The Checkpoint (part 3)

By Jillian Slutzker

Not too far from the community center Leila was seeking, nineteen-year-old Ari Saksonov sat at his desk in his home staring blankly at the calendar. It was February 25. The grief counselor his parents had forced him to talk to told Ari that he would likely be in denial for some time. The counselor had peered at Ari over his black-rimmed glasses with a look of contrived sympathy and said that it might feel to Ari like his sister had gone on vacation and would return home shortly, but that in time Ari would eventually accept the reality of the situation that Riva would not be coming back.

The counselor was dead wrong, Ari thought. Ari had felt a sinking permanent absence in the pit of his stomach since the day, even the very minute, Riva was killed. He had never bought into that whole bogus psychic twin connection thing until 7:44 p.m. on February 3 when Ari, listening to music in his room, suddenly got terribly nauseous, jumped off his bed, ran to the stairs and yelled at his mother about where Riva was. He knew something was irreversibly wrong before he knew why, where or how. The counselor was full of it. Riva’s death burned Ari incessantly and there was no anesthesia of denial. Riva had gone on vacation before and it sure as hell was not a vacation when someone blew up your sister when she went for out for pizza with her boyfriend.

Gideon was there when it happened. Ari had never liked Gideon much at all. He thought he was too cocky, not funny, and incredibly arrogant. He gelled his hair and thought his family’s wealth entitled him to be a jerk to everyone without a trust fund and a vacation home on the Mediterranean. Gideon lived down the street from Riva and Ari and had been in their high school class. Just after graduation he took a particular interest in Riva, and Ari made no pretence for his fierce brotherly protectiveness over his twin sister. He had, after all, been born a minute before her, which technically meant that he was her older brother.

He didn’t like that a lot of things about Gideon when Riva started hanging out with him and he still didn’t. But that did not stop Ari from asking Gideon to describe to him every detail of the scene that day at the pizza parlor- the color of the guy’s shirt, where Gideon thought he was hiding the bomb, what Riva had ordered, what she said to him last. It never occurred to Ari that recounting and reliving the moment again and again might have been just as painful for Gideon as not knowing those details was for Ari.

Ari heard that the suicide bomber killed ten people in the restaurant but he honestly only cared that his sister had been one of them and not so much that there were nine others. The counselor had dubbed this “self-centered grief” or some other psychobabble shit Ari didn’t believe in.

The thing Ari probably hated most about the counselor though was when he told Ari to stop thinking about “things he couldn’t change”. He told him it was useless, which infuriated Ari who would have given anything for that power. Ari would try to recreate that night in hypotheticals in his head so that at the end of it Riva would still be alive. If she had forgotten something at home and turned around on her way to meet Gideon, he thought. If they had gone for ice cream instead of pizza. That damn bubble gum ice cream could have saved her life. And- he only let himself think this in the confines of his own bed late at night because he knew it was too dark a thought-if Gideon had stayed inside the restaurant and Riva had run out to the car to get her cell phone and not the other way around.

But Gideon had been too damn courteous. He had offered to go grab Riva’s phone from the car for her. Riva, wearing a jeans jacket and her hair in a ponytail as Gideon told Ari, had smiled and told him how thoughtful he was and that she would wait for their order- a large pizza Margarita with extra cheese. In Ari’s mind, Gideon’s charm and “thoughtfulness” had cost Riva her life. Yeah, Ari was furious at the guy who blew himself up in the first place, but because it was too hard to understand why someone would have done that, how they could have ever possibly thought that a justifiable thing to do, and mostly because that guy was already dead and so was Riva and Gideon was not, Ari kept hating Gideon.

Sometimes Ari’s thoughts wandered to the black comedic effect of the whole situation. He wondered what stage of grief the counselor would say laughing at the twisted irony of Riva’s death would fall under. Their mother’s father had survived three years in Auschwitz. He entered the camp when he was twenty-four years old. The fact that he had been married before their grandmother came along and that he lost this first wife and their two-year old son in the camp was a family taboo. When he was younger Ari once heard his grandfather mention something about his son, which a ten-year old Ari and Riva had found hilarious since their mother had only sisters. Riva scrunched up her nose, shrugged her shoulders and made a face at her brother as if to say, “He is becoming a crazy old man!” The two burst into a deep-bellied fit of laughter. Their mother harshly grabbed them by the shoulders and rushed them into the other room. Since then they never brought up the topic again.

Just before his liberation in 1945, their grandfather met the woman who would become his second wife. She was a prisoner in Bergen-Belsen where the Nazis had marched the remaining Auschwitz prisoners to in hopes of buying themselves some more time from the encroaching Soviet troops. She was twenty. Her sister would have been fifteen had she been alive. She never found out for sure if she was, but she was certain that her parents were dead. She had seen that happen.

Having observed their relationship all his life, Ari always thought his mother’s parents had probably married a little bit for love but mostly for companionship and out of a burning desire not to suffer anymore, or at least not to have to do it alone. In 1948, they moved to Israel with their two little girls, his aunts, and words like “Promised Land” and “Home” on the tips of their tongues. His mother, their third child, was born in Jerusalem.

In the seventies Ari and Riva’s father, an American Jew from Russian immigrant parents, decided to move to Israel. He fell in love and settled down in a West Jerusalem suburb with the daughter of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen survivors. It was strange, Ari reflected, that he and Riva were the outcome of such a twisted history of love and death.

And now it hit him again head on. Here they were-or rather he was- standing in the middle of the world’s most hilariously dark comedy in history. His grandparents had survived the freaking Holocaust. Israel had been their answer, the world’s answer, to the question of Home in a world that had ripped theirs out from under them and burned their families. And for what? So their granddaughter could be killed in a pizza parlor?

The more he thought about this the angrier he became at Riva too. This morning, before leaving home, he had walked into Riva’s room. His mother still hadn’t touched anything. It had been twenty-two days. Riva’s green striped sheets were kicked into an awkward pile at the foot of her twin-size four-poster iron bed. She had had this bed since she was six and would not give it up, even when their mother repeatedly offered to let her pick out a new one, any one she wanted in the whole store. She sung the praises of her old bed just like that ice cream she so stubbornly loved. And besides, Riva hadn’t even really grown that much since she was a kid. Well, of course she had grown, but compared to Ari, who at nineteen had stood a head and a half above his twin sister, Riva hadn’t changed all that much.

In her room earlier that day, Ari walked over to Riva’s dresser. He fingered a small pin-on button that said “Peace”. There used to be another few more buttons there because Riva made sure that the color of the one she was wearing always matched her outfit, but Ari’s mother had taken them for her self. She did not wear them. She did not know that she could or ever would be able to. But she wanted them for the same reason Ari did. They were something cold, metal and real that had been Riva’s. She, like Ari, spent hours immobile, staring at Riva’s room, pressing the cold metal button between her thumb and her fingers.

Ari sat down in Riva’s desk chair. A half-written birthday note to their younger cousin in New York was scrawled on a bright pink card in front of him. He touched the glass on a picture frame of Riva and him in their pajamas, the kind with the foot slippers attached. He was smiling and she was sticking out her tongue. He guessed they were maybe three years old in the picture.

On the second shelf to the left lay a high stack of colorful three-fold pamphlets. Ari had seen these so many times before. The sight of them used to make him want to puke or scream and he still hated them, but since Riva’s death they’d taken on some aura of sacredness as one more untouched piece in the museum her room had become. Riva always carried them around with her in her shoulder bag. She had always been really talkative and friendly, even as a kid, and so she would chat up strangers and before they knew it they’d be graciously accepting a pamphlet from her. “Dialogue for PEACE” it read on the cover. Ari had hated that she did this. He had always been embarrassed and ashamed for and by her when she got on her peace soapbox, especially in front of strangers. He felt responsible for her heresy.

“Riv, you can’t just go around handing out these things to random people. Don’t you think it’s a little…I don’t know, high and mighty and…well crazy!”
“Have you even read one?” she would shoot back at him, swinging her head around and throwing a sharp look into his eyes. “You haven’t, have you? Have you ever talked to a Palestinian? No, didn’t think so. Why don’t you try that Ari, huh?
“Riva I just think it’s a little…radical I guess. You ever bother to remember that you are a soldier DEFENDING Israel? You think it’s going to help if we sit down for lunch with Hamas and ask them politely to stop blowing up our buses?”
“Ari, oh my God! You drive me insane! Maybe they have a reason for wanting to blow up our buses. I’m not saying they should do it but maybe–“
“Riv, so are you switching sides now? Want me to find you a nice Muslim husband and-“
“Shut up Ari. I am just saying maybe you should think about someone else’s point of view for a change.”

That is usually how the argument went. Riva would grab her flyers and leave the room. Later they would hang out and talk about something else. It wasn’t that they agreed to disagree but Riva had always thought deep down that her brother might someday change his mind and Ari had learned to forgive his sister her eccentricities.

Sitting in his sister’s room that morning, Ari had read through one of those flyers, torn another one into pieces, and thrown a third one into the trash. He sat down on her bed, screamed into her pillow, cried, yelled at her again in his mind for being wrong about Gideon, about wanting pizza that day, about ever thinking peace and talking was something that could work, and about the merits of bubble gum ice-cream. Then he stood up and went back to her desk, read the flyer again, and left her room. He thought about making her bed but didn’t know if he could do it yet and if his mother might just fall apart if he did.

Ari walked back into his room and flopped onto his bed. He wasn’t sure he believed in God anymore. He was leaning towards not. He figured if there was a God and He had a plan like so many people had told him these past few weeks then Ari wanted nothing to do with Him anymore. If God’s plan had so much fucked up stuff in it, then Ari thought God must be a pretty twisted guy anyway. But just in case, he thought that maybe he could say a prayer. Even if it was something like “God what the hell do you think you’re doing?” it still counted for something.

Riva had been damn wrong about this whole peace spiel. Ari was going to tell those people at that meeting that. Did they even know she was dead? Did they know that she was wearing that stupid little white pin on her jacket when that guy blew himself up next to her and it sure as hell didn’t protect her any? So long as Palestinians came into restaurants and blew up people’s sisters, peace was a load of shit! Those people had let Riva believe it wasn’t though and look where it got her.

His mother had been relatively silent since Riva’s death. She said the necessary things about what they needed to buy at the store and where she had set his clean laundry, but most of the time she just sat around and stared or else vigilantly guarded Riva’s room. Maybe she thought that so long as it never changed Riva might still come home, as if time were frozen so long as her room was. On the other hand, Ari’s father seemed to want to talk about anything besides his daughter since her death. It would do Ari some good to yell at somebody about the screwed up nature of the universe.

And so, he stuck his I-Pod headphones into his ears, turned up the Beatles Past Masters album and left home in search of a drab community center basement. His sister’s pin was shoved deep into his pants pocket.

*********************************************************************************************************************

In a community center basement in West Jerusalem twenty-two year old Leila Sharif sat uncomfortably in a cold metal chair, her eyes darting around the room and the beginnings of her next story’s plotline forming in her head. She could not wait for Riva to get there so she could tell her about the twist in her new story. She also knew Riva would be really excited that she had finally come to one of her meetings.

Near the door, nineteen-year old Ari Saksonov slouched against a wall listening to music and staring at the floor. He had planned to come in here and light into everyone. He had even rehearsed what he was going to say the whole way here in order to make the absurdity and stupidity and danger of these people’s false prophecy of peace as blaringly obvious as possible. And he wasn’t planning on being nice about it either. But right now he couldn’t do it for some reason, so he kept staring at the floor.

Leila looked down at the crumpled flyer in her hands. She read the address of the meeting place over and over again methodically. Where was Riva? She was really late now. Leila traced the words Shalom in Hebrew letters. Maybe she should try to learn more Hebrew, she thought.

Against the wall, Ari turned his I-pod off and took his earphones out. It looked like the meeting was about to start. Either he would have to say something or they would first and he wanted to beat them to the punch. He again offered up a half-prayer half-denunciation to the thing that might be God or might just be the forces that be in a cruel and comically unfair world. He felt the sleek cool metal of Riva’s pin in his pocket.

“You people can’t just—“ Ari roared stepping out from the wall. He knew by his speech by heart now, every emphatic expletive and pause, but he suddenly got distracted. A Palestinian girl in the fourth row rose abruptly from her chair, sheets of notebook paper falling on to the floor at her feet along with a crumpled flyer.

Riva wasn’t coming, Leila realized. Why had she trusted her? Why had she been so eager to see her, to share her story with her anyway? Why was Leila even here? Riva wasn’t coming.

The Palestinian girl suddenly storming out had upset the rhythm of Ari’s diatribe. He noticed as she rushed by him towards the door that a strand of her hair had come loose from under her scarf. It was curly, like Riva’s had been.

Ari stopped his speech. His voice choked over a lump in his throat. He forgot his rehearsed denunciation and instead could only think of his sister, her curly hair, her peace pin. Everyone’s shocked eyes were still on Ari but he could not say anything. Riva was not here. She would never be here. Not at this meeting. Not at home or at the ice cream shop with a cone of that nasty bubble gum stuff. She was really truly gone. So that’s what Ari said instead, “My sister is gone. Her name was Riva. She’s gone.” Ari sat down numbly on a cold metal folding chair and a Palestinian man next to him touched him gently on the arm.

In the front of the room a soft voice began the meeting.

*This is part 3 of the story “The Checkpoint.” You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.*

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