At night the Yeshiva boys would come out to the Jerusalem Central Bus Station, scouting the other men, sizing them up. The Yeshiva boys were thirsty. I took my nightly runs past them; in Israel, I wasn’t able to sleep. When I did sleep, I had horrible dreams and I woke up exhausted. I dreamed of people I loved being murdered or worse. Everything felt tenuous, on the verge of rupture. When I ran past the Yeshiva boys, I watched the way they angled their shtreimel hats over their laps, touching themselves discreetly underneath, chewing their bloated, wet lips. I wanted them to proposition me as I breezed past them, but they never did. I wasn’t what they wanted, and when I was being most honest with myself, I knew I didn’t want them either; but they were desperate and they still didn’t want me, and for that reason, I wanted them to want me more. As I ran toward the Old City I imagined the nightly conversations these men had with their plain young wives: telling the women that they were returning to shul to re-read a passage that had eluded them all day. I pitied their wives, alone, putting their sweaty children to bed. The wives sitting sejant at their Formica kitchen tables and waiting for their husbands, willing them home, the husbands who licked their lips as I ran past them, though not at me. I understood their wives: their estrangement, their exclusion from their husbands’ intimacies. I had moved to Jerusalem for a guy I met on the Internet; he realized he wasn’t gay soon after I had settled into an apartment.
He said, “This comes as a shock for me, too. I mean, maybe one day you’ll also meet the right woman.”
I was in Jerusalem when the Columbia exploded. We all watched live on television as it disintegrated in the sky. Minutes after the crash it seemed inevitable to me. Afterward, shell-shocked people crowded the streets, quiet as they moved from bar to bar. The mourners in Jerusalem seemed intent on drinking themselves to death, idling in bars for hours. They drank in clusters, saddled with their loss.
In the bars, we watched as President Bush announced the obvious—that the entire crew of the Columbia was dead, Ilan Ramon included. That is who the Israelis were mourning that day. Ilan Ramon, their first astronaut. Watching the spaceship fragment into nothing, I felt a strange relief. It was the first time since coming to Jerusalem when everyone else felt as bad as me and I felt connected—if not to the people, to their sadness. I almost cried, I was so happy.
By midnight, I had been drinking since dinnertime. Everyone, it seemed, had been. I chose this particular bar because I hadn’t been inside before and it was fairly empty. It wasn’t a gay bar, but there was a small rainbow sticker affixed to the door. The bartender was wearing a mesh shirt and thick hoop earrings. The bar was decorated with rigid modern furniture. It was mostly dark, though the shelves of liquor were backlit with ghoulish light.
A man in a Lycra shirt the color of cigarette ash lifted his glass in my direction. I did the same with my empty glass. He slinked over and offered to buy my drinks. He introduced himself as Ilan Ramon and he was missing an eyetooth. He was the first person to talk to me all day. He could have said he was Ted Bundy and I would have been grateful for his companionship.
Ilan Ramon said, “Do you want to kiss.”
I imagined my tongue poking the hollow space where his eyetooth should have been. The last person I kissed was the straight man I moved to Jerusalem for, and I missed the cavernous wet intimacy of a stranger’s mouth on mine.
“Okay, yeah, I can kiss.”
He said, “Do you want to touch my cock.”
I put my hands on his belt buckle and absently teased him with my index finger. He said, “I’m an astronaut, baby. I’m famous. Everyone here knows me.”
I said, “Your English is impeccable.”
On the bar was a glass bowl filled with macadamia nuts. I reached for a handful but Ilan Ramon lifted my hand into his mouth. He licked each finger in a way that I assume he considered seductive. He said, “Never eat bar nuts, man. Did your father teach you nothing? Ilan Ramon will teach you.”
I said, “The Columbia didn’t make it. Haven’t you been watching? Ilan Ramon didn’t make it.”
I wondered if this man saw the spaceship streak and fracture in the sky. The televisions in the bar were muted but played the news; they were replaying the explosion spliced with interviews of the deceased astronauts’ families. Two teenagers in the bar had fed the jukebox thirty shekel to play Mungo Jerry’s “In The Summertime” for hours. The loop felt like a carnival carousel spinning precariously out of control.
The man who called himself Ilan Ramon said, “Really, touch my cock. It’s out of this world. Best in the Middle East.”
“Middle Easy is what we call it in the States.” Since arriving in Israel ten months ago, I started saying “in the States” with the affected aloofness of an expat.
Ilan Ramon said, “We must go to my apartment now.”
In the time that I lived in Jerusalem, I made no effort to learn Hebrew. Still, it was rare that I had a problem communicating my needs. People spoke English well enough. I do, however, know that there is no word in Hebrew for tact.
People were huddled around tables in groups, touching each other gently on the shoulders. Ilan Ramon and I were the only people in the bar who had showed up alone. I had never thought much about the social dimension of mourning. Even though we were all sad, their mourning wasn’t my own. All Ilan Ramon and I had in common was that we were nobodies there. It made me feel sick.
A group of teenage boys started yelling in Hebrew. I asked Ilan Ramon what they were saying.
Ilan Ramon said, “They’re yelling at the schwartza.”
I hadn’t noticed the black man. He was sitting erect at the bar, drinking a beer. He had on a tiny crocheted kippah. The pattern was of blue and gold concentric circles. Ilan Ramon said, “They’re saying that he’s not a real Jew. They want him to take off his kippah.”
“Because he’s black?”
The boys were leering at the black man, making obscene gestures. One of the boys pushed a beer bottle from the table to the floor. He sauntered toward the black man and grabbed the blue and gold kippah. It was riveted to the black man’s hair with a bobby pin. The teen planted the palm of one hand on the black man’s forehead and tugged the kippah off with his other hand. The man put his hands to his face, and began to whine, deep and guttural and wounded.
I said, “I think he’s retarded.”
Ilan Ramon said, “He’s a teenager, of course he’s retarded.”
“No, not him. The black guy. The retarded one.”
The black man tried to twist away from the teen, but somehow ended up arched backwards over the bar, his arms hanging at his sides. The teenager spat on him and began to pull at his shirt. The black man said in slow English, “You’re stretching it.”
The bartender poured a shot of whiskey and set it next to the black man. The teenager held the black man’s nose and waited until the man opened his mouth, gulping for air. He spilled the glass of whiskey down the man’s throat. The bartender laughed and slapped the bar with his towel. I said, “Should we call the police?”
Ilan Ramon said, “Why? It’s only mischief.”
The teenager slapped the black man across the face and ordered himself a whiskey. His friends, sitting adjacent to us, lifted their glasses. The black man kissed his kippah and refastened it to his hair with a bobby pin. He rooted in his pocket for money, set too many Shekel on the bar, and lumbered out.
Ilan Ramon said, “Violence makes me want to fuck. You must come home with me.”
My hand was still on Ilan Ramon’s cock. I said, “And the black guy?” Ilan Ramon said, “At the end of the world, turn left.”
I followed him to his apartment, a truncated stone building. He said, “My building is nice.”
I prodded my tongue with a toothpick. “It’s all right.”
He turned his key in the lock. “It is very nice.”
The apartment was humid. It felt like a fever breaking. The windows were wet with condensation. We stepped over stacks of textbooks and Trapper Keepers and graded papers, red marks circling misspelled words or incomplete paragraphs. I said, “Are you a teacher?”
Ilan Ramon said, “I am an astronaut.”
I said, “Take me to the moon.”
Ilan Ramon plucked the toothpick from my hand. He snapped it in half and dropped it on the carpeted floor. He was standing with his arms crossed over his chest, his feet planted so wide I thought maybe his knees would give out. He said, “You don’t know an astronaut from your taint. Want a drink? I like screwdrivers.”
Ilan Ramon busied himself in the kitchen. The living room appeared to be decorated with children’s drawings. Big crayon faces with rake-like hands and gummy, toothless smiles; skeletal orange trees that dwarfed boxy, windowless houses; lime green dogs with no tails or ears. The dogs were bleeding from their anuses. It was unsettling.
I said, “You’re not much of an artist, are you?”
Ilan Ramon took a sip of my screwdriver before holding it out for me. He said, “So you don’t think I poisoned it.”
It never would have occurred to me that he would poison my drink until he said it. It reminded me of when I was a kid and my brother would cook dinner. He’d bring a bowl of macaroni into my bedroom and say, “I didn’t spit in it or anything.” I’d sift through the macaroni with my spoon, anxiously looking for a bubble of spit, or worse.
Ilan Ramon motioned me toward the floral couch in the center of the room. The seat cushions were damp. Ilan Ramon’s fingernails were long and arched. He said, “Much better, right, us together? Take off your socks.”
I slipped off my sneakers without untying them, then my socks. The living room carpet was also damp. I shouldn’t have come over, but there I was. All I could think about was how I was alone with this man—his wet carpet, the preschool sketches on his wall, the relief of his gut pushed against his tight Lycra shirt. As if he knew what I was thinking, Ilan Ramon said, “Don’t make me beg, honey. I’m a national hero. Every Israeli knows my name.”
Ilan Ramon draped my hand over his crotch. With his left hand, he grabbed me tight around the neck. He dug his nails into the base of my skull and I was afraid and it turned me on.
I said, “If I don’t come home, people will come looking. I’m an American.” He seized my lips between his index finger and thumb and squeezed with his fingernails. He said, “You are a funny boy. I like when you are a sweet boy for me.”
In a different room, I heard the dull hum of an air conditioning unit. I asked if he lived alone. He said, “I wouldn’t say that, no.” My hand was mounted on his crotch, like it had been at the bar. I asked him to tell me all of the dirty things he was going to do to me. He was silent.
Ilan Ramon said, “Is it okay if we don’t go all the way?”
“I just thought that’s what you wanted.” I pulled my hand away. His false bravado left me speechless. I wondered if it was something about me that he found repulsive. He wasn’t an attractive man, and even he wouldn’t fuck me. I thought, who do I have to fuck to get fucked around here? If I wasn’t so devastated, I would have laughed.
“Put your hand on me again, it feels nice.”
“You don’t even want me to like, touch it under your jeans?”
“Just keep it there. And maybe don’t talk.”
“And that does it for you?”
“If you stop talking.”
This wasn’t how I imagined tonight would be. He put his hands behind his head and moaned.
I wanted Ilan Ramon to lean a full-length mirror against his wall so he could watch as he did things to me. I wanted him to spit on me, to pinch my nose between his fingers like the teenager had done to the black man at the bar. I wanted him to finish on the mirror, on our reflections. Then, he would stare at our reflection in the mirror and say, “Get out of here. You’ve never belonged.”
Ilan Ramon trembled and I was bored and then he was still. He tucked his hair behind his ear and looked pleased with himself. I smelled ripe from sitting at the bar all evening and from sweating on Ilan Ramon’s damp floral couch. I asked if I could use his shower. He gestured toward the bathroom. He said that his towel was hanging on a hook. I asked if he had a clean towel, but he said he only had that one. He said, “I’m really ashamed, but I didn’t even ask your name.”
I said, “Houdini.”
Ilan Ramon clapped his hands. “I love magic.”
“Everyone loves magic. I don’t know any tricks.”
Ilan Ramon said, “He was Jewish, Houdini. A very proud Jew.”
“I’m not really Jewish.”
Ilan Ramon picked at a dry patch of skin on his forearm. He said, “Not even your father?”
“My father is. Not my mom. And we never did holidays.”
Ilan Ramon nodded. He said, “We can only try our best.”
I excused myself. Ilan Ramon called, “Don’t be a naughty boy in my shower.”
The bathroom walls were painted a pallid gray. There was no space between the sink and the toilet. The shower had glass sliding doors and a limp showerhead. I balled my clothes in the sink basin. Ilan Ramon’s shower was like many other Israeli showers, level with the bathroom floor. There was nothing to keep the water from flooding the room. Almost immediately, the floor was submerged in inch-deep water. I pressed my face against the wall. The wall felt soft and malleable, like I could penetrate it with my thumb; dig straight through the plaster and drywall and into the street.
When I reached for Ilan Ramon’s towel, it fell from the hook, into the water. I resigned myself to being as damp as his carpet. I opened the medicine cabinet. There was a nearly empty bottle of Tylenol PM. I swallowed the remaining six pills and scooped handfuls of sink water into my mouth. Even after ten months, I was not used to the hardness of Israel’s water. I struggled into my clothes, pulling the jeans over my wet legs. The cuffs of my jeans soaked through as I stepped into them.
Ilan Ramon was not on the couch when I returned. He had finished both screwdrivers and left the cups on the tiny stove in the kitchenette. I opened his refrigerator. In the crisper there was a small bag of walnuts and dates. I picked through the mix and ate all of the walnuts.
Ilan Ramon’s bedroom door was cracked open. He had turned on the television and fallen asleep in his bed. He hadn’t even brushed his teeth. Everything in his house seemed waterlogged and ruined, drooping and flaccid. But I couldn’t leave: I didn’t want to be more alone than I already felt.
I crawled under the sheets and draped his arm over my stomach. He wasn’t wearing a shirt and I was wearing my damp clothes. Ilan Ramon breathed something in Hebrew into my ear, something I could not understand. On the television, reporters interviewed people who knew the real Ilan Ramon. They said, “Yesterday he was a man. Today he is a hero.”
They said the Kaddish for him. His wife didn’t look into the cameras even once. She only looked up at the sky with squinted eyes, like if she looked hard enough, she’d see him pitching toward earth. I knew that everyone would pity Ilan Ramon’s wife for her loss, but I envied her. Even without her husband, she would never know the loneliness I felt. She would return from Cape Canaveral and be recognized and seen. People would want to hear her story—her struggles and triumphs, and what it was like to be the woman behind the astronaut. She would give talks across the country. By a turn of luck, people would want to hear her speak, to watch from hard auditorium seats as she stood behind a podium. She would perform the same prepared speech, her voice breaking and swelling in the same places each night. She would receive standing ovations for her courage. People are shameless in their desire for even these impersonal intimacies.
Between interviews, the thirty-second explosion was shown over and over, from take off to tragedy. I resolved to watch it one last time before reaching over and turning off the television. The shuttle flew across the sky, a golden streak. A white wake of condensation snaked across the screen. I snapped my fingers. I said, “Abracadabra.”
The shuttle crumbled into nothingness.