“Isabel” by Rachel Duboff, this week’s entry to our New Voices catalog, is an elegiac narrative, recounting the friendship between Kira and Isabel, during their formative years in high school, beginning with a semester long trip to Israel. Duboff’s prose is assured, even in her narrator’s most unsure moments. “Isabel” is a story that will stay with you, long after you’ve read it. Sink in below.
In April, most of our classmates flew home for spring break. We stayed. We spent those two weeks together bouncing between the spare rooms of distant relatives and acquaintances. Free of the constraints of our program, Isabel and I went to a concert in Kikar Rabin and got drunk for the first time. I made sure to wear a low-cut shirt, and so did she, and we went into separate kiosks and bought packages of Smirnoff Ice. We drank them in a parking lot of an apartment building around the corner from the square, not far from where Rabin was assassinated. Between parked cars and under the shadow of the building’s concrete stilts, we tapped the necks of our bottles like they were wine glasses, drinking with equal looks of revulsion and glee.
The last time I saw Isabel was just over five years ago, at a music festival in San Francisco. We both shared a love of music, so even though she didn’t live in the Bay Area, I shouldn’t have been surprised when I saw her walking at the base of a grassy hill toward the main stage. But the sight of her—tight navy pants, an army-green bomber jacket, dark hair half-pinned back and sunglasses in her hand—forced me into a kind of paralysis. I was already walking halfway down the hill when I saw her, leaving my group of friends to grab another drink, and I calculated that if I continued on, we’d bump into each other. Unsure of myself, unsure of who she was now, unsure of what a reunion could mean, I stopped, watching her walk into the crowd and away from me.
Isabel and I became friends ten years earlier, our sophomore year of our private Jewish high school. I’d known her for longer; we grew up on opposite sides of LA but went to the same summer camp, and later we’d joke about the pictures we’d taken together on disposable cameras as if we were close. Yet we couldn’t know what close meant back then, before puberty, before we were teenagers, before we were old enough for intimacy to be a choice more than a product of circumstance. That year, when I was newly sixteen and Isabel still had months to go, we were assigned as roommates for our class trip to Israel. “Trip” is the wrong word, maybe, because it lasted four months, and maybe “assigned” is too, because we had some say in the matter, each requesting people we’d want to live with there. I didn’t list her name, but she must have put mine, a fact neither of us admitted. I was always too embarrassed to ask what it was she saw in me.
I had been to Israel twice before, once with my family to have a second Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall, in the southern portion that allows a mix of genders to pray, and the second a year later, in eighth grade, during a two-week exchange program. Each time, I rode camels, took pictures of the sunrise from atop Masada, floated with mud on my chest in the Dead Sea whose waters I was told were shrinking although I couldn’t see any difference. On the second trip, I had my first kiss with a boy in a kibbutz at night, the same night I had my first drink. His lips were chapped and quick, and I remember the dizzying thrill of being touched, at feeling so suddenly that my body wasn’t made to exist alone.
Overall, though, those earlier trips have dimmed the same way childhood dims, a necessary forgetting that gives way to memories more formative. If I learned about the history of the place, its longevity, its complexity, none of it was strong enough to stay with me, for me to even be the least bit informed. Education consisted merely of a visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum looking out over the Judean Hills, as well as to Independence Hall on Rothschild Boulevard, but I couldn’t say which trip we did what, if maybe it was even both. Or maybe it’s just that my time there with Isabel later took precedence, not only for the depth in which we learned but how we learned it, together.