It is the Sabbath in Jerusalem, which is a religious city, and because we are not religious, for us it means that absolutely nothing is open.
We decide to go to the Israel Museum, which is a mixed bag of ancient and contemporary; religious and non-religious art. There is also a giant model of the Second Temple there, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls. I do not admit that I know very little about religious history except for what I had to learn to be confirmed as a Catholic in order to marry my first husband, and what I have picked up from the ad hoc Hebrew School lessons my first husband’s second wife – a professor of Jewish Studies – has given me during the downtime at funerals.
After our tour of the model, we fight several Birthright trips in order to descend into the cavern that contains the Scrolls, then we make our way into the Museum’s main building. We are hungry; we are tired, but there is an element of Just Needing Things to Do on a Saturday, so we stay and wander.
Almost by accident, we make our way into an exhibition called No Place Like Home, where the signage promises it will restore a transformed object to its natural place within the…home. This is right up my alley. We pass Duchamps; Warhols; etc. – the masters of pop and contemporary art – giant, absurd spoons; the Brillo boxes; exactly everything you’d expect.
And then, in the Utility Room, I see Yayoi Kusama’s (Untitled) Ironing Board under a spotlight, and instantly, I am the one transformed.
In that moment, the gallery becomes twenty years ago at Christmastime in my Hometown. My high school sweetheart has come home from college. We have arrived at a party together, and everyone assumes I am there as his date, but instead, he takes the opportunity of the gathering to tell all our friends he is gay. In one horrible instant, it is the first time in my life I understand what it means to be a woman; what it means to be sexless; what it means to feel the light and air be sucked out of the room. It is the moment I learn to be hard to read.
We have come in one car. I find another ride home.
I am still obligated, after this, to go to a Hanukkah party at a mutual family friend’s house and my high school sweetheart will be there. Mums and Daddy send me with wine for the hosts and for the rabbi and his wife. I arrive at the party, and in a final fit of pique over my circumstances before I enter, I smash one of the bottles of wine on the front walk. I walk into the party with my head held high – no longer the beloved girlfriend of the favourite son. Now, I am a woman scorned.
My recollection of the scene is a little hazy from this point, but what ensues is me running through the house, yelling at my high school sweetheart, and his mother not far behind. I am so helpless; so angry. But I do know that memory is fallible – my recall is probably incorrect. It may have never happened this way at all. But everything from that night feels fraught; chaotic; tense; horrible – like a running, screaming match that definitely happened in real time.
But mostly, I remember that it is the last time I ever really lose my head.
I retreat, defeated, into the rainy El Nino night, and a few weeks later, start making out with the rabbi’s son as if to send a threat to these nice people to refrain from inviting red-haired shiksas to any more of their holidays. But behind my back, the rabbi’s son makes out with one of my friends. With the last of my sexual power, I scream and shout about it, but it does not matter anymore.
A few months pass, and the furore from Christmastime dies down. Eventually, no one remembers anything ever happened, except for me and the teachers at my conservative school who keep reminding me to hate the sin and love the sinner. The rabbi’s son, too, forgets about our angst, and and gets a new girlfriend, and the three of us go to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see the opening of Yayoi Kusama’s Love Forever, because they are artists, and I am not, but I am always game for a museum.
The Love Forever exhibit is a series of white rooms full of stitched and painted protrusions; objects covered in canvas phalluses, representing Kusama’s fear of male domination. I am floored. It is the first time I have felt anything in months; the first time I have felt swept away by art. My heart aches all day.
And then in another flash, I am back here in Jerusalem, with that Christmas twenty years ago feeling very present tense as I stare at the Kusama Ironing Board under the spotlight. How did this get here? I want to rip the protrusions from their roots; I want to smash the board like I did that bottle of wine; I want to crush the steam iron and scream: Why are you doing this to me?
You okay? RHJ asks.
Yes, yes, I say, moving on to look at a shower enclosed in a plexiglass case, dripping honey into a waiting drain.
The drip is soothing; it calms me. I am trying not to lose my head. But the fear is so present, still – of loving, of following, of being humiliated, abandoned. I am trying so hard not to lose my head.