I looked into her eyes, smiled,and said Shalom
(written in 1972 one year after returning from Israel)
by Tom Harris
It was about six o’clock in the morning and I was walking up an incline through the children's playground moving toward my apartment. I could see it was going to be a hot, dry, breezy day. The sun was peeking up above the horizon. There were no obstructions between me and the few stars that struggled to survive the glare of the sun and get a glimpse of the coming day. I thought about how wonderful the night had been and the wild hours preceding. I thought back a full year to when I was a senior in high school. I remembered thinking how big a man I was. I thought of girls as objects of sex, never thinking of communicating in a mutually beneficial fashion. I was always thinking of my own personal drives and desires. I realized the basis of some girl’s, remark about guys having only one thing on their minds, to get the girl into bed, or into the back seat of the car, or if courageous enough, to stay right in the front with the crackling, frostbitten speaker blasting against the fogged glass. I guess I was like that, living up to what I thought a man was supposed to be.
I walked toward my apartment that beautiful, early, morning, remembering a sunny, hot, clear afternoon only two weeks before. I had caught the smile of pretty, glowing, innocent Israeli girl of seventeen. I will never forget it. We both stopped in our tracks like stunned animals and then continued on with our daily routine.
I stopped to play on an old merry-go-round built from parts of an old tank and thought of the night before. It was the Jewish holiday of Purim, a fantastic holiday that in Israel is like a combined Halloween and New Year’s party. Everyone dressed up in costumes, vying for prizes to be awarded to the best outfits. My sister, who was going to school in the nearby city of Haifa, came to the Kibbutz where I was studying a half a day and working a half a day to earn my keep, to join in with the festivities. My sister and her girlfriend thought it would be real cute to dress me up in drag. I don’t know how they talked me into it. There I was, an ugly broad, with two of the biggest, sourest grapefruits stuffed into a massive bra. The festivities, which included dancing, drinking, eating,and singing, began about seven o’clock in the evening. The very first person I saw that night was the same Israeli girl I had seen a few weeks before. There I was with my long curly hair done up like a Clairol Cover Girl, with a long scarf and plenty of sticky make-up. I grinned with embarrassment.
My sister had answered all my questions about the Israeli girl. Her father was a war hero from the 1957 conflict, a navy admiral now retired and working on the kibbutz. She was an athlete, a starter on the regional women’s basketball team. She had a competitive spirit born from the shadows of war, death, and vicious pride. One of her brothers was a soldier fighting in the Suez Desert, another brother was killed a few years back being dragged by a horse on a rocky beach, an event remembered by her mother’s black clothing, serious stare, and questioning mind. The young Israeli girl had no enemies and was afraid of nothing. She was always beaming with pride as if the world were hers and no one would ever take it away.
It was getting late. I sat in a folding chair in the corner of the dance floor listening to the wild Israeli music, watching the lively dancing and intermittently glancing around hoping to catch a proud smile. My sister prodded me for hours, trying to get me to dance with my silent partner but I was shy, scared, and a lousy dancer. So I sat there, every once in a while dancing with my sister but mostly sipping paper cups of brandy. I wanted to ask her to dance but she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Hebrew. How the hell was I going to ask her anything? At three o’clock in the morning the dancing was as lively as ever. It was wild! Everyone was tipsy, chanting war tunes, forming hand to hand circles and parading around the floor. I had stripped myself of my feminine attire and was definitely feeling my brandy when I was suddenly engulfed by the raging queue of dancers, throwing their arms and kicking their legs rhythmically yet somewhat Dionysian in manner. I danced for awhile and then went back to my chair in the corner.
At four in the morning I decided to ask the Israeli girl to dance. She nodded yes. She understood what I had said, I guess she learned the words from all the Americans who had asked her to dance in the previous hours. We danced for awhile, all the time smiling at each other with our eyes and lips. At four-thirty I took her hand and pulled her aside. The strength was in her grip. She led me outside into the warm, starry, quiet night. She led me from one end of the Kibbutz to the other, a long distance in reality but short in our time. I talked to her in English and and she spoke in Hebrew. She knew two English words, really and sure. I dramatically repeated the word really as a question and answered myself with a definite sure and she laughed. Our eyes met, we grasped hands, and we both smiled, deep, meaningful and with love. What seemed like hours were only fleeting seconds lasting a lifetime.
We noticed the rising of the sun and stood in silence enjoying the calm, eloquent, birth of a new day. She relaxed her hands and motioned that she had to leave, I gripped her strong hands, held them for a few seconds, looked into her eyes, smiled and said Shalom. I relaxed my grip and she walked away. I stood there watching until she was gone. My hands fell limp to my side. I took a deep breath, and turned in the direction of my apartment. It was six o’clock in the morning. I remember thinking to myself, that communication was more than spoken words and physical pleasure but a level of love and understanding that one can find by merely being oneself, living oneself, and giving oneself.