Closing Time, Brooklyn NY...  the soldier

It was closing time at the bookstore. I had just finished a long day and was eager to go home for the night. I was closing out the cash register and had knelt down behind the counter to put the day’s receipts away when suddenly I heard the bell ring as the shop door opened. Why hadn’t I locked the door first!? I should have known better, I thought with a groan. This was Brooklyn, New York for heaven’s sakes…and it was well after dark! I should have locked the door!   But it was too late now!

I tensed and waited. I heard a man’s voice call out. “Is anybody in here?” I called back, “We’re closed for the night!”

Completely ignoring my remark, he yelled back, “Where do you keep the men’s wallets? ” What kind of a question was that?  Couldn’t he see that he was in a bookstore? “We don’t sell wallets here! “ “Please! I need a man’s wallet!” “I told you, we don’t have any wallets!” He persisted. “I gotta have a wallet!“ I couldn’t believe this guy!

“I can't help you!  I just told you we don’t have wallets and we’re closed! ” What was the deal with this character?!

I finally scrambled to my feet and confronted the man. I held out my arms gesturing around the length and breadth of the shop. “THIS" I explained with mock patience, "is a bookstore. We sell BOOKS here...NOT men’s wallets.” "But I saw all the leather covered books… “

I cut him off... “These are bibles, sir, not wallets.”

“Well,"  he stammered, " I just thought you might have a man’s wal…. “

I stood to full height and gave him the look that said I was getting ready to reach for the phone and call the cops.

But then he stopped in midsentence and looked at me in a curious way.

“Wait a minute…don’t I know you?” I looked closely at him and said  “No, I don’t think so.” The man standing in front of me looked like any other New Yorker...dark wavy hair, pale skin with a faint olive tone, all nervous energy…most likely Jewish. He persisted. “I really do think I know you!” Not likely I thought.

“What do you do for living?” I asked. “Well, it depends… My last job was teaching English.” There was something in the way that he pronounced the word 'English' that caught my ear. What was that accent? It was exotic, earthy, middle Eastern.

His voice, with its accent, stirred a faint memory...something from a long time ago.

He continued to study me.  I remained at a loss. “We’ve met before… I KNOW it!”

Then we started asking each other random questions…stream of consciousness style… “Where did you live before this?   Have you traveled? Where were you born?” He pressed on in his, by now, characteristic way...“Yes, I’m sure of it!  I know you!” Meanwhile, I was as sure as he was that I didn’t know him. He persisted and we had a little rapid fire exchange of our histories. How long we’d been in New York…that yielded no clues. Our travels to various places…still nothing. We started going back in time, tracing our various routes…all misses. But though it seemed hopeless, he still didn’t let it go. I then thought back to my Cape Breton days when I had run a youth hostel in an old farmhouse nestled between the mountains and the ocean. Backpackers from all around the world, as many as 40 a night ,had stayed in my home .It had been a refuge for many. It had been a refuge for me, too, in the beginning. So many people had passed through my life back then....

Then suddenly, as if the Fates smiled on us, we stumbled onto something.   It was his accent... the faint Israeli accent...

A memory came flooding in....   Oh, but it was impossible! Could it be him after all these years?! I asked an improbable question… “Have you ever been to Cape Breton Island?” In the same moment he made the connection, as well.

His eyes lit up and he grinned broadly…."Are you sure you don’t remember me? I am Avi!! Do you remember me now!?   The soldier…”

I drew in a sharp breath.    Impossible!    This was completely surreal…Could it be? It was… “Yes! I remember you!”  Tears sprang to my eyes. My heart skipped a few beats. The memory emerged full blown.  It had been more than 10 years. “You stayed at my hostel!”

“Yes! Yes! You saved my life…. Did you know that?”

“Oh my gosh! I always wondered what happened to you!

Wha..what are you doing here?”  I stammered. “Where have you been all these years?  What have you been doing with yourself?” I was overjoyed at seeing him!

“After I left your place, I travelled around America for awhile and then I came here to live. You know, I could not bring myself to go back to Israel for a long time. I’ve been living in New York for several years. Actually this is my last night in New York… and my last night in America. I return to Israel in the morning…to begin my life again."

“I can’t believe we found each other!”

We didn’t have much time and there was so much to tell. He had been living as a poorly paid social worker and had been volunteering in his spare time teaching English to inner city kids.

He had been staying with a family all this time and he had wanted to give a small gift to the father before going away...a wallet.

I had thought of him so often through the years and here he was, standing in my store at closing time…10 years and more than a thousand miles from where we first met! How could it be?! Like finding the proverbial needle in no ordinary haystack…

The man that stood before me was so changed.

When we first met, he had been recently discharged from the Israeli army. He was hard-edged, terse, abrasive. I remembered him dressed in camouflage fatigues and his tough, lean look. He was impenetrable, silent, remote. There was a dangerous air about him...

This night he was softer...still intense, yet his eyes were alive and he seemed even joyful. The change that had come over Avi in those years was profound.

I still remembered the solitary figure at the time of our first meeting... He arrived by motorcycle just before sunset on a late summer evening. I could tell he had done some hard traveling.

I offered him a place in the bunkhouse, but he wanted to know if there was a quieter place to pitch a tent. I offered him a spot near the house and another one at the far edge of the farm. He chose the far spot that offered privacy and solitude. He paid for several nights and then walked away without a word...just a simple nod of the head. He seemed so terribly serious. Whatever he was, he was not your ordinary tourist.

*For those of you who may not know what a hostel is…a hostel is an inexpensive bed and breakfast for backpackers. At my hostel, 50¢ got you both. Hostels had a 3 night limit and then you had to move on. I made exceptions from time to time.    I did for this one....

He stayed for a week… and then another...and then another. We never spoke.   He didn’t share breakfast with us in the mornings and he never joined the other travelers around the campfires at night. He kept strictly to enigma. He appeared to be just a little older than the others, but he seemed far more spent. So serious.  Deadly serious, it seemed... Little did I know at the time how true that was...

He was on a very personal mission.  He stayed on without a word. Each day he just sat on the far hill gazing at the ocean for hours. A lonely, solitary figure... I understood him on some level. This place had been a similar kind of refuge for me.

I made sure that no one intruded on him. His time was spent between the ocean, the mountains and the wild sky. Several weeks passed this way.

Then one morning I saw him packing up his tent.  He was moving on. My heart caught for some reason. I had sensed his great pain but he was unreachable. I turned away, blinking back tears, wishing there had been more contact...a chance to know him.

A little while later there was a knock at my door. The stranger named Avi was standing there. He had brought a small gift of homemade jam… a token of his thanks. I invited him to come in and sit down. “Have a cup of tea before you go.   I just baked bread.” I poured tea, grateful to have a few moments with him before he left.

He was ready to talk...

He thanked me for giving him the space and the time to rest. His had been a long and difficult journey.

He had been serving in the Israeli army through several conflicts. At first he was idealistic and loyal to his nation’s cause but as time went on and he experienced the horrors of war, he began to realize what he was caught up in.

He saw and participated in things that no one should ever experience...things that threatened to destroy his soul.

He poured out his heart and emptied his mind finally of many of those horrific scenes. The one I remember most clearly was the one where he had been ordered to bulldoze the bodies of wounded and dying Palestinians into mass graves. When he tried to resist, his own life was threatened. His face twisted in pain as he confessed his actions... He could not believe that his own army would engage in such inhuman acts. It was more than he could bear. There was no escaping the guilt.

After his discharge he was unable to face his loved ones or to resume a normal life. He called off his wedding engagement, refused to see family or friends. He sought counseling but nothing could touch the depth of his pain and guilt.

He was so deeply tormented he left Israel, vowing never to return. He traveled, trying to outrun the pain. He travelled east to India in a vain search for answers and continued on to Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan. From there he sought to lose himself in San Francisco, the Pacific Northwest and finally, Canada. He had traversed thousands of miles in search of relief. He was nearly out of land when he reached the remote point on Cape Breton island that I called home. It was the literal end of the road for him... He had to deal. He could not go on living and he couldn't outrun the pain.

Then he told me that he had planned to take his life there...on that hillside. His plan was to rest there for two days. On the third day he planned to put a bullet to his head to put an end to his pain.

But as he sat on the hill day by day, he told me that some 'thing' had prevented him from taking his life. 'It' rooted him to that spot. 'It' kept him from ending his life...more than once, he said with a look of wonder. Day after day, he sat.

As he sat, his grief and pain welled up and began to break beyond bounds. Layer by layer, all the pain surfaced. He wept finally for the first time in many years. He wept.   He raged.   He despaired. He began to clear his soul.

I understood. There was something about that place…and it was enough…

Avi was not ready to go back to Israel, but he was ready to live...and life had brought him to New York City. He was purging his soul over time by giving back... 'Working for the good side,'  he said simply. He was becoming whole again...ready to go back to face what remained in Israel... leaving for good in the morning.

And here we were on his last night in America, standing face to face by some curious design...Spirit had arranged for us to meet one more time...

Godspeed  Avi...wherever you are now...

Sunday, July 8, 2012 all rights reserved