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Ari Walker


I didn't know if the coughing came from a man, woman or child; young or old; tall or short; kind or crabby. All I knew was that he or she lived nearby. In the apartment above or below. Maybe in the building a few feet away. These weren't like coughs I’d heard before. They seemed unproductive. They sounded waterlogged, desperate.


Hearing my neighbor's cough made me—a mild-mannered super-nerd—want to inject hard drugs, drink till I was sh*t-faced, binge-eat.


Before, when I'd gone outside, escaping my tiny apartment had felt glorious. I was excited to be in Israel. I'd come to explore my complicated ancestry and to research my novel, parts of which took place in Ancient Canaan 4,000 years ago. Back then, as now, most humans considered themselves part of a tribe. Everyone else was a stranger.


Hearing my neighbor's cough, and knowing there was more coronavirus outside, I stayed inside day after day, week after week, every moment harder than the one before in my sunless studio. Lacking stimulation, I couldn't help but steep in the traumas of my past.


Though I was born in the USA and lived there most of my life, people I met (even on job interviews) often asked what race I was and where I was "really" from. In Israel my not-quite-white skin was normal. But I became a stranger again when I tried speaking in Hebrew or in Arabic, which I was teaching myself via apps. This made people laugh and ask what language I was speaking.


I closed my windows. But I could still hear the cough through the walls. Israel has socialized medicine and sick people get food deliveries, house calls and hospitalization as needed. But after a few weeks of solitude, during which I felt like a stranger squared, I wasn’t well. I felt unable to move, to dream, to climb out of myself at all.


Interestingly, the Palestinian Authority and Israeli counterparts had been cooperating and coordinating resources admirably, sharing responsibility for the whole of the region. A couple of rockets had been shot into Israel from Gaza, and Palestinians had attempted stabbings and car rammings. But here, that's relatively quiet.


After a while, I re-opened my windows. I preferred having the windows open so I could hear if there were sirens warning of rocket attacks. So many rockets had been shot toward places I’d been, in various parts of this region, I’d lost track.


I was accustomed to rockets. Same as I’d become accustomed to violence when a former partner had been abusive. Become used to earthquakes when my California walls shook and shattered things covered the floor. Gotten used to being mugged when I lived in a dangerous part of New York. But now, in this solitude, I was no longer numb.


At one point, my throat became sore. That was a symptom of coronavirus, but I didn't have a fever and didn't think I was sick. Maybe my throat was sore from all the things I had not said, things I had not screamed from the rooftops.


That I wished my neighbor health, but didn’t know what I could do to help. That I wished our increasingly-polluted planet recovery… If our planet could cough, it would sound like my neighbor. That I wished all our leaders would lead us toward mutual respect and peace. That I wished I could stop every rocket. End the hoarding of money/resources/things. End slavery. End intolerance. End greed. End pain.

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All images other than author photos and artist artwork ©Matthew Batt 2020