I've Got You Under My Skin
This is my October Blogging for Books entry. This month's theme: Insanity. The instructions were: "For this Blogging for Books, write about a time you were pushed to the brink of insanity (figuratively or literally), and how you lived to tell the tale."
I. Among the Singing Danes
October 1989. Ein Gedi, Israel. Palestinians and Israelis were fighting each other. Lefties and Jews were yelling at me. I couldn’t stand my mom, who was the only person I knew within a thousand miles. I’d been out of college for a year and had no idea what to do next. I was in miserable, not-quite-requited love with a woman in England. I’d spent the summer working at a cannery in Alaska, garnering enough money for this trip as well as a nasty case of carpal tunnel syndrome. I could barely hold a pencil, much less write to anyone. My skin was tightening and flaking and looked like crud. I was in pain or discomfort at every moment. It was hot. I was running out of things to read.
I was at a Danish-run psoriasis clinic in the middle of the desert.
Every morning I woke up in the youth hostel dormitory and pulled on the same loose shirt and skirt; it was painful to wear tighter clothes. I loaded up my backpack: sheet; towel; water bottle; book; giganto tub of skin cream.
At breakfast, a pack of irascible old Israeli ladies invariably took advantage of the free buffet by making themselves sandwiches for lunch, which they wrapped in paper napkins and stuffed into their purses. They urged me to do it too. When I expressed qualms, they yelled at me. “Go on! Everyone does it! Here!” and to my mortification, they would force a hard-boiled egg into my hand, ignoring the glares of the young Arab guy who worked at the hostel.
After breakfast, I walked the half-mile along the road to the beach, past the resort area where families and old people took their vacations, to the women’s section of the fenced-in psoriasis clinic. I took off my clothes, slathered myself with cream, and lay down naked on my sheet.
It was the least sexy nude beach in history. The cream-slathering was a chore, like putting Destin on a baby, if the baby’s 5 feet tall and the Desitin goes all over. Thanks to the carpal tunnel syndrome, I had to slather with my bad hand. It was uncomfortably hot. There were flies. The regime was very specific: I was supposed to stay in the sun, re-slather every couple of hours, and soak in the sea four times a day. My skin was cracked and dry and inflamed. The Dead Sea is the saltiest body of water in the world. It hurt.
A few dozen cheerful Danes were there too. Why shouldn’t they be cheerful? They were in sunny Israel, unaccompanied by any neurotic mothers; their skin was getting better; they had generous national health insurance; most of them knew each other from past clinic stints. They were friendly and tried to remember to speak English around me, but we never got much past pleasant surface chats.
I felt isolated beyond any language difference, withdrawing inward from my skin and my surroundings. Everything seemed distant: old ladies scrabbling over breakfast; Danes breaking into spontaneous song as they bobbed in the salty water; the families on the beach, the backpackers at the hostel, the soldiers hitchhiking on the road: all of it was like a film running on the other side of a frosted window. Meanwhile, my real life—my friends from college, who I missed desperately; the cannery where I’d worked 100-hour weeks all summer; and especially, especially, the woman I’d left in England— played in an endless Technicolor loop inside my head.
II: Mom, the Middle East, and Me
My mother had many excellent reasons for immigrating to Israel: she was getting in touch with her Jewish heritage after growing up assimilated; the climate was good for her own severe psoriasis; she needed a change from suburban New Jersey. By her own account, she also had the notion (since thankfully abandoned) that I would follow her to the Promised Land and would somehow thereby stop being a lesbian; fortunately, I didn’t know about that theory at the time.
I was, frankly, happy to see her go. We’d had a turbulent time during my adolescence, and 6,000 miles was barely far enough away as far as I was concerned. If a confluence of health and religious reasons had mandated that she move to, oh, Mars, that would’ve been even better. Still, she was my mom, and after a year or so, I thought I should visit her in Tel Aviv.
The Palestinian uprising now known as the First Intifada was in full force, and Israel was highly unpopular among liberals and progressives. Like most of my non-Jewish friends, I was an anti-war/lefty type. It felt like everyone—my progressive pals and my more traditional Jewish friends and relatives—wanted to pick a fight about Israel, and somehow they all thought that a Jewish lesbian feminist peacenik with an Israeli mother was the perfect person to hold accountable for the entire Middle East situation. I found myself arguing with everyone, whatever their viewpoint, and hated it.
Which didn’t help my relationship with my mother, either.
From the start, the visit was a less than roaring success. I didn’t speak Hebrew. Carpal tunnel syndrome crippled my good hand. A London stopover had left me heartsick; my British flame was involved with someone else, but I couldn’t get over her, and seeing her again just made it worse. What I needed was long midnight talks with friends. What I got was my mom, brimming with equal parts Zionist zeal and empty-nest neediness. For one long week, we shared her one-room apartment in a new immigrants’ housing complex. Even her breathing felt oppressive.
She did try. She took me around to visit the beach in Tel Aviv and the Old City in Jerusalem, and pretended not to notice that I was avoiding her when I slept late into the morning. And when my own psoriasis flared up, she drove me to the Dead Sea, and the Danish clinic.
The clinic was a model of Scandinavian pragmatism: The Danish government figured it was cheaper to ship their worst psoriasis patients to the Dead Sea, with its strong sunlight and mineral-rich air and water, for a few weeks a year, than to treat them as hospital in-patients in cold, gray Denmark. Non-Danes with severe psoriasis were welcome too, if they provided their own linens and found their own lodgings (the Danish patients stayed at guest houses at a nearby kibbutz).
By “severe psoriasis,” I don’t mean a little irritated patch of skin or dandruff. Severe, chronic psoriasis can cover over 50% of the skin area, and can be debilitating. The skin forms flaky plaques, gets inflamed, tightens up like drying plaster-of-Paris, and stays that way unless it’s treated aggressively with ultraviolet light, topical steroids, or stronger medication. Many people get panicky or depressed during a flare-up. In the worst cases, patients have to be hospitalized. It looks gross, too. Think “The Singing Detective.”
That’s the kind of psoriasis my mom has, and that most of the Danish clinic patients had. And mine was heading that way when my mom dropped me off at the youth hostel near the Ein Gedi clinic.
III. The Drive
I can see now that my mom wasn’t having the easiest time either. She’d moved to a completely different culture, thousands of miles from family and friends. She didn’t know the language or even the alphabet. She was divorced in a place where family was everything. She didn’t have a job or a permanent place to live. Her new country was in a state of war. Her own health was not great. And her daughter, visiting at last, was acting hostile and distant.
So, being a basically decent person and loving parent, she sends her daughter away for her health (and to avoid strangling her), and goes to visit her after a week to see how she’s doing. She even takes her out for dinner, at a hotel nearby.
I don’t know who brought up the Palestinian issue on the ride back to the hostel. Maybe it was me; I was only 23 and too dumb to keep my mouth shut. Maybe it was my mom, spoiling for a fight. All I remember is my mother explaining to me, in the most patronizing of tones, that of course Palestinians had a primitive society.
I took the bait. “Primitive!”
“Yes, primitive,” my mom said evenly, like someone teaching a slow child.
No one can get under my skin like my mom. “You’re a racist! That’s an incredibly racist thing to say!”
My mother slammed on the brake. “Get out of this car!” she said.
“Fine!” I got out and slammed the door. She drove away. I stormed down the road, not looking back.
This was no film viewed through a window; everything was suddenly in clear, sharp focus. My mom, my mother, my mommy, had abandoned me in the desert. As the sound of the car’s motor faded into the distance, my fury ebbed, leaving me scared and completely unmoored.
All I could see was endless sand, a few scrubby little plants, and the empty road. The sun was still up, but not for long. How far were we from the hotel? From the youth hostel? I wasn’t sure. Maybe I could hitchhike back, I thought. But there were no cars in sight.
Part of me was sure that my mother would come back, that she wouldn’t just leave me there. Weren’t there wild animals in the desert at night? I told myself not to be melodramatic. But she had been furious; and she was far from stable at the best of times. There was no way to know. I kept walking.
I saw the bundle not more than a dozen yards away. I couldn’t imagine who had left it by the roadside, or why. I picked it up. There was a dirty shirt, which I let drop, and a book, in English.
The title sounded vaguely familiar; I thought I’d seen a review of it, back home. It was a sympathetic study of the lives of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, written by an Israeli Jew. I didn’t believe in God, but it felt like someone must have known I needed this. It wasn’t that I was desperate to learn more about the Palestinian situation; all I wanted was to know that someone felt the same way I did, that I wasn’t completely alone.
I was standing there, reading, when my mother pulled up a few minutes later. I got in the car. We didn’t talk much. She drove me back to the hostel. I held onto the book like a talisman.
My skin got better for a few weeks, then deteriorated during my trip through Europe. I recuperated at my dad’s house in New York for six months before moving to Seattle. Within a week of my move, I joined a Jewish peace organization.
Eventually I stopped pining over the woman in England. My first friend in Seattle was a smart, funny librarian of Danish ancestry. After six years of friendship, we hooked up romantically. We are still together.
My mom still lives in Israel. We can still drive each other crazy, literally and figuratively, but we’ve made some peace over the years. She joined the Tel Aviv branch of P-FLAG and led the joyous hora dancing at my wedding to my partner six years ago. And we did agree, finally, not to fight about Israel any more.
And the book? It’s called The Yellow Road, by David Grossman. I read it; it was pretty good. Then I must have passed it on to someone. I don’t have it any more, and I have no way of knowing how it came to be lying on that desert roadside. But I’ll always be grateful to the student or soldier or hitchhiker who left it there.