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Driving Through the Minefields of Love

Road trips were the place where my father and I first defined our relationship.

Joel Schalit

Issue #40, October 1998

On a frighteningly hot day in the summer of 1977, my father decided to take the family on a trip to the place where we had laid my mother to rest two years before, on a desert plateau high above the Dead Sea. This excursion was to be unlike any other because it was the first time my father and I had gone anywhere significant by car with my new haute-couture Israeli stepmother Esther, and her two annoyingly spoiled Spanish children, Avi and Elior. As soon as I found out about the impending outing, I had incredibly mixed feelings. There was nothing I enjoyed more than taking road trips with my dad. But I had never gone on a trip anywhere with anyone else, especially brand new family members of whom I wasn't quite sure. Besides, something about it felt like a violation of our privacy because road trips were the place where my father and I first defined our relationship.

Immediately after my mother died, we sold our house and my father and I began our new life of constant motion: on the road. We first moved to Italy where, penniless, we spent what seemed like an eternity driving around the country on business. Sitting by my father's side looking out at the Italian countryside I saw my new mobile home surroundings: Cracked leather seats in aging miniature rental Fiats that smelled like stale cigarettes, our only worldly possessions methodically packed with crisp, military precision in the back seat. The sound of my father's voice as he told me about his life, about his relationship with my mother, and about why she died was my only interaction with anyone during the months immediately following her passing.

The Italian autostrada was a good place for the both of us to cut loose and get to know one another. The lack of any discernible North American-style speed limit was therapeutic for my father. It allowed him the freedom to channel his pent-up rage at our unfortunate circumstances in the uninhibited velocity that characterizes Italian freeway driving. Unencumbered by the Protestant politeness of New England automobile etiquette, we roared down the roads of our new southern European free-for-all alone, pretending to be searching for business, but in reality putting as much distance between ourselves and the tragedy we'd left behind as we possibly could. That's why the idea of putting another family in the car to fill in the vacancy left by my mother's absence felt like such a violation. We had our ritual. And we had the space to act it out. It was just too soon to let other people in on it because we hadn't been alone together long enough to be ready to share it with with anyone else.

I don't mean to give the impression that it was always peaches and cream between my dad and I during those months immediately following our expulsion from paradise, because in fact we were totally miserable. I had lost my most comforting, stable, and intimate of my relations, my mother Harriet. She had been the person with whom I had spent nearly every minute of the day for eight whole years. And my dad had lost his partner of twenty-four years, a person who he had known since he was a child growing up in Jerusalem in the 1920s.

It had taken so much work and so much strength just to get used to being together, alone, without a home, in a loud, abrasive, foreign country, that it was almost impossible to imagine sharing the physical space within which we'd rebuilt our family identity. But my dad had to. He was totally frightened by the prospect of raising a child all by himself. That's why he needed to go mobile. He needed something to physically mirror the changes that we were both undergoing inside. The problem was that a year later we were still in transition. Why give up the privacy to continue going through that with someone else? It interrupted our healing process.

"Are you sure you want to do this?" I nervously asked my father after we finished Shabbat dinner the night before we were to leave to visit my mother's grave. "Why don't we just go to the Israel War Museum in Tel Aviv for the day? We could go eat at the Olympia restaurant afterwards." "No child," Elie smiled, patting me reassuringly on my fragile ten-year old back. "These people live in London. Even though Esther is an Israeli, her children don't know very much about where they come from. We must teach them. We'll go have a nice Moroccan dinner afterwards in Jerusalem as your reward for being a good boy. Okay?"

Despite my dad's appeal to my sense of patriotic obligation, I still wasn't convinced. I couldn't sleep on the night before our trip. I kept thinking about how crowded the car would be, forcibly stuffed with bored, uninterested, rich Spanish Jews possessing highly cultivated British accents, on vacation with a highly sentimental middle-aged military man with an extremely angry young son, both of whom were in complete crisis. Sometime around midnight, I decided to get up and fish through my closet for my collection of Matchbox cars. When I finally found them, I put all of them in an empty green and gold painted Elite chocolate bar box, and took them out to the stairs to play.

From the edge of the staircase I could hear that my father and Esther were still up. They were arguing with each other softly in Hebrew. I couldn't quite tell what they were talking about because their bedroom door was closed. But judging from the tone of the conversation, it sounded heated enough that I knew it would be a bad idea to turn on the lights in the hallway — he'd most likely discover that I was awake, and then they would turn their frustration with each other on me. In the half-light, I slowly unpacked my cars and lined them up at the very top of the typically Mediterranean cheap marble staircase. Once I had finished making sure that their front bumpers were all carefully aligned with one another, I methodically began pushing each one of them off the edge. As I made my way down the lineup, I began to push them harder and harder, so that by the end I was literally throwing them all the way down the stairs.

By the time I was done, the entire staircase was littered with the upside down shells of all my toy racing cars. Scared that I'd be heard if I began walking downstairs to pick them up, I left them lying there, thinking that I'd get up earlier than everyone else and clean it all up before my midnight activities had been discovered. It proved to be wishful thinking. The next morning I was awoken by a very loud shriek. My fifteen year-old stepbrother Avi had gotten up before me and had gone to the kitchen to drink hot chocolate. On his way down the stairs he stepped on one of my toy cars, and had been sent flying. I couldn't be quite certain, but judging from the tenor of his wounded-animal like yell, I could tell that I'd inadvertently managed to derail his premature trip to the kitchen.

"Mami, Mami," I could hear Avi yelling, 'Yoel hurt me with his cars!" All of the sudden I could hear Esther running out of her bedroom door, breathless, looking down at her son laying on his side at the bottom of the stairs. "Yoel," she yelled "Come here right now and clean this mess up." Scared, I put on my shorts and sandals, collected my Elite chocolate box, and walked sheepishly out my bedroom door. Esther looked down at me disdainfully, trembling because I'd hurt Avi. Patches of her dyed orange hair were falling over her face. She pulled a cigarette out of the pocket of her Mrs. Robinson-look-alike faux-leopard skin nightgow, lit it, and stared at me. Her hands were shaking "Mami, Mami," Avi moaned from below, "I think my arm is broken." "Some way to inaugurate our first family road trip," I thought to myself. I got on my knees and slowly started to collect my dangerous miniature automobiles. I was in really big trouble.

By the time I'd finished putting my toy cars away, my father had gotten breakfast ready. "Yoel," he called up to me, "We're ready to eat." I was nervous about putting in an appearance. I knew that everyone except my father would resent my presence at the dining room table. But he knew I was acting out and chose to ignore it. "There you are kiddo," he warmly intoned as I sat down, "I made you your favorite: scrambled eggs and donkey salami." I was delighted. Elie had decided not to punish me.

turnpikes We sat there eating in silence. Esther sipped her coffee and stared out at the Arab laborers walking down the street, off to build a new Jewish home in yet another depressing subdivision of Savyon, the rapidly growing suburb of Tel Aviv that we lived in. My father busied himself with yesterday's newspaper. My stepsister Elior periodically kicked me under the table, whispering under her breath "You stupid ass," in her new English private school accent. Avi appeared to be doing fine. The arm he claimed my toy cars had broken was miraculously stuffing my father's fried meat and egg combination down his long, whiny throat. I looked at it carefully and thought about how much I wish he'd really broken something. Finally I decided to break the silence. "When we do we leave for the Dead Sea?" I asked. "Soon child, soon," my father replied, staring ever more intently into Friday's Ha'aretz. "Do you think we'll hit another donkey again?" I asked, hoping to get a positive response out of someone at the table. "Donkey, what donkey, Elie?" Esther replied, sounding rather concerned.

Elie shot a sharp glance at me from across the table. I could tell he was pissed that I had chosen to relate this particular story. "We hit a donkey at a hundred kilometers an hour last time we drove to Masada," I said with perverse delight. I could hear my father gripping his newspaper tightly. "A Bedouin shepherd was moving his flock of animals across the old Roman road near Abu Mousa, but one of his donkeys decided to remain behind." Turning slightly red, my father decided to take over the situation, fearful that if he didn't I might make things even worse than I already had by opening my big, egg and salami filled mouth. "And we hit the stupid idiot straight in the ass," he proudly proclaimed. "If you can believe it, the car was completely unharmed. But the poor creature flew straight up in the air, landed behind us, and headed straight back for Jerusalem."

Lighting her second cigarette, Esther asked if we could drive a little more carefully this time. My father gripped me under the table by the knee. It was then that I knew I'd manage to piss everyone off that morning. Feeling like my destiny with my new family was completely out of control, I grabbed my new plastic American skateboard out of the hall closet, ran out the front door and repeatedly jumped the curb in front of our house into incoming traffic. Peugeots parted to my right. Mercedes taxicabs moved quickly to my left. Seamlessly, I wove my small, agile body in between them, congratulating myself on my dexterity and skill in courting death. The problem was that no one except the oncoming traffic that I was taunting ever bothered to notice. Frustrated, I picked up my skateboard, turned on the front lawn sprinkler, and cried. I was really stressed out.

My father's voice interrupted this brief moment of self-pity. "Yallah Yoel, its time to go!" I turned off the water, slid my skateboard through the front door, and followed Avi and Elior into our brand new Italian automobile. "You sit in the middle because you're the smallest," Esther commanded. "That's right," echoed Avi. "You have the shortest legs of the three of us, you belong in the middle." I took a deep breath, got in first, and felt the hot leather of a car heated by the early morning summer sun burn the bottom of my tanned thighs. "Fuck you," I muttered under my breath as I recoiled in pain from the boiling seats. No one heard me. Elie and Esther soon followed suit, on came the air conditioning, and off we went, speeding towards Jerusalem en route to our final destination, the plateau above the Dead Sea.

"Yoel, Melech (King) Israel," sang Avi and Elior as we passed the old British military police station in Latrun. I asked them to shut up, so they sang the same chorus over and over again, getting louder with each stupid verse. I was being teased. And they were ganging up on me. I reached forward and tapped my father's shoulder, hoping he'd intercede. Without appearing to get involved in the conflict, Elie turned on the radio, and out blasted Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." "That's so cool!" yelled an excited Avi, humming the three infamous barred chords that characterize the international suburban anthem.

Soon enough Elior joined him, their arms forming air guitars as the early metal classic blared out of the car's speakers. Avi and Elior's rock and roll gesticulations grew wilder, their elbows smashing into each side of my face. I was miserable. Finally Esther yelled out "Will you kids quiet down? I can't even hear myself talking to Elie." But her crazed offspring would just not stop. Finally she switched off the radio, and the car returned to silence. I tapped my father's shoulder again. His hand reached around the seat and grabbed my ankle, acknowledging my distress. It was worse than being stuck in the back of a school bus with the neighborhood bullies.

Two hours passed before we got to the outskirts of the Judean desert on the other side of Jerusalem. The old Roman road was crowded with aging occupied territory-plated Mercedes trucks carrying food and commercial goods from Bethlehem and the West Bank down to Jericho. Much to my stepmother's chagrin, my father put his pedal to the metal to get around them. Like me on my skateboard two hours earlier, Elie wove an intricate, seemingly suicidal pattern on the two-lane highway around these hulking behemoths. Esther shrieked. Her children clapped with delight. My father's race car driving ritual turned them on. I periodically fell on them as my father dramatically swerved right and then left to avoid oncoming traffic approaching us in the passing lane.

"Elie, Elie, slow down, would you?" intoned Esther. "Don't worry child, I'm an excellent driver," my father replied. "Besides, we're running short on time and there's this place I wanted to take you before it gets too hot." Suddenly, Elie took an abrupt right turn, and took us up the beginnings of a very steep dirt and stone road, right up the side of a hill covered in flocks of Bedouin sheep looking for non-existent foliage to graze on. Recalling my story of our collision with the donkey, Esther cried out "Careful Elie, careful." "Listen child," answered Elie, "I've been up and down these roads since I was a teenager. We used to hide out from the British army here."

Everyone gripped their seats in terror. I sat in the middle where there was nothing I could really hold onto, so I abandoned myself to being thrown to and fro between the laps of my larger step siblings. Angry at my constant crash landings in their soft adolescent laps, Avi and Elior tossed me back and forth at one another, while the sounds of large rocks hit the bottom of our new car. It was built for high speed driving on the smooth highways of Italian autostradas, not the rugged, stony dirt roads of a barren Biblical landscape. "Why didn't you buy a Jeep?" yelled Esther over the atonal Judean symphony. My father shot her a sharp look and said nothing. Nervous, Esther lit a cigarette, and fumbled through her purse for a cassette to drown out the din of the increasingly crazy voyage we'd all embarked on.

Stumbling upon a copy of Tom Jones Greatest Hits, she promptly put it in to shield her ears from the sounds of rocks scraping the bottom of her husband's brand new car. "What's New Pussycat?" immediately exploded out of the speakers, drowning out the sturm und drang of our noisy ascent, as cheap Israeli Time cigarette smoke filled the back of our small, fragile automobile. We all began to cough. Esther refused to open her window for fear of all the sand and dust blowing in. Besides, she argued, we had the air conditioning on. It was too hot outside to even think of such a possibility. Rendered silent by the extremity of the proceedings, the lack of air, the constant heaving back and forth, and the combined volume of Tom Jones singing "Woah, Woah, Woah, Woah," I felt like I was going to faint.

I was saved from lapsing into unconsciousness when we reached the summit. Elie finally slowed down and we began our sightseeing tour. "Over there," he gestured, pointing to a Bedouin camp, "is where we would hide out as teenagers in the Haganah. From their encampment you can see the road to Jerusalem on your left, Jericho up a bit further, and the Dead Sea and Jordan right in front of you." Esther was not amused. Avi strained to look out the dusty car window. Elior moaned that from her position she could not see a thing. Sitting in the middle of the back seat, I had the only view that gave me a perspective similar to my father's.

I was excited. My dad and I were alone in our enjoyment of the fruits of our first extended family outing, just as we had been before his remarriage. But it wasn't destined to last very long. As the car continued to roll south across the high desert plateau, an army Jeep sped towards us. When they reached our car, one of them yelled out with a bullhorn for us to stop. An officer clad in a fresh green Israeli army uniform and World War II-era aviator's sunglasses asked my father to roll down his window. "Slichah," ("excuse me") the officer asked in Hebrew, "Didn't you read the sign?" My father looked around, pretending not to see the large multilingual billboard in front of us. "You've started to drive through a minefield. I'd advise you to turn around immediately unless you are planning on taking a quick trip to the cemetery."

An all-round nice goy, Joel Schalit individuates as a Ph.D. student in York University's Programme in Social and Political Thought as well as in garage collagers Christal Methodists, who are proud to announce the commercial birth of their new CD Satanic Ritual Abuse. You can commune with Joel at

Copyright © 1998 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.