I’d been in the Old City of Jerusalem for nearly a week by now and had been totally destabilized by the experience: unpredictable but persistent crying jags, mortifying me in the souk or on the street; protracted insomnia; the zig-zaggery of religious euphoria—Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Plus, I had seen something I couldn’t yet talk about. Possibly a miracle.
This morning, however, I was determined to be rational, to stop thinking about where I was and who had been here before me (Mary! Joseph! Jesus!) and what scary and mystifying thing might happen to me next. I was looking for the Melkite Church, which a couple of women in the convent had assured me was worth visiting. It was out of the way, not one of the Big Sights, but still–a nice church, they said. Possibly even restful, they added. They were worried about me; they suspected I’d had An Experience, though my lips seemed to be sealed, even as the tears kept leaking from my eyes.
A jewelry store owner, sunning himself in his doorway, noticed my lost look and asked if he could help. “Malachite?” he said, when I told him what I was trying to find. “I sell much malachite!” Laughing cheerily, he urged me inside to consult his map.
Faisal was a rotund fellow, not much taller than me, with perfectly round green eyes and a brushy mustache. In short order I’d been made to understand that he was an atypical Palestinian in many other ways. He’d studied, for one thing, in Germany—German literature, Thomas Mann in particular—and he liked everything about Germany but the Germans. “How could I like the Germans? They don’t even like themselves!”
As he chattered, he was skillfully edging me into the depths of his shop where the inevitable next step would be an invitation for coffee—I’d been through this numerous times already as I traversed the souk, and I’d gotten pretty good at extricating myself without giving offense. However, Faisal would not take no for an answer. “You are a person who thinks twenty-four hours a day, am I right? Never a break?” I had to concede that this much was true. “No wonder you look so tired, poor thing. You are too young to look so tired.”
“I’m not young—I’m forty-six tomorrow,” I blurted out.
“Ah!” he cried, flinging his arms around me. I wriggled away. “No, no,” he insisted, “please don’t be shy. I am only glad for you, for me, that we have met on this important day. I am going to give you a malachite bead for your birthday and a nice cup of Turkish coffee. Nothing to fear. You Americans are always so afraid of yourselves.”
This got to me, and I pondered just long enough to embolden him. “You sit there,” he ordered. I sat. He bustled off to deal with a customer. Then he rematerialized, this time kneeling in front of my chair and taking hold of both of my hands. “You are so transparent,” he said simply. “Do you know this? You have done great wrong in the past, haven’t you? Hurt people?”
How did he know my life story like this? I thought of the woman at the well, Jesus telling her exactly what she’d done. A sheepish look began to form up on my face.
“Many men, am I right? And drugs?”
“No!” I relaxed a little. A good guesser he might be, a clairvoyant he was not.
“But you spent time in some man’s bed who was not your husband—tell me if I am wrong.” Meanwhile, he’d let go of my fingers and was now resting his hands lightly on the tops of my thighs. “Oh, you are so anxious, so wounded. You must let this guilt go. Too much time in prayer, too many churches, too much thinking.”
“Actually, not enough time in churches,” I said, starting to rise. He held me in place by sliding his hands down my legs and massaging both my calves through my skirt. I could not imagine what was coming next. Or why I was sitting there, letting it happen.
“This is how life is,” he announced, rubbing away, “and I am in a position to know. If you do too much bad in life, it makes an explosion into the good, and the same is true in the other direction.”
Then he clambered to his feet and began scratching through a wooden box of malachite beads for a pea-sized one, which he strung through a wire and presented to me with a melting “Happy birthday, dear lady.” It was definitely time to escape; next, he’d be singing, and no doubt in German. I started once again to struggle to my feet, but he pushed me back in the chair. “No, no, no—you must let me serve you your coffee first.”
Something was stealing over me, a strange lethargy that precluded any action on my part. For a moment I wondered if I’d been drugged, but how would he have accomplished that? I hadn’t even drunk the coffee yet. Besides, what sort of action should I take? Short of bolting for the door, there didn’t seem to be much I could do.
Faisal tenderly placed the tiny cup of thick coffee into my hand, leaning over to confide in a stage whisper (the customer had come back) that he was a licensed masseuse and he’d noticed by the way I was holding my head that my neck and shoulder were giving me trouble. Indeed they were and had been ever since I’d left Greece: an old horseback riding accident, needing ministration. “When is the last time you’ve had this area massaged?” he demanded in his dramatic whisper. “Don’t you realize that this is something that needs regular treatment or it will revert?”
Revert—ye gods! Just what my chiropractor had warned me about. Faisal patted my hand. “Do not worry, dearest one,” he murmured. “I will massage your neck right here in my back room.”
Truth to tell, my neck and shoulder were killing me and that most ominous symptom—numbness in my right hand—had been plaguing me for the past five days. I was overdue for a treatment, yet had six more weeks on the road. What would a chiropractor recommend at a time like this? I was pretty sure I knew. “Okay,” I said, swallowing. “But only the neck.”
In a twinkling I was installed in a storage room in the back with a rusted metal freeway sign blocking the entrance. Faisal pushed me down on a small round stool and established himself on a wooden chair behind me, reaching around to tenderly unbutton the top two buttons of my blouse. “Hey,” I protested. He clucked at me as if I were some uncomprehending house pet, explaining that massages didn’t work through clothing. Soon, however, it was clear that two buttons were not enough.
“Please remove your blouse,” he ordered. “I cannot possibly give you a proper massage under these circumstances.”
“No,” I said dully but firmly. “I don’t want to.”
He quit his pressuring, but continued to massage away until the moment I felt his busy little fingers edging toward my breasts. Clap! Down went my arms against my sides while up I jumped. Immediately he engulfed me in his plump arms. “You are so lovely, you resist just like a virgin, I like this so much. Please—I feel nothing for you but the greatest tenderness—the green place in me is meeting the green place in you!” The mustache was now making futile attempts to connect with my lips and he had his hand entangled in my hair.
“Please let me go now,” I panted, struggling. “This is not done in my country.”
“Only after a kiss!”
“But I need it so—just one kiss. No lust whatsoever.” Suddenly, I could hear the male customer ambling in our direction and I had an awful vision of a three-way battle behind the rusted freeway sign. “One kiss only, then I’ll let you go,” Faisal entreated. “I promise you this!”
I weighed the alternatives and chose what seemed the lesser of two evils. “On the forehead only,” I said hurriedly, “and then you let me go or I’ll scream.” Immediately, the mustache crawled like an excited millipede over my forehead, then down one cheek and toward my mouth. “Stop it,” I ordered, turning my head.
“I am not afraid of this,” he kept moaning. “This cannot be wrong, it is so beautiful.”
“No!” I said, seeing to my horror that he had turned lustfully rosy and was having trouble breathing. I glanced fiercely around for a nonexistent weapon, then tugged and jerked him around in a sort of awkward square dance maneuver until I was between him and the freeway sign. Then I pinched him as hard as I could on the soft and tender underbellies of his upper arms. He squealed in surprise and twisted away from me, enough so I could get loose.
In moments I was out on the street again, shivering and feeling those renegade tear ducts of mine beginning to fill. Quick! I told myself. Think of something else! As if at a signal it had been waiting for, my mind went careening off to Jesus and my recent private audience with him inside the Holy Sepulchre. The very vision that had triggered all this nuttiness. A terrified, euphoric wail escaped me. Faisal, looking peevishly rumpled, materialized like ectoplasm in his doorway, while away I sprinted, running as if escape were actually in my power.