Once, a long time ago, I was sitting in a barber’s chair when the hairdresser unexpectedly laid down her comb and scissors and stood gazing at me. Her hands opened and closed. At length she spoke: “There’s something important I need to ask you.”
“ I belong to a Bible study group. We’ve been reading Romans…”
“And I’m ashamed.”
I was taken aback. Through our respective professions the hairdresser and I were well acquainted. I’d treated her and her children, she had cut my hair. In those days I had hair to spare. She was perhaps seven years older than I. She had been born in Germany around the start of the Second World War; she’d have been six when the war ended, the age now of her younger daughter. From the outset we’d had a comfortable relation of trust and openness, but at this moment my patient was not comfortable at all.
“What about? I mean why are you ashamed?”
“ What we’ve done to you. What we’ve always done, we Christians. Reading Romans, I was shocked. I suddenly thought what it meant, how it all started, how it never stopped…”
“What started? What never stopped?”
“Jew hatred! It starts with the birth of the Church, we learn it with mother’s milk, we take it in and we pass it on. And then my people… with Hitler, we were the worst of the worst! I’m ashamed. I’m sorry. I need you to know I’m sorry, how sorry I am.”
I had no words.
At length I spoke: “You said you wanted to ask me something.”
“Yes. I want you to forgive us.”
In my work I had touched her, in her work she had touched me. A pair of licensed touchers, touching now too closely. I felt out of my depth.
My supplicant stood before me, unclothed, holding her burden of history like so much unwanted clothing.
Words came to my lips. I spoke them, grateful to extinguish the crowded silence. Were my words wise? Were they kind? What would the six million have me say?
My words must have been enough for the moment. My hairdresser completed my haircut and we parted, knowing each other differently, sufficiently. The pain, the shame, the decency of the woman, her courage stayed with me a long time. Eventually our close encounter sank beneath the surface of life’s events and I seldom thought of it. Forty years passed.
Last week I read an article written by a survivor of the Shoah. After the War he’d become a doctor. In the course of his work he was told a dying patient, not in his care, was asking for him most particularly, insisting on talking with him. Puzzled, the doctor made his way to the bed of the dying man. The patient told him he’d been a member of the SS. He said he’d been a guard in one of the camps, he’d killed Jews, many of them. Now he was dying. He needed to confess, to a Jew. And more than that, he wanted the Jew to forgive him.
The doctor did not know how to respond. He searched himself, he thought of those he’d known in the camp, of those he’d lost. What would they want of him?
The doctor did not know. Not knowing, he said nothing. The patient died, unshroven. Years later the doctor wrote a letter which he sent to dozens of people, people of moral stature. From memory, he sent his letter to the Dalai Lama, to Martin Luther King Junior, to Abraham Heschel, to others whom he esteemed. In his letter he recounted his encounter with the dying SS officer and he told of his non-answer. He asked his recipients what he should have done. Opinion was divided. Over years the doctor wrote to more and more people, an Ancient Mariner, burdened by his own feeling of self-dissatisfaction, a species, perhaps, of guilt. He published the replies he received.
Last week this story came to me and stayed with me. I recalled the good woman who cut my hair. I recalled my response. I had said: “It is not for you to apologise to me; it is not for me to forgive; it is for both of us to remember.” Today I feel more dissatisfied with my response than I did forty years ago. I should have added: “It is for all of us to teach.” How was I to know how the deep ocean of Jew hatred would gather again its force, how it would rise again to the mighty wave we see today?
I tried to drown my enemy last night. I thought he and I might become friends. He seduced me, and I fell. I told myself he was the apple of my eye. I knew what I was doing, I saw behind that gleaming façade the black tunnel and the signs that warned me, give up hope all ye who enter here.
I dressed him in candy pink, the better to declare to him and to all who beheld us together, this is unnatural, this is absurd, we do not belong together…I made him look ridiculous the better to ridicule myself.
Early in our – what was it? – a friendship? – an affair? – he showed himself in all his treachery. Yet I could not put him to one side.
I had, I knew, sold my soul. I had no recourse to a Divinity, no-One to pray to.
I spoke to my friend, saying:
Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me?
Lying in the bath last night, pleasuring my marathon-weary muscles, my friend called me. I reached for him with hands all slippery. My friend was in my fallible grasp, at my mercy. I dropped him into the waters, to his fate.
Some time later (I cannot say how much time had passed) in an act of mistaken morality, I hoisted him from the depths. I shook him a little, dried him perfunctorily, turned my back on him and plunged my face beneath the waters to remove the soap. I had done with my bath and I had done with my friend.
I emerged and I dried myself. Just then my i-phone rang and I knew I had failed to drown my enemy.
I am free. They said, you are free to go. For the moment. I’m not in Gitmo. I haven’t been rendered. Not yet. I’m taking the opportunity to set it all down.
There’s not that much to tell. Step this way please sir.
The officer in Security at SFO spoke politely. All her colleagues – in a short space I met quite a few – spoke politely. I followed the officer to an open space at one side of the XRAY scanner. Your XRAY was not satisfactory, sir. My colleague will pat you down.
Her colleague is male. He pats me down, very thoroughly from the rear. From the front he pats me down vigorously, albeit selectively. A man asks me to touch some paper. After I do so the paper is tested in a machine. Your fingers show the presence of residues, sir. For a short space we stand in silence. The silence of the officers is an interrogation. I offer my own silence in return. How will this play out? It is only six am. I arose this morning at four. What have my fingers touched over these hours? I mean, what chemicals?
The officers asked me to come this way. Politely. This way is a small room. A third officer joined us and closed the door. The smallness of the room brought all occupants closer. Opposite me, smiling broadly, the patting officer, broad and tall. A powerful man. The presiding officer slim, female, perhaps forty years of age, standing at my right, the line of fine dark hairs running along her upper lip interrupted by the fine surgical scar of her neatly repaired hare lip. The last-entered officer took up his position behind me, between me and the door.
Are these your items, sir? I looked at the items resting mysteriously on the bench behind the widely smiling Patting Officer. The items are mine. I said so. Please open them sir. I did so as they watched and waited – for what? Explosives? Firearms? Tweezers?
The lady pulled open a box of sky blue plastic gloves, inserted her delicate hands and groped inside my baggage. I pointed out the small velvet bag containing my ritual gear – phylacteries, prayer shawl: Those are holy. Please handle them with respect. The officers, being American, respected ‘holy’.
The groping of my backpack completed, they turned to my roll on. The gloves were pulled off and tested for residues, a fresh pair pulled on. Grope, grope: What are all these books?
They are gifts for family, books. I wrote them.
Eyebrows shot up, faces turned from my items to me; for the first time the officers – all three – reacted to the unexpected. They looked impressed. Or something. For my part I misgave: perhaps ‘writer’ equals ‘leftist’, equals ‘intellectual’, equals ‘terrorist’? Should I have said, I am a doctor? That might remind them of terrorist doctors from George Habash to the English train bombers to hapless cousin Mohammad Hanif, who wasn’t, but who owned a guilty Sim Card.
What guilty information lies concealed in my laptop?
What traitorous phone calls hide in my phone? They wilI find I have advocated for refugees, cheats, Muslims, border violators.
I reverted to silence as the chief Groper resumed groping and the others seem to disengage. The silence was very silent. Only a few feet distant from this room hundreds of bootless feet passed through Security. The hall that buzzed and rang around me a few minutes ago was not heard in here. It occurred to me that just as I did not hear the world, the world was unable hear me.
Groper looked up. Her hand rested upon something I did not see, something I own. Do all these items belong to you?
To the best of my knowledge, yes, they do.
To the best of your knowledge. A harder edge to the voice. An unpleasant pause.
Sir, do you know or do you not know? Did you pack this bag? Has this bag been out of your direct sight at all?
I mumbled reassurance that made things no better, no clearer.
Blue gloves that had done groping touched strips of test paper. All quiet as the machine pondered my possible residues.
Groper-chief officer straightened, exchanged a look with the tall broad man. A small movement from behind, a sensation of space encroached.
You can go, sir. The ritual fringes you wear set off our scanner. We see that in people of your faith. And you
must have touched something this morning, perhaps a bench in the Security Lobby. You are free to go. Have a safe trip, sir.
Fifth grade is a long way behind us. The party is full of old faces. The boy I bullied back then walks towards me, his gait uneven, his face smiling. “Good to see you, Howard.”
Good to see me? Really?
“Hello Isaiah, great to see you. Hurt your leg?”
“Car accident, shortly after I got my Driver’s Licence. I was driving on the Hume. I hit a tree, hurt my head. I didn’t know I’d fractured my leg, not until three weeks later, when I came out of the coma.”
Three weeks in a coma! A shock.
“Will your leg heal?”
“They told me at the hospital I’d know after a year how good the leg would be. It’s been eighteen months…”
Isaiah leads me to a table where he takes the weight off his damaged leg.
“A single car accident. You’d know from medical school that a single car accident is usually a sub-suicide.”
“I didn’t know that.”
“Well it’s true. And I have no doubt that’s what mine was.”
I want to ask: what drove you to it? But the accidental pun will add hurt; and I am pretty sure I know the answer.
In grade five in our rural school, Isaiah is a philosopher and I am a social climber. Already taller than most of us by half a head, his hair a thicket of lustrous black, his manner professorial and his elocution like that of a news reader on the ABC, Isaiah is different. He wears glasses with wide black rims. He is an intellectual who is no good at sport; he’s neither rich nor fashionable nor popular. His voice is deeper than ours by a couple of octaves, a voice racing into puberty, but he is hopeless with girls.
It is fun to tease Isaiah for his mannerisms. We all do it from time to time and it raises a laugh. My social rise is based on performance, on raising a laugh. So I persecute Isaiah systematically. I organize a squadron of followers, to stalk Isaiah at recesses and at lunchtimes, and to chant my witticisms at his expense in a loud and public manner.
After one such lunchtime of bloodsport, Isaiah rises in his seat and addresses our teacher: Miss Redfern, allow me to introduce to you the Anti-Isaiah Army, organized and led by Howard Goldenberg.
Isaiah describes the marching and the stalking and the chanting, how the army surprises him in every nook and corner where he tries to hide. He lists the names of my volunteers and conscripts, he details the misery and humiliation, the desperation of his plight. Hearing this testimony the army deserts. Its generalissimo shrinks in shame, looks down, away from that tall figure, that crop of hair, that deep, true voice.
Isaiah’s speech marks the end of his persecution. He befriends me, confides in me. In his forgiving he heaps coals of fire upon my head. Neither he nor I speak again of the Army. School year follows year, Isaiah matriculates in unsung distinction and disappears. Three years on, he limps into my life at the party. He is glad to see me again. Really. He speaks and acts towards me as if his forgiving has been superseded by forgetting. As if his brain were injured.
The next time we meet we are in our sixties. Once again Isaiah is glad to see me, and I – glad in his gladness – feel relieved and warmed. And a strong need to be absolved. I tell him how sorry I am for my behaviour towards him in Fifth Grade. He searches my face for a joke. Or irony. Or mistaken identity.
Isaiah looks genuinely lost.
I explain, describing events that remain all too clear in my memory. Isaiah shakes his head, still crowned with its thicket: Howard I honestly don’t remember any of this. I do recall your friendship. I was grateful for it. Somewhere at some time over our lost decades someone has mentioned to me how Isaiah was one who suffered violence, real physical abuse, through his childhood years. Enough abuse, it seems, to obliterate the pain of small injuries perpetrated by Howard Goldenberg and his militia.
Copyright, Howard Goldenberg, 4 April, 2013