where we live
we speak only of death and think
of somewhere else
Ali falls asleep immediately after
a long day of trying to be what she cannot be. She tries to be a newspaper
reporter; but she doesn’t really want to be
She feels she uses too many words when she writes about a biology professor’s wife who, on the day a tornado hit town, was sucking gasoline out of her car through a tube connected to a plastic milk bottle and then ran upstairs to feed the generator that helped nurture the unique bacteria that were her husband’s decade-long work.
Way too many words she uses. Pictures would say it so much better. But the newspaper has enough photographers already.
Ali falls asleep on her bed by the window, and I try to lie quiet on the mattress we have laid on the floor next to the bed. Suddenly sirens go off nearby. While the noise rages I lie thinking about Haifa and how one night, in order to fall asleep, instead of sheep I used to count the sounds of distant ambulances.
I can’t sleep listening to such a bedlam, but I can’t bear to see Ali awakened. So I leave the house to conduct an impromptu investigation. Driving around the neighborhood, I smell burnt rubber. The street parallel to ours is blocked, awash in the blinding lights of police cars and fire trucks. I can only get to the fire on foot, so I go back to the house and talk one of our sleepless housemates into leaving his computer for a while to keep me company.
One building is already a wreck.
We sit on some steps across the street, watching the police and firefighters,
smoking and talking about life’s
The next morning I wake up at 7:00
to drive Ali to class. If I don’t give her a ride she has to take a bus
and so get an hour less of sleep. I ask whether
Even now, two years later, it cheers
me to think she slept well that night—as if she had been my daughter instead
of just my friend.
SOMEBODY’S DAUGHTER, SOMEBODY’S SON
Two years later, Ali is dead. Nine other people have been killed with her. I wonder if she knew any of them. I doubt it. I know how much she liked to take solo walks in the crowded parts of every city she visited. This time the city happened to be Tel Aviv.
Ali: a Jewish girl, not an Arab boy. A redhead.
Her father used to be my father’s best school friend back in Russia. Ali’s real name was Alexandra.
My father emigrated to the United States in 1975 when he was twenty-three, without a cent in his pocket, leaving nothing worthwhile behind but his memories and a few relatives who pretended they were not Jewish. In the States he met my American-born mother.
Ali’s father caught my own father’s spirit of adventure soon afterwards and managed to persuade his wife and her parents to move to Israel with him.
It wasn’t just an itch to see the
world that lured them out of the Soviet Union during one of its most stagnant,
stifling periods. Once when I was eleven I
”You don’t know what anti-Semitism is?”
I shook my head.
After an awkward pause, he said, “Here is yet another reason why I was right to emigrate!” Then he went looking for my mother to tell her how smart he was to be raising his kids in the United States, and how lucky she was as an American not to have to live in Russia, and how blessed--blessedly ignorant-- his daughter was as well.
Ali grew up in Tel Aviv but visited us every year, always in the summer. We used to spend time in Israel, too, during winter break. But most of my mother’s Israeli relatives lived in and near Haifa and we never had quite enough time to get down to Tel Aviv to visit Ali’s family. My memories of Israel are full of my aunts’ and cousins’ food which I was always full of when I was there.
From her visits with my family Ali
learned that a typical American Jewish family was comprised of a few hundred
grandparents, cousins, in-laws, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews, some
of whom were lawyers, some
Ali was used to our medley of a family
and fit in almost perfectly. Only a few of my relatives treated her as
a foreigner, though discretely, with studied
”Ali” was the name given her by her
parents’ Arab friends who had studied in the Soviet Union, spoke Russian
fluently and seemed too preoccupied with
My father played chess with Ali ever since she was eight years old, something that made me jealous, whether it was because he was paying so much attention to her or because of the time that she was devoting to him instead of to me. Often they switched to Russian, which no one in our extended family understood. But despite my jealousies, I loved listening to them, as if they were total strangers miraculously transported to our house, like unicorns that would vanish if I so much as said a single word in English.
Ali’s family always seemed overwhelmingly
small to me. Her parents and maternal grandparents lived in Israel, and
her only aunt was married to a Russian in Minsk. The aunt had chosen to
stay in the Soviet Union, not
During our own family trips to Israel
we eventually learned not to worry much about suicide bombers and other
threats that made that country seem like an
My Israeli relatives’ typical answer to even the most carefully worded question about Palestinians was a condescending, “Arabs? Ah, they work for us.”
Ali’s parents often had Palestinian friends for dinner.
I remember how during one of our
rare visits to Tel Aviv, at a dinner party, a handsome young civil engineer
named Wasfi, whose English was as fluent as
His second wife was in her mid-thirties. As soon as she entered her husband’s household the rooms began to shine, the garden bloomed and the younger wife and her children began to gain weight.
At that point my mother swallowed uneasily and said, ”But why couldn’t he just hire a cleaning woman and a babysitter?”
”Well, of course, he could have. But he preferred a second wife,” Wasfi said, smiling in my direction so flirtatiously it nearly made my mother choke.
One night as we were sitting around
the TV, watching the news of yet another bombing in Israel, my father muttered
with disgust: “It’s all your Arab friends,
Ali turned toward him, as did we all, even my mother. We all knew he shouldn’t have said it, but it seemed wrong to argue with him at that moment: there were six dead, including the suicide bomber, fifty more wounded. No one we knew, thank God, but horrible anyway. There was the usual footage of people in shock, tears and blood running down their faces, other people in uniforms helping them into ambulances--there was an entire fleet of ambulances and fire trucks. Ali got up from the couch and on her way out of the room turned and said something in Russian to my father.
”They’re all the same, Sasha, when
it comes to dealing with us!” he called after her in English, laughed bitterly
and covered his face with his big hands.
A REDHEAD AND A RED CAT
Ali once told me how she had learned the English phrase “to dodge bullets.”
During her first year in college her next-door neighbor was David, a tall angular guy, and his red cat. David was a harmless graduate student in medieval history who suffered from an obvious crush on Ali. In his inflamed mind the coincidence of Ali’s hair being the same color as his cat’s fur had a huge, almost supernatural significance. The cat’s name was Benny.
Benny liked to follow David everywhere,
and there was always the danger that a car would run him over. David said
he had invented a system for keeping Benny from leaving the backyard. He
would walk slowly to the back
”I call it ‘dodging Benny,’” he explained to Ali. ”D-o-d-g-i-n-g. We use this word when we talk about bullets flying over a battlefield, for instance.”
When I think about Ali I try to avoid remembering this story, even though I like it. Used to like it, I mean. Just as I used to like David and Benny, though now I don’t think I’d care to see either of them again. No more red cats and no Russian for me, please. And no Israel, or Palestine.
Ali is still dodging bullets up there. Maybe she manages to take a picture of me once in a while, when she’s not too busy.
(Veronica Khokhlova is a native
of Kyiv, Ukraine, but spends much of her time in St. Petersburg, Russia.
She'd rather live someplace warm, though, at least in winter. Links to
her other work can be found