Photo: Jose HERNANDEZ Camera 51/Shutterstock

The Strangers I Can't Stop Thinking About

Israel Narrative
by Nikki Hodgson Mar 7, 2014

I walk to Bethlehem in my sleep, across the shadows of its hills, revisiting the unfinished interactions and the strangers I can’t stop thinking about. I see the same checkpoint, the same soldier leaning against a wall. He sees the headlights and walks across the road.

The hill has been cleared for security purposes. There is no dry rustle of olive trees, only the wind catching at the sand. The moon casts long shadows, spiraling silhouettes of barbed wire. There is a dark stain at the elbow of his uniform, a scar underneath his eye. He flips through my passport one page at a time. “You are from California,” he says and lowers his hands. We stare at the road as it stretches and then drops into the darkness of the wadi. I lean my head against the seat, the Taybeh beer festival still buzzing in my ears.

The soldier begins to sing.

“Hotel California.” It is always “Hotel California.”

He waves us through. The van dips into the darkness, following the narrow pathway of its headlights. In the rearview mirror I watch him standing in the center of the road, his gun hanging across his body.

I scrutinize the soldiers, staring into their faces, wondering if I would recognize him. I don’t.

Two days later the song is still stuck in my head. I hum it while making coffee, between interviews, tapping my pencil against the counter. My coworkers are perpetually smoking. I move my desk downstairs. When they come to talk to me, they lean their heads in and keep one arm outstretched into the hallway, fingers balancing one Marlboro Red after another. Someone printed out the sign from Berlin and hung it above my desk. “You are entering the American sector,” it says. Everyone laughs.

I can’t stop thinking about the soldier who sang to me. At every checkpoint, I scrutinize the soldiers, staring into their faces, wondering if I would recognize him. I don’t.

* * *
The long corridor of Checkpoint 300 spits me out into Bethlehem. Men sell produce out of the back of their trucks. Bags of cactus fruit and grapes, stacks of watermelon split in half. I’m not in the mood to go home.

The separation barrier runs alongside a graveyard, past the marbled tablets with black looping Arabic script and the keffiyeh hanging at the edge of one grave. It casts a shadow across the plastic flowers and laminated photos, a teddy bear with a missing eye. The wall is a mural of political graffiti; twelve ounces of yellow spray paint can tell the saddest story.

A pebble lands near my feet. A soldier hangs out the window of the control tower, waving. “Shalom,” he shouts.

He is young, smiling through the shadows that fall across his face.

“Where are you from?” he asks.

“Amerikai,” I shout back. “Ani Amerikai.”

I blew him a kiss as I walked away. I don’t know why. A moment of spontaneity cracked through my reserve.

We stare at each other. Aida Refugee Camp is buttressed against a five-star hotel. The tourists turn away from its narrow dirt roads and ramshackle houses. The heat is unbearable. Just beyond the entrance to the camp, there is a corner store vibrating with the hum of a refrigerator. The afternoon wind kicks up. He shifts his weight, leaning further out the window.

“I love you,” he says.

I walk slowly back to my apartment. The sunset is pale purple melting into grey. Sitting on the roof, peeling the label off a lukewarm Taybeh beer, I watch the traffic jam below, a shepherd with a dozen sheep blocking the road. “I love you,” he said, from a tower looking down. I blew him a kiss as I walked away. I don’t know why. A moment of spontaneity cracked through my reserve.

* * *
On the bus to Eilat, a soldier stretches out at my feet. There aren’t any seats. He reclines in the aisle with an arm tucked behind his head, one hand resting against his neck. He is reading Catcher in the Rye, his foot pressed hard against mine. He catches me staring at him, smiling as he turns the page. I fall asleep, rolling into the shoulder of the woman beside me, enveloped in the smell of Pond’s night cream and the security of her head against mine.

It’s 4am when the bus pulls into the gravel lot. The soldier is gone. The book is sitting next to my foot.

I cross into Egypt. It’s too early for the bus to Dahab. Taxi drivers crowd around me; someone pushes a cup of tea into my hand. I think about the soldiers, those strange snapshots that will never leave me. They’ve commandeered my culture. “Hotel California” has an Israeli accent; Catcher in the Rye is the press of a soldier’s boot.

But I wish I’d told them everything. I wish I’d made their stories mine.

I don’t have the hundreds of Egyptian pounds the taxi driver wants. I tell him I’ll wait for the bus. There is a low wall running along the road, leading to nowhere in particular. I think about the soldier and wonder where’s he from and why he left the book. I flip through the pages, looking for a note. There is none. Only the last sentence underlined on page 214. “Don’t ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody.”

I don’t feel comforted. The sun is rising. The cover of the book is torn. I think of all the passing strangers, all those fleeting moments. I never said anything to anybody, kept my cards pressed hard against my chest. I still miss everybody. I miss the things we could’ve said, the stories I never heard and the ones I never told.

Instinctively, I followed Salinger’s warning to the nostalgic, the overly sentimental, the ones who miss the things that never were.

But I wish I’d told them everything. I wish I’d made their stories mine. And then I wouldn’t have to toss and turn, revisiting every interaction, crossing deserts in my sleep, wondering why our lives were intertwined.

It’s the not knowing that gets me. Every single time.

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