Salt in the Hole
Hadassah’s skin is five inches away from mine and slicked with mud that I have been firmly instructed, by a TSA agent who I suspect was on testosterone replacement therapy, to not take home with me, under any circumstances. He explained to me, in an accent both Israeli and vaguely Slavic, that mud from the Dead Sea is technically Israeli soil. It would be considered a violation of international law to covertly put such soil in a pocket and sell it on the black market to make skincare products.
“You can no say you don’t know, that you say oh I did not clean pants, I am dirty, you are clean person, this will not fool me.” His veins swelled and fluorescent light glinted off the golden Star of David insignia on his handgun holster.
Hadassah spins away in a maneuver that flaunts her two years of mandatory military service. Since the Israel-Lebanon war in 2006, during which an Israeli offensive on Tyre beach proved to be a crucial turning point in the conflict, soldiers are required to be proficiently amphibious. But her 180-degree pivot into breaststroke seems clunky, encumbered by the salt of the dead sea, which makes you float when you really want to drown yourself.
A sun oppressive to the non-brown, the Ashkenazi, the unwelcomed, glimmers off her ass which recedes closer to the horizon. Seeing her butt transform from supple cellulite on the downbeat of the stroke to sinewy muscle on the upbeat jumpstarts my heart, which has been stagnated by heat. My urethra opens to let a bead of precum seep out of my cock, and pain greets me instead of pleasure. Salt is rushing into my peehole and the sting radiates. In this melting pot of various shades of tan, I am being cooked alive by a God who isn’t even mine. He’s probably Armenian, he’s punishing the chosen people for cozying up to Turkey, for denying the Armenian genocide, an extermination that was the blueprint for ours, which gave us this beautiful garden of Eden. Israel: the land built on guilt.
Hadassah settles into a placid bob, lying on her back, using a salt crystal as an exfoliant on her stomach. Jacob Mendelbaum gracelessly wades, approaching Hadassah. I want nothing more than the note I slipped into the Western Wall to come true, I want him to be reduced to 5’5. I want to tower over him so I can see his hair thinning from above. He explained to me, during last night’s tour of a Bedouin tent (a crafty PR move by Birthright, displaying how even in a Jewish state, indigenous Arabs are treated with dignity), that he’s a consultant, which means “therapy for companies.” But my eyes were on the Camel with the scar across his leg, which stared back at me with comforting neutrality, like a drawing a child would make—two blots of the marker for eyes and a horizontal line for a mouth—a blankness that mimicked my own apathy towards the “thing”. The conflict. Which side are you on, man? Are you a two-state solution sort of guy? Do you have nuanced opinions on Hamas? It’s all so tedious.
Jacob Mendelbaum drips mud on Hadassah’s stomach and she giggles, which I can’t comprehend. It must be propaganda, she has to have a higher-up in her ear telling her to flirt, so that Jacob sees Israel as fertile, nubile, a land he can spread his seed into, along with his tax dollars from established American wealth.
Disgusted, I turn to the sand, where Tara, only on Birthright to write a piece on indoctrination afterwards, is sunning herself, her breasts spilling out of a Los Angeles Apparel Bikini. My primate brain is reminded of Rachel Lieberman in 2010, pubic hair peeking out of an American Apparel two-piece, the hot tub jets stimulating me and in my peripherals is her flushed face, the world is open, and there is the word potential etched into every surface, and my father is gazing at my mother the same way he would up-and-down subordinates turned girlfriends a decade later. If the “Passion” setting on the jacuzzi was pressed, a dim light would emanate from the center of the whirlpool, and cedar branches from the darkness behind our Long Island estate would cast shadows of angular, elongated fingers on our faces, foreboding, hinting at the chaos and horror to come.
“I fucking hate the summer. I’m like an ant under the magnifying glass of some autistic kid,” Tara says.
“You’re burnt,” I say while following the slight breeze revealing the curves hidden beneath a burka on a woman embracing her child. Imagine the smell underneath—sweat, shame, a sense of depersonalization akin to the American man in the mascot suit.
Tara instructs me to play charades with her sunburn. I will press my fingers against her red skin, and for a moment they will create a silhouette in white. I contort my fingers to form the ISIS flag, but she guesses two dogs embracing each other and I lie and say correct. There is a lull where there is nothing but the smell of brine between us. The sun is anti-cognitive. I am here.
Hadassah inches closer to Jacob Mendelbaum and the sliver of sun between them disappears, their slick bodies are one. Inside me is a flame that will consume everything, that will turn every grain of sand to glass.
“So, what was it like, being you, being one half of that man?” Tara asks.
“What, being what?” I respond.
“Your father, I’ve read the articles. He’s the reason our taxpayer money goes to drones that kill the children who throw stones at the walls of these resorts.”
“Yeah, he sucks, I don’t really condone, I don’t really know too much about his whole… thing.”
“He’s a lobbyist for Zionism, what about that don’t you-”
I run towards the water which stings my eyes and turns my sight into a binary: the blue below and the blue above. I’m paddling furiously in the primordial soup, edging closer and closer to Nirvana, the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, where women in hijabs will welcome me for betraying the ethnostate. I turn around to do backstroke and see Hadassah chasing me. Her cuts into the water with her cupped hands are mechanical. It will be seconds before I resign myself to her capture.
Her headlock does not abate, even as we are back on the Israeli side of shore, and I feel her veins bulge against my stubble. Her grip shorts my circulation and for a moment I am weightless, hovering over father at the country club, watching him tell the Central American caddy that the scar on his head was from removing a brain tumor. I know it’s the result of a hair transplant, but I grin and watch the automated sprinklers mist calves and ruin leather shoes, and male comradery is in the air, everything blooms here, and the bees do not sting you. You are in a purgatory better than heaven.
“What are you thinking of doing?!” Hadassah says, her speech broken and her accent thick to the point of parody.
“I wanted to see the other side,” I say.
“This is thing can get me kicked away. Balagan. You know what this means? It means this is a mess. This is shit. Why do you want me to be in this big mess of shit?”
“I don’t want any of that.”
“You want something I just don’t know what it is.”
Hadassah eases her grip. I feel my neck, where I was strangled moments before, and my skin is soft and tender. Dead Sea mud contains sodium, magnesium, calcium, bromine, iodine, zinc, bitumen, sulfur, and potassium. These minerals have scientifically studied therapeutic, detoxifying, relieving, and healing properties. The mud caked to the lining of my bathing suit could fetch me 150 dollars alone back in the States. Tara is laughing at me and the woman in the burka looks both ways before briefly lifting the top portion of her veil to reveal a face that is Levantine, not Arab. I am the only one who sees this act. Our eyes meet. She slips it back on before onlookers can notice. Her son spots something in the water and yells something in Arabic.
“He is wrong. Ain Dagim,” says Hadassah.
“There are no fish. No fish in the Dead Sea. Not even seaweed can survive.”
In the boy’s hand is a writhing fish. The sun disappears as the animal gasps for air.
Daniel Matthew lives in New Jersey. His first novel, Pervertathon, was released earlier this year.