No weapons—No Bibles! Words from a security man at the checkpoint we filed through, approaching the Temple Mount, the place where Jesus spoke, where walls came tumbling down, where all those conflicting temples are, were, or will be, where we can’t do shit according to this bigmouthed soldier, a boy really, carrying a godless machine gun. No weapons—No Bibles! That’s what he said, and that’s how I felt; no religion and nothing with which to fight. I’d already gotten into it—a fight, I mean—that morning with my girlfriend Iris, a wonder like the flowering plant, the Greek rainbow goddess, part of the eyeball. I’d lost her somewhere in the line—not on purpose. No proselytizing, preaching, postulating, lecturing, sermonizing, moralizing. No nuns or priests, at least none dressed like nuns or priests. Israeli security forces can tell. Something in the eyes, the saintly expressions, the secret smiles while conversing with God. That can’t be faked. I was hoping to be overlooked, a young pothead student, a possible divinity prospect on a summer trip that was supposed to cement my everlasting salvation, or at least shoe-in the next two years of grad school. The trip ended up having the opposite effect. I was thinking of dropping college. I had my four years in. My mother was the mayor of a small town, my father the chief of police; they’d never even gone to college. Why not mount a political career? No didacticism, agitation, heckling, mocking, taunting, ranting or raving. Nothing on your body: No icons, symbols, amulets, voodoo dolls, juju beads, scapulars or other sanctified scrap metal. No right or wrong carried within—security will know. I fingered my pot, two buds in a film canister. No photos, renderings, artist sketches, illustrations. The checkpoint was a steel structure, a metal detector, bulletproof chute to the holy hill. I was hazy on the whole weight of the place, the relevance, reverence, holiness, significance. But that’s why we came, to check it out, to be in the know about holy spots, places bearing on our lives, places where things come together and fall apart. What made the walls tumble? Did they fall from neglect? Random chance? Divine wrath? No questions or answers—grim looks and long lines only.
Through the checkpoint we were funneled into a narrow overheated walkway. I’d had it with being jammed in the kneecap by the umbrella of a fat lady in front of me, so I pinched her butt quick and moved to one side as she whirled, setting off a chain reaction where three or four people were whacked with the umbrella which she wasn’t supposed to have, because umbrellas were, apparently for good reason, not allowed.
I am not prone to rash pinching, but that morning Iris told me she missed her period, which had set off another kind of chain reaction: panic, denial, anger, despair. How could that happen? I demanded answers as if I were not involved. We were careful. Not that careful. Right after school got out, we were messing around on Bare Butte, naked college kids clambering all over the mountain, upsetting the Indians: Nowah’wus to the Cheyenne, Mato Paha to the Lakota, Bare Butt to the drunken bikers. Expansive momentous vistas, expansion to hitherto untapped markets, legs wide open, grit in the cracks. The Grade A, #1 synthetic contraceptive sheath device that cost me 75 cents in a restroom at Mount Rushmore snapped like a career postal worker. Had to be intervention, an act of God, or too much grit. My divine future looked bleak. The lady with the umbrella screamed feminist rhetoric which was—it goes without saying—not allowed. She was ejected by soldiers in full combat regalia: Uzis, hard boots, plastic wrist restraints, all very much allowed to prevent uprisings. She bellowed all the way to the gate. No Temple Mount for her. Or mount to the temple—it was a wooden walkway, elevated and enclosed with wire mesh so we couldn’t divert from the path, the chosen way—diversion was not allowed.
Someone asked: Is this the way Jesus walked? I duck-walked like Charlie Chaplin and said, “Jesus walked like this.” A soldier pointed his Uzi at me. No funny walking. I was trying to lighten up, lighten my load, I was feeling guilty about the fight with Iris. I wiped sweat from my brow and looked back down the line. Looking back can be dangerous. People get nervous. Have second thoughts. Reconsider situations. The walkway was tight, the heat intense, we were packed in like cattle, like lambs to slaughter. Jews are jumpy about lines in general. Most of these were American Jews, tourists. There was a group of Christians from Kansas—incognito, because groups were not allowed—all wearing the same rip-off holy shoes, sandals like Jesus wore, sold by Arab vendors. Made in China. When I looked back, people stared at me. I was taller and looked down on them. I made a shocked face as if something bad was happening behind them. They ducked without pause. Two of them hit the deck, causing panic and chaos up and down the line, a chain reaction again, cause and effect. I walked on, uninvolved, unattached.
But I was attached. A missed period was perilous because we attended a major Catholic University, Notre Dame, where I had a major grad school assistantship and Iris’s Dad was a major force on the Board of Trustees. We were supposed to be very holy. Iris never traveled without her Sacred Heart Jesus photo pinned damply to her underwear. On the body (not allowed), a hidden bust and blood, an inviolable deity near the source of her sex. Christ in a cunt, to put it bluntly. He’s a musty old relic, anyway. Strung out on a cross on Friday, holed up for the weekend—had to need a baptismal by Sunday. So what the smell? Holiness comes with a price. Stinky, soggy, slick Lord-on-a-card in her crotch, laminated for protection—can’t be too careful, can’t trust anyone, especially someone tricky with loaves and fishes, especially someone with a cross to bear—had to have an agenda (not allowed), especially someone nailed to a cross—had to hold a grudge (grudges are allowed, hence the tight security). Iris wasn’t even on the pill. Totally irresponsible. She must have been detained at the checkpoint, strip-searched probably, soiled, felt up by soldiers because they’d see she was hiding something, because she was hot, they’d run her through a pregnancy detector, a good Catholic girl from Notre Dame, for Christ’s sake. Or not. She might have carried the picture just to break the rules. Carrying a baby, she’d already broken the rules—no pregnant girls at Notre Dame. Her parents thought she was a virgin; they didn’t even know she smoked cigarettes, and here she was climbing Temple Mount with contraband. We could be whipped, flogged, stoned. Well, we were a bit of that, indulging at the hotel after breakfast, after the fight. That’s another thing we do—dope, we smoke it. She carried that, too, in her underwear, with everything else.
Up the hill we trudged, with bare feet in chains and clawing at flies and rabid dogs—Whoa, that can’t be right, that’s just how it felt—a hot day, sticky with sweat and this baby burden like a grist wheel around my neck, our necks, Iris was in as much trouble as me, more maybe, she’d have to carry the physical burden and the stain of sin. We hadn’t meant to fight, didn’t want to ruin the trip, we tried to talk rationally, discuss options. Marriage? Abortion? Suicide? Martyrdom? Iris was raised by nuns—well, her parents weren’t nuns, but they might as well have been. They made her go to church daily. Daily! Bare knees in a plaid skirt on a wooden prayer rail. She had nuns for teachers from grade one, her older sister was a missionary in Africa, one of those that wears white and isn’t afraid of leprosy. Crazy Catholics. Iris was devout, but got horny in strange places. The supermarket (too bright), the library (too quiet), Church (we avoided it), her parent’s house (the walls had ears), Temple Mount (not allowed). Where was that girl? Her parents were wealthy Catholic charity-giving patrons who would disown her in a heartbeat if one beat in her belly. They had financed the summer trip. Do you good, they said, to see some holy sights. They trusted me because I had a ticket to divinity school. Because I am tall and apparently well-mannered. They didn’t know I wanted to scrap religion for politics. They didn’t know I screwed their daughter in strange places. All summer long we made it at religious sites: Lumbini (birthplace of Buddha), Lhasa (home of Dalai Lama), Thebes (free camel rides), Rome (an orgy of Catholics), Canterbury (tails), Lourdes (blessed virgins and Viagra water), Turin (holy headwear). Oracles, from Delphi to Redwood City, we did them all. Pilgrimages to Mecca, Vrindavan Mashhad, Al-Haram al-Sharif—Shimmering Jesus at the top of the Mount, what a sight, site, whatever. Is there a golder dome in the world? It was more impressive than St. Patty’s Cathedral. But hold on: paint! For Christ’s sake, or maybe Mohammad’s sake, in any case, the Dome of the Rock was hung with scaffolding. Workers splattered with gold paint sat munching pita bread out of red and white mini-coolers; one of them had a chrome Starbucks mug. This would ruin our photos.
The line dispersed into chaos at the top, people drifted about irreverently, stomping on sacred ground. I looked back, wondering where the hell Iris was. I wanted to tell her all would be well. Smooth things over. Say I’d stand by her. I wandered aimlessly among ruins and the remains of ruins. There was the foundation of the first temple, maybe; nothing was certain except the soldiers, the smell of gun oil, and the bomb-disposal units resembling underwater diving bells. There were beggars, of course, mandatory at a place like this: a blind boy in rags with his palm out—off to one side, his connections, promoters, maybe parents, conspicuous in black robes. What is that stuff they wear? In this heat? Holy Roller clothes? Prayer shawls and checkered headdresses, veils and masks. Halloween everyday. Hallowed ground? Hollow, more likely, like my divine intentions, but not my intentions to Iris. There she was. Ahead of me on the stone steps leading to the mosque, her curly blonde head bobbed among the crowd. Like me, she was tall, a volleyball player, long legs and small tits. Did they look bigger? If she was pregnant, I couldn’t tell. I moved toward her through the crowd. She wore a white tanktop and shorts, very short, indecent, legs like a gazelle, skin translucent like a lampshade (can’t say that here), a body from here to eternity (which might not be that far off). I tried to reach her, but she was striding out and putting distance on me. I took the steps two at a time to the top, a vast open space paved with ancient stones, and when I thought she could hear me I shouted “Iris!” And that’s when I first noticed the big guy with the machine gun. Running and shouting were not allowed. People ducked and shied. The big guy over by the mosque spoke into a walkie-talkie. “Iris!” She whirled and jumped, and timed a perfect landing with her legs around my waist, her arms around my neck, her mouth mashing mine, pretty close to chipping a tooth. “You lost me,” I said.
“I hope not,” she said. She was relieved. She sucked my mouth. The morning fight forgotten. She hung on. I supported her with my hands clasped under her butt. She wore a digital camera around her neck, the strap transecting her breasts, sunglasses on her head, a map of Jerusalem stuck in her back pocket. People parted around us, averted their eyes; making out was not allowed, but we did it anyway, then walked on hand in hand, an American cliché, college students, for Christ’s sake, pregnant college students seeing the dome of the rock, the gold-domed mosque with tile work like tracks of wild animals. We walked up close and stared. Iris read from a brochure. “It’s a sanctuary for a rock,” she said. “A womb for a living belief.”
I looked at her—I couldn’t help myself. “Everything is a womb now.”
She didn’t take it wrong. “Yes! My body is a temple.”
So, we were being facetious—or not. “No tumbling down,” I said. “We are stone.”
We stopped to kiss. The sun cooked the tops of our heads. We didn’t have the sense to wear hats; we were sticky in white clothes, not all white, that might be construed as a statement and statements were not allowed. All white was incendiary. The color of innocence, and also explosion. That was us: innocence to explosion. “I love you,” I said. “I want to marry you and have this baby.”
I’d made her happy. But we knew it wasn’t that simple. It was like in politics, when two parties agree in principle but the practice is beyond them. We strolled arm in arm under the scaffolding with the painters slapping on the gold and eyeballing us.
“My parents just redecorated my bedroom,” she said. “Pink wallpaper and white carpeting. What the hell am I supposed to tell them?”
“Tell them it was divine intervention.” She laughed and we were on to something. “Really,” I said. “We’ll marry at one of these holy sites.” I was serious. We’d say it was a euphoric experience. We’d cite Revelation, an act of God, brought on by the holy trip—it was their idea. And if a baby arrived in eight months—they would be counting—well, that, too, must be an act of God. Iris held my face to hers and mixed sweat with tears. We were definitely on to something.
We walked around to the front of the mosque. The big guy with the machine gun watched. He lorded over an array of shoes lined up outside the entrance. Leather sandals (rip–off holy shoes), rubber flip-flops, a few shiny Italian loafers, white American sneakers (that’s what we wore)—Arab women favored stiff black brogans worn without socks. We figured to off our shoes and head in to view the rock. We needed the cool inside after the heated decision. But as we approached, the big guy, moustache and a black turtleneck, blocked our way. He eyeballed Iris up and down: legs, tits, hair, legs again. I tried to steer her around him but he stepped into our path. He was stout but I was tall. He shook his finger at us. “You two no.” Strapped to his shoulder was a big black Russian Kalashnikov automatic rifle. On his belt the walkie–talkie and a clip full of cartridges. “You no go in,” he said.
“We’re not Jewish,” I said.
“But you could be.”
I considered this. We could be anything. But right then we were hot, we were frying in the sun and determined to go inside where it was dark and cool and safe in the sanctuary around the rock. “We’re American,” I said, trying to be reasonable. “We’re going to be married.”
“Not here,” he said. “You no go.”
I don’t know what his problem was, maybe he knew we were hiding something. “We’re people of good faith,” I said. I gestured toward Iris. Was the guy blind? Look at this world wonder. He studied her crotch where the V of her white shorts came together. Old Arab women and young girls stared at us with contempt. Iris, with her shorts and wild hair, and me, peach-faced in the harsh sun. We seemed very white among the black robes and dusty shoes and the heat seeping out of the stones. “Look, man,” I brought up my finger for emphasis. The guy turned his back on us. “Hey, I’m talking to you!”
Iris grabbed my arm. “Forget it,” she said. “Let’s go.”
I stopped and looked at her. She was disappointed. “No.” I turned to go after the guy. What the hell was his problem? We were going to be married, damn it, and live happily ever after—didn’t he watch movies? We’re from Notre Dame, U.S.A., motherfucker. He knew that word. I must have said it out loud, because he spun his weapon off his shoulder and there was the black hole of the barrel saying not allowed.
I held my palms out. “Look, we stood in line like everyone else.”
He stepped close, the big greasy rifle between us. “You leave now.”
Iris gripped my arm from behind, but I wasn’t budging. “We’re immovable, Pal, permanent, solid, fixed. We’re in for the duration.”
Then two things happened at once. Before I could move, Iris swung around my arm as if she was trying to face me. She wanted me to quit the standoff and leave. But the guy must have decided I wasn’t going to, which I wasn’t, and he swung the butt of the rifle towards my gut, catching poor Iris in the stomach. She buckled. I caught her halfway down, but I was off–balance and we both tumbled onto the dusty stones. Truth is, it was more of a glancing blow than a solid gut shot. She barely had the wind knocked out of her. I could tell, because she was talking right away, not gasping or breathless. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” she said. “Can we just get out of here?”
The guy stood back in the shade, the gun back on his shoulder. He lit a cigarette and watched out over the people approaching the mosque. I rose and reached down to help Iris. At first I thought I was seeing things. I looked closer. Iris didn’t feel it yet. She must have seen something in my face and she drove her hand into her waistband, down lower, and it came away red. We saw the future clearly defined, a crimson stain, irreconcilable, unable to be taken back, a dark splotch like a wound at the white V between her legs. White, the color of innocence, the color of explosion, before cooling flame fries and smoke chokes and blood flows. Hot site here. Flashpoint: a place of irreversible change, like a missed period, like conception, like looking back. We helped each other to the nearest exit gate. That we would return to school was clear. We’d say the trip was great. Enlightening. Did us a lot of good. Iris would move into her pink and white room. I’d stick to divinity school, slightly askew, go the theology route where I could safely study blameless acts of God. We’d get married in time and have kids and what we lost on the Temple Mount that day would stay between us, driving us closer together and further apart as we made our way down Via Dolorosa, the way of sorrows.