Notes on Dotted Lines

green trees on green grass field during daytime

Photo by Jonny Gios on Unsplash

Fiction by Matthew Schultz

The last time I heard from Miriam, she had been on her way to a commune in Pardes Hanna. Or perhaps it was a Shamanic gathering in the Jerusalem forest. Or a cacao ceremony in Tzfat. Or maybe she had just been on her way to the beach. Either way, it was about a year ago.

But now my phone is ringing, and it’s her name lighting the screen.

She apologizes for disappearing but insists that she had her reasons to go off the grid, and before I can respond, she pivots to ask about me—about my apartment (“Yup, same place”), my relationship status (“Yup, still single”), and my job (“Yup, still with the newspaper.”)

In short: things with me haven’t changed much.

Not so with Miriam. 

She’s met someone. “He’s religious,” she adds, as if it’s an afterthought. “Or, I suppose, we both are. I’ve kind of become religious too, in my own way.  And, well, we got married! It all happened really fast. Otherwise, we would have invited—”

I doodle in the margins of a notebook while she tells me all of this. I’m not terribly surprised by her news. Miriam’s life follows a certain logic. It leaps rather than plods. It picks up and discards. 

When I ask where they’re living—she and her new husband—she doesn’t answer. Instead, she just says, “You have to come visit.”

-

When my bus hits the highway, I open Google Maps and notice a dotted line.  Upon zooming in, I see that it’s labelled “1967 Armistice Line.”  Also known as the Green Line.  

The most famous dotted line in the world.

The most haplessly ignored. 

The most doggedly insisted upon.

A little blue point on the screen—me—is drawing closer and closer.

-

If you start to look for them, you’ll start to see dotted lines all over the place.

A row of ants.

Stitches in fabric.

There are dotted lines on highways and on basketball courts. On floorplans, they reveal the presence of unseen architectural features.  In contracts, they tell you where to sign. On treasure maps, they indicate where to go.

When I look again at the map on my phone, I see that we’ve crossed over. Just like that, we’re in the West Bank. 

I had expected a byzantine system of walls and checkpoints demarcating different zones of jurisdiction and control, but the bus blew past the border without incident, ceremony, or notice. 

I’m deposited at a bus stop where I wait for Miriam to pick me up in her car. Leaning against a streetlamp, I’m overwhelmed by the ordinariness of my surroundings. A bird chirps and pecks at the ground. A cola can rolls by my feet. A car pulls up and picks up a young man. They disappear around the bend.

As I wait, more dotted lines come to mind.

Prison bars.

Or the linked buoys that separate the vastness of the ocean from the contained safety of the beach area. 

The key here is semi-permeability

Some things go through, others don’t.

-

A friend of mine, Ido, told me a story recently.

(Ido has big ears that stick out to the side. You’ll need to know this to understand the story.)

When he was a child, he was swimming in his aunt’s pool with his cousin and some friends. Between the deep end and the shallow end was a barred, underwater fence. The children, diving under the surface, were lithe enough to pass to and fro between the bars. But when Ido tried to do the same, his head got stuck.

“Terrified, I screamed for help, letting all of the air out of my lungs!”

I could tell this was a story Ido had told many times before. Its composition had been redacted long ago. Each beat was well-rehearsed.

“I realized that unless I did something drastic, I was done for. I closed my eyes and yanked my head backwards as hard as I could, ready to lose my ears if that’s what it took to get free.”

He paused for effect and then flicked his earlobes with his fingers.

“Luckily, they didn’t come off,” he said with a smile, “but they still stick out to the sides to this very day!”

While Ido seemed to genuinely believe in this story, I had a hard time buying it. I don’t tend to believe stories that explain how leopards got their spots.

Could it really be true that Ido’s head was that much wider than the bodies of his peers? And further, did his aunt really have a barred, underwater fence in her pool? I had never heard of such a thing. 

Perhaps, then, Ido’s story isn’t true. Perhaps it’s a sort of myth. A personal “just so” story which emerged not from the annals of his memory but rather from the inky drain of his subconscious. If so, it’s best understood as a collection of archetypal images, rather than historical incidents:

A semipermeable membrane—a dotted line. 

That which is small enough to pass. 

That which is too large to pass.

And that which is just the right size to get stuck. 

-

It suddenly occurs to me that I’ve crossed the Green Line before, though it was nothing like this time. That was back when I first met Miriam, when we were both new immigrants in Israel, waiting tables together at a café.

Urged on by some sense of guilt or obligation, we signed up for a guided tour of an occupied city. We got on a bus packed with Americans and Europeans and rode into Hebron.

We saw tanks rolling down the streets. Avenues and markets closed off as if quarantined. Locked doors. Entire neighborhoods sealed off in cages. Roads for Jews. Roads for Arabs. Propaganda scrawled on the walls. 

After half a day of touring these miseries in the summer heat, our guide took us to a shady area with benches to have a rest. Some settlers came and waved flags at us. Two yeshiva boys spat on the ground. The blond European girls in our group wrapped their pashminas about their heads like hijabs and smoked hand-rolled cigarettes.

As we sat, a young Arab woman in a pink abaya stepped out from her home onto the patio with a mop and a bucket of soapy water. Without a word, Miriam rose from her seat and walked over to the woman, reaching out her hand to take the mop and asking if she could help wash the tiles.

The woman blushed and shook her head.

I felt a sting of embarrassment for Miriam over this stymied act of penance. The interaction, which lasted no longer than a second, seemed to encompass all the futility and self-serving altruism of the guided tour itself.

She turned and walked back towards the bench, where I sat and pretended that I hadn’t been looking. 

-

In the sixth grade, my art teacher, Mrs. Moser, challenged us to draw without lines. 

Start from the inside out, she said. 

The exercise troubled me. I failed to see what meaning an image could have without its outline. 

I encountered Mrs. Moser again five years later when I was in high school. She and her husband had purchased the condo above our own and I came home one day to see her in our living room, draped over an armchair, smoking a joint, and talking with my father.

She offered me a puff.

Though I never saw her again, I very often heard her. The sounds from their apartment bled through the ceiling. At night, I would hear muffled voices talking confidentially, or the ruckus of dogs scuttling across the floor, or the dreadful noise of her and her husband’s lovemaking. 

Lying in bed, I considered Mrs. Moser’s dotted appearances in my life: a study in boundarylessness, in semi-permeability.

-

At last Miriam comes around the bend. She gets out of the car to hug me, to grip my shoulders and lock eyes with me. “It’s been too long!” 

Does she look different now? 

The flowing, patterned skirt, the glittering scarf woven through her dark curls—yes, these are the sartorial signs of a settler woman. But perhaps a year ago I would have seen the same outfit and understood it differently, chalking it up to Miriam’s general hippie aesthetic. 

As we drive to her home, I can’t help myself.

“What’s it like living in the West Bank?”

She corrects me. “I don’t live in the West Bank. We’re close to the border, but not over it I don’t think.”

“Well,” I say, “It actually is over the border.” 

I’m being rude now. I know it.

“According to whom?” she asks. 

“Google maps.” 

“Well, what do they know?”

“They know where things are.”

Miriam shrugs. “There’s more to life than maps.”

-

Whereas I tend to doubt even my own deepest held notions, Miriam has always been a well of certainty.

Her certainty ranged from the personal (he’s the one for me), to the spiritual (all souls are here on Earth for a reason) to the absurd (disease can’t develop in the body of an emotionally aligned person). 

And while normally I found such certainty obnoxious—gravitating instead towards witty cynics with anxiety disorders—it was Miriam’s certainty that drew me to her during those uncertain weeks when I had first moved to Israel. 

She assured me that I was where I was supposed to be. She believed that things would work out for the best. She preached that a positive mindset would help me get what I desired. This was a tonic, an antidote to dread and regret. 

But now, riding beside Miriam in her car, it seems that her certainty has lost its element of harmlessness, which was crucial for its charm. 

Another possibility: I just don’t need it anymore. 

-

When we arrive at their home, Miriam’s new husband comes out to meet me.

He’s small but imposing, with a thick beard and dark penetrating eyes. 

He hugs me a bit too long.

“Welcome,” he says in thickly accented English. “Welcome, welcome, welcome. You are the first friend my Miriam has had over to our home.”

They give me the grand tour. It’s a house of impressive size—especially considering that it belongs to two people without (as far as I can tell) any income. 

The first floor, Miriam tells me, will be turned into a hostel or retreat of sorts. Travelers can come, study Torah with Avraham, Reiki with Miriam, and engage in group Theta Therapy sessions and Kabballah Yoga classes. 

To get to the second floor we cross out to the backyard and climb up a metal staircase to the upstairs deck. Here one can take in the view. 

What first catches my eye is a swimming pool—neon green with algae. 

“We’re trying to find a way to clean it without using chemicals,” Miriam says.

I nod, trying to ignore what lies beyond the pool. A hill slopes down towards a gully, where a razor-wire fence cuts the landscape in two. Just beyond it, a Palestinian village sits on a hill.

Now I understand Miriam’s confusion about which side of the dotted line she is on. She has conflated the razor-wire fence with the Green Line. In truth, the razor-wire fence is only here because we are on the far side of the Green Line. 

This is a common misconception, but the Green Line, like so many dotted lines, is invisible except for on maps.

Further, the Green Line merely divides land. 

It’s the razor wire fences and towering walls that divide peoples. 

“What’s the problem with chlorine?” I ask.

“It’s not natural,” Avraham responds. 

“But it’s an element,” I say. “On the periodic table.” 

-

Of course, what does it matter that chlorine keeps pools clean? 

What does it matter that there’s a razor-wire fence? 

Perhaps it’s silly to be so strident about a dotted line. 

About two-states instead of one or one and a half. 

Perhaps it amounts to naivety—to a failure to face facts

-

Face facts.

A strident uncle said those words to me once at a Passover Seder.

Face facts,” he said. “The territories belong to Israel.” 

With a different inflection, a friend of mine (equally strident) said the same words when I told her I wanted to move to Israel.

Face facts,” she said. “That land belongs to the Palestinians.”

-

Inside their home, Miriam sits me down on the sofa and walks into the kitchen to make us coffee. Soft afternoon light spills through the windows. Avraham sits across from me and strums lightly on his guitar. He’s looking into my eyes.

After what feels like a full minute of silent eye contact, he speaks.

“You work for a newspaper?” 

I nod. 

“I feel bad for you, my friend. The news can be toxic.”

He’s right. But I get annoyed when he says it.

“I think it’s good for a person to keep up with current events,” I say. 

I’m not even sure I believe that. But I feel an irrepressible urge to define myself as the opposite of this man who is sitting opposite me. 

Another silence blooms between us, interrupted when Miriam walks over with a tray of coffee and places it on the coffee table. 

-

A few years ago, I stepped into a store on Dizengoff Street that sold a coffee table in the shape of Israel. Not wanting to offend anyone, they offered it in two models: One with the territories. One without. Same price. 

If there was ever a stronger visual argument in favor of the settler movement, this was it. The table without the West Bank was a pathetic little sliver. You would barely be able to rest a single mug on it.

Still, where it failed as a coffee table, it exceeded as a symbol.

Israel exists in one of two states, though neither is determinate. 

To finalize one would be to destroy the other. 

This goes beyond geopolitics and furniture design.

We are living in Schrodinger’s country. 

The two-state solution is simultaneously dead and not dead.

-

And which Israel did I move to?

On which coffee table have I rested my life?

Here’s Miriam, in her spacious home. Here are the gardens she tends and the fountain she made from found objects. 

And then here’s me—the liberal Zionist, the Tel Avivian—

Here is my apartment, my job, the friends I’ve made, the men I date—

precarious on the table’s edge. 

-

Miriam lights the Shabbat candles. We “set intentions” for the sabbath. We eat a vegan dinner. We drink wine and sing songs.

When it gets late, Miriam goes to bed. Avraham and I sit out on the back porch and smoke cigarettes. We’ve nearly finished our second bottle of wine. The night is cool and quiet. 

I can see lights from the village in the distance, but the fence is invisible in the darkness.

“On Shabbat, it’s possible to forget when you are,” Avraham whispers. “We could be in the time of the sages, or the time of the patriarchs, or the time before creation.”

I like this thought. I nod. 

Avraham turns to me and stares into my eyes. 

“Can you believe it?”

“I can try,” I say.

-

The next morning, I wake up before my hosts. I pour a cup of coffee from the urn and go to sit on the lip of the toxic, green pool and stare at the village in the not-so-distance.

There and not there. Close and far. 

When Avraham wakes up, he walks out to the hill and prays. I watch him—eyes closed in devotion, swaying back and forth, lips forming words too quiet for me to hear. His tallit blows in the wind behind him. 

I wonder if they—the ones across the gully and beyond the fence—are looking at us. If they are, I wonder what they see. Two figures. One praying. One sipping his morning coffee. Two settlers. Two Jews.

Or rather, two specks. It isn’t close enough to make out much detail. Still—what sort of specks? And would it matter if they could zoom in and see my knitted eyebrows? Would it matter if they knew I lived in Tel Aviv? That I voted for Labor?

When he’s finished praying, Avraham comes over and sits beside me.

He runs the fringes of his tallit through his fingers.

“My tzitzit,” he says. “My Miriam made them for me.”

“She did a nice job,” I say, taking them in my hand.

“She did it without even asking,” he says. “And that’s when I knew she was my soulmate. It was like a sign.” 

They are partners in certainty, these two. 

He asks if I’ve already had coffee and I say yes.

“So how about some mushrooms?” 

-

Avraham intones a blessing and Miriam and I say Amen. We each then consume a portion of mushrooms. 

We’ve packed a small picnic basket with bread, wine, chocolate, cigarettes, and Holy Books. We head out to the hill. 

As the drugs come on, Miriam and Avraham talk about God, about the week’s Torah reading, about the prohibition on making graven images. I take one of the books and open it to a random chapter. The Hebrew letters wiggle and rearrange. 

When I look up from the page, my eyes find the razor-wire fence, which now looks soft. It ungulates like Jell-O, drips like wax. Sometimes, a wave travels across it as though it were the surface of a lake. Beyond it, the village, now a single entity, breathes in and out like a sleeping cat.

Avraham scoots close to me and takes my hand. 

“You judge us for living here.” 

I shake my head.  

“You can tell me the truth, my brother.” 

I nod, unable to speak.

“Forget what you read about in the news,” Avraham says. “It’s not the truth. This is the truth.” 

He stands up, cups his hands around his mouth, and shouts out a greeting in the direction of the village. 

From somewhere over the fence, someone calls something back. But it’s impossible to hear what they said. 

“You can tell yourself anything you want,” Avraham says to me. “But you don’t fix this problem by living in Tel Aviv. And I don’t cause it by living here.” 

-

Miriam walks over to me and pulls me to my feet. “Let’s go for a walk.” 

“I want to show you something,” she says. “But it’s very sacred. You have to promise not to write about it.”

“I promise.” 

She leads me across the yard to an odd-looking hole in the ground. As we get closer, I see that it’s the mouth of a small cave. 

Her eyes light up with excitement. “Come!” she says, and she leads me into the earth. 

A perfectly round chamber opens up before us. Delicate white light spills in from an opening in the domed roof of the cave. There are small cushions to sit on and melted candles spread about on the stone floor.

We sit down. It’s cool and lovely. Miriam closes her eyes. I do the same. 

I breathe in. I breathe out. 

-

Whatever tension I had felt before has left me. I find pleasure in breathing, in being in this cave, in wondering at its ancient history. 

I open my eyes and Miriam opens hers. We’re both high as kites. 

“This is where the women would come,” Miriam says.

“What women? When?”

“In the time of the Torah. This was their space. I could feel their energy the second I first came in.”

More certainty.

“Couldn’t we just stay here?” 

Did she say it or did I? Or did I just think it?

“We could.”

“We should.”

It’s a tempting notion. To stay underground. Forever and ever. But of course, we can’t do that. We return to Avraham. We lie in the grass. In a few hours, the high starts to wear off.

Three stars appear in the sky.

The Sabbath departs and the buses start running.

-

I sleep as the bus crosses over the dotted line into what I call Israel.

When I wake up, I’m already back in Tel Aviv, my faced pressed against the smudged glass of the bus window, the seats around me emptying out. I gather myself up and disembark.

In the Central Bus Station, I trail down corridors and glide down escalators. Floor after floor. The air smells of cigarette smoke and stale bread. The light is by turns neon and florescent. Robotic teddy bears, corralled in hula-hoops on the floor, run endless laps outside stores hawking cheap toys. Men spit on the floor, as if they’re outside. 

As if this is anything other than holy land.

-

A dotted line is a rule, not a law. 

The paradox of the dotted line is that the penalty for violating this rule is freedom from its jurisdiction.

Swim past the buoys and you may hear the crackling call of the lifeguard urging you back to shore, but you are no longer his subject. 

You belong to the ocean, with all the liberties and dangers that this entails.

Perhaps this is what Miriam has discovered.

Move past the dotted line and nothing constricts you anymore.

Not maps.

Not history.

Not the news.

What lies beyond that horizon is unspeakable freedom.

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