BECAUSE IT’S THE third day of Jewish-American Heritage Month, I’m reminiscing about the college semester I spent at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. There, I skipped most of my classes, made out with an Israeli lifeguard, and befriended other Jewish-American college students. Not that we called ourselves Jewish-American college students. I’ve never known a Jewish American who called himself a Jewish American. But anyway, one of those Jewish-American college students was Molly*.
We met our first night in Jerusalem because our respective roommates were best friends back at Berkeley. Inside a kosher pizzeria, the Berkeley girls told us they’d decided not to room together because they wanted a fresh start and refused to hold each other back. They co-delivered a thirty-minute lecture on “really experiencing Israel,” beaming at us, never blinking, their spit landing in flecks on our white paper plates.
Molly and I caught each other’s eyes and silently agreed: We were frightened of these people, who had clearly read a manual called “How To Succeed On Your Study Abroad Program.” After dinner, we left them, found a bar, and got drunk on Gold Star beer. Then, because we were twenty years old, insecure, and in a foreign country, we became best friends in eight minutes.
“Did you notice,” Molly asked, lighting an Israeli cigarette, “that they gave us these looks like, ‘Don’t leave us’?”
“Aren’t they supposed to be best friends?”
“They are the kind of best friends who hate each other,” Molly said.
If this story were a play read by a high school class, the students would underline that last line of dialogue, and in the margin write, “foreshadowing.”
Molly exhaled a cloud of smoke. “Can’t your roommate and I just trade rooms?”
“Then they’ll have to live together,” I said, “and they won’t really experience Israel.”
“Well,” said Molly, draining her beer. “It’s us or them.”
Breaking the news to the Berkeley girls the next day was like sitting our spouses down to tell them that we were in love. But worse: We’re going to move in together. And so are you.
The Berkeley girls were stunned. This was not part of The Plan. “We wanted to embrace the challenge of living separately,” Molly’s roommate said.
We were standing outside the dorm on Mount Scopus, which the Romans used as a base to attack Jerusalem in 70 AD, destroying the Second Temple. Nearby, the second Intifada would begin in just nine months. But we had deeper concerns: “Molly and I just really want to share a dorm room,” I said again.
“Maybe we should speak with someone,” my roommate said, “and find a better solution. There must be a program coordinator who can sort this out.”
But this wasn’t America. There was no such person. So out moved my roommate, and in moved Molly.
Cue the montage: For two weeks, Molly and I were fused. We shopped for groceries in the shuk. We cut a pomegranate in half, sat on the floor in our room, and ate the seeds with our fingers. We practiced our Hebrew on each other: “Laila tov,” we said every night before falling asleep. If there’d been a meadow nearby, we would have clasped hands and twirled around in it, our faces tipped toward a cloudless sky. We were happy, in the psychotic, unsustainable manner of converts.
Until a bunch of us Jewish-American college students took the bus down to the Dead Sea for the weekend. Sleeping four to a hostel room, we all became fast friends. By Monday, Molly was no longer speaking to me.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her. We were back in Jerusalem, unpacking.
“Clearly,” she said, addressing me with her back, “you have your own agenda.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.
As it turned out, it meant that Molly preferred to be my only friend.
For a couple of weeks, I tried to appease her. If I was talking with Molly and another Jewish-American college student, I would laugh extra hard if Molly made a joke. But she would just narrow her eyes, as if a scarlet letter A were affixed to my shirt. If I spoke, she would feign boredom or walk away. A couple more times, I tried to discuss the rift with her. But the more I tried, the more aggressively she snubbed me. Eventually, I gave up. Two-way silent treatment ensued. And that was how I found myself living with my ex-wife.
Because I was the avoiding type, I scheduled my day elaborately so we wouldn’t cross paths. Because she was the bully type, Molly did the opposite. If we were in the room together, she liked to lie on her bed and watch me, smirking, until I left. She also liked to answer the phone in the middle of the night, jarring me from sleep. It was always her boyfriend, calling from Michigan. I assume he would ask how she and I were faring, because she would respond with some variation of: “Such a dumb bitch. Can’t really talk about it right now.”
I said nothing, despite the dirty looks, despite the needless theatrics, even despite waking up one morning to find that Molly had gotten so drunk, she’d barfed all over the floor and in our sink before passing out on her bed.
Halfway through the semester, I came back to the room one afternoon to find Molly gone, her bed unmade, her clothes strewn everywhere. Then I saw my dresser drawer slightly ajar. Inside, I found my journal open. I had not left my journal open. Or my drawer. I looked out the window toward the Temple Mount, where battles have raged, where blood has spilled, where gallons of tears have fallen. My hands shook as I lifted the notebook and pressed it to my chest.
She wanted to read my journal? Fine. Read it and weep. I sat on my bed, opened the notebook, and wrote, “It’s amazing: Everyone hates Molly and she has no idea!” Then I wrote about my day.
Aside from the whole sleeping-with-the-enemy living situation, I was having the time of my life, traveling all over Israel, to Egypt, to Jordan. Now and then, I’d run into the Berkeley girls, and I’d see them having the time of their lives, too. Why had I been so quick to write off my first roommate? Maybe we wouldn’t have been friends, but at least we wouldn’t have been enemies. Had I really needed to live with Molly, just because I liked her? Why did I always pursue pleasure to excess—like eating enough falafel to gain twenty pounds in five months? (I mean, just as a hypothetical example.)
For the rest of the semester, every time Molly talked on the phone in the middle of the night, or lovingly placed her garbage on my bed, I included a special message in my journal for her: “I wonder what it would feel like to be so universally hated,” I wrote. “Personally, I don’t care one way or the other about her, but no one else can stand the sight of her.” Sometimes I fancied myself benevolent: “Poor Molly. I may not want to be friends with her, but I do feel sorry for her.”
Who knows if she ever bothered to read my journal? It didn’t matter. Writing those entries made me feel amazing. Sometimes passive-aggressive behavior is the best medicine. The semester ended. I managed to pack up my things while Molly wasn’t in the room. I never spoke to her again.
One more unresolved conflict in a region of unresolved conflicts.
*Name has been changed because I’m afraid of her.