On a business trip to Israel I stay in a hotel
that used to be the largest movie theatre in Tel Aviv.
My room is lined with black and white photographs:
Dorothy Gish, Mary Pickford, Clark Gable.
In the lobby, the guests stand around and watch
clips of silent movies with Laurel and Hardy.
They point to the screen, laughing periodically,
while they continue their small conversations--
a room full of birds making a cacophony of sounds:
Dutch, Hebrew, Chinese, German, French.
On the streets, the banter in Hebrew, signs
in the alphabet I studied for years in religious school
but still have no clue what the words mean.
I stop in front of a synagogue and try to read
a flyer by stringing sounds together. It’s Shavuout,
the holiday that celebrates Moses receiving
the Torah on Mt Sinai. There’s a drawing of a man
with a long beard standing next to a burning bush,
a tablet descending from the heavens
with just a few Hebrew letters on it and the man
is trying to catch it, his arms extended,
stretching tirelessly towards the sky.
Jeanne Hebuterne, Seated
after the painting by Amedeo Modigliani
Perhaps she always knew her life would be short,
tied as it was to Amedeo’s. She sits on their single bed,
the white cover reflecting the colors of Nice in winter,
raspberry, a touch of mauve and yellow—
the duvet and pillow puffed up, and Jeanne,
20 and full with their first child.
Amedeo has a hunch it will be a girl
and he tells her how much he’ll spoil her,
and then he goes on about the croissants
he’ll buy everyday from the bakery downstairs,
and then the toys, dresses, books, and of course
she’ll be a painter so her room will be one big canvas.
He steps into the painting and kisses her on the forehead,
and she notices how hot he is, it must be the
fevers, and she embraces him, forces herself to imagine
how he’ll walk through the door with the croissants
and they’ll be so warm, the butter melts in his hands.
When I find Mother in her room alone—
eyes half opened, locked on the heavens,
mouth in the shape of an O—
I imagine falling into it,
until my breath is nesting inside her non-breath:
the first sound.
In a dream, I try to describe to Father
my trek through the Himalayas.
A movie screen appears and we step into it,
the air so thin we cannot speak.
I want to tell him he’s no longer alive
but it doesn’t seem to matter.
We’re climbing a mountain and he’s walking ahead.
Every so often he turns to make sure I’m still there.
When I’m a boy, Mother takes me along to shop
for her clothing. She tries on dress after
dress, asking me which style is most becoming.
She says she still has her waist, but the best part
about her body has always been her legs.
She pulls up her dress to show me, and then says
Father doesn’t really care how she looks or dresses,
Alles is lang gut.
On my parents’ first date, Mother is shy.
They go to the Tea Room in Washington Heights
and talk about life after Hitler—the meat market, two children.
That’s all they need for now. Later, Mother will read books,
talk to her American neighbors, meet other parents.
Father will come home with parts of animals
set in aspic—tongues, kidneys, hearts.
Mother will begin to cry for no apparent reason.