs of my mother’s father and her uncle.

I have found all the mirrors in this stone house. One is in the dining room, where the British shot a hole behind the painting of the Jewish settlers. Another is in the W.C., where the thick stench of my sister’s cigarettes stays in the air and old  butts swim in the toilet. There is also a mirror in the foyer, above the steel mailbox holding letters I have written and are waiting to be mailed to my father in America. .

I don’t want to see any more pictures of my mother when she was young, or hear any more stories. I miss my father.

Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I feel myself losing the contours of my body. I see myself  standing large and fiery like my mother, with stocky legs and thick, muscled arms. There’s a feathery cuff on some of her old satin and silk dresses that hang in this closet, dresses she wore to the balls she attended with British officers. Each marriage proposal made to her by a British or Israeli gentleman—they had to put everything in writing so her father could examine the intent and the promised future—is in the hatbox on the top closet shelf, above the stack of romance novels. She keeps her bottles of body bath washes there, too, lotions made from avocados (oval-shaped like her) and extracts of chamomile and lemon. The British soldiers came to drink port in the salon with her brothers and brought her  cashmere and body washes. They let her ride in their jeeps in the hot nights as they  patrolled the taken city.

I will be unable to sleep again tonight and it could be that I am invisible and have no form. My mother will take me into her bed again. “Come,” she said last night. “Nehama makes me feel bad and I am treated like I am nothing. Did you hear how she talks to me? So why did I leave Israel, if only to marry your father who does not even call?” Her desperation quiets when she holds me close. In Israel, she has grown more careless about herself. When it is time to sleep, she is usually without undergarments, which gives the sheets I lie under with her a hot, wettish odor. Last night, her hair and face creams gave off a strong, fruity smell and tempered the raw, coarse aromas that got loose from her flesh. But her strength is more muscular in its war against grief and distress than I have ever seen it and I want to be near, because the stone house is very cold before the sun rises and outside there is danger and soldiers on the streets.

The bedroom has become steamy, as it does every siesta since we arrived. I feel the almond oil and the sweet, hot odor of my mother’s  flesh. I feel a vanishing that makes me feel like a little girl again and there is no danger to this, I am thinking. But when I cannot push my mother off, I experience a world of sensations and feelings and I think that I will kill myself if I can’t kill her. It is this feeling that I can’t explain, how my mother moves through me like the faint slap of a hand, and I can be stretched and pulled and formed invisible. I feel the hot flow of myself under the power of her body, as if I have been pulled into a magnetic field.

Yesterday, Iris told me that sometimes it’s as though my mother is my boyfriend, the way I let her hold me. I had a dream once that my mother turned into a man and it was how I vanished, trying to love her. I have found many topics inside the old British psychology books on the shelves in the foyer. One was called Psychology You Can Use and there was a chapter about mothers who think their children are  their own flesh, like just another lump or limb. I need to study more from the psychology books to talk to my father about this when I get back to America.

The  bedroom door opens and my sister pads into the room, holding the transistor radio. A bath towel is around her  tall body and large drops of water slide down her long hair and from her uncovered shoulders and legs. The flesh on her naked skin is so white, she could be made of limestone, like the streets.

Iris goes to her corner of the room, where her clothes are clean and ironed. She goes outside in the early morning after washing them, and hangs them on the clothesline on the downstairs porch where her hairdressing equipment is: pink curlers big as rocks, and jars of dippity-doo that look like Jello. Iris says “Suffer for beauty, Leora” whenever she pulls me to sit on the lounge chair and tells me to pretend I am getting my hair done in a salon in Paris.

I put my hand on the strap of my nightgown and begin to pull it down, past my hips, and then to the calves of my legs, picking up the shorts and sunhat from where Dota Nehama laid them.

My mother checks herself in the dresser mirror, pulling her lips in to blend the lipstick into their flesh. And then she turns and looks at me. She stares a long time at me with my nightgown off, at my body.  First it is a hard stare and then her large eyes soften. “Leora has bosoms now, do you see, Nehama?” she says.

“These bosoms are not so big, Rachel,” Nehama replies.

“But they are there,” my mother says. “They are there now.”

Had it been  the doorbell that suddenly rang all the way from downstairs, signaling the arrival of a guest? I will never know, but all three of them rush down the long marble steps to the foyer, leaving me alone. Only half-dressed, I know I have time, that I am safe, because the long winding stairway is too difficult to climb. Guests are arriving: I hear them going into the salon for brandy and slivers of eggplant and olive appetizers.

I enter the closet and shut the door behind me. I pull the long string that makes the closet light up. Tattered paperbacks are piled on a shelf above the high-heeled shoes and silk dresses my mother wore when she was in the Haganah, the Jewish underground.

In these romance novels, the women are always getting “enchanted” and I know this means they are having the same ripples and wetness that my dreams bring to my body. I feel an invisible world in that closet, curling myself up like a shell, my legs clasped in my arms. I take one of the novels from the stack and stare into its cover, and then put the book on the floor of the closet. Slowly, I remove my cotton underwear and in the closet mirror I see my naked buttocks, muscles of submission. In my daydream, the  lover has big white hands. He has no personality and isn’t anyone I know in the visible world. He is a form, thick-thighed like the British man on the book cover. He wears foreign khaki and I feel his trousers and the sharpness of his knee when I lay over his lap. I don’t know if I am a piece of coal on fire, smoldering, or a  petal of a flower, my flesh succulent like a petal. I let the invisible world, with its invisible lover, bring me to enchantment; I let myself become a spirit and a star in these Jerusalem evenings, where outside, in the visible world, my mother and aunt are preparing to tell me what to wear for supper and what to do tomorrow when the day breaks, already deciding every detail of where I will go and how I will dress. I touch myself to feel the sensations again. Here is Masada, I think,  and the hot desert, and streams of coarse things, like shrubs and cacti floating with the wet laundry sheets and cloaks that the Bedouin wash, kneeling by the waters with their goats. I can explore it, my own body, climb like Masada, or maybe Hebron, with its strange sheiks and warm soda water heated by the sun, and to which they add thick syrups of blackberry and raspberry or cherry, sweetening the fizz but still not stirring in any ice or cold water from the tap. Feeling the tiny strip of pleasure now between my legs, I stir all the sensations like the syrups with my fingers. It is my own mountain top, I think. I am a nation. In this motion, too, the long day with the my aunt and mother fighting and the harsh bitterness that was inside my mother—foaming out like a belch that didn’t care who else was the room—all seem to disappear as I find my own body and its gifts, its soft skin. If it were a bird, it could fly out the window to the pine branch, to the dry shrubs and cacti in the distance, where the ice cream peddler is on the street.

Everywhere there is a sweet odor like the tulips outside the gate. I do not know why I like the fantasies, but it is my nation, this body, I think, and the only power I will ever have. And then it feels like heaven, and a hot mist that circles from the screen and the glass mirror enters under the skin where there might have been comfort or ecstasy and I float with the hatboxes and the wooden leg for my uncle’s amputated one that hangs over me, with the blankets and the hats. What happens in my sex is built by my body for the final freeing of my selfhood from my mother.

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It was in my late twenties, after my father suffered a tragic car accident and my relationship with my mother grew fractious, that I found this starting point again. Hospitalized for depression, I thought there were to be no more points at all, neither planes nor connections—no more existence. The present and past had been smashed, the future seemed only an endurance of fracture and dissolution. In the 1970s there were no medicines like Prozac or effective anti-depressants. The work I had to do toward health relied solely on bringing back fragments of identity and memory through a rigorous self-examination anchored in helplessness. Sometimes, I believe, these ways went deeper than the contemporary world we have now, one of drugs and accessible, but revolving—eternally revolving—doors we call the mental health system. But I had learned long ago, during that summer in Jerusalem, how to visit closets and mirrors, how to come back to life though all of the senses. Therapy for despair was so much like feeling my flesh in that bedroom closet, my selfhood, a door closed to the overwhelming and ominous figures and places that disassembled me, or threatened destruction or absorption so that no separate dignity of self was possible. I floated again in the sensations of my body and history—I unfolded myself, stretching through my trauma and loss, riding on shooting stars that would allow me back to that closet.  Sometimes I took myself for a flame amidst shadows. I allowed  the black heart of my fantasies, sexual and hidden, to pulse again inside my body.

Had my sadness, my depression, really just been—as it was that summer in Israel, when I was eleven—a desire again for myself?

The morning of my discharge from Payne Whitney, I perused the form an aide brought in for me to sign. I suddenly wanted to draw beside my signature, and that of my attending psychiatrist, something, anything—a Jerusalem hill; a lavender sunset; streets and barren fields laid with barbed wire, yet still and forever borderless—that would connect the native land I hadn’t known until then, that was now inside me. It had finally emerged, this time creating enough equilibrium for me to at least walk out of that hospital room and into the hope of a summer morning. On the form I was to sign was written:

WHITE FEMALE

AGE: 22

DIAGNOSIS: BORDERLINE PERSONALITY DISORDER

PROGNOSIS: GOOD.

DATE, RELEASED: JUNE 20, 1974

REASON GIVEN FOR DISCHARGE: NO LONGER A DANGER TO HERSELF

I signed the form and left the rest behind to a silence like the old secrets of the Cabala itself, or  the spindly olive trees and dry bushes on the sides of the Jerusalem roads with the old Israeli army Jeeps and tanks that tourists see when they visit my mother’s first land. In recovery from the severest parts of my mental illness, the door finally closed to the overwhelming and ominous figures and places inside that had disassembled me, threatening destruction. I found the center and knew I would have to leave many of  the questions behind to a silence like the old secrets of my grandmother’s land. In many ways, I would have to learn how to float in the enigmatic sensations of  body and history with the others of my family.

HysteraLeora Skolkin-Smith is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel Hystera. Her novel Edges will be published in Fall 2014. Learn more at our website.

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